Currents, Backwaters and Muddy Tributaries in Fiction: and the Fascination of the One Star Review

Reading a novel is like going on a voyage down a river.

Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)
Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)

Sometimes the water’s smooth and calm, sometimes rough; occasionally you may find yourself in whitewater rapids; and ultimately it flows into the sea.

If your boat gets ambushed by a rogue current and becomes snarled up among tree roots and rushes in a muddy backwater, that spoils your journey.

But does it make you give up on the book?

That happened to me recently with JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy.

She’d gripped me, early on, with a vivid description of a social worker visiting the dysfunctional family of an abused child. But then, as I saw the way her narrative was tending, I decided I wasn’t in the mood to read an unrelenting account of numerous people behaving in a particularly unpleasant way.

But as I loved all the Harry Potter books, and admire JK Rowling herself, I decided to put the book aside and return to it at another time, when I may feel differently about her choice of subject.

I believe that the way we respond to novels is a complex mixture of mood, temperament, expectation, and our own experience of  the world.

And when our expectations have been defeated, we might love it – or we might immediately get onto Amazon and bestow a one-star review.

Various factors determine whether we do  the latter – or wait, and perhaps come back to it another time, as I plan to with The Casual Vacancy.

I enjoy reading different responses to my own novel Mystical Circles. Of course, like all authors, I feel happy if I see that the majority have given it 5-star reviews (especially on Goodreads, Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

But the reviews that intrigue me – for any novel – are the one-star reviews. I quite often go to them first, specially to find out what is the worst that can be said of this novel.

But does that put me off the novel? No way! It can even enhance my interest in the novel, by giving it an extra dimension.

I believe the most interesting lessons are to be found in extreme divergence of opinion.

What do you think?

Searching for Love… And Craving Celebrity

In my last post, on the case of Jimmy Savile, I wrote about the dark side of celebrity.

We crave love, fame,wealth, success - but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)
We crave love, fame,wealth, success – but where is it leading us? (image credit: GoToSee.co.uk)

We live in a society obsessed with celebrities – the gods of this secular age.

And we try to convince ourselves that fame would guarantee entry into a perfect region of love, wealth and success. Yet the reality for the famous themselves is often not as appealing as we might think.

There are many examples of celebrities who suffer from depression.

“It is strange,” observed Albert Einstein, “to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”

The cure for loneliness, we are led to believe, is love.

And in our midst, there are those who feel unloved and unlovable. These people may not take a recognizable form. The most attractive people may be among those who feel unloved and unlovable. The rise of depression, anxiety and stress in our society provides ample evidence of this – as does the incidence of poor body-image, low self-esteem, and eating disorders such as anorexia.

It is rare to find love that is not conditional.

“All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. And as it happens, I’m listening to them singing those very words right now as I write this.

But the love we need must be unconditional.

Unconditional love is a very difficult concept for human beings to grasp. Only divine love can be unconditional.

The love of God can work through the most unexpected people – and that includes people who are not religious, and have nothing whatsoever to do with churches.

So it may indeed be that the cure for all this is unconditional love.

Compassion, humility, and gentleness are not the exclusive province of religious people.

I believe we taste something of that unconditional divine love in any place where compassion, grace, love and faithfulness are to be found.

Seeking Personal Growth; and Sitting at the Feet of a Charismatic Guru

We find ourselves in a culture where many seek answers to the deep issues of life in spirituality, beyond the boundaries of organized religion.

dreams and mystical visions
dreams and mystical visions

Different needs within people draw them to seek spiritual relief – and for some, esoteric New Age spiritual groups hold a strong appeal.

You’ll meet some of those who are attracted to such groups, in the pages of my romantic suspense novel Mystical Circles.

"Mystical Circles" new print edition published August 2012
“Mystical Circles” new print edition published August 2012

Another example of such a group – which was pointed out to me by one of my early readers – is the Fellowship of Friends. Also known as the School Group it was founded in 1970 in California by Robert Burton aka The Teacher. There are certain fundamental aspects of this Fellowship which find their counterpart in many other esoteric groups:

  • The group is led by “a conscious teacher”. His only true credentials are his own presence and his effect upon his students.
  • The group’s location is a place for students to “work on themselves” in an atmosphere of beauty, effort and friendship.
  • The group is trained in “self-remembering” which involves “being present” within a moment – this is the universal message of esoteric schools.
  • The members of the group gather daily to “work on themselves” at meetings, study groups and dinners.

I have in the past been impressed by the teachings of George Gurdjieff (upon which Robert Burton based the Fellowship of Friends) and have participated in a number of such groups myself. Gurdjieff, a mystic and spiritual teacher, called his discipline “The Work”. At one point he described his teachings as “esoteric Christianity”.

In theory, the “work on oneself” which Gurdjieff recommends should indeed bear fruit in greater self-knowledge. But does it in practice?

My own experience has shown me how powerful a charismatic figure can be and how the most intelligent of people might fall prey to such a person, and therefore create situations in which many people become victims of “mind control” or “brainwashing”. I must also say this applies to a wide range of situations in life, not just esoteric groups.

Christians may like to reflect upon how easily a charismatic leader can draw people into a place where the main focus of attention is his or her own magnetic personality. This can be as much of a danger for Christians with a public speaking ministry as it can be for inspirational leaders and gurus in the world of the esoteric.

St Paul spoke of the danger of “false apostles” attributing miracles to themselves rather than God. He expressed his fear lest those he taught had their minds “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:3) And as Jesus himself said, “Beware of false prophets – by their fruits will you know them.”

I’ve certainly tasted a few of those fruits myself in the past, and have learned from personal experience whether their juicy flavour lasts, or, indeed, whether you bite through the fruit to find a maggot at the centre!

What about you? Have you ever tasted any of these fruits? I’d love to hear from you! Perhaps you, like me, have sat at the feet of various gurus? Please share your own experiences by leaving a comment!

People of Inspiration Part 3 – Susan Boyle, Who Made a Choice to Use the Gift God Had Given Her

As the third personality in my mini-series on People of Inspiration, step forward Susan Boyle.

Susan Boyle onstage at the end of I Dreamed a Dream musical

In the musical “I Dreamed a Dream” , which I saw at the Birmingham Hippodrome, I learned much about this gifted singer  and deepened my knowledge of her life-experiences and background. The show starred Elaine C. Smith in the role of Susan Boyle.

Probably the words which stood out for me in Susan’s story were these, spoken near the end of the show: “I realised it was my choice, to use what God had given me. I didn’t have to do it. But my mother made me do it.” Her mother’s words were the deciding factor for Susan: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

In November 2010, backstage at the Rockefeller Center, New York City, as Susan cried and raged and shouted and faced the consequences of not going on stage to face a massive audience, she was told by her manager: “You don’t have to go on. You don’t have to do it. I’ll go out there and tell them you won’t be coming on. If it does this to you, it isn’t worth it.”

Susan then had to answer a question for herself: “If it does this to me, is it worth it?”

Before Susan’s famous big break in “Britain’s Got Talent”, there were always factors in her life which held her back. The doctor’s words to her mother shortly after her birth: “Don’t hold out too much hope for her.” The fact that she dealt with her nerves with flippancy and fooling around. The sarcasm and bullying and jealousy she met. The low self-esteem, the lack of self-confidence, the boyfriend who never was, the mother who asked her to “do something with your singing instead of staying here looking after me.”

To me the most outstanding thing about Susan as a person is that she felt the fear, and did it anyway – because of her mother’s words.

Right at the beginning of the musical these words were spoken: “We all have dreams. But as we grow older we let them  go. We lose them in the sheer business of just getting through life day by day. I think that’s sad. We should hold onto our dreams.”

The message in Susan’s story is that you need words to hang onto when you’re on the edge, and about to go into meltdown. Words like: “You will get there… I’ve always taken you seriously…. I have every confidence in you.”

And words like the ones that finally got Susan through: “God has given you a gift for you to use.”

I’d love to have your comments! Have you seen Elaine C. Smith in the musical, or listened to Susan Boyle on stage? Are you, like me, a fan of her sweet, rich and powerful voice?

An Owl in the Starry Night and a Lost Friend

Owl in the Starry Night
Owl in the Starry Night, oil on canvas, by Sophie Grandvall (2007)

In Birmingham Art Gallery shop I found a card with a picture called “Owl in the Starry Night”. Immediately I saw it I thought, Pam. And I bought the card. The image is from an oil painting on canvas by artist Sophie Grandvall (2007) which is in The Bridgeman Art Gallery. And this one image made me think how – in any field of creativity – it is never possible for the creator to anticipate the impact their creation might have on those who receive it.

Pam is a friend I first met when we were both aged five, who died of a severe illness seven years ago. She loved owls. They became her symbol, her motif. She surrounded herself with pictures of them, went to see them in bird sanctuaries, bought owl ornaments and owl-themed household objects, and she gave them as gifts too.  And when I think of her – intelligent, sweet-natured, generous, full of wit and wisdom, I can identify her with the symbolism of the owl and can understand why she loved them.

During the time of our friendship, Pam was a constant through every season. She was often a reassuring presence in my life. If not for her untimely death she would have been a lifelong friend.  When I think about what she meant to me I see her as someone who set my life in perspective: bringing moral and emotional support and a sense of belonging.  She met life’s twists and turns with a mischievous humour, giving me the heart to take up the journey afresh. 

Now I think how lucky I was to have had a friend like her; and that she was someone whose memory could be brought alive again by an image of  an owl in the starry night.

 SC Skillman

Sherlock Holmes And Creative Writing

Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft tells Watson in the latest BBC recreation of this much-loved character, has the mind of a scientist or a philosopher; yet he chose to be a consulting detective. When he was a child he wanted to be a pirate. And Conan Doyle tells us Holmes is also a consummate actor. He will disappear into another room, don a completely different outfit, and emerge “in the character of” somebody else. This enables him to mingle with like characters and listen to their conversations and gather information. Of course, as Sherlock tells us airily, most of it will be irrelevant; but his genius is for alighting on exactly the details he needs, and filtering out everything else.

Scientist, philosopher, pirate, detective, actor: there are times as a novelist when you employ skills which would probably feature in the Person Specification for every one of these jobs.

A Sherlock Holmes story usually involves a conundrum for the great detective to unravel. His talent is for changing one in a set of presumptions. Then several obstacles and caveats disappear. Removing one notion can immediately cast several other scenarios as feasible.

In Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’s reinterpretation of  Sherlock for the BBC, the great detective is shown to display certain features of Asperger Syndrome; i.e. he’s not good at the nuances  involved in personal relationships. Yet he works always to restore balance and legality and order to people’s lives.

A line I love from the end of Conan Doyle’s story “The Dying Detective” is: Good evening Inspector. All is in order and this is your man. Holmes had appeared to be dying of an Asian disease, in order to trap the killer into a confession. The need for order and balance is inextricable from human relationships – otherwise there can be no warmth, compassion, or responsiveness. These are the keys to a good relationship: rewards for and recognition of relational goodness. And this is the paradox: Sherlock rewards Dr John Watson in this way. Thus he demonstrates his friendship which intermittently lifts him out of his habitual way of relating to people.

Conan Doyle himself may have struggled to like his own creation; but we the readers and viewers love Sherlock Holmes. This is because he presents one of those archetypal relationships (see my post on Archetypes:https://scskillman.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/how-can-carl-jungs-theory-of-archetypes-help-you-in-your-creative-writing/; above all we love his relationship with Dr John Watson. And a key relationship which the readership loves is one critical element of successful fiction.

SC Skillman

How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Complexes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among the writings of Carl Jung, we find the psychological concept of  “complexes”. A complex may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power  or status.”  Many of us have probably heard someone described as having an inferiority /  guilt / martyr complex.  And this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.  

1.  An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”.  The comic writer P.G.Wodehouse makes good use of this complex in his stories, for example  Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy. Those of us who love Wodehouse’s stories are well-used to the shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

 2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest the martyr complex may be illustrated in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many might feel, in reading this book, that Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this widespread guilt complex is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; despite the fact that he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus Dostoyevsky sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

4) The power complex may operate in any area of life where someone is at the top of a hierarchical structure.Take, for example, pitiless schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who uses his power over young minds to fill them with facts and to stamp out all colour,adventure and magic from their lives; or even Aunt Reed in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as she exercises what little power she finds in her life, over her vulnerable young niece.  

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we create characters who inspire love, pity, fury, fascinated horror, or even self-searching in our readers.   But be warned. Not too many characters with complexes, please (unless you are of the calibre of Dostoyevsky).  These characters must be balanced with at least one person who is calm and centred – in the interests of giving your novel authenticity!

SC Skillman

Rob Parsons: A Wise and Entertaining Guide to Good Family Relationships

Rob Parsons has beguiled,moved,and doubled me up in laughter several times on this subject, both in person as an inspirational speaker, and in writing. Now he has again written on a topic that should be closely studied by policy-makers. If you’re a parent, and you’d sooner your child achieved their critical acclaim and professional success in a couple of decades time by some other means than publishing their misery memoir, Rob Parsons sets it out in very simple,clear terms in “The Sixty Minute Family” (pub.Lion).

One of his answers is as simple as a father spending ordinary time with his child – just “being there”. And beyond that is a truth: “relationships matter more than money”. I expect many more books will be written in more complex terms, saying the same thing.

Within classic story structure, what is the one most familiar trope a writer can always rely on? It’s the Dysfunctional Parent/Child relationship. The Disney story writers trade on it, the psychiatrists and counsellors make their living from it; the radio interviewers and TV chat show hosts recognise it as their most fruitful area of analysis.

Reading what Parsons has to say now (the book was published in 2010)I feel his stance has toughened since I first heard him on this subject. This book gives strong clues to the powerful influence of physically and emotionally absent parents upon the society we live in. But to end on an uplifting note, it may be, as Parsons says, that “most of us are doing a much better job of parenting than we think – and it normally turns out better than we dared hope”.

SC Skillman