Fiction: EVERY character counts.

An exhibition of Breugel is showing at the Holburne, Bath, the first UK exhibition devoted to the dynasty. Not huge or cheap, but well displayed. The family tree shows the connections between the different artists. Breugel the elder, his two sons, one of Jan’s sons, two of his grandsons.

According to Johnson’s recent article in the Guardian, only Pieter, the elder is worthy of acclaim. The younger, he finds derivative, although his copies of Pieter snr’s work have served us well for centuries.

Things might have been different if the sons had received tuition from their father but sadly he died when they were infants. They were apparently taught by their grandmother. That’s a tale in itself.

Johnson doesn’t rate this, that the Holburne displays proudly:  

For the writer, however, the fascination lies in the characterisation shown in every tiny face appearing in the lively paintings. The Breugels studied and reproduced their local people and events rather than imagined religious ones. Avarice, shame, embarrassment, lust, enjoyment are only some of the emotions portrayed in the works. The faces, movement and expressions take us to a time we couldn’t have summoned up with that accuracy.

Writing a novel, have you made every character notable, memorable, as those in a Breugel painting? Even a walk-on part can illuminate the scene, his character impinging on the plot even if minimally.  It’s a wonderful recommendation if readers comment on the particular characters you have created, superb if they’re recalled some months later.

Breugel characters  are alive in the moment of seeing the paintings. This gives the writer a goal to strive for.

 

Unlikeable character – makes you read on

The first of my crime shorts features an unlikeable character: a young boy, ‘innocent’ in some senses and, depending on the reader’s assessment, possibly in all senses.

I wrote this in the third person but from the main character’s (MC) point of view. (Close 3rd person). The narrator is unreliable, which makes for more effort from the reader. S/he doesn’t have to like the MC.  A sneaky liking for an unlikeable character makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for him.) The edginess can derive from the reader’s being in the MC’s head.  The reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – despite even horror or outrage.

Something unnerving, uneasy, something left ambiguous, can make you read on. There’s a question: is this character telling the truth, or will there be a revelation that will make me re-think? Questions precede page-turns. Edginess is by its nature, an unclear signal.

Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form, especially close to home, can cause the uneasiest feelings; an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential. You can decide for yourself with the free kindle ebook today One Amazon reviewer stated ‘The darkest, most horrible story I’ve ever read.’ (1 star) That wasn’t my intention: more to provoke unease and reflection. Have I done this?

Do let me know in a review.

 

REVIEW of IMPACT from Discovering Diamonds

It was good to receive this review of IMPACT, which is Book 3 of my trilogy, A Relative Invasion. The review comes from the Discovering Diamonds website. This site reviews historical fiction exclusively and awards a ‘Diamond’ to successful books.

The reviewer said,

“Impact is the third book in a trilogy about a family torn apart by World War II.

The obvious first question is: should the reader have read the first two books in the trilogy (Intrusion and Infiltration) in order to fully appreciate Impact? My answer would have to be that it is not necessary, but advisable. My enjoyment of Impact was not significantly impaired by not having read the earlier volumes, but I did feel it would have helped to have had a better understanding of what lies behind the hostility between Bill and his cousin Kenneth which is the source of the central conflict in the novel, particularly as this is a good story.

At the start of Impact, Bill and his mother arrive back at their London home as Victory in Europe has been declared. The war in the Far East is still continuing. The women and children have been evacuated to the countryside in order to escape the bombing of England’s capital city (the period covered in the earlier books). The men are serving in the forces.

The book follows Bill’s adolescence in post-war London with its bomb sites and shortages of food and clothing, as he matures from a twelve-year-old boy helping his mother and grandparents, into a teenager about to embark on National Service. But it is his relationship with his older but weaker cousin, Kenneth, that gives unwanted shape to his life, a constant source of simmering resentment.

The style of writing changes subtly as the boys age, the early chapters using language appropriate for a twelve-year-old, such as might be found in one of Enid Blyton’s juvenile mysteries featuring the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. By the time we reach part two, with both boys now in their mid-teens, the language is more mature, though still using expressions in dialogue which, whilst commonplace in that time and place, seem archaic today.

In some ways the relationship between Bill and Kenneth is reminiscent of that between Tom Brown and Flashman in Thomas Hughes’s nineteenth century classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Bill is the quiet, hard-working, kind and athletic, rather than intellectual, character, whilst Kenneth is the academically gifted bully. The characters are so well drawn that, as with Hughes’s novel, it is not impossible to feel some sympathy for both.

There are other parallels: Hughes’s novel is deeply revealing of Victorian attitudes to society and class; Ms Minett’s, similarly, exposes the snobbery and contempt for the labouring classes that existed among the suburban middle classes in 1940s Britain. The well drawn period details provide a believably realistic context for the development of both plot and character. Although I did spot one error regarding the radio show Round the Horn, which was in fact, first broadcast later than this novel depicts.

The story progresses steadily towards the shocking climax of Part One which drives the reader to  continue reading into Part Two in order to discover the consequence for both boys.

(It would have provided spoilers if the reviewer had said more about Part Two and I appreciate that he avoided this).

He concludes: “Impact provides a reminder for my generation (I was born in 1941) of how different life was in those distant, mid-twentieth century, days. For younger readers it offers valuable insights into the hardships and sacrifices their grandparents made in order to create the many social and educational advantages they enjoy.”

(I do think that adolescents would be shocked by what ‘austerity’ felt like in the 1940s, particularly the restricted diet!)

Obsessive women: satirical short stories

Obsessive women? In this 2nd edition of Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, there are stories short and long about women of all ages, at all stages.

Katie Fforde called the stories “Quirky and Intriguing”. No, they are not erotica. Hardly a glimpse of bare flesh. There is a subtly dark edge to the stories, most of which seem, at first, light-hearted. My intention was for readers to have second thoughts, just after they’ve finished a story.  

The Kindle and ebook versions are at promotion price of 0.99 this week. The paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops and on Amazon. It makes a good present for someone you know, or better still, their husband. A top-100 Amazon reviewer states “. .  . their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki”

During the writing, I imagined being each of these women: aged sixteen, covered with tattoos and lusting for good legs in a man; a shocked and frustrated shopper experiencing a moral dilemma; someone infertile, another overly fertile, a women with a dreadful aversion, someone adored and someone certainly not. I wrote them at different times and in different places, and subsequently forgot them.

The collection began when I came across one, describing the most neurotic of the group. I realized I had several stories about women unused in my files. Looking them all out, I discovered their obsessions. I added more stories, coveringimages various kinds of angst. Reviewers converge on the descriptor ‘quirky’.

My other fiction is more serious, but, look, my avatar has two sides. These stories represent my irreverent one. I did enjoy writing them!

 You’ll encounter an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.

New writer? Writing persistence.

Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.

Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).

This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.

What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.dyslexia

On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It could well set you on a good, productive path.

Persistence pays, and King has evidenced this. 

Five essential writing tools

Starting out on your first writing journey?

Starting out, Flickr, Simonov

If you are just starting out to write and self-publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, put some money aside for the journey. After all, if you were about to open a shop,  or offer a repair service, you’d expect up-front costs. Don’t expect the writer’s expense to be limited to computer, printer, ink, paper and reference books. Below I’ve listed five essential writing tools. You will be very thankful for these. If I’d known of them when I began, I’d have saved many months of time.

  1. WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes you. Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy. Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out. Yes, you have to learn how but you can use the tutorials, or, easier, buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies where the only tilt at your newness to the application is the occasional very weak (and patronising) joke. When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help.
  2. EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid This is a comprehensive editor, good to use chapter by chapter so that when the book is finished, your editor and proof reader will have far less work and cost you less. Pro-writing aid surveys your grammar, writing style, (over) use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you are progressing with your book.
  3. READ GUIDANCE Kindle  If you don’t have one, do it now. This cheapest one is quite good enough, clear to read indoors or out. You can download free, or free to read guides for your writing, marketing, style etc. onto the Kindle and have it beside you as you work on your book on your desktop or laptop. That’s so much easier than reading, making notes or trying to remember steps, and then returning to your computer to put it into practice.
  4. NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, but more likely you will want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images and add text. It’s quick, too.
  5. FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. 
    This advice comes from painful experience. If you don’t follow any of it, the same pain will be yours!

Writers’ Criminal Ideas – developing a short story

I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ because I rarely know. When I wake, story phrases or conversations come to me out of the dull mist of very early morning.

But in respect of this story, I can give a direct answer about my criminal ideas.  

Some years ago I was watching the news of multiple shootings in a school by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the media tried to analyse its reasons. Sadly, other such massacres have followed.

As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. I remember several school haters rather than school refusers holed up in their bedrooms after school, keeping themselves separate from family and peers. These boys, and sometimes girls, believed those around them were ignorant of what they themselves knew. Their ‘knowledge’ was of violence, rebellion, conspiracy, retribution. They had dark posters on the wall. Those youngsters, I can’t write about, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that role.

I can’t write about those particular youngsters, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that state of alienation. (This writer’s criminal ideas)

I created a younger boy from another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year.   

Later it won a Bloomsbury review after topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that she “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” She went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” She suggested how I might develop it as a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl‘.

I put the story with its criminal ideas to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.  Later I tweaked it and put it on Kindle. “A Boy with Potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. Will it be a killer?

It’s a 5k read. I believe there is an appetite for stories of that length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words.

Icy Short Story – performance art

‘Icy short story’ could feature a crime, an arctic setting, or a scientific experiment – even cryogenics.

These skilled stories heard by the packed audience at Story Fridays in Bath, UK.   My own icy story explored the ultimate chill in a relationship. 

There’s a growing popularity for short stories as performance art. Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear, in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, is the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway. The event occurs every second month inspired by a theme. The most recent is theme was ICE.

I was very happy that one of my short stories was chosen: A Fragment Retained, and thrilled that it was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox

Sometimes it’s better not to read your own story when it’s written in the first person: the association with the writer/reader can distract the audience from the writing itself. More importantly, my story was delivered far more effectively by Kirsty. Why read a mini drama yourself when you can have a professional?  You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed the story of a woman trapped into an unplanned conclusion.

This icy story is a mid-point gasp in my (mostly humorous) collection of satirical short stories, Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men.   (The companion volume, Curious Men, follows later this year). The story has another name in the book. I tweaked it for performance. It’s often a good idea to make adaptations for stories heard, rather than stories read silently.

Last time I had a story in Story Friday I also enjoyed the advantage of a very skilled actor  performing, (Olly Langdon). He memorably brought my character, a WWI POW to life, which would have been difficult for a woman to achieve.

It is nice to connect with an audience through something you’ve written, reading it as if written especially for them. I enjoy doing this when the story is a narrative, but these two stories had a single distressed character and they benefited enormously from the actors’ magic touch.

Stories for performance need such decisions – personal connection with the audience, or making a character more credible?

 

 

Writers, do you beautify your main character?


Prince Albert – Winterhalter

The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.

I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy.  There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.

Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s  favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.

It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.

Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.

History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.