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

Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

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.

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.

“Dream” Book Buyers at Festival of Crafts, Coombe Abbey

Thank you to the “dream buyers” who bought my books on Saturday at the Coombe Abbey Festival of Crafts. 20160910_094309-1 They needed no promotional chat of any kind from me, (which I’ve discovered is counter-productive), studied my banner, reviews and blurbs closely, and recognised that the stories were just their type of thing.20160910_094239-1

Abigail, Jamie and I enjoyed our time at the local author stall in the Craft Marquee at the festival despite the rain and damp – though I feared my books might be starting to curl!

 

Thank you too to another stallholder, Holly Webster, who came over to me to look at my books and to chat about her own urban dark fantasy novels. I’ve looked her up on Amazon and  though the horror element in her novel Blood Borne is much  darker than my usual taste, curiosity may lead me to download on my Kindle!

Thank you also to the lady who came over and bought a copy of “Mystical Circles” and said, “I shall read this today and review it tomorrow.”

Now all I need is for buyers like this to be increased a hundredfold!20160910_09395420160910_094001-120160910_094112-1-120160910_094239-1

New Book About Writing, For Aspiring Writers

I’m currently working on a new book about writing, which has the working title of Perilous Path: a Writer’s Journey. The book contains 30 short pieces I’ve published online over the past 6 years, both on ezine articles and on this blog, all on the subject of writing a novel.APS on display on shelf in Warwick Books

Here’s a taster from the book. And below the article I’ve posted the current Contents List of the book. I’d love to know if, having read it, you feel you or an aspiring writer you know might be interested in such a book – and whether you would buy it as a paperback or would find it more appealing as an ebook. Over to you, my online audience, for your views and comments!

 Research for novel writing – use the internet

 

How big a part should the internet play in a novelist’s research? My mind is immediately drawn to a quote from Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. How often, muses Robert Langdon to himself, has he advised his students that “Google is not a synonym for research”. I couldn’t help laughing at the sly irony of that. For I defy anyone to read this novel without wondering how long the author spent on Google researching his subject matter; and how soon you will get onto Google yourself after reading it, to corroborate his facts – or to fall into the very trap Robert Langdon warns against!

I confess the internet has been a wonderful resource for me as a fiction writer in double-checking my remembered facts. But of course we should never assume whatever we read on the web is necessarily true. It’s important to at least triple-check. But when it comes to writing fiction, I believe most authors will have chosen their subject or theme out of passion – and therefore he or she will have spent a considerable portion of their life researching the subject through multifarious means – personal experience, observing and interacting with people, reading all sorts of printed material about it, visiting places, maybe (but not often) living out some of the things they depict their characters doing…

Therefore the internet is a valuable tool, but cannot serve as the sole source of material when researching a novel.

I may take as an example the Cotswolds location for my first published psychological thriller Mystical Circles. I was inspired by three places. Firstly Totleigh Barton at Sheepwash, near Beauworthy in Devon where I once attended a five day Arvon Foundation poetry course: it boasted a monk’s room, as does the farmhouse in my novel. Also the diverse group of students on the course inspired me for the group dynamics of my story. Secondly my imagination was fired by the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway in the Cotswolds, a wonderful setting for a psychological thriller. My favourite piece of research involved afternoon tea there. The manager took us for a tour of some of the historical rooms in the hotel including the Cromwell Room. The owners of the inn were neutral during the English Civil War and thus hosted guests on both sides of the conflict. I used some of the details of the interiors here in my descriptions of the sixteenth century farmhouse. And thirdly, for my setting, although I ultimately chose the Cotswolds as my favoured location, I was also inspired by a farmhouse near the Forest of Orleans in France owned by the eccentric uncle of my then boyfriend. We visited his uncle there several years ago. When I met him, he displayed a love of practical jokes, leaving plastic rats and spiders for me to find in odd corners. He also owned a parrot, which I came upon by surprise in his sitting room, exactly as I describe my main protagonist Julie coming upon the gold and blue macaw in Mystical Circles.

I hope all this will serve to illustrate how every aspect of your life can be regarded as research for your novel. Life itself is one long process of research. Bad experiences and good, failures and humiliations… nothing is wasted, or lost. Surely this is the ultimate recycling! – it is certainly one of the things I most love about fiction writing.

SC Skillman

Contents page of proposed new book: Perilous Path: a Writer’s Journey by SC Skillman

Introduction: The Writer’s Journey: Pursuing your Creative Passion

  1. Research for novel writing – use the internet
  2. What’s creative writing? – tips for new writers
  3. Elements that make up a good fiction story
  4. 3 tips for creative works of realistic fiction
  5. Research and fiction – how to research when something doesn’t exist
  6. Universal themes in fiction
  7. Strategies to develop creative and imaginative writing
  8. How to pick a topic to write creatively about
  9. How to know which point of view to use in a story
  10. 5 tips on how to make your fictional characters engaging
  11. How to create a novel that your readers won’t want to put down
  12. The writing process for creating a novel in less than a month
  13. How to start a novel
  14. How to fictionalise characters
  15. How to develop a character in a novel
  16. How to create layers within each of your characters
  17. How to develop villainous characteristic traits in your writing
  18. The importance of choosing words carefully – your audience’s interpretation matters
  19. Character creation – the most interesting fictional characters of all
  20. How to structure your writing to improve the flow of the story
  21. How to get over writer’s block when halfway through your novel
  22. Good things to do to improve your creative writing
  23. How to successfully write the plot of your novel in reverse
  24. How can Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes help you in your creative writing?
  25. How can Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity help you in your creative writing?
  26. How can Carl Jung’s theory of The Shadow help you in your creative writing?
  27. Inspiration for creative writers from art
  28. Inspiration for creative writers from music
  29. Suggestions for writing the end of a novel
  30. Learning from Hemingway

 

 

 

Reflections on Crime, Wickedness, and Redemption from the Crime Museum Uncovered, Museum of London

On Thursday 31st March 2016 I read many stories at the Crime Museum Uncovered, an enthralling exhibition currently showing at the Museum of London, London Wall.  Crime cases from Victorian times to 1975, solved by the Metropolitan Police. Most of the criminals were hanged; some were miscarriages of justice; vulnerable people, who today would have received 10 years in jail and might then have turned their lives around and gone on to achieve great things.

Others were people we might think “deserved to die” because the crimes they had committed were so ruthless and wicked (for instance the woman who, under the guise of running a care service for children of the poor, murdered 15 babies).

In some cases, black and wicked hearts were exposed, hearts “as hard and merciless as rock”; and victims whose names we only know by the terrible manner of their deaths, and the disposal of their bodies by their murderers.  People, it seems, who we were to define by the way they died.  And yet, as a novelist, I am convinced that no-one is ever defined by the manner of their death.  We are all complex beings, mind, body and spirit, with our joys, sorrows, memories, dreams, passions and impulses. We don’t define the greatest by their deaths; neither Mozart, nor Shakespeare, nor any other. So why should we define the lives of anyone in that way, no matter how obscure, how ‘ordinary’ they were during their lives on this earth.  This exhibition set out to ‘give the victims a voice’ and yet I did feel it fell into the trap of defining the individual victims by the manner of their deaths.

I am fascinated by human wickedness and this will impact upon the theme and plot of my third novel, following on from “Mystical Circles” and “A Passionate Spirit”. I touched on an aspect of evil in “A Passionate Spirit” but will go much deeper in my next novel. I’m not sure yet whether the paranormal will be there, but psychological suspense certainly will, and so will crime, setting the characters a huge challenge.

The Christian faith teaches that no-one is beyond redemption.

This is just one Christian concept I, along with, I suspect, many others, struggle with.

Alexander Solzenitsyn in his great book The Gulag Archipelago , which I read in my teens, describes  what he calls “the threshold magnitude of evil”. Evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme danger or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.”

Every so often, over the years since reading that book, I have been brought back to Solzenitsyn’s observations.  Whenever I read books about the Nazi Holocaust, his words come to mind.

Yet have we ever considered that, when Jesus took upon his shoulders the sins of the world, as Christian theology teaches, he at that moment was the worst person in the world.

It is a mind-blowing thought.  We read of wicked acts in our news every day, and (unless we are suffering from compassion fatigue) we shudder.

Yet Jesus was the most wicked person in the world, at that time of darkness, before his resurrection.

It shows once again the huge paradox that is the Christian faith. “The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

 

 

 

 

Writing, Reading and Reviewing Books For Love

Compassion, respect and kindness are human qualities common to all regardless of any faith position. In this post, I’m making a plea for these three things in the online world of books.

APS on bookshelf at Kenilworth Books 13 Feb 2016 cropped image

Even when readers buy physical books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores they often like to post a review online.

 

Recently I learned from my fellow authors of  something very sad which is happening on Goodreads – which I had previously been totally unaware of. See this article by Anne Rice here.

I have been aware that the dark side of human nature does indeed find outlets for expression on the internet but I had up to now been unconscious of the fact that this affects the world of reviewing books.

In today’s publishing scene, Amazon reviews are of great importance to a writer – though I sometimes wish they weren’t.  The fact remains a new review can lift an author’s spirits, and a lack of reviews can (however mistakenly) feel like rejection.  But it came as a great surprise to me to learn that some people are using their membership of book review sites as an opportunity to express spite, envy and malevolence to others.

I love writing books, reading books and reviewing books.

Every book review  I post online is authentic. It has never occurred to me  to ever post a spurious review or a one star rating simply to hurt someone else.

My own personal rules of book reviewing are as follows:

  1.  I never post one star reviews. If a book genuinely warrants such a rating, I would be most unlikely to even read it all the way through, and I would simply choose not to post a review at all.
  2. I generally give 4 or 5 star reviews and sometimes 3 star. Perhaps I’m over-generous with my star-ratings. Or perhaps it’s down to the fact that I have an instinct to choose books I know I’ll enjoy reading.
  3. I write reviews because I enjoy it; never to criticise, condemn or discourage.

As authors, we write for love –

  1. for love of expressing oneself through the written word, because we have something to say and because we feel compelled to write – regardless of worldly success
  2. for love of creating characters, allowing our imaginations free rein with our created world writing dialogues, entering new worlds.

So I hope that book reviewers would also write for love.

“Love”, by the way, means respect for others, authenticity and honesty: and it includes constructive criticism. It also means reading a book all the way through before writing your opinion of it on a permanent online platform like Goodreads or Amazon.

If you’re an author to whom online reviews are important, I’d love to have your comments on this subject.

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