Reading, Writing, and Always being Kind…

(My July contribution to the ‘Authors Electric’ blog, reproduced here) “Be kind” 

A few weeks before lockdown, a well-known celebrity took her own life, leaving a note advising others to “be kind”. This may or may not have been the source of advice which circulated, as we began to live shut away from crowds, and thus places of business and pleasure, that we should now do “Small acts of kindness” to neighbours. An effort to create some coping mechanism, some feeling of community, and hope, and to take us out of ourselves.

Well-meaning but in danger, as the words became a meme, of joining with those BBC News tropes of “unprecedented”, “uncharted waters” and “strange times” which, while describing something, also managed to describe nothing. How, exactly, do we perform “little acts of kindness” when all are separated and not to get together? Of course, we do find ways… What I’m saying is, stand back and think — is it worrying that we need to be told? Is it sobering that normally we don’t do these?

Lockdown has become a meme – a subject overdone – yet lockdown is different for everyone, and has provided the chance for reflection to a society which doesn’t reflect very much. On to the next thing, and let’s hope for excitement — as was said of Millennials, “they don’t want material goods like their parents do — they want experiences”.

A Change of Reading

One small change I found myself led into was reading matter. As an avid fiction fan, my habitual reading has being in the area of long, moderately challenging novels.

Not the popular Hilary Mantel ones (though many began lockdown with reading her latest). My taste has been a tour of novels by non-British, non-white writers whose cultures I don’t know with the histories and religious bases which formed them. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons. I returned to reading Barbara Kingsolver, her latest two novels, (Unsheltered and Flight Behaviour) exploring in fictional form the effects of climate change. My lockdown change was a desire to turn to lighter novels, and to actually enjoy a “cosy mystery” set on a Greek island, (Murder your Darlings) and a diary-style account of teaching in a secondary school, tragi-comic and firmly set in today’s Middle England (Miss, What does Incomprehensible Mean?) . Challenged by having the time, I watched TV’s adaptation of Normal People, and the sociologist in me kicked in to consider its meaning. Another contemporary romance, Mix Tape, had also caught my attention, and I thought that these two stories, both published as books in the past five years, demonstrate the truth of the “plus ça change” nature of human beings and what they expect from a romance novel…, and this between couples from opposed cultures, although all Western and all-white.

A Challenge on Content

Interestingly, in both stories attraction is strong and physical, taking place initially at school, cultural differences are of class, both “girls” have difficult abusive homes, both “boys” loving and nurturing ones. Both girls “escape” to a new life where they blossom. Both boys have not known the extent of the abuse the girls had suffered. Both couples keep their relationship a secret from the abusive home. Are these the present day memes of romance novels, I wondered? Mix Tape — taking place in the late 1970s — ends with reuniting the couple, whereas Normal People, a millennial tale, ends with parting for career reasons.

But then, I read the book. Memes they may be, but Sally Rooney’s story tells more than can be conveyed by the dimly-lit, meaningful looks of the TV adaptation convey. The inner lives of her protagonists, troubled by doubt around issues of identity and worth, weave in and out of this on-off relationship and give, albeit in unrelenting flat prose, what is not there in the dialogue. The tragedy of the romance between two school misfits is that each has been unknowingly the other’s tutor in adolescent development. And the ending, a disappointment to many reviewers, is indicated (though not overtly stated): as adults they — or certainly Marianne has — achieved the ability to do without the other.  Whereas in Mix Tape (set in the late 20th century) the protagonists are all set, at the end, to elope together, leaving marriage partners and grown children behind.

An indication that the meme has moved on from romance to a reality where the individual’s own career trumps caring about a person close to themselves, and self dominates over all human relationships? Or have they merely matured, rather than “using each other”? A point to consider for my review, on my website.

Reading romance novels, albeit serious ones, makes me wonder about how much the romance genre meme is an indicator of the health, or not, of a society. And put my own work under the spotlight: does my work (novels Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) fall into “unshelvable” due to a low ratio of sex to other issues of the couples’ daily lives?

Is this because it shows too much of how they carry out the scientific interests and work which holds them together as much as physical attraction, how they work on a mystery together, and raises ethical and religious questions?It had seemed at the time of writing these weregiving the reader some stronger food than simply the sugar of the sex drive. And it was all part of the learning curve of my two young protagonists. Or, is my story-telling simply outdated as we move onwards?

A Chance of a Future

Well that is what I’ve learned, and shall we keep up the “little acts of kindness”? Many of us have learned, as the roads quietened and there was nowhere to go except our own gardens and the nearest walkable park or common, to slow down and appreciate the natural world. My hope is that we’ll continue to and live with an eye on the survival of more birds in our gardens, more wildflowers on the verges, and more insects to pollinate them. And of course the range of readers, like the range of books, is infinite, and the human psyche does actually often return to what’s easiest. Maybe I’ll write the action next, and leave out the romance?

And so, shall we all continue to be kind?

(…and by the way, what am I reading now? Another ‘cosy, light’ book, Stranger at St Brides, by my friend Debbie Young, and  Sally Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends... plus ca change…)

The Fun of Writing a Series

Mullins family saga mindful painting

The fun of writing a series – my fellow author and member of Alliance of Independent Authors Francis Guenette’s blog post a few weeks ago inspired me to write about fun of writing a series. Francis had asked whether we as readers were ‘fans of serialised fiction’ – did we enjoy reading or watching a series or prefer one-off, ‘stand-alone’, stories? My response was that I love reading a series and I am enjoying writing one, (the Mullins Family Saga – if I’d known it was to become a series, though, I would have given Max Mullins a more noble, memorable, surname perhaps! Dashwood? Or Mac-something?)

Examining the subject, it is fun, but it also creates its own drawbacks.

For example, November is Nano-month: many writers will use ‘NaNoWriMo’  ( National Novel Writing Month) to scribble down the basics of a novel, in the form of chunks of unedited script, on a daily basis throughout November. Why November? Well in the northern hemisphere November can be the dreariest of all months. After the beauty of October days, with bright sunshine and the trees in their autumn colours, November brings the true end of the year in our gardens and countryside, shorter days, long dark nights, increasing cold. And it is not yet Christmas, so, how to keep going? For writers, hunker down with storytelling.

For a first-time attempt at the long haul of a novel, Nano offers a solution to the question ‘how do I get the first 50,000 words down?’ But for the long-distance series writer, the attraction of ‘just keep going’ will never work. Once you have novel number one published, you have your characters in situ, and they must now develop in believable ways, following up the first story with what they really might do next.  You have family history, you have disputes to carry through or to resolve. You have consequences and memories.

And, that’s also the reason to move into a series. Exploration, and taking things further within established constraints. Seeing if they learn from experience, if they cope with new circumstances … That is the fun of it. And, therein lie the restraints.

After Baby, Baby, will Max and Jenny stay married, given the vast differences in their childhoods? And if so, how and why? How will their kids turn out? How do their careers and ambitions develop? What will crazy Daisy do next?

Even though I don’t subscribe to the rather romantic idea ‘the characters tell me what they will do next’, I have found, working on story number three, that there are some threads leading from past events into a future which I had not exactly planned, or planned at all. In The Labyrinth Year, two of the characters are growing closer as the book progresses, and now 10 years on from there, they are still in touch.

This was ‘never meant to happen’. It is enormously exciting to follow and see where it may go. And, it demands a whole lot of research …in unexpected areas.

On the other hand, they look to be making a bid for the centre stage, not where these two were planned to be in this story. Do some characters ‘come to life’ without the author’s orchestrations? Romantic whimsey, or psychologically predictable? What do you think?

Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year (The Mullins Family Saga, books 1 and 2), published by Hodge Publishing, are available in paperback (or on Kindle). Find more about them on the Hodge website: http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

Read Francis Guenette’s blogpost on being fans of serialised fiction here

Writing, creativity, and cliché

Writers and readers: how often have you read or even written something like this: ‘Where a divan bed (substitute tea pot, table, pile of books …etc) served as sofa (dormouse’s house, desk, support for a pot plant …etc)’? Or given your protagonist, male of female, a ‘stiff white shirt’?

Cliché abounds in the world of writing …

How about the inevitable ‘procrastinating …’ which all writers must admit to?  How about ‘and should I have heard of you?’ as the (dreary, hopefully positive) response to admitting you actually write to earn your daily crust? (Or not, as the case may be – because you procrastinate?) (And the turning away …) Do you spend your life in pyjamas, no time to dress properly , the Muse awaits … You surely don’t wear that stiff white shirt – how does one move the arms when wearing one of those? Won’t it crackle when the hero embraces the heroine (in her stiff white shirt)?

To be serious,

this is meant to be about that first cliché – the divan/teapot/table/pile of books which serve … Never mind it’s cliché (a thing can’t serve – can’t it?)  The thing was being used as whether it chose or not. Let’s get creative: what other ways to say that someone hadn’t a sofa/dormouse’s house/desk/pot plant stand, and grabbed the only substitute to hand …

Meanwhile – I guess when someone is needed to do something, ‘will you serve as …’ is more reasonable. We serve on committees, we serve (if in the military) our country, we serve (if a shop worker) our customers. We can serve a meal …

Now, here’s the thing:

writing in the SH
Writing and gardening: creative stuff!

serving relies on, well, reliability. As a ‘creative’, as a person who writes, I know that I am not reliable. In a fallow phase, I may serve (in a toddler group, for example, or making cakes to sell at a fete) but, in full flight with a deadline, writing a novel, I can’t promise to serve reliably. Or should I? Which takes precedence: the writing or the service to others?

Good question. Some people would say, ‘You must be faithful to yourself, and achieve your goals’.

Personally, I’m not sure about that one. It feels isolationist … and a bit self-important. Solipsistic, in fact.

However, as ‘a creative’, I know I am not reliable. I know my novel, and my paintings,

Daze 11 /04
Even a creative kid has the problem! 

are important, they are who I am … They will die without my help to bring them to birth …When there’s a call to serve – on the charity stall, the committee, putting out chairs for the concert, counting the traffic so we residents can complain to the council … Or, in more serious, long-term ways, Is that a good excuse? Can creatives make good volunteers?

Over to you …

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

Writing: Living in the Gaps in between … cats, blackberries, and pruning the jasmine … an overview …

blackberries
Distractions or necessary reality? 

One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers where someone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’   …’

Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …

There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.

In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.

The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract …)

‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’

I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’

‘Shall I move these?’

‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’

… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’

Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘For how long? Will you think?’

‘As long as it takes?’  We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……

  ……. ‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’

‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’

‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’

‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’

Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived  and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I  had better …

Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)

It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.  Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.

bee on thistle
Busy on its daily tasks …

There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.

The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.

Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.

Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …

Why really do writers not write? Why?

study 1
Winter writing space …

We are told…

how to combat writers’ block (is it a myth? Or not?), to carve out time for ourselves and our writing, to spend 10 minutes writing, even if its nonsense, every day. We are told how to overcome procrastination. But in the real world of writing, what really screws up and halts creation?

 Stuff happens …

We’ve just had that thing happen, the thing which heralds winter more than the fog, switching on the central heating, or Hallowe’en.  When you go you upstairs in a lovely warm house, only to step into the bathroom, put on the light, and discover a small river now runs across from the radiator to the bath … That.

You seize the nearest bath towel to stem the river in its tracks. It is definitely not time to go to bed for a quiet read after a long day spent at the keyboard creating an imaginary world.. . Or to have a lovely hot shower where inspiration pours like water onto and into your head. It’s time to ring the emergency plumber … Not a situation to set the creative juices on their way, (unless you can incorporate the plumber of course, and throw together a bit of flash fiction (as my friend Debbie Young probably would!)

And of course there’s always stuff, happy things, (a first grandchild) and irritating things, (try to sell a house in today’s market …), re-designing a website, writing book reviews)

As we in the Northern Hemisphere plunge down into the season of cold, darkness, and bare leafless trees, we are living in dark times.

“Brexit”, the USA election prospects, the increasing violence in Syria, with destruction of cities, civilians, children, and classic artefacts, is enough to knock the idea of writing fiction out of anyone’s head. What use is fiction? What purpose does it serve?

As inside my own community, a microcosm of the world at war – discontent, destruction, disillusion are everywhere. Food Banks are common, and rough sleepers. Even the doctors go on strike over conditions of work, and are opposed by the government.

Writing feels like a cop-out, unless it changes something for the better.

The rebellion of the computer!

What a creature it is – moody and rebellious, its sensitivities rear up to block the rifles flow of words – and I do not mean by ’writer’s block’.

E-mails and messages straight from the beast itself demand attention: check your security, change your password! These could be genuine or they might be phishing. Better do as it says, change the privacy settings, but do not click on any of the addresses the email suggested.  Many of the computers complaints or demands take an hour or so of tripping between windows and websites, searching the net for forums to gain wisdom, creating new ways to access and protect your data, and even indulging in serious online chat.

My computer suffered major slowdown last spring, only solved after much trial and error, by fitting a new solid-state hard disk. The initial cause? Upgrading to EL Capitan!

Procrastination? Hardly. Unless you count avoiding beginning the work day, in order to give a stream of frustrations and interruptions.

Happy writing!

p1220266-1
 Summer writing space (on a grey day!) 
spike on computer
On the computer, ready to help…

Where did (summer and) the writing go? Research time …

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A sunny day at the local farm, when we picked raspberries for jam

So, finally, August was summer! Then September began with dank, wet, days under a lowering, deep grey sky. After a few moans about the annual angst of shoe-buying for kids, all the writing Mummies I know began lively blogs on the happy theme of new coloured pencils and shiny notebooks… new clothes, new shoes, new thoughts, new space to write! …Autumn is not the End of Summer but a happy time of New Beginnings!

True to history, autumn begins the academic year in the northern hemisphere, since it was time to plant the crops. So summer counted as year’s end, with the harvest brought in … then back to school, back to the desk. Thankfully, the sun’s also back. New beginnings are looking brighter and more possible.

We have a new (and first) grandson so there’s a new beginning in our family … All

img_4407-1
Beginning to  know a new little person

grandparents are besotted with a new little one. He is a magical baby, growing by the day and beginning to observe the world around him—colours and shapes beyond Me and Mummy! After a jumbled year interrupted by computer problems, and deep doubts about writing and publishing, (and with the weirdness of the political happenings here in the UK), back to the desk. To revive the Work in Progress. And with a revised Hodge website  which embeds the blog.

Though quite honestly, (see  Altruism the British Way of Life) the world scene, “Brexit” and the American election prospects put fiction writing into question: is it pointless? Is it irrelevant?

But would giving up change anything?

Where is Love You to the Moon, caught in the events of this crazy year? At Hawkesbury Litfest, on the fiction writers’ panel discussing ‘Write what you Know – or Not?, we all agreed that even if the novel is centred on your own locality and workplace, it’s very much not autobiography. Even a family story is more than that.

books
Research, observation – or autobiography?

Fiction demands research, facts to build the skeleton which shapes the plot. This is (mostly) as true of contemporary fiction as of historical. If political or medical facts, say, don’t fit, it’s the plot which has to change. What makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stand out amongst fantasy fiction is the verisimilitude of the languages (they work) and his enormous knowledge, accumulated for decades and beginning in his teens, of mythologies.

Thankfully I’m not writing fantasy so my inability with languages won’t spoil the story. And my  novel’s set in 2007, not 2016, so nothing about the current complications facing our government.

Where my research will be centred

The science driving the plot in Love You to the Moon, and how this affects and is employed by the characters, needs firming up. Will one of the strands work better driven by research on diabetes or mitochondrial diseases – either, or which?

And what’s on the school curriculum for teenagers of 13 and 15? How have they reacted to the rise of terrorism? What are they reading, in 2007, and what’s the career path for a woman academic scientist with two children and husband with a time-consuming job and a social conscience? Which iPhone belongs to what years? Small details and large ones …

Emotional and physical growth, increased insights for characters and author?

Meanwhile, the characters wait in the wings —but ten years older…What is different for them? Are Max and Jenny still together? What’s Daze been up to?  What kind of a teenager is Alice?

research booksAfter a break, concentrating on reading, painting, enjoying our local nature reserve, and not thinking about whether or not I would actually write this third book in the series, I’m going back to re-reading about the Edwardian scientific research that made possible Dolly the Sheep, which first excited me into writing Baby, Baby.

books (Islamic authors)

And the books from non-Western writers who convinced me to explore diversities nearer home, and develop a cool and unemotional writing voice. Back to new beginnings around hidden cultural diversities, the impact of medical science on social attitudes, the ups and downs of family life.

And am hoping the sun shines (not metaphorically, factually) through autumn …

Straight from the Lexicographer’s Mouth: An Enjoyable Talk about the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

A delightful review of our recent local ALLi group meeting by friend and fellow ALLi member Debbie Young. Debbie introduced me to ALLi at the writers’ day where I first met her, ‘and the rest is history’ … ALLi brings Indie writers together …

Debbie Young

A  report about a fascinating talk about the Oxford English Dictionary by Edmund Weiner

Cover of OED The paperback edition is just the tip of the iceberg with a mere 120K words and 1k pages

Anyone who loves words would have been as rapt as we were at the Oxford Authors’ Alliance last night, when Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, came to talk to us about his work preparing version 2.0 of the OED. This mammoth task employs sixty people, and though it began in 1993, they’re still only 30% of the way through the task. They are effectively detectives, examining everything ever written in English to come up with comprehensive definitions of how every word has been used through the ages.

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Mari’s reading Life: Four Books from my Kindle

Wrote this in the Summer House office: beautiful sunny day!

Are you a Kindle or a paperback fan? I admit to preferring paperback (easier to underline, and flip back or even forwards …). But, the Kindle’s useful: to buy and read books which aren’t stocked in our local Independent Bookstore (tiny, and very exclusive) or our large but tourist-oriented emporia – Waterstones and Blackwell’s.

So, Four books from my Kindle…

My books featured on postcards - a touch of publicity
My books featured on postcards – a touch of me-publicity

I write books about women’s lives … (Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year …)

I read books about women’s lives (though not exclusively – I just read one (by a man) about Mindfulness …)

But it’s a paperback, back to the Kindle…

Two are Austen re-writes: the Austen Project rolls on …

I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (updated Pride and Prejudice) with interest. Northanger Abbey was a set text at school. (Ever noticed that name – North Anger Abbey?)  We were set to read, alongside Jane’s ‘spoof’, The Mysteries of Udolpho (published 1794) by Ann Radcliffe, to appreciate the irony of her take on women’s popular literature of her time. Girls back then were in a Gothic Novel phase: sound familiar?

McDermid moves further into ironic observations of teenage girls obsessed with boys, and with reading scary tales of vampires and mysterious discoveries, in this amusing story. Reviews on Amazon vary, some even in the ‘I threw the book across the room’  style. Some reviewers had not read Austen’s original.  Unless you have read Austen’s novel, how can anyone fully appreciate this clever update? McDermid exploits both the Austen writing style and the recent teenage/YA fascination with Gothic themes. Moving the action from fashionable 18th century Bath to the contemporary Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story is a silly riot just as it should be. A fun read, well written and well observed.

The Sittenfeld, (which I read second) is set in Middle America, Cincinnati, Sittenfeld’s family home. I noticed, after I’d read it, that Amazon advertises the book as ‘humour’. Humour it may be, but satire is more like it. With far too much about specific Cincinnati eating places, roads, neighbourhoods. Sittenfeld’s Prep I enjoyed, but in her Sisters I found a sleazy and uninteresting slightly satirical take on the foibles of humanity. So how does Eligible do Pride and Prejudice?

The updated characters – Elizabeth is a thirty-something magazine journalist with a selfish married boyfriend, who on fancying Darcy indulges with him in ‘hate sex’ left a nasty taste, because it didn’t capture and update Austen.  Sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy in P and P expresses itself cleverly in witty dialogue, not in simple lust. The fact that this is how a 30-something might behave today doesn’t justify substituting foreplay for that Austen’s stylish sharp amusing verbal interplay. Which credits her Elizabeth with a self-confident intelligence and ability not usually allowed a woman of her time. And Austen’s subtle irony doesn’t imply contempt for those she depicts as ridiculous (Mr Collins in P and P). Darcy is attractive, yes, but in Eligible we have the updated Colin Firth in wet shirt, not the Darcy of Jane’s novel. Sittenfeld’s writing lacks stylishness. And she’s lost the plot, updating with no more reference to Austen than writing a loosely based ‘comedy of manners’ which picks out social types and holds them up for our prejudice and amusement. Austen uses wit: Sittenfeld relies on curled lip contempt.

That said, some of it is indeed quite funny, especially the lampoon of a wedding (Jane Bennett the pregnant bride) on reality TV, which brings the story pretty much to a close. But no, I wouldn’t call this, as it is advertised, The Summer Book’. Plenty more out there to choose from for beach reading. Or is it simply that I don’t go for this writer’s work?

Two by One

My other two latest reads in the ‘women’s novels’ genre are delightful books by an unknown, compared to McDermid and Sittenfeld: Vivienne Tufnell’s Square Peg and Strangers and Pilgrims. Tufnell is a fellow member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors).

These are straight novels, placed in unusual settings and displaying a deep observation of nature (as in human) and nature (as in the wilderness around us). They are pleasure to read, as Tufnell writes well about what she knows, displaying a real eye for compassion and acute observation/insight.

Square Peg tells the story of a young woman whose husband is studying to be a Vicar. Without satire or lampooning, but with incredible insight, she accurately captivates the culture of a residential College. The men study, while wives languish producing endless babies or darting into the outside world to work in the real world of contrasting environment. It didn’t have to be a Vicar-factory of course: any residential College would do, but an extra spin comes from the religious angle.  Group hysteria among the wives with their inward looking lives, deprived of a wider community or a job, creates the crisis, for the main character, Chloe, (a civil engineer by training, but raised by a sensible, but hippy-type, Gran) is so ‘different’ in so many ways that they spook themselves she’s some kind witch. Okay, today such colleges are mixed: but it totally captures when they weren’t…

Strangers and Pilgrims explores another assorted group, who gather at a remote venue in hope of healing from emotional pain. Cleverly Tufnell weaves her story to demonstrate of how the healing takes place: not by the miracle workings of the mysterious Warden or the holy Well, but by the relating, co-operating, living together, of the six lonely and hurt individuals, over about a week. It is realistic, and down to earth, and the surprise at the end gathers up the meaning: who is this Warden, who nobody has seen?  Does s/he exist? (And it is not a predictable solution, nor is it a spirit or God …)

Tufnell deserves a wider audience. Her books are delightful: great reading on the beach, or anywhere that a person can curl up, undisturbed, with a glass of wine or a mug of tea.

And the Mindfulness book?   That’s for another time!

Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?
Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

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Happy Families: who sees?
AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting