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NinaMilton

Sabbie Dare and Friends

I have been writing fiction since my reception teacher, Mrs Marsden, put a paper and pencil in front of me. I can remember thinking; What? Do real people write these lovely books? I want to do that! I gained an MA in creating writing and sold my first books for children; Sweet’n’Sour, (HarperCollins) and Tough Luck, (Thornberry Publishing), both from Amazon. I also love writing short stories and they regularly appear in British anthologies. I now write crime fiction, published by Midnight Ink. The idea for In the Moors , my first Shaman Mystery came to me one day, in the guise of Sabbbie Dare. She came to me fully formed and said; “I'm a young therapist, a shaman, and sometimes I do get very strange people walking into my therapy room. Honestly, I could write a book about some of them...” I am a druid; a pagan path which takes me close to the earth and into the deep recesses of my mind. Shamanic techniques help me in my life - in fact they changed my life - although, unlike Sabbie, I’ve never set up a therapeutic practice...I’m too busy writing and teaching creative writing with the Open College of the Arts. I’m a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Although I was born, educated and raised my two children in the West Country, I now live in west Wales with my husband James. IN THE MOORS, the first Shaman Mystery starring SABBIE DARE was released in the US in 2013 and UNRAVELLING VISIONS will be out this autumn, but you can already reserve your copy on Amazon. Join me on my vibrant blogsite, http://www.kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com where I offer students and other writers some hard-gained advice on how to write fiction.

THE POWER

Is the reader as important as the writer? Does their opinion of what they read count as much as what the writer believes about what they are writing? I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read and make this public.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argued that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critic who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the reading. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.
 
I like the idea that the reader has opinions that count, but how can we make our opinions felt? Apart from sites like Goodreads.com and Booklikes.com, there are the glittering book prizes, where readers decide who will win. But most of those readers are writers or editors, or in some other way associated with the book trade.


http://www.naomialderman.com/about/
Recently I finished ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman. The story begins when teenage girls worldwide simultaneously develop a 'skein' – a strip of muscle in their collarbone which conducts electricity, allowing them to instantly inflict pain and even death. Some girls have more power than others and they are able to wake up the force in older women too. Virtually overnight, the world changes beyond recognition. Women are elected as political leaders virtually everywhere, the army is almost completely composed of women, while sex-trafficked women break free from their bonds. 

If the book had been written the other way around, with men being all-powerful, we would more or lesws be reading about the real world, the one we live in. So how does Alderman visualise such a dramatic change as this? You’d think the prediction for a sudden matriarchal society would be that it’s more caring and nurturing than this one, where men are generally in charge. But the story is dystopian, suggesting that absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. Men become second-class citizens and this world unfurls into a mirror image of the one it left behind.
 
Readers had mixed opinions. It won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer. It’s getting five stars on all the review sites (mostly from women, which made me wonder if men are reading it). But when I went to my book club, all women, I was surprised to find that they all agreed with me, that this book, although a thought-provoking read, should not have won a major prize like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize. My reading friends agreed that the writing in The Power is not elevated or illuminating, that it read at the same level as something like The Hunger Games; fast-paced and easy to race through – a thriller, yes, but the language is basic and at times clumsy, and the characters are thinly revealed or developed. We didn't rate it as a work of literature. Perhaps that was mean of us. We already knew that Atwood had loved the book; did that influence us adversly? And in any case, does our opinion change what the book originally meant? 

Finally, we asked this…was there a more worthy winner on the short list? 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by peoples we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Salinger. Are the author's intentions and views about their own work, more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation? In the past women often had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. 

On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we should make up our mind only through our reading, and not from any outside inflences. The Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved if that were true. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.
 
Would The Power have won the Bailey’s if the judges hadn’t known that Margaret Atwood ‘mentored’ the book and gave it her wholehearted support? Atwood is justly renown for both her early works, which gave her a ‘name’ and for her later science fiction, but mostly, she’s in the news at the moment for the brilliant TV adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale. At our book club we couldn’t understand what she saw in this book, which we agreed was original and inventive, but concentrated on pursuing the idea that girls could now inflict pain, and describing gratuitous acts of violence, death and rape. What if a man had written this self-same book? Would it have been lauded, especially by feminists? Or would they have suggested that the dystopian nature of the outcome was due to a ‘male view’? What if the athour had reversed the theme, so that it was men who were born with electrocuting ‘skeins’? Would this book, as it stands, but gender reversed, have been read as literature? Or marketed under a lurid cover?

Meanwhile, my book club had all read the rest of the shortlist, and we all preferred one particular book. It didn't win, but nevertheless it's a total winner in our opinion. 

Which was was it? Well, that's what suspension is all about folks. I'll review it, as my favourite book of 2017, in my next blogpost. 

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING

 

Praised by Alice Munro (whose name is on the back cover), Do Not Say We Have Nothing earned Madeline Thien the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for most promising Canadian writer under the age of 30. Then went on to win a Carnegie Medal, the Scotiabank Prize and the Stanford Travel Writing Award (Wikipedia 2016), but although shortlisted for The Man-Booker and the Bailey’s Prize, it didn’t win. I was shocked. The reviews I’d read suggested a forgone conclusion…It speaks to the humanity that continues even in the harshest, most self-destructively paranoid conditions, and it shows how the savagery of destroying culture comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of human bodies. For this reason alone, I hope it wins the Man Booker prize…(Boland 2016)
 
I found it compelling, important. I thought a close second read would determine why it hasn’t gained a glittering crown. Long, with a rambling, fractured narrative, covers many aspects of the Maoist revolution. The story is told in sewn-on patches, revealed slowly with huge difficultly, almost like a labour. This immediately felt right…as if structure and style represent the dreadful hardships the Chinese people experienced.
 
Do Not Say We Have Nothing  opens in Vancouver in 1990. Marie’s father has killed himself in Hong Kong jumping from a high building, and Marie (also called Li-Ling) and her mother take in a young woman from China. Ai Ming arrives at their home without ‘papers’. 10 year-old Marie is enamoured by the teenager, but ask as she might, cannot discover what has happened to her. Marie tries to get closer by showing the girl something that belonged to her dead father…
 
The notebook with her father’s writing, the Book of Records, was easy to find. I picked it up, knowing it would please her. But when I offered the notebook to Ai-ming, she ignored me. 
I tried again. “Ma told me it’s a great adventure, that someone goes to America and someone else goes to the desert. She said that the person who made this copy is a master calligrapher.”
Ai-ming emerged from her coat. “It’s true my father had excellent handwriting, but he wasn’t a master calligrapher. And anyway, no matter how beautiful the Book of Records is, it’s only a book. It isn’t real.”
“That’s okay. If you read it to me, I can improve my Chinese. That’s real.”
She smiled. After a few moments of turning pages, she returned the notebook to the bedcover, which had become a kind of neutral ground between us. “It’s not a good idea,” she said. “This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.”
“You can summarise the first sixteen chapters. I’m sure you know them.”
“Impossible!” But she was laughing…(Thien 2016)
 
Politics, time, place and generations of characters are intertwined within the story, and echoed in the handwritten ‘Record’ of the extract above. It was like reading a half-lost Chinese legend, or a guide to survival under hopeless oppression. I loved the way stories and music are powerful threads connecting the lives and times of a Chinese family. Often, I felt I was reading Dostoyevski. I agreed it wasa beautiful, sorrowful workthe mind is never still while reading it…(Senior 2016)
 
At the core of the story is a true event. In 1968, the director of Shanghai Conservatory of Music, He Luting, was dragged from his office by Red Guards, physically abused in front of TV cameras and accused of ‘non-revolutionary thinking’ over his  approbation of Western classical music. He did not confess, as most did, instead, crying out, “shame on you for lying!” (Isobel Hilton 2016). Thien incorporates this into her story.
 
I have this idea that … maybe, a long time ago, the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived,” one characters says (Thien 2016). The covert record, written by hand and passed secretly from writer to writer, allows them to express what they cannot tell. Almost entirely unrevealed on the page, I thought the notebook was a metaphor for the half-lost history of three generations. 
 
Bach’s Goldberg Variations (always played by pianist Glenn Gould), becomes the score in our head. – the words echoing the complex counterpoints in the music. It’s a symbol, I believe, of how brilliant creativity is suppressed and punished in the Cultural Revolution (CR), but also of how music is universal. Early in the novel, Marie says…I was drawn toward it, as keenly is if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture…(Thien 2016) She might be talking about the story she’s about to unfold.
 
Tieananmen Square in the 80s
We only find out Ai-Ming’s full story as the book progresses to its climax in Tiananmen Square. However, this is the beauty of close reading, and doing so made me sit up. There are a lot of clues in that first chapter in Vancouver. I had tried to keep them in my head on my first read, but it was almost impossible. The sweep of the book wipes them away. It’s only at the end, as things come to a head, that we learn how Ai-Ming and Marie are intrinsically connected.
 
Marie narrates short sections of the novel as an adult, in the present day. She’s become a mathematics professor, which links with the contrapuntal nature of music and story. She’s still seeking the truth about her family’s history. Meanwhile, the lives of the families of two sisters over fifty years of Chinese revolution is revealed in a wide-ranging viewpoint, allowing one after another of the characters to catch and take up the tale. It’s never clear who is in charge of this omniscient-like third person. It might be Ai Ming, remembering all she knows of the Book of Records, even adding to it. Maybe this is all Marie’s story, told at the end of her quest. Or perhaps the overarching view is Thien’s herself.
 
I became intimately involved with these lives, the ambiguities of the story, and the glorious sounds of music; Chinese and European, violin and piano. From Vancouver we go back to the colour and gaiety of the 1940’s, where two teenaged sisters entertain by singing in provincial teahouses. We follow Big Mother Knife and Swirl through the land reforms, re-educations, the arrival of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, and on, to the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
 
Big Mother has three children, including a boy called Sparrow, who becomes a musical prodigy. Swirl and her husband, Wen the Dreamer, have a girl, Zhuli. Wen is the ‘master calligrapher’ and principle contributor to the Book of Records. He and Swirl are caught up in the punishments devised to expose counter-revolutionaries… anyone deviating from the norm of communist orthodoxy. They are tortured and given hard labour in a desert area of China, where they barely survive. The young Zhuli is sent to find her aunt in Shanghai. She takes up the violin under the influence of her cousin, the shy composer, Sparrow, and is destined for great things, until the Cultural Revolution rises up. At the Conservatory, Zhuli becomes unable to cope with the humiliations, brain-washings and destruction of music and musical instruments….students began writing essays asking, “What good is this music, these empty enchantments, that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?”(Thien 2016). Some musicians form a clandestine resistance group, and this seems to finally topple Zhuli. She kills herself. 
 
In Moa’s China, history is manipulated or suppressed unless it toes the party line. And so, from the safety of Canada, Thein has attempted to tell the entire truth, using music as her theme. It feels off-key, literally, to write about musicians when so much of the history is political. They quietly go about their business of writing, playing and teaching music. They have brilliant minds, but are quiet people, not necessarily politically articulate.
 
Sparrow becomes deeply intimate with a piano student, Kai, whose family didn’t survive the starvation times of the Great Leap Forward. But Sparrow is unable to consummate their love, perhaps because of his timid reserve, perhaps due to the shock of Zhuli’s death. Kai is determined to live whatever the cost. Ruthlessly, he compromises his art and prospers as a musician, lauded by the establishment, while Sparrow, who cannot dishonour classical music, is forced to leave the Conservatory, reassigned to work in a radio factory for thirty years.
 
And what of the Book of Records? In an interview, Thien explains…It’s a book with no beginning, no middle and no end, in which the characters are seeing an alternative China where they recognise mirrors of themselves and which they write themselves into.” She is speaking literally as well as metaphorically. “The act of copying is different in China because part of the art of calligraphy is that you learn to write as the masters did. It’s a lot about breath and pressure and line. (Armistead 2016)
 
When I surfed the net, I discovered the notebook is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of pre-history, Shiji or the Historical Records. Like the novel and the notebook, the Shiji is non-chronological, fractured…overlapping units that interpret rather than document. Completed in 91BCE  it was kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had had its author, Sima Qian, the ‘grand astrologer’ castrated. (Vioatti 2014).
 
I followed one family for sixty years, across vast Chinese landscapes, puzzling about the ‘book of records’, carrying Baroque music in my head through 450 pages of traumatic experiences and moral complexities. Although it’s not an easy book to read, and I wasn’t alone in finding I always wanted to read on… Thien's reach—though epic —does not extend beyond her capacity, resulting in a lovely fugue of a book…(Chalfant 2016).
 
China has always been a dangerous place to state the truth, rather than toe the line. Then chose characters with great gifts, extraordinary yet quite ordinary, who fall foul of the absurd doctrines of a regime. Through them, I understood the consequences of Mao’s revolution on both the Chinese national identity, and the personal identities of its people.
 
The duplicitous Kai finally agrees to help Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-Ming, to escape China, but soon after Marie meets her, Ai Ming disappears into the USA. Marie is still searching at the end of the book. As if both girls, mirror-images of the girls who sang in the teahouses, resonate what the previous generation had to go through; to disappear emotionally or physically, or to wander, in search of reasons and identity. There’s no final answers, especially as to why it did not win the Booker. That is a puzzle as great as the Book of Records.
 

 

Writng Advice - Questing your Plot

Questing your Plot

 
 
I've been writing for the Open College of the Arts Creative Writing Degree again.
 
This time, I've been looking at plotting stories.
 
Plots are sometimes defined as quests, but you can invert that; your first quest is to find your plot.
 
All good quests need a map, and so do you. Not just any map, either – a treasure map, which will hide the plot secrets, lay the clues, and guide your reader through the dangers and dramas of their journey to a wealth of satisfaction at the end.
 
I have a foremost tip in the quest for the next plot idea…
 
But you'll have to read the original blog to find out what that tip is, and the other practical, questing suggestions I've found useful myself, such as wall charts…
 
 
 
 

Writing Advice - Getting Going

A Five-finger Exercise for Writers

 
 
 


When I was  a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelsshon’s Songs without Words, Beethoven sonatas and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements. 
 
Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; three decades to be exact.
 


 

Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, a writer who I'm mentoring at the moment, wrote to say...When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.
 
Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life...many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess - when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous - can help enormously. Bill wrote; When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing. 
 
Naturally, a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement I hope to give practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t - they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the forest. 
 
But it’s important for the mentor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel. 
 
Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious...Bill said in his letter...and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so.
 
Awnice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience, to be honest. Without that, it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks.

I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful set of mentors; the literary agency I'm with. They don't just turn my work around, and send it off to editors with a hopeful covering letter, they constantly work with me to get my novels to a perfect pitch. Like Bill, I'm no better at seeing the trees in my own writing…I fancy almost all professional writers find it hard to find a navigable path through the thickest parts of their novel's woodland – at least during the first drafts. Maybe this is the reason many second novels get slated by critics and readers alike; 'just not like the first, great book', they'll cry, and I'll be thinking, 'didn't their agent read it over and comment on it, offer some advice?' That's when I know I'm so lucky to have great agents. 
 
Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap…
 
Bill hasn’t quite finished his novel yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with it...one word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.

One thing I can reassure him on – and all the writers who are in his position that read this blog – it does, slowly, get easier. Tiny step by tiny step, you start to work things out on your own, spotting what's wrong in time to get it right, learning to take that step back and look at the forest, see how it's growing.
 
Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours...may your words always sound like songs.

To learn more about my mentoring programme, go to KITCHEN TABLE NOTEPAD PROGRAMME

Writing Advice - Info Dumps

Clear Up Your Writing Info Dumps

 


In her latest post for the Open College of the Arts, Nina Milton is writing on the information dump,  a phrase used colloquially by scriptwriters, but it’s also something that can be an issue for writers of novels and short stories. 



It’s a common a gambit used when the writer wants the reader to know something that the characters already know, but also used to overcome other information issues. The trouble with the info dump is that it’s boring to read, to listen to, or to view and horribly difficult to clear up once in place. 
Go to WeareOCA to read the rest of the post.

Get all Moody with your Crime Writing

— feeling amazing
If people are saying they ‘couldn’t get into’ your writing, or that your characters felt a bit lifeless, then it might be that atmosphere or mood that is lacking in your work. Building mood and atmosphere grabs a reader and draws them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:
 


 
Atmosphere  has come to mean the ambience, aura or feeling of a scene. It is the literary device which allows the action in writing to also have emotions which intrigue, excite, seduce, unsettle, disturb or beguile. Often atmosphere will add to the enjoyment of a read without the reader quite being able to work out why – they are 'internalising' it. An atmosphere can be established very quickly, but it can also change throughout, depending on the scene, plot or development of character.

Mood is subtly different from atmosphere but can further lift the atmosphere you’re creating. It is the ‘something in the air’ that helps ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing, working like a perfume, subconsciously sensed – the ‘je ne sais quoi of a good read, when a reader’s spine is tingled, or their heart wrenched, almost without them knowing it. Mood is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator.

There are some very simple ways of getting atmosphere and mood into your writing. The first is to use the senses. 

Smell – describe smells, both lovely and sickening, to add to atmosphere and ‘take’ the reader into the story
Sound – not just ‘grand’ sounds like an on-coming train or ‘obvious’ sounds like birdsong in countryside, but ‘lesser’ sounds; the crunch of gravel underfoot, the way a character constantly sniffs, the sudden, atmospheric howling of a dog in the twilight distance.
Taste. Don’t forget taste whenever something is placed in the narrator’s mouth. That might not take place often in your story, so also consider the other tastes that could heighten atmosphere, such as the taste of strong chemicals in the air, or the ‘taste’ of rain. Also use ‘interior’ tastes, such as the taste of the waking mouth or the taste of bile. And don’t forget the taste of a kiss!
Touch. This might seem the hardest to use well, but it's hugely important in adding mood and atmosphere. Surprisingly, touch takes place all the time. A breeze on the face, fabric on skin, the touch of another’s hand, the pressure of a wall against your back or cold flooring under your feet.

I believe there is a sixth sense…the sensations felt inside a person…their mood and perceptions. What does it feel like for the character to be in that setting or location? Is the dirty kitchen frustrating or irritating John, or does he ignore it completely? If so, why? When the two children enter the cave how do they percive it…why is it scaring or exciting to them?


The Pathetic Fallacy can entice the reader right into the mood of the narrator or other characters. Used sparingly by the skilled writer, the Pathetic Fallacy can be very effective. This term relates to the technique of attributing human characteristics, sensations, and emotions, to things that are inanimate, such as nature. The weather is used a lot within this technique. It can link extremely well with the symbolism you might want to pull into a story.  For instance, when a writer wants to build up an emotion in their character, they will place them in an appropriate setting – the angry character standing below a lowering sky with bruised clouds tearing above them, or the despairing character battling against a desperate, lashing storm. Rain is always falling at funerals – lightening slashes a tree as a gothic horror begins – fog descends as the protagonist becomes wandering and confused, as in King Lear, or lost in a long, fruitless quest, as in Bleak House. But this is a device that is notoriously cliched and often wrongly applied by novice writers, leading to something called 'empathic universe', which creates a melodramatic effect. You can tell if someone has overdone their melodrama, the mood overpowers the characters and even the story,  getting in the way of allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist.  Be particularly warned if you are writing romantic fiction – remind yourself of the comic effect in Wallace and Gromit as Wallace’s bread was shown rinsing in his oven as his passion bloomed for Piella Backwell. If you use this technique to make people laugh, just be sure they are laughing with you and not at your writing. 


I haven't forgotten the sense of sight – describing how things appear is essential, even it if is over-used. New writers often believe 'describing' is something you really shouldn't do too much if you want to move your story on, and, indeed, today’s readers are not keen on long chunks of description…that died out with the crinoline! So the way to add atmospheric detail, especially in crime writing, is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. Opening out the possiblilities by painting the atmosphere until it drips with meaning is quite the opposite of providing chunks of description. 
 
By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a character, a landscape or an interior – the atmosphere can be enhanced.
 
Even more amazingly, adding detail to scenes that have a high drama content actually increases the tension. Creating detailed description stretches story out while offering the writer a chance to use good language skills to create a vivid atmosphere. 

So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story. 
Here’s a moment from the first skeleton draft version of my crime novel In the Moors;
 
I was drawing closer to the bogs. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. I raised my collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles. This was a scary place to be at night.
Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In that first draft, I was pummelling along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. My character, Sabbie Dare is walking into a dangerous situation. I can’t stop the action – it's going at full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while maintaining the dramatic atmosphere. I must take as much time as I dare to allow Sabbie to describe what she observes and confront her own thoughts, by which she can build the mood of the scene…
 
When I lifted my chin away from my footsteps, I could see I was drawing closer to the long-abandoned areas, murky water held together with sedges and bulrushes. These bogs went on forever, impossible to tell one blackened hellhole from the next. I had no idea how to find the location I wanted.
I turned a full circle, skimming the horizon.  Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. The trunks were glossy black against the reddening sunset. Each branch, thick as a Sumo wrestler’s leg, skimmed the water’s surface before turning upwards to the sky. The patterns they formed brought symbols to my mind – cages and gallows and rune signs. My skin goosed up along my arms. 
I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles, inadequately closing off the area.
The sun was slipping below the horizon like a thief in an alley. I had hoped I wouldn’t need my torch, but now it drilled a swirling vortex into the space ahead, illuminating the path with its paltry light. The slurry surface of the abandoned bogs gave me the clearest indication of where the path lay. I leaned forward as I walked to get the maximum light from the beam. The wind was whipping up, now darkness was falling. My cheeks and nose felt numb. When I looked up again to check my progress, the willows had gone.
I stared in horror. I wasn’t used to such dark magic. The grey horizon was hiding their silhouette. A gurgle of panic, like quickly swallowed porridge, rose in my gullet. The trees were somewhere ahead of me, but I hadn’t thought to take any sort of marking of where they lay – which of the many paths I needed.
My boot slid off a clump of slimy leaves. It filled with bog-water. I clutched at the air, struggling to keep my balance and the torch fell from my grasp. I watched in dismay as it sank beneath the oily sheen. My eyes stung with tears. Instantly the wind chilled them into ice. 
This was a dreadful place to be at night.

In this fuller version,  I slowed the action by writing into the gaps
which I left out in my rush to get the first words onto the page. I added hints of the sounds that are around her, and of the smell of the moors, with words such as murky, slimy and oily.  Touch sensations work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image, for instance, how Sabbie is effected by the freezing conditions. I tried to be unpredictable, especially in my choice of and simile. I allowed the falling darkness to imprint its mood on her emotions.  I ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery which might add to the mood. Rather than abstract nouns such as ‘Sabbie was scared’  I used 'show'...A gurgle of panic...My eyes stung with tears... And I've tried to draw out the experience by making things harder for Sabbie, placing obstacles in her way and allowing the loss of her torch into the bog to feel like the very last straw.
 
Sometimes, finding the one perfect detail is all you need. Think about the ‘core’ of each scene. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on, for instance, one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured. 

Your first draft is going to be rushed (and possibly messy) – you are trying to get down your thoughts. You might need to go back later to include atmosphere and mood. When you do, you’ll find these will also enhance your ‘writer’s voice’, and help you further understand what is behind your story.

Nina Milton’s crime series "The Shaman Mysteries" are published by Midnight Ink and available from Amazon.
 

 

Source: http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-seven-novels-that-entirely-changed.html?spref=fb

On the Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is known for his gratuitous violence – blood, gore, screaming pain and horribly inflicted death. I’ve seen three of his books as films –  No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. I was determined to see The Road as soon as it came out, as I’m a big Viggo fan, even though I’d already taken the book out of the library sometime before and so knew it would be full of cellars of decomposing bodies – worse – cellars full of living bodies, waiting to die at the hands of the cannibals who imprisoned them. 
 
Reading it once again, on Kindle, I don’t have such a terrible sense of doom, because I know there is a possibly glimmer of light at the very end of the story. This time, I spotted the signals of hope that are lightly threaded through the story. I didn't feel so tense and worried about ‘The Boy' and his future. Even so, it’s The Boy that brings a sense of tension to the story, because he’s the one that’s always asking…is there danger? Don’t lets go in there…what’s that noise, Dad? Are those bad guys? He articulates the fears of the story, while ‘The Man’ constantly reassures his son,…it’s okay…keep moving… This doesn't reassure the reader, though; we know that The Man is equally terrified of everything they may find ahead on their road. Secretly, as the very same concerns as The Boy. In his head, he often asks himself why he’s taking this journey in the impossible  hope of finding warm seas in the south of the USA. But aloud, he simply encourages his son to keep going.  
 
Time moves back and forwards in the story. We see man and boy journey along a bare landscape after a final apocalypse has devastated everything, and, (it feels at first), killed most of the people and possibly all of the wildlife. From the start, I assumed that this devastation is world-wide, although we’re not told this. For a long time we only see man, boy, and the occasional lost soul along the road, while, in his mind, The Man thinks back to before the apocalypse, remembering, in short passages, his wife and their love, her pregnancy, and then the event atomic or natural, whatever has caused this absolute brokenness, and after it, the baby being born, and their decision to try to journey across the land to the sea. Perhaps they hope to get onboard some imagined boat; perhaps he just thinks it will be warmer down there, in contrast to the conditions they travel through, where ash blows all around them, and their shoes are wrapped in sacking against deep snow. 
 
In one flashback we see the wife decide to leave them while they sleep, and go off to her death, her suicide. I found that particularly shocking, and wondered if a woman writer would have imagined this in the same way; women rarely leave their children voluntarily.  So I have to think of this as a writer’s device; McCarthy wanted The Road to be about a boy and a man. I don’t blame him. What he created was powerful reading which, for all its masculine tone, is moving and full of tender love. He gets  right into the head of The Man for most of the time. We never see The Boy’s thoughts, but often McCarthy moves out of the thoughts and immediate perceptions of The Man while  constantly shifting from The Man's warm-hearted love to an more objective viewpoint to observe the savage, dreadful landscape and its inhabitants. 
 
McCarthy injects much power into his writing.  A clever strategy to help this is that he drops all use of speech marks. There are no long dialogues, so they are easily dispensed with, along with some apostrophes, some capital letters and all semi colons.  Alongside this bid for immediacy the use of heightened language, which, as we move away from inner thoughts to McCarthy’s narration, becomes lyrical. He uses this technique because The Man doesn’t have the time or energy to be ‘poetical’ – he’s too exhausted, in fact he’s half dead, even when we first meet him. The two travellers barely have strength to talk; 
[The Boy:] It's really cold
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
Yes.
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We're not going to die. 
 
This becomes one of two main tensions, or questions of conflict, in the book. The first is ‘when will the bad guys come’. They do come, often. The first takes one of the bullets in The Man’s gun; it leaves him with one bullet, which is not enough for him to be able to execute himself and The Boy if they need to die rapidly. It was the one thing that had kept him going…that he had those two bullets. This happens about a 1/4 of the way into the book, and is one of many points in the story where tension…and blood pressure…is raised. The second main question of conflict is ‘will The Man die before The Boy is safe’. There might be a third question, but I found it hard to ask. ‘Will they both die?’ was something I didn't have the heart to think about. I didn’t want to believe even McCarthy could do that to his story, even though I know he can be absolutely brutal in his writing. I know McCarthy wouldn't spare me the honest reality, which was that everyone in that world would surely die. I read on, wondering why I was so hopeful.
 
The story is crisscrossed with the image, and symbol, of roads. The man and boy spend much time on the road, described wonderfully by McCarthy. It is the guideline of the novel, a desolate, transient thing, full of danger. It always points to where they need to go, even though it would be a rare reader who, while reading, sees the point to going there. The road was a physical reality, the ever onward walking, walking, but also a state of mind…the understanding that we see our journey through life as the ‘road ahead’, which we are always taking, until we die. A second symbol of journeying is the shopping cart (supermarket trolley) they push, filled with all their wordy goods. This is their grail, their treasure, and yet it’s almost impossible to drive smoothly along, especially up or down hill, or through snow. As I read, I was always aware of its vital importance. When they hide it to run away from the ‘bloodcults' who form lethal gangs, or to search derelict houses, I worried about the cart, fearing that it would be looted while they are gone. And sometimes, it is. Fire, another symbol used cleverly, punctuates the roadway. They build fire every night, when they can, even though sometimes it might draw the wrong attention. Eventually, The Boy has to leave his father, and The Man lists instructions…keep going south. Keep the gun with you. Find the good guys. But, most important…
You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes, it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
 
McCarthy refuses to let you look away, but at the same time, you’re allowed to, sort of, because the reader is likely to identify deeply with The Boy. Like fire, he is a symbol of hope, and The Man, perpetually tender towards his son, is always making him look away from the grossness of their world, to lie in a ditch, stay out of sight. Their relationship stabilises and motivates the father. Of course it does; The Boy is all The Man has to live for and move forward for. The Boy often uses the word ‘okay’ as if to console, reassure.  An understanding, came right as I began to read that first time. The Boy has learnt quickly. He does not run out of sight, he does not play unless something is initiated by his father. He does not laugh. He is rarely ‘naughty’, but occasionally, he can be cruel to his dad. He has grown old, while still small, and with it, he’s gained amazing wisdom. He’s been born into the post-apocalyptic world and has known nothing but cold, pain, ill health and fear, and yet he’s actually the one that has compassion for outsiders. I found that convincing. Children can be wonderfully ‘self-righteous’, but this compassion seems more than this, as if, with no play and no fun in his life, he’s worked through a philosophy in which kindness is paramount. After all, it’s what he has constantly received from his father, for whom he is a…golden chalice, good house to a god… Hisconstant approach becomes another rich symbol in the book. I began to see The Man as representing the human – the brutal, if sentient, creature with a strong instinct to survive. He keeps going because he must. To do what his wife did is unthinkable, even though he knows there might be a time, if they fell into the hands of a bloodcult, that death would be preferable. But to survive, they cannot show compassion to any outsider. They cannot offer food to the starving, for they are starving too. They cannot stop to help the trapped, or the distressed, because they have no time to waste, and in any case, all others are seen as a threat – best they stay trapped. 
 
The boy, in contrast, has a shining empathy with those in need. He is constantly exploring his father to be benevolent, to show fellow-feeling, to stop, to help, to share what they have. When his father uses the penultimate bullet in the gun to save their lives, The Boy cannot speak or even look at his dad for a long time. Even though it’s clear The Boy, in his young wisdom understands, why The Man has made such rules, he constantly rises above them.
The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He's been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Stop it.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There's nothing to be done for him.
 
To me, The Boy’s response represented the soul within the sentient being, and the core understanding that together, they make up a sort of duality of being human; the father’s brutal drive for survival is an external need, but locked inside is a sort of radiant grace, that links with the way The Man considers The Boy as a chalice. And that’s why I think the book has the end it has – why I didn't need to worry about asking that third, awful question.

McCarthy is a renowned recluse, and would never write a happy(ish) end just because he thought his readership might like it, or because his editor demanded it. I think at the end,  what we see is the body stripped away, and the soul walk out of it. The boy walks into the light, taking the inner fire. As if to prove it, McCarthy finishes the book like this…
 
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional…In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
 

Off the Peg; how Ottessa Moshfegh wrote Eileen



If you’ve been thinking of dashing off a thriller in the hope of great success in the book market, then I would have been the first person to stop you. “Never jump on a bandwagon”, I’d have said, along with, “ignore books like Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. You can’t ‘dash off’ great writing.  But Ottessa Moshfegh ignored such sane suggestions and went right ahead and wrote Aileen, one of the best Mann-Booker short-listed novels I’ve read in a long time. 
 
After writing with a novella and beginning a debut collection of short stories, she decided not to “wait 30 years to be discovered” and came clean about her writing methods In a recent interview. “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined… I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.” 
 
Having worked through Watt’s advice, she wrote for 60 days to produce an ‘off the peg’ novel. But Moshfegh is too good an author to churn our rubbish. “It turned into a work of its own”, she explains.
 
Soon as I opened Eileen, I was hooked on the wonderful voice created in this disturbingly dark novel. The narrator is old, reminiscing the past. It’s 1964 and Aileen, at twenty-six, is already on the shelf. She works as a clerk in Moorhead, a penal institution for young men, where she's in lust with Randy, one of the guards; off duty she stalks him, knowing full well he’d never look at her and convinced she would never agree to have sex with him anyway…her first time “would be by force”.
 
 
http://themanbookerprize.com/books/eileen-by-ottessa-moshfegh
Aileen's self-loathing forbids her to wash regulaly. She dresses in her dead mother’s old clothes and eats frugally, believing herself to be fat and ugly inside and out, purging her system with laxatives. She joins her drunken father each night in drowning out the cruel world. But secretly, she’s saving her father’s pension and dreams of escape.

Moshfegh knows precisely what an unlikable character she’s created. In Vice Magazine she said; “My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it’s very refined … It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.” To a degree she seems to be writing from experience; in the past she’s had both drink and eating problems.
 
The story is told through the device of the interior monologue, or if you prefer, the “retrospective first-person”. The sensation of reading is that of a half-whispered story over a cup of tea…the need to tell someone the secrets of your past, before you die. Reading the first half of the novel as my train pummelled over the Pennine way (and the second half as it roared back to West Wales), it was if Eileen reached one of her thin wrists out from the pages and dragged me into the last week of her life before she left her small town and escaped to New York. 
 
Eileen sees the world from a bleak perspective which has a constant edge of humour. In the packed carriage of my train, I experienced those embarrassing moments – laughing out aloud – time and again. Eileen is a very funny novel. The black irony kept me gripped as much as the promise that her drear life was leading to dreadful violence.
 
Right from the start, I knew Eileen was not going to come out of this journey as the innocent victim. “This is not a love story”, Aileen says. “I was not a lesbian”, and, “I didn’t eat good food until my second husband”  In a delicious nod to Chekhov’s foreshadowing device; “Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun.” She hints that there will be terror and bloodshed, and I believed her implicitly because these are her memories, and her urge to confess is palpable.
 
The festive season is steadily approaching; the contents page tells us that it will all over by Christmas Eve, but the sad festivities are subverted wonderfully by Eileen’s repressively dark mind. It’s her job to decorate the institution’s Christmas tree, while at home, there is not a bauble to be seen, just a dead mouse in her glove compartment.
 
At this point, Rebecca, a stunning, red-headed graduate, comes to work at Moorhead. Eileen is swept up into a kind of obsession when Rebecca shows an interest in her. Both girls are drawn to an inmate, Polk, who has killed his policeman father. Eileen watches Polk masterbate while in solitary confinement, but Rebecca has access to his notes and, in her role as the new psychologist, believes she can penetrate the young man’s mind to find the truth about him, a decision that is the catalyst to action.
 
So, if you’re about to start a novel using Watt’s 90 day, or any other formulaic method, do read this book first, checking it out against the standard tips, like Joanna Penn’s: Grab the reader by the throat, have a crime, don’t write likeable characters, have an ending that slaps you in the face. Huge ticks with these. Or my own tip: rock the boat half-way through, as Moshfegh does with her Rebecca character. 
 
This is a psychological thriller, and that’s given Moshfegh good sales, a popular following and some great reviews – Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph was left “dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius”. But she also has her critics. Lydia Kiesling in her Guardian review thought that; “there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right…The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness.” Yes, I noted that failing too, early in the text. Things like, I was very unhappy and angry all the time. Moshfegh has fallen into the trap of ‘telling not showing’. But it’s a very little slip, the sort we all make at some point when writing hundreds of pages of story. Mostly, the book is all ‘show', a vivid picture of 60’s USA, of the edges of society, of mental health, and of how easy it is to lose one’s own integrity, or have it stolen away.
 
Eileen might be thought of as an unreliable narrator, but I found nothing but the truth in the heated depths of the text. I believed in her completely. She may be flawed, but she felt like an intensely real, if bleak, creation. In that, I seem to agree with Moshfegh; “Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”

And honest character who has committed the most awful crime, that is...

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker's Dracula

 

I was holidaying in Whitby when I first realised that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a surprisingly modern novel. I’d watched the Hammer film versions of the book in my misspent youth and they left with the opinion that the book was a bit of late Victorian gothic horror, no where near good enough for me to need to wade through all that gore. But every Whitby bookshop had a copy of Dracula in its window, and naturally, I soon succumbed, reading it on the top of blowy cliffs and in the shelter of the beaches below. I took it on every walk, along with my butterfly identification book.
 
 
We did a lot of walking that holiday, passing the whaling arch on West Cliff, which Stoker would have passed too, with his family, when he holidayed here in June 1990. He stayed at Royal Crescent and it was there I discovered just how inspiring his time in Whitby must have been. Bram Stoker had found his inspiration. Standing in the crescent, you have a view of the North Sea, past sloping green cliff and grey sands. Across the river estuary are the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which must have been at least as gothic then as it is now.  The churchyard of St Mary lies below, the location of a vampiric attack in the second half of the story. As twilight falls, bats begin to swoop into view.
 
Mina, one of the two young female characters in Dracula, voices Stoker’s thoughts on the town: Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of "Marmion," where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…
 
Bram Stoker also spent time at Whitby library – he made notes from 'An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, in which he must have seen the name ‘Dracula’ for the first time. The fifteenth-century Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was as bloodthirsty as his fictional counterpart, impaling his enemies on long spikes and nailing turbans to the scalps of foreign ambassadors. Stoker gives his reader the historical allusion that Count Dracula is the descendant of Vlad – in his Author’s Note he explains that the documents assembled in the novel are real. Even as I read this, before starting the novel, I was reminded of the hype around The Blair Witch Project, and saw how astute Stoker was as a writer. 
 
He’d called this story The Un-dead for all the time he was writing it. Just before publication, he changed his title to  the wonderfully charged-up name of the antagonis. This  may have changed its destiny, although ‘un-dead’ remains a popular trope today, especially in Young Adult literature.
 
I began my holiday read, and soon found that it was not at all like the Hammer Horror version…or for that matter like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which I found almost unwatchably hammed up. Dracula contains elements of the conventions of gothic fiction…dark-shadowed, cobwebby castles juxtaposed with vast remote landscapes and vulnerable, virginal girls threatened by black-coated evil-doers… but Stoker contrasts his Transylvanian castle with parochial Whitby and the bustle of London in the 1990s.
 
Starting with that holiday in Whitby, Stoker used a wide range of research methods and a clear understanding of modern character development to write the story, but a stuck with the traditional gothic novel structure; diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings etc. It opens with the most famous section of the book, Jonathan Harker's Journal, which recounts his visit to Transylvania as a lawyer helping the count through his London property transaction. Harker falls under the spell of the Brides of Dracula and succumbs to the vampire’s influence. This opening feels like it has an impossible resolution and I turned the pages as fast as any modern thriller, needing to know how he could possibly escape with his life. At that point, I had no idea how many other characters would not escape with theirs. The novel keeps twisting and surprising us, as Dracula, on his way to London aboard a ship (hidden in a coffin) is washed up in Whitby and escapes in the shape of a black dog, and we’re introduced to Renfield, who is incarcerated in  a mental asylum where he lives on a diet of flies and spiders.
 
Stoker's masterpiece was part of a fin-de-siècle literary culture obsessed with crime – this was the time that Jack the Ripper stalked Whitechapel – and sensationalism – these were the original ‘naughties’. The book strips away the layers of late Victorian anxiety such as loss of religious traditions,  colonialism, scientific advancement, plus a growing awareness of female sexuality and a continued fear of homosexuality.  The book is a mirror in which generations of readers have explored their own fantasies. 
 
Maurice Richardson described it as; a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match, and no one could argue with that (or prevent themselves from rushing to read such a book).
 
 
"In the Moors is a dark thriller, dealing with chilling serial crime but, due to the skill of the author’s writing and the humour and engaging character of Sabbie Dare, it is also a highly enjoyable read that is very difficult to put down once you pick it up.

In fact the main issue for me was reaching the end of the book and wondering what I could read next that would match up to it. Fortunately there is a book two and three in the series (although I started the series by reading book three, so also can confirm you can read them in any order). And hopefully Milton will continue the series with a book four.

Very addictive and highly recommended!
"

Read the latest review of NIna Milton's thriller,  In the Moors, the first in the Shaman Mystery Series  here; http://shamanismbooks.co.uk/in-the-moors/

 

Source: http://shamanismbooks.co.uk/in-the-moors

Writing Advice - Making a Drama of it

— feeling amazing

One of the most useful techniques writer can stuff under their belt is the ability to control tension and create drama in their story – regardless of whether it is a piece of micro-fiction or the length of Moby Dick (whale or book). The challenges are subtly different – in a novel it’s keeping the tension going sufficiently to entice the reader the less dramatic chapters, whilst in short stories, creating a balance between the peaks and the necessary lulls in a tight space can be a test of skill.

Some apprentice writers have trouble isolating the drama in their work and often miss all the tricks in cranking up tension. They assume that events in a story will come across as dramatic – a mugging, for instance, that’s got to be drama, right? But it is so easy to muffle the tension instead of enhance it. In my children’s  novel for 9+ readers, Tough Luck, I had to write a mugging sceneHere is a first draft extract; the ‘freewrite’ I scribbled down while the scene had newly come into my mind…

 

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder. I ran into a courtyard, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I realized that I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. There was only one way in - and out.
They stopped abruptly when they saw me, trapped and defeated. They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. I stepped backwards as they moved in slowly. Then I realized I was doing what they wanted, I was backing into a wall. There'd be a moment when I could go no further, when they might pounce.
I gave it one last shot. I sprang forwards, taking them by surprise, head down, holding my skates in front of me like weapons, hurling myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, then one of them leapt at me, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands as the wet, glinting cobbles came up to meet me, but my nose and chin seemed to take most of the impact. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.
They were surrounding me. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulling my knees and folding my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The very last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head…

As muggings go, this one is pretty mundane at the moment, but there is so much I can now do to heighten the tension and turn this into an extreme dramatic experience for character and reader alike.

Control your Reader

Some stories prefer to jog along at a steady pace until ‘bang!’ the tension is loosed like a cannon shot – often towards the end. Other stories build up tension slowly and steadily from the beginning, like tightening the elastic band on one of those little plastic aeroplanes. To help you understand how your drama functions, think about the affect you want to have on your reader. In fact focus right in on your reader’s stomach. When we read edgy, dramatic pages, our stomach knots up alongside the characters’. At first it might just be a butterfly flutter of worry. But as the tension takes hold, we begin to grip the cover tight and pant with anxiety. The writer achieves this affect by controlling what happens in the reader’s mind (and in his steadily knotting stomach) moment by moment within the narrative.

Once you have a first draft – at least in your own head or scribbled onto a plot outline –looking at how the way you tell the story will directly affect the knots in the reader’s stomach. This might mean presenting the ‘threat/mystery’ earlier in the story. Equally, it might mean holding off on the true mystery, while mini ‘subplot’ threats are seeded in. 

The excerpt above is an early scene in the book – it sets the plot moving. So it should present an ‘explosion’ near the beginning that can set the blood racing and encourage the reader to then move through the next chapters - ones that burn slowly in comparison. I should let that explosion really rip. I might need to re-jig the sequence of events a bit and I should be careful not to race through it. I need to let the character (Brandon) tell his story at his own pace. 

Get inside a head

Scenes should be described from inside the mind of the character most affected by any rise in tension and drama. If this isn’t possible – because your 1st person protagonist is watching the event, for instance – you must be sure that they are intensely affected by what they see – that they are able to empathize with the affected person. (Unless, of course, what you want to demonstrate is that your protagonist isn’t good at empathy, or doesn’t consider this a drama at all. If that is the case, the scene won’t be represented to the reader as drama – so be sure this is what you intended.) 

Show, don’t tell will kick-start the process. Allow the character to register any physical reactions to the growth of tension inside him…my fists tightened…my heart was thumping against my ribs…my breath was coming in short, painful rasps…

Take all the time you need to make sure the reader is absolutely ‘there’ with the character(s). Don’t race through the action, or fail to report a single word spoken. Stop and use descriptive affects, ‘teasing’ your reader as unbearably as you can. Use strong verbs wherever possible to build tension. Avoid too many adjectives, but don’t avoid description…My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms…My heart was thumping against my ribs but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang as my breath came in short painful rasps

Slowing Down
‘Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice to almost all my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In the excerpt, I pummel along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Brandon would be doing that, after all. I can’t stop the action – it is full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while not actually stopping it. The simplest is to move into a short internal monologue. This is a renowned way of putting on the brakes at tense moments (some writers take terrible advantage of this, holding off their readers for pages, but that’s quite a risk). I must take as much time as I dare to express Brandon’s thoughts as he confronts the gang …They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. I remember thinking, they're not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up back walls
… 

You can see that I’m slowing the action down…writing into the gaps I left in my rush to get the words onto the page. Doing this increases tension. You wouldn’t think that would be so, but it is. The reader longs to be teased. They want to know the end of the story, the solution to the mystery, but when they reach the end they’re saddened. They wanted it to go on for ever. Otherwise Spielberg could have just spliced the first and last scenes in Jaws together and save everyone a whole evening’s viewing, or Bronte could have inscribed …reader, I married him…on the first page of Jane Eyre.

Make it Hard

Slowing down and holding back action works well to tighten the knots in the reader’s stomach. An equally good way is to make the action as difficult as possible. Make achieving a goal, even a small one, as hard as you convincingly can. Let terrible events draw out for as long as you dare, too…A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. I felt a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood
Atmosphere and Mood

These often ‘grab’ a reader and draw them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:

• Atmosphere intrigues, excites, disturbs, beguiles…in other words it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi. It is often created from the setting…PJ James is good at this…or the dialogue…consider Raymond Chandler…or character description…think Dickens. To create atmosphere, let the ‘surroundings’ of each scene speak to the reader…. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard. Suddenly a security light flashed on, like we were on stage, caught in the spotlight

• Mood is subtly different from atmosphere. It works like a perfume, subtly sensed as it further lifts the pace and atmosphere. It is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator... They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the security light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm…..

 

The mood affects the pace, and the opposite can also be true. Atmosphere can match, shadow or underline the character’s moods. The Pathetic Fallacy can aid this, from time to time, using landscape, place/objects, climate/weather, events, etc. Truly absorbing, readable stories have braided all the effects in perfect measure.

Light and Shade…Adding Pace

It’s good for ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing. We do this even when talking, changing the tone, speed and timbre of our voice for effect. Pace…the ‘speed of the read’…is the best way to vary light with shade, and useful at encouraging dramatic tension to fluctuate in a narrative. 

Pace should change regularly within a piece of writing. Of course, it’s fine to have a ‘favourite pace’ that you’ll use for the majority of the time. Particular paces attract particular readers. For instance, someone who loves the pace of a Virginia Wolfe novel, probably won’t like the pace of a Grisham, and vice versa. Pace can crawl, crush, accelerate, thrust or hurtle. We usually expect pace to be created from the action, but dialogue and even inner monologue can have pace, too. It’s used to advance the action, but can be cleverly used to delay the action – the ‘build-up’, which is often the place where the most tension lies. The pace you take your narrative at will depend on your readership, but don’t miss out on increasing the tension by varying pace at the important moments. 

There are various technical ways to engender pace and so control the tension that arises, including some quite small, but important adjustments:

1a. To slow pace, use the present participle frequently. 

1b. To speed it up, take them out (look for ‘ing’ endings)

2a. To slow pace, use longer words, longer speeches, words with a a smoother feel, longer sentences and longer paragraphs.

2b. To speed it up, use short, staccato words, lots of full stops and short paragraphs, snappy dialogue. Alliteration works well. Find a rhythm within the abruptness.

3a. To slow pace, use a little of the perfect tense (he had seen her) within the simple past. The passive form, although generally unwise, will slow pace. Abstract words slow pace because the reader has to ‘interpret’ them. Avoid unnecessary words such as seemed, then, also, quite, very, however, might.

3b. To speed it up, use the present tense, if possible within the context, and avoid the perfect tense, the passive form and abstract words.

4a. Look at presentation of images. To slow, give them a dreamy mood. Use all the techniques in ‘slowing down’, above.

4b. To speed up make images clear and precise, sharp sights & sounds. Don’t over describe, but metaphors and symbols can work as ‘shorthand description – sneak description into the action. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Avoid clichés, too!

 

In places, I need to speed my pace up. Here are the ways I utilized the ‘B’s above:

1. They howled into the courtyard…I hurled myself between two of them…

2. One last shot. I sprang forwards. My head was down. My skates were like weapons…

3. I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was against it, I was trapped.

4. The gang surrounded me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones.

 

Once you have your reader’s stomach wound into a knot, it’s difficult to keep that buzz of attention when you know you need to drop the pace again. Try creating a break where the reader can take a breath – ending a scene or chapter on a ‘high’ is an accepted and common method of curtailing high tension moments. Just don’t do this until you’ve extracted every gram of possible stomach-knotting!

Flashbacks work very well at this point in a story, because they put everything completely on ‘hold’ and the reader understands that mechanism (that ‘trick’) and goes with it, taking the ‘mystery’ forward with them in the hope it will later be solved. 

Interior monologue has a similar affect. Allow your character to ponder the dramatic moments or allow him to cogitate on a separate but vital issue. 

Often, the moment is so dramatic that it needs to be resolved at once. I can’t leave Brandon lying helpless on the ground. Not in chapter three. I need to find a way of saving him so that he can live to tell us the rest of his story.

I’m a bit happier with this section now. It’s tighter and faster, but has variations in pace. I think I feel confident to show you the outcome…

 

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. They were not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them with twists and turns. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard as the gang from the ice rink howled in and stopped abruptly.  
I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was up against it, I was trapped.
They would pounce.
My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms. My heart was thumping against my ribs and my breath came in short painful rasps, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang..
I thought about scooting round them. No chance. They spread out across the courtyard, like they were playing rugby. Suddenly a security light flashed and we were on stage, caught in the spotlight. They didn’t care. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the beam of light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm.
They were well spread out. I could get between them. I sprang forwards, head down. My skates were like weapons. I hurled myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, hang on, lose it as I kept running. For a wonderful second, I was free. 
One of them leapt at me from behind, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands. The cobbles came up to meet me. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face. 

The gang was all round me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulled my knees up as high and folded my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. There was a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood. Least, that's what I thought the redness was. Then I heard the sound of an engine through the fuzz. Smelt the exhaust. A car was rolling into the courtyard. 

Okay, you can unknot your stomach now…

Amahl and the Night Visitors – a storytelling experience

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Alongside my hubby, Jim, I love storytelling, and everything surrounding it… myths and folktales, personal stories, history versus legend, and the idea that, in this age of digital devices, we can still sit, spellbound, when someone opens their mouth and tells a story.

 

It’s surprising how easy it is in the UK to find storytelling sessions. The very best tour the country, just like rock stars, and we’ll drive a long way, and wade through a lot of mud to be at festivals, such as Beyond the Border, where performers like Daniel Morden, Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Eric Madden, Cath Little, and the great Robin Williamson, bewitch us with their tales.

 

 

 

 

We’ve started to include storytelling in the parties we hold; what better excuse to sit around a firepit or hearth with friends!

 

So, to get better acquainted with the techniques of storytelling, we joined a weekly workshop run by a professional storyteller. It was an experience – and a challenge. Each Monday, we delved into storytelling in a variety of ways, but we always started up on our feet, working on our breathing and posture, stretching, and moving to sound, singing and chanting to work our voices. When we eventually sat down, we closed our eyes and used visualization to increase what we saw in our mind’s eye. 


We worked in small groups, which was interesting at first, as we didn’t know each other. Then we began to get fond of one another, and the groups became a relaxed sharing of ideas. One week, we each brought a small item that meant a lot to us. We paired off and told its history to our classmate, making notes, because it was our partner’s item we had to use to make a story we could tell to the class. These became fascinating stories, some of them closely representing the original experience, some going off on a fantastical route. We use this sort of ‘exchange’ a lot – not just using artifacts, but also recalling anecdotes in an effort to ‘release’ stories and allow us to feel we have carte blanche over them.

 

In another class, we learnt about the monomyth…the hero’s journey…and worked together to create our hero and discover why they journeyed from their home to a threatening, unknown place. We worked on landscape, using all sorts of settings to either create new stories or emphasize parts of familiar tales, and learned how to face an audience, how to pace stories, time the telling, and breaking it into sections and working on relating some parts faster or slower than others.

 

We learned that in storytelling the five senses count for the most; listeners can feel the emotions of the story via experiencing tastes and smells, textures, pain and pleasure and the entire tapestry of sounds as well as describing colours and other visual descriptions. My writing friends will know that I think the five senses are very important in writing fiction, as well, but here they became crucial to help the listener ‘see’ the story.

 

We also worked on detail another aspect of written stories that, as my students know, I’m always banging on about. Detail in written fiction is the lifeblood of enrichment; in storytelling it has a similar, equally essential quality of slowing the fast pace of a story and engrossing the audience.

 

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One thing I really enjoyed as a writer, were the ‘storytelling packs’, which  contained random aspects of building a story, such as character names, settings and places, times and dates, and the random symbols often found in tales, such as talking birds and fantastical beasts, deep wells and ladders of maiden's hair, magic swords and foundling babies. I found it amazing, as someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to build plots, just how simple this exercise was, and how easily a story fell into place.

 

As a writer of short stories, it occurs to me that the storyteller has an advantage over the writer in one important direction; they can gauge the reaction of their audience immediately. They can also employ the benefits of body language, gesture, voice control and can even add atmosphere via sound and light effects. Meanwhile, the writer put out their stories without really knowing what their readership will think of them, and without any further props to help them get their point across. Getting direct feedback from an audience is  hugely scary, but the responses the storyteller wants are very similar to the ones a writer is looking for.

 

As we started to have the confidence to recreate and then tell stories, we were shown how to use ‘sparklines’, a method of mapping our presentation, and other ways to be able to remember where we were in our story. We began to include sound effects, background music, costumes, masks and props to aid our storytelling – better to get the basics under one’s belt before including such things – too much going on, and the novice storyteller will crash and burn!

 

The storyteller connects with their audience by evoking emotions from them. And the audience arrives, hoping for that; they’ve chosen the story…or the teller…because they like comic stories or sad stories or spine-chilling tales. But the storyteller will know immediately if they’ve been effective....if the audience doesn’t laugh at the funny bits, or be seen fumbling for tissues during the sad bits or gripping their knees from fear as the tension mounts, the storyteller knows right away that they have failed.

 

On the other hand, if feet stop shuffling, sweet wrappers stop being crackled and every eye is on the storyteller…that’s success. The story has woven its spell and the listeners are entirely absorbed. Even their breathing slows. 

 

For the writer, too, engaging a reader from the get-go is so important. Building tension into the reading experience that holds the reader and forces them to turn the page is equally about the five senses, detail, setting, character identification and empathy. Because we’re concerned for the welfare of the protagonist – plucky, perhaps, but vulnerable, or beset with problems or dangers – we’re totally caught up.  It could be said that every protagonist that walks the pages of a novel is on their personal hero’s journey.

 

Stories in books have several and varied effects on the reader. Endings might leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, or of vague unquiet...the characters might linger in their minds as they move through their life in the days ahead. But it’s harder for the writer to know if this has happened.

 

I admit, I still find it difficult to truly work out why some of my own stories are loved more than others. I can mostly put my finger on the reason when it is other people’s work I’m reading, but I sometimes just get too close to my own. 

 

That’s why I love it to bits when readers write to me; either via a card which drops through my door, or an unsolicited email that manages to avoid the junk box, or a message on Facebook or this Blogsite. I always try to respond. Quite recently, I heard from a reader of the Shaman Mysteries who lives in Scandinavia. I was dead chuffed about that – they love their ‘noir’ fiction in that cold place.

 

the book of the opera

At the end of our storytelling workshops, we each had to mount a proper performance. Because the Christmas festivities were upon us, I chose Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remembered this story from my childhood. It was originally a one act opera, first performed in New York on Christmas Eve, 1951. It had a haunting connection with early Christmases for me. Researching it, I found that both the music and the libretto was by Gian Carlo Menottia, who produced a little booklet, revealing how he tried to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there is no Father Christmas. Instead, as in Spain, they celebrate the Three Kings, who bring gifts, usually at Epiphany. I actually never met the Three Kings—he confesses—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.

 

It was a work of love for me, to recreate an opera into a storytelling performance. As I rehearsed, tears often welled up. But blocking and releasing your own emotion is part of the storytelling experience. For my performance, I didn’t use music or props, just gestures and my words. It was quite terrifying (we’d invited a small audience), but exhilarating, too.

 

 Beyond the Border entices you in.

 

Finally, comes the applause. Hearty clapping tells the performer that, not only did they wring the right emotions from their audience, but also that the listeners ‘got’ the story; that the denouement, especially, felt right and fit for purpose. Of course, I got my hearty clap…we all heartily clapped each other. But it made me realise one certain thing about storytelling.  Storytellers are very brave people. It is so much easier to put your written story into an attachment and press ‘send’, than stand up in public and weave fictional magic with your own voice.

 

 

Writing before You start Writing

 


The writer’s greatest fear – the blank page or screen.  
 
You sit, ready to begin.
 
You really, really want to write. In fact, you’ve got a great idea, although it’s still a bit...unformed. So you stare at the screen, for a long time, before you finally start to tap. 
 
Five paragraphs (or even worse – five lines,) down, your head slumps forward. You’re pretty sure you’ve written rubbish, and now you’ve even run out of rubbish to write. You hand slides to the mouse and before you know it, you’re playing that stupid game someone on Facebook sent you.
 
What went wrong? You know that you really, really wanted to write. Why can't you write?
 
You’ve forgotten something hugely important:
 
Most writing, starts long before you sit in front of screen or paper. First of all, you  have to ‘imagine up’ your writing.
 
Story, novel, play, poem…any writing at all, begins in our heads. Most successful writers do huge amounts of imagining, thinking and planning before they touch keyboard or pen. For this, they visit a strange place in their heads, which becomes increasingly real, the more they go there.
 
These methods of enhancing the imaginative process are open to all, and intently useful to those who are about to embark on their first writing. 
 
If fact, you have already done this, many times; we all do it every day. At its least intense, it's called day dreaming. As it becomes more intense, you may find that you reach a level where you're taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, you are not fully alert either. The pulse of your brain has slowed, becoming Alpha brain waves. It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, your mind soars off on such a totally different tack that when a passing friend calls your name, you don’t hear them, and if they tap your shoulders, you jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Then you apologize, saying, ‘I was somewhere else there, for a moment.’ The friend understands instantly. We all recognize this ‘losing of yourself’, but we don’t make use of it nearly enough. 
 
Entering this slower state of thinking allows you to take advantage of the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information (as in self-hypnosis) beyond our normal conscious awareness.
 
This trance state, is also called by may different names, and you might like to choose one that you’ll feel comfortable with:
  • Daydreaming
  • Reverie
  • Fantasizing
  • Introspection
  • Brown study 
  • Muse descending 
  • Deep listening
  • Slipping into a trance-like state
  • Visualization
  • Mental pictures
  • Head movies
  • Relaxed imagining
You might want to call this ‘meditating’, but a more accurate definition of meditation is that of emptying your mind by concentration on a single thing (such as your breath). However, you might find it beneficial to meditate prior to tapping your imagination, emptying out the normal ‘gabble of thoughts’ for a few minutes before letting your mind settle on what you next want to write. 
 
Once the process is underway, you can burrow deeper and deeper into your mind, until you reach the many voices of your self, unlocking something that you didn’t previously know was there. 
 
I discovered that dropping down into this world was hugely enjoyable. Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by the fact that plots, characters and entire scenes can drop into one’s mind from nowhere. For millennia people have asked whether such creations come from outside us, or deep within. The Greeks had it sown up, of course. The Nine Muses were goddesses who visited those ready to create works of art and dropped the inspiration into their minds.
 
http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Muse.html
Consider now if you have a special place or time or activity where you find yourself quite naturally thinking the words that will eventually turn up on the page. What are you doing when you write in your head? For me, it has to be walking alone. Once I’m underway, my feet seem to direct themselves, whether I’m heading to the nearest shopping centre or through a woodland, and my mind flies off on a journey into my project. Thoughts and memories are loosened and released and worlds of possibilities to open up. Your writing will be sharper, more present, more melodic. Your settings will have the tastes and colours and the subtlest background sounds all built in. You’ll be able to stand right beside your characters; you will see their freckles and dandruff, and where they cut themselves shaving. What’s more, they will regard you as their therapist, they will open their hearts and tell you everything that troubles them, from their first memories to their most hidden infamies.
 
Here is a list of special times where allowing yourself to concentrate on setting up ‘writing before writing’ can really work. For instance, if you already take the train to work each day, and find that you’re mind wanders as it moves steadily onward, then don’t forget to pack your notepad and pen. 
Study all the methods below and tick the ones you think would work for you, or already work for you. Add others that might better apply to you:
 
[] Walking alone
[] Repetitive tasks, such as housework
[] Gardening (especially weeding)
[] Lying half awake in bed
[] Listening to music
[] Sitting quietly (indoors or out) with eyes shut
[] A journey on train or bus
[]
[]
[]
 
Look through your ticks. You can have a go at several of these or you can choose one method you could employ more frequently. For instance, if you like the idea of spending more time sitting with your eyes closed, try to do this on a regular basis, but rather than allowing your mind to wander without any structure, think in terms of the writing you are working on. When you don’t know what to write, the visualizations will send you in search of memories from your childhood or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can go to seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot.  You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, drive, eat.  You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down. Very soon, scenes will play in your mind, characters will speak to each other, settings will become clear, and – perhaps most importantly for the moment you sit in front of a blank scene – you'll hear your narrative unfold in your head.
 
For some writers, this feels way too unstructured. Dropping the tight grip on the reigns of their writing feels scary. They find it hard to consider 'daydreaming' as part of 'the writing process'. If they're not actually writing, they're not writing at all. But your creative self could gallop at will if only you let it. After all, you can tighten the reigns again during the drafting process when you return to that blank screen, full of ideas. To start with, give your writing horse his head.
 
 
Naturally, translating these ‘visions’ onto the page is not always straightforward. Ideas can start to slip away, to fade as we try to describe them on paper. The feelings you had turn out to be difficult to translate into words. The key to this problem is to always have a notebook nearby – if you don’t record these thoughts quickly, they will float away, possibly never to bee seen again. Use your notebook to write down everything that comes to you – even if it feels unusable or incomprehensible or crazy at the time.
 
 
Your imagination is where your writing begins - using this technique, you can enter your creative world and roam around it at will. The writing that spills out as you sit up and grab a pen or laptop can become the foundation of your projects. You are recording words and images directly from the interior of your mind. 
 

 You are now writing directly from your own inspiration. Enjoy!

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

— feeling amazing

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

 
Once again, I'm delighted to say that a previous student has contacted me to say they’ve had a book accepted for publication. I get really excited when this happens; and hopefully, once the ‘wraps are off’ that writing friend of mine will be telling you about her success herself, in a guest post on this blogsite. In the meantime I have a message from her. It’s for all of those who read Kitchen Table Writers while writing your own first novel. 
 
“It’s bloody hard work.”
 
Every single student I’ve ever had, who got their contract in the end, would endorse that sentiment. I’d endorse that sentiment! 
 
You have to work very, very hard, and often for a very, very long time. No let up, and perhaps not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon to keep you going. 
 
When I started to write I had two small children and a part-time job. working nights so that their father could be there when I wasn’t. I didn’t have much time to write. Then, just as I got going, my mother developed severe dementia and came to live with us. That cut down my time even further. In fact, there was always something that could get in the way of writing regularly, and indeed, I didn’t always manage to write regularly, but I tried not to give up. I worked my way through my first children’s novel and found an agent. Eventually, that magical contract with HarperCollins appeared on my door mat (yes, it was the door mat, back in those days). People started to ask me what one needed to write successfully. And I kept telling them. 
 
“Bloody hard work.”
 
There are three main kinds of bloody hard work attached to the production of a novel. The first is the hard graft of the start. Have you filled three notebooks with ideas and snatches of prose which you’ve discarded, half used, or actually included? Have you yet thrown away half your novel and gone back to the beginning? Have you asked someone to look at the glimmerings and been slated on what you showed them? If not, you haven’t lived. And you certainly haven’t worked hard enough yet. Tossing out a lot of early work is part and parcel of the ‘first novel experience’. (Along with a lot of…yep…hard work.)
 
The second stage is completion. You’ve now actually got a draft that you’re pleased with. Heck, you might be actually proud of it, and so you should be; getting to this stage deserves huge congratulations from everyone who knows you. (It might also get huge sighs of relief, but that is a premature emotional reaction on their parts.) Believe me, this second stage is hard work. Mentally – you’re glued to a computer while you try, and try again, to formulate a synopsis that will do your novel justice, plus a covering letter that is neither too showy nor too dull. Physically, you need sheer grit and determination to go on when you realise that the synopsis and covering letter needs to be written, with slightly differing nuances, every time you send it out. Emotionally, it’s hard too, when back they bounce. Steadily, you work your way through the Writers and Artist’s Year Book, but no one wants you yet. Then, all at once, some one does want to see the entire book and you realise there may still be typos and other potholes. You need to go through it with a fine tooth comb. When the manuscript returns with a kind of ‘yee-ees…’ you discover that this agent or editor wants heaps more work done. 
 
Heaps. Of very, very hard work.
 
Finally, you reach the third stage. You’ve had the contract checked by the Writers’ Society 
and you can proudly proclaim you’re to be a published writer. Just as you sit back with a sigh, a long list of ‘do’s’ will arrive from the publisher. Set up a website or blog. Write a good blurb. Contact everyone you know for an endorsement. Promote your book. Start booking engagements. Plan your launch. Do book readings. Be a presence on twitter. Start the next book.
 
It’s such bloody hard work being a writer!
 
At least, when you reach that stage, you, along with all other professional writers, can reassure the new guys that your novel didn’t just come out of the air. 
 
Please do this – don’t let them believe that you glibly typed away for a couple of hours a week and then success just happened without further effort. Please tell them that you:
  • Filled up notebooks 
  • Had times you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Wrote half a novel and dumped it
  • Had further times when you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Took two years of back-aching, sight-failing keyboard work.
  • Almost had to start again anyway.
  • And that you’re still working hard to this day.
 
At that point, you’ll also know, as my friend knows now, just how important it is that people they know buy their new book. That it took a long time to craft it into a readable novel, and that it’s really worth reading, and yet is priced lower than a cinema trip. 
 
Why not pop over to Amazon today where putting ‘Nina Milton’ into the search engine will bring up that very, very bloody hard work – all of which is now transformed into steamingly good reads!
 

And do watch this space for news of my ex-student’s success.

 

Murder, They Wrote – Three Novelists Writing about Murder

MURDER, THEY WROTE  –– THREE NOVELISTS WRITING ABOUT MURDER

 

When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.

“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”

I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction? 

 

The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.

 

Belinda Bauer

http://www.belindabauer.co.uk

Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too. 

 

Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege,  which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad  So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016)  Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that  one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can

‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals.  Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.

 

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.

His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.

 

I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.

Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.

 

A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.

 

 

Seven Amazing Books Only I can Recall


Instead of reviewing books on the best seller list, or books winning prizes,  I’m looking at seven books that have generally been forgotten.

 
But, I haven’t forgotten them – in most instances, they are still in my bookcase. The memories I have aren’t only of the stories inside the covers, but of the time and place I read the book. Here are my ‘FORGOTTEN SEVEN’, starting with the most recent, and moving back in time.
 
ONE - The Voyage of the Narwhal
 

 

In the spring of 2000, I took three girlfriends on holiday to the Costa Del Azahar…the coast of orange blossom. We stayed in my tiny flat, which overlooked the Spanish Mediterranean. We basked in some early sunshine, ate at seafood restaurants, shopped at the markets for cheeses, wines and soft, Spanish bread, and took long walks along the coastal paths. We talked a lot, too, because we’d all known each other for at least twenty years and it was great to catch up. And I read my airport purchase; The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. It seemed a fitting read; the tale of a journey while we too, were away from home. But the Narwhal was grinding through the ice of the North-West Passage, rather than swimming in southern seas. 
 
It is 1855 and Erasmus Wells, an introspective naturalist, wants to extend his scholarship on this expedition to the Arctic captained by his brother-in-law-to-be, Zechariah Voorhies. Zechariah is nothing like shy Erasmus. He’s an impetuous smart-aleck who hopes to find a legendary ‘open polar sea’ and a missing explorer who disappeared a decade before.
 
So there’s the early clue – people die when they go to this place. 
 
The voyage turns colder and sourer, as winter closes over the ship, and things go badly wrong. "I want my NAME on something," Zechariah tells Erasmus. "Something BIG -- is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map.”. Although this is fiction, it rang horribly true, knowing as we do how explorers have lost their lives on both freezing continents. The waters are hazardous with shifting icebergs, the sled dogs die, and a sailor succumbs to lockjaw. Very soon they are hemmed in by ice on all sides, and the Narwhal spends an entire winter in the arctic with dwindling supplies of food. The crew splits into factions as Zechariah becomes in turns tyrannical and moody.
 
In the middle of a Spanish holiday, I was swept into this chilling adventure, and can still marvel at Barrett’s psychological insights into her characters and the depths of the philosophy with which she underpins her story. 
 
TWO
Kasuo Ishiguro wrote The Unconsoled between The Remains of the Day andWhen We Were Orphans. Both these books went down well with the book reading world, but The Unconsoled sank like a stone. Why? I kept asking as I read and reread it. Why aren’t people getting this marvellous book? 
Ishiguro is one of my favourite contemporary writers. (See my review of his latest, The Buried Giant.His books are imaginative, inventive, strongly crafted and push the boundaries to the very edges. The Unconsoled is my favourite of  all his novels. 
 
It's a slippy book, disorientated in time and space and drenched in music. Unlike the subsequent Never Let Me Go,  now a film, The Unconsoled  dropped out of sight like the anchor on the Narwhal, after receiving universally bad reviews at the time of its publication. The Telegraph review said it was a sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work and the Guardian said it left readers and reviewers baffled.  One literary critic said that the novel had invented its own category of badness. Meanwhile, I was reading it with intense absorption and enjoyment. But I'm glad to say that by 2005 literary critics were beginning to agree with me...they voted the novel as the third best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005, and The Sunday Times placed it in 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure; A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. 
 
The Unconsoled is set over three days in the life of concert pianist Ryder, who has come to an unnamed European city to perform. His memory seems patchy and selective and he drifts from situation to situation as if in a surreal dream, unable to totally understand what is going on. 
 
One scene in the book has never left me; Ryder is in his hotel room when he notices that the rug is similar to the one he played soldiers on when a child. Suddenly, he realizes that the room is actually his old bedroom; he's back in his childhood. What follows is a tender, almost cherishing memory of better times. In 1995, I’d recently been nursing my mother, who'd died of the advanced stages of a particularly psychotic form of Alzheimer's disease, and Ryder's problems and experiences reminded me of the twilight world she'd lived in, where real life probably invaded her dream world in unpleasant ways...she was happiest when imagining I was her sister, Beatrice, and that we were both in our twenties and living together before Mum married my father (Beatrice never married – in fact she came to live with the newly-weds!) Listening to Mum's mad conversations with herself gave me a wonderful insight into what life was like before the second world war (my mum was quite old when I was born). 
 
I would recommend Ishiguro to anyone who hasn't yet read him...all his books. But The Unconsoled has a special place in my heart and will never leave my bookcase...so get your own copy!
 
THREE
Talking of the surreal, I was listening to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.”
I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 
Written in the early 1960s, but only published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet isLeonora Carrington’s best loved book. Carrington was born in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. (See the cover illustration, left.) Her stories are as surrealist as her paintings; she writes with originality, imagination and charm. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. When Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, the pace hots-up remarkably, into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers. But such fun to read!
 
FOUR
I still have my battered copy of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, possibly the most important novel to come out of South Africa before it abolished apartheid. It was published in 1948 the US; in South Africa it created much controversy. When I opened it again to write this, the smell of old books came wafting out, taking me back to the seventies, when I bought it at a second-hand stall. At that time, South Africa apartheid was still universal, with vicious race laws. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robin Island and, here in the UK, I wanted to find something that would explain all of this to me. Cry, the Beloved Country, with its major theme of the overwhelming problem of racial inequality, suited my needs. It’s still an incredible read, and a reminder of how important it is not to turn back the clock.
 
FIVE
One rainy afternoon, I watched the 1945 black and white film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on the TV. I was a young mum at the time, and was drawn to the story of this impoverished but aspirational second-generation Irish-American living in Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century. So I did what eleven year old Francie Nolan did all the time; visit my local library to borrow the book. Written in 1943 by Betty Smith, the book was an immense success at the time. It must have hit the same nerve with that reading public as the film, and subsequently the novel, did with me. It’s the story of family life, and the immigrant experience. The Nolans are poor, often hungry, but they fill their home with warmth and love. The main metaphor of the book is the Chinese ‘Tree of Heaven’, which grows outside the window of the family’s run-down tenement building; a symbol of Francie’s desire for a good education, which she manages to obtain through some subterfuge with the US school system. This beautifully written account of the American immigrant experience might be due for a revival, for various reasons, right at this moment. 
SIX
Vita Sackville-West was a successful and prolific novelist and poet, but I actually know her best as the person who created the wonderful garden at Sissinghurst and as the inspiration for Orlando by Virginia Wolfe, written while they had a decade-long affair.
My copy of All Passion Spent arrived through the post in the form of a Virago Classic Triple bill. I had no idea where it came from, but I was truly grateful and delved into the three novels by three women, loving this one the most. I hung onto the book for years, but recently took it to discuss at my book club and gave it away so that others could enjoy it.
 
All Passion Spent came out in 1933 and focuses on some of Sackville-West’s primary concerns. She, like Wolfe, was passionate about people’s place in society, society’s constrictions on people, and women’s control of their lives. The story follows the elderly Lady Slane’s thoughts on her life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships, while she relaxes in the summer sun. She believes, as her life is approaching its end, that she should downsize, and by the time we reach the final third of this short novel, summer is over and Lady Slane has settled into a tiny cottage She’s hoping to be almost forgotten, allowed to get on with being old, but she finds she’s still too linked to her past. She bumps into Mr FitzGeorge who has arrived from India and has secretly been in love with her since their youth. After his death, he bequeaths his outstanding art collection to Lady Slane and she passes it all to the state, much to her rather unlikable children’s disgust.  This empowers her great-granddaughter Deborah,  who finds the courage to break-off her engagement and pursue her love of music. Lady Slane observes this with pleasure, for Deborah will be taking the path that Lady Slane herself longed to, but could not. The novel is not a great classic, but it is interesting and entertaining, and worth a read.
 
SEVEN
I don’t know if Vita Sackville-West ever read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, but I’m betting she might have. It is the first novel to be written by a working class person, so especially loved by the socialist left in the UK, but mostly forgotten by everyone else. Robert Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was a housepainter in the early years of the last century, and a member of the Socialist Democratic Association, an early version of the Labour Party. When Noonan died in 1911, he left his 250,000 word novel in the hands of his daughter. who sold it for £25. In 1914, the book came out as a 150,000 word first edition, and in 1918, after the 1st WW was over, it was slashed again, to 100,000 words (the length of the books in the Shaman Mystery Series!) and sold at one shilling. But an uncut version is available, if you’d like to take a look. 
Image from the 2010 London dramatization
To quote Wikipedia, Noonan’s story is…based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers.  The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. House decorator Frank Owen understands just how the middle and upper classes take advantage of his skills; he sees them as being ‘given away’ in the ‘great money trick’. 
 
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, as it’s an explicitly political work, but I loved it. The characters Tressell draws feel authentic and compassionate. I especially remember Owen’s little son, who swears by the efficacy of breakfast porridge, thus prophesying our own interest in the health-given benefits of oats today.
 
Perhaps you have read some of these long-forgotten books yourselves and loved them as much as I did, or maybe you hated them with equal passion.

 

If so, do tell Kitchen Table Writers by leaving a comment below.