Thoughts From The Bold Strokes Books Festival June 2017

Talk To Me - Writing Good Dialogue
Writing Good Dialogue Panel

 

“Writing good dialogue”

Here are some of the ways I think good dialogue contributes to a story:-

 

 

  • It can entertain – enlivening the prose and engaging the reader.
  • It can move an aspect of the plot or narrative forward in a way which, because it is absorbed within the ‘chat’, feels light and digestible – meeting the wise adage of show not tell.
  • It can impart information about a character, allowing the reader to: ‘hear’ the character’s unique voice; ‘see’ their mannerisms; and ‘understand’ their emotions/reactions.
  • It can reveal how a character can change depending on who they’re talking to, illuminating the distinct relationship between characters. For example, a character chatting with their best mate might have ‘banter’, but the same character with their lover may have much more intense dialogue.
  • It can heighten the potency and the impact of a character’s internal thoughts, at times playing with the unspoken monologues. For example, when a character thinks one thing but says the opposite.
  • Particularly if the piece is written in third person, where you have a silent narrator if you like, it can cleverly allow the writer to say things the narrator can’t. Dialogue lends a character a dangerous independence.

So here’s a checklist of some of the things I think about when I’m writing dialogue:-

  1. Does the style of the dialogue I’m writing match the personality of my character? Is the ‘voice’ authentic to them?
  2. Does the tone and content of the dialogue fit the moment in the narrative? Are the characters saying the right thing, in the right manner, at the right time?
  3. Is the content of the dialogue engaging and informative, and will it help my reader better understand either the character and/or the plot?
  4. Is the dialogue easy to read – does it flow?
  5. Will the reader know at all times who is speaking and what is going on?
  6. Have I been careful not to overuse dialogue tags – those speech tags attributing dialogue, actions, and emotions to a particular character?
  7. Have I remembered that the pauses or pregnant silences can be as important as what is actually being said – the natural rhythm of speech if you like.

Top tip:-

Try sitting in public spaces and listen to people chatting. Hear how they interrupt each other, how they might begin on one subject and end on another, how passionate or flat their tone is.

Can you (without looking of course) imagine what they look like, what their life might be like?  What is distinctive about them – is it their accent, the pace of their speech, is their language – informal or formal?

And finally – listen to your characters chatting in your head (and they do!), let your writing be their voice.

 


 

“Thoughts about ‘Conflict’ in fiction writing”

 

Moderating the Conflict Panel
Danger, Conflict, Uh-Oh Panel

In works of narrative, ‘Conflict’ is the opposition main characters must face to achieve their goals.1

A writer might employ two forms of conflict to create the tension which drives the narrative. Conflict may be ‘internal’ or ‘external’ – it may occur within a character’s mind, most commonly revealed in their internal debates or monologues or between a character and exterior forces, for example in conflict with another person or the world around them.

Writers will often employ both forms at once, as a combined tool, for the development of plot and character.

To avoid the conflict feeling forced or unbelievable a writer will embed the conflict at the heart of the novel, so that it is an integral element and arises organically and effortlessly.

Conflict creates drama and interest in a novel by setting seeds of doubt, it keeps the reader guessing, it invests the reader in the outcome, and keeps them turning the pages again and again…

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_(narrative)

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Advertisements

Writing the narrative of our lives

At this time of such political uncertainty I am so thankful for those organisations who tirelessly work to protect our LGBT lives. Last week we celebrated IDAHOBIT day (17th May, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, & Transphobia). IDAHOBIT day was created in 2004 to draw the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and the media to the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI people internationally.1 Here in the UK, ahead of the election, Stonewall2 has been working to challenge parliamentary candidates to commit to protecting LGBT rights in the UK and abroad.

I think of this vital work, however, as the visible tip of the iceberg. Because, as with many things in life, the force behind change can often be found in the relatively small things we do on a regular basis.

For example, when as writers and readers we gather together each year at the Bold Strokes Books Festival to celebrate LGBT fiction, whilst our purpose may not be to debate politics or mastermind campaigns, it nonetheless cannot be underestimated what we are achieving.

We are creating for ourselves a precious, safe space where we can openly and joyfully connect with each other as we share in our love of LGBT literature. As we passionately talk about why these stories mean so much to us, and what we want our stories of the future to look like, we are actively writing the narrative of our lives. We are claiming our voice and asserting our individual identities.

I am so grateful to be participating in the 8th Annual Bold Stokes Books Festival, and empowered by the fact that in a small but significant way, as writers and readers, we are contributing to the wider work to challenge ignorance, discrimination, and injustice.

  1. http://dayagainsthomophobia.org/
  2. http://www.stonewall.org.uk/

Literary Crush – Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

rita-mae-brown
1.  Rita Mae Brown

“The most revolutionary thing you can do is to be yourself.”2

These are the words of Rita Mae Brown, the 2015 Winner of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award, and winner of the Lee Lynch Classic Book Award, and author of the seminal novel Rubyfruit Jungle.

Written in 1971, and published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle tells the story of the feisty, resolute and unapologetic heroine Molly Bolt. It was an immediate hit, outselling the capacity of its small press Daughters Inc. 3

Told in the first person through the voice of Molly, the reader intimately follows her development from childhood to her early twenties. Molly is determined not to be told who she is, or who she should be or what she can’t do or think. Her unapologetic attitude to sex in particular is liberating to read. She is her own person and that is her strength and allure. Her confidence glows out to the reader.

“I don’t care whether they [people] like me or not. Everybody’s stupid that’s what I think. I care if I like me that’s what I truly care about.”4

The story of Rubyfruit Jungle is one of a battle, bravely fought, against the casual horrors of Molly’s life. She fights hard to not be limited or defined by her illegitimacy, poverty, homelessness, sexuality, class, societal expectations, racism or by sexism.

However, as with true heroism, she does not escape scar free. When she is expelled from college for causing a scandal by sleeping with her female college roommate, it shapes Molly for good.

“I closed the door forever on idealism and the essential goodness of human nature.”5

And yet she is not a cynical character. She swallows her bitterness and refuses to give in on her ambition to be a film maker, despite the evidence to suggest her dreams are futile. This is inspiring.

Molly becomes a symbolic figure of defiance, a character of contrast to those around her who aren’t as smart or as bravely determined not to be limited by circumstance. Molly’s childhood friends and lovers succumb to their seemingly inevitable fates of marriage and jobs which fit society rather than them. The individual is seen to be lost if it is not claimed, created and fought for, particularly if your start in life presumes against this.

And that for me is the essence of the book – fight to find and be yourself.

Observers are often dismayed when Rita Mae Brown distances herself from seeing Rubyfruit Jungle as a lesbian novel.6 But if you step back from reading Molly purely as a lesbian role model to see Molly also as a campaigner for individual freedom, then you hit upon why Rubyfruit Jungle is so meaningful to so many.

Ultimately Rubyfruit Jungle is about the championing of free will, without which we have nothing other than that imposed on us by others.

“If Rubyfruit Jungle helped to push you on your path to freedom, I’ve done something right.”7   Rita Mae Brown.

  1. The Lavender Menace was an informal group of lesbian radical feminists formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Menace
  2. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/
  3. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/rita-mae-brown-rubyfruit-jungle-interview
  4. p. 36, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  5. p. 131, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/rita-mae-brown-awarded-as-pioneer-of-lesbian-literature-scoffs-at-the-term/2015/05/30/60169a62-00a5-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html
  7. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf 1 June 1939

Discovering the writing in the shadows of the writer.

I can’t remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf; I seem somehow to have always known of her. A tall slim-framed woman, with a long face and a slightly severe expression – set off by sad eyes, heavy lidded with the weight of her convictions.

As a member of the Bloomsbury Set2 of thinkers and artists Woolf was determined to challenge conventional thinking and intelligent enough to find the language to validate her life lived on its own terms.

And it was that life lived on its own terms that I first engaged with. I remember being enthralled by the scandal of her affairs with women, most notably Vita Sackville-West3, who inspired her famous gender-bending novel Orlando.

But here is the problem for me – I was so taken with her that I found I couldn’t see past the woman to find the writing. It was like her work was overshadowed by her infamy. I knew I needed a way into her writing but I just didn’t expect it to come in the form of an essay.

The essay On Being Ill4 was written by Woolf in January 1926 for The New Criterion5 and I was immediately intrigued by this quieter, less celebrated work.

Woolf, like so many creative individuals, infamously struggled to maintain her mental health. She endured terrible bouts of depression which ultimately led to her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59. My sense is that the price of seeking freedom from convention is not measured in sterling or dollars but in the degrees to which the human spirit can be tested and broken. There is nothing ‘free’ about free-thinking.

I wondered whether a hint of regret might emerge of the toll taken upon her by having lived a pioneering life. No, instead Woolf defiantly sets the ‘recumbent’ bed-ridden individual up against the ‘upright’ healthy as she explains that it is the ‘recumbent’, on their back ‘with their face to the sky’ who can see the world with a fresh perspective.

It is a perspective which scrutinises those ‘genial pretences’, such as sympathy:-

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.”6

And there it was – shining, her writing, her beautiful prose, her imagination on the page.

Woolf goes on to explain that her imaginative powers became enhanced with illness.

“In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarme or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.”7

With every page I turned, Woolf the celebrity gave way to Woolf the writer. Not only in her lyricism, but as she explored the notion that ill health had given her a unique perspective on life, her way into new levels of creative experience. No famous novel could tell the reader this – no journey To The Lighthouse, no party with Mrs Dalloway, could afford such insight.

And as my snowfield glistens, Virginia Woolf is no longer in the way of Virginia Woolf.

 

Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)

  1. Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC, printed in the Telegraph 9 July 2014 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10914210/The-last-photograph-of-Virginia-Woolf.html
  2. The Bloomsbury Set. http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/bloomsbury-group/introduction/profiles
  3. Vita Sackville-West. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/
  4. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  5. The New Criterion https://thenewcriterion1926.wordpress.com/
  6. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  7. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

The Objects We Treasure – Diva Magazine

We all have certain objects that we treasure – that evoke cherished memories of moments, people, and places.

Some Of My Diva Magazine Collection – circa 1994 onwards.Diva1994

The recent news that Jane Hill, a respected journalist and newsreader at the BBC, will be writing a column for Diva Magazine is both exciting and important. Whenever a high profile figure endorses LGBT lives it gives the bully “homophobia” a bloody nose.

I remember buying my first Diva in 1994, the year Diva was first published. It was incredible that a tiny newsagent in a small town in mid-wales, where I was studying, stocked it and I remember thinking a whole magazine for lesbians, WOW. It was also around that time that kd lang was making me feel all unnecessary by ruffling her hair in her video for Constant Craving…anyway I digress.

These early issues included interviews with Sandra Bernhard, the newly-out Sandi Toksvig, and the wonderful late Claire Rayner. Agony Aunt Claire spoke with forthright compassion about ‘the injustice of it all’ in relation to the unequal age of consent. High profile figures endorsing LGBT lives…wait, hold on, that was what twenty odd years ago?

Anyone else have a sinking feeling that nothing has really changed – role models as important now as then –  the need to challenge homophobia and to assert our rights still as relevant now as in 1994…if not more so?

In her recent email Chief Executive Officer of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, challenges LGBT people today to ask themselves “Are we really free to be ourselves wherever we are?”

So a heartfelt thank you Diva, for surviving in the fickle climate of publishing and for working so faithfully to ensure that the lives of lesbian and bisexual women can be visible, celebrated and endorsed.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

 

Literary Crush – Ali Smith

Other Stories and Other StoriesOther Stories and Other Stories.

It is to Ali Smith’s absolute credit that I have found writing this blog incredibly hard. It has taken many drafts to begin to edge towards an explanation as to why her collection of short stories entitled Other Stories and Other Stories work in such an affecting way.

I love the way she has made me feel – it’s like I’m trying to peer into the magician’s hat to see if I can fathom the magic being made. And by magic I mean the way in which the stories resonate way beyond the actual page.

It seems to me that the ‘magic’ is created by a combination of content and craft, which work together to create a tension between what “is known” and what “must be discovered through the act of imagination”.

The collection’s twelve diverse stories address themes including relationships, trust, loss, loneliness, innocence, sexuality, emotional distress, poverty, and isolation.  Such evocative content produce direct and troubling narratives.

In Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story, for example, we nervously follow a desperate woman’s theft of a crucifix from a church, sharing in the explicit peril of the act. ‘Now all the woman can hear is her own heart. She slides along the seat, opens the buttons of her coat…’1

I was left worrying about why the woman had stolen the crucifix. Who or what was behind the unseen threat she needed the crucifix to protect her from? As with all of the stories in the collection, I was left caught up in an ending, without an ending.

This technique of withholding information from the reader is hinted at in A story of love.

In A story of love the narrator is chatting to her female lover about storytelling, as they cuddle in each other’s arms, in their bed, with the seasons changing around them. The narrator confesses, ‘So I told the next story, and as it unfolded I realised how exciting it could be to know more about a story than you knew. I hadn’t really understood how exhilarating it could be to hold your attention like that.’2

A story of love also provides another clue to Ali Smith’s craft at work, as the narrator explains, ‘There was once, I said, a story that was told by way of other stories.’3

Indeed every story in the collection is ‘told by way of other stories’ that seem to deviate from the intention and theme suggested by its title. This creates a tangible tension between what is expected and what is given. For each of the twelve stories it is up to the reader to build connections and create the narrative from the individual parts – to seek what must be discovered.

And so I am left, my imagination working overtime, in awe of Ali Smith the literary magician who can make me wonder how it is I am thinking of the rabbit she didn’t in fact pull out of the hat.

  1. p162, Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.
  2. p173, A story of love, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.
  3. p176, A story of love, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – W H Auden

W-H-Auden-people-pageAnimating the inanimate.

Having a literary crush, for me at least, doesn’t automatically mean I know the object of my affections inside out. In fact, sometimes it only takes one piece of work from an author to affect me or to influence my writing in some way – just as in life, where one smile exchanged, or one fleeting moment with a stranger, can stay with an individual for a lifetime.

And that’s how it is with me and Auden. Just two poems O Tell Me the Truth About Love and Funeral Blues is enough for me to say with conviction that Auden has influenced the way I write.

For example, Auden showed me the inherent power of personification as a tool for description – the art of bringing alive the inanimate elements of a scene or an emotion, with the aim of enhancing the effect upon the reader.

In O Tell Me the Truth About Love Auden personifies the emotion of love, humanising it, asking in the penultimate stanza:-

‘Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races?
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.’1

So when I wanted to describe the pain of Eve Eddison’s heartbreak in my forthcoming novel, Highland Fling, I drew on Auden as I personified the unseen nature of emotional pain as a ghost lingering with baseball bat, poised to inflict agony on the next victim:-

‘Like a baseball bat swung toward and struck bluntly with a thump directly at the heart, it never ceases to surprise that our emotions often physically hurt. And yet there is cruel futility in ripping at your shirt, searching your bare chest for the wound made by the strike, for there is no purpling bruise, just the awful sensation of invisible pain. And like the sinister haunting of a ghost, the shadow of emotion lingers before passing to the next unwary soul, bat in hand, arm out wide, poised.’

But it is not just Auden’s use of personification which has inspired me; it is also his ability to reimagine the familiar so that it works in a new and evocative way. Using simple images he is able to transform the unimportant to become important, and the universal to appear small and personal. In Funeral Blues, the sun is ‘dismantled’, the ocean ‘poured away’ and the wood ‘swept up’:-

‘The stars are not wanted now; put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.’2

So when, in Highland Fling, I needed to describe what it was like for Roxanne when she felt like she’d lost everything, thanks to Auden I understood there was no limit to what I could reimagine to express what I needed to say:-

‘It is a good thing that time waits for no one, and that life carries on without us. That we are not relied on to spin the earth, or pull down on the sun to set, or encourage the autumn leaves to fall. No, that is not our work. Our work is to find a way to live, even if for some upsetting reason we find that we no longer recognise our life.’

And yet, if I was asked “who inspires your writing?” there are so many writers, who together – one poem, one novel, one wisdom at a time – have made and are making me the writer I am and the writer I want to be. But it will always be Auden, expanding the limits of my imagination, and animating the inanimate for me.

W H Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)

  1. p9, O Tell Me the Truth About Love, by W. H. Auden, Tell Me the Truth About Love, Ten Poems by W. H. Auden, 1994, Faber and Faber Limited.
  2. p29, Funeral Blues, by W. H. Auden, Tell Me the Truth About Love, Ten Poems by W. H. Auden, 1994, Faber and Faber Limited.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.