Including in your novel somebody writing a novel is surely to walk on a literary tightrope. It could be the literary equivalent of somebody texting “I’m on the train texting you.” And it may be especially dangerous when the character writing the novel is clearly derived at least in part from you. Proust walks the tightrope without a moment’s uncertainty, and so does Elizabeth Jane Howard in Casting Off, the fourth of the Cazalet Chronicles.
I’ve been bewitched by the Cazalet Chronicles as has Lin, Ros Smyth who recommended me to read them, Jess, and everybody I know who has read them, including now James my son. Their pleasure lies in the highly readable writing and the acute observation of human relationships.
(Looking for more objective evidence to back up my claim about people loving the Cazalet Chronicles, I look at scores on Goodreads: Casting Off scores 4.26 out of 5; David Copperfield 3.96; The Way We Live Now 4.04; Dance to the Music of Time, which might be characterised as a male Cazalet Chronicles and is more “literary,” 3.94; and a Joanna Trollope novel The Rector’s Wife, which covers similar territory to the Cazalet Chronicles and is highly readable and but less insightful, 3.70.)
So Elizabeth Jane Howard knows her art, and she it was who persuaded Martin Amis, her stepson, to write; and the quote of his I use all the time is “the truth is in the fiction.” We should pay close attention to Howard’s advice.
Clary is the novelist. She is the least beautiful of the trio of girls we follow throughout the novels. She has been writing from when we first met her as a teenager. She’s headstrong and whatever she does she does with complete commitment. She’s recovering in an isolated cottage from a disastrous love affair, and the novel is part of her recovery. We know that the novel is based on the Victorian childhood of her former governess, rather as Howard’s novels are based in part on her memories of her childhood.
I should make clear that the quotes that follow are scattered through a chapter and not only don’t get in the way of the narrative flow but add to it.
Lesson 1: Read out loud what you write:
“She decided then that the best way of not thinking about him driving back to London was to get her work and read over what she had written before the weekend. This became a routine. She would get up, make a mug of tea and go back to bed with it and her novel, which she read aloud to herself because she found that this was a good way of hearing uneasy passages, repetitive words or sounds, or simply finding out what she had left out.”
Lesson 2: Your characters will be pulled out of yourself, which means knowing about yourself; this could be uncomfortable
“One knew less about oneself than other people realised, although one couldn’t consider other people in a novel without considering oneself. This seemed to be because one could never be quite sure about getting other people’s feelings right unless somehow one became them. And this in turn meant that one was pulling things out of oneself; it was a maze and she felt lost in it, but extremely interested.”
Lesson 3: There will be stages when the novel seems to be working, but they may be temporary
“The book had reached the stage where things were working in it that she had not envisaged when she began, but she had started to worry about the end, and didn’t want a holiday away from it.”
Lesson 4: It’s hard work
“For weeks after that she worked and worked – or rather re-worked. She had become a perfectionist: nothing she wrote seemed quite right or good enough, and she became obsessed with getting at least the first chapter right.”
Lesson 5: Don’t overelaborate; keep it simple. (A lesson that is central to my teaching on scientific writing.)
“ ‘Well, there’s some very good writing in it. Some of it almost felt too good.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘As though you are more concerned with how you are doing something than what it is you are doing. I like the simpler bits best. Tell me what you wanted to have in this bit. I mean, what you wanted me – the reader – to end up knowing.’ She told him. It didn’t take long, seemed quite small and clear. ‘Yes, well, that all seems quite right. But sometimes you have obscured that by getting too elaborate about it. Take the bit where Mary Anne realises that her father isn’t interested in her. That’s a shock. I don’t think she would think about what the room looked like and her earliest memories of everything else just then. I think she would be too upset by what her father had said. But, that’s only a minor criticism. It reads as though you have had a number of second thoughts and so the feeling has got a bit lost.
I think.’ ‘In the first draft I just said: “So she was not loved.”
That was it.’ ‘You see? That’s far better. The feeling is there. Goodness, I’m no literary critic. Could I see your first draft?’ “
NB. I’m not sure about this. “Show don’t tell” is the mantra of my screenwriting sister-in-law, and I think there’s much to be said for the mantra.
Lesson 6: Ultimately you must depend on your own judgement
If you’re going to make writing your life, you’ve got to start depending on your own judgement. You may take notice of other people, but ultimately, it’s what you think is right that’s right.’