A Month in the Country (reading-as-a-writer 4)

Where to start with “A Month in the Country” by JL Carr (1980)? Would it be hyperbole to say this is one of the most exquisite short novels ever written? Another long, hot, post-war summer; another traumatised ex-soldier (yes, looking at you Adam Thorpe!) and a deceptively simple tale of – what? Healing? The strangeness of love? The quiet tragedy of missed opportunities? Three gifts* for the writer-reader: (1) Economy (not to be confused with parsimony); economy of dialogue, description, even plot. Not a single wasted word, self-indulgent sentiment or look-at-me adjective. (2) Ambiguity (not to be confused with literary carelessness). How did they – ? What happened to – ? And why didn’t he kiss her? (3) Precision (not to be confused with coldness). In the whole book, a mere half-dozen sentences of introspection and writerly awareness. Enough to jolt and move. No more and no less. [*The notion of identifying “Three Gifts” for writers is courtesy of editor, teacher and writer @mrandrewwille http://wille.org/blog/home/ ] #amreading #amwriting #writinginspiration

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A Winter’s Child (reading-as-a-writer 3)

My #writinginspiration: “A Winter’s Child” by Brenda Jagger. Why – oh why! – is Brenda Jagger no longer widely read? Published in 1984 this post #WW1 novel (and Jagger’s other eight Victorian/Edwardian era books) beats most current #historicalromance hands down in terms of evocative setting, characterisation, story telling and, above all, damn good writing. Three gifts for the reader-writer from A Winter’s Child: Strong female protagonist; sassy, sexy, intelligent – yet in keeping with her time. A pleasingly complex yet focused and ultimately satisfactory story peopled with characters that evolve from circumstance and setting (rather than clumsily transposed modern stereotypes). Elegantly-written yet pleasingly erotic love scenes. (PS Contrary to the impression given by the cover image on this tatty original edition, the winter’s child of the title is actually the male lead – which is a typically interesting twist in itself…) #amwriting #historicalfiction #greatbook

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The Polish Officer (reading-as-a-writer 2)

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Nineteen Twenty-One (reading-as-a-writer 1)

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A Heavy Reckoning (research review)

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Silver linings

Oh, dear.

As planned, I paid for a professional review of my agent submission pack (letter, synopsis and first two chapters). The report was mildly complimentary but ultimately inconclusive so I bit the bullet and ordered an editorial review of the complete MS of The White Lady. That was just over a month ago.dark clouds

I received the report two days ago, halfway through England’s World Cup semi-final match (I know! What on earth was I doing checking emails?!) and of course I read it immediately, very quickly. I couldn’t resist. It was long, forensically detailed and very, very critical of many aspects of plot and character development and motivation. I had anticipated a tough report but it was far worse than I had expected. I was deeply disappointed and utterly demoralised.

And then England lost to Croatia.

It’s taken me two days to get back on my feet. The first 24 hours I veered between denial (it’s only one person’s opinion!), anger (she just doesn’t get me!) and sadness. I was kept afloat by friends old and new and by reading a kind and very practical post on Andrew Wille’s blog.

It was Andrew who suggested I try to identify the “gifts” presented by the report. At first I laughed a hollow, bitter laugh but then, early this morning in the gym, I had a glimmer of insight and things started to fall into place. Here (in the interests of the devastating honestly that is the hallmark of this blog) are my first three gifts:

  • This report has given me a reality check; an opportunity to stop me making a t*** of myself in public and a second chance to write something less over-heated and self-indulgent.
  • This report has validated my own instinct – and, yes, the opinion of some of my readers – that something was not quite right with certain aspects of the book.
  • This report has given me a timely nudge to be more flexible in my thinking; permission to let the mental discipline slip, throw away the writing schedule and send my story into free-fall.


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Three gifts

Thanks to a laptop problem and other unavoidable domestic and personal circumstances I am treating myself to a brief reading vacation. This has two serious aims:

  • To identify examples of modern historical fiction (including historical romance) that align with my own work.
  • To work out why (in my not-particularly-humble opinion) some books grip me in terms of style, content and writing and others, well, just get chucked in the nearest flower bed.

I will use Instagram* to suggest “three gifts” that my favourite books offer me as a writer-reader.



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Despair (again)

That last post was terrible! So noisy! So cocksure! TherapyThoughtUSE_3188422b

Life’s not really been like that at all.

Writers should be readers too – but reading just reinforces my inadequacies as a writer. Especially when reading a novel as beautiful and mysterious as Nineteen Twenty-One by Adam Thorpe. Or as exquisite as Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift or Month in the Country by JL Carr. Or as vivid as The Somme Stations by Andrew Martin or Field Service by Robert Edric.

What is the point of me writing? The world doesn’t need more average books! The world needs brilliant books. And I can’t write a brilliant book. I lack the intellectual breadth and the emotional depth.

I don’t have the words.


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Sorry. Long gap between posts. I’ve been busy – but being busy is the object, surely? (See Running out of life and Farewell Facebook.) Writing this blog helps me organise my thoughts but it won’t get my books published.

14914066-a-line-drawing-of-a-woman-at-a-writing-deskMany things increase one’s chances of getting published – but only two things are mandatory. Writing. And getting one’s writing out there.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Serious, eight-hour days. At a desk. No lounging in coffee shops, compiling inspirational playlists, or being witty on Twitter – just good habits and a consistent working environment. And so-bloody-what if nobody takes me seriously when I say I’m working? I do and that’s what matters.


My aim? A synchronised, simultaneous four-pronged approach:

  • plan one
  • write one
  • revise one
  • have one out there

Plan one. Ideas? Goodness me, yes! – but, like a bag of sweets, I have to resist dipping in too often or I’ll get distracted.

Write one. Revise one. This is the fun bit. Love every minute. Keeps me awake at night, inspires me during the day. This is my personal, patented 5 draft process:

  1. The dirty draft. no punctuation no capitals present tense stream of consciousness like a screenplay go go go
  2. Make it readable. That’s where I am now with Book 2. Chapters, scenes, sentences, dialogue, description. Nice and tidy in Ulysses.
  3. Make it sensible. Pace and plot. Continuity and cohesion. I’m quite excited about Fictionary for the nuts and bolts of this stage especially for defining the Purpose of each scene.
  4. Make it beautiful. Mood. Meaning. Themes. Accuracy. Aspiration. Come on! This could be so much better!
  5. Make it perfect. This is where I am with Book 1. Engage with beta readers, take a big step back, and be very brave. Lots of Bs but aiming for an A.

Have one out there. After last summer’s premature submission, I’ve ordered an Agent Submission Pack Review from Jericho Writers. Gonna do it properly this time. And if there are no bites for Book 1, then I’ll have Book 2 in the pipeline ready to go.

What else am I doing?

Planning and prioritising my reading. Three books on the go: one (or two) heavy historical, one lighter historical, one novel. Right now:

  • Lyn Macdonald’s Roses of No Mans Land: written back in 1993 and still one of the most comprehensive and lively of all the Great War medical and nursing histories
  • Jane Robinson’s brilliant, erudite and highly readable Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote
  • Gunner Officer on the Western Front by Herbert Asquith (published in 2018, based on an autobiographical work written in 1937)
  • The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier – because I’ve never read it and I like strong heroes 🙂

Light relief? Film or television – but carefully curated. The English Patient last weekend. First the screenplay, then the film. And A Very English Scandal on the BBC because it’s so damn good. (The Englishness of this selection is a coincidence. Honest.)

A poetry writing course – because an appreciation of rhythm and rhyme is good for writers of prose as well as poets. I’ve downloaded a DIY short course from the Poetry School.

Networking. I’ve joined the recently re-launched Jericho Writers, mainly for the discussion forums – and I’m going to a Words Away writer’s salon in London next week. Even so, I really do need to get out more. Just too busy.







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Best left unsaid?

One of my beta readers told me that I leave too much unsaid in my book. Too many hints and not enough facts. Inadequate exploration of motivation. Paucity of descriptive nouns. Scarcity of adverbs and adjectives.

The strength of this reader’s opinion rather knocked my confidence and so it was with gratitude that I read this comment from Peter Selgin writing on Jane Friedman’s website:

Whenever we authors state things that are or might be implied, we rob our readers of an interactive moment, of the chance to infer those implications: among the great pleasures offered by good writing.

But as Selgin explains in another post, “never state what you can imply” is not the same as “show, don’t tell”. Sometimes the writer has to tell in order to interpret the action – or simply move the show along.

The crucial thing is that even whilst telling a skilful writer can leave much unsaid – unlabelled, unexplained – because she trusts her reader to understand, even if placing this trust opens up the possibility of misunderstanding.

Telling readers what to think or feel is the job of a propagandist. A storyteller’s main purpose, on the other hand, is to create experiences for the reader, to involve us so deeply, so convincingly, so authentically in those experiences that we feel what characters feel.

“To create experiences for the reader.” Ah, now; that is the challenge – and somehow, with or without adjectives, I failed for this particular reader.


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