Tuesday, 26 March 2013

PLAYING THE GAME by Gill Stewart

As an avid watcher (but less avid participator) in sport, it struck me over the weekend how many similarities there are in a good game or competition and a good novel.  I was following the Women’s World Curling Championships in Riga (obscure, I know, but younger son is a keen curler so I end up watching an awful lot of curling).  The competition was won by the Scottish rink, skipped by young and very photogenic Eve Muirhead – see picture.

At the beginning of the completion, the Scottish girls were doing well – winning 9 out of 10 ‘round robin’ matches.  The only match they lost was against Sweden.  So interest was running along nicely, ‘my’ team were doing well and all looked good for the finals. 

Then Scotland lost the play off (also against Sweden).  This meant they had to play Canada.  If they lost to Canada they wouldn’t get Gold or Silver, might not even get Bronze.  All through the Canada game they were losing, tension was high – and then they won it on the last stone.  Jubiliation! 

Now to play Sweden again, this time for the Gold or Silver medal.  Surely, having lost to Sweden, twice, they had no hope?  Or was it going to be 3rd time lucky?  It was – a win again on the last stone!

Now all that might not be of much interest to the non-curlers or non-sports-enthusiasts among you, but it was the way the event progressed that made it so fascinating.  The generally positive start, the set back, the almost-failure, then the winning against apparently insuperable odds.  Doesn’t that sound like the plot of a novel that draws you in, infuriates you, but has you engaged to the last page?

Unsurprisingly, I have more than once had the idea to set a novel against a sporting backdrop, with the hero and heroine not necessarily being the sports stars but the events of a tournament – say Wimbledon – being the setting and providing a parallel story.  As I’ve said before, I need any help I can get to up the emotion in my writing.  I haven’t done anything with this idea so far, but if Andy Murray wins Wimbledon this year, with the guaranteed highs and lows along the way, maybe that will be the time?

Andy Murray showing emotion

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Breaking Down Stereotypes: A Hymn to Tim

By Jennifer Young

Need a hero? (Photo by Michelle Ward)
It was my fellow blogger Mary who first got me thinking with her post on ‘What’s in a Name?’ (4 February).  Then it was Jenny, in a comment on her own post: “Will Self believes that the name Tim is a serious handicap in life, apparently. Tim the nightclub bouncer? Somehow, it doesn't seem to work!”

This is the reason for a spontaneous and totally appropriate burst of public laughter from my good self the other week. I was standing watching a school rugby match, a mud-stained slugfest between 30 boys-just-turned-men on a miserable morning. As one youth cannoned into another sending him to earth so hard that I’ll swear the ground shook, a voice from the sidelines cried out “Great tackle, Tim!” And I laughed.

Once I had recovered from the scowls around me and clapped politely (because it was indeed an excellent tackle), I took stock. Tim, on closer inspection, turned out not to look like a man handicapped by a girly moniker: indeed, in 15 years or so, given a brush of stubble and a line or two on his face to hint at an interesting past, I’d say he’s a certain graduate from half back to heartbreaker. 

Rugby-playing Tims aren’t news, as it happens. Currently Scotland regularly unleash their own man-mountain, Tim Visser, on terrified opposition. And yet, in the face of the evidence in front of me, I know Jenny and Will Self to be right. A rugby player called Tim, your reader will say, shaking her (or his) head? Really?

No-one wants a mousy heroine
At this point I should confess to something of a bee in my bonnet about stereotypes. I’ve never quite recovered from a long-ago critique in which I was told that my novel would never be published because my heroine wasn’t feisty and my hero insufficiently manly. The fact that the plot required this quiet and unassuming pair to go through hell for one another and come out of it as a couple who each achieved fantastic and fearless things for the sake of the other was irrelevant. They may have ended up as heroic – but they didn’t start that way.

I know that readers are looking for a certain something and that’s what writers have to give them, but I don’t believe that those readers have to be – or want to be – spoon-fed. Out here in the real world there aren’t enough heroes to go round: people have to fall in love with Mr I-Suppose-He’ll-Do – and, astonishingly enough, they make it into a happy ever after.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we reject the stereotypes altogether: after all you can argue that a stereotype is what underpins genre. But I do think we can nibble away at the edges and at least make our stereotypes interesting.

So I’m going to set you a challenge. Next time you’re scratching around for a name for your muscle-bound hunk of heartbreaker, think of me – and call him Tim.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Open To Interpretation by Mary Smith

A few incidents recently have got me thinking about how the words we write are understood (or misunderstood) by others. It has brought home to me that, once our poems, stories or novels are out there in the public domain, we cannot control how our readers interpret what we have written.

One example is from a review of my poetry collection – a very lovely, pleasing review in fact. However, the reviewer commented on a poem which he said was about the gradual decline of ‘her hospitalised father’ which puzzled me as I have not written about my father being in hospital. The poem in question is called Remembering Papa. I think it is possibly a peculiarly Scottish thing to call our maternal grandfather Papa: pronounced with equal emphasis on each syllable – unlike the French for father with its emphasis on the first syllable.

Should I have called it Remembering Grandpa to avoid any confusion? But, he was my Papa and never known as Grandpa. Besides, the reviewer was not confused; sure I was writing about my father. The poem is about not wanting to remember the person I saw in the hospital bed and goes on to remember happy times spent as a child with my Papa. My, and I suspect most people’s, relationships with their father and grandfather are quite different. Does it make a difference to people’s understanding of the poem if they think I am writing about my father rather than my grandfather? Does it matter – as long as the poem is read with enjoyment?

I attended Hidden East, an event in Glasgow organised by conFAB which provided a launch platform for my book Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women and poet Bashabi Fraser’s Ragas and Reels. Three poets, A.C. Clarke, Sheila Templeton and Tracey Patrick were commissioned to write a joint poem for the event. They chose to write their poem based on Al Khatoon, a legendary character from Hazara Jat in Central Afghanistan who features in my book. She’s a sort of siren-figure, very beautiful with long black hair who lures men then smothers them with her enormous breasts – oh, and her feet point backwards.

It is an excellent poem, which I hope they will publish so others can read it. Their portrayal of Al Khatoon was of a powerful feminist figure, which surprised me but I could see how they came to interpret her in this way from what I’d written. When I sent the poem to friends in Afghanistan they were stunned and, although they enjoyed the poem, said this Al Khatoon bore no resemblance to what they knew of her. It seems in some places she has evil intent against women during the time of labour and delivery – not a very sisterly characteristic! Three Scottish poets have interpreted my account, which it seems tells only part of the story, of a legendary figure and bemused my Afghan friends. Does it matter? Will people reading it here change an aspect of Afghan culture? Perhaps if they change the name from Al Khatoon they would have created an entirely new legend.

Finally, while I was doing a reading this week I was heckled by a member of the audience. I have often been asked searching, sometimes difficult to answer questions, but this guy was constantly interrupting with observations. He told me about the fields of poppies grown in Afghanistan, flatly refusing to believe there were none in the area in which I worked. When the predominantly female audience rocked with laughter about the women in my health class in Afghanistan giggling and blowing up condoms as though they were balloons he told me it was wrong to write a book which made fun of people, depicting them as backward and ignorant.

I was cross, though remained calm (though I rather felt like slapping him) and said I took exception to such remarks as nowhere in the book (which he hasn’t read) do I make disparaging comments or say the people about whom I am writing are backward. I wrote the book as much as anything to provide an insight into ordinary every-day life in Afghanistan, to try to dispel some of the myths about women’s lives fed to us by the media. The laughter of the women in the audience was a sign of recognition of shared experiences, not laughter at the women’s expense. They could feel the threads that link us together – perhaps it is a gender thing?

Maybe my heckler didn’t like having his ‘knowledge’ of Afghanistan challenged. For him, it is a lawless country of warlords, Kalashnikovs, opium – and women knowing their place.

Has anyone else experienced their writing being interpreted in a way they didn’t expect?

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

How important is background research? by Jenny Harper

Did anyone else watch Jeffrey Archer the other morning? Not only does he sit down every day and work from nine till five, but he also claims he never knows what's going to happen in his books until a page or two before he writes it.

I know we've talked about this quite a lot on here - writers are endlessly fascinated about how other writers write. I need to know what's going to happen, but I also change what I thought would happen as I write, because I get to know my characters better. I also get to know more about their jobs, and this was something else that Lord Archer talked about. For example, he said, gesturing at presenter Bill Turnbull, everyone thinks they can do your job, but how many people realise how much reading you have to do before every interview, just to prepare yourself for it? How many have any real idea of what it's like to present a live-on-air magazine-format programme?

I tend to choose jobs for my characters that broadly reflect my view of them – but when I start researching the job, I find out more about why they chose it in the first place. For example, researching the role of a sales manager at a big hotel chain, I was told that the bulk of their salary comes from bonuses on meeting targets, and that they are, therefore, extremely driven and ruthless in the way they operate. It doesn't matter how difficult they make life for others who have to deliver on the event they have sold. Discovering these facts added to my insights about Mannie, and lent colour to a couple of scenes.

Similarly, when I was researching wind farms last year, I spent a day on the hills courtesy of Scottish and Southern and had a great chat with one of their customer service managers. This gave me all sorts of information about what their work is like on a day-to-day basis, what it's like dealing with anti-wind farm lobbyists and building community buy-in. I also got a great idea for a scene.

I need to think up a novel with some really glamorous job now, so that I can persuade some pop star to let me come backstage on a gig, or a movie actor to let me come out on a shoot. Hmmm...

Of course, if you've been there, done that, the background is already known to you. Then you can write a book like Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women (by fellow blogger Mary Smith). Drunk Chickens has just made it through to the finals of the People's Book Prize! So many congratulations to Mary for a well-deserved accolade, and don't forget to vote for it when voting opens sometime in May.

How do you choose jobs for your characters?