You may remember that a while ago I joined the local writers’ group and spent a couple of entertaining evenings in their company. The long prose group meets once a month and I’d neglected it throughout the back end of winter, simply because I hadn’t written anything that I could read out for critique. But this week I decided to pluck up courage and take the beginnings of a chapter on mothers who give up their children for art. We were meeting out in the wilds of the fens again, and this time – and I have no idea how it happened – I managed to get lost en route. There are just miles and miles of identical looking roads around here, banked in by riotous new hedges and champagne-fizz topped profusions of meadowsweet, so it’s a pleasure to drive along them, enjoying the glimpses of fledgling crops in the fields, even if they are not exactly designed for landmark orientation. But the first village I came to was not the village I was expecting, so I had to take a fairly circuitous route. I thought I would be late, but it turned out that several other people had run into trouble finding the place, which gives me the shivery sense that out here in the fens, the planets do need to be in mystical alignment somehow if the road is going to permit you to reach a destination.
For a change, out of seven attendees there was only one person there I hadn’t met before. The first person to read was the Dutch gentleman I had encountered before, at work on a simply enormous family saga in which a damaged painting is handed down through the family lineage, along with a genetic propensity for child abuse. I’ve only ever heard the painting-related bits, not the child abuse bits, and I wonder whether that’s giving me a false impression. But on this occasion, as before, he read in a rich and sonorous style, for what seemed like half the evening, and the prose flowed over me and left no impact whatsoever. I was ready for him this time, having experienced this before, and thought hard about what it was that made this work so impossible to grasp. His sentences were often lovely, with lots of delicate and charming description. But I realized that the whole of it took place in an emotional monotone. In every scene, his characters were contemplating something, the action was minimal (there’s an awful lot of unscrewing sealed boxes), and the writing never closed the gap between its own elegance and the brute force of a real feeling. When I asked him about this tendency, he said that people do contemplate a lot and contemplation is a mixture of thought and feeling. But this misses the point somewhat. Remember that there are 300,000 words of this thing lying in wait to mug some unsuspecting reader, and if that reader were me, I might want something a little more punchy than relentless contemplation to get me through it. Even Proust put the odd party in, here and there.
Next up was another man I’d met before, with a much more contemporary novel. I suppose I’d term this one Nick Hornby territory, only it’s a bit less glib, a bit more serious. The scene he read was essentially one of marital conflict, although it focused mostly on his hero overhearing a disquieting snippet of conversation between his wife and her friend. I think this novel might be rather good. It moves along at an admirable pace, manages to evoke its characters with concision, the dialogue is pretty credible. So what’s intriguing in this instance is that the author is so notably lacking in self-confidence. ‘This will be something a bit different,’ he said, after the Dutchman, in a tone that indicated we would not appreciate the change. And after the reading, when someone in the group remarked that his main protagonist was a bit of a loser, his response was: ‘Were you getting fed up with him? Were you longing for it to finish?’ I felt a tremendous instinct to buck this man up, combined with a conviction that nothing I said would make much difference. I praised him, and he never acknowledged it for a moment, just stared into the middle distance, anticipating the slings and arrows of critical attack. It’s so funny this business of writing, and how people have to deal with the excruciating vulnerability it entails. The Dutchman wouldn’t accept for a moment that he might need to change a single word. This man couldn’t believe what he wrote was any good. But he still keeps writing, so what motivates his productivity, I wonder?
Then I came third, and I’ll come back to me at the end. Next was the woman I am sure must be South African in origin, given her accent, who is writing a romance set in the world of horse racing. Again, for chick-lit, this was also pretty good. I think romance is incredibly hard to write because it can so easily tip over into saccharine slush. Clichés lurk in every shadow of a sentence, caricatures spring so readily into the landscape of the pretty village, the busy office. That light, frothy, witty tone that seems intrinsic to the business of profound feminine love angst can so easily be manic or unbearably coy. So the fact that this novel is not painful to listen to must mean it’s good. But even so, I liked the horse racing bits much more than the love bits. This woman clearly knows what it’s like to train and compete with racehorses and there’s a stirring authenticity to those descriptions I appreciate. The requisite encounter between hero and heroine who are at the early stage of detesting each other sounded like every trumped up argument I’ve ever read in a romance. I just don’t believe that men can be bothered to be infuriatingly sardonic in that cocked-eyebrow, silky-voiced kind of way. It would require a game plan towards the opposite sex containing the kind of complex strategies only warranted in war and chess. Still, I guess that’s why I don’t write romance.
The following writer was new to me, and he turned out to be in the middle of a conspiracy theory thriller. I must be a terribly perverse person, as I always enjoy the things I shouldn’t. For years I’ve nursed the fond prejudice that people who write about conspiracy theories are fundamentally barking mad, and bless me if this man didn’t go and make my evening by confirming all my worst fears. I had the hardest time keeping a straight face. The passage he read described his protagonist heading off on some big job, except it was only a dry run, to prove to a gang somewhere that he was capable of the subterfuge required. Well, this chap was in and out of disguises as he made the journey from Canada to the south of France, nipping into the toilets every few lines to shave off a beard, add a beard, put on a mask. By the end of four closely typed pages we were all completely lost. We didn’t know who he was any more and frankly we didn’t care. Once he’d finished reading, we were all silent, lulled into a stupor by confusion. Eventually I asked why it was that the protagonist’s female companion was described as wearing a skimpy bikini ‘in order to distract the neighbours’ at their Canadian chalet, when the landscape was described as just emerging from the worst of winter. Aha! said the author, that’s because in Canada the sun is hot even when there’s still snow on the mountains. So this is a classic kind of conspiracy theory madness, and the sort of mistake thriller writers often make. He assumes what he knows is what everyone knows. I didn’t know that so my only thought was to get the poor woman a cardigan. There then followed many more questions in the same vein, as we tried to explain how confusing it all was, whilst the author argued vigorously that his account was factual, plausible and accurate. So maybe it is, but if no one can follow it, then there’s still a problem. ‘This kind of thing happens in my line of work all the time,’ the author declared. ‘I know of several suspicious deaths among my colleagues that were murder if you ask me. One man, shot dead in his garden. In his garden! On a Sunday afternoon! In France they reckon that there are over 40 deaths in my field a year.’ ‘Really?’ I said, an irrepressible grin spreading across my face. ‘Why is that?’ ‘It’s so impossible to do business over there. So much bureaucracy, so much red tape!’ I would love to know from any French readers whether admin rage is really claiming so many lives. But this is the madness of the conspiracy theorist; it’s no good him insisting that he is the only one who knows the truth and the rest of us are deluded, the very absence of doubt is the basis for insanity.
By this point in the evening I was flagging a bit, as indeed I am in writing this overly long account of it. The next man was writing a Jasper Fforde-esque tale of supreme complexity in a style that consisted of brief stage directions and the sort of dialogue where people say ‘You never expected to find me here, did you?’ It was, once again, completely incomprehensible. Note to all authors: even the back end of an action-packed chapter should make some sense in isolation. Then last of all came our group leader, who had just started a family novel, in which the neglected teenage daughter uncovers some old photos and skeletons tumble out of closets. This was again an easy listening passage, written in a competent, flowing style and I rather liked it. The question period turned surreal, however, when Mr Conspiracy started to insist that the author would need to introduce DNA-testing and internet research into her account or else throw all hope of plausibility to the winds. Our group leader resisted with some diplomacy while the rest of us began talking about the perils of genealogical research and whose family stretched back to the seventeenth century. We’d reached the stage where everyone wanted the meeting to end but couldn’t somehow manage to stop talking. Actually, many of my blog posts are like that. I realize I haven’t described my own reading, but not to worry, I’ll talk about it some other day, for now, enough already. But the group is interesting, if only to prove how incredibly difficult it is to write a good story. You need so many different and often conflicting element in place – originality, dramatic tension, the right kind of explanation, concision, a quirky plot, plausibility and accuracy, characters with motivation, evocative description and that indefinable little something that makes the work unique, that does what only that particular author can do, and accomplishes it with panache. No wonder we’re all still working on our nth draft.