Stories that stay with you …

Things That Go Wow in your Brain …

I always think the real test of a good story is if the story hangs around, folds itself around the gyri of your brain and every now and then resurfaces. I like it when you find yourself telling friends “Oh this is a great story about this man who … ” you know the kind of thing I mean.

But what is it that makes some stories work and others don’t? Well some of this is without doubt subjective — we are all drawn to different things, we all ‘get off’ , to coin an Essex slang on different things. I have quite an eclectic taste in books and read quite a variety. At the end of the day I tend not to make the distinction between literary fiction and commercial, for me if it’s well written and it’s a great story, then that does it for me. So recently I loved Sarah Dobb’s Killing Daniel and I will review this at some stage. It’s just the most exquisite writing, the style has a simple almost elegance to it that was hypnotic and delicious to me as a writer. This is a thriller in the sense that it’s a crime novel but a literary one so while it used the teasers and the chapter endings that leave you gagging for more, there’s a difference to the kind of thing we normally expect from this if it were genre. So I highly recommend this.

I have many books lined up to read I hardly know where to start, some literary,some commercial. I have just finally bought the new Jonathan Tropper now it’s in paperback One Last Thing Before I Go. If you haven’t discovered him yet you should. I highly recommend How to Talk to a Widower. These stories are in essence quite simple, the voice is very American, but for me there was some kind of connection to how he showed peoples’ lives with a gritty, flawed edge and perhaps that resonates with me so strongly because I love the American novel and I love real people.

I am about to start reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frey by Rachel Joyce on a recommendation by two friends.

While the writing has to be good or I tend to lose interest, I also want to be held by the story. I want to have the book on my desk daring me to stop working (not that I can!) and read on. Not many books seem to do this for me of late, but Sarah’s novel did.

I prefer the page-turner of a Stephen King to the slow burn of something like Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question that won the Booker in 2010.  Not denying the quality of the writing, but just didn’t engage me. But as I say, it did for many and it’s about personal taste.

What you love to read is usually what you love to write. I think by now I have developed my own style but there’s no doubt we are influenced by those we read. I guess we are hybrids of what we know, what we read, what we love. I like to think I can combine the well written prose of excellent literary fiction with the page turnability of a great plot-driven mainstream thriller like a Stephen King. Don’t we all! He for me is one of the masters of story telling, of the kind of story that really worms in and burrows deep into your brain tissues. But he isn’t everyone’s bag. But he does flawed character well (again!) I guess we would all like to have it all — it’s something to aim for.

There was a short story I read in a charity collection by well-known writers and I would tell you who wrote this one but the book is now packed up in my house de-clutter operation. But this is what I mean by something that stays with you. It’s set in a slightly skewed version of history, an alternative Britain where they still have death row. It’s about last suppers and a woman who after her husband dies comes out of retirement to work at a prison. One of the duties she gets assigned is to  take the request for a prisoner’s last meal — which can be anything they want and is often their favourite take-away. Her role is to as to sort it, cook it, order it whatever. Sometimes from miles away, a favourite restaurant, or something they remember from growing up — meals often their mum’s made for them. And these are hard men, murderers. But they always know what they want. And they always do everything they can to grant them their last wish. Which she does. I think the one on the story wanted homemade fish and chips. We get her story as this goes along too but it’s really about the prisoner. She always asks the guards the next day after the execution “Did he like it?” And they always say, “Yeah ate the whole thing –said it was the best meal.” And so it goes but this day for some reason she has to stay on until much later so she is there when they clear the plates. And there is his meal untouched. She asks someone “Why didn’t he eat it? He didn’t like it in the end?” And the last line that resonated with me was  something like: “No they never eat it.”

Now maybe it’s just me but there was a real poignancy about the ending, the idea that she will still carry on with her job, but in the end all these tough guys always know what they want; but they can never eat it in the end.

See what I mean about a simple story arc, but it really made me think.

One of the things I was most delighted about recently was when someone (agent/publisher/friend) who had looked at my novel (the Kennedy one) said the story had really stayed with him. And even a month or so later he said he could really remember it. And he meant in a good way. He told me he is thrilled it’s being published. This for me is what it’s about. ** Big big smile ** My characters live in someone else’s head, and not transiently.

But I know it won’t be everyone’s cuppa tea — you can never be that.

We all have different ideas about good story and like different things, I know I like to look at the ordinary and put a different spin on it. I am not a fan of stories that are kind of ‘ordinary’ — I want my thinking challenged, I want to be changed by what I read and that’s what I hope for my stories too.  So I like adding the surreal, the magical, play with the paranormal.


Whatever ‘our bag’ we must always strive to be as good as we can be. We must never stop learning.

And there is still so much for us to learn, from others — like some I have mentioned here.

Can you be a good writer if you don’t read? Er … why would you want to be a writer if you don’t read? No brainer.

Well, have a great weekend, whatever you do and I am delighted to announce that we have In The Spotlight next week the Doctor Who writer and one of my Paws judges (this guy has an agent, has published lots of books and was signed by Chicken House last year) the talented Daniel Blythe. You won’t want to miss that … he can tell you what’s really like to be signed — by one of the big boys!

That’s all folks … for now.

Photo by Lee

Photo by Lee of Red Kites and a raven in Wales


1 Comment

Filed under a book deal, Acceptance, being a successful writer, Dreaming, Flawed characters, In the Spotlight, Indentity, Kennedy, Learning to be a writer, Literary Fiction, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel wrtiing, Passion for life, Passion for writing, Psychological Thriller, Publishing, Sarah Dobbs, Short Stories, Story Arc, Story Arcs, Structure, Subtext, Voice

One response to “Stories that stay with you …

  1. Lucy Oliver

    That made me laugh. The Finkler Question. I did it with my book club and whenever we read a book we can’t understand, we always say, ‘Was it like the Finkler Question?’ It’s become a running joke. I’m sure lots of people have enjoyed it and it had hidden depths, but it’s also the only book that all 15 of us never finished! I must try it again someday.

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