#100 Days of Writing

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Today I start the #100daysofwriting challenge – with a particular remit. I write full time (I’m so lucky!) and my days are usually a nice balance between writing and all the other stuff of a writer’s life: planning, researching, reading, listening, thinking, dreaming, debating, sharing, supporting, studying (Advanced Creative Writing with @oxford_uni Dept of Continuing Education right now), blogging and Instagramming – but sometimes the actual writing slips later and later in the day until – well, you get the picture. So, #100daysofwriting for me will be putting the writing of my WIP first; pen to paper (digit to keyboard), a chapter finished, problem solved or paragraph crafted. And, to celebrate each day, I’ll take a picture from the nearest window so I can look back on 💯 days of #weather as well as 💯 days of words. #amwriting #amwritingfiction #100daysofwriting #historicalfiction #writers #writersofinstagram #writerscommunity

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The Hidden Machinery (research review)

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The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey (2017) makes me feel like a writer. Why? Because when I read it I am filled with a sense of recognition: I recognise the peculiar writery problems, I identify with the struggle for nuance and balance – and I can immediately see application to my own work. It’s a book for writers – and I’m a writer! There is no way I can reduce The Hidden Machinery down to #ThreeGifts; it’s one long, quirky, generous, endlessly fascinating gift. This review has already taken far too long because every time I pick up the book for quotable quotes I’m lost for 20 minutes reminding myself of Livesey’s tips on Creating Characters Who Walk off the Page (give a new character something in common with me – plus something we absolutely do not share), thoughts on the appeal of writing romance (the wonderful “possibilities for bad behaviour”) or lessons to be learnt from Shakespeare (“begin dramatically … don’t keep back the good stuff … don’t over explain”). Then there is this from the essay on Letting Our Characters Tell and Show: “Dialogue can allow us to convey information … of which neither the characters nor the narrator is fully aware. Dialogue is not only showing as opposed to telling, it is also showing what cannot be told.” And how about this analysis of Woolf’s approach to the description of characters: “She refuses to sum them up … We see them as they see themselves we see them as others see them. Forget the impressionists and think of Picasso depicting a woman’s face, fractured, from several angles”? Just don’t ask to borrow my copy. It’s not leaving my desk. Ever. #amwriting #amlearning #bookstagram #novelwriting

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The honest editor and cognitive bias

cognitive biases

In a previous life, I facilitated training sessions on managing obstetric emergencies; clinical skills, teamwork, leadership, decision-making and so on. One of the features of effective decision-making is the awareness of cognitive biases and so we discussed the problems that may arise from unhealthy hierarchies, tunnel vision and closed minds. The terminology has moved on in the intervening years (the above chart is borrowed from the Journal of the American Medical Association network) but it struck me recently (thanks to a WhatsApp discussion with a writing buddy) how applicable these biases are to writers as we self-edit our work.

For example, I know I am guilty of the following biases:

  • Anchoring Fixing on a certain action for a character without considering if this action really fits with their backstory and motivation;
  • Availability bias Being influenced by whatever war diary or novel I happen to be reading at the time;
  • Confirmation bias Failure to consider alternative actions because they don’t fit with my worldview or preferences;
  • Sutton’s Slip Failure to think outside the literary box and look for alternatives;
  • and a sort of reverse form of Zebra’s retreat; making my characters do something weird and unlikely for shock value – and just because I can.


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The Incurable Romantic (research review)

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The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis (2018) is compulsive background reading for a writer of #historicalromance. Falling in love is “a combustable state that reproduces the symptoms of psychiatric illness” and, when love goes wrong, things can become “twisted and ugly”. Written with the verve of a novelist and the enthusiasm of an expert, this book takes case histories from Tallis’ practice as a clinical psychologist and interprets them in the light of historic and current professional knowledge. “Romantic fiction has never been taken very seriously”. Furthermore, there exists the “peculiar” belief that love matters far more to women than it does to men; love is endlessly portrayed as “pink … perfumed and mildly diverting”. Yet love in reality is as red in tooth and claw as any other aspect of Darwinian imperative. The human race depends on love to ensure the “tumbling of genes through time, from generation to generation” and needs the passion, recklessness and enslavement of an unbreakable pair-bond (for three to four years, at least) to ensure the survival of its children. Love can be wonderful (“oceanic, transcendent and rapturous”) even as it exposes the “civilised and bestial” contradictions in human nature; “we cannot sustain comforting illusions of superiority, cultivation or divinity whilst exchanging body fluids.” Freud believed that we diminish those things which make us most anxious – so perhaps this is why we mock and belittle love and romance. #historicalfiction #amwriting #amresearchingformynovel #bookstagram

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Lawrence of Arabia (research review)

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Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Micheal Korda (2011). I listened to this thoughtful, even-handed biography on @audible_books whilst driving; odd hours here and there over a couple of months – a total of 14 hours during which I can honestly say my attention never wavered (and if it did for reasons for road safety I just rewound 30 seconds). This commitment is attributable in almost equal measure to the eloquence of the author’s prose and the quality of the reader’s delivery; calm, measured and unemotional – almost deadpan – be it the Battle of Aqaba, the Paris Peace Conference or TE’s penchant for flagellation (yep, it’s all here). Prior to this book, my study of Lawrence was limited to Peter O’Toole flouncing around the desert in 1962 and, perversely, a mean little biography by Richard Aldington (which probably said more about this bitter #GreatWar poet and Modernist writer than it did about Lawrence). Hero more than addresses the deficit in my knowledge of Lawrence’s life and understanding of his complex and often contradictory character. Here’s just three of the many surprises for this ignoramus: (1) The skill, audacity and enormity of Lawrence’s involvement in Arabic affairs during #WW1; a legacy that continues to this day. (2) The richness of his life after the War: his skill as a writer (his analysis of the techniques of guerrilla warfare continue to inform operational thinking); lasting friendships with people from Churchill and Nancy Astor to fellow airmen and their families (having anonymously joined the ranks of the RAF); his consummate mechanical skill including leading on the development of modern speed boats for the Navy. (3) His status as the first international media celebrity; press harassment, telescopic lens, car chases – and years of conspiracy theories following his death (aged 46) in a motorcycle accident, leading to inevitable comparisons with press treatment of Princess Diana. #amreading #amresearchingformynovel #history #LawrenceofArabia #TELawrence #bookstagram

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Aftermath of war

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This is Road at St Paul (1922) by French artist Félix Vallotton. It features in @tate excellent exhibition #WW1Aftermath. A while ago I wrote (on my blog) about the inspiration I get from my various Pinterest boards; uncurated depositories of #WW1 images of the people, places, events and “mood” of my books. This picture falls into the last category. This is not a picture of my protagonist Hope herself (or of any particular place she inhabits) but looking at it helps me enter her world. In the first half of the book, Hope is a VAD nurse in France in the final year of the #GreatWar. Outwardly calm and competent, Hope is, in reality, frightened, lonely and grieving – and (in common with most combatants and non-combatants in 1918) very tired. This picture says all of that, and more. The second painting is also by Vallotton; Evening on the Loire (1923). This outwardly beautiful yet claustrophobic, silent and rather sinister scene encapsulates the small English village to which Hope returns when she is demobilised in 1919 – and from which she is subsequently desperate to escape. I think I read somewhere recently that the @royalacademyarts is planning a #FelixVallotton exhibition for 2019. I do hope this is so! Or maybe I dreamt it… #modernart #amwriting #historicalfiction #writinginspiration

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The Joy of Writing Sex (research review)

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I read The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict (revised edition 2001) on Kindle, which may accounts for the boring cover image. Sorry about that – and apologies also for only citing a few particularly pertinent highlights from this detailed guide. This is because most of my Instagram followers seem to be related to me and I wish to spare their blushes. (1) “A sex scene is not a sex manual.” You don’t have to state the obvious. Mercifully. Remember the coach in Madame Bovary. (2) “A good sex scene is always about sex and something else.” Otherwise it’s porn. (3) “Take your cues from your characters.” If a sex scene doesn’t develop your characters and advance the plot (and hopefully further engage the reader) you’re just being self-indulgent and this is not the time or the place for self-indulgence. (4) Setting and dialogue (or absence of dialogue) are as important in a sex scene as in any other scene. (5) Surprise the reader! Pornography rarely surprises; a good sex scene can and should in some subtle character-enhancing way. #amreading #amwriting #amresearchingformynovel #romance

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Worthless Men (reading-as-a-writer 10)

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Why do I bother writing when the world already contains books like Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan (2013)? Set in an English market town in post-Somme 1916, the action spans no more than a couple hours and ends on a dark and puzzling note. The stream-of-consciousness style is a deluge of intricate and often disturbing period details of harsh childhoods, violent marriages, and awful living conditions. One random passage: “Clutching her pail, she lurches out to the midden, swings open the hatch, a surge of fat bluebottles rising to meet her … the mulch of peelings and slips spills over her feet and she sees there are maggots as well, and retching on the smell of it, she rips away the outer pages of the newspapers – Kitchen’s boys: New Armies push on – “ and so on. #ThreeGifts for the writer-reader: (1) Those descriptions! (2) Unlikeable characters (mine are all tediously clean and honourable). (3) The weird and shocking ending. #amwriting #amreading #GreatWar #bookstagram #greatwar

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A Subaltern’s War (research review)

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A Subaltern’s War by Charles Edmonds (CE Carrington) is one of my favourite soldiers’ accounts of the #GreatWar. As the author explains in the preface to my 1984 edition, he wrote the book (based contemporary diaries) back in 1929 in part to counter the prevailing mood of “pacifist emotionalism … crocodile tears … and absurd attempt to make the military commanders the scapegoats of a bellicose human race”. Although Edmonds admits that “like so many young men he enjoyed being a soldier on the whole”, this is not a Boy’s Own romp but a literary exploration of the contradictions and complexities of waging war and the “proud, dogged, tense spirit” of its later warriors. The story opens in 1914 with a boy of 17 “in a garden full of delphiniums” who later admits to feeling rather scared whilst walking a girl home down “a very dark lane”. It ends after the Armistice with acknowledgment of the difficulties faced by “millions of young men (who) had known no other career, no other destiny than battle”. In between are wonderfully detailed and very human accounts of daily life on or near the front line, including one of the most vivid descriptions I have read of the gut-wrenching terror of an artillery bombardment and utter confusion of action in No Man’s land. There are moments of pathos (“We crept down the staircase, I with a match and a revolver, he with a bayonet and the giggles”) and unexpected beauty: “We sat in the dugout … a mat of men sleeping thick … in the dusk of this rat hole, and one of the NCOs, a loud-mouth Sam Weller in khaki, broke into song with a Latin hymn to the Virgin, while we listened in astonished silence”. And there are terrible yet apposite accounts of painful death: “His head was shattered … an old corporal looked after him, held his body and arms, which writhed and fought feebly as he lay. It was over two hours before he died, hours of July sunshine in a crowded space … the soothing voice of the corporal, a gurgling and a moaning…” #WW1 #amwriting #amreading #bookstagram #greatwar

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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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