Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas books you can never forget.

Coming close to Christmas books I read long ago fondly spring to mind. Everyone has their own list. For the sake of brevity I will name only one here, one that is high on my list. 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'  Admittedly, there was a lot more to that book than the Christmas season; overpoweringly hot dusty summers featured strongly and the effect they had upon the families living closely together in the overcrowded neighbourhood, the heat aggravating the hardship of their sparse living quarter, provoking quarrels between neighbours when enduring the hardship of water shortages in the unbearable heat. Ever present was the hardy tree and its ability to survive the summer drought or the artic winters.  But ask anyone what they remember best about Betty Smith's classic and almost immediately they will say, 'The Christmas tree, of course.'  going on to speak indignantly of the sadistic tree vendor who at the close of Christmas Eve enjoyed his little game with the trees he didn't sell and had no more use for. He would hurl the tree with all his might at the hapless hopeful who was stoically bracing himself to catch it and if he managed to keep it from hitting the ground, the vendor magnanimously allowed him to keep it free of charge. When it came to our little heroine and her brother he allowed them to catch it between them. I know that I willed  them with all my heart to succeed and silently cheered them when, against all odds, they did; at first wildly rocking and then bravely standing firm as the huge tree came crashing down at them out of the sky. To this day I cannot buy a Christmas tree without envisaging that poignant scene followed by the children's weary walk home triumphantly dragging their prize between them.

Writing and selling the monumental lie.

When someone once asked the writer Barbara Taylor Bradford what a novel is she replied:  'It's a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth if it is to succeed.'  The year was 1988 and she had already written eight bestselling novels so knew what she was talking about.

It was an interesting definition of fiction. So many would-be  writers eagerly say of the book they have written, 'It's all true, it all really happened just as I wrote it,' as though that in itself is some kind of guarantee of success. True, some life experiences translate into stirring stuff on the page and yet the depiction of characters created by writers Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte have stood the test of time for such authors observed and portrayed their chosen characters, who were often dull and prosaic and living ordinary lives,  in a manner that was quite out of the ordinary. Therein lies their genius.

So maybe it can be said it is not the subject that has to be riveting so much as the manner in which you as a writer treat it that will give it the vital ring of truth necessary to grip hold of your readers and succeed in winning them over, the same ring of truth Bradford Taylor wrote of in her feature article aimed at writers ambitious to hit the jackpot, aptly titled, 'So You Want to Write a Bestseller?'  This came from one of the world's top writers of fiction, who herself had successfully repeated, over and over, that  'monumental' lie she had spoken of.earlier.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Writers can recoup their losses.

Years ago when my washing machine broke down there was a great guy who would come and fix it. He was kindly and chatty and when I worried about the cost of buying a new machine he would advise me to divide the purchase price by the months/years of service it gave me.On looking back it was a therapeutic way of looking at the problem.  Especially when you thought of the number of washes over time this indispensable machine gave a household of six. Even more so today when everyone is so conscious of hygiene and have got into the habit of changing practically every item every day and throwing it into the washing machine. One son of mine as a student used to wash his jeans every  single night because of the smell of smoke clinging to them,  and he didn't smoke himself. Anyway to return to the subject of the washing machine, not the original one but a newer model when it broke down, a new service man called to the house and strangely after his visit something else went wrong with the machine and he had to come again, maybe the on/off switch was no longer working, and then it was a non-functioning  programmer. Each time I had to call him out to put it right and the cost was mounting.. He was not from Ireland and he spoke rather pessimistically about my seven year old machine gloomily  forecasting that the drum was likely to give trouble next and was an expensive item to replace; he suggested if it did he could get me a reconditioned one at a very reasonable price.  Next the machine sprang a leak, flooding the kitchen floor, but this time a different serviceman arrived and to my  relief the trouble turned out to be merely a sock stuck in the hose. Simple and inexpensive to put right.

This new serviceman was friendly and chatty like my old friend in the early days and I was moved to tell him of his predecessor who seemed to have jinxed my machine with his woeful predictions. Lo and behold, it turned out the man was a conman and the company had traps set for him, using brand new washing machines, and before long caught him in the act. But not before he had been able to buy himself a new house and a new car , it was a very lucrative business he had found himself in

 Having left the experience fermenting in the haybox of my mind for some years I eventually wrote a story called Menomadness entering it for the Image/Oil of Ulay Short Story Competition and the prize money more than compensated for what I had been cheated out of. Indeed, I could have bought a couple of new washing machines with it. As they say it's not the experience itself but what you learn from it that counts and by putting my facility with words to good use, I more than recouped my losses.

Friday, December 19, 2014

When do writers best ideas come?

Writers differ about what they are doing at the time their best ideas come.Some need to be walking along a country road with a stick in their hand before their minds unclench and  inspiration comes.  Others need a stimulant - coffee or alcohol - and others still to be under pressure before they can produce the necessary words. I have found that lane swimming gets me going and I have often worked out plots and found endings for stories as I battle up and down the pool. Admittedly it works best when the pool is  fairly  empty and there is no danger of collision. So easy to forget where you are once you get really going.. Once I practically 'wrote' a one-act play during my three sessions that week in the pool but that is the exception rather than the rule.  Some time ago on Facebook a writer spoke of walking on the tread mill and working on  her novel at the same time. She had somehow rigged up a bracket to hold her laptop but that I feel is taking it to extremes. Too mechanical to my mind. Although undoubtedly there is a connection between getting the blood flowing and the mind producing and if the treadmill, the exercise bike or lane swimming does it for you well and good.  Anything that empowers the muse is worth trying.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Life imitating art and vice versa

More usually I would have said that art imitated life whether on the canvas or through the lens of a camera, but in some instances the opposite is true. Years ago I wrote a story about an old lady sitting in her hat and coat in the front hall of the old people's home on Christmas Day  waiting for her son to call, and beginning to worry that he wasn't coming when it grew late.  It gets to the point when everyone  is going in to Christmas lunch and she dejectedly rises and follows them to sit at the table with all the other old ladies wearing paper crowns, and begin dismally eating the turkey and ham dinner put before her. .At this point the son arrives full of apologies and Christmas spirit (the kind that comes out of the bottle) and bears her away to his home.  By this she is worn out from lack of sleep from excitement the previous night and sorrowing emotion that morning as she is forced to sit there for all to see, beginning to suspect all kinds of treachery on the part of her daughter-in-law, believing maybe she is taking revenge on her for some imagined insult or maybe the humiliation and ingratitude she has undergone is the fault of her own son in having so easily forgotten all about her, his own mother, on this special day and all she has ever done for him. The story was called The Usual Arrangement the title coming from the arrangement her dutiful son had made to pick her up every second Sunday,  feast days and her birthday too, of course. This story is from my collection The Straw Hat.

It must have been three of four years later that the scene was re-enacted one Christmas Day in every particular when my husband was late in picking up my elderly mother from the old ladies home and found her already sitting at the dining-table eating her Christmas dinner in her hat and coat and wearing a paper crown. It was almost surreal. He was full of apologies as he helped her out to the car and it was she, like my poor fictional old lady, whose turbanned head nodded forward on her chest and she slept,.worn out from her emotions and her suspicions.  Case in point.  In this instance life imitated art, wouldn't you say? . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

'A great bedside companion - review by Stephen

Delighted to get a good review from America of my short story collection - The Straw Hat. In it are three Christmas  stories. How seasonal is that!

At Home for Christmas about a pilot stuck on reserve and on his way out to New York when he needs to turn around and head back for home!

The Usual Arrangement about an old lady waiting for her son to take her to join the family on Christmas Day . Alas, he is very late arriving. This one was broadcast  by the BBC a few years ago on Christmas Day.

Lambs is another Christmas story broadcast by  BBC under the title Sister Enda's Lamb.  About Maria whose good-behaviour  lamb is one step faway from the crib when her  favourite  nun becomes ill and her unsympathetic replacement takes over with unhappy consequences for Maria.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Themes that haunt writers.

I suppose unless you are haunted by a theme, especially one dealing with strong issues like tragedy, social injustice and basic human rights, you might well be guilty of putting it on the back boiler and forgetting all about it. Some years ago my brother urged me to visit him in Malaysia. He was a brilliant doctor and had a thriving private practice in Seremban, and my visit was long overdue.  Every year he used come back to Ireland and stay with us for a few weeks, he was godfather to my youngest son who was named after him  We had always been close and over the years we grew closer still. When I visited him his friends and colleagues showed me wonderful hospitality and one eminent medical man, in particular, invited us to his home for a sumptuous feast prepared by his wife and servants. Afterwards my brother spoke of him warmly,  remarking in passing that he was a Tamil. His tone expressed admiration and respect tinged with awe, the latter alerting me to something unusual about him. Of course, it was the fact that he was a Tamil but, unfamiliar as I was with Tamil history at that time, it was only later the significance struck me.  For sadly, not too many Tamils ever got to university  to study medicine let alone qualify with such distinction.and become a professor in his chosen field. .At any rate I have never forgotten this unusual and erudite man.

Over the years I have read a fair bit about  the Tamil situation in Sri Lanka. Since the Tamils left India in colonial times to make their home in Ceylon and work in the tea plantations, their story has been one of discrimination and injustice, denied their basic human rights, refused entry to university.and employed in only the most menial underpaid jobs. Consequently, their names are not on any plaque or Honours list.  Only when they began to fight back for their liberty and independence in the Sixties and Seventies.with the formation of the  LTTE  - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - did the world come to take notice and become acquainted with their plight. Over the years the civil war escalated and it was considered unsafe to visit that beautiful country, especially Jaffna at the northern topmost part of the island, where the Tamil Tigers had their stronghold and there was continual conflict with the military, ambushes, bombings, kidnap and interment of civilians . Thankfully, since 2009 all that is over now but not the trauma still suffered by these  unfortunate people whose lives and homes were torn apart by the cruel, senseless ethnic war.                

Inspired by the Tamil history I am working on a novel  about a young Tamil  man, Ranjan Shanti, adopted by an Irish family and educated in Ireland who goes back to his homeland to be reunited with his people. There he meets up again with Harinath Prasad, leader of the Tamil freedom fighters, whom he had looked upon as a brother in his childhood, and he joins up with him to fight for an independent Tamil State. .But Ranjan  finds their ruthless methods, the senseless bombings of innocent civilians and the use of children as human shields conflicts with his beliefs and his conscience. The situation is compounded by the fact he has fallen in love with Ginu, a young freedom fighters who has past history with Prasad. When Ranjan makes the disillusioning discovery that his one-time-friend is trying to kill him he realises his life is in danger but cannot bring  himself to leave Sri Lanka without the woman he loves.

Recently, by happy chance, I discovered the novels by Roma Tearne who is the daughter of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. She left Sri Lanka with her parents when she was ten years old to make a new life in England, and is now renowned as an artist and writer. She writes eloquently and movingly, her novels are about love and suffering, about the civil war in her homeland, the disintegration of family life, the sadness, turmoil and danger  faced by  those caught in the cross-fire, depicting with an artist's touch the glorious changing colours of the skies over the Indian Ocean, the fishermen out in their boats, the peaceful atmosphere and golden beaches all too soon to be spoiled by the military's barbed wire and landmines, the curfews and the danger always lurking from spies and informers and the cruel consequence to the innocent caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. .Like nothing else her novels have given me a great and valuable sense of this beautiful,  tragic country.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

When your new novel is read for the first time.

If it is true that a play only comes alive when the actors speak your lines when does your novel begin to live? Is it the first time other eyes than your own start reading and absorbing the story?  Hard to say. Writers will tell you it has been living in their minds for so long, months, perhaps even years,and now it is out in the public for all to see. But most will agree there is nothing quite like that first time when others assess it  and it is no longer just your book anymore - but .now belongs to others. I remember giving an advance reading in June of my second book due to be published in the autumn. It was a strange, almost heady feeling, speaking aloud the words that up until then no one had seen or heard but myself. If I could have somehow been outside of myself at that moment with the ability to become a looker on/listener in, it would surely have given me some idea of how it appeared to my listeners.  I had been close to it for a number of years, maybe too close  to be able to judge it impartially and I had to rely on the opinions of that first audience.. Their comments were important and I listened nervously, not so much wanting an honest opinion as a favourable one. When following the titillating foretaste I had given them one of my friends said it was just the kind of book she would like to curl up in bed with and, true or not, it was just what I needed  to hear just  then.

So how come, as writers, we are so bold on paper and yet timid in person when it comes to our work, more inclined to apologise for it than accept compliments with pride. Once at a book launch Clare Boylan commented on this when I was guilty of over-explaining myself and she quoted her friend and fellow-writer, Molly Keane, who had advised her early on in their relationship 'One thing you must never do is apologise for your work.'  It was good advice but when young and untried writers are inclined to be uneasy about claiming credit or even gracefully accepting it. On that subject the poet, Eavan Boland, spoke at a workshop I attended some years ago, stating in her eyes the biggest sin was for writers to meekly admit to 'doing a bit of writing'.instead of coming out boldly with the words 'I am a writer.'  But then we are all a bit superstitious about claiming before time to be something we aspire to be, as if by admitting it too early we will put a hex on it.

Writers! Trust your instincts when it comes to your novel.

How much attention should writers pay to criticism, how much to their own instinct.  Too much attention and the baby may get thrown out with the bath water, not enough and they risk remaining unpublished. On looking back I remember certain comments made by publisher's readers. On my first novel one took exception to the heroine wearing fluffy pink mules but it was the 'Sixties and I'm sure many reading this would smile and own to a similar  frivilous taste in slippers when young and flighty.. The reader said she knew very early on which man in the story the heroine would  end up with. Valid point I suppose if it were a detective novel and the heroine was the murderer. Still I made a note of it but decided to leave the fluffy mules alone and make the man in question a trifle obnoxious and seemingly unappreciative of the heroine's undoubted attractions. I must admit I learned a lot from Jane Austen's 'Emma' and Mr Knightley's annoying, sometimes prissy, attitude towards that beautiful capricious lady..

On my second book another publisher's reader was scathing  about the heroine (sexually abused by her best friend's father when she was 13 year old) because now grown up she had the nerve to disapprove of  her rival's promiscuous behaviour and her pretense at pregnancy seeking to entrap the guy into marrying her. 'Who does she think she is?' protested the reader. 'She's no one to speak after all her carry-on.' As if  any of it had been her fault. And when the hero (aged twelve at the time) had drowned kittens in the canal at his mother's request, she asked in outrage. 'Surely the author doesn't expect us to accept him as a hero.'  Well,  I did but only by the time he had matured a bit and proved himself to be a decent guy and more worthy of the heroine's love.  So I removed the drowned kittens incident and showed how time and the years in between  had made him a better person. In truth, that was only a very small part of a big novel, hardly enough to rule it out. But, alas, on so small a thing can hang the fate of your otherwise good sound book.

So much for publisher's readers. I used sometimes tell myself in the early novel writing days to be more tolerant - these readers were having a bad hair day or something and so kept faith with myself and my writing ability.  Moving on to agents. My first agent was very encouraging about my first novel and his comment, 'They could love it' meaning the reading public, went a long way to keeping me hopeful while it was being considered by different publishers. Then bingo! It was on the shelves. My second novel was very long and the agent advised me to take off 30,000 words, telling me to achieve this I could either cut whole scenes or merely enough words to reduce the length. When I did as he said and he submitted it to an English publisher the verdict was - it was a bit too melodramatic to their taste. The agent did not agree telling me to keep the drama, that it was very well written and very commercial. But before giving it out again he wanted me to take more words off it. Going by my instincts,  I  refused saying I had no guarantee that if I took any more off the length it would be any more pleasing to a publisher, and bearing in mind my mentor's advice some years before, 'Always give them enough so they will have something to cut.'. Sound advice and interesting to note when this novel was accepted the publisher had no problem with the length and on publication  ended up Original paperback 455 pages!

My maxim now is to regard any feedback as the treasure it is, read criticisms and suggestions carefully and whatever your gut feeling tells you is not constructive or appropriate, disregard, and whatever strikes you as containing en element of truth, however unpalatable, go back and work on those areas in the interests of making it a better book.Just don't be in too much of a rush, the main thing is not to slavishly accept it all as gospel and end up throwing out the very stuff that makes your book unique, exceptional, and maybe even great.  Remember it is a matter of taste and not everyone is going to like your style or your handling of the subject.  As one agent told me, 'It's all very subjective. You could very well get another agent who is wholly enthusiastic and get you a super deal?' And when you look at the history of publishing and the amount of writers whose work was rejected before becoming an acclaimed best seller, there really is is a lot of truth in what he is saying. .

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If you are too busy to blog then you really are too busy!

If you are too busy to blog then you are too busy. Having said that I love to blog and I have honestly been busy. Actually, I find it relaxing putting down my thoughts, particularly on writing, and seeing where it goes.  So what have I been doing that has kept me from this oh, so enjoyable blogging?.
     No prizes for guessing. Writing, writing, writing. Some  years ago, quite a few actually, I started writing a follow up book to my first airline novel 'Up Up and Away' which was all about the loves and lives of pilots and air hostesses in an Irish airline, Celtic Airways. When it was finished it was quite a big  book and the two sub-plots turned out to be books in their own right.  But I didn't realise straightaway what I should do.
     Instead I tried rewriting the book and cutting it drastically. Fortunately, I had first copied the original so nothing was lost as I worked on the copy. I still remember the day it struck me this was not the answer. Instead what I needed to do was to take out the two sub-plots, completely remove them..
      I was on a car journey at the time and for three hours I barely opened my mouth, my brain teeming with ideas, selecting and rejecting, agonising over what seemed like a terrible murdering waste, before I realised that I didn't have to lose them, I could actually use them. At this point, I accepted that what I had was one big novel, dramatic enough to stand on its own without the inclusion of the two sub-plots. Besides which, I had the potential for another two  novels and once I  saw where I was going it became an exciting challenge.
     After much thought I set about extracting the two smaller books from the main story. The mechanics of it were simple enough - first make three copies of the original and then remove anything from each book that  wasn't necessary to the story.  After that I edited the main book which I called 'Holding Pattern'.  In places, it took a bit of jigging and realignment of characters, the heroine's best friend needed to play a slightly less dramatic role in the revised version. I saved her earlier story for the second book 'Out of Airspace' putting the heroine of this book,  another air hostess, in the wrong place at the wrong time. On her her last flight before her wedding she obliges her flatmate by swapping on to the Cork/Paris  flight which tragically crashes into the sea soon after take-off with few survivors, of which she is one, badly injured and confined to a wheelchair. .
      I'm happy to say the first two books are finished in so far as a  book is finished when the author hands it over to  be read by an agent. The third book is on the computer and is next on the agenda..So not a lot of time for blogging, eh?  Between now and Christmas I want to make up for that. So here's hoping. . Anyway, it's nice to be back!