Seasons in the sun

Leaves on the cherry tree changing colour

Leaves on the cherry tree changing colour

Over the last couple of days the wind has shifted direction and the weather has altered.

Now instead of a breath from the Sahara that actually brings sand with it, we have pure air blowing from the Alps.

It may well mark the end of our wonderful Italian summer, although we’ll probably have an Indian summer.

For some, the change brings unwelcome reminiscences of the end of the summer holidays.

For me it has a challenging feel, as if my soul were being cleansed and hollowed out – similar to when I hear church bells.

It’s what I call a ‘wolfish’ sensation – a pleasurable thrill of fear.

Ideally anything I was writing would have reached this time of year in its plot because I so enjoy directly incorporating observations and details.

However I’m revising a novel at the moment so I’m out of step almost all the time.

Tone and flavour

Autumn roses 1Tone and flavour are two words which don’t seem to belong to the world of writing. The first could have been taken equally from the worlds of music or painting, and the second is definitely culinary.

They are, however, very important concepts in writing; in fact they’re sometimes so important that like the ‘elephant in the room’ they’re too big to be seen properly.

Strangely enough, tone and flavour are very close in meaning; in fact one could almost consider them to be synonymous. They stand for the bias in the book’s choice of setting, plot, characters and language which, as a whole, elicits a reaction in the reader, whether it be one of sympathy and attraction, or one of repulsion.

Let me take 2 examples. One novel is set in the back streets of London. The only weather ever described is rain, and the whole environment is bleak and ugly. The characters are miserable and depressed, they don’t enjoy their jobs, and they have unsatisfactory relationships. When they go to a café, the food is unappetising, the cutlery is greasy, and the service is grumpy.

The second novel takes place in a jungle. The author is at great pains to describe the heat, the humidity, the smell of the damp vegetation and of the various types of flowers and fruits. The rain patters on the leaves. Everything is in abundance, even in excess. The characters are full of life and sexual fervour. Their bodies are smooth and tanned. They eat fruit and edible shoots. They are improvident and happy-go-lucky.

Obviously these 2 books represent extremes. But they are each unified in their representation of reality and they will each evoke a response in the reader. The first novel may come over as boring, samey, depressing or, conversely, as realistic, gritty, grass-roots. The second novel may be seen as oppressive, over-exuberant, alien, or alternatively colourful, exotic, dreamy.

Some readers, if questioned, might pick on one aspect of the book as having elicited their response – setting, plot, outcome, for example – but others are likely to be less articulate and say they just ‘liked it’ or ‘didn’t like it’. In many instances they will have been affected by the book’s tone or flavour.

Authors who are wise to this audience reaction may deliberately create a tone or a flavour by means of introducing more restricted but repeated devices such as smells or perfumes (diesel oil, roses), or sounds ( water, traffic). They may stylise the dialogue or the descriptions.

Naturally, some authors aren’t conscious of introducing tone or flavour to their books. Perhaps, in some cases, it goes naturally with the subject matter, or issues from the writers own innate character. But it pays to be aware of the possibilities.

Is an Ivory Tower a des res?

Ivory Tower - 1It’s an evocative image, a tower made out of milky white ivory, too high and too slippery to assail and with a distant and distorted view of the world below it. A great many writers have inhabited one or perhaps, more to the point, been accused of inhabiting one. But what effect does residence in an ivory tower have on a writer’s output?

It would be tempting just to look at the negative. A writer in an ivory tower is out of touch with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.

So what do they actually write about? The answer is: all kinds of things. The human imagination is immensely fertile and some of the best works of literature have very little to do with mundane reality. No writer, not even one whose writing desk is behind ivory crenellations, is devoid of experience, feelings and opinions. If he or she writes about lofty matters it may not be that they’re incapable of understanding the current concerns of fellow humanity.

Writing isn’t necessarily a newspaper. Very often inspiration springs from cold, pure sources and is subsequently crafted to aesthetic perfection. This is particularly true of poetry, one of whose functions is to be uplifting.

It’s probably true to say that the smaller, sharper and least wide-reaching of works are the easiest to produce from an ivory tower. A great sprawling novel, depicting the best and worst of humanity and the setting within which they interact, is of its very essence an excrescence from the world’s surface.

But what about fantasy novels? Inventing a whole world in all its details is a cerebral activity, well suited to a state of isolation. But as soon as it has red-blooded, human characters, the walls of the tower begin to crumble.

Labelling someone as living in an ivory tower is usually an insult. But there is certainly a place, and a hallowed place, for works written in such circumstances. Sometimes writing ought not to reflect reality but instead should imitate the ideals for which we strive with our most exalted faculties.

What makes a great book?

Microscope

Put your own tastes under the microscope

Ask a thousand people chosen at random and you’ll get a thousand different answers to the question “What are your top 5 books?” Not only will your sample differ wildly in tastes, the sheer volume of books available nowadays means an effectively infinite number to choose from. Go back not that many years and the chances would have been that many from a similar-sized sample would have had their lists substantially coincide – not now, though.

So, how can you try and turn your novel into someone’s ‘great book’?

Of course no-one can guarantee you’ll succeed – no matter how hard you try – but there is a simple trick that you can apply which will help you achieve your goal.

Cast your eyes over all your paperbacks which you’ve not read in more than a year. How many of them do you really remember? For each one, if you had to summarise the plot synopsis in typical ‘back of the book’ fashion (as opposed to just stating its genre – “It’s a horror story”), could you do it? Be brutally honest because the tip only works if you are.

When you’ve weeded your entire book collection down to a mere handful (unless you’ve got a photographic memory or are deceiving yourself, it won’t be more), analyse very carefully what these books have in common because there is a common element and it’s that which is inspiring you to remember them.

Why bother? Why not just take the word of the experts? Well, firstly many of them are caught up with the world of classic literature – something which is probably not particularly relevant to you – and secondly, you probably read books in the same (or similar) genre to that in which you write in. By studying what works for your preferred type of book, you also learn to perfect your own writing in the most appropriate way.

Now you’ve got the recipe, ‘just’ apply this common thread to your own work.

Fingers crossed!

Least Favourite Trope

Arm with knife

Relax- he’ll never catch you.

There is an argument that tropes can be unavoidable. In fact, some genres are so formulaic that a trope is mandatory and that the only thing that matters is presenting it in style.

Personally, I hate this type of story. I like my plots to keep me stimulated and have me wondering right up to the dénouement when it all ‘finally becomes clear’. Unfortunately there are some conventions (tropes) which storytellers just don’t seem to be able to break free from.

Although I’m spoilt for choice here, I think the worst trope occurs where the hero/heroine is being closely pursued by the resident bad guy/monster. Regardless of how fast our ‘good guy’ runs, how many times he/she falls over, or the extent of injuries to the ‘bad guy’, there is always just a few feet between them in any chase sequence. Add to this the convention of a superhuman type resistance to pain or damage to internal organs that psychopaths seem to possess and you’ve turned a scary horror story or a hard-boiled crime novel into a complete farce.

I realise that it may be hard to completely exclude such situations but there are other ways of boosting your book’s plausibility factor if you make the effort. In my opinion, it’s that effort that turns a so-so author into a great one.

The power of literature to alter your state of mind

Shoes and hand-bag

Not shoes to want to walk a mile in perhaps.

There’s an article on BBC News today discussing the effect of music on people who are grieving or depressed. Which works better, they ask, cheerful music to try to alter your mood, or sad music which reflects your mood? It made me think about literature in the same context.

Reading is a more cerebral and less visceral activity than listening to music. Its influences are more on the conscious level and can be more complete and detailed. It follows that the ways in which it works are more complex.

Let’s think of the medium which is possibly closest to music in the context: poetry. A poem can speak to the inner, quiet, individual mind like nothing else can, throwing up images in a similar way to song lyrics. It can also meet us on an intellectual plane, and sometimes it’s through the intellect that comfort is derived or the spirit is uplifted.

Small volumes and pamphlets of both poetry and prose exist to address the different emotions and situations which people struggle with during their lives. Mostly a rational mind tries, through their pages, to reach another mind which is trying to be rational. But sometimes it isn’t straightforward advice that breaks through to a person but a saying or ‘mantra’ which speaks to them and alters their life, or a desire to imitate a character, or personal identification with a hero or a villain.

“Never criticise a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” goes the saying. This could in theory change one person’s way of thinking about another. I personally prefer the rebuttal: If you’ve got his shoes and you’re a mile away, you can say what you want!

Literature can present a complete world for immersion and hence distraction of the troubled mind. Stories and novels lighten a humdrum life, relieve boredom or inspire hope. Dark tales of tragedy soothe through harmless schadenfreude.

Music stirs our entrails with irrational feelings but literature introduces us to other realities in which we can live, and heal. I would say that the primary value of much of literature, and certainly of fiction, is its power to alter your state of mind.

How to begin a novel – part 3 – Me, Myself and I

Pirate skull and treasureWe continue our series on how to begin a novel by looking at opening with a first person description.

In my opinion (and in the context of book beginnings), first person narrative tends to be an ‘all or nothing’ device. In order for it to work, the narrator’s ‘self-description’ has to be both captivating and an intrinsic part of the opening chunk of the novel. It’s probably going to set the tone and style for the whole story.

The ‘Me, Myself and I’ novel opening clearly emulates an autobiography however the latter has the advantages of the writer being real and (probably) famous and also that the reader has actively sought out the book in order to know more of the author’s life. A work of fiction rarely has such a captive audience and thus our ‘explosion’ when applied to a first person description in this way must establish interest from the off. The archetypal cliché ‘I was born at an early age’ will cut no ice with a browsing customer who will simply stifle a yawn and return the book.

The knack is to make the narrator exciting and interesting but without giving away the goods too soon (why bother reading the book if the first page tells you all you need to know?) or causing system-overload in the reader’s head through providing them with a birth-to-now, blow-by-blow curriculum vitae.

I think the key to how to succeed with this type of opening lies in harking back to the classic ‘good guy/bad guy’ productions. It’s impossible to get much more minimalist than ‘The Man With No Name’ but, within seconds of his appearance, the audience is wanting to know:

  • Who is he?
  • What does he want?
  • Where does he come from?
  • What’s he going to do?

In other words, they’re hooked. If this were a book, they would have already bought it and be racing off to somewhere quiet where they can greedily consume its contents.

The principal point from this is that you need to give just enough information but no more. Its tightrope nature renders it a difficult style to master but a winner if done properly.

The ‘keep it lean and mean’ and ‘less is more’ idea has not always been the case and readers were once prepared to plough through much more by way of a preamble than they are nowadays. For example, look at the opening to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe:

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, though not of that Country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called, nay we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always called me.

This was written nearly 400 years ago and (setting aside the book’s antiquated notions of racial superiority) it’s hard to think that, with such an opening, it would rise far up today’s book rankings. The description is rather tedious and largely irrelevant to what is to come and, if these details are eventually needed by the story, they could easily be covered later in the narrative.

A more modern ‘Me, Myself and I’ type opening can be found in I, Claudius by Robert Graves which was written 80 years ago. It even begins with the dreaded ‘I’ pronoun.

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Gravescleverly overcomes the need to avoid the repetition of ‘Me, myself and I’ by mocking himself with some of the insulting names he claims to have been called. This immediately engages readers by invoking their feelings towards these names and makes them want to find out more about Claudius. The opening text also makes it clear that this is not a dry and weighty tome about a long-dead Roman Emperor.

This autobiographical style frequently works well with a rip-roaring adventure and this is illustrated by the opening paragraph of King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. It immediately describes someone who’s been in a scrap or two and who’s now looking back on a recent and exciting adventure which has made him a great fortune.

You’re immediately caught up in it.

I would, however, snag it on two counts. Firstly, I feel it is a bit too self-deprecating for current tastes and, secondly, the length of the first paragraph makes it a bit difficult to scan read however these are things which could be easily remedied by a good editor.

It is a curious thing that at my age–fifty-five last birthday–I should find myself taking up a pen to try to write a history. I wonder what sort of a history it will be when I have finished it, if ever I come to the end of the trip! I have done a good many things in my life, which seems a long one to me, owing to my having begun work so young, perhaps. At an age when other boys are at school I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or mining ever since. And yet it is only eight months ago that I made my pile. It is a big pile now that I have got it–I don’t yet know how big–but I do not think I would go through the last fifteen or sixteen months again for it; no, not if I knew that I should come out safe at the end, pile and all. But then I am a timid man, and dislike violence; moreover, I am almost sick of adventure. I wonder why I am going to write this book: it is not in my line. I am not a literary man, though very devoted to the Old Testament and also to the “Ingoldsby Legends.” Let me try to set down my reasons, just to see if I have any.

Beginning a novel with a description of you, the narrator, is perfectly valid but, if you’re going to make it work, both the description and the subsequent story need to support your choice of style. The picture you paint must be enticing and interesting, the reader must quickly be made to care about the narrator, and the whole needs to engross from the outset. You’ve simply got to have a strong storyline or this type of opening will not work.

When it comes down to it, there’s no point opening up shop if you don’t have something to sell.

To be continued.

How to begin a novel – part 2 – setting the scene

In the first part of this series we looked at why a book’s opening is so important to sales. Now we’re going to continue by looking at the different types of openings and how they should be handled.

Opening a novel with a description of a location is one of the most popular options. In fact it even has its own expression – setting the scene.

Long before books were available to the masses, stories were conveyed verbally by actors. However, before they appeared, the ‘stage would be set’ with painted backdrops and a variety of inanimate objects. For convenience, this stage would be prepared in advance of the play’s beginning (as far as was possible) because this would probably be done by the actors themselves before they went into character.

But there was much more to the psychology of scene setting than just plain convenience. The backdrops gave the audience an opportunity to absorb the location (quite possibly way outside of their normal experiences) and to suspend disbelief.

And that’s what you should be doing if you are proposing to begin your novel with the description of a location.

Now back to my earlier blog comment about the need for an ‘explosion’. Clearly with such a narrative there is little scope for anything particularly exciting to happen (I’m leaving aside battle scenes and such because they’ll be covered in a different part of this series), but that doesn’t mean it can be glossed over.

Here’s an example of opening scene-setting from Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

A more modern scenic description which I feel is particularly successful in its aim can be found in Wilbur Smith’s A Falcon Flies:

“Antoinette 1860

Africa crouched low on the horizon, like a lion in ambush, tawny and gold in the early sunlight, scared by the cold of the Benguela Current.”

Both these beginnings make you want to read more – the whole idea of the opening paragraphs – because it’s precious little good being erudite if no-one’s buying your books.

Returning to Hardy’s description – look at his second paragraph. It is full of dark forebodings and turns the heath into a menacing character which would have sent shivers down the spines of readers.

If you’re going to start with a description of a place, it needs to be inspired, fascinating and concise. Just as a watercolour artist will pick out the key details in a picture, you must focus on the principal aspects of your backdrop and combine their description with a carefully balanced and captivating application of language. Look again at the use of similes in the two examples – Hardy’s ‘tent’ and Smith’s ‘lion’.

Keeping it to the point is key, though, and Smith’s shorter description with its unexpected verbs (crouched, scared) is a much better solution for a modern readership which might be less inclined to plough through a Hardy-like description. Think how you would describe your scene and then seek to strip it down to its bare essentials. Having done that, decide how you can vitalise these with a few well-placed interesting adjectives and verbs.

Be careful not to over-egg the pudding, though. Just as a cluttered set would have prevented the actors from putting on their show, an overlong or over-fussy scenic opening can come across as self-indulgent and, well, just plain boring. The explosion comes from being lean and mean and making the reader wonder what’s going to happen.

Continued >>

How to begin a novel – part 1

GrenadeI first began to theorize about how stories were constructed when I was at school. I remember a particular book (please do leave its title as a comment if you know which one I’m referring to because I’ve long since forgotten it) which decreed that a story should begin with an explosion and then work its way up to a crescendo. To a young teenage mind interested in the art of writing, it sounded exciting and I took it at face value. Of course I know now that I was taking it far too literally.

Applied to an action novel (‘explosion’ here taken to mean any extreme, sudden and disrupting event), this type of opening tells the reader to expect a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride – perfect for an adrenalin junkie. It’ll grab them from the first sentence and make them want to read more. The opening sequences to Bond films are collectors’ items in themselves and fans are always keen to see what dire predicament our hero will find himself in before the opening credits.

But this type of opening doesn’t sit well with many other genres. The whole point of most dramas, romances, tragedies etc are that they build up to a single crescendo – i.e. the ‘energy pattern’ (for want of a better phrase) is very different to the ‘hold on to your seats’ storyline. Even if it’s a tale of star-crossed lovers which has plenty of ups and downs along the way, these are normally led up to and not ploughed into from the outset.

So what did the word ‘explosion’ really mean in a general sense?

It is, of course, referring to the requirement for the opening 2 or 3 paragraphs to be attention-grabbing and every novel, short-story or other work of fiction must have them. Unlike non-fiction where you might well be fortunate enough to possess a captive audience, no-one, not even a famous bestselling author has any predetermined right to expect people to buy their book.

Traditionally writers have had publishers to fall back on whereby a battle-hardened editor or their reader would carefully consider the opening scene and decide if it passed muster. Nowadays, with Kindle and all the other forms of self-publishing, authors are left to live or die by their own pen. As a consequence, it only takes a quick scan of the lower ranking books on Amazon to see why they’re in that position. While some have been dropped for lousy content or bad writing, how many are simply being passed by because the opening section ‘doesn’t grab’ buyers?

While there’s clearly no one way in which a novel should be begun (and, if there were, who’d want to buy them?), there are standard type openings which are more or less dictated by the genre. I’m going to look at these over the forthcoming weeks and discuss each one in some detail.

Continued >>