Monday, 15 February 2016

Characters who won't let go

I’m one of those people who can’t let their characters go. They stay with me. I tie them up with their Happy Ever After (HEA) or their Happy For Now (HFN) and I still find myself lying awake wondering what’s happened to them. Where do they go from here? Will it last? Will her family ever get used to the idea? How will he cope with giving up everything for love? All that jazz. 

I’m the same with other people’s books. A good friend of mine, Jane Riddell, has a book out there that preys on my mind from time to time. Daughters of the Lake is about a family gathering in Switzerland — three sisters and a brother, called together by their mother. Inevitably, there are tensions.

It’s not the most original plot, if I’m honest. (Sound effect: thrown stone smashing through my glass house.) But it wasn’t the plot that made the book so compelling: it was the characters. Annie, struggling through the break-up of her same-sex relationship. Portia, plagued by the mother’s curse of living through a teenager’s trials. Anxious Vienne, struggling with her marriage and her insecurities. Laurence, the only son, haunted by the miseries of boarding school. And the matriarch, Madalena, calling them all together to hear some news.

It’s hard to handle so many stories at once. At one level the book falls short because it doesn’t tell them all. I thought that we could have lost Laurence, a fantastically drawn character who somehow seemed to have wandered into someone else’s story (the clue’s in the title) when he really deserved a book all to himself. At another, it succeeds stupendously well, because I was left wanting to know what happened to all of the main characters.

Normally this would drive me spare, because authors are like gods: they dispose of their characters as they choose and they don’t have to tell you why or what happens. But I have a hotline to this particular god and so I asked Jane. What happened next?

I recommend you read Daughters of the Lake for yourself. But I’ll give you Jane’s reply. There are no spoilers, so have a read.

Daughters of the Lake is set in Brunnen, Switzerland
Picture by Jane Riddell
“Dear Characters

Recently, after a friend asked me what happened to you after Daughters of the Lake, I started thinking about my special relationship with all of you. You are my creation and no one can destroy you. I hope you don’t mind, but I have thought a bit about what your future might hold.  I’m sure you’ll let me know if you disagree with my predictions.  

Portia, you settle well in Switzerland; you enjoy your new job as a human rights lawyer in Zurich.  And having realised that the best place for Lucy is with you, you are glad she is now going to a local school.  You ski together and go riding. Of course being a teenager, she has her ups and downs.  But at least she now tells you what she’s feeling.    

Vienne, your marriage to Michael picks up, but there is always a background niggle in your mind about whether or not he was unfaithful. Your music career continues to flourish. Now, however, Michael accompanies you whenever he can, and when you sit down at the concert piano to play, you think of him.   

To your great pleasure, Annie, your relationship grows. After two years, you marry and are happy.  Sometimes you think back to your time with Fern, and wonder at having been happy with her,  especially when the physical side of your marriage is so strong. However, you don’t analyse the situation much: there’s more than enough to do with running the hotel.

As for you, Lawrence, when you return to Skye you contact Rebecca to see if she really is going to marry someone else, and try hard to win her back. When this doesn’t happen, eventually you feel relieved. Six months later, you move to Paris. There you spend several years womanising, before you meet someone who is strong enough for you.      

A year after Daughters of the Lake takes place, Madalena, you and Karl marry, and both your families attend. You continue to worry intermittently about all of your children, as a mother does, but Karl’s quiet and wise personality suits you and helps allay your anxieties. You get on well with his son and visit him in Heidelberg regularly. You keep busy in Brunnen with your pottery and drama classes. Karl  cuts down his working week so that you have plenty of time to be together. You go for long walks, and he takes you sailing during the warmer months.   

So that’s it for now, dear friends. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.”

You can buy Daughters of the Lake on Amazon

Friday, 12 February 2016

A book should be more than the sum of its parts

Some like it...some don't!
You learn all the time, from criticism as well as praise. That’s why I like getting reviews. Even the critical ones. Of course I’d prefer to have nothing but five star reviews but that ain’t gonna happen. No book suits everyone and the odd poor review, as long as it isn't personal/vindictive, keeps you honest.

This week I got a three star review on Amazon for No Time Like Now. In many ways it was a lovely one. It was full of praise. “As far as the technical side of the writing is concerned, I couldn't fault this book; it's grammatically sound, no proofreading or copy-editing errors, it flows well and I didn't find any plot inconsistencies; it's very well put together,” said the reviewer.

The review went on: “I don't mean this to be a bad review, as the book is extremely competent, contains much to commend it and I am sure others will enjoy it more than I did”. So what was wrong with it? For this reader it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a page turner. “Sadly, I couldn't see the chemistry…for me, it was a little bland”.

Is that fair comment? Of course it is. Writing well isn’t about competence but about touching the hearts of your readers. I can console myself by turning to one of my favourite reviews of the same book. “I downloaded this book by accident. But what an amazing stroke of luck. The story had me gripped from the start,” says someone. (No, not my mum or my daughter or any of my friends.)

Swings and roundabouts, this game.

What that most recent review does is make me think a little more about the next book. Previously I’ve managed to make my stories work for some but not for others. My focus now has to be on what I can do as a writer to appeal to more. I don’t mean in terms of something obvious, such as changing genre (vampires are pretty popular at the moment, or so I’m told) but about improving the interaction between my characters.

As it happens I thought the relationship between the protagonists in No Time Like Now was one of the stronger ones in the books I’ve written; so much so that I’ve an idea of writing a follow up. Maybe I still will, because some people seemed to like it.

What my reviewer was saying, I suppose, is that a really good book has to be more than the sum of its parts. What makes it unputdownable isn’t the grammar or the structure but the story and the characters at its heart. No book, no matter how great, will appeal to everyone — and I say that as someone who’d rather read Georgette Heyer than Jane Austen. But if a writer can capture that extra bit of soul, the book becomes a page turner.

And for me, the quest for that elusive something goes on.