Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Bones of the Story

You know I’ve been writing some fiction lately. I don’t talk about it all that much, well I do, but only to a few people, because mostly it’s in my head and taking it out and showing it off isn’t going to help, and then there’s all the questions, you know, ‘so how much have you written?’ ‘when is it going to be published?’ all that. If I tell you, I tell you. If I don't, don't ask. Just take it from me, I’m writing. 

The thing is though, it’s making it very hard for me to read. It’s as if, as I read, I’m seeing the bones beneath everything all the time. I don’t mean that I’m noticing the mistakes, although I am of course, you can never turn off your editor’s eye. I mean I keep seeing the technical bits, like how the paragraphs are broken up and what punctuation the author’s using and how a character gets from A to B when nothing important is happening. These parts are necessary, of course they are, but I'm noticing them because I'm thinking about them all the time, trying to work out how to do these things myself, how to make these parts, the bones, invisible. I want to find out how to make sure the story takes the most direct path from the author’s brain to the reader’s, so that the the flow of the words creates a flow of story in the reader’s mind exactly as though the reader were watching a film, or maybe even thinking the story up for himself. Of course, there’s plenty of literature that wants you to take notice of its structure and its language, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the stuff that you gobble down for the pure joy of story. 

So what I’m wondering is this: is it possible, once you’ve started reading in this way, with a writer’s eye, to turn it off, to stop noticing how many times in a conversation the writer says ‘said X’ or ‘said Y’ to make sure you keep up, or how he or she slips in physical details about a character rather than giving you a straight description, or when the point of view changes and how? It’s useful for me to read this way right now, but I hope it won’t last because it definitely gets in the way of the story. And that’s the point, isn’t it? The bones should be invisible.

Friday, 26 April 2013


It happened. All the books came down from the attic, out of their boxes, and onto the new shelves. Well, most of them. There was a little culling to fit in some of the non-fiction, a few duplicates to get rid of, and I had to put the French books and the picture books back up because there still isn’t room for them. I suppose the fact that no one’s going to want to read them justifies this, but you know by now that I’d rather have them where I can keep an eye on them.

The new shelves are in the passage, so that you walk past them all the time going from one end of the house to the other. What is it that is so pleasing about having ranks of books? I see the children running their hands along them as they pass. They ask about this one, that one. Robert and I pick books up, look, put them back. I suppose in time we won’t even see these books, like the pictures on the walls, but just now they are intensely distracting.

I can’t work out when I last had all of my books on shelves rather than in boxes. A lot of them were around when we moved here, sixteen years ago, but I think at that point most of the children’s books were in the attic. Then, when the girls started to read for themselves I swapped them all over, put the children’s books on the shelves and the adult ones in the attic. That would have been, what, eight years ago? The reference books have stayed down here though, in case they were needed, apart from a year or so when we were having building work. So for the past eight years, I’ve had a couple of shelves of books I’ve recently bought, or things I’ve brought down from the attic to read, kept in check by ruthless culling and consigning more boxfuls to the attic at regular intervals.

So you would think, wouldn’t you, that after all this time, having my books where I can see them would give me deep satisfaction. I wish I could tell you that it was so. But I find myself slightly dissatisfied. My first thought was that this was because of the Missing Books. Where is my copy of Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites? Where is Midnight’s Children? Why do I only have two of the books in William Golding’s Rites of Passage trilogy? Where is Lord of the Flies? I know, I’ve probably lent them to people, but I don’t know for sure, which is unsettling.

It’s not this though, that is the really source of my dissatisfaction. Looking at all the adult fiction I own, laid out like that in front of me, I feel that I do not have enough books. How can I explain this? I don’t mean that I should have kept the books I’ve culled over time. No. When I give away a book to a charity shop or a school I do so because I feel that I do not need to own it. I am not interested in ever reading it again, I doubt if I will specifically want to suggest to anyone else that they read it, it is not beautiful enough to keep for its looks alone, and I don’t need to keep it because it is part of a set. I don’t regret any of the books I’ve given away. What I regret is the books I haven’t bought.

There weren’t a lot of books in my house when I was a child. My mother is a library-goer. She rarely reads a book more than once and has no acquisitiveness as far as books are concerned. My father has never been a reader. My brother is, but I think when we were at home he felt no need to hold on to the books he’d read. Maybe he’s different now. But me, I wanted to keep all the books I’d read, and I wanted shelves and shelves of books I felt I might want to read one day. I satisfied this urge with secondhand books. Once a month in the town where we lived, there was an antiques fair. Tucked away in the corner was a secondhand bookstall where they sold books for 10p and 20p, all sorts of beautiful, musty-smelling old books. I would come away each month with piles of everything, anything, ideally in hardback, with the occasional lovely old orange Penguin, authors I’d vaguely heard of, for that price it didn’t really matter what I bought. I still have books I bought then that I haven’t read yet. And after that, I worked in bookshops. This was still the days of the Net Book Agreement, so of course I took advantage of my 33% discount (how would I resist?), going home most weeks with two or three shiny new paperbacks, new authors, prize winners, backlist titles for authors I already loved, genres I’d not yet tried.

There’s a gap after that though. We bought a house, which needed money; we had children, who are expensive. Secondhand books don’t cost 10p anymore, and anyway, I’ve never had enough shelves to put the books I already own on. I stopped buying random books. The books I buy now, and the ones on my wishlists, these are books I plan to read. But I still want more of those others, those ‘oh, that looks interesting’ kind of books that you fill the shelves with and pick up one day. Last week I read Lolita; I must have had it since before we moved here. For sixteen years or more this book has been waiting for me to read it. It was fabulous, a revelation. Would I have bought it new from a bookshop? Probably not. Would I have borrowed it from the library? Probably not. That’s why I need to redevelop my idle secondhand book buying habits. I want more of these random books, these chance finds lying about the house. And that, lovely husband, is why I still need even more bookshelves.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


There are three boxes of books lying next to my new bookshelves. They’ll be the first to go on the shelves when I’ve finished painting them. These books aren’t part of the hundreds that lie still in the attic, waiting. These aren’t new. Most of them are by Terry Pratchett, just about every book he’s written, plus a lot of extra Discworld material, maps, guides, the science of Discworld, that sort of thing. The only things missing, as far as I can see, are the three nome books and I think I know why.

These are my Uncle Michael’s books. I say ‘are’, but Michael died almost a year ago, aged not quite 65. You’d imagine then that I’d say the books were Michael’s. I’ll always think of them as being Michael’s though, the way I think of the cast iron pan I use that belonged to my grandmother as being Gran’s pan. People give you strange things sometimes as keepsakes of people who died: things you don’t even remember seeing in their houses when they were alive, things you’ll never use, jewellery you’ll never wear. Michael’s Terry Pratchett books are a perfect keepsake. They are something that I know he loved, that he and I shared a love of, and that I will use, and as I do so think of my lovely uncle.

To tell the truth, it’s odd I haven’t got them all already. I have read the majority of them and will again, but mostly from the library though. I’d pounce whenever I came across one I hadn’t already read. They’re clever, and funny, and thoughtful, and there always seems to be some new twist that the plot can be lead down to embrace some new aspect of Discworld and gently poke fun at our own world. Why don’t I already own them all? I think perhaps I when I started reading them there were already too many out there. I felt I’d never catch up with them all, and what was the point if I couldn’t have the whole set? Who knows? Perhaps fate kept me from collecting them, so my shelves could be home to Michael’s collection. (If you’re wondering, the nome books are missing because, of all the stuff that Terry Pratchett wrote, these were the ones that Michael had no time for. I have only one of them myself, because Michael was right, and one is more than enough.)

Not long ago, when Michael retired, he made himself a library, a little room with books floor to ceiling and a comfortable chair to sit in. It was something he’d been planning for a while, a quiet reading place full of books. He showed it to me with such pride, this special space, and knew that I envied him it. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be for Sandra to dismantle Michael’s library, made for him to grow old in, but used for so little time.

I notice Michael’s books don’t have his name in. I do write in mine, the ones I plan to keep, generally my name and the date and place I first read the book. Not in the second hand ones though. I feel books I’ve bought second hand belong in some way to the person who has first written their name, and even if there is no name they still somehow belong to some other person. I plan to write in Michael’s books. I shall write ‘from the library of Michal Byrne’. I know he’d like that.