Home / News…and Thoughts

Hello and welcome! 

I’ll be posting sporadic news, progress and general thoughts here. Click the “follow” button (at the bottom of the page) to make sure you keep up to date.

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Now, read on!

 

Draining the Mental Swamp

It’s taken me an absolute age, but I’ve finally submitted ‘Ham, Egg and Chips’ and I feel mentally drained. Its a 4,600 odd word piece set in a post-apocalyptic Thanet with, I think, quite a good twist at the end.

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It started as an exercise at the Creative Inspirations group in Westgate. Write a 250 word scene or story using the following three things: a quill pen; late autumn and ham, egg and chips. OK, I know. Arguably, thats five things.

My first draft was 500 odd words (I don’t tend to keep to the rules on these exercises if it constrains me too much) and I got all those things in, although the quill felt forced.

It also felt like a story that had longer legs. So, I dumped the quill and wrote a new piece. Draft 2.0 was 1,200 words. I read it…lots to change. Draft 2.1 was 1,500 odd. Better.

Unfortunately, first feedback was not overwhelmingly positive. Way too much exposition for a short piece. I was disappointed, but couldn’t escape the grim fact that my genial critics were right. It was like the research notes for a real story. It felt like a bit of a knock back, and I as I’d read along with the group, I knew it was true.

But, I loved the concept, and didn’t want to abandon it. Back to the keyboard I went, to build more of a story and not just a future history piece.

Draft 3.0 felt good and got a much better reception. Just over 5,000 words at this point, there was much more dialogue and action. But I was a wee bit worried about the reception of the strong female protagonist. Was she credible? How would a female audience view her actions given the context I’d put her in?

This is where I went out for some expert help. I managed to secure the help of five fabulous volunteers to read it, all of whom have great writing credentials and were qualified (from a gender perspective) to pick over the faults of my lead character. They know who they are. Thanks to all of you! Feedback was, happily, pretty good on the whole with some room for improvement.

Time for another editing session. Hey-ho.

I thought I’d nailed it with draft 4.0. I just needed one more review. I put it in front of my regular sounding posts. I know you aren’t supposed to use family, but how could anything go wrong here? I just wanted to know there were no howlers in the spelling / grammar stakes. I’d already passed three self-imposed deadlines to get this one finished.

Oh, dear.

Tammy (Mrs. S) and Ciarán (son and prodigious reader of SF / fantasy, etc) hated some of the changes I’d made. Big edits needed this morning. Draft 5.0.

Now it’s done. Finished. It’s taken me, I would guess, at least 50 hours to produce 4,600 words. I’m not sure I could face another session with THAT DOCUMENT open on my desktop, at least for some time.

I THINK its the best piece I’ve written. I am pleased with it. I’ve had some really good feedback from people I respect. I still enjoy reading it: I like the characters and the setting, it feels reasonably paced, the story arc feels strong and I love the twist at the end.

Now, it’s time to see if it can convince a publisher. I HOPE it can. It is, after all, a business of opinions.

I’m sure this is a very familiar story to anyone who writes. I’m not suggesting I’m unique. But, I wonder how many readers are aware of the effort that goes in to even a short story? I don’t think it ever really crossed my mind before I started writing, but this one has really driven it home. Even now, I don’t know if it’s good enough, but I feel a release as I file it away, not to be looked at again until I get a response. The mental swamp is drained. At least until the next time.

It’s finished. I can move on. Submit and be damned.

Shhhh…can you keep a secret?

Top Secret

Absolutely delighted to get an email this morning saying that Thanet Writers have published another piece of my flash fiction. This one is called Secrets and started life as homework for the Creative Inspirations writing group in Westgate.

It’s available here: Secrets on Thanet Writers

Hope you enjoy it.

Feel free not to keep this particular secret. In fact, please share it with as many people as possible!

Spot the Difference

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Just a quick update.

I’ve posted the “as published” versions of both Diaspora and Degrees of Separation on the Free Stories page. These were my first published stories – shortlisted for the H.G. Wells Short Story Competition in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Click here.

Why?

I thought it might be interesting to compare the pre- and post-edit versions. I find it comforting to look back and see the howling errors I made in these early stories. Hopefully, I don’t make so many now, and I don’t rely on so much exposition!

Thanks go to Tony Scofield, over at H.G. Wells Short Story Competition, for digging these out for me.

Thanet Writers: a Hard Lesson (and an Interview)

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A not-quite gratuitous food photo

I’ve mentioned Thanet Writers on more than one occasion across the site. They’re a great group and I get a lot out of the critiquing sessions at the Chapel.

But, like any honest dissection of your pride and joy – even when it’s totally constructive (with the sole intention of improving your writing), intelligent, friendly and in good humour (as it is at TW) – it can be hard on the ego.

Last week, I took along a piece I’d written for another group – Creative Inspirations. Each month, CI set a piece of homework. The task is usually to create a story of 500 words max which must include a pre-defined noun, setting and emotional state. You get the idea? I really enjoy doing these, and never miss the opportunity to force myself to write in a style or genre I wouldn’t normally choose.

But, I wondered whether taking one homework to another group for critique was somehow playing one off against the other – it feels just a bit naughty, like I’m cheating. But, the truth is, last week I didn’t have anything else ready.

So, I took along ‘Ham, Egg and Chips. This homework had to include the eponymous foodstuff, a late autumn setting and a feather quill pen. HEC fulfilled these criteria. I was rather pleased with the overall idea (a dystopian future where the human race is on the edge of collapse, writing with quills and reminiscing about once-loved food) but I have to admit, I wasn’t wild about the delivery.

There was one particular phrase I wanted help with. I’d described the chips as being like golden nuggets. Not the most inspired of metaphor. “Anyone got any better ideas?” I asked.

Anxiously, I read along with the group as they went through it. There was lots of scrawling, a bit of a chortle or two (at the parts, I’d hoped, were intended to raise a smile) and more scribbling.

But, on reading through it myself, I felt less and less at ease… Where was the pace? Where was the action? Where was the dialogue and the character building? It was all exposition. I’d really gone off the rails. I braced myself for the feedback.

Unfortunately, the group agreed and my fears were confirmed. “Golden nuggets” were the least of my problems.

Oh, dear. 

So, back to the keyboard I would go. But, not empty handed. I had the base of a good story to build on (although, in its then current form, it was more like the research for a good story) and, most importantly, I had some really positive suggestions on how to turn it around and create something good. So, whilst it was hard to hear, it’s massively beneficial to bite the bullet and go through sessions like this.

I’m fortunate that the groups that I go to (see the links page) are good at doing it – constructive and building. Whilst I feel a little bruised, I feel much more motivated to crack on, make it a better story and improve my craft. That is, after all, what this is all about and I would recommend any aspiring author to find a good group (or two) and expose their work in this way. If the feedback is not done in a positive / constructive way, then quickly jettison the group and find another. That way, you only stand to benefit.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first disappointment I’d suffered that evening. Earlier, we’d had a discussion about my novel – ‘Yemayah’ (neé ‘Waterguard’). I’ve been sidling up to the conclusion it needs some significant re-work, not just a final edit. I love the opening, the setting, the overall story arc and its twists…but, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with one of the major characters and some of the backstory – all of which is significant to the plot as it currently stands. That’s probably why its been in a drawer for so long. Upshot is that, unless I’m prepared to completely rewrite it, that’s where it should stay. So, for the moment, its dead. Pushing up the literary daisies. Perhaps I’ll resurrect it at some point.

Someone said something like, “If you are prepared to kill a novel, you won’t have any trouble with rewriting or removing a character, chapter or sub-plot when an agent or publisher demands it.”

Wise words, I think.

And that’s where I am with ‘Ham, Egg and Chips. It’s a good idea that’s currently broken and needs a complete re-think. I’ll give it a crack this week. Otherwise, I’ll move on.

Lesson learnt? Don’t be afraid to kill what doesn’t work. Be brave.

 

After the session, as we were walking over to the car park, our respective better-halves waiting to pick us up; Seb asked me if I would be willing to be Thanet Writers featured writer in their Q&A section.

Wow. Fame beckoned – free publicity! Is there anything else a nascent scribbler desires?

Of course, I was absolutely delighted and agreed immediately.

“Great, can you get it to me by tomorrow night? We have a bit of a deadline to meet,” sayeth my new task master.

Lesson two…take every opportunity that presents itself and meet those challenging deadlines!

You can read the interview here: Thanet Writers Q&A

Toodle-pip,
Lee

Real Blog No.1

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From the Writing Shed of the author, Lee Stoddart

So…

…a couple of weeks ago, I launched my website and Facebook page. Not so much with a bang, as a slightly muffled pop. Nevertheless, I seem to have a few people beginning to “like” me. It’s a big relief, for someone with an ego the size of mine.

I saw the genesis of my online presence as the point where I really started to get serious about my aspirations to be a professional writer: I was ready to go public – to show the world what I could, or couldn’t, do; hoping some might share the journey with me.

The good news is, in the intervening time, I’ve started another couple of short stories; but, I haven’t yet managed to pick up my novel again for its final round of editing. That’s the plan though.

Like The Wanna-be Author, there’s been some procrastination. All justified, of course.

H.G. Wells (the short story competition, not the author) has very much got in the way of increased production levels. The involvement of the eight judges (of which I am one) really ramps up once the competition closes at the end of July, and there is a mad couple of months of heavy reading to get through.

Now, in early September, we are two rounds in and have reduced the original 400-odd entries down to just 40 (20 senior, 20 junior). No mean feat in itself.

These survivors have to be closely read and scored before the 15th September; after which, the third round closes and we meet to finalise the shortlist. I enjoy it immensely, but it’s quite a drain on my time.

I am also the HGW Chairperson’s glamorous assistant, managing the admin of the process once we are in judging-mode. It’s been made a lot easier this year, in that the website is more automated than ever before (thanks to Tim Prater at Prater-Raines who develop the site and host us, down in Folkestone). Nevertheless, there’s a lot of spreadsheet work to be done collating scores, sending out files for reading, etc. And, it all takes time.

I’ve also been distracted by setting up my new quarters. Inspired by a host of garden shed based authors (Henry James, Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw to name-drop but a few), I’ve converted our summer house into a new workspace.

Previously, I had a room designated the “office” in my house. Huge desk, leather office chair, twin monitors, all that jazz. But, I’ve quickly come to realise that I associate this too much with my former formal, regimented work regime; not something creative. It simply doesn’t put me in the right frame of mind.

Over the summer, I’ve been trying out various places in the house, to see if the vibe is any better.  These have included: the garden (too bright), the kitchen (caffeine poisoning beckoned), the dining room (too much in the middle of stuff), the bedroom (too sleep inducing) and various cafés around Planet Thanet (over-priced caffeine poisoning beckoned).

After an inspiring visit to Henry James’ Lamb House in Rye (a National Trust property), I came to the realisation that I needed something that was remote from the house but still ergonomic. I needed a Writing Shed.

I commandeered our summer house, a small free-standing conservatory at the back of the garden. A quick search on Amazon and I’d ordered a small desk, monitor riser and laptop stand. I already had an office chair that gives great support (very important to me if I’m going to be sat for long periods) and I shifted in a good set of desk speakers (music is VERY important to me when I write). Perfect!

The good news is, it does work. I’m much more focused and can sustain writing for longer periods. Ideas seem to come quicker and are more easily developed.

Clearly, I have to have the right conditions to write. It can’t be forced, but I think it can be encouraged. I now get to ‘go to work’ as an author. The shift in location generates a shift in mind, perspective, creativity. Hopefully volume.

I seem to recall, in Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about his secluded workspace in the cellar (?), where he could lock himself away from the world. He recommended hammering out 2,000 words first thing in the day, before you allow yourself to become distracted. I’m one step closer to being able to do this now.

So, what have you actually DONE, Lee? You might well ask.

The first piece I wrote in my new lair is a short horror. It’s in my favourite setting, Victorian Thanet and is a re-imagining of the death of Augustus Pugin, written from his wife’s perspective. It’s had two critiquing sessions at the writing groups I attend, and seems to have gone down extremely well at both. I’ve put From the Diary of Jane Pugin in the downloads section.

The second is a piece of flash fiction set in a future Thanet where ‘the Event’ has crippled society and is, year-on-year, leading to mankind’s inevitable destruction. Ham, Egg and Chips is still a work-in-progress.

With my Writing Shed in place, nothing can stop me!
Lee

 

 

 

So, here we are…

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Early draft of Waterguard – later to become Yemaya

…it’s been a while but we made it to the second post!

Over the last week, I’ve started to get serious about the site and posted a bit of content – some short stories I’ve had published and / or shortlisted over the last couple of years. I’ll add some more, in due course.

I’ve also dug out and been looking over my first novel, again. I started it way back in 2014 and completed the first full draft in mid-2015. Since then, it’s been tucked at the back of the drawer. I figured I’d get back to it when I’d built some improved skills and a bit of distance.

Yemaya (originally Waterguard) is an historical horror novel, set in and around Margate / Thanet in 1864.

Victorian Margate was a vibrant resort for the well-to-do (who came down on the newly installed railway line) and for the tens of thousands of day-trippers from London who travelled on the less salubrious steamships that landed at the Jetty.

It’s a rich setting for a tale about a sinister cult that has lodged itself in the heart of Thanet society and which only our protagonist, Mark Ward (an officer in the Waterguard), seems concerned about. The murders of several young itinerants appear to be a low priority for the police – until a full scale investigation is sparked by the abduction of the Home Secretary’s nephew , which brings in Musgrove, a detective from Scotland yard…

It is very much a work in progress. I’m pretty pleased with the first two chapters. The rest of the novel is draft number seven and still not properly polished. I’m going to be working on this over the next few months and hopefully getting it to a place where I’m happy to start submitting.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the four short / flash pieces I’ve put up over the last week. If you have any constructive criticism / feedback, please feel free to drop me a note via the Contacts page!

Happy reading,
Lee

P.S.
Thanks to Ciarán for all his help setting up the site!