Categories for Writing

May 8, 2017

Into The Water, and why I loved it anyway.  

I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train.  Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.

Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.

There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.

There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment.  However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.

I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.

So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?

And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.

Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of  “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.

Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.

There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.

The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.

There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly,  or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.

If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff.  It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.

Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.

I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –

 “One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”

I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.

Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.

I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.

Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.

What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.

And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.

Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.

Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.

 

Ann

 

 

Sources:

Guardian : Val McDermid review

Hitchcock quotation on YouTube


October 30, 2016

A Savage Art is published!  

It all happened yesterday – and I meant to finish this post then but I was too excited to sit still for long enough. And in an odd way I also didn’t really believe it until I woke up this morning – late even with the extra hour – and discovered that yes, my novel was still there on Amazon, and that people were still talking about it on Twitter and on Facebook. It wasn’t just a dream.

tinybook_savageartIt’s been a long journey.

One of the stories my family tell about me is that I was thrown out of the first class in infant school after two weeks for non-co-operation. I refused to play with the educational games and simply demanded to be taught how to read.

By the time I was ten I’d read every Enid Blyton adventure story I could get my hands on, and then discovered the Lone Pine adventures written by Malcolm Saville. In the back of the library books was an address to join the Lone Pine Club. I wrote my own Lone Pine mystery story and sent it off. A few weeks later I receieved a letter from Malcolm Saville, apologising that the club was no longer in existence, but encouraging me to carry on writing my own stories. I wish I still had the letter, but sadly, it’s long gone.

In the years in between I wrote several short stories, some of which were near misses, but it wasn’t until I did the Open University creative writing courses a few years ago that I started taking writing seriously. Again, I started with short stories – but my final assignment turned out to the very beginning of this novel, A Savage Art.

I’ve had support and encouragement from lots of people along the way, and I’d just like to throw out a general thank you to them all here and now. And yesterday was no exception – I am very grateful to all the people who shared links on Twitter and on Facebook and to everyone who bought a copy of the novel.

And thank you as well to the fabulous Chris McVeigh, the founder of Fahrenheit Press, who made my dream come true.  I am starting to read my way through the rest of the Farenheit authors, and I am in very good company. If you love crime fiction, you really should check out the Fahrenheit book club – here!

Thank you all. And I promise not to go on about it too much…

Ann

P.S. My value of “too much” may not be universal.


October 25, 2016

Patricia Highsmith and empathy for the sociopath  

Patricia Highsmith seems generally under-rated these days – the people who know of Ripley seem to think of either Alien or Matt Damon in the film version. Her skill with the insidious and slow burning psychological suspense story is perhaps out of fashion now, given the current trend for novels that are fast paced and full of action. I lost count of the agents who told me my second novel started too slowly, even with one murder hinted at in the first paragaph, and another at the end of the first chapter.

Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and debut novel Sharp Objects, which in some ways I prefer) is a Highsmith fan. I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, where Flynn is talking about Highsmith’s Deep Water, and realised it was one I hadn’t read – even though I love Highsmith – from Strangers on a Train, through the Tom Ripley series, The Cry of the Owl (another slow and creepy story about the relationship between a stalker and his victim, or…). I even enjoyed – if that is the right word, her collection of very creepy short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny.

So this week I rectified that omission – and smiled to see the current edition of Deep Water has Gillian Flynn’s recommendation on the cover…  Strange times.

Like Gone Girl, Deep Water is a story about an unhappy marriage. In Gone Girl, the story is told in turn by Nick and the Amazing Amy, neither of whom turn out to be appealing, likeable characters.  The structure of Deep Water is different, and the story of Vic and Melinda is told in the third person – but Highsmith sticks very closely to Vic’s point of view, and we see everything from his perspective.

Although the story unfolds very slowly and there’s no mystery about what happens – we are, after all, seeing exactly what Vic does throughout, I found it totally impossible to put the book down. Highsmith creates a very claustrophobic world. It was only at the very end of the novel, when I paused to draw breath, that I realised I had been drawn in to Vic’s mind to the extent that I wanted him to literally get away with murder….all the way until he was carted off by the police. I had been pleased when he’d escaped detection. I had disliked the characters who, quite rightly, suspected that he was a murderer. Even though I knew he was.

How did Highsmith accomplish this?

In a way all novelists are manipulating readers – perhaps the splinter of ice Graham Greene said was in the heart of every writer is the source of Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise with a sociopath.

It helps, I think, that Melinda is not a very sympathetic character. We only see her from Vic’s point of view, of course, but somehow we are persuaded to believe he might be right. First, we see she is, at the very least, a flirt. She publicly spends lots of time with a succession of other men, and Vic patiently puts up with it… We see his friends sympathise with him, and encourage him to put his foot down. He also tells us she’s a lousy mother – from making too much fuss when giving birth, to neglecting their daughter throughout the story. We see Vic spending time with his daughter, so perhaps are inclined to believe him a little too easily. Vic has created his own haven in the home – they don’t share a bedroom any more, and he has his retreat in the garage where he raises snails, and herbs, and does experiments with bedbugs… Later, after Vic has murdered one of Melinda’s lovers, she employs detectives and spends time with a man who dislikes Vic – and somehow we see this as yet another marital betrayal.

In addition there are aspects of Vic that are sympathetic. He is a popular member of the small town where he lives – the few people who seem not like him seem to be outsiders. He works as a publisher, and clearly enjoys doing good work. He is a good and generous employer. And he does seem very patient with Melinda’s indiscretions. His interest in the snails – and particularly the love life of his two favourites – seems very sad considering the coldness of his own home life.  He does genuinely seem to care for his daughter – although there are glimpses perhaps of the sociopath in her too- perhaps she is her father’s daughter. She seems to want him to be a murderer – or that is how Vic sees it.

And yet…. we are warned at the very beginning that Vic is not without flaws.  The novel starts with him telling us that he doesn’t dance – not because he can’t – but because his wife loves to dance. Later in the novel we see him dancing with female friends in order to punish her…but by then, we have been persuaded that she deserves his punishment. His friend, Horace, is always telling Vic he should be firmer with her. But just like Vic’s friends, we are lulled into trusting Vic. The story starts so slowly and we see Vic suffering as Melinda flirts with one man, then another. And to begin with it doesn’t seem so dangerous – one of her previous flirts and has been murdered and Vic merely pretends he was the killer. He takes delight in using the fantasy to scare off her current flirt.  And we enjoy him getting away with that – as we’ve become accustomed to see him as the underdog. As he sees himself…
And yet that’s not really a true picture, is it? He’s a rich man, with an independent income and work he enjoys, respected in his community. He’s not an underdog – he’s enjoying a perverse kind of power over his wife. From denying her the pleasure of dancing – to his passive aggressive and inauthentic response to her flirtations.

To quote Flynn, Highsmith “doesn’t give anything away. She does not do your work for you. She gives you all the information. She’s a very precise writer. You picture her using an eye dropper to put each word on the page. Everything is very specifically put in place, but she makes you do a lot of wonderful homework in having to think about her characters and put yourself in their positions and try to figure them out a little bit.”

There’s an absence of emotion in Vic’s story. At one point we are told that he doesn’t feel guilt – but he doesn’t really seem to feel anything – except perhaps for the snails.

So perhaps that’s how it works. We have our own theories of mind – we as readers do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Highsmith novel. We project our own emotions on to Vic, and make assumption about how he must feel. That’s how narcissists and sociopaths work on us, after all. We make excuses for their behaviour, just as we do for Vic’s. Just as his friends do. We are all fooled because we want to believe that other human beings are just like us. Even though in several places Vic quite explicitly says he’s not like other people. He’s not a conformist.

We do all like non-conformity, don’t we?

I can’t help pondering on the fact that Highsmith herself kept snails….  Perhaps the key to why I empathised with Vic is that Highsmith herself is on his side.

I think it’s time I re-read Highsmith’s book on Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction.

Ann


October 20, 2016

What provides good experience for writing?  

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that suggests medicine – the writer, himself a doctor and a novelist, points out that there are very many examples – he picks out Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini.

His argument is pretty strong – doctors get to see people at times of crisis, doctors are empathic (mostly); junior doctors have to learn to take a history and present it to the consultant on ward rounds, and thus develop an ability with communication (listening as well as talking) and with story.

Having recently spent far too much time in hospital, I concede he makes an excellent case. I think I’ve certainly found lots of material from the other side of the fence – and not just if I follow through with my threat to turn it into a medical thriller. After the next operation and recovery, of course.

However I suspect he’s just cherry picking, or has fallen into the Texas Sharp Shooter logical fallacy. He’s a doctor and a novelist, and therefore he is attuned to the existence of the rest of the group who fall into his segment of that particular Venn diagram.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the same is true of all the lawyers who are also novelists. I recall when I was at Liverpool University and changed course from Law to English Language and Literature, my Law Professor made that point. Who did he mention? Henry Fielding, certainly. Erle Stanley Gardner, possibly. John Buchan. John Mortimer. I would add John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline.

A similar case could be made for the reasons – they see lots of people in time of crisis, they have to have an understanding of human nature, they have to be able to construct a narrative.

So where does that leave me – with experience in the software business?

Writing a business plan was by far the longest work of fiction I produced before I completed my first novel. And I certainly met a lot of people, of all kinds. Do you have to be empathic in business? You certainly have to understand something about human nature. I think I have a fair supply of ideas for villains and victims both from some of the people I met. I do love a revenge story after all. I am sad to say that the first example that sprang to mind here was Jeffrey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Ah yes, there are quite a few politicians who have turned novelist too, aren’t there?

Of course, most writers do need another source of income. Here in the UK most writers are reported to be earning below minimum wage.  So it’s just as well that working at stuff that is not directly related to writing provides inspiration.

So this gives me an excuse for my favourite anecdote about strange experiences in the software business.

We were meeting with a guy, let’s call him Mike, who had approached us as he was interested in a partnership. He had, he said, lots of experience in tech sales, and would be interested in selling our software product in exchange for a share of the revenue he generated. He asked for a generous revenue share, and based on his experience and his projections of the sales he could make, it sounded as if he might just be worth it.  He was a little reluctant to provide references, though. We could understand that he might not want to let his current employers know he was thinking of striking out as a freelance, and he said his other experience was too far out of date.

There was a distinct whiff of rat at the this point.

Still, we continued discussions, and my business (and life) partner inserted his usual rat trap into the conversation. I won’t say what that is, exactly – he might need it again….

At the end of the meeting Mike suggested he would provide us with a draft agreement the following week, and we parted amicably.

When it arrived, I read the agreement very, very carefully. It started out so positively, with lots of wildly optimistic projections of the sales potential he could see for our software product. (Fiction, again!)

And right at the end, just one tiny sentence that made me gasp and then set me off laughing at the guy’s sheer nerve.

If he didn’t make the projected minimum sales target he’d set for himself (one that was far more reasonable that initial wild projections, granted), then at the end of the first year he would be entitled to purchase our Intellectual Property for the miserly sum of £1.00.

Yes, that’s right.

Of course we confronted him, and he came over all hurt and defensive. Of course he would work hard, he said. He was motivated to make a success of the venture. And there was no intention at all for him to spend a year doing nothing at all and then take our IP…. He just had to do something to protect himself – he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time required for nothing.

I’m still not sure if he would make a better victim or villain. It was so inept an attempt that I can’t imagine he would actually succeed in defrauding anyone. But he certainly had every intention of doing so!

So, medicine, law, business – what is the best source of experience for writers? I don’t think there is any best. As Nora Ephron famaously said, “It’s all material.”

Ann

Glad to be out of the software business…


October 14, 2016

It’s time for the Iowa Writing course again!  

Last year’s MOOC from Iowa was fabulous and this year’s already is shaping up to be as good – or better. Unfortunately I am not quite well enough to participate fully and do all the writing exercises this year, but I will be auditing – and hopefully will be able to catch up later if I get my promised date for my surgery soon…

So this year’s course is How Writers Write Fiction 2016: Storied Women – the first class was posted yesterday so there’s still time to sign up.

The Class One video is about creating characters – I especially enjoyed the segment about stealing souls!  As with the last one, the coruse is stimulating because they get so many working writers to talk about their craft. So far this time we’ve had Margot Livesey, Galit Dahan Carlibach, Ukamaka Olisakwe, and Cate DiCharry.

After the introductory video there are various readings, usually short stories or excerpts from longer works – and articles by writers on aspects of writing. I’ve not read this week’s yet but I can already tell they are going to be fascinating – about whether characters have to be likeable, and then Lionel Shriver’s recent controversial piece about cultural appropriation (actually I’d already read that one) and responses to it.

Looking forward to some interesting discussion threads this week!

So, it’s free, you can join in as much or as little as you like – sign up here and perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ann