Unsympathetic characterization?

Homed_book_cover_v2
WHO IS GUILTY: THE CHILD OR ONE OF THE ADULTS?

Settling in at ‘home’ again? Is a crime imminent, or has one already happened?

In HOMED, the second in my Crime Shorts series, a boy is being ‘helped’ to settle in a civilised manner.

One of the issues I had in mind when I wrote this was the Australian disgust when they built standard homes for aborigines and then found that understanding and use of sanitation and housekeeping did not come automatically with the facilities provided.

We have to be inside the head of our characters when writing fiction. Even more so, perhaps, by ‘the helping professions.’

There are crimes motivated by negative emotions: jealousy, anger, need to control/overpower. There are also crimes perpetrated by ignorance. The crimes we may feel most are those that penetrate our individuality. Blind kindness, adherence to established process, bureaucracy – these can lead to damage also.

Read this story and decide where the crime lies.

Homed. (Crime Shorts Book 2)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/B00VAVQ1DS

Writing: how to improve your focus

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Samuel Johnson in close focus

It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.

There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.

Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.

Leonid_Pasternak_001

I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?

Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.

For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free.  Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved had been taken to the abattoir. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.

Van_Gogh_-_Kauernder_Junge_mit_Sichel
Van Gogh

The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?

I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’  A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.

There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’

I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.

Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?

Birth of a trilogy: WWII in micro

TRIPLETSThe birth of a singleton is a mammoth event in the life of any parent. As for triplets, there’s now a changed and increased expectation, the anxious anticipation of the event, the prolonged delivery and the certainty of ongoing attention. It isn’t surprising if all this results in the emotion of ‘never again. For an author, fledging a trilogy can feel rather the same. Nicholas Rossis has recently discussed the decisions around producing a series.

A Relative Invasion is a coming-of-age trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII. The concept is that the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) are mirrored in micro by this family, and particularly the two cousins in their emerging rivalry. The protagonist, Billy, a sturdy well-meaning boy is manipulated and bested by the frail, artistic Kenneth who is silently envious. There is a secret symbol of power,the shashka, which insidiously permeates the family’s fortunes.

???????????????????????????????????????           For me, writing in the voice of a young boy, a growing boy who will be a man by the end of the trilogy, was the greatest challenge. I was very aware that if the voice is not right, the reader will not identify with the character. Furthermore, only those scenes that he can directly witness can form the narrative. I had to use devices such as Billy’s reaction to being told information or stories where he had not been present. 3D

BOOK 1. WWII, two boys, a fateful rivalry. In INTRUSION, as the adults worry about the onset of war, Billy’s is already beginning. He so wanted a play-mate but it came in the form of Kenneth. The four parents only see the porcelain looks of Kenneth and not his darker soul. Emotionally neglected or misunderstood by parents and aunt, and bullied by uncle and cousin, Billy imagines owning the precious Cossack sabre of his father’s colleague, a man who champions Billy. This icon sustains him through the invasion of his life by Kenneth, through an evacuation and the shock of war, but can the icon damage as well as protect?

BOOK 2. Two boys, one family, a world at war. INFILTRATION, follows Billy through a second evacuation where he spends the rest of the war while Kenneth is billeted beside Billy’s family.

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Kenneth quickly takes the opportunity to invade Billy’s territory further.  On the plus side, Billy has settled very happily with a nurturant couple who have a smallholding. He loves the people, the environment and the animals and he can befriend the poor family who first took him in. Then a tragedy enforces a dramatic change in both the boys’ futures. There will be much to face when they return to South London. Meantime, Billy’s growing attachments develop his confidence and capabilities so that he almost becomes like a hero from his precious book. Kenneth’s artistic talent overlays his weaknesses. By VE Day, the boys’ mutual admiration and deep suspicion must be transported back to Wandsworth.

Book 3 is to be published in December 2015, IMPACT, finds the two boys returning to the ruins of London.impact_2

As they adjust to their new lives, adolescence and the sharing of emotional space brings the rivalry to a crisis. A dreadful incident follows, darkening the boys’ interaction into adulthood. The outcome is devastating for all members of the family. Billy must find an honourable resolution which will enable his survival, while Kenneth ensures he will always have the last word.

INTRUSION and INFILTRATION  are available in ebook and paperback, with IMPACT to follow.

In a much earlier draft, the first three chapters were Highly Commended in the Novel section of the Yeovil Prize 2011, and an extract from Infiltration converted into a short story, was runner up in the Guildford Festival.

Nicholas Rossi has recently blogged about the particular issues around writing a series. It can be found here: http://nicholasrossis.me/2015/07/11/writing-and-promoting-a-series-a-joint-post-with-charles-e-yallowitz/

Potentially a killer.

OYSTER: A BOY WITH POTENTIAL

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I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ But for once I can answer.

Some years ago I was watching the news. A U.S school was in a state of panic after multiple shootings by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the outcomes were followed closely by the media over several days. Sadly, there have been other such events since, in and outside of the U.S. I knew that much analysis would follow. As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. Those, I can’t write about but I could use the experience to imagine new characters in that role. I imagined a younger boy into another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year. Later it won a Bloomsbury review from topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I was “a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise“, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that s/he “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” S/he went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” There were also suggestions for how I might extend it into a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl’. I put my story to one side, because at that time I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.oyster_tiniest Now on Kindle: “Oyster, a boy with potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. Will it be a killer? It’s a 5k read. I believe there is an appetite for stories of that length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words. Homed is the second in the Crime Shorts series, eerie and chilling perhaps, but it’s not my style to spell out the gore and violence. I’m all for subtle suggestion and reading between the lines. Homed_book_cover-2

Where do your words come from?

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Where do your words come from? Here’s the tree showing the main roots. When you eventually find the little twig that is English, it’s the sort of twig size that might be chopped off by the gardener to encourage strength in more viable branches. Such a diagram helps enormously to conceptualise the place of one language in comparison with another and the relationship between apparently unlike languages. I found this diagram from bing images. Later, I found ethnologue.com, a site full of rich information.

However, I didn’t just come upon these randomly. This is why I love Stumbleupon. It is a serendipity resources. It is full of such excellent information and illustration (provided you make full use of the thumbs up and thumbs down).  After listing your categories of interest – mine are diverse – you are offered pages fairly randomly within those categories. According to whether you give them thumbs up or not, your preferences are further refined by the site. Warning, don’t do this too much or you may miss items that you had not realised were within your interest.

You see a page that sparks your interest, and off you go on another research journey that might, at some time, come in useful for one of your books.

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I originally saw a page from Vox with a wonderful chart by Minna Sundberg (which I can’t reproduce here). This led me to research out the further sources.

Here’s Sundberg writing beneath her chart:

The origins of English  —–        Minna Sundberg

Where English comes from

English, like more than 400 other languages, is part of the Indo-European language family, sharing common roots not just with German and French but with Russian, Hindi, Punjabi, and Persian. This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic artist, shows some of English’s closest cousins, like French and German, but also its more distant relationships with languages originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.

When readers ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The answer is often ‘from reading’.  And then that reading leads to more reading . . .

And one day, to writing!

 

 

The detail in writing fiction

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Jonathan Wolstenholme “The Collector” 2005

I’ve used Jonathan Wolstenholme‘s painting to portray a focus on detail. Minute detail is the interest in my post on cross-fertilization.

The collector uses detail to identify his butterfly, the artist attends to detail in creating a new perception or meaning, and the writer can produce a whole array of significance and emotion through adding tiny touches of detail. It was while watching the DVD of Room on the Broom with little people that this post suggested itself. In the delightful children’s book, a dog, a cat, a bird, a frog in turn ask for a place on the witch’s broom in return for finding her lost items. But the DVD adds a layer to the original. After the cat is installed, it suffers a jealous moment and wants to persuade the witch against taking on any more passengers. All this is conveyed silently, purely by a raised eyebrow or a turned-down mouth, the invention of the animator. The book was satisfying enough to the child, one good turn deserves another, but with the added detail of the cat’s facial expressions, the child is reminded of his own difficulty in sharing or being joined by a newer traveller in his life. An added layer is given to the story.

Noting the animator’s effective additions, reminded me of the delight in ‘reading’ the graphic book by Shaun Tan, The Arrival.  This is a flowing wordless narrative about emigration. Categorised as a children’s book, it would do well on every adult’s bookshelf. In my view it is as much a classic as Coelho’s The Alchemist.  The Arrival is chockful of meaningful detail. Just one example: leaving his country, the emigrant must say goodbye to his loved ones. Tan portrays this not just bya picture of a loving hug, but a close-up of the hands clasped, then loosened, then the fingers leaving those of the others, a tremendously evocative set of images. This is just that detail that resonates with the reader. Another graphic artist might have left it to the hug or the sad face.

pavlovaIt is Pavlova’s left arm that makes this image arresting.

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And the drop of blood changes perceptions and  significance of this image.

In textual works it is also the small detail that can hit the heart-strings. I’ve tried to do this in Intrusion (Book 1 of A Relative Invasion). For example, seven-year-old Billy is on the station platform without his parents. Other children are crowded around him. While they are hugged and last goodbyes exchanged, a wind from the oncoming train lifts Billy’s name tag against his face, and lets it fall again.

Kate Atkinson’s heroine in One Good Turn breaks an established routine of breakfast by eating the remains of a packet of chocolate digestives with her coffee, and on the peach sofa in the living room. This little detail lends a delightful visual, but its significance is the implied rebellion against her absent house-proud husband.

In An Equal Music, Vikram Seth shows us how distressed his protagonist, Michael, is about his musician friend, Carl. Michael touches the red mark on the left side of his chin, the violinist’s callus. This painfully prompts a memory of Carl’s bow sweeping up and down.

I’ve been arbitrary in my choice of examples. However, if you pick a novel up and opened it randomly anvolcanod find no such detail, perhaps it will be a disappointing read. Crises and tensions in the plot do make us want to read on, but I believe it’s these little details that give a feeling of satisfaction during and after the read. This doesn’t seem to happen with a book that is wholly plot driven. It’s like the difference between eating a large pizza, or a meat and two veg meal. We may feel full initially but we need a decent dollop of protein. The sense of satisfaction lasts so much longer.

(A Relative Invasion, historical fiction, trilogy. Books 1 and 2, Intrusion and Infiltration, out in paperback and Kindle.)

3D

Pleasing a publisher?

Halloween 2014. The Harper Collins review arrived. I copy it below.

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‘A Relative Invasion – Book I, Intrusion’ by Rosalind Minuet (sic)

Tensions are brewing in England as World War II is set in motion. As the adults’ anxiety spills over into five-year-old Billy’s world, his own battle is just beginning. An only child, he longs for a playmate, and when his aunt, uncle and cousin move nearby, he thinks his dream has come true. But cousin Kenneth turns out to be darkly manipulative and a bully who haunts Billy’s days, though the adults see only his porcelain looks and flawless manners. With emotionally distant parents who can’t understand his plight, Billy latches on to the idea of owning the precious Cossack sabre of his father’s friend. This icon sustains him through the invasion of Kenneth, evacuation and the shock of war, but will it destroy as well as save him?

Minett weaves a powerful and compelling narrative with strong and relatable characters, and offers an evocative portrayal of England’s war-time home front. Billy is immediately sympathetic and Minett perfectly captures a child’s viewpoint, adding a gentle and honest humour to the story. The mounting tensions between Billy and Kenneth parallel the rising agitation in Europe, and make the underlying manipulations of war more understandable to children. In terms of dialogue, it rings true both between the children and strained conversation of the adults. The author is deft in capturing that sense of tightly controlled emotions in the parents’ characters and in the act of showing, not telling. The scene where Billy’s mother ‘wields the wooden spoon viciously round the edges of the bowl’ is a great example.

There is good pacing between chapters, and the build-up of tension is managed well. Beginning the chapters with news updates helps to orient the reader and reinforce simultaneous narrative of what’s happening in Billy’s world and on the home front. The portrayal of family relationships is very well done and throws light on what attitudes and values were like in 1930s England – Billy’s mother greeting his father at the door and taking his briefcase; tense, sideways comments about jobs and money; and the sense of social and familial obligation. This and the war’s tension is offset by the humour that comes through when seeing it all through Billy’s five-year-old eyes. His misheard expressions – ‘jelly face’ for ‘angelic face’; ‘Nasties’ for ‘Nazis’ – add a warm comedic element. The pivotal scene where Billy and Angela find the Cossack sabre is very effective – it foreshadows the violence about to erupt in Europe, and shows through Billy the human impulse of both the reverence for the weapon but also the temptation to use it impulsively.

A Relative Invasion has received many good reviews on Authonomy and seems to resonate with plenty of readers. The manuscript itself has excellent grammar and sentence structure; it would not take a great deal of editorial tinkering to make this book a strong commercial proposition for a young adult list.