Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Dame Hilary Mantel, best known for her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, was the first woman and first British author to win the prestigious Man Booker prize twice; if that doesn’t tell you how good she is, I’m not sure what will.
Unrivaled in the realm of historical fiction, but also known for her memoirs and her literary short fiction (she made headlines with her controversial collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher), Mantel is known for her sharp style, her rigorous research, and her dark and cutting wit, and is admired, envied, and imitated by readers and writers across the English-speaking world.
As you might expect, she also has a lot to say about the craft of writing, as well as how to become, live, and work as a writer. Let’s jump right in.
1. The one recommended book on writing
I felt rather vindicated to find that Mantel’s single recommended book on writing is one that I too have been waxing lyrical about for a while now: Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, which I recommended recently in our ‘Five More Books On Writing That’ll Make You A Better Writer’ article.
The book, as Mantel says, is less about craft and more about ‘becoming a writer from the inside out.’ It advises writers on how to get over the psychological challenges standing between them and actually getting work done, and is full of useful exercises that’ll actually get your pen on the page.
Do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself.
– Hilary Mantel, ‘Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers’ in The Guardian
2. Get out from behind your desk
Rather than adopting the ‘room of one’s own’ thinking of Virginia Woolf or the ‘a writer is most alive when alone’ thinking of Martin Amis, Mantel dismisses the idea that being a writer is a numbingly stationary vocation that mostly involves slouching at a desk.
I’m a long thinker and a fast writer, so most days I don’t spend much time at my desk. I concentrate well. I’m not tempted by the internet. If I’m redrafting, fine-tuning, I print the text and take it away to read it on paper.– Hilary Mantel, ‘My Writing Day: Hilary Mantel’ in The Guardian
It’s a good point – the act of actually getting words on the page theoretically shouldn’t take that long (if you’re a ‘fast writer’ anyway). Much of writing good stories is simply knowing what to write about and how to write it – things that can be worked out while wandering around outside or traveling abroad. Indeed, Mantel is quick to suggest abandoning the desk at the first sign of trouble.
If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.– Hilary Mantel, ‘Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers’ in The Guardian
Well, Mantel may be more mobile and less confined than Woolf or Amis, but it seems she’s just as solitary!
3. Be authentic, be flexible
A quick and encouraging point. Mantel, echoing many writers of literary fiction (Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison among them), suggests ignoring the market; by the time you’ve tried to cater to the zeitgeist or to the moment’s trend, the mood will have changed and some fresh craze will be the new hot topic. Morrison wrote for her characters while Vonnegut suggested writing for one specific person, but Mantel is simpler: she writes the books she wants to read. ‘If you wouldn’t read it,’ she asks, ‘why would anyone else?’
That said, following your nose doesn’t mean becoming immovably stubborn; Mantel suggests keeping an open mind when it comes to stories, going so far as to point out that having a good idea for a story isn’t the same as having a good idea for a novel. Instead, consider whether said idea would make a better short story or play or screenplay or poem, etc. Follow the text; don’t drag the text behind you.
4. Excise false starts
I love this tip because it’s so simple and yet so often relevant. When you start a new chapter or scene, get to the end of the page and then read what you’ve written back. Look at that first couple of sentences, maybe even the first paragraph. What is it doing? Is it necessary, or is it actually a lame, flat introduction to the actual meat of the chapter?
‘First paragraphs can often be struck out,’ Mantel says. ‘Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?’ In other words: is your opening powerful and bold (like the Māori dance Mantel references), or is it meek and uncertain? If the latter, it’s time to cut.
5. Manage your description
One thing we editors will flag when we pick through your fiction is description that feels unnatural or forced. Information dumps never sit well in fictional prose; they sit jarringly next to the story being told, stifling flow and meaning. This is why authors are so frequently advised to find a way to integrate vital information and description into the text without it being arbitrary or isolated.
One such way to integrate descriptive information into your story is to bring the reader close to your characters. If your character is going somewhere new or seeing/hearing something for the first time, that’s the time to describe or provide exposition. Mantel says:
When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.– Hilary Mantel, ‘Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers’ in The Guardian
But that’s not the end of it; description is a slippery beast, and you should also pay careful attention to perspective. By making use of third person limited narration (that is, third-person narration that recounts and describes only the events and environments a focal character personally experiences) and free indirect style (the method by which the narrator’s and your character’s voices are briefly merged; a character’s voice and attitudes might, for instance, briefly become authoritative narration), you ensure your description is relevant to the story you’re telling and the characters involved. Your country lord character, for example, would see a small hamlet on a hillside in a different way to a peasant who lived there, and your description should reflect those differences in perception, even when not explicitly in the character’s voice.
An experiment (in love)
The final entry in Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be released next year, so it’s not long before Mantel storms back into the literary spotlight and fills bookshops everywhere. As has hopefully been made clear, Mantel is one to pay attention to whether you’re into historical fiction or not; just like her writing, her advice transcends the genre/literary divide, and her style, craft, and method are exemplary.
If you haven’t read any of Mantel’s fiction, Wolf Hall is the big boy of her catalog and is what first flung her into literary stardom. Happily, it’s also really, really good!
What are your favorite books by Hilary Mantel? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 5 Ways Maya Angelou Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more advice from literary greats.