As you know this week has been devoted to reading and critiquing a debut novel. All 587 pages, 230,100 words of it. A morning-noon-and-night job. And it has made me realise more acutely than usual how much goes into producing a book and how much we ought to value each one that survives the rigours of the writing process and is eventually published.
This author had the first germ of an idea for his magnum opus years and years ago. He’s already a published author of non-fiction, an expert in his professional world, but this is his first foray into the world of fiction. He’s studied technique, tried emulating a number of authors, adopted various tactics, abandoned most. And once having chosen the method that works for him, he’s been slaving away for month after month after month to reach this first draft stage. He’s been sorely tempted to give up at times, he’s hidden himself away, fled the country even! Experimented, scrapped whole efforts, rewritten, agonised, despaired. Picked himself up, dusted himself down, got back into the saddle.
And now … sacrilege! I’ve scribbled all over his precious baby – yes, with the
proverbial literal red pen! Ahh, yes, of course with his permission. He requested my honest appraisal.
I’m handing it over today on the very morning he returns from three weeks abroad. (I’m devoutly hoping he’s totally refreshed and invigorated by the break! Suitably fortified against such an assault.) Then it’s over to him. To go through the whole thing word by word, line by line, deciding whether or not to take my advice or do his own thing. His choice, his responsibility.
It’s a beautiful story, cleverly plotted, meticulously planned, but parts of it I’m sure he will jettison – thousands upon thousands of sentences, words, letters he’s sweated blood over. Most of it he’ll edit and even re-write, darting back and forth, checking and rechecking that he’s being consistent, keeping his chronology right, being true to his characters. They too will subtly change as he firms up their foibles, rounds out their personalities, tinkers with their distinctive voices, authenticates their accents. Maybe even the thread of his plot will be subtly tweaked in places.
And day after day after day – nights too in all probability – everything will need to be checked again … and again … and again. Until the second draft is ready for critiquing!
Only when it’s as good as it can be will he be ready to offer it to a publisher or an agent. After which he’s into a whole new game. Weighing options. Waiting. Worrying. Delays. Disappointments. Rejections. Criticism. Harsh reviews. Probably all of the above.
Next time you think £7.99/£9.99 is a lot to fork out for a paperback, spare a thought for the bruised and battered guy who poured his soul into the story, who plucked the entire thing out of his own imagination, who worked for a pittance, who persevered against all the odds, to bring you that magnificent tale that made you laugh and weep and stay up long after your bedtime because you absolutely couldn’t put it down. All for the price of a single starter in a restaurant, or a ball of wool, or a small plant for the garden.
Here’s to writers everywhere!
PS. Downside for me: Now I’m so much in editorial mode, I’m desperately wanting to correct the Stella Rimington novel, I’m currently reading for recreation!
Hello …? … Last week a Booker prize winner, this week an Orange Prize winner: When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant … Am I converting? Where will it all end?
But I was intrigued by the blurb about this one.
We all know about the terrible things that happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis; we probably all know about the creation of the State of Israel. But what happened to this displaced people in between? Where did they go when they had no country to point to as home? Who were they at this in-between time when it required a long explanation as to their identity? What did they do?
Well, ‘Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story.’
When I Lived in Modern Times deals with the immediate post WWII period through the eyes of one such displaced person, a Jewish girl who travels to Palestine to find answers to these questions. It’s a novel. About identity. About accommodating the past while establishing a future. About a kaleidoscope of difference coalescing into a single purpose. It combines the personal and political, idealism and realism, passion and analytical coolness, clever storytelling with rigorously researched historical accuracy.
It probes the conflict in the life and heart of young Evelyn Sert, who is first and foremost Jewish, but feels Britain is where she is most at home, least foreign. ‘It was the British whose taste and idioms, language and dress, cooking and habits I knew and understood.’ Even so it’s conviction rather than necessity that compels her to go to the land of her forefathers, the ‘Holy Land’. She is just 20; ‘a work in progress’, ‘a preliminary sketch for a person’. Part of a shadow family – hidden away by Uncle Joe, the man who kept Evelyn and her mother separate from his legitimate wife and his four legitimate daughters and his legitimate place of worship, the synagogue. But at her core Evelyn is a Jew, part of a proud people.
So, here she is, a single Jewish girl at a time when ‘anti-Semitism was a wolf roaming the world‘. Where, in the Holy Land, ‘alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame‘. Where mobs and tribal loyalties not political organisations rule. She’s exploring her history, her people, her roots. As she puts it herself: ‘I was moving through history, I was in it.’ She feels lost in the enormity of expectation and fractured dreams. ‘Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’
In the space of a slim volume Evelyn goes from being a hairdresser’s daughter to ‘dilettante would-be artist‘ to ‘useless immigrant‘ to squirrelled-away girlfriend. She is left with no illusions. This is no utopia. Her fellow citizens of this emerging new race don’t match up to the values of a chosen people: ‘They were sullen or violent or depressed or conniving or lazy or untruthful or greedy. They were a catalogue of the seven deadly sins.‘
Linda Grant’s evocation of the suspicion, subterfuge and bewilderment prevailing in those times conjures up a kaleidoscope of scenes … arcane hairdressing practices of the 1940s … double standards … communal life in a kibbutz … a bleak landscape where a bomb feels like a ‘cleansing, transforming instrument‘ in the struggle against colonial masters.
Sobering, uncomfortable reading, but a useful glimpse into a time where my own understanding was decidedly hazy.
Oh and just for clarity, no, I have NOT fallen hook, line and sinker for literary writing! I’m just keeping my mind sufficiently open to allow new opinions to creep in occasionally. And making good use of days either imprisoned on trains or when the sun beckons me into the garden.
Now for that massive debut manuscript. I might be gone some time!
Last week I mentioned the book I was carting round with me for odd moments of distraction: 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. In the end I couldn’t get into it with so much distraction, so I saved it for a free afternoon. Wise decision.
It’s a chilly February day. Two men, lopsided friends of long standing, attend the funeral of a woman they have both loved (with a family funeral looming this week this instantly resonated with me). Vernon Halliday is the fifth editor of a London newspaper, The Judge, doing his best to reverse declining circulation figures. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer, searching for an elusive masterpiece.
Both were former lovers of the beautiful Molly Lane whose cremation they are attending. Molly – ‘restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the darling gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.’ Molly – the speed of whose descent into ‘madness and pain‘ had become the subject of widespread gossip; and who lost control of both bodily functions and seemly behaviour.
Having seen Molly’s ignominious end, both men, harbouring secret fears about their own health, make a pact with the other that will have consequences neither intend or foresee.
Molly’s widower, George Lane, is a rich publisher given to wearing a silk dressing gown over his day clothes and favouring a ‘Buckingham Palace style‘ in house furnishings. He owns one and a half percent of the paper The Judge, but in reality knows little about the real world of business. His empire is built upon highly dubious and speculative publications.
The plot gathers momentum when incriminating photos of another of Molly’s lovers are discovered amongst her possessions. Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, is the man in question. His political star is in the ascendancy; he’s widely tipped to be the next prime minister, but Molly’s pictures of him reveal a very different story.
‘We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy …‘
But there’s a small matter of morality at stake here. Should such private information become public knowledge? Can relationships survive disloyalty? Clive and Vernon both face serious moral challenges; both have reputations and jobs to lose. Greatness, genius, integrity, are ephemeral achievements, striven for over a lifetime, destroyed in an instant.
I approached this book with my usually cynicism about literary writing; I ended up agreeably surprised. At only 178 pages I read it in one sitting – always an advantage for holding the detail in my head. But better yet, the story has a message … and a plot … and was readable! … and by jingo! even a little dab of ethics!! Things are definitely looking up.
Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …
… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …
… a draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …
… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …
… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …
… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …
Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.
And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.
In a former life I was a researcher based at Edinburgh University – OK, I know, I know, yawn yawn, not exactly an opening gambit to inspire stimulating exchanges at a candle-lit dinner, is it? But I’ve so often in my writing life has cause to be very glad of that background; digging around for facts and verifications, detail and context, comes naturally.
This past week I’ve been rummaging far and wide in readiness for a meeting with a professorial friend of mine who might set me straight on matters paediatric – of which more anon. But in the course of my own ferreting I’ve rediscovered some treasure troves on my bookshelves. There’s a brilliant set of writers’ guides on a range of topics – especially about the how, where, who, what and why of crimes. They’re a useful starting point so I don’t look like the ultimate complete twat when I consult the real live professionals who do this stuff for a living, and who kindly home in on any little inaccuracy, transforming the passable to the really authentic storytelling.
And there, sitting quietly alongside those books, was The World’s Worst Medical Mistakes. It’s no earthly use for my current writing – nobody would believe these scenarios if I put them in my novels; truth definitely is weirder than fiction in this case. But I’m totally hooked by it, in a macabre, shivery, kind of way. We all place our trust in the medical fraternity at some point in or lives, don’t we? – in spite of Bernard Shaw‘s dictum that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity‘ ringing in our ears. But sometimes that trust can be misplaced. Big time. Just think Thalidomide, or Dr Shipman, or Dr Crippen, or those celebrities who end up with wooden faces or fish-pouty lips after so-called enhancement.
This fascinating book brings together real human dramas and catastrophic errors that curl the toes and make the blood run cold. Dangerous drugs unleashed on unsuspecting patients; the horrors of cosmetic surgery gone horribly awry; scalpels that inflicted major trauma; imposters and frauds and killers clad in white coats and phony qualifications; instruments left behind in body cavities … enough to make one suppress all symptoms of ill health for good and just go into a quiet decline safely under the duvet behind locked doors, with a DNR placard tattooed on your chest. But spine chillingly compulsive reading for a currently-healthy seeker after information!
What’s more, some of these fearful happenings took place in my lifetime. Hmmm. Worse still, when I was in clinical practice. There but for the grace of God … But add that to the historical catastrophes, and I’m devoutly thankful I live in the 21st century in a well-regulated society, and that I’m no longer responsible for other people’s lives and health.
As for my professorial friend. Wow! He didn’t just give me a wealth of information about paediatric parameters and drugs and symptoms and the fine machinations of the medical consultant’s mind when faced with a conundrum in a little patient who can’t speak for himself. No, in reality he actually helped me thrash out a convincing storyline for my upcoming thriller. Fabulous input. I just hope no one else in the cafe was listening in to our devious and dastardly plotting – we were really into our roles!!
Hey … time methinks for a completely undemanding, totally positive, uncomplicated post. I’ve given you some pretty heavy duty stuff lately, I know.
But … give your brain a rest, and let’s just celebrate this week. My latest book is now PUBLISHED!!
Here’s what it looks like:
Here’s what it’s about:
Professor Jocelyn Grammaticus is travelling on the 8.20 CrossCountry train from Aberdeen to Penzance. (If you’ve never tried it, think twice before you do! – it takes almost thirteen and a half hours.) But for Jocelyn it’s more than a long sit – she’s facing the hardest ethical dilemma of her life when she arrives in Cornwall. To distract herself, she sets about writing a keynote speech due for a conference the following week, and all unwittingly the assorted passengers who flit in and out of Coach C give her food for thought. But four hours before she arrives a phonecall stops her in her tracks. Will she be in time? Will she have the moral courage to fulfil her promise?
Loads of people have asked me about the underlying theme, so if that aspect intrigues you too, it’s about informed consent. But don’t let that put you off if you’re just looking for a diverting read. Listen out for the manager who joins the train from Newcastle to York; I’d love him to accompany me! Listen to the chatter … listen to your own heart and conscience …
Oh and I should warn those of you who are familiar with my work, this book is different from my previous ones:
– it’s much shorter – classifies as a novella really.
– it’s only available in electronic form.
– we’re offering it as a FREE download. Just click here to start the process.
Do let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you – no flannel, only honest feedback, please.
It’s not often I review an autobiography on this blog but I’ve just finished reading one which forms part of my research for novel number 11 (working title Killing me Gently).
Since Altar Boy was published in 2003 the world has moved on, we know so much more now about child abuse, cover-ups, and human psychology. Who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Savile’s crimes now? Or the widespread abuse of children at the hands of priests, foster parents, sportsmen, politicians, celebrities? Indeed major inquiries are currently ongoing into these issues and regularly crop up in the news; police forces are stretched beyond capacity dealing with cases of sexual abuse alone. But I found it useful to nudge a little closer to the mind and heart of a child at the centre of such activities, a child subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a trusted or revered adult.
Altar Boy tells the story of Andrew Madden, an Irish lad whose burning ambition is to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As an altar boy he has behind-the-scenes access to the life of a religious, and he’s thrilled when his favourite priest, Father Ivan Payne, takes a particular interest in him, singling him out for special responsibilities and privileges. But, when Andrew is 11/12 years old (his uncertainty), that support turns into sexual abuse, molestations occurring weekly and continuing over a period of three years.
For those who have never suffered in this way, it’s hard to understand why Andrew tolerated the situation for so long. Why didn’t he simply stay out of harm’s way? How could he continue to idolise his abuser? Why didn’t he tell someone? His explanation is at once disturbing and sad:
Unless you have been abused it may seem odd that I could not stop Father Payne for three years, but I just couldn’t. True, he was never violent and never threatened me but control comes in many forms. I was an altar boy and in my little world the Church was everything. Priests were the most important, respected and powerful people I knew. I was also sexually naive and totally innocent. All I could understand, especially in the early stages, was that what was going on was wrong and that despite myself I was in the middle of it. It took until I was almost doing my Inter before I could eventually get away.
And for most of those three years I spent a lot of time telling myself that nothing was really going on. Even on those Saturday afternoons I just concentrated on the television. I was so determined to keep the abuse from myself that there was no way I would have been capable of telling anyone else.
Being a paedophile, Father Payne would have known that. He would have known that my silence was not based on consent but on fear and shame. He would have known that I couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. I wasn’t a child he’d abducted from the playground; I was part of his world. He gave me lifts in his car. He visited my home and had tea with my mother. He had me serving him on the altar as he said Mass for my family and neighbours. He knew he was safe. That is the nature of the child abuser.
The impact of what had happened goes on and on long after Father Payne has moved elsewhere. Andrew’s long-cherished dream to join the priesthood is thwarted. He loses direction, his life spiralling out of control. He seeks consolation in drink and casual relationships. He loses the capacity to have loving sex or to trust partners. He’s wracked by self-doubt, insecurity and a sense of worthlessness that several times drives him close to suicide.
At a time when my whole personality, my emotional, intellectual and sexual self, was developing, he made me think that sexual activity and sexual abuse are one and the same thing. As an adult it has been very difficult to undo that.
It takes an enormous effort and many false starts to finally win through. Years later Andrew finally finds the courage to confide in others the extent of his hurt and betrayal, to name his abuser, to challenge the Church. He becomes the first Irish victim of child abuse at the hands of a priest to go public. The texts of several significant letters written to and by various bishops and politicians are included in the appendix.
Candid, bleak, challenging, as his story is, Andrew’s own account is a triumph of hope and humanity emerging out of tragedy. This troubled and damaged young man demonstrates that victims don’t have to remain victims.
I’ve done something about it. I’ve turned it around.
Altar Boy is no literary masterpiece. Neither is it a text on the psychology of abuse. Nor even the most insightful of autobiographies. But it did remind me that adult wisdom and knowledge and hindsight can cloud our understanding of a child’s perspective. Even perhaps doubt and diminish the horror. A useful angle for my own current writing. It’s not comfortable creeping inside the skin of a character in such circumstances, but it’s what I need to do if I’m to capture the real essence of him and write with truth and authenticity.
Wahey! and Yippee! Roll of drums, if you please, maestro. My tenth novel is finished! Just awaiting a few more fancy frills and computing complexities from the technical team and then we should have blast off. Feels fantastic. But also makes me realise how much angst goes on behind the scenes that readers are completely unaware of. These moments of sheer exhilaration are few and far between.
Once upon a time I had a real classifiable career. Nurse. Midwife. University researcher. Tick-box choices. Job descriptions, targets, performance indicators. Bona fide qualifications, tangible credentials. Now I’m a writer, and boy, let me tell you, this is no easy option. Goalposts? What goalposts? Documented procedures, organisational structure, monthly pay packet, career pathway … hello?
A few examples will suffice.
A study conducted at the University of London a couple of years ago found that a typical professional writer earns just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage. Worse – 17% of all writers earn next to nothing even in that honeymoon period shortly after having their work published.
A few weeks ago a writer who’d won a major Costa award went public on his reality: even being publicly acclaimed – in the papers even! – and having a big publisher on his side, he can’t earn enough to pay his mortgage. He has to go back to a paid job outside the literary world.
Sitting targets for vitriol
In most jobs if someone doesn’t like what you do, negative comments are confined to your place of work, and relatively private. Not so for us. Our work is out there for any Tom, Dick or Harriet – with or without literary credentials – to see. And even though reading is a subjective experience, they can slate our writing publicly. And believe me, critics can be brutal! The most recent example I’ve seen is Dominic Cavendish‘s condemnation of a certain play, Sex with Strangers, as ‘two tedious hours and punctuated by excruciating simulated raunch. It’s fit only for theatrical masochists. I’d settle for a cup of tea and watching Question Time any day‘. Ouch. And there’s nothing the poor playwright can do to erase that comment.
Crippling self doubt
In most jobs, once you’re trained and experienced, you have confidence that you can perform the tasks your post requires of you. Writing’s different. There are no A + B + C formulae, no tried and tested procedures, to be followed slavishly towards guaranteed success. No set shift hours, no line management, none of the usual structure governing paid employment. No resting on your laurels. Every book is uniquely different, presenting new challenges, new unknowns, new misgivings. Small wonder then that self-doubt is a recognised hazard even for established authors. As best-selling horror and suspense writer Steven King says: ‘Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.’
It’s a sedentary, solitary occupation. Eye strain, tension headaches, backache, weight gain, repetitive strain injury … to name but a few of the risks. Depression, isolation and identity crises … And no occupational health department to bail us out. No watchful boss to ease the load in a crisis. No sick pay. No occupational Bupa subscription.
I could go on – the stress of living parallel lives (real and fictional), the burden of being deep inside the skin of troubled characters, the humiliation of finding an audience of two at a library event … But I won’t!
So why on earth do we do it? Compulsion, that’s why. An irresistible drive. I personally feel quite bereft if I’m unable to write for any reason.
And such is my desire to reach out and touch lives that, in spite of all the risks and negatives, I’m actually going to be giving away my tenth novel, Listen, as a FREE download. It feels wonderfully liberating. No need for any humphs and galumphs and caveats about the price. Or anxious scanning of the sales figures. Or worries about accessibility. Or … anything! It’s yours – anybody’s – for nothing.
This one has been the most fun to write of any of my books, the quickest, the least personally demanding. I’ve had some super feedback from my cohort of critical readers too. What a thrill it is to hear … I couldn’t put it down … It really made me think … It made me get back in touch with my Mum … It made me cry … I know [one of the characters] … Not many jobs bring that kind of reward now, do they?
Oh yes, there may be many negative aspects to my chosen occupation, but I’m already plotting my eleventh novel!