In 2021 I completed the Faber & Faber Writing a Novel course, which came with a long reading list. I’m nowhere near having read everything on that list but it has opened up to me books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. One of those was The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré. I’d never read any of John le Carré’s books. On reflection I’ve seen more screen adaptations than I realised and rated those quite highly. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the obvious one, but also The Constant Gardner, The Night Manager and The Tailor of Panama.
The Pigeon Tunnel is part memoir, part insight into the writing process and part personal reflection. It includes stories from le Carré’s time in the British secret service during the cold war, which reflect on the events themselves, the people involved, and also how le Carré was growing personally and professionally as a result. After le Carré turned his attention fully to writing, he continued to write novels set in that milieu and so kept up the contacts and travels that provided him with the knowledge to vividly and believably portray the world of his stories. He reflects on the real life people and events and the process by which they then informed his writing.
The tone of the book is entertaining and warm. Some of the events that are described are weighty and serious: le Carré never takes them lightly but his writing conveys a comforting and safe viewpoint from which to regard them. It was as a result of enjoying his writing style in this book that I decided I would read the novels. I started last year with the first George Smiley novel Call for the Dead (which was made into the film The Deadly Affair). I found it much more of an adventure story and much less literary than I assumed it would be, and I’ll be working my way through the rest.
If you’ve never read any John le Carré, I’d thoroughly recommend him. The Pigeon Tunnel is a good place to start, even if you’re not particularly interested in the writing process or personal memoirs. It’s delightful.
Book number two from the writing course reading list is Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. A good quarter of the books on the reading list are books on writing technique and other ‘how to write a novel’ type books.
Dennis Palumbo is a scriptwriter turned psychologist whose practice centres around working with writers and other creatives. He spends his days listening to writers who aren’t writing. Well, that seemed relevant.
In a series of small chapters talking about the various things that get in the way of writing, like isolation, waiting for inspiration, rejection, feeling blocked, fear and doubt, Palumbo draws on his writing experience and his therapeutic practice.
The central theme is that all the feelings writers have, rather than getting in the way of writing, are actually the fuel that we should be putting into our work.
The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The definitive guide to overcoming procrastination, perfectionism, and writer’s block by Hillary Rettig is one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. I was struggling to finish a novella manuscript. I don’t really get blocked; I can always write something and I have numerous projects on the go. What I struggle with is completing a piece.
It turns out that the problem is perfectionism. I’m alright at the start of a project when I have this amazing idea in my head and I have the whole book to realise that vision. As I go on, I run out of time and become increasingly aware that what’s on the page is vastly inferior to what I imagined. I know this. The problems perfectionism causes me are legion.
There was a lot in this book to help, mostly focussed on what perfectionism actually looks like in your life. I know I’m a perfectionist and I know how that happened. What was eye-opening was attributing some of the things I do around procrastinating to perfectionism. My inner voices would have me believe it’s laziness, but my inner voices are full of shit and need to shut up.
The proof of the effectiveness of this book is that I finished the novella. I am currently editing it and preparing it for submission to publishers. I got over the mental blocks that were making it hard, painful and slow. I got past the need for it to be perfect and began to be able to appreciate what I’d achieved.
The 7 Secrets of the Prolific is self-published and there’s a chapter in the book extolling the virtues of self-publishing and how to do that in a professional manner. It was thought-provoking and made me reconsider whether I would self-publish a novel.
This is a great book, I got so much out of it, and I highly recommend for anyone with procrastination issues.
As read by Hugh Dennis on Radio 4! I caught the last episode over Christmas and it was funny, and available for 99p for my new kindle, so I bought The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth. Who also blogs over at The Inky Fool.
It is a series of brief chapters on the origin of words in English, where they come from and how they’re related. Or not, in the case of some sets of words that seem like they should be. It’s utterly delightful.
I’m a word nerd. I love words, I love finding out where words come from and tracing the changes in meaning. I love how versatile and adaptable the English language is. So, there’s pretty much no way I wasn’t going to like this book, but I found I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.
It’s funny, engaging and covers words that don’t ordinarily appear in this sort of thing. I spent a lot of time smiling when I was reading it and laughed out loud several times. I highly recommend it!