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.
The highlight for me was the talk by crime writer Sophie Hannah. Her talk was entitled The Nuts and Bolts of Crime Writing and she did indeed talk about her own writing techniques. She starts with an irresistible plot hook, usually some psychological obsession. There is often a strong component of real life. Her latest book Did you see Melody came about because of an incident when she was given the wrong room in a hotel which was already occupied by someone else.
Details matter, such as choice of names for characters. As the new novel is set in the USA she chose a name which was pronounced differently in the UK. The inspiration for the book came as a result of a case which was reported widely in the USA but not in the UK.
She is a great planner and writes the whole book in note form before she does her first draft. Provided the events she describes can happen at least once she was ready to use that for her plot. She described how when she was searching for an agent and publisher, she received advice about how unlikely her plots were and she was almost ready to give up when her husband suggested she tried a man who would just say yes or no. So she did. He said yes and sold the book before she’d signed anything.
She wasn’t interested in cataloguing urban crime. She didn’t like red herring, but preferred the reader to mislead themselves. There are those Poirot books as well and she told us how she came to be asked to write those by Agatha Christie Ltd. Perhaps that’s another post.
She was an interesting speaker, her talk highlighted by personal reminisces, often very funny.