10

Charismatic Characters (even the irritating ones!)

Continuing with my Round Robin blog posts, the topic we have been invited to write about this month is:

How do we express and expose our characters’ thoughts and emotions in our writing? How do we use viewpoint, and how do we switch between characters?

The first point I need to make is that I LOVE intense, emotional or poetic writing. My own writing might not match my ideal, but this is what I would hope to produce. Language is the key, and language also opens up places and characters.

I suppose that in a way ‘place’ is as important to me as the people who inhabit it. Landscapes speak to me – like Jon McGregor’s sparse but precise and beautifully balanced descriptions of Lincolnshire in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, or the South Island New Zealand beach setting in Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. Place is what people respond to, and their response to somewhere – be it a landscape or a building or something that brings back a memory – is one thing that helps an author draw out their character.

It’s hard to say which kind of viewpoint works best for me – either as a reader or a writer. The idea of writing, first person, entirely from the main character’s point of view, is hugely engaging when you do it – so much easier to get inside someone’s head and go on a good old rant – but it also has huge limitations. I found this with my second novel that eventually became a first person coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. Because my main character is a somewhat stroppy teenager as the story sets off, how do the readers get to like her? She has plenty of adversity to contend with and a fighting spirit, but each of us, as readers, probably draws a different line as to where something changes from adventurous, feisty and admirable to just plain irritating or badly behaved.

Then there is the decision to make as to whether to allow the character hindsight – so that they can almost ‘narrate’ their back story and the reader can tell in advance whether they’ve learnt from their mistakes. Personally I love writing in the present tense which mitigates against doing this – mainly because it feels so immediate and allows a reader to feel ‘in’ the situation with a character. Trying to place a reader right in a situation – maybe one of danger or where moral choices have to be made – helps them to ‘buy in’ to the character’s emotional journey and identify with it.

Our characters also need other characters to bounce off. The other characters’ reactions will tell us if someone is rejected or on the fringes and will demonstrate the day-to-day challenges they have to face. Conversely, how a character responds to a situation betrays their personality and state of mind – whether they panic, or show sympathy, or have a chip on their shoulder. I used to write in the emotion that a character was feeling too much or too literally (‘she was anxious’), but have learned to let their reaction (a body twitch or habit, a knee-jerk response rather than something that reflects their true feelings) show the reader what they really feel. And of course there is nothing better that having two intense and most-likely mismatched characters who come head-to-head in a book and fight out their space and the storyline to the end.

It is fascinating to find out how a reader views a character you have written. A friend who critiqued the first draft of my most recent novel for me said of one character: ‘what a woman!’. I loved that – that they had engaged enough to feel this about her. In writing a novel you have to come to a position where you absolutely know how your characters would respond or react to something – and make sure you let them be true to their own personality. Nothing irritates a reader more, for instance, than an ending that is clever but that is achieved at the expense of ‘keeping in character’ right to the end.

If we use third person – he, she, etc – and allow several different characters to have voices in our book then we can see the same situation but from different people’s perspectives, so a quick line of space or section break and a flip to a different character’s voice can be very effective. I tend to plan a book’s outline structure with the ‘viewpoint’ of each scene listed at the side and aim for a mix of the main viewpoints so that no one character is lost for too long in the storyline. Sometimes a character becomes so strong, or the flow of a scene feels so powerful, that I just have to follow that viewpoint despite my planning for some other one to take the fore. It feels good when the story is flowing strongly in this way.

The other thing I have learned to do better over time is to keep secrets. The reader needs to find out things about the characters and their past experiences and influences, and in real life we rarely know these things about the people that we meet. Revealing these things through conversations or plot developments or backstory makes the reader reassess what they have come to think about a character. In my most recent book one of the central characters, who is deaf, befriends a man in her village who shares her sense of internal isolation. We, as readers, know from page one that he is a killer, but she does not. It was a big decision to make as to whether to reveal this early on or gradually – should the reader be placed in a position to worry about her, or to share some dawning about this man’s past? But giving his background upfront, and then elaborating on where this stemmed from during the book, also allowed our killer’s viewpoint to become more meaningful – a chance to share his thoughts and emotions, too.

Find out how other bloggers bring their characters to life:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ag
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com 

© Anne de Gruchy

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0

Finding my ‘Few Concerns’

As those of you who follow my blog will be aware, I have recently been deeply involved in studying and facilitating workshops on simplicity – a theme that evolved because of the need to simplify my own life both materially and with regard to my commitments. The irony of the whole process has been the discovery of quite how complex ‘simplicity’ is!

Amidst all my research and reading, one of the pieces that stood out for me is the very popular excerpt from Thomas Kelly’s work as quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice:

I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities.

Thomas R Kelly, 1941
Quaker Faith & Practice – Chapter 20: 20.36

So recently I have been thinking about this and trying to discern what the ‘few concerns’ are that I, myself, should be faithful to.

This is easier said than done. At the moment there are many strands taking up my time and attention and each one feels ‘right’ and important, yet I know I cannot sustain them all for much longer. For quite a while now I have felt the need to ‘hold’ these things until the time when it becomes clear which ones I should move forward with and which ones will drop away.

In no particular order, some of the key pieces of my life at the moment are:

• My paid employment. My job working with the local authority in a team responsible for implementing the Mental Capacity Act provision on Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards is important to me. I am part of a friendly team, and when I am in paid work I feel fulfilled and part of society. Paid work and its routine also tends to have a beneficial impact on my mental health. This is a temporary post, so I need to make decisions about what to do when it comes to an end next April.

• My writing. Always a mix of pleasure and discipline, I am well into writing my fourth novel with a lovely agent trying to find a home for my third one. Normally I do not try to combine full-on novel writing and a job, but with someone believing in me and championing my work, now is not the time to lose my focus.

• My family. My father continues to have a good slice of my time and attention as he settles into life in residential care. An unexpected knock-on effect of him moving close to me is the ‘Anne de Gruchy Bed and Breakfast Service for Relatives’ for people who want to visit my dad! It is lovely to see my family so often, but does not help with earmarking time to write or work. Amidst all this, I am trying to maintain the lovely relationship I have with my son.

• My friends. These are getting rather squeezed out at the moment – except for the ones who I land on for a week to use them as a base for a ‘writing retreat’! Most of my friends are long-standing and we are used to flurries of contact with some longer gaps when other commitments come to the fore. It is gold-dust to have such friends in my life. Local friends probably think I have just hibernated for the winter…

• My partner/boyfriend (cue argument re how to refer to your ‘other half’ when you are 57 and definitely no longer a ‘girl’!). It is lovely to have love and companionship come my way unexpectedly at this stage in my life, but I need to give it attention to flourish and there is that tricky problem of distance…

• Community. I love where I live. I want to contribute. I don’t have time to do this but could choose to work/write less and contribute more. And what if a move of area becomes appropriate because of the new relationship? Do I feel able to risk uprooting and starting all over again? Ditto for my spiritual life and connections with the Quaker community.

You see my dilemma! Part of me feels excited by all the possibilities, and a lot depends on whether I can get a publishing deal. In the meantime I am trying to save money against a possible gap in employment and looking forward to the opportunities that the New Year will bring. I will be running some more Simplicity sessions in 2018 and hope to introduce some creative exercises to aid discernment. I am hoping to listen to my own advice!

The one thing that is certain is that I need this list to be shorter and more focused by the middle of next year. Please do remind me if I haven’t shown progress by then, and please do share your own stories and ideas about the ‘few concerns’ that speak to you in your own life.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Christmas wreath

MAD MOMENT

Well – I have just dyed my hair and it now has bright lilac and purple streaks! Will I ever learn?

MARVEL MOMENT

My ‘new’ man is rapidly becoming my ‘old’ man – still together and going good!

© Anne de Gruchy

5

Translating Travel into Fiction

ROUND ROBIN BLOG POST

Continuing with my Round Robin blog posts we have been invited this month to write about one or all of the following:

What stories have your written or read where a holiday takes place. To what purpose was the inclusion of the holiday? How do you celebrate holidays or events? Does this ever make it into one of your stories?

Well as soon as I saw this I thought about the first novel that I wrote which was inspired largely by a holiday.

It was back in my ‘L’ Plate writer days, when I still believed that it was best to write about what you know. I had lost a job because my depression had become so severe and I had time on my hands – and anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a happy person unless I’m busy. So, to help both my depression and the long days ahead of me, I decided to write a book. Just like that (as Tommy Cooper might say). The remarkable thing is that I actually did write that book, and I was even supported in doing so by a ‘New Work and Commissions Award for Literature’ from East Midlands Arts.

So, how did I decide what to write? Well, because I was depressed at the time the navel-gazing part of me was interested in exploring recovery from depression. To pivot the storyline on a more substantial event I decided that the cause of the depression for my protagonist would be the loss of a baby – another autobiographical feature of the book. Not long before this my husband, son and I had been on a brilliant holiday travelling round Scotland for two weeks by train and staying at Youth Hostels along the way. The scenery in Scotland is so beautiful, and for me it really engages the soul – I think Scotland has felt like a spiritual home for as long as I have been going there. So this holiday and that journey crept into the book. Add in a complete stranger for my protagonist to travel with and I had the makings of a story.

Now I come to think of it, that book also contained a second holiday within it – a city break we did in Amsterdam. I had a second story strand based in Amsterdam, and corresponded with an acquaintance who lived there to get the details right. This is in complete contrast to the book that I am writing at the moment which has three different settings abroad as part of the storyline, none of which I have visited at all. Of course, this may well change given my love of detailed research and the multiple offers I have received from people who would like to visit these places with me. ‘It’s part of your research, you must do it!’ they say – if only the space in my diary said the same…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Saltire flag on ferry

The novel that my agent is currently pitching to publishers also has a holiday in it. A serial killer forms a friendship with a woman who was born profoundly deaf because they share an internal sense of isolation from the world. When he kills in his own village the invasion by the press and the police is too much for either of them to bear and they go away to a cottage in Norfolk together. This brings a breather in the plot, a sense of jeopardy for the deaf woman, and an intensification of their relationship. It is also a natural response of the characters as we have grown to know them to the situation. The woman has a special relationship with the community land in the village and this is desecrated by the murder and the police cordon prevents access to her treasured land. The killer is trying to escape his nature and the consequences of his actions.

Thinking further on this topic reminds me of one of my all-time favourite books: Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh. This is the most brilliant novel set in medieval times and exploring philosophical issues around belief in God. I love the way that this issue is explored through the stories of a girl brought up by wolves and a ship-wrecked atheist, and how the Cardinal of the island’s attempts to convince the atheist of the existence to God leads to a friendship of intellectual equals and also to tradegy. Paton Walsh says that the novel is set on ‘an island somewhat like Mallorca, but not Mallorca’, and the presence of the island is there in spades. I could identify the place she drew from for the setting for the imprisonment of the atheist and the walks he took with the Cardinal as they discussed theology. It added much to my enjoyment of the novel to have this sense of place as I read. Do read it! And recommendations of books with holidays and travel at the centre would be most welcome…

Find out what other bloggers think about this topic:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2017/11/18/holidays
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/round-robin-november-2017-holidays-traditions-writing/

© Anne de Gruchy

9

Novel Writing – The Dilemmas of Time Travelling!

A Round Robin Post

First of all, an apology. All of those who hit the link to my blog expecting a big sci-fi epic are about to be disappointed – today, in our Round Robin blog posts, we have been posed the question:

In what time period do you prefer to set your stories – past, present, or future? What are the problems and advantages of that choice? Would you like to change?

I suppose, as a starting point, I should admit that all of my novels have started in a contemporary setting – they are about events that are happening now, but the present story generally relates to an important back story which is told throughout the book. How I structure the book to contain the backstory is the tricky bit. There is an exception, but I’ll come to that later.

Secondly, I absolutely love writing in the present tense. This has become more fashionable now, but when I wrote my first novel many years ago it was quite unusual. I like the present tense because it is immediate – the reader is in the situation with the characters and there is less chance of just ‘telling’ the story rather than showing it through the actions and responses of the characters. There is no chance of ‘wrong-footing’ your reader as everything is happening page by page.

As my novels have progressed, the way that I ‘time travel’ from present to backstory has got more and more complicated.

My first book was a deliberately linear story, covering a five month period and told from the viewpoint of four main characters. The theme is a woman coming to terms with the loss of a baby through travelling around Scotland with a complete stranger. The loss of the baby is backstory, but is expressed through things that evoke memories and through building trust with someone to confide in.

My second book is my exception and began with a structure that I have used in some way in all my following novels – there is a present storyline interspersed with the backstory both forming their own cohesive narratives. In this book I have very short snippets of the present (the making of a couture wedding dress) preceded by long sections of backstory. This is an unusual book for me as it is narrated first person – a brilliant opportunity to get into the head of a dysfunctional teenager who comes of age through motherhood. However the book is set against a backdrop of the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. This posed a dilemma when I abandoned the book for many years following a marriage break up. When I returned to it the 1990s had gone but the events and characters were pertinent to that time. I completely rewrote the book, and by default it had a ‘historical’ setting (albeit recent) which spoke about a period of history in a city’s life.

The book that is going out to publishers now, my third book, also has a structure that time travels from past to present – each section beginning with a crime committed by a serial killer, then returning to the present to tell the story of his friendship with a woman who was born profoundly deaf and their connection to the fenland landscape. This flowed well, because the present story sections formed a linear narrative to hold things together. I cannot say that I am finding this kind of structure and time slip as easy in the book that I am writing now!

So, to the present (in my writing of books, anyway). The novel I am working on now is proving a bit of a beast to tame! I know exactly what happens, and could have chosen to write this as a direct linear narrative covering the period of a year or so. However the book (currently) begins with an event that falls in the MIDDLE of this narrative – posing problems as to how to go both backwards and forwards with the storyline. I have tried many variations – only last week I restructured the balance of the book – and I still can’t work out where to use past and present tense!

Backwards, forwards, and everywhere in-between – my writing is definitely a bit of a time travelling machine. I, and the reader, never know quite where we might end up!!

Find out more about past, present and future in other writers’ work at:

Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-14G
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Heidi M. Thomas http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

4

Sharing my Spiritual Scrapbook

Today, at my Centering Prayer group, we tried out a different format. Instead of listening to some teaching on DVD we decided to bring a poem to share. We started with our usual 20 minute silent meditation then the four of us who were present read out poems or canticles that spoke to us in some way.

It was a moving time, and the most amazing range of poems and emotions were shared. Two that stood out for me were:

The Bright Field by R S Thomas
St Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell.

For myself, I shared a poem that my mother had once typed out and sent to me. It is called Under a Wilshire Apple Tree and is attributed to Anna Bunstone de Bary, date unknown. It begins with the following stanza:

Some folks as can afford,
So I’ve heard say,
Set up a sort of cross
Right in the garden way
To mind ‘em of the Lord.
But I, when I do see
Thik apple tree
An’ stoopin’ limb
All spread wi’ moss
I think of Him
And how He talks wi’ me.

Sharing this, I also shared with my friends the Spiritual Scrapbook that I have been keeping for 20 years. This is a very special hard-backed A5 book that my sister gave me when I had an adult baptism in 1997 (I had not discovered the Quakers then and was part of a vibrant Baptist church). My sister wrote an inscription at the front: ‘For your thoughts and special prayers’, and the book is very dear to me. I share some photographs of a few of the pages in this post.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Spiritual Scrapbook Page

Over the years I have written or stuck into the book sayings, prayers, postcards and poems that have had special meaning to me. There are parts of Celtic liturgies that we used when I studied Contextual Theology, postcards of crosses at monasteries and in mud huts, spoken ministry from Quaker meetings, and many cards with prayers and poems sent to me by my mother when she was still alive.

My mother was such a special support to me, and her faith saw me through some very dark times in my life. I treasure every single thing she sent when I was down and she wanted to help me through. My biggest sadness is that in the last few years of her own life she experienced a crisis of faith. But my mother was a gardener, and God was very close to her, and I’m sure that God spoke to her through that apple tree with stooping limb even when the light of faith was dim.

    

MAD MOMENT

New man, new distance relationship! Watch this space!

MARVEL MOMENT

As above!!!

© Anne de Gruchy

4

Plotlines – Mysteries and Miracles!

A Round Robin Post

For the second time, my patient readers, I am participating in a Round Robin blog post. The topic we have been asked to address this time is:

When you are stumped on moving a plot line forward, what do you do to reinvigorate your imagination and get your characters moving?

Now those who also vaguely follow my Twitter rantings will know that I have been laid low for the last few weeks with a horrible (and I mean HORRIBLE) virus type thing. This has involved recurrent fevers, feeling constantly sick and dizzy, a wracking cough and blood pressure descended so low that I blacked out and injured my pelvis in the resultant fall. One result of all this is that I have felt too ill to stand up, yet alone manage any kind of computer work or writing, and the second result is that I got so despondent and sorry for myself that I stopped believing I could write at all.

Thus, I have had a proper mega-crisis about whether I can write the book I am currently in the middle of, which has included me getting all negative about things like my plot and characters.

If I’m honest, I actually quite like my plot and characters. I feel I have a reasonable storyline and some themes that will be fascinating to explore in more detail. My characters wake me at night demanding I write that next scene, but I simply feel too ill to do so. The question I am asking myself, though, is ‘am I playing to my strengths with this book?’.

The trouble I am finding is that I have a wider plot and list of settings than I normally work with, some of which are not that familiar to me and will require a lot of research (which is very interesting so far) or some active visits. I’ve just got to that ‘loss of self-belief’ place about whether I can do this. I look at the book I am trying to find a home for currently (with the help of my wonderful agent) and it seems so simple by comparison – on mainly safe home ground, although clearly I do not have personal experience of being a serial killer!

So what do you do when you get stuck like this?

Well, firstly experience tells me to sit it out. I have written three novels so far and there have always been periods of diminishing self-belief to contend with, and when I simply persevered and put the time in I eventually wrote through the periods and came out feeling all fired up about my book and characters again. The other lesson I learned was that my writing did not differ hugely in quality depending on whether I was simply ‘plodding on’ or feeling all positive and engaged.

Secondly, experience tells me never to make decisions or big changes when you don’t feel well!

I think that my history of learning to deal with plotlines and characters is interesting, though. My first novel had a strongly linear theme (woman coming to terms with the loss of a baby by travelling round Scotland with a complete stranger) which seemed to appeal to the agents I sent it to, but they didn’t ‘engage’ enough with my characters to pick this up. I think this book was very much my learning piece. I plotted it out in such detail in advance that I didn’t give it, or the characters, enough room to breathe. When I started my second novel I probably over-compensated by giving my characters so many experiences and traumas that I lost some of the intensity and descriptive qualities that were good in the first book. Writing this in the first person didn’t help, although it was immensely enjoyable to do. In book three, the one that is being offered out at the moment, I feel that all my learning curves came together and at last I got it right.

So what made it work? Well, I had such a strong idea of the two main characters and what connected them that writing them and their story seemed to almost dictate the plotline and pace, even though I had quite a detailed plotline and overview drawn up in advance. I let the characters breathe.

When I got stuck with the storyline for the book I’m currently working on I went to one of the ‘Summer Taster’ workshops that Nottingham Writers’ Studio was running. The workshop looked at Plot. It seemed an odd thing to do when I already had a lot of ideas down, I just wasn’t sure how to structure them and drive them forward. Although the workshop used a very simple ‘tentpole’ method to look at plotting, it made me really see my story with fresh eyes. In the end I realized that to make it work I had to add a couple of extra ‘flashpoints’ in relation to one of my themes, and also that the character whose story I was most interested in was not the one I expected!

So: perseverance, being willing to revisit the plot and characters you have with fresh eyes, never being afraid to change focus if the characters seem to be demanding it.

Now I just have the less than simple task of finding that elusive ‘self-belief’…

Photograph: One of my many methods of working out a plotline! Flipchart, coloured pens, stick-on events/scenes that can be juggled, strands for each character. This plotline never actually made it into being, but maybe one day…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: flipchart with plot outline

Check here for other people’s takes on how to deal with getting stumped in the middle of your plot:

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-137
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

14

Talking about Genre (or: Trying to avoid the ‘L’ Word!)

A Round Robin Post

Hello dear friends and brave blog-readers.

Today I am going on a new adventure – I am trying out a blog-post for a writing-related ‘Round Robin’ that I discovered through a fellow member of the Book Connectors Facebook page. Here’s how it works:

Each month I will receive a new topic that I can choose to write about if it appeals to me. There is a specific date for publication, with other bloggers who are interested also posting on that subject on the same day. At the bottom of our posts we will all provide links to the other blogs that have participated. Thus you can dip into a whole series of alternative views on that topic should you feel like a marathon read.

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image: a shelf of books

Here is the topic I was asked to address today:

Whatever genre you write, do you have a different one that you love to read? What do you think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well, my first thought was: don’t get me started!

Genre is one of those things that people often ask about if you tell them that you’re a writer. ‘What kind of books do you write,’ they ask. ‘Literary fiction,’ I reply. Here there is usually a long pause and then, inevitably, the killer question: ‘What’s “literary fiction”?’

This is not something I find easy to answer. I think it’s obvious; other people clearly do not.

I looked up ‘literary’ in the online Oxford Dictionary which came up with the following: ‘Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’.

Great, I thought – although it can sound a bit arrogant if you use the ‘quality’ word as it seems to imply that other forms of literature are less than acceptable in this department. Further, the dictionary suggested that, in relation to language, ‘literary’ is associated with writing that has ‘a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect’.

I’m not sure about that, and it does all seem a little vague. I am definitely a sucker for emotion though, and for anything that moves me or makes me think deeply about things. If I look honestly at my own novels it’s possibly only the most recently finished one that would fully qualify as ‘literary’. The one before might be ‘commercial women’s fiction with a literary bent’, whatever that is – but thereby hangs another tale.

I do have a get-out clause to explain what ‘literary fiction’ is when people ask me: anything that is likely to be entered for the Booker Prize. And, to be honest, this is also my favourite type of thing to read. Give me John Banville or Jon McGregor any day over romance or crime or steampunk (although that is rather fun). My favourite books of all time would include The Bone People by Keri Hulme (yes, it won the Booker) and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton-Walsh (full of amazing ideas, and yes, a Booker shortlistee).

I find it interesting that I have attracted an agent who does not fully share my overly literary tastes. Her background, workwise, is slightly more commercial and also crime-orientated. When I described my reading tastes to her they included authors that she simply doesn’t get on with – I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child at the time. I do find it comforting that when I heard Alan Hollinghurst speak about his writing process it was remarkably similar to my own. Maybe this is an omen that there is hope for me yet in getting that publishing deal!

But I am a wide reader and I always have some non-fiction on the go, too. I am very into philosophy and spiritual writing, and am currently enjoying a brilliant translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, subtitled Love Poems to God. I love poetry. And I’m not averse to the occasional foray across the fiction genres – for instance I enjoyed Stieg Larssons’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the Millennium Trilogy (it helped that I also have a dragon tattoo so there was an inbuilt affinity from page one).

So what do I think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well it’s so personal that I find it hard to say. I’m told that, however literary your work, you still need a good plot with a hook and direction and engaging characters, but I could give you examples of books that break that rule and still work. It helps though, whatever the genre, to be carried along with the characters and what they want to achieve; to feel that you are in good hands and will arrive at your destination without disappointment.

Personally, I love language. I love rhythm and metre and the way writing can make you sense and feel the things that the author is describing. I like an emotional journey as well as a practical one. I like ambiguous endings that don’t wrong-foot you at the last minute.

I do find it interesting that many of the writers that I like are men. I think that there can be a divide between the sexes in tastes, and where authors want to appeal across the gender divide they sometimes resort to de-sexing themselves by using initials. Think P D James or J K Rowling. I have not checked this statistically, but I suspect that men are much less likely to buy a book that they know is written by a woman. Women, however, seem to be more willing to cross the divide. (I have just done a little online search on this and discovered a Goodreads survey from a couple of years ago that showed an overwhelming proportion of books read – by both the sexes – were written by authors of the same gender, however the authors had branded themselves. I am always happy to be proved wrong!)

So… Perhaps readers make assumptions about what a book will be like depending on who has written it, and perhaps they have a better chance of liking it if they do! They also make assumptions based on the cover. Look at how standardized the styling of different genres has become, and at the repackaging of books aimed at young people with alternative covers to also appeal to an adult audience. We are a gullible lot, and well led by the media and the publishing industry.

But this cover ‘uniformity’ and branding by genre (dark pictures with big author names in silver letters equals ‘thriller’, etc) reflects what is probably a wider truth – people love the reassurance of what is familiar. They like to dip into a new book knowing that it will ‘fit’ like a comfy pair of old slippers. They stick with what they know. How they decide which genre constitutes a comfy pair of old slippers for them is another story.

Maybe there’s a case for simply going into a bookshop or an online store and choosing the fourth book along, on the third row down, and seeing whether, without prejudice, you might just happen to like it after all…

© Anne de Gruchy

Now check out what some other authors think about the subject of genre…

Skye Taylor http://www.askyetaylor.com/blogging_by_the_sea/view/542
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-11v
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Kay Sisk http://www.kaysisk.com/blog
Rachel Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/