25 09 2012


When I started this blog I doubted that anyone would read it. Now I see that I have readers in India, the Philippines, America, Sweden and Switzerland. My doubts have been proved wrong. Even on days I do not post, people are reading.

When I started writing fiction I doubted that I would get published. My first novel came out and people enjoyed it and made a point of telling me that they felt it had been unfairly overlooked by the literary press. When I wrote my second novel I doubted that it was any good. The reviews were entirely positive, but I was still surprised by them. This weekend I met someone at a party who said her reading group had thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Juliet; one or two people had even said that it was the best novel they had ever read. I thought of this again today and I still do not believe it.

While I was working on my most recent novel The Beautiful Truth I doubted that I would finish it. I doubted that anyone would be interested in reading it and I doubted that it was any good. I didn’t doubt the ideas, the characters, the subject matter, the setting or the themes; I doubted only my part in delivery of them.

I couldn’t write without believing that I have something to communicate – what I cannot do is escape doubt.

It strikes me that doubt is integral to working on anything that matters. The Beautiful Truth mattered to me more than any book I’ve written and it was composed under thunder clouds of doubt. When I finished it, and saw that it worked, I felt immense relief. I had emerged from the storm and into the light.

Doubt is the cynical observer in the hoody that stands on the edge of the playing field muttering disapproval. When acknowledged, it will offer free coaching advice on other games it thinks I’d be more suited to. Sometimes it is so contemptuous of my performance that it doesn’t bother to show up. I have to go it alone then and push my ball about in a vast white silent space, which is somehow worse than working under its scornful gaze.

If writing without doubt feels so lonely, does that mean that doubt is a useful companion on the long-haul flight of the novel? Does doubt motivate? Certainly it gives me something to push against. It stops me spooling rubbish. It stops me from becoming complacent. It acts as a brake on my enthusiasms. It urges me to go carefully. That’s when it is controlled. Out of control doubt is crippling, as I know.

I won’t eliminate doubt. It’s been part of my working life for too long, and I can therefore accommodate it.  It is a sometimes entertaining passenger even as I cringe from it. The trick is not to let it anywhere near the flight deck.

For years I’ve loved photography, but I doubted that I could understand how to use a proper camera. My new Nikon stayed in its box for over a month. This morning I went out to see what the harbour looked like through my lens. The water was sparkling and calm. As I focused on my shots I lost all sense of doubt. I simply pressed the shutter. I know that is the key to writing well.

I simply write my sentence.  


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.

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