I’ve posted very little, if anything, about the fiction I write, particularly my major work in progress: my Laurel Grove Mysteries. Well, the fact is that it lurches. It’s like a long train journey. It’s over, all but. You’ve gathered your baggage together and you’re standing in the aisle waiting to get off and you can see the station platform. But the train isn’t moving. Any minute now, you think. 5 minutes go by, 10 even. And you’re still standing there. Then it’s off again. It’s sudden. Unexpected. You’re thrown forward. You recover your balance. Then it stops again, as abruptly as it started. Another minute or so goes by … Half an hour later and the train’s still inching into the station. By this time, you might even be hallucinating – is the motion - when it comes - forwards or backwards?
So I’ve been into the rewrite of the first of the Laurel Grove series: Flint & Feather. Most of the time I know it’s not good but I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve been hoping it’s a problem of the chaos of two major house moves in less than a year and that, preceded by some pretty hefty life crises. Mostly, not being able to find the space and time to push on through the barriers.
But brute force isn’t going to be the solution. I’ve got to find a different kind of space and time than physical. The last time I had this sort of time was up the side of a mountain in the French Alps for a month, in a gite overlooking Corsica (well you could see the mountains of Corsica as misty silhouettes only at dawn, sometimes). In seclusion. I got out of bed every day for a month and sat down and wrote. 8 hours a day.
I’m not going to get that kind of environment again, not soon at any rate. I have to find a way of re-creating the seclusion of my writing retreat inside where I am now. I won’t achieve 8 hours writing a day. (After my retreat I had to sort out the ruin of the life I’d abandoned in order to go on retreat).
I am not disheartened. I’ve been writing this book long enough now to know how hard it is. There is this apparency, in visiting a bookstore, that because there is an abundance of books on shelves, that it must be easy. “After all,” you say to yourself, “all these other people have written books, so it can’t be that difficult“.
Still, I had a revelation this morning, about the major flaw in my fiction writing. It’s writing dialogue - I cannot write dialogue. I’ve read just about everything there is to read on the subject. The general consensus is that if you can’t write dialogue, it’s because you don’t know your characters well enough. But no matter what I did to ‘get to know them’ better, I still couldn’t make them talk.
The revelation came about like this. A friend drew my attention to a recent BBC TV programme (The Culture Show). It was an interview of Booker prize-winning author Hilary Mantel. My friend had a couple of Mantel’s books and gave me Wolf Hall.
The Culture Show interview was fascinating especially when the author described herself as a writer of dialogue. She explained how she would take her notes and turn them into dialogue. And she certainly can write dialogue. What I noticed particularly, after reading a passage of dialogue in Wolf Hall, was that I had images in my head.
Fiction is about spinning images. I thought I was quite good at that. After all, I’m a visual person, a visual artist. But I’ve been spinning my images in descriptive passages. There is the descriptive passage and there is dialogue (and in my work, the twain never meet!).
My revelation was that I have also, in fact, primarily, to spin images with dialogue. I have to go back to the beginning and re-write every scene in asking myself this question: “What are the images I wish to create with this dialogue”. It is of course, about ‘knowing your characters’. But so as to be able to spin the images through their words that you want to get into your reader’s head.
(Is it significant that this book began life as a short story called Puppet Master)?
The train is lurching forwards, backwards-style.
- In awe of Hilary Mantel (leannerichards.wordpress.com)
- The Booker shortlist’s sales are nothing to glory in (guardian.co.uk)
- Hilary Mantel: Culture Show Special, BBC Two, preview (telegraph.co.uk)
- Booker prize shortlist breaks sales records (guardian.co.uk)
- Two Hot Tips To Make Writing Dialogue Easier (pittsburghflashfictiongazette.com)
- Writers on how they write: Hilary Mantel (gointothestory.com)