Top Ten Tuesday – Authors I’d Love to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Authors I’d Love to Meet

(Let’s pretend they’re all still alive, shall we?)

How could anyone resist the enigma of Emily Brontë? Because of her reclusiveness, most of what we know about her comes from other people such as her older sister Charlotte, who spoke of her as an untamed child of nature. Supposedly, Emily preferred animals to humans, and loved sparingly but intensely. I doubt she’d be interested in meeting me, but maybe I could bribe her with a baby hare or something.

My first Raymond Chandler was a second-hand, slightly beaten-up copy of “The Big Sleep”, which I fell madly in love with. The previous owner had doodled all over Raymond’s photo on the back cover and made him look like a badass drag queen. I’d love to meet him so I could find out if he’s as cool and hardboiled as his stories. Though I don’t know if I’d recognise him without big hair, lipstick and a beauty mark.

Roald Dahl was such a huge part of my childhood, there’s no way I could pass up the chance to meet him.

This 86-year-old writer of spy novels has probably given me more sleepless nights than any other man. I guess that’s just my type. He has also led an interesting life, working for MI6 before becoming a full-time author. He would probably be tight-lipped about his career, but a girl can dream.

The poet, playwright and famous wit is on everyone’s list of fantasy dinner party guests, isn’t he? Also, I lived in Reading for three years and he spent a year and a half in Reading Gaol because gay was illegal in those days. So that’s a conversation topic to awkwardly skirt around.

This is purely because she seems like a lovely person. Follow her on Twitter and you won’t regret it. She’s full of excellent, down-to-earth advice and good humour.

Everyone who knows which Hogwarts house they belong to (Ravenclaw for life) owes a debt of gratitude to good old J.K. Other people who owe her a debt of gratitude include parents of reluctant readers, the British tourism industry, brainy girls with frizzy hair who needed Hermione Granger for a role model, and everyone who enjoys seeing her troll Donald Trump. I’d just like to thank her for everything.

Hopefully he could teach me a bit about ships. I adore his books, especially the Aubrey – Maturin novels set in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. However, I often find myself reading several paragraphs and all I get from them is “The ship did a thing and now the British are winning, hooray!”

If someone can write accessible atheistic philosophy and a damn good adventure story, all in one neat little trilogy, they are probably interesting to talk to.

Obviously it would be great to talk to her about the creation of Frankenstein, but frankly I want to get her tipsy and ask her intrusive questions. I’d like to find out if Shelley was as much of a douche as people on the internet say he was. I’d like to ask her if she really lost her virginity on her mother’s grave. Y’know, just girl talk.

So there’s my list. Whilst writing it, I realised it was mostly made up of dead white guys (and a couple of dead white girls) so if you have any ideas for making it a little more diverse, feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

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How Not to Be a Dick at a Writers’ Group

This post is for anyone who is a member of a writers’ group, or thinking of joining one, and is anxious about accidentally being a dick. Critiquing other people’s work can be a minefield, especially if (like me) you’re prone to verbal clumsiness.

It’s worth making a little effort here, because being a dick to other writers is definitely something to avoid. You don’t want to discourage inexperienced writers, and you don’t want to end up cast as the villain in someone’s novel.

I’ve been a part of two writers’ groups, and examples of dickish behaviour were thankfully few and far between. Other writers haven’t been so lucky, and of course any writer who gets their critique from the internet is potentially in for a world of pain. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Feel free to passive-aggressively pass these tips on to anyone who could benefit from them.

Remember ABC

Always Be Constructive.

There’s no point in tearing into someone’s work (no matter how bad it is) without helping them improve it. Keep your criticism specific. For example, don’t just say a piece of writing is boring – work out why it failed to hold your interest and help the writer ramp up the tension and intrigue.

You should also think carefully about the language you use. Writers tend to be much more receptive to “I think the dialogue needs some work. It’s a little stilted in places.” than “What the hell? Nobody talks like that!”

Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like to sugar coat things. Maybe you enjoy doling out tough love. Fair enough, but believe me – tough love isn’t always welcome at a writers’ group. Like it or not, most writers are delicate little teacups who pour their heart and soul into their work and don’t enjoy having it trashed. Just … be nice, okay?

Know when to shut up

You can make a really positive contribution to a writer’s group by knowing when to speak up. Is there a plot hole that nobody else has noticed? Is the “genius” protagonist making stupid mistakes? Is the only female character a pretty face with zero personality behind it? By all means, raise your voice. But it’s equally important to know when to shut up.

At one of the writers’ groups I attended, a new guy arrived with a chapter of his work-in-progress. Someone pointed out a small flaw, and instead of discussing it briefly and then moving on, we proceeded to analyse it from every angle, while he squirmed uncomfortably. Understandably, we never saw him again. Moral of the story? Don’t get fixated on little flaws.

Respect all writers and all genres

Everyone at a writers’ group deserves thoughtful feedback. Whether they’re a published author with decades of experience, or a newbie poet who writes like a teenager and uses the word “soul” too much, they’ve had the guts to share their work and they deserve a useful critique.

Unless you join a very specialised writers’ group, it’s likely that you’ll be exposed to a range of different genres, and not all of them will be your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to be sniffy about them.

At one of my writers’ groups, there was a woman who wrote vampire romance. There was also a man who, whenever she read a chapter of her vampire romance, would say he didn’t understand why the hero had to be a vampire. I wish I’d explained to him that this is a daft question. Kind of like “Why is there magic in your fantasy novel?” or “Why do people keep getting killed in your murder mystery?”

Don’t tell anyone to write a different story

If a fellow writer is struggling with the plot of their story, there are all kinds of ways you can help. You can offer ideas for introducing conflict and jeopardy. You can help them fix a plot that’s unrealistic, or confusing. You can help trim back the tangle of superfluous sub-plots. One thing you shouldn’t do is tell them to write a different story.

This is a difficult line to walk, because only the writer (if anyone) will know what the “essence” of a story is. If you want to advise a writer to change a major component of their story, now is the time to ask plenty of questions.

Ask who their target readers are. Ask what kind of tone or mood or message they are trying to convey. Get as much information as you can and use it to tailor your advice, so that you are helping the writer tell the story they want to tell, rather than the story you, personally, want to read.

Listen

Everything I’ve written so far has been about giving feedback to other writers, but if you’re attending a writers’ group, you’re presumably there to get feedback for your own work too. Be prepared for this to be a less than ecstatic process.

Some people won’t “get” what you’ve written. Some people will “get” it all too well, and spot half a dozen genuine flaws. It’s easy to get more interested in defending your work than improving it.

Stay calm, and try not to battle everyone’s advice. It’s a good idea to note down the feedback that people are offering, so you can look at it later and ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it.

 

If you have tips you’d like to share, or a memorable writers’ group experience to get off your chest, feel free to comment!

 

Poem – The Hunger

For me, writing poetry is usually a much quicker and messier process than writing prose. I write poems in a mad rush, then have to do an awful lot of editing. This one, however, I wrote slowly and made only a few changes during editing. I don’t quite trust it.

 

The Hunger

I can feel the last blackberries withering

in the shrinking of my own, bird-pecked flesh.

At summer’s end, they were fit for a queen’s fingers,

dark jewels that cut our lips bloody.

We ate them like savages.

 

As a child, digging for potatoes

had its own magic. Mining for dirt-covered gems,

for gold nuggets the size of a fist.

These days, it’s muddy marbles, poor specks

of nourishment. Everything shrinking.

 

At night, the winter wind screams

and my stomach screams back.

I rise, unsteady, meet the winter air

at the door. I will fight bird or beast

for the last blackberries.

Should Books Have Age Ratings? The Case for Yes

 

A friend recently told me an anecdote about her mum, who is adorably clueless. Apparently she was tidying the bedroom of my friend’s thirteen-year-old sister, and was shocked to find a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in a drawer in her bedside table. She was also very confused as to why anyone would keep their electric toothbrush in a drawer instead of in the bathroom.

I thought this was funny at first, but then I started to feel uneasy. I doubt my friend’s sister is the only thirteen-year-old girl with a copy of FSOG and an electric toothbrush in her drawer. Internet controls can (at least in theory) prevent kids accessing online porn, but there’s nothing to stop them buying erotic literature.

Is this a problem? My first memory of a “dirty” book is when, at the age of eleven, a girl in my class showed me a scene in a Catherine Cookson novel(!) in which a man and a woman shag in a field. Remembering things like this, it’s easy to dismiss the issue. Books are harmless, right?

Wrong. The content of popular (and unpopular) books can be just as questionable as any carefully rated Hollywood blockbuster. Going back to Fifty Shades, here’s a link to a blog post listing fifty examples of abusive behaviour in the best-selling “romance” trilogy. The blogger only got halfway through the second book before reaching fifty examples.

There is also the issue of mature content in children’s and Young Adult literature. A parent might want to encourage their child’s interest in reading, and buy them a book without having any real idea of the amount of swearing, murder, etc. They may assume, for example, that if the first Harry Potter book is fine for their eight-year-old, the last one is too.

Perhaps the lack of age ratings for books highlights a double standard. Visual media, such as movies, video games and comics, have always been more subject to censorship. This may be because visual media has a more immediate impact, but I suspect there is also an element of elitism at play.

Books are traditionally seen as being written and read by fairly educated people, whereas visual media such as movies are supposedly designed for mass consumption. Perhaps there is an implicit classist assumption that educated people don’t need protecting from potentially harmful content, because their minds are less likely to be corrupted.

It may be time to put aside outdated notions about literature and stop giving books an easy ride. If you believe in the power of the written word, then it makes sense to acknowledge that books can harm as well as help, and to minimise the harm in order to maximise the benefits.

Should Books Have Age Ratings? The Case for No

Growing up, my parents had a pretty relaxed attitude to what I was and wasn’t allowed to read. I had a free run of the bookshelves, and the only book I was ever forbidden from reading was “A Clockwork Orange”. I was about nine at the time.

I think most people would agree that “A Clockwork Orange” is not suitable reading material for a nine-year-old, because of all the ultra-violence and rape and general nastiness. But you can’t tell that from the front cover. I could’ve walked into any bookshop with a handful of pocket money and picked up a copy of my own, no questions asked.

This begs the question – should books have age ratings, in the way that movies (and video games, and comics) do? Wouldn’t this protect kids from unsuitable, upsetting material?

I’m going to argue that no, they shouldn’t. This isn’t a knee-jerk defence of the status quo, or paranoia about “kids these days” being wrapped in cotton wool. My main reason for arguing against age ratings for books is that reading a book is a very different experience to watching a movie, and I don’t think it makes sense to apply the same rules.

Imagine you’re a kid or teenager, reading a book, and you come across some content that you’re not ready for. It’s too violent, too sexually graphic, too dark, or it just bugs you in some way that you can’t understand. What do you do? Close the book. No big deal. You can always come back to it later, when you’re ready. You’re completely in control.

Now imagine you’re at the cinema, and that same content is being acted out on an enormous screen, complete with surround sound. You can’t stop the movie, and even if you decide to leave as soon as the content starts to bother you, it still takes a while to squeeze past all the other cinema-goers and escape.

Then there’s the fact that while reading is a solitary activity, watching a movie is often a social one. Any kids who admits that he’s finding a movie too gory or scary runs an obvious risk of being picked on. And of course, cinema tickets are expensive, so walking out of a movie always feels like a waste of money.

I believe that books are a healthy, low-pressure way for kids to explore their own boundaries, and there’s very little to be gained by stirring up a moral panic about the latest dystopian YA novel, especially when encouraging kids to read more has so many proven benefits.

And of course, a lot of children’s stories would cease to become children’s stories if we started giving everything a strictly appropriate age rating. Just think of some of the old fairytales, like Bluebeard with its bleeding keys and hidden corpses. And just to play devil’s advocate … would the bible need an age rating?

Top Ten Tuesday – Mash-Ups

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.

Okay, this is my first Top Ten Tuesday and I got waaaaaaay too into it. I’m going to have to write a tonne of crossover fanfiction to get all these mash-up ideas out of my system. Anyway, without further ado, here are my top ten…

Books You’d Mash Together

1) Northanger Abbey + Dracula

In “Northanger Abbey”, Catherine Morland is seventeen years old and obsessed with Gothic novels. She goes to stay at Northanger Abbey with the mysterious Tilney family, and becomes convinced that something horrendous happened to the lady of the house. Spoiler alert – it didn’t. I always felt like Catherine was cheated out of an adventure. Instead, she gets married at eighteen to Henry Tilney, who seems like a good bloke (he has a sense of humour, and understands muslin) but commits the cardinal sin of telling Catherine off for reading too many novels. Given the chance, I would introduce Catherine to the world of “Dracula” and she would, of course, become a badass vampire hunter.

2) Wuthering Heights + Cold Comfort Farm

I wish I liked “Wuthering Heights”. I love Emily Bronte’s poetry, and I love wiley, windy moors as much as the next woman. But then I read it and found myself very put-off by how f*cking nasty it is. People keep strangling each other’s dogs and such – how is this a love story? However, I have a solution! Introduce the thoroughly modern Flora Poste from “Cold Comfort Farm” to the moor’s inhabitants. Flora Poste loves nothing more than to fix people’s lives, and she does this very successfully with her relatives at Cold Comfort. With her influence, Heathcliff and Catherine and everyone else would probably end up comfortable, happy and well-dressed.

3) The Darling Buds of May + American Psycho

My reasoning for this is pretty much the opposite to the previous one. The Larkin family in “The Darling Buds of May” have it all figured out. They live in a rural idyll, always eat well and never worry too much about trivial things like unplanned pregnancies. So I’d like to drop an actual psychopath, like Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho” into their world, just to see what happens. Actually, they would probably just take him strawberry picking and mix him delicious cocktails and he would fall in love with the eldest daughter and stop being a psycho.

4) The Naughtiest Girl in the School + the Harry Potter books

This one is pure, nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These two were my favourite boarding school series (boarding schools are, or at least they were, practically their own genre in British kids’ books) and I’d love to see them mixed together. I doubt Elizabeth Allen’s attempts to be the naughtiest girl in the school would match Fred and George Weasley’s pranks, but maybe they could teach her a thing or two.

5) Pippi Longstocking + Just William

For very similar reasons. As a kid, Pippi and William were my two favourite troublemakers. William had his gang of “Outlaws”, and Pippi had a horse and a monkey. If they joined forces, they would cause so much chaos and have so much fun.

6) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes + Anything with actual ghosts and ghoulies

I’d like to see how such a fiercely logical character would react to the paranormal. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, he’s a total skeptic – memorably demonstrated in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, when he refuses to believe there is anything otherworldly about the giant, glowing dog. But what if he were placed in a world where the paranormal does exist? Maybe he’d have a nervous breakdown. Or maybe he’d accept it coolly and rationally, remembering that “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

7) Preacher comics + George’s Marvellous Medicine

This one is cheating slightly, since the “Preacher” comics aren’t actually books, but I have good reason for bending the rules. There’s not a single literary villain who scares me like Jesse Custer’s ridiculously evil grandma, and she deserves to get got. Perhaps the adorable, granny-poisoning George could mix up a special batch of medicine for her, and then she’ll stop haunting my nightmares.

8) The Chronicles of Narnia + His Dark Materials

Two completely different interpretations of Christian mythology, and maybe an awesome fight between Aslan the lion and Iorek Byrnison the armoured bear.

9) The Notebook + The Time Machine

A sure-fire way of tricking me into reading a big, swoony romance is to put time travel in it. I adore “The Time Traveller’s Wife”, for example, and the “Outlander” series. The whole “having to choose between two lovers” thing carries a lot more weight when it’s a choice between two different lives in different centuries, rather than a choice between the blonde dude and the dark-haired dude. So I think I would enjoy “The Notebook” a lot more if it was mashed up with H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”. Hey, maybe the time machine itself could be the MacGuffin that the story centres around, instead of a boring old notebook.

10) The Catcher in the Rye + The Horse Whisperer

Oh wait, somebody already wrote that. It’s called “The God of Animals” – the debut novel of Aryn Kyle. It’s an underrated gem, and if you’ve ever been an angsty twelve-year-old, ridden a horse, or endured a long, hot summer where nothing much happens but everything changes, I would thoroughly recommend it.

Poem – Fight Scenes

This poem is brand new, and I decided to post it while I still like it. I’ve also submitted it to the Tom Howard poetry contest – fingers crossed!

 

Fight Scenes

After karate, we watch movies.

I like the fight scenes –

quick, slick, foxtrot-elegant.

Punches sound like

chests are just solid meat.

 

We try to fight like that,

or like the brown belts at karate.

Instead we spin, wriggle,

laugh ourselves to jelly,

pull each other’s hairbands out.

 

We’re, what, fifteen?

when we see a real fight in a car park.

I could cry at how ugly it is.

Later, you get all weepy

at the lies told by movie sex.

 

A small flat –

we fight over the good window,

wanting to let go a chestful of smoke

or take in a promise of rain.

We end up breathing each other’s air.

 

We’re as grown as we’ll ever be.

Grown into our separate skins.

I start a play fight in your car,

but it turns urgent, turns real.

Your elbow bloodies my nose.

I catch the drops in my palm

and take them as proof that we are still sisters.