Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Imitation Game - Guest Post by Jean Burnett

Writing a Jane Austen spin off...

If it is true that there are only seven basic plots in literature, it is inevitable that writers will retell stories, give variations on those stories, dress them in different clothes and, yes, ‘borrow’ characters from classic works. The Bible is a rich source for any writer who may be stuck for a plot, while the Greek myths are endlessly borrowed and rewritten.

I have been reading David Almond’s splendid YA novel A Song for Ella Grey, which is a modern re-telling of the Orpheus myth set in Northumberland. Orpheus is just as convincing in this setting as in his original Mediterranean home, but of course, Almond is a master story teller.

The Gods in Winter by Patricia Miles is another version of this myth which I greatly enjoyed when I first read it. Like all good children’s books, this one is can be appreciated by adults. As you will have gathered, this particular myth is a favourite of mine.

Certain novels have embedded themselves in the collective imagination to the extent that they are rewritten for every generation. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is up there with the Bible and Shakespeare as the most imitated and rewritten classic. The eponymous vampire has been adapted for small children, lovesick teenagers, ghoulish horror fans - and even for vegetarians  (a step too far in my opinion)!

This is my defence when I am asked why I have joined the legion of Austen spin-off writers.

‘Can’t you think up your own stories?’ I hear people saying. I always point out that I have only borrowed one of the sublime Jane’s characters and taken her in a new direction. The story is entirely my own. One of the mysteries of our time is the emergence of hordes of Austen fans known as ‘Janeites.’ They have always existed but their ranks have grown enormously, especially in North America. Cynics attribute this to the film featuring Colin Firth in a wet shirt, but this enthusiasm has triggered a deluge of what I like to call tribute novels.

Jane’s characters have been idolised, zombiefied, vampirised - and possibly plagiarised, although it is very difficult to plagiarise a great writer. I have avoided turning Mr Darcy into a vampire, an alien or a sea monster, as some American writers have done. I like to think that I have treated her characters with some respect. For this reason I haven’t written a modern version of any of her novels. I am interested in seeing how one of her characters might have developed during the 19th century. This was a time when women’s lives were still very circumscribed and opportunities for advancement usually lay through the boudoir.

Jane wrote about her “inch of ivory,” an intense exploration of a small circle of people which constituted her world. It is inconceivable that she could have written a novel like War and Peace, despite her talent, because she would have had no entree into that wider world.

When I write about treating characters with respect I often hear the argument that this is just fiction. If the character is not ‘real’ then anything goes and authors should be free to do whatever they wish with them. In part I agree, but I still cannot help wondering what Miss Austen would think about Darcy as an alien. Would she spin in her grave or would she be excessively diverted? She had a wicked sense of humour, so who knows? There is a subtle line between respecting an author’s original character and being so respectful that the result is rather lifeless. When PD James wrote Death Comes to Pemberley for TV, I believe she fell into the latter camp. Even a great genre writer like James could miscalculate.

Finally, I must explain why I chose a relatively minor Austen character to be my heroine. I had originally thought of using Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair, but by the end of that book Becky had grown middle aged and matronly and retired to Bath. I needed a heroine with some mileage in her as I had constructed a series of books in my head that would take her from misspent youth to retirement somewhere on the continent, where she could write her scandalous memoirs.

Lydia Bennet seemed to be the perfect choice. Alone among her sisters she had made a bad start, eloping at sixteen with the ne’er do well Wickham. It was bound to end in tears. Once I had freed her from Wickham’s grasp - Waterloo was very convenient for that - she was free to have adventures.

I hope Miss Austen would have been excessively diverted; if not, I can only offer an abject apology.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Writing with Writers by Valerie Bird

Writing with other writers

It’s a story I’ve told so many times of four women meeting at a writing workshop twenty five years ago and realising that they were better together than waiting on the words of their tutor.  Renegades we were, convinced of our worth; a good and unusual feeling for women.  The honest sharing, listening and encouragement has continued to this day.  Two of those women, Henrietta Branford and Vera Forster, are sadly no longer alive, but their spirits are always with us.  Other writers have joined us, Sandra Horn and me.  Many short stories, poems and novels later, this is what keeps me believing I am a writer. 

Recently I’ve begun to meet a younger friend who, having completed an OU creative writing course some years ago, finds that the pressure of work keeps him from putting pen to paper.  Once a month we meet to talk about what we want to write, ways to get round the lack of time, keeping the ideas floating around our consciousness so that one day we’ll put those words on paper.  

I’m lucky in that my work comes in batches, my brain blocked for short periods, when nothing creative can slip past the portcullis.  Reading other people’s work, though, is my constant companion, good and bad writing, learning why that is.  The critical faculties always alert which is, I think, the best way of enriching your own writing.  Yes, we all have our preferences, genre and style.  For me plot is important but the way of telling, the language and portrayal of characters essential.  If I’m not persuaded that those people ‘live’ or ‘have lived’, that there might be one person I can root for, even when doing dire deeds, I’m let down. 

As I wait for my latest publication to come out on Amazon - ‘Incident on the Line’ - I am pleased to look back and see that I began writing this novel in the summer of 2014.  That is only two years to fruition.  I had just read a story that opened with the name of a character, abrupt and focused, which is how I decided to start.  Greta Salway came from thin air to become a renowned crime writer meeting her ex lover thirty years after their liaison.  How could that work out?  

My previous novel ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ published in 2014 was seven years in the making.  I had an image of a couple sitting upright in their camper van, Lego characters.  Stiff and looking one way, but what if one of them encountered something different, always longed for something different?  I saw two young women from the top of a double decker bus, arm in arm carefree and laughing, which is what he saw too.  I had to follow their trail to love and tragedy.

'A Retrospective' arrived when I was experimenting with dramatic opening paragraphs, how to grab the reader's attention.  A man smothers a woman with a pillow - who, why?  She was his mother dying of cancer, a mercy killing.  Apart from the guilt induced, he finds that a child might have witnessed this act, a child who seems to know more about his mother than he, and brings him a parrot!

‘The Angel Child’ came before, inspired by a newspaper cutting of a old woman who’d been found dead in her garden, having lived outside, nesting in trees; The Birdwoman.  I thought she must have lost her lover who would already be married with a child, the angel, who it was impossible to leave.  ‘The Angel Child’ as a short story was published in the magazine,  ‘Acclaim’.  From a short story another came; the balloon man, the fortune teller, and on to a whole novel; this was magic realism.

‘The Eye of God’ was written for my MA, looking at why novellas tend to be out of fashion as well as the power of myth and folk tales.  I wrote an up-to-date version of Jack and Jill.  

In this new year, 2017, which holds so many ifs and buts, I am resolved that my schedule will be reassessed - brave words!  Writing is one of my main pleasures - or having written - so surely I must be able to allow myself more time. push other activities aside, to give writing priority.  Our regular writers’ meeting keeps me on track, the desire to produce something to read and elicit a response, is the perfect stimulus.  Nevertheless I cannot continue to pretend that I can only write in the evenings, a pattern set up when I was working full time. 

Sneaking off to a coffee shop is a good starting point.  The change in environment helps and, to justify the expenditure, I have to churn out some piece of script.  And there are so many characters lurking there too.  I have found a beautiful young man who an elderly woman becomes convinced is her long lost child.  There is the woman escaping her friends who wish to comfort her after the death of her husband.  What fun it is, she finds, to be on her own assessing her prospects, as well as that group of elderly men.  An old couple walk in hand in hand, she a past beauty, he a brown and wizened man; as they drink their coffee and eat their cake in silence, the current of love that runs between them has to be explained.  And on to the man carrying a bunch of gladioli under his arm like a rifle.  Here so many short stories abound.

A walk afterwards with what I’ve written talking back at me, reassembling, regenerating, is another way to keep it all alive.  This is old hat, you all know, I’m not alone. 

Which is why I was so delighted to be asked to write a blog for your esteemed writers’ collective.  I’ve read your short stories and blogs where you display the pleasure of together recognising the value of the writing craft.

Find me at: www.valeriebird.eu
Facebook: valeriebird.eu
Twitter: mail_bird
Publications on Amazon:  
      Eye of God 
http://smarturl.it/VBteog as eBook / iBook

   A Retrospective
 http://smarturl.it/VBretro as eBook / iBook /   

 The Angel Child
 http://hyperurl.co/VBangel as eBook / iBook / paperback
Ladybird, Ladybird
 smarturl.it/LadyBpb as eBook / iBook / paperback

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The View from the Hills: N M Browne

I am sort of moving from Richmond to Cheltenham and so I have been exploring. Today my husband and I wandered from our rented flat in Pittville and walked up Pittville hill or it might have been Cleve Hill - we aren’t entirely sure. On our way we found a great pub, The Royal Oak, with amazing food and great beer. We got a little lost, got stuck in the mud, narrowly escaped the attentions of a vicious herd of bullocks and saw this amazing view of the whole of Cheltenham from the top. So, I hear you ask, why should we care? What has this to do with writing?
Well, sometime last year, fellow author Fiona Dunbar was raising money for authors for refugees and I offered my critiquing services. I enjoy critiquing other people's work and as Creative Writing lecturer I do quite a lot of it. So, on Monday I read a very promising YA novel from the person who successfully bid for my critique. 
Reading a novel for someone else is like standing at the top of Pittville (or maybe Cleve Hill) and seeing the whole enterprise stretched out before you. You can see the road system, the town’s layout, the important buildings and the surrounding countryside. It is just so much easier to get an overview when you are a newcomer to a novel and on high ground. 
 With my own work I am on the ground, stuck in the mud, taking frequent wrong turns. Occasionally by happy accident, I stumble upon the odd, unexpectedly successful scene which is the equivalent of the Royal Oak, but mostly the writing journey is one of frequent wrong turns. Even at the end, when the first draft is done, it is hard to gain that clear long vision: somehow its hard to find the distance afforded by a high hill and all glimpses of the  valley are full of the mist of overfamiliarity.

 Some people put the novel away for a while to gain that  distance. I draw diagrams to try to get an overview , anything I can think of to help me see it afresh, but sometimes I long for some convenient mental hill from which to view my own imaginative vista.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Grey Grammarians and the Alien

Oh the Grey Grammarians! There's a little story circulating among my colleagues on Facebook, about a school visit by one of our children's authors. The class of ten year olds had been asked to write a story, and one child began a sentence with: "Lucy dashed towards..." "Now that's a good place to insert a fronted adverb," the teacher suggested, and changed the perfectly good sentence into: "Quickly, Lucy dashed towards..." The author took it out, explaining that 'dashed' clearly described quickness and speed, but afterwards she was conscience-stricken - after all, the class teacher was the authority, not her.

It seems that the Grey Grammarians have recently taken over the teaching of basic English, and have invented new definitions that defy comprehension by colleagues who are literary critics, lecturers and, yes, professional writers. Some of us have re-named the 'fronted adverbial' into 'full fronted adverb' (as in the hilarious teenage Full Fronted Snogging series), and imagined them in rather rude animations. I've recently had a tiny run-in with the GGs. One of my publishers has gone all educational theory-wise, and sent me a thirty one page brief covering language for stories for beginner readers. Ignoring most of the verbiage, I sent them a little story which seemed to fit one of the age groups - 'one I'd done earlier' - about a small boy who forms a relationship with an alien being living on the ceiling of his classroom - and to my amazement, they liked it, but then proceeded to re-construct it. Instead of being whisked off by the Alien around Planet Earth during playtime, it now helps the small protagonist score a winning goal. Oh, and the title? Mine was: Adam and the Alien. Theirs? Adam and the New Boy. Votes, please. At least they kept the Alien!

The house across the road is having a loft room constructed, and from upstairs I can watch the builders at their very skilled work - and it is indeed skilled. On a sunny morning like this one, they take a tea break on the roof, which means that if they're curious, they can watch me applying some very basic slap, as I can watch them. Which makes me wonder how many roofers turn into writers? Writers are always curious about other people, and if you work up there on a roof, apart from occasional nudity, you must occasionally see quite a few dramas, and it's only one small step to inventing a story.

On the subject of stories, can you remember the lies you told as a child being referred to as "stories"? It's so basic to all of us to make things up, to frame incidents we've noticed and then embroider the facts - tell stories. My first whopper was putting together the sound of clapping coming from an adjacent classroom in my primary school and the fact that I desperately wanted to be a six year old film star, so out came the story of a lavish stage performance at school, in which I was - well, you've guessed it. Unfortunately my mother believed every word, and went about playing the proud parent, which I hadn't bargained for.

I've been telling stories ever since, though - incurable. And I can't stop being curious about other people. This being Holacaust Memorial month, there's a lengthy book review in the London Evening Standard of a history of that terrifying period, with new research, documentation and images, and the image they chose to post was one of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto. I'd like to understand more about archival photographers of horrors, and how they differ from people who post images of current disasters and those who slow down on the motorway to feast on details of some horrific accident - in the first case, I prefer to think of them as very brave, and taking personal risks to record something evil, and to tell the world "this really happened".

In the Evening Standard photo, there's a little boy of about five or six, with an outsize cap and a too-short coat or jacket, warm-looking socks almost up to his knees, he's obviously cared-for, loved. His face is frightened, and he's holding his hands up, as if, confusedly, taking part in a game the grown-ups are playing - this is what you have to do. There's a sweet-faced young woman with her hands up, half-turning back towards him with concern. His mum? Big sister? The little boy looks puzzled - it's just a game, isn't it? And games end, don't they? I would like to reach back in time and pick him up, give him a cuddle, take him to a green space and let him kick a ball around, or ride a bike. The soldiers stand impassive - what are they thinking? What are their stories? There were no photographers or war artists at the Battle of Agincourt - so does seeing these images make us more compassionate or less - these heartbreaking images that cry out to us over time...

On a happier note, I'm currently enjoying reading: "THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP," by Nina George, featuring Jean le Perdu who lives on a book-filled barge on the Seine, and who prescribes literature for ailments, but has no cure for his own lovesickness.  Do seek it out - it's uplifting.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Competing for Attention - Andrew Crofts

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This month I read “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu, a thought-provoking study of how clever big business is at packaging and selling our time and attention to third parties, (i.e. advertisers). They are basically harvesting our time in the same way that they harvest our money.

The book starts with the advertising posters produced by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, (after a nod to the great religions of history), and continues through the evolution of newspapers, cinema, radio, television, the internet and smart-phones.

One element of the story is the rise and exploitation of “celebrity culture”, as part of the mechanism for capturing people’s attention, which reminded me that in 1990 I published a book brazenly titled “Hype! – The Essential Guide to Marketing Yourself”.

The astonishing thing is that less than thirty years ago I was still only “predicting” an explosion in self-marketing. The full blast of reality television and the Internet was still to come. (I also remember Libby Purves reviewing it in the Times and being horrified that I had suggested self-publishing might not be quite the sin it was then generally considered to be). 

As authors, of course, we can’t help but be complicit in this harvesting process. We need to get people’s attention to persuade them to buy our books and we then need to hold their attention for several hours while they read them. We need to be reviewed in book pages, interviewed in magazines and talked about on social media if we want anyone to even hear about our books, let alone be tempted to read them.

The most encouraging conclusions of Professor Wu’s story seemed to be that people are now moving back to long form entertainment, (as in binging on box sets), and seeking stories on their phones, (hence the rise in audio books). It seems that the novelty of constant bite-sized pieces of entertainment, (Facebook updates, YouTube videos etc), is wearing off, partly because the addition of advertising has made them feel less digestible and seem less anarchic. There is also the rise of micro-audiences and niche marketing, which means that every book is not having to compete for publicity in the mainstream media with the likes of J.K. Rowling and James Patterson.

I finished the book feeling slightly optimistic about the future of story tellers in our otherwise increasingly dystopian world.   Professor Wu successfully harvested about eight hours of my life and I do not begrudge him a second of it.      

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Slogans as the Very Very Short Story: Dipika Mukherjee ruminates on writing lessons from the Women’s March, Chicago

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." A familiar lesson in brevity; a gamut of emotions in a Six Word Story (although this quote is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, it was possibly written by someone who predates him). For those of us who write, or who teach writing -- or just read voraciously --we all know the power of the pithy phrase or that mot juste that takes our breath away like an unexpected punch to the gut.

The popularity of flash fiction -- twitterature, the Dribble, the Drabble, Micro Fiction, Six Word Story – is growing. Although this can be attributed to a felicity on tiny screens, the genre is old and features in many ancient cultures. SmokelongQuarterly informs us, “The term “smoke-long” comes from the Chinese, who noted that reading a piece of flash takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette.”

As anyone who has tried their hand at a Six Word Story knows, the shorter it is, the more challenging to write. What is implied is always more important than the written words. How perfect brevity must be, as one teeters between poetry and advertising copy, encircled by a thin line descending into the banal.

Slogans, when done right, are like fantastic Micro Stories. They rise above the terse to encompass the universal with wit and wisdom. The placards at the Women’s March in Chicago, with a crowd 250,000 people strong, exhibited sarcasm with the thoughtful in short succinct bites.

Here are some choice slogans from the venue, beginning with those telling a story of the Russian connection:

Besides a foreign hand in American affairs, the concerns articulated the threat to the democratic ideals of a diverse America:

Slogans from the campaign were reworked as epigrams about the threat to women's bodies:


Even Jesus made an appearance:

Sometimes, words are unnecessary: 

By now, you are probably familiar with pictures from Women’s Marches around the world, with hard-hitting messages in a micro form. And there are other articles about the Chicago Women's March.

So why am I writing this article? 

I am a writer who has been recording the decline in human rights in Malaysian democracy over the last three decades. As someone who writes political fiction (Ode to Broken Things) as well as Short Stories (Rules of Desire), it is interesting that some of the most persecuted thinkers within Malaysia today are not novelists or academics, but people who draw pictures with very few words. Cartoonists and artists like Zunar and Fahmi Reza are under the threat of imprisonment under sedition laws as the corruption in the current Malaysian government goes unchecked. There is no free press or a truly independent judiciary. 

When an international flight disappears under this current Malaysian government's watch in 2014, it still remains a mystery almost three years later, with no one held accountable. People disappear, money disappears; it is democracy under duress, until only a few intrepid souls dare to make their voices heard. 

I wish we could all live in a world where the Very Very Short Story functions as entertainment; the artistry of wordsmiths distilled into tiny morsels of pure delight. But I expect I'll see a lot more of this genre, on walls and placards, more than on small screens. 

Picture Credits: 
Chicago Women's March: Ravi Gopalan and Emily Clott. 
Zunar & Fahmi Reza's pictures from their Facebook page. 

More about the author at dipikamukherjee.com