In this cut section from Wrestliana, I imagine giving my ancestor William Litt a creative writing tutorial, to help him improve his novel Henry & Mary.
Scene: My office.
Ah, William – hello. Come in. Yes, that chair. I always sit in this one, don’t know why. Fine – okay? How are you? How have you been finding the course, so far?
It has proven most stimulating, I must say.
Very good. So, you’re enjoying the classes, the workshops, are you?
To be amongst convivial literary fellows is always a pleasure, although the presence of the fairer sex took a deal of getting accustomed to, particularly when discussion turned – as it often seems to – to matters immodest. However, when so they are as sympathetic and social as are the fairer of my fellow students at Birkbeck College, I began to find their presence amusing if not entirely necessary.
Um, excellent. And how about the written feedback – um, comments – you’ve received on your work. Have they been helpful?
Aye. Most helpful.
You haven’t found an imbalance between that you’ve given to other people, and what you’ve received back from them?
No. All has been equitable.
Right. I just have to check these things – it’s part of my job as tutor, and pastoral care, you know. So – I really should stop saying ‘so’ so much – I expect you’d like to talk about your novel.
Henry & Mary.
Yes. I like the title.
It’s a plain title for a plain tale.
Well, not that plain, actually. You’re being too modest. For a first novel – this is the first novel you’ve tried to write, isn’t it?
That it is.
In fact, as I understand it, you’ve only ever written poetry before – no fiction.
Then I’d say it’s a really remarkable piece of work.
Thank you, sir.
No need to call me ‘sir’. Yes, you have an astonishing command of English. I think I heard a report that you were sitting in someone’s garden, writing page after page, and that you didn’t touch any part twice.
There was an issue of haste, sir. The production was promised to Robert Gibson, printer, upon a certain day. When I make a contract, sir, I intent to honour it. That was my father’s way, and it is my way, too. And so I did, upon the very day the final words fell due, deliver them to King Street.
Well, yes – we all have to cope with deadlines, now and again. But now that you’ve finished a first draft and had a bit of time to think about it, what are your thoughts. (Think, thoughts – terrible.)
I have not thought much on’t, truth were told. I have been considering some verses to be appended to the finale.
But writing is rewriting is re-rewriting. You’re going to need to start back in at page one, and go through each line –
Nay! ‘tis a finished production.
That’s not how writing works.
That is how my Wrestliana was made.
Yes, but – as I understand it – that was non-fiction, and very much within your compass, as it were. You could write it off the top of your head.
From the heart, sir. ‘Tis a fine passion.
Let me be a bit more specific about what I’m thinking of, for the second draft. I have the manuscript here, but also the proofs from Mr Gibson – which are at least page-numbered. Here’s one example: the novel is called Henry & Mary, and we know a lot about Henry – how he is physically, what he thinks at moments of great emotion. Yet the other half of your couple, Mary, we get almost nothing of.
I don’t quite –
She’s a cipher, William. Or rather, she’s an idealized and conventionalized version of pretty emptyheaded young womanhood. We know she’s attractive, with bright, communicative, blue eyes, but apart from that we don’t know anything. We don’t know how she walks into a room, how she talks.
‘Her voice was ever soft and low a – ’
‘Thing most becoming in woman.’ Yes. I know my King Lear, too. And my Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. I caught those allusions. You’re trying to build something really tragic, here. But the reader won’t feel for your lovers unless you convince them they both exist. Mary isn’t allowed to do anything independent – to show herself, and how she is different from other young women.
She isn’t. She’s a fine young lass who’d make a good wife for any lucky fellow.
All I’m saying is, I think you need to give her some more depth. The early scenes in which she and Henry are alone, you need to make more of them. The readers must love her as Henry does. She must be worthy of his love, in their eyes.
The heart does what it may.
Okay, let’s take another example, specifically. The novel turns on Henry’s being drawn to the dark side – I mean smuggling. For the first half of the book, he is completely morally impeccable. Then, in the second half, on page 259 out of 382, in fact, he just turns round and becomes a criminal. You do some scrabbling afterwards to explain this – you tell the reader why – but the whole turn to smuggling, the whole novel, would be far more convincing if you replotted it from the start to build up to this change of heart. You’ve got the basis here, all the ingredients. But Henry needs to be in a much more critical state to give in to the temptation of easy money. It can’t just be ‘Fancy doing some smuggling, Henry?’ ‘Yeah, Walter, that sounds great.’ You could easily make it that Mary’s family faces financial ruin, and that she and they will be destitute unless Henry helps them with this one last – we promise, we really promise – heist. This, after all, is the moment all is lost – Mary, his life in England, everything. It’s a BIG moment.
Henry is not a very considering fellow. He is not sufficiently adhered to high moral principles. If I may have the manuscript and…
A minute passes as William goes back and forth through the pages. He then begins to read, but I cut him off –
Yes, yes – I see. But the reader is getting that after, ex post facto, the decision has been made. What I’m saying is, the novel would be stronger if the reader were convinced by Henry’s decision at the moment he makes it rather than having to be persuaded subsequently.
You are most eloquent on this matter, sir. But I can’t see how it avails much, for he himself did not realize the import of his commitment until many days afterwards.
Just because a character is a bit shallow, it doesn’t mean the novel written about them should be, too. I think you’ll have to give this one some thought, before you hand in your dissertation. A couple more things, though. What genre is Henry & Mary?
Genre? I don’t quite follow.
It seems part adventure story and part ghost story and part romance.
It is a true story. I had it upon the witness of many reliable notables.
Yes, that’s the framing device. What I mean is, you need to be careful you don’t confuse the reader. They must be confident you’re in control of the form.
I am – as I believe I said – telling a tale, as best I can.
And at many points, you’re telling it very well. There are some great set-pieces. The first encounter between the young lovers and Ellen Anderson; in fact, all the gothic scenes. The fight sequences.
Those are from personal habituation to –
I can tell. The reader can tell. And perhaps the best scene in the book is that final one with Henry’s sister and his nieces and nephews, after he has decided to go and join the army in taking Havanna. However, –
I am most obligated to you for your kind words.
However, I have to finish this sentence, William – very often you’re failing to fulfil the most important task of fiction, which is to put us in the room, or out in the open air, with the characters.
I do not see that of the very highest importance. Surely, factual instruction, moral uplift –
If we can’t see them, where they are in a room, how they slouch or sit up straight, what they’re wearing…
That, surely, is the business of the reader.
You do almost no descriptions of clothes. If you don’t give them to us physically, then they remain disembodied – just ideas, notions of people.
What does it matter the clothes a man wears? Everyone knows how a gentleman should dress.
This is 2015, you’re writing about the 1700s. The reader needs some help.
If you would but let me conclude. The crux is knowing how the story goes. You want me to fill up my pages with shoes and dresses and candlesticks when –
Yes, I do.
Of at least some. One candlestick. There are hardly any.
Sir, I was in the course of saying. The heart of the tale is in the way things go. I leave the reader to provide the costume and scenery for himself. Any sensible fellow will be able to outfit a name with a coat and hat.
Alright. Well, now we come to my biggest issue. And I don’t expect you to agree with me on this, but please hear me out.
If you will cease interrupting me.
Yes. Sorry about that. Now I’m not a huge fan of just saying to students ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. It’s not a universal rule. (You’re certainly writing what you know, William.) But, in your case, you really are doing about 97% telling and only 3% showing. There are some magnificent descriptions of landscapes, some glimpses of how children are, a few vivid scenes in graveyards and around spooky houses, but overall the novel takes place behind a veil – no, behind a thick velvet curtain of eloquence.
You never chose a simple, straightforward word over a complicated or polysyllabic one. As a result, the novel sometimes reads like a lecture or a treatise or a sermon or an essay – all forms of discourse that you’re very familiar with. But the novel needs to be more open, more accessible, more alive to the moment of decision and action.
But I know the tale, and I’m telling it as best I can. When I make a speech, it has to have some magnificence of address. A romance is not chatter in a pub.
I think Henry & Mary could do with a little more pub chatter. Put what you’ve written aside, especially the asides. You might want to tell people about the effects of enclosure but don’t do it just when your novel is about to reach its dramatic climax.
Folks need to know, in order properly to comprehend.
William, you are one of the most talented wordsmiths I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. You can turn the logic of a sentence back to front, upside down, inside out – and very often you seem to do that for the hell of it. What I’d like to see in the next draft is you taking on board a few of the things I’ve said, and trying them out just to see how they feel. Also, you need to stop reading ‘The Author of “Waverley”’. His influence upon you is too great. Have a look at Jane Austen.
Yes, she’s a contemporary of yours. Very good. Very efficient.
Does she ‘do’ candlesticks.
I can’t say as I shall.
Well, I’m afraid we’ve almost come to the end of our –
You, sir, have expectations I do not recognize.
You speak of a relation between reader and author as if it were a certain thing. I know my readers, sir. I could name you two hundred of ’em, but I do not presume to enter their heads and make myself familiar with their cogitations. A tale is a tale. It can be made or marred in the telling, I grant you that. But if it is a good tale – as I believe this one is – then all the writer need to is deal with it honestly, let the words fall as they may.
It’s really not quite as simple as –
It is, sir. It is.
William, believe me, of the two of us in this room, I am the one who is most on the side of simplicity.
Of idiocy, rather. Of treating readers as if they mayn’t for themselves picture a room or a person’s entering it.
Take the character of Mrs Steel –
The devil take her. I knew the rumours of Henry Armstrong, and I have set them down as best I can. Now, have done with it. If we were talking of poetry –
Well, hopefully you’ll be able to take that option next term.
No, I am off home. There’s little enough I can learn from the likes of you.
And with this, William leaves. The door has never been quite so solidly shut.