Monday 16 September 2013

Do we have a right to a happy ending?

I finished reading a wonderful novel recently. I'm not going to name it because this blog post will be a spoiler in itself. The novel gripped me from the start. The two viewpoint characters were convincing and engaging, and although neither were perfect, I soon began to find one of them more sympathetic than the other. Both voices were strong and the writing was vivid and compelling. In fact, it was one of those books that creeps into your consciousness even when you're doing other things. I'd find myself looking forward to the moment I could pick the book up again, thinking about the characters and wanting to get back to them to see how they were getting on.

As the novel progressed, the tension increased and the fortunes of the characters swung from 'okay' to 'bad' to 'awful' and back again several times with only the very occasional move towards 'good'. I turned the pages eagerly, waiting for the heroine to finally achieve her goal (my God, she deserved it by now) and for the other character to get her richly deserved comeuppance.

A few pages before the end, it looked like a terrible catastrophe was about to befall the heroine  and I held my breath. Just in the nick of time, phew! She got out of it. Surely all would be well now? But before very long, this poor character was yet again faced with a horrible, miserable end. I turned the page to see how her last-minute reprieve might come about, only to find the author's acknowledgements.

I was upset. It shouldn't have been this way. The 'goodie' should have had a happy ending and the 'baddie' should have come to grief, surely

Well, that's what I wanted anyway. A friend said recently that she always felt cheated If she didn't get a happy ending; I'm not sure I felt cheated, but I did feel a little unsatisfied, and this led me to thinking about whether we as readers have the right to demand a happy ending.  It also led to a slightly bigger question: is an author's first duty to the novel's readers or to its characters?

As I said at the start, the novel in question was beautifully written, the story was well-told and the characters felt real. And if I'm honest, the author was, I felt, very truthful in her ending. Realistically, what happened in the story is probably what would have happened if those people and their situation had been real.

Was she ever tempted to give us readers the happy ending (or at least, one bearing a glimmer of hope) so many of us crave? In terms of the integrity of her story, I think she took the more courageous route and told us the truth, but despite the fact that I absolutely loved this novel, I still can't help feeling just slightly disappointed that things didn't turn out as I'd have liked them to.

What do you think? Should there always be a happy ending? Is an ending with the merest suggestion of hope ok? Or should the author stay true to her story, even if it means readers might not like it?

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Another post about writing retreats!

03 September 2013
As some of you will know, I’ve been busy moving house and doing lots (and lots and lots) of decorating, so other things have suffered, including my second novel, which is at what I call the ‘serious editing’ stage; that is, after lots of editing as I went along, I finished the first draft, read it through and did a final (ha!) edit before sending it to my agent and editor. I’m now working my way through their insightful comments. They’ve picked up on some things that I sort of knew but was ignoring and other things that I just didn’t see because I’m too close to the manuscript.

So after reading through the novel again and having a really good think, I booked myself a few days away at a retreat where I knew, having been there before, that I’d get a significant amount of work done. Mount Pleasant (still comes up on Google as Mount Pleasant Artists’ Rest Home, but don’t be put off by the name – it’s not a convalescent home!) is a beautiful house in Reigate, Surrey, owned by a charitable trust set up in the 1920s to provide a quiet place for professional creative artists to work or take a break to recharge their batteries. The terms of the trust stated that this should be open only to men but the present-day trustees were anxious to change this, so in 2012 Mount Pleasant began to welcome female guests.

My room at Mount Pleasant

The elegant house has seven large, comfortable bedrooms, and there are views over the grounds to the surrounding Surrey hills. Places are heavily subsidised by the trust, so guests pay only around £35 a night (+VAT) for full board. But the best thing (for me, anyway) is that you don’t have to even think about food. Every meals is prepared for you, served to you, and cleared away after you. And then they bring you lovely coffee! Hell, I didn’t so much as wash a cup! I’ve blogged before about the particular value of writing retreats for women who, even in 2013, still tend to take the lion (ess)’s share of domestic responsibility, so this is a particularly attractive resource for women.

The view from my window

So, if you’re a professional (i.e. published) writer and you’d like to stay at Mount Pleasant, what can you expect, and how does it differ from an Arvon retreat? At Arvon, you’re in the company of 15 other writers, and you’ll do a very small amount of cooking and washing up. The social side is of great importance and most evenings are spent drinking wine and chatting, with the odd informal night of readings. It’s a wonderfully nourishing creative experience, open to published and unpublished writers, and the vast majority of those who attend lament the fact that retreats and courses last a mere five days.

Mount Pleasant may not have the same creative ‘vibe’ for writers – it’s open to painters, composers and architects as well – but as well as the difference in the catering arrangements and the number of people staying (sometimes seven, sometimes none) you can book for anything from two days to three weeks. Also, there’s a television (shock horror!) although guests often do prefer to chat in the evenings, and there’s also internet access for those who want it.

Some people may be put off by the formality of meals, which are taken communally at 9am, 1pm and 7pm. Those of us used to the sort of food on offer at Arvon may find the food at Mount Pleasant a little old-fashioned, but it’s good, fresh food (some of it grown in the grounds), beautifully cooked and attractively presented. There’s a cooked breakfast every morning, a main course and pud for lunch, and a starter and main course for dinner, which is followed by cheese and fruit. You can take your own wine.

Many of the regulars have been staying there for 20, 30 or even 40+ years, and given that it’s only recently opened its doors to women, you’re quite likely to meet at least some elderly male guests. During my first stay, I was the only woman and at least three of my six fellow guests were over 80, but all were still working within the creative arts – still publishing books, still exhibiting paintings. I must confess to being somewhat daunted by the fierce intellect around the table, but I needn’t have been because everyone was extremely welcoming and I found the company both charming and fascinating.

Mount Pleasant still feels a little like an exclusive gentleman’s club, but women are gradually becoming more frequent guests – during my recent stay we even outnumbered the men at one point! And the trustees are keen for this trend to continue. I was also made very welcome by the staff – you are incredibly well looked after at Mount Pleasant. I came away feeling that I’d had a really good rest, but also that I’d achieved significantly more work than I would have done had I been at home.
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