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.

 

Does Sex Still Sell?

Outlander (Outlander #1)Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is with great affection and gratitude that I add a belated review for this book, which I first read in 2013. Not only did it finally send me to Scotland, it also prompted me to begin my own work in progress novel The Scottish Exiles. So what was it about this book that informed and inspired me so?

The writing style
Diana Gabaldon’s writing style is not literary, but it is educated. She has several degrees and had already published non fiction books. I like this balance: I don’t personally enjoy purple prose; I prefer plain speaking. But I do like a book to be well-written. This is where I aspire to place myself as a writer.

The adventure
It is what I call ‘a stonking good adventure’. Gabaldon gets plaudits for her well researched historical fiction. This was wasted on me, and I didn’t check her sources, instead just enjoing it for what it was. Although my novel is not historical, and is in fact set in the future, the ‘history’ will be accurate, at least until the last edit! It is also the history of the Scots in the hands of the English that informs and underlies my fictional narrative.

The genre
Diana Gabaldon describes her book as ‘multigenre’, and I am encouraged that this does not seem to have adversely affected its popularity. Tutor Meredith Miller Meredith Miller, author of Little Wrecks, and Falmouth University Writer in Residence Wyl Menmuir, author of The Many, both say: write the book you want to write and worry about the genre later. This is exactly what Gabaldon did, and so am I.

The Scots and Scotland
Diana Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she wrote this, the first in the series, and nor had I when I read it. However she received plaudits for getting it right – almost certainly attributable to her meticulous research. I have had many Scottish friends and lovers, so the characters and dialogue come naturally, particularly that of Davey Kirk. The first book in my series does not take place in Scotland: unlike Gabaldon, I wanted to immerse myself in the location. I live near Dartmoor, a similarly wild and beautiful place, and it was when I asked myself: ‘What could a Scotsman be doing on Dartmoor? that the idea of exile was born. The ‘hot Scot’ features similarly in my novel, hence I see it appealing to Outlander readers, despite some genre differences.

The sex
I read Outlander as a romance, and having read reviews I was prepared for the hot scenes. In my opinion Gabaldon does these appropriately and well. I like detailed writing, and although good taste is essential it is always a little odd in a romance if you get to know everything but. I am convinced that the hot scenes helped the book’s great popularity, and yet I still find myself wondering whether to include them. My mentioning to author and commissioning editor Susannah Marriott the question ‘Does sex still sell?’, she assures me the answer is ‘Yes’. At present my protagonists have not met, so luckily my critiquing MA peers have been spared blushes (as have I).

The point of view
Gabaldon uses Claire’s first person viewpoint throughout in Outlander but in the sequels she introduces Jamie’s third person viewpoint yet keeps Claire in first. This seems to work: it wasn’t particularly noticeable. It seemed appropriate, as it is firmly Claire’s story. I think the sex scenes worked better in first person, because it was as if Claire was choosing to divulge intimacies. This works a lot less well for Claire’s daughter Brianna and her husband (both third person viewpoint characters) – there is something voyeuristic about it, and since we have identified so closely with Claire, it feels a little odd to be so intimate with her daughter. In my novel, the only sex scenes will be between Rosa and Davey. It is a romance; their romance.

The path to publication
Diana Gabaldon is generous with her story, with numerous accounts of how she didn’t tell anyone she was writing a novel, and did not even intend to expect it to be published. She then inadvertently posted an excerpt on a CompuServe writers’ forum, from which it snowballed. Having attended several London Book Fair seminars on writer branding, I am inspired by this. There is a compelling symbiosis between producing a book that people really want to read, and ‘putting yourself out there’. I see no way of avoiding either.

In the meantime, thank you Diana Gabaldon. I owe you.

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Time Management for Writers

So you have a lot of work to do, so you are sitting down all the time, drinking coffee and scrunching your spine into the chair. Meanwhile all that housework and gardening and DIY are piling up and making your life feel chaotic and indulgent.  So what do you do?

I have adopted a simple but effective system of 45 minutes on / 15 minutes off.

But when I say ‘off’, what I actually mean is doing something else.  So I start on the hour, write for 45 minutes, and then I get up and mow a bit of the lawn, put on a batch of washing, do the washing-up, tidy my bedroom, recycle the beer bottles, etc.  On the hour, I sit back down and do some more writing.

What have I observed?

  • If I do 3 or 4 rounds a day, I can make huge progress with the writing, but also  get quite a lot of stuff done;
  • It is surprising what can be achieved in 1 minute;
  • 50 minutes is too long; 45 minutes is just right;
  • I get more done doing this than I do if I have a whole day ‘free’, because it makes me do it and do it quickly;
  • I realise that there are no minutes in the day for simply fiddling about with Facebook;
  • I don’t get stiff;
  • I can’t wait to get back to the writing.

What can you do in 1 minute?

Structure, viewpoint, tense

Find MeFind Me by J.S. Monroe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book proved incredibly useful for my work on structure and modes of narration. It came to me serendipitously as a freebie from the London Book Fair just as I was considering for The Scottish Exiles the question: ‘What stories do I want to tell?’ I had identified four interweaving plot lines which, like in Find Me, involved different characters, and different points in time.

In part one of Find Me, the basic structure is that Jar tells the present (‘real time’) and Rosa tells the past, in alternate chapters. In part two Rosa tells the real time present in italics, and Martin is introduced as a viewpoint character. This is an unwelcome jolt, especially as he is not a sympathetic character. In my novel I will avoid this by introducing each character early and sticking with them throughout, albeit to varying degrees.

In Find Me, Munroe’s uses of past and present tense are quite complex. For example Rosa, telling what happened in the past (5 years ago), is telling it in the present tense (as a diary) but referring both to the immediate past (earlier in the evening) and to the ‘present’. There is a difference between ‘linguistic past’ and ‘story past’. I must note that this complexity is all good: it doesn’t come over as complicated as my analysis suggests; it is more or less invisible, yet also subtly rich.

My current strategy, after reading Find Me, is to attempt four interweaving stories of female protagonist present, female protagonist past, male protagonist present and antagonist present, all culminating in the climax: i.e. ‘what happened’.

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How to Learn ‘How To’ From Fiction

The Lie of the LandThe Lie of the Land by Sam North

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I chose this book because my novel in progress, The Scottish Exiles, is set on Dartmoor. I live near Dartmoor and can do writing research trips with ease, but I don’t want my story to read like a natural history book. I wanted to see how authors portray Dartmoor in fiction; how they encapsulate its atmosphere. I also wanted to see whether I am on the right track about daily life on Dartmoor: is my character’s life plausible? Am I making it too easy for him? Are his preoccupations representative of the lifestyle? I did get insight into these things, and I will refer to it again when I am later ‘editing for atmosphere’.

But serendipity prevailed, and the best thing about Sam North’s book is the way he describes in such detail all the jobs his farmer character Jane has to do. In some places it almost reads as a list – well not exactly, but it reads a bit like my own ‘To-Do’ list, some of which I write as a ‘Did’ list, in a desperate attempt to give myself a feeling of accomplishment and progress. Jane has endless tasks that have to be performed, seasonal tasks repeated yearly, things breaking that need repair and unexpected crises to deal with. In between she stoically opens a tin of sardines, or eats a lump of cheese or a Mr Kipling Farmhouse cake.

The specificity of the detail is wonderfully entertaining, but it does more. It actually tells you how to do the things – or at least how the things are done. As a child I loved Swallows and Amazons for the sailing technique and camp craft, The Little House in the Big Woods for making maple syrup and butchering a pig and and My Side of the Mountain for tanning a hide and making a bed and mattress. When I began my novel I called it, with humour and inability to classify genre in equal measure, a ‘dystopian agricultural romance’. I wanted it to incorporate a ‘how to’ for things that Davey Kirk has to do living in his off-grid mountain shack, and for Rosa Retallack’s survival skills before she meets him. But my question to the market was: do adults want to read this stuff?

Well The Lie of the Land answers this for me, in the affirmative. Because it is exactly what made this book stand out.

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