Thomas Hardy experiments with some adventurous punctuation: https://soundcloud.com/bbc-radio-4/that-mitchell-and-webb-sound
I love it when authors share what they go through while awaiting feedback. In her recent autobiography, Claire Tomalin describes how she ‘tactfully left the room’ after giving her husband a chapter of her first manuscript – only to find him asleep with it in his hand when she crept back. Fortunately, ‘We were both able to laugh.’ Later, when she ‘nervously’ sent the whole thing to her editor, Tony Godwin, she says, ‘Silence fell. After four days the telephone rang, Tony on the line. He seemed stiff and odd, and I, embarrassed, thinking he must have hated the book, tried to chat about nothing much. Then he exploded: “What about my telegram?”’
Apparently, he had sent a ‘glorious message of enthusiasm and congratulation’ – to the wrong address.
This ending is pure wish-fulfilment – but for me the real interest lies in the description of Tomalin’s uncertainty beforehand.
Stephen King is still more endearing when it comes to self-disclosure. In his 2000 memoir On Writing he says he always writes with one ideal reader in mind – his wife – and that when something of his makes her laugh ‘out of control … I … adore it’. He recounts a drive during which she read the manuscript of his latest novella: ‘I kept peeking over at her to see if she was chuckling … On my eighth or ninth peek (I guess it could have been my fifteenth), she looked up and snapped: “Pay attention to your driving before you crack us up, will you? Stop being so goddam needy!”’
(In case you’re wondering: five minutes later he heard ‘a snort of laughter’.)
Of course, it has to be easier sharing moments like this when the outcome’s good but if you have any kind of ‘author waiting’ story I’d love to hear it.
It is thirteen years since Alan Bennett’s The History Boys premiered at the National Theatre – and I’ve finally got around to seeing the film adaptation. I was bewitched and bedazzled for much of it. Its depiction of a group of 1980s sixth-formers preparing to take their Oxbridge entrance exams was immensely watchable. But – and at the risk of sounding like ‘one of those picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers that they messed up’ (as Stephen King calls them) – there was a moment that stood out for me, and I don’t think it was intended to.
The students’ maverick English teacher Hector – who wants them to learn poetry for its own sake, not in order to pass exams – should surely be a master of his subject. Admittedly, he is described by his own creator as ‘not an ideal teacher … he is sloppy and quotes stuff almost at random.’ But even if Alan Bennett wants to show us that the boys ‘know more than any of the teachers,’ Hector’s USP is that he believes that ‘All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest use,’ so why make him the mouthpiece for the wrong interpretation of a poem? He says of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac war poem Drummer Hodge that ‘the important thing is that he [Hodge] has a name’ because ‘… these were the first campaigns when … common soldiers … were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.’ But Hardy did not intend the reader to understand ‘Hodge’ as the boy’s real name. It is in fact society’s pejorative nickname for the peasant class to which he belongs. Which makes him indistinguishable from its other members – the reverse of Hector’s point. The fact that Drummer Hodge’s bones will not, as in previous times, be ground up with those of his fellow lowly soldiers into fertiliser doesn’t change that.
When Hector says ‘So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer. Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name,’ he is, in my view, missing some of the vital pathos of the poem. Drummer Hodge has made the ultimate sacrifice for his country but in death, as in life, he is treated neither with respect nor as an individual. Victorian society is snobbish to the end. It has always tended to lump such people together as ‘Hodges’. And a Hodge is, as Hardy explains in Longman’s Magazine in 1883, ‘a degraded being of uncouth manner and aspect, stolid understanding, and snail-like movement.’ Hardy’s lifelong mission was to show that this is a deeply unhelpful caricature, and that individuality shone out among the labourers of his native Dorset just as much as among the so-called higher classes of London.
It’s interesting, too, that Alan Bennett gives the sport-loving son of a former Oxford college servant – a student who, in the Head’s disparaging words, ‘might get in at Loughborough in a bad year’ – the name Rudge. Maybe this is a nod to Dickens’ simple but goodhearted eponymous hero Barnaby. But the name is inescapably similar to that of ‘Hodge’. When Rudge is unexpectedly offered a place by his interviewers at Christ Church, Oxford – he doesn’t have to wait for a letter like his peers – it is a telling moment. Rudge represents a type that they want – ‘college servant’s son, now an undergraduate, evidence of how far they had come, wheel come full circle and that’. He is not, therefore, valued as an individual – and he knows it. And although he trots out his party piece that Stalin was a ‘sweetie’ and Wilfred Owen a ‘wuss’, we know the dons are not deceived because they say, wittily if cynically, that he is ‘plainly someone who thought for himself and just what the college rugger team needed.’
It seems to me that the correct reading of Drummer Hodge earlier would have enhanced this moment.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!
There are few moments more rewarding than when a six-year-old looks up at you in boggle-eyed amazement that she’s just managed to read a whole page without a falter.
Or when a smiling teacher tells you that the little girl you’ve been helping to read all year has unexpectedly passed her English SATs.
I’ve had several moments like this – and they are, quite simply, thrilling. I’ve also had a lot of fun as, twice a week, I go into a primary school to listen to six- and seven-year-olds read, then play literacy games with them.
If you think you might be interested in doing this too, then the charity Beanstalk (www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk) would love to hear from you. They are always looking for new volunteers. They provide a short training course and lots of books and games. Most reading helpers go into a school twice a week and work with three children one-on-one for half an hour each. They usually work with the same children for the whole year.
If, like me, you’re writing fiction for children, this has a huge side benefit: you find out what your audience really enjoy reading. But the real value is that a child who might otherwise have very little one-on-one help receives it twice a week from someone who really wants them to succeed.
Many congratulations to Briony Collins who yesterday won the Exeter Novel Award with her wonderful-sounding civil rights novel Raise Them Up. Here she is sitting next to Sarah (front row, second from right).
Our lovely judge was Broo Doherty of DHH Agency. If you’d like to see her thoughts on the six shortlisted novels, go to: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/2016-enp-award-ceremony-and-judges-report.html
There’s a scene in Chariots of Fire where a disheartened Harold Abrahams declares that if he can’t win he won’t run – to which his girlfriend replies that if he won’t run he can’t win. I don’t have Olympic gold in my sights but without my writing pals’ encouragement I’d never have entered my novel for this year’s Exeter Novel Award. Which means I’d never have received yesterday’s email telling me it had been shortlisted. This is a first for me – so I hope our blog-readers won’t just think ‘smug git’ when they read that! I feel so grateful (as well as amazed) that I want to encourage everyone to listen to the positive voices in their lives – and act on what they hear. Maggie’s monthly round-up of competitions (below) is a particularly helpful spur for me.
I’ve lost count of the number of writing competitions I’ve entered. With a couple of exceptions I’ve got nowhere. Even though writing is something I love, the number of hours I’ve clocked up, not to mention the so-called opportunity cost, can feel pretty dispiriting without a readership (beyond my wonderful writing group). Which is why I decided I wouldn’t bother checking the latest ‘longlist’. If I was on it, the organisers would let me know. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have to go through that heartsink scanning-to-no-avail thing. Liberation! On Valentine’s Day I woke up to an email: one of my lovely writing pals thought she recognised my novel on the Exeter Novel longlist but she wasn’t sure; there were no authors’ names. I jumped out of bed and got checking. Feverishly. And …
… she was right!
Whoop! I felt so encouraged I got working on a short story to enter into another competition. But if my friend hadn’t told me, I’d still be in the dark. I was wrong about the organisers being in touch.
So in future I’ll be checking longlists, however much my poor old heart has to sink!
Some ‘generic’ rejections are a lot more constructive (and encouraging) than others. Mslexia Magazine’s recent letter to writers not longlisted for their children’s novel competition was, I thought, particularly helpful and (with their permission) I’ve reproduced it below. In case you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I was particularly struck by their saying that many more women than men give up submitting their writing after just one rejection:
Our judges commented on how challenging they found the challenge of whittling down submissions for the longlist. ‘My “yes” pile kept growing and there were far too few on my “no” and “maybe” piles, so I ended up having to eliminate a lot of good material,’ one told us. ‘There were so many “nearly there” manuscripts,’ said another. ‘So I hope those that weren’t longlisted won’t feel too dejected.’
Most submissions featured female protagonists; often feisty, or geeky, or bullied or with some kind of superpower – sometimes all four! One judge suggested a more complicated central character might have been more effective. And those written in first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention. Where a boy was the main character, he was usually ‘rambunctious’; so, again, a bit more complication would have been welcome.
Another comment concerned the depiction of magical, fantasy or dystopian characters. Our judges wanted to stress that it’s not enough for someone to have a strange name and a special power – a believable personality is far more important.
Many of the novels were set in the familiar terrain of school or home. Where the story was also set in the past, or the future, this worked well. But by and large the more unusual settings were the ones that stood out, especially those in which the setting was integral to the plot. ‘Historical stories tended to be better explored, more original,’ was one comment. ‘I liked it when the writer seemed knowledgeable about the strange world they were creating,’ was another. These comments suggest to me that a light rewrite with a fresh setting might be something you might consider.
A lot of novels began with a prologue, which often consisted of a dramatic and intriguing scene. Unfortunately this was sometimes followed by a rather ponderous Chapter One, occasionally with a different set of characters – so ‘the momentum of the beginning was lost’. Our judges wondered whether the writers could eliminate the prologue altogether and substitute a first chapter that catapulted the reader immediately into the story. ‘Mysterious openings worked from the word go,’ one told us.
I am so sorry not to be able to give you specific feedback on your entry, but I hope that these comments, general as they are, will be of some help if you decide to redraft your novel – which I hope you will. I’m sure you’re aware that the vast majority of published novels are the result of a huge amount of rewriting – changes to the order, the tense, the narrative voice, the main protagonist… What feels like a finished draft is often just the beginning.
That’s not to underestimate what a huge achievement it is to complete an entire manuscript – a survey we conducted a few years ago found that only 24 per cent of women who start a novel have managed to finish it. So we salute you for getting this far.
We also found out recently, in another survey, that many women – many more than men – give up submitting their writing after just one rejection. I do hope that this letter won’t have that effect on you, and that you will see it as an almost inevitable part of the writer’s life. And that, when the dust has settled, you will let us see some more of your work.
If you like beautifully written short stories with ‘heart’, do pick up October’s Writers’ Forum and read Across the River, the winning entry in its monthly competition (by ninevoices’ Tanya). As judge Lorraine Mace says, ‘Tanya paints a heart-breaking picture of a boy who believes he is the reason for the cracks in his parents’ marriage.’ But that’s not the end of the story – which builds to a gentle, well-observed climax you don’t see coming.
It’s easy to get discouraged by publishers’ rejections so Writing Magazine addressed the problem in a recent issue. A member of ninevoices responded with the following letter about how one of the greatest novellas of the last century fared:
The year was 1944 and a respected author and journalist was trying to find a publisher for his 30,000-word ‘fairy story/political allegory’. After several rejections, he tried Jonathan Cape who looked set to take it on, then changed his mind, citing advice from an ‘important official’ in the Ministry of Information. That official was later uncovered as a Communist spy – who evidently didn’t want to upset his boss (and Britain’s wartime ally) Joseph Stalin. Thankfully, his influence didn’t extend to Fredric Warburg – who, after a few hold-ups, published the book in August 1945. The initial print run of 4,500 sold out within days.
And Orwell’s Animal Farm just keeps on selling.