Monthly Archives: June 2014

Should Art Reflect Life?

I normally steer well clear of politics in this blog (and mostly in life too, to be honest) but here’s a question that’s been playing on my mind, so I’ll open the worm can and see what wriggles out.

I hesitate to call myself a feminist- it’s a word loaded with meanings I don’t necessarily subscribe to – but I am certainly an equalist, and I do strive for fair treatment for all, regardless of gender (or lot of other things, but I’m talking gender here). And I like it when books, tv and movies seem to be heading in that direction. I like a story where the girl isn’t the damsel, the love interest or even a token neither-of-the-above to fill some unspoken quota.

I recently started watching Suits, and I’m delighted with the female characters in that series about lawyers – the Managing Partner of the law firm, an intelligent but suppressed paralegal, the clever and brave girlfriend and various clients who have a lot more going for them than the contents of their shirts and skirts. OK, the two leads are men, but to my mind, the show’s a fair one in terms of gender depictions.

In fact my only real problem (gender-wise) came in a recent episode where two girls went to the toilet together during a double dinner date, but then had their conversation (about men) standing by the bar. If these characters were men, I guarantee we’d have been shown the inside of the Gents’.

But Suits would fail MISERABLY in the Bechdel Test for gender bias. The girls very rarely talk to each other, and when they do it’s almost always about something the main characters (men) did. Because, you know, that’s kind of how fiction works. It revolves around the main characters and what other people do and say in relation to the main characters (MCs). So if those MCs happen to be male, boom goes your Bechdel test. flawed to the point of pointlessness.

My real question is whether as writers we should be pushing forward the underdogs (whether that’s women or some other group in society). Should we feel compelled to write about female Managing Partners, woman builders and engineers, stay-at-home husbands etc? Should we be trying to right the wrongs of society in our fiction, or are we permitted in fiction to reflect the real world, where most senior executives are still men, who make deals on the golf course and at the urinals?

 

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Friday Fiction – An Old One

Back home after our flying visit to the UK, but with a long list of things to do and a lovely-but-extra-challenging toddler, I’m going to take advantage of Rochelle‘s invitation to report my previous story for her repeated prompt. It took a while for me to remember what I’d written about for this one, but when I went back (August 2012) and read it, I was actually more pleased with it than I thought I’d been. Do tell me what you think!

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Sin

Alice felt Liam’s hand on her bra. She didn’t dare look down, but she couldn’t look at his face either.  She wanted so much to enjoy this, but she’d heard too many stories about how easy – and how terrible – it was to get pregnant. Her gaze flicked away to the forest that was keeping them safe from prying eyes.

But God could see them.

As Liam’s fingers touched her skin, she screamed. High in one of the trees, a single eye stared out of a sheep’s bleached skull. The animal was dead, but the eye watched – omniscient, eternal and judgmental.

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I Would Have Gotten Away With It If It Weren’t For You Meddling Kids!

I want to start by saying I know next to nothing about children. To the extent that he can be said to have taught me anything beyond how to deal with one individual child, Sebastian’s lessons still don’t extend beyond his age, and it’s a while since I was too young to buy alcohol.

But I’ve always thought “write what you know” shouldn’t be taken to its extremes, and (prodigies aside), we’d never read books with children in if adults didn’t take up the baton and write them. So how do we write about children, even make them protagonists and narrators, when we’ve left those years behind.

Personally, I think the first lesson is not to underestimate children. Kids are a lot smarter than many adults give them credit for. I was talking to a pre-teen the other day whose ambition is to study Law at Cambridge. She discovered I’d done it and was happy to discuss her thoughts and plans in detail. Talking to her, it was easy to forget that this was just a kid. I could imagine having the same conversation with someone ten years older, hearing the same enthusiasm and excitement, and being enthused by it myself.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should base our portrayals on the children in children’s stories either: Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone character, the Famous Five, even the meddling kids from Scooby Doo (How old are they anyway? I always thought they were grown ups, in spite of this line… is it apocryphal? Another ‘beam me up, Scotty”? I’m digressing. And dating myself!) … Anyway, there is no need to go over the top with kids who outwit and outsmart adults at every turn, unless that’s your genre.

But in my (limited) experience, children think about many of the same things adults do, they notice things, they have the same feelings as adults, even if it’s about different things. They are not different from us, they just come at the world from a position of less experience, and less knowledge.

It’s easy to make child characters 2-dimensional and push them into the background, but even if they are minor characters, they can help hold the story together better the more clearly and honestly we write them.

 

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Friday Fiction – Tea Party

What a great idea – to recycle some old prompts while Rochelle takes a well-deserved break from commanding the massed ranks of the Fictioneers. Let’s hope we can all survive her absence! Her blog still hosts the rules, prompt and links to other stories. This week’s prompt came from Mary Shipman.

My original story for is can be found at this link if you’re interested. My new story is below. I’d love to hear what you think, about either or both! I’m also away this weekend (sadly not in the same place as Rochelle, but happily at the wedding of a very dear longstanding friend), so please forgive any delay in reading / responding to your comments and extreme curtailment of my reading / commenting.

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Tea Party

“Welcome, welcome,” cried Florence, bustling around the little sitting room, a whirl of crinoline and scarves. “Sit wherever you please.”

I perched on the edge of a too-small chair, and glanced around. The furnishings were tired and mismatched, but their mistress was clearly proud of her little house, and the warmth of its welcome vastly outweighed its lack of style.

“Maisy, sit up straight. We have company!” Florence whispered aloud, “Daisy, could you pass the sugar please?” Then, when her daughters answered her only with vacuous smiles from plastic faces, “I’m sorry Mummy, but you know, they are only dolls.”

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Fairytale Endings

Deciding on the ending to a story is one of my greatest writing challenges. I enjoy it, but I find it tough nevertheless.

Fairytale endings annoy me. Even putting aside the question of death, people just don’t live happily ever after, in my experience. You can marry the one you love, but there will be challenges and troubles, temptations and arguments down the line. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just life. You can find the person who killed your daughter, even find her alive and trapped in a cell, but there are going to be years of therapy, guilt and fear to go through afterwards. So even if it’s realistic for the characters to get together / solve the murder / etc, I don’t like it when the end of the book implies the end of the story.

But as often as not, happy endings aren’t realistic and are hideously predictable. As readers, yes, we want everything tied up nicely, but is it realistic that even the minor characters find true love / solve their problems / whatever at the same time as the major ones?

Of course, annihilation endings are pretty rare and also hard to get right, and leaving things open can seem to the reader like a cheat or a pitch for a sequel, both of which are annoying too.

In last week’s Friday Fiction, I wrote something that arguably wasn’t a story so much as a scene: A dentist, looks out of his window and sees a woman getting off the ferry every Thursday. He feels a connection, but never spoken to her. Many readers wanted him to run out and get the girl – you’re a bunch of romantics!

Unusually for me, the scene is based on a true story. I used to walk down a hill to work, and at least once a week, sometimes more, I’d pass this one guy walking up the hill.

I saw him so often, I felt a sort of connection with him. I never spoke to him, and I certainly had no dreams of a romance with him (I was happily coupled up), I just felt a little connection. Seeing him made me smile, not seeing or speaking to him didn’t make me sad, but I did sometimes wonder about saying hi, making that connection real.

The point is, this story has a happy ending (I’m happily married, in spite of the trials and tribulations we, like all people, endure), but it also has the same ending as the one I wrote.

As writers, we don’t want to leave our readers hanging and unsatisfied. It’s part of our contract that if they read to the end, we’ll clear up our messes and leave our affairs in order. But we shouldn’t be afraid to surprise them, to play about with the concept of the happy ending, and to admit that in life there’s more than one sort of happy and only one real end.

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Friday Fiction – Ted’s Girl

Still laptop-less, but determined not to let it interrupt service too much! Today’s picture comes from Ted Strutz. Last time he submitted a photo, I named a rogue after him – I wonder if he’ll like his latest incarnation more or less?! Thanks as ever to Rochelle for hosting, and Happy Birthday to fellow-fictioneer, Doug! Go check out all of their pages and say hi!

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Ted’s Girl

She came every Thursday, stepping onto the shore and walking down the lane towards him. She was constant, like the ferry itself; not like the fickle vacationers who came only in summer, nor the spring and fall birdwatchers.

He paused over a patient’s open mouth when the ferry docked. He tidied his tools, that were already in perfect order, and he waited to see her pretty figure.

She appeared, that day, huddled in her raincoat, hood up to shelter auburn curls from wind and rain. And he longed, as always, for the time, the opportunity, the courage, to introduce himself.

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The Day The Laptop Died

More specifically, the screen won’t talk to the rest of it, so we should still be able to get the data off it (THANK GOD), but to all other intents and purposes, it’s dead.

Which means I am writing this on the TV. Yes, really. Future posts may be somewhat sporadic until I get it fixed / replaced.

My grief will probably seem melodramatic unless you:

a) Write

b) Are a stay-at-home-Mum

and

c) Have the sort of mobile phone that does calls, texts and nothing else.

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History and Time

Once again, my Friday Fiction story has left me pondering. Or maybe it’s just shone a spotlight on something I was already thinking about. In a highbrow mood the other week, we watched Back To The Future III (previous highbrow moods the previous two weeks had included I and II) and it got me thinking about time. Not time travel, but time itself.

I’m constantly staggered by the incredible pace at which time flows, so that what our grandparents experienced as every-day seems completely alien to us. Humanity doesn’t change, and I think it’s naïve to think that the terrible things man did to man in a previous generation couldn’t happen again – aren’t happening again already – but the world in which those human actions take place, that changes wildly. I can remember a time when we didn’t have mobile phones – when we said “I’ll see you at 8 o’clock” and then we stuck to it, because we had no way to text or call and switch things up – and even when we didn’t have internet and email. But I’m part of the last generation who didn’t grow up with those things. My generation takes TV for granted, for the generation before it’s home phones, then electric light and so on.

Back to Back To The Future; the Wild West was just three generations before my parents. People who were born in that world could have fought in the World Wars, or could certainly have watched their children doing so.

As I said, I find it staggering. But I also find it magical, because books and films can take me there. I can read Little Women and jump straight into the American civil war period, or All Quiet On The Western Front and land squarely in the trenches. You don’t have to write fantasy to be a world-builder. Even the most straight-forward “here and now” novel is creating a time-capsule for the world it depicts.

And that, for me, is magical.

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Friday Fictioneers – Perspective

Well, I finally finished reading the last of last week’s submissions yesterday evening. If you didn’t get a comment from me, it’s because the internet ate it (is that the modern version of ‘The dog ate my homework”?). I enjoyed the diversity, as well as the quality, but I think we can safely say I won’t be reading all the entries again for a while. I got nothing else done this week. My respect for those who do it every week has just hit new levels!

This week’s prompt is from returned Fictioneer, Doug MacIlroy. Our leader, Rochelle, is one of those I mentioned above. They both write stunning stories, so I urge you to check out the links. As for me, my story is hopefully a little less obtuse than last week’s, but who knows – I eagerly await your comments.

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Perspective

Dear Diary,

Downloaded a new book: The Diary of Anne Frank. This girl was stuck in an attic for years. Mum said I should read it to get some perspective, but it just makes me cry. She had so little. Like, she couldn’t talk to her friends or anything, because back then they didn’t have computers and whatever.

Had to stop reading it when it got dark – we can’t risk any light at night in case it seeps through the curtains letting the soldiers know there’s someone up here. Dad says tomorrow we’ll do a Google maps tour of home.

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The Darkness Through The Curtain

When I wrote last week’s Friday Fiction story, I wanted to show that Lizzie had been abused as a child, but also that she had moved on from that and was growing into a strong independent woman, which is why I referenced her abuse obliquely, through Harry Potter and The Color Purple.

But those references themselves got me thinking. Both books deal with forms of child abuse. Harry is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs and is bullied by not only his cousin but also his adoptive parents. Celie’s abuse is much more extreme, she is raped and beaten by her father and – if I remember rightly – others.

And yet the difference between these two characters isn’t just in the level of their mistreatment, but in the way the authors treat that situation. The Harry Potter series is pretty light about it; the writing is aimed at children after all. And Harry is far from the first children’s hero to be ill-treated – the list of orphans, wicked step-mothers and overbearing fathers goes on and on. We like to see triumph over adversity, and kids like to see kids being independent. That’s why Disney heroes and heroines famously never have both parents alive.

Alice Walker is much more graphic and polemic about the abuse she deals with in The Color Purple and it makes for a very different novel; one that I think we can safely say will never be turned into a colourful musical animation. She was writing for adults, and she was writing (at least partly) to make a point.

As writers, we do need to consider our audience to some extent –  there is no point putting extreme sex and violence into a novel you want to pitch to kids – but even when writing for grown ups, there are different ways to convey the same thing, and sometimes subtlety can be more powerful than graphic description.

It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood used to just show us the bedroom door closing or the gun being fired and now, increasingly, insists on boobs and bums, blood and bodies at every turn. I think the same may be true of the written word. I think both have their place, but I like it when writers have enough faith in both their own writing and their readers, to let us infer some of what goes on behind closed doors. Wandering back to the movie theatre for a moment, I found 12 Years A Slave incredibly moving, but if I had one criticism (apart from the terrible handling of the passage of time), it would be that I think the film overplayed its hand on the violence. Shocking and stunning are not synonyms.

How do you feel about explicit writing? Is it brave and powerful, or cheap and gratuitous?

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