An update

I’m hugely flattered, and amazed, to be quite honest, to find that people are still following this blog over a year after I last posted on it. I guess if you arrived here via a Google search or something you wouldn’t see the post I wrote saying I don’t post here anymore because I moved over to a selfhosted site – this one, in fact. Yes, Mhairi Simpson is me. I hate the name “Anne” so much that I decided to chop it off and make Mhairi Simpson my pen name. So there you have it.

I hope you’ll check out my (no quite so) new site and have a look around. I really appreciate you coming to the blog and following it (as several people have done over the last year). If you want to catch up-to-date stuff from me, then come on over to my new site and join in the fun! I look forward to seeing you there.

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My new website is ready!

Yes, folks. I might have mentioned it before, but I’ve been sorting out a self-hosted website so that I can branch out a little when the time comes. I hope to offer downloadable stories and podcasts in the future, and that kind of thing is rather easier done on a self-hosted site.

The new address is: www.annemhairisimpson.com

If you’ve been following this blog, and even if you haven’t, I hope you’ll pop over to my pretty new site and follow me there. I look forward to seeing you on the other side :)

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A story is the same length as a piece of string

Another Flash Fiction Friday goes by without a flash fiction from me. The Smurfs are still languishing on my hard drive. It being a humorous kind of piece, I have to be in the right frame of mind to write it and I’m not. These things happen.

I had another idea for a story today. I actually had it a while ago, but then it resurfaced today. Unfortunately, it’s too long for a flash fiction piece. It definitely needs more than 1000 words. Which made me think ‘how do I know that? How do we, as writers, know how long a story needs to be?’

I mean, it’s not the first time such a thought has occurred to me when having an idea. Several times over the last few months I’ve thought to myself things like, hmmm, that would be good for about 12-15k, or that would need around 25k. I remember, years ago, reading Death and The Maiden at university. The playwright had written an introduction saying that initially he tried to write it as a novel, but after a few abortive pages he realised it actually needed to be a play. How did he know that?

I’m not sure I can actually answer my own question. At the time, I thought, that’s ridiculous, how can you just decide something like that? Surely, if it could be a play, it could be a novel? Well, yes and no. Every short story must sit within a larger context, even micro-flash pieces, but for shorts that context can be provided by our own shared experiences as members of the human race living in a certain kind of society. A Kalahari tribesman would probably read them differently.

However, sometimes the story requires context that our society cannot provide. The issue with the story idea I had today was that it would require a certain amount of world-building, since it contains a fantasy element – talking books. If such things were part of our general life experience, I could make the story shorter, but as it is, I have to provide some background for the reader. There is a certain amount of confusion the main character has to go through to get their mind around the fact that suddenly books are talking to her, and I also have to set up the reason they start talking in the first place. All that takes words. And words are very expensive in flash fiction.

The length of a story, like anything else, is flexible. You should be as flexible with your story length as with anything else. And this works both ways. You may have written a 1000 word flash piece but then realised, on editing, that it reads a lot better in 500 words. On the other hand, you might start it as a short and realise it actually needs to be a novella, or a full-length novel. Don’t try and force your ideas into a framework which doesn’t work for them. If your story won’t fit into 1000 words, don’t squash it down. There’s editing and there’s eviscerating. Make sure you know the difference.

If you have a minute, please go to Allies and Enemies, episode #4 of The Elemental Races, and vote on what you think should happen next!

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Agent research – the start of the Yellow Brick Road

As you probably know, I finished my first draft and started editing. Strangely enough, my mind isn’t nearly as focussed on editing as it was on writing. I’m not feeling the pull, mainly because there isn’t one. The story is there, down on the page. The fun part is all done.

Unfortunately, as we know, editing is necessary. My first draft is pretty clean, i.e. it makes sense. Now I have to go through and make sure the inconsistencies are sorted, typos are corrected, dialogue and characterisation and description are strengthened (or, in some cases, put in). This doesn’t, to my mind, constitute fun. So much for the carrot. I need a stick.

The stick comes in the form of agents. Yes, I will be submitting to agents and this is the stick I need. In order to submit, it has to be perfect. I mean, P E R F E C T. I’m picky like that. No baby of mine is going out into the world with three heads and eighteen toes.

(This is an excellent reason for me never to have children.)

So, agents. I went out and bought myself a copy of the Children’s Writers & Artists Yearbook 2011. I already love it. It sleeps on my bed. So does a lot of other stuff, books included, but the CW&A is there as well.

I made a list of agents who would accept email submissions. I got to G before I even had a list of 5. Granted, a few are currently closed to submissions (this I know because I checked all their websites specifically for this information) but this does indicate a dearth of agents who accept email submissions. Anyway, then I had an epiphany.

I can’t go submitting to any old agency just because they accept email submissions. I have to find the right agency for me. I need a dream agent to dream about. To focus on.

Which means research.

Ugh. I’ve never been a huge fan, but now I’m about to hit up the internet until it begs for mercy. Who is writing somewhat dark YA fantasy? Who represents them? Which agent at which agency? Are they currently accepting submissions?

The last question on my list should actually be what was originally the first: do they accept email submissions?

If yes, YEE-HA!! If no, I need to buy more stamps. And envelopes, both big and small. Luckily I already have print cartridges from when I thought I had run out of ink and bought two new cartridges and then found the printer already had a brand new cartridge in it. Go figure.

Anyway – once I have a list of agents to submit to, I have the end goal. Agents do not like first drafts. They like polished manuscripts. So, I will edit. A lot. Probably a few times. Then I’ll do it again until my CP physically tears the manuscript from my shaking hands and sends it to betas. Who may or may not like it. Oh god, I’m tearing my hair out already.

But one day I’ll have a polished manuscript. And when I do, I will have that list of agents to send it to (re-checked to make sure they are all still accepting submissions) already in my hand. And then I’ll be able to submit it and start the next book. Which is the happiest thought of all!

How do you go about agent research? Do you buy something like the Writers & Artists Yearbook? Do you rely on the internet? Word of mouth?

Please don’t forget that voting continues through midnight on Saturday on Episode #4 of The Elemental Races. What happens next? You decide!

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Uphill struggle… the key word is ‘up’

I wasn’t particularly happy this morning. I woke up and looked at the letter confirming my MRI appointment for today, just to remind myself that yes, it was for 10.30am. Except that it wasn’t. It was for 9.20. In an hour’s time. Hmpf.

My hazy-but-happy plan, made last night, to blog and edit before going to the MRI was therefore completely scotched. The MRI itself was very quick – I arrived bang on time, which means I was actually ten minutes late because they like you to arrive ten minutes early – but then I was sat there for about ten minutes or so reading my new book (Jilly Cooper’s Jump) before they called me through.

Then I stood in the little van which houses the MRI machine (for portability purposes?) for another five minutes or so for the person before me to get done, so I obviously hadn’t thrown out their schedule. The MRI-ing itself was speedy and painless, although I should have got the woman to help me sit up afterwards. I so rarely lie completely flat on something the width of my own hips that I forgot I had trouble getting off those kinds of things. Still, I managed in the end.

Upon leaving I rather randomly turned left instead of right out of the car park and ended up in a bookshop, happily buying more books. Happy, that is, until the system made them call in for authorisation of my card payment… Luckily there was no queue and I wasn’t in a hurry. Apparently I had to ‘call this number’ afterwards just to clear a few things up.

It turns out my exploration and exploitation of the social revolution that is Twitter has caused some raised eyebrows over at Barclays. My web tech is based in San Francisco, my artist friend is in Washington and Readercon is in Massachusetts. I was feeling rather stroppy about their defence of my debit card until they finally told me on the phone (a call they paid for) that it was all ok, they’d just been a bit worried.

None of this has much to do with writing, although it probably goes a way towards demonstrating how the internet is making the world an increasingly small place (unless you’re Barclays). It also goes to show that once you start reaching out to the world at large, there is no limit to what you can achieve (or spend your money on) or where.

Personally, I am a great believer in being proactive with your life. Sometimes that involves forking over some hard cash, or in this case, hard plastic, but not always, and I don’t think you should assume that paying for something automatically makes it better. There is a lot that can be found or learned for free. In many fields and writing in particular, self-improvement is often a case of practice as much as anything else. Of course, there are many things which do require payment, like craft books and conferences, and food is always helpful. All opportunities, whether or not they come with a price tag, should be examined – will this lift me further towards my goal? Progress can’t always be bought.

In this particular instance, however, it can. Now that the bank has stopped snarling over my card transactions, I’m off to buy myself a spiffy new laptop so that my internet doesn’t crash every hour.

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Allies and Enemies – Elemental Races #4 What happens next?

Last week, readers voted for Shirrin to go the Great Hall. The story continues…

Shirrin creeps along passageways and down stairs. Finally she finds the right staircase which takes her down to the Great Hall. It is dark and silent, the smell of old candle wax and smoke tickling her nose.

There is movement to her right and she stifles a shriek.

“Please!” A shadow moves in shadow, darker against the deep grey of stone walls. “I want to help you.”

Shirrin frowns. She recognises the voice.

“It’s you! You almost got Karista killed!”

“Karista? Oh, your dragon…”

She bites her tongue in fury at herself. Until now she had not mentioned his name.

“I did not give the order to attack. The men panicked. And I couldn’t…”

“You could have stopped them. You only had to give the order.”

“I couldn’t! I made a mistake but I couldn’t order them to stop when he was already attacking them. It was my fault and I’m sorry, but my position here is very difficult.”

“Your position? You’re in charge of the soldiers! How difficult can it be?”

She hears a sigh.

“Things are not always as they seem. My name is Kirrun. My father was executed for treason by Lord Jephruth. I was made head of city security in his place.”

“Doesn’t sound bad to me.”

“You don’t understand. As head of city security I live in the fort and I only leave when ordered to do so. I am trapped here. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to you.”

“What do you mean?”

***

Shirrin wakes early, curled within the protective embrace of Karista’s tail. Kirrun told her she must sleep with her dragon. After hearing what happened to the last dragonrider who enjoyed Jephruth’s hospitality, she believes him.

“You slept well?” she asks Karista who blinks at her in the morning sunlight while she checks his wounds.

“Yes. It hurts a little, but…” He stands and opens his wings. “This does not hurt. How long must we stay here?”

She sighs.

“I don’t know. Maybe longer than we want.”

“We have already been here longer than that,” Karista tells her and she smiles.

She is seated on the High Table for breakfast and doesn’t like it at all. Technically it’s an honour, but after last night she knows it’s more about keeping an eye on her.

“My lord,” mutters Kirrun, having just appeared. “A delegation from Ship Halrathith has arrived. They wish to speak with you urgently.”

Jephruth frowns. It is easy to see him for what Kirrun says he is when he looks annoyed. The small mouth pouts and draws attention to the extra flesh hanging around his jawline. When he smiles she doesn’t see it, but now he looks like a spoilt child.

“Send them in.”

A group of around twenty enters, a mix of men and women. Shirrin is surprised. A delegation which includes women? Maybe the Sea Folk are worth knowing better. The dragonriders never include women in important matters such as this. She smiles as she remembers the upheaval when Karista chose her over all the young men lined up for him.

“My lord.” It is a woman who speaks, tall and confident, her long black hair in multiple braids with gold and silver thread running through them. The braids are braided into a thick rope that hangs below her waist. She wears a shirt and trousers and a wide belt. There is no doubt that she is a woman, for all she wears men’s clothes.

“My lord, something terrible is occurring in the ocean to the west. As I am sure you know, waterweed grows on the surface but only close to the shoreline where it is usually broken up by the action of the waves. But now it is growing in huge quantities out in the ocean itself. It is not breaking up and the fish are dying.”

Jephruth looks bored.

“And how does that affect us here in the city of Jalrath?”

The woman’s jaw tightens.

“You also eat fish, do you not?”

“Of course, but there are other sources. If you cannot find fish in that area, why don’t you fish elsewhere?”

“The weed is spreading, my lord, where there was no weed before. The problem must be stopped if we are to avert a catastrophe. We have made calculations according to the wind and currents. Whatever is causing this is coming from Jalrath.”

“That is ridiculous!” Everyone looks shocked at Jephruth’s anger. Or maybe they are afraid. “Do not blame us on land for problems in the ocean!”

“My lord, water runs from the land into the ocean. If you are using some kind of fertiliser on your trees…”

“Leave us. I have no patience for this foolishness during my morning meal.”

“But my lord…!”

Jephruth slams both fists down onto the table. Everything on it, and everyone around it, jumps.

“Enough! Leave. Solve your ocean weed problem yourself. It has nothing to do with us.”

The woman’s chest heaves as she struggles against herself. From somewhere there comes a tiny metallic sound, like a strop against a knife blade, or a sword against a scabbard. The man beside her touches her arm and the group turns away.

As they reach the doorway, Jephruth calls out.

“The catch this last year has been excellent. There is a bonus waiting at the gates.”

Shirrin watches them leave in sorrow and excitement. She wants to go with them or at least talk to them before they leave. Would they answer her questions? Would a dragon be welcome on their ship?

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jephruth catch someone’s sleeve.

“Was it all prepared?”

“Yes, my lord. They won’t sail far.”

Shirrin’s mouth drops open and she snatches up some food to put in it. The bonus, whatever it is, will kill the visitors. Can she warn them? Jephruth will kill her for such a betrayal, she knows it in her heart. She sees Kirrun walking towards her.

What am I going to do?

Excellent question! You decide!

1/ She asks Kirrun to warn the Sea Folk

2/ She gets up and leaves to warn them herself

3/ She leaves and goes straight to Karista in order to escape

Voting ends Saturday midnight (US Pacific Coast time)

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Proactivity

Today has been a somewhat frustrating day. In way that’s good – it means it can only get better. Problems will be solved, some of them simply throwing some time at it, people will move on, etc, etc.

Of course, this is exactly the opposite to how problems get solved in books. Well, in interesting books that actually pull the reader into the action. The hero(ine) does stuff to solve the problem. They get out there and ask their friends, or search for the magical DooWhat, or kill the bad guy. They’re proactive.

It occurs to me that being proactive isn’t just a necessary quality in a fictional hero(ine). It’s also a necessary quality in a successful person. Successful people don’t make their dreams come true by sitting around waiting for people to stumble across their idea, or by letting it mature on its own in a darkened room.

Books do not write themselves and they don’t sell themselves either. They need regular, frequent input and they need promotion.

So, how have I been doing on this front? Well, the first draft is finished, so that went well. Now I’m in edits, which hasn’t been going so well. A lot of other stuff seems to have come up recently: the chance to write more for Deepwood Publishing’s Splintered Lands anthology; the chance to beta-read for a few people; the chance to have my own website. Of course, I have leapt at all of these chances which, along with a few others, suddenly rendered my writing To Do list rather full. So I spent a day or so worrying about it and then I made a list (Kait Nolan would be so proud of me). Like she says, the list helps.

I managed to do all the beta-reading yesterday which was great, as that was a very big job ticked off the list. The next biggest job is editing For the Love of Gods so I really need to get on to that. I’m being slowed down by my brain’s sudden and perverse desire to think up new stories based in the same universe as FLG. It’s not helpful right now, although it probably will be in the future when I want more story ideas. *Sigh* where did I put that notebook?

Proactivity has also been delayed as I try to find the right image for my website. It’s currently got just stock images and I don’t want them, I want something that really encapsulates my writing. Not being an artist, I have no idea what that ‘something’ might be. I thought about werewolves/unicorns/dragons/four foot high scarlet bears but I don’t want people to only think of that one thing when they think of me. I have to admit, I love Kait Nolan’s and Susan Bischoff’s website headers – they work so well. My latest thought is one of those space images, you know, of swirling galaxies and so on, but now I’m thinking that might make people think I’m a space geek and I’m not. Well, not beyond the usual ‘oooooh isn’t it PRETTY?’

Any ideas? I really want it to be pretty and so far I’m batting zero… Of course I should be working on prettifying my manuscript, rather than my website, but I’ve always like running multiple projects simultaneously. As long as I remember to run both of them :S

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