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.
What could be better than books and the beach – they go together like love and marriage. After a swim in the sea, I went to the opening lecture in the Public Hall. Erica Wagner was in conversation with Helen Rappaport a scholar of Russian affairs. Her book Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917′ considers the revolution as it appeared to foreign nationals living in the city.
The Winter or 1916/17 was very bad and hunger stalked the city. There were queues for bread and it was this that drove the revolution in February of 1917. It was a grass roots revolution unlike the events of October that brought the communists to power. Nor was it as benign as the official figures would have the world believe. Rappaport believes many hundreds died their bodies stiff with the cold and carried off by their relatives. The weather was a major influence on the conflict, if it was very cold there was less violence.
Amongst the foreigners whose eye witness accounts Rappaport has utilised for her book are diplomats like the British Ambassador George Buchanan, the American Ambassador David Francis and his valet Phil Jordan. Jordan was an African American who had been taught to read and write by Francis’s wife. His letters are ungrammatical and have no punctuation but provide a vivid and immediate account of the events.
A number of women journalists provided accounts of the revolution and often photographs and film taken by the cameraman accompanying them. Emily Pankhurst arrived as well to support women who were being urged to persuade their men to fight in the Great War. Everyone was obsessed with food and if you were rich you could get hold of it, but if you were poor you starved.
The February Revolution deposed the Czar, but the weak government that followed allowed the communist to have their revolution in October. The Russians need a strong leader/Czar.
Then it was back to the beach hut for lunch.
In the afternoon I went to the talk given by the President of the Festival Hilary Mantel. Professor Helen Taylor from the University of Exeter was the interviewer. The subject was writing short stories perhaps prompted by the outrage in some of the press about ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.’ Mantel read a new short story called ‘In a Right State.’ Mantel said she was unable to write commissioned short stories, she needed all the elements to come together before she could get them to work. This one set in a hospital waiting room had three sources. One was the sort of questions asked by newspapers of celebrities like ‘what was your best kiss?’, a comment in one of Alan Bennett’s diaries about going to A&E for recreation. (As an aside she said she had asked Bennett to come to the Budleigh Festival but she said he is rather frail and doesn’t go out much, anyway he thought Budleigh might be too frisky for him.) was the second and the third was the news stories this winter about floods and the crisis in the A&E.
Talking about writing short stories she said one of the differences between a novel and a short story was that the writer had to use voice to capture characters that hints at the back story. The writer must find the best words in the best order. In a novel technique can take you through the difficulties but not a short story. They cannot be forced.
She confirmed my own experience, it’s hard to write a short story.
I have struggled with writing my blog over the summer, but I have more episodes from ‘Life at the Bar’ lined up for the autumn. Before that this week I will be attending the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival. Four days of listening to outstanding writers from Hilary Mantel to Shami Chakrabarti with Virginia Bailey, Kate Summerscale, A.C. Grayling and many more. I hope to do some posts about the Festival as it happens.
I hope the weather is good as we are renting a beach hut for the period of the Festival. We got the key yesterday and spent a few hours there enjoying the sun. Here’s a photograph of my other half and our dog Lily.