The Perils of Being a Reader-Commuter

We’re all busy people. But, if you’re like me, then any space of time can be used as an excuse to read a few pages. From reading on the loo to spilling my lunchtime soup on a few pages (travesty), there’s always a way to get you ticking through your latest book.

As a Londoner, I spend an inordinate amount of time on public transport. It’s bizarre. If someone had asked me, outside London, if I fancied meeting them somewhere that took me over an hour and involved three different types of transport, I’d tell them I probably wouldn’t bother. Here, we cheerfully hop onto tubes in the full knowledge that we won’t even be close to our destination for at least forty minutes.

However, the beauty of that commute? Reading time. No more passive-aggressive shouting at the Audi driver in front of me on the road, I can dedicate all of those tedious minutes spent swaying along on various modes of transport, reading. What a delight. While others play games (yes, I deleted Candy Crush because it was using up too much of my life) or read the substandard freebies that count as ‘news,’ I get to absorb myself in whatever wonderful universe I’m currently wallowing in.

Despite the bonus reading time, there are a few pitfalls.

Other People

Well, Jean-Paul Sartre had a point. Not just when you’re in the queue for a coffee, or when you’re already running a bit late (sorry, everyone I know). Nothing dismays the reader-commuter more than the sight of a packed bus or train. Not that it will stop you reading. No, it will just mean that you spend the rest of your journey wedged up against someone’s armpit with your book jammed between your face and the handbag of the woman that keeps turning round and glaring at you. What? I’m trying to read here!

Getting There

The last time this happened to me I was heading for a bar near Holborn, reading The Portable Veblen. All I had to do was change at Oxford Circus. No problem. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with the squirrel-related antics I completely missed my stop. The next time I looked up, I was almost at Victoria. I swore, leapt off the train, had to go back two stops in the other direction, before then getting my connection. Needless to say, I was more than late. This is also a problem on the commute to work, but more because I’d much rather sit quietly reading a book than go to work.

Appearing Normal

This is a tricky one. Obviously, London is a city full of rich and varied people and experiences, and pretty much anything goes, up to a point. I was reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on the bus, just around the time she heads to a new city, and well, it was all a bit graphic. I became very aware that a nice lady (about my mum’s age) was sat next to me, quite possibly reading every word. I’m pretty sure that even if she couldn’t see the print, the horrified rictus of my face probably communicated that the content wasn’t exactly pleasant. Perhaps try something less provocative if you like meeting new people on the way to work.

Backache

I wouldn’t usually buy the hardback, but it was a Christmas present. And yes, I could have waited until I got home to read the next bit, but I didn’t want to. Lugging Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life around for the best part of the day was not exactly what my shoulders needed. By the time I got back home, Jude had been through some pretty tough times, but so had my muscles.

So, if you haven’t tried the wonders of being a reader-commuter, trust me, it’s worth it. Soon you’ll find your book pile going down much quicker than when you could only squeeze in a few minutes before bedtime. Sure, you might have sore muscles and people will be less likely to sit next to you, but it’s definitely worth it.

The Unbearable Inconsistency of Levin

While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!

It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.

And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.

From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.

To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.

What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).

It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.

This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.

But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.

So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.

The Versions of Us

A very interesting concept – three possible outcomes for the same couple. We’ve all questioned the ‘what ifs’ in our lives, so this novel has a go at unpicking the actual outcomes of decisions made over the span of an entire lifetime. What keeps you flicking the pages in this book (and I did read it very quickly) is the short chapters and the unusual concept. I would have liked for it to be executed with a little more finesse.

Eva and Jim meet at a chance encounter while at University. But while the first time they see each other doesn’t change, the way their lives play out following that moment is explored in three alternatives. In one, they stay together, in the second, they keep missing each other, while in the third, things go rather disastrously wrong, at least at first. We follow both of them from their twenties through to their seventies, from London to New York to Paris, and untangle the confusions and delights of two lives, lived to the full, and the effect that certain decisions have on them and those close to them. It’s a clever premise, and it’s certainly engaging to be taken to many different locations, intimately described, and to have the opportunity of seeing the parallel universes of two people and the way they shift and fluctuate towards and away from each other.

I saw Laura Barnett at a reading of her next book, Greatest Hits, which also sounds interesting. In her new novel, she explores the idea of a life lived through one day, and the memories and ideas that this day throws up allows the reader to see their whole life. In the interview, Laura said she didn’t have a carefully mapped out plot for The Versions of Us with lots of post-it notes or charts, that it was all in her head. I would say that this is perhaps clear from the reading of it. While the stories were certainly interesting, I wasn’t particularly compelled or surprised by what happened in each of the threads, and the different plot points didn’t necessarily drive the novel forward. What does, of course, is the varying relationship between the two central characters, and the way the outcomes are different. It also perhaps explained the missed facts and time inconsistencies that were littered throughout. The method of narrative is a clever device, and it is a clever book, but I was disappointed that more wasn’t made of the interweaving, as it could have allowed for some really unusual storytelling.

The other issue is, in itself, the threading together of three narratives. Because the chapters are so sparse, I found myself losing track of which daughter or son was which, the main problem being that I no longer cared as much what happened to them. This was especially the case with the ‘extra’ characters, that really didn’t get fleshed out enough to make it off the page. It is certainly a difficult thing to do, threading all of these narratives together, but I wonder if giving us longer chapters as the book progressed would have allowed us to be better immersed into each specific world, as I found myself flitting through the book, not very invested. The other problem that this multiple narrative throws up is the need to ‘tell’ so much. With gaps of months or even years between each episode, we find the character quite awkwardly reflecting on something that doesn’t always seem natural, simply because the reader needs to be filled in on what has come before. I can understand that this was a difficulty in leaving gaps, but perhaps it would have been nice to tackle them in slightly different ways each time, to avoid the ‘she/he remembered…’ feel that gets a bit repetitive. It also meant that feelings were often reported rather than experienced, which again left me feeling emotionally distant from the character’s journey. Perhaps two threads might have meant that the stories could be more intimate and fully developed, rather than spread so thinly between three.

Her prose is flowing and smooth, with the occasional touch of beautiful phrase. This gives it a nice pace, so that in between your brain catching up with who is who and what was happening last time you saw them, there are elegant descriptions that I found delightful. In fact, the nuance of language just edges it out of being a beach read, as it doesn’t (always) fall for easy clichés and offers a far more subtle exploration of relationships (in all their forms) than you would expect from a different kind of book.

To be clear, this is a very engaging and interesting novel, and I did really like the interplay between the character’s lives. It’s an interesting concept, as we so often cite ‘timing’ as such an important factor in relationships, that to see the actual result of three different timings between the same two people is a very interesting exercise. I just would have liked to be more emotionally engaged with the story.

Editing Backwards

I find myself in the glorious position of having completed the second draft of my novel. It feels infinitely more satisfying than the first. Then, I knew there was a mountain of work still to be done, endless shuffling about of scenes and ideas, and there was a long road ahead. Already, this one feels more polished and together, so although there’s still long way to go, it doesn’t seem quite as insurmountable. Thought I’d share a few thoughts on what worked for me.

1. Write it all again

Every single word has been typed afresh, from beginning to end. There is no substitute for having your words on a printout at the side of your computer, and your fingers tapping away onto a blank sheet (metaphorical). This has to come after you’ve read it through and made notes, but simple cutting and pasting and editing what’s already there just doesn’t allow you to appraise and consider each word. In order to get back in, they really have to earn their spot!

 

2. Break it up

I found that there were little ‘arcs’ to the novel that were between 20,000 and 30,000 words long. This way, I was only editing a short bit at a time, rather than doing the whole thing from beginning to end. What it also allowed was a second look through a small chunk, something that would have felt too daunting over the whole book. This allowed me to be far more thorough and detailed in my editing.

3. Use something physical to visualise your story

I love Scrivener. It’s brilliant. I can swap scenes about, put things in folders and label them, move bits aside for later, use the cork board to see all the scenes in a section of the book, and many other things that I did see in the initial setup programme which looked awesome but I can’t remember them now. But there is nothing like having it physically in your hands. I like mapping out timelines on A3 pages, either to do with characters or plots. The cue card system I put in place for the second draft was very successful. In some feedback from my first draft, it turned out that while I had described the scene, the actions, all fine, the problem was that the reader hadn’t actually found out what I wanted them to. So, in came my colour coded system (overlap from teacher-related stationery nerdery). Black was for what actually happened in the scene. Blue was for what I wanted the reader to find out or know by the time they got to the end of it. Green was for any hints I was including at this point which would build up tension and lead to something being revealed later. If it was a scene at the end of a chapter, red was for any hanging questions left open that would pull the reader through the book. As I’m writing a dual narrative, the pink was for any links between the two. There’s a picture at the bottom, if you can read my writing! Then I could swap things around, think about how they linked up, what would work better where (again in smaller chunks, rather than the whole book) which really helped fine tune the plot.

4. Edit backwards

This is absolute genius. My tutor suggested it to me, so I can’t take the credit! While I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting at the final page and working your way back, once you’ve separated your work out into chunks, choose maybe a scene or two, or a chapter, and work from end to beginning, page by page. All of a sudden, you stop concentrating on the story and start really looking at your sentences. You notice typos more easily, you pick up on clunky phrases, in a way that forwards reading just doesn’t produce. My plan is to extend this even further for the next draft. Because my brain was falling out of my ears by the time I got to the end of the novel (and the beginning always ends up with the bright-eyed, eager me) the back third of it is much more sloppy and rushed. So I’m going to edit the whole thing backwards. Start from the final chunk, then go back through it piece by piece, so I can give the rear end the love and care it deserves, rather than spending all my energies on the opening.

5. Be aware of your habits

I did a check for the word ‘seem’ and found 79. There were 35 ‘shuffles’ and 27 ‘nudges.’ We all have our go-to words and phrases that shuffle (see!) out more than others, so being aware of them will stop your reader from thinking you have the vocabulary of a stunted carp. I also massively overuse a main clause followed by an ‘ing’ clause. They’re everywhere! Noticing this stuff means I can pick them out easily on a first read and think of alternatives where possible.

6. Be ruthless

Now and again, I stumble across a sentence and think ‘ooooh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Not as often as I’d like, but it can happen. However, if it’s in a scene that just doesn’t belong, or is causing everything to be a bit, well, floppy, it has to go. In order to make myself feel slightly better, I have a whole section  in the ‘research’ section on Scrivener where I put of chunks of the book that I’ve taken out, so I can always go back and try and squeeze them in somewhere else, or if I decide, with a re-read, that the deleted scene is suddenly crucial. So cut it, but put it somewhere safe, just in case.

7. Set deadlines

I have the advantage of a course deadline, but I set myself the personal goal of finishing my second draft by the end of July, so I would have a whole five weeks (really doesn’t seem that long now) in order to go back over it one final time, until my final hand-in date. Of course, then I’ll have to do it again before I send it to agents, but… let’s not think about that right now. For me, it works. It’s the only way I went from wheezing through a ten-minute run to completing two marathons. I signed up for a run (the first was ten miles) so I would have to train. With that impending deadline, it forced me out of bed on a cold day to run around the park. And, seven years on, it’s still how I do running. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always do it sensibly. My writing deadlines invariably mean that I spend a good three weeks faffing about with a few thousand words, then look at the calendar, have a heart attack and spend the next two weeks writing and editing for hours at a time, with very little sleep, in a bid to make it. But here I am, at the start of August, with a lovely printed copy of my second draft sat on my table (no I haven’t read it yet) so I can start the process all over again!

There aren’t any shortcuts, but hopefully this helps to chart a path through the chaos and trauma that is editing. I think it’s been my biggest lesson, understanding just how many times you have to back over something again, and again, and again, until it’s ready. So only, like, eight drafts to go, right?

My lovely colour-coded card system:

IMG_2405