Can Artificial Intelligence Help Write Better Novels?

In a post written by J D Lasica, the Chief Experience Officer and Co-Founder of Authors A. I., on July 9, 2020 on the Writers Digest website explores the above intriguing idea.  Mr Lasica is the author of Catch and Kill.

J D Lasica

Excerpts from his post appear below.

“Of all the sectors that artificial intelligence is disrupting—finance, health care, transportation—the creative art of fiction writing seems like the least likely candidate to be impacted by A.I.

But A.I. has arrived like a gift-wrapped box on the doorstep of the author community. Should we open it up? Or do we need to worry that what’s inside will put authors out of a job?

It turns out that a new fiction-savvy bot is not out to take the place of the next Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Atwood. Nor is it out to displace editors or other humans.

The A.I. program, from the tech startup Authors A.I., was built to help the next generation of authors write great books, attract large readerships and maybe even hit the bestseller lists. And, yes, to help authors’ own careers.

Many maverick fiction authors start writing their first manuscript thinking they’ll write a book that defies the rules and blazes a completely new path—wholly original, conventions be damned. They imagine writing a work of such staggering genius, as Dave Eggers might put it, that it could give birth to an entire sub-genre all its own.

Marlowe, the name the founders gave to the A.I., is adept at identifying the shortcomings of a fiction manuscript. She is programmed to send authors down the proper path. In the end, novel writing often involves a right way and a wrong way to tell a story. You don’t want to end your romance novel with a murder-suicide, no matter how brilliant your prose.

That’s where artificial intelligence can help. Marlowe won’t write any passages for authors. But she has studied a large number of books that hit the bestseller lists and she’s reverse-engineered the components of popular novels that resonated with readers.

The best novels are those that meet certain reader expectations for their genre while delivering the story in a fresh and original way. That insight is liberating, because it frees authors to write books that delight readers instead of wasting time raging against literary conventions or the strictures of traditional editors.

The first area where A.I. can help with storytelling is a sort of big-picture eye-of-God look at the plot structure and spine of a story.

Many of the best stories follow a certain playbook (“formula” is such a nasty word), with a beginning hook, an inciting event that propels the protagonist into the middle build, a midpoint shift that turns the story in an entirely new direction, an assortment of reversals and revelations, and a climactic buildup leading to an ending payoff.

Marlowe can identify these major plot points and tell at a glance whether they’re positioned correctly. She will point out the specific passage or line of dialogue where these major plot turns occur.

Authors who use Marlowe are running each draft of their manuscripts through her as they reposition chapters and major action scenes.

It generally takes authors time and dedication to master the art of pacing. A story ebbs and flows. Authors may start out their novel in media res, with a big action scene, or at a more languid pace, focusing on world building or foreshadowing or fleshing out characters.

But even veteran authors have a hard time assessing whether they’ve properly spaced out their peaks and valleys—the spots where readers turn pages quickly or slowly. The most successful writers vary the pace of their story to provide variety, and also to provide relief to the reader. No one wants to read a thriller with 60 chapters of nonstop action and no letup. One of Marlowe’s most popular features is a visualization of a novel’s pacing.

Marlowe takes the pulse of major characters and lets authors know if they’ve done a good job providing enough variety through the actions they take. (As Henry James said, plot is the act of putting characters under pressure.) Unlike feedback from critique groups, who are unfailingly polite, Marlowe has no hesitation in pointing out that a hero is too passive or a villain is way too much of a nice guy.

This A.I. breaks down the ratio of dialogue versus narration in a work and compares the percentages to that of bestselling novels. Several authors have found, after using Marlowe, that they hadn’t realized they had tipped too far into dialogue when narrative summary was called for.

It turns out that subject matter is a major determinant of whether a book becomes a bestseller—not the specific topic or theme of the book so much as the importance of streamlining the story so only one or two major subjects dominate instead of a lots of tangential side plots that dilute the main storyline.

This is a tendency seen in a lot of debut novels where the author is tempted to draw from life experience and cram everything under the sun into an overstuffed narrative. William Faulkner put it well: “You must kill all your darlings.” With that awareness in mind, Marlowe charts out top subject matters and their presence in the novel.

Her cliché finder tells authors about that bird in the hand, but it’s up to them to decide if they should avoid clichés like the plague or are striking the right balance for readers.

She plays copy editor, too, pointing out not just misspellings, but your authorial tics—repetitive phrases, overused adjectives and adverbs, as well as use of the passive voice—and provides the reading grade level and complexity score for the book.

Fiction authors have seen the marketplace change radically in the past decade with the dawn of ebooks, self-publishing and, now, a boom in audiobooks.

It’s time to add artificial intelligence to the list.”

Having looked at the Authors A. I. website, and checked out their pricing, I’m inclined to give the service a try.

Personalities of Successful Authors

There is a two-year old article in Inc. magazine by Kaleigh Moore titled ‘6 Characteristics Every Great Write Has in Common’, which I found interesting.  Ms Moore’s website says, “I write blog content for eCommerce platforms and the SaaS tools that integrate with them.  I’ve been hired by top companies on the Fortune 500 as well as growing SaaS companies. Some of my past and present clients include AT&T, ReCharge Payments, Shopify, and IBM.  I also write about retail for major publications like Forbes, Vogue Business, and Adweek.”

Kaleigh Moore

While it is unclear where Ms Moore gets the expertise to write about writers, perhaps she is self-taught.  Here is what she said:

“It’s hard to know if you’re a good writer–especially if no one has ever torn apart a piece you’ve written or “ooohed” and “ahhhed” over your work. But one of the easiest ways to spot a great writer is through the qualities he/she exhibits on a daily basis.

These qualities are essential for an effective writer because they spotlight a certain devotion and openness–both of which are necessary to achieve writing greatness. Read through this list and see if you line up with the 6 most important qualities of an effective writer.

1. Attention to Detail

Great writers are observers, always taking mental notes and noting subtle changes around them. This attention to detail not only makes them fantastic editors who can spot the smallest grammatical error during a read-through, but it adds a special touch to their writing, too. No descriptive detail gets left behind.

2. Discipline

Writers who excel are familiar with frustration because re-writes, edits, and improvements all come by maintaining a disciplined approach to writing. Great writers are devoted to constantly re-evaluating their work, no matter how small the task may be. They focus on their craft and are constantly working to get better through intense discipline.

3. Clarity

An effective writer is able to distil complex thoughts and ideas into simple, clear language that’s quickly and easily understood by others. This valuable quality helps them tackle even the densest subject matter by breaking it down into uncomplicated pieces.

4. Strong Vocabulary

No one likes to read the same words over and over again, so a strong, robust vocabulary is an asset to any good writer. Incorporating interesting and unusual words into their writing, this skill helps them maintain a reader’s interest and allows them to communicate more effectively by accessing the perfect word for any situation.

5. Open to Changes

Being open to external edits and suggestions is key for exceptional writers because it enables them to improve their writing, even though it might damage their ego in the meantime. Open-mindedness allows them to see their work through the eyes of others and improve weak points.

6. Passion for Reading

Voracious readers often make great writers, because being immersed in a world of words helps one better understand the nuts and bolts of writing (like syntax, tone, framing, etc.) The more one reads, the more learned he/she becomes on all of the different writing tools and stylistic angles that exist.”

 

The Self-Publishing School website lists these five characteristics of authors: Exercise Patience, Apply Consistency, Practise Optimism, Value Criticism and Be Empathetic.

It seems to me that Discipline and Apply Consistency and both Discipline; and Open to Changes and Value Criticism are both Value Criticism.  For me, both characteristics are important.

Attention to Detail is important in the text one produces, but being observant of what goes on around you is less important than Being Empathetic; after all, novels are ’empathy machines’.

Clarity is definitely important, and rather than Strong Vocabulary, I would say Excellent Command of English, as being a general skill.

Passion for reading, as Ms Moore says, is important.

Patience can be a useful trait, but I think that if one is Disciplined, one must necessarily also be patient

Practise Optimism doesn’t feel right for me.  While I am an optimist, I think the valuable trait is Be Motivated.  In other words, I think it’s OK to be a pessimist as long as you’re motivated.

For me there is one essential ingredient, particularly if one is a novelist, that is left off both lists:  Creativity

My list of the top 8 characteristics is therefore:

  • Be Empathetic
  • Be Disciplined
  • Be Motivated
  • Be Creative
  • Clarity
  • Excellent Command of English
  • Open to Changes
  • Passion for Reading

 

Four Tips from Shakespeare

There is an article by Karin Abarbanel in the February 12, 2020 issue of The Writer’s Dig in which she reports on a challenge from a friend to spend an hour a day for a month on something that would improve her writing skills.  She decided to spend an hour each day revisiting and analysing Shakespeare’s plays.

Ms Abaranel has an M.A. in Renaissance English Literature from Columbia University. She recently completed the manuscript for her first novel, Britomar and the Forest of No Return, a middle-grade fantasy adventure, which she is currently submitting to agents. As a nonfiction author, she has been published by Penguin Random House, Henry Holt, and McGraw-Hill.

Karin Abarbanel

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

Getting Started:

Search the internet for advice on how to start a novel and you’re likely to see the words in media res pop up. The message: parachute your readers into the middle of your story. Would Shakespeare agree? Not necessarily—he’s far more versatile and audience-friendly.

Yes, he begins Macbeth with thunder, lightning, and three witches just itching to stir up trouble—his version of an action opening. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare makes a different choice. He might have cut to the chase and dropped us into the middle of the action with, say, a love-struck Romeo wooing Juliet while she swoons on her balcony. But he doesn’t. Instead, he uses a prologue to bring the audience up to speed about the two warring families his “star-crossed lovers” spring from. Romeo and Juliet don’t even meet until the end of Act I. The balcony scene? Act II.

Generally, Shakespeare wants those viewing his plays to be curious, not confused; led not lost. So he opts for slow builds in place of flashy gateways that can be exciting but disorienting. By choosing to anchor his audiences—not set them adrift—he provides a framework for the events and actions of his characters that propel his dramas forward.

Among the gateway strategies Shakespeare artfully employs to ease his way into a story: 1) stage-setting prologues that frame and clarify the action about to take place; 2) minor characters who serve as “stand-ins” for viewers and discuss recent disturbing or puzzling developments; 3) brief “history” lessons recapping past occurrences so viewers have a context for understanding present events; 4) monologues by major characters revealing fatal decisions that trigger ensuing action.

Tell Well

Popular thriller novelist Lee Child once told a room of writers, “Forget ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Writers are storytellers—and that’s what readers depend on us to do. They don’t care about telling or showing. They just want to be carried through a book. There is nothing wrong with just telling the story. So liberate yourself from that rule.”

Lee and Will are on the same page. “Show, don’t tell”—this is one widely cited “rule” that Shakespeare would have ignored if he’d ever come across it in his day. Yes, he loves to “show” dramatic moments: those three witches stirring their black, bubbling cauldron on the heath, the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father haunting his castle ramparts, Brutus stabbing Julius Caesar. But Shakespeare also woos his audience with words through targeted telling—deft descriptions that fire the imagination.

We don’t just see Juliet in that famous balcony scene, we also eavesdrop on her rhapsodizing about Romeo. Hamlet’s riveting “To be or not to be” speech is a master class in telling: Hamlet reveals his paralyzing indecisiveness as he tries to rouse himself to action by describing the steps he could take to avenge his murdered father. And in Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen’s luxurious “love boat” is nowhere in sight; instead, Shakespeare has an observer conjure up a vivid word picture, and scores an impressive feat: simultaneously telling and showing.

Time and again, Shakespeare captures a character’s essence by piling on colorful adjectives and descriptive phrases—telling us in no uncertain terms, who or what a person is—or is perceived to be.

Make Minor Characters Count

Who knows better than Shakespeare how to make minor characters come alive? Not only are they lusty and full-blooded, they’re also hardworking. Shakespeare consistently gives them high-impact jobs to do, from dropping important clues to making fateful mistakes that advance his plots.

Read his plays back to back and you can’t help but admire his inventiveness: He uses his bit players in a stunning variety of ways, depending again, on the needs of the story he’s dramatizing. Sometimes they set the stage, so to speak, so we know what’s going on before the main characters hit the boards. Sometimes “lowly” characters offer wry observations about the high-born masters they serve. Some minor characters provide moments of great drama and insight; and others, humorous interludes.

In fact, he’s so artful that he can breathe life into even the most fleeting of characters with a few deft strokes of his pen, much the way an artist creates a clever caricature with a few bold slashes of ink. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Juliet’s nurse makes just the slightest mention of “Susan,” her own daughter:

“Susan and she [Juliet]—God rest all Christian souls!—were of an age.

Well, Susan is with God; she was too good for me.”

In two stark lines, we learn that Juliet’s nurse had a daughter who would have been exactly Juliet’s age if she hadn’t died years before as an infant. We feel the fresh pain of the nurse’s loss, but even more important, we instantly grasp the reason for her deep, motherly devotion to Juliet. We never hear another word about Susan, but her life echoes through the play in the tragic steps the nurse takes to help her beloved Juliet.

Create Anticipation

Setting readers or viewers up for what happens next in a story keeps them hungry, curious, and engaged. The more often and skillfully we fuel anticipation, the more we heighten the drama of major events. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare excels at releasing just enough information to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting anxiously for what happens next.

At the end of Act III of Macbeth, for example, the ruthless, besieged Macbeth reveals to the audience that he plans to kill the family of his enemy, Lord Macduff. In the next scene, Macduff’s wife and her precocious son enact a warm, winsome scene that is painful to watch because viewers know what the characters on stage don’t—that they are about to be murdered.

To ratchet up the drama—and viewer anxiety—Shakespeare has a stranger burst in and warn Macduff’s wife to leave. As helpless onlookers, we yearn for her to escape but know it’s too late—she has mere minutes to live. When Macbeth’s henchmen burst in and murder her and her son, it’s a terrible moment—made far more devastating because Shakespeare so cleverly and economically sets us up for it.

I agree with Ms Abarbanel’s conclusions except on telling well, and I think that Lee Child is wrong when he says that readers don’t care about showing or telling.  If the reader can be shown rather than told what a character is feeling, s/he has to interpret what s/he has been shown.  In the process of interpreting, s/he is drawn closer to the character.   So, I would say if there is an effective way to show the character’s feelings, chose that rather than telling what the feelings are.

 

Review: A Delicate Truth

I was on holiday recently and I had finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.  Hoping to find a new book, I noticed that the hotel shop had a shelf of books – all in English, which I thought was a bit unusual as it was a Mexican resort.  I asked the shop keeper whether they were for sale.

“No,” she said, “but you can borrow one.”

That wouldn’t do, because we were going to leave that hotel soon and I wanted to finish a book at leisure.  So, I asked, “Is it possible to trade a book?”

“Yes, that would be fine.”  So I left them The Grapes of Wrath and I selected A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré.  I have to say that the hotel got the better part of that deal, but I bought another copy of The Grapes of Wrath when I got home.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell who was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England.  He is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. 

He studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corp of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West.  In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College,Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.  When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School.  In 1955, he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins.  In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal, and official award of the Federal Republic of Germany, given annually by the Goethe-Institut to “non-Germans who have performed outstanding service for the German language and for international cultural relations”.

John le Carré

This novel, published in 2013, concerns a failed plot by the British and Americans to capture a jihadist who was, reportedly, about to buy arms in Gibraltar.  The plot was conceived by a shadowy American private intelligence firm and endorsed by a British minister.  It involved British special forces who would flush the jihadist from a meeting with a notorious Middle Eastern arms dealer into the hands of the Americans who had their special forces in a boat on the water.   A middle ranking British Foreign Officer, who was observing events in Gibraltar was to advise the minister whether the situation was ‘go’.  When events turned sour, the officer advised ‘no’, but the minister with American backing decided ‘yes’.   The result was a failed operation which resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and her child.  In the aftermath of the operation, there was a cover-up, the minister was reassigned, and the observing officer was given a knighthood and a plum assignment in the Caribbean.  The bulk of the story concerns Toby Bell, a rising star in the Foreign Office, who was not involved, but who was suspicious at the time.  Bell gradually uncovers the whole story, its participants, and has to decide whether to risk his career to blow the whistle.

This novel is not on a par with John le Carré’s typical craftsmanship. It seems contrived and hastily put together.  For me, the author did not get the balance right between the credibility of the story, which would have been enhanced by more detail and a more deliberate pace, and the aura of secrecy surrounding the story.  The sensational aspects of the story contribute to a believe-ability problem in the sense that how likely is (or was) it that all these features would coincide in real life: a stubborn, wilful, isolated minister, an incompetent, headstrong group of Americans, a secret arms transfer being made on the streets of Gibraltar, a notorious, super-rich arms dealer on his yacht in Gibraltar harbour, a middle grade officer being given a knighthood for his meaningless participation, two murders in Gibraltar that go unnoticed and so on?  The characters are real; the suspense and the intrigue are vintage le Carré, but the editor was asleep.

Give it a pass.  There are much better le Carré novels.

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Crime Writing

The opinion, The Shadow of Violence, by Jane Casey appears in the winter 2019 edition of The Author. Ms Casey is the author of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels.  Her most recent novel is Let the Dead Speak.

Jane Casey

Ms Casey takes exception to the Staunch Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, screenwriter and author of educational material on violence.  The prize is awarded to books that do not feature violence against women.  Ms Lawless says the purpose of the award is to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women, and make sense for exciting alternatives.

Ms Casey says, “Our genre may frequently feature murderous rage, but crime writers are renowned as a calm, close-knit and pleasant literary collective.  It takes a lot to get us agitated; we generally work through our darker feelings in our books.  Yet nothing has stirred us up more than the Staunch Prize.  The reaction of many crime writers has ranged from scepticism to hurt to actual outrage.  Crime writers are defensive.  Crime is a genre that struggles for critical respect, despite brilliant and inventive writing and enormous popularity with readers.  The Staunch Prize feels like a response to the bad old days when crime was thought of as low-grade and vulgar entertainment, designed to titillate and thrill, devoid of any merit.

“At a recent literary festival ion London, I suggested that it is the duty of writers who write contemporary crime novels to reflect society as it is at that moment.  We live in a state of perpetual change; what appals one generation barely ruffles the feathers of the next.  Universal crimes – the ones that echo through the generations – are crimes against people.  These stories are as old as time; not telling then does not make them go away.  Telling stories about these crimes to a new audience has an important function: this is part of the world and it must be understood like any other threat to our safety and well being.

“The Staunch Prize website asserts that through their work, crime writers are perpetuating rape myths.”  (The rape myth, based on academic research, is that jurors are reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men of rape because such men do not fit the idea of rapists that jurors have internalised from stories and popular culture.)  She continues, “But contemporary crime writers, I would argue, no longer perpetuate the myth that only ‘stranger rape’ is ‘real rape’. We do the opposite.

“With the rise of the domestic noir genre of psychological thriller, crime-writing has moved inside the home to focus on exactly those behaviours that the Staunch Prize suggests it obscures.  Gaslighting, emotional abuse, coercive control, domestic violence, rape: all of these are real crimes that affect women (and often men) behind closed doors.  Exploring them in fiction is a way of placing them in context for victims and those of us in society who have never had to endure similar experiences – even, eventually jurors.

“A 2013 study by psychologists at York University in Toronto found that reading two genres in particular was a significant predictor of greater ‘interpersonal sensitivity’ – romance and suspense/thrillers.  Reading crime makes us more empathetic rather than blunting our sensibilities.  A 2010 Harris poll found that crime and thrillers were the most popular novels for both men and women, with 57% off female readers enjoying them (compared to 39% of male readers).”

As a footnote: Dorothy, a junior doctor, in my novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, is raped by her supervisor, a senior consultant.  She goes public, winning public support, forcing the resignation of the consultant, who flees the country, and a financial settlement.

Review: The Cut Out Girl

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es, won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2018 after being named biography of the year.  It is non-fiction about a Dutch girl of Jewish heritage who was placed by her parents in the care of others in 1942.  As such, it bears some resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank, but the girl, Hesseline (Lien) de Jong is moved on multiple occasions to escape being sent to the to the death camps, where most of her family, including her parents were murdered.  The story is told by the grandson of the couple who were Lien’s principal foster parents.  Bart Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands in 1972, researched the story and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University.

Bart Van Es

Lien de Jong is now over 80, living in Amsterdam; she has children of her own.  Born into a middle-class, secular Jewish family, she was seven years old when, in 1942, her parents decided to place her into a Christian family for her safety.  At the time Jews were being deported to the death camps and had already been stigmatised.  Over 80% of the Jews living in Holland at the beginning of the war died in the Holocaust.  This is a gripping story of bravery on the part of many non-Jews in the Netherlands during the war; they risked their own lives to save thousands of children.  The story proceeds along two tracks: Lien’s story – her background, the events of the war years, and the after war years; and the author’s account of his thorough and painstaking research into the events, the people and the places that Lien experienced, as well as into the culture and circumstances as they affected Jews in Holland during the war years.  Since the author had heard that his grandparents had fostered Lien and that at one time she was considered part of the Van Es family, he wanted to understand why, after the war, Lien had fallen out with his grandparents.

The title is derived from Lien’s ‘poesy album’ in which she kept notes and little poems written by her friends, and in which there are pasted several cut outs of old fashioned girls.  But Lien, herself is a cut out girl being moved from one family to another without notice.

This story is timely, as Antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe.  The author’s fear that this is just another Holocaust story is un-founded.  It is told with such detail of the events, the feelings and motivations of the people involved that it is difficult to put down.  One is almost literally trans-located to the cities, villages, and houses in war-time Holland.  The author’s writing is straight forward and without extra emotional embellishment.  One has to admire the meticulousness of his research into people, places and events.  He clearly established a remarkably close relationship with Lien, the central figure, nearly twice his age, who had fallen out with his family.  My only quibble about the book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the numerous families who provided shelter to Lien, and what their relationships were to one another.  Clearly, though, Lien didn’t know this either.

This is without a doubt the best biography I’ve read in a long time.  It’s one that gives you faith in human nature is spite of all the evil around us.

Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I decided I had to read this book which is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century.  It is written by Carson McCullers, who was born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of three children of Lamar Smith, a jeweller of French Huguenot descent, and Marguerite Waters.  As a child, she was encouraged both to play the piano and to write stories.  At the age of seventeen she went to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music, but she lost her enrolment money on the subway.  She returned to Columbus temporarily to recover from rheumatic fever.  Back in New York, she studied writing and produced her first piece of writing.  She married Reeves McCullers, and ex-soldier and aspiring writer in 1937.  In 1940, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published to considerable critical acclaim.  She went on to write three more novels, several plays and short stories.  She divorced Reeves in 1941 and remarried him in 1945.  In the interim, she fell in love with several women, including Gypsy Rose Lee, but, reportedly, her attempts to have sex with any of them came to naught.  Reeves committed suicide in 1953, having failed in his aim to persuade his wife to commit suicide with him.  Carson McCullers was an alcoholic who suffered from strokes; she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 31 and died at the age of 50 in Nyack, NY.  Her writing style is described as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally titled The Mute, takes its name from the poem The Lonely Heart by William Sharp: “Deep Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”

The novel has six main characters: John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos who are both deaf mutes and close friends.  Spiros is hospitalised when his mental health deteriorates.  Singer stays in the small mill town in Georgia, where he works as a silver engraver in the 1930’s,  There are also Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who loves music and dreams of owning a piano, but, out of necessity, has to work at Woolworths; Dr Benedict Copeland, an old black doctor who is filled with anger at the plight of blacks in the South; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a twenty-four hour diner; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic, violent labour organiser.  Each of these latter four is attracted to John Singer by his placid demeanour and his apparent sympathy with their individual angst.  The well-drawn characters suffer from loneliness which McCullers interprets with deep empathy.

When the book was first published, it was unusual for a young author to write with such effective sympathy about those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.  She also highlights the oppressive race relations in the South in the 1930’s.

For me, however, the book moves at too slow a pace, and while this largely matches the pace of the setting, I found myself losing interest now and then.  The characters, the setting and the emotions are very real; the writing is excellent, if only it moved a little faster.

Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.