Sunday, June 9, 2013

Serial Killers

Successful authors write serials? 

This is the theory being peddled in the land of writers' dreams; the reader gets hooked on your characters and on the world you've created. The cliff-edge story-ending makes your desperate reader finish one book only to reach for the next, hoping for a climax. 
Hooked on a book

But is it true?

It is so easy to get caught up in other people's opinions on 'success' (and its Siamese twin, failure). Defining what success means to you, personally, as a writer, is at the heart of what you choose to do and how - or even if - you judge the result.  For the sake of brevity, let's say that success means finding readers and keeping them. 

From a reader's viewpoint

It is comforting to drop into a world and characters you already know, and far easier than adventuring into the complete unknown. Going back to Hogwartz each year combines the familiar with the new story elements, whether they are the fiendish attempts of the forty-six villains to destroy the universe or the growing pains of the key friends, Hermione, Ron and Harry. The mundane complications of the timetable entertain us along with life-or-death magical battles. We might spare a thought as to who will be teaching the Dark Arts this year while we contemplate the latest plot by the forces of evil. We inhabit the world we read about. I think J.K Rowling got the structure of her books spot-on and as serials go, the Potter books could be considered successful so maybe we should all be writing serials?

Ereader in Venice 

Serial or Series?

The television world makes a clear distinction between a serial and a series; the book world muddles the two and I think this matters.

A serial has a plot that runs on, from one episode to another, from one book to another, in sequence. Television soaps are serials.

A series has a complete plot per episode or per book but usually also has a bigger plot that carries on from one book to another. Many detective series are - series :) There is a murder enquiry in each episode, which is resolved, but the 'bigger plot' is often to do with the detectives' private lives and relationships


I am fascinated by J.K.R. and was among the 29,000 in the audience who attended her reading at the Toronto Skydome in October 2000. (I was one of the minority over four feet tall and not dressed up in pointy hat or round black-framed glasses). She knows what she wants of her readers; they must read each book, in the right order, for the story to unfold in the way she planned. And that, dear readers, is one reason why J.K.Rowlings fascinates me. She plotted every last detail of all seven books right from the start. So that's a serial, right? (as well as being seriously organised)

Each book resolves enough enough of the plot to give a satisfying ending, while leaving the big question 'Will Harry defeat he-who-must-not-be-named?' to be answered in the final book. And there IS a final book. So, in my view, J.K.R. is a serial writer but not a serial killer.

Get those ducks in a row

The Serial Killers

However, George R R Martin is one, and I'm not the only reader who thinks so. If you read reviews of the wonderful 'series', A Song of Ice and Fire, you'll find readers dropping out at Book 3, Book 4 or Book 5, with comments such as 'I'd lost all the characters I knew' or 'I didn't know where the story was going'. I've read the first two very big books and am asking myself why I'm not sure about reading the next one. I'm deeply involved in the characters, I love the way he writes and there's plenty of action. What's missing? My answer is that the stories go on and on. I need resolutions and I don't get them.

A serial killer is a writer who wants you to read on, forever. Each book finishes in the middle of the story - or of many stories. Serial killers might do it for love (they never want to finish their story) or for money (so you always buy the next book) but they all have this in common; they kill their story. Method - the never-ending serial. It's the writing equivalent of Tantric sex. And most readers want a good old-fashioned climax; deferred is fine but 'never' is not a popular option.

The Good Guys

There are writers of serials and series who seem to successfully juggle the continuity/resolution conflicts. I've just read an interview with Michael Jecks  which inspired this blog. His Templars series of murder mysteries contains 31 books that stand alone - a real series. It's even in his contract to ensure that each book stands alone. Presumably, like the television detective series, each book resolves a murder and there are personal details of the detectives themselves. Unlike the television detective series, the personal lives don't develop sequentially in such a way as to disadvantage a reader dropping in to one book.

Good guys aren't greedy. Good guys welcome readers who might enjoy one of their novels but who don't want to commit to a life sentence reading all of  that writer's books.

From an author's viewpoint; Resolution

I am not J.K.Rowling but J.K.Gill (yes, my middle name begins with K and no, I'm not telling you what it is) I like to think my books are character-driven. With my historical novels, I do have a rough idea of the plot, not least because the history itself is fixed, but I never know exactly what will happen until I write it. I aim to have a resolution at the end of each book but a continuation too as I know there are more books to be written about Estela and Dragonetz. But then it gets hazy. I don't know how many more books there are in this 'series'. I had no idea when I wrote the first one that it would be either a series or a serial. Each time I write a book, there are others not being written. Am I spending my time on this planet in the best way possible?

Writing this blog has made me realise how I want to continue with my Troubadours series. I am going to be as clear as I can about my plans so that my readers don't feel sucked in by a serial killer. I want to be a good guy.

The End

My Resolutions

There are currently two books in 'The Troubadours' series, each of which ties up some threads while leaving some loose ends. 

I plan to write at least 2 more books in the series. It should be 4 or 5 books in total with a grand finale in the last book. The series will then be finished. It will NOT carry on forever.

Each book can stand alone but reading them in order will make more sense. 

Each book will have an ending but the last one will have THE ending.

Now all I have to do is write the books. This takes time so if you want to hear from me now and then, please put your email address in the 'subscribe to news' form on the right and I will send you book news and updates. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Voice of Dog - Lou Speaks

The plumber did it. After three weeks being almost mute, one sight of the little white van outside our gates was all it took for our adopted dog Lou to join Blanche, our Great Pyrenees, in alerting us to the threat - or workmen, as we call them. The voice is mid-range, a little rusty and hoarse, and music to our ears. It means that Lou knows he's home, not just on holiday. Having found his voice, he showed us the full range when a police siren passed by. Some dogs respond to the siren tone by howling and we now have two of them who throw their heads back and audition for 'The Jungle Book'.

Lou's story 
Another sign that Lou is settling in is that he sometimes prefers to lie peacefully in the hall in the evening rather than watch gruesome murders and CSI investigations; each to his own. Choosing his place, distancing himself a little from us now and then shows confidence, and there's no lack of attention to us all day. So where have we got to with our adoption?

Health Costs

It doesn't matter whether a dog is seven years or seven months, the outlay on vet's bills is an expensive lottery. Big dogs cost more and living in a shelter does no favours for a dog's health. So far we've spent 140 euros to get Lou from the shelter; and a further 200 euros on three visits to the vet and medication. The routine medication includes worm tablets, 6 months' flea and tick treatment (our region of France is tick-infested), and a solution for rinsing ears. The non-routine medication has been for an ear infection (complicated by an insect sting) and for a cough.

Neither condition has stopped him bouncing through life like Tigger but I'm hoping to clear up both. It's part of the settling-in period to face whatever health problems my new dog brings with him.

Lou laying low in one of the holes the dogs have dug

The unkindest cut - whether to neuter or not

Most shelters require a new owner to neuter an entire dog as a practical measure to prevent unwanted puppies (likely to become the next generation of inmates). We had Blanche sterilised young, to minimise her risk of mammary cancer and because we didn't want to breed from her. We have a fenced garden and haven't had a problem with dogs escaping so, when the shelter left us the choice, we left Lou's bits entire.

The experts all disagree about neutering male dogs. Vets and many behavioural trainers want male pet dogs neutered; they say it prevents unwanted puppies (true) and unwanted behaviour (debatable). Breeders and some dog-trainers are against neutering male pet dogs unless there are medical grounds; they say neutering can change the dog's character and even induce unwanted behaviour (debatable), and there are other ways of preventing sexual activity. I don't know what's best for other people but I'm happy with full-blooded males, including dogs. I've never had a dog trying to mount the furniture or me (thank God, given that my last male, a Great Pyrenees, weighed in at 70kg) and I'm convinced that such behaviour is about dominance not about sex, so requires training, not a surgeon's knife. Dogs are not people and if there's no scent of bitch-on- heat,  there are no sexual fantasies.

All the experts agree that neutering a female has big health advantages. The disagreements are about when to neuter. Vets advise, 'early'; breeders advise, 'after the first season'. Having made our personal choice with Blanche, which was to trust the vet who would have to perform the surgery, we felt comfortable leaving Lou entire. If we had decided otherwise, or been so compelled by the shelter, we'd have had the complication of convalescence to add to the settling-down period of an adopted dog - not something I'd have enjoyed.

I'm lucky in being able to afford the time and the money required. I'm also lucky in that Lou accepts handling from me and from the vet but I have had a dog who wanted to kill vets. He had good reasons for this but that didn't help me at all with 70kg of angry dog and a vet who didn't want anything to do with him - also understandable. What did help me was a) the training I'd done with him since puppyhood so he did accept me handling him and b) a Shellclip muzzle. So I dealt with it. Better than that, thanks to a co-operative vet, we gradually brought back my dog's willingness to be touched by a stranger.

However, I wonder whether I could handle 70kg of adopted dog, who hadn't known me from puppyhood,  who wouldn't let me touch him and who hated vets. There are plenty such dogs in shelters. If I fell in love with a giant shelter dog who was really difficult to handle, would I cope? Loving giant dogs as I do, this is a consideration if I adopt again in the future. Maybe starting with a puppy would be wiser if I choose a giant breed? Or at least choosing a dog I can literally handle, like Lou in temperament.

In my part of France, vets are not like they were in the UK. The dog's behaviour is my responsibility. If the vet can't get the vaccine up the dog's nose because the mutt is behaving like a kangaroo, I'm given the phial in a little take-away bag to 'do at home when she's calmer'. This involves sneaking up on said mutt when she's asleep and assaulting her like the Pink Panther's manservant, trying to inject her nose. It is not easy! And I miss the Welsh vet, who brought in  a vet's nurse and a fellow-vet to assist in pinning 50kg of dog to the floor while stitches were removed. In Wales, vets' nurses were part of the team. Here, with Blanche, it's just me, the vet and a kangaroo. And while Lou might be perfect during treatment, he has expressed how he really feels by cocking a leg on the way out of the pristine consultation room.Maybe keeping him entire has its drawbacks after all.

An old dog learns new tricks

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Henry Ford

Perfect recall

This goes for dogs too and you can teach an old dog new tricks. Lou is seven years old, has spent the last two years in a shelter cage and he is a great student. Of course it is possible that he was winning Crufts obedience trials in the five years before he was dumped by a divorcing couple but somehow I doubt it. I don't doubt that he could win obedience trials with the right training but that's not what I do. In formal training, this is what I do with my dogs:-

The 5 Pillars of Dog Wisdom:- 

Leadwork, Recall, Downstay, Turn-taking and Aperitifs

Sarcasm aside, I'm sure that Lou did have plenty of people-experience and some training when he lived with his previous family but whatever commands were used were definitely in French and ex-Balou has switched language as easily as changing his name. He reads body language, listens to the tone of voice and uses his knowledge of how people behave to figure out he's expected to jump in the car, go outside for a pee or come into the house.

From the way he behaves now, my guess is that Lou used to come when called. It's possible that he walked nicely on a lead but if so he lost the habit in the shelter and has regained it. He was definitely never taught a long downstay but one long, determined (on both our parts!) formal session taught him and he will now lie down for half an hour or more when he is told, where he is told, until he is released from the command. Thank you, Michel Hasbrouck for training me! These three pillars of training will let me take Lou into the market, out to friends' houses, for a coffee in the village ... in a word, freedom. That is the essential paradox of dog-training and of my life too; self-control (the dog's, and mine) gives greater freedom.

You'll have noticed five tenets in the training sub-heading, not just the big three. That's because Lou added two more. Turn-taking was entirely Lou's idea and started with his enthusiasm for doing a 'sit' (something that's fun but not important to me). Once a day, Blanche sits on command, waits and, when given the OK (literally, as that's our release word) chases after a Dentastix, then plays cat-and-mouse with it before eating it. I wanted both of them to have their Dentastix and Blanche still to have her fun so I just hung on to Lou's collar to stop him going after Blanche's chew. He didn't just wait patiently; he sat, watched and moved when told 'OK'. So the next day, I told them both to sit - two bums hit the ground. I released Blanche; Lou waited, still sitting. I gave him the OK, throwing his Dentastix at the same time and he was off like a bullet. That is now our routine and I am so proud of him for training me so well.

And then there's the aperitifs. As we live in Provence, we have the daily occasional aperitif. Since Blanche was a puppy, she and her then partner-in-crime were in the habit of rushing to the kitchen on the magic word 'Aperos!' where they received ice cubes from the big American fridge. The first time the call 'Aperos' went out, Lou rushed to the kitchen with Blanche, only to be sadly disappointed at getting an ice-cube, which he spat on the floor. However, convinced that anything the big blonde likes has to be worth trying, he has now become addicted to crunching up aperos and is first there at the very sound of a Martini being poured. Speaking of which, I think it's time... 'APEROS!'

Blanche on a mission