Thursday, 27 August 2015

An unexpected gift from my mum

My mum died in 1997. She was 66, and far too young to go. I had three young children at the time and although she was everything a grandma is meant to be – supportive, loving, kind, and fun – family life left little time for us to just sit and chat, about her.

Our shared history meant I knew who she was anyway; she loved books, and reading, and telling stories to her grandchildren. She had a great imagination and a wonderful sense of humour. She trained at RADA to be an actor, then went into teaching and used her training to produce wonderful plays in the school where she worked. Her imagination was always at work – as a mum, a teacher, a friend.

My mum's actual
That’s the mum I knew. What else did I need to know?

Eighteen years later, I’ve discovered something else; something I wish I’d known back then. My mum wrote stories.

In the process of clearing out the family home recently, in amongst the piles of paper and drawers full of memories, I discovered pages and pages of my mum’s handwriting; the beginnings of two stories, very Alan Bennett in style and humour, but my mum’s voice is loud. Her words reveal so much: her sense of humour, her love of people, her insight into why people behave as they do, and a little bit of mystery. It is all typically Mum, and yet I had no idea she wrote anything like this.

I'd have liked the chance to sit down with her and discuss writing. I'd have liked the chance to share our stories with each other. I'd have liked to have got to know her as a writer. But instead, I have her stories...or at least, the opening scenes of her stories. And short of channelling my mum in a bid for some kind of spiritual intervention, I will never find out what happens next.

Friday, 7 August 2015


Okay – so not everyone can afford to have Ellen Degeneres read their book out loud, but there’s a lesson here. If you read your work aloud, you’ll see (and hear) all sorts of potential problems you couldn’t find otherwise.

Reading out loud forces you to read every single word; when reading silently to yourself, there will be words, sentences and even whole paragraphs you skip over. You might not even realise you are doing it, but you will.

When reading aloud you will (in no particular order):

  • pick up on the natural rhythms, language, speech, sense of time and place and so on
  • get a sense of what feels right and wrong, much more readily than if you keep the words to yourself
  • notice the words you overuse
  • become acutely aware of clumsy expressions
  • know which sentences are too long when you run out of breath before you get to the end
  • have a more immediate feel for the pacing, either because it moves too fast or too slow, with not enough beats for you to take a moment’s rest from the plot
  • notice problems with your characters (eg, are they distinguishable from one another?) 
  • notice information dumps; the places where you do too much telling and not enough showing
  • feel bored if there are no, or too few, variations in tension
  • know if you really like and identify with your protagonist, over and above your minor characters
  • notice if major plot points are not given enough prominence
  • know if you have tied up loose ends

This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but it should give you a better sense of what you are looking for, and hopefully convince you that reading out loud is a good thing. 

Of course, you might not find any problems with your manuscript and feel that the whole experience of reading aloud was a waste of time… maybe that's what EL James thought too...