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Archive for the tag “Masterchef”

Does all this constant judging spoil our pleasure?

not judgingYesterday I had a brief telephone conversation with a young customer service person at my bank. Afterwards I had to rate the poor boy 1-5 on a number of criteria, his speed of response, his effectiveness with dealing with my query, his general helpfulness, his manner, and whether I would recommend him to my friends.

Returning to the edit of my latest wartime novel (yes, it is coming soon!), I reflected that nobody in 1943 was ever asked to rate anything, never asked to mark a customer service operative out of 5, (5 being delirious, 1 being disappointed) never asked to give a star rating, or to fill out a satisfaction form.

My research indicates that most of the petty frustrations of life in those days were either accepted with a kind of gritty resignation, or firmly laid at Adolf Hitler’s door. Nobody expected too much. Rationing and privations inevitably made perfection difficult to achieve. Queues and delays prevailed. But people were prepared, eager even, to try to enjoy what pleasures they could find. Shows were well attended despite ragged costumes and bomb-damaged sets. Restaurants served dull, utility meals, but it was still a treat go eat out. And holidays consisted of a week in a strict, under heated guest house, where you had to be out of the building between 10 and 5, whatever the weather. Nobody minded. Or if they did, they didn’t feel obliged to say.

It is so different for us. We all spend so much time assessing and critiquing, I sometimes think we have forgotten about enjoying.

We are so used to giving star ratings or marks for customer service, utilities, television programmes, hotel rooms, books, holidays, products and contestants on TV shows, that we are quick to notice when things fail to come up to our exacting standards.

Instead of relishing a meal out, we are wondering what Michel Roux might think of it. We have been programmed to expect so much that almost everything is a disappointment. There are a few ‘Fab-u-lous’es but they are few and far between, outweighed by the frequent longing to say ‘You’re fired’ to irritating waiters, salesmen, public servants or doctors.

But I am doubtful whether this critical thinking really helps to make anything better. It certainly doesn’t make us any happier. Especially when it transfers, as it inevitably does, to things that probably shouldn’t be judged, like friendships, colleagues, people in our community, our family.

The mantra of the war was that everyone pulled together. That may or may not be true, but what is certainly true is that people expected less. They hadn’t been influenced by endless soap operas to fight with their neighbours, nor to find fault with their friends and families. Perhaps as a result, communities were tighter, and friendlier. The war helped of course. They really were all in it together. But in a sense so are we. Maybe the time has come when we should try to expect a bit less and to enjoy a bit more!

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Story structure – the missing ingredient

meerkatSo how do you write a really great novel?

Well, you choose some interesting characters, a scenic setting, a fun plot and a suitable period of history, and then you start writing … simples (as the Meerkats say). Right?

No, actually not so right, nor so simple (or simples), and (in my view) not very effective either.

The missing ingredient here is ‘story structure’. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she’s going to go all technical on us, and here we are, creatively charged, bursting with ideas, fingers poised, ready to pour forth our bestseller …

Ok, that’s great, but just hang on to that motivation a moment while we take a quick taste of the missing ingredient.

Story structure is a concept used widely in film making, in TV reality shows, and, yes, in bestsellers.

Think of ‘Masterchef’, ‘Strictly’ even ‘Total Wipeout’ (a personal favourite) – what is it that makes you keep watching, what makes you switch on again the following night, the following week? Yes, you engage with the characters, but you especially engage with them as the challenges they face become greater and more difficult.

Think of the Grand National or the Horse of the Year Show – neither would make great viewing if the jumps got smaller as the course went on, rather than bigger.

Now think of your novel. Think of your characters lined up at the start, all they can see is the first jump (or problem/emotional issue/hint of danger – depending on your genre). Ha, they think, it’s going to be easy. But when they are over that first hurdle they find it’s not the end, there are plenty more jumps ahead, not just higher ones either, but wider, deeper, and much more tricksy ones too, like water combinations and doubles.

And that’s what story structure is, a carefully arranged series of hurdles and obstacles that your characters have to negotiate to reach the end of the story. The nature of these hurdles will vary depending on the type of novel you are writing. The protagonist of a thriller will face hurdles masquerading in the form of baddies (and often a nagging family issue too), the heroine of a romance will find a range of emotional issues standing in her way (and almost certainly a beautiful rival for Mr Right’s affections), characters in more ‘literary’ novels will come up against issues that challenge their humanity, integrity or even their spirituality. The main characters in my novels soon discover that it is their courage (mental, physical and emotional) that is going to be tested, as well as their loyalty to their friends and family.

So take the time to prepare your course, select your jumps, ones that will really test your characters. Then line them up, check your aim (especially if you are writing a crime thriller) and fire the starting pistol.

That’s not all there is to say about story structure but it will get you (and your characters) off to a good start. Simples. smiling meerkat

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