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.
Only a few more days to go before the Quais du Polar (Crime Festival) kicks off in Lyon and I am trying to create an events schedule. Really tough choices, as so many events I’m interested in are taking place at the same time in entirely different locations. So, let me ask you, what would you choose between:
An Hour with Jo Nesbo vs. Women in Crime Fiction (with Sara Gran, Jax Miller, Dolores Redondo, LS Hilton, Philippe Jaenada)
Urban Locations in Crime Fiction (with Donato Carrisi, Walter Lucius, Carlos Zanon, Richard Price and Michele Rowe) vs. New Wave Brits (JJ Connolly, Jessica Cornwell, SJ Watson, James Oswald, LS Hilton)
An Hour with David Peace vs. Crime Fiction from Quebec
An Hour with Arnaldur Indridason vs. New World/Old Continents (with Parker Bilal, Colin Niel, Caryl Ferey, Olivier Truc, Nairi Nahapetian)
The other topic which has preoccupied me this Easter weekend was alternative endings to much-loved classics. My younger son had to write a new ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which his class are going to be performing next week). He had Puck taking mercy on Titania and being punished for that by Oberon. Then Titania has a sword fight with Oberon and kills him for his cruelty, but the mortals rush away just in time for the Duke’s wedding. So he’s made a tragedy out of a comedy and left Titania to rule single-handedly over the fairy realm. Which shows he’s either a budding feminist or future crime writer, I suppose!
That had me wondering what endings I would like to see in some other favourites. An alternative Great Gatsby ending is too easy: just look at Tender Is the Night for what would have happened if Gatsby had married Daisy…
Most of the time, I have to admit that the writers of great classics did judge the endings perfectly and the books would have lost of some of their power if they had any different resolutions. However, there are a few exceptions (some of which will raise your hackles, no doubt):
Jane Eyre: I’d have run away from Mr. Rochester no matter what. Not realistic, perhaps, in those days.
Rebecca: A civilised separation and a settlement to enable the second Mrs. de Winter to live somewhere quietly in a place of her choosing, with equally beautiful rhododendrons and a view of the sea.
Anna Karenina: I’m not for a minute suggesting a happy ending here, but I do think that poor Anna suffers the punishment for adultery, while the men get off scot-free for the most part. I’d like both her husband and Vronsky to suffer, and for her son to grow up in a more loving environment, perhaps with Kitty and Levin.
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?
The setting full moon over the Jura mountains got me singing ‘Full Moon on Monday’. Although, a while later, I realised that the Duran Duran song of my childhood was actually called ‘New Moon on Monday’. The lyrics are as vague and nonsensical as all Duran Duran lyrics ever were, but the video seems to suggest a revolution in the making, so this is my personal writing revolution, rather than a New Year’s resolution. I will be, as always, ruthlessly candid.
No one else is going to write my novel for me.
Agents and publishers have a short attention span and will not wait for me forever.
In fact, it may already be too late for 2.
But that is no excuse to lay down arms.
The next few months may be my last chance to focus with anything resembling single-mindedness on writing.
Yes, there are still major logistical hurdles before me (moving house and country, changing schools, job hunting), but I will worry about those nearer the time.
So what if everyone and their dog are writing ‘domestic noir’ and I am getting bored with the genre? That doesn’t mean I should lose confidence in my own project. If I don’t believe it offers something fresh and unique, then who else is going to believe it? Besides, it’s more of a gangster and police chase novel than a pure domestic.
Volunteering for all sorts of writing-related responsibilities and tasks may be fun, but do they help me to finish the novel? If the answer is no, then I need to be ruthless about turning down these requests.
I will still read and review crime fiction – it helps to know what is currently being published – but I should also read more widely and critically, with particular emphasis on the writers that I can learn from. Not to copy them, of course, but to understand the mechanics rather than just be wowed by the style.
I also want to read for fun, without reviewing, without pen in hand, according to whim and fancy. Because life is too short to be earnest all the time.
And on that note, always have something to look forward to and something to celebrate. That is my remedy for depression. Yes, there are all the other possible solutions as well: medication or talking to someone, exercising more regularly, using my daylight-simulating lamp or just going out more above the cloud level, exploring the settings for my novel… Add to that things such as a writing conference in March, the crime festival in Lyon on 1-3 April, and a writing retreat in June, and you can see that 2016 will be all about drive but also treats!
If I don’t take care of myself, no one else will, and I won’t be able to take care of others. Yet I must also allow those others to take more care of themselves, without agonising too much about what kind of a parent I am.
Don’t think diet, think lifestyle change. I intend to write more than one novel, so I need to form lifelong habits.
Stop caring what other people say about my decisions and my life. No one knows what pain feels like for other people, no one can live my life for me.
And no one can write my life for me either. Or my novel. Or my poems.
This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).
First published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.
‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:
Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.
Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.
When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.
As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:
The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’
Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.
… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.
From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.
How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.
Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.
And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:
It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.
Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.
How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.