Singapore Sling

My coffee with Connie, like all good tales, begins with the birth of a baby. Constance was delivered two and a half years ago, not by stork, but by the delicately named ventouse. She arrived purpleish and screaming with piercing blue eyes and long fingers. I suspect a piano maestro in the making…..

Since then, she has become a bit of a pal and has now accompanied me and her dad, Tom, to the golden isle of Singapore. We have been slung here due to Tom’s work and are busy awaiting the arrival of Connie’s sister in June. To pass the time meanwhile, Connie and I invariably end up having lattes and apple juices respectively in various coffee shops around town. We have a bit of a chat, a bit of a ride on a Bob the Builder toy, a bit of a cry if we’re feeling over tired (this applies to both of us) and generally discuss our plans for the week and interesting things we can get up to.

Assuming that many other Mums must indulge in these kinds of shenanigans with their sprogs, I thought it might be useful to pool some resources on thoughts, links, groups, tips etc. I may not look like Gwyneth Paltrow of GOOP fame, but at the moment, I have the same amount of time on my hands so here goes……..

Crimes of the Heart

Is crime fiction a lesser genre than literary fiction? Is fantasy fiction the poor cousin of science fiction? How do all the genres hustle up against (or on top of or beneath) one another?

John Sutherland, former Chairman of the Man Booker judges, has said that long-listing a crime novel for the prize is like putting “…a donkey into the Grand National.” And despite Tom Robb’s Child 44 being long-listed in 2008 and Peter Temple winning the Australian equivalent of the Booker (the Miles Franklin award) with his novel Truth in 2010, the donkeys never do seem to make it out of the stable into the literary prize-winning arena.

Whilst John Banville says that there should be no distinction between genres – there is merely good writing and writing that is not good – can the answer to crime fiction’s lowly reputation be sourced in its emotive content? Or lack of – according to Tony Parsons.

Parsons has recently been doing the rounds, flogging his foray into the genre with his new book The Murder Bag. In an interview with The Guardian and repeated on BBC Radio 4 on Open Book, Parsons claims he wants to put a new spin on crime fiction. He wants to write a crime thriller with “…the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy.” He says he wants to write crime fiction with heart.

This has sent myriad crime writers into a bloody tailspin, hurling various murder weapons in an attempt to prove that their brand of crime writing does indeed have the emotional pull that Parsons seems to have missed in his readings. Cue the amusing Twitter hashtag #tonyparsonscouldread – followed by whichever heart-rending crime novel you wish to suggest – from Rendell to Chandler to French.

I’m not sure Parsons is doing much other than creating a dust swirl to draw attention to his book. It’s clearly wrong to say that crime fiction has no heart. But it is perhaps a truism that crime fiction is patronised for what’s seen as its commitment to plot, rather than its observations on life.

One of my biggest reading disappointments was The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The set up was one of pure mystery – the unexplained death of a young child. Tartt mixed up the plot with her reflections on life and family in the Deep South but, for me, it never quite worked. The plot didn’t resolve and I was left unknowing and frustrated by the loose ends Tartt had woven throughout the book but failed to conclude. Was her book crime fiction? Or literary? It certainly didn’t work as the former – did that make it more of a read in literary circles? Is the lack of a plot something to champion in order to win prizes??

People denigrate crime fiction for its tropes – dare we call them clichés? The lonely booze-sodden detective; a penchant for music of one genre; an inability to maintain a relationship. In his interviews, Parsons talked witheringly about these – how his protagonist, Max Wolfe, would avoid them – no staring into a whisky glass for him, thanks very much. And yet he went on to say that Wolfe would be a single Dad so as to leave him free in the plot to be able to get it on with women young and old. Listening to him, I think this is genuinely what Parsons thinks of as putting heart into a book.

To use the Parson-ism, “heart” in a book – crime or otherwise – isn’t about merely having a character be a single parent, or lonely, or grieving, or any obviously signposted ways to make the reader think – “oh, this person feels things very deeply….” Think of the nuance in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone; the tortured ramblings of Rankin’s Rebus; even the moralising of Marple. These are fully drawn, fleshed out, beautifully written books and characters which can’t help to connect with the reader – isn’t that the nub of a great book? The heart of which Parsons means to speak? And let’s not forget that these books have more tightly knitted plots than a jumper sale at the Women’s Institute.

Wherever crime fiction stands in relation to the cool rankings of prizes such as the Man Booker is a subject that will incense as much as it bolsters self-regard. In my humble opinion, crime fiction is one of the hardest genres to write and certainly one of the best to read. It puts characters in space and time, gives them the slap in the face of life and death to contend with; puts them on the edge of humanity in that regard.

For any novel to succeed, it must be infused with heart – that which makes the reader care about it. Successful crime novels do this as well as other genres. And if not, then there it is that they, or any other book, will fail.

What do you think? Is crime fiction lacking in heart? How does it compare to literary fiction? Let me know!

Crawling Uphill in the Dark: The Novel Writing Process

I am on the fifth (?) draft of the novel and a writing course friend of mine has just read it. Thankfully, she really liked it but did think to let me know that in the course of it’s 87,000 words I have used the word “suddenly” 67 times. Looking through the manuscript for the millionth time, I came across not only “suddenly” but “all of a sudden,” and “at once” on more occasions than I care to count….

Georges Simenon, the creator of the detective Maigret, said that writing is not so much a profession as a vocation of unhappiness. And it’s at times like these, when I might agree with him. Listening to a recent Radio 4 Open Book programme, the novelist Edna O’Brien said that writing a novel takes three years. A pundit on the same show, Sid Smith, said that the process of writing a novel involves taking the same journey as the reader – but on your hands and knees. In the dark. With a broken leg.

So much for the glamour and the book tours, the Booker and the Hay-on-Wye literary festival goody bags. It turns out that writing is actually a never-ending slog – where eighteen months into the process, even with your slew of words upon the page, you discover that you now have to invent a zillion other ways of writing “suddenly.” Or not bothering with the word at all and trusting that your surrounding prose will spell out the change in nuance to your reader. Hands and knees in the dark? Yep, certainly feels like it at the moment.

Cue lots of articles spat out by Google on the wonders of honing your craft, of whittling a statue, carving a masterpiece – and lots of other physical analogies that mean nothing next to the tedium and loneliness of sitting at your desk alone every single day. It’s then that becoming anything other than a writer seems a whole lot more attractive.

The sun decided to shine at that point – dare I say it, “suddenly?” And so I went for a run and listened to the rest of the programme where Edna O’Brien goes on to talk about her life and her work and what writing means to her. And she makes it all sound sense by the way she talks about it, the lilting timbre of her voice, her descriptions of carving a mark on history – her history. Not for the tours and the prizes or even the idea of earning any money from it. But because it’s the only thing you can do. And that’s when I realised that I’d do 67 drafts if it meant that what I created at the end was what I wanted to say. Even if nobody ever reads it.

Writing is a vocation. And often you are crawling through the dark, dragging your limbs behind you – trying to catch up with your mind and what it actually wants to say. It’s so difficult and takes so long because the recesses of your mind are black and cavernous and on the whole, a thing of mystery. Which is what makes delving into it all the more extraordinary. And worth a lot of thought and time to fathom it all out.

So I struggle on. The word ‘suddenly” has all but dissipated and whatever number draft it is that I’m on nears even closer to its conclusion. It is an uphill process and often a lonely one. But it reaps its rewards. Here’s hoping…..!

Rojak – An Eclectic Mix

As some of you will know from December’s entry, here in Singapore I run a writers’ group who, at the end of last year, hosted Andrew Fiu, the best-selling New Zealand author of Purple Heart, for a fascinating talk. At that meeting, Andrew suggested that we get ourselves up and off our butts and use the powers of the modern world to publish a book ourselves. We are a very obedient crew and so this we have done!

ROJAK: Stories from the Singapore Writers’ Group will be published on Amazon in the next month.

The SWG is a real melting pot of different nationalities – people who have lived in Singapore all of their lives, jumbled in with people who have literally arrived off the plane and come straight along to a meeting (that has happened!). A good term for it is Rojak – the Malay word for an eclectic mix. So the book will be a reflection of that spirit, a global community of writing and expression.

The short stories within the book represent myriad nationalities and experiences. They include: murder in Colonial Kenya; theft in Bangalore; a Polish refugee snowball fight in the rural British countryside; a reflective train journey through Rome; a Spanish New Year’s ceremony. All of the stories have come from the imaginations and experiences of the twenty authors who contributed to the book – including a brand new short story from Andrew Fiu himself.

Andrew introduced us to the amazing Michele Gray of 27iD who has been the editor, cover designer and general inspiration behind getting the book up and running. Since its creation, Michele and 27iD have helped over two dozen authors to self-publish their books including setting up authors’ Apple and Kindle accounts and advising them on how to market their ebooks. For those authors that still want to have a print edition of their ebook, Michele has worked with them to publish their books through Createspace and market it alongside their ebook on Amazon.

Michele is a huge believer in self-publishing. The point is, she says, that self-published authors have the same shelf space on Amazon and the iBookstore as the Big Five publishers, but their royalties are better and they no longer have to over publish and be left with unread and unsold boxes of books in their garage. There are broader avenues for promotion through social media and once an ebook is created, the same edition can be sold over and over again with no on-going costs.

Frankly, there’s no better playing field at the moment for self-published authors – and the SWG is making good use of that!

It’s an exciting time for The Singapore Writers’ Group. There will be a launch party for the book of short stories. We have over 470 members now and will be extending our reach for the rest of the year with more talks, workshops and events with authors, editors and publishers in Singapore and beyond. If you are a member of a writing group in another country or have set up something similar yourself, do get in touch as the SWG is very keen to extend branches to groups in other places.

For more information on Andrew and Michele, see www.lifeafter6.com and www.27iD.com.au.

Details about the SWG can be found at http://www.meetup.com/thesingaporewritersgroup and http://www.facebook.com/thesingaporewritersgroup.

Until next time…..
ROJAK-eBook-Cover-Final

Of Heroines and Heroes…

I read a great book from my sickbed last week. Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine. Remember Katy from What Katy Did? Cathy from Wuthering Heights? Scarlet O’Hara? The list goes on…..Ellis re-read all of her most favourite books and looked at how her heroines matched up to what she had learnt in life. Was Cathy merely passionately in love, or really just a bit silly? Was Jo March truly a champion of women’s writing or a girl who was bludgeoned into giving up her dreams for a boring old marriage to a Professor?

The book is a nostalgic look at most of my old heroines, and some new ones which I’ve immediately downloaded onto my kindle. Heroines – and indeed heroes – are what we aspire to be but the great writers create characters who show us our downsides too, perhaps that of which we might be ashamed.

So who were mine I thought? Many of Ellis’ I could relate to – Scarlet’s temper tantrums over Ashley are very reminiscent of me as a small child; I imagined I was Jane Eyre when I was scolded by horrible relatives; I was definitely Lizzy Bennett (so I thought) when I was sparring with potential love interests.

But in truth, it was the heroines who had the tomboy in them who most appealed to me – the mix of the girl with the boy. It was always George who was my true heroine. George from the Famous Five, who loved Timmy her dog more than life itself; who could row boats and climb trees and solve mysteries equal to Julian and Dick (and of course pathetic Anne, but who cared about her?). Then it was Kay Scarpetta who intrigued me – she of the forensic investigative skills whilst at the same time being a dab hand at pasta making in the kitchen. Anna Karenina accompanied me around New Zealand in my backpack, Bridget Jones around Australia. These women were more than my companions. Ellis had it right. These characters are our touchstones in life. They represent key periods, times when you can look back and say, I felt this way then.

All great characters have this propensity – male or female. Even the writers themselves. The boys in particular had me bemoaning I hadn’t lived in Paris in the 1940s. But then being married to Hemingway probably wasn’t all it promised – I’m not sure how much fishing or bull baiting I could put up with, in all honesty. I had a huge crush on F Scott Fitzgerald until I read about Zelda and his alcoholism. Still, a man who can write the last line of The Great Gatsby, and who likes a beer, would probably always win me over at a party….

In line with this theme, I’m still figuring out the writing of my own heroine, DI Erica Martin. What does it mean to be her? Maybe the difficulty in writing is trying to be the ventriloquist for your characters – but also attempting ultimately to figure out which part of YOU they represent. Perhaps this is what drove Fitzgerald to alcohol, Hemingway to big fish and Agatha Christie to run away to Harrogate. I’m hoping I don’t succumb to any of those! But writers battle with their heroines and heroes – they carve them out of themselves and then pass the baton to their readers.

Who are your favourite heroes and heroines? Or even villains? Let me know!

fitzgerald

Scarlett

Aside

The Female of the Species….

So today I was faced with a big, fat blank page. Book two. Help me.

The first manuscript has been sent off and awaits feedback. I don’t even want to think about it so I’m taking the sensible option. I drank a lot of red wine on Sunday night. Now it’s Tuesday and I’m over my hangover. Time to go for a run and start the new one….

My main character is a police detective called Erica Martin. I had several ideas about her before I started. I knew that I wanted her sex to be ambiguous at the beginning of the first novel. So she’s called Martin right off the bat. In fact, you don’t find out her first name until chapter 34!

Some of the people who’ve read the first one have struggled with this but I like it. I want her to be a character the reader has to reach for. Much as I love Morse and Scarpetta, I didn’t want to fall into the pattern of giving Martin a set of tropes she would be stuck with forever (lollipops anyone?).

But now I’m onto the second book and I feel ready to let the reader know a little more about her. I’ve just written the first page. Martin is on holiday with her husband on a Greek island.  I’ve no idea where that came from but it seems to work.

Last year was a fantastic time for women writers and female heroines. Some of my favourite books were Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (with a female heroine over 40 no less…), Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman and The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison. And let’s not forget the amazing achievements of Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton and A M Homes.

Some might say we’ve never had it so good. And yet we still like to categorise things – put things into boxes. My most hated phrase (after “don’t show, tell”) is “women’s fiction” – I’m not sure why we get a special section of the bookshop. The phrase just conjures up images of snogs on the beach, a hunky doctor perhaps, stiletto heels a la Carrie Bradshaw. I’ve recently got very addicted to Game of Thrones. Typically, fantasy is considered a “male” genre (tosh) and sex and romance belongs to the women. It’s rubbish of course. Perhaps the problem is persisting with a notion of genre in the first place. So you end up describing your novel as a dark, psychological, crime thriller, reading group book with elements of the supernatural and a smattering of romance….phew!

Martin in my books is most definitely a woman – with a sex life and emotions and probably a penchant for shopping. But she’s also ballsy and unafraid and equal to her task in the same way as any man. It seems as though the discomfort lies in the readers wanting to check boxes – more so than the characters who live in them!

This blog was supposed to be about the best books of last year. I’ve mentioned some but then gone off track! Any thoughts on this, most welcome. Maybe next time, we’ll look at some of the best heroes and heroines who straddle the gender abyss.

Now that sounds like a line from Game of Thrones….

Khaleesi

New Year. Fact.

Happy New Year everyone!

So, along with the ubiquitous New Year diet (Atkins, for my sins), New Year’s box set (Game of Thrones – surprisingly good), attitude to New Year’s drinking (MUST NOT) and attempts at exercising (minimal), I am getting stuck back in to finishing THE WEIR. I’m nearing the end of the latest draft and, given I’m writing a crime thriller, have reached the stage where I need to get it signed off by someone in the police force as totally factually accurate before I can proceed any further.

So how does one go about this? My book is set in the UK and I live in Singapore so I can’t nip down to the local cop shop and ask for some assistance. So other than begging friends on social media for contacts, what could I do? Well of course, I DID beg friends on social media to great effect. But in the course of researching this, I came across some organisations which may be of benefit for us all. Look for Fiction Writers groups – there are tons on Facebook etc. And Yahoo Groups has a particularly brilliant group called Crime Scene Questions for Writers which offers a beta reading service for those who’ve written crime novels. The Crime Writers Association also offers a manuscript assessment service (www.cwa.co.uk). You have to pay for it but it may be useful for those who want their book assessed before sending out to agents.

My friend Barrie Seppings has also created a fantastic website called http://www.fictionalbureauofinvestigation.com. This matches beta readers with some knowledge of police procedure, medical experience, legal advice – with writers looking for experts in those fields. The website isn’t yet fully operational but if you’re keen to get involved as either a reader or writer, sign up for updates.

And of course, let’s not forget the magic of a writing group. THE WEIR has been read by several members of mine plus an online group created when I did a writing course with Curtis Brown last year. Feedback can be invaluable – consider the eagle-eyed guy in my writer’s group who spotted I gave away the murder method to a potential suspect within a scene of dialogue….

Next time, I’ll be looking at some of my favourite books of 2013 and looking forward to books being made into movies in 2014. Would love to hear some of your recommendations.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Desk Photo

The Purple Heart and a Christmas Break

Andrew Fiu Photo

Last week, the Singapore Writers’ Group hosted New Zealand author Andrew Fiu to talk about his book Purple Heart. Andrew was born in Samoa but moved to NZ when he was 5 years old. For most of his life, he was hospitalised with a severe heart condition resulting in six open heart surgeries.

But this is no bleak tale of a kid on the rocks. Andrew is a hugely positive speaker, someone who has been through adversity and survived with humour and grace. Purple Heart is on the curriculum of most schools in NZ and despite never finishing school or attending university, Andrew is now an educator and motivational speaker. We had a great evening and you can read more about Andrew at www.lifeafter6.com.

We were inspired by Andrew. So the members who came along that evening have decided to put together a collection of short stories. We hope to publish this online in the middle of next year. Watch this space…..

In the meantime, I am heading to a beach in Thailand with the family for Christmas. Given that Wham! is always very much part of the soundtrack of my life, it will be more Club Tropicana than Last Christmas I gave you my heart….but I can’t wait! So no time on the computer until the New Year which will let me recover from all the writing induced injuries I have suffered from sitting at a dining room table to finish the novel!

Here’s to a great year of writing and more to come in the New Year. Lots of exciting times to look forward to in 2014 with talks and events being planned for the SWG as well as keeping fingers firmly crossed for publication….

Have a wonderful Christmas everybody!

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