389. Pilgrim Son (1)

Pilgrim Son by John Masters is the third in a trio of memoirs. The first two are about his life in the British Indian army, the last is about becoming a writer.

As I said earlier, I first read Pilgrim Son in the late 70s, about the time I was writing Spirit Deer. I was impressed by Masters professionalism. I expected professionalism from the publishing industry —  the phrase publishing industry suggests that it is run in a businesslike manner. Within a few years, I decided that was a myth.

I recently went back to Pilgrim Son and reread it, looking for the point at which he rails against the industry for not recognizing that his first novel would be successful. I spent many hours and did not find the quotation, so I will tell you that he said something like this: If Nightrunners was good enough to be chosen for book clubs, then why did every editor who read it fail to know this? Quote, more or less.

Pilgrim Son is 383 dense pages, much of which is dedicated to Masters observations on becoming an American in the late 40s and early 50s, while living in a colony of bohemian artists and writers. That world no longer exists.

I can’t recommend the book to everyone. Nevertheless, if you are a serious would-be or beginning writer, you could do worse. For you, I will drop approximate page numbers from time to time in order to help you find the parts of the book which will be most useful to you.

The book Masters was writing at the beginning of Pilgrim Son was Bugles and a Tiger; its original title was Brutal and Licentious, part of a then well known quotation. I will call it Bugles  . . . or Brutal . . . as he does, according to which part of Pilgrim Son I am referring to at the moment. Sorry if that confuses you.

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Around the beginning of 1948, John Masters had settled down to write. This included discussing his prospects with several editors of his acquaintance, and receiving their advice.

Beginning writers will now be reaching for their favorite means of suicide or homicide at the notion that Masters got to talk to and receive advice from editors before he had written anything. It does help to have friends in high places — or so I am given to understand. I never had any myself.

Those editors suggested that he begin with a memoir of his life in India, somewhat following the pattern of Lives of a Bengal Lancer. (page 106, but also check out pp. 104-5) Masters disliked that book, but took what he could from it in planning his own. Planning was second nature to him, learned as a British Army officer, so he soon knew what every chapter of Brutal . . . was going to contain. Then it was time to write.

Masters says: I pulled myself together. The first chapter was only going to be twenty-five pages and I could manage that. The the next . . . and the next . . . One chapter at a time, I could do it. The book as a whole and each chapter had been shaped by the master plan. Now I must concentrate on each page, each line.     page 112

Masters finished the first draft and read it through. He didn’t like it. Lots of beginning writers have reached that stage. Masters had learned that an excellent plan does not always result in excellent execution.

It’s what he did next that makes him interesting. In his own words, somewhat shortened:

A more experienced author might have been able to avoid these errors, but for me there was no way but to replan in the light of what was there on paper. …. Find out how it happened, first, and then remedy it.

I divided several sheets of paper into lines and columns and went carefully through the MS, grading each sequence in three ways: by length, by type, and by merit of its type. It soon developed that almost every sequence could be classified as Action, Explanation, Color, Characterization or Thought. When the job was done, and it took several day’s hard work, my new charts revealed a very lumpy texture in the book. Page followed page of action, with no explanation and little color. Color was not used as a background to action or as a perimeter to characterization, but haphazardly, as the pictures had come to me. Although I could grade some sequences A, too many were B’s and C’s: not good enough for a professional.

 . . . Using my charts to correct the early faults, I rewrote the first two chapters.  . . . .  

I’ve never been quite that organized myself, but I have gutted and rebuilt many hundreds  of pages. Pilgrim Son review continues tomorrow.


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