I'm still wittering on, to anyone who will listen, about the Masterclass given at Budleigh LitFest by Dame Hilary Mantel, which means Bookhound and Magnus are well-versed in all aspects of the two hours that I sat in on the four hour session. I'd only meant to stay for first ten minutes or so...
I overcame the temptation to just sit and be over-awed and took copious notes which are now like gold-dust to me, and as a few of you have asked for more details I will share a few nuggets. I won't flesh them out with too many of my own words so this may all seem a bit disjointed, but it wasn't it flowed so I hope you can get a sense of the wealth of information that was shared.
The premise of the class, in Hilary's words (I'm dropping the 'Dame' and the 'Mantel' which I hope is OK) was to address the fact that so many of the questions she is asked at the end of any talk are about process, and there is never enough time to answer them. This leads to a sense of short-changing people about this long and never-ending road to becoming a writer and wanted to offer more, explaining, with apologies to any experienced writers in the room, that she would treat everyone as a beginner because 'I am one too, every time I sit at my desk to write.'
What followed was an extraordinary thing...
An incredibly generous thing from a modest and self-effacing writer who displays no over-weaning sense of her own importance whatsoever.
Because there we all were, sitting in the room with this country's Greatest Writer (let's not mess about with 'One of...') and we were privy to everything Hilary had wished she'd known when she started out...
All the things that didn't go well...
The first twelve years when she published one short story and earned £100 in total...
The trajectory of A Place of Greater Safety, written over a five year period from 1974 at the age of twenty-two, 300,000 words that nobody wanted; demanding historical fiction was out of fashion. The book would eventually be published in 1993 (and I'm on page 400...now listening to the audio version while I sew or knit, which feels highly appropriate.)
Patience and self-belief were the watchwords because there is no such thing as 'overnight success', this takes a lifetime.
It was encouraging to hear that nothing is wasted, not even the most unproductive day because 'everything remains in potential.' And also to hear that it is common to get stuck at some point in a book.
And don't believe that every good idea is a novel. Don't assume and experiment with different mediums.
We were all very amused to hear that Hilary has returned to nursery school, using coloured pens, drawing, and much cutting-out, gluing and sticking as she works.
The advice around using your own experience was invaluable and backed up by some interesting encounters in Hilary's life whilst teaching a writing class. Don't write off your own experiences as dull, 'everyone has a pot of gold in their possession.' You are the sum of your own experience, it's where your voice is.
Live with the incomplete. You don't have to resolve everything for your reader. Arouse their need and mobilise their own sense of possibility.
A good writer has to be a good reader. It is where you absorb templates and build resources.
I was fascinated by the suggestion about each person's life paths not taken, and how feasible (and permissible) it is to 'imagine' these into your writing...let those inner people out for some exercise on the paper, nurture an openness to these lives and the ideas will come.
There were several book recommendations along the way, namely
Except you also need How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen which also received much praise, 'it provokes an overwhelming urge to read and write.'
Likewise The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron which, for all its 'California-ness' was a good friend in times of trouble.' (And of course now kicking myself because my copy went to the charity shop.) Please don't be offended by that any readers in California, it was a way of explaining that a book might work to slightly different parameters to UK expectations.
Onwards, and the advice not to judge your ideas too quickly ,'they could be angels in disguise.'
There was further elaboration on the mechanics of plot, structure and character with advice about what makes a good story...it must hold the attention and the reader must want to know what happens next. Identify the big turning points in the lives of the characters and don't trap your story before it has revealed its potential.
Much about the difficulties of split narratives too, as Hilary outlined with reference to a book that caused her the 'more trouble than any other' A Change of Climate, 1950s Africa and 1980s Norfolk. Of greatest imperative ' get your reader thoroughly engaged with one of them before introducing the other and the writer who Hilary feels achieve this brilliantly is Elizabeth Jane Howard, (not the Cazelets, though they have merits in their own right) read The Long View to see how it should be done.
There were various questions from the participants before the break for lunch, all answered in detail and with examples...
How do you deal with historical uncertainty....don't shut things down, look for maximum opportunity and ambiguity. The reported version of history is a simplification of what may have occurred. Assimilate all the contradictions. You can't have truth but you can have verisimilitude...
What about writing in accents or archaic language ...don't write phonetically, suggest through syntax, give flavour with word order, not what they say it's what they think, get inside the system of thought.
And then it was off for lunch and me to other events whilst the 60-strong group reconvened for the afternoon session.
I doubt anyone will forget this amazing day.