I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Bookshop Bliss

Waterstones PiccadillyI passed an absorbing couple of hours yesterday mooching round Waterstones in Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

Apparently now Europe’s biggest bookshop, Waterstones Piccadilly is a paradise for the reader.  Its five floors are an abundance of every kind of book from any genre you care to think of, categorised both systematically and creatively, and topped and tailed with comfy areas to kick-back with a drink and a bite to eat.

I headed straight for Fiction on the first floor.  Bypassing the helpful shopping baskets (I didn’t see them) I was soon loaded with armfuls of paperbacks.  I’m an avid audiobooker, but if I’ve enjoyed listening to a book, I need to own the paper too (I blogged about this a while back, here). Consequently, I keep a running list of books I need to buy, simply so I can go back through them and enjoy them… differently, and of course, possess them, in real leaf-through-the-pages format, as nature and the publishing world intended.

So I picked up three from my listened-and-enjoyed list:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach – an eclectic group of oldies retire to India
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – dark but comic, about a deliciously weird, damaged girl
  • Smut by Alan Bennett – two unseemly short stories in Bennett’s inimitable style (narrated for audio by the author himself)

But it didn’t end there.  With the able and enthusiastic assistance of the… um… assistants, I tracked down another five from my must-read list.

  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Red House by Mark Haddon
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Yes, I know I’m arriving at one or two of these a little late in the day, but there’s just so much reading one woman can do.  Especially when the thing she most wants to do with her spare time is… write.

I read all over the genre geography.  I enjoy the kind of books which fall into what’s variously called  lit-lite (yuk!), accessible literary, crossover or even, I saw the other day, ‘Richard & Judy’.  I particularly enjoy edgier psychological suspense – that’s what I’m writing, after all.  I’m not into romance, historical or sci-fi, but I meander around the fringes of crime/police procedural, thrillers, chick-lit and full-blown literary as the mood takes me.

I get leads from Goodreads and I buy loads from Amazon as it’s convenient – who can argue with that?  But an afternoon in a bookshop is an indulgence and I loved every minute of it, especially being so warmly and professionally served by people who really, properly know their books.

Grammar purists like me bemoan the demise of that apparently outdated possessive apostrophe, flushed away from Waterstones’ (ha!) branding as of last year, for reasons of… practicality.   But given the pleasure quotient of a meander around their floors, it seems churlish to dwell.

I had lunch with a friend, took my time over a coffee and dreamed.  I’ll be back again, to shop.  But just maybe, one day, I’ll be back there to do a reading and a bit of meet-the-author.  How’s that for a star to shoot for?

One Lovely Blog Award!

one-lovely-blogIt’s been wonderful, seeing ‘follows’ on my blog increase so much since I was Freshly Pressed.  Another delightful outcome has been that one of my new follows, Robb Walker/Robert Miller and his blog Shadows and Java has nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award. Thanks Robb, I really appreciate the shout.  Robb’s blog is worth a visit, particularly if you’re into horror, fantasy, science fiction and geekery.  He’s hinting he might participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo too. Go Robb!

The One Lovely Blog Award requires I offer you 7 facts about myself and nominate another 5 recipients.  Robb also offered 5 writing quotes, and since this is a blog about writing, I thought I might try something like that too.

So without further ado:

Seven facts about Julie:

  1. I started writing fiction just over 3 years ago, having put it off long enough.  But I’ve been marketing/copywriting for business for years – mainly for technology companies.  It’s a far cry from psychological storytelling.
  2. My first short story, Singled Out won Writing Magazine’s monthly prize in June 2010 and was printed in the magazine.  Strangely, but only because it’s absolutely the best name for my first novel, I’m recycling that title – but this time for a very different piece of writing.
  3. I don’t eat chocolate.  I love it – I just don’t eat it.
  4. I don’t drink tea.  Yes, that’s right.  I’m a Brit who hates tea.
  5. I’m a paper-crafter. I love playing around with inks, rubber stamps and other crafty stuff, and seeing how much the people I care about enjoy receiving a hand-made card.
  6. I’m left-handed.  Apparently, that means I’m better at divergent thinking – whatever that is.  I’m good at brainstorming, but mind-maps are a mystery to me. Go figure.
  7. Be still my heart. There are only four degrees of separation between me and George Clooney.

Five writing quotes:

  • ‘Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve’ – JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
  • ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’ – Anton Chekhov
  • ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’ – Stephen King
  • ‘He didn’t want to please his readers. He wanted to stretch them until they twanged’ – Martin Amis
  • ‘It would have been nice to have had unicorns’ – Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

My five ‘pay it forward’ One Lovely Blog nominations:

Reader Anxiety

Library EphesusWhenever we speak, my mother asks ‘how’s the book going’.  Usually she gets the briefest response (‘fine, thanks’) in a tone that suggests a follow-up query is neither necessary nor advisable.  Don’t get me wrong, my mother and I have a great relationship.  But the book is my book, and I confess, I’m over-protective.

Yesterday, buoyed by my progress through the line edit and with the end in sight, my normally well-concealed enthusiasm leaked out.  I told her it was almost finished.

Gah!

She has, on a few occasions, hinted gently that she’d like to read my draft.  Hinted gently; in a way that could be passed over, as if it had been whispered in a voice too quiet to hear.  But yesterday the gentle hint became an insistent plea… please let me read it… I know it’s not my kind of book, but I’d love to read it… because you’ve written it… because I’m your mother…  Ah, yes, that final trump card.

My mother is 78 years of age and quite something (in a good way).  In the last 15 years she’s written and self-published two non-fiction books – both thoroughly researched, serious works which have been well received in their niche sectors; a history of her family from the time of the Inquisition to the present day, and a history of the music publishing business which has been in the family since 1863.  She’s a woman of culture who loves the stimulus of learning, classical music, art, history and travel.  In case you haven’t realised, I’m hugely proud of who she is and what she’s achieved.

My novel – I’ve called it Singled Out – is a psychological drama set on a holiday in Turkey, which I expect to sit firmly on the quality general fiction shelves (positive thinking… see?).  In a beautiful setting, bad stuff happens.  It’s gritty, because I found I liked writing gritty stuff. I take a few of my characters on a day trip to Ephesus, but that’s about as cultural as my story gets. It isn’t the sort of story I imagine my mother selecting from the shelves at Waterstone’s.  Even so I understand why she wants to read it.  And I’m pleased – of course I’m pleased – that she’s not only interested, but keen to read it.

But it matters, what family think of you, and I think my writing might come as a surprise.  Actually, perhaps even a shock – at least in parts. So when my mother reads it – and this will happen –  I will await her response to the more visceral elements of the narrative with considerable apprehension.

Will she be nice about it?  Yes, she will, I know it.  She’s my mother, isn’t she? But I know myself, and I know that whatever she says, in whatever way (and it won’t be her fault) it will somehow be the wrong thing, and it will set me on a spiral of self-doubt and angst.  There’ll be something I find to fret about in the tone, or the words, or it will be that thing she doesn’t say, or perhaps a momentary hesitation, a seeking after the most appropriate descriptive.  It might be an ill-judged platitude. It could even be her fulsome, wholehearted praise; since even that will disturb me, because I won’t believe my story deserves this.  She can’t win and that has nothing to do with her, and everything – everything – to do with me.

So for now, I can’t, I just can’t.

One word at a time

scissors-editI’m line editing.  After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one.  With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.

Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:

  • Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
  • Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
  • Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun.  Oops.
  • Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
  • Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
  • It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have.  In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.

This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds.  Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue.  Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail.  I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.

It’s not perfect – how can it be?  But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls.  But for now, it’s enough.

This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers.  Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.