How to write a book · Interviews

How do you like to talk about books? Themes, juxtapositions and the complication of being human – an interview at Late Last Night Books @L8NiteBooks

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, but if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy the course. However, I loved studying English literature in the final two years of school, at A level. (Note for non-Brits: you probably call this high school, age 16-18.)

My degree disappointed me because it was too wideswept; it seemed chiefly to value an author for the way they represented a historical period, a concern of the age or a step in the evolution of a form. I was disappointed because it gave little priority to the literary work itself – the novel, poem or play as a creation of beauty and power, enduring resonance and relevance.

But A level was mainly about appreciating the work. While context wasn’t ignored, each novel, poem or play was examined in its own right, as an entity worth detailed attention. We learned to notice how the author might be playing with our hearts and minds. We discussed themes and juxtapositions and narrative devices. We might have found patterns the author did not intend; we might have overthought things. That did not matter; decoding this richness was part of the joy, a quest to discover why this work enspelled us so. We were discovering a wondrous thing – the author’s craft.

I still love this. It’s my favourite way to talk about a book.

If you like that too, you might enjoy my interview here at Late Last Night Books,

The subject is Ever Rest and my interrogator is Garry Craig Powell, a former creative writing professor and author of the prizewinning short story collection Stoning The Devil (which you might remember from his appearance on The Undercover Soundtrack).

We talk about juxtapositions. Why I put this with that. The man frozen in the ice, as young as the day he went in, and the people who remember that day and are now 20 years older.

We talk about themes and narrative aims. We talk about places where we can be gods (playing music to a crowd of 10,000) and places where we are too fragile to survive (the top of Everest). We talk about love and death and loss, the massive complication of being human. And things I wasn’t aware of until Garry asked. Do come over.

Do bring your own questions too if you’ve already read the novel – or you can drop them in the comments here.

Would you enjoy Ever Rest? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

Inspirations Scrapbook · Writer basics 101

One song to the tune of another – dos and don’ts of mash-ups and juxtaposition

Mash-ups or juxtapositions are a good way to get new story ideas. ‘This-meets- that…’ But flinging random ideas together is more likely to result in a mess than a good tale. Here’s how to do it well

One of my favourite party games is One Song to the Tune of Another, from the BBC Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The best combinations deserve to live and breathe on their own, but if you try the game at home (and I do, frequently), you’ll find it takes a lot of stabs in the dark to find two songs that are made for each other.

There seems to be a rash of mash-up fiction at the moment, usually involving zombies. No, I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Robin Hood vs The Plague Undead – and I don’t want to. Why? Because the title seems to be the only joke and I can’t see where else it would go. Maybe I’m much too serious, but it’s not even a very good joke.

Juxtaposition rule 1: be surprising

If you’re going to juxtapose two elements, do something original. Phil South wrote this week on his blog Going Down Writing about taking two random ideas and making a story out of them. His result, Jurassic Submarine, is rather good.

Juxtaposition rule 2: not just a one-liner

A good mash-up has to be more than a one-liner. So although you may start with ‘this meets that’, you need to go a lot further.

Consider Deadwood.  That’s Shakespearean drama meets the Western – and the two together create something new, deeply right, with legs that will go on for miles.

A lot of great stories have originated in mash-ups, either in ideas or broader concepts. ‘Jaws in space’ gives you Alien. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke        is Jane Austen meets Jack Vance. Blood-Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick is Arthur Ransome meets John Le Carre. The whole genre of cyberpunk is film noir meets science fiction. Steampunk is sci-fi meets alternate history. If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they have to truly complement and highlight each other. It’s anything but random.

In my WIP Life Form 3, I’m mashing two ideas together, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they bring out in each other. There are ways in which the two ideas are compatible and ways in which they are interestingly jarring. Much of the story is generating itself from the fizz when they collide. (And I can’t tell you too much more about it at the moment without giving far too much away, which is why I’ve been very coy about details…)

If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they need to fit in some way. And preferably cause as much tension as harmony.

Most random stabs don’t work beyond the initial surprise, as I found when challenged to sing The Sound of Music to the tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The first few bars are amusing, but after that there is no coherence that makes it worth continuing.

You have to experiment a lot to find genuine show-stoppers, but here’s one: sing the words of Greensleeves to the tune of The Stripper. Try it now.


What mash-ups and juxtapositions, literary or filmic, do you think have genuine mileage?

For a bonus point, give me a good song lyric to sing to the tune of another.