Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Sunday in Paris

Notre Dame - where else?
Before diving back into the book that’s occupying all my hours and will continue to do so until December, I want to grab the chance to prolong an excellent, battery-recharging weekend I just spent in Paris. If you haven’t been there yet, stop what you’re doing immediately and go. The song praises ‘April in Paris’, but you could substitute any month, with the possible exception of August, when the Parisians themselves are on holiday and the place is taken over by foreigners (like me).

The minute we climbed the steps out of the RER and saw the trees, the Boulevard St Michel and the familiar architecture, stresses vanished and we knew that life made sense (even though, only a few hundred metres from where we stood, Sartre had explained so eloquently why it didn’t). Paris is magical – it’s beauty, history, romance, freedom, love, art, architecture, nobility, humanity – as well as bloody good food and even better wine.

And I wanted to share just one of the days – last Sunday. After breakfast at a terrasse looking onto the Luxembourg fountain, we wandered through the Jardins du Luxembourg. London boasts (justifiably) of its parks but those in Paris are of a different order. Dappled shade, all the usual impressionist stuff, trees and open spaces. People everywhere but no sense of crowding. On the pond, model boats, especially two magnificent schooner rigs. Bizarrely, one guy preferred his submarine. It was big and painted the usual sinister black. He launched it; it set out
Luxembourg Gardens
across the pond then it submerged. I need someone to explain to me what pleasure he got out of that. It had a mast thing (presumably an aerial for the radio controls) on the conning tower. On top of that was a tiny green square of material. And that was all you could see, moving along about two inches above the surface. There were the ripples of the wake but no sign of the boat.

All around the edge of the water, very young kids perched and leaned, their parents either deep in chat with friends or welded to a mobile – an obvious demonstration of the French passion for individual freedom. ‘If le petit Bertrand, aged 2, wants to topple into the pond, that’s his inalienable right.’ None did.

Everywhere under the trees – nearby and in the distance – groups of slowly moving Taekwondo practitioners wove their moves. Others performed slow rituals with actual swords, sliding them so close to their bodies that I was surprised the ground wasn’t littered with ears, slices of buttock or other, even more important organs. There were donkeys, ponies, families, couples, readers, joggers, walkers. People sat on the hundreds of chairs spread around the place – so much more inviting than fixed benches. The sun was hot and ‘le tout Paris’ was there enjoying it.

Free concert
We wandered away, down the rue Bonaparte and past a shop I always need to look at. This time in the window there were letters from Louis XIII, the Empress Josephine, Zola, Montesquieu, Sartre and others. Then along the Seine past the Museé d’Orsay, across the river to the Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli. There, as we stood waiting to cross, two young French women asked us the way to the Louvre. We were able to point to the building opposite and say that’s it. I’m not implying they were dumb or anything. It’s just that, around the back and sides, away from the glass pyramid and the amazing approach to the Palais du Louvre, it looks like everything else.

But it still makes Buckingham Palace look like a shed. When I look at the vastness and the glory of the construction, with all the statues and columns and gothic frilly bits, I have conflicting feelings. First, it’s a triumph, a glorious demonstration of what humans can do. Second, it was all built so that one individual who got lucky because the right sperm and egg fused could say ‘Hey, look how cool I am’. On this day of sun, however, the guy’s hubris was forgiven. The palace that people had built for him looked magnificent.

I forgot to mention that, at various points in our meanderings, we’d stop and marvel at the number of significant places we could see around the skyline. Paris is stuffed with them – our particular count on this trip was the Panthéon, the Eiffel Tower (of course), Notre Dame, the Tour St Jacques, the Grand Palais and even, way up north, the Sacré Coeur.

And on and on.

Then, six o’clock, in the tiny church of St Julien-le-Pauvre, the requisite bit of culture. We’d bought the
cheapest tickets for a Chopin recital by Teresa Czekaj. We were at the back and the side and could only catch occasional glimpses of her head as she moved. Needless to say, the performance was astonishing. It’s impossible to create so many complex sounds at such speed with only ten fingers but she did it. But, in my proletarian way and with an eye to which wine we’d try later, I couldn’t help thinking that culture was bloody expensive. We’d paid 20 euros. Then, in the interval, a man suggested we move into some of the empty seats up front. We did so and it was an amazing experience for which I’d have paid twice as much. We moved to a pair of chairs set beside a pillar at the side right at the front. The piano was less than 5 metres away and Ms Czekaj was facing us. The pillar hid the rest of the audience so it was as if she was playing just for us. We saw the music in her face – she was smiling, angry, sad, serene – all sorts of things, and it added a sort of commentary to the music itself, made it even more affecting. And being so near to the Steinway, nothing was lost in the acoustics of the church. The 40 minutes or so of that second half could have been forty seconds or a month – everything was suspended.

Dinner at Balzar and a last wander up the Boulevard St Michel through the still fascinating crowds. Not a bad day.

So if any of you are thinking of buying a place there, I’d be happy to look after it for you while you’re away.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Characters rule

Just before I started doing my Sisyphus bit and learning to love my rock, my friend Jean Henry Mead kindly asked me to contribute as a guest on her blog ‘Writing advice and good books’ at Luckily, I got the bulk of it done before my publisher placed me at the foot of the hill and said ‘That’s the rock, get rolling’. It’s now appeared on Jean’s site and, just to let you know I’m still around, I’m posting it here too. But it’s existence is thanks to Jean. It goes like this …

When I’m writing about writing or answering questions during talks and workshops, my stress always seems to be on characters. Even in seemingly ‘unrealistic’ genres such as fantasy and vampirism, it’s the people who drive the story and hold the reader’s interest. Plots, themes, descriptions – these and other things all play crucial roles but they need beings moving amongst them to give them their point and focus. Even God realised an empty landscape, however beautiful, needed a bit of drama. It was fine to have all these unnamed animals wandering about in lush pastures. Fine but boring. It needed someone to start asking what the point of it all was, maybe a bit of mindless violence, something to disturb the harmony. So he got the clay, made a bloke, nicked a rib and here we are.

For me, stories rely heavily on credible characters. They don’t have to be good. In fact bad characters are often more interesting. Perhaps I’m just saying that because I happen to write crime fiction but even in other genres and in mainstream ‘literary’ novels, the most memorable characters are frequently those with flaws or nasty habits. Maybe that’s a comment on human nature – perfection or an approximation of it can’t be trusted. Whatever the reason, we need them.

So this is just some random thinking about how writers make their characters live. And, first of all, there’s an alchemy going on that lets us visualise and/or empathise with a character in the act of creation. We become the persons and we know what they’re thinking and feeling. We hear their voices dictating to us. I read one writer somewhere saying that writing is like acting in that respect. And it’s true. The problem is the duality that forces on us. We’re actor and writer simultaneously. Consider this:

Joe watched his wife chopping the onions. Why did she always start cooking when they were in the middle of a row? It never solved anything; just left the enmity simmering. His brown eyes narrowed as he felt his own anger return.

It seems to be an event we’re seeing through Joe’s eyes. But if that’s the case, how do we know they’re brown? If you see the colour of someone’s eyes you’re looking at them not through them. The point being that we need to be both actor and director, which are separate skills.

But there are easier ways round it. Their names for a start. Henrietta Willoughby probably won’t be in the same class at school as Doreen Norsworthy or Sharon Biggs. Jezza Jackson won’t be hanging out with Hugh Denbigh. And they’re subtle separations that can be achieved without resorting to Arthur Wobblebottom or Dickson Ponsonby-Smythe clichés.

Another short cut to characterisation is to use idiosyncrasies and gimmicks. You can give someone a nervous tic, a stutter. He can chew a toothpick, always sit with his feet on his desk, wear strange shirts. It’s a cheap way of creating instant character. The danger is in overdoing it. It’s too easy for such people to be two-dimensional, predictable. They become the tic.

Just as quick but more subtle is to alter some aspect of the setting so that the person inhabiting it has some mystery about them. Look at a normal scene and remove one element from it. A woman may have no photographs in her house, a man comes home and always puts his house keys in a small cupboard high on the wall of the entrance hall. Another wears a small brooch intended for a female and makes sure he always hooks it into any new jacket, sweater or shirt he puts on. When you do this you’re creating characters by making the reader ask WHY?

The importance is in the specificity of the detail. Vagueness and generalities contribute to flat, dull writing. And it brings us to the tired old bit of advice: show don’t tell. It may sound corny but it’s true. Don’t tell the reader that your character’s unhappy; show him with details of behaviour (tears, a trembling lip, angry driving, a clenched fist). Don’t tell him a man is tall. Show the man ducking under an awning, or curling up to get into a small car. Showing gives your story and your characters ambiguity, mystery. When you say ‘George was a miser’, that’s that. But when you say ‘George picked up the coins, felt their hard edges, and, a smile creeping across his lips, dribbled them through his fingers into the box’ you’re getting more than a label. You’re still telling, but you’re telling more. Then, the reader will be pleased to note that George’s mobile always rings just as it’s his round in the pub. They’re just little touches but they give the reader the chance to collaborate with you.

Another example of that sort of collaboration comes when you use the old trick of Typification. Simply by beginning a sentence ‘She was the sort of woman who …’ you invite the reader to supply the personality. Add whatever you like to the formula and you have instant characterisation ‘… always buys organic vegetables’, ‘… wears dresses a size too small’, ‘… plays the men at their own game’. There are several different ways of introducing the idea: ‘Men like him always tend to .…’, ‘He was everything you’d expect of a beer-swilling rugby player’ and so on.

But that’ll only give you the basis. You then need to refine it to keep the reader’s interest. And that’s where (once again) asking ‘WHY?’ is useful. Try giving a character two layers. On the surface, for example, he drinks a lot, spends as much time as possible in the pub, talks rubbish. But when he goes home, he plays Mozart. As a student, I used to work as a builder’s labourer. On one site, I worked with a carpenter who’d read all of Balzac and wished he’d written more. The questions that throws up create instant complexity.

Two final points, a Scottish writer, Isla Dewar, once said at a conference, ‘give your character room to dance.’ That’s a great way of reminding us to let our characters have the space to be themselves. We can kick-start them, but then let them go where they want.

And finally, I can’t resist (yet again) insisting that hell is other people. On the flimsiest of evidence, we’re all ready to ascribe characteristics to people, even ones we don’t know. But this time, it’s in our favour; we can rely on the reader’s anticipations. Give them a hint, then let them do the work.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Shazam and other transforming words

Acutely aware that I need to up the blog rate, I scribbled the following on the plane as I flew home to Aberdeen yesterday. It turned into what I hoped was a light-hearted piece but the denouement was cruel. It went as follows:

Soon I’ll be home after a few days in London. Not my favourite city (Paris is way ahead in that race) but an exciting, fascinating place to be all the same. The impression everywhere is that things are happening, people are on their way somewhere. Even the Trafalgar Square tourists and the Regent Street shoppers seem purposeful. Actually, come to think of it, maybe that’s why I prefer Paris. Over there, they stop and sit sipping coffee and Pastis to watch the others go by. I know it’s a cliché but they do linger over seemingly endless lunches and, rather than try to catch up with time, they’re savouring it as it passes. It suits my preference for languor over action.

Having said which, one of the reasons for my trip was to meet with a publisher to discuss writing a 145,000 word non-fiction book. It’s an interesting, challenging project and, unlike with fiction, there’s a guarantee of publication (unless I make a cock-up of it all). It means setting aside the languor and working full time to meet the deadline. I have no idea what’ll happen to the blogging but I hope I’ll see it as relaxation and not disappear altogether.

I intended to make this a relatively straight, informative posting, but the notion just came to me that this writing business fits into all the superhero stereotypes. People such as Billy Batson and Clark Kent live along their ordinary lives, lost in the crowd. Suddenly, duty calls and, with a quick detour to a phone box (harder and harder in these days of mobiles/cell phones) or a cry of ‘Shazam’, they’re transformed into an extraordinary being. And so it is with writers.

There they are tweeting, trying to remember the lead singer of some forgotten 70s group for a Facebook challenge and generally behaving like all the inadequate mortals around them when suddenly they get the tap on the shoulder from their muse, agent or publisher and Blat! they morph into creators of new universes, using their powers to help others escape the mediocre. Only when the job is done do they switch off their power source or put down their pen and disappear back into the humdrum.

Trouble is, it takes Captain Marvel and Superman maybe twenty minutes to stop Jupiter crashing into the McDonald’s where some 5 year old kids are celebrating a birthday party – the poor bloody writers have to keep it up (and you can choose any of the double entendres you prefer at this point) for months.

Ah good. I’ve set the self-pitying tone which will no doubt be the counterpoint to the next six months or so.

And that was it. But then I got home, opened up the emails and was faced with a nice, polite message from the publisher saying it would be good if the book could be finished by the end of the year. I resisted the temptation to ask which year he had in mind. But it does give an ironic twist to the notion of the superhero. I must learn to resist the temptation to whinge. You never heard Superman begging Lex Luthor to take a time-out.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Interview, article and fun

This is an extremely lazy blog (but what else would you expect of me? I've already insisted frequently that I'm sloth personified.) It's just that I did an interview with and a short article for Linda Faulkner a while back and she's now published them at


I suppose I could simply copy the content here but, since the initiative was Linda's, it's right that they should be read on her site. (See? What a combination - indolence and integrity.)

But I will add a little anecdote about yesterday. It's one of those writing things that happen which has a distinct feelgood aspect to it.

I gave a talk to a 'discussion group' here in Aberdeen. About two dozen women d'un certain âge (and mostly older than that). I talked about my books, various things about being a writer. Then, for the last 10 minutes, I got them to create a couple of imaginary characters and tell me about the links between them. At first they insisted they couldn't do that, they weren't authors like me. So I just got them to give me a couple of names, then asked them ‘What’s he look like? Where does he work? Is he married?’ Etc., etc.

20 minutes later, they were still adding details to their portrait of a couple. First there was Jack Smith, a paunchy, 50 year old bus driver who'd been jilted by a girl way back and didn't trust women. Jack was dissatisfied with his life and had unspecified urges. The woman was one of his passengers, Betty Sinclair, 40 and single because her first and only lover had been killed. Their eyes met in his rear view mirror and that was it for both of them. But then his nephew, a 20 year old student at the university who worked at B and Q 3 days a week, came into the picture ... And we had to leave because the janitor kicked us out. It was great fun and they were all surprised to find themselves capable of imagining it all. As we all left, they were walking out in twos and threes, all developing their versions of what happened next. The important point was that I'd contributed nothing to the creation of the characters - everything had come from them. It was great fun.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

What makes a good novel?

In the course of an interview earlier this year, Norm Goldman, the publisher and editor of, asked me what made a good novel. My thoughts turned immediately to the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers may even vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. I think mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and a prehensile nose, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in the Dan Brown epics. (Sorry, Dan, if that upsets you. Go and read your bank balance, that’ll cheer you up.) Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets, fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions, vampires may even overcome mortality itself but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them.

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy/sympathy that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those chars, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts, themes – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can make it even better as echoes are heard, hidden motives are revealed, characters are exposed as being not just individual psyches but representatives of greater truths. But even if they resist the analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggests undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces.

And these 'extras' are fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed by the (seeming) cognoscenti as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their prescribed present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Tolstoy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange but powerful intimacy between the two.

Oh, why the picture at the top? No reason really. Just a gimmick. And yet ... what's the story behind it? Why the out of focus door? The season is obviously spring - so what? Is the fact that laburnum seeds are poisonous part of it? What's going on beneath its innocence? What does it 'mean'? What does it need to make it part of a novel? Over to you.