Why do we find bad people so interesting?

I’ve been trying to write but my shoulder’s getting in the way. The only way to type without pain is to support my wrist and use only the fingers on my right hand, doing more with my left to reach most of the keys. It’s messy and needs so much correction that it hardly seems worth the effort, but at least I can do a few hundred words before I get fed up and rest. Yes, I know I could use voice to text software but the sceptic in me reckons that by the time I’d learned to do that effectively my shoulder will have healed. Or maybe I just want a break to enjoy someone else’s stories.house-of-cards-season-3-leaked-on-netflix-early

To pass the time when I would have been writing, and to give my head something to work on, I’ve picked up on the US version of ‘House of Cards. I watched the first series years ago in Canada and loved the ‘noirness’ of it, the claustrophobic interiors, the credits, Spacey and his cronies, and most of all its relentless amorality. Human weakness in all its guises filled every scene. I relished the storylines, some of which seemed preposterous until the current US President took office, and how they interconnect in a seething rats nest of corruption and self-serving ambition. The Archers meet Macbeth, like that.

How better for a story teller to pass her time than plunging back into that dark world where the ghastly Underwood is now President, saying and doing things that Trump might emulate if he had a brain and no access to Twitter. The complete absence of scruple and conscience – so far at least – makes for a riveting story, far more interesting than it would be if the central character were more principled.

Why do we find bad people so interesting? Is it because they do things that we might sometimes be tempted to do and struggle to put behind us? An complete absence of self-doubt makes a person dangerous, but they must save a lot of energy by not agonising over things like the rest of us do. Part of me is waiting, yearning even, for  bad deeds to catch up with the evil protagonists in ‘House of Cards’, just to see how they will react ‘in extremis’. The magic of Spacey’s performance is that we are tempted to collude with him and the occasional flashes of honesty delivered direct to camera. Very few of his more worthy opponents are as mesmerising.

‘House of Cards’ is so extreme in its depiction of unrelenting ruthlessness that it could easily tip into caricature and pantomime. It’s a mark of its quality that this doesn’t happen. In my story I’m trying to avoid depicting a ‘baddy’ who is all bad. He – or she, no plot spoiling – needs to be sufficiently authentic and complex that the reader can  empathise with the dilemma he/she faces and the choices he/she makes. Characters have to be capable of surprising us. When I get the chance, I’ll be back to making those surprises happen. In the meantime I’ll keep watching, just to see if Underwood ends up in jail where he belongs.

 

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The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

Plot hints: the ‘Goldilocks’ balance

The opening chapters of any novel are crucial. You have to give readers some information to locate the story and the people, and enough to intrigue them and make them want to read on. There has to be some sense of foreboding, or puzzle, or a hint that things may not be as they appear to be.

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That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually a difficult balance to find: a classic ‘Goldilocks’ question, not too little, not too much. If the reader is given absolutely no clue, however subtle, about what might be coming, the story can quickly turn into ‘one shock after another’ with motiveless action and surprise for its own sake. I don’t like that as a reader: it feels manipulative and lazy, and I don’t want to do that as a writer. Too much hinting or heralding doesn’t work either: that feels patronising, as if the reader has to be hit over the head with something to notice it. The ‘Goldilocks’ solution is to offer just the merest mention in passing, so easily missed that the reader finds herself leafing back later, to check whether they actually read it at all, or just imagined it.

The opening chapters of this new book – emerging painfully through the exercise of my slowly mending shoulder ligaments – is a stop and start affair as I struggle to find the right balance. One word, just one word, can make such a difference. As ever, adverbs are to be avoided wherever possible, so the reader is only offered what is done, not how it’s done. The character isn’t thinking about the ‘how’ – why should they, in the privacy of their own space? – so the reader should be allowed only what is seen or heard, unadorned by any authorial intervention.

The other challenge in the opening chapters of this particular story is to present several thousand words from the POV of an adolescent. The reader is to be offered only what the young person sees, hears and experiences. I’m having to remember the mannerisms and reactions of young people I’ve worked with as a teacher over many years, the swings of mood, the partially-informed judgements, the speech patterns. I have a relative of roughly the same age too, but she’s such a different person from the character I’m working with that using her as the example might not be helpful. Much of the ensuing plot hinges around the reactions of this character, and the ways in which new circumstances can provoke change, as well as the rapid changes that always surround early adolescence and puberty.

With all this buzzing in my head, there’s serious frustration in only being able to type for a few minutes at a time. I’m told by everyone that I must be patient, that ligaments and tendons take a long time to heal. I know that, but it’s still galling. I probably need to ration myself: no email, no blogging, until and unless the necessary daily book words targets is reached. Discipline, Ruth. Discipline!

 

How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?