Sunday, 10 June 2012

Readers’ questions: on grass and writing and weeds.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.


Excessively long, I am afraid. You might want to get a nice cup of tea before reading.


Today is Readers’ Questions, because a Dear Reader asked an interesting writing question a couple of days ago, and I thought I am sometimes very naughty at not replying to queries. So I must remedy the omission.

Ages ago, someone asked if horses can live on grass alone. The wonderful thing is they can. Horses in hard work need hard food, and some do drop condition and need more attention than others; also you have to be careful about laminitis, one of those horrid equine diseases which comes from grass and affects the hoof. But essentially, if you are lucky, the answer is: yes.

I was thinking about this because of all the attendant worries of having a horse, and a thoroughbred in particular. I do get fretful about Red sometimes, and have to drop everything and dash up to make sure she is all right. Normally, she has just been given carrots by her packs of admirers, and is dozily grazing, or gazing out to the west, which she watches as if it were a fascinating television programme. She looks up at me as if to say: what are you fussing about? And then I feel a bit foolish. But her well-being is the thing I carry closest to my heart, just now.

And here is where I struck the equine lottery. She is what the old horsemen call a really good doer. It was one of my late father’s finest compliments for a horse. It means that they happily eat all their food, without fuss. Some horses are terrible picky eaters, or refuse to eat up at all, and cause no end of scratched heads. A good doer also looks well on a pretty simple diet, and causes no worries. When Red first arrived, I sent off for all manner of special foods and supplements, determined to treat her like a queen. Turns out: I need not have bothered. She thrives on the good spring grass, is well-muscled, has exactly the right amount of weight on her, and her coat is soft and glossy. She is the best doer I ever saw.

The second question is the writing question. Anon asked, of the book: ‘How long has it taken you to write it? Is it fiction and how do you approach it? Structured, unstructured, just write whatever you can, basic idea?’

Anon describes themselves as: ‘Just a person with a burning question and a headful of random words. And just fascinated to know how you do it all.’

Anon: this is a very, very dangerous question indeed, because I could write about it for hours. I’ll try and keep it as brief as possible.

This book is non-fiction, and has taken months and months. This is partly because it took a lot of research, and also I got a bit lost and screwed up the first draft, and so there was a very slow and painful re-write.

On a more general level, let’s take the basic idea question. Here I do have a rule. I often tell beginning writers that really there are no rules; trust your heart and bugger on. But my rule for the central idea is quite strict. It is: write the book you want to buy in the bookshop but can’t. It must be the idea that fascinates you; that will not leave you alone; that dogs you and bugs you and wakes you in the night. This is partly because you are going to have to live with it for an awfully long time. It is also because readers have a finely tuned radar for passion. Someone wiser than I once said: if your writing does not keep you up nights, it won’t keep anyone else up either.

Structure is a very big question, with no easy answer. For fiction, I think the three act structure of the screenplay is quite a useful tool. (William Goldman is the best man to read for this.) There are little tricks which can help, like finishing a chapter on a question or a moment of tension, and always starting a scene half way through. So, you don’t have to have someone coming through the door, taking their coat off, sitting down; instead, start with them shouting ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me the dog was dead?’

For non-fiction, structure is even more various. I like to start with a big overview chapter, and then try and follow the subject through reasonably thematically. A big, serious chapter might be followed by a snappy, more light-hearted one. Varying the tone is really helpful, as it keeps the thing alive; otherwise you risk sounding as if you are just playing one note. If the random words are a problem, you can help by giving your chapters strict, one word headings, like Love or Food, which will help to corral your thoughts.

Oh, and you don’t always have to start at the beginning. This sounds a bit mad, but it works. Say you are writing a memoir: it might be better to charge in with the pivotal scene of greatest drama rather than the much duller: I was born. (Personally, I always rather skip the childhoods; I want to get to the meat, which happens in the adult years.) This idea comes back to the notion of the hook, which is another screenwriting device. What’s the hook? What is the one thing that is going to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and make them sit up and take notice? That may be your beginning.

The best advice I can give to anyone who has words in the head and does not know how to get them onto the page is: just start. But you may need psychological tricks to bash through the fear barrier. The fear is generally that of being judged, and the neophyte terror that you simply do not know what you are doing. Do not worry. I have been doing this job for nearly twenty years, and often I don’t have a damn clue what I am doing. I just bash bash bash the fingers on the keys, even on the darkest day. So your best trick is to make it a secret. This takes away the fear. Set up a file called Top Secret, swear you will show it to no one, so no human will be able to point and laugh, and let yourself rip.

It doesn’t matter if it is crap. First drafts are always awful, anyway. Let it go. Give yourself permission to be as wild and unrestrained and quirky and goofy as possible. Put Mozart on at full blast. Forget about the rules. Enjoy yourself. Let the words dance. Doesn’t matter if they are all doing different steps. You can fix everything in the second draft.

Try and write every day, even if it is only for five minutes. This builds up muscle memory. Read until your eyes give out. Particularly read the kind of books you want to write, to get into the rhythms of your chosen genre. If you find yourself getting stale, read poetry, even if you are not writing it, to remind yourself what leaping miracles words can perform, just in their bare selves. (I especially recommend Eliot for this, and most especially, Prufrock.) Love your thesaurus. Be specific. Avoid jargon. Don’t be afraid of using unexpected words, or minting novel phrases, but be aware of the golden rules of grammar. Clarity is queen.

My own personal bugbear is the dangling modifier, which is mostly a clarity thing. It is also because I think your readers need to feel safe; they want to know they are in the hands of a pro. If you dangle a modifier, there is the danger the reader will not respect you in the morning.

How do I do it? Determination, cussedness, love, and a lot of coffee. Also: monomania and obsession. I get insane tunnel vision when I am deep in a book, and can think of nothing else. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of when I go to bed. I adore language; I obsess over the semi-colon. I think too writers need to be stupidly curious. The received wisdom will never do. Why, why, why? is the endless question. I dig and prod and poke at the human condition, and sometimes it drives me nuts that I shall never get to the bottom of it. Writing is my puny attempt to scratch at the meaning of things.

And finally, you might, if you are very lucky, make some cash or get some praise, but that is not what you are in it for. I’ve had crashing failures, and wilderness years, and some fleeting moments in the sun. Oddly, they are not that different. The thing that matters is the writing itself. That’s where you find the love and satisfaction and reward. Any cheques or compliments are only the icing. The putting of words into sentences is the cake.

One final question. A reader asked if I had help with my weeds. I do indeed have a very kind, very young gentleman who comes, and for a small hourly fee, battles my ground elder. (I refuse to use chemicals, so it is rather a scourge.) The only problem is that on account of his extreme youth and doughty determination, he pulled up all my mint the other day, in a frenzy of bed-clearing. For a moment, I was disproportionately sad. I love my mint. But I can plant some more, and not having to fight the ground elder on my own is worth a little disaster every so often. So I put a smile on my face and made a very great deal of mint tea.

And, finally, finally, thank you all so much for your very kind comments on the end of the damn manuscript. It was like having a little squad of cheerleaders, and I was really, really touched.


Some Sunday pictures for you.

When I get grumpy about the rain, and the gloomy June weather, I remind myself that it does produce this wonderful green:

10 June 1

10 June 2

10 June 3

10 June 4

10 June 5

10 June 6

10 June 6-001

10 June 7

A Dear Reader asked for hens; so there are hens:

10 June 8

This is the face Red makes after I have been working with her. I love this face. See how her head is down, which means she is completely relaxed. Her ears are pricked, and her jaw is soft, and her eyes are a little dreamy. I could look at that dear face all day long:

10 June 9

And off she goes, her work done, to have her lunch:

10 June 9-001

Her view:

10 June 10-001

As I drove away from her this morning, this is what I saw in the woods:

10 June 10

10 June 11

And this, this, is the face the Pigeon makes when I say the word ‘biscuit’. She really should have been on the stage; she is wasted in real life:

10 June 12

No hill today; the cloud has come down and there is only grey sky where there should be a blue peak.


  1. Great post. Thank you for all the information.

    FYI, to make you smile ~ jaw-dropping, amazing, groundbreaking work treating and curing laminitis is being done at Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic in California. (I know, too much hype, but with this disease, you can't get too happy at good news.) Best background I've seen on it is in Thoroughbred Times for June 17, 2011, "Stem Cell Treatment for Laminitis," particularly everything after the first four paragraphs. It's on the net.

    The Pigeon is such an actress - I'm trying to think of which human in her age category she would be if she walked on two legs. She's not quite ironic enough for Maggie Smith ... too histrionic for Judy Dench ... if past legends are included, she's maybe the Katherine Hepburn of dogs?


    1. Bird - really useful information, thank you. And YES YES, Pigeon as Kate Hepburn is the best idea ever.

  2. I envy you the deer. I only seem to see them if walking at sunset, and they always appear in shady spots and too far away for clarity.

    And the Pigeon's biscuit face is superb.

    I love reading of the writing process, and am in awe of your tenacity, as well as your talent.

    1. Cassie - I was so lucky. They just stood, and stared, and almost posed for their close-up. And thank you for the very kind words.

  3. I keep seeing Red as the heroine of a novel. I was thinking Dorothea in Middlemarch for a minute and then it came to me--Margaret in Howard's end. An old novel with old values and morals.

    I'm afraid weeds rule in our flower bed. So happy you have a determined young gentleman at had.

    1. Joanne - I adore that idea. Middlemarch was my favourite book when I was fifteen. I rushed home to tell my father I was reading this brilliant novel by George Eliot. And he looked up from the Sporting Life and said, vaguely: 'Oh darling, has he written any other good books?'

  4. Thank you so much for the answers and the inspiration. As Cassie states, I too am in awe of your tenacity and talent. I love being able to read your words on your blog and your books and then you also answer questions in real time - amazing. Thank you so much. Words from head onto page - that's the project and I need to banish the fear.

    I am sending positive thoughts for sunshine now your book is done and you all can truly enjoy it.

    1. Anon - hurrah for banishing the fear. Actually, I also wonder if one just has to get used to living with the fear, as if it is a faithful old hound loping at one's side. I wish you very, very good luck with your writing.

  5. Thank you very very much for the hens. They have made my day: such beauty amongst the flowers.

    1. Lillyanne - you MUST have the hens. They are so dear. It still amazes me really that they and Red co-exist so happily. There they were, with a perfectly nice paddock all to themselves, and suddenly this great big red thing arrives. (She likes using the hen house as a scratching post.) But they are quite unfazed.

  6. Greenery, Red, Pigeon and Oh, Oh, Oh...the deer! - beautiful.

    1. Anne - you are always such a dear Dear Reader; THANK YOU. :)

  7. This is a great and very informative post - thank you.

    I think the part about making your book fascinating to you is also true of teaching. If you are teaching something and have enthusiasm for your subject it is always more engaging.

    1. Siobhan - Such a good point. I had a wonderful teacher at university, real old school, who called me Miss K and told me Louis XV was 'not safe in taxis', and it was his undimmed enthusiasm after forty years that enchanted me. He'd been at my college since the war, and he still taught me the French Revolution as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Which, to me, it was.

  8. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. For all you share so willingly.
    I've been away and ... you've finished the book! Well done you! So pleased.
    Beautiful picutures, delicious faces. I must unpack :)

    1. Em - welcome back! And thank you for such a lovely comment.

  9. I wonder if, when Red is gazing thoughtfully to the west, she is actually trying to spot where the next cloud of midges is coming from, or is Royal Deeside not as plagued by these pesky little articles as much as the rest of Scotland seems to be?

    1. Goldenoldenlady - the amazing thing is that we have no midges in the east. Sometimes I go to the west coast in the summer and wonder how they manage. We are so lucky. There is a distant farm on the horizon, and I think she can see the sheep being herded and the cows brought in. (She has not encountered sheep before and seems fascinated by them.) Also, beyond human sight, but perhaps accessible to miraculous equine vision, there is a footpath up the mountain, and I suspect she may be able to see the hikers.


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