Not a lot of plots in fiction?

There seem to be as many theories about plot out there as there are stories in the naked city. Some experts will tell you there are seven basic plots, some that there are 20 some that there are 36.

But then some people will tell you there is only one plot in the whole of fiction, and that plot is…

Continue reading Not a lot of plots in fiction?

Q and A – show me the money

Here’s the latest in my series of Q and A sessions, with a question from Rani who recently read Song of the Sea God – she posted her review of the book on Amazon to see it click here. And many thanks to her for the kind review and for the question! If you have anything to ask me about my book, writing generally, publishing, or indeed anything else I might be able to help with then please ask in the comments below or let me know on Facebook or Twitter.

At the end of Song of the Sea God, what happened to the piles of money in Bes’s van?

Rani from London.

It’s funny, when you write a book – sometimes there are loose ends, and I suppose this is one. Money’s important isn’t it? Many of us base our lives on it – and this is a question about what happens to a lot of money in my book.

I think this question is a great example of the point at which a writer’s work ends and the reader’s begins.

Dr Johnson said “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

And that’s a sentiment which rings true to me both as a writer and a reader.

I believe any book you read will leave unanswered questions – some within the text, some beyond the end of the book, some before it even began. Good books should do this I think. They should respect and nurture the imagination of the reader.

So I would honestly say that Rani’s answer to this question, or the answer of any reader who has read the book, would be as valid as mine. Still, since I have been asked the question I will do my best to answer it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those who’ve not read Song of the Sea God I’d better quickly explain the background. John Love, the main character who’s a charismatic shaman, or con-man or cult-leader or whatever the reader wants to think about him, sells cures and miracles to the people of the island where the story is set. His disciple, Bes, the narrator of the book, collects up the money and keeps it in his static caravan (Trailer, American friends) where the pair live for the duration of the book.

Who knows how much money there is by the end of the story? A lot. It is described as lying around, piled in drifts, being crammed into cupboards. I think I got the image for all the money lying around from the years I spent as a newspaper crime reporter. Often drug-dealers were described in this way – police busts discovered them surrounded by piles of cash. It was almost as though the money had overwhelmed them, or that it no-longer mattered to them.

I think I chose the image because I believed two things. One was that John Love could be compared to a drug dealer. He was pedalling something people really wanted, and could easily become addicted to.

The second thing I believed was that neither John Love, nor Bes really cared about money. Like the drug dealers they left it lying around in piles, like so much rubbish, because they didn’t honestly know what to do with it.

US_Dollar_banknotesBes never had a use for money. The descriptions in Sea God of how the character subsists involve low-level wheeling and dealing – getting by and feeding the vice of buying books.

John Love certainly doesn’t care about money. He has one aim – pure and clear and simple – he wants to be a god. Money is for mortals.

So, while many books, most thrillers for example, make the acquisition of money their main and central point, in Sea God it is an irrelevance, some scraps of paper left lying around a modest home. Perhaps that’s why I forgot to tidy up the loose end of what happens to the cash when the book ends.

There are much bigger loose ends too of course – like what happens to the legend, the gospel, the message of John Love? Does his star rise – does he get to become a god?

Here’s what I hope happened to the money. I hope it made Bes happy. By which I mean, more comfortable and able to create a decent life. Bes is a character I have great affection for – albeit a character who is flawed, fooled, and pulled into making some awful decisions. I hope Bes found a use for the money.

And I hope that answered the question Rani!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Song of the Sea God – the conversation

SongoftheSeaGodMy novel, Song of the Sea God, has been in print for almost 12 months now and in that time I’m delighted that it has built up quite a few reviews from readers on Amazon sites in the UK here and USA here. It’s fascinating to get reviews of your book as it feels as though a conversation, which began as one-sided, with me sitting in front of a keyboard tapping away, is now becoming a two-way dialogue, as readers across the world respond to what I have written.

I just thought I’d like to pick up on a handful of the themes people have raised about the book in recent reviews and talk about them a little.

I’ve been lucky so far that reviews of the book have been positive, and obviously I’m thrilled about that. But, if anything, I’m even more delighted by the way people have clearly thought about and responded to the ideas and issues, the characters and situations – that for me is what has made having the book published such a joy. A big thanks to all whose comments I have borrowed from their reviews to discuss here. Thanks to my publisher Skylight Press for believing in the book and getting behind it  – and thanks also to all who have read or are reading Song of the Sea God, because it’s you readers who have transformed it from a pile of papers in my bottom drawer to a proper novel!

“The islanders all seem pathetically on the brink of something intangible. They are like so much driftwood aimlessly going about their mediocre lives until John Love shows up. All of a sudden, it is as if they all want to believe that they are capable of more. Their needs become the energy that fuels this stranger who captivates them with his promises.”

AE Wallace

I suppose I wanted to do two things with the islanders in the book before the arrival of their ‘saviour’ John Love. I had to make it clear that there was something to save them from – so I couldn’t have them all deliriously happy – but I also wanted them to have a kind of ‘everyman’ quality – as this was supposed to be a book about more than the fate of a handful of people in a small community – it was supposed to be about all of us. And sadly, I think the notion that we are ‘driftwood’ and unfulfilled in some spiritual or emotional way is all too common these days.

“It is beautiful and dark, funny and chilling, and the only problem I had was that I couldn’t really empathise with the main characters. They are very well drawn and developed, but I didn’t find them really likeable as people. But apart from that, I stand in some awe. The prose is crackling, sharp and evocative (It reminded me at times of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins), the setting and story are compelling in the manner of Lord of the Flies.”

Rivergirl

It’s interesting the notion of the characters being likable or not likable because I don’t think I gave it too much regard while I was writing. I was more concerned they be interesting, believable, within the terms of the book, and that they represent people in the wider sense. So I made them both good and bad, lovable and horrible, all rolled into one human package. Another aim of mine was to combine quite a ‘gritty’ environment – cold and uncouth and brutal – with language which, at times, transcended those things.

“What shines through is how much the author loves his characters. Each is so lovingly and cleverly observed. He defies you to pigeon-hole them, to either love or hate them, and in this way the reader is offered hope for themselves. It would be right to describe this book as dark, but it also has plenty of warmth and wry, surprising humour. I loved it.”

Laura Creber

This is a different, yet equally valid, way of seeing the characters in the book I think – the idea that you can care about them, love them even, despite their undoubted faults or even because of them. I do like it when people mention humour in the book too – because laughter is such a big part of life and I would struggle to leave it out of anything I write.

“I didn’t see the end twist coming, anymore than some of the characters did, it left me gasping that I hadn’t foreseen it and yet what I most liked about this book was how Chris portrays all those many tiny mundane thoughts & actions that are so rarely revealed in a character. The minutiae of a person’s life, that can have such huge consequences.”

Lula

Not everything I write goes in for twists and turns but I found them particularly suited to this subject matter. I think in a way you could say Song of the Sea God is a book about things not being what they seem. It opens with a person who is convinced they are dead but turns out to be mistaken – and things don’t get any more clear cut after that. It’s also very true that I do use tiny bits and pieces about people to help me draw character.

“This is not a depressing novel, not even a harsh expression of flash-light realism; it is novel full of magic. And even if the magic of the main character, John Love, is questionable, even if the energy of the town is that of the mob, the ultimate message and gift is one of transformation and revelation. The reader comes out of the book better off, more connected and deepened.”

PE Wildoak

A novel full of magic – I do like that. While I was writing the book I sometimes thought of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – his island full of magic, his magician and his Caliban. I tried to make Song of the Sea God a book where bad things happen which, in the way it is told, can still be uplifting.

Song of the Sea God visualSee what you think! Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

What we say vs how we say it

Which matters most then – what we say or how we say it?

I bet I can guess your reply. The first thought most of us will have is that, of course, what we say is most important – the message is always more important than the medium.

But we are readers of fiction, writers of fiction some of us too. Surely we are seduced by the beauty of words? If not, then why bother?

Winston_Churchill_cph_3b12010And anyway, isn’t everyone seduced by beauty? Aren’t we all stirred by eloquence? Otherwise why did Churchill slave over his wartime speeches? He could have had a civil servant bullet point the facts for him and read that out on the radiogram, without all the three-part lists and falling cadences.

Don’t bother saying:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Just say ‘We will fight wherever necessary,’ and leave it at that.

It was the poetry which mattered – in tough times, with little food and too much work and bombs raining down – it was the poetry which counted.

And why do advertising agencies exist? Surely a brisk summary of a product’s selling points would suffice?

170px-TrumanCapote1959Here’s something Truman Capote once said:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

He was one of the most beautiful prose stylists in the language on his day old Truman. Not so much with In Cold Blood where he was trying to fit in, be liked, impress. Instead read his stories, and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his crystal clear paean to a beautiful boy, who he had to pretend was a beautiful girl – because of the times.

02p/43/arod/15356/P2774143One of Truman Capote’s childhood chums was Harper Lee, another wonderful writer, though by no means a poet. Her one novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I suppose, if you are only going to write one, you might as well make it a fantastic one.

It’s a curious book in some ways – more like two bundled together. One, a gentle rural remembrance, Cider with Rosie in the deep South, the other, a gritty courtroom drama about racial tensions and cultural upheaval. Both are brilliant.

That book staked Harper Lee’s claim as a great novelist, what she wasn’t, I don’t think, was a great prose stylist. Her writing was functional rather than beautiful, it was more about the message than the medium. And when her book came out, Truman, her old friend, couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Where was the poetry, the sublime music of the words – where was all that useless beauty?

But it was a book which meant a lot, still means a lot, to many, many people, including me. And yet, so, quite rightly, does Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So which wins – the medium or the message?

Which matters most, what we say or how we say it?

I’m calling it a dead heat.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Words worth

How important are words? Very! Don’t ask me, don’t ask writers generally – ask marketers, brand managers – they will tell you how powerful a word can be.

Here’s an example, from history, which illustrates just how important what you call something can turn out to be. The place where I live, Gloucestershire in the UK, used to be apple country – they made cider in these parts and cultivated apples in a seemingly infinite variety. Every country lane you turn down still, to this day, has a cider orchard in it full of ancient trees, their bent backs held up with wooden props like little old men with walking sticks.

Red_AppleAmong the many varieties of locally cultivated apples, now sadly all consigned to the pantry of history, was one which was considered particularly tasty and useful – yet you will not find it on the shelves of Asda and Walmart. Why not? you may ask. Well – the name of this sumptuous fruit ladies and gentlemen was the Hen’s Turd.

Mouth watering it may have been but you won’t find it in a hopper next to the Golden Delicious in your local hypermarket. Because, essentially, what the Hen’s Turd had was a branding problem.

It had clearly been named after what it looked like in a ‘say what you see’ kind of way – but when Farmer Giles came up with this label he obviously hadn’t been thinking through the long-term marketing strategy. So, sadly, the Hen’s Turd resides in our fruit bowls no longer.

The truth is that the Hen’s Turd didn’t die out because of how it tasted, which was nice, it died out because of words. Which is why we’ve ended up eating the Golden Delicious, which tastes like wood shavings dipped in citric acid.

And that, my friends, is how important words can be.

First reviews

The first reviews are starting to come in on Amazon now for Song of the Sea God – and thank you to the readers out there who are taking the time and trouble to say what they think about the book.

You can see the reviews, and read the first few pages of the book here.

And readers in the USA can get it on Barnes and Noble here.

There were a couple of comments that I particularly related to from the reviews.

One was that the novel has a strong sense of place.

I’ve already said my piece about the book being set on Walney Island in the north-west of England where I grew up – but not really. I took the liberty of using the island’s geography for my own purposes but making it the place I needed it to be and populating it with my own characters. So it’s not Walney – but  having that island in my head helped me massively in writing the book.

I’ve always been fond of books which do ‘sense of place’ well. It’s very important I think, it adds to the richness of the reading experience. Here’s my tip for a book which does this brilliantly – Waterland by Graham Swift. It’s masterful and beautiful. The place, in this case The Fens, percolates through the whole book and influences the characters, the action, everything. I would recommend the book to you if you have not read it. If I have achieved a fraction of what Swift did in Waterland on my island then I am a happy writer.

Another comment which made me very chuffed was that Sea God was refered to as a ‘page turner’.

That’s a particularly pleasing thing to hear about a literary novel. I had in my mind that I wanted to preserve the depth and the quality of writing that readers of literary fiction demand and expect, while at the same time making sure the book held the reader with its story.

I wanted to create a literary novel with the pace and plot of a thriller. Which, I accept, is a bit like wanting your cake and eating it. Did I come somewhere near succeeding? I would be delighted if you read the book and let me know.