Friday, 28 May 2010

Leaving the writer at home ( Not another Bloody Fountain! )

Elizabeth Gill has ruled my life since I was a child.  I remember being very small and wanting to do real writing and scrawling in notebooks when I couldn't do joined up writing but only printing. I remember the essays I did at school and the devastating time when I got more marks than anybody else but the teacher preferred somebody else's work. Ah, the dawning of the competitive person.
I was no good at sport at school. Actually that's not quite true. I could run very fast over short distances and I have good hand and eye coordination and played squash and badminton very creditably when I got older. I think it was the team thing that got me, I hate working with other people and as for gym. Oh horrors.  Even now the sports I love are tennis and snooker, one person's ability against the rest.
Everywhere I go there goes Elizabeth Gill.  She is not me and I have tried as I got older to divide the writer and the person so that she isn't always trudging along beside me like those dreadful intrusive spirits in Hilary Mantel's book, Beyond Black. It haunts me, this idea of not being left alone.

Every time I go on holiday I carry a notebook and they say the writer is always on duty, always thinking, always taking notes and I could see myself when I went to Rome with my daughter which I did recently, sitting outside cafes writing but I didn't want to. I don't spend that much time with her, I wanted to leave Elizabeth Gill in the office at home, stranded, waiting to be picked up again.
The trip to Rome was inspired by a family wedding. It rained the whole day and at one o'clock in the morning there we were plodging along cobbled streets to see various fountains. I have never been so wet. We saw the colosseum about fifteen times, we saw the ruins, my daughter studied classics and was able to enlighten me about the columns and the pieces of old stone which dominate Rome. We ate in lovely restaurants, stayed in a glorious hotel and I had my kid all to myself.

I have pandered to Elizabeth Gill's moods, needs and ambitions all my life and sometimes I just wish she would take herself off so that I can enjoy being me. This time I succeeded.  I didn't write a single word until I was on the aeroplane coming home and the holiday was over.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end; then stop.' Lewis Carroll

One of the most difficult things about writing novels is the structure.  Some very talented people can play with it like it was a dodgem car.  I don't think anybody deliberately mucks about with it, sometimes it's just the way that the story presents itself or it works better being written in several different ways as you go along.

This was my second saga and it's nothing like I intended it to be. My agent got me a two book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. The second book was in four parts, linking the nineteenth century with the present day and it followed the family through but it wasn't what my editor wanted.

We had moved and were living in a rented house. My daughter who was quite young at the time had a bug, sickness and diarrhoea and both toilets were blocked so when my agent rang a man was rodding the drains while my daughter was trying to contain her illness.

 I was horrified at the idea that I was going to have to rewrite the book and they wanted it as soon as possible. I rewrote it from the second part which was about a hundred pages. I love the cover because it was more or less my idea and the story is my mother's story. It's set in my beloved Weardale before and during the second world war and in the end it was the book that it was meant to be, the shape and the style completely different from the structure I had had the first time round.
 I have a tendency to start in the middle. I don't realize at the time, I think I'm doing it the Alice in Wonderland way. You would think I would know better by now but unfortunately writing isn't like that, you go on making the same mistakes over and over again.

I have too many tea parties in my books. I'm always describing meals.  When I meet friends and they've been out for dinner I like a course by course account of every mouthful and as for drink - I love wine, I love hearing about it almost as much as drinking the stuff, I want to know the colour, the country of origin, how thick the taste was on the tongue.

I have too much dialogue and it is the kind of polite every day chat,people are forever having lemon tart and congratulating one another on how wonderful it tastes.

Some time after I start, quite often about thirty thousand words in, I understand that I've begun in the wrong place and I have to go back and back.

I do hate it though when writers use structural devices to whisk back and forth like a shuggy boat, leaving the reader breathless, lost and cross.  Skill can make up for it so that the reader doesn't notice and that's fine. I'm inclined to give solid directions so that everybody knows where we are so they don't sit there, muttering
'What the hell is she doing?' and going off to watch television instead because I've lost them by being clumsy or too clever.

Too clever is a frequent problem. Writing can be a bit emperor's new clothes  If it's hard to read or hard to understand then sometimes it means it's badly written. On the other hand the ideas are the most important thing of all. You can forgive a writer a lot if she's giving you a whole new perspective.

Under A Cloud Soft Sky was my third saga. I got the first two chapters of this book the wrong way round and my agent had to point this out to me, I didn't see it even when I thought the book was finished.

Recntly I listened to a talk by local sculptor, Edwin Fellowes, who is a very talented man and a fantastic speaker.  He came to the Durham Soroptimists' supper and showed us pictures of various sculptures through the ages and told us about the different materials they used and what they feel like and it is as though the sculpture was already there, that the piece of stone, concrete, glass, plastic or wood has the work of art within it.  Perhaps writing is like this.  When you get to the end, however you got there it was waiting for you to discover it, you complete it in the round or whatever shape it was meant to be and I always think so that's what it was all about, that's how it looks but the labour is the thing, you have to do the work to bring out the book itself.