A Welcome Return!

Hello! It’s nice to be back! Unfortunately I had to take a hiatus of a few months from before Christmas to now to deal with some important personal issues but I’ve resolved to get  myself back in the game as my site was starting to collect a few cobwebs!

I’ve already got some new work in the pipeline but instead of jumping right in I wanted to discuss briefly my plans for March – the weather’s getting good again and the creativity is finally flowing once more!

  • I’ve been working on a new short story, a horror piece I’ve provisionally titled Entrance of the Gladiators, though this may change or it may not, we’ll see how this goes! This is a short story I’d initially planned to write and release around Christmas time but because of things that were going on in my personal life I wasn’t able to commit the time to, and honestly, I wasn’t in the right place to either.

    Nevertheless, I’ve decided to resurrect the idea. I had initially hoped to have this piece ready to submit on 11th March to the BBC National Short Story Award but while I’ve been enjoying writing the draft, in my heart of hearts it’s far too rough at this point and I can’t see myself, barring some kind of miracle, being able to finish it to a standard I feel comfortable submitting it to. I’m disappointed to not be able to submit it but I’m being realistic. However, I will be finishing the piece and sending it off to a couple of wordsmith friends for some commentary and I will be researching some other competitions in the very near future to send it to.

    I will say that I have really enjoyed writing it so far, I think I’ve got some really cool horror ideas going on and I’m enjoying the experience of being a fledgling horror writer! Also, I’m going to persist with writing shorts for competitions – even if I don’t win or get shortlisted, these are good exercises for working to a deadline I don’t have the liberty of being able to move!

  • I’m going to be posting a couple of pieces of short fiction from my university days on here, and I’ll reorganise the short stories menu thing at the same time. I can’t guarantee (indeed, I can say with almost total certainty that I won’t be able to) making this available as a print-on-demand book like The Landlady but the stories will be freely available in full on my website. So you will have to make do with staring at your phones on packed trains for reading them!
  • I will be posting a couple of book reviews this month also! I know no-one seems to really read them but it’s a good exercise to be getting into for my critical thinking and feedbacking abilities.
  • I’m also literally on the cusp of starting the next edit on my novel, The Thaw. I had a very productive chat with a fellow writer friend (and university classmate) that helped me focus on what I need to work on for this particular editing pass. I’m hoping it’ll be a lot less gruelling than the first edit, and my intention is to have The Thaw ready for submission to a professional editor, and maybe even agents, by the spring. So stay tuned!
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Glancing Back, Focusing Forward: 2018 in Rearview

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As December closes out and the festivities of the season die down it’s always a great time to reflect on the year that was. I’ve done this in the past and I was doubly inspired by the lovely Charlotte’s recent post. So I definitely want to take stock on what happened to me in 2018 and, importantly, have a think about where I want 2019 to go too. Obviously it’s futile to really commit too rigidly to goals for the year as stuff invariably happens that cannot be foreseen but that doesn’t stop one from being as aspirational.

There were a handful of “big” events that I’m very proud of having taken place in 2018.

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Freshly graduated! 😎🎓 #KingstonUniversity

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The first of these was my graduation this summer. In the past I may have alluded to some dissatisfaction with the Creative Writing course I undertook at Kingston University, which is an experience I still feel I should chronicle in my blog in the new year now my immediate, somewhat… passionate thoughts about have subsided and mellowed. One thing from the whole experience that I take away is a sense of pride that I managed to get through it and succeed in this endeavour. My graduation was a very happy event and I end 2018 in the knowledge that I made my friends, family and most importantly myself proud with the achievement.

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The second “event” of this year has to be the finishing of the first, gruelling edit of my work-in-progress novel The Thaw, which I’ve mentioned previously I’m sure of. I went to Kingston to expend the remainder of my printer credits to print off the second draft which I’m very proud to have completed. I’m doubly excited as I’ve just received some of the first substantive feedback (thanks to the amazing Rosie) to that draft that I sent out in July; I’m eager to work on this project some more in the early part of 2019 so I can finally submit it to agents, editors and publishers. I’m still immensely proud of my work on this book, I definitely feel it’s a worthy piece of work and I look forward to taking it on the next step of its journey.

Reflecting on my year in reading I remain content that I made the right decision to not undertake a Goodreads reading challenge this year as it’s really helped with some anxiety that participating was otherwise emanating from that. I’ve had a more sedate year in reading in 2018, which is good as I’m better able to enjoy my books as opposed to racing through them.

Here’s my pick of the titles I read (or re-read) this year:

  1. The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey. This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed – having previously been captivated by The Girl With All The Gifts I was intrigued to read the prequel. It was a haunting, atmospheric novel of the highest order.
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir – a case of lightning indeed striking twice with Andy Weir of The Martian fame – one I enjoyed a great deal, an excellent, accurate but not intimidating space thriller.
  3. Silo by Hugh Howey – One the bookseller in Waterstones highly recommended it when I bought it! Another example of enjoyable, atmospheric post-apocalyptic fiction in a well-realised, contained world. Very excited to read the second in the series, Shift in 2019!
  4. Misery by Stephen King – a re-read but a worthy one on the back of Charlotte’s review, and there’s just so much to take from this lean, taut thriller I might make it an annual re-read.
  5. The Fog by James Herbert – I was inspired to re-read this classic book from this Tweet from Iain Dale and the scene, and the book itself, remains a high-water mark of Herbert’s prowess. My collection of his work grows!

Still, however, I feel I’ve been a little… conservative in my reading and that does bother me a little – I find myself almost being slightly self-conscious of my reading, especially as I let Goodreads post to my Twitter in public view. I feel I need to be less in a comfort zone for authors/genres I like and experiment a little. I certainly want to read more non-fiction; indeed, I took a recommendation from a friend to take on Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy – a book I do need to finish, as it happens, but it’s again great to be able to take these on entirely at my own pace.

Landlady_Cover_MockUpAnd lastly, going again back to another post by Charlotte, that of her Halloween Story, I want to try to write more short fiction again; I’ve done it in the past way back when and I feel it’d be great to do so again, especially as I had such a positive reaction to The Landlady, my first foray into horror fiction which I wrote for my Creative Writing dissertation. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the reaction from friends, well-wishers and colleagues to that endeavour which has been absolutely lovely.

Charlotte’s Halloween piece has inspired me to write more “seasonal” work for events such as Halloween, Christmas… I’ll see how it goes. I had planned to release a festive horror short about this time but personal circumstances have eaten in quite considerably to my writing time, but it’s an idea I would definitely like to try out more in 2019 – I have missed writing short stories a bit and, having reorganised my website in 2018, I had to look again at my early work and there’s some solid ideas. Maybe I might revisit them, we’ll see!

I also managed to lose about two stone this year which is fantastic – thanks to the brilliant Chris Kenny for being a great inspiration for my progress there! Let the side down a little toward the end of the year (who diets at Christmas?) but I’m already raring to reclaim the ground again in 2019 and really power through it!

Book Review Double Feature: Misery and The Shining

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I’ve recently been on a little bit of a horror binge – not surprising given that the annual witching hour has been upon us. Accordingly, I saw the beautiful new Halloween editions of some Stephen King novels and treated myself to The Shining. The film is widely regarded as a seminal moment in cinema history, especially horror. And as the adage goes, the book is always better than the film, I was eager to see how this storied text stood up…

But before that, a note about today’s review. Immediately after I completed reading The Shining, I re-read King’s other horror novel from a decade on, Misery. The 1990 film adaptation of Misery (snapshots of which I use in this post) is similarly well-regarded as The Shining’s. My experience with both books was, frankly, night and the day, and while I’ve been planning this review for a little while, my good friend Charlotte’s post spurred me to finally (metaphorically) put pen to paper.

Misery is a taught, suspenseful psychological thriller whose characters, of which there’s a gloriously limited cast, make a lasting impact. The premise is also gloriously simple – novelist Paul Sheldon crashes on a snowy Colorado road and is rescued from the wreck by Annie Wilkes, his “number one fan”.

On re-reading Misery, I was surprised how the tension remained, despite my foreknowledge from my previous reading of how events broadly transpired. There’s a brilliantly claustrophobic sense to the story, confined not just to Annie Wilke’s house, but a single room in her house that quickly becomes a prison for Paul Sheldon, who quickly realizes that there’s more to Annie than the officious housemaid. Indeed, the interplay between these characters – Paul’s initial submission to Annie’s increasingly-explicit mood swings and episodes of psychotic behaviour brings out a glorious tension. It’s as if these characters are mentally playing chess against the other, each trying to gain the upper hand, and there’s a ratcheting up of the tension when Paul realizes that the chess game ends in both his and Annie’s death, so much so that the eventual confrontation between Paul and Annie is thrilling, gripping and just brilliantly portrayed.

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King’s prose in Misery helps this a great deal – it’s fluid, lean and punchy. Each line seems expressly constructed to further the tension or the story. There’re moments like Paul’s italicised thoughts that add context to the prose, but not too much to be overbearing or impactful on the pace of the book. A pleasure, too, is the in-world extracts from Paul’s book that he finds himself under duress to write, Misery’s Return. Being able to read part of this in-world work, that’s a central plot point to the whole book – is a judicious treat from King, and it allows the tense prose of the real-life happenings of Paul Sheldon to really simmer. Ultimately, it just adds another layer of believability to the whole work without unnecessarily padding Misery out.

And that brings me to my first contrast from Misery to The Shining. The Shining, in my opinion, is about 200 pages overlength. Where Misery is lean and tense, The Shining is lethargic and meandering. Indeed, it shares some overall plot elements to be found later in Misery – namely the isolated location, heck, even the fictional town of Sidewinder, Colorado (Misery makes a few explicit references to The Shining) and the ensuing descent into madness the antagonist (in The Shining, this is Jack Torrence) and the helplessness of the protagonists to escape from the isolation into safety. There’s even the same sort of-hapless third party intervention that both fails to expedite the salvation of the protagonists and also marks the crescendo of the tension and suspense – for Misery it’s the investigation of Annie Wilkes house by the state trooper and his gruesome disposal with the lawn mower; in The Shining it’s the reappearance of Dick Halloran, called back to avert disaster by Danny Torrence’s shining – across the books.

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In both cases, I’d say that these excursions by other characters into the duopoly of the antagonist/protagonist spaces doesn’t really work, and if anything serves to deflate the tension by distracting the reader’s attention a little. In Misery, this is more acceptable as the state troopers slowly draw the net in on Annie Wilkes (which makes sense given we slowly learn more about her torrid past to make this line of enquiry more plausible); whereas in The Shining, Halloran seems to be recalled out of nowhere to ride through the snow to salvation. It’s an appreciable break in the tension because Halloran, at this point in Florida, many miles away, seemingly reappears just in time to attempt to act as the deus ex machina. But like the state trooper in Misery, it’s a doomed effort.

Simply put, I found The Shining to be largely incoherent in terms of the actual prose. The middle four-fifths of the book simply trudged along. I just found the action, interspersed with italicised inner thoughts of the characters, hard to follow. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness… the ingredients of this are laid out on the counter, so to speak, but the mixing and combining of these into something new, done at the malevolent whim of the Overlook Hotel simply sailed past me through King’s incoherent and meandering prose. I hate to be so harsh but compared to Misery, where King does similar things in terms of inner thoughts and actions, inexorably leading onto portray a confrontation after a character’s steady descent into madness, The Shining simply doesn’t, in my opinion, stand up.

There’s a lack of exploration for the Overlook’s malevolence in The Shining, it just exists because it exists. Misery’s core malevolence – the backstory behind Annie Wilke’s past that leads her on the path we the reader experience – is much more finessed and laid out in a way that slowly builds up a sense of terror and dread. Quite frankly, a lot of the notable moments that come to mind when thinking of The Shining exist in the film only – it was something I tried hard to put aside mentally as I read the book but the more I read, the more the book seemed to deviate from the film adaptation in an inferior direction.

King may not have approved of Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the story but it absolutely nails the elements King laid out at the start of The Shining in a way the prose version simply missed the mark on.

Indeed, there’s some common elements I noticed across the handful of King books I’ve so far read (I want to read more) – a similar impact of the backstory on the characters. In The Shining we have the influence of Jack Torrence’s father on his childhood, and his fear that he will become that kind of father to Danny; this echoes into the journey of Arnie in Christine; after buying the eponymous car Arnie slowly transforms – both in character and even mannerisms and appearance into it’s owner and the source of its core malevolence, Roland LeBay. And in Misery we have Annie’s backstory as a nurse and the specter of mysterious deaths and an attempted conviction that we discover through Paul Sheldon’s excursions that there’s more to Annie than her kooky, thickly-veneered sense of warped sensibilities that manifest themselves as her petulant, and increasingly psychotic rages.

To me, Misery seemed the more personal book of the two I’m comparing today – there’s an obvious author avatar (literally, an author avatar) of King in Paul Sheldon, and as a writer too I identified with the pain that must come with being forced under duress to burn the only manuscript of his new book. But there’s also aspects of King clear in Paul – his addiction to novril, especially; King at the time was battling addiction himself but also in Paul’s desire to break away from the genre he felt he’d been painted into (King experimented with the Richard Bachman persona that Misery was intended to be published under to see if his ‘fame’ was a fluke).

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A good point brought up my friend and classmate Charlotte in her review of Misery is that Annie criticises Paul for using cheap narrative tricks in his forced assignment to revive Misery Chastain; saying this deus ex machina is ‘not worthy of him’ and isn’t fair; yet King himself uses these narrative hacks himself in Misery! How else would Paul return to his room just in time as Annie returns from an outing? Reflecting back this is a great example of King’s self-awareness.

Overall though, Misery is easily the more compelling read, in my opinion. It’s a tense, simmering tale that reverberates on the mind long after the final page is turned, and it rewards the reader on every reading. I devoured it for a second time in days; The Shining had, unfortunately, none of the finesse I found in the 1987 offering. Indeed, I’m glad I read Misery first – had I started with The Shining, I’d have been hard pressed to exempt King from my unofficial rule that my first experience with an author’s work will be their last for me should that first work I read score two stars or less for me.

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My wholehearted recommendation? Check out Misery for a breathtakingly effective piece of thriller/horror fiction. As for The Shining? Watch the film instead.

Misery: Highly Recommended

The Shining: Not Recommended

 

Notes on NaNoWriMo

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November beckons! For a lot of writers this means one thing – not the onset of festivities for Christmas but NaNoWriMo– the month-long celebration of stress and angst that’s been going for quite a while now, the challenge being to write a 50,000 word novel (well, more realistically, the very rough first draft) in the space of thirty days in the depths of winter. I haven’t taked about NaNoWriMo for a long time but feel it’s about time to address it once more!

My good friend and university classmate Rosie is embarking on her second NaNoWriMo this year – it’ll be really exciting to see how her accumulated knowledge through university improves her effort from her previous attempt in 2015!

I’ve completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012. The three novels I wrote – 2010’s The Last of the Steamers, a steampunk adventure story; 2011’s Colonisation, a pulpy sci-fi adventure set on Mars that I’ve toyed with rewriting and 2012’s The World Eaters, an attempt at a grand space opera – will very likely never see the light of day. But that’s OK – each were valuable learning experiences in my writing journey that I’m definitely proud of doing and still reflect upon now. Yes these works, looking at them now, are flawed and imperfect but they remain important to me – so much so I keep the manuscripts even now.

20181105_131218380_iOS_editedLooking back, I’d reflect upon the following nuggets of information:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Spend at least the month of October prior to NaNoWriMo outlining the work and getting the sequence of events, at the very least, set down in your mind. Writing as you go, or “pantsing” (ie: writing by the seat of your pants) is the number one reason why your novel will run out of steam within the first few pages. It’s too easy, especially for inexperienced writers who may have never handled a project as big as a 50,000 word novel (which, by the way, is nothing; my draft of The Thaw is sitting at just over double that, at 102,000 words) to just blurt out the entirety of their plotlines very early on without any structure. I’m currently working on some new plot outlines as I mentioned previously and I’m using KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel workbook and it’s really, really good.
  • Chapterise your work. For my initial, first-ever effort, The Last of the Steamers, I wrote the entire novel as one solid block of text without chapter breaks. I attempted to revise this work the following January and it became such an arduous slog it quickly became completely unmanageable. Planning your chapters is a great way to spread out points of view and plot to manage the pace of the story. Contrast this to my approach for planning The Thaw, where I split the outline into three acts, and then further subdivided those acts themselves into three (beginning, middle and end at it’s most basic) and spread out the plot and series of events that way. For that work, too, I took on a really effective lesson from the books in The Expanse series in using different points of view for each chapter.
  • Don’t worry about the wordcount goal per day. To succeed at NaNoWriMo you have to write an average of 1,666 words per day, every day. That can sound incredibly daunting – this is especially difficult if you haven’t planned beforehand (therein leaving your time in November for pure writing). But it’s easy to become totally intimidated by writing almost 2,000 words a day. Some writers can do it but a lot, especially inexperienced novelists that take the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, balk at this. So my advice here would be to split up your time – write in, say, three 500 word sessions and then add a bit on here and there. 500 words is about a page, and quite manageable in 20 minutes if you get time.
  • Find times to write everywhere in your day. Building on the previous point, finding time to sit in a darkened study, hunched over a laptop, for the daily writing session can (and in my case has) put a ton of pressure on. It’s so, so easy to psyche yourself out of a writing session if you build it up so much. So my advice would be to split this up. My personal experience is that 500 words is quite manageable in a single session, but you could write a paragraph just before breakfast, a few paragraphs over lunch or before class or at work… it’s a cumulative effort toward that goal that really counts. Or meet up in the library with friends and write together, it’s fun!Nano_2011_chart
  • Don’t freak out over falling behind. In 2011 I fell quite far behind, but it’s important to remain committed and realise that it’s possible to claw back the progress. I found the spreadsheet I used (slightly customised from the one designed by Erik Benson in 2004 which I found you can get from Book In A Week here) back then and looked at the chart. Ultimately for the first week or so I feel fairly behind but ended up that year finishing a day early, which I’d say is proof that it’s possible to claw it back. As an aside, the spreadsheet I used included notes for each day that I input and it was fairly prescient on how I was thinking and feeling during November 2011! I’d wholeheartedly suggest using a spreadsheet like this – sync it with Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox (along with your draft, obviously!) so it’s always there when you need it. Naturally the inverse is true with this tip: by all means build up some headroom on good days if you can but don’t allow yourself to become complacent!

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What prompted me to write this post was a question I was asked regarding one of the new ideas I wrote about previously – would I be doing any of them for NaNoWriMo this year? God no! was the answer –  honestly, I don’t think I’d do NaNoWriMo again. My experience writing The Thaw was that a month would’ve been too rushed to do that justice – you’re only making yourself more work in the first, usually-brutal edit. But also with The Thaw I feel I took too long. Ideally for my new ideas I’d follow Stephen King’s advice:

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

That’s not to say I discourage NaNoWriMo – indeed, the opposite! I saw it as an important step in my writing career as I proved to myself (and others, but most importantly myself) that I could write a work long enough to consider a novel. And while the three drafts I churned out remain locked away for only my eyes to cringe at, they’re important milestones on the road of writing. So get going and get novelling!