Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Men do not notice...

MOST improbable headline of the week? “Men do not notice women in high heels.”
It followed publication of a study by Northumbria University, where researchers observed men’s reactions as a series of women walked past, some wearing stilettoes, some not. Apparently their recorded emotional response to women in high heels and those in flatties was indistinguishable. Well I’m sorry but either the guys had water flowing through their veins or someone at the university had forgotten to plug in the machinery. Of course blokes “notice” women wearing high heels! Saying they don’t is like saying women don’t “notice” a man in uniform! (And by “notice”, we all know what we mean). Along with sheer stockings and lacy underwear, high heels are among the most potent weapons in a woman’s amour armoury. The research also said that the men couldn’t tell any difference in the way women walked depending on whether they were in pumps or heels.Whaaat?!? I refer you to an early scene in Some Like It Hot (the funniest film ever made) in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon watch Marilyn Monroe sashaying along a railway station platform. She is, of course, wearing killer heels. “Will you look at that?” Lemmon breathes to Curtis. “It’s like Jello on springs...” I rest my case. Men of Northumbria, hang your heads in shame.

This came from Richard and Judy in the weekend's newspapers. Since Northumbria Uni is where I did my library science and in my local city of Newcastle, I can tell you that there are some who dislike make-up and would claim that personality and intelligence far outweighs physical attributes. Sounds like the researchers hit on a group of such people.
And before you all die of boredom, here's the last set of rules for writing fiction

Neil Gaiman
1 Write.
2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3 Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5 Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7 Laugh at your own jokes.
8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Here's a snippet that shows how jolly and friendly authors are to each other - Ken Follett suggests that people should give Wolf Hall, the Booker prize-winning novel by Hilary Mantel, “to the Labour Party jumble sale — I hated it”.
And here are some more rules for writing fiction for your (and my) delectation: this set comes from Geoff Dyer, not an author I recognise, but his rules appeal to me.

1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project.
2 Don't write in public places.

3 Don't be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.
4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes ­"photography" and so on. ­Genius!
5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it's a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It's only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I'm bunking off from something.
8 Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.
9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don't follow it.
10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance. You've got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That's what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won't do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

You may have seen these before, but I've just found them this evening and decided to quote them here so I can refer back to them later. Some of them are priceless! Others I need reminding about. I've truncated them to one liners, except for (3), which I couldn't resist putting in full; if you want to look see them in all their glory, follow the link.
Ten rules from Elmore Leonard
(Using adverbs is a mortal sin )

1 Never open a book with weather.
2 Avoid prologues

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely.
5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose".
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The present tense

The fact that Philip Pullman said scathing things recently about about the Man Booker prize caught my eye today. It seems he thinks the present-tense narration of books on the shortlist is a "silly affectation" which "does nothing but annoy." A literary agent thinks she might add “no present tense novels” to her web page.
There is a lot of present tense about these days. Philip Hensher, writing in the Telegraph, suggests its an old trick spawned by creative-course writing to make a novel more lively, though he adds that writing is either vivid or not, and using the present tense won’t achieve it for you if everything else is wrong.
Maybe because I read hsitorical novels, I’ve noticed a lot of present tense in the last few years. I’d read the first sentences, and check further in to see if more of the writing was in the dreaded present tense. Now there are so many if I continued, I’d have little to read.

To me the present tense becomes a strain on the senses when used throughout, and I long for a good plunge into the past tenses of which we have several. They give English a remarkable flexibility and can indicate fine distinctions of both time and action, so why the current rush to limit a writer?

People claim the present tense bring out the author’s true voice, and while I wouldn’t claim it never happens, it certainly doesn’t happen for everyone. Why would using a different tense change a person’s writing style? I’d think it more likely to limit and confine it.
Is it because it more closely replicates dialogue? That doesn’t necessarily mean it is a style we want to read in great chunks. That’s when it can become tiresome.
Is it a case of blindly following publishing fashion? There are so many rules that come down to us these days about how authors should write to achieve publication. I’m not sure where they originate, but the urge to omit passive and past tenses is starting to overtake use of correct grammar. Sentences have been contorted to avoid uses the dreaded words for some time, but now they’re becoming incorrect. If a writer cannot write correct grammar, then what hope do we have?

I wonder if it has to do with all these social networks around us, where incomprehensible unstructured messages zoom around the world so fast it makes you dizzy to think about it. Many people who inhabit the world of forums and fanzines are either struggling with a foreign language, cannot type or they have no idea of correct English usage. While they might be applauded for their attempts to communicate in spite of everything, it reminds me of the eighties dictum that articles for the American market had to take into account the language restrictions of a whole range of non-English speakers, and a vocabulary of less than 300 words was ideal. Mobile phones and PCs mean once relatively private thoughts become fodder for the world at the click of a button. Why wait to check a spelling or ensure the correct tense? Get in fast before someone else says it and the moment has gone.
As Henshaw says, As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Feral and gritted

I thought the use of the words “feral” and “gritted,” so prevalent in current romance fiction, a modern phenomenon, but yesterday I was startled to discover them in Jilly Cooper’s novel “Riders,” which was first published in 1985. I’m re-reading the book because I have a nasty bout of ‘flu and I’ve read everything new and unread in the house. In between coughing and sneezing and groaning I wanted something light and entertaining, something I could pick up and put down. It certainly entertains.

‘Coming towards her, breathing in the hot, feral sweat of her body…’

‘“Keep your foul mouth closed,” he gritted.’

I wonder if these two examples are where it all started twenty-five years ago? The words were used effectively, given the context. In the first case, feral describes a woman who refuses to use deodorants or shave her underarm hair and doesn’t wash overmuch either, so the use is accurate.

In the second case Jake holds a dinner knife to Rupert’s throat and threatens him. Not quite so accurate, but certainly there is conflict.

In many cases today the words and their use have changed whe they're used in romance fiction. Feral now suggests some kind of a sexual lure, as if a man who seems like a wild animal is the man any woman would yearn for as her soul mate. To me it conjures up men who are dirty, dishevelled, hairy and smelly. Definitely not my kind of soul mate!

So many times recently I have seen “he gritted” as a dialogue tag, and I cringe. I suspect it is often used to up the conflict stakes when there isn’t any real conflict in sight. Besides, if you grit your teeth it is very nearly impossible to speak. Try it. You can’t say more than two or three simple words, and you looked pretty silly as you were doing it, didn’t you?

Not as silly as me with a paperhankie to my red nose, perhaps....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Farnhouse kitchens

I watch Escape to the Country several times a week. If only I had 3 or £400,000 to spare, I tell myself, and settle back to pick holes in every dwelling I see. What amazes me is why today everyone wants a country/farmhouse kitchen with a range cooker.
Why, I ask myself?
Farmhouse kitchens were big because the mistress was expected to provide meals every day for the farm workers, who might number fifteen or more on a big farm, as well as her family. It wasn’t that long ago, either. My brother worked on a farm in the fifties, and came became so sick of turkey he wouldn’t touch it for years after – if he ever did. The farmer’s wife ran her own flock of turkeys for pin money, and those she failed to sell at Christmas went to feeding the farm labourers and her family. Day after day after day they received turkey….

Today machinery has overtaken the farm labourer, and families are not as big as they used to be. Two or three kids, two dogs and a husband certainly won’t fill the space left by fifteen burly farm workers. So why this hankering after farmhouse kitchens?

I think its nostalgia with a sprinkling of aspiration to a higher social class. When cottages didn’t have much in the way of kitchens, then the farmers’ wife would be Queen. Plus which Agas have cropped up in the page of Trollop/Cooper/etc novels until they’ve been accepted as upper class cookers, and therefore everybody wants one, but really, unless you have the knack of handling them, they’re unwieldy beasts. Overheating when you don’t want them too, lukewarm when you need them. Those controlled by a gas tap, are, of course, cheating.

The thing prospective buyers always bleat is ‘I can cook and still talk to my guests and we can eat in the kitchen.’ Well, they may be different to me, but I don’t want to get dressed in my best to sit in the cooking smells of my friend’s kitchens, however good their ventilation system and their cooking. None of my friends, and certainly not me, manages to cook without making a hell of a mess. Why would I want to sit in the remains of the effort that has gone into preparing a four or five course meal? Am I meant to feel guilty? Nor do I want to see the mishaps (or reveal my own, more than likely!) that happened along the way. And would you dare converse with a red-faced cook who was busily whipping up a red wine sauce that you were expected to eat in a few minutes? Not I. Something might go wrong.

For me, the security of a door to shut between me and my guests is paramount. They can chat in the relaxed ambience of the dining room, while I run from oven to hob to sink like the demented hostess I am. I mean well, and I’d love to succeed really well, but cooking …
The oven is part of Cragside's kitchen at Rothbury, Northumberland.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Time flies

This week has almost gone and I feel as if I've achieved nothing. I've written a chapter for a new book which means I am now in the stupid position of having one Victorian story waiting for its sixth chapter without a clue what its going to say, and a Tudor story newly begun without having worked out where the story is going.
This is bad, bad planning. Though I can hardly call it bad planning, because it simply isn't planned at all. I kind of just fell into it. I know roughly what I want from each story, but previously I've always had a plan to follow. Doing it without one feels very shaky. (Rather like Jonathan Foyle, swathed in ropes, clambering around the spires of Oxford last night on tv.)
Once upon a time I had a book published called Shadows. It told the story of a holiday couple in an ancient mill in France, and how they discovered a pair of ghostly lovers. A few weeks after publication, the company went bankrupt and the story was in limbo for along time. I rewrote the thing, giving it more substance and adding 20,000 words. I now have a contract for that story with Sapphire Blue in America.
They asked me for an ITIN number. It seems that to get one, I must visit the American Embassy in London. This is not good. The last time I went to London was probably twenty years ago, on business. Plus which the rail fare and an overnight stay will cost me more than I'm likely to earn in royalties! I may get away without an overnight stay. If I drive in to Newcastle, park the car and get the 9am train, I'll get to London at 12.20. Just in time for the Embassy to close for lunch as I reach it. It re-opens at 2 and closes again at four. If there are queues...I may have to return next day. If not, I could be back on the train and home again by 10pm. When I've got the number, I then have to fill in other forms....
This is what has been distracting me all week. Now I'm looking up train times - and instead of one national rail system there are now about twenty private rail companies to check. I agree not all of them run between Newcastle and London, but even so, why oh why did life have to get so complicated?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Whited Sepulchres

Anne Perry is an author I’ve discovered in the last year or so. I may have read half a dozen of her books by now, all concerning William Monk and Hester Latterly, but this last title was easily, for me, the best. Whited Sepulchres, formerly known as The Breach of Promise. I first looked out for her books after Donald Maass recommeneded them.

There was one book of the series I tried and never finished. I cannot recall enough of the plot to warn you away from it, but this one gripped me from start to finish. Everyone wonders why Melville is so distraught about the wedding to a beautiful heiress that has been arranged for him, but he will say nothing except that he will not marry the girl. The family sue him for breach of promise. From such seemingly trivial beginnings a story develops that gripped me, had me reading through most of the night, and that’s rare these days.
Consequentially today I can hardly keep my eyes open.
The master storyteller of Victorian Society, claims the lettering on the front of the book, and I can see why. Every word she writes rings true, and is a lesson in how to integrate a plot successfully into a society. Which is why I could hardly believe what I read when I searched the internet for a photograph of her for this blog entry, and saw that she had been convicted for murder. It seems to be true; I’m still catching up with the internet reports, but she admits murdering her school friend’s “mother.” Google the name yourself; there are hundreds of references.
For the record, anyone with any interest in Durham Cathedral should watch Jonathan Foyle climb - yes, climb - the nave and tower. In this region, the half hour programme aired at 6.30 on BBC 2. Superb views of Durham from the air.

Friday, 3 September 2010

High concept

High concept as a term had me worried for a while. What the hell was it? First thoughts suggested it was some impossibly cerebral theme about God v Man or some such, but I find that’s not correct.
It’s really something simple. If your novel can be described in one preferably pithy sentence, it might be high concept. Country lad overcomes doubts and kidnaps the infant Queen – yes, that could be high concept. Could it? Well, Mr Bransford says wizard school is high concept. To me it’s a good idea, and why didn’t anyone think of it before now?
Steal 101 spotted dogs to make a fur coat - is that high concept? I suppose so.
A skyscraper catches fire and people die as fire-fighters try to rescue them.
The plane crashes in the desert, so engineer rebuilds it and flies to safety.
Superliner hits iceberg and sinks with huge diamond locked in safe.
Can you guess any of these?
Liner capsizes and passengers escape through the engine room.
Huge ape decimates New York
Child finds alien and befriends it

After a while, it gets easier, and the sentences get shorter. If you can’t encapsulate the story like this, then it isn’t high concept.