Sunday, 27 October 2019

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Click on image to view on Amazon


Pierrot Fischer, later Pieter, is half French and half German and spends the first part of his childhood in Paris.  He has a best friend who is Jewish, but doesn’t realise this and the significance of it.  His father, a great War veteran, commits suicide and his mother dies of TB. The Jewish family will not take him in – partly because they can’t afford to and partly because they think it will be dangerous for him. He goes first to an orphanage in Orleans and then his German aunt finds out about him. She happens to work at Hitler’s retreat, the Berghof in the Obersalzberg of the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden.  Pieter becomes a Nazi and is quite nasty with it. His Aunt Beatrix and her lover, Ernst, the chauffeur are executed when they try to poison Hitler. Pieter begins to see that what he has become is wrong but only when the Germans are losing World War II and Hitler and the others with him in the bunker in Berlin kill themselves and when he himself is taken prisoner by the liberating soldiers. He eventually finds his old school friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein, who has become a writer. Bizarrely at this point John Boyne switches from a close third person narrative to first person.   

As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, (the BBC film of which was first broadcast after the watershed) it is difficult to really pinpoint a reader. Pierrot is seven at the beginning of the story and at the end we see Pierrot / Pieter as a gown man.  Before the epilogue he is eighteen and wears a soldier’s uniform but isn’t ever involved in active combat. There is a scene near the end of the story where he almost rapes the girl he would like to have as a girlfriend.  Yet this would not be too startling for the younger reader as the scene is quite subtle. Clearer is his sense of entitlement that his Nazi upbringing has created. 

It’s quite hard also to assess the impact on a reader, again as is the case with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas;   adults reading the text know what is happening. Boyne writes very much form Pierrot’s / Pieter’s point of view and we see everything through an innocent boy’s eyes. When he is transcribing for Hitler what some important Nazi figures discuss in a meeting, he queries why the showers in the new camps will not have water. However, once we get to the end of the story Pieter refers to Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz and the Geneva Convention as though the readers would perfectly understand this.            
     
Pierrot changes rather too quickly perhaps into a Nazi and then rather too quickly away from these dangerous ideals. 

Nevertheless, the book is well written, engaging and gives the opportunity for some meaningful discussion of many important issues.
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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Stage of revision 2: Is the resolution satisfying?


Image by Gerd Altmann

As a publisher, editor and creative writing teacher I frequently notice that though many people write extremely well, their story may lack shape and more often than not it is the ending that lets it down.   

There are four main faults.

Damp squib

Oh, was that it? Nothing has actually happened; there is no change from how the story started. A useful question here might be: has the main character changed as a result of this story? Has she grown? Has she moved on?
I recently asked a “literary” writer what made his novel literary. He replied that one clue is that the reader can skip to the last page and it doesn’t spoil the rest of the novel. Does this contradict what I’ve just said?
Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps this type of novel shows us how rather than what.

 

Melodrama

The ending can be over dramatic and unbelievable. Could that really happen? Isn’t this all a bit sudden? It’s best to think of logistics here and then also to check back into your text that you’ve posted all the necessary clues. 

Deus ex machina

A fabulous contraption flies a god or goddess on to the stage.  S/he waves their magic wand and all is well. The protagonist hasn’t had to work for their living.
Note that Dickens, Molière and Shakespeare are all guilty of this. We often see it in pantomimes as well. By strange coincidences long lost relations show up and solve all of the protagonist’s problems.
You have to put the protagonist through their paces. Note how the mentors in the best stories usually disappear leaving the protagonist to work on their own. Think of Cinderella, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.  

No ending

This is different from an open ending. Open endings are particularly common in YA books. This is an area I know well. The protagonist is left with several possibilities but we don’t know which will happen.  The reader may decide.  There is usually some hope and some closure. One of my own novels The House on Schellberg Street received one review that said it had no proper ending. I’m not entirely convinced that that is true. The protagonist is left with a question. The reader knows something she doesn’t know. It’s not a particularly comfortable ending but at least we have seen her grow. Importantly she has also come home and realised that her roots remain important.

The overall message seems to be that we must allow our protagonist to grow. That is what the story-aware reader expects.            

Friday, 4 October 2019

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond



This story is told in three parts: life for protagonist Stan after his uncle is made redundant when the ship-building industry dies, Stan running away with the circus and Stan becoming the one who swims with the piranhas. There are sub-plots:  the story of Nitasha’s mother and Aunt Annie’s and Uncle Ernie’s return to normality.  

This is a humorous novel but it has its darker sides:  Stan having lost his parents before the story begins, the poverty after the ship-building collapse, the hard graft the family have to put into run their fish-canning business, the change in personality that this causes in Uncle Stan, the ridiculousness and eeriness of the DAFT organisation that seeks to shut down the canning business and the poverty of the circus folk. This is however, all mitigated by the love that young Stan finds everywhere he goes. 

David Almond writes as an omniscient author here though often gets very close to his characters.  He often intervenes in the text  e.g. “Of course there’s never really a proper end.  The people who’ve lived through this tale will live through many more.  But we have to come to a halt somewhere and this is it” (p243). 

The book is 246 pages long. It has blocked text that is double-spaced. It uses a serif but very clear font. There are many quirky illustrations.   
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Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Stage of revision 1 Is the overall structure sound?



Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

This really is the first thing to look at – after perhaps getting rid of a few typos which may be distracting. This has to be right.

I find it useful at this point to recheck if I have got all of the elements I need in the story and are they well balanced:
·         hook,
·         inciting incident,
·         increasing complexities (three usually for a short story,  more for a novel)
·         crisis
·         climax
·         resolution 

In fact, I actually use this template to plan my stories but often that clear structure can get lost in all of the writing. We all find, don’t we, that characters can take on minds of their own, that we ourselves can so enjoy writing certain scenes that we hang on to them a bit too long and that we refuse to kill our darlings? We can also get bogged down in sub-plot. 

Sometimes, even when all of the ingredients are firmly there, it seems that something is lacking.  At that point it may be time to look at some other story theory.      

I’ve talked elsewhere about story theory on this blog – see the main post here.  Could one of those be applied to the text? 

Readers almost always expect the template and can be disappointed if it is not there. Is it our job perhaps to skew it a little so that we might take them by surprise?  

Literary fiction still has this there though it may be very subtle. In popular fiction and literary fiction it is more in your face. Often one more nasty thing happens just before the story resolves.
It really is worth getting this right. No matter how well you complete the other edits if the overall structure isn’t sound, the story will fail and probably not get published.  

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

News 1 October 2019



 

Visiting the Republic of Ireland

Martin and I have been back just over a week from a two week stay in the Republic of Ireland.  We chose it for this year’s holiday as we’d expected Brexit to have happened by now and that how one travelled to other countries may still have been uncertain.  The Irish were still going to accept our driving licenses. We have yearlong and worldwide travel and car insurance anyway. 

Of course Brexit hasn’t happened yet. We found the Irish just as cheerful, friendly and helpful as we’ve always found them though couple of them did say “Take your Brexit back with you.” It was a bit of relief watching the Irish news. Naturally they are also concerned about Brexit but they also focussed on other items.  

We were lucky with the weather. It rained for most of one day and there were a couple of showers on other days. The rest of the time, however, it was warm and sunny but not hot. Ideal for boat trips, visiting old castles and interesting walks. 

We also enjoyed a pleasant evening of good food, Guinness and Irish music.
I always do some work on holiday: does one actually need a holiday when you do what you love?  I think you do, so that you can get things into perspective.  Still, I did some writing and editing. And I gained some ideas for stories: one paranormal and two about feisty women.              

News about my writing

Not a lot new here: I’m ploughing on with 240 X 70, Peace Child 4 (The House of Clementine) and Not Just Fluffy Bunnies, my non-fiction text about the darker side of children’s literature, seems more neutral.
On the short story front I’ve written Bus Stop, a story about an incident at a bus stop. I’m currently trying to place it. It has been rejected once to date.  
         

Catalogue of books for children

There are no new additions this month. This is partly because as we were away I was reading from my Kindle and though there are some young adult texts on there they didn’t come to the top of the list. However, at the moment I am reading a children’s book by David Almond and that will be added to the catalogue soon.     

Current reading recommendation

It was difficult to decide again which book was the best one in September. However, I’ve opted for an unusual text: Will Self’s Umbrella. It’s not an easy read. The point of view shifts quite often and the characters flitter between the past and the present. There are no chapters and few paragraph breaks. It deals with mental illness, abuse and relationships gone wrong. This is one I read on holiday. I always read a lot when I’m on holiday and then I read intensely. This book needs that. It also requires a good deal of concentration.  It is worth it! You’ll find it here.  

Giveaway

This month I’m giving away mob-file copies of my flash fiction collection 140 X 140. These are 140 stories, each 140 words long.  The title of each includes the date on which it was written.  Each story is a response to the first picture I saw on Twitter on the day of the story. Note, my 280 X 70 that I’m currently working on does something very similar!    

Get your free mobi-file for your Kindle and lots of other goodies here.
Note, that normally my books and the books supplied by the imprints I manage sell for anything from £0.99 to £10.99, with most on Kindle being about £2.99 and the average price for paperback being £7.00. We have to allow our writers to make a living. But I’m offering these free samples so that you can try before you buy.   
Naturally I welcome reviews.

 

The Schellberg Project

The posts may be helpful for teachers who are familiar with the Schellberg stories or who are teaching about the Holocaust.
This month I’ve added a post about Käthe Edler becoming English. She came over to England as a young mother in 1939.
   
You can read the post here.      

 

School visits

I’m still promoting my school visits associated with The House on Schellberg Street project. I’ve now developed a whole workshop for this. It starts off with a board game, includes some role play and creative writing and ends with a discussion.
It is now possible to purchase the kit to work on on your own. Find details here.
Costs for my workshops = travel expenses plus £400 for a full day and £200 for a half day. This includes all materials and some freebies. Two schools near to each other might consider splitting the day and halving the travel expenses and fees. This is open to negotiation in any case.       
I also offer a free half day visit, though you pay my travel expenses, if you allow me to promote my books.      
I’m continuously adding materials for schools to the site that are different from the ones I use for the workshops. I’ve recently added in resources and books to do with the topic. See them here:      
Query for a school visit here.
I’m also happy to tailor a visit for your agreed donation. This can be for either a Schellberg Cycle visit or a creative writing workshop. Any monies raised this way will go specifically to a project I have for a non-fiction book about a journey that will follow the footsteps of Clara Lehrs. I’m hoping to do the whole journey by train, including departing via my nearest Metrolink station. It’s important to feel the rails beneath my feet.       
I offer as well standard author visits which include readings from my books, Q & A sessions and creative writing exercises.
Please remember, with these as well, I’m open to negotiation if you can’t afford the full price.

 

Some notes about my newsletters and blogs

They do overlap a little but here is a summary of what they all do.

Bridge House Authors For all those published by Bridge House, CaféLit, Chapeltown or The Red Telephone or interested in being published by us. General news about the imprints. News for writers. Links to book performance. Sign up here.

Chapeltown Books News about our books. Sign up here.

The Creative Café Project News about the project and CaféLit – for the consumer rather than for the producer.  Sign up here.   

Gill’s News: News about my writing, The Schellberg Project, School Visits and Events. Find it here.   

Opportunities List Remember I keep a full list of vetted opportunities on my writing blog. See them here. New ones are added several times a day. Roughly once a month I go through it and take out all of the out of date ones. At that point I send it out to a list. If you would like to be on that list, sign up here.  


Pushing Boundaries, Flying Higher News about conferences and workshops to do with the young adult novel. (infrequent postings) Sign up here.  

Red Telephone Books News about our books and our authors. Sign up here.

A Publisher’s Perspective Here I blog as a publisher. Access this here.   

The Creative Café Project Listings and reviews of creative cafés. See them here.   

CaféLit Stories Find these here

Gill James Writer All about writing and about my books. View this here.

Gill’s Recommended Reads Find information here about books that have taken me out of my editor’s head.   

Gill’s Sample Fiction Read some of my fiction here.

The House on Schellberg Street All about my Schellberg project. Read it here.

Writing Teacher All about teaching creative writing.  Some creative writing exercises. Access this here.     

Books Books Books Weekly offers on our books and news of new books. Find them here. 

Happy reading and writing.