Saturday, 28 February 2015

Trespass - Rose Tremain – The Kitchen Table Crime Review.

Rose Tremain has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. So what is she doing, writing a crime thriller? Because you can hide the fact that Trespass, published in 2010, is a novel about murder. 

Maybe she didn’t realize that’s what she was about. Perhaps she thought this terrifying and bleak story documenting the cultural clash between rich, cultured English people and a provincial French family was the usual contemporary literary fiction that is expected from Tremain’s pen. After, the narrative is beautifully written, the language deeply satisfying.  But I don’t think so. She knew what she was doing. After all Tremain is now in her seventies and so just the right age to take over the Crime Writer’s Crown from P G James. And her take on a crime thriller is edged with noir. Each character is filled with deep psychological pain and the opening is classic crime fiction;  a young schoolgirl sees something in the waters of the river. She runs, screaming. The book then takes us from the beginning of the story that leads up to the event which made her scream.

Don’t suppose she’s going to listen to me – why should she – but I think Tremain should keep going with crime. The late PD James said that A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it’s written than a more prestigious literature.” And, interviewed, would you believe it, by Amazon Books, James is quoted as  saying “Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both”.

So go for it, Miss Tremain. Your exquisite prose and consistently dark themes are perfect for creating crime noir, and I for one enjoyed Trespass as much as Music and Silence and Restoration. The characters are filled with real existence, despite being to a person damaged by their troubled histories. There is no sympathetic protagonist to latch on to, but even so this is a compelling story.
Novelist, Rose Tremain

The novel centres around Mass Lunel, a crumbling, ancient family farmhouse in the Cevennes in southern France, the home of Aramon Lunel, a man who is so ridden with guilt at the crimes he has committed  in his past and now sickening from a very unhealthy lifestyle. He hits on the idea of selling the house and land, which would net him more money than he has ever imagined. But he needs the help of his half-sister, Audrun, who has suffered a lifetime of abuse at his hands and is now exiled to an ugly modern bungalow on the edge of the land. She is horrified at the idea of selling the family home, especially as her home, and the forest land she inherited with it is threatened by the sale. Alongside this fear, she is already festering with long-term hate and resentment towards Aramon. 

We have already met  Anthony Verey, an elderly antiques dealer with a penchant for young men. When he hits financial trouble in London, he visits his sister, who is living in the Cevennes with Kitty, her lover. Kitty has never been able to stand Anthony and is suspicious of the close bond between the siblings. She know that Anthony would be pleased to break up their French love nest and his horrified when Anthony announces he’s going to buy a property in the area. It’s not long before he claps eyes on Mas Lunel, and he loves it from the start. But he does not love Audrun’s bungalow. He covets her land, too. 

Tremain makes this story a forensic study of the way the shadows from the past always catches up the present until the climax mingles loss of justice with issues of identity and the philosophy of what happiness really is.

This is a troubling book, because it takes crime seriously, examining it for what it really is; messy, dirty. No one comes out of the events within the novel very well. The complexities of all the various relationships and their secret agendas, flare up, as we reach the denouement of the story, and as the book closes, real flames flare, leaving the reader gasping with the strength of the symbolism within it. Tremain wants you to go on thinking about impasse she’s created, long after you close the pages. 

So, even though Tremain writes literary, prize-winning fiction, I recommend that you read this book as if it were a psychological thriller, and then you won’t be disappointed at all.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Mood Board; a different way of plotting a novel

       There has got to be a thousand different ways
of gaining the inspiration to breathe life into a new writing project.

I'm starting a new novel and I need to stimulate my creativity to bring the infant story to life.
I thought I’d tried  all the different methods of finding ideas and fusing the ideas together to make the story work; wall charts, notebooks, time-lines, character sketches, brainstorming, web-making. But I’ve been motivated by all those interior design programmes on the TV to try a mood board.
Nina's New Novel - the Mood Board
This simply is a cork board onto which I’ve pinned, glued and wedges all the things that are exciting inspiration for the story I’m writing at the moment. 
I’d love to tell you more about this story, but I do believe in the old writers’ maxim; Careless Talk Wrecks Your Plot. So I’ll just say that, yet again, I’m turning to a life of crime. I love examining what happens when people are put in extremis, as both the victims of violent crime and because they are driven to commit atrocities like murder. 
I’ve recently spent time in the East End of London and, in a  lot of ways, I loved it; the vibrancy of the community there feels dynamic and vital. But it is a place where there is a lot of poverty...and a lot of crime. So part of my book will be set there. Another part will be set locally. I’ve been bursting to use the wonderful landscape of west Wales, and I’m heading slightly north to Aberystwyth (the recent home of the TV hit Hinterland) to take advantage of the grey, angry seas, the murmuring starlings over the pier, the infestation of holiday makers, and the rising cliffs with the Victorian Cliff Railway set central. It’s a mixed community, a university town with an Arts Centre and the National Library of Wales, but it also knows poverty. Alongside all this is the long-standing farming community and the bustle of the tourist trade. And, away from the coast, is the windswept raw beauty of the Cambrian mountains and its lakes, which feed the River Teifi.
Trying to gain the right mood for a book is a subtle thing, easily lost as you think up characters and engineer the plot, and I’m really pleased with my mood board. I can easily picture my character's faces; I know about their clothes, their pets, their hobbies and their past stories.
I’m gaining a real sense of my central characters; their lives, their feelings, decisions, flaws; their hopes and fears. In fact; the mood board is helping life inside their worlds. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Austerlizt by S. G. Sebald; my Author of the Month

Fifteen years ago, WG Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was fifty-seven years old. He was a writer and lecturer, born in Germany but living in England. He has been describes as ‘one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures’ – he might have won a Nobel if not for his early death.  I have only read one of his four novels, “Austerlitz”, which is a simple enough story, and one told many times before; a Jewish child, sent to England through the Kindertransporte, begins to retrace his roots.

I found it difficult to read; the structure is unsettling, making you feel disorientated, but the narrative voice is richly rewarding. Sebald has a ground-breaking take on structure and storytelling, which felt utterly unique in its breadth. In Austerlitz (and all his novels, I believe), he combines fiction with memoir, essay, psychogeography, biography and history. This is a strange fusion, and it took me a while to get my head around the figurative and literal ramblings of the novel, but in the end, after thinking the oddness through alongside the atmospheric mood of the book, I had to agree with Susan Sontag, who, in the Times Literary Supplement in 2000, was asked if literary greatness was still possible. Her reply; “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” And in the New Yorker, his work was described as moving the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges. 

Reading him is a disorienting experience, partly because of this fusion of forms; I kept wanting this to ‘just be a novel’, but Sebald was not going to let me off the hook that easily. Quite a lot of the narrative is taken up with Austerlitz,  who, having been brought up in Wales as Dafyyd Elias  during and after the war, discovers his real identity and tries to piece together his first, lost four years. As he moves across the continent, he is constantly encountered by the author and at each, apparently random, meeting,  talks deeply of what is in his mind at that given time; long, winding stories, opinions and discussions on philosophical dilemmas, which slowly move things towards the heart of the matter; that his parents put him on a train before being taken to a concentration camp.. 

One of the most disconcerting areas of the book are the photos. These grimy, black and white images are dotted throughout the book and relate directly to Austrelizt's life, as if the real man had handed them to Sebald for publication. I poured over them, and their reality haunted me because, although thewriter makes it clear that he met Austrelitz and is recording their (extremely one-sidedº conversations, it is generally accepted that Austerlitz is a work of fiction. 
As Vertigo, a Sebald-themed blog, points out; The mysterious cover photograph has almost taken on a life of its own. The photograph of a young fair-haired Aryan boy in an all-white costume and holding a white tri-cornered hat…It’s an image that seems to me less connected to the character Austerlitz himself and more to Germany’s pre-World War II nostalgia for a glorious past.(Could that actually be the young Sebald or is it just one of his flea market photograph finds?)

If you want an experience beyond the norm in your reading; if you want to see where novels can go when writers are this brave, read Sebald. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Omnsicient Point of View; Can You Be Omnipotent?

out from Midnight Ink Books
available on Amazon and Waterstones

They say, and in my opinion they’re right, that the
 omniscient Point of View (POV) is the hardest
perspective to take as a writer.

It’s oh, so much easier to get inside a head, as I do with my protagonist Sabbie Dare (In the Moors and Unraveled Visions) and write in the first person, or to keep close to that character’s psyche by writing in the ‘limited third person’. But the omniscient has always been there, from the very beginning. It may even be the first real fictional perspective, used by ancient story tellers and used today by writers who want to retell folk stories. Early novels, when they weren’t in diary form, were mostly in the omniscient POV, informing the reader of everything that happens in a god-like manner. Victorian authors, such as Wilkie Collins and Trollop, revelled in it. Children’s authors sometimes return to it – Lemony Snicket’s marvellous 'Series of Unfortunate Events’ being such a recent success. Literary novelists love to have a go, notably Fay Weldon (The Wife’s Revenge) and The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.  John Fowles used an active, present, author-voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino  And in The Book Thief,  Markus Zusac chose a clever version of the omniscient; the narrator is death itself; I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary.  You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables.  It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible…You will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up).  You will be caked in your own body…a scream will dribble down the air
Are you reading this because you’re  thinking of using this Point of View? Worse; are you struggling with it in the story you’re writing at the moment? Have you turned to writing advice on the internet because you’re wondering if you’ve made a mistake, choosing the omniscient, when there are so many other ways – easier ways – of narrating a story?
POV answers the question: whose voice tells the story – gives us the information we need – tells us what is happening? Does one character control our understanding of events, or do we have an omniscient narrator who gives us facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? How does the voice or consciousness that acts as the point of view shape our interpretations? What might happen if another point of view took charge?    POV is the hidden camera though which the reader perceives the fact all the story… and I think at this point it would be good to refresh ourselves on the subject of POV generally.
  1. First Person…A character tells their own story – they are the narrator. It is distinguished at all times by the use of the pronoun ‘I’ and the narrator must be in every scene. 
  2. Second Person…the writer addresses a third person at all times, using the pronoun ‘you’. Not a popular choice, but works well in short stories, as in the anthology You, Me and a Bit of We (in which on of my own stories appears)
  3. 3rd person Limited…sometimes called the 3rd person subjective, we only see inside one character’s head. The narrator seems to sit on his shoulder, but it’s fairly clear that the character and the narrator are not absolutely the same. It’s a straightforward POV, but because we are only inside on character’s head at a time we are definitely not allowed to wander into others, or view scenes the narrator is not in.
  4. 3rd person Deep While using the 3rd Person Limited, above, the writers dips deeply into a single person’s head, until we read what David Lodge describes as  Free Indirect Discourse, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I usually refer to this as filterless monologue The convention that the reader is witnessing the narrator’s thoughts gives the narrative a rich, inner feeling of attachment to the narrator. There are no secrets, everything is exposed. In extreme cases, this might be said to be stream of consciousness, 
     a literary POV best served in fairly small doses.
     Filterless monologue is hard to maintain, but that’s less of a worry because you don’t have to maintain it – you can move in and out of this deeper perspective, because the two 3rd Person POV’s are so close in construction that it is possible to allow a single piece of work to move between them at will, without having technically gone outside  the 3rd Person POV…i.e. use of the pronoun ‘he/she’.  
  5. Omniscient….At one end of the range is the god-like perspective, where almost no character is examined closely and there is no ‘dropping down’ into anyone’s consciousness. This is also known as  ‘legitimate authorial standpoint’ and probably the most tricky POV for the 21stC writer. The ‘hovering above the characters’ aspect can feel cold and unaffecting, but allows an ironic overview which achieves a detached, humorous tone.                                                                                                                                 At the other end of the omniscient range is the constant fluctuation between intimate viewpoints, even within the same sentence. Navokovich called this latter approach propelling the reader into a new angle. E.M. Foster called it ‘bouncing’. Excellent for stories in which a richer effect would be created by knowing what several characters think, this gives a ‘lifted’ tone to work.                                                         Because the Omniscient offers a complete range of vision over the narration, the narrator must know everything. You have all the power; you can shift in time and space at whim from character to character, inside thoughts, feelings and motives. It’s your choice as writer what glimpses the the reader will have into any character’s head.                                                                                                                        All this is devilishly difficult to achieve well – most of the examples of omniscient I see as a tutor are errors of judgement on the writer’s part; they’ve moved outside their chosen POV without realizing it. Julia Bell warns that you should avoid ‘headhopping’…An uncontrolled third-person point of view is something I encounter all the time in creative writing workshops, sometimes accompanied by a grumpy writer…every character in the room gets a POV – even the dog. This is just bad writing…
  6. 3rd Person Wide-ranging. One way of achieving the effect of an omniscient viewpoint is to approach it casually. By taking a step away from the intimacy of the limited and deep 3rd Person, described above but staying mostly with one character, you’ll gain a more flexible canvas to work on. In this format, a single character is often still the central point of the narration, but the author can tell us what goes on outside their range of vision, even moving into scenes they don’t inhabit. This is used a lot in books where a narrator tells almost all the story themselves, except for some limited scenes – J K Rowling uses it all the time in the Harry Potter books; few readers notice there are scenes that are not in Harry’s 3rd Person POV.               This ‘take’ on the Omniscient allows you to further experiment with style and can be a lot of fun as you move back from being right inside a single head, but it needs professional handling or it can lose its ‘thread’ and become muddled – the writer must be absolutely sure they understand, and are in control, of their perspectives, especially knowing how to tackle ‘chill’ of the Omniscient, because once you move away from that central narrator, you’re not offering the reader the one thing they’re craving; that deep intimacy with a single character they identify with.                                                                                              
  7. Plural Viewpoints…the ‘we’ form (2nd person plural) and the ‘they’ form (3rd person plural) are not often used in fiction. For a start they are fiendishly difficult to maintain successfully. But Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is written from the perspective of a group of boys who grow up fascinated by the Lisbon family and their five daughters, we do not get the sense of one person narrating on behalf of a group.  Instead, a strong collective voice comes through; it could be any one of the boys, or they could even be taking it in turns to narrate…We climbed up to the tree house the way we always had, stepping in the knothole, then on the nailed board, then on two bent nails, before grasping the frayed rope and pulling ourselves through the trapdoor…The oblong window we’d cut with a handsaw years ago still looked onto the front of the Lisbon house.  Next to it were five spotted photographs of the Lisbon girls, pinned with rusty tacks
  8. Multi-viewpoint…This is a popular format, where all the changes of viewpoint are at specific moments in the text; usually the changeover of scene, chapter, etc. Perspectives can also be alternated with other points of view.This is not an Omniscient POV; most multi-viewpoint books don’t touch the Omniscient, they simply move through different viewpoints.  Margaret Atwood uses this technique in The Edible Woman.  To reflect her protagonist’s growing sense of detachment, Atwood starts the novel in first person, switches to third part way through, and changes back to first for the last section of the book. ; i.e. write your chosen piece mostly in a wide-ranging 3rd person, becoming authorial on necessary occasions.
So, how do you choose the right POV? Luckily there is no reason (other than it is somewhat time consuming) why you cannot change POV at the end of a first draft.Almost by definition the reader will perceive the POV character as the most important in a scene and will remain sympathetic to that character. This is a crucial point when deciding which POV to use, especially if you’ve chosen multi-viewpoint. 
You might like to ask some of the following questions about the project you are undertaking at the moment:
  • What do you want the reader to know, and therefore, who is the best character to reveal these things…or not?
  • Whose voice would tell the story in the most gripping manner?
  • Which voice gives us the crucial information we need to understand what is happening? 
  • Do you want only one character to control our understanding of events, or would it be preferable to have an omniscient narrator furnishing facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? 
  • Do you need a second perspective to allow the reader to see things a single POV will not cover?

I’d be interested in any of your ideas, experiences or comments on this post, and the struggle writers have with POV. Do let me know through the comment box, please!

Monday, 2 February 2015

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh; the Kitchen Table Crime Review

Usually, when I discover a new author, I like to start with their first book, but I’ve just read A Lovely Way to Burn, (John Murray 2014), Louise Welsh’s most recent crime fiction. I was attracted because the book promises to be the first in a trilogy, The Plague Times, and as I’ve just completed a crime trilogy myself (The Shaman Mysteries, Midnight Ink Books, 2013/4/5) I’m interested to see how other writers approach this form. 

Welsh is a Scottish writer, living in Glasgow
(c) Steve Lindridge
and although I’d never read her before, I knew about her. I’d read reviews of her books as I poured over my weekend papers. The Observer suggests…Welsh mixes a heady cocktail of death, desire and illusion in quick, sharp prose (The Bullet Trick  2006). 
The Sunday Telegraph said of Tamburlaine Must Die…Utterly engrossing. Elizabethan England has never seemed more beguilingly immediate. 

I also know that, like me, Welsh writes short stories, including one for The Erotic Review, (my agent's magazine) as well as essays for Radio 3, reviews, plays and librettos. She’s won awards, and even more interestingly, gets involved with projects such as residencies and collaborations. 
This intrigued me, and brought me to A Lovely Way to Burn, which I initially heard described as a ‘dystopian mystery’. But what is particularly shocking is that the setting could be now; this London, this year. Her descriptions of a city collapsing under the weight of a pandemic virus is thrillingly awful, immediately reminding me of the images I’d seen on the TV News of Ebola violently taking hold in so many African countries. In her Acknowledgements, Welsh explained how she’d been influence by her childhood memories of the threat of the A bomb, and by TV classics such as Threads and Survivors. All writers begin a work by being influenced in some way; they take those influences and compost them until they create their own ideas, allowing them to drive a pathway through their own imaginations. A Lovely Way to Burn is not just a book about Doomsday or Armageddon and that makes it fascinating and a gripping read.
At the outbreak of the virus colloquially called ‘the sweats’, Stevie Flint finds her boyfriend dead. She’s on a bit of a downward path; she used to be a journalist but now she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel.  Stevie falls ill directly after discovering Simon’s body; a day passes during which she’s sure she’s going to die, but she recovers and assumes (rightly) that she’s now immune to the sweats. The police tell her that Simon, who was doctor at a London hospital, died of natural causes, but she finds a letter he’d written, asking her, in the event he ‘disappeared’, to take his laptop to a colleague. 
Do not entrust it to anyone else, no matter how polite, kind or authoritative they are...conceal it in your most frivolous bag...
With this letter, I was hooked. Stevie does as she’s bid, but it soon becomes clear she can trust no one. While people are dying in their beds and in the street, and the healthy are fleeing London, she moves around the catastrophic city, amassing her information, investigating her boyfriend’s death.  The institutions are in disorder and it’s hard to get anyone to talk, not only because they might want to hide the truth – “keep your distance,” is the perpetual cry – “don’t come near me!” At one point, masked men stop Stevie from entering a residential street. They want to preserve their loved ones from infection, and seem prepared to kill if needs be.
Welsh says about A Lovely Way to BurnAll my novels are quests, but their central characters and locations are very different from each other. I truly hope she can stick to one setting and one protagonist to complete this trilogy. I know how gruelling writing three books on the trot can be. I was aided by Sabbie Dare, a central character who is bold and sassy, compassionate and funny. Welsh will be similarly aided by Stevie Flint. As Simon says in his letter to her…you are clever, persuasive, persistent and resourceful and have enough nous to know that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing. I’m sure Louise Welsh can’t wait to write about Stevie Flint again.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Open College of the Arts Creative Writing; The Hollow Places by Nina Milton

A new blogpost about learning to write from me on the Open College of the Arts blogsite;

Hollow Places

I’m a King of Hearts kind of writer. That is, when I begin to write something, long or short, I have to start at the beginning and I only stop when I get to the end. (Even more Wonderland-like, I usually go back to the beginning at that point.)
Although I often think up stories in a non-sequential order, and my notebooks are crammed with jumbled chronologies and leap-frogged jottings about character, setting and plot, once I rest my hands on the keyboard I have to write the opening scene before I can move on, and chapter one has to be followed by chapter two.
Many writers, established and successful, do not follow this pattern. They’ll perhaps write the climaxes and tension-points before joining these parts and filling out the story. Or they’ll follow the adventures of a single protagonist for a while before working on further characters. Some canny writers start with the end and work backwards.
For creative writing students on the level three course ‘Independent Project’, the choices they make have far more to do with the goals they’re primarily pursuing; that is, to submit assignments to their tutor and make a final selection of work for assessment. The Independent Project course may be their last with the OCA; it’s often the assessment that gives them the final mark for their degree. At the same time, now they feel comfortable as writers, they’ll also wish to complete this longer piece of work for their own satisfaction, and for their own growth as a writer.
Students are allowed to dream about finishing that first novel! But with so many conflicting objectives in mind, achieving all this is not straightforward. Level three students can only submit a certain number of words to their tutor – considerably less than a completed full-length work. So how should they go about structuring their writing so that they accomplish the project they’re longing to complete, and gain the best results?
One of my students, Sophie Cartwright, now nearing the end of a creative writing degree, is keen to write a young adult novel. This is a positive step for her as a writer, and an excellent project to work with for an Independent Project.
But doing so presented enormous challenges, especially the conflicts between writing good assignments and constructing a good draft of a novel. For her second and third assignments she sent me two separate extracts from her continuing novel. She’d chosen two moments of tension within the story, but she was encountering problems; she had leapt ahead to write these sections without filling in the gaps between, and both of us noticed that this led to a somewhat lackluster narrative. The characters were thin on the page, as if they were slipping between the words, and because we didn’t quite care about them, the content wasn’t as tense or absorbing as it might have been. The writing also included things the writer needs to know about, but the reader does not. Because Sophie had only written what was needed for each assignment, she hadn’t been able to overcome these difficulties.
Sophie isn’t the first student – or the first hopeful novelist – to hit such an obstacle. It often happens if you disregard the King of Hearts’ advice. We examined her options. She wants her young adult novel to develop successfully, but she also needs to submit good assignments. We decided that she should try to write the story as she’d envisioned it, and how it is encountered by the characters, even though some of this would not be in a final draft and most of it would not be in the assignment work. It was my belief that she could achieve her academic goals and her writing dreams by doing this. Of course, it did mean an awful lot more work, but in my experience it’s the writing that teaches you your craft.
In her reflective commentary for assignment four, Sophie was able to be far more positive. She wrote…”I’ve been working hard to develop Underground since my last assignment. As suggested, I spent time going back to the very start and have written the scenes that I will not submit for assignment. This was extremely helpful, as it helped me to consolidate the characters and iron out plot inconsistencies. I originally used free writing to build the unwritten scenes, before going back and working through parts of the story that didn’t work. This added a deeper layer to the plotline and I felt that this worked well when it came to developing the characters for this assignment. Ernest Hemingway is quoted in the Short Fiction course: ‘A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing’. This has been absolutely true so far, and I hope that, by taking the time to ensure I know the characters and plot development, I have been able to write a richer and more engaging chapter of the story.”
As Sophie discovered, it’s all to easy to think that the scene in your head is ‘good to go’. But it is so much candy-floss until it’s written down. To write first and discard later in this way is crucial in getting to know your characters, their lives, and their relationships with other characters. New ideas are sparked and the structure of the story will develop as you watch them go about their business. None of this can happen if you leave the story jostling around in your head. You may discover that the moments of tension you planned to concentrate on are not actually the parts you want to send as assignments. There may be new, equally absorbing and driven sections you’ve now discovered as you wrote into the ‘hollow places’.
Since Sophie altered her approach to writing the Independent Project, her work has flourished, because she’s beginning to write like a professional. This is what the college expects their level three writers to aim for. At this level (HE level Six), a student is expected to demonstrate that they have developed their understanding of the concepts underlying their discipline. They need to show evidence of good judgement, especially in how they handle the Craft of Writing, and how they’ve developed their use of Language; their writing voice.
By the time they’ve finished the final course, they should be ready to springboard away from tutors and assessments and feel confident in their writing. Writing into the hollow places, being prepared to complete a lot of extra work and understanding what to discard from those first writing drafts are all essential aspects of taking that leap.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Zoned-in Description - using detail in your writing

 I think it was John Gardiner who said…DETAIL IS THE LIFE-BLOOD OF CREATIVE WRITING. If he did, he was right. the strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Moving into close-up is absorbing.

You don’t have to describe everything around the location and setting of your work (often refered to in writerly terms as the milieu), for the reader to 'see' it. Imagery works far better when the writer ‘zones in’ on specific things, rather than trying to described everything. This is the ‘nuggets of gold’ method…finding the perfect item that will tell the reader as much as all the rest put together. 

What readers love the most, are the details of life as they know it and can recognise it, yet described with fresh, inventive eyes. A writer who can make such ‘commonalities’ appear new on the page will engage and entrance. I call this ability  zoning in. The strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning in absorbs him. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole, the description is enhanced.Seeing it all is like being close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”  Don’t be afraid of detail – it makes all the difference – it is the complete opposite of writing huge swathes of description that skim over detail and bore the reader to sleep. 
So when you describe, rather than paint an overall picture, zone in to look at small details using symbolism wherever you can. Think about what the ‘core’ of the thing you’re describing might be. Naturally, this will depend on whether you’re looking at landscape, background settings, external or interior locations, objects or people. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Below, Charlotte Bronte uses description of landscape to draw us slowly towards the house she will later use almost as a character in the story. The delightful words…low, broad tower…galaxy…clashed…candle-light…the rest were dark…are designed to set up small mysteries in our mind. The punctuation might be a little out of date, but there is no doubt that this landscape sets up the reader for new experiences.
Again I looked out; we were passing a church: I saw its low broad tower against the sky, and its bell was tolling a quarter; I saw a narrow galaxy of lights, too, on a hill-side, marking a village or hamlet. About ten minutes after, the driver got down and opened a pair of gates; we passed through, and they clashed to behind us. We now slowly ascended a drive, and came upon the long front of a house: candle-light gleamed from one curtained bow-window; all the rest were dark…
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre 
Background Setting;
 In my children’s novel Sweet’n’Sour, I needed to describe the backdrop to my character’s life – Low Hee is eleven years old and from Malaysia – but the reader would want to get back to the story, so I chose to focus on his grandmother’s pig. 
Each morning, he boiled up the scraps for her feed and cleaned her sty. He loved grooming her with a stiff brush; she’d lie perfectly still for him while he scraped mud from her pink back. When he’d finished, he’d set out along the dusty road to school…
Sweet'nSour, Nina Milton

External Location
Note particularly, the ease in which this author uses the five senses…
He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails....
The Voyage of the Narwhal Andrea Barrett
Poet Carol Ann Duffy zones in deliciously when remember her bedroom as a child;
The single bed
was first a wooden boat;
stars translated for me
as I drifted away –
our cargoed winter house
dark and at anchor –

and then a Russian Doll
where I stilled in my selves;
six secrets or presents
under a thrilled tree...
Decembers from Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
Sarah Waters is a marvellous close-up describer. In this scene, the character, Viv, observes a room  she’s never entered. Waters then takes us as close to the stockings, towel and soap as is possible. This suggests that in describing, we are doing more than simply setting a scene or telling the reader what might be seen, we are entering the world of the character. The closer the author goes, the closer the reader gets.
There was a single bed, an ancient-looking wardrobe, a chair with cigarette burns and a little wash-basin in the corner that was coming away from the wall. A radiator, painted over and over with different kinds of paint, gave off a tepid heat. On the bedside table was an alarm clock fastened down with a length of wire. The clock said ten past six. She had thirty or forty minutes.
...She had been worrying about the dress all day, because it was crepe and easily creased: she took it carefully from the envelope and let it fall from her hands, then spend a few minutes tugging at it, trying to flatten out the folds. The stockings she had worn and washed many times; there were patches of darning, the stitches tiny and neat, like fairy-work. She ran them over her fingers, liking the feel of them, looking for faults.
The towel was yellowy-white and thick, like a baby’s napkin. The soap had fine grey seams in it. But she’d brought talcum powder and she dabbed scent, from a little bottle, on her wrists and throat and collarbones, and between her breasts. When she put on the flimsy crepe dress, and replaced her lisle-winter stockings with flesh-coloured silk ones, she felt as though she was in her nightie, light and exposed.
Sarah Waters Night Watch 
Here's the beginning of a story where the character is introduced mainly through a physical context in a specific locations – an allotment. We learn about the man through his activities and the way his allotment is kept. We’re never told that he is a little obsessive with a strong work ethic, or that he’s a painter, but we can more or less guess these things through the physicality of his world as we’re show through detail... yellow bone-handled knife for instance, which helps the reader make a picture in his mind and became very aware of the sort of man Robin is. 
Robin hoed between geometric rows of crops. His sweat dripped into the soil. The hoe travelled swift and firm along its weedless way, as if he’d been given a penitential exercise for an unknown sin.
He had come to the allotment to harvest the produce they would use during the week; the end product of previous sweat-dripped work. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans and sweet round beets had been sliced through with the yellow bone-handled knife and placed in the boot of the old Vauxhall, placed to lie in careful compliment of shape texture and colour.
The spare tyre made good staging. He’d taken a thoughtful step back to survey his still life. It was more than just food; it looked spiritually appetizing. 
Girl in a Lilac Dress Nina Milton (Tees Valley Writer) 
Combining descriptions
You might want to describe more than one aspect of your milieu. Remember that zoned-in description, when done well, almost always describes more than that one isolated item. I call this multitasking.

  • To reveal character
  • To heighten identification with character
  • To add clues to the outcome
  • To deepen symbolism
  • To add jokes or moments of depth
  • To just add that extra zing – atmosphere that makes the reader feel they are ‘there’.

To finish here is the thriller writer, Frances Fyfield,  describing a new character in a new situation and place; that’s a lot all at once. To enable this, she makes the vista move and change – she starts by directing the reader’s attention on the most obvious item – the gates. She zones-in on detail, before taking our eye soaring upwards. She also uses sounds to great effect. Above all, you’re already concerned for this vulnerable character. Words like...pissed, strange, repel, sharp, plaintiv...suggest the start of danger, and the phrases...hum of noise and glow of a haunting mood.
She was drunk, inebriated, intoxicated, pissed, something like that, no doubt about it. Plus a little something else which made these bright lights extra bright, and the colours of the vast wrought-iron gates very strange. Such great big gates, made to repel and attract multitudes, each thirty feet high and standing open, decorated with huge motifs of Tudor rose and curlicues painted turquoise, pink and purple without a single sharp angle. These gates rose to a point half the height of the domed glass ceiling inside. She noticed a single seagull wheeling above the building, its plaintive mewling audible above the hum of the noise and the profile of its wings caught in the glow of light which came through the roof...
Cold to the Touch  Frances Fyfield

Monday, 12 January 2015

January's Guest Blogger; Open College of the Arts Student Jerry Allen

I’ve recently been having an email conversation with Jerry Allen, who has just signed up to do the Open College of the Arts ‘Life Writing’ course. He describes himself as  a ”nervous OCA novice”, but when I asked him to guest-blog for me, I loved what he had to say about his writing. I think he speaks for new writers everywhere…

Jerry says; This was taken in the Chittagong Hills.
The pipes were handed to me in a Mro village.
The Mro and the most remote Indigenous nation.
It has been a very long time since I studied.  I felt it would be helpful for me to formulate and express my reasons for taking this step. So here goes: 

My writing so far could be called “travel writing”.  Paul Theroux’s described travel books as boring, “self-indulgent, unfunny and rather selective” in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, where he broke the mould.  I want to write about people not sightseeing.  For example, the families that adopted me while travelling through India, the nuclear scientist on a bus in Iran, the people I’ve been squeezed against in Sri Lanka, the people escaping oppression, etc.  A good example of travel writing is the start of Ian Fleming’s “Thrilling Cities”, though it is a rich colonial’s view of the developing world.  He describes a journey by air to Hong Kong, the stopovers that were inevitable then and the often-annoying fellow passengers. 

I am a proud to be a member of a small, endangered tribe, or more correctly, an “Indigenous Nation”.  There are less than 2,500 Khyang people left in those beautiful jungle hills, we have lost land and will lose our language in another generation.  As I am from New Addington, where the Khyang “Nation” could fit in one block of flats, this may sound like a strange fantasy, but it is true.  I am desperate to write about the culture, language and plight before it is too late.  There is an urgency to describe their situation in an engaging way.  The most respected book on the tribes of the Chittagong Hills was written in 1869 by a young officer from a far posher part of Croydon. As a result of my experiences in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, I‘ve writen blogs for Amnesty International I feel I could contribute more if I could communicate and engage better.

So what do I want to do with the writing course I’ve signed up to? I want to write a love story.  My wife and I have gone through extraordinary struggles, battling with 2 governments.  We are an unusual couple, as people frequently note, and our love is very strong. 

But, it seems difficult for a man to write romance. A writer friend who has had romances published, suggested they should have a certain narrative structure. Finding a way to tell our love story and express my feelings avoiding triteness will be a challenge. 

‘Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax describes the horrors of being tortured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The book approaches his life chronologically, while the film starts with a love story.  A troubled man in his 60s falls in love with a woman he meets on a train and she helps him come to terms with the horrors of his past.  

My writing ambition began when I unexpectedly arrived back in England with my leg in a cast after years in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tajikistan and Bangladesh.  I found myself in a culture that I could not understand, in an unfamiliar small town.  For once in my life I was forced to sit still.  It was winter and, as I got more mobile, the snow kept falling.  This gloomy point was when the urge to look at my life and to write started.  Still in plaster, I limped into a writing group meeting.  They found my writing “quirky”.  But their writing and the exercises evoked an unfamiliar, comfortable world and I felt increasing intimidated.  

Even so, I’ve kept going and now I’m ready to study LIfe Writing. From that low point, the happiest time in my life developed. 

You can comment on this post, or ask Jerry questions in the comment box below.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Fifty Shades of Nighttime Grey; Walking the Somerset Levels




A new blog post from Nina is featured on the Crime Readers  Association website, posted
7th January 2015 by  in Crime Readers' Updates | 0 comments
The Somerset Moors
Have you ever walked the Somerset Levels at night? I have, purely for research purposes, and it was a scary experience. On the night I took my walk, charcoal clouds were scuttling across the sky. The quarter moon and the thick, milky covering of stars played hide and seek. Everything was grey…prickly hedges…reed beds…looming trunks of ancient willows…all shades of grey. As I walked the farmland paths, it was hard to spot the channels of water bordering each field. Several times I came up sharp to find myself staring down into reeking, stagnant ditches or canals brim full and squelchy at the edge. I battled on, my torch spotlighting my map, taking the wooden bridges in a zigzag route towards my destination.
I was heading for the peatbogs…

read the full post at