Monday, 3 December 2012

Getting to know your characters. Part 1: writing a historical character

Part 1: writing a historical character

I’m deep in rewrites for my Dark Ages fantasy novel. One of my biggest issues with draft 1 was weak characterisation. I thought I knew my characters pretty well, but their personalities weren’t really coming across in my prose.

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out lots of different exercises and workshops to get to know my characters better. I’ll be posting a few different approaches and ideas over the coming weeks. Part one is writing a historical character. The exercises can be applied to writing a modern character.

My novel is set in the Dark Ages. As a 21st Century girl, I automatically feel detached from my characters, even though I’m writing the novel in a contemporary style.

A modern character’s identity can be constructed around what they consume and what choices they make about their appearance and lifestyles. In the Dark Ages no one could flag their personality by their choice of phone, their chosen brand of bag or a penchant for a particular style of music. They had no TV, most people couldn’t read (and if they could, their choice of books was pretty limited), they had no leisure time to fill with extreme sports or camping holidays and they certainly couldn’t choose to go clubbing in Ayia Napa.

That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine what lifestyle choices my character would make if she were alive in 21st Century Britain. If you’re writing a story set in a bygone era, why not try the following exercise out?

I re-imagined my character as someone alive in the 21st Century, and then filled out this questionnaire about her. It’s important not to think too hard about your answers: quickly jot down the first thing that pops into your head. Some of the answers I had surprised me.

Q1: How does she dress?

A1: Like a beautiful beat poet. Outfit 1: Scuffed/ well-worn boots, Indian skirt-trousers, thin tight t-shirt, lots of necklaces and bracelets, sunglasses, chipped nail varnish, short dyed black hair, lots of ear piercings. Outfit 2: converse shoes with little skulls on, black tights and denim shorts, tight tee, woollen hand-knitted cardigan with chunky wool and chunky buttons, sunglasses, etc.

Q2: What music is she into?

A2: Edgy street stuff, and stuff like Bonobo.

Q3: What car does she drive?

A3: Something classic and mechanical. She’d have a basic understanding of mechanics and would enjoy tinkering.

Q4: What are her bookshop habits?

A4: She’d start in the military and history section, then mind, body and spirit, next onto Natural History/ animals, then true life stories. She doesn’t care for books – she is a spine-breaker, a folder back of paperback covers. She plays with her lips as she reads. Skims, picks up lots of books, flicks, puts back. Distracted. If she finds a book she really likes, she’ll find a chair, sit down with her feet planted on the floor, legs wide, rests her elbows on thighs. She might mumble good passages aloud as she reads them.

Q5: What phone does she have?

A5: An old flip-phone, battered, cracked screen, dangling charm of beads, worn keys. All her messages would be saved but she would constantly run out of memory and have to delete the spam to free space. Pay as you go.

Q6: What’s her favourite TV programmes?

A6: Documentaries, Planet Earth, David Attenborough

Q7: Where does she buy her food?

A7: Health food stores, foreign shops, farm shops, Waitrose.

Q8: ideal holiday destination and style of stay?

A8: camping holiday in Britain. Enamel ware. Bell tent. Cooks on a fire. She knows her nature and will eat a lot of wild food. She’ll spice everything up (she’d take her spices with her).

And that’s it. You can add more questions as you think of them. I found that by knowing 21st C lifestyle choices, I could more easily relate, I gained a clearer picture of her and felt closer to her. I can't put any of this into my novel, but because I feel I can relate to her/ picture her, 
I can now confidently start some characterisation exercises that will generate material I can use in my novel directly. I'll talk more about this at a later date. 

I also collected pictures of people I found on the internet that looked something like how I imagine my character to be – modern style people or historical. I found a Dead Weather video and thought there’s something about Alison Mosshart that’s similar to my character Tarmigan, so I watched that a few times and then watched a bunch of interviews of Alison Mosshart and took notes about her gestures.

These pictures aren't mine, I found them on deviantart. Something about them made me think of Tarmigan, though neither explicitly looks like her, and both are modern women (Tarmigan has a pet crow, so the first pic is particularly good for me!):

This method worked well for me, especially as a foundation for further character work. Maybe it'll work for others?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


It’s been too long. I know. The reason? I’ve been writing, and working, and going places.     
Here is a sample of interesting things I’ve been doing or seeing since my last post in September:

Iain M Banks book signing and talk. 70% of the evening was spent on a train or train platform, 5% walking from the train station to Toppings and back again, 25% in Toppings listening to Iain M Banks talk about the Culture, which is something I know little about because I’ve never read any Iain M Banks sci fi, other than State of the Art. The portion of the talk I caught was interesting more for learning his writing processes than anything else. He’s a wing-er. He belongs to the “because it’s cool” category of popular writers.

Shaftesbury Arts Week, map making competition, hanging out, putting on prose and poetry evenings in small places.

Bridport Story Slam – I co-organised this with Dorset Writers’ Network. for the details. James Broomfield won again. Damn, he’s good.

Me and Sue at the Bridport Slam.

Wimborne Literary Festival, a talk from fantasy author Suzanne McLeod and Sci Fi writer Jaine Fenn. It was pretty poorly attended, but pretty rich in how interesting and entertaining it was. People missed out on a high calibre event there.

I’m getting some informal and occasional mentoring help from Winchester Uni lecturer Amanda Boulter. She’s been helping me hone my skills on my current novel.

I’ve been writing said novel, a fantasy set in Arthurian Britain in 508AD.

And reading a lot of history books and doing countless character profile worksheets and exercises.

DWN’s Nell Leyshon workshop: Finding Your Character’s Voice. This was a well-pitched workshop with plenty of practical exercises that not only got the creative juices going there in-session, but can be re-used out of the workshop. For the first time in a long time I came away from a workshop with new ideas, new techniques and newly inspired.

Listening to Alt J, Marbert Rocel (and remixes), The Dead Weather

Friday, 7 September 2012

Story Slam at Bridport Open Book Festival 2012

Check out this event I'm organising with Dorset Writers' Network:
Dorset Writers Network 
Story Slam

Dorset Writers Network present writers with an opportunity to demonstrate your writing and reading skills at their first ever Story Slam at the Beach &Barnicott, Bridport,Thursday 11th October 2012, 8pm, Bridport Open BookFestival.

So register in advance via (or turn up and register on the night) to take part in a celebration of fresh, local writing talent and showcase your work in front of a live audience and a panel of expert judges, including Bridport Open Book Festival’s Writer in Residence, Rosie Jackson.

You'll have five minutes to read out your story –  roughly 780 words. All genres and styles of original prose fiction welcome. If there are more registered writers than time slots, the names will then be entered into a draw.

All this plus live music from the Wrongo Bongo Band with a £5 ticket from the Beach & Barnicott or Bridport Arts Centre.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Shaftesbury Arts Festival

Shaftesbury Arts Festival Sept 5th-9th.
It's a busy week for Storyslingers. Check out the following exciting things that are happening:


Storyslingers, my writing group, set up an interesting competition for writers (and vagabonds, comedians, artists and the general public). Here's the link:

The winner(s) will be announced on Saturday 8th at our book stall/ display of wonder, SAC. (see item III. below)

Check out the facebook page for inspiration/ procrastination opportunity:

(this is a random map I found from the internet. Thanks internet!) 


Storyslingers have teamed up with Beggar's Banquet Music Cafe in Shaftesbury and will host an evening of good stories, funky tunes and slick poetry. There will be snacks of fine quality, there will delicious drinks, you can bring some wine of whatever quality you prefer (corkage fees apply!) 

Beggar's Banquet is an amazing place; provider of wholesome veggie foods, player of excellent music (check out all the vinyl for sale in there), host to exciting arts events.

Thursday 6th September, 7:30pm, Beggar's Banquet, Muston's Lane, Shaftesbury, Dorset. Free entry. 

(writers take note of this amazing opportunity: we have one or two reading slots still available. If you're a prose writer or poet, please email Jennifer Bell or Jennifer Oliver to declare your interest. Time guideline of 5 mins/ 800 words.)


Come to Shaftesbury Arts Centre at about 10am-4pm on Saturday the 8th of Sept, we will have a stall of handmade books, zines, comics, bookmarks, cards, origami, chapbooks and also published works and postcards. We're not sure which room we'll be in yet, but the mystery will only add to your experience as you wend your way around the labyrinth of SAC in search of wondrous treasure (ie: us). 

(a recycled image from last years' arts festival.)

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Map Making Competition

My writing group is organising an awesome map making competition. Check it out!

Every story is set somewhere and it’s the writer’s job to immerse their reader fully into that fictional world. How are we to write convincing worlds if we do not know our way around them? 

We challenge any budding writer*/ artist out there to draw a map of their fictional world. It doesn’t have to encompass the entire world, it can be a small part of it; a city/ borough/ street, an island, a country or county, a building-plan etc. 

Please email your map to us at with Map Making Competition as the subject. Make sure the file isn’t massive, send it as a jpeg 72dpi. Keep a print-version at hand because we’d like to pin some of the best maps up at Shaftesbury Arts Centre (we’ll contact you about this). The winner will be featured on our blog and within Shaftesbury Arts Centre and Shaftesbury Arts Festival on 5th-9th Sept.  We will be publishing the winning map online, so if your world is top-secret then maybe keep it under wraps for now and submit it next time. 

The world/ location must be your own. We don’t want to see lots of renditions of Hogwarts.

The closing date is Friday the 31st August, so get your colouring pencils out and start drafting! 

Further info:

We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so we don’t expect you to either. We’re not concerned about intricacies of scale or worried over the physics of your world. If it looks cool, we’ll be happy. Inspire us, excite us. 

*Wait, you’re not even a writer? But you like to dream up worlds and make maps? – okay, that’s cool, go for it and submit. Maybe one of us writers will like your world and want to team up with you and write a story set in your world. Our writers are always on the lookout for things that will spark the next story, so we’d love to find a new world to write about. 

More information and examples of already published maps can be found here 

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Stuff that is happening

There's been lots happening, so much so that I've not had a chance to write about any of it here. So here's a quick run down. 

1) I won Ideastap Editor's Brief; Grow for the text category. Exciting!

2) Here's a photo of me reading at the Southbank Centre, London a few weeks ago: 

3) Jennifer K Oliver, myself and Jian Yang Dong went to the Tate Modern to see the Damien Hirst exhibition. I love Hirst's work, especially seeing all of it in one go, it doesn't really make any sense if you view isolated pieces. 

4) Our story slam in Shaftesbury went really well. I am working on a post about it at the moment, so hopefully you can read about it soon. 

5) Yesterday Robbie and I went to Sturminster Exchange open mic, me to read a story, and Robbie to perform a comedy song. I regret reading the story I did, I wrote it a while ago and it's not as tight as it could be. The evening was more geared towards music anyhow, and mostly unoriginal work (covers) which I never really understand. Maybe next time I should take a copy of Harry Potter and read that out for 15minutes. Having said that, the performers were mostly young (some of them children) so it was a great event for them to get experience and gain confidence. My favourite performer (aside from Robbie) was a young Jazz Pianist. She had talent, original talent; it was different and interesting. 

6) Today I'm running a writing workshop adapted from the 826 Don't Forget to Write book, about world-building. Come join in if you're around, 6:30pm Park Walk bandstand (if it's raining we'll move to the pub, probably the Mitre because the Brewers have a quiz night on). Bring colouring pencils, we'll be making a map. 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Short Story Idea Bank 3

I decided to write a story for London's StorySlamLIVE the day before the slam. The theme was Sheet-Lightning. Here is the idea bank for that story, which I titled Happening, though will retitle as Mount Analogue from now on. 

My Notes: 

Sheet lightning can look quite contained, almost like a snow globe, the lightning caught within. We catch glimpses of a greater drama that occasionally breaks out of the cloud.

This makes me think of a tent lit from within. 

 On a more general level sheet lightning is lightning that doesn’t touch the ground, it travels from one cloud to another in a horizontal fashion, creating a sheet of light in the air.

Or that feeling, almost sublime, you get when you witness something like that. It’s kind of primitive and fresh and scary all at once. Exhilarating.

It doesn’t go to ground. Like passing a baton, handing over a spark, energy, not allowing it to dissipate. 

I saw an art happening in Bournemouth, forty or so students crammed into a tiny space, cacophonous sound art and flashing lights, and so much buzzing energy: it was like sheet-lightning, ideas sparked from the artists to the audience without dissipating, without neutralising, charging the people who shared their space.

London Trip #1 Mt. Analogue

Last week I went to AUCB's graduate art show in Brick Lane. This year photography, fine art and illustration all exhibited in the same space. My main interest was in photography, having graduated from Bournemouth in 2007 with a 1st class BA (hons) Photography. The photography B.A's portion of the show was called Mt.Analogue, an apt and clever title. In 2012 there seems to have been a new departure from digital and a resurgence of silver gelatin prints and sculptural pieces.

The entire graduating year were of very high standard, but two or three artists particularly interested me, Kharn Roberts, Loz Clarke and Antonio Parente. I met Kharn back in April when I went to an art happening in Holdenhurt Road (Bournemouth), Open Space/ Black Branches. This was a performance piece/ soundscape, and there was something about it that really worked well for me. Black Branches tend to release their stuff onto cassette tape, the artists seem to be preoccupied with the relationship between digital and analogue media, as well as certain obsolete digital media. (I think) they work with the record label Amps Against Trend, who release music/ sound on floppy disk and cassette tape. In this digital age where everyone/ thing is so connected and easy to share, this resurgence of clunky analogue and obsolete media is interesting. These media are limiting; it's hard to share this stuff. These media force the audience to interact, they are tactile and frustrating and messy, in antithesis to the clinical ease and distance of  trending digital media. With twitter hashtags art, music, stories, inane idiocy, etc can be instantly shared, trends occur, not because they are meaningful, clever or interesting, just because chance allowed them to be picked up and shared many times over. With Black Branches and the stuff released on Amps Against Trend, this cannot happen so easily. If you want to share a song that's been released on cassette tape, you have to be dedicated, you have to have the right equipment and a dose of patience, and at the very least, you need to pass your tape on to someone who has a cassette player.

 Loz Clarke's work comprised of a looped sample recorded onto tape that wound around a plinth with sandpaper wrapped around it. As the evening progressed, the tape and sound deteriorated. 

Kharn Roberts exhibited an empty metal tray that he later smashed a pane of glass over. It was meant to contain a sculpture/ sound piece comprising of a block of ice suspended over a snare drum. Over the course of the evening the ice would melt, hitting the drum. I loved this idea, the chance element of it, the question over who the author of this sound is: Kharn or the ice or the drum, or the people generating the heat that causes the ice to melt. 
Health and Safety forbade him to exhibit his work over fears that a few drips may bounce off the drum and cause moisture to build around the display. The drinks bar collected a massive puddle of water and no one seemed to have any trouble negotiating that. 

Antonio Parente's work reminded me of the work made by a student in my year: Will Newnham, who struggled with the relationship between himself, his art and his audience. What I liked particularly about Parente's work (and Kharn's and Loz's) was the engagement in critical theory. All these artists are creating engaging and clever work that push boundaries in carefully considered ways. Antonio has established a website that looks very exciting and interesting to me (as a critical theory geek):

What I really love about the show is the title. Mt. Analogue - a nod to the surrealist author Rene Daumal and his novel Mount Analogue, A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. I've not managed to get hold of this novel, though I have read about it, read excerpts and quotes. 

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence. Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action. You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again... So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. 

To me, the ideas in this book marry well with the ideas that Kharn, Loz and Antonio are exploring in their work. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

SAC Story Slam

The writing group I co-direct is hosting a Story Slam next month, the 20th July. Come along, either as a writer to perform, or as a cool person to watch and enjoy. There will be book art on sale, as well as drinks and music. 

This fab poster was designed by Danny Morison. Check out his pages: website, facebook , twitter

For more info about the slam and to book tickets, please go here:
Writers' slots are filling up fast, so secure your place asap!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

National Flash Fiction Day

It's National Flash Fiction Day today, which I'm very excited about. Flash fiction is a great way to accept and engage with this Age of short attention spans and on-screen reading. I can't stand to sit at a screen and read anything that's going take longer than drinking a cup of tea (and I'm a fast tea drinker). What I especially like about flash fiction is that there are no rules, nothing matters and if your reader didn't like or understand the story, that's no great loss - it only took them a few minutes to read. This means writers can be really experimental and try new things without fearing failure.

My academic background is in fine art, particularly photographic and contextual theory. I love to read and write fiction that is less about telling a story, and more of an outcome of artistic research - so rather than my project outcome being a fine art photograph - it's a short fiction of less than 1000 words. The fiction can then be read in the same way as you'd read a photograph or fine art piece - certain things might resonate with the reader, especially readers engaged in particular contextual discourses. And I can do that with flash fiction, I can afford to limit my market to only a few people who are going to get it.

I really like the work of Etgar Keret, who tends to write flash fiction. Check his stuff out if you're a fan of the short form. You can buy his collections through Amazon or (very) good book shops.

There are so many options with flash fiction, it can be whatever you want it to be. I like to play with language and be atmospheric and poetic with some of my flash fictions. I wrote a short atmospheric piece called Trapped in Nomansland, which has been published in this anthology in association with National Flash Fiction Day, specifically the South West region of contributing writers: Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories
So please check it out, buy a copy, read it, lend it to your friends.

Get involved in NFFD here:

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Pistachio Cake

I made this cake the other day. It's a pistachio and almond cake with an orangey zing. The recipe is mostly from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, minus a few things I didn't like the sound of (or couldn't afford. This is a pricey cake to make!) It's got an incredible flavour, it's heavy and moist and will last a good few days without a decline in quality - in fact I think it improves with age.

Butter - 250g
caster sugar - 250g
eggs x3
pistachio nuts - 120g
ground almonds - 100g
an orange
plain flour - 60g

Preheat the oven to 160C. Line a 22cm cake tin. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating between each addition. Grind 100g of the pistachios into a fine powder (use a food processor), and then add them to the mix along with the ground almonds. Grate and squeeze the orange, stirring it in (Nigel Slater puts rosewater in at this point too. I couldn't afford rosewater, so left it out). Fold in the flour with a metal spoon (or in my case, whiz old Ken Wood on a low setting).
Scoop the mixture into the tin, and bake for just shy of an hour, covering the top with foil about 10 mins before the end of cooking. It's done when a skewer comes out pretty much clean. Leave it in the tin to cool.

Nigel Slater makes a lemon icing to put on top. Mr Kite dislikes lemon in puddings, and I don't really like icing. The cake is so moist it doesn't need it. Instead I crushed up the remaining 20g of pistachio nuts and sprinkled them on the top. I put some primrose flowers on top for an elegant flourish. Depending on the season you could use whatever edible flower is in season at the time.

I recommend checking out the original recipe, especially if you want the rosewater touch and the icing. Nigel Slater includes a recipe for an amazing sounding sorbet that goes nicely with the cake.


Thursday, 8 March 2012

Dorset Writers Network and Bath Literary Festival

Jennifer Oliver and I gave a talk about Online Publishing for the Dorset Writer’s Network over the weekend, which seemed to go down well. There was a literary agent there – it was good to have the agent process demystified. What I think is most exciting about the roles of agents is the working relationship, the fact that the agent wants to bring the best out of the writer and offer a platform of support. I could really use that.

Steve Elsworth gave a talk on digital publishing. He thinks that within 10-20 years printed books will be obsolete/ have the same status as LP records have currently. I really hope that this won’t be so, books have a very long history and I hope that they are as ingrained in our society as other ancient media. Maybe it will be more like painting – a medium that many thought would be replaced by photography.

Some of us Storyslingers (my writing group) went to Bath on Tuesday for a Speculative Fiction workshop lead by Bath Spa University students. It was a really enjoyable evening, especially as I want to study on the MA programme at Bath Spa, so their insight was very helpful. One issue cropped up, and that’s that I’m the sort of writer who loves the first draft stage but struggles to edit – resulting in having about six novels at first draft stage but nothing fully completed or ready to send anywhere.

Many of the Bath Spa students have the opposite problem – they prefer to edit as they go, which means that they don’t get to write THE END for a long time, and when they get there it’s at the same stage as I would be after a few edits and re-writes.

A key piece of advice I was given was to finish up one novel in its entirety, to a level that’s ready to send out, and don’t start anything new until it’s done.

I’ve been struggling with editing my Arthurian novel over the past few days. My main problem is lack of confidence. I’m not the same person I was when I first wrote this story and I feel I could do a better job, or at least I want to be capable of doing a better job. I’m not quite convinced that I’m a good enough writer yet. This makes editing a pretty depressing task.

I wonder if anyone else has this problem?  From what the Bath Spa students said; it’s fairly common and normal to feel like your work isn’t matching up to your expectations. Writers are naturally self-deprecating.

I have one question to any writers out there: Do you listen to music while you write and/ or edit? Does it help? I find that listening to music helps calm me down, gets me past my self-deprecation so I can actually write or edit. But a level of focus is then lost. My writing seems better when I’m editing to music than when I’m editing it in silence – so I cut less out when listening to music. I’m not sure if it’s better to listen to music or face up to my words in all their silent force. Any thoughts? 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jennifer K Oliver

I’ve started to write a brand new novel (or novella, it might end up being pretty short). This means I’m distracted, disconnected and I forgot that I had a blog for a while.

Today I’m going to write about Jennifer K Oliver, who had her short story Death Car Alley published on Jersey Devil Press (issue 27) earlier this month. It’s a really awesome story - Jennifer’s style is so fluid and fresh.

She was interviewed about a week ago by Paperblanks, who make and publish beautiful notebooks. She talks about her writing philosophies, creative practice, and the projects she’s working on – check it out.

Jennifer and I will be in Dorchester next Saturday giving a little talk about online publishing as part of the Dorset Writers Network Publishing Day. Let me know if you want to come along, it’s going to be a really informative day, with talks about all aspects of publishing – from various writers and a literary agent. 

Follow Jennifer K Oliver on twitter and check out her blog.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Thank You Notes

If you haven’t already written your Christmas thank you notes, don’t worry; it’s not too late. Here are some tips for writing the perfect thank you note. If you’ve already penned your Christmas thank yous, you can apply these tips to birthdays, anniversaries, spontaneous-non-corporate-initiated gifts, etc.

* I usually start in one of two ways:
1) by saying how great it was to see the giver on Christmas/ my birthday/ etc and mention something that you did together: maybe you played a few board games or went for a walk. If you shared a particular moment/ funny story then refer to that.
2) If the gift was posted then I say that I hope they had a good Christmas/ have been keeping well. I then briefly say that I had a good Christmas, it was quiet/ hectic/ a lot fun or I say that I’ve been keeping well, and give any significant news.
You can skip this section if the giver is someone you see on a very regular/ daily basis or if it doesn't feel appropriate. 

*Next comes the thank yous. I normally start this paragraph with a simple thank you very much for the… If you get stuck as to what more to say, then here’s what I do:

* If you got money or a handmade gift, skip to the next tips.
Is the gift particularly thoughtful and suited to you? If so, say so. Talk about how useful/ brilliant/ fun the gift is. If you got a book, say how it looks really good, or that you love this author, that you can’t wait to read it. The same can be applied to films, games or music (you love this genre, you can’t wait to watch/ play/ listen). If you like the gift so much that you already started to read/ watch or play it, then say so and how good it is.
If you got clothes, say how good the fit is, how the style is just so you, how you’ve been wearing it non stop.
Whatever you got, praise it, let the giver know how well suited it is to you and how you’ve been using (or will use) the gift.
If your gift wasn’t all that great or you really can’t think of anything to say about it, then keep it simple, fill the note up with news and extend the first section. Let the thank you be a simple “thank you for the….!”

* Hand-made gifts should be especially appreciated because the giver has spent time and thought on your gift, as well as money. Compliment the item, pointing out things about it you like in particular. Even if you don’t like the gift, it’s polite to find something about it that you can compliment. It’s a good idea to briefly go into your experiences with the gift. Eg: I got a handmade apron this Christmas (which I definitely did like!) and after saying how much I liked the design and fabric, I said that I’ve been wearing it each time I cook, trying to avoid splashing it too much because it’s so lovely.

* For those of you who got money or a gift voucher: let the giver know how you intend to spend it (or what kind of book/ music/ John Lewis product/ gardening equipment you’ll get). If you haven’t thought about what you’ll spend the money on, now is the time to give it a good think. Before I got into the habit of writing detailed thank you notes, I’d bank my cheque, the money would be assimilated into my current account and I’d forget about it. So take a few minutes to think of something you really want. Then when you get that item it’s that bit more special and the giver can feel their money wasn’t wasted.
You can always put the money towards a more expensive item if you can’t think of something within the value of the gift.  

If you’ve left it a while since receiving the gift and have since spent the money, then you can let the giver know what you bought and how great it is.

* Finish the note off with something like have a good new year or I hope to see you soon. If you’ve got a date set when you’ll see them next, mention it. If the giver is someone you see on a daily or very regular basis, skip this and just repeat a quick very many thanks!

And you’re done! Phew! It’s worth putting some effort into; your loved ones have spent time and money on you, let them know how amazing they are.

This year I bought my thank you notes from Meticulous Ink, a fine stationary company in Bath. I went for a lovely chicken design, letterpressed on 410gsm cotton card. The envelopes are lined with tissue paper for that added feeling of quality. You want the recipient of your note to feel like the amazing special person they are, so it’s only right that you splash out and get the best quality stationary for them.
You can buy Meticulous Ink note cards via their etsy store, or give them a tinkle on the telephone 01225 333004.

Alternatively, make your own cards! 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

(Almost) All the Books I Read in 2011

Okay, so I stole this post idea from Fucking Big Thoughts, a blog that is a lot better than this one, and also Andrew Worthington is a bigger reader than I am because he has about 70 books on his list and I have 38. He is also a better writer*, and if I put two and two together I might learn something about how to become a better writer.

A lot of my books are children’s books, but then I tend to write YA fiction, so there. 

I always grade the books I’m reviewing in the same way that my work was marked when I was at Uni – out of 100, but really out of 80. Any book that gets a 70 or more gets a first; that means it’s really good. It is actually impossible to get 100. Should a book ever get 100, everyone would have to stop writing because heavenly perfection would have been reached and the apocalypse would be upon us. Maybe I’ll read something worth 100 in the latter part of this year, maybe that’s what the end of the Mayan calendar is all about.

* Judged purely on the quantity of stories published and the quality of the publications in which the work appears.

Escape – Oldham                                                             42
Reaver’s Ransom – Diamand                                         65
Just In Case – Rosoff                                                       56
How I Live Now – Rosoff                                                  75
Breathing Under Water – Green                                     50
The Green Book – Patton Walsh                                    51
State of the Art – Banks                                                   68
The Drowned World – JG Ballard                                   71
Farewell my Lovely – Chandler                                       80
What I Was – Rosoff                                                         72
Bride’s Farewell – Rosoff                                                65
Roundabout – Lassiter                                                    41
A Song For Nero – Holt                                                   49
The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov                          85
The Curious Incident of...  – Hadon                                46
Will Grayson, Will Grayson – Green & Levithan           70
Star – Singleton                                                               63
Skaz, Skinny B and Me – Singleton                              50
A Bear Called Paddington – Bond                                69
Expedition to Earth – Clarke                                          69
Angel Kiss – Cassidy                                                      41
A visit from the Goon Squad – Egan                             76
Here Lies Arthur – Reeve                                               70
Anybody Out There – Keyes                                          15
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace... – Mishima              83
Leaving the World – Kennedy                                       08
The Temple of the Golden Pavi... – Mishima               90
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detetecti...- Adams                    45
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – Yates                             85
While Mortals Sleep – Vonnegut                                  65
The Graveyard Book – Gaiman                                    70
The High Window – Chandler                                       82
Revolutionary Road – Yates                                          85                          
Exodus – Bertagna                                                         66
Aurora – Bertagna                                                          61
Zenith – Bertagna                                                           57
Wild Abandon – Dunthorne                                           58
The Age of Arthur; A history... – Morris                        55

Well, this is a list of what I remember reading.
Plus I read a few more Dark Ages history books, but I can’t remember the titles. I read a lot of shorts as well, and re-read stuff like Instruction Manual For Swallowing (Marek. 83).

In conclusion, the best book I read in 2011 was The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima rated a massive 90/100 - probably the most I've ever awarded a book before. 
The worst book I read in 2011 was Leaving the World by Douglas Kennedy who rated 8/100. I was forced to read this when I joined a local book group. It was a horrible experience. Ordinarily I would've stopped reading it before reaching chapter 2. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Short Stories by Etgar Keret and Robert Shearman

I got books for Christmas, mostly things that Adam Marek recommended during the reading he gave in Bridport in November. So far I’ve read Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman, Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, I’m nearly finished The Girl on the Fridge by the same author, and I’ve read Apples by Richard Milward (this one wasn’t a Marek recommendation). What lead me to put Milward on my list was seeing this video of him doing a reading of his latest book. I liked that he transformed his head into a block of flats before doing the reading.

Both Shearman and Keret are amazing writers. I think Shearman is the better of the two; his stories are subtle and pack a lot more punch because I know there’s a lot going on in them.

Many of Keret’s stories are amazing. I think the stories in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God are generally stronger than those in The Girl on the Fridge. I love Good Intentions, wherein a pro-assassin is hired to kill off the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, “the only good man I’d ever known”, a man who saved the assassin from orphanage beatings in his youth. He can’t do it, despite his 100% success rate in previous jobs. The ending is particularly strong, but I won’t go into it here. Keret’s endings tend to be very open. I think his stories demonstrate how it’s fine to leave everything hanging and unsaid, stories don’t always need a neat bow to round everything off.  

What I really, really like about Keret’s style is that his writing is so minimalist and bare, yet so vivid. The last story in The Bus Driver.. is Kneller’s Happy Campers. This was adapted into a film called Wristcutters, a Love Story. (See trailer below) The story is by far the longest in the book and is divided into twenty-six chapters, each about 300-600 words (his usual story length). The entire thing is forty pages. Any other writer would need five times that to tell this story – it’s enough to fill a feature length film. I think Keret is what I’d call a Conceptual Writer, by which I mean his stories are not really driven by character, plot or beautiful language, they are driven by an idea. The beauty of his prose is in its concise nature. Less is more, and there certainly is less in Keret’s work.

Keret manages to make stories out of anything and everything. Sometimes I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps I’ve just missed the point, but I’ve tried hard to delve deeper into some of the weaker ones, and still haven’t managed to figure it out. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his stories, I like them for being little vignettes. I think what I’m trying to say is that I feel I could write a (weaker) Keret story without breaking into too much sweat, but Shearman is totally beyond me.

Shearman’s work is so multi-faceted. The collection I read were all love stories, yet not a single one could be described as clich├ęd or soppy. Most of them left me with a raw sadness (in a good way). They are simultaneously uplifting and crushing. In the story Be of Good Cheer, Gillian is allergic to other people’s happiness. “I’d take her to the cinema, making sure that the film was suitably depressing first. But it wasn’t enough to see films about depressing subjects, about heroin addicts or holocaust victims. Good films, no matter how dour, were still curiously uplifting, sent a ripple of unity around the audience that quite made Gillian gnash her teeth in distress.” I think some of Shearman’s stories are like that; though none of them could be described as dour, they’re all too light-hearted in their tone for that.

As for Milward’s Apples, it doesn’t really belong in this discussion because it’s from a different genre. Apples is well written, but I couldn’t connect to the characters, they were all too far from me and my life. I might talk about this in greater depth sometime soon because it did interest me in regards to teen fiction and reluctant readers. More on that later.

More on these authors:

and here with a story I read a while ago, before I knew who Keret was:

Shearman is best known for writing the Doctor Who episode that re-introduced the Daleks. Here’s a clip from that episode: