West End Girls: A Great (and Humbling) Read

There aren’t too many books I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot of books – that make me put the book down at the end and just say “Wow.”

And as you may have already guessed, I’ve just read my latest in that category.

I belong to Jericho Writers, an organization for aspiring writers. One of their editors puts out a weekly newsletter, and in a recent one he mentions a book he helped publish in 2010, West End Girls by English artist and author Barbara Tate, which became a Sunday Times (London) bestseller.

What caught my attention was to give it ‘clarity of purpose’ (and make it saleable) he cut the original manuscript from 165,000 words to 90,000. Well, guess what my debut novel’s word count is, and what a saleable debut novel in today’s market is limited to. I had to see for myself the end result of what must have been major surgery. So I bought the book, and last night I finished reading it.

West End Girls is a memoir of the author’s days serving as maid to Soho prostitutes in the years immediately following WWII. (I never knew they had maids, but that was standard back then.) She begins as a twenty-one year old raised in complete ignorance of sex. A few years later she has seen it all and while never becoming a prostitute herself, gains empathy and appreciation for the trade and the “working girls” who serve the needs and fetishes of their clients. She makes friends with two girls in particular, recalling their conversations, their relationships with other working girls, struggles with money and police, and “ponces” – parasitic boyfriends who encourage them to work ever harder while living off their income.

The author describes their world in exquisite detail, the characters are vivid and compelling, and the events described pull no punches. It’s graphic – but never pornographic. This is not a book I would have otherwise read, but I am glad I did, and I recommend it to anyone with an open mind and a desire to be shocked and awed.

I’m not posting about the book to plug it (though I just did) but to share my impressions about where it stands in relation to the novel I’m trying to bring to a state of (saleable) completion. So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts:

  • West End Girls is memoir, not fiction, so it’s not really a fair comparison with a novel. I don’t think it could be a novel. No one would believe it. I’m trying to write a fictional story that readers will associate with and want to believe. Her book dares you to believe it, and doesn’t care if you do or not.
  • Her writing reeks with raw power. Once it grabs you, it does not let go. There are almost no “peaceful interludes” that a typical novel has, which allow the reader to catch her figurative breath. The pace is frenetic, similar to how fast and hard the girls work, and I don’t think that’s an accident. Mine? I’ve attempted a more even pace. I thought it fit my type of story. I still do, but I’ll be rethinking parts.
  • Her story begins at her grandmother’s house (which is devoid of love, let alone sex) which other writers might have dragged out with pathos. Not here. We’re there just long enough to hear that Soho is contemptible, which makes it irresistible to her, and within a few pages she has a job at a bar there, which leads to her meeting a prostitute and becoming her maid. And from there, an already intriguing story kicks it up several notches. My novel takes several chapters to get the main character to the college where we already know he’s going to end up. Do I really need those chapters? More rethinking needed.

In short, I have some work to do. Not to try and make my story like hers, which would be both impossible and fruitless, but to find my own ‘clarity of purpose’ to make my writing tighter and bring as much power as I can to it, in a manner that fits my characters and the setting.

I’ve been thinking of posting the first couple of chapters online to get some feedback from other writers and interested readers. Now I realize I’m not ready for that yet. I’ll keep you all ‘posted’!

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