05.32, 02 April 2013, my computer says, and that’s Summer time. It’s really twenty past four.
Hi, everyone. I’m sorry to have been quiet for so long. Not a word since Christmas and that’s four months. I have been holed up in the basement trying to keep warm and finishing Book 3 of the last volume of the Love and Inheritance Trilogy which I have been writing for the last two years. I’m now in the very final stretch and can’t sleep so I’m writing this. Has Inspector Stratham being having an affair with Isobel or has he not? Everyone thinks so but I’m not sure. By the end of the chapter I will know. Novels are about more than their plots – plots I believe are just the bait you cast into still waters to stir things up and keep the reader reading –but it still ends up stopping one sleeping. The Inspector is a fairly minor character, but is he, isn’t he, is rather crucial to the book.
I’ve got out of bed to write this because yesterday – which was, come to think of it, April Fool’s Day- I got an e-mail from Laura, my editor at Head Of Zeus, my publisher. Subject: Happy Publication Day! The second of the trilogy, Long Live the King! came out yesterday. Once upon a time this kind of event was heralded by bunches of flowers, lunches, parties and so on. No longer. Publishers have learned prudence and wisdom. Money and time are short; we all work too hard for frivolities. Head down and on you go.
Mostly when a book comes out you think – well I do – this isn’t at all the book I meant to write, the one I thought I was writing, which is why you start on the next one. If you’d got it right you could just give up and go home. Habits of the House, the first, set in 1899, just skittered over the surface of things and was fun to write and (I hope) to read. Long Live the King! takes the same characters and a few new ones, but goes deeper – the paragraphs, and the sentences, certainly get longer- and I’m really pleased with it. I only moved the cast two years on, but a lot can happen in two years. Everyone had to get older and a bit more serious. But all the jigsaw bits of story and characters and world affairs fitted together like magic. It felt, for once, to be, the novel I set out to write, and what’s more, I see, I’m on to the third, the New Countess, and didn’t give up and go home.
I must say though I was tempted in mid-February –not only having to shelter from the icy East wind blast with mittens, leg warmers, wrist gauntlets and so on, which makes one’s brain feel slow and cluttered – but hindered not helped by the title I chose –set in stone because of advance publicity in the States – which I realised too late dictated the ending. Two years in advance is too long these days to make this kind of judgement. The world changes, you change, readers change, all the parallel universes converge and spilt again; you have to take the tide at its flood hut the flood goes out and you’re stranded.
I have a new laptop which I have to come to terms with. It will do everything except actually choose the words. I will write again as soon as I’ve finished the New Countess. She should be installed in Dilberne Court reunited with her two boys by the end of the month. I’ve already told you more than it is sensible to say. Look, I’m tired and going back to bed. Most of what I write is thought about, considered, edited, second, third, fourth, draft before allowed out into the world. This is first draft stuff. I make mistakes.
But Bonzo the Border Collie has come to sit at my feet and guard me, which he considers his duty, dragging his poor old bones away from the end of our bed where he likes to sleep, so early and into the office. Actually he is very kindly sitting on my feet, not at them which is at least keeping my feet warm. Bonzo has a walk-on part under the name Patch in Kehua! a novel about Maori ghosts I wrote three years back-.– mad to give a novel a title that no-one can pronounce or understand. Why did no-one stop me?
I am e-mailing this on to Elfie, my former intern, now in Germany who has my Facebook address, and I hope will post it on to friends. It is beyond me!
Kurt Vonnegut., a US writer now deceased, held in great respect by novelists everywhere was one of the first to teach creative writing in the nineteen sixties. I knew one of his students, later herself a published novelist, and I hand on to you the advice he gave to her.
And do read his Slaughter House Five, as an example of how never to get stuck in one place, but how to move with aplomb round space and time, to great benefit to theme and story
1. Respect your reader, in such a way that he or she will not feel the time or money spent reading you is wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can relate to.
3. Let every character want something, if only a glass of water.
4. Let every character speak from their own point of view, not yours.
5. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or place or move the story on.
6. Start as close to the end as possible. Feed out your back story with ingenuity
7. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them so they can prove themselves.
7. Write as if to one person. If you open a window on the world, your story will only get pneumonia.
8. Give your reader as much information as you can as soon as possible. They trust you to give it to them. Hold nothing back.
9. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the book by themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Flannery O’Brien (a mid twentieth century short story writer) he would add, broke every rule in the book, as great writers tend to do.