Saturday, 27 July 2019

Entitlement

How do you choose a title for a book? Do you go for the rhythm of the words? The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Do you go for the shiver factor? Heart of Darkness? Do you go for something, anything, containing the words The Girl because publishers seem to like it.  I am tempted to try The Girl in the Title.

Or do you ransack the well-known, like the Bible or Shakespeare, to find something that will ring a bell with readers? Some of Shakespeare’s quotes almost seem designed to be used as titles, and are, several times over, they are so relevant. Which is ironic since some of his own titles are so irrelevant that I can never remember which play goes with which title.

The working title of most of my books tends to be The Book or Mary/Jane/Lizzie… (whatever the protagonist is called). It is often not until they are virtually finished that, fingers crossed, the proper title leaps out at me. Sometimes it arrives in a pristine state, blindingly obvious. Sometimes it needs working on. Sometimes it refuses to surface at all.

I had trouble with Shadows because the title seemed so generic. How many other books are there called Shadows? Don’t try counting. Long after it became Shadows in my head I was groping for alternative titles. I came up with many, playing on the word “guilt,” which is a major theme in the book, but they all seemed just wrong, too strained and in the end I reconciled myself to the inescapable fact that “Shadows” could be the only sensible title for it. And that was just as well, even if it does leaving it floundering in an ocean of other Shadows titles, because its companion piece, set in the past, could obviously be called Long Shadows (as cast by old sins). Neat, if predictable.

Sometimes, an idea plants itself but remains slightly hazy while I decide which version to settle on? Should it be Motherlove or Mother Love? I decided that the second sounded too much like a John le CarrĂ© Russian agent, so Motherlove it is. Should it be Unravelled or Unravelling? Problem solved when I decided to add “The” at the front. The Unravelling.

A Time For Silence began as a straightforward quote from Ecclesiastes KJV (and Pete Seeger): “A time to keep silence.” It is totally apposite for the story which is all about silence being kept, but it didn’t seem to roll right, so “to keep” became “for”.

What then to call its prequel? It grew out of a short story called A Time to Cast Away which is from the same passage of Ecclesiastes (see what I’m doing there?) and for a while I thought the full novel would have to be called that too. But while it fitted the short story, it was no longer so appropriate for a far more wide-ranging book, so I let it go and waited for the book to speak. It spoke very loudly, but also very unhelpfully, because two words or phrases leap out as obvious titles. They are repeated again and again as the focus of obsession. Covenant and Twenty-four Acres, One Rood and Eight Perches. Covenant has the benefit of having several connotations, religious, historical and legal, as well as being short and snappy. Twenty-four Acres etc. has the allure of being far more quirky and totally unique. I challenge anyone to find another book called Twenty-four Acres, One Rood and Eight Perches. On the other hand, it would take up most of the cover and possibly leave some readers drifting off before they got beyond the title page. In the end, I left the choice to my publisher, Honno, and “Covenant” it will be. At least there will be room for my name too.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Space, the final fictional frontier

moon landing
We are celebrating a memorable event: the Moon Landing. I remember it well. It was thrilling, it held us spell-bound and it seemed to herald an exciting new age, even if it was just a yah boo interval in the Cold War.  I have heard it repeatedly described as Man’s greatest achievement. Is it? A man steps on a bit of dusty barren rock that isn’t the Earth and that outranks everything else we have done on this planet?

Earth riseI think our exploits in space did achieve something truly awesome. It gave us an off-Earth view of our own planet and taught us that of all the lumps of rock and swirling gas that make up our solar system the only one of unbelievable beauty and worth is the one we are already on.

Our planet has water, an atmosphere, everything required to sustain life, and it has us. Not just our bodies but our minds, with our ability to imagine, to create fiction. Only from our own planet can we conjure up beauty out there. We glory in, even worship, the sun when it’s a life-giving source of light and warmth that slips with reassuring certainty across our blue sky. In reality, it’s a lump of hot plasma, engaged in nuclear fusion. We gaze adoringly at the eerie loveliness of the white moon in our dark night. In reality, it’s dead rock, nothing else. What is more beautiful than the evening star, a low bright pageboy to the sinking sun… It’s Venus, and in reality it’s a boiling image of Hell under clouds of sulphuric acid.

Venus

 Mars, the red planet in our imaginations is the home of aliens, Martians, who can both fascinate and terrify us – except that in reality if there ever was any chance of life on it, it has long gone, with its atmosphere.

Mars

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are balls of gas. Their moons are rocks. They might be volcanic. They might even harbour water.

Vesuvius
Scientists get excited about this and so should we all. It is exciting. But not as exciting as the volcanoes on earth, reminding us, whenever they erupt, of our own limitations as masters of the universe. Not as exciting at the vast oceans of water that cover Earth, with depths that we have yet to explore and life forms that we have yet to discover.

That is not a bad thing, at least for novelists. The unknown opens up an endless source of speculation and possibilities, which definite answers will only spoil. From Earth, our imagination opens up Space in a way technology never will. We can do the impossible. NASA may be able to lift a bit of metal out of Earth’s gravity and dump it on the Moon, but in our imaginations we can travel faster than light and visit distant galaxies. And we do it on the most perfect planet there is – unless we manage to mess it up.

The Pacific

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Back and Forth

Once in a while there comes a moment when I have a new book awaiting publication, and this is one of those moments. Covenant is on its way.

I am on both old and new territory with this one. I love reading book series. My shelves are filled with them, from Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles to Poldark via John le CarrĂ©’s Smiley books and Earthsea. There is something comforting about being able to follow one story as it winds on through the years, or one character who keeps marching on down different alleys.

But though I love to read series, I've never felt impelled to write them. My books have never been written as Episode One of an on-going saga. They have their birth, in my mind, with their end, the conclusion of whatever it is the book is about. So although I leave threads dangling, because no story is ever complete in real life, I have never wanted to continue the story in a new book or take the same characters forward. The end that I wanted to reach has been reached and there’s no more to say.

But perversely, I am finding myself drawn not forwards but backward, to explore the void from which my characters and their stories emerge. Although endings may be final, the start of a story is inevitably arbitrary, a random moment in the midst of a life or a community. What happened before? Where did my people come from? What events moulded them? In Shadows, where the central character is really the house that my narrator moves to, I couldn’t resist exploring the mysteries that had imprinted themselves on the old mansion over previous centuries. Long Shadows was the result, a trio of novellas reaching back to the fourteenth century.

     

Long before Shadows and Long Shadows – well it seems long to me, but back in 2012 – I had written A Time For Silence. In itself it is a backward-looking saga as Sarah, the contemporary narrator, tries to understand the lives of her grandparents in the 30s and 40s in a Welsh backwater utterly alien to her. The book ties up her grandparents’ stories, and there would be no point in taking Sarah’s any further forward as the point of the ending is that she realises endless possibilities lie before her.

But backwards? I couldn’t help thinking about what family or accidental events created her grandfather John Owen. I had hinted at mere facts of the family’s history, but I found myself wanting to explore it all in depth – and to unearth a new heroine from the past. A heroine who does get a mention in A Time For Silence, but so brief, blink and you'd miss it. It began as a short story, but I couldn’t leave it alone and so it has expanded into my next book, Covenant, which will be published in 2020.

Not a sequel but a prequel. Only eleven and a bit months to wait.


Monday, 20 May 2019

F


I’ve just had a review of Motherlove, otherwise complimentary, but marked down because of the excessive use of obscenities, particularly F…  Well I wouldn’t want to offend anyone in this post by writing it, but it’s derived from the Middle English word for copulation. And its original sexual connotation means it’s considered too rude to be allowed. It is still used, as a verb, in that context, perhaps with a sense of challenging bravado, though I wouldn’t use it myself because of its violent and predatory sound. The sound is everything, which is why mostly, these days, it’s used as an expletive.

In its defence, it is a perfect expletive. It’s sharp as gunfire, it begins with a fizzingly explosive sound, proceeds through the shortest hardest vowel and ends with the most violently cutting letter. What word is better to release a sudden internal boiling up of frustration and anger? You could control yourself and keep those emotions internal where they can ferment until you find yourself taking them out on other people, or you can let them out with one quick word and move on.  Sorry, fiddlesticks or fishcake do not provide the same pressure release valve. When used in such a context I, personally, don’t get in a fluster about it.

What depresses me in real life is where someone uses it as every other word in every sentence. It depresses me because it suggests a tragic poverty of language and thought, and it suggests a perpetual simmering of resentment, panic and anger in someone helplessly drowning in the cesspit where life has dropped them. There it is, seeping out in everything they say, but what happens when there is a genuine need to scream aggravation? They have used up their options and perhaps physical violence is the only relief left to them.

So I don’t use it casually in real life or in straightforward narrative but I do put it in the mouths of sad characters who would naturally speak like that, because to keep their language polite would be to portray them as different characters altogether. Characters like Gary, in Motherlove, who is beyond hopeless, whose only way of coping with life is to align himself with the worst and nastiest hard men, to present himself as some sort of gangster that no one should risk messing with, whereas, in reality, life has messed with him so much that he’s merely pathetic. Gary is doomed and his language shows it every time he opens his mouth.

I accept that some readers will find the obscenities discomforting and like the book less as a result, but I couldn’t do otherwise and still believe in Gary as a realistic character.



Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Reclamation

I am reclaiming my blog, having lent it to Narberth Book Fair for a while because Facebook refused to link to it.

Not that having my blog back will make much difference, because I so seldom remember to write anything on it. When the writing mood is on me, I tend to write books rather than blogs.

But I will take this opportunity to mention that I am shortly setting off for Newcastle to take part in Newcastle Noir, and this is exciting because I have never been to a crime festival before. That is to say, a crime fiction festival, not an actual orgy of burglaries and car thefts. Not that I've ever participated in that, either.

Come to that, it's the first time I'll have visited Newcastle too, although I did once catch a glimpse of the Angel of the North. I am going as part of a Crime Cymru panel, with fellow authors Gail Williams, Phil Rowlands and Matt Johnson. Crime Cymru is a collective of crime writers living in, writing about or connected with Wales, so this is a chance to tell the world outside Wales that we exist.

So if anyone would like to listen us jabbering away (not in Welsh), catch us at Newcastle Library at 3:30 on Saturday 4th May.

Saturday, 27 April 2019