Sunday, 20 March 2011

Shakespeare and me...

It’s not often that I’m compared to Shakespeare. Well, OK, never. However, my son was moved to remark, recently ‘very Shakespearean, Mum.' Because I am writing a play. No, it’s not in iambic pentameter and it doesn’t have people wandering around accepting the frankly ludicrous premise that a beautiful young girl is actually a virile young lad (or any of the other frankly ludicrous premises in the comedies, or even tragedies - trial by hanky always struck me as ludicrously flimsy stuff - of Wm Shakespeare Esq). It’s a play about Dickens but we’ll come back to that in a minute. What prompted the filial Shakespearean reference is the fact that I’m trying to write a play that will appeal to all kinds and ages of people. Something for the Dickens enthusiast, something for people who know nothing about him apart from the fact that he wrote the odd book, something for kids who don’t care who he was, something for teenagers who know who he was thanks very much and don’t want to be here anyway…
Which brings me to the sort of play it is. You probably know that 2012 marks not only the year the Olympics come to London (insert hooray or boo here according to your preference) but the bi-centenary of Charles Dickens’ birth. And I've been commissioned to write a play for performance in Rochester cathedral to commemorate this event.
Those of you who knew it was Dickens’ bicentenary next year will know why there's a Dickens festival every year in Rochester: Dickens spent most of his first ten years in and around Chatham (contiguous with Rochester) and, once he was famous, bought a house in Rochester that he had admired as a small boy.
The Dickens festival is a big annual deal for Rochester and the bicentenary festival is going to be a good deal bigger deal, as it were. So I’m very gratified to have been asked to write a play that is going to be the cathedral’s contribution to the proceedings.
Long-term readers of this blog will recall that I wrote and produced a play for the cathedral in 2010. That experience taught me a lot and it’s why I know that – with the likely crowds coming to the cathedral during the festival – I will have to appeal to all kinds and manner of people.
More on this, no doubt, anon; though I suspect that’s the end of the comparisons of my work with Shakespeare.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

World Book Night

How did you spend World Book Night? Were you a ‘giver’? Did you go to an event? I was kindly invited to take part in a WBN gig at Crawley library by fellow-writer Neil Ayres and duly went along to do a reading, listen to other writers reading and watch lots of people (well, the specified forty-eight, I suppose) get a free copy of Cloud Atlas, the book Neil had nominated to give away.
There has been a certain amount of controversy over the whole idea of Jamie Byng’s World Book Night. You can read some of the controversy here. And, whilst I was making my way (thank you Google maps) to and from Crawley library, I wondered what I would do if somebody asked me to come up with an alternative idea for WBN (which should, strictly speaking, more accurately be called National Book Night since nobody outside Britain seems to have caught the vision).
I think that giving away books is a grand gesture, in more senses than one, but when the books are chosen centrally, we are missing the opportunity for people to rave about books they personally care about. Maybe your favourite book appeared on the list but none of mine  did.
I quite like Nicola Morgan’s suggestion but instead of just buying a book and giving it to a friend, I’d combine it with the kind of event I was part of on Saturday, plus some other stuff.
It would go something like this. There’d be a barn dance (or quiz, karaoke or any other kind of activity that brings people together. Since WBN is supposed to be about getting people reading, you need to encourage people who don’t read much to come – they need something they know they’re going to enjoy) and something to eat and, at some point in the evening, the book giving would commence. Anyone who’d like to speak about the book they’re giving to a friend would be able to do so. (A surprisingly small number of people are prepared to speak publicly, even when actually asked.) Any writers giving a book away might, in passing, mention their own work. The band would provide live entertainment during the eating part of the evening and they could sell their CDs. Everybody would be a winner.
So that’s my World Book Night. What would yours look like?

Friday, 25 February 2011

Socrates and the Kindle

Like all writers, I’m frequently asked, these days, for my opinion on e-readers, Google books and the whole digital revolution as it relates to fiction. I think people are rather surprised at my reaction; because, on the whole, I’m pretty much in favour of books appearing electronically.

‘Ah’ they say ‘but you can’t reproduce the smell of a book, the feel of a book in your hands.’ And no, of course, you can’t. But, for me at least, that’s not what a book is about. I frequenly shock bookish types when I say that, on the whole, I dislike second hand bookshops – precisely because of the smell and the feel. I like new books, books coming off the presses now, books full of possibilities for a new cohort of readers. And I think that the e-reading devices, whether it’s the iPad, the Kindle, the Sony e-reader (or any of the other devices that are, as the litigation-conscious BBC gets its presenters to say, available) are going to provide a new cohort of readers. Because some people like the concept and the feel (possibly even of the smell) of an expensive piece of electronic gizzmology in their hands.

The Other Half and I now own a Kindle. We hadn’t actually meant to – for reasons of cost alone – but had, in cahoots with the OH’s sister – bought one for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. (She would have been delighted. Though she missed her 80th by 9 days, she owned and used a computer, a mobile phone and an iPod. As she lived in France, getting English language books took a while, even on Amazon, so the Kindle was designed to get her reading matter to her more quickly.) It’s currently on loan to a colleague of the OH’s who’s wondering whether to buy one, but we’ve already got a few books that we’re waiting to download. It may save our house from becoming book-bound as we have more bookshelves than a house of its size can really cope with, plus cupboards whose shelves are stacked 3-deep with books we just can’t bear to part with.

I’m not – yet – a huge fan of the Kindle. (We use one at work for reluctant readers who like technology.) I don’t like the grape-pip-sized letters on the keyboard and I don’t find the device enormously intuitive. I’d be better off with an iPad. (Yes. My name’s Alis and I’m a mac geek.) But the iPad is far more expensive and doesn’t use electronic paper like the e-readers so I couldn’t really see myself reading whole books on it. Short stories, maybe, but not Wolf Hall.

But, my tastes aside, it’s worth taking a historical perspective on all of this ‘real book vs. ebook’ controversy. For instance, did you know that Socrates was dead against the introduction of that new fad, literacy? In his mind, teaching a system of recording and accessing information to the young would rot their brains, make their memories atrophy like vestigial limbs and introduce all kinds of perverse and undesirable things to their developing minds. He declared that they would read things and think themselves knowledgeable instead of debating them and truly becoming so. (He may have been right on that one…)

I’m guessing that most readers would agree - pretty much by virtue of being readers - that his reaction was a tad over-heated.

The way I see it, if Socrates, one of the great minds of all time, couldn’t see the manifold advantages to humanity of being able to write things down rather than have to commit everything to memory and of being able to access the thoughts of other minds without having to make face-to-face contact with their owners, then it’s likely that the doom-mongers of our own generation aren’t seeing all the possibilities of the digital revolution.

But it’s changing the way our brains work the doom-mongers say. Well? So did reading (if you don’t believe me, read this book) and I don’t hear the nay-sayers jumping up and down and protesting that we were better off learning things by heart.

It looks to me as if we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift in terms of the way we read and interact with books. Since books are clearly still going to be there – albeit in a range of different formats – isn’t that good for writers? We just need to hold our nerve and keep up with what we need to do to ride this wave.

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!!