Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Archive for the ‘About Books I love’ Category

I Have a New Book Coming Out Soon

I’m pleased to announce I have a new book coming out soon, this time non-fiction.aps-on-bookshelf-at-kenilworth-books-13-feb-2016

It will be a short one, 100 pages, and  will be available in paperback as well as an ebook.

I’ve written it for all those who’d love to know  about the process of writing novels: whether they be aspiring writers, or simply keen readers who are curious about how novelists think up their ideas and go about creating fiction from them.

Here’s a taste of some of the topics I’ll cover in the course of the book:

  1. Universal themes in fiction
  2. Strategies to develop creative and imaginative writing
  3. How to create a novel that your readers won’t want to put down
  4. Three tips for creative works of realistic fiction
  5. How to know which point of view to use in a story
  6. How to develop villainous characteristic traits in your writing
  7. How can Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes help you in your creative writing?
  8. Inspiration for creative writers from artists
  9. Suggestions for writing the end of a novel
  10. Always on the outside looking in – does a bestselling novelist have a lesson to teach aspiring writers?

Each topic has a chapter to itself, and the book contains 33 chapters.

 

Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

How do you find courage and motivation when your novel sinks in the middle?

How do you stay focused as a writer despite all the setbacks and disappointments?

How can great artists, musicians and psychologists give you inspiration?

You’ll find the answer to these questions and many others in this book. SC Skillman offers deep insight into the faith and hope that is vital for one who walks the perilous path into the ‘promised land’ of the writing profession.

More soon when I’ll let you know the title and give you the cover reveal!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.

 

 

 

How Many Books Do You Read in a Year?

Recently I thought it would be fun and interesting to ask this question of fellow-writers on our own dedicated Facebook group, having just learned from Goodreads that I’d reviewed or  rated 28 books this year. a-reader

I made a fascinating discovery.  Annual reading achievement varied enormously. I thought I was doing quite well at approximately 30 – and I learned via an online search that a “voracious” reader may get through 30-50 books a year but across the general population it is a very different picture: “According to a YouGov survey, the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4.”

The answers I received from fellow-writers  took me by surprise: and not least, because I was humbled and impressed by how the majority of these individuals managed to fit in so much reading alongside writing their own books!

“78 – less than two books a week, which doesn’t seem very much at all to me.”

“No more than 5”.

“In 2016 I read 69 – years ago I might read up to 100 a year. One month I notched up 19 books.”

“About 36.”

“About 12.”

“49 and some other started but not finished.”

“Over 100.”

“120 last year – as at 8 January this year I’ve already read 7.”

“55 from the library alone so probably nearer 70 or 80.”

“Going back through my Kindle orders, 54 not including ones I gave up on or old books I re-read.”

“32 according to Goodreads.”

“Between 15 and 30.”

“Probably about 12-15.”

“175 last year and above 150 for each year since 2011 when I started tracking on Goodreads.”

“55.”

I love to read a book which is a totally absorbing page-turner, a book which you can’t wait to get back to. It’s one of life’s greatest joys. I’ve just finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and I found it a real struggle to read, it’s so slow-paced and (I think) self-consciously literary. I bought it in Waterstones, attracted by the beautiful cover and the interesting blurb. I was determined to persist with it to the end because I’d spent good money on it but felt cheated of that wonderful “must get back to it as soon as possible” feeling with a good book.
When I mentioned this on Facebook, I liked this response:
Books like that become loo books, read a page or two at a time. A friend sent me a non-
fiction title I’d expressed interest in and I can only stomach it a few pages at a time. I’m only persisting because it was a gift and because there is some useful info amid the dross but it’ll get a scant two stars and the fact that I’m only reviewing as a warning to others taken in by the blurb.”
What do you think? Do you know how many books you read in a year? And what’s your view of “fast” and “slow” readers? Does it matter? and does it impact upon the quality of your response to the story, or your reviews, if you do review books (or discuss them at a book club). I’d love to have your comments!

Book Review: The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

The story of Alice Liddell and the real Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) is one that has inspired so much speculation and analysis since the  creation of Alice in Wonderland in 1862; cover-image-of-looking-glass-house-by-vanessa-taitand here is another book on the subject, The Looking Glass House, this time a novel told by Alice’s great granddaughter Vanessa, which draws on family treasures and stories of the ‘original’ Alice. I found it a convincing picture of a stifled Victorian society with characters suffering from Victorian angst (especially Mrs Liddell and Mary Prickett the governess)  along with a very pert, outspoken Alice and an enigmatic but compelling Mr Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).

For me, this novel built up a picture of an intense, brilliant young man with a great love for children which never quite tipped over “the edge” (as we would define it today with our 21st century sensibilities), but could easily have done if Victorian restraint had not had such a strong hold on his character. Vanessa Tait’s book depicts the scene in which Mrs Liddell banished Mr Dodgson from the house, thus precipitating the rift between him and the Dean’s family.

Having considered it all I believe that if I had been in Mrs Liddell’s position, I may well have done the same. Alice herself is shown very much as an instigator and provocateur in her relationship with Mr Dodgson. The adult Alice’s silence on the subject throughout the rest of her life is something I could well understand –  as the two Alice books quickly became hugely popular she would have been afraid to tarnish anybody’s vision of the stories by telling the truth about the circumstances in which they were created, which may have been misinterpreted.  Mr Dodgson’s family, too, clearly felt the same, in tearing out of his diary the very pages which cover the time he created the first Alice story.

I was intrigued by the number of Amazon reviewers who gave The Looking Glass House low star ratings and said the book disappointed them, because it was not what they expected. I think they hoped the biographical reality behind it all would fully match up to the enchantment of the stories.  As a writer myself I feel that knowing the biographical reality behind the creation of a story is interesting but in no way defines or encompasses the created story itself. The curious fact is that I identified at different times in the book with Mrs Liddell, Alice, and Mr Dodgson. I admired and enjoyed the pert outspokenness  in Alice which other readers described as brattishness; and felt I could understand Mr Dodgson’s obsessive love for the company of children, and also Mrs Liddell’s fear of allowing the relationship to develop into Alice’s adolescence, and her sudden urge to banish him from the scene.

Above all the book made me feel that as I child I would love to have had a friend like Mr Dodgson because he was the sort of person children love – quirky, entertaining teasing, quixotic, fun, enigmatic.

What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

20160822_205715

sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

20160822_140835

Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Stories That Grow Legs and Run Away From You

 

In my creative writing class at Lancaster University years ago, our tutor said to us:  Once written and completed, your work is A Thing on the Table.  The world can make what it likes of it.  It doesn’t belong to you any more.”creative writing

More recently, novelist Susan Hill, speaking at a local author event, mentioned her first great literary success, The Woman in Black. She said, I have never known a story grow legs and run away from me like that one did.

What a lovely image for the independent life a novel takes on, once completed and out in the world. The ultimate value of a novel lies in the responses of those who read it.  JK Rowling said that the whole “fairy tale” of what had happened to her was only because we had read her story and loved it.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit, had many different sources of inspiration. But one of them was my conversation with a retired clergyman, John, who told me a story which I then used in my novel.

He described an incident which took place during his ministry as parish priest. A spiritual healer had risen to prominence in his parish.  She’d healed many in the local community and had attracted national media attention. Soon John’s church could no longer ignore this, as several in his congregation, including the churchwarden, claimed to have been healed by her, and believed in her miraculous powers. John recounted to me the tale of one dramatic afternoon, when he met and questioned this healer, along with his churchwarden, and another local clergyman. Later, I went back to the work-in-progress, and my character Natasha emerged, together with a key scene in the novel, based on John’s story.

A Passionate Spirit has some Christian characters (young priest Theo and his wife Zoe); and, to my mind, a strong Christian message. But there’s no guarantee my readers will choose to see that.

In my novel, eventually Zoe meets a huge spiritual challenge head-on, with her fledgling Christian faith; and I show her praying, using the Lord’s Prayer and the words of Psalm 23. She also cites the character of Jesus in her headlong confrontation with evil. Vital help for Zoe comes from her friend Alice, who isn’t Christian, and who was the first person to discern the menace represented by Natasha.

I don’t believe we can expect every Christian to have spiritual discernment. Having experienced a number of spiritual healers myself in the past I’ve become more alert to ‘false prophets’ and the ‘trees that do not bear good fruit’; and that has influenced my story.

A Passionate Spirit is now truly A Thing Upon the Table. I trust and respect that the readers will make what they like of it. And of course I only have the chance to find out if I get feedback from reviews…

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Book reviews of mainly modern & contemporary fiction

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