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Friday, 30 April 2010

Does Your Character Have A Political Agenda?

The political scrum of the last few weeks got me thinking.

I've become very passionate, especially in the last couple of days, about expressing my opinion and supporting a certain party leader against adversity. As I've become more vocal, however, I've realised that the majority of my characters are not aligned with politics at all. I don't mean in the sense that I want them actively campaigning for the Lib Dems during election month, just that sometimes it's easier to tick the 'not political' box in the character checklist than to go through the implications of what a political allegiance might mean to plot progression.

I'm particularly guilty of this. My note about one of my protagonists, Joe, ran 'doesn't vote'. Well, that's that then.

Not quite.

I've realised Joe doesn't vote because I'm lazy, not him. I had so much going on with my characters that I didn't want to factor politics into it, whether it impacted on the story or not. Easier for me to keep track that way. Thinking about it for a few seconds, putting together everything I know about him, I decided he'd vote Labour. He's a simple man who likes what he knows, he cohabits with his girlfriend and has an aversion to upper-class twits.

That wasn't so hard, was it? Now I'm not intending to wave round a political baton in the novel but it adds an extra layer of realism to Joe. A character may legitimately not vote but you have to know why.

Is it down to them or you?

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Scarecrow Wisdom

"Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking... don't they?"

A quote from my favourite movie of all time. The simple Scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz tries to explain why he's able to talk if he doesn't have a brain. Maybe that statement's more valid in the current political climate than ever before.

We're drawing to the end of an election campaign and Gordon Brown has just tipped the scales further out of his favour by calling a voter a "bigoted woman" while he was still wearing a microphone. Ill-advised? Yes. Brainless? Not so much.

I've heard a lot of flannel in this election campaign. As it's the first one I'm eligible to vote in I felt the urge to be informed, to analyse policies and such. Unfortunately, that's proved to be more difficult than I could've anticipated. Even the party leaders don't know their own manifestos, as proven by David Cameron's recent interaction with the father of a disabled boy. What we're told is going to happen after the election is the polar opposite to the reality of Britain after the 6th of May. Yet the politicians continue to flannel their way through the campaign. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has told us we're being deceived but the sad fact is our options in the next government are limited to bad and rubbish.

That said, I'm probably voting Labour. Nick Clegg, whichever way how you look at it, is not going to be our next PM. And everytime I think of David Cameron I can't help picturing the infamous Wizard of Oz himself, hiding behind a curtain and creating illusions with smoke and mirrors. What Brown did today was a little stupid but I bet it's no difficult to what Cameron's been saying about his critics. Brown just happened to be caught on microphone.

I look at my choice - Brown or Cameron - and it boils down to this: I actually think Brown is intelligent enough to run our country. He isn't the popular vote by any means and at times we will want to smack him, but at least his blunder has given us an insight to the man behind the curtain. And, guess what, he's human! For me, David Cameron is still a projected face surrounded by fire and brimstone.

In response to the Scarecrow's self-pity ("I'm a failure because I haven't got a brain") Dorothy asks, "well, what would you do with a brain if you had one?".

Mr Cameron? Awaiting your answer.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Reading A Series Backwards

It's an odd feeling when you buy a book, read it, then belatedly realise it's the latest in a series that's already several books deep.

I'm currently going through this. A few months ago, desperate for a change from Victorian novels, I browsed the crime section of Waterstones and spotted a name I recognised - Sophie Hannah. I'd previously known Hannah for her thought-provoking poetry and psychological short stories. I picked up the book with the most interesting title (The Other Half Lives), read the blurb and promptly bought it.

I loved it. So much so that I was first in line to buy Hannah's latest offering, A Room Swept White. Having realised by now that the police force in the novels is a recurring one I decided to buy the first in the series, Little Face, and see how I liked it.

As a psychological crime novel it was unparalleled. It's easy to see why the series continued successfully after that debut. One thing that stuck out at me as a writer, however, was how much more confident Hannah's characterisation felt after a few books in their skins. The series focuses on two police officers, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. Neither are perfect by any means; that's clear from the off. Simon, particularly, fits the profile of the dysfunctional cop with a bit of a hero complex. The focus of each novel is the mysterious crime but the personal lives of Charlie and Simon are crucial on-going elements. It's an oft-repeated mantra in character-development that you only get to know your characters completely by walking every mile in their shoes, knowing how they'd react to particular circumstances. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with the characterisation in Little Face it feels like Hannah has really nailed it in the later books.

So does that mean every writer should write four or five novel-length pieces to get to know their character? God, I hope not! I think the point is just exploration from every angle. It's boring and, again, something of a mantra where writing teachers are concerned, but it works.

I've still got two Sophie Hannah books to read and I almost don't want to. Once I've read them I know I'll be hungry for more. I read with interest that the novels are being adapted for television. That's certainly something I'll be looking forward to. In the meantime, if anyone feels like jumping into Sophie Hannah - or any writer, for that matter - mid-stream I'd recommend it. For me, catching up is the best bit.

For more information on Sophie Hannah visit her website here

Friday, 23 April 2010

What Does Your Favourite Poem Say About You?

Once I'd finished my undergraduate dissertation on poetry I held my hands up and declared 'no more'. For four months my daily goal had been to dissect poetry from several masters of the form: T.S Eliot, W.B Yeats and Thomas Hardy amongst them. I was sick to death of poetry, I thought, and I'd let the books fester on my shelves for a respectable period before they mysteriously found themselves in the recycling bin. Then, when my father asked me what I wanted for my birthday (my 21st) I surprised the both of us by asking for the complete poems of Christina Rossetti. He was a little dubious - he wanted something that wouldn't depress me to hell to remind me of the milestone - but in the end we compromised on a bracelet and the book. I read the book more than I wear the bracelet.

The thing about poetry is that you either love it or hate it. Lots of very talented fiction writers see it as a lesser form because of its comparative length but, in truth, poetry is exceptionally difficult. I think the reason some novelists and short story writers abhor the poetic form is because it scares them to death.

I don't profess to write poetry. But I am an avid reader. I got to thinking about my favourite poet, Charlotte Mew (the one my dissertation was based around), and why I liked her so much.

First off, there are biographical attractions. Native of the Isle of Wight; closested lesbian; fearful of the heriditary insanity that hung around her family like a black cloud; finally committed suicide in the face of that madness: she was an interesting person whose poetical works were admired by poets such Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf.

But, more than the allure of a repressed Victorian woman, there's the poetry itself. I have two favourite poems written by Mew. 'The Trees Are Down' and 'Rooms', which is transcribed below.

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart.
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide -
Rooms where for good or ill - things died.
But there is this room where we two lie dead,
Though every morning we seem to wake and might just as well seem to sleep again
As we shall somewhere in the other quieter, dustier bed
Out there in the sun - in the rain.

It remains the only poem I can recite - and I recite it to myself fairly often. Whether it reminds me of the fruitlessness of life (and so not to get too worked up when things don't go as planned), or whether I use it as a stimulant to change something in my life I'm unhappy with, it's a friend in times of need. I've got other favourite poems, even modern ones, but this is the only one that touches me each time I read it.

So what does that say about me, I wonder?

For more information about Charlotte Mew visit:

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

What's NOT Going To Happen?

I'm in that band of writers who try to plan out what's going to happen in their next few chapters. I also have a broader outline for my novel which invariably ends up being amended twice a week, though I know roughly where my characters will be come the finale. My 'chapter plans' are modest scrawls in an A5 pad that I have trouble reading at times. They consist of bullet points just telling me what I need to cover in the chapter, to make sure nothing's dragging or occuring where it shouldn't.

Then today I realised that this isn't working for the particular chapter I'm writing (seventeen, if it matters!). This is a pivotal scene: my protagonist, Lily, is trying to unravel the extent of the deception around her with the assistance of her friends. But certain things need to remain a mystery! There are conclusions she shouldn't jump to right now, even if the reader can see them plainly. It's not within her reach to figure everything out at this precise moment so I'm having to be careful. Instead of writing a chapter plan detailing what needs to happen, I'm creating a list of bullet points telling me what better not happen under any circumstances.

My main problem at the moment? Lily must not connect a chance meeting with any of her current troubles. There's no reason she would. But, of course, as the omniscient presence I know everything. Half the job at the moment seems to be forgetting what I know and concentrating on what my character can know.

I do hope I'm not the only person who struggles with this!