Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.

Democratic

Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library

 

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That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

John McGahern is another great Irish writer. Or to put it another way – John McGahern is great writer. That They May Face the Rising Sun was his last novel, published in 2002. John McGahern (1934 – 2006) wrote 6 novels, numerous short stories and radio plays and a memoir, called Memoir. That They May Face the Rising Sun was the Irish Novel of the Year in 2003. Its title in the US is By The Lake.

If you haven’t yet read his novels I urge you to start now.

270 That they

The Story

In beautiful slow prose, That They May Face the Rising Sun follows a rural community over one year, through the farming activities and social lives of the small group of men and women. John McGahern once said that ‘the ordinary fascinates me’, and that ‘the ordinary is the most precious thing in life’. He writes about the ordinary in a way that is deeply moving.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to live on a smallholding near the lake. They had met and married in London where they worked together in an advertising agency. Joe is connected to the place through his childhood and his uncle, the Shah. In a series of scenes the reader meets their neighbours. With Jamsie and his wife Mary they share a friendship and smallholding activities. Jamsie is very newsie (a gossip I guess). Bill Evans was badly treated as an orphan and more or less given into slavery, which he eventually escapes. He is traumatised and unable to manage any idea of the past or the future. The people who know him care for him and provide him with a limited number of smokes and drinks. Then there is John Quinn, who loves women, and is brazen about his conquests, and abusive too. Patrick Ryan is the ever-absent builder. The Shah despite being unable to read or write has made a fortune for himself. He never speaks to his manager, but sells the business to him when he retires, lending him the money to do it and carrying on working there. He is something of a wise uncle to Joe, but also depends upon his nephew to make sense of the world and his negotiations with it. There are cats and dogs and a heron

The narrative emerges through a number of scenes in the year. It opens with Jonny’s annual visit from England (where so many went in the 70s, including John McGahern), and concludes with his death the following year and a moving description of the community that assembles to do the right thing at his death. Throughout this novel neighbours share tasks, do favours, tell stories, drink together and eat sandwiches. It’s peaceable, atmospheric, slow and very moving.

270 j McGahern

The style

The nature writing is also wonderful, describing what you see in a rural setting as the year follows its cycle.

September and October were lovely months, the summer ended, winter not yet in. The cattle and sheep were still out on grass, the leaves turning.

The little vetch pods on the bank turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean. Jamsie arrived with sacks of vegetables and was given whatever he would take in return. (191)

I love the way the domestic activities of the inhabitants of the lakeshore are included in this description.

Many of the scenes are carried forward through the dialogue, which catches the humour and pain of the neighbours. Irish history is present through recollections of the characters, none so vivid as the ambush by the Tans of a group of republicans from Jamsie’s past. And so we learn on p255 the fearful origin of Jamsie’s characteristic greeting first heard on the opening page: ‘Hel-lo … hel-lo … hel-lo.’ Such details link the scenes over and over.

For a taste of the dialogue, here is an early excerpt, when Bill Evans, much abused and exploited on the farm where he lives, calls in hungry at the Ruttledge house. Joe tells him,

‘You’re welcome to anything in the house but there isn’t even bread. I was waiting till tonight to go to the village.’

‘Haven’t you spuds?’

‘Plenty.’ He hadn’t thought of them as an offering.

‘Quick, Joe. Put them on.’

A pot of water was set to boil. The potatoes were washed. ‘How many?’

‘More. More.’

His eyes glittered on the pot as he waited, willing them to a boil. Fourteen potatoes were put into the pot. He ate all of them, even the skins, with salt and butter, and emptied the large jug of milk. ‘God, I feel all roly-poly now,’ he said with deep contentment as he moved back to the ease of the white rocking chair. ‘Do you have any fags?’ (10)

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber in 2002. 314 pp

Here are two other recommended books by John McGahern: The Barracks (1963), Amongst Women (1990).

The Barracks by John McGahern

This is a much earlier novel, published in 1963. It is set in an Irish Garda Barracks just after the Second World War. Elizabeth is married to the sergeant, and the novel follows her decline through cancer into death, as she wonders about her life, its meaning purpose and pleasures. The novel ends as it began in the kitchen, with the stepchildren, but she is no longer with them.

There are some acute observations about how people behave in groups, how people relate badly to each other, how people live intimate lives without any connection. In common with That They May Face the Rising Sun, its sense of place is acute. He describes the seasons in the village, the people, their concerns, the rituals of the church with deep knowledge and affection.

The Barracks by John McGahern published by Faber & Faber in 1963.

Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

270 Amongs Women

Moran was once a feared IRA fighter in the 1920s, but the story concerns his attempt to defend himself in the 50s and 60s when Ireland and the troubles are history. His relationship with his family and the way in which he communicates with his daughters are the themes of this novel. Moran is a fierce and mistaken old man, proud, strict, with clear principles, but unsociable … what a character sketch. We have little of description, but as with The Barracks a small world is brilliantly evoked.

Amongst Women was no 97 on the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list. It was published by Faber & Faber in 1990.

 

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Ways with Words and the Point of Literary Festivals

What is the point of a literary festival? It is an aspect of the business side of publishing books. It provides writers with a platform for their ideas and, if the author is lucky, a pot of jam or some such in payment. It provides revenue for the venue, and B&Bs in the area. And for the punters? What’s in it for them?

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Ways with Words, a ‘festival of words and ideas’, is held annually in July, in Dartington Hall, Devon. I live less than 10 miles away so I can pick and choose my sessions without spending a fortune, and this year I picked three.

AL Kennedy, Serious Sweet and extending herself.

Extending yourself for others. This is how AL Kennedy described writing, and thereby claimed it as an act of love. She read from her new novel Serious Sweet, published in May. The reading was excellent, bringing alive both dialogue and inner monologue. It was also funny, witty, sharp, a bit sweary and very perceptive.

269 SeriousSweet cover

She was asked some questions, the kind one might anticipate. Who are your influences? Why are you AL Kennedy not Alison? Tell us how to write! Her answers reminded us that

  1. AL Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian with the ability to ad lib on a topic;
  2. She is very reflective and self-aware;
  3. She has a wonderful way with words.

The answer to how to write is to find a place of safety, do your best, ‘and the rest is grammar, which you can find in books’.

You can find her website here.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear writers such as AL Kennedy, and be enthused all over again about the value of writing.

Katy Norris and Christopher Wood

Which came first, the exhibition or the book? This question was asked after Katy Norris had told us about the life and work of Christopher Wood. She is curator of Pallant House, Chichester, where there is an exhibition of his work. She told us of her enthusiasm for the research, looking at the many influences on his life, and the circles he moved in in the 1920s in Paris and England.

269 KNorrisCwood

The book and the exhibition had progressed together, a dynamic process whereby the one informed the other. Sounds like the best non-fiction writing process.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear a new perspective on an art exhibition. Last year I learned about Eric Ravillous.

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Richard Fortey in the Woods

The third presentation was my only celebrity event. Richard Fortey was scheduled against an even bigger celebrity, Shirley Williams, and still managed to fill the hall. He told us about a year in his woods, a 4-acre beech wood in the Chilterns. We learned how interconnected are the history, geology, biodiversity, changing economics, changing land use, and effects of different life forms from mountain bikers, to grey squirrels and a moth that infects trees. These last three can all cause damage, but Richard Fortey appears to be a force for good, which means biodiversity. He’s published a book called The Wood for the Trees: one man’s long view of nature.

269 Wood for the trees cover

What is the point of literary festivals? To learn from experts and enthusiasts, and about newly published books.

And finally …

101 RWA coverWhat is the point of literary festivals? Two years ago Eileen and I got our own moment in the spotlight when we shared a session called Growing Older with Angela Neustatter, grandstanding our previous book Retiring with Attitude. It’s about getting a platform and a pot of jam.

 

 

Related Posts

Ways with Words July 2014, in which we anticipated our presentation.

Ways with Words – part 2, in which we reflected on our presentation.

 

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Learning to be old

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. This month, on her return from holiday, Eileen writes about three important contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing.

  1. Performing old
  2. Covering the signs of ageing
  3. Not heading for the scrap heap.
Eileen on air at the BBC

Eileen on air at the BBC

This is what Eileen Carnell wrote for Bookword blog:

It has been an absolute joy to work with Caroline and Marianne over the last two years writing our new book The New Age of Ageing: How society needs to change. We interviewed fascinating people and carried out numerous searches. The most stimulating part of the process was the dialogue we had together creating new ways of understanding the issues and then finally creating our vision to conclude the book. The whole process was extremely challenging, fun and inspiring.

Reflecting now, just over a month before publication date, has been useful in highlighting some contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing that I have found particularly striking.

Performing old?

I was excited when I came across the idea that we learn to ‘perform’ or act old. As a feminist researcher I was aware of the concept of performing gender. Relating the idea to ageing was incredibly useful. I was amused by what Ruth said: ‘I am aware of changes, hearing myself making sitting down and standing up noises like an old person’. There are clear rules in our society about what old people should and shouldn’t do and wear and behave, just as there are clear expectations for women in our society.

Jenny’s remarks nicely illustrate the idea that we learn to perform old:

Me and my partner are experimenting with being old for a few days … he’s had a hernia repair, I pulled a muscle in my hip. … S’interesting the sorts of things that one might need to get ‘a young person’ in for eventually … changing the bed linen for starters.

I like the ironic tone of this message. Jenny knows the situation is temporary – a rehearsal. But beneath the message speaks truth – an agreed cultural understanding of performing ‘old’ and how relationships with family, friends and younger people change as a result. Those who fail to conform are criticised or ridiculed. When Mike was preparing for a triathlon, aged 70, friends said ‘You must be mad at your age, you crazy man of excess. Why don’t you just put your feet up?’ The dominant image of older people is of decline – take that road sign of bent old people with sticks for example.

230 road sign

A contradiction emerges. There is a powerful message in our society that it is our duty to age well and healthily. That means being super fit and active for as long as possible, regardless of social background, economic status or level of physical ability. A blame issue develops: ‘they should have looked after themselves’.

Reading the work of Lorna Warren and Amanda Clarke helped me make sense of this conundrum. They draw attention to the idea that in attempting to counterbalance the ubiquitous images of decline it is important not to create new unachievable oppressions of physically fit, creative, active, adventurous ageing (see note 1). When writing I recognised the temptation to overdo the positive aspects which gives weight to this new tyranny.

Covering signs of age?

Part of the tyranny is to hide signs of ageing – age denial. My sister Sheila, who was the prettiest of us three siblings, sent me a picture of her new face following Botox treatments. I was shocked and saddened, but in her 60s she was entitled to make this decision, although I felt it spoilt her looks, making her face looked ironed and her smile forced. But when I saw the headline: ‘Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old’ that revealed the story of a mother administering Botox to hide her daughter’s wrinkles I was horrified (note 2). We three authors spent a long time considering our own attitudes towards the cover up. We agreed that this example of seeking perfection was an extreme form of cultural oppression. But where do you draw the line? Opinion is divided. Some see the use of cosmetics and treatments as empowering. It is clear that beauty ideals dominate many women’s lives and there is a growing belief that ageing is like a disease that can be cured. Subsequently the cosmetic business exploits women’s fears. I have come to the conclusion that if we persist as a society in hiding age then we will never re-educate ourselves to see beauty in the faces and spirits of older people.

Heading for the scrap heap?

Society does something strange to us as we age. We are no longer valued participants but seen as a burden, a problem or redundant. While many older people want to contribute they find it difficult to find ways to share their skills. Ray expressed his frustration after he retired from his role as a surgeon in a teaching hospital:

It’s such a waste. I could be a mentor or use my wisdom in other ways in an advisory capacity. I have so many transferable skills and it’s as if nothing I did in my professional life has any value any more. I feel I am on the scrap heap.

This is so sad. The challenge is to create structures and forums so that older people can share their wisdom and experience rather than leave it to chance.

I met an inspiring retiree, called Mo, who moved to a village in South Africa to set up a school. She said:

For me the way forward is clear – to tap into the global wisdom of so many who have reached retirement. There is immeasurable wisdom which could have a huge impact on so many in the world today.

I like the clear statement that old people need to be recognised as ‘assets rather than burdens … active contributors, not passive recipients’ (note 3).

Many older people, like Mo, do find ways to benefit society. We came across many who are still active in local, national or international politics and are vociferous in campaigning for a better world and in fighting ageism. The penultimate chapter of the book celebrates their contributions demonstrating there is no shortage of older radicals.

 

References

(1) Warren, L. and Clarke, A. (2009) ‘“Woo-hoo, what a ride!” Older people, life stories and active ageing’, in R. Edmondson and H.J. von Kondratowitz (eds) Valuing older people: A humanist approach to ageing, Bristol: Policy Press, p 244.

(2) ABC News (2011) Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old Daughter: How Young Is Too Young? May 12, 2011. By Hagan, K., Kunin, S. & Ghebremmedhin. S. via GoodMorning America. (Accessed 23.06.15).

243 New Age cover(3) Roberts, Y. (2012) One Hundred Not Out: resilience and active ageing. London: The Young Foundation.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June 2016)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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Writing Coach Pickings

One of the most enjoyable paid jobs I’ve had was as a writing coach for university academics. And for more than a decade my job in the university also included helping students to express themselves in writing for their Masters or Doctoral degree. The bit I really enjoyed was when they began to see their writing taking shape. And although this was coaching in ‘academic’ writing the issues and challenges were much the same as for any writing. What follows are some pickings from the coaching.

Time

267 clockFinding adequate time to write is a very difficult issue for busy professionals. My students were writing up the research they had undertaken, for examination or publication. They frequently underestimated the time taken for the processes of planning and researching, analysis, working out what to say and how, and revision.

Students and colleagues frequently gave precedence to other aspects of their professional lives. They often said writing felt like an indulgence or selfish to focus on their writing. To help them reassess the place and role of writing in professional lives I often used this matrix developed from The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People by R. Stephen Covey. He called it a time management matrix (p151).

267 matrix

It is a quick and effective way to show that writing is important but frequently does not get done because it is not urgent, until that deadline looms. By setting the urgency alongside the importance of a task, it is easy to see why writing gets short shrift. But as Covey points out, in the cell * (not urgent but important) are many activities that are necessary for success, including professional development, planning, relationship building, recreation and writing.

In coaching sessions we would discuss how to carve out uninterrupted time to pay attention to the writing, or how to spending an hour or two every weekend on writing activities from the start of their university course.

The myths of academic writing

267 graduation

Students, and to a lesser extent university lecturers, approach what they called academic writing with all kinds of myths: you should use long words, complicated sentence structure, make frequent references to other people’s writing, and – above all – never refer to yourself in the first person. It seemed as though they did not read consciously, or never brought their critical faculties to bear on what they were reading. Clarity is the most important quality. But it is reached after a number of redrafts.

Starting

249 blank pages

If a writer is stuck about where to start, the advice is start where you feel most confident. Or start anywhere. If it’s a research paper then you will have a proposal, or outline that you have submitted, and this can be the framework for the report. You might tell the story of how you came to do the research. The word-processing function of all computers means that cutting and pasting is easy, as is adding bits and all revisions. Start!

The first draft

267 1st drAnother myth is that some people find writing easy and only need to do one draft. I think it helped writers to regard the first draft as a way to work out what they have to say. This first draft is the place to think about content, shape, the purpose and audience for the writing. The focus is on the writing. Later you can think about the reading.

 

Put the important bits first

Clarity in non-fiction often means putting the important bits up front: in the introduction, in the opening paragraph of each section and in the opening sentence of each paragraph. A useful strategy is to read through the first sentences to check if you get a good idea of what the paper or report is about.

Long sentences

Long sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses are usually not as clear as short ones. Consider writing two sentences.

There are cultural differences in writing. An Italian student had me quite confused when I read her drafts until she told me that in Italy she was encouraged to use very long sentences and to reveal the conclusions at the end of the paper.

71 Manuscript-Editing4

Feedback

There are different ways with feedback and this is what my fellow writer Eileen Carnell said about them in a post called Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016) 255. She was writing about feedback we sought when we were writing our next book, The New Age of Ageing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

I frequently used questions to help a novice writer think about their reader: What is the most important point in this section? Why are you telling us this? What else might cause the outcomes you are describing? And most often: SO WHAT? This last meant that the writer had implied the importance of what they were saying, but not yet shown how it connects to their main themes.

WIRMI

A very useful tool this, developed by my colleague and former co-author, Chris Watkins. WIRMI stands for What I Really Mean Is. It is used when the words are getting tangled, and it’s hard to sort out a sentence or a paragraph. You take your hands off the keyboard (or lay down your pen), sit back in your chair and say, ‘what I really mean is …’ and there they come: the words you need.

Taking Ownership

Many student writers feel apologetic, as though they should not really join the conversation with the elite. But I would encourage their confidence by reminding them that they knew more about their research focus than anyone else, they were in fact world experts. And I encouraged them to sit down and write a few sentences about why they are the best person to be writing this report.

Some pet hates

145 writing keyboard

Exclamation marks. These are often used to imply humour or irony, but without explanation.

Scare quotes. These are often used to imply a different voice, but can be misconstrued without the voice being named.

Capital letters for everything. British teachers often tend to give every school subject, the word school on all occasions, all roles within school and just about everything else a capital letter, as in The Senior Teacher from the Upper School was taking the History lesson.

Ending with a pithy quote from a respected writer instead of closing with their own voice.

Being asked how many references per page are required.

The best bit

On reflection I think there are two key aspects to being a writing coach:

  1. sitting next to the writer (figuratively perhaps) and helping them work out what they wanted to say and how,
  2. and acting as a reader, explaining my experience of reading their texts.

In practice these two aspects of the role are not distinguishable.

The best bit of being a writing coach was helping someone improve their writing and to see how to apply their learning to their future writing.

The next best thing was the learning I did, from figuring out how to help the writers. And I quite often sit back and say ‘What I really mean is …’

Related posts and books

Getting feedback to improve our writing on this blog in May 2016

10 things to do when you don’t know what to write in December 2013

Being a Writing Coach by Beth Miller on Women Writers, Women’s Books blog. She draws on the characteristics of coach in Cheers, is sympathetic and pragmatic and heading for the bar.

The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People (1992) by R. Stephen Covey, published by Simon & Schuster

Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge

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Revising the novel again (and again)

Here I go again as the Hollies had it:

266 Hollies

Here I go again

I cant help it

Here I go again

Making the same mistakes

Heading for more heartaches

What can I do when there’s nothing I can do

I looked in your eyes and I knew that I was through

I’m gonna say now

Here I go again

Watch me now ’cause

Here I go again

Here I go again. It’s time to edit the first draft of my novel. Again!

Mistakes! Heartaches! Nothing I can do!

The mistakes

Believing I could work on two major projects and a blog at the same time was my biggest mistake. I’ve written about this before in a post called What I write about when I am not writing fiction in April.

243 New Age coverThe non-fiction book I have been involved in, The New Age of Ageing, will be published in September. We are still dealing with proofs, queries, index, testimonials, and other prepublication matters. It keeps my mind on the non-fiction.

The skills for revising a novel seem to need rebooting every time I sit down with a chapter. But it is now moving slowly, I am happy to report. And I have set myself a deadline (not for sharing yet) to help me move on.

Heartaches

Writing tog

Doubts, I have a few. Can I ever let this novel go? The issues and characters are very important to me. I like spending time with them.

Do I have another novel in me? Will I want to spend the time on it? If this one is to learn about writing a novel what would be the purposes of another novel?

What about another non-fiction book?

These are all dilemmas for which I have no answer, and I experience them as heartaches.

Nothing I can do!

With no current answer there is nothing I can do about those dilemmas at the moment. However, …

145 writing keyboardSomething I CAN do

Get on with it. In particular I need to get on with revealing more of the emotional inner states of my characters. In my notes I have identified four things to look at to do this:

  1. imagery
  2. descriptions
  3. dialogue
  4. closeness of narration to the characters (aka psychic distance)

And there is all the normal editing I need to do to sharpen up all the chapters.

It’s too late to worry about the risks involved, mostly the risk that it isn’t good enough. I need to rewrite, kill my darlings and nail those words.

145 Risk quote

Looking for advice

Any guidance, advice or tips for a would-be reviser?

Related posts

This is the 7th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

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Island Novels

Setting a novel on an island allows the writer to use a dramatic device, limited physical range for their characters. Their characters must respond to the boundaries created by the sea, and they are usually trapped with whoever else might be on the island. Here are a few novels that have used an island setting.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

265 Night Waking

Anna Bennet and her husband and two children are spending the summer on a St Kilda-like island. With a young child she is suffering from lack of sleep, and from lack of time to finish her book, connected to her fellowship at Oxford. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

A skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house and Anna spends some time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. A parcel of letters is found in the chimney from a young woman in Victorian times who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

Written in the first person, the narrator seems quite mad at times, and as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation, as the title indicates.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss, published by Granta in 2011.

Sarah Moss has a new novel, The Tidal Zone, published in July by Granta.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

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A Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for the murder of a German-American fisherman on the island of San Piedro off the north west coast of America. Tensions are high. There is a snow storm that further limits the characters. There is a long history of family arguments about land, and of ancient love affairs. The story unfolds, revealing some racism, some old fashioned liberalism, a great deal of loss and some huge misunderstandings and disappointments. All is more or less resolved.

I found that there were too many long back-stories of some less significant characters, almost as if Guterson had included the outcomes of activities suggested in a creative writing workshop for knowing the characters. The writing is superb, however.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, published by Bloomsbury in 1994. 404pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Although the story is set on the island of Skye, much of this novel does not really fit my theme, but it needs no excuse to be recommended yet again. The model for the holiday was in fact Cornwall, the location of the Stephen family’s annual summer holidays.

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is on holiday on Skye. The plan to go to the lighthouse the next day is jeopardised by the weather. The family and house guests go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. There are deaths and a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. This is a novel to be read not for the story but for the evocation of impressions, responses, and insights of her characters.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf published in 1927 by the Hogarth Press.

And …

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This one is from the older women in fiction series. It’s partly a meditation on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, but also a dreamy rendition of summers spent on an island on the Finnish coast. I’m not even sure if it’s counted as fiction, but it is a moving book.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, published in 2003 by Sort of Books. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

80 Summer Bk cover

Shipping News E Annie Proulx

Another great novel, where every character has limitations, and every character is challenged by the rugged conditions of Newfoundland, the weather, and the events of their own life. The island keeps the community together.

Shipping News E Annie Proulx (1993). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book award. An excellent film was made of this book.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)

Winner Man Booker Prize 2015

Being a prize winning novel that is set in Jamaica, but is neither brief or about only seven killings.

Over to you …

265 The LeopardWhat other novels are there? Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set in Sicily.

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Inevitably, it’s the word ROMP that comes to mind when reading Orlando. For Virginia Woolf, the word was FUN, as she wrote in her diaries in 1928. She wanted fun, and she described the novel as ‘all a joke’. However, we should not believe everything she said in her diaries for she also said, in the same paragraph, that she thought she would never write another novel. I will admit that Orlando: a biography is not a novel that I especially enjoy, even on second reading. But it has many merits.

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Famously Virginia Woolf had a romantic and sexual relationship with Vita Sackville West. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote,

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

The novel is dedicated to Vita. Certainly it reflects the joyousness and exuberance of their relationship.

The narrative

264 Orlando cover

It is a romp through English history from Elizabethan times until the final pages of the book: ‘Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight’. At the start of the novel Orlando is a gentleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth. By the end she is a married mother in comfortable circumstances in the reign of George V.

We follow Orlando through many adventures, of the heart, the pen, as Charles II’s ambassador to Turkey and as a gypsy, in the courts of successive monarchs, in the salons of the fashionable elite and mostly at home in the English countryside. Constant in his/her life is this country home and the oak tree from which can be seen most of England. And also constant is Orlando’s attempt to write a poem called The Old Oak Tree.

The style

Here is a passage from the opening chapter.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone,’ he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days perhaps thirty or forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky-line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountaneous among the clouds. (12-3)

The reference to ‘the record’ is an example of how Virginia Woolf draws attention to the act of writing. She refers to this, sometimes tongue in cheek as a historian with few documents, throughout the book.

It is also an example of the use of lists, elaborate, cumulative and increasingly stretching our belief. Orlando can see London, the coast, Snowdon and forty English counties all from his oak tree!

Her love of words is revealed in other lists, especially where they concern fabrics, and Orlando has many gorgeous costumes, both as a man and as a woman. And also in the names of the characters: Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine is her husband.

Within ten pages of the scene under the oak tree, the great frost descends upon England, and the River Thames is frozen over. The description of the scene on the Thames teems with life and people and reflects Virginia Woolf’s skills in observation. Her fondness for walking through the streets of London is well known.

You might also have noted the reference to waves, which often featured in her writing.

Gender in Orlando

You could hardly have your hero turn into a woman without some animadversions upon the differences in the experiences of men and women. Some of this was being worked on in Virginia Woolf’s mind as she prepared the lectures that would eventually become A Room of One’s Own which also questions the role of women in fiction, and how women who write fared.

It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry. (p103 A Room of One’s Own)

Orlando is independently wealthy and it is somewhat ironic that it was the sales of Orlando that allowed Virginia Woolf to spend money at last. In December 1928 she was reporting in her diary that Orlando was selling well and for the first time since she got married she was spending her own money. ‘My room is secure,’ she reports on 18th December 1928.

Virginia Woolf treats us to her wit and insights as Orlando makes the transition into a woman. She muses on what will be lost to her by becoming a woman. But it seems that neither sex come off well. We must ask with Orlando, why make so much of gender in social relations.

She reflects on these matters as she sails back to England from Turkey, and notices the crew’s response to showing ‘an inch or two of calf’.

‘And that’s the last oath I shall ever be able to swear,’ she thought; ‘once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword and run him through his body, or sit among my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D’you take sugar? D’you take cream?’ And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong. ‘To fall from a masthead,’ she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet go about as if you were the Lords of creation – Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of is – what fools we are!’ And here is would seem that from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally as if she belonged to neither … (111-2)

Men of Letters

One group of people who come off badly in their meetings with Orlando are the men of letters. With pretensions to authorship the young Orlando invites Nicholas Greene to spend time at his country house. The experience is not a happy one. The poet lampoons his host. Later the 18th Century trio Addison, Pope and Dryden come in for some criticism. It seem that she can love their writing but on meeting them socially it transpires that they are not good company.

And …?

And what is one to make of all this. Well, I’m not sure, beyond the pleasure of the imagination at work. The extravagant and outrageous descriptions are a delight. I hope Virginia Woolf had fun writing it. But I prefer her other writings.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1928 by the Hogarth Press. I used the Penguin Classic version (1942, 231pp) in writing this post.

264 Peng Orlando

Related posts

This is my fourth contribution to #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog. Previous posts can be found through the links:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in January 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf in May

 

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Top posts about women’s novels on Bookword

Here are the top 6 posts featuring novels by women from my blog in the last year. I notice that half of them refer to an Elizabeth. Half were written before the Second World War. The exceptions are Elizabeth is Missing, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Stone Angel. These three are also from the older women in fiction series:

  1. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
  2. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  4. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  6. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

Enjoy reading the posts again, or for the first time. Links are included.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Last September

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam second-hand shop and in February 2013 it came to the top of my reading pile. Read more …

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a conventional heroine, Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is also lonely and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. Read more …

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

25 Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, cannot not be resolved. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain. Read more …

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer. Her forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She tries to find her friend Elizabeth and unravel the mystery of what happened to her sister 70 years before. Read more …

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

209 To_the_Lighthouse

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. Read more …

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness, and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion. Read more …

137 LofGG cover

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

I was browsing the shelves for anything as yet unread by Elizabeth Bowen and found not one but two old fashioned penguin copies of Friends and Relations. The novel was not known to me, but the writer is, and I have found her to be remarkable, whatever I have read of hers.

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The story

The novel opens with the wedding of Edward and Laurel. We are in the years after the Great War. This brilliant opening scene introduces the reader to all the characters, pegs them for their little foibles and faults. And it is entertaining and perceptive. Here is the bride and the father waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

Her clothes were all packed; she was buttoned into an old blazer of Janet’s and did not look like to-day’s bride. From half-past ten till noon she and Colonel Studdart, shut into the morning-room, played demon patience. Her life here was over, his at a standstill; there was nothing for them to do. (7)

This is typical of Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to present her characters through their actions.

Within weeks Janet (Laurel’s sister) marries Rodney. For a few days it seems as though the second wedding will not take place for there is an alarm. Edward’s mother, Lady Elfrida brought social opprobrium upon herself when she had an affair with Considine, and then did not marry him. Rodney is Considine’s nephew and heir. Edward refuses to meet the uncle. Although the marriage does go ahead, it is not before Janet quarrels with her brother-in-law, Edward.

‘But Edward, we really cannot quarrel. Please … Do think of what is convenient: we are relations for life. I mean, we shall stay with each other, shan’t we, at Christmas and everything? It would be impossible for Laurel and me to be divided. For as long as we live, I suppose about fifty years, we shall all always be meeting and talking over arrangements. At least, that is how we have been brought up. You must see what families are; it’s possible to be so ordinary; it’s possible not to say such a lot. …’ (46)

It seems that they are talking about his mother’s indiscretion, but this attitude of finding what is convenient, of being ordinary and not speaking of things is how they will live their lives, despite her love for him, and later his for her.

The second section describes a week in May, ten years later, when Edward and Laurel’s two children are staying with Janet and Rodney. There is a socially difficulty as Janet and Rodney live with Considine’s in his house. They decide to invite Lady Elfrida to join them, believing that after ten years Edward cannot still object and Lady Elfrida and Considine are now good friends. But Edward does object, and he arrives to remove the children. His action is the occasion for him and Janet to acknowledge their mutual love.

The third section is called Wednesday, and takes place the following week, when everything comes together. Janet admits to Edward that she engineered the meeting and marriage with Rodney to be more connected to him. Janet and Edward see the impossibility of being together more than as in-laws. They settle for being ordinary, for not saying such a lot. Briefly, others mistakenly think they have gone off together. As readers we see what the reaction would have been if the lovers had decided to be together in an unbearably difficult social situation.

The main theme

The question that dominates the novel is what to do about love that is passionate, but outside and a betrayal of marriage? Lady Elfrida became a social outcast through her affair with Considine, especially as she did not marry him. Elizabeth Bowen makes it clear that their love was genuine, but has now changed to affection. Her son Edward is considered sensitive as a result of his mother’s behaviour. But in adult life he realises that he loves his sister-in-law Janet. What should they do once they have acknowledged it? Elizabeth Bowen herself came to a different conclusion from Janet and Edward, in her own life. She drew on her affair in the novel The Heat of the Day.

264 F&R new cover

Theodora

Theodora is a great creation, a kind of wild child in the first section, and then a mould-breaking adult, one of the surplus women of the inter-war years. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen was very good at children in her writing. The House in Paris revealed her expertise. Theodora is some kind of relation, and brazenly out of step with her parents.

The Thirdmans were shockingly out of it. They had brought their girl, Theodora, for whom at each introduction they joyously turned. But she was never beside them. (11)

Theodora meets the bridesmaids on the lawn playing clock golf.

Their four little pink satin shoes were green-stained. There would be trouble, Theodora noted with pleasure. She was fifteen and, except for the bridesmaids, the youngest present. Every allowance made for her unfortunate age, her appearance was not engaging. She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression. (11)

Theodora fails to make an impression on anyone at the wedding. Ten years later she lives with a school friend, frequently spends time at Considine’s house, and visits Laurel and Edward in London. She cannot fail to make an impression as an outspoken adult. She provides light relief in the novel, but also reveals what happens to those who don’t fit in society in the inter-war years.

Recommended

264 Elizabeth_BowenElizabeth Bowen is skilled at communicating a great deal in a short space. She is also able to show the drama of small events, moments in domestic time, which have resonances down the years.

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1931. My copy was published on that cheap brown wartime paper by Penguin in 1946. Price one shilling. 151pp

Related posts

Books Snob’s blog review of Friends and Relations, in which she is pleased to have become acquainted with Elizabeth Bowen.

I have reviewed the following on Bookword blog:

The Last September

Two Elizabeths, two first novels (At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen)

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews