Taking on a Challenge

A few days ago I began the longest novel I’ve ever attempted, War and Peace. I’m not going to lie, it weighs a tonne and it’s pretty daunting, but I’m convinced it is going to be worth it. I’m not usually a fan of epically long books, especially those made to be long for the sake of it – Mr Charles Dickens – but War and Peace seems different; it’s long because it has content.

I feel like I already know a lot about the story from watching the BBC adaptation that aired a few months ago. Perhaps this is a hasty conclusion to jump to but I’ve heard that it was pretty faithful to the book. Unlike a lot of ‘epics’ this novel unfolds quite rapidly and, as the title suggests, there is a combination of war and peace going on. It tells the story of the French invasion in Russia but it also deals with the daily lives of various members of the aristocracy. Apparently there are over 500 characters and almost all are given adequate roles. By this I mean that their stories are interesting and each and every character adds to the book as a whole (so far).

I’m not very far into this novel as yet, though if it were a regular book I guess I’d be about half way. I’m circa page 160 of about 1360 so I have a long way to go but I’ll keep you updated. My only regret so far? That this certainly won’t help me achieve my Goodreads challenge and I’m already falling way behind schedule.

Over and out –

war and peace

The Garden, Part III

Read the first part here,
and the second part here.

The next day I resume my position in my chair. The clouds have knit together across the sky causing a gloom I don’t believe will never shift. It’s funny how much the weather seems to affect my mood. I flick through the latest copy of Gardener’s Weekly but soon the neighbours’ voices become intertwined with the words on the page and I pause to listen.

“Can’t you find some way to forgive me?” he asks.

It’s as if the conversation is continuing from yesterday. An electric blue butterfly catches my gaze.

“I don’t know. The kettle’s boiling, come inside.”

The butterfly, with all its exotic patterns and intricate filigree, flutters away.

I don’t know what’s going on between them. I’m not usually one to pry, and I am content in my little sanctuary, but I feel as if I need to know.

Watch this space for the next instalment.

The Garden

I push open the gate, the white paint flaking off in chunks, and walk into the garden. I remember when the lawn used to be freshly trimmed, now it’s an overgrown haven for voles and mice. They scurry about beneath the foliage, the leaves trembling as they pass. Birds nest in the trees overhead. When they hatch I will watch as the mother regurgitates food for them. When they are strong enough I will watch as they make their first attempts at flight. I watch everything from my garden chair. It’s a deck chair really, one of those pink and white stripe ones meant for the beach, but I make the rules here. This is my safe place. This is my sanctuary. This is my Eden.

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson is an example of one of those books where I watched the film first, realised it was a good story, then decided I wanted to read it. I was right in thinking it is a good story, but I was wrong in assuming that would make it a good book.

Before I Go To Sleep

I hate to say this about a book because I hardly feel like I’m writing from a position of authority, but this book is appallingly written.

Anyone who knows anything about my reading and writing tastes knows that I can’t stand clunky, jarring non-sentences, and this book is full of them. I think the author’s intentions were to make the writing more dramatic, but this shouldn’t be necessary. The story of a woman with amnesia, who can only retain memory for a single day, should be dramatic enough on its own. The result of Watson’s dramatic writing style actually hinders the text from running smoothly and flowing, like any good writing should.

On the topic of being dramatic, I really dislike a lot of Watson’s word choices. There’s an awful lot of ‘beating hearts’ and ‘explosions’ of thoughts, love, fear, grief; the list is endless. Unless I am very much mistaken about human emotions and anatomy, no one has ever ‘exploded’ from grief, and for this metaphor to be used time and time again, not only gets boring but ridiculous. Then there’s sentences like ‘Hate bubbles up in me.’ which is probably something I would have written at school.

Although it’s obviously more of a challenge with a first person narration, this novel is all telling and no showing. The author tells me what’s going on and tells me how Christine feels about it. There are no actions to ‘show’ how she is feeling, he simply states ‘I felt tired. Exhausted. I wanted only to sleep but I was frightened to. Frightened of what I might forget.’ That last sentence is also not a sentence, it is a clause that should be attached to the previous sentence. That irritates me. The other thing about these few lines is the fact that is says the same couple of things multiple times – I guess that’s why the book is so long-winded. All Watson needs to state is that she is tired and frightened. This could be done with a sentence like, ‘My blinks get longer with the weight of exhaustion, but if I sleep, I’m frightened of what I might forget.’ This is first a bit of showing and then a bit of telling. Also, nothing is said twice. It’s a waste of words to repeat things unnecessarily.

The following passage will further illustrate my previous points:

‘I am tired now. I will stop writing soon, and then hide my journal, turn off the light. Sleep. Pray that tomorrow I may wake and remember my son.’

I hate non-sentences. ‘Sleep.’ is not a sentence and it breaks the text up far too much. There’s a huge amount of effort behind these words, the writer is trying too hard to be dramatic, and, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I believe writing should be effortless. The other problem with these ‘phrases’ (I’ll call them phrases because they are not all sentences) is that they are part of her diary entry and I don’t know anyone who writes like that, it’s just not natural.

This brings me on to my next point. Since a large proportion of the book is Christine Lucas’s journal you’d think there would be very limited room for stage direction, but no, Watson has chosen to include a vast quantity anyway. This quite frankly doesn’t make sense. When was the last time anyone wrote a journal and included phrases like ‘I got up, ate dinner, then went to bed’ or ‘I made an excuse. I came upstairs, to the bedroom. Back to the wardrobe. I wrote on.’ (Again with the short sentences. Just stop.) Even though the protagonist is an amnesiac, and consequently wants to include as much information as possible about her life, I find it hard to believe she would take the time to right about having sausage and mash, with ‘peas floating in thin gravy’, for dinner. It pads out the story of course, but doesn’t make sense as part of a diary.

The next problem is inconsistent typography. In Parts 1 and 3 of the book, those either side of the diary, the prose is written in first person past tense from Christine’s point of view, however, during her narrative she has flashbacks. Sometimes these memories are italicised, sometimes they are not. Sometimes there are page breaks to clarify the distinction, sometimes there are not. This inconsistent typography just makes what’s happening in the present and what’s a recalled memory difficult to distinguish between. Watson is making life much harder for the reader than it needs to be.

Then there’s the repetition of reminding us it is a diary. Watson seems to think his readers are stupid. Given that 250+ pages of the book are diary entry (and there are dates at the beginning of each new day) I don’t think we need to be reminded at the beginning and end of nearly every entry that it is a diary, yet he continues, repeatedly, to include phrases like ‘I come upstairs and write this down.’ We get it.

To make matters worse some of the tenses aren’t quite right and some of the syntax is rather awkward. For example I had to read one of the sentences on the last page about three times before I got the words in the right order:

“The people who love you have come back to you.”
“But I want to have come back to them, too,’ I said. ‘I want to have come back to them.”

Try saying that three times when drunk…

Before I Go To Sleep

Now that I’ve stated what I disliked so much about the book I will say that it’s quite a good story. I think it’s longer than it needs to be and I think as a whole the execution of the story could have been far better, but the plot is interesting. It’s not your standard amnesiac story, a comedy like 50 First Dates or a sad romance like The Vow, this is a thriller. What’s more is that some of the twists really are good – they’re genuinely unpredictable (even though I’d seen the film first – I guess it was long enough ago I forgot they were coming).

Having said that, as the plot and the twists are really all this book has going for it, then you might as well spend 90 minutes watching the film instead. It has Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in it and good actors are everything. My advice – watch the film.

Before I Go To Sleep

 

 

Newspaper Feature

Now I know this isn’t anything to brag about but since I’ve just worked out how the link works, and it’s proof of my writing being out there in the big, wide world, I thought I’d share it on my blog. Just a couple of weeks ago a short story I wrote was featured in the student newspaper at my University. If you’d like to read my piece simply turn to page 12. Enjoy.

 

If Only I Hadn’t Seen the Film…

Do you ever wonder to yourself how different a book might have been if you didn’t already know the plot? Although I always prefer to read the book before I see a film, sometimes I see the film not knowing a book even existed, and if the film’s good then the book’s likely to be better, and I just can’t wait to read it. If only I had known it was a book and read it first. I suppose this is the issue with cinema being more popular than literature – I mean you don’t see the latest novels advertised on the sides of buses do you? Some times we only know a thing exists when someone decides to make a film of it – like Twilight for example – published in 2005 and no-one had heard of it until 2008 when R-Patz came on the scene. Anyway, my point is, if you know the twists before you even open the first page of a book then you’re letting yourself in for a little disappointment, aren’t you?

Let me just warn you now before you read any further that this post contains spoilers.

Well, this twist-spoiling has been the case for a number of books I’ve read recently. The one that really bothers me is Gone Girl. I wish so much I had read the book before seeing the film because I’m dying to know how convincing Amy’s narrative really is – did everyone really believe Nick was guilty until Amy fakes her death and drives away? Was everyone else taken in by Amy’s diary, the fabricated ‘truth’ designed to incriminate Nick? I’m guessing I would have been because I’m a bit gullible when it comes to books, but I’d love to know if I would have really fallen for that. For some reason I always trust the narrator – I mean, why would they lie to me? Well this is why…to create a damn good story.

Gone Girl - 2014

The book I’m currently reading is Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson. The film I saw last year, and I really wish I hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the film was amazing, but I have a creeping suspicion that the book is going to be better (if it weren’t already spoiled for me anyway). During the first few pages I’m sure the reader is supposed to have feelings paralleling those of the protagonist – who wakes up in an unfamiliar house with an unknown man in her bed – where is she? Who is that? What has happened? But these pages gave me absolutely no sense of worry or confusion; I knew from the outset that she suffered from amnesia. And the worst thing is that I know the twist ending. I still want to read it, because it was a truly good film, but I wish I’d known a book had existed and waited until after.

Before I Go To Sleep

I’m going to try really hard to stop doing this now because it’s ruining loads of good books for me. I wonder if you feel the same way: do you prefer seeing the film or reading the book first?

Over and out –

 

Formatting For Publication

When you’re sending off a piece to a publishers then it’s of paramount important to format it properly, other wise it’s more than likely to end up in the bin without even a glance. You want to give your writing the best possible chance – so try not to piss anyone off with dodgy formatting before you’ve even started. If you follow these simple guidelines then you’re off to a good start.

writing

1. Put the title of your piece and your last name in the header – this way it will appear on every page. Align this to the right so it doesn’t interfere with the reading of your manuscript.

2. Use a standard easy-read font such as Times New Roman and make sure to use 12 point font. Oh yeah and stick to black, no-one’s going to appreciate a rainbow manuscript.

3. Use a single space only between each word. If you’re in the habit of double spacing, as many people are, this isn’t the end of the world, but single spacing is now preferred.

4. Page numbers. This is a big one and it’s surprising how many people forget. It’s usually neater to have it in the header with your name and title e.g. (Blatchford/A Wasteland/6)

5. Use 1 inch margins on all four sides.

6. Align to the left, do not justify the spacing.

7. Indent each new paragraph by half an inch. DON’T leave a space between your paragraphs.

8. But DO double space your whole piece.

9. If you’re manuscript has chapters ensure to start each new chapter on a new page, about a third of the way down the page. Make sure to centre the chapter title or number.

10. At the very end either us a # sign or the words ‘The End’ to indicate the reader has reached the intended end for the story.

So there’s my 10 points to go through when you’re submitting a piece of writing for publication – but do check the individual publisher’s guidelines in case they have any specific preferences.

Publishing

Another thing is to not forget your title page. This must include:

  • Your contact information: Align this to the left and single space it. This should be the first thing your reader sees. Include your legal name, address, phone number and email address. List the word count next.
  • Title and author: Roughly half way down the page, and entered, write the title of your piece – usually in capitals – then, on the next (double spaced) line write ‘by’, ‘a novel by’ or ‘a story by’ and include both your legal name and pen name e.g. Mary Blatchford writing as M. E. Latch
  • Your agent’s name and contact information
  • Page header: Your title page should not have a header and your title page should not be included in your page numbering. The first page of your writing should start at page 1.
  • Genre and subgenre: State where your piece lies.

 

Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll heighten your chances of getting a thorough read. That’s all from me, over and out –

Michael McIntyre’s Life and Laughing

So I’ve already made it through one of my New Year’s Resolutions! Congratulations to me! I finished Michael McIntyre’s biography, Life and Laughing, and what’s more, I truly did love it. I don’t want to be corny here and sound like a review from the Daily Mail but it really was ‘heartwarming’, ‘laugh out loud funny’ and ‘deeply moving at times’. It was everything that it promised to be. I even read it in his voice! The whole book was like one long comedy gig. It was wonderful.

Michael McIntyre

The book covers his whole life, right from his very first traumatic school-day memories, through his parents’ divorce, his awkward teenage years, his life at University, his eventual big break into comedy and the relationship he eventually embarks on with his wife. All the time you’re waiting for this goofy individual to succeed and eventually, he does.

What really got me was how relatable it all was. I wasn’t born in London, I never went to a private boys school, and I’ve certainly never wanted to be a comedian, but somehow I could connect with almost everything he said. Perhaps the art is in the telling. The writing practices the same finesse as the telling of a joke. It’s set up, crafted. The whole book must have taken some serious planning, I’ll tell you that.

What I did notice part way through reading was the date of publication. This biography was published in 2010. A few months later, after the BBC realised how well the book was selling and what a hit Michael McIntyre was turning out to be, they contacted him about taking part in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are. Michael immediately got in touch with his step mother in Canada and asked her to dig out some stuff of his father’s, thinking he’d like his biggest role model to feature quite heavily in the programme. By this time his father had been gone about 17 years but Michael’s attachment to his father had remained strong. He’s been quoted that his father was a huge inspiration to him and that he was always spurred on by the thought of making his father proud. However, hearing the news, and knowing that the BBC would be able to find his death certificate (which are public records) Michael’s step mother finally told the truth about his father’s death. The famous comedian Ray Cameron did not die on the side of the road from a heart attack as Michael originally thought, he shot himself. This information was then made public a few years later on. So of course, Michael had no knowledge of this when writing his biography and the things he says about his father are all the more striking with this hindsight.

It seems that I have dwelt on the negative but I hasten to stress that this truly is a terrifically funny book. This man finds laughter in everything.

Over and out –

 

Jennifer Egan’s Black Box and The Short Story

Last week I read Black Box by Jennifer Egan, a truly remarkable short story first published on Twitter, 140 characters at a time. Of course I personally wasn’t waiting around each day for a tweet, I read it all in one go published online by The New Yorker, but it’s an interesting concept. The idea of reading something slowly enough to have ample time to digest it, and potentially waiting in anticipation of the next snippet, makes tweeting a truly interesting method of publishing. And as a story, I thought it was simply wonderful.

black box

Set in a futuristic world, the main character is on an espionage mission, gathering information from her ‘Designated Mate’. The story, using the second person, reads like a set of instructions. It’s didactic and straightforward, which I absolutely loved. I imagined it as reflective of her training, telling her what to do in every possible scenario.

This story is just the right amount of believable. The protagonist has a camera in her eyes, buttons for different purposes all over her body, and a strange detachment from her real life, her life with her loving husband. We don’t quite know how she ended up being a spy, all we know is that she is carrying out her duty for the government, and that she’s not getting paid. The writing is wonderfully descriptive and the plot is engaging.

Follow this link if you fancy having a read. I would definitely recommend it!

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/black-box-2

Jennifer Egan’s story inspired me to write my own 140 character short story – except mine is only 140 characters in total. To be honest it’s more like one of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories but never mind! This is the first time I’ve published my own creative writing on my blog so here goes nothing:

Wild roses grow taller than the oak fence, their colours popping: white, red, pink, peach. I reach out. Blood appears. The white rose bites.

Hope you enjoyed! Over and out –

Roald Dahl vs David Walliams

This is the first time I’m choosing to write about an issue that actually bothers me. Usually I post about a really great book I’ve just finished or a sneaky little writing tip I’ve come across, but this, I feel, is an issue worthy of complaining about. In fact, it really upset me when I saw it, a proper ‘childhood meltdown’, if you know what I mean.

The other day I was browsing the bestselling books section of my local Sainsburys and I couldn’t help but noticing a new series of front covers for Roald Dahl’s children’ books. However, upon closer inspection I realised they weren’t the works of Roald Dahl at all, but those of David Walliams, who we all know is a great admirer of Roald Dahl, as are many of us. I for one absolutely adore his tales.

dahlroald15

Most of us will have either grown up reading Roald Dahl or perhaps have read them to our little ones. His stories, and the drawings of his illustrator, Quentin Blake, are iconic. For me, he’s a huge part of my childhood. The first book I was ever read at school (you know the type, when the teacher reads for ten minutes at the end of every school day so that it takes you a whole year to finish a book) was The Twits. At the end of the day, all sitting on the cross-legged on the carpet in silence, we would listen to his marvellous words and when the bell rang we would actually moan, not wanting to go home, but wanting to continue with the story. I don’t remember another book that ever caused such a reaction in class. A few years later I remember tuning in to Blue Peter when one of the presenters was visiting the writing shed at the bottom of Roald Dahl’s garden. He or she (I can’t remember who it was now) explained how he only ever wrote in pencil, one of those yellow ones with the eraser on the tip and always had six spares sharpened at the ready. He also was very particular about his paper choices, he used only American yellow legal pads that were sent to him from New York. This writerly process was all fascinating to me. Then later, at Secondary School, our class read Boy and learnt all about his childhood at that fateful school, where he and his friends were caned for putting a dead mouse in one of Mrs Pratchett’s gobstopper jars. This I suppose, contrary to my Never Have I Ever post, was my first biography. The idea of one’s life being made so exciting hooked me. Needless to say, I’m an avid Roald Dahl fan.

DavidWalliam7bks

As you can see David Walliams has used Quentin Blake as his illustrator, and this is fundamentally my issue. By doing this, using the same bold colours, the same style of drawings and even similar titles, he’s basically impersonating the original books. I can’t comment on the content because I flatly refuse to read one. I dislike them even before I’ve opened one. They are so in-keeping in style with Roald Dahl’s tales that I have no idea how they even got past copyright. I feel it’s unjust and wrong that the likes of George’s Marvellous Medicine, The BFG and The Witches are no longer fabulously unique. The niche has been infiltrated by this imposter. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with David Walliams writing children’s fiction, it’s the fact he’s trying to be the new Roald Dahl that I have a problem with.

Come up with your own ideas Walliams, don’t copy one of the highest esteemed children’s writers ever and expect to get away with it.

Over and out.