Thursday, 18 August 2016

What's In A Novel's Title? Some Famous Alternatives

It seems that a good book title is almost as important as a good book cover.

When my first publisher and editor at PaperBooks, Keirsten Clark, changed the title of The Snowing and Greening of Tom Passmore to The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, it didn't take long to weigh up the benefits of having a more rhythmic metre to the title against the less formal use of his name. After all, my aim was to make the prose in this novel as lyrical as possible and, besides, the reader would soon find out, through reading his story, how his friends called him Tom and only officials and his estranged family called him Thomas. And so I happily went with it. 

Sometimes I've wondered whether The Grease Monkey's Tale wasn't catchy enough as a title and whether it might have reached a wider audience if it had been called something else - it certainly hasn't done as well as Snowing and Greening - but then I've never come up with an alternative title I like as much.

With these thoughts in mind, I was interested to read this item at Jonkers Rare Books on Working Titles of Famous Novels. I can't imagine feeling the same way about The Great Gatsby if it had retained its original title: Trimalchio in West Egg. As for 1984...


Saturday, 11 June 2016

A Second Run for Virtual Reality

Pleased to announce that, following the three sell-out performances of one act plays last February, Port Fairy Theatre Group have chosen to present my comedy, Virtual Reality, once again, but this time as part of the Winter Weekend festivities. It'll be a two-play evening on this occasion, with Garbage, the accompanying play, and will be performed at the Lecture Hall theatre on the evening of Saturday 23rd July and afternoon of Sunday 24th July.

The seven weekends of winter festivities began last night with exhibitions, films, concerts, light projections around the town and a few glasses of mulled wine. Further details of all activities across each of the weekends can be found at http://www.portfairywinterweekends.com.au/ .

Tickets for the plays are available via the website, the Visitor Information Centre and possibly on the door (although they sold out ahead of the evening last time). 

Depending on where you live:     Break a leg!     Merde!     or     Chookas!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Writers Victoria Salon in Warrnambool - Invitation

Writers Victoria extends an invitation to local writers, which I happily pass on:

"Join us in Warrnambool as we invoke the grand tradition of literary salons without the pretence. Share your work or success stories in our two-minute rapid fire Speed Celebration, delight in conversation with fellow writers and enjoy a brief talk from visiting author Leanne Hall.
The Salon is FREE but bookings are essential."

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

First Five - A Season of Short Plays

The last time I wrote a play for performance was when I was a student at Kingston Poly in London, reading Literature, History, Philosophy, Politics... that sort of thing.  I didn't actually write the entire play, but was part of a group of budding authors who all contributed, under the mentorship of playwright and writer-in-residence, Olwen Wymark.  She listened to our ideas, interpreted them, gave them shape and ultimately did the bulk of the writing.  We ended up with a play called The Encounter, about an Encounter Group meeting which is busted by the police, and I don't remember much more about it than that, except I was somehow conned into performing the role of a detective during its performance.

Last year, however, a few other writers and myself were invited to each write a short, one act play for the Port Fairy Theatre Group.  I hadn't a clue what I'd end up with when I agreed, but certainly didn't think it'd turn out as a comedy, nor that my interpretation of 'short' was a little longer than other people's interpretations.  Be that as it may, Virtual Reality and four other plays are being performed in the Port Fairy Lecture Hall, Sackville Street, on Friday 26th February (7:30 pm), Saturday 27th February (7:30 pm) and Sunday 28th February (2:00 pm).  Tickets available from the Visitor Information Centre or online from Trybooking.com/KGSD.  Further details above.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Once Upon A Land In A Time Far, Far Away

What makes the best first sentence for a novel?

Authors and publishers strive for openings that hook the reader and start reeling them in: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page... all the way through to the last line.  But while there are many ways of casting that first sentence, it isn't unusual for an author to start a story by acknowledging there is no such place as a beginning.

George Eliot does precisely this with the opening motto to Daniel Deronda (1876): 'Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.'

And Graham Greene has his narrator, Maurice Bendrix, begin The End of the Affair (1951) with the observation: 'A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look forward.' 

Such statements might be seen as leaning towards the Dear Reader equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, but Italo Calvino embraces this element of metafiction with the decisiveness of a sledge hammer in his opening sentence to If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979): 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.'  Smash!

Alexandre Dumas, père, knew how to string out a sentence, and though it may well have appealed to a nineteenth century reader, at 148 words, the opening to The Black Tulip [La Tulipe Noir] (1850) may feel torturous to modern readers: 'On the 20th August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cuppolas are reflected, - the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting and  restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.'

Charles Dickens was no slack when it came to long sentences either, but at least the opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) draws on rhetoric and rhythm as bait for the hook: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Of course, art borrows from art, builds on it, gives the occasional nod to what's come before, and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) appears to doff its hat to A Tale of Two Cities with its first paragraph: 'This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying... but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice... but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks... but nobody loved it.'

The Bible has provided one or two memorable lines across the centuries, but the opening of the Book of John (New Testament) builds on a sentence stem that remains popular to this day: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  Literature offers many variations of this simple opening (From the very beginning... Ever since the beginning... It began with...), although Hermann Hesse directly references the Bible (and possibly takes a stab at it) in opening Peter Camenzind (1904) with: 'In the beginning was the myth.'

Articles about first lines in novels are not uncommon, although most of these tend to draw their examples from such a limited pool of classics that it’s now possible to recognise where they originate without ever having read the novel in question.  For example, few people would fail to recognise the source of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' or 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'

On the whole, novelists seem to favour first sentences that establish either a sense of place, situation and character, or that create intrigue through ambiguity.  John Fowles chooses the former in The Magus (1966/1977): 'I was born in 1927, the only child of middle class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.'  As does Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner (2003): 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.'  It can also be seen in Nick Hornby's How to be Good (2001): 'I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him anymore.'  And in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002): 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.' While in Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Jessica Anderson establishes the particular, if only to dismiss it: 'I arrive at the house wearing a suit - greyish, it doesn't matter.' 

It would be a surprise if Kurt Vonnegut's  Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) began in any other way than with an ambiguity: 'All this happened, more or less.'  And the first line to The Go-Between (1953) by L.P.Hartley remains a favourite in this category: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'  But perhaps the most effective first lines are those which both establish a sense of place, situation and character at the same time as creating a keen intrigue.

Mark Haddon achieves this in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), not so much with the opening sentence ('It was 7 minutes after midnight.'), but by choosing to begin the novel with Chapter 2 rather than Chapter 1. 

Ralph Ellison's opening 'I am an invisible man' is powerful, except the impact on the reader is somewhat diminished for this information having already been revealed in the book's title: Invisible Man (1952).

But one of the most effective opening sentences of all time, as far as using a range of strategies to hook the reader, still belongs to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis [Die Verwandlung] (1915): 'When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.'

While Charles Bukowski creates a memorable first line in Post Office (1971) with 'It began as a mistake', it is the final paragraph of this novel that remains one of my favourites, and although final paragraphs don't generate as much publicity as first lines - after all, the reader has been well and truly reeled in by that point - it seems an appropriate, Happy Ever After place to end this particular piece: 'In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.  Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did.' 

Happy reading!

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Big Questions

One of the things I love about literature is its ability to ask the big questions in life.

This from Cyanide & Happiness (explosm.net) has got me in a state of existential angst out of empathy for gingerbread people everywhere.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Bad Sex awards (continued)

And the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is... well, I'll let you check out the Literary Review's site for yourself.

It would be interesting to know whether this award boosts sales of the nominated books or not. Hmm, I wonder.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Good sex, bad sex

Good sex can be hard to write, or so it seems. It's certainly hard to please the critics, but then everyone probably has a different idea of what a good sex scene looks like, sounds like, reads like, feels like. It's become increasingly difficult to write sex in a novel without being mindful of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, and to not tremble at the knees slightly... in anticipation of being damned. These aren't quite the literary equivalent of the Darwin Awards, although they might feel that way to some authors. Nonetheless, there's usually a fair bit of purple prose floundering about in the nominated extracts, and they're always good for a read. Enjoy.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Angela Carter - always fireworks

Angela Carter is one of those writers I keep coming back to. I love the rich density of her prose.  The Company of Wolves is one of my all-time favourite short stories.  Her prose is like reading the best poetry.  Not the sort of poetry that seems deliberately inaccessible, as if this somehow proves a poet's worth, but because her sentences - her paragraphs - allow themselves to be peeled back, like a lover's clothes, layer after layer, to reveal the finest, most delicate of truths.

I recently highlighted this final paragraph from her short story A Souvenir of Japan, which appears in the Fireworks anthology:
So we lived under a disorientated moon which was as angry a purple as if the sky had bruised its eye, and, if we made certain genuine intersections, these only took place in darkness.  His contagious conviction that our love was unique and desperate infected me with an anxious sickness; soon we would learn to treat one another with the circumspect tenderness of comrades who are amputees, for we were surrounded by the most moving images of evanescence, fireworks, morning glories, the old, children.  But the most moving of these images were the intangible reflections of ourselves we saw in one another's eyes, reflections of nothing but appearances, in a city dedicated to seeming, and, try as we might to possess the essence of each other's otherness, we would inevitably fail.