28 September, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

Image from: wikipedia
Are you intending to read J.K Rowling's new book, The Casual Vacancy

This is J.K.'s first novel for adults following the phenomenon of the Harry Potter series. Referred to by The Guardian journalist Theo Tait as 'Mugglemarch', it is meant to be a 21st-century version of great 19th-century novels. I thought this would mean it would have a cosy crime feel. But apparently it's a bit more gritty than cosy, covering topics such as death, rape, racism and paedophilia in a small community in south-west England

The BBC ran an interesting article yesterday, looking at various reviews of The Casual Vacancy in the newspapers. My favourite comment was from The Daily Telegraph's Allison Pearson who described the novel as "The Archers on amyl nitrate". That alone makes me want to read it!

There is an interview with J.K. Rowling on iplayer at the moment. I'm always struck by how eloquent she is. She seems like a really nice person. I won't regurgitate the interview here but it made me smile to hear how nearly every cafe in Edinburgh claims to be the place where she wrote the first Harry Potter!

I was also struck by how her life has changed through her writing. And I wondered whether I'd want to be as famous as that. It sounds a bit odd - who wouldn't want their books to be bestsellers all over the world, bringing enjoyment to millions of people and fetching an income which meant you could write whatever you wanted to with no pressure for the rest of your life? But I'm not sure.

Would that success be worth people taking photographs of your children without your permission? Is it worth not being able to write in your favourite cafe anymore, or to have hundreds of people sending you letters asking for money complete with photographs of their dying relatives? How would it feel to know that there was a very high chance that your biggest writing success was behind you? [Actually, I watched an amazing talk on nurturing creativity, by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and was coming to terms with the fact she'd probably never write such a popular book again. I REALLY reccommend it to anybody at all interested in anything creative.]

There are very few writers I would recognise if I passed in the street -  Bill Bryson, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Benjamin Zephaniah. Not many. And that's part of the beauty of writing. You can be famous without being recognisable. (If, of course, you ever get to being famous at all!) I would love to write a bestseller, or seven, but I'm not sure I'd like to have the kind of success J.K. Rowling has. I would feel awkward writing anything where reviewers were forced to read my book in a locked office and sign a secrecy document before the publication date. Would you?

The Casual Vacancy has been criticised for being too long, having a melodramatic ending and lacking depth of both plot and structure. But it has also been described as stunning, highly readable and outrageously gripping. From the reviews I've seen, the "average" opinion seems to be that it is reasonably good with some very good parts, but feels like it is missing something and/or is a bit too bleak or one-sided. I don't think that will put me off though. What about you? Are you tempted to give it a go?

24 September, 2012

Characterisation: A Self-Portrait

If you were a fictional character, what would your author write about you to help give the reader a quick sense of who you are and what you're like? 

What do you carry with you, wear or say that gives you away?

I recently had an experience which got me thinking. In Guernsey airport, for some reason a security man (from the infamous G4S) decided he needed to take every item out of my hand luggage to inspect it. And while I was standing there trying to look like I had nothing to hide, I realised that by rummaging through my bag he could work out so much about me. It was a little disappointing.

My bag contained, among other things:
  • two books of short stories
  • one notebook full of ideas for characters and plot lines
  • a bible*
  • a keyring containing a Tesco clubcard fob, a Devon library card fob and a Yaris car key
  • an inhaler
  • a box of hayfever tablets
  • a massive bag of chocolate buttons
  • a scuffed digital camera in a case that doesn't belong to it and a cheap mobile phone
  • contact lenses in a travel case

You see what I mean? I am a reader, writer and Christian. I live in Devon and drive to Tesco in my Yaris to do the shopping. I have asthma, hayfever and a dependence on chocolate. I like to record important events but don't care for modern gadgets. I wear contact lenses. All that without even opening my purse to look at the bank/membership/loyalty/blood donor cards and photo of my husband.

When writing, the contents of somebody's bag can tell the reader a lot about them. But of course, there would be no point in telling the reader all those facts about me unless they were relevant. With the exception of the camera and phone - which does at least tell you my attitude towards technology without having to write, "Chloe was not bothered about keeping up with the latest innovations" - most of my bag told you nothing about my personality. Unless I am a suspect in a crime novel who swears I've never been to Tesco in my life - in which case the Tesco fob (a subtle reference to this will have been slipped into chapter two) is very significant - the rest is probably irrelevant.

Of course, any of these items could be a red herring, or hide something more sinister. Can you think of a more interesting reason why I might be carrying any of those things? Planning to bump-off somebody with diabetes, perhaps? Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes would find something incriminating in the mundane I'm sure!

Readers need to know the key points of your character's personality and appearance - not heights, weights, skin colouring, medical complaints or favourite food. And if you can reveal all those things through showing little details, rather than writing descriptive passages, then so much the better. Don't tell me your man is allergic to cats, even if it's important; have him sneeze when a cat jumps on his lap! (And then don't ruin it by adding. ' "I'm sorry, I'm allergic to cats," he said.')

 What would the contents of your bag/ car glove box/ pockets say about you?

*the bible was the only thing the security man didn't look through in great detail. All the other books he flicked through and read bits of. So if you ever need to smuggle a bit of paper out of Guernsey, I suggest slipping it into the pages of a bible!

14 September, 2012

The Book... by Jenny Hickson

The next guest post in my series on the books that have changed our lives. This one is from Jenny Hickson.

The Books... I'll pass on to my children.

The scariest 'Five' book. Image courtesy of amazon.
For many years of my childhood I read little that hadn't been written by Enid Blyton. In particular I read, read again and re-read Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' series. As much as I loved the adventures that Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy The Dog had, and their uncanny ability to escape from every inept smuggler and kidnapper haunting the south of England, I think it was the freedom of their simple holidays that captured me most. 

They would spend every school holiday eating picnics on the beach, rowing around the bay, cycling to camp in a different place each night, and sleeping in horse-drawn gypsy caravans. I loved that whatever cave they became stuck in, Anne would always arrange their tins of food neatly in a corner, and gather heather for them to sleep on. Their existence would possibly be deemed a little too idyllic if it wasn't for the bad guys they would stumble upon (always of course, at the crucial point of a plan) creating a peak of excitement as one of them would always manage to escape to bring help. 

Having got so much enjoyment out of these books myself as a child, I look forward to the day that I can pass them on, and hope that my children will get as much from them as I did.

Thanks, Jenny. Famous Five were definitely my most-read childhood books too. What was it about Enid Blyton - who wasn't the best writer, was she? - that so captivated children? Do you have any favourite Blytons?

Jenny Hickson lives in Chepstow with her husband, two chickens and two bantams. She's an electronic engineer by day and by night crochets, knits, paints, reads, sings... She also has the dubious pleasure of having all my draft stories and novels foisted on her as my most loyal reader!

11 September, 2012

The Interrobang

Image from Wikipedia
I may be the only person in the world who didn't know what this was until a few months ago, but how awesome is the interrobang?! In case I'm not the only person in the world, let me explain that an interrobang is a little-used punctuation mark that is a cross between a question mark and an exclamation mark. It's there so that sentences like my first one of this post, don't have to end with a ?! or a !? Not only is it an amazing symbol, but its name is just perfect too.

I know a lot of people don't like a double punctuation marks and in principle I agree, but I can't help myself. I rarely use exclamation marks at all. I'm with F Scott Fitzgerald when he said, "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke." But when I do use them, it tends to be at the end of a question - a question asked in an excited or incredulous manner. As I refuse to miss out the question mark, I need an interrobang. Unfortunately I don't think Microsoft Word has an interrobang as part of its range of symbols. I sense a petition coming...

Recently somebody (probably my eldest sibling - thanks!) drew my attention to this charming article about the imagined lives of punctuation marks. It made me smile. I have a passion for the semi-colon, but after accidentally abusing it for many years with my ignorance, I am also now having a sneaky affair with the em-dash which is increasingly being used to edge the semi-colon out of our written language. Have a read of the article, it'll make you laugh. If you don't have time, or need more persuading, here are a few snippets for you...

Apparently my new passion, the Interrobang is, "[...] always down for muddy outdoor concerts and to see the foreign art films your other friends refuse to go to."

My long-time love the semi colon has an, "[...] eclectic though indisputably stylish sense of fashion, and when she's not working (she doesn't get out of bed for less than $10,000, and, yes, her legs are insured), she spends her time lolling about on a divan and eating bon bons, then whitening her teeth."

Whereas my new mistress the em-dash, "[...]  lives on the blood of baby hyphens, and one time, in a bar, while very drunk, she stole En-Dash's purse and took it home with her. When En-Dash called the next day  to ask if she'd mistaken the purse for her own (En-Dash doesn't get out much, but she knows things), Em-Dash denied everything."

What are your punctuation loves and hates?

05 September, 2012

A Writer's Guide to Overwriting: Speech

Recently, I wrote about overwriting and underwriting. As an overwriter, if there's one place I could really go to town, it's in the minefield that is dialogue.

Dialogue is notoriously difficult to make realistic. Even after a few years of writing tonnes of the stuff, I am still capable of ruining a perfectly good story. If you're jealous of that ability, here's how you can do it too...

The mistakes you might like to try when writing speech include:
  1. Being afraid of it.
  2. Not being realistic.
  3. Being too realistic.
  4. Attributing or "tagging" inappropriately.

The first three of these I'll tackle some other time, because by far the easiest way for the beginner to overwrite is the fourth one. It's also one way that editors and agents separate amateurs from professionals (and potential professionals!)

Attribution/tagging is how a reader knows who's speaking. Some writers, like Stephanie Meyer, are great role-models for over-tagging dialogue. They can never write 'he said' when he can exclaim, whisper or expound instead. Yup, they know their synonyms and they are not afraid to use them. I heard a beautiful pastiche of Meyer on the radio once. It contained gems such as:

"What are you doing here?" she questioningly questioned.

In most cases tagging isn't necessary - a reader should be able to tell who's talking. But in those places where you do need to attribute speech to make it clearer, you can really go to town. In almost all circumstances the words 'said' or 'asked' will do just fine. But there's no need for the aspiring overwriter to stop there. You can allege, howl, wail, screech or whimper; yelp, affirm or bawl. Just so long as you don't mind making an editor vomit.

I'm not saying professional writers never use any other word. Variety is important - sometimes one of those synonyms can be necessary - it's just not as important as we might think. In fact, it's distracting. Use more than a handful of those synonyms, even across a whole novel, and you've successfully marked yourself down as an amateur. It should be obvious from the story whether your character is likely to be shouting, whispering or murmering their words with a wry smile.

The most offensive way to overwrite your speech tags is to use a word that isn't even a synonym for 'said' in the first place. 'Smile' and 'laugh' are popular with overwriters. For example, ' "I really like you," she laughed. "A lot." '

Note that it's perfectly possible for the passage to read, ' "I really like you," she said with a laugh. "A lot." ' Or even, ' "I really like you." She laughed. "A lot." ' But if you want to be an overwriter you must resist these options at all costs. And don't even start to question why you need to put the laugh in there in the first place, or you'll be in very great danger of making the dialogue substantially better.

So what's my top tip for overwriting? Well, I always say/ remark/ assert/ utter/ holler/ squawk/ whimper/ groan/ whisper/ hiss that a different synonym for every line of speech is about the best way of ruining dialogue there is. Just watch those agents' eyes roll and let the rejections flow!

Can you think of any more variation on 'said' that I can crowbar into my next story?