I’ve become far too engrossed in Evelyn’s domestic life at a time when I’m meant to be simply giving her tips on how to write fiction.
Months ago the main reason I agreed to help her with her writing was because of her tragic loss of Bill (RIP) and I wanted to be a good neighbour.
Now Evelyn has taken up with Lenny, a retired PE teacher, who pulled her from a ditch in Offaly in the course of a foraging expedition. Lenny has read and liked my novel The Trout which briefly elevated him in my esteem. Apparently he is also now giving Evelyn tips on how to write a novel and is spending most of his time in her house. Furthermore, he intends to be there with her for Christmas.
But Nigel, Evelyn’s son who lives in Sydney, has broken up with his girlfriend and has announced that he is coming home to spend Christmas with his mother. Evelyn was overjoyed when she first got this news.
Now she is aghast. She doesn’t want Nigel to walk in and discover Lenny.
No one knows how this is going to end.
MY CHRISTMAS PRESENT ARRIVES
She carries in a cardboard box and sets it on the kitchen table.
‘I could have been corny and made you a Christmas cake,’ she says, ‘or a plum pudding.’
She opens the box and lifts out a three little glass jars.
‘But since I’m a budding writer I wanted to be original,’ she says, ‘and so I went into my precious reserves of home-grown gooseberries and made you chutney.’
I thank her warmly. Evelyn’s gooseberry chutney will be just the thing to clean the palate after turkey stuffing.
‘We would all like to live happily ever after,’ I say. ‘But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.’
‘As in Shakespearean tragedy,’ Evelyn says. ‘Bodies everywhere.’
The tension of the last evening has gone and tonight she is almost serene.
‘Readers want resolution,’ I say. ‘Generally speaking they want good to prevail over evil, they want the murderer identified and caught. But above all they want to know what happened.’
‘How do you deal with that?’ Evelyn asks.
‘When I begin a novel I have an idea, however murky but still an idea, of the beginning, middle and end,’ I say.
‘Catherine Dunne was saying how characters always live with you,’ Evelyn says.
‘At the end of a novel it takes me many months to say goodbye. I’ve lived with these characters for three years, in some cases six years. Now I have to get to know a completely new series of faces for my next book.’
‘It sounds like working in a job where you’re posted to a new location every three or four years,’ Evelyn says. ‘The diplomatic service must be like that. You say goodbye to all the friends you’ve made in, say, Athens, and have to start all over again in Berlin.’
‘Many of my novels are written in the first person, so I identify very closely with the character throughout the story.’
‘You become that boy, as you once said.’
‘Exactly. In all my novels there is a sense of peace at the end. Or peaceful resolution. The character may be compromised, at the end of life, about to face his or her nemesis – whatever – but there’s a certain peace.’
‘As in real life,’ Evelyn says.
‘We hope for that, don’t we? Here is how my novel The Trout ends.’
‘Lenny loves that book.’
‘Why do you think I chose it?’
We both laugh and then I read:
‘It is often said that the dying can hear much more than is supposed. It is reported by those who have come back from the brink that, despite their seeming deadness, even when their heart has stopped, they are vividly aware of people around them. Some describe it as swimming into the darkness, like a little fish. They can hear the water lapping gently as they move ever farther, as the deeper and deeper currents take them into their care, as they let go and the shore recedes, as the noise and harshness of the land is forgotten and bit by bit they become one with the mystery of the water and the music of the night.’
When I look up Evelyn is dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
‘Sorry, it just grabs me,’ she says.
She gets up and refills the kettle.
‘September seems like a long time ago,’ she says. ‘We’ve covered a lot of ground since then. Now it’s up to me.’
I know how she feels. When I wrote my first novel I had no idea how to get it published. Luckily I found a good agent to look after me.
‘When you’ve something to show, you need an agent,’ I say. ‘Someone to advise you.’
‘Is that easy?’
‘I’ve asked my own agent on your behalf,’ I say. ‘Her name is Caroline Montgomery and here is what she’s come back with.’
Evelyn sits back and smiles peacefully.
CAROLINE MONTGOMERY OF THE RUPERT CREW LITERARY AGENCY JOINS THE CONVERSATION
As you set out on your writing career, remember that publishing is a very subjective business. I’m sure you’ve read novels which have received acres of stunning reviews and yet you couldn’t get past the first few pages. It’s the same for all of us – you just have to hit upon the person who clicks with your work. In some instances a project which ticks all the right commercial boxes can be something an agent will take on even if it isn’t quite to their personal taste. But I think agents generally think about the long-term relationship, and many of my clients have been with me for over twenty years.
My personal preferences in fiction are for accessible literary/upmarket commercial fiction, crime and historical fiction. I always love something that is slightly unusual. Something based on a real-life figure and given a twist. I suppose, the big thing for me will always be “voice”. Plot is important too but I often feel if the tone is right the latter might more easily reconfigure into something viable. However, finding the narrative voice that engages the reader and plunges them into a specific place or time, from those first few lines, is special. “Showing” your reader something rather than “telling” them, is key.’
‘I think I’m getting the message,’ Evelyn says.
WRITE SOMETHING EVERY DAY
‘Write something every day – even if it is just a few lines. Working that writer’s muscle is important. Read your material aloud – it’s amazing how different it can sound from what you imagined in your head. Try different POVs – first person narratives can be incredibly difficult to sustain successfully.’
‘That’s really interesting advice,’ Evelyn says, blithely ignoring the fact that it is the advice I gave her at the very outset.
I’d hate to think mine was a lone voice.
‘Get used to rejection and appreciate constructive criticism if it is offered. Not everyone has the time to invest in offering editorial feedback for projects they don’t want to take on. I know this is your baby and you want the best for it but even when you find an agent, it’s not a given that you’ll get a publishing deal for that particular project. If an editor likes your work, it doesn’t mean that they’ll get it past their sales and marketing teams, but it might open a door for something else, so keep an open mind.
DON’T GIVE UP THE DAY JOB!
This is the very best piece of advice I can offer you. Writing is a craft like any other which requires constant honing. Do not expect your first efforts to be snapped up and even if they are, don’t rely on this becoming a brilliant career move. Comparatively few authors earn enough to write full-time.
And finally write because you enjoy it and if you are lucky enough to secure a paying audience that is a wonderful bonus.
It’s raining lightly when we reach the backdoor. The sky is dark and close. I would not be surprised if it started to snow.
‘All set for Christmas?’ I ask innocently.
Her eyes close and I get a front row seat of her long eyelashes.
‘I made a decision,’ she says. ‘I realise that no one can replace Bill in Nigel’s estimation – nor in mine, of course. And I appreciate that I only met Lenny two months ago for the first time…’
‘But – look – I’m lonely! I’m not afraid to say it! And I like Lenny, I really do! He’s kind, he’s helpful and considerate. Gentle. We’re both grown-ups who have a lot in common. Neither of us wants to be alone for Christmas…’
She’s cancelled Nigel, I think. What a turnaround!
‘And yet,’ she says as if reading my thoughts, ‘Nigel can break up with his girlfriend and decide to swan home here for Christmas! Just like that! Why should that mean that I have to throw out my boyfriend for Christmas? Answer me that!’
I assume the body language of a man reluctant to offer an opinion.
‘So,’ she says, ‘I’ve made up Nigel’s room. He will be as welcome as baby Jesus. But I’ve also emailed him, explaining my position. Lenny and I will collect him from the airport. And then it’s up to bloody Nigel, isn’t it?’
Something unstoppable attaches to Evelyn at these moments.
‘Well done,’ I say. ‘You can do it.’
‘I hope so,’ she says. ‘I’ll let you know what happens. And look – thanks for everything!’
We hug. She is warm and fragrant.
Then she walks away into the woods, and is soon lost to the deep darkness, her narrative all before her.