Becoming a writer

I believe I have mentioned my bruising editorial review of The White Lady? It took me nearly three weeks to pluck up courage to read the review properly (my initial reading was a watching-from-behind-the-sofa sort of affair in which I got only glimpses of the scary bits before hiding again) after which I identified Nine Gifts that the report has given me as a writer. (Nine is a nice number, don’t you think? Ten seems a bit cold and decimal.) I initially shared this list with a couple of writing buddies and today decided to post it to this blog as a personal aide-memoire, a confidence booster, and a template for action.

Today I also added a new ‘category’ to Mountain Hares. (A category is a label that one can use for sorting and searching these posts: Inspiration, Research and so on). My new category is Becoming a Writer. I added this category because I believe this episode – dealing with tough feedback, drawing out lessons, engaging with other writers, drawing on the support of others – marks a crucial step in this process.

Here are the Nine Gifts:

1. A reality check. An opportunity to stop me making a t**t of myself in public and a second chance to write something less over-heated and self-indulgent.

2. Validation of my instinct. I knew that something was not quite right with certain aspects of the book – and I was right. Incidentally, many of her points (including identifying favourite characters Johnny, Jess and Robert!) were also made collectively by my beta readers. That alone is a salutary lesson.

3. Permission to be more flexible. A timely nudge to let the mental discipline slip and send my story into free-fall. An excuse to stop worrying about self-imposed deadlines and instead take time to write the best I possibly can.

4. Confidence. Here are some quotes: “This is a colourful, well-researched piece … you have a captivating writing style: intelligent, fluid, imaginative, and enticing. Your descriptions of nature and landscape are lyrical. Tiny moments are captured with precision, perception and poetry (the pigeons, the prisoners’ mismatched shoes, the death of the countess). This absorbing tale has the potential to attract interested editors and loyal readers … (you have) shedloads of talent and ideas.”

5. Clarity. My readers told me I had “two books” in one here! The editor said my narrative contained two “ambitious themes” and suggested I choose one. My own interests incline me away from the suffrage movement towards the war as my theme. This is an important decision.

6. Game-changing advice on style. My sparse, understated style of writing did my characters no favours. A telling quote: “There are times when you fall into the opposite trap of most amateur writers in that you show us plenty, but don’t tell us enough. Don’t assume your readers’ knowledge” – or their understanding. My reading in the weeks since receiving this report has also opened my eyes to this shortcoming.

7. Advice on pace. “You have space in a full-length novel to spin a luxuriant tapestry, so slow down, explore, analyse, delve into your themes and relationships so that we can inhabit your narrative; understand what motivates characters and catapults lovers into bed.” Oh, and too many flashbacks are “unsettling”.

8. Advice on romance and sex scenes. Another quote: “You have a lovely and sensuous touch but more charm and connection need to be established … your sex scenes are wonderful and work brilliantly in their place. However, sex is not a substitute for conversations, arguments, doubts, endearments, looks, touches…”

9. Inspiration. The editor spoke of creating “a broader, deeper sweep of background (to) provide a thorough, intelligent context” and suggested I treat the War as “another character”. I need to think about both these things. She also said something very interesting about Charlotte: “If Charlotte is a complex mixture of the respectable and the wanton, the brave yet also the naughty, this fascinating paradox requires subtle development. Her enigmatic stillness interspersed with bursts of lust must make sense, rather than taking the reader aback.”

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Testament of Mary (reading-as-a-writer 9)

I had to read Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (2012) twice; the first time to get to the end of a gripping story, the second time to read the words. In between sittings, I studied the reviews and interviews, from the rabid Catholic World (“this very sad and very angry author”) to the rather gleeful New Humanist. Three Gifts for the abject writer-reader: (1) Consistency of voice. These are the hurried, muddled, angry, embittered words of a first-century, elderly, illiterate, terrified woman. Vocabulary, sentence structure, tiny details of time and place all fit – and the focus never wavers. The reader buzzes with unanswered questions – but these remain so because they concern the stories of others beyond Mary’s ken. (2) Layers of plot and themes. “Soul-rending exploration of a mother’s mourning” (Independent on Sunday). “Half-glimpsed political thriller” (Sunday Times). A fine piece of #historicalfiction, taking scant clues and constructing a compelling narrative. And strikingly, (to me, at least) probing of the tragic irony of the gospel writers’ need for the Mother’s memories to validate their accounts set against their contempt for the voices of women “who scampered in and out of the room like hunched and obedient animals”. (3) Writerly slyness. This book isn’t just an account of a mother’s grief; it also concerns the grief of a widow for a beloved husband, long departed. The references are opaque: The “light and grace” felt by a joyful pregnant girl (twisted by the chroniclers to suggest celestial visitation); the chair kept vacant and protected at knifepoint “for someone who will not return”; the final words as Mary approaches her own death: “The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free.” #amreading #amwriting #writinglessons

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Babes in the Wood

My writer’s mind is very weird and wonderful. I’ve been struggling to define a key relationship in my book between two young and very frightened people in the midst of war and the phrase “babes in the wood” popped into my mind. Setting aside Disney and horrific modern crimes, in the original folk ballad two children are abandoned and left to die “within an unfrequented wood”. “These pretty babes, with hand in hand / went wandering up and down” until the “darksome night” closes in and “death did end their grief; / in one another’s arms they dyed”. (The final lyrical touch is robin redbreasts covering their bodies with leaves.) Somehow now, in the oddest of ways, it all falls into place. These beautiful but quite terrifying pictures are from Randolph Caldecott’s book via Wikipedia. #amwriting

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Great War pilots (research review)

One of the characters in my WIP is a pilot. He’s very young, unrealistically romantic and rather unstable – and his relationship with my heroine is pivotal to the plot. In my book I devote around 5000 words to poor, doomed Kit – but I conservatively reckon I have read a hundred times that in research. Here is a selection. No Empty Chairs by Ian Mackersey (2012) is my most recent read; similar in content – but maybe more balanced – to First Of The Few by Denis Winter (1982). Both books are an excellent melange of facts and figures and real-life characters – and, gosh, were some of these pilots larger than life! Aerial steeplechases down the Thames, black silk pyjamas (that was Richthofen; aka the Red Baron), garters and stockings donated by French girlfriends tied to planes for good luck. No wonder the PBI dreamt of escaping the trenches and joining the Royal Flying Corps. Sagittarius Rising is my favourite; a vivid, amusing, moving, sexy autobiographical account, written by Cecil Lewis in 1936. Lewis is brilliant on the minutiae of a young pilot’s life and lyrical on the joys of flying – and he doesn’t flinch from the heart-breaking, mind-destroying terror of war over the Western Front. And Biggles? I first read Biggles (by WE Johns who was himself a #GreatWar pilot – and incidentally hospitalised with VD) as a step-up from the Famous Five but it’s only now, re-reading my collection (the book shown is a rather tacky modern edition with apologetic footnotes for words like “Hun”) that I realise the authenticity and value of these exciting stories. I also read extracts from my grandfather’s diary (collated by a great aunt, sadly very recently deceased). Grandpa trained with the #RAF but luckily didn’t qualify as a pilot until late in #1918; otherwise I might not be sitting here now. (And, as a devout young Baptist, it was Bible study rather black silk pyjamas for Grandpa.) #amwriting #WW1 #amreading #writinginspiration #amresearchingformynovel

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The Roses of No Man’s Land (research review)

Out of all the books I’ve read about the #GreatWar Lyn MacDonald’s histories stand out; readable, warm and packed with the minutiae of human experience set against solid historical background. I know some historians have concerns regarding the use of oral history, especially when elicited many years after the event, but it is these stories that make MacDonald’s work so valuable to the writer of #historical fiction. The titular Roses of No Man’s Land are the nurses that served in France but the remit of the books extends to all Fronts and includes the unsung work of orderlies, stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers. The final section chronicles the desperate days of early 1918 when the staff of Casualty Clearing Stations fled before the advancing enemy, through the incomprehensible cruelty of the influenza epidemic to the confused emotions of the Armistice. I can only hope that the book I am writing will do justice to those final months of #WW1. #amreading #amwriting #writinginspiration #amresearchingformynovel

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Six Weeks (research review)

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A Whole Life (reading-as-a-writer 8)

I really don’t want to write about A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (trans. Charlotte Collins 2015). I’m afraid I won’t do justice to it – or that thinking too hard about this exquisite book will somehow spoil it. Fundamentally, it’s a life story – in just 150 pages. A boy grows up in a remote Alpine valley. The boy becomes a man, he finds love, he loses love, he goes to war, he comes back, the seasons and the years roll by, the valley and it’s people change as cable cars creep up the mountain and tourists ski down, he watches men walk on the moon and Grace Kelly descend from an aeroplane, the sun rises, the snow falls. The old man ends his days “looking out of the window at the mountains with the shadows of clouds passing silently across them”. Gifts for the writer-reader? The whole book is a gift! (1) The hero is a loner; different in some gentle, non-specific way. He doesn’t go on a quest, his is not a dramatic character arc. He hardly talks – and when he does it doesn’t always make sense – but, within a few pages, we care deeply about him. I’m still trying to work out how the author achieves this with so little exposition and so few words. (2) There is no Message; no big pulling-it-all-together speech, no special climactic moment of synecdoche. And it doesn’t matter. The reader can take from this story what she wishes. (3) There is hardship and tragedy in this book but its hero never weeps or curses God or walks bowed down by grief. His sorrow is palpable, his pain raw – but these feelings are portrayed with skill, great subtlety and respect for reader and subject. (4) The storyline – the boy-to-old-man thing – is enhanced by two elegant loops in time; the rescue and reappearance of a strange goatherd, and the disturbing, deeply ambiguous motif of the Cold Lady. A masterclass in restrained perfection. (5) The images of the mountains that surround Egger’s life are quietly subliminal. This is from near the end of the book: “The shadows of the night slowly retreated … the sun was … pouring it’s light over the mountaintops, so soft and beautiful that had he not been so tired and confused he could have laughed for sheer happiness.” #amreading

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Field Service (reading-as-a-writer 7)

I first read Field Service by Robert Edric a year ago as part of my research into the aftermath of the #GreatWar. I reread it this week as a writer. This is the first book by Edric I have read. It won’t be the last; I feel the stirrings of a literary crush. The story spans 3-4 weeks in the summer of 1920. Things happen – but not a lot. And what does happen, happens very slowly and thoughtfully. And rather beautifully. A cemetery is being prepared for the dead scattered throughout the old battlefields of northern France. The soldiers doing the work are truculent and unwilling; they just want to go home. A lieutenant in charge of gathering remains is an emotional wreck; his colonel is not very nice. Bodies arrive and are buried: the fiancé of a young woman who visits, a soldier shot for desertion, some prisoners who may have been unlawfully killed. The church bell tolls and the insects drone and the sun sets over the parched, ruined countryside (definitely a theme; I’m starting to long for winters books). A woman appears; she is organising the reburial of a group of nurses. She and the upright, uptight officer hero talk a lot sitting by the canal. They hold hands on the very last page. Three gifts for the writer-reader: (1) I would have had the nurse and the soldier in bed by page 100. Therein lies a lesson. The hand-holding was nearly as exciting when it happened. (2) Unusually for a novice writer, I have been told I “show” too much at the detriment of “telling” a story. This book is a masterclass in getting the balance just right. (3) There’s quite a lot of exposition herein (I think that’s the right word); stuff about the Imperial War Graves Commission, the nature of remembrance, identification of remains – but somehow it works, woven into thoughts, appearing in conversation, and just, er, explained. #amreading #amwriting #writinginspiration #historicalfiction

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Brooklyn (reading-as-a-writer 6)

I didn’t want to read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín because 1950s, small-town, Irish emigre, coming-of-age stories are really not my thing. (Plus, although I loved the clothes I found the film pretty insipid.) Then a writing friend urged me to give the book a go – and I’m just so grateful! #ThreeGifts for the writer-reader.: (1) Pitch-perfect, consistent and completely believable point-of-view. (2) Subtle, understated, almost sly revelation of character, Tiny details, scraps of dialogue, fleeting thoughts; nothing wasted, every element carefully chosen to contribute to an utterly credible whole. (3) Gentle, everyday humour, tender love scenes, and softly dawning sadness. (Thanks again to @mrandreqwille for the inspiration to read as a writer and find my #ThreeGifts.) #amreading #amwriting #writinginspiration

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Note added August 15
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I love how one thing leads to another; the serendipitous trail of reading and thinking and talking…

This is a snippet from a hard copy of a March issue of The Guardian Review in which Tóibín describes Eilis in Brooklyn as “a strange, blank creature … both determined and innocent, so that there were many things going on in her”.

This beautifully describes my (new) heroine, Hope. My challenge in the early chapters of Soldiers is to develop Hope up as a character in such a way that when she eventually acts out of character it is both shocking but entirely credible.

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Brideshead Revisited (reading-as-a-writer 5)

I’ve just reread ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh (1945) because I really didn’t appreciate the brilliance of this novel when I read it a decade or so ago. It feels mean-spirited to condense such bounty down to just #ThreeGifts for the writer-reader but here goes. (1) Words. Simple, beautiful words. Try this (p.95): “Everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling and in the college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the wet river mist, drifting across the grey walls…” and (p.256): “Julia pulled off her hat … shook her night-dark hair with a sigh of ease – a sigh fit for the pillow, the sinking firelight, and a bedroom window open to the stars and the whisper of bare trees”. (2) Dialogue. Pages and pages of dialogue but every line carefully crafted and pertinent to the building of vivid and memorable characters. (3) A plot that subtly – so subtly – sinks to the depths of obsession and regret for lost youth and lost hope – and then rises to hint at ultimate redemption. And (4) – please can I have a fourth gift? – punctuation; a symphony of colons and semicolons and em dashes. I’m now going to pour a glass of wine and settle down to watch the dvd; the one with Ben Whishaw (who else?) as Sebastian.

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