Judging a book by its cover

I’ve just finished Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn.  I thought it would be useful to do some reading round a course that I’m going to be leading in October which will include another Barbara Pym book, Excellent Women.

b. pym novel coverFull marks for style and content to the author, five out of ten to the publisher who thought that the illustration by Pat Fogarty was suitable.  It’s a nice picture, but it inaccurately portrays the content of the novel.  True, it shows four middle-aged characters, and three of them do go into libraries at different points in the story, but never all four together.

Am I wrong to expect the cover to connect precisely with the content?  Obviously it doesn’t carry the same weight as a title created by the author, yet it does infect my reading.  Half-way through the novel I realised I was waiting for that scene.  The further I got into the story the less likely such a gathering place seemed.

It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the picture never does happen, and yet I gave it five out of ten.  That’s a high score for something I’ve just accused of misdirecting me.  Well, retrospectively, I see the value of the Fogarty cover over some of the others.

I’vebarbara pym novel been looking, and found some plain ones, and how about this patterned one?  Tasteful, I grant you, and it doesn’t in anyway impact on my plot expectations.

It reminds me of some wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom, and I can imagine picking up this novel to read.  Trust me, it says, to offer something domestic, elegant and tasteful.  Well, that’s true, up to a point.  But I like to be surprised  by a story, and this cover does not suggest the underlying darkness that Pym reveals.

barbara Pym

Then there’s this rather stylish, one.  Houses in the suburbs, and a distant church spire, are certainly part of the setting.  But why so much pink, and the clean straight lines? Perhaps the blank windows suggest that behind the order of the picture there are secrets…

It must be hard to design a cover to suit all readers.  It’s certainly tricky to come up with a perfect title.

And maybe I’m being too particular.  After all, what the Fogarty picture does get right, for me, is tone.  The four characters, formally dressed, carefully posed, set the period.  I like the distances between them, and the detail of their clothes.  They look real, and ordinary, and I want to know what they are talking about: what the painter is trying to tell me.  Add in the colours, especially that shimmering floor, and it does suggest, Quartet in Autumn.

Whatever my personal preferences are, each cover hooked me in a some way, and the diversity of those tones may well have tempted in readers who might never otherwise have picked up a Pym novel.

Imagine a row of us, sitting on the underground, each reading the same words, bound with contrasting covers.  I wonder what we look like?

 

 

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The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

76. Why it’s worth writing short stories

Some useful words of advice…

Neil MacDonald Author

Do you suffer anxiety about whether your writing is any good? If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. You get lots of advice and encouragement when you start writing. Most of it is well-meaning. Much of it is wrong – at least for you. There’s one thing I wished I’d known when I started. Of course, like most well-meaning advice, it may not be valid for you. But my advice is write and publish short stories, even if your main interest is novels.

Short story Stephen King

Why? Many reasons, but these were the main ones for me:

  • Polish your craft.
  • Boost your confidence
  • Measure your ability.
  • Build a track record.

Polish your craft

Short stories are short. You can write them faster than a novel and revise them more easily. It’s a simpler apprenticeship to serve.

Boost your confidence

Publishing and selling a novel is hard. It takes lots of work…

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The ideal writing space

Faced with a cramped work space, and wondering how to organise clutter, or is that just me?  This week I’ve been trying to work out how I’ve accumulated so many oddments, or more specifically, if there are any I could ditch.  It’s not just the books, you see.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder, but I’ll admit to a magpie instinct.  A lot of my early collections were gathered on walks…horseshoes, ancient bottles, pottery shards, attractive pebbles…things that don’t belong in the house, and so have found spaces in the shed that now doubles as my writing space.

Shelves have been added, and added, and over-filled…you get the story, don’t you? This week, I began to consider whether I needed an annex for my shed.

It was when I found myself measuring up a corner next to the greenhouse that I woke up to where I was heading.  If I continued to think like that, I would have a one woman business park instead of a garden.  So, jumping in the opposite direction, I tried to imagine myself a minimalist.

Where to start?  Well throw away something easy, like the heap of writing magazines. I could rip out any interesting and/or useful articles, and keep them in a folder.   George-Bernard-Sha_2071154iLike this picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed.

Aha, I thought, tearing the page out, serendipity, I’ll pin this on my door, and it’ll help keep me focused.  After all, what more should one need than a chair, a level surface and writing materials?

GBS, as he was known, named his shed London, so that unwanted visitors could be simply misled into believing he was away from home, leaving GBS in peace to scribble.  His simple and austere box looks about the same size as my office, it’s just barer.  What was good enough for him…

I dropped the rest of the magazine into the waste paper bin, took up the next one, and found Roald Dahl’s writing hut.  My heart didn’t flip, but I had a moment of honest recognition.  roald Dahl's writing hut

It would take an awful lot of effort for me to achieve and maintain the kind of simplicity that suited GBS: energy and time that I would prefer to use for writing.  Dahl’s hut has been preserved for visitors to look at, I wonder if it was usually as tidy as this?

It’s a crammed space, with just room to get from the door to that chair with its lap-tray for writing on.  I could get lost in the details here, I could lead you on to look at the sheds, huts and summerhouses other writers have created or commandeered to work in.  They’re lovely to look at, to set us dreaming a little, but actually, they’re a luxury and a danger.

If we concentrate too much on what a writing space should look like, we might forget to settle down and write.  Famously, Hemmingway would plonk his typewriter on any available surface and type.

The reality for most of us is that we make do with a corner of the kitchen, spare bedroom, sitting-room, at quite times, or relocate to cafés or libraries.  Anywhere that allows us to close off the door to domestic chores, such as tidying, is a good space to concentrate on writing.

 

 

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

IMG_0212

*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown