Tag Archives: fiction writing

No chick-lit here: Review of Alys Always by Harriet Lane

Alys Always

ALYS ALWAYS is Harriet Lane’s debut novel about the ‘little’ people, the ones that make world turn for the ones who think it turns just because they will it to. With a cast of morally dubious characters it is both a satire of celebrity culture and an indictment of how lost all of us really are.

What matters is ‘who you know’ and in the small and nepotistic literary world, Frances Thorpe (thirty something sub editor on The Spectator) doesn’t know anyone. That is until she meets Alys Kyte, trapped (and as it turns out dying) inside her overturned car on a lonely, country road. At first Frances wants to forget the horrible incident, until she realises who Alys was married to; literary heavyweight Laurence Kyte. When she is asked to meet the family (for closure) she is invited into a world of privilege and entitlement. Encouraging the friendship of Polly, who is missing her mother and nursing a family secret, Frances’ metamorphosis begins.

Frances is a complicated and calculating female character, which makes this a refreshing read. No chick-lit heroines here. Hallelujah! The story taps into the jealousy us ‘little’ people feel when we pore over the pages of glossy magazines at the lives of the fated, and asks the question; what would you do?

There are two reasons I really enjoyed this novel. The first is the clean prose. Harriet Lane bravely puts her command of grammar under the spotlight by making Frances a pedant, who spends her days correcting book reviews for the magazine she works on. A great plot can be ruined by sloppy writing, and although of the two plot is key, many times I have given up on a book because the writing overwhelmed me (and not in a good way). It is said that great writing is invisible, which does not mean it is without voice or personality rather it does not eclipse the story and become a thing in its own right. Rest assured Alys Always has a clear, ego-less voice in direct contrast to the lauded novels of the ‘emotionally lazy’ Laurence Kyte. Harriet Lane is making a subtle point in both ‘how’ she writes and in Frances assessment of what passes as ‘great’ literature.

My second reason is an emotional one – the most reliable indicator of a good book – and more specifically how I felt about it when I wasn’t reading it. Like falling in love, I was excited about seeing it again and planned ways of making time for it. I thought about it frequently. I was desperate to find out how it all turned out, but at the same time didn’t want it to end. On finishing it, I missed it.

The novel’s protagonist reminds me of the insidious character of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on Scandal. Like Barbara, Frances’ actions are driven by dubious motives, but the people around her are so convinced of their ‘special’ status that you can’t help but wish she succeeds.

My only minor criticism is that the ending, although satisfying, would have been improved by an increase in conflict. I was craving a character that could really challenge the status quo and push Frances to her limits (and beyond them).

I would certainly read more from Harriet Lane and for those who want a story where the woman isn’t a simpering simpleton waiting for Mr Right, then ALYS ALWAYS is the book for you.

Let me know what you think? Does it matter to you if the lead character is likeable or not?

For more on Harriet Lane Click here 

Animal collection: Bridport prize 2011(longlist)

Schrödinger’s cat

schrodinger's cat

His cat slipped through my legs and disappeared upstairs as I let myself in the front door. In the kitchen, I emptied the contents from his Waitrose bag-for-life onto the pine scrubbed table. I poured out a glass of red wine from the bottle I’d started last night and reached over the sink to press play on the CD player on the windowsill.  His garden lacked inspiration. I pictured gaily painted pots, spilling over with summer blooms. I would suggest doing them on his return.

The chunks of beef browned in the heavy bottomed saucepan from John Lewis. My stomach felt like a kitten’s, swollen with squiggling worms. I topped up my glass.  He’d said I could stay if I wanted, save having to come by and feed the cat. I’d not been home since. I didn’t plan on returning.

His cat startled me as he leapt onto the work surface and made a beeline for the saucepan.

“Shoo.” I flicked the tea-towel at him. He arched his back, but held his ground, his tail a black bottle brush.

“I said off!” I lunged at him like a pit-bull on a short leash. He jumped from the work surface and skittered across the floor, his tail curled around his bottom. The cat-flap flapped as he exited.

I added a good glug of red wine and used the edge of the wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan like my nana showed me, before Mum and her fell out. Adding the roughly chopped vegetables, I replaced the lid and turned down the gas. The CD ended and the radio cut in.

“… Head of communications, John Haines, said: ‘It might have been struck by lightning. It’s a possibility.’ We will bring you the latest on this breaking story in our seven o’clock bulletin. In other news a man is suing McDonalds for making…”

I remembered the cat just before seven and popped a tea towel over the dumplings, perfectly round and smooth like eggs, before emptying a packet of cat food into his bowl. Dropping the empty packet in the bin, I turned back to find his face in the dish as if he’d always been there.

“How’d you do that?” He purred and smacked his lips. I reached down to ruffle his head.

Hisssss. He shifted his position to the other side of the bowl. The narrow tip of his tail flicked.

 “Don’t be so precious. You’re going to have to share him from now on.”

 I picked up the spoon and lifted the saucepan lid. The stew simmered patiently, unlike me. I would take a long bath and paint my nails to pass the time. A meaty aroma filled the kitchen as the seven o’clock news began.

“Fears are growing for 229 passengers on board British Air jet 658, which vanished on a routine flight from New York to Heathrow over the Atlantic around 3pm BST. The most likely explanation is a lightning strike. Head of Communications, John…” 

The wooden spoon clattered to the floor. Gravy splashed onto the terracotta tiles. The cat sauntered sideways as if aiming for the cat-flap and took a surreptitious lick. He began to purr and settled over the dark stain.

I held the piece of notepaper up to the lounge window, scanning the details three times. The evening light was the colour of peaches. I crumpled to the floor. His cat appeared and head butted my shins. I pressed my hand along his spine. He arched into my touch and I whispered his name, “Schrödinger.”

His name was silly, I’d said, the first night he brought me here.

He laughed at me and said; had I never heard of Schrödinger’s cat?

And I said, yes, because I had, but that was all, and then I distracted him with my lips and hands.

At work, I’d looked it up on Wiki, but got irritated by the jargon and gave up clicking on links because each one made me angry. It wasn’t until after he told me he loved how we ‘fit’ together that I asked him to explain.

Are you going to listen to me then?

I’m a woman I can multi-task, I said, pressing butterfly kisses into his chest, before resting my ear against his heart.

You put the cat inside a box
Why would you do that?
So you can’t observe it
Why not just say, so you can’t see it?
Because seeing and observing are not the same
They are
Your eyes see, but your brain observes
You’re splitting hairs
Cat hairs?

Funny, not. Inside this box is some mechanism that could cause a random event to occur, and this random event, if it does occur, would smash a vial of poison

What random event?

It’s not important – the important part is that the vial of poison may or may not smash and therefore the cat may or may not be alive


But don’t you see, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time

Only until you look in the box

Exactly! It is the act of observation that collapses the cat’s superposition. Reality decoheres into the observable and the not. In one reality it’s dead, in another it’s alive.

My head spun. I kissed his nose. I don’t know about split, but I imagine it would be spitting. I wouldn’t want to open that box without a full body suit and thick gloves on. Why didn’t he use a rat or mouse or something harmless like a fly?

You exasperate me. The point is this. Until you look the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is your observation that creates reality

So if I don’t look nothing is real?

Yes and no. If you don’t look everything is real, every reality is possible. That’s what Schrödinger was trying to demonstrate with his thought experiment…

Enough, enough, I get it, I lied. Now kick out the cat, close the bedroom door and observe which state I get in…

Schrödinger strutted off, his tail smooth like a snake. I pulled myself to standing using his desk for support and tugged my phone from my bra. His number rang and rang and rang… The house phone startled me. I dropped mine, the back and battery separated as it hit the floor. The dying sun crept across my bare toes. The house phone stopped.

“Darling, it’s Mum. Your dad says a flight’s gone missing over the ocean, but I don’t think it’s your flight number…”

I reached down and yanked the phone line out of the wall.

‘He’s departed, but not yet arrived,’ I spoke it softly, like a prayer.

Schrödinger cleaned his ears and cheeks and then his right back leg. Or he’s arrived and has departed.

It got dark. I found some ear plugs for his iPhone in his bedside drawer and rammed them in until my ears hurt. A waft of stew made me retch. I slipped silently down the stairs and turned off the gas, returning like a scolded cat to the safety of the landing. I dragged the feather down duvet into the en suite and climbed into the bathtub shaped like an egg.

“So what came first? Chicken or egg?”

“Neither and both,” I replied. Flicking water at his chest.

He smiled and stroked my thigh. “How long is a piece of string?”

I blew bubbles from my palm into his face. “As long as you want it to be.” And he laughed and told me that was exactly the right answer, but I didn’t know why.

“Take reality,” he said, “what is it?”

I sat up. Foam slid down my breasts as I pressed my hand flat against his. “This.”

 Cocooned in the tub, wrapped in his king-size duvet faint with his scent, I slept. When I woke, my limbs were stiff as if I’d made a quantum leap into old age. Daylight showed too much of everything. I climbed out of the bath. On the top shelf of his wardrobe, I found his ski goggles. It took some time to tighten them. In the silent blackness my dream returned. He soared across the sun. The muscles of his shoulders and arms picked out in gold.

Something nudged my leg. My panicked hands groped around the sides of the goggles, until I realised it was Schrödinger. I crouched down. He was meowing. I could feel the vibrations in his chest and front legs.

I made my way downstairs and into the kitchen. The surface of the cold stew was congealing white or maybe it wasn’t. I ran my hand along the work surface until I came to the tall cupboard. Pulling a bottle from the shelf, I unscrewed the cap and sniffed and then made my slow and stumbling way back upstairs.

Eventually the Vodka bottle grew light and I didn’t know if it were day or night. I saw him constantly in the vast, blue sky, flying beyond the moon, past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all the way to Neptune and then on and on through the nothing of outer space and on and on and on…

 He’s flying not dying.

 My head split apart. Unfurling like Schrödinger after a rainy day snooze, I climbed from the bath, groping for the cool edge of the sink. I opened the cabinet above. My fingers walked around bottles and boxes. I felt Schrodinger’s presence like a draft on wet skin.

He has arrived and departed, he hissed.

No. He has departed and not yet arrived,’ I replied, clutching a box and spinning round to confront him.

You’ll see.

‘I won’t. Not ever.’

I swung back to the sink, my cheeks hot, and lifted the bottom edge of the goggles to check the label on the box. The brightness of the light flooding in around the goggles frightened me, like a buried memory of something bad that had happened.

 In next door’s home office, Schrödinger padded across the Karndean floor as the radio announced plane wreckage had been spotted in the ocean by a cruiser.

The tablets popped easily from the foil into my palm.

Schrödinger cleaned his tail in front of next door’s television showing pictures of an upturned section of fuselage, the words scrolling beneath; after three days at sea, a handful of survivors of Flight 658 have been spotted by a luxury cruiser.

I swallowed five tablets and climbed back into the bath and dreamt of angels and gods and planets and stars and forever. I woke briefly and took the rest, dropping the empty blister pack over the side of the bath.

A flight touched down at Heathrow.  A shiny black car with tinted windows left the airport.

 Schrödinger returned, though no-one saw him arrive. He sat in the doorway of the bathroom as Hannah’s head lolled to the side and bubbles of dribble escaped her pale pink lips. A car turned into the tree lined road.

From the turn in the stairs through the top-light over the front door, he observed two navy suits get out of a long, sleek black car. The hairs along his shoulders and spine lifted like an arrow and his pupils widened into oceans of dark matter. The suits took off their hats and tucked them under their arms. A crumpled shirt appeared between them as they reached the front door.  Schrödinger’s tail twitched and his hair smoothed flat. He stretched – a purr rolled through his jaw. The front door swung open.

His whole world was before him. Schrödinger could not contain his smile. He has arrived. His head swiveled to the bathroom; and she has departed.

He trickled down the stairs and entered orbit.

On writing: some nice news

Not career making, but nice all the same to find out a short story I wrote about a pig in a schoolyard made the Mslexia short story competition shortlist of fifty.

a little happy dance
a little happy dance

It’s given me a boost and I have reworked the opening chapters of my newly named novel ‘The replacement wife’ and posted them on Authonomy. There is a link at the top of the page if you are interested. Now all I’ve got to do is get up the guts to send it out again.


On writing: Will I ever become a writer?

Borrowing the title from Dorothea Brande’s 1934 novel that speaks with such clarity nearly 80 years on, I wonder if I will ever become a writer or always be becoming?

Unlike most things I have done in my adult life there isn’t a syllabus or a set of instructions to follow. I can’t mind-map my way to publication. Up until now, I have assumed that if I put in enough hard work and commitment I will be successful – it’s worked before.

But then I have never (seriously) tried to become a writer until now.

And never have I felt so vulnerable, so useless and so wretched.

Most days, I am preoccupied with worry that I have reached my ceiling, that there is no more capacity to improve. At times I am floored by my arrogance in believing that 1) I have anything worth saying, and 2) anyone would want to read it.

And yet I can’t stop doing it – like the rebound singer on a reality show, returning year on year, provoking a pity cheer and embarrassed applause.

I don’t want to be here, feeling like this. But I have been cursed by a malicious imp, sniggering over my words, while whispering accolades in my ear.

Will I ever become a writer?

I don’t know. But I do know, I will only have failed if I give up becoming.

How do you keep going,when it gets tough? What makes you want to write?

Three for writers: Orwell’s rules

I came across this essay of George Orwell’s the other day: ‘Politics and the English Language’. Despite being published in 1946 much of what it says about writing with clarity is as pertinent today as it was then (possibly even more so with the proliferation of jargon, typified by the PR guru in the fantastic satire, ‘In the thick it’). Although the advice is general and aimed at professional writers rather than writers of fiction, I do think ‘us’ fiction writers – particularly those who write commercial fiction – can learn something useful from Orwell.

In contemporary commercial fiction, the writing should be invisible, but not ordinary. It should, as Orwell states: ‘express and not conceal or prevent thought’.

He provides a list (who doesn’t like a list) of writing rules, which he believes, if followed, will halt, not only the decay of the written word, but of thought, and with it an end to political chaos. A grand idea, but one that makes a lot of sense. We are defined by our actions, but those actions come from thoughts, articulated by language. If the language is vague, then thought is undeveloped, or muddled, and action lacks purpose and conviction.

Orwell’s writing rules

i)                   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

If it comes easy it is probably a cliché. The other day I wrote; ‘the college was like a ghost town in August’ – it tells the reader nothing about the person who is thinking it.

I changed it to; ‘The College in August was like a nightclub in the daytime, pointless and stale.’ This expresses so much more about the character’s cultural references and state of mind.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Even more important if you are writing in first person, never use a word the character wouldn’t use.  My character ‘expresses her condolences’ – no she doesn’t! She sends a text saying she has a spare shoulder to cry on.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

This is so important in commercial fiction, where pace is very important.

At first glance, the elegant décor suggested opulence and wealth, but as I scanned the walls and ceiling, I saw the blown plaster behind the large vase of lilies and the chunks of missing cornice and creeping mould. 38 words.

The décor suggested opulence, but a closer inspection revealed blown plaster, hidden by a vase of lilies, and creeping mould. A chunk of cornice was missing in the corner. 29 words.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Do you know your passive from your active? In fiction it is rare you will need to use a passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed.

For example:

(passive) From out of my bag, the kindle, along with notepad and pen were extracted.  

(active) I pulled my kindle, notepad and pen out of my bag.

Test yourself. Can you turn these passive sentences into active?

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Unless, if by doing so, you express something about the character, such as, ethnicity, intelligence or job status, but definitely don’t use big words just to be clever or elitist.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I love this one. Sometimes a cliché, used by a character, is illuminating. Sometimes the passive voice is used to create a particular effect, for example a character intentionally distancing themselves from their own actions. Sometimes you need a long sentences chocked full of adverbs; I love you, truly, madly, deeply and completely – because of the sound and rhythm they make.  Sometimes the rules turn something beautiful into something ugly.

To boldly go (split infinitive) is so much more enduring than; To go boldly.

Orwell’s original essay was a rant at lazy, imprecise language, leading to lazy and imprecise thinking, which in turn leads to lazy and imprecise language.

“It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

He directs his attention on political language, after pointing out that if you speak plainly and simply, when you say something stupid, its stupidity will be obvious, whereas if you use lazy clichés or abstract terms, then you can ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable … and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

So though Orwell’s advice is not directed at commercial fiction writers, it is useful for commercial fiction writers to ask themselves:

1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell ends his essay with a word of caution, possibly even a premonition, depending on your perspective of the merit (literary or otherwise) of recent best sellers.

“But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in.

Share your writing gems. What has helped you to develop as a writer?