Sunday, 27 October 2013


A snapshot of the family bookshelf showing  our penchant for series – Rankin, Pullman and Rowling among others.

I often think there is nothing as wonderful as a good book.  But, actually, I realise there is something even more wonderful – a series of good books! 

A (good) series provides the joy of getting to know the characters, of reaching the satisfying end of a story with the bonus knowing that the same characters will appear again, in a story just as good.  You will learn a little more about them, minor characters may take centre stage, old friends reappear 2 or 3 books down the line. 

I have to admit that not only do I enjoy reading series, but that I have also started writing one.  And that’s just as much fun as the reading – the chance to develop character, relationships and setting in so much greater depth, over a longer time period.

After I started writing this blog post, it occurred to me to wonder what exactly it is that defines a series?  I consulted the web and consensus seems to be:

  • -          a group of books where reading in order is essential or at least preferable; and/or
  • -          a group of books sharing a common setting, story arc and characters

Series are different to novel sequences, which are set in the same imaginary universe but they have a free-standing storyline and can be read independently of each other. 

Series can be divided into a number of categories.  Some have one central character and one continuing mission (Harry Potter), others a central character solving a string of unrelated mysteries (Ian Rankin’s Rebus series).  Another type of series is centred around a particular location (e.g. Rebecca Shaw’s Village) or a family or group of friends (Nora Roberts – too many to mention!).
Series are particular common in children’s fiction and genre fiction, particularly crime and fantasy.  The title may indicate that the book is part of the series, e.g. ‘Harry Potter and…’ or may give no particular suggestion that this is part of a series.  In the latter case publishers now-a-days usually add a by-line e.g. ‘a Gil Cunnigham mystery’.  In earlier days publishers didn’t do this, and often didn’t even indicate what other books existed in the series.  I remember endless frustration as a child because I had no way of knowing how many Chalet School books there were and what order they came in.  It was only with the creation of the organisation Friends of the Chalet School in the 1990s that I finally got a definitive answer to that question.  Oh the joy!

Which brings me to another interesting aspect of series – many of them have spawned clubs, newsletters and web-sites for fans who want to share their fascination with others and extend their stay in this make-believe world just a little longer.  It is also common for series to be made into films or tv series, recent bloc-buster successes including Twilight and Game of Thrones.  The US/Scottish timeslip series Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, is currently being filmed for television. 

What is it that makes a series more than the sum of the parts?  I think it is that opportunity to engage more fully with the imaginary characters and their setting.  It really makes that fictional world seem real.  Do you read series?  Why?  And if not, why not?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Back to School

by Jennifer Young

Back to School! Image courtesy of russavia
(via Wikimedia Commons)
once listened to an interview with the soprano Lesley Garrett on the BBC’s Test Match Special (a peculiar circumstance in itself: who would have thought the divine Lesley was a total devotee of cricket?). She chatted away to the presenter, Jonathan Agnew, so comfortably that it was like listening to two old friends in the pub. But the thing that intrigued me most was that Lesley, star of stage and doyenne of the recording studio, has weekly singing lessons.

Does she need them? Does she really? With a voice like that? Well, maybe she does – but I know for certain that I, with a (very) modest publishing history behind me, have very much still to learn. It was with that in mind that I signed up for a creative writing course. The course is run by Edinburgh University and led by the inspirational Mary Gladstone and it benefits me not because of what I learn – though I do learn, or am reminded of, a lot – but because it stimulates me.

I’m a strange kind of writer. Maybe I’m a lazy one, who knows? Ideas float past and if I’m lucky I grab one and fix it on the page with a pin like the worst kind of indiscriminate Victorian butterfly collector. What I need is discipline and, though quietly spoken, Mary provides just that. Each week she sets us a task and each week I, the arch procrastinator, produce a piece of up to 500 words on the set topic without a murmur (though I confess to having scribbled a poem in the first part of the class once, in time to produce it for assessment after the break). For someone like me that has to be good.

You never know where your homework might end up....
A strange thing has happened since I began the class, though. My creativity seems to have increased. I have ideas. (You have to have an idea if you have to write a piece.) But I have more than one each week, or one leads to another, or a character exercise bursts into a fully-formed villain creeping around my head looking for a plot in which to immerse himself. When I’m writing – more particularly when someone is leading me - I don’t run out of things to say. I have a notebook where I jot down my ideas and now I’ve shaken the dust off it I can’t stop writing down thoughts. Most of them won’t turn into anything – for one thing I don’t have time and for another most of them aren’t designed to sell: they’re just exercises.

Some years ago I was a member of an earlier class of Mary’s. I was unpublished then. But it was a piece she set – 500 words on the theme ‘dreaming’ that became my first published story in the People’s Friend. A character she inspired me to create became my second story and another exercise (an object must change between the beginning and the end) became my third. And so on. I can’t remember the details but I think I credit those classes in some way with everything I’ve had published since.

So even if I’m not quite sure why Lesley Garret takes lessons, I know why I do. And now I’d best be off and do my homework….

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Dorothy Lumley remembered by Jenny Harper

Dot Lumley (left), with Gill Stewart
at the RNA Conference in Penrith.
Dorothy Lumley, agent at Dorian Literary Agency in Torquay, sadly passed away a few days ago.

Dot will be remembered by many writers across a number of genres, in particular for her incisive insights and her willingness to spend time helping aspiring writers to pinpoint weaknesses and rectify them. She once told me she hated a novel I had written, and why. She suggested I leave it, but first go through the exercise of doing a chapter-by-chapter analysis of what I had written so that I could see the flaws in the structure.

I took her up on the challenge, wrestled with it, replanned and reshaped, and decided to rewrite as well. The result? She wrote to me, 'I've now finished reading your book and I have one word for it: Fab-u-lous!'

Sadly, though, the book was not snapped up, and a couple of years later Dot and I parted company by mutual consent. I promised I'd buy her a drink when that book was published and I'm really sad that this will never now happen. I learnt a great deal about writing, thanks to her patience and willingness to coach, and I owe her a great debt.

When this blog started, Gwen Kirkwood, Gill Stewart and I were all represented by Dot, while Linda Mitchelmore shared the same writing group with her, in Devon. I'm sure they all have memories to treasure.