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Evolution

I'm just over half way through a new tvdetective book, have been doing a little checking back on the previous novels, and have noticed something curious.

My chapters are getting shorter.

When first I was published, the chapters tended to be around three thousand words in length. Now they're about half that.

Which set me wondering - what's going on there?

I'm not sure is the honest answer. I suppose you'd expect a writing style to change and evolve.  It happens with everyone in the arty way - from musicians to painters, and all in between.

As to why, perhaps some of it is about learning. As you go about this great writing journey, you try out new things. Some work and some don't, and you learn and adapt. 

One of the great benefits of shorter chapters is that they bring real pace to a novel - they ensure that developments happen fast.

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The Puzzle of Children

I don't think I ever really got the hang of youngsters, particularly what entertains, interests and amuses them.  Which is quite a concern when you're soon due to be teaching a couple of groups of them about writing.

I've spent part of the weekend thinking / wondering / agonising about how to do it (most of the rest I've spent along with the others of the English nation, staring in awe at the fiery newcomer to the sky.  And about time, too.)

I've come up with a conclusion, which is that probably the best way to teach them is to disguise the fact that it's happening in lots of fun and games. So goes the theory, and that's all very well - now it's a case of trying to make it happen.

I've devised some exercises which I hope will appeal, and interestingly they're much the same as the ones I play with the grown ups when I'm teaching them. Which I suppose is a good thing, or indeed tells you something in that they're just smaller versions of we lumbering adult things, after all.

I know it's something I should be doing, however much thought it's taking.  In this age of the internet, and video games everywhere, I think it's more important than ever to get youngsters interested in the magic of books and the kingdom of the imagination.

But it is the teaching of children that drags me furthest out of my comfort zone, forces me to think the hardest, and makes for the most apprehensive.  It's also the time when I do the most improvising, and sometimes in very strange ways.  You just never know what they're going to ask.

One session I did, a young lad put up his hand, right in the middle of the lesson. I thought it must be urgent so I asked what he wanted to know, and he said "Do you like ice skating?" Which wasn't exactly what I was expecting, to say the least.

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A little improvisation

It's one of life's underrated arts, a bit of improvisation.

It comes to mind now after last night's talk at the Chudleigh Literary Festival (my thanks to all who came along for laughing at the right points in the performance, and being so kind and welcoming.)

I enjoyed myself, and felt the talk went well (hope you did too, if you were there!), but it was particularly noteworthy for two of the oddest interruptions I've ever experienced.

The first was the arrival of a large dog, who came bounding in the entrance to the marquee, sniffed around at a few people, chairs etc., frolicked a little, and was then retrieved by his flustered owner.

And there was me hoping it was someone else coming to hear me...

Well, I managed to move on from that rather bizarre interlude, and a few minutes later came the next ....

... a mobile phone burbling out loudly with a ring tone which was none other than The Archers.

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A self-challenge

I can't help but notice I do have this innate thing about always trying something new; innovating, and testing myself.

I sometimes think it's a curse.  It means I can never stand still, and any notion of a holiday which consists of just laying upon a beach is banished to the far reaches of fantasy.  But, on the whole, I'm glad of it. 

I think it makes life more interesting.  Indeed, what's this great game of existence for if not to explore as much of the thing as you can?

I raise the thought in this blog, because last week I did a talk to a business breakfast group in East Devon (quick aside - thanks for all being so welcoming and kind, by the way), and decided I'd try something new, just to see if I could do it.

When I give a talk, I usually note down a few key points that I want to mention and chat around them.  But on this occasion, I thought I'd put the notes aside and see if I could just talk for half an hour, without referring to them.

It was a little nerve-jangling at a couple of points, when I found myself wondering what the bloody hell (if you'll excuse the phrase) to say next, but I think it mostly worked.  And it was a very interesting experience, forcing myself to think on my feet and talk, whilst at the same time working out what was going to come next.

For a man, that's taking multi-tasking to a nigh unprecedented level.  It certainly gave me a buzz and allowed me to think I'd tried something new.   Which ticked a big Hall box in the list of life.

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History and hairlines

A "friend" (I use the term loosely) posted a picture of me on Facebook last week. Circa late 90's, it's of the squad of the football team I used to play for when I lived in Cornwall, Pelynt.

And it got me thinking of the past, as these things can often do.

It's a lingering regret that I didn't study history after the age of 16. I realise now how much I enjoyed it, and how much I would probably have got out of it.

I raise this now partly because there's a historical sequence in the new tvdetective book.  It's not so very far back, only the 1980s, but the research was great fun.  It made me feel very nostalgic, which is always kinda cute, as the saying goes.

I've noticed I often put a dabble of history in the books.  There's a fair chunk in The Balance of Guilt. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but it's about the dilemmas of history, and what the Churchill - Coventry bombing debate taught us.  There's something about a dimension of history which adds great depth to a book.  It's like a trip to another world.

Which brings up a theme I've commonly followed in these meanderings - how much you can learn about yourself when writing.  That's one of the great joys of the journey.  It's as much an exploration of yourself as anything else. 

The delight of it is that it's all subconscious. Never did I sit down and decide I'm going to write something with an historical echo.  It just emerged.  Which is all very interesting. 

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An unexpected problem

In this strange game called life there is always a but, don't you find?

I'm a happy chap, because the contracts for the new tvdetective books have been signed and all is going ahead swimmingly.  The kind publishers want three, spread out over the next two years, which is all very flattering but of course brings a little problem - 

Writing the things!

However, that's not so bad. As regular sufferers of these rants will know, I write as a hobby. The fact that people actually read, and even enjoy my scrbblings, is a delightful side effect.

The ideas for the next three books are in place, which I always think is a large part of the battle. The plans and structures for the stories are mostly done, just need a bit of refining, and some of the writing is there too, so all is on course.

Where the unexpected problem comes in, is here - it's in the titles of the new books.

Usually, I don't have a trouble with titles. They're one of the first things I feel about a book, and normally I have a strong instinct if they work well.  Maybe that's down to my journalistic background - the way we hack-creatures hunt for a headline to sum up a story.  It's a similar art to coming up with a title for a book.

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Reading aloud

Not content with writing these strange tvdetective books, I'm now getting the chance to read them, and aloud, too.

BBC Radio Devon have kindly asked me to serialise the most recent in the series, The Balance of Guilt.  I've completed a sequence of five recordings of various sections of the book, each lasting around five minutes.

As you can imagine, this entailed some considerable agonising. I wanted to give a good sense of what the book is about, but without giving away all the plot and twists and turns, and certainly not the ending.

If you consider the book is about 100,000 words long, and each reading no more than around 800, that's only a tiny fraction of the actual novel.

So, there were many late nights sat up in my lovely study, debating, deciding, then changing my mind, then changing it back, before I finally settled on which sections to read. 

Then came the actual recordings.  And for a chap who's quite used to sitting in front of a microphone, it was strangely nerve-pummelling.  I suppose it's the old story, because it's such a part of me, so very close to my heart, that makes it all the more pressured and potent.

I love reading aloud.  When I do a talk about the books, it's one of my favourite parts (although the audience may well disagree!) It takes me back to childhood, and being read to - and also to the old days of reading to Niamh. 

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