K. M. Peyton: A little hard on her characters?

August 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

K M Peyton is a prolific writer. She has written over 70 novels. I read six of them last week, published in the 1960s and 1970s. K M Peyton writes well. It is a balm to read one of her books, as against many a modern children’s author. Are there equivalents of Philippa Pearce, Margaret Mahy, and Jan Mark today?

Every children’s book today appears to concern itself with fantasy worlds, witchcraft and wizardy, or dystopias. The ordinary world has ceased to interest us.

K M Peyton’s books are, by and large, in the ordinary world. We tend to associate her with ponies and sailboats and aviation. She writes of these with authority. All the same, when K M Peyton writes of the supernatural (A Pattern of Roses), we believe in her ghost world. In addition,  K M Peyton has a feel for “period” language. We will not find modern slang embedded in the speech of a groom in 1911. In a recent BBC radio drama set in 1890s London, in one episode, or maybe two, we heard “I have a lot riding on this” (late 20th century?) and “grow my (the) business” (21st century?). When we hear such modern phrases in a period drama, we lose faith in the author. Why is the author setting a drama in an era that she is unacquainted with?

We don’t lose faith in KM Peyton. I haven’t spotted any sloppiness in the period detail or language. Not, mind, that I am poised to pounce on such mistakes: rather I feel disappointment, and a little resentment that writers who don’t take much trouble are published.

KM Peyton’s prolific output, however, may be responsible for one defect: a distance from her characters. In “Team” I met Ruth Hollis, a pony-loving girl whose pony Fly-by-Night was too small and she needed a replacement. Within a few weeks, she acquires a once familiar, but now broken down Toadhill  Flax (Toad). The pony used to belong to her friend Peter McNair. Peter’s father, a dealer, sold Toad on. Now Peter wants Toad back, but Ruth wants him too. Is she capable of managing a strong pony like Toad? Will she be able to repay her brother the price of Toad? Will she find a new home for Fly? In any event, you can take it that Ruth has a lot on her plate. At some time during the story, a girl who had been a keen rider is reported to have sold her pony (or ponies) because she has now become interested in boys. She is not our sort of girl at all. We are only interested in Ruth who must make great sacrifices to buy and keep Toad. Ruth triumphs at the end of the story. We are satisfied.

But what a shock awaits us in The Beethoven Medal. We know Pennington from Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer. He is a gifted pianist. But to the Hollis family, he is just a surly baker’s boy. However, Ruth, takes a fancy to him and pursues him. Toad has been injured and is recuperating elsewhere. Toad pays one visit.  As far as I can recall, Toad is dismissed from the pages of the book. It is all Pennington. We feel cheated. Ruth was the girl we were interested in; we shared her struggles over Toad but now Ruth has no time for Toad. We feel very let down. We can’t quite believe in the Ruth Hollis of Team. We can only wonder why K M Peyton didn’t make up another character to be Pennington’s girlfriend. Was it her “prolificy” that hardened her to her characters and enabled her to pluck them from their horsy world and throw them into a teenage-romance one?

John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children tells of a similar disappointment.

“The action of K. M. Peyton’s ‘Flambards’ books takes place just before and just after the First World War. Originally there were three novels – Flambards (1967), Edge of the Cloud (1969), and Flambards in Summer (1969) – which for twelve years stood complete as a trilogy.  In the first book, Christina who will be rich when she comes of age, is sent to live with her Uncle Russell and his two sons in a decrepit country house, financially undermined by Uncle’s passion for horses and hunting. The handsome elder son, Mark, would like to marry her and keep what he calls ‘all this’ going; but Christina prefers Will who rejects the family obsession and longs to fly aeroplanes. The second book centres on Will’s perilous life as an aviator; at the start of the third he is dead, and Christina returns to the old run-down house to bear his posthumous child, work the home farm, and marry the ex-groom Dick who loves her. As well as a romantic story there is obviously a social theme- the death of an old way of life and its rebirth in a new form – and the connection between them and the period is organic. It was First World War that broke up the old framework: the trilogy could not be transferred to any other time and retain its force.

In 1981, after the huge success of the television adaptation, Mrs Peyton added a fourth book, Flambards Divided. Inevitably, this changed the meaning of the other three: instead of completing the story they were leading up to a new conclusion. And the new conclusion was very different.

At the end of the third book, Christina had successfully carried Flambards into a new era; the omens, in her own phrase, were good.  In Flambards Divided, these omen turn out to have been misleading. Christina’s marriage to Dick does not work. Dick is reliable and hardworking, but narrow, class-conscious and different to Christina in temperament and interests. Handsome Mark, home from the War, not knowing anything but fighting and hunting, wins her affections after all.  The squire, it could be said, is back in the saddle – even if it is now the driving seat of a motor car. If the author had written the fourth book straight after the other three, my guess is that she would have done it differently and poor Dick would have fared better. In twelve year illusions can be lost. The new ending may be truer to life, but I find it somewhat saddening. “

In my view, the new ending may be truer to life but is not truer to the characters as they have been depicted. That to me seems to be Mrs Peyton’s weakness: she does not love her characters as her readers might and therefore can manipulate their lives in ways that jar with the original story and our expectations.

That being said, K M Peyton has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. She has now no equal.



Historical Lanuage

May 31, 2017 § Leave a comment


I watched the first episode of the drama “Anne with an e”, based on Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Some of the drama was excellently done: in particular those parts that stuck to Anne of Green Gables.  In the book unpleasant experiences of Anne’s were alluded to. In the drama unpleasant experiences were visually realised in a rather too graphic way.

I assumed the scene with the hired hand, a boy, was an invention of the production team. The scene added nothing to the unfolding of the tale. It had Anne squaring up to the farm boy, each suggesting the other had a “problem”. I very much doubt that “What’s your problem?” was a phrase, bandied about Prince Edward Island in 1908.

But time and time again, we find producers of these period dramas, many of which are based on books containing excellent dialogue, using “modern parlance” which jars. Why don’t scriptwriters take more care with the “historical “language?


Writing: now for a bit of drama

March 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

I have written of my experience of having a novel critiqued twice by professionals: the first (2015), a positive experience, was a boost to my confidence; the second (2016), a negative experience, was a devastating blow. Now it is 2017. I am not simply stating the obvious. I am just reminded again that years pass and writers may have nothing to show for them.

Later in 2016, I finished a children’s book. I gave the book to an eleven-year-old boy, the target market, to read. I was asking too much of him. He wasn’t enjoying the book. I discreetly took the manuscript back. The free critique amounted to:  “This is unreadable.”  Not quite what I had in mind.

Apart from feeling sorry for myself and thinking that some sort of success was long overdue, I began a new writing venture. In tandem with the revision of the children’s book, I was writing a play.

I had never considered writing a play. I had believed a “play” was completely beyond me. Having discovered novel-writing (in the view of the industry) to be beyond me, I thought why not a play? I soon discovered that a chapter in a book could be reduced to one page of dialogue. Best also to set the play in one place, if possible. Apart from running out of material quickly and the limited things I could deal with in one room, I found the business of writing a play extremely liberating. Its three chief attractions were:

I didn’t have to bother with description.

I didn’t have to set any scenes and worry about the type of chairs people should be sitting on.

I didn’t have to worry too much about “my writing”. After all, my characters were ordinary people, not literary geniuses, talking to each other in ordinary language.

Nor did I have to worry about transitions. Act one is Christmas Eve 1956, act two Christmas Eve 2056, if I chose.

Of course, when I completed the play, I was back to square one. Another finished piece of work and no one clamouring for it. I sent the play to someone I knew who is involved in amateur dramatics. (That is after sending it to someone I didn’t know who boomeranged it back to me.) He said he liked the play. He later said he would try and produce it locally (Portlaoise, Ireland) this year. I do not know if it will be produced locally. But I was pleased by the novelty of someone actually wanting to do more with my work than fire it back at me.

One lesson I did learn was: confidence in your work must come from you. If people praise the work, you may doubt them. And the other important thing is: you must find a way of getting your work to as many people as possible, so that it will land on the desk or in the email inbox of that one person in 100 or 1000 who will like it. You may get good advice. It will be free and you will also be establishing connections.

Better to send your work to people you “know” than you don’t. The word “know” means someone you have a very vague connection to. Any degree of introduction is better than none at all. Send sample work by email to “helpful” people, asking for their advice: not asking for them to do anything as momentous as publish you. Persevere with one work. Don’t keep moving on to new work. Promote the work you have already done.

In the absence of any better tips, this is the advice I am trying to follow myself.



A second round with the book doctors

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May 2015, I submitted a novel I had spent nine months writing to a book editor attached to a consultancy. When three weeks or so later, I received the editor’s report, I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the book was not ready for publication, but a number of good things were therein noted. And my fears as to whether I had managed to maintain a reader’s interest as the book progressed, through different time periods, were allayed. Nor did the book editor take issue with an aspect of the plot which I thought was far-fetched. As my greatest fears proved groundless, I was very receptive to the criticism. The most significant criticism: the “hero” was not sympathetic. A second criticism: there was not enough period detail. These revelations did not disturb me. The editor was right.

I ended up re-writing the entire novel, and, I believed, very much improving it. I made cuts and I made additions. There was a net gain of 20,000 words. I re-submitted the novel to the same consultancy. I was disappointed that the same editor was not available to critique my book. Six weeks or so later, I received the report.  The change of editor was not for the best.

My “hero” had now gone from being unsympathetic to being a cipher. Even I don’t understand how he became fainter, if I had tried to make him more solid. The part of the book I feared to be far-fetched was found to be so. I did not peruse the entire critique; it was long and detailed: too detailed. Wasn’t it enough to say that my hero was a cipher without insulting the hero’s name as well? Did it matter? If the book wasn’t good in its essentials, why gripe about small details? There were positive comments. The book had “promise”. The word promise, I recall, was used in such a way as to indicate that I was not to read too much into the word.

I was not so much back to square one but to a minus square. Was I then to re-write the book a third time and have a third person look it over and find it wanting?

All this happened last April. The book has remained untouched. (I wanted to continue writing so I turned to writing plays.) However, in December I had an epiphany. I rebelled against my dejection. I decided that the editor had gone too far in his criticism. I had handed him too much authority: the authority to tell me my work was not good enough.

My work cannot become something that it is not. Most of the time, it will not be what people want.  The real challenge is not writing a publishable book but discovering the person who will like your book enough to publish it.

Agents advise writers to send in sample chapters and a synopsis. But there are usually restrictions too. For example, you shouldn’t be sending, at the same time, a great many sample chapter out to other agents because you might be wasting agents’ time. Agents might end up reading something that is snapped up by another agent. In whose dreams? Never having had an offer of representaiion by any agent, I think the agents’ fears of having their time wasted are largely unfounded. In truth, only the unpublished writer’s time will be wasted. Some agents do represent unsolicited submissions. But, I think, the odds are 100 to 1.

What do I suggest?  Perhaps you discover a remote connection, amongst your acquaintance, to the publishing industry. Perhaps this remote connection will introduce you to someone more directly connected to publishing and so on. And if you have the time and money to flood the world with your sample chapters, perhaps do that. Make it your aim to collect refusals and rejections. Perhaps, a 100 or 1,000. When the bulky envelope drops through the letter box, you can say: “Success!”

How not to write a novel by David Armstrong

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The essence of David Armstrong’s advice to those who would wish to become writers is: “Don’t”.

He was “lucky” enough to be one of the 1 per cent picked from a slush pile and published. Although his first published book was well-received by critics, this was not the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, but of the more plateau-like career of a midlist writer.

The earnings of a midlist writer are probably less than a steady job working in a supermarket. The midlist writer can, without ceremony, be dropped by his publisher. She might never do better than the sales of her first book. He will never be important. No one will be booking him to talk at important literary festivals. She will never see anyone reading her book on the tube. He will remain not very well-off and obscure.

Some readers may consider David Armstrong’s view of the life of the midlist writer to be depressing and negative. But I found it reassuring. On the contrary, it is the stories of unknown writers coming first in their first literary competition and then signing a three-book contract that depress me.

To know that most writers have to work long and hard for little reward is good news to me.

“When Night’s Black Agents was eventually published, the very things that it had (allegedly) been declined for were exactly the same things that reviewers found to single out for praise.”

For example:

The ‘lack of pace’ that had made the book ‘unsuitable for today’s market’, metamorphosed in the Daily Telegraph into ‘prose with a slow, dark, rhythm’.

In the Guardian the ‘Midlands setting’, frequently cited as an insurmountable barrier to publication, was now, ‘unique and interesting’.




Living the dream: cold calling

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment


Many years ago a voice coach of mine told me of a man who had spent ten years working as an actor, or trying to work as an actor. An actor prepares for an audition, tries for a part, and is rejected. He may face a total rejection. He doesn’t have the right face for the part. And his acting is not to the director’s taste.

We, unpublished writers, can empathise. We too have experienced rather more rejection than we would wish. But only our work is rejected. Our humiliation is private. From the comfort of our own home, we see the bulky return envelope. Of course, we hoped someone wanted what we sent. But really we should know better than to think anyone would want it. We feel like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. What did he have to do to get an acting part? Dress up as a woman. What do we have to do to get published?

We may console ourselves with this thought: the publisher/literary agent who rejected out work has made a life-defining mistake. However, we don’t really believe that. It is hard to believe in yourself when no one else is showing a glimmer of interest in your work.

We read of writers who paste rejection slips on their walls. Perhaps they do this when they have become successful. But one failure after another does rather deflate our sense of humour. And we certainly do not want to have to confront rejection slips every time we walk into a room

Back to the actor: he was getting married. His new father-in-law owned an entity that sold pensions. He offered his son-in-law a job: cold calling people to sell them a pension. After acting, it was the dream job.

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (action takes place in the early 1930s)

September 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

What publisher would be tempted by a writer that suggested a novel dedicated to a lower-middle class family taking their annual holiday in Bognor?  The “novel” world usually concerns itself with people whose lives are more exciting than those of its readers (be it the extremes of wealth or poverty) and rarely with those whose lives are duller.

Writing about the commonplace takes considerable skill. RC Sherriff might have found (as Jane Austen did with The Watsons) that he had placed his people too low in society. Making people respectable and poor cuts them off from people who might bring drama into their lives.

The Stevens are respectable people with a moderate income. We do not anticipate that either Mr Stevens (50ish) or Mrs Stevens (in her 40s) will be unfaithful to each other, or that Mary (21) will be seduced and left with an unwanted child, or that Dick (17) will turn to some criminal enterprise to better himself. (Ernie (10) is too young to go to the bad.)

Whole areas of well-trodden literature are barred from the Stevens. Theirs are not the great tragedies of life but the milder (though long-lived) disappointments. Their lives are rather like our own: some successes, counted on, are not realised; expectations are blighted; and careers stagnate.

Mr Stevens, a clerk, never received the promotion he had thought his due. We do not feel that Mr Stevens was undeserving rather that he failed to push himself forward. The entire family, apart from Eric, lacks confidence.  The Stevens are easy to pass over, not because they are “unworthy” but because when passed over, they will make no fuss.

The annual family holiday is the high point in all their lives. This year Mary and Dick, no longer children, feel they should be going on independent holidays with their own friends.  But they are circumscribed by a lack of money and friends. People who do not have spare cash can find it hard to have friends. The cultivation of “friendship”, save when thrown together at school or in university, is bound to cost money.

Mary may go to a local dance and meet not very exciting people. She has an admirer but he is “no catch”. Mary works as a seamstress. She works long hours in a badly-lit room. On occasion she might help dress a young fashionable woman: a woman she has no hope of ever being. Long hours for little pay, then home. There is little on Mary’s horizon. Perhaps, she will marry a man like her father and contrive to bring up a family on a small wage. Or maybe she won’t marry and she will be swept into the services at the outbreak of World War II.

Dick left school a year ago to work in an office. His father pulled strings to get him the job. And although it is a fine position in Mr Stevens’ eyes, Dick dislikes his routine work.  After being captain of the football team at school, the job is a come down.

Mrs Stevens is a diffident woman. It is all she can do to manage and run her home. She has no outside interests and is not sociable. Mr Stevens first met his wife-to-be when he attended an amateur dramatic performance: she was one of the chorus. She was bright and she was vivacious. And Mr Stevens was extremely attracted to her. Mrs Stevens was never to be as bright or vivacious again. She soon dropped the drama. And after marriage, she showed no inclination to involve herself in any groups. That his wife should not be the bright girl he first met is a disappointment to Mr Stevens, but he is philosophical about that. She might have been many a worse thing, an extravagant woman who took no interest in her own family. Sometimes Mrs Stevens will drop her “aitches”. Internally, Mr Stevens winces. He is too self-conscious, and refined not to mind.  And at the same time he is aware, as we are, that the “aitch-dropping” is a small blemish.

The Stevens have had twenty summers in Bognor; it is not likely they will have many more. Twenty years of practice has enabled Mr Stevens to produce a complete list of “marching orders” (all those things that need to be done before they can leave). The house must be secured; puss must be fed in their absence and milk deliveries altered. Each member of the family is assigned duties from the orders.

To Mary’s lot falls the bringing of the canary to Mrs Haykin. A task Mary dreads. Mrs Haykin is a lonely old woman whose family has long grown up and gone away. Her conversation will be the same as the year before. Their meeting will be a reminder to Mary of Mrs Haykin’s loneliness, of the fact that the Stevens do not call in to see her enough: it is too hard to get away. And Mary’s own life is not so exciting that she can accommodate a Mrs Haykin. Mary is not unkind. And we feel with her.

We feel with the Stevens over many small embarrassments and anxieties. We can enter their world. It’s not too small for us and we are not above it because some of us seem to encounter just as many embarrassments, in our own lives.

Their holiday money is stretched to the limit: every shilling that is spent has been budgeted for. Mr Stevens is not frugal because he likes it but because he has to be. There is an allowance for morning buns, ginger beer, and Mrs Stevens’s port . . . . Their greatest expense is the hiring of a beach hut “The Cuddy” for part of the holiday.

For twenty years they have stayed at the same boarding house which is slowly deteriorating as their landlady loses her clientele. Mary and Dick are very conscious of the second-rateness of their accommodation. Mary compares their house with that of the young people opposite. They appear unhampered by landladies and parents. However much they too might want something better for their money, Mr Stevens does not feel capable of deserting a sinking ship.  They know their landlady is doing her best.

In The Fortnight in September. RC Sherriff achieves what is quite outside the range of imagination of most novelists. When other novels about exciting people in dramatic situations have passed out of our minds, the tale of the Stevens’ holiday lingers there.

(I don’t say that The Fortnight in September is a great book. But I would place it in my top ten favourite novels.)