‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they may be angels in disguise.’
Around forty of us sat poised, pens and notepads at the ready. We were all eager to catch the drops of wisdom which were about to fall from the lips of one of the most accomplished writers of our time. Hilary Mantel’s masterclass was a one-off, sold-out experience at the Budleigh Literature Festival in September 2018; I was one of those lucky enough to acquire a ticket.
Now, with the sad and sudden news of her death, I would like to share some of the notes that I made from her class. Hilary lived in Budleigh with her husband, in a penthouse flat with a glorious sea view that she said helped her to write. She was President of the Literary Festival, and usually gave a talk there each year. Once, Robert and I sat next to her at another talk and exchanged a few words, but I felt too shy to get to know her further – something I regret now. The last time I set eyes on her was during our week of renting a beach hut in Budleigh in July this summer, which was more or less in front of her flat – she swept out onto the balcony in her floating garments for a quick breath of fresh air – almost a dramatic appearance in itself!
She came from very humble origins, and suffered a great deal with ongoing medical problems, largely caused by poor care and endometriosis. To those who found her appearance or indeed her voice strange, her physical condition and medication were the main cause of this. It took a long time for her talent – genius – to be recognised, through her now famous ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, and the winning of the Booker Prize twice over. If you’re interested in reading more about her life story, ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is a powerful memoir – one which I’ve often recommended in my Life Story writing classes.
Hilary gave out to us generously throughout the day of the masterclass, starting with a look at the basic process of writing. Whatever our level of experience, she told us, it’s something that we never finish learning. ‘We’re all beginners. Every day when I sit down to work, I’m a beginner too,’ she told us. And the process is always unpredictable. ‘Sometimes words come out in an undisciplined torrent, sometimes it’s like pouring treacle’.
I took copious notes that day, and this is a selective version, organised into a short form for general interest. It’s aimed at being a faithful view of how she talked, and what she said, while drawing from her experience, and responding to our eager questions. Everything quoted in direct speech accords as exactly with her own words as possible. I write this as if she was still living – I don’t feel ready to relegate it to the past yet.
Hilary’s Wisdom – the process of writing
It takes a lifetime to write each book. ‘Everything you know and what you are is in that book, either on the lines or between them.’ And it won’t always work: ‘Experience does teach you to fail – and fail again – and to fail better. Nothing is wasted – not time, not paper, nor the stories that seem to go nowhere – everything remains in potential.’ It may be frustrating to fail, but ‘this frustration makes writing a fascinating trade.’ Accepting that has been part of her own journey: ‘I wish I’d stopped assuming that every good idea I had must turn into a novel.’
One tip, if you have a project not working, is to ask yourself if you’re working in the right medium. If in prose, try to think instead of how it might work visually, or as dialogue. ‘Sneak up on it with a camera.’ And there could be a staged option too; when she works with complex factual material, she often asks herself how it might be presented as a theatre or radio play. ‘This usually helps you to crunch down on what’s needed. Whatever medium you’re working in, make use of other ones to help you. Ask yourself, “Am I working in the right form?”’
Drawing from memory
And sometimes even the wayward stories will come good. One that she couldn’t finish for years was finally solved when she had to wait on a platform for a train for a very long time. ‘Such periods of time are frustrating to civilians, but to writers a gift.’ As she allowed her mind to go into idling mode, and to play with memory, she recalled a girl from her childhood who gave her just the right idea for her character.
She often asks herself about puzzles from the past – ‘Why was this person like that?’ Or why did she herself respond in a certain way to a person or situation? ‘When you look back you can see yourself as a character in a story. If you exercise your memory you will never, ever be short of material.’ ‘Strive to think well of yourself and your experience because everyone has a pot of gold in their memories.’
Memories don’t always make sense – you may ask yourself what was that about? But, she affirmed, the sense is extracted as you write. ‘Be willing to leave things in suspension as you write; learn to live with them incomplete. You don’t have to resolve everything for the reader either. Your task is to arouse the reader’s need to know, not to satisfy it. If your story works, it will open up in the reader’s mind a great many questions – in fact that’s a huge favour you’re doing for someone.’ In other words, questions are just as important as answers.
A collage of ideas
Hilary told us how she tends to put her books together like a collage, with snatches of conversation, and images for instance. She has a display board, which used to be a giant pinboard, studded with index cards. But now it’s a whiteboard, where she plays unashamedly with ‘nursery school’ materials such as coloured pens. She uses pictures, writes salient points, and draws characters as if they were on stage. ‘Feel free to enjoy yourself!’ she told us.
‘Ideas come from the paths you didn’t take – the unused parts of yourself. If you are a woman, inside you is the man you could have been and vice versa.’ Other roles may also be within you, so ‘let those people out for exercise!’
Don’t judge ideas too quickly. ‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they might be angels in disguise.’
Writing freely and dreaming, is always worthwhile. And reading is never a waste of time. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader.
The story at work
As a basic premise:
Plot – is ‘what happens’
Characters – are actors, and must be interesting
Structure – is how to unfold the story, deciding what goes where
Your characters need the capacity to act, grow and change – and that ‘change’ is ‘the plot in action’. You need their desire to make the story go forward; your characters must want something that they struggle towards, and then the change occurs as they struggle. ‘Characters come to life through showing them in action.’
‘Also ask of your character: “How do their mind and emotions work? What filters do they protect themselves with?” And you must write a book from your whole body, not from your head.’ She found it difficult, she admitted, to get out of her head and into the body: ‘Try to look through people’s eyes, listen with their ears, feel their sense of touch. Get an all-round sensory experience.’ This way, your character will really ‘be there’ in every paragraph.
We all have an instinctive appreciation of a good story, and it’s essential to have that ‘good story’ in our writing. ‘Without that – nothing!’ Screen writers are adept at this – so if you’re stuck, use a screen-writing book to teach you how to put in hooks, mark turning points, and time the different stages of a story. Though, in her experience, you don’t have to follow this rigidly. It doesn’t all have to be laid out beforehand: ‘The best ideas come when you’re actually writing’. Even the ending of your story will often emerge while you’re writing it.
The motivation is ‘to make the best book I can’. You learn to take pleasure in shortening your writing. Cutting leaves you feeling better. And over the years, with the changes from typewriters to word-processing, editing is not so laborious as it was. But simple cutting and moving text is not editing. To edit – step back, ‘interrogate every element’. It might turn into a crisis, if you realise that you need to do a big re-write. But it creates a more powerful book.
Focus closely on dialogue; every unit (the paragraph, in her case) should bring about change in the story. Tighten it up after first draft. She herself aims to reduce dialogue by about a third, and finds this very effective.
As for structure, you’ll know if it isn’t working because you start to bore yourself! Improvements are often to do with shifting the order of events or making changes of pace. Again, if you really need nuts and bolts advice, the screen-writing books are helpful. With your reader, act like a shepherd gently herding your sheep – they don’t know which way you’re sending them, but you can get them to move along in that way.
Read your work aloud – not just dialogue, but everything. Rhythm really matters, and should flow. Reading aloud will detect ‘false notes, weaknesses, redundancies’.
First chapters often get changed later on: ‘You can be proud of it! No one is looking over your shoulder. You have freedom. Write the book you would like to read.’
As for getting advice from others: ‘A book is not a democracy.’ You do not have to account to the world for what you’re doing. If you’re going to take advice though, take it from the best.’
If you have the option, set your work aside for a while – put it in the drawer: ‘The secret is, in the dark it changes!’
Hilary’s own ‘go-to’ book for editing is The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.
Once you have an editor, with a publisher, the situation changes. Editors are good at finding the problems in your work but not usually so good at providing the right solutions. So if they point out the problems, provide your own solutions. Remember that the editor is trying to ease the path to the reader, so don’t be too defensive in response to their comments. And later, at copy-editing,, line-editing stage, the editor is your best friend, helping to bring consistency to the book.
In general, though, be protective of your work. You need to intuit who it might be worth showng it to. Ask yourself what it is that you want to get back from them. Encouragement, yes – we all need it. But asking for technical advice is different.
‘The time to write is now. Write it the best you can. Don’t worry about the market – write what you want to write. In time, if you keep faith, you’ll create the market for your product. Identify the story, get it on the page. That’s it.’
Tweet from Lucy Worsley: ‘In 2009, a lady came to a conference we had at Hampton Court, about the life of Henry VIII. She sat quietly at the back making notes. She was reputed to be a novelist. I did not know then that a goddess was walking among us.’
Please note: Although I have no copyright over Hilary Mantel’s words as such, this post as an edited version of her class is copyright to Cherry’s Cache website. If you wish to share it, quote it, or use it in any way, please get in touch via the contact form or via my author’s website at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. I will most likely be happy to assist!
On the occasion of the masterclass, I presented Hilary with a copy of my book ‘The Circle of Nine‘, which she appeared pleased to receive!
4 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel – Words of Wisdom”
I loved that, Cherry. thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Thanks for sharing this, it was a very interesting read. Sadly, I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet Hilary Mantel.
Lots to remember or re-read. “The secret is, in the dark it changes!’
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Thanks for sharing your experience of the workshop with us Cherry. Whenever I hear a talk and take notes I’m always torn between just sinking fully into the experience versus how do I capture this in words? Well described.
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