Posts filed under Reading

It's Our Beat for International Women's Day

Hey, if you're in/around/near Brighton on International Women's Day (Saturday 7th March), pop into the Oxfam in Kensington Gardens for an evening of literature, music, cake and wine! it's our beat oxfam brighton

From 6pm, join me and the Beach Hut Writers for an hour or two of local Brighton writing - I'll be reading an extract of White Lies and signing books afterwards. Then stick around for a celebration of the very best female musicians. And did I mention the cake and wine? It bears repeating.

The Beach Hut authors include Erinna Mettler (author of Starlings , Laura Wilkinson (author of Public Battles, Private Wars), Sarah Rayner (author of One Moment, One Morning), Bridget Whelan (author of A Good Confession) and poet Deborah Turnbull. We'll be reading a range of short stories, flash fiction, poetry and novel extracts.

Please do come along if you can - it's set to be a good 'un. More information at the It's Our Beat Facebook event.

Posted on March 1, 2015 and filed under Events, Flashes, Reading, Short Stories, White Lies, Writers' Groups, Writing.

Writing Bugbear #1

I'm cheating on my 12 books for 2011. I knocked Amy Hempel right off the list within the first week of January so I sneakily allowed myself a library addition. And I'm not enjoying it. Still reading it, but not impressed. It's a disappointment because I've enjoyed other work by the same author, and this one can be summed up by a 'meh'. I find it impossible not to finish books I've started, no matter how awful they are, and can only think of one exception to this compulsion - a book that was so highly rated, yet made me so utterly irritated I had to stop before I ate it or something. It was a debut novel, yet it could have been edited in half - what on earth was going on there, and who did the author know in high places to get it published in the first place? I'm not going to name names because it's kinda bitchy, but there have been hours spent in the company of books that I wish I never started.

In editing this novel I've begun to really pay attention to what I admire and aspire to in the writing of others - aaaaand what I want to avoid at all costs. The books that fuck my head up with awesomesauce have their pages heavy-petted in an attempt to distill what makes them so saucy. The ones that curl my lip in disdain get tutted at and dropped in the bath. The things that irritate me are easier to pin down, certainly, so here's just one example. I plan on adding to this DO and DON'T list as and when I am inspired to do so. My blogging is a bit sporadic at the moment due to the whole editing thang, and singlehandedly working a job that should be shared by about three people.

Without further waffle, here's my first writing bugbear:

Searching questions: How could it have come to this? What was he supposed to do now? What could she have done differently? And so on. I mean, don't ask ME, I'm the frickin' reader. If your character is asking these kinds of questions, it means you can't be arsed to show the theme that lies behind. Or you don't know how. It's much easier to sum up the general predicament of a character by putting in a vague, searching question - profound in its wonderment... But it's lazy, and it's essentially useless, and I dont believe I have ever asked myself a single question like this in reality. It's a substitute for real exploration of feeling, which you can discover by using your stock question to provoke new, more probing questions which you then answer by writing proper bloody prose instead of useless querying :

How could it have come to this? What has it come to? Why is it such a shock? Is this breaking point? What is your character's physical reaction to this revelation?

What was he supposed to do now? How about some motherflipping suggestions? What do you do when you're lost, when you've come to the end of your tether, when you just want to sit down where you are and sob? Skip the soul searching, head straight for the tragedy buffet - does he shut off, does he break something, does he shout, does he get on the first bus to anywhere? What is he going to do now?

What could she have done differently? Aaaaaand cue a handy little sum up of the previous events. Too easy. If you're going to flashback, then sit for a minute and try to recall a vivid memory - how much of it do you actually remember? Snippets. Smells. Snatches of conversation. We collate all this into a jerky trailer for the movie adaptation of our lives, but it still contains the tiny, interesting, remarkable details that make it truthful. Write those truths rather than: well, she could have done this, but this got in her way, and now she's here, wondering what she could have done differently. Poor little lady.

It all just smacks of melodrama to me, and will elicite an eye-roll rather than a chin stroking 'hmm'. Don't do it. Or fine, do it, just don't expect me to read it.

Posted on January 20, 2011 and filed under Editing, Novel, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing.

12 books for 2011

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Just a stack of the many books I've yet to read from my bookshelves. I decided to choose one for each month of next year, to bring a little order and OCD to the new year. Or at least a well-intentioned plan. I got a few of them for Christmas, which brings them to the front of the queue in the unspoken rulebook of gifts. The others are second hand/library cast-offs that have been waiting to be read for the past year or so. There are many more, of course, but one a month is an easy enough task to fulfill. I have a wall-to-wall bookshelf of contingency plans if I complete my resolution prematurely...

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So, my choices (in no particular order but the way that I've stacked them):

God Knows by Joseph Heller - the last of his I've yet to read. I love that man. I read Catch-22 about twice a year. Something Happened had me in a comatose state of rapture right until the punch in the face at the end, where I started swearing.

Dog of the Marriage (Collected Stories) by Amy Hempel - I've read this before, but it bears repeating as many times as you can until the book wears out. If you write short stories or flash fiction, you need to read Amy Hempel. Then repent and sacrifice some kind of domestic animal to her greatness. Then maybe sit in the shower and cry at your own futile comparison. She is inspiring with a capital Iloveyou!

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - because he's the don. Psychology and science fascinate me now that I'm not required to study them. I'm a huge advocate of self-education and drilling your way through a sea of reference books before you even start building a world or a character or a plot. The truth is far scarier and weirder than the fiction - so it's usually a case of toning it down...

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card - a classic that I've never read. Generally, my scifi era is the Asimov/Bradbury/Vonnegut 50s-60s but this, I've been excited to read for a while. Occasionally my library runs 3 for £1 deals on ratty old books they've pulled, almost exclusively books of this type - books that won't be read by the local Dan Brownians... Hey ho, more for me.

Shame by Salman Rushdie - I read Midnight's Children over a few weeks in the midnight hours while breastfeeding my newborn son. Up 4-6 times a night, set in a rocking chair with a warm baby to my chest, I'd read by the dimmer switch light, getting through a stack of books twice the size of the one above: 100 Years of Solitude, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I am Legend, Heller's Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man... Along with Solitude, Midnight's Children had the greatest effect on me. Gasping, almost. Even when my son had fed himself into a chubby, milky coma, and I could have laid him back in the cot and slipped back into my bed, I often stayed in the chair, reading for another hour - unsure the next morning whether the story I remembered was from the novel or the sleep deprivation. There's a strange kind of focus you acquire after having a baby - the emotional side of the brain unrestrained whatsoever - for me, the books I read in that time imprinted more strongly than any other. So - Shame - I have plans to work my way through Rushdie's work eventually, but this was the one most recommended by a friend, so this is what comes first.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - another classic from my favourite era I've managed to miss. Another reject from my local library. And it's been on a ban list, which is always a good sign...

The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov - I've not read anything by Kurkov but - yes, another library score - and another author I've watched from afar and wondered what is inside. Surrealist, political and black humour. What's not to like?

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - I'm ashamed not to have read more Atwood, because I admire her more than a bit. I've already begun this one, actually - a few chapters in, and I'm already lost in her world. Looking forward to more.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - I'm a kind of anti-establishment reader and shy away from books on bestseller lists and Richard and Judy shows, or the ones you find in duplicate, triplicate and more in second hand bookshelves. The ones everyone buys but everyone then gets rid of after. Still, I can't ignore the recommendations of people I trust, and several have told me to read it, so here it is.

The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - ditto to Cloud Atlas - and add to the list of my avoidances any book that deals with writers and libraries - write what you know? Sure, why not, but please don't write about writers. Then again, I have a penchant for Spanish authors, and gothic backdrops. Plus, a random old man that I met in a bookshop, having just given an impromptu phrenology examination of my son, pointed to this book, which I had been considering in my hands, and told me to read it. Can't argue with a phrenologist, people.

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks - back to psychology - a private passion. I like Sacks' work a great deal, and always passed this one by when I was researching for my first novel (looking into schizophrenia and the history of mental healthcare - a whole lot of knowledge I almost wish I didn't now have in my brain). Now that novel has been shelved, I can read books like this for interest and pleasure rather than a feeling of responsibility and voyeurism.

A Short History of Everything by Bill Bryson - another neglected book that can give me a massive dose of information in a handy compressed format. I'm an impatient learner - I need to know now, and I need to know more, and I need to know everything. Bryson is one of those homely, comfortable authors that you feel safe with, feel like you can sit back and let him do all the work. Who doesn't want that?

So - feel free to add to my list, or protest my choices, or tell me I've got it all terribly wrong. I'm off to crack a spine and turn down some page corners.

Posted on December 27, 2010 and filed under Reading.