Dear Emily: A Previously Undiscovered Piece of Literary Correspondence.

Top Withens near Haworth. That isn't Cathy on the right. It's my mum. 

I'm reblogging this piece again, for various reasons. It was one of my most popular blog posts ever (this and the post on an older blog about how much I hated my memory foam mattress, which fortunately has gone the way of all useless things, the mattress, not the post.) 

I recently heard a little tale about one of Scotland's finest writers. I'd better not name him, but take it from me, he is - albeit not in an obvious blockbuster way - one of the UK's finest, most readable and thought provoking writers of fiction. He had had a submission turned down by a young intern who clearly didn't know enough to know how little they knew. I was gobsmacked. I thought 'what hope is there for the rest of us?' And then I went back to this. Hope it cheers you up too. 

My novel Bird of Passage, which was inspired by my love of Wuthering Heights, is now out in paperback, as well as being available as an eBook. 

The Humongous Book Group 
'Our mission is to be market focused above all things.'

Dear Emily,

Thank-you for letting us see the completed draft of your novel, Wuthering Heights. I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you, but as you will see, your manuscript was involved in a process which takes some considerable time.

First of all, can I say that I enjoyed your book. Unfortunately, I was not, at this stage, able to carry our sales department with me. We have therefore sent it to our in-house team of ‘beta readers’. This is a new concept even for us here at Humongous Publishing. It involves a team of interns who act as a kind of focus group. They read new fiction for us in their free time, and offer helpful suggestions. We call them ‘The Beta Bunch’ or sometimes ‘The Critters’. You don’t have to take any of these ideas on board, but if you can put your natural ego to one side for a while, and think of the good of the novel as a whole, you may start to see things our way.

Below is a list of editorial suggestions collated from the Beta Bunch, Sales & Marketing and my own feedback. As I’m sure you realise, in the current publishing climate, sales predictions must be exceedingly optimistic for Marketing to allow us to take any risk. With your lovely novel, they don’t see how they can sell it to a wider public, which was why they suggested some input from the Beta Bunch. Between us, we have come up with a few edits which may help to turn your fine novel into a more marketable proposition.

1 The title presents significant problems. Wuthering is clearly a part of your Yorkshire vernacular, but potential readers in the south have no understanding of this term. As you pointed out in an email to your agent, it is a description of a particular kind of wind. We think Windy Hilltop would be a much better title both for the house and the novel. And while I’m on the subject of dialect, we are all in agreement that Joseph is (a) incomprehensible to the average reader and (b) a boring old man. We think he could definitely go. Nobody would miss him. He just holds up the forward thrust of the plot.

2 The narrative framework of the novel is confusing. We don’t really think the dual narration involving Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean works. One of our beta readers suggested that it may be possible to dispense with the narrator altogether and simply tell the story from a third person point of view. Perhaps an objective omniscient narrative voice or deep third person subjective point of view might suit?

3 You have clearly ‘written yourself into’ the story. You need to delete the first few chapters. Instead, we might begin with Mr Earnshaw bringing the young Heathcliff to Windy Hilltop. But we need far more back story for Heathcliff. Perhaps he was Mr Earnshaw’s ‘natural’ child. Perhaps we might see Mr Earnshaw bidding a sad farewell to his dying mistress in Liverpool, realising that he must take the child home with him and wondering how his family will react?

4 There are some problems with characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy in particular seemed inconsistent and irrational to our editorial team. Ems, darling, nobody can fall in love with characters like this, and we have to love these people! And while we’re on this topic, one of our readers suggested another name change, this time for Heathcliff. Perhaps Cliff Heath or something similar: rugged but somehow more of a real name.

5 We think you might usefully reconsider your heroine’s character. Readers find it hard to engage fully with a thoroughly unlikeable person and Cathy is – forgive me – in danger of coming across as a bit of a bully – all that pinching and slapping. She is very pretty - but perhaps a tad too pretty? She needs some faults: a big mouth, a snub nose, unruly hair. Perhaps she gazes into her mirror in dissatisfaction at herself. It’s fine that she’s feisty and spirited. But there are times when her character verges on the psychotic and her tears and tantrums may provoke the wrong response. Nobody likes a watering pot, do they? And a watering pot with serious food and anger issues is quite hard to love. The reader must be able to sympathise with her predicament in choosing between poor but handsome Cliff and rich but wet Edgar. They must be able to put themselves in her shoes. At the moment, who would?

6 You may also need to reconsider Cliff. He does seem to have seriously sadistic tendencies. BDSM is fine, (in fact we could do with a little more of it here in view of other publishing successes) but cruelty to animals on the part of the hero is a definite no-no and the scene where we learn that he has hanged his wife’s dog MUST GO. Actually, we all reckon his wife should go too. Cliff HAS to marry Cathy. You can’t cheat reader expectations like this and besides, Isabella is SUCH a wuss. You should be aiming for a powerful hero with whom the reader can sympathise, even when he’s behaving badly: sexy and brave but with a certain underlying vulnerability and a hidden sorrow. Likewise, we really think you must reconsider the scenes where Cliff indulges in what can only be described as necrophilia. We feel quite strongly that horror is not your genre.

7 We would like to suggest that you ‘big up’ the supernatural elements. Several of our ’critters’ suggested that you should begin the tale in the present day, with a young couple – Londoners who have moved to Yorkshire perhaps - buying Windy Hilltop with a view to renovating it. Inexplicable things start to happen to them. The house is haunted! The husband refuses to believe in the supernatural but the wife starts to research the story and unearths the whole sorry tale: Mr Earnshaw and his tragic mistress, Cliff and Cath growing up, followed by Cliff’s desertion. Cath’s unwise marriage, Cliff’s return and most important of all, the resumption of the love affair. 

8 Forgive me, Emily, but you do tend to cop out of the erotic scenes. None of our beta readers could believe that – when Cliff finally comes back – he and Cathy wouldn’t be making mad, passionate love all the time, out on those windy moors. We have to be there and feel it with them. Where is her inner goddess? Wouldn’t he want to punish her for making him suffer all these years? The only time they seem to get it on is when she is dying and even then it’s only a few kisses and Cliff gnashing his teeth a lot. (More borderline necrophilia.) We need more sensuous wuthering in the heather!

9 Overall, the consensus was that you should definitely consider deleting the last third of the novel. Remember the old adage, kill your darlings? Well, we all agree that a bit of a massacre is in order. At present, the passages with young Cathy and Hareton read like an extended coda to the main event which is clearly the wild and wonderful relationship between the principle protagonists. You pointed out in your last (somewhat forthright) email, that you visualise this as a necessary resolution to the disorder of the first two thirds of the novel, without which the whole thing makes no sense. We take your point, but none of the beta readers cared for your ending, with the exception of one who thought Hareton was ‘quite fit’.

10 The whole of the Beta Bunch felt very strongly that you needed to come up with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. One suggestion was that Edgar Linton might fall down a pothole. You have a lot of potholes in Yorkshire, don't you? Cliff finds his conscience at last and tries to rescue him. Edgar dies, Cliff survives. He’s wounded (we all love wounded heroes) but at least he has done the brave thing. He marries a pregnant Cathy and they move to Windy Hilltop. Although they live happily every after, they have to spend their whole lives pretending that the baby isn’t Cliff’s, just to keep Cathy’s reputation intact. Which is the reason for the haunting. The truth must be told!

So there it is. We feel that with a little more work you could really turn this into a stonking great story. You never know, it may even be a ‘breakthrough’ book for you. We look forward to hearing from you with your rewritten manuscript just as soon as you can manage it. I’m sure you can do it. After all, time is on your side.

Very best wishes

Verucca Havering-Gently

For Humongous Publishing, London and New York.

Scotland or What?


That's the question.

Somewhere among my many books there's an old - a very old - Beano Annual. I was a big fan of the Beano when I was a child. My beloved grandad bought me a copy every week. There was usually a mild tussle with my dad over each new issue, because he loved it too. Mostly we would read it together. Come Christmas, there would usually be a Beano Annual in my stocking. In one of the cartoons, I forget which, but it may have been Lord Snooty, now only remembered every time Jacob Rees Mogg rears his head, there's an image of the Scottish border. Not that Lord Snooty was Scottish, but since the Beano and Dandy were published in Dundee by the redoubtable D C Thomson, the cartoons would, every so often, contain a small and faintly satirical reference to English perceptions of Scotland. 

The border was, as far as I remember, a very definite line, on the northern side of which were instant mountains, (lochs and bens) and men in kilts, leaping about, tossing cabers, and saying things like 'hoots mon'. It was, of course, a joke. A joke, moreover, at the expense of our English neighbours. A bit like that episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where Tony discovers that he has Scottish blood and becomes the laird of Glen Sporran. Or tries to. The one in which James Robertson Justice calls Hattie a 'fine wee woman'. 

I found myself thinking about all these things last weekend when I watched the first episode of a new TV crime drama 'set in Scotland' (sic). It was a television version of a well reviewed radio drama which, surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard. To say that I didn't enjoy this incarnation would probably be to underestimate the strength of my feelings about it, and it's safe to say that I won't be watching it again. But I'll leave the reviewing of it to more dedicated TV critics than I am. 

Besides, that's not really what this post is about. You see, for me, it demonstrated a very real and all too common disrespect shown to Scotland, far more often than is excusable. As though we live in some kind of cartoon country, where once you step over the border from England, you will find yourself in a vague, undifferentiated place where signs saying 'Benview' indicate that this is a land of bens and lochs. Watching an hour of this drama, from Scotland, was deeply frustrating, mostly because it was nothing at all like Scotland. 

The crime solvers were housed in what looked like an empty modern building in the middle of nowhere. So empty that I swear it echoed. There was a Norwegian detective and a Scotsman who thought she had taken his job. I mean I know this happened in reverse in the stunningly good Broadchurch but that was explicable in all kinds of ways. A (Clyde Coast?) marina seemed to have only one boat in it. My ex-professional sailor husband muttered mutinously over this one. Sometimes a vague city skyline or a few buildings hove into view. More often, there was a whole lot of sea, and a character who inexplicably goes to school in a small boat. There are lots of shadowy mountains, sorry, bens, in the distance, interspersed with sudden shots from the obligatory helicopter, of a single track road winding through dense forests. This place simply slides away from you all the time, like Brigadoon. It has no existence at all beyond this moment. 

Where the hell were we? This was Scotland for Dummies, produced by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the reality of this place that I love, in all its wonder and variety and complexity. 

And yes, I know it was a crime drama, not a travelogue, but it didn't need to be like this. I kept thinking about the always excellent Shetland. It doesn't matter that in real life there are (thankfully) few murders there and Shetlanders may be able to find fault. But most of us can willingly suspend our disbelief, because everything else is so lovingly scripted and filmed and acted. 

Instead, in the immortal (real) words of Mr Spock, this was 'no Scotland as we know it!' 

Ice Dancing - My Scottish Village Novel (with a bit of Ice Hockey thrown in for good measure!)


Cover image by Alan Lees

This week, my slightly quirky love story, Ice Dancing, is being serialised in the Dundee Courier. It seems appropriate for that newspaper, since not only is Ice Dancing set in and around a small rural Scottish village - and Dundee has a rural hinterland - but a theme of Ice Hockey, players and fans, runs through the novel and Dundee is a good hockey town. 

All the same, you don't have to know anything about the sport to enjoy it, because the novel's narrator, farmer's wife, Helen, knows nothing at all about it either, till she meets Joe, a visiting Canadian Ice Hockey player. Then she finds out all about it.

The book was a labour of love for me. I never expected it to be particularly successful. I just wanted to write it (probably the best of all reasons for writing anything) but to my surprise, I find that people who find it and read it seem to love it too. I suspect it doesn't have much to do with the hockey. It has more to do with what turned out to be a fairly sharp-eyed but loving observation of the realities of village life. After all, and with occasional spells elsewhere, I've lived in a rural Scottish village for some 40 years. And, as one lovely reviewer pointed out, it's about the realities of love and desire at first sight as well. 

The reason for the title, which gives me no end of trouble when people think it's a how-to manual, will become very clear if you read the novel! 

You can download it as an eBook here and as a paperback here. If you're reading this in the USA you should be able to find it on Amazon there as well.

Vincent D'Onofrio, Character Inspiration and Click Bait Headlines

A slightly prickly post illustrated by very prickly thistles! 

Many writers, me included, will often find themselves imagining actors playing certain parts in the fiction we're creating. Mostly, this is without any expectation or even remote hope that it will actually happen - especially since we often look at previous performances of people who, however talented, would be far too old for the role. Although if you tell me that the author of the Bridges of Madison County didn't imagine Eastwood in the role, I won't believe you! 

It's a more nebulous idea than that. Sometimes a character arrives whole, and you, the writer, can see them and know exactly what they say and how they say it. William, the narrator in my novel The Physic Garden, was exactly like this. He was who he was, he spoke to me and there was nothing I could do about it. But sometimes, it can be difficult to 'see' them, as you're embarking on a project. And sometimes we watch an actor in performance and think - there's something about the performance that I can use.  

It's no secret among my close friends that I'm pretty obsessed with Law and Order Criminal Intent, but only those episodes with Goren and Eames. I'm intrigued by the character of Bobby Goren, and yes, I know he's written that way, but a fine actor can bring so much to a role. As a playwright, I know that an actor and director can show you elements of your writing that you hardly even knew were there. Between writer and actor, this is one intriguing character.

I'm in the middle of a huge and complicated piece of non-fiction about my Polish family background, but - as so often happens - there's a new novel simmering away at the back of my mind, and in that novel is a character who is walking around saying 'here I am, look at me' relentlessly. There are certainly elements of this character that owe something to D'Onofrio's fine realisation of Goren in Criminal Intent, his vast intelligence, his solitary nature, his vulnerability  - albeit in a completely different way, in a completely different setting, in a completely different country. 

This isn't 'copying' or fan fiction. It's using a past performance of someone you admire as a springboard into creating another character, teasing out their unique story, using those insights in the creation of something new and different. 

I think a lot of us do this. We'll see what emerges.

Finally, somewhere online is an idiotic video titled the Life and Sad Ending of Vincent D'Onofrio. And no, I won't be linking to it, because it's clickbait, pure and simple. He's not dead. He's still a very fine actor indeed. He's just - you know - older. Which is no sin. I find these celebrity posts and videos so strange. As though growing older and wiser is somehow optional. 

I've news for you. We're all heading that way. You may be a few years behind - but it's coming. Nothing surer. 

An Unforgettable Novel

Often, when I'm working on a new book, I actively avoid reading fiction set in the same period, although I always read plenty of non-fiction books around the subject, especially if I'm writing historical fiction and non fiction. Sometimes the 'voice' of a particular piece of fiction is too strong and gets in the way of the made-up voices in my head - and this is even true of non-fiction in which I tend to write narrative rather than academic non-fiction.

But this wonderful novel, Neal Ascherson's, the Death of the Fronsac, is the exception. 

I don't know why I didn't know about it earlier. I should have, given the subject matter and the narration, and also given that I admire the writer both as a journalist and a historian. Set in 1940, it is mainly, but not wholly, told through the experiences of a Polish soldier who has found himself in Scotland when his own country has been divided between Hitler and Stalin. It is, as one reviewer describes, an extended and 'marvellous meditation on what it means to have lost a country and a past.' It is a book about the meaning of the word 'home' in Polish more than in English. What it means to lose it, where it resides and whether, once lost, you can ever find it again. 

I finished it at 3 o'clock one morning, found myself dreaming about it for the rest of the night, wept over it, and wrote an online review which I knew wouldn't do it justice. My late father could have been the main narrator of this book - he too lost everything in the war and had, if anything, an even more traumatic time. He too arrived in Britain and elected to stay here, in the face of suggestions that the Poles 'go back home' to a home that no longer existed. I think nobody in his new country, even his much loved wife, my mother, really understood how it no longer existed and what his experiences had been. Not back then, anyway, although my mum certainly came to an understanding later. They simply didn't understand the trauma of it. 

During the course of my life, so many people here in Scotland have rushed to tell me how much they loved the Poles who stayed at the end of the war. 'Oh, they fitted in,' they'll say. 'Fine people.' I always suspected that it wasn't quite the whole truth at the time. It certainly wasn't my mother's experience in post-war Leeds. This book serves to confirm that it wasn't the whole experience of Poles in post-war Scotland either. 

I'm in the middle of researching the history of the Polish side of my family for a new book called The Last Lancer, and I've found more than one Scottish person asking me 'why didn't your dad go back to Poland'? Among much else, this fine book also explains some of those reasons why, in sensitive, detailed and horrifying terms. 

The novel also clarifies for me the reasons why my father's attitude to Churchill was equivocal at best. It was an attitude he shared with many Poles. But above all, it explains something central to the Polish perception of 'home', an inadequate word in English, and of the way in which Poles never confuse the piece of land labelled state - and nation. 

But what is that nation? What does it mean to be Polish? What, and where, is home, when home has been all but obliterated.

I think about it a lot these days, having recovered my own precious Polish citizenship a year ago. I think about it when, as happened to me recently, a new social media 'friend' posts something astoundingly insensitive, inaccurate and angry about 'illegal immigrants' (And is promptly unfriended - something I very rarely do!) 

There are no easy answers, and this is by no means an easy book - but it is still the finest and most illuminating piece of writing on these subjects - and on my own heritage - that I have ever come across.

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