Good Reading : May 2008
MAY 2008 ı goodreading 9 It would be hard to find a more Establishment figure than English novelist Louise Doughty. Tall, slender, witty and engaging, Louise is a columnist for the prestigious Daily Telegraph, a broadcaster, a judge for the Man Booker literary prize, a playwright and a young mum, living in a fashionable part of London.Yet her ancestry is Gypsy and the essence of her life as a novelist is of the outsider, a person within and yet removed from her society. And it is her empathy with other outsiders that has made her into one of the most sought-after creative people around. ‘Novelists are, almost by their very nature, outsiders,’ she said. ‘Most of my writer friends see themselves as removed and apart from their society.’ In Australia as one of the star attractions of, and to give master- classes in creative writing at, the Perth Writers’ Festival, Louise is the author of five novels which have been lauded by critics throughout the world: Crazy Paving, Dance With Me, Honey-Dew, Fires in the Dark and Stone Cradle. But it is her latest book, A Novel in a Year , which has brought her to the status of being a household name in Britain. It all began with a conversation she had when she was first thinking of becoming a writer. She mentioned her literary aspirations to a friend, the owner of a secondhand bookshop.When he heard what she wanted to do, his shoulders drooped and he pointed with resignation at the shelves of his shop, groaning with thousands of unsold and unread books. ‘Why do you want to become a novelist?’ he asked. ‘The world s full of books; why would you want to add to them?’ Louise s desire didn t remain a dream, but turned into reality. She wrote two books, neither of which was published. ‘The first was awful … an embarrassment.The second wasn’t that bad, but not publishable,’ she told me. But her third book, Crazy Paving, was not only published but was short- listed for four prestigious awards, including the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. It is a story of office intrigue, betrayal and revenge, described by the Observer as ‘like Dickens with a one-day Travelcard’, and by the Evening Standard as ‘a first novel bubbling with talent’. To help other aspiring writers turn their dream of writing a novel into a reality, she suggested to the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph that she write a weekly column, linked to the paper’s website, giving mentoring advice for readers.The idea was so successful that the website had problems keeping up with the thousands of responses. ‘I had no idea whether or not it would be successful,’ she said. ‘The editor was stunned, as was I. But it’s been one of the most interesting and absorbing years of my life.’ A Novel in a Year is a compendium of good ideas to help ‘those millions of avid readers who know there’s a novel in them somewhere, but don’t know how to bring it to the page’. It was Australian novelist Elliot Perlman who gave Doughty her favourite piece of advice to aspiring writers.To anyone wanting to write a novel, he would say: ‘Think what you are prepared to sacrifice.’ Yet A Novel in a Year is just as valid for those who are interested in the art of reading as it is for apprentice writers who want to learn the intricacies of the creative process. Divided up into preparatory sections full of anecdotes gleaned from her Daily Telegraph column, followed by exercises to develop skills in plotting, character development, tempo and much more, A Novel in a Year is vastly superior to so many of the patronising how-to books written by novelists eager to earn a quick buck. Doughty has written her workshop book in such a way as to seem as though she’s sitting beside the writer in the small hours, always there to assist with ways of overcoming blockages. My favourite exercise, and one that’s equally valid for experienced novelists as for beginners, is when she asks her students to pick a section of something they’ve already written, do a word count, and then cut the words by a quarter. She suggests initially cutting all the adverbs, then the adjectives, not just whole paragraphs because ‘that’s cheating’. ‘I want you to trim sentence by sentence, so that everything that happens in the first version is still there, but pared down to the bone; I’d be surprised if after honest analysis, you think the longer version is better,’ she writes. Ah, if only half the novelists whose books I’ve read recently had thought of doing this. A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $24.95. a novel idea up close When novelist and journalist LOUISE DOUGHTY suggested a column on how o write a novel to her editor, neither had any inkling of the response it would eceive, as she tells ALAN GOLD.