Saturday, 25 August 2018

Resolution – or why I read (and write) fiction

What is story for?

To be honest, this is a question I mostly try to ignore. Why does something have to be for anything? It’s like looking at a painting and saying, “But what is it?” But I suppose it’s a perfectly reasonable question. So here goes:

1. Story can take you out of your own life.

Through reading or writing stories that are different from your own lived experience, you can escape whatever is going on in your own life – lifting you out of the boring everyday or respite from turbulent times.

2. Story can take you out of your own head.

Reading and writing can also give you a temporary escape from yourself –being able to shut out all the things that are going on inside your own head can be delightfully restful.

3. Story can show you what it’s like to be someone else.

This is the one educators often like. Reading stories about other people’s lives can help the reader to develop empathy for other people. It can help young people to understand other people’s situations and problems. Encouraging young people to try on other people’s lives is the surest way I can think of to move forward from the ‘othering’ of people which is poisoning our society.

As for writing, inhabiting a character is a marvellous thing. It’s a little bit like being Frankenstein and a little bit like an accelerated version of bringing up a child. And just like both of those scenarios, there’s a magical moment when your character turns out to have a mind of their own…

4. Story can reflect your own experiences.

Here’s a place where the publishing industry – and in particular, children’s publishing – are working hard at the moment. Children and young people need to recognise themselves in the books they read. It breeds self-esteem and inclusion. In some cases, it can help young people to understand the situation they find themselves in or to deal with a problem.

Do I want to reflect my own experiences in my writing? I’m not sure. I certainly thread snippets of things that have happened to me together with little bits of language I’ve heard. I’m there in the opinions of some of the characters and the dress-sense of others. All my stories are a little bit me, of course they are. No one else could write quite like I write because they have not lived my life. But that’s as far as it goes: it’s a reflection of some things I’ve experienced, but I’m not sticking to ‘write what you know’. Oh no – that would be much too dull.

5. Resolution

What I’m looking for in a story is a pattern of problem and resolution which singularly fails to appear in real life most of the time. For me, it’s fiction’s biggest asset. Hope of satisfying ending is the thing that carries you through the trials and setbacks of the plot to the moment when you turn the last page and feel uplifted by the rightness of it all. And when I say uplifted, I don’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be happy. It just has to be right.

Writing a truly satisfying ending is incredibly difficult. I can see the appeal of the happy-ever-afters of romance fiction and the final unravelling of the crime or capture of the culprit in crime fiction. Of the three books I’ve published to date I’d say I’d got the ending just right once and nearly right twice. The problem is to tie things up neatly enough to give the reader a satisfying resolution to the problems of the plot, but not so neatly that it seems the characters have only one way forward. I suppose you could say that I want my characters in the right place to live happily ever after with the choice to not live happily ever after if it suits them. Bit like real life then.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Friday, 20 July 2018


 You know all those stories about how some famous writer or other only got published after rejections from every publisher and agent in existence? They’re supposed to be inspiring, aren’t they? Supposed to make you gird your loins, polish your manuscript again, research who is actively seeking submissions and whether they’re looking for stuff like yours, and send out another handful of submissions.

But here’s the thing.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

cover illustration by James Marsh
I’m not sure it had occurred to me that fairy tales could be anything other than children’s stories before I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I breathed in these stories and they changed the way I felt about story itself.

Such things are possible.
Stories are fluid.
They can be used in different ways to say different things.

(You’d think I’d have realised this already – I was nineteen and at university studying French literature. Perhaps, though, it was no good other people telling me, perhaps I had to find it out for myself).

I’ve written the date 22nd January 1985 inside my copy and - can you see? - I've covered it in sticky-back plastic, so I certainly thought it was a keeper! But I’m certain I must have read the book before 1985. Neil Jordan’s fabulously strange and atmospheric film The Company of Wolves, based on these stories came out in 1984 and I’m sure I went to it desperately hoping that he’d done the stories justice. He had, of course, and if you haven’t seen the film, you should put it on your watchlist right now. Worth it for the werewolf transformation alone!

So I’m imagining I’ve borrowed and read the book some time before, then seen the movie and felt I absolutely had to reread the stories. And in 1985, by some piece of extraordinary happenstance, I had the most perfect part-time job it was possible for a bookworm like myself to have. I had a Saturday job in the Good Book Guide Bookshop on Great Russell Street, just along from the British Museum. Now back then Britain had a thing called the Net Book Agreement, which meant that all books had to be sold for the price printed on the back of the book. I know, it sounds like a really odd idea now, but I’m pretty sure it was good for the publishing industry and I know it was good for authors. Anyway, what it meant was that having a job in a bookshop was a very fine thing for a desperate accumulator of books like myself, because I could buy books at cost, which was 33% off the cover price. I bought a lot of books.

And at the same time during the years I worked there, I breathed in the book world: I opened boxes with stacks of lovely new books; I arranged tables; I sat with a drawer of file cards on my knees checking the stock (no computers, oh youngsters!) and discovering all the backlist books a good bookshop should hold; I sought out books we didn’t stock on British Books in Print, which I assume must have been on some sort of microfiche system, but I can’t recall; I listened in while the manager chatted to the visiting publishers’ reps with their cases full of covers of forthcoming books.

And so to my copy of The Bloody Chamber. Imagine me. I’ve seen the film. I’ve maybe seen it twice. And it’s there on the shelf, when I’m stocktaking. I keep taking it down, leafing through, talking to the other person in the shop (it’s a small shop – there are only ever two of us). “Will you just buy it,” she says. “You haven’t bought anything since—” “Last week,” I finish for her. “There you go then,” she says. “You absolutely need that book.”

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Getting organised

It's exam season. Both at-home daughters are taking exams this year, so that means a month of not being able to watch them disappear off on the school bus before settling down to work with my dogs snoring gently around me. *small sigh*

Saturday, 10 March 2018

SNIPPETS Birthday Party

It’s not a noise exactly, more a tremble in the air, but everyone hears it. There’s a hush, a stillness amongst the assembled guests. They feel the threat in the air. They’re waiting for whatever follows.

And then, someone’s teacup rattles into their saucer and the broken-off conversations begin again.

From across the lawn, the king catches my eye.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Writing Resolution 2018

The thing about being a writer is that it’s rather like growing up. When you start out, you can see the things that will influence what kind of a writer you will turn out to be – what you like to read, the experiences you’ve had, what you believe to be true or important – in the same way that you could look at a child’s genetic inheritance and environment and get an idea of the adult they might become. But there’s no way of knowing for sure how these influences will meld in your mind and through your efforts to become your voice.