Three Good Apples and a Lemon.

I’ve read a number of books this year, and the majority of them were well worth it, including the classics The Day of The Triffids and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So I’ve only selected a few notable ones for this entry. The links go to Amazon, but to paraphrase the BBC disclaimer, other websites are available.

My choice of lemon proves the idiom that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Crawling Round South Oakwood by Stephen Slaughter has amazing artwork, with the words in the title becoming more and more blurred as the rows of pint glasses become emptier and emptier. I thought a story about a group of friends going on pub crawls would be a sure-fire winner.

How wrong could I be? The book seems to be a first draft, going into such minutiae as the details of the TV programme the group watches, and their exact route to the pub. Later in the book, a fight breaks out between the group members, yet no tension is shown to have built up in any other part of the book. I finished it, but I was disappointed.

Now let’s look at what went well. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller had an arresting concept. In a post-apocalyptic world, Hig and Bangley are survivors. The former owns a small plane with enough fuel for years of short reconnaissance missions. When he picks up a long-range radio transmission, he is determined to find its source, but it means using up all his fuel without enough for a return trip.

As well as the immediate problems, it explores the philosophical differences between Hig and Bangley. One asks questions then shoots, the other takes the opposite approach. I also like that the author doesn’t write needless pages dwelling on the causes of the apocalypse, but shows it throughout the story.

I was fortunate to see Iain (M) Banks at two live events before hearing of his illness and death this year. He didn’t fit the stereotype of the introvert writer mumbling answers to questions. Rather, he made a short speech then actively encouraged the audience to join in.

I haven’t read any of his science fiction, although I hear it’s excellent. Having read The Wasp Factory after his first appearance, I then tackled The Crow Road. I have two criticisms about the book: that the flashbacks aren’t as clearly marked as they could be, and some of the writing isn’t as tight as it could be, but once you become accustomed to it, you really believe in those characters and their views on life, as Prentice tries to piece together his family secrets.

I’ve also seen another Scottish author at live events, Chris Brookmyre, who signed my copy of Flesh Wounds. Like Banks, he’s very confident in front of an audience, his main topic discussing the merits of the phrase, “Taking a s***”

As in The Crow Road, the flashbacks are a little confusing, and the Glasgow dialect can be a little alienating. But it’s the attention to detail in a many-stranded story that really drives it forward. I really ought to read more of his novels, as the only other one I’ve tackled is All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye.

But if I was giving out awards for the best book I’d read this year, it would have to go to Layer Cake by J J Connolly, only £1 from a charity shop. As Flesh Wounds is set firmly in Glasgow, this is set in London, and the first-person narrator sprinkles in some Cockney rhyming slang, often without explanation. A, “Mars bar,” for instance is a scar, but it took me a few pages before I realised this.

My enjoyment wasn’t dampened in any way by the Daniel Craig film, in fact they complement each other, sharing several direct quotes. It’s difficult to judge the unnamed narrator for dealing drugs because he has the attitude of a businessman, just one whose activities are illegal. As he sees it: “Until Prohibition ends, make hay whilst the sun shines.”

I hope to read many more excellent books next year.

Advertisements

The Real Slim Shady.

Recently, an editor accidentally sent me some documents with my legal name in the byline. It was half my fault for not making it clear enough, but it brought home just how important it is to separate the two.

I started using my pseudonym before I took up writing. Until recently, I presented a show on hospital radio and promoted my middle to my last name, becoming Gavin Cameron. It sounds clearer through a microphone than my actual name Gavin Cruickshank, and more people know how to pronounce the written form correctly.

Let me point out that this was before David Cameron was elected. Despite the connections, it’s proved useful in writing because I work full-time and it helps keep a clear separation between the two.

I do think that if a writer uses a pen name, for whatever reason, he or she should inhabit the name and adopt the character. I occasionally read authors introducing themselves as, for instance, John Smith writing as Joe Public. Why craft a pen name if you’re going to break the illusion? I did it in this entry purely to demonstrate a point, but in a book or story, I would never explain Gavin Cruickshank writing as Gavin Cameron.

But I can think of one person who has done this successfully, and with a double pseudonym. Rapper Marshall Mathers goes by the stage name Eminem, but refers to himself as Slim Shady in his music. When you’re listening to his albums, he does it so naturally that you simply don’t question it.

I don’t think Mathers/Eminem/Shady reads this blog, but if he does, well done those men.

More E-Rejection™ Slips.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the content of rejection slips, or their modern electronic equivalent, which I’ve dubbed E-Rejection™ slips. In that entry, I discussed the feedback to one of my stories, The Strange Case of Mr Brown. I felt the editors had missed the point of the story by their response.

Last weekend, I received another E-Rejection™ from a local publication, and the sender told me that one of the two pieces had been discussed until a late stage in the decision making process, but both had ultimately been refused. That piece was The Strange Case of Mr Brown.

The latest slip didn’t provide any other information about either piece, but I had faith in Mr Brown. It’s written from the point of view of a lawyer in the late 1800s, so it has a certain period style that needs to be believable but understandable to a 21st century audience.

Yet there is such a fine line between self-belief and self-delusion, and not just in writing. It’s terrifically difficult to judge yourself honestly. Just look at the singers on talent shows who are so convinced they’re the next big thing while missing every note.

I’ve considered the question of how to decide whether your self-belief is justified or not. There is probably no single good way, but it’s worth examining any recurring themes in your feedback. If editors or reviewers have different negative comments to make, you probably haven’t made a complete hash of it. But if they all focus in on one or two negative aspects, then there’s a chance you need to put it more work.

One recurring theme I find is that editors like my writing style, but feel that the plot never took off. That often spurs me on to add twists that I otherwise wouldn’t have felt the need to include.

But if you have a better way of using feedback to your advantage, I’d like to hear it.

You’re The Voice, Try and Understand It.

Earlier this week, I read out a new story, which is still at the stage of the first draft. When I was finished, I was told, “That wasn’t in your usual voice.” I was so pleased, I nearly shouted, “Yesss,” while pulling down an imaginary chain with one hand.

In my short writing career, I’ve developed the view that nobody necessarily has to find their own voice. To some people, it is important to write in a particular fashion, but I contest that everyone is capable of having more than one voice if they want to. I reckon you can pen ten stories in ten unique voices.

I’ve previously talked about how crime writer P D James wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men at the age of 70. Allow me to offer another example, this time from Hollywood, that illustrates my point. You could never mistake the musical Hairspray for black comedy Serial Mom, yet John Waters was behind both of them.

Changing your voice can be as simple as altering the words or the punctuation. For example, two of my own hallmarks are that I rarely go to town on description, and never use brackets. I could alter that by describing something in vivid detail, (adding extra information in parentheses). Done often enough, it would sound like somebody else.

So why not find out if you can write like someone else, but say your own thing? If you’re stuck, here’s a prompt I’ve had in my head over the last week:

Two friends are in a café or a pub. One of them leaves for a lengthy pre-arranged appointment, but returns a short while later. What has happened?