Jodi Picoult

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The literary spectrum

One of the more controversial events I went to at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was a debate about YA fiction. For example, what is ‘Young Adult,’ as it potentially seems to go from before early teen to early twenties. Among the highlights were the assertions that ’90% of all books are c**p,’ ‘Nobody over 20 should ever be reading YA novels,’ and ‘Nobody should read John Greene books.’ Light-hearted, then.

My starting point for all this is that much of it is subjective. What you like I might not, and vice versa. And there are enough books that I’ve hated when I was younger, then rediscovered later and really enjoyed.

You might have noticed that James Patterson (and whoever he is collaborating with this time) is pulling a book based on Stephen King being killed, or at least someone trying to do that. James Patterson has sold more books that anyone else on the planet and Stephen King is quite something as a writer. But King said a few years ago that Patterson is ‘a terrible writer but he’s very successful.’ He also said that YA writer Stephenie Meyer – you’ll know her from the Twilight series – ‘can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.’

twilight

And of course Stephen King has written a book about writing. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but you had probably better pay attention and not dismiss that much experience and talent. And he clearly has strong views on what is good and what is not.

Something that has plagued me from my school English days is the notion that some books are more worthy than others. The book I have the most vivid memories of from those classes? Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The worst thing I had ever had to read. Out loud in the class in most lessons, I remember that as well. But it was considered to have more literary merit than the countless other books I chose to read, none of which ever came up in English.

There is a spectrum of styles of books, from the impenetrable novels with forgettable characters who do very little, but are described in exquisite detail, using beautiful language. And there is James Patterson towards the other end of the spectrum, with a style which you really cannot stop reading. I know this having read three of his in two days, one just to see how he dealt with a particular structural issue I was grappling with. There is a reason he sells more books than anyone else, but you wouldn’t think of his books as pushing the boundaries of what the novel can ‘do’ (I heard that more than a few times at the Book Festival, apparently it’s what we should be doing.)

I’ll be honest. The books the literary critics love tend to be the ones I often struggle with, and am never quite sure they were worth the effort in the end. Sometimes I’m told they are books you have to read twice. I think, if I didn’t like it the first time round, why would I do it all again when I could read something else instead? Fine, so I’m probably a literary Philistine. I can live with that. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve always been much more drawn to the interesting characters and the compelling stories than to the use of words. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the latter, it’s just that it can be too much, and get in the way of the story (= cardinal sin for me as a reader). For me, in the end, novels are storytelling, and that’s where you can’t teach the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world very much, even though their books are completely different in style and theme.

I am still making sure that I do read a wide range of books. You can’t subsist on James Patterson alone if you want to learn more about writing, but equally, Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky (who, according to the ‘nobody over 20 should be reading YA’ contributor we should be reading instead) are probably never going to make it onto my reading list.

So, on the YA point, why do I think it’s perfectly fine for me to read YA novels, and that I should not be restricting myself to the literary end of the market?

The obvious answer is that I will read them as part of a wide range of books. Yes, they can be pretty derivative. Dystopian world, boy meets girl, repeat. I would be concerned for my mental wellbeing if all I read – or wanted to read – were those kinds of books but, if nothing else, they are good for a break, a change of style and pace, and a story that trots along happily.

I think novels serve a wide range of ‘purposes.’ One of them – a good one, in my view – is to entertain. A life of constant challenge, forcing myself to get through books because they are supposed to be ‘good’ for me leads to reading less, and that can never be a good thing. I don’t read Twilight (yes, I was reading them well before they became famous) to see how language can be used differently, I read them for the fun story that I can zip through. And then I’ll pick up something set in Victorian England and experience what life might have been like for a young woman on her own. Different experiences for sure. I like the variety.

I have daughters who read these YA books. It’s nice to be able to talk about the books with them, in the same way it’s nice to watch some films with them that I wouldn’t personally gravitate towards. I’ve introduced the girls to the concept of ‘proper’ films and books, as opposed to lightweight but fun ones, and we try to vary what we watch and read. Balance is usually a good thing. Having conversations with your children is also a good thing, and talking about books is a great thing to be able to do. Even if one of them is about 2/3 of the way through War and Peace and I’m with Woody Allen on that one (I’ve told her this) – ‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’

There are many different ways of telling a story. I find that seeing as many as possible can only be a good thing as a writer because we can learn from every other author. Even if it’s only just what never, ever, to do (yup, there are some dreadful books out there, but remember that it’s subjective, others seem to have enjoyed the same book I found appalling – wonderful!).

There are writers somewhere in the middle, who have found a way of dealing with complex themes in a very engaging style. Jodi Picoult always springs to mind. Douglas Kennedy is another favourite of mine and I’m never quite sure why he’s not better known. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes beautifully (even in translation) and tells wonderful stories.

zafon

There is plenty of space out there for different styles and approaches. I like keeping my mind open to everything that’s out there. And I am very clear that, in my own writing, I gravitate towards what I like reading. But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn a lot from the writers who play with the language in a way that just amazes me. Imagine if we could take the best of all of them. Maybe someone has and I just haven’t found that book yet.

Perspectives

I am spending more time on photography than I was expecting to. And I have been thinking about perspective. I’m still using a camera with a fixed lens (ie no zoom) so if I want to change my perspective, I have to move. And it struck me that this is an analogy for life. If we want to change our perspective, we have to move from where we are. Otherwise, we will only see the same thing whenever we look.

In fiction, perspective matters a lot. As a writer, you have a number of choices. First person – ‘I ran.’ Second person – ‘you ran.’ No, don’t do that. Please just don’t do that. Third person – ‘he ran’. And then there is tense. ‘I was running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she fell.’ Or ‘I am running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she falls.’ One has happened, one is happening in the moment. Both perspective and tense change the feel of the story and how we relate to it. Some books mix tenses and perspective, sometimes effectively, sometimes annoyingly. One author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was adamant that ‘you should only ever use the first person singular if you have a very specific reason to do so.’ And I realised that over half the books I had read in the previous few weeks were written in that tense. Writers have  as many different perspectives on their work as much as in any other occupation. And the Book Festival has been invaluable in hearing different perspectives.

The other beauty of fiction is that it can help us to challenge our current perspective. We are forced (albeit willingly) to adopt the perspective of someone else, someone who will never share the same views as us. Even an autobiography will show a development in the author’s views over time. We are not the same person at 40 as we were at 20. Now I have to accept that ‘living’ a life through a novel is not the same as actually living that life. There is only so much that can ever be put into a character in a book. And yet. There is evidence that visualising something mimics the experience of doing that activity, not completely, but at least partially. Athletes know this well. My favourite example of this is Michael Phelps. During one race, his goggles began to fill up with water and he was unable to see properly in the water. He closed his eyes and kept going, executing perfect turns at exactly the right time. He set a new world record in that swim, because he visualises the perfect swim every night, then tries to perform it the next day. When trouble struck, he already knew what to do and simply performed what he had already seen in his mind (and practiced so often).

Some of the books that have had the most memorable impact on me are ones where I cannot now remember the character’s name, but where they gave me a different perspective on something I had no experience of – and in most cases, never will. I remember the feeling of being that person for a while. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a good example of this – a woman loses a baby she has longed for and finds her marriage at an end, and is surprised when she finds love with another woman. The book is not preachy, it just gives the reader a different perspective. I think part of the enduring impact of religious works is their attempt to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our relationships with each other, and to think differently about our place in the universe. Books can educate, entertain, and they can offer us a different perspective on life.

So back to the photography.

Here is a really boring street, the kind of one we walk past every day without paying any attention.

Day

And here is the same street at night (two variants – neither manipulated by me other than by waiting for the sky to darken even more so the orange would dominate the scene).

Night 1

Night 2

Harder to walk past without noticing. Unsurprisingly, I took the evening photos first as the scene caught my attention immediately, then went back days later to take another shot of the same street during the day (which I will now delete, as it has no value other than to illustrate the point!).

And here is a bridge – three perspectives, all of them having a slightly different impact, just from taking a step forward or crouching down.

Bridge 1

Bridge 2

Bridge 3

We will not change our perspective and learn to see the world differently if we are never prepared to move from where we already are. We already know where that is and what it looks like. It might be better or worse from somewhere else, and it might well be uncomfortable, but we will learn something in the process.

Local talent

Sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we fail to notice. And then the universe gives us a kick up the backside so we get the message.

A cousin kindly forwarded me a plea for male readers for a radio programme audience (if you go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you will notice the male/female ratio for most events, which explains the gender-specific request for the radio show). I had no idea if I could go but I ordered the book anyway. In the end, we were busy that weekend so I never did make it, but I started to read the book…and resurfaced a couple of days later.

Then a few days later, as I was driving home, I passed by The Edinburgh Bookshop. It’s a wonderful shop, tucked away at Holy Corner in Edinburgh (for the non-locals, it’s called that because there is a church on all four of the corners of the intersection of two roads. I know this well because I have to prove it to one member of the family or other each time we are there.) It’s also where the girls used to go to an after hours book club for a few years so we have a particular affection for it. With hindsight, I should have pulled over and stopped to take a picture, but it was late and I was hungry and probably late for picking up from a dance class and there was a car right on my tail, so I kept going despite knowing I should just stop for a minute. The entire window was full of books by one author. The same one whose book I had just read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.

Maggie O'Farrell

 

Maggie O’Farrell was a name I had heard of, I knew she was an author, but that was about it. I couldn’t have named any of her books or told you anything about what type of books she writes. The sad fact is that the same is true of most authors – I haven’t even heard of them, never mind knowing anything about them. And on investigation, it turns out she lives in Edinburgh and she only won the flipping Costa Novel Award (now I was feeling really bad – I didn’t even know that).

I wrote last week about learning from these authors. Let’s look at one of her characters for a minute. Meet Iris.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other.

Right. This is not fair. In one line, I have a picture of Iris. In just one line. I just stopped reading at this point and decided I needed a break. When I had gathered myself again, it got better.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other. The dog is just behind her, claws tick-ticking on the concrete. Ladders of sun drop down through the gaps in the high buildings and the night’s rain is vanishing in patches from the pavement.

So that’s how you do description. I was taking a lot of mental notes by this point. Next page. One scene. Dialogue – so it turns out this is how you do dialogue, and characterisation, and description. All in one page. I think it’s worth including in full. You’ll enjoy this.

Iris sits opposite Alex in a bar in the New Town. She swings a silver shoe off the end of one toe and bites down on an olive. Alex toys with the bracelet on her wrist, rolling it between his fingers. Then he glances at his watch. ‘She’s never usually this late,’ he murmurs. His eyes are hidden behind dark glasses that give Iris back a warped reflection of herself, of the room behind her.

She drops the olive stone, sucked clean, into a dish. She’d forgotten that Alex’s wife, Fran, was joining them. ‘Isn’t she?’ Iris reaches for another olive, presses it between her teeth.

Alex says nothing, shakes a cigarette out of its box, lifts it to his mouth. She licks her fingers, swirls her cocktail around her glass. ‘You know what?’ she says, as he searches for a match. ‘I got an invoice today and next to my name it had “the witch” scribbled on it. In pencil.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. “The witch” Can you believe that? I can’t remember who it was now.’

He is silent, striking a match against its box raising the flame to his mouth. He takes a long draw on his cigarette before saying, ‘Obviously it was someone who knows you.’

Iris considers her brother for a moment as he sits before her, smoke curling from his mouth. Then she reaches out and drops an olive down the front of his shirt.

I think that scene should be in every ‘how to’ guide to fiction. It tells you more about this brother and sister than you realise until you get to the end of the book and re-read it, and you realise that yes, you did pick it up the first time round. It was all there. The scene stuck in my head all the way through the book so when I got to the end, all I could think was “yup, knew that”. The one thing that really riles me (all right, there is more than one thing) is when something appears at the end of a book in a grand unveiling and I don’t just think, I know that it was not set up properly. It was just dropped in to solve a problem, to get to the ending, to wrap up something that made no sense. There were no clues, no hints, no way that I, the reader, could have worked out how the story was drawn to a close.

In this book, however, I knew what was going to happen because it was the only thing that could happen, because I knew the characters, knew what they were like, knew how they would react. It was an inevitability – as it should be. Twists are great, but you have to be able to say “I should have known that” – because the author laid out the trail – as well as a second trail, the one which you were supposed to follow, thinking you had figured it out, only to find you were deceived all along (cue evil laughter from the author – fooled another one). My batting average for figuring out what the twists are has improved greatly, but (fortunately) there are still enough variations to catch me out. It would be boring otherwise.

Anyway, back to Maggie O’Farrell. In the spirit of obsessiveness, which in my family we know is an inherited trait, I now have two more of her books on my holiday reading list. It reminds me of our holiday ten years ago in Boston (unbelievably, still the era when you couldn’t get any book in the world delivered to you within a few days) when I ordered every book Jodi Picoult had written to be delivered to our hotel. Back then, only one or two of her books were available in the UK and, having read The Pact, I had to read everything else by her. It does mean I have pretty complete collections by my “go to” authors. Maggie O’Farrell has been added to that list.

PS every book I’ve mentioned this week and last comes highly recommended by me. Read any of them, you’ll be glad you did.

PPS you should also have known that this blog was going to be about Maggie O’Farrell because I’ve been telling you it would be for the last two weeks. Just in case you thought I hadn’t laid the trail…

Learning from the masters

Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.

But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.

When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.

Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.

The masters

Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.

And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.

I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.

So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.

Process and focus

I can be a bit of a process junkie.

This is probably because good processes (for the process pedants, including having the right controls) work and allow you to stop worrying about everything at the same time. If the process is right, and it is carried out correctly, the expected outcome should follow. And if it doesn’t, you can stop, assess what went wrong and change the process.

So that seems to work in my day job. What about writing?

I’ve taken a vaguely process-based view of what I’m doing, helped immensely by a fairly short book, 2k to 10k, which has helped me bring a lot together which I can loosely include under the term “process”.

I think there is a real danger in spending too much time worrying about how other people do their work. The really good ones have found an approach which works for them. There might be other ways for them to achieve the same thing, but they stick with what works. I have no idea how much they thought about their particular process, if they tried as much trial and error as I have, or if they somehow managed to find a formula early on which works for them.

If I tried to copy slavishly the writing habits of the really great writers, it would look like this:

Write 1,000 words a day. No, 3,000. No, 2,000. No, five hours. No, eleven hours.

Write on a laptop. No, on a typewriter. No, a fountain pen is better. Green ink. Or black. Or is it a pencil I should be using?

Get up early to write. Stay up late writing. Write in the middle of the night. Write mainly in the odd few minutes you have between other responsibilities.

Write in a room at home with no window. No, a coffee shop is better. Libraries are definitely best.

Surprise, surprise, there is no magic time, pen or place. There is just what works for the individual.

However…I’m starting from the premise that it must be possible to find out what works best for me. Allied with the one thing which I think all successful authors would say matters. Write a lot. If not all the time, possibly more than is healthy.

I think you know when you might be entering the more than healthy part when you wake up several times during the night with snippets of something in your head that won’t just stay quiet until the morning. And last week, en route to Birmingham (it was a long drive), I suddenly thought of something and had poor LoLo grab a napkin lying in the car and write down a plot twist that had come to me in the darkness of the M6.

So, write a lot.

This is where the process part came in. It’s still work in progress, but I’m now keeping track of where, when and how I am most efficient in just writing. Now don’t start with the quality or quantity thing at this point, right now it’s about keeping going. Editing comes later (see Jodi Picoult on this at the bottom of this post) and I know I have to be ruthless, when that time comes, but that’s not for now. Although I did just remove a character completely this week as it became manifestly obvious that there was no way he tied in to anything else, although we did have some fun times together for a few days.

My word output per hour seems to vary between about 500 and 2,000. That is some difference. 500 is when I forget to hide away every internet-connected device I own. 2,000 is when I set myself a deadline and focus on keeping going, ignoring everything around me.

I’m still working through this, and there are some other tricks I’m playing with to see if they help. I’m really just trying to find out what the process is that works for me. It seems so far to look something like this:

  • No distractions.
  • Only have with and around me what I need to write. My incomparable Neo is the fastest keyboard I have, much faster than my laptop will ever be, and it has the advantage of being utterly useless for anything except writing. Pencil and paper is second favourite and gives a nice change of pace. I can’t write anything like as fast with a pencil, but my finger has the calluses from trying. Pen and paper looks lovely when the page is full of purple ink, even if my handwriting does not enhance the look.

Pen and paper

  • A set amount of time. I really need deadlines. Self-imposed are fine. With limited time, there is no choice. And the feeling of hitting my goal is like finishing a really hard run. Pencil down or keyboard off, and on to the rest of the day. No regrets, no ‘I wish I had started earlier,’ just using what I have and making the most of it.
  • And I have a chart up on the wall to keep a visual record of progress. Because I know I do not want to have a day without a tick to say I wrote, and ideally one that says I did the absolute minimum of 1,000 words that day, and there had better not be two in a row like that. So I am introducing competition with myself to the process. It works well for running, my theory was that it would work well for writing. It doesn’t matter if someone else would do half as much or ten times as much in a day, this is not about trying to compete with anyone else, just finding what works for me.

And the real test every day – did I enjoy it, get something out of it, or learn something from it? As Jodi Picoult says, ‘you might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’

Learning from the masters

I’m starting to become obsessed with plotting. Not plotting some dastardly deed, but plotting a novel. It turns out there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. The latter being the ones who just start writing and figure it out as they go along, ie flying by the seat of their pants. It turns out I am not one of them. Or at least, I get lost in innumerable tangents when I try that approach. Now, I have to say that I’m not convinced that I’m a plotter either, but I’m willing to be open to the possibility that applying some conscious structure might be a good thing. Because I really do go off on the loveliest tangents, but then I realise they don’t go anywhere particularly helpful, unless you count introducing a pile of new characters and events which I found interesting and wanted to play around with.

So I’ve spent a while today trying to see how one of the masters does it. Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is in my top [insert random number – it will be in there] books, and because she is telling a story in the present day and the past, I thought it would be a good one to take apart structurally and see how she does it.

Storyteller

I am now not so sure she was a good one to start with. What I need is something simple. Along the lines of ‘this scene serves the following purpose’, ideally as a header to each section. What I got was a crazy set of characters, all with their own stories, all coming and going in what, in isolation, seems to be without rhyme or reason. Except that there is both rhyme and reason and it all moves forward in a way that feels right. But it’s too well done to be capable of a quick ripping apart into different sections. But I am going to persist with this exercise anyway, I just need to look at everything that is going on and try to track what’s going on in more detail. One thing is clear already, though. It’s the characters that are driving it, as they always do. But I also want to see how the structure of the novel allows the characters to develop in a coherent way.

Part of me can’t believe I am willingly trying to analyse books in the way that I hated at school or university. Maybe the difference is that I’m now doing it for a reason I can understand. And one that matters to me.

But this exercise has frazzled my brain for today, so I am going to sit and read for a while before resuming my dissection tomorrow!

This too could be me or you

There was an important debate in the UK parliament last week, one which has received relatively little media attention, and yet one which could affect any one of us in the future.

Easeful-Death

The draft Bill was the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill, which was to ‘enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life.’

That summary is, of course, very important in setting the context for what it was, and was not, trying to deal with. Unfortunately, because the topic is understandably an emotive one, both the public and parliamentary debates tend to conflagrate a number of issues which, in a more general sense might be seen to have some connection but legally are very separate.

I wanted to give a personal view on the debate. In doing so, I claim no medical expertise. One of my backgrounds is in ethics, which might have made the whole topic of more interest to me, but my starting point is putting myself in the position of someone at whom the Bill was aimed and considering what I would want.

But before we go there, it might be helpful to give some background to how this ended up as a parliamentary debate.

As the law stands, suicide is not illegal. For some people it remains morally wrong, but it is not illegal.  But what happens when someone might choose to end their life but cannot do so without assistance? Assisting another person’s suicide is potentially considered murder under the law, but that is a blunt instrument and does not distinguish between the spectrum of motives someone might have to provide that assistance. The people we wish, I think, to protect in these circumstances are are exemplified by those who are motivated by a desire to relieve the suffering of a loved one, particularly where that suffering has become intolerable.

Several high profile cases (Dan James, Debbie Purdy and Tony Niklinson) sought to clarify the law, albeit – and I think we have to acknowledge this up front – in circumstances which the draft Bill did not seek to address. One of the outcomes was a set of guidelines drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on when it would not be considered to be in the public interest to prosecute someone for assisting someone else to end their life. Because this was the uncertainty hanging over anyone considering this course of action – would they (or their loved ones) be prosecuted after the event? It was not simply a matter of what the law said, but of how it would be applied in practice.

However, guidelines on the approach that, after the fact, might be taken on the question of prosecuting an individual, were seen as unsatisfactory, including by the president of the Supreme Court, who said that:

A system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to die and for his or her suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way would…provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself or herself had such a wish.

The Supreme Court said also that resolving this question was a matter for Parliament to address, not for the courts. This, then, was what the Bill was trying to do. There is additional recent history in that this Bill was first proposed by Lord Falconer in the House of Lords, where it was defeated, but I will focus here on the more recent debate.

Let us start with the Bill itself and what it provided for. It’s not a long Bill and it’s well written in that it is clear and you do not have to be a lawyer to understand it.

In a (non-lawyerly) nutshell:

  • If a person has been diagnosed as being terminally ill (defined as having less than six months to live); and
  • That person has made a signed declaration that ‘he or she has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to end his or her own life’; and
  • Two independent doctors have confirmed both of these conditions and that the person has the capacity to make the decision to end their life; then
  • An application can be made for a High Court judge to permit a medical professional to provide the means for the individual to end their life.

There is a lot more detail than that, but I hope that this summary does justice to the essence of the proposal. So before anyone can be assisted to end their life, there has to be the formal and independent involvement of two doctors and a judge.

What the Bill did not propose – and I include this because too many MPs seemed to be unable to grasp the factual content of the Bill – included:

  • Disability would not qualify for consideration under the terms of the Bill. This was purely about people with a terminal illness.
  • Doctors would not be permitted to administer anything to end the patient’s life. Only the patient would be allowed to do that. A doctor would be allowed only to provide the means to facilitate this, and even then the patient could decide not to  go through with it, at which point the doctor would take the medicine away. It would not be left lying around ‘just in case’.
  • Doctors would not be required to participate in an assisted death. There is a specific clause providing for conscientious objection.

While I was frustrated with the poor grasp some of the MPs had on the facts of the Bill, the real questions they struggled with were those which we would all have to answer for ourselves. There were some clear themes in the debate and I will try to capture them and give my personal reflections on them.

Slippery slope

Helen Jones MP:

This Bill is not simply about those who have a terminal illness and are expected to die within six months, because it will inevitably be extended. It is a Bill that will in future lead to consequences for this society that in my view no civilised society should contemplate.

This is the argument which is advanced against many changes. Essentially it says ‘We shouldn’t just discuss the actual question, but also consider what might happen in the future and base our decision on that as well’. In this case, the Bill was clearly defined. Could it have been worded even more carefully – yes, and it probably needed to be, but that is what happens in the Committee sessions of parliament, which was what the vote was on – whether it should proceed to the next stage of scrutiny. Parliament was being asked solely to consider the specific proposals in the Bill, not to write a ‘blank cheque’ for future changes. Any later developments would have to come back to parliament to legislate for or against, meaning that control would always lie with parliament. And the debate in both Houses made it clear that, unlike so much other legislation where meaningful parliamentary scrutiny is virtually non-existent, this is an area where a great degree of attention would be paid to any later proposals.

Coercion

At one end of the spectrum is the scenario where someone is put under undue pressure to end their life. The less malignant version is where they feel that they are a burden on their family and that they should end their life.

It could happen, of course it could, particularly the second scenario. But the individual would have to convince two doctors and a judge that they – not someone else – wanted to end their life. I am also not convinced that, where safeguards like this are included to protect the vulnerable, we should instead choose to withhold the right to a death of their choosing from everyone. I would therefore want to balance Bob Stewart MP’s comment that ‘If there is just one mistake, and one person dies who should not have done, this House will have failed in its duty’ with ‘If there is one person who suffers an agonising death who need not have, this House will have failed in its duty.’

Is there such a thing as a right to death?

I just suggested that there is a right to a death of our choosing. But is there? I don’t know. But I do know this. At the moment, I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would no longer wish to live. But right now I am healthy and happy. What would that look like in a few decades time if I had an incurable illness that caused only pain, pain that I no longer felt I could, or wanted to tolerate? I might still be able to take some action to end my life. But what if it got to the point that I was incapacitated, unable to fend for myself, and there was no end in sight to the pain, just the hope of eventual release through a painful death?

I am very clear that I would want to have the choice to be helped to end my life before it became intolerable and my last days and weeks were nothing but pain and possibly regret for not having chosen to end my life earlier, which I still could have. Earlier than I would have wanted to – just in case it got too bad later on.

Is it a right? I don’t think it matters, to be honest. I think is humane and compassionate to allow me not to have to suffer because someone else thinks I should have to. In the end, parliament has in effect just decided that they would prefer I suffer in those circumstances.

There are better alternatives

Much mention is made of palliative care as removing the need for assisted dying.

Jonathan Reynolds MP:

There is a right to die under UK law. Any of us has the right to refuse further medical treatment in such a way as to bring our lives to a natural end. Furthermore, a person making that decision can usually obtain pain relief to ease their suffering.

Were this the case, there would not be examples of individuals starving themselves to death as the only way to end their life. For me, that ranks up there with drowning as an unimaginable way to die. For many people, our fear is not of death, but of the process of dying. Refusing medical treatment cannot be the sole answer, nor can pain relief. They may cover a great many situations, and for me the debate about assisted dying is not about saying that palliative care does not lead to a dignified departure from this life in a great many cases. I hope that my eventual death will be something that falls within that category, whether requiring specific measures or just because I stop functioning one day. But there are too many cases where palliative care is simply not sufficient, and although these are at the more extreme end, is it not right that we provide for them as well? I think so.

The letter from some of the faith groups in the UK implicitly acknowledges this:

Sadly, there are still instances of painful or distressing death, though due to advances in palliative care, these are much less common than was once the case. […] We believe that the best response to individuals’ end-of-life concerns lies in ensuring that all receive compassionate, high-quality palliative care and that this is best pursued under current legislation.

It is to the credit of the medical community that these cases of painful or distressing death are less common than in the past. But they still exist, and we should be providing for them in a humane and compassionate way, not saying that palliative care is the answer for all when it is plainly not. It was interesting that a number of MPs declared that better provision should be made for palliative care in the UK. More interesting, perhaps, will be how many of them now do anything about that desire.

I’ve now strayed outwith the parliamentary debate on the topic by bringing in the letter from the faith groups, but I will permit myself one more related tangent. I was disappointed by two aspects of Justin Welby’s summary of the issue (I’ve included a link to the full text as I am aware that I am picking out only his final paragraph for comment):

The current law and the guidelines for practice work; compassion is shown, the vulnerable are protected. In spite of individual celebrity opinions and the “findings” of snap opinion polls (that cannot hope to do justice to the intricacies of the issue) the current law is not “broken”. There is no need to fix it.

But the law, with the guidelines, does not work, either as a legal construct or in practice. As I noted earlier, the Supreme Court was very clear on this. It is very much ‘broken.’ Denial that there is an issue which we should address does not aid the debate. And I find it extremely (and surprisingly) patronising for him to suggest that a view on this which is contrary to this is based on celebrity opinions (I’m not aware of any) or opinion polls. Ignoring the most senior judges in the country does us all a disservice. Disagree with them by all means, but don’t pretend they don’t have a valid view of the law.

Where I stand

So what do I think?

Sarah Champion MP summarised what my personal wishes would be:

We do not know—we do it only once—what our death will be like, but I would like to give people the peace of mind that if the situation becomes intolerable, they can make an informed choice about their own life.

And in somewhat different language, I find John Stuart Mill’s construct helpful:

The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

All I want is the right to be helped to implement a choice I might want to make if the time came. And while I would hope that neither I nor anybody would ever be in the position of wanting or having to consider making such a choice, I know it has, does and will happen. And I could not in good conscience deprive them of what Mary Warnock and Elisabeth Macdonald call an ‘Easeful Death.’

I think this is one of the many difficult topics where fiction can help us get inside the issue in a way in which even the best portrayal of the arguments cannot. I find Jodi Picoult’s book do that extremely well. A novel that deals with assisted dying is a little closer to home and if you wish to disregard my recommendation on the basis that my future inheritance depends on sales of this book, you do not understand the economics of the publishing business. But you can ignore me anyway. I still recommend it.

righttodie-158x240

Six months on…

My sobering thought for today is that it’s now been six months already since I devoted some proper time to writing. Last week, a number of people asked me ‘how’s the writing going?’ Here’s the answer. Or answers.

Since some time before Christmas, I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day. That means every day without exception, including Christmas Day (it was a late finish that day). What was at first a nightmare prospect (you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve said in the past ‘The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is start writing, I’m just too tired’) has now become a routine. And I don’t think I’m any more tired now than I was when I wasn’t writing in any meaningful way. Instead, every day I have a little victory, either because I sat down and was finished before I knew it or, more likely, because I just kept at it until I was done for the day. I’m sort of rotating routines, sometimes I get up at 6 and try to have it done by 7 when everyone else starts to appear, or I wait until the house is quiet in the evening and then disappear for an hour. Or longer.

What I don’t do now is watch much TV. In fact, other than a weekly ironing session, almost none. This last weekend was a nice exception because the girls had borrowed a DVD they were desperate to watch, so we planned that in for Friday evening when I got home (it’s amazing how fast everything gets done when they are motivated!) and then we were at the library on Saturday and seemed to pick up a couple of DVDs while we were there (I know, DVDs from a library… not in our day etc etc), one of which we watched as a family as a Mother’s Day activity (funnily enough, it wasn’t the mother who chose the film.)

Daily writing is a lot better than trying to have Monday as the writing day. You can’t leave a week between sessions, it just doesn’t work. For me, at least.

So 1,000 words a day must by now equate to over 100,000 just since December and well more over the last six months. Does this mean I’m almost done? Nowhere near. If this were a marathon (and at least they’re over and done with in only a few hours) I think I’m currently walking towards the starting pen with broadly the right kit on, but not quite sure what to do after mile one or two. I think the last six months have been more akin to base training, trying things out, seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I have a long list of what doesn’t work, a rather shorter one of what does. But it’s a start.

My experience of writing fiction is nothing like writing non-fiction. The facts matter, but they are in the background. Sometimes… often… they jump out into the foreground and you know you’ve lost it again. A few times, I’ve just stopped when I realised I was describing, getting all theoretical, too many facts, and asked myself ‘how would [insert name of good writer] approach this?’ then tried that. So thank you Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Kennedy, Harlan Coben… and the rest of you. Reading great writers’ work is like free tuition classes. And more enjoyable.

At the moment, I’ve got some characters who need some life putting into them. And series of events that seems to have varied somewhat over the last six months. Things just happen to these people that I wasn’t expecting. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is relevant. Some of it might even get used. But it’s all good practice and experience. And it’s somewhere to start from.

There are good days and bad days. Which is why just getting my 1,000 words done is sometimes the only way forward on a bad day. I read something really helpful about running years ago – ‘running tomorrow is as important as running today.’ There’s no point in overdoing it today if you end up injured, and a bad day today might lead to a good day tomorrow. And I find that ‘writing tomorrow is as important as writing today.’ Who knows what tomorrow will bring? If I go back over the last six months’ worth of material, there will be some things in there that I can use – edit heavily for sure, but use – among all the thousands of words that I will happily dispatch to the ‘nice try, but no thanks’ pile. But there will be no going back, editing or otherwise reading any of that until I get to the end of the first draft. Just keep going. It really is like a marathon. One step at a time and one word at a time.

And the three word answer to the original question is ‘I’m loving it.’ Just don’t show me the stat that the average income for a professional writer is £11,000 a year.

Graffiti

This week’s photo from my other project – this time a building in Edinburgh’s city centre which I think will shortly be demolished.

 

60 rolls, two book reviews and a new tradition

This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.

For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.

Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.

So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.

RollsWe ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)

I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.

Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.

Jodi

But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.

Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…