Thursday, December 27, 2007

I Am Legend - Adapting A Story

I Am Legend is in its fourth incarnation, following the book, by Richard Matheson, the Vincent Price film The Last Man, and Charlton Heston's The Omega Man. A story that is half character-play on the loneliness and psychological effects of being without human contact for three years and half horror-actioner, which, for the most part, works on both counts.

I'm not going to discuss the film as a review, because you can get those all over the place on the net. You don't need me for that. What interests me is the adaptation aspect of going from a book to a film. I gave a brief rundown of the book back in June, and you can read that here - again it's not a review as such, and I was also strict with myself not to give the ending away - just in case the new film ended on the same note.

Sadly it does not, and I will have to break the Spoiler code in order to discuss it - but I will advise you when I'm about to do that. So, what am I trying to do here? I'm trying to highlight areas of failure between adaptations.

Let me first say that I am usually of an open mind with book to film adaptations - Lord of the Rings I accepted with no concern about the little changes, the minutiae omitions and the jiggling of the timeline between The Two Towers and Return of the King. Harry Potter too would have been far too long with everything left in. LA Confidential excelled in taking a different course, Equilibrium's failings were elsewhere (and following the book would have made for a weak film anyway), The Golden Compass had lost nothing in its screen translation... so, why is it that, despite having already intended to write about the adaptation of I Am Legend, I'm disappointed by the options the filmmakers chose?

General Troublespots

I can accept much of what the film is because it is essentially about the isolation, and while this makes for slow moments that probably won't lend themselves well to repeat viewing it does draw you in to Robert Neville's inner world. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, explanations are glossed over with shortcuts or ignored. For example, in the book Nevilleis immune because, he suspects, he was bitten by a bat when holidaying in Panama. The film gives no explanation of why Neville (of all people) is immune, and just so happens to be a Colonel and the Scientist attempting to stop the virus.

Secondly, Neville falls into a trap that throws the last half of the film into its tense-filled action sequences (which I'm all for). The nature of the trap however is questionable. The trap is designed exactly the way Neville has been setting his traps (he captures the dead/vampires/mutants / infected so as to test his serum on them) and is far too elaborate for the infected to concoct, yet Neville (having lost his marbles for little apparent reason, and no, I didn't buy it) gets himself caught in the trap and wakes as the sun goes down with the Alpha Male infected and infected dogs bearing down on him - it seemed to present the infected as having prepared everything, and yet this couldn't be true (since the only other things they do is attack, climb, destroy, headbut and eat). The flipside is that we hadn't had enough evidence of Neville's mini-psychosis. He just wouldn't have put himself in that position and we needed more examples of him losing his marbles (more than just wanting to chat to the lady in the shop).

There is a big argument in favour of the infected having set the trap - the Alpha Male appears to have a beef with Neville (1. When Neville takes the female infected, the Alpha Male risks the UV light. 2. The Alpha Male is at the trap, clearly intent upon getting Neville - he at least has higher brain functions. 3. In the denouement he pushes past all the others and is the one to headbut the partition, trying to get at Neville). In the book Neville's old neighbour seems to portray the more self-aware infected and this is potentially a throwback to that, though in the case of the film it is poorly pulled off, since those discussing this point cannot agree on a solution. There is insufficient evidence for either camp to be right, and this is the fault of the filmmakers.

Psychological Evacuations

A big part of the book is the psychology of the vampires, that the virus as a biological agent that alters the victims physically and psychologically. There is no reason for them to fear mirrors or crosses and yet they do. They are allergic to a compound in garlic and their skin is too fragile to withstand UV light. All fair enough. Neville is very interested in trying to understand why they fear mirrors and crosses, since neither can harm them in anyway - a throwback to an indoctrinated belief by the infected that they really are vampires.

This is a wasted opportunity in the film where it prefers to deal instead with the God debate (which is actually shoe-horned in at the last minute). The book is about psychology to its very core: Neville dealing day-to-day with his isolation and the loss of civilisation; the two kinds of infected and their psychological fears; and, the book's outcome which is a brilliant twist on the notion of being a legend - more on this later.

Unfortunately the film eschews the investigations of psychology by labeling the infected thusly (instead of vampires). As such it places the badguys in the typical Hollywood positions of the brainless goons whose only purpose is for in-scene tensions and action sequences (the Alpha Male aside).

The Ending (Spoilers)

So, here we are. I can cope with much of what went on with the film. I don't mind that Neville was a colonel and not a normal guy, that his family died in a helicopter crash and not infected, that its present day, not the 50s, that his day to day business and what he endures at night is completely different, he has a dog from the start, even that he isn't infiltrated by another woman (of questionable origins). It's fine - films and novels work differently and have to rely on their own toolkits to keep audience interest.

What didn't work was...

1. God versus Science

I suppose I have to give the film credit for trying to argue this case. The book is clearly pro-science as the cause and solution. Neville in the film argues for science but when Anna arrives they argue over there being a higher purpose. Given that this is shoe-horned in only once Anna is introduced in the last third we are given a very different story idea from that with which we started.

2. Symbolism

Once we reach the end we have an overt bout of symbolism shoved down our throats. Sam, the dog, watches a butterfly, Marley, Neville's child, makes a butterfly with her hands and Anna has a butterfly tattoo, and upon seeing the tattoo (having previously disregarded Anna's assertion that God has a purpose) remembers what Marley had said and realises God is telling him to act - sheesh! Symbolism in films is meant to be subtle so that those of us who want greater depth to our stories can look for them and discuss what they mean. They're not meant to be used in a way that says: "Look audience, the clues were here all along, this is a story about God's path... yippee!"

It's as cheap as the ending of The Reckoning (don't even get me started). And of course, the first thing we hear when Anna reaches her final destination, is a church bell - oh, wondrous saviour - this seems to be an attempt to appease the Catholic League as a complete reversal to The Golden Compass, by actually saying we must all believe in God.

What we have, as many people have noticed, is 28 Days Later by way of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. An interesting but wholly flawed concept.

3. Altered States

This, we realise, is meant to draw us away from the original ending (of the book, and possibly of the movie). As a side note there was some hoo-har about the original ending of the film, in that test audiences didn't like it and/or Will Smith gave away the ending during a press conference in Tokyo.

There has been a definite change, since the following image from the trailer, is not in the final film (hmmm)...4. The Title's Meaning

I didn't give away the ending did I? Well here we go... In the film Neville gives Anna a vial with the cure and sacrifices himself. She can then travel north (as she was originally going to do), taking the cure with her - the cure being Neville's Legend. Though, really this is just his legacy.

In order to understand just how disappointing this is for those of us who read the book and buy into the original intent of the story, you too need to know the original ending.

5. I Am Legend

In the book there are two types of infected - 1) the dead who are pretty much as they are in the film, mostly psychotic monsters, 2) the living who have the same symptoms (aversion to sunlight and garlic but who still have their own mental faculties).

The fact that there are two kinds is key. In the book Neville goes from building to building locating infected and killing them. They are induced into deep sleeps during the day as a way of keeping away from the light and to Neville, not knowing that there are two kinds of infected, both types look the same. Of course, towards the end we discover that he has been killing both kinds.

The living infected are trying to start a new civilisation. They have become mutated or evolved (if you will) and must put up with what they've got. And they would be able to move on (they too kill the dead infected), but for the fact that the monster, Neville, is killing them. They are in fear for their lives because Neville will come for them and wipe them out.

As such, they set about trying to trap him in order to kill him, and this is why he is Legend. And since the book is all about perceived psychological scenarios and beliefs (isolation / doing good / fear of benign objects such as crosses) and the fact that Neville's actions have made him (as the minority) the monster (the Grendel character). He is a Legend among the living infected.

6. Concept of the Adaptations

Of the other two adaptations, neither chose to use the title I Am Legend, despite Vincent Price's The Last Man Alive being far closer to the original concept. This is ever more interesting when considering that the latest film cops out on the ending, chooses a different theme and subverts the meaning of the title with a weak and saccharine view that seems to work for everyone but those who read the book. I guess they fell in love with the title! But how wrong can an audience's expectations get? With the original two movie adaptations the omition of the original title gives them license to go where they please with the story... with the latest, they're giving a nod to the original text (as they do with much of the concept, character, and idea) but they're relying upon the "coolness" of the title without being gutsy enough to remain faithful to the concept.

Again, the quick and easy answer is that it doesn't matter. It's a title and writers / directors have free license to make a film any which way they please. So, why do I feel it needs to be said to all writers to be true to your audience? Because, as I argued in the latest Litopia Podcast (Is Story Dead?) that an audience does not need to know what will happen at the end before they get there (as Alex Kavallierou stated) but that they need to have a sense of the ending - comedy / tragedy. There are conventions that must be followed.

Akiva Goldsman (prolific Hollywood writer - A Beautiful Mind; I, Robot; The Client) - actually his scripts are standard fare (top-Hollywood grosers certainly, but nothing special) - has been quoted as acknowledging that fans of the book will be annoyed by what happens in the film.
"Fundamentally I think that there's an obligation to attempt to be true in spirit to the source. And you have to make a determination about what the source is…"

Interestingly, another writer made this comment:
Do you know how weird it is to see Will Smith on the cover of a book called "I Am Legend" as the hero of the story only to open up the book and read that the guy is an alcoholic smoker of English-German descent with blond hair, a scraggly beard and blue eyes? It throws you for a second and makes it hard to read at first because you have to push everything you have seen in Warner Bros.' attempts to market this film out of your mind.
It is an interesting concept about misleading an audience, and it harks back to the remake of The Italian Job, which wasn't a remake at all - it used names, locations and the mini chase, but replaced absolutely everything else. It comes down to a marketing ploy - the filmmakers aren't making the original because they think they're going their own - better - way, but they are piggybacking off the success of the originals by way of saying to all the fans: "You loved that, you'll love this, and we'll lie by implication because we won't admit until after you've seen it that it's going to end differently."

And while I must say that the latest film version of I Am Legend is good in its own right, we're all missing out on the potential for a much better version (the book version) because the writers think (and have failed) they can do better.

Sigh! Lesson to be learned: follow the original or use a different name.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Litopia After Dark - 2 Podcasts - Living Dangerously! & Is Story Dead?

Recorded live and uncensored, LITOPIA AFTER DARK is a wide-ranging weekly look at what’s new, hot or not in the worlds of writing, publishing, media and culture.

Is Story Dead?

For the last show of 2007 we’re doing something a little different. This week, VARIETY reports that more and more films are abandoning the classical 3-act structure in favour of nonlinear story construction. So the main question we’re going to address tonight is all about the future of story itself. Andrew Gillman, who will be familiar to many listeners of our earlier podcasts, is currently directing another series for BBC3 starring Rob Brydon. We asked Andrew and his producer, Alex Kavallierou, to give us their thoughts and some context on this most fundamental issue for all writers. Our panellists are Donna Ballman, Dave Bartram, Beverly Gray and Richard Howse.

Living Dangerously

This week on the podcast: If you look at the bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not hard to predict what you’re going to see. In the UK, 15 of the top 20 hardback non-fiction books are television spin-offs. Stateside, this week’s hardcover fiction list is equally humdrum - you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d all been swallowed up in a time warp and gone back to the 1980s. So - has "safe" publishing finally taken over? We also tackle buzz marketing, the ten most manly writers ever, and the definitive American woman of our time. This episode’s guests are Donna Ballman, Dave Bartram, Beverly Gray, Richard Howse and Lynn Price.

For more information or to listen to the podcast, head on over to Litopia's Podcast page, or simply listen to the link on the right.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Libel and the Aspiring Novelist

One of my fellow NAW students asked an established editor a couple of questions on libel t'other day, and I thought it would be nice to share the answers with the wider world.
It may well apply to some of us writers who may be thinking of writing fiction or some other form of writing that is based on ‘real life’. Its impossible to ignore these issues these days; and as they say, ignorance is no defense in the eyes of the law.
Q) What are the legal and contractual implications of writing a novel based on the experiences of an actual living person?

A) There is no doubt at all that were the book to be written and taken on for sale by an Agent/Publisher, that there would be immediate questions and concerns about legal issues. Trying to pre-empt when the book is not written is practically impossible because the devil is always in the detail - a phrase here, an implication there. My advice would be that (you) should certainly read Geoffrey Robertson’s book, Media Law but that you should also think long and hard about writing about a real person at all. It will be hard enough to find a publisher as an 'unknown' without adding to the problems with inevitable legal costs. I doubt any publisher would take it on even if you provided all sorts of indemnities, without consulting their own legal adviser. If you really feel you must write this book - you should get on with it - and then take legal advice. A lawyer can't properly advise without a Ms. If the book is really, really good , an Agent and then Publisher will be prepared to take a punt and get a libel reading. I can't think any disclaimer or agreement with (the subject) can anyway be valid without a finished text. But, it has to be your decision. If you feel strongly as a Writer that you must write this book and it is important to your development, then you should write it. Publishing and 'broadcasting' the content is a different matter. Novelists as well as biographers do get sued and I could quote chapter and verse. Any legal complication is very unwelcome and gets more expensive all the time!

Q) Suppose I were to take the subject of the story, the psychological 'tics' of the characters, the nature of their conflicts and the arc of events and so on, and transpose everything to different settings, etc, so that the form of the story (in a platonic sense) remained but the details were original to my imagination? Would that give me sufficient distance from the 'true' events to allow me to avoid issues of libel?

A) It is impossible to answer your question simply; I'm afraid. The trouble with libel is that cases are brought because people consider they have been libelled. It is THEIR perception which often counts. It is a little bit like bullying in the workplace. What is bullying for one person is simply banter for another. Disclaimers at the beginning of a novel 'the characters in this book are products of my imagination..' etc etc do not count in the courts. And never underestimate the requirement of some people to have their day in court even if they have been offered an out of court settlement. What you suggest would of course lower the risk of any action; but, there would still be a risk. On the face of it this seems very storm in teacup. The reality is a lot of time spent on a marginally profitable book and a very different attitude taken to the next novel . And certainly no royalty payouts!.. So, to sum up: of course you must write the book you want to write. Getting it published is a different issue.

Thanks to Nick for asking the questions and the Editor for allowing me to post the responses here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Masterclass - The Necessities of an Agent, with Ben Mason

Shiel Land Associates are a literary agency based in London, England, boasting a number of big name writers and celebrities:
Including Peter Ackroyd, Melvyn Bragg, Stephanie Calman, Steven Carroll, David Cohen, Anna del Conte, Elizabeth Corley, Seamus Deane, Erik Durschmied, Alan Garner, Robert Green, Bonnie Greer, Susan Hill, Richard Holmes, HRH The Prince of Wales, Mark Irving, Simon Kernick, Richard Mabey, Steve Rider, Martin Riley, Tom Sharpe, Martin Stephen, Jeffrey Tayler, Andrew Taylor, Alan Titchmarsh, Rose Tremain, Phil Vickery, John Wilsher, Paul Wilson, Chris Woodhead and the Estates of Catherine Cookson, Patrick O'Brian and Jean Rhys.
Before you ask... their website doesn't work - not very forward thinking in this day and age I know, but we can't assume reasons for this. Many agents still haven't got a proper web presence.

Ben Mason, one of their agents, who came to speak at NAW this week, has 45 clients that he looks after personally. Having started from a psychology background Mason is primarily interested in finding unpublished newcomers . Most agents, he says, are 40+ years-old, have high levels of workload and their client lists are full, and though all will say (as publishers do) that they aren't looking for new clients, none of them can be so picky as to not entertain a submission pile.

Getting new authors off the ground, he says, required far more effort than an established author. The breakout novel, the new book, it needs a hard push and cannot rely on any of the tactics in place for those established in the trade - not in word of mouth, prime shelf positions, marketing, tv or radio time.

The Agent's Primary Role

main aim today is to prove why an agent is more important to a writer than a publisher (a publisher, of course, is essential but there is a time and a place... do pay attention).

Authors are their own best editors. They know the work, should know their own style and are best place for critiquing their own work. There are always holes and in particular, as Mason pointed out to us, our work on the NAW course isn't intended for the marketplace yet and we aren't pitching to that level. The agent will help prepare the full submission package, assisting on editorial input.

Agents know publishers. They understand the breakdown of these companies; who works where and for whom. The book... your book, the agent knows, will be broken down by five separate units within a publishing house, each of them considering whether or not the book is worth publishing. It is essential, therefore, to be able to boil everything down to single or double sentences. If you can't pitch your work concisely then you're not necessarily going to appeal to anyone and the entire submission will fall through the floor.

After the big submission to the publisher, the agent will guide you through the process of publication and the contract (which has become more and more difficult what with audio books, eBooks, and all the foreign rights). The agent hopes to carve up the rights allowing them to be managed separately between the UK and Commonwealth (inc: Australia and Canada), the US, and Foriegn Rights (translations - selling rights in Germany, for example, can generate as much as those sold in the UK).

The author is given an advance, which is payable in segments; money on signature, on final publication, on release and on the separate rights. This can be released over as much as 4 years. It therefore helps to generate buzz, and requires a great deal of understanding and knowledge on the agent's behalf.

The author's work is edited by the agent, working with the author for a time before even attempting contact with a publisher, so as to ensure the best possible iteration of the book. Once accepted, the book is edited by the in-house editor (which can possibly be a tricky process as publisher's are buying the author's book and have a lot more authority). Editors are creative people, says Mason, and not business people. Working relationships between writers and editors can be great but have to be a match in order to work. If the editor's demands for the work doesn't meet the author's then the agent may need to support and massage the author. Just remember that publishers are gamblers. They take a gamble on every new author and new book they release.


The book jacket is very important and it isn't the case that the author gets to choose. gave examples of some authors wanting their child's artwork on their cover... but it's not possible. Authors headed for publication are in a business environment, despite their creative roots, and though covers may be a bone of contention, the author has (again) sold the book to the publisher. Waterstones and Tesco now have the power to tell a publisher that they don't like the cover of a book and the publishers do go back and redesign and reprint.

Harry Bowling released a book in which, on the first page, the child of the protagonist is killed off. The publishers made the brilliant decision to depict a child in a parent's arms on the jacket! Go figure.


Publishers, says Mason, don't generate big expenses for marketing, adverts, the web or book clubs - these are all useful and available, but for the first time author much of the onus for this is put back to the author. Author's are advised to create their own web presence and get them selves about (it's worth a look at Robert Ronsson's Masterclass on Self Publishing for some brilliant and pertinent advice in this respect). There are book signings, festivals, and Mason places much emphasis on authors building relationships with other authors (there is nothing like networking).

The Selling

It is important to get on with the marketing as soon as possible. Waterstones in particular have a short shelf life for those books not selling well - and a book that doesn't sell well in hardback isn't going to get accepted for sale as a paperback. And despite the trade bodies growing into the web market place (Amazon in particular) the high street is still the main location for book purchases.

The process of selling begins with the surveying of certain (key) buyers in the book trade, to find out what they think of the "product". Testing the buyers' reactions is essential. The publishers are trying to appeal and please. If, for example, Waterstones buys 3000 copies for a new writer, this is considered good.

The Slush Pile

Shiel Land
receives roughly 300 unsolicited manuscripts a week. The majority of them are decided upon in their first lines or on the weakness of the covering letter. Mason has received bribes, chocolate, pictures and more. Even our own Peter Cox has received a manuscript in a glass case (it turned up smashed).

In your covering letter you should attempt to communicate your own identity (whether or not that is similar to other authors). Show your place in the market (you have to do your research here, both in terms of where your book goes on the shelves but also which agent, particularly within an agency, is the right fit for your genre). Avoid CVs, an agent's interest lies in the writing, so get straight to it asap. A 1 page synopsis is preferable and it doesn't have to give the ending - this of course is all at the whim of the agency, and you must do your research and submit what is requested.

Literary or Genre

The industry doesn't, Mason says, talk about literary and genre delineations, however literary books are far more difficult to publish. The problem with them is that they can inspire or be really awful. The signal from the trade buyers may be to commercialise the cover.

Literary writers, says Mason, must be brilliantly inventive. Don't get blinded by panic half way through and beam the characters to the moon (more wildly wacky ideas have passed his eyes). These works must contain their creativity.

And, for every definitive way in doing things there are others. The independent publishers were set up as a way of railing against the conglomerates (an Orion for every Random House), and are more prepared to try Literary works. Mason gave us an example of one book that he'd loved that had sat in his bottom drawer for five years - no one wanted it. On the off chance, two weeks ago, a guy he knew had left a publishing house to set up his own, and Mason submitted the piece to him only to discover the guy loved it. Sold!

Agents can accept on the basis of a single page, or on three. A submission can be made, accepted and then the agent receives 1 chapter every month from the author, edits it and waits for the next. MG Harris was accepted by Peter Cox based on her writing, her initial maniscript was scrapped and she had to write a new one.

Publishers, unlike agents, want a completed manuscript. As Mason puts it, agents represent people, but publishers publish books.


2000 copies sold in hardback is considered a respectable first sell for a new author. The review of a book in trade magazines and papers used to be on hardbacks only, but this is changing. Note: it is not respectable for an established author to sell only 2000 copies.

20,000+ sales in paperback is thought of as respectable for a first time author, but books have a small window (shelf life). If they aren't selling, they will be pulled. And, as with the hardbacks, this number is only respectable for the first time author.

Remember that submitting to an agent gives you support. An agent can often work for an author for free for up to two years (working on spec) with no idea that the book will sell to anyone. That is invested trust you don't get from a publisher.


A final note, contracts and authors are protectected by the Association of Authors Agents. And quite often these contracts can include a 6 weeks termination aspect. Either side may, at any time, end the agreement with 6 weeks notice.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Morgan le Fay and the Green Knight

I have received favourable feedback from my tutor regarding my creative response to the romantic text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
I do think this has worked out exactly along the lines you described to me. While the first paragraph, perhaps in taking off, read to me like the story was geering up to pour in all the fantasy clichés (flaxen hair, eddies of the stream, thundering torrent, rugged slope, tinkling bells), it then strikes out on its own and becomes quite irresistible. Really enjoyed it and found the take on the romance imaginative, enthusiastically realized, and coherent in terms of both the ‘logic’ of the narrative and the consistency of your writing style. You are convincing me of the approach you’re taking.
I guess then, it is time to revisit the textual elements I have used but not yet covered...

You will remember from my blogs posts in November, Part 1 and Part 2, how I broke down my decision making regarding descriptions, choice of subject matter and the use (or perception of use) of magic. You also know that I chose to base my creative response on Morgan le Fay - arch nemesis of Camelot - and opted, as I discuss in my analysis document of the piece (a requirement of the course), to consider my subject matter thusly:

The romance of Gawain exists as a quest, but through my response I am subverting the genre. Bertilack is a Lord and therefore superior to other men, but as Morgana proves, he isn’t superior to his environment. Therefore my response falls in the mode of high mimetic. Northrop Frye states that “romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints.[1]” I see the Gawain romance as treading both paths. Its focus is on knight-errantry but at its heart is a call of faith. While my response covers similar ground, much of the conflict regards the faith argument and I use it not only to highlight Morgana’s standpoint and the theme of the piece, but to create symmetry between the original text and my response, and between Gawain and Bertilack [2].

[1] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism p33-4 ISBN 0-691-01298-9

[2] “…he recited his Paternoster and Ave Maria and Creed with a promise to thenceforth serve none other than God.” – Richard Howse, Morgan le Fay and the Green Knight


The original opening isn't much different from the one I have written. Though, thanks to the workshop session, several things had to change. And here is where the workshops are essential in spotting those elements that will trip up the reader (as Solvejg once found with Tethered Light and our assumptions of Binky). First and foremost were the characters - the girl and the Green Knight. One wasn't properly depicted as a child and later when I talked about her being an infant, my readers struggled with the concept change (how old is she?). Next was the headlessness of the Green Knight: if he's headless, why isn't this put to the front of his description (it would be the first thing the girl notices)? And to stop the reader worrying... where is the head?

She waitied; the child, sitting naked but for the green girdle at her waist and the shroud of flaxen hair covering her shoulders and chest. High up in the linden tree she dangled her legs playfully amongst the heart-shaped leaves, as if she were dabbling her feet in the eddies of the stream that frothed and foamed far below the boughs. Over that thundering torrent, which twisted down the rugged slope, she heard the tinkling of bells from beyond the glade. A visitor, they intoned through the jutting crags and black jagged outcroppings that led into the valley. That was long before she saw him at the knarled rocks. Long before he’d guided the horse down the ravine.

He arrived headless; the Green Knight, built the size of a half-giant. Despite the mutilation he carried himself with both poise and grace, swaying with the rhythm of the horse’s lollop. He brushed a coat of snow from his charger’s green mane with the looped reins and nudged his golden spurs into its flanks.

The girl watched, fascinated, and the knight shook white clumps from his green shoulders and the bloody stump of his decapitation, which spat flecks of crimson upon his tunic and mantle as he rode.

But where was his head?

She fingered the leaves apart to better see him from bleeding-shank to unshod feet – every inch of him glorious, every stitch, green – and she grinned when she spied his flowing tresses. The knight was carrying his head beneath one arm, as a soldier might carry a stock of weapons, his piercing stare surveying the burial mound that rose up beyond the tree.

Knowing your Audience

In a submission, the opening is everything. Now the reader is intrigued by both the naked girl and the headless knight. For those who know the Gawain text, it will be just the girl, but then, they will understand the meaning of the green girdle. I was distinctly aware as I wrote the piece that it plays to two separate audiences in different ways, and I had to make sure that as the piece played out, those who don't know the Gawain text required as much backstory to the situation as possible - enough for them to let go of any concerns that there is a headless knight wandering around and, of course, a naked (and rather fearless) girl:
‘Was I not right,’ she said, ‘when I told you the game couldn’t be refused? That Camelot cannot resist a challenge to its valour? Come, for there is a tale to tell and I am an ear to hear it.’

‘Well, my lady,’ he said when he’d calmed his consternation, his throat belching and spitting, ‘I arrived at Camelot during the festivities of their Christmas feast, and there, as you instructed, I called them to action, setting down both the game of exchanging blows and the rules by which the players would abide. King Arthur was to strike at me, and I, so saying at your request, stated that he was to seek out the Green Chapel in one year and one day’s time, where he would receive a stroke in return.’
Point of View

This has been a large stumbling block for me up until this year. Not only would I sweep back and forth between the points of view of different characters, but I would switch povs mid-paragraph (sometimes mid-sentence), and then there were the times where I would accidentally change the subject of a sentence or paragraph, leaving the reader desperately confused about who meant what to whose which and why?


With this piece, I believe I have solved these errors and specifically chosen to use multiple points of view to relate as much of both sides of the argument as I can - third person omniscient. In a short stories, point of view changes are not recommended because the reader needs to identify with a character quickly and empathise with them - otherwise in the majority of cases the writer is wasting their time because there are no hooks for the reader's interest to hang on. With my use of third person omniscent I am specifically choosing who the reader learns from and witnesses the scene, not as a means of identification, but so as to best understand at any given time, the important aspects of the story and what it means to each of the characters.

We start off with the girl, watching the Green Knight's arrival. We stay with her in a semi-distanced state, never once entering her head, but regarding what she does , what she observes and the questions she is wondering about. Then, towards the last half of page 2, we switch into the Green Knight's pov:
He hesitated. His horse drew back towards the river’s roar and both regarded the girl as if seeing her for the first time. She was barely tall enough to reach up to the horse’s flank, too fragile to bring harm to any but the tiniest of rodents, and yet surprise and suspicion furrowed the knight’s brow. This was no mere child.
And we stay with the Green Knight, because it is always more interesting for the reader to be on the back foot. The Green Knight doesn't fully understand the situation and by identifying with him the reader can be a part of his investigation and anxiety about what is unfolding. Along with him we observe the child:

The girl listened with her head cocked to one side and she made a steeple of her hands as if she might venture into prayer, but instead she let her fingers play and fidget... and the girl balled up her fists and shook from head to foot... The girl swore under her breath and stamped her feet and the golden carpet scrunched and crinkled; a thousand yellow leaves perishing to black... The girl halted, her hands at her sides, not balled but playfully stroking thumbs across fingers as if she were enjoying the texture of an oily substance. She spoke then with a malevolence that he’d have felt even in full armour for it pricked at his hackles.
Whereas we have the knight's concerns, questions and feelings:

The Green Knight turned his eyes down to the leaves and bowed his headless torso to hide his shock at her bloodlust. Morgan le Fay had said nothing of her intentions when they’d made their compact. She’d spoken only of the game... He had survived Gawain’s beheading blow, just as le Fay had said he would; snakes could do him no harm, though her wrath may yet... The knight watched, in awe that the girl’s desire yielded fruit from a fruitless tree... He saw no sign in that angelic face that she was deceiving him and yet he pondered her words about his faith and his God. Where had either been when he’d needed them in his quarrel against the Bastard Lords? Where had either been when those lords had intended to usurp his lands?
The Green Knight is our protagonist, we need to identify with him most of all (whether or not it will end well).

I will be posting my entry for the module over on my website as soon as it is ready for submission.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sharing Reviews on Sea Room

As with the other week's shared review session of Sarah Water's The Night Watch, this week, in our last book group session for the NAW (National Academy of Writing) Reading into Writing module, we brought in our reviews of the last text - Adam Nicolson's Sea Room. We all kept in mind the points covered by our tutors (check the link above for hints on writing a balanced and fair review), and here is mine:

Nicolson’s love for the Shiant Islands is clear from the outset of Sea Room’s narrative. He is as keen and determined to relate the kingdom of the islands and his experiences as it appears he was to have his own boat built so as to sail there alone. So passionate is he about this very personal world that the book is brimming with deeply engaging anecdotes and colourful descriptions, stretching back through time to give the reader as much of a panoramic view as they might get stood at the head of the na h-Eileanan Mora.

Visceral images are plucked from the features of the land and the inhabitants as if, at times, Nicolson were writing a literary novel intent on unearthing the great mystery of the Shiants. But he’s not, and here the reader needs to be on guard. Sea Room is ostensibly a meshing of travel and history-cum-biography. The poetry of his writing manages time and again to fish ever more words from the briny depths to describe the land, the sea and all that is in between, while never once giving the reader a sense of repetition. The profundity with which historical, ornithological and archaeological facts are investigated and excavated are both staggering and exhausting.

Sea Room is at its best when related to Nicolson’s life, his observations, and his endeavours to reach and live on the islands. The building of Freyja, the dangers of the Sound of Shiant and the Blue Men, and the arrival at the Shiants themselves are all standout moments, expertly interspersed among discussions of ownership and introductions to bird migrations. Alas these are all to be found in the first half of the book. What were originally Sea Room’s strengths get caught in a riptide that thrusts the reader out among the swelling information so that the book and the islands begin to feel ever more cramped. At the half-way mark Sea Room drowns readers (who only have a casual interest) in heavily-excavated archaeological evidence and endless discussions on the presence, or lack thereof, of seabirds.

Nicolson revives reader interest towards the last third of the book, again picking up his warming writing once more. However, one gets the sense that the book’s intent lies as much in wanting to disperse Nicolson’s detractors – who would have him removed as owner and the land given over to the RSPB – as it does in presenting a grand understanding of island life.

It's a very differnt review from my last one, opting rather than using the author's own words against himself (as I did with Sarah Waters) but covering more of the subject matter. I made a clear attempt to use metaphors that relate to the text to give a singular feel to the whole thing and in this case my view is more balanced than the last (I suppose it helps that I liked it more).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Figurative Language

This from one of the NAW tutor (had to steal and post here because it's possibly just what I've been looking for):

First, a proviso... it is easy to get carried away with the magic of language and 'write over our heads'. The first business of writing is to be clear about meaning. Meaning, sense and clarity is our primary activity. Tom Bailey, in his excellent book 'On Writing Short Stories' (in the library), puts it like this:




Voice, Tone, Mood

Meaning, Sense, Clarity

This is a pyramid and you must deal with the bottom layers first.

i.e. unless you get the meaning, sense and clarity down, then the 'higher' stuff has no foundation and the reader will fall into a hole of incomprehension (and therefore boredom). Bailey talks about the 'loose reader' who is able to make the most fantastic cathedrals in the air out of the smallest slips of the author.

Having said that, metaphor and figurative language (simile, symbol) is the writer's muscle, making writing work double time. Similes use 'like' or 'as' eg. 'she looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water.' The comparison should enlarge our understanding - don't just add one because the rhythm of the sentence demands it.

A metaphor echoes a larger truth. It is the thing being compared to, rather than being like it. Fabulous example is Updike's picture of the Colosseum as a ruined wedding cake. The best metaphors are born naturally out of the story, do the hard work of capturing character first and then go back and examine what's there, what images and symbols you can add too and refine. I wrote a story once called 'Green' because the girls in it are naive, but it expanded to include all aspect of green-ness (jealousy, money, the green sea, they had an avocado bathroom...) Think about 'families' of symbols or metaphors - shapes (a snake, a curly hair).

A symbol is a object or sign which carries its own weight of meaning, like the blue-eyed doll in this story by Robert Boswell.

Another example is Raymond Carver's Gazebo (the title of the story and also a symbol for marriage). Watch out reading Carver, there's never a bird sitting on a telephone wire without a reason!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Masterclass - Putting the Science into Fiction with Ann Lingard

Ann Lingard's former life was as a doctor of science. And while she has become an author (her latest book, Floating Stones, was released in 2003 on eBook) she hasn't set aside her scientific life as something separate and to be forgotten. She incorporates all her experience into what she writes, often going on to learn more so as to infuse her writing. On her website, she says:
‘As a scientist myself, I feel that scientists often get a ‘bad press’ in novels - only rarely are they portrayed as likeable or even fairly ordinary people. I hope I’ve managed to change that perception in the fiction that I’ve written - ‘scientists’ (a very generalised term!) are interesting, dreary, infuriating, warm-hearted; they fall in love, they have families, worry about mortgages and blocked drains, have hobbies or watch too much TV … they’re human!
And that played a big part in her masterclass, an informative presentation on the real world in which science exists and the website she set up to get writers and scientists talking.

SciTalk is a project to help scientists and fiction-writers - playwrights, poets and novelists - to meet, and talk, one-to-one and face-to-face.

Scientists need to show writers — poets, playwrights, novelists – the wealth of possibilities that are opened up to fiction by using science and scientists in their work. Just as a novel with an accountant as a main character need not be about accountancy, a novel with a scientist need not be about science. Scientists need writers to show that they are 'normal people' from all backgrounds, with normal concerns.
Ann told us three stories, all of them relating to the need for facts and realism when trying to bring science into your work.

In 1854, Philip Henry Gosse, the renowned marine biologist, was travelling to Ilfracombe by paddlesteamer from Bristol. He and his wife were moving there to a town house his wife had picked out with the help of God(!) It was dark by the time they pulled up at the quay at Ilfracombe and with the paddles flaying, the wheels churning, the night suddenly lit up. A green glow, unnatural and shocking, eminated from the waters around them. Gosse ran for home and collected a glass jar from their apartment. He returned to collect some of the strange coloured water and took the sample home. Still and by lamp light the water was again translucent. The green had faded. But, he took it into a dark room and struck it, and as if by magic, the lights returned, tiny green halos flowering before his eyes.

In the water were tiny jellyfish plankton that react to the darkness and, it seems, to being churned or struck. Aequorea, they have become known, have a green fluroescent protein that has revolutionised modern genetics. By extracting the gene from the jellyfish, scientists have been able to insert it into the dna of lab mice, attach it to another gene that they are testing and check to see if it is switched on. Other tests have included, attaching the gene to the development of nerve cells in zebra fish to see their development.

We've moved on a great deal since the Victorain age - taking big strides away from it in fact, what hasn't changed since then are the opportunities. There are lots of places in scientific environments where one can build relationships between characters. Science can take the front or back seat in any number of situations an author wishes to employ to keep the narrative going. It doesn't have to all take place in a white lab. It doesn't have to be stilted.

As authors we can take into account culture and the style of the scientific discipline. Science can exist in the form of field work (a life split between different places), or otherwise constantly on the move. Also, scientists can be any age, and even those that have retired don't necessarily give up their passions.

Lingard's speech really centres on the notion that many writers adding scientific elements to their prose do so in a generic manner, moving away from the narrative to deliver their evidence or make the big reveal. She proceeded to show us some photos of different environments: a cell biologist in a sterile, orderly molecular biolab, filled with jars, painted white, with all the white-coat trimmings. There also we saw a palaentologist in an office of cluttered desks, stacked with papers. The only equipment we could see was a microscope. Geologists, we saw, who'd left academia, can travel the world, sub-cotnracting to oil and gas companies. Out in the middle of nowhere with a pipeline and a digger. They go to international conferences, they go home, they travel.

Remember, says Lingard, that scientists are first and foremost people. There are group leaders in the teams, researchers, technicians, phd students. They have lives and it's not all science. They are ordinary and not to be mistaken for the cliche of Dr Frankenstein or Igor. They could be existing on soft money (a three year contract) and be concerned about their dependents and where their next pay cheque is coming from.

Here, from the Armstrong and Miller Show is a very different example:
A friend says of the piece:
Apart from the white coats, shirts and ties (none of which most bioscientists bother with unless they really have to, most don't own a tie)...and calling each other 'Doctor' and 'Professor' (its all first names, whoever you are)...but the screaming, threats, pressure and hysterics and not far from what I've seen with some lab leaders...
suggests the following points:
  • Science doesn't have to be difficult (don't bog the reader down with information). Distill it and use elements not didactics. Subtlety.
  • A story with an accountant doesn't have to be about accountancy.
  • Readers like to "get to grips with modern science". Any writer covering a science subject is going to generate reviews interested as much in that science as in the prose.
  • Science use can be topical and can give you the edge. Look at the possibility of the next big thing - global warming, new fuel sources, genetic cloning
  • Use SciTalk. Currently there are 150 scientists covering a broad spectrum of disciplines, vetted specifically by Lingard and they can not only provide you with pertinent explanations of how things work, but advise on where the wall between reality and fiction can be fudged.

Masterclass - Self Publishing (Olympic Mind Games) by Robert Ronsson

Robert Ronsson started writing his latest (and first) release in response to a competition for Saga magazine in December 2005 - I was planning on entering it too, but apparantly I wasn't old enough - the brief was to write for children (proving that it doesn't matter how old you are, you can still relate).

He didn't win, but that was only a minor stumbling block. He submitted the completed work to a self-publishing company called Pen Press. They have this to say:
Self-financed publication is no longer regarded as the final option to get into print but as a viable and sometimes preferable alternative, and we have authors on our lists who have actually turned away from potential deals with mainstream publishers in favour of publishing themselves using the bona fide and quality services we can provide.
And though Ronsson had to stump up his own cash for the project, this is no vanity publishing business. Pen Press, Ronsson says, has a quality hurdle. It doens't just print every author that darkens its door. And, they don't just leave it up to the author to manage the deliverables. Pen Press provides a basic editing service to ensure the manuscript is free of general errors (they won't go into any prose stripping or discussions on plotting/pacing/narrative). They print and assist in distribution and provide marketing support, though, again, it is up to the author to pay marketing costs.

Ronsson says that if you are looking into self publishing and, like him, you are more interested in generating official sales, rather than a quick buck, then check that the self-publishing house does provide distribution. If your book can get onto the Gardners lists then you can practically get your book sourced and sold to anywhere in the UK - the next step is to convince the shops to buy it. And that requires marketing. Ronsson says that with Pen Press, as long as you are active and doing something Pen Press will reciprocate, and assist where they can.

So, first off, their plan for world domination required an Elevator Speech.

Elevator Speech

The Elevator Speech is a blurb of the book. Something succinct, fluid and easily given to brief alterations so as not to sound stilted but delivered simply off the tongue. You have it on a card and you leave it by the phone, just in the off chance that the media phone up asking questions. You can immediately run off the elevator speech without stumbling.

His book, Olympic Mind Games, has the following elevator speech:

It’s 2012. The world is in terrible danger and Jack Donovan, 13, is the only person who knows.

He has to hide out in London’s Olympic Village if he’s going to emerge from the shadow of his super-achieving twin sister and defeat the forces committed to the world’s destruction.
Marketing / Charity

The next step was to secure ways of getting the book out there, and since the book places itself at the Olympic village, uses the subject of sport and is generally very active, Ronsson and Pen Press looked to a sports charity. The idea was to give £1 from every book sale to the charity and in return the charity would assist in promotion. Ronsson says that the key is finding something topical, mainstream and positive to link your work with. How can it benefit people?


That was before the charity questioned the use of the Olympic within the title. So it was that the Olympic commitee were questioned on the matter and a furore was unleashed in which at first they wanted to put the kybosh on the whole thing, arguing that Olympic is registered to them!

As it stands, a simple search on Amazon proves that 4,305 books have been published with Olympic in the title, 103 DVDs, 34 Video Games and 179 Music items. It appears that the Olympic team had been a little lax in enforcing their brand.

Anyhoo, the BBC ran a news item on the story, here. Ronsson had a choice. Here was a chance to really put his work out there on the edge. He'd created controversy. How could he use it? But hey could sue him. His decision wasn't an easy one, but based upon the following decision, he and Pen Press went ahead with the title:
  • We have right on our side
  • Print with the title we wanted
  • Be prepared to pulp the first print run
  • Try to get public opinion on our side
Courting the Media

By coincidence alone, Ronsson had previously met a BBC journalist on a train to a football match. They had got chatting and now as the publication of his book was starting to teeter into an abyss, he called in a favour - and they might be able to get him on the air to talk about it. This became his first mistake. When the media did call Ronsson was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They wanted him to come to them... that day. But he'd already made other plans and had to turn them down. Unfortunately that meant his story was already old news. They might be able to fit him in the next day, but then, newer stories would probably crop up and he'd no longer be relevant.

Ronsson thought fast, and by a fluke of guess work, contacted BBC journalist John Humphreys who hosts the Radio 4 Today programme:
Did you know that the word 'Olympic' has been copyrighted? If you wanted to call your next book My Olympic Struggle for Political Honesty you wouldn't be allowed to until the year 2013 when the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) loses its protection.
had planned carefully, ensuring that his e-mail said exactly what it should, and it was enough. Humphrys came back to him:
fascinating ... worth following up... I'll alert my editor
They went to interview, with Humphrys first warning Ronsson that the worst that could happen was that the Olympics sue him - what the hell?!

15 Minutes of Fame
  • BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester (3 Minutes)
  • BBC Radio 4 Today (5 Minutes)
  • BBC TV Midlands Today (5 Minutes)
  • BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester (2 Minutes)
The story was picked up by Guardian, Telegraph, Bookseller, Writers’ News, and by the end of it, even the New York Times had run a brief story:

WORD GAMES London 2012, the organizers of London’s coming Olympic Games, had a problem with Robert Ronsson’s science-fiction novel for children, “Donovan Twins: Olympic Mind Games.” They sent the author e-mail warning him not to use Olympic in his title, saying it was a breach of trademark rights (

Undaunted, the publisher Pen Press printed 300 copies of the book, which has to do with aliens, not sports. The organizers relented somewhat. Given the small press run, a spokesman told BBC News, it would be “disproportionate to take a heavy-handed approach.” But he said London 2012 still found the title “disappointing” and that it hoped to reach an “amicable solution.”

Mr. Ronsson said he found the group’s actions to be “extraordinarily strange.”

The world is a small place after all. And all this free promotion has meant three print runs. At the height of it all his book had reached the top 500 on Amazon's book sales.

The Grind

With the limelight switched off, Ronsson still had work to do. Self-marketing requires a lot of on-the-road action. You've got to court your local outless, he says, and I've discovered that's at least a 50 mile radius - bookshops / newspapers / radio stations. In fact, he says, local press love to hear about a local author. Independent bookseller too, giving them the opportunity to host events. You can't be a shrinking violet.

The three main booksellers he tried were WH Smith, Waterstones and Borders, and of the three, for a self published author, the only one worth attempting is Waterstones. This is, he says, because Waterstones allows managers to pick some of the books they stock. The other two don't and whilst Waterstones even provides a budget for its managers to read a little wider (so as to deliver the best options to its customers), the other two are blinkered to the possibility.

In this money-dominated business (aren't they all - sigh) there is little place for the small author trying to break out. Just the other day there was an article about the lack of dangerous publishers - if you look at the best seller lists it would seem we've entered a time warp and gone back at least 20 years (same old authors in the fiction lists). And that pile of books you meet as you enter Waterstones... the publishers have paid a grand amount to get those stacked there. They don't just appear in the 3 for 2 by serendipity you know.

Know your demograph

has it slighlty easier than most. He's pitching to the biggest market, where the bucks are made. But it's still not an easy ride. He's had to put himself around quite a bit:
  • Literacy Hours in Primary School
  • Guide Scout Meeting
  • 6th Form Creative Writing Workshop
  • ‘Chatterbooks’
  • School Christmas Fair
He's working his audience, getting himself in there with them. The key is not to stop.

Why all the work?

Specifically in Ronsson's case, he's attempting to generate as many physical sales as possible. They are recorded by Gardners, which means that he can take that data to a mainstream publisher and negotiate for them to take him on. It's all business.

He can argue now, after a big sale in Bewdley, that he was the best selling author in North Worcestershire. Also, after a Reverend from Cornwall read the book, he purchased 8 copies for his family, making Ronsson the best selling author in the far-west. It all adds up.

What's next

He has a plan, and it's geared towards cashing in on the foundations he's already built. But it would be unfair of me to speak of those here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Golden Compass - Northern Lights - Review

So, I went to see The Golden Compass on Sunday night, and I wasn't looking forward to it... why? Because all the critics had bemoaned the thinning of its content. The theological discussions were gone, the anti-christian sentiment had been eradicated. There was little left but a quest movie. Pah!

Why would I want to see something so skinny? Well, let's get this straight - it's not anti-christian, it's anti-controlling-power, and the magisterium is still in it, and there is enough references there for people to know what it all means. As for the theological. So what? It's been cut back! Who cares, it's still there, it's still obvious, and as with all other book to film renditions, the subtext can easily be read by the intelligent simply by picking up the book - that's the wonder of books, they're there to fill in the gaps in the movies.

I was thoroughly impressed, and though I bow to the omnipotence of Lord of the Rings, there is no way that Golden Compass doesn't sit alongside the quest movies of Star Wars and Harry Potter. They're all geared towards family viewing, they're all light on theology, they've got good vs bad... in fact this is a far better film than Harry Potter. There's so much more to it, not least Dakota Blue Richards's acting ability. Aside from some of the silly ways in which the script writer has attempted to insert Lyra's common pronunciations (as in from talking normally to the odd cockney moment) she is perfect.

The daemons work wonderfully on the screen and the polar bears look great. I would have preferred the full ending, but I understand why this has been put back to the second film... if there is ever to be one.

Unfortunately the American public haven't bothered to go see it, and I fear this amazing story is going to fall at the first hurdle. It's a shame, because it is such a brilliant story.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sharing Reviews on The Night Watch

On Wednesday in our last Reading into Writing seminar, we shared our initial reviews about Sarah Waters's The Night Watch, as an exercise to show that there are an infinite number of ways to review something, and to give us immediate feedback on what we have done, so as to advise on avoiding certain pitfalls. Especially in our case, where we only had 400 words in which to construct our reviews, word-use is essential and meaning is everything.

And, as the eight of us proved, there are so many ways in which to write a review, from the reviewer who discusses how the book affected them, to the reviewer interested in the timeliness of the work; reviewing the contents and the meaning; reviewing the structure and conceit, reviewing a personal response; a review shaped by the characterisation. Of course there's always the hatchet job. These can all be used in a much longer evaluation, but we didn't have that luxury.

My review of Sarah Waters's The Night Watch
- this version unedited (after in class comments)

“… people in the 1940s had become heartily sick of bomb stories…”[1] says Sarah Waters of her lesbians in the blitz showcase The Night Watch, touching upon the very problem that 1) she came up against in her writing, and 2) ultimately dispirits the reader.

Award-winning author of Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, Waters has cultivated a niche for intelligent, homosexually-charged fiction and escaped what might be considered a limiting genre: period lesbianism. This makes The Night Watch all the more conspicuous in its failure to capture the romping nature of her previous work. Not because she is mining the same sexual framework but because she has backed herself into a corner with her approach.

“It was the period which followed the war which really interested me, that bleak, shabby, exhausted time of social change and moral readjustment.”[1] says Waters; a feeling that, on the page, translates too well. The reader feels the ebb of hopelessness – let it not be said that Waters cannot elicit emotion with her fiction – in the plodding pace and tone, but ultimately feels detached. The characters are lost in every sense – physically, psychologically, spiritually – tripping over a morose reverie that makes the reader pray for the 1950s. It is interesting, therefore, when Waters realises that the story is going nowhere and starts part two three years earlier.

This is where the story falls apart. The book, constructed and published in reverse order, does, through Waters’s skill alone, execute nice revelations and reader epiphanies. But these aren’t enough to carry the book. Its nature, lacking any tension outside of the microcosm of any one scene, drags the reader to the final page and leaves them grasping at where the plot went with a bitter and unsatisfying taste of hindsight.

Not least is the hindsight more obvious than with the character of Kay, who, through the blurb, website descriptions, and the book’s opening, is presented as the main protagonist in this ensemble cast. It is her actions around which much of the plot revolves and she who the reader suffers the most sympathy for when all is said and done. But, for the majority of the first third she is little more than a phantom, and is forgotten about.

“Fundamentally a novel about disappointment and loss and betrayal.”[2] says Waters, who perfectly conveys the motivations and decisions of her characters, but who should have, rather than rehash the direction of the book when she herself lost interest, started from scratch

[1] - Guardian Article, Sarah Waters – January 2006

[2] -, Malinda Lo – April 6, 2006.

I think, if any of them were hatchet jobs, mine came closest. But at least the class like that mine was an immanent critique and I was praised by the tutors for taking the interesting slant of using Sarah Waters's own quotes and using them against her.

Points of note

Our tutors had the following to say on not only reviews themselves, but on the transcripts of our discussions on the books we had covered previously:
The sheer variety of responses on Moodle has been an eye-opener that has made me re-evaluate the books, and I hope some of that can be captured in your reviews. Antithetical. Expanding ideas, but achieving some kind of unity as a piece of writing. There’s a drive to unify a response, when actually the dispersed remarks on Moodle are more interesting – the melding of the two is the difficulty. All too often a review can be a conduit for the self-importance of the reviewer. The challenge is to say what we really think without being pompous. There is no one way, no template. There is a sense of a horizon of expectation, but should one give in to it?

Of the reviewer or the book the book should be the most important.

Arrogance comes often from insecurity. We can resist it without failing to be an ‘authority’. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but we have to try. The US tradition of deconstruction – find a fissure, an impasse, and look at how a text unravels, and the position of the critic too is undermined – and yet, at the same time deconstructionists reach neat conclusions! One needs to find a humility to be true but authoritative.
What to avoid in a review
  • Ensure the writing doesn't drive the reviewer's thought - don't get caught up in flowery prose, or your own literary flow; avoid pure value judgements and puffery.
  • Don't make wild references - the reader needs to feel intelligent, and they won't if they don't understand metaphors / allusions / comparisons. Always ask if the reader will understand. This also strikes to avoiding distracting the reader from imagining the book itself.
  • The review requires at least one encapsulating paragraph to make the reviewers standpoint clear.
  • Try to stay focused, don't start ponderously, and don't go off on a tangent to fulfill some personal need / interest.
  • A good review will give a sense of the novel without giving away important moments or the ending.
  • Word use is important. A growing list, such as "Rounded" and "Nice" are more commonly thought of as cliché. The TLS publish lists of words and phrases that are out of fashion.
  • Second to Word clichés, is Journalistic clichés.
  • Avoid the hatchet job, there is always a middle ground, where negative attitudes can be express without disrespect.
  • Some reviewers carry themselves as much a part of the review and are read specifically for their voice - regardless of what they are reviewing and yet not at the expense of the work - and if you can turn a nice phrase and develop a distinctive voice then reviewing might be ideal.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Litopia After Dark - Podcast 2

The second LITOPIA AFTER DARK podcast was recorded last night - another round of live and uncensored discussion on the world of publishing.

  • Publishers in the Community - Social Networking
  • JK Rowling and the Lexicon Litigation
  • Pullman's Propaganda
  • Current Reads and Recommendations
This week's guest speaker was Brian Clegg - a Cambridge polymath, says his Redhammer page. For those of you who love Science - here's his blog.

For more information or to listen to the podcast, head on over to Litopia's Podcast page.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Litopia on Facebook

To commemorate the launch of the Litopia After Dark Podcast, we now have a Facebook Group, bringing together writers and readers across the world. So, come along, join up, and start listening.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Travel Writing Competition

So, it's past the 25th... I can now return this to the blog:

I recently came across a travel writing competition (through NAW) I thought I'd have a go at - by High Life magazine and judged by a panel that includes eminent traveller Michael Palin - which required a 500 word article on any aspect of travelling, and a 100 word review of somewhere I've stayed.

The competition closed 25th November, and the results won't be out till April 2008, so in the meantime I thought I'd share my endeavours. Since, writing is all about sharing.

But more importantly was how I approached the task? Firstly, I got a flavour of travel writing (I've not been a big fan of travel biographies or travel magazines - I've got too much else to be getting on with instead of reading about the joys someone else had in travelling). I borrowed a couple of magazines and Michael Palin's Sahara and read pages at random to get a flavour of the pieces and the styles.

First Person
Everyone writes in first person. These pieces are very personal to the writer (they went there and lived through their mini-adventures, or, in Palin's case, trek, and the reader wants to feel connected to the writer, to get their opinion, see, feel, smell, hear through them.

Present Tense
In order for the reader to feel a part of the action and to get them as close as possible to what is unfolding, the writer employs present tense. This gives a sense of immediacy. Were the writer to write in the past tense the reader is separated that bit more. Not only have the events already taken place and are part of memory, not the senses, but they've seemingly been written after the event, when memory has forgotten the colour and shape of things, and clouded the reality. Present tense is in the moment, and not as exhausting as one might expect (as per novels written first person, present tense).

The old adage. Travel writing is all about observation and the senses; feeling what the writer felt at the time.

Naming and Description
An offshoot of showing; the writer must set everything properly, giving specific name to people and places where ever possible. The reader wants to know where they are at all times, they want that grounding. Similarly nice, concise descriptions of locations, equipment, furniture sets the place, and fitting these descriptions in with action/observation/movement serves multiple purposes.

Much of travel writing is comprised of anecdotes - either things that happened to the writer on their journey, or to other people they meet, developed ideas of place and history, the people and what they've been through. These sifts reality to the surface and the reader feels as if they're learning of people, places and culture as they go

Unlike the works of say, WG Sebald, travel writing should be composed with a light style that has a humourous feel. It needs to be writ with humur, and the writer should make the most of their own immediate observations to certain situations they come across (and subsequently write), since these (and their reactions to them), are often amusing, and link in with the anecdotes. Extending from this is the choice of a humourous style. Since not all incidents are amusing/funny at the time they occur, they can still be written up with later observations that can set ironic/sarcastic tones, make witty contrasts to other situations/incidents, or simply choose to make light of the event in a light-hearted way.

Say what you mean - the Word Limit
As with other journalistic approaches, and the Litopia Short Story competition in particular, travel writing has a defined word limit. With that in mind, the writer must work as hard as they can to pair down their writing, to say exactly what they mean to say, and cull the extraneous information. In certain sections (for example, my 100 Word review) lists are preferable, and whilst there is room for one or two big words (ie: my choice of quiescient), the text should flow with an easy rhythm.

Let's see if I've succeeded, shall we?

Starting with a single idea - as all writing begins - I attacked at least three different aspects before settling on one focal point: the drive from JFK airport to Manhattan Island (May 2000). What was important was the drive itself, and I had to pick out elements that gave the story cohesion. I decided therefore to base the theme on young travellers being out of their comfort zone and not really having the balls to stand up for their fears. This gave me the opportunity for a flashback-like moment from which I could highlight my main point (lack of travel-savvy) - a nice show, and a comedic moment - which has a clearly defined open and end and which doesn't confuse the reader with the time change.

500-Word Feature

We can’t help wondering if our insurance covers this. For a start, we aren’t assured by our driver’s lack of uniform: a lanky, shirt and shorts guy with a shock of white hair and the brusque determination of a deliveryman. He squeezes us into his Dodge Ram; eight semi-compos mentis tourists on three rows of nylon seats, our Atlantic-addled minds urged along by his punchy Brooklyn manner. We scrabble around for seatbelts but, finding none, settle with embedding our nails in the seats in front as our luggage is heaved unceremoniously into the boot.

He slams the sliding door and seals us inside what we already fear will become our tomb, leaps behind the wheel with a toothy grin and gesticulates to the taxi tooting from behind. We lurch into rush hour…

It’s our first trip outside the UK without, what my fiancé and I might term, a responsible adult. At 21 our travel experience has been restricted to family jaunts to the Cornish coast and school led excursions to Ypres and Le Somme. We aren’t accustomed to the art of decision making when faced with a crisis. For example, our current fix: wading through the cheerless professionals at immigration only to discover our names missing from our tour rep’s list. We’ve been abandoned at the first hurdle. The rep is minutes from the end of her shift and we, over six hours and three thousand miles from London, are stranded on Long Island with no means of reaching Manhattan.

Our lack of wayfaring wit had already proven itself even before disembarking the plane: on our final descent into JFK airport we were struggling with one of the questions on our visas.

‘What state is New York in?’ I asked the American who’d lucked out with the aisle seat beside me.

New York,’ he inflected.

‘Yes,’ I said, and then, calling on the first rule of British touristing when floundering in foreign parts, I repeated myself – slowly, ‘Which state is it in?’

‘New. York. State,’ he drawled.


This is how we’ve arrived: hapless, helpless, and, by the looks on our faces as we tear along the Belt Parkway, humourless. Ahead, the sun is setting beyond Staten Island, and on our left, Raritan Bay opens into the hazy expanse of the Atlantic, but we’re too busy praying for our survival to memorise the view. To our dismay our driver divides his time between thrusting the Ram from lane to lane and jabbering at us about the districts and landmarks he points out on the horizon: Long Beach; Jersey City; Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s Islands; Brooklyn and finally the twin towers that mark Manhattan. All the while he thumps his horn to spur other drivers from our wild trajectory and scrawls our details on the clipboard resting in his lap. Us – fearless – Brits cling on for dear life, upholding that typically indomitable British spirit to put up and shut up.

Well, no one else is voicing their concern!

100-Word Review

Nestled five miles west of the M6, amongst the hilly farmland northwards of Ullswater Lake, 2 Rose Cottages, Dacre, is a prime location from which to attack the best of the Lake District. This delightful, self-catering lodge accommodates up to six fell walkers and includes off-road parking, a power shower strong enough to beat out the worst muscular dents, and a local pub boasting a literally gut-busting menu. Cost-effective and quiescent, with a large kitchen, separate dining area, coal fire and a cosy huddle of sofas, this is an ideal stay for the serious hiker and casual stroller alike.