Monthly Archives: March 2010

Dilemmas of a Christian writer, part 1

I’m a Christian. I’m a writer. (Well, I write, which may not be the same thing.) But I’m not what you would call a “Christian writer”. I loved Patricia St John’s books as a child, read them over and over again, and on some of my holidays in the South of France an American pastor’s wife used to lend me Christian equivalents of Little House on the Prairie, and then a detective series. (Anyone know either of those?)

But that was the last time I read any Christian novels. Until, that is, I picked up James Scott Bell’s Deadlock, having been pointed to it by his book on Plot and Structure. I loved it, I have to say: I didn’t know there was such a thing as well-written, decent “Christian fiction” that was not only intelligent but also set in DC. So, all in all, perfect for me at this stage of my life.

Anyway, I digress, because my point is that I am not writing a Christian novel, and this brings me a couple of issues. I’ve made my peace with the fact that since my characters are non-Christians in their early 30s, living in the 21st century, they will probably not be signing any abstinence pledges, for example.
But dialogue. Dialogue is a whole other situation. I don’t usually swear, except in dire emergencies such as when I lose my shoe running for the train, or the doorbell rings in the middle of a Josh and Donna scene. So writing in swearing does not come naturally for me, and I’m not sure we need much of it, anyway.
Here’s the thing, though: in real life, people swear. Particularly the guys in my story – I see them swearing, but more than that I see them saying “God” a lot. Americans seem to do that, possibly more than the British. (And they are Americans.)
I’m really not comfortable with blasphemy, even what must seem very mild blasphemy. What do I do? Will the novel seem fake if I don’t use those kinds of expressions? If no one ever blasphemes, and hardly anyone ever swears?
Readers, what do you think? And writers, what how about you?

calling other bibliophiles…

Dear people who read a lot,

I was hoping you could help me out.
Writing the end of this novel is turning out to be a lot like passing healthcare reform, only without the publicity. I’ve lost count of the number of levels I’m stuck on…
For inspiration, and help on navigating certain things, I’m looking for:
– books where the heroine sacrifices herself (in whatever way) for her hero…
– books where there is some kind of book club involved as either a main theme or just a sub-plot…
– books where a character is passionate about politics
– books where a character is a piano player and/or loves jazz…
Any recommendations?
Thanks in anticipation
Claire L 🙂

Books that I would like to write…

… or co-write. Or ghost write. Or adapt. Or translate. The list is endless…

Obviously, there is Inevitable, then the Muffin House and then the novel that will be loosely based on my time (hopefully) working for the Obama campaign in 2012.
But non-fiction-wise, I wouldn’t mind working on the following (and leaving aside every variation on Inside the West Wing you can imagine)…
… Janel Moloney’s biography
… the translation into French of Marlee Matlin’s autobiography, “I’ll scream later” (Marlee, if you’re reading – you can check out my credentials on LinkedIn)
So you’re British and you think you can spell? – An adaptation of this great book of “Killer Quizzes for the Incurably Competitive and Overly Confident”
… Bradley Whitford’s autobiography, which he really should write himself* , if the episodes of West Wing he did are anything to go by – but maybe I can proofread it for him, and advise him on which pictures to put in. You know, that kind of thing.
Being Donna Moss: Adventures on the Campaign Trail
to be continued as inspiration strikes…
*For you clever clogs out there, I realise that an autobiography is by definition written by the person concerned. Is it, though? Jason Donovan’s wasn’t. Not that I am putting Jason Donovan in the same league as Bradley Whitford, although one thing they do have in common: my devotion to them. (In my defence, I was 10 when Jason was in his heyday and I was in love with him. There is no defence for my Brad devotion. I like to think that none is needed….)

Books that I would like someone else to write…

… because they’d write them far better than me, or I want to hear their take on it, or the whole point is that it’s stuff I want to know without doing ridiculous amounts of research.

Or in one case, because if such a book existed, and were non-fiction, that would make me an unspeakably happy girl.

Making the horse drink…
How to motivate adult language learners to learn their verb conjugations

and its sequel

Blood from a stone
How to get adult language learners to use their imaginations

The Missing Years
Or my take on seasons 5 to 15 of the West Wing
by Aaron Sorkin
Find Me Valuable
(How an ordinary British girl won the heart of an ageing yet still desperately eligible Hollywood actor)
Destined for Greatness (or a far wittier title)
The autobiography of Bradley Whitford (with lots of photos, and plenty of inside info on the West Wing that we fans don’t already know… and politics… and what it’s really like to be an actor… and all that stuff)
American politics and history from the beginning for not-quite dummies
(aka reasonably intelligent Brits who knew nothing, literally nothing, about the US until they got addicted to the West Wing)

to be continued…

On my bookshelf, 2010

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least it ought to be) that you can tell a lot about someone from what is on their bookshelves. Which is possibly why they seem to be what my eye gravitates towards the first time I am in someone’s home. (This, among many other things, is a trait I share with Catherine, the heroine of my book, Inevitable.)

I’m not entirely sure what a person would make of mine, or of the fact that my books, which mostly look unread (as they would when you – ahem – carry them round in an Amazon wrapper to avoid spoiling them) are clearly classified in a definite order according to a precise system, when the rest of my flat bears precisely none of the hallmarks associated with a person with obsessive compulsive disorder or even just the tendency to neatness.
Since I re-acquainted myself with voracious reading a couple of years ago, I’ve been listing all my bookseverything I’ve read thanks to a Facebook application. It occurs to me, though, that this may not be the most efficient way of doing so.
It also occurs to me that recording the books I am reading is as good a way as any of tracking the things that consume me, my passions and obsessions and vague interests, over a year, over a lifetime, even. Perhaps even the basis for a future autobiography, who knows.
So, here is my 2010 list for the benefit of those who would like to get to know me (Bradley Whtiford, are you out there?), and for mine too, because I’m sure one day it will tell me something useful. One day, I may well add reviews (and feel free to ask me about a specific book if you are interested) but for now, I’ll content myself with purely subjective marks as and when I finish each book.
Recommendations, Amazon style (if you hated that, stay away from this, that kind of thing) are also very welcome.
American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Six out of ten. Not what I wanted it to be, which was basically a literary version of the West Wing. Only the last 100 of 600 or so pages vaguely scratches that itch. But it did scratch it somewhat effectively.
Reading like a Writer, by Francine Prose. Nine out of ten. Loved it.
Deadlock, by James Scott Bell. Seven and a half out of ten. It’s set in New York and DC, has political and Christian overtones: could there be a more ideal read for me? Did not know such a thing existed. Fab.
Washington Square, by Henry James. Eight out of ten.
Le voyage d’hiver, by Amélie Nothomb. Three out of ten. (I am not, like many wannabe literary critics, a Nothomb snob: I’ve enjoyed a few books by her. But this one, I am convinced, would never have been published had she not already been famous and bound to churn out a book a year. I enjoyed the first third; then it went weird and disjointed and ought to have turned into three separate novels if she could have been bothered, but there you are. At least it’s short.)
Finding your voice, by Les Edgerton. Four and a half out of ten. I keep meaning to blog about this one. It irritated me, but it did also teach me useful principles, and was an easy read.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Scene and setting, by Jack M Bingham. Five out of ten. Yawn, but vaguely useful.
The Art of Subtext in Fiction, by Charles Baxter.
Description and Setting, by Ron Rozelle. Eight out of ten. Really useful and inspiring. Second time through, and actually did some of the exercises this time.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. Eight out of ten. Could even ignore other people while reading this. Only occasionally did I start thinking, “erm, get to the point please!”. Which for a book this long is quite an achievement!
(I’ve just discovered another useful thing about this list: eleven books in just over two months is not, after all, that bad. Perhaps I am not wasting quite as much of my time as I thought.)
The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber. Good stuff. Seven out of ten.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Burrows – 8.5/10 Wonderful stuff. I actually dreamed about it one night and woke up thinking I had to finish it right there and then.
State by State, edited by Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland. Thoroughly recommended – a great introduction to America.
On Writing, by Stephen King. Probably the only Stephen King book I’ll ever read but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I loved the accounts of his marriage – so heart-warming.
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. Great stuff. Fantastic descriptions of sea sickness, the New York cold, homesickness, and re-entry shock. You felt you were there.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. Giving out 4 out of 10, because I’m feeling charitable.
Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress. Six out of ten.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Seven out of ten. I cried. I never cry at books.
The Writer’s Idea Book, by Jack Heffron. Nine out of ten; just what I have been looking for. Of course reading it is only half the story – it’s really all about the practical exercises.
The World According to Bertie, by Alexander McCall Smith (a 44 Scotland Street novel). Not high literature, but a perfectly pleasant and at times chucklesome read. Six and a half out of ten.
American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. Man, this guy can write. 9 out of ten.
Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. 8 out of ten. Loved his style. Enjoyed the first half more, but who knows if that was a change in my mood or really a change in the book
The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. I’ll say 7 out of ten, no, 7.5, because she has some great detail and insight into the lives and minds of teenagers. But the post-modernness of it irritated me a little – the whole not knowing what’s really real. Also, it felt like it just stopped, without resolving anything.
Sammy’s Hill, by Kristin Gore. The West Wing meets chick lit. Passed the time very pleasantly… 🙂 7/10
Let the Great World Spin – this is amazing. The writing is practically poetry, the characterisation is deep, the stories touching, the interlocking of lives done beautifully. 9.5 out of ten this one. I think it’s up there on my all-time favourites now..
God is closer than you think, by John Ortberg. Every bit as good as the first 35 times I’ve read it. Nine out of ten. Accessible, practical, inspiring.
The Piano Teacher, by Janice Lee – I hate giving up on books, but by page 130 I was ready to throw things. I didn’t much like her writing or the gory war details. Can only assume that whoever compared it to Atonement has never actually read any Ian McEwan.
One Day, by David Nicholl
Word Painting, by Rebecca McClanahan
An Equal music, by Vikram Seth

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

The Writer’s Ideas Workshop, by Jack Heffron

The Earth hums in B flat, by Mari Strahan

Plan B: What to do when God doesn’t turn up the way you thought He would, by Pete Wilson – recommended if you struggle with a hope deferred. Refreshingly honest and devoid of platitudes. So good that I begged my old Church to let me review it for their magazine. (Well, not begged, exactly. Offered. They said yes. Hooray.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger – brilliant.
The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell – full of useful info and inspirational quotes, like “a baboon can write 350 words per day. Don’t be shown up by a baboon.”
Writing your first novel, by Sophie King – Hmm. I don’t want to be negative, and there was useful stuff in here, and maybe if it had been the first book I’d read about writing, I would have enjoyed it more. But I found it a little patronising, and it seemed to assume we all want to write commercial fiction, and most of the examples given were from her own work, which grated a little. It’s possibly just a question of personal preference – I prefer the more academic kinds of books on this topic…
Hearts and Minds, by Amanda Craig. 7 out of 10. Enjoyed it, and at times found it hard to put down. Identified with a few of the characters, too, and it’s always nice to read a book set in a place you know well. The mention of Pimlico made me smile.
Did I kiss marriage goodbye? trusting God with a hope deferred, by Carolyn McCulley. Now I need to go through it all again and actually put this stuff into practice! If I do, my life and those of people around me will be hugely enriched. Recommended, but prepare to be challenged.
The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillip. This is a beautifully written love story – he makes poetry out of clicking iPad wheels and pinging open emails. Deserves to be better known. Nine out of ten. Loved it. One of my favourite books this year.
The Constant Art of Being a Writer, by N M Selby. A really useful overview of and introduction to the life, art, and business of writing – so it does what it says on the tin! 8 out of 10.
84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Relentlessly charming, to use of its own phrases. Full of pithy observations about Brits and Americans, which you will especially appreciate if you experience of both cultures. If you know London and New York, so much the better. 8 out of 10.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist – as a teenager, this would have blown my innocent little mind, but it’s a good read. The characters feel real and draw you into their world and their relationship.

A Writer’s Book of Days, by Judy Reeves. Her writing prompts are pure magic; her advice and inspiration is invaluable. A must for every writer’s bookshelf!
Nine and Counting – the Women of the Senate – dangerously inspiring
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark. Fun, dark, quirky, old-fashioned. 7.5/10.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham. Fun, entertaining, but the ending was a little on the ridiculous side. 7/10
Falling man, by Don DeLillo. I know realise why DeLillo is on all the if-you-want-to-write-you-must-read-this lists. Haunting, beautiful, heart-breaking. 8.5/10, but I may have loved it more if I hadn’t gulped it down so quickly. It’s one of those books that may be best savoured.
Incomparable, by Andrew Wilson. Bite-sized, highly accessible theology about the character of God. 8.5/10.
Extremely loud and incredibly close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Beautiful. Amazing writing. Again, haunting. 9/10
Okay, that might be cheating, since technically I haven’t finished it, but if you add the half or so of this I’ve read with the little of the Piano Teacher that I read, that might make 50 in total, which brings me to my goal.