Sunday, 30 January 2011

Alis is away...

I am lucky. Both my parents are alive and well and living in Wales. All my grandparents either died when I was too young to be really cognisant of it or when they were in their late 90s and a good life had been well lived. I have not known the grief of losing somebody close to me.

My other half is not so lucky. Her father died prematurely ten years ago. Now, my mother in law has just died suddenly. We knew she had a life-threatening condition but had not expected things to take quite such an abrupt turn.

So, we are in France, dealing with the fallout not only of parental death but of dying intestate in a country whose language we , and her other heirs, speak imperfectly (and whose legal language we speak not at all). Thank God for wonderful neighbours.

I shall be here awhile, so do not expect writing updates any time soon...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Is your novel hard to get into?

How many times have you said of a book ‘It wasn’t easy to get into, but I really enjoyed it once I did’? I know I’ve said something like that on numerous occasions, though I must admit, if a book takes more than 60 pages to let me in, I’m liable to abandon it.

So what does ‘difficult to get into’ actually mean?

That the characters and/or their motivation aren’t easy to understand?

That it’s not clear where the plot is going?

That it’s too ‘literary’ (whatever that means)?

That you’re given insufficient information to understand what’s actually happening?

OK, I have to admit that I’ve got more than a passing interest in the answers to these questions. I find the openings of novels the most difficult thing of the whole project to crack. As we speak (OK, as I type and you read) I am rewriting the beginning of The Black and The White for at least the sixth time, in my quest for an agent. (Agent No 1, by the way, hasn’t declined to represent me, he’s just too busy to read anything new at this point so I have asked if he minds me submitting it elsewhere.)

I think the problem with beginnings lies in making sure that your characters’ motivation is clear (so as to avoid the first gripe above). Readers need to know what has possessed characters to do what they see them doing and, to do that, the writer needs to show their readers how their characters have got to this point. But of course, the business of getting to the point of crisis isn’t half as interesting as the point of crisis itself and the actions it sets in train. So, you don’t want to delay getting there too much. On the other hand, if you just present people with your central character falling off his metaphorical cliff and say ‘watch what happens now’ without giving them any kind of context for what is going to happen they’re likely to flounder around and abandon your book for at least two of the three reasons above, if not all of them.

I’ve never been particularly happy with the opening of TB&TW, which is why it’s been re-written so many times. But now, after a lay-off of three months whilst waiting for a decision from Agent No 1, I’m able to read the book with the necessary degree of detachment to see what works and what doesn’t. And I think I’m finally getting to somewhere like the ideal beginning for the book. I’ve hacked and stripped and cut until I think we’re just left with what’s necessary to get the reader into the book without throwing them into the deep end.

So, the first 10 000 words or so will now go out to an agent this week and the process of waiting will begin again.

Watch this space.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Latvian book give-away

I have had a name change. I am now Elisa Hokinsa. At least in Latvia. To my great surprise I got a parcel from Panmac on Saturday which turned out to be my three copies of the Latvian edition of Testament, or Testaments as it’s rendered in Latvian. I'd forgotten that there was an edition coming out...
As you can see below it’s a very handsome book – hardback with a laminated cover and no irritating dustjacket. Personally, I think this is how all hardback editions should be produced.

Now, I don’t speak Latvian, neither do I know anybody who does so if you have any Latvian friends who do, I have two copies to give away to good homes. Leave a message in the comments trail if you're interested and I'll get back to you. Otherwise it’ll be ebay...
For other language geeks amonst you, Latvian, it turns out (thanks, Wikipedia) is a proto-Indo-European language closely related to Lithuanian. The other Baltic country, Estonia, has a language which is not related to either of its neighbours and is not even Indo-European, belonging instead to that odd little linguistic group Finno-Ugric which includes Finnish and Hungarian.
There, thought you’d be interested.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The moral world of Toy Story and post-modern subversion of genre

Aliya Whitely, doyenne of quirk-fiction (I’m inventing a new genre for her as she’s having trouble fitting into one at the moment) has just put up an interesting post about Toy Story which got me thinking about the whole art/life (or fiction/reality if you want to sound less pretentious) thing.
I’m easily pleased by kids’ films and, lazily, I hadn’t bothered to look at the underlying nuts and bolts of Toy Story but Aliya’s right – the TS franchise takes the central premise that toys are alive and have feelings and runs with it to some disturbing conclusions. Disturbing because it follows that, if you don’t buy into the premise (and neither Andy, owner of Woody, Buzz et al nor Sid, the toy-torturer does) then you’re going to end up being, at best, thoughtless and, at worst, cruelly destructive towards your playthings.
Of course, without this premise, there’d be no film; the toys have to have human emotions rather than just being automata or we would feel no sympathy for them. But that’s the point of Aliya’s post, I suppose; should we be having sympathy for toys, for things that, in the real world, are inanimate?
It’s OK for us adults, we know it’s all fantasy, a fairy-story which we’re supposed to apply to our normal, everyday lives where how we treat people really matters. But do kids get this? Proponents of one side of the whole ‘effects of TV on their little minds’ debate constantly tell us that children know the difference between fact and fantasy, that they are – in fact – very sophisticated when it comes to telling the difference. I think that’s true but it doesn’t stop  fantasy having an effect on them.
Take my own offpsring. They were pretty sophisticated with this sort of stuff – they had to be, they had stories pretty much force-fed to them from birth  – but that still didn’t stop my older son having nightmares about some things that the British Board of Film Control thought were innoccuous enough to be given a U rating. ‘I know it’s not real’ he’d say to me and his Dad after waking from yet another bad dream ‘but I can’t stop thinking about it.’ Somehow, the reality of the film had insinuated itself into his mind and however much he told himself that it wasn’t real, the images had come to have a reality of their own and they frightened him.
So what about adult fiction?
As readers, are we affected, in unhelpful ways, by things we know not to be true?
As writers, are there genre conventions that make it difficult to represent life as it really is? For instance, there seems to be a feeling that ‘cosy crime’ is making a comeback at the moment because real life has become so morally ambiguous and the world such a threatening place that we need our fiction to shore up the feeling that the good guys do win in the end, that all is, truly, right with the world.
Are there conventions governing your own genre that you’re not happy with or are we all contentedly subverting such things in a thoroughly post-modern manner?

PS. Sorry, couldn't resist the PhD thesis-type title of this post!!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Happy 2011!!

So, the festive season having duly been survived, life can go back to normal. I must confess to enjoying normal, particularly because it means large portions of the day spent in solitary acts of reading, musing and writing.

Catching up with blogs while trying to think what to write for my own first offering of the new year I came upon this by AL Kennedy, my favourite of the regular Guardian book-bloggers. It expresses much of what I currently feel far more elegantly and amusingly than I ever could. Pity the last paragraph doesn't apply to me. (I suppose, in the interests of optimism, I should add, 'yet').

But, as AL would say herself - Onwards! Here's to a successful, happy, prosperous 2011.