Monday, 13 November 2017

Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan

Which d'you fancy? 


Gruesome detail?
or

Cosy Crime?

Recently, Rebus creator Ian Rankin forecast that extreme bad news in the real word is killing it off the violent thriller. In the Scottish paper, the Daily Record, Rankin claims that the rise of Donald Trump, terrorist attacks and mass shootings have left people yearning for 'kind and gentle' books…The world seems so crazy and irrational that many novelists have difficulty trying to shape it into a coherent narrative…Fiction must be credible, the real world right now feels to me like the opposite of that. People crave normality and stories of kind people helping each other… He added…I think this may happen – a move away from serial killers and bleak dystopian crime fiction towards something with a more comforting message...

source; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Rankin
Is he right? In turbulent times do we turn away from turbulent fiction? Are we ready for more cosy crime and less violence and gore?

Interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today Programme, Simon Kernick, with 15 novels under his belt, including The Hanged Man, 2017 and The Bone Field, 2016, suggested that…books where there’s a good level of tension but there isn’t the nastiness, such as Big Lttle Lies [by Liane Moriarty] are more comforting to the reader… Asked if he was tempted to tone it down himself, he admitted…I now prefer to write books where I rely heavily on the tension rather than the nastiness.

Denise Mina, who writes the Alex Morrow Books, suggests that one of the reasons why crime fiction is compelling is because that a belief in a just world is fundamental to human beings, and that is what most crime fiction affirms…In all the evidence that life is not fair, we have this fundamental belief…and she suspects that…In these very grizzly ones there isn’t a restoration of order. It's often leaving things open at the end in order to continue a series…

I must admit I like the books I read – and the books I write – to have a just and fair ending, with a denouement that’s believable as well as gripping. And although I can 'take' a certain level of blood and gore, I don't need it. The beauty of the language and the profoundness of the characterisation is far more important.

I’ve just finished Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan (HarperCollins), and it’s a perfect example of this. Set vividly in my home town of Bristol, it’s about fifteen year old Noah, found floating unconscious in the Feeder Canal, and his best friend Abdi Mahab, whose parents arrived in Britain after terrifying experiences in a Somali refugee camp. I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to tell you the book ends by affirming there is justice in the world, and that those who deserve a better chance in life should be offered it. The parents of both the teenaged friends have to face personal suffering, and their own demons, before the case is resolved by Jim Clemo, returning for his second case in Macmillan’s series. This is a police procedural at its heart, with Clemo and his team arduously sorting through lost iPhone records, searching out CCTV images and interviewing recalcitrant witnesses, as they determine if foul play, or even a racially motivated crime, has been committed. But to balance this, Macmillan includes a host of different points of view – first and third – to allow the various characters to have their say. This is a precarious device for a crime novelist, but it worked perfectly for me, allowing me to hear Noah’s story as he drifts in his deep coma, as well as see into the personal life of the detective, Clemo. Each of the Mahab family…the high achieving Abdi, his sister Sofia, now a midwifery student, his taxi-driving father Nur and his mother, Maryam, who speaks little English…all offer important perspectives to the story.
Gilly Macmillan

This is not a book that has high octane gun fights or car chases. Instead it steadily delves into the lives of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, just as I have tried to do in my Shaman Mystery trilogy. It is a study of human nature and human dilemmas, deeply absorbing and full of tension and suspense.

This is certainly not ‘cosy crime’, but neither is it filled with gruesome gore. It’s not even clear, at first, if anyone is going to die at all, and then, suddenly, a lot of people are in danger. By the end, I was gripping my Kindle as if that would help the good guys survive. 

Gilly Macmillan lived in Northern California in her late teens, but now she’s in Bristol (West of England) and writing full time. You can hear her talk about her previous book, The Perfect Girl, at https://soundcloud.com/harperaudiopresents/gilly-macmillan - in a very revealing interview. It's already downloaded onto my Kindle and I can't wait to start the read.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Torturing a Poem – Philip Pullman

I've been guesting on the OPEN COLLEGE OF THE ARTS blog this week, talking about Philip Pullman's new book on writing. 


Pullman has been busy writing – in October he released two new books. The first is the beginning of a new series which will be a sort of prequel to His Dark Materials. The second, released on 26 October, is his first non-fiction work, Daemon voices. This is a must-read for all writers, as well as readers who love his work. It's also a must-listen at the moment, on iPlayer. Go to the OCA blogsite to read the whole post and find the link.



Why 'Torturing a Poem'?  Pullman suggests, in Daemon Voices, that if you ‘interrogate a poem’ the results will be worthless, ‘as the results of torture always are’. …Poetry is in fact, enchantment, that it has the form it does because that very form casts a spell…



Saturday, 28 October 2017

Do Not Say We Have NOT Won the Booker

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/08/madeleine-thien-interview-do-not-say-we-have-nothing#img-1

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING 
By MADELINE THIEN. 

Praised by Alice Munro (whose name is on the back cover), Do Not Say We Have Nothing earned Madeline Thien the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for most promising Canadian writer under the age of 30. Then went on to win a Carnegie Medal, the Scotiabank Prize and the Stanford Travel Writing Award (Wikipedia 2016), but although shortlisted for The Man-Booker and the Bailey’s Prize, it didn’t win. I was shocked. The reviews I’d read suggested a forgone conclusion…It speaks to the humanity that continues even in the harshest, most self-destructively paranoid conditions, and it shows how the savagery of destroying culture comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of human bodies. For this reason alone, I hope it wins the Man Booker prize(Boland 2016)

I found it compelling, important. I thought a close second read would determine why it hasn’t gained a glittering crown. Long, with a rambling, fractured narrative, covers many aspects of the Maoist revolution. The story is told in sewn-on patches, revealed slowly with huge difficultly, almost like a labour. This immediately felt right…as if structure and style represent the dreadful hardships the Chinese people experienced.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing  opens in Vancouver in 1990. Marie’s father has killed himself in Hong Kong jumping from a high building, and Marie (also called Li-Ling) and her mother take in a young woman from China. Ai Ming arrives at their home without ‘papers’. 10 year-old Marie is enamoured by the teenager, but ask as she might, cannot discover what has happened to her. Marie tries to get closer by showing the girl something that belonged to her dead father…

The notebook with her father’s writing, the Book of Records, was easy to find. I picked it up, knowing it would please her. But when I offered the notebook to Ai-ming, she ignored me. 
I tried again. “Ma told me it’s a great adventure, that someone goes to America and someone else goes to the desert. She said that the person who made this copy is a master calligrapher.”
Ai-ming emerged from her coat. “It’s true my father had excellent handwriting, but he wasn’t a master calligrapher. And anyway, no matter how beautiful the Book of Records is, it’s only a book. It isn’t real.”
“That’s okay. If you read it to me, I can improve my Chinese. That’s real.”
She smiled. After a few moments of turning pages, she returned the notebook to the bedcover, which had become a kind of neutral ground between us. “It’s not a good idea,” she said. “This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.”
“You can summarise the first sixteen chapters. I’m sure you know them.”
“Impossible!” But she was laughing…(Thien 2016)

Politics, time, place and generations of characters are intertwined within the story, and echoed in the handwritten ‘Record’ of the extract above. It was like reading a half-lost Chinese legend, or a guide to survival under hopeless oppression. I loved the way stories and music are powerful threads connecting the lives and times of a Chinese family. Often, I felt I was reading Dostoyevski. I agreed it wasa beautiful, sorrowful workthe mind is never still while reading it…(Senior 2016)

At the core of the story is a true event. In 1968, the director of Shanghai Conservatory of Music, He Luting, was dragged from his office by Red Guards, physically abused in front of TV cameras and accused of ‘non-revolutionary thinking’ over his  approbation of Western classical music. He did not confess, as most did, instead, crying out, “shame on you for lying!” (Isobel Hilton 2016). Thien incorporates this into her story.

I have this idea that … maybe, a long time ago, the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived,” one characters says (Thien 2016). The covert record, written by hand and passed secretly from writer to writer, allows them to express what they cannot tell. Almost entirely unrevealed on the page, I thought the notebook was a metaphor for the half-lost history of three generations. 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations (always played by pianist Glenn Gould), becomes the score in our head. – the words echoing the complex counterpoints in the music. It’s a symbol, I believe, of how brilliant creativity is suppressed and punished in the Cultural Revolution (CR), but also of how music is universal. Early in the novel, Marie says…I was drawn toward it, as keenly is if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture…(Thien 2016) She might be talking about the story she’s about to unfold.

Tieananmen Square in the 80s
We only find out Ai-Ming’s full story as the book progresses to its climax in Tiananmen Square. However, this is the beauty of close reading, and doing so made me sit up. There are a lot of clues in that first chapter in Vancouver. I had tried to keep them in my head on my first read, but it was almost impossible. The sweep of the book wipes them away. It’s only at the end, as things come to a head, that we learn how Ai-Ming and Marie are intrinsically connected.

Marie narrates short sections of the novel as an adult, in the present day. She’s become a mathematics professor, which links with the contrapuntal nature of music and story. She’s still seeking the truth about her family’s history. Meanwhile, the lives of the families of two sisters over fifty years of Chinese revolution is revealed in a wide-ranging viewpoint, allowing one after another of the characters to catch and take up the tale. It’s never clear who is in charge of this omniscient-like third person. It might be Ai Ming, remembering all she knows of the Book of Records, even adding to it. Maybe this is all Marie’s story, told at the end of her quest. Or perhaps the overarching view is Thien’s herself.

I became intimately involved with these lives, the ambiguities of the story, and the glorious sounds of music; Chinese and European, violin and piano. From Vancouver we go back to the colour and gaiety of the 1940’s, where two teenaged sisters entertain by singing in provincial teahouses. We follow Big Mother Knife and Swirl through the land reforms, re-educations, the arrival of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, and on, to the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Big Mother has three children, including a boy called Sparrow, who becomes a musical prodigy. Swirl and her husband, Wen the Dreamer, have a girl, Zhuli. Wen is the ‘master calligrapher’ and principle contributor to the Book of Records. He and Swirl are caught up in the punishments devised to expose counter-revolutionaries… anyone deviating from the norm of communist orthodoxy. They are tortured and given hard labour in a desert area of China, where they barely survive. The young Zhuli is sent to find her aunt in Shanghai. She takes up the violin under the influence of her cousin, the shy composer, Sparrow, and is destined for great things, until the Cultural Revolution rises up. At the Conservatory, Zhuli becomes unable to cope with the humiliations, brain-washings and destruction of music and musical instruments.students began writing essays asking, “What good is this music, these empty enchantments, that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?”(Thien 2016). Some musicians form a clandestine resistance group, and this seems to finally topple Zhuli. She kills herself. 

In Moa’s China, history is manipulated or suppressed unless it toes the party line. And so, from the safety of Canada, Thein has attempted to tell the entire truth, using music as her theme. It feels off-key, literally, to write about musicians when so much of the history is political. They quietly go about their business of writing, playing and teaching music. They have brilliant minds, but are quiet people, not necessarily politically articulate.

Sparrow becomes deeply intimate with a piano student, Kai, whose family didn’t survive the starvation times of the Great Leap Forward. But Sparrow is unable to consummate their love, perhaps because of his timid reserve, perhaps due to the shock of Zhuli’s death. Kai is determined to live whatever the cost. Ruthlessly, he compromises his art and prospers as a musician, lauded by the establishment, while Sparrow, who cannot dishonour classical music, is forced to leave the Conservatory, reassigned to work in a radio factory for thirty years.

And what of the Book of Records? In an interview, Thien explains…It’s a book with no beginning, no middle and no end, in which the characters are seeing an alternative China where they recognise mirrors of themselves and which they write themselves into.” She is speaking literally as well as metaphorically. “The act of copying is different in China because part of the art of calligraphy is that you learn to write as the masters did. It’s a lot about breath and pressure and line. (Armistead 2016)

When I surfed the net, I discovered the notebook is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of pre-history, Shiji or the Historical Records. Like the novel and the notebook, the Shiji is non-chronological, fractured…overlapping units that interpret rather than document. Completed in 91BCE  it was kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had had its author, Sima Qian, the ‘grand astrologer’ castrated. (Vioatti 2014).

I followed one family for sixty years, across vast Chinese landscapes, puzzling about the ‘book of records’, carrying Baroque music in my head through 450 pages of traumatic experiences and moral complexities. Although it’s not an easy book to read, and I wasn’t alone in finding I always wanted to read on… Thien's reach—though epic —does not extend beyond her capacity, resulting in a lovely fugue of a book…(Chalfant 2016).

China has always been a dangerous place to state the truth, rather than toe the line. Then chose characters with great gifts, extraordinary yet quite ordinary, who fall foul of the absurd doctrines of a regime. Through them, I understood the consequences of Mao’s revolution on both the Chinese national identity, and the personal identities of its people.

The duplicitous Kai finally agrees to help Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-Ming, to escape China, but soon after Marie meets her, Ai Ming disappears into the USA. Marie is still searching at the end of the book. As if both girls, mirror-images of the girls who sang in the teahouses, resonate what the previous generation had to go through; to disappear emotionally or physically, or to wander, in search of reasons and identity. There’s no final answers, especially as to why it did not win the Booker. That is a puzzle as great as the Book of Records.


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Why do Books Win Prizes?


https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/about/now-we-are-20

Is the reader as important as the writer? Does their opinion of what they read count as much as what the writer believes about what they are writing? I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read and make this public.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argued that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critic who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the reading. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

I like the idea that the reader has opinions that count, but how can we make our opinions felt? Apart from sites like Goodreads.com and Booklikes.com, there are the glittering book prizes, where readers decide who will win. But most of those readers are writers or editors, or in some other way associated with the book trade.


http://www.naomialderman.com/about/
Recently I finished ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman. The story begins when teenage girls worldwide simultaneously develop a 'skein' – a strip of muscle in their collarbone which conducts electricity, allowing them to instantly inflict pain and even death. Some girls have more power than others and they are able to wake up the force in older women too. Virtually overnight, the world changes beyond recognition. Women are elected as political leaders virtually everywhere, the army is almost completely composed of women, while sex-trafficked women break free from their bonds. 

If the book had been written the other way around, with men being all-powerful, we would more or lesws be reading about the real world, the one we live in. So how does Alderman visualise such a dramatic change as this? You’d think the prediction for a sudden matriarchal society would be that it’s more caring and nurturing than this one, where men are generally in charge. But the story is dystopian, suggesting that absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. Men become second-class citizens and this world unfurls into a mirror image of the one it left behind.

Readers had mixed opinions. It won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer. It’s getting five stars on all the review sites (mostly from women, which made me wonder if men are reading it). But when I went to my book club, all women, I was surprised to find that they all agreed with me, that this book, although a thought-provoking read, should not have won a major prize like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize. My reading friends agreed that the writing in The Power is not elevated or illuminating, that it read at the same level as something like The Hunger Games; fast-paced and easy to race through – a thriller, yes, but the language is basic and at times clumsy, and the characters are thinly revealed or developed. We didn't rate it as a work of literature. Perhaps that was mean of us. We already knew that Atwood had loved the book; did that influence us adversly? And in any case, does our opinion change what the book originally meant? 

Finally, we asked this…was there a more worthy winner on the short list? 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by peoples we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Salinger. Are the author's intentions and views about their own work, more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation? In the past women often had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. 

On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we should make up our mind only through our reading, and not from any outside inflences. The Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved if that were true. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.

Would The Power have won the Bailey’s if the judges hadn’t known that Margaret Atwood ‘mentored’ the book and gave it her wholehearted support? Atwood is justly renown for both her early works, which gave her a ‘name’ and for her later science fiction, but mostly, she’s in the news at the moment for the brilliant TV adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale. At our book club we couldn’t understand what she saw in this book, which we agreed was original and inventive, but concentrated on pursuing the idea that girls could now inflict pain, and describing gratuitous acts of violence, death and rape. What if a man had written this self-same book? Would it have been lauded, especially by feminists? Or would they have suggested that the dystopian nature of the outcome was due to a ‘male view’? What if the athour had reversed the theme, so that it was men who were born with electrocuting ‘skeins’? Would this book, as it stands, but gender reversed, have been read as literature? Or marketed under a lurid cover?

Meanwhile, my book club had all read the rest of the shortlist, and we all preferred one particular book. It didn't win, but nevertheless it's a total winner in our opinion. 

Which was was it? Well, that's what suspension is all about folks. I'll review it, as my favourite book of 2017, in my next blogpost. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

A Drama in the Shower


In her latest post for the Open College of the Arts, Nina Milton is writing about how to inject tension into your writing, and looks at the difference between tension and drama. 

How to do that? Try confronting a spider in the shower...

I do not like spiders, especially when bare-skinned and soaking wet. The pulse under my all-too exposed neck quickened. I watched its orchestral movements. I knew it planned to move...

You can read the entire post, bare-skinned spider experience and all, HERE

Monday, 2 October 2017

Britain by Bike, Druids and Larry Lamb



We were having a wonderful time at the Gors Fawr stone circle in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire. We had created a short ritual to ask the stones, and their spirits and ancestors to allow us to continue working at this sacred and ancient place, just as those who erected the stones had done, thousands of years ago. When all of a sudden, out of the blue, two boys in Lycra on bikes came by…Larry and George Lamb!

Of course it didn't quite happen like that. George Lamb had particularly asked to meet druids in Wales to find out more about this spiritual path, and we agree to be there on the day of filming. But we did create a lovely ritual, which we'd almost  completed by the time they came riding by, tinkling their bells to attract yet more fairies and joining in with smudge sticks to the ready…

You can watch us chat about Druidry to Larry and George Lamb on Britain by Bike, 
Channel Five 13th October – Pembrokeshire – 8pm.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Clear Up Your Writing Info Dumps



In her latest post for the Open College of the Arts, Nina Milton is writing on the information dump,  a phrase used colloquially by scriptwriters, but it’s also something that can be an issue for writers of novels and short stories. 



It’s a common a gambit used when the writer wants the reader to know something that the characters already know, but also used to overcome other information issues. The trouble with the info dump is that it’s boring to read, to listen to, or to view and horribly difficult to clear up once in place. 
Go to WeareOCA to read the rest of the post.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Get all Moody with Crime Writing


If people are saying they ‘couldn’t get into’ your writing, or that your characters felt a bit lifeless, then it might be that atmosphere or mood that is lacking in your work. Building mood and atmosphere grabs a reader and draws them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:



Atmosphere  has come to mean the ambience, aura or feeling of a scene. It is the literary device which allows the action in writing to also have emotions which intrigue, excite, seduce, unsettle, disturb or beguile. Often atmosphere will add to the enjoyment of a read without the reader quite being able to work out why – they are 'internalising' it. An atmosphere can be established very quickly, but it can also change throughout, depending on the scene, plot or development of character.

Mood is subtly different from atmosphere but can further lift the atmosphere you’re creating. It is the ‘something in the air’ that helps ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing, working like a perfume, subconsciously sensed – the ‘je ne sais quoi of a good read, when a reader’s spine is tingled, or their heart wrenched, almost without them knowing it. Mood is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator.

There are some very simple ways of getting atmosphere and mood into your writing. The first is to use the senses. 

Smell – describe smells, both lovely and sickening, to add to atmosphere and ‘take’ the reader into the story
Sound – not just ‘grand’ sounds like an on-coming train or ‘obvious’ sounds like birdsong in countryside, but ‘lesser’ sounds; the crunch of gravel underfoot, the way a character constantly sniffs, the sudden, atmospheric howling of a dog in the twilight distance.
Taste. Don’t forget taste whenever something is placed in the narrator’s mouth. That might not take place often in your story, so also consider the other tastes that could heighten atmosphere, such as the taste of strong chemicals in the air, or the ‘taste’ of rain. Also use ‘interior’ tastes, such as the taste of the waking mouth or the taste of bile. And don’t forget the taste of a kiss!
Touch. This might seem the hardest to use well, but it's hugely important in adding mood and atmosphere. Surprisingly, touch takes place all the time. A breeze on the face, fabric on skin, the touch of another’s hand, the pressure of a wall against your back or cold flooring under your feet.

I believe there is a sixth sense…the sensations felt inside a person…their mood and perceptions. What does it feel like for the character to be in that setting or location? Is the dirty kitchen frustrating or irritating John, or does he ignore it completely? If so, why? When the two children enter the cave how do they percive it…why is it scaring or exciting to them?


The Pathetic Fallacy can entice the reader right into the mood of the narrator or other characters. Used sparingly by the skilled writer, the Pathetic Fallacy can be very effective. This term relates to the technique of attributing human characteristics, sensations, and emotions, to things that are inanimate, such as nature. The weather is used a lot within this technique. It can link extremely well with the symbolism you might want to pull into a story.  For instance, when a writer wants to build up an emotion in their character, they will place them in an appropriate setting – the angry character standing below a lowering sky with bruised clouds tearing above them, or the despairing character battling against a desperate, lashing storm. Rain is always falling at funerals – lightening slashes a tree as a gothic horror begins – fog descends as the protagonist becomes wandering and confused, as in King Lear, or lost in a long, fruitless quest, as in Bleak House. But this is a device that is notoriously cliched and often wrongly applied by novice writers, leading to something called 'empathic universe', which creates a melodramatic effect. You can tell if someone has overdone their melodrama, the mood overpowers the characters and even the story,  getting in the way of allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist.  Be particularly warned if you are writing romantic fiction – remind yourself of the comic effect in Wallace and Gromit as Wallace’s bread was shown rinsing in his oven as his passion bloomed for Piella Backwell. If you use this technique to make people laugh, just be sure they are laughing with you and not at your writing. 


I haven't forgotten the sense of sight – describing how things appear is essential, even it if is over-used. New writers often believe 'describing' is something you really shouldn't do too much if you want to move your story on, and, indeed, today’s readers are not keen on long chunks of description…that died out with the crinoline! So the way to add atmospheric detail, especially in crime writing, is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. Opening out the possiblilities by painting the atmosphere until it drips with meaning is quite the opposite of providing chunks of description. 
By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a character, a landscape or an interior – the atmosphere can be enhanced.

Even more amazingly, adding detail to scenes that have a high drama content actually increases the tension. Creating detailed description stretches story out while offering the writer a chance to use good language skills to create a vivid atmosphere. 

So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story. 
Here’s a moment from the first skeleton draft version of my crime novel In the Moors;

I was drawing closer to the bogs. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. I raised my collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles. This was a scary place to be at night.
Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In that first draft, I was pummelling along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. My character, Sabbie Dare is walking into a dangerous situation. I can’t stop the action – it's going at full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while maintaining the dramatic atmosphere. I must take as much time as I dare to allow Sabbie to describe what she observes and confront her own thoughts, by which she can build the mood of the scene…

When I lifted my chin away from my footsteps, I could see I was drawing closer to the long-abandoned areas, murky water held together with sedges and bulrushes. These bogs went on forever, impossible to tell one blackened hellhole from the next. I had no idea how to find the location I wanted.
I turned a full circle, skimming the horizon.  Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. The trunks were glossy black against the reddening sunset. Each branch, thick as a Sumo wrestler’s leg, skimmed the water’s surface before turning upwards to the sky. The patterns they formed brought symbols to my mind – cages and gallows and rune signs. My skin goosed up along my arms. 
I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles, inadequately closing off the area.
The sun was slipping below the horizon like a thief in an alley. I had hoped I wouldn’t need my torch, but now it drilled a swirling vortex into the space ahead, illuminating the path with its paltry light. The slurry surface of the abandoned bogs gave me the clearest indication of where the path lay. I leaned forward as I walked to get the maximum light from the beam. The wind was whipping up, now darkness was falling. My cheeks and nose felt numb. When I looked up again to check my progress, the willows had gone.
I stared in horror. I wasn’t used to such dark magic. The grey horizon was hiding their silhouette. A gurgle of panic, like quickly swallowed porridge, rose in my gullet. The trees were somewhere ahead of me, but I hadn’t thought to take any sort of marking of where they lay – which of the many paths I needed.
My boot slid off a clump of slimy leaves. It filled with bog-water. I clutched at the air, struggling to keep my balance and the torch fell from my grasp. I watched in dismay as it sank beneath the oily sheen. My eyes stung with tears. Instantly the wind chilled them into ice. 
This was a dreadful place to be at night.

In this fuller version, 
 I slowed the action by writing into the gaps

which I left out in my rush to get the first words onto the page. I added hints of the sounds that are around her, and of the smell of the moors, with words such as murky, slimy and oily.  Touch sensations work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image, for instance, how Sabbie is effected by the freezing conditions. I tried to be unpredictable, especially in my choice of and simile. I allowed the falling darkness to imprint its mood on her emotions.  I ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery which might add to the mood. Rather than abstract nouns such as ‘Sabbie was scared’  I used 'show'...A gurgle of panic... My eyes stung with tears... And I've tried to draw out the experience by making things harder for Sabbie, placing obstacles in her way and allowing the loss of her torch into the bog to feel like the very last straw.

Sometimes, finding the one perfect detail is all you need. Think about the ‘core’ of each scene. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on, for instance, one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured. 

Your first draft is going to be rushed (and possibly messy) – you are trying to get down your thoughts. You might need to go back later to include atmosphere and mood. When you do, you’ll find these will also enhance your ‘writer’s voice’, and help you further understand what is behind your story.

Nina Milton’s crime series "The Shaman Mysteries" are published by Midnight Ink and available from Amazon.



Thursday, 3 August 2017

Cormac McCarthy The Road






The Road
'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts on 

Kitchen Table Writers

Cormac McCarthy is known for his gratuitous violence – blood, gore, screaming pain and horribly inflicted death. I’ve seen three of his books as films –  No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. I was determined to see The Road as soon as it came out, as I’m a big Viggo fan, even though I’d already taken the book out of the library some time before and so knew it would be full of cellars of decomposing bodies – worse – cellars full of living bodies, waiting to die at the hands of the cannibals who imprisoned them. 

Reading it once again, on Kindle, I don’t have such a terrible sense of doom, because I know there is a possibly glimmer of light at the very end of the story. This time, I spotted the signals of hope that are lightly threaded through the story. I didn't feel so tense and worried about ‘The Boy' and his future. Even so, it’s The Boy that brings a sense of tension to the story, because he’s the one that’s always asking…is there danger? Don’t lets go in there…what’s that noise, Dad? Are those bad guys? He articulates the fears of the story, while ‘The Man’ constantly reassures his son,…it’s okay…keep moving… This doesn't reassure the reader, though; we know that The Man is equally terrified of everything they may find ahead on their road. Secretly, as the very same concerns as The Boy. In his head, he often asks himself why he’s taking this journey in the impossible  hope of finding warm seas in the south of the USA. But aloud, he simply encourages his son to keep going.  

Time moves back and forwards in the story. We see man and boy journey along a bare landscape after a final apocalypse has devastated everything, and, (it feels at first), killed most of the people and possibly all of the wildlife. From the start, I assumed that this devastation is world-wide, although we’re not told this. For a long time we only see man, boy, and the occasional lost soul along the road, while, in his mind, The Man thinks back to before the apocalypse, remembering, in short passages, his wife and their love, her pregnancy, and then the event atomic or natural, whatever has caused this absolute brokenness, and after it, the baby being born, and their decision to try to journey across the land to the sea. Perhaps they hope to get board some imagined boat; perhaps he just thinks it will be warmer down there, in contrast to the conditions they travel through, where ash blows all around them, and their shoes are wrapped in sacking against deep snow. 

In one flashback we see the wife decide to leave them while they sleep, and go off to her death, her suicide. I found that particularly shocking, and wondered if a woman writer would have imagined this in the same way; women rarely leave their children voluntarily.  So I have to think of this as a writer’s device; McCarthy wanted The Road to be about a boy and a man. I don’t blame him. What he created was powerful reading which, for all its masculine tone, is moving and full of tender love. He gets  right into the head of The Man for most of the time. We never see The Boy’s thoughts, but often McCarthy moves out of the thoughts and immediate perceptions of The Man while  constantly shifting from The Man's warm-hearted love to an more objective viewpoint to observe the savage, dreadful landscape and its inhabitants. 

McCarthy injects much power into his writing.  A clever strategy to help this is that he drops all use of speech marks. There are no long dialogues, so they are easily dispensed with, along with some apostrophes, some capital letters and all semi colons.  Alongside this bid for immediacy the use of heightened language, which, as we move away from inner thoughts to McCarthy’s narration, becomes lyrical. He uses this technique because The Man doesn’t have the time or energy to be ‘poetical’ – he’s too exhausted, in fact he’s half dead, even when we first meet him. The two travellers barely have strength to talk; 
[The Boy:] It's really cold
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
Yes.
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We're not going to die. 

This becomes one of two main tensions, or questions of conflict, in the book. The first is ‘when will the bad guys come’. They do come, often. The first takes one of the bullets in The Man’s gun; it leaves him with one bullet, which is not enough for him to be able to execute himself and The Boy if they need to die rapidly. It was the one thing that had kept him going…that he had those two bullets. This happens about a 1/4 of the way into the book, and is one of many points in the story where tension…and blood pressure…is raised. The second main question of conflict is ‘will The Man die before The Boy is safe’. There might be a third question, but I found it hard to ask. ‘Will they both die?’ was something I didn't have the heart to think about. I didn’t want to believe even McCarthy could do that to his story, even though I know he can be absolutely brutal in his writing. I know McCarthy wouldn't spare me the honest reality, which was that everyone in that world would surely die. I read on, wondering why I was so hopeful.

The story is crisscrossed with the image, and symbol, of roads. The man and boy spend much time on the road, described wonderfully by McCarthy. It is the guideline of the novel, a desolate, transient thing, full of danger. It always points to where they need to go, even though it would be a rare reader who, while reading, sees the point to going there. The road was a physical reality, the ever onward walking, walking, but also a state of mind…the understanding that we see our journey through life as the ‘road ahead’, which we are always taking, until we die. A second symbol of journeying is the shopping cart (supermarket trolley) they push, filled with all their wordy goods. This is their grail, their treasure, and yet it’s almost impossible to drive smoothly along, especially up or down hill, or through snow. As I read, I was always aware of its vital importance. When they hide it to run away from the ‘bloodcults' who form lethal gangs, or to search derelict houses, I worried about the cart, fearing that it would be looted while they are gone. And sometimes, it is. Fire, another symbol used cleverly, punctuates the roadway. They build fire every night, when they can, even though sometimes it might draw the wrong attention. Eventually, The Boy has to leave his father, and The Man lists instructions…keep going south. Keep the gun with you. Find the good guys. But, most important…
You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes, it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

McCarthy refuses to let you look away, but at the same time, you’re allowed to, sort of, because the reader is likely to identify deeply with The Boy. Like fire, he is a symbol of hope, and The Man, perpetually tender towards his son, is always making him look away from the grossness of their world, to lie in a ditch, stay out of sight. Their relationship stabilises and motivates the father. Of course it does; The Boy is all The Man has to live for and move forward for. The Boy often uses the word ‘okay’ as if to console, reassure.  An understanding, came right as I began to read that first time. The Boy has learnt quickly. He does not run out of sight, he does not play unless something is initiated by his father. He does not laugh. He is rarely ‘naughty’, but occasionally, he can be cruel to his dad. He has grown old, while still small, and with it, he’s gained amazing wisdom. He’s been born into the post-apocalyptic world and has known nothing but cold, pain, ill health and fear, and yet he’s actually the one that has compassion for outsiders. I found that convincing. Children can be wonderfully ‘self-righteous’, but this compassion seems more than this, as if, with no play and no fun in his life, he’s worked through a philosophy in which kindness is paramount. After all, it’s what he has constantly received from his father, for whom he is a…golden chalice, good house to a god… His constant approach becomes another rich symbol in the book. I began to see The Man as representing the human – the brutal, if sentient, creature with a strong instinct to survive. He keeps going because he must. To do what his wife did is unthinkable, even though he knows there might be a time, if they fell into the hands of a bloodcult, that death would be preferable. But to survive, they cannot show compassion to any outsider. They cannot offer food to the starving, for they are starving too. They cannot stop to help the trapped, or the distressed, because they have no time to waste, and in any case, all others are seen as a threat – best they stay trapped. 

The boy, in contrast, has a shining empathy with those in need. He is constantly exploring his father to be benevolent, to show fellow-feeling, to stop, to help, to share what they have. When his father uses the penultimate bullet in the gun to save their lives, The Boy cannot speak or even look at his dad for a long time. Even though it’s clear The Boy, in his young wisdom understands, why The Man has made such rules, he constantly rises above them.
The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He's been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Stop it.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There's nothing to be done for him.

To me, The Boy’s response represented the soul within the sentient being, and the core understanding that together, they make up a sort of duality of being human; the father’s brutal drive for survival is an external need, but locked inside is a sort of radiant grace, that links with the way The Man considers The Boy as a chalice. And that’s why I think the book has the end it has – why I didn't need to worry about asking that third, awful question.

McCarthy is a renowned recluse, and would never write a happy(ish) end just because he thought his readership might like it, or because his editor demanded it. I think at the end,  what we see is the body stripped away, and the soul walk out of it. The boy walks into the light, taking the inner fire. As if to prove it, McCarthy finishes the book like this…

https://www.videoblocks.com/video/wild-trout-spawning-in-stream-1-9pzkxku/
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional…In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.