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.

Genre? Striking a new note.

 

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What genre?

Writers are always advised to be clear about their book’s genre and to concentrate upon a target group for it. Fantasy stories, for readers of fantasies, sci fi for sci fi readers, and so on. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to please an audience of one genre with your book in a totally different one? That would be a real achievement. I suspect that multiply-awarded Wolf Hall has not managed this. However, it can happen.

Let’s take music as an example. I’ve never liked jazz, despite the fact that my eldest is a musician playing both classical and jazz. It irritates me, the extemporisation on a theme. Simple soul, I want the theme, please. But then one day the Hot Sardines came on the radio and converted me. For those non-jazz lovers, this is a band that has put on wild live shows all around New York City – and now much further in the world.

I was chatting to a young teenager who had only ever read Harry Potter for his leisure reading and was forced to read ’The Scarlet Pimpernel ‘ as curriculum work. Reluctantly, and after much grumbling, he ‘worked through’ the book and came out a convert to historical fiction. ‘I really reckoned the French Revolution and the scheming. Cool. I’m into it now.’ Mightn’t he have been easier to motivate if the cover hadn’t been the one shown below right?

The fact that this series had a very wide appeal is demonstrated by the very different covers, presumably targeting contrasting reader groups. Here are just a few. On a bookshop table, each would likely attract very different shoppers. Scarlpimp Scarlpimp2 Scarlpimp3 136116

It makes you think, if you’re a writer yourself, doesn’t it? It is pretty easy to change a cover and re-upload your title, or to have several covers showing for sale. A number of long-standing successful novels have two or more different covers.

Here’s one of John Wyndham’s, again likely to appeal to different audiences:

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Of course you need a title that doesn’t confine you; ‘Lolita’ or ‘War and Peace’, for instance.

Otherwise, one advantage of being an Indie author is that you have control over your own covers. Almost worth avoiding mainstream publishing for that fact alone?

Writer blogs and their lifetime

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Some few years ago I began my first writer blog:

http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com. But I didn’t want to show myself– I let my characters do the talking. Sadly, the characters didn’t live up to the image of Moliére’s group above.  It was more like this on the left. womensclub

I had just published my collection of satirical short stories and I wanted a writer blog that would speak about them, but one that would stop short of marketing. In that respect I fully succeeded; I talked about all the characters, it was humorous, and it didn’t market. I doubt if I sold one copy of the book as result of that site.

But I did have fun and, it seems, this writer blog appealed to the Ukrainians who followed every post(!) The characters became real, including one with a fish phobia, another who could only operate from a chaise longue, and one who was worried about her husband lurking near, ready to snatch her back from her recent liaison. The characters took over the blog completely, writing the dialogue including blistering criticism of me, their author. They started a literary criticism group, discussing each others’ tales. That was extremely unedifying and more than a tad bitchy. Altogether, this wasn’t an author blog, it was a characters’ blog. There was even an intruder, Russell, a character from one of my as-yet incomplete novels.  It’s always good to have an outside perspective on things, isn’t it?

I have just written the final post on this blog. It’s had nearly 23,000 visitors but it’s run its course. The book, Me-Time Tales,  is in its second and expanded edition with new stories, additional characters. Kindle_Cover_opt I need to spend time writing on this blog, and on the author website (http://RosalindMinett.com) that, very belatedly, I am preparing.

I have said Goodbye today to my quirky blog giving this representation of one of mymattress characters. She was moaning that I hadn’t included the new characters from the 2nd edition so, as a swan song, I mentioned her and two others (rather miserable characters).

Now to the serious business of writing. The site you are on is straightforward if far less creative than fictionalcharacterswriting. I learned a lot while blogging on there. But I am not recommending such a time-consuming exercise to new writers or any writers, unless as an alternative to doing Codewords or Adult Colouring.

How far should we write for our own pleasure? One successful marketer, MaAnna Stephenson, has recently stated that before even writing a book she would carry out her marketing exercise: appetite for such a book, pitch, response, audience and so on.

Oh dear. We writers know what we should do but we just carry on writing the stuff in our heads. Our silly heads?

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Writing a suitable home

Settling in at home – again?

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Who is to decide what ‘home’ is ‘suitable’? How does it feel to the one ‘homed’? In HOMED, the second in my Crime Shorts series, a boy is being ‘helped’ to settle to a conventional home life. Something is wrong, but it isn’t easy to work out. Is a crime imminent, or has one already happened?

One of the issues I had in mind when I wrote this was the Australian disgust in the 50s and 60s when they built standard homes for aborigines and then found that understanding and use of sanitation and housekeeping did not come automatically with the facilities provided. The sentiment was ‘it’s not worth giving them anything civilized.’ The realization that those homes were impossibly wrong for the Aborigine essential life-style and culture.

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Similarly, what may seem to be a ‘nice’ solution for an individual in need may ignore aspects that are essential to him/her. As a psychologist, I often saw people before and after being homed, often for reasons thought entirely separate from the homing experience.

We have to be inside the head of our characters when writing fiction. It’s an exercise to see a situation from inside, or from a point of view not too visible.

There are crimes motivated by negative emotions: jealousy, anger, need to control/overpower. There are also crimes perpetrated by ignorance. The crimes we may feel most are those that penetrate our individuality. Blind kindness, adherence to established process, bureaucracy – these can lead to damage also.

Read this story and decide where the crime lies.

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Homed. (Crime Shorts Book 2)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00VAVQ1DS

Readers’ Christmas Sav(i)ours

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Yes it’s that time again. Christmas Dinner. Marie couldn’t get a cloth to match the curtains and now Cyril’s coming (groan), the rattan chair will need to be squeezed  between whoever looks thinnest on arrival. It will ruin the symmetry of the display.
PRESENTS!!! Is there one for everyone? No? Off to the bookshop. Okay, Amazon, if you’re static. Ignore highly reviewed and popularised paperbacks. Others will have had that thought. Be original.  You can’t? You have gone blank with Christmasitis?

Here are my solutions:

I IMAGINE YOUR CHRISTMAS GUESTS INCLUDE:

Lorraine: She has frequent periods of depression following failed relationships. In her downs she retires to bed and reads avidly. Take those romances away, they only make her cry. She needs a new way of thinking. She needs a new way of thinking. 
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ANSWER: How to be a Good Wife,  Bodleian Library. Lorraine might as well consider what worked in 1936 even if she is never to be a wife herself.

Cyril:   Once he represented HM as consul in a distant island. Life was slow, uncultured and extremely comfortable. Now returned, he swings between part-time futile consultancies and no longer feels sufficiently important. He needs a book that will give him instant gravitas.51cyouGon5L._SY410_BO1204203200_-150x150

ANSWER: Dull men of Great Britain. Leland Carlson.  Now Cyril will feel he is actually an interesting person himself.

 Avril:     Sharper than all of us, she appears to have read EVERYTHING,518WtTH3gkL._SX391_BO1204203200_-150x150 mostly with a cynical eye. She needs to be softened up, to learn that leisure books exist. And she should try being the hostess for once. Let her cook.
ANSWER: FIFTY SHADES OF CHICKEN F.L.Fowler (of course)
 Dominic:   He is a dandy, valuing appearance far too much. Apart from a mirror, he needs to think big, and particularly to think. Go carefully, too taxing a b61hKIizWwlL._SX369_BO1204203200_-150x150ook will prevent him from opening the cover.  This should suit.
ANSWER: Shepherd Spy  Simon Drew.
Tom:     He gains enormous pleasure from reading books that have faults. It will fill the room with his tenor bleats if you can find a badly edited book with an erudite author. Unfortunately, I dare not nominate one, or every word I write in the future will be spat upon. The other alternative is a book that invites extension of vocabulary.
ANSWER:  The Horologican: A Day’s Jaunt through the Lost Words of the English Language. The impeccable Mark Forsyth. Hardback.That’ll shut Tom up.
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Siobhan:   She’s a secondary school teacher (History, and can sub for English). She would like to gain insight into the privations of 1940s Britain while munching gluttonous Xmas snacks, so give her Book 1 and 2 of this trilogy. Evacuation is on the curriculum (yr 9) so she can pass it off as homework next term.
ANSWER:  Historical fiction. A Relative Invasion, Rosalind Minett. Book 1, Intrusion. Book 2, Infiltration. No swearing, sex or violence (unless you count psychological violence). A tale of resilience from pov of young boy.
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Marie:    Always the hostess, never the guest. Give her something so gripping she won’t bother ever to make a hot toddy for anyone, let alone a cooked meal.
ANSWER:  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  Harari.  Come on, Marie, let zip those neurons. A bit of physical anthropology will do you the world of good.
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 LASTLY, Dear child, male or female. May you always be eclectic in your reading. May you have adults around who choose your books well.

416iYcFxnXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ANSWER: THE RUNAWAY SMILE  Nicholas Rossis. Beautifully illustrated. An engaging read with an embedded message to steer your darlings throughout childhood.

 

Have fun with the party games, everyone. I’ve just provided the Fit the book to the beast game.  OR just give the kids 1000 brain teasers and let them tell you the answers during your post-prandial.

                       HAPPY CHRISTMAS

ARABIA – Walter de la Mare

ARABIA.

What is left to say?

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This was the first poem I loved, and it’s still my favourite. Here the country is the character, and like all well-drawn characters it is complex and has its dark side.

 

Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon,
‘Mid the verdurous vales and thickets,
Under the ghost of the moon;
And so dark is that vaulted purple
Flowers in the forest rise
And toss into blossom ‘gainst the phantom stars
Pale in the noonday skies.

Sweet is the music of Arabia
In my heart, when out of dreams
I still in the thin clear mirk of dawn
Descry her gliding streams;
Hear her strange lutes on the green banks
Ring loud with the grief and delight
Of the dim-silked, dark-haired Musicians
In the brooding silence of night.

They haunt me — her lutes and her forests;
No beauty on earth I see
But shadowed with that dream recalls
Her loveliness to me:
Still eyes look coldly upon me,
Cold voices whisper and say —
‘He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,
They have stolen his wits away.’

ARABIA – Walter de la Mare

 

 

Author Litfest talks

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Literature Festival speakers. How can they best serve the audience? What makes attendance worthwhile for the writer?

For fans, seeing their favourite writer, or one who has fascinated them, is an exciting and uplifting experience. For writers, writing or research techniques may be uppermost in their minds when they attend to the author speaking about his/her book. There is a variety of approach an author might use, such as at WellsLitFest where the authors used a podium to deliver talks illustrated by their readings. I was privileged to hear Jonathan Bate give the first of his (superb) talks about his just-published Ted Hughes:the Unauthorized Life.  As an academic at the pinnacle of his profession, he is an exemplar of this approach. However, the podium speech can be the undoing of speakers without his fluency, confidence and erudition.
Unknown-1Two other recent presentations, both by favourite authors of mine,  allow an interesting comparison of approach.

Jeanette Winterson came to a church in Bath, thanks to the excellent Toppings bookshop’s fest, and wowed a packed audience with a theatrical exposition around her latest book,The Gap in Time.  41eJ+yx5MuL._AA160_

The jazz music increased in volume, the slight figure with an aurora of back curls strode up the aisle. A video of stage, screen and radio versions of A Winter’s Tale then preceded Winterson’s own dramatic performance. The voices of her characters rang out, even their oaths resounded beneath the stone reliefs of dead benefactors. I couldn’t help thinking of the rigidly religious Mrs Winterson, adoptive mother, bridling in outrage. As Jeanette Winterson stood where once there had been a pulpit, the drama around the foundling, pulled from the receiving window of the convent by her protagonist became immediately alive for us. A compelling reading continued for half an hour.

This can truly be described as an oeuvre, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as a novel, and brought into the present day to New Bohemia, an imagined area in New York.

With hardly a breath’s gap, Winterson went on to describe the historical and dramaturgical context of her novel. For instance, the changes in theatrical productions at the time Shakespeare had this play showing at The Globe, and how the innovation of intervals affected his play structure. Admirably fluent, she then discussed her own re-creation of the storyline, her choice of concepts and people to fill the character roles, and her powerful attachment to this play. The foundling that she was in her personal life and loved in A Winter’s Tale, led to the making of her novel and for a riveting hour for her audience.

Of most impact for me, however, was the fact that a play was recreated as a novel. The telling of this writing process then became a theatrical production in its own right.

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Another winter was presented in a totally different manner at the Budleigh Salterton Litfest. Patrick Gale spoke of his book using the conventional style of the two armchairs, the glass of water, the introduction and intelligent questioning from the discussant. Putting his new novel in its context, Gale chatted about his fortunate childhood and education: the loving parents,  the enlightened teacher who allowed an afternoon every week for writerly boys to sit and write without interruption or instruction, his family’s total tolerance and freedom to be himself that contrasted so tellingly with what Winterson had experienced. It was as if we were no longer in Budleigh Salterton’s village hall, but relaxing back on leather armchairs, drink in hand, listening to the urbane author in a post-prandial chat. He is as entertaining in talk as he is on page.

A Place Called Winter is not a soft and gentle story. At many points it is tragic and in some places tough on the emotions.

51ADERXR47L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ (This hardback version’s cover I much prefer to the paperback one)

The context of this novel is very personal since the tale is based on the experience of Gale’s grandfather. He went to Canada at a time when land was being given free to those who would live there and farm it. Once there, the new landowners discovered that they were now incredibly remote from any sign of civilization, and that for many months they struggled to avoid being literally frozen. This man left his comfortable life, his wife and children to go. But there was a reason.

Discussion of this reason took us through the Victorian response when facing anything different, especially within the family. Gale captivated his audience with often amusing anecdotes of his own experience, those he had discovered about his grandfather, and had imagined for his protagonist who is an extension into fiction.

Winter is at several levels in this novel. The Canadian town truly is called Winter, and not after the season. Surviving there involved managing the fearsome winter months, the winter of isolation, and of separation from all that is emotionally summery. Further, the protagonist has many reasons to have winter in his heart. Much later in the novel, there is certainly winter in the heart of his closest relative.

Before Gale’s entrance, the person next to me said she had not read any of Gale’s novels. I told her of my favourite (Notes from an Exhibition). After Gale’s presentation, she, like the rest of the audience, rushed to buy A Place Called Winter. ‘My husband will love it.’

I have mentioned striking contrasts in these two author’s presentations of their new works. There is something vital in common. Both introduced contextual and background information that was new knowledge, rich detail set in a story that is totally gripping.

At Litfests it is not enough to talk about a book and its plot or characters. There needs to be a background story to the book, its research, its personal meaning to the author and its underlying theme or issue. We had this with these speakers, and for the writer, the healthy increase in the urge to scour new historic sources.

 

Tenderness vital for child development

FILM REVIEW

Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.

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Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.

The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.

It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.

The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.

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Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, taps the back of a child’s head for throwing an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.

The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.

The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.

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Ballet teachers are in difficulties; no longer can they correct a body position, such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point at the part of the body needing fine adjustment. This kind of touching, often not gentle, was formerly regarded as a sexless and necessary part of communication.

On the wider front, nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.

father-holding-handFor this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.

Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along.  Falardeau has certainly done his bit.