The main attraction of the Budleigh Literary Festival was the master class given by the renowned writer Hilary Mantel. On 21st September about fifty of us sat in the pretty Church on the Green to hear from Hilary about her life in writing. I have tried to distil four hours into a few hundred words, but I hope I can give a flavour what she said.default
It took her five years to write her first novel ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ eight hundred pages documenting the lives of the lawyers who made the French Revolution, but it wasn’t published for twelve years and not before she had published other novels which publishers thought marketable. Her own story she hoped would encourage others to write. She believed the starting point of any piece of creative fiction was the desire to bring into being the novel/short story etc.
She put her novels together like a collage, often using a board to pin index cards in different colours as an aid. She sometimes felt like she was in a nursery school with different coloured pens and pencils, cut outs from papers and magazines to create a mood board. She never plotted her novels in any detail but didn’t necessarily stick even to that – ‘the best ideas come when you are writing.’
She believed that a writer’s voice came from ones personality and ones experiences modified by technique. It helps to learn to live with the incomplete. One doesn’t have to resolve everything. Mobilise the reader’s sense of the possibilities in your narrative. Always say ‘yes’ to your ideas first.
She advised against showing your work to friends – ‘you don’t have to account to the outside world.’ If you do, listen to the advice and nod, take it away with you and think about it.
Plot is simply what happens. Characters must be interesting and have the capacity to act, grow and change. They should want something, struggle towards it and change in the struggle. Screen writers are good at holding attention – what happens next? She thought books about screen writing could be helpful.
One can tell if the structure is wrong when one is bored with it. Look for the turning points and ‘be wary of a book that doesn’t write itself.’ If it seems wrong, put in a drawer – ‘they change in the dark.’ If you have a split narrative one needs to get the reader so involved with one strand before switching to another.
Dialogue is not what people actually say but should have the appearance of being natural when it is contrived. Don’t tell characters in dialogue what is already known – each line should be unexpected. Think of every point in each exchange as potentially different. Think too about the characters age, status and education. Create dialogue for the not so articulate. Use word order and syntax to show different language or dialect. The odd word is enough so that you leave the reader feeling secure.
Memoir is the same art but with you as the main character. Decide on a theme and the aspect you want to write about. Should be authentic but not tell everything – the reader is not entitled to know everything about you. The alchemy is the art of turning the individual experience into the general.
Characters should grow organically. How does the character think, how does he protect himself. Each one is many sided. Hilary gave the example of Cromwell – a cloth merchant, a banker so when he looks at someone’s clothes he sees the quality of the cloth and knows its price.
The challenge of writing is the gift of being there – the sight, the smell, the noises. Look and listen before judging.
Dame Hilary was gracious and generous with her advice. I am sure everyone there was inspired to write more and better.
Keeping it Short.
Most writers agree that writing short stories is one of the most difficult writing forms. Two writers, Kirsty Gunn and Chris Power were to talk about how they make their stories complete and compact whilst drawing you into the tale. I was hoping to get some clues as to how to write short stories, a form I am not happy with. Instead both writers talked about their latest books.
Kirsty Gunn has written both short stories and novels. Her latest being a novel ‘Caroline’s Bikini.’ She said she found no difference between writing the short form or a novel – she used the same method, writing one short story after another. In ‘Caroline’s Bikini’ which is a book about writing a book, she keeps avoiding the action, leading the writer on to expect something to happen. She was interested in real lives and how imagination can transform everyday life. Fiction gives us the ‘a world on a page’ and allows the reader to get behind the reticence human beings display. She read a few pages from her novel which has footnotes to actively engage the reader.
Chris Power’s book of short stories Mothers’ began with an anecdote his mother-in-law had related and when he began to think about mothers he found the real people more complex than the traditional image. The stories all concern mental health which he examined with a ‘cold eye.’ There are three stories about the same character at different stages of her life. He hadn’t considered them as a novel.
So I didn’t learn much about how to write short stories and it didn’t turn me into t fan of them either, but I bought ‘Caroline’s Bikini’ and discovered another writer whose book I loved.
Reluctant Consent my second novel is now available on Kindle. Here is a brief outline.
Barrister Cassie Hardman is being stalked by an unknown male. She doesn’t know why but there is some connection to the defendant Paul Sadler, who faced trial for rape.
Cassie struggles with the unwanted invasion into her life as she works on a murder trial – her most important case to date. Each communication forces her to relive her role in the Sadler trial.
How does a woman like Cassie cope with defending a man accused of rape?
Can she overcome the distress caused by her stalker and defend the accused in her current to the best of her ability?
Can the stalker be identified before she comes to any harm?
I did like Helen’s first book, but don’t seem to have got round to reading anymore. Must put them on my TBR list.
Perfect Silence by Helen Fields
Originally published: 23 August 2018
Author: Helen Fields
Published by: Avon Books
Genre: Crime Thriller
Page count: 432
Reading dates: 18-22 September 2018
Star Rating: 5/5
When silence falls, who will hear their cries?
When a body of a young girl is found dead, dumped by a roadside a gruesome discovery is soon made: the outline of a doll is carved into the victims skin. DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are tasked with trying to solve her murder, When another young victim is taken, leaving her baby abandoned, a doll made of skin is found tucked in the babies pram and it is soon clear the police are dealing with a serial killer.
At the same time, a string of homeless people are being attacked, having their faces cut, often while under the influence of Spice. Links are drawn between the homeless victims…
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I went to see the film last night. I’d read the book when it was first published and did say in a review that I thought Ian McEwan had done a brilliant job of portraying the life of a lawyer – in this case a judge. The film is perhaps even better. Emma Thompson is superb as the judge Fiona Maye. Every advocate knows that moment as one walks into the courtroom – one’s personal life, ones feeling left behind. Emma Thompson gets it just right.
The scenes in court reflect the real world. One could say that the robes aren’t quite right but the behaviour is. A High Court Judge in a tetchy mood is not to be trifled with. It also demonstrates the emotional cost for lawyers dealing with these very difficult cases, not just in the family courts but in the criminal courts as well.
The setting of the film in and around the Royal Courts of Justice and Grays Inn are as I remember them. Elegant buildings, a haven from the rough and tumble of every day London, set around manicured lawns.
I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the reviews for Crucial Evidence or for Trial and Errors but this one is very recent — the end of last year.
On Trials and Errors the reviewer says:-
Reality and fallibility of the British legal system
This is a tantalising taster of Margaret Barnes’ novel ‘Crucial Evidence’, its way prepared by reminiscences of our flawed legal system during the author’s career as a barrister. The writing style is wry, often humorous – and peppered with some frustration and flashes of anger at the idiosyncrasies of those in an exalted position who are out of touch with the lives of those they judge and yet wield power over the accused and their dependents’ lives. Looking forward to reading the full manuscript
He must have gone on to read Crucial Evidence because this was the comments he made about the book.
Margaret Barnes has used her experience of the British legal system to produce an unusually absorbing narrative. While there is no soaring arc of villainy versus innocence, the trial of a naive young man for a murder he did not commit is both emotionally and intellectually stretching. The economy of the writing still allows empathy with the characters, and the insight into law practice in Britain leads to some uncomfortable recognition. Looking forward to more from this adept and informed writer.
Crucial Evidence is available on Amazon for £1.98 for Kindle and £1.88 for the paperback.
In the Guardian on Saturday, the playwright David Hare wrote about his ideal theatre. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/30/david-hare-my-ideal-theatre . I’m not sure I agree with all his proposals. Why shouldn’t a new theatre be in central London? There are already a number of theatres in the suburbs, Hammersmith Lyric for one, but they struggle to draw the audiences for untested plays. There is an excitement about going to the theatre that is enhanced by being in the centre of a theatre-going culture. Coming out into the street after a great performance along with many other theatregoers is exhilarating.
Does size matter? I don’t think so. Some productions work well on a small stage, others need a large stage and auditorium. Do a younger audience want to be close up to the action? Certainly, the live transmissions of opera would suggest that does change the experience whether it would change the audience and attract younger people I don’t know. My experience in a provincial town suggests not. It is the older generation that goes to these transmissions whether the opera or the theatre. What does attract a younger audience is an actor they know from television eg Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.
I too would like to see new plays although I enjoy new productions of the classics when they speak to today’s world as they so often do. In fact when it comes to policy while I agree the state should be a patron of the arts, is there not a danger that playwrights would then pander to the whims of politicians, something from which even Shakespeare was not immune. Is it wrong that the National Theatre should produce musicals? There have been some wonderful productions by great directors giving a new life to that genre. David Hare seems to reject the idea of a theatre that is commercial as well as subsidised. What about a play like ‘War Horse?
I think his approach is too purist and would simply create a theatre for an elite instead of entertainment for all.
I love the live theatre. Nothing compares with the buzz generated by great actors playing great parts on the London stages. I first went to a theatre when I was sixteen, taken by my school to see Macbeth after the Scottish play had been the subject of our ‘O’ level exams, but it is not that I remember. The play that gave me my love of theatre was the RSC’s production in 1961 of ‘The Devils’ starring Dorothy Tutin and Richard Johnson. I can still picture the scene where Sister Jeanne (played by Tutin) kneels at the feet of the priest Father Grandier (Richard Johnson) after he has seduced her.
I would love to see a theatre in every city and the main companies do more on tour. I saw that production of ‘The Devils’ in Manchester. Again on a school trip. That’s something governments should support.
My ideal theatre would be more practical. More comfortable seating and good sightlines where ever you sit. Theatres that don’t use ‘airline’ type pricing or use ticketing agencies that add such high fees for booking with them. Decent wine and light snacks both before and during the interval. And finally more ladies loos.