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Louise's current project is to make all her sweet romances available on the internet.
Look out for her new Regency romance, Regency Fortune, coming soon!


Thursday, 29 January 2009

How to Make Words Work

Another out of print book - how fast texts become obsolete. This is about advertising and copy writing and it's a good read for an author as well. Howard talks about working like an athlete - practise hard and analyse your performance and you will improve. There is a lot about the power of words. Apparently just looking at the word 'happy' produces measurably different physical responses from looking at the word 'sad'. I can believe this because I had to read Midnight's Children for my course. A very useful exercise as it turned out, because when I said I hated it, my tutor, quite rightly, told me that wasn't a good enough response and to find out why. Imagine the worst foreign toilet you ever experienced. It's hot and you don't feel well. This book made me feel as if I was locked in a place like that. It made my skin crawl - and a lot of that was to do with the words on the page: snot, spew, sweat, soiled, creepy, foul, mire and many more, all in one sentence. When I'd finally got through it I picked up a children's book: rose petals, velvet, fresh green grass, sunshine and birdsong. The contrast was amazing.

Another good point he makes is that people have limited time and interest. You can capture them with the unexpected, surprise and involvement. To get them involved you make it personal. Not 'The Witch' but 'I married a Witch.' The facts are not enough. "Apples are good for you, contain minerals and vitamins and can aid good health" is an unsold book. 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away,' catches interest.

The point I find most interesting now is his comment that if you want to make 30 seconds seem like a long time, you don't do to much in it. He's talking about TV adverts of course, but he quotes Irving Berlin as saying about songs: 'All I need is a catchy phrase that anyone can understand.' If you have a few separate elements and you bring them together in a simple message, it's more effective. I think it's the same with books. When I read beginner's books (if you are published, everyone has a novel to show you!) they always seem woolly, diverse, scatter gun. There's too much stuff piled in there and it doesn't seem to fit anywhere. I think it's Orson Scott Card who says that readers all have a set of little questions in their heads and one of them is: 'Why are you telling me this?' Its made me think again about the importance of the high concept. Jaws is a good example - the book and the film are simply about a big fish and its effect on a town with a tourist beach. How simple is that? And how well does it work?

The final piece of advice is the one that stayed with me. I think of it every time I get one of those work emails where you have to fight your way to the meaning through a thicket of imperfectly understood grammar and business jargon. Howard says in all business communication your guiding principal should be: 'Would I say this to a friend?'

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

If you Want to Write

This is a great book - I remember enjoying it a lot. Her advice boils down to be brave and be honest, but she gives lots of fascinating examples, both from students she has taught and from famous people. For example, she says that Vang Gogh's first drawing was in a letter to his brother. 'It is so beautiful I must tell you how it looks...' he writes. Her style is charming too - I've kept lots of her expressions in my notes.

I think she's right when she says that if you are forcing yourself to write, then you are afraid you will fail. When you are sure, 'you smile and set about it'. Working with love is easy and interesting - there is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

I also think she's right about living in the present: it's no good 'working up a lot of bogus feeling' because nobody will care a bit. 'My heroine is wonderful' is propaganda, and propaganda is not storytelling. Let a person come alive in your mind, and describe them accurately and objectively, then it will be interesting. Easy then! But she also talks about writing your true emotions and tapping into powers that will help you do that. A very good book.

Non-Sexist Writing

This is a useful and interesting book. I've made notes on three main areas. One is to think about individual words - don't say man the reception desk (especially if you are talking about a female) say staffed the reception desk. They give many examples. If in doubt you can always use the usual form, I'm never sure about words such as chair/chairperson/chairman, but it is good to be aware of the differences. The next is to recast sentences to avoid any awkward constructions when speaking generally - a child can feed himself, for example, could become a child can eat without help. The third section is very interesting - it's about trivialising. I think it was Adrienne Rich who said that being called a poetess brought out the terroristess in her. It can be obvious, as in two Thais and their wives, or more subtle, as in 'she helped slaves to escape.' Doesn't 'led slaves to freedom' sound stronger?

Monday, 26 January 2009

Style of Your Own

Another out of print text - you can tell it's a while since I read them! I enjoyed reading this book by Ivan Roe. It is for both fiction and non fiction. First he warns you to beware of out-moded styles. Childhood books can be very dated and what about the people who taught you? Look out for a bullying manner combined with the trick of exclusion:
  • anyone who has thought seriously about...
  • how many people stop to think...
  • the OUTMODED idea that...
  • Disregarding the one factor that could prove everything I say to be rubbish...

It's a matter of attitude, he says. Are you telling people or sharing with them? Readers should be thinking about themselves and their own discoveries as they read. Readers are always alone, even if they are on a crowded beach, and they want to escape for a while, have their mind massaged, but not pummelled, and to learn something. They like to read quickly, and hate dull sentences and having to look things up. That's why you should use short sentences, personal pronouns, active verbs and concrete nouns. Concrete terms are easy to understand. Abstractions slow things down. Roe thinks that long descriptions are dull (so do I) and he suggests looking for a couple of good observations which will help the reader to fill out the rest. Here's one of my sister's that I liked. 'He had a face like a smashed plate.' If you can start the reader's imagination, then you have engaged their attention.

Roe gives quite a lot of examples of how to be concrete, including a good analysis of the Gettysburg Address. He finishes by saying: Don't worry! Know what you want to say, use your ears, then say what you mean.

Friday, 23 January 2009

A Text Book One and a Half Inches Thick

On corporate strategy. And the writing is small and the pages are thin. I do seem to have mismanaged my life! I have to put down my current project of reviewing writing books, which I was enjoying immensely, in order to wade though the next set of course work, which no doubt will do me good but couldn't be described as enjoyable. I feel like the old nursery rhyme which ends 'And the pig won't go over the stile and I'll NEVER get home tonight.'

I need to keep the idea of teaching creative writing firmly in mind. I'm reading corporate strategy in order to complete my course work and get my degree and then do a PGCE and then, finally, get to talk about writing all day. It all makes sense, honestly!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Way to Write Crime Fiction

This book seems to be out of print. My notes from it are mostly copied paragraphs from crime fiction - she quotes Ira Levin, Graham Greene and so on. She advises that the elements you need are:
  • A criminal case which contains a violent death. It should have its own special features which often hold the key to the mystery . It should be set in a normal setting, but contain unexpected elements.
  • Excitement - create it in your style with simple uncluttered writing and short sentences, then raise questions or pose threats or reveal mysteries on every page and finally, create situations which require an immediate response from the main character.
  • Characters - have a limited circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity. Then a hero who is dependable, honest, lacking in self-confidence and slightly awkward. They must beat danger by being brave and persevering. Sidekicks should be dumb, and they must say what they are thinking. (Radice points out that Maigret is his own sidekick. He lies awake in bed asking himself obvious questions.) Then a villain - who will be interesting to the reader because criminals are active and free in spirit nor do they knuckle down under routine and a boss.
  • Clues which add up to a tenable ending which the reader could have arrived at by a process of deduction. Clues can be hidden in lists, which readers always skim over, or you can use misdirection: go on about the great relationship a woman has with her daughter so we don't expect the man in the case to be her estranged son, or announce a false fact loudly, or by having lots of people assume that it's so.

And that's it! Probably there was more in the text if I'd known how to find it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Plot Number 14 Love

I only made notes on plot number 14, love - ignoring the other 19 because I was still trying to write for Mills & Boon at this point. Tobias begins with a bit of a lecture on sentimentality. I don't know if I made the connection at the time, I've not noted it, but he's making the same distinction that CS Lewis did: sentimentality relies on the reader's experience rather than creating a fresh experience for them. He's rather stern about sentimentality being a BAD THING, but as Lewis says, that might be what the reader wants. It's probably a good idea to be aware of the difference, whichever route you go down.

RB does give a good example of sentiment - a poem by Edgar Guest that goes: 'Sue's got a baby now...' we don't know anything about Sue - nothing - so we have to draw on our own associations of motherhood in order to create a picture. He says: 'an' she, is like her mother used to be:' Well, how was that? There's a whole range of mothers out there. (I am still haunted by a report I read on a child with brain damage & learning difficulties caused by 'non-accidental head injuries'. What horrors lie behind those four careful, professional words? Is that sentimentality? It's my experience and imagination filling in gaps?) Anyway, the poet goes on a few lines later to say that Sue is 'more settled like' and again you have to put your own ideas there. One person might imagine Sue previously running around with bikers, or shooting up heroin. Another reader's ideas of giddy rebellion might be Sue wearing short skirts and handing her homework in late.

As for love, Tobias says only that a love story is essentially boy meets girl BUT, and someone or something always gets in the way. All the plot hinges around the BUT. I made dutiful notes (this was 1996) but I've read better books on romances since. The most interesting point he makes is that love is not a gift, it must be earned, and that love untested is not true love.

Monday, 19 January 2009

An Experiment in Criticism

I finally found the book that I thought had notes on the Lewis essay and see that I didn't manage to get my head around it - this won't be much of a review of the book. It's more a record of my early studies. Partly because I had no money at the time, I got all my books out of the library so I don't have a copy of this, which is a shame, because it's an interesting read with a lot for an author to think about. (I still get text books out of the library because then I'll read them and make notes and get them back on time. Those text books I own tend to sit on the bookshelf waiting for me to have time to read them.)

From memory then, I think this book suggests that instead of trying to categorise books by their literary merit as good or bad, you look at how people read them, and instead categorise the types of reading into 'good' or 'bad', and thinking this way, leads you into an exploration of what happens as people read. Lewis talks about readers who simply 'use' books as a method of finding what they expect to find there - which covers most of the literary criticism that we did on the degree course - as opposed to those who cross the frontier into the new experience that's in a good book. If only wolves could write books, he says. Imagine!

Lewis relates how astonished he was when a student 'a very intelligent post graduate' said that he read simply for the experience. They were discussing Last of the Mohicans, and the thrill of the chase. Lewis said that he'd assumed everyone preferred the vivid wonderfulness of a good book, but no, his student said that too much literary stuff could detract from the pleasure of the chase. All he wanted to do was mainline the emotional experience, and this is difference I was thinking of re the last post.

I'd need to get the book again to be sure though, because I haven't taken notes. I tried - there's a couple of pages, but rather than being my notes I've ended up copying out complete sentences - Lewis is too erudite for me to be able to paraphrase or mind map at that time, and it looks as if I realised it and gave up. I wonder if I could do it now?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Endless Rapture

I had to order this book from the library and it eventually came from a private collection in Kent or a university in Dublin - somewhere obscure anyway, but it was worth the wait. Helen Hazen wrote Endless Rapture to explain why women like such vile heroes - and her theory does make perfect sense, once you've waded through the text. I remember being a bit confused by the book at first, and I mind-mapped it, which helped to make her thesis clear.

Hazen says that men and women have different stories - which is true. Remembering the awful 'Devil Wears Prada': when did you last read a story where a young man unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment, loses his masculinity and ends up a neurotic, lonely eunuch? For those who haven't seen the film, the heroine gets a job in fashion, becomes absorbed in it, neglects her friends and her boyfriend and oh, horror! Forgets all about the work she did in college on rights for janitors. Janitors! Don't get me started.

Hazen says that stories for men require an evil opponent: dragons, Darth Vader, the mob. In stories for women the wrong that needs righting is masculine insensitivity, neglect and brutality. All women want their men home from the wars, out of bars and gambling dens and to be treated with respect and honour. The weapons may be different: feminists use anger and politics, romances use love and femininity, Christians use religion - but readers all want that man behave the way she wants him to.

I remember being given around 200 Mills & Boon in the early 80s. I read the lot. I soon noticed that a favourite theme was being raped by a rude man with a helicopter/yacht/castle in Spain, which baffled me at the time, but Hazen points out that adversity makes the conquest sweeter. Women don't want to be raped any more than men want to have their balls thrashed (Casino Royale) - but if the worst thing happens to the main character and they still overcome it - what a great story!

So, if the plot concern external evil, the bigger the baddie the better. If the plot concerns internal evil, the worse the hero behaves to the heroine before he ends up begging to marry her, the better. And that's why romances feature a man who treats the heroine like dirt - which leads on to another point which C.S. Lewis covers in an essay about the different types of reader. I can only get into that kind of story if the background reasons for the bad behaviour are feasible. Mary Stewart did great heroes - you end up wondering why they didn't behave even worse then they did - and they grovel beautifully. Category romance readers take the emotion neat and are happy with a sketched in back story - but it is exactly the same story. I might try to look out my notes on that essay - although it's almost certainly in an unlabelled, unnumbered, untitled book, which kind of makes me understand why they insist on proper references at college.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Teach Yourself Writing Crime Fiction

The next text I studied was 'Teach Yourself Writing Crime Fiction' by Lesley Grant Adamson - I can't be sure it was exactly this title, because I wasn't noting down source details in 1996. I've made two pages of scrappy notes, but this may be because I didn't know what I was looking for rather than suggesting a light read.

I've noted a technique Adamson talks about that readers are now used to from television - it's a way to cheat yourself out of a single viewpoint by slipping in a tiny extra detail. For example, suppose a sweet old lady is gardening and your main character talks with her and believes her. Your MC then walks away, but you can linger on the gardening woman for a few seconds and show her face looking ugly - or she could savage the rose bush - a little something to set up tension.

I made quite detailed notes on her way of describing a setting - and I still think they are very good. She suggests firstly describing the setting, she uses a shopping mall as an example, then giving the main character's emotional reaction to the setting and she shows you how to select details to create a mood or image. Suppose you want a feeling that things are in the wrong place? Then you could describe scraps of paper from the cash machine fluttering around, or rubbish bobbing in the fountain and make it all impinge on the main character - a wrapper gets stuck to her shoe. She turns up her collar against the wind that is whipping the garbage around.

She also makes the good point that adjectives should rise in intensity - do not follow terror with alarm.

The next note I've made is the opposite of what some people advise: she says open with a wide canvas then focus in on the suffering/adventures endured by the main character because this tightens the tension. This does make sense because it's real - I once saw a great Sopranos scene on TV where the main character (Tony Soprano) is visiting an old mobster in hospital. Tony is recounting mob victories. The old man is talking about his blood cell count. The old man's world has narrowed to the battle taking place in a cell. However, Robert McKee cites films like the Terminator where the stakes get bigger and bigger. Linda goes from being a waitress to saving the world. Maybe you need to do both at once?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Review of Writing Books

I still can't get going on my novel, but with the lighter days I am feeling more like doing something, so I thought I'd look through my writing notebooks and then maybe put them in the attic and free up some shelf space.

The first book I picked up is dated 1996/7. It is an early book, probably the first and I've little idea how to go about studying anything. At that time I would have been learning how to type and doing my Open College A-units, (which are around GCSE level.) I've written out some pages from Hamlet and Barbara Cartland, then I seem to have gone through some Gothic books by Phyllis A Whitney and Victoria Holt, writing out a precis of what happens in each chapter. Then I turned to Mills & Boon and did the same with a Vikki Lewis Thompson novel and one by Rosalie Ash. There's some notes on a sex scene from a 1993 novel - 'takes place on a yacht' I've noted. I've written down all the descriptive words - and noticed how the female character's feelings move from fear, to instinct taking over to desire. He's a bit of a bully boy - there's pages of him 'pinning her down with one hard leg' and 'blocking speech' lots of words like ' catch, alarming, possessive, rough, push, twist' and so on. It would be interesting to look at a newer book and see how it's changed - if it has! I've given up trying to write for Mills & Boon though. I do like a romance - I like books where the female gets what she wants, but their particular world is not one I inhabit. At this time, I was still sending off attempts to Mills and Boon, but the rejections came pinging back. Towards the end of this study book (an A4 lined hardback notebook) I seem to have started thinking: 'Why don't I understand what's going on in these little romances? Why can't I write one?' And started looking at books about writing.

There's a page of notes from a book or an article by Mary Cadogan - possibly called 'Women and Children First'. I didn't have the habit of making a note of source material in 1996! Cadogan states that a bestseller may have an original storyline and a flair for language but it must agree with popular sentiment. It's important that the book appear to give reasoned consideration to serious issues, she says, but it will actually shirk logical developments and outcomes in favour of endorsing social conventions. Although the novel must appear to demand intelligent participation from the reader, it must work within popular sentiment. I've also noted that she finds a fundamental conflict between authenticity and readability in historical fiction. Most authors treat the past as if it were the present, sacrificing remoteness for readability. Understandable enough. It's hard work reading old fiction - but when my A-level class finished, we all said we had got the most out of the Chaucer tale we studied - because it took you to such a far-away world.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

On Becoming a Writer

My current college project is done - it soaked up an insane amount of hours - costing and budgeting being so not my thing! I took self-publishing a text book as the project example, so at least if I ever want to self-publish a book I'll know more about how it's done.

But, before publishing a book one has to write the thing! As I'm still feeling stuck, I thought I'd review some of the texts I've read so that at least I'm doing something. This one is a classic by Dorothea Brande. It was written in 1934, but deals with the questions that never change - where does your voice come from? What stops you from writing? The mind map was done a number of years ago, and I didn't realise until it was nearly finished that it had turned into a heart - very appropriate, and I see that in her barriers to success, she has them all stemming from fear.