Writing What You Don’t Know

I remember when J.K. Rowling’s cover was blown as also being crime author Robert Galbraith when one critic who’d actually reviewed the book at the time it was published, in apparent ignorance of the author’s true identity, remarked that the ‘male’ author/narrator had an unusually attentive eye for women’s fashion.

Without the chase of the literary whodunit over Robert Galbraith’s real identity, it’s doubtful whether the passing observation about the author’s apparently unusual male eye would have been of any great significance — it may have been a clue that an author might have been writing under another gender. But it could also plausibly be explained if a male author had been particularly diligent in his research on female fashions — or may even have had a keen interest in the subject.

In general I’m quite sceptical about gender biases in writing being  innate.  The pigeon-holing of male and female writers (and readers) into particular genres is probably a result of marketing that plays to rather cliched and old-fashioned societal expectations.  Nevertheless I do sometimes develop a hunch about anonymous writers’ genders from pieces of journalism or non-fiction but this impression forming way be deliberate in terms of the markets the writing is targeting.

Also remember that J.K. Rowling was published under her initials rather than Christian name of Joanne because it was thought that Harry Potter’s original target audience of older boys would be put off by a woman author’s name. But that doesn’t change the fact that the books were written by a woman, whether disguised or not, and it makes the point that plenty of female writers enjoy stereotypically male subjects like horror, fantasy and the more gory end of the crime spectrum. Certainly some of my fellow female MA students embraced these genres and at York Festival of Writing last year I met Sharon Bolton in a workshop whose novels have titles like Blood Harvest and a reviewer describes as filling every sentence with menace.

That said, It’s probably less common for books by ‘male’ authors to enter traditionally ‘female’ territory — stories overtly about relationships, family and romance. The inverted commas highlight that the name on the book may give a misleading or incomplete impression of the writer — there are various stories about how some very successful commercial genre romance writers are men with female nom-de-plumes and there are examples of books written from a female point-of-view, like S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep  where the gender of the writer is not made explicit.

Of course explicitly male writers do deal with emotional subjects, which are fundamental to the human condition, such as relationships, families and, to cite a notorious female stereotype, shopping. However, it’s often done under the cover of a concept or genre that overlays the underlying emotional themes — such as humour, crime, sport, even war. the Plenty of female writers also write about human relationships in a less-direct way but it seems to be true to say that there’s no direct male equivalent of chick-lit — so noticeably that it was the subject of a Radio Four Today programme item earlier this year.

As mentioned in a previous post, I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme so I’m possibly in that small number — I’ll find out if my work is romantic enough when I send my manuscript off to be read by their romance expert readers!

These questions made me wonder if debate if I had biases built into my own approach to writing. Would I be as lucid as Robert Galbraith in describing the fashions worn by my female characters? I’m fairly sure the answer would be ‘no’.

That’s not to say I can’t imagine what my female characters would look like or that I’m unobservant in real-life about women’s appearance — it’s mainly that, as a male who’s mainly only ever bought men’s clothes, I haven’t acquired the relevant vocabulary. The fact that I haven’t said I exclusively buy male clothes is because I’ve bought presents and the like on occasion — not that I have a penchant for buying the odd bit of frilly lingerie (sorry to disappoint anyone who might be looking for pictures but if other people want to do that, then, of course, that’s all fine by me.)

And there are other areas where I’ve sometimes laboured in coming up with a description for the same reason — I haven’t been exposed to the right vocabulary. Fragrance is one example. About eighteen months ago I went to an excellent Love Art London event at Angela Flanders perfumery in Artillery Row in the City where fragrance expert Odette Toilette (she’s real, honestly!) matched fragrances to some well known pre-Raphaelite paintings.

It was an excellent event — and I was well in the minority in gender terms — but made me realise how hard it was (for me anyway) to try to describe aromas and fragrances in words. But smell is such a crucial sense that it would seem more than worthwhile to make the effort to try and learn how to describe it in an evocative way and I made a modest step in that direction by buying a book on how fragrances are created.

Are there any similar gaps in your experience that you feel might show through in your writing and, if so, I’d be fascinated to hear how you overcame them.

The Sad Demolition of the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill

The Angel  is partly set in an outwardly idyllic English country pub — thatched roof, low beams, flagstoned floors and looking out through its mullioned windows on to the village green with its cricket pitch and duck pond. It’s a slightly idealised amalgam of several pubs I know but all the constituent elements can be found in about half a dozen pubs I know well within about a ten mile radius.

The Crown, Cuddington
The Crown, Cuddington

If my descriptions of the pubs are adequate then it may not be too difficult to evoke visual images in readers as most of these pubs have been used several times over for dramas like Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The Lions of Bledlow — One of Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunts

The image of the Olde English Pub is curious because, while it’s something of a stereotype, it’s not an exaggeration of reality. These iconic places still exist (thrive might be too strong a verb in the current economic climate) and, in weather such as the current heatwave, we’re reminded what a fundamental element of the British national identity the village pub evokes. (And a village pub doesn’t have to be in the countryside — there are plenty of old pubs subsumed into urban areas that still retain that bucolic character. The White Swan in Twickenham is a good example as are some pubs in the most unlikely areas of London and other large cities.)

In terms of visual iconography, I was fascinated to discover how the promoters of British Summer Time interpreted the English village pub. This was the series of concerts in Hyde Park which featured the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi amongst others. It replaced Hard Rock Calling after the infamous incident last year when the plug was pulled on Bruce Springsteen duetting with Paul McCartney as at 10.30pm they were disturbing the tranquility of Mayfair — on the other side of the six-lane inner-ring road that is Park Lane.

I don’t have too much sympathy, having had to endure student house parties with hundreds of ‘guests’, drugged, drunk and very loud at 3am in the morning when living in London myself.

Rather than the standard festival back-of-a-trailer bar, British Summer Time had themed areas for its catering and drinks. When I visited last week between concerts (when the British Summer Time compound, for want of a better word, was free to enter) the Spanish themed area was a dusty and deserted assortment of hastily-erected restaurants and bars — so not that different to contemporary Spain in the Euro crisis then?

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The King’s Head, Hyde Park

In the Village Green area I found three adjacent ‘pubs’ — the Old Vine, the King’s Head (with Henry VIII naturally on the sign) and the Windmil . Given that these catering outlets, oops, I mean pubs were operational for only nine days and had been constructed on a patch of grass in the middle of Hyde Park then historical authenticity was a little too much to ask for.

King's Head and Windmill, Hyde Park
King’s Head and Windmill, Hyde Park

I was fairly impressed with the way the architectural styles had been repesented, particularly the Windmill, which was quite imaginative and stresses the historical link between windmills and pubs. If  you want to experience the inns of Tolkien’s Shire then visit the Pheasant in Brill, Buckinghamshire while we still have light nights. The village was apparently the model for Bree — it’s not too far from Oxford — and has a marvelously restored windmill by the pub on the top of the hill.

Inside the King's Head
Inside the King’s Head

The interior of the King’s Head looked pretty authentic — despite being a prefabricated box its fixtures and fittings and decor were surprisingly genuine.

What wasn’t usual was the way the ‘pubs’ served from a bar on their exterior walls. Occasionally some pubs do this in the summer — the White Cross in Richmond used to. However, the demands of serving 60,000 people in an interval are probably not quite the same as the village local at tea-time in a cricket match.

And sadly, while the ‘pubs’ made efforts to be surprisingly authentic in appearance, they didn’t serve the traditional drink of the British pub — cask-conditioned real ale — at least not in its most genuine form. There was Fuller’s London Pride and Theakston’s Bitter plus Seafarer on offer but I’m fairly sure it was pasteurised — although it was served at a appropriately cool temperature unlike some genuine pubs try to get away with in this weather with real ale — which tastes ghastly if warm.

Old Vine, Hyde Park
Old Vine, Hyde Park

But at £5.50 a pint the pricing strategy of these pubs was only suited to the sort of captive market that spends hundred on tickets for the Rolling Stones. Having had our wallets lightened somewhat I moved on with my drinking companions to the slightly more gritty reality of the Carpenters Arms on Seymour Place.

It’s probably too late to get on to CAMRA head office about the closure of three adjacent pubs in Central London. While we can’t really complain about the demolition of  the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill — I noted the lorries in there this week removing all trace of their presence — but their appearance was culturally reassuring, if a little personally expensive.

Subscribe to MacNovel

Look to the sidebar on the right and see an exciting development — something that this blog’s been missing that I’ve now hopefully remedied. It’s a ‘follow this blog’ mailing list.

To be alerted whenever a new post is added to this blog (and that’s not something that happens with a frequency that’s ever going to threaten to clog up your inbox) then type your chosen e-mail address into the box and press the button.

You’ll be redirected to a service called Feedburner (which is apparently owned by Google) that will do one of those annoying Capcha things to defeat the spammers and then, if all goes well, you should be sent an e-mail on the infrequent occasions when I have something new to say on here. If it works as it should, you’ll also only get a maximum of one mail per day and only when a new post is added (which has sadly been about once a fortnight over the last few months.)

It’s been a fiddle to get to work properly (I do all this web admin stuff myself) but I’ve managed to test it out with some success.

Feedburner Update E-Mail
Feedburner Update E-Mail

When you receive an update e-mail (see example above) it has a link to the new post. It also has the normal options to unsubscribe so you can always opt out. Feedburner also promises not to send spam.

Go on, sign up, you know it makes sense!

Bonkers

The Hottest Ticket in Town
The Hottest Ticket in Town

While ‘unbelievable’ seemed to be the word applied an unbelievable number of times to British sporting achievements, ‘bonkers’ seems the  most appropriate description to apply to the cultural and social impact of the Olympics – especially after that closing ceremony. Its astonishingly uninhibited chaos mixed flashes of genius with the heroically tacky and cheesy – and slightly sadly probably showed a more accurate reflection of British popular culture than the mesmerising Opening Ceremony.

It feels a world away now but the Opening Ceremony set the tone for what appeared to me to be a staggering transformation in the collective mood – certainly in London.

London 2012 -- Doubters
What We Were Warned About.

What seemed to make the change in mood of the last couple of weeks genuine — and profoundly touching — was the collective astonishment – we couldn’t believe that we were pulling it off.

Beyond the worries about crowding and traffic there were at least a couple of major problems that could have occurred at this Olympics: terrorism and rioting. Fortunately neither the events of July 2005 or August 2011 were repeated. But we all collectively held our breath and by the end of the games all the doubts, warnings and cynicism were forgotten. Instead we all went bonkers.

Walking around LondonI was reminded of the title of the Jeremy Deller retrospective earlier this year at the Heyward Gallery – Joy in People. And very serendipitously I came across Sacrilege, Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge in Victoria Park, Hackney (it only stayed a day in any one place inLondon on its cultural Olympiad tour). I also saw another piece of British bonkerness in Victoria Park – the eccentric Universal Tea Machine.

Jeremy Deller's 'Sacrilege' -- Victoria Park, Hackney
Jeremy Deller’s ‘Sacrilege’ — Victoria Park, Hackney

Back to the Opening Ceremony, the first point when I realised that I was watching something really spectacular was an overhead shot of the molten iron circle being symbolically beaten by foundry workers. I thought ‘Hold on that looks a bit familiar’ and the shot cut to two glowing objects moving overhead from the edges of the stadium. Then the molten ring lifted and everyone knows what happened next — the Olympic Rings of Fire were assembled above the stadium.

(I haven’t heard it mentioned elsewhere but I picked up a definite nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with the green and pleasant land turning into a furnace of fire-beaten rings.)

The Mall As It's Never Been Before
The Mall As It’s Never Been Before

More anything else, for me,  in the incredible show, it summed up the essence of creativity — taking a symbol as familiar as the Olympic rings and presenting it in an entirely new, innovative way. It was as masterful as reading the denouement of a brilliantly plotted novel — a moment of unexpected, revelatory insight into what came before.

The Opening Ceremony drew on skills in which it was generally acknowledged that Britain was almost uniquely good at – creativity, innovation, contemporary music and design. Although with Britain third in the medal table (and writing just after the closing ceremony) perhaps we should put sport higher on our list of national strengths.

Skills in which Britain leads the world – such as advertising and television – both based on the creative manipulation of imagery – and this has been transferred to the games. It’s amazing to consider the attention to detail involved in London 2012’s branding. The presentation of the venue has been amazing.

The colour scheming of the games has been meticulous – and brilliantly successful in an understated way. The largely restrained palate of colours used for the games was clever: an aqua blue, orange, yellow and the two most prominent – the bright pink and deep purple. These colours don’t clash with many, if any, flags and they simultaneously convey both excitement and informality (the pink) with a stately  self-assured competence (purple).

What An Arena -- Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade
What An Arena — Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade

No venue has used design to appear as stunning as the unlikely temporary beach volleyball arena on Horse Guards Parade, which I was lucky enough to get tickets for on the first Sunday of the games. It’s a shame the security fences mean that it’s been difficult for non-ticket holders to get a view of the stadium.

It has seated an incredible 15,000 people and was constructed in the few weeks between Trooping the Colour and the Olympics – and I can say from personal experience it was no ramshackle affair. It had to be solidly built to cope with the energies of the crazed, conga-dancing crowd.

The Horse Guards Conga -- It Felt This Blurry Too
The Horse Guards Conga — It Felt This Blurry Too

Beach volleyball has been one of the revelations of these Olympics – I’ve read several newspaper articles which, in pre-Olympic times, might have sneered at the event’s supposed frivolous, if not outright exploitative, image but they’ve all concluded that the Horse Guards stadium has provided wonderful entertainment – and that the players are also serious athletes.

I’m normally someone who would run a mile from an event with cheerleaders and similarly mandatory jollity. But faced with the rather un-British beach and tan culture. Londonreacted in the best of British traditions – it took the piss out of it. The staging of the event was staged with such exuberantly over-the-top genius that it even used the Benny Hill theme tune – not to accompany the knowingly camp dancers but for the volunteers who levelled the sand – ‘The Rakers’ (who sounds like an American college basketball team).

The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls
The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls

The atmosphere was infectiously surreal – four second blasts of music accompanying the action and absurd crowd participation (a bizarrely eclectic mix of Blur, LMFAO, the Beach Boys and, of course, Dizzee Rascal himself), I doubt many London audiences would jump out of their seats as readily to perform a huge conga around the stadium and when Madness’s One Step Beyond boomed around the seat of British government at 11pm on a Sunday night there were 15,000 pairs of arms moving up and down in unison.

Uncle Sam at the Beach Volleyball
Uncle Sam Made An Appearance at the Beach Volleyball

After a while  the over-the-top announcer’s voice became extremely familiar and once the penny dropped there was no doubt – it was the man himself – Peter Dickson – the ridiculously hyperbolic Voice-Over Man from the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and many other programmes. He’s the voice that always seems to announce that this week’s warbler is the ‘biggest selling female artist in the history of the universe’.

USA v Argentina -- The Sporting Action
USA v Argentina — The Sporting Action

Like everything associated with the rest of the event, Peter Dickson hammed it up spectacularly: ‘I hear the Prime Minister has an early morning tomorrow and he’s asking if we’ll we turn the noise down?’ (Incredibly cheesy but the bizarre location demanded it.) No guessing what the crowd’s answer was.

The setting of Horse Guard’s parade, with the purple-decked stadium, a rectangle of beach sand in its centre and Nelson’s column, Horse Guards, Big Ben and the London Eye visible on the skyline provided an iconic image.

Sitting in the ‘Downing Street End’ of the stadium I wondered what other country would site a beach volleyball stadium within 50 yards of its government’s centre of executive power? Only one that was bonkers. And that sums up the genius of these Olympic games: I had one of the most enjoyable nights of entertainment I can remember in a long time.

There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left
There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left

Love Art London and the Catlin Prize

The last post dwelt on art at the celebrity and ‘major gallery spaces’ level  (as Time Out describes them). But my novel is about an artist trying to make a living, someone who doesn’t have the reputation of Picasso or Hirst nor has the resources or the inclination to re-stage the battle of Orgreave. To get an appreciation of how art is produced and sold at the more accessible end of the market I went along to the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park in March (handily getting a discount on entry with my Art Fund card!).

The Affordable Art Fair differs from the London Art Fair by maintaining a price ceiling of £4,000 on all works for sale (although I was shown an under-the-counter £20k picture by Billy Childish), which means that those of us who don’t run hedge funds might have a prospect of picking up a decent piece of work for an amount that’s, well, affordable.

I only had a lunch-hour to look around the huge pavilion with hundreds of stands from galleries all over the country so I was intrigued by the ‘Egg Timer Tour’ offered by Love Art London. This was a free tour of ten of the most interesting stands which was guaranteed to take no more than an hour — and to ensure punctuality Chris Pensa, who ran the trip, took along a clockwork egg timer. When it buzzed, it was time to move on, at pace, to the next stand.

(One of the stands we visited had miniature figures within glass containers created by Jimmy Cauty, ex-of the KLF — which is an interesting connection with the Jeremy Deller exhibition mentioned in the previous post.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour — it was a fast-moving (literally) and very approachable introduction to the contemporary art world. After the tour I learned more about Love Art London — they organise events approximately once a week, for people interested in art, often visiting galleries for private tours, having Q&A sessions with artists in their own studios and so on — ideal for my writing research purposes. Chris sold membership to me instantly when he said the whole thing was so friendly and informal that they usually end each event in the pub — often drinking with the artists. This organisation could have been created specifically for me!

The first event I went to — a private viewing of Glasweigian duo littlewhitehead ‘s installations in the Sumaria Lunn gallery near Bond Street — was fascinating from my perspective of learning how artists interact with their galleries and collectors. Unfortunately, with the gallery being close to the Mayfair hedge fund types, the pub afterwards was so packed with suited chinless wonders five-deep ordering Roederer Cristal at the bar that I didn’t have time to order myself a drink before I needed to get my train home.

Fortunately, at the next event, I was successfully able to pop into the pub — the Owl and Pussycat in Shoreditch, just round the corner from Kim’s fictional studio in my novel — with fellow Love Art London members and Chris Pensa himself. He told me that he’d set up Love Art London after working for a while at Sotheby’s and he found it very rewarding to provide this sociable and fun way of becoming familiar with the London art world — he also provides a similar service for corporate clients — a different sort of experience than the normal team away-day.

We were in Shoreditch after having had a private viewing of work exhibited by the shortlisted artists for the Catlin Prize. Art Catlin curator, Justin Hammond visits shows by students graduating from British art schools and picks forty artists to feature in a publication — the Catlin Guide — which has become known as an overview of new British art.

Ten of the artists were selected to exhibit in a gallery in Londonewcastle, which appeared to be a warehouse currently undergoing conversion in Shoreditch (I know this as I had to be sneaked round the rest of the building to go to the toilet, having had a very quick couple of pints near Monument on the way) and four of these artists gave us a short talk about the work they had on show, which was fascinating for me in trying to improve my understanding of the way young artists work in London.

Jonny Briggs‘s works were mainly in what was probably the most conventional form — photography — but his photographs had a very surreal quality. He explained that he explores themes related to his awakening as an adult in his teenage years — and rather than alienate his parents as is the stereotype — he involves them in his art. His father appeared in several works — sometimes wearing a latex mask of himself — and providing a bronze cast of a toe for one non-photographic piece.

Max Dovey’s work as a performance artist earned him a place in the Catlin prize shortlist — and he exhibited something that resembled a fixed monument both to an event he’d organised and to mark the passing of the technology that event had marked — the ceasing of analogue television broadcasts. Final Broadcast, a short online video, records a party Max had organised to celebrate the last night of analogue television transmission in the London region (the last in the country). The Last Day of TV, his Catlin exhibit, was a series of five sets of five boxed videotapes which were recordings of the last hours of the type of transmission that had first started about 75 years ago. The videocassettes, which are an almost archaic item themselves, were set on a wall like an apt combination of library books and tombstones.

Julia Vogl, who was named as the overall winner of the Catlin prize last week, designed a very clever participatory exhibit — Let’s Hang Out. She constructed a Mondrian-style grid of black and white, both on the floor and against the wall, like three sides of a cube. This was surrounded by carpet tiles, stacked in about half-a-dozen different colours.

A slogan on the wall challenged viewers to declare what they’d do in a spare ten minutes by tossing a square carpet tile into the grid. A key on the wall assigned colours to activities, which included: ‘Tweet’, ‘Call Mum’, ‘Daydream’ and, the only activity whose colour I remember, ‘Masturbate’ (a yellowy-gold).  I think these gold tiles were winning when we saw the installation, which says something about the visitors to the exhibition — probably their honesty.

On her website, Julia Vogl categorises Let’s Hang Out  as a social sculpture and it captures the Zeitgeist of the times – with its physical, participatory interaction encouraging viewers to share their ‘status’. And the use of such familiar and (literally) workaday material as office carpet tiles also emphasises the democratised perspective of the work (apparently the artist used to work in political polling). Let’s Hang Out was last week declared the winner of the Catlin Prize 2012 — by judges who included the art critics of The Times and Time Out.

But there was another prize, awarded to the artist who polled highest in a public vote — entries were either submitted online or in a ballot box at the entrance to the exhibition. This was won by Adeline de Monseignat. Her work Mother HEB/Loleta also explored touch and texture. The work comprised several glass spheres partially buried in sand — exploring the connection between the smoothness and solidity of glass and the graininess and liquidity of its component material. Most of the spheres were small, set around a much larger glass ball about 70 cms in diameter. Pushed against the inside surface of the bigger globe was something with an organic, furry texture which was folded in irregular ridges like the surface of a brain — and if one looked at the sculpture for long enough, this inner material could be seen to move up and down almost imperceptibly — as if it were alive.

The sculpture had a surreal but soothing other-worldly quality, as if some alien life-form had descended into a desert-scape. With Adeline’s permission, I’ve linked through to a photo of a similar installation on her blog — Emerging.

 Adeline de Monseignat - Emerging

Adeline de Monseignat – ‘Emerging’ © Adeline de Monseignat http://adelinedemonseignat.com/

Adeline gave us a very illuminating talk about how she constructed these unique objects — which I referred to as furry orbs. The material inside was old fur coats, picked up from charity shops and the large glass sphere was custom made by a glassblower and was likely the largest of its kind in the country (any other large transparent sphere would usually be made out of perspex for weight and resilience purposes).

With its understated ‘breathing’, juxtaposition of the sensuality of fur on the inside of the sphere and the sterility of glass on the outside, and the spheres’ resemblance to eggs scattered in a barren desert, the work raises questions about some of the most fundamental issues — such as fertility and the creation of life.

From my novel’s perspective, it was interesting that the two prizewinners were both young women artists who’ve moved from abroad to work in London — Julia Vogl is from the US and Adeline is from Monaco — so it’s a relief that my character is credible in that respect. However, I’m probably never going to a character in a novel written by me that can come up with the sort of innovation and insight that any of these real-life young artists have shown — Kim mainly works in painting with an interesting side-line in photography.

But one thing that’s great fun about writing about art is trying to give enough of a description so the reader can then imagine the work — creating imaginary artworks that exist in the individuals’ minds but that have never actually been physically created — a concept that’s reminiscent of Keats’s famous lines in Ode to A Grecian Urn: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ (Later recycled in the 1980s by ABC as ‘The sweetest melodies are an unheard refrain‘.) Both basically mean that the conception of an artwork is always more perfect than any eventual physical realisation — something also very true of writing.

And so I ended up drinking with the Love Art London people and a few of the Catlin Prize artists outside the Owl and the Pussycat pub. I’m back in Shoreditch again on Friday for Love Art London’s graffiti tour, which I’m looking forward to enormously — again it will be excellent research for the novel. As I prepared to walk back to Old Street station, Chris pointed out some work immediately around the Londonewcastle Gallery — including a stickman by Stick — who’s apparently something of a mysterious celebrity.

I’m not sure if Redchurch Street, Shoreditch is the land where the Bong-tree grows’ but it’s where, for the next few days until 25th May, the works by all ten of the Catlin Prize shortlisted artists can still be seen — and I believe it’s free to get in.

A Most Critical Two Weeks?

Anyone who read the post from a couple of weeks ago ‘Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript’ might be wondering, in the style of a minor cliffhanger, what was the verdict on the 174,000 words that I believed I’d pieced together in a somewhat desperate and incoherent dash to meet my reader’s deadline.

The verdict has now been delivered and, to my surprise, it appears I’ve been overdoing the  mental self-flagellation. I received a report on the manuscript, followed up with a face-to-face meeting, that was, overall, very encouraging.

In fact, it was my professional reader’s opinion that with about two weeks of solid work I could craft the whole novel into a shape that would be of a standard to send out to agents – which is fantastic. This ought to certainly silence my inner-critic — the one that must have been responsible for the post dwelling on the manuscript’s shortcomings.

Of course, those two weeks are full-time writing work. This doesn’t include my current day-job, nor the hours sitting on a train I use to travel to it (as I’m doing now) – or family or social life. But, then again, I suppose it’s only seven solid weekends.

Before going into a little more detail I should reveal (now she’s said fairly nice things about it) that it was Emma Sweeney, who ploughed through the huge Word file and reported her findings.

Emma taught us at the very end of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing when Emily had left a few weeks before the end of term on maternity leave.

(As an aside, the Certificate in Novel Writing has now been revised and relaunched as ‘The Novel Studio’ with its first incarnation in this form starting in the autumn — Emily, who’s now Course Director is taking applications now and I know she’s made changes partly based on feedback from alumni so promises to be a great experience. Emma Sweeney is part of the teaching team on the new course.)

Emma also works individually with writers (see link to Emma’s blog). I know a couple of course-mates from City University have used her services as a mentor since the end of the course — Bren Gosling has mentioned this in his blog (see link on sidebar) and his first novel, ‘Sweeping Up The Village’, was recently short-listed for a literary award, the Harry Bowling Prize.

Emma’s blog also mentions that she performs manuscript appraisals.  For me, an unavoidable side-effect of having workshopped the novel in and out of various courses over the past two years meant that most people I knew who might cast an eye over the coalescing manuscript (course-mates, tutors and other very helpful readers) would already have more knowledge of it than they might ever have wanted — and would remember the history of its development.

What I needed was someone to read it with a fresh eye — which Emma was able to do but also with some prior knowledge of my writing (see Onwards and Upwards).

So, after a few delays and postponements, I finally sent Emma the novel as it stood, with all its imperfections. She turned it round very quickly — in just over 6 working days — which is impressive for a manuscript of that length.

Moreover, it was clear, both from her report and from our subsequent discussion, that Emma had read the novel carefully — which isn’t always the case with creative writing classes and tutors. Of course, this reading was a professional arrangement, which has a not insignificant cost to the writer, although this isn’t surprising if one considers the time taken to attentively reading that many pages. It’s very unusual to get more than 5,000 words read at one time by a tutor, even on advertised novel-writing courses.

As mentioned, I was amazed that Emma thought the manuscript itself was in much better shape than my doom-laden forewarnings had suggested. While some of the material was  hastily cut and pasted as rough drafts were re-arranged and intercut and sections that had heretofore only existed in my head were written down in skeletal, first-draft form, the combined whole was adequate (in conjunction with the more polished bulk of the novel) to give a decent account of the plot and characters at least.

But — did Emma think it was any good? Well, yes she did — and said some very positive things which I won’t dwell on here — but she added some significant caveats about issues that have to be addressed in those two weeks of revision. Issues like:

  • Some work making a character a lot more sympathetic (any ideas gratefully received — what about bringing in a 3-legged dog or something?)
  • Aspects of the plot need revising and some sub-plots need killing or fleshing out
  • Characters’ motivations require better development in places
  • Evidence of my tendency (as blog readers will no doubt recognise) to slip into rambling, abstract, academic style prose needs ruthlessly cutting out — this is good because the word count is too high and if this can be lost without abandoning the reader then it’s good news for me
  • Various amounts of copy editing to do in the sections I haven’t buffed up for workshops, etc.

But all the above are within the realms of the fixable and the Emma said she enjoyed the few days that she spent with my characters in the novel’s world. In fact, when we met face-to-face, Emma said she was automatically discussing the characters’ options and decisions with me as if they were real people — which was a very good sign.

Emma also said she enjoyed the humour and the psychological side to the characters and plot — sometimes I’ve mulled over the characters’ dilemmas for hours myself and still not resolved them. She also found some of the sensuous writing to be one of the novel’s strengths, which is very re-assuring. Emma is the first person to have read a lot of the sex scenes. I was in too much of a hurry while editing to think about losing my nerve and coyly dilute them. (There’s a particular scene she thought must have been very hard to write but that she thought I got right. If, dear reader, you ever have a copy of the finished novel in your hand, you’ll probably be able to identify it.)

One of the most encouraging observations was that she thought the nature of the writing — a fair amount of dialogue plus the way the story is told from the perspective of the characters — doesn’t make the novel seem as long as it actually is. She thought it read like a novel about two-thirds of its actual length. This is particularly comforting as I erred on the side of caution and put in the manuscript several sections that I’m probably 80% certain to cut – I wanted a second opinion.

I realise that because someone with a respected reputation has said she lies the novel (pending fixes) that there’s no guarantee that anybody else will who might progress it to publication. There are loads of well-written, unpublished books.

However, I may have a few thematic arrows in my quiver in terms of hitting the current Zeitgeist  — a novel about quitting the City pressure cooker in exchange for a hot pub kitchen with food, art and sex thrown into the recipe along with some interesting settings might have some commercial appeal.

But, that’s all idle speculation without a polished, complete coherent draft. So now I’ve got to go and chisel out that two weeks of writing time and then, perhaps, bite the bullet.

The Zeitgeist of the Segnits

I wandered into Waterstone’s in Staines (of past Ali G fame) a couple of weeks ago and was magnetically drawn to a book called Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, which had the good fortune for a debut novel, to be on the 3 for 2 pile.

It had quite an attention grabbing cover adorned by various pubs signs, which immediately attracted my interest. I had a look through, partly out of dread that the subject matter would be very similar to my work-in-progress, which has a big pub theme. Fortunately it wasn’t — the novel uses a very clever device of parodying the sort of country rambling guides that balance the virtuousness of walking with the promise of indulging in a pint or two at completion and are published in mind-boggling permutations (e.g. Best Walks from Pubs in Bucks, Bucks Country Pub Rambles, 20 Pub Walks in Bucks, etc.).

I always flick through the local editions of these books when I find them, mainly to see check if there’s any that guide walkers through my village — and there’s usually at least one walk that does. Unlike many people, I’m always keen that people do come and visit my local area because it is extraordinarily beautiful in its understated way — if it wasn’t so accessible to London then the scenery might be more valued than it appears to be.

I’ve also written quite a number of pub walks myself, which have been published locally. I was quite surprised to find out that people had actually followed my routes — a local pub landlord took about 15 of his friends on one walk. They’re quite tricky to write as there are only so many variations to make on ‘cross over the field, climb a stile, go through the gate’ and so on.

I can see why it might be real fun for an author to take a character who writes these guides and slip in some personal digressions to this very restricted literary genre and weave a narrative out of this — which is the premise of the book.

My dad is a huge Alfred Wainwright fan and I’ve seen plenty of his idiosyncratic guidebooks and I’ve also seen quite a few Wainwright-inspired programmes, often featuring Julia Bradbury in some shape or form (before she got the Wanderlust and headed off to Germany). Wainwright had something of a curmudgeonly reputation and I seem to remember seeing a documentary about him years ago which suggested his attitudes towards the role of women in society, for one thing, did not share much in common with militant feminism. It’s a very clever idea to make a novel out of the conventions of the walking book genre.

I can see it’s also a very fertile subject to write about — recreational walking is incredibly popular. I saw plenty of hikers this morning as I went for a run that took me (via a bloody big hill) on a short section of the Ridgeway and they were all up there with their Nordic walking sticks. Underhill country isn’t the Chilterns but is apparently around the Malverns somewhere.

I was quite interested in Nat Segnit and Googled him and, strangely, in this era of authors and their social media platforms found very little — no blog or twitter — just some reviews, a couple of interviews and a brief biography on his agent’s page which tells us where he was born and went to university but not much else.

But he does have quite an unusual surname that I was reminded of when I flicked through a book that I’d been meaning to read in the detail it deserves since I bought it as a Christmas present for my sister and then thought was so good that I decided to buy a second copy for myself — The Flavour Thesaurus — by another person called Segnit — Niki Segnit.

I was looking through the acknowledgement page in The Flavour Thesaurus as I now tend to with books I like to try and find out who the agents and editors and so on are. The first person she thanked was her husband Nat who helped with her book ‘while he had his own to get one with’.  Ah, so these two authorial Segnits were fairly likely to be married to each other.

This might not have seemed a particularly remarkable co-incidence — I guess that writing can be such an anti-social activity that if  some people end up with a partner who’s a writer, especially a debut author who’s writing in time off from the day job, then perhaps a case of ‘if you can’t beat them’ may be the most harmonious solution. But it’s the subjects of the two books that I found particularly fascinating as both are very relevant to themes in my novel. As mentioned above, Nat Segnit’s book alludes to pubs and deals with the escape of the great outdoors. Niki Segnit’s book is a marvellously inventive variation of the endless popularity of all things foodie.

I may even have James in my novel getting hold of The Flavour Thesaurus and treating it like a bible which will give a bit of theoretical grounding to some bizarrely elaborate concoctions he’ll try and put on the menu. The book works a bit like one of those food-and-wine matching guides (I remember a classic line in a Hugh Johnson guide that suggested a two and three-quarter year old Italian Merlot was required to partner sausages — ‘or a red anyway’). But it’s food-with-food combinations that provide the books’ framework.

There’s a flavour wheel with 16 flavour categories (sulphurous, woodland, etc.) and which contain in total 99 ingredients or food components (onion, walnut, etc.). (The flavour wheel is very similar in principle to a painter’s colour wheel — again another connection with the themes in my novel.) The book is then structured into pairings of the these components — so you look up something you like the taste of — say horseradish — and the book lists some interesting ingredients to pair with horseradish — oysters or beetroot, for example. There are some very interesting pairings indeed but I won’t spill the metaphorical beans by listing them here.

This structure is also remarkably clever as it accommodates a serendipitous mix of scientific research on flavour of the sort Heston Blumenthal is a fan (Niki Segnit has a background working for big food companies), impromptu recipes and, my favourites, her own anecdotes and opinions. There’s a great story about her driving through Italy with a boyfriend with whom her relationship was souring which comes under the unlikely heading ‘Globe Artichoke and Bacon’. She may even have convinced me that the peanut, like its friend, the single kernel of sweet corn, is an ingredient that has some culinary merit and not just a cheap product of the American agro-industrial machine.

Niki Segnit is extraordinarily well read on her subject — with a huge bibliography of cookbooks and other food reference books. She references quite a few authors that are on my shelves, from salad and vegetable guru, Joy Larkcom to domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson. However, what infuses the the book, despite its lack of illustrations or sexy photographs of styled food, is a genuine love of food and the sensual pleasures it offers and, as such, a dog-eared copy would certainly merit a place in my fictional character’s kitchen.

Why The Permit To Travel Machine Was Dead As A Dormouse

…because it was inhabited by a family of them.

The Metro today plus the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail have a story featuring Little Kimble station, which I can see across the fields out of our back windows. A family of rare edible dormice, also know as Glis Glis, have been inhabiting the permit to travel machine. The ticket collector discovered them when investigating why the machine was frequently out of order. They are a rare and protected species and tend only to be found in this area of the Chilterns. They have been rehoused in St. Tiggywinkle’s animal hospital a few miles away in Haddenham, also famous for rehabilitating injured red kites.

Here are the links to the stories. There are some nice pictures of the mice.

http://www.metro.co.uk/weird/843266-nesting-dormice-to-blame-for-broken-ticket-machine

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1318403/Rare-dormice-make-nest-ticket-machine-Little-Kimble-railway-station.html

Little Kimble Station in the Snow in January 2010
Little Kimble Station in the Snow in January 2010

I often use the permit to travel machine as Little Kimble station is far too small to have a proper ticket machine, let alone a ticket office. It’s taken quite a lot of my 5p coins when I’ve travelled into London recently, although the mice have left it out of order on many occasions.

We have mice all over the place here — they invade the garage in winter and once polished off an entire Christmas pudding I was maturing and are always running around in the garden. I’ll need to take a look to see if they’re the edible variety.

It’s quite interesting to hear a quirky tale of rural life as last night I made a visit to Dibley — more accurately The Bull and Butcher in Turville, which is the location where ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ was filmed, as well as countless other TV series and films (like Midsomer Murders). The pub is a lovely old village local with a massive fireplace and even a well inside one of the rooms (it goes down about thirty feet so it’s fortunate it’s covered over with glass).

'Daisy' Shortly After Leaving Little Kimble
'Daisy' Shortly After Leaving Little Kimble

Maybe the mice can burrow their way into The Angel? Anyway, it’s a Good excuse for not having a ticket — ‘Sorry but it was illegal for me to disturb the dormice’.

A Tense Debate

There’s an interesting post by Richard Lea on the Guardian books blog about Philip Pullman’s recently reported comments about the growing use of the present tense in novels — reflected by half the Man Booker shortlist being written in the present.

Pullman is reported to have said the use of present tense is becoming a cliché, adding ‘it’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy’. Hensher apparently said ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won’t do that for you…What was once a rare, interesting effect is starting to become utterly conventional….[The present tense] is everywhere in the English novel, like Japanese knotweed.’

The novelists on the City University course had a varied approach to tenses and there was considerable experimentation by some people about whether past or present suited their novels. There were some examples of using both tenses — for example, present for the main story and past to denote flashbacks. The present tense certainly gives immediacy to a piece of writing — the Guardian blog suggests that its increased use might reflect our 24-hour news culture and the cultural impact of immediate informational gratification via the internet. Perhaps. The present tense seemed to work very effectively for two or three people when reading their pieces at our end of course event. (Another piece that made a big impression on agents avoided the simple past tense and used the past perfect, past continuous and past conditional.)

I doubt whether the present tense is as prevalent as reported, although the more ‘literary’ the aspirations of the writer, perhaps the more likely they are to experiment — maybe in a few years the past tense will be the daring, radical choice? As might be inferred from the example above, the past tense offers a writer far more variations in its use — although one of the missions of creative writing courses seems be to make to make the passivity of the past continuous tense almost as endangered as the adverb (and using less of both is usually the best policy). Good use of the present tense requires skill on the part of the writer. I was at a Q&A with a commissioning editor (of genre fiction) when she was asked what mistakes writers should avoid — ‘First person present’ she said as she received a lot of it and it was, in her opinion, almost impossible to pull off.

I’ve experimented with writing pieces in the present tense and enjoyed the effect — and I’ve also had my work re-written by someone else in the present tense and thought that had improved it. However, I’m quite happy to write my novel in the past tense, even if it reduces my chances of winning the Man Booker!

Would You Buy This Book?

City financial wizard and cookery TV show contestant James puts his ex-employer’s ‘Dealing Positively with Negativity’ training course into practice by sinking his redundancy money into transforming his run-down Chilterns village local into a gastropub.

But was it a smart decision, during an impromptu drunken bender round London, to promise the manager’s job to Kim: a struggling German conceptual artist from Shoreditch who makes ends meet as a barmaid?

Both are moves that James’ ambitious wife, Emma, is certain to try to make sure he regrets.

‘The Angel’ is a novel that explores the conflicts between city and countryside, art and commerce, conformity and impetuosity. It’s the story of two people from radically different backgrounds that they both share a passion to escape.

It’s only an early draft version but any comments would be gratefully received. The syntax is a bit contorted (long sentences) but then lots of blurbs tend to be like that.

‘Is It Any Good?’

I would guess anyone who doesn’t ask themselves this during the course of writing a novel is not going to produce a very good one.

What’s probably not such a good idea is to include this angst in comments accompanying a chapter sent to a tutor for a tutorial. Asking ‘Is it any good?’ really means ‘tell me lots of nice things about it please to boost my writing ego’. So when I didn’t immediately get that response from Emily my reaction was ‘She must think it’s rubbish’. The tutorial in question has been an odd, long-drawn out affair as it couldn’t take place in person due to illness and we exchanged e-mails instead (Emily now being on maternity leave). I also talked about the issues with Alison last night in person.

There were lots of things that Emily didn’t like in the extract I’d sent — plausibility issues about James’ behaviour, not really seeing into what motivated the characters and so on. In some ways it’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that she said she thought I needed to know my characters better — but the best way for me to do that is to write more and to live with them, which is more difficult to do if your motivation is ebbing away partly because a tutor has said you need to know your characters better.  I think I do know my characters pretty well but perhaps they hadn’t come over that well for a couple of reasons. One is stylistic — I do tend to write much more from an exterior perspective than interior so I only infrequently inhabit the characters’ innermost thoughts. The second is the structure of the novel which starts with two people flung together in crisis and then develops from there. There’s a huge amount of back story that comes with both the two main characters and I’m finding it very laborious to drip feed into the first chapters. I’ve done about 15,000 words and they’ve not really found out much about each others’ backgrounds. I’m tempted to just write a couple of scenes from the past and show them in flashback and be done with it.

On Saturday night I got pretty downhearted — not because I thought the novel was no good — but because I thought I might need to totally overhaul the way it was written. I considered crawling into a hole and not bothering to emerge until after our end of course reading. However, once I’d mulled over the feedback I found it quite inspiring in a way. This is because Emily seems to have high ambitions for the story and characters — possibly higher than my own. Once I’ve got to the heart of the dilemmas and decisions facing both characters then the novel could say an awful lot that is relevant to readers in the modern world. I do think I have thought this through in my head in terms of concepts but it perhaps has to translate to the characters. It was suggested that I place my novel in the bitter-sweet human relationship genre defined by Anne Tyler’s novels. I was flattered that it was thought I operate in that difficult genre myself.

I’m also probably guilty of treating my characters as tools to be pushed around to achieve my own ends in terms of writing. For example, I thought it would be a good scene for James to turn up to see Emma at work to tell her he’s been fired (she won’t answer her phone). I had him bring Kim along principally because I wanted to write a bit of Emma, Kim and James having an argument, which is something I enjoyed doing — lots of conflict and dialogue. However, in reality, even if James had gone to break the news to his wife in a five-star hotel then he would have left Kim in the lobby while he did it.

It seems I’m in a very uncomfortable position but one that is really of quite profound significance as getting this feedback shows that I’ve created characters who demand my respect — it’s their story now and I have to let them get on with it. I can’t force a situation on them just because I want to write it. This is really odd. I’ve seen many authors describe this process but even so, it’s quite disconcerting. This perhaps re-inforces the strong views that have been expressed after my readings on the way the characters have come over.

There were also straighforwardly positive comments in the feedback — strong sentences, good description, good dialogue (when it’s serving a purpose) — and it’s re-assuring to have the quality of the actual writing re-affirmed. I’m very self-critical of my prose as I think I write too quickly — beginning sentences without thinking how they’re going to end. In fact it’s been concerns over my self-diagnosed clunky prose that has put me off attempting a novel before.

In the end I e-mailed Emily back and said that I’d taken the comments on board and on reflection they were very helpful and motivating and she e-mailed back saying that being able to act on feedback, particularly if it’s not all glowing and telling you how wonderful it is, is a mark of a ‘true writer’.

As for the ‘Is it any good?’ factor, I’m reminded of the famous Stephen King story about ‘Carrie’ — that he’d thrown a draft away in despair into the wastepaper basket and his wife fished it out, read it and persuaded him to finish it. 50 books later he’s still going strong.

A Meeting with ‘God’

Last Wednesday, as mentioned in a previous post below we had a visit from a real-life commissioning editor — Francesca Main from Simon and Schuster. I think I’d been expecting a visitor from ‘an editor’ so was quite awestruck when Francesca described one large component of her job as being THE person who decided whether to publish a novel or not. I didn’t go quite so far as one of our group who made the blunt, but fairly accurate, observation from our side of the table — ‘You’re like God’.

It turns out that, while aspiring novelists might see the commissioning editor as a deity, that within the publishing house there appears to be a hierarchy of the gods worthy of Greek mythology and that a large part of the editor’s job is to convince the supernatural beings in other departments, notably the marketing department, that a novel is worth taking on.

I won’t go into a great deal of detail about the insights Francesca gave us, fascinating as they were. (I’m conscious these meetings are one of the attractions of the novel writing course so join up for the course next year if you weren’t there and want to find out more). However, I did check with Francesca if it was ok to write up the general drift of her comments on this blog.

There are a few sobering points to mention up front about the commissioning editors job, as it relates to up and coming novelists. Firstly, she almost exclusively deals with agent submissions — and not unsolicited manuscripts. This is an important quality filter that works to the advantage of the writers represented by agents as Francesca will endeavour to make a decision based on the whole of any manuscript that she receives. It’s not judged on the first few pages or chapters — the whole lot is considered. Of course this means the author has to have a completed novel to put forward in the first place — which again is a filter of quality and commitment.

Another sobering aspect is the ratio of novels considered (even those filtered by agents) compared with those published. She receives between two and five novels a day but will tend to only see six to eight novels a year through to publication — which works out at a list of about 25 authors. So in a working year of perhaps 200 days that means she must publish something under 1% of the novels that cross her desk. How much those odds sound depressingly pessimistic depend, I suppose, to the quality of targeting of editors by agents (perhaps some that are rejected are not her genre and so on) and also to the number of other editors also on the lookout for novels (the closer that number gets to 100 then the slightly less glum those odds start to look — once you have an agent).

With such a small percentage selected it’s clear that the editor has to be passionate about the work — something mentioned in the previous post. One comment stuck in my mind — “you must feel you are in good hands” as a reader (i.e. the author has a confident, clear and consistent style and that the reader feels the novel is going somewhere). She also re-iterated the point about avoiding florid prose — the famous over-use of adverbs and adjectives marks out authors trying too hard — but general pretentiousness shows through as well.  Originality and quality of the authorial voice are also clinching factors.

The editor needs to champion the work to the marketers, accountants, publicists, foreign rights department and so on. That’s why throughout the process the people involved have to be completely committed to the novel from the start — author, agent, editor and it helps to have reviewers, booksellers and so on as advocates too.

That’s why the temptation to ask someone like Francesca a question like ‘tell me what I need to write to get published’ needs to be resisted at all costs — not that any of us did — as if we don’t believe in what we’ve written as writers then we can’t expect anyone else to.

And at the end it’s a commercial proposition and it was salutary when the subject of subsequent novels came up. Perhaps surprisingly, debut authors are reasonably attractive to publishers — they’re more newsworthy, possibly more original, perhaps easier to work with and, a factor that seemed surprisingly important, they’re eligible for more literary prizes! There are perhaps as many barriers for the many published authors whose sales figures for their first or second novels haven’t set the world on fire — and they end up dropped from the list. There’s not much an editor can do in that case — even if they have a passion for the works — your books don’t sell and the bookshops won’t buy them. Tough.

The second part of the commissioning editor’s job apart from performing Herculean efforts to get the book published in the first place is to work with the author to improve it. This isn’t a case of checking the spellings — proof readers do that and other readers can also check for continuity and historical consistency and so on. Francesca tends to develop her writers’ novels at a more abstract level. Common issues that might be addressed include the following.

Are the characters real? A writer can write all the great prose in the world but if no-one cares about their characters on an emotional level then they’re in trouble. Structure: writers are ok at beginnings and ends but the middles of novels often need work. It’s also Francesca’s experience that good dialogue is very difficult to write. Also, don’t underestimate the reader — they don’t need every action explaining and, quite often, would err on the side of using their own imaginations where possible — don’t describe everything and every character in great detail.

As for first-time novelists, there’s a temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut — the editor will tend to murder quite a few of the debut-novelist’s babies. That’s why the relationship between the editor and author needs to work — good writers will always value constructive feedback.

It was a fascinating hour and Francesca was answered all our questions with a really useful combination of general advice to us and anecdote from her own experience. In the end, as mentioned previously, there’s no magic bullet — at least beyond the one that gets you through the door called ‘getting an agent’ — and we will meet a real one of those tomorrow evening.

The Eve of St. Agnes

I bought a copy of the latest Magma poetry magazine when I was in London last week. Its cover article was ‘Favourite Erotic Poetry’. I was interested to see how I poem I took along to the March meeting of Metroland poets was selected by a couple of the poets making their selection, including Blake Morrison. It was ‘They Flee From Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a 16th century poet who allegedly had an affair with Ann Boleyn.

One of the choices of the other poets was Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. The erotic element of this poem comes with the legend of the Eve of St.Agnes — a time when apparently young virgins would dream of the man who was going to sweep them off their feet in later life if they lay naked on their beds on that night (or some other tradition approximating to this). Keats is one of the most sensuous poets — I remember having ‘purple stained mouth’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ being explained to me when I was doing him for A-level.

It was quite a revelation to come back to the poem after years — for some reason its phrase ‘a dwarfish Hildebrand’ has popped into mind quite regularly in the intervening time although I didn’t realise where it came from. In the poem Keats uses a couple of star-crossed lovers  — Madeleine and Porphyro. Madeleine is some sort of aristocratic girl, whose chambers are guarded by old nurses. The eroticism happens when Porphyro manages to wheedle his way past Madeleine’s protectors and hides unseen in her room while she strips off and prepares herself for the St.Agnes ritual.

Perhaps it was latent all along but I’d been toying with the idea of something similar at the start of The Angel. The idea is that Kim and James end up together in a similar sort of situation (except facilitated by the after effects of a drunken night out). I think I’ve worked out plot devices for both to be in the same situation. I won’t add more, partly because I need to think it through a bit further, and partly to keep a bit of suspense.

On a related subject, one of my coursemates — whose blog (Bren Gosling’s ‘Evolution of My Novel’ is referenced from the sidebar — wondered whether I was giving out too much of the plot of the novel on this blog. If anyone has any comment on that I’d be interested to hear it. I don’t think I give out enough information for my ideas to be copied and ripped off but it might be possible that anyone be following instalments of the novel (or even just waiting to read it when it’s finished in its entirety) might find some plot spoilers in here. (I’ve probably given the biggest plot spoiler to people on the course already with my short fire scene from last term.)

Here are a couple of stanzas of Keats’ ‘Eve of St.Agnes’ that allude to what might happen later in The Angel:

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,

As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,

Save wings, for heaven: – Porphyro grew faint:

She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;

Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:

Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,

Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,

In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,

But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

‘Sweat Me Garlicky’

We had to take along a published poem (by someone else) to Metroland Poets last night on the theme of ‘Poems to Read Aloud’. There was a very varied and entertaining selection ranging from ballads by Walter Scott to Edwin Morgan’s famous ‘Loch Ness Monster’s Song’.

I made a choice in about five minutes flat but was quite pleased with the poem that came to mind. It’s ‘Cooking with Blood’ by Linda France, which is featured, along with an interview with the poet, in the Open University’s ‘Creative Writing’ course (A215). Click on this link for the poem and an opportunity to hear her read it out.

Again there’s a link with The Angel as it’s all about cooking (in the section I’m workshopping on Monday James tells Kim about his passion for food). It’s also dedicated to Delia Smith in a way. Delia is someone I’ve loved even more since her famously tired and emotional appearance on the pitch at half time at a Norwich City game.

I get the feeling she’s far less prim and proper than supposed ‘edgier’ cooks like Nigella and Jamie Oliver (who I think, to use Kim’s vocabulary, is a bit of a tw*t).

‘Cooking with Blood’ was inspired when Linda France was looking through the index of a cookery book, probably Delia’s, and found all kinds of exotic names for dishes and techniques. What people found quite remarkable when I read the poem was the amazing use of these names as verbs in the poem. ‘Wouldn’t we sausage lots of little quichelets’, ‘She played en papilotte/for just long enough to sweat me garlicky’, ‘I’ve stroganoffed with too many of them’, ‘[I] triped
myself into a carcass’.

Making imaginative use of verbs (and, in fact creating new verbs like this) is something that I don’t really do enough of in my own writing — probably because I do it too quickly. I’ve got the opportunity to experiment a little in this way in my next chapter when I get James and Kim completely plastered. I’d like to try and hint at their altered states of consciousness by attempting to play with language in the same sort of way.

The poem also appeals to me as it’s very sensual. There’s clearly a link between food and sex in the poem (even as far as talking about procreation) but it’s amusing and thought-provoking: ‘After I’d peppered her liver, stuffed her goose/
and dogfished her tender loins, she was paté/in my hands’ and ‘We danced the ossobuco;/her belly kedgeree, her breasts prosciutto.’ I think this poem must have tapped into my subconscious quite deeply as I tend to return to similar elements in my writing: people say it’s quite physical. I tend to write a lot about what people do with their hands and their body appearance.On Monday in the workshop I’m sure it will be noted that James is something of a compulsive breast watcher (well, he’s done it twice once with each of the women). I’ve played this up deliberately for mild amusement but I’m starting on the journey to finding my writing ‘voice’ and I think I’m always going to have a theme of the physical and sensuous. I’ve done the same in ‘Burying Bad News’ with Frances imagining herself and other people with physical attributes of grape varities. It’s interesting as I’m not a touchy-feely type person in normal life at all — I just seem to write about it.

One of the women poets was surprised that ‘Cooking with Blood’ was written by a woman as she thought its tone was quite male. Perhaps that’s down to the physicality of its approach as opposed to the more metaphysical, spiritual tone she might have expected in a poem with a similar message written from a more conventionally ‘female’ point of view. I’m not so sure there really is such a gender bias in reality between male and female writers. At least three of the male novelists on the course are writing from female points of view and Eileen writes in a very convincingly masculine voice in her novel extracts. However, there’s no doubt that many readers form expectations about reading a novel just by reading the gender of the author. That, famously, is why J.K.Rowling is known by her initials — the publishers didn’t think their initial market of teen boys would want to read a book written by someone called Joanne.

A Couple of Points About the Site

I’ve added an RSS link to The Guardian’s Book Blog site. I was looking at this site earlier today and there are plenty of interesting articles referenced from the blog — not just the latest three that pop up in the sidebar under RSS — so adding the link on the blog will hopefully remind me to take a look there a bit more often.

Also in the sidebar, under Recent Comments, is one from Carole Blake commenting on the Crisis of Confidence post. Quite remarkably, this is the author of the book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that was referenced in the post. She is a leading London literary agent and is the Blake in the Blake Friedmann literary agency which, I discovered by a nice co-incidence is based about 200 yards from the office I worked in for five years near Mornington Crescent tube station. Her comment is fairly self-explanatory but it goes without saying that it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find that she had been reading this blog.

First Extract Sent Off

I was hoping to write something brand new for the reading in the class on Saturday but got a bit bogged down. I’m still hoping to write something on the new novel, even if it is a collection of fragments, for the tutorial with Alison.

For the reading I looked at what I’d written most recently for ‘Burying Bad News’ and was guided by the 2,250 word limit more than anything else in picking two of the sections set in Oxford, which came to about 2,500 words. They are when Sally and Ana are roaming the streets and when Sally argues with Emily Smiley. They’re mostly dialogue, which will be interesting as I’ve had a quick scan through some of the other extracts sent around for reading and, as might seem sensible at this part of the course, they’re first chapters of novels so set the scene for the rest of the story and tend to have a lot less dialogue. I wonder if picking something out from the middle of my novel will totally confuse everyone. The problem is that the novel doesn’t have a chapter one yet!

I knocked off a quick 500 words of ‘Gravediggers’ for Swan Supping. This is basically a more comedic version of ‘The Angel’ but allows me to try a few things out for ‘The Angel’. Again it’s almost exclusively dialogue with a reference at the beginning to a famous work which might set some expectation about what may happen in the end. Click here to read: Gravediggers Part 3

John Banville’s Character

Just watched another old episode of ‘The Book Show’. This one had an interview with Man Booker prize winning author, John Banville. He was asked about a literary character that intrigued him and he chose Cheeta from ‘Me Cheeta’ — which is a book that I’ve dipped into but not fully read. He said it might be best interpeted as a gay love story as Cheeta is clearly in love with Johnny Weismuller.

A Useful Resource for Novelists?

“Most of the time I just lie there and make lists in my head. I grunt once in a while so he knows I’m awake, and then I tell him how great it was when it’s over.”

I was watching an old edition of The Book Show with Mariella Frostrup and they asked novelist Tony Parsons what was on his bedside table.  Among other books he said he found ‘Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivation from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between)’ by  Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss to have been a fascinating and invaluable resource, particularly for a male novelist (and it’s not just about women it has plenty in there too about men).

I found this interesting review from The Guardian — which cites the above quotation from the book, which I thought might not be out of place in a novel.  

Two Sections of ‘Burying Bad News’ to Read

 Here are the fruits of my labours of approximately the past six weeks — about 12,300 words in two sections. That’s about 12-15% of a whole novel by a rough estimation so I’m reasonably pleased with the amount I’ve done. The longer piece (working title ‘Bird and Baby’) is the more revised and redrafted of the two. It’s taken an awful lot of hours to produce that. The other one could probably benefit from a couple more redrafts.

Taken together, they give a reasonably good overview of the characters in the novel — the five principal characters are all featured between the two pieces. The two are fairly contemporaneous in terms of plot sequence too. I would probably divide the longer piece and use the shorter one to intercut it.  

In both I’ve tried to combine some character exposition with plot development. In ‘Bird and Baby’ I’ve also tried to reveal my character Robert Cross’s political views (I’ve actually made him a secret lefty) so I go into his opinions on things as weighty as the Iraq war. Hopefully the political exposition isn’t too tedious as I’ve brought in other characters and plot elements.

I found that this section expanded enormously as I was writing it — almost in the fabled way that writers talk about when they say characters take over. I threw in a few chance meetings to break up the scene and found that the interaction with the characters created whole new scenes I’d not anticipated. The same happened with a pair of shoes.

There’s a bit of self-reflexiveness in that there’s a fair amount that discusses writing and the English language — and there’s also a bit of a rant about getting published.

A read of the latest synopsis should hopefully give some context to these two sections.  This first (‘Bird and Baby’) comes when Sally has got to know Robert Cross (the minister) reasonably well in her subterfuge as a supposed wine-writer. She’s arranged to meet him in Oxford when he’s doing constituency business so she can hopefully try to press him on his political views. She starts the novel as a committed enemy — the references to the demonstration outside the Oxford Union and the aggressive woman are to Sally as a political agitator — she was the tormentor but is trying to keep that hidden.

Sally is also responsible for having started a rumour that Cross is having a sexual affair with Ana. This has reached the press, via her political contacts. The story is just starting to break in the second section — Wendover Station.

Spot the carefully hidden references to Nancy Sinatra and Little Richard.

Click here to read ‘Bird and Baby’ (9,024 words): Bird and Baby — v44 — featuring Sally, Robert and Ana

Click here to read ‘Wendover Station’ (3,323 words): Wendover Station v12 — featuring Frances and Declan

The letter referred to in ‘Bird and Baby’ really exists and is exactly in the place described. I referred to my own photo when I was writing about it.

Inkling Letter from Eagle and Child
Inkling Letter from Eagle and Child

Should anyone have any comments then it’s possible to add them to the end of this blog post. I can also mail Word files if anyone’s really keen to suggest any changes.