I’ve got more books on writing than I can bring myself to tell you. There’s some justification. They’ve been essential tools in learning how to write. And then too writing is a solitary occupation and it’s good to have a few old friends handy on shelf to turn to when I grind to a halt. But do I really need to have so many? In truth they are something of an addiction.So here are a few favourites. For inspiration, rather than technique there’s Dorothea Brande’s classic BECOMING A WRITER (first published 1934) and Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE (first published 1938). I wish I’d known Brenda – the biography in the front of her book notes that she received an international swimming record for the over-80s and was knighted by the King of Norway. As for her book, what woman writer wouldn’t warm to this chapter heading: ‘Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing.’ Now that I’ve got it down from the shelf, I want to read it again. Also good when I need a pep talk are James M Frey’s HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.
Plot and structure are what I have always found most difficult and in the early days Robert J Ray’s THE WEEK-END NOVELIST and Robert Mackee’s STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREEN WRITING were constant companions. I still go back to them. And then there’s Lawrence’s Block’s books on writing, one of which has the great title, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT and . . .But you get the idea.
And do I find myself reading about writing instead of actually writing? What do you think?
Last Saturday I went to a book sale in the Methodist Hall in the next village. It was in aid of an African charity and the books had been donated (I’d given a bagful myself). Pricing was simple. Hardbacks £1, paperbacks 50p. Thus it was that I acquired World’s Classics editions of JANE EYRE, THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, CRANFORD and a collection of Father Brown stories for far less that I’d have paid in a second hand bookshop. Don’t I already have other editions of these works? Yes, I do, except for THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, but it’s always worth having a World’s Classic edition. They are the epitome of portability. These little blue hardback books, published for decades by Oxford University Press, measure about 6 by 4 inches and are printed on thin paper. They combined legibility, elegance and lightness. My copy of MIDDLEMARCH weighs 9 ozs, Beat that. They are such convenient little books, so small they are easy to read in bed – no propping up unwieldy volumes. They are perfect for taking on holiday or on any long trip. The first time my husband went on a working trip to China I put Trollope’s THE WAY WE LIVE NOW in his suitcase and it kept him going through long evenings in his hotel room in Harbin and through sleepless jet-lagged nights. The next time it was PHINEAS FINN.
I often pack one at the last minute just as backup. Who knows, I might get held up at an airport or – horror of horrors – simply run out of things to read and why risk that when I can slip a World’s Classics edition of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE or PORTRAIT OF A LADY into a corner of my bag. It’s the reader’s equivalent of the hiker’s slab of Kendal Mint Cake.
First: my book group chose A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON and I am pleased because that is the one I really wanted and I am looking forward to rereading it.
So, series characters, or should I say detectives, as I’m thinking mostly of crime fiction here. On the whole I like them. If you are reading for pure pleasure and relaxation it can be nice to know what you are getting into. It’s like meeting up with old friends: Morse, Travis McGee, Kinsey Milhone, we know some of their history, we’re look forward to seeing them again and finding out what they’ll get up to next. There are advantages for the writer too. You have done the spade work and have brought your fictional terrain and its characters into being, you’re at home there, and you too want to know what these people will do next. Now that I’ve nearly finished a stand-alone, I can’t wait to get back to my Cassandra series.
But there are disadvantages too. Sometimes the readers go on loving Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes when the writer is heartily sick of them and could happily murder them and of course that’s just what Conan Doyle did. It is hard to maintain the same high standard in novel after novel and perhaps it’s more obvious in a series novel when you don’t. I read a couple lately that were a little disappointing, though I am a fan of both writers. In Donna Leon’s THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS and Qui Xiaolong’s THE MAO CASE, Commissario Brunetti and Inspector Chen retain their old charm, but in the first the plot was a bit thin and the second was paced too slowly.
To end on a positive note one series that is going from strength to strength is Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is terrific and shows that he was just getting into his stride with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Next week it is my turn to offer the books for the group to choose from and this always involves some pleasurable musing. It is a bit like assembling a cheese board. Everything should be good of its kind and there should be a variety. It’s good to choose something recent and this time it is Patrick Gale’s NOTES FROM AN EXHIBITION, which I’ve been meaning reading to read for a while. It’s been very well reviewed. And then an all-time favourite of mine, one of the collections of Raymond Carver’s short stories – choosing just one is hard, but it will be one of the later ones, ELEPHANT or CATHEDRAL. And then something I’ve been wanting to re-read for a while, Muriel Spark’s A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON, which I first read about twenty years, soon after publication. It’s stayed with me and I’d like to revisit it. And lastly, I’ll throw a classic into the mix – CRANFORD, I think – or maybe Jane Austen. I’ll let you know which one comes out on top.
I know I’ve been neglecting my blog. I’m very busy at the moment trying to get this novel off my hands, but I’ll soon get back to blogging on Monday or Tuesdays every week, I promise.