Month: November 2021

  • A Place of Greater Safety

    Camille Desmoulins on the original cover

    A Place of Greater Safety: The Pre-Revolutionary Background:

    Louis XV is named the Well-Beloved. Ten years pass. The same people believe the Well-Beloved takes baths of human blood… Avoiding Paris, ever shut up at Versailles, he finds even there too many people, too much daylight. He wants a shadowy retreat….

    In a year of scarcity (they were not uncommon then) he was hunting as usual in the Forest of Senart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired, ‘Whither he was conveying it?’ ‘To such a place.’ ‘For a man or a woman?’ ‘A man.’ ‘What did he die of?’ ‘Hunger.’ (Jules Michelet)


    Sir Francis Burdett, British Ambassador, on Paris: ‘It is the most ill-contrived, ill-built, dirty stinking town that can possibly be imagined; as for the inhabitants, they are ten times more nasty than the inhabitants of Edinburgh.’


    Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety

    Winner of the 1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, this French Revolution novel is a hugely ambitious work.

    It’s a complex narrative tapestry following three of the main characters of the revolution – Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. We also hear from the women in their lives and other characters.

    Camille Desmoulins

    Camille (who appears on older covers of the novel as above) is in fact the lynchpin. Not just in terms of acting as a link between his more famous friends. But also in inciting the original riots that led to the storming of the Bastille.

    Mantel portrays him as a mercurial character: youthful, egotistical, neurotic, moody, arrogant, bisexual. And forever tossing his long dark hair in between writing furious articles against the old guard. He is courted by all sorts, politically and otherwise.

    Because of his beauty and diminutive size, most of the other characters try to protect him. Not always realising how sly and manipulative he really is. The rest want to murder him, or go to bed with him, or possibly both.

    He has his eye on an older woman, before making a cunning sideways shift to her daughter, Lucile.

    Danton, never a model of probity himself, suggests he might have both. Though Camille doesn’t mean to fall in love with his would-be mistress’s daughter, he does. But it’s also clear that he’s in love with Danton.

    Danton

    A Place of Greater Safety: Danton
    Danton

    Danton is, appropriately, a larger than life character – with a huge appetite for sex, women, food, conflict and dodgy dealings.

    While Camille stammers, Danton bellows, since he possesses the strongest pair of lungs in the Cordeliers district.

    He has a knack for always being somewhere else when the trouble starts. And his physical unattractiveness in no way impedes his appeal to women. Far from it, Camille’s young wife is thoroughly wound up about him. Much to Camille’s vicarious enjoyment.

    There’s a curious threesome thing going on throughout this novel. First with Camille chasing both the mother and daughter, then with his interest in Danton and young Lucile, and then Lucile’s attraction to both Camille and Danton. But it’s an underlying tension rather than something played out for real.

    Robespierre

    Robespierre
    Robespierre

    Robespierre is a very different personality, and possibly the least well-drawn.

    Even by the end of the book, he’s something of an enigma.

    The novel begins when the three men are still young. Camille is four. Later, Camille attends Louis Le Grand school. There, Robespierre, who is a little older, takes charge of him.

    Camille, soon something of a celebrity at the school, is Robespierre’s first and only friend.

    Some of the other friends and opponents in the future revolutionary struggle are also students. Mantel includes a true event when the new king and queen pay a visit to the school. The pupils have waited in the rain for the royal couple to arrive. The scholarship boy has memorised his speech ready to greet them.

    But Marie Antoinette is bored. And the king orders the coach to leave even as the scholarship boy still recites his speech.

    ‘Never mind, de Robespierre,’ a priest commiserates, ‘it could have happened to anyone.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    No hint is given later that Robespierre ever dwelled on the incident. He’s portrayed as very much against the death penalty, a young lawyer of high principles.

    But it’s the extent to which he is willing to pursue his principles that’s the problem.

    He wonders if he could sacrifice a friend to his beliefs before he realises he has no friends.

    Then he remembers, he has Camille.

    The narrative threads come together

    While Robespierre begins his law career out in the provinces, Camille meets Danton in Paris. There they represent opposing sides in a court case.

    Camille tells Danton about his distant cousins – Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, and Antoine Saint-Just. The former, according to gossip, murdered his wife. The latter is currently in prison for stealing the family silver.

    Years later, Fouquier-Tinville will head the tribunal which tries Danton and his friends.

    And when Saint-Just finally appears, he’s worse than Robespierre in his po-faced political extremism. It’s hard to imagine him capable of any youthful indiscretions.

    However, he did once nurture ambitions to be a poet.

    Camille, who abandons law for writing and publishing, makes the fatal mistake of ridiculing some poetry Saint-Just sends him. A slight which Saint-Just never forgets.

    Narrative viewpoints

    Mantel takes an often wry omniscient view of her characters, but also allows them to speak for themselves.

    So Danton takes over the narrative in places, as does his wife Gabrielle. Camille’s would-be-mistress and eventual mother-in-law Annette is another viewpoint character, as is her daughter, Lucile.

    Sometimes the narrative is third person, sometimes first. Mantel also weaves in contemporary quotes and accounts from her real-life characters.

    She can also turn on a pin from a revolutionary cutting off someone’s head, to a London playbill on the very next page:

    18 August 1789

    At Astley’s Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge
    (after rope-dancing by Signior Spinacuta)
    An Entire New and Splendid Spectacle

    THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

    From Sunday 12 July to Wednesday 15 July (inclusive)
    called

    PARIS IN AN UPROAR
    displaying one of the grandest and most extraordinary
    entertainments that ever appeared
    grounded on
    Authentic Fact

    Because of the complexity of the characters and events, there’s not much time spent on description. Some of the dialogue is written in script form.

    Marat looms on the edges of the book, huge and loathsome in appearance.

    The king is clueless about politics. He’s also subject to the stronger influence of his wife, Marie Antoinette. His cousin, the Duke of Orleans, is ambitious for the throne, and also manipulated and advised by his mistress.

    Choderlos de Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liaisons, is in the duke’s pay. He’s a spy and recruiter of useful people – like Camille.

    When the reader becomes complicit

    A Place of Greater Safety is not just an account of events leading up to the Terror. It also draws the reader into a compact with the characters.

    By making Danton and Camille attractive personalities, she seduces the reader into their dubious machinations. So that the reader themself ultimately colludes with them.

    Perhaps the most chilling scene in the book takes place once Danton, Camille and their friends are in power. They draw up a list of people who will be executed. Camille is left to bargain for the life of an ex-lover.

    Swept up in events, they have all moved beyond the point of no return.

    What these amusing, entertaining and seductive characters do in that room is nothing less than evil.

    And as Camille’s agitated father-in-law points out, Camille is now part of the new establishment.

    ‘You don’t understand, anyone who wants to make a revolution, has to make it against him.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    But Camille, ever one to risk political suicide, wakes up to reality. He turns on the Terror itself when he writes a tract comparing current events to Rome during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

    Conditional Absolution

    The title of the novel’s penultimate chapter is Conditional Absolution. Camille partially redeems himself. But in doing so he pits himself against Saint-Just. And Robespierre, the man who once wondered whether he could ever sacrifice a friend for his principles.

    Danton’s fate is well known. As is Robespierre’s.

    Most people will not have heard of Camille and some of the other characters – don’t look them up on Wikipedia. Read the novel instead.

    It’s a fabulous account of good ideas gone bad.

    Mantel also spares plenty of humanity for all her characters. From Marie Antoinette needing to urinate before her execution, to the ridiculous but still likeable Duke Philippe of Orleans.

    However, there is a word of warning. The cast of characters is large and the book runs to almost 900 pages.

    A Place of Greater Safety will either defeat you or take over your life. For me, it’s quite possibly the best historical novel I’ve ever read.

  • #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    #NaNoWriMo Burnout
    #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?

    Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.

    Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.

    Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself

    The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.

    Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.

    #NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.

    But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.

    Your health is more important than a word count

    First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.

    If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.

    If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.

    You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.

    Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.

    And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.

    One technique I found helpful in the past

    One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.

    Momentum was the key.

    I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.

    Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.

    At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.

    Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.

    If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.

    Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?

    If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.

    If you need help concentrating, you can use a social media blocker like Cold Turkey.

    You can also use a Pomodoro timer to pace yourself.

    Whatever you write this month is just a jumping-off point, not the end goal. You can rework it later. Or even run off with a side character and live happily ever after in a new plot/novel!

  • Should you dust off that old novel?

    Should you dust off that old novel?
    Should you dust off that old novel?

    I’m currently analyzing a novel that received very fast agent attention some years ago.

    Later it piqued the interest of literary scouts. There was international interest. But in spite of the initial promise, the novel failed to get an English-language deal. And because of this, the international publishers didn’t take it either.

    The main issue was that it needed a developmental editor.

    A common piece of advice is to ditch a rejected novel and get on with the next one. This is not bad advice in the short term. But it could be a mistake to ditch it forever.

    How to decide if your book is worth saving

    Here are some things to consider:

    • Did the novel show a lot of promise?
    • Have you had positive feedback since on its potential?
    • Do you now have the skillset to address any problems and fix them?
    • Do you want to rewrite the book? (If you don’t, then that’s the end of the matter.)
    • Market trends might also factor into whether it’s time to rework that book
    • Taking a few years out before re-examining the book is also instructive – it’s hard to read your own novel with fresh eyes at the best of times
    • Is this book similar to other books you have written or intend to write? (If it is, that would be a plus.)

    It’s understandable that some books are not worth revisiting.

    But when a huge amount of effort has been invested, as well as research, and the problems can be identified, it seems a shame to close the door on a rewrite.

    After all, revisiting the book is like meeting up with old friends… visiting old haunts. But you also get to meet new people and new places as the new draft takes hold.

    Identify the problems and the solutions

    In the case of this novel, the central issues lie in a problematic triad of structure/location/viewpoint. It’s a classic example of how changing one thing – viewpoint – could actually change the structure of the entire book.

    If the main character is telling the story, the reader can only know what they know and hear things when they hear them.

    This can have a very negative impact on story structure, pushing a lot of twists and revelations towards the latter part of the book.

    And this in turn creates structure and pacing problems.

    This is what happened with the book I’m currently looking at.

    Multiple third-person POVs would make a huge difference, freeing up the narrative. The plot structure would be more balanced. And information, revelations, and so on, more evenly spread through the book.

    If a book has a strong central voice, it might be difficult to let go of it and try something new. But if you really want to give your book a second chance, it will be necessary to change some things.

    This writer intends to rework their book.

    But for other writers in the same boat, the question is, do you want to rescue your novel or not? If you’d rather keep it as it is, and you’re okay with it not being published, then you can leave it. But if you want to publish it, it’s best to look at what can be improved.

    The advantage of returning to an old manuscript

    Here’s the beauty of working on an old manuscript:

    • You know the characters already
    • You know their backstories already
    • You know the locations already
    • You know the plot and subplots already

    So, you don’t have to start from scratch. You already have this information in your head.

    You just need to have the objectivity to know what’s best to keep and what to throw out. Hopefully, your writing skills will have improved enough that you can pull off a good rewrite.

    Never use the old manuscript as a roadmap

    But here’s something to avoid – dusting off your manuscript and using it as the basis of the rewrite.

    What you should really do is read it over and make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. There are things you previously thought were important – maybe you’d happily ditch those things now.

    What is worth keeping? What do you wish you’d done differently?

    Write up a rough plan. Then put the old draft aside and start again.

    Give yourself the freedom to start from scratch. Where you find your enthusiasm flagging, you might have stumbled on something that doesn’t work so well anymore.

    Where your enthusiasm picks up – that’s something worth keeping, or maybe just something new and exciting!

    The thing about tackling an old manuscript is you’ve already done the research and planning. You don’t need to plot the whole thing out again unless you have serious plot holes.

    Maybe the plot is great but it’s let down by the choice of viewpoint or the order of the scenes. Or there’s something off with the structure.

    Or maybe you started your novel in the wrong place and this set off a chain reaction right through the novel. And now you can see how to fix it.

    Not everyone wants to write a lot of novels. Some people would rather write fewer books and spend more time on them.

    One approach is not better than the other. Writers are all just different. This is not a competition.

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    It really comes down to whether you’d want to spend more time with the characters and that world.

    It also depends on the value of the manuscript. If it received positive attention from industry professionals, that might suggest it’s worth revisiting.

    Of course, you could just go down the indie route and publish it yourself.

    But if you want to have another go submitting it to agents, you could put it aside for a while. Even better if it’s been lying around for a few years. The more objectivity you have, the easier you will find it to spot the strengths and weaknesses.

    If you try to rewrite the manuscript by closely following the previous draft, you’re in danger of making the same mistakes again. Because the old draft exerts a certain gravitational pull – where you end up repeating too many things from before.

    In fact, tinkering could actually be harder than throwing out the previous draft (metaphorically) and starting again. Constantly referring to the old draft takes up too much time.

    Open a new file. Here’s your fresh start.

    You know your main plot and characters already. You are free to make any changes you wish. You are free to change the name of your characters, their appearance, and so many other things.

    You can make things better. Use the skills you’ve learned since the last draft.

    This is your second chance.

    Useful links

    If you want to check out my editing services, I offer developmental editing, manuscript critiques, beta reads, and custom reports. If you don’t see the particular custom critique service you’re after, you can email me at: karen@indiecateditorial.com