How to tell genre-snobs to f- off in 3 glorious phases

This week:

  • I am not happy that I was genre-shamed
  • It takes me less than a minute to think of three examples of fantasy in ‘great classic literature’
  • It’s weird boiling Hamlet down to ‘man is haunted by the ghost of his murdered father until he goes on a homicidal rampage’

Guess who had someone try to genre-shame her today!

You guessed right – it was me.

For all my fellow Fantasy-lovers out there who have had people look down their noses at you, here are three quick come-backs for the genre-snobs who try to make you feel small.

Oh, you only like the Classics?

I take it you’ve read The Iliad in the original Greek, then?

No?  Me neither.

Still, I love those stories.  All those cursed women with snakes for hair and half-bird women luring sailors with song to their island piled high with skulls…  All those men chatting with gods and riding winged horses…

Can I draw your attention to:

  • Gods meddling in the lives of mortals
  • Gods turning into animals
  • Gods turning mortals into animals or half-animals
  • Centaurs
  • Harpies
  • The Minotaur
  • Sea monsters
  • Men with supernatural strength
  • Women leaping fully-formed out of their fathers’ heads

The list very much goes on.

Oh, you mean British classics?

I guess the most famous British (English) author is Shakespeare, huh?

I’m so glad he didn’t dabble in Fantasy.

However, may I draw your attention to:

  • The king of the fairies sending his fey servant to pour nectar from a magical flower into the eyes of four young mortals in order to make them fall in love (AMSND)
  • A half-man, half-donkey (AMSND)
  • Witches (Macbeth)
  • Potions that make the drinker appear dead when they’re not (R&J)
  • A magician summoning a storm to ship-wreck the treacherous brother who usurped him (The Tempest)
  • A spirit that had been trapped in a tree by a witch (The Tempest)
  • The ghost of a murdered king haunting his son in his quest for vengeance (Hamlet)

Oh, you mean only serious literature?

You mean literature which explores serious themes such as social injustice, poverty, morality, lost love, the wasted lives of men, and their immortal souls?

Like literature by Dickens, perhaps?

Like A Christmas Carol?  That story in which a ghost haunts his old business partner before supernatural being transport Scrooge off on a magical adventure for him to learn a moral lesson?

Would you like to consider:

  • Ghosts drifting round, weighed down by chains forged of their own selfish acts (ACC)
  • The ability to travel back in time and forward into the future (ACC)
  • The spectre appearing to haunt the railway, warning of impending disasters (The Signalman)

Conclusion

Magic and fantastical elements have long been a way for great writers to explore key themes.

Magic has fascinated people for thousands of years and there is part of us that gets a thrill from hearing about the cool stuff that witches and shape-shifters and prophets can do.

It’s also a safe (and effective) way for writers to present ideas in an enjoyable, understandable and relatable way for wide audiences.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood is a much more interesting experience than an authority figure simply stating outright ‘don’t go into the woods’.

The greatest (most recognised) writers throughout history have utilised our love of the strange and inexplicable to captivate us.  The fact that they have also presented this fantastical element in an intriguing, structured and beautiful way is testament to their writing prowess.

Therefore, don’t try to tell me that it is easier or less worthy to write anything with magic in it.  The skill and craft and understanding of form, audience, structure and language is inherently the same.

Fantasy has, and continues to be, a popular and richly-developed genre which explores some of the most pressing concerns of the age in a new and imaginative and digestible way.

So check your genre-snobbery at the door if you want to chat to me about ‘great literature’.

How a One-Star Review Convinced Me to Read ‘Kings of the Wyld’

This week, I marvel at:

  • The irony of the situation
  • The brilliance of Nicholas Eames
  • How funny the word ‘titillation’ sounds

One-star reviews

We have all read one-star reviews.

Some of us read them for fun.

I also read at least one five-star and one one-star review of a book if I can’t decide whether to buy it or not.

It helps me to get an idea of what sort of people like and don’t like it, as well as why they like and don’t like it.

Ranting in reviews

Ranting and raving about how much you hated a book is not necessarily a kind thing to do.

And it’s not necessarily constructive.

A lot of review rants are almost unintelligible, poorly-written and nonsensical.

It shows, actually, that you’re letting your knee-jerk emotional response get the better of your reason.

In fact, one-star rants can have the opposite effect from the one the reviewer intended.

Why I’m suspicious of rants in reviews

I have a deep suspicion of any review that states ‘I didn’t like this book, it’s rubbish’. 

I suspect the reviewer actually doesn’t know whether it’s a good book at all; they’re just spewing hatred because they didn’t like it.

Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t actually mean it’s bad.  There are loads of great books out there that really aren’t to my taste.

Ironically, I’m more likely to give the book a shot if the negative reviews are badly written; if people can’t write accurate, thoughtful reviews (even if they are negative), then they’re probably not the sort of people I want to listen to.

Check out my blog post ‘How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness’ for more information about structuring reviews, being accurate and giving your opinion in a reasonable way.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is an Epic Fantasy novel by Nicholas Eames, published in 2017.

It has won numerous awards, which kind of goes to show how brilliant it is, but I didn’t know any of that when I bought it and started reading it.

The review

I came across this review because Nicholas Eames tweeted a screen-shot of it, which was in turn re-tweeted by an author I followed at the time.  It meant I saw this one-star review without ever having encountered the author.  I knew nothing about his book until this moment.

You’ll see exactly why I was so intrigued.

This is the review that I saw:

In case you’re using a screen reader or other access requirements to read this blog, this is what the review says:

“Stopped reading once it turned out the wizard had a “husband” and every other “hero” character is a submissive beta male. If this kind of stuff titillates your progressive mind – this book is for you. If you are a normal red blooded male – stay away from this crap.”

Why I instantly bought that book

No word of a lie, I bought that book right there and then.

My first thought was:

I have a progressive mind in need of titillation!

The review told me everything I needed to know about Kings of the Wyld.

It even told me things that the blurb couldn’t.

I knew instantly that:

  • This wasn’t going to be yet another misogynistic Fantasy book
  • It had (positive) queer representation (I couldn’t be absolutely sure it was positive until I read it)
  • It probably wasn’t going to depict ‘normal, red-blooded’ male assaults on women
  • Any book that could wind this guy up has to be worth a read

How happy I was that I did

Very!

I was so happy I read this book because it was filled with literally-snorting-with-laughter moments, a wonderful, varied, flawed cast of characters coming together to overcome a common foe, all kinds of Fantasy creatures, and a Moog.

I recommend it to you, too, if this sounds like your sort of thing.  No pressure.

Let me know what you think

I’d love to know if you’ve ever bought a book based on a one-star review!  I bet it’s more common than people realise.

Let me know in the comments section below.

And, if you love Kings of the Wyld, give me a shout.

How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness

This week:

  • I divide reviewing into two parts
  • I reveal my podcast-listening habits
  • People can actually write accurate reviews!

We’ve all read those reviews of books that are obviously written by somebody who hated the book and wants to rant about it.

That’s fine.  You’re allowed to do that.

However, it’s not necessarily kind.

And it’s not necessarily constructive.

Accuracy, opinion and kindness

I have subtitled this blog post ‘accuracy, opinion and kindness’ because I believe those are the three things you need to write a good review of a book.

Accuracy is important because you, as a reviewer, don’t want to mislead your own readers by writing things that simply aren’t true.  Sometimes it’s hard to see where the boundary lies between being truthful in your review and still giving an opinion.

My own rule of thumb is that, if I didn’t like a book, I don’t review it.  Obviously, some people want to review books they don’t like (either to prove that they read them, to vent about their feelings of being ripped off, or to warn other people away from that particular book).  That is an individual choice.

My personal guidelines take into account the way I review books.

I’ll go into that below.

Essentially, though, if I don’t like it, I don’t review it.  I don’t want to promote it, even accidentally.  If the only things I can think to say about a book are that it exists and I didn’t enjoy reading it, I feel it’s a waste of my time writing about it and it’s going to be hurtful for the author to read that review.

And it’s not kind to slate somebody’s work unless there is a reason for you to do that, like if it was actually harmful to you (and that can happen).

Why you are writing that review is something you should consider very carefully.

Writing reviews is for:

Telling people what you think (the same way you’d just tell a friend-of-a-friend down the pub because you’re really excited about it and want to share it).

Warning them about harmful or controversial content.

Promoting the book.

Supporting the author (cheering them up with positive feedback).

If you’re not writing your review for any of those reasons, take a moment to reconsider whether you need to write it at all.

Consider:

  • Are you gaining anything from this?
  • Are you helping anybody else?
  • Are you going to upset somebody who hasn’t actually harmed you?

Below is my own personal system for reviewing a book, whether that is simply to file it away in my own mind or to write about it in a public place.

It’s a system that promotes accuracy and opinions.  You can decide yourself about the kindness.

There are two things to consider:

  1. Is this a good book?
  2. Do I like it?

These two things are DIFFERENT.

The first is about whether it conforms to reasonable and accepted standards of published works, and the second is about whether you are a fan of that particular book.

Think about it like this:

If I order a dress online, the parcel arrives and I open it, I am looking to judge that dress on two things: 1) is it a good dress? 2) do I like it?

For the first one, it is about quality: is the material good quality; is it well-tailored; does it wash well; does it hold its shape?

For the second one, it is about whether that dress suits me personally: does it fit me; does the colour suit me; does the style suit me; is it appropriate for me to wear it where I want to wear it?

If I buy a dress and it is good quality, well-made, and exactly what it said it was, only I look awful in it and feel uncomfortable and it turns out this backless ball-gown isn’t suitable for the office after all, is that a bad dress?  No, it’s a good dress, only it’s not right for me.

If it is cheap material, sewed together badly so the hems aren’t straight and the seams are coming apart, it doesn’t matter whether it’s my colour or not, it’s a bad dress and I can’t wear it.

That is the difference between the quality of the product and whether you like it.

Is this a good book?

By ‘good’ I do not mean do you like it, I mean what is the quality of the story and the prose.

To judge whether something is good, you must consider it by every reasonable, accepted standard in the industry.

Things that you need to consider:

  • Grammar – does it conform to acceptable standards of grammar?
  • Spelling – are there typos and spelling mistakes or is everything generally spelled correctly?
  • Punctuation – are there punctuation mistakes or does the punctuation help to structure the narrative and make it easy to understand?
  • Syntax – do the sentences make sense and are they easy to read?
  • Plot – does this have a coherent plot, with related events, and conform to a standard plot shape for the culture in which it was created?
  • Character – are the characters believable, interesting, clearly defined and not promoting anything harmful?
  • Character development – do the characters change from the start of the book, according to the experiences they have been through?
  • Themes – what are the themes explored, are they explored in depth and from multiple angles and are they universal or current topics?
  • Purpose – does this book have an obvious purpose, does the authorial voice overpower the narrative, does it conform to the accepted shape of that genre or form?

Do I like it?

This is where you get to have your say.

Some things will just be to your taste and other things won’t be your cup of tea.

It’s actually ok to write in a review that you didn’t like a book, as long as you’re clear that it’s an opinion.  If you can back that up with reasons (from the factual list above), then you’ll add weight to your opinion.

You can write a negative review without being offensive to the author.  Saying that something is not your kind of thing is fine.  I tend to choose not to do that, but that’s a personal choice.

Of course, you can always say that you did like it.  And, just because you liked it, doesn’t mean it was perfect.

Can you answer yes to one and no to another?

You can absolutely answer ‘yes’ to one of these questions and ‘no’ to another.

That is the beauty of this system.

It means that I can have intelligent conversations about a good book, even if I actually hated it.

Consider it this way:

A wine connoisseur can tell the age of a wine, the region, and all the subtle flavours that blend together to produce that particular vintage.  They can tell a quality wine straight away.  They don’t, however, love every single one.  They have a personal taste and they enjoy some wines more than others, even if the quality of the wine is the same.

It’s the same for books.

Some books, no matter how well-written, just aren’t for me.

I can tell you whether I think a book is good quality or not.  And I can tell you whether I like it.  And sometimes those two things are different.

For example:

I happen to think that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the greatest books ever written in the English language.  I can wax lyrical about the language, debate the themes that are explored, and argue passionately that Tess is not the passive heroine people think she is (she really isn’t).

I don’t actually like the book.  I find it interesting.  I think it is good quality.  I don’t like it (I know, I know, I can’t help it, I just don’t – it’s too depressing for me and I don’t sympathise with enough of the characters to pull me through it.  Angel Clare?  Don’t get me started).

So I have divided my review into two parts: it is a good book, but it is not to my taste.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Rocky Flintstone’s Belinda Blinked.

[As a small disclaimer, I am writing this rather scathing review because it has been aired on the podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno and the author apparently takes criticism in good part.]

[I suppose another disclaimer is that this is a self-published erotica novel, so judge me how you will.  I suppose, tagged on the end of this, I want to add the disclaimer that I am not snobby about self-published novels, I am just stating a fact here.]

To answer the question ‘is this a good novel?’ I would have to say ‘no’.

This novel (and I very nearly put that in inverted commas) does not conform to conventional standards of writing.  There is no progression of plot, only a series of events.  There is little to no character development.  Famously, in one chapter, the character of Bella is suddenly referred to as Donna because the author forgot her name and clearly didn’t proof-read his manuscript.  The syntax is often difficult to read and understand.  There are consistent grammatical and punctuation errors throughout.

You’ll agree that this is not up to the reasonable, expected standard of a published novel.  It is poor quality.

However, to answer the question ‘did I like it?’ that is a resounding ‘yes’.

Admittedly, I like it because it is so badly written, and that is hilarious.  I enjoy the complete madness of it.  I admire the strange innocence of it (and, yes, I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about an erotica novel but it has a certain naivete).  In short, it is a book very much to my taste.

If I were to review this book, I would say: it’s poorly written, but thoroughly enjoyable.

How to put accuracy and opinion into practice

You can see from this, that you don’t need to be cruel about a book just because it is not to your taste.

If you want to warn people away from the book because it is poor quality, state that in your review.  But don’t confuse quality with you not liking it.

Some of the best reviews can be one-star reviews, if they are done well.

If you read a book because it sounded good, and then you read it and hated it, it stands to reason that you were expecting something else from it.  And, if you picked that book up because you wanted what it said it was offering, then it might be fair to warn others that the blurb is misleading.  But that can be a statement of fact, not a rant about how awful you think the author is because they didn’t write a book specially for you.

I recommend dividing your reviews into two: an accurate representation of the book, and your opinion on why that worked or didn’t work for you.

Accuracy

Think about:

  • Was the book what it said it would be?
  • Does it mesh with other books in the genre?
  • Were there grammatical or syntaxial errors?
  • Did it read like a standard story, or was it doing something new or strange with structure?
  • What kind of humour did it have, if any?
  • Are there any factual or historical inaccuracies that are important?
  • Is it, reasonably, going to be considered offensive or harmful to a person or group of people because of misrepresentation, stereotyping or lack of research?

Opinion

Think about:

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • Was it similar to other books you have enjoyed?
  • Was it the genre, type or tone you were expecting from the blurb?
  • Did it follow the conventions or tropes of the genre?
  • Did it have something new and interesting to say, a new take on an old trope or something you’ve never seen before?
  • Did you, personally, sympathise with any of the characters?
  • Were there any things which offended, upset or triggered you that you want to warn others about?

If you divide your reviews into these two sections, you’ll be able to write articulately and thoughtfully on the quality of the book, whilst still sharing your opinion and recommending it or warning people away from it.

Let me know what you think

Let me know what you think about my reviews, who your favourite reviewers are and what they do well!

If you have any tips for writing top reviews, share them in the comments section below.

See you next time

Come back next time when I’ll tell you exactly how a one-star review convinced me to read Kings of the Wyld.

Review of ‘The Clockwork Boys’

This week, find out:

  • What The Clockwork Boys is about
  • Why horses are mostly for paladins
  • That suicide missions can be fun… as long as you’re only watching

This is a review of The Clockwork Boys: Clocktaur Wars 1 (2017) by T. Kingfisher.

The main players in this story

  • Slate, a master forger, condemned for treason
  • Sir Caliban, a disgraced paladin knight
  • Brenner, an assassin, also condemned to death
  • Learned Edmund, a young cleric scholar

And if this sounds exactly like your last D&D campaign, you’ve got the right gist.

The premise

The Clockwork Boys is a fast and funny romp through a strange landscape with four distinctly-drawn characters doing exactly what you expect of them, with hilarious consequences.

The story opens with Slate going into the Duchess’ prisons, looking for anyone she might want to take with her on her suicide mission.  She has accepted that she will die, although she’d rather not, if she can avoid it. 

As she is condemned to death, she has been given the chance to earn a pardon for her crimes by going to Anuket City, an enemy city with which the Duchess is at war, and finding a way to stop the clockwork boys.  All previous missions to stop them have been disastrous, and that’s because the clockwork boys are unstoppable killing machines.  You can see why Slate doesn’t think much of her chances.

While scouring the prisons, she encounters Caliban, a former paladin knight who was possessed by a demon.  While possessed, he killed several people, including three nuns.  Even though the demon was exorcised, nobody quite knows what to do with Caliban – he still committed the crimes, and so he has been put in prison and forgotten.

Slate offers him the chance to earn his pardon, in a sort of quirky Fantasy version of The Dirty Dozen, and he agrees.  Together with Brenner – and the magical, murderous tattoos that are going to guarantee they don’t desert their mission – they set off for Anuket City.

The narrative

It’s told in third person, switching between Slate and Caliban’s point of view.

It’s interesting to see from both their perspectives, particularly the misunderstandings that arise.  Needless to say, there is a whole load of attraction, terrible communication and a little matter of an impending attack on Anuket City.

Slate’s narrative is particularly amusing.  She is a pragmatic woman, proud of her talents, unsentimental about sex, and desperately trying to hide a soft heart.

What’s brilliant about it

I personally loved the fact that each character stuck so closely to their ‘type’.

The paladin wore his chivalry on his sleeve, so to speak, and his utter loyalty and morality were both a strength and a weakness.  He was also the only one who could ride a horse, since he was used to it.  Slate and Brenner, a forger and an assassin, had never been on a horse before and there was a whole episode in which Slate complained (hilariously) about saddle-sores and smug paladin knights.

The author uses these tropes in a knowing way, emphasising their characteristics in a way which borders on parody but which seems to have too much affection to actually be that.

Please note

This is the first half of the story and, to finish it, you need to buy The Wonder Engine: Clocktaur Wars 2.  The only thing that disappointed me with regard to this book is the fact that I felt I’d got half a story.  Also, considering it’s not very long, I felt they had needlessly cut the story in half. 

However, that is my only gripe and I am currently enjoying reading The Wonder Engine.

Tell me what you thought

Leave a comment below and tell me what you thought of the Clocktaur Wars – no spoilers for The Wonder Engine!

3 Reasons you should read ‘Heartstopper’ by Alice Oseman

This week, I explain:

  • I am a complete romantic and can’t stop myself from reading love stories
  • Why this is such a good recommendation for LGBTQ+ and Allied teens
  • That British authors writing about schools and not including school uniforms irritates me

Heartstopper by Alice Oseman is a webcomic, available online here in a serialised version, or as a comic book in print from all good bookshops.

I will be talking about Heartstopper Volume 1.

What it’s about

Heartstopper is about Nick and Charlie, two teenage boys at an all-boys Grammar School.  They meet one day and become unlikely friends.

As the story progresses, they become closer and start to become more to each other than simply friends.

I first encountered this as a physical book, which I devoured, and I wanted more.  It was only once I’d read it that I discovered it was part of an on-going series and, not only that, the comic was available for free online.  You can tell I’m new to webcomics.

The stories told in the Heartstopper volumes are the back-story for Nick and Charlie who are characters in Alice Oseman’s debut novel, Solitaire (2014).  As I said, I didn’t know any of this when I picked up Volume 1 and read it, so you don’t need to know anything about the novel before you get to this.

3 Reasons you should read Heartstopper

There are many reasons why you should read Heartstopper but these are the ones I think are most important:

  1. It’s about true love!

I have to admit, I’m a complete sucker for a romance, and this comic is about two boys who are starting to fall in love.

I’m basically already sold.

It’s cute and both boys are utterly adorable.  You fall in love with both of them and absolutely root for them all the way through.

Spoiler:

Heartstopper Volume 1 is about the two of them meeting and becoming friends, and struggling to commit to more, but the following volumes are about Nick and Charlie in a committed, loving relationship and the day-to-day trials and joys which that brings.  As a romantic at heart, I like the following volumes more (so far).

2. It’s realistic

It’s not some grand overarching plot about overthrowing dictators, Chosen Ones or building the greatest love of all time.  It’s about two normal, lovely, flawed people finding love together.

The comic focuses on random days, trips, events, and moments in their relationship and as they develop as people.  It shows how all the little things people do make up their life.

I particularly like that it’s realistic, even down to the school uniforms they wear.  It irritates me when British writers depict school pupils wearing non-uniform, like they’ve forgotten eleven years of scratchy collars, ties and constantly being told to tuck their shirt in from their own school days.

3. It covers some major themes in an accessible way

The most obvious themes to begin with are LGBTQ+ and the comic depicts a wide range of people with various sexualities. 

Oseman is outspoken about this on social media, and reinforces the idea of acceptance in her literary work.

I particularly like this because, although she clearly depicts the difficulties of being anything other than cis-gendered and heterosexual, she doesn’t dwell on those difficulties.  She balances them out with moments of joy, acceptance and positivity.

On the webcomic, there are trigger warnings for each instalment that requires them, in case you’re worried about encountering something you’d rather not.

If you’re looking for something to give to teens, this is one I would highly recommend.

Let me know what you think of Heartstopper Volume 1

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.  And if you’ve read Solitaire, let me know how quickly I need to bump that up my To Be Read pile.

If you have any other, similar recommendations then get in touch – I’m always looking for more sweet, funny, positive stories!

Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.

See you next week

I hope you give Heartstopper a go.

Come back and read next week’s post.

Writing ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’

This week:

  • I get pedantic about what this phrase implies
  • I am not ok with lazy writing
  • I suggest ways this phrase can work really well
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Writing ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ is one of those things that probably most people wouldn’t mind either way.

However, I have some thoughts on why using it needs to be considered carefully.

This is a sentence that I have seen a lot in fiction and I have come to have certain feelings towards it.

The sentence ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ (or any similar variation) suggests several things, and unless the rest of the narrative delivers on those, it seems to me like a bit of a cheat.

Let me explain:

When it is used

This (in my experience) is used when a character makes a decision to take a certain path.  For instance, when they choose to go in a certain direction, or they go back somewhere once they’ve been told not to, or they decide to train to be a something-or-other and dedicate their life/time/career to it.

It tends to be used when the character does something that commits them to the rest of the plot.

Why it is used

It’s used to show that the character (assuming this is a tight third person POV) feels a sense of rightness after taking a certain path or entering a certain place.

It can be used to justify a character’s choice to go somewhere they shouldn’t because it felt right to them.

This is not in itself a problem.  Lot of people make decisions because of a gut feeling, and that is a legitimate thing to represent in your story.

My problem with it

My problem comes when it is used badly.

It can – not always, but often – be used as a lazy way for the author to justify sending their character down an unexpected path (either literal or figurative).

If a character goes against convention, or authority, or their own personal history to do something unexpected, the author can just add the phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ and that justifies it.  My problem with that is that it can undermine all of the character development or world-building that’s taken place so far by suddenly introducing this new aspect of Fate or gut feelings or instinct that wasn’t there before.

What it suggests

There are two main things that it suggests to me:

Either Fate is at work here, or the character relies heavily on their gut feeling or instinct.

1. Fate

If it suggests that Fate is at work and is nudging the character in a certain direction, then I definitely expect this sense of Fate to materialise again in the story.  If this is the only mention of it, then I don’t believe it.

If the character has never alluded to Fate (or some variation thereof) then this sense of rightness they are experiencing is out of the ordinary.

To use it appropriately, the character must have a belief in some force beyond their control or understanding (like Fate, or God – of whichever religion – or the power of the universe).  It should be a part of their identity and it would be a part of their experience.  That means it would be relevant throughout your story.

Or, if you’re writing a Fantasy story and you have an actual, undeniable force at work (like, for instance, the Greek gods) then that would also appear throughout your story.

In either of those instances, I expect this to materialise in your character’s thoughts, actions and speech long before it was used to justify a major choice.

2. Instinct

If it implies that the character relies on their instincts, then that that needs to be something they do throughout the story (or be a part of their character arc that they learn to trust/not trust their feelings).

As with Fate, this needs to be consistent and it needs to appear before the critical moment.  There is no point in just shoving in a ‘sense of being in the right place’ when the character has always been rational and analytical before.  The sudden change will jar the reader and we will lose confidence in them as a narrator or protagonist.

When it works

The use of ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ can be really effective if used properly.

When it is foreshadowed or set up properly in the character development, it can be a really useful tool for the writer to exploit, and an interesting aspect of world-building (the pull of Fate) or character (their belief system or self-reliance).

In conclusion

I am definitely not saying don’t use this.

I just hope that you use it effectively.

Tell me your thoughts (if you feel like you were meant to comment)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interesting little phrase.  Leave a comment in the section below to let me know what you think or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and let me know when you’ve come across this phrase.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

Why Haven’t I Watched Thelma and Louise (1991) Before?

This week, I discover:

  • Thelma and Louise really is a classic
  • Films can be funny and tragic
  • Old films can be shockingly relevant today

Review of Thelma and Louise (1991), starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.

I am not going to go into huge detail in this review – there are dozens of other reviews out there of Thelma and Louise and I don’t want to just repeat things.

However, I did want to write about it a little.

You see, I have been putting off watching this film because it was a classic and I wasn’t in the mood for something serious.

Anyone who has seen the film will be laughing at me now.  And, really, I should know better.

Yes, it’s hilarious.

I wanted to write a quick review to say how absolutely amazing the film Thelma and Louise is!

Why it’s amazing:

It’s (sadly) remained extremely relevant

It’s surprisingly relevant to today.  Almost thirty years on, the themes of modern women struggling to be independent, have sexual freedom, have control over their own bodies and survive in a system which is stacked against them all suddenly feel very timely.

It’s hilarious

I laughed aloud so much when watching this.  It’s lucky I was at home and nobody minded.  To be fair, they were laughing too.

Some of the humour is situational, some of it is the deadpan delivery of great lines and some of it comes from the contrast of the extreme, over-the-top reaction to things that, two days before, these two normal women would have put up with (I am thinking specifically of the scene in the gas station).

It’s beautifully shot

This one might speak for itself.  It is, after all, directed by Ridley Scott.

The scene where they drive through the mountains is so beautifully lit that I had to go back and watch it again.

Why you should watch it:

This is a 90’s study in modern feminism

Like I said, it’s sadly still a study in modern feminism.

It’s a classic

It’s a classic film because it’s so beautifully written, directed and acted.  It’s important and entertaining in equal measure.

You finally understand the significance of those famous scenes

We’ve all seen clips of it or heard about the dramatic ending, but nothing replaces the experience of actually watching the whole thing for yourself.  You’ll get to experience the emotional journey that makes that famous end scene so poignant.

Tell me what you think about Thelma and Louise

If you’ve seen the film, let me know what you think.  Obviously this is only a very short review and I assume that, if you want to know more, you can search for one of the many, many other reviews available.  But I’m really interested to know if there is anything I’ve missed out.

Tell me why you love it!

Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and let’s chat about Thelma and Louise.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post, which will be about that little ol’ phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’.

How to Write your First Chapter if you are Overwhelmed

This week:

  • We go in late, out early
  • I completely skip my opening line
  • I’m a simple soul and like simple stories
Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

A lot of people are too overwhelmed by the task ahead to even start writing their book.

There are several reasons why people get overwhelmed about writing, and I’ve suffered from a few of them:

  1. You know where you want to go in your story but not how to start it
  2. You can’t think of the best opening line to hook your reader
  3. Your story is complex and you don’t know which part to begin with

The good news is, there are ways you can combat these problems.

You know where you want to go in your story but not how to start it

Start writing the earliest thing you’ve planned. 

Don’t build up to it.  It’s the most interesting idea you have, so open with it. 

You don’t need to slog through a hundred pages of build-up, you don’t need to give the life history of every character and you don’t need to set the scene by showing exactly how the world works in minute detail (that will naturally come out during the course of the novel).

In order to start writing your story, I would suggest sticking by the old adage: in late, out early.

Dive in right before the action.

Either you’ll end up writing more than you thought as you come up with new ideas, or you’ll have a firm base for building on.

If you’re a discovery writer (or pantser), your characters will find interesting ways to deal with the situation that will lead down a new path. 

If you’re an outliner (or plotter) you’ll be able to review the scenes you’ve written and decide who your main characters will be, what their ambitions are, what promises you’ve made the reader and what the tone of this book is going to be.

You can’t think of the best opening line to hook your reader

The best advice I can give for this is: don’t write your opening line.

I know you have to write an opening line, but it doesn’t have to be the one.

When you’ve written your story, developed your characters, discovered your world, then you can go back and write a really killer opening line that sums up your book and lets the reader know exactly what they’re in for.

Muse on it as you write and jot down any ideas you have. 

Don’t worry if your amazing opening-line idea doesn’t fit your opening chapter, either, because you can go back and change that, too.

The opening line is a detail, and they can be tweaked in the edit rather than fretted over at the start.

Your story is complex and you don’t know which part to begin with

I have three tricks for starting a story that is too complex.

1. If you think it’s too complex, cut it down.

Instead of telling yourself that you have a massively complicated story, tell yourself that you have three fast-paced novels in a trilogy. 

Divide your story-lines according to character and theme, grouping ideas together in three sections to make three books.

Then you don’t have to be overwhelmed by a hugely difficult story, you can get on with the business of writing the first part.

You have the satisfaction of knowing that none of your ideas are going to waste – you’ll get to them later in the trilogy.

2. Choose one character and write their story, leaving the others out.

I have faced a story that I’ve developed and developed until it’s too complex for me to handle at the start.  I managed to start writing it by telling myself that, actually, I was only going to write about this character. 

Suddenly the overwhelming feeling vanished because I was focused on a single character with a single plot-line.  Obviously, other plot-lines were connected to them and I began to weave them into this character’s story but, because I was still only focused on one character, I felt much more confident in my ability to handle it.

This tip is more about your frame of mind than the actual story you’re writing.

You’ll probably find, by the end, that you’ve written a complex story with several plot-lines and different themes, but you thought it was simple while you were writing.

3. Pick your favourite part and start with that.

If you absolutely can’t cut anything out, then you have to write it all.  So you may as well write the bits you like best.

Choose the part you most want to write and do it.  Once you start, the story will flow and all the different elements you were afraid of juggling will fall into place.

You can always go back and write sections that need to come before that, or scenes that need to be slotted in.  You can do that.  You can write them and put them where they need to go but start with the scene you’re most excited about.

These tips make it sound easy, I know, and it’s not, but they are great for getting you started.

Let me know how you get on

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve used any of these tips to start writing.  You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Let me know which ones worked for you and how your writing is going now!

If you have your own tips or tricks, please share them in the comments section below.  We like to spread the love.

See you next week

I hope you enjoyed this post.  Please come back and read next week’s.

Review of ‘Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ (2019) by Caroline Criado-Perez

In this post, I will:

  • Show off my new-found knowledge of the gender data gap
  • Rail against the injustices in society
  • Recommend you read this excellent book

Why I’m interested in this

One of the things I am interested in is gender equality.

This book is incredibly insightful about the ways in which one gender has been promoted at the expense of others.

Some of these things are obvious, if you give them some thought, and others are things I never would have considered, which makes me exactly the kind of person this book was designed for.

What the book’s about

Invisible Women is about the gender data gap.

Essentially (and I’m not an expert, even after reading this book), we now live in a world of data.  And that data incorporates a hidden bias.  It generally leaves women out.  That means most of the data we have about ‘humanity’ is actually data on men.

Medicine which is developed and made available has been tested on men, not women. 

Technology like mobile phones and voice recognition software has been designed for men, not women. 

To give you an example of these: the modern smartphone is designed to fit an average male’s hand, which means that the average man can hold his phone in one hand.  However, the phone is too big for the average woman’s hand and so she has to hold it in two.  Your voice recognition software has been programmed to respond to your voice.  Well, actually it’s been programmed to respond to the male voice.  Women with higher-pitched voices won’t be able to get that same software to work.  I won’t even mention the problems with what queries that software can respond to – I’ll leave you to discover that when you read the book.

What’s scary is that Criado-Perez demonstrates that, as more and more data is being gathered, we are handing over control of the analysis of the data to computers and algorithms which have been programmed with an invisible bias.  That means that the things being designed, produced, funded and promoted from now on will already incorporate a gender bias, even without meaning to.

Why I liked it

This is an incredibly interesting topic, for many reasons:

1. It shows how the data gap has a real-life impact

It gives an insight into the way in which third-world countries still have overt gender inequality.  It describes some of the ineffective ways that people or companies have tried to overcome this and analyses why they failed.  Spoiler: it’s because they didn’t gather the right data before starting work.

2. It contrasts the gender roles of modern western countries

It shows how invisible bias still affects a large portion of first-world countries which claim to have gender equality.  It contrasts the gender roles that men and women are still expected to fulfil.

3. It explores what future impact the data gap will have

It begins an analysis of the way in which society is progressing now that we have the means and opportunity of collecting so much data.  Even if you’re not specifically interested in feminism or gender equality, this aspect of Invisible Women is fascinating because it considers what our future will look like when data analysis is done solely by computers.

4. It shows the range of gender inequality

It shows that gender inequality isn’t just about physical things (like whether there are adequate childcare facilities so mothers can go back to work) but the social and psychological things as well (why women are still the primary care-givers, why salary and childcare cost hinders women from getting back into full-time work and why men don’t generally take paternity leave).

Some problems with it

            1. There are lots of statistics.

This might sound obvious, since the entire book is about data (or, rather, the lack of it), but for a casual reader, it was rather statistic-heavy.

I managed to read it by focusing on the story elements rather than the numbers.  Criado-Perez is excellent at explaining what the numbers mean in terms of how the data affects women (and men, and society as a whole) and the numbers are there for reference if you want them.

I’m not sure that my approach was the best, but I glossed over the numbers and absorbed the meaning.

            2. The anecdotes, examples and data come from all over the place.

The other issue I had with this book was that it chopped and changed between countries.  One moment it was talking about a study from the UK, then a statistic from the USA and then a phenomenon in another country.

I understand why it does this: Criado-Perez is using the data that is available and, if the data comes from those countries, of course she will analyse it.  However, it does then jump around a lot and I never really got a sense of place, and couldn’t quite position the UK (where I live) in relative terms to the rest of the countries.

Of course, this criticism only goes to support Criada-Perez’s entire argument, which is that there is a lack of data on women.  There simply isn’t enough data in any one country for her to analyse.  She has to use what data she can gather from around the world.

Who I recommend reads Invisible Women

This is a book for both men and women.

With the statistics there in front of you, it’s difficult to shrug off the idea of gender inequality.  I’d recommend this to women because it’s likely you weren’t aware of how prevalent the data bias is, and I’d recommend it to men because you should understand how women are disadvantaged every day in small ways.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in social development and change.  It gives a very clear picture of how our modern society has ended up in this particular state.  Although the agenda is clear, it does also talk about how this lack of data (or lack of awareness) affects various elements of society, including city planning, social mobility and medicine.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in feminism or gender equality.  It demonstrates how simple things that we (as a society) take for granted are actually biased in favour of men, and particularly the men in power. 

It’s an incredibly important piece of work for the people who want to instigate successful change – men and women alike.  I say ‘instigate successful change’ because Criado-Perez proves, time and time again, that even the most well-meaning initiatives have failed to have a positive impact because they have not been properly thought through with reference to women and the data.

A warning

This is not an easy book to read.

It is a catalogue of inequality and bias against women, from every aspect of our lives.

Whilst these inequalities and injustices won’t surprise most women, seeing them listed in this way is difficult.

Women living in modern, western countries will find it sobering and upsetting to read about women living in poorer countries who have far fewer rights than we do.

However, I think it’s important that people are aware of these differences, rather than ignoring them because they are difficult to confront.

Let me know what you think

If you’ve read Invisible Women or are reading it now, let me know what you think!  I’d love to chat about it – it’s an incredibly dense piece of work and I’m still unpacking it.

Recommend similar books ad documentaries, please!  I’d love to learn more about this so if you have any good recommendations, pass them my way.

Either drop me a line in the comments section below or say hello on Twitter.  You can find me at @AlisonJanetBro1.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back next week to read my latest blog post.

Women’s self-belief and beauty films: positives and negatives of ‘I Feel Pretty’ (2018) and ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ (2019)

This week, I give my thoughts on:

  • How great it is to have films about women finding the confidence to succeed
  • How addicted I am to these films
  • Why ‘loving yourself no matter what you look like’ is not the straight-forward message that it’s often presented as

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I love these films.

I am a total sucker for romance and comedy and films about empowered women, so these basically tick all my boxes.

What I want to do here is draw attention to a worrying trend.

This article contains spoilers for these films, so don’t read on until you’ve seen them (if, indeed, you plan on watching them).

What I mean by women’s self-belief and beauty films

There is a very particular type of film I am talking about here.  Later on, I will talk about other similar films and how they fall into different genres, but for the moment I want to talk about these.

They are often referred to as self-confidence films but I want to narrow that category down to something specific.

Firstly, I mean films aimed at women.  That immediately categorises them as Romance or RomCom.

Secondly, I mean films about women where the female protagonist gets more than 50% of the screen time.

Thirdly, I mean films in which the protagonist learns to believe in herself and love the way she looks, and thereby achieves everything she wanted to.  Particularly, those stories in which confidence was the key to her success all along.

There are definitely men’s self-belief films, too.  Yes Man (2008) starring Jim Carrey springs to mind but what was holding him back was not related to his looks.  Roxanne (1987) starring Steve Martin fulfils the brief but that is even older.  There is a trend of women’s self-belief and beauty films at the moment and I want to explore what that means.

If these are films that are meant for women, starring women, then I think it’s important to dig into exactly what we are going to get from them.  We are supposed to get an hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending and a woman who learns that she can do anything she wants to if she has the confidence and determination to do it.  What we actually get is that hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending (and this has changed from the getting-her-man of yesteryear to being successful in her career and getting her man), and an over-simplified take on the complexities of self-esteem, confidence, standards of beauty, gender roles and women in business.

The stories

Essentially, these stories are about a woman who is living a life of drudgery and cripplingly low self-esteem, feeling ugly and under-appreciated.  What happens in the film is that she goes through a major transformation and lives a ‘fairytale’ life in which she’s the woman who has it all.  Then, when she is bumped back to reality, she realises that she had the power all along to make her life a fairytale.  She takes all her newly-found confidence and applies it to real life, and ends up living her dream.

It’s a happy ending.  It’s a lovely thought.  I adore films that show women becoming confident and successful and living their best life.

These two films are the best example of this.

I Feel Pretty (2018) starring Amy Schumer

I was not at all convinced I would like this film, mostly because the trailer made it look like the joke of the film was that a chubby girl had the audacity to think she was pretty and we all get to laugh at her for it.  Happily, that was not the case.

The story is about a woman (Amy Schumer) who loves fashion and beauty but doesn’t feel confident enough to pursue her dream of working in that industry.  She ends up working in some kind of administrative role, in a tiny office away from the main building where all the models and executives work.  She feels ugly and has extremely low self-esteem.

Then she gets hit on the head.  It’s a classic movie transformation.  She wakes up believing that she is the most beautiful woman in the world and struts through life completely confident.  You can see why I was wary of it to begin with but, actually, I thought it was well done.  It is obviously over-the-top and a lot of the laughs come from the disproportional confidence that she shows compared to what the world thinks she should show.

She gets the job of her dreams, the man of her dreams and all the confidence she could wish for.  However, she changes with this new confidence and drops her loyal friends, stops being so fastidious in work and gets caught up in her own importance.

What this film does well is it shows how obsessed the main character was with beauty, and her friends call her on that obsession, saying there are more important things for her to focus on and she shouldn’t have let that one area dominate her whole self-perception.

Isn’t It Romantic (2019) starring Rebel Wilson

One of the reasons I enjoyed this film so much is that it was a chance for Rebel Wilson to really act!  And she can, despite the caricatures she usually plays.

In this film, the protagonist is under-appreciated at work and doesn’t think the man she has a secret crush on is interested in her.  She hates all things romantic, particularly Romance films, because she believes they perpetuate an unrealistic ideal.

Then – that old chestnut – she is hit on the head and wakes in an idealised version of her own world.  Her apartment is better, her clothes are better, even her pet is better.  And she finds herself that coveted being: the protagonist in a RomCom.

As such, she stumbles upon a  ‘perfect’ man who is handsome and rich and charming, she is wooed, she is appreciated at work, and she is basically living the fairytale life.  Of course, the film likes to be a bit meta and, whilst all of this is happening, she has the sense that it isn’t right, that it’s too ideal.  And she’s right.  After trying to get back to her own reality by following the script of a RomCom (in the hopes of completing it and waking up at the end), she realises that she didn’t need to fall in love with a man to achieve her happily-ever-after, she needed to fall in love with herself.

With that knowledge, she wakes up again – this time in her own reality – and applies all that self-love to her real job and real relationships.  It is a charming film.

The problem

Both of these films are enjoyable and I applaud what they are doing: creating narratives in which women take responsibility for their own lives and build their confidence until they believe that they are worthy of the love and success they desire.

However, there is a cruel irony.

I believe it’s clear that both these films are designed to show that women who are insecure are holding themselves back by those very insecurities, when they don’t need to feel that way.  The irony is that, for a story which is supposed to empower women to feel confident just the way they are, by blaming the women’s lack of confidence for their less-than-perfect lives, they reinforce the idea that women are keeping themselves down and it’s our fault that we aren’t happier and more successful.

Both of these films also centre on the woman’s ideas of her own beauty.  They show a protagonist who doesn’t conform to the modern standard of beauty and it is that particularly which makes her feel so unloved and unworthy.  By giving the message that all these women needed to do in order to be successful was to believe in themselves and view themselves as beautiful, such films at once overlook the huge social pressure to look a certain way (and the very real repercussions if you don’t) and lay the blame of that lack of confidence firmly with the woman in question.  I am worried that the overall message women are going to take away from such films is that, if the woman had only believed in herself, she wouldn’t have been unhappy in the first place.  Shame on her.

Other similar, recent films

I want to point out some similar films in order to clarify just what type of film exactly I am talking about.  These films have a lot of cross-over with the women’s self-belief films but fall into a slightly different category.

On the surface, they might appear to be similar to the films I am talking about, where a woman needs to find her confidence to live her best life, but they are actually a different genre.

I have also included modern films rather than anything more than a couple of years old, otherwise The Princess Diaries would definitely be in there (mostly because I love it).

Tall Girl (2019) starring Ava Michelle and Dumplin’ (2018) starring Danielle Macdonald

I love both of these films.

They are coming-of-age stories.

With coming-of-age narratives, the protagonist is an incomplete person because they don’t quite know who they are and they must learn that over the course of the story.  Any changes that these protagonists go through is part of them finding their place in the world, working out who they are and having the confidence to live the way they choose.

Even though lack of confidence might be a factor in their story, it is not the main drive and so they can’t be classed as women’s self-belief films.

They’re worth watching, though.

Life of the Party (2018) starring Melissa McCarthy and Book Club (2018) starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen

These are more easily classed as women’s self-belief films but I hesitate to put them in the same category because, in these, it’s not only confidence that the women lack, it’s something else they need to find.

In Life of the Party, the protagonist is a middle-aged woman who didn’t complete her college degree because she married and got pregnant, so she gave it up to raise her child.  When her husband leaves her, she decides to go back to college and get her degree.  The main drive of the story is a woman going after what she wants.

I don’t class it as a woman’s self-belief film because it wasn’t lack of confidence that was holding her back (or not only that), it was life events and apathy.  However, there are huge cross-overs and it’s a surprisingly entertaining film with a good heart.

Book Club is different again.  It follows four women in a book club as they read Fifty Shades of Grey and begin to explore their sexuality and sex-drive, as well as re-defining their relationships and pursuing romantic fulfilment.

What makes this different is that the women aren’t necessarily held back by a lack of confidence, it’s perhaps an assumption that older women can’t do certain things and should behave in a certain way, and we get to watch these four women break those expectations.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story again.  It’s about people finding their place in the world, exploring who they are and what makes them happy, and deciding what they want to do going forward.

Both of these films have similar themes to self-belief films but their lack of confidence isn’t specifically related to their looks.

Conclusion

Women’s self-belief films are great.  The fact that our media is finally representing women and encouraging them to pursue their goals is positive.

Also, I like these films.  They are feel-good and I am here for them.

Women’s self-confidence and beauty films are more problematic.  When the thing holding the woman back is specifically her confidence in the way she looks, there are a huge number of social, cultural and personal factors at work.  Blithely skipping over these to claim that ‘just having confidence in the way she looks is enough to get her what she wants’ is verging on insulting.

Let me know any recommendations for self-belief (and beauty) films

I would love to watch more of these, so let me know any that you can think of.  I am particularly interested in modern ones as they reflect what our society is doing at the moment and what we are striving for.

Let me know what you think!  Do you think these films do more good than harm?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.