Tag Archives: novel

Reality and character

I’ve been thinking a lot about reality, lately. Especially now, with all this talk of new normal against a backdrop of online shenanigans, decision making on coronavirus lockdown measures via news management and even threats from the POTUS to close down social media companies in retaliation to precisely the use of the kinds of moderation measures that make their platforms safe and reliable for people to use.

The core concept of my current work in progress centres (so far) on the issues of power and control that new tech throws up. Specifically, I’m looking at political and corporate power and the hold these have over people’s realities. How the powers that be control reality, sometimes for the greater good and sometimes for other reasons.

But I’ve been thinking. The draft I’m working on is too dry. There isn’t enough on the characters’ own journeys, on their hopes and fears, on the stories they tell about themselves, and the ones they want to hide…So,  maybe the novel should be more of a character study, a look at the power people have over how they present themselves.

Freud said that our sense of self was made up of the ego, the superego, and the ID. The ego is how we present ourselves, the superego the reasoning part of us – the voice of reason inside our heads – and the ID is the animalistic, instinctive part. Without consequence, people aren’t afraid of letting rip, and the ID takes over. In a virtual reality, what are the real-world consequences of our actions? If we already allow ourselves to behave on social media in a manner we wouldn’t dream of in real life, how much more extreme could this be in a VR? Many of us have seen our children, in lockdown, live entirely new lives out on Roblox, Sims, CIVs and other VRs, where they behave like terrifying mini dictators. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Looking at the kids, and then turning my thoughts to my work in progress, this throws up lots of questions. Considering the ego, superego and the ID, which of these come more into play outside a VR and which are more dominant inside it? Are the characters truer to their real selves inside the VR, unfettered by the bounds of presenting a picture of how they wish to be seen to the outside world? And if so, what are the implications of this?

Furthermore, there’s the question of what reality actually is. Take ‘No Exit’, for example, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre about 3 people trapped in hell. One reading of it could be that people without the context of other people don’t exist, so interaction with others makes our reality and defines us. ‘Hell is other people.’ Maybe. Maybe heaven is, too. Do we have a fundamental need for other people in order to show ourselves? As Karl Marx said in The Grundrisse (1857), ‘Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.’

So what is reality really about? To what extent are we already living in a VR? In modern society, we already have one foot in an artificial reality in that we are sometimes more about the stories we tell about ourselves. We no longer show our real selves to each other.

Could a VR, therefore, end up being more real than the real world?

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Have I written a ‘holy crap’ novel?

… or just a crap one? As my current work in progress straddles sci-fi and general fiction, this is a question which has been worrying me for some time.


Having read through a fascinating article, Holy Crap': The Flawed Notion That Novels Can Transcend Genres, about the nature and classification of genre, I’m forced to reflect: can an aspiring novelist ever write a genre-buster or is genre-straddling just a sign of inexperience?
As an avid reader of cross-genre, I’m not sure. I love Kate Atkinson, for example, and her most recent novel ‘Life after Life’, more than ever. I’m also a great fan of Milan Kundera, and I’ve just started reading a book which I’m sure is going to blow my mind, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki. She does everything I wanted to do, only better. Much better. But the very existence of a book like this is heartening. It’s a so-called ‘Holy Crap’ novel, and it is glorious!

But as an avid reader of such novels, how can I ever hope to write one without making a mess of things? One published writer I know advised me not to put all my eggs into one basket -or into one debut- as there would always be time to write different types of novels within genres. Maybe. But what if I like to read cross-genre and would like to see more of it?

Mix it up

And then there is the question of what to mix. As my 11 year old put it, ‘You can mix thriller with romance and you can mix sci-fi with thriller, but you can’t mix sci-fi with romance.’ Out of the mouths of babes…?

Or is it, as the quoted article suggests, true that ‘Genres aren’t conceptually solid enough to be transcended. Any genre is going to be made up of things that both fit and don’t, and over time those things will change and shift.’

I’d like to think so.

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Paulo Coelho’s Manual for Climbing Mountains

Kirsten and Francesco Arcadio with their guide at the top of the Corno Grande Gran Sasso

Kirsten and Francesco Arcadio with their guide at the top of the Corno Grande Gran Sasso

On a recent climb up the steep side of the Gran Sasso ‘Corno Grande’ in Abruzzo, Italy, I was reminded of Paulo Coelho’s Maunual for Climbing Mountains. It’s super relevant, not only to the subject of my work-in-progress novel, Split Symmetry, which is set on a mountain, but also to my life, and specifically to my writing progress.

In his blog, Paulo says:

“A] Choose the mountain you want to climb: don’t pay attention to what other people say, such as “that one’s more beautiful” or “this one’s easier”. You’ll be spending lots of energy and enthusiasm to reach your objective, so you’re the only one responsible and you should be sure of what you’re doing.

B] Know how to get close to it: mountains are often seen from far off – beautiful, interesting, full of challenges. But what happens when we try to draw closer? Roads run all around them, flowers grow between you and your objective, what seemed so clear on the map is tough in real life. So try all the paths and all the tracks until eventually one day you’re standing in front of the top that you yearn to reach.

C] Learn from someone who has already been up there: 
no matter how unique you feel, there is always someone who has had the same dream before you and ended up leaving marks that can make your journey easier; places to hang the rope, trails, broken branches to make the walking easier. The climb is yours, so is the responsibility, but don’t forget that the experience of others can help a lot.

D] When seen up close, dangers are controllable
: when you begin to climb the mountain of your dreams, pay attention to the surroundings. There are cliffs, of course. There are almost imperceptible cracks in the mountain rock. There are stones so polished by storms that they have become as slippery as ice. But if you know where you are placing each footstep, you will notice the traps and how to get around them.

E] The landscape changes, so enjoy it:
 of course, you have to have an objective in mind – to reach the top. But as you are going up, more things can be seen, and it’s no bother to stop now and again and enjoy the panorama around you. At every meter conquered, you can see a little further, so use this to discover things that you still had not noticed.

F] Respect your body: you can only climb a mountain if you give your body the attention it deserves. You have all the time that life grants you, as long as you walk without demanding what can’t be granted. If you go too fast you will grow tired and give up half way there. If you go too slow, night will fall and you will be lost. Enjoy the scenery, take delight in the cool spring water and the fruit that nature generously offers you, but keep on walking.

G] Respect your soul: 
don’t keep repeating “I’m going to make it”. Your soul already knows that, what it needs is to use the long journey to be able to grow, stretch along the horizon, touch the sky. An obsession does not help you at all to reach your objective, and even ends up taking the pleasure out of the climb. But pay attention: also, don’t keep saying “it’s harder than I thought”, because that will make you lose your inner strength.

H] Be prepared to climb one kilometer more: the way up to the top of the mountain is always longer than you think. Don’t fool yourself, the moment will arrive when what seemed so near is still very far. But since you were prepared to go beyond, this is not really a problem.

I] Be happy when you reach the top
: cry, clap your hands, shout to the four winds that you did it, let the wind – the wind is always blowing up there – purify your mind, refresh your tired and sweaty feet, open your eyes, clean the dust from your heart. It feels so good, what was just a dream before, a distant vision, is now part of your life, you did it!

J] Make a promise: now that you have discovered a force that you were not even aware of, tell yourself that from now on you will use this force for the rest of your days. Preferably, also promise to discover another mountain, and set off on another adventure.

L] Tell your story: yes, tell your story! Give your example. Tell everyone that it’s possible, and other people will then have the courage to face their own mountains.

taken from “LIKE THE FLOWING RIVER” (Kindle Edition)


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What you shouldn’t do in the first ten pages of your novel

Having just read another article about the biggest pitfalls to avoid in the opening pages of a story or a novel, I felt inspired to share my own list which I’ve been putting together during my novel redraft process. Most of these I’ve come across over and over again on agents’ blogs or writers’ communities. Some of them I was explicitly told not to do on my Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, which I completed earlier this year.

My top ten opening ‘no nos’

  1. No dream sequences. I did this one, as did a few of my writing course colleagues. We all – very hurriedly – rewrote after one article about agent pet hates went round our online forum
  2. No prologues. Yep, did this as well. Also now OUT
  3. Insufficient info about the main protagonist(s) (as in how old are they – my beta readers kept saying, ‘hmm thought she was about 40 but then I read on p.100 she was only 25′
  4. Too much backstory. VERY tricky to get this one right. My Faber tutor told me to put my ‘foot on the accelerator and don’t take it off for at least the first ten pages’ (so no backstory in the first chapter if possible)
  5. Protagonist looking in the mirror – BORING. And other such clichéd devices
  6. Not enough info about the story world – where, when, who, what, why. These are the basics but I was interested to see how few of them I had in the first few versions of my carefully crafted first ten pages. It seems that trying to be clever doesn’t quite work
  7. False suspense. This kind of falls into the ‘don’t start the story twice’ category. I do this a lot in my attempts to hook readers in different and intriguing ways. Whatever you do, the suspense must lead up to the main event somehow
  8. Too many points of view, especially if some of the povs are dropped early on.
  9. Misleading contract with the reader ie the first few pages indicate a different kind of a book in tone, genre or protagonist than you actually deliver. Kind of done this one too – busy rectifying
  10. Problems with pace. Also tricky.

On a fairly well-known author’s blog I read that some editors will automatically scrap the first chapter on a new manuscript and make them rewrite after the rest of the ms has been edited and worked over. This approach would work well for me. Once armed with the rules and techniques for writing great story-openings, it is easier to write the beginning with the end in mind.

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