“Charlotte is too passive,”said the Agent during my 15 minutes of one-to-one at the writers’ festival. “Things just seem to keep happening to her. She’s not driving the action enough.”
“But the First World War is raging,” said I. “There isn’t really a lot of scope for self-expression or doing your own thing. Besides, women’s lives were generally rather limited at the start of the 20th century.”
Charlotte is drifting because that’s what women of her class did; searching for meaning, for useful occupation, unable to even do her own ironing. A university degree but the professions still closed to her. Marriage to the wrong man another prison cell but spinsters the source of fear and ridicule.
But I didn’t say that. Because until this point I’ve not had to explain Charlotte to anyone. To me she is alive through her actions and thoughts.
“Why are men so attracted to her? Is she very beautiful?” asked the Publisher, an hour later (herself quite young and pretty).
“Er, no, not really.” (Charlotte is tall with sulky hair and a big nose and big feet.)
“But Daniel says he’s never met anyone like her before?”
Gosh. She’s got a good memory. She’s actually read my long-winded synopsis.
“He hasn’t. He’s a hick GP in a remote country practice. He’s not used to women like Charlotte.”
“Why did she become a suffragette?”
Good question. That’s been bothering me for a while, too. There’s a paragraph about this in chapter five, I think...
“Ah. Um. I do explain this somewhere. Mainly because she’s bored. She has nothing much else to do with her life.”
How feeble and unconvincing! Women nowadays do things because they are passionately committed to a cause – or it will further their career – or make them fitter or thinner. How to convey the greyness, the narrowness, the sheer ennui of women’s lives a century ago?
(And how odd the Publisher’s remark about beauty. Is beauty the only thing that attracts men to women? Not intelligence or vivacity or just being different? Even today?)
The Publisher tapped the first sentence of my first chapter. (She had nice fingernails.)
“Is this X? The man in the crowd?” (No spoilers here!)
“Does Charlotte end up with him?”
“Oh, I’m so pleased!”
Reader, I blushed. I hid it with a giggle and a remark about plot spoilers. It was like talking about a secret lover. I’ve not even heard his name spoken aloud before. (But then Charlotte herself can’t bring herself to use his first name for two-thirds of the story.)
“You can write,” she said, neutrally. “I wanted to keep reading.”
So, lessons learnt:
I need to be able to talk about my characters as I talk about characters in the Archers. Without coyness. Critically. Objectively. And I need to be able to talk about their world. I need to remember that other people don’t necessarily know about the WPSU tension with the Labour Party or the First Battle of Ypres.
I must go back to basics. What does Charlotte want? What is the “hook”? What is my USP?! I need to compose my “elevator pitch”. And prepare a one-page synopsis. Writing a ripping yarn is not enough.
Once I’ve sorted that out, I need to edit. And edit again. And then find an expert editor to edit again. And then – when it’s a perfect, polished jewel of a story – Charlotte and I will venture out once more into the cold world of 21st century publishing.