That Clever Mantel Lady…

I am a new convert to the short story genre, I always preferred novels – something to get my teeth into. Having been submerged in this genre for the past few weeks, I cannot believe I have denied myself the pleasure of this art form for so long. Admittedly, the stories I have been reading are good, very, very good indeed. Recently I have been reading some short stories by Hilary Mantel. Her writing has me totally seduced, the stories are magical; they twist and turn and bite. Mantel constructs her narrative in such a way that you want to pick up the words and follow them like a trail of breadcrumbs, to find out where they go. Freshly baked breadcrumbs that fill your senses and make you crave more and more.

One fantastic example, is a story called Winter Break. This story was published in The Guardian in 2010, and you can read it here. This story is just under 2000 words. Short and sharp with not a breath wasted. The story is about a couple starting a winter holiday, the other character is an unpleasant taxi, driver who provides the shadow that echoes events in the couple’s lives. The ending of this story is stunning and cruel on the reader.  It is like something that I try to pretend I haven’t seen. I want it not to have happened, but it is etched deep in the part of my brain that becomes active at 3.00am.

For someone who has just begun to get into this genre, you really could not get a better introduction. I went on to read many more of Hilary Mantel’s short stories and each time I finish one the word ‘WOW” echoes around my room for several minutes after. Grab a cup of whatever warms you, and go and read Winter Break. You will not be disappointed. Then go and find more of her short stories.

Hilary Mantel – Photograph by Karen Robinson for The Guardian

Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writing


Hilary Mantel photo: Getty

Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker Prize 2012 with her book ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ at The Guildhall in London Photo: GETTY


These rules for writing by twice winner of the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel, were first published in The Guardian in 2010. They are too good to get lost in cypberspace, so I am sharing them here.


1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then 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. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. 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.

8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. 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.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

• This piece was first published on 25 February 2010 in The Guardian.