Wednesday, 10 March 2010
Monday 8th March. The real start of the activity for which I have the ACE grant. My mentor, Maggie Gee and I, met at the British Library, near St Pancras. I had never, to my shame, been here – the largest new build in the UK in the whole of the last century. I was late. A tube train broke down at King’s Cross, holding up the system – typical!
Maggie (henceforth ‘M’ as in Bond, James Bond) had read through the whole draft manuscript – the first time anyone has done that. So her feedback was always going to be invaluable, and my ears were pinned back from the off. It was great - straight talking, no flannel, encouragement and an honest appraisal of where work was needed.
I am very aware of my limitations here, hence this working relationship thanks to ACE. I know a bit about writing short stories, and that is not helping me. Whoever tells you that a novel is a natural progression that begins with the short story may not be talking from experience, that’s my conclusion – there is little in common as far as I can see.
We talked for two hours. M had already spent at least 8 hours reading and making extensive notes…so I needed to listen, and ask, and remember. It felt exhausting. She must have been so too.
She made me ‘see’ the work through the eyes of the reader. To recognise the importance of narrative pull-through. To begin to see where, although there is a backbone to the work, it is weak in places needs strengthening. A very important relationship between two central characters, is very weak – maybe because it only appeared very recently. There are over 60 characters in two timeframes… many subsidiary – and that needs simplifying. I drop important characters and pick ‘em up later – or introduce a new important character too late when they need to be ‘present’ earlier on. All stuff that will hold up the reader – most of whom will read much faster than M, and each omission will stop them in their tracks.
That is THE most valuable lesson. To bring the reader into the equation – something I haven’t done much as a short story writer. Maybe it is easier to just ‘be’ the reader as writer for a short – to hold the whole in your head as a coherent balanced entity. Whereas for a novel, and a complicated one – it is not as doable, and you need a different mindset.
M reckons it is 80% ‘there’.
As my house is full of builders and electricians, and plumbers at the moment, I am working at a friend’s house – doing the minor stuff first. Letting the major stuff mull.