Tag Archives: Novels

Words and pictures (1): Other people’s photos

SweetCares

Fiction with photos?

I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s  Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a  society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico,  New York and ultimately Vietnam.  It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.

sweet caress photoInitially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work.  But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.

There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,

These uncredited images of unknown subjects collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.

Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for  these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.

Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find  myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’)  suits my mindset.

Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer –  armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.

The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.

After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.

Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.

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An interview with Jane Davis (and free novel offer!)

jdbench034I first ran into Jane when someone recommended her historical novel ‘I Stopped Time’ which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I also loved ‘An Unchoreographed Life’, a contemporary novel about a dancer and single mother. But as well as being a great writer with seven published novels to her name, Jane is an example to all ‘indie’ authors in the absolute professionalism of everything she produces.  If you haven’t set eyes on one of Jane’s novels, I can guarantee you won’t be able to tell it apart from anything produced by a big publishing house – and there will almost certainly be fewer typos! She has won several awards and ‘An Unknown Woman’ has just won self-published book of the year. With ‘MMy counterfeit Self covery Counterfeit Self’ – set mainly in the fifties and very much redolent of my own childhood – hot off the press, what better time to have Jane along for an interview?

How would you describe your latest protagonist?

Lucy Forrester is a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between two great British eccentrics, Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. During the book we find out what has shaped Lucy. At the age of nine, she contracted childhood polio. Staring death in the face defines a person. It alters their perception of life, whatever age they happen to be. Lucy has that same stubborn determined streak that Roosevelt displayed when he refused to accept the limitations of his disease. The refusal to wear leg braces, to face the world sitting down. She also resents overhearing her father say that not much is expected of her, and it makes her want to defy him. She becomes totally driven. And then her parents behave so shockingly that it releases her from feeling under any obligation to live up to their expectations for her, and so she adopts a bohemian lifestyle. And into this new life she’s leading walks the man who became her literary critique and on/off lover for the next 50 years.

What is one thing you love about your main character and one thing that drives you crazy?

I love Lucy’s unconventionality, her defiance, her eccentricity, and especially her dress-sense. (Think Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style.) One of my early reviewers called her fiercely moral, which I rather like. She’s my rebel with a cause. Because of the time she was born in, her fear of the Nuclear Bomb is a hangover from childhood. She takes part in the first of the CND rallies and marches from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston to protest about the nuclear threat, and, later, she takes up the cause of the British Nuclear Veterans. As for what drives me crazy… she can be quick to judge others but she’s blinkered when it comes to her own faults. In fact, that’s her downfall.

It’s the first time you’ve written about another writer, isn’t it?

 Yes, in some ways it’s my most personal novel to date. To bring Lucy to life, I had to draw on all of my insecurities, doubts and fears, writing about how it feels when you show your work to someone for the first time. How you manage to convince yourself that people will like you less when they understand what’s going on inside your head. Lucy’s formal schooling was curtailed by illness, and when she finally goes to school thinking that writing poetry is the one thing she’s good at, she’s told she doesn’t have the basic tools for job. That’s very much me. Someone who left school at sixteen, worked her way up in a company to Deputy MD and then had the audacity to attempt to write novels. I am the person who used to make up an answer on the spot when asked which university I went to! And of course, I’ve through the submission process. I know all about rejection – and I also know how overwhelming winning can be. How part of you never feels you deserve it, and how others will be quick to tell you that they didn’t think you deserved it, that it was a fix, or that you must have been related to the judges, and so how, when you fall from grace, it’s almost a relief. Order has been restored.

My Counterfeit Self is your seventh book. Does it get easier to write and publish over time, or is every process a “birthing” experience?

Getting a new novel out of the ground is always tough. It’s possible I make it tougher by not outlining or plotting. I like George R R Martin’s quote: ‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’ It takes me a good three months to get to know my characters. By the time I reach the 50,000-word milestone I think to myself, ‘I might just have a book on my hands’, but by 75,000 words I’m back to wallowing in self-doubt, unsure how to fight myself out of a corner. At 100,000 I may have an inkling of how it ends, but that doesn’t mean I’ll know how to get there. Every time you introduce a new angle, each ‘what if?’ question has to be pushed to its limits. Once the structure is in place, you go back and make every page shine.

That aside, certain parts of the publishing process are easier. I used to tackle all of the interior formatting and the creating of eBooks myself, but now I outsource and concentrate on making sure the proofs are as clean as they can be. The mechanics of publishing are far simpler than they were in 2012, because the process is familiar and technology is vastly improved, and getting better all the time.

Your novel, ‘An Unknown Woman’, was named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine. Did that put extra pressure on your new release?

an-unknown-woman-finalDefinitely. The editor of Writing Magazine said that ‘An Unknown Woman’ would happily sit on any of the Big 5 publishers’ lists, that the writing was exemplary and that my production standards were outstanding. And I only found out about the win when ‘My Counterfeit Self’ was going into production! So yes, it caused some extra nail biting. The first edition of An Unknown Woman was (as far as I know) error free, something I had never achieved before. With a 120,000 word novel, a few typos usually past even the most eagle-eyed proof-readers (and I know there’s one in My Counterfeit Self).

Like most writers, I want to show progression from one book to another and so I try to do something a bit different, but not so different that it won’t appeal to my readers. You know what it’s like waiting for those first few reviews!  But I’m learning. All the time, I’m learning.

Thanks Jane for showing us so much of the book and yourself.

Here are all Jane’s Social Media links and a special offer for anyone who signs up to her newsletter.

Social Media Links:

Universal Buy Link: https://books2read.com/u/4AgQdK
My website: http://www.jane-davis.co.uk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage/?fref=ts
Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+JaneDavisAuthor/posts

Pinterest: https://uk.pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6869939.Jane_Davis
Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Davis/e/B0034P156Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

halftruthsandwhiteliesReaders who sign up to Jane’s newsletter will receive a free copy of her novel, ‘I Stopped Time’. http://eepurl.com/bugqnr

Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk! She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

 

Long and Short (2)

Adding the new Short Fiction page has prompted some reflections on writing.

There’s an idea in circulation that a short story is in some way harder to write than a novel. I don’t think for a minute that this is the case, but looking at the relative word-count, the effort to get 3000 words right does feel disproportionate compared to, say, 100,000. Come to think of it, my stories usually start at around 3,500 and end up just over 2000, so there seems to be a law of diminishing returns in there somewhere. Short stories, in view of their brevity, also lend themselves to microscopic examination, and  I remember John Ravenscroft (former editor of Cadenza) describing them as the ‘shetland ponies’ of the fiction world, by which I think he meant they were short but showy (rather than cute but bad-tempered!) At any rate, they should never be tackled by anyone with a low ‘completer finisher’ score on the Belbin grid!

 

On the other hand, the process of writing fiction of any length is, at least in my case, basically the same:

 

  • Get the story down
  • Adjust it in terms of structure, pace and resolution until you’ve said what you wanted to say
  • Put it aside, find out what others think and take another look at it yourself
  • Have another go
  • Get more feedback (and/or take another break)
  • Carry out a detailed line edit
  • Do another edit
  • Possibly another
  • Repeat last 4 steps for as long as it takes

Try factoring this up to the 30+ chapters and 100+ scenes of a novel, and no wonder it’s such hard work!