Category Archives: Writing

Re-Introducing My Inner Critic

It was four years ago that I exposed readers of my blog to my inner critic. The feisty critter is still doing his thing, but I have to admit that I quite enjoy the antics, and naming them. I love my inner critic more now, because I have learned to trust that judgement.

I still haven’t finished revising my novel. Perhaps very soon …? I offer this slightly revised version of a post first published on Bookword in March 2013.

My Inner Critic appears on a train

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

He’s a bit of an animal

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started your novel in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually on active duty in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Living with your Inner Critic

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

And since then?

And since I first posted this in March 2013 I have a second grandson, but no students or coaches, I’ve moved down to the West Country and I’ve co-written and published two more books (not novels). I have also learned to quieten the worst excesses of my Inner Critic, even to put him in a drawer [IC: Oi Again!]. But I have also learned to take account of what my Inner Critic is saying, and to improve my writing through this.

Over to you

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

Jean Pratt was 15 when she began her diaries.

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later. (Saturday 18th April 1925)

She did write it for years and years, sixty-one years, until 1986. And it is awfully amusing to read it later. The version by Simon Garfield is necessarily edited, yet is still over 700 pages. But she lived long. She did not always prosper.

History

Most history, as we know it, was written by men, and about men. When I was at school our teachers tried to break away from the rote learning of dates, events involving famous men. Their approach, to try to understand what had happened, influenced my decision to read history at university. There I came in to contact with the great EP Thomson (Making of the English Working Class) and came to see that what interested me was the ordinary, the everyday.

We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles, and party politics, but an unending story of events created by living people moved by emotions, ideals, passions …

We shall learn not that the Duke of Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and so saved Vienna from the Elector of Bavaria and the line of James II from being restored in England, but why this battle was fought. We shall ask questions back and back until we come to the motives that governed the actions of people. We shall find them – the people, crippled with jealousy and greed and fear; we shall ask why and go seeking further. (Monday 28th October 1940)

I am old enough that my childhood is now history, post war history. I am interested enough in history to want to read about those things that affected me, such as the post war years. Here is a great resource.

Jean Pratt

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). Her mother died just before the diaries begin, and her father just as the Second World War broke out. She grew up in Wembley, her father was an architect, and she had an older brother who soon went off to work abroad for the Cable and Wireless Company.

She was a woman of her time, ruefully reflecting, from time to time, that she was one of the 3 million ‘surplus women’ of her generation. She never married, although she dearly wished to. The phrase ‘surplus woman’ reflects the view of the time that a woman is only of value when married to a man. Jean argued against this position, but felt it emotionally. She also reflected on her requirement for a companionship in marriage, a man she could respect. She met few men like this.

The question of marriage. I cannot help now and then reflecting that there is much in what N. [a friend] preaches (and Joan, but with less virulence) – that marriage is not necessarily the only fulfilment for a woman. I have always found ordinary day-to-day living with someone else fearfully irksome. I enjoy my solitude and independence and take it now so much for granted that when I get these spams for ‘love’ and marriage I don’t take into account what it would be like to have to adjust myself to someone else day after day, however deeply in love I might be. I am a self centred selfish creature – it is so much easier, so much more comfortable and convenient to live alone.

And yet, and yet … No one has ever wanted (or said so at least) to live with me. That is what at forty makes me feel such a failure, that I have made such a poor show of my personal life. All my lovers slip away, as DB has done, without saying goodbye. Away they go, ghostly, unsatisfying, across the sea, to their death in a car, to study medicine, to Australia, to write plays, and that is the end. (Friday 21st October 1949)

As a young woman she took courses at London University to become and architect and then switched to journalism. She made many friends at this time, friends to whom she remained loyal until death. At the start of the war she had not yet made a career for herself, and rented a cottage in Burnham Beeches in Surrey, where she lived for the rest of her life.

To support herself during the war she took up work in High Duty Alloy Company, as well as volunteering with the Red Cross. After she tried to earn a living through writing, taking in paying guests in her cottage, and finally ran a small local bookshop, specialising in books about cats. Money problems dogged her throughout her life, although she was able to buy Wee Cottage eventually.

Burnham Beeches pond

The times

Jean Pratt lived through the most interesting of times. Society was changing, and she records her own beliefs, her explorations of new ideas, and reflects some of the contradictions and shifting attitudes of the time. Her attitude towards sex and marriage, for example, might have shocked her mother. She flirted with socialism and Fabianism before finding a roost in the Liberal Party. She sought psychoanalysis to help her with her dissatisfactions as early at 1939. She loved to have her fortune told, and believed in faith healing for a while.

The defining events of her lifetime were those of the Second World War. Just about to enter her 30s when it began, England had changed utterly by the time it ended. As early as 1934 she was trying to understand what it would mean. Remember she was an architectural student at the time.

War … war … the muttering goes on on all sides. War in the air. England’s lovely countryside devastated. No escape anywhere.

Yet supposing it happened. Bombs dropping, bombs bursting away the slums of London and Leeds, and the dirt and depression of all our big cities. Life will be lost of course, blood will flow in the streets, beauty will be desecrated. But afterwards – for it couldn’t last long this war in the air – if any of us have survived, if any of us can still pick up the torn threads of our lives and go on, what a magnificent chance for us to begin again. Given men of foresight and wisdom and sensitiveness, we have every opportunity of creating an age more golden than the Elizabethan. (Thursday 26th July 1934)

One of the charms of the diaries is that they lack hindsight. We know what happened, but as the war years dragged on those living through those times could not have known how long it would last, or what the effects would be on their lives.

It’s a long book, but is full of wit, humour, humanity and a questioning stance. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. 714pp

Related posts.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (November 2016). A Blitz memoir.

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More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:

Write

Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?

 

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After Publication

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman was published by Policy Press in early September. I have lost count of the number of books which I have co-authored or co-edited. That may read as rather big-headed, but I have been at it since 1991 – a quarter of a century!

But I have never stopped being excited about publication, the moment when one’s ideas are launched into the world, when you hope other people will benefit from one’s experience and reflection. It’s like a baby grown up and off into the world.

The delight of the printed book

There is pleasure in contemplating the newly printed book. All new books have a charm, the unbroken spine, the clean pages, the unblemished cover. When it’s a cover which announces one’s name and that title over which we laboured for months, then it has extra delight.

Then there is the pleasure of the pile of new books, see below. This is surely one of the pleasures of entering a bookshop – multiple copies, many volumes.

And, I admit, the smell of a new book is also to be savoured.

The promotional articles are done

Following publication we put ourselves about, writing promotional articles:

Eileen wrote for Mature Times, an article on the fear of ageing and how older people are ignored in commercial promotions. The stimulus for this was Jeremy Paxman’s demonstration of ageism in the FT diaries of 19th August 2016.

At the reception desk of a hotel to which I checked in this week was a pile of free copies of the Mature Times, which calls itself “the voice of our generation”. Oh God, I thought, the cheeky bastards are including me. Back off. For this must be the most unfashionable publication in Britain. Who wants to be called “mature”, like an old cheese? We all know that “mature” means on the verge of incontinence, idiocy and peevish valetudinarianism. They might as well have named it the “Surgical Stocking Sentinel” or “Winceyette Weekly”.

There was a lot more of this kind of thing in his piece. It seemed to us that a man of 66 was not doing his generation any favours, rather it was lazy journalism to accuse us of being on the verge of incontinence, idiocy and peevish valetudinarianism. (I had to look up that last word. It means in poor health or obsessed by poor health, which you probably knew.)

Marianne provided a post for the blog of ILC-UK (International Longevity Centre) on the future challenges of health and care in an ageing society.

She also posted on the Henpicked website, an article called How do you feel about Ageing?

For the Policy Press blog, I did a piece on age-blaming using the example of what people had said about older voters following the EU Referendum.

For the on-line magazine Discover Society we produced a piece about older people and housing, and the need for more affordable housing and for planning to take account of local views and construction that adopts a more age-inclusive attitude.

I found that writing these articles was much like writing the book itself, although more condensed.

Book promotion

Our publishers, Policy Press, have done sterling work to promote our book. In addition we announced the publication

  • on Facebook,
  • on twitter,
  • to every friend,
  • and to every professional connection we could think of.
  • I blogged about it.
  • Some magazine offered copies as a prize.
  • We gave flyers to our local bookshops.

And then …?

We waited.

We waited for reviews.

And for our readers to tell us how good it is, or how they agreed with this or wanted to argue about that …

I have been asked, ‘how’s the book going?’ And I have to say, ‘I have no idea’. I have no idea about sales: what would be good sales, what would be disappointing? Above all, I don’t think the world or even society has changed yet as a result of our book. I don’t know if it has even been nudged. That’s how it goes with most books. You don’t know.

That’s what I have learned, over the years, that after publication one waits. It’s an anti-climax after all that work. And you may never know whether you have piqued the interest of any reader, given them new ideas, encouraged debate. Sometimes people will tell you how important you book was to them, or how they saw it in a bookshop, or they don’t like the cover. But that’s it.

Why do we do it? Why write books? Well why do we?

Copies of The New Age of Ageing are available through the Policy Press website, where you can obtain a discount.

Related Posts

From February until publication day we posted at least once a month about the stages of book production from bright ideas to publication. You can find the posts here:

Publication Day September 2016

Trouble with Titles and Covers (August)

Marketing our Book (August)

Learning to be old by Eileen Carnell (July)

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

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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In praise of … word hoards

Words are the building blocks of speech and writing used by all people to make meaning. The words we speak and write are what writers must work with. We can play around with them, import some from other languages or invent new ones as Lewis Carroll famously did. Think of the runcible spoon.

So writers should occasionally think words, just words, to sharpen their skills. We need skill to put them together convincingly, in ways that enthral, please, make a case. One way I enjoy focussing on words is to compile a word hoard. I am inspired in this by other writers.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane, in many of his books, examines the details and grand sweep of the natural world and their meanings for humans, and he does this in prose that continually delights. At last I have got round to dipping into Landmarks. In this book Robert Macfarlane draws on writers of the natural world, such as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) and Roger Deakin (Notes from Walnut Tree Farm). And he has burrowed into the languages of the natural world. He gives us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

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He describes his collections as word hoards. Many of them are local and precise words for phenomenon found in the landscape. I picked out some from Devon, where I live. I love the word ammil, which denotes a particular kind of frost, which edges leaves (p4).

ammil

ammil

My mother brought to my vocabulary clart and clarty, describing mud, and I use it for that which sticks to my walking boots. She learned it in Cumberland, and Robert Macfarlane includes clairt, a Scots variation (p285). Exmoor folk use claggy. Another Devonian word in his hoard is dimmity, used to describe twilight (p223).

Many of the words in Robert Macfarlane’s collections are specific to location and reflect the need for precision in vocabulary in the wild environment. Others are necessary for the pursuit of a craft or skill, such as fishing, farming, woodworking. Words also reveal connections with ancient languages, Scandinavian, Gaelic, Latin or more modern scientific studies and poetic imaginations.

He quotes the writer Henry Porter who lamented the disappearance from OUP children’s dictionaries of words related to the natural world in an article in the Observer in December 2008:

euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it. (4)

euphonious is going into my word hoard.

It pays to increase your word power

While Robert Macfarlane’s book speaks to the mutability of language I think of my father. In a dispute about the meaning of a word, or on meeting an unfamiliar one, he would produce one of his two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to settle arguments. To him, a scientist, meaning was fixed within the word. No amount of argument convinced him that words could change meanings. Even telling him that ‘presently’ in Shakespearean times meant immediately (ie in the present) while today it means the opposite, even this cut no mustard with him. And yet my father introduced me to Alice in Wonderland.

And what about those people who use frequently when they mean regularly and vice versa? Now I’m straying into pedantry. More objectively I think you can see the changing meaning of words in that exchange of terms. In 50 years regularly will always mean frequently. In principle I like the ways in which words’ meanings evolve, are connected to the lives we lead, even if the pedant in me mutters aloud.

I have been known to invent a word or two myself: a prongadang is the implement with which I operated the gas lighter on my cooker for many years. It was the handle of a wooden spoon should you ask for a description. I thought I had invented spruancy to describe a particular kind of dressing up, mixing glamour and showing off, but Google tells me that it is a Jewish word invented by British Jews. It’s a great word whatever its origins.

Collecting words

I am busy compiling my own word-hoard. It’s an idea I owe to Barbara Baig and her book Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers.

Good writers are people who love language; one of the reasons they write is that it gives them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with words. So they notice and collect words all the time, exercising and strengthening their word minds in the process. (28)

304-sp-sentences-cover

The writers I used to coach to improve their academic writing were always a little startled when I recommended a practice that might be called theft, except that words have no value if they are kept by just one person. Their value is in shared use. I pinched this from a professor of linguistics.

For years and years (and I still do it, you know) I used to read things not only because of the sort of stuff that was in it, so it wasn’t only reading for learning, but also for stealing stylistically. I ruthlessly exploited other people’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration for particular turns of phrase – especially in English, of course, which is my fourth language. But whenever I saw a beautifully worded argument or whenever I saw a nice turn of phrase or expression that I found appealing, I used to make a note of it. And I really collected it like a sort of butterfly collection – I still do, always with an explicit plan of, at some point, using it. I can say with confidence that I have used most of it. (89)

This is from an interview with Jan Blommaert, in Passion and Politics, academics reflect on writing for publication, (2008) edited by Eileen Carnell, Jacqui MacDonald, Bet McCallum and Mary Scott.

A writer who has consistently stretched my vocabulary is Virginia Woolf. I have enjoyed #Woolfalong in part because my contributions have required me to look closely at her use of language, her vocabulary in different books. Orlando, for example, revels in language.

My Word Hoard

I started with my hoard with:

Hoard, a noun and a verb, frequently found in relation to museum artefacts, and full of mystery. Hoarding implies secreting, storing, hiding. Why were these coins included in this hoard? Why were the items of value collected and hidden? What about the hack silver (another great word) found in a Viking hoard in Cuerdale, Lancs?

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

Runes, is another word in my hoard. It’s magical, as are all languages. Runes can conjure what is not there. It has a connection to the Vikings. The language of the runes is Old Norse, largely replaced by the Roman alphabet. Runes is a word that ripples on the page to connect with mystery, magic and olden times.

304-runes

Lapis lazuli is also in my hoard. I love its sound and I love small samples of the mineral. But it is on probation at the moment. My experience in The Hermitage in St Petersburg was of lapis lazuli used in excess. In two rooms there were gargantuan, vulgar, displays. In each room two huge tables with green or blue lapis lazuli veneers were flanked by the most enormous urns, also covered in veneer. I guess Catherine the Great was only hoarding the stuff.

DSC01773.JPG

I have recently added euphonious (see above)

Words in my hoard have associations, and they need to be connected to meanings that carry integrity, or significance associated with the struggle for human rights, or with my other enthusiasms. So some place names sit, not happily, in my hoard: Nagasaki, Abervan, Gallipoli, Sharpeville, Chernobyl.

And I can’t get the surly bonds of earth out of my head, an earwig. John Gillespie Magee began his poem High Flight with these two lines:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

His poem captures the exhilaration of flying, and the phrase surly bonds reminds us of our roots, grounds us you might say.

Given the nature of hoards, and specifically their association with precious metals and stones, I need a special notebook to hold my hoard. Dear Santa …

Over to you

I think that’s enough of my hoarded words. How about a few suggestions from you?

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin in 2016 with an additional glossary. 434pp

Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers by Barbara Baig. Published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2015

Related posts

Four More Good Reads August 2015

Ten Books to make me think August 2013

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The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

303-cr-wr-cover

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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