Sunday, 26 September 2010

Language in the Historical Novel

One of the debates that rages - or, at least, grumbles gently – in the hist fic community is about language. Should you, or should you not, use language that is recognisably different from that used in contemporary fiction or what I like to think of as now-fic.

I had fun with this in my (sadly unpublished) last novel, Not One of Us, in which I played with the notion that somebody in the present might have written a supposedly historical document. How good was the language used? Was it authentic enough? Was it, possibly, too authentic?

In Testament, though I wasn't consciously playing with it, the language used in the contemporary sections is markedly different to that used in the fourteenth century sections.

I've consciously ratcheted this up in The Black and The White. Though I had a policy of using Anglo-Saxon sounding words in Testament's fourteenth century bits, I wasn't by any means ruthless with myself. This time, I decided to be far more rigorous. I didn't want it to sound too overtly 'historical' – I wanted to give it contemporary credibility (eg all my people use contractions – don't, won't etc and generally sound like people talking to each other not people going 'ooh, look at me, I'm being all historical) but to mark it, somehow, as different. So I decided to confine myself, as much as possible to English words which had their root in the period.

Now, I'm sure I haven't excluded all those latin-derived words that the eighteenth century grammarians and linguistic style-gurus were so keen to import into English to give it what they considered to be the necessary gravitas – one or two are bound to have slipped in under the radar (in this context that should probably be 'watchman's eye') here and there – but I have checked every time I find myself about to use a word which sounds appropriately medieval. To this end, as I use a mac, I have put on my dock a little dictionary/thesaurus gizmo which means I can check words out without having to go out of my document and online (or open my dictionary which will probably fail to have migrated to whatever room I'm writing in) each time.

Take the word 'bewilder' – it has an Anglo-Saxon feel. You feel that, if Chaucer didn't use it, then he missed a trick. The prefix be- clearly puts it with definitely Old English-derived words like 'bestride'. But no. My dictionary gizmo (powered by Oxford dictionaries so, surely, it must be right) tells me that bewilder didn't come into English until the late 17th century. So, do I use it because it sounds right, or not use it because it didn't appear for another two and a half centuries – at least in print? It's a tough one. I proceed on a case by case basis. If it sounds right, I'll usually go with it and not be too purist about it.

One thing I have learned though is that, as previously expounded in these posts, the fourteenth century is when it all happened for England. The sheer number of words which – when you look up their derivation – fall into the category of 'Late Middle English' (ie early fourteenth to mid fifteenth centuries) is vast. And, I suppose, it's not surprising. With the time taken for English to mingle successfully with Norman French, this period is when English became recognisably English rather than Anglo Saxon (aka Old English). Most educated people can have a go at Chaucer – granted, some of the words have changed their meaning (vertu in the bit below means power, for intance) and some have gone out of use but you'd mostly get the gist. Here are the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

the droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

and bathed every veyne in swich licour

of which vertu engendred is the flour

Not too difficult. But even educated speakers of English would have considerably more trouble if they were presented with chunks of Anglo Saxon. Here's the beginning of the tenth century poem, The Wanderer.

Oft him anhaga

are gebideð,

metudes miltse,

þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade

longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum

hrimcealde sæ,

wadan wræclastas.

I'm guessing that, unless you've studied Anglo Saxon at some stage, that's pretty much gibberish to you. Let's face it, it's even got letters we don't use in modern English.

[If you're dying to know what is says, it's this:

Often the soliary one

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the lord

although he, sorry hearted,

must for a long time

move himself by hand (ie row)

along the waterways,

the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.

Not, sadly, my own work – thanks to for both original and translation.]

So, the fourteenth century produced our language, aided and abetted – certainly in terms of speed of uptake by the upper classes – by the Black Death.

But more on that in another post.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Crises in the present tense and their averting

I've now reworked about a quarter of the novel which means, given that it's the quarter that needs most work (the first), that I've done the bulk of the heavy lifting, as it were. But yesterday I had a bit of a crisis about the restructuing. To understand the crisis, you need to know about tense.

The novel, in its previous form (I won't say original form as that beast died long ago after my first readers had read the first 100 pages) began with a prologue in the present tense. We then moved back in time six weeks or so to begin Part 1 of the book which explained how we'd got to the prologue. Part 1 was written in the past tense. At the end of Part 1 we'd caught up with the mood and timeframe of the prologue and Part 2 was written in the present tense.

Since I've now hacked away at those six weeks and made the prologue problematic if not redundant, I decided to abandon parts and to write the whole thing in the present tense. I know, given Philip Pullman's recent remarks, that this looks like a 'brave' decision but I'd always wanted at least the latter parts of the book to be in present tense as it allows for a final catastrophe in the life of the first person narrator more readily than past tense. I also felt (and I made this decision before reading, or hearing the furore about, Wolf Hall) that a historical novel written in the present tense would have a better chance of breaking the barrier between now and then, that the reader might get more readily involved, be more prepared to suspend their disbelief and enter into that world. And, given that the fourteenth century is so long ago as to constitute a really different country, that seemed important.

Anyway, by Monday night, I had got to the stage where I felt that writing it all in the present tense had been a mistake and that Mr Pullman was right when he said that it makes it impossible to show a wide temporal perspective. I began to long for the little asides in present tense which I'd allowed myself in the midst of the past tense narrative, the hints to the reader that things are only going to get worse; I mourned the loss of the moment when the reader finally caught up with the prologue and began racing, headlong to the end. I was, in short, having a crisis of confidence.

So, I printed out the first hundred pages – roughly the section of the novel I've reworked so far - and I began to read with a view to re-winding back into present tense.

But I'm not going to. Because present tense works. Right from the new opening, which has the flavour of the prologue but is now very firmly unknowing of what is to come, I think it works. And, because it works, I now see the tense-devices tricks I was playing with in the previous version as facile and a bit cheap. I went back and read some of the asides and found them artful (not in a good way) and nose-tapping. I've never really been convinced by obvious foreshadowing of the 'if only I'd known then what I know now' variety in other people's work, so why was I perpetrating a slightly more sophisticated version of the same thing in my own?

I like the new present-tense narrative. It's taughter. Interestingly, despite cutting the slides into present from past, it feels more emotionally keyed-up, not less. And it also makes flashbacks much easier to write. There's no convoluted use of the pluperfect in the seguays from main narrative past tense to flashback past tense; as we spring back into the main narrative with a sprightly 'now' it actually means 'now' and not 'in the main timeframe of this book which is set in the past and is actually, therefore, then'. And I'm finding that having the main character reflect on the past from the standpoint of a present to which he cannot possibly know the resolution gives his recollections a poignancy which they wouldn't have if he was already in the past, narratively speaking.

Gold stars to those who kept up with that.

So, crisis over. Others may not like it, specifically putative agent and subsequent editors, but at least I like it now. And that's a huge part of the battle for a decent novel, isn't it?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Rewriting - advice

While I am engaged in the re-write all this seems very germane. I'm particularly interested in Elmore Leonard's opening advice - cut, rewrite then cut and rewrite again.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rewriting the Novel - everybody's at it!

There's a lot being said at the moment by Macmillan New Writers (eg here and here as well as here at HB) about the rewriting/editing process and it's obvious that there's something of a divergence of opinion on the whole process. Some love it, some dread it.

I'll come clean, now and admit that I really enjoy the process of rewriting. I enjoy it so much that I'm constantly at it. I edit a huge amount as I go along. At the most basic level, I'll change a sentence twice or three times in the writing of it, just because I'm thinking and working out and weighing up the sound of the thing as I go along.

This will correctly suggest to you that I don't know what a sentence is going to sound like until I've actually written it; I have a vague, subconscious feel of what's happening and the act of writing turns this into something more real, more concrete.

I remember reading an interview with somebody, once – I think it was Mary Wesley – who said that writing on a typewriter made you far more economical with words and less prone to having to rewrite as you had to work out each sentence in your head before you started. That wouldn't work for me. Not at all. I'd go into terminal stall. I need to find out what a sentence is going to say by watching and listening to it unfold. And then rewriting it so it says it better. And then again. And then I'll move on to the next sentence.

But the editing doesn't stop there. That's the beginning. At the end of each day, I go through the day's output, rewriting, cutting, adding, trying to get it exactly right.

The following day, I read the previous day's work again, out loud. Again, I tweak sentences, add, cut and re-think. That'll take an hour or two. Then I start writing new stuff.

I'll go through the whole thing again when I read through the chapter before I add it to the file containing the whole of the work to date. That means each chapter has been through numerous batches of rewriting before I've even got to the end of what we probably shouldn't call draft one of the novel.

I can hear your question now. 'What the hell is there left to rewrite at the end?'

Well, actually, quite a lot.

In just the same way that I don't know what a sentence is going to say until I've written it, I find it really difficult to structure my books until I know what they're really about.

Let me explain what I mean when I say 'really about'. I'm not talking about plot, here. I know roughly what's going to happen – the beginning, the end, a few key events in between - before I begin, but what I don't know is what it's all going to turn out to mean. I don't start writing thinking 'ah, this is a book about loss/alienation/fear of being abandoned/insert your own overarching theme' I just wait to see what things emerge. I may have a notion of what will turn out to be important, but I'm loath to commit to that before seeing how my characters interact with each other and where they go with the action I've sketched out for them.

The other thing i'm often hazy about is motivation. If you know what happens but you want to let your characters develop naturally and not force them into some kind of cardboard cutout persona, then you're setting yourself up for a lot of reworking. I've spent a lot of time whilst writing The Black and The white getting to grips with why one of the characters does a particular thing – not just any old thing, a seminal thing that sparks the whole of the action. I tried one motivation but the whole thing just wouldn't gel – I was trying to force the issue and rely on my own interpretation to decide why he did it rather than just writing the story and letting him show me why he did it.

OK, I've just read that and it sounds flaky. I used to hate it when heard authors saying 'my characters just did this' or 'they just wouldn't do what I wanted them to' and I'd think 'they're your characters, make them behave!' But the truth is, if you're writing character-driven fiction they're only your characters up to a point. And after that point, they're you (or your unruly subconscious) and are you always under your own rational control?

So, anyway, the point is, I can't work out the best structure until I know what the important themes are and I can't decide why the events of the plot happen until I know who the characters are, and I can only find out both those things by writing the damn' story. [The whole 'write your characters' biography down to their earliest memory and their inside leg measurement' thing has never worked for me. I've tried it and one of two things happens. Either the characters fail to become real and I'm just making the whole thing happen rather than finding out what really happens, or the minute I start writing the book, they become somebody else and I might just as well not have bothered with the whole biog thing.]

The point of this rambling is that I'm always going to be stuck with a certain amount of structural rewriting because of the way I allow my novels to develop.

At the moment, I'm managing to cut at least half the material from the first 70 pages because I now know what matters and what doesn't, and also because some of that material needs to come later in the book for reasons of character development and suspense. But I couldn't possibly have written the book in its current (ie rewritten) form from the beginning, because I needed to find out a) what it was really about behind the plot and b) who these people really were behind the vague notions I had of the characters moving my plot forward.

Given all that, it's a good job that I like rewriting, isn't it?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Rewriting the Novel - Day 3

When you're rewriting/reworking your novel – as I am – and you have jumped to page 38 and started there instead of continuing to allow your novel to begin on page 1 like any sensible person, you need to decide what to do with all the information contained in pages 1-37.

I am deciding this by reference to a list of questions I have asked myself. I jotted them down at the beginning of work on Monday under the inspiring heading 'Questions that need to be progressively answered.'

They emerged in no particular order and I shall quote them in full for your bafflement:

  • Who is the saint?
  • What has happened to M and what did the saint have to do with it?
  • What happened between M and his F and why/how? (I would leave you to guess but, prosaically, F = father)
  • Birds.

This last is not a question, just an aide memoire.

Of course, how to do backstory is a question a million writers before me have had to answer. That is, after they've answered the far more important question – is any of this backstory necessary?

It is necessary. Honestly.

And, now I've got M feeding the reader titbits of his backstory instead of laying the whole thing out in one go, there's a lot more scope for the unreliable narrator thing.

I like unreliable narrators.

Or do I?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Strings and bows

No work on TB&TW today as I have been pursuing a non-fiction publishing deal. As you may or may not know, I work at a secondary provision for boys with an autism spectrum disorder and my boss and I have co-written a day-to-day survival pack for teachers that we've provisionally entitled The Really Useful ASD Pack.

Speechmark, a publisher that specialises in educational resources, clearly think that it would be really useful because they're going to publish it. So, today, my boss, Jan, and I have been meeting with them in Milton Keynes to discuss additions to the material we've already submitted, contracts, timeline etc.

We're all actually quite excited about it!

Since everybody in the writing business is being told that they must diversify and have more than one writing string to their bow, turning to non-fiction seems like a good idea. Speechmark would be interested in us producing more books for them, too, which is good news.

I shall be at work at the aforementioned secondary provision tomorrow, so no rewriting will be done tomorrow either. But I shall be up at the crack of dawn on Friday getting on with it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Rewriting the novel – end of day 2 - not The Road

Today, things are beginning to take shape. I'm beginning to see how the new, streamlined beginning of The Black and The White is going to work.

I've decided that the best place to begin is with chapter 5. However, that does not mean that I am simply jettisoning the first 4 chapters, in a bid to out-extreme-edit Nicola Morgan (see previous post for details).

No. Fortunately, I have not allowed myself to be so self-indulgent as to write four irrelevant chapters. But...

The big but is the book's structure. The novel is a quest narrative and, fairly obviously, the main character needs to get off on his quest as soon as may be if the reader's not going to be sitting there tapping a foot and looking at their metaphorical watch. Until today, 'as soon as may be' effectively meant page thirty four, halfway through chapter 4. As of today, it's page one.

OK, now I've said that, readers of HB are likely to fall into two camps:

Camp 1 - Of course it needs to be page one! Not to start with the quester on his quest on page one is like starting Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the marriage of Goldilocks' parents and their subsequent rather uneventful honeymoon in Colwyn Bay.

Camp 2 – You can't just wave him off on page one! How is anybody supposed to know what the quest is all about if he's already setting out on it when we first clap eyes on him? Where is the princess with the demanding line in tests of commitment? Where's the king who doesn't really want anybody to marry his daughter and stage a hostile takeover bid for half the kingdom? Or whatever.

And there, friends, is the dilemma. Yes, if it's a quest narrative, he needs to be on the quest, hanky-wrapped belongings over his shoulder on a stick. (No, my character doesn't have a hanky - a) a handkerchief, as such, would be anachronistic and b) it would be altogether too Dick Whittington.) But there's also the need not to leave the reader totally in the dark as to why he's on the quest at all. (Which, by the way, is what Cormac McCarthy does in The Road. I have to admit, I didn't get more than halfway through TR because it is depressing to a horrible degree but there was never a sniff of an explanation of where they were going or why they were going there. Call me picky, but I'd have liked to know. I'm told, by those who have actually got to the end of TR (son no. 2) that I'd have been none the wiser (just much more depressed) if I'd read to the end. 'They go south' he said, when I asked. 'Why?' I asked. 'Because south is where they're going' he said.

Anyway, rant over. Let's re-focus on the novel I actually can re-write as I like.

OK, I acknowledge that 34 pages before the waving off with the hanky-wrapped etc. is probably being a little too generous with the scene-setting. But a lot of what happens in those pages is going to have to go in somewhere. Some of it – maybe five pages – has already been slid (in substantially modified form) into what were chapters five and six and are now chapters one and two. (Stay with me here.) The reader is getting the information in a significantly more oblique form than previously and, in a novel with a strong mystery element, this can only be a good thing.

So; so far, so good.

You'll have to keep reading if you want to see how I decide to deal with the remaining couple of dozen excised pages and their associated information.

And I may have to rant some more about The Road, because two of the four people who have, so far, read portions of The Black and The White have compared it to that depressing (but yes, I know, very literary) work. But you'll have to wait and see.

Reworking the novel - day 2

So, I've fallen at the first hurdle. Failed to blog yesterday as I spent the evening editing a short story for a friend. A very good short story, I'm pleased to say, and one which needed only a tweak here and there rather than some kind of root and branch hacking.

Anyway, the rewriting. I started yesterday morning with a huge brick of 412 typescript pages sitting on the dining room table. The structural element of the rewrite is going to consist, largely, of deciding what elements of the first 75 pages are really essential and deciding how to weave them in elsewhere in a felicitous manner.

Reading those first 75 pages again, I recalled a recent post on Nicola Morgan's blog that contained this advice on editing:

  • Shorten chapters, unless they are already stupidly short. Alter the places where they begin and end so that they usually end mid-action. Give every chapter a knife-edge beginning and ending. Do not let your reader stop reading.

  • Remove much more description than you want to.

  • Ditto with back-story, philosophy, scene setting and world building. Just because you know it, doesn't mean the reader needs it. Think iceberg.

  • Remove at least two of the first five chapters. Just do it. See what happens.

  • Remove all your favourite sentences.

Now, for me, some of those are a bit extreme. The last one, specifically. But, in general, I take her point. Self-indulgent writing is no good to anybody and will just be flicked past, if the book is read at all.

My chapters are already pretty short but, as she advises, I'm not sure all of the first six need to be there. Ms Morgan would undoubtedly dismiss chunks of them as world building/back story/scene setting. Can I remove two? Yes, though bits of them will need to turn up elsewhere.

She's right about description. I like a well-turned phrase as much as (probably more than) the next reader but if the description goes on too long, however exquisite it is, I find myself skipping to the next salient bit. So I've always favoured the 'key but telling details' in terms of description. Less is very definitely more.

So, what do I have at the end of my first day of reworking?

  • Five paperclipped chapters with bits of text highlighted and 'put this in when/after/before...'

  • A completely reworked first chapter.

  • A mild feeling of having ended up with a ball of string composed of five different strands which I now have to untangle into a single thread.

As AL Kennedy would say, Onwards!

Later: Not sure why the font changes halfway through that post - sorry!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

I'm back!

So, the A levels were got through to everybody's satisfaction and the results were all that was hoped for. (Phew!) The novel was finished – later than anticipated but still in time to take time off with my Other Half and have some holiday. And now the summer holidays are over and, though I am back at school part time with my autistic young men, I have no children at school. This, after sixteen years of everything associated with having school-aged children is quite a shock. No more bleary-eyed teenagers at breakfast. No more soccer/hockey/cricket kit to wash. No more 'can you sign this form it's got to be in today?'. No more fetching and carrying from practices, rehearsals, school social events. No more stopping work at four thirty to stand about in the kitchen watching them make sandwiches and – if I'm lucky – tell me the edited highlights of their day.

The times they are definitely a-changing.

Today, I printed out the novel. The Black and the White. Well, let's be honest, it's still actually the work in progress; tomorrow the re-writing begins. I have a snag-list to address and a suggestion from a prospective agent which will see me completely re-structuring the first quarter of the novel. It's the old 'if I were you I wouldn't start it here' thing. Or, more accurately, in a book which – if it were a play – could be summed up as a two-hander, the rather less-often heard 'you need to get the second character in more quickly' thing.

I knew that right from the beginning. If anybody had asked me what the book's main flaw was, I would have 'fessed up to needing Protagonist No 2 in more quickly. Thing was, I just couldn't see how to do it without marooning the reader in the middle of the story and requiring industrial quantities of flashback. Not an option.

But I think I see how to do it, now. And I also think it'll make the book stronger and not just because the main character gets his antagonist sooner.

I shall be posting (see below) about how the re-writing is going but I thought I'd just say a few things, first, about the experience of not blogging for the last few months.

My last blog was posted on the 14th of April – almost five months ago. Initially, it was a relief not to have to find something cogent to say once or twice a week; like many bloggers, after two and a half years of regular posting, I had found that the blog had become something of a millstone. I applied myself to the book and to making sure that everything was on track for the A-levels and resolved to keep my head out of the blogosphere.

I quickly missed it - not so much my own blog, however, as those of other people. Initially, it had seemed like a good idea to stop reading other people's blogs as well as to stop updating mine – just to keep clear of the online world altogether. It can be, as we all know, a monumental drain on time which could more profitably be spent on the work in progress.

But I had underestimated the water-cooler effect. That's how I described keeping a blog (and commenting on the blogs of others) to somebody once, as the equivalent of water-cooler conversation at work. Writers being somewhat isolated as a profession, we need somewhere to chew the fat with people in the same line of work. So, I quickly abandoned the 'no blogosphere' approach and started reading other people's blogs again.

It has seemed like an unfair bargain. I get to read their comments, thoughts, observations etc but I'm not reciprocating. Ok, so I'm responding to what they have had to say, but it's not the same thing. It's like eavesdropping on other people's conversations and never bothering to start an interesting one of your own.

So, with thanks to all those of you whose blogs I have been eavesdropping on and who have been solicitous after the welfare of the work in progress, I am beginning another season of blogging. And, as I'm coming back to the blog at a very specific point in the journey through my book, I thought I might experiment with actually keeping a proper blog – a weblog, a day-by-day account.

So, if I can manage it, I shall try and post something about how the re-writing is going each day.

Watch this space.