Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

How do you read?

Does the film of the book run through your mind? Is it a serious of snapshots? Or is it all about the words? Can you dip in and out of multiple books at once or do you fully immerse yourself in one and rarely come up for air?

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My 5 favorite books, their relative batteredness depends on how many people I have lent them to, and how new they were when I got them

Every book I have read since the age of eighteen has been kept, some have been read more than once and will be again and again. Each time I take them down I can see and feel and remember where I last read them. Listing favourite books is almost impossible – I did it in my Q&A post below after years of mulling it over – but what exactly is a favourite? Is it because of the writing? The plot? How it made me feel? How it affected my life? The person I was when I read it – or the person I was when I finished it? Especially if I didn’t actually enjoy the book. There are ones that are important because of when or where I was reading them, or because of who gave them to me, or recommended them – subsection disappointing recommendations by adored people. Those whose importance is that I found them myself – or they chose me by being irresistible on a book shop table, those that led me to even greater book, those I still dream about.

One of the things I plan to do on this blog is talk about favourite books, but I’ve realised I need to talk about how I read first. Since about the age of seven or eight I have read constantly, but slowly. Friends who would say they aren’t really readers finish more books a year than I do. I can partly blame small children and family life for that these days but even when I lived alone and my time was my own – oh for some of that time back now – I didn’t finish many books a year simply because of how slowly I read.

Being positive I would say I read thoroughly – but does that sound too dismissive of fast readers? I don’t mean it to. I guess I read cinematically, I visualise everything in the scene as I read it to the point that if something is mentioned in a scene that I haven’t registered before, I sometimes go back and re read the scene to “picture” it correctly. The most common instance of this is when someone is driving a car in a US set book and one of them turns their head to the left to look at the driver and I remember that we drive on the opposite side of the car here and I have to go back and re read the scene with each character in their proper place. Why? I’m not sure, I’ve just always done this, the words create moving pictures in my head and it’s why as soon as a book is mentioned , no matter how long ago I read it, a scene is instantly there in my mind.

It is possibly because I read like this that I never need book marks. I am baffled by people who scream if their place in a book is lost (never mind my rage for those who bend over the corners of pages to keep their place.) How can they not just pick up the book and find where they were? Don’t they remember? If you open the book at random and read half a line don’t you know if you have already read it or not? Because I either see the scene instantly, or don’t (having not yet read it), I can work my way backwards or forwards until I find where I was, although I usually open the book within three pages to either side as my hands seem to know as soon as I pick up the book how far into the book I was.

This also gives me the ability to find any given scene in a book many years after I read it. I thought all people had this knack until my best friend said that in her book club she is always asked to find the pages they are discussing because no one else can find the place as surely or swiftly.

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2 books, both over 900 pages long and both read on beach holidays. One was also borrowed by someone else (and ok, I’ve read it far more than once)

As for how you do this with electronic books, well that would be a whole new post. Is it wrong to love the physical feel and look of books so much? This brings me back to the dog-earing of pages I mentioned before. Oh the horror. For a while none of my family would ever borrow books from me because of the rage or anguish I exhibited (or worse, tried to hide) when they returned the book in anything less than a pristine condition. I’ve managed to read paperback books of over five hundred pages and not left a mark on the spine. But I have mellowed (presumably now I show more than a few marks of wear and tear myself) and I value the dents on a book’s cover that tell as much a story to me as the printed words (the sand stuck in the pages of Tom Jones from a very windy Cretan beach, the water damaged pages in Vanity Fair due to an exploding bottle of fizzy water on a Cuban balcony.)

One other reason for being a slow reader is that I usually have three to four books on the go at once. The main book that is my first choice, a romance and a classic text, either ancient Greek or Arthurian. The reason for this is that no matter how much I am loving a book, I can rarely read more than 50 pages in one sitting. One of the most exciting parts of going away for a two week holiday was always planning my reading; going through my stacks of to-be-read books, getting a long list, or pile of around 15 books, usually still popping into Waterstones when I was supposed to be in Boots buying sun cream and mosquito repellent and buying 2 or 3 new books, getting the list down to 8 and trying to never take more than 6 (even on a fortnight away with nothing to do but enjoy myself – which would mean reading from dawn till dusk if I was lucky – I knew I wouldn’t read more than 6 books because I would be taking books I had been longing to read and savouring them even more than my usual slow cinematic style.) So I would read 50 pages of one, then dip into another, onto a third, then back to book 2 again and so on all day all holiday. Maybe it’s a delayed gratification thing, making as many books as possible last as long as possible, rather than racing through one to rush onto another? The bittersweet finishing of a book you have loved reading is hard to beat and this way I could postpone the parting, or have several giddy goodbyes close together.

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The 4 that wouldn’t let me put them down

My inability to read more than 50 pages has only been over ruled by book passion on a handful of occasions which saw me staying up till 3 in the morning before having to go to work the next day – John Le Carré’s Honourable Schoolboy and Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (this was a book I had discovered just days earlier after almost giving up on Diana Norman ever writing another book and I tried to make it last but failed.) Two years ago when I was laid up with a damaged ankle and read voraciously for two weeks, I devoured the last 150 pages of Ian Rankin’s The Falls and the last 200 of Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I on almost consecutive nights (I was sleeping a lot during the day due to pain.) I put those two binges down to the fact that for the first time ever I thought I had guessed a Rebus villain – and I was right! And because Gillespie and I had the most unreliable narrator I had ever read and I was desperate to find out their final comeuppance.

In the last few years, when my reading time has been reduced, I have still managed to read books that fill all my various criteria above – writing and plotting that has blown me away, ones that make me look at the world and myself differently as I close the final page, ones that have made me cry, ones that I have instantly recommended to friends and family, ones that I want to re-read as soon as possible. No matter how much I love a book while I am reading it, I know there are more treasures out there to be found and savoured. Reading truly is the gift that keeps giving. Which books have made you stay up all night, or keep you returning for just one more re-read? Can you narrow your favourites down to five?