Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Desert Island Books

Ok - as promised. My Top Ten. How self-indulgent. But what is a blog but self-indulgence?
The question is, which ten books would you take onto a desert island?

For me, well, I guess if I knew I was going to get off again fairly soon, then I would take some of the ones I haven't got around to reading yet, but really want to, in the hope that I would get through them all before I was rescued. But that is another list...

However if rescue was not guaranteed, then I would probably take books I have read before and which I would like to read again. At least I would know that I would not be dissappointed by my choice. And one of the brilliant things about getting older is that you forget things so quickly, so you can re-read books in a relatively short period of time. I am able to re-read Agatha Christie now and not remember whodunnit, even if I read it fairly recently. Should make book buying cheaper and cheaper the older I get, till I can sit in an armchair and just re-read the same book over and over. (Note to children, please ensure it is a relatively interesting book)

Is this list then, of books I would like to re-read, the same as the list of books I have read and which have influenced me? Not sure - but actually I feel it is more about authors who have influenced me. So I am going to cheat and give the list of top ten authors I would like to read on my desert island. (Perhaps I could even have the authors for company? Though some might be a bit boring, being dead)

The other thing, as James Robertson said in his talk (see previous post) this list maybe true today but was different last week and would be different tomorrow. Looks like I'm going to need a large container on my island..

so here goes, after much cheating and deliberating, a list of authors to be marooned with me, or at least their books to be marooned with me
1. Maggie O'Farrell - at the moment my favourite author, particularly The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and After You'd Gone. Her structures are absolutely gripping. Easy to read but by no means easy subjects, you should not start reading them when you don't have time to spare, as I guarantee you will not be able to put them down. If you are struggling to structure your story then have a look at how she does it to carry the reader onwards.
2. Charles Dickens - his characters are larger than life, surreal, and I love the weird and wacky names he gives them. I wonder if a writer today would get away with these. But do look at him if you feel your characters are a little dull. Dickens has larger than life characters and is a good role model. You would not, however, get away with his reliance on things like coincidence, and the fact that all his neglected children grow up to be selfless and caring adults - noooo... psychology tells us that childhood neglect creates psychopaths I'm afraid Charlie, but he had the excuse that we didn't know any of that stuff yet. Which book to take? Probably Bleak House, a) because it is really long so would keep me going for quite a while on my desert island, b) because it was the first Dickens I read, for a book group, which made me plough through it, even though 400 pages in I was still struggling, but oh boy the next 500 had me hooked! Great Expectations is also brilliant - I mean who could imagine a Miss Haversham nowadays?? If you do like Dickens, and you are also open minded, then have a go of Sarah Waters Fingersmith which I felt owed a debt to Dickens, but is a wonderful plot.
3. Jane Austen. A cliche perhaps but so much of modern literature depended on her (why the entire Mills and Boons profit depends on the ability of its writers to churn out endless versions of Pride and Prejudice as well as the enduring appeal of this combination of characters). What Jane Austen had which Mills and Boons does not, is wit and sparkle and originality.
4. Doris Lessing. Not perhaps her current stuff, but in the 1970s she was one of the most influential writers as far as I was concerned. Canopus in Argos series - Shikasta in particular, is a fantastic science fiction re-writing of the Bible and the Fall. Brilliant. I want time to read that series again, then I would re-read the Children of Violence series. Oh yes and the Fifth Child is a really dark story and anyone who wants to have a really large family should read it (well before they start having extra children, don't for God's sake read it when you are pregnant). i am not sure a current writer could learn much from her as she was very much of her time, but she sustains ideas through books and series of books, and reading them gives you a sense of a very sharp mind behind the pen.
5. Isaac Asimov. Dead and chauvinist so probably not great company on my island, but as a teenager I devoured his books. Actually as a teenage girl in the 1970s there were not many female role models so anyone interested in sci fi probably had to go for Asimov, despite his stereotypical views of women. His imagination know no bounds (apart from in gender politics) - the Robot books, the Foundation series. The end of Eternity was a great stand alone novel. A few weeks on my desert island should do me to re-read them all. For sci fi plots and imagining other worlds I still feel there is no-one to beat him.
6. John Wyndham - while I'm on the subject of what I read in my teens, and what would probably be wildly out of date now in terms of gender, I mustn't forget this guy. You have probably encountered some of his work already: The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Day of the Triffids; but there are many others. The Crysalids and Trouble with Lichen have themes which would still be relevant today. I always imagined that when he sat down to write a book he would say, "what would happen if..." (What would happen if everyone in the world went blind... What would happen if we discovered the secret of aging... ) If I had him on my island I could ask him... However I have tried to get my children to read him and they have failed miserably. The language is quite dense and out of date for today's readership.
7. Time Travellers Wife - Audrey Niffenegger - only one book! But one I have read over and over again. It is so clever! (If you have tried and given up, perservere - honestly it is worth it). I definitely want her on my island.
8. Lewis Grassic Gibbon - A Scot's Quair - three novels, same character, set in Rural Aberdeenshire. We had to read Sunset Song for O level at school - it was wonderful. I would like the time to read all three again. As a picture of rural Scottish life after the second world war, it is brilliant. Also interesting a man writing from a woman's perspective which I think he does really well. As a woman writing and realising that a man is emerging as a man character, I take heart from this.
9. Kate Atkinson is an author I have come to look out for. I think she defies categorisation - her latest was a whodunnit (One good Turn). All her books have been surprising and very creative.
10.. ARgH! only one left- who to choose? David Lodge, Deborah Moggach, Nick Hornby; all good authors. I would like to re-read all the early Fay Weldon novels - she has such a strong voice (so does Nick Hornby incidentally). Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces is worth a read, Kate Grenville the Idea of Perfection, but no... I have to choose one so I choose
Barbara Kingsolver - The poisonwood bible. I often use this in my creative writing classes to show how description can really create atmosphere, but also she is a wonderful example of how to write multiple first person viewpoint really well, so that you instantly know which "I" is speaking. Not easy to do, and very clever. If you are struggling with creating voices for your characters then do look at her.


Just attended a conference organised by NALD (National Association for Literature Development). Nearly didn't go, but glad I did. Several things. Firstly, it struck me that there are an awful lot of people working and being paid for doing something associated with writing. Poetry society, librarians, National Book Trust, that's before you get to publishers, etc etc. I began to wonder how all this is funded and that always leads me into a cycle of terror if you like; bear with me, it's a bit long and incomprehensible, but hopefully you will follow....
imagine that food is our commodity - at a fundamental level this is what is bought and sold, and all money stands in for food and production of such food, then there is a level of goods which perhaps help produce food (and of course land to grow it on).. anyway don't know if you are going where I am, but my brain starts to ponder about all the levels built on top of this (commodity brokers for instance) and if we think of food as the level at which money and value are created, doesn't there seem to be rather too many levels piled on top which require someone beavering away on the land to sustain it all? I mean the community I live in seems to entirely subsist on servicing others - everyone is employed servicing other people - postmen, teachers, nurses, people building houses, etc. Literature even more so - how do we fund all this?
The aforementioned terror is about what would happen if we said "I don't believe it" - like Peter Pan and the fairies, do we keep our economy alive simply by believing in it? If we all said, "this cannot be sustained", would the bubble burst and money cease to exist?
This has got something to do with writing (honest!) in that I remember a great short story by John Wyndham where, following a tube crash, a group of people end up in hell. One character is so astounded by what he sees that he announces, loudly, that he does not believe in it. He carries on doing this and the whole edifice of Hell crashes and ceases to exist. The dead passengers then arrive back in London unscathed.
Said disbeliever then stands outside the bank of england for another go, but as he draws breath to announce, "I don't believe it" a venerable gentleman in bowler hat etc, pushes him under a car. "can't have people challenging great british institutions, what."
Probably would work quite easily with the Bank of England today - and perhaps this may be a useful tip for you to try if you find yourself somewhere hot and unpleasant when you depart this world...

so, ignoring the terror and the fact that I have no idea how we pay for all this stuff just by growing a few turnips, back to NALD. There is so much happening in Scotland in terms of writing - I've said this before, but then I was thinking about Edinburgh. Turns out that up here too there is much to be seen. Inverness library has just created a website of local writers, where they are, where they come from etc. Fascinating, and well worth a look.
One author, James Robertson (who features on the website), gave a fascinating talk about writing as well as delivering an informative workshop about publishing (he is responsible for all those Scots childrens books I keep coming across, like Roald Dhal's translations, The Eejits, George's Minging Medicine, etc). In the course of this he read out his 10 favourite books. I love it when people do this! Gives me a great excuse to go off to bookshops, and several of these were new to me.
So.. in my next post, I'm going to do my own Desert Island Books - and would love to hear what other people would offer as their own top 10..
See ya

Monday, January 28, 2008

the new novel

Well it is 2008 and I have started it as I mean to go on, new book, 6,000 words a month I feel is a reasonable target, and so far I am sticking to it.
This is my second novel, and some things are easier second time round, some more difficult. For instance I am already thinking about viewpoint, which did not happen until I was well into the previous one. I am toying with the idea of doing it first person, not sure. I wonder how late into a book one can make that decision? I am also thinking about structure far more and am fairly excited by what I am intending to do.
What is harder is looking at the mountain to climb. The first novel just starts, and being naive, one thinks, oh this will be easy, just keep writing. But having got through that, I now know what lies ahead and it looks terrifying from here.
I do remember last time that the first chapter was easy and I felt would hook the reader from the start; this time round it feels like pants. But I can come back to that.
Here is an interesting thought though; it is assumed that the first chapter, the first line, is what will hook the reader. Everyone can quote, "It's a universally acknowledged fact..." (P&P - Austen) and many others to illustrate this point. (Does anyone remember the Monty Python sketch where watching Thomas Hardy write a novel was treated as spectator sport with commentator etc? - 10 minutes sitting watching him write the opening line, score it out, start again etc, and then commentators discussing whether it was a good opening?)
My thought is though, when I pick up a book and consider whether to read it, I don't ever read the first line. I look at the cover and title with - if I am attracted I pick it up and read the back. I then flick through the pages and get a sense of it. Decision is never made by reading the first page.
I recently got "Life on the Refridgerator Door" by Alice Kuipers by this method. I quite liked its bright pink cover, but skimming through it, I could see that it was entirely made up of post its written by mother and daughter, and was intrigued by this structure.
Someone from my creative writing class gave me a snippet from the Daily Express Nov 4th, Beachcomer. He (or she - I don't usually read the Express) says reading the first line of the second chapter is far more revealing and interesting, but that most writers don't bother crafting this as well. Interesting becuase I think I do write each chapter as if it were a stand alone feature and I need to keep the reader going. Whether this has worked, I guess I will find out soon as right now the book is being read by an agent....
Keep in touch - it is great to hear from all the other writers out there who are taking time to read and respond to me!

Books and more books....

I was in Borders last week and managed to resist buying any books. That is probably a first for me, but I am trying to be mindful of the two shelves of books waiting to be read (that is forgetting of course all the books which have now been shelved elsewhere in the house, unread). However I was cheered up by a comment from AA Gill in Sunday times that everywhere else in the world, literate people have a list of books they have read, only the English (I am sure he meant British) have a list of books they haven't read. I resolve not to beat myself up for never having read anything Russian apart from Solzhenitsyn, not having read Proust, or Chaucer, or all the other worthies that I probably should have read and probably also never will.
However I am constantly surprised by the fact that worthy books are often better than we think they will be. A bookclub I used to belong to insisted on reading Dickens; the book selected was Bleak House (this was before the marvellous TV adaptation). I found myself 400 words in and still struggling to get interested, but then I could not put it down and the last 500 words fairly raced by. Fantastic.
I think it is a mistake to rely on TV adaptations to tell you about a book. I have seen at least three versions of Oliver Twist, but only the extended version at Christmas really gripped me, with all the extra characters and layers, and now I am determined to read the original.
Dickens breaks all the rules for writing. He relies on coincidence once too often, his nice characters are impossibly nice, especially given their backgrounds, but to be kind, he was writing pre Freud and perhaps did not know that a neglected and abused child is unlikely to grow up into an unselfish, brave and self sufficient citizen, but is highly likely to be a psychopath. His names are weird and wonderful, utterly unbelieveable, but entirely loveable. His characters are often larger than life, almost caricatures, and I wonder whether we could not learn from this as writers? Perhaps the best, most memorable characters are those who almost could not be real?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Death, plumbing and writing

Just had a great night out watching Ardal O'Hanlon on stage doing stand up. Amazes me how stand ups remember everything they are going to say; I wonder if there is a trick to remembering several hours worth of material.
Anyway watching him reminded me of course of Father Ted, ie Dermot Morgan who died age 46, and then I thought too of Douglas Adams who died aged 49. Both men were born early in 1952, both died of heart attacks. Is being genuinely funny a death risk I wonder? Both men seemed fit and active - in fact I believe Douglas Adams died in the gym. They were both very successful - perhaps the stress of success and the need to be frenetic got to both men in different ways. Maybe being unsuccessful is safer - that way you might live longer - or perhaps it simply seems that way?
Enough of that - anyone with an infallible way of staying alive and healthy, let me know.

Just started a new set of creative writing classes, and once again struck by the fact that some people believe writing is a mysterious process, whereby you are either good or bad at it, but as if this quality were imposed from above. I thought of an analogy - plumbing. No-one would say they would quite like to be a plumber but don't know if they would be any good at it. No, they would go on a course, perhaps do an apprenticeship - they would learn on the job, practice, and get better at it through practice. This is the same for writing. You do it, you practice, you get better at it.
Perhaps the problem is that many people write on their own and don't get feedback. After all as a plumber there is feedback - your pipes leak, the sink falls off the wall, whatever. You don't ask your beloved to come and look at it - they would probably say, very nice dear. No, someone turns on a tap and sees if it works. You soon know if you are any good.
But if you write, you may show it to your nearest and dearest who are probably not writers and would say again, very nice dear. Actually since the enjoyment of writing is subjective, the feedback is even less helpful than the tell tale leaky tap. And relatives are no more likely to say, actually dear I don't think it is very good, any more than they are going to say, yes dear you need to lose weight or yes dear your bum does look big in that.
So if you want to write, you need to do it, practice it, and get feedback preferably from other writers who don't want to make you feel better.
I think the only pre-requisite for being a writer is to be organised and diligent enough to make time to write regularly, to read lots and lots of good writing (not Hello magazine and cereal packets) and to develop your powers of observation and your memory and recall. I think being able to remember stuff in detail really helps. I have a great memory of my childhood (I mean I can remember it vividly - good and bad stuff). I wonder if it helps to be an only child? I am sure only children spend more time in their heads, and perhaps then are more suited to imaginative work. how many other writers out there were only children?
Get writing!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why do writers ignore the world of work?

I have just finished reading PD James' latest book, and without spoiling the plot for potential readers, it involves writers and their writing and the plot was threaded through this to some extent. I remember too reading another crime thriller by Elizabeth George where the murderer was an artist, who murdered her victim as revenge for having a piece of her art destroyed.

This made me reflect on a couple of interesting thoughts.

Firstly would a piece of work you created- novel, painting, sculpture, etc - be so personally meaningful to you that you would commit murder for it? Perhaps that is a test of how good you are? Would you murder someone if they threatened your work? Perhaps literary critics should take more care.

But the second thought was, how often do we really describe a working life in a novel? I know of course that crime writers describe police work, but apart from that - how many novels really take the world of work seriously and make it an integral part of the novel? Surely we should, as for most people, that is where they spend the vast majority of their waking hours - yet sometimes we can read a novel and not believe that the world of work exists.

Oh yes the characters go to work and come back from work and so on, but how often is the workplace actually an integral part of the landscape?

I would be interested to hear of any such novels, apart from, as I said, the crime genre.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Romantic fiction

I have been pondering some feedback I was given at one point about a sample chapter in my novel - I was told that it was a "bit Mills and Boons". Argh horror mortification! Luckily no-one else has agreed with this rather damning analysis, including my agent whose job it is to make sure I am producing something reasonable, but when I took this feedback to other writers, one said, "actually what is wrong with romantic fiction? Have you read any recently? Some of it is quite good."
And I have to admit, no I have not read any since I was 15 and used to borrow them from the mobile library van, sneaking them into the house and hiding them under the mattress - see even then it was shameful.
So I went and got one from the library - one recommended to me in fact by said writer. It was a quick and easy read, and by the second or third page I knew what was going to happen and with whom, it was simply a case of finding out how, and seeing how good the sticky bits were. (One of the great excitements at the tender age of 15 was finding out just how detailed the sticky bits were - most of the time not very I have to say).
Reading the book now with the heavy weight of experience I have to say that I don't think this one sample (and as a scientist I admit this is poor sampling) was particularly well written. It felt as if it had been a rush job, not much attention to prose, and the descriptive passages were pretty poor. The hero was tall, dark, rich, bit scarey and of course nearly twice the age of the heroine who was poor but plucky and of course virginal.
Why do these books do so well? I think it is female porn actually. Many women like reading them for the titillation - it is a turn on. Romantic fiction is for women what porn mags are for men. Women generally get turned on by romance, tenderness and detail and men get turned on by the quick anonymous f... That's not to say that this is what we want in real life, just what gets the juices flowing. Actually to be truthful it did not do that for me last night but I remember that it did at 15. So just as porn can trot out the same old stories over and over and over and men get off on it, so romantic fiction churns out the same plot line over and over and women go for it. I think it is sobering to think about, any women out there - this is what taps into the female psyche.
I read Lynn Segal's new book Making Trouble, recently. It's just come out and for anyone who was involved in 1970s feminism - do read it, she captures that period exactly. (She obviously did keep good diaries - see previous post). She talks about women needing passivity in sex, and how feminism really tried to deny all this. Interesting coming from one of the women who was really central to the WLM in that period.
I am sure you are all going to take issue with me, but consider it seriously. Why do these books, each one a variation on the same theme, sell in their millions? Surely if it was about literary content someone would complain, "oy! this is just the same damn plot and characterisation as the last one!" And then look through a pile of porn mags and read the story lines (such as there are such things) in these and see if you can see a theme here.
Then shoot the messenger if you must.