Moody writing

31 08 2012


Photo: The London Piano Institute

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, first published in 1935, is another little gem of a book that rewards close reading. Like Dorothea Brande (see earlier post on her book Becoming a Writer), these authors are uncompromising on what constitutes good style.

The first part of the book covers rules of grammar and principles of composition, all very useful for any novice or professional author, but it is the second part of the book that deals with the subjective question of how to write naturally. The authors give four pieces of advice, beginning with:

1.       Place yourself in the background

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood    and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none-that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. William Strunk JR and E.B White (2000)

Place yourself in the background. Let that sink in.

Now try writing a sentence with yourself switched off. Try not to allow any hint of your mood creep into what you write.


It was years before I learned to place myself in the background because I find it very difficult not to be involved in what I write. Odd as it sounds, I sometimes resent being left out while my author gets to play. So, for me quietening down the mind is an important part of preparing to write. Pottering, cooking, weeding are useful in shutting off the chattering commentator.  But when I don’t have much time, I write alongside myself anyway, and edit strictly in the second draft.

Managing mood is nearly always a challenge. I’m a ‘moody’ writer. I can flick through my books and pick out a passage and tell you what I was feeling at the time I wrote those sentences.  To illustrate, this opens the first chapter of the Avalanche:

My piano teacher once asked me what I would do if I had three minutes left to live.

When I wrote that sentence, I was thinking of an evening in Moscow when I ended up drinking too much vodka and debating the meaning of life with an intense theatre director who became the inspiration for my character Sergei. Reading the sentence takes me back to the tiny, hot kitchen in the director’s flat where we talked late into the night. I can still see the plates greased with the remains of our supper and the director’s hand slapping down into his own plate as he demonstrated his last act: a handprint. In his last three minutes, he would make his mark. Reading the sentence many years later, all the power and immediacy of that moment comes back to me. I don’t know how much of that power comes across in the writing, but if I had put more of myself in by describing the piano teacher first or trying to create atmosphere, I would have ruined it. I held back. The mood is in there, but not obviously.

Perhaps because it is written in the first person, there are many other passages in my first novel where I’m sitting in on the conversation. I will share some of the best (worst!) examples next time.

Have a good weekend.

Fifty Shades: the opposite of thrilling

29 08 2012

When there is so much truly passionate fiction out there, it intrigues me that books like Fifty Shades of Grey are taken at all seriously. I wonder why people want to read the books, not for the story-lines surely? Perhaps they want to know what all the fuss is about? For that, they need read only the newspapers or watch the documentaries about the best-selling phenomenon.

Without a doubt the books have tapped into the zeitgeist. Yesterday, I was in my local hardware store buying an awl to dig out muck and small stones from horses’s hooves when I overheard this exchange between what looked like a daughter and her elderly mother.

  Daughter: You should have got them.

  Mother (distressed): I know I should have.

 Daughter (impatient): We could go back; they’ll be closing soon.

Mother (glancing over the door knobs): I should have got them there and then.

Daughter (smug): I’ve read all three.

Immediately I knew what they were talking about.  It was how they were talking that I found remarkable. Their tone was matter-of-fact. They needed to get the books because they were on offer; they might have been discussing a three for two deal on washing powder tablets rather than the latest in steamy fiction.

The books appeal not because they are steamy, but because they are cheap; you can pick up all three for less than a tenner at Asda. So, they are ideal easy entertainment. You get to read something titillating without feeling shameful and at the same time you get to know what everyone is talking about. Fifty Shades is the book equivalent of television shows like the X-Factor: fast, formulaic, fun. You can zip through them in a couple of days and be talking or texting or face-booking about them in the same week. I suspect that most people enjoy discussing the books more than they enjoy reading them.

What puzzles me is the level of attention the books have been given by the serious newspapers. When Primark sells out of a popular pair of jeans, it is not news, so why should it be news when a book sold along the same principles has massive appeal? Surely, it cannot be because of the ideas? If my encounter in the hardware store yesterday is anything to go by, most people have snapped up Fifty Shades because everyone else has. This impulse to follow the current trend is almost irresistible and unremarkable.

Some cultural commentators have claimed that the Fifty Shades craze indicates that Britons are becoming less uptight about sex. This is nonsense.  At work on a stable yard one rare sunny day last week I watched a woman hitch up her dress to tan her legs and settle down with her copy. Her manner was nonchalant. We acknowledged she was having her coffee break and left her to it.

Reading about other people having kinky sex is not an expression of your own sexuality. Talking about what you have read is not sexy. Curiosity about what other people get up to is one of the traits of being human. Everyone is interested in everyone else. Light a bonfire and throw on a few crackling sticks and invite people to sit beside it for almost free. Who could resist that invitation? Once you’ve got people in a big huddled group, feeling warm and cosy and safe, then you can tell them any old story. Fifty Shades is the opposite of thrilling. The spotlight of attention means it is  almost guaranteed risk-free. That is why it sells and sells and sells.


Style: the hard way

28 08 2012

Part of the territory of being a writer is working with the imagination and the senses on hyper alert. That means sensitivity toward the style of others. As I mentioned , I looked to other writers to act as stylistic role models; I sought out writers who could make words hum, who could set up some vibration, some rhythm that I could tune into. I read critically and then went out to try to make my own music.

For years it was heavy going. I felt like a six-year-old with a bulky guitar in my lap; there were sounds in there, I just couldn’t make them come out, not in the way I wanted.  I strummed along anyway, and on the days when the guitar made my wrists ache, I leaned it up against the wall. Maddeningly, it refused to stay silent. Whenever I brushed against it, a vibration could be felt.  I almost always took it up again and tried to pick out a new tune.

Was there a turning point, a moment when I composed something and thought: not bad? I can’t say there was. I think that I simply grew tired of hearing the same old tune. I wanted to write as if I were playing flamenco. I wanted dazzle, excitement, passion. I wanted writing that felt like the best adventure for that was why I had got into it in the first place: to explore the world.

All the way through my twenties I wrote for newspapers. I clocked up writing air miles on local papers and then papers in the Arabian Gulf. I excelled at landing front page stories and developed what is known in journalistic terms a ‘nose.’ It was easy for me to sniff out a story and like an over-enthusiastic Springer spaniel I adored the rewarding pats on the head from my news editors. Had my nose for news not lost its sense of smell, I might have continued to earn my living as a journalist.

I left my job and rented a room. On a bare table facing a wall I put my typewriter and began to write observation pieces and stories. I hated the room; the landlady had left me in charge of her three nameless, incontinent cats who stole my food and who I renamed Fuck Off, Piss Off and Bastard. I sprayed my room against the stench with Christian Dior’s Poison. It wasn’t the fault of the three curses that they were neglected and with me around at least they had plenty to eat. At night I read Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, so you can tell what kind of time it was.

Of course I returned to the newsroom. There were some adventures. One was covering the poll tax riots for the Sunday Correspondent, door-stepping Salman Rushdie on the release of the fatwa was not. In the words of the Sun journalist who let me share a bag of chips in his warm car: ‘the last effing place he’d be is at home.’ In between newsroom shifts, I wrote my own stories, but they lacked lustre and I fell into a creative coma. I could compose sentences; without compositional skill, I wouldn’t be published. I knew that I could carry on writing dutifully and competently and even profitably, but I wanted something more. I wanted to make a world out of words. Other writers could do it. The question was: could I? No, the question was: dare I?

There is a mystery to fiction writing and that makes it compelling. That’s not to say writing is a magic circle, admitting only the initiated. Good writing, I believe, is there for anyone with time and patience to discover for themselves. I used to believe, however, that effortless writing was a special power, one that usually bypassed the space where I happened to be sitting at my desk, waiting, always waiting for a day when I would receive enough of a power injection not to stutter and falter and choke over my first few paragraphs. It didn’t seem fair that other writers could butterfly while I was still floundering in the shallow end with my arm-bands blown up as hard as they would go.  I was usually out of breath after even a width.

How then did I develop the endurance to go the distance of the cross-channel crawl that is the novel? I trained hard. I found the right coaches. I paid attention to people who had made it before me, and then, there is no other way, I plunged right in.

The first mile was exhausting. I thought I would die. My lungs were bursting and my eyes were stinging. I made the mistake of looking back over to the shore and thinking: I haven’t got very far. I did this so often I convinced myself I was writing a short story or a screenplay or a prose poem, anything but a novel. I convinced myself I could always turn back. It wasn’t too late to return home. Some cosy newsroom would welcome me back with a cup of strong, sugary tea.

Halfway through an early draft of my first novel I found what I was looking for – my writer’s breath. It came after a particularly exhausting bout of printing stuff off and weeping at the atrociousness of what I’d composed. I sat down on the edge of my bed with the typescript in my hands and I asked myself: what do you want to do now? You can stop and be done with it, or you can carry on, but, if you decide to carry on, you have to stop floundering; you have to stop trying so hard and just get out there and keep looking where you are going. Punishing the struggling writer you are won’t make you a stronger writer. Punishing the struggling writer you are will only slow you down and eventually drag you under.

I got my second wind and finished the novel. Inevitably, it wasn’t a smooth passage to victory, but I’ll save this for the next instalment.

Women writers

24 08 2012

During my writing life I’ve been equally inspired by men writers as I have by women. Unlike some readers I’ve encountered, I don’t make a special case for female authors, by which I mean I don’t tend to seek out certain titles because they are by women. Maybe that makes me disloyal to the writing sisterhood.

I’m more interesting in good writing for its own sake. When I find a good writer, then I am loyal. Casting my eyes over my bookshelves I see, though, that I am biased. On my shelves there are more male writers than female. My favourite writers are male. Among them I count the Irish writer Colm Toibin, whose wonderful novel on Henry James, the Master I can read over and over again. William Fiennes is there too with the Snow Geese and the Music Room.

I love these writers for their clarity, their sensitivity, their subtlety and the sheer poetic beauty of their work. One year I met William Fiennes at Dartington and gushed in the signing queue that I found his prose ‘utterly sublime.’ He took the compliment graciously: ‘It was worth coming all the way down here just to hear that.’ I know from interviews that he works hard on his style so that when you read him there is not a ripple to disturb, not a single false note. What agonies, what discipline and sheer devotion it takes to write so effortlessly well. Writers of Colm Toibin’s and William Fiennes’s quality spoil it for everyone else. After spending time with them, I’m unable to read clumsy work.

What do I look for in style? The sentences must be smooth and clean. There must be no attempt to impress me or manipulate me. I cannot be seduced. I must above all be moved. I must feel something while reading that either makes me think in a new way or engages my sympathy so that I feel as close to the characters as I do to my own friends and family. If I read a novel or non-fiction piece set in another country, I must immediately want to go there. If I read a description of food, I must immediately want to eat it.  I want to fall in love.

Great style alone does not interest me. There are some brilliant stylists out there whose work just leaves me cold: Will Self, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan are all fantastic writers, but too knowing for me. If the author intrudes on the page, it puts me off. I need to be left alone with the narrative. I can’t bear having someone in the room with me telling me what to think. In this, I’m pretty conventional. That said, William Boyd does get a bit boisterous on the page sometimes, but I love it when he does. I’m usually smitten.

A friend remarked that I tended to adore music in a minor key. He’s right. I would choose Bach over Beethoven any day. This search for qualities of beauty and transcendence and luminosity continues throughout my appreciation of film and painting, sculpture and music. Hildegard of Bingen ‘s pure, soaring sequences have become part of the fabric of my inner life.

That’s not to say that all the work I admire feels the same. The brutality of the film Tyrannosaur was difficult to watch, but I loved it for its honesty and won’t ever forget seeing it. Likewise Roman Polanski’s the Pianist. The work I admire must feel like a whole piece. Toughness and violence I can deal with if it is essential to the narrative.  For this reason I can no longer watch soap operas or horror films.

Now I’m warming to my theme. Dangerous! I want to give this more thought and write about style again next week. Have a good weekend.

Women and Philosophy

23 08 2012


Next time there is a lull in the conversation, why not liven things up by asking people to name a woman philosopher? I wonder whose name would emerge?  I’m guessing that Iris Murdoch or Mary Warnock or both might appear on the list. While I have great respect for the ideas of these fine thinkers, the philosopher I wish to champion today is Mary Midgley.

I first encountered Mary Midgley while I was studying at Middlesex University. She came down from Newcastle University, where she taught for half a decade, and gave a talk on meaning, beauty and the nature of reality. She was in her eighties: a precise, snow-haired woman in a plain blue suit. She wore rings and gripped the lectern as she spoke in a clear tone in a wide-ranging talk that was not only cogent and powerful but vivid, illustrating her ideas in delightful associations that included roses, elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins.

Afterwards during questions, the philosopher laughed and parried with her interrogators. She did not seek to score points, but was thrilled that the audience were engaged and brave enough to try thinking hard for themselves. There was no trace of arrogance, almost a child-like sense of wonder. I’ve told you what I think, it’s your turn now, her beaming manner suggested as she listened patiently to comments from student philosophers, gently encouraging when someone came unstuck over a particularly tight knot of theory.  She is the kind of philosopher you want at your elbow (or on your desk) when you are trying to make sense of your own ethics or stance on genetics or science or psychology.

Mary Midgley has devoted her life to trying to put complicated ideas into some sort of sensible order. She has said that all her work is about ‘human nature’ and one of the pleasures of reading her is to follow her line of enquiry that asks: what is a human being and how do human beings look at themselves?

She believes that we are social beings and that our evolutionary success is because we have learned how to get along with each other and form civilisations. According to Midgley, we are first and foremost living beings with needs and desires and beliefs and attitudes. Her position on a purely genetic understanding of human natures is clear: ‘Genes are immortal only in the boring sense in which amoebae are: they reproduce by dividing, so they do not actually die. But then neither do they live, not in the full sense in which more complex organisms do. One crowded hour of glorious life as an individual is worth an age as a gene.’

One crowded hour. I love that image.

Astronomy and women

21 08 2012


My fascination for women in astronomy started when I took a night course at Sidmouth Observatory. On the second week we were treated to a display from the planetarium and I shall not forget the wonder of seeing the ceiling of the lecture hall transformed into a glittering night sky. Only the red dot of the pointer roaming over the constellations, accompanying the lecturer’s presentation, and the whispered conversation of my student companions reminded me that I was still inside.

On cold clear nights we wrapped up in padded jackets and took the telescopes outside. Often a thick sea mist shrouded our celestial viewing, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the organisers, a group of women volunteers who had the gift of being able to look through clouds. These doughty women in their sixties handled the observatory’s hefty old telescopes with dexterity, working dials and levers and myriad buttons, keeping count in their heads of the mysterious order of the beautiful instruments.

The volunteers were proud of their ‘charges.’ One night I watched a stout woman shut down a telescope switch by switch with a fluent grace. Her face glowed as she came down the iron steps. She looked utterly at ease in the strange environment of the observatory with its shuttered domed roof, zodiac painted walls and emergency power lights. She caught me watching her:  ‘I do so love putting them to bed.’

I was stunned, not only because of her nonchalant competence, but a few moments earlier I had seen through the same now slumbering telescope the planet Jupiter and its four moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, gleaming like tiny seed pearls from a black satin sky.

Since then I’ve often thought that astronomy would be the most perfect job. It’s contained and yet expansive. You work both inside and outside and with intelligent colleagues. Astronomy has known parameters and follows a scientific method, but beyond the technology and the expertise, beyond the stellar photography there is the vast plateau of the unknown.

My pitiful qualifications ruled out any serious career options in science or anything else for that matter. I didn’t know how to study at school. I wasn’t settled enough and too many subjects overwhelmed me. I passed all my ten O levels, but would have preferred even then to specialise. Maths and Physics intrigued me, but I needed more time than most to get my head around their foreign language.

One of the joys of writing is that I can delve into disciplines that are closed to me professionally. The Beautiful Truth has two central women characters: Krystyna, who fights for the Polish resistance and becomes a history professor, and Catherine, a Cambridge astronomer.  The beauty and order of astronomy gives meaning and purpose to the shape of Catherine’s life, which on a personal level teeters on the brink of chaos.

Women and astronomy have a long association. In the early 19th century, American women astronomers were recruited at the Harvard Observatory because they had the patience to do the tedious work of computing data. They were also prepared to work for far less than men. The earliest woman astronomer is believed to be Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician, inventor and philosopher, who lived around the late fourth century. Brought up and educated by her father Theon, a renowned astronomer and philosopher, he wanted her to become an ideal daughter and human being.

Hypatia gave lectures in Alexandria, wrote books on mathematics and designed astronomical instruments. One of her pupils was Synesius of Cyrene, who became a high ranking Bishop. He sought her advice and wrote letters mentioning her.  Hypatia’s name is immortalised in the moon mountains between Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Nectaris .

Next time I am out with my binoculars I must have a look.

Why I love Mary King

20 08 2012


I was among the crowds gathered along Sidmouth seafront to welcome home Olympic rider Mary King. People waved flags, blew horns, cheered and lifted their babies to get a good look at Devon’s very own member of Team GB as she danced down the High Street on her medal-winning horse Imperial Cavalier.

Mary King was radiant as she waved and smiled through her hero’s welcome. Imperial Cavalier, smooth as butterscotch, was understandably bouncy but not rattled by the noisy attention. His coat was so immaculate it appeared steam-ironed. He was unreal, a creature from a dream. I found myself longing to simply sit on him.

‘Mary, Mary,’ the kids were shouting as they ran to catch up with her. Their excitement at seeing her was contagious. People were reminiscing, sharing anecdotes from the Olympics and enjoying seeing in the flesh a part of Team GB’s success. The relaxed ease and sense of fun and festivity lasted even after Mary and her horse had completed their lap of honour and been granted the freedom of the town.

Mary is not a hero because she has represented her country at the Olympics and carried home well-deserved medals. What makes her a hero in my eyes is the fact that she is a woman over fifty who is in her prime. She has worked hard to achieve her dream of competing at the highest level. At fifty with her track record of wins it would be easy to look back over past successes and think: I’ve done enough, I can rest on my laurels, but her decision to push on, to give more is what elevates her and makes her performance extraordinary.

About a year before she began training for the Olympics, Mary King was working her horse at home when she fell and broke her neck. Many people might have viewed that as a sign that the London Olympics was out of reach but not Mary. The flame of a home Olympics was a beacon that spurred her on. That act of courage and determination alone makes her a hero.

During the Olympics there were mutters about riding being an elitist sport. Only the privileged surely could afford to reach those heights? But Mary doesn’t own her horse in the same way that a Formula One driver doesn’t own his car. She is sponsored and supported as are many other athletes. Training at her level means she has had to be resourceful. By her account, it has not always been an easy ride. In interviews, she has talked about her series of ‘unglamorous,’ low-paid jobs, including working as a cleaner.

Now many ordinary people are proud of her. She was gracious as she thanked her support team all of whom were beaming as they sailed in her wake. She seems like an ordinary mortal. I almost can’t believe this, but when I mentioned to one of my friends that I’d seen her in Sidmouth, he casually announced that he remembered her at school. We went to the Kings School in Ottery St. Mary. She was in the year above us and known then as Mary Thomson. He’d played her at badminton.

‘Very good she was, too.’

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