Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Fool and His Money are Soon Parted

Understanding the Global Financial Crisis, (GFC) courtesy of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

If there was ever an argument that the works of Shakespeare are timeless, that notion was borne out by the packed house at the National Theatre in London at Nicholas Hynter’s production of Timon of Athens.

Timon, you see, is wealthy ‘old money’ and generous to his friends, but lives way beyond his means.  He’s rather like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey or like any other member of the ruling elite who thought that the banks would always be there to bail him out.  He’s a patron of the arts and revels in the fawning and gravitas that this confers.  His Getty-like status ensures that there’s even a Timon Room, named for him, at a major gallery.

In the 90s, Timon would have been a heartbeat away from bankruptcy, raiding the pension fund, or buying multiple houses on borrowed money, then using them like cash points in a rising property market.

And Timon, in this production is no longer of Athens, which is fair enough, as setting the play there would have implied that it was the Greek people who caused the GFC – handy if you want a scapegoat, but not entirely true. So Timon is now of the Square Mile, the West End, Mayfair and Kensington – and flashes the cash to various characters – from bestowing one with jewel’s and paying another’s dowry.  But, to parody the title of that Beatles song, Money Can’t Buy Him  Love and Timon’s world collapses when his banker buddies refuse to give him any more credit and ask for their debts to repaid.

Whether or not you buy into Timon’s downfall depends on whether you see him as a victim, or merely a fool.  One reviewer called him a cross between Robert Maxwell, Gordon Brown and ‘Fred the Shred’ Goodwin.  I’d add the Bank of England to this list.

Oh Timon, if only you’d listened to journalist Robert Peston, who warned us all back in 2006, about what would happen to those of us who borrowed when times were good, you wouldn’t have got yourself into that financial mess.  But Timon’s fall from grace is as swift as it is understandable, (and made swifter still as Hynter has edited out 250 lines from the First Folio text of 1623, which, according to the programme, ‘is not believed to be a finished script for performance.’)

Good is what I say to that, because as much as I love this play (and I do, even though it is unfinished) and I have always been prepared to forgive the last two acts, as the first half is so astonishing.  As a writer, there is plenty to learn from the play’s flaws  – it has characteristics of both tragedy and satire, but unlike other Shakesperean tragedies – we don’t really find out what befalls Timon as his death takes place off-stage and also, rather unsatisfactorily, there is no catharsis for the main character at the end.

If I’m going to spend money on a theatre ticket I prefer works that help me  try to make sense of the world I live in.  And this play, where the military invasion of Athens is replaced by a takeover by the Occupy Movement, made me question why the world’s financial markets collapsed in the way that they did.  It’s as relevant today as Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, also revived this summer, written in the wake of the Big Bang de-regulation of the financial markets during the Thatcher era.

The irony isn’t lost on me that the only reason I could get to see this play on a £12 Travelex ticket was due to the generosity of a money-changing company – as well as all the other corporate sponsors – including both Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan – the latter facing questions over its role in the Libor rate-rigging scandal.  Corporate sponsorship is nothing new – there would have been no Renaissance art were it not for the Medici family – so I’m not going to lose any sleep over which companies subsidised my ticket. Instead, I am immensely grateful that I am lucky enough to be within striking distance of the National, to take advantage of these astonishingly good value tickets.

But lest you think that the National Theatre is merely the stomping ground for the privileged, think again.  For Timon of Athens is to be recorded and transmitted as live to a cinema near you on November the 1st.  It’s a play that’s so rarely performed that this might be your only chance to see it.  If there’s one thing that we excel at in the UK, it is that, despite the recession we have a thriving theatre culture that, compared with New York or Sydney, one that won’t cost you an arm and a leg to go.  And in these gloomy economic times, that’s surely something to celebrate?


Unforgettable Characters

In the first part of the chapter on creating character, here are some tips on writing a character biography and a couple of exercises that can be done on the commute to or from work.  Let me know what you think….

Creating Unforgettable Characters

Of the last ten books you read how may plots of those books can you recall? Now try the same exercise again, only this time think back over the last few years.  What makes a novel memorable? Is it the setting, the language, the writing or because it was the most hyped book of the year? There is no doubt that it is these elements will greatly enhance your enjoyment of a book but they soon fade away once you become engrossed in a new novel.  More than likely it is the characters that stay in our minds long after we have forgotten the plot details.

Lee Hall, perhaps best known for writing Billy Elliot is adept at making young voices heard.  He created a character, a young girl with autism, who was dying. To bring such a character to an audience required a tremendous amount of highly sensitive, and I imagine, harrowing research.  Spoonface Steinberg was originally broadcast as a radio play on BBC Radio 4.  The public response to the monologue, performed by a gifted child actor was immediate.  One lorry driver had to pull his vehicle over to the side of the road; so moved was he by what he was hearing. Other listeners reported that instead of going to work, they sat in the car park just so they could hear the end.

So how do you go about creating characters that tap into our psyche to such an extent that even grown men reach for the tissue box?


Building a character outline

Choose a person you know well and try to describe them. Your description might include information such as their height, age, hairstyle, or even the colour of their eyes. Then you might want to add in details about their profession, the kind of car they drive or the house they live in. This, though hardly reflects their personality and could apply to any number of people.  But then you recall a laugh or a certain mannerism or even an attitude or belief that makes that person as individual as you are.  That is, in summary how you go about creating a character.


People watching exercise – creating a character

Who hasn’t tried to guess what a random stranger does for a living from their appearance? Take that concept a little further with the following exercise:  It is important that the person you choose is unknown to you.  How old do you think they are? What line of work do you think they might be in? Are there any visual clues that could assist you here? Look at their clothes. What type of a house do they live in and what kind of car they drive? What are their hobbies or interests? What issues do they care about?


Consciously or not, our characters grow from real people we have met. That is not to say that you will base a character on any one person in particular, rather they may well be a composite, drawn from any number of people you have met.  Each social occasion you attend gives every writer the chance to observe human behaviour.  An eye for detail is important as it is the little quirks that make a character credible.


Character biography

If you have a great many characters in your novel, and have to write a number of character biographies, one way of livening up the process is to assume the role of the  character and that you are being asked a list of questions by an interviewer.

Here are some questions you might try:

1 As you are now

What age are you? What gender are you? Your name? What do you look like? Where do you live?


2 Family background

Where were you born? How many siblings do you have and what is your position (eldest, middle or youngest)  in the family you were born into? What social and economic group were you born into? What did your parents do for a living? What kind of education did you have? Were you brought up in the city, suburbia or the country? What kind of background did your parents have? Were they born in the same place or did they move here?

3 Professional life

What kind of job or career do you have? Are you happy in your work or are you planning a change?

4 Personality

Are you an ambitious person or are you the kind who is content with what they have? An adventurer or a home body? Are you a perfectionist? Introvert or extrovert? Are you someone who is able to coolly weigh up each side of an argument or are you a hothead, the type that jumps to conclusions and speaks out before thinking the matter through? What are your desirable characteristics? Loyalty, discretion? What are the undesirable ones? A poor time keeper, a complainer who enjoys moaning but who won’t do something about their problems?

5 Likes and dislikes

What drives you to distraction? What kind of hobbies and interests do you have? Are you conservative or open to change? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry?

Don’t forget that it is the attitudes, emotions and beliefs that provide us with the clues to a character’s behaviour.  Even for minor characters, their physical characteristics are less important than what they think, feel and believe.

Everything But the Girl – Review of The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

This reminds me of those thrillers that you sit through at the cinema which have such a brilliant third act that you will put up with an hour of tedium first. This vast, sprawling 750 page monster is less easy to forgive and could have done with a good edit.

For the first time ever in a Larsson book, I became disengaged at the point that it became a conspiracy thriller because to explain his theories on the Olof Palme assassination and the corruption at the heart of the Swedish security services, Larsson felt the need to introduce a seemingly endless array of characters: cops, spies, government officials and gangsters.

I don’t know about you but there comes a point in a book like this where you want to put your hand up and say, enough with the characters! I don’t know what half of them are doing here, whether they’re good or whether they’re bad, and what was their name again? And now you want to introduce more?

All I wanted to find out about was what was going to happen to a somewhat diminished human being called Lisbeth Salander. When Lisbeth finally does come back into the story that’s when the story really takes off… When Salander does reappear, she is like the Salander of the first in the series – a real, complex and dysfunctional character, unlike the cyborg of the second book.

When Mikael Blomkvist, the author’s alter-ego, has a fling with a super fit female cop, who encourages him to get out and get fit it, that’s when it feels a little sad, almost a foreshadowing of the author’s own death; as though he knew what an unhealthy lifestyle he was leading and that he really needed to do something about it.

Others have noted the rather heavy-handed one page asides about female warriors. I could have forgiven him for those, but it is the unnecessary sub-plots that I felt detracted rather than enhanced the main story. For instance, Berger’s stalker and Salander’s financial advisor, both of whom are pretty dull, and who therefore, and don’t deserve an inner life or a back story.

But these relatively minor points aside, Larsson was still one of the most original thriller voices in his all too brief life and it felt sad to say goodbye to Salander in this final instalment.

Promoting your Book

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been so absorbed with re-working my new non-fiction e-book that I have scarcely had time for much social networking but when I did finally come up for air, a blog post, written by Dean Wesley Smith, on what he refers to as bad promotion, has stirred something within me, too. Dean doesn’t pull any punches and he has strong opinions, including writing lists of DO NOTs in capital letters – something I find amusing.

Since the euphoria of the spike in sales after the KDP Select promotion has now worn off, I decided instead, to get on with the next book, heeding the advice that we hear from indie published authors who have more than one book to their names.

As well as reading Dean’s post, and in particular the advice where he says:

” DO NOT post more than once a week, at most, about your new book on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site. All you will do is annoy your friends. And then post only if you have something interesting to report.”

This comment underscores what I’ve been observing, for some time now, that the same authors with the same books, keep popping up on the various Amazon threads that I subscribe to. I’ve been tempted to ask these authors whether or not they consider that they have had increased sales from regular postings on these forums, as I must confess that when I see the same names popping up, I not only tune out, I unsubscribe to that thread.

I think though, that if you are a newly published indie author still finding their feet, that it’s easy to get swept up in the novelty of seeing your book published and all you want to do is tell the world about it – again and again. What can happen though, is, that as you spend all your spare time marketing, if the results do not immediately match the effort, it’s easy to get downhearted.

I think too, that you have to love marketing in order to do it successfully. It’s taken me a few months to admit to myself that I don’t much enjoying pimping my book and I would much rather market a book indirectly, by writing; whether that’s a blog post or on Twitter or, working on a new book. Now that I’ve been able to admit this to myself I have become much better at juggling my writing and promoting. For a while there I was marketing 100% of the time and now, thankfully the balance has shifted to writing 95% of the time and promoting 5%. And it comes as a relief, now that my writing life is back on a more even keel.

Writing Tips for Novelists & Screenwriters

I’ve just posted the first 10,000 words of my latest e-book, a non-fiction instructional work-in-progress, called Writing Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters onto the critiquing website, Authonomy, where I am looking for feedback and peer review.

Now that I’ve written both a novel and a number of screenplays, I realised that there are many more similarities than there are differences, particularly for writing genre fiction. I realised that the process of writing a novel as opposed to writing a screenplay is not so very different. Both require an ability to tell a story and a way to assembling the story into a particular order, in other words a plot, characters and characterisation, dialogue and above all an understanding that a first draft is not a finished product. Equally as important as the building blocks to create the work are the personal qualities needed to complete the work in the first place. A writer needs to have the ability to deal with constructive criticism and not to take this personally.

Long pitch: This is my attempt at bringing together everything I have learnt from my teaching and my own writing in the hope that you will find some of the tips and examples in this book to be useful in your fiction.

Illustrating the teaching points are examples from films and TV drama from classic screenplays such as Casablanca to modern classics such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Star Wars Episode IV and The English Patient.

There might be thousands of would-be writers out there dreaming of writing a novel or screenplay but it takes a special sort of person, like you, to see the project through to the end. This book is for you.
Alison Ripley Cubitt Winchester 2012

Your feedback needed
This is aimed at emerging writers and I’m particularly interested in receiving feedback from those of you who write genre fiction – particularly those of you that write fantasy, thrillers and romantic fiction. It is very much a work-in-progress and I know that it needs editing and that’s why I’ve chosen to ask the Authonomy community for their assistance.

List of Contents

Getting Started
Motivation and How to Keep Going
Creating Unforgettable Characters
Character Functions
The Antagonist in Fiction – Villains and Bad Guys
Genre Fiction – Love Stories to Mythic Storytelling
Story and Plot
Pace and Structure
Rewrites and Editing
How to Give and Receive Criticism
How to Market a Screenplay
References & Further Reading

Writers are Actors who don’t have the Bottle to Perform in front of an Audience

I was talking to an actor and a director recently where we were discussing the parallels between writing and acting. I have always believed that screenwriters, and playwrights are actors who don’t have the courage to get up in front of others and perform. And I know this as I dabbled in acting before taking up writing.

I got the acting bug out of my system at university after I dropped out of a law degree. Or rather, it dropped me. I had failed to meet the 75% pass rate in the Legal Systems exam in my first year. A week before the exam my father died suddenly in tragic circumstances but the hard-hearted law department was not in the business of allowing re-sits.

I took myself off instead to the drama department, where I received a warm welcome – even though they had, like many drama departments, I suspect, far too many female actors and not enough males.

It didn’t take long to work out who the stars of our year were going to be. Not only did the leads have to be talented they had to be gorgeous as well. If you were average on both talent and looks you got to be called a character actor.

I loved drama at university so much that at the end of my final year I applied to drama school. I chose for my audition piece Hermione’s court scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I rehearsed the piece over and over again, walking around the house, feeling my way into Hermione’s predicament. I had enjoyed being on stage as an ensemble actor and hadn’t found performing in front of an audience to be too frightening.

But as I waited to go in to the audition for drama school it dawned on me that all my acting had been done on a brightly lit stage in a darkened auditorium and I couldn’t see the audience. The audition took place on a weekday morning and I was so nervous when I got up that morning that I couldn’t face any breakfast. My nerves got the better of me and I panicked. My 21-year-old self had read somewhere that brandy was soothing for stress and I trotted off and bought a miniature – and swigged it. And then hurriedly brushed my teeth so that I wouldn’t smell like a brewery.

At the audition I was ushered into a room, and had to sit in vast room facing a panel of three. I had to answer a series of questions ranging from: Why I wanted to be an actor to how was I going to support myself financially. I got through that part of the audition but then it was time for me to stand up and do my party piece.

I was a shivering, shaking wreck but pulled myself together and launched into Hermione’s speech. And then something miraculous happened: I gained my audience’s attention. For a couple of minutes, that speech went really well. I felt my confidence build and was all ready to launch into the big dramatic finish when something terrible happened. I began to feel dizzy and put my hand to my head. The panel loved it. They just saw Hermione giving it heaps, when it was just the brandy finally kicking in. My head swam and I fell to the floor. And then passed out. Cold.

Now I don’t know if you know that particular play, and as I look back now, it might just be okay for Hermione to fall to the floor but only if she got back up again pretty damn quickly – and certainly not in a drunken stupor.  When I came round I was guided back to the chair and then told gently that I needed more experience, and why didn’t I try my luck with rep theatre in the regions of New Zealand, where I lived?

Since then, whether for a screenplay or a novel, I have stuck to writing characterisation and dialogue and then walking around the house performing the part and saying the lines in front of my audience of audience of one – my Labrador. Granted, she wasn’t the greatest of critics, and if the dialogue was wooden, it was always up to me to correct it.

One of the most rewarding experiences I had as an emerging screenwriter was at the shoot of my film school short. We had managed to persuade Josephine Tewson, who was a very successful comedy actor, to play a role and she took my script and made it her own. Potential tongue-twisting lines were put in a different order, certain activities within the scene were done in a different way than in the script but the end result was a much better version than my original.

I have the utmost respect for actors – particularly those talented individuals who make it look so easy and can pretend they’re not acting at all. I am immensely grateful that there are people out there who are prepared to suffer the indignity of getting up and performing my lines in front of others. Because one thing I do know, no one else should have to watch while I act out the roles and say the lines of my characters. No, not even the dog – who had to suffer for the past six years listening to all the dialogue in the first novel. Maybe that was what did for her in the end?