authors · editing · Favourite writers · work-in-progress

Opening Up and Closing Down Your Writing

It’s been a good summer for reading. Three books have particularly captivated me, all American as it happens: Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett, Modern Lovers by Emma Straub and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Each has brought me great pleasure and offered insights into my own work.

Commonwealth is the story of two families blended by marriage in the early 1960s. It takes a large cast of parents and children through the next fifty years. But it leaps across time and back again, keeping the reader on his or her toes. Ultimately, it’s satisfying and resonant but when you read you are forced to take deep breaths when you start a new chapter: Who are we with now? Where are we? When?

Reading Commonwealth made me realise that a new ingredient I want in my own work is more space: around the characters, between events, between locations, everywhere, really. I want to make my fictional feel more expansive, more generous, bigger. (It’s what I’ve wanted for a while, to be honest, but it’s only just occurred to me how to make it work.)


My novel, Ready to Love was a close book. Either it ended up that way or the story required that texture: a bit of both, I think. (You can write yourself into corners.) What I do know is that the characters all live in each other’s pockets, the timelines overlap. Several readers described it as being a kind of dance and they’re right: that’s exactly how the characters conduct themselves with each other, like they’re shimmying coyly at a disco. I hope there is a similar sense of slightly mad abandon in the book.

disco dance.jpg

You may remember that I wanted to write more about the characters. If there were to be further stories about Minna and Jeff, they would need to be postscripts. Necessarily, everything would be even more concertinaed and intense. That’s the problem, I now realise, with the short story I have been working on. I need to wrench Minna and Jeff out of their comfort zone – and myself out of a zone which was so comfortable to write in – and plant them somewhere entirely new.

Maybe, once I’ve done that, there won’t be anything more to say about them. I quite like the idea of that, to be honest. Anne Tyler says she finishes a book at exactly the point where she knows her characters will be from that point on. It’s why she doesn’t write sequels. I have to say, I don’t like sequels much, as a rule. (Trilogies are something altogether different.)

So, that’s where I’m at. Incidentally, as I’ve been cutting and rewriting, the question which sparked the story – the question which also belonged to the new novel I’m working on – has flown the coop, as I suspected it might. Or hoped it would. This time, I’m in control – I’ve realised it’s actually surplus to requirements.

I’m going to keep going on the short story until I reach the place I want to be. Fingers crossed I’ll get there. Do feel free to drop me a note to let me know where you are – or where you hope to get to.

Ann Patchett

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