Welcome to IAAY number nine!

This week it's all about British writer and editor, Marian Newell, whose first novel was inspired by childhood memories of the Cinque Ports and their lurid smuggling folklore.

IAAY is published every Wednesday (yes, all of them), so there's plenty of time for you to join in too! Contact me via the comments section or via Twitter: @mickdavidson.

It’s All About Marian Newell
It’s All About Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

 It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’

This must be one of the greatest closing lines in fiction, quite an achievement when you remember that the book has a cracking opening line too. The words moved me to tears when I first read them in my late teens, and the nobility of the protagonist’s sacrifice retains its power for me still.

This book shaped my taste in fiction, making me seek grand themes and psychological depth.  Most of all, it piqued my interest in motivation. I want to get to know characters as if they were real people, and I want to understand what they want and why they act as they do.

One of the grand themes in this story is redemption. It asks whether a worthless life can be redeemed by a single noble act. It also invites us to consider whether the sacrifice has less value because the life is worthless, a burden to the man who sacrifices it.

The quoted words are finely crafted, using the literary device anaphora — the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. This occurs throughout the book and underlines the recurring theme of doubles. There are the two cities of the title and the two characters so alike that they can be repeatedly mistaken for one another.

For me, though, the power of the quote is in the satisfying resolution it gives to the story. An ending that might have been unbearably sad is lifted by the fact that death holds no fear. There is utter confidence that the path taken will leave everyone, including the man who forfeits his life, better off.

A sense of closure remains important to me. I often find stories that end ambiguously to be unsatisfying. While recognising that there is value in personal interpretation, I usually prefer to know what the storyteller means rather than to discover my own meaning in their work.

It’s All About Me

A Devil’s Dozen by Marian Newell (2012)

This, my debut novel, is a fictionalised account of real events. It describes the rise and fall of a smuggling gang that operated on the Kent coast in the 1820s. The tale demanded a strong focus on historical detail and actual incidents but my own interest was more in the nature of the fourteen viewpoint characters. I wanted to use fiction as a tool to look beyond the recorded facts.

It struck me that any group of that size includes a variety of people, doing similar things but for a range of reasons. Having read as much as I could about the time and place, I considered how the men might have differed in their backgrounds and circumstances. The motivations of the characters that I created range from need to greed, from the wildly irrational to the coldly calculated.

My story is unlike A Tale of Two Cities in that it has a factual core and doesn’t impose specific themes on what took place. However, and with no comparison to Dickens’ mastery of the form, I do see ways in which my work was influenced by his. Much of the impact of the sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes from its unexpected source. Our expectations are often confounded: people we consider reliable may let us down, while people we dismiss may surprise us. I tried to cast against type when I allocated actions derived from contemporary local rumours to the individuals I had characterised.

Returning to endings, the optimism of mine certainly owes a debt to his. I was mindful of the importance of opening and closing chapters and considered my personal favourites. It was Rebecca (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’) and A Tale of Two Cities that sprang to mind.

My manuscript originally ended on a reflective and slightly sad note. During the editing process, I revised it to conclude in a more forward-looking way:

‘You sees that, boys? Paul? Tommy? You sees it?’

Tommy looked at Pierce, who closed his mouth and swallowed. They all stared at each other for a moment or two, then Pierce cleared his throat and shouted back.

‘We see it. By Christ, Quacks, we all see it.’

I had lacked the confidence to stop at this point but feedback made me realise that cutting what came afterwards would make the ending stronger. Readers would be able to see what the future held, just as my characters were seeing it.

I wonder if Dickens knew all along that his story would end with the uplifting sentiment we read in the final version. I suspect he probably did.

1. The Darkness Beneath - Free Copy
2. It's All About You
3. It's All About Writing 

The Darkness Beneath: Sex, Death and Trains, all Yours For Nothing (still!)*

You can get a free copy of my first novel, The Darkness Beneath, by following this link - but hurry! Only (yes, only...) the first 100 people to sign up can claim a free copy. *Terms and Conditions apply.

It Is All About You!
We had a cracking IAAY from guitarist/Composer Simon Imagin who talked about how JS Bach has influenced his work. I'm also fortunate enough to have been introduced to Bach at an early age, not sure how early but probably before reaching double figures. Next week's IAAY is all about writer Stephan J Myers.

It's All About Writing
Constructing and De-constructing: Digging Into Your Writing
One of the things that I learnt from hearing Bach was to listen to the elements that made up a piece. Not every single note, my brain was far the scatter-gun for that, but a few bars here and there. 

After mastering the art of only listening to one instrument or phrase at a time (on a record player!), I was able to see how Bach twisted and twined and bounced melodies off each other. This showed me how they were related (two sides of one coin), and how combining different melodies etc produced something that was more beautiful and often very different to how they sounded and felt on their own.

Another thing I used to do as a child was, when on a train, stare out the window (and don't tell me you're a writer and then say you never do that!) and imagine I was watching a motorcyle (ridden by myself of course) bouncing along  out there as we hurtled through the English countryside.

Of course, at speed and with a limited viewpoint, I couldn't always see what was coming, so I'd frequently find my ghost rider ploughing into trees and bushes, disappearing down holes and crashing into bridges. 

What I'd then do, to keep the continuity of the ride going, was to dial the story back a little and build the new elements into it, along with how I would have dealt with them had I seen them coming. In other words, I was editing the story.

Write, Edit; Re-write, Re-edit
Which brings me to editing and re-writing. As you already know, writing is really all about re-writing - which is something that not everyone likes or wants to do. I can't say I want to do too much of it, but I know that I have to, especially as I'm a self-publisher: no one else is going to do it for me. 

That said, I do have a number of readers (and my thanks to you all for your invaluable and free help) who pick up on all sorts of errors (grammar, spelling, plot...) but they only usually get to see what I intend to be the last or 2nd to last draft. Which means I have to scratch my way through all the mess I leave behind as I plough through the story the first four or five times.

Although I'd rather do less of this, I think my musical and motorbike experiences taught me the value of picking things apart and putting them back together again. A lesson that's been very valuable and certainly makes the task of re-writing and editing something I've actually come to enjoy. 

Like many writers I see writing as sculpting: you produce a thicket of words and ideas that you have to cut and trim until all that is left is all that is needed to tell the story.

Here's the dilemma: I'm reading a book that I want to review. It is not a good book. It is poorly written, unimaginative and dull. At best it's a short story, because the basic idea is good. The editing is also questionable. I think that, given how hard many aspiring authors work to produce something good, and how much attention we give to following the advice from industry professionals and published writers, this book is insulting and really taking the piss. It should not have been published in its current form and is, in my opinion, about 50% of the way there. The only upside of this is that I didn't pay for the book, it was given to me.

My problem is that although I feel the need to point out its failings, I'm not sure if I ought to. Perhaps my time would be better spent reviewing (and
reading!) something I like. And surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder and people's tastes are not all the same?

Yes, both of the latter are true, but in this case it's not about taste, it's about poor workmanship. I will quote two examples from this book to demonstrate my point, but I could easily quote or more.

Quote 1
The following comes from a long passage where an FBI agent is describing a fight with a vampire:

"...he picked me up by the neck like I weighed nothing and threw me down onto the ground. I started shouting questions at him, asking him to tell me about himself. For some astounding reason, he stepped back and started

So we're supposed to believe that at one moment the agent is being nigh on
murdered by a vampire, and in the next - and with no explanation whatsoever they're having a nice chat. Really!? Call me demanding but I want the writer to explain this dramatic turnaround. In fact the story can't proceed without being explained. I think this is should have been picked up in the editing process at the very least (where were you editors?). My main question here is, why doesn't the author bother to take the time to fill in the missing details of this sudden change of events? It should IMPOSSIBLE not to describe because you know your readers are going to ask themselves the same question. Then there's the 'For some astounding reason' sentence which the author assumes lets her off the hook of explaining what's going on. If the author can't be bothered to spend the time writing a few hundred words to explain what happened, then why should I bother reading on? Because you've already proved that shoddy workmanship is ok with you. It is not ok for paying customers.

This 'can't be bothered to explain' trick is used many times throughout the course of the book.

Quote 2
Much later in the book the main character is at a gathering of vampires for a ceremony where, not surprisingly, reality is a little challening:

"Candles floated in the air of their own volition, just like in the Harry Potter movies,..."

This starts well enough but then 'just like in the Harry Potter movies'? How lazy can you be? First there's the assumption that the reader has seen any of the films, secondly why doesn't the writer exercise their imagination and supposed writing skills rather than using graphical shorthand? The book is riddled with this sort of thing, all of which should have been picked up by the editor.

Critical Failure
Because I've been caught on the horns of this dilemma, I've asked other writers what they think about critiquing poor work, most prefer to ignore it and instead review books they do like. A few months ago I read another writer's blog about the same issue. Her attitude was that she didn't want to give a bad critique because she didn't want to create negative feelings within a close-knit industry and among people she may need at some point in her career. She is not alone in the POV, and I understand where she's coming from. It's hard enough to become a published/successful writer as it is without creating waves that may bounce back of distant shores later in life and slap you across the face.

On the other hand, we've a right to our opinion and to point out shoddy workmanship to others who might be tempted to spend their money on it, only to find out that it's crap. They should at least have the opportunity to know other people's opinion before they buy.

But we shouldn't live in fear of stating our opinion: that is not good for us as individuals or for our society. In fact, because of our moral obligation to be honest to ourselves, I'd say we're almost obligated to state our opinion.

Writing this blog has helped sorting my thinking out: I will be writing a critique (assuming I can reach the end before death overtakes me). And I will be as balanced as I can be, using examples to back up my comments, which is what I owe the author and publisher. It won't be a hatchet job. But I won't be holding back either, I owe that to everyone considering buying the book and all of the writers who sweat and toil to produce the best work they can.

If we don't take a stand against what we see as poor work, then we are allowing the lazy authors and quick-buck publishers to get away with literary murder. And while I know not all books are meant to be high art (and I love many things that could easily be called low-brow such as B-movies and pulp fiction for example), I don't accept that work that sinks to this level of mediocrity should be published, ever. To do this insults all writers and readers, and the memory of others, such as Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker, who were masters of this genre. While many of us may never achieve their level of excellence as writers, we should aspire to. If not, then there's no point in calling ourselves writers, we're just painting by numbers.

If that's what you aspire to, please don't bother. It's hard enough to get published as it is without having you cluttering up the slush piles.