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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 2: Wonderland

Book Number Two: Wonderland – A Year of BRITAIN’S WILDLIFE Day by Day by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss

(Published by John Murray (Publishers), 2017)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: book cover - wonderland

My son bought me this book for my birthday, and it is just the most wonderful Treasury. Each day has a little piece of writing by one of the two authors (you can spot their individual styles as you go!) on some creature, or bird, or plant that might be spotted at that time of year.

Apart from an achingly beautiful cover, there are no illustrations. But this is a brilliant collection of encounters – with both rarities and the everyday – and the authors just bring such joy and knowledge to the table that you can’t help but smile. They take you into the world of nature and share their insights and enthusiasms so that you feel you are there with them as they make their discoveries and connections with the living things we share our world with every day but often miss.

Something to dip into and enjoy, not just day-by-day but year-by year.

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 1: The Bone People

A friend of mine took up a ‘Seven Day Book Challenge’ on Facebook recently and suggested that I might follow suit. This seemed to involve recommending a different book every day for a week. I was a bit tardy in following this up, but it got me thinking about the wonderful range of books that have spoken to me over the years and it occurred to me that it would be a lovely thing to share through my blog – so here goes! I’ve cheated a little in not sticking to the single sentence I was meant to use to introduce the books…

In no particular order:

Book Number One: The Bone People by Keri Hulme
(First published in Great Britain 1985 by Spiral in association with Hodder and Stoughton)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: book cover - The Bone People

This book is my all-time favourite novel. It won the Booker McConnell Prize in 1985 and I recall that it divided opinion at the time. It is an intense book, with intensely poetic and beautiful prose.

Set on the South Island beaches of New Zealand it has the sense of a timeless fable, immersed in nature and Maori myth, but at its heart it is the story of three people – Kerewin who sets up home in an isolated tower by the beach, a boy who befriends her, and his father, Joe. I don’t know Keri Hulme managed to write such heart-achingly personal prose – so deep and intense and embedded in each character and their troubles – but it’s absolutely why I Love Love Love this book.

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Killer Voices: Violence and Danger in Writing

I am back on a Round Robin post today, and we have been set the following topic:

How do you handle/use violence, or any type of danger, in your stories?

This is a fascinating topic for me because my most recent novel, which is currently going out on submissions via my agent, is about a serial killer. Not only that, it is definitely NOT a crime story!

But thereby lies the dilemma – I have written a literary fiction book that focuses on the internal world of someone who kills, and the friendship he forms with a woman who was born profoundly deaf. They share a very internalized sense of the world and a common love of the Lincolnshire fenland landscape where the book is set. The writing is descriptive, but the subject matter is harder hitting than is normal in ‘literary’ work.

This is a book that I am proud of. I believe I have written something with integrity and I want it to find an audience. Its origins stem from the well-loved Quaker phrase: ‘that of God in everyone’. It got me thinking: as we can find ‘that of God’ in all people, what is it in some people that allows them to kill or to commit awful crimes?

This is the question that the book tries to answer in some way.

So: I did my research. I read about ‘types’ of sexual offenders and serial killers and the different ways and means that aggression is expressed. In rape, for instance, patterns of behaviour may be based on anger (sexuality becomes a hostile act), power (an expression of conquest) and sadism (where anger and power become eroticized). I probably ducked the difficult options in choosing that Michael, my character, would be an anger killer – it’s easier to see the humanity in someone who loses control without pre-planning anything, and where there are trigger events to explain it. It also meant introducing backstory to show how he came to be the person he was – and I based this on research and reading interviews with real rapists and killers.

The other thing I decided with this novel was to let the reader know from page one that Michael had killed in the past. This brought in a sense of jeopardy for the other characters that he met and it meant that his own journey was about trying to control his anger and not to kill again. His crimes involve sexual violence, and I did write the scenes fairly factually – the reader sees what happened and it’s hard to tell how an individual reader feels in reading these scenes. Each crime shows the lead up and what triggered Michael’s loss of control – and the randomness of who becomes the victim. Because the land and cycles of nature are central to the book, I also show how the bodies of Michael’s victims decay and become a rich source of nourishment to the landscape – a sense of the earth reclaiming its own.

All this is brilliant, except…. I appear to have shot myself in the foot by crossing traditional genre divides. This is literary fiction but it features a serial killer. Crimes are committed but the focus is on the reaction of the community and the characters involved, not police involvement or solving of the crimes. Feedback from publishers has been extremely positive but the book does not ‘fit’ their normal categories and it is hard to find it a home. One editor put it this way: ‘having a serial killer as a main character [in a novel that is clearly literary in nature] will put it into a certain category that will alienate some readers and potentially appeal to the ‘wrong’ readers in other cases, who will expect something more narrative’.

Another dilemma posed by writing storylines that involve violence from both a perpetrator’s and a person-centred perspective is that people are not always comfortable with being asked to treat a serial killer as a human being. One editor expressed discomfort at the feeling that they were being asked to sympathise with a serial killer – not my intention, but perhaps it shows that I did manage to get across my character’s humanity despite his capacity to kill.

I have dealt with violence in other novels – self-harm and domestic abuse, an overheated argument leading to death by dangerous driving – but Out of Silence retains a very special place in my heart, and will continue to do so whether it finds a publishing deal or not.

See how other writers deal with danger and violence in their work:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1i2
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Anne de Gruchy https://annedegruchy.co.uk/category/blog/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Judith Copek, //http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com

© Anne de Gruchy

8

Stories: Great Beginnings and Endings – but what about the bit in the Middle?!

This week I am back to our Round Robin blog post with themes explored by a series of different writers. We have been given the following challenge:

How do you ensure a story has a good beginning, a satisfying ending, and good continuity in between?

I realize that this could be the shortest Round Robin in history, because the truthful answer is: I haven’t a clue!!!

My problem, as I have written about before, is that my books all tend to start with themes rather than stories. So, for instance, I might want to explore how someone copes with the loss of a baby, or with a long-term progressive illness and having to accept carers in their life, or how some who must – in Quaker speak – have ‘that of God’ in them can come to a point where they can kill people. I may know the ‘journey’ a character will take emotionally from ‘a’ to ‘b’, but the bit in the middle starts off as a mystery.

These themes obviously need characters and a storyline in order to explore them fully and to hold readers’ interest, but I find it really difficult to create enough ‘narrative drive’ – the peaks and troughs of what is happening, the key goal that takes you to the end. So, there I am with some ideas and relationships between characters in my head but how on earth do these become a proper ‘story’?

With my first (learning-curve) book I plotted the whole thing carefully in advance. There was a beginning (a trigger point where my main character lost her job due to her depression), a middle of sorts (where she travelled around Scotland with a complete stranger) and an ending (where she returns home changed and has to make a decision about the key relationship in her life). As you can see, it is not especially action-packed – definitely more of a reflective book with the landscape as an influencing and descriptive factor.

In the next book that I wrote I tried to ‘cure’ the lack of drama by having a lot more actually happening with the plot. The result was that I had to completely rewrite the book at a later stage because it set off like a steam train, then eventually ran out of puff! Around this time I went to some workshops about ‘pitching’ books and this really helped me, because it taught me to look at the emotional and psychological happenings in a different light – as things that provide their own stories and goals for the characters.

A common criticism of my work when I share my writing with my local critique group is that there are a lot of dramatic things happening but it doesn’t feel dramatic to read. My agent describes the current novel that she is sending out on my behalf as a ‘quiet book’, and I totally get that this is how my writing feels, however busy the plotlines. I like exploring people’s psychology, and how different events shape them as a human being. I like description, and a sense of the underlying current that moves things along.

Having said that, this current novel is the one that I am really proud of and that I feels ‘works’. I think it is successful because I really got under the characters’ skin – or they got under mine. It became important what happened to them, and although their stories are explored in a gentle way, they nevertheless have impact. The landscape, too, became a character, and the sequential plotting of the story to mirror the fall in the Garden of Eden seemed to work. My problem now is how do I follow this? I am currently in the middle of editing the first draft of the next book and although the characters are speaking to me I just can’t seem to get the middle section right.

I have just got to watch out that I don’t end up with a filling-less sandwich – all front and back and nothing in the middle at all!!

See how other writers sort out their beginnings, endings and the stuff inbetween at:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1fk

© Anne de Gruchy

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Bedtime Story

My previous Round Robin blog post about story ideas reminded me of this poem I wrote when my son was little. He’s 25 now – my, how time flies!!

Bedtime Story

My bright boy shines –
toothbrushed, washed,
hot water-bottle warmed,
ready to be cocooned in
the pages of a book.

Charmed and chapter-ready,
I rest my arm
across his shoulders,
inhaling deep the drug
that is his perfume.

Together we journey
deep into magical words,
spun into dragons,
and forests,
and happy-ever-after endings.

He is entranced,
entangled in the
ebb and flow,
eye-bright, excited, and
“Just one more chapter, please…”

Later, creeping by his room,
I cannot resist
going to pay homage,
drinking in the angelic beauty
that is his sleep.

My bright boy shines
and stirs at my kiss;
“I love you”, I say,
willing my words into his dreams
I turn and close the door.

© Anne de Gruchy

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Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

This month the Round Robiners have been asked to ponder where our story ideas come from. At this point I have a confession to make – I am simply rubbish at stories and in no way would I consider myself a storyteller.

Collective gasp!

Well, you may ask, what the hell are you doing calling yourself a writer then? And a writer of fiction to boot.

The truth is, I’m an ideas person. I love concepts, and science, and the way the truths of previous generations are overturned. I love that this inherently means that many of the ‘truths’ of our generation are likely to be overturned too. We live with uncertainty every day and one moment’s event – a car crash, the death of a husband and breadwinner, the onset of a disease, coming into money suddenly – can change how we see the world forever. I also love to explore psychologies and how these kinds of event affect people – how different people react to different situations.

So I suppose I often start back to front. For instance the book I am working on now started from the idea of exploring how a person’s world contracts when they are living with a progressive illness. There was a concrete beginning to this when a close friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suddenly his world was turned upside down. Mix this in with my interest in the role of caring for someone – something that has been close to my heart since my mother died and left my father struggling with dementia, poor sight and cancer – and there was the germ of a story theme, but definitely not yet a story.

Other aspects of my stories might come from real events. The day before I went down to London to meet with my new agent was the day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack. As I travelled down on the train, the events of the day before stayed in my mind. I walked through the streets to the agency’s office and was really struck by how calm London felt just 24 hours later. Cue the invention of another character who had been caught up in the attack – and the exploration of how this impacted on his family.

Combining my themes and ideas into proper stories is the big problem I have. My very first novel, which I now see as a training ground for my writing, took two autobiographical events and framed them into a story. One event was a holiday travelling round Scotland by train – the landscape really spoke to me and it felt healing in a powerful way. So I combined this with a character who was grieving the loss of her baby and threw in a stranger for her to travel with. I still love aspects of this story but it fell down because I hadn’t got to know my characters and their motivations properly – there wasn’t enough of a goal or driver to the story and the characters were not engaging enough. Maybe one day I’ll return to the basics of this story because I still love the premise and it also seemed to appeal to the agents that I sent it to.

I suppose one of my problems is that I am very much a literary reader and writer. A lot of my favourite books do not have the normal hooks and peaks and troughs of the page-turners that publishers are looking for. I admire prose that is dense and poetic – that appeals to the senses and the intellect at the same time. Yes, you need to ground it in stories and characters that we care about, but the atmosphere of a book is really important to me. That’s why, in the novel that my agent is currently seeking a home for, the landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens became a character in its own right – I even plotted it a ‘storyline’ for it within the book.

I love history, too. My current book takes a character who has Multiple Sclerosis and sends her travelling to the places she had previous worked during an acclaimed photojournalist career. I was delving into the history of Bosnia and the conflicts of that region, looking at the events that brought down the Berlin Wall. My agent warned me of the dangers of getting too distracted from the narrative drive of the book, and I think she probably caught my writing-weakness head on – I can get too absorbed in the detail and forget the real goal of my protagonist and the need to keep a momentum leading towards this.

So, maybe I need to go back to the simpler stories that my mother told me as a child. The ones she would invent as she went along to the light of my favourite bedside bunny lamp. She certainly held my attention, and I remember some of the tales she invented to this day.

Find out how other writers get their story ideas at these blog sites:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1dm
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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