Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Epistolary Novels – Letters Enjoy These

fountain-pen-447575_1280Having just dumped a prize-winning literary novel I’d been meaning to read for years out of sheer boredom (no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was), I downloaded Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from Audible. I was immediately caught up in the flow of communications – emails, notes and diary entries – that sculpt this touching story. Despite its lukewarm reviews, I’d enjoyed the film of the book, which starred Euan McGregor and Emily Blunt. The audiobook, with a different narrator for each character, put a smile on my face within the first couple of minutes. I can’t tell you more, I’m afraid, as it’s only had 20 minutes of my time so far.

But it made me think of the other epistolary novels I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I can’t speak for them all but the ones I’ve read are not, by and large, towering literary achievements. Mostly they’re played for humour or gentle sentimentality. But reading isn’t just about literary or intellectual genius, is it? It’s about entertainment and feel-good. It’s about curling up on the sofa or spreading out on a beach towel, and being lifted out of your life and deposited somewhere else for a few hours. Everyone loves to receive a letter; we all jump to the ‘ping’ of a newly arrived email; and as for encountering someone’s secret diary – well, it would be irresistible, wouldn’t it? I think that’s partly why epistolary novels are such fun.

Strictly speaking – and the clue is in the word – epistolary novels tell their story through written communications, letters, notes and more recently, emails. But many lists also include books based around diary entries.  So here, I offer you a glimpse of five of my favourites across both categories, in case you feel like packing them in your holiday suitcases.

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Strictly speaking, not a novel, but a memoir, as the story is true and the characters are real. In 1949 in search of obscure classics and other books she has been unable to find in New York, the author contacts a second-hand bookshop in London. The book chronicles the correspondence between the author and the bookshop’s manager over decades as their friendship blossoms. You probably know that already, but if haven’t come across 84 Charing Cross Road in either its literary, film, or stage play version before, you’re missing a gem.

  1. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

I first read Daddy Long Legs as a child and re-read it last year in just a couple of hours. Brought up in an orphanage, Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbot is fortunate to gain an anonymous benefactor who pays for her education. The condition attached is that she write regularly to the benefactor, whose identity she does not know, and whom she has seen only through his distorted shadow – hence the nickname she gives him. The letters unfold into the story of how an independent girl begins to question what she has previously accepted and challenge the status quo, as she blossoms into a young woman. It’s a one-sitting book for an adult, but a gentle and touching read nonetheless.

  1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A heart-warming story, dark in places, telling of the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation. The letters to and from the various members of the eponymous society tell of quirky characters, friendship, resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Whimsical, but never trite; pretty much perfect, this one.

  1. e: A Novel by Matt Beaumont

The strapline brands it ‘the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers’ and that about sums it up. Not letters this time, but emails, and definitely told for laughs. This is a wickedly funny book, awash with backstabbing and bitchiness but above all, wit.  Expertly plotted, it’s set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. You’ll probably devour it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face – especially if you work in marketing.

  1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

Yes, and all the Adrian Mole adventures that followed too. Adrian Mole, stuffier and more pretentious than the average child, diligently records his thoughts and experiences as he progresses through self-conscious adolescence. The seven books which follow chart Adrian’s progress through life. They’ve been around for a while, but are pure gold nonetheless. Every Brit will know of these, but if you’re reading this elsewhere, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Adrian Mole.

There are others… Bridget Jones’ Diary of course; perhaps also We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Screwtape Letters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – all gems in their genres. The Martian is a newer one which has made its way on to my ‘to read’ list. Goodreads provides an excellent list of epistolary novels too.  But if you have a particular favourite, will you share it with us?

Read any good books lately?

book-520626_1280I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too…

Even though I try and keep up with what’s going on in the world of fiction, good books still pass me by. A friend will say, ‘Have you read such-and-such?’ and I’ll not have heard of it. It’s not surprising, given how many books there are, but I still find myself a bit miffed that I don’t appear to have a handle on ALL the books.

That said, I thought I’d take the opportunity of a weekend blog post to introduce you to a few novels which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years. They’re all mainstream and they all got a Goodreads 5-star rating from me. But I’m pretty sure, however well-read you are, there will be one or two in this short list, which you haven’t come across before.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 of my 5-star recommended reads:

Monster Love by Carol Topolski – An extraordinarily powerful novel about a couple in love and the horrific secret they keep. Carol Topolski draws her psychologically damaged characters brilliantly. But be warned, this is not one for the faint-hearted.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer – a delightful and heart-warming story told through a series of letters, about the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes – I’m not a fan of short stories in general, but I loved this series of interrelated tales, which I first read many years ago. Julian Barnes is a master storyteller. Some argue the connectedness of the stories makes it a novel. Whatever it is, it’s a clever and engaging read.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – a bleak, sprawling tale of ordinary but strangely courageous lives. Set in 1940 in a fearful Berlin dominated by the Nazis. Sounds great, right? Oh, but it is. It has echoes of 1984 in the quiet revolution begun by one man. But you need to give it time to unfold.

Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn – an utterly gripping account of one night, one murder and all the people who could and should have helped to save a life, but – for all their various justifications and preoccupations – did nothing.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – A classic unreliable narrator and a dark tale which begins with a disappearance. In the unsettling, damaged and socially marginalised Engleby, the author creates a vivid and discomforting voice.

E by Matt Beaumont – Another epistolary novel, but this time it’s e-mails, and it’s told for laughs. A wickedly funny book set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. Read it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy – an old-school big lump of a book, the sort you pick up at the airport. But I loved this slowly unfolding story of a good and decent man and his family’s horrific past. The film of the book, starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand, is good. But the book goes much further, taking the reader deeper into the South Carolina low country the darkest peril.

London Fields by Martin Amis – I think this is Amis’s best book, written before he got oh, so clever with words you’ve never heard of. It’s visceral, brutal and funny all at once, and you can’t help but keep on reading. Amis’s most compelling characters are vile and depraved, but great on the page.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce – I loved this touching and poignant tale; two parallel stories, one of a boyhood friendship and the other of a damaged man dealing with mental illness. Books don’t often make me cry, but this one did. The title doesn’t particularly connect with the story, but the book is… Perfect.

So there you are. If you’re stuck for a good read this weekend, take a look at one or two of those.

By the way, you can find me on Goodreads here, where I’m always thrilled to connect with fellow readers.

Singled Out – A ‘Look Inside’

Singled Out was released yesterday on Amazon on Kindle e-book and in paperback. In case you haven’t made it to your local neighbourhood Amazon store yet, I thought you might like a taster, here on the blog.

Here’s the back-cover promotional:

SINGLED OUT by JULIE LAWFORD

“EVERYONE BRINGS BAGGAGE ON A SINGLES HOLIDAY”

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxBrenda Bouverie has come on a singles holiday to Turkey to escape. Intent on indulgence, she’s looking for sun, sea and … distraction from a past she would give anything to change.

But on this singles holiday no one is quite who they seem. First impressions are unreliable and when the sun goes down, danger lies in wait. As someone targets the unwary group of strangers, one guest is alone in sensing the threat.

But who would get involved, when getting involved only ever leads to trouble?

And here are the first couple of pages:

SATURDAY

1

HE STANDS OVER her, fastening his jeans. Then he scans 360-degrees, checking for any disturbance – evidence of his presence. Like so many hotel rooms these days, it’s a paean to minimalist urban chic; all feature walls and faux walnut veneer. You could be anywhere from New York to Bangkok.

He notices an indentation on the bed between her parted thighs – where his knees have depressed the waffle throw. He tugs first one side then the other, smoothing and flattening.

It was a bonus, finding a lone female in the hotel bar a few hours earlier; an American, an advertising executive en route home to Boston. She was pencil-thin, pale flesh sucking her bones like a famine victim. But she was classy – expensive tailoring, silk shirt – quality underneath too. It was always gratifying to uncover La Perla or Agent Provocateur, Rigby & Peller on the older ones. Like an extra reward for having chosen well.

Nobody saw them beneath the amber glowing downlights, tucked into a corner booth, backs to the room as he summoned round after round before settling the tab in cash. Nobody noticed when he slid her key card into his pocket and guided her to the lifts, moments before she couldn’t stand up any more; so finely judged these days, assured and precise.

Good job he’d pocketed a little of what he needed before he left home, just in case. He tells himself if it hadn’t been put to use he’d have flushed it before the flight. Truth is, once it was there burning a hole in his groin, he’d have found someone – anyone.

The first time on the spur-of-the-moment, he’d taken a photograph; a souvenir. It set a pattern, one he won’t break – can’t break. He points his camera at the woman and clicks off a couple of shots before drawing her legs together. A tight smile laces his features as he rearranges her clothes, rolling her on to her side; the recovery position, they call it. But she looks like she’s sleeping and she won’t remember a thing when she wakes. She’ll probably miss her flight but by then he’ll be long gone.

The bedside clock glows 02:00. He pulls the door shut behind him and slips down the back stairs and out of a side exit, collar high, head down against the CCTV. Moments later, jacket slung over one shoulder, he strides through the front entrance; a nod to the night porter, a few words about how hard it is to sleep in hotels and in minutes he’s back in his own room with time to rest before his wake-up call.

* * * * * *

You can read on a little via Amazon’s Kindle ‘Look Inside’ feature. If you’re intrigued to continue after that, guess what, the whole story – every single word – is available at the click of a buy button on your choice of Kindle or old-fashioned paper.

If you click, I hope very much that you enjoy the read and I’d love it if you would come back and let me know what you thought.

Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Bookshop Bliss

Waterstones PiccadillyI passed an absorbing couple of hours yesterday mooching round Waterstones in Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

Apparently now Europe’s biggest bookshop, Waterstones Piccadilly is a paradise for the reader.  Its five floors are an abundance of every kind of book from any genre you care to think of, categorised both systematically and creatively, and topped and tailed with comfy areas to kick-back with a drink and a bite to eat.

I headed straight for Fiction on the first floor.  Bypassing the helpful shopping baskets (I didn’t see them) I was soon loaded with armfuls of paperbacks.  I’m an avid audiobooker, but if I’ve enjoyed listening to a book, I need to own the paper too (I blogged about this a while back, here). Consequently, I keep a running list of books I need to buy, simply so I can go back through them and enjoy them… differently, and of course, possess them, in real leaf-through-the-pages format, as nature and the publishing world intended.

So I picked up three from my listened-and-enjoyed list:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach – an eclectic group of oldies retire to India
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – dark but comic, about a deliciously weird, damaged girl
  • Smut by Alan Bennett – two unseemly short stories in Bennett’s inimitable style (narrated for audio by the author himself)

But it didn’t end there.  With the able and enthusiastic assistance of the… um… assistants, I tracked down another five from my must-read list.

  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Red House by Mark Haddon
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Yes, I know I’m arriving at one or two of these a little late in the day, but there’s just so much reading one woman can do.  Especially when the thing she most wants to do with her spare time is… write.

I read all over the genre geography.  I enjoy the kind of books which fall into what’s variously called  lit-lite (yuk!), accessible literary, crossover or even, I saw the other day, ‘Richard & Judy’.  I particularly enjoy edgier psychological suspense – that’s what I’m writing, after all.  I’m not into romance, historical or sci-fi, but I meander around the fringes of crime/police procedural, thrillers, chick-lit and full-blown literary as the mood takes me.

I get leads from Goodreads and I buy loads from Amazon as it’s convenient – who can argue with that?  But an afternoon in a bookshop is an indulgence and I loved every minute of it, especially being so warmly and professionally served by people who really, properly know their books.

Grammar purists like me bemoan the demise of that apparently outdated possessive apostrophe, flushed away from Waterstones’ (ha!) branding as of last year, for reasons of… practicality.   But given the pleasure quotient of a meander around their floors, it seems churlish to dwell.

I had lunch with a friend, took my time over a coffee and dreamed.  I’ll be back again, to shop.  But just maybe, one day, I’ll be back there to do a reading and a bit of meet-the-author.  How’s that for a star to shoot for?

Reader Anxiety

Library EphesusWhenever we speak, my mother asks ‘how’s the book going’.  Usually she gets the briefest response (‘fine, thanks’) in a tone that suggests a follow-up query is neither necessary nor advisable.  Don’t get me wrong, my mother and I have a great relationship.  But the book is my book, and I confess, I’m over-protective.

Yesterday, buoyed by my progress through the line edit and with the end in sight, my normally well-concealed enthusiasm leaked out.  I told her it was almost finished.

Gah!

She has, on a few occasions, hinted gently that she’d like to read my draft.  Hinted gently; in a way that could be passed over, as if it had been whispered in a voice too quiet to hear.  But yesterday the gentle hint became an insistent plea… please let me read it… I know it’s not my kind of book, but I’d love to read it… because you’ve written it… because I’m your mother…  Ah, yes, that final trump card.

My mother is 78 years of age and quite something (in a good way).  In the last 15 years she’s written and self-published two non-fiction books – both thoroughly researched, serious works which have been well received in their niche sectors; a history of her family from the time of the Inquisition to the present day, and a history of the music publishing business which has been in the family since 1863.  She’s a woman of culture who loves the stimulus of learning, classical music, art, history and travel.  In case you haven’t realised, I’m hugely proud of who she is and what she’s achieved.

My novel – I’ve called it Singled Out – is a psychological drama set on a holiday in Turkey, which I expect to sit firmly on the quality general fiction shelves (positive thinking… see?).  In a beautiful setting, bad stuff happens.  It’s gritty, because I found I liked writing gritty stuff. I take a few of my characters on a day trip to Ephesus, but that’s about as cultural as my story gets. It isn’t the sort of story I imagine my mother selecting from the shelves at Waterstone’s.  Even so I understand why she wants to read it.  And I’m pleased – of course I’m pleased – that she’s not only interested, but keen to read it.

But it matters, what family think of you, and I think my writing might come as a surprise.  Actually, perhaps even a shock – at least in parts. So when my mother reads it – and this will happen –  I will await her response to the more visceral elements of the narrative with considerable apprehension.

Will she be nice about it?  Yes, she will, I know it.  She’s my mother, isn’t she? But I know myself, and I know that whatever she says, in whatever way (and it won’t be her fault) it will somehow be the wrong thing, and it will set me on a spiral of self-doubt and angst.  There’ll be something I find to fret about in the tone, or the words, or it will be that thing she doesn’t say, or perhaps a momentary hesitation, a seeking after the most appropriate descriptive.  It might be an ill-judged platitude. It could even be her fulsome, wholehearted praise; since even that will disturb me, because I won’t believe my story deserves this.  She can’t win and that has nothing to do with her, and everything – everything – to do with me.

So for now, I can’t, I just can’t.

One word at a time

scissors-editI’m line editing.  After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one.  With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.

Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:

  • Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
  • Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
  • Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun.  Oops.
  • Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
  • Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
  • It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have.  In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.

This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds.  Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue.  Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail.  I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.

It’s not perfect – how can it be?  But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls.  But for now, it’s enough.

This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers.  Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.