Posts Tagged reading

5 qualities of a brilliant story

3389004318_2e8d3200fb_zI write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)

So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.

Here goes.

Deft use of details

A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.

317454974_4bf323fafa_oCharacters that are real

We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.

Never a dull moment

Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.

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Fresh until the end

The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.

It all adds up

The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.

(Lots more about characters in Nail Your Novel 2, and plots in Nail Your Novel 3.)

Thanks for the pics Hans Splinter Kadorin   Rachel Johnson  

Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!

 

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I wish I’d written… three books that challenge me to raise my game

Continuing my occasional series. These are novels that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

51bdxkezzol-_sx325_bo1204203200_I mentioned this in my post last week. A woman decides to turn vegetarian, a very unusual and subversive act in South Korea, where the story is set.  Her husband thinks she has lost her mind. At a business dinner he is humiliated when she refuses to eat. Worse still is the reaction of her own family, who see it as a deeply threatening act of rebellion, and resort to acts of such cruelty that she tries to commit suicide. Her brother-in-law, meanwhile, who witnesses this horrific scene, finds he feels a sudden and unexpected kinship with her. This slowly erodes his tolerance for his ordinary wife and ordinary life.

There are two things I admire about this slim novella. First is its elegance. It begins with such a simple act, but one that travels, sure as a laser, to the very core of the characters’ insecurities. All are deeply upset by her refusal to conform. Most react by bullying. Others are themselves transformed. I also admire is its handling. You can probably see from my description that this concept has the potential to be overwrought; melodramatic in the wrong hands. It might even be hard to believe. However, it is thoroughly beguiling because of its psychological truth and the simple, yet poetic prose (and credit must go to the translator’s fine and sensitive interpretation – I should probably seek out books by her too). My review is here

Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

indexWounded soldier Alan Duncan reluctantly returns home to his parents’ farm in Australia to recuperate after the war. He discovers the family in turmoil because their young housekeeper, Jessie, has committed suicide. As he searches through her belongings, he realises that the woman was actually Janet Prentice, the former girlfriend of his brother, who died in action. And Alan, who is broken psychologically as well as physically, has spent a considerable amount of time trying to find her.

I’ve yet to read a Nevil Shute that didn’t seriously impress me. A slight criticism is that I find his set-up a little slow, but once his stories are running, they are beautifully paced and full of smart surprises. And his stories shine with humanity. He involves you in every emotion of his troubled characters. His settings are at once down to earth, yet ingeniously suggest something bigger and eternal. He’s deft with structure too – the storylines align into a tragic study of the impossible human burdens of war. If I need to be reminded of how character+setting+structure+pace = a darn good read, Shute is my motivator. My review is here.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller

51c3k6rdccl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This is a study of a woman, Maud Stamp, who is an independent and lone spirit. Others seek to connect with her, and are disturbed or fascinated – or both – when they cannot. One of its triumphs is the way Miller can inject you into Maud’s thought processes and emotions, painting her with such empathy and curiosity that you understand what it is like to have her peculiar wiring. Moreover, she is not presented with any easy or fashionable ‘explanations’ for her personality. You won’t find anything as pat as a reference to Asperger’s or even a past trauma. She is just Maud; a unique creature, created carefully, skilfully and truthfully. The arc of the story is her marriage and its dissolution; this forms the framework of beginning, middle and end. The crossing referred to in the title is a solo sea voyage she takes in the second half of the book, a rite of passage in both the literal and the symbolic sense.

Another great pleasure of this book is Miller’s immersive, persuasive prose. Every line is beautifully turned, but it never trips up the narrative. It’s plain when it needs to be, enchanting when that’s called for. You will find moments of delight and poetry, but the story will keep pulling you on.  Although I found the ending was rather unsatisfying, the journey more than compensated. I think it won’t be long before I take this crossing again.

My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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Writers, can you answer this question?

books 0022What’s your favourite book?

It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.

It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.

But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.

But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.

I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.

Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a books 0012trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.

Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.

And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.

When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?

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Only connect: how to wake a dormant muse

DJWB__SAM0371My muse is in trouble. I’ve spent too long on facts and analysis. I’ve been longing to tackle the Mountains Novel. Ideas and concepts have been piling up in my files, but now my schedule allows, I can think only of practicalities. My notes look like thin nonsense. I only see the problems, not the potential.

This is what going to press – and e-press – does to your mind. These last weeks have been an orgy of pedantry. Crossing ts and eyes, making an index, hyperlinking cross-references, obeying format rules for the kingdoms of Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle, typesetting the print version, reading onscreen proofs, tweaking bloopers and doing it all again. Oh and I updated the typography in the original NYN too, so that was an extra dose of proofing.

Now, my muse is on strike. I need to win it round. Here’s what I’m doing.

Forgive me if this is the most air-headed post I’ve ever written. I’m blowing away cobwebs.

Reading

While finishing the characters book, I’ve been making a list of novels and memoirs that have resonated with themes and ideas I want to explore. There’s nothing like a good book to make me want to write.

Compiling a soundtrack

Of course I’m doing this. I’ve been collecting CDs for the car, tracks for running to. Some of them have come from others’ Undercover Soundtrack posts, especially Andy HarrodTom Bradley,  Timothy Hallinan and a few that are currently a secret between me and the writers because they’re cued up in my inbox. Thank you, guys, for opening the windows.

Rediscovering the fun in connections

A few things that real-life friends have introduced me to these last few days that reminded me how homo sapiens is an endlessly creative creature.

DJWB__SAM04301 David(s) Bailey

I have a friend called David Bailey. Yes, like the famous photographer, but not related to him. Though my David Bailey does like taking photographs. And he’s spent much of his life grappling with scornful titters if he wields a camera. Last year, he was recruited for an advertising stunt, where 143 chaps called David Bailey gathered in London, put on black polonecks, were trained to use a whizzy camera and had to spend the day using each other’s middle names.

2 People lying down in Mexico

More pictures, also sent to me by a camera ninja. Fran Monks (a portrait photographer who is less challenged by namesakes) found this collection from Magnum of people lying down in Mexico.

These foolish things inspire me. There’s something so adorable about found similarity. A brigade of guys called David Bailey, identically dressed and taking pictures. Ten beautifully composed photos where everyone is, curiously, lying down. I could detonate with delight. If I wrote a thousand words I wouldn’t get to the end of why.

Whether your art is visual, written or sonic, so much starts by taking the world and seeing patterns. Repetitions. Connections. One idea boldly takes the hand of another, one character finds another, one event causes another, fractalling on and on. They look as though they should always have been joined. I won’t make the same connections you do, and that’s what makes your art yours and my art mine.

What inspires you?

(Aside: this week, some of the David Bailey pictures are being sold on ebay to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. One of them is by the very famous black polonecked David Bailey; one is by my black polonecked David JW Bailey, who also provided the pics for this post. See if you can tell which is which)

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Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)

Ready?

How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.

Characters

We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.

Longing

‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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It’s World Book Night – and The Red Season is free

Today and tomorrow – 23rd and 24th April – depending on your time zone, hundreds of thousands of bookworms are celebrating their love of reading with gifts in World Book Night (which you can find out more about here). At the Authors Electric blog we’re marking the occasion with a giveaway event of our own. One of the free titles is Episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life – The Red Season, which you can find here (UK or US) – and while you’re at it you’ll also find nearly a dozen other fine books at the Authors Electric blog.

Edits forbid a proper writing post right now, as you probably guessed from all the moaning about sore arms. Anyway, I reckon with all those free goodies you’ll be knee deep in reading for a few days (and some titles are free for a few days afterwards so if you’re getting here late it’s still worth checking them out). There will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual on Wednesday and I hope I’ll be back with a writing nugget next weekend. In fact, if you want to suggest a topic, now’s your chance. In the meantime, happy World Book Night.

Thanks for the pic, Sebastian Antony

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Finding your muse in a book – Joe Bunting asks me why writers should read

What are you reading? Are you reading it for your writing or for your soul? Is there a difference? Should there be? What books did I read to teach me how to write? And what is ‘passive Graham Greene’?

Joe Bunting, of the irrepressibly creative blog The Write Practice, has hauled my nose out of a book to tell him where my muses come from.

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Nearly finished? Make yourself a critical list

Sorry I’ve been quieter here than usual. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or have seen my stream in the sidebar will probably know that I’m bolted into my study in the final throes of My Memories of a Future Life. (Can’t tell you much about it yet, but it has its own Twitter ID.) So my blog has forgotten it has an owner, Dave has forgotten he’s got a wife… or he thinks I’ve forgotten him. The upshot is that I can’t talk sensibly about anything that isn’t happening to my characters in their time of crisis.

Anyway, while I do these most final of final edits, I invented a little tool that I thought you might find useful if you’re also at the last pass. I’m calling it the critical list.

What I’m doing at this stage is test-driving the whole book to see it works as it’s supposed to. Speed is of the essence. When we edit we read slowly which is great for detail but gives us a distorted idea of the pace. When we read at the speed a reader does, we understand the flow.

I’m finding points that need a tweak, but that can bog me down to that detail-obsessive snail pace again, which I don’t want. So I make a change, whip out a sentence here or reword something there, and keep a note of the page number so that I can come back and check it at editing speed later. Then I go on through the manuscript, running it at the speed a normal reader would.

Big deal, huh? Sorry. This is probably the least profound post I have ever written on the storytelling art. You are probably wondering if I’ve lost my senses, but such has my world shrunk while in the grip of this book.  You’re very welcome to share your most trivial writing tip ever in the comments, and I’ll be delighted you said hi.

Thank you, Christina Welsh, for the picture – and back soon.

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Ghostwriting and why I love Ian Fleming – interviewed by Guys Can Read

Today I’m very excited to be guesting on the books podcast Guys Can Read.Very, very excited, actually, as I’ve been evangelising about their show ever since I discovered them.

Guys Can Read is a weekly podcast by Luke Navarro and writer Kevin McGill. They adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at.

Kevin is putting his story instincts to good use on his fantasy novel Nikolas and Co, which you can read about here. Luke, meanwhile, sets himself challenges. Last year he read 52 books, and washed them down with yet more narrative in the form of 52 games and 52 DVDs. This year they channelled their zeal into Boys Can Read – a Skype school visit where they risked withering ridicule and worse to persuade a class of 28 MG boys to swap games for good old books.

If you love reading, if you live for fiction that leaves you provoked, moved, flabbergasted, shaken, stirred, touched, tickled, amused or amazed, then you’ll love these gutsy podcasts – whether you’re a guy or not. But I am extremely honoured to be welcomed as their first girl guest…

What did we talk about? A bit about writing, why I blog, but most of all, writers who give me major palpitations, especially Ian Fleming.

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‘Giving up TV kick-started my novel’

Thank you Witz

 

A perhaps-not-serious remark led this writer to a radical, positive change in his writing habits

It all started when Jonathan Moore, who juggles a full-time job with writing a modern-day adventure-magic-sci-fi novel (not to mention finding time to be an energetic commenter here), mentioned to me that he might give up TV for a month.

He had in mind a radical change, he said. ‘No TV, while I was in my own house. I normally watch six hours a night, so this is a major change. I don’t watch anything I particularly like, I just watch it.’

We all might make resolutions like this but he did it. And in not just any month, but World Cup month – when the rest of the globe probably watched more TV than ever. And he says it has really paid off. He has laced into his rough draft (scraps of dialogue and description) and is now a third of the way through a cohesive, readable manuscript.
 
It is hardly surprising that spending more time on writing means you get more work done. What is surprising is what Jonathan, who perhaps is the chap pictured below, learned about the way his writerly biorhythms work.

‘I’ve always believed I work best between 11pm and 2am. Now I know this is rubbish.  I can work at those times, but my mind is sharper the earlier I work. I can get out of bed and sit straight down at my desk if I want, especially if I’m picking up where I left off.  I had one day where I couldn’t stop writing, and went on till 3am because the ideas kept coming. That was because I’d been working since the afternoon and they’d had time to brew.’
 
There were other benefits too. ‘With the time I’ve freed up I’ve also read seven novels – a lot for me as I had literary burnout after doing a degree in English. When TV was a major factor I was lucky to read one a month, so it didn’t take hold enough to influence my writing style. On the TV-free month I was reading for two to four hours a day and it was far more pervasive.’

That reading soon filtered through to the page. ‘I realized my prose was essentially a screenplay – describing setting in functional way and then going into the dialogue.  I wonder how much of this was due to thinking in TV terms? I’m now more able to find alternative expression because I’m reading novels. You can see what I was reading from how my writing changes. Forster makes me introspective, verbose and loquacious. Raymond Carver makes me more terse.’

So now the experiment’s over, have the old habits crept back?

‘I have to keep this momentum going,’ he says. ‘I take nights off to watch TV episodes before they vanish from I-Player, but I have no desire to go back to watching programmes I have no interest in (which was often under the excuse that they’d be useful to me as a writer). I have to keep going to my desk as early as possible, laying the groundwork for the next step and keeping the story going. I have to keep reading. I have to keep putting the hours in to write something a bit crap so that the next day I can work out how to fix it. And I have to keep making time for this every day. Otherwise I’ll only ever be one of those people who had an idea for a novel once.’

Huge thanks to Jonathan for sharing his experiment here. Have you made a radical change to your lifestyle – permanent or not – to free up more writing time? And did you learn anything surprising, such as how you write best?
 
 
 

 

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