Let Yourself Fly

Usually the mere mention of Tim Burton will put me in a cinema seat, but with the release of the live-action version of Disney’s ‘Dumbo’*, I hear that the film lacks the heart of the original so I’m thinking ‘not this time’. I’ll watch but likely wait until it comes to television in some form.

*(An oxymoron considering much of it is CGI, but so was Jungle Book and that was enjoyable.)

However, what it did was recall a memory I thought to share with you. Many years ago I worked with a woman who had a six-year-old girl. If I say watching films at home on VHS was still quite a novelty and DVDs were still to be invented for consumer use, I’m likely aging myself, but Dumbo had been released on tape and ‘owning a Disney film’ created quite a stir in those days. Many no doubt paid more for the privilege than the often 2 for 1 deals for these films today. Yet I’m talking about another historical event — If memory serves me correctly, this was the first showing of Dumbo on British television. Many of us rushed to set our VHS recorders.

The week after this big event I was talking to my colleague and asked what her daughter thought of the film.

“Oh that,” my colleague said. “I turned it off.”

Confused I asked, “What? Why?”

“She started crying.”

Even more perplexed I said, “So? At which part?”

“The bit with the mother swinging him in her trunk. I told her, so silly to cry over a cartoon.”

“But… But… But…” I stuttered. “I cry at that part too.” This earned me an incredulous look of derision. “It’s sad,” I defended my position.  “And besides, now she doesn’t know there was a happy ending.”

As we all know, the whole point of Dumbo is to show having faith in yourself and taking chances can lead to magical outcomes, maybe not as enchanting as learning to fly, but had I not pushed through adversity I wouldn’t be writing. And I hope, wherever she is now, my friend’s daughter at long last saw the end of Dumbo, went on to great things, and maybe one day sat down to watch Dumbo with children of her own, all having a good cry. I hope you all do, and one way or another, let yourself fly.

So many books, so few stars

We’ve all seen it. A book we’ve loved that may have good reviews, but the reviewer hasn’t awarded many stars, which to the writer is confusing. Perhaps this is a question of personal semantics. I have my marking system for books. Five stars is for an outstanding read. It’s one of those I wish I had written myself. Four stars is for a book I’ve found exceptional. It could have been something about a character or the plot, but something in the book has made me remember it. I usually say it’s haunting. Then, where most people would think three stars is a mediocre title, I apply it to all the other good books I’ve read; the books I’ve truly loved and that will stay in my house, and I think worth anybody’s time of day. A three star review can feel like a letdown but truly it’s a decent rating. Two stars is for something I may keep but probably never read again. It’s one of those ‘if you’ve nothing better to do’ categories. One star I seldom apply because if a book is that unsatisfying I’ll likely never mention it.

Some sites, like Goodreads, have a recommended meaning for their ratings (there three stars is a perfectly decent score), and that can help, but I believe we all mark books based on personal expectations. This means the ‘score’ may not accurately reflect content.

I seldom give bad reviews for two reasons. One, I know how I would feel if it were me and two, I’m always aware that what I dislike someone else may well love. It’s all opinion. As a writer, I think sometimes it’s best to be careful what you say, but we all know there are some deplorable books out. Many on bestseller lists. I’m sorry to say publishing (especially in digital form) has opened doors for many good writers who may not otherwise have a chance, but many unscrupulous individuals have also seized the opportunity to set up as publishers and will take any standard of work to market.

This isn’t always the fault of the inexperienced author. Whether a person has the ability to write or not, without the right guidance they may never realise the difference between genuine talent and a gift that needs nurturing, though the truth is all writers need cultivating. An unscrupulous publisher will heap praise on the unsuspecting where it’s not warranted, and how is the writer to know? Please, as a reader or writer, one bad experience must not discourage, deter, or dishearten. There are reputable publishers out there, and there are excellent authors. Many of these books are as good as anything in print, maybe better. The format doesn’t change the quality of the work. Only the publisher does. When I give a review, I seldom award stars unless it’s where I must. I say what I think of a book and why.

Word Count

I’ve received this query before so thought it makes a good topic. What is my word count? Do I strive for a daily figure?

A spinoff from that is to ask whether there’s a wrong or right way to do this thing called writing. Most courses and advice books will tell the writer to write ‘every day’. I believe this instruction is erroneous. Truth is, most writers work more than anybody. Many have day jobs, family, friends, need to do the washing, get food in, and clean the house same as everybody, but they write and see to those necessities that. Once you’re a writer, and once you’re serious, there’s no such thing as having ‘spare’ time.

I think writers need to make time. I’ve promised myself to be productive, but also to take time off…a subject on which I could fill another blog as I live in the vain hope of doing so. The point I’m making is that writers get sick, they get beyond tired, and can get exhausted. They get tired, annoyed, frustrated. Everyone gets time off — why not the writer?

Mostly because it’s difficult to stop our brains from ticking along. We can take a holiday and get ideas every day we’re away. Fine. Jot them down, just try not to begin the project. What these courses should say, and often mean, is that a writer needs to write regularly. For many writers this means a daily word count.

What that word count should be varies. I’ve known writers for whom 500 words feels like a huge number. Many settle for 1000, but for me 1000-1500 words feels as if I’ve barely got started. Stories often come as if I’m reading, the only difference is that the ‘book’ I’m reading from is inside my head. I need to ‘fall into’ the story the same way I do when I’m reading, forget time, block out everything around me. I often write from A – Z, page one to infinity.

At around 2000 words, I feel as I’ve put in a good day’s work. I aim for 2000 words a day, five times a week. Many have told me that’s a huge amount, but let me add that I’m a fast touch-typist. If the story flows (a big IF), it’s surprising how fast I can put 2000 words on the page. An average document in an office can be longer than that, and it wouldn’t take a professional typist long to transfer. If I have the time and the story is streaming, I have written more.

The most I’ve ever written in a day was around 10,000 words. I was on holiday, and I woke up one morning with a story fully formed in my head. I spent 8 hours typing, scurrying to grab drinks and a sandwich and taking bathroom breaks only when necessary, but I don’t recommend it, found it exhausting, mentally, emotionally, and worse of all, physically. Not a good idea to spend those hours sitting in a chair. Still, I have managed 4000-4500 words on a sunny afternoon feeling nothing other than accomplished. That makes up for the days when I’m unable to write.

It happens to most every writer. There are days I can stare at a blank page on the screen, and I’ll be lucky to write a sentence. James Joyce apparently once said if he wrote a couple of sentences in a day, it was a good day. So I may say I’m aiming for 2000 words a day, five times in a week, but if I get a day where nothing comes I seldom try to catch up. Sometimes I catch up naturally — a day of high-productivity can follow a torturous one — but I never push for it, because it feels too much like forcing the story. That’s not the same thing as trying to force oneself through a block. Sometimes the write must insist on sitting in that seat with fingers on the keyboard and lump it. That is often the contrast between a wannabe writer and one who has any hope of making a career of their writing.

Women in Horror Month

It’s time to celebrate the 10th year of Women in Horror Month. Many may not have heard of it. Others may question why it’s necessary. Women writing horror are often under appreciated. Alas, it remains a fact some women and men writing certain genres are more likely to be passed over. Men have often written under female pseudonyms because of the perception men could not write good quality fiction in genres such as romance. In the world of horror the same mistaken impression often applies to women. I’ve heard the most common accusation being that women ‘hold back’ when writing anything bleak or nasty, a claim I refute. It’s a perception error that means many excellent authors risk being overlooked.

To those who’ve read my softer titles my interest in horror may come as a surprise. My appreciation began with the first horror book I found hidden away on my parents’ bookcase — books shoved together in no particular order, which to a booklover is next to sacrilege, but its odd, all black cover drew my attention. Had it not I may never have come across Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT. The black cover revealed an embossed face with a single spot of red: the tongue. I’ve never seen this edition since.

I was of an age where I wasn’t supposed to read such a book so I squirrelled it away, read it under the covers, took it to school where no one ever asked what I was reading. Next I discovered James Herbert’s THE RATS trilogy and did nothing to hide my choice. In my teens I was reading Mills & Boon’s (because it’s what all the other girls read) along with John Steinbeck, Stephen King, and James Herbert. I’ve never looked back. My interest has wavered somewhat — I remember a period where I favoured fantasy — and I admit my reading activities have always been eclectic so my choices remain diverse, but the writing I love the most always seems to carry a dark thread. Though I’ve yet to finish writing my first horror novel, most of my short story work carries this darkness. As to why horror appeals to so many I’ve my own theories I may address sometime but not today in this blog. Today I want to raise a toast to all the women who work and promote in the horror field. Join us. Buy a book by a female horror writer this month.

November Update 2018

OUT AND ABOUT:

Been to a few shops, garden centres, and craft fairs this month. Watched a Christmas light switch-on and a surprisingly decent firework display put on by a small town.

TELEVISION:

Finished watching Touch with Kiefer Sutherland, a series that only ran for two seasons. Admittedly, this story of an autistic boy who sees patterns in numbers connecting people and events, supposedly being one of 36 special and important individuals took time to get started but they cancelled it after it got interesting. I think it could have run for a third season. It’s intellectual and may be too intelligent to make it a commercial property. Viewers needed to stick with this awhile and the viewing numbers dropped off drastically after the first episode or two. A pity because it did have much going for it. The more action based plot developed likely as an effort to save it.

Following this we jumped back in to continue watching Ray Donovan, a series we’ve not seen since the end of season 2. Violent owing to the story, I’m unsure whether the series has got better or the ability to stream it and binge watch without adverts has made the difference, but we’re enjoying this more than we did previously. It is definitely a show made for Liev Schreiber.

READING:

I eased away from horror for this month, although The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor is termed as such.  A book I thought might be more paranormal horror but is fitting in the thriller market, but has a good touch of creepiness. I enjoyed this book in the main for the way it’s plotted out, it’s never-ending cliffhangers and slow reveal.

I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge book I’ve had awhile and it will take me ages to get through this owing to the way I intend to read it. Very much a book I intend to dip in and out of over several months so I’ve only completed the first 100 pages, the section of poetry. Many hidden gems here though I have to say the reason his most loved and best-known poem is The Raven shines out. The cadence and emotional response it invokes never ceases to impress. Hoping there’ll be many gems and new tales to discover in the story section of the book.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry is a well-written book, with well-plotted layers and subtext. Alas, it’s not cohesive enough, maybe owing to the omnipresent head-hopping style. On occasion, I forgot I was reading a book set in 1893. It’s worse fault, though, is the likely error of the marketing department. The blurb promises one thing, the book another. Readers expect a developing romance wrapped around a mystery. The ‘Serpent’ of the title is a creature not so much myth as misunderstood. It is often figurative, a metaphor, subtext…which might be fine if readers were not led to believe otherwise. As for the romance, I had patience for that until around 60 pages from the end when my emotions turned to exasperation and disgust. I so wanted to say I loved this book but have to settle for liking it. The true heroine of the book reads, to me, as Stella and that’s a stretch. The writer may tell the story he or she wants, of course, and it’s true that humans are imperfect. Again, I sense that the marketing of this novel leads one to expect something it’s not and so does the author and novel no favours. This is not a mystery, and not a romance. It’s a set of characters and a slice of their shared histories.

WRITING:

Not much to tell you this month. I’ve been working on an as yet unofficial commissioned title and it’s one case of the nearer I get to The End the further away it feels.

The Beholder’s Eye

We’re told beauty is in the beholder’s eye, but awful book covers exist and, for a peculiar reason, a high proportion of poor art has appeared on romance books. I’m glad to report this trend is shifting and, as with the content, many covers reflect a discerning audience; good news for writers and readers.

If you’ve not read a romance in a while, they have changed. Aside from classic literature from authors such as Bronte or Austen (my first literary introduction to a romantic heroine was Jane Eyre), most young girls of my generation had their first taste of romance in the form of a Mills and Boon’s book. At age fourteen or fifteen, this gave girls a perverse view of romance and of what men expected of women. For those that love such books, I’m not knocking them. There are many good examples and they are intended to be fantasies.

I’m referring more to a sign of the times and of how things have evolved from when I was a teenager. As a friend exclaimed there was never an erection in a Mills and Boon’s when she was young, and while I am sure that despite our feminist backbones, many women appreciate the image of a handsome man sweeping them off their feet, these days it’s more a case of mutual support. Today’s heroines are as likely to pick up a baseball bat, or gun, or sword, or high-power laser particle whangamado gadget in defence of their man should the need require they take action. Heroines and their heroes now stand together (or a hero with a hero, and a heroine with a heroine or whatever combination one wishes), as, in an ideal world, love should conquer ‘all’. In love, both parties fall at the feet of the other. Equality is the key and, even in surrender, both can stay equal.

This new era of romance crosses age, class-distinctions, social taboos, even universes, for it crosses genres. If you look for the animal in your man or woman, you will find them in the form of vamps and shape-shifters of every description. Whether you read sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or westerns, if you can think of it, likely there’s a romance to suit your tastes. These stories now contain adventure, danger, excitement, and a soupcon of erotica.

What has this to do with the cover? From the writer’s point of view, one of promotion. People often ‘do’ judge a book by its cover. What caught my attention was during an author chat someone raised the question how do authors ‘choose’ their covers. The simple answer is that they don’t, and this goes for all genres. Sometimes, an author may even face having their beloved title changed, either for better promotional purposes, or, in a case of a publisher having two books with the same title, a wish not to confuse readers; they will ask the second writer to choose another option, but I have heard cases of publishers doing so without consultation.

The same applies to book covers. many publishers will do their utmost to create something pleasing to both the author and the expected readership. Others… well, even with the best of intentions mistakes happen, and, depending on the company’s policy, the author may have no say, no comeback, not even see a preview of the work before publication, which can lead to proofreading errors that are beyond the writer’s control.

Fortunately, many reputable publishers consider their authors’ feelings. A poor cover is terrible news for everyone — the publisher wants a book to sell as much as the author does. Mostly, yes, a good cover can be a good indicator, but, making a decision purely on what the eye sees is risky. I’ve discovered treasures hiding under awful wrapping paper and some dreadful works presented with spectacular artwork.

Such Rich Prose

With the gift-giving season fast approaching, I couldn’t help but think back on some of my childhood reads, which was my favourite type of gift to receive. I’ve never had a child in my life I haven’t given books to.

A few years ago I read The Owl Service by Alan Garner owing to a recommendation. I cannot say I found the writing charming and yet it has a haunting, surreal quality that makes for a memorable read. It’s supposed to be a children’s book but I can’t think of a reason apart from the adage in the publishing world that if the main character is a child, then it is a book for children. Publishers seem to think if the lead is a child, it will hold no interest for adults. The worldwide phenomenon of a certain wizard has turned this concept on the head. Whether you love or loathe the particular boy lead in question, I think this is a good thing. There are many books out there that cross the barrier between child and adult readers and I for one am not too proud to admit reading the occasional children’s book. I cannot imagine the inability to enjoy a pleasant afternoon revisiting some of my old favourite characters in their adventures. I have a quote on my website by C.S.Lewis: No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

When I young, my reading material was Pooh and then Enid Blyton’s Mr Meddles Muddles, Mr Pinkwhistle or Mr Twiddle. I was also fond of her Wishing Chair series and to this day I own a copy of Mr Galliano’s Circus (although I used to call him Mr Galeeno as I couldn’t get my tongue around the pronunciation). I wanted to be young Jimmy Brown and run away to the circus. In a more enlightened time and as an adult I couldn’t imagine anything worse (I am not a supporter of animal circuses) but I understand it was the running away on an ‘adventure’ part I loved so well. In the Moomins books, I wanted to be Snuffkin and share his love of travelling. From there I went on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I always preferred The Great Glass Elevator. Yes, there is a second book! I adored the Vermicious Knids far more than the Oompa-Loompas.

There was no stopping me. I loved The Water Babies because it touched my sense of fair play. Every child should hear of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby or Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. One Hundred and One Dalmatians a Disney film? I read the book by Dodie Smith and progressed to the sequel. Yes, once again there is a follow-up people seldom hear of called The Starlight Barking. Likewise, I read Bambi the book by Felix Salten and you’ll never see that story the same way again. As a child I lent it to an aunt and insisted she read it. After much nagging she (begrudgingly) sat down one day and only stopped when she realised it had grown too dark to see. She was that lost in the story.

Then it was Ballet Shoes and What Katy Did. My most unusual children’s book has got to be Snowflake by Paul Gallico. Mine is tatty, gone orange and lost its cover, though I can remember the cover to this day: pale blue and white with a white snowflake with a child’s face in the centre. Snowflake is ‘born’, falls in love with ‘Raindrop’, goes on a journey and at last returns to her creator. It’s the first book that made my heart ache.

Later came Oscar Wilde. His Happy Prince story made me sob. Once I was old enough, we started on the classics. It’s amazing in this day that classic literature is often termed as stuffy. Maybe it’s the classic moniker that has done the harm. They weren’t classics when I was young; they were just books. I started with Heidi but was soon on to Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These were my world. They were my friends. They never failed me, and took me adventuring with them. It’s a sad world where children don’t read these books today.

Then it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — the name of the creature’s creator, not the ‘monster’ when the whole point of the book is the true monsters are the man who created him, and the society who hounds him. This so-called horror story isn’t only that. It’s a morality lesson. At once I fell into the richness of the language, some of which may seem superfluous in this modern age but even in Mary Shelley’s introduction doesn’t “Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest” much more engrossing than “We talked well into the night before we went to bed”?

One of my favourite works is the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, for the involved story, the characters, and, most of all, owing to its rich language. I’ve enticed people to watch the BBC series but even though they often love the story, it disinclines them toward the book. I feel it’s a pity that children are often no longer raised on such rich prose. Not only are they missing out on such imaginative stories, one can’t help speculating whether it would do wonders for their verbal skills and their ability to communicate.