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BEAUTY IN THORNS: My novel-in-progress

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

BEAUTY IN THORNS – My Novel-in-Progress

I am always being asked what I am now writing, and so I thought I'd share with you some of the work I've been doing in the past year.

I am about halfway through writing a new fairytale-infused historical novel which I am calling BEAUTY IN THORNS

It tells the dramatic story of love, desire, obsession and tragedy behind the famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 



Burne-Jones was one of a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings and scandalous behaviour. After Burne-Jones broke off their passionate affair, his mistress Maria Zambaco tried to drown herself. Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his poems in his dead wife’s coffin and later had her exhumed to retrieve the worm-eaten manuscript. His sister Christina wrote intense poetry filled with images of girls both sleeping and dead. His lover Jane Burden was married to one of his best friends, William Morris, and they maintained a secret ménage a trois for years, before Rossetti succumbed to madness. Morris himself fell in love with Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie, and wrote some of his most lyrical poetry for her. 

Burne-Jones was obsessed with 'Sleeping Beauty' and painted numerous different versions of the tale. Here are just a few:








BEAUTY IN THORNS is told by the voices of eight true-life women:




Georgie Burne-Jones



Her daughter Margaret Burne-Jones



Jane Burden



Her daughter May Morris



Mary de Morgan


Christina Rossetti



Lizzie Siddal 




Maria Zambaco

In the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault, there were seven fairy godmothers invited to the christening feast of the baby princess - and one who was not invited and so, in her rage and scorn, cursed the child. This was the inspiration for the eight fascinating women whose stories I have chosen to tell.  


With so many glorious Pre-raphaelite paintings to pour over, I had the most wonderful time building my writer's notebook, which is always a kind of scrapbook of my creative process. Here are a few pages: 
 


The first page of my notebook – a picture of one of Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings

 

First words of the novel written 4 January 2016 – recorded in my notebook


I have now written around 80,000 words and am around the halfway mark. Its always very exciting to see the book begin to weave itself together. 



Read more about the story behind the writing of BEAUTY IN THORNS here!




          


SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016



I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 




Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.


A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.




The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.


Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.


Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.


have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! 




SPOTLIGHT: Sleeping Beauty

Monday, April 18, 2016

SLEEPING BEAUTY

History of the Tale

The earliest ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale appears in oral tradition around 1300, in the tale 'Troylus and Zellandine'.  In this tale, a disgruntled deity places a curse on the young Princess Zellandine that causes her to go into a deep slumber. Many years later, Prince Troylus happens upon the princess and rapes her in her sleep. As a result, she has a child. In 1528, the same story appears in print for the first time, in Paris, in a book of romances called Perceforest.


The tale ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ was written by Neapolitan writer and courtier Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s, and published posthumously in 1634 in a collection of stories called The Tale of Tales. This also included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel. 

Basile's story is not as pretty as the tale we know. It features the rape of the sleeping beauty, attempted infanticide, forced cannibalism and the threat of being burned alive.

Here is a brief outline of Basile's tale: 
 
It is prophesied at Talia’s birth that she will one day face great danger from a chip of flax. Her father orders that all flax be removed from the kingdom. When she is grown, Talia manages to find the only piece of flax in the entire kingdom, gets a splinter of it stuck beneath her fingernail, and falls into a deathlike sleep. 

Her father, beside himself with grief, orders the palace and surrounding countryside be abandoned so he can put the event out of his mind.

Eventually, another king stumbles upon the abandoned kingdom, and finds Talia sleeping alone. Unable to wake her, he decides to have sex with her while she sleeps. Talia falls pregnant and, without waking, eventually gives birth to twins. While the babies try to suckle, one sucks on her finger and the flax splinter is loosened. Talia wakes up, and is overjoyed to find herself the mother of twins, which she names Sun and Moon.

The king returns and finds Talia awake and his twin childrenborn. A relationship develops between them. 
The king’s wife learns of the affair and, pretending to be the king, sends for Sun and Moon. She gives them to the cook, and tells him to slaughter and roast them and serve them to the king. The cook, unable to kill the babies, hides the twins and serves up two baby lambs instead. The queen watches gleefully as the king devours the meal. 

She then sends for Talia, and demands she be burned alive. The King hears Talia screaming, and rescues her just in time. The awful queen is thrown in the fire instead, and roasts to death. The cook then produces the twins, alive and well, and they all live happily ever after.

In one 14th century version of the tale, the sleeping princess tells off the king and points out her lack of consent before deciding to give him another chance.


La belle au bois dormant’  was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, most probably drawing upon Basile’s stories which may have been brought to the French court in mid-1690s by an Italian publisher. Perrault's Mother Goose tales also included such well-known stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots. 

In Perrault's tale, a king invites seven fairies to bless his newborn daughter, and prepares golden plates and cutlery for them. One fairy was not invited because she was so old and no-one had seen her for so long. However, she comes anyway and then is angry  because there is no golden plate for her. She curses the baby princess to prick her on a spindle finger & die. One of the other fairies saves her by changing the curse of death to the curse of sleeping for 100 years.

At the age of 15 or 16, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. The fairy puts the whole castle to sleep as well. A prince hears the story of the sleeping princess and goes to find her – the wood that hides the castle shows him the path. He finds the princess and kneels before her. The princess wakes up (NB: there is no kiss in Perrault's story) and they are married.

Perrault's story does not end here. The prince keeps Sleeping Beauty hidden for a few years and they have two children called Morning & Day. At last he becomes king & takes his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother is an ogress – she conspires to eat the children and the princess but is outwitted by the cook, in a similar fashion to Basile's story. The Ogress queen dies in a tub of toads and snakes.

The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War.




'Dörnroschen' (Little Brier Rose) – Grimm Brothers

The story was told to Wilhelm Grimm by a young woman, Marie Hassenpflug, who had French ancestors and was included in the first 1812 edition.

The tale is different to Perrault's in the following ways: 
Differences 
- it has a much simpler style, closer to ‘oral’ traditions
- the Queen is told of her pregnancy by a crab (in later versions a frog) 
- There are 13 fairies but the king only has 12 golden plates so he does not invite one
- The thirteenth fairy curses the princess to prick herself with a spindle and die
- The twelfth fairy changes the curse to a sleep of 100 years
- When she pricks her finger, the whole castle falls magically asleep
- A thorn hedge grows up around the castle 
- Many princes try and fight through the thorns but fail – then the right prince comes along and the thorns turn into flowers 
- When he finds the sleeping princess, he kisses her
- The princes wakes up and so does the whole castle
- The story ends with their marriage


Jacob & Wilhelm argued about including this tale because of its French origins (they were collecting tales with German origins), but Wilhelm argued for its inclusion because of 1) its beauty and romance 2) it had linked to the Norse myth Sigur and Brynhild – she was a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was cursed to marry a mortal. She feared being wed to a coward, so was allowed to sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire until there was a man brave enough to ride through it and wake her. She had fallen asleep after pricking her hand on a thorn from the ‘sleep tree’. 



Motifs & Meaning Of Tales

Bruno Bettelheim , the Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote in his seminal work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ that Beauty’s sleep is the physical lethargy that occurs at puberty.  He sees the pricking of her finger as a symbol of menstruation, and sees sexual imagery in the girl’s search for a secret room, the circular stair, and the key in the lock. Therefore her awakening is a sexual awakening 

Maria Tatar has written:  “The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map a female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to passive, introspective period of latency”.

Joseph Campbell notes that fairy tales are often about girls who resist growing up. At the crisis of the threshold crossing, she baulks. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers.

Contrary to most feminist readings of the tale as being a bout a passive princess, many scholars have seen the Sleeping Beauty tale as containing remnants of matriarchal myth. 

In ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’, Marie-Therese von Franz says: ‘ the mother of the Sun and the Moon is not an ordinary human being, so you could say it is a symbol. But if the children were Sun and Moon, or Day and Dawn, as in other versions, you are [. . .] in the realm of what we normally call the world of the gods.’ (ie Sleeping Beauty is representative of the Great Goddess) 

This interpretation is borne up by some of the symbols in the story, such as the spinning wheel, a feminine tool and an instrument of the Fates. It symbolizes death—i.e. the cutting of the thread. The hundred-year sleep of the princess is evocative of winter and Persephone’s ordeal, and her awakening to love is therefore the awakening of spring. 

In ‘Once Upon a Time’, Max Luthi builds on this mythological interpretation, saying Sleeping Beauty ‘tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of a new day.’(Aurora)

Luthi finds it significant that Sleeping Beauty is fifteen when she touches the spindle and falls into her enchanted sleep: she is 'in the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood.' Every important turning point, every transition from one stage of life to another, are times of threat and danger and change. 

'The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than the imaginatively stylized love story of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind,' Luthi writes. 

Luthi also examines the idea that the twelve good fairies in the Grimm version of the tale may reflect "the twelve months (of the year) which bestow their manifold gifts of the earth and on nature.' The thirteenth fairy who was provoked to anger may then personify the "dethroned , neglected thirteenth month (and thus may) portray the transition from the lunar year with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve.'

In the same line of thought, 'the 100 years ... is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in its sleep.' 

Luthi warns to be careful of such 'sophistical allegorising', saying 'one must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly.'  Nonetheless, he says, Sleeping Beauty is not just a romantic fairy tale but a story filled with powerful themes of 'danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection.'  



Modern Retellings

'Sleeping Beauty' was a 1959 Disney animated musical fantasy film, the 16th in the Animated Classics series, it was released to theaters on January 29, 1959, by Buena Vista Distribution. This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years because of its initial disappointing box office gross and mixed critical reception. The studio did not return to the genre until years later, after Walt Disney died, with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).

The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The heroine has only 18 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film & appears in the film for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film, and her last is delivered 39 minutes into the film. However, she does sing two songs during this time frame.

The seven fairies were changed to three so that it was not too much like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. 


Sleeping Beauty
is also the name of a 2011 Australian film written and directed by Julia Leigh. It stars Emily Browning as a young university student who begins doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to sleep in bed alongside paying customers. The film is based in part on the novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

In Matthew Bourne’s 2013 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, the action starts in 1890, the year the ballet first premiered in St. Petersburg. Baby Aurora is humorously portrayed by a puppet and the fairies are both male & female. Instead of beauty, grace and modesty, they bestow passion, plenty, spirit, temperament and presciently, rebirth. The wicked fairy Carabosse is danced by a man.


The Disney movie Maleficent has recently been released, starring Angelina Jolie.

Maleficent is a fictional character from Walt Disney Pictures's 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Here is the blurb:

Maleficent is the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realises that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

I find this new take on the story particularly interesting, with the story being told from the point of view of the villainness allowing a new complexity of character and new moral ambiguity.



My Favourite Retellings of 'Sleeping Beauty' 


Sophie Masson. Clementine. Lady Aurora, daughter of the Count and Countess of Joli-Bois, and Clementine, the local woodcutter's child, have been firm friends for all of their sixteen years. Until, that is, the day they stumble upon a castle they never knew existed … A century later, Lord Arthur, a young amateur scientist, is determined to find out. But he discovers that science is no match for a magic that has been lying untouched for over one hundred years...

Adela Geras. Watching the Roses. Raped on the night of her eighteenth birthday by the despicable Angus, Alice remains in her room, in a near-catatonic state, communicating only with her diary, in a modern version of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess must ultimately save herself.


Helen Lowe. Thornspell. - reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince. Read my review and an interview with Helen Lowe here  

Robin McKinley. Spindle's End.  Katriona, an apprentice fairy sees the wicked fairy, Pernicia, delivers the curse: one day before her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, fall into a poisoned sleep, and die. Katriona flees with the infant princess in order to save her.

Jane Yolen. Briar Rose. Written by one of the true greats in the field of folk and fairy tales, this novel explores the Holocaust with a storyline borrowed from Sleeping Beauty – brilliant!



Sleeping Beauty & Me

Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my own personal fairy tales, and images of roses and thorns are entwined through many of my books.

I am currently working on a fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults inspired by the fascinating story behind the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones's creation of a series of paintings inspired by 'The Legend of Briar Rose'. He painted it a number of times over thirty years, including this gorgeous version:

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

I will be blogging about the new novel BEAUTY IN THORNS as I go along - and I make regular progress reports on my Facebook page and Twitter.

And of course I'm always blogging about fairy tales

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



BOOK REVIEW: THE CURSE OF THE THIRTEENTH FEY by Jane Yolen

Monday, March 28, 2016



THE BLURB: 

A reimagining of Sleeping Beauty from a master storyteller. 

Gorse is the thirteenth and youngest in a family of fairies tied to the evil king's land and made to do his bidding.

Because of an oath made to the king's great-great-ever-so-many-times-great-grandfather, if they try to leave or disobey the royals, they will burst into a thousand stars.

When accident-prone Gorse falls ill just as the family is bid to bless the new princess, a fairytale starts to unfold. Sick as she is, Gorse races to the castle with the last piece of magic the family has left--a piece of the Thread of Life.

But that is when accident, mayhem, and magic combine to drive Gorse's story into the unthinkable, threatening the baby, the kingdom, and all.

With her trademark depth, grace, and humor, Jane Yolen tells readers the "true" story of the fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Jane Yolen is a wonderful writer of fantasy and historical fiction for young adults, and has a particular interest in fairy tales that has long drawn me to her work.

The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey is a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty tale, told from the point of view of the thirteenth fey (the one that cast the curse of death on the princess).

It's written with a great deal of humour and charm, and all ends happily (even though the princess and her family are really not very nice people). 

BOOK REVIEW: THE CATER ST HANGMAN & CALLANDER SQUARE by Anne Perry

Thursday, March 24, 2016


THE BLURB: THE CATER ST HANGMAN

Careless of both murder and manners, Charlotte Ellison and her sister, two determinedly unconventional young women, ignore Victorian mores and actively join the police investigation, led by young Inspector Thomas Pitt, into the murder of their servant girl. 




THE BLURB: CALLANDER SQUARE

Murders just don’t happen in fashionable areas like Callander Square–but these two have.

The police are totally baffled. Pretty, young Charlotte Ellison Pitt, however, is curious.

Inspector Pitt’s well-bred wife doesn’t often meddle in her husband’s business, but something about this case intrigues her–to the point that staid Charlotte Pitt is suddenly rattling the closets of the very rich, seeking out backstairs gossip that would shock a barmaid, and unearthing truths that could push even the most proper aristocrat to murder.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THESE BOOKS:

I love a good Victorian murder mystery, and Anne Perry is the queen of the genre.

Her books are full of brooding atmosphere and intriguing mysteries, and I particularly love this series, with the ugly but kind lower-class detective and his outspoken upper-class wife.

The Cater St Hangman is the first in the series, and introduces Inspector Pitt to Charlotte Ellison, when one of her family’s maids is brutally murdered. The denouement is really very clever (though I guessed the murderer), and the romance is subtly done.

Callander Square is the second in the series, and sees Charlotte and her sister, Lady Emily, helping Inspector Pitt with the gruesome murder of two newborn babies. 

The books are not very long, and swiftly paced, so its possible to read on in a couple of hours.

I have read the first few, but there are now 31 books in the whole series, and I plan to read them all. Watch this space. 

HOW MANY ANNE PERRY NOVELS HAVE YOU READ?  WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THEM?


BOOK REVIEW: THE ALICE BEHIND WONDERLAND by Simon Winchester

Thursday, March 17, 2016




THE BLURB:

Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of Christ College dean, with a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera, recently purchased in London. It was summer, 1858.

Simon Winchester deftly uses the resulting image--as unsettling as it is famous, and the subject of bottomless speculation--as the vehicle for a brief excursion behind the lens, a focal point on the origins of a classic work of English literature.

Dodgson's love of photography framed his view of the world, and was partly responsible for transforming a shy and half-deaf mathematician into one of the world's best-loved observers of childhood. Little wonder that there is more to "Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid" than meets the eye. 

Using Dodgson's published writings, private diaries, and of course his photographic portraits, Winchester gently exposes the development of Lewis Carroll and the making of his Alice.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

On a summer's day in 1858, in a garden behind Christ Church College in Oxford, a shy and half-deaf mathematician named Charles Dodgson photographed six-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the college dean, with his new camera. 

She was barefoot and dressed in rags, posing as a beggar-girl, and looks at the camera with a look of preternatural worldliness. Her dress has been pulled from her shoulder to show one small nipple. 

Eight years later, Charles Dodgson became Lewis Carroll and his book Alice in Wonderland became a publishing sensation.

Simon Winchester has used this famous and troubling photograph as a launch pad for an exploration of the life and work of Lewis Carroll, his fascination with photography, and the ongoing speculation about the nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell.

It’s a fascinating account, beautifully written, and an excellent entry point for anyone interested in the story behind Alice in Wonderland.

I'D LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:


BOOK REVIEW: FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters

Monday, March 14, 2016



THE BLURB:


Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. 

Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home. 

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naive gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud's vast inheritance. 

Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. 

With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways...But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals. 

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "startling power" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Sarah Waters had been on my radar for a while, but I only read one of her books – Affinity – last year. I absolutely adored it, and am now working my way through all of her books.

 I asked friends which one I should read next and they all recommended Fingersmith, and so of course I ordered a copy straightaway. It was short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize, and has been widely acclaimed, and all for very good reason. 

Fingersmith is one of the best books I have ever read. Fiendishly clever and utterly suspenseful, it has one of the most unexpected twists I have ever read. I just loved the way the whole plot turned itself about, and how it was all resolved in the end. 

Sarah Waters is without a doubt one of the most brilliant authors writing today, and Fingersmith has become one of my all-time favourite books. I’m still thinking about it and marvelling about it weeks later. 


WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THIS BOOK?

WRITING: To Plot or Not?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

To plot, or not to plot – that is the question ...

One question that I get asked a lot: Are you a plotter or a panster (meaning 'do you "fly-by-the-seat-of your pants")?

I really hate this question because it implies a binary opposition between the two. The truth is, all writers have different creative processes ... and indeed, as I have discovered, each novel is itself a new journey of discovery and the methods that have worked in the past for me may not work at all on this new story.  

That said, I am an ardent believer in the importance of plotting ... if only because it makes the writing process so much easier and enjoyable. 

Don't we all want that?




To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. 

However, I know from personal experience that the more effortless the writing seems, the more work has actually gone into it. 

I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible. 

However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. 

I have made my living from my writing since I finished my undergraduate degree. I have written almost 40 books, ranging from picture books to long, complex, multi-layered novels. I have a killer of a publishing schedule. Planning properly helps me manage my time, keeps me on track, and let's me know when my story is veering out of control. 

I thought I would share with you today some of the planning tools I use. 

My first rule is ... I never start a novel with a blank page. I spend a long time thinking about my characters, my story, the architecture of the story, the setting ... the more work I do before I start writing, the easier the writing is. I use a notebook to write down all my ideas and inspirations, so I have a record of my creative process. As I go, I develop my early notes into fully fledged character outlines, timelines, plot points, idiom dictionaries (i.e. each character is given their own way of speaking), and so on. Here is a page of my notebook for THE BEAST'S GARDEN, showing early ideas for the story.  



My chapter outlines are usually very brief, and I develop them further just before I write them. However, sometimes I need to plan a whole section of a novel quite carefully before I write it. I generally find that, the more complex the novel, the more I need to plan. 

It does, of course, help if you understand exactly what a plot is. 


So what is a plot?

At its simplest, a plot is the series of events in a story. 

Usually, this series of events is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore a chain of interconnected events caused by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a problem presented in the opening scenes of the novel.

This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (i. the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening). 
Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation. 


To plot is to therefore quite simply to conceive and arrange the action and incidents of a story. 

Most people have no trouble thinking up the sequence of events in their story (though it may take some time), but its arranging them in the best possible sequence that may make all the difference to the story. Here are a few tools to help.
 
First, identify your protagonist. This is not always easy! Then ask yourself, what is their objective? What do they want? And what stands in their way? Most stories can be reduced down to a very simple formula: 

Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story

This is sometimes expressed as:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Story
i.e. someone wanting something that is hard to get  

Usually, identifying your protagonist also means you need to identify your antagonist.  The earlier you do this, the easier your planning will be and the more focused your writing. 

Then you need to ask yourself, what is your protagonist's goal? What problem do they seek to solve? Your story is your protagonist's journey to reach that goal (or to try and fail, depending on what type of book you are writing). The longer the book, the more obstacles that lie in their way.
 



When I'm teaching story structure, I often draw this diagram to give my students a sense of what Rising Action is. It basically means each major scene is more dramatic, more intense, more suspenseful than the scene that came before it, compelling the reader to read on to find out what happens. If you are writing a comic novel, then each scene should be funnier and faster-paced than what came before. If you are writing a tragedy, the opposite is true - you must have a sense of the protagonist descending ever deeper into darkness and failure.


Next you need to think about what is the best structure for your story. There are two basic structures.

The first is called the episodic structure, used most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir, autobiography, biographical fiction, and in novels like Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Cold Mountain or Shantaram



Basically, each chapter is like a short story, complete within itself. Each chapter has its own internal structure, with a sense of rising tension towards a point of climax but ending on a note of resolution.  


Most novels, however, have a narrative arc. This is usually expressed as:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement


I draw mine like this:



   

 
Here is the narrative arc expressed in greater detail:


1. set-up scene – a scene of normal life or “the ordinary world”. Often called EXPOSITION. If I have such a scene at all, I try and keep it as short as possible.


2. Inciting Incident – the true beginning – sets story in motion. Called the “call to adventure” in Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey


3. period of turmoil/confusion. Campbell called it “refusing the call” 


4. The First Turning Point (must happen within the first 25% of action). Campbell suggested a story at this point often involves a “meeting of the mentor” and then “acceptance of the call, which leads to the protagonist crossing "the First Threshold". Usually it is a moment of decision, or realisation, which leads to a momentous step being taken. I like to think of it as a gateway into a new state of being, a moment of psychological change. 


5. Rising Action – a series of incidents, each increasing in tension and suspense. Joseph Campbell called this 'The Road of Trials' which I like, as it gives the sense of ever increasing difficulties. I normally like to plan the Road of Trials quite carefully, making sure that each scene or incident has a narrative function - each event is a revelation to be understood, an obstacle that must be overcome, an ordeal to endure, a lesson to be learned.   I like the outer journey to reflect the inner journey of the protagonist's process of change and transformation.


6. The Midpoint Reversal (or Second Turning Point) - this is often often the darkest point in story, a moment in which the protagonist fails and feels they cannot go on. I like to put a big dramatic scene here, to avoid what I call 'the mid-book slump'. There can be a reversal of intention here , or a moment of new insight and self-realisation
 – a new approach or direction or location – or even a complete change in narrative position. In my novel Bitter Greens, I put the section told from the witch's point of view here. I thought of it as the dark heart of the novel


7. Rising Action continues



8. The Climax - sometimes called the Third Turning Point. This is a moment of extreme danger or darkness in which the character’s inner and outer journey both reach a key turning point – it is the point of highest tension in the novel when the protagonist either achieves their goal, or fails. It often involves a ‘symbolic’ death – the death of a friend or companion, or the maiming of protagonist (think of Frodo's finger, Luke Skywalker's hand). This is the moment of Crisis & Resolution and usually results in the final transformation of the character. 

9. Falling Action – the chase. May be as exciting and dangerous as Rising Action, but is usually must shorter.


10. The Denouement (sometimes called the Coda). This should be fairly brief, and be in contrast to the high tension beforehand. It is usually a small scene that shows that all has been returned to normal, order has been restored, the problem is solved, the goal is achieved and now the protagonist is reaping the rewards. It often mirrors the opening scene of "Ordinary Life".


I usually reduce this narrative arc down to its five most significant points.

1. Inciting Incident 
(happens at or near 0% of the action)

2. First Turning Point 
(happens at or before 25% of the action)

3. Midpoint Reversal
(happens at or near 50% of the action)

4. Crisis & Resolution
(happens at or after 75% of the action)

5. Coda
(happens at or near 100% of the action)




An early narrative arc plan for The Wild Girl


This really helps me plan out the novel, and know how much to write. 

For example, if I was planning a novel of 120,000 words, the key turning points would happen at 30,000 words, 60,000 words and 90,000 words.

My chapters are usually around 3,000 words long, so I know I need around 10 chapters between each turning point (unless I am writing a children's book, in which case my chapters are half the length).
  
If I write a chapter a week, I can take ten weeks to write each section. That's 40 weeks in total. 

If I write two chapters a week, it will take me only twenty weeks.

(Though I will always set aside more time than this, because I know that there will be weeks when I am sick, or touring, or the writing does not come easily, and so I always leave a few extra weeks for anything unexpected.)

I therefore have a good idea of how long it will take me to write a first draft. I can set myself weekly word targets, and if I fail one week, I can try and catch up the next week. If I find that one section is running on far too long, I can stop myself, and either reassess my plan or reassess my writing. I can judge whether I am spending too much time on sub-plots, or minor characters, and I can avoid that horrible realisation that you have written far too much and need to cut 60,000 words. (Been there, never want to do it again.)  

Of course, there is much more to successfully planning a novel than just this one technique. I use lots more. Let me know what you want to know & I will try and answer it for you in another blog.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!
 

BOOK REVIEW: WILD WOOD by Posie Graeme-Evans

Wednesday, March 02, 2016



THE BLURB:

For fans of Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series comes a gripping and passionate new historical novel. Intrigue, ancient secrets, fairy tales, and the glorious scenery of the Scottish borders drive the story of a woman who must find out who she really is.


Jesse Marley calls herself a realist; she’s all about the here and now. But in the month before Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 all her certainties are blown aside by events she cannot control. 

First she finds out she’s adopted. Then she’s run down by a motor bike. In a London hospital, unable to speak, she must use her left hand to write. But Jesse’s right-handed. And as if her fingers have a will of their own, she begins to draw places she’s never been, people from another time—a castle, a man in armor. And a woman’s face.

Rory Brandon, Jesse’s neurologist, is intrigued. Maybe his patient’s head trauma has brought out latent abilities. But wait. He knows the castle. He’s been there.

So begins an extraordinary journey across borders and beyond time, a chase that takes Jesse to Hundredfield, a Scottish stronghold built a thousand years ago by a brutal Norman warlord. What’s more, Jesse Marley holds the key to the castle’s secret and its sacred history. 

And Hundredfield, with its grim Keep, will help Jesse find her true lineage. But what does the legend of the Lady of the Forest have to do with her? That’s the question at the heart of Wild Wood. There are no accidents. There is only fate.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK: 

WILD WOOD is a dual timeline narrative that moves between the Scottish Borderlands in the 14th century and an unhappy young woman in the 1980s who finds herself compelled to draw the same Scottish castle over and over again.

I love stories with parallel timelines, particularly with a good dash of romance, history and magic added in, and I love books set in Scotland, so all the ingredients were in place for a really wonderful read.

I must admit I loved the scenes set in the past more – the story of the mute fairy wife, the battle-hardened warrior and the medieval castle were all so intriguing.

The contemporary scenes did not work quite so well for me, perhaps because the 1980s is not a decade that really inspires me. 

However, the story of Jesse and her eerie connection with the past eventually drew me in, and the story really began to gallop along.

I LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS:

BOOK REVIEW: MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE by Joan Aiken

Monday, February 29, 2016


THE BLURB:

Now, back in print, the engaging and suspenseful British fantasy by one of England’s most imaginative storytellers.

Lucas Bell is lonely and miserable at Midnight Court, a vast, brooding house owned by his intolerable guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby. When a mysterious carriage brings a visitor to the house, Lucas hopes he’s found a friend at last. 

But the newcomer, Anna Marie, is unfriendly and spoiled—and French. 

Just when Lucas thinks things can’t get any worse, disastrous circumstances force him and Anna Marie, parentless and penniless, into the dark and unfriendly streets of Blastburn.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Joan Aiken is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. Her books were out-of-print for a while and I haunted second-hand bookshops in the hopes of building up my collection. 

My copy of this wonderful book was bought from the Glebe Library years ago, and still has its yellow cardboard filing card in an envelope glued inside the front cover.

 Happily, her books have all recently been re-issued with fabulous new covers and so are easy to get hold of now. 


It’s difficult to exactly categorise Joan Aiken’s work. It’s historical fiction, with a Dickensian feel thanks to its brilliantly drawn characters (both comic and villainous), unusual names, and dark atmospheric settings. 

Her stories are fabulously inventive, and often have surprising elements in them (like pink whales). 

Some of the books have an alternative historical setting, with Good King James III on the throne of England, and the wicked Hanoverians trying to blow up Parliament House.


MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE is the most realist of her novels, and quite possibly her darkest. 

It tells the story of a lonely boy named Lucas, who lives at Midnight Court, next to a smoggy industrial town called Blastburn. His guardian is a foul-tempered, brandy-drinking eccentric who won the great house in a card-game many years before. 

One day the orphaned daughter of the previous owner comes to live at Midnight Court. Soon Lucas and Anna-Marie are left destitute, and must fend for themselves in the tough streets of Blackburn. 

There is one particular scene set in the carpet-making factory that I shall never forget – as a child, it burnt itself deep into my imagination. 

It is also striking for its refusal to restore the children’s lost wealth – instead they find happiness by making their own way in the world. 

Joan Aiken is one of the great children’s writers, and deserves to be much more widely celebrated.  


WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THIS BOOK?

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