Dreadful Downton dialogue

I watched Downton Abbey the other night, for the first time. Before that, my only contact with it had been sitting next to Hugh Bonneville in the Business Class lounge at Los Angeles airport, and that was only because Air NZ lost my luggage for nine days on the way out and had to give me enough points for an upgrade. That’s a tale for another day.

Anyway, Downton Abbey, the finale. Oh dear. I wasn’t sorry I hadn’t seen the rest of it. Being charitable, perhaps the dire script was the inevitable outcome of the scriptwriter’s mission impossible – tying up far too many storylines in one episode, as well as fitting in the obligatory set pieces complete with valedictory one-liners and extravagantly costumed extras by the bus load. Poor bugger. I hope he’s lying in a darkened room, or on a beach somewhere far away from a television.

The whole affair was an object lesson in what happens when dialogue carries too much plot. ‘Oh hello, Fanny/Cedric/ whoever, I haven’t seen you since Lady X ran off with the butcher and then we all went hunting and Albert broke his leg. How are you?’ ‘Very well, thanks, and so much better since I recovered from that bout of flu in Episode 6 which nearly killed me and made me realise that life Is short and I had to divorce Dierdre before my fiftieth birthday.’ Fortunately, as I watched this farago I had a DA veteran in the room to answer my queries, although she was annoyed by my irreverent approach. ‘But it used to be good,’ she maintained stoutly. ‘This is just the end.’ Oh it was, it was.

Imagine my surprise when serious Tweets the following day praised everything I’d found risible. ‘Wasn’t it wonderful how they managed to tie up all the story lines so neatly,’ the DA fans purred, as if this was a good thing. I could only surmise that tying up every loose end was a genre protocol which had been slavishly followed, at the cost of any dramatic authenticity. Characters and plot were all left hopelessly two-dimensional, however well they may have been portrayed in the past. I suspect the actors knew they had became caricatures of themselves: maybe they wept quietly into the post-production champagne.

Many years ago, in the very first course I did on ‘How to write a novel’ (Arvon, 2007, at The Hurst) Louise Doughty spent a couple of hours on dialogue, which I’ve never forgotten. First she gave us a transcript of actual conversation, including every non-sequitur, hesitation and repetition – which was almost impossible to read. Then we had another example of the kind I’ve alluded to above: ‘Oh hello George, how good to meet you on a lovely day with the bluebells unfurling into spring sunshine etc’ which was as unnaturally ghastly as many of the lines in the DA finale.

The desired path is somewhere between the two, of course, and hard to navigate. Dialogue needs to be read aloud by the writer, because spoken conversation differs in so many respects from the written form: very few complex sentences, some hesitation and repetition, and many contextual details taken for granted, which the writer has to supply by other means. The writer can indicate the tone of voice by adverbs, or variations on ‘said’, but most of them sound clunky. The reader has to be helped to keep track of who’s speaking, without the luxury of seeing who is doing so.

As part of the initial ‘character studies’ that I develop when someone new is introduced, I try to hear how they will talk. What kinds of verbs and metaphors might the person use? Do they have any characteristic phrases, interesting in themselves and also indicative of a state of mind? Do they interrupt others during conversation or listen carefully and respond? Do they think before they speak, or put a foot in it occasionally, and how will this affect those around them? I’m sure every good scriptwriter will do the same, until and unless the demands of the plot get in the way, as they did at Downton Abbey over Christmas.


Writers, agents and publishers: are all of us flogging a dead horse?

Let’s make some assumptions: first, that not every writer aspires only to the ebook publishing route; second, that agents and publishers have a genuine interest in finding good writers; third, that the publishing business is as much driven by fashion and trends as is the clothing industry. Now let’s look at the current writer’s route to publication, which has evolved Topsy-like to its current chaotic inefficiency.

Here I am, a writer new to the publishing process, with no recogniseable ‘name’. I seek and follow advice about how to approach the behemoth of traditional publishing, and invest in the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’, which, ironically, is available from Amazon at a much reduced rate. I understand the mantra that new writers must first find an agent as publishers are too ‘overwhelmed’ to accept ‘unagented’ manuscripts. Two things are immediately striking about the agents listed in the big red book. The first is that they all have completely different requirements for would-be supplicants. Some demand email plus attachments, others refuse it. Some want five chapters, some 50 pages, and they expect them to be double-spaced, presumably for easier reading by whoever will read them, (or not), which doubles the amount of paper and postage costs. Having followed this process a number of times, I seriously question whether many of these great bricks of text are in fact read at all, but of this more later.

The other striking thing about the agents’ list when one looks closely is that almost every one is based in London, or at least the agency is: I imagine each agency has a network of ‘readers’ who can ill-afford to live in the most expensive city in the UK. There are no doubt very sound reasons for this London-centrism, especially if the book business is a big club, where people know one another, and from which someone like me is excluded in almost every respect.

Meeting representatives of this ‘club’ in person usually compounds this impression, by the way. If one is from the outer darkness of Cumbria and over 60, the sense of exclusion deepens further. I may have been unfortunate in my personal contact with agents, and what follows may be a caricature, but if I meet another impeccably dressed and accented young woman called Matilda or Clarissa,  whose only apparent criterion is that she ‘falls in love with’ the manuscript, I shall groan audibly.

Meeting the varying and capricious demands of the agents that one picks carefully from the daunting red book takes up a lot of time. Printing and posting off heavy parcels that one will never see again takes money too. Then one waits, for weeks, until the self-addressed envelopes land on the mat, containing the necessary and non-specific formulas of rejection. The suspicion that one’s precious offering has not been read is inescapable. It would be really helpful if someone were honest about what they look at first, or at all. Covering letter? Synopsis? Are you seriously telling me that the ‘overwhelmed’ agent reads all five chapters or fifty pages before reaching for the pre-printed letter? One of the agents I encountered – looking for sympathy perhaps – told her audience that life at her office was so hectic and packed with meetings that she had to read writers’ submissions at home in the evenings, or at the weekend. Poor dear. It must be hell.

Surely there must be a better way than this. If we asked students looking for a university place to go through such a process, there would be uproar, and rightly so. Instead there is one application mechanism and a clearing house system. Of course, every venerable place of higher learning may find it all rather infra-dig, and the Oxbridge colleges insist on their own procedures, but for the most part it works, without the anachronistic inefficiency facing writers and publishers trying to find each other.

And now there are the online dating agencies to ease the path for ‘relationship-seekers’, a very fitting model if ‘falling in love’ with a manuscript is what the agents insist upon. Finding my wonderful partner online was a far more humane and navigable process than trying to find someone interested in my books. In writing terms I’m not a complete no-hoper, by the way. I’ve invested in my own work and reach thousands of readers, in print as well as online, but unless things change in the ‘traditional’ publishing business I’ll not bother again. ‘Keep trying’ is the only advice, but life is too short for so much time, expense and frustration. I shall be a humble supplicant no longer.

For publishers too, surely there must be a better way than this, if someone had the wit to think it through. Look at the current financial health and efficiency of the fiction publishing industry and draw the necessary conclusion: if the horse is dead, stop flogging it and find another horse.




What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:


Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

Interview on BBC Radio Cumbria

I’m really grateful to my friend Eric who managed to squeeze this 16 minute interview on to my website. You’ll find the link in the My Books section on ruthsutton.co.uk, and it should work if you click on it. The BBC Radio Cumbria interviewer Paul Braithwaite asked some really good questions and made it easy to keep the conversation going, for much longer than I expected. If you look at the last blog post and then listen to the interview you’ll see the connections between the two. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I’ll be back shortly with a fresh blog post using tomorrow’s experience of a library talk and a book group back to back to reflect on what I learn from readers. One reader is already emailing me as she reads, trying to slow down to make her reading of ‘Cruel Tide’ last as long as she can. Once she’s finished she’ll have to wait almost a year before the next ‘instalment’ of the series is written and produced. ‘No pressure’ she says, but I can feel the pressure already.


The art of being interviewed

I’ve been waiting to write this post until the most recent interview I did on local radio was able to be linked in, but it’s not ready yet so I’ll go ahead anyway. It made me think about the Q&A of a good interview, and what I learned from from the many oral Q&A occasions in my recent working life, most of which have been to do with my education work rather than writing, although the process involved is much the same. Here some points from what I’ve learned:

1.The first of the points I’m going to make here apply to any interview, whether it’s oral or appears in written form, and it’s about preparation. You can’t assume that the person who will be interviewing you knows anything at all about you. Why should they? They work in a different world, with different concerns. They will know all about many people in that world, their world, but may not have met anyone like you before. So tell them beforehand. Give them something to work with. A week before my most recent radio interview I sent a copy of my book, which would be the main subject of the interview, and a little about myself as well. The interviewer, whose name in this recent case was Paul, could then glance through the information, read the back cover blurb, and dip into the book at various points to get a feel for what we might talk about. I didn’t expect Paul to read the book, but he obviously had a pretty good look at it, which added to the quality of the questions he asked me. It wouldn’t have been fair to assume he would get hold of the book for himself, or be able to salvage anything useful from it without proper notice.

2. This advice also applies to any interview: before it starts, take a few minutes to clear your head. Focus on the topics that might come up and leave everything else behind. If you’re lucky enough to be on radio, it doesn’t matter how you look or what you’re wearing. The interviewer will probably notice if you’re flustered. or late, or pre-occupied, so do whatever it takes to reduce those distractions. My interview last week was live on the radio. I knew I wouldn’t be actually in the studio until a minute or two before we started, so I sat quietly outside for ten minutes before I was called through, just opening my head up and getting rid of the clutter of the journey, the weather, and anything else that would get in the way.

3. For a live interview, try to be there in person, however tempting it might be to save time by using the phone. It took me one and half hours to drive to Carlisle for my fifteen minutes in the studio, but it was worth it. The first time I was interviewed I didn’t understand this and accepted the option of going to an outreach studio closer to my home. Mistake. The sound quality was better but it’s still like the phone because you can’t see the person you’re talking to. I realised how important it is to see and respond to the person asking the questions and listening to what you say. This time in the studio I shifted the mike a little so I could see Paul clearly, and wore the headphones so I could hear him and myself really clearly too.

4. Being there in person helps, especially on radio, but be careful. In normal conversation you sometimes murmur a few things while the other person is talking, saying ‘uh, huh’ in agreement, for example. It’s like the oral equivalent of smiling or nodding your head. Or you might disagree with what’s being said and let out a murmur of dissent, saying ‘Well…’. Not really interrupting, just responding. It’s only when you hear the interview again that you realise how distracting this is for the listener. Even if you’re on TV you may be out of shot, with the camera trained on the person who’s speaking not the person who’s listening and trying to respond. In a TV interview they’ll do a few ‘nodding shots’ to edit in afterwards, so that the viewer can see both the people in the interview at once, although there’s only one camera. On the radio, all you hear is an indistinguishable noise: if you could see the person making the noise it might make sense, but you can’t and it doesn’t. I know that I should keep quiet when the other person is speaking, but even this time I didn’t. At one point you can hear a funny sound that was actually me laughing when Paul said some thing funny, but I should have smiled instead. I’ll remember next time.

5. This point follows on from the previous one and is especially pertinent to radio, live or recorded. Don’t interrupt or talk over someone. I know that early morning news people do it all the time, but that ambiance is sometimes rightly adversarial and that’s what adversaries do, even though it’s annoying even then. An interview about your latest book is unlikely to be adversarial. The interviewer may have an axe to grind, but you gain nothing by trying to interrupt or talk over him/her. Letting them finish what they have to say gives you more time to think about the best response: interrupting probably means the listener will not be able to make sense of what’s being said. Radio hates both no sound and two voices at once. If the question is a good one and makes you think, don’t think in silence for too long without saying anything. ‘That’s a really good question’ you say with the front of your brain while the rest is working out a response. ‘Dead air’ they call silence in radio, and it will probably make your interviewer speak again just to fill the void, and the flow of the interview is lost.

6. The interviewer will probably control the time you have, unless you’re a real big shot with a press agent who sits in and insists on the interview running to schedule. Most of us don’t have a ‘minder’ and we are in the hands of the person asking the questions. This means you can’t choreograph the interview as you might like, If you’re saving your best line until the end, it may never happen. Part of your preparation will include some anticipation of what you might get asked about, and the most interesting or memorable phrase you might use in response, and you use any of those that you can, obviously, but not if they don’t fit. I’m sure some media training might suggest ignoring the question and just ploughing on with your prepared responses, but my instinct and limited experience suggests otherwise.

7. For the interview to flow along well, you need to listen really carefully to the questions that are asked, and see how to respond in a way that steers the conversation towards the things you really want or need to say. It’s quite subtle, and hard to do if your mind is in a whirl, hence the need to gather yourself ahead of time. If your mind’s relaxed the responses will flow. It helps to have rehearsed some of the things you want to say if you get the chance. Don’t just think about the words to use, say them out loud a few times so that they are more likely to come to mind quickly when the need arises, especially if the wording needs to be fairly careful.

8. If you can see the interviewer, he or she can see you. They may not look at you regularly, but that’s because they’re busy, thinking about the next slot or the next music, not because they’re being rude. On TV a distracted interviewer is less likely because it looks so rude, but on live radio it will happen, so don’t take it personally. Smile, focus, nod, but don’t mumble, tap the table, or fiddle with the mike. Think of the sound man, sitting in the booth, trying to make sure that the listener has a good audible experience. By the way, if you get the chance, say hello to the technical support person on your way in to the interview. You’re relying on them to make it go well.

That’s probably all the guidance I can offer from my limited amateur experience. I’ve been interviewed on live radio maybe a dozen times over the years, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. The main thing for me is that on radio appearances don’t matter at all: all that matters is what is said, not your hair, or make-up or clothes or the pimple on your nose. I think I have what’s called a ‘radio face’! I’m also told I have a radio voice, unaffected and clear: you can hear my expression it, which is why I try to let my voice reflect my mood and the energy in my head. If I’m feeling warm, I sound warm, and vice versa.

Your interview can be a great way to present your work in a different medium and encourage people to take an interest in you as well as what you’re written. Prepare, focus and enjoy it. Come back to the blog in a few days to see if the live radio interview I did last week is available, listen to it and see what you think. I thought it was a good one, and have told the BBC Radio Cumbria interviewer, Paul Braithwaite, how much I enjoyed his questions and the whole experience.