Review: Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

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The biggest problem with The Casual Vacancy is that it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not a problem for me, and I am guessing that JK Rowling doesn’t have much of a problem with that either, but for a lot of readers this will be an issue. Not an issue, this will be THE issue. Because of the name on the front cover, a lot of people will read this book who wouldn’t have otherwise read it, and a lot of those people may find themselves disappointed, not because it’s not a very good book (it is), but because it’s nothing like what came before. I dare say that with a different name on the cover, this book would have garnered better reviews (they’ve been on the positive side of mixed) and generated greater respect for its author.

I came to this book as someone who had seen all of the Harry Potter films, read one of the books, and written for the same target audience. Why hadn’t I read more? I tend to read adult literature and I didn’t feel the need to read more of HP, to put it simply. It was nothing against Rowling. But I was intrigued by what she would write when it came time to move on. It was clear she was a good story-teller, but would she be able to get to grips with something aimed at adults? This always strikes me as a strange question. The assumption always seems to be that if you can do something for a kids audience you won’t be able to translate it to an older group but there’s no reason why not. It’s certainly something I had thought about. Before How To Fill A Black Hole I had always been writing about adult subject matter (albeit in script form rather than prose) and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.

Anyway, I picked up the book and got stuck in. It seemed like there was an early statement of intent. While the page numbers were still in their teens there had already been a glimpse of naked breasts as well as some upper-end swearing (with some F’s and a C thrown around). Rowling was clearly making sure we knew this was adult material and a world away from what she had written before.

What also became clear was that Rowling has a brilliant sense of character, bringing out the inner lives of her subjects vividly. I immediately recognised who these people were, I could picture them and understand how they lived their lives. These weren’t hollow shells fulfilling a role in a story, they were people living in a village; their actions were real, they were what these people would do; their interactions were wholly believable.  And this is crucial to the story Rowling is telling, which essentially is a butterfly effect piece: an event occurs in the first few pages and we follow the way the chain of events envelops a disparate group of characters.

The story concerns a vacancy on the parish council for the (fictional) West Country village of Pagford due to the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother. The council is currently deadlocked over a number of issues concerning the ownership and running of an estate known as The Fields, an area ‘true Pagfordians’ look down upon. The identity of the new councillor could decide the future of the estate. One simplistic way of looking at this might be to describe it as Miss Marple meets The Wire, though while there’s a death at the centre of the story, it’s not murder.

This backdrop allows Rowling the opportunity to write something of a ‘state of the nation’ piece showing all points of view regarding how underprivileged areas and people should be treated and whose responsibility they are. It’s the kind of thing that is rarely seen in this country (well – I’ve rarely seen, but I’m nowhere near as widely read as perhaps I should be). I have seen pointed out elsewhere that Rowling is in a pretty unique position having spent a proportion of her life in almost every strata of British society, and it seems she has taken on a position to comment on all of these.

(It also appears clear that she has a view on who is right and who is in the wrong, but given that this conforms to my own opinions, this may just be my reading of the text.)

There have been complaints that the book is too bleak a portrait, that every character is miserable and that life always offers some light, some laughs, along the way. I have to say that this was not my interpretation but that I can see how such views could be derived. Rowling’s characters rarely have good things to say (or think) about each other, be they husband and wife or vowed enemies and certainly one could view their portrayal as a depressing commentary on middle England, but I prefer to think of it as a richly dark and tragic comedy. Even so, the desire for light seems a view coloured (at least slightly) by the Harry Potter stories. Granted, these became bleak as they went on, and there is no one in Pagford who can be called the true personification of evil in the same way as he who may not be named, but even so, there was generally fun to be had along the way with the Weasley twins, with the new teachers and new spells, and with Quiddich. You will not find the same kind of entertainment on offer here, it’s true.

Some reviews have looked down on the quality of the writing but for me this was unfair and, indeed, petty. I am always going to side with a good story well told over pages of flowery language, and if you’re coming to this looking for flowery language (which I doubt many readers are) then you’ll leave disappointed. But Rowling does succeed in telling a very good story, drawing the reader into the inner lives of her characters, making them feel the pain and the heartache suffered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s especially good at writing the inner lives of her younger protagonists, making sense of the often nonsensical teenage years and yearnings, the way the raging hormones can push you into saying or doing things you know you shouldn’t.

This is a vividly created world and the occasional weak metaphor is no reason to dismiss it. But that said, one of the lines I have seen criticised was one that stood out for me as something to be celebrated:

“Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the writing (and my taste) from that. Granted, there are weak lines (“But then came the hour than changed everything” is overblown for a moment that just pushed the story onwards, like so many other moments in the book), but for me the individual lines are not what matters here, it is the greater whole, not the individual brushstrokes but the picture painted, and Rowling has created a rich tapestry of early 21st century middle England.

Sandi Toksvig – My Valentine live show – Review

Sandi Toksvig – My Valentine – Poole Lighthouse, Friday October 5th, 2012

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Sandi Toksvig starts her show My Valentine (directed by Pip Broughton) by warning the audience that it has, on occasion, been seen as a bit of a letdown, but she needn’t have worried as the two hours whiz by far so fast we can barely catch our breath..

The first half constitutes something of an autobiography and family history, covering her career (from the first – and only – all female footlights revue through to QI and The News Quiz), her childhood at schools on both sides of the Atlantic, and her family’s myriad connections and achievements in the arts (which range from her father’s role as Denmark’s first television foreign correspondent to her aunt and uncle’s position in the Algonquin Round Table alongside Dorothy Parker).

The credit from her career that perhaps resonates most throughout the entire show, though, is Call My Bluff, as the Dane consistently displays her love for the English language, contrasting it with the comparative paucity of the Danish language. That doesn’t stop her from teaching us a seemingly random Danish phrase – “I am the King of Denmark and I like strawberries” – a phrase which gains resonance later in the show.

Toksvig’s love of language continues in the second half, which could easily be seen as just an advert for Toksvig’s latest book, Valentine Grey, but ultimately becomes so much more. The book revolves around the story of a woman who decides to disguise herself as a man and enlist to fight in the Boer War, a storyline many could find unbelievable but that was inspired by a number of real life figures who made similar choices, and this is where the show becomes something more. Toksvig highlights these women, embracing their stories and imploring her audience to read up on the remarkable characters behind them. One such woman, Nadezhda Durova, rose to the rank of Captain in the Russian Cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Upon discovery of her secret, rather than being criminalised as one might have expected of time, she was awarded further medals for her role. (Her story can be read in the translation of her journals, The Cavalry Maiden).

Alas, Sandi barely pauses for breath as she regales us with these tales and, having come for a comedy show and not a lecture, remembering all of the details proves nigh on impossible. But that doesn’t diminish the power of the stories or the passion Toksvig has for them, and neither does it weigh against the enjoyment of the show. Toksvig is a master communicator and spending two hours in her company is a pure joy.

(This is a slightly expanded version of my review originally written for the What The Frock blog. What The Frock is a Bristol based women’s comedy night (the comedians are female, the audience is mixed) run by my friend Madam J-Mo. Madam J-Mo’s blog is full of interesting, engaging and amusing pieces on pop culture, feminism and suffrage and is well worth a read.)

Back once again

I’ve been away. Sorry. It wasn’t anything you said. I should perhaps add that I’ve not been ‘away’ away – I’ve been here, I’ve just not been posting, and that is bad of me. So what do I have to say for myself? Nothing. That’s right nothing. I don’t have to answer to you. You’re not my real parents. I hate you. God, I wish I’d never been born. [stamps upstairs, slams bedroom door].

Sorry about that. I’m not sure what just happened. Anyway, I need to bring you up-to-date. What’s been happening?

Firstly, the book has sold pretty well. I got a massive boost when the lovely Zoe Ball gave me a plug on BBC Radio 2 (see the video I cobbled together and have placed at the foot of this post). I had sent Zoe the book on the off chance that her son Woody would enjoy it, and lo-and-behold, about 6 weeks later I get some lovely words and orders from Milliways (I am reliably told) went through the roof.

The book is now about to be reprinted (freshly emblazoned with some a quote from Zoe on the back cover) and will hopefully find its way into Waterstones in the near future.

In the meantime I have been working on the follow-up book, The Revolutionary Kind. I am still hoping that it will be out by the end of the year, but that is looking like a tougher and tougher challenge. How To Fill A Black Hole took me a loooong time to write and while I will be much, much quicker with TRK, I think having it on the shelves within a year of the first book was being a little over eager, especially when you consider I am still working a full time job at the moment. Still, I will push on and, fingers crossed, thy will be done.

As for the story, is there anything I can reveal? Well, it will be different in tone and a different type of story. I don’t want the books to become repetitious so each one will be bringing different themes to the fore. I don’t want to say much more at the moment, but if anyone has any specific questions, ping them my way and I can answer them. Or ignore them. You know, one or the other.

In the meantime, I intend to try to update this blog once or twice a week, keep it ticking over. It’s a good little warm-up exercise for the rather larger writing project at hand, if nothing else. I’ll probably be sharing some thoughts about various books, tv shows and films I have read and seen, things like that.

Stay tuned.

And now, Zoe Ball:

Release the Houn… Books!


So. I am now counting down to the day of release. Except I don’t have a final date yet. Milliways Books have got their website up and running. You can download the first three chapters of the book for free, just to get you started. We’re working on the basis that this will prove to be the child friendly version of crack McDonald’s Happy Meals World of Warcraft something that is aimed at adults but I can mention on a blog post that might, at some point, be read by a child and that is really addictive. The point being, if you read the opening 3 chapters you will be desperate to read the rest. Because it’s really good, see?

Anyway. The website features links to Southampton Hospital Charities as Milliways are generously donating £1 from every copy sold on the website to the charity to be used in the children’s funds at the hospital. It also features a place where you can buy the book (£7.99 – a veritable snip, get yourself two, one for weekdays and one for Sunday best) and some other bits and pieces.

You can also see the brilliant cover there. But then, you can see it here too. Where, you ask? Why here:

The Marianna Voyages i: How To Fill A Black Hole cover

The Marianna Voyages i: How To Fill A Black Hole

See – good, eh?

And not only that, I have gone and set up a fan page for the book at Facebook. And another one, all for me.

It’s all go.

Anyway. The cover is done. The typesetting is almost complete. It should be off to the printers within the week, which means that it’ll be available for sale by the end of September. Probably earlier. I just don’t know how much earlier.

Now, I should probably get round to doing a proper post about something more writerly – some analysis of a filme or TV show or book or something, perhaps revisit my 3D post from before and update you on my thoughts. But not right now, I’m afraid. Sometime soon, when my life isn’t quite as dominated by releasing my first book. Which is kinda taking over at the moment.

Until tomorrow…*

*By tomorrow I merely mean some later date, much in the same way that the word was meant in the song over the credits of The Littlest Hobo.

I’m Back, Baby!

Yes, it’s been a long time, and yes, this is a new location, but I am back and slowly making this place look just a little bit nicer. So why the absence and why have I returned? Well, an awful lot has happened since March 2010, things which kept me away from updating. Nothing bad – in fact almost entirely good – a lot of it personal, but just a little tiny bit of it is worth mentioning here…

So… I mentioned in my post Name Me that I was struggling to name the book I had been working on, and I gave away a few clues to the subject matter of the book. At the end of the post I came up with a title – How To Fill A Black Hole – and asked what you thought. You got back in your droves (no one said anything) to let me know this was a great title and so it stuck. Now, one of the strange things is, I genuinely did come up with that title as I got to the end of the piece. It wasn’t all set up, that was a real eureka moment. Well, maybe not eureka, but it did just come to me then. I’ve subsequently discussed it with a lot of people in the real world and the overwhelming feeling was positive, though a few voiced concerns with it which I won’t go into here. The point being, in my head it stuck. And that fired me on to get the book completed*, which is one of the things that has kept me away from here…

The next step was contacting agents and trying to get somewhere. I worked out a decent query letter (in my eyes) working from various tips I found around the web. No one could agree on the best way forward, but I kept it pretty short and to the point, made sure I included everything that was asked for in the appropriate formats and fired everything off.

No joy.

The response was virtually universal:

It’s good but it’s not for us.

Now, from my scriptwriting days I know that agents can certainly send messages which make their feelings clear, but these weren’t negative in as much as they sounded mildly personal, as opposed to a standard template, and didn’t seem to suggest there was anything wrong with the writing. About as positive as a rejection can be really. No, the issue seemed to be a belief that it would be difficult to place. This is something I can believe as my own research into the target market (children’s sci-fi, if you remember) showed that there is nothing really quite like this. Specifically I asked in bookshops about books for my “nephew” who “loves Star Wars and Harry Potter” (yes, I invoked HP) and the best they could offer was Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Diana Wynne-Jones. All good. Indeed, in many ways great. But none of them really captured the spirit of what I was going for. So I knew I had an open goal, but it’s also something that might scare off publishers. There is no proof that this will sell, and it’s a risk averse-publisher’s market at the moment. If only I was an overweight stand-up comedian who’s hasn’t had a TV show in 7 years, maybe I’d have got a seven-figure deal. Oh well.

I didn’t want to end up on the notorious slush pile, lying in hope at home for months on end until some university work-experience staff-member read the first 4 pages and decided “No, this is not the future for BIG PUBLISHER PLC”, but some local networking found a small publishing start-up, keen to find something interesting to open their account with. We discussed the book and, long-to-short, it’ll be out in the wild in a month(ish). It’s been a hectic couple of months getting everything together and ready, but we’re nearly there. The final drafts of the cover have been done and it looks amazing – I am hoping to have something to put up on the blog soon. One of the great things about working with a small, local publisher has been how we have been able to work together on concepts that will be different and eye-catching – the kind of non-generic cover that BIG PUBLISHER never seems to want to use because there’s always a picture of a tree that hasn’t been seen with a green tint yet. So I’ve been hands-on with the cover, though my art skills are nil, and it is brilliant, I have to say. Local designer Gary Frost has done an amazing job.

Working with this yet-to-be-named publisher (well, they have been named, just that until the website is up and ready to go, they shall not be named on this blog) has led to some really interesting marketing ideas for getting the book out there in the public consciousness too. More of which will also be coming later.

So there is an air of mystery around all of this, for which I apologise, but hey, I’m back, and that’s the main thing.

 

*Yes, the Name Me post says I had five pages to go. That turned into about 60, with a chunk of rewriting too, so it was a bit more than anticipated, but it’s made the book a better beast.

The Good Critic


It’s awards season, and this Sunday sees the culmination of a seemingly endless number of awards ceremonies: The Screen Actors’ Guild, The Screen Writers’ Guild, The Golden Globes, The BAFTAs, The Emmys and I’m sure in amongst it all there have smaller, more low-key, but far more fabulous ceremonies for the Screen Hairdressers’ Guild and the Screen Animal Wranglers’ Guild too.

But yes, Sunday is the Oscar ceremony and the build-up has included the perennial favourite article in every publication going about speech length. If there is one thing people seem to agree needs to be shorter, smaller and faster, it’s acceptance speeches and every year the organisers tell us about their new, hard, fast rules to ensure the show runs to time. This year, acceptance speeches must be 45 seconds or less. That’s when the band will kick in and, for those who dare challenge it, no doubt the fat lady will start to sing too. The difference this time round is that the organisers want interesting speeches too. There is to be an off-stage ‘Thanks-cam’ where winners can thank all the family, friends, pets and agents that made things possible. On-stage they should make with off-hand Clooney-like charm, or there will be repercussions – like being made to star alongside J-Lo or some such.

So, I hear you ask, how are you going to segue this into something relating to the title that’s sitting in big bold letters at the top of this post? Well, quite possibly with a hackneyed “So how am I going to…” type sentence. Actually, the point is really that for authors, every book has the equivalent of the ‘Thanks-cam’ where they get to congratulate all those who contributed to their success. You know it, it’s that page you and everyone else out there skips unless there’s a slight chance of getting a mention: the acknowledgements page.

To the diminishing numbers of people out there actually reading books, the person responsible for the text is the author. In most people’s eyes, writing a book is one of very few things that is truly a solitary pursuit, but this ignores the impact other people can have on the finished text. Of course there will be people you will bounce ideas off, but the crucial input is made after the text is completed, only then do you get to find out if your work has achieved the desired effect, and it is vital that you find the best possible people to give you best possible feedback and advice. I cannot hasten enough to point out that by ‘best possible feedback’, I do not mean gushing praise, but feedback that will improve all that has gone before.

For professional authors, this position should, at least partially, be filled by the editor, but having people you trust around you to offer this feedback is invaluable regardless of your success. But what should you be looking for in a good critic? And, if you have been asked to give feedback to a writer-friend, what should you be aspiring to achieve with the information you give back? I come to this subject because I recently gave my nigh on complete book to a friend and received priceless feedback from him. I have, of course, given my book out to many people to read at various stages of development and I have received all kinds of feedback on it, but, partially because of the stage I am at and partially just because of the sheer quality of the information given me, this was a cut above. So let me provide some kind of cut-out-and-keep guide to what a good critic will offer.

  1. Gushing – As mentioned above, some friends will think you’ve done really well. The idea of writing 200+ pages boggles their mind so whatever story you have told, they are amazed. Either that or they are afraid to tell you they didn’t enjoy it. These people are no help at all. First things first, they must view your book as though they have plucked it off the shelf and have no emotional connection to the person who wrote it. If they can’t distance themselves they can’t be constructive because their thoughts will always be tainted by your friendship.
  2. Inconsistencies – A good critic should pick out any time your book is running into inconsistencies. And I don’t just mean “His eyes were blue in Chapter 1 and Green in chapter 20”, I mean inconsistencies in character, location, action, rules (important in sci-fi where your universe may display a set of physical rules different from ours) and so on. If you are reading a book and you find any of these inconsistencies you are brought out of the experience, you start thinking about why it doesn’t make sense and you forget about the story.
  3. Tone & Voice – This should probably be 1(a) really. Books assume a certain tone and voice. You can have several if you use several narrators. A good critic will let you know if you slip out of the appropriate tone or voice, even if just for a sentence.
    These three are just the basics, however. The kinds of things most people might spot because, as I mentioned above, they bring you out of the story when you come across them. The real work is done on the more subtle aspects of the book.
  4. Choices – Writing is all about choices. When to start the story, when to end it, who the characters are, what they do, how they interact. Most people, when they read a book, will accept the choices an author has made. The author is the authority. If people are unsatisfied with a book or a film they will say they didn’t like it, they won’t tell you why. They won’t necessarily be capable.
  5. Justification – In your criticism you should be forcing the author to answer questions. If I can’t tell you what role Max actually plays, aside from making a smart-alek quip or two and getting stuck up a tree, it may well be that Max doesn’t need to be in the story.
    And at this juncture there is an important point for authors – listen to feedback you get and act on it. If someone asks you a question and you can’t give a proper answer, that means something – don’t just decide to overlook it.
  6. Prompt – This goes hand-in-hand with Justification and Choices – If you ask your questions in the right way you will get the author thinking and imagining and things could go off an a whole other tangent. It is entirely possible that the right question asked in the right way could change the whole course of not just a book, but a career.
    Rather than justifying the choice made, I am suggesting you prompt a choice not made – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese/roll the 4 and the 2/jump the shark/fancy Roberta/ride a motorcycle?”. This is about spotting where a character makes a (wholly appropriate) choice but could just as easily make another. If the critic can spot the point where the story starts to go off he rails and can ask the right question, the author starts imagining and creates a whole new story.
  7. Avoid direct suggestions where possible – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese, but instead, ate the sausage that’s just gone off, and then he throws up and… and… and…”.
    We authors are a delicate bunch. We are the creative ones and we won’t be told how to create (this may just be me). If you ask the right question, we’ll know that he eats the sausage, but if you tell us that’s what he does, you can be damn sure in the next draft he’s a vegetarian.

In summary, don’t tell us we’re bad, don’t tell us we’re good, highlight the things that don’t work by asking the right questions, prompt further creation, and for God’s sake don’t tell us how to fix them

To be honest, I’m not sure how insightful all of that was. Perhaps someone could write me a quick critique, and I’ll whip it into shape*.

As a PS – writing about editors reminded me of this story I read a while back about Raymond Carver and the impact his editor had on his writing:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/27/raymond-carver-editor-influence

And I also have an update to the previous ‘links’ post. The Guardian recently picked up on the Elmore Leonard 10 rules of writing piece that I linked to and asked plenty-much authors to write their own 10 rules, and that can be found here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

*I won’t.

Name me!


It’s nearly there. I have completed editing, barring two things.

1) I have created a technology for the story that I am not totally settled on a name for. I need to select one and go through, making my choice uniform throughout.

2) I have picked out a few invented slang words for my characters to use, but I only did this late on in the writing process so I want to go and drop one or two more of those in early on. Though I must stress, I am not going to be putting these everywhere as I feel that would be tiresome. Only where they truly fit in.

That aside, the editing is done. I have also drafted my query letter to send on to an appropriate agency. I’m very happy with the letter, I feel it provides an appropriate level of information about myself and about my book, isn’t too long-winded, and should intrigue the reader enough to want to actually see the story. Well, that’s the intent…

But before I can put the query letter into action I have two further things to do (on top of the very minor editing outlined above):

1) Write the last five pages. This is quite important really. I need to have the book ready to go, even though the website for the agency I am intending to approach says they only want the first three chapters, I still feel I should have the whole thing done. If only to clear my head. And it’s five pages – come on… I can write five pages, right? Well, it might be six, I don’t know. It might be four as well, so there’s plenty of ways of looking at this. All the important stuff has happened, it’s just about wrapping it all up and sending the kids off for ice cream and ginger ale… wait… it’s not a Famous Five book, is it?

Anyway, that brings me onto the thing that is really bugging me, above all else, about this whole thing, and that’s number two on my list…:

2) The title. I don’t like it. I never have, not from the moment I conceived the book(s), at no point during the writing process, and not now I am about to send it to people in the hope of changing the course of my life…

It was always a holding title. A title that was there so that there was one, always in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be the final title. A phrase would jump out at me, a sentence in the book, something would make an obvious case to be the title. But nothing has. My title is bland, perfunctory. It does not stand out, jump up and down or slap you round the face (though the latter might be a blessing). It sounded like a ‘place-holder’ from the very start.

But worse than that, it sounds like another ‘place-holder’ of a title.

I have skirted around the issue of what I am actually writing up until this point. It’s for children is about as far as I have gone. Now I’m willing to drop a few more hints, the first of which links very nicely with the ‘place-holder’ mentioned above…

In 1977 one of the most successful films of all time was released. It was called Star Wars. Except it wasn’t. Technically, it was called Star Wars: Epsiode 4: A New Hope. Which meant the film itself was plainly A New Hope. Bland. Not even blandly enigmatic, just bland. Tedious. It makes me want to yawn. In fact, I will. And so should you. Go on, yawn at the title right now. Got that out of your system? Good, maybe you won’t yawn at mine too…

You see, my book is in the realm of Sci-Fi (or Science Fience, for those of you not in the know). It is the first part of a multi-part series – though I am starting with book 1, not like Star Wars. And my first story is currently called The City Of Hope. You yawned, didn’t you? It was just as you got to the H in Hope.

What does that title tell you? Nothing, that’s what. There’s a city in it. And that city has hope. Why is hope needed? [Ooh, maybe there’s intrigue] Hope’s always needed. [Maybe not then]. It doesn’t fill you with any deep-seated desire to get stuck in, does it? What about Voyage [or Journey] To The City Of Hope? Do either of those work for you? They still do little for me.

Even more infuriating is the fact that as I neared completion of book 1, I started thinking about book 2, and I already have a title I am totally happy with. It fits perfectly, it sums up the intrigue and excitement I want. It’s just perfect. But horribly tormenting. Why couldn’t it be like that with book 1?

It’s interesting how different projects and different titles work. I previously devised a television drama series. It was about conmen. Two conmen, in fact. It was a six-parter, one long story told over all the episodes, and it was influenced by the great Paul Abbott series State of Play (in terms of realism and structure). In fact, I even got to meet with Abbott’s then agent who told me she very much enjoyed the script and wished me all the best while I desperately hung on her every word, hoping for an offer to fall forward. Anyway, that series was called Pros & Cons. I could only start work on it the moment I had the title. Up to that point I had so many ideas and nothing to hold it all together. The title unified it.

I think with everything I write, there has to be something that unifies the projects – the moment it is suddenly ready to write. For Pros & Cons it was the title. For The City Of Hope it was the moment I figured out the ending to the entire series. I didn’t need to know every other step of the way, I just needed the very ending in place and it was a goer. But God, how I wish it was the title, because I need one right now…

You know…

…Sometimes…

…It’s funny how cathartic this blog can be because over the course of writing this entry an idea has sprung to mind. It’s not perfect. The book would need a little tweaking to get it to fit. But then most of that tweaking could be done to the few unwritten pages at the end of the book. It would fit with some earlier themes. Maybe…

I’m not totally sold though…

What do you think of How To Fill A Black Hole?

This is not a post…


Well, it’s been a little while since I posted and I have a few things I want to talk about, but I’m going to save those up for a real post in the next few days. In the mean time, let’s get a couple of random items out of the way.

Firstly, my editing. This is what has been keeping me busy. I have gone through the entire book with a red pen and crossed out great swathes of text… well, ok, I’ve made some alterations but it’s about getting the flow of the sentences and the flow of the narrative that I’ve been working on. I’m now mid-way through putting these alterations into the text file (for while I am a writer, I am perhaps more accurately a typist). I’d hope to have these done by the end of the week so I can start on the path of finding an agent…

Anyway, in addition to that update, I wanted to share some links which I think are particularly useful for the writer. You may or may not be familiar with the writing of Elmore Leonard, but really you should be. His novels have spawned some excellent films – Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma – and some not so excellent films which I will not bother to go into.

There are two things that Leonard’s writing is perhaps most well-known for (or that I particularly revere him for) – 1) his characterisation and 2) his narratives. He knows how to draw a character with minimal effort and maximum impact – they always feel real and three-dimensional and you always believe in their actions. It sounds simple but so many writers bring in characters to achieve a certain goal and never flesh them out. But the greater achievement is the narrative thrust he builds. At all points you know he is building towards something and every scene brings you closer to that end goal.

With all that in mind, I would highly recommend you check out his ten rules of writing, available on the NY Times website, here:

http://bit.ly/89ZbAY

He acknowledges that his rules aren’t hard and fast, but it’s best to know the rules before you go about breaking them. Generally, you need a good reason to do any of the things he tells you not to. There’s little point me highlighting any of it – I won’t be able to sum any of it up better than he does – just click the link above…

Secondly I’d like to direct you to a column by Nathan Rabin at the AV Club – an excellent site with some of the best interviews and features around (though despite my high impression of these sections, I find I rarely agree with their film reviews. Strange, I know).

Anyway, Rabin recently released his memoir, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture. I have to confess to not having read it yet, but Rabin’s columns are some of my favourites on the site, especially his series “My Year of Flops” (http://bit.ly/18xdO5) and so I imagine the book will be a particularly good read.

In the link here…:

http://bit.ly/6Zfoxb

…Rabin discusses various things aspiring authors need to know. Admittedly, it’s relatively US-centric (unsurprisingly), but there are still plenty of things to glean, including the truth about advances, how to accept bad or unfair reviews and what to expect as a real reward for all your hard work. He says it much better.

[Addition on Jan 15th]

An horrific oversight on my part – I have been sent two very useful links on Twitter from @MarkDury. Firstly, how to go about getting your book reviewed. There aren’t that many books that publishers will throw their weight behind and ensure they get press coverage so you may have to do it yourself. However, many people have no idea how to do it without annoying those they wish to influence. Here’s the link:

http://bit.ly/5Gyp0Z

And secondly, 17 applications made especially for writers. While I can’t vouch for the quality of any of these myself, they could well be a better writing partner than MS Word or Open Office, so check ’em out and, if you give them a go, feed back your thoughts on which work best.

http://tr.im/KpgI

Hopefully those are useful links. I shall be back soon with something more substantial, I promise…


Rearranging the Molecules on the Titanic


If you follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/BenjaminHendy) then you may have seen that I have already attempted to write this post twice and failed on both occasions, and that I also promised to explain myself when I finally did get it completed. Well, I have something that I want to talk about in this post, but each time I tried to write an introduction I would veer off on some tangent or other that would prove to be perfectly interesting but take me further and further away from what I wanted to talk about. I have saved both these attempted blog posts for future cannibalisation, but for now, let’s address the topic I really wanted to focus on: Editing.

There is a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, though as time passes I wonder where I got it from and if I am correctly attributing it, but hey, let’s roll with it. “The worst part of film making is making the film.” And if I haven’t incorrectly paraphrased him enough already, I’m going to make up a quote to clarify what he means by that: “I have already made the film in my mind by the time I get to the set, at which point I need to coerce the actors to give the performances I have seen in my head.”

Anyway, I feel pretty much the same way about writing; The worst part of writing is the writing. By the time I sit down to write I normally have the story plotted out, along with visualisations of all the key scenes. This means that the actual writing is a mechanical process of transferring that information from my brain to the page in a legible format. I do not like mechanical processes. Witness the fact that more than 10 minutes of any kind of data entry task will pretty much send me to sleep. And writing is only one step up from data entry at this stage.

I am, of course, exaggerating. There are plenty of aspects of writing a story I enjoy, especially coming up with small moments of characterisation that capture what a person is going through. This doesn’t stop much of it becoming a chore, only made bearable by the act of completion.

Except completion isn’t completion, is it? Oh no, then comes the editing. Some editing can be done as you go along. Indeed, this is the way I approach a lot of scriptwriting. But for prose it is considerably more intense and in-depth. Instead of having 60 pages of predominantly white paper, I have 259 pages completely covered in text to go through.

I was trying to think of a suitable simile for what I feel like I am going through right now. Similes aren’t really my thing, something which may well become evident momentarily. It’s like if you were a chef and your idea were the recipe and writing the book was cooking the meal, editing would be going through the meal on a molecule by molecule basis to ensure that the salt and pepper were perfectly evenly spaced and actually, it would be better if you took out the onion and replaced with a slightly different onion because the flavour of the first onion hadn’t quite bled out across the rest of the meal properly, etc and so on. Frankly, if that was what being a chef was, there would be no restaurants, only McDonald’s. And no, McDonald’s, no matter how much you protest, I will not accept your establishments being labelled restaurants any more than I will accept that having a large TV in my living room makes it a cinema.

So it’s quite a tedious process, that’s what I’m getting at, mildly preferable to having thousands of tiny needles inserted into your eyes. If it was only hundreds I’d probably go with the needles…

As I kind of intimated in the simile, there are two levels of editing I am doing. The first, working on the molecular level, is essentially proof-reading. Microsoft Word (other word processors are available) is predominantly a good piece of software, but until it learns when I mean to type ‘from’ and when I mean to type ‘form’, its spellcheck facility is going to be of little use. Particularly as I am using a number of made up words throughout the book. So I am going through with a fine-tooth comb  (though I’d love to use a fine tooth-comb) looking for all these little details that I have done wrong.

Allied to this is the task of checking the text actually scans. It is amazing what, when in the midst of a brain-splurge writing session, comes out and how difficult it can be to unravel the intended meaning behind the words. So I am reading the book aloud to myself to make sure all the text scans. Any sign of confusion and I try to reword the sentence. As a pedant, this is quite a big thing for me. As someone with a short attention span who has been working on this story for 3 or more years, this is incredibly frustrating.

Not, however, as frustrating as the second type of editing that’s going on. This is where, halfway through the book I realised that a character lacked definition. Instead of heading back to the beginning and rewriting the character’s scenes, I left it for the edit. So now I am having to rewrite scenes and sequences to ensure character consistency. In many ways, this is far more frustrating than the rest of it. At least the rest of the work I am doing is relatively black and white; rewriting a character is chaos theory in action. “Oh, but if I change that like that, than it changes this scene, which then impacts on the other scene…” and so it goes on. And before you know it, your comedy of manners has metamorphosed into Transformers 3: The Quest for WD40, all because, actually, it would be more interesting if Brian had taken a keener interest in photography in his youth to justify him taking that picture. It’s painful.

Fortunately, the changes I am having to make won’t affect things quite as much as I intimate above, but there is still a ripple that runs through the book and you have to re-read it again and again to make sure that it still all hangs together. I think the remarkable thing here is that it actually does still hang together. And that is why I keep going. If I found the story tedious, if I couldn’t revel in the excitement of the characters on the tenth time of reading I wouldn’t be able to finish it. But it also tells me that the story is fresh, which hopefully means that it will be enjoyed by children. Well, at the very least, it would be enjoyed by me when I was 9, which is my target audience. Hopefully my taste then is representative of kids today.

Openings….


I stand to be corrected on practically everything I say on this blog, but I am going open with a rash statement off the top of my head:

There are two ways to open a story.

Nowadays, with shorter attention spans and more content than ever fighting for your attention, it has become almost standard to open with a bang. Gone (though not entirely) are the days when an action movie can open with scene setters and character introduction, as seen in Die Hard. Now it’s all about the explosive beginning trying to surprise the audience, or, at the very least, grab them by the unmentionables (see Die Hard With A Vengeance).

With all that in mind, I am going against the grain and will attempt the more traditional opening: the scene setter. I’m going to try to lay out my aims and the themes that should be featuring in this blog as it – hopefully – grows over the passing, days, weeks, months and years.

The journey that you and I shall be taking is a journey through the landscape of writing. I shall be looking at techniques involved in the craft, the frustrations that lie in wait and the different approaches favoured. Not only that, if things go well I shall hopefully be able to talk about agents, publishers and readings. And if things don’t go so well, vanity publishing and bankruptcy. All in all, you may well get yourself a tour of the world of writing. And if you’re lucky, I’ll manage not to be the incompetent tour guide who got hammered last night, is working through the mother of all hangovers, and is only really doing this to flirt with members of the opposite sex and delay having to get a real job…

So who am I and why do I think I might be capable of this monumental task? Well, to answer the second part of that question first, I’m probably not capable. Now, back to the first part. My name is Benjamin Hendy and I am a writer. Saying that (or writing it) makes this seem like some kind of confessional-come-alcoholics-anonymous-session, and maybe this is, because until you’re getting paid to write, calling yourself a writer will always feel, on some level, like a lie – no matter how many words you put down on paper. If you tell someone you’re a writer they will expect to be able to buy your book or read your column or in some way have immediate proof that you do indeed do this. It’s strange, I don’t get this in my day job. “You’re an analyst? Where can I see your latest spreadsheet?” they don’t cry…

Anyway, my background. When I was younger (yes, you’re right, so much younger than today), I used to write stories. They were rubbish. I was 7, 8, 9, 10, so of course they were rubbish. But the point is, I did it. To some extent, telling stories has always been a part of me. As I aged, the arty subjects became harder and I lacked both motivation and discipline. I had always been pretty good with numbers and so through secondary school I concentrated on those skills which came easy – maths and science – rather than those that required greater study and understanding such as English. Then, upon starting out on my A levels of double maths, physics and chemistry, I came to realise
that those subjects required study and understanding too, and that I would rather try to study and understand subjects I enjoyed. I dropped them and moved to English language, media studies and theatre studies.

This is lesson number one, as far as I am concerned. Try to study the things you enjoy, rather than the things you can necessarily do. In my experience, in the longer term, it will bring you great fulfilment. But maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, after completing my A levels, I twiddled my thumbs for a year (and I thank Pizza Hut for paying me while I did this) before going to University to study Scriptwriting for Film and TV. One day I will post on the reasons for this choice rather than, say, English, and my thoughts on how this helped and/or hindered me, but now is not the time for that. This is just a brief overview…

I have written film scripts, television scripts and scripts for shorts. I have written drama, comedy, tragedy, dramedy, cama, dragedy and a number of other combinations of those words. I have not [yet] had anything produced or published.

In the meantime I have held down: jobs; relationships; friendships. Writing has always had to fit around the outside of having a life. I am aware that writing does not guarantee a career and so I have tried to keep everything else going on around it. I am, by no means, prolific. For the last three or four years – and let’s be honest, who really counts? – I have been working on a children’s book. It is based on those stories I used to write when I was 7, 8, 9, 10, and it is essentially written for that child back then. That book is almost complete. I have one sweep of editing to do and a few pages to write and then – hopefully – an adventure will begin. Fingers crossed it won’t feature quite as much danger as the story itself does.

So, in short, I am a writer – as in, someone who writes. I have written narrative fiction of one kind or another for sometime, and I will continue doing so. Writing is a skill that you learn over time. I am certainly a long way from mastering it but equally I feel I have a little knowledge I may be able to pass on. In return, dear reader [and how long have I yearned to type those words?], I hope that you can pass on a little knowledge, the odd hint or tip, as and when I require it.