“I’ll Try Anything Once…”

Margaret Atwood signing my copy of Maddaddam

Margaret Atwood signing my copy of Maddaddam

I’ve been distant again. Striking a balance between work, writing, blogging and living is quite difficult with my new role. I’m working on that but I’ve got a few posts lined up over the coming weeks so keep an eye out for those.

Today, however, I want to share a special experience with you all. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of my favourite writers in my relatively short life – and I hope there are many more meetings to come in the future – but last Sunday (27th September 2015) I got to meet one of my all-time favourites.

And that, ladies and gents, is the fantastic Margaret Atwood.

What’s with the cliché?

It’s true, I used one. I don’t use them often in my writing, though I do have a love of puns and ironic clichés when I’m out and about.

How many time shave you heard someone say ‘I’ll try anything once’ but then the next chance to do something new they turn it down? Probably a fair few times. I’m guilty of it too, but I’m trying not to be – unless there’s a damned good reason.

This phrase, along with a number of others, is seen on motivational pictures, posters, memes, videos etc. That’s fine but how much impact do they really have now? There are so many of them – anyone can make them and share them online. ANYONE.

When it comes from someone you admire and respect, it hits home a little harder – and when said person is Margaret Atwood, who I have a huge amount of respect for and who has done so much, it encourages me to do the same.

Writing from experience

So, what’s all this got to do with writing? Well, other than telling you (without bragging – much) that I got to meet a top author, it’s also quite an important aspect of writing.

Can you write about romance without experiencing it? What about pain, heartbreak, excitement, joy and all the rest? Can you talk about death and the impacts it has on people if you haven’t lost someone?

In short, yes.

You CAN write about it but will it be convincing? Will your readers see through the bullshit or can they connect with it, empathise with the characters and situation and will they be moved by your words?

I’ve always believed you can’t write about what you don’t understand, and that’s why I try to do as much as possible, learn as much as I can and never stop growing. I’m not saying use real life examples but really stop and think about the emotions you’re trying to convey, the tension you’re building, and let your experiences guide you – and readers – through it.

You’ll get a much better response. Fiction is often an escape from the real world but think of your favourite characters or moments – how do they make you feel? That’s a good starting point.

Accommodating genres

Now, before you all scream the house down – this does work in genres. So you’re writing a fantasy novel and there’s a huge battle coming up. Sure, you’ve never been in that situation but would your characters be nervous (just an example)? Think to when you’ve been your most nervous and start there. Yes, you need to imagine beyond that but be consistent with it.

Never lost your loved one? Fine, think back to losing anyone – as hard as it is – and start there. Even a pet. Maybe you lost touch with a friend and regret it. There are always better places to start than making it up.

Even in historical fiction, you can find similar situations or occurrences that can give a starting point. If we all wrote the same thing, no one would be interested. That’s part of why writers are valued because it’s their take on something. It can be discussed, compared, thought on and a lot more.

It all comes from a small starting point. That flash of motivation to go further.

A great source of inspiration

Author events are always fascinating for me. Whether it’s a conversation, a Q&A, a signing, panel or anything else – it’s a great insight into another writer’s mind. What I’ve learned so far is that writers are weird.

We’re strange. Our minds wander off on tangents that seem relevant but often aren’t. We also need reigning in a little bit because we can get carried away at times.

This is great though, because you see the passion and love they – we – have for the craft. Sure, we want everyone to read our stories, to enjoy them, talk about them and such but in the end, I reckon we are driven to write.

There’s plenty I’ve done no one will ever see and that’s fine. It’s not all done for other people.

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Maddaddam: The Story Never Really Ends

Maddaddam

Maddaddam

I’ve promised this one for a while – and I finished this book a while back but I really wanted it to sink in before I wrote this blog. That’s how much I love this book and the trilogy as a whole. Bravo, Margaret Atwood, bravo.

I’m actually sad that it’s over. I could happily read more of this world and its characters – who knows, maybe it’ll happen? – but I doubt I’ll get the chance. There is a definite ending here, which is a whole different conversation (one I’ll discuss in the future, I’ve just decided). It’s been an interesting journey starting with Oryx and Crake, continuing with The Year of the Flood and now ending with Maddaddam. The latter is why you’re here, of course, so let’s get on with it.

Feel free to catch up with my thoughts on Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, first. Also, there will be spoilers, later. Another warning will help you divert attention if you haven’t finished it yet.

This one does pick off from where we left off

Unlike with The Year of the Flood, which takes place at roughly the same time as Oryx and Crake, Maddaddam picks up more or less right after. You could almost argue that it’s not a sequel to The Year of the Flood alone but Oryx and Crake as well.

Toby continues to serve as our narrator and protagonist now, although Jimmy isn’t out of it totally, but his use is limited. You’ll remember this from the previous books and discover how he fares as you read on. Also, as with most first person stories, there’s a fair amount of bias in Maddaddam. In The Year of the Flood, Toby was fairly even and neutral but that’s changed now there are other people around and Zeb returns.

She does get a bit whiny at times but I can’t say I’m not sympathetic to her. You’ll have to let me know if you agree.

Other than that, this book is written as skilfully as the others. There isn’t a moment in any three of them that I didn’t enjoy. Once you get past the fragmentation and accustomed to the characters, it flows fantastically. You won’t even remember how clunky and confusing it was at the beginning after a while.

It’s even more fragmented

Yeah, you heard me. Both books before this were fragmented with events that happened before and events happening then. It was easily to become lost and confused with Jimmy’s and Toby’s thoughts, memories and current events.

Maddaddam goes a bit further. Here, we learn the story of Zeb throughout the book. That might not sound much different or more complicated than the others but there’s more. This story runs alongside the main one, so we’re used to that by now but following each section of Zeb’s story is a retelling of that part to the Crakers.

And there are changes.

This is a big clue to Toby’s frame of mind and character – a bigger clue than any other. Don’t glaze over these parts too because it all adds up to something in the end, which is important to all three books.

Are these spoilers?

The search for Adam One is a big part of this book and if you don’t know already, you’ll learn for definite who he actually is along the way. Is he dead or alive, though? I won’t tell you that.

While survival is still important, we are given more information about the daily life of the survivors and the things they have to deal with. This is always exciting, it’s Zeb’s story which provides more of that – along with plenty of laughs. Maddaddam will reunite old friends, kindle hope and also break your hearts. Be prepared for some emotional goodbyes because after all the work the survivors put in, this isn’t a perfect happily ever after.

It’s a satisfying conclusion all around and it shows that just because the story ends, the world does not. That’s one of the things I like most about stories – they live on in our imaginations long after the words have ended. When there are questions to be answered, we’re even more intrigued. I will return to this topic later, it’s an interesting one. For now, however, go read this book – and the others too!

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

This is the third Margaret Atwood book I’ve read and it’s certainly left an impression. Compared to Oryx and Crake, it’s quite different. You can read my review on that novel here but I’ve also read Year of the Flood too. I’m always on the lookout for more of her books so feel free to recommend your favourites in the comments below!

The Handmaid's Tale

My copy of The Handmaid’s Tale

Unlike the others, I found The Handmaid’s Tale quite confusing at first. It threw me completely because there was a lack of discernible identity and even less in the way of recognisable speech or thoughts. Everything blurred together because the narrative is an account of our protagonist – you are getting everything through her eyes. This first person structure is quite useful for really connecting to her and its important because, as she’ll tell you herself, she’s losing her identity every day. Who she is, who she was and who she will be are running themes throughout the text.

It takes quite a while for you to really understand what’s happening in this world. You get snippets from time to time but mostly as validations or reasons to excuse what is happening. They’re all half-hearted though and you can see that this is a person close to breaking, to losing all hope. You’re left wondering why. The world may not be great but there is stability and safety – of a sort (but that’s a whole different topic for another day).

What struck me is that we never get a name for our protagonist, Offred. Now, you might be thinking “that’s the name” but it’s not so simple. That’s the name she has now, the name she has in her current placement. It would have been different before this placement and different again after. It also bears no reflection on what her name was before she was made to become a handmaiden. Instead, it’s a mark of ownership. It’s not said that her Commander’s name is Fred but given the other names we encounter, this is a fair assumption.

That raises big issues itself, slavery and human rights as we know them seem to have changed and adopted new roles. Religion is key but what the religion is, we’re not ever told. Again, this is all her perspective and what she doesn’t know, we don’t get to know either.

There’s much more I could go into but you’re better reading it for yourself.

I found it quite hard to get into and the first 100 pages or so I really had to work hard to keep my interest up. It got better in the middle but the final third had me hooked and I read those pages in a couple of days. There are a lot of tangents to follow and there are times when you are told you can’t trust what’s been said – that makes you wonder about the entire text.

Be ready to jump back and forward through time – you are at the whim of our protagonist and if you can’t follow her train of thought, then the story will go nowhere for you. As I mentioned before, the way the story is told has an effect on this as the clear formatting you are used to in other books isn’t always present here. Be prepared for that but also keep in mind that this is all subjective to one point of view. Countless times I’ve caught myself wondering about how Serena Joy, Nick or even the Commander feels as well as how they would talk to the reader in a similar situation.

Offred discusses this herself but your thoughts are likely to be different to hers. Your goals are different but the rules are the same. Part of me would like this book again but written in one of those other voices. It would be interesting.

It’s not my favourite book, not by a long short. It’s also not my favourite Margaret Atwood book but it’s still a great read and one I’d recommend for anyone interested in dystopias, slavery, religion, censorship and much more. On top of that, it’s a well written story that breaks some rules – it’s something different and I think that was one of the reasons I really stuck with it.

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake

I’m an avid sci-fi fan. It was my favourite genre growing up, and while that has given way to fantasy as I’ve gotten older, I’m always on the lookout for good science fiction novels. During my third year of university, I studied a module looking at medical ethics within writing. It was very “sciencey” – yes, not a word, but it is the word used to describe the module to me – but the module was rooted in reality. One of the books on the reading list was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I was dubious at first, but this has since become one of my favourite books out of three years at university.

Some will call it science-fiction – and there is enough in there to classify it in that genre. The best term I’ve heard is speculative fiction, as this is something that could possibly happen in the future. This can be said of any science fiction story but some hit a bit closer to home because of the technologies and research being done at the time of writing, and this where Oryx and Crake crosses that line. Genetic modifications and manipulations, a strong underlying theme throughout the book, is in the news quite often anyway. That brings a sense of realism to the story. There’s more, but that would spoil the book.

I enjoyed the flow but it is fragmented. Your protagonist, Snowman, will take you into his past to set up the world the reader is first presented with. There are a lot of questions that are answered as you go through the story, and more questions that are left to your own imagination. Once you get past the change in time frames, there is a good flow to the story. You are given the end of the story at the beginning, and throughout this era, you will go through the events leading to it. It works well, but you need to stick with it, as there are a lot of names thrown at you in short spaces of time and they all have a role to play. Atwood uses everything meticulously. If not, there’s a reason, and I’ll get to that later.

Despite the science-fiction or speculative fiction genre, there is not much in the way of technical talk. Snowman is not a scientist and this shows through with his wording and characterisation. Rather than technical talk which might be more befitting the story and genre, there are much longer and unnecessary words. It really separates Snowman from the story, situation and genre all in one without losing anything. Brilliant.

I found the world addictive; it was fantastically descriptive but left me wanting more at every time. This is why The Year of the Flood was a bit of a saving grace for me. It is set in the same world as Oryx and Crake, but from different perspectives. The changing perspectives mixed with different time frames can disrupt the flow again, but it actually works well. It gives a much fuller account and the characters, places and events all tie in. It’s fantastic, but there will be more on that in a future post.

Overall, I love this book. It’s a great “what if” story and world, which is feasible in some small way – although you hope it definitely wouldn’t happen. Combine Oryx and Crake with The Year of the Flood and you get a whole new view of the same story. Excellent planning and I’d love more to come in this world.

Update: Read about The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam in these posts.