About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Killing Your Darlings?

David Armstrong, in his excellent book about writing: 'How Not To Write a Novel' declares that he doesn't subscribe to the 'kill your darlings' school of literary advice, and I'm increasingly inclined to agree with him. It's one of those glib generalisations - attributed to William Faulkner, so I'm told - and teachers of creative writing have been parroting it thoughtlessly ever since.
I know what they mean. There are times when we all become enchanted by the beauty of our own prose, to the point where it becomes self indulent, and we have to be very aware of that as a pitfall. But there are also times when we know that something is exactly right, is strong, well written, valuable and a vital part of the whole novel, story or play. To discard such a piece of writing on the principle that if you think it's good, you're wrong, seems like madness to me!
It's been on my mind, recently, since I received a piece of rather sweeping editorial advice to which my first response was rage, my second response was to remember the 'kill your darlings' maxim and wonder if he wasn't right after all, and my third and final response was to do some judicious pruning which the advice had highlighted, and for which I'm grateful, but to leave most of my 'darlings' firmly in place.
I'm reminded of the differences between men and women when it comes to gardening. On the whole (and I'm not talking about professionals here - I'm sure Alan Titchmarsh is a model of restraint!) men tend to hack and chop while women prune, carefully and thoughtfully, with due regard for the nature of the tree or shrub. Probably the only time I ever saw my late mum and dad - a very loving couple - arguing, was when my dad had 'done some pruning' in the garden. I remember her chasing him round the garden, shears in hand, yelling at him. Perhaps men take the same approach to manuscripts - who knows? 
This is by no means an argument against revisions and editing. Most beginning writers need to learn the virtues of rewriting, over and over again. And there are a number of extremely experienced writers who - by the time they get to novel number ten or eleven or twelve - no names no pack drill - might benefit from the services of a good editor, but by that stage are too powerful to be edited. But there comes a point when you have to have a certain confidence in your own voice, in your own work. We walk a tightrope, most of us, too close to our own work to be able to see it clearly, but perhaps not quite confident enough to hold out for what we believe in. Treat your darlings like any other piece of writing. Fairly. Thoughtfully. Carefully. But as for killing them? I don't think so.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Importance of Story

Because I had flu just after Christmas - the flu jab I had, back in October, didn't seem to have any effect on this bug, but perhaps, as friends said, it would have been even worse without it - I spent a great deal of time huddled up on the sofa with a blanket, a hot water bottle, a succession of cups of weak tea and numerous old movies. These included Gigi, Oliver, Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music and The Railway Children. I enjoyed all of them, cried at all but Singin' in the Rain, in fact cried buckets at The Railway Children (it's the 'daddy, my daddy' moment - does it to me every single time) and took the opportunity to consider current and future writing projects, in a vague, fluey, conceptual sort of way.
My agent now has a new novel from me, The Amber Heart. I've blogged about that and also about the proposed sequel, The Winged Hussar, here on Wordarts. I thought the Amber Heart was finished in November, but then it came back with suggested edits. Some were invaluable and some made me cross. But even the ones that made me cross were also very valuable, because when I calmed down, I could see that the person who had read it definitely had a point. All of it sent me back to the manuscript with a fresh eye. I didn't take everything on board, but I made a number of changes. In some cases he had put his finger very accurately on issues that had troubled me, but which I had pushed to the back of my mind - in one case it was a plot point that had niggled at me because I sensed that the character wouldn't have behaved like that. I needed her to behave 'like that' for the sake of the story but it didn't ring true. The comments from this particular editor, although not quite addressing that point,  allowed me to ask myself 'what if' something different happened. And suddenly, things became much clearer. So now, my agent has a newly tweaked  draft, (I finally hauled myself off my couch of pain to type up the edits) and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's either ready to go - or almost ready to go! But I'm grateful to the agency for spending time and trouble on this. There's no point in sending something out unless it's as good as you can possibly make it, no matter how much those rewrites make you want to tear your hair out.
As I lay and watched those old movies, another thought occurred to me. As I've matured as a writer, I've become more and more aware of the value of story. A few years ago, in spite of a good deal of success as a playwright, with awards won, and with a track record in all kinds of published non-fiction, as well as short stories and even poetry, I realised that I wanted to write novels. Not only 'wanted to' - always a dodgy thing to say. The world and her husband 'want to write' a novel and at least some of them think that if they tell you their fascinating tale, you will do it for them! But I digress.
I had written a number of novels and just about all of them were weighing down my shelves in manscript form, because that was as far as I had got with them. I didn't want to abandon drama altogether, but the balance was certainly shifting. The hitch was that so much of the feedback I was getting from professionals was pointing out that these novels were 'extremely well written - but a bit too quiet.' While I was struggling with this judgement, a successful writer told me that publishers are always looking for the holy grail of the 'beautifully written, stonking great story'. Sometimes they find it. 'But' - she went on - 'if they can't have that, then they will settle for the stonking great story every time.' That single comment - a lightbulb moment -changed the way I think about my writing. It also prompted me to get my head down and work on a couple of major projects, to plan a lot more and eventually to find an agent who would market me as a novelist rather than a playwright.
At Christmas, it struck me that all those movies washing over me in a great wave of entertainment were stonking great stories. I know film is different from literature. I know many people hate musicals. I don't care if you loathe The Sound Of Music (and I have lots of good friends who would say as much!) - but there are millions out there who adore it, and one of the reasons why they love it so much, and can watch it again and again, is because it is the kind of archetypal story that human beings the world over enjoy. It's like being a kid again. When you wanted that book read to you yet again, and woe betide your mum or dad if they skipped your favourite passage!
If anything, it's even more obvious with The Railway Children. Can there be any woman who has lost a much-loved father, who doesn't watch that scene on the station platform, towards the end of the Railway Children, and who doesn't shed a tear? (I'm told Field of Dreams has the same effect on many men, for obvious reasons.) Can there be anyone - however much he or she dislikes musicals - who isn't moved by the inevitability of poor Nancy's fate at the end of Oliver?  Well, possibly, but I think a percentage even of them may be resisting something deep inside themselves!
As a writer, it only surprises me that it has taken me so long to acknowledge the importance of story. I wonder if it's because I read English at university. Academia isn't too hot on stories although since I specialised in Mediaeval Studies, (full of stonking great stories, if you ask me) I wasn't your average English graduate. But then, of course, I started out with poetry and plays. And then, when I did start writing novels, I thought of the story as 'plot'. And it seemed difficult. I wasn't sure I could do it. And when I did do it, no matter how fine the writing, it all seemed a bit 'quiet.'  It was only when I stopped thinking about plot and started thinking about story that I felt myself on surer ground. I had stories to tell and some of them were far from quiet. So I wonder, if we stopped advising beginning writers to consider character and plot and point of view, and started advising them to try to tell their story, as beautifully, as entrancingly, as stylishly as they possibly can - but for all that, to tell us a story - they might find it just a little easier to discover their own voices. What do you think?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Rant In Defence of Video Games

flower screenshot

I am sick and tired of listening to people who ought to know better casually dismissing computer games as trash, and lumping them together, as though they were all exactly the same, much as one might say 'books induce violence and anti-social behaviour in the young ' - see how daft it sounds? Although I'm sure people used to say it, especially about 'novels' which in Jane Austen's time were dismissed as the source of so much evil!
Talk to these people and they will tell you that 'no, they have never played a video game, not once, not ever.' They seem quite proud of the fact, in the same way that people seem to be inexplicably proud of the fact that they 'can't do maths to save themselves' but would be ashamed to confess to being illiterate.
I confess that I have a personal interest here. My maths graduate son aims to work in the industry, has already spent two years working on Quality Assurance (i.e. testing) for the industry, has his name on a couple of major titles, and is now studying for a Professional Masters in Computer Game Development at prestigious Abertay University, in Dundee. This course - he's enjoying every minute of it - involves a cross-section of people coming from various backgrounds, including art and programming, but my son is one of only a very small number of people who aim to fill the - also much misunderstood - role of 'designer' within the industry.
When I told people that he had spent most of his Christmas vacation finishing off a number of academic essays and presentations about the industry, most people looked puzzled and then asked 'But what on earth can anyone find to write about on Video Games?'
Having had a look at the many thousands of sophisticated and interesting words he has written about these same games, about the psychology behind them, about innovations in the industry, I could have made some attempt to answer them, but where to start?
Part of the problem is, I think, that for people of a certain age, the term Video Games conjures up visions of  Pacman, or Pong or Space Invaders, early incarnations of extreme simplicity. It's a little as though the term 'television' only invoked those tiny, blurred, black and white pictures set in the middle of massively clunky sets, without taking into account any of the developments of the last fifty years.
Another part of the problem, though, is wilful ignorance. Even among media commentators and researchers who ought to know better, the whole industry is seen as some amorphous mass. The closest I can come to describing it, is - again - to make the analogy with television. Would you judge a contemporary cutting edge drama, a mass market reality show and a children's cartoon, by exactly the same set of narrow criteria? I doubt it! So why do people do this when commenting on Video Games? Don't they realise that times, and the industry, have moved on. That there is a breathtaking spectrum of work out there, everything from multi-million dollar mass-market titles, to small downloads, with everything in between, including games which teach, and games which might well be classed as 'art.' 
Moreover, the tabloid media image of the troubled 'loner' playing in his room, could hardly be further from the truth. This happens, of course, but then didn't it always happen? Didn't some kids always prefer to be alone with their trainsets or their airfix models? They certainly did when I was young! The truth is that with the new games, people of all ages often prefer to indulge in their hobby in the company of other people. Sometimes they will play in groups (either within families or with groups of friends) and often they will play online games, in contact with people from around the world. There is nothing sinister about this. If anything, it makes the world a smaller place, and the effect seems to be very positive indeed.
I have blogged before about a fabulous game called Flower, introduced to me by my son and designed by Jenova Chen. This isn't so much a game as an experience and I have to say that it gives me much the same sensation as I experience when I am deeply involved with a piece of writing, or listening to a piece of music, or experiencing some magical artwork or film. Time passes, I'm not aware of it, but I emerge tired but strangely refreshed at the other end. The world evoked by this extraordinary game, with its accompanying music, has stayed with me, giving me the kind of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' that is all too hard to achieve. My world would be the poorer if I hadn't experienced it. This isn't a game that appeals to everyone. In fact, I would say that it is a game which probably doesn't appeal at all to the young, male, gamer demographic. They probably don't see the point of it, any more than they would yet see the point of the art, music or literature which I love (although they might come to it eventually). But it's a big market out there, and it's growing all the time.
And what of the role of 'designer'. Well, that's much debated, even in the world of professional video games development. It's easy enough to see where programmers and artists and even producers slot in, but a 'designer'. Too many young people seem to have the perception that the designer sits in a room and comes up with a brilliant design document, which he or she hands over to a bunch of people who then do as they are told and create the game. From the designer's mind to your console or phone, in one easy leap. Of course it isn't like this. Not at all. But when my son was casting about for an analogy himself, I could give him one. Because as a playwright, it seemed fairly obvious to me. The role of designer seems to me to be very much like the role of artistic director, in the theatre. A director could, of course, tell everyone what to do. But it would be pretty disastrous, people would get angry and nothing much would happen. The job of director is, in many ways, as facilitator. He or she has to be able to allow all these talented people to get on with what they do best, while keeping the whole project creatively in mind, and having the courage of his or her vision to be able to make certain decisions - yes, that will work, no, don't think that's quite right, maybe, try that out and see what happens. The buck stops with the designer just as it stops with an artistic director. It is a difficult role, a challenging one - but when it works well, there is probably nothing more rewarding. So all I can do is wish my creative son all the luck in the world. Keep at it. You'll get there in the end!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Love and Romance

My first failure of 2011 was to get some 50 pages into a novel deemed to be a classic of its kind, and to dislike it so much that I had to give up on it. I used to persevere with books on principle, but now I think 'so many books to enjoy - why bother with the ones you can't stand?' - I give them 50 or 60 pages and if they haven't hooked me by that time, I mostly give up on them. Of course I'm not passionate about everything I read. That would be too much to ask. But if you start reading something and are (a) deeply bored or (b) profoundly irritated, there's seems little point in carrying on. It's one reason why I don't belong to a book group. I rather like being challenged by a book, and am quite happy to tackle supposedly 'difficult' books. I've done it often enough when reviewing. But I don't think I could bring myself to soldier on with a book I truly disliked, just because somebody else had chosen it for me. The only good reason for doing that would be because somebody else was paying me!

But I digress. For me, one of the most irritating features of this particular book was a plethora of descriptions of  women with 'voluptuously swelling breasts' and 'curved thighs'. Didn't seem to matter which character's pov we were with, his (they were all men) perception of women was the same. The women he was describing weren't real women at all. They were a part of his fantasy life. About as real, come to think of it, as Jessica Rabbit. Now I'm not saying that this author isn't with the majority here. Why wouldn't he be?  And, of course, women writers do something similar when they fall in love with the heroes they create and model them a little on, for instance, Richard Armitage, Rufus Sewell, David Tennant - to pluck a few examples out of the contemporary air!

But what makes me very angry indeed is that when a man taps into his fantasy in this way, he will almost certainly not be judged for it, for the simple reason that it will not even be noticed by male critics. He may still be deemed to be writing a powerful classic novel, whereas no matter how elegant the prose, how epic the tale, how excellent the characterisation, how deep the insights, a woman's love story can still be dismissed as 'romantic nonsense' or - God help us - a 'guilty pleasure.' According to so much critical appraisal, young men write powerful coming of age stories about the male experience while young women write about relationships. Men write searing insights into emotional problems. Women write about love. Men write about the state of the world. Women write about the narrowly domestic.  It's a bit, come to think of it, like that old joke about the man who says that his wife handles all the trivial things, like where they live and where the kids go to school and how they spend their money, while he decides the big important things like the state of the nation and the economy and whether we'll ever achieve world peace...


Romance is, of course, a term with a long and distinguished history and a multitude of meanings. Some of my best friends - fine writers too - write 'romance'.  But it has become a sort of critical shorthand for everything from beautifully constructed but lighthearted commercial fiction, (I'm absolutely certain that the critics who dismiss it so scathingly wouldn't be able to do it to save themselves) to epic and densely constructed tales of relationships in a difficult political climate - and everything in between. This allows the reviewer or literary commentator to trivialise or dismiss the novel, story or play which centres on the female experience in a way that I think almost never happens with a male writer. It shouldn't still be happening. But I'm afraid in all too many cases, it is.