Monday, 19 January 2015

Shadows in Story Structure

I was fortunate to have as a mentor a story editor who was a Jungian. We had a number of discussions about the Jungian concept of the shadow and its importance to writers, which I hope to capture here. But first let me just point out the Shadows that feature in my Healer's Shadow trilogy are not Jungian shadows.

Are you sometimes surprised and ashamed by your own behaviour? Do you say "I don't know what came over me. It was so unlike me..."? Do you sometimes take an immediate dislike to a complete stranger? Now don't lie - of course you do, we all do.

So what's happening? And how is this relevant to the storyteller's art?

What is happening is that your shadow is showing itself. According to Carl Jung, who coined the phrase: Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. As children we learn (and are taught by our parents and society) that certain behaviours are unacceptable and these we repress - jealousy, prejudice, anger, greed, certain sexual fantasies. They haven't gone away, they have been thrust into the subconscious and form our shadows. They stay in the dark waiting to burst forth. They do this in our dreams, at times of stress and as projections on to others. So when we say, "It was so unlike me," alas that isn't true, it is like us, because our shadow is part of us, but we are blind to it.

How is this relevant to us as writers? Well for several reasons:

Firstly the tension between the subconscious shadow and our conscious projected selves is at the heart of drama. The shadow could be said to be the hero's fatal flaw. Remember that the shadow emerges at times of stress and inevitably that means that it will appear when our protagonists are under pressure. These outbursts will often put the protagonist in danger, as it does for example, with a heroine who keeps falling for dangerous men. Or at the very least they will result in the protagonist hurting those who love her. An understanding of the shadow helps us to create fully formed characters and to place them in danger. In some books the conflict between the shadow and the conscious self is externalized - most obviously in Jekyll and Hyde and The Wizard of Earthsea.

Secondly the encounter with the shadow is part of the story structure. Jung's analysis of myths and fairytales, which informed his development of the shadow, was further developed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and this in turn was popularized in Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. The hero's journey is divided into a series of key stages, in which the encounter with the hero's shadow is core. The reasons for this are various. Maturity requires an acknowledgement of the shadow within us, so facing the shadow is part of the hero's maturation. The shadow can contain not only negative aspects but also one's true potential and so the hero gains the treasure that he seeks. Furthermore our antagonist and our protagonist are linked psychologically. As one can project on to others elements of one's own shadow, so an antagonist is likely to display elements of the protagonist's shadow, and when the hero confronts the antagonist he is confronting his own shadow at least in part.

Thirdly I have spoken so far only about the individual's shadow, but civilizations also have shadows. These collective shadows express themselve through wars and persecutions of minorities. We carry within us a mix of our personal shadow and the collective darkness. It is the reason why we can behave so out of character when in a group. If your novel is concerned with such matters, it helps to understand this.

The shadow then is central to conflict in any story. I was hugely excited when I discovered this truth and I hope this post helps you understand the shadow better.

A version of this article first appeared on the now defunct Indie Exchange website.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Adventures in the Czech Republic: Christmas Celebrations in the Czech Republic

For several years I have been writing a blog about my experiences in the Czech Republic. Here is a recent post:

Adventures in the Czech Republic: Christmas Celebrations in the Czech Republic: I am in Britain and it feels very strange. Normally I am able to have two Christmases - the Czech and the British. That is because the ...

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Poetry New Year Resolution

For my magic realism review blog I recently read and reviewed Larque On The Wing by Nancy Springer. In it a middle-aged woman is forced to confront her 10-year old self. The child reminds the woman of the early dreams and aspirations that she has abandoned. It made me think what that girl in the centre of the photo above would have thought of the adult me. That Zoe was confident in her ability as a poet with reason. By the time I was 13 I had been published and was getting noticed. I had no fear about what I wrote, no self doubts. I took the plaudits without embarrassment or question. When the Director of the Cheltenham Literature Festival told me that Philip Larkin, no less, had said I was the best young poet in Britain, I was pleased but not surprised. I didn't realize what a big deal it was and made no effort to get that in writing. How many times have I regretted that since!

What happened? Well - life in many ways. My gift was too easy, too natural. It came and went without my being in control. I can go for years without writing a poem and trying to force it just doesn't seem to work. I have intermittently written several major pieces of poetry in a flurry of white-hot words, sufficient to make a body of work, but there are long periods of non-production. These periods were filled with career, motherhood and all the other joyous demands on my attention. But shouldn't I also be doing something about placing my poetry in the public domain?

Two years ago I had a serious and life-threatening health emergency. I had always thought that I had time to promote my work, but as I lay in the hospital bed hitched to a monitor it was pretty clear that that was a false assumption. I published one of my long poems for voices - Fool's Paradise - as an ebook with Amazon and won the EPIC (Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition) award for best poetry book in 2013, but it isn't getting to the readership I would like.

As a poet I am very aware that even the books of the most successful poets have limited print-runs, so effectively giving away my work doesn't worry me.  But what must I do to reach out and make my audience aware of my presence? It means going public, of marketing, of pushing my work and that does not come easily. How I wish I had that young girl beside me, to give me the confidence and the necessary chutzpah I find I am so lacking now. Ironically it is not that I doubt the quality of what I have written, I have never lost that inner belief. It is the translation of that into some public action that is so difficult. So here is a New Year Resolution - I will get off my insecure butt and face this. I am not yet sure how, but I will do something.

Monday, 24 November 2014

First-Person Narrative Some Issues

"Reader, I married him."

One of my favourite books and certainly one of the most influential on me as a writer is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I loved that book as a teenager and I still do. The narrator of the book is Jane herself and she speaks directly to me and the millions of Bronte's fans. There is something wonderful about the way the character engages us in her story: it is as if Jane is in the room with us. She is as honest a narrator as she is a character and you are immediately on her side. That immediacy is one of the strengths of first-person narration. But there are downsides, as I discovered when I wrote my trilogy The Healer's Shadow.

I soon discovered that not all readers are fans of first-person narration. One reviewer told me categorically that she didn't like first-person narration because there was no suspense - she knew that the hero/heroine would survive to the end of the book. Actually that isn't always true, but I can understand where she was coming from.

I also discovered that not everyone understands some of the devices and rules of first-person narration. One criticism my book Girl in the Glass has occasionally received is that the tense sometimes changes to the present, even though the majority of the book is written in the past tense. This happens when the central character is talking about an incident which is particularly vivid to her. This is acceptable in a first-person narrative, because the narration is reflecting what happens in real speech. When we start to relive the past, we will often start talking in the present tense. I could play safe and not shift tenses, but I feel that loses something.  

I was reminded of the problems of first-person narration recently because I was reading a lovely book also written in the first person - When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld. The problem first-person narration gives a writer is that you can't jump out of the head of the narrator and into someone else's, which means that the story is filtered by what the narrator can see and know. At the macro level this means either the narrator has to see what happens or be told it by someone else who has seen it. Some readers (and reviewers) believe that a good book explains everything at the end - they want to understand the motivation of all the main characters, they want to know what happened to so-and-so who leaves the narrator's world at the end of part one. If you are using a first-person narrator you will either disappoint them or create a narrator whose omniscience is not credible. Be honest - do you understand your own motivation, let alone anyone else's?

Of course there is an upside to this problem and that is the games you can play with your narrator misinterpreting other characters and circumstances: an unreliable narrator as they say in the trade. It does seem to me that all narrators should be unreliable (to varying degrees) if they are human beings. My central character regularly gets things wrong and part of her character arc over the trilogy is how she comes to realize how wrong she has been.

On the micro level there are certain things that I have learned to look out for when I am going over my books. The most obvious of these are descriptions of things that are not visible to the narrator. These can be quite minor, but I find they can jolt me out of the first-person narrator's consciousness. Another issue I try to tackle is the overuse of phrases such as "I saw", "I heard" "I tasted" etc. In a way they are redundant in the first person - of course I saw it, I wouldn't be describing it otherwise. There is a very real danger that you will overuse the word "I" in first-person narration, which is just as off-putting in a novel as when you are listening to someone. First-person narration's very strength - its immediacy - can be negated by the overuse of the word.

First-person narration is a minefield for the writer. As I have outlined above, you will alienate some of readers just by using it, and others you will upset because of the limitations of the first-person narrative. There are even some agents who refuse to accept manuscripts written in the first person, but then some of the most successful books ever written recently and in the past have had a first-person narrator.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What Magic Realism Means to Me

I am running a magic realism bloghop again this year. Some twenty blogs are signed up to take part and if last year's bloghop is anything to go by, there will be some fascinating posts.

Over on the Magic Realism Books blog I have scheduled posts about magic realist fiction available free from the web, about useful magic realism resources and a review of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, which features on all the magic realism lists as one of the most important magic realist books ever written and is one of my all-time favourite books. Despite having written three posts for my other blog I want to write a more personal post here on my personal blog about what magic realism means to me.

Of course there is good and bad magic realism, magic realist books that last for ever in your mind and others that are easily forgotten. But as a general rule I find that the magic realist approach to portraying the world is one that I respond to and I recognize that it reflects my own experience. That is not to say that I have seen people ascend to heaven, been followed by crowds of butterflies when I fell in love or watched a relative turn into an item of furniture. But rather that I believe in allegory and metaphor, in imagery, in archetypes and in a heightened awareness that extends beyond "physical" reality.

For me, realism is overestimated. It excludes the profound. It does not allow my soul to soar. Nor does it take me to the depths beyond pain. I am and have always been a poet and a bit of a mystic. For a while, as a student, I neglected that side of my personality in favour of the rational and the academic. I stopped writing. It didn't last. The subconscious has a way of hitting back and my health suffered. Unable to think straight because of the pain, my reason dropped away and I was left with only instinct and intuition to fall back on - magic one might say. The poetry came flooding back. Here is part of the concluding section of a long poem I wrote at that time:

With pain falls silence.
Words fail reason,
Take on the form of dance
On unseen feet to unseen rhythms.
The silence of snow
Falls crystalline, smoothing out edges,
Curving the landscape into circles -
Roundel and bergomask.
But these dancers do not beat sticks,
Wear bells on ankles, shout "Hoy"
Or bow, kiss fingers
And place hands on whale-boned waists.
This is an older dance.
Its steps are preconditioned
By greater things than reason.
We return to an earlier silence,
A silence that is in the centre 
Of the hurricane.
We return to the wind
That has rung hollow in our bones
And gone unheeded
Like the calling of ghosts.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Cover as Writing Aid

I find that working on the cover image of my book helps me work on the text itself. Right now I  need clarify my feelings about the book.  

The book's working name is Mud and it is set in modern Prague. At first I was playing with classic images of Prague - Charles Bridge and moody spires, but they didn't feel right. For starters the story isn't set in tourist Prague, but in the lovely but less well-known area of Holesovice. But I didn't want to identify that area particularly.

One of the reasons for playing with the cover is that it helps me identify my audience and genre. For many writers that is easy, but I write magic realism which isn't easy to slot into genres and can appeal to a range of audiences. The book is partly a psychological mystery (a main character is a Czech detective) and partly paranormal (the book touches on the Golem legend). I searched for books of these genres with a reference to Prague and got a load of books with moody spires or darkened streets. Maybe I should copy them - if it works... But I don't want to. 

I wanted a moody picture but not a conventional one. So I wrote down the key elements of the book. They were:
  • the extreme storms and floods of 2013,
  • the Golem 
  • Prague
  • missing female
  • male detective.
Then I searched for photos on which had combinations of the above phrases. It didn't work until I used the word "rain" and "Prague". That generated a photo by Czech photographer, Jaromír Chalabala. I clicked on his name and there was this photo:

 It was just what I was looking for.  There's even a hint of a Golem in those reflections, don't you think?

Now all I've got to do is finish writing the book! 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Write What You Know

"Write what you know" is a piece of advice to new writers that can be very inhibiting. What do we know? If writers restrict themselves to writing about their experience, we would have a lot of boring books about humdrum lives. Whole genres would not exist: fantasy, science fiction, paranormal. But there is a grain of truth in the saying. We should write what is real, even if what we write is fantasy. So how do writers do that? This is a question that fascinates me.

In some cases the answer is obvious: Tolkien may have been living the quiet life of an academic in Oxford, but he was a world expert on Anglo Saxon and Norse mythology. However the Lord of the Rings is more than a rehash of old stories. The book is seen through the eyes of the hobbits. Their tale is profoundly influenced by Tolkien’s experience as a young officer in the trenches of World War I. The hobbits are the British regular soldiers, whose stoicism and good humour Tolkien so admired. As an officer Tolkien had led them over the top into the Mordor-like landscape of no-man’s land. They bring a sense of reality to the book.

Most writers do not have such rich personal sources on which to draw. But we do have the reality of our fantasies. We can take that reality and spin it into something much larger. The Bronte sisters’ novels are a good example of this.

I have three main sources of inspiration for my novels. Mother of Wolves was a historical fantasy novel, so clearly history is a massive source of material for me. History gives an almost unlimited range of themes, settings and storylines. For Mother of Wolves I drew on the history of the persecution of the romanies (gypsies) in Europe. I discovered that in the 18th century they were hunted by men with dogs and guns as if gyspies were simply vermin. Such a hunt features in my book. The central character is a woman who rises to be a gypsy queen, so I used the examples of great women leaders, such as Boudicca and Elizabeth I, to help me understand what it takes to be such a woman. As these women are extraordinary, I could never hope to meet one in person.

The second source is the landscapes, towns and peoples of the world. Travel can be a great aid to the writer, but it is also possible to use the landscapes of one’s homeland and elaborate them. In my magic-realism book Girl in the Glass I created a fictional city. The city is a large port set on several hills and on one hill stands a university which lives in an uneasy relationship with the rest of the city. I have been asked which city it is based on, as it seemed so real to the reader. The answer is that it is several cities combined: Istanbul, Oxford, Victorian London to name three. In Mother of Wolves I came closer to home and set the story along a fictional river, which was based on an enlarged River Severn and the history of the people along its banks.

The third source is my personal experience and those of people I have met. I have been blessed with a loving family and a life untroubled by war, disease or other misfortune, but for about twenty years I worked with people on the margins of society. I am able to draw from their stories of fleeing their homes and countries, of persecution, of homelessness. I’d like to think that I don’t just use them, but I am a writer and writers will find inspiration everywhere.

So should a writer follow the advice "Write what you know"? If we read, study, travel and listen, what we "know" is only limited by our capacity to understand.