Did you watch any of the Olympics coverage? I did: I find the athletes very inspiring. They work tirelessly, they make sacrifices, they push themselves to the limit emotionally and physically: they represent all that is beautiful about having a dream and pursuing it.
My favourite event is the heptathlon, because I so admire how the athletes train in not one or even two, but seven events. That dedication and versatility is astonishing. It is also, I realise, reflective of what many people do in life: try to excel in more than one field. We are family members, friends, workers, homemakers and creators, all at the same time.
Writing is, of course, my raison d’être, but I am more than a writer: I am also a wife, a mother, a businesswoman, a traveller, a gardener… the list goes on and on. But what of that single self-definition of writer? In the parlance of the Olympics, is writing a lone event, or is it in fact more of a heptathlon? The latter, I would argue.
The modern-day writer must take on many following roles in his/her work, from researcher and administrative organiser, to designer, business manager and, increasingly, marketer. But even when you strip away all the business of authoring, leaving only the writing itself, there is a duality to the work involved. A writer blends two different skills: mastery of style and storytelling. A book may be stylistically great but lack a compelling story; equally, a book may have a fantastic story but be written in a less than appealing style. But a well-written book with an enthralling story: that’s a good book.
In times gone by, in the era of classic literature, both style and story were of equal importance. When we read works by Dickens and Hemingway and Flaubert and Tolstoy, we are as moved by the language as the story. Take, for example, the following quotations:
‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.’ ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
‘You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.’ ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
‘At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.’ ― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
‘He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.’ ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Beautiful, poignant writing, don’t you think? In the modern time, we still have writers who believe in the important of style. Often, their works are designated ‘literary fiction’, while commercial fiction is expected to place a greater emphasis on storytelling rather than style.
Academics and those ‘style purists’ who really care about language can find this direction quite frustrating. A good example is the backlash to Dan Brown’s books. Each of Brown’s books, based on historical research, has been a bestseller, but simultaneously panned by critics. ‘Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad,’ Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at Edinburgh, told the Telegraph. Examples abound of Brown’s ‘clumsy’ word style, and plenty of critics quite gleefully point these out.
But Brown is not alone: when it comes to published novels, it seems to me that style has steadily taken a back seat to story (and few disagree that Brown tells a decent tale). These days the term ‘plot-driven’ fiction is bandied about, and it has distinctively positive connotations. Modern readers are busy and impatient and seeking quick, mindless gratification, we are led to believe. They don’t want art; they want easy escapism.
Is this true, do you think? I confess, I don’t agree. I will always believe that to be a writer is to be both a storyteller and a wordsmith. When I pick up a novel, I want to be pulled into the story world but also moved by the writing style; I want to appreciate the writer’s mastery of style just as I appreciate a painter’s expert brush style based on so many years of study and practice.
Should an author today fuse storytelling with style? Yes, absolutely, is my answer. Style matters. That is why I have always taken seriously the study of style. I began at university, studying French literature, but I never stopped: all of my adult life I have sought to learn more about the craft of writing. That is how I come to spend long afternoons in my garden reading style guides, dictionaries and thesauruses (see the picture at the top of this post).
W. Somerset Maugham wrote, ‘A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.’ In fact, it is no accident, but the product of a lot of hard work. And it is work I believe every writer should be prepared to do.
In the past few weeks, a single book has dominated the arts headlines: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The script of the new stage show has been eagerly anticipated by readers worldwide, and the release of what has been designated ‘Book 8’ of the Harry Potter series caused a sensation easily as big – if not bigger – than the ‘final’ book, number 7, when it came out in 2007.
Here is Amazon’s blurb:
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
Waterstone’s description casts a little more light on the story:
A full nineteen years has passed since the climactic finale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort is a shadow of the past; Harry Potter himself is now a burdened employee at the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding triumphs of his youth seemingly shelved for the demands of family life. Once again, the vaulting arches of Kings Cross become the gateway to wild adventure as young Albus Severus Potter – Harry’s now second son – boards a waiting Hogwarts Express, prepared to fulfil his own destinies.
What lies ahead is as much about the past as it is the future; it will be a time of unexpected alliances and the extraordinary lure of potentially changing what has already come to be. Although much-loved comrades will indeed play their part – no Harry Potter tale can possibly be complete without the courage and companionship of Ron and Hermione – this is very much the next extraordinary chapter, a story where the son of the world’s most famous wizard finds both camaraderie and friendship in a most surprising place, the boy Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco.
I was interested to read this book, not because I am a Hogwarts-banner-waving aficionado, but because I wanted to see how the book stands in terms of legacy.
My Andalucían Nights series is all about legacy: it follows three generations in southern Spain, each individual and unique and yet also irrevocably tied to their family’s legacy. The final book in the series, which I have just released, is called Legacy, and really explores this theme. When do you continue the traditions of the past, and when do you break free? When are you your father and mother’s daughter or son, and when are you your own person? Can you walk away from your heritage, deny the nature and source of the blood that runs in your veins, or are you always destined to be of that which you were created?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an interesting exploration of legacies: of how it is when heroes and heroines grow up (far less exciting, romantic and glamorous), and how it is to be the new generation, eager to be your own person but shaped by those who came before. Albus Potter, Harry’s son, feels he can’t live up to his father’s legend; Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son, lives under a shadow of darkness cast by his father in his own youth. Both are the heroes now, and yet to be so both must find that balance between carrying on a legacy and creating a new story of their own.
There is a lot of depth to the story, and complexity, reflective of any family saga, and as I read I could well imagine how much Potter fans will enjoy revisiting characters they love and seeing what happened after those final words, ‘The End’, nine years ago. Certainly, plenty of reviewers of the book so far have written of their pleasure in connecting with ‘old friends’; it is a sort of homecoming. I imagine it was so for JK Rowling as well; I know when I wrote each new book my Andalucían Nights series I loved weaving in some characters from the preceding book(s), though of course I was careful that the older characters do not overshadow the new ones, to whom the story belongs.
In my own series, the characters who are revisited have developed as you would except over the intervening years. In Legacy, for example, the couples from the preceding books, Masquerade and Indiscretion, come together at a masked ball, and each is as you would expect having read their own love stories; there are no surprises, because I write happy endings, and so the reader simply enjoys seeing the once young heroes and heroines as older couples: parents and grandparents. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, however, there is a clear move in a darker, grittier direction; several versions of the original characters are offered (via a time travel plot device), and many reviewers have expressed disappointment with the characterisation – the beloved Harry, Ron and Hermione are absent, replaced by less likeable.
A new Harry Potter book was always going to be contentious and scrutinised closely. But it is impossible not to notice the many criticisms coming through in reviews, not only about the characterisation but about the story (plot holes are being pointed out) and the style (which is not entirely true to JK Rowling’s). Why the emotional response to this book? Because legacy matters a great deal: the legacy of the Harry Potter characters, who are beloved (and real) to so many, and the legacy of the Harry Potter books, which is so precious to so many.
It is to be admired that JK Rowling published this book: to leave the Harry Potter legacy well alone was the easy path, to add to it was risky. But I know, as a writer, that sometimes characters must speak. Indiscretion was initially a standalone romance novel, but the characters continued to speak to me; I knew the story was not finished, and hence I wrote Masquerade and Legacy. My Andalucían Nights series ends with Legacy, and JK Rowling had stated publicly that there will be no further Harry Potter books. When a story is finished, it is finished.
But for Pottermore, JK Rowling’s publishing company, the future remains bright. Never mind the record-breaking sales achieved for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already; the Amazon listing for the book includes the following note: ‘This Special Rehearsal Edition will be available to purchase until early 2017, after which a Definitive Edition of the script will go on sale.’ So the truest Potter fans (and there are many) will buy the book all over again in a few months.
Have you read the new Harry Potter book? If so, what are your thoughts? If not, is there a reason you chose not to? I would love to discuss the potential legacy of this publishing sensation with you.
Last week in the UK, in the county of Devon on the south-west coast, a single name echoed on the breeze: ‘Flaviu’. The county’s attention – and, indeed, that of the wider country – was captured by the news that Flaviu the Carpathian lynx was loose somewhere among the population.
Dartmoor Zoological Park is no stranger to media attention: it is the zoo on which the popular movie We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, is based. Last week, the media were drawn like moths to a flame to the announcement that Flaviu the lynx had escaped his enclosure by chewing through a board, and was now at large in the area.
Despite the fact that the zoo staff were confident the animal was on nearby farmland, all kinds of sightings farther afield were reported. For example, the Plymouth Herald reported that a distraught driver had called staff at the zoo claiming to have run over the missing lynx with her car. The zoo owner said:
‘We tried to reassure her that it was very unlikely. We were still collecting sightings at this point and we were a bit alarmed that apparently someone had seen a lynx as far away as Saltash.
‘We were thinking these ‘sightings’ could get really out of hand so we started to discount the more far-fetched ones, including this one from the driver…’
Quite simply, the idea of a wild, dangerous animal loose in the county stirred imaginations. How wonderful, I thought, reading the stories. No doubt it was distressing for the motorist who thought she had killed the lynx (but presumably killed some other animal), but as a general phenomenon, this stirring of imagination is surely a positive demonstration of the magic of the mind.
Albert Einstein said, ‘Imagination… is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ The field of psychology has long accepted that imagination – ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’ – is an essential and healthy aspect of the human condition. Imagination fosters creativity, problem solving, cognitive processing and, essentially, empathy with others.
How, as humans, do we develop the ability to imagine? Through listening to stories at a young age and then, when we are able, reading them. The more you imagine, the better you think, feel, behave, achieve: what better reason to read and read and read!
Allow me to revisit for a moment the definition of imagination: ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’. Thus, when we read fiction we are seeking actively to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses. As a writer, I always have this in mind when I am storytelling: I endeavour to really transport my readers into the story by providing all manner of sensory-rich detail that they can use to imagine vividly.
Take, for example, this description of the gypsy camp in Masquerade:
As he made his way through the gypsy camp, he watched the dark clouds drift towards the large shining moon as if intent on devouring it whole. So vibrant by day, the camp was now bleached of colour in the pale light. The fires were almost out, copper pots lay discarded and some caravans and makeshift improvised tents glowed from the lamps inside. The place smelt of burnt wood and petrol. A few figures were huddled round the dying embers, murmuring to one another, and some were passed out next to the dogs on the ground. The sound of a donkey braying somewhere was replaced with the harsh miaow of squabbling cats.
Can you picture the scene, in the pale moonlight? Can you smell the wood and petrol, hear the men murmuring and the cats miaowing?
If you can, then you are imagining; and what is most powerful about imagination is this, as evoked by the great Pablo Picasso: ‘Everything you can imagine is real’. The lynx was real to all who ‘saw’ it in Devon. My characters can be real to those who read my novels.
If you open your mind when you read a story, it is no longer a story but a real world into which you can step. Such adventures at your fingertips when you read books!
Most people are aware that reading is a Good Thing: for knowledge-building, for intelligence, for empathy, for wellbeing even (see my post ‘Want to feel better about yourself? Read more books…’). But have you ever considered what you read in terms of how it benefits you? Have you ever thought about how much ‘light reading’ you do as opposed to ‘deep reading’, and the consequences?
Recently, the International Journal of Business Administration published a study entitled ‘Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing’. The researchers behind the study found that what college students read affected their level of writing: those who engaged with ‘deeper reading’ (literary fiction, non-fiction and academic journals) wrote with more sophisticated than their classmates whose reading material was ‘lighter’ (commercial fiction or web-based content like Tumblr).
While light reading is a simple matter or decoding words for their meaning, deep reading is defined as ‘slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity’; ‘the language is rich in detail, allusion, and metaphor, and taps into the same brain regions that would activate if the reader were experiencing the event’ (source: Psychology Today).
In a nutshell, deep reading is better for you: it makes you think, makes you feel and teaches you a lot, both about the world and how to write. It can inspire you, move you, change you – and it stays with you for far longer than light reading.
Education systems are geared towards students reading at a deep level: no doubt you remember reading classic works of literature in your teens. But in adulthood, when we are free to choose our own reading matter, the easier option of light reading can be attractive. Perhaps you pick a novel you can tear through in a couple of hours, with short, simple sentences, little detail and no sophistication in the style. But afterwards, how satisfied do you feel?
Of course, I read light books too, because sometimes I just don’t want to think too hard. But I do plenty of deep reading as well. I am lost without classic literature: Stendhal and Hugo and Flaubert and Brontë are never far from reach. They inspire my own writing, in which I always endeavor to write well – which, for me, means creating books that offer readers the chance to read deeply and be moved emotionally.
If you’d like to try some deep reading, but find it difficult to fit that into your busy life, poetry is a fantastic option. A poem a day keeps the head-doctor away! Here’s a link to a collection of beautiful French love poems that will give you all the benefits of deep reading, and a wonderful rush of feeling: http://lithub.com/the-seven-stages-of-love-according-to-french-poetry/.
In this season’s edition of The Author magazine I was fascinated by an article by Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherlands, a book that explores the relationship between the writer and the weather in English literature (well worth reading; you can find it on Amazon here).
The article, entitled ‘Fine weather for writing’, considers how the seasons – their weather, their light, their spirit – affect a writer. Ms Harris explains how winter is her season for writing, and suggests ‘no-one should expect to write very much in August’, the ‘peak time for immersive work, yet also for being with family and friends, for adventure and experiment, and for relaxation to last us all year round’.
I know well the English weather; I have lived in England since my twenties, through all seasons. So I understand well how the height of summer can when little is accomplished beyond daydreaming over a lemonade on the patio or walking through a field of wildflowers. But in recent years, I have taken to summering at my home in France, on the south coast a little way from St Tropez, and I have noticed that doing so has greatly boosted my writing.
In her article, Ms Harris explains: ‘On glorious days the weather requires attention, and it feels ungrateful, irresponsible, to stare down at the laptop you shield with a precisely angled sunhat rather than looking out at the endless glittering detail of the sunlit world.’
I quite agree; this is how I feel… in England. Because in England the weather is so variable, and truly glorious days are so rare that they must be highly prized and admired.
But in France, I find there are so many more glorious days. Even overcast days can be quite stunning, with variant colours in the rolling clouds and sometimes a theatrical thunderstorm. The weather does not pull me from my writing; instead, it inspires me to write. I write on the terrace overlooking the sea; I write in the gazebo shaded by tall trees and serenaded by cicadas.
I find that in my summer writing, I am moved to write of summer: to situate my romances in hot, sultry places. Take my latest novel Masquerade. It is set in Cadiz, Spain, where the heroine lives in her parents’ summer house:
The bright and airy summer house was so different from the imposing hacienda of El Pavón and for those who knew her well, it was little wonder that Luz found as many excuses as possible to escape here, where she could be near the wild and windswept cliffs, allowing the invigorating smell of the sea to fill her lungs.
The views from her vantage point on the terrace at the back of the villa were wondrous; there was so much incident to the ever-changing skyscape and to the land itself. It was as if nature was behaving like a magician with a wand, revealing or concealing vistas of the most beguiling beauty. Under a huge arc of sky, where racing cotton-wool clouds folded and unfolded, appeared and disappeared, an enamelled sea the colour of pure cobalt spread itself in front of her. Dancing waves unwound over stretches of glistening white sand, extending infinitely in a straight line. On the opposite shore Puerto de Santa María, the shimmering salt plains and marshy wetlands of Las Salinas behind it, was edged by a far-off screen of pine trees and the masts of ships. In front of the town boats and yachts painted in bright Van Gogh colours bobbed up and down in the port.
I love my heroines to have such vistas, the kind that one travels to see. My aim with my writing is always to transport my readers to someplace beautiful; I suppose you could say that my Andalucian Nights trilogy is a passport to sunny, sultry Spain.
Of course, I write all year round; I am quite lost without a novel in the making. Sometimes, then, I write stories in which the sun is less constant; The Echoes of Love, for example, is set in Venice in the winter. But usually I am drawn to the warmth and the light; it must be my upbringing in Alexandria, I suppose.
I think my summers in France fuel my writing for the rest of the year. When I am writing a scene back in England on a rain-swept, blustery day, I can close my eyes and remember the feel of the sun on my skin and the scent of bougainvillea on the gentle breeze.
How do the seasons affect your productivity and creativity and mood? Is the summertime your time for whatever most inspires you? Do you love to read romances set in the summer? I would love to hear your thoughts.