High Fields and Hills

Two of my all-time favourite books were on the agenda this month. One a classic from my childhood (although in hindsight it’s debatable whether it is really suitable for kids) and the other a first novel that became a huge hit in the 1990s.

I first read Watership Down by Richard Adams over 20 years ago, in my early teens. It’s easy to realise why this book was such a smash with children – its a classic adventure story of questing rabbits with heroes and villains and all excitement and so on. It’s a decent length for young readers (my copy runs to about 480 pages) so I approached it as one of my first real reading challenges, along with Lord of the Rings, which in many ways is the book that spawned the fantasy genre and the idea of the noble quest.

In the interim years I picked the book up once or twice but never re-read it fully, until now. It’s obvious to say looking at it through an adult’s eyes, but there is so much more depth to the novel than just a simple adventure story. The first thing that struck me was the sheer beauty of the El-ahriarah mythology and the stories that the rabbits tell of him. These stories punctuate the novel at various points and are brilliant little vignettes that show how the tales of the Prince Rabbit influence the lives of the rabbits. Looking at it now you could make an argument that these stories draw heavily on religious symbols, but I (and Adams himself for that matter) disagree – it feels more the stuff of legend than anything specific.

I love the language of the book, too. Adams created the Lapine language himself, and it really only runs to a few words to describe themselves and the objects in their world. Hrududu for vehicle is still my absolute favourite. This language could be seen as extraneous to the story but I think it adds verisimilitude and gives the prose some punch.

Above all else, it’s simply a great story expertly written. Adams great strength is his descriptions of place and landscape, and the novel gave me pangs of homesickness for the English countryside that I haven’t really experienced since leaving. Such is the power of his prose. Sometimes all you want as a reader is a breathless, exciting tale of heroism and courage that can consume a few hours and keep you turning the pages. This is an expert example.

I think Nick Hornby is probably one of the UK’s most loved writers. His books carry a sort of ‘Everyman’ quality that appeal to vast swathes of the population and he has an ability to express feelings of everyday people that few can surpass. His first book Fever Pitch was an autobiographical essay about football and his relationship to it. What made the book a smash was his way of describing his emotions about the game which resonated with thousands of football fans who follow their clubs in the same, irrational manner up and down the land. He is a master of knowing what makes people tick, and exposing how they think and feel.

This quality was taken into his frst novel High Fidelity, which was also a bestseller. The plot is very much a well-trodden furrow – boy breaks up with girl, goes through some stuff, then gets back together with girl. Done many times before. But Hornby creates so many ‘I know people just like that’ moments that the book is a pure joy from start to finish. He absolutely nails the uncertainty that men feel in relationships and their sometimes fear of commitment, with at times pathos, others humour. The book is laugh out loud funny in many places.

Rob’s love of music in the novel, and he and his work colleagues obsession with talking and deconstructing it, appeals to everyone’s inner geek (if you have one). I feel quite the same way about books and every description of it strikes right to my very core. When you read a book and feel it is talking about you then you have something very powerful there – a connection between writer and reader that can reach across pages and span decades. This magic is what makes this novel so very special.

Novella -The Ongoing Rewrite

OK, so it’s been a few weeks since I got the first draft of my novella completed.  I have always found it best, despite the constant temptation, to leave it completely for a couple of weeks so you come back to it afresh. I love the feeling when you read the first few sentences after a break, especially if it reads better than you were expecting! What you want, of course, is for the words to not feel like yours any more, so you can look at it more objectively and be as ruthless as you can with ridding the prose of the extraneous bits.

And this has always been part of the struggle for me. It can be quite disheartening to read a paragraph which is well-written, but deep down I know has to go for the good of the story. Having said that though, its very good for my development as a writer to be able to have the confidence and discipline to do it. It was Faulkner who used the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’ and he was right, no matter how much you love the prose in question. There is no time for self-indulgence, especially in the shorter form of the craft.

Anyway, so after all this tinkering, I haven’t even been able to collapse the novella by 10%. I’ve gone from just over 31K to about 28.5, which is far less than I wanted. I know I have the opportunity to go back and work on it more, but I worry that constant fiddling with it will lessen the overall tone and atmosphere that I want to convey. I feel like the story has a bit more bite to it than before though. It is amazing how much a polish of the dialogue can sharpen things up, and there are always adverbs to get rid of. I’m still a little unsure about one particular piece of plot development, the timing of it seems off to me, and I’m sure I will have to address it again. But, by all intents and purposes, I’m pretty much there.

Of course, the question now is, what’s next? This piece could easily go into the metaphorical filing cabinet in the office, never to see the light of day. There’s hundreds of thousands of words of stuff already in there, gathering dust. Obviously that’s not what I want, but I don’t have much of a clue where to go from here. I’m an unpublished writer sitting on a novella of a difficult length to market, with some graphic content and some fairly controversial subject matter. Not exactly the greatest bet in the world.

But, in the end I’m glad it’s basically complete, and overall I’m pleased. Which is the main thing, I guess. But if anyone has any suggestions on where I could go next with it, do let me know.