Monday, April 28, 2008

Addition - Toni Jordan

A bit of a departure for me, reading something contemporary - this novel only came out last month! I read the blurb for it in the Waterstones magazine (it was part of their “new voices” promotion) and thought it sounded brilliant. I wasn’t remotely disappointed - it IS brilliant.

The main character, Grace, is obsessed with counting things. What this book does is show you the world through Grace’s eyes – through which her obsession makes perfect sense. And it works; everything is well enough described that you get into the character. What also makes Grace such a great character is that she has no pretensions; she has the courage to see the world as it is, not as everyone else says we should. The book’s matter-of-fact style fits Grace’s character very well.

On the whole, it’s a happy story – while Grace understands the restrictions her condition places on her life. I did find the two chapters where she’s on antipsychotic drugs really disturbing, but that’s kind of the point. For me they contained a strong parallel with the strong feelings I have on the ADHD / Ritalin debate.

I guess I responded particularly to Grace, the quirky protagonist, because I’m a bit weird myself - weird, I think, being a word that’s used for people who see no value in conforming to other people’s expectations just for the sake of it. The story is about embracing who you are, accepting being different.

It’s a fairly simple story – by the nature of it, Grace’s world doesn’t have room for many other people, but the people she knows are all convincing characters, as she is. The boyfriend she meets is sympathetic, but in a believable way. Grace’s psychiatrist sees medication as a way of making Grace’s world a happier place – within her own narrow perception of happiness; very believable. Most of the story is about Grace, her world, her life. Everyday things seen through Grace’s particular viewpoint. But that is also part of the charm of the book. Like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, this book is a hymn to the everyday.


Reading Journal: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I was recommended to read this book as part of a lent course at church. The course talked about weaving faith into everyday life, and gave as an example the way that Solzhenitsyn (and a couple of other Russian writers) do this in their work. They suggested several books including War and Peace, but I went for this one as it’s very short!

I found this book really uplifting. Yes, it’s about a guy who lives in a forced labour camp in some very cold part of Russia during the Stalin era. But it’s a happy book: the day that it describes is a happy day. Even in that situation, the main character has found happiness; and in simple things (work, bread) that many of us take for granted. How inspiring.

I loved the bits describing the inmates at work. The main character finds work fulfilling, as I do. For him, it’s a form of escape from camp life. It reminded me of the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free) on the gates at Auschwitz. In that context, sick; in the context of this book, it makes sense. The book also portrays the way the men develop a strong team spirit; they have to in order to survive. When they work, each has his different role, each of them makes a contribution.

I liked the way the book expressed faith. Not in a preachy way at all, but more in terms of what faith does for people. One of the characters is a Baptist. He tries to live out Paul’s writing that imprisonment helps him to focus on his faith; he’s quiet and happy. But I also found that the general attitude to imprisonment, materialism, and work was something that as a Christian I should really aspire to – even if it’s not expressed in Christian terms. All the better because it’s not, actually. I was challenged particularly by this, that maybe I should try to do the same in my writing. It’s certainly inspired a couple of the scenes in “Rain”.

I love the way this book shows humanity at its best and worst, and both faces are totally recognizable. I’ve never been in a labour camp but still, many of the details felt familiar. Parts reminded me of school: being given work details on detention, scrounging for crisps from other students or doing errands for them. Parts reminded me of work: one character gets a parcel from his family, and has to give bits of it to umpteen people along the way to ensure that he sees the parcel at all; at work, people like me do work that other companies pay for (I write software), and then a whole bunch of other people in the company (finance, account managers, marketing, CEO, …) take a cut of that money.

Yes, I loved this book and I have already recommended it to loads of people. In some way it’s probably changed my life.

Meta-note: I’ve read a few books recently (three in the last week!) and I thought it would be good to start keeping track of what books I read and what I think of them. Maybe even what I’ve learned from them. This isn’t like writing book reviews - if you want to know what any of these books are about and whether they’re any good, you’ll probably find loads of proper, objective reviews online. These are the exact opposite – this is what the book said to me.

Of course I reserve the right to give up posting these when I’ve got bored with it and not to mention any titles I’m embarrassed about.


Friday, April 18, 2008


A couple of posts ago, I talked about my experience during last year’s inaugural ScriptFrenzy, and in particular about the experience of co-writing with a complete stranger. I asked the question: would I do it again.

Well, the answer is yes. This year I’m doing ScriptFrenzy again, and once again, I thought it would be fun to write with a complete stranger on the other side of the world. And I am having the best time ever!

To start with, I should explain what we’re writing. A lot of my favourite films have very tight casts and settings: The Breakfast Club, Twelve Angry Men. I also loved Before Sunrise and The Rear Window. So a year or so ago, I had this idea for a film, which was basically this: Two people meet when they both take shelter from the rain in a phonebox. They meet, they chat … and that’s it. It ends with the sun coming out and them walking away.

Clearly, I’m clinically insane. I thought it would make an amazing film, done well; but I knew it had to be well written otherwise it would be awful; and I was worried that if I tried it, I’d run out of material after 15 minutes. Still, I posted the idea on the ScriptFrenzy website, mentioned that I was looking for a co-writer, and added that I was quite happy to junk the idea if a potential co-writer thought it was dumb.

What actually happened was I got a message back from someone who said she’d love to try to write the phonebox story, as long as we could make it a stageplay. I figured that was a fair compromise, and off we went.

The experience has been nothing short of amazing. We’ve had a great time chatting about it, throwing ideas around. We’ve not agreed on everything, but I can say categorically that the play is much, much better for my co-writer’s input – and hopefully she’d say the same (he says modestly). It definitely feels like the "whole" of our little team is bigger than the sum of the parts.

Not only did we have great fun with the ideas, we’ve both written loads. In fact, we reached the magical 100 page mark on Sunday morning – only April 13th, less than half way through the month. I’m amazed at how productive we’ve both been – it has been truly a joint effort.

And we’re not finished! No sooner had we spent a day basking in the glory of what we’d written than we both found areas (different areas) we felt could be improved, and went back to set about re-writing them.

And is it any good? Well, we haven’t finished yet, and the revision is making it much better. But there are some great moments in it. And the main thing for me is that it actually works. I had this mad idea of a whole script with just two people in a phone box. I never thought I could make it work – make it interesting. But between two of us, we have.

Two people in a phonebox. How on earth could that be interesting? Well, that’s the best thing. Because, in my experience, to my belief, there is nothing more interesting than another human being. And when you strip away everything else – a set smaller than Hitchcock's Lifeboat, two characters, no special effects – all that is left is two people laid bare.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Last November, I wrote another novel, currently titled Home. It is my fourth novel. That sounds so funny. The basic idea was to write a contemporary reworking of Persuasion, only from the guy's point of view. The main character returns home after 10 years having made a successful career as an architect, only to bump into the woman who dumped him when he was 17, when she was at university and he was only at school. It draws on some of my experiences of going back "home" and finding that the place has changed, and the town I grew up in and that I remember no longer exists. The main character finds the same is true of people. He has to make a choice between living in the past or moving forwards, and to decide what that means in his situation.

I had a great time writing it. The final story is a long way from the original Persuasion; but then, that was the point. And I think it’s my best yet. At 63,000 words it’s certainly my longest. But when I say my best yet, I have to put that in context: I still wouldn’t dare insult any real writer by comparing it with the quality of stuff that actually gets published.

Every year after I’ve done NaNoWriMo, I’ve looked back on what I’ve written and thought about all the things that were really dreadful, the things that would be done so much better in a real, published novel. Then the next year as I write, I think about those things and try to do them better. I didn’t do NaNo with the intention of improving my writing, but I’m sure it’s really helped. It’s also got me reading books on writing, discussing ideas on forums, and various other things, all of which help. Not to mention reading more critically, and generally being a little more aware of what makes good writing good (i.e. better than mine).

This year also marked a first in that I actually dared to sit down and read the whole thing through after I'd written it. I've never done that before. It wasn’t too painful; there were lots of bits I really liked. One day I must look at my first NaNo and see how far I've come! I also sent the whole thing off to a couple of other people to read, another first. So far, two of them have managed to finish it (particular thanks to SomSom who read it first).

In the back of my mind there’s now this thought that if I keep writing and improving, I might one day write something worth reading or even publishing. Then I’d have to decide if that was even what I wanted – all that work revising, re-reading, trying to interest agents or publishers. I can’t see it somehow. Yes, I always wanted to do something creative for a living, even if I thought it would be music rather than writing. But actually, I really enjoy my day job – I like making software that works. Why should I aspire to giving up the day job? It’s easy to say that now, but I bet if I did write something I thought was worthwhile, I’d feel the need to get some kind of “recognition” for it. Curse my vanity.

Still - that’s not really something I need to worry about in the foreseeable future.