Monthly Archives: September 2013

Adventures in Writing…learning to write

Learning to write…
I’ve seen this discussion a few times and read all sorts of comments from the ‘experts’ and sometimes, as I sit here and digest what has been said, I experience a kind of panic. Because, I don’t fit in to any of the accepted norms. But then, I never have!
I’ve always been something of a rebel, a trait of mine which has got me into a lot of trouble in the past, especially at school. So, forgive me if my non-conformity ruffles feathers.
I’ve never been to any form of creative writing class, or ‘boot-camp’ (God I hate that expression and it immediately puts me off) nor have I read books on ‘how-to’ write. Well, let me qualify that statement. I’ve never read any of the plethora of modern books about ‘how to’, so many cropping up nowadays that you would need a life time to get through them all. But there was one. When I was fourteen and the writing bug really began to grip me, I did pick up a copy of ‘Teach Yourself How to Write’. I still have it, but I’ve only ever skimmed through it. I remember the most powerful lesson spoke about beginnings, those important few lines that need to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. They gave some examples, and of course they are very famous indeed. The opening line to Heller’s ‘Catch-22’ was one of those examples. Read it and you’ll see. It does the trick fabulously. But it’s not just beginnings is it.
They – by ‘they’, I mean the ‘experts’ – talk about the Three-Part novel. Well, I haven’t got a clue what that means. I don’t have much of a clue about any of the jargon to be honest. I hate jargon and buzz-words and all that flannel. I’m a teacher, and I absolutely HATE (note capital letters here, for true emphasis) the associated jargon connected with education. First it was POS and SOW, now it’s AP and CPD and any number of other acronyms that we’re all supposed to know and use with informed regularity. I don’t have a clue. And please, don’t get me started on ‘Targets’…Grrr….Let me out of here!
But then, I’m a rebel.
Perhaps I deliberately block it all from entering my brain. But I do feel that the business world has encroached upon us all, the movers and shakers (ah, such a wonderful phrase that one!) moulding us, telling us what we need to do to acquire success. Acquire success…Note, no hint of artistry or craftsmanship. It’s all about profits and percentage shares and everything I hate about this world in which we live. I want to be Monet, not Alan Sugar!
Well, those books and seminars and talks and posts in Linked-In may be okay for making money, but in teaching we deal with human beings, and they have weaknesses and flaws, greatness and genius. Everyone is different. And in writing, I believe, it should be the desire – the absolute need – to create stories which should be our prime motivator. Creativity, not profit.
That is why I hate all this marketing nonsense you get on all the social networks. The ‘Get Rich Quick’ way to be a novelist. If only it was so easy!
So, no training, no teaching, no wise mentor patting me on the head or waggling their finger, ‘tut, tut, Stuart, you’ve used far too many commas there!’ No, I learned to write by doing TWO things. All right, three (cut-to Monty Python’s ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch).
One, I read. I read a lot. And nowadays I don’t just read for entertainment. In fact, truth be told, I’ve been reading and learning about the structure of novels since I was about eleven years of age. Back then I read everything I could get my hands on by Agatha Christie, C.S.Forrester, Ian Fleming and Sven Hassel and a host of others. I read Tolkein for sheer pleasure, but on my third reading I really began to look at the way he described the landscape and the characters, and today I can see echoes of him in George R.R.Martin’s epic stories. Nowadays I still continue to read for pleasure, and to learn. I am more critical now, and concentrate on sentence and paragraph structure, use of descriptive language, etc. And I often see the so-called ‘rules’ being broken, and that is so refreshing. It really is!
Two, of course – I write. The old adage ‘practise makes perfect’ is what it says. The more you do it, the better you get. I am now highly critical of what I do. I never used to be. I used to be impatient and rush through manuscripts as if my life depended on it. Now, I take my time, look at every sentence, and I use ‘Auto-Crit’ to help me identify repeated words and phrases. Over-use of words, and redundant phrases are always a minefield. We become so close, so intimate with our own words we miss the most silly of mistakes. Of course you should have someone read your work, and I do. Friends are okay, but they tend not to be objective. I know some writers use Beta-readers, but whatever method you use, someone else should look over your work. It may even be your publishers. But write. Write as often and as much as you can, and read back over what you have done and never be satisfied until you can actually ‘see’ it in your head. Read dialogue out loud too, to prevent it from becoming wooden. Natural reading/sounding dialogue is difficult. I was an actor, so I guess I have an inherent sense of dialogue, and that has helped me enormously.
Ah, and this is the third point. The point people may or may not like, I don’t know. I am an avid film watcher. I love films. All sorts, but mainly westerns, sci-fi , thrillers and horror. I might sometimes watch something cerebral too, or maybe even a comedy so long as it’s not some inane rubbish about dippy teenagers in a high-school. From great films I have developed a sense of pace and plot. The structure of a novel, the ebb and flow, the development of tension and motivation, it’s all there in films. Characterisation, conflict, and (here we go, wait for it) resolution. I write my books as if there were films, and I’m getting better at it. Once I simply used to write. Now, I look.
So, Read, write, look. And from all of those…LEARN.
I like to think I have learned. My latest books are much better than my earlier ones. Harlan Coben said much the same thing, and I remember him cringing in an interview when he heard the news his publishers were re-releasing his very first novel. I don’t think he was pleased because he knew that his writing is nowadays so much better than it was. And he did that by writing.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel 'Varangian'.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel ‘Varangian’.


My latest book ‘VARANGIAN’ is a solid story of love and hate, sex and violence, all set in the Byzantine Empire when Harald Hardrada was a captain in the Varangian Guard, a group of Norse and Saxon warriors who formed an elite force of superb fighting men. His story is amazing, and I have used it as a vehicle for creating a series of historical stories which I hope people will enjoy. The sequel is going to be better than the first, so there we have it. The learning process, the ability to improve. Wow, that almost sounds like ‘continuity and progression’ and suddenly I’m back at university ‘learning’ how to teach! I better be careful. I may be becoming a conformist! But no, don’t worry…As I often say, ‘It’s all balls’…so, just get out there and DO IT !
‘Varangian is available from all Amazon outlets, and if you do not have a Kindle, it is available for all other e-reader platforms from Smashwords. Here’s the link: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/360865
Thanks for dropping by and keep on reading!

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Adventures in Writing – what influences us…

Influences.
This is an interesting word, isn’t it? Could be used for just about every single facet of the human psyche.
Needless to say, I’m going to concentrate on the influences on writing.
I remember at school a teacher telling me the best way to learn how to write was to read. I still believe this is true. Stephen King, in his book ‘On Writing’ details how he writes every morning, and in the afternoon he reads. A pretty powerful recommendation then. He didn’t clarify what he read, but does that actually matter?
As writers I believe we tend to read in a slightly different way to the average reader. Of course, there is the sheer entertainment value of reading, but I find myself more and more being critical – in a constructive way for the most part. I analyse sentence structure, paragraph and chapter beginnings, characterisation, descriptions, etc, etc. I do this in a far deeper way than I ever did before I seriously took up writing. It is now meaningful and relevant to me.
I read widely; as well as non-fiction for research I read thrillers, historical fiction, police procedurals, spy fiction, and ALL of Cormac McCarthy!
To mirror this I write in a number of genres. Essentially, I write as the mood takes me. For young adults, I’ve written a number of paranormal mysteries, and for adult fiction I’ve written mainly thrillers, but I am leaning more and more towards historical fiction, set in the dark ages/early medieval period. I have a whole host of stories already ear-marked, ranging from my latest book – VARANGIAN, which is published on the 25th September – to other planned projects, such as the mysterious death of William Rufus, and the curious life and dreams of Henry I.
When I began Varangian, I had no real goal in mind. I simply knew I had to write the story. But as my research grew, so did my desire to write further episodes in his remarkable life.
And then came ‘Game of Thrones’.
This epic fantasy work is the work of George R.R. Martin, an American author who really looks the part. One look at him and you know he writes epic fantasy. The sort of guy you might meet around a table playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or Runequest. His books are brilliant. And he is the master of mixing both show and tell. You know how we are always told to ‘show’…well, he doesn’t, not always. He uses masses of adverbs too, and we’re told not to use those. I’m often curious as to who comes up with these rules, but I’m so pleased to see Martin not so much ignoring them as manipulating them, to make his writing so much more lively and gripping. So it won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that when I began writing the prequel to Varangian, his influences were there, perhaps not consciously, but certainly in my desire to develop a far more breath-taking and sweeping narrative. We’re told to ‘cut, cut, cut’…Well, I’ve never understood that either. I believe readers want to read the details, to get the scenes clear in their minds. So I’ve taken after Martin, expanded my narrative, and hopefully created further volumes which are more substantial and far more evocative of the period. I like to think of Varangian as being pretty good, a true story of a Viking adventurer thrown into the deadly intrigues of the Byzantine empire, but it is a story embroidered with plenty of fiction. My subsequent tales will be epics of the imagination…well, I hope they are.
varangian and burnt
I’m a great fan of the late Elmore Leonard, and Robert B Parker and I love the way both writers draw you in to the story, painting vivid pictures with space, meticulously chosen words. It was whilst discovering both of these giants of the crime genre that I began to plan out my Paul Chaise thrillers, and attempted to create real page-turners that readers would find hard to put down.
These are the influences which have, over the years, helped me find my own ‘voice’. Inspiration, which is closely akin, is another thing entirely and I shall talk about that another time. But many things inspire us to write, and not all of them are to do with reading. However, these influences of mine have guided and helped me over the years and still do.
Two very different genres, and different influences. I do not copy, and I never try to model myself on any writer, but I can hear their voices in my head, and I often stop and read back over what I’ve written and ask, ‘Would Martin be proud, would Leonard have done it like that…’ I owe them, and a mass of other writers, a huge debt. I continue to read as I write. I devour books, and so should any budding author. We cannot live in isolation, believing every sentence we create is the best there ever was, because we only have to open Thomas Hardy to discover that the best has already been done. Emulate, and respect. Study and learn. But read.

My latest book Varangian will be published by Rebel-E on 25th September. Visit my website for the latest news. http://www.stuartgyayes.com
Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading!

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Adventures in writing – the birth of a book; how I developed the story of Harald Hardrada, the VARANGIAN.

The problem with writing – perhaps the biggest problem – it is totally addictive. It is a strange phenomenon, but by nature I am normally a patient person until it comes to writing… Something happens and the opposite becomes the case. When a story is in my head, I write like a demon. Possessed…Perhaps that’s a bit too strong, but certainly I would call it an addiction. But a good one!
Take my latest novel, ‘Varangian’. A historical novel based around the life and times of Harald Hardrada. This first volume tells of his time serving the emperors of Byzantium, or New Rome as they themselves called it. I’m currently working on the second instalment, as this is what I want to talk about this time. How I went about researching the story, plotting it, and then…ah…the addiction! Because half way through the sequel I had the crazy notion of writing a prequel. Yes, that’s right. Two volumes to be written, perhaps at the same time…madness? Let’s see.
I’ve been a teacher for many years, and my interest in history has always been deep, so it was natural for me to study the subject at university and help me gain entry into my chosen career. Twenty-two years later, I still love my job. Every year I teach the extraordinary events surrounding the momentous year, 1066. How three great men fought for possession of the English throne. We all know that only one prevailed, but what a story it is. And for me, the greatest and most fascinating of those contenders for the crown was Harald Sigurdsson, or Hardrada (the Ruthless) as he is better known.
Every year I’d stand in front of a new class of students and enthral them with stories of this incredible character, trying to give them a sense of his drive, his ambition, his desire to be remembered as a worthy and great man. As I embroidered the story with snippets from his earlier life it slowly dawned on me that here was a book that needed writing, in such as way that would make it accessible, interesting and, above all, entertaining.
Two years ago I began serious research and read everything I could about his time in Byzantium. I’ve always been a keen wargamer and so the military side of things took precedence. But the more I discovered, the more I realised that here was a tale, not only of blood and battle, but of intrigue, duplicity, betrayal…and sex. Lots of sex, because Hardrada was the lover of the empress Zoe, and when he began to take a shine to her niece, she threw him in prison. An interesting woman in her own right, it was rumoured that Zoe had more than a little to do with the mysterious deaths of her two previous husbands. There was never any proof of course, but in that hot pot of wagging tongues called Constantinople, there were many who voiced their suspicions loud and clear, fearless of Zoe’s wrath and disgusted by her brazen exploits. Zoe loved being empress, and all the trappings that went with it, both in and outside the bed-chamber!
Hardrada escaped, and we do not know how. Some accounts talk of a mysterious woman – the niece perhaps – who brought him the key to the cell; others that he flew away out of the window, others that he made some sort of a deal. He was rich, having accumulated a secret horde of treasure from his many exploits right around the Mediterranean. But how would Zoe react to his escape, and what would the new emperor, Michael V, do? A debauched individual, helped to the throne by Zoë herself, his legacy is not a good one. He almost single-handedly brought the Empire to ruin, a man concerned more with the pomp and glory of being emperor than the massive responsibility it entailed. Like the worst of the old Roman emperors, he wined and wenched his way through his reign, pointedly ignoring the religious aspects of his crown. Not as famous as Caligula or Comodus perhaps, but certainly on a par with them, his fall from power, when it came, was swift and merciless. This was what spurred me on, embroidering the history with my imagination and my book was born. Varangian. The story of Hardrada’s time in Constantinople as the leader of the elite Varangian Guard, soldiers from the Norse, fabled for their prowess in battle they had a fearsome reputation. And the greatest of them all was Hardrada himself, a legend in his own lifetime, a man who had songs and sagas written about him. A man who wrote poetry, and cleaved heads. What a character!
The book, once accepted for publication by Rebel-E publishers, begged for further instalments; there was still so much to tell. So I set to planning out the sequel. This would take Hardrada’s story to the next stage; his seizing of the Norwegian throne. But I have interwoven the continuing intrigues of the Byzantine court, to follow Zoë’s story, and those of the men who flocked all around her. I have invented various other characters to move the narrative along and, hopefully, to invest it with a fair amount of plot twists to keep the readers guessing.
We all know how this story will end, for that is no secret. But I intend to make it surprising nevertheless. For that, however, we will all have to wait for volume three. And this brings me back to my initial point. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became with Harald, and as I closed Varangian and began to work on the second instalment, I realised too that there was much still to be written about his youth. How did he become who he was, what led him to the Byzantium Empire? So I embarked on more research, looked again at the original sagas and have unearthed a thrilling story that simply cries out to be told.
Of course my publishers know this. But what will they do? Shall we go with the second volume, and continue Harald’s life, or shall we turn back time and discover the reasons why this man became one of the greatest heroes of his age, a man who came within a breath of becoming King of England and changing the entire course of history.
Now, wouldn’t that be a story!

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel 'Varangian'.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel ‘Varangian’.

VARANGIAN is to be published in October, 2013 and will be available from ALL online bookstores , in paperback and for all e-reader platforms. Visit my website or my Facebook page for further updates: http://www.stuartgyates.com. I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a fascinating one and has something for everyone.
Thanks for dropping by, and keep reading.

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