I recently went to see the musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London where a magnificent cast through phenomenal singing and dancing told the story of a man who lived and died passionately and made big mistakes which swept him through to a memorable death.
Through powerful singing and dynamic, electrifying, whiplash sharp dancing, we were captivated by the ideas that first gripped the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, when he began to read the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and felt he identified with the origins of Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
A spectacular and compelling musical, certain words in the songs stand out for me: Hamilton sings that he wants to “build something that will outlive me. If you don’t stand for something what will you fall for?”
And at the end, we hear Aaron Barr – a man for whom we feel sympathy in this telling of the story, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, sing these words to us: “I survived but I paid for it, now I am the villain in your story.”
I loved the way the dynamics of storytelling held us all in its grip throughout the performance, and especially the way the duels were choreographed. One of the most stunning (literally!) parts of the musical came when the dancers froze the moment in which the bullet was fired which killed Hamilton. Brilliant choreography and dancing suspended our disbelief as we watched the bullet arrested in mid-flight.
When I originally heard of Hamilton the musical, a year ago when my daughter first bought the tickets, I thought, What a peculiar subject for a musical. I thought exactly the same when I first heard about The Book of Mormon – another brilliant London musical which made a big impact on me.
Now I confess I think you can make any subject at all into a musical so long as you have a creator who can inspire total confidence with his passion to believe in and run with a central idea, and as long as you end up with fantastic songs, words, character and story.
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) begins today for 2016 and I will be once again taking this challenge – completing the first draft of my new novel “Director’s Cut”. Here is an article I wrote when I was 3 weeks into the 2011 challenge, in order to write the first draft of my second novel “A Passionate Spirit”. Everything I said then still applies now; and my extra challenge is to take my own advice! I hope some of you who are setting out on this challenge today will find it a source of inspiration.
The task is: write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a month; and by the word “novel” we must mean, of course, “the first draft of a novel.” For I have not yet ever created a novel in a month; but in nine days time I will have done that very thing; and therefore I consider myself qualified to write the article.
Here are three tips to have that completed first draft of a novel in a month:
1) Do your preparation work before the month begins. Ideas will have been hatching in your mind for the last couple of years, perhaps; and now you have a ground plan. You have created a one-sentence storyline, and expanded it to a blurb and a synopsis and perhaps you have drawn up a list of scenes for your novel. Not everybody needs to have done this before they begin writing the novel. Some like to plunge into the writing with two or three characters and a conflict in mind, and let the story emerge. But I had already been thinking about my characters for a year or so before beginning my novel. And I know from experience what it’s like to allow your characters to take over. Characters will do that anyway, even if you have a plan. But I now believe having a plan is a very good way to start, even if the plan is radically changed by the time you’ve finished your first draft.
2) Begin writing, and don’t go back to edit. Control your desire to look over previous chapters and assess or improve them. This needs great discipline. Just keep writing even if you suspect what you are writing is rubbish, because you are going to go back over your manuscript anyway after the month is up and use it as the basis for your second draft.
3) Don’t fall into the trap of slacking or subsiding or falling away because your novel feels as if it’s sinking in the middle. Introduce something crazy or bizarre that occurs to you; just follow that instinct, introduce it into your plot, set your characters the task of dealing with it and keep on writing.
Those who find their minds go blank at the prospect of producing a full-length work of the imagination should remember this one thing: creating a first draft of fiction requires only motivation and courage. It requires you to forget everything negative you ever believed of yourself, and to believe in whatever ideas come to you, believe in them enough to incorporate them in your first draft. When you read your manuscript through in a month’s time, you may be amazed at what you came up with apparently “out of nowhere.”
n.b. this article, first published online in 2011, forms part of my upcoming non-fiction book, Perilous Path: a writer’s journey
So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?
I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.
Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.
St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.
The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.
The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion.
For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).
In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”
The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.
Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.
After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!
I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.
To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.
In my creative writing class at Lancaster University years ago, our tutor said to us: Once written and completed, your work is A Thing on the Table. The world can make what it likes of it. It doesn’t belong to you any more.”
More recently, novelist Susan Hill, speaking at a local author event, mentioned her first great literary success, The Woman in Black. She said, I have never known a story grow legs and run away from me like that one did.
What a lovely image for the independent life a novel takes on, once completed and out in the world. The ultimate value of a novel lies in the responses of those who read it. JK Rowling said that the whole “fairy tale” of what had happened to her was only because we had read her story and loved it.
My new novel, A Passionate Spirit, had many different sources of inspiration. But one of them was my conversation with a retired clergyman, John, who told me a story which I then used in my novel.
He described an incident which took place during his ministry as parish priest. A spiritual healer had risen to prominence in his parish. She’d healed many in the local community and had attracted national media attention. Soon John’s church could no longer ignore this, as several in his congregation, including the churchwarden, claimed to have been healed by her, and believed in her miraculous powers. John recounted to me the tale of one dramatic afternoon, when he met and questioned this healer, along with his churchwarden, and another local clergyman. Later, I went back to the work-in-progress, and my character Natasha emerged, together with a key scene in the novel, based on John’s story.
A Passionate Spirit has some Christian characters (young priest Theo and his wife Zoe); and, to my mind, a strong Christian message. But there’s no guarantee my readers will choose to see that.
In my novel, eventually Zoe meets a huge spiritual challenge head-on, with her fledgling Christian faith; and I show her praying, using the Lord’s Prayer and the words of Psalm 23. She also cites the character of Jesus in her headlong confrontation with evil. Vital help for Zoe comes from her friend Alice, who isn’t Christian, and who was the first person to discern the menace represented by Natasha.
I don’t believe we can expect every Christian to have spiritual discernment. Having experienced a number of spiritual healers myself in the past I’ve become more alert to ‘false prophets’ and the ‘trees that do not bear good fruit’; and that has influenced my story.
A Passionate Spirit is now truly A Thing Upon the Table. I trust and respect that the readers will make what they like of it. And of course I only have the chance to find out if I get feedback from reviews…
If you like thrillers with more than a touch of the paranormal this is for you!
Janice an Amazon reviewer, took A Passionate Spirit on holiday with her and says I loved it, I was hooked from the very beginning, the characters got inside my head, and I couldn’t put the book down. I was really very surprised at how spooked I felt considering I was on a sunny beach in Tenerife very far removed from the Cotswolds. Thank you for a great read.
If you do, I suggest you read Mystical Circles first because it may add more depth to the background of some of the characters.
Sue W, an Amazon reviewer, has read both books, and says: This is something that I like in a book series – being reintroduced to characters at a different point in their lives, without a specific cross reference to the first story. …A Passionate Spirit provokes the reader into reflecting on the motivations of the characters. One that particularly fascinated me was James – remembering him from Mystical Circles, I found myself wondering about how he would have got from his life then, to his life now…. another way of saying that the character was believable in himself and not just a plot device…
But Sue does add that the two books could be read in any order and would still be enjoyable.Enjoy your holidays… and happy reading!
When I was signing books at the Leamington Peace Festival on Saturday 18th June, a young man came up to my book stall and started chatting to me about writing books; it turned out he was writing a book himself and wanted any advice I could give on the best way to start a book.
My advice was particularly tailored to writing a novel but of course it’s relevant to any book targeted at a commercial audience.
The beginning of a book must have some kind of emotional charge. It has to hook the reader in the first paragraph or first page. In the case of a novel the best way to start is with a scene of conflict in the life of your main protagonist. This scene needs to show where your MP currently is, in their life, and what the tensions are in their situation.
One of the courses I took a few years ago covered story structure in terms of the 7 point arc. I remember it mentioned that you begin a story with Stasis – in other words, where the MP is right now. Then there is an Inciting Event – in classic story structure of myth and legend, the MP receives a call, which will move him or her out of the ordinary world, into a new world. The MP can either accept this call or reject it. Either way it is the invitation to a quest. There are many ways of illustrating story structure, using different metaphors but The Hero’s Journey is the best to my eyes. It sets out the structure of a story in terms of classic myth or fairy tale format. And it makes big sense to me.
Many novelists find one of the trickiest things is to know Where to Start Your Story. Finding out that key moment is a great challenge. You may not discover it until you’ve written the whole book. I advised the young man not to worry about it too much but to write the book all the way through first, because inevitably he will go back to the beginning and probably rewrite it several times. You can often only find out where your story starts, that moment of tension, after you have written the story.
Sometimes the story may start three chapters later than you through it did, and you will need to cut out your first chapters entirely. Or maybe it starts further back. Either way, it can be very exciting and revealing, when you find that perfect point where your story starts.
If you’re writing a novel, I welcome any thoughts you would like to add to this subject, in the comments.
How important is it for the ending of a novel to satisfy?
To what extent can an author be held responsible for this, or is it down to the heart and mind of the reader?
In 2012 I published an online article about novel endings in which I quoted Robert McKee in his excellent book Story. He describes many different types of endings, in popular films and novels. He says the main protagonist may not achieve their desire, but ‘the flood of insight that pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion… in a way we could never have foreseen.’
I believe the end to a novel must satisfy, wheher it be ironic, bittersweet, tragic, creepy, heartbreaking, chilling, shocking, tantalising or fairy-tale happy.
A good end to a story may deal out poetic justice, wisdom, truth, comedy, surprise, a frisson of terror… but it should never be disappointing, pointless, depressing, or (worst of all, I think) unnecessary.
I believe this last charge could be levelled at Louis de Bernieres for his ending of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – a book which otherwise made a strong impact on me and which I found compelling.
Recently I’ve spoken to a few people about unsatisfying novel endings. I heard this comment from my 17 year old son about the end to GP Taylor’s young adult novel Shadowmancer: “I was left wondering what on earth had happened. I felt disappointed.”
I know I am not alone in my reaction to the end of Louis de Bernieres’s novel. To me, the end of the story was unnecessary and pointless; it made me feel angry. I don’t even believe that a poor ending to a novel can be justified by the notion that “well, life is like that”. Even if cruel irony plays its part in the outcome, nevertheless, we should feel that the end plays an essential part in the organic whole of the world which the novel presents.
I’ve also heard some negative reactions to the final outcome of CS Lewis’s Narnia stories. I myself felt slightly unsatisfied and disappointed. I felt that in some curious undefined way it was “a cop-out”. Others have reacted more strongly to this disappointment. CS Lewis’s finale made them furious, having loved the books so much!
I hope that the end of my novel A Passionate Spirit will satisfy. Whether it will chill, or shock, or surprise… I’ll leave that up to you, my future reader!
Highgrove Garden made me think of the plot of a children’s book, quirky, fun, playful. At every turn there is a new surprise, like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. It was an odyssey through a quirky and unpredictable environment.
Vistas and views and angles, abundant ferns and eccentric topiary, temples, thatched tree house and giant slate pots abounded.
The downpour intensified as we went round, yet everyone was so entranced by the garden, it remained a minor issue – even when we waded through deep puddles on the unmade paths.
Moving through the garden is like progressing from one chapter to another in a beguiling story. If fairies inhabited this garden they would be the wild, anarchic spirits Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I particularly loved the juxtaposition of wilderness and artistry. HRH The Prince of Wales has invited artists and sculptors to run wild with their imagination; everywhere you may see the evidence of free expression and creativity.
In summary, this is a unique and profoundly inspiring garden.
In the last few years we’ve seen an astonishing and exciting thing here in our country: a relatively small, minority interest group dismissed by some as a gathering of eccentrics, has been triumphantly vindicated in the most extraordinary way. And the Ricardians‘ journey has drawn with them a city, a nation, the sweep of English history, and something powerful that has touched our spiritual roots.
The group is of course the Richard III Society – whose existence I first heard of 15 years ago whilst viewing an exhibition during my walk along the York City Walls – and the triumphant vindication is the discovery of the remains of Richard III, their authentication through a thrilling blend of science and history, and the captivation of millions by Richard’s story, and by the solemn and beautiful ceremonial with which his remains were received into Leicester Cathedral.
IN my former blog post about Richard III, I wrote this:|
“I cannot read of a historical figure like Richard III without seeing the parallels between his story and fate, and our own experience in this life.
For the basic principles of life do not change.
Nothing and no-one can guarantee any particular outcome for us. Not vice, not virtue. Not piety, not betrayal.
But of one thing I now feel assured by Ashdown-Hill’s book: where there is integrity and focused persistent research, and rigorous dedication, as in the painstaking work of the best historians and genealogists, truth, ultimately, will out.”
How many people must have watched Channel 4’s coverage of the events surrounding and including the reception of the body of Richard III into Leicester Cathedral, with a mix of emotions? Among us there would have been those who were amused, astonished, partly disbelieving, fascinated, excited, uplifted, moved. It was poignant, dramatic, dignified, graceful and solemn.
Certainly we are seeing “a fusion of everybody’s beliefs bound up in a very English moment which allows us to transcend the present moment and is big enough to accommodate all of us.”
Richard III represents and illustrates once again the “what ifs” with which British history is so liberally scattered.
As I watched the coverage of Richard’s remains travelling through the streets of Leicester, packed with onlookers, I saw many people throwing white roses onto the carriage. And I thought that with every white rose thrown, each person was somehow connecting with, claiming their place, inhabiting a story which expresses all the unaccountable mutations of life.