How not to write a novel

August 4, 2017

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How Not To Write a Novel, by Newman and Middlemark, [Book review]

In a last-minute search for a birthday present recently, I was browsing for a book at the Simply Books No 1 emporium. As I did so, my eye was caught by an instruction manual entitled How Not to Write a Novel, (HNTWAN), by Sandra Newman and Howard Middlemark.

I added it to my shopping trolley. This proved to be a sound investment. As they say in many a blurb, I read it long into the evening, as the battles for tennis supremacy at Wimbledon passed me unheeded across the room. The book promises to supply 200 ways your book will fail to get published. In a mischievous and at times snigger-producing way they do just that. Page after page I found examples of why I should stick to self-publishing. I extract some which I underlined for future reference. You may wish the use what follows as check-list.

“What works for me”

The belief that what interests you interests everyone. A passion for an obscure chess club may not sustain interest of itself. The universals of passion, unfulfilled dreams, treachery, a quest may be there, but there is still need of an engaging plot. A central dilemma is needed for connecting the pawn pushing to those wider themes.

“The slow build-up”

Bit like the start to this blog post (oops). This is where the opening pages could be left out with no damage to the story:

‘Reggie boarded the train at Montauk, found a seat… read a newspaper…

(10 pages later) As the train pulled out of Montauk …

(10 pages later) …and that was how I met your Aunt Katherine.’

“The false clue”

A vivid detail which has no further relevance. Aka The gum on the mantlepiece, cleaned up later, leaving readers puzzled unless they learn the gum was quickly cleaned up by a fastidious character in the book

“Plot polygamy”

In which plot line after plot line tumble across the pages in confusing fashion…

“Not avoiding the rule of three”

As a public speaker, I believe utterly in the rule of three. Telling what you intend to say, saying it, summarizing what you said. For novelists, or humble thriller writers, the rule of three is a non no. (Aka:where the set up reveals or weakens the payoff.)

“The second fight in the Laundromat”

Damn. I have an exciting fire which breaks out in chapter ten, and now I would like to write another in the climactic scene in chapter fifty two.

“Santa’s too sexy for his beard”

In which she a protagonist sees through the ‘best friend or nice neighbour’ . The authors give this the thumbs down. ‘[S]he must be attractive on some level, not just safe. We get enough of that.in real life.’

“Confessional from the super-villain”

Compulsive and implausible spilling the beans In the interests of plot closure by the super-villain.

“Vocabulary flauting”

Speaks for itself, often in irritating fashion. (‘Nobody likes a show-off’)

“Cliches”

‘Cliches become cliches for a reason.’

“Lists”

Don’t use lists  A well-respected novelist argued the opposite and I guess ‘use lists with caution and awareness’ might be a refinement to this principle. Lists are for description not as an inventory.

“Time management”

Useful extended treatment. How you can cheat on linear time in writing fiction, but not if it jars in the reader’s mind.

“Relentless accounts of natural functions”

Too common, and obvious (when pointed out). Even crude characters do not belch and fart every time they appear.

“Dialogue”

Advice worth the price of the book. It takes practice or an innate gift to write like you you think your characters people speak, (or even harder to write in the way readers accept as the way the characters ought to speak).

“The dangers of elegant variation”

For example, when the author goes to stupid lengths to avoid using ‘he said’.

“Style and lack of it”

Rich set of thought-provoking suggestions. Virtues and dangers of the narrative voice, reported internal monologue, multiple points of view, and more.

“Sex, jokes and post-modern flourishes”

If you can’t write any of these well, stop fouling up your chances of successful publishing. Your best is not good enough. The crushingly bad examples of how not to write sex scenes are particularly funny, but you will have to read the book to enjoy the humour of the accidently botched lubricious.

“Marketing No Nos”

More deadly humour here on how not write to publishers.

For me this was a five-star read. I found the book seriously funny, and seriously thought-provoking. So did earlier reviewers.


The Organizational Psychology of Sport: Preliminary Review

December 27, 2016

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The Organizational Psychology of Sport edited by Christopher Wagstaff explores the nature of sports leadership and the way in which organizational psychology can help in the study and application of sport. It shows considerable fit with the approaches found in the Dilemmas of Leadership textbook

Last year I added a chapter on sports leadership to the third edition of Dilemmas of Leadership. I identified three key issues for the chapter:

Cultural and personal identity through sporting engagement

Developing sporting excellence

Distributed leadership in sports management

These and other dilemmas are to be covered in contributions to be found in Wagstaff’s impressive text.

For sports management courses, The Organizational Psychology of Sport is worth considering for a core text, with Dilemmas of Leadership (or its Chapter 11) on the course reading list.

Please contribute to the review discussions

A more comprehensive review is being prepared. I welcome contributions from LWD subscribers.


The Trespasser, by Tana French

October 16, 2016

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Book review

The Trespasser, a superior procedural detective novel, passed this critic’s first test.  I rated it four stars on the domestic suitability scale for mutual consumption

Why I liked it

The writing is intelligent, the characters engaging, the story ticking all the boxes for enthusiasts of crime fiction. The story is set in Dublin, with hard-boiled Irish cops, villains, and a beautiful young victim, done and battered in the first few pages before the detective duo arrive. There is a nailed-on suspect, and assorted enemies to justice, mostly inside the precinct.

Another big plus. The author avoided the maxim ‘a murder a chapter means readership capture‘ and eschewed the increasingly over-used device of a mad mass murderer.

A bit long?

As I began it, the book felt a little lengthy (the currently fashionable 400 plus pages). This turned out to be ungenerous judgement, as I found myself page-turning without skipping to the last, then eager to read the next available book by the author as soon as possible.

New York or Dublin?

One slightly discordant note:  the background felt closer to New York or Chicago Irish than to Dublin Irish. Was that my own indoctrination from a hundred American detective stories, or was the author up to something?

There was more than the pot-boiling detective yarn, although I missed a great deal of sub-textual stuff, because I had not been following earlier well-received books by author Tana French. A deeper indication of her intentions is found in a recent interview with the New York Times.


The Deal, by Jon Smith, super-agent

September 20, 2016

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The Deal is an autobiographic account by Jon Smith of the life of a football super-agent.  Smith in his time represented Diego Maradona, the England football squad, promoted Mikael Gorbachev on a speaking tour of England, and pioneered various financial schemes not always approved of by the Inland Revenue

His Master’s Voice?

Mr Smith is aided by sporting journalist James Olley, who is thanked gracefully ‘for not only capturing my voice, but also transposing my heartbeat’. This suggested to me the super-agent, maybe aboard a private plane, or waiting for a transfer-day deal, dictating his recollections and providing the recordings for Mr Olley to convert into text.

As Jon Smith concedes, super-agents in football are not particularly well-regarded by other members of what Sepp Blatter used to call the football family. They spend much of time concealing what they really want as part of their professional practice.  This perspective may have influenced my own reading of the book, if my own professional practice had not already disposed me towards looking at books as texts to be examined for the authors’ intentions. The Deal offers a rich set of clues in this respect.

What it says on the cover

The back cover blurbs include one which reads suspiciously as if the busy and well-known football personality it is attributed to had said, “tell you what Jon, I’m up to me wotsits with grief at the moment. You send me the sort of stuff you want me to put down, and I’ll tweak if, OK? Cheers mate.”  But the quote seems more like the handiwork of one of those literary young guns who write press releases for a living. [Note to lawyers: This is a flight of fancy, and in no way is intended to suggest the back cover  blurbs are anything but accurate representations of text supplied by admiring readers about the book.]

Biography as a thriller

The book starts not unlike the style recommended to writers of popular fiction.  Grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence, keep the drama level high, fit the murder in as soon as possible.

Sleeping is difficult in the safe house‘. Yes, that works nicely. The author is in fear of his life in Odessa. A ‘monstrously imposing man’ bursts into the room accusing him of murder. Yes, still on message. The prologue ticks the click bait requirements of the holiday thriller.

Subsequent chapters are more subdued in tone. Jon Smith appears as a person offering a series of personal anecdotes which offer a plausible account of the deal culture in football and its complex, sometimes shady nature.

I have a fondness for stories of adventure, and adversity overcome. The really good ones transcend fact and fiction, and help the reader escape from or postpone any critical faculty. The not quite-so-good ones still engage me, but at a level of an autobiography (I am who I am; I am widely misunderstood). The Deal, for me, falls into the second category. It allows the reader to assess how accurate the story is, without necessarily accepting it uncritically.

We were spared the revelations

I found the entrepreneurial and creative requirements of deal-making particularly interesting. We were spared the juicy killer-revelation about some celebrity’s sex life, which is too-frequently built in as to plug a book in the author’s round of Radio and TV interviews. I have no doubt Jon Smith could have found at least one such bit of grime from his experiences.

I could have done with more about the business of football deal-making and less about the private semi-confessional sections about the author.  My  recommendation is not quite as fulsome as the ones on the back cover. For all the professional editing support, Jon Smith might have been better advised to slim it done quite substantially.

However, I finished the book, even scanning the index, to see if I might have missed some of the mentions of the footballing greats it mentions.

One for the football fans and wannabe super-agents?


Bill James, The Principals, Seven House publishers, 2016

September 8, 2016

 

Book Review

Bill James is one of a number of pseudonyms written by the Welsh Novelist James Tucker, best known for his televised works about the exploits of the detective duo Harpur and Isles. The Principals is a Campus novel

The Campus Novel

What is a campus novel?  David Lodge, himself no mean exponent of the genre, neatly captures the ingredients, sex and power, in a conveniently located self-contained bubble. His close friend Malcolm Bradbury helped shape the work of a generation of writers as mentors through their pioneering  reative writing courses.

This Campus Novel takes the reader into the familiar territory of the Machiavellian  intrigues of University life. The action in The Principals pivots between Thatcherian Britain of the 1980s, and the present day.

Its title refers to an existential battle between the heads (Vice-chancellors in all but name) of two Universities co-existing uncomfortably in the same city.  The central theme has been echoed in real-life as painful ‘mergers’ have taken place for political as well as educational reasons.

Personal Interests

To declare several interests, The author of this review writes with personal experience as an alumnus of one institution on which such a fate was visited, and many years later as  a faculty member directly involved in the contortions at another which had more than a few striking unintended parallels to the plot twists in James’ new book.  He is also author of a recently published campus novel which comes with the required declarations that the  characters  in it have no intended resemblances to real-life person unless explicitly mentioned.

The eccentric leaders

In James’s book, the protagonists are admirably eccentric. Lawford Chute of Sedge University is a distinguished scholar in the still-fashionable celebrity mold.  He heads a seriously reputable Victorian institution aspiring to a place among the ranks of The United Kingdom’s Russell Group Universities. Across town lies the upstarts of Charter Mill, led by his bitter rival, the equally unhinged Victor Tane.

Chute’s grandiose plans for Sedge University have ignored the financial consequences of his actions, not least of which is the cost of the shiny new concert hall honouring an internationally-famed alumnus. Out in the sticks, the less academically recognized former community college is attracting money and student popularity for its American-style sporting achievements and its courses on hair-dressing.

Dark humour

The genre lends itself to irony and dark humour. James does not depart too far from the well-beaten path, the cover blurb relating it to Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.  I enjoyed the familiar story-line, which beguiled me enough to accept the occasional doubtful note.  The author never completely convinced me of the relatively high-esteem in which Sedge is held in academic circles. The ease with which an academic working group can lose all grasp of realities of the world outside the committee room is far more convincing and amusing.


Inverting the Pyramid

January 11, 2016

Inverting the Pyramid

Book Review

‘Inverting the pyramid: A history of football tactics’ was written by football journalist Jonathan Wilson. It was published when Jose Mourinho was in his first spell as manager of Chelsea This review, unpublished at the time, has been updated as part of a study of Jose’s second spell at Chelsea

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‘Prepare to Lose’. Astonishing claims about Jose Mourinho by Spanish journalist

December 11, 2015

Jose MourinhoBook Review of The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho

In the spirit of a work of fiction, this book begins with a bang. The first paragraph describes vividly how Supercoach Jose Mourinho broke down uncontrollably, on learning he would not become the next Manchester United Manager

The Author Jose Torres is a well-respected Spanish journalist, and not to be confused with a former Chelsea forward Fernando Torres, who might also have been included in such a biographic work. If the book is essentially more fact than fiction, it undermines Mourinho’s repeated claims of his unwavering love of Chelsea Football Club.

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