Written in Scots

Buddha DaBuddha Da by Anne Donovan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing in ‘dialect’
This book is a testament to the premise that novel writers do not need always to write in standard English but may write the entire novel in ‘dialect’ – in this case, the Scots language.

Donovan’s three first person narrators both speak and narrate in Scots, rendered predominantly in what appear to be truncated or adapted English words. It is not what we would think of as a foreign language because, for me at least, there is no question of not understanding what they are saying, or needing to consult a dictionary. Therefore I still use the word ‘dialect’, albeit in inverted commas, to protect the integrity of Scots as a distinct (and historically somewhat suppressed) language.

There is no way Buddha Da would have been anywhere near as evocative had it not been written in Scots. It brings the characters to life in your head, in the way an oral narrator or actor might do. To sprinkle in a few ‘less is more’ indicators of the Glasgow setting and Scottish characters just wouldn’t have done it. That seems to me to be an aloof, ‘standing back’ position to write from, whereas these first person viewpoint characters were there, on the ground, immersed, in both location and culture.

Of general note, from a craft perspective:

Narrative viewpoint
Firstly the first person narration might have allowed the immersion in ‘dialect’ that a third person narration would not. I’m not going so far as to say it wouldn’t, but I would at least want to explore and question whether dialect should only appear in dialogue.

The ‘marked’ v ‘unmarked’ state
Secondly, Scotland and Glasgow are ‘marked’ by the author; it matters that they are Scottish and in Scotland – as distinct from, say, Scottish author Janice Galloway‘s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing where the character’s state of mind predominates.

However, as I type this, I get a horrible feeling of my Englishness seeping out – and in fact I cannot really see that there is a valid argument against a Scottish writer writing in Scots, irrespective of subject matter. As did Robert Burns – or are poets allowed to do something novelists are not?

Character and structure
Apart from my preoccupation with Scottish language, it is also a very clever and insightful story, character and structure-wise. So little happens. No huge drama, no sword fights or earthquakes or shoot-outs or car chases; just the normal events of everyday life: the break-up of a marriage, death of an elderly relative, pregnancy. But they are set up so that all these things matter. Donovan creates the characters so well, so equally, you really can see each of their points of view – in a heart-rending, empathetic way, not just intellectually. And by the time each event occurs, you know acutely the significance to each of the characters. I would so love to talk to Anne Donovan about her process.

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Review: Ramshackle by Elizabeth Reeder

RamshackleRamshackle by Elizabeth Reeder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am always looking for interesting elements of technique, and Elizabeth Reeder uses two of which I take particular note.

Firstly the repetition of a scene. It is the first scene in the book, the last time Roe saw her father before he disappears. Then the scene is repeated soon after, when she realises he is missing and her perception is coloured by this knowledge. Then at the end of the book it is repeated again, when Roe finds out what has happened to him. This is simple but subtle. It goes to character; how character is changed by events, how perception of the same event is translated, or how aspects take on different significance. Fledgling writers are encouraged to think of the character ‘arc’, so that the character changes throughout, due to story events. This is an encouraging example of how this does not need to be dramatic. Actually I am not sure that Roe does ‘change’, other than to become increasingly more burdened by life’s heavy load – but these repeated scenes demonstrate a responsive, incremental ‘change’, of how we become layered with coatings laid on us by the twists and turns of life.

The second technique is significant in creating Roe’s voice. She is narrating in the first person present tense. She speaks aloud with inverted commas, as do the other characters, but intermingled with this are Roe’s added observations or interpretations, often contradictory, that you have to spot carefully (plaudits to the copy editors). This shows so well how we have at least two versions of ourself, public and private, and how we have to amend or moderate ourselves to fit in. As a device, it is useful for disclosing information without ‘dumping’ it by way of great expository paragraphs.

Lastly I ponder some of the book’s Goodreads reviews, the criticisms of not knowing what is going on because of the use of present tense for both present and past, and lack of tags. I think, overall, this approach creates a rather dreamy feel to the book – and yes, it is true you do sometimes have to re-read a piece of dialogue to see who was speaking and when it took place – but this is so congruent with the weird chemical reaction that occurs in your brain when some huge event happens in life. Roe was being hit with so much, in so few days, I don’t think she had any responsibility to present her story in a way that suits the reader – just the same as you wouldn’t in real life say to someone who has just experienced a big event ‘Well, I must say you are not articulating your trauma very logically.’

So I would sum this novel up as one of congruence, of subtlety and of feeling – and also exciting, because there is never a moment when you are not wondering: ‘What happened?’

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Review: Defender by GX Todd

Defender (The Voices #1)Defender by G.X. Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. The viewpoint characters are distinctive, the writing is good and the concept of the voices makes the book a little unusual; a thread of depth waiting to be discovered. I enjoyed being with them in their world, and wanted to find out more.

There are two things which I would pick up on – both of which arise from my ‘reading as a writer’, rather than as a consumer or critic. Note that neither detract from my rating.

Women v Girls
Firstly, Lacey is always referred to as the ‘girl’. I was about 3/4 of the way through the book before I really thought ‘How old is Lacey exactly?’ I skimmed back through and discovered that she was actually about sixteen! Until this point, I had been visualising her at about eight. This was my error, because I see now that in Pilgrim’s first chapter she is referred to as a ‘teenager’ – if I had clocked this, I would still have assumed about thirteen. I have an aversion to calling women ‘girls’, I don’t call them girls myself, and to me (and to the armed forces and other bodies) sixteen is a young woman.

So… some analysis: Pilgrim and Lacey, as viewpoint characters, are each narrated in the third person. Thus whenever we are ‘with’ Pilgrim we are hearing two voices (other than Voice), i.e. Pilgrim, and the narrator. Maybe ‘Pilgrim as character’ calls women girls, but I think there is a hint of character/narrator merge here (see Reiken, 2011 in A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft (Bennet, A. ed.). It is not clear that it is Pilgrim seeing her as a ‘girl’. It feels as if she is also objectively a girl. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise, because Lacey was a really great eight year old character, with her gun and her feistiness. I had a hard time later coming to terms with her being sixteen, and having to visualise an adult. So had I been Todd’s editor, I would have pressed her either to make Lacey genuinely a girl, which would have been a simple edit that gave a lot, or to make ‘Pilgrim as narrator’ make clearer she was a woman.

Unexplained prologue and epilogue
The second issue is that I never really ‘got’ this thing with Ruby and the letters. There was a letter at the beginning, which I thought was going to have a significance that later would become clear. It never did. And then… there was another letter at the end! I presume Ruby is Red, but I really don’t get the connection. I don’t know how she was speaking to us. The letters are numbered, but…why? what?… where… how? What is the significance of the man in the care home? I simply do not understand the letters, or Ruby’s significance. I wonder if this is part of the deeper story that will become clear in the sequel? Personally, I would have been happier not to have had these cryptic letters, and I think they could be deleted without any affect on the book. Or, if they were vitally significant, I think they needed a bit more explanation.

But these are not criticisms as big as I make them sound; it’s more that I feel the book warranted thoughtful analysis. I am looking forward to publication of the next in the series. Oh, one last thing: I liked it better than The Stand. I love Stephen King’s technique, but I would say that Defender is… well, more literary.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book! I am not a gamer, but that did not matter even the tiniest little bit. It is just such great world building, so immersive, such good dialogue, great adventure without being ‘hack and slay’. It is a tribute not only to 1980s culture, but to so many iconic sub-cultural favourites. I listened to the audiobook, but I want the hardcopy for my library too

It is also a fascinating (and slightly too late for my MA project) take on the ‘solitary protagonist’. Because protagonist Wade/Parzival is almost wholly alone, with all his interaction taking place virtually. You sort of forget that when you are reading, because the world of the Oasis is as absorbing for us as it is for the characters.

I thoroughly recommend it.

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Review: Little Wrecks

Little WrecksLittle Wrecks by Meredith Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, and am puzzled by the number of poor reviews, especially those that cannot identify the time period (er… what about the zillion references to the Vietnam war?), or mis-spell the protagonists’ names or say that Meredith ‘tells but doesn’t show’. Genuinely puzzled. I wonder if the advance review copy was very different – or whether the reviewers simply need to read something different. (Maybe this is a problem with publishers sending out advance copies.)

I am interested in the concept of three protagonists, all as viewpoint characters rather than omniscient. I have been mulling over why I got them muddled, and I have come to the conclusion that it is voice. Although they each have different modus operandi, different interests and increasingly separate paths, I am not sure that any of their voices were distinct enough for me to be certain at any point who was speaking. This is an observation not a criticism, because I think this might accurately reflect the homogeneity of teenage girls (or boys, but we are discussing girls here). You only have to overhear a few contemporary teenage girl’s saying “And I was, like…” to be reminded of this.

However, although, technically, each chapter started with the character clearly identified, I think it did contribute to me not being quite sure who had done what, or which family they came from (did they have a mother hidden behind the settee, or had their mother left?). At times I felt I would have liked a small spreadsheet, but that’s just me! I think on second reading (and there definitely will be a second reading) I will be clearer, and spot things that didn’t register the first time. Because there is a lot in this book.

The other thing I specifically liked is how it felt such a ‘complete’ book, despite not knowing what happened to poor Lefty, nor what Henry had to say about Magda’s departure. Psychologically everything felt really tied up and rounded off at the end ). I love that they took the weed back – there are just so many little pointers to these being good people. Teenagers get such bad press, and on the surface you can see why. But this books is a brilliant depiction of burrowing into the reasons behind ‘delinquency’.

I did wonder, a little bit, whether the girls’ precociousness was a true reflection of the teenage characters, or whether their insight and wisdom better reflected the adult author. But far be it from me to suggest that a novel should dumb down on sophistication just to be more believable. In any case, these girls were ‘broadening their minds’ (shall we say) much younger than I did.

One last thing: it’ not really ‘young adult’. It’s just a book. It would be a real shame if people were put off reading it because they thought it would be too young for them. Meredith does not talk down at all, in the way that many YA authors seem to. Maybe this is a UK v US publishing thing, but usually I can’t get beyond the first page, and if I do, I abandon it half way for something more fulfilling. No fulfilment issues here.

PS It is really annoying to see that neither Totnes Library nor the Totnes Bookshop stock the book, even though the author lives in Plymouth. Don’t bookshops and libraries research and promote local authors?

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PTSD in Fiction

My female protagonist in The Scottish Exiles, has just experienced a trauma which has left her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In her article Post Traumatic Distress Disorder in Fiction – Part 1  Ava Jarvis discusses some of the problems with fictional PTSD (I am also bookmarking 2, 3 and 4 for later).  Jarvis warns against two types of “Did Not Do The Research” portrayals.  The first she calls ‘What PTSD?’ whereby ‘perhaps a few days, even only hours later, the character is conveniently recovered enough to move to the next plot point.’ I am wary of this.  Once Rosa meets Davey and things hot up, I need not to forget Rosa’s PTSD.  Yes she can recover gradually, but not miraculously. The second, ‘Set Piece PTSD’, is where the only symptom is flashbacks, leading to intense drama and violence etc, after which the character reverts to the first type. She warns that not only do authors miss the opportunities afforded by subtle yet complex characterisation of PTSD, but fiction informs readers who then assume real people’s experiences are these caricatures.  I do not wish to fall into either trap.

My research is starting with Glenn Shiraldi’s  The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, a thorough yet accessible read.

It lists the causes, symptoms and clinical diagnostic criteria, including exposure, intrusions, avoidance, negative thinking, reactivity, duration of at least 1 month and life disruption.

Shiraldi says ‘[f]irst we maintain the dread of triggers.’ I am on the right track for my first few chapters, with Rosa avoiding thoughts of the trauma and the associated road and car. But this is not static. There are different stages of PTSD and I will need a ‘PTSD arc’ for Rosa, with nuances that will make her condition authentic.  Responses can vary, and Rosa ‘…might feel like a different person since the trauma.’  I am using her first few chapters to indicate this.

The first chapter is the immediate aftermath. The US Department of Veteran Affairs states: ‘Responses in the days that follow trauma are characterized by being under stress, use of extreme defenses, (such as over control of emotions or dissociation), and a focus on physical and emotional survival.’

Chapter 2 is a flashback to her old self, the start of the ‘past Rosa’ storyline, which also serves to demonstrate her pre-trauma character.  Throughout the ensuing chapters, as well as PTSD tropes,  I want to infuse a general feeling of disturbance and preoccupation.

Three books have been helpful with this.  All three books observe close detail, the characters are observant and insightful, with heightened acuity. This is a delightful expositional tool, but is also congruent with emotionally vulnerable people, wary of, and attuned to, others.

In Pollard Beatty uses compound sentences where memories, dialogue, thoughts and speculation run into each other as a stream of consciousness, without speech marks or punctuation to separate clauses.

In The Road McCarthy also has no chapters, and uses incomplete sentences, with simple statements of what ‘is’, without verbs and adverbs, almost a list. Again no speech marks for dialogue, although he does use new lines.

In The Trick is to Keep Breathing Galloway also has no speech marks, some dialogue is written as a script, some in capitals. Descriptions of what is happening and what she thinks and feel are intermingled as stream of consciousness, sometimes breaking off mid sentence, or right justified, or in list form, or as illustrations of signs and notes.  She uses italics for flashbacks but with no consistency.

These books, all a pleasure to read, have left me thinking: maybe I write too well.  Maybe my efforts at linguistic and grammatical precision are getting in the way of character and voice.  I think I might try to free my characters up a bit, to be themselves, flaws and all.


The Solitary Protagonist

How are voice and character developed when a character is alone in the wilderness, with no one else to bounce off, and no hubbub of everyday life?

In my novel in progress, my impetuous, arrogant, demanding, unpredictable, prickly protagonist Rosa finds allies in the women, holds her own with the men and causes plenty of conflict in any scene she is in – except when she’s on her own.

And this is a bit of a problem, because in the first few chapters she is alone on the moor, running away, recovering from a traumatic experience and surviving alone in the wilds.

So now I am gobbling up books with solitary protagonists in a survivalist setting, to see how they accomplish it.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean George is about a boy who runs away from home and lives in the woods in the Catskill Mountains.

Narrated in first person past tense, Sam’s narration suggests he is talking straight to the reader, as he reflects on his own early incompetence, and advises us about camp craft techniques.  He tells us what he was thinking, using tags. There are animals in Sam’s wood, and he trains a falcon so there is continually ‘someone’ to speak to, although he does this sparingly. Similarly he speaks aloud to other wild animals he befriends. He also talks aloud to himself occasionally, and he does meet a few humans and have brief dialogue with them.

Pollard by Laura Beatty is the story of a ‘woman of the road’ who left home at 15 to live permanently in the woods.

It is written in close third person and Anne’s voice is strong and characterful from the outset.  Her thoughts and feelings are woven into the text, as is dialogue, which has no speech marks and contributes to her stream of consciousness.  This is cleverly done, because it conveys her bafflement with the world and her family. In the early chapters she has some interaction with her family, which allows us to hear her voice and see her character.

In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a father and son walk across post-apocalyptic America.

It is not strictly a solitary protagonist because ‘the man’ is with his son, but I have included it because there is a feeling of isolation throughout. There is no apparent distinction in voice between when he is with his son, and when he goes off alone or his son is asleep. McCarthy writes in close third person, past tense.  His internal dialogue intermingles with description, interpretation of the environment and with dialogue. Like in Pollard, there are no speech marks. In this case it portrays his despair, the futility, as if identity is no longer a thing.

In the The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, protagonist Katniss is a ‘tribute’ in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death reality TV show.

She participates alone, although sometimes interacts with other characters. Written in first person present tense, it has immediacy . We are with Katniss’s thoughts throughout, and like Anne’s and ‘the man’s’ it comes across as a stream of consciousness. In one passage she can tell us what she is doing, how she is feeling emotionally, what a voice in the back of her head is saying, theories about other people’s motives and what she is feeling physically. In this way she has an ongoing and seamless dialogue with herself and with us, although she also states some thoughts expressly, in italics, and tagged, as if talking to herself.

In Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan, Julius lives alone in a cabin in the woods, and seeks revenge on the person who shot his dog.

In the first three chapters the protagonist is alone. His dog has disappeared. He spends much of this time on exposition, telling us the backstory of his cabin, his reading matter and his parents. This tells us little about his character and demonstrates no voice – unless we are to assume he is a bit of a bore. It doesn’t seem part of the story.


So, what have I learnt to help me with The Scottish Exiles? My current draft was in first person, past tense. Having tried all four combinations, and noting the variety in these titles, I am not convinced that either narrative viewpoint or tense have a conclusive bearing on the voice and character of a solitary protagonist in a survival situation.  However, the immediacy of The Hunger  Games is compelling so I have rewritten in present tense.

This immediacy I want to portray rules out the ‘reporting later’ style in My Side of the Mountain. I have considered starting the story later and having Rosa tell this part of her tale to male protagonist Davey, but I would I lose the opportunity to establish the moorland setting and the dystopian world at the start of the book.  Although I am not tempted to have Rosa spending her first few scenes on exposition about her family and what she likes to read, the present tense makes it easier to move smoothly to the past for a contextual backstory chapter.

Rosa’s thoughts were expressed directly, with distinctly worded thoughts in italics, but without tags because I don’t want to create a ‘looking back’ sort of distance.  Following this exercise, I have removed the italics.  Rosa’s consciousness of her immediate surroundings, her plight and her memories are intended to be intermingled, and Anne’s in Pollard  and ‘the man’s in The Road, each conveying a slight madness or desperation, are nearest to how I want Rosa to be.