Monday, 28 December 2015

Dull Cinderella: the problems of a not-very-interesting protagonist

Ho on earth do you make Cinderella interesting?
Oh, Cinderella. How dull you are.

I mean it. Not in an unpleasant way, but as a statement of fact. You work your fingers to the bone in the house, cooking, washing, cleaning. If you have any time off — and let’s face it, you rarely do — you don’t go out and meet anyone interesting, or indulge in hobbies, or have an adventure. You sit by the fire, staring into its glowing heart, too tired even to put together a plan of escape. How did anyone ever write your story? Or more to the point, why did anyone ever want to read it?

These days we need interesting characters. We need action and excitement from the first page. We need a hook to get the reader in, because people keep telling us that the paying public these days has a short attention span and won’t waste time of a slow run-in. And where’s the hook in some plain child doing the dusting and then sitting down by the fire? 

I’m so familiar with Cinderella that I’d never really thought about this before. That was until I found myself writing a version on the theme for myself. It’s the third book in my Lake Garda series. Giorgia, my heroine, is not quite Cinderella in the sense that she’s a very wealthy young woman indeed, but she is tied into a life of drudgery, albeit one she thinks she’s chosen. Since she was old enough to wait at tables she’s worked in the family hotel which she will one day inherit.

Now, thanks to a combination of circumstances which developed earlier in the series, she finds herself, at the tender age of twenty-two, running the hotel almost single-handedly. Her brother is leaving. Her father is heading for a breakdown. There’s no-one else to help her. She has no life, no friends. When she has time off she’s too exhausted to do anything with it. Poor little rich girl. 

How very, very dull. How very unreadable. 

Reader, how on earth do I hook you into Giorgia’s story? 

These days I venture that we wouldn’t be telling fairy stories the way they’re traditionally told, from once upon a time to happily ever after. We’d be getting in right in at the action. Maybe we’d start Cinderella with the appearance of the Fairy Godmother, or perhaps even on the stroke of midnight as she tears herself away from the arms of the handsome prince. (Why is she doing that? What has she got to hide? Who is this mysterious girl whose name no-one knows and who has taken the ball by storm?)

I don’t know that I can take that approach with Giorgia, because the book is the third in a series and the previous two have begun at the beginning and ended at the end, without any complicated flashbacks or time-hopping. It remains a problem, on that I think will take me some time to solve. But I’m onto it, and at least it’ll give me something to occupy my thoughts over the festive season. Though any suggestions would be welcome. 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Sense of Place: A Salzburg Sunrise

I’ve gone on at great length in the past about the importance of location in fiction and I daresay I’ll do so again. But sometimes — just sometimes — you come across a writer who so obviously loves a place so much the just can’t help writing about it. 

I picked up Liz Ringrose’s Favourite Things on a Kindle promotion a while ago. (That’s how I find a lot of new authors, whose book I then go on to pay full price for, and quite a few whose other books I’ll never buy, but that’s another blog post.) Favourite Things is a novella set in around a Sound of Music tour in the Austrian city of Salzburg. It’s a light, fun read, thoroughly enjoyable and cleverly written, keeping the reader (well, me at least) guessing until the very end. 

Somehow, through a mutual friend in Australia if I remember correctly, Liz and I become friends on Facebook and that was how I first found out about her next book, A Salzburg Sunrise. I bought it straight away but, life being what it is, I only just got round to reading it. Loved it, of course, as i knew I would. Liz writes so fluently that it’s a pleasure to read her work.

A Salzburg Sunrise is different, longer and more complex, the story of a young woman rebuilding her life after her husband leaves her for another woman. Natalie visits Salzburg and it’s there that she eventually chooses to rebuild her life. But cutting herself off from her family proves almost as difficult as learning to trust again. And there’s a family secret to uncover, too…

Natalie loves Salzburg. And you know what? It’s pretty clear that Liz loves it, too. Her description — not just of the city’s centre and sights, but the suburbs where Natalie finds both a home and new friends and the surrounding areas where she uncovers the truth about her grandmother are vividly drawn. So are the characters. Nathalie’s emotional fragility is balanced by her determination to start again; fun-loving American Connor and sympathetic widower Leo are believable and — even when they make the inevitable mistakes — likeable. 

And Liz kept me guessing. That’s an art. Even after Nathalie had chosen the right man, even after she’d uncovered the family secret, there was a twist in the tale of her fraught relationship with her mother and the breakup with errant husband Adam. Perhaps there were too many twists and turns in Natalie’s growing relationship (I won’t say who with or I’ll spoil the first part of the book), too many predictable misunderstandings which one or other protagonist really  ought to have sorted out. That’s a minor gripe, if it’s a gripe at all. I loved the book and can’t wait to rejoin Liz in Salzburg in the pages of her next one.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A thin line between hero and villain

Macbeth - a villain who could have been a hero
I’m musing on villainy this week — always the most interesting aspect to work with. Think Holmes’ Moriarty. Think Captain Hook. Think Bill Sykes or Flashman or Voldemort or (Shakespeare’s version of) Richard III. Take your pick. Some of them are truly evil and some are undeniably attractive. Some of them could make a case for being a hero, too and some heroes come very close to stepping over the hero-villain line. 

For the writer there’s nothing like a good villain, and I like to think I’m working with a potential cracker right now. Eden is tall, broad-shouldered and ruggedly handsome. He’s more than a bit of a rebel, yet he’s a leader. He’s all man, yet, when it suits him, he dares to show his feminine side. He’s highly principled and his courage is legendary. Women are drawn to him by his charm and his attentions. So I was (I think) highly flattered when one of my writing buddies, coming across him for the first time, sighed and shook her head. ‘What an utter bastard!’ she said. ‘I can’t understand why Bronte’ (the heroine) ‘could ever fall for him.’

In fairness, Bronte isn’t quite such a wuss as that makes her sound, because at the opening of the book Eden is her ex-boyfriend and she'd got rid of him sharpish as soon as she realised that all of his considerable qualities are completely negated by his inability to stick to one woman at a time or, indeed, to really care about any of the women he dates. But like most villains he won’t go away.

I was struck when writing the book by the fact that the line between a hero and a villain is very fine indeed. Marcus, my hero, has many of Eden’s qualities, though a little less so in some cases. He’s equally handsome and equally courageous, almost as principled, though perhaps he lacks some of our villain’s legendary charm. 

What he has that makes him a hero is what Eden completely lacks. Empathy. Eden is driven entirely by self-interest: his principles are so strong that everyone around him must be subject to them. No-one is important enough to persuade him to change his attitude or to do something that deviates in any way from his plan. And it ends — of course it ends — in tears.

It occurred to Marcus, as he looked at her and saw the desolation in her face, not just of abandonment and betrayal but also of pain and fear, that the secret of Eden’s strength was not, after all, in his bravery but in his inability to care for others. You might not question his commitment but you couldn’t ascribe it to courage. As long as no threat came to himself then he wouldn’t be dissuaded by anything that happened to anyone else.”

Do you prefer a truly villainous villain? Or would you rather have one tormented by light and shade? And out of all literature, who’s your favourite?

Monday, 7 December 2015

A Sense of Place: The Ecology of Lonesomeness

There’s something almost luxurious about a book set in a place you know, especially one you know and love. David O’Brien’s The Ecology of Lonesomeness is set in one of my favourite places in the whole world, the area around Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. It begins with the hero, Kaleb, going to the chip shop in the village of Fort Augustus, which frustrated me intensely, because everybody knows that the best chips actually come from the pub on the corner.

Never mind: this is a book chat, not a tourist information post. But the point stands — David knows his area, even if his taste in chips leaves something to be desired. As a reader, location is important to me. I need to feel where I am and I need to understand it. Okay, I know the area; but even if I didn’t I’m pretty sure I would have been able to see it and feel it, smell the pine woods and hear the birds and the wind in the trees. 

Enough of the setting: to the plot (forgive me if I’m vague but I’m trying to talk about it without giving you the dreaded spoiler). Kaleb is an American biologist researching what we geeks would call the carrying capacity of Loch Ness, in an effort to prove beyond all doubt that the loch is incapable of supporting a monster. He meets Jessie, a local lass, who works in the chip shop and the two fall in love (despite the rather old-fashioned opposition of her parents). 

Loch Ness
Jessie has a secret and, almost inevitably, Kaleb’s research leads him closer to it than she’s comfortable with, leaving them both with difficult choices. It’s a rollicking read, though I’m a delicate flower and for me there was a bit too much (unnecessary) swearing. There was quite a lot of sex in it too, and although I’m no prude I did find that it got in the way of the plot. Sorry, David — I skipped some of those scenes, but you can take it as a compliment because I was more interested in what happened next than in who was putting what where back at the caravan. 

I’m coming back to the location, though, because scene-setting is important, to me at any rate. I enjoyed the plot, the characters were real and the setting is beautifully done. For the most part it’s accurate, too, although I’m pretty certain that there are some bits David made up to suit himself (unless I don’t know the old place as well as I thought). That doesn’t matter: the whole thing is entirely convincing and the setting is the perfect frame for the plot.  

David O’Brien is a fellow author at Tirgearr and he and I chatted a bit on social media before the book came out, so it’s absolutely no exaggeration to say that I was desperate for the book to appear on my Kindle so I could read it. And reader: I wasn’t disappointed. Have a look and see what you think.

Friday, 4 December 2015

An awfully brief adventure

In an earlier blog post I detailed my decision to try self-publishing. I didn’t come to it lightly, though motivated less by a fear of failure than by a phobia of formatting. I foresaw a whole series of blog posts on my trials and travails. And do you know what? The book (if I may presume to call it that) is available on Amazon. So what have I learned?

It’s as easy as falling off a log

Well, almost. From the moment I decided to embark on this self-publishing adventure to the book going live was less than 48 hours. From the moment I sat down in seriousness to do it (excluding the faffing about and panicking and watching YouTube videos) to the moment at which I pressed ‘publish’ was less than an afternoon.

Either the formatting is very straightforward or else I’m more skilled than I thought

Formatting is common sense. Almost two decades ago I did a couple of courses in Word, and although Word has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, the fundamentals still apply. There really is nothing to worry about. I never even read the book I downloaded to guide me through the process.

The most difficult part is the admin

This did take time, and the peak moments of panic. I’m still not sure I got it exactly right in terms of setting up the tax information and complying with the US regulations, reading through all the legalese and ticking (I hope) the right boxes. I filled it in to the best of my knowledge and ability. I hope that’s enough.

Doing it properly will require more effort

This was an experiment. I didn’t revise the short stories and I didn’t pay for a proofreader or a cover. The results? A few errors but not as many as I thought, and a cover that’s okay and original to a degree (my own photo with standard formatting) but nothing special. To self-publish seriously will require a lot more effort on that front and a cost, too. There are decisions to be made there about how much to invest.

And finally…

The last lesson I learned is one I know well and should have applied a long time ago. As with so much else in life, so it is with self-publishing: there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

You can download it from the Kindle store here