Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?


Washing the Elephant

When you start a novel – where do you begin? Assuming you’ve done all your research and your thinking, how do you set about it?

I think there are two main approaches: Character-Led and Plot-Driven

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

This mysterious process is how the Character-Led writer works it seems to me. They know who’s inside their imagination, set them free and follow their adventures.These authors see action and hear dialogue – and then record what occurs. Marvellous stuff.(Meg Rossoff, I mean you.)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

But what if you make a mistake? If the chisel slips? If you find what the protagonist does on page 136 means you have to change pages 97, 43 & 25 and that means Chapter 3 is a bit dodgy too. Rather like sorting out a Sudoku when you write the wrong answer and only realise three entries further on. My puny little brain can’t hold all that in, but clearly some writers can.

Now for the other sort: Plot-Driven.

This seems to me like creating an armature when sculpting. You focus on getting the underlying structure to work first.

One day I will be a pussy-cat.

It might not much look much to start with but it gives shape to the finished work. You add more and more layers to create the final piece. And these are relatively easy to change. A small adjustment can make a big difference in characterisation – think of manipulating millimetres of Plasticine in Gromit’s face.

Of course, you can make your own frameworks. You don’t have to follow some pre-made thing like a Paint-Your-Own-Gnome set. It was fascinating  to see how Marcus Sedgwick devised the structures for his novels on the SCBWI-BI retreat at Dunford House.  He said he found that though some decisions seemed arbitrary at the time,  the finished book showed them to be entirely right.

Not everyone feels confident about creating their own from scratch: there’s nothing wrong with using a tried & tested form and adapting it to your own needs. ‘Cinderella’ becomes ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ becomes ‘West Side Story’. It’s a long and honourable tradition.

I think you can tell which I go for.

I made it!

One final thought: my perception is that many women writers can do the character-led thing, indeed prefer it, whereas male writers tend to favour the plot-driven approach ( and ex-tomboys like me). Is this imagined or real?

Squaring the circle

In The Alchemist, Paul Coelho created a memorable image of someone going through a wonderful palace carrying oil in a spoon. In the first pass, the acolyte could  recall nothing of the magical surroundings. Sent again, the precious oil was spilled. The skill was to observe and concentrate at the same time.

For me, writing is like that: doing two difficult, incompatible things at once.

Here’s one example of what I mean:

I have to fully experience life  to have anything worth saying – and I also need to be a disinterested observer. I need emotional engagement – ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ and yet I must step outside my feelings. How else can I control their appearance on the page to best effect?

Something similar applies to planning. On one hand my rational side loves to organise, create outlines and have it all under control. Yet on the other, I know some of my most original writing stems from the unexpected, from departures from the planned route. How to be logical yet open to creativity? It’s a struggle.

Here’s another – how much to connect with other writers? I love the creative buzz of physically being with my colleagues, and the virtual common room which is the net, but it can easily distract me from my own purposes. I have to be centred in myself too. The same goes for reading – the good earth of others’ work is essential for my growth – but I must also find my own garden to nurture. Somehow I want to be informed and yet uninfluenced.

And I could go on.

What irreconcilable opposites do you cope with?

Worlds apart

World-building is something most obviously associated with authors of science fiction and fantasy. However it is also clearly relevant to history writers  – and I would argue almost any writer worth their salt. Even if you write contemporary social realism, you are still  investigating a culture.Especially if that culture is located elsewhere to that of the intended reader, you have to indicate it.  Google Earth doesn’t show attitudes.

For example,  we all know what an airport look like so you don’t need to describe it in great detail, but what aspects will be central to the people in your book? What will they pick up on? It’s the perspective that matters.

As part of the MA at West Dean, we looked at the opening sequence of ‘Robots’. Here an entire mechanical town is brought to life in seconds through minor characters before we get into the ‘real story’. A notable feature was that each little robot character had its own volition – they were all doing something for themselves ( not our benefit) that brought us into their world.

I’m reading Jackdaw Summer by David Almond at present. Here the introduction shows us the boys’ world very clearly through their eyes by the things that they do – again well before we encounter the ‘main ‘ story.

In each case the introduction is economical but effective. There is a profound sense of much more thought underpinning what we see. But the creation of culture, however intricate, isn’t enough. You don’t need to create languages and maps and dynasties of kings like Tolkien, wonderful though they are. His worlds work because they are illuminated by cracking good stories and characters we care about.

It’s similar to special effects in films – like fire,  CGI is a good servant but a poor master. We all know films that look wonderful yet feel empty. The same can occur with books – full of style but forgettable.

The point is that whatever we put in the book must move along the story or cast light upon the characters  – otherwise it’s so much window-dressing. Brian Froud’s fabulous parallel cultures of the Mystics and the Skeksis in ‘Dark Crystal’ are there because they matter to both the plot and the beings in the film.

There are  dangers in portraying another world too carefully, be it designer fashion or a space outpost. One one hand you can insult the reader’s intelligence, and on the other loose the things that matter in a welter of detail. This doesn’t mean you can neglect your homework, though. Aardman animations can get Gromit’s subtle expressions right because they put in the hard work in the first place.

So whatever your genre, take a leaf from the Old Masters. The second rate portrait artists were superb at showing lace and jewellery and sumptuous fabrics. The best left those aspects sketchy and put the most skill into the faces. You have to choose what really matters.


Copy – wrong?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – anon

It is very easy to echo a favourite writer. Like picking up a strong accent, you may well do it in unconscious admiration. Does that make your work fake? A blend of your most-read authors would not be plagiarism as such – but would it still be your work ?

Since we are a result of our life experiences – and a book properly read and interacted with is an experience – I would say this is inevitable. We write who we are – and we imitate.

But I’d suggest taking it one stage further. Do it deliberately.

Take an aspect  – the structure of a thriller, the rhyme scheme of a poem, one choice character – and play with it. Analyse how they did it and apply your new knowledge. You might draft a thriller set in a completely different world, compose a poem on another topic or send that character on a new voyage.

It worked for Constable – an avid copyist:  Shakespeare – a great ‘borrower’ of stories and writers such as Jean Rhys in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ & Susan Hill in ‘Mrs de Winter’. There are many more examples – indeed for most of art history learning from the Masters (please forgive the sexist term) was de rigeur.

You may wish to acknowledge the original  – to make the source obvious. I did so in my poem ‘Meanwhile, Mr Ferlinghetti’ because it was a reply – but it is not compulsory.

There is plenty of controversy in this area – arguments over intellectual property are complex and often heartfelt. I would say that it’s not the idea that matters – it is the execution: something I have learned from Greg Mosse on the West Dean MA. If I put in the spadework and create something new – well, then it’s my work.

I would love to know other people’s views on this – is it always wrong to copy?

Judge not…

…that ye be not judged. Matthew Chapter VII verse i King James Bible

First of all I recognise that I need to look beyond first appearances. It’s too easy to dismiss people with assumptions and not make the effort to tease out their story. I need to observe actively, with more empathy.

The same goes for portrayal. Even the minor characters can be more than just ciphers with a bit of effort. The tiny receptionist with her tightly plaited hair muttering ‘Work isn’t important, hey handsome?’ behind her boss’s back as he wanders off – she’s too good to waste.

I also need to dig deeper, to talk to people my mother warned me against. I will admit to a certain degree of cowardice on  this one – but I know what I aspire to:

But oh how I need to be aware of the voice that disapproves of people. A close relative of the Inner Critic, it needs shutting up. In my work, I must let the reader see what the characters do, hear what they say – and leave it at that. Let the reader decide – provide no commentary from my interior Hyacinth Bouquet or even the closet fashionista.

I don’t need to pass any remark on Bermuda shorts, coral rubber beach clogs and sports socks pulled up to the calf, do I?

Finally , although not all adjectives and adverbs are an evil – they are suspect. This is how the nasty little Imp of Prejudice airs its views. Before I have even realised, it has sneakily slipped a stereotype into my story. Not only is it patronising, it’s lazy.

I wonder what tips my fellow writers have for exorcising this particular demon?

“To hurt is as human as to breathe.”

J. K. ROWLING, The Tales of Beedle the Bard

How a person copes with pain reveals a lot about their character – an observation that will usefully serve for us writers. After all, our job is to put our creations through a lot – to show what they are made of.

Maybe they are injured but keep quiet and stoical. This may be as brave as it seems, or perhaps later you have them let slip the stored resentment because no-one took the hint. Or show someone else crumbling under same stress to bolster the point.

What about the prima donna type wanting to be waited on hand and foot? That’s fine – but it could be fun to have your demanding diva set all that aside when it really matters. Always good to have different sides to a character – especially if you set up a pattern of behaviour and then break it.

Their attitude to medicine can be telling too. Do we see them reach for painkillers straight away, dispute with doctors, reject cures or heal themselves? Do they ask advice – or dish it out? Hypochondriacs can be a source of amusement – and so can the gullible.

A bit of realism doesn’t come amiss. I loathe adventure stories and thrillers where people carry on and on despite broken limbs, near drownings and shootings.  I remember Richard Lester’s ‘Four Musketeers’ where Christopher Lee and Michael York tottered with exhaustion. We need to write like that – as near as dammit feel what our characters suffer – and show it.

Likewise their response to others in distress is important – rush in with sympathy but little thought, offer practical solutions, actually do stuff? The characters we love to hate can be straightforwardly callous – but how much more loathsome is the much-advertised kindliness which is far more about image than substance? How calculating to have an apparently concerned ‘friend’ who later abuses their place of trust.

Whatever time period your work is set in, pain is something common to all humans and other animals. It can work well to increase sympathy and credibility – be it a stubbed toe or a dreadful fever. So go on – give your protagonist a poke and see how they react.