Category Archives: Blogs

How to Write a Great Story

I frequently wonder why authors write ‘how to write’ books. Are they mad? I know that they know how to, or at least what worked for them, but the competition! Keep it secret, I say.

In this latest one, How to Write a Great Story, Caroline Lawrence shares her tips. In fact, she shares how she wrote her books. And if you know her books, I’d say the advice is even better, because you’ll be able to see exactly what she means, and know what the references are about. She also mentions other famous pieces of writing, likely to be known to the reader.

Caroline Lawrence, How to Write a Great Story

(I brought her book to the hairdresser’s, and he said he’d never want to read a book like this. Could be because it’s not aimed at forty-something hairdressers, but more likely at Caroline’s fans, young and old. He wouldn’t object if I wrote a book about him, though.)

There are some sample workshops, and I envy students who’ve been able to work with Caroline on this. It looks interesting. You might start with a line from The Hobbit, and then you actually change everything, completely losing the Hobbit.

A long section explains writerly words, in case you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Even the Vomit Draft sounds reasonably ‘appealing.’ Or do I mean appalling? And don’t you just hate those elevator pitches? Because you forgot to come up with one, or you forgot what it was. And there is Mr Spielberg, ready to listen for at least ten seconds…

I’d say Caroline doesn’t sleep enough. Some of us need more time. And preserve me from her lunches of broccoli and mayonnaise!

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German book words

For all you readers, especially if you have a fondness for impossibly long German words.

Long words about books in German

The best thing about the German language is that you really can put together all the necessary bits and it becomes a new, real word.

As for Buchendschmerz, well it’s just a horrible feeling, isn’t it?

(A big thanks to Tom Gauld in the Guardian earlier this year.)

Kästner’s streets

The Resident IT Consultant likes his maps, and when Berlin became a reality in our lives, he reread Erich Kästner. He really wanted to know where it was that Emil went when he got to Berlin, arriving at Zoologischer Garten station.

Well, he got on the 177 tram, which took Emil down Kaiser Avenue. Using his little grey cells, the Resident IT Consultant worked out that this might well be the current Bundesallee. From there Emil turned into Trautenau Street, which led to Nicholas Square, the Nikolsburger Platz.

So there’s the issue with names having been translated, plus the small complication of Germany having changed since Emil’s days. Though there are Kaiser-based names; just no longer for this large street leading south from the station opposite the Zoo.

It helped [me] that this was practically where Daughter and I had stayed in the Spring. Also that it’s close to the Swedish Church. (Well, we all have our priorities.)

Interestingly this whole area is close to where Daughter has found her kitchen-less flat to live in. So I may come to wander Emil’s streets before long.

On the other hand, my attempts at finding which street might go with no. 67, where Lisa Tetzner’s children lived, have not been successful. Perhaps she made it up?

Sharing the plot

On the cover of Catriona McPherson’s latest crime novel Ann Cleeves calls it ‘disturbing.’ Obviously in a complimentary way, but disturbing is disturbing. A facebook friend – I forget who – mentioned reading it and said what a great book it was, but perhaps not for bedtime.

I immediately decided I wouldn’t read it, and that lasted until Catriona said she’d send me a copy, and then there I was, reading it – because it looked so very good – alone in the house and bedtime was approaching. What to do?

Instantly devising a solution of reading Catriona’s book in the daytime, and moving on to Jenny Colgan’s new romantic novel for evenings, I felt quite satisfied.

And then I realised that the two plots have a lot in common. Both feature women going somewhere new, starting new jobs. Both new jobs are in some far flung dark corner of Scotland, in a small community, and there are rumours about the ‘man in the big house.’

Whose mother was it? And were there plans for coffee or something on Friday?

When I got this far I suddenly realised my own life had similarities, too. It was the week Daughter started a new job somewhere a longish way away. Hopefully there are no weird ‘lairds’ in big houses where she is. But perhaps the coffee on Friday was hers?

I just don’t know.

(And this is not a review, of anything. Those will come later, assuming I sleep at night, and the Friday coffee plans get sorted.)

Not so super, but okay

After looking round at my reading possibilities, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing belonging to Super Thursday, which was this week. I have a couple of mid-October books, however, and I know some publishers stagger their dates.

In a way it’s a relief, as that pile would usually sit there until I felt I’d caught up and then it would be Christmas and the January books would arrive as the last thing done by publicists before going home to their mince pies.

The Resident IT Consultant went and bought an Observer two weeks ago. We usually find the Saturday Guardian lasts us just fine. I let the last bits of the Observer sit there, in case I ran out something to go with my morning yoghurt. I was on the verge of throwing out the New Review, though, believing it was mainly the television schedule for the week already past.

I’m glad I kept it, because that’s how I discovered a whole lot of dream books I’d had no idea were even coming. Nor that some had already arrived, so to speak [as I’d not got them].

But what with authors having changed publishers, I didn’t know who to email. In the end I did the thing that shouldn’t be necessary, and emailed the authors. They all responded, and the biggest name responded the fastest of all. None of them too grand to help out. It’s just not their job, though.

And I’m a little excited again.

A definitive guide to HDM

I occasionally fantasise about having written this fantastic reference book – The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – but then I catch myself and I know it’s not something I could even remotely have managed. But I don’t mind knowing the woman who did write it.

The guide first came into my hands over twelve years ago, and it was hard to believe that someone was out there who had not only read and loved the three books by Philip Pullman, and who was crazy enough to write a detailed analysis of every single thing in that trilogy. As Philip himself says, whatever you want to know about the world he made up, it’s all in the guide. He ‘can’t recommend it too highly.’

And now Laurie Frost’s reference book is back in a new fresh version, just in time for the second Book of Dust – The Secret Commonwealth – which is published today, and for the soon to come television adaptation of the original story. If you don’t already have a copy, you will want one, if only so you can show off and obsess and look up anyone or anything you may have forgotten.

Over to Laurie:

Laurie Frost

What on earth possessed you to sit down and write the book?

I figured, if I didn’t write this guide, someone else would. I expected someone was already writing one, so I found Philip’s home address and sent him a few pages. At this point, work was beginning on the National Theatre production and The Golden Compass movie, and he was getting a lot of questions a book like mine could answer.

If it was now, would you start a book like it?

I was 20 years younger and had a better memory and more energy. I’m far better at doing nothing now. I have no desire to deal with publishers ever again. So, no.

Had you ever written a book before it?

Yes. I re-cast my dissertation as Reminiscent Scrutinies: Memory in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a small and eccentric meditation. The little academic publisher and its warehouse burned down years ago.

In fact, did you know it would turn into a book rather than a pamphlet?

It would either be a book or nothing. It passed pamphlet length after a few days!

Has anything been changed since the first – how many? – editions?

Different covers. The 2019 edition has newly drawn maps. I added a sentence or two.

Are you tempted to add The Books of Dust to the guide?
.
Somewhat. But I’d do separate ones for the interludes and Book of Dust. Unless a publisher paid me upfront and handled the page numbers, I wouldn’t do it with the same level of detail.

What are your thoughts on La Belle Sauvage?

La Belle seems prophetic to me on the dangers of climate change and a wake up call regarding the historic and contemporary instances of family separation and undermining of the family as a fundamental unit of stability and humanity.

Have you any specific hopes or expectations for what will happen in The Secret Commonwealth?

I’ve long thought that the found materials at the end of Lyra’s Oxford would mean a visit to the Mid-East. This has been confirmed in this week’s New Yorker interview. The title makes me expect more time in alternative realities, compared to La Belle, almost exclusively set in Lyra’s.

Will you race through the book, or go slow, savouring the experience? Or have you had access to an advance copy?

Slowly.

Did any of the many stage versions of HDM get close enough for you to go and see one?

Not remotely. I haven’t been overseas since 1979.

What did you think of the Golden Compass film?

I thought the movie was awful. It was way too short. It was unsatisfying to readers and incomprehensible to newcomers.

And what do you think the new television adaptation will be like?

I will watch the mini-series, and I think a longer format will work better than the film. But these are novels of the mind. Consider Moby Dick. Credible action movies have been made of the plot, but none approaches the encyclopedic essence of Melville’s masterpiece. The daemons seem like they would be a cool way to reveal a character’s thoughts, but they really emphasize how much the novels are about body, soul, and mind, making them hard to translate to film. We will see. They will probably work better for people not meeting daemons for the first time.

Do you have a daemon?

Well, as a human, I must. But I haven’t glimpsed him. I argue with myself a lot. So I guess that voice is my daemon’s.

How has your life changed through writing the guide?

The best thing that has come from writing the book is the kindness of Philip’s support.

Also, I will have something my kids and theirs can see as evidence that their mom had a curious mind. Or was a bit obsessive. Or both.

Can we expect to see you in Oxford one day? There is a bench waiting for you to sit on.

Some day. Maybe.

Laurie Frost, The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Trains and unicorns

It’s not too late, I suppose. But I probably won’t.

Recently I was looking into train travel, of which I was in favour long before Greta. Let’s just say that it’d be an awful lot easier if this wasn’t an island, or at least if I lived at the southern end of it. So this time round I won’t be going to Berlin by rail.

I’d thought to make it a killing two birds with the one train ticket thing, stopping long enough in London to go and see a play. If you have to sleep somewhere en route, it might as well be London, and if sleeping in London I could do something there before bedtime. Like going to the theatre.

Because I’d happened to see the advertisement for Maggot Moon at the Unicorn Theatre [where I’ve not been for nearly ten years]. Sally Gardner’s book was one of the best that year, and I fully expect the play to be worth seeing. So discovering it’d be on in the month when my fictional train travel was about to happen, was a real boon. An encouragement.

But the best laid plans, and all that. 36 very expensive hours, or a dreadfully early start one morning but soon over, and for a reasonable amount of money… Well, let’s say I didn’t book a theatre ticket.

On the other hand, October isn’t over – it’s only just started – so a trip to London can’t be ruled out. But, well…