Category Archives: The Blog

One week in – changing my writing challenge…

I set myself the challenge of not losing creativity during the working week by setting aside time every day to complete a writing exercise.  You can read the blog about this here.

One of my aims had been to post the results of the daily exercise into this blog.  However, after completing 4 exercises in a row about about opening lines, I realised that simply posting the outcome of the exercises is not going to make for very interesting content.

So I am going to have to be a little bit more creative.

Instead of simply posting the exercises into the blog, I am going to use them as a starting point to inspire short stories, which I will post instead.  I am still going to set aside the time and complete a new exercise every day, but I will use this as a starting point rather than as an aim in itself.

When I defined myself as an aspiring writer, I said I wanted to create finished stories, adopt writing routines, maintain my creativity, feel more comfortable in sharing my writing and work on improving my writing.

It seems to me that using the writing exercises from my writing challenge to create new characters and stories is a much better way for me to achieve those aims, rather than treating it like a homework exercise which I will complete and then forget about.  It will take me longer to create stories to post, but hopefully it will make for more interesting blog posts and it  be more beneficial to my writing in the long run.  Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to open the door on the host of characters who are currently tapping away, looking for a way out.

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Is the book always better? Film and TV adaptations

I am one of those people who will almost always insist that a book is better than a film adaptation.  If there is a film or TV series coming out that I want to see which is based on a book, I will always read the book first.  I find reading a book is such an intensely personal experience – the writer gives me the characters and the settings which then live in my imagination.  My own experience of a book and interpretation of the characters and events is mine alone, and will not be exactly the same as anyone else.  That is what makes talking about books such a joy – we can discuss and share and analyse and disagree about books for hours, and no one will be wrong.  The writer has given us a gift which belongs to each of us individually, but which we can all collectively enjoy.

A film or TV adaptation is such a different experience.  We are presented with the director’s interpretation of the story and we lose some of the individuality of the experience.  I want to form my own views and opinions of the characters and the story, and that is why I always want to read the book first – I don’t want to just picture the actors and settings from the film when reading a book that has been adapted.

But sometimes, there will come along a film or TV adaptation that is every bit as good as the original book.  Here are some of my favourites:-

1. Parade’s End

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It is actually Parade’s End that inspired this post.  I have just finished watching the DVD of the BBC series, which I think was a fabulous adaptation of the book.  I will post a separate book review of Parade’s End as it is one of my favourite reads of the year so far.  I did feel the ending of the adaptation was a little rushed but still beautifully done.  Benedict Cumberbatch really brought out Tietjens vulnerable side, but Rebecca Hall as his cruel wife Sylvia absolutely stole the show.  I don’t think that they could have cast that role any better.

2. Revolutionary Road

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This novel surprised me.  I picked it up for a bargain price having vaguely heard of the film as Kate Winslet had been nominated for an Oscar.  It blew me away.  It was a really intimate portrayal of a struggling couple in suburban America in the 1950s.  I was left wondering by the end of it why I had never heard of this novel before and why it wasn’t part of the syllabus to study in school.  I caught the film later, and I loved the book so much, the bar was suddenly set very high for the film.  It did not disappoint.  Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were both outstanding, and they really captured the struggle of this couple with banality and the realisation they were not the people they had hoped to be.

3. Game of Thrones

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These books are fantastic for their sheer ambition, and for all of the twists and turns that you just don’t see coming.  However, the pace of the books can sometimes be quite slow as there is a huge cast of characters and numerous sub-plots to try to keep track of.  The TV adaptation takes all of the best bits  of the books, cuts out everything that is unnecessary and condenses it into a really exciting and well paced series.  Not all of the characters are portrayed in the same way as I see them in my head, but it is incredibly well written and well acted.

4. Les Miserables

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I have seen the film adaptation of this and an amateur production, and then I read the book.  It is a huge book at 1200 pages plus appendices.  On the whole, I far preferred the musical version both on film and on stage.  I skipped parts of the book, as there was a lot of chapters dealing with general history rather than progressing the narrative.  I found the characters of Marius and Cosette to lack substance in the book; in particular Cosette, who was portrayed as a silly little girl.  The wonderfully comic Thernadiers only really came to life for me in the musical adaptation.  I think I can safely say that I will not re-read Les Miserables, but I am now desperate to see the West End show.

In spite of these gems, I do on the whole much prefer the reading experience to the film/TV experience.  My least favourite adaptations are:-

1. The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights for British readers)

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I absolutely loved Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and Lyra Belaqua is one of my all time favourite characters.  The world of daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, dust and gobblers was so rich and full of imagination that I thought it would be fantastic on the big screen and I really looked forward to the adaptation.  Unfortunately for me, it fell completely flat.  There is a lot going on in the book and perhaps too much to comfortably fit into one film.  As a result, the whole thing felt rushed.  I also felt that the film shied away from some of the darker aspects of the book, and there is one particular incident that drives Lyra throughout the next two instalments in the trilogy which was totally left out of the film version.  I was so disappointed in this adaptation and I am not surprised at all that the sequels have not materialised.

2. The Da Vinci Code

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I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code the first time I read it for it’s original and controversial storyline.  However, there is a lot of information to be conveyed in the book which does make it a bit wordy at times and slows down the narrative.  I thought the film adaptation would be a really good opportunity to move away from the book a little and create something with a bit more pace.  However, the adaptation sticks very closely to the book and so it is slow.  I really feel like this was an opportunity missed to create something really special.

3. Harry Potter

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This is maybe a controversial one, because I think the Potter films are loved about as much as the books.  But I really loved the books and the Hogwarts world that J K Rowling gave to me was absolutely precious.  Not one of the characters in the films came anywhere near the characters that I had in my head.  The closest was Lucius Malfoy in the Chamber of Secrets – I thought the actor playing him would have made a fantastic Snape (blond hair aside).  The worst for me were Voldemort and Dobby.  I have seen all of the films and I am now scared to re-read the books in case the films have now taken over my world created from the books.

Whether it is a hit or a miss, film/TV adaptations and books go hand in hand.  If a book is a huge hit (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey) then Hollywood will follow with a film adaptation.  Sometimes lesser well known stories will be picked up and adapted which will then in turn increase the readership of the book.  If there is a book that I have read and enjoyed then I will always be pleased to see that it has been adapted to (hopefully) give me another chance to enjoy it all over again in a different medium.  There is one book on my bookshelf (Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant) that I am desperate for someone to adapt into a film, because I think it is a fantastic story which should be more widely read.

I am a total bookworm so I think I will always be a “book is better” girl, but whatever my opinion on the final product, I am glad that these adaptations are made to bring great works of fiction to new audiences, and hopefully inspire some of them to pick up a book and discover these worlds for themselves.

Opening lines – the most important?

I love opening lines.  I love reading opening lines.  I love writing opening lines.  I love being given an opening line and freewriting from there.  It is the rest of the story after the opening lines that causes me problems!

When I browse for books in bookshops, I not only read the blurb at the back but I always read the first sentence.  If I want a book from the blurb, I will probably not reject it if the opening sentence doesn’t grab me.  But for anything I am 50/50 about, it comes down to that opening sentence – if it grabs me, I will buy it, if it doesn’t, it goes back on the shelf.

The first exercise in my writing challenge deals with beginnings which aim to make the reader feel that they are plunged right into the story.  The opening sentences that I have written are not related to any characters or stories that I already have in my head or my notebooks.  Some are semi-inspired by real life, some are from little kernels of ideas that I haven’t yet thought out how to develop, some are completely random.  However, my aim with all of them is to start in the middle of the action (even if I’m not quite sure what that action is yet!)

Here they are:-

  1. The only reason I had anything to do with Ray is because the library had flooded one Monday in June.
  2. The wave smashed into my stomach, knocking me over.  I was dragged under, eyes wide open, watching the shingle roll away from the shore.
  3. The last time I really knew myself was when we went for lunch with the little white dogs.
  4. I knew it was bad news as soon as he opened the door.
  5. The election was over and I failed to get a single vote.  I didn’t even vote for myself.
  6. My mind went blank as the curtains rose.
  7. It was only a week ago that Ellie and I liberated the turtle from the old man’s garden and already we’ve added a goldfish and a cat to our collection.
  8. My mother always said I would be ruined by my handbags in the end.
  9. In the prison, we were known as “Nelson’s ladies”.
  10. I didn’t think I was famous until the day that the photographer was waiting outside my Uncle’s house to capture a picture of me in my uniform.

Reading back over these, I think that 2 and 4 probably achieve the objective of starting right in the middle of the action the best, but out of the list, I am most interested in seeing where number 5 will go.

So that is my effort.  Here are some of my favourite first sentences from my bookshelves:-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl” (The Other Hand, Chris Cleeve)

My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen” (City of Thieves, David Benioff)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; Susie first.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973” (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere” (Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

Any one of my favourite ever openings, on the strength of which I bought a book that I previously had no desire to read:-

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born,  and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents ere occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kiind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger)

I was sold when I read that first sentence, just for the directness of it and the authenticity of the character’s voice.  After reading all of these opening lines, I knew that I was in good hands for the rest of the book.

The opening lines are the writer’s first chance to introduce the character and to create something engaging to make the reader want to read on.  To leave the reader with questions to which they need to find the answers.  To make the reader want to know the character better.  A story can’t rely on it’s opening line alone – the rest of the story needs to deliver what the opening line promises.  If the writer is able to achieve this, then as readers, we are in for a treat.

Inspiration, creativity and the 9-5

A few years ago, I participated in a writing course.  At the time I was working in family law, and when I told this to the group, one member commented that it must give me an extraordinary amount of source material for my writing.  After all, working in family law, I got to see the very best and the worst of people.  I heard stories of unimaginably horrific and abusive family situations.  I have been exposed to all of the hurt, anger and bitterness that is often the consequence of family breakdown.  I have been moved by incredible courage, strength, positivity in the face of adversity and love.  It definitely sounds like rich pickings for a writer, doesn’t it?

But I have never used my work as a source of inspiration.  Not once. Not even a little bit.

Part of the reason for that is a question of ethics.  People come to me and trust me with intimate details of their lives.  It would feel like a betrayal of that trust if I used their stories as a basis or inspiration for my own.

It’s more than that though.  After all, 99% of the time my writing is just for myself.  The other 1%, I may share it with a small group.  If I am writing something that no one else will ever see, why can I then not use my work to inspire a story?

The problem is that I just don’t feel creative when working.

Until that comment was made, it genuinely never crossed my mind that I could have source of inspiration in my 9-5.  I am a lawyer.  My job is to listen to problems and find solutions.  That is fine – it is the career that I chose for myself and it is one that I like to think I’m good at.  However, it is a challenging job, which can be mentally exhausting and I find it does sap  my creative energy.  I know that this must be down to work, because whenever I have a couple of days off, I can feel it coming back to me – characters and scenarios that I thought long abandoned pop back up and demand my attention.

I need to find a solution to this.

Between the hours of 9am and 5pm, I am a lawyer.  Achieving outcomes for my clients is the most important thing during that time.  However, I need to find a way to switch into creative mode from 5pm and not have to wait for a couple of days off before feeling able to pick up a pen.

My writing challenge.

One of the ways that I try to kick start my writing is using little writing exercises and prompts.  Every now and then I will trawl through the hundreds of books on creative writing on Amazon (which I suspect is just another form of procrastination!) and order something that I think will inspire me.  A few months ago, I purchased “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Bernays and Painter.  I haven’t yet really made any use of it.

I am going to try to overcome the feeling of a lack of creativity by setting aside 30 minutes each day to get something, anything, down on a page using the writing exercises in this book as a guide.  In that way, much like Pavlov’s dogs, I am going to try to train my brain to switch into creative mode as soon as I leave the office.  To keep me focused on my goal, I will post the results of each exercise into this blog.  There are 83 in total, and I will do one each day (though the results may take longer to appear on here as I do prefer to write by hand).

I’m really looking forward to starting this challenge as I think if I can be disciplined enough to keep it up on stressful days when I’m tired and can’t be bothered, then this could really work for me.

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Why short stories make perfect holiday reading

I tend to go on one of two types of holidays – either a package holiday where I spend a week doing nothing but lazing by the pool or on a beach, or a holiday where I stay in a couple of different places and get out and about doing things every day.  Of the two, I much prefer the latter.  But this kind of holiday does leave precious little reading time.  I do make a point of reading something every day, but often on “active” holidays, it can feel like I’m losing the thread of the plot and characters, or that the book is beginning to drag when I’m only turning a couple of pages each day.

This year, I tried something different.  My holiday reading was The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne Du Maurier.  This is a very dark collection and not at all a typical holiday read, however I found that I really enjoyed reading short stories rather than a novel.  I would be able to read each story in a couple of sittings, so I never felt that I lost the thread of anything and I didn’t become frustrated with lack of progress.  I also felt like I had actually got a lot of reading done, as I read and finished several self-contained stories.  I love to read, but it does tend to take a back seat when I travel.  By reading short stories, I didn’t feel as if I had abandoned reading for a week.

I’m completely sold now.  The next time I go away for a break when I know I will be travelling around a lot, I will definitely be packing a short story collection.  I currently have two sitting unread on my bookshelves – Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Reading short stories is relatively new for me and I am now constantly on the lookout for new collections to add to my shelves, and now also to my suitcase.

To aspire

I agonised over using the phrase “aspiring writer” in the sub-heading for this blog.  After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I think I’m actually any good at writing.  I don’t want them to think that I’m trying to be the next J K Rowling.  Maybe it would be better to describe myself as a “novice writer” or a “hopeful writer”.

In the end, I ignored the voice in my head and went with “aspiring writer”.  I like the way it sounds.

To Aspire…

“direct one’s hopes or ambitions towards achieving something” (www.oxforddictionaries.com)

When I looked up what to aspire actually meant, I realised that I am an aspiring writer.  I do want to achieve something with my writing.  I want to turn my ideas into actual finished stories.  I want to adopt and improve writing routines.  I want to maintain my creativity and feel inspired every day.  I want to make peace with my inner critic and feel more comfortable in sharing my writing.  I want to get better at writing all the time.

Of course there is part of me that would love to hit upon a bestseller.  That would love to be able to tell people that I write books for a living.  But that is not how I choose to measure my success.  Even if no one ever reads a word I write, I will still be an aspiring writer and a successful writer so long as I continue to work towards meeting my own personal writing goals.

A note on Daphne Du Maurier

I have just finished reading The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne Du Maurier.  I have now read all of Daphne Du Maurier’s fiction of which I am aware.

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The love affair started one day when my Dad and I were talking about famous opening lines from books.  He brought up the classic from Rebecca “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”  We went to the library the following day looking for Rebecca to borrow.  It wasn’t there, and instead we found Jamaica Inn.  I borrowed it with no expectations (I knew so little about Daphne Du Maurier that until then I thought that she was a man).  On opening Jamaica Inn, I found this:-

“It was a cold grey day in late November.  The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.  It would be dark by four.  The air was clammy cold and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach.  The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink.  The wind came in gusts, at time shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.” (Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn)

This is the opening paragraph from Jamaica Inn.  Immediately, I knew that I was in the hands of a master, and I was hooked.  Du Maurier is famous for creating atmosphere and the above paragraph is a classic example of this.  Every time I read this, I am transported to that leaking coach being blown around in high winds.  It instantly pulls me into the story as well – who would be making a journey in this weather?  What is so important that they have attempted their journey in these conditions?  At this point, the character in the coach has not even been introduced, but already they have my sympathy

I first read this about 3 years ago, and since then I have made it my mission to read the rest of her work.  I have scoured libraries and charity shops for the books I haven’t read, and I am just about the complete the collection.

Why I love reading Du Maurier

Du Maurier was typecast during her lifetime as a romantic novelist, which is a label that she could not stand.  I disagree.  Her novels are not romantic novels, they are dark and very rarely have a happy ending.  I often found that my own writing tended to be quite dark, and I didn’t really embrace this until reading Du Maurier.  She creates atmosphere and uses setting as a character in her writing like no one else.  She is also excellent at creating grotesque, monstrous yet believable characters (Joss Merlin in Jamaica Inn, the eponymous Julius and Rebecca from the short story The Doll spring to mind, not to mention the first Mrs De Winter and her sidekick Mrs Danvers).  She often denies her characters a happy ending and leaves her endings, and often the true nature of her characters (such as Rachel from My Cousin Rachel) open to interpretation.

Not all of her writing is great, in particular her later writing.  Her last novel, Rule Britannia, is in my opinion the weakest, both in terms of its premise and execution.  However, even that has moments of classic Du Maurier to remind us that she is one of the greats.  She will always be famous for Rebecca, however I believe that some of her work is still very underrated and should be more widely read, for example The Scapegoat and The Parasites. 

If you are reading this and you haven’t read anything by Du Maurier, please give her a go.  Now that I have read it all, I’m looking forward to reading her work all over again.

The Fig Tree

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lade crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I wouldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at me feet.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

 

This quote has always stayed with me since I first read The Bell Jar.  Initially because it resonates with the choices that we all face at such a young age – should I stay on at school, should I go to University, what should I study, what career do I want to pursue.  I can completely empathise with the feeling of so much possibility, where you choose a path because you have to do something, and let all of the other potential futures fall away.  I did this.  I choose to study law because that it what I had decided I would do when I thought being a Lawyer was all about being able to have the last word in an argument.  I choose to start working in the law, because that is what people with law degrees do.  I choose to qualify as a Solicitor because I knew I was capable of doing the job, so I might as well be paid for it.  I set myself on that path and it was not until much later that I became aware of all of the other possibilities and opportunities that could have been open to me if only I had looked a little closer.

Now, I think the fig tree from this quote is representative of my feelings about writing.  I have written stories my entire life.  As a child, I would write stories in my notebooks before I could even write the alphabet. I have notebooks bursting with ideas, names and phrases, potential long stories and potential short stories.  But like Esther in The Bell Jar, I sit in the crotch of the fig tree and I don’t develop them into anything remotely resembling completion.  There comes a point with every story where I lose the belief in my ability to complete it, and even when working on it, the back of my brain is always shouting at me about the other ideas that I am not working on.

I have never really found a way to overcome this.  I am hoping that this blog will help me nurture all of those little buds on the fig tree into ripe, juicy fruit, and allow me to catch them before they fall to the ground.