HOW TO END A NOVEL

The other day I finished a book and wanted to throw it out of the window. I had largely enjoyed it up to the very end but then I felt the writer had chosen the most depressing ending possible and I wasn’t in the mood. I really did feel completely infuriated by the nihilism. It’s not that I need rainbows and tweeting birdies, but on the whole I prefer a pinch of hope, a sprinkling of the stuff, with my ending.

books in black wooden book shelf

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Oscar Wilde would have had no problem with the ending. This is what he had to say on the matter:

“I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.”

So, Oscar would have been fine. But setting his paradox to one side, the truth is, it’s extremely hard to end a book well. How often have you thought to yourself. Yup, it was fine but the ending was a bit dodgy or weird or stuck on. Or perhaps you’ve thought, ‘What happened there? Did I miss something?’ I do that all the time.

E.M. Forster had this to say on the matter in his classic book Aspects of the Novel.

“In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.”

Deadness? Eek!

Some writers are impressively ruthless over endings. I am absolutely not. If a reader has done me the honour of buying my book and taken the trouble to read it to the end I want them to leave with something that is not completely pessimistic. The ending doesn’t have to be redemptive as such but I do feel a responsibility. I do think about the reader. And so do publishers of course. The reason why there is not the convention that Forster argues for is that the book wouldn’t get accepted for publication. So the rounding off thing is part and parcel of being a professional writer, it’s expected with certain sorts of fiction. You can’t quit when you’re bored or muddled if you want to be published.

Unless you’re French.

Then you can write tiny books of auto fiction which are completely incomprehensible and still win the Nobel Prize for Literature. A cheap shot but I’ve been struggling with Patrick Modiano for way too long and need to vent.

Google How to end a novel and you will find all kinds of advice. You will be told to build tension, evoke emotions and my favourite, make sure your ending makes sense. You will be advised to keep your end in sight the whole way. Don’t do that it’ll give you a crick in the neck. You will be told how to end a novel quickly and how to end your novel with a twist. What are we now? Gymnasts?It’s exhausting all the things you will be told. You will be told to read the successful endings of famous novels, like the Great Gatsby for example. Don’t do that either, it’ll just depress you and it won’t help. You are probably not Scott Fitzgerald and you haven’t written The Great Gatsby. The trouble is you have written your book and only you can finish it. Oh, the horror, the horror.

In his book Writing a Novel, Nigel Watts likens the finishing of a novel to tightening the laces of a tall boot.

“You start at the toe and then loosely lace up to the top. Then you return to the toe and tighten up to the top again, making minor adjustments. So, how many tightenings is enough?”

 

Regrettably there’s no one who can help you.

Now if I had ended this piece with the above line you would feel exactly as I felt when I finished the book I mentioned at the beginning.

But I wouldn’t do that to you, so here is Watts again.

“There is no point of arrival, no point of perfection. You just do your best with what you’ve got and send your creation out into the world.”

There, you see? A softer, kinder ending. You do the best you can. Simples.

BRONTE: THE HISTORY OF A NAME

Have you ever wondered about the name Brontë? Apologies for the lack of umlaut in the title but I wasn’t sure how to produce one up there. Down here I can scatter them around like confetti.

The Brontës’ father, Patrick, was born in 1777 in County Down Northern Ireland of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents. His surname is thought to have been either Prunty or Brunty. He was one of ten, very clever and came to Cambridge to study for his degree with the aim of going into the Church of England. Presumably Patrick did not want an Irish name impeding his career in England and so he changed it.

But why did he chose Brontë?

(The above is a painting of Emily by her brother Patrick Branwell Brontë.)

The word is an anglicisation of the Greek word for thunder. Maybe he liked the idea of delivering thunderous sermons to his startled congregations. And putting the umlaut on the e gave the name a faintly Germanic ring, distancing him even further from his Irish roots.

Or maybe there was another reason. Here Horatio Nelson enters the picture. Well, why wouldn’t he? He had been made the Duke of Bronte (no umlaut) in 1799 by Ferdinand, the King of the Two Sicilies and the Infante of Spain, in thanks for his success against Napoleon. Bronte was a 3000 acre estate in Sicily near Mount Etna, a thunderous place one might say. Emma Hamilton referenced the classical allusion in the name Bronte by calling her lover, Nelson, My Lord Thunder. So maybe Patrick was showing his patriotism by adopting a name associated with a British naval hero.

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                     The view of Mount Etna from Taormina in Sicily

It’s interesting to imagine Wuthering Heights written by Emily Prunty/Brunty and Jane Eyre written by Charlotte Prunty/Brunty.

But then Animal Farm could have been written by Eric Blair not George Orwell, Heart of Darkness by Teodor Nalecz Korzeniowski not Joseph Conrad and I, Claudius by Robert von Ranke rather than Robert Graves.

Publishers and agents are sensitive about names. I was told it would be better to be published under the name Victoria Blake not Vicky Blake. I had never been called Victoria in my life unless my mother was angry with me. Victoria was apparently more authoritative. Rather unlike me, then. After all,  Val McDermid didn’t have to publish as Valarie McDermid, did she? Maybe because she had already established her writing name as a journalist. Maybe because she just said no.

If you were a writer what name would you publish under?

If you are a writer do you publish under your own name or another?

WRITING TIPS: POINT OF VIEW

There are five points of view in writing each with its own disadvantages and advantages:

  • first person
  • second person narrative (tricky and rarely used, don’t go there)
  • third person single point of view
  • third person multiple points of view
  • God’s eye view

This post is about God’s eye view. This is what Evelyn Waugh had to say about the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter.

“The affinity to film is everywhere apparent in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. It is the camera’s eye which moves from the hotel balcony to the street below, picks out the policeman, follows him to the office, moves about the room from the handcuffs on the wall to the broken rosary in the drawer, recording significant detail. It is the modern way of telling a story … Perhaps it is the only contribution the cinema is destined to make to the arts.”

The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher, 1983

The last line is a bit snooty but then Waugh was. 

So, with a camera’s eye you can swing that lens where ever takes your fancy. As a writer I have used God’s eye view relatively little, torn between enjoying the exhilaration of being able to whizz about anywhere I want and the fear that it is self indulgent and that the result is well, a little bit ripe. 

But what the hell, let’s give it a go:

The pilot in the four engine A380 descending towards Heathrow was thinking about what he was going to eat for lunch when he landed. Nothing as decent as he could get in Dubai that was for sure. Down below him on the South West London streets an  Openreach worker dressed in orange neon clothes had just pulled up a heavy stone paving slab with a tool akin to an enormous yellow spanner and was staring morosely down onto  balls of tangled, multi-coloured spaghetti wiring. The shutters of the ground floor flat next to where he stood were pulled back and the window yanked up and a young woman began speaking, extending her arms and  gesticulating wildly. The movement of her arms was like an upset E.T. She made a rocking motion with her hands as if to indicate that whatever he was doing in the street, the moving of the slab maybe, was creating a reverberation in her room that she could not tolerate. He said something to her and then seemed relieved to be joined by a colleague. The two men became lost in conversation, ignoring her as she continued to complain until she slammed shut the window and pulled the shutters to. A harassed looking man was being walked by his Scottish Terrier, a little general of a dog who threw himself to the ground (admittedly not far to go on those legs) when he had had enough and demanded to be walked home. Across the road from the Openreach workers, a woman sat in the window of a mansion block looking at the ragged, red geraniums on her windowsill which she’d been meaning to deadhead for about ten days.  A bee nosed the red petals and then flew away. A sudden gust of wind blew a combination of crisp packets, plastic bags and dead leaves into the air. They spun around the Openreach workers and the little dog, making the terrier sneeze into his beard and the men squint and choke. The woman in the mansion block got wearily to her feet to go and get a pair of scissors but standing on the threshold of the kitchen forgot what she’d got up to do. She walked over to the fridge, wondering if she’d manage to get another day out of the hummus or if a thin covering of green mold would greet her, meaning a trip to the Co Op, could no longer be delayed. She opened the pot and shook it a little; two days past its sell by date and a little watery but it would do.

Victoria Blake 4/10/22

Hmm, needs pepping up would be my verdict and it goes a bit third person at the end but you get the general idea!

An author I’ve been reading recently who enjoys using God’s eye view and does it well is crime writer Mick Herron in his Slough House series. Have you read him? At the beginning and end of each book he does a bravura God’s eye piece on Slough House which contains the repulsive offices of his group of no-hoper, failed spies. Publishers and reviewers are always keen to compare writers to other writers and I’ve seen Herron compared to Graham Greene and, Len Deighton. He’s not really like either of them but seems to me to be originally and gloriously himself. He’s very funny and darkly satirical and he has a splendid anti-hero in Jackson Lamb. Lamb is the boss of the no hopers. He’s repulsive, flatulent, overweight and scathing but it turns out he’s rather a good spy. At the heart of him is someone who does care about his job and is not simply motivated by vanity and ambition.

The first of Herron’s books, Slow Horses, has recently been turned into a series on Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing Lamb. Before I saw it I wondered if they’d cut out the farting but it is there and Oldman does an excellent job of bringing Lamb to life. How Herron gets the reader to care about his band of failures and misfits is perhaps worthy of another post. Failure, of course, is a much more fertile ground for a writer than success.

Finally, what’s the down side of God’s eye view? Perhaps that the reader is held at arm’s length and is therefore less engaged. So best to use sparingly I think.

As a reader or a writer what do you think of God’s eye view writing? Do you have any favourite pieces to share?

MOOD MANAGEMENT and WRITING

I made the mistake of looking in some boxes. The idea was to throw things out. Why? I hear you cry. Space, fool. Anyway, I thought I’d start with a box which had OH GOD written on the side. I could have started with ODDS AND SODS or MISC (miscellaneous) but for some reason I dreaded MISC and ODDS AND SODS sounded boring, so it was OH GOD that got my attention.

person in white shirt lying on brown wooden bed

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I opened  the box and filled with good intentions took out the following:

  • the love letters my grandmother wrote to my grandfather during the months they were engaged
  • old passports showing my mother in her early twenties and a photo of her whizzing down snowy slopes in the 1940s
  • receipts from the 1890’s including one for a fancy lorgnette
  • a copy of the Sunday Mirror 1918 splashed across the front cover of which is the announcement that my great great grandmother’s marriage was legitimized by a Scottish court thus legitimizing her 14 children, one of whom was my great grandmother
  • a book into which is pasted from the Eastern Daily Press all the golf triumphs of my grandmother in Norfolk between 1907-1911. A grandmother I never met
  • a diary my mother kept of a trip to Italy with the Byron Society at some point in the 1990s when she comments on the extremely handsome Italian sailors in the hotel she was staying in. Excuse me, Dad, where were you?
  • a poem my great Uncle Norman wrote to his sister (my grandmother) giving moral guidance.
  • the photos that same uncle took when he went up to Oxford round about 1905
  • research my grandfather ( a history teacher who taught my father who became a historian) did into Tudor Cornwall
  • an undated card sent to my mother from a doctor training in south London asking her if she was married yet? Well, were you mother? After all she kept the card
  • a newspaper article about the battle of El Alamein in the Second World War, a battle my grandfather fought in with his tiny, indecipherable handwritten annotations on it

I’m a writer. Am I really going to throw out all these tiny fragments of family stories? Well, I’m not, am I? Although I did manage to throw out a thank you card to my great Uncle Norman from one of my cousins saying, ‘Thank you for the shoe horn.’ So I sat back put my head in my hands and groaned OH GOD!

And then I picked out an article by Anne Enright from the Guardian 5/7/08. Hurrah, I thought, this is why I have opened OH GOD. It is to find this article. And here at last we get to the title of the blog. This is what she has to say:

“Writing is mostly a case of mood management. The emotion you have is not absolute, it is temporary. It may be useful but it is not the truth. It is not you. Get over it…. You have no confidence? No one who is any good has any confidence. So, tell me what makes your particular lack of confidence so special.”

Interesting and here’s rather a good bit on ‘butch Americans’.

“Two years in (to a long project) you think of all the great books written in 6 weeks (why is it always six?) – Falconer’s As I Lay Dying, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Hemingway’s The Sun Always Rises – and why is it always these butch Americans? Did they all drink?”

Then I come across some reviews of my old crime books. One of JUMPING THE CRACKS in the TLS 4/1/2008. I’d completely forgotten about it but it ends with this paragraph.

“There is nothing wrong with any of this, and the writing is relaxed and literate, with some nice humour, all of which makes reading Jumping the Cracks perfectly pleasant, but in the twenty-first century shouldn’t crime fiction do more than simply please?”

Now then, you’re supposed to be grateful for any review and gracious about it but I have to say this posed an instant test of my mood management skills and it brought vividly to mind a letter which Judi Dench sent to the theater critic Charles Spencer, when he’d given her a bad review for Madame de Sade in 2009. She wrote:

“I’d always rather admired you but now realise you’re an absolute shit.” Referencing a stage accident which had meant she missed a few performances she continued. “I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to kick you when I fell over. Maybe next time …”

Amidst all this I also found at the bottom of the box a note on a bright pink piece of paper which states FREE YOURSELF FROM DEFENSIVE PERFECTIONISM! I wrote it but I’ve no recollection of doing so.

I now know exactly why I wrote Oh God on the side of the box.

Send help. Or advice even. Or Marie Kondo. Doesn’t she say you should only keep things that spark joy? Clearly the review doesn’t but it’s a minor miracle to get a book reviewed these days and it was the TLS. What would the butch Americans have done I wonder? Might it have involved drink?

All this and I’ve still got MISC and ODDS AND SODS to go. I think I’ll need a year of reciting the mantra The emotion I have is not absolute before I dare venture into them. Or perhaps I might try It’s perfectly all right to be perfectly pleasant. It has a rather nice Noel Coward/Cole Porter ring to it, don’t you think? And perhaps I should dance around throwing flowers in the air while reciting.

Have you got an OH GOD box? What did you find the last time you looked in it? And if you’ve got anything to offer on the vexed subject of mood management and writing I’m all ears. A perfectly pleasant response is guaranteed.

MISS MARPLE: COSY KNITTER?

The first novel Miss Marple appeared in was Murder in the Vicarage published in 1930. However the first description of her is in a short story published in 1927 titled the Tuesday Night Club later published in a book called The Thirteen Problems in 1932. She was to appear in 12 novels and 20 short stories (Poirot was 33 novels and 50 short stories). Here is Agatha Christie’s  first ever description of her.

“Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in about the waist. Mechlin lace (excuse me, what?) was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, (mittens?)and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting (knitting with mittens? Now there’s a thing.)- something white and soft and fleecy (her own hair perhaps?).”

In Murder in the Vicarage the vicar’s wife is not at all taken with Miss Marple describing her as ‘the worst cat in the village’ which makes her sound weirdly funky. The vicar himself, as he should be, is somewhat more charitable describing her as,  ‘A white haired old lady with a gentle and appealing manner.’ This last description is the one Christie seems to have settled on for the future books although the cat description is not ditched entirely. Sergeant Hay describes her as ‘an old tabby,’ in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953).

Here’s Miss Marple arriving at Yewtree Lodge in A Pocket Full of Rye.

“So charming, so innocent, such a fluffy and pink and white old lady was Miss Marple that she gained admittance to what was now practically a fortress … far more easily than can have been thought possible.”

And here she is on the same page.

“Crump saw a tall, elderly lady wearing a old fashioned tweed coat, a couple of scarves and a small felt hat with a bird’s wing. The old lady carried a capacious handbag and an aged but good quality suitcase reposed at her feet.”

This is the way she is portrayed in the many TV and film versions. If Christie’s physical descriptions of her vary the knitting remains constant.

Here she is waking up in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965).

“Miss Marple got back into bed, plumped her pillows up, glanced at her clock, half past seven … Then she picked up her knitting and began to knit, slowly at first, since her fingers were stiff and rheumatic when she first awoke, but very soon her pace grew faster, and her fingers lost their painful stiffness.”

And here she is in A Mirror Cracked from Side to Side (1962).

“Miss Marple uttered a sharp exclamation of annoyance. She’d dropped a stitch again. Not only that, she must have dropped it some time ago. Not until now, when she had to decrease for the neck and count the stitches had she realised the fact. She took up a spare pin, held the knitting sideways to the light and peered anxiously.”

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Throughout all the books she appears in she is depicted knitting, dropping her knitting, dropping and counting stitches, pushing her knitting away from her, sending people knitted items:  Thank you so much for the pullover, it’s just what I wanted etc. There is even in 4.50 from Paddington a description of her being ‘particularly woolly and fluffy  – a picture of a sweet old lady.’  It could make you long for Madame Defarge.

I like this exchange between Pat and Miss Marple in A Pocket Full of Rye:

“What are you knitting?”

“Oh, just a little matinée coat, dear. For a baby you know. I always say young mothers can’t have too many matinée coats for their babies. It’s the second size. I always knit the second size. Babies so soon grow out of the first size.”

Pat stretched out long legs towards the fire.

“It’s nice in here today,” she said. ‘With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It all seems cosy and homely and like England ought to be.”

“It’s like England is,” said Miss Marple…

Although, as we know, Miss Marple’s England is far from cosy and homely. It is a place riddled with appalling people committing terrible crimes and no amount of stuffing wool in the ears or pulling woolly hats over the eyes can hide that. However by the end of each book Miss Marple has solved the crime and returned us temporarily to that cosy and homely place where we can draw breath and doze by the fire to the comforting clacking of her knitting needles before the next shocking eruption of violence occurs.

In Nemesis (1971) the final novel that Miss Marple appears in, Jason Rafiel writes to her (from beyond the grave) in the following terms inviting her to solve an unspecified crime:

“I envisage you knitting more jackets, head scarves and a good many other things of which I do not know the name. If you prefer to continue knitting, that is your decision. If you prefer to serve the cause of justice, I hope you may at least find it interesting.”

As any knitter will tell you, Jason has got it all wrong. Although he’s dead so we can’t tell him. Miss Marple serves the cause of justice by knitting. It helps her think. It helps her unravel what is going on. It helps her solve the crimes. She follows the patterns of human behaviour just as she follows a pattern for a baby’s jacket. She serves the cause of justice by knitting not by setting it to one side.  I suppose in that respect she could be seen as being similar to Madame Defarge whose death register of a scarf she also sees as serving the cause of justice.

Finally, a very important question. Have you ever tried knitting in mittens and how did it go? Oh dear, I fear that won’t get the comments flowing so how about another one. Who would you prefer to knit you a scarf Miss Marple or Madame Defarge? That should get the little grey cells hopping about.

FILM REVIEW: REBECCA

So, what to say about the new film of Rebecca directed by Ben Wheatley now available on Netflix? There are going to be SPOILERS in here. First off, Lily James is much too pretty but this is always the case with film versions of Rebecca, so was Joan Fontaine (in Hitchcock’s 1940 black and white version). No one is going to cast her as she is in the book which is someone plain and gauche. Secondly – oh my God, the yellow suit! Maxim that is sooooooo damn yellow, an absolute custard marvel but you’re supposed to be classy … sack your tailor, man!

Rebecca (1940 film) - Wikipedia
This man would never have been seen dead in a yellow suit. Well, maybe in The Entertainer…

Enough rambling. The film was perfectly pleasant. It’ll while away a couple of hours especially if you don’t know the book and haven’t seen the Hitchcock film. I feel mean to be picky but here goes.

If you decide to adjust the characters to modern sensibilities watch out for what it does to the narrative as a whole. Something weird has happened to the character of Maxim in this version. For a start he’s too young. There’s supposed to be a substantial age gap between the two. Maxim is a ‘father figure’ to her. He should be moody, with a vicious temper, shut down and ‘wounded’. Armie Hammer’s version is way too amiable and lacks err wounds. Making him sleep walk adds nothing. He’s called de Winter for a reason. How can he be wintery in such a sunny suit?

There’s only one point where he shows any fire and that’s when his wife comes down the staircase dressed in the same costume that Rebecca had worn to the ball. Shove Maxim into the background and his wife comes to the fore. I understand why Wheatley wants to give her more agency. His fear, I imagine, was that she’s simply too passive, too insecure, too mousy and so too unsympathetic for modern sensibilities. But he obviously made a quick list. Let’s call it the Ben’s agency list:

  • have her drive. If she’s driving she has agency so there we are.
  • have her attempt to sack Mrs Danvers. I feel mean about this because in my previous blog I made rather a big thing of it but when the first attempt happened I burst out laughing. I also burst out laughing when she said later, ‘Pack your bags I want you gone by …’ I can’t remember when but it was probably the morning. It usually is isn’t it?
  • have her save Maxim all by herself. Oh yawn. By driving to London all by herself and finding the file that reveals Rebecca has cancer all by herself. 

In this version the neutered Maxim is locked up in prison when everything goes pear-shaped at the coroner’s inquest. Now this won’t do at all. One of the main themes of Rebecca is class division. In the book and the Hitchcock film the local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is a friend and there is no doubt that he is  ON MAX’S SIDE. There is never any suggestion that he  thinks Max killed his wife because he is an aristo/massive landowner and as such is morally beyond reproach. He certainly wouldn’t lock him up because then he’d never get an invite to the Manderley Ball again and his wife would divorce him. In the book Favell, a man from the wrong side of the tracks, is clear about how this works when he says to Colonel Julyan, once Max is off the hook: ‘You can dine at Manderley once a week on the strength of this and feel proud of yourself. No doubt Max will ask you to be godfather to his first child.’ 

What of Mrs Danvers? Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t go for the full schlocky-campy version which was rather disappointing. I didn’t find her frightening enough and the exchanges between her and the new Mrs de Winter were rather stilted.

At least in this version Maxim says he’s shot Rebecca. In the Hitchcock one it’s an accident. I suppose because the morality of the time (of any time actually) was such that someone should not be seen to have got away with murdering their wife.

There’s a very silly scene when Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin and lover) teaches her to ride. Frankly, if you want to suggest sexual loucheness you don’t need to straddle a horse just have George Saunders (in Hitchcock’s film) jump back and forth through a window and say toodle oo. 

Manderley is also an important ‘character’ in the book, malign and unwelcoming to the second Mrs de Winter. I didn’t really get much of an impression of it, although at various points I expected a National Trust volunteer to spring forwards and tell us about the wall hangings.

So what did I like? I liked the murmuration, used to signify the evil presence of Rebecca about the place, and also some dark scenes in the ball. I liked Mrs Van Hopper played by Ann Dowd. And I suppose I quite liked the ending which is upbeat. In the book and Hitchcock’s film you know that they’ll never be free of Rebecca and Manderley even if one’s dead and the other is burnt to a crisp. But in these Covid days I could do with a bit of cheer and ending on an optimistic note albeit in Cairo (which, incidentally is where du Maurier wrote the book) was fine even if completely at odds with the sensibility of the Gothic genre.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

STEINBECK’S WET AND MANGY MONGREL

I wrote a while ago about Steinbeck’s pencil obsession as described in his Journal of a Novel, the novel in question being East of Eden. At the end of it he writes a final letter to his editor Pascal Covici, which is described as the first draft of the dedication of the novel and  in it he quotes from the prologue of Don Quixote, describing Cervantes as the inventor of the modern novel. This is what Cervantes has to say:

“Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like …”

Steinbeck goes on to say something similar, that he has never ‘lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability…’ in the process of writing the book. And then continues:

“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”

Photo by Luiz Fernando on Pexels.com

Writers are constantly negotiating this space between what they imagine they can create and what they end up creating and self-loathing and disappointment are a fairly common response to this gulf. It’s worth remembering that assessing one’s own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do. There’s also the irritating fact that finishing one book does not make writing the next one any easier. However accepting the likely presence of the wet and mangy mongrel may help you to keep going. 

I have never kept a diary of the writing of a book and I’ve been thinking recently that I might try. Even if it’s just a sentence a day. Even if I’m already 40,000 words in. But at what point of the day to write it? At the beginning? Or at the end? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call it: Letters to the Wet and Mangy Mongrel. Truth is I’m more of a Heinz 57 type anyway. So maybe I’m half way there. Have you ever kept a diary of a creative project? What was the experience like? Was it helpful afterwards? Did you learn anything from it? 

DU MAURIER’S REBECCA

So have you heard? Netflix are doing a new version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are going to be spoilers in this post, so be warned. Live long enough and you’ll have clocked up quite a few film and TV adaptations of this book and I have. There’s the Hitchcock directed Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine film in 1940 (nice overcoat, Larry) with Judith Anderson playing Mrs Danvers. The 1979 TV series with the splendid Jeremy Brett and Joanna David with Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and finally the 1997 mini-series with Charles Dance and Emily Fox. The recently late but very great Diana Rigg played Mrs Danvers in that one.

Here’s the trailer for the new one.

There might be some I’ve missed but now in 2020 here comes Armie Hammer and Lily James and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS AS MRS DANVERS. Yes, the capitals WERE INTENTIONAL! I can’t wait. Before I even knew what enjoying schlocky, campy, gothic anythings might mean in terms of my … err… general personality, I loved Rebecca.

I probably read it first in my teens and its excellent teen fare because it’s so overheated and dramatic which is exactly what you are (ahem) I was, as a teenager. However, reading it again recently, I was struck by what an emotionally constipated monster Max is. He has to be because of the plot but even so he really is thoroughly dislikable. He also utters probably the least romantic proposal in all romantic literature:

‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’

To which I would reply, channeling my inner drag queen:

“Say, no darling! Send him packing! Forget Manderley you’ll be far happier in Upton Snodsbury growing begonias and while you’re about it for god’s sake throw that broken ornament at Mrs Danver’s head. Just chuck it at her and then sack her. Sack her, sack her, sack her!

I also found the second Mrs de Winter (the unnamed heroine and ‘I’ of the book) began to pall because she’s so insecure and self-conscious and her thought processes are both neurotic and repetitive.

The more modern versions have brought in certain changes. Some actually cast the character of Rebecca and shoot scenes with her in flashback. She never appears in the book. There is also, not surprisingly, the introduction of sex scenes. Or there were in the Charles Dance one anyway. In the Hitchcock film it is made clear that Mrs Danvers has set fire to Manderley and dies in the ruins. This is fitting because Mrs Danvers is presented to us as ‘a witch’ so Hitchcock decided there was a neatness to ‘the witch burning’. In the book however she’s left the house before that happens. It will be interesting to see how the new version ends.

So here are the questions? Do you mind these kinds of changes? And who is your perfect idea of casting for Maxim de Winter, the heroine, and Mrs Danvers. One thing is certain the best Jack Favell, Rebecca’s seedy ‘favourite cousin’, is hands down George Sanders.

Here he is to cheer you up. You need to shift this along to about 3 minutes in and then you’ll get the bounder bounding through the window. You’ll also get Mrs Danvers materializing Star Trek style. Most unnerving! He’d make a good Max actually, although on the other hand I can’t see him playing someone so utterly lacking in self awareness and so humourless.

He’d probably be my favouite cousin too!

Incidentally Daphne du Maurier came from an interesting family but I’m going to blog about that some other time.

STEINBECK’S ‘PENCIL TRIFLING’

In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

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On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?

HISTORICAL SLANG#3

Before lock down I did a few blogs on historical slang, so here we go again. This one is mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

To put a ….

beige and black hat near swimming pool

Photo by Jude Stevens on Pexels.com

Upon a …

Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

To put a swimming pool on a chicken? No, fool. To put a hat upon a hen: To attempt the impossible. I have to say this hen looks full of mischief and definitely not hatable or should that be hattable?

Since we’re on the subject have you ever tried returning a phone to Vodaphone? I had the misfortune to buy a Nokia 2.3 from them and it had the interesting foible of being fine when it came to calls to and from and fine when it came to texts out but would it receive a text? Oh, no it wouldn’t. The only text it received during a 72 hour period was regrettably the first time I entered a Vodaphone shop saying it wouldn’t receive them. So when I went back the following day, I had to throw a full raging fit, when I was told I had to speak to science and tech. ‘No, I said, I won’t. I have spoken to your virtual assistant the whole of yesterday afternoon.’ Then I went the full Italian, (no disrespect meant to Italians only admiration), I threw my hands in the air and pretty much shrieked, ‘I’m not moving until you sort this out for me. There’s something the matter with it. Give me another phone.’

At that point another Vodaphone employee looked across and said ‘What phone?’ and I said ‘Nokia 2.3,’ and he said ‘I had a man in here with that problem yesterday.’ And had he managed to sort it out? No, he hadn’t but there was something on their forum about it.So then I knew they could not fob me off with science and tech. So at this point the hat was almost on the hen’s head. It then took about two hours to get everything resolved because Tobi, the virtual assistant had done something he shouldn’t and the system wouldn’t refund me, until it did.

When it was all over the man who had been dealing with me looked at his boss and said he wanted a day working from home which made me feel slightly guilty even though none of it was my fault but he definitely had the look of a man who had been trying to put a hat on a hen, as did I, and as did the very long queue of people who were waiting outside the shop and giving me the evil eye as I left.

How about you? Have you been attempting the impossible recently? Tell me all about it.