The Best Days Of Your Life

September is a month of change. We trade in our flimsy, summer wardrobes for their warmer, wintry counterparts, the leaves begin to turn and the weather certainly alters for the worst. If you’ve been on the roads recently, you may have noticed an increase in the number of overloaded cars heading to all ends of the country, stuffed full of the accumulated treasures of 18 years. It can mean only one thing: Freshers’ Week is upon us and it’s time for many young people to make the ultimate change from home to university and begin a new academic term.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that university isn’t just a place for studying. Although there are textbooks to be read, lectures to be attended and dissertations to plan, many students find that the university timetable and lifestyle affords them the time to pursue their other interests that aren’t purely academic. For some, this mean playing sports or singing in the choir but for bookworms like me, university is a perfect place to indulge my passion for all things literary and spend my time engaged in various English pursuits.

Literature hasn’t always been a part of university life. When it was first introduced as a discipline, English Literature was seen as a ‘poor man’s Classics’, taught in working men’s colleges and Mechanical Institutes as a means of promoting moral values and avoiding social unrest. In the early 1930s, however, institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, began to re-evaluate their opinions on English and, soon, the study of Literature began to flourish on campus.

Nowadays, English is not only a subject taught at almost all of the top UK institutions, but there are also plenty of additional literary activities going on for all students and creative writers alike, whether you are studying English or not. So for all of the book-loving students, sixth-formers counting down the days until Freshers’ Week and those who still hold fond memories of their time as undergraduates, I’ve put together a list of essential things every literary aficionado ought to try whilst at University – three years goes alarmingly quickly and it may be your only chance to truly live a full and literary life.

1. Join your English Society

What better way to meet new and like-minded people? You can chat about Chekhov, debate about Dickens and swap stories of your first literary epiphany to your heart’s content at one of the weekly meetings, that often conveniently take place at the pub.

2. Go on an English-themed Pub Crawl

Once you’ve met your new best friends at ‘LitSoc’, get to know them even better on a literary pub crawl. The theme varies – sometimes you’ll be required to dress as a favourite literary character, other times you might have to embody the spirit of a literary movement. The dressing up is all part of the fun so make sure you go all out to really impress your fellow bookworm peers.

3. Attend a Book or Poetry Reading

Famous authors often pitch up at Universities in order to promote new work or give a talk on something that they are passionate about. There’s no better place to catch your favourite writer performing some new pieces and absorb some of their words of wisdom on creative writing. I’ve been lucky enough to see Andrew Davies, screenwriter-extraordinaire, and attend a lecture by Philip Pullman.

4. Write for your Student Newspaper/Journal

For all the budding journos with big aspirations, careers have been started working on the University paper. Totally organised, run and edited by students it’s a great way to get some experience to put on your C.V. and get your voice heard, as well as the opportunity to throw yourself into university life and keep everyone in the loop on various events. If fiction is more your idea, most universities also have a Creative Writing Journal you can contribute to or edit.

5. Take A Creative Writing Course

Universities are finally beginning to take Creative Writing seriously. Make the most of your free time and enrol on one of the excellent Creative Writing courses often led by prize-winning, best-selling authors: the University of Exeter can boast Philip Hensher on its staff roster, whilst former poet-laureate Sir Andrew Motion has been made Director of the new Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway, University of London.

6. Have a Crush on a English Lecturer

This one isn’t compulsory (and certainly shouldn’t be acted upon!) but intelligence is extremely attractive, especially when the lecturer in question is spouting deep, interesting new theories on your favourite books and authors. It will certainly help you stay awake in lectures at any rate!

7. Explore the Literary Gems your University Town has to Offer

Universities can be in or near some of Britain’s most beautiful towns and cities that have years of literary history behind them. Whether you’re at the University of Kent and visiting Marlowe’s birthplace in nearby Canterbury or swanning around the colleges at Oxford pretending to be Sebastian Flyte, there are plenty of activities for any book enthusiast to enjoy.

Briony Wickes


Taking on Rochester

For Brontë-enthusiasts, there are mixed emotions whenever a new screen adaptation of Jane Eyre is announced. I find myself torn between feelings of genuine excitement and those of sneering scepticism. I also feel mildly frustrated that, yet again, film-makers have decided to impose their vision on Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, favouring it over the works of her sisters, as well as Charlotte’s own, lesser-known work. (Surely, it’s time someone was brave enough to take on the far more complex but, in my opinion, far superior Villette!)

Fellow Brontë-philes will not blame me for expressing my weariness over the choice of adapting ‘Jane Eyre’ – since the 20thCentury began, there have been 49 films worldwide inspired by the novel, as well as 51 theatre productions, 22 radio programmes and even eight musicals, all based on the life and experiences of “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane. I remain, however, a true Brontë fan and so I’ve every intention of putting my doubts to one side, making a pilgrimage to the cinema and watching another version of my favourite book on the big screen.

The real success of literary filmic adaptations lies in the characterisation and the all-important casting. In Jane Eyre, although Jane is the eponymous heroine , and indeed, this latest 2011 adaptation apparently keeps her the focus of the film, for me, and I suspect for most red-blooded females, the character in whom we are all really interested is Edward Fairfax Rochester.

Rochester is a complicated character for any actor to play. The book describes him as moody, sardonic, openly rude, prone to violent fits of temper and yet charming, playful and capable of great benevolence. Physically, he’s no looker (although I’d choose him over that milksop Darcy anyday), with dark, grim features “more remarkable for character than beauty”, undeniably an “ugly man”. One cannot play him too dark or intimidating as he needs to appeal to both Jane and the viewer and yet play him ‘soft’ and the whole story is ruined.

Fassbender’s interpretation sounds promising, but what about his predecessors? Who has triumphed as Brontë’s Byronic hero and who has missed the point? Well, I can offer my humble opinion as a girl who has read, seen and adored Jane Eyre since I was 12 years old. Perhaps you disagree with me, but below I’ve included a list of those I think are the most notable Rochesters on film or TV.

Orson Welles (Jane Eyre, 1944)

Overall: Welles certainly takes his role as Rochester seriously, storming about the set with a thunderous look, intimidating Jane with his rapid movements and loud, booming voice. In true Welles fashion, he dominates every scene he is in but it’s all too much – he totally overpowers Joan Fontaine’s meek and placid Jane.

The Good: The anger, the frustration. Welles combines Rochester’s flair for the dramatic with undercurrents of desperation and insecurity.

The Bad: Lack of believable chemistry between Jane and Rochester, due to Welles’ ferociousness coupled with Fontaine’s gentilesse. The clumsy, sometimes awful dialogue – Rochester even utters the line “Moral of that is, don’t eat toasted cheese for supper”. Ultimately, Welles’ Rochester just doesn’t show enough redeeming features for us to fall in love with him – he’s unlikeable!

The Ugly: Physically, Welles is a good height to play Rochester and he has wild, dark eyes like I would imagine for Rochester.

Timothy Dalton (Jane Eyre 1983)

Overall: Perhaps my favourite Rochester. Rather like Welles, with Dalton all his emotions can be found in his eyes, but they twinkle with amusement as well as desperation and rage. He has Rochester’s rich, deep baritone and communicates his thoughtful, intelligent side as well as his tortured soul.

The Good: Excellent chemistry between Rochester and Jane (although Zelah Clarke is too old for the part.) Portrays Rochester’s multi-faceted personality well, making him attractive and yet desperate, wild and unrestrainedly passionate. The scenes after the discovery that Rochester is still married to Bertha and tries to explain himself to Jane are memorable.

The Bad and The Ugly: Although he is tall, dark and cuts an imposing masculine figure, Timothy Dalton is frankly too good-looking to play Rochester. As viewers, we can’t believe it when Jane declares she doesn’t think him handsome. Forget Bertha – Jane, you must be mad!

Ciaran Hinds (Jane Eyre 1997)

Overall: Although praising Dalton’s unrestrained passion, Ciaran Hinds goes too far. He is over the top emotionally and ultimately comes across as a bit of a bully. Furthermore, he shouts and pants too much for my liking.

The Good: Better an over-the-top, dramatic Rochester, I suppose, than a restrained and bland one.

The Bad: Rochester seems churlish, snarling and cruel. The ‘love’ he has for Jane seems mere lust. He is unlikeable and, if I were Jane, I would have run a mile as soon as he started yelling (which is very early in the film.)

The Ugly: Not quite tall enough. Also, in my mind, Rochester never had such a silly moustache and bouffant hair.

Toby Stephens (Jane Eyre 2006)

Overall: Charming, witty, urbane but with a secret – it’s very easy for viewers to fall for Toby Stephen’s Rochester. The mind games he plays are excellent but he is too good – he doesn’t bring out the tormented, sadistic side of Rochester. He’s simply too clever, too charming.

The Good: Appealing, entertaining portrayal of Rochester. Great chemistry between the main actors and much sexual tension.

The Bad: Not moody or mean enough.

The Ugly: Although they made red-haired Stephens wear a dark, tangled wig, he is, yet again, far, far too good-looking to play Rochester. And too short.

Music to Their Ears?

Technology is a wonderful, sometimes baffling thing: nowadays, you can pause live television, store up to 23,700 photos on a tiny memory card and send an email from your mobile phone that can travel across the world in the blink of an eye. The literary world, too, hasn’t escaped the technological revolution. The future for publishing, writing and reading has been transformed by the rise of the e-books and the e-readers. In January 2011, announced that their e-book sales had surpassed their paperback sales and demand for this new literary technology is rapidly growing, particularly in the USA, but also now in Europe and the UK.

The trick with technology, though, is that it is always changing: no sooner has one incredible gadget been made available to the public, then a second, a third, even a fourth generation device is already being developed and manufactured. The e-book is no different – although its popularity is a fairly recent development, experts are even now redesigning the original prototype, adding innovative new features.

Amongst the latest e-book developments that the literary world must brace itself for, is the introduction of music and sound effects. The company behind the idea, Booktrack, have big plans for some of literature’s most cherished classics such as Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, and Pride and Prejudice, which will see them ‘enhanced’ with noises that match the descriptions in the book – the patter of raindrops falling on a stormy night, the splash of the waves in a seafaring adventure or a maniacal laugh in the middle of grisly crime-thriller.

Developers at Booktrack explain that the software will be able to time how quickly each reader completes a page, so that the noises can be played at just the right moment. It’s the timing, here, that’s key. It distinguishes these literary soundtracks from traditional audiobooks and, undoubtedly, if the timing is wrong, the results could be disastrous: the sound of a gunshot going off too early before the reader has reached the relevant passage could ruin the story entirely.  Booktrack reassures readers, however, that there is nothing to fear, asserting that their technology is so clever, it can even tell if you’ve paused your reading for a spot of lunch or sped up if you’ve got a deadline to meet. And, if that wasn’t enough, they’re pushing the boundaries even further and introducing not only real-life sound effects but full musical playlists: reports suggest that Salman Rushdie intends to release a brand new e-book that comes with a complete orchestral score to accompany it.

So what’s the point of these soundtracks? Well, I’ve already used the word enhance and that is exactly what Booktrack intends to do – enhance your imagination and overall enjoyment by using sounds to create a unique reading space, giving the reader an opportunity to immerse themselves in literature. Sounds idyllic to me, but is it really going to live up to the hype? Are these soundtracks the beginning of a beautiful new future where noises and words live in perfect harmony or are they going to ruin the blissful escapism reading creates with mindless, ceaseless babble?

Personally I’m curious, but sceptical. It seems like an interesting idea; one that I think could adapt very well to children’s literature and perhaps even revive flagging interest in books with today’s younger readership. Children might well enjoy the Horrid Henry series with added crashes and bangs, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid with extra playground noises. As for Booktrack’s plans to tamper with the classics – some of my favourite novels amongst them – I am less than thrilled. Books like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Moby Dick and Peter Pan have been read and enjoyed for decades without the need for ‘real-life’ sounds over the top. I can’t help thinking that an orchestral score, no matter how ‘especially-crafted’ it may be, could end up being very distracting.

Frankly, it all seems a bit pointless. If I want a violin to accompany my reading, I’ll put the radio on. One only needs to pick up the latest issue of Litro to see that there is still plenty of imagination and ingenuity out there – we all of us have enough creativity to be able to imagine the sound of raindrops, without having some tinny e-book to make the noises for us. Call me old-fashioned, but for this blogger, silence is still golden.

Tintin and the Truth?

With September now here, and with it a new issue of Litro focussed on Comics and Graphic Fiction, I wanted to devote this blog to one of my childhood delights: The Adventures of Tintin. I am not embarrassed to admit that growing up, I had a bit of a crush on the tufty-haired reporter and I can’t deny it’s a fondness that’s lasted into adulthood. I own almost the entire series of books, some of them hardbacks passed down to me. I’ve read them countless times; I’ve also got the animated TV mini-series on DVD box-set; I’ve even visited the official Tintin shop, whilst on holiday in Belgium, where I guiltily read the first few pages of the infamous, once-banned story Tintin in the Congo before hastily putting it back on the shelf and pretending it wasn’t there. Yes, I think it’s fair to say I am a Tintin fanatic: I find it hard to believe that anyone could dislike Hergé’s most famous creation and I certainly wouldn’t think twice about letting any future child of mine enjoy his adventures.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that there are some people today who insist there is more to the world of Tintin than I ever could have imagined at 10 years old: that behind the colourful, childish, cartoon adventures of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, the stories deal with very real, very adult concerns. Indeed, these concerns are so pressing that the stories have been picked up by various literary critics and led to the creation of ‘Tintinology’, the academic study of The Adventures of Tintin.

Tintinologists dissect the comics, examining what they believe are hidden themes of fascism, gender, family history, addiction, animal cruelty, xenophobia, sexuality and class. At first, I couldn’t believe it but when I returned to the texts recently and looked at them with adult eyes, I could almost see where these academics are coming from. When French critic Serge Tisseron asserts that Captain Haddock is a chronic alcoholic, I have to agree that yes, the Captain certainly drinks with worrying alacrity. Furthermore, it is undeniable that some of the Tintin cartoons are racist – I have already mentioned Tintin in The Congo, its publication in English delayed for many years due to its discriminatory depictions of Africans and, to be sure, Hergé’s portrayals of some other ‘non-European’ cultures is far from flattering or acceptable in today’s society. It’s a problem that splits Tintinologists. Whilst some condemn Hergé for his seemingly racist tendencies, others defend him, arguing that he was only reflecting the times, even going as far as admiring the courage of his convictions. Whether you excuse Hergé or not, accusations of racism certainly add a more complex layer to the Tintin stories than I had first thought.

Some critics, however, have taken the study of Tintin even further. Whilst the majority of Tintinologists are French or Belgian, the British author Tom McCarthy published a book, in 2006, called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, in which he asserts that the stories “hold all of literature’s formal keys, its trade secrets”. He even calls upon the big guns of literary criticism – Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes –and stresses his argument with a zeal only displayed by true Tintin-obsessives and those with an in-depth knowledge of the books that far exceeds my own humble understanding. To McCarthy, Tintin has more potential for subtext than many “real novelists”. To him, Tintin is “the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities,” and, hence, his stories have a symbolic importance that McCarthy believes equals that of the works of Brontë and Faulkner.

It’s not only academics, however, who are keen to drag Tintin into the adult world. In 1993, Frederic Tuten published Tintin and the New World, in which Tintin experiences sex, drugs and wartime crimes at first hand. This adventure is not for children, with Tuten actually depicting sex scenes between our hero and a character named Clavdia Chauchat and leaving him disillusioned with the world around him. Although the novel received mostly positive reviews, it makes me feel uncomfortable – it seems wrong, somehow, to read erotic paragraphs about Tintin that, for me, take away his innocence forever.

So Tintin is having sex, Captain Haddock is an alcoholic and their creator, Hergé, was a racist: whether you find them interesting or not, these adult perspectives of Tintin and his friends do somewhat mar the simple, child-like enjoyment I used to get out of the stories. With the 26thOctober marking the long-awaited release of Steven Spielberg’s big screen version of the boy reporter’s adventures, the Tintin books are likely to see a resurgence in the coming months and many people, adults and children alike, will pick up the stories once more. So should we stop them, if we are to believe what the academics are telling us, that there is more to Tintin than meets the eye? Should we boycott the boy reporter? Personally, I’m torn – although I find the study of Tintin books very interesting and I can even agree with some of the ideas put forward, I believe there is still much delight to be found in the The Adventures of Tintin. Despite the complex adult issues and the supposed deeper subtext, I would argue that most people won’t find those things when they start reading the books. Instead, they’ll discover exciting tales of adventure, curious mysteries and a spindly-ankled, bequiffed, snub-nosed reporter-turned-detective who is honourable, true and good – and that’s the Tintin I know and love.

What’s in a Pen Name?

In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers call into question the importance of our given prenomens, with Juliet questioning “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Now, although I hate to disagree with the Bard himself, I would argue that names are absolutely crucial to the craft in the literary world.

A great pen name can make the difference between a novel selling or not. Let’s face it, Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski is not as striking on a front cover as his chosen pseudonym, Joseph Conrad. As a name, “Joseph Conrad” packs a punch: it sounds masculine, tough, and well-suited to tales of mystery, murky adventures, and manly imperialism, such as Heart of Darkness.

A pseudonym can act as the final flourish on your story; just like a method actor, you’ve got to keep in character and in tone with your novel as a whole. For instance, Lawrence Block is a fitting moniker for the acclaimed American crime writer who writes about alcoholic ex-cops and gruesome misdoings. It is a name that would certainly stand out on the crowded Crime bookshelf, but for an author of erotic novels, the “Block” is all wrong. It makes me think of an unwieldy concrete slab, or worse, some sort of blockage, which is hardly synonymous with anything even vaguely sexy or arousing. This is probably one of the reasons why Block writes erotica under the pseudonym of Jill Emerson.

Lawrence Block is not alone in swapping genders for different genres. In fact, many female authors choose to write under a male name to avoid being the victim of gender stereotyping. During the Victorian era, when writing was a vocation supposedly designated for men, Mary Ann Evans famously used the alias of George Eliot to ensure that her work was not only widely read by men and women alike but also that it was even published at all. Similarly, the Brontë sisters wrote under Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell in order to conceal their true identity and avoid their work from being disregarded as mere “feminine writing”. Even today, female authors are still disguising their gender by using pseudonyms or initialised versions of their names to attract wider audiences. J. K. Rowling is a perfect example, a gender-neutral name for fear that young boys wouldn’t want to read books written by a woman. More recently, Rowling has hinted that she may select an entirely new pseudonym for her work now that the Harry Potter series has come to an end, asserting that, for her, a “fake name is very attractive”, and would allow her to  “write any old thing I want”.

Pseudonyms certainly give writers some licence, allowing them to disassociate themselves from a previous style of writing and practice another. An author can be extremely cagey about his nom de plume, keeping it a secret and entirely separate part of his career. It’s easy to understand the allure of pseudonyms, if you are an established author looking for a change: you can be anybody you want to be, totally free from expectations about your work and maybe even easing the pressures of being a writer.

As readers, however, do we feel cheated by authors using pseudonyms? Many of us loyally follow our favourite authors, buying all their books and reading their interviews in the press. To then discover that they have an utterly different name under which they write feels a little akin to discovering your partner has a secret other family. It doesn’t seem fair to keep devoted readers like us in the dark. We want to celebrate the work of our favourite authors and often want to read anything they’ve written. Perhaps we may even be persuaded to read a genre we normally wouldn’t consider if we found out that our literary heroes were trying their hand at it. Some writers may have taken it too far: the great Donald Westlake, who is best known, under his own name, for the crime caper novels featuring the largely unsuccessful thief John Dortmunder, also wrote as Tucker Coe, Timothy J Culver, Curt Clark, Samuel Holt, Richard Stark, Allan Marshall and others. Furthermore, as a writer, surely writing under a different name prevents the pleasure of having something successful and creative being associated with you. I know my mother would be most put out if I wrote an award-winning novel, only to disguise my identity and give all the credit to an imaginary, faceless moniker called Jane Bloggs.

Whether you agree with the use of pen-names or not, undoubtedly they are here to stay. Often the pseudonym and the book become so interlinked that many of us aren’t even aware when a false title has been used. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Sam Clemens?  1984 by Eric Blair? The use of Mark Twain’s and George Orwell’s real names looks strange indeed, even as if they were imposters.

So what do you think? As a writer would you consider a pen name or would you rather keep the one you were born with? For those who are intrigued by the whole business of pseudonyms and nom de plumes, there is a fantastic website where you can use a random name generator to create possible combinations for your alias, even allowing you to choose the origin of the name, like Irish, English, African, or from mythology. I spent a good 20 minutes playing around with this generator and coming up with some great aliases. So, in a few years, when you see a best-seller by Eseld Sigrún, Mara Marquita or Indonea Lee, you’ll know it’s me.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

For many writers, winning an award will be the crowning moment of their career: much needed proof that all the sleepless nights, hours of hard-work and effort spent editing and re-editing the same sentence was worth it. We’ve all heard of – and perhaps lusted after – the big awards: the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Whitbread (Costa) Awards and, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature. But not all literary awards are as prestigious as these and, indeed, rather than celebrate beautiful works of fiction, some awards do the unthinkable and applaud bad writing.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual tongue-in-cheek award that pokes fun at the more serious and weighty competitions, such as the Man Booker Prize. Started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice at San Jose University, the contest calls for writers “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”; in short, their writing must be deliberately awful. The prize is a ‘pittance’ – as should be expected for a bad writing contest – of $250.The award’s namesake is Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who, despite being very popular in the 1800s, finds himself ridiculed today as being a writer of very florid and horrid prose, such as the infamous opening to his 1830 novel, ‘Paul Clifford’:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest has proved to be immensely popular, with many writers eagerly taking up the challenge to flaunt their most flowery and clumsy fiction. Indeed, the competition has had so many superb entries that in recent years they’ve added prizes in different categories such as adventure, crime and romance, as well as a grand, overall winner. Everything we are told to avoid as writers, all the bits we edit out with shamed-faces after re-reading our work are embraced by this competition, with frankly hilarious results. You can read some examples of the ‘Lyttony of Grand Prize Winners’ here, although my personal favourite is from this year’s winner of the ‘Romance’ Category, Ali Kawashima: “As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest is not the only faux-literary award. The popularity of the competition has since spawned the ‘Lyttle Lytton Contest’, which rewards bad opening sentences with fewer than 25 words, inspiring such gems as “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” Other notable spoof awards include the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year, The Golden Bull Award and, another personal favourite of mine, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Personally, I think contests like these are fabulous. They remind us not to take our writing, and ourselves, too seriously all the time and, in a profession where there can be a tendency towards pretention, they create a little light-hearted humour. My heart goes out to poor Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, however, who would have had no idea that he would become the poster-boy of dodgy prose for future generations. But if it’s any consolation to the ghost of Bulwer-Lytton, we must admit that many of us are guilty of writing sentences just as alarming and, unlike the entries for these competitions, we, too, might be entirely unaware of their clumsiness.  I was horrified to discover that in one of my own journals from when I was 15, I had written the opening line “The melancholy wind roared down the chimney, causing the flames in the fire to leap up and spit hot embers onto the wooden floorboards” which shamefully, it seems, is not that dissimilar to Bulwer-Lytton’s own, much-maligned “It was a dark and stormy night…” I’m cringing even now.

The Killing Truth

I was interested to read today that Marvel Entertainment has decided to kill Spiderman. Although Columbia Pictures have rebooted the Spiderman film franchise, with The Amazing Spiderman set to be released in July 2012, in Marvel’s Ultimate universe it seems that Peter Parker’s days are numbered.

Writers are the controllers of their own fictional universe, with the power to sculpt and structure every facet of the inhabitants’ lives, but despite this god-like power, many writers are reluctant to lay waste to their literary creations. Killing a major superhero is a bold move and it is by no means an easy one; indeed, Brian Bendis openly admits to composing the story “with tears in my eyes like a big baby”. Spiderman’s death makes me wonder: should authors avoid the deaths of their heroes and heroines at all costs?

Certainly, it’s less of a problem knocking off a few minor and irrelevant characters, but killing a major protagonist is a risk and can have some serious consequences for a writer and their work. It is not a decision to take lightly. After chronicling every nuance of feeling and obscure physical attributes of our creations, one becomes emotionally attached. It’s not uncommon for an author to “fall in love” with a character they’ve created, going as far as to change the entire story just to spare their hero a grisly and unpleasant end.

Of course, there are some authors who have little or no attachment to their characters at all and cannot wait to be rid of them, plotting the demise of their central figures with a sort of homicidal glee. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, found eventually that he had very little time for Sherlock Holmes, accusing his most famous creation of taking “his mind from better things” and complaining to his mother that he was weary of the detective. And so, there was no other way around it: Holmes must die and, in December 1893, Conan Doyle published The Adventure of the Final Problem in Strand Magazine, in which Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty plunge to their death from the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle may have thought he had seen the last of the world’s only private consulting detective but what he hadn’t anticipated was the uproar following the death of Holmes. Over 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to Strand Magazine and Conan Doyle faced an onslaught of appeals to bring Sherlock back to life. It was only after eight years that he conceded a little, writing The Hound of the Baskervilles but making clear at the same time that it is a posthumous tale, set in the years before Holmes’ death. Such was the immense pressure from readers and publishers, however, that Conan Doyle had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from the dead in The Empty House.

As Conan Doyle found out the hard way, killing off a main character can seriously anger and alienate your readership. Many a novel has been discarded in sheer frustration after the discovery of a beloved character’s death, with some readers giving up entirely on their favourite authors or series in protest. As a reader, you invest yourself emotionally in a character and, whilst watching their lives unfold, you grow to care about their wellbeing. To have all that snatched away is cruel and readers often find it hard to forgive an author who has effectively wasted their time and “betrayed” them.

Killing a character, however, is sometimes a fundamental part of the story and, when handled properly, can have the potential to elevate a tale from being merely pleasant to read to becoming moving and memorable. So just how can one kill a main character without arousing the hatred of the reading public? Below are a few tips and tricks I’ve garnered from the resources of the world wide web in order to make the murder of your heroes and heroines as smooth as possible.

  • Make the Death Matter. If the protagonist dies in a futile and obscure accident with little relevance to the plot, it can make one question the point of the entire story in the first place. Major character death should never be treated as an irrelevant afterthought. If, however, the hero dies for a greater good—whether to save a loved one or repent for irreconcilable evils—readers can respect and even admire the decision to give up a life for something more important.
  • Keep A Balance. Don’t go overboard and massacre everyone (unless you’re writing a dark and twisted horror story!) Also, if you are dealing with multiple character deaths, try to keep a balance of how everyone dies. Don’t have every death as a dramatic, emotional climax with an angst-ridden soliloquy at the end, or the reader will quickly become bored.
  • Foreshadow a Death. In the prologue of “Romeo and Juliet”, we are warned that the protagonists are “star-crossed lovers”, cursed and doomed from the very beginning and, throughout the play, hints are dropped to remind us that “violent delights have violent ends”. Although you want to surprise your reader, leave subtle warnings that a death is on the cards so that after the shock, the reader can go back, find the clues, and it will all make sense. Furthermore, sometimes knowing which way a story is heading, and being able to prepare for the death of a main character, will heighten the suspense and intensity of emotion when the final moment eventually arrives.

Killing a major character is by no means a requirement of great literary fiction. If you are writing a light-hearted tale or a children’s novel, I would advise against traumatising any unsuspecting reader and killing for the sake of it. Mostly, readers like happy endings but we are not totally naïve; we know that the world we live in is not all hearts and flowers and, sometimes, our favourite fictional heroes must die. It can be a good idea, however, to add an affirming note after the death. If we are to accept a death, it can be a comfort to many readers to know that there is a silver lining behind the dark cloud. In my opinion, when thought out properly and written for the right reasons, a character’s death can affect and resonate with a reader a hundred times more than a perfect, happy ending could.

“Hip” Young Adult Fiction

On a hot day, I like to take a blanket and a book into the back garden, lie with my face in the sun and think about how I’m going to make my first million. After studying an Arts degree, however, making a million is not as easy as it sounds. And so, I have resolved myself to the fact that if I want to be earning the big bucks, then I’m just going to have to be the next J. K Rowling and write the next Harry Potter series.

Yes, the Harry Potter franchise is officially over. No more butterbeer at the leaky cauldron, rides on hippogriffs, or gurning faces from Ron Weasley. The final film instalment smashed box office records on both sides of the Atlantic, making £9 million on its first day in British cinemas and bringing audiences to tears as they say goodbye to what has been, undeniably, one of the best loved series in the history of literature.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Harry Potter books revolutionised the “Young Adult” genre, encouraging an entire generation of children to start reading again, as well as delighting adults and teens alike. I am by no means a die-hard Potter fanatic, but I found myself welling up as I watched the last few scenes of Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and, like so many others, began to wonder what was going to fill the void that Harry Potter has left behind? What would be the “next big thing” in young adult fiction? Afterall, if I’m going to write a successful series on a scale with Harry Potter, knowing which genre is going to sell to future generations can only be advantage surely.

Currently, vampires and dark  fantasy romances are all the rage but with the Twilight series coming to an end and the market flooded with werewolves and bloodsuckers, it seems readers are growing tired of this latest craze, sales being down by 37% this year compared to the previous year. One would think that this leaves the market pretty much open, but industry experts are already predicting the next big genre and the contenders vying for J.K’s crown.

Suzanne Collins is the hot favourite at the moment and has a bit of a head start, with a devoted following and sales reaching £1 million for her Hunger Games trilogy, as well as the 2012 release of a film adaptation in the pipeline. The Hunger Games is set in a grim, post-apocalyptic dystopia and follows the complicated love lives and friendships of teenagers forced to compete in a televised fight to the death. The books are fast-paced, addictive, and almost hypnotic, earning awards and mostly positive reviews from critics, including fellow authors Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer who described herself as being “obsessed” by the trilogy.

Indeed, dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings seem to be the link between many of the series lining up to take over from Harry Potter and Twilight. Matched, the first book in a new trilogy by Ally Condie, is set in a world where “the Society” controls your job, your home, and your love life, whilst new offerings such as the post-nuclear-holocaust thriller Pure by Julianna Baggott and Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth are also set in a sort of dystopia.

So should we all start writing tales of teen love and angst in a bleak dystopian future in order to crack the lucrative young adult market? In short, no. Yes, we can sometimes predict what’s going to be popular, but the real success behind books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Game isn’t really to do with their genres, but what lies at their core. Underneath all the “dark romance” gimmicks or whatever labels you want to use, these books have very traditional themes: love and the coming of age. Even more crucially, they are good books. Their quality of writing and their strength of plot and character play a much more important role than mere genre setting and hitting the market at the right time. Often, writers who write specifically to fit into an “in” genre find their voices lost amongst the great swaths of other writers doing the same thing.

In my opinion, the world is full of enough misery and solemnity: my heart wouldn’t really be in it if I tried to write a Dystopian teen novel in the hopes of striking lucky. If I really want to be the next J. K. Rowling and earn my fortune through my pen (or laptop, in this case) it’s far better to focus on what interests me as a writer, rather than chase whatever genre is currently in vogue. A strong, distinct voice will always come out on top over a crowd-pleasing piece of genre-fiction—something I’ll bear in mind when I sit down this weekend and finally begin my own Whitbread prizewinning piece.

Poetry Slam: What’s the Point of Poetry for Points?

When my grandfather asked me what I got up to at the Latitude festival this past weekend, I gave him an edited version. I cut out the parts where I danced until 3 a.m. at a rave in the woods, broke my tent in a drunken haze, and jumped like a loon to the sounds of Kele Okereke and The National. Instead, I chose to tell him about the various other cultural events I had attended. Something I thought he might like to hear about was my time spent at the excellent poetry tent at the festival. He listened with silent approval as I told about seeing John Burnside and Simon Armitage, but when I told I had attended a poetry slam, his disdain was obvious. According to my grandfather, slam poetry is not “true poetry”.

I was taken aback by his response, but when I started to investigate further into the world of poetry slams, I discovered that they aren’t universally loved. Indeed, the critic Harold Bloom branded them “the death of art” in the Spring 2000 issue of the Paris Review, deploring the way in which young poets are “declaiming rant and nonsense at each other”. George Bowering, the former poet laureate of Canada, condemned poetry slams as “abominations” that are “crude and extremely revolting”, whilst Jonathan Galassi, the honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets, derisively terms them as “a kind of karaoke of the written word”.

For those who are unfamiliar with what poetry slam is, it can be best described as a competitive event in which poets perform and compete against each other in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. Performance is just as important as the poetry and the poet is awarded points for both. There’s also usually a time limit, adding another competitive element.

Poetry slams are raucous events. They are more likely to take place in a bar than a bookstore, and there’s lots of shouting and the audience show their appreciation by booing, whooping and clapping before, during, and after the performances. Sometimes the winner is chosen by an audience “clap-o-meter”. It’s probably this sort of behaviour that dismays critics such as Bloom and Bowering, and led Jonathan Galassi to draw similarities between poetry slams and karaoke contests. Moreover the competitive element of poetry slams repels some people. They think art takes time; it’s meant to be appreciated and absorbed slowly. Instead, poetry slams mangle literature into a low-quality, quick-fire oneupmanship, diluting true art for the masses.

I, however, see the positives. Firstly, poetry slams were introduced at a time when interest in poetry was waning. In 1986, the first regular slam was held at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago, which quickly rejuvenated flagging local interest in the art form. Today, slams are a great way to involve people who would normally avoid poetry at all costs; it gets them to start reading, to enjoy fresh, original work. Poetry can have a reputation nowadays for being “exclusive” and “outdated” but slams are working to regain some of that lost street-cred. Poetry sams are seen as cool, and as such, poetry too. The diversity in participants also proves that poetry slams attract people of all types: from freestyle rappers to indie hipsters, nerdy college boys to prim girls in tweed; all kinds of people have taken part and triumphed in slams across the country.

I challenge anyone not to enjoy themselves at a slam. I have always loved listening to poets read their work aloud and, rather than detracting from the distinctiveness of the spoken word, the competitive element actually makes it fun. Yes, poetry written for slams tends to differ from the traditional works learnt at school and college but it is written, not with competition in mind, but with the main purpose of being read aloud. The motto of poetry slams, coined in 1994 by Allan Wolf, maintains that “the points are not the point; the point is poetry”, reminding poets, organizers, and audiences that the purpose is to spread and share wonderful, exciting poetry to a new audience.

So when you next get the chance, attend a poetry slam and see what all the fuss is about. Take a friend, have a few drinks, holler for your favourites and heckle their rivals. By the end of the night, you’ll have heard some great poetry, had a good time and, hopefully, rekindled or reaffirmed your love of the spoken word.

Along The Mississippi River

The American roadtrip: a life-defining journey, racing along the desert highways to the leafy green of the National Parks or to the sky-scraping cities. It’s delighted writers and artists for generations  — we’ve all read the books, seen the films and heard the real-life adventures along Route 66, The Big Sur and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s all been done before. Which is why, I think, it’s time to drive off the highway and seek adventures elsewhere. Forget On The Road; this journey is going to be along the river instead.

The Mississippi River flows for 2,348 miles from western Minnesota all the way through to the Gulf of Mexico. I was in Memphis last year and the Mississippi made quite an impression on me. That day, it seemed muddy and tranquil but despite attempts to control it, it still has the power to unleash devastating floods, as has happened this spring, and its hidden undercurrents could easily sweep one away. Unsurprisingly, many artists, musicians and writers have been lured by the power and beauty of the Mississippi and used it as their inspiration for their finest works.

Its history and stories, chronicled by authors and poets alike, are so fantastic as to have an almost mythical quality. Through the words of authors such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, you can capture a flavour of the old South and can experience the length and breadth of the river from the comfort of your armchair. It may not be as life-changing as a real-life American roadtrip, but this journey through literature, and along the Mississippi, is certainly vibrant and unforgettable.

A poet who understood the importance of the Mississippi River and its significance in American culture was Langston Hughes. In his poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’,  he establishes the link between human history and the river; in particular, the history of his own race and slavery. The river was, for many slaves, a symbol of both freedom and repression. Slaves were often bought and sold down the river, and yet the endless flow of the Mississippi gave them hope of an escape and a route to liberty. Hughes captures this sense of the never-ending, as well as emphasising the detachment of the river; although so intertwined with human lives, it remains cold and uncaring to their plight. The lines “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/flow of human blood in human veins” suggests that even when all human endeavour is gone, the river runs on. You can read the poem and actually listen to Langston Hughes reading it here. I’ve always loved spoken poetry, and this recording sends shivers down my spine.

For Mark Twain’s protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi River represents freedom. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim, a black slave, travel the Mississippi on a raft, trying to escape the fetters that bind them. Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens and grew up by the Mississippi in Hannibal, Missouri, and spent his youth working on a steamboat. As a result, the river became the backdrop to many of his most famous stories and an enduring presence throughout his work. The description of the Mississippi in the moonlight, miles-long and silent, is haunting and atmospheric, whilst the use of colloquial first person makes the novel seem authentic. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the work of Mark Twain.

In this literary journey along the river, it’s inevitable to travel from the work of Mark Twain to that of William Faulkner. Faulkner was influenced not only by Twain, whom he named “the father of American literature”, but also by the beauty and the tragedy of his homeland close to the Mississippi River. Faulkner created a fictional setting — Yoknapatawpha County — based around his real-life hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner’s work is often violent and emotional, where human nature remains as unflinching as the river itself. Look out for The Sound and The Fury, Absalom, Absalom! but also his shorter and lesser-known fiction, such as The Bear and Old Man, the latter being the Mississippi River itself and set around the time of the great floods of 1927.

Modern authors have continued to feature the Mississippi in their writing. The novels of James Lee Burke, especially those involving the ex-cop Dave Robicheaux, are largely set in the bayou country of the Mississippi delta. On the surface, these novels might seem to be just another noir detective series but Burke is not afraid to address the issues facing the South in the last few decades, whether racial tension, extreme poverty or life post-Hurricane Katrina.

In contrast, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, is set in the 1920s and tells the story of the abduction of a young girl and one man’s attempts to find her. Much of the novel is set aboard an old pleasure steamer that travels up and down the Mississippi and, amongst all the jazz and gambling, the River itself seems to dominate the novel.

Finally, any trip down the Mississippi would be incomplete without a visit to the city of New Orleans. In recent years, New Orleans has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons and, after the flooding, is trying hard to get back on its feet again. Despite this, returning to authors such as Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams preserve the once vibrant city in a golden age.

From the turn of the twentieth century, New Orleans was often seen as colourful, full of reckless, determined characters and a hotbed of independent thinking and free-living, where musicians made their money playing the brass from dusk till dawn. It was glamorous and yet sinful. It’s no wonder that it became the setting for such dramatic, radical works as Chopin’s The Awakening, and, in the 1940s, Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

The raucous atmosphere of New Orleans seems a world away from the descriptions of the slumbering river in Huckleberry Finn and yet all these novels are interconnected and bound together by the vast Mississippi. Writers like Twain, Faulkner and Gautreaux have told their own stories along the river, each different in tone and style but, undeniably, the Mississippi has had an impact on all of them. Their voices coexist and work together to conjure up a wonderful image of life in the American South. This image, even though taken from fiction, is based on real-life experiences and seems as clear and vivid as if it had been seen with our own eyes.

The Stumbling Block

When I sat down this morning, I had no idea what I was going to write. The cursor blinked mockingly at me on an empty white page and I was doing anything I could to avoid sitting in front of that screen – making cups of tea, letting the dog in and out of the house and rushing to the door to greet the postman in my pyjamas. The urge to check Facebook was overwhelming and the desire just to go back to bed was even greater. I was just about ready to give up.

The symptoms all add to one thing – a classic case of writer’s block and, for many of us, it’s an all too common occurrence. We know we have the ideas and skills to be a writer but sometimes, for whatever reason, the words just won’t flow and the magic refuses to happen. Writer’s block is maddening and the longer you let it build up and leave the page blank, the more difficult it gets to overcome. But before you throw your pen down in frustration, take comfort – you are not alone. Writer’s block has affected all of us at some point and, as a result, there is a whole wealth of resources and exercises to help. Although some of these tasks might seem pointless, the most important thing to remember is that writers write. Avoiding your journal and procrastinating wildly might seem like a good idea at the time but it won’t get you very far. Even if you are writing something completely off topic from your story, at least you are writing. As Stephen King said: “the scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better.” So, with that in mind, try some of the following methods below and see if you can get a creative boost.

Write One Leaf

The Method: Write One Leaf is a prompt blog for struggling writers. Two or three times a day, a prompt for writing is posted and then you are encouraged to write a passage inspired by that prompt. Write your ‘leaf’ anywhere – in your journal, in a letter, on your pillowcase – the point is to get writing!

Does it work? Today, the prompts posted are write one leaf about either ‘Google Plus’, ‘How Hot is Too Hot’ or ‘Midnight Movies’. As I have no idea what Google Plus is, I pass over that one in favour of the remaining two. I choose ‘Midnight Movies’ as I’ve already written a piece about extreme heat recently, and I feel that would be cheating! Midnight Movies is an interesting one; I’m instantly thinking of retro Drive-In Cinemas in the States, teenage romances underneath the stars and slightly seedy characters who only come out at night. I write a short paragraph and, whilst it is not my finest work, my imagination has at last kicked into action, albeit a little sluggishly.

One Word

The Method: When you first log in, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that the One Word website was some sort of game – it certainly sets you a challenge! When you click the ‘go’ button, a word will appear on the screen, with an empty text box underneath. You have exactly 60 seconds to write about that word. The trick is not to overcomplicate things – don’t think, just write!

Does it work? I love the pressure of this website. Beneath your text box, there is a little timer bar which fills up as the seconds go by. Unlike Write One Leaf, you can’t ‘um’ and ‘ah’ over which prompt you might pick and the 60 second time limit adds an urgency which the prompt blog was missing. Having said that, rather than helping you to begin your next best-seller, the pressure may just induce you to produce a load of old gobbledegook in your panic to fill the textbox with words. My one word was ‘mean’ and as the timer neared the end of the 60 seconds, I was desperately typing sentences that didn’t even make sense just to get the task done.

First and Last Sentence

The Method: First and Last Sentence was an exercise I used during a creative writing seminar. Find any fiction book, preferably one with which you are unfamiliar and open it on a random page (if you don’t have any books to hand, you can find texts published online on sites like Project Gutenberg). Take the first sentence of any paragraph from your book and then the last sentence and write them down with a big gap in the middle. You’ve guessed it – fill in the gap you’ve left and try to write something that links the first sentence to the last.

Does it work? Even though you are using someone else’s sentences, you’ll be surprised how different your passage is to theirs. I picked up some sentences from The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie and I actually ended up writing a poem! The reason this method works is that, often, beginning a piece is the hardest part, closely followed by ending a story: by providing you with an opening sentence as well as a closing one, it gives you a bit of direction and helps you come up with a story.

Did any of these methods work for you or did they just frustrate you even more? I think the important thing to remember when trying out writer’s block exercises is that you aren’t going to produce eloquent, fantastic fiction when you use them. Instead, they are catalysts for our creativity: they aim to recreate that buzz we get when we are motivated and just can’t tear ourselves away from our writing. So, go on, what are you waiting for? Sit down, pick up your pen and just write – hopefully you’ll find you’re on your way to beating the block once and for all.

If The Skin Were Parchment…

Don’t tell my mother, but I want a tattoo. No longer reserved solely for sailors, jailbirds and leather-clad bikers, tattoos have become prevalent in society over the last decade and nowadays, you’ll find them on the most surprising of people. Doctors, politicians, lawyers – I even had a maths teacher who was under instruction to always wear long sleeves in class to cover the pin-up girl on his forearm. Tattoo designs, too, have evolved from crude squiggle and today, people are inking themselves with the poetry and prose of the world’s most famous writers. Bookworms and body art enthusiasts have united and spawned the literary tattoo.

The literary tattoo: it’s a concept that excites and frustrates me. It seems like the perfect way to prove your passion and commitment to literature but is it really a good idea? And how does one go about choosing just the right stanza or sentence? With so many great works out there, how and why do people choose the phrases they do?

In my covert research for a prospective tattoo, I came across a fascinating website called Contrariwise, a page dedicated to literary ink. Before you click on the link, I warn you, it’s addictive – I spent hours browsing the archives of this website, admiring the different designs and lusting after one of my own. There’s a huge variety of artwork and authors on the site, everything from Shakespeare to J.K Rowling, although I couldn’t help but notice that certain authors and texts kept cropping up numerous times. One of these reappearing writers was Kurt Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle had inspired over 30 tattoos on the website alone, with the phrase “So it goes” from Slaughterhouse-Five making 17 of that number.

So why Vonnegut? Indeed, why choose any of the authors or texts on the website? The symbolism behind tattoos varies but, undeniably, the majority of tattoo designs signify either a commitment to something or someone or have a specific personal meaning. Literary tattoos are no different. What better way to show your dedication to literature than to be marked with something literary? In the case of the great swath of J.K Rowling quotes and illustrations on the Contrariwise website, many people have used their tattoos as a way to show their passion and enthusiasm for the Harry Potter franchise. Many of the literary tattoos have deep personal meaning, as well as showing commitment to the art form. There are lots of examples of people picking beloved childhood stories, such as Where the Wild Things Are and Le Petit Prince, because it reminds them of their family and the places they’ve come from. As for Kurt Vonnegut, you could argue that “So it goes” is so popular because it resonates with people who have overcome traumas and difficulties in their lives and learnt that life just has to go on.

The combination of literature and a tattoo to some is a no-brainer. If words we have read in a story or poem stay with us, why not get a permanent reminder? People want to celebrate the authors who changed them and the books that altered their lives. We can all think of that first book or poem that really meant something to us. For me, it was reading Jane Eyre at 12 years old: it was the book that made me fall deeply and quickly in love with literature and I’ve never looked back since. Getting a passage of Charlotte Brontë placed somewhere on my body could be a positive identification of who I am and express my passion for her novels.

But when you take a sentence out of the book and place it on your skin, out of context, does it lose its meaning? I’ve always loved the poem Two in the Campagna by Robert Browning but when taken out of the poem, the last line “of finite hearts that yearn” seems to lose some of its magic. Poems are complex and the words are often deeply interconnected and have multiple layers of meaning, all of which is lost when you strip it back to one short phrase or sentence. And what if we change our minds? Favourite texts we adore in our twenties could be entirely meaningless and irrelevant to us in our forties. There’s also always the danger of choosing something purely because we feel we ought to choose it –  having a passage of Ulysses on your left shoulder because James Joyce is heralded as a creative genius, full of depth and meaning, rather than because his work has any personal significance. In this case, literary tattoos seem merely pretentious.

So should we leave the words on the page or do you think literary tattoos are a perfect expression of creativity? Personally, I believe that when chosen for the right reasons, with a lot of careful consideration of the significance and meaning, literary tattoos can be beautiful.

But before you rush out and get your favourite poems inked all over the place, heed this word of warning: Contrariwise  has an entire section dedicated to tattoo misspellings. I shudder at the thought of being branded with a misquoted Shakespearean sonnet, an indelible beacon of illiteracy and regret. Tattoos are forever and, with that in mind, perhaps I ought to have another rethink before I decide on getting mine. Mother, you can rest easy, I’m ink free…for now!

The Burn

What drives you to write? It’s a simple question but one many of us never actually explore. Although we often plan and plot every last twist and turn of our latest stories, right down to the protagonist’s smallest facial twitch, very rarely do we sit back and question why we are even writing at all. Writing is an obsession and there has to be something lying dormant within us which spurs us on. What is it that motivates us to commit pen to paper – what’s your burn?

The burn is a concept that has to be credited to the excellent Sam North, author and lecturer at the University of Exeter. He describes this burn as a kind of concentrated energy inside all of us – poets, playwrights and story-tellers alike, we all have a motivating fuel that burns away and compels us to write, and write relentlessly. These fuels vary from writer to writer and sometimes they overlap: you can be driven by two, three or four of these fuels.  There’s no rule saying you must only work to one.

So what are these fuels that burn away? Well according to Sam North, they number seven and look something a little like this:

1. Entertain

The most common and often the most lucrative fuel, many of us desire to write because we want to entertain our readers. This fuel relies on the power of narrative – expect excellent storylines, charismatic characters and unexpected twists in stories written by those seeking to entertain. Crime Thriller, Fantasy and Romance are the by-products of this brand of creative energy and often the writers who write with this fuel in mind are the ones who top the best sellers’ list.

Think: Charlaine Harris, Dan Brown, George Pelecanos

2. Sensory Bliss

This is an obvious fuel for poetry but it applies to short fiction as well. This kind of writing is driven by the desire to create beautiful, eloquent fiction which soothes and charms with its potent linguistic power. Plot takes a back-seat behind elaborate word-play with an almost musical quality.

Think: Alan Hollinghurst

3. Political Change

These writers have a desire to propagate political change and this is reflected in their narratives. For many authors, such pursuits are as relevant today as they ever were and their inspiration is drawn from their own political agendas. Allegory is a common device – George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example of a book with political motives at its core.

Think: Robert Tressell, Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

4. Therapy

Nowadays, we are encouraged to explore our feelings and express our internal hurt in order to aid the healing process. With this in mind, many people turn to writing as a form of therapy and confession. You only need to google the words ‘writing’ and ‘therapy’ to discover a wealth of websites and online communities dedicated to healing the soul through storytelling. You can even do an MSc course on ‘Writing with therapeutic purposes’. The trick is to avoid being dull and too self-pitying; no-one wants to listen to the bore at the party, moaning about their miserable problems. When written with a lack of self-indulgence, however, therapeutic writing can lead to successful, poignant books.

Think: Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt

5. Humour

Writing to make people laugh is an arduous task. Often people who are the funniest in real life are the least funny on paper. Comedy is often derived, not from witty dinner-party anecdotes, but from what is wrong with the world. Humour is difficult but there is something admirable about a person who writes to make people laugh: in these modern times of stress and misery, it’s wonderful that there are still those people out there who want to help us forget the bad and focus on the happier things in life.

Think: P.G Wodehouse, Jasper Fforde

6. Portrayal of Truth

This fuel sees the writer act as a painter, using his pen to portray a vision of the world as he sees it and show his readers the truth. Many of us are motivated by a desire to expose the realities of a world and, often, some of our best work comes from personal experience. This fuel brings to mind the famous rule – write what you know.

Think: Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck

7. Confront the Abyss

Oh, that eternal question – what is the meaning of life? A question mulled over by many a literary type, this final fuel is better described as a desire to confront the abyss and make sense of it all. These stories use concrete imagery to create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, as well as complex metaphors to help us figure it all out for ourselves.

Think: William Golding


So, into which category do you fall? Do you write to make someone laugh or as an exploration of your own personal feelings? Do you even agree with Sam North’s categories at all? Personally, I mostly write to entertain but I’d rather like to give the sensory bliss category a go. Perhaps next time I start to write, I’ll bear sensory bliss in mind and focus on my use of language rather than character: by changing my ‘fuel’, I could find a whole new writing style, one that might suit me even better.  Indeed, whether you agree with Sam North or not, I believe that finding the key to understanding what fuels our creative minds can only be a good thing – it’s powerful knowledge that, if harnessed correctly, can lead to our very best work.

Why So Serious?

I experienced a revelatory and yet slightly embarrassing moment a few weeks ago. I was walking home with a good-looking boy from my creative writing class and we were discussing our latest submissions. When I told him that I was writing a poetry sequence based around a taxidermist’s workroom, he looked at me a little strangely. I tried to justify my macabre subject matter, claiming it was tasteful and artistic but he didn’t seem convinced; instead, he asked me whether I was in the habit of writing poetry about dead things, and, to my surprise, I realised that I was.

The conversation prompted me to go back to my earliest writing journals. I began to notice a pattern in my stories – each page was littered with misery, morbidity and death. I was shocked. I am, by nature, a happy person; I have never been one to dwell on the sorrows of life but have always tried to keep a positive outlook. I’m an optimist. I’m an animal lover. Anyone reading my journals, however, would think otherwise.

It got me thinking – why do our minds go to such dark places when we are thinking about interesting stories to write about? Why had I chosen to write something grisly when, in real life, the mere sight of blood makes me feel nauseous? Perhaps it’s the influence of those around me; misery loves company.

Crime fiction has never been more popular and it seems the British public love to read of murders most horrible; a recent survey conducted by the Crime Writers’ Association found that the average body count in crime novels over the last year was a whopping 8.38. Alongside the current media fascination with vampires and werewolves, it’s easy to see how one could equate the purely gory with interesting and popular fiction.

It’s easier to write with a grisly point of view. When I am trying to think about an event or situation that is going to alter my characters’ lives, I automatically think of something grim – the death of a loved one, a crippling blow of some kind. You could argue that it’s often only in these tragic circumstances that we really get to see what a character is made of.

Sometimes, however, the best fiction is in the stories that have the power to make us laugh. Something lighthearted and humorous can be much more fulfilling to write and certainly more entertaining to read. In a world of recession and conflict, don’t our readers deserve a break, a chance of escapism? There’s plenty of inspiration out there – stories about marriage, success, travel, adventure, births – a turning point doesn’t have to be morbid.

Writing humorously is difficult but it doesn’t mean we ought not to try. Although many readers devour crime novels, it’s often

the playful stories that stick in our minds and are the ones we return to, to re-read and enjoy again. Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t, perhaps, be so popular if Mr Darcy had met a violent, blood-thirsty end; instead Austen’s light-hearted, satirical tone has continued to charm world-weary readers.

For me, The Diary of a Nobody is an old favourite that I could never tire of, despite the total lack of melodrama and action; its power lies in the appeal of the foolish Mr Pooter and gently amusing anecdotes about his life. It’s a tale that has me laughing out loud and it’s no surprise that it has never been out of print. Gory thrillers will come and go but it’s the stories that are truly entertaining that will remain on our bookshelves.

So this week, I’m going to shun my dark thoughts and try to write something cheerful. The sun is shining, the grass is green and cold winter days seem a million miles away; put away those poison pens, it’s time to lighten up.