Starting with Secrets: What is it?

Starting with Secrets’ is the title of the sixth Larkspur Academy mystery, and is the first part of a two-part adventure set in the Clearwater world. This, as you may know, is my invention of late 19th-century England. Both the Clearwater and Larkspur mystery series is set among real places, and feature people who lived at the time, but the main cast is invented characters. Many of the background events are true, and the Clearwater world sticks to actual dates and times as much as possible. I am even able to have characters take train journeys according to extant timetables of the time, down to the day of the week, route and times of the trains. I love adding that kind of detail.

Starting with Secrets has such a train journey, and it also uses real locations, described as best I can according to reports and documents of the time. In this case, we have the invented estate of Larkspur Hall, another one in Hertfordshire, Clearwater House (somewhere on the edge of Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, London), and Greychurch, which is my name for Whitechapel. The characters find themselves in some well-known locations, such as inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Round Reading Room at the British Museum, both in London. They also visit villages that still exist today, although I have changed the names of two of the main locations to not upset anyone who might still be living there or who might own the property I have adapted.

I won’t give away the plot of ‘Starting with Secrets’, but if you like a good Dan Brown mystery/adventure, and if you like historically based riddles and conspiracy theories, then you’ll like this novel. I’ve tried to write it so you can solve the clues as the story progresses. At least, you can with some of them. What I am also trying to do with this two-part adventure is bring in as many of the Clearwater and Larkspur main characters as I can without losing focus. There is a relationship story, a background emotional reason for two characters to sort themselves out, and there is at least one ‘Ahh’ moment when I, for one, experienced a shiver and the prick of tears. You will find villains, heroes and a couple of new characters that we’ll learn more about in part two, and there’s a lot going on in the background where existing characters’ lives are developed.

It’s been three years since the saga started with ‘Deviant Desire’, the first Clearwater mystery, and even longer since Silas and Andrej met in ‘Banyak & Fecks.’ Actually, the more I write these series, the more I realise the whole lot tells the story of Andrej, a Ukrainian immigrant who fled his homeland to escape the Russians. (Nothing changes.)

Although Andrej, ‘Fecks’, is not the main-view character in ‘Starting with Secrets’, he is there, along with others we met in book one of the Clearwater series, Lucy Roberts the maid-then-cook, for example. Archer, Silas, James, Tom and Andrej, the ‘canonical five’ as I call them, form the centre of the cast for this one, and they are aided by the Larkspur Academy men, Dalston Blaze, Joe Tanner, Chester, Frank, Edward and Henry, and the new man, Bertie Tucker. Bertie’s a sailor, or was until he got caught doing something that was, in those days, illegal, and he’s the unwitting catalyst in both action and emotional storylines.

But that’s enough of a teaser for now. As I write (Friday), I am waiting for the final files to come back from being laid out, and then, as I now have both covers, I shall be able to upload the book to Amazon and you’ll be able to download it, order it in paperback or read it in Kindle Unlimited, as you can with all my novels. So, not long now, and you will have a 380-page adventure, bromance, mystery, treasure hunt story to get your teeth into, while I carry on biting away at the last in the Larkspur series, ‘The Larkspur Legacy.’

Keep an eye on my Facebook page for news of the publication day, and why not join my group, Jackson’s Deviant Desires where I post more personal news from time to time and where you and others can discuss any or all of my books.

Work In Progress: 4.13

Starting with Secrets and an Upcoming Journey

Lucky for some, this is the thirteenth post about my work in progress, ‘Starting with Secrets’, the sixth Larkspur Mystery. And the news is…

I am currently doing the last read before sending the MS off to be proofed on Friday. Andjela has designed the cover and there will be a reveal in due course. Also on Friday, Neil and I are off to Scotland for our son’s wedding, and I shan’t be at my desk again until November 9th, so expect no more updates to my blog until that week.

The journey to Scotland and back has already taken on epic proportions, in the style of a Clearwater novel actually, or any decent adventure story. All good dramas need conflict because you can’t have one without the other, and although I’m pleased to say we have no villains on our backs, we have already met a few challenges. To start with, KLM managed to charge me three times for one flight, and when we finally sorted it out and I got two refunds, the flight was from the wrong airport. However, we could live with that because although it meant a four-hour train journey on 5th November, the route takes us through the Scottish Highlands. If only it were on a steam train!

If only there wasn’t now the possibility of a train strike on the 5th of November either. We’re not sure yet if that will affect us, but in case it does, we have tickets booked on a coach as well. To add insult to KLM’s injury, they ended up cancelling our flight and moving it to some ridiculous time the following day. This would have meant another night in a costly hotel, plus missing a night already paid for in another, and travelling from two in the morning until about seven that night. I took the refund option and booked better and direct flights with Aegean, my favourite airline. Better times, better service, flexible and fair, though a little more expensive, the difference was less than the cost of the extra hotel.

Living on an island is wonderful; getting off it sometimes isn’t. We were due to leave on Friday evening on a ferry departing at 20.30 or something sensible. Thanks to a strike by some ferry workers yesterday, our boat will fall behind schedule, and now, instead of departing on Friday evening, we’re leaving at 02.50 on Saturday morning. That’ll be a bit of a bleary-eyed experience, but worth it as we will see much of the 18-hour journey in daylight, whereas usually, we sleep through the more interesting destinations.

So, with boats, taxis, trains and possibly coaches, we’ll be getting into Victorian mystery mode as we spend one night here before heading there, and from there, to somewhere else the next day, with only two days where we have a whole day without travelling. During those days, I intend to visit Edinburgh Castle, meet the latest grandchildren, and Neil will be fitted for a kilt. Och aye, it’ll be a fair fun twelve days. Assuming there are no more strikes or cancellations.

Whatever happens, I’ll be back online after 9th November and will give you a full update on Starting with Secrets.

Weak Words Vs Power Words

When do you write the blurb for your publication? I start it as the idea of the book is forming, because giving yourself a rough outline of the main points of the story is important. This, later, becomes the structure of the blurb, the write-up you see on the book’s back cover and/or on the sales pages. To my mind, these things need to be succinct while offering the potential reader an outline of what to expect.  

The Blake Inheritance

I’m going to give you a quote from one of my unusual romance stories, The Blake Inheritance, and here it is in sections:

An inheritance, a ring and a church organ; three clues to the Blake family mystery.
Twenty-five and fleeing a stale relationship, Ryan Blake returns home to find some answers. What he discovers is the impish twenty-two-year-old, Charlie Hatch, a homeless scamp who has a way with words, a love of mysteries, and a very cute arse.
As the two set about unlocking the Blake family secrets, Ryan finds himself falling for the younger guy. But is he ready to commit again? And can Charlie learn to accept that someone loves him?

What we have here is not a synopsis (never write a synopsis as your blurb) but it outlines the story in 91 words. It may not be the best blurb ever written, but it contains all the elements of the story while, I hope, enticing the reader to buy the book, which you can do here:

The Blake Inheritance

“Let us go then you and I, to the place where the wild thyme grows.”

The first line tells us it’s a mystery. The second paragraph tells us the main character, Ryan, is overcoming a problem, meets an impact character (one who will affect a change in the MC) and there’s a hint of something sexy. The last paragraph suggests the love story and the conflict, and that’s all we need to know. Combined with the cover that shows two young men and a lighthouse in a slightly twisted way should add a visual to the blurb. What this blurb doesn’t overdo, though, are the ‘power words.’ Then again, it doesn’t use weak words, and your blurb should be about power, not weakness.

Power Words

What do I mean by power words? Let’s move away from the blurb and look at fuller storytelling. Which sentence tells you more?

Edward went to look.

Edward forced himself to look.

Went is a weak word, forced is a power word; it tells us something about his state of mind and has a clearer meaning than ‘went.’ In this case, we can assume Edward didn’t want to look. Here’s another example taken from my upcoming ‘Starting with Secrets’:

… she said, moving to the stove

… she said, drifting to the stove

I don’t mind ‘moving’ too much because it’s vague and in this scene, ‘she’ is being vague, but ‘moving’ is an opportunity for something better. Here, she drifts to the stove because she is reminiscing as she’s talking, but were she angry, she might stomp, or if she was in a panic she might fly, she might ‘scream her way to’ or ‘bustle to’, ‘stagger in the manner of a drunk toward’ or, if you want to use ‘move’, ‘moved to the stove like a galleon in full sail’, but then, ‘sailed’ would be better, or ‘tacked’, ‘lurched’… In other words, ‘move’ is a weak word, and the others are power words.

Other weak verbs to be wary of include, stand, walk, look, feel, think, said, have, got, go. Example:

He knelt beneath the bell and looked inside.

He knelt beneath the bell and squinted inside.

Squinted suggests poor lighting or eyesight, so it adds more to the scene than looked.

Power Descriptions

As we can replace weak words with more powerful and descriptive ones, and we can improve our writing by looking out for other weak words which are easy to use but can always be bettered. I, for example, now look out for my use of the word ‘it’ because unless the ‘it’ is obviously the thing I am referring to, the word can confuse the reader. Sometimes, when editing, it confuses me, and I have to read back to remind myself what’s being talked about. So, look out for your use of the weak word, ‘it’ and see if it isn’t better replaced by something more specific. Other weak words used in this way include replacements for ‘it’ such as ‘one.’ For example:

Not as public as the one in the cathedral,

Not as public as the plaque in the cathedral,

That’s also from ‘Starting with Secrets’ and the ‘one’ we are referring to, the ‘it’ if you like, was mentioned a few sentences back, and because things have happened in between, ‘one’ might be too vague for the reader. Obviously, there are times when one, it, them, they etc., work, and you don’t want to repeat ‘plaque’ or whatever too many times.

She taught him how to make pastry and roll it.

Makes sense but there was that dreaded ‘it’, and something didn’t feel right. I changed it to:

She taught him how to make and roll pastry. It reads better and makes more sense; it’s not as clunky.

Here’s another way I try and improve my writing by swapping weak words for more powerful ones. This is an actual edit from my first draft to my second. Which do you think is more descriptive?

… but no light appeared at the window.

… but daylight refused to breach the window.

Okay, so I could have gone further: … but daylight refused to breach the grime-encrusted, leaded windowpane that stood as a barrier to the dawn… But let’s not go over the top.

‘Stood’, by the way, is another weak word. Always ask yourself how? How did he stand? How did she move?

Get/got is another one to avoid.

When he got to the junction…

When he arrived, reached, staggered to, fell upon, finally found… the junction. Much more descriptive.

However, when a character is speaking, always write as he or she would speak. Don’t put in unnecessary power words for the sake of it, not in dialogue. A character would be perfectly justified saying, ‘When you get to the junction.’

Word Order

A slight aside, but while editing the next book, I came across this sentence:

… and enjoyed standing beside her drying plates.

There’s nothing better than watching plates dry is there? Why was he standing beside plates that were drying? Why was he enjoying such a dull spectacle?

I changed the line to:

and enjoyed drying plates beside her, which is what I actually meant to say.

I could have improved the initial sentence with a comma, I suppose, but it still felt clunky. … and enjoyed standing beside her, drying plates.

Finally

I was trying to think of a way to end this post, and came across another short piece on Before You Publish that included a list of strong, mild and weak words. It’s not that easy to read unless you enlarge it, but I’ve added it to my bookmarks as a resource. You might find it interesting when you are editing. I’ll be back on Wednesday with more news on ‘Starting with Secrets’ my current work in progress.

Work In Progress: 4.12

Starting with Secrets

Three months in and we are nearly there. Neil has been acting as my beta reader, and has read my current draft of ‘Starting with Secrets.’ A beta reader is someone who reads a text before publication to check for errors, and he found only two. I don’t mean typo errors; there will no doubt be several of those when the book gets to the proofreading stage. I mean errors or oddments within the story.

At one point, a character is told that due to a storm it is not possible to send telegrams. A couple of chapters later, on the same night, he tells someone he’s going to send a telegram. How? Was Neil’s question. Ah ha! I’d missed that. I went back to the chapter, and now the character is told he can only send messages up the line, so, when he needs to message London later, he can. Sorted.

The other thing he wasn’t sure about was the ending and how it seemed too sudden. I agreed. I’d written a short section for the end, and although it was a sweet little scene, I wasn’t sure if it should be there or come later in book two of this two-part adventure. After listening to Neil’s reaction, I was right to wonder if this short scene needed to be there, so I took it out. However, that left the ending at even more of a full stop, so I had a think about what I needed… And it came to me. A final scene with someone and someone plotting something which will set them up for the next part of the story when it comes out next year. It reads better now, and I am happy with the ending.

The ending is really the halfway point in a longer adventure, but the book does feel resolved (in part) because a major storyline is resolved. So, although you’ll be left wondering and hanging, you shouldn’t feel hard done by, because something has concluded while something else has not.

All will be revealed next month when I hope to publish ‘Starting with Secrets’, the Larkspur Mysteries book six. Meanwhile, I have time for another read and think before proofing, and before we head off to Scotland for a wedding.

Meanwhile, I have started the detailed plotting of ‘The Larkspur Legacy’, the conclusion to the series, and boy, is it going to be fun!

Starting with Secrets: First Look at the Blurb

I have almost finished Starting, by which I mean ‘Starting with Secrets’, the sixth Larkspur Mystery, is nearing completion. Neil is beta reading it as I write, and Andjela is working on the cover. Meanwhile, I am working on the author’s notes and the blurb ahead of sending it all to be proofread on the 28th.

Because I don’t yet have a cover, I’m including some photos that are relevant to the story to give you a taster of what’s coming.

These are not necessarily shots for the cover. We’ll do a cover reveal nearer the publication date, which should be around the middle of November. That gives you plenty of time to catch up on the rest of the series if you haven’t already started it. You can find all Larkspur Novels on the Amazon Larkspur Mystery series page, and the adventures, which follow the Clearwater Mysteries, begin with ‘Guardians of the Poor.’

What is Starting with Secrets about?

I’m not about to give away the plot, but if you want keywords, then this collection will do:

Mystery (of course), Treasure hunt, Misplaced affection, Twists, Revenge, Childhood memories, Drama, Adventure, History, Humour, Compass, Maps, Clues, and, as usual, Bromance.

The story continues a couple of months after Speaking in Silence.’ There is a new man at the Larkspur Academy, Bertie Trucker, and he’s feeling out of place. Up at Larkspur Hall, Archer, now the Earl of Clearwater, receives a message and a gift; a compass. This sets him and his crew off on an adventure — a treasure hunt of sorts, which can only be completed with the help of the friends and men he has gathered around him since the first Clearwater Mystery began in ‘Deviant Desire.’

This means everyone who has read either series can catch up with their favourite characters, because throughout this book and the next, all main characters from both series will have a role to play. Whether you’re a Fecker fan or a James junkie, an Archer admirer or a Dalston devotee, you will find your man (and woman, for those of us nuts about Mrs Norwood or loopy about Lucy) playing an active role in ‘Starting with Secrets’ and the follow-on book, ‘The Larkspur Legacy’—which I’ve not started writing yet, but will begin very soon.

You see, ‘Starting with Secrets’ is the start of a two-parter, and it starts with a secret, as you might have guessed. I suppose it’s a little Dan Brown-esque in its mixing of fact and fiction, and like one of his great adventure/fact/fiction novels, there is an evil villain keeping pace with and sometimes overtaking the heroes. There is more than one villain, actually, because where Archer has built a solid crew of loyal friends and experts, so the villain needs others to help him realise his evil aims.

Starting with Secrets Blurb

That’s more than enough advanced warning about the story. Here is the first draft of the blurb, the text that will go on the back of the book, and on its Amazon page and other publicity. Bear in mind this is only a draft, and the wording may change, although the story outline won’t.

Starting with Secrets

The Larkspur Mysteries

Book six

“The greatest reward lies at the end of the stoniest path.”

Lady Dorothy Marshall, March 1891

When Lord Clearwater inherits a set of enigmatic clues and a compass, it becomes clear he has the means to uncover a momentous secret. He calls upon the men of the Larkspur Academy to help with the hunt, including the latest recruit, the bewildered ex-sailor, Bertie Tucker.

The academy men investigate follies, national monuments and ancient churches, using their diverse skills to unlock a series of random messages. The men must work together to find Clearwater’s secret and ‘treasure’, but relationships threaten the status quo. Edward Hyde has turned his affections from Henry and aimed them at Bertie Tucker, opening a rift which must be mended if the hunt is to succeed.

And when two of Clearwater’s adversaries conspire to beat him to the secret, what begins as an adventure becomes a game of cat and mouse that leads to a fight for survival.

What Next?

Next come the beta reading, cover design, author’s notes, final blurb, proofreading, proof accepting, internal layout and finally, in about a month, publication.

So, that is where ‘Starting with Secrets’ is starting. The question is, where will it all end?

Work In Progress: 4.10

Starting with Secrets

We’re in week ten of the writing of ‘Starting with Secrets’ and I am well into the editing phase. So far, I have trawled through 15 out of 35 chapters looking for repetitions, typos and inconsistencies, while all the time asking myself particular questions. Here’s what I am thinking as I edit:

1          Can I improve that?

2          Is there a better way to write that?

3          Is that how {character} speaks?

4          Do we already know this?

5          Is that character description/behaviour consistent

6          Do I mean discrete or discreet? (And several others)

7          Who on earth wrote this?

The plan now is to have the final draft sent off for proofreading by the 19th of October, the day Neil and I leave to go to Scotland for a wedding. All being well, it will be ready for me when I get back on 9th November. I hope to have the cover ready by then too, and if so, the book should then be ready for release around the week beginning 21st November. Then, it will be onto the next and final Larkspur Mystery, bringing the series to seven, and the combined Clearwater/Larkspur ongoing series to 18 novels. There is still a way to go before then, however, and I still have 20 chapters to edit and check. I’ll have another update for you next Wednesday, and I’ll be here with a weekend blog on Saturday.

Work In Progress 4.9

Starting with Secrets

120,000 words and I am about to start the last chapter. When that’s done, I will start on the second draft, although I have already done some editing. I was knocked sideways by a combination of allergies, a head cold and my 4th Covid vax all arriving on the same day, and haven’t been up to much these past three weeks. I’ve improved in the past couple of days, apart from a couple of hours of constant sneezing first thing in the morning, so I am able to get back to the typewriter. I did some writing during this time, but wasn’t happy with the results, so instead, I returned to chapter one and read through what I had so far, and made improvements. This also helped me see what needed to be explained and answered at the end of the book.

All being well, the first draft of Starting with Secrets will be done in the next couple of days. As this is part one of a two-parter, I need to devise a last chapter which is both an ending and a beginning. If the two books were a film, I would now be at the halfway point and the big twist, or something which pushes the story in another direction. That other direction will be the follow-on book, The Larkspur Legacy, and I already know how that is going to end, and what will happen along the way.

Before then, though, there is this one to finish and polish, a cover to devise, a blurb to write, the proofreading to do and an illustration to commission. All that will happen after I’ve finished the second or third drafts, so don’t hold your breath just yet.

Instead, if you haven’t embarked on the action-adventure, male bonding, bromance, and historical mysteries based on the truth series which ire the Larkspur Mysteries, you should start at book one, Guardians of the Poor.

Work In Progress 4.8

Starting with Secrets, The Larkspur Mysteries Book Six

This week’s update sees me still at 118,000 words, but for a good reason. Sometimes, when writing a longer novel, it’s important to do as Thomas Payne used to do when a butler: stop, take stock and start again. In the case of Starting with Secretes, I have gone back to the beginning to start reading again, rather than rewriting; that will come later. I wanted to be sure that the ending I originally envisioned will still work with what I have created so far.

This week has been about rereading from chapter one, changing the odd typo here and there, and omitting some repetition. I am gaining a clearer understanding of where every character is at, emotionally as well as within the action, and where I need them to end up in a few chapters’ time when I reach the end. The end, by the way, is also the beginning of the next novel, because Starting with Secrets is the first part of a longer story. Having said that, it is also a complete story in itself in that character conflicts resolve, and certain characters grow. There will be a sense of something ending, and yet something left unfinished, and that’s why I have to get the ending just right.

I will get there, probably in a week or so. I am aiming to have the book finished by the end of October at the latest, so it can either be in proofreading or publication when I am away at my Stepson’s wedding in early November. Stay tuned.

Some of the Clearwater family who also appear in the Larkspur Mysteries. Left to right Andrej (Fecker), Mrs Norwood, James Wright, Thomas Payne when a butler and Jasper Blackwood.

From Dreams to Secrets

What I did then Vs what I’d do now.

Times have changed, and we’ve often rewound the clock…’

The opening lines of ‘Anything Goes’, and the starting place for today’s blog.

Not only have times changed, but so has my writing. It has changed greatly from when I wrote ‘Other People’s Dreams’ in 1996 to now, when I am writing ‘Starting with Secrets’, my 35th novel. I thought it would be interesting to look at how I write 26 years after beginning my career. Reading what I have already published is not something I do very often, because I always think ‘I wish I’d written that better,’ and that causes regret. However, it is a useful exercise as long as you turn the ‘I wish I had…’ into ‘The next time, I will…’ and learn from your own naïveté.

The more I have written, the more I have learnt to write better.

Let’s start by improving that.

The more I write, the better I get.

I don’t like the word ‘better’ or ‘get’ come to that, and ‘come to that’ is not necessary.

The more accurate I become? The more literary? The more I improve?

The more I write, the more improved my writing becomes…

You know what I am trying to say. Like a fine wine, a writer improves with age, as long as he continues to write, criticize his own work, and learn from his experience. The first novel I wrote is called ‘Other People’s Dreams,’ a line from a song by Janis Ian that has always resonated with me.

Other People’s Dreams

I began writing this novel while on holiday on Symi, Greece in 1996. When I returned home, I read parts of it to my flatmate and, as all new writers do, I thought it was the best thing since The Catcher in the Rye. It wasn’t, but my flatmate was encouraging, offered positive advice (he was a published journalist), and most of all, encouraged me to finish it, and then rewrite it. I rewrote it several times, and then put it away, and it didn’t see the publishing light of day until some years later.

The story opens with an advertisement. A thirty-six-year-old man is looking for four handsome young men to crew his yacht in the Greek islands. It’s a perfect summer job opportunity, but there are ‘Certain strings attached.’ That’s the hook, and I liked the way it set up the premise and a little mystery.

Then, we have a section of a screenplay in which there is an accident at sea. That’s unexplained, and we have another hook.

Then we have a flashback which sets up a third hook as we wonder what that story is all about, and it’s not until after that’s done that the present-day story starts.

Blimey. These days, I wouldn’t write so many introductions.

In the next chapter, we meet one of the four young men who will form the crew. This scene sets up people’s reactions to the advertisement, the ‘present day’ to separate the action from the flashback, and a character called John. Fine.

Then, we jump to a swimming pool, and we meet Mick, another of the four, and a character who doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing. He will become the impact character when we finally meet the anti-hero.

Which we do in chapter four. Yippee! We finally feel the story is settling down, and then we’re hit with the job applications. These are presented as snippets of letters, and the chapter gives us more of an insight into our anti-hero, Jake, and another of the boys who will be the third to join the crew. It’s a neat device, and I still use letters in my novels as they make the stories feel more real. Letter writing is also a good way of putting across a character’s inner thoughts. I am using the device in ‘Starting with Secrets.’

As ‘Other People’s Dreams’ progresses, we meet the fourth character, and the first act comes to an end when Jake has selected his four men, and they are about to set off to Greece. Meanwhile, the flashback story has also reached its act one ending as the man in the past meets the object of his lust, a Greek lad called Andreas.

Looking back at the book now, it’s interesting to see that I must have had a natural feel for the four-act structure even though I knew nothing about it. There’s a turning point halfway through both stories (the flashback and the present day), and both lead to a crisis and then a climax and resolution. It’s at the climax that we know for sure how the two stories and the screenplay relate, though most readers would have worked that out along the way.

When I sent OPD to a publisher, and they sent it to their readers for an opinion, I received some positive criticism with the rejection. Although the readers found the characters ‘well drawn, especially the Greek man, Nikos, their final decision was ‘Almost but not quite’, which I think should be the title of my autobiography. I wasn’t disappointed, but took the critique on board and was actually quite buoyed by it. So much so, that I looked for an agent and found one. She took OPD to read, and I was so thrilled, I immediately began a second book.

This was a dreadful thing full of dodgy sex and a murder mystery. Set in the street in which I lived in Brighton, it was titled ‘Neighbourhood Watch.’ Although it was never published, it did turn up on some gay adult sites, because I licenced it as filler content along with some erotic short stories. This, by the way, was years later, and as far as I know, it might still be out there. I sent ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ to the agent, she read it, had a heart attack, and emigrated to Spain.

Almost but not quite…

Dreams Vs Secrets

Looking back at OPD and the way it is written, I can see plenty of things I would not do now, and I don’t just mean the structure of the opening. When examining your own past work, it’s important to look at everything from characterisation to the old ‘show and tell’ mystery, to the sentences themselves. I do this on every rewrite of every book, and there are now particular things I look out for and try to avoid.

Here are some examples of what I did in older novels that I try not to do in the newer ones. Some are necessary, some are unavoidable, but the fewer I have of them, the better I feel. (The more satisfied I feel, damn it!)

Starting a sentence with ‘He…’

At some point in my writing past, I noticed I often started sentences with He. He heard no engine, no unnatural noise, just the animals. That’s telling not showing. We know who we are reading about, we’re in his point of view, so why not write, The silence of a dead engine was the canvas on which goats and sheep painted their bleating. Well, it’s a bit naff, but I am thinking off the top of my head. Starting a sentence with He is fine now and then, but in some passages of my early books, I do it all the time. It’s a cop-out. He saw… He knew… He felt… These, to my mind, are all telling and thus, robbing the reader of the chance to experience the atmosphere.

Punctuation

This is why I have a proof reader. My punctuation, I notice, is based on how I speak, and is not always grammatically correct. I have to admit, now I use a proof reader, I don’t bother dithering over whether my punctuation is 100% accurate, because I know someone else will sort it out. However, I do know what to avoid. The other day, someone showed me the first proof of their first book, and with great excitement, asked me what I thought. I opened it at random and leapt in shock. The whole thing was in a sans serif font, Ariel or something. That’s a no-no, because serif fonts like Times New Roman are much easier on the eye when reading large blocks of text. Sans serif is fine on web pages like the one you are reading now, but, in my opinion, they should be kept out of print books.

Another thing this chap had done was hammer out exclamation marks as if they were the three-million rivets on the Titanic! I mean, one or two in a novel is fine, but eight or nine on each page! I mean, that’s overkill! Exclamation marks add emphasis for sure! But they also add an upturn in your reading voice! And if every sentence is exclaimed, the reading suffers from hiccups! And repetition! You see what I mean?!

?! is even worse, and try to avoid starting sentences with And and But. Although it can be argued it’s a style thing, there’s always a better way to start a sentence than with a conjunction.

Similar words

Again, my proof reader comes into play when I write discreet but mean discrete. The same applies to practice and practise, and several others. However, thanks to her notes, I now know to check certain words to ensure I have the verb rather than the noun, or the adjective rather than the verb. I also know what my most common typos are, and I keep a list of them so I can run a search/find on the full manuscript and change form to from and fro to for, etc.

Repetition reminders

Something I do a great deal of when writing a first draft is remind myself that I have already said that. I will state a fact the reader needs to know, and then I’ll state it again from someone else’s point of view later, and probably, do it a third time. This is a subconscious thing in the first draft, and I do it because I am unsure if I’ve mentioned the fact before. Either that, or I repeat it so the reader knows a different character knows the fact. I reckon a reader only needs to be told once, so, in the second draft, I consciously look for such repetitions and ask myself, ‘Do we know this already?’ Very often the answer is yes, so I take it out. An exception might be if a vital fact or clue is mentioned in chapter one and comes into play again in chapter thirty; then, it’s acceptable to remind the reader, but it must be done subtly.

Shoe Leather

Every chapter must have a point, and I keep a list I call POC. Point Of Chapter. As long as the plot or character details I want known come across, then the chapter has a point. That’s one thing, but another is the shoe leather scene, as they call it in screenplay writing. These are scenes to be avoided and, in some screenplays, they are there because the writer needs to present 90 pages and only has 87. A chapter only needs to be as long as it needs to be, you don’t have to aim for 3,000 or 4,000 words. In fact, it is better to vary the length of chapters as it is to vary the length of sentences. If your chapter feels too short, don’t bung in any old description or, worse, repetition just to make it longer. I used to do this, but now as I reread, I think to myself, ‘Do we need this?’ ‘What’s the point of this paragraph?’ ‘We’ve been here before.’ ‘We’ve done this…’ Ad infinitum

And Finally, Cyril

I am in danger of wittering on ad infinitum, so I will stop there. The point of this post has been to highlight how a writer can, and must, learn from his or her own writing. The above is simply an early morning reflection on what I have to say about the subject, and I hope you found it of use. To finish with, and just for fun, I want to give a few lines from both ‘Other People’s Dreams’ (1996) and ‘Starting with Secrets’ (2022, first draft). Both sections are from towards the beginning of the novels. See if you can spot the differences.

Other People’s Dreams

There was no doubt about it, the older man in the red trunks was flirting. This was the second time he had walked slowly past the lifeguard station, staring up and looking for a moment too long. Mick caught his eye again and immediately looked away, tiring of the attention. Not only was he working, he was simply not interested.

He had become used to the admiring glances of the men and women whose lives he guarded for six hours a day; there was no more novelty to it.

Starting with Secrets

[Character name]* tore the page from the newspaper, and threw the rest into the coal scuttle to use as kindling. Beyond the window, a sickly glow of yellow light coloured the overhanging fug, through which came the sound of clatter-carts and costermongers calling their wares, the sharp cackle of the prostitute and the crash and roar of warring couples. A policeman’s whistle pierced the night, and boots thudded on the cobbled street, chased by others and accompanied by shouts. Slops cascaded from the room above to catch a child unawares, resulting in screams and foul language, and soon after, came the threatening tread of a father mounting the stairs to seek revenge.

* I removed the name because it might have been a spoiler

Other People’s Dreams is on sale here.

Starting with Secrets should be ready for publication by the end of October. It will be the sixth book in the Larkspur Mystery series.

Work In Progress 4.7

Last week I wrote, ‘I am fast approaching the end of draft one’ (of Starting with Secrets). I also said I was just about to head into the finale, I was at 113,000 words, and on chapter 31.

This week, I have to report I have made little progress. I am at 118,000 words and about to start chapter 33, the aftermath chapter. It has taken me a week to write what I could usually write in two days because of a variety of excuses, and not all of them fun ones.

Last week was our 5th wedding anniversary, 20 years since we came to live on Symi and Neil’s birthday all on the same day. I’d only just got over the visit from our friends we met in Canada, and I was able to get some writing done on Wednesday. However, Thursday came along and with it came a surprise visit from my nephew, and a late-night dinner party for 24 people at the taverna. On the previous Monday, I had woken up with bad hay fever but had to have my 4th Covid jab, so just got on with it. By Wednesday evening, I was feeling pretty done in, but kept going through the dinner party and celebrations the next night. Friday, however, and over the weekend, I was able to do little more than bang out some paid typing (because I had to), sit on the sofa playing SimCity and blow my nose, sneeze and groan. I’m still feeling knackered, and I think the hay fever was actually a cold which, on top of a few late nights and a C4 jab, flattened me.

So, there’s my excuse for only writing 4,000 words in a week. Today, cold or no cold, I am battling on and changing my routine. I intend to pause my typing work when the sun comes up, walk around the block for half an hour, get back to work, and then dedicate the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon to Starting with Secrets.

Check back in next Wednesday for the WIP and I hope to be able to tell you I am about to start the last chapter. We shall see.