Books as emotional stepping stones to the past

Before I could begin the story that became The Goose Road I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as shocking & sad as the First World War.

Today, after years of research, that seems odd. I now feel on firm mental ground in WW1, eager in fact to return. But back then I felt presumptuous. Almost guilty. How could I possibly begin to imagine what it was like?

Yes, I did a ton of research in books and online, in lecture halls and museums. I had to get the facts right out of respect for the dead. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a deeper, more visceral connection. With hindsight, two types of research were critical to building that emotional bridge to the past.

First was place, by which I mean being there physically, walking through the cemetery-strewn fields of the Somme and the rolling hillsides of Verdun, or standing in a zigzag trench at Beaumont Hamel, or paying my respects to the broken & greying skulls of French and German soldiers, laid to rest together.

Second came a few, critical books.

Out of everything I’ve read about World War One, fiction and non-fiction, I now believe it was just five books that led me to a sufficient level of understanding that I finally felt I had the right to trespass into – and then to inhabit – the world of the Great War. They were stepping stones, and I’ll always treasure them.

4 Wilfred Owen

The first, chronologically, was a venerable copy of The Complete Works of Wilfred Owen which I took with me to Étaples, the Channel port where I knew my story had to end. Owen himself had spent time in this place. Like all British Empire infantrymen and officers, he passed through the huge reinforcement and hospital camp, which dominated Étaples’ old town, on his way to the Western Front. I’d been deeply upset by his war poems when we studied them at school. And here I was, a grown woman, weeping over them again.

the price of glory

The second book, The Price of GloryVerdun 1916, is a brilliant piece of journalism and narrative non-fiction by Alistair Horne. First published in 1962, he resurrects the dramatic personae of that gruelling battle with dexterity and detail, populating the horrific statistics of slaughter with living, breathing men.

storm of steel

The third book that opened unexpected doors in my mind was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, a German officer who survived the war. Dedicated to The Fallen, Junger gives an alternative perspective to the ‘pity of war’ that is deeply embedded in the British tradition of remembrance, thanks in part to the anti-war poets such as Owen.

I brought Junger’s unapologetic account of courage and comradeship under fire in the bookshop at Thiepval, the Commonwealth war memorial to the missing of the Somme – that is, to soldiers whose bodies were so torn apart (evaporated even) by artillery bombardments that they were beyond identification as individual men.

The Ghost Road

The fourth & fifth books which stands out in my memory are both by Pat Baker, being the first and last in her Regeneration trilogy. If anyone asked me which single WW1 novel they should read, I would say The Ghost Road, the finale, every time.

It may be that Owen is important here too, since he is a character in these stories, and his death vividly told. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon – at the time far better known than Owen – is central to the narrative too. But I think it is the complexity of Dr Rivers that makes these novels so compelling, and the depth of the irony that, as a military psychiatrist, his job is to make officers who are suffering the most awful mental torment as a result of what they’ve seen and done in battle, well enough to go back to fight and kill and quite probably die, like millions upon millions of others.

Dear God, never again.

This post first appeared in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2018.






Writing rituals: a time and a place

My favourite writing spot is the kitchen table, with the glazed double kitchen door open to the garden, and our dog lazing on the step, watching birds on the feeders and our tom cat stalking them. It’s a central spot, a crossroads of work & life where the two can meet and sort out the day’s demands on my time and mental space.

Our kitchen is full of morning light, and also lit by ceiling lamps which imitate sunshine when it’s dull. Sitting at the table – which is from IKEA, clean, modern, waxed oak – I keep half an eye on the cat, and help the dog chase him off if his hunt looks set to be successful.

The kitchen table is also big enough for me to spread out the A2 sheets of paper I use for plotting. I weigh them down with coasters and coffee mugs, and sketch mind maps and constellations of characters. On the reverse side, I chart structural turning points: epiphanies, crises and climaxes, brainstorming options for each.

The Main Dramatic Question for a work-in-progress is written in the bottom left-hand corner, along with two core questions for my protagonist: what one thing will make them succeed? And what one thing could make them fail?

These three questions will be scored out and rewritten time and again during the course of writing a story, and if the paper plan becomes too messy, I start over. It’s a non-linear, iterative process. Fluid & flexible. Unlike typing, which is constricted & constraining.

When writing, either on the laptop or paper, I don’t have particular rituals or object fetishes, though I do love beautiful hard-back notebooks. Occasionally, I wonder if I rented an even more remote cottage without electricity for a month or two I might be able to get the bones of a story down on paper without the endless editing that has become a tiresome and time-consuming habit when working digitally.

Now, nearing midwinter, the kitchen table has been reclaimed for Christmas decorations and planned family dinners, and the kitchen door is shut against the north wind, which slams hail and sleet off Dartmoor against the house.

Banished upstairs to the office in the spare room, I can still hear the sparrows squabbling and the hoots of collared doves. I can even see the moor and a wider sky. But it’s not the same. This isn’t a place to day-dream; the spare room doesn’t feel like the heart of anything.

And the work-in-progress? Well, there’s always next year. Happy Christmas, everyone.

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society on December 15th, 2017.





Man Booker, BBC2 & Robert McKee: scene structure by the pros

This blog first appeared on November 15th, 2017, in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

Last week, as I was explaining to a local writing group a selection of approaches to self-editing, I basically talked myself into a corner and reaffirmed (at least to myself) a truth about revision.

That is, after the big development overview, when you nail down that elusive concept of the “heart” or soul of the story, and decide, for example, whether you’ve got too many subplots or characters, the natural focus for re-writing is the scene.

Not voice, not sentences, not even structure as such. The scene.

From their expressions, I’m not sure I convinced my students, perhaps because the example I used of an ideal scene was old and rather lame (and taken from Robert McKee’s Story, which is brilliant in my opinion, but rather too rooted in black-and-white films to be self-evidently relevant to today’s novelist).

Then, later than week, cuddled up with our cat on the sofa, watching the BBC 2 drama, Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, “Bingo!”

From now on, whenever I need to define “the scene”, it will be the climax to that story, with Derek Jacobi standing on the doorstep of the odious John Ruskin (played superbly by Greg Wise), about to bring his entire world crashing down with one word.

Before looking at that one word, and how the scene built up to it, here’s some context from George Saunders, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. He has been interviews all over the place, but these quotes come from this article in The Guardian:

In it he says, “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully … An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.”

His self-editing method is a binary process, which he describes as a meter in his forehead flicking from positive to negative as he imagines how each passage he’s written will be received by a first-time reader, and then editing his work “so as to move the needle into the [positive] zone.”

He describes this process as repetitive, obsessive and iterative: “watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose … through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments … Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.”

Beautiful prose, isn’t it? I’m really glad he won this year’s Man Booker prize, and I look forward very much to reading Lincoln in the Bardo over Christmas.


What if you don’t have time to steer your ocean liner through a thousand incremental adjustments? What if you have a full-time job and/or a family to raise, and no milk in the fridge and a deadline to meet, and… and… and..?

In other words, what if writing isn’t your whole life?

For me, in the trackless oceans of imagination, structural advice books are star charts, and the solid possibilities of a well-crafted scene as essential as a life-raft.

So, back to Effie Gray … via Robert McKee.

If I had to keep just one book from my library of writing advice guides, McKee’s Story would be it. Despite his focus on film, the understanding he’s given me about storytelling is unequalled.

In a nutshell, what he says about scenes is this: every scene should build, beat by beat, to a Story Event, by which he means a meaningful change from positive to negative or vice versa in a fundamental human value (or a Story Value as he terms it).

Examples of changes in a Story Value include: cowardice to bravery, hope to despair, fear of commitment to commitment, happiness to sadness etc.

For McKee, such switches should be achieved by pitting a protagonist with a clear objective against an equal or more powerful force of antagonism with a diametrically opposed goal. Via progressively escalating confrontations, the scene should culminate in an unexpected pivot point that alters this Story Value for a central character.

All of which the climax scene in Effie Gray does to perfection.

SPOILER ALERT: Do watch the film first if you want to experience the deliciousness of the denouement in full. It is available on iPlayer for the next few weeks. I’ve skipped over some elements of the plot for the sake of brevity, which does a disservice to the richness and complexity of the sub-text, but anyhow, here goes.


Events Structural beats
Effie Gray’s lawyer gets out of a carriage and opens his legal document case. Earlier scenes have established Effie’s desire to escape from her unconsummated marriage with abusive & sexually-repressed John Ruskin. The protagonist’s objective is established: to deliver a legal letter. In this scene, the lawyer is both Effie’s proxy and also a representative of Victorian social values & the law.
Inside the house, the interfering parents of self-satisfied grandee John Ruskin excessively admire a new portrait of him by an eminent pre-Raphaelite painter. The antagonists’ objective are established: the Ruskin family seek to enhance John’s social standing via the portrait.
Servant George enters with news of an unexpected caller for John. The inciting incident. An external force interrupts the domestic status quo.
Effie’s highly respectable male lawyer, kept waiting on the doorstep, announces he has a citation to court for John. John’s parents stand between John and the lawyer. The lawyer communicates his scene objective. The parents, by blocking the doorway, form a physical barrier between the lawyer & his objective.
John & his mother question the purpose of the citation; when the lawyer says it is a petition for divorce from Effie, the father snatches the letter. A force of antagonism strikes directly back at the lawyer.
The lawyer insists the letter must, by law, be delivered to “the defendant”. The father reluctantly relinquishes the letter to the lawyer, who gives it to John. While taking it, John remains composed, and questions Effie’s grounds for divorce. The protagonist’s proxy defeats the father’s desire to protect John by calling up the power of the law, i.e. society’s power over the family. Effie wins round one, although John’s disdainful pride & self-confidence remain apparently intact.
When the lawyer refuses to answer John’s questions, citing the delicacy of the matter, John presses him for an immediate explanation, culminating in his demand for an answer. In response to this demand, the lawyer states that her grounds for divorce is John’s impotency. This beat of questions and rebuttals builds to the pivot point of both the scene and the entire story.

The word “impotency”, delivered in Derek Jacobi’s magnificent voice, challenges John’s manhood. Effie is calling down on him not only the full weight of the law, but also Victorian society’s expectations of a man and his sole duty to his wife. With one word, she has countered all of John’s malicious threats to ruin her reputation through false allegations of wantonness.

The horror of the impending scandal slowly dawns on the mother, but more quickly on the faces of John and his father. As their expressions turn from shock to comprehension to shame, the father shuts the door in the lawyer’s face. John’s cold, imperious pride (his Story Value throughout the film) is quenched. Henceforth, he will be humiliated, while Effie’s Story Value switches from enslavement within their marriage to the freedom to live as she wishes and to love another. Well done, Effie! And well done to the film makers. A fantastic scene.


Can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead.

Midway through the school summer holidays, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away ourselves this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.

Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.

“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (New Scientist issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).

Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.

Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.

Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.

“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.

All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?

Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.

The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead.

(Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.)

To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.

Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo.

Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.

One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.

This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?

Alternatively, push the credit card to the max and go find some sunshine anyway.

This post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.


On not feeling guilty about not writing

Confession: when my forehead is bleeding over a particularly stubborn scene, I find some of the motivational quotes which punctuate my Twitter feed deeply irritating. One that bugs me more than most is attributed to Ray Bradbury: ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

Now I’ll bet £20 and a curry that, in context, this quote makes a good point. [A few years ago I watched a great hour-long speech by Ray Bradbury to US creative writing students – via a link in one of Candy Gourlay’s ever-informative blogs – in which he had a great many sensible things to say, including a recommendation to write one short story a week on the grounds that no one can write 52 rotten stories per year.]

But the mantra ‘You only fail if you stop writing’ is often taken to mean that we must keep plugging away regardless; we shouldn’t get up from our computers until we’ve reached a minimum daily word count; the muse must strike between nine-to-five or whatever time of day we’re chained to our desks, etc. etc.

All of which advice may well help many people keep going.

So why do I instinctively rebel?

In that time-honoured tradition of seeking evidence to support one’s intuitions, rather than challenging them with uncomfortable data, I’ve been on the hunt for reasons to justify my gut reaction.

The search bore fruit.

Ironically, the first clue came from an article entitled Inspiration for Slackers in the latest edition of Bath Spa University’s magazine. In it, Lucy Jolin quotes Nick Sorensen, Associate Dean at the Institute for Education, talking about the ‘reflective practitioner’ in education.

I recognised this theory of education from my days at Bath Spa on their fab MA in writing for young people. Reflective commentaries on different elements of our writing processes were an important part of that course, and this reminder made me realise that part of my hostility to “plugging away regardless” probably stemmed from this training.

As far as I understand it, reflective practice presupposes that being good at something requires practice. [Back to that famous 10K hours of practice to become an expert in your chosen field.] But it also says that even when we do something well, we won’t necessarily be able to repeat that success unless we know what’s so great about it, and how we achieved it. Ditto for things that don’t work.

Thus, unless we give ourselves the time and space to analyse our writing, we will remain at the mercy of inspiration, which (imo) is actually the route to becoming a slave to perspiration.

This small epiphany led to more general thoughts about the evolution of a book I’ve been working on (off and on) for more than four years, into which I’ve poured much that I love as well as things that I fear, moments that have shocked me, things that have bought great joy and others deep sadness.

In other words, it’s about life with all its ups and downs.

So I reckon another reason for my instinctive feeling that it’s a mistake to obsess endlessly over words in the lonely garrets of our minds is a belief that we need to live life whole-heartedly in order to write well.

Other people have, of course, made this point many times before, including Stephen King, who put it succinctly: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on March 15th, 2017.