This was a fun exercise at Isabel Huggan’s writing workshop (or playtime, as she called it) last Saturday. What would the perfect work of literature (which you aspire to write) look like? We had a wonderful variety of answers in the room (some referring to poetry, others to memoir, others to short stories, still others to novels): a flower to be appreciated with all your senses; a cryptic crossword puzzle to tease, intrigue and engage the reader; climbing a pole; inviting a guest for tea in your house, they can only know what you choose to show them, they cannot rifle through your drawers…
Here is my answer – which probably explains why I write crime fiction.
My Ideal Novel
It’s an exhilarating run down the perfect piste. When you forget about rules, about bending your knees and the aches in your joints, you just become rhythm and flow, natural as breathing. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s cloudy, snow may obscure your view… But you are free, you stay away from the crowds and there is no fear in being alone.
The thrill of no limits waxes you, the comfort of the familiar swooshing sound weans you, high speed and sense of danger pumps up your adrenaline, yet you always feel just within your control.
All you know is you want to reach the bottom in one piece, but you’re happy to let twists, turns, bumps and snow conditions surprise you. No matter how dark or despairing you feel to start out with, some inner joy grabs you as you hurtle and gather speed, until you cannot deny the gravitational pull anymore.
Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…
My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.
I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.
Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?
However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.
I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?
Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…
Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.
Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.
As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’
So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
At the weekend, I did a little field trip to check the accuracy of my chosen ‘body dumping’ site in my WIP. I took plenty of pictures to share with you and am already starting to feel a little homesick for these landscapes, even though I haven’t left them yet… Tentative quotes from relevant passages precede each picture.
They’d left the motorway and were climbing higher and higher into the Jura.
The road was a tangle of crazed twists, and Melinda was glad she wasn’t the one driving.
In spring and summer the road would be teeming with motorcyclists who believed they were training for vertical Moto GP…
There was no barrier to protect you from the sheer drop below, only those pathetic red sticks to mark the road in case of snowfall.
They thought this might be the forest path they’d taken the previous day…
‘We’ll have to leave the car and head there on foot…’
They found a ditch between two long bushes, the perfect place to leave their burden.
Today I would like to share with you an excerpt from my WIP. I am enjoying myself almost far too much with this bitchy character (tentatively named: Betty-Sue) who contributes quite significantly to the story, but from the shadows. The person she addresses is the main protagonist, who also has chapters from her point of view.
What a skittish colt you were! How impossible to tame and befriend! But those who think it’s men who enjoy the chase have got it completely wrong. They can’t have had much experience of the stamina of women pursuing their prey, over months, years, even decades. The prey is usually a man, often a man with another partner, or, as in this case, a woman’s friendship. Us women, we think long-term.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to entice you with invitations to charity balls or ladies’ lunches. You hated those events, obviously felt sartorially challenged (quite rightly so!), unable to keep up financially, or perhaps you considered yourself so vastly superior to us intellectually?
I tell you now: underestimate the Trophy Expat Wives’ Brigade at your own peril. Many of them are second wives who’ve spent years plotting the demise of their predecessors. Or first wives who’ve swapped career ambitions and a frazzled lifestyle of never quite living up to expectations (as a mother, wife, worker bee, PTA stalwart) for an enviable pampered existence. Both of these categories now have a single role: keeping husbands happy and eternally grateful. They focus their formidable intellect, energy and ambition on staying trim, up-to-date and making sure no one gets to play the same nasty tricks on them that they played on the first wives.
For whatever misguided reason or childish prejudice, you let me know that this wasn’t your scene. I’d have to play the ‘intellectual game’ with you, while also appealing to your heartstrings. You East Europeans can sometimes be so heavy and sentimental! But that was fine by me. It would give me something to amuse myself over the winter months, when Geneva turns into a ghost town, while everybody migrates to the mountains and pretends to enjoy themselves doing strenuous sports (and après-skis).
I started calling you for short catch-up conversations, offering my help or advice on the practicalities of expat life. You proved to be a harder nut to crack than I’d expected. Your replies were so gruff and curt, they bordered on the rude. I mentioned pet insurance (you didn’t have any pets, thank you), holiday clubs for the children (you preferred to take them skiing with you), season tickets for concerts or theatres (you couldn’t find a regular babysitter).
‘I don’t have any recent experience of babysitters. As you know, my children are all grown up now. But I could help you find an au-pair…’
‘Oh, no, thank you. I don’t fancy having a stranger live in my house,’ you said quickly, as if you’d been debating it internally for ages. ‘Anyway, I’m not working at the moment, so I can look perfectly well after the children myself.’
I thought perhaps you were secretly afraid that your husband might succumb to the temptation of a nubile foreign girl, darting half-naked in and out of shared bathrooms. I’ve never known a man so susceptible to feminine charms as your Graham, nor one so blind to women’s deliberate use of flattery as a weapon of mass seduction.
I could have told you, however, that you needn’t fear the oldest cliché in the book: master and servant relationship – or, translated into modern speak, father and nanny relationships. I could have told you that he was already busy getting entangled with a far more formidable adversary. But you were behaving so much like a sulky teenager, for whom I could do nothing right, that I didn’t feel like warning you. Besides, I usually have a strict policy of non-interference. True, I like to set things in motion. Rather like a puppeteer: setting the stage, preparing the props… But then I allow the puppets to take on a life of their own and get their strings snarled and knotted. Which, oh, they are so good at doing all by themselves!
And here is the image I have in front of me on the moodboard for this character: poor Jessica Lange, if only she knew what evil plans I have for her…
Back in February 2012 I had just recently arrived in Geneva and was so busy settling everyone else into the new environment that I forgot to make myself happy. I was lonely, frustrated and feeling uninspired. But then I discovered the Geneva Writers Group and attended their biennial conference. I ‘accidentally’ attended a poetry workshop run by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye and suddenly the words were gushing out of me, after a twenty-year absence from poetry, and nearly as many years of not really taking writing of any kind seriously enough. The first poem was a bit gauche and hesitant, but a clear manifesto. And I haven’t stopped writing since (or only temporarily, because finding the time for it is still challenging, although far less than it used to be).
So you bet that I am excited to be attending my third Geneva Writers Conference later this month! We have some wonderful writers/publishers attending as instructors and panelists: Tessa Hadley, Jane Friedman, Carmen Bugan, Ann Hood, Liz Jensen, Shaun McCarthy, Frederick Reiken, Andrea Stuart, Susan Tiberghien, Jason Donald and Wallis Wilde Menozzi. I expect to be challenged, inspired and kicked into action. After all, who understands writers better than other writers?
My WIP is saved in a folder on my laptop under the fetching title ‘Something’. That’s because I couldn’t think of a title (unlike with my first novel, where the title came first), but I didn’t want to faff around searching for temporary solutions.
Now it’s time to start thinking about a title. It’s crime fiction, it’s reasonably dark (not cosy), it’s about revenge gone badly wrong and a sense of waste of youth and not caring enough for other people. So here are some possibilities I brainstormed:
Nobody’s Child – these two I had to rule out, as there are too many identical book titles out there
Stop for Nobody
No Revenge Too Bitter
Bitter Ever After
Then I mined the expat angle:
The Cosmopolitans (misleading, sounds like cocktails)
The Expat Circle (tame)
The Internationalists (sounds like non-fiction)
Perhaps I should go for proven successes:
The Girl with the Lover, the Coke and the Secret
So, do you have any favourites from those mentioned above? Or any better suggestions? Here is a little beginning of a synopsis if you want to help me brainstorm.
Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:
Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.
Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?
I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]
So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:
List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)
I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:
Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.
That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.
By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?