Saturday, 25 May 2013

Learning From Experience

by Jennifer Young

Gone but not forgotten
Not that long ago I poisoned a cat. Not literally but literarily: I did it in a story. One reader, at least, liked it. I had tears running down my face, she wrote, and I’m sure you did too as you sat at your computer.

I was moved to think about the fictional Romy crooning over her desperately sick half-tabby half-wildcat, Willow, earlier on this week. I was at the vet’s crooning over my own desperately sick half-cat half-pudding Misty as fine brains struggled to find out what was wrong with her. And if course it crossed my mind that if I hadn’t put Romy and Willow through this then perhaps – just perhaps – we wouldn’t be here.

You see, I’m a timid writer - even a squeamish one. Generally speaking I steer clear of things that are unpleasant. I don’t put my characters through too much trauma because I really don’t want them to suffer. Other writers might create teenagers who turn to drink and drugs: I have them shut the door and suffer their misery in silence (but not for too long). They kill people violently, horribly and graphically: I ease them out of the door patiently and almost always offstage.

 Picture by Piotr Bodzek (from Wikimedia Commons

This dislike for pain and gore is one reason why I don’t write crime or thrillers (or watch Casualty). But it’s more than that: it’s a weakness. To be a successful writer you have to face up to some of the terrible things that happen to you or that might happen to you – bereavement, illness, catastrophic career failure or whatever else it might be. I’d rather not think about bad things that might happen and I certainly prefer not to dwell on the troubles of the past, even the small ones. I’d rather be happy in the present.

Good writers – great writers – turn experience into a tool. When something terrible happens I’m sure they think well, at least I can use this in a plot. Or they might look around them in some ghastly hospital waiting room and make a mental note: nurses war blue overalls, not green. Must change that. Real writers are optimists, seeing the silver lining to every cloud. I should learn from that and I will: I’ll try to make myself nastier, make more people suffer, not just pet cats.
Romy’s Willow didn’t make it, by the way, and nor did my Misty. But at least I know now that at the vet hospital they shuffle you out through a side door rather than send you through the waiting room in floods of tears with an empty cat carrier. Must change that.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Doing something different: the story of Red Rose - White Rose

In recent months I’ve been having a thoroughly enjoyable time doing something totally unrelated to my own writing – unrelated, in fact, to anything else going on in my life. And it has been a joy!

It came about when Vivien Jones, a writer friend, was looking for someone with a Scottish voice to read in an adaptation of a short story. The story appears in Vivien’s White Poppies (Pewter Rose Press), a collection which look at the experience of how women cope, often from the sidelines, with war. She takes us from ancient myths through the various eras of history to the present day.

This particular story, Red Rose - White Rose, set immediately before the Battle of Flodden, explores how James IV’s wife, Queen Margaret and his mistress, Janet share the experience of loving a powerful man. Both stand to lose much when men go to battle on the bare moor of Flodden with their king. Interwoven throughout the dramatic readings Vivien and her husband, Richard, play 16th century music on an assortment of renaissance instruments: viols, recorders, renaissance guitar, harp and percussion.

Vivien already had the Queen, played by poet JoAnne McKay, and I became Janet, mistress of King James IV. My name is Janet Bairars – say it out loud!

I was nervous at first but the rehearsals were such fun and we all got on so well together I began to relax, especially as JoAnne and I were reading from our scripts rather than learning lines by heart. What was a real and unexpected bonus was how a day’s read through took my mind completely away from everything else in my life with which I have to cope. Dad with dementia, son in his final year at university, bread and butter deadlines to be met, all faded away for the space of our rehearsal times and I’d come home refreshed with batteries recharged. Vivien’s homemade soup and bread lunches helped, too, I’m sure.

The nerves came back when performance time came around and I did wonder exactly why I’d said yes to something which suddenly involved much stomach churning, sweaty palms and a conviction that when it was time to read I wouldn’t be able to se the words on the page. Of course, once we began, the fear evaporated – though it reappears to a greater or lesser degree before each performance.

Each performance – now, there’s a thing. I thought when I agreed to be Janet, we would do a couple of performances locally and that would be that. However, we are still performing and have an increasing number of dates in our diaries for future shows – and the venues are no longer local. We have bookings for Traquair House in Peeblesshire, where a Medieval Fair is being held on the May Bank Holiday weekend. We are incredibly excited to be booked to perform in the library of Abbottsford House, home of Sir Walter Scott and later in the year we will be at Stirling Castle. I’m thrilled to given this chance to visit places I’ve never been before.
We are also now in full 16th century costume, thanks to the Dumfries Historical Dance Society which has allowed us to hire costumes. Mine is a replica of a dress worn by the Countess of Warwick, complete with farthingale, skirt panel, overdress – it is gorgeous. It feels wonderful to wear it – though I have not yet tried to go to the loo while wearing it.

As 2013 is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, there has been a lot of interest. Also, the wonderful music played throughout Red Rose - White Rose is a huge draw. Vivien and Richard are founders of The Galloway Consort, specialists in the playing of 15th-17th century music on appropriate instruments. Richard, indeed, is one of very few professional viol-makers in Britain, and the only one who specialises in the earliest viols used in Venice, based on a single extant original (c 1540) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

It means I am meeting very different audiences from those who come along to a book reading or to hear me read poetry. They come up afterwards wanting to know about the musical instruments, the music, the costumes…  You can find out dates for future performances on Vivien’s website.

It has been (and continues to be) a truly wonderful experience and I am so glad Vivien asked me to take part and I found the courage to take the plunge and move out of my comfort zone to try something new and different.

Have any of you found similar enjoyment in doing something different?

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Marathon or sprint? by Jenny Harper

I've just been listening to an item on Radio 4 about cinema, and about how students looking at 1920s footage find it very hard to relate to the content. It's not just that it's old, in black and white, and silent, it's also that often nothing much happens. Accustomed to the big effects of today, the relentless car chases and thrills (accompanied by intense noise, both sound effects and music), young people simply cannot attune to the old material.

Of course, the same applies to books and to the way we read. We're all familiar with the pace of a Jane Austen novel, or of George Eliot and Trollope. Would they be published today? Possibly not exactly as they stand. But I've been even more surprised by rereading novels from the much more recent past - Coming Home (1995) by Rosamunde Pilcher, for example, and Tara Road (1998) by Maeve Binchy. Now I enjoyed both these books immensely, because the power of the storytelling and the drawing of the characters is very fine. However, I do suspect that an editor buying either of these books today would ask for cuts, in order to increase the pace.

Pace is key to fiction writing. Too fast and we feel cheated, too slow and we stop reading. I think it's a very hard balance to achieve, and particularly hard to judge in your own work. In thrillers the advice is to alternate a chapter where the protagonist is forced to make one bad decision with one where he or she reacts to what has happened. Really fast-paced books drop the reaction and stick with the bad decisions made in impossible situations. In other genres, the principles are similar. Action and dialogue speed up the pace, reflection, rumination and description slow it down. To drill down further into technique, long sentences and paragraphs slow down, short ones add pace. Avoid commas, adverbs and adjectives for pace, and use active verbs. To slow down pace, make dialogue more relaxed. descriptions more panoramic, and use the time to delve deeper into character.

We need both, of course. 

I once got a rejection from an editor who commented that while I wrote beautifully, she didn't find my work 'compelling enough'. I took this to mean there wasn't enough happening, particularly in terms of ramping up the jeopardy. The next rejection came from an editor who said that while there was a great deal going on, I didn't get deeply enough into the characters.


I've used the metaphor of a race in the title of this blog, but now I'm thinking more about cooking. Master Chef hosts John Torrode and Greg Wallace are for ever talking about the 'balance' of the ingredients – sweet and sour, delicate or spicy and so on. They talk about depth and lingering aftertaste and bursts of flavour and freshness. Apart from the fact that I'm getting a bit peckish (!), it seems to me that these are useful descriptions for writing too. We need to strive for balance in terms of pace, with bursts of flavour and a fantastic, lingering aftertaste.

Now for breakfast ...

Saturday, 4 May 2013


A few years ago now I joined a writers' circle - which shall remain nameless!At the first meeting I attended I was asked, 'For whom do you write?'. Well, I was in the honeymoon stage of writing, when each sale was a glorious thrill (and still is, I have to say) and I'd had about fifteen short stories published at that stage. So, I rattled off a list of the magazines my work had been published in - 'Woman's Weekly, My Weekly, Woman, Woman's Own, Bella, Best, and People's Friend.' I had a huge grin on my face at the thrill of being published but it soon slid away - they were all looking at me with horrified expressions on their faces. They hadn't meant that at all. The answer they wanted was: 'For me' This particular group had little interest in being published writers unless it was a win or a shortlisting in a 'literary' competition of some sort. They took - to a man and woman - a very dim view of womag fiction. Another question was fired at me: 'So, you write to see your name in print, rather than for the quality of your work?' Yikes!....I didn't last long in that group, I can tell you. How I lasted to the end of the meeting, I don't know, but I did. A couple of years later I was present at a library talk when a short story writer was taken to task for writing to suit a publication and a readership. This is the gist of her spirited, and considered, response. 'Some people lead horrible, and often very sad, lives. They have little time to read, and very litte money to buy things with. They might be ill and housebound, or they might be very badly-housed and, possibly, haven't had the benefit of the education you and I have had. Why shouldn't they spend 79p, or whatever, on a magazine and read a story that lifts them (in their minds) - for the time they are reading it - out of their sad place, to somewhere more exotic, safer, and romantic? On the other end of the scale I once received a 'fan' letter from a reader - a consultant renal surgeon - who told me she always loves to find one of my stories in a magazine because it helps her to relax from what is often a long, stressful, day and the huge responsibility of her job.' And isn't that what all of us want for, and from, our readers? That they lose themselves in the words we have strung together on the page for them to read? So, one's own name, or a pseudonym? Back in the day it wasn't the done thing for women to write - think George Eliot. But do times change? J. K. Rowling - so I've read - used her initials instead of Joanne because she wanted boys to read her Harry Potter series and not be put off that a woman had written it, which might have meant they'd have refused to pick up a single copy. After that early put-down in my writing career, I have to say I toyed with the idea of using a pseudonym if/when I made the leap from writing short stories to writing novels. In the end, when that happy day came, I chose not to be cowed by those barbed words. And so, I am proud - as Linda Mitchelmore - to announce the publication (by Choc Lit) of HOPE FOR HANNAH. It's a novella, an at the moment. But there are plans for it to be issued in Large Print later in the year. It was written by me, for me, but very much with readers' enjoyment in mind. I do hope you'll like it.