Saturday, 29 May 2010

Sorry, just couldn't resist...

This is for all of you who, like me, have grown to like spiders (though my favourites are zebra spiders, clever, big-eyed and good at jumping). This spider will follow your pointer in a friendly way; if he's lurking out of view just click on the white space.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Rejection blues

Recently I came across this helpful hint on a parking ticket dispenser in Islington:

If inoperative you may use another machine, if one is available

Something about this reminded me of literary agents, and the things they say when they are trying to be encouraging while rejecting your novel. On this blog I generally avoid the subject of agents, especially anything critical - after all, I'd like one of my very own, so it makes no sense to snipe at them. But today I am sharing with you a few quotes from various rejections for Heart of Rock, and you'll see why I'm a little discouraged as I get on with my third wave of submissions.

I have to admit to liking your writing, however... : oh, all right, then.

I think you write brilliantly. Unfortunately I'm not convinced a publisher will buy it: this might make a lesser woman want to give up.

Books about rock stars are notoriously difficult to sell: I bet you didn't know that either.

We both found it well-written and compelling, but regret to say it is simply not the sort of thing we are looking for at the moment: *sniff*

I think you are a terrific writer and if you decide to write anything else, I would love to see it: a crumb of hope, I guess. Press on with book number 4.

You might like to try other agencies for a different response from ours: Now there's an idea. I'll just go and do that, then.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Sometime Around Midnight

I can't resist posting this song by The Airborne Toxic Event (terrible name for a band), as some of you may not know it, and some of you may like it as much as I do.

It's incidentally a demonstration of scene setting, conveying emotion, and how to do backstory with the lightest possible touch, that all writers can learn from. You can read the lyrics here.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Let it go at a raised eyebrow...

I expect you all read last month about the Congolese man who is trying to get Tintin in the Congo banned in Belgium, where the cartoon originated. Tintin's black sidekick is seen as stupid and without qualities, Bienvenu Mbutu is quoted as saying, it makes people think that blacks have not evolved.

My immediate reaction was that if anyone's world vision is founded on a cartoon created in 1929, there is nothing to be done for him. We have had this attempt to obliterate all traces of historical political incorrectness before - for instance, in The Dam Busters, a film made in 1955, the unit's mascot dog is called Nigger, as it was in real life. When the film was shown on ITV in 1999 and 2001, the name was bleeped out. In America, the dog in the film is now Trigger.

Enid Blyton has suffered similar censorship, with the baddie golliwog excised and a black chum inserted in Noddy's adventures. I find this extreme sensitivity over the attitudes of a bygone age in just the one area, racism, a little odd. Other lapses according to modern tastes go uncriticized.

If I were as touchy about slights to women in different centuries' fiction, I'd never stop tutting. One of my favourite eyebrow-raisers is in Stella Gibbons' The Bachelor, set during WW2, and published shortly afterwards. The heroine accidently runs over a man's foot, and when he casts aspersions on her ability behind the wheel, Alicia's idea of a retort is to say, Actually, I don't drive as badly as most women. That passed for a spirited comeback in 1948, I suppose.

I think we need to accept that novels are of the time they were written, and are all the more interesting because of it. Michelle Magorian's vapid depiction of WW2 in Goodnight Mister Tom has none of the authenticity of fiction actually written at the time, in part because it incorporates modern sensibilities.

And remember, aspects of our writing are certain to be similarly disapproved of in 50/100 years' time - in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Insignificant and significant deaths in fiction

I've just been listening for the first time to The Devil's Disciple on Radio 7, by George Bernard Shaw. The hero, Dick Dudgeon, spends a large part of the play waiting to be taken out and hanged. He's extremely laid back about this impending nasty end, discussing it calmly and joking about it, so that I would have been astonished and outraged had he not got off at the last moment - as of course he does.

And it got me thinking about death in fiction, how it can devastate the reader or leave him entirely unruffled. I've rated the following types of demise, with marks out of ten for how much we care.

  • Supernumerary: the classic unknown in a red top beaming down with Captain Kirk, Spock, et al, picked off by an alien sniper to show the viewer that this planet is hostile. 0/10

  • Unexpected: Joanna, heroine of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, strangled by the robot who was to replace her. See also the death of Henry Blake in M.A.S.H.. High No! What? They can't do that! factor, 6/10

  • About time too: Little Beth, always sickly, not quite killed off in Little Women, finally conked out in one of the sequels (don't know which one, don't care). 1/10

  • Oh good: my daughter was briefly and worryingly infatuated with a two-volume tome of Catholic martyrs, all of whom went cheerily to their unpleasant deaths as they knew next thing they'd be in heaven, hurray! 0/10

  • Box of tissues required: a perfect example is Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea. I cry each time I read it, at the death of Hippolyta, then Hippolytus, and finally Theseus. How does she do it? 10/10
As writers, this is something we need to get right; we shouldn't trivialize death, or pretend some deaths don't matter, even in 'cosy' mysteries or violent thrillers; and when we confound the reader's expectations, it should be deliberate.