Rainbringer: passive heroine, active heroine

This week, Rainbringer:

  • Has two strong heroines
  • Subverted my expectations
  • Totally blew me away

This is a review of Rainbringer (2021) by Adam Berg and an analysis of the presentation of heroines.

What I was expecting

From the blurb, I thought this was going to be a story about a young woman sitting in a hut and waiting to die.

To an extent, it is.

The blurb didn’t lie.  It just didn’t truly encompass everything that this book was.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, so I’ll keep it vague.

A quick overview of Rainbringer

Yara lives on an island which is threatened every year by sea monsters who rise from the deep and wander the island.  The only way to stop the monsters destroying the village and killing the villagers is to sacrifice one person every year: the Rainbringer.

This year, 16-year-old Yara is the Rainbringer.  She is locked in a bamboo hut, where she will ritually starve to death.

While she is in there, the shamans divine next year’s Rainbringer.  It’s Yara’s best friend, 16-year-old Nika.

They don’t believe it’s a coincidence.  And they don’t intend to die.  Instead, they set out to fight the corrupt system that has chosen to sacrifice them and find the truth behind the appearance of the sea monsters.

It’s a mystery, a coming-of-age story and a fast-paced fantasy fight against sea monsters, shamans and gods.

Yara as an active heroine

At the start of the book, Yara enters the hut where she will starve to death.  She is confined, she has no resources, she cannot speak to anyone and she is there with the express purpose of not coming out again.

You can see why I thought she’d be the most passive heroine ever.

She was not.

From the moment she stepped into the hut, Yara shows how active she is.  She might not be running all over the place, but she is actively pursuing her goal.

And her goal?  Everyone else expects her plan to be to just wither away and die.  Yara wants to know the truth.

What first endeared her to me was the fact that she had thought things through before entering the hut when the book opens.  This means that, even if she can’t go anywhere now, she has been to different places in her quest for the truth.  Already, even sitting in a hut, she is an active character.

Part of her being active is her fight against the restrictions which have been put on her.  She knew she would be trapped with no resources.  So she made herself some resources.  Sure, she had to do that before the book opens so we readers don’t get to see it, but it gives us a taste of what is to come – Yara is going to be extremely resourceful in her search for the truth.  And she is.

What she wants more than anything is knowledge, which she gets from her journal, talking to the shaman, observing the ritual she is a part of, talking (illicitly) to her friend, communicating with a sea monster and a little bit of gruesome grave-digging.

Even when she is trapped in the hut, Yara is actively seeking answers.

Nika as an active heroine

Nika doesn’t have the head-start that Yara does.  She has not prepared for this moment for an entire year the way Yara has but, once she decides to act, she is clever and resourceful.

I like that the two young women are different, with different approaches to the same problem.  Nika is not a rule-breaker in the way that Yara is, and she has to learn to deceive over the course of the novel.  For Yara, that is never a problem.

At first, Nika has much more physical freedom than Yara does.  She can roam the island, for a start.  She has access to a small number of resources which she uses to communicate with Yara, even though they are not meant to speak.  Nika learns information about the mystery of the sea monsters and the ancient tradition of the Rainbringer from a larger number of people than Yara does, and she travels across the entire island to do it.

Once she is chosen as next year’s Rainbringer, though, Nika’s freedoms diminish as she is watched and guarded by suspicious shamans.

Whereas Yara’s greatest resource is her mind, her suspicion and her forward-thinking, Nika’s greatest resources are her allies.  She earns the trust and respect of others, who work with her, give her information and help her survive.

The friendship between the two young women

Both young women have little power and very few resources.  They don’t own any money, they don’t own property, they don’t have any sway within the local community, and they don’t even seem to have many possessions at all.

Yet, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that their biggest resource is each other.  Both young women rely on the other to do what they need.

What they can give each other in terms of resources is limited, but they do give what they can and that is how they start to unravel the mystery.

They give each other:

  • Information
  • Guidance
  • Alliances with other people
  • Physical resources (usually self-made)
  • Their own physical bodies (for example, to use as a double)

What I loved about this book more than anything was the lengths to which these two heroines were willing to go to help the other.

Without giving away spoilers, it is clear throughout the novel that each woman would sacrifice her life to save the other if she could.  I eat up the trope of friendship-love and this book absolutely nailed it.

Pick up a copy of Rainbringer

I have been telling all of my friends about this book.

If you love active female protagonists, women helping women, young adults fighting against an oppressive regime and a brilliant mystery, then I recommend it to you, too.

I got my copy from Kindle Unlimited while I was a member.  However, I loved it so much that I’m going to buy myself a copy as well.

If you want to read more about the different types of active heroines in fiction, check out my blog post ‘Woman warrior’ does not mean ‘strong female character’.

Writing female secondary characters: why it’s important and how to do it

This week, secondary characters:

  • Are most likely to default to male
  • Are important representation
  • Demonstrate the values of your society (and your writing)
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

What do I mean by secondary characters?

Secondary characters are those who are not main characters.  They don’t have a POV in the narrative, they aren’t the ‘heroes’ and they probably won’t be in the whole story from beginning to end.

I am talking about secondary characters who are named (the family, friends and even acquaintances of the protagonists) and those who are not named (the crowds, the shopkeepers, the police officers, the teachers, the passers-by and that character who popped up to deliver a one-liner and was never seen again).

Robert Muchamore smashed this!

I recently read Robert Muchamore’s YA adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).

I wrote a whole blog post about how brilliantly he did this, so check out the blog post here.

It illustrates how to include female secondary characters, so if you want some good examples, head over there now.

Why secondary characters are most likely to be male

There are a couple of reasons why secondary characters are most likely to be male. 

The first is that we live in a society where women have typically been erased from history and public spaces, and the second is that this unconscious bias rears its ugly head harder with secondary characters than with primary characters.

1. Women have been erased from many aspects of history by our stories and our assumptions.

A lot of people writing about traditionally male enterprises make the mistake of assuming that, if they’re writing about men, there won’t be any women there.  Except the love interest.  She has to be female *rolls eyes*.

Taking the example of the Napoleonic Wars, the soldiers were generally male.  Most of the people employed by the army to transport goods and so on were male.  But there were women there.  In every town the soldiers passed, there were women.  Those male soldiers had wives and sweethearts and mothers and daughters.  Many of those women followed the soldiers’ camps across Europe and looked after their men.

Yes, the women’s roles were restricted by social convention and legal legislation.  But each of those women had a different personality and a different background.  And, importantly, they were there, making up 51% of the population.  It’s wrong for modern-day writers to erase women yet again by not including them in their novels.

Even in historical settings, women were there (unless you’re setting this in a male-only environment, in which case are you sure all the servants, etc. were male?) and should appear at appropriate moments.

2. Secondary characters are the ones most likely to slip through the cracks. 

Because they’re only in one scene in the book, or they’re only mentioned in passing, our writer brain doesn’t focus on them for very long.  That’s when all our unconscious biases come roaring up.

If we care enough about representation of different genders, races, ages, classes and bodies, we’re trying our best to be aware of how our characters fit in with those.  We spend time thinking about it.  We make sure that we’re not defaulting to whatever comes to mind first (or whatever society has instilled in our subconscious).

Secondary characters, though, don’t get that treatment.  They often suffer from a lack of careful planning.  We want a prison guard and we automatically assume ‘male’.  We want a cleaner and we write in ‘female’ without a second thought.  It’s these unconscious biases that come out in secondary characters.

If we want to erase (or minimise) our unconscious biases, we have to constantly challenge them until they are either not unconscious but conscious or, even better, no longer a bias we hold.

Why it’s important to write female secondary characters

Women and girls need to see themselves in these stories and performing roles and jobs that women perform in real life.

Men and boys need to see women in these stories to reflect that reality and to model how to behave when encountering a woman in that role.

It’s the way we live now, and it needs to be reflected in our art and stories.

Every time you don’t include female characters, you’re contributing to the notion that women are less important and less visible.  It will mean women and girls continue to learn that they should stand back and let the men take charge, be quiet when the men are speaking and be terribly thankful if they are ‘allowed’ into a male space.

Including women (just 50%, like in real life) will show your readers that women are an important part of society, they are valued and capable and can be seen.

How you can do it

These are 3 really great ways to make sure you are getting an even spread of female and male characters in your books, especially with secondary characters.

They’re easy to do, too, so there is no excuse for not putting the thought into it.

1. Keep a tally.

Literally tally up, on a post-it note or something, how many female and how many male characters you have so far.

You’ll be able to see as you’re going along whether one of the genders is starting to out-weigh the others.  And, more importantly, you’ll be able to correct that.

2. For every named character, come up with a female and male name before deciding what gender they should be.

This only works on named characters, not generic ‘guard’ or ‘police officer’ or ‘beggar’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘baker’ you have in the background of your scene.

What it does do, though, is force you to decide on a gender at the character-creation stage.  It will (hopefully) stop you defaulting to male for that ‘doctor’ if you specifically create the option of a female name.

Deliberately giving yourself the choice of a female or male name also helps to flag up as you’re going along whether you’re leaning more towards female or male secondary characters.  If you find yourself always choosing that gendered name, you know you have a bias in your writing or your worldbuilding (and therefore your writing).

3. Gender-swap all secondary characters at the end.

Once you’ve written your first draft and you’re entering the editing stage, you can gender-swap all the secondary characters.

You don’t have to keep them that way, but it’s a really cool exercise to do.  It will give you the chance to read through your story from a new perspective and spot any potential problems.

If you’ve gender-swapped your secondary characters and suddenly you have loads of women popping up everywhere:

  • Shouldn’t there be women there anyway?  Is having all these women there the way it should be?
  • Maybe you’ve defaulted to male too much in your first draft and now, wow, you’ve got a lot of women all over the place and maybe you need to even out that balance a bit
  • If you’re a man, particularly, you can suddenly see what it’s like for a woman to read all those male-dominated books where it’s like ‘oh yes, another man, and another, and another’.  Now you know what it’s like, you can consider changing that.

Another real benefit of this is that you can see if you’ve made your secondary characters fit gender stereotypes.  Even if you’ve included an equal mix of genders, you can spot whether you’ve got all the male secondary characters in positions of authority and doing physical labour, while the female secondary characters smile sweetly and bake bread and care for the home.

Like I said, you don’t need to keep your secondary characters gender-swapped.  You can change all or some of them back (depending on what you learned about your writing and what you want for your story).  At least you’ll be choosing their gender deliberately, though.  And that’s a start.

Robert Muchamore nails writing female secondary characters, woop!

This week:

  • Robin Hood is a 12-year-old boy who must survive alone in Sherwood Forest when his father is falsely accused of theft
  • Women going about their business and doing their jobs in books is unusual
  • Robert Muchamore writes great secondary characters who reflect reality
Robin Hood front cover

In order to illustrate my point, I want to use some examples.  That will require you to have a general idea of what the story is about.

Let me start by telling you about Robert Muchamore’s novel Robin Hood

I recently read Robert Muchamore’s Young Adult (YA) adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).

Obviously, it’s a re-telling of Robin Hood.  In this story, Robin is a 12-year-old boy living in Locksley.  It’s a weird (but brilliant) crash of characters from the legend in a modern-day setting.  There are laptops, mobiles, Netflix, ATMs, bows and arrows, body armour, and outlaws.

Aside from the fact it was great fun, it is worth a read to learn a few things about writing.

What do I mean by secondary characters?

Firstly, I suppose I’d better explain what I mean by secondary character.  Everyone will have a slightly different idea of what exactly a secondary character is.

In this instance, I mean any character who is not a main character.

That includes nameless characters who are mere extras, providing atmosphere in crowds or public scenes, nameless characters who take an active role in the plot, and several of the characters who are only in the novel once.

Named characters can be secondary if they are in it for a short time and if they don’t individually impact the plot very much.

How Robert Muchamore writes secondary characters

What struck me as I was reading was the huge number of secondary characters who were female.

Now, this might not sound like it’s important or unusual, but it is.

The fact that this stood out to me so much that I had to write a blog post about it shows exactly how unusual it is.  If other books had female secondary characters, it wouldn’t have been so noticeable.

I haven’t counted the number of secondary characters and tallied up their genders, but from memory I would estimate there are an equal number of women and men.  For me to constantly notice the women, though, suggests that it’s highly unusual.  In a world where 51% of the population is female, why is it so jarring to read a book where 50% of the characters are female?

It’s so unusual!

It’s also brilliantly done.

Every one of these secondary characters are believable.

These women are in female roles, so there is no reason not to include them and no reason why it should shock and please me so much.  These secondary characters are all doing jobs women can and do perform in our society.  Of course there are women in Locksley.  And, since it is a modern setting, with modern characters and sensibilities, it would be weird if none of these women took an active role in society.

Secondary characters in the novel

There are a few named secondary characters that young Robin Hood gets to meet (in the story) just once.

There is Mr. Barclay, the teacher that Robin is most afraid of.

There is Isla, the long-suffering manager of the store Captain Cash.

There is Mel, who is connected to Guy Gisborne and fires Robin’s dad when he stands up to Gisborne.

There is Cut Throat, the leader of the Brigands, who are outlaws living in Sherwood Forest.

Already, you can see that there is an equal balance between male and female here.

The women are doing jobs that women in our society do every day.  The narrative doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just like most people don’t go to a shop and have a massive melt-down because the manager has the audacity to be a woman.  It’s just the way it is.  Kudos for your reflection of real life, Mr. Muchamore.

Some examples of nameless secondary characters

Unnamed characters tend even more easily to fall into being male by default, especially if they are doing a ‘traditionally male’ role or are described by their job.

You can get a good sense of what I am talking about from just a few small extracts from Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows.

Two cops in dark blue uniforms waddled to the door.

Ardagh was waiting on the doorstep.  “How may I help you, ladies?”

This was the first time I realised: oh my gosh, this is A Thing.  He’s actually making secondary characters female.

And, yes, I was totally caught in the blatant trap of assuming the police were male.  Because, you know, patriarchy.  That’s what I mean when I say it’s easy to assume characters are male, especially in ‘traditionally male’ roles.

Having these minor characters be female is not only realistic but it normalises women being in these roles.  The young adults (and adults) who read this book are going to see that women exist in these spaces in exactly the same way that men do.  Not more, not less.  To me, that’s amazing.

Robin lunged for his bow, but it was five metres away and two masked women charged before he got there, crashing each other in the doorway and making the den walls wobble like a cheap film set.

            “Hands on head,” one woman said quietly, pointing an assault rifle with a laser sight that left a red dot jiggling over Robin’s heart.

At this point, we know that some of Guy Gisborne’s people have snuck into the building where Robin is hiding out.  And have we assumed these people are male?  Maybe.

Having not just one but two women being faceless, nameless thugs in the pay of the evil antagonist and ready to kill a 12-year-old child in cold blood…  My kind of book.

Ok, that really sounded better in my head.

Barely able to breathe, Little John doubled up when a second projectile socked him in the gut.  He tried to stand, but was immediately sent sprawling by a tactical boot in the back.

            “Stay still!” a powerfully built man in a Kevlar helmet and body armour demanded.

            “Give me your hands!” the woman who’d kicked him roared from behind.

            She dug her knee in Little John’s back and locked disposable plastic cuffs around his wrists.  Little John opened stinging eyes as the male guard lifted his face out of decaying leaves and studied him closely.

            “This is him, right?” the man asked.

            The woman came around for a proper look.  “Hundred per cent,” she agreed.

This section is a nice illustration of an equal split of male and female characters.  These two are just generic Castle Guards.  They don’t get any character development, they don’t have names, but they play an important role in the plot.  And, especially because they are Castle Guards, a traditionally masculine role, it would be so easy to just write two men doing it.

Muchamore doesn’t do that, though.

You can see that it has advantages.  It differentiates between two nameless thugs if they have different genders.  Not only does it more accurately represent the modern world, but it helps clarify your writing, too.  Every writer should be doing this!

Misogyny is still a thing in the novel

What’s important to say here is that the writer isn’t a misogynist.  His book aren’t misogynistic.  In fact, the point of everything I have written so far is to prove that Muchamore is showing gender equality in his writing.

He is writing about a modern world, though, and part of that is misogyny.  Therefore, he has misogynistic characters in the novel.

“I’m not allowed to wear colours because I’m a mere girl,” Marion explained.  “Only men can be Brigands.”

            “It’s club tradition,” Cut-Throat said.  “I may be leader here, but there are Brigands chapters all over the world and we all follow the international rulebook.”

            “Misogynistic old farts!” Marion complained to Robin.

I want to note two things here:

The first is that the main characters (Robin and Marion) don’t agree with these views, therefore indicating that the views are morally wrong.

The second is that Cut-Throat is, largely, a goodie.  At least, he helps Robin, shows generosity, and takes a stand against the corrupt Guy Gisborne.  There is nuance in this characterisation.  Despite the common assumption that Middle Grade (MG) and YA books are didactic, Muchamore presents characters who are morally complex and guides his young readers into learning that there are many things to admire about the character, but that not all of his values are sound.

Conclusion

Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood is a brilliant example of a novel which reflects gender in our society:

  • Fifty per cent of the characters (give or take) are female and fifty per cent male (at this time, I’m not getting into representation of other genders but it’s on my mind).
  • The female characters are doing what women do in our society: taking care of their families, teaching, working for the police, managing retail outlets, running whole counties as an elected official, and illegally hiding out in the forest and surviving as outlaws…
  • Misogyny is represented and addressed by one of the main characters.

Secondary Characters, Narrative and Comedy – Review of Redshirts by John Scalzi

This week, Redshirts is:

  • A fun romp through the Universal Union
  • Sneakily asking ethical questions
  • Much more meta than I anticipated

Premise

Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union.  He’s pleased to have earned such a prestigious position, until he gets on board and realises things aren’t quite as they should be.

Dahl, along with fellow newbies, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Hester and Finn, must navigate the strange new world of the Intrepid.  And the literal strange new worlds they land on periodically on Away Missions…

It seems that there is a fatality on every Away Mission and nobody is held accountable for these.  Not only that, but the officers always survive these encounters, no matter what the statistical likelihood of that is.  Dahl believes there is more going on than meets the eye, but he needs to find proof before anyone will believe him.

This is a story about a ‘Redshirt’ on a spaceship, trying to work out why his fellow ‘Redshirts’ are dropping like flies, all while trying to avoid the same fate.

How much do you need to know before you start reading?

I am one of those people who has watched a lot of episodes of Star Trek but hasn’t sat down to watch them all in order and I certainly don’t remember all the details of it.

I managed to keep up with the story of Redshirts just fine.

The narrative seems to assume readers will know what it is talking about and doesn’t dwell too much on the details.  Service tunnels used by the maintenance machines and conveniently a great place to hide?  Sure, we know what those are.

There are several references to other popular culture Science Fiction, which are amusing if you get them.  I am thinking of the nod to Galaxy Quest, in particular – getting the reference made it twice as funny but it wasn’t necessary.  It would still have been funny.

I am convinced that, for every intertextual reference I saw, there was at least one I didn’t get, and that’s fine – I didn’t notice.  It didn’t interrupt the flow of the story and I didn’t feel like I was ever missing information.  It’s just a little something extra for the Sci-Fi geeks.

Worldbuilding

What makes this good is that the worldbuilding is deliberately derivative.  It’s meant to be a cardboard cut-out of a number of other space opera shows.

It gives us just enough to know what is happening and where we are, but there is no attempt to fill in back-story or explain how things came to be that way.  Actually, that is something of a relief because it meant there was absolutely no worldbuilding info-dump.

In fact, the narrative skips along at a very fast pace, barely spending any time describing some of the more bizarre things, mostly because they are bizarre and they don’t make sense.  It’s about the impression created, and the consequences, rather than the hard science of it.

Structure

There are three codas at the end of the novel which give additional information.  They add depth to the story, rounding it off in an interesting way. 

The story itself is complete, but because of the meta concepts involved and the large cast, having three codas focusing on a few of the secondary characters is really interesting.

I love the first coda.  It is hilarious.  It also explored the ramifications of the main plot on secondary characters (kind of like the whole main plot of the book was doing – coincidence?  I think not).  Although the story was complete, when I began to listen to the first coda, I realised that I really did need this.

Rarely have I been so satisfied with the ending of a book.

Audiobook

I listened to this on audible and enjoyed it.

Whoever chose Wil Wheaton to be the audiobook narrator has a sense of humour.

Having said that, I found – like a lot of people, if the reviews are anything to go by – the repeated use of ‘he said’ at the end of almost every piece of dialogue to be distracting.

Reading that in text, your eyes would skip over those dialogue tags and you wouldn’t register them.  Especially because they were nice, solid ‘saids’ instead of anything fancy that would draw attention to themselves.  It feels unfair to comment on it, since I am sure that in reading it, I wouldn’t have noticed.  However, since I listened to it, and the narrator read them all out, it did become noticeable.

Interestingly, I seem to remember John Scalzi commenting that he has adapted his writing style to take audio narration into consideration.

Ok, I looked it up, and here is the tweet I remember:

It reads:

“I was fine with pretty much only using “said” until my books got turned into audiobooks.  Then it REALLY stood out, and not in a good way.  Now I use fewer dialogue tags in general, and mix them up a bit more.”

I respect the heck out of a writer who adapts and hones their craft according to their experiences and the medium.  Scalzi shows that he wants the reader/audience to enjoy his book and he has grown as a writer to make sure that happens.

I have some thoughts about why your English teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’ which you can read here.

What I thought of Redshirts

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting it to go in the direction that it did, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were a lot of characters and I did worry that I wouldn’t remember who they all were, but I think I was always aware of who was doing what.  That is quite the skill Scalzi has there, to make sure that the reader has an impression of a large cast and yet doesn’t worry about forgetting minor characters.

I liked the fact that the story followed the small group of Ensigns, the lowly Redshirts on the Intrepid.  Not only were they low-ranking, but they were also new to the ship and so weren’t established as part of the crew.  Perfect canon-fodder, in fact.

And yet the whole story was about them.

We get to know them, their histories and their personalities, while they investigate the mystery of the high fatality rate on Away Missions.

Ironically, the five ‘main characters’ – the officers on the Bridge – are vague and unformed, since they are only background to the protagonists’ struggles.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I found myself chuckling over and over again.  It was incredibly imaginative and I don’t want to go into the details too much and give away the twists but I will say it was a surprise and yet so inevitable that I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.

The King’s Man: how it made promises to the audience and… why it didn’t deliver

This week:

  • The King’s Man sets up a great action story
  • It then fails to deliver
  • I have my theories as to why
The King’s Man movie poster

Spoiler alert!

This article contains spoilers for the 2021 film The King’s Man.  I suggest you don’t read this until you have seen it (that is, if you plan on seeing it at all).

Please bear in mind that I only saw the film once, and I don’t have a perfect memory.  I have attempted to be accurate but I am willing to concede that I may mis-remember a few things (I hope I haven’t but it’s possible).  If that turns out to be the case, I will certainly correct this article and make it clear where the errors were.

What I mean by making promises

The promises you make at the start of a narrative are the things you are telling your audience you’re going to give them in your story.

Promises are important because you are signalling to them what to expect: what kind of ride they are in for.  If you construct a narrative that seems to be promising one thing, and then you deliver another, you’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.  It’s best to promise your audience you’re going to give them the things you actually are going to give them, so they can decide if they want to invest.  Making the right promises will help you get the right audience – people who actually want what you’re offering.

Promises can be things like:

  • Genre – if you start with a cute rom-com feel and then your story descends into a psychological horror, you’re going to get a lot of romance fans who didn’t like your story and a lot of horror fans who would have loved it but didn’t think to see your film or read your book because it didn’t look like their thing
  • Protagonist – the audience likes to have someone to root for.  We want to follow one person’s story from adversity to triumph.  We don’t want to watch a nature documentary about cute little seals surviving in the open ocean and then being eaten because the orcas were the heroes all along, surprise!
  • Theme – the challenges that the protagonist faces don’t have to be the same, but they should be thematically linked.  For instance, if the protagonist’s weakness is lack of confidence, then they will face a series of challenges throughout the story in which they learn to overcome that until they have developed their confidence.  They don’t need to face off against the same playground bully over and over again, but they can find several challenges where they don’t have the confidence to speak out or actor go for an opportunity they want

Who are the players in The King’s Man?

This is who they are at the start of the film.  Not who they turn out to be or what they turn out to be doing secretly behind the scenes.

Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), who is a wealthy Duke using his connections to work as an envoy for the Red Cross before retreating to his manor and living in splendid isolation

Emily Oxford, who is Orlando’s wife and isn’t in the film long enough to have a personality

Conrad Oxford (played by Harris Dickinson and Alexander Shaw as young Conrad), who is the boy who hero-worships his father and becomes a young man desperate to experience the world, taste independence and prove himself to his father

Polly (played by Gemma Arterton), who is the clever and plain-speaking nanny of the Oxford family

Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou), who is the strong and steadfast servant of the Oxford family

The Shepherd, who is the evil mastermind behind a load of world-wide disasters

The King’s Man cast

What promises do the opening sequences make?

There are three key sequences I want to talk about here:

  1. The opening sequence where 7-year-old Conrad sees his mother killed
  2. The first sight of grown-up Conrad training to fight with his manservant, Shola
  3. The introduction to the Shepherd and the numerous villains

I am going to try and keep my focus tightly on these parts of the film and not sprawl out into a general analysis.  This article is about the promises made to the audience at the start of a narrative.

The opening sequence where young Conrad sees his mother killed

  • There are no jokes, outlandish comic moments, bizarre character quirks or any of the other weirdness associated with the Kingsman series.  This opening sequence is serious in tone and promises the audience a different experience (maybe even a different genre) from the other two films in the franchise.  In that, it delivers.  So… yay?  Unless you wanted something like the first two films.
  • Conrad identifies his close family unit as characters from the Arthurian legends.  He claims he is Lancelot, his father is Arthur and his mother is Guinevere.  I am assuming that is because the only other options for female characters are villains, so he had to pick her.  Still, it’s a bit weird to think of Conrad/Lancelot and Orlando/Arthur fighting over his mother.  Although, since she causes a lot of the problems between them (by dying so inconveniently), maybe it’s more accurate than I first gave it credit for.  Young Conrad also claims Shola is Merlin, and apart from the fact that my brain started screaming “magical negro alert” at me, at least it showed that young Conrad viewed Shola as vital to the family’s success.  This Arthurian theme resurfaces later on but, since this is pretty much the opening piece of the whole film, I did expect the Arthurian theme to play a much bigger part.  It’s really only used as a codeword and then adopted by the Kingsmen as their codenames later on.
  • Emily Oxford, Conrad’s mother, tells him that it is important for them to do good in the world and not hide behind their wealth while the rest of the world suffers.  Then she is shot and, as she dies, she goes back on all these grand principles and makes her husband promise to protect Conrad.  Immediately, the audience expectation is that this will be the main emotional conflict of the story: the clash of principles.  Do privileged people have a moral duty to do some good or should they use their wealth to promote their own safety and comfort at the cost of others?  It sounds like a great start to a story, and it is.  It’s just a pity that this isn’t the story that followed.  As far as I can remember, this moral question was never really addressed.  Later on, Orlando gives a very serious speech about the corruption of his ancestors, without a shred of awareness that it gave him all the privilege he experiences day to day, and without a single hint of a desire to give back any of what he openly admits his family stole from others.  All in all, I wouldn’t say this promise of a moral quandary was delivered on.
  • Shola is the one who protects Conrad and is the fighter of the group.  This is… sort of delivered on.  He continues to be awesome and to protect the family, but he is overshadowed by Orlando, who develops some serious arse-kicking skills out of nowhere, despite the fact the film opens with him as a pacifist, dithering and being shot.  I would say that the expectations about who would turn out to be the fighter of the family are not made clear in this opening sequence.

The first sight of grown-up Conrad fighting Shola

  • The training fight between Conrad and Shola = amazing!  This was the point in the film where I settled in for an incredible spectacle of fights, stunts and special effects.  And… was disappointed.  While this fight is incredible, it’s one of very few fights that happen in the first half of the film.  And one of only two fights (I think) that Conrad is actually involved in.  By opening with this, the film promises that Conrad is the hero of the story, and that he has gone from a child who needs to be protected to someone capable (or becoming capable) of looking after himself.  The audience expects this to be Conrad’s story about going out into the world and learning to be independent.  The King’s Man is very much not that story.  Conrad remains tied to his father’s side for an hour of film time and, as soon as he is out of Orlando’s sight, makes the worst decision possible.
  • The fact that the two opening sequences of the film focus on young Conrad watching the goings-on of the grown-ups around him, and then older Conrad learning to fight, suggests he will be the hero of the story.  Yet the next hour of film is a constant back-and-forth between him and his father, to the point where the audience can’t be sure which one of them is the protagonist and I had no idea which one I was meant to be rooting for.
  • This is the second moment where Shola is spending time alone with Conrad, protecting and teaching him.  The whole opening of the film suggests that the relationship between young gentleman and his wise and faithful manservant will be the core relationship of the story.  Needless to say, this is not the case.
  • Orlando finally appears as a character by having a go at Conrad for wanting to go off adventuring.  This is where we get to see the change that came over Orlando due to his wife’s last wishes.  He went from confident philanthropist, taking his son with him around the world, to isolated gentleman, hiding his son away from the world.  At this point, I was invested.  This was a promise being made to the audience that the main emotional conflict was going to be between the father’s desire to protect his son versus the son’s need to prove himself and live independently.  This whole sequence smacks of setting up a very Finding Nemo-style tale of two people learning to see each other’s point of view.  Does the film deliver?  Well, it does play on this clash for a long time (what seems like a long, long, long time, without there being any emotional development whatsoever) and then suddenly the conflict is over.  Over, not resolved.  I can’t help but feel like the emotional conflict in whole first half of the film was a massive waste of time, if it wasn’t going to deliver any results.

The introduction of the Shepherd and other villains

  • The Shepherd is kept ostentatiously in shadow and silhouette during all of these scenes.  This very deliberate act of keeping the villain’s face concealed makes the promise that, when it is revealed who the Shepherd is, it’s going to be a BIG SURPRISE.  The audience are now eagerly anticipating a Plot Twist Extravaganza at the end.  Did the film deliver?  Well… not to me, it didn’t.  I had expected that character to reappear at some point, and so it didn’t amaze me.  I am also of the opinion that, if I can work it out, anyone can, since I am famously terrible at guessing plot twists.  Not helped by the fact that, when their face was revealed, both myself and the person I saw the film with didn’t recognise who it was.  If the major twist is dependent upon shock value, maybe make it really obvious because dragging out that reveal while they explain who they are and how they came to be the villain isn’t the gasp-in-surprise reaction you were aiming for.
  • There are about a dozen villains sat round that table.  Having them there suggests that they will become important.  And were they?  Well, not really.  Some of them sort of got involved and good for them; it’s the taking part that counts.  Really what having so many villains suggests is that this is a vast conspiracy, and that the film will be a sprawling epic.  Can a single film deliver on that promise?  Ummmm…
  • Rasputin spends simply ages arguing with the bloke next to him about what animal he gets on his ring.  For context, the Shepherd has provided all the evil minions with a signet ring, each with a different animal engraved on it.  Because so much time is spent talking about who has which animal (instead of discussing their evil villain schemes), this promises the audience that the animals will be significant.  Are the animals symbolic of their personalities?  Do the animals relate to their part in the evil plot?  Can the plucky heroes use the rings to decode the evil plot or work out anything at all to do with their investigation into this conspiracy?  The answer: no, no they can’t.  The animals are never mentioned again.  The Shepherd may as well have had a number printed on them.
  • The Shepherd has a thing about goats.  Ok, I have to admit that this promise of goat-based shenanigans was one of the promises that the narrative delivered on.  The goats had a minor part to play in the denouement and a significant part to play in discovering the secret location of the villain’s evil lair.  Yay for the goats!

Conclusion: what I think about the promises made in the opening of this film

There were some really great promises made in the opening parts of The King’s Man.

Unfortunately, most of these promises weren’t realised.

That’s not to say that the film didn’t have its moments, but constantly setting up a character or narrative arc and then doing something else instead doesn’t lead to a fulfilling experience.  The biggest promise that this film made in the opening section that it actually delivered was that it was going to have long sections of serious, non-action in recognisable historical places.

There were some elements in the story that were linked to the promises made at the start, but did not actually fulfill those promises.  More promise-adjacent than anything else, really.

If you want to identify what promises you are making in the opening of your story

  • Does it have the same tone as the rest of your story?  That can include POV, narrative voice, focus on the protagonists, events and themes.  If you couldn’t possibly put your opening section in the middle of your story because it wouldn’t fit the tone at all, then you’ve got yourself a problem.
  • Which character are you focusing on?  Whoever the audience is introduced to first, that is who they will latch onto.  If you’re building up to introducing your hero/protagonist, then make sure it’s clear that this character is a stand-in for the real deal.
  • Are the conflicts your protagonist is facing the same sort of conflicts they will face throughout the rest of the story?  Even if it’s not exactly the same, it should be thematically linked: whatever weakness they are trying to overcome, whatever goal they are pursuing, you are setting those up as the main focuses of the story.  The audience will expect that, by the end of the film, the protagonist will have overcome their weakness and achieved their goal.  Switching to something completely different will feel disjointed and emotionally unsatisfying.

Bing Crosby’s character development in ‘White Christmas’: an analysis

This week, White Christmas:

  • Is a classic of its genre
  • Demonstrates some elegant character development
  • Is for life, not just for Christmas
White Christmas film poster

Why I’m writing this review

I’m mostly writing this because I love White Christmas.  I probably love it too much.  I am one of those people who can watch it any time of the year and still be moved to tears at the end.

But it’s not just a lovely old feel-good film (though it is that), it’s not just two singers and two dancers doing their thing with random routines to fill an hour and a half, it’s not just a spectacle of colour and movement (though it is that as well).  It’s one of the most tightly-plotted storylines I’ve ever seen.

Ok, so I might have a thing about White Christmas, but I’m serious.  It’s an incredible feat of narrative and character development, so subtly done that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the glitz and glam of the song-and-dance routines, but it’s there.

I’m writing this review so you can see it, too.

This review will contain spoilers.  I don’t feel bad about that – you’ve had plenty of time to watch it since it was made in 1954.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?  Go and watch it!  Go on, I’ll wait.

Who are the main players?

Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby)

Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye)

Betty Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney)

Judy Haynes (played by Vera-Ellen)

Major General Waverly (played by Dean Jagger)

Emma Allen (played by the marvellous Mary Wickes)

Bing Crosby’s character, Bob Wallace

This is an ensemble film, following four main players (Bob Wallace, Phil Davis and the two Haynes sisters) but there is a strong argument to make that it is Bob Wallace who is the main character, the one who carries us through the film to the end.

There are several reasons for this:

The first is that he is the first main player to appear on screen and one of the four at the end.

The second is that he is the one driving a lot of the narrative.

The third is that he is the one with the most emotional attachments and relationships throughout the film, meaning he also gets more scenes of dialogue than the others (or he seems to).

The final reason is that he undergoes the biggest character transformation.

Bing Crosby in White Christmas

Establishing characters

Technically, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) comes on stage a mere second or so before Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), and they have an equal part to play in the opening song and dance.  However, that is background to the introduction of another character, General Waverly.

It is only when General Waverly has been established and has settled down to watch the show that the camera returns to the stage and Bob Wallace singing the famous song, White Christmas, in his inimitable style.  Phil Davis is sitting on the stage, present but not taking the spotlight.

Then Bob begins to make a speech, telling the men that they are moving out in the morning and that General Waverly is being replaced as their commanding officer.  This establishes several things:

  • He is a main character or even the main character
  • He has some authority over the other soldiers
  • He is liked and admired by the other men
  • He has information that others do not

When General Waverly confronts them about their festive show, Phil steps up to take the ‘blame’ for setting it up.  He also reveals a few things about Bob:

  • He is a captain, so is a higher rank than Phil and the other soldiers
  • He is a well-known and well-respected entertainer
  • He is self-assured and confident, unlike Phil who is bumbling and unsure (and nobody can do this in quite the way Danny Kaye does)
  • Bob is the one that General Waverly turns to for help when he becomes overwhelmed
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas – you can see Bing Crosby’s character is stoic and self-assured

Character development

At the start of the story, Bob is independent, self-assured and cynical.

If you’ve seen the film, you might not agree with this statement to begin with.  You love the film, you love Bob and you can’t believe he starts out this cold and unfeeling.  Well, that’s because he’s played by Bing Crosby with affable politeness.  That doesn’t make him nice.

When Phil saves his life and is ‘injured’ doing it, Bob visits him in hospital.  That seems like a nice thing for him to do but he is doing it merely out of duty, as is made clear when he makes assurances of ‘if there’s anything you need, just pick up the phone’ and yet doesn’t want to hear about what Phil does actually need.

Phil suggests the work together, when they get back to America after the war, and Bob’s first reaction is to refuse.  He repeats, “I work alone,” several times.  He is independent, self-reliant and isolated.

Phil manages to manipulate him into agreeing to give it a try, by playing on his guilt.  This is less creepy than it sounds, honest.

Bob then learns to work with others.

He and Phil work together on stage, singing and dancing, and they become a huge success.  Phil even manages to persuade him (guilting him again) to become a producer and they become even more successful than ever.

He is still emotionally isolated, though.

As Phil tries to set him up with women, Bob rebuffs them all and Phil confronts him about it.  He claims Bob is a ‘lonely and bitter man’, which he is.  Successful, yes.  Working with Phil, yes.  But otherwise lonely.

He is too afraid to date any of the women in his industry, not seeing them as suitable as they are ambitious and wouldn’t want to settle down and have children (I know, I know, a product of its time).  He opens up to Phil at this point and shares his fears that the women won’t be ready to commit, and shares his desire to one day find a woman he can love and marry.  Phil comments that it’s the first time he’s opened up to him like that and thus Bob takes another step on his journey of self-discovery.  He has learned to communicate his emotions.

He is now emotionally ready to meet a love interest.

Now, nobody likes to reduce Betty Haynes (the fabulous Rosemary Clooney) to merely ‘a love interest’, and maybe one day I will do a whole piece on her, but for now, that is what she is – in relation to Bob, she is his love interest.

When he meets the Haynes sisters, Bob is instantly attracted to Betty.  However, their world-views clash: Betty is naïve, good-hearted and honest, whereas Bob is cynical, practical and blunt.  Clearly, he is not ready to be her love interest.

Bob starts to do things for other people.

So far, all of what Bob has done has been, if not selfish, then practical or out of duty.  He agreed to partner with Phil, but that was because he owed him a debt and it drove him forward on his road to business and financial success.  He agreed to see the Haynes sisters’ act out of duty to an old pal in the army.

Even helping the sisters escape an extortionist, he is pushed into it by Phil, and he is angry and grouchy that he had to give up his train ticket for the sisters, too.

However, upon discovering that the general he so liked and admired owns the Inn he is staying at, he does something kind.  He arranges to get his whole show to the Inn to perform and draw a crowd, to bolster business for the general.  It’s not a completely unselfish act, since he tells the general (truthfully) that he can test new material ready to take back to New York, but it is still a generous thing to do.

He and Betty begin to fall for each other.

It is only now that Bob has learned to work with others that he can woo Betty as they rehearse for their show.

It’s also only once he has learned to communicate his emotions that he can create an emotional bond with her.

Just when it’s going well for him, it all crumbles.

So far, Bob has never been unsure of anything.  He has been talented, wealthy, successful and desired.  His own physical, emotional and financial safety has never been on the line.  Now it is.  Betty turns against him.

What is worse, he doesn’t know why.

At first, he is confident he can woo her again but she refuses to be appeased by sweet talk and champaign. 

He becomes unsure of himself and loses confidence.

Having failed to reconcile with Betty, she leaves.  He has lost all of his power: he has no hold over her and is reduced to begging.  It’s his first brush with humility.

Luckily – or inevitably – he wins Betty’s heart and her trust by doing something unselfish.

Given that he had previously stated openly that ‘everyone has an angle’, it’s understandable that she didn’t trust him.  When he said he was doing something kind, and Emma said he was using the general’s misfortune to get publicity, she came to the conclusion that – exactly as he had said – he was playing an angle.

You see, if Bob hadn’t changed over the course of the story, he couldn’t have earned the respect of either the general or Betty – he would have betrayed both with his cynicism and self-interest.

As it is, he has become a kinder, better man who values the friends he has and is willing to put his heart on the line.  It is this which makes him a suitable love interest for Betty.

White Christmas finale – Bob kisses Betty

Conclusion

Over the course of White Christmas, Bob Wallace goes from being a confident, self-interested man who is driven at work and keeps his emotions to himself, to a humble, generous man willing to do something unselfish to help his friends.

He is the character who changes most over the course of the story and it’s his journey we follow from the very opening scene to the closing credits.

It’s his transformation that gives this seemingly light and fluffy film such an emotional punch.

Why join a Writing Circle?

This week, I reveal that writing circles:

  • Can actually help you improve your writing
  • Are very variable in tone
  • Can host a range of events for writers
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

There are so many ways to improve your writing these days, you have to wonder why you should leave your house to go to a writing circle at all.  Why can’t you just watch an online lecture, listen to a podcast or spend your time actually writing instead?

Well, those are all viable options (and not to be dismissed).  But writing circles offer a lot of things you won’t get anywhere else.

Why writing circles are useful

There are several reasons why writing circles are useful for writers, whether you are a professional writer, a writer looking to be published or a writer who just loves to write for fun.

These are some of the reasons you should go check them out:

1. It’s great to talk to other writers (and there are social events)

If, like me, you haven’t come into contact with a lot of other writers, writing circles are a great place to meet them.

I found it so freeing to be able to talk about writing (even if it wasn’t specifically about my own writing) to people who understood.  Don’t get me wrong, you won’t be best friends with absolutely everyone in the group, but if you’re looking for a place to openly talk about how important writing is to you, then a writing circle is the place to start.

If I got nothing else from my time in a writers’ circle, this would have been enough.

Different groups have different dynamics, which is part of the reason it’s useful to shop around until you find one you like.  Some will be all business all the time, some will take their purpose seriously without being a kill-joy about it and give you time to chat, and others are social groups with a theme of writing.

Which one you prefer is entirely a matter of personal preference.  The one I found the best fit for me was a two-hour evening that was fairly regulated.  It started on time, people were quiet or took turns to talk, and whoever was in charge for the evening conducted the whole thing.  But there was a tea break half way through which was a great opportunity to stand around and have a chat and catch up with people.  And most weeks there was an open invitation for people to gather at the pub at the end of the road for a drink.  I found it was a really good balance of business and social.

2. You get lots of tips and hints about the craft of writing, publishing, editing and conventions

Obviously the purpose of writing groups is for you to get better at writing, so they should be doing something to help develop your skills.

Depending on which group it is, who runs it and what kind of budget they’re working with, you’ll get guests and experts to teach you.  If not, in-house expertise is called upon.

Even if it’s only the writers in the circle who are giving you advice, a lot of it is really useful.  Again, be careful about this – it’s not all useful (you need to learn who to listen to and who to nod politely at and ignore).

For a lot of groups, the range of experience varies considerably from people dabbling in writing to enthusiastic amateurs, to people who have been writing for years (published or not), to independently or traditionally-published authors.  That gives you the chance of talking to people who have more experience than you and most people are happy to talk about their writing journey.

I got a few good tips about which conventions to attend and which authors to read, and listened avidly to stories of success and disaster in the publishing world.  Hearing people talk about their journey is a great way for you to decide which path you’re going to take and (sometimes) what not to do.

3. You get to practice your writing

There are a couple of ways writing circles get you to practice your writing.

One is to encourage you to write something during the week and then bring it along to read out for the rest of the group (more on that in just a moment).  Several writers have said they only got their books written because they knew their writing group was waiting on the next instalment and didn’t want to turn up without anything.

The second way is to give you writing time during the evening.  The group I like has workshop evenings where you develop a specific skill (description, dialogue, flash fiction, etc.) and part of the workshop is to learn about the skill, practice it, review it and go back and improve.

Not all groups do this, which is one of the things that you need to consider when choosing a group.

4. You get to share your writing

With most groups, sharing your work is optional.  I don’t have any personal experience of a group where you have to share your work but I suppose there might be one out there.

Sharing your work (if you want to) is a great experience for writers.  If you’ve not shown anyone your writing before, this is obviously nerve-wracking but it’s a useful skill to develop.

I say ‘skill’ because the art of sharing your writing has to be developed.  If you have any experience of people who share their writing (in a writing circle or just in general) then you’ll probably know there’s always someone who wants to hear your praise but the second you say something negative, they tell you that you haven’t understood the themes, that you don’t appreciate their style or you didn’t read it carefully enough to spot their brilliant foreshadowing.  Don’t be one of those people.  I’ll do a separate post on how to share your work (and what not to do).

For the most part, writing circles are a space designed to share your work.  It’s made easy for you.

In the group I go to, sharing is optional and it’s on a first-come-first-served basis for those who do want to share.  If there are any left at the end of the night (it’s rare) then they get first go next time.

Also, in my group, people tend to read their own work aloud to the rest of the group but there are several people there who are happy to read your work if you want to share but get stage-fright.

One writer asked someone to read her work aloud because she wanted to listen to how he read it.  It was really useful for her to hear where he paused, which words he emphasised, how the sentences flowed and where he stumbled.

The point of sharing your work is to get feedback.

It’s always nice to get positive responses from the rest of the group but it’s not going to improve your writing.  The best groups are structured enough (and the people are nice enough) to make sure you get a mixture of positives and suggested improvements.

5. You learn to critique others’ work and then apply that internal editor to your own writing

This was one of the most useful skills I developed as a writer: the ability to critique others’ writing.

And the reason it was useful was because I now apply that to my own work.  The better I get at that, the more polished my writing becomes.

If you can learn to listen to somebody reading a section of their work and spot the clunky sentences, you’re more likely to spot your own clunky sentences.

If you find yourself thinking their characters aren’t very well developed, when you go back to your own work, you’ll double-check to make sure yours are.  You don’t want people to be thinking that about your work, after all.

Learning to spot these flaws (and I know that is a relative term) is the first step towards editing your own work and you’ll find writers, agents, editors and publishers agree that a writer who can edit their own work is highly sought-after.

6. They have guest lecturers, writers, editors and publishers

This is something your group might have. 

At some point soon, I’ll tell you more about my own experiences of writers’ circles but, for now, I’ll just say that one group had all of these over the years and another group wouldn’t dream of inviting an outsider in.  These variations are why it’s important to find the group that works best for you.

The circle that does have guests has a range of them and it’s been fascinating (and occasionally useful) to listen to these professionals as they talk about their area of expertise.

If you’re the sort of person who networks (and I’m unfortunately really terrible at it), then meeting all these people will be a dream come true.

If you’re not the sort of person who networks, then it’s still really great to meet them, listen to them and hear their experiences of the industry.  As you listen to more and more people, you build up a picture of what the industry is like, what to expect, and you can start planning your approach (for instance, deciding whether you want to be independently published or traditionally published, or whether you want to submit to a small press or a large one).

The more people you hear talk about the various aspects of writing, the better you’ll become at it.

7. They host writing events

Again, this is something they might do.

My writers circle has hosted several events over the years and one since I joined (is that my fault?  Did I kill it off?).

It was a huge event in a conference centre and there were writers from the surrounding area there to learn, talk, network, mingle, have lunch (or was that just me?) and generally soak up the camaraderie.

At the event, there were panels of writers, publishers and editors, as well as workshops on writing run by professional published writers, and short story competitions.  It was great fun and I learned a lot.

Obviously, that was a big event and it was time-consuming for the writers’ circle to organise, since it was done on volunteer-power.  It’s quite unusual to run an event of that size.

However, smaller events are much more common.  You’ll find affiliated events at a lot of groups, such as Open Mic Nights, book launches, group tickets to conventions and trips to the pub.

Tell me about your writing group

If you’re in a writing group, let me know what you’re getting out of it!  If you can think of something I’ve forgotten, leave a comment below.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and tell me about your writing circle.

Why your English Teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’

This week:

  • Teachers actually do their jobs
  • Language changes according to your purpose
  • There is teacher-me and writer-me
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have heard a lot of authors complain that their English teacher taught them wrong.  I can’t speak for your personal English teacher (who, for all I know, might have been the most useless person ever to stand in a classroom) but I can tell you why English teachers encourage you not to use the word ‘said’.

When you were at school

Adults often don’t remember what it was like to be learning English at school, the new words, the complicated sentences, the totally baffling stories they wrote…  They judge their teachers’ advice on whether or not they agree with it now.  They completely forget that, at some point in history, the words ‘called’ and ‘hollered’ were unfamiliar to them and they had to learn them.

Teachers who helped them to learn new words were doing their job, and it’s only from the lofty position of knowing all these words now that people can decide whether or not they are appropriate for their stories.

Not everyone wants to be a professional novelist (or creative writer of any description) and it’s unfair to think that all your English lessons should be tailored to those very specific needs.  For the most part, people who want to write a novel have to learn the language to an appropriate degree first, and that is what their English teachers were there for.  Honing skills specific to your form and genre comes after that.

Why teachers tell you not to write ‘said’

That is their job.

Your English teacher was not teaching you to write a novel, they were teaching you to write an exam answer.

We can get side-tracked here by pointing out how awful it is that teachers are teaching pupils to pass exams rather than expanding their horizons with the beauty of the English language, but we won’t.  It is awful.  I don’t agree with teaching only to pass exams.  However, that is the reality of it.  It is not your teacher’s fault.  They have a job to do and they are told exactly what they need to teach.  If you had fun lessons at school, that was probably your teacher sneaking them in under the radar.

Examiners have a check-list of things to look for.  And, for the record, I have been a GCSE examiner (don’t get me started).

They look for things like:

  • Relevant content (sticking to the form, audience and purpose of the task)
  • A range of paragraphs
  • A range of sentence structures
  • A range of punctuation
  • A range of vocabulary

You can see that having a range gets better marks.  And so English teachers encourage pupils to use a range of vocabulary.

Repeatedly writing ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ doesn’t demonstrate a range of vocabulary.  English teachers encourage pupils to use different words for ‘said’ because it is one of the easiest ways to do this.

My advice

Like most English teachers, I have lobbed thesauruses (not literally) at pupils and told them to find a different word (and, again, I’m not going to get distracted talking about how to use thesauruses, either – I may do that in another post).  This is, firstly, to help develop a pupil’s vocabulary as they learn new words, and, secondly, to train them to use a variety of vocabulary in their work.

However, I will give very different advice depending what I am being asked, in what context and by whom.

If you are a GCSE pupil, asking my professional opinion as a qualified English teacher, then I will probably advise you to use a range of words such as bellowed, cried, whispered, etc. rather than just ‘said’.

If you are an aspiring writer (of any age), asking my opinion as a professional writer, then I will probably tell you that the simplest words are often the best.  The word ‘said’ is simple, clear and doesn’t draw attention to itself.  If you want people to focus on what was said, use that.  If you want your reader to focus on how it was said, elaborate by using a different word.

My advice will change depending on who is asking and what they are trying to write.  A great exam answer is very different from a great novel, which is different from a formal letter, which is different from a short story, which is different from narrative non-fiction, and so on.

You wouldn’t ask a prize-winning journalist to teach you about writing and then, at the end of the lesson, complain that they didn’t give you the best advice about writing novels.  Of course they didn’t.  They write articles.  That’s what they were teaching you.

The same goes for English teachers.  They’re showing you how to write exam answers.

A little story

One of the Year 7s I taught got to see how my feedback changed depending on what I was reading and why.

Every week, I would collect in the books, mark the work and give feedback.  And every week, I would give this particular Year 7 the same criticism.  It went something like this: Use capital letters, for the love of mercy!  Didn’t you learn this in Primary School?  This is the very minimum you need for writing a sentence.

Or words to that effect.

For those of you who are worried about my level of feedback, this was not the only thing I wrote.

This same pupil was writing a novel.  An actual novel that he hoped to get published some day in the future.

I love that enthusiasm.  I love that he loved writing.  I love that he spent the time actually writing it.  And, with that in mind, when he came into the classroom each week, he would hand me a memory stick and I would read the next chapter of his book.

Every week, I handed it back with a massive smile and lavished praise upon this Year 7 who apparently refused to use capital letters.  Why?  Because his book was amazing.  It was imaginative and funny and I absolutely enjoyed reading it.

Every week, I would mark his work as a teacher and give feedback that would help him get to where he needed (passing his exams).  And also every week, I would read his novel as a person and give him the feedback he needed to get to where he wanted to be (the encouragement to keep writing, practise, and follow his dreams).

If he had asked me to mark his novel as a teacher, I would have had to point out the grammatical errors, correct his sentence structure a bit and moan about his sporadic capital letters.  But there is so much that goes into a novel, and the least of those (certainly when you’re eleven) is perfect grammar.  As long as it made sense, was clear, progressed the story, made me laugh and kept me hooked, that was a successful novel.

Conclusion

Teachers have been telling pupils to use a variety of words, instead of only using ‘said’ because it is a well-known, legitimate and easy way for that pupil to demonstrate the skills they need to pass their exams.  Any tips that teachers can give their pupils to give them a better chance in their exams should be given.

I can talk to you about writing as teacher-me, or I can talk to you about writing as writer-me.  I will have very different things to say, depending upon which hat I am wearing.

My 3 Favourite podcasts about writing and what you’ll learn from them

This week, writing podcasts can be:

  • As long as a piece of string
  • Chuckle-worthy
  • Heaven on a hat stand
Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

My three favourite podcasts about writing

I have tried listening to several podcasts on writing over the years and a lot of them I didn’t stick with.  That doesn’t make them bad podcasts, it just means that they didn’t capture my interest at the time.

These three are the ones I still listen to every week.

I have gone back and listened to them right from the beginning and have not regretted it.

I have learned a lot from them and enjoyed them.

Writing Excuses logo and tag line

Writing Excuses

Hosted by:

Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler.

What I like about it:

The tagline for this podcast is ‘fifteen minutes long’ and that’s perfect.  In recent years, they have tended to go over that limit more often than not, bringing it up to about twenty minutes, but it’s still a very small, digestible episode.

It means there is no straying off topic, no rambling, no prevaricating and no searching through hours of drivel to find that one useful gem of information.

Each episode is clearly titled and so you can find the subjects you are interested in (particularly if you’ve listened to them and want to go back to hear about something again).

I also love the fact that there are four main hosts (with long-term or short-term additional hosts) and so, for every topic, you’re guaranteed to get a range of opinions.

The guests and other experts they bring on are interesting and usually addressing a specific question or topic.

My favourite series:

My favourite Writing Excuses series is 11, without a doubt.  It blew my mind. 

I have listened to it several times, just to remind myself of how brilliant it is.  I still think about it so much now.  It’s a year of ‘elemental genres’ and I have never heard anyone break genre down in that way before.

This podcast is an ideas podcast with an ensemble subgenre, blended with humour and a dash of drama.  You’ll get these references if you listen to series 11.

How the podcast is structured:

Each episode is (approximately) fifteen minutes long and is released every Monday.

The four main hosts take part throughout the year, and additional hosts join them on a short-term basis.

These days, each series is one year long and starts in January. 

Each series has a different overarching topic, such as character, worldbuilding or structure.  The episodes that year focus on one small aspect of that topic and, by the end of the year, they will have covered a complete masterclass of that topic.

When I started listening to this and realised it was brilliant, I went right back to the beginning to listen to series 1, episode 1 and worked my way right through.  I didn’t want to miss anything they had to say.

I wouldn’t recommend doing that.  The first few series, though enjoyable in their way, were very much a boys’ own club and much less structured than they are now.  It took them a while to get into their stride but, when they did, it was gold.

I would recommend starting at series 6.  This is when they really began to do what they’re doing so brilliantly now.

What it’s good at:

  • Giving clear, concise advice on specific areas within writing
  • Naming episodes clearly so you can find what you are interested in
  • Having a range of (often differing) opinions to show you a range of styles and personalities
  • Spending several episodes delving into different aspects of one topic to give a really deep understanding of that whole topic
  • Feeling the love and admiration that the hosts have for each other
Tim Clare, Death of 1000 Cuts logo

Death of 1000 Cuts

Hosted by:

Tim Clare.

What I like about it:

What I like about Death of 1000 Cuts is the raw, brutal honesty of the host when he talks about writing and mental health, and how the two are linked.

I also like the imaginative, often shockingly rude metaphors.  Seriously, I was blushing like a maiden aunt for the first few episodes because I was not expecting that level of genitalia talk.

The episodes are longer than the Writing Excuses ones, usually coming in at between one and two hours.  The host is not afraid to talk around a knotty, problematic or nuanced subject and explore it in depth.

Tim Clare is really good at making listeners feel like we get to know him, we are invited into his world and he is a kind host.

My favourite episode:

Some of my favourite episodes are the ones that are sprawling conversations, with a hint of fun in them. 

For example, one of my favourites is series 3, episode 24: StorySmashing with Nate Crowley.  This is a fun episode which focuses on different ways to brainstorm ideas.  The two hosts go ahead and brainstorm three ideas to show us how it’s done.  It might be my favourite because I love the excitement and possibility of creating stories.

There are lots that I love, though.  Every time he does a ‘writing ramble’, he says ‘this might not be for everyone’ but those are some of my favourite episodes, where he digs slowly down into a topic in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do it.

How it is structured:

There are four main types of episodes: interviews, writing rambles, first-page critiques and free writing courses.

There are a huge number of episodes in which the host interviews someone else from the writing industry.  Several writing podcasts do this but it’s always interesting to listen to.  Each interviewer and interviewee bring something unique to the discussion, so you’ll never hear the same interview twice, even if you’ve heard them speaking before.

We all know that, some interviewers are a bit stiff and don’t get the best out of their interviewees, but Tim Clare always seems to.  His enthusiastic approach is endearing and energetic.

He manages to ask interesting questions, questions I’ve not heard other people ask, and still get down to the nitty gritty of writing.

The episodes subtitled as ‘writing rambles’ are focused on one topic and the host talks about his opinions, experiences and thoughts on that subject.  It means these episodes delve deeply into a nuanced discussion of topics that otherwise might get a simplistic overview and reach a superficial conclusion.  I find these episodes really interesting.

What Tim Clare does that I haven’t encountered on any other podcast is the first page critiques.  He takes the first 250 words of someone’s novel (and anyone can send theirs in to be critiqued) and goes through, line by line, giving detailed word and sentence-level feedback.  It’s fascinating to hear his analysis and get that level of critique.  Even though it’s not my writing, I’ve found it incredibly useful to hear that level of detailed editing and have applied it as well as I can to my own work.

In addition to that, there are two whole series of writing workshops.  These are free, online workshops that you can get from Tim Clare’s website or his podcast, and they are entirely worth listening to and doing the writing activities.

If you have always wanted to go to a writing workshop or writing retreat but couldn’t afford it, try these out.

What it’s good at:

  • Nuanced discussions about mental health, writing, social expectations and any combination of these things
  • Demystifying the process of writing, submitting or publishing by having frank discussions with other authors and industry professionals
  • Identifying areas in which mental health, physical health, social expectations and the craft of writing cross over
  • Providing practical support for writers looking to develop their craft, with first-page critiques and free workshops
  • Making the reader feel part of a larger community and like we are friends with Tim Clare
My Dad Wrote a Porno logo

My Dad Wrote a Porno

Hosted by:

Jamie Morton, Alice Levine and James Cooper.

What I like about it:

This is a masterclass in identifying writing techniques and skills.  Not necessarily a masterclass in using them…

It is absolutely hilarious.  Seriously.  Hilarious.

How it is structured:

In My Dad Wrote a Porno, Jamie reads one chapter a week of his father’s erotic novels to his two best friends.

Yes, it is exactly the way it sounds.

The series are about 13-15 episodes long, usually with bonus footnotes episodes.  The episodes come out on a Monday, with footnotes out on a Thursday.  The series don’t run all year – that is a major down-side, that we have to wait for the next series to come round again.

As Jamie reads the latest chapter, with varying degrees of success on the character’s accents, his co-hosts leap in, interrupt, laugh, question and generally look on in disbelief as they dissect what is happening in the novels, what it means for the characters, what specific phrases mean… just generally what it means.

We get two layers to these podcasts: the book itself and the critique from the hosts.

What it’s good at:

It (inadvertently) covers topics such as:

  • Forgetting character names at random in the middle of book 1 (poor Donna)
  • How to block character movements between lines of dialogue (for example, a character putting their shoes in the corner of a room while they talk)
  • Sexuality, queerness and social acceptance
  • The (mis)use of; semi-colons
  • How to use language to create idioms and sayings
  • Introducing characters
  • Maintaining internal consistency with plot and world-building
  • Discussions on craft, language and reader experience

Let me know what your favourite writing podcast is

I’m always on the look-out for more amazing writing podcasts so let me know if there’s one you’ve loved.

Six reasons to listen to writing podcasts

This week, listening to writing podcasts:

  • Is an affordable way to develop craft
  • Makes me part of a writing community
  • Builds my enthusiasm for writing
Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing

There are lots of reasons why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing.

1. They are free

You don’t need to pay money to go to a convention.

You don’t need to pay money to go on a writing course.

2. You hear a range of experts

You get to hear whichever author(s) or industry experts are hosting the show.

They have guest speakers on from all aspects of the industry, including authors, editors, agents, publishers and consumers (readers and bloggers).

Each one will give you a different opinion.  This frustrates some people because there is no ‘right’ way to write but it’s often useful to hear that there are different methods, techniques and tricks.  You can cherry-pick the ones that are right for you and build yourself a toolbox of skills to draw upon when you need them.

You can hear their struggles and be glad it’s not just you, that you can still finish your novel because this person did and they went through the same thing you’re going through now.

You can hear about their successes and be glad for them and feel hopeful that, one day, you’ll be successful in whatever way you want.

You can hone in on the episodes and experts you want to listen to at the time.  For example, there are episodes about drafting, creating character and getting started which are useful when you’re beginning your new project, and episodes about editing, redrafting and submitting to agents which will be useful later on.

3. You can listen to them when you like

Like all podcasts, they are easy to download to your computer, laptop, tablet or mobile.

You can listen to them whenever and wherever you like.  You don’t need to set aside a time specially for listening to them, like you would going to some kind of class.

You are in control of how long you listen for, whether you listen in one go or in sections.

4. It makes you part of a community

If you listen to one podcast over time, you get to know the host and the regular guests, and it makes you feel like you know another writer.  As someone with very few writer-friends, this is invaluable.

You can join discussions and groups about the podcast and feel part of a small community, all joined together by their love of the podcast and of writing.

5. It counts as ‘work’ or ‘research’

If you’re having a bad writing day, you can listen to one, learn about writing, and think about an aspect of writing you perhaps haven’t thought of before.

If it makes you think about writing, you’re developing as a writer.  Most authors agree that the best thing to do to get better at writing is to write.  I would agree.  However, just writing and writing and never stopping to actually assess what you’re producing won’t help you as much as you think.

At some point, you have to bring your inner editor to the party.  Write, and think about what you’re writing.  You can do this at any time, depending on your own writing preferences.  Do it in the planning stage, as you write or wait until you’ve written your piece and evaluate it at the end – whatever works for you.

Listening to experts can save you from making some amateur mistakes.

Hearing people discuss one aspect of writing and digesting that advice will mean you gradually become a better writer because you have considered the elements that make up a great novel (or poem or short story, etc.)

6. It will inspire you to write

A lot of the time, listening to someone talk enthusiastically about an aspect of writing will inspire you to have a go, too.

If you were having a bad writing day, listening to someone talk about it might fire you with enthusiasm and you’ll have another crack at it.

You can hear about other, successful authors feeling the same way as you.

Next time

Find out what my three favourite writing podcasts are.  You might guess a couple of them but will you guess all three?