Agatha Christie – Some Thoughts on Writing


As I mentioned in Part One, Agatha Christie did not include much about her writing in her autobiography.  There are references sprinkled here and there, and some observations, but no real advice.  It’s as if she regarded the writing to be a minor aspect of her life, necessary but not of that much importance, which is peculiar for such an established and prolific author. I suspect she did not think the details of her craft would be of much interest to her reading audience, as writers were not as common back then, not like now when social media has made everyone a writer.

I can’t imagine coming up with the plot and characters for 66 plus books. I read somewhere that she would put all the characters together at the end and then decide who did it, and then go back and insert the clues, but I can’t substantiate this. While there is little in her autobiography about her technique or what inspired the books, she does tell us how she got started.

Her older sister had written and published a few short stories, and it was an early conversation with her which proved crucial to her own writing career.  Her sister, in an informal bet, dared her to write a detective novel, a popular genre at the time.  She was discouraging, “I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge, who had thought about it herself, but “they were very difficult to do.”  “I should like to try,” was Agatha’s reply.  ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge.  There the matter rested….but the “words had been said….from that moment I was fired by the idea that I would write a detective story…..I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out but the seed had been sown……the idea had been planted.  Some day I would write a detective story.“    

An earlier attempt at a novel set in Cairo, had been rejected and then critiqued by a neighbour who was a popular novelist, who realizing how shy she was, was kind in his criticism, offering encouragement and some advice about plotting.  

She wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while her husband Archie was off at war.  The idea was conceived at work in the dispensary, where she was surrounded by professional poisons.  Soon she had a sketchy picture of some of the characters, including her detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she imagined as a meticulous, tidy little man, Belgian like the Belgian refugees in the area, but she wished she had made him younger, considering they were to be together for so many years.  (In later years she found him “insufferable” according to her diary.)  

“In leisure moments, bits of my detective story rattled around in my head.  I had the beginning all settled, and the end arranged, but there were difficult gaps in between.  It made me absent-minded at home.”  Her mother encouraged her, her mother had the usual complete faith that her daughters could do anything.   She wrote it out longhand, and then typed it.  “Up to a point I enjoyed it.  But I got very tired, and I also got cross.  Writing has that effect, I find.”   She had difficulties with the middle, “the complications got the better of me, instead of me being the master of them.”  It was then that her mother made the suggestion that she go away on holiday and write undisturbed.  She booked into a large dreary hotel in the country, walked on the moors and wrote.  She spoke to no one – it would have taken her mind off what she was doing.

She sent it out several times with no success, and had almost forgotten about it as Archie had come home from the war. They were busy looking for a place to live, as flats were in short supply in post-war London, so she was surprised when it was accepted for publication.  They requested a few minor changes, and it was finally published in 1920.   

Like many young authors, she got trapped into a lousy contract promising them her next five books. (After fulfilling her end of the bargain, she changed publishers with no explanation given, although they were willing to bargain by then.)  

“Having given up hope for some years of having anything published, except the occasional short story or poem, I would have signed anything……I would not receive any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold…..none of it meant much to me – the whole point was the book would be published.  I didn’t even notice there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels……I signed with enthusiasm…..In spite of the clause about the next five novels, this was to me a single and isolated experiment.  I had been dared to write a detective story, I had written a detective story.  It had been accepted and was going to appear in print.  There, as far as I was concerned, the matter ended.  Certainly at that moment, I did not envision writing any more books.”  

Her child Rosaland was born.   She was worried about keeping Ashfield, her family home as her mother still lived there.  Her husband suggested she write another book.  

She started making money and had an unexpected request from the Income Tax people about her literary earnings.  She had not thought of herself as an “established author” and had not kept track of the royalties, so she got herself a literary agent – a young man named Edmund Cork – and a friendship which lasted for 40 years.   

 “The nice thing about writing in those years was that I directedly related it to money.  If I decided to write a story, I knew it would net me L45, deducting income tax.  This stimulated my output enormously.  How different from the last ten or twenty years of my life.  I never know what I owe. I never know what money I have…..or shall have next year.” 

In 1927 she went to the Canary Islands to get away from the publicity of her disappearance and pending divorce, and managed to write the best part of a new book,  but admitted she had no joy in writing it. “I had worked out the plot, a conventional plot….I knew where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.  I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money.  That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional.  I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.  I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent it off to the publishers  It sold just as well as my last book – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.” 

By the time she remarried in 1930 she had written ten books.  

Surprisingly, she never had a room of her own to write in.  “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts.  I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write.  All I  needed was a steady table and a typewriter.   I had begun now to write straight on to the typewriter, although I still used to do the beginning chapters and occasionally others in long-hand and then type them out.”  Many friends had said to her, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.” 

She never felt any desperation as to whether she could think of one more book to write.  “There is always of course, that terrible 3 weeks or a month which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book……when you think you can’t do it.”   She admitted to talking to herself, while working out bits of dialogue.    

Later she branched out into writing plays – she was good with dialogue – and it was a new adventure, along with her annual Christie for Christmas.  She discusses how Three Blind Mice became The Mousetrap and her feeling of happiness when the audience enjoyed it so much, and its long run on the stage, and, the dread she felt about having to make a speech for a party at the Savoy on it’s tenth anniversary.  She hated public speaking, crowds, large parties, and fuss.  I don’t think there were as many author interviews back then and it was not as necessary to promote your book the way it is now when there is so much competition. 

She doesn’t state how long it took her to write a book, or how many drafts or revisions she went through, but mentions that she once wrote a book in 3 days flat – Absent in the Spring, under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.  It was a fiction novel she had always wanted to write, about a woman whose image of herself was completely mistaken, an idea that had been clear in her mind for some time, and the one book which satisfied her completely.  She wrote the first chapter, and then the last because she knew so clearly how it was going to end, then wrote straight through, calling in sick to work, so frightened was she of interrupting the flow, then she slept for 24 hrs.    

Of her detective books, the two that satisfied her best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. “No book was exactly as I wanted it to be, and I was never quite satisfied with it.”

Regarding any piece of creative work she wrote, “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of work before you can in any way evaluate it.   You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence).  If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation.  You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten.  A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”   (I find this is true, it’s difficult to evaluate your own work.)

To sum up, after reading her autobiography, I know more about her life, but I don’t feel that I really know her any better as a person or as a writer, although I enjoyed reading and can relate to many of her observations on writing.  I found her to be a complex person, contradictory in some ways, but that might just be because she was a product of her time and the times had changed.

It seems as if the writing was just a sideline to her marvelous and enjoyable life. She wrote mostly for herself – that you could make money from it and that other people liked it was a bonus.  Of course, in her later years, when she was expected to produce a book every year it could be drudgery and work – but by then she had assumed the mantel of a professional writer and she had her plays as a diversion.  Like any other job, writing has its good days and its bad days.  So perhaps there is some advice here, for those of us slogging away putting words on a page, after all.

PS. I watched the new Kenneth Branagh version of Death on the Nile recently. It was nicely filmed but just okay, casting and plot-wise. The usual quota of dark- haired men and very thin women. I guessed the ending about 20 minutes in, and there were way too many dead bodies for me.

Agatha Christie – An Autobiography

     I sometimes find writers lives more interesting than their books.  Such is the case for me with Agatha Christie, whose autobiography I was inspired to order after reading The Christie Affair (see link – A Tale of Two Mysteries), a fictionalized account of her famous eleven-day disappearance in 1926.  I wanted to know more about her life, and what an interesting life it was.  I found her autobiography fascinating, both from a historical point of view (think Downton Abbey in print), and a literary one.  It’s a long book at 532 pages so I’ll split this review into two posts, the first dealing with her life, and the second with some of her thoughts on writing.     

Agatha Christie started working on her memoirs in 1950 when she was 60 years old and finished them in 1965 when she was 75.  Although she had further successes after that, she felt that 75 was a good place to stop.  She didn’t actually write, but dictated and then had a typist transcribe them.  Her grandson found a box of the tapes when he was cleaning out her house Greenway, after his mother had died, but as she reused the tapes, they only pertain to the last quarter of the book.  Only a handful of recordings of her voice exist, so the 2014 reissue of the autobiography contains a code to listen to a selection of excerpts from the tapes on Audible, in which she talks mainly about her life as a writer, which ironically is probably more of interest to the rest of us than it was to her.  The link did not work for me, but there may be something similar online.         

Agatha Christie was born in 1890, so she had a typical upper middle class Edwardian childhood, and a good third of the book deals with that.  There is less about her older adult life, and even less about her writing, although bits and pieces are sprinkled through out the narrative.

Although she says they were not rich, they had cooks and maids and nannies, and a big house named Ashfield.  She was educated at home, and later there was a succession of finishing schools.  She showed an interest in music and took voice lessons with the aim of becoming a professional singer, but realized she did not have the temperament for it.   She considered herself shy.

Her father, to whom she was close, did not work and eventually lost the family fortune, and after a period of ill health, died when she was 11, leaving her mother in much reduced circumstances.  She considered this the end of what had been a happy childhood. 

I found her opinions on working women of interest, but perhaps they reflected what was commonly thought at the time, such as this excerpt.

“There seems to be an odd assumption that there is something meritorious about working……The position of women over the years has definitely changed for the worse.  We have clamoured to be allowed to work as men work.  Men, not being fools, have taken kindly to the idea.  Why support a wife?  She wants to do it….she can go on doing it…….You’ve got to hand it to Victorian women – they got their menfolk where they wanted them.   They established their frailty, delicacy, sensibility – their constant need of being protected and cherished…..all of my grandmother’s friends seem to me in retrospect to be resilient, and almost invariably successful in getting their own way.  They were tough, self-willed and remarkably well-read and well-informed……Mind you they admired their men enormously – they genuinely thought men were very splendid fellows – dashing, inclined to be wicked, easily lead astray.  In daily life a woman got her own way whilst paying lip service to male superiority, so that her husband should not lose face.”

Of course, this reflects her privileged upbringing – I’m sure the scullery maids did not share the same point of view on the necessity of work – but it’s also interesting, considering the profits of her publishing paid for many of the perks in her married life, as neither of her husbands were particularly well off.  She considered her writing as a fun thing to do, despite its periods of drudgery and commitment, so perhaps she didn’t regard it as work.

Her main aim, like most women of her generation, was to marry.

“In fact, I only contemplated one thing – a happy marriage.  About that I had complete self-assurance – as all my friends did.  We were conscious of all the happiness that awaited us.  We looked forward to love, to being looked after, cherished and admired, and we intended to get our own way in the things which mattered to us, while at the same time putting our husband’s life, career and success before all, as was our proud duty.  We had our own personal disappointments – moments of unhappiness, but on the whole life was FUN.  Perhaps it is fun for girls nowadays – but they certainly don’t look as if it is.”

After this section, she goes on to discuss how modern-day anxiety, and anxiety about education have strangled hope, including the bizarre statement that some people enjoy being the drama of being melancholy.  I seem to recall it being a characteristic of the young to be optimistic and hopeful, and maybe that is somewhat missing now, even more so than in the 1960’s when she was writing this, but perhaps it would be best to conclude that she was lucky to be possessed of a happy disposition, a fact she admits, for she had a great sense of enjoyment of life.  In the preface by her long-time publisher, he wrote that few people have extracted more intense or more varied fun from life and that she was a testament to the joy of living.

I find the above statements difficult to juxtaposition with my feminist image of her, for she lived a very adventurous life – and no, flappers were not mentioned, not even once, but it was an era of rapid progress, and much had changed since her sheltered childhood.  She went on an early airplane ride (with her mother’s approval) in the infancy of flight, describes the thrill of riding in a car for the first time, then buying her own car and learning to drive it.  She loved to travel and went on a ten month around the world trip with her husband – they went surfing in Hawaii.  She also traveled by herself frequently, including to the Middle East after the break-up of her first marriage.  Perhaps the world was a safer place then.  

Egypt was a regular tourist destination for wealthy Britons, and she went to Cairo with her mother when she was 17,  “Cairo, from the point of view of a girl, was a dream of delight.  We spent three months there, and I went to five dances every week.”   There were regiments stationed there, and polo, and lovely inexpensive hotels.  When they returned to London, she went for weekends at country houses, riding horses during the hunt, side saddle of course which was “wonderfully safe.”  She was a slim pretty girl and there were many flirtations, as well as an engagement to someone older, a major away for 2 years, when she met Archie Christie.  She broke off the engagement and after an on-off relationship they married  in 1914 during WW1.  She wrote her first novel, the Mysterious Affair at Styles, while Archie was off at war, and she was working at a hospital dispensary to help out, her evenings being free. 

After the war, her only child Rosalind was born.  She was worried about keeping her childhood home, Ashfield (her mother was still living there), so Archie suggested she write another book.

Archie took a new job which required travelling around the world, so she went with him, leaving her young child in the care of her sister.  A wife’s first duty was to her husband, and her daughter seemed to prefer her favorite aunt.  (This reminded me of Downton Abbey where the parent saw their children at least one hour a day for afternoon tea.)

She started making money from her books, and bought her own car, a gray Morris Cowley, a suggestion made by Archie, although she says they were not rich in those post-war years. 

 “We were prepared to have a nurse and a servant as a necessary extravagance, but would never have dreamed of having a car.  If we went to theatres it would to the pit.  I would have one evening dress and that a black one so as to not show the dirt.  We would never take a taxi anywhere.  There is a fashion in the way you spend your money – it made for less luxury, plainer food, clothes and all those things.  On the other hand, in those days you had more leisure, to think to read, and to indulge in hobbies and pursuits.  I think I am glad I was young in those times.  There was a great deal of freedom in life, and much less hurry and worry.”

Celebrities did not write tell-all biographies back in the 1960’s.  It was not the fashion it is now to be too revealing and people in general were more reserved, so the next chapter of her life is summed up by a single sentence, “The next year of my life is one I hate recalling.”  

Her mother had died, and as Archie was in Spain she had to deal with the funeral alone.  “Archie, I had always realized that he had a violent dislike of illness, death and trouble of any kind.”  He left her to clear up Ashfield by herself, deal with her mother’s and grandmother’s things, as well as the leaky roof and general state of disrepair.  He finally returned but stayed in London and when she suggested he come down for the weekend, he made excuses – she suspected he did not want to miss his Sunday golf game, although they made plans to go to Italy later.  So, there was grief and sorrow over losing her mother, until her sister, who was dealing with her own matters, eventually joined her.  When Archie finally arrived, he asked for a divorce.  He had fallen in love with a colleague’s secretary. “With those words that part of my life – my happy, successful, confident life – ended.”   “Archie said, I can’t stand not having what I want, and I can’t stand not being happy.  Everybody can’t be happy – somebody has got to be unhappy.”   My mother had always said he was ruthless. He was ruthless because he was fighting for his happiness.”  Agatha had previously admired his ruthlessness as it was offset by his many acts of kindness, but this was a total shock.    

Of her mysterious eleven day disappearance there is no direct mention, although she does allude to her fragile state while cleaning out her mother’s house.  She was ill, lonely, not sleeping or eating, subject to crying spells, feeling confused, muddled and suffering from poor memory – all signs of a nervous breakdown.  There was speculation that she had suffered an episode of amnesia and could not recall how she ended up staying at a hotel registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  She said later that she was unaware how a period of unhappiness, worry and overwork could affect your physical health.

She hoped the affair would blow over, and finding life in England unbearable, departed to the Canary Islands with Rosaland and the governess who was also a friend. She dated her revulsion with the press, her dislike of journalists and crowds from that period.  “I felt like a fox hunted….but I came back to England myself again.”

After agreeing to the divorce, fate intervened.  She sat beside someone at dinner one night who was talking about Baghdad and the Persian Gulf and how nice it was.  He suggested she go by train via the Orient Express, something she had always wanted to do.   So she changed her travel plans from the West Indies and Jamaica and booked the Orient Express to Istanbul, Damascus, and then across the desert to Baghdad.  “Trains have always been one of my favorite things.”

She mentions taking the Orient Express so many times back and forth to digs in Syria and Iraq that I lost count.  It was cheaper then but no wonder she set one of her most famous books on it.  (Just once I would like to take the Orient Express – see link for prices most for only one night)

“Not until you travel by yourself do you realize how much the outside world will protect and befriend you – not always quite to one’s own satisfaction.”   She suffered the good intentions and advice of fellow travelers, you must see this and that, or don’t stay there it is too dangerous, as there were friends of friends and British everywhere.  So travelling all by herself to the Middle East may not have been as adventurous as it seems.

In Iraq, she met archeologist Leonard Woolley and his wife, and then when she returned the following year, she met Max, his assistant.  A quiet young man, they set off sight-seeing, staying in some rather rough conditions.  He decided right then that she would make an excellent wife for him – “there was no fuss, you didn’t complain.  You took things in stride, not getting in a state.”  They were comfortable together.

She had a hard time deciding whether to marry him or not when he proposed back in England.  She was 13 years older, a huge difference back then.  “We were friends, close friends.If I had considered Max a possible husband when I first met him, I should have been on guard, I should never have slipped into this easy, happy relationship.”  Her young daughter approved, and soon she felt it was the only thing to do.  They married in 1930 and the last quarter of the book deals with her life with Max, their travels and life on archaeological digs in Iraq and Syria.  She later wrote the book, Come, Tell Me How You Live, about those years. (I read this many years ago, but don’t recall much about it.)

By the time she remarried in 1930 Agatha Christie had written ten books.  But writing wasn’t her only source of income. She loved old houses and decorating and at one time had bought and renovated 8 of them – ”broken down slummy houses in London, renovating, decorating and furnishing them.”  WW2 came and they were separated for a time.  She updated her skills and went back to work in the hospital dispensary, finding more bottles ready made this time.

After the war she settled comfortably into middle age.  I always thought of Agatha Christie as the stout grandmotherly person she was in her old age, not the slim stylishly dressed girl in the photos so I enjoyed seeing the photos in the book, although I think the photo on the book cover is not a flattering one.

“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations, and suddenly find, at the age of fifty say, that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study or read about.  You find that you like going to picture exhibitions, concerts and the operas, with the same enthusiasm as when you went at 20 or 25.  For a period, your personal life has absorbed all your energies, but now you are free again to look around you.  You can enjoy leisure, you can enjoy things.  You are still young enough to enjoy going to foreign places.  It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you.  With it of course, goes the penalty of increasing old age – the discovery that your body is always hurting somewhere…..these things happen and have to be endured.  But one’s thankfulness for the gift of life is I think stronger and more vital during those years than it ever has been before.” 

I enjoyed reading this book, but I didn’t get a real sense of what she was like as a person, as it’s not a revealing kind of autobiography, full of feelings and emotion, but more of a factual record of a very interesting life. It was written when she was older and looking back on what was for the most part a happy and comfortable life. She took great pleasure in reliving her memories  She started it in Nimrud, Iraq while on a dig with Max.  Not hurrying herself, writing a few pages from time to time – a task which will she predicted would go on for years….and it did – fifteen.  She died in 1976, and it was not published until the following year.  Her husband Max died a year later.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly just to be alive is a grand thing.”

“I have been singularly fortunate.  I have with me my husband, my daughter, my grandson, my kind SIL, the people who make up my world.”

“What can I say at 75.  Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.”

See next week for Part Two – some of her thoughts on writing.

The Literary Salon – The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron

When was the last time you had a really good sit-down soul-satisfying conversation with somebody? Notwithstanding the pandemic, it’s surely a given in today’s society that we have become a nation of non-listeners. We have a tendency to interrupt with our own opinion, or maybe we’re not really listening at all but thinking about what our reply will be. I blame this general lack of attention on the instantaneous nature of the internet. We have become so accustomed to conducting everything at high speed, that we’ve lost the fine art of conversation….in person….not by text or tweet. It takes time to have a conversation, and two people who are willing to truly listen to each other’s words. Someone may say they are fine, but you can tell from the tone of their voice or facial expressions that they’re not, and so you ask questions, and then listen carefully. Listening better was one my goals this year, so it was with great anticipation that I ordered Julia Cameron’s latest release, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention.

Publisher’s Blurb from Goodreads:

The newest book from beloved author Julia Cameron, The Listening Path is a transformational journey to deeper, more profound listening and creativity. Over six weeks, readers will be given the tools to become better listeners—to their environment, the people around them, and themselves. The reward for learning to truly listen is immense. As we learn to listen, our attention is heightened and we gain healing, insight, clarity. But above all, listening creates connections and ignites a creativity that will resonate through every aspect of our lives.

Julia Cameron is the author of the explosively successful book The Artist’s Way, which has transformed the creative lives of millions of readers since it was first published. Incorporating tools from The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path offers a new method of creative and personal transformation.

Each week, readers will be challenged to expand their ability to listen in a new way, beginning by listening to their environment and culminating in learning to listen to silence. These weekly practices open up a new world of connection and fulfillment. In a culture of bustle and constant sound, The Listening Path is a deeply necessary reminder of the power of truly hearing. 

Why I Liked It: I didn’t. I don’t even know how it got published. Normally I wouldn’t review a bad book, because I would have quit reading it, but I finished this one out of respect for the author, the creativity expert and author of 40 books most of them truly inspiring, including her first, The Artist’s Way.

I read The Artist’s Way back when it was first published in 1992, and enjoyed it, although I’d have to say I found the Morning Pages a bit OCD. I even tried them once during a week’s vacation, but who has a spare hour in the morning to write out three long hand pages of stream of consciousness stuff. (This was in the days before computers, but she still requires they be hand written, and never in the evening!) Unless you were seeking clarity or trying to solve a problem, and even then wouldn’t you get sick of whining about it day after day, I just couldn’t see the point. For many people those early morning hours are often the most productive of the day, and for some, the only time they get any writing done at all. The Artist’s Dates and Meditative Walks were fun and helpful suggestions though. It was a twelve week program for discovering your creative self, which grew out of a writer’s workshop she taught, although the art can be any genre – writing, painting, music, etc. A best-seller at the time, the book has never been out of print and a few years ago they re-issued a 25th anniversary edition, but it can be found at book discount places, as can many of her other popular books on creativity. I own several of her earlier works and found them uplifting, especially for people who may not have anyone who encourages their writing, or even understands it. She’s revered as the Cheerleader of Creativity.

But back to The Listening Path:

The Publisher’s blurb sounded good, but this book was a disappointing read on so many levels.  It’s a slim 180 page volume, with a long 40 page introduction, which is basically a recap of The Artist’s Way, and six chapters, Listening to the Environment, Others, Our Higher Self, Beyond the Veil, Silence and Our Heroes, with the chapters getting progressively shorter, so that towards the end they were only 4 or 5 pages. The pages themselves had a weird format of very narrow columns (4 inches), designed to make the book appear longer.

The Beyond the Veil chapter (where she connects with the world beyond and her spirit friend Jane tells her not to second-guess herself, the book is going well), reminded me of a seance.  (Jane, if you’re listening, it was bad advice).  The listening to others chapter, which should have been the gist of the book, consisted of interviews with her artist friends and acquaintances, who may be perfectly nice people but are not experts in the field and had nothing interesting to offer other than their personal opinions. (I could just as well interview my friends about listening but then medical people like jargon and brevity. I inadvertently offended a newly minted colleague once when I said cut to the chase.)

There were lots of walks with her dog Lily (a cute but yappy little Westie terrier) in the Santa Fe area where she lives, constant weather reports on storms and hail, feeding the dog salmon, and something called gravlax to stop her from barking and annoying the neighbors.  “Lily! Salmon! Treat!” was repeated so many times, (pages 44, 45, 47, 56, 97 and whenever there was a thunderstorm), it got to be annoying.  She has a bad connection on her landline, (several pages on that including dialogue), feels “bludgeoned” by a friend’s dietary advice that she eat more protein, (ditto….sister you don’t know what a bad day is), worries about whether she can afford a house (yes her accountant says she can, and a maid too)….basically it was a whole lot of repetitive personal trivia, zero research and nothing much at all to do with the topic of listening. Unless you’re writing a personal blog, sharing anecdotes for a reason, and/or lead an interesting life, this kind of stream of consciousness stuff might better be left to Morning Pages, not published in a hardcover format for $50 Cdn ($36.99 US).

Her one and only novel, Mozart’s Ghost was like that too – I swear the protagonist lived in the laundry room, but after 43 rejections (page 19) what would you expect? Not that you can’t branch out and try something new, but sometimes an author can be good at one genre, but not others.  (I loved Frances Mayes series of Under The Tuscan Sun travel books, but her attempt at a chick-lit novel was painful).   If you like an author, you expect only good things from them, and are doubly disappointed when they don’t deliver.     

The Listening Path was written pre-pandemic, and while many people have been lonely during this past year, with no company and their only social outlet walking the dog, if you read between the lines this book spoke volumes about how solitary a writer’s life can be.  She needs to ditch the desert, move back to New York and re-read her own books for inspiration.

I didn’t sense too much joy in the creation- more of a pounding out the pages to meet a deadline. There was a lot of self-doubt which I don’t remember from her earlier works.   Was her stuff out of date (yes, Morning Pages)? There was much angst about teaching a course in London she has taught for decades – how can someone with 40 books be so lacking in self-confidence and so insecure.  I perked up at the mention of London though, it sounded much more interesting than walking in Santa Fe.

I even wondered if she was well, maybe even depressed? I read her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, many years ago, and what struck me was what an unhappy life she had lead, because the memoir was such a direct contrast to her positive encouraging books.  She was married at one time to director Martin Scorsese (a man she declares she still loves – page 114), has a daughter and a grandchild and is a decades long recovered alcoholic.  I suspect AA inspired her writer’s workshops, hence the 12 week programs.   

Normally if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll hop on Goodreads and if enough people share my opinion, then I quit. (Too many DNF’s mean it’s not me, it’s you dear author, keeping in mind of course that some of those glowing reviewers may be receiving free copies).  But I soldiered on….it was readable, but barely, in a train wreck sort of way.

All in all, it was a timely topic which just didn’t translate, and I was left with a sense of disappointment, but you’ll be relieved to know there was a happy ending, as Lily got one of those anti-bark “citronella spray” dog collars. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently dogs hate the smell of citronella. Yes, that was how the book ended, with a short section entitled, “The Neighbors Rejoice.” I may pass that tip along to my neighbors.

This brings up the question – what does a publisher do when a best-selling author turns in a sub-standard manuscript? A good editor will hand it back to be fixed, or they may just publish it, take the money and run. It might be better to abandon it though and save the author’s reputation. Julia Cameron is 73 now, aren’t writers allowed to retire? (Another recent example of this is Jodi Picout’s latest, The Book of Two Ways, a four hundred page disaster which defies description, although I’ll try in a future blog). Same with the author – it’s hard to be objective especially when you’ve put so much work into something, and it’s also hard to admit when something just isn’t working. Books are subjective, but if the general consensus/feedback isn’t good, then you know there’s a problem.

If you want to read a good book by Julia Cameron, I would highly recommend this one.

Publishers Blurb:
Julia Cameron has inspired millions with her bestseller on creativity, The Artist’s Way. In It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, she turns her eye to a segment of the population that, ironically, while they have more time to be creative, are often reluctant or intimidated by the creative process. Cameron shows readers that retirement can, in fact, be the most rich, fulfilling, and creative time of their lives.

When someone retires, the newfound freedom can be quite exciting, but also daunting. The life that someone had has changed, and the life to come is yet to be defined. In this book, Cameron shows readers how cultivating their creative selves can help them navigate this new terrain. She tells the inspiring stories of retirees who discovered new artistic pursuits and passions that more than filled their days—they nurtured their souls.  
A twelve-week course aimed at defining—and creating—the life you want to have as you redefine—and re-create—yourself, this book includes simple tools that will guide and inspire you to make the most of this time in your life:

–  Memoir writing offers an opportunity to reflect on—and honor—past experience. This book guides you through the daunting task of writing an entire memoir, breaking it down into manageable pieces. 
–  Morning Pages—private, stream-of-consciousness writing done daily—allow you to express wishes, fears, delights, resentments, and joys, which in turn, provide focus and clarity for the day at hand.
–  Artist Dates encourage fun and spontaneity.
–  Solo Walks quell anxiety and clear the mind.

This fun, gentle, step-by-step process will help you explore your creative dreams, wishes, and desires—and help you quickly find that it’s never too late to begin again. 

This book is geared more for middle-aged folks like me facing their second acts…..those reluctant souls who maybe always wanted to do something creative but lacked the courage to try. I read it back in 2016 and it was a big factor in starting my blog, although it was a whole year before I actually wrote anything on it, and another three months before I made it public. (My creative soul was a bit rusty). This book was an inspiring read, which truly delivered.

PS. Two out of three isn’t bad, and goes to show that even the best of writers have their duds. Do you think it is better to abandon a book which just isn’t working and move on to something else, or stick with it and carry on?

PS. I’ll be exploring more on the dichotomy between a writer’s books and their life, in a future blog about L.M. Montgomery, of the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Adventures of Mr. Vole and the Merry Band of Wasps

(Don’t be scared, it’s just a harmless little children’s book followed by a discussion on the creative muse – based on a true life story).Vole cartoon

Mr. Vole was on a mission to dig up every bulb in the Home Owner’s garden.  He didn’t eat the bulbs although once in a while he had one for dessert, but took them back to his home under the deck.   Mr. Vole was a vegan and there was lots of other food to eat in the garden, although he was sad the lettuce was done.  He had watched the squirrels storing them up for winter and thought it was a great idea.  He pictured himself with a big fat tulip bulb and a cup of hot cocoa, in his cozy den while the snow piled up on the deck above. 

Although he was a vole, he had a lot in common with moles, as he loved to dig.   He was fast at it too.  He was big and fat like a mole too.   Sometimes he would dig up a bulb just for the sheer joy of spreading all that dirt on the sidewalk and annoying the Home Owner.   She would get the broom out and sweep up, and a couple of hours later he would dig it all up again.   He could tell she was annoyed, but that was part of the fun.    The Home Owner was retired, so she had lots of time to sweep.   She lived on Easy Street and fancied herself quite a gardener so there were lots of bulbs around too. 

swarm of bees wasps

Mr. Vole wasn’t the only one annoying the Home Owner as one day a Merry Band of Wasps moved in above the deck.   They were busy building their hive which was tucked up under the siding in a hidden spot.   Their constant droning and swarming was annoying sometimes, and he could see why the Home Owner came out and sprayed them with something smelly.   While a few fell suddenly to the ground, the net effect was just to increase the sound of the construction noise – as then they were angry and the buzzing grew louder.   Things quieted down at night when they were all tucked up safe in their nest above deck, and he was able to sleep soundly below deck in his.   

Some summer nights there were loud parties in the neighborhood, with bonfires and hotdogs, and he liked to stay out late on the deck and listen to the music.  He was a big Bruce Springsteen fan.    The wasps would join him, as they were always up for a “jam” session.  With their constant buzzing, they learned to harmonize quite well and made good backup singers, but he was more the lead singer type.    Sometimes the wasps had too much “hard cider” from the fallen crabapples and couldn’t keep their dance moves straight and what’s a boy band without dance moves, but they still had fun.   They would always end the evening with a noisy rendition of “God Save the Queen” before they collapsed into bed.      

One day the Home Owner boarded up all his nicely dug holes and he had to build new ones, which didn’t take long.   It was a big deck, with lots of sides to dig under. 

Boarded Up Deck

Sometimes she had company over to show off her new kitchen, and the wasps ended up spoiling the party.    She made desserts and they loved anything sweet, so they hovered around making a pest of themselves and waiting for the crumbs.   

Party on the Deck

One night, she came out very late in her PJ’s and tried to duct tape the opening of the wasp nest.   Big. Mistake. Lady.   The next night she came out and ripped it all off, as those sneaky wasps had found an inside venue to play in.   

Things continued on in this manner for several weeks.   One day a man showed up wearing a spacesuit with a huge hat with netting over his face.   He meant business.   Mr. Vole had noticed the car with the Pest-Bee-Gone decal on the side and quickly ran around the corner to warn the others.   He climbed up on the railing and shouted as loud as he could –  MayDay MayDay!  (It was August, but they knew what he meant).   One of the worker wasps darted inside and soon the whole swarm had exited and flown away, with the Queen B (not Beyonce) in their midst, protected on all sides by her entourage.    He saw the man in the suit spray some not-exactly-fairy-dust inside the hole but they were already safely away. 

BeeKeeper Guy Pest Control 

Mr. Vole decided he had better move on too.   Although he hated life on the road and would miss his cozy home under the deck, it was too dangerous to stay any longer.   The Merry Band of Wasps were so grateful he had warned them that they told him about a mansion nearby, and he quickly found “new digs” under the deck of a larger house, one with younger owners and an in-ground swimming pool.    He was now into rap music, like everyone else.  The young owners worked long hours to pay for the big mortgage and were never home so he could cool off in the pool, a cold beverage in hand.

pool chair

 Soon he was the one hosting parties on the deck every night.   The wasps were keen on anything Drake, but the Queen B had departed for a solo gig.  They played together so much they got better and better, and the very next spring he decided to take the show on the road.   The wasps were excited about a world tour, but he wanted to stay closer to home.    He could see the marquee now – his name in flashing neon lights.  (When you’re famous you only need a first name).   Onward to Fame and Fortune (and only pink tulip bulbs in the backstage rider please).  

 Voley (in big letters) and the E-Street Wasp Band (in smaller letters).   

Coming soon……to a neighborhood near you! 

The End

(If you want to know the real ending, see the postscript below.  Warning – not for the faint of heart).

Discussion on the Creative Muse:   

It’s a curious thing what can spark the creative process.   I find it interesting to read biographies of famous writers, to see where they got their ideas from.  Did they spring fully formed from thin air, or was it a gradual process, a thought here and there scribbled on a napkin in a coffee shop and laboriously reworked for years, or maybe a combination of both.  The whole creative process is a fascinating subject.  

And what a wonderful thing it must be to be able to create a whole world out of nothing but your imagination – like J.K. Rowling did, not just once but seven times.    Do writers have a more vivid imagination than other people?   Are worry-worts more likely to be creative, having spent so much time dwelling in the world of “what if.”   What makes one person more creative than others.  Genetics?  Practice?  Or are we all creative beings, in one way or another?  Can creativity be learned, or even analyzed or is it something that just is?

My children’s story was inspired by a number of things.  Firstly, my frustrating “critter woes” this past August, and secondly by fellow blogger Linda’s tales of Parker, the squirrel in her neighborhood park, and our subsequent discussions of children’s books and the children’s television shows we had watched as kids.  (see Walkin’,Writing’,Wit and Whimsy for Parker’s guest post). 

Squirrel - AMc

The Famous Parker as painted by my mother…

 In the eyes of a child, all animals are God’s creatures, great and small.   It’s only adults who consider some of them vermin – a nuisance to be disposed of, of which I admit I am guilty as charged.       

Sometimes a visual aid can spark an idea.   While I was searching the basement for my old Seventeen magazines for the Woodstock blog, I came across a children’s book I used to read to my young niece when she visited the farm in the summers.     

The Adventures of Mr. Toad (3)

It was a Walt Disney abbreviated version of the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, and in the manner of small children everywhere who find a particular book fascinating, we would have to read it over and over again, night after night, until I’m sure I had the whole thing memorized.   I don’t know what was so appealing to her – perhaps it was the gypsy-cart, or the motor car or the general reckless behavior of Mr. Toad who was always being rescued by his friends.   Certainly as a city child, those rodent-type characters were not anything she would have encountered in real life.   They weren’t even anything I ever encountered on the farm, as we had dogs and barn cats whose job it was to “take care of things like that”.

I’ve never read the full version of Wind in the Willows so don’t know how it compares, but there were more chapters and adventures in the original, as the Walt Disney book is a very condensed thirty or so pages.   The copyright having expired, I suppose I’ve taken the liberty of adding another chapter, although the main characters in the book were Mole, Rat, Toad and McBadger, plus the Weasel Gang.    It was written in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame (link), initially as a series of bedtime stories for his young son, and was inspired by his childhood spent along the river banks in England.    

The Adventures of Mr. Toad

Flipping through the book that day, it was this fireside scene which helped me imagine my visitors, the vole below deck and the wasps above, all cozy in their respective nests.  While I was entertaining on the deck I was also thinking about how my guests were unaware of all that unwanted company down below. 

Perhaps Ally of The Spectacled Bean’s catchy title, It’s a Party in the Parsley about caterpillars, inspired the deck party?   Definitely I was thinking about music, and my subconscious mind must have recalled reading Daisy Jones and the Six earlier this summer, and their struggle over whose name came first on the billing.   But perhaps the true spark came from lying awake listening to the music from a street festival one holiday weekend, so loud I could hear the words of the songs from blocks away, long past midnight.   I’m sure there was some Bruce Springsteen involved, and doesn’t that rap music often sound like a whole lot of droning going on! 

I may have been thinking about children’s books, because I had been hearing lots of buzz recently about Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers (movie trailer below).   What wonderful children’s programs we had back then.   As a Canadian child I grew up watching Romper Room (Do Bee and Don’t Bees), Captain Kangaroo and a show called The Friendly Giant, who always placed miniature chairs around the fire for story time – here’s a chair for someone to curl up in and another rocking chair, before he asked you to look up, way up, and see the Friendly Giant.    How calm and measured their voices were – so soothingly and reassuring to a small child.   It looks like an interesting movie, but now the song “It’s A Beautiful  Day in the Neighborhood” is stuck in my brain!    

Creativity is a strange and wonderful thing.   Who knows what goes into any creative idea – it’s a mishmash of things we’ve heard or seen or remembered all jumbled up in our minds, and hopefully something beautiful or at least somewhat entertaining comes out of it all.   The most important thing is to pay attention, write it down and have some fun. 

PS   I had such fun with this, I’m now working on a fairy tale, Once Upon a Kitchen Reno…


The Real Ending: 

(not for the squeamish, but useful information if you ever have to deal with a wasp nest in your siding).

I’ll spare you the details of the vole’s demise as I could not watch.  (My grasscutter whacked it over the head with a shovel).   I have not seen any of his brethren lurking about, although the Pest Control man warned me there might be more as they reproduce like rabbits, but his company did not deal in voles.   The bulb digging has stopped, but I’m hoping for a Polar Vortex Winter in case there are more.     Should you have voles, HappyHauteHome has an informative post on How To Get Rid of Voles in Your Yard or Garden. 

If you have a wasp nest in your siding call the exterminator right away.   Do not tape up the entry hole as they will just find another way out and into your house.   Wasps can chew through drywall and crawl up small spaces beside radiators and hot water heating pipes.   Do not waste time buying useless sprays from the hardware store which will not reach the area involved and only have contact but no residual action.   As the wasp nest cost $170 to spray with pesticide powder, I delayed until after Labor Day weekend thinking I could save money and do it myself, but it had grown so large over a mere three week period, that I have been stuck with the smell of decaying wasp larvae in my bedroom for weeks.   The smell is so bad I’m still sleeping in the spare bedroom.   Apparently this putrid odor is normal, especially if it’s a big nest.   As the guys cleaning the mildew off the siding alerted me to the problem on Aug 16, I was surprised it got that big so quickly.  (By the time they got to Woodstock they were half a million strong.)   It smelt like dead rodents, to the extent that I wondered if the Vole Brothers had somehow managed to crawl into the space between the wall and the floorboards to party with their Waspy friends, although that would be impossible, wouldn’t it?  (I’m in need of some reassurance here).   I’m at a loss for what to do now as the exterminator advised me to just wait, as tearing up the floorboards or drilling into the wall trying to find the nest would be an expensive proposition requiring a contractor and most would not be interested in such a small job.   Nor is it covered by insurance, although it would be if the nest has pushed the insulation aside and the pipes freeze.   I can only hope that the weeks of unseasonably hot and humid weather we have been having will help accelerate the decaying process and it will be over before I have to turn my hot water furnace rads on. 

The strangest thing was a few nights after I had quarantined the bedroom trying to air it out, there was a Hoot Owl outside the window – who, who, who. 


I’m going to a Hootenanny…

If it hadn’t been 2 am I would have gone out and tried to get a picture of it, but the sound was enough to identify it.   The Wikipedia people say Hoot owls prey on small animals so maybe they wanted a midnight vole snack (or maybe The Who was attracted by the foul stench and just dropped into Woodstock Revisited)!    It’s certainly not a pleasant way to end the summer, and I hope never to have a repeat performance so I’m going to caulk silicon all around the house as an ounce of prevention.    Has anyone else had problems with wasps or voles this year? 

PS.  I went to a country musical theatre production this past weekend – lots of square dancing and fiddle music, which got me thinking – there could be a book sequel at that hootenanny…




                                                 We’re with the band…..




The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas… free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:





The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no… to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time… by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles