Happy Endings

My wife and I had some good friends over for dinner on Saturday.  They asked me to tell them about my latest novel Sable Shadow and The Presence – as yet unpublished.  I ran through a synopsis of the novel and explained the key messages.  They listened attentively, and when I finished, Barbara said, “I’m glad it has a happy ending.”

I said, “Well, it’s not exactly a happy ending, but it did turn out a lot better than the key character might have expected.

“Barbara said, “It seems to be the fashion in fiction these days that every novel has to end in tragedy or at least in a down beat conclusion.”

I don’t know whether it’s true that fiction is in a depressed mode nowadays, but I know I couldn’t write a novel that ended badly for the characters.  In the first place, literature is supposed to be thought-provoking and entertaining.  For me, tragedies are not entertaining, and the only thoughts tragedies provoke are gloom and doom.  So, I don’t do outright tragedy. Yes, bad things happen to some of the characters (sometimes as a result of their own doing), but I give them the chance to make at least a partial recovery.  I think the average reader is more interested in the how and why of the recovery than s/he is in the tragedy itself.  We all know that tragedies happen; what we’d like to know is how people recover from them.  My view on writing about tragedy is probably influenced by my attitude toward life.  I’ve had my share of hard knocks, but I’ve managed (with God’s help) to get past the knocks, and I think that most people can do the same.  For example, a friend of mine referred me to a YouTube video of a man who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident.  He had been a very keen golfer.  Now, he’s back playing what looks like very good golf standing on only one leg.  It’s amazing that he can keep his balance while swinging his driver on one leg!

If I look back over my novels, Fishing in Foreign Seas could have ended very badly for Jamie, who is the lead character.  He could have lost his wife and his job.  He did lose the big order which he thought would make of break his career, but his wife forgave him, and his career was actually boosted by his efforts to win the order.

In Sin & Contrition, none of the six characters had their lives unfold as they had hoped and expected.  But, when I interviewed each of them at the end, they all felt – to varying degrees – that the good aspects of their lives outweighed the bad.

Efraim’s Eye ended rather badly for Efraim, the terrorist, but, so far, no readers have really lamented this.  Paul thought he would lose Sarah, the woman he intended to marry, but when he gave up Naomi, he was able to get Sarah back.  Naomi gave up Paul and her job, but she got the kind of life she really wanted in Israel.

In The Iranian Scorpion, Robert was condemned to die by hanging is a prison in eastern Iran, but at the end we find him planning a trip to Dubai with his girlfriend.

I suppose I am what you might call an incorrigible optimist.


My son and his family came to London this past weekend.  We had a very pleasant family reunion, and he ran the marathon.  His time was 3 hours and 19 minutes, which I think is a pretty good time, considering that he’s 43 – about twice the age of the leading marathoners.  It was a beautiful day, and he enjoyed the run.  He said that one distinctive feature of the London marathon is the huge turn-out of a very supportive crowd: “There was hardly any place where the crowd wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides, cheering encouragement!”


 I noticed no apprehension in the crowd or among the runners for a repeat of the tragedy of the Boston marathon: everyone (except a few tired runners) was having a very good time.  I’m certainly glad that both Tsarnaev brothers were found before they could do more damage.  And I find it hard to understand why someone leaves his home country to find a better life elsewhere, and then, when he’s settled in the new country, he finds so many faults with it that he wants to destroy it.  If he doesn’t like his adopted country, why doesn’t he go back where he came from?  We have the same problem in the UK, where Muslim fanatics leave the Middle East for a better life in the UK.  They become disillusioned and they (strangely) believe that their religion gives them the right to kill people.  I find it encouraging that the Canadian train bombers were turned in by members of the Muslim community – a community which is beginning to recognise its responsibility to police its own members.  I understand that the Tsarnaev brothers were ethnic Chechnyans.  Incidentally, there is a Chechnyan character in Efraim’s Eye who provides Efraim with the high explosive he needs for his attack on the London Eye.


All this thinking about marathons got me to reflect on the parallels between running a marathon and writing a novel.  Both activities require a lengthy effort, and some participants never finish.  It would be fair to say that both activities require a fair amount of training or practice.  A few participants win prizes in both cases.  And some people feel their spirits sag at some point during a marathon, and during the creation of a novel.  For many runners, their low point comes at the 15 to 20 mile mark, where they are starting to tire and they recognise that they still have a long way to go.  I have a similar experience when writing a novel: I start out with a burst of enthusiasm, eager to put words on paper.  Toward the middle of a novel, I find it a bit more difficult to motivate myself: there’s a lot more writing to be done.  As I approach the end of a novel, my enthusiasm returns, particularly when I have a clear idea of the conclusion, and I become very productive again – eager to complete the project.  Apart from the facts that running a marathon is a physical activity while writing a novel is largely mental, and that the time frames are quite different, there is one other major difference.  During any given marathon, a runner has only that one opportunity to product a good result during the race.  A novelist, however, can re-run his race many times: changing, correcting, editing, re-writing to produce a better result.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

I’ve just finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal.  It was highly recommended by my cousin, Peggy, and it won the 2010 Costa Biography Prize and was a Sunday Times best seller.  I dutifully bought a copy and read in during a recent trip to Sicily.  In many ways it is a fascinating book.
The hare in the title is a small ivory netsuke from a collection acquired by the author’s great grandfather’s cousin in Paris in the second half of the 19th century.  Netsuke are small, precious, hand-carved and polished figures of animals and people, made in Japan by skilled craftsmen of ivory or unique hard wood, like boxwood.  The collector, Charles Ephrussi (born 1849), was from an extremely wealthy Jewish family originating in the Ukraine.  The family made their money buying and selling grain from the Ukraine and later in a banking empire.  The story traces the lives and life styles of the family from Odessa in the Ukraine to Paris to Vienna to Tokyo to London (where the author now lives) alongside the collection of 264 netsuke that were passed through the family.  The collection is quite extraordinary in that all 264 pieces of the original collection have survived several transfers between family members, including temporary custody under the mattress of a ladies maid during the Nazi occupation.  The pieces, while extremely valuable as a collection were also very precious to their various custodians.
But it is not the netsuke which take centre stage in this story, which is really about the lives (good times and bad) of the family members.  Particularly fascinating are the descriptions of the life styles in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century.  They are life styles which we would not recognise today.  For the family, things started to go very wrong with the rise to power of the Nazis.  But post-war, with family members scattered through Europe, America and Japan, lives became stable and even improved.
The book strikes one as a very learned biography.  It is erudite, and colourfully descriptive, with an extensive vocabulary and frequent phrases in French or German.  But it is the descriptions of people’s daily habits, their attitudes, priorities, activities, dress, etc., in the various cities over a period of 15 decades which are most fascinating. 
The family characters are real, but they seem suitably distant and untouchable.  We know them from a distance.  The descriptions of settings and the author’s reflections on what he has learned are sometimes too copious, but I suppose the author wants to immerse us in the results of his very extensive research, from which he, himself, took great pains and satisfaction.  In fact, I find it rather startling that De Waal was able to take two years away from his family (married with three children) and his occupation (world-famous ceramic artist) to do all the necessary research.  But he deserves our thanks for creating a fascinating biography and a literary treat.

Are Women Writers Disadvantaged?

There’s an article in today’s The Daily Telegraph headed “It’s the same old story of women writers, claims novelist“.  The article, written by Rosa Silverman, is as follows:

Women writers remain disadvantaged by a male dominated literary world in which men do not want them to succeed, a female novelist has claimed.  Elizabeth Jane Howard, who wrote the Cazalet tetralogy, said that female authors suffered “a hard time politically and sexually”, suggesting little had changed since the 19th century.  Jane Austin was “respectfully received” but others such as George Eliot had to disguise their names for “a better chance of being taken seriously,” she noted.  Almost two centuries on, writers such as JK Rowling and AS Byatt did the same, possibly for similar reasons, she said.  Howard, 90, who was married to the author Kingsley Amis, said that instead of allowing women to succeed on their merits, the world of male critics and editors “scratch each other’s backs.  I think men are more sympathetic to the work of men,” she said.  “They find domestic, emotional matters more difficult.”  The writer VS Naipaul was among those who have expressed the views to which she  was referring, Howard said.  In a 2011 interview, he dismissed women writers as “unequal” to him and criticised their sentimentality.  Howard, whose fans include Hilary Mantel, who has won the Man Booker Prize twice, added: “I think at higher levels, a talented male writer would have an easier journey than a talented female writer, who might very well get bad reviews.”  Although there are signs that men’s perceptions are changing for the better, the general position of women around the world “is showing no signs of improving”, she added.  Howard, who won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her first novel, The Beautiful Visit in 1951, said: “Women are not starting from an equal position.  People say that because they have got the vote, the problem is over.”

I would be very interested in what my readers think of Ms. Howard’s views.

I think that she almost certainly has a point, but that she overstated her case.  I think it is wrong to imply that women writers are as ill-received now as they were two hundred years ago.  It’s also not clear to me that Rowling and Byatt used their initials rather than their first names to prevent discrimination.  After all, it is very difficult to hide one’s gender in today’s world (behind initials, or almost anything else).  As I may have said elsewhere, I think that women are definitely better at expressing emotion than men (part of the DNA?).  If one accepts that this is true, would it be fair to say that women tend to choose themes which allow them the liberty to display their superiority?  And would it also be fair to say that men find this superiority uncomfortable?  If so, this may account for Ms. Howard’s perception that male critics and editors discriminate against women.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that women writers suffer “a hard time politically and sexually”.  They don’t seem to be suffering sexually.  What male author can match the success of E L James Fifty Shades of Grey?  And what do politics have to do with writing?  I would have said that “women writers may suffer discrimination professionally and socially.”

It seems to me it is an exaggeration to say that the general position of women around the world “is showing no signs of improving”.  I would argue that women writers are winning more recognition in the West, where there is a greater appreciation of the expressive skills of women.  In the Middle East and in Asia, progress may be slower, but I have the impression that women are finding greater professional recognition in many fields.

What do you think?

Fiction Writing Tips

Melissa Donovan has 42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists on the website “Writing Forward”.  You can view her entire list here: http://www.writingforward.com/writing-tips/42-fiction-writing-tips-for-novelists.

I have picked out my top ten of her tips, and give my reasons for the selections below:

  • Don’t lock yourself into one genre (in reading or writing). Even if you have a favorite genre, step outside of it once in awhile so you don’t get too weighed down by trying to fit your work into a particular category.  (This particular piece of advice appeals to me because I haven’t selected ‘my genre’.  [See the post on Genre.]  I think this advice is especially appropriate for reading.  Reading different genres can definitely open the mind.)
  • Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.  (This advice is related to the item above.  It seems to me that some writers have a genre which the market – and readers – recognise.  Sticking to that genre and their market can make them financially successful.  Think J K Rowling.  But even she has branched out with an adult story she wanted to tell.)
  • Make your characters real through details. A girl who bites her nails or a guy with a limp will be far more memorable than characters who are presented in lengthy head-to-toe physical descriptions.  (This is a very good point.  I think that what the writer should try to do is to stimulate the reader’s imagination, and a small, but telling detail is probably the best way to do that.)
  • The most realistic and relatable characters are flawed. Find something good about your villain and something dark in your hero’s past.  (In Efraim’s Eye, the villain has a  past which distorts his view of women, and one tends to feel sorry for him.)
  • Avoid telling readers too much about the characters. Instead, show the characters’ personalities through their actions and interactions.  (To this I would add, what the characters say.  The words a character chooses and the way they phrase their opinions can say a lot about their values.)
  • Every great story includes transformation. The characters change, the world changes, and hopefully, the reader will change too.  (I think that we’re all interested in important change – as long as it doesn’t hurt us.  We like to see how and why others change, and the effects on them.  In Efraim’s Eye, Naomi goes through a major change: from being an unfulfilled nomad to setting down nourishing roots.)
  • Aim for a story that is both surprising and satisfying. The only thing worse than reading a novel and feeling like you know exactly what’s going to happen is reading a novel and feeling unfulfilled at the end — like what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Your readers invest themselves in your story. They deserve an emotional and intellectual payoff.  (Very true!)
  • Let the readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let the readers fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.  (I think this advice is particularly appropriate for sex scenes.  I used to think I had to paint a complete picture; now, I believe that a few brush strokes are sufficient to engage the reader’s imagination.)
  • Appeal to readers’ senses. Use descriptive words that engage the readers’ senses of taste, touch, and smell.  (To this I would add the reader’s sense of hearing.  Sometimes it’s appropriate for the reader to hear what’s going on.)
  • Apply poetry techniques to breathe life into your prose. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.  (This is about engaging the reader’s brain at another level.  Ms. Donovan has another point about ‘crafting compelling language’.  When we surprise the reader, we get him/her thinking.)

There are plenty of other excellent suggestions on the website!