Sunday, 28 February 2010

DESCRIPTION How much - or how little.

This February Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature's One city- One book reading campaign was Carry a Poem 2010. See City of Literature. There were all kinds of poems and reading some of these made me think about how concise a poem can be yet how it often forces you to create the rest of the picture in your head.

It is easy to think, when you start writing that you should describe your characters in detail as they arrive in the story for the first time. But why would you want to stop the story for a large wad of description, however beautiful it might be. It isn't a film, where the visual of the character often hits you before they utter a single word.

Before I say another word I would like to make it clear that I am firmly in the camp that says there are no absolute rules when writing. There are 'guidelines' that help and 'suggestions' as to technique but as soon as someone declares something to be a 'rule' a dozen well-qualified voices will shout that they do it differently!

But in a book the person behind the visual is more often what the author is trying to portray and as such their appearance is not necessarily noteworthy except on the occasion that it furthers the plot or your understanding of the character and their situation.  So it follows that you can drip feed in this information as and when it is needed and in small slivers that enhance, rather than indigestible lumps.

As a reader, when you are engrossed in a book and get to know the characters well - unless their appearance is important to them or so strange that people in the story stop to stare - you may discover that you don't actually recall whether they have long or short, blonde or black hair, or if they are tall, short, thin or fat.  That is because you know what is in their heads, how they think, what they care about and what they will do in any situation.

 ? What did you actually see ?

Perhaps it is the same as a policeman taking witness statements after a bank robbery. Often the witness statements vary so much that it is almost impossible to to get a real picture of what the criminals looked like. But the witnesses will probably be able to tell if one of the bank robbers was violent or spoke aggressively.

Most of us have times when we meet people but cannot recall their names or put a name to a face but the temperament general disposition of that person is more likely to linger in our memory. How often have you failed to recall someone's name, or whether a person wears glasses or has a moustache.

How much description do you prefer? Do you agree that often, when it comes to describing a character's appearance, less is more?

Monday, 15 February 2010

NEWSFLASH It's fiction - we make it up!

During an interesting afternoon speaking to some young offenders (16-20yr olds) about books one asked if my novel Spider (about joyriding) was real. His expression and the way he asked made it clear that if it was real then that was fine, but he didn't seem to think it would be valid, or worth reading, if it was made up.

These young men were very careful not to lose face amongst their peers. When asked if they had read my book some said no, but later in the discussion one asked about a particular relationship in the story which showed that he had read it, despite his previous negative.

When I asked whether they thought the story was real or not the consensus was that it was real, it had happened (therefore had been worth reading). I tried to get them to see that if they couldn’t tell if it was real or not it must have been credible and wasn't that a good enough reason to read it? That fiction is worth the experience if it is credible and makes you believe in the story and the characters.

I doubt that these young men would admit to reading SF or fantasy although in their situation I know I would be looking for some way to disappear into a credible but fantastic place.

Recently I have been following a discussion about SF and fantasy and I was reminded of these young men and also how often I find myself defending SF and fantasy novels to people who consider them silly or those who say they can't read it because it's not REAL.

They have no problem with other kinds of fiction including historical fiction. No one I know has as yet been able to travel back to the past before their own birth, therefore even well researched fiction (and the clue is in the word) is still made up.

We are just as likely to extrapolate realistically the feelings, problems and experiences of people living with technology that has not (yet) been invented as we are able to imagine what was said or thought in any period of early history.

Science Fiction and Fantasy is read by people of all walks of life, including many great minds - scientists and philosophers. It takes someone with an open mind to be unafraid to challenge what we know and to be prepared to explore the unknown. To start off with our world and extrapolate into the future until it doesn’t resemble anything we are familiar with yet still create a work of fiction that can touch us and make us consider the possibilities.

Often this is a genre that makes us look at  humanity and our planet, and often makes some very real comments on our society and where it is going.

Whether a novel is about present day life as we know it, the past or some distant future or fantasy planet, in the end fiction is, well, fiction!

For all those who are still unsure about this,  can I make it plain that   we, the writers...           

.............  make it up!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Violence - is it contagious? A smile is.

I went to see Avatar last week and was completely mesmerised.

I want go there; to run along the treetops and feel part of the forest, to become one of the Na'vi.

Even if the plot was predictable, for me the sheer pleasure of being in such a beautiful place stayed in my head  -  then of course the violence came along.

Emotions in a story often stay with us as a kind of inner stamp whether it is a film or a book.  We need to care about what happens to characters, they have to engage our emotions, otherwise we lose interest in the story.

In the case of Avatar the planet Pandora itself is a character we grow to appreciate and feel for.  

But if emotions stay with us how do we take them back to our own lives.  Does a happy film or do happy books leave us feeling joyful or at least in a positive frame of mind?   Does it make us smile more?

When we see someone smile the automatic reaction is often to return the smile. We learn this as a baby, being praised for doing so. A baby will often smile and chuckle in response to a smiling face, which makes us smile more in return, and laughter often makes us laugh, if we believe it is spontaneous and not forced.

So, if this is the case, does violence and brutality also affect us in a similar way?  At first it might shock but does it begin to blunt the sensitivities and us look for more violence to provoke the initial shock and adrenalin fuelled response. Does it in some instances create the need to repeat it in our own lives, feeling less shocked by the fictional account until the reality is no longer 'real' to us?

At different times of our lives we look for different kinds of story to either suit our mood or to take us away from the reality of our lives.  When we are tired we may look for something light and comic or an adventure, because sheer escapism can suit better than a challenging read.  When we are miserable in a relationship happy love stories might be an escape, or conversely they might be unbearable reminders of what might have been, or never was.   A tale of misery may make us cry while story of triumph over adversity may be uplifting.

What do you look for, and does it stay with you?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

From the casket of insecurity..... A writer.... or a fraud?

This morning I made my way across the grass to Tuscany (yes, I have been attempting to keep my New Year's Resolution). 

But in my head, I have been in a strange place today.

Recently, I have spent most of my working day writing, enjoying the start of a new book, fresh new characters.  Not entirely sure where it is going yet, but for me that is part of the experience and joy.  So, you may ask, what is the problem?

As I made my way across the grass ....
( OK, so this isn't actually me  it's Loki - my daughter's cat - on her way to visit Tuscany)

.......a thought occurred to me - well, to be honest a series of thoughts, none of them conducive to continuing with my WIP or in fact writing anything at all. 

'Was it any good? Why was I writing it? Would anyone in the entire world be interested in what I was writing?  What were the chances of anyone wanting to publish it and if not why was I bothering at all, should I be writing something else instead?

I'm not sure what exactly sparked off this miserable journey of thought but it continued with the inevitability of a train crash - one that you can see is about to happen and you can do nothing to stop.  So follow it I did, to its logical end....  

'Here I am about to spend the next few hours of my day pretending to the world that I am a WRITER - that I write things people want to read.  Perhaps that's not true and maybe I am a FRAUD!  Should I just stop kidding myself, pack up my things and go and look for a real job instead?'

Now I'm not usually inclined to moments of such blistering insecurity. Like lots of other writers I have times, in almost every book, when I feel like throwing it all away and giving up, but not usually at the beginning.  I had been looking forward to being able to spend time writing this story; it had been in my head for a while, so why -  now that I had time - was I being so negative about it?
I soldiered on and arrived (a few steps later- it's not a huge garden ) at the door and fumbling with the handle managed to avoid spilling my glass of water over my laptop as I went in.
In the winter I put the heater on for a while before I go in, so it was pleasantly comfortable inside, the chair and desk awaiting my presence.  
Once settled there the automaton-me opened the file ready to start.  

'Should I stick with it or give in to the whispers in my head?'

With a sudden determination to slam shut the casket of insecurity I scrolled down to where I had left the characters, in mid conversation (always easier to start up again that way), and found I was among friends.  I could hear their voices and they were telling me their story once more.  
I want to find out what happens next and although there are no guarantees, I am back on the road again.

So what did I learn today? 

1.       To ignore the whispers from the casket of insecurity, they are MEAN and deserve no audience. 
2.        I write - therefore I am a writer, not a fraud.. for now at least!

Monday, 1 February 2010

A very RED day!

Last Wednesday Falkirk town hall was filled with very excited young people, complete with red accessories of every imaginable variety, for the Red Book Awards. 
If you are thinking slick, corporate and stuffy - then think again.  This was the most fun I've had for ages.
Spider was one of 5 books on the shortlist, and being my first novel for teenagers I was quite delighted. I've never been on the short list for an award before so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The short listed books were
  • The Ice Cream Con by Jimmy Docherty
  • Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray
  • Strangled Silence by Oisin McGann
  • Blood Ties by Sophie McKenzie
  • Spider by Linda Strachan
     So it was strong competition indeed!
    All 5 authors were taken away to be interviewed as soon as we arrived. We had two seperate interviews which were very professionally done, even if the recording equipment gave a bit of trouble for one chap. But he realised in time to have another shot at it.

    There were competitions for the best review of the shortlisted books, a  quiz on the authors and their books and a prize for the best RED accessory- so many to choose from! 
    Everything was accompanied by lots of cheering and excitement but I think my favourite part was watching the 10 drama and powerpoint presentations - two of each of the books.  It was great to see our books interpreted in this way by the very people we write for.

    I was very impressed by the schools who had taken on Spider.
    Bo'ness Academy had the first presentation of Spider with a scene from the hospital, with a very confident young man playing the part of the policeman taking statements from the other characters. It gave a really good feel for the story while not giving too much away for anyone who hadn't read it.

    St Mungo's High school did the second presentation on Spider with a very different take on it, using powerpoint images, props and actors to create a quite vivid and shocking sense of a car crash, followed by groups of kids wandering around as if in a school playground discussing the rumours that were going around about Spider and the crash.  
    In the afternoon before the winner was announced all of the authors were invited to speak for a few minutes each introduced by a student from one of the schools. As it was in alphabetical order, by our surnames I was the last to speak.
    Jimmy, Oisin and Keith, all very funny guys, did comedy which had the room roaring with laughter, so it was a bit of a challenge for Sophie and I to follow them.  But it was really fascinating to listen to the different way each of us approach our books and writing.
    Yvonne Manning the librarian who masterminds the Red Awards and acted as MC on the day  deserves a medal for her hard work and enthusiasm. 
    Falkirk's provost Pat Reid was there to award the prizes looking quite splendid in his official RED robes!

    Finally we got to the part where they announced the winner- Blood Ties by Spohie McKenzie - a great read.  Sophie was presented with an especially commissioned plate by local potter Barbara Davidson.  
    But I truly believe the real winners of the day were the amazing young people who took part, and their enthusiasm for books and reading.

    Oisin McGann, Jimmy Docherty
    Sophie McKenzie, Keith Gray and me!