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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Just A Perfect Friendship

If you're in a jam, here I am,
If you're ever in a mess, SOS,
If you ever feel so happy you land in jail... I'm your bail.

So the immortal Cole Porter wrote.

I've been thinking recently about the social state of my protagonists. It's rather like siblings, isn't it? One of the first pieces of writing advice my brain retained warned me that only children were the best kind to write about, unless it was integral to the plot, of course. Siblings were irritating, a blight on already-hefty plots. For extra brownie points, kill off your protagonist's parents. Well, that might be a bit extreme, but the point still stands.

Your reader encounters your protagonist at a specific point within their life. Although it's a given that life has been proceeding nicely up until this point, you don't want to overload your reader with too many details at once. But what if cutting out those pesky family and friends detrimentally impacts your plot?

In the two novels I'm rewriting at the moment, I've offered family instead of friends. Now, in the first instance, my protagonist, Lily, has family problems which have led her to shut herself off for years. She's steadfastly avoided making true friends, although she does gain a couple in the course of the story. But in the second novel, I don't feel like I have a leg to stand on. Before everything goes wrong, Danni, is a perfectly sensible and healthy human being. She's well-liked at work and seems to have a social life. But I haven't elaborated on the social life. No, I've just incorporated her parents into the mix, along with a few people she's with out of necessity rather than desire.

It's a tricky balance. Where do you draw the line between showing a healthy social circle and just providing lots of characters who do nothing for the plot and help to confuse your reader? I found that Landing by Emma Donoghue (reviewed here) was a good example of how to incorporate social lives into a novel. However, the theme of the book was home and what constituted a home. The analysis of people around the protagonists had to be a factor in that.

Perhaps it is best to cut out friends, siblings and parents. It certainly makes for easier writing, and probably easier reading. However, then you get into the minefield of character amnesia, which can be as dangerous.

It takes a light authorial touch for a book to cover all these points and not feel lacking in some way. I know I keep talking on and on about this novel (and I'll be talking about it for LGBT History Month on Friday at university hopefully) but Fiona Shaw's Tell It To The Bees is a good example of managing to mix friendships with a fantastic central story. In fact, the whole book is an exercise in characterisation I'd love to emulate. For anyone who missed the review, it's here.

How better to finish such a post than with the anthem of friendship?

Yes, I just wanted the excuse to include that... but I'm not apologising!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Book Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

First of all, let me say that I don't think the Richard & Judy recommendation sticker on any book is supposed to be a deterrent. However, it certainly made me think twice before I picked up the nice book with the intriguing cover of a woman with a picture of a smoky London in the background. I read the blurb, dithered a bit, read the first few pages, dithered a bit more, then finally bought it. No matter how good Richard & Judy seemed to think it was, I wanted to give it a go independently.

The plot revolves around three women. Frankie, an American journalist, is reporting on the London air raids to the people back home. On the other side of the Atlantic are postmistress, Iris, and newly married couple, Emma and Will Fitch. Through circumstance, Dr Fitch leaves to help the wounded in London. While there, he encounters Frankie and sets in motion a chain of events which see the book to its conclusion.

Generally, the book is an easy read in the sense that it flows reasonably well. If I had one criticism of structure, it would be that sometimes it takes a few seconds for you to realise whose viewpoint you've moved to. At one point, for example, a viewpoint character was watching two other people across a room and it disorientated me until I realised where I was. However, when juggling three primary viewpoints, plus several others, slight confusion is understandable at times.

Sarah Blake portrays the horror of the nightly air raids skilfully. It would be very easy for the descriptions to fall into melodrama, but they don't. One of the most poignant images in the book is Frankie returning with a young boy to find their homes in ruins; where Frankie's friend and the boy's mother had been when the bomb hit. It's a quiet scene, all the more touching for the lack of movement around it.

Later, when Frankie embarks on a rail journey around Europe, meeting displaced and frightened Jews along the way, the snapshots of life are well-drawn, portraying the reality of encountering someone on a platform and never knowing the end of their story. As a journalist, Frankie struggles with the difference between reporting and seeing - her boss has told her in the past that facts are facts, and anything else is irrelevant.

Frankie arrives in Cape Cod, the home of the Fitches and Iris James, the postmistress. She has a letter to deliver but, as is made clear in the prologue, it's one she doesn't hand over. The tension in the novel doesn't come from whether she will pass along the contents of the letter but why she decides not to. In that sense, it isn't a novel of high drama. If anything, it's an extended piece of observation which leaves the reader vaguely unsettled. WWII feels so long ago for those of us who didn't live through it, but this book brings it back in vivid detail.

Every secondary character Blake introduces has a function, whether to demonstrate a particularly mentality or show the helplessness of a particular situation. One poignant character is that of Otto, an Austrian refugee living in Cape Cod. He's mentioned throughout the narrative with vague suspicion by the other characters. However, his ultimate story is as natural as it is heartbreaking.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. Perversely, despite the sparse plot and observational nature, there seemed to be a lot going on. This was mainly due to the secondary characters passing through and Frankie's reactions to them. Character-wise, perhaps the book suffered from having too many primary characters. However, they all serve a purpose, and the piece would feel less real if they weren't included.

I'd urge anyone to read The Postmistress. I guarantee that it'll take your mind away from any of your own troubles for quite some time.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Making a Mess/Clearing It Up

Most writers have a difficulty in common: we work from home a lot of the time.

Now, this has benefits. There's no need to get dressed before you start work and you can listen to music while you work as loudly as you deem necessary. However, one significant pitfall which I've been encountering lately is the peril of the phone call.

I admit to being a little frustrated when somebody I know calls. I've been having grandmother issues lately and I've spoken to her everyday for considerable periods of time. Does that frustrate me? Yes, but she's more important than my frustration. However, I haven't yet extended the same courtesy to the cold callers who are frequently trying to sell us something. Usually I just ignore their calls but today I was rather irate, having bashed my knee on the filing cabinet in a mad rush to get there. So I answered it quite abruptly.

Woman: Hello, can I speak to Mr or Mrs Brown please?

Me: No. And, do you know what, I wish you'd stop calling like this. If you've got something to say you leave a message. You don't just repeatedly call.

Woman: I'm sorry, have we got the wrong number?

Me: No, you've got the right number.

Woman: Is that Mrs Brown I'm speaking to?

Me: No, this is Miss Brown. Mrs Brown's dead.

Woman: (Pause) Look, it was just a courtesy call. I'll take you off the list.

As soon as I hung up I felt terrible. After all, the woman had only been doing her job. In fact, I didn't even find out who she was calling on behalf of. I just lost it with the first person I came across because they were disturbing my PhD time.

I got a little upset and went into town to cool off. When I came back I decided it was bothering me, not knowing who I'd been so rude to. So I called the number back. It was British Gas.

At this point my stomach dropped out. You see, we'd had some work done last week, and the fact that it was a 'courtesy call' suddenly made sense. I felt lousy. Out of the four numbers repeatedly calling over the last few weeks I'd yelled at the legitimate one. To combat the hideous way I felt I called them back and apologised profusely to a very nice operator for a good five minutes. To be honest, he seemed astonished that someone was apologising for being horrible.

The trouble is, I feel better now, but I still yelled at someone when they didn't deserve it. I pride myself on absorbing all the rubbish daily life throws at me and getting rid of it all at a later date. I suppose today was the later date.

Monday, 14 February 2011

My Five Favourite Romantic-ish Musical Songs

I am not a fan of Valentine's Day. We could put this down to resentment that my boyfriend lives elsewhere, disgust at the growing commercialisation of absolutely everything, or perhaps just a disregard for everybody else's happiness... No, it couldn't be that one. I too frequently put the happiness of every human, mouse and child above my own.

Anyway, it still stands that I dislike this day of the year but I do find musicals to be an absolute treasure-trove of odd little love songs. Since I adore delving into musical scores at the best of times I thought I'd share some of my favourites.

5. 'Baby, Dream Your Dream' from Sweet Charity
Sung by Charity's two friends, examining the realities of a happy-ever-after, the song tells of boredom, impossibly-gained credit and family quarrels. It concludes with a painful reminder that, even though it isn't perfect, it's what these women want:

Baby, dream your dream,
Close your eyes and try it,
Dream of three fat kids,
Brother would I buy it!
Life could be frozen peaches and cream,
If only I could, if only I could,
Dream, dream, dream our dream.

4. 'Hate Me Please' from Robert and Elizabeth
This delightful little song depicts the struggle of forcing yourself not to love when you quite plainly need to love. Interspersed with several drifts back into a poignant ballad, the singers try in vain to force their affections out of them. Some of my favourite lines:

There's just a slender chance a beautiful romance
Would not survive if you would bury me alive!

I'd count it as a favour if you'd shun me, shock me, tear my heart in two,
Halve it up and calve it up and serve it to the zoo.

Wound me, wing me, stab me, sting me,
Something's to be flung - then fling me!
Someone's to be clung to... cling me.

3. 'Love is Always Lovely in the End' from The Drowsy Chaperone
A rather dotty woman draws on some loved-up couples to illustrate how love endures: Samson and Delilah, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Romeo and Juliet.

2. 'Opposites' from Blitz
This takes up the old adage that opposites attract in a delightful way that promises an exciting life ahead. Lionel Bart was a genius in getting to the humour in things, especially love.

Two similar kinds of poodles
Bring up an upper-pedigree pup,
But two opposite kinds of mongrels
Produce a pooch you'd love.

Where I see black, you see white,
Wrong to me, to you seems right.

1. 'Losing my Mind' from Follies
This is just an outstanding song about love and longing. I don't think I've heard a better analysis of how it feels to lose your train of thought as you stand in the middle of a room and drift away to forbidden places. Of course, it's Sondheim, and he expresses almost anything better than anyone else.

All afternoon, doing every little chore,
The thought of you stays bright,
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor,
Not going left, not going right.

I dim the lights and think about you,
Spend sleepless nights to think about you,
You said you loved me, or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?

Friday, 11 February 2011

End of the Rainbow (Review)

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go and see Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in the Trafalgar Studios production of End of the Rainbow. I'd heard it was good beforehand (The Independent review was outstanding) but even I wasn't prepared for how amazing it actually was.

Tracie Bennett was stunning. You honestly couldn't tell where Judy Garland ended and Bennett began. Everything from the voice downwards was perfect. The way she held herself, the hand gestures, the manner of playing with the microphone wire on stage - it was very easy to mistake Bennett for Garland. The songs, in particular, are almost undistinguishable. I've bought the CD of Bennett singing Judy's classics and, even as a dedicated Garland fan, I have to concentrate to tell the difference. 'I Could Go On Singing' and 'San Francisco' are two of the best. To give all due credit to Bennett, at that stage in her career Garland was very difficult to imitate - her unpredictability made certain of that.

For those unfamiliar with the play, it takes the starting point of Judy's relationship with the man who would be husband number five, Mickey Deanes. As she struggles to perform, Deanes relents and gives her the pills he has been trying to keep from her. Deanes' pressure on Judy juxtaposes harshly with the kind and gentle treatment she receives at the hands of her pianist, Anthony.

The play could easily descend into hysterical madness. In fact, the audience was in stitches for a fair amount of time throughout, but it was painful laughter, the kind of thing you shouldn't be laughing at but can't help it. A lot of that was down to the perfect combination of Peter Quilter's magnificent script and the delivery of Hilton McRae as Anthony. As the dry and sarcastic pianist, McRae raised laugher through his commentary on proceedings, especially towards the beginning of the play. It is also Anthony who is responsible for one of the painfully funny moments of the play: when Judy steals his bag and takes the pills belonging to a Cocker Spaniel that are inside. Again, it shouldn't be funny - and it actually isn't - but we all had to laugh.

Towards the end of the play, the mood becomes more sombre. Judy is rapidly combusting, which leads to the two most poignant scenes of the piece. The first one occurs is when Anthony is applying Judy's make-up for her; the second is when Anthony proposes that Judy comes to live with him. He tells her she'll have her freedom and no one will force pills down her throat. However, ultimately, she wants the love she thinks she understands from Deanes, rather than the devotion of a gay man. It's an inevitable conclusion but one that is terrible nonetheless.

I can't stress how captivating the play as a whole was. Left alone by Deanes at the end of the first act, Garland sings 'The Man That Got Away'. The audience literally leaned forward in their seats to hear Bennett's rendition of that Garland standard. Although the set is static (the hotel living room Garland occupies with Deanes) it transforms into a stage by the simple lifting of the back wall to reveal the band. A complicated transition isn't needed because it serves as a reminder how intrinsically linked Judy's professional life was with her personal one.

So, yes, I'm recommending this. You don't have to be a Garland fan, although it does help. I was in a daze when I left the theatre after the encore of 'By Myself', and I doubt I was the only one.

Monday, 7 February 2011

One Personal Sensation Story

The below could be construed as a rant but as it's a situation that's probably replicated all over the country I feel vindicated in sharing it.

Picture this: an elderly woman is being coerced into moving somewhere cheap and not-so-cheerful by her money-hungry daughter and son-in-law who plan to leave her there to rot and collect the inheritance when she dies, something which may well be hastened by the move. It sounds like it could be a plot from a novel by Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon; a tale brought about by the greed and selfishness of other human beings.

Nope, it's just British society in the current climate.

My grandmother is still quite independent, even though my grandfather died a few years ago. She's not overly mobile (due to an accident while on holiday with her daughter but we won't go into that), but she can walk with the aid of a stick and me and my dad take her out every week for a meal and supermarket shopping trip. We also speak to her every night and generally help her out when she needs something checking or getting or whatever. Conversely, the daughter and son-in-law talk to her maybe once a week and are spasmodic in their appearances. It usually coincides with them needing something from nearby.

Now, my grandmother does need to move somewhere smaller and closer to amenities. It would've been cruel to move her before she was ready (though don't think they didn't try) and so we allowed her to come round the decision herself. She's made up her mind she wants a change and, since the house won't sell, the plan was to rent her very nice bungalow out while renting a flat, perhaps in an elderly complex so she'd have the support she needed. Good idea? We thought so.

However, a few weeks ago my aunt decided to put my grandmother on a list (before telling her about it) for a collection of tiny flats. I know the type intimately: a couple of small rooms and not enough room to swing a cat. Taking somebody from a tranquil cul-de-sac to a place where you may be able to hear your neighbours going to the toilet is beyond cruel if they're not ready for it. And she really isn't. All right, it's in a nice area, but it's at the top of a hill which she won't be able to climb up and down, thus leaving her as dependent on other people as she is now. The flat she'll be looking at is one that another woman is leaving to move a few doors down because she doesn't like it. That doesn't scream 'comfortable and nice' to me.

The worst thing? She desperately doesn't want to go. When my aunt told her she'd put her on the list she was horrified. To add insult to injury, my aunt reminded her that as she'd been on this list before (straight after my grandfather died) and turned it down, she can't turn it down again. Can't. They're desperate to get her in there at any cost and, as my grandmother herself put it, 'you can't say anything against them'.

I'm disgusted with them. We haven't ever had a good relationship but their downright neglect of my grandmother since my grandfather died is shocking. Plus, it's not as though me and my dad see her out of some sort of obligation: we've recently realised there's a lot about her we don't know and we're happy to learn. Apparently tonsillitis changed the course of our history: if it hadn't have been for that operation she would've gone abroad with the Wrens during WWII. I've lost one grandmother knowing too little about her; I'm not prepared to let it happen again.

So what do I do? Well, provided they give her due warning, I'm going to tag along when they go to see it. That way, she's got someone on her side. I would hate for her to feel so pressured that she signs for something she's clearly not happy with. But, if by some chance, they do pressurise her into this, I'm not sure what I'll do. I honestly think it'll be the beginning of the end for her, and that's unfair when you've still got things to offer and you're enjoying a comfortable life.

Let me just add, although I criticise my aunt for being money-orientated, I am indebted to my grandmother for my study fees. However, it does come from the inheritance I would have eventually anyway and I don't ever forget that I've got something to thank her for. There's a reason, though, that the situation has never been mentioned to my aunt: I'd be labelled as the money-grabber.

But, unlike them, I'm interested in her as well as the money. In fact, she's a much greater priority.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Kicking Pivotal Scenes Into Submission

I've had a lacklustre week as far as writing is concerned.

Since I began this third (fourth??) rewrite of this novel I've been keeping my daily totals in a spreadsheet. I wanted some record of my success at fitting writing in alongside my ever-hectic PhD study. It worked fine until last Thursday when I put a '0' in the column. As I was away for the weekend three more followed. And then Monday to Wednesday this week I think I just gave up. Who cares? I'm only fighting against myself. Yes! And if I can't win that battle how do I expect to win any others?

So last night I dug my heels in and got writing. Then I realised the problem, the thing I'd been avoiding.

The scene I'd halted in the middle of was the first encounter between my protagonist, Danni, and one of the antagonists, Vincent. Working from my last draft I could see the scene was melodramatic, loosely written and involved a lot of direct communication with the reader. In essence, it was rubbish. I'd been hesitating because I didn't know how to improve it. I hadn't had time to let it percolate in my mind since I'd been too busy with everything else.

As I worked on the scene I realised it had to go on longer. Pivotal scenes can be short, of course they can, but this one needed an extensive amount of give-and-take. It's a polite, conversational struggle for power and information. It still needs work but I think the skeleton of it is there. The reader shouldn't come out of it thinking anybody has actually won because the novel is supposed to be more complex than simply good triumphing over bad.

I even managed to write and extend the short scene after it. I'll have to share my favourite lines now because due to the laws of editing, I like them too much to be able to keep them:

‘That’ll be a great story,’ Harriet muttered, starting the engine laconically. ‘How did you die, Mrs Fitch? Well, some slimy prick in a shite-coloured jacket tried to force-feed me custard creams until I threw up. Oh, is that the way you went! I wish I could’ve gone like that.’

I wrote over 1300 words last night, taking my total for this draft up to 9697. I'm playing the tortoise game, I haven't got a choice, but maybe I do need to pick up my pace a little here.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Most Promising Feedback Yet

I'm fairly happy at the moment. Which, to say I've just received rejection number two of 2011, is quite surprising. I'd say I'm a pretty normal writer in that when I receive a rejection I automatically begin questioning my resolve to put words on the page. Depending on the veracity of the rejection that can last anywhere from five seconds to five days. But I nearly always come out of the experience feeling pumped up for future battles with those heartless readers at competitions and journals who reject my work.

Not today. Today I had one of those 'good' rejections I've heard tell about.

Last month I entered the BBC Future Talent Award. I learned about it rather late in the day and consequently had about two weeks after Christmas to plot, write and revise my entry. Despite the rush I was happy with the piece I sent off. It turns out I had reason to be.

Okay, I wasn't shortlisted. But, with over 160 entries, I was longlisted. More than that, they're more than happy to hear from me in the future and have encouraged me to mention the longlisting on any correspondence so they don't immediately disregard anything I send them.

It might not be a win but I feel like it's a leap in the right direction. That one email constitutes the best news in relation to my writing I've had in... months, years even. If that isn't at least a partial win then what is?