Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My Novels: Love Letters to Amanda

Love Letters to Amanda

Word count:

December 2008 to August 2009

Set during the opening year of the First World War, Love Letters to Amanda tells the story of three British soldiers, named Fitcher, Hamilton and Deacon, who serve together in the same company on the Western Front. After Fitcher is killed in action, Hamilton begins corresponding with his widow, Amanda, and the two develop a close bond through their letters. When Hamilton is eventually mortally wounded, he persuades Deacon that he must pretend to be the writer of the letters when he returns to England, to save Amanda from the trauma of losing another man whom she has come to love.


The man’s voice carried clearly down the busy platform. He was walking quickly up to the family, and might even have broken into a run had there been the space amongst the crowds, but none of the three had paid any heed to his call. Not the man, not the woman, and nor the little girl between them, who held each parent tightly by the hand. They walked along three abreast, apparently oblivious to the short, evidently excited man pushing and shuffling his way towards them as the clouds of steam puffed out and rose up from the engine alongside.

People were scattering this way and that; those just missing the train as it departed, and those, like the family of three, who had just disembarked from the one opposite. Baggage was being collected, colleagues were shaking hands, children were being called for, and this man, in a black pinstripe suit and officious little bowler hat, was walking briskly, now waving his rolled-up newspaper to try and draw the attention of those he pursued.

“Jimmy!” he called again. “Jimmy old chap!”

Finally, a little out of breath, red-cheeked and perspiring lightly in the muggy summer heat, his exertions were rewarded as he caught up with the family. He tapped the man lightly on the shoulder with his paper, and the three of them stopped as one, turning to look.

The husband and father of the group was in his mid-thirties, although the first thing anyone would notice about him was not his age or manner, but the scar across his left eye, and the glass disc where once a window to the soul had sat. He had a short, bristled moustache clipped off neatly, and oddly wore a single brown leather glove, over his right hand.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, pleasantly. “Were you talking to me?”

The story of the writing of Love Letters to Amanda is the story of two dinners, with two different women.

The first of these dinners took place at a vegetarian restaurant in Norwich in December 2008, after Christmas, and after the pair of us had been to see the film Australia. I was excitedly outlining to this friend of mine the idea for an epistolary novel I had conceived called 26 Letters – or possibly 26 Characters, I wasn’t yet sure which to go for. Although I’d written large chunks of a couple of novels I eventually abandoned for one reason or another in 2007 and 2008, I hadn’t at this point finished a full novel since Forget Me Not, over two years previously. I am not quite sure why that is, but perhaps it is no coincidence that at the end of March 2008 I had the ridiculous good fortune to begin working for the BBC full-time, so by the end of 2008 I was feeling rather happier and more relaxed about life, and perhaps in a better state to do some writing.

The idea of this new novel would be that each chapter would be told from the first-person perspective of a letter writer. There would, as the title suggests, be 26 of these, one for each letter of the alphabet, with each character’s name to begin with the letter of their chapter. The story would take place across the decades, and there would be something in each chapter that linked it to the preceding one, inspired to some degree by David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which I had read a few years beforehand at university.

I didn’t have every chapter conceived in any detail yet, but one story I had come up with for one of them was set during the First World War, and broadly speaking would involve the storyline of Love Letters to Amanda, as outlined above. I was so excited about this story idea, someone having to go back home to England and pretend to be the dead man who had written the letters, that while discussing it I was making some sort of over-eager hand gesture and ended up spilling orange juice all over myself.

My friend was amused, but also taken with the idea, and insisted it was worth turning into a novel all of its own. I decided she was right, there was more than enough story there to work into a full novel. So I plunged myself into a few months of research and writing, investing in various books about the First World War and bashing a first draft into some sort of existence.

 Some of the research material I bought while writing Love Letters to Amanda.

Then there was the second dinner.

This took place in a Vietnamese restaurant, somewhere in East London, in late April 2009. My companion on this occasion was a different woman with whom I was friends at the time.

She had been interested in Love Letters to Amanda since I had first mentioned it to her, had been keen to see the finished result, and not long before this had read the first draft, which I had finished sometime in March.

She thought it was all right, that it worked as a story, but it needed more effort putting into it. Specifically, she didn’t think I had really got across just how utterly, grotesquely awful the whole experience of being in the trenches on the Western Front would have been. And also, I had severely under-written the main female character, the eponymous Amanda, who needed a much stronger personality.

She was a clever, perceptive woman, this lady, and she was of course right on both counts.

So it was back to my writing, back to my research, and for really the first time I gave a novel I had written a complete overhaul. The second draft of Love Letters to Amanda, finished in the summer, wasn’t simply a case of correcting typos and taking out poor-quality sentences. Whole new sections appeared, others were excised, some events were re-ordered and everywhere there were changes and, hopefully, improvements.

Looking back:
I am very fond of Love Letters to Amanda, and I think it represents an important step in my development as a writer. The second draft was so much better than the first, so inescapably superior, that it really made me realise for the first time how much of the work can be in improving what you have.

I’d always thought beforehand that when you’d written the first draft, that was pretty much your sculpture finished, bar the odd bit of chipping and polishing. But during the course of (re)writing Love Letters to Amanda, I realised that the first draft isn’t anywhere near that – it’s simply unloading your block of marble off the back of the lorry.

Mind you, I do think that, in retrospect, I approached the whole thing from the wrong angle. Instead of telling the story of what happened during the war, the novel really ought to have been set a few years later, perhaps during the 1920s, with someone investigating and discovering what has happened, uncovering the family’s secret, with perhaps some flashbacks to the war and excerpts from the correspondence.

I do tell myself that perhaps I will have another go at it one day, writing it from this other angle. After all, I have the characters and the story… simply moving the perspective ought to make the writing of a new version all the easier, when you know what’s going to happen.

I’ve also been thinking about perhaps putting the novel as it exists online, for free, as I did with The Wicket in the Rec after that failed to find a publisher. After all, it would tie in with the centenary commemorations for the First World War coming up over the next four years, so it would seem somehow fitting.

Although it was never taken up by any agents or publishers, Love Letters to Amanda did represent at least a small step forward, and another little boost in confidence. I submitted it to the agent who had been so promising about my previous few attempts, Laura Morris, and after seeing a synopsis and sample chapters, she asked to see some more of it.

So I excitedly sent her another chunk of it, and although she was very encouraging, she didn’t think it was quite good enough for her to want to represent. Which was disappointing but, as I say, another step further forward than I’d ever got before. Interestingly, Laura thought it was perhaps too similar to Atonement, whereas I’d been worried throughout the whole thing that it might come across as a poor man’s Birdsong.

Alas, when I tried other agents and publishers after this, it was pretty much back to square one, with nobody interested in seeing anything further after I’d sent them a synopsis and sample chapters.