When fifteen-year-old Yael takes refuge in the forest, it’s not because she’s a stroppy adolescent looking for adventure. This is Lithuania in the 1940s and, as a Jew, Yael’s very survival depends on her ability to stay out of sight. But when her companion dies, Yael seeks shelter on a nearby farm. Aleksei, the young owner and village outcast because of myths surrounding his disability, is initially reluctant to help her, conscious that it means putting his own life at risk. But, little by little, the pair grow closer, becoming lovers until the encroachment of a Nazi encampment forces Yael once more to flee.
For Valentine’s Day, I’m reviving a post that appeared in October 2015 on the Reading Writers website, which is now defunct.
As the world goes crazy, I crave, in my reading, not escapism, but a reflection of the flawed complexity of human beings and the things we do to make life that bit harder. But I need to be in safe hands to do so. So thanks to Louise Doughty and Jane Rogers – both established British authors unafraid to tackle difficult subjects – for providing that in their latest novels. Although quite different in their focus, both involve the characters reviewing painful pasts and their own culpability in order that their next mistakes might be that bit smaller.
Although, like many writers, I find autumn to be the best time to tackle major writing projects, I’ve never yet been tempted to register for National Novel Writing Month. For me, the pace is too fast and the outcome too limited, but there’s nothing to stop me joining in informally, which is what I decided to try two years ago. Starting with three character sketches and a rough idea of the main plot points, I averaged a thousand words a day from the beginning of November onwards and surprised myself with a rough first draft of just under 80,000 words by the middle of January.
As I’ve been out and about talking about my novel, I’ve been surprised to meet – in stark contrast to the predominant aversion to spoilers – a couple of people who like to look at the ending, perhaps the last couple of paragraphs, before turning to the first page. Now, I like the ending of Sugar and Snails, although it’s been suggested that some might find the issues insufficiently resolved. (I do get asked if I’m planning to write a sequel!) Because it tells of a destination rather than the journey, I don’t think reading it in advance would constitute a spoiler (although, prattling on at one talk about how I was pleased with the ending, I did have a friend tell me afterwards she thought my ending wrapped things up too much).
The coincidence of Charli Mills’s latest post on the loss of a secure base with the buzz about the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth later this month (more on both later in this post) reminded me of this piece on fear as a motivator that has languished in my drafts folder for well over a year.
I’m a great fan of Emma Darwin’s posts on writing because, while they’re stuffed with useful advice, she never pretends there’s a simple formula (or two or three or two hundred and three) to make our novels novel and our sentences sing. That’s not the case in some other corners of the creative writing industry. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m particularly hacked off by an implicit assumption that the classic quest underlies each and every story structure: we just have to decide what our hero wants and thwart him in his journey to find it. While I can see how that works for some fiction, lots of the novels I read and love don’t go down that route. On top of that, human motivation is a complex construct: some people genuinely don’t know what they want and some are far too passive to follow their dreams. Some are constrained by circumstances or demons from the past and some characters sabotage their own desires.
With the echos of each other in the titles, I couldn’t resist pairing these two novels published this month, both involving parallel narratives. As I’m playing with a similar structure in my current WIP, I’m also interested in what these novels can teach us about a form that’s more difficult to pull off than we might think.
It’s August 1985, and Ananda, a student of English at the University of Central London with aspirations to be a poet, has a whole day to fill. We follow him reluctantly get out of bed, fret about the neighbours’ noise, miss his mother who has recently returned to Bombay, attend a meeting with his tutor, and hang out with his equally eccentric uncle, Rangamama, as they separately reminisce and bicker about their lives. Their territory is Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a world of disappointing Indian restaurants, public transport, and potentially racist drunks. Inveterate outsiders, not just in London but in Asia, too: their Sylheti Hindu heritage having been twice rebranded (first with Partition, then with Bangladeshi independence) and leaving a legacy of “Indian” restaurants and the revered poet, Tagore. Desperately unhappy, the two men cling to each other despite their differences, Ananda possibly seeing his empty future in his uncle.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel comprised of all the minute quotidian detail that most novels would cut out. There are touches of humour, and I especially enjoyed this exposition on the lack of reference to lavatorial necessities in Western film and literature (p128-9):
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
Keep at it! You’ll get there in the end if you try hard enough. How often did I come across such words as I struggled to find a publisher for my novel? And, now I’m published, am I going to regurgitate the mantra to others on the way up? No, I’m not, because – do you know what? – it’s bollocks. While writing a good book, and investing time and money to make it better, and treating each rejection as a trigger to try again, no doubt improve our chances, there’s no magic formula. Success doesn’t happen without an element of luck.
They mean well, those published writers who perpetuate the mythology. After all, the great unpublished are hounding them for scraps of encouraging advice. Looking back on their own rocky road to publication, all they see is hard graft and talent. If that got them through, why wouldn’t others achieve the same result? But history is a story told from the point of view of the victors. The voices of those who worked equally hard without the golden ticket go unheard, save a few brave exceptions. Although his emphasis is marketing, Dan Blank proves himself an ally of the disaffected, picturing success as a function of writing talent, author platform and luck.
As some of my reviews will testify (e.g. My Real Children; Indigo; Hidden Knowledge), I can feel disorientated when a novel fails to unfold according to my expectations. But isn’t that often the case initially when we come to read fiction? Unless it’s ploddingly formulaic there’s an interval, before we settle into both story and style, when we don’t know where we are. Part of the pleasure of opening a new book is that sense that, despite the clues from title, cover and blurb, it could lead us somewhere new. But, as I’ve intimated time and again in my reviews, there needs to be balance between novelty and familiarity, and each of us have our own preferences for where we position ourselves between them.
Completing the initial round of my publisher’s edits for my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, I’m reminded of the potential for disorientation I’ve built into the story. My narrator, Diana, has a secret she is unable to share with the reader initially; when you get it, you might look back on what she’s previously told you in a new light. I have to hope I’ve hit a reasonable balance between surprise and security, but I know it won’t work for all.
I write to satisfy a difficult-to-pin-down need deep within my psyche, but writing is tough, and publication tougher and, at this stage of my life, I want to prioritise activities that bring me some satisfaction. Before I came out as a writer, I would scribble intermittently and intensively, emotionally-laden narratives that left me demoralised and deflated. About twelve years ago, I enrolled on an online short story course which enabled me to begin the arduous process of learning how to share and edit my words. Although I’m now in the joyful position of having one novel accepted for publication and another doing the rounds, somewhat less joyfully I have several unfinished novel projects and I can’t say I really know how one goes about the process of getting from idea to finished product.
Winter being the best time for me to get some serious writing done, as the days grew shorter last year, I was excited when a new idea took shape in my mind. But I didn’t want to make the same mistake as the year before and end up losing interest at around 30,000 words. (I might write a post one day on deciding to abandon a project, although Emma Darwin has done this better than I ever could on her wonderful blog This Itch of Writing.) Hitherto suspicious of NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d make use of its slipstream to knuckle down to my project, albeit with a less ambitious target of an average of 1000 words a day.
Have I achieved my goal?
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional with mutterings about reading and writing seasoned with psychology.
Annecdotist is the persona through whom I navigate that in-between space. When not roaming the blogosphere, I'm reading or writing, tramping the moors, battling the slugs in my vegetable plot or struggling to sing.
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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
some linked to a weekly flash fiction, plus posts on writing and my journey to publication and beyond.
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Sugar and Snails on 2016 shortlist
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