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

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...