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Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Cull of Male Detectives

I've just read this article about the BBC. In a nutshell, it says that BBC One controller, Danny Cohen, aims to limit the number of male detectives on television and, possibly, the number of crime dramas full-stop. Zen (something I admit I haven't watched) was axed due to this new policy. Apparently there are enough male detectives on television already.

I'm all for female-led drama. I covet it. I think it's true to say that I would be more inclined to give a programme a shot if it had a prominent female character BUT if I hear good things about something I don't avoid it simply because it has a male lead. There are so few good returning dramas around these days that I cling on to a good script or an innovative idea like a child clutching a prized toy. Zen attracted 5.7 million viewers on average for its three-episode run. In the current climate that is pretty damn good. Why should it be axed merely for some political correctness stunt which the BBC should be above?

Their remit is to be a public service. Yes, they have a duty to offer equal opportunities and to portray as many sides to our society as possible. But to axe a popular programme because it's another show with a man in it? Can you imagine if that was the other way round? David Cameron's 'calm down, dear' would be lost in the amount of mud Westminster would be slinging at the BBC.

Of course we need more female-led programmes on television. But, as with most things, if you try and force something into a box it just doesn't work. I don't know if the BBC are running around telling scriptwriters they must work on female characters but, if they are, they're shooting themselves in the foot. I hate television by numbers. I hate the inclusion of a token gay character or a disabled character or anything that reeks of people wanting to tick a box. As soon as you start doing that you lose the organic element of a narrative, the thing that popped into your head the moment you started playing 'what if'. I can tell you something; if a character pops into your head and he's fully formed with a family you can identify, flaws you can exploit and a firm story you can tell, it's not just a case of swirling him around, popping a bra on him and having the character be a woman instead. That works the other way too: characters cannot and should not be manipulated for the sake of political correctness.

So, my wish for the BBC? I'd like to see the main channels take a gamble on some of those fantastic programmes relegated to BBC3 and 4 where you have to be clairvoyant to find them. I'd like to see better scripts, tighter drama and riveting television. I'd like see fantastically-acted characters, male AND female. I don't want to see apparently good dramas tossed into the rubbish bin because they don't fit a perceived image.

That's what I want.

Monday, 25 April 2011

ARC Book Review: The Map of Time by Felix Palma

I was very excited to receive my first advanced copy of a book via the power of Twitter. So thank you to Harper Collins and on with the review!

The launching premise of this book is that Andrew Harrington in 1896 wishes to turn back time to rescue his lover from Jack the Ripper in 1888. His cousin enlists the help of H.G Wells, the famous author of The Time Machine, and sets in progress a series of dramatic changes for Wells. Meanwhile, the life of Claire Haggerty, a woman unimpressed by her role in Victorian society, converges with that of the mysterious Captain and then, yet again, Wells. Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor, the book won the University of Seville prize for literature in 2008.

Firstly, I think the most important thing to say about this book is that it is in no way boring. There are twists, expected and more unexpected, and by the finale you're expecting Palma to pull another rabbit out of the hat - which he duly does. The process of reading this and being swept along with the tale was thrilling, particularly when I just enjoyed the ride and stopped trying to second-guess everything. In terms of story-telling, this book is excellent.

I was also impressed by the creation of H.G Wells as a character. Sometimes putting historical figures into fiction backfires because there is a preconception about them. However, the way Wells is portrayed is both realistic and enjoyable to behold. I found him to be utterly engaging and thoroughly believable, very cleverly written on Palma's part.

The novel made Victorian England less stuffy. I'm leaving that out there for you to decide whether it's a good thing or not. I think it left me feeling disorientated, as did the frequent intrusions of a narrator intent on not telling you anything of value. However, neither of these things spoiled my enjoyment of the book. I might be a lover of stuffy Victorianism but suspending my disbelief for a little while was easy and ultimately resulted in me liking the book very much.

I suppose the prevailing theme of this book is truth. Who offers truth? Why do they offer it? What does the truth say about those people who seek to keep it hidden? It also places a little moral puzzle at the foot of the reader. As the cover asks, 'would you alter time to mend a broken heart'? Would you change time to alter anything?

The Map of Time will be released in June 2011.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Fire Starter

As I was walking home from the pub on Tuesday night (stone cold sober, unfortunately), I was surprised to see smoke rising from the pavement a few yards in front of me. I was on the phone, as I'm apt to be when I'm out at eleven o'clock at night, and was advised to get out of there quickly. Well, I followed orders, but the incident's stuck with me nonetheless.

It looked like an Argos catalogue that had been set alight. It was smouldering in the middle of the pavement beside a reasonably busy road near Wakefield College, and, judging from the look of it, it had been there a while. There's a little waste ground off to the side and, had someone wanted to cause real damage, there's plenty of grass and weeds there which would've gone up like paper given the dry atmosphere we've been experiencing lately. So why didn't they go for the big distraction? Situated right beside the railway line, they could've screwed up the East Coast Mainline for a few hours at least.

Things like this, that are unexplainable, really get the writer in me going. I can drag so many questions out of that and, yet, I'll never know for sure. I suppose this is partly why human beings are so interested in writing: they want to provide satisfactory conclusions for scenarios never fully uncovered. More broadly (and related to my PhD), writers want to examine the human element behind a strange activity. If we can understand something then it loses some of it's terror. The sensation authors I'm looking at wrote to titillate, yes, but they also wanted to delve into the minds of murderers like Constance Kent and William Palmer. Unfortunately, most of them didn't manage to progress past titillation. Villainous characters were left blank as authors struggled to reconcile the desire to create compelling fiction which could find an audience with the urge to put themselves in the shoes of their villains. After all, although Victorian readers enjoyed flirting with danger by identifying with the wicked character, the status quo of Good/Evil was almost always maintained at the end of the novel. There's a danger that progressing too far into the mind of an 'evil' personality can lead to too much sympathy with the villain over the 'good' character.

Today, we've got the successful anti-hero. We're more open to following the exploits of a criminal and actually rooting for them because we know their motivations. I'm not suggesting this is a recent invention, but I certainly think modern society is more liberal in accepting these characters.

As for the fire starter... I want an explanation but I'm not going to get it. Maybe I need to invent it myself.

Monday, 18 April 2011

First Draft Relief

After weeks of wading through rewrites and debating the value of one particular word over another, it's a great relief to allow myself to just write again.

There's an adrenalin rush at the starting point of any project. When you're within the first 10,000 words you believe anything is possible. You wait for the characters to find their voices and their stride. You wait for your own stride to set its pace. You get to know all these new people and gradually turn back into a human being. The editing process can indeed be enjoyable, but sometimes it can suck the life right out of you.

This stage of a project is the most exciting for me. I'm 2000 words in and loving the sight of words growing on the page. In fact, I'm on the brink of singing about how happy I am in that particular area of my life. I can't wait until seven o'clock comes when I can swap my PhD hat for my writing hat.

How long will the excitement last? Well, maybe until I hit that first plot stumbling block that makes me realise plunging along with this draft is a bad idea. Or until my characters stop talking to me and I discover I'm floating in the middle of an ocean in a leaky boat. Or maybe the excitement will last at least until the first draft is finished and I'll enthusiastically look forward to the rewriting process.

Hmm, I won't hold my breath that it'll last beyond the point I start rewriting...

To celebrate my good mood - here's Liza. Who, incidentally, I'm seeing at the Royal Albert Hall in June. Can't wait!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Aspiring Or Perspiring?

I recently read this thought-provoking blog on writers who call themselves 'aspiring'.

The general message seems to be that if you try to do all the things those professional (read, published) writers do then you should consider yourself a writer. After all, you're not sat there talking about writing a book, you're actually getting on with it and the sweat from the effort is visible on every fibre of your being. I do appreciate this sentiment and yet I'm still calling myself an aspiring writer. Why?

Well, firstly, I don't want to mislead anyone. If someone happens across this blog or my Twitter page I would rather they didn't mistake me for what I'm not. Is this because I consider myself a failure? No, because you can't fail at what you haven't really tried yet. I confess, I haven't submitted my novels yet but I will. Maybe when I'm going through the submission process I'll feel more comfortable about calling myself a writer with no prefix.

Another aspect of this is that calling myself 'aspiring' keeps me on my toes. I have a desperate urge to shed the self-imposed label. Every time I see my Twitter profile I'm reminded of my goals. At least this way I can never forget them.

Yes, I do all of the things Ami Hendrickson suggests make me a writer with no prefix: I monitor my daily word counts, I love my characters to bits, I criticise every bit of television and film I see in terms of bad plot, bad characterisation and ridiculous occurrences (you should hear my thoughts on Glee). And maybe I should let go of the tag for those very good reasons she listed but I can't.

It's personal preference and probably has more than a little to do with my low self-esteem. But what are you going to do? You can only be what you feel you are. And maybe I should listen to that advice in every facet of my life for good measure.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Crunching The Fourth Draft Figures

Now I've come down from the elation of actually closing the document housing my fourth draft and sending it off for a lucky someone to read, I decided to open my spreadsheet of daily totals and see how the whole endeavour panned out. Please tell me I'm not the only writer obsessed with statistics. It's a habit I picked up in my last job and, actually, all my PhD stuff is organised onto spreadsheets that do several wonderful but useless things. I like the information there, so I can berate or congratulate myself as necessary, So, let's take a look.

I started the fourth draft on 16th January and completed it on 6th April. My calculation there is that it took me 81 days.

I wrote nothing for this particular story on 31 days of the 81. That means I only really worked for 50 days on it. That makes my average word count over the days I actually wrote 1361 words.

On 27 days I wrote less than 1000 words.

On 15 days I wrote between 1000 and 2000 words.

On 3 days I wrote between 2000 and 3000 words.

On 5 days I wrote more than 3000 words.

My highest daily word count was my last (6821) and my lowest was 324 on 26th January.

Well, I have to say, I like those figures. They're not too shabby. It proves that I could complete a draft in two months if I worked everyday. It also proves that the slowly-but-surely method yields results. I didn't manage to meet my minimum target of 1000 words on more than half of my working days and yet I still completed the thing. My five 'super-spurt' days were pivotal in the success but it would only have taken me a few more weeks had I stuck to lesser amounts.

I shall now stop dwelling over the fourth draft. I'll have enough to contend with when I deal with the next one...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Book Review: Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin

I've always been fascinated by Katherine Mansfield, despite never knowing much about her. I came across her when writing my undergraduate dissertation on poet, Charlotte Mew, and promptly bought Mansfield's The Collected Stories at Waterstones. It's an epic volume and I'm sorry to say I haven't yet had the discipline to get through it (for my musings on my short story reading habits take a look here). Nevertheless, after reading Tomalin's book I may be inspired to return to the collection.

Published in 1987, this book followed two other biographies of Mansfield by Jeffrey Meyers and Antony Alpers in 1978 and 1980 respectively. Throughout, when drawing different conclusions about certain events, Tomalin is just to their research. That's important because in some cases when biographers ignore each other the end result can feel artificial, as though the subject is being seen through a lens. Tomalin's account avoids that by her outright admissions on why she's differing from her predecessors. She also doesn't either sentimentalise Mansfield or turn her into a hate figure, both of which are possible with the material available.

Mansfield is probably most famous (outside her writing) for dying at the young age of 34 from tuberculosis. Tomalin attributes her other health problems to complications stemming from gonorrhoea and demonstrates how these debilitating illnesses affected her throughout her life. The image portrayed here is of a woman physically tortured but unwilling to submit to the pain. Tomalin also analyses many of her friends and acquaintances in-depth. The friendships with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf are shown in the light of her relationships with other people, particularly her second husband, John Middleton Murry.

Murry is not portrayed very sympathetically, though his actions both during her life and after it suggest the negative attitude is justified. Tomalin generally documents without judging, especially when Murry's relationships with other women are concerned. The same can be said when she describes Mansfield's complicated relationship history. However, the feeling that Murry hindered Mansfield shines through the biography, although her connection to him was unshakable until the end.

The person I found most intriguing in this book, almost more than Mansfield herself, was her lifelong friend, Ida Constance Baker, whom she met at school in London. Baker's devoted attitude towards Mansfield, despite being the victim of frequent quarrels with her, is both a joy to read and quite painful. On the one hand, Mansfield desperately needed the stability of friendship Baker offered; on the other, Baker was treated as something of a servant on occasion and certainly deserved more affection than Mansfield showed her at times. Baker was sent away from her friend by her father earlier in life due to their 'unwise attachment'.

Mansfield had relationships with both men and women in her youth, though she developed a dislike of lesbianism later in life. There are mentions of these attachments, including those towards Martha Grace and Edith Bendall. An interesting appendix to the book is a fragment, 'Leves Amores', which is homoerotic and very striking as an example of this 'other' aspect of Mansfield's nature.

There is far too much in this book to be condensed into a review. It's very readable, not exceptionally long but detailed enough to satisfy curiosity. The second appendix offered is an account of Mansfield's apparent plagiarism of Chekhov provided in the form of argumentative letters. This is a wonderfully clear biography that doesn't shirk from showing Mansfield's selfish, careless and occasionally malicious personality, but Tomalin shows, rather than tells, things to which some of her behaviour can be attributed.

As Tomalin sums up: 'At her least likeable, she adopted sentimental postures, and used them as a shield for treacherous malice. Yet how much there is that is admirable about her. She was always more interested in the external world than in her own suffering. She was a worker to her bones, and prized the effort required by craft. She fought, bravely, stubbornly, tenaciously, against two terrifying and incurable diseases that finally destroyed her. If she was never a saint, she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.'

I read this as part of the LGBT Book Challenge 2011 (see sidebar for details).

The book can be purchased here.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Remember To Support The Arts

Life is difficult for everyone at the moment. Thanks to government cuts (whether you believe them justified or not), most ordinary people are struggling in one way or another. I'd imagine - although I don't know for certain - that people creating "unnecessary" luxuries of life will be suffering more than most. I heard it during some of the radio debates on the arts funding cuts: who needs art really, what does it accomplish?

Well, just to digress for a moment. Books (if you're willing to buy used) are one of the cheapest forms of entertainment going. They're also an excellent way to learn and, come on, who doesn't like the feel of a book in their hands? Feel free to roll your eyes at my enthusiasm. After all, you can watch television and search for information on the Internet, can't you? Yes, of course you can. But reading a novel and getting lost in it is an unrivalled experience. Equally, I like good old fashioned library looks for learning from - I believe in them more. However, small publishers were particularly battered by the Arts Council this year. One of my favourite publishers of short stories and poetry, Salt Publishing, were unsuccessful in their bid, although they have luckily received a reprieve in the form of some ADVANCE funding. However, other small presses haven't been so lucky. ARC Publications lost their funding in a move which is both demoralising and potentially debilitating for them. Flambard Press are ceasing operation in 2012.

All this is bad news for writers. Small presses are notoriously helpful towards younger writers. Most of them have made it a mission to encourage new talent. If we lose those organisations then new writers are going to struggle more than they already do. Personally, I don't want my book market to be dominated by Katie Price's thirtieth autobiography and the latest copycat book involving a wizard or a brooding vampire. I like exciting fiction and moving towards a system where small presses are increasingly frozen out is not to my tastes at all.

On a more local level, my closest theatre in Wakefield lost their funding. It seemed particularly baffling as they've just entered into a lucrative partnership and are celebrating their twenty fifth birthday this year. One theory bandied around my household is that good old-fashioned theatre just isn't trendy any more. Case in point: the new Barbara Hepworth Gallery down the road received a bump to their grant, some of which could easily have been passed onto the theatre instead. Our theatre's beautiful and I really don't want to lose it.

You can debate about the rights and wrongs of the Arts Council cuts in the grand scheme of things as much as you want. However, it doesn't change the facts. Did you know that 49% of funding has gone to London groups? This is only down by 1% on the 2010 figures. Personally, I find that ludicrous. Similarly, all the groups that The Telegraph labelled as the big winners were from London. The losers? Sheffield Museums, Derby Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre. Yes, there were some losers in London but, looking at it, not the majority. I realise that taking a slice out of all funding wasn't the right way to go about it. It did have to be assessed on a case by case basis. I'm just concerned about the North/South divide and the impact on small companies already struggling with the recession. Could the biggest organisations not have taken a small cut to keep these afloat?

So what can we do to help? Well, support the suffering groups. On the day the cuts were announced I bought a book from Salt Publishing to show solidarity (a short story collection I'm looking forward to reading). They've been using the Twitter hashtag #JustOneBook and it applies to all small presses, even those who haven't had their funding wiped out. These small presses are the lifeblood of fiction. Pay full price, buy directly through their websites. Don't give third parties like Amazon any more of the pie than they've already got.

Support your local museums, gallery and theatres. Due to my sudden interest in Wakefield Theatre Royal I stumbled across the Wakefield Drama Festival 2011, being held there at the end of May and into early June. Seven plays in seven nights! Several of which can be legitimately linked to my PhD (one is about Branwell Bronte and another is about the Road murder of 1860). I've bought a week pass for £45 and I'm definitely looking forward to it. The thing is, your local groups don't just need support, they deserve it as well. Most of them do exceptional work which won't be missed until it's gone. By then it'll be too late.

Support the arts!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Repeating Finish Line

Last night I finished the fourth draft of my manuscript. As I stared wide-awake at the ceiling several hours later, I worked out that it was indeed my fourth draft (I have been puzzling over this) because my third one was a non-starter. I began enthusiastically then gave up and went back to the drawing board. I'm still counting it as a draft because of all that pointless thought that went into it. Then again, it was all part of the process. It just felt like a complete waste of my time. Anyway, as I ran through the novel again in my head at two o'clock in the morning, I began to think about the different types of manuscript completion, at least the ones I've encountered.

Firstly, you've got the idealist souls. These are the people who rush enthusiastically to the end of their first draft and believe that their job is done. Of course it's perfect: they wrote it. Why wouldn't it be perfect? Distance is alien to them and perhaps they start submitting the manuscript straight away to anyone they can think of. If they're an absolute genius of Dickens or Woolf proportions then it gets them where they want to be. For the rest of us, we must start scribbling away at that second draft, often a major overhaul.

Once you close in on the end of that draft you become an optimistic soul. You've probably lost your initial enthusiasm for your project but you recognise what you have now is better. However, since you've spent all this time fiddling about with the plot and characterisation, your prose reads like cardboard. Your images are all muddled up and at some point you described your protagonist in very biblical language which may or may not indicate you believe him to be the saviour of mankind. It needs fixing.

When you enter the third draft you're more of a hopeful soul. You're praying that the novel will be done at some point but you think you might have numerous medical conditions before it is. But, still, when you reach the end of it, it looks better than it did at the beginning. Of course it does. It's not like you'd waste time, is it?

Then you enter the stage of the obsessive souls. These are the people who are happy with their plot, happy with their characterisation but can't leave the manuscript alone. The number of drafts spreads into the teens, with no real tangible differences between them. Perhaps a word has been altered or an image bettered. This novel isn't going anywhere, except through the printer so you can edit a few words again.

I realise that I'm in danger of falling into the latter category. I'm insistent that there needs to be a fifth draft of this manuscript and I swear I'll consider letting it go after that. However, I do have a legitimate reason for another edit: I've substantially changed plot points in my fourth draft and, as a consequence, I need to check all that makes sense and do some polishing.

Will I be able to let it go afterwards? I may need some of you kind readers to pry it from my hands...

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Book Review: Blue Guide Literary Companion London

This book was one I stumbled across due to Twitter. Clicking on links to blog posts can really help you discover great things and I'm certainly not sorry I found this little gem.

In a nutshell, compiler Robin Saikia takes you on an historical tour of the capital using extracts from numerous essays, novels, poems and even speeches. Each of the thirteen chapters is prefaced by an explanatory note highlighting important biographical information of the authors involved and including some extremely charming anecdotes. Being a Wilkie Collins fan, my personal favourite was a memory of Mrs Jane Ellis Panton about Collins and Charles Reade and their particularly see-through stage mystery.

The fantastic thing about this book is that nothing is redundant. All the extracts are intelligently selected and entertaining to read. I don't think there is one piece that I rushed over, or one chapter that I wasn't engrossed by. Two of my favourite chapters were ones I hadn't expected to love at the outset: 'Lions & Tigers, Cats & Dogs' and 'On the streets'. That said, I find it ridiculous to label any chapter my favourite since all of them captured my attention.

The extracts are well-varied. Alongside poetry from Wordsworth, Byron and Lawrence are extracts from factual books such as Henry Mayhew's famous analysis, London Labour and the London Poor. There's a speech from Prince Charles on the beauty of St. Paul's just a few pages after Joseph Conrad gives his view of the Thames. Count Dracula visits London Zoo in the same chapter that Dr Johnson's adoration of his cat is made plain. Addiction is covered by Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray and James Bond. The jumps in time make one thing abundantly clear: the themes are equally relevant in any era.

Practical things I appreciated about the book: it's relatively small, meaning you can pop it in a bag as you travel; most of the extracts are easily digestible and well-organised and the picture of Ludgate Hill a couple of pages in had me entranced. I've noticed criticisms elsewhere that the book doesn't really cover much 'modern' London. Well, as I said before, the themes are fairly universal anyway. Plus, the book is just the right length as it is and every extract serves a purpose: there isn't anything you could yank out to make room for more modern pieces. Besides which, I think it's perfect.

When I next go to London I'll be taking it with me. It'll be fantastic to walk into Bloomsbury and recall Edward Walford's piece on the Foundling Hospital.

Please visit Robin's blog here. I was hooked from the first post I read.

Also, take a look at his website for more information about (and praise for) his books.