Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Mother/Daughter Book Swap

Given that Chris and I are both avid readers, it is no surprise that our children are too. When they were little we practically lived in our local library. When we moved to Oxford, the literary festival became an important event in the calendar, and in the last four years, the Hay Festival has become essential to us. And when Beth and Claire recently moved their bedroom round, their pride and joy was the book corner they created - wall to wall books arranged so the spines are colour-coordinated. Books really matter in this house.

However, up until recently, most of the books they've been interested in have been young adult or teen fiction. Occasionally one of them will pick up one of mine or Chris' books because it's grabbed their attention, but usually if I make a recommendation they don't bite. I've tried not to push my thoughts on what to read too much, as my dad, the English teacher, often used to bombard me with books I should read and then question me intensely about my thoughts on them. Instead I've been hoping that one of these days they might want to start reading the books I read.

Beth turned 16 recently and has decided she wants to do English Literature for "A" Level  next year (hooray). When I mentioned that perhaps it was time she started reading some classics, she thought about it for a bit and then set me a challenge. She'd read my recommended books, if I read hers. So we've set up our very own book swap. A book a month for 2015. She gave me her list on Thursday, complete with two line summaries and a rating, and I gave her mine yesterday (though my summaries were not as concise or as neatly written). We've both agonised over our lists as we've had to exclude books we love and changed our minds about some of the books we've included. Beth's already read my first choice ("The Colour Purple" by Alice Walker) and I've dipped into hers ("All the truth that's in me" by Julie Berry) which is great so far. I can see this is going to be a lot of fun, even if I do have to read some zombie books.

Several people expressed interest in our lists, so here they are:

Beth's list for me:

January - "All the truth that's in me" by Julie Berry.
February - "Deadlands" by Lily Herne.
March - "Thieves like us" by Stephen Cole.
April - "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green.
May - "Clockwork Angel" by Cassandra Clare.
June - "Raven's Gate" by Anthony Horowitz.
July - "The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender" by Lesley Walton.
August - "Timeriders" by Alex Scarrow.
September - "Paper Towns" by John Green.
October - "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan.
November - "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.
December - "Skullduggery Pleasant" by Derek Landy.

My list for Beth:

January - "The Colour Purple" by Alice Walker.
February - "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte.
March - "The Heart of the Matter" by Graham Greene.
April - "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen.
May - "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens.
June - "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson.
July "The Humans" by Matt Haig.
August - "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte
September - "Oranges are not the only fruit" by Jeanette Winterson.
October - "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell.
November - "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood.
December - "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver.

We'll let you know what we think.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

It runs in the family.


I've just spent the last  few days archiving my parents' papers. I've always been fascinated by family history, so it was a real treat to have the time to search through note books, scraps of paper, and files scattered around the house and organising them. As a child, I loved to hear stories from both my parents, so I didn't think the collection would bring me many surprises.  At first this seemed to be the case as I came across many things that I'd seen before. I quickly found an excerpt from my Great Uncle Bert's memoirs, a box full of my father's employer references (each detailing his passion, skill and commitment as a teacher) and all my mother's articles about her many journeys overseas. I didn't have time to read them in detail, but it was both pleasant and comforting to look through them again.

Once I'd cleared the writing desk, I thought the job was done, until my sister pointed out a large drawer in  a cupboard in the next room which was crammed full of books and sheets of A4. I hadn't looked at it for years, and it dawned on me that I might come across some of the plays my Dad wrote for us. I was particularly keen to find one called  "The Knight of the Urgent Detergent" which he used to read to us at bed time. But the first things I came across were several versions of a script for "Rumplestiltskin" written for us children to perform. I'd completely forgotten that one, and as I read I was taken right back to the Christmases of my childhood when we'd put on plays with whatever friends were around. As well as Rumplestiltskin there were also many poems and a putative version of "The Elves and the Shoemaker". After that I did find fragments of a play which I think was the "Urgent Detergent" one as it involved a knight, a king, a queen, a witch and a cat, which felt familiar. It was every bit as funny as I remember, reminding me how much I'd wanted him to get them published. Alas! being a busy teacher with 8 children and bills to pay, he never quite found the time.


As I was leafing through the papers, I came across some notes about writing  screenplay and then some short stories dated 1961, with some critique attached. I was wondering whether he'd gone to a writing class (if such a thing existed in the 1960's) when I realised my mistake. The "J" Moffatt in question was my grandmother, Jane, not my Dad at all. She'd written the stories in her mid 70's five years before she died. I choked when I saw her name in full. I had no idea she wrote.


My twin sister (the writer Julia Williams) and I were a year old when our grandmother died. Though we never knew her properly, we were both fascinated by her life. She was a highly intelligent woman who managed to gain a place to study English at Liverpool University at the beginning of the last century. However, her father (whether due to finances, sexism or both) would not let her go. Our Dad was very close to his mother and always felt this injustice deeply.  Which was why he was so determined my sisters and I were well educated. It's why Julia studied English at Liverpool 80 years later, and goes by our grandmother's maiden name on her blog. And it's why my character, Elsie in my unpublished (as yet) novel, "Echo Hall" is Liverpudlian and was denied a chance to go to University.


Our grandmother had a hard life. She married young, and at 48 was a widow with dependent children.  Unable to find work in Liverpool due to the Depression, she was forced to uproot and move 200 miles south. She did eventually find a job as a teacher, and was a very successful one. Nonetheless she was never able to achieve her full potential.
So it's both sad and wonderful that she was writing in her seventies. Sad because if she'd had money and a room of her own sooner, who knows what she might have achieved? But wonderful, because at the end of her life she was thinking up characters and working hard to make them live on the page. 

It's been brilliant to discover this new connection with my grandmother and to realise that writing really does run in our family. I hope that she'd be pleased to think the twin babies she held in the year before her death have both become published writers. I hope she'd enjoy the stories we write. I'm certainly looking forward to reading hers properly.  And from now on - whenever I write - I'll be writing for her.










Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sublime Screenplay - "Homeland"

Chris and I have been "Homeland" fans since the first twisty tense episodes were aired in the UK in 2012. The fourth series has just drawn to a close and it's given me much food for thought. So I've taken some time to reflect what it is about this show that I love so much..

The first series of "Homeland" is undoubtedly the best. It towers above similar TV programmes due to two particular features. Firstly, there is the compelling relationship between CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) and Sergeant Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) a marine rescued in Iraq after 8 years incarceration. Carrie's belief that Brody has been turned whilst a prisoner, is the driving force of the story, and is beautifully played by both leads, with the writers stringing out  "is he/isn't he?" for the majority of the series. The tension is compounded by the fact that Carrie is (as her mentor Saul puts it in series 2) "the smartest and the dumbest fucking person" around. She is great at gathering intelligence, building assets and working out what's happening but has a tendency to recklessness that constantly undermines her good efforts. She is also bipolar. Whilst this doesn't stop her from doing a good job, the fact she is hiding from her superiors puts her under  the constant fear of discovery. And her decision to stop taking her meds to clarify her thought processes leads to increasing erratic behaviour. Brody, on the other hand, is shown to be traumatised by his experiences, and has a violent streak, which may or may not have been the result of his imprisonment and torture. Whilst he loves his family, particularly his daughter Dana, he struggles to reconnect with them. And though initially he appears to be telling the truth, we gradually discover there are things about his imprisonment that he is hiding, including the fact he has converted to Islam. All of which makes us root for both of them, whilst simultaneously asking can either be trusted?

The second aspect of "Homeland" that sets it apart is the refusal to simplify the issues it addresses. The show purports to portray a group of patriotic Americans trying to protect their homeland from the evil of terrorism but it rarely sticks to the narrative of Americans good, Islamic terrorists bad.  When we first hear about the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir he appears to be a bogeyman much like Osama Bin Laden.  Yet as the story progresses, we begin to see snatches of the human being behind the atrocities, to understand his world view and what motivates him. We see the impact of some of his heinous acts alongside US drone strikes and botched FBI raids on mosques that make us question the behaviour of both sides. Which is to be welcomed on a mainstream US TV show. It's not a perfect critique, as too often there is an emphasis that American lives are more important than any others, nonetheless we are allowed to see that the "war on terror" leads to all parties making dubious moral choices.

By the time series 1 has finished (in a breathlessly thrilling finale, that had me gasping with relief at advert breaks) some things are resolved between Brody and Carrie, but much is not. Thus the second series is able to develop their relationship further, whilst exploring some key "Homeland" themes - loyalty, betrayal, self-interest, trust - and involve others in the story. We see more of Saul (Mandy Pantinkin), Carrie's mentor; Estes (David Harewood), her boss and former lover; and are introduced to Quinn (Rupert Friend), another CIA analyst with a dark side, as they try to establish what Abu Nazir's next move might be. Unfortunately we also see way too much of Brody's family, who are less interesting (except for his daughter Dana, played by Morgan Saylor). Whilst this series lacks some of the tension of the first season, Carrie's erratic behaviour grates a bit, and there's a very irritating "Carrie-in-peril" section, there is a lot they get right. Violent interrogation scenes and windowless prisons feature prominently, more often in America, than in the middle East  throwing into question America's right to consider itself superior to its enemies. Characters are presented with impossible choices, make decisions with unforeseen consequences, and the narrative twists are often dizzying. The final episode appears to be setting us up for a somewhat improbable happy ending, before pulling the rug from under us with a devastating explosion which calls loyalties into question once more.

Series 3 was bound to disappoint after that. And though it's not terrible, it doesn't really reach the heights of the first two. The best bits are early on. Carrie suffers a terrible betrayal, and she and Brody end up in  hellish situations bringing us back to the theme of what captivity does to a person. There's a phenomenal twist a third of the way through, that changes everything, and Quinn is forced to face up to the amorality of his job when a hit goes spectacularly wrong. Saul meanwhile is facing down political machinations as he tries to stay in position as temporary CIA head, whilst discovering who planted the series 2 bomb. And we have several new "bad" guys to watch out for - the Machiavellian Senator Lockhart, Dar Nadal, the shadowy CIA man in charge of "black" ops, and the Iranian Javadi who replaces Abu Nazir as the CIA's target. All of which is good, as are some of the moral dilemmas we witness. There is one situation in particular that really forces you to question what kind of mission is so important that an individual can get away with a horribly violent murder?  But for a lot of the time it gets bogged down with long subplots involving Dana Brody (it is important we some of her reaction to events of the previous series, but we get far far too much of her). And there's also too much emphasis on Carrie/Brody being in love, which I never really bought and which makes Carrie more erratic and less sympathetic. Thankfully that relationship concludes in the finale, leaving us with the intriguing prospect of a Brodyless "Homeland" for series 4.

I'm pleased to say that the latest series, which has just concluded, was absolutely back on form. Whilst I don't think it can ever get back to the brilliance of the first season this was pretty darned close. Without Brody there's room for Carrie's relationships with Saul and Quinn to develop, and moving the action to Pakistan was a wise decision. Not only does it change the level of jeopardy for everyone, but it really opens up what the show is about.  Post series 3, Carrie has been appointed to be station chief in Afghanistan, where she leaves a hermetically sealed existence in a safe American compound, whilst authorising drone strikes against people on the "kill" list.  Previous events have clearly traumatised her. She is not the emotionally volatile Carrie we've known to date, and seems able to make coldblooded decisions without remorse. She's become so "good" at it that her team call her the "Drone Queen". Even when a drone strike hits a wedding killing several civilians, she seems more intent on finding out what went wrong with the intelligence, than worrying about the victims. It is only Quinn, who knows from personal experience what professional extrajudicial killing does to a person,  who is prepared to challenge her, though she is having none of it.

From this beginning, we follow Carrie, Quinn and Saul as they are sucked into Pakistani politics and find themselves up against not only the terrorists but their supposed allies, the Pakistani secret service, ISI. Apparently Pakistan has complained about this storyline as they feel it unfair in the light of their support for the war on terror. I can understand that, but I do wonder if there aren't some in Pakistan who might feel as these characters do, that the alliance with America has done them more harm than good. And fictionally it makes for an intriguing set up. As Carrie sets up a team to find out what really happened and to hunt down the new "enemy" the Taliban leader Haqqani, we simultaneously see the ISI operatives setting up a counter operation against the CIA, targeting Carrie and Saul along the way. Tasneem (Nimrat Kaur) Carrie's counterpart is shown as an effective agent, working through the weak husband (Mark Moses) of the American Ambassador (Laila Robins).Whilst for a long time we can't work out whether her colleague Aasar Khan (Raza Jaffrey) is to be trusted he emerges as an important figure for Carrie.

Being in Pakistan, we also get much closer to Haqqani then we did to Abu Nasir and Javadi, which allows us to see him in a more sympathetic light at times. We understand he too is working for his "Homeland" (Afghanistan), and we are provided with evidence that the more "bad" guys the US kill, the more enemies they create. Meanwhile, the old familiar themes of self interest, loyalty, betrayal and who you can trust, are played out in different ways with terrible consequences for everyone. The tension builds episode by episode, pushing Carrie, Quinn and Saul to the absolute limit, and testing Carrie and Saul's friendship more than it's ever been tested before. By the time we reach the shocking 10th episode "13 Hours in Islamabad", everyone has been forced to question their actions with Carrie concluding bleakly "We lost". And what's true in the fictional world - Carrie and her colleagues are totally outplayed, America seems redundant in the region, and the Taliban is on the ascendant - also is a reasonable reflection of reality. Just as the series aired,  the US and UK are leaving Afghanistan,  in a much worse state then the entered it in 2001, with very few of the military goals achieved. Given how the media have celebrated the war on terror, it is refreshing to see a mainstream TV show demonstrate how badly the mission has failed. (As a side note, I was also pleased to see this series that the fact Carrie is bipolar is incidental. She is clearly able to hold down an important job which she does well, and it is only when she is given the wrong medication that there is a problem. And that's simply a case of her enemies play her weakness well, which even she admits is what she'd have done too).

The second half of the series is full of thrills, action and violence, so it is a surprise when the finale returns us to the quiet of Washington. This decision has clearly divided the audience, many of whom felt the season came to an end with a whimper. I can understand that. Knowing how often "Homeland" has pulled a dramatic twist out of the closing seconds, I was waiting the whole episode for something horrible to happen. However, the fact that it didn't, doesn't undermine that episode for me. After weeks spent with the characters in danger, and with the knowledge that it all went so horribly wrong, there is something surreal about watching them back home, safe in domestic settings. For me, this is a nice nod to the first series when Brody returns from horror to ordinary life again, and wonders if anything can be normal again.  And it also allows us to take a moment to ask, what was all that violence for? What did it actually achieve? As all the characters reflect on that they are all given the chance to walk away, to take up that ordinary life and leave the horrors to other people. And yet, it is clear from the closing scenes, that none of them can. Whether because of failed relationships, misguided loyalty, self interest, or a desire to "put it right", they are all wedded to the fortunes of the morally ambiguous CIA. Even though they know that means they'll end up doing bad things for good reasons time and time again and make appalling compromises for the sake of the bigger picture, the Agency (much like the Mafia members in The Sopranos or the gangs in The Wire) is the family they can never escape.

"Homeland" can be a hard watch. It takes great delight in building up tension, relieving it, then throwing in something even worse. The violence is uncompromising when it happens, and often makes me flinch. But what makes the show so absorbing is that the story is peopled by such real flawed characters, whose are actions may come from good intent but are just as likely to have mixed motives. I love Carrie, as a strong intelligent woman in a man's world, who likes to think she is doing the right thing. Yet she can be manipulative, selfish, hard hearted, and some of her actions in this series are beyond defensible. Quinn's regrets at his past behaviour have often set him up as the moral hero this season - he has shown compassion and sensitivity and regret for previous actions and frequently suggested he wants out. Then, just as we are thinking what a good guy he is, we notice his instruments for torture laid out ready as he prepares to interrogate a subject. I'm glad we didn't get to see him use them, (particularly in the week when the revelations of US torture were hitting the headlines), yet it was important to show what he is capable of. Carrie, Quinn and Saul are basically decent people who joined the CIA to keep their country safe. Yet they are just as happy to resort to torture or killing innocent people to achieve their aims.  How does that make them any different from Abu Nasir, Javadi or Haqqani? In fact, Carrie's orders to kill are done with just as much a cold hearted calculation as Haqqani's brutal stabbings. Which demonstrates for me how morally confused America has become in the last 14 years.

David Nevin (chief of Showtime the company that broadcasts "Homeland") says the show tries to demonstrate  "how difficult America's position in the world is in the 21st century" illustrating the "complexity of the U.S. position in the Muslim world."  Though at times "Homeland" can be improbable, cartoonish and meandering, and can sometimes fall into the trap of justifying American violence, when it focusses on this aim, through its challenging stories and complex characters, it absolutely fulfils that brief. Which is why I've been watching all this time, and can't wait to see what happens next.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Nanowrimo - one year later

This time last year, I had just completed "Echo Hall" and was beginning the long (and ongoing) slog of looking for an agent. I knew I needed to get on with my next novel, so I decided to sign up for Nanowrimo as a way to get going. Having spent ten years writing "Echo Hall" and knowing my average monthly word count was usually around the 2-3,000 mark, I had no expectation that I might actually achieve the target.  But, I reasoned, if I managed 20,000 words, that would be a very good start.

Much to my surprise, I found myself completely focussed on the 1,700 word/day limit, and completed the required 50K with a couple of days to spare. I really enjoyed myself too. Just throwing words on the page without thinking about them, I freewheeled through to complete a piece of work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end. Inevitably, when I re-read it, I found the majority of those 50,000 words were pretty rubbish with most characters needing further fleshing out. The pacing was completely off and (partly due to the nature of the situation they are in) there were  far too many stultifying scenes of  people sitting by a campfire uttering banalities. I might have won the Nanowrimo prize and written the skeleton of a novel, but clearly, it would need revising.

I deliberately left it alone for a few months, to let my characters start talking to me and explain themselves a bit better. However, the beginning of the year was a difficult time, and it was only in the summer that I felt able to pick it up again. Which initially sent me into a panic. Having decided I had 9 characters who were going to tell this story, I  suddenly saw two other ways I could do it, which would lead to a cast of thousands. I spent a fortnight wondering whether my original idea was strong enough, until I recognised I was procrastinating. I decided to stick to my plan, as my first instincts were good ones, but I soon discovered that the individual arcs were a total mess. Some people had lots happening at the beginning only for their stories to peter out, some had back stories emerging too late only to be resolved in the last few pages. The interconnections between the sections were also muddled and the time line was all over the place. Something had to be done.

So I decided to sort out each individual journey first. There are five parts to the novel, with each character having a chapter/part. I spent a couple of days copying them into another document, to enable me to look at each of them separately. After that, it was time to tackle them one by one. Which has been agonisingly slow so far. Since September, I've been working on the first which and I only completed  last weekend. It seemed to take weeks to edit a couple of pages, as I reworked paragraphs and sentences, over and over again. Then, just as I was coming to the end, I worked out something about the character's past that is pretty crucial to understanding who she is.It makes her much more morally ambiguous, which doesn't quite fit yet with where she ends up, so there's more to do. However, I think I need to look at the other characters now, and save any more changes for the next edit.

It occurred to me that one of the reasons I've been working so slowly, is that I haven't taken time out to plan properly. So this morning, I got plotting...


I still have some gaps, but it was helpful to lay the stories out side by side and start seeing connections between them. I need to add in a time line, particularly taking notice of the tides (the sea is very important in this book). But, I have a draft schematic, which hopefully will get me to the end of this edit...




I'm still not sure on quite a few things. At the moment, all the characters are written in different tenses and persons to distinguish their voices. I have a feeling that's messy and may need addressing. I also have a couple of characters who I absolutely love, but maybe two too many for this book. To cull or not to cull will be a question that will dominate the next few months. And of course, if I do, there'll be some major rewrites to excise them from the text. But it's a start, and one that makes me believe I'm getting somewhere, rather than faffing around in the dark.

Though I absolutely loved doing Nanowrimo last year I won't be joining in next week. I have so much to do on "The Wave", that I can't be  distracted from that goal at the moment. Knowing how long it took me to write "Echo Hall", I won't be making any plans to join Nanowrimo any time soon, but if you're doing it this year I wish you well.

May the words flow freely
May the characters develop before your eyes
May you reach your 50,000 word goal.
And then...let the edits begin.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Keeping Crispin at bay

A new David Mitchell book is always a treat, but one of the particular joys of  the recent "The Bone Clocks" was to be introduced to the character Crispin Hershey. Hershey, a novelist with his greatest successes behind him, is the narrator of the fourth segment of the book, as we follow him from one literary festival to the next. Each experience is more excruciating than the last, as Hershey is forced to continually face the fact his star has fallen. There are better novelists  and more successful writers on the circuit, and they are usually nicer human beings to boot. His self-pity, rage at the critics who he thinks are spiking his career, jealousy of other's success, inability to see his own inadequacies, make for an absorbing study of the worst attributes that exist within every writer. Which made Mitchell's admission at the talk he recently gave in Oxford, that he based Hershey on himself,  both very funny and also rather encouraging.

You see, I have my own internal Crispin, who sits inside me spewing bile most days, even when things are going well. This year, I had my first proper success as a writer. I achieved publication when Gumbo Press published my collection "Rapture and what comes after".  I was and am very excited that my name is finally in print, that people are reading my stories and seem to be enjoying them. But it's not enough. Like Hershey I want more. Because before I wrote a line of "Rapture, I'd been working on my novel "Echo Hall,  a book which took me ten years to complete. And what I want more than anything is for that book to get published. To do that, I need an agent, and despite my best efforts, and some lovely, kind and helpful rejections, I am still to find one. So every time, I read how an unknown author has secured a 6 figure deal, or someone on social media has found an agent at the second time of trying, I have to fight the urge to scream out on twitter, "That's not fair - it's MY turn". Every time a book is published and I read it and find it is every bit as good as the publishers and the agents and the reviewers all said,  I have to stop myself from writing a snarky review that will expose the tiny little frailties round the edges of an otherwise perfect piece of literature. When Crispin is in control, my thought processes are less than edifying.

So I have to work hard to keep Crispin from taking over my life. I have to keep reminding  myself that publishing is a competitive business, and setbacks are a necessary part of the experience. I have to remember  that everyone I have encountered on my journey so far - agents, editors, writers, have been absolutely lovely.  It's not their fault it hasn't happened for me yet. I may have written a book that I love and believe in, but that's no guarantee that I'll find someone who loves it enough, to take a risk on me, and that's how it goes. I have to keep my spirits up with the thought that just  because I haven't found my agent yet, doesn't mean I won't one day.  And in the meantime, I have to keep plugging away at it, taking inspiration from people I know who have achieved success.

I've been thinking about that a lot today because two of my favourite  writing people have had a very good week.. My twin sister Julia William's latest novel "Coming Home for Christmas" has been topping the popular women's fiction charts on Kindle, and also made it into the overall top 100. My friend Anne Booth, meanwhile, has just heard her debut children's novel "Girl With a White Dog" has been nominated for the Carnegie Award. I couldn't be more delighted for them. It's not just that they write great books, work hard and are wonderful people who prop me up on a regular basis. I can be excited because I know it didn't come easily for either of them.

Julia started writing in 1998, when her second daughter was born. She wrote a couple of great children's books which I loved but went nowhere. She acquired an agent, and turned to adult novels. The first was rejected everywhere,, but the second nearly clinched a deal until a book with a similar idea pipped her to the post. It wasn't till 2008 that she finally bagged a publisher, but even then it wasn't all plain sailing. Her first novel did well for a debut, but her second suffered when Woolies went under and half the stock got stuck in warehouses unable to be sold. It took another couple of books for her to  re-establish herself, and even then it has taken seven novels for her to really take off.

Anne had an even rougher ride. She wrote a novel for adults which I thought was great and generated a lot of interest, eventually landing her an agent. We thought everything would go smoothly from there, but for some reason, it all unravelled. She revised and revised the novel, and yet it didn't seem to help and something clearly wasn't working between her and the agent. They parted company a year later, leaving Anne feeling pretty dispirited. But she kept on writing, experimenting with picture book ideas, took an Arvon course in children's fiction and launched herself into a novel about animals in Nazi Germany. I thought it was terrific, but yet again, it did not quite work for the industry. She didn't let that stop her,  rewrote it completely, and  "Girl With a White Dog" was born. Then for as long as it had been going wrong, it quickly started going right. Just after Anne got a couple of picture book deals with Nosy Crow, she found an agent, who eventually landed her a deal for her novel. And ever since she has gone from strength to strength.

I know I can't get rid of Crispin - he's probably there in every writer - but I certainly can keep him at bay. All I need to do, is think of Julia and Anne. All I have to do is remember where they started, the disappointments they had to go through, and where they are now. And remembering that means  I can pick myself up from each rejection, know when it's time to move on from the project that is going nowhere, and make sure I am always creating something new. It's not easy, but as I am constantly telling my kids, life often isn't. And one of these days - when the book I write is good enough, when I catch the right agent at the right moment, when my idea is just what a publisher is looking for - one of these days, that screech of excitement on social media will be coming from me.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Holiday Reads

Just before I went on holiday I posted a picture of my "Books are My Bag" bag crammed filled with books on Facebook. It got a lot of "likes" and a request for recommended reads. So I thought I'd nick the format of Nick Hornby's wonderful book about reading - "The Polysyllabic Spree", and tell you what I brought, read and thought...

What I brought

As usual I was completely over-ambitious and brought far too many books with me. But that's OK, because I always find myself quite contrary on holiday, and sometimes need several attempts before I get the book that totally absorbs me...But anyway  for the record, this was what was in the bag:

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt (which I'd been reading for 6 weeks and was about 100 pages in)
"The Whistling Season" by Ivan Doig  (birthday present from my dear friend Oli, which I'd started)
"Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann(ditto)
"The End of your Life Book Club." by Will Schwalbe (unbirthday present from same friend)
"Leaping"by Brian Doyle (ditto - very generous friend!)
"The Short Stories" Jane Gardam (birthday present from my lovely Chris.)
"Bleeding Kansas" by Sara Paretsky (which I'd picked up in Albion Beatnik, thinking it was a VI Warshawski book & bought because it intrigued).
"The Master and Margarita" Mikhail  Bulgakov (which I started years ago, put down and then lost, so bought at AB)
"Jezebel" by Irene Nemirovsky (bought at AB because I loved Suite Francaise and wanted to try out some more.

What I read.

"The Goldfinch", "The End of Your Life Book Club", "Jezebel". Plus one of Chris' books, "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace, and two Agatha Christie's that Beth picked up, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced". Also "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene which I found in a second hand bookshop in Laugharne.

What I partially read.

Got halfway through, "The Master and Margarita", three stories of the Jane Gardam collection, made a start on "Bleeding Kansas" and "Let the Great World Spin". I didn't start the others. (You see...over-ambitious) Oh and most of Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" which Chris picked up (somewhat surprisingly) at a car boot sale

What I thought.

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt. Ah, "The Goldfinch", I so wanted to love "The Goldfinch" as much as I loved "The Secret History". Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer and seems to be a great human being. But, I just couldn't love this book. It starts off so well too, with Tartt's protagonist, Theo, holed up in a room in Amsterdam, hiding from the police, possibly having committed a serious crime. We then flashback to his adolescence, to the shocking death of his mother (the only person who truly loved him) in an explosion at an art gallery. Theo survives but witnesses the death of an old man, who asks him to take a picture ("The Goldfinch" of the title) - perhaps out of confusion, or to protect it from further harm.  So far, so absolutely wonderful, but after that, for me it went downhill. The grieving Theo keeps the painting hidden, first (I think) as a connection to his mother, and then because he realises he has committed a criminal act as he travels from New York to Las Vegas and back. And the story, for me, becomes bogged down in far too much detail about the next couple of years of his life, before suddenly leaping forward to his adulthood and the events that lead his Amsterdam hotel room. It is beautifully written, and there are some fine descriptive passages, and maybe it's just that I don't really get that interested in books about art or music, but the whole thing left me a little underwhelmed...Looking at the reviews it seems to have divided critics, and same goes for my twitter timeline, so if you love Donna Tartt, it's definitely worth a go (and if you enjoy it, it would be great to hear why, because I really really wish I had.)

"The End of Your Life Bookclub" Will Schwalbe I'd heard about this book, and was intrigued, but probably wouldn't have bought it. So I'm glad my friend Oli gave it to me, as it was a real treat. The book describes the  "End of Your Life Bookclub" formed between Scwalbe and his mother, Mary Anne, as she completes  a bout of chemotherapy, and continues over the next two and a half years till the end of her life. It's a wonderful portrait of a loving relationship between mother and son, how it is possible to live well with cancer, to have a peaceful death and of course the sheer joy that books bring.  It didn't matter that I hadn't read half the books they did, and sometimes disagreed with their conclusions, I just loved their discussions. And it was great how the books they read sometimes reflected the reality of their experience, sometimes were an escape, but always filled both their lives with purpose. Mary Anne leaps off the page as a passionate, political feminist, loving mother, friend, grandmother, wife.  Which makes her inevitable death at the end extremely poignant. It had a particular resonance for me as my own mother died of cancer this year (like Mary Anne, she was brave, funny, and lived her last days with optimism and love) but you don't need to have had that experience to appreciate this book. It's superb and is highly recommended.

"The Pesthouse" Jim Crace I wasn't planning to read this book, because post-apocalyptic fiction is Chris' thing not mine, but he was raving about it so much that when he'd finished, I had to pick it up. And with one fell swoop, I have become a Jim Crace fan, because this book is terrific. It takes place in a future America that for unexplained reasons has lost its technology and fragmented into small rural communities. The novel starts with Franklin and his brother who are embarked on a journey East to escape the continent for the dream of a better life overseas. Franklin's swollen knee means he needs to rest, whilst his brother goes on to the town below. Meanwhile Margaret is infected by a possible deathly disease and is confined to the local "pesthouse" to die or recover. When Franklin comes across her, trying to escape a storm, he is first wary, and then as he realises she is getting better and he is in no danger he helps her recuperate. Slowly they begin to form a tentative friendship, returning to the town when she is feeling better. But it has been swept away in a flash flood that has killed everyone. So they journey east together, encountering fellow travellers, violent slave traders,  devout Baptists and  a houseful of prostitutes on the way. This is a marvellous novel, which captures perfectly the desperation of the travellers trying to escape to a better life, the developing relationship with Franklin and Margaret and the ever present fear of disease and "the pesthouse". It's excellent, and another recommend.

"Jezebel"  Irene Nemirovsky took a while to get into, but it was really worth the effort. The book opens with a quite mundane account of a court case of the  trial of a beautiful rich woman, Gladys who is accused of killing her younger lover. Within the first few chapters the trial is over, and we are then allowed in to the real story of Gladys's life, and the truth behind her relationship with the victim. It's an absorbing picture of a monstrously selfish woman, whose fear of losing her youth and looks drives every decision of her life. It's also a quick read, so a good one for a train journey or when you've a few hours to kill. So yes, that's another thumbs up from me.

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced" Agatha Christie. I hadn't been intending to read these either, but since Beth picked them up, they were a good diversion from the heavy stuff. I'd read Roger Ackroyd years ago, and though I knew what was coming, it was still a good old fashioned murder mystery and it was fun to meet Hercule Poirot again. The second was a Miss Marple adventure I hadn't come across. It was a rollicking read, though you had to blip over the stereotypical jolly upper middle class cast. I didn't see the end coming and as with most Christie's it was quite clever, though Miss Marple's role in the uncovering of the murderer was pretty far fetched.  I was surprised that one female character  turned down a marriage proposal to go on the stage, which was quite heartening really, but generally (as with most Christie novels) the characters were fairly two dimensional. But then you don't read Christie for her character insights but for her tantalising murder mysteries. She's never a challenging read, but always a pleasure, if you like that sort of thing.

"The End of the Affair" Graham Greene. You may remember from reading previous posts that I adore Graham Greene, and this was one novel I'd always intended to read. (I say novel, but actually it's a novella. It's less than 200 pages and I finished it in a less than a day.) So I was very excited to pick it up in Laugharne. Though for once, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. It tells the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is still feeling the effects of the end of his affair with Sarah, a married woman, two years after she abruptly broke it off. When he encounters Sarah's husband, Henry, who believes Sarah is seeing another man, Bendrix hires a private detective to find out, only to discover the truth of the matter is far more complex than he imagined. As usual, in a Greene novel, the characters struggle with their fallibilities (in this case Bendrix' extreme jealousy) and beliefs. And he portrays the triangle between Sarah, Maurice, and Henry, and their various failings very well. What was less convincing for me was the nature of Sarah's growing relationship with God and what that meant for everyone else. It was quite similar, in places, to "Brideshead Revisited", by fellow Catholic, Evelyn Waugh and both novels reflect the way Catholics felt about God, love, marriage and divorce at that time. My Catholicism comes from a different era, so a lot of it I found unnecessarily overwrought, and unlike Brideshead, I wasn't left with much hope at the end. I can't say it's my favourite Greene novel, but it's got an intensity about it that's worth sticking with. And if you can live with the anachronistic approach that runs through it, it is, on balance worth it.

As for the ones not quite finished, "The Master and Margarita" is brilliant and I am really enjoying it (though I have put it down again, so mustn't lose it this time round). "Bleeding Kansas" is a surprise from Sara Paretsky, who I know as the writer of the gritty VI Warshawski crime novels. This book is centred on an isolated mid west farming community, and already has the feel of a tragedy slowly building. It has quite a similar setting to "The Whistling Season", though I'm sensing that's a more optimistic story. I'm keen to finish both to see if I'm right.  The three Jane Gardam stories I've read are excellent, and it's too early to tell what "Let the Great World Spin" is about (though it seems to feature a tight rope across the twin towers). And the Beowulf, though dense in places, and far longer then I imagined (the Grendel story is only part of it), is rich in drama and wonderful language, a nice contrast to the more modern writers.

There you have it. Hope it's whetted your appetite and there are some here that you might read for yourself.

In the meantime I'm heading off for the bank holiday with several of the unfinished books with me. I'll report back when I'm done.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The joys of twitter fiction

It's an exciting year for David Mitchell fans. Not only has he got a new book out, but the usually retiring author has recently ventured into social media and organised a series of author talks in the Autumn. (Hubby and I besides ourselves with the prospect of seeing him in Oxford and I just hope I don't disgrace myself the way I did when I met Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson).  To cap all that, last week, he decided to use his twitter account to tell a short story - "The Right Sort." Twice a day, throughout the week, he posted a section of the story tweet by tweet. And what an absorbing reader experience it was. On the first day, I was around at the right time, and sat with bated breath, waiting for the next tweet to appear on my timeline. For the next couple, I kept missing it, so had to go to his timeline, go back to where I left, and then read backwards up the page. This was fine, but it did mean that I saw some of the more recent tweets first, or overshot and went back too far which made for a dizzying read. Then I noticed his publishers had cleverly organised the tweets in the right order and were posting the story at the stage it had just finished, which made it a little easier and gave me the chance to read from the beginning again. And in the last couple of days I did all three: reading a tweet at a time, reading backwards and forwards and reading all the way through.  All of which added to my enjoyment of the tale of gothic horror that unfolded, whilst enabling me to enjoy the frequent cliffhangers too. Not surprisingly, since this was David Mitchell writing, the story was a fine example of twitter fiction at it's best. The prose was beautiful, and full of rich imagery.  Each tweet was carefully constructed (impressive for someone who does not use twitter regularly), each section well paced, and built up to the next instalment effectively, and the story raced inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. It includes usual wry observations such "Theo Jukes told me, ‘Know what, Nathan – I think we’re going to be mates.’ Right. Know what, Theo – I don’t" and "Another boy around changes stuff. Who’s cooler? Who’s harder? Who’s cleverer? Who’s swottier? I’ll have to work it all out." There's Mitchell's  fabulous wordplay such as his clever use of "The Fox and Hounds" and a very chilling understanding at the end of what the right sort actually means. Throw in a malevolent dog,  a weird mother and son, a creepy house, odd happenings, a hallucinatory atmosphere, a brooding sense of danger and you have a terrific story, that only improves on re-reading. It was an excellent example of twitter fiction and I do hope it won't be Mitchell's last.

But of course, David Mitchell didn't invent the form. Lots of writers have been playing about with twitter fiction for some time. Joanne Harris has been posting her #storytime for ages, and they are always great fun. Here you can read the cautionary tale of the Lacewing King who really should have been careful what he wished for, and which comes with a great last minute twist. Apparently Harris sometimes loses followers during #storytime which I find bizarre - her stories are so entertaining  I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to stay to the end. (Besides what  did  her followers think would happen when they followed a writer of fiction who enjoys playing with ways to tell stories?) But twitter fiction doesn't have to be  a long story -The Guardian has a regular feature of asking famous authors to write a story in a single tweet. You can find some brilliant examples of their concise storytelling here. In fact twitter fiction is so popular it even has its own online festival, twenty four hours of tales told tweet by tweet.

I made my first foray into twitter fiction in 2010 with this early Friday Flash. Like many writers I'm very interested with the impact that the internet has on our lives. This story started from the thought that while social media can connect us, we can never really know what is going on for the people we interact with. I envisaged a character continuing to tweet trivia even during a personal tragedy. I wanted readers to wonder why was she doing this. Was it because she was cold, shallow, or so overwhelmed that she couldn't really function except through talking to people she didn't really know?  I wrote the story backwards, as if the tweets had appeared on a real twitter page, and for simplicity only showed the protagonist's answers to her fictional twitter friends, so the reader had to work out what the other person's original tweet had been. It was my hope that readers would read back to the start, and then read from the bottom of the page up, and by doing so, they would read  between the lines and start asking questions about who this woman was and why she acted the way she did. It was only partially successful,  as whilst most readers applauded the effort, most were confused (as you can see from the comments section!). I worked hard on dealing with the criticism, re-writing the story as "Following Miss Piggy's Timeline", which was subsequently accepted in a pamphlet to accompany this wonderful exhibition (check me at 4:56 looking at the room made of books, I'm the one with the glasses). Unfortunately space was tight so the edited version was equally baffling to lots of my friends but the lovely people at Blank Media got what I was trying to do, so that's OK.

After that, I was possessed by the idea that it would be fun to do something live and interactive on twitter. And so I came up with "Some Days in the Life". I fixed on a celebrity obsessed Mum,  Ally - twitter handle - The Derby Diva, whose relationship with her son was fractious, due to her over-protectiveness, his selfishness and the girlfriend he loved but she hated.  I fixed on the weekend of her son's 18th birthday as an opportunity to tell a story in real time, and I invited people over twitter to join in, by either developing a character I'd created or making one of their own. I pitched the idea to the Twitter Fiction Festival 2012,and though it was rejected, I had by that time got enough participants to go ahead and so we ran it that weekend (November 29th - December 1st 2012).

In order to make the whole thing a bit more believable, I invited people to set up their twitter accounts early and start interacting before the proper story started. This allowed a bit of back story to build up, but also  helped people get comfortable with their characters. If I'd been very brave, I would have not let on that this was fiction. However, I decided it was fairer to make it clear what was happening by announcing each time we were about to run the story, via my own timeline, and to ensure the twitter profiles made it clear our characters were fictional.  Even so, I managed to get a tweet back from a radio show, from a comment my character made, and they clearly thought Ally was real, so it shows how easy fiction and  life can merge.

And so to the weekend itself. I sketched out a rough plot before we started, shared some information with some people and some with others. I wanted people to react to events in real time  and the surprise factor was on occasion really important. I split the weekend into chapter blocks that ran for about an hour, and then we kicked off.

We started with Ally's son Jack, known to her as Lazy Boy (beautifully written by my sister Julia Williams) receiving birthday presents as both of them posted about it. Ally was totally unaware that Jack was following her and making snide comments, though all the others knew this secret. As the morning progressed, the other characters began to comment. Fitness Dee, Ally's best friend, was full of joy and great health advice. Rosie Collyer and Beverley Sharpe, created alter-egos on their real timelines, to create new personas of Ally's loud and lairy pub friends, winding Jack up with their fake cougar tendencies. (They were incredibly convincing and very funny, so goodness knows what their real twitter followers made of it). Miriam Morell came in as Gabrielle the girl Ally wished her son would choose, whilst Daine Salmon gave Jack back up as a twitter friend from the  States. And my friend Anne Booth appeared every so often as herself, trying to encourage everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.

Over the course of the weekend there were drunken fights, jealousy, a dangerous ex of Jack's girlfriend stalking around, a hilarious subplot involving the cougars, and Fitness Dee's husband,  as Ally and Jack were variously at odds and making up with each other. As things became more and more strained, Ally turned her phone off and retreated to the TV to tweet about I'm a Celebrity and The X Factor, and thereby missed her son ending up in hospital on the Saturday night, while he pleaded with his mother to get in touch.  The fall out from that led to a fraught birthday party on Sunday, much enhanced by the surprising addition of Granny May, an invention of my sister Julia, who suddenly arrived and took over. By Sunday tea time, things had deteriorated so badly that Jack and Ally were left wondering would they ever speak to each other again, paving the way for a make or break final chapter on Sunday evening.

I have no idea if anyone other than us actually followed what was happening, but it was a lot of fun to do. And it was surprising how tense I found myself becoming at various points of the story. I was also shocked at how outraged I was when Granny May started taking Jack's side against Ally, almost screeching at the screen you don't know what it's been like here. Caroline admitted she was equally upset when Ally, cold-shouldered Dee on the Sunday morning for not letting on Jack was on twitter, whilst Julia was pretty cross with me that I wouldn't allow Courtney, Jack's girlfriend any mercy.  All of which goes to show that it probably isn't a good idea to mix one's real and fictional lives too often.

It did get a bit messy at times, with people tweeting over each other, and at the Sunday party tweeting so fast at each other, that several contradictory things kept happening. It was also quite hard sometimes to remember that we were all supposed to be socialising,  so it was a bit strange that we were tweeting to people in the same room, rather than always commenting on the action. But a coherent narrative did emerge, and though it's nowhere near as elegant as Joanne Harris or David Mitchell (who I suspect spent a long time honing those phrases), I think it stands as a fascinating experiment. I hope it says something about families, and modern life, and how social media can sometimes expose far more of our lives than we might imagine. (And as a side note, I found myself obsessively following I'm a Celeb and X Factor tweets, so Ally could comment. Without watching either programme, I correctly predicted the winners, which says something, I think!) After it was done, I tidied it up and if you are interested you can see the results here. (Don't be fooled by the high level of visitor numbers though, I think Scribd gets spammed a lot!)

I sometimes read articles bemoaning the damage the internet, on-line shopping and e-books have done to fiction, and they always make me smile a bit. Because, whilst it's true physical books and novels have a lot of competition these days, sometimes that competition allows writers to play with new forms, and new ways of interacting with readers, and that's got to be a good thing for readers and writers alike. And whilst my preferred medium is always the book, and my preferred form of fiction, the novel,  twitter fiction has enhanced my experience as a reader and a writer. For, that reason alone, I am glad it is here to stay.