Monday, 29 November 2010

Two Workshops in The Claygate and Esher Short Story Festival. Friday 26th -Sunday 28th November

Though notionally in London, and only half an hour from Waterloo, places like Claygate have a faux village atmosphere that resembles a war-time film set or a real-life recreation of Ambridge.You almost expect the village pub to be called The Bull, not The Foley Arms.

However, some chances are too rare to pass up, and knowing I'd be safely back in Lewisham by nightfall, I attended a couple of two-hour work - shops at in the Claygate & Esher Writing Festival. It was organised by Susannah Rickards, who also tutors a local writing group. The pub where it took place was only five minutes walk from the station.

The first workshop,'Storm in a Teacup: Writing for Women's Magazines' , was run by Geraldine Ryan. I've been trying to write womag stories for a while, with no success although I've analysed stories, looked at websites and even read how-to-write books. It's a demanding genre.

Geri's name crops up regularly in magazines like Woman's Weekly and Take A Break. She has two stories currently appearing in latter's the Christmas Fiction Feast. She shared her considerable knowlege and answered questions for the first hour of her session; in the second half we worked in groups to re-assemble a story of hers that she made copies of before cutting it up for reassembly.

Geri's 'advice' could be summed up as: 'know the market', and instructions included essentials like knowing the word-count for different magazines, keeping up-to-date with current editorial requirements through websites and of course studying the published stories. She gave us a hand-out which analysed stories from Woman's Weekly in terms of themes. A natural optimist, she said she didn't find it difficult to to be upbeat (essential) but thought it important that a writer should be 'true to herself' when it came to choosing topics. She didn't write animal stories for instance. As she has four children, I wasn't really surprised. Two of her many useful tips stood out for me: if a story could be summed up in a sentence it was probably a good one, and it was good to have a particular reader in mind when writing.

Although the world of the women's magazine story might be small, something must happen in it to bering about some kind of change; her advice about plotting was succinct : 'Get in. Get on. Get out.'

We enjoyed working in groups to reassemble copies of one of Geri's stories, with an ensuing discussion that underlined elements such as plot, dialogue, flashback, turning points and climax.

Susannah took a slightly different approach, eliciting resonses and sharing experience of acting as a competition judge as well as a prize-winner for her workshop on 'Writing for Competitions'. The group consisted mainly of her regular class, so she had more 'notional' time than Geri. At the the end she was able to set a 'homework' writing task based on the event, to be a mini-competiton with a prize!

Starting with the benefits of competition writing, i.e. receiving feedback, possiby attracting an agents and learning to work to deadlines, she went on to discuss the status or tiers of competitions, from the most prestigious (Fish; BBC; Bridport)to small local competitions. As an experienced competition judge she was well placed to give tips on a range of issues, from the importance of reading past winning entries, layout and the role of white spaces in the text, to tips on style.

A mini-exercise on how to treat a short story topic showed how to add the little extras to catch the judges attention. Titles, opening paragraphs and endings, were covered, as well as character and dialogue.

It was good to feel part of a group for even a short time. My only regret was that I wasn't able to attend other events in this weekend Festival. I'd have liked to hear Emma Darwin on writing for radio, for instance, and Vanessa Gebbie on writing Flash Fiction, but the timing was against me. Oh, well, maybe next year...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Write Away:One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

I've had this book hanging about for a while, as the dog-eared state of the pages testifies. I'm surprised to discover it was published as recently as 2004.

'A perfect DIY guide' says a Sunday Times critic, and that about sums it up for me, too. It seems to be a 'does what it says on the tin' kind of book. I hope so, anyway.

I think it's the common-sense style as much as the topic coverage that makes me decide to read it in tandem with my 'construction ' book, Karen Wiesner's 30 Days to a Full Draft. I should say at this point that it seems to me that must be 30 days writing at top speed 18 hours a day. My lifestyle doesn't lend itself to that kind of pace or commitment. That said, I'm plodding along nicely, although I sometimes have to read the complicated instructions several times over.

Elizabeth George's handbook provides the perfect contrast. I feel as pleased as I did when I decided to Study Spanish as an antidote to Chinese.

For one thing, George is down-to-earth. You can tell she's open-minded but she's also very well-read, and illustrates the points she makes with lengthy passages from other writers' books, whether its point-of-view, dialogue or describing characters.

I like the way she says 'this is how I do things' but doesn't lay down the law or even claim her methods are superior. She's painstaking, and I like that. It sets me a good example.

She's generous, too, with sharing her methods and describing just how she personally goes about things. Each chapter of Write Away is headed up with an extract from a diary she kept while writing a recent novel. Apparently George writes a diary for every book, and that strikes me as a good way to encourage reflection. It's something my A-Level Communication students did for their media projects. They had to integrate Coms theory with decision making and then make revise and formulate as they went along.

She's written plenty of novels, too. I decided I should read one. Crime is her chosen genre, another reason I can relate to her approach. She invented a character called Inspector Lynley but he doesn't appear in the novel I came across in a charity shop. It's called What Came Before He Shot her, one of these very wordy titles I notice are popular of late. Succinctness was all, in the past, or at least something recognisable as a quotation. This was written in 2007 and comes in at 643 pages.

I was sceptical about an American writing novels set in England. How could that work?

Amazingly, it convinces. Set in north west London, the narrative centres around three London-born West Indian children who are left in the care of an Aunt, in a tough West London housing estate, when their grandmother follows her no-good lover back to Jamaica. Their mother is not fit to care for them, possibly because she's a drug addict, but I don't really know that because I'm only up to page 72. But it's very detailed, the characters eccentric but credible, the setting detailed and the dialogue, mainly dialect, as authentic as I can tell. Having taught in the West Ham and South London for a lot of years and priding myself on an ear for the spoken word, I'm really impressed.

All is explained when I look at the Acknowledgements and see the name of Courttia Newland, a black West London author whose short story collection Music for the Off-Key (2006)I reviewed a couple of years ago.

She's an ex school-teacher, too, another point in her favour. She's been teaching creative writing as well as writing novels for quite a few years .

'Indispensable!' says Mariella Frostrup. I'd certainly be upset if I left it on a train or in the cinema, which there's every chance of me doing.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Travelling Companions : audiobooks for car journeys

Why I thought driving to Preston and back could be done over five days staying in Travelodges I don't know. By the time we'd packed and unpacked, found places to eat, lost our way and tried to check in at the wrong ones it added hours to the total journey time.

Thank goodness I thought to go to the library and borrow a couple of audiobooks. It made the driving, especially the long two hours between Birmingham and London, almost pleasurable.

I've learned a bit about which tapes to choose. A long drive to Edinburgh last year was aptly enlivened by Ian Rankin's Exit Music. The latest one we tried was Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, and what with the careful build-up of characters and descriptions of landscape, it was all too leisurely. A drive to Worthing and back didn't allow sufficient time. We came back to London with one of the six tapes still to go, but lacked the will to finish when we were no longer a captive audience.

The two I chose thise time were abridged to two tapes each, which perhaps doesn't do justice to the stories but the fault's on the right side.Both were thrillers, so it didn't greatly detract to have them speeded up. The only loss was some confusion as to who exactly was who in the first one, but that's a risk anyway in a story where people were done in almost as soon as they appeared.

Abridgement lent an edge to the sensationalism of Sleeping Cruelty; baldly stated, the plot seems outlandish. A rich man, a closet gay, sponsors a rising Tory MP who apparently commits suicide because of an unhappy love affair. However, it may be murder and the sponsor becomes mixed up with a number of very unsavoury characters, especially an incestuous brother and sister who were victims of child abuse and should by rights be locked up. They commit a number of murders for gain by dint of having the woman seduce men (and women) and then bumping them off. There were a few steamy sex scenes (one literally so, in a sauna) which were well done.

Decider's hero was an architect/builder, a man with six young sons who learns he has a say-so in the fate of a race-course over which an upper-crust family are squabbling. Having read three or four of his novels, I see why Dick Francis's heroes remind me of Ian Fleming's James Bond: they are given to heroic feats that expose them to physical damage, giving the tales a masochistic edge as they are stretched to the limit of enduring pain. Roy suggested life as a steeplechase jockey must have given Francis a lot of injury experience. Francis's forte, like Flemings, lies with action scenes. In this case the main set piece was an exploding grandstand from which the hero has to rescue his son.

The reader is crucial to the enjoyment, I think, especially when it comes to imitiating voices of the the opposite gender. Bill Nighy read Sleeping Cruelty but for me the drawl he used for the main villainess made her sound comical, like a film-noir femme fatale. Robert Powell was much more successful with the Dick Francis, especially with a sharp-voiced dowager and an uppercrust bully. He's better able to change pace and accent to suit his characters. I can almost forgive him for the non-role he seems to play in Holby City on TV.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Resurrecting a Novel

I did my first my NaNo in 1987, before the 'official' one took off. I started writing a novel from scratch because I didn't know there were was any other way. Were there any 'how-to-write' books around? Nowadays you can't move for them, but I don't remember seeing one back then.

Ah Happy Days! Education was going through a shrinkage era so I wangled a year's sabbatical from teaching. My partner was selling BT's products in the IT boom so we didn't need my salary. I'd just finished a dissertation for a part-time MA, so I was into writing mode.

It took me a year to write the novel -or what I now know was a 'first draft'.

Not that it was the only writing I did. It was novel in the morning and short stories in the afternoon. I jogged round Greenwich Park in between.

Not all of it was writing - I had to do quite a bit of entirely pleasurable research. Towards the end of the time I printed off the completed manuscript and tied the pages together with something called a plastic tooth-binder. It wasn't good enough to try for publishing

Ten years later, when I'd finished a film dissertation for another MA, I decided to revive the novel again.

Sad to say, the floppy disks I'd written it on were completely redundant - no computer would take them. So I'd have to type it all up again. On the good side, it was only 40 thousand words. By this time I'd found out that a novel must be a minimum of 70 thousand words. Never mind, it would mean I'd get to know the book again. Especially as I was such a slow typist

Soon after, I was asked to write a proposal for a text book, based the dissertation. So that lasted until 2002, writing part time. I took 6 months off between FE jobs to finish it. Another blissful period divided between the BL and the BFI library, with a lunchtime walk through leafy Bloomsbury.

So, what with other distractions, (eg working for a publisher in China), early this year I still had 10k to type up. That's when I spotted the NaNo notice. A whole month of writing the novel - surely I'd finish the typing up at least, and have the word-countometer as an incentive as well as a 'community ' to egg me on.

I finished the typing-up within a week. It took about two hours a day, done in half-hour stints.

How to go about a redraft? Came the need, came the answer: I'd had this book on my how-to-write collection for a while but never got round to using it. It was hard to undertand. I carried it round for about a month before starting NaNo.

It's complicated, but it's not just about starting from scratch. Instead of starting at chapter one of the manual I start at chapter eight of ten:

Creating an Outline for a Project Already in Development or Re-Outlining a Stalled Project.

After printingit off, I've gone through the manuscript converting the 24 chapters into 62 'scenes', each with its heading. I've even cut them up and stapled the scenes together.

I made a copy of the whole text and I'm halfway through converting that back into scenes with headings. By this time I've got to know the novel again; I can see where extra scenes are needed, as well as some extra research. (A treat for the new year)

I'm using another book as well, but I'll write about that later.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

My cheating at NaNo writing journal

Not so much progress today because I spent the morning at my U3A Spanish class. But this afternoon I did manage to cut up the manuscript into the sections I'd marked out yesterday and staple them before reassembling into a pile. It took a couple of hours.

Now I need to read the instruction manual I'm following, but I should be able to make progress with the actual rewrite tomorrow.

I was lucky to be able to buy a stapler at the Trafalgar Square Post Office on the way to collect the theatre tickets, so I didn't have to go to the shop today. The PO is much improved; there's a ticket machine to tell you your turn and banks of comfy seats instead of the old cattle-pen queueing system.

I'd had some discussion with Roy about closing times. The counter assistant told me 6.30pm on weekdays. 'This used to be called the 24 hour post office' I said, and she seemed horror-struck at the idea, saying it must have been in the distant past. A bystander laughed and told her, 'Well, before you were born!'

Monday, 8 November 2010

My NaNoWriMo Journal

I was really pleased at my progress with the novel today.

Yesterday I had printed off all the chapters, which seemed to take hours, from about 4.00pm when I came back from lunch at Penge Wetherspoons, to 10.30pm. It took ages because I had to set up each chapter separately and tick a box to get 'best' quality print. Teach me to economise on print cartridges.

I kept running upstairs in the adverts during two episodes of Downton Abbey, one which Roy had recorded, to make sure the paper hadn't jammed. The printer's held together with gaffer tape but stood up to the judder. I told Roy I might use some superglue on it.

Today I went through the whole manuscript dividing the 26 chapters into 'scenes', as advised in the book I'm using as a template for the process. I summarised events in each 'scene' in a sentence written in red biro on the pages. I went swimming in Deptford in the middle so it wasn't too bad.

Tomorrow will be scary -I'm going to take the scissors to the script to divide up the scenes!

Tonight, time off to go and see 'An Ideal Husband.'
My 'Cheating at NaNoWriMo' Journal

So I broke the `10,00 word barrier today.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

My Cheating at NaNoWri Mo Diary

I did well today, considering I attended my U3A Spanish conversation class this morning, having got up at 6am to do some translation for the Bienvenidos short story discussion on Thursday. I managed to fit in half an hour before going to catch the bus, then three half hour sessions in the afternoon. I had a nap between the penultimate and the last session because my eyes were tired.

So now I'm up to 3,940 words and page 153 on my novel type-up. I can see what's wrong with it, too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

My 'Cheating at NaNoWriMo' Journal

1,617 words isn't bad, considering they were done by noon, when I went off to swim.

It was not a good day to start because first thing I drove my son David to Victoria Coach Station. 'You said you would, Mum', he claimed, when I raised my eyebrows last night. It meant, apparently, that he'd felt free to get heavy gifts for girl-friend Natalie, back in Belgium. She'll meet the Eurostar at the other end.

So what with that and a post-operative friend who rang for a chat about how get enough sustenance on a liquid diet at the same time as not upsetting the gut, the morning's output represents just three half-hour sessions, timed on my digital timer.

Wow! I can type 1,000 words in an hour -in theory. In practice, because of my arthritic leg I have to move around every half hour. And take breaks.

This wasn't from scratch, though. It's five pages typed up from an existing manuscript - printed on a dot-matrix printer c. 1987. What a wonderful year that was - I took a year off from that horrid school and wrote a novel! Well, a first draft.

That's why it's a cheat - but I'll just join in the action, not claim to be a winner when all's done.

Only thirty five more pages to type up and then I can go on to phase 2 of my plan.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander MaCall Smith

Strange how characters in books can influence behaviour. I once came across a subject called 'the role of literature in society' that suggested the purpose of stories is to allow people to access 'life scripts' on which to model their actions. It's true of all kinds, from folk tales to contemporary fiction.

I was reminded of this when I re-read The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for my crime reading group.

There can be few readers who haven't heard of Alexander MaCall Smith's charming stories of Botswana's lady detective and her little white van. Then came the excellent TV series, so it was interesting to compare. I thought the TV casting of the main character - a woman of empathy, intelligence and experience - was spot on.

On this reading, I was aware of the the darker undertones as well as the author's love for Africa, voiced by his heroine:

'Mma Ramotswe did not want Africa to change. She did not want her people to become like everyone else, soulless, selfish, forgetful of what it means to be an African, or, worse still, ashamed of Africa. She would not be anything but an African, even if somebody came up to her and said, 'Here is a pill, the very latest thing. Take it and it will make you into an American.' She would say no. Never. No thank you. '

The blurb describes Mma Ramotswe is 'an African Miss Marples' ;I think she's miles better. I'm not so patriotic, but I think of her several times a day, whenever I drink my redbush tea. Somehow she has worked her way into my 'life-script'.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

On Writing by Stephen King

This has to be the best how-to-write book I've seen so far. Maybe it's because it reads like a novel, although the author subtitles it 'a memoir of the craft'. It's a truism that autobiography is only interpretation, but with Stephen King the process is seamless and entirely enjoyable.

The bare facts are he was borne in Portland, Maine in 1947 and brought up by his mother and grandparents because his father absconded when he was young. His older brother was also a talented writer. He gave Stephen his first chance at writing for his home-produced magazine, printed from an old machine in the basement. At university Stephen met his wife Tabitha, who is a novelist, and he now has grandchildren.

I was hooked when I learned his early influences were comic books and films.I think maybe this is true of most working class/blue collar would-be writers of our pre-TV generation. Comics were a cheap substitute for books and films gave an endless supply of new stories. As a youngster, Stephen scrounged lifts to the nearest town with a cinema, fourteen miles away from where he lived.

Two of my own favourite films are The Shining and Misery, both based on his novels and both about writers, and the books were even better. I haven't read Carrie but like most film-goers I'm haunted by the final event, much copied in later films.

In the middle part of the book he trawls throught the usual how-to-write heading, such as 'description' and 'setting' but does so with examples drawn from his own books and influences in a way that reads like digressions and anecdotes. The insights seem incredibly authentic.

The last part of the book, called 'On Living: A Postscript' is a story about the vagaries of fate and of courage, again reading like fiction: an account of a very bad accident and the author's attempts to overcome the injuries he sustained so he could continue writing.

I found it an inspiring and entertaining read.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Be it ever so dreary: Windows on the Moon by Alan Brownjohn

During the rationing and austerity of the immediate post-war years, Perce Hollard is preoccupied with the petty office politics at the export company in Victoria to which he travels by bus each day. As senor clerk he should be next in line when the head of department finally announces his retirment but a less experienced but pushier rival seems likelier to succeed.

Meantime his wife Maureen is conducting a desultory affair with her boss in the upstairs room of the Rio Cafe where she works as a waitress. When she falls pregnant she hurriedly resumes a sexual relationship with her husband. Her motivations for the affair are unclear, although she attends three operas in succeeding weeks at the local Empire: La Boheme, Carmen and La Traviata.

Their son Jack, a bright scholarship boy at the local grammar school, thinks of aiming for a university place and harbours a yen for motherless schoolgirl Sylvia Freeman, quickly smothered when she makes it plain she's not interested.

The author recreates the dreary atmosphere of bleak postwar years, as seen from a lower middle class viewpoint. The country is just beginning to recover from war damage,signalled by the government-funded refurbishment and expansion of Perce's company.

A more colourful touch is provided by a Frenchman who rents an upper room from a 'respectable' landlady. He supports a low-key lifestyle by working as an examiner for London University and giving private tutorials to pupils from aspiring local families. Mysterious empty envelopes bearing foreign stamps add a hint of mystery.

You'd expect a book set in a nondescript South East London suburb in 1947 to be a bit lacklustre. And it was. A first chapter titillates when the cast attends the local Empire music hall which features an act called 'Nudes of the World', a series of thinly-draped tableaux. But the chapter, like the show, is a tease. It's all downhill after that

I imagine the book was chosen for the Manor House Libary reading group because it had a local context. The determindly lower-middle class mores of the characters scotch any hopes for noble aims or romantic notions, not that I'm a great fan of either, done to excess. Even the youthful Jack Hollard seems short of backbone or even personality.

To be fair, two members of the reading group liked it for its 'detailed recreation of the period' but I they weren't English and too young to have much evidence to draw on in the way of relatives who may have been around at the time.The other member besides myself confessed to having read only half the book and the librarian/leader hadn't read it either.

To my surprise, the author is a poet. However, he wrote a life of Philip Larkin and that seems to have set the dead hand on this novel. The final set piece is a school cricket match, (Jack imagines that hitting a six must be like 'getting into a girl'). The match is intercut with the low-key chase and capture of the Frenchman, but Brownjohn is no Graham Greene or John Le Carre. He hasn't laid the groundwork sufficiently for us to care, despite a flashback chapter to foreign parts.

In many ways the Frenchman's story, and the part where Jack visits Soho (nothing significant happens) could have redeemed the dullness. If only the rest hadn't taken up so many pages!

The book has been praised for its painstaking research. But nobody goes to the cinema and nobody goes to the pub. In 1947? As a local might have put it, 'Pull the other one!'

Serious omissions, and my mind it all added up to a very plodding read.

Monday, 5 July 2010

What makes a good Reading Group Book?

A friend's agent advised her to write a 'reading-group' book, because 'that's what publishers are interested in'. I've noticed that some books are now so targeted that they include 'discussion questions' as if they were A-Level set texts. It made me wonder about makes a good reading group book and I applied the question to two examples that came up last week.

I'm enrolled in four groups, all meeing in local libraries. In lean times, this is fine, but when I have a pile of own-choice books, not to mention those I've agreed to review, it's a bit of a challenge.

No wonder I mix up venues. For Thursday's discussion of The Quiet American, no problem; the librarian at Blackheath Village sends reminders. But I turned up at Manor House Library on Saturday morning only to be redirected to Lewisham High Street.

Irene Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood , written in the 1940s, is a recent publication, discovered only years after the writer died at Auschwitz. Her husband sent their daughters to safety shortly before his own arrest. They carried their mother's papers in a suitcase. She was already author of a best-seller, David Golder, which I haven't read but which was made into a successul film.

I did read Suite Francaise , for one of the groups, last year. In it, Nemirovsky was unflattering about members of the French middle classes fleeing Paris just before the Nazi invasion. Fire in the Blood similarly condemns hypocrisy and avarice in village based on one where the author lived. Young women are married off to old men and take young lovers; such activities and and more sinister ones are ignored. The narrator, an elderly curmudgeon cum prodigal son, hides his own murky secrets.

One of the readers thought the narrator was too unpleasant, despite his 'fire in the blood' philosophy, excusing youthful folly and worse ; another found the author too manipulative. Accustomed to crime fiction and its surprises I didn't mind the 'unreliable' narrator, but thought establising the claustrophobic milieu delayed the onset of the narrative. Two members found interesting parallels with their own experiences of respective Spanish and Scottish villages.

Graham Green's The Quiet American met a more sympathetic reception from older readers at Blackheath Library on Thursday. The main protagonist, anti-hero journalist Fowler is a variation on Greene's archetypal expat, morally and spiritually compromised. This world-weary fifty-something opium addict is covering the French war in Vietnam while vying with a young American for possession of a local beauty. Discussion centred around the historical background and colonialism.

Good 'reading group books', I conclude, are books that have important themes, such as justice, hyocrisy, greed, history, love and war, plus a strong narrative, an unusual setting and remarkable characters. In other words, ingredients that good books had even before the recent proliferation of reading groups.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Not Just About Keeping Warm : Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A

This four-poster bed with bizarre patchwork hangings graces the entrance to a fascinating exhibition at the V&A. Keep warm is almost irrelevant here; it's all about message: displaying wealth, supporting the empire and marking events in important families .

In five themed sections: The Domestic Landscape; Meeting the Past; Making a Living; Virtue and Virtuosity; Private Thoughts, Political Debates, the exhibition narrates a depressing but fascinating slice of social history

High-status families marked births and deaths with gifts of quilted pillows and the like, sometimes worked by the by governesses, more rarely by the lady of the house but most often bought in. They were objects of immense family value, passed down to generations. Commercially produced quilts from Canterbury and Exeter, centres of quilting excellence, also supplied the moneyed strata of society.

Commissioning hand-made domestic objects such as quilts meant exploitation of vulnerable workers, evidenced by archived female voices in Wales and Tyneside

The availablity of textiles in the nineteenth century meant women could showcase artistic and practical skills, virtues valued but restricted. They also signalled aspirations. A quote from George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) illustrates this, when Maggie Tulliver's father reminds her to 'Go on with your patchwork like a little lady'.

Quilts displayed patriotism in an age of political turmoil and jingoism, proked by fears of revolution, such as was happening in France.

Messages and images promoted sobriety, in the style of Victorian samplers. The Temperance Movement encourages patchwork as an alternative to alcohol. Quilts made by Wormwood Scrubs prisoners combined patches of stitched inspirational mottoes connecting crime with punishment and embroidered chains and bars and other prison paraphernalia.

Displays of quilts made by convicts or sailors on long sea-voyages are a reminder of the time-consuming and often communal nature of quilt-making.

For me, one of the most interesting specimens was an example of a printed quilt made in my home town of Preston, in a mill that once specialised in printed borders. It's now a garden centre. Although some would disagree, I think that's a sign of progress.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Spoilt for Choice: Reading Groups at Lewisham Libraries

Joining a reading group seemed a good idea when I was turned off by the chick-lit and celebrity biogs on bookshop shelves. And I'm in just the right place. Lewisham is a big borough, stretching from Blackheath to Forest Hill, with twelve libraries. Most seem to host reading groups.

It's two years since I joined the crime reading group at Lewisham Central Library. We meet on the third Saturday of the month, attendance depending on how popular the book is. Last month's choice, The Dragon Tattoo attracted twelve but the usual group is 6-8 people. There's a suggestions list, but choice often depends on current library holdings, eked out with loans from neighbouring boroughs. Books are kept between meetings for new members to request.

The host isn't always the same librarian, but the role is much the same: replenishing the drinks and biscuits supplies, updating the comment file and prompting discussion. Not that it's necesary - tastes vary and most people are ready to give opinions.

A big advantage with the crime genre is the range. The more predicatble British and American writers like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Lynda La Plante, Nicci Gerrard and James Elroy take turns with 'literary' works, such as Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair and Case Histories by Kate Atkinson.

More recently there's been a spate of Scandinavian authors: Arnaldur Indridson's Silence of the Grave; Hakan Nesser's The Return and of course Stieg Larsson's The Dragon Tattoo It's prompted interesting discussion about national characteristics and representation in crime novels.

The current choice is a blockbuster called Homicide: a year on the Killing Streets which like Mr Whicher blurs the boundary of fact and fiction.It's written by David Simon, famous for the TV adaptation of The Wire.

Most discussions progress from the book in question to other works with similar themes/settings/ characters to comparison with film and TV series. It's a way of getting to know writers I wouldn't have read otherwise.

Maybe in reaction to all these murders, I've gone back to 'straight' literature. So for Blackheath Village and Manor House Library groups respectively I read Antonia White's Frost in May, a fascinating account of an Irish convent boarding school in the 50s that I read years ago, and Sean Longley's The Hartlepool Monkey, a recently-published subversive historical novel with an eighteenth century setting which made me laugh. Next Blackheath choice is a favourite, Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which I've seen as a film starring Michael Caine.

On Saturday I learned there's now a writing group that meets at Lewisham library. It makes perfect sense to me but I can see that's another interruption to my writing intentions.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The Man at Finborough Theatre

Sometimes it's the sheer inventiveness of an idea that generates a great piece of writing. A case in point is James Graham's The Man, brilliantly presented at a tiny theatre above a pub near Earl's Court.

Ben has to fill in his tax form and is in a panic. He's kept all the receipts over the past year, but isn't sure what he can claim as expenses.

As you file into the theatre to to take a place on tiers of padded benches you're handed a worn till receipt and told you'll be asked for it at some point in the performance.

And that's what happens. At some point in the show when you feel like it, you offer the receipt to Ben, the single actor. Sometimes it's a ticket to a show, or a CD purchase receipt, and Ben will play an extract on his ipod connected to speakers. But every slip of paper reminds him of an event. As he says, 'We are what we buy'.

The details of Ben's life, his job, failed relationships and family background build like a slowly forming jig-saw puzzle. What starts as a comedy, with jokey comments like 'Everyone lives in Tooting when they first come to London, don't they?' becomes imperceptibly darker.

Samuel Barnett, a face familiar from several TV appearances, is convincingly vulnerable as Ben, changing from cheerful confessional mood to nostaglic sadness as each receipt is read out and he recalls its significance. He engages the audience's sympathy and attention throughout the virtually one-man performance.

He's one of four actors who appear on different nights. Lizzy Watts plays an offstage sympathetic HM Revenue telephone advisor, but the lack of credibility there is no reflection on the actress.Her role is also subject to rotation.

Best of all, the £3 programme is a Methuen text of the play. There seemed to be only one receipt missing when I read it through. Fortunately it wasn't crucial. And what a great chance to study how an apparently randomly chosen sequence achieves a structure (with one or two strategic 'plants')

The Man at the Finborough Theatre:

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Winchester Writing Conference and Competitions

My name must have been put on a list when I applied to attend a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival a few weeks back. Anyway, it was a nice surprise to receive the Winchester Writers' Conference brochure in the mail.

Oh good, I thought. That's not far from London.

But wait! You can't attend individual talks. That's a shame. It runs over five days and you have to opt for whole days, cheapest £80, or go for week-end packages or week-long workshops at prices to make your eyes water.

I suppose that's what makes it a conference, rather than a festival: the practical bent. The workshops look terrific, and the advantage of the venue is you can stay overnight for £32 in student accommodation.

The workshop topics include novels, short stories, dialogue, writing synopses, narrative drive, children's books, getting published - all good, useful stuff.

There's a whole battery of experienced writers, too, to give conference talks about everything from poetry to comedy scripts.

There are chances to book individual sessions with writers, for which you submit work in advance.

The prices put attendance out of the question, but I was interested to see a list of competitions. I have a lot of writing that could do with a polish and an outing.

I sent off for a booklet with winning entries for last year's competitions first, half afraid I might be put off by the quality of entries. I was, initially, but the booklet itself was good value. Apart from the entries, there was a transcript of the plenary address by John Bowen and a concluding article by Vincent McInery. Both very inspirational.

I've settled for entering a short story competition, partly because the prize is a week's writing course in Mallorca. I've chosen one I wrote in 2005 which has gone through many a polishing. Right up to the posting I was finding words to change. Even the entry fee was steep, I thought, at £9, so I restricted myself to just the one.

Well, at least I suppose there's not long to wait, unlike when I used to send stories to women's magazines and wondered for weeks and months what might have happened to them

Download a copy of the programme from :

Monday, 10 May 2010

Auditioning Knole

'Yes, but I didn't drive all the way out here to eat sandwiches in the car then linger in the tea-rooms- I came to see the house.' My husband gave me a 'Why do I have to be always have to be rushed?' look and laid aside his bridge book.

There was only half an hour left to see Knole so all we could manage was the Great Hall and the picture gallery that I remembered from previous visits. The Brown gallery is 88 feet long, with a vaulted ceiling and walls lined with Elizabethan portraits of aristos, churchmen and royalty who'd met with tragic ends; perfect for ghostly sightings. The threadbare chairs ranked along the walls and dim lighting were bonuses. Was that the Slighted Maid of Micklesham Manor, flitting in outline in front of the mullioned window, about where two volunteer guides were standing?

This visit resulted from a competition in my online writers' group. I submitted a synopsis and first chapter of a country-house comedy thriller I've been mulling over for a while. The competition 'prize' was a full commentary feedback for three winning writers. Although I wasn't in the first three I did have enough encouragement and advice to make me continue with the project.

The National Trust houses I've visited over the years have come together in the creation of fictional Micklesham Hall. The characters in the novel, 'On Course for Murder' are holed up at the house, cut off by snow, in Thetford Forest. (based on a real family Christmas at a Norfolk Youth Hostel)

Mickelesham Manor doesn't have Knole's extensive deer park. On the other hand, it does have kitchens, and I think these will come from Lynhydroc, a Cornish mansion I visited a couple of years back, with additional equipment from Hampton Court. The banqueting hall will be like the one at Eltham Palace ( a digression into English Heritage territory) and the library, complete with suits of armour and deer-head plaques, that will bear a striking resemblance to Sir Walter Scott's lowland fantasy retreat at Abbotsford. The main problem will be to avoid mixing periods too much, but some can be accounted for by restorations.

I'm not knocking the portraits at Knole - Gainsborough, Reynolds, Van Dycks aplenty - but I prefer the ones in the Ranger's House at Greenwich Park. Within walking distance. It means visits don't involve transport. Besides, at Knole they tend to be high up on the walls and not so easily examined.

I'll enjoy drawing a map of the fictional house and grounds, cobbled together from various brochures. £5.50, for the Knole one seemed a bit steep and raised eyebrows in the shop until I told Roy it was for 'research' It'll provide architectural and furnishing terminology. Postcards are great 'aide-memoires', too.

It seems to me that the less my research depends on a much loved but somewhat tardy companion the better.

Knole House, Sevenoaks

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Ready, Steady, Edit.

I probably bought this book before I had anything much to revise or when I was too caught up in writing to pay it much heed. I wish I'd read it before I started.

Now that I'm ready to give fiction another try and have a cache of rejected short stories and novels going nowhere it's just what I'm looking for. I whipped through it, pencil in hand, over a weekend with lots of other stuff going on. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers reads like an easy-to-follow cook book. I can't wait to start applying what the authors recommend.

Renni Browne and Dave King are American editors and say today's fiction readers, unlike those for nineteenth century novels, expect stories to work like films and TV. It's an idea that informs the book's approach.

What I most I liked was the way the book was divided into easy-to-understand chapters with lots of examples from published authors, reviewers' comments and workshop submissions to illustrate the points made.

The twelve chapters have for the most part self-explanatory titles: 1 Show and Tell;2Characterization and Exposition; 3 Point of View; 4 Proportion, etc. They make their points clearly and have a bullet point checklist at the end of each chapter as well as enjoyable exercises with key answers in an appendix.

There's an interesting list of Top Books for Writers and an index. I liked the occasional cartoons gently deflating the image of the writer as hero/tortured genius.

It's good to have positive signposts to start editing already-written pieces, and I'm sure it will influence work-in-progress.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers;How to Edit Yourself into Print Second Edition (2004) by Renni Brown and Dave King. HarperCollins. NY

Monday, 29 March 2010

Some Like it Literary

I once attended a short story course at the British Museum, so it was with a sense of déjà view I loitered at the Ashmolean last Friday (as you do), filling in time before a 4pm talk, ‘What makes a Good Short Story?’ It was in a marquee in Christ Church gardens and was part of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve written dozens of stories, some having a polite reception at writers’ groups, but none deemed worthy of publication. Maybe I’d find out what was missing. In any case, it was sure to be a good for my reviewing.

My delight at a pole position seat opposite Hanif Kureishi was spoiled by noise from behind – three thirty-something men exchanging banter with various well-wishers. No wonder they were over-excited –they were three of the six short-listed contenders for the £25,000 prize for the best short story in the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. The ‘talk’ was in fact a discussion chaired by Cathy Galvin, editor of The Sunday Times Magazine.

A very elderly man, sitting further back, his hands folded on the handle of a walking stick was also identified as short-listed author CK Stead. Another, much younger man in an anorak in the back part of the tent was Joe Dunthorne. I immediately warmed to him, if only because he’d distanced himself from the wise-cracking trio. The sixth author on the short-list, a Zimbabwean woman writer, couldn’t attend.

The complete short-listed authors and stories were:
Will Cohu: 'Nothing but Grass' Joe Dunthorne: 'Critical Responses to My Last Relationship'; Petina Gappah: 'An Elegy for Easterly' ;Adam Marek 'Fewer Things' CK Stead 'Last Season’s Man' David Vann 'It’s Not Yours'

The five judges had read 40 stories ‘filtered’ from over 1,000 entries. Judges present, AS Byatt and Hanif Kureishi and literary editor Andrew Holgate, responded to questions put by Cathy Gavin, Lierary Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine. Lynn Barber and Nick Hornby were the judges not present.

So what qualities did they look for? ‘Concision; compression; poetic exactitude’, said AS Byatt. There are no prescriptive rules about one point of view or one emotion and she tried to judge with a blank mind because the short story ‘can do what it likes’ You could quickly tell whether a story was ‘alive or dead’.

Hanif Kureishi said a good story is one that ‘keeps your attention’with ‘The right words in the right order’ (Nothing new there, then) He usually discarded anything that hadn’t grabbed him after three pages. (Which raised a laugh, but I think three pages is generous for a short story)

Byatt said what she liked about writing a short story was knowing the plot so she so could concentrate on the language. Kureishi said he didn’t get bored as he did when writing novels. ‘It’s satisfying to have ideas that can be that can be realised in a week or so’.

Asked to name a short story writer she admired, Byatt nominated Kipling. Kureishi mentioned O Henry, DH Lawrence, Hemingway and Carver.

About changes in form, Byatt detected ‘a new kind of unreality that fits onto the international’. I was puzzled by this at the time but reading the winning story on Sunday made it clear. Holgreave was disappointed by the lack of experimentation.

Asked if they agreed with the saying, ‘Art divides; craft unites’ Kureishi said the craft should be hidden. Byatt looked for a ‘certain rhythm in the language.’

Holgate read an extract from a story that sounded suspiciously like the stories Byatt said she didn’t like: ‘a particular type of masculine American short story’. It was by David Vann and featured a character called Big Al, with ‘fingers as rough and hard as a deformed carrot’

This type of story, in fact, seemed popular. One extract was about men bonding on a duck shoot. Another, ‘Fewer things’, with an ecological theme, was about a man and son on a remote island.

The humour in Joe Dunthorpe’s ‘Critical Responses to my last Relationship’ was welcomed by Kureishi because it was ‘good to read something that didn’t make me want to shoot myself in the head’. He was the author in the anorak who now had my full support.

Holgate wondered if the genre is too miserable,(which in my opinion is true) and referred to Will Colhu’s story of a man who kills his workmate and Petina Gapper’s story set in a settler camp in Zimbabwe.

Style was important, as one bad sentence could kill a short story, whereas it could get lost in a novel. Holgate said ‘It sticks out a mile.’

What, asked an audience member, were the parameters of a bad sentence?

’Well, said Kureishi, clichés stand out, as does a boring start, so it’s best to put the good stuff at the beginning. A bad sentence? ‘The wrong words in the wrong order.’

So now I know, and there’s nothing much to add except that to my great joy the winner was CK Stead, ‘New Zealand’s leading writer, at the height of his powers’. What particularly pleased me was his age - he’s 77. So maybe that's what's missing as far as I'm concerned: I'm not yet old enough.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Reading Speed and the Soap Opera Effect: Håkan Nesser‘s The Return

A body found in a wood in 1994; a murderer released from jail who disappeared in 1993; could they be connected?

That's what Chief Detective Inspector Van Veeteren and his team will have to look into. Unfortunately, the grumpy toothpick-chewer spends most of the book in hospital after an operation for stomach cancer. He's reduced to reading trial transcripts while half-dozen lack-lustre underlings take on the footwork and interviews.

The different reactions to this novel expressed at the crime reading group set me to thinking about how even crime novels need different reading speeds.

Some, like this, are just denser than others. As you read you savour the style and don't mind pondering. If a character comes in on page 30 and you have a vague recollection he's been there before you don't mind looking back. It's the opposite kind of read to a 'page-turner', a cover word that puts me off.

It took a while to get used to the slow, jig-saw like nature of the plot, so I was surprised when a member of the group said she’d found it a ‘quick read’.

The 'routine investigation' unfolds, and it is indeed very routine, (‘repetitive’ is how one member of the group described it) but occasional flash-back chapters privilege the reader.

You can see why the author uses this structuring technique -if he didn't, the reader would be so annoyed with being kept permanently in the dark he'd throw down the book and start reading The Dragon Tattoo instead.

Even the location seems deliberately obscure. The names are Dutch but the place could be Sweden or Poland or any of those north-European places with tiny, introverted settlements surrounded by forest.

An understated rhythm and ironic style combine with literary sleight of hand. Nesser, someone suggested, is well-served by his translator to produce a prose so subtle it’s almost mesmeric. Surveillance of a suspect in a high-class restaurant sets a humorous scene for hapless cops to relish a gourmet meal on expenses. Passages where the point-of-view isn't immediately identified almost make you suspect the author is playing games at the reader's expense; or perhaps he assumes you like it when he teases.

The real turning point of the book, the crucial 'return', is that of Van Veeteren. Once he's back on his feet Van Veeteren soon has things moving, while ratcheting up the intellectual level by several hundred percent. It’s as if he’s wandered in from a novel by Hesse or a Bergman film, except that he’s no indecisive Hamlet. As his name suggests, he's seen too much to hesitate.

His musings are suitably enigmatic:

'What does a fractual care about a camera?' he asked himself.

But he's a man of action when action's required. In the space of a few pages he has put an interviewee through the wringer, osmosed the identity of the murder in a visit to a hut, and achieved the true end of every detective story with a truly shocking twist.

The Return isn’t a good introduction to Nesser’s work. It’s a sequel to the earlier Borkmann’s Point, which won him the best novel award in Sweden in 1994, and the third Van Veeteren novel. I hadn’t read any before, so didn’t possess the ‘cultural capital’ that would have made the earlier chapters easier to read.

The comparison is with soap operas like The Archers or Coronation Street, where recognition kicks for instant involvement because of previous experience. Here, were the hero called Rebus, or Morse, or, more appropriately, Wallander, it would have the same effect.

One of Van Veeteren’s assistants, Münster, was much more fleshed out as a personality than his fellow-detectives. Like Morse’s sidekick, Lewis, he was happily married, forever dreaming about off-duty domestic bliss. It occurs to me that this may be part of the author’s ongoing scheme of things as the books develop, each one of the characters will enter the spotlight and we’ll know much more of them so that each novel will increase our ‘cultural capital’. While this would enhance the soap opera effect, maybe that’s too fiendish a master plan. I wouldn’t mind sticking around to find out, though.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Too many Projects, but nearly there with this one

It's happened again. I have so many different writing projects that I'm reduced to allocating half an hour a day to each. Of course, this means progress is slow all round.I seem to finish the odd blog, but I've been writing a magazine article for for about three weeks now. There's no deadline,which is just as well. In fact, I'm only just ready to submit a proposal.

I came back from my stint as a volunteer classroom asstant in Spain all fired up with enthusiasm to write some articles. I'm also determined to get paid, which means not writing for websites as I did with some of my China articles. Ditto lots of theatre and film reviews. I'm just regarding that as practice because now I want to earn some money.

Christmas celebrations intervened, then a holiday and a bout of bad health which seemed to last though most of February. Then I revised a synopsis and a chapter for a competition. I joined facebook, restarted evening classes and a crime reading group, etc.etc. All delayed completion of my Zamora piece.

I followed the advice of various courses and 'how-to' articles and looked for a suitable 'outlet' to analyse for tone and content. I trawled through travel mags in WH Smiths.

The most likely print outlet I've found is a magazine called Living Spain , its target audience, as might be expected, people who are thinking of moving there permanently.

As well as guides to the more popular expat areas -there's an article about Andalucia - it includes pieces written by people who've lived and worked in Spain, ranging from the adventurous and unusual - the author man who lives up a mountain, with his Spanish wife, to the more predictable - a woman who teaches English and drama in a private international school on the Costa Blanca. They include details of work and lifestyles as well as descriptions of local fiestas and information for readers who might want to do something similar. Both are living there permanently, so have lots of relevant local knowledge.

Other features include book reviews -written by the same person, so probably a staff writer - some in-depth well-researched articles on, for instance, The Basque Country, with when-to-go and where-to-stay advice. These are written by experienced travel writers. All the pieces are lavishly illustrated with top-class photos.

There's a cookery page and I use the instructions to make a perfect tortilla - though I've had some practice. There's advice on tax and finance and a round up of fiestas and festivals, and a portait of 'Spanish Legend', Seve Ballastero.

I find what I'm looking for on the back page. I've had luck with back pages, before, namely a couple of articles for 'Expat Eye' in the Beijing Review. That was when I worked for a publisher in China and by a stroke of luck a colleague got a job in Beijing. His duties included commissioning writers. The fist piece was about taking part as a judge in an English speaking competition. It meant a week in China's northern-most city, Harbin, at Ice Festival time, with temperatures at -30C.

'How about taking the lid off what it's like to work in a Chinese office?' was his next suggestion. So I wrote that - a great success and very funny, I thought, but relations with the boss were never quite the same.

The back page in 'Living Spain' is named 'Final Call' and this issue has an article called 'A Week on the Camino de Santiago'I decided that space was to be my goal.

I've done my 'how to write magazine articles' homework, analysed the magazine in general and the 'Camino' piece in detail. There's an illustration but I took lots of photos in Zamora so that shouldn't be a problem. The word count is 1200, which could be.Maybe the scope of my piece is too wide.

The structure of the Camino piece more or less does itself - a narrative of the pilgrim's route. There's some dialogue, quite a lot of landscape description:

Almost as soon as we crossed the frontier, the lush greenness of the French Pyrenese gave way to a much rockier and starker countryside and the further we travelled down the valley towards Jaca, the drier and warmer everything became.

Later on;

We also saw all sorts of wildlife, including Griffon vultures, red kites and buzzards

It's all stiffened up with a fair amount of history, a touch of humour. (At the start, the writers friend speaks in French instead of Spanish and says hello instead of good bye.) The human interest or arm-chair travel aspects are covered by accounts of sweaty walks along dusty terrain and a welcome at a hostel.

So, I've used it as model and incorporated most of the elements. Mine lacks the sense of outdoor adventure that appeals in the 'Camino' piece, but has more Spanish people - and children, of course. Maybe I could introduce more drama. Looks as if I'll have to lose about a third of its length, too. I've probably used enough material for two or three pieces.

Now the first draft is finished, though, I should be able to polish it this week. So I'll write the proposal.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Elmore Leonard's Top Ten Writing Tips (more or less)

I'm not exactly bereft when it comes to 'How-to-Write' books - but what's this I read in Time Out? Best-selling crime-writer Elmore Leonard's giving out writing tips on TV!

It's a BBC programme called 'Culture', so forget helpful countdown numbers, as in 'The 20 Best Spats from Corrie''. Instead, close ups of the author's gaunt face wreathed in cigarette smoke, intercut with clips of John Travolta and Danny DeVito talking about writing in the 1995 film, 'Get Shorty'

As I'm also eating a pizza, and it's more an edited version of the writer's thoughts than 'tips' I note down only nine. Maybe there were more.

1 Get up at 5am and only allow yourself to drink coffee when you're well into the scene. Ooh, that's good - I'm an early riser, too. Maybe the 'scene' he mentions is the 'zone' I've heard about, or maybe he really did say 'zone'. English writers could substitute tea, but *n.b see below for contradictory info. on the start time.

2 Characters are more important than plot, and names make a difference. I like the way Leonard 'auditions' his characters and told how changing the name of one character from Frank McTeeth (?) to Frank Delaney made him a talkative extravert.

3. Don't describe the characters appearance, but let them emerge from the way they talk. Just as bad, in my opinion, is when characters describe their own mirror reflections.

4. Don't worry about what your mother might think.

5. Readers won't skip dialogue. He advocates building a 'rythym, a beat that goes like jazz', which relates more to the Southern US where most of his stories are set. The same idea in different format, though, can be seem in John Le Carre's distinctive 'Smiley' speech

6 Develop a style or sound. Never use a verb other than 'said' in dialogue and don't use adverbs to modify verbs. Elroy mentions Hemingway as an influence and quotes Conrad on adverbs.

7. Writing is re-writing. He writes in longhand, four pages of writing for every one he ends up with. He writes from 10am to 6pm and has peanuts for lunch. This seems to contradict the early start rule first mentioned.

8. Write because it makes you happy. Leonard says he sometimes looks at the clock at around 3pm and thinks 'Oh, good, I've still got three hours left.How many jobs are there where you say that?'

9. The rest is up to you.

There's nothing here I haven't read before in one or another of my 'How-to' books. If it were down to reading books, or doing courses, for that matter, I'd be a millionaire best seller too.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson was a magazine editor who died suddenly after delivering the manuscripts of three novels to his Swedish publisher. Intrigued as I might be about the suspicious circumstances, it didn’t help me to get through the book.

It was the film trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that pinged my antennae: just a cloud of ink spreading in water, like a lacy veil, and a young woman’s face, but any mention of dragons and I’m all ears.


Ah, that must have been why I picked it up in the local Red Cross shop. Why didn’t I read it before? I was soon reminded.

‘How-to-write’ guides advise readers to analyse books they admire. I find the ones I don’t like are a more useful challenge. Some of the choices in my crime reading group are so hard to get into they drive me to scribbling names and events on post-it notes.

’The plaudits that take up two pages arouse suspicion, for a start, although I’m sure the opposite is intended.

‘A rip-roaring serial-killer adventure’ (John Williams, The Mail on Sunday)

‘A striking novel, full of passion, an evocative sense of place and subtle incites into venal, corrupt minds.’ (Peter Guttridge, Observer)

‘What a cracking novel!’ …Brilliantly written and totally gripping’. (Minette Walters)

So why do I find it hard to get as far as Chapter 4?

It’s got two other ingredients that put me off straight away – apart from the eulogies, that is. First there’s a family tree that takes up a whole page, and then dates at the head of each chapter, partly in Roman numerals!

I’ve no objection to a Scandinavian setting – I’ve liked Sweden the three times I’ve been there, I enjoy the Wallander series on TV (albeit the ones with subtitles and no Kenneth Branagh) and I quite enjoyed the Swedish thriller we read in the crime reading group, although his name was unpronounceable.

So what’s wrong with this one? It starts innocuously enough. No Val McDermid-style riveter, but I’ll give it a go, even though there's a prologue, a third stumbling block. An old man receives a pressed flower on his birthday. Nothing so strange, except he’s been getting them annually for 42 years and he has no idea who sends them. Even his friend the police chief can’t crack the mystery. Annoying, but not enough to cause too much fretting, one would have thought.

Chapter one introduces a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, found guilty of libelling Wennerstrom, a businessman. There’s a flashback to a chance meeting with a pal who has told him that Wennerstrom is some kind of financial shyster. This has got to be the most boring conversion in any book, ever. It’s pure journalese. I get bogged down with acronyms which seem to be company names as in A.I.A. project or some who’s the C.E.O. of A.B.B.

These people are all quite well-heeled and live in a kind of Jeffrey Archer world with a Swedish twist – boats and waterside cabins feature.

Chapter two switches to another character, just as boring as the others, apart from his name: Dragan Armansky. A promising name but he’s not only C.E. O. but C.O.O (aargh) of a security firm. I’m really hammering the post-its by now. But here comes the real off-putter, the eponymous heroine.

Armansky’s part-time assistant, Lisbeth Salander, is ‘pale, anorexic’, ‘with slender bones that made her look girlish and fines-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four but she sometimes looked fourteen.’, and ‘Her extreme slenderness would have made a career in modelling impossible’ I‘d have thought she was just the ticket.

She reminds him of Pippi Longstocking, (a nine-years-old Swedish children’s book heroine), although her clothes are different from Pippi’s short skirt and thigh-length stripy socks:

‘Sometimes she wore black lipstick, and in spite of the tattoos and the pierced nose and eyebrows she was …well…attractive.

In case we haven’t got the message, Armansky tells us she reminds him of his daughter. Some editing would ease the queasiness, but you can see why it made a film.

There's a brief and unlikely love tryst in Chapter three. Blomkvist's mistress is a married woman with a tolerant husband.It’s page 82, the end of Chapter four before we get to the start. Blomkvist is asked by Henrik Vangler, head of a business empire, to find out why his granddaughter was murdered. He’s the same old man who was receiving the flowers in the prologue and whose family tree is on the first page.

For readers who can overlook the slick, cliché-ridden journalistic writing,
care about male characters who are ideal candidates for a Swedish version of BBC Radio 4 and don’t feel offended by a size zero bolshie heroine who only has a job because her boss is a paedo, this is an ideal read.

For me, if there’s a connection with dragons, I’m only going to find out from the film.

Website with details of Swedish crime novels:

Monday, 8 March 2010

Why another Writing Blog?

While I'm happy with my My Freedom Pass blog, about events in London, that's more about going out than staying in.

In fact, much of what I do, as with any writer, involves hours and hours of the latter. I don't just write about events in London, either. I'm writing about books I've read, DVDs I've seen, and other home-based (well, sometimes train-based) activities.

I hesitated to start a writing blog because I'm already running two - there's the one about the U3A group I'm tutoring, as well as the Freedom Pass one I mentioned. Can I keep all three going?

I almost decided to start a new blog for the two months I spent in Spain before Christmas, but then I thought better not; it would be too short-lived.

It's because I'm writing an article about Spain that I hope to sell to a magazine, and writing a book about working in China, and various other 'projects' that I've decided to start this blog. It's not so much to showcase my work, but to blog the process - a record, as much as anything, as well as an incentive. Once an activity becomes part of a blog narrative it needs to be updated.

Most writing blogs are about creative or fiction writing; this isn't, although I occasionally write short stories and work on crime novels.

I hope that sounds halfway sensible.