Archive for July, 2010

I think I am the type of person who needs to do something thoroughly and properly, otherwise I risk giving up halfway through. It’s why I have dozens of notebooks with only the first five pages filled in, because I decided my handwriting wasn’t neat enough, and suddenly that notebook isn’t good enough to write in anymore (oh dear). It’s why I take great care when choosing a pen from a stationer, and why it’s very important that my desk is tidy, otherwise I won’t sit at it (just realised why I haven’t sat at my desk for about two months).

A couple of months ago I got a spark of an idea for a novel, and after writing everything down in a vague semblance of chapter plans and character profiles, I realised I had no idea where to start. I knew I needed to begin it properly, otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. So I got in touch with a writerly friend of mine and asked if he had any recommendations for books about structuring and planning a novel. The next time I saw him, he handed me a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. I was a little bit perplexed, and it sat on my desk (which, yes, was messy) for a long time, until I realised that I would have to return the book before I move to Edinburgh, and I was spurred into action.

The book is great. Field breaks down the process of writing a screenplay into manageable chunks. He quantifies everything (suggesting how many pages of character biography to write, etc), which works for me as perspective like that helps me understand and stops me getting demotivated.

You’re encouraged to describe your screenplay in one sentence (“A PERSON, in a PLACE, doing a THING”) before you begin writing or planning, and then you slowly build the foundations of your idea until your main character has a context and a history, and a mapped trajectory of character development through your screenplay. Unlike Stephen King in On Writing, Field suggests you must know your ending before you even plan your beginning. He repeats the important messages (“Action is character”) until you’re a little bored, but that’s the way those messages will stick in your head.

Yes, it is a book about writing a screenplay, and some of the guidance isn’t entirely relevant to a novel. Field presents the structure of a screenplay as completely formulaic, with Act One taking place from pages 1-30, Act 2 pages 31-90, and so on, but if you’re using this book as a basis from which to plot a novel, that formula could offer a valuable guide which may point you in the right direction, but which shouldn’t constrain you to a great extent.

It’s important to remember that film and novels are different mediums, so the rules will never be entirely applicable across the board, but I did really enjoy this book and I think it offers bottom-up ideas and foundations which can be applied to many forms of writing. I would recommend it.

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This is my second review in the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. For the first review, of Matt Beaumont’s E Squared, click here.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Sallinger, ‘Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot’, Silvia Plath… Dead Poet’s Society… Clueless… The OC.

Not a list of my favourite things, but a combination of the comparisons plastered all over the front cover, back cover, and inside pages of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. Opinions of reviewers from The New Yorker, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday… and I thought the book sounded really interesting.

Prep is the story of 14-year-old Lee Fiora, a scholarship girl at a rich boarding school in the United States. Like most 14-year olds, she wants to fit in with the crowd, be popular, and get noticed by boys. And… well, that’s about it, really.

My first impressions were mixed: the first-person narrative suggested a self-centred and slightly dull character, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, sensing a slight oddity of character reminiscent of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players. There was a sense of imminent tension and suspicion which promised a lot. Perhaps she’ll turn out to be some kind of sociopath, I thought to myself. Now that would be exciting.

By page sixty, I’d written in my notes: “But is this tension realised? Revisit this: at the moment it seems a bit directionless. Something big has to happen so otherwise I will be disappointed.”

But Lee is a boring character with absolutely no personality. Her opinions are based on class, race, appearance and wealth: she assumes that attending an expensive school will make her happy, and can’t comprehend why the richer pupils aren’t happy, or popular, when they’re so wealthy. Surely everyone would want to be their friend because they’re rich and they have long blonde hair? Eurgh.

By page 130, I was bored and frustrated. Absolutely nothing had happened, except for a few short scenes which didn’t seem to be building up into any kind of climax or incident. The only tension was created by my expectations: expectations which were fuelled by my experiences of reading other, conventionally structured books which used tension, action, character, and story to fuel the narrative. I couldn’t envisage how the book would climax or even stutter to a boring, deflated end. In my notes, I wrote: “Either this is building up to something elaborate, created from all the tiny threads of story, or it’s frustratingly badly structured. Even if it is building up to something, I should be engaged by now.”

Around page 260, I closed the book and gave up. I don’t know whether Lee Fiora turned out to be an interesting character, or whether anything remotely interesting happened in the remaining 200 pages. Even if it did, the wait was too long.

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After a couple of years of listening to people moan about how terrible The Twilight Saga was, I caved last year and borrowed my sister’s copy of the first novel. I read it within 24 hours, ostensibly to that nobody needed to see me reading it in public. I was interested in why it was so popular, when people said the writing was so bad.

So, I read it cover-to-cover in a very short space of time, and yes, it’s full of cliché and awkward sentences, the protagonist is irritatingly self-obsessed, completely stupid, moany and selfish… and most of the criticism you’ve heard about the books is probably true.

BUT… I read the second book. And then I watched the first two films. And I read the online pdf of Midnight Sun. And, next time I go home, I will probably borrow the third book from my sister. And I know exactly why.

Stephanie Meyer has demonstrated a couple of things to me. One is that a fantastic idea sometimes trumps excellent writing. Another is that people absolutely relish a story of forbidden love. As an example, here is a little summary of why I enjoyed the first two books:

Bella and Edward love each other but aren’t able to act upon it (unrequited love – tick, unresolved sexual tension – triple tick). When they’re finally able to start a relationship, things happen which get in the way (barriers to love – tick). Edward spends a lot of time trying to resist temptation, and eventually abandons Bella, so they’re both unhappy (more unrequited love). Jacob comes along (yet more unrequited love, AND a liberal dash of will-they-won’t-they). At the same time as all this is happening, Bella keeps getting herself into stupid situations, and Edward has to come and rescue her (damsel in distress, heroic Byronic hero unashamedly inspired by Mr Darcy).

I mean… come on! Meyer’s a genius. If I want something mindless, romantic and comforting to read or watch, I would probably consider The Twilight Saga.  She’s cornered the market on modern romance novels by putting everything we could possibly dream of into the books.

And although people are still criticising the books (often rightfully), there is a slow trickle of articles heading the other way. An article in the Guardian today suggests that some of the criticism of the novels is unfounded, and one of my favourite writing websites, The Blood-Red Pencil, has a blog post about how we can learn from techniques in Meyer’s writing, and which says everything I’ve tried to say here a little bit clearer.

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For me, the best writing identifies something absolutely true and right, but which I’d never realised before. When I read it, I think ‘Of course! I knew that. I always knew that.’

Some writers can highlight a fact you hadn’t previously consciously processed, but which always hovered on the edges of your consciousness. When you read their work, you feel like they’re showing you the whole world for the first time.

They’re not huge, life-changing theories, but tiny little observations and comparisons that I feel like I’ve known instinctively all my life, but which I’d never be able to coherently write down.

Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I can’t think of any examples right now, but as soon as I come across one I’ll write about it.

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The Fiction Shelf is a new website which aims to build an online library “to which people who love reading will come to see the very best in new writing.”

The site is under construction (and promises a rather nifty design), and they are asking for submissions of short stories and poetry.

They say:

We know how beautiful our art can be, and we know that for any art to flourish it needs an audience. Therefore, we make these promises:

  • We promise our library will be aesthetically pleasing and intuitive to use.
  • We promise to promote each writer with passion and energy, and to give equal prominence to each genre of writing, to give the science-fiction writer as much opportunity to shine as the haiku writer.
  • We promise to grow organically together, to give you, the writer, the space and facilities to meet your changing needs as your popularity increases.
  • We promise that our library will be run with care, and with the interests of readers and writers always coming first.

But above all, we promise there will be readers.

Go and take a look 🙂

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E-Reader? No, Thank You.

… I’ve always been a bit sniffy about e-readers. I understand that they’re convenient, and slick, and ‘just-like-reading-off-the-page’, and ‘you-can-store-a-whole-library-in-here’, etc. But, to be frightfully honest, I just don’t care how great they are.

I can fit a book in my handbag, and if a book won’t fit, I jollywell buy a new handbag.

No one can write a message inside the front cover of an e-book. You’re not going to pick up a second-hand copy of an e-book to find ‘I saw this book and thought of you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did’ or even ‘Happy Mothers’ Day 1997, love Catherine’.

In fact, will the days of buying a book as a present be over? Electronic books certainly would hamper such a kind gift. After all, it’s rare that someone buys a downloadable music album as a present.

There won’t be any underlining, or folded corners of pages. And the more risqué e-books will never fall open at the most exciting pages.

E-books don’t smell like the back of an old person’s wardrobe. I can’t pick up an e-book and breathe it in, and sigh with pleasure.

If you drop a book in the bath, its pages curl but you can still read it once it dries. Drop an e-reader in the bath and that’s an awfully expensive bathing experience.

Similarly, if you lose a book, or leave it on a train, it’s not the end of the world. An e-reader on the other hand, is a whole new experience.

How many times has someone said “I must lend you this book! You’ll just love it.”? Last week I lent a friend a copy of Revolutionary Road, and am genuinely excited to hear his opinions of it when he hands it back. I doubt an e-book is so easy to share.

Bookcrossing. This is magical. Can’t do that with an e-reader.

I like to see how many pages I’ve read, how many I have yet to read.

I like people to see the book I’m reading and talk to me about it if they have opinions. I want to smile at someone on the train and say “I’ve read that, too. Are you enjoying it?”

I just love books, OK? As objects, they’re beautiful. A e-reader stops a book being an object and turns it into a file. It no longer has a cover, or individual pages. It no longer really exists. If I ever write  a novel, I want to produce something I can hold in my hands, and feel the achievement of what I have accomplished.

I don’t want an e-reader.

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