July, 2015

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Oscar Wilde was right

Today’s main task turned out to be getting the heating system working again. We had a biomass system installed about 18 months ago and have had some issues on and off, but we think everything is now working and, now that we know what was wrong with the original installation, I’m hoping this will now be us moving to a permanent state of ignoring it and letting it do its thing. But there’s something wrong about having to have the heating on throughout June and July.

One of the great things about travelling in cities is that the travel time can be reading time. I’ve come back with a few more books than I left with, although admittedly I didn’t read the ones I took with me. This is partly because my patience with books is not what it was. There was a time when I would read anything to the end once I had started it, or at least got to about 10-20 pages into it. Now, I’m finding I might get a lot further into it and realise that I don’t actually care what happens next or what the outcome for the characters is.

We buy books based, apparently, on the basis of the front cover and the description on the back. And maybe the first few lines or pages. But of course it really is the case that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

I’m going to comment today on one book I bought when I found myself with an hour to wait and no book with me (I know, how did I allow that to happen?). After my comments, I doubt anyone will want to read it, and it’s in German anyway, but for completeness, it’s called Honigtot, or “Honey dead”. Don’t ask, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean either. But what I found was that this was a great example of the different way in which I read novels now. I am definitely much more aware of the writing, and am trying to see what authors are doing rather than just reading a story. Although in this case, all I wanted was an interesting story where I didn’t have to worry about the writing. That didn’t work out so well.


The description on the back cover sounded promising:

How far would a mother go to save her children?

How far would a daughter go to have revenge for her father?

How can a deep, all-devouring love reach across generations and heal old wounds?

Well, after two thirds of the book, I have no idea about any of those questions. If the author has any thoughts on them, she’s keeping them to herself. Oh dear.

The adage that is constantly in the back of my mind is “show, don’t tell”. It’s too easy to write descriptions of what is happening, but a lot more effective to show what is happening through the actions of the characters. Tell is boring, show is compelling. And harder to do consistently.

As I’ve been reading this book, and often the others I’ve abandoned along the away, I’ve been feeling this constant need to edit it. Just to write in the margin “show, don’t tell.” Because in this particular book, it’s needed everywhere. And it’s not as if it wouldn’t have been easy enough to change. I think it would have transformed the book.

The characters don’t work for me at all. I’m very aware that characters are what I am most strongly drawn to in books and what I remember long after I’ve finished the book and forgotten some of the plot. So what is it I don’t like about them I this case? They aren’t consistent for one thing. The mother makes decisions which I just can’t square away with other things she’s done. Now it might well be that there’s something else that’s going on that I don’t know about yet – and this is one of the reasons I’m going to get to the end of this book – but after two thirds of the book, and after the character has died, which didn’t have any emotional impact on me at all, I’d have hoped at least to have a basis for thinking there’s something I don’t now about. I fear it’s just that the character isn’t believable. And that’s partly because the same is just happening with her daughter – she is running around doing things that make no sense at all and that I simply cannot believe, based on what we know of the girl, and of what she has experienced. Halfway through, we are introduced to a new character who we suddenly like. And I thought, here we go, this is promising. Except that he made a decision which, again, I simply couldn’t believe, and then disappeared within a few pages.

And my third objection is to putting in commentary. Not description, but commentary. This was so excruciating at one point that I had to mark it for later. Here’s what I mean. Deborah – an 18 year old woman – has just wound up her stepfather about something and then decided she had lost interest in the subject and announced she wanted some cake. And then we have this (obviously my translation):

“Deborah’s thought process deserves further consideration, that is, it was her father Gustav who had first pointed her in this direction. He was the first, together with his friend Fritz Gerlich, who had thought about the significance of Hitler being rejected from joining the art school.

“Seldom had the principle of cause and effect had such a catastrophic effect on the whole of world history.”

Wait. What just happened? I thought this was a novel, not a textbook on German history. How did that part (it goes on…) not get picked up on by an editor? It’s been published by one of the big German publishing houses. Surely they would pick up on things like that? As well as the typos I keep finding, like a “not” that should not be there and rather changes the sentence. Does nobody proofread any more?

Ah, but now I discover that this top-10 seller (in Germany) was originally self-published as an e-book, and was later picked up by a mainstream publisher and her books brought out in a printed version. She’s now selling books (including this one) left right and centre and getting general great reviews. Maybe Germans like a different type of writing. But I don’t really believe that explains it, too many of their top sellers are translations of English-language writers for one thing. And the review of a different German author’s book, which I loved, was simply “Finally – a German author who can write.” So I think it’s just that this is one writer I’m never going to get on with. And on this one, I’m with Oscar Wilde (who I am about to take out of context):

“Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”*

I’m afraid I think this one was just badly written. But you know what? She’s getting these books finished, published and sold. That’s me feeling like I’ve been put in my place. So enough of the critique, time to get back my own writing.



* By the way, I also like the context:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

The Berlin blog – part 1

I should probably give a bit of background to my experience of Berlin, given that it’s where I keep returning to, with or without various family members in tow, and also where my novel is set, so even when I’m not physically here, my head still is. I use the present tense because I am writing this blog on holiday in Berlin – in fairness, I spend much of the time travelling around in trains, buses and trams just observing the place and we do end up going down an abnormal number of side streets in case we encounter something unusual I can use or that prompts a thought. Or a photo.

I first came here in early 1990, just after the Wall came down. I was living in Munich at the time, but as an 18 year old living and working away from home for the first time, I don’t have any real memory of the political events happening just a few hundred kilometres away from me. But a few of us decided to take what seemed like a new opportunity to travel to the East. Some memories of the trip:

– Driving along the transit route between what was still East and West Germany and seeing the Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars at the side of the road being or needing repaired. There were a lot of them. An awful lot.

– Leaving the transit route and ending up driving through the suburbs of Dresden. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that, but my only regret now is that I didn’t have a camera with me. The Dresden you can visit today looks nothing like the outskirts did back then. End of understatement.

– Driving through a forest (we were fairly convinced we were lost by this time) trying to get into what was still Czechoslovakia in the middle of winter, with snow on the road and in the trees that rose up close to the road on both sides. Yes, it was exactly how you imagine a cold war spy thriller. We did eventually come to a border crossing and despite the lack of a mutual language managed to get whatever stamp we needed in our passports and continued on our way to Prague.

– The restaurant menus in Prague had two prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists. It was easy to ensure everyone paid the right price because we couldn’t have ordered from the Czech menu if we had wanted to. It was still ridiculously cheap for us of course.

– And then there was Berlin. We stayed in the West, in a grotty hotel over a bar. I think that’s what happens when you don’t think to book anything in advance because the internet isn’t something anyone has heard of yet. My memory of West Berlin is that it was loud, bright, and brash. I didn’t like it at all. The next day, our car had disappeared. We found it in a nearby street with no sign of any damage, but as one of our group had been in the British Army, he was convinced that we had to check for bombs under the car. Why I had to check instead of him might have been testament to my youth and his experience. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when the Berlin police sent us a bill for having towed the car that was apparently partially parked over a bus stop. In the meantime, we had to go over to East Berlin. We drove through, exchanged our money at the border, and were suddenly in a different world. Gone was the glitz of West Berlin, the familiar cars, the familiar shop names and brands. We walked around for a while, partly trying to find something to do with the Eastern Marks we now had. It must have made an impression on me even then because when I returned years later, I instantly recognised the streets we had walked down which at the time had seemed so forgettable.

The clincher for me was of course living in Berlin for almost a year. But that was almost twenty years ago now, and parts of the city are unrecognisable from the chaos I experienced back then. There were stations that had been blocked off for thirty years that were being not just reopened but rebuilt from the inside out. Just to change trains at those stations, we had to go out of the station building, walk around it to a different entrance and then go back in there. It took for ever changing at Friedrichstrasse, the station that had symbolised the division between East and West and then became past of the largest building site in the world that was Berlin.

Skip forward a couple of decades and it turns out that there are still things we haven’t seen in Berlin that are well worth a visit. More on that next week. I have four rolls of film to develop first!

The thing that my eye has been drawn to this last week has been the things that are still the same, caught in time.

Houses that could still be in East Germany:


Buildings falling apart between expensive villas (I said it was worthwhile going down the side streets):


And others whose exteriors look like they have missed the last 25 years, beside spectacularly renovated buildings:


And finally, the Glienecke Bridge, where East and West swapped spies.


The centre of the bridge marked the point those two worlds met, and today we could walk across it, see the plaques and tell the stories of when it was all so different. Because eventually the buildings will be gone, one way or another, and we will be left with the stories.

New inspiration in old haunts

  I have now discovered that the combination of the end of a school year, coming off a heavy running training schedule and work commitments are anything other than conducive to writing. For the first time many months, I really have not had enough time some days and have been far too tired on others to manage more than a couple of hundred words. And I have accepted that this is not the end of the world. In fact, it will probably prove to have been a good thing, because it has given me something approaching a break, and some mental time away from the actual writing but still with lots of ideas and characters running around in my head.

And so coming to Berlin for a couple of weeks is already doing me good, even if I am still in the ‘getting over work’ stage and therefore not properly relaxed yet. It will come.
This time, we have done some things which are new for us, like visiting the cathedral. Most of the time when we are here, we just enjoy living here for a couple of weeks and don’t do very much that might count as touristy. It tends to be some clothes shopping (the girls have discovered C&A, bit of a time slip for some of us), eating and revisiting anywhere that has good chocolate. And in the process of going to new places, I have already had some more ideas about what my characters might have done or been involved with. There’s nothing like being on the ground and seeing places through their eyes.

And then there has been the fun part of the trip. Like watching LoLo lying down to take a photo of the ceiling of the cathedral and starting to say at apparently random points during the day ‘do you think that would be a good photo?’ Seeing her first developed film might just have given her the bug.
Did you know that they keep bees on the top of the Berlin cathedral? Neither did I until today:


And did you know that the origin of the selfie stick goes back a few hundred years? Tell me that’s not what you see here:


It’s good to be backing my second home. And to see the bag that says ‘I’d rather be living in Berlin’. Although my family thought the ‘Berlin addict’ one was more appropriate.


Integrity – or at least that is where this started

A thought that has been going through my head for a while now is integrity.

But I need to start somewhere else, with writing. I think that, for me, writing is in part a way of exploring something, of thinking through a question in my head that has been bothering me. And it tends to be something which has caused a strong emotional reaction in me, usually because it has run smack bang into something that I believe to matter. This is exactly what has happened today with this blog (one of the reasons it’s a lot later than normal!). I just went somewhere I had not expected to when I was writing it – East Germany and religion – and I now need to refine my thinking. But I needed to put it down in writing to get that far. So I am about to cut the next twelve paragraphs (a sure sign I’m working something out) and will come back to them when I’ve got it right. I might even put them in a later blog entry. [The subtitles to this film would now say “Sound of paper being cut”].

At the moment, my head spends much of its time in 1970s and 1980s East Berlin. But I also know that the questions I’m wrestling with about choice, about truth, about integrity, have another context for me personally. I’m spending time inside the head of people who had no safe way of escaping a situation which was not of their making. But what really interests me is the processes which caused that outward set of restrictions to become internalised, because that’s what can and does happen to us all – and it happens to my characters. We talk about becoming ‘institutionalised’ after being part of an organisation for long enough (and sometimes it takes no more than a few weeks). First our behaviours and then our thoughts start to change to conform to the way the organisation operates, or the way we perceive it as operating. If we are lucky, we catch ourselves doing this, but much of the time it goes unnoticed.

So the other place I am in my head is how I deal with a situation that feels somewhat like that experience of being trapped in East Germany, but where I know I do have a choice. And I find that the choice is intellectually easy but emotionally a lot harder. And that’s a place I have to stay for a while because it’s helping me to understand my characters a bit better. I do at least know how it ends for me, if not for my characters. I just can’t get to that point yet because I need it to stay real for a bit longer. And then I can write about integrity. But not yet.

So why have I included this jumble of thoughts today? Welcome to the head of a writer.