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Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Don’t start too soon

For the last year I have been lucky enough to have a fellowship post at Aberystwyth University sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund.  This involved me sitting in a pleasant office on campus one day a week so that students (and staff) could come and consult me about writing issues. These ranged from queries from undergraduates about punctuation (whatever do they teach in schools these days?) to major structural issues in PhD theses. The idea is that novelists are ideally qualified to help students write both better English and better essays, and thus hopefully get more out of their courses – and better marks.

So from one hour to the next I found myself grappling with subjects such as Mary Shelley’s concept of sexuality in Frankenstein, the specific chromosome present in albino Palomino stallions, the psychological behaviour of dog owners when visiting vets, military law in Afghanistan, the music of an obscure Polish filmmaker or a report comparing the marketing techniques of Toyota and Ford.

But whatever the subject, the problems were normally pretty similar. Voice, grammar and choice of vocabulary were relatively easy to deal with, but the real reason those hoped for grades weren’t being achieved was lack of planning and structure.

Rattled by deadlines, students generally started writing too soon, before they had completed their research, mustered their thoughts or decided on the argument they wanted to make. So either they would get poor marks, or they would get stuck half way through the essay and come to me for help.

It is much the same with writing novels, scripts or even short stories. It is so easy nowadays to switch on the PC and launch straight into Chapter One. ‘I can always change it later’ is the mantra. Yes, of course you can tweak and edit, cut and paste. The good old days of Tipp-Ex and retyping are long gone.

But what it’s not so easy to do is change the theme, the voice, the plot progression, the character motivation or the story structure. Life becomes so much easier (and stories more readable and saleable) if those elements are sorted out first. It’s when those go wrong, (as they so often do,) that you find yourself, like Nick Clegg, with a half written novel in your bottom drawer.

So my advice to students and creative writers is much the same. Don’t start too soon. Mull, research, make endless notes, and mull again, until the moment comes when the story (or essay) is there, complete in your mind (or your notes), and all you have to do is write it down.

Nick Clegg’s first line

Last night I was invited on to BBC Radio 5 Live to talk about the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s novel writing aspirations. (Apparently he has recently admitted to having the start of a ‘shockingly bad’ novel hidden away in a bottom drawer. Don’t we all?)

Imagine my surprise when, instead of the promised informal chat about story structure and Nick Clegg’s reading habits (Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Coetzee), I found myself being subjected to a  ‘famous first lines’ quiz with my fellow guest , poet Goff Morgan.

Having been too slow on The Tale of Two Cities, it was with considerable relief that I recognised Pride and Prejudice and, by a lucky fluke, correctly hit on Harry Potter for the next one. Feeling I had now pretty much exhausted my knowledge of famous first lines, I was relieved when the result was declared a draw, only to discover that plans had changed and the entire programme was going to focus on the importance of first lines.

Now I have always believed there were essentially three criteria necessary to write a successful novel,  the ability to string a few sentences together (Nick Clegg was once a journalist and has written a number of non fiction books so we can assume he would be OK on this one), the ability to tell a compelling story (not sure about NC’s prowess in this department, although like most politicians he likes to spin a good yarn) and the ability and determination to stick it out for 100,000 or so words (he’s clearly fallen at this hurdle before.)

Wonderful opening sentences, useful though they are, have always come quite a long way down my list of more specific requirements (see my post ‘5 tell-tale signs of a novice novelist’). So when the Radio 5 Live host asked me (before I had recovered from the stress of the unexpected quiz) to explain why they are so critical I found myself re-examining my ambivalent feelings towards them even as I answered the question.

A good opening line can set the tone of the novel, it can introduce a character, a location, a mood, it can intrigue the reader, ask a question, hint at excitement to come and so on. It is like a tiny hook to capture the reader’s attention and as such it is clearly important. But, if the second, third and fourth sentences fail to keep the reader on the hook, then that first line has been rendered useless, however perfectly crafted it was.

Then, as listeners calls began to pour in with opening lines for us to comment on, I realised that I am perhaps alone in my rather dismissive attitude. People clearly love first lines and attach a huge amount of importance to them.  

So all I can really say is, yes, opening lines are important, but don’t agonise over them for too long. Just write on, put the real effort into creating authentic characters and a compelling story structure, then come back and tidy up the first (and the second and third) line later.

The Jubilee and Dunkirk spirit

Sixty years ago Princess Elizabeth’s honeymoon in Kenya was cut short when her father died and she returned to the the UK as Queen Elizabeth II (but was only actually crowned a year later in June 1953).

Whatever your views on monarchy you have to admit that she has done well to stick it out through thick and thin for sixty years!

But sticking out out is what the British royal family does. During my research for my first wartime novel, Lavender Road, I discovered that people who lived through the war had been impressed that King George VI and the royal family (including the two young princesses) stayed on in London right through the Blitz. As we all now know from the film The King’s Speech, the Queen’s father King George VI had terrible problems with public speaking. Nevertheless, despite his stammer, people admired his courage in trying to give them moral support during those dangerous times. In Oct 1940, right in the middle of the Blitz, even the fourteen year old Princess Elizabeth made a radio broadcast (her first of many) to reassure the evacuee children of Britain.

Some of the other European royals weren’t quite so gritty. Historians believe that when Mussolini fell in 1943, the vacillation of the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel, not only prolonged the war but also caused immeasurable suffering to his own people. His chronic indecision about what to do allowed the Nazis to occupy Italy, which meant the Allied forces had to fight the whole way up the peninsula. And in May 1940 the King of Belgium let the side down in a big way by surrendering his country far too soon, thus causing the Allied troops to be encircled at Dunkirk.

In fact, as well as the Jubilee, this weekend is also an anniversary (the 72nd) of Dunkirk. As 750,000 Nazi forces poured into Belgium, Allied forces frantically retreated to the coast where they became stranded due to the lack of vessels to evacuate them from the beaches. While their rearguard forces fought a valiant defensive action to hold the Germans at bay, a call eventually went out for private boats to come and help. And suddenly what had seemed like a crushing defeat turned into one of the most amazing and spectacular rescue efforts ever as hundreds of tiny inadequate vessels ploughed across the English channel, braving bombs and heavy machine gun fire from the Nazi air force, to rescue their compatriots. And what’s more, some (like my character Alan Nelson in Lavender Road) went back more than once, risking their own lives in their determination not to leave anyone to the mercy of the Nazis.

And so was born the concept of the Dunkirk spirit. Whether it was partly due to the continuing presence of the King in London we will never know, but I am quite sure that the Queen believes it was, and it is her innate Dunkirk spirit that has helped her weather the storms of the last sixty years!

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