Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Friday, 31 December 2010

... Onwards to 2011

I don't want to call this a collection of resolutions. Those are broken too easily. Neither will I call them pledges. The connotations of slimy politicians attached to that word are too potent for my liking. So let's call this a list of decisions. Something a politician has yet to make satisfactorily. (Putting the claws away now)

I have decided to work at my PhD until my eyes blur and give in from over-use. I will not try and figure out ways of getting around the work and I will be the most coherent and widely-read student I can be. I love my subject and I'm not half-bad at it. Come 2012 I will have been upgraded from MPhil to PhD status.

I have decided to focus on revising the unpublished novels I have waiting around before starting something new. One in particular has tremendous potential and with a restructure of plot I think it could really be something. By 2012 I will have revised this and (hopefully) submitted it.

I have decided to continue with my good form of the last few months as far as submitting short stories goes. I will submit at least two a month to various competitions and aim to write a new one at least once a month. (I realise that doesn't add up but deal with it)

I have decided to be the best friend I can be and be there for people who I know would be there for me in a heartbeat. I've got some great people around me and I need to appreciate them more. Also in this area, I will contact some old friends and family members I've neglected for too long.

Finally, I have decided that 2011 is the year to let go of the dreams that cannot be and focus on the dreams that can. I envisage this being the difficult one but I'm up for the challenge.

Happy New Year to one and all.

Farewell 2010...

I must admit, at first I had some difficulty in establishing what had changed in my life this year. After all, I'm still living in the same place with my father and I'm still in the same relationship I was twelve months ago. Yes, I'm doing a PhD but I was reading so many books before that I really can't tell the difference...

The truth is, though, I've accomplished more than I thought I could, at least on a personal level. I've left two jobs of my own accord and devoted myself entirely to a subject whose depth astonishes me on a daily basis. I now have two full-length manuscripts vying to get themselves revised and published. I've also come on leaps and bounds with my confidence in the creative sense. Generally, I feel better about that aspect of my life.

I owe thanks to a lot of Twitter people for helping me out this year, whether by posting links to massively informative and inspirational blog posts or just responding to my own ramblings. And, of course, a special shout-out must go to the (old) stalwarts: Claire, Laura, Nicola and Sal who have all egged me on this year to the point where I want to strangle them. Thanks!

Since I started this blog back in April I've made 71 posts. These have been on subjects from politics to coincidence, but mainly concentrating on the world of writing and entertainment.

2010 saw the triumph of Downton Abbey, for instance. I was reluctant to watch it at first and allowed four episodes to build up before I started. Of course, then I sped through it. It's escapism, I think that's why it's so popular. Plus, it's well-written, it's coherent - both exceptional things in the world of modern television. Read my series review here.

As for the rest of the television world this year, I haven't really been into much. I've taken to watching American import, The Event, which I'm hooked on. It could be said that I've watched Glee religiously but there are gaps in the plot and characterisation on there that the Titantic could squeeze through. Coronation Street hit 50 and I tuned in for the special tram crash week. Aspects of the soap really make me want to keep watching as another form of escapism but I may put my fist through Kate Ford's face. We'll have to see what 2011 brings on that score.

I haven't read many books this year, many that aren't directly related to my degree anyway. I'm swimming in Sensation Fiction which is fine because I seem to have developed an adoration for it. However, several of the new books I've read this year I've managed to review: The Good Doctor, Tell It To The Bees, Nights At The Circus and The Haunted Hotel.

All in all, it hasn't been a terrible year. I've learned more than I thought and lost less than I should have.

I went to places I would never have considered going twelve months ago. I've met new people, reconnected with the old, and tried to be a decent human being. That's not a bad sum total for a year.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

LGBT Reading Challenge 2011

I've been skimming over the various challenges doing the rounds for the swiftly-approaching year and avoiding them through a sense of self-preservation. After all, I don't have time to participate in any old thing, not with the mound of work already climbing up to insurmountable heights before the first of the year.

However, I do need some relaxation time and if that time is earning me a tick on an imaginary list then all the better. So I'm going to take part in this challenge, use it to inspire my own writing, and discover some excellent books along the way.

I doubt I'll manage one a month but I'll stick that down as my goal.

For more information about the challenge go to this address.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Remembering Those We Lost In 2010

Every year we lose some remarkable people and their talents from the world. One of the sad rituals for me used to be watching the lists of people who had died in the last twelve months. I remember sitting there one year as Donald O'Connor flicked over the screen feeling absolutely heartbroken.

2010 feels like it's been a rollercoaster of obituaries and several have kicked me right in the stomach. For me, some of these announcements remind me how little our modern 'celebrities' offer. Unless they do it quickly some of the modern tripe won't be remembered when they die. So I just wanted to put together a brief list of people I'll particularly miss who have passed on this year.

Lena Horne
What do I think of when I think of Lena? Well, words that stem from her singing - feisty, sultry, sexy - and maybe have nothing to do with her as a person. But the public persona she held was unbelievably powerful. It came across in her famous renditions of Stormy Weather and Love Me Or Leave Me but also her lesser tracks. She had a great knack for telling a story through a song, she had an exceptional close and conversational style. My personal favourite song of hers is Poppa Don't Preach To Me, about a woman who finds a postcard from a girl to her father and (naturally) reads it. It's a wonderful number and it makes me smile every time I hear it.

Leslie Nielsen
I'll admit, I wasn't a fan of all his type of humour but he certainly had a way on camera that was incomparable. Personally, I remember him in one of his more sentimental roles, Chance of a Lifetime playing opposite Betty White. Oh, he still got the chance to flex his comedic muscles but it was the kind of movie I could watch with my grandmother and us both enjoy it equally.

Blake Edwards
I'm not familiar with much of Edwards' work. However, as he directed one of my favourite films, Victor/Victoria, it would be remiss not to mention him. That movie alone was beyond compare as a piece of cinematic pleasure. Add Breakfast at Tiffany's to a resume and that's a legacy without question.

Rue McClanahan
I adored Rue. Along with the other Golden Girls she was a foundation of my childhood. Again, I watched her with my grandmother. In the days when Living had a double bill on a Saturday morning I would listen for the theme music and pray it woke me up. I have memories of galloping down the stairs just in time to see four women sat around their table talking. Rue's character, Blanche, wasn't my favourite at the time but I don't think I was old enough to quite get her. After writing an essay on her and Dorothy I began to realise how fantastic a character she was, and Rue played her with such warmth. There were moments of genuine pain in The Golden Girls and they all pulled them off marvellously.

I realise that all my choices are from the world of entertainment but those are the deaths that have touched me this year. Of course, I've experienced jolts when other names have popped up in the obituaries but these four represent a loss to me.

So... RIP.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Why I Don't Use Unfollow Tools On Twitter

There are several applications out there that allow you to see who has unfollowed your Twitter account recently thus giving you the opportunity to unfollow them and get back to the real business of networking. To be honest, I find this distasteful to say the least.

When I follow someone on Twitter I make sure to look at their recent tweets and interests (and their website/blog if they have one). I like to be sure that the person I'm following is interesting to me and that I may even learn something from them. If someone has followed me then I'm pleased by that fact but I won't automatically follow them back just out of obligation.

There's no denying that Twitter is an excellent marketing and networking tool for writers. It allows people to come into contact with people they would otherwise have no chance of communicating with. It helps them develop the craft of writing and spread the word (in moderation) about their latest projects. It gives people the opportunity to recommend other tweeters that their followers might like and retweet stories that may be interesting to their followers. Twitter is very much a network of give and take.

Perhaps that's the very reason unfollow tools have become so popular. If someone isn't giving you anything (reading your tweets) then why should you give them anything (reading their tweets)?

Unfortunately, for me, it's not that clear-cut. If someone unfollows me I don't take it as a personal affront or a reason to get rid of them. I may be a little miffed that they didn't enjoy reading my tweets but that doesn't negate the reason I followed them in the first place and the enjoyment I get out of their tweets.

At the end of the day, that's what Twitter means to me.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Beware Character Amnesia

So your character has made a momentous decision. He/she is leaving their partner. They have decided to quit their job or move to the other side of the country or leave their children with no intention of ever seeing them again. That's sorted then: decision made and onto the next problem.

Not quite.

Characters are designed (hopefully) to be as realistic as possible. If you suddenly decide the person you love is no good for you (perhaps because they're a criminal or an expert manipulator) then you might make the choice to distance yourself but in reality it is not simply a case of drawing the line and sticking to it. We human beings constantly analyse our decisions and most of us dwell on the past at regular intervals. If your character leaves their children in chapter three then they will return to it in their heads at a later point - unless they have a very good reason for not doing so.

Of course, your viewpoint plays into this. If you have a first-person narrator then you may have to be a little more explicit than a third-person narrator would have to be when describing the after-effects of such a choice. Demonstrating internal conflicts can be an integral aspect of first-person narration and it's something that shouldn't be forgotten.

The key point here is that you must be prepared to deal with the consequences of killing someone off, moving someone out or making an altogether different life-altering choice. It cannot ever just be a means to an end. If your protagonist ditches his wife in chapter one and goes off to search for oil without ever mentioning her again, you have to wonder whether he should have had a wife to begin with. If she was simply a springboard for the main storyline to begin then maybe she could be replaced with something else which wouldn't baffle your readers when they failed to hear of it again.

It is irritating as a reader to come across something which you think will play a vital part in the ongoing plot only to realise it was a device that was utilised then abandoned. When that happens I lose faith in the author; not the book, because I've usually finished it before I realise what has (or hasn't) happened. But it would make any repeat business from me unlikely.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Coronation Street at 50

It may seem strange for a twenty three year-old to say that the era of Corrie she identifies as her favourite is the one during the decade before she was born.

Thanks to the wonder of now-defunct channel, Granada Plus, I spent most of my childhood caught up in the lives of Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Rita Fairclough and company. The world of the contemporary Corrie was the period before the axeman, Brian Park, took hold. It was slightly boring and nothing at all like the episodes I idolised.

As Coronation Street celebrates fifty years on television there are a lot of people reminiscing. Indeed, ITV have Victoria Wood narrating a 'Top 50' moments as part of the celebrations. I was one of the many who voted in this and I wonder if I was the only person annoyed by the prescription of the exercise. After all, a drop-down box with a list of events that we had to pick ten of required somebody to narrow down what they thought were 'noteworthy' storylines. The number of modern ones included obviously pandered to the modern audience. We'll get a couple of classics in the top ten, I'm sure, but I would've liked a system of choosing half from the prescribed list then selecting some of their own. I'm sure some would've cropped up often enough to be included in the list.

No one denies that times have changed in the television world. The Barlow family sitting around the table throwing dismayed looks over the sauce bottle won't cut it in a world that wants action, action, action and non-stop emotional drama. Hence why a tram just crashed into the Corner Shop and dropped its rear end on Rita Sullivan's head. To be fair on Corrie, it doesn't indulge in enormous events as often as Eastenders and Emmerdale do. Of course, you get the disproportionate number of murders, fires and affairs, but very rarely is a huge slice of the population put in danger.

One of the reasons I stopped watching Coronation Street regularly about five years ago was the swelling size of the cast and the introduction of characters I couldn't be bothered to care about. I think that's still a problem. If I went in tomorrow as another Brian Park style axeman I would take out a number of characters without hesitation. John, Kirk, Cheryl, Russ, Chris, Lloyd, Steve, Janice, Dev, Sunita, the Windass family and Julie are some of the characters immediately on my hit list (this disregards any deaths from the tram crash as I'm avoiding spoilers like the plague for this one). My favourite current characters are some stalwarts and some new legends: Eileen, Rita, Emily, Peter, Carla and Sophie. It's no coincidence that five of them are women. Strong female characters are what Corrie has always done best.

However, if you look at the names on the cobbles now and compare them with the Seventies, for instance, there's no comparison. How do Elsie, Annie, Hilda and Ena stack up against Gail, Eileen, Becky and Leanne? The former wipe with the floor with the latter any day of the week. In another fifty years I don't know how many of the modern crop will be remembered but Elsie Tanner won't be a name easily forgotten.

It was while watching the first episode on Monday that I realised how good it once was. Pat Phoenix lit up the screen, Violet Carson made you smirk, Doris Speed made you feel faintly uncomfortable. I don't know if you can ever recapture that success; I don't even know if a modern audience would want to try.

There's a lot of talk that Corrie could continue for another half-century. Unfortunately, I don't think the appetite for good television will last that long. Coronation Street has already changed beyond recognition and you have to wonder how much further the soap can bend.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I'm currently reading a lot of non-fiction books related to my PhD - cultural guides and the like - but this is the only one I've tried to read in one sitting and have been thoroughly engrossed by. Summerscale knows her subject impeccably. It's tremendous to think of the research she had to put into a three hundred page book, though the meticulous notes and select bibliography help give some indication of the extent of the undertaking.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is the most recent analysis of a crime which transfixed the Victorian public in 1860 - the murder of toddler, Francis Saville Kent, who was stolen from his bed before his throat was cut and he was cast down an outside toilet. His half-sister, Constance, was investigated by Detective Inspector Jack Whicher but he failed to find any evidence to connect her to the crime. Five years later she confessed to the murder of her own free-will and served twenty years in prison for it.

Those are the facts of the case. What Summerscale does magnificently, however, is recreate the 'detective fever' that the murder inspired around the country. The story was picked up by every major newspaper and they, along with the police themselves, were inundated with amateur theories. Due to the incompetence of the local police (and the worry concerned with violating the 'private sphere' of the family), Whicher was not brought to the scene until two weeks after the murder occurred. He was later vilified by the press and public for his accusations towards Constance Kent, with the wider world more inclined to believe rumours of a sexual nature involving father, Samuel Kent.

Summerscale's analysis is succinct. She rarely refers to speculation unless it is directly from the mouths of the witnesses, newspapermen or police officers involved. Her analysis of the wider issues of detection and sensation in Victorian England is both necessary and informative. It opens up the book to people who have no prior knowledge of Victorian crime and culture whilst reminding those who do of key concepts and people.

I found the final few chapters about the lives of the main players after Constance's incarceration (and release) especially fascinating. Again, Summerscale refrains from over-zealous speculation, though her theory about the 'truth' of the murder is sound and based on a credible understanding of the family and their history.

In parts this book is a little gruesome, especially in regard to particulars about the corpse of the child. However, Summerscale strives to create a vivid and whole account of the crime, making such descriptions necessary. There is a sense at first that she is wasting too much time introducing the 'characters' as she herself puts it, but her introductory chapters feed into the whole to such an extent that they shouldn't be discounted.

This was recommended as useful reading for my PhD and it has been extremely helpful in that respect. However, the intricacies of the crime and Summerscale's unflinching analysis of it are likely to be the aspects which stick with me for some time to come. I would recommend it to both Victorian scholars and those interested in a good read of the non-fiction variety.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Book Review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

I picked up this book from one of the tables in Waterstone's, proving that sometimes they put a gem amongst the popular autobiographies that drive me up the wall. The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and the consensus amongst critics seems to be that iy should certainly have won. After reading, I can only agree.

Galgut approaches his setting delicately. The barren landscape which he imprints onto his reader could easily have been over-described but he highlights detail impeccably. The trees are 'ragged', the fountain is 'dry and full of old sand at the bottom'. Nor does he fail in creating a complete picture. By the end of the novel the town is a vivid image, solidified in the reader's head by a vast array of details, most of which exuded a brown murky colour into my imagination.

Indeed, in many ways this is a colourless novel. It deals with change: aversion to it, reaction to it, pursuance of it. In a nutshell, the narrator, Frank, works at a hospital which is unused and desolate. It was built as a symbol and remains one, even as the people supposedly working there see their lives passing unnoticed. The status quo is upset by a new arrival, Laurence, who sees the emptiness and, in a rather idealistic fashion, wants to create a functioning hospital from what is currently an empty shell. That's the main plot, although Galgut skilfully weaves in subplots and incidental characters whose reverberations contribute to the book as a whole.

It's a relatively short book at just over two hundred pages, but easily one that could be completed in one sitting. I allowed myself to be swept away by the simplicity of Galgut's prose whilst marvelling in his ability to take on massive issues and convey them without lecturing. It's a strength of his characterisation that at no point does the novel feel like a history lesson. Statements that could feel like sermons from a lesser writer slip easily out of the mouths of his characters.

For such a small book it's packed with information and detail. No sentence feels superfluous; no description incidental. There are scenes that I feel end too soon but that's as much about personal preference as any serious reflection on the book.

Simply put, this is one of the most thought-provoking and haunting novels I've read in a long time and I have a feeling I'll be revisiting it soon.

The Good Doctor is available here.

A Touch Of Isolation

The weather here in Yorkshire is atrocious.

It's currently snowing quite heavily, the public transport system is at a standstill and my attempts to get to a supervisory meeting have failed before they began. I'm arguing with people, trying to persuade them not to leave their houses, while I panic about where the cat got to. It's a scene playing out up and down the country as people debate the meaning of an 'essential journey'. I'm not of the opinion that works counts personally, and heaven forbid I get into another debate on how ill-equipped the British road and rail network is to deal with something that is fast becoming a regular occurrence.

But, gripes aside, the bad weather had given me a perverse sense of peace. There is nothing quite like sitting cosily before a window watching the world disappear under a blanket of untouched snow. There is the flip side of the coin - the accidents, the anxiety - but for me, at a particular moment last night, the whole view instilled a feeling of isolation into me. There are very few things in this hectic modern world that slow you down long enough to realise how quiet a place is. I picked up my pen and started writing.

What ended up on the paper wasn't a homage to snow. In fact, the setting was far removed from the winter weather taking root in my garden. I was reminded of my visit to Austria last summer and how a thick mist descended on top of the mountains, shrouding everything. The only sound clearly audible was the ringing of bells as the cows moved around the mountain-top. Everything was so quiet and heavy. You could easily imagine being the last person in the world up there; not too dissimilar to how many people feel walking in this weather.

I may not appreciate the travel disruption and the inevitable anxiety about family and friends but I am grateful for the inspiration the weather has given me. I wonder how long the sense of peace will last for...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Seeing Things Differently

I braved the bad weather at the weekend to go to 'Novelties', a one-day postgraduate symposium on all things nineteenth-century. Some of the interesting subjects covered included the stained glass renaissance of the period, the use of American slang in the popular press, and how the Victorians viewed their recent past. The topic that stuck with me, however, is pertinent to both my academic interests and my writing: it was discussed how Charlotte Bronte used eyes to great effect in Villette.

The speaker highlighted several portions of the novel when her eyesight fails Lucy Snowe and when what she sees cannot be relied upon. But what caught my attention as a writer was the way in which Bronte portrays those moments when Lucy's vision is not one hundred percent. She often distinguishes the blurs and lines first, the things we're all just about aware of when we first wake. What Bronte does to great effect is examine what constitutes both opening your eyes and what you're opening your eyes upon. Very rarely does a setting come to the eye whole as soon as you see it, particularly when the sight is an unusual one.

Mainly, what I took from this particular talk was more writerly than academic. As writers, we're constantly told to think in detail but then to use detail sparingly. And, of course, it would be detrimental to your story if you minutely described every movement by a character and how they perceive the world first thing on a morning. However, tailoring details to your character and plot is absolutely plausible.

To use an example from one of my drafts, my protagonist, Danni, has a debilitating leg injury. Often, then, her awareness of a situation is defined by the position of her leg in that situation. It's not something I bring into every scene - because that would swiftly bore the reader - but it's something I pepper over the top of the piece. Details like this aren't supposed to stand out as such; just help the overall flavour of the novel.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Jackie Kay & Gay Icons

Last night I went to Sheffield to hear writer, Jackie Kay, talk as part of the Gay Icons project. Aside from being an entertaining evening which added several things to my already-extensive fun-reading list, her response to one of the audience questions raised an important issue, I thought.

Someone questioned why she'd referred to more gay men than lesbians as her icons in this brief talk. In a nutshell, her response was that it didn't really matter about their gender, they all had inspiring aspects to them. And that, I think, was the key issue for me.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world where a celebration of gay icons like the one taking place in Sheffield at the moment is necessary. The news of the United Nations dropping homosexuality from its anti-execution resolution is a stark reminder that around the world people are still heavily persecuted simply for who they love. Events like this one in Sheffield are a celebration of the fact that in the UK it's acceptable to have gay icons and to shout it from the rooftops if you so wish.

My problem is just the old issue: we want to be the same as everybody else and yet we accentuate our differences.

Perhaps, that's unfair. It's hardly accentuating a difference to reveal that this gay man or this lesbian inspired you in some way. What perturbed me was that people seem to expect that your icons will automatically be in 'your group', so in Jackie's case they should be lesbians. Maybe this was a fair assumption coming from a room full of women but I don't think a lesbian should necessarily have to exclude gay men from a discussion about gay icons. In fact, I don't completely buy into the idea that we should be celebrating gay icons at all.

Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that Alexander McQueen or Quentin Crisp or Leonard Bernstein should be celebrated with the gay aspect hushed up. I may be idealistic but I'm still hoping for the day when it becomes less of a jaw-dropping fact for someone famous (and I use that word with a cringe) to come out. But I hate the fact that if you ask a lesbian writer for her inspirations and she cites people aside from other lesbian writers then the listener automatically feels a little disappointment.

I hate the grouping prevalent within society - as most of us do. If someone asks me for my modern literary icons in a few years I want to reel off my list without worrying whether it fits someone's perspective of how I should answer.

For the record, my literary icons right now would be: Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters, to name but three. I can justify my choices at length but I refuse to change them to fit what someone else expects.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Indulging the Whimsical

In the last few days I've come to a conclusion about the short stories I occasionally have a stab at. Although I like taking on deeper themes and grey areas of society, my short stories seem to work best when they have a bizarre edge to them. To quote one of my undergraduate lecturers, I'm indulging the whimsy in my soul, as writers have done for generations.

The world is a mad place. Our job as writers can involve informing our readers about the intricacies of it, or simply entertaining them with a snapshot of life that they'll recognise. As with all fiction, situations and characters can be exaggerated for enhanced effects. In short stories, particularly, you have limited space to tell your tale. Sometimes the only way to get your point across is to amplify people and plot (but beware that line between exaggeration and caricature!). I've discovered that my particular method of amplification occasionally involves a touch of the whimsical.

'Whimsy' is defined as 'capricious humour or disposition' or 'an odd and fanciful notion'. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to be short-listed in a competition and subsequently published in their anthology of best entries. The task was to link five pictures together in 1200 words or less. I remember sitting in a Victorian Literature seminar when I should've been participating and instead jotting down various scenarios in my notebook. All my ideas were crazy but eventually I chose to run with one of them.

The result? A story that encapsulates the loss of an engagement ring, a petrol-station robbery and a sealed building, all in order to get to a wedding. When I was writing it I thought it was absolutely mad and it probably was. However, I enjoyed writing it and it seems the judges enjoyed reading it.

Recently, I've been embracing the whimsical again. I've got two short stories that are a wee bit crazy and that I absolutely love. Both have a semi-serious point but it's snuggled up in rather bizarre events that, on the face of it, are very implausible. Maybe they are but I'm hoping the brief exploration of character I'm able to indulge in can explain some things.

But the key point is, I'm enjoying writing again. Sometimes we can get bogged down with the technical nature of the craft or what other people want to read or whether the word on page 70, line 8 is satisfactory. Even if these short stories languish in my drawer for eternity, at least I've had fun writing them.

(Anyone interested in that anthology which had some cracking stories in, it's still available on Amazon.)

Friday, 19 November 2010

Classic Openings: Behind The Scenes At The Museum

I first read this book as part of my undergraduate degree. After first obstinately disliking it (I think that was due to someone I disliked exalting it), I came to love it.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I'm begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smiths's Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep - as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.

I could quote at length from this book but instead I'll just urge you to read it and focus on some of the highlights of the opening.

1. Narrative voice is established. I keep coming back to this point but establishing a solid narrative voice early on is one of the best lifelines you can throw your reader. If they grip onto, and sympathise with, an interesting narrator then they're likely to stick with your story. As it happens, Ruby Lennox is one of the funniest narrators I've ever come into contact with. Truly a fantastic creation from Atkinson.

2. The simplest opening line possible. 'I exist!' It comes down to common-sense, perhaps, but starting a novel with that plain statement sets the novel in a particular context. It indicates to the reader that it's going to be a life-story told from a first-person narrative perspective. Instantly, the reader should be alerted to all the perils that entails - something which will return with a vengeance later. So, aside from instantly establishing character, those two words produce an idea of the style of the coming narrative. More than that, it also places the narrator in the compromising situation of relating things she has no direct knowledge of. Unless, of course, we're to assume that from the moment of conception she has interpretative skills.

3. The illuminating details. A technique Atkinson uses to great effect throughout the novel is the use of specifics to illustrate authenticity. Mentioning the beer Ruby's father drinks and the origins of the clock are amongst the aspects which conspire to give the novel a veneer of realism.

Purchase Behind The Scenes At The Museum here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The End. Or Alternatively...

Yesterday my seminar was focused on the role of editors in the production of texts. One interesting topic we touched upon was the notion of revised endings. The particular example used was the famous one of Dickens altering the ending of Great Expectations to a more positive one following advice.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the ending we stick with for Great Expectations is the one we're familiar with. Dickens's original authorial intentions mean little when you take into consideration how popular the revised ending came to be. Yes, perhaps he bowed to pressure, but that pressure helped his commercial success. I think Dickens of all people would appreciate that argument.

The problem is, we live in a world of alternate endings. At the click of a button we can see the extended cuts of films and it's not unheard of for writers to publish alternate or additional scenes online as a way of both satisfying their reader and garnering publicity for their book. But, for me, this allows writers to play with both their intent and their reader. It's catering to everyone and ultimately that doesn't satisfy me as a member of the audience.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I detest the 'happy' ending that can replace the true finale of the musical, Sweet Charity. It is completely out of step with the rest of the film and although it provides the audience with a conventional end to a love story, it saps the impact from it. Charity's a loser: end of.

If you begin writing a novel I don't think it's helpful to know that you can alter your ending to suit your mood. We work towards things for a reason. I frequently provide happy endings when I know I shouldn't, just because I see it as my one shot to finish their story. If I wanted to be modern I could give them the tragic ending and make the happy alternative available online.

I don't want to do that. I owe my characters a real ending, not one dictated by something external to me. I wonder if Dickens ever had reservations on that score...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Naming Historical Fiction Characters

It sounds like one of the most obvious aspects of writing historical fiction but as I began a Victorian project last night I decided I needed to be very careful with my opening action: naming my characters.

After all, there would be nothing more embarrassing than to submit a manuscript and for someone to kindly point out that the name you've deliberately selected didn't exist until forty years after your novel ends. That's assuming it gets picked up at that point. Depending on how you go about publishing it could be your readers detecting your error and instantly losing faith in your ability.

I've previously blogged about choosing meaningful names for characters. When planning and writing historical fiction you have to add another aspect to this: legitimacy. For my particular era, there are interesting names out there which draw away from the Catherines, Elizabeths and Janes who are so prevalent in Victorian fiction and history. I could have Lena as my heroine, or perhaps Honora. As it happens, I'd already determined my protagonist should be as plain as possible - so I've named her Jane.

The entire supporting cast needed equal consideration though, and surnames are a additional problem. If you intend on shortening a name within the story ensure the contraction was used in the era you're writing about. Don't assume that just because you've read or seen something which uses a particular name that the name was common back then. It all depends on how much you want to accentuate your characters. Adding a somewhat exotic name can have the effect of distancing your story from the period in which it is set. If that's your intention that's fine but make sure it is.

Finally, I would just add a word of caution: always verify your names from more than one source. This isn't to suggest that any particular sites are unreliable or incorrect, but as with any aspect of your research you should be sure to avoid embarrassment or inaccuracy further down the line.

A couple of sites I'd recommend for research are:

Behind The Name

Baby Names Garden

Alternative Baby Names

As for my assembled cast? I've deliberately stayed relatively plain.

Jane, Eliza, Ralph, Amelia, Harry, Henry, Mrs Weeks, Margaret, Patrick and Sarah. Subject, of course, to change!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Downton Abbey S1: A Master-Class In Storytelling

Perhaps my review of this exquisite series of television drama could be summed up by the title alone. Many people have already expressed quite articulately why Downton Abbey is the best thing to happen to British drama in years. I'd just like to add a few points from a writer's perspective.

I deliberately waited until I'd watched the DVD through before I wrote this. I wanted to see if I caught anything I missed the first time around and I wanted to see how well it flowed as seven episodes placed one after the other. A lot has been made of the time frame and how irritating it seems for the series to begin with the sinking of the Titanic and end with the advent of WWI. I admit that on first viewing I found it jarred a little, but when I watched again and realised that several months pass within the first episode alone, it doesn't seem quite so terrible. If anything, it demonstrates the monotony of life, especially for the servants. It also allows for development of relationships so they can reach the point they need to before the close of the series.

One of those is, of course, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, the cousins whose marriage would be the answer to the family prayers but who aren't eager to be pushed into a match of convenience. Their relationship development is curious but almost inevitable, although writer, Julian Fellowes, is adamant it shouldn't be an easy ride. Throw in potential dalliances with Mary's sisters and Mary's own disastrous fling with a Turk who proceeds to die in her bed and you've got a very Edwardian soap opera. However, the sparks between Mary and Matthew are evident from their first encounter when Matthew despairs of having one of the Earl's daughters thrown at him. Their ending, while not happy, leaves potential and seems to suit the characters. After all, following their tumultuous ride through the series a conventional happy ending would've been rather bizarre.

Fellowes is careful to offer a good balance of relatively 'happy' endings along with the more open ones. Gwen, for instance, lands her dream job as a secretary, after a lengthy bid to escape service. There also seems to be hope for Daisy and William who appear set on a sweet little romance after a series of maybes. Troublemaker, Thomas, escapes service and the perils of dying on the battlefield by applying to join the doctors while Mrs Patmore regains her sight and is back to her formidable self.

Then there are the questions left unanswered. Lady Edith has hardly been a model of purity throughout the series. However, far from being a motiveless harridan, the forces that have made her the jealous woman she is are demonstrated directly to the audience. All thoughts have always been on Mary's marriage and Sybil has the sweetness to shine as the younger daughter. As Robert and Cora discuss in one episode, Edith is probably the one to look after them in their old age. Treated as such her entire life is it any wonder Mary inspires such jealousy in her sister? Her acts against Mary aren't completely justified but they are at least explained. It is also unhelpful that Edith was in love with the man Mary was reluctantly set to marry. Throughout, the sisters torture each other whenever opportunity arises and their antipathy towards each other is always simmering underneath. However badly Edith has treated Mary, though, I still felt sympathy for her when Mary took her revenge and scuppered her hopes of marriage with Sir Anthony.

The love story between Anna and Mr Bates is perhaps my favourite aspect of the entire series. Very shrewdly painted at first, it soon developed into something that was evidently mutual and beautiful to watch. Joanne Froggatt has been in the habit of scene-stealing in everything I've seen her in and this was no different. Such a straightforward character who holds the knowledge that there are some things she can't influence. Two of my favourite scenes had to be the dual scenes that, in effect, book-ended their opening flirtations. When Anna takes a tray up to Mr Bates in the first episode she hears him crying and deftly avoids showing she has heard while asking him to keep in touch when he leaves. A few episodes later Bates reciprocates the gesture, taking a tray up to a sick Anna even though it's strictly forbidden for her to open the door to him. The symbolism of that gesture is just one of the many light touches that Fellowes left for examination but, beside that point, it's a beautiful scene that demonstrates their relationship growth sweetly.

I can't possibly cover everything in this review so I'll wrap up with just a few more points. Sybil is a remarkable advocate for the coming independence of women, intelligent and self-assured even within a constrained environment. Mrs Hughes and Carson are exceptionally understated characters whose complexity I can't even begin to justify with limited space. Not one character was left out in gaining some sort of development, even if they only appeared in a few episodes, as was the case with Molesley and Branson. Also, the precision of the plots are evident on second viewing. The deliberate viewing of the snuff boxes in episode one sets up the theft in a later episode, for instance. There are recurring themes - Mrs Patmore's indignation at not being able to manage her own stores and Robert's irritation with O'Brien as his wife's maid. Nothing is really forgotten from episode to episode.

I am delighted there will be a second series but I won't speculate on the changes that Downton will have to undergo as the war takes hold. I'd just like to finish the review by pointing out that Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess was the most inspired and yet obvious piece of casting I've encountered in a long time. Her line delivery inevitably stole every episode and I won't be forgetting her interaction with a swivel chair at any time in the near future.

Yes, there were historical inaccuracies. But truth sacrificed briefly in the name of excellent drama is something I'm happy to compromise on. What Downton Abbey portrayed to perfection was a group of people and their interaction with the difficult world around them. What else is good drama about if not that?

Monday, 8 November 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Falling Curtain

Alas, this is defeat!

Actually, 'defeat' may be the wrong word. I'm giving up; I haven't been beaten. I might be able to finish if I want to but I don't want to. The fight's gone out of me. Or, rather, it's been absorbed by other things in my life that must take priority. In order for me to still be fighting in December something had to give in November.

That something was NaNoWriMo unfortunately.

I picked the wrong story for starters.

Why did I think that something which had slipped between forms, setting and characterisation for the past eight years would settle down so easily? Optimism? Well, I'm hardly an optimist by nature but perhaps. Either way, I made a bad choice and failed. I could easily just write another 45,000 words of drivel but I haven't got time to be doing that right now. At least last year I knew whatever draft I had at the end of November I could do something with. I don't feel that about this one. I think it's a non-idea. Or maybe it's meant to be written, just not by me.

Am I lousy for quitting like this? Well, maybe. Right now I certainly feel like I'm a teeny-weeny mouse looking up to be stepped on by all the superior writers out there. But, to use my new favourite phrase, I feel like someone strapped an anchor to my chest. Surely I need to unhook myself before I can do anything constructive?

Friday, 5 November 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: Running Behind

Pompously, I expected to be ahead by now. Entering the first weekend I had high hopes of hovering around 15,000 and lamenting with people who hadn't yet put finger to keyboard. That attitude is the thing I have to blame for this disaster!

I'm only up to word 5,174. That means I'm about 3,000 behind. I'm battling the urge to bash my head repeatedly and trying to come up with a logical solution to the problem.

Now, I'm not able to work on it tonight as I'm out at my sister's. Tomorrow night is a vague possibility but unlikely and I'm in London Sunday to Monday. Tuesday is my blitz on PhD stuff and... Wow, I see week two running away from me as well. This time next week I could hit crisis point. It's time I come up with a coherent plan here.

The novel is essentially seven short stories set in a service station. At the moment I'm still on the first one. Lauren is the new girl and acclimatising to the new job she dislikes. As far as potential plots go, hers is weak. I've been focused on what she becomes later and the relationship which is integral to the novel. But it's her first day and that hasn't had chance to develop yet!

The second in the pattern is Alan. Now he's an interesting character. I've already had chance to introduce him and the events in his story are shocking considering what a nice guy he is. There's more meat to his character and I think I'll enjoy writing that chapter.

All I have to do is get there first...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Barrier Cometh

Honestly, I remember it being easier last year.

I recall a spurt just after midnight on 1st November 2009 when I just couldn't stop writing. It was a great feeling. Silly me, I anticipated something similar this year, especially considering that the idea has been been permeating in my head for quite a while now.

No such luck.

Before I went to bed in the early hours of 1st November 2010 I'd completed only a paltry 1200 words. Then, due to my other commitments, I forbade myself from working on the story until after nine 0'clock that evening. Well, by then I didn't want to. I'd got into the research zone as far as my PhD was concerned and after that I got into the procrastination zone. I finally limply across the finish line for that day but since I did it after midnight it counted as an unsuccessful day in the NaNoWriMo stats.

I feel as if somebody kicked me out of the field and locked the gate. The sad truth is, my time this November is very constrained. I'm scooting about all over the place (I've got university today then I'm away for two nights for starters), I've got a ton of research to do and sleeping is unfortunately becoming a priority in my life.

However, I'm not giving up hope just yet. I know these characters. I love these characters. In one form or another they've been swimming around my brain for five years. The platform I intended to give them changed three times but the characters stayed the same.

This is story is coming out of me one way or the other. There's an excellent blog over at Writing Spirit explaining the levels of NaNo goals. I'm particularly drawn to number three: complete your first draft, no matter how many words it is.

This isn't a white flag or a surrender. When I'm finally back at my desk and in the zone I think there's every chance I'll bumble my way through the other 48,206 words. I'm just mentally preparing myself for the fact that it may not happen this year and trying to convince my stubborn brain that it would be no crime.

It's not really listening to me right now...

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: Impending Doom

Today I went to the second of our regional kick-off parties.

This one was a little more sedate, had an intimacy that the terrifying Leeds gathering lacked. It helped that I had a terrific friend there with me, whom it was said I was 'glued to' for the duration. That's not exactly a lie but it's not exactly a bad thing either. I think I pretty much spoke to everybody else there and I'm pleased with that result. There were certainly some interesting novels in preparation which I'd happily read if they get published.

So now onto the main event.

There are just over three hours before NaNoWriMo 2010 kicks off in the UK. The buzz I got from the meet-up earlier spurred me into finishing my first chapter plan on the train journey home. So it's seven lengthy chapters to write. Seven character studies, seven individual perspectives on the world. And when I say it like that I persist in scaring myself.

I've got so much to accomplish this November. I'm editing the novel I wrote this time last year for the fifth time. I'm getting to grips with my Ph.D, trying to participate in various online things and... oh, yes... being a human being. With sleep and everything.

It's going to be an interesting thirty days. Here we go!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: Having a Wobble

Yes, with just three days to go before my keyboard is battered in the race to the finish I'm having second thoughts about participating this year.

It's not because I don't think my idea is good enough. It's not because I don't enjoy my characters to the point of wanting them to suffer horribly. It's not even because I don't think there's enough mileage in the story. It's simple really: another novel is beating me round the head and begging me to go back to it.

This is a story I was leaving to cool off before a final final edit. I think I just decided it isn't ready for that. I want to give it a overhaul. And when do I want to do this overhaul? Oh, November, of course!

I've committed myself to NaNoWriMo so, yes, I'll try and get through it. But how many times can I kick the revision idea into the distance before it finally scoots past me and takes root in my kitchen?

November might be even more of a struggle than I anticipated!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Portraying the Cheater in First Person Narratives

It occurred to me recently that I have a preoccupation with deceit in my stories. This probably stems from my own trust issues but, certainly, the two full-length drafts I've completed have deceit and infidelity at the heart of them. So I began to think about the characters I've created and how they 'explain' their lies.

It's difficult for a start because none of the liars and adulterers are viewpoint characters. I tend to work from a singular first-person POV which leads to a very narrow perspective on the world. It's down to my protagonist to interpret the motives of the other characters and that can lead to misunderstandings galore. On the other hand, this narrow viewpoint allows the deceit to be continued - they can only comprehend what they see and what they are told about fellow characters.

In both stories my main character is the lover of a married woman. However, I know the motives of the women are quite different. The problem is conveying this to the reader.

Jude, for instance, is disillusioned with her marriage but content until she finds herself falling for someone else. The relationship between her and her husband is portrayed, but only through the secondary device of conversation about them and through the eyes of the protagonist. As Jude's motives in the story fall under suspicion, so the reader begins to doubt her feelings towards both her lover and her husband. By the end of the story I don't think I've redeemed her enough.

I like her. All the things beneath the surface that I'm aware of aren't coming through because of the viewpoint difficulty. Due to her history, when she says something the reader is unsure how to interpret her motives. This needs thinking out certainly. Much of the resolution comes from conversation but I think the old adage about seeing not telling needs to come into play. Perhaps the only way you can demonstrate love between two estranged characters is through action of some sort?

Marie, my other cheating wife, has motives which are much more complicated and don't just resolve around her emotions. As a result she is much easier to portray. There is no question towards the end of the novel whether she should be trusted as the reader has learned from her actions throughout. She feels less bland and more real than Jude does because I've let her show her true colours instead of insisting upon them in speech after speech.

In creating a cheater you have to clearly define their motives, whether it's love, lust, financial gain, manipulation or whatever. Very few people fall into affairs because they've got nothing better to do (though it's not impossible). If you can identify precisely why your character is risking their marriage (or even if they are at all, some marriages are more open than others) then you might be able to portray them more effectively.

As a secondary character in a first-person narrative it can be extremely difficult to show not tell. Alongside using the explicit telling and showing method don't forget to use foreshadowing, subtext, juxtaposition and various other techniques to influence how your reader is supposed to interpret the character.

In my own work it's clearly evident that while Jude is only on her second draft, Marie is on her fourth. That kind of character depth and understanding unfortunately only comes via revision for me.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Simple Character Profile

In the past I've varied in my approaches to character development.

I've tried the 'name and nothing else' method and allowed characters to flourish under my nose. This method, largely used in my short stories, has caused some caricatures, some nutcases and some genuinely interesting folk to emerge from the tips of my fingers. Equally, I've tried a stringent character profile with about fifty headings under advice from a tutor. That novel is the one with an unfinished first draft because I've lost all enthusiasm for the project.

Last year when I attempted NaNo I used a couple of paltry pages of notes, most of them plot and not character related. The draft got finished, yes, but the amount of butchering I've had to do in subsequent drafts has been disheartening. So this year I decided to land somewhere in the middle.

A brief character description.

I don't want to get bogged down again. As my project this year is from seven perspectives it's not hard to envision myself floundering under the weight of character information in a few weeks. The purpose of NaNo is to get a first draft. The rest can come later: I just want to make sure I've got those 50,000 words on paper by the end of November. So, with that in mind, I developed this brief character sketch:

NAME - Shelley Wallace
AGE - 37
OCCUPATION - Cafe Night Manager
FAMILY - Parents retired living in Wales, brother Michael works in London
HOME - Terrace house in the suburbs of the local town, neatly furnished and painted due to her own hard work
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION - Short, average weight, brown curly hair, green eyes, radiant smile, thin nose
CLOTHES - Hides behind uniform, wears jeans and plain tops otherwise
LIKES - Tea, romantic black and white films, cats, eighties girl pop, truffles, biographies
DISLIKES - Indian food, heavy metal music, buses, vodka, pink clothes, vindictive people
GOALS - To get a raise but not promotion, continue to live comfortably
RELATIONSHIP HISTORY - Quite bad, nothing lasting over a year, unable to trust people, goes through the motions of a relationship frequently
ATTRIBUTES - Caring, nurturing, defensive of everyone, nosy, can react angrily when really pushed, committed to her job
NOTES - Likes to look after people, not dim but not excessively intelligent

So that's Shelley. The other six have similar profiles and as a result I know them slightly better than I would if they lurched straight onto the page. Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. I fully expect each and every one of them to surprise me by doing/saying something I hadn't anticipated.

Still, I've got a foundation now. And, as a starting point, something is better than nothing!

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Kick-Off Gathering

In the spirit of documenting my NaNo experience this year, I decided to start with the kick-off party I (quite bravely) attended in Leeds today.

Now I'm certainly not a mix-in kinda girl but, as I've previously said, I intend to become a social bunny this November and I'm trying to immerse myself in the feeling and spirit of NaNo as much as possible. So with that in mind (and after a lot of dithering) I attended the meet-up at the West Yorkshire Playhouse today.

The tradition was to take a piece of fruit along for recognition (and nutritional extra bonuses). I duly collected my apple from the market in Wakefield and hopped on a bus. When I got to the Playhouse I joined a table of about seven others all clutching various pieces of fruit. A few minutes later the influx of people who had met at the train station began and our number swelled. We had to move tables.

Well, the twenty five plus of us gathered in a large circle and proceeded to give a brief introduction to ourselves: forum name, previous NaNoWriMos attempted and won, a fact about ourselves and a fact about our novel. This had forced some pretty serious thinking from me the previous night about how I could condense my plot into a summary (a useful exercise for any writer). Essentially, my novel is that a teenage girl is dumped at a service station and the story progresses through seven perspectives as she makes herself at home, showing each character in various lights. Easy!

After the 'official' introductions we broke up to mingle (having been moved by the staff again by this point). Now, me being me, I was too shy to do much. I let people come to me which meant I only spoke to six people while I was there. At times I felt myself slipping back into my shell and forced my way violently out of it as best I could.

I did excuse myself fairly early (who passes up a free pub meal at home?) but I came away with the knowledge that there are some very strange writers in Yorkshire (some of whom stole my apple to adorn a fruit sculpture and for all I know are still keeping it hostage), and that there are a lot of people out there who just want to write while having fun doing it.

Am I glad I went? Yes. It was a social experience, and while I didn't make the absolute most of it that I could've, I did utilise it a bit. If nothing else I've learned that I can stand up in front of a large group and talk for twenty seconds.

That'll be handy for a future university lecturer...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Classic Openings: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath is probably known more for her suicide and marriage to Ted Hughes than for her poetry and prose, which seems a terrible shame. The Bell Jar was her only novel, written in 1963 under a pseudonym a few weeks before her death. It's notable for the treatment of madness and, more significantly, the world that perceives it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the paper - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

For me, this opening works extremely well for several reasons.

1. It reads like poetry. Anyone who's read any of Plath's poetry will appreciate the way in which she hooks the reader into the story here. The 'granite canyons', the glittering car roofs and the imagery of dust all conspire to create a vivid portrait of the New York that protagonist Esther Greenwood is inhabiting.

2. It employs foreshadowing. The middle line that separates the two paragraphs is distinctly loaded. 'I thought it must be the worst thing in the world'. Illuminated on the page like that it is obviously supposed to be noticed by the reader and interpreted as they wish. One of the significant side effects of space on a page is that the reader often attaches some importance to it.

3. The voice of the novel is vivid. Aside from describing New York, the opening few paragraphs also introduce you to the as-yet unnamed narrator. This is Esther, as we will learn later. But the opening paragraph gives a close analysis of character, managing to tune into a few vital points instead of trying to paint a broad picture that could be anyone. By honing in on the execution issue, Plath also cements her theme right at the beginning of the novel.

4. The execution idea is a memorable and gripping one. I remember the first time I read this book that mentions of execution and burned nerves right at the start were a bit of a shock to the system (no pun intended). But they did one thing - they kept me reading. A book that starts with such imagery cannot possibly shy away from portraying anything else in vivid detail. And you know what? It didn't.

The Bell Jar is available to buy here.

Monday, 18 October 2010

My Take On NaNoWriMo

Yes, I'm adding my voice to the multitude clamouring for attention as November approaches. For anybody who's been living in a cupboard for the last few weeks, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual event that takes place in, you guessed it, November. The goal is for you to write 50,000 words within the month and (hopefully) have fun doing it.

Now I know there are many many reasons not to participate in NaNoWriMo.

You might have a full-time job. You may be a student struggling with hefty novels or textbooks. You may have a family that takes up the majority of your time. The thing about NaNo, however, is not reaching the finish line. It's having fun trying to get there and maybe discovering something about yourself in the process. Perhaps just that you're not cut out to write a first draft in a month!

The first year I came across NaNo was 2008. I threw my hat into the ring then promptly ran away pre-November. I didn't write a word. What did I blame at the time? Well, I was working on my undergraduate dissertation and living in a nightmare student house so that was that.

In 2009, though, I decided to actually make an effort. I'd just finished my MA Creative Writing and one of the problems I'd discerned in my own work was that I thought about things too long. Perhaps if I just had a crack at it, let the words run away with me, then I'd have that elusive article - a finished first draft. It didn't matter what state it was in, I just wanted that clump of paper staring at me from my desk.

So I participated. Not only did I achieve the 50,000 words within November but after the first week of December I found I had a first draft of just under 70,000 words to play with. The momentum that had started me off had obviously stuck, along with the desire to get that first draft finished.

Now, this novel was absolutely terrible. At the time I was sending chapters to a couple of close friends. Their desire to read the next part spurred me on to carry on writing it. Without that support I might easily have drowned in my own doubts. But none of this meant it was a good piece of writing. Far from it. The plot needed a complete overhaul, I needed to cut one major character and several minors. I found there was one character who could become significantly bigger and the whole thing became a trimmer, prettier version of what it had originally been.

That was the second draft. The novel, still untitled, is now on the fourth outing. This time I'm debating over where to stick commas and exposition rather than overhauling the fundamental plot points. I have NaNoWriMo to thank for getting this far. Without the push that the dreaded 50,000/30 Days gave me I would've dawdled and talked my way out of this pretty good idea. In fact, I liked the idea of these targets so much that I set myself another one in February or March. I didn't get 50,000 words written then but I came close and did indeed complete another first draft soon afterwards.

This year I plan to go one step further with the NaNoWriMo experience. I want to be part of the community. I'm planning on going to meet-ups, write-ins, anything I can find time to go to. Because of this I might not reach the finish line this year but does it matter?


Though when my annual competition begins with a few close friends I might change my mind...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cry Me A River: An Ode To Subtlety

I suppose, all things considered, I should be a huge fan of Michael Buble. Along with some other notable artists he's succeeded in recent years in bringing some classic songs back to public consciousness. I'm grateful to him for that. However, his way of delivering has the habit of making me nauseous.

Take the exquisite ballad 'Cry Me A River' for example.

There have been many many versions of this song. Everyone from Shirley Bassey to Aerosmith to Joe Cocker has had a crack at it. I think for most people, though, the definitive version is Julie London's smoky performance of 1955. The rendition is so heartfelt, so quiet and mournful, that a listener can't help but be entranced by it. It reeks of subtlety. With the simplest of accompaniment London's voice shines through. No need for extravagance in this version: she sells it on voice alone.

Compare that to Buble's version.

At times he's almost drowned out by the orchestral accompaniment. Every syllable is forced at the listener; it makes me tired just listening to him. Each time the song comes on the radio I wince, I physically wince. It sounds as though he's taken a perfect classic song and debated about the best way to murder it.

Now I do have a point with this.

I don't think I'm the only writer who feels the necessity to spell out every little thing to their reader on occasion. This probably comes from a combination of doubting myself and doubting my reader. I'm well aware of what I'm trying to convey but I fear the intricacies might be lost on the audience. So instead of painting the page with light sketches of character and emotion I take a sledgehammer to the portrait and batter my reader with it until they really don't care anymore.

Of course, I'm mostly inclined to do that in a first draft. It's specifically something I look for when I'm doing my initial edit but it isn't the simplest thing to cut. After all, whacking your point home is a lot easier than subtly defining it and allowing your audience to draw their own conclusions.

At some point we have to begin trusting our readers and letting go to an extent. If we are lucky enough to get published then we can't control every little reader reaction to every aspect of our story. In a sense it becomes their story and they have the right to interpret it as they please.

Personally, I find Julie London's soulful rendition of 'Cry Me A River' a little more open to interpretation. But maybe that's just me.

Julie London singing 'Cry Me A River'

Michael Buble singing 'Cry Me A River'

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A Little Memory Test

As I was struggling to sleep last night I began thinking about a place I used to work. I moved on from the generic feelings I get from thinking of my time there (nostalgia, amusement, relief of escape) and tried to picture every little detail of my trip to work.

I used to walk to the bus stop, have a fifteen minute bus journey then perhaps a ten minute walk at the other end. Then I walked into the office. Simple. But I wasn't satisfied. I used this route every day for six months, surely I could recall more detail than that. I was disappointed with myself for not committing to memory every aspect I could. After all, isn't that what writers do - notice the precise detail in everyday things?

So I concentrated for a while (giving myself a headache in the process). What I came up with was this:

I get off the bus. I turn right and walk past another grey bus shelter towards the crossroads. The bus growls past me as I reach the turn. I veer right and begin to cross the bridge across the railway. The pavement rises slightly beneath my feet. Half of it is paved with stones and the rest is tarmacked. As I reach the other side of the railway line there are some derelict brown buildings on my left, of which I can only see the back and upper-levels of. There is an old sign on a white background with blue (possibly green) lettering saying 'CAMPING' and something else to do with outdoor supplies.

I walk further to the next junction. There are traffic lights to the middle of the road I'm on then across to the opposite side of the T-junction. The first set is on a slope. At the second I rarely wait for the signal to cross. I walk across towards a brown wall of chest height then turn right. After a few steps there is an opening to my left with gravelly-type steps leading down to the level of the railway line. I turn down the path towards the next road and cross on the corner between the Irish pub and the car dealership.

This is just a three minute fragment of my walk and I was fairly proud of myself for remembering this level of detail. I left the job over a year ago now and have had very little reason to ponder my route in depth. It seemed to be a useful exercise for me. If I can remember things in such depth then I hope I can create things with equal weight.

I at least like the notion that life isn't passing me by. I've got a thirst for remembering as many tiny details as I can. I want to document them, use them as inspiration later. It's a comfort to know that I can do it - at least with some scenarios.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Days Like These: British Rail Included

I'm very much of the mindset that things happen for a reason. Call it fate, call it what you will, but when something unexpected happens to interrupt my day I try to look past it (however difficult that is) and look at the situation from a distance. More often than not, something else occurs during the day that I hadn't anticipated. Whether it came from 'fate' or whether something at the back of my mind ground into action because of the delay and reminded me of something in particular, I don't know. I've just come to let my anger and irritation wash over me as best I can when something goes wrong.

However, today completely baffled me.

I was due to attend a group meeting in Sheffield at half-past nine, the official start to my Ph.D. To be cautious I decided to get a very early train because I wasn't certain where I was going. All fine so far. But as we trundled to a stop before Sheffield I began to feel this wasn't going to be so easy. Sure enough, there was a blanket signal breakdown - no trains going north or south. Not to panic, I sat patiently on the floor (this was a British train after all and whoever heard of getting a seat?) and read Wilkie Collins. The guard then announced we were being allowed into the nearest station where we could switch to a tram to get into Sheffield itself.

Fine. I jumped at the chance. At first the tram was a little crammed with all the passengers from the train but we got comfortable and moved along. Then at the next stop we were packed in like sardines. Suddenly I had five people intruding on my personal space while my left arm gripped tightly at a bar just out of easy reach. When we finally reached the city centre I was forced to spill off the tram with everyone else. Then came the next problem: I had no idea where I was.

At least I had some idea of geography from the train station to the university. As it was, I stood in the middle of town squinting and checking my watch. I had to get moving and just began walking upwards through the shopping precincts. I was exhausted, hungry (having intended to grab breakfast while I meandered up to the uni at my own leisurely pace) and extremely nervous. Of course, I had no choice: I had to keep going and to do that I had to keep focused on my goal. Luckily for me, Sheffield has maps dotted around so with a bit of logic first thing in the morning I made my way to the university. (As an aside, if I ever learn the name of the idiot who decided to build it on a huge hill I'll scrawl all over their portrait in black marker pen.)

I made it in time. I even managed to look human while I sat panting in the enormous lecture hall. Once the speeches kicked in on what to expect I was ready to tune in and I suppose I was relatively calm. Having thrown all my efforts into getting there I hadn't had a chance to do my usual work-myself-up-into-a-nervous-frenzy trick.

So was that the point? Was there a point? A while ago I blogged about the coincidence of meeting familiar people in unfamiliar locations. The more I think about it the more I believe some things just are meant to be. As both a human being and a writer that's a worrying thought.

Still, I haven't grasped the point of my other adventure today. Three pharmacies didn't have my prescription, forcing me to walk about like a zombie waiting to be placed delicately back in the grave. What was the point of that one?

I just have to take comfort in the fact that days like today can provide the backdrop for a story. At least, that's what I was thinking when I began chuckling aloud on the packed tram... much to the concern of the other commuters.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Fear Itself

One of the most clichéd emotions in fiction that I've come across is fear. We're all familiar with the sweating palms, the darting eyes and the stomach sensations which compromise a fearful moment in a story. Those are all tangible effects of fear but they've become so predictable that I feel jolted out of the book whenever I read one - or, more frequently several - of the above.

As a writer I'm well aware that I resort to these clichés in early drafts. All too easy to get something on the paper and worry about it later. Then, as I reread and scrutinise, I invariably want to bypass over these moments. After all, it's too difficult to describe personal fear in a fresh manner... isn't it?

Possibly. But that doesn't mean we writers should stop trying.

The physical effects of fear probably are run of the mill in all of us. I start to shiver insanely, no matter the weather, the moment that something frightens me. I get the same reaction whether it's a spider crossing the room or something much more terrible. However, it's the mental accompaniment that differs.

How long that first sleep lasted, she never knew. She could only remember, in the after-time, that she woke instantly.

Every faculty and perception in her passed the boundary line between insensibility and consciousness, so to speak, at a leap. Without knowing why, she sat up suddenly in the bed, listening for she knew not what. Her head was in a whirl; her heart beat furiously, without any assignable cause. But one trivial event had happened during the interval while she had been asleep. The night-light had gone out; and the room, as a matter of course was in total darkness.

The above is an extract from one of my favourite novellas, The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. Now, although Collins goes on to describe the terror as being akin to 'the clasp of an icy hand' the prelude to the fear is the most interesting bit. Collins builds the tension by withholding the revelation of fear itself. There is the vague suspicion that something is about to happen but until our protagonist, Agnes, discovers she is not alone a few paragraphs later we don't know what the non-assignable cause is.

If a character is truly afraid of something there must be a reason for it. The best way to demonstrate this sometimes can be to link briefly to a past event. Virginia Woolf, that master of stream-of-consciousness, was so entwined with the minds of her characters that an actual physical reaction, such as Collins' icy hand idea, would feel out of place in one her novels. Instead, Clarissa Dalloway spins her past into a web and manages to create a sense of fear around it.

Somehow it was her disaster - her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress. She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success, Lady Bexborough and the rest of it. And once she had walked on the terrace at Bourton.

Clarissa's fears echo vividly here, even if there is no physical description of them. Fear is mainly a mental component. It has physical side-effects, yes, but it's no lie to suggest that fear is all in the mind.

To that end, then, something we as writers need to accomplish is a way of portraying fear without seeming to portray fear and still get our point across.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Book Review: Tell It To The Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It To The Bees is one of those novels you have to rush through because if you don't you'll have to put it down and that would be terrible. I picked it up for a little enjoyable reading before bed and had polished it off after five hours, barely moving for the duration and not even contemplating sleep.

On a basic level it is the story of Charlie Weekes who struggles through the break-up of his parents marriage and then the consequences of his mother's subsequent relationship with another woman. When you consider the novel's set in the 1950s that dimension of it suddenly becomes much more important and intriguing.

All too often a child's point of view (even with the distance of third-person) feels either too advanced for their age or much too childish. It's a great skill to speak as a ten year-old boy and have very few, if any, sticky moments. Charlie doesn't understand everything that goes on around him but nor is he a dim child waiting for instruction. His strange relationship with the bees of the title demonstrate his individuality but also that he craves that fundamental thing in life: a happy family.

Relationships are integral to this novel. Apart from Charlie's relationship with his devoted mother, Lydia, and uninterested and adulterous father, Robert, there is Lydia's growing attraction to the doctor, Jean Markham, and Lydia's difficult relationships with both her own family and her husband's. Each one is delicately painted but Shaw never shies away from enhancing detail. The love between Lydia and Jean is shown physically, as it should be considering the level of heterosexual description in there.

This book manages to show adult events through the eyes of a child quite vividly, though the novel is not completely from Charlie's point of view. Indeed, it is very much a shared novel and if Charlie's considered the main character then Lydia must run a very close second. All in all, this is a story about love and understanding. It may be a universal theme but Shaw brings fresh eyes to it.

This is definitely a book I'll be rereading as soon as possible.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Popemobile Turn Around

I was fairly ambivalent about Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK. Yes, it was costing the taxpayer money but so are many other things I don't believe or agree with. Individual opinion shouldn't count for anything in this context. Our country was built on the foundation of Christianity and, as such, the Pope is still a part of our joined heritage. Whether we as individuals want to accept him as a religious figure is a personal choice.

I don't. I'm an atheist, though I hope not the kind who draws attention to it at every turn. I believe, like many atheists, that other people are entitled to their beliefs and should be left alone to practice them. That's why the scenes in Scotland today of people lining the street to see the pontiff were fine with me. At the culmination of Eid last week our predominantly Asian street began celebrating with fireworks. Their prerogative and they were fairly considerate to their neighbours during the process.

What ignited my anger about the Pope's visit were these inflammatory comments about secularism in British society and Cardinal Kaspar's inference that Britain is like a third-world country because of it. I've just read about the Pope's address in Edinburgh that apparently compared atheist extremism with Nazi extremism. I'm offended and appalled frankly.

There are extremists in every religion. If you consider atheism to be a religion in the sense that it's a belief system then it stands to reason that there will be atheist extremists around. And there are. Some people won't feel comfortable with the world until 'proper' religion is stamped out (however unrealistic this viewpoint is). Equally, though, Pope Benedict is indulging in a little extremism of his own. He is encouraging Britain to remember how Christianity and Christian values were punished by the Nazi regime, simply because they showed love and compassion. The phrase that particularly interests me is, "let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society". Is he suggesting that atheism cannot be virtuous because it isn't connection with 'proper' religious belief?

I was willing to ignore the Pope's visit to Britain and let those who wanted him here enjoy his visit in peace. However, I'm not so sure anymore. In the heart of this atheist at least the pontiff has irritated a displeasure that wasn't really there before.

If his intention was to stir up more unrest in an already-troubled society then he's done it well.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Book Review: Lost by Gregory Maguire

Lost is a book I came across accidentally because some fool had erroneously placed it in the Classics section. Given that I loved Wicked and have been staring at my unopened copy of Son of a Witch with longing for two years now I decided it was a sign and I needed this book. I don't wholly regret the choice.

First of all, it's a book that subverts expectation. Maguire is an expert at combining the very real natures of people with the supernatural and mysterious aspects of plot. Thus Winifred Rudge, the writer who travels to London in search of her character (amongst other things), feels painfully real. She goes through the everyday dilemmas all writers suffer as they try and see the world through the eyes of their creations. At times it can feel like a selection of tedious asides but the bearing they have on the unravelling of the plot shouldn't be ignored.

So you've got Winnie and Wendy (her protagonist of sorts). Besides them you have the spectres of two other famous figures hovering over the narrative: Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jack the Ripper. Winnie suspects she was related to the inspiration for the former and her protagonist is obsessed with the latter. The presence of these two figures cleverly brings Victorian London to the present and manages to cover modern-day London with a blanket of darkness and mystery. This works in that it certainly invokes what Maguire intended but perhaps the reason the novel didn't quite resonate for me is more personal.

Winnie is visiting her cousin, John, in London but when she arrives at his flat he isn't there. Instead she finds two bewildered builders who claim to have been disturbed by supernatural occurrences. All well and good so far. Winnie befriends some quite colourful neighbours in her attempts to discover what's actually going on. The most interesting of these is the downstairs tenant, Mrs Maddingly, who certainly lives up to her name.

Not to spoil the story at all, but at some point the narratives shifts quite dramatically from implied to actual supernatural. Maybe it was just me but I quite enjoyed the uncertainty around it in the first half of the novel. When the atmosphere of mystery was confirmed by a supernatural presence I lost what had intrigued me in the first place.

Other small irritations of Lost included the first scene set during a motorway accident. I do see the relevance of it in relation to the wider plot but I would've much preferred to get stuck in there straight away. A little later we were in London and I was frustrated at the detour. Also, Maguire's propensity to chop off sentences when, ideally, they should flow like the rest of the paragraph grated on me at times.

I hasten to add, though, that none of these fairly minor personal points stopped me from enjoying a cracking novel. It is, after all, an escapist's paradise and a reader can't help but be immersed in the darkly modern portrayal of London - and of human nature too for that matter.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Caution: Wet Paint

I wonder how many people in a hundred feel the urge to touch anything labelled ‘wet paint’, just to make sure it's wet. I do – every time. So far common sense has mostly won out and I haven’t actually stroked a window sill with a warning sign above it, but I have dragged my fingers lightly across the edge.

Human beings are naturally inquisitive creatures. However, something we have to remember as writers is that we’re a little more inclined to be nosy. Our characters might share some of our impulses to touch the things we’re told or advised not to but it’s possible they would draw the line before you. An old woman cautiously weaving through the crowds on the pavement might just be concerned she’ll be pressed against the paint and that it might stain her nice beige coat. Equally, a bouncy six year-old with a more adventurous spirit might run up and plop his hand straight into the squidgy mess. It’s all a matter of character – again!

Offering small snippets of everyday occurrences like the wet paint scenario in the course of a novel, particularly towards the beginning, give the reader actual experience of how that character behaves. It’s the old adage of showing not telling. At the same time, though, be careful that you’re not inserting this information in a contrived manner. Everything in your novel should contribute in some way to the plot so don’t have a completely irrelevant scene where your protagonist juggles knives to demonstrate his fearlessness.

If I was to insert the wet paint example into my current WIP, for example, I’d have my protagonist, Lily, running the back of her hand across the window sill. But this derives from a number of factors. Lily’s a painter. As such, she has an idea when paint may be dry enough to touch safely. In addition to that, she spends most of the novel focusing on the world around her because she doesn’t want to face up to her own life. To someone intent on looking out instead of in the thought of touching something unpredictable can be extremely enticing.

There are certainly a few questions you need to ask yourself before you insert a demonstrative scene into your WIP.

1. Does this scene add to your plot? If I was to have Lily indulging in the wet paint scenario it would be on her way to a pivotal scene at the local bar and maybe it would show her anxiety or attempts not to think about the things really worrying her.

2. If your character is going to do something a little strange is it in character? Lily's an artist so in the paint scenario it would be plausible.

3. Is this for your benefit of the benefit of the plot, character and reader? Never ever let it be for you!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Creepy Characters the Collins Way

As I've been wading through my mountain of Victorian Sensation Fiction, in particular Wilkie Collins, I've found myself to be more than a little disturbed and distracted. It's not like reading a conventional modern horror book whereby shocks and disturbance are part and parcel of the experience. It all works on a more discreet level and after years of soundish sleep after reading novels I suddenly find myself scanning the room for unfamiliar shadows and listening out for noises.

So how does Collins, a writer who died 120 years ago, manage to disturb a modern reader? I think it lies in his characterisation.

The events of his novels can be considered quite predictable I suppose. A reader today, well-versed with narrative techniques and willing to pay attention to Collins' exceptional grasp of foreshadowing, would have little trouble deciphering most of his plots. It is the startling personalities he brings to life on the page that really demonstrate his genius.

The most obvious, of course, is Anne Catherick, the woman in white herself. From the first depiction of her in the dead of night she is a mysterious and alarming figure. The Woman in White is full of them. The devious Count Fosco is a brilliant villain who plots and schemes whilst also acknowledging admiration for the manly Marian Halcombe. In fact, it feels to me that the least-rounded and interesting of all the characters in the novel are Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie, the couple whose happiness the novel is essentially centred around. It's no secret that antagonists are more interesting characters to write but Collins seemed to take in delight in writing not only his antagonists but his helpers and secondary characters alike.

The Law and the Lady is one of his lesser-known novels. It revolves around a newlywed, Valeria, discovering her husband stood trial for poisoning his first wife and wasn't entirely exonerated. Her resolve to prove his innocence leads her on quest which brings her into contact with two extraordinary characters - Miserrimus Dexter and his cousin/slave, Ariel.

Dexter is an attractive but severely deformed man. From birth he has had no lower limbs, a condition that has resulted in an eccentricity which becomes gradually more pronounced throughout the novel. At Valeria's first meeting with him she finds him gliding along in his chair, taking on the parts of Napoleon and Shakespeare in succession. He becomes, by degrees, the most disturbing of creatures and one of the most memorable characters Collins ever created. The image of him hopping down a corridor on his hands to make up for his lack of legs is one which will stay with me for a while. His servant, Ariel, is categorised mainly by her devotion to this strange man. She becomes jealous of Valeria, wanting to be the only one to brush his beard, and she insists on smelling her hands before she leaves to check for the smell of him. All in all, this pair are both fascinating and concerning.

Finally, I'd like to return to The Haunted Hotel, a short novel by Collins I reviewed a few weeks ago. Agnes Lockwood, the heroine, isn't as transparent a character as, say, Laura Fairlie, but, again, she seems pale in comparison to the anatagonist, Countess Narona. Although the reader cares about Agnes they are certainly more interested in the unfolding mysteries and the characters which surround them.

I'd say that Collins' strength lies in a perfect melding of character and plot. The character of Miserrimus Dexter would not be half as fascinating if he wasn't so closely entwined with the mystery of the novel, for instance. He could be brought in as a humorous character elsewhere but his power lies in his ability to disturb the reader. Equally, Count Fosco had to play an integral part in the mystery of the woman in white whom Walter Hartright encountered - less would've felt like a waste of the extraordinary character.

So what can we learn from Collins? Take your character from your plot and your plot from your character. Unless you're writing a very formulaic story where your plot is by far the most important aspect why not try and meld the two together? If Wilkie Collins managed to create characters which still distract a twenty-first century girl from her sleep then it has to be worth a try.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Book Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

This book was once I bought ages ago as part of a buy-one-get-one-free offer. It was Costa Book of the Year 2008 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. All in all, it seemed to have a good pedigree.

To start with, the prose is exceptionally well-written: it flows, it captures the two narrators, Roseanne and Dr Grene in their distinctive voices, and the differentiation between the two is subtle but sharp. It reads like an early twentieth-century novel - which is fortunate as half of the book is set back there.

It follows the story of Roseanne Clear as she records her memories onto paper in the confines of the asylum that has been her home for many years. Meanwhile, Dr Grene frets about the closure of the hospital and moving patients that were detained for social rather than psychological reasons back into the community. He is also struggling with his own personal problems. The narrative flits between Roseanne's testimony of herself and Dr Grene's commonplace book, intertwining themes and plot as it goes. Structurally, it's an excellent novel.

Furthermore, there are some truly memorable scenes in there. One horrific scene recounts Roseanne's troublesome childbirth, but in a subtle manner which has none of the sensationalism one might expect from a lesser writer. Another scene, where Dr Grene hears a voice where there couldn't possibly be one, is equally chilling and touching. The novel is full of little moments like this which conspire to make a coherent whole.

So what was my problem?

Well, it rests with the 'secret' at the heart of the novel. I won't ruin it but I honestly guessed what it was all about fairly early on. In itself that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The book is well-written enough for a reader to simply enjoy the elegant prose. Had I begun to read it with that in mind I wouldn't have felt as disappointed as I had when I finally put the book down.

Worth a read, definitely, but don't expect too much towards the end.