Sunday, November 28, 2010

Night Writing

I cannot claim the genius of George Sand (nor even that of Judy Davis, who played Sand in the film Impromptu, pictured above), but like her, I love to write at night.

I hardly ever get to do it now, but a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing Robert J. Wiersema, he mentioned that he always gets up at four in the morning to start his day's writing, because he works best in a liminal state. (That became the hit word of the whole evening: "liminal". Everyone at the event seemed to relish the sound of it...)

And that reminded me what I loved best about writing at night, when I wasn't asleep yet but wasn't quite fully awake, either, and the whole flow of the narrative seemed to come easier, somehow. I used to love the quiet, and the solitude; the sense of satisfaction that would come from closing off a chapter in the small dark hours before the sun came up.

My schedule changed, of course, when I had children. Though I did, I'll admit, seem to spend my first few years of motherhood in a continual liminal state, I was too tired when night came to put it to use! My writing time was fitted to the children's naps and meals, at first, and later to their hours at school, and writing through the night is not the wisest thing to do, I've learned, when you have to get up sharp at 6 to make breakfasts...

Which is fine. I have learned to adapt, and I don't think my writing has suffered at all for it. But this past Friday a deadline did keep me up half the night writing, till almost 4:30 a.m., and it felt...well, exhausting, but wonderful.

What time do you like to write?

Set your watches for Thursday, when Julie's next post will be up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

NO! - seems to be the hardest word

Hello, my name is Brigid. And I have a problem. I can't seem to say 'no'. I can hear you sniggering at the back! Well that is true too but that is the topic for a different blog. But you know what I mean... every time someone asks me to do something my automatic response is 'yes' or 'of course' or 'no problem'. Even if it is a problem. Even if it means staying late, or adding an hour on my commute or giving up precious writing time. Even then I still find my knee jerk response is 'yes'.

I have been thinking about this... why is 'no' such a hard thing to say? It is two letters, one letter less than 'yes'. Ok so it can be a tad blunt when said outright, but sometimes for one's own sanity it must be said.

I am thinking of setting up a support group where we role play saying 'no' so it becomes more reflexive. Scenarios will include when your parents/relatives/annoying acquaintances want to come and stay. When your boss asks you "could you just...". When the person on the end of the phone is trying to sell you something you don't need. Scenarios we can add to ad infinitum. We would pour wine (this is the only time you have to say yes) and try and say 'no' without apologising (advanced class only). But what would we call ourselves? Acquiescence Anonymous?? Agreers Anonymous?? The Yes Men? Or The No Bodies (showing our non-affirmative action)??

So who is with me? Who is willing to stand up and say 'NO!'?*

*except when it comes to a really nice bottle of wine, or some chocolate or that REALLY hot guy, you know the one... or of course my book. These scenarios will NEVER be a part of the group**
** unless of course you are an alcoholic, on a diet or married

Come back on Sunday to find out what Susanna has to say (hopefully she won't say no)

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Can't Find The Word

(Sorry about the delay in this post - technical glitch....or computer had jet lag)

Word Choice...finding the exact word to express, say, demonstrate what you need to say is something that can put me at a standstill. When DH is writing a press release we can spend hours on because he is writing for a global market where some of the subtlety of word choice is lost. English is a language of nuances, which change not only from English ‘English’ but to North American ‘English’ to Irish ‘English’ and so on. It was a minefield I had walked through when I moved to the UK in 1989.

Take the word fulfil. What does it mean? What could you use instead? Straightforward, not entirely...
1.       1.Achieve something
2.       2.Carry out order
3.       3.Satisfy something
4.       4.Complete something
5.       5. Supply something
6.       6.Realize ambitions

Above are six subtly different meanings for the same word. At what point do you lose the easily understood accepted meaning and move on to one that a reader might not grasp immediately....
Having lived in the UK on and off since 1989 and been married to an Englishman since 1991 I don’t know where I fall anymore on the use of language anymore, but I still recall one of my sister-in-law’s asking me if I meant ‘quite’ in the English way or the American. I looked blankly at her unaware of the difference...quite.

So my question for you is – where do you fall in the language camp? UK? US? Globish? And finally do think about your reader when you are choosing your words?

Please come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Left Hanging or ...?

A couple of weeks ago, Susanna was talking about bit players – secondary characters who stand out in some way, the ones who clamour to have their own story told. In other words, a sequel. So are sequels a good thing or not?

Personally, I love them if they’re well done. It can be like putting on your favourite pair of old shoes. You slip comfortably into a world you know and love and you get to revisit what feels like old friends. There’s less effort needed to acquaint yourself with a new environment and you can just sit back and enjoy.

There’s nothing more satisfying than to follow a group of characters through several volumes and at the end of the series, it all finishes exactly the way you wanted it to. Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series was like that for me. I think there were twenty books in all, but the final one ended with the kind of scene that just made you go “aaahh…” And although I was sad that there wouldn’t be any more, I was happy at the same time because it felt complete.

However, I prefer it if sequels can stand alone too. Each one should be able to be enjoyed on its own, without actually needing the others. Sure, it’s a bonus if you already know and love this world, but if you happen to pick up a book somewhere in the middle of a series, it should be possible to read that without getting confused.

For some years I organised a literary award, and the thing I received most complaints about were sequels. The readers said they couldn’t understand some of them because they hadn’t read the previous book. They were also sometimes left hanging, with a few of the plot strands left unresolved for the next novel in the series. That’s not very satisfying. It’s like being teased when you can’t retaliate for some reason.

I recently followed a drama series on TV for weeks on end, only to find that almost all the plot strands have been left unresolved and “there will be another series next year”. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough! I felt cheated – I’d invested a lot of time in catching every episode, I deserved better. Readers of sequels do to.

We’ve discussed endings before on this blog, and I think we all agreed that it’s an author’s job to leave their readers satisfied (or viewers if you’re writing for the screen). Even if the ending of a book isn’t completely happy, it has to be satisfying. Being teased isn’t, that’s just annoying. I appreciate the fact that the author (and publisher) wants to sell more books. Fair enough. You want to keep the readers coming back for more. But there are ways of doing it so that it still feels right.

Take the recent Sherlock Holmes film, for instance (starring the lovely Robert Downey Jr). It ends with him saving the day, but then at the very last minute the viewers find out that the man he’s been chasing just got his hands on a vital invention and he’s called Moriarty. For any Sherlock Holmes fan, that’s a clear signal that Moriarty will be Holmes’s next opponent and although for the moment, Moriarty is not a threat, he will be at some time in the near future. In other words, there’s a sequel in the offing, but the ending of this film still felt good. I left the cinema content that Holmes had won the day. That’s how books should be too, I think.

Cliff-hangers are all well and good, but only at the end of a chapter, not the whole book, I think. How about you, do you mind being left hanging or is it just me being impatient?

Please come back on Sunday to see what Liz has to say.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Gentle Touch

Earlier this week, at work, I had a headache. Not a terrible one, it's true, but it was starting to get me down. I was on my way to the Annual General Meeting of the organisation I used to work for, and wondering if I was going to last the day.

Within five minutes of arriving, I'd given an received three hugs with former colleagues of TWO organisations in my former employment history (it occured to me later that this isn't a bad track record, to be on hugging terms with all your previous employers....) and my headache was definitely lifting.

I was back in the bosom of friendly like-minds and their touch was simply healing.

Inevitably, I started thinking about this in terms of writing and reading. Is this the habit of the blogger or the novelists, I wonder? I immediately wanted to check that the latest work-in-progress had comforting, caring touches between the heroine and hero, as well as sexual, passionate ones.

There's a fantastic YA historical fantasy called The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley (find this book, read this book, keep this book forever). It's romance and an adventure, and I remember its battles, magic, conflict and the fierceness of the heroine's battle for identity in the face of overwhelming destiny. The romance is fantastic, I love the hero, and there is plenty of sexual tension, but the touch that I remember of that much-read book is when the heroine, Harry (short for Angharad), recently kidnapped by a strange people and their king, Corlath, and trying to come to terms with her awakening power, has a vision:-

"... out of the firelight came a figure, wavering with the leap and flicker of the flames, and with hair that was fire itself.... Harry stared until her eyes felt as dry as sand, and then the figure's face swam into focus, and it was a woman's face, and it smiled at her. But it didn't smile, it grinned, the wry affectionate grin of an elder sister; and Harry's head swam with love and despair. Then the woman shook her head gently, and her aureole of hair flamed and rippled about her, and she reached out her empty left hand, and Harry found herself on her hands and knees, reaching her hand back. But a gust of wind came from nowhere and whipped the fire as though it were an unruly dog, and the figure vanished. Harry fell where she had knelt, and pressed her face to the eary. One real dog sat up and howled.

Corlath picked her up as gently as she were a baby, fallen down after its first steps; and she found there were tears running down her face. He stood up, holding her in his arms, and she cared nothing but that Lady Aerin, Firehair and Dragon-Killer, had come to her and then left her again, more alone than she had ever been before."

It's that gentle touch I remember, more than the rest. Now I need to make sure there are gentle touches in my stories, too, comfort without an agenda.

What do you think?

And don't forget to visit us again on Thursday, to see what Christina has to say.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Best Gift

For those of you expecting Julie here today, sorry, you're stuck with me again, while Julie gives her hands a needed rest. She'll be back soon.

In the meantime, I spent this past Monday night doing an onstage chat with the multi-talented Robert J Wiersema, a bestselling author who's also, in his own words, a "promiscuous reviewer" and, for the past twenty years, a dedicated bookseller. We were meant to be promoting his new novel, Bedtime Story, but as writers will do, we strayed slightly off topic, and ended up talking about what his job in the bookstore has taught him, and how he's observed that there's often a very great difference between what book someone will choose as a gift for a person they don't know that well (this is when, Robert says, people go for the prize-winning novels, the big books that everyone's talking about), and the book that same person would buy as a gift for an intimate friend.

For our friends, he's noticed, we choose to give books that have meant something to us; have touched us, perhaps even changed us. We're giving, in essence, a bit of ourselves, neatly bound between covers.

I know this is certainly true when I buy for my children. I wander away from the "New and Hot" table and search out the Little House books and The Wind in the Willows, or Owls in the Family, all bits of my own happy childhood.

When it comes to my grown-up friends, I tend to tailor the book to the person as much as I can, so it's arguably more a little piece of them that I'm trying to give, to show how much I value them and understand and love them. For instance, I might buy my husband a book that I know he's been longing to have, even though it might be one I'd never read myself.

But I do squirrel away extra copies of my best-loved books: Mary Stewart's classics, Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and The Chequerboard, and Gregory Clark's May Your First Love Be Your Last, among others. And when I give them to people, I actually do feel I'm sharing a bit of myself.

With the holidays swiftly approaching, I know I'll be spending a lot of time combing the bookstores for gifts; only now, thanks to Robert, I'll also be sneaking a glance at what others are buying, and trying to guess from their choice of book whether they're buying for people they work with, or people they love.

Come back Sunday, when Anna will be posting (unless she gets waylaid and winds up drinking wine and watching Robert Downey, Jr. movies with our Julie...)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bit Players

Two weekends ago, I took my daughter and her best friend to Toronto to see Wicked, the musical they'd both been dreaming of seeing since the first time they'd stumbled across clips of the Broadway performance on YouTube a year ago. To make it extra-special for them both, I got us tickets for a private box, with polished brass railings and real chairs and curtains to shut ourselves off from the rest of the theatre. The girls, at the front of the box, had a marvellous view of the stage. Unfortunately for me, the designers of the set for Wicked, gifted though they were, had elected to hang their speakers, not to the side of the stage, but within the proscenium arch, so whenever the lead actors moved upstage left I lost sight of them.
After a while I stopped minding so much, though, because I had noticed a curious thing: when my view of the main scene was blocked, all the actors who were playing at the fringes of the scene came into sudden, sharper focus.

Which set me musing on the role of minor characters in fiction who, like those actors downstage right in Wicked, tend to go about their business in the shadows just beyond the spotlight.

If not for them, the fictional worlds we create would be so much less interesting. How could we write something set in a village without any villagers? Or write a scene in a restaurant without any servers or customers? Cameos, bit parts and walk-ons add life to a story.

And sometimes they add even more. I learned this long ago while writing Mariana, when a very minor character – a woman by the name of Mrs. Hutherson – showed up early on with a plate of Bath buns to welcome my heroine to the village, resisted my attempts to write her out again, established herself as the housekeeper up at the manor house, and proceeded to change the whole course of the story.

Still, any lesson learned can always be forgotten, so I'm grateful to that inconvenient speaker in the set design of Wicked, because it helped me to rediscover just how vital every player is, upon the stage.

Who is your favourite minor character?

(And don't forget to come back Thursday. Julie will be posting).

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Last time I was talking about first kisses so I thought I would go back, back before the kisses and go to the prelude to a kiss…

The Crush

Ahhh crushes… I'd love to say how I miss them but whether you are seven or ninety-five we all have crushes.

Crushes get you up in the morning and put a spring in your step. They make you smile and gasp and turn bright red and stutter.

They are the bubble in your blood, the fizz in your fibre. Writing the crush Alexa has on Quin, I didn't need to go too far back to remember what it felt like.

Who hasn't had a crush recently? A crush on that movie star, or that singer. Maybe the person who serves you coffee on the way to work. The cute girl on the bus. Or even the guy you sit next to at work.

We've all been there and very recently I'm sure:


I couldn’t help it I sighed out loud. Sam looked at me strangely. But instead of his solid ruddy face, I saw Quin. All heavy brows and kissable mouth. I could see him as if I had seen him yesterday and not two weeks ago.

How was it possible I remembered someone I had met only once so well? But it seemed that as soon as I thought of him, and I thought about him a lot, I saw him. Not the fuzzy ‘I think I remember your features but I’m not sure’ remember but as if there was a computer in my brain that brought up his photo on demand."

When I wrote this I was channelling every crush I've ever had, and a few that I borrowed from other people. Crushes on that actor I made a prat of myself in front of (read here). That son of a family friend who never knew why I babbled when he was around. The bloke at that conference who must have wondered why I blushed and ran away as soon as he sat down next to me in the bar. And who can forget that work colleague whose voice messages I'd save to listen to… he had a very sexy voice!

So who have you been crushing on?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting