Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

Finding the right story-strand.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious.  As one of those tutors who likes to stress the importance of re-drafting, this week I was forced to think about what I do when I came across this Phillip Pulman quote:

I don’t agree with the emphasis that teachers lay on drafting.  I never write drafts – I write final versions.  I might write a dozen final versions of the same story, but with each one I set out to write it as a final version.

Is this a good point?

I agree that we should aim for excellence in all our drafts, and intend them to be flawless.  But, I’m not sure that this approach is encouraging to the less experienced writer.

In my own case, one of the most liberating discoveries I made was that great writing is usually achieved through a process of re-draftings.  George Eliot’s notebooks of Middlemarch, scribbled over with extra ideas and corrections, were reassuring. I can’t say whether she thought of them as drafts or final versions, what I needed to understand, was that she re-worked her writing.

Most good writers do the same.  We just don’t always have evidence of that available.

I share this revelation with my writing groups, because too many people doubt their abilities if they don’t create a flawless and beautiful piece of writing at the first try.

On the other hand, when drafting there are times when it feels as if I’m wandering in theSpiderinwebL_tcm4-571483 midst of a labyrinth, and Ariadne hasn’t just supplied me with a single story thread, I’ve got a fist full of possible routes.  Pulman’s suggestion offers a sensible solution: stop dithering, go back to the beginning and start again.

Sounds like a reworking of the solution another spider offered to Robert the Bruce.  There’s never just the one rule in writing, it seems…

*Photo: http://www.stephen-coley.com/blog/spiders/