Tag Archives: novel

Review of ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ and ‘The Storyteller’

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This novel should be required reading for sociology students everywhere: A review of Where-Stand-All, translated into Human (English) by Farrold Saxon

Where-Stand-All coverAt five hundred pages, spanning hundreds of earth years and a fair few light years, it is not an exaggeration to say Where-Stand-All: Episodes in the Foundation of Hodrin Civilization, is a science fiction epic. In the tradition of social science fiction; a sub-genre of sci-fi it less concerned with technology and space opera and more with sociological speculation, it is a predictive, precautionary, but ultimately optimistic story. At its core is the belief in the capacity of every individual to be ingenuous, compassionate and mindful, be they Hodrin or Human.  By following the birth of the Hodrin civilization (four armed beings with distinctive eye ridge nodules that convey mood) from its scattered populations, through to its highly organised and far reaching domination of Where-Stand-All and beyond,  so we too understand the birth of our own civilization and how innovation and progress can lead to both joy and anguish.

The novel eloquently illustrates how culture is both a civiliser and savager.

Its ‘extra-terrestrial’ writer/interpreter, Farrold Saxon, reveals intimate and farsighted knowledge of Where-Stand-All and its inhabitants on a planet closer to the centre of the galaxy than ours.  I delighted in the uncomplicated, compassionate nature of the Hodrin and marvelled at their rational organisation of society. Each and every Hodrin is given a name that conveys their true nature, celebrating differences and finding strengths within those differences. Gender inequality is not a word the Hodrin-kind would recognise. Male Hodrin have little speech, but the ability to mind-join with each other and ‘see’ the future. Female Hodrin cannot foresee the future, but can turn the male ‘seeings’ into practical and organised benefits for all. It is not a case of one sex is better than the other rather neither sex can progress without the other. That is not to say the Hodrin do not encounter difficulties. The use of Great Nut syrup to dull the minds of the males and keep them subservient reminds our own kind of the stifling of female progress through economic dependency. The classification of Hodrin based on fur colour, and the restrictions on mating between these different types, is a reminder of how our culture has created equally arbitrary divisions.

The message throughout the novel is one of tolerance, respect and a need to be true to one’s own nature. The Hodrin show us how to live authentically and in tune with each-other and our environment. The Hodrin also remind us of what happens if we try to stifle our desires, or subvert others to our will.

As with the rise of all great civilizations, crisis comes to Where Stand All in the form of the Squeeze, and just like the impending crisis in our world, Hodrin-kind must find a way to exist in harmony or risk extermination.

As you read Where-Stand-All you can’t help but compare it to our world, but it is more than an allegory, it is a message. We are the makers of our own destiny. Each and every one of us must own our thoughts and our actions. We all have a contribution to make, be that a poem or an engineering miracle, or the simple act of holding a hand at the end of a life. If we are true to ourselves and resist those that would divert us with the ‘false idols’, then we too can be magnificent in our own nature.

You won’t be the same after reading Where-Stand-All, but you will be better. And if you are anything like me, you will be left mulling over your potential Hodrin name and what it tells you about your true nature.

This novel should be required reading for sociology students everywhere and a rite of passage for every teenager who has ever asked the question: why is the world the way it is and can we make it better?

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 

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.

rejection

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?

On Writing: Seven degrees of rejection

snoopy rejection

1) Standard form rejection based on partial, five minutes after you pressed send.

2) Standard form rejection based on partial.

3) Personalised rejection based on partial (you’ve got talent variety).

4) Standard form rejection based on full.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”  W. C. Fields

5) Personalised rejection based on full (I didn’t buy into this aspect, but it’s a good idea).

6) Personalised rejection based on full (send us your next one).

7) Personalised rejection after you have resubmitted the same novel, which they asked you to edit further.

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  Isaac Asimov

This time I made no. 5. The higher the number the higher the hurt; 5 hurts pretty bad.

The only way to avoid it is either a) be a genius or b) don’t submit.

I’m working on a) and considering b).

And yes I know, it is only one agent. It doesn’t mean others won’t love it, but my writing ego is soft and easily wounded. I have to learn to toughen up because the alternative is not to write, and I can’t imagine not.

“After rejection – misery, then thoughts of revenge, and finally, oh well, another try elsewhere.”  Mason Cooley

What number have you got to? Do you struggle to send your novel out again?

“If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”  Dolly Parton

A review: My top ten for 2013

Time to review my list for 2013, one month in:

  1. Get an agent- well, I jumped. MS is sent.
  2. Get a publisher – depends on 1.
  3. Fast twice a week – yup, still doing it. Still feel great. Husband starts it tomorrow.
  4. Meditate regularly- not once. I really must start doing it again. Make time.
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present) – always trying, but would help if I meditated.
  6. Worry less (see no. 5) – nuff said.
  7. Read more books – reading two at once, currently. Spent a great train journey, immersed in Sadie Jones, Small Wars.
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet) – well I’ve sent the MS and my friend and I are challenging ourselves to write something new each month and put it in our shared dropbox.
  9. Keep blogging- love my blog.
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it – I’m getting on a plane to Honduras! And looking forward to it.

Five for writers: How do you make your story unputdownable, (other than putting superglue on the cover)

20130122_172932
my lovely books on writing – the ones not on my Kindle.

I confess. I am procrastinating.  I justify this procrastinating activity as I am studying writing technique rather than randomly surfing the internet (see my post A list: My top ten for 2013). But of course it means I am not doing what I should be doing, namely working through my novel for the final time before sending to ‘THE AGENT’, who has taken on such significance, I can only think of her in capitals. She did say, in our latest correspondence, to take as long as I needed, but I don’t think she meant forever.

Anyway, as I have been doing some reading, I thought I would share a little tip that I have found immensely useful, both when planning a novel and when editing.

It is courtesy of Adam Sexton’s; ‘Master Class in Fiction Writing’, which you can get a copy of on Amazon.

So, to make your novel unputdownable you start with a central character and need.

For example:

odysseus Odysseus needs to return home.

Jane Eyre needs Mr Rochester.

Juliet needs Romeo.

Bridget Jones needs Daniel Cleaver.

These characters needs are concrete in that they are able to be experienced via the senses. These needs are also dramatic. Dramatic means they are performable.

cyclops_poster We can see Odysseus steering his ship towards home and feel his frustration as his ship is driven  backwards, when his sailors release the north, south and east winds, thinking the bag contains gold.  We are there with him, desperate for him to slay the Cyclops so he can return to his beautiful wife on  the island of Ithaca. We are willing him on and we are desperate to find out if he gets there.We couldn’t  possibly put the book down without knowing.We must know.

Abstract/ general needs are not performable, therefore not dramatic and therefore not likely to keep your reader turning pages.

For example:

The need to be loved.
The need to survive.
The need for revenge.

We cannot invest in a character, nor care about their fate, if their need is vague,unobtainable, undramatic.

The story arises from making these abstract needs specific and concrete:

For example, how might you ‘show’ the need to be loved? By stalking someone. By proposing to them on live television. By making their dinner every night and listening to them rant about their day, without interrupting. By taking an overdose. These are all dramatic, concrete manifestations of the vague concept ‘to be loved’.

So, now you have your character and their need, the rest is easy (I jest). All you’ve got to do is make sure they don’t get what they need. In fact, you should make sure the need becomes more and more difficult to obtain (it took Odysseus ten years), even seemingly impossible, until the very end, where they either get what they needed; Jane marries Mr Rochester, Odysseus returns home. Or, they don’t – Romeo is dead and Juliet kills herself (OK, well she gets what she needs, but not in the way she intended). Or, the character realises that what they thought they needed, they didn’t after all; Bridget thought she needed Daniel, but realises in the end it was Mark she really loved.

These obstacles to achievement are the conflicts that drive your story. If the character lacks need, or if this need is easily satisfied, there is no conflict. No conflict = no story.conflict

In real life, of course, we have many needs, often competing, but in fiction this would create a diffuse and complex story, one unlikely to entice the reader to keep turning pages. Fiction illuminates one need and in doing so, illuminates all need (the abstract). I may not need Romeo, but I do need to be love and be loved. I may not be miles away from home, but my daughter is and I feel that homesickness to be with her.

What makes a book unputdownable is a great character with a dramatic need that becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. Easy really?!

Questions to ask about your story:

1) What concrete need does your character/s have?

2) What/ who is going to stand in their way? (this could be themselves, like religious belief, or fear of failure, or another character, or situation etc)

In my novel, In-between Us, there are two central characters.

Madeleine needs to keep her husband.
Rebecca needs Madeleine’s husband (uh, oh).

What gets in Madeleine’s way (apart from Rebecca) is the fact she is dying and the subsequent feeling of guilt that arises for ruining her husband’s future.

What gets in Rebecca’s way (apart from Madeleine) is her conscience, which increasingly niggles at her as she becomes embroiled in the lives of her married lover and his wife.

Whether both these characters will get what they need (which seems unlikely considering they both need the same thing), is hopefully what will keep the reader reading until the end, and more importantly (for me, right now) THE AGENT loving the book and making me an offer of representation.

This blog post is done. I ought to return to what I should be doing (editing), but I haven’t checked FB for ages (nearly 30 minutes), and who knows what earth shattering statuses and cat pictures I may have missed.

As always, comments and general chit-chat welcome.

A list: My top ten for 2013

  1. Get an agent
  2. Get a publisher
  3. Fast twice a week
  4. Meditate regularly
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present)
  6. Worry less (see no. 5)
  7. Read more books
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet)
  9. Keep blogging
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it

What’s your top ten for 2013? Please share.

Four for writers: How I write a novel (and for anyone who wants to know what I look like without make-up on)

I admit this is a bit of a lazy post this week, but only because I have been spending every spare minute of the day completing the second draft of my novel (the one the agent wants to see). And in penance, I am letting you see me without make-up on, and believe me, it is not pretty.

Sorry you had to see this
Sorry you had to see this

The first draft is rough (see picture). I just write, without censoring my thoughts, or worrying about POV. I write 2000 words a day, every day, until around six weeks later I have 100,000 words. I show no-one this draft.

Amazing what a bit (lot) of foundation can do
Amazing what a bit (lot) of foundation can do

I then begin all over again. Using bits of the first draft, but often rewriting scenes from a different POV to the one I originally chose, and getting rid of the ‘tell’ – usually backstory, so vital to the writer when constructing the novel from scratch, but boring to the reader. It is only once I have a second draft that I can see the full shape of the story. Or using the make-up analogy, foundation is on and the worst cracks and crevices are smoothed away.

The second draft is the first time I show anyone the story (I would never leave the house without at least foundation on). Time to call in all those favours from review groups and writer friends.

Getting there.
Getting there.

Once I have all the feedback in, comes draft three. Strengthening character motivations and themes. It might also involve writing ‘out’ or ‘in’ a character, and even changing the plot. Back to the make-up analogy, still very much reconstructive – creating cheekbones I don’t have and eyelashes I can only dream about.

I feel like me again.
I feel like me again.

Draft four. Close reading of every sentence, often starting from the back and working forward, as it is easier to see each sentence on its own this way. The important thing to do here, is get rid of any lingering cliches or stupid phrasing, and check dialogue sounds natural. Or in make-up terminology, applying eye-shadow, eyeliner and filling in my pale eyebrows, which almost disappear on the outer edge.

20121013_122108

And finally, draft five – Now I can focus on the little things, like typos or missing words and checking the whole thing reads smoothly, and there aren’t any continuity errors. I use a text to speech software programme (this one is free), correcting as I go. Time for lipstick and hair.

Ta da!
Ta da!

Now I am ready to submit! Or in make-up terms; this is as good as it is going get.

Luckily my writing can improve further, even if I can’t!

How do you do it? Write a novel I mean, not apply your make-up. Please share.