Wednesday, 22 February 2017

In Conversation with Isabelle Grey


Novelist, screenwriter, journalist and writing tutor talks to Karen Pegg about crime, research, free-falling into fear and the best kind of villain.

To what extent are your novels underpinned by research when it comes to police procedure?

I started out as a journalist and non-fiction author, so I guess the habit of accuracy stayed with me. I also really enjoy the research, especially getting to talk to experts and professionals about their work, the more arcane the better. I don’t mind stretching reality a little – this is fiction and the story comes first – but my benchmark is to avoid getting things needlessly wrong.

On a practical level, the more forensic detail I can master, the more I can play around with clues, red herrings and switchbacks in my plot – which for readers of crime fiction is a unique part of their entertainment.

But what matters most to me is to understand the mind-set of a detective: the procedures they think are important, what they would simply never do, their attitudes to people, their humour, and what angers or upsets them. I’ve seen how this kind of frontline work changes people, and the way in which those changes happen interests me a lot. 
I’ve been fortunate to spend time with senior police officers, and my brother is a retired forensic pathologist, and I’m endlessly fascinated by way they think, and also by the effects on them of the tremendous responsibility of their     jobs. I can decide on a whim to change which of my characters committed the crime: they can’t.

Location is extremely significant in crime writing. It has often been referred to as another character. How do you choose your locations? 
I suspect all crime writers are drawn to places that have, as it were, tectonic plates of safety and danger, where co-existing layers slip over or under another without warning: the sea’s edge, a warm family home in a remote landscape, an individual in full view yet lost in a bustling city. It’s about creating a gap through which someone who thought they were safe can just suddenly fall. And where do they go then? 

There has been an upsurge in female crime writing. What other female crime writers would you read?

There are so many good ones to choose from! Among past writers, I’d single out Daphne du Maurier and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine for their incomparable skill and the richness of their psychological insight. Similarly I admire Tana French who, especially in a novel like Broken Harbour, uses mystery and suspense to draw one deep not only into the story but also into the helpless feeling of not knowing what’s going on. And – just two out of many, many great books - I recently enjoyed Laura Wilson’s The Wrong Girl and Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me.

You deal with many contemporary issues in your writing. Does crime writing hold a mirror up to society in your opinion?

It can, although I don’t think it has to. I’ve certainly found I can tell more truth in fiction than was possible as a journalist. The ability to dramatise a situation means I can draw attention to aspects that may be overlooked in the narrow focus of media reporting. My new book, The Special Girls, is about how a child abuser gets away with it, especially when he is allied to a prestigious institution. It’s hard enough to voice suspicion against someone high-profile who is also clever at grooming his colleagues, and even harder when it’s against someone important to the reputation of the institution for which you work and which you probably wish to protect. Crime fiction can focus attention on the quiet voices in that kind of situation, on the people apparently at the margins of a big splashy story but who may be anything but.

Film and TV tie-ins are a significant part of crime writing now. Do you write your novels with a vision of your work being adapted for screen? Has your work as a novelist allowed you to develop differently in any way? How helpful has your work a scriptwriter been as a novelist?

I came to fiction so I could tell stories that, in nearly twenty years as a screenwriter, I hadn’t found a way to write for film or television. Obviously I’d love my characters to appear on screen, but I don’t believe one should second-guess a screenplay while writing a novel – they’re two very different beasts.

My background as a screenwriter has given me a terrific grounding in how stories operate, so I feel I have a great toolbox to rely on when it comes to fixing a narrative that isn’t working. In fiction however I’ve had to learn a new way of writing, allowing myself to go into free-fall and discover characters and their story much more in the telling – something that doesn’t always work out well in a script where the structure needs to be more tightly organised before you start. Initially I missed the safety of having so much already nailed down but now I feel that, when I approach my next screenplay, I’ll make more use of that scary sense of free-fall.

Which POV do you find works best to sustain the tension in a novel and which do you find comes the most naturally as a writer?

I enjoy reading other writers who use a first-person narrative, especially for unreliable narrators, but have yet to do so myself. I’m used to writing for actors - they are the ‘first person’ - and so to taking that step back to observe my characters’ behaviour and reveal their inner monologue or deception and self-deception through dialogue. But there are certain intriguing kinds of story that pretty much have to be written from a first-person POV and I look forward to having a go!

Do you find that crime readers have certain expectations from crime novels. Is this constricting?


No, not at all. If you write genre fiction then it’s vital that you understand and respect the ‘rules’ and expectations of the genre. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend or exploit them, but it’s as if you have a contract with the reader to deliver certain types of reading satisfaction, and I find that a very rewarding creative challenge. And one that places me in a relationship with the reader all the time I’m writing, trying to make sure they’re getting what they want.

In crime, that’s going to be puzzles, suspense, wrong turns, dead ends, secrets, revelations, surprises, fear, disgust and even a bit of frustration and anxiety before the ‘right’ ending. As Kate Summerscale wrote in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘the purpose of detective investigations is … to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.’

Which fictional detective do you wish you had written?

Philip Marlowe. Oh to have even a little of Raymond Chandler’s noir style and wit!

Can you describe your novel writing process? Do you always know the plot beforehand? Do your characters sometimes surprise you?

I find the process fascinating. Characters - fictional people - have always come to me freely, but working out what the novel form can do for my story, how to wrestle that into something that reveals the blue-print in my head, that I’m still learning!

I always have to know enough of the plot to get started, and I know where, if not precisely how, it’s going to end, but so many great twists and turns come out of the writing that I no longer worry about trying to nail them down beforehand.

It’s important to know the ‘spine’ of the story – what the book is about, why it’s a book I want to write – and that also determines how it starts and ends, the story ‘arc’. And maybe I know a few key moments for Grace Fisher and certainly why and how the original crime has happened, but the rest is part of the process of writing. And sometimes it’s a struggle when I have to go back to the ‘spine’ and alter my route, and other times a character will suddenly reveal something I hadn’t expected and make my life much easier!

It strikes me that you write with compassion. Good characters are capable of both good and bad. I’m thinking of ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Shot Through The Heart.’ Is the possibility of redemption, and ultimately hope, important to you in your work? Do you shy away from the out and out ‘bad’ villain?


No one is a villain to themselves. Apart from psychopaths (who are in fact psychologically pretty dull), most people see themselves as doing the best they can and will offer some genuine justification for even their most horrific actions. And ultimately we’re all capable of doing wrong, and maybe even of committing lethal violence.
I worked with Jimmy McGovern co-writing an episode of Accused for the BBC and learnt from him always to ‘give the devil the best tunes’ which I think is brilliant advice. I’m not sure I write about hope or redemption so much as simply being human. No one’s perfect and it’s the development of imperfections I find fascinating.

Do you have a writing routine and what are you working on at the moment?

I try to write every day, although I’ve also learnt to recognise when it’s just not going to happen and to use that time to go off and do something useful or enjoyable. Working on your own does take discipline, but it’s vital not to beat yourself up about slacking off once in a while. I find the first draft challenging, but love the second draft when I know what I’ve got and can shape, direct and refine.

I also like having more than one story and set of characters in my head at the same time but at different stages of development. I find one project often shines a useful light on the other. So at the moment I’m halfway through the fourth Grace Fisher book for Quercus, which is about a cold case familial DNA search that opens a Pandora’s Box, but also making notes and doing the odd bit of research on what I might write next.

In July, you will be teaching on our Speculative Fiction and Crime Writing retreat, examining how to create and sustain tension in a novel. What advice would you give to an author to ensure the reader keeps turning the pages? 

Raise lots of questions. They needn’t even be conscious in the reader but he or she needs to be asking: What happens next? Why did she do that? What did that mean? How is that going to connect to what happened before? How will he deal with this? Why doesn’t she realise what’s really going on? How will it turn out? Is he going to be OK?

And make the reader care about the answers. Questions drive the plot but the answers should also invoke surprise, insight, relief, laughter, admiration, shock, horror, pity or empathy. Each subtle pay-off to a narrative question needs to engage the reader and keep him or her invested in the characters and the story. If the reader doesn’t care about what’s going to happen, what’s the point?


Isabelle Grey is a novelist and screenwriter. Her first commission for television was for an original drama series for the BBC; this led to further commissions from Scottish Television, Carnival and Working Title TV and to writing episodes of Midsomer Murders, Wycliffe, The Bill and Jimmy McGovern's BAFTA-winning Accused. She has also written radio drama and screenplays for film and TV docu-drama, and for five years was Writing Tutor on the MA Screen at Central St Martin's.

Isabelle Grey has published two novels of psychological suspense,
Out of Sight and The Bad Mother, and is currently writing the fourth book in the DI Grace Fisher crime series, based in Essex and published by Quercus. The first two titles are Good Girls Don't Die and Shot Through The Heart; The Special Girls will be out in April 2017.

To find out more about A Chapter Away and their top quality writing retreats in Southwest France, visit the website. http://www.achapteraway.com/

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Writing Fiction in a Second Language - an interview with Helena Halme

Writing fiction is hard enough for those of us for whom English is a first language. How on earth to authors manage it when English is their second - or even third or fourth - language? We talk to Finnish author Helena Halme.

Helena Halme in Helsinki

You were born and brought up in Finland and Sweden but have lived in London a long time now - so you are trilingual. What was the first language you remember writing a story in?

I wrote my first story at school in Finland, so it was in Finnish. But over in Scandinavia we place a huge emphasis on learning other languages, so quite early on we wrote essays and stories in English, Swedish, French and German too. The first ‘serious’ stories I wrote were in English after I’d moved to Britain.

Did you speak English before you came to live here? Was it a tough language to learn? What was it like coming to grips with colloquial English?

I began learning English at the age of seven, and through popular culture (mainly TV in those days), I was exposed to a lot of English well before I moved here. All the same, I didn’t really learn the language completely until I worked at the BBC as journalist/translator. The learning curve was fairly steep there because I worked in news reporting and often had to produce content at a very short notice.

Apart from the obvious commercial reason of the size of your potential readership - why choose to write your novels in English?

This is a question I’ve been asked so many times, that if I had a penny for every occasion, I’d be a rich woman by now! But of course I understand why readers and other writers ask this, because it is quite unusual to abandon your native tongue. But to me it was a natural progression.

When I moved to the UK at the age of 22, as a newly married Navy Wife with a husband who was away at sea more than at home with me, I was very lonely. To keep myself busy (and sane!), I began writing a diary in Finnish, but soon found it hard to describe some of what was happening to me in my native language. So I flipped the diary over and began writing in English on the other side, a little like Anna Wulf did in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which is one of my favourite novels). Soon the English side took over and I haven’t looked back since.

Tampere
Have you ever, as an adult, written stories in Finnish? Have you any plans to do so? Do you think you would be telling a different kind of story if you were writing in Finnish?

To me writing in English seems the most natural thing to do, but I have recently been thinking about writing a novel in Finnish. I do think the stories would be different, because the language is so close to my heart and touches me on a different emotional level. I once joked with a fellow Finnish author, who also writes in English, that if I had to write in Finnish I’d be weeping the whole of the time. But it would be a wonderful challenge, and I may well do it one day.

When you begin to imagine the stories in your head, which language are you thinking in? Or (like my mother, who is Welsh/English bilingual) does that question simply not make sense to you?

Actually that question absolutely makes sense to me. For a writer the language is a tool, which you need to keep sharpened at all times. I think in English when I write and when I imagine scenes. I often find myself talking to myself (in English) when I’m walking my little terrier. I’m certain my fellow dog walkers think I’m completely barking (as it were!) But when I’ve been visiting Finland, or I have family or friends over here, it takes me a little while to get back to writing in English again. It’s sad, but nowadays I have to limit my reading in any other languages too. This, I think, is one of the main reasons I may be a little afraid of going back to Finnish – what if I’m never be able to switch back again?

What do you think are the greatest challenges of writing in a language that is not your native tongue?

I see writing in English as a foreign language a huge opportunity. I’ve been told that I have a unique voice, something which I’m incredibly grateful for, and which I believe is due to my Finnish/Swedish upbringing. But of course there are challenges too. Sometimes I can’t see what the correct preposition should be, or I get popular expressions or proverbs wrong. But writing in another language also makes you incredibly conscious of possible mistakes, so I tend to be very careful about grammar, spelling and so on. Naturally, I use professional editors and proofreaders to correct my work, as any published writer should.



Are there things from your Finnish background that you find hard to express in English? Can you give us some examples?

In a way, explaining Finnish – and Nordic – culture is my trade. All my books are set partly in Finland or Sweden, and all of my five novels deal with displacement and the differences in Nordic and British daily life. So no, I don’t find explaining Finnish culture difficult at all. I revel in explaining how Nordic homes are so well heated and insulated that you have to wear t-shirts and shorts inside while the temperatures hit -20C outside; or how Finns don’t do small talk, and say what they mean. I absolutely love explaining these little, but significant, differences between our countries!

Finally, can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

My current project is the fifth book in The Englishman series. The first novel in the series was born on my blog some ten years ago, when I started telling the story of how I met and married my British Navy Officer husband. The resulting novel is a fictionalised account of my early life in the UK, and the series has developed further and veered quite heavily away from my own life. Book 5 hasn’t got a title as yet, but privately I’m calling it ‘The Baby Book’. Make of that what you will!



Helena Halme is the author of
The Englishman, a best-selling Nordic romance, which won an Awesome Indies badge on publication. The tumultuous 1980s love story between a Finnish girl and a British Navy officer is now a series of four books, including a prequel novella, The Finnish Girl, the sequel The Navy Wife, and Helena’s latest title, The Good Officer, book four in the series.

Helena grew up in Tampere, central Finland, and moved to the UK via Stockholm and Helsinki. She is the winner of the John Nurmi prize for best thesis on British politics, a former BBC journalist, and has also worked as a magazine editor and a bookseller and, until recently, ran a Finnish/British cultural association in London. Her articles have been published in the
CoScan Magazine, The ScanMag and the Finn-Guild Magazine.

After gaining an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, Helena began to take writing seriously, and is currently working on the fifth book in The Englishman series. She has recently been appointed Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors. Helena lives in North London with her ex-Navy husband and an old stubborn terrier, called Jerry. She loves Nordic Noir and sings along to Abba songs when no one is around.


You can find her at www.helenahalme.com, and follow her on Twitter,  Facebook or Instagram.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

60 Seconds with Mollie Blake

By Gillian Hamer.

Mollie Blake's debut novel “The Secret At Arnford Hall” is due to be published by Black Opal Books in February 2017.

Hello. Tell us a little about you and your writing. 

Hi. Firstly can I thank you all at “Words with Jam” for inviting me to do this sixty-second interview.
I used to be a Finance Director of a privately owned business in the UK with subsidiaries in France and South Africa. Having a child later in life (I was forty-two) was a huge shock. The joy of having a baby contrasted starkly with the fear of going back to work only three months later. I felt like a novice in the boardroom. It was as though a significant proportion of my brain cells fell out when the baby was pushed out! Nearly four years later I left the company, which had been such a huge part of my life, providing me with a career I loved, and gave my time to my child and husband.
But after a couple of years spent helping a little at school and Church, I needed something more challenging to occupy me. I have always loved reading from the romantic indulgence of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to the gripping tension of John Grisham, the laugh-out-loud humour of Jon Canter and the epics of Tolstoy. And of course the spicy tales of EL James, Sylvia Day and many more.
I decided I wanted to write a story about romance, laced with explicit sex scenes and more than a touch of danger. So I did. I have written five books so far under the brand of “Provocative romance, alluring suspense.”


What’s the best thing about being a writer?

For me the best thing about being a writer is that I can fit it in with my home life. When my son or husband needs me, I can be there for them. I love the flexibility; I never had that before in my career in finance. But it comes at a cost; you have to be disciplined. It’s not always easy to know when writing is the priority or keeping the peace with those around you is more important. And I don’t always get it right, especially if I’m in the middle of a hot scene. The plus side for my husband is that I’m always in a good mood after finishing those particular parts.


And the worst?

Huge swings in confidence levels. As an author you put yourself out there, be it on a bookshelf or in the “e” world. There is no right or wrong to writing fiction but if readers don’t want to read your stories then there’s no point in going through the pain of “exposing” yourself. I don’t mean that I star in any of my books. Far from it. But I love my good characters and hate my bad ones. I feel for them and it is my passion that I am exposing. I desperately want readers to share this passion with me. If they don’t then I have failed. And that scares me. Not least because I don’t want to stop writing.


Why did you choose your genre?

I chose to write provocative romance primarily because of my age. That may sound strange but I was an old mum on the school playground. I was approaching fifty and most of my friends there were very closely connected with either side of forty. Reading erotic romance gave me a lot of pleasure and reminded me what it was like when we were young. It rekindled my own desires which had perhaps been suppressed with motherhood. I wanted to write stories about passion which could excite other women and make them feel wonderful. But I wanted my stories to grip the reader, to compel them to turn the page to see what happens next. I write romance laced with suspense. The explicit scenes add spice to the stories. They do not control them.
I love what I am doing and I love my life. I hope at least some of that rubs off with people who come into contact with my writing and me. Fiction is escapism and should provide pleasure be it via murder, cruelty, love and romance, or humour. We each have our own preferences. I hope I reach people who love to escape to a world of characters battling with the challenges life has thrown at them as they strive for love.


Do you have a special writing place?

I write at the island in my kitchen mostly. But I can write almost anywhere, even in the car. I usually have a notebook with me and if we are going away I always take my MacBook. My husband seems to need more sleep than I do.

Which four writers would you invite to a dinner party?

Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Lee Child, Nora Roberts.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?

Thriller.

How are you feeling about the imminent launch of your debut novel?

Predominantly nervous. I have two fears. One that readers won’t be able to find my book. Two that they won’t like it.
I think the first worries me the most. If readers don’t like my stories then I want to know. I am always looking for ways to improve my writing and am grateful for constructive feedback. But there are millions of books out there and use of marketing techniques to get my book in front of readers is not something I have been very successful with. I have no way of knowing if my book doesn’t sell because readers don’t know it’s available. Or if it’s because readers are not interested in buying my book.
However, I have the American publisher with me now and I am learning all the time. The publisher has been very encouraging about my writing which has given me a lot of confidence and when I am feeling nervous I remind myself of that.
I am also very excited. The editor has helped improve my writing and I have faith in my book. I also love the cover. I can’t wait to hear what readers think of “The Secret At Arnford Hall.”


What is your proudest writing achievement to date?

Getting a publishing contract. I have found this a very lonely profession. Having been part of a very successful team when I was a finance Director, I was unprepared for working in a creative environment where there is no right or wrong, only a measure of appealing to an unknown audience or not. I didn’t know what I was doing in the early days. I just wrote what I thought was a lovely story, one which I hoped other women who loved romance and suspense would like. Being given a contract with an American publisher gave me a tick I wanted; official proof that a professional from the industry thought I had written a good book. I know there are a lot of great writers who have successfully self-published great books. This is just how I feel.


What are your future writing plans?

I will keep on writing my provocative romances filled with alluring suspense. I have five books with Black Opal Books. “The Secret at Arnford Hall” is out in February. “Keeping You” and “Guiltless” are due out in the summer. “An Unconventional Affair” Parts I and II are due out in spring next year. I am currently writing my sixth.

Connect with Molly:
At my website www.mollieblake.com
On Facebook www.facebook.com/mollie.blake.54
On Twitter @MollieBlake0
On Pinterest www.uk.pinterest.com/mollieblakeauth
And you can come for a listen at www.soundcloud.com/user-556019893/the-secret-at-arnford-hall-1-dec-2016-15_10_56


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Writing for the Stage

By Paul Vates


The mist snaked round Francisco’s legs. It fused with his own breath, settling on the damp castle walls. All was tense, quiet and cold. The midnight chimes had faded into the darkness.

Francisco stood, shivering, in an alcove of the battlements, wishing for the night to end, for dawn to relieve this agony. Then the faintest of sounds struck him with terror. He readied himself. There it was again, coming closer. He swallowed and stepped out of the recess, spear pointing.

The man he faced was just a shrinking silhouette, whispering ‘Who’s there?’.

Francisco hid his fear. ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’

The figure stood upright. ‘Long live the King!’

‘Barnardo?’

‘He.’

Francisco relaxed. ‘You come most carefully upon your hour,’ he said, reaching out and placing his relieved hand on Barnardo’s shoulder.

‘’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.’



The opening of Hamlet as a book might have it. 

Shakespeare, of course, has little description. All information is in the words. There is the threat in the first spoken line. The challenge, quickly followed by the realisation that the two guards know each other. We also know instantly that it is dark and that midnight is when ghosts appear, so both soldiers are scared. There is tension and fear. This is not a comedy, but a deadly drama. All conveyed in seven lines of dialogue.

In prose, some authors can go to great lengths to describe a character’s emotion. Whereas in a stage script, the actors and audience have only the spoken words or the action that the writer supplies. Everything else is superfluous. However, nothing annoys an actor or director more than seeing a line like:

BARNARDO: (afraid) Who’s there?

The fear is implicit in the words, therefore the actor knows to be scared. He doesn’t need to be told. Books sometimes do need to delve into such detail, describing how someone looks and acts during a specific state. Actors, however, should not require such instructions. The setting and the words will suffice and be instructive enough for them to understand the intended emotion to portray.

Stage scripts are for a visual art form by their very definition. So in writing for these, a writer must create from an audience perspective. The audience/viewers are the equivalent to readers of a book, but don’t need such hand-holding to be guided through the world of the fiction. Their eyes and ears do much of the writer’s work.

Cathy Tyson and Chereen Buckley in She Called Me Mother. Photo: ©Richard Davenport

"Theatre, by its very nature can withstand long scenes and just a few characters."

I have read theatre scripts for many years, as a founder member of The Script Readers, based at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. I receive a few every month and it is sad to say that most are bad rather than good. Not the ideas, some are amazing. It is the lack of understanding that the style needs to be so specific: the setting and the characters need to be clear and believable; the story needs to be coherent and, most importantly, there needs to be a point to it all. There is also a requirement for some practicality to stage it - far too many writers are thinking in television or film terms - expecting the most wondrous scene changes to occur - and write in short, Eastenders-like scenes with a huge cast of characters. Theatre, by its very nature can withstand long scenes and just a few characters. The feel and tone are different. Theatre is not such a knee-jerk medium, reliant on pace. Theatre can take its time to tell a story, it does not need to rush.

One aspect of scripts I am acutely conscious of is the lack of awareness from writers that people  rarely do nothing. Characters should always be doing something. At the very least, like Noel Coward, have them getting a drink or lighting a cigarette. Actors itch to find something to do, else it looks unnatural just to stand there and say the lines. Once, I watched Judi Dench shelling peas, making her speeches appear natural. In real life, people multi-task most of the time. The art in the writing is to avoid giving too much information about what the characters are doing and why.

There are, as always, exceptions, to any rule. Where someone has made the genius leap to adapt a book for the stage, when a story’s premise goes against the ‘less is more’ rule. Anything, if truth be told, can be adapted. Doing it right is the key. War Horse, The Life Of Pi and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime come to mind. Even Ulysses has had stage versions.

"Anything can be adapted"
Black Album
adapted from novel by Hanif Kureishi
NT-Tara co-production-2009 
Alex Andreaou as Riyaz;
 Photo Credit Talulah Sheppard

Yet, in general, the basics of a stage script show little description about the setting or the characters or, indeed, the intentions of those characters. All the information the audience need to know must be there in the spoken, or implied, words.

When I say basic, I mean it. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, how often script writers neglect to write the characters names into the spoken script. The written script has it there all the time and writers forget an audience cannot see this, so they need to be told. And that’s a key. The writer’s job is to inform the reader or viewer what is going on and who it is happening to in as clear a way as possible - even if the opening line has a character on the phone: ‘Hello? Police? … Yes, good evening, Inspector. It’s Professor Hamish McDougall here, from Edinburgh University. I wish to report a murder…’ From this, we know the who, the what, the where and the when. The why is probably what the play is about...

So, with all this in mind - back to the opening of Hamlet as it appears in script form:

Enter Francisco and Barnardo, two sentinels

BARNARDO Who’s there?

FRANCISCO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

BARNARDO Long live the King!

FRANCISCO Barnardo?

BARNARDO He.

FRANCISCO You come most carefully upon your hour.

BARNARDO ‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.

To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if two characters are afraid of ghosts on page one, there must be a ghost by page three - otherwise, do not have them afraid of ghosts at midnight on a misty castle wall!

If you have a new stage script and would like it read aloud in front of you, by professional actors … go to The Script Readers website. You can also find them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter, @script_readers

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

In Conversation with Claire Fuller

By Gillian Hamer

Claire Fuller is a novelist and short fiction writer. She began writing fiction at the age of forty, after many years working as a co-director of a marketing agency. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was published in the UK by Fig Tree / Penguin and sold in a further fifteen countries for translation. It won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, and has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. It was also nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award 2015 and was a finalist in the ABA (American Booksellers Association) 2016 Indies Best Book Awards.

Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in the UK and Commonwealth also by Fig Tree / Penguin at the end of January 2017.

Welcome back to Words with Jam, Claire. We first spoke not long after the release of your debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. How was the experience of having such a successful first novel?
It was so unexpected that at times, when I found myself in front of a crowd of people at a literature festival or wherever, speaking about my book, it was very surreal. It was wonderful too, and exciting of course.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer as your career has developed?
That I can actually stand up in front of a crowd of people and not get so nervous that I can’t speak! I hadn’t done any public speaking before my first book was published so I really wasn’t sure I could do it, and I was certain that I wouldn’t enjoy it. But I’ve visited a lot of book clubs who read Our Endless Numbered Days as well as doing the larger events, and what’s surprised me is how wonderful it’s been to meet readers and just talk about books with people who love them. As for what I’ve learned about me as a writer… that I have to trust that the process works even when it feels like it won’t.

How did you approach the writing of ‘the difficult second novel?’
Well, I’d heard all about difficult second novels, and so although Swimming Lessons was the second novel I wrote, I finished the first draft of it before Our Endless Numbered Days was even published. Often the publishing cycle is a lot longer than people expect. It was about 19 months between when Penguin bought my first book and when it was published, so I thought that was plenty of time to write a draft of the next. That got me around the possible issue of knowing my first book was successful and feeling I couldn’t do that again, or knowing that it wasn’t and thinking why bother writing another.

Was it easier or harder for you to write Swimming Lessons (your latest) than it was to write OEND?
Definitely harder, and it took me longer. I went down a lot more dead ends than I had with the first, and found myself deleting thousands of words to get back to where I could move forward again. I started writing it from one character’s point of view in third person, and then changed it to two viewpoints: first person, and third. After the first draft was finished I changed the whole of the second half. But I got there in the end.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Swimming Lessons direct from your publisher, and when I first opened the Jiffy bag a load of used train tickets fell out. It confused me at first but as I began to read, I understood. It’s a fascinating idea. So, I’m curious about the inspiration behind the book?
Yes, a big part of what happens in the novel is about things being left in books for other people to find – hence the used train tickets! The inspiration came from a while ago when my (now) husband and I were going out, but not living together. He lived in a town about 40 miles from me, and we had been doing some art projects together, one of which was to hide notes in each other’s houses. Then we decided Tim should move in with me, and he packed up his flat and in the process found all five notes that I’d written to him. Apparently eight years later there are still two notes that he wrote me, hidden in the house we share together. He won’t tell me where they are, but I suspect they are somewhere in the thousands of books we own.


You’ve created in Gil, Nan and Flora Coleman a whole new family of characters, each as deep and complex as those in your first novel. What is it that draws you to a certain type of characterisation?
That’s a tricky question. I think it might be the only way I know to write characters, and don’t we all want to read about people who are complex? I think what I like to include are the mannerisms that help define us. My daughter and I, for example, find it very difficult to sit in a chair with our feet on the ground, we always put our feet up, or sit on them. All these little things can say a lot about the kind of people we are.

In much the way that the forest setting was almost a character in its own right in OEND, in this latest novel it’s the beach landscape, and particularly open sea swimming, that brings another layer to the story. Are settings important to you, and which comes first, plot or place?
Settings are really important to me. I need to know everything about the inside and outside space that a character occupies, even the parts that are behind them and don’t get described. I like writing (and reading) about landscape and so I picked a coastal location very deliberately, and one that is based on a real place that I know. It’s place and character that comes first for me. I have a vague sense of a person, I put them in a specific place and see what happens. Plot comes much later.

As your journey as a writer continues to flourish, are there any other themes or topics you really want to explore, and why?
Before I started writing Swimming Lessons I did write a long list of things I’m interested in that I’d like to write about, but they weren’t really topics or themes, but rather things I liked, such as Morris Minors, sea-swimming, nudist beaches, raining fish. And as you might have noticed, a lot of these got in the book. I think I’ll probably do this again before I start the next one, but I’ve got no idea what they will be yet.

In the same way as Sophie Hannah has taken on writing new Agatha Christie novels, and Anthony Horowitz with Sherlock Holmes – whose novels would you like a hand in recreating if you had the opportunity?
I love this idea, which is great for fans of particular authors, but I’m not sure it works like that for me. I tend to like particular books, rather than all or most of the novels from a one author. But if someone else wanted to take it on, I’d love to see another book recreated in the style of Barbara Comyns. She’s not very well known, but is an English writer who wrote mostly in the 1950s and 60s.

Which author – alive or dead – would you like to sit down with over dinner and have an in-depth conversation about the craft of writing and books in general?
Am I allowed two? I’d like to introduce Barbara Comyns to Shirley Jackson, although it’s quite possible they’d heard of each other when they were alive, and maybe even read each other’s books. I think these women would be fascinating – Jackson wrote such a range of work, but I think her slightly odd, slightly spooky fiction has a lot of similarities with Comyns’ novels, and I’d to see if they agree.

Can you let us into your plans for book three?
I’ve got a finished draft, but it does still need a lot of work, and of course I have yet to see if my agent and editor like it. But it is about Frances, a middle-aged woman, who meets Cara and her boyfriend, Peter when they are all staying during the summer of 1969 in a dilapidated English country house. Bad things happen. I’m not sure I can say much more than that!

Could you list the top three tips, in your opinion, for helping a writer create a bestselling novel?
That’s a tricky one. I’m not that certain that creating a bestseller is actually up to the author. Yes, the book has to be well written and appealing to readers, but it has to reach them, and most of that is down to the publisher, and also luck. The three things however that the writer can influence are: make the novel original in some way, make it intriguing for readers, make it very well written.


Find out more about Claire and her writing here

You can read our Bookmuse review of Swimming Lessons here



Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Snapshots from... Vermont

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. We're going over the pond this time, with author Kathryn Guare making us all envious of the US state of Vermont.

By JJ Marsh

What’s so great about Vermont?



Vermont is known most for its natural beauty, especially in autumn when the hillsides turn spectacular shades of golden yellow, orange and red. It’s one of the least populated states in the US, with more miles of dirt road than any other state. My home, the city of Montpelier, is the smallest state capital in the country, and we are proud to say it is also the only one without a McDonald’s!

All of this gives the state a lovely feeling of being small-scale, low-key and slower paced. Life isn’t hectic. Preserving the special nature of Vermont’s environment is a shared value and a longstanding tradition.

The air is clean, the scenic highways are free of billboards, and residents participate in an annual spring cleaning called “Green Up Day” to spruce up their own properties and clear winter debris from roads and rivers. The state is famous for maple syrup and for a high concentration of local artisans creating everything from cheese, beer and cider, to hand-crafted furniture.


Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place

The culture of Vermont is best expressed in its small towns that bustle with farmer’s markets, community suppers, book clubs and quirky festivals. In contrast to Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Vermont has the “Strolling of the Heifers”!


There is a vibrant theater scene with venues—some of them in gorgeous outdoor settings—featuring world-class performances for a fraction of what you’d pay in larger metropolitan areas. Because it is often seen as a refuge from the noise and stress of city life, it has always been a magnet for writers and poets, and Vermont communities treasure their independent bookstores and libraries.



What’s hot, what are people reading?

People tend to mirror what’s popular in general, so right now it’s books like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Girl On a Train, as well as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Some current popular authors have a more local association. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series is one, as her settings in the Eastern Townships of Quebec are on the Vermont border.

The Vermont Humanities Council also features a program called “Vermont Reads”, choosing one book each year that residents are encouraged to add to their book clubs. This year, the Council marked the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic by choosing two works: The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. For next year, they’ve already selected the award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson.

Can you recommend any books set in Vermont?

Many of the novels of Howard Frank Mosher are set in a region of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom and two of the most acclaimed are Where the River Flows North and A Stranger in the Kingdom. These books capture not only a sense of place but also the eccentricities—sometimes charming, sometimes dark--that can be found in the remote corners of a rural state. Most of his books have the recurring theme of old Yankee traditions clashing with the evolving values of modern society. Also, Archer Mayor’s series of police procedurals featuring Inspector Joe Gunther are set in and around the city of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Who are the best-known local authors?

Along with the above, I of course need to mention our most famous Poet Laureate, Robert Frost. He did not live in Vermont year-round, but for forty years he taught each summer and fall at Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English and had a farmstead near the school. Many other celebrated authors maintain homes in Vermont, such as novelist John Irving, playwright David Mamet, and Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Gluck. 

Is the location an inspiration or a distraction for you?

Some of my own novels are partly set in Vermont, so I find the location altogether inspiring. When I get tired of sitting at my desk, I head for the countryside where I have several favorite spots for writing. I’m always evaluating every picturesque landscape I discover for its creative potential, and I often make a mental note that “I should come back here some day and do some writing.”

What are you writing?


I’ve recently completed three novels in a suspense series that centers around a dashing Irish musician. He finds his quiet life forever changed when a mysterious British agent shows up in his living room to recruit him for the first of many globetrotting adventures. The first in the series is Deceptive Cadence. My latest book, Where a Wave Meets the Shore, is a historical romance set in the 1950s on Ireland’s Great Blasket Island.

Sum up life in Vermont in three words

Take it easy.


Author of the award-winning Conor McBride Series, Kathryn Guare’s character-driven novels are all somewhere on the spectrum between romance and suspense, and some are even perfectly balanced between the two. She has a passion for exploring diverse cultures and cuisine, Classical music and all things Celtic, and has a habit of mixing these into her stories along with other topics and enthusiasms that capture her interest. Formerly, as an executive with a global health advocacy organization, she traveled extensively throughout the world. Currently, as a native Vermonter, she hates to leave home during foliage season. http://kathrynguare.com/

























Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How To... Write a Killer Blurb

By JJ Marsh

Authors swear the blurb, or back cover copy, is ten times harder than writing the novel it describes. Which is understandable. You know all the nuance and detail of 100K words and cannot possibly reduce its essence to 250.
Or can you?

Having written cover description for all kinds of material – from cookbooks to crime, from erotica to executive summaries – I have a few tips.

Here’s a ten-step plan to creating an effective blurb for fiction.

Ready, Steady...

 

 


Start with bare branches. In Techniques of a Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain offers the basic framework for a blurb. Write one sentence and one question, containing character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. It works for every genre.
Eg: When humans begin to grow to twelve-feet tall (situation), John Storm (character) must find out why (objective). But can he defeat traitors in high places (opponent) who want to fake an extra terrestrial plot and will kill anyone in the way (disaster)?
Research I. Read the blurbs of similar books in your genre. (Yeah, I know, yours is unique, but bear with me.) If you had to describe it in the most reductive terms, would it be Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones (as Adele Parks described her first novel to attract her agent)? Or Hotel Rwanda meets Million Dollar Baby? Choose your comparisons well. You may not use them in the blurb but they might still be useful for your elevator pitch.

Research II. Key words. Which words will help your target reader find your book? Which words do they search for? Look again at those blurbs. Make a mind map of all those vital clues. For Rise of the Golden Aura by Chanrithy Him, I had a hit list: vampire, Asia-America, romance/love, myth, supernatural, underworld, beauty pageant, queen, series. We got every single one into the final draft.

Mood, style and tone. Cover copy reflects the book within. If is wise-cracking, hard-boiled noir, so must be the blurb. I always ask clients for three chapters of their book so I can get a sense of the way they write. On reading, I make notes: ethereal and whimsical / sardonic and dry / cosy and humorous. When you begin to write the text, keep these words in front of you.

Patterns. Be aware that blurbs, just as much as covers, are part of your brand. Jane Davis is not writing a series, but readers keen to discover more of her work will appreciate the similar style across her entire canon. So I kept notes on length, format, style and phrasing to avoid repetition but enabling the maintenance of a 'Davis' tone.


... Go!



Add leaves and flowers. With all the ammunition above, take your Swain frame and start expanding. Use powerful nouns and verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Vary sentence lengths. Aim for the essence. Pack every sentence tightly and make every word earn its place. Remember the power of threes. Here's a sample extract from an upcoming novel by Luna Miller.
Gunvor may be in her sixties, her hands might be too shaky to continue performing operations and her body complains every time she works out. But her mind is as sharp as ever. She’s curious, intelligent and experienced – perfect qualities for a private detective.

As the agency’s rookie, she gets a surveillance job. A straightforward case, they said. A domestic. Suspicions of infidelity. Follow the husband.

Rewrite. Keep paragraphs short and remember how it looks online. You need some white space for ease of reading. Aim for five paragraphs and around 200 words. End each sentence and each paragraph on a high-impact word. Here's the opener to The Beauty Shop by Suzy Henderson.
England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. Circumstance brings three people together, changing their destinies.
Sell. Tell the reader how this book will make them feel. Don’t be afraid to use an element of drama. This is your punchline. David Baddiel makes this point in Time for Bed. His character Gabriel is choosing a video. The review on the back of Beaches says, ‘And at the end you cry, goddamit, you cry real tears’. Gabriel wells up right there in Blockbusters.

Tagline. Read the blurb again and sum it up in one line. Think film posters.  
‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’ 
‘The true story of a real fake.’ 
‘She fell in love with him the day he decided to marry someone else.
I find it helps to try them out in the voice of Morgan Freeman.
When you've got it, put it right at the top of the blurb, but check it doesn’t clash. My tagline for my own Book 2 was 'You Never Know Who's Watching'. Lovely! Until I noticed the word 'watching' in the first line. Not lovely.

Puff quote. Ideally, end your blurb with an endorsement from a well-known writer or enthusiastic reader. Choose carefully and don’t be afraid to edit out cliché. A current client has this: “What an amazing capture of unadulterated raw humanity, in all its shades of light and darkness. I read it over a few days. Couldn’t put it down. Really, really enjoyed it.” My advice was to trim. The stuff in bold is where the power lies.

Read the whole thing aloud. If you stumble, there’s a reason. Polish, rewrite and hone till it sings, then share with respected opinions.

This may sound like a lot of work, but your blurb and the cover are what sell your book.
So take your time and get it right.