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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Reading Short Story Collections

As I was reading Catherine Chanter's enticing collection of short fiction (which I would again urge you to read!) I realised something about my reading habits.

I currently have bookmarks in four separate short story collections. Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women 1890-1914 and Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle both have page markers around about story one. The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield dispensed with the bookmark for some reason unknown to me, although I think I was about half way through the mammoth 779 pages and The New York Stories of Edith Wharton has a nice solid receipt marking page 230 out of 459. Add to this the fact that I'm reading three separate collections for my PhD and it seems I'm drowning in short story collections.

I think it stems from the fact that I only allocate myself an hour of pleasure reading per day. Eleven until midnight is the only time I really switch off and allow myself to do something fun. Not that PhD research and writing my socks off isn't fun, it's just it's... work. So during my hour I like to bury myself in a story and, unfortunately, short stories don't drag me back for more. If I finish one tonight then where's the incentive for me to return to the collection tomorrow? More to the point, why should I pull myself away from whatever I may be doing at eleven o'clock when I'm not anxious to know if Person A betrays Person B? There's a reason serialised fiction in periodicals was intensely popular in the nineteenth century. (Note PhD encroaching on my blog posts now!)

Do I have a solution? Well, I think short stories are the most delicate and intriguing form known to writers. Writing them is so difficult that I want to marvel at the ingenuity of Catherine Chanter or the expressive detail of Edith Wharton or the quiet contemplation of Katherine Mansfield. I think that somewhere in my schedule I need to allocate 'short story reading time' and enjoy one collection at a time.

Suggestions on where I can fit that into my full schedule happily received on a postcard.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Comment Control

Recently I posted a perfectly good-natured comment on the bottom of a historical blog entry only to find the next day that it had been removed. Now, there could be all sorts of reasons for the disappearance - maybe I wasn't as articulate as I presumed, maybe I made a glaring mistake in the response that made both me and the owner look stupid, or maybe there was a glitch with the page and my comment didn't save.

It could be any of the above really but the notion that my comment might have been deliberately deleted by the blog owner baffled me a little. I pretty much bowed to his superior wisdom and let it be known that he'd taught me something. I would've thought all bloggers liked hearing that.

Generally, I don't remove any comments from anything. On this blog I've been happy to converse with the lovely people who have stopped by and on my other blog, the political Rattling Marbles, I've received one comment only. Now I didn't deliberately intend to ignore that response to one of my posts - I hadn't got to grips with the comment alert feature at the time and subsequently didn't notice it for about a month. It's sad really because I would've liked to engage the reader in some lively debate but the time had passed for that. Even so, the comment remains there on the blog, a blip on my authority as blog owner. But whether it's favourable or not, it at least proves that post stimulated some kind of debate with someone. I'm happy for that.

Do you regularly delete comments from your blog?

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Twisting the Standards

I'm currently listening to Alfie Boe's latest album. It's a selection of show tunes and, truth be known, there's not a bad track included. From 'On The Street Where You Live' to 'Tell Me It's Not True' to 'Some Enchanted Evening', all the songs are deservedly standards.

Now, whenever somebody releases an album like this I'm immediately sceptical. In many cases I consider the original to be the best. That includes any track by Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury or Robert Preston. In the same way that I would not want to see the central premise of The Woman in White highjacked and ruined, I would hate for somebody to take 'The Man That Got Away' by Judy and actually believe they were emulating the most famous version.

However, as writers we are frequently reminded there are only so many different stories in the world. We work around the same themes, use the same plot progressions. In fact, the only weapon we have in reserve is how we tell the story, not what the story actually is. It's very tempting to stick to a prescribed route and tell a story the way it's been told before. After all, that was successful. But that doesn't mean anything. You can turn a Lord of the Rings style quest into something completely different if you're only prepared to look at it in an alternative way.

Take this album by Alfie Boe. It could easily be another drab collection of musical theatre standards but it isn't. What Alfie brings to the music is his opera training and the passion that training inevitably instils in a voice. Every note is crystal clear and sung with such warmth. He is so like the original or famous recordings yet so different. His rendition of 'If I Loved You', for example, is outstanding. For the three minutes I'm listening to it I can easily forget all other versions I've ever heard.

And that's what we need to do as writers. Don't try to emulate your favourite authors; find your own voice and discover what you can bring to your writing. There is something in your history or your way of perceiving the world which makes you different to everyone else. Find it and you open countless doors.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Catherine Chanter

I'd like to draw your attention to an excellent short story writer.

Catherine Chanter has published a collection of stories which truly blew my socks off. I went through the terrible ordeal of desperately wanting to read each story but dreading what would happen when I'd finished the book. As it happened, I managed to spread it over a luscious five day period and several of the stories are still haunting me anyway.

The collection is called Rooms of the Mind and the title piece is a lengthy tale that takes the reader around each room of a house as the owner prepares to sell it. As each room is uncovered so is the disturbing life of the owner. Chanter isn't reluctant to play around with form - 'Rooms of the Mind' is set out under the headings of each room and another story, 'A Summary of Findings', has a colloquial tone but contains welfare-style notes at the bottom commenting on the case.

In the shorter tales Chanter immediately plunges you into the world of the character but without revealing anything that may impede enjoyment of the tale. Reading the stories is a delicious exercise - you may have your suspicions about where it's headed but you don't want to ruin your enjoyment of the way it unfolds. One such story is 'The Prologue', a tale that deals with modern themes and preoccupations, as do most in the book.

The collection is off-kilter and strange as the blurb suggests. Out of the eleven stories I only had trouble accessing one. 'You Come Here' is the tale of a woman who gave her daughter up for adoption forty years ago. What makes it difficult to read are the introverted ramblings of the protagonist but, far from being a disposable accessory, these are integral to the unravelling of the woman's story. I personally found it a little difficult to access, even though I enjoyed it in the end.

I bought this book after seeing the cover and very short description in the Inpress Catalogue. For some reason it jumped out at me and I'm exceptionally grateful it did. I'm looking forward to reading these stories again in the not-too-distant future.

Rooms of the Mind is available to buy here.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Be a Curious Clown

It was the immortal Cole Porter who advised us all to 'be a clown'. Alas, I can't stand on my head and my jokes are rubbish. But it did get me thinking about what it takes to succeed in writing.

You can take on the most serious and challenging subjects in the world but if all you focus on are the bleak aspects you might leave your reader feeling exceptionally depressed. That's why Coronation Street is beloved by fans: it usually contains the right mixture of humour and heartache. I can't watch Eastenders any more due to the sinking feeling I get that the world may be grinding to a slow and painful halt. I've previously blogged about indulging the whimsy in my soul in my short stories but I think I could apply it easily enough to novels as well.

I want to tackle difficult topics but mostly I just want to ask questions, whether they're difficult or madcap. I often find that looking at something in a slightly different way produces some interesting words. I remember vividly travelling on a train from Lincoln to Doncaster when I doing my undergraduate degree and suddenly asking myself, quite seriously, why grated cheese tasted so much better than sliced. I didn't have a notebook with me at the time so I jotted the beginning of a short short to that effect on the back of a form I was supposed to hand in somewhere. The form was never handed in and I didn't finish the short story. I might return to that pressing question later in life though.

In the film The Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland sing 'Be a Clown' as the final number of the movie. Judy's clown thinks she's very smart because she keeps dodging out of the way of a pin bopping her on the head and Gene's clown keeps getting bopped instead. Of course, her luck runs out. Sometimes the build-up of anticipation can lead to a more rewarding pay-off. If your character is jumping over metaphorical manholes throughout your story make sure he falls into at least one metaphorical pit before you're finished.

Ask yourself the basic questions every step of the way: why is my character doing this, what can this lead to, where is he going, what is the absolute worst that could happen next.

But do remember what Cole Porter cautioned - 'be a major poet and you'll owe it for years'. The things we do for our craft.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Book Review: Landing by Emma Donoghue

I read this as part of my mission for the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011 (see logo on sidebar for details). As a consequence I didn't discriminate against the book. I believe I could've easily talked myself out of buying it if I'd tried. As it happens, I'm glad I didn't.

Donoghue is a very accessible writer. She doesn't sanitise her language so if a swear word is appropriate then a swear word is used. This certainly helps the authenticity of her characters and gives the book an altogether more adult feel than the plot alone might suggest.

Landing tells the story of two women, Jude (living in Canada) and Sile (pronounced Sheelagh, living in Ireland). They meet on a plane journey when Jude is travelling to England to bring back her sick mother. Sile is a stewardess on the plane and the two are initially brought together by an unexpected incident on board. From this they grow to know each other and ultimately end up in a long distance relationship, separated both by the Atlantic and their individual lives.

Donoghue paints her characters extremely vividly at the beginning of the novel. Primarily, she manages this by showing their interactions with the people in their established lives. Aside from demonstrating character this also shows the power of the relationship into which they later fall because these interactions inevitably alter. There are perhaps too many of these secondary characters to know intimately but that could be an attention problem on the part of this particular reader.

What struck me was the poignancy of the book. It so accurately depicts the issues surrounding long distance relationships and why they can't immediately be resolved. It seems loaded with pearls of wisdom that could probably conspire to make their very own self-help guide but they don't feel too preachy when slotted into the novel as a whole.

It is a very readable book which draws on human insecurities and desires. At one point Jude and Sile keep missing each other and are forced to leave a series of frustrated messages on the answering machine. Anybody ever compelled to spend time away from the one they love will easily identify with that sequence.

It isn't a novel that will raise any profound questions. At its core is the idea of identity and whether separating yourself from a certain place fractures who you are. It is also a clever love story and I can certainly see myself rereading it in the future.

Landing is available to purchase here.

POV Gripes

There was an interesting letter in the latest issue of Mslexia lamenting the self-conscious style of many short stories these days. What caught my eye was a little further down: the writer was scathing about the number of first-person stories out there and wonders whether it's a new rule.

POV is usually a primary consideration for any writer. I've written several short stories in the last year from a third-person perspective but I've then had to alter them to first-person. Maybe I'm more comfortable within it but, also, it suits the story I'm trying to tell. Two of my four short stories that are doing the rounds at the moment are told via first-person and the other two via third-person. My choice was primarily character-based: I can't sufficiently describe someone about to pass out from a head injury in third-person. I can, however, easily depict a funeral scene using a third-person POV.

The novel I'm about to undertake a complete revision of (for the second time I might add, I blogged about the first attempt here) is in first-person because it's the only one that works. I need my character to be unreliable; at points the reader has to seriously doubt what there are being told. I couldn't make that work in third-person.

Maybe it is a new craze but it isn't based on any 'rule'. It could just be that in times of uncertainty we look inwards and first-person POV offers a way to do that.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Staking Out A Hospital Waiting Room

It wasn't a deliberate exercise.

Today I volunteered to collect my grandmother's prescription from the new super hospital in Wakefield. Although she lives close to it she would've had to take a taxi there and back which seemed ridiculous. As I'm perfectly able-bodied I took the two-mile walk instead.

It was the first time I'd been inside the new hospital. It felt like walking into an airport, all bright lights and sparkling floors. It was a far cry from the dingy corridors of the old wards. Exciting to me at this point was the coffee bar dead ahead but I restrained myself, located the dispensary and took a seat.

What I didn't realise at first was that the seating area I was sat in was the main waiting hub for the entire building. People had to watch the screen to let them know they were allowed to move to the next seating area, the one closer to their ward. A bit of a dictatorship, I thought to myself, and an intelligent way of keeping the complaining patients away from the people actually involved in their department.

In the forty-five minute interval before my prescription was made up I got to listen to some interesting conversations. I learned all about the ailments of the man next to me, despite never looking up from my book. I listened as the old man with a cane across from me was taken away from his seat by an impatient nurse only to be returned five minutes later and plonked back down again. I heard the whining about waiting times for prescriptions morph into loud admonishments of the poor dispensary staff. I found that the ringtone of the grey-haired woman in front of me was a quote from 300. I even learned that the reason the prescriptions were taking so long was because they'd built the dispensary too far from the pharmacy itself. Having people go downstairs to get their medicine there was unrealistic - it was next door to the mortuary and, as the receptionist cheerfully pointed out, it wasn't the best place for a good odour.

All in all, it was an interesting afternoon. I feel like going back for another go, maybe just to get a coffee and listen to people. Those folk in that hospital are my people; their accents and voices are the ones I hear in my head as I write. I'm a Northerner. Maybe it's time I got back to listening to Northern folk.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Book Review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This isn't a book to read if violence and suffering upsets you. However, I think the title gives a good enough inkling of that.

The essence of the tale is based on the true story of a man and wife, named in the book as Otto and Anna Quangel, who dropped numerous postcards over a two year period during WWII criticising Hitler and the war. Fallada weaves a web of auxiliary characters around the protagonists, creating in the process a Berlin that feels alive to the reader.

Many characters pass through the pages, but most of them are recognisable because they want something. The elderly Jewess, Frau Rosenthal, wants her husband back and, as a secondary concern, she wants to live. Enno Kluge, an ill-fated womaniser, wants to gamble through his days and sleep with various women at night. Judge Fromm, by far the most mysterious character of the novel, wants to help where he can but without opening himself up to unnecessary danger. And what do the Quangels want? Simply put, they want Germans to think. They write the postcards with the belief that people will read them, pass them along to their friends, and generally begin to question what they are being told.

It is down to the Gestapo to stop the Quangels. Inspector Escherich, however, isn't depicted as unquestionable villain. During the book he is explored as much as the Quangels are, and unlike several other characters, I don't think the reader is expected to explicitly hate him. Fallada seems committed to showing all sides and all reasons, and I think he succeeds.

The power of the novel lies in the use of detail where necessary and imagination where appropriate. Though there is plenty of violence within the book, more often than not the moments which we don't see are the more terrifying ones. While Fallada never shies away from describing a scene in all its gruesome detail, he doesn't use blood and horror for sensationalism. It would be very easy to fall into that trap but he avoids it skilfully.

The translation of this edition was by Michael Hofmann. In most cases it is a very readable translation. Occasionally, words jar but all novels do that at points whether they're translations or not. There are supplementary materials at the back, including mugshots of the real Otto and Anna in addition to an afterword by Geoff Wilkes.

I don't think I can pick up on anything that made me unhappy with the book as a whole. It is a difficult read and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who believes the past is best left there. I guarantee the novel will stay with you long after you've finished reading.

Alone in Berlin is available to buy here.

Guardian review of the book.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Can You Watch & Edit?

Today I noticed something about myself. Aside from the fact I need to be listening to music in order to write, I apparently need something on in the background in order to be able to edit my work. Nope, it can't be music. Preferably, it should be a musical which has enough numbers in it to distract me once in a while yet isn't completely packed. I would watch The Sound of Music as opposed to the anniversary concert of Les Miserables let's say.

Does this quirk make me odder than I thought I was?

I choose films I know backwards. Tonight I sat watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with my script on my knee. I managed to edit twenty-five pages, a pretty concentrated effort for me. Usually I drift off into doing something else while I'm editing.

The trouble is, I like the editing process but I do see it as a never-ending one. I'm never going to be happy with what I write. If I try and edit at my desk I'm likely to overwhelm myself by playing around with my thesaurus and panicking about why my scenario seems faintly familiar. Am I a thief, am I wannabe? By focusing half my attention on something else I can pull back from my doubts and have a decent editing session whilst also entertaining myself a little.

This doesn't work for everything, of course. Some stories require more meticulous attention than others, especially if they're irritating me. If I'm overhauling a plot I have to give it my full attention. And, invariably at this point, Facebook and Twitter get my undivided adoration.

I'm not a lost cause but I am getting close to being a hopeless case.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Dangers of Duality.

Something I've come across in my studies is the explicit use of duality in the fiction I'm reading. Characters are put in direct contrast to each other in order to make a point as well as to further the plot. The novel I'm reading at the moment (a little-know story by Edmund Yates, The Silent Witness) initiated the introduction of the two female characters by contrasting them in every way. One was fair haired, the other dark. One was a prattler, the other was full of sense. It may be wise to point out that the dark-haired intellectual quickly lost those traits when she was separated from the woman she was deliberately set up as opposite to.

Duality was a common tool of Victorian writers. It helped inform the reader using various simple distinctions: fair/dark, bright/dim, strong/weak and, of course, that old favourite pretty/ugly. It was used to great effect in Victorian fiction; think of Marian/Laura in The Woman in White or Mina/Lucy in Dracula.

It's an effective tool for any writer really and one that's still evident in every walk of fiction today. My favourite novel, Sarah Water's Fingersmith sets up a contrast between Sue and Maud from the beginning. The Harry Potter books are especially verbose in this kind of method: think Harry/Draco, Harry/Cedric, Hermione/Pansy, Neville/just about anyone.

It's a simple way of differentiating between characters. The idea of hair colour is one that seeps into even the best writer's conscious: if A has blonde hair then let's make B's dark so we can spot the difference. It's a handy marker but there are several pitfalls.

Firstly, if you create a character in response to another then the second character won't be as rounded and three-dimensional as the first. Not if all you've done is create an opposite for your protagonist. Some Victorian novels, especially sensational ones, suffer with this. The title character of Lady Audley's Secret is evil, for want of a better term. Her opposite in the novel is arguably Clara Talboys who, apart from having a desperate desire to find her missing brother, is an ineffectual human being. This had the desired effect of making the audience root for Lady Audley instead of Clara but it didn't do much for the depth of the novel.

A second problem with duality is that it can hinder character progression. If, as a writer, you're so intent on maintaining a distinction between various character then you can ignore the potential (or in some cases, necessity) for character evolution and change. This is extremely evident in serial television more than anything else. This is how the villain keeps going for years on end without being touched in any way by their deeds: think Tracy Barlow in Coronation Street, Don Beech in The Bill or Janine Butcher in Eastenders. What these characters loop back to is a desire to cause trouble, whatever brief epiphanies they may experience. They are there as the token villain and heaven-forbid they turn over a new leaf.

Finally, I'd say that duality can quickly become predictable and boring if not in the right hands. Some descriptions, especially in the Victorian books I'm reading at the moment, are cringeworthy in their attempts to set up a distinction between two characters.

The thing about contrast is that it should work on a primarily subliminal platform. If you have to point it out then you're not doing your job properly.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Year, New Routines

Today is the first 'proper' day of 2011. The day when everybody goes back to work and the zeal for giving up smoking or chocolate fades as they realise it's January and the months ahead are hidden in a shroud of financial woes.

For me, however, today is the day when most of my resolutions (or decisions as I called them) kick in. From now on an average weekday should progress as follows:

Wake up at seven to the radio alarm, currently tuned to Smooth but that may change if Simon Bates doesn't settle into the role. Have cup of tea, check email etc, have half an hour on the Wii Fit then have my cereal whilst getting going on my reading for the day.

Mornings are devoted to primary PhD reading, accompanied by Smooth first then BBC Radio 2 from ten onwards. From Ken Bruce we slip seamlessly into Jeremy Vine whilst I carry on with the reading. At two o'clock I leave Steve Wright to his pointless shouting and retreat to have an lunch-hour in front of the television watching some of the many films, documentaries and dramas I've got stored up. At three o'clock I disappear into my office for secondary reading and/or PhD theorising or writing.

At five o'clock the PhD is replaced by writing time. Full-stop. I refuse to neglect my writing just because my PhD should be a full-time job. So, allowing a break in there for dinner, I'll write until about eleven. At that point I fall into bed, read for an hour, then hopefully fall asleep to do it all again the next day.

I think I must be nutty. What do you reckon?