And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

Originally posted on Nail Your Novel:

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each…

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Consuelo Roland

Originally posted on My Memories of a Future Life:

for logo‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland

Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley

Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford…

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A Strange Affair

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The writing of a novel is a desperately strange affair that puts the writer somewhere between heaven and hell, between earth and clouds – yes, every work a cloud atlas of sorts – a geographical and historical imposition upon fantastical reality. And in that cruel, crude version of a reality that the writer fervently imagines has never happened, so every work of the imagination remains trapped forever in an ethereal dimension that blurs real life and fiction. The writer’s head is full of spires and windmills, places that are tilting dangerously, even maybe toppling as the words spill upon the page; for every batch of useful words so much irredeemable flotsam upon an ocean of used-up time.

Frequently in imagining our characters we must resort to real life to ensure we get our facts at least mostly right, so that the reader might say “at least the author did their research…” It’s a rare novelist that plays sleight of hand with reality and fiction, and succeeds in creating magical characters out of the degrees of separation. Just three come to mind unsolicited: Haruki Murakami (whose twisted dreams become your own), David Mitchell the chameleon (can’t wait to read The Bone Clocks) and the inestimable Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall by Indian movie director Tarsem Singh is one of those big-screen wonders that catapulted me into unexpected wonder. Its swashbuckling premise is that if you can trust in a paradigm where reality and fantasy are allies then anything can happen and brave little girls get to be Zorro. The heroine Alexandria, a small girl who befriends a fallen stuntman (fallen in both the ways of movie horses that gallop away instead of standing still for an important second when the stunt actor is jumping off a railway bridge onto their back, and in the way of the hopeless romantic adulation of beautiful women who love the things money can buy and are hence shamelessly loose with their affections) is played by Rumanian child actress Catinca Untaru who is not only ferociously talented but utterly convincingly charming as she slips between reality and fantasy with the easy agility of an old pro (think Meryl Streep 10 years old).

Suffice it to say that I deeply, jealously, wished that I had invented her before they did. I resented that director and his whole film crew for having discovered this amazing child before I could breathe her form onto the page. As entertaining as the film was I considered Alexandria (or was it Catinca?) ill-used. In my novel, the one I might have produced if someone else hadn’t dared to pluck her out of the ether, she would have reached full potential as a fully rounded character. This is the deceit of every writer – we believe that we can invent a world entirely from scratch and people it with such original, such charming, such fully breathing characters that we can trick our dear readers into not only suspending disbelief but believing this is a scene of reality that has never happened in life.

Catinca became the first Rumanian child to star in an international movie, winning the role from hundreds of hopeful child stars, after learning english in her native Bucharest from the age of four (indeed showing such an aptitude for it that she could do various accents). Catinca’s agent Andreea Tanasescu convinced Tarsem Singh to let her audition and she was apparently so good at slipping between fantasy and reality at the audition that the director adjusted all his ideas of who should play the role and selected her. Her mother said that Catinca returned to being Catinca, leaving Alexandria behind on the film set, as soon as she arrived back in the hotel room. But I cannot help thinking that only Catinca could have created Alexandria, and in that sense her imagined interpreted Alexandria is quite singular and unique, a fruit picker’s daughter in 1920’s Los Angeles who exists as an avatar of Catinca Untary. Out of a strange affair of a movie called The Fall, has come a personality that DID NOT EXIST BEFORE.

It is possible, that’s all I’m saying.

Postnote: I discover only today that Catinca Untaru nearly missed her plane to the film shoot because of difficulties getting a visa for South Africa (my home country) where The Fall was being filmed. I regard this as a strange coincidence. And so it is that the imagination, a rubber elastic band with its own tension, bounds back and forth between reality and fantasy with remarkable pliability.

What a generous fellow writer can do for you

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LADY LIMBO starts out with a bang. It gets picked up by the extraordinarily generous Joni Rodgers, a New York Times bestselling author, who gives it a fantastic Amazon review followed by a YouTube review that stuns me.  But LADY LIMBO doesn’t have an overseas publisher and for many months it’s not even available on Amazon for overseas buyers. At home in South Africa reviewers have the enviable task of wading through a deluge of high quality overseas thrillers and mysteries – and the local writers who do get decent coverage are way cooler and better connected than others. LADY LIMBO gets a mixed bag of reviews. It becomes clear that marketing it as a thriller hasn’t been a good idea since expectations of a speedy high-octane read aren’t met. LADY LIMBO is repositioned as a mystery novel aimed at those readers who savour long satisfying reads.

The other day, suddenly, out of the blue, LADY LIMBO is given a breathtaking thumbs up by a fellow writer I’ve never met in person, who gets that LADY LIMBO is just itself. This is the power of social media and Facebook. The power of generous connectivity can replace negative energy with positive energy. Writing a blog post seems like a sensible way of making sure I keep remembering this lesson.

I’m one of these funny people who appreciates clichés in the same way I like my old shoes. These funny reworked sayings become part of us, accumulating nuances and overlays of meaning that attach themselves to the words in stages, stages of a life. When we say them we believe because we’ve said them before and heard others say them. And belief is a powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

So, for those of you starting out: every cloud has a silver lining, let it go like yesterday’s snow, everything passes, you can’t be everything to all readers, no writer is an island, whining or complaining never helped anybody (thank you Johnny Depp and Kate Moss), there’s always another review, the show is not over till the fat lady sings, and finally – a personal favourite borrowed from a minibus taxi slogan – ‘Don’t be a Hater’! Oh, you get the idea. Dredge them up. Whatever makes you sit down and write another paragraph, another page, another poem, another short story, another novel. Whatever keeps you focussed on the act of creative energy.

When an unpleasant review comes along my first thought is to crush it into a tiny ball and bin it, and then never think of it again. Unfortunately, modern-day social media doesn’t allow for quick relief, it’s more the slow water torture variety of psychological torture. So, every time the compulsive, nibbling urge comes upon me to check on new reviews for LADY LIMBO I find myself opening the negative energy reviews and regurgitating the critical comments as if I were grinding stones between my teeth. Sticks and stones may break my back, but words will never hurt. Not true. Google likes  online publications that publish regularly and have huge audiences so a bad review can stay top of the pops for a (very) long time. An immovable obsession. Maybe I should try writing something completely different? Oh dear, isn’t that what I said last time?

Honesty is so confusing. I’ve been in the situation myself where I’ve had to weigh honesty up against something else; usually a feeling of camaraderie with my fellow writer. Knowing how much blood, sweat and tears it takes how can I condemn anyone else’s attempt to tell a story that never existed before? But it seems that some reviewers don’t believe, as I do, that the stories are out there waiting their turn, and that we are merely conduits to untold readers. All I can say is that powerful voices intrude when I write; voices that insist their story be told and they’ll take their chances. Allowed plenty of leeway but with strict oversight I am pressured to remain faithful to the essential message. If I stop listening it’s a bit like being underwater without a pen; garbled speech bubbles rise to the surface and come to naught. The story loses its sinuous sense; my hand is restless but inadequate. It keeps writing and rewriting, an unstoppable itch, but wrong roads are gone down and gibberish emits, dissonant tracts out of sync with the whole; the rhythm lost, the writer forlorn. Listen, listen, listen.

It’s as if all the stories ever written were in a huge calabash and occasionally a giant medicine woman stirs them up and they scatter into the night’s firmament, twinkling messages, all jostling for attention. The lucky ones get picked out by the readers who were meant to read them. So it was with John van den Berg and Lorraine I like to think.  John mentions an illustrious literary quartet – Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie,  Khaled Hosseini and Umberto Eco. I am a devoted fan of these grand masters of chiaroscuro fiction – how did John know? I’m listening to Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in audio book format at the moment and it’s breaking my heart. This is the power of fiction – to make us feel. For LADY LIMBO to be on the same bookshelf as any one of their books would be amazing. That is a dream worth contemplating.

Such is Life: Jeri Walker-Bickett

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A long overdue review commitment is squeezed into a tightly packed mid-year vacation.

Such is Life

Such is Life eBook

I read Such is Life by Jeri Walker-Bickett with the distinct feeling that I am missing something that is staring me in the face. I suspect that my mind, steeped in academic learning for the past several months and feeling akin to a pickled gherkin removed from its saline solution, is not fit to attempt this task that involves being a reviewer in the real world of social media.

The first read I act like a tourist in an art museum, my needs immediate and my expectancy urgent, waiting for a piece to strike an emotional cord so that I can take a mental snapshot of its noteworthy nature. Occasionally, the words flying at me coagulate into something more, then there is a brief leaping of the blood, a flush of recognition. But I struggle to stay involved, to feel what I know I’m supposed to feel; my head space is wrong.

It’s at this point that I do some short story research, the idea being to come up with a solid scaffolding for judging the merits of short stories. I also look at the author’s notes on Such is Life and other reader and blogger reviews – and there are a great many to choose from since Jeri Walker-Bickett is a well-known blogger and writing teacher.

I am entranced by Larry Crane’s excellent blog post (http://69.195.124.64/~mainelar/2013/02/02/review-of-such-is-life-jeri-walker-bickett/#axzz2YX5dV0PV) which throws a bright fresh light on Walker-Bickett’s deftly crafted collection as literary realism. From the other reviewers I gather that it’s okay to have a strong favourite in the collection, and between their fulsome enjoyment of Such is Life and Larry Crane I re-read the collection, more slowly this time, looking at each story with newly opened careful eyes.

It works! I get into it this time. I begin to appreciate the sometimes unusual language constructs which lend colour, the local humour which adds authenticity, the distinctive nuances of plot, place and character and I get a good glimpse of what it is that is holding the characters back and what it is that they are looking for and desire so badly. I start to see each story as a different framed episode in a bigger frame; the four shorter stories framing the teacher-versus-writer story, acting as emanations from her rebellious pen.  I grasp that it is this structure which frees Walker-Bickett to make no judgements – such is life, after all – but also to imply in a clear ringing tone (the teacher’s voice) that as hard as it might be, sometimes the only solution is to make a life choice which gets one closer to what one wants.

“Not Terribly Important” is the centre-point around which the other stories rotate as misaligned planets (different tempo, different drama) might do. Each of the characters in the four varied encircling stories have choices to make which will determine if they break away from their claustrophobic circumstances or not. The teacher is the emblematic central character of the collection; only she makes the big break, deciding that she will do what gives her satisfaction and write with no restrictions, rather than teach. By rebelling against the narrow mentality of the Mormon community she ‘escapes’ and becomes a talisman for choosing a different fate. Interestingly, in what for me is the most moving story, “For the Love of Dog”, the main character shows no sign of planning to leave her claustrophobic marriage, and that is perhaps the source of my sadness, understanding that the dog is a momentary interlude of reciprocated love, and there is no possible cure for her loveless existence.

It strikes me at some point that Such is Life is a worthy title – even if, indeed because there are other books with the same title which lend their own echoes of gravitas and wry humour.  Such is Life implies nothing and everything about a few ordinary lives, lives that might easily appear small and unimportant if viewed from a zoomed-out perspective. But the power of Such is Life to affect readers comes from its zoomed-in perspective on the emotional jeopardy faced by each central protagonist. Walker-Bickett appears to have intimate knowledge of her characters’ dilemmas, telling their stories with delicate precision. I experience the pleasure of human kinship that bridges differences, as if the secret life of the artist has some tenuous extraordinary relation to my own inner life.

After reading “Pretty Girl” I conclude that it takes a certain kind of bravery to have a Such is Life philosophy. By the end of “Not Very Important” I’m wondering at what point such a philosophy becomes counter-productive, encouraging lethargy and stasis rather than reaction and decision-taking? But Walker-Bickett allows for no easy answers, choosing her next two stories with care.

The tragic situation that unfolds in “For the Love of Dog” suggests that death may provide some kind of a solution, or resolution, to our unseemly untidy emotions. My heart breaks for the dog’s distraught mistress.

I reach “River Walk” with a strong sense of human fellowship; we are all in this together, a strange unscripted adventure that requires our participation and involvement. “River Walk” unsettles me. Is it a good decision to opt out when life can no longer be adequately lived? Walker-Bickett leaves this question open.

I’m left with the finality of unresolved sadness: some will find it in themselves to change the circumstances which restrict and limit their lives and some will not; some will find a way to endure and some will not.

“For the Love of Dog” hums quietly in my head; I consider it to be that rare pitch-perfect story, not a word too much or too little, not an emotion portrayed too sparingly or too excessively.  Such is Life, a collection of edgy and engaging stories about modern life, enlarges my worldview and shifts my perspective. What more can one ask?

Genre Genre Genre

In Writers’ World (think of it as an unscripted version of The Truman Show), ‘Genre Genre Genre’ is the equivalent of a property developer or estate agent’s ‘Location Location Location’.

It’s taken me a long time to accept the validity of this line of thinking. Partly because I’m stubborn. Partly because I’m ignorant. Partly because I’m naive. Or should that be ingenuous? Probably all of them. And there’s plenty of other partly’s I could come up with to explain why it’s taken me several years of devoted attention to the art and craft of writing to properly comprehend that not writing in a specific genre puts you out there in no man’s land. If the truth be told it has less to do with the ‘partlys’ than with my own inability to suspend belief. So this post has been sitting in draft mode since June 2012 (!)

I’m finally ready to accept it. The undeniable truth is it’s much harder to emotionally reach readers and garner good reviews if there is no framework or context to prepare the reader or reviewer for the story they are about to read. Covers and titles and even the splurb on the back book jacket are all necessary to create a consumer brand impression, which relates back to a genre type. This is how publishing works in the 21st century; the less hidden surprises the better. It’s become understandable if a reader feels cheated or misled, and just as understandable for a certain type of reviewer to slate a book publicly that is not their preferred genre/brand.

But easier is not always the way to go. Sensible is as sensible does. There is space for something harder to achieve, something that strives to be different. This post is finally being published because a penetrating and far-seeing clarity has been thrown on the matter by a guest post hosted on Jeri Walker-Bickett’s ‘Best Books’ blog, which focusses on Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin as a mixed genre novel. Thanks to A.K. Andrew’s thought-provoking essay I am ready to proceed knowing that, while as Andrews puts it “Mixing genres in one novel is not for the feint-hearted”, it is a way of writing novels that can be justifiably pursued.

I shall persist in calling it chiaroscuro fiction until I find a better term to describe the depth and breadth of mixed genre fiction.

Kill Smartie Breedlove by Joni Rodgers

A romp with a noirish underside

Posted originally on Amazon and Goodreads, December 19, 2012
 
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Joni Rodgers has enough chutzpah to turn a crime mystery tale with the requisite hard-boiled ex-cop and gutsy female protagonist into a romp with a noirish underside. I adored Smartie Breedlove and the way she really really loved her dog, and the hilarious turns of phrase that flowed so naturally, even at moments of high drama.

Rodgers allows her main character to act in a `fa-woosh!’ fashion without too much interference (good writing makes it seem that way!). Would the blowsy wit of phrases like “fracketty froo” and “fribbles in a snivet” have made it past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing? Probably not. Instead we get to chuckle out loud and be entertained. Some of the dialogue was so great I kept on getting the urge to share it with someone by reading it out loud.

With all the witty dialogue it’s easy to forget the opening scene. But Rodgers does a weirdly smart thing; interwoven with the investigation and writing of her own pulp fiction book are frequent mentions (by Smartie) of Hebrew rites and rituals for death and mourning, and somehow it’s effective. It makes Smartie a real person with a big heart, and it adds an uneasy painful layer to the frenetic action scenes. I thought the idea of Shiva – 7 days to mourn a loved one – was something Western civilization should adopt.

The obfuscation of the real story with Smartie’s fiction writing works brilliantly; the two versions continually appear to coalesce and then separate again. I couldn’t help wondering if Smartie wasn’t going to confound everyone by returning from the dead to participate in another near-fictional adventure of her own making.

Kill Smartie Breedlove is a great holiday e-book read!

See Joni Rodgers’ other fiction here.

1581591430/06/2013 Footnote: The original cover had super-long sexy legs in black pantyhose and stilettos which I thought stood out head-and-shoulders above the crowd in terms of ultra-cool eye-catching design, but it suggested a noir thriller. The new cover version on Amazon and other sites featuring the very cute dog with jowls should attract readers who enjoy mystery novels with a smart, very human protagonist (more in line with Joni’s other novels). It would be interesting to know how the cover change affects sales.

Your story needs two hearts

Consuelo Roland:

I love Roz’s original take on what I call the chiaroscuro effect – playing with the unbearable lightness of being (forever grateful to Kundera!) and keeping the darkness at bay is what fiction is all about. Roz’s idea gives a different more architectural perspective that suggests a 3D way of walking around within the story. 

Originally posted on Nail Your Novel:

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will…

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Throwing away paper stars

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A year ago I decided to start doing more reviews of the books I read, partly to gain exposure, and partly out of curiosity. How could I understand reviewers if I’d never walked in their shoes?

My favourite genre is literary fiction. The longer the better. I’m attracted to big fat books that will take forever to read and will end up giving me neck-pain from carrying them around. The more serious and enigmatic the better. The only books that made me laugh in a sustained belly ache fashion were P.G. Wodehouse‘s Jeeves books and Gerald Durrell‘s animal family books. John Irving has made me laugh in a different way; with Irving laughter is painful because it highlights what being truly human involves. I find most books which aim to be entertaining boring. I like them complex, devious, mysterious. I’m apt to wallow in all that chiaroscuro atmosphere like a kid in a mud pond. I guess you could say I’m a niche market voracious reader.

Today a voracious reader is called a rabid reader; that tells us something about a new generation of online consumers. In the small towns of my growing up years there were no bookshops, only libraries: plain covered volumes were extracted from plain shelves in plain local libraries and handed to plain librarians week after week, year after year.  Mostly we’d take a chance on the story title. A new author was an adventure waiting to unfold; their books wouldn’t be in the library if they couldn’t write. What mattered was what was inside, not the packaging. There was one thing though that was the same. We took those free books as our due. So why are we so surprised by the Internet model?

How does one shift one’s perspective to get away from a lifetime’s subjective absorption  and review the work of others in a fair and discriminating fashion? The life of a writer is a work-in-progress. Asking someone to review one’s novel or short story or poetry collection is an act of faith; the writer trusts that the reviewer takes their work seriously or why do the review?

gold star

If one assumes that the acknowledged masters of English Literature (such as Brontë, Faulkner, HemingwayShakespeare etc.) are what we (as serious writers and readers) aspire to, then the old literary favourites are logically the only 5’s there can be – the pinnacle of the star system.

De kinderjaren van Jezus_Coetzee

Where does that leave us with novels by Atwood, Coetzee, Irving, Mitchell, Oates, Ondaatje, Shriver and others who exhibit exemplary dedication, skill and that something ‘extra’ again and again? Where does that leave us with up-and-coming writers who with brilliance, ingenuity, word dexterity and bravado energetically pursue the prizes and take on the current generation of literary greats?

On a different, but no less confusing note, is it fair to compare a superbly composed novel (with all the gravitas of a major publishing house behind it) with an Indie novel which is rougher and rawer but is more accessible  (usually an e-book) and has sold more volumes  (although net sales worth may be far less than a traditionally published book).

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The more reviews I undertook the more my head spun; it was an impossible task to do justice with stars; I was allowing myself to be seduced by a consumer-orientated star system which demanded simplistic judgements based on a highly personal read. Adding objective criteria didn’t help. I still couldn’t fathom how an Indie bestseller could be fairly evaluated on the same star chart and by the same criteria as Lionel Shriver‘s meticulously crafted We Need To Talk About Kevin or David Mitchell‘s monumental epic achievement Cloud Atlas.   I became increasingly convinced that review stars were false symbols which collapsed meaning.

Why isn’t the work of visual artists measured with stars? Because it would be a meaningless pointless exercise. Every painting exerts a unique force of push and pull on the observer. Or the work of a composer? Because it would be ridiculous, laughable to assign a concerto 3 stars as it is being performed on the stage. It is recognised for what it is; its own unique design and execution. Why should a piece of writing be any different?

It’s liberating to throw away a whole influential star system and try being a different kind of reviewer. It feels like the only thing to do if I want to be worthy of the writer’s act of faith.

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