As this post was written on Hallowe’en, it ‘s very appropriate that it’s about a rather flesh-creeping novel.
I’ve previously posted about my fellow MMU MA graduate, Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s, debut novel, The Black Country, when its publication was a few weeks away. Then I wrote about how I’d seen the novel develop during our course’s workshopping sessions in the first two years of the course.
So I couldn’t wait to get hold of the book and read how the final, published version compared with what I’d remembered. Amazingly, those workshop sessions were back in 2011 and 2012 — well over three years ago — the workshopping each others’ writing part of the course being in the spring term of the first two years.
Kerry has had some great reviews for The Black Country, including one in the Independent on Sunday and a piece on the Black Country (the geographical area, not the novel) written by Kerry herself that was published in the Metro — see photo on the left. As I know from observation on the 0744, the Metro shares its readership with many voracious consumers of novels so I hope this was a well-targeted piece of publicity.
I don’t think Kerry is a regular commuter herself, benefiting from what’s possibly a less frenetic working lifestyle in the Black Country. The day the Metro article was published she hadn’t actually managed to get hold of a physical copy of the paper.
Discarded on trains and tubes, copies of the newspaper disappear very quickly indeed, especially in London, where their dispense points are filled in the afternoon by the Evening Standard. However, I managed to save the day by finding a couple of spare copies left over in my local station, which were dispatched, post haste, up to the Black Country. Kerry kindly signed a copy of the novel for me in return.
I read the novel very quickly. That’s partly because it’s very concise (about 170 pages) and also because it’s difficult to put down. Having finished the novel I can’t add much to what I previously posted based on the sections I remembered from the course. To do so would risk giving away too many spoilers to those who take up my recommendation and buy the book.
I did, eventually, discover the identity of the narrator, which had been on of the most intriguing aspects of the novel during the course and one that Kerry had refused to reveal. I was certainly surprised when all became clear — and if I can be surprised after two years of reading and commenting on sections of the novel then I’m sure other readers will find the way the novel develops equally gripping.
As I’d hoped, reading the novel in the light of having read earlier drafts of substantial parts was a fascinating experience. I remembered some sections very clearly while, at least according to my memory, others had been reworked, with familiar passages appearing among what seemed to be new writing. Of course, the various aspects of editing are fundamental to the publishing process but it’s been a unique insight to compare memories of the original text with the printed book. It’s a testament to the quality of Kerry’s writing on the course that there are long passages that appear completely unchanged from the MA workshop sessions. There are many such passages of excellent, evocative prose, particularly describing the uniquely dour, post-industrial landscape of the Black Country itself.
Kerry’s biography states that she’s been teaching creative writing at secondary school level for a number of years and has also been writing herself for a considerable time. On reflection, perhaps The Black Country illustrates the experience she brought along to the MA course.
Whereas others may have started the course with the proverbial blank page and used the workshop sessions to experiment and shape the direction of their novels, I feel Kerry had a good idea at the outset of how and where she wanted to go with The Black Country, perhaps not in mechanical terms, such as the exact plot, but certainly with the tone, the characters of the protagonists and the identity of that narrator.
That confidence certainly seems to be in evidence in the published version of the novel — and was no doubt a major factor in Salt’s when they decision to buy the novel. From a creative writing MA perspective, The Black Country is an admirable piece of work — succinct and focused unerringly on what it wants to say and the innovative way it wants to say it — without a word wasted. I’m sure the MMU MA course and the input of the lecturers and other students was invaluable in helping Kerry hone and test her bold ideas.
I’d like to urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Black Country, although I do feel I should point out that, as the title suggests, its contents are rather on the dark side and, while bleak, psychological novels are currently popular, the novel definitely mines the more depraved aspects of the human condition
So many congratulations to Kerry to be the first of my writing friends whose work from a course has made it through to publication. I’m hoping I’ll see plenty more in the future.
I read a beautifully written guest post recently on Isabel Costello’s blog The Literary Sofa. It was by Antonia Honeywell whose novel The Ship was published earlier this year and was one of Isabel’s picks for 2015.
The post describes her perseverance in continuing to write novels when they failed to find a publisher, even though the second book was picked up by an agent, who also represented the third. She makes the analogy between writing the novels and children’s sandcastles on a beach — impermanent structures that will inevitably be washed away by the tide but we are still somehow compelled to construct them. She makes the point that the enjoyment of the act of creation itself is fulfilling — the results aren’t expected to endure.
One reader commented that after reading the post he was glad he’d stuck to writing short stories and not novels! And the post has been written from a point in time where Antonia has been able to celebrate the publication of her debut novel, although it appears to be the fourth she’s actually completed.
But the post resonated with many others who commented and makes the point that such is the effort and discipline required to achieve publication (with Antonia’s fourth time success being more typical than the lucky first-time novelist) that it’s essential that anyone who sets out on a major writing project enjoys the process of writing itself because that might have to sustain you for a long time. (I’m sure this is a factor behind writers seeking out courses, writing groups and the likes — because these can give affirmation about your writing from a reader’s perspective, albeit a very different one to that of either the book-buying reader or an agent or author.)
As the photograph above suggests, I often apply a more conventional metaphor to the writing process than washed-away sandcastles — long-distance running.
At the weekend I ran the Thame 10k race. It might just be possible to see my not very impressive time of 58 minutes 47 seconds on the timing slip on the photo — but I completed it in under an hour, which was my modest objective. I’m hoping for a similar pace at slightly more than double the distance in ten days time when I enter the Wycombe Half Marathon for about the fifth or six year running (if you excuse the pun).
Earlier in June I competed in the most lunatic and masochistic race — the 6k Coombe Hill run — which is apparently the only fell race in the south of England. Like the Thame and Wycombe races, this isn’t a fun run, it’s officially licenced by UK Athletics and organised by Aylesbury Vale Athletics Club.
The race starts with a solid mile of running up the Ridgeway on a gradient of about one in ten, although it’s steeper in places. Then after a steep descent the runners have to scramble up a 190m near-vertical climb (some people use their hands as well as feet) to the top of the Chiltern Hills highest viewpoint — the war memorial on the top of Coombe Hill. It’s as far removed from a running track as is imaginable and overlooks Chequers.
I once bumped into David Cameron doing the Sport Relief Mile at a local sports club. I’d rather enjoy seeing him huffing and scrambling along if he decided to enter the race held closest to his weekend country pile.
I managed to drag myself around that course, having been persuaded to do it by the postman, who’s involved in the club that organises it! Like a Home Counties Everest, I did it because it was there. It wasn’t quite as gruelling as I expected. Not knowing the course and fearing the worst, I paced myself on the long uphill too cautiously, trying to leave something in reserve. I didn’t need to call on it in the end — but it was still bloody tough. (Is there a writing metaphor in there somewhere?)
I tend to amble along towards the end of the field in these races. I must be reasonably fit to complete the distances but I ‘m not a natural distance runner. Like James in my novel, I’m physically built more like a rugby player (though more of a back than a forward!) than a rival to Mo Farah — and that’s without the evidence of enjoying too much good food and drink that I carry around my waist to a greater or lesser extent depending on how virtuous I’ve been recently. But there’s something about running that seems to resonate with writers.
I’ve read many articles, interviews and blogs where writers reveal that they’re keen runners (Claire King’s blog entry has particularly stuck in my mind).
One thing writers appreciate is the solitude of running (except if, like me, you occasionally scramble up a hill where you almost need to use handholds with a couple of hundred others).
It’s a different solitude to sitting in front of a computer typing away. It engages you with the outside world but in a slightly removed, distant manner that appeals to writers: you’re passing through, observing, watching, experiencing the sounds and smells and, if you’re running at any sort of pace at all, physically connecting with the environment in an intense way.
You’re breathing in huge lungfuls of air, so being at one with the weather (warm, freezing, humid, wet) and acutely aware of the ground under your feet — the sapping hard stone on the Victoria Embankment or the wonderful bounce from the soil on a Chilterns footpath that’s been drying in late Spring.
As I’ve said, I’m almost embarrassingly poor as a competitive runner, but I drag myself out in my trainers because some runs can be so pleasurable they verge on transcendent experiences. I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to run through fields full of wildflowers and butterflies, a slog up a steep hill being rewarded with amazing views as far as the Cotswolds.
I try to fix these moment in my memory as a moment to remember, a reminder of how precious it is to be alive in that second and be grateful that I’m fit enough to experience it.
And its not just running through countryside that can be exhilarating. I’ve been fortunate enough to use a gym in the bowels of a prominent building in Westminster. I’ve often emerged from there in my running gear to do circuits of the Royal Parks (from St. James’s via Green to a loop around the Serpentine in Hyde Park and back) and to run along the river from Westminster Bridge up to the Millennium Bridge (or Tower Bridge if I’m really energetic) back along the South Bank. That’s an incredible way to get different, slightly detached perspective on London and an amazingly concentrated piece of sightseeing.
For a writer, running gets you away from the desk and out into a different environment with new stimuli and the thinking time it imposes can be invaluable. Characters, plot ideas, ways of resolving problems can all be reflected on without any feeling of compulsion to get something down on the page.
Sometimes this freedom becomes a bit worrying — when I’ve come up with some idea I like about 3km into a 10km run I become paranoid that by the time I’m out of the shower it’ll have disappeared from my mind.
And sometimes I’ll use the undisturbed time on my own to indulge in something that demands my mental concentration but not any physical presence — listening to The Archers’ omnibus and Desert Island Discs on a Sunday morning run is a particular pleasure.
But above its practical benefits, I’m sure writers appreciate running as a metaphor for the process of creating their work. The analogy works at several levels. Both are usually solitary activities and they need self-discipline and determination to be applied to reach a goal — finishing the section, chapter or book and completing whatever distance you choose to run.
In training you’re usually running against self-imposed targets: try to run under a 10 minute mile or complete a 10k in under an hour is like achieving a target word count (although with writing there’s little danger of being stranded miles from home if you don’t make it). Even in a race, you tend to compete against personal targets (your personal best — PB) rather than try to outrun everyone ahead.
It’s difficult to motivate myself to get going with either writing or running (the infamous displacement activities, like filling the dishwasher, often suddenly demanding priority) but, once started, I realise how much I enjoy both. Writing has the edge here as it’s not quite so physically demanding. (Unlike running, energy can be restored with a cup of strong coffee — as happened last week when I was working to a deadline so intensively that I stayed writing until 4.15am — when I got up from my computer the sky was becoming light.)
Running has its downsides as exercise. While it has cardiovascular benefits (my resting heartbeat is reassuringly low), it hammers other parts of your body. I’ve had tendonitis, an MRI scan on a knee (fortunately revealing nothing worse than normal wear and tear) and a number of accidents. Last autumn I tripped while running the Ridgeway near the Whiteleaf Cross and hurtled into a bed of exposed flint. Fortunately I was able to run home, albeit covered in blood and dirt and nursing a broken thumb, which was in a splint for the next six weeks.
Luckily, writing isn’t so physically dangerous but it can be just as brutal in terms of its demands on free time and the sacrifices required to embark on the huge task of writing a novel — the Coombe Hill race with its ‘climb the biggest hill the hardest way possible’ ethos is an apt comparison.
The different distances in running offer up parallels. Maybe a short poem or a piece of flash fiction is like running the 100m? The short, intense product of a lot of training. A short story might be more middle distance — 800m perhaps — with elements of the long haul but still speedy.
A novel is pure marathon. Metaphors abound. Consider the gruelling preparation, the need to hang in there for long haul when every sensible muscle in your body wants to stop, the inevitability of hitting ‘the wall’ — yet all these masochistic hardships are forgotten in the glow of satisfaction of achieving the goal. (I have to imagine this as, despite entering the ballot for London several times, I’ve never run a marathon but I’ve done several half-marathons, which are pretty tough.)
And the process of getting your writing published stands comparison with running a long, tough race. Some people don’t enter, despite having the ability to complete. Some shoot off ahead: maybe they succeed quickly; maybe they burn out with exhaustion. Others, having started, calculate the effort isn’t worth the reward and withdraw.
Sometimes the course is uneven — a steep downhill slop where you pick up speed and think you’re rushing ahead is followed by a lung-busting, leg-trembling climb that leaves you wondering why on earth you chose to put yourself through this ordeal in the first place. But with friends and bystanders cheering you on, offering moral support, you pace yourself — discover the limits of what you’re able to put into the race, dig deep and realise you’re still enjoying it.
As happens in the Wycombe Half Marathon, you might pass very close to the finishing line but then be directed away for a further agonising stretch before you turn into the last straight but with the finishing line appearing to be way in the distance. But if you keep on moving, you’ll keep on closing in. If you stop you’ll never make it.
Update: 12th July 2015
As mentioned above, I entered the Wycombe Half Marathon this year, as I have for the last five years or so. It’s a course for masochists as it has a huge hill right at the start (up through Wycombe Abbey).
Running the race today, I had plenty of chance to put my ruminations on perseverance into practice. I’d run a relatively comfortable race at a slow(ish) but achievable pace (on course for a finish between 2hrs 10 and 2hrs 15) when at the 8 mile stage I felt a sharp pain on my forehead. I’d been stung by some sort of insect. I tend to react badly and unpredictably to insect stings and bites and I was worried enough about an adverse reaction to run back to the water station and ask a marshal if I could be checked by the first aiders.
At one point they wanted to take me to the minor injuries unit at Wycombe hospital but I managed to get seen by the St. John Ambulance people instead. I didn’t seem to have any bad reaction apart from the sting itself so they gave me an antihistamine tablet. This all took so long (I had to fill in forms and so on) that the last runners were just passing as I finished. I was given the option of a lift back to the finish but I decided I’d carry on running and try to complete the remaining five miles — as the last runner in the race. I managed to catch a few of the other runners so didn’t have the ignominy of finishing last and I even managed a little surge at the finish to beat the 2hr 40 mark by a few seconds. Then it was into the St. John Ambulance medical tent to be checked over by the nurse.
‘Are you feeling short of breath?’
‘Well, no more than usual after running 13 miles!’
I hesitated outside the venue, sweat beading on my brow, nervous about what would await me inside.
I stepped over the threshold, walked into the bar, checking the place out – fairly empty, a mix of tourists and ale drinkers — not the gang I was gunning for. After all, it was a pub that was well known for its beer – but it wasn’t a need for anything alcoholic that I’d made the journey up to London. (If I’d have wanted beer I wouldn’t have passed up the invitation I’d been offered to visit a brewery on this very day. Isn’t that what real men did at the weekend?) I was looking for novelists – romantic novelists – mean, hard-scribbling people.
They must be upstairs, holed-up in the function room already, the inner sanctum, doing whatever a group of women do in a place where, I guessed, no men dared to tread. I climbed fearfully up the staircase. Would I have to knock or would I stand there in the doorway, faced by heads turning faster and faster revealing stares of incredulity and shock. ‘What is hedoing here?’
And then I woke up . It was still Saturday morning. I could change my mind — and go to the brewery visit instead — not the London Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association as I’d planned. I’ve blogged before (and on the RNA’s own blog) about the perceived gender issues associated with the romantic genre — and how, in reality, I’ve discovered there not to be any problems at all. But it’s one thing sending in a manuscript or e-mailing a blog post remotely and another actually meeting people face-to-face.
So deciding to go along to the London Chapter meeting of the RNA at the end of April did take a bit of courage — and maybe the thought of a little of the Dutch sort was quite appealing as the meeting was held above the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Like most people, I expect most of my trepidation was because I’d be walking into a meeting not knowing anyone while anticipating that everyone else would have been friends for years. But there was still an element of anxiety at being male and walking into what was likely to be an overwhelmingly female meeting, if not exclusively.
But, I rationalise, that’s a good experience for a writer — there must be many occasions when women feel ‘different’ walking into a predominantly male gathering — and the feeling of being ‘other’ must, by definition, be common for people from minority backgrounds.
In the event, I was sweating uncomfortably when I did walk into the room but this was less to do with any nervousness at arriving at the meeting and more connected with having walked all the way from the Euston Road on a humid day.
Needless to say, I was actually made to feel extremely welcome by the organisers and, among the twenty-five or so attendees, there were two other men — one a husband of a member and another a writer. There were also a few other first-timers, including a very pleasant woman writer, whose husband had a job that almost cries out for novel treatment itself. He is Elvis. Or at least an Elvis tribute who is so popular overseas that he takes a whole touring show out to places like China. He apparently started off in a karaoke competition in a pub and it took off to the extent it eclipsed his day job and he went to being Elvis full-time. It shows how careers can grow out of hobbies.
While it was a very sociable occasion, I was struck by hard-headed attitude of many of the established writers. This wasn’t a meeting that was the sort of exaggerated stereotype that some might imagine — of sighs over Christian Grey or discussion on Mr Darcy. It was the opposite — it was as business-like as any other conference or trade association meeting I’ve been to. For the more established writers, romantic fiction is a very much a business — one that provides an enjoyable and fulfilling livelihood.
This theme was emphasised by the guest speaker, Victoria Connelly, who gave a fascinating and very informative talk about how she juggles both traditional and self-published routes to market. As Victoria’s website shows, she’s written a very impressive back catalogue of books and her choice in publishing and marketing many of these titles herself (also employing her husband to help her) shows that once an author builds a market and readership then the self-publishing option can be as financially viable as traditional routes and allows much more independence for the author.
After the meeting I felt encouraged and invigorated by spending time with a group of writers who were not only friendly and welcoming but great examples of people who approach writing practically and successfully.
As mentioned in a previous post, I was also in London on that day to hear one of my short stories being read to an audience. Fay and Sabina, organisers of Studio 189′s Spring Ball, had heard Alex Woodhall’s excellent reading of Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? at Liars’ League last year and when they had the idea of ‘something literary’ to entertain their guests on the evening, wondered if a repeat performance could be arranged.
I was flattered to have been asked and fortunately Alex was free to repeat his performance. Studio 189 has a wonderful secluded garden, which where the Spring Ball’s entertainment had been planned — we’d earlier had a spectacular performance from an opera singer. However, the heavens opened and Alex had to do the reading inside. This meant grabbing the attention of the whole party for the duration of the story (there was nowhere to escape but into the rain).
It’s testimony to the effectiveness of Alex’s performance that the audience remained captivated by the reading for the full fifteen minutes or so of the story — with no audible side-conversations or distracted chat. And it was a big audience. Apparently over a hundred guests were at the party. It’s an exhilarating and addictive feeling to hear the words you’ve written providing pleasure and entertainment. Reading the expressions on the audience’s faces is much more immediate feedback on your writing than comments made a reader’s had some time to reflect (as happens with written work).
Oddly enough, it had been well over a year since I’d written the story and, perhaps I’d had too much wine, but I’d forgotten some of the details and some of the writing actually surprised me!
So thanks to Alex (who recently read another Liars’ League story in London) and Fay and Sabina who are organising several other intriguing events at Studio 189 — the latest being a sushi school and a comedy night.
It’s taken me a while to write it up (and apologies for the cryptic placeholder message that’s been on this site for a week or so) but that Saturday in April demonstrated several facets of the writers’ life — that, for most, it’s a business that needs hard work and a commercial focus but that knowing people enjoy something that you’ve created is immensely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that many other professions aren’t.
I’ll be going to the RNA Conference in July and look forward to meeting many other friendly and professionals writers there — and with much less trepidation.
Don’t forget that Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? is still available to download as a Kindle book from Amazon along with three other Liars’ League stories of mine. I’m afraid the free promotional days have been used up for the time being and it’s currently £1.99 — but that’s still less than the price of even a Prêt coffee.
I revealed, rather coyly, in this blog post earlier in the year that I’d been accepted on the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. When I mention this to people in conversation I occasionally receive the polite astonishment that I imagine a woman bricklayer might experience or a female pest-controller.
Seeing as a woman once climbed around my loft removing a wasps’ nest quickly and efficiently why should it be strange that a man might be a member of a Romantic Novelists’ Association scheme? Nevertheless, I’m subliminally tempted to add ‘No, I’m not planning to change gender or anything else. I’m still male’ – and during last week being able to point to the temporary beard I was forced to grow a beard after I fell over while out running — cutting my chin and breaking my thumb!
Entering a world popularly associated with the opposite gender is an illuminating experience — and valuable for a writer. Not that I’ve encountered any sexism at all through my membership of the scheme. The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) appears extremely keen to be inclusive towards men, as I’m sure it towards everyone, and there are men who are full members of the RNA. I found a couple by Googling, although one writes under a female pseudonym and another specialises in male-male fiction and I’m doing neither of those. (I must point out that I can’t be a full member of the RNA myself until I have a suitable book published.)
Nevertheless, there are cultural perceptions about how men’s ability or desire to write romantic fiction. I’ve been reminded a few times of the discussion earlier this year on the Today programme between Jojo Moyes and Cathy Kelly on whether ‘men can make good romantic fiction writers’.
That’s an interesting question to think about while I’m writing today – the publication date of David Nicholls’s new novel Us –which brings up all sorts of issues about gender stereotyping of marketing and covers and reviews and so on, which could occupy a whole different blog post, maybe after I’ve read it. (I was surprised to read so many positive reviews of the novel in the weekend broadsheets after all the sniffiness about its Booker longlisting.)
However, any ribbing in the pub will be, ahem, small beer compared to the brilliant benefits of my membership of the RNA New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which have surpassed all my expectations.
For those who haven’t yet discovered it, the RNA NWS allows all its members to take part in RNA activities but offers the invaluable service of using the expertise of one of a panel of 50 established authors to review each member’s full length novel manuscript.
Unsurprisingly the scheme is very heavily oversubscribed and reaches capacity within minutes when applications open each January. I tried and failed to join a couple of years ago but this year had better luck. The deadline for submitting a manuscript is the end of August, although well-organised writers submit theirs well in advance to avoid the last minute rush.
Of course I wasn’t one of them. Mine was sent in around 29th August. Given the manuscript’s substantial size I wasn’t expecting to get a response for several weeks. So I was stunned by its amazingly quick turnaround – within about three weeks. And I was taken aback by the wonderfully detailed and insightful report that I received from my reader (as the scheme is run anonymously all I know about her is that she is, indeed, a she).
While the scheme is intended for ‘romantic fiction’ this definition can include novels that might also be thought to belong in other genres provided it meets the criteria that ‘romantic content and love interest are integral to the story’. I’d like to think of my novel as ‘accessible literary fiction’, perhaps the sort of book in the intersection between mass-market and ‘literariness’ that reading groups often choose (my wild optimism is creeping in here).
While the novel’s narrative is anchored against the relationships between the two chief protagonists, it’s also full of content that I wouldn’t have expected to crop up in traditional romantic fiction — as a glance at some posts on this blog might suggest (spray painting street art, tapping and spiling barrels in pub cellars, TV cookery shows, German modernist artists, dodgy photos, ancient monuments and so on).
Therefore, when I received the manuscript back I was a little worried that perhaps the reason for its remarkably quick turnaround would be that only the first few chapters had been read and ‘Wrong Genre’ would be written on the title page in huge red letters.
It wasn’t — which was a huge relief and maybe showed up some preconceptions on my part about romantic fiction — preconceptions that were completely blown away when I started to scan the comprehensive reader’s report which started with the reader saying she enjoyed reading it. Phew!
The reader’s skill and experience clearly identified the conflict that propels the narrative — where two people meet, begin to realise how desperately they need each other but have to overcome huge obstacles in their way — and obstacles that they may not surmount. And if deciding who’s the person you want to spend the rest of your life with — and then trying to make it happen — isn’t a question worthy of a romantic novel then I’m not sure what is.
I needn’t have worried about the content either – my reader wasn’t at all shocked or surprised or puzzled by what was in the novel. All her comments were constructive – and, in the spirit of the best feedback, considered the writing on the terms of what it was trying to achieve rather than through any subjective personal preferences. That said, all feedback was made with the experienced critical eye of an author who was focused on how to get a manuscript into commercially publishable shape.
I can only go on my experience of what I received back from my reader but it consisted of a lengthy report on the whole novel – andshe’d gone through the manuscript and noted typos and formatting issues in pencil. This was the result of the investment of a considerable amount of time – so I’m glad she said she enjoyed reading the novel.
I mentioned in a covering letter that the novel had been workshopped through the MA and City University courses and workshopped with coursemates and tutors – and my reader was generous enough to say that ‘it showed’ (I’m interpreting that as a compliment!) I’m sure the RNA NWS readers wouldn’t hold back out of politeness if a manuscript was technically flawed or was full of poorly-written prose. However, one of the most valuable aspects of the report for me was that it casts a fresh eye over the whole novel from the perspective of a new reader — and, as the report carefully pointed out — the type of reader who’d most likely be the commercial target audience for the novel.
This brings an entirely different viewpoint to feedback received on a creative writing course from a tutor or fellow students – people who’ve provided expert, generous and vital feedback but who’ve also become familiar with the book’s evolution over an extended period — and have read it in three- or five-thousand word extracts over a long period.
Both approaches are, of course, extremely useful and complementary but the RNA NWS reader was in a position to focus on points that I’d begun to lose sight of through familiarity and through the way the novel has changed over time. She was able to remind me about bringing to the fore the aspects of a character or plot that a reader might instinctively root for (or be less engaged by) — and where to place the events that motor plot forward (and where to relax the pace).
Principles of narrative technique and structure aretaught on creative writing courses but, given the limited size of extracts that can be workshopped in a course environment, they’re necessarily difficult to assess over a novel-length work — and unless your course lasts forever they’re impossible to work on as exercises.
While the reader commented from a perspective of commercial marketability, she certainly didn’t do so from a ‘dumbed-down’ perspective. Obviously a well-read book-lover outside as well she referred me to a book translated from Dutch which proves that as well as being an authority on romance that she’s also well-read outside the genre.
The report was crammed with so much useful comment that I was prompted to write my own response to it where I took all the points and listed most of them out in ‘to-do’ list fashion – and I’ve been ticking them off.
There are also points that I’m going to need to reflect on carefully. The report picks up some elements in the novel that are deliberately subversive and individual and, while I want the writing to work as well as possible, I want to ensure I preserve everything that might make the novel quirky and original (a word used approvingly by the reader about the heroine).
Nevertheless, the recommendations for change are about aspects of the novel that can are easily fixable — essentially honing and tweaking the writing incrementally — rather than having to address major flaws. The report was sprinkled with some very complementary words — reading these made my week. I won’t repeat them here but they provided encouragement to get on and put the revisions into the manuscript. Having received this extremely useful feedback from the RNA NWS, I’m relieved that I’m still yet to properly start the submission process to agents in earnest. Once I’ve worked through the feedback through the novel can’t fail to be stronger.
I’d imagine the RNA NWS offers something different to the various manuscript assessment services available because it’s an initiative that aims to help writers become eligible for its professional membership (and I’d love to go along to the RNA events, although I admit I’d be a little hesitant before walking through the door.) Based on my own experience (an admittedly small sample of one) I’d wholeheartedly recommend the RNA NWS to anyone whose novel fulfils the acceptance criteria (see above and the RNA website).
I’d like to thank the organiser, Melanie Hilton, for finding me such a suitable, knowledgeable and diligent reader who, though anonymous, knows via Melanie that I’ve passed on my deep gratitude.
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.
As mentioned in my Blog Hop post from last week, the relay has continued this Monday with three writers from my MA Creative Writing course taking up the baton. All are great posts about three fascinating novels.
I’ve seen drafts of Kerry Hadley’s novel The Black Country while workshopping on the Manchester Metropolitan University course. She describes it very well in her post — a story that skilfully reveals a very dark core from an ostensibly everyday suburban situation. And the narrator plays an intriguing role that’s still a mystery to me, having not had the chance to read the complete novel. Kerry’s blog is at: http://kerryhadley.weebly.com/kerrys-blog/another-blog-hop
Anne is working on a new piece of writing, House of Scars, which is in the science fiction and/or fantasy genres, as was her work on the MA course. In her previous work, Anne showed her talent at creating a credible , dystopian world — inhabited by characters the reader can immediately relate to. To do this in an alternative reality seems a lot harder task to me than placing a novel in the contemporary world where the reader can bring their own points of reference to the writing. Anne originally comes from Denmark but the quality of her writing is so fluent you’d never suspect she comes from the trendy land of Scandi-noir and this year’s Eurovision. Anne’s blog is at: http://annekirstinejensen.wordpress.com/
Matt Cresswell, who’s based in Manchester. In addition to his writing he runs Glitterwolf magazine which is described on its website as ‘a UK-based literary and arts magazine that publishes the best poetry, fiction, art and photography by contributors identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’ Matt is also working on a new project since workshopping with me on the MMU course. From the blog post it sounds like a highly imaginative story —Tintwistle & Co., which is set in ‘a sort of steampunked London’ and featuring ‘a short, sharp, opera-singing detective’. Matt’s blog can be found here: http://mcresswell.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/blog-hop-monday-the-return/
And next week the blog continues (and goes international too) with contributions from:
I’ll answer the three vital Blog Hop questions below but, as an aside, I’d recommend anyone in the London area who’s interested in writing to go along to one of the London Writers’ Café events — I’ve been to some great agent and author talks and also to the convivial Christmas party at the BFI on the Southbank.
The answers below are about my ‘just-about-to-be-almost-finished’ novel The Angel but, for a short taster of my writing, I’d invite anyone who’s interested to read the previous post on this blog — that’s directly below this one. It tells how one of my short stories was read at an event last week by the amazing Liars League London. Or just check out the Liars’ League website directly (after reading my answers, of course) where the text of the story can be found, along with a video of a great performance by actor Sarah Feathers. There’s another story of mine in the March section too.
1. When and where is the story set?
My novel is set in the recent past in the aftermath of the credit crunch. In retrospect, I think this will be a fascinating time for people to reflect back on — a time where economic ‘certainties’ evaporated and many people’s lives were thrown into turmoil unimaginable a short time earlier.
Where is it set? In the pub!
The Angel is an idyllic village pub that gives the novel its title. Although plenty of boozy action happens in and around the pub but there’s actually much more to the novel’s setting. There are two principal locations: the early action mainly happens in Shoreditch and the City of London, then the story moves to the bucolic Chiltern village where The Angel stands next to the green. While it’s less than forty miles from Shoreditch, the many contrasts between the two locations echo the conflict between the main characters which brings me to…
2. What can you say about the main characters?
…James, Kim and Emma.
I could talk all day about my main characters (and the minor ones) — in fact sometimes I feel like I’ve been talking all day to the characters. I’ve become so involved with them while developing the novel that they seem like old friends. I occasionally see people in public and think ‘Yes, the way her hair is cut is just like Kim or she stands exactly like Emma would’.
With an Oxford degree, well-paid City job, beautiful wife and enviable house in the country, James ought to feel like life’s served him up a banquet. But, a fanatical home cook, he nurtures a frustrated ambition to set up his own restaurant and hopes his appearance on a TV cooking show contest will kick-start his gastro-career.
Kim is a German abstract artist with a studio in Shoreditch and an unscrupulous art-dealer boyfriend who’s manipulated her into a few dodgy commissions that she might come to regret. She abuses her body, is steeped in debt but determined to succeed as an artist — publicising her work by climbing East End buildings to painting street art.
Emma, James’s wife, is a senior human resources manager for one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets and is extremely ambitious and aspires to the lifestyle of a director of a FTSE-100 company, with all its luxurious trappings. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly — and this often includes James.
3. What is the main conflict?
At its heart, The Angel is a romance and the principal conflict occurs when James buys one of Kim’s paintings and becomes intrigued by her — she represents everything he feels he’s constrained from becoming himself. And although she’s far from conventionally beautiful — she’s studded with piercings and wears fetish gear — he finds himself unaccountably attracted to her. How prepared is he to risk his marriage to Emma to get close to this quirky artist?
There’s plenty of psychological conflict within each character too — James is struggling to assert his own ambitions against the expectations of others, Kim is fighting to keep faith in her destiny as an artist, despite continual setbacks. Emma is coming to the realisation that her husband may not share her dreams.
The novel also highlights the conflicts between a life in the City, über-hipster, post-industrial Shoreditch and the timeless villages of rural England — between the traditional British identity and the cool perspective of modern Europeans.
So there’s a whistlestop tour of the background to my novel and its main characters. There’s plenty more about The Angel and how it’s evolved if you dip into the blog.
So who’s next on the Blog Hop? The three people who’ve kindly accepted to take the baton from me in this blog tour are all ex-coursemates from my Manchester Metropolitan University MA in Creative Writing — and three marvellous and very different writers and their work kept me gripped throughout the course. They will be publishing their answers to the three big questions on their own blogs on 26th May (see below for details).
Matt Cresswell is a writer and editor from Manchester. His fiction has appeared in Icarus, Southpaw, PIYE, Iris, Hearing Voices and Shenanigans (Obverse). He is the co-creator of End of the Rainbow webcomic, with the omnibus due out from Lethe Press any day now and the editor of Glitterwolf Magazine, a literary and arts magazine showcasing lgbt contributors.
Kerry Hadley is author of an anthology of short fiction called Fifty-One Ways to Leave your Lover,which available from Amazon. All proceeds from its sale go to the charity Platform 51, which helps girls and women in challenging circumstances. Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing and her novel will, hopefully, be published by spring next year.
Anne Jensen was born in Denmark – she moved to England in 1995. Having recently completed an MA in Creative Writing, she is now currently working on her second novel, House of Scars. She lives and writes in Salisbury.
On Saturday I ventured into London on my first visit to The Word Factory – a monthly event which is described as being a ‘literary salon’ and has been highly recommended by a few writing friends. Literary salon is a fairly ambiguous term but, now I’ve been to one, it’s not a bad description of a varied and convivial evening with a group of people who enjoy getting together around a common love of literature and writing.
My main motivation for attending the April event was that one of the featured writers was Nick Royle, who keen readers of this blog may know (and my MMU course mates will know for definite) was our fiction writing tutor in the second year. However, as the route of the course that I took was the online version, I’d never met Nick (or even seen him in the flesh) before. In fact, I’d only heard him speak about a week or so before the Word Factory event when he was one of Ian McMillan’s guests on the BBC Radio 3 programme The Verb.
So, having had an academic year’s worth of tutorials and web chat seminars with Nick, it was interesting to see what he looked and sounded like – and also fascinating to be on the other side of the table in some ways as he was invited to read a short story of his own at the event. Despite being a prolific writer of short stories (as well as several novels), this one wasn’t published anywhere else as Cathy Galvin, the Word Factory host, introduced it as only having been completed the day before. So we were a privileged bunch.
Rather than shrink into anonymity in the audience alongside the writing friends I’d happened to have bumped into (including fellow Lancastrian Pete Domican) I went up to Nick and introduced myself in what could best be described as the ‘interval’, although it was really a chance to chat over a glass of wine. I think he may have been mildly taken aback at being accosted by the physical manifestation of a previously online only presence but we had a pleasant chat and he asked me how the writing was coming along.
From my perspective, the fact I took the opportunity to meet Nick and introduce myself suggests that there’s possibly something significant in making the personal connection with someone who’s been offering feedback and advice on my writing – and it would be interesting to speculate if I’d have interpreted any aspects of the course differently had I been able to picture the tutors physically or read their written communication in the context of their voices and accents.
By coincidence on a related subject, during my last Metroland Poets meeting (also at the weekend) we workshopped some poems sent to us remotely by another poetry group based in Spain (fortunately the poems were written in English). Normally we have a system when workshopping each others’ work which functions quite well — the poet reads but must stay silent while the group discusses the poem (no questions and answers batted to and fro) and then gets a right of reply (or explanation) at the end of the debate.
With our Spanish counterparts not physically present, one of our members made the observation after we’d discussed two or three poems, that the tone of our debate was notably different to when a member sits mutely at the table during a normal discussion. This was true. Without feeling the need to be tactful, the comments tended to be blunter and more direct — that’s no reflection on the quality of the poems as they all had some considerable strengths.
It’s indisputable that no-one at a poetry group is likely to say ‘I hate this poem’ or ‘this poem is dreadful’ about the work of one of their members — I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of any writing group like that. However, having been part of a group’s discussions for a while, people can adjust for the collective politeness and understand the implications of faint praise along the lines of ‘I think this may need a little more work’ — or other typically English euphemisms.
And, of course, familiarity often leads to more candidness in the long run. Often the most useful feedback from readers is the most critical — ‘that doesn’t work’. But frank feedback can only be given in a trusted relationship — where the recipient knows that the comments are being made by someone who is sympathetic to the objectives of the writer (genre may be an example) and whose feedback will improve the work (i.e. knows what they’re talking about).
People will always have different tastes and there’s no point trying to mould work into a form with which a writer isn’t comfortable. This is probably what Hanif Kureishi meant in one of his notorious comments about creative writing courses: ‘You’ve got to try and find one teacher who can really help you.’ If I have time I’d like to blog at more length about his views which, as a soon-to-be MA Creative Writing graduate, I do have some sympathy with.
Personal relationships are also bound to influence the mechanics of the publishing trade, particularly in the way books are reviewed. Critics may well trouble their consciences less in inflicting witty put-downs on debut authors they’ve never met than an established author they’re likely to meet at some industry event. On the other hand, some reviewers may like to take an opportunity to puncture what they consider undeserved reputations — there are many simmering literary feuds conducted through the broadsheet review sections of which most ordinary readers are completely oblivious.
So while I think it’s perfectly practical to teach writing remotely (the OU offers some great writing courses exclusively online), it certainly gives a different perspective to meet the tutors in person (even the OU offers optional face-to-face sessions). I vaguely remember that MMU extends an invitation to online students to attend the social event that kicks off each academic year and, if time permits, I’d recommend going along to this to be able to put a face to a name at the start of the course — rather than six months after it finished, as in my case with Nick Royle.
Also on the Word Factory bill were K.J. Orr and A.L.Kennedy — referred to as Alison throughout the evening. Co-incidentally one of the set novels on the MMU reading list was A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. I enjoyed the book’s wonderful prose and dark humour but its subject matter is pretty bleak — about the effects of alcoholism — and I was curious about the story that A.L.Kennedy would read and whether the subsequent interview might be a bit, well, worthy and hard-going.
How wrong could I be? The story extract was hilarious — mainly musings about the absurdity of what’s sold in a Canadian sex shop and she was a humorous, engaging and, for a well-known author, remarkably self-deprecating interviewee. Only later on, when it was mentioned in the interview, I remembered that, as well as writing, she’s also known for her sideline in comedy. On the basis of this enjoyable evening at the Word Factory it would be well worth catching one of her stand-up shows.
I’m privileged to be nominated to participate in the Blog Tour Monday project. I was passed the baton by my ex-MMU MA Creative Writing course mate, Anne Jensen, who blogged this post last Monday. Anne has also nominated her writer friend, Deborah Morgan, to contribute a stop on the tour in parallel (apparently termed the ‘other side’).
Anne was awarded her place in the relay team by another ex-MMU student, Kerry Hadley (who guest-blogged on Jo Nicel’s site). Kerry also nominated Matt Cresswell, another MMU alumnus, who also posted a blog last Monday. There is an illustrious line of bloggers who preceded Anne, Kerry and Matt on the tour – see Anne’s list of links in the introduction to her post.
The idea of the tour is to introduce ourselves and our blogs to whoever chooses to follow the excursion by answering four questions about our writing – I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do so as succinctly and wittily as my predecessors. As usual with my writing process I’ve left things right up until the deadline (it’s Sunday night) – oops that’s straying into Question 4. So I’d better start at the beginning.
What am I working on?
The novel – what else? I’ve been promising myself for about two years that it’s almost finished – and that was after starting the book a couple of years before that when I was on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing course. Since then the novel – called The Angel – has nourished a whole MA course – and then some.
Unfortunately for any Belbin completer–finisher impulses I might harbour, the creative writing course process has given me lots of reasons to do’ just that little bit more’. I completed a full manuscript for submission as the MA dissertation last October – MMU is one of the few MA courses that ends with submission of a full novel – but with the prospect of tutor feedback when it had been marked, I decided to wait until January to read the professional verdict (see previous posts on the blog) and make any changes accordingly.
Taking some of their useful comments into account, I’ve been making what I’m determined to be the absolutely final changes and then to move on to the half-finished novel that I ‘temporarily’ placed on hold when I started to develop ideas for The Angel.
I enjoyed the experience so much I might try a competitions like that again.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Like probably most graduates of Creative Writing MA courses, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to single out my novel as being in a specific genre (which doesn’t help your chances of publication as genre is the first thing agents tend to think about). However, one ‘genre’ that people might associate with MA graduates definitely doesn’t fit my work — academic literary fiction. I’m probably a bit too lazy (see below) to attempt anything like tricksy meta-narration, post-structuralism and all that – not that anyone on the MA course was that pretentious .
Therefore one of the most useful pieces of feedback from the markers of my MA submission was to nail a genre. I was told that ‘at its heart [my novel] is a rather engaging love story’. I guess it is – in that it deals with a romantic relationship between its two protagonists.
Later this year I may find out definitively how my novel differs from others in the romance genre from true experts. It may astonish some people — it certainly does me — that I’m a now a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme (no mean feat as it’s exceptionally oversubscribed and, no, I don’t think they positively discriminated towards me based on my gender – I was just very quick to apply – spaces do almost as quickly as Kate Bush live show tickets are likely to do later this week).
The great thing about the RNA scheme is that your manuscript is given a critique by an experienced RNA reader. I’ll have to wait until I get the reader’s report back to be sure but I suspect most of the RNA’s members works won’t feature lots of wanton, late-night heavy drinking, heroines with fetish wardrobes, vicars dwelling on being beaten with metal combs, tattoos with plot significance, illicit substance consumption by canals in Hackney, World War Two re-enactments with condiments and a hero who has a virtual bromance over the airwaves with Jeremy Vine.
Why do I write what I do?
Some of it out of laziness again. My writing is mostly about the contemporary world because it saves me having to do any laborious research – although I often stray into the Internet nevertheless to check insignificant but seemingly monumental at the time facts like ‘Do they really offer a PGCE in Art at Goldsmiths University?’
And I tend to attempt to slip humour into almost everything I write – even when not obviously appropriate – perhaps because I need to amuse myself and make up for not being in the pub or doing something more sociable than writing on my own.
How does my writing process work?
Generally it tends to expand to fit the time available – which is why I like deadlines.
I can write fairly quickly – but then I’ll rewrite it – usually by annotating on paper copy and then again by reading out loud and then I’ll check for overused words against a spreadsheet I use and then print it again and – see why I like deadlines?
I write in all kinds of places – at home, at lunchtimes during the ‘day job’, on trains, even planes. And I do an awful lot of writing in my head – when I’m running or just daydreaming – it’s a good job I get on with my novel’s characters or I’d have been driven mad ages ago. Perhaps I get on so well with them I don’t want to leave them?
And as for ideas and inspiration – I just metaphorically shove stuff into my brain cells and hope it somehow all connects (see blog post).
Now at this point, I should be naming who’s going to take the baton from me and do the Blog Tour Monday next week but, to my great shame, I’ve not managed to line anyone up – yet – but not for want of trying. It seems most of my writing blog friends have already just done the Blog Tour – or something very similar recently – but I’ll keep trying. Im waiting on a couple of responses. If you know me, write a blog and are reading this and would like to take part then get in touch with me asap.
So watch this space in the run up to next Monday to see if I pull a blog-writing friend out of the bag – so to speak.
My short story Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? was selected as a winner for this month’s Liars’ League London event (see previous post for an account of its selection and the rehearsal).
It was performed last Tuesday evening by Alex Woodhall and, as the Liars video all the stories, the reading is now available on Youtube (along with the other four excellent stories by Ursula Dewey, Kassalina Boto, Philip Suggars and Eleanore Etienne (co-incidentally a fellow graduate of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing — now the Novel Studio).
The video is embedded below. It lasts just over fifteen minutes.
My story was the last on the bill, which meant me enduring an evening of nervous anticipation, although this was eased a little by my consumption of more than a couple of drinks on the house. I made such good use of this unexpected author benefit that I turned up at Marylebone station suddenly realising I’d lost an hour somewhere (chatting to the actors, other writers and organisers I think) so had to get the slow, stopping train and didn’t get home until nearly 1 am. The next day I felt like one of my characters the morning after the story’s night before.
I was very grateful for the company of several friends who came along to support me, including Rachel and Bren Gosling from the City course, my writer friend Fay and Sabina, the street art guru (see previous posts). There were a couple more people from the City course who were intending to come but who were beset by last-minute hold-ups.
It was a fantastic evening — the downstairs bar at the Phoenix was packed-out. I reckon there were well over a hundred people. I needn’t have fretted about the reception for my story — Alex read with such verve and superb comic timing that the audience’s attention seemed to be seized for the whole fifteen minutes it took to reach its climax — and with plenty of laughs heard along the way (thankfully I didn’t imagine them — they’re on the video).
I was flattered afterwards to receive some enthusiastic compliments about the story, not only from friends (Bren wrote me a wonderfully congratulatory email) but also from some encouraging comments made via Twitter and Facebook. And the story’s characters appeared to have been vivid enough to pass the crucial ‘what happened next?’ test. I bumped into one of the other authors on the tube on the way back and she asked me ‘Did they go on to have sex? I think they did.’ If you want to see if you agree with her then listen to the story — I’d be very interested in blog readers’ opinions.
Having a winning story for the Liars League would be great news at any time but it was particularly welcome for me at present — a couple of months after the much-anticipated results of the MA novel dissertation — when I’m still wrestling with a few changes to the end of the novel prompted by the feedback. It’s also been five months since the MA draft of the novel was handed in — so it’s been brilliant to had have this event to give real impetus to my writing.
I can also draw some motivation because, while it’s a self-contained work, Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line? perhaps unsurprisingly shares similarities with the novel: genre, setting, brand of humour. While the narrative perspective is different –it’s first-person, present tense — the dynamics between the characters are reminiscent of some scenes in the novel — the tensions and awkwardness of trying to guess the intentions of others whom one cares about — or wants to. That the story was picked as a winner and enjoyed apparently positive reaction of the audience encourages me to think there’s a market for more — at least a novel’s worth I hope.
Besides the thrill of hearing my words read expertly by a professional, the Liars League experience also allowed me to get some insight into my writing from a refreshing and almost unique perspective. One of the great mysteries of the writing process is that all readers interpret fiction in their own personal way — a skilled author employs words economically enough to communicate the essence of the story’s action while prompting the reader’s imagination to invoke scenery and background.
It’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act: too little exposition and the reader will fail to grasp vital elements of the narrative; too much detail and the pace will falter and the reader will be swamped and bored — and in a short story there are far fewer words than a novel to play with.
Working with the Liars League actor and editors, and also sitting in the audience and observing the reaction of people hearing the story for the first time, provided valuable insights into what worked in my story and what didn’t — and also how the Liars had imagined the action, setting and characters. While the event is a reading, the actors can dress to some degreein costume and their delivery, spoken and non-verbal, projects their own interpretation of character, particularly for first person narratives.
It is, therefore, rather the opposite of the sort of forensic collective copy-edit of prose that risk bogging down Creative Writing workshopping sessions (‘I’m really not convinced by that comma). Nor, because the story has won through the selection procedures, will it be the kind of creative writing workshopping experience when, for the best of intentions, workshoppers’ suggestions extend a little past the scope of a structural edit: it would be great if turned your shy, sensitive artist character into a grizzled Scottish trawlerman possessed by an alien or why not relocate your novel from a Deptford loft apartment to a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre? ‘It’ll up the conflict and sense of place’.
Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in a workshop the written text can be seen as something malleable and interactive — when it’s read out loud as a story it seems much more fixed psychologically.
Often writers are asked to read out their own prose in Creative Writing workshops before it is discussed — this was the way the City University Certificate worked, although I don’t know how the Novel Studio handles it. This has its merits — certainly reading out loud exposes clumsiness in phrasing and the rhythm of the prose that often lies undetected when read silently on the page — I always read drafts of my novel out loud for that reason. Reading a piece in a class also ensures that any less conscientious students, who’ve not prepared properly, will know what’s goingabout to be discussed.
Nevertheless, a writer who has an aptitude for reading out loud will always breathe extra life into prose whereas a hesitant, self-conscious monotone will muffle the merits of the word on the page (most writers I know tend slightly towards the latter). Also, a writer will always know his or her own intentions — where to place the emphasis, what type of voice or accent to use for a character or narrator — even if this isn’t evident on the page and, consequently, not communicated to a reader of the written word.
If a piece is to be read out loud in a Creative Writing workshop, I prefer it to be read by another student. This lets the writer hear the words spoken by a reader new to the work and takes away any direction that’s not explicit from the text itself. It gives an insight into how an ordinary reader might encounter the writing on the page.
That’s why Liars League was so illuminating. From my experience at the rehearsal (see previous post) Katy Darby and Liam Hogan, the editors, had clearly made a connection with the voice in the narrative and cast Alex in the part accordingly. It was very satisfying to me, as the writer, that they’d also picked up the subtle dynamics between the three principal characters, even when this was only hinted at with a line or two in the story. The changes they suggested to the text served to increase clarity and remove ambiguity.
Alex also made contributions of the type a reader might unconsciously add to the text. He’d decided the character Anja was Icelandic — which I thought was a great — there’s nothing in the text to suggest any nationality beyond her name and the rhythm of her speech. He also used some great comic timing to emphasise lines that I’d hoped might raise some amusement if read as I’d intended by an ordinary reader but, when spoken to an audience, raised a proper laugh — the ‘distressed [BEAT] brick’ being a great example.
(One of the advantages of writing plays or screenplays is the ability to add in [BEAT]s or other direction that’s not seen by the audience.)
Despite having written the words, it was a process of discovery for me to see how the story came alive in the minds of other people. The imaginary world of the story as viewed through the lens of Alex’s performance was different to what I’d envisaged while writing it — but that’s the magical property of fiction — everyone has their own interpretation.
So while it was an honour and a great pleasure to have my story selected and read by the Liars’ League, I also learned a surprising amount from the experience about my writing, how it’s interpreted by other people and how I can improve it. And it’s for that reason, as well as being a great literary night out in the pub, that I’d wholeheartedly recommend other writers submit their short stories to the Liars — either for truth or dare.
The last post loosely took the E.M.Forster quotation ‘only connect’ and asked if this might be at the basis of some of the creative process — can originality be fostered by stuffing your subconscious full of stimulating ideas and experiences which could stew away unsupervised like a warming winter casserole or, alternatively, blast into each other like a psychological Hadron collider.
Bearing this out, I’ve realised there’s a loosely recurring theme of odd and unusual connections in many of the experiences I’ve enjoyed or places I’ve visited over the past few months — locations which are on the margins between conflicted forces or genres where conventionally opposing styles or materials have been placed in opposition.
Shoreditch is the classic example of an area that has been transformed by the influence of artists, with the Village Underground tube train carriages providing a landmark juxtaposition.
It’s arguable that Shoreditch has become so ironically commercialised that it’s developing into a caricature of itself. For several years, artists have been priced out of the area (as is Kim in my novel), not just by the geek-cool spillover from David Cameron’s beloved ‘Tech City’ in Old Street but by speculative apartment-buying business types (even more beloved of Cameron).
The warehouse-squatting, loft-dwelling artists have been dispersed to Peckham (mentioned in Time Out virtually every week), Hackney Wick (whose artists ‘took over’ the V&A at the end of February) and rather bizarrely, as I discovered a few weeks ago, to suburbs like High Barnet.
I climbed four storeys up an external fire-escape with my friends from Love Art London way out in the hipster-there-be-dragons territory of zone 6 to visit the artist, David Shillinglaw. He was a thoroughly generous and entertaining host, welcoming us into his loft studio which was located in an old false-teeth making factory (if it was in a novel this detail would seem way too far-fetched!). The studio was an amazing jumble of finished artworks, pieces in progress, plants (the tree apparently belonged once to Bob Hoskins!), huge rubber balls, artists materials and cats plus everyday objects (I think he lived there too — David Shillinglaw, not Bob Hoskins).
While the artists move to the likes of Stoke Newington, Deptford and, er, High Barnet, property developers haven’t been slow to make the connection between exploiting the lingering aura of edgy cool and the large plots of under-exploited land in Shoreditch. Schemes that have been approved are in the pipeline that will transform the area irreparably: a 40 storey tower is to be built almost opposite Village Underground with a new shopping centre on the other side.
I may have written a partially historical novel by accident as I have scenes in my novel set in Holywell Street, which will be completely transformed within the next couple of years. (The scene is set in the road between the Village Underground tube trains and the new high rise building in the centre left in the developer’s projected image below.)
Speaking of developers trying to muscle-in (and, in so doing, destroy) on ‘cool’, ‘gritty’ urban locations, I took the photograph below just before Christmas of one of the most bizarre connections in London — the South Bank’s Bavarian Christmas market set opposite the graffiti-plastered undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, adopted as London’s skateboarders’ spiritual home.
Drinking steaming glühwein while watching skateboard jumps in a reclaimed space of brutalist architecture is the type of accidentally cosmopolitan experience only London can offer. Unlike some of the most favoured spots for Shoreditch street artists, the undercroft has been reprieved from development into shops.
There are a quite a few posts on this blog that mention street art: in the novel Kim brings her graffiti artist skills to places that haven’t traditionally welcomed them. Perhaps its appeal is partly because of another unusual combination — the traditionally reverential and formal world of fine art and the constantly changing, chaotic, almost anarchic urban spaces that foster street art culture.
My friend Sabina Andron, who runs the I Know What I Like Meetup Group in London, is studying street art for a PhD at University College, London. Over a period of 100 days last year she conducted an intriguing initiative, photographing the same stretches of wall on Leake Street (a virtual tunnel underneath Waterloo station) every day over a month and recording the organic, rapid changes in the artwork.
Writing, art and geography are, of course, not the only areas in which ‘only connect’ produces exciting and unusual innovations. Musicians often cross-fertilise, with many whole new genres created from the fusion of apparently unrelated styles. In my local pub the recent English graduate cellarman often exposes the village regulars to his eclectic musical tastes, gained from working at music festivals across Europe. It’s a bizarre experience to walk into a rural English pub and hear dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby flowing from the speakers.
I was having a drink in the pub recently and began to recognise a song I knew very well but was also simultaneously unfamiliar. I worked out it was a track from Dark Side of the Moon. The skanky,offbeat rhythms meant it definitely wasn’t Pink Floyd but it was surprisingly good — like any good, radical cover version, making the song sound written as if it was specifically for the other genre.
The track was Time and the album was the brilliant Dub Side of the Moon (see above) by the Easy All Stars. I bought it straight away and now listen to it interchangeably with the Pink Floyd original.
And foodies can give musicians a run for their money in terms of matching up bizarre combinations. Food is a major feature of the novel (including the odd matches inspired by the likes of Heston Blumenthal — liquorice ice-cream, snail porridge, mango and douglas-fir puree and the rest). So, wanting to see something of the cutting edge for myself, at the end of last year I visited the Experimental Food Society Spectacular at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
This was an event run by people who like to do weird things with food. Some exhibits were immersive experiences — exploring how story-telling could influence flavours or how different senses interacted with each other. Some were just a bit, well, bonkers. Let’s connect Italian food with an Italian evocation of place by building a model of Rialto Bridge in Venice purely out of dried pasta and crackers (it can be done — see below — although I’m not sure whether an arrabbiata or puttanesca sauce would go best with the balustrades or portico).
The flasks in the photo above left are of different types of tea but you don’t drink it. You inhale it (with a straw) after the people from Camellia’s Tea House put the brew through some clever vaporisation process. The vapour actually condenses on the back of your tongue, which gives a different taste sensation but one I doubt will be replacing the English cuppa very soon. (The breathable tea was so odd the story even made it into the New York Post.)
I’m not sure my fictional pub will go as far as serving its drinks in gaseous form, however intriguing the idea. But with an artist on the premises it could offer something for breakfast similar to the work of another Experimental Food Spectacular exhibitor — Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist.
A little like a street artist, Dermot Flynn, connects art with unusual surfaces — in his case toast (a look at his website shows that he works by no means exclusively in toast but it’s one of the more unusual way he earns a crust). Love it or hate it, the genre of edible art means it’s unpalatable to use conventional paint, so he uses Marmite instead.
Apparently if the Marmite is applied to white bread (presumably the more manufactured and sterile the better) to create an image which is subsequently put into a toaster, the desiccation process means the picture (or toast) will last for an indefinite period. If you can resist eating your artwork, Dermot told me that it’s perfectly possible to frame it.
For £10, I couldn’t resist the offer of having my portrait created in this unusual medium but I’ve taken the precaution of photographing it in case of unexpected nibbling.
My English teacher in the sixth form introduced me to ‘only connect’ — the famous E.M.Forster quotation — not the addictive BBC4 quiz show with Victoria Coren (although the latter is inspired by the former). The implications of those two words have made a lasting impression on me.
Actually, the quotation (from Howard’s End) is elaborated into a longer phrase that has a more specific literary meaning than the more common interpretations of its first two words: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.’
However, I prefer to apply the phrase to connections in the more general sense — specifically creating or uncovering connections between often surprising subjects, which is what the quiz programme is all about. It’s also how the brain works at the most fundamental level — thoughts being the result of connections between synapses and neurons (yes, I did have to check that on Wikipedia).
Consequently, there’s a large school of thought that suggests creativity and innovation are largely the product of making connections between unlikely ideas — and that the more original the idea the more unusual and hidden is the connection between the two.
Much narrative is driven by the dissonance (and consequent creation of connections) between two (or more) ostensibly opposing situations or premises — vampires or wizards exist in the modern world, what if historical events had turned out differently, someone new comes to town (especially if it’s an alien or werewolf) and so on. Metaphor and simile, which are ways of making surprising connections, are the wellspring of imaginative writing.
And all love stories are fundamentally about creating of connections between two people — and the more unlikely the better. This is the premise of my novel: two people from very different backgrounds and who thought they wanted very different things happen to meet and they connect — although how intimately and lastingly is for the reader to discover.
The novel also connects the conflicting lifestyles of City financiers and bohemian artists, inner-city London and the bucolic English countryside and the aesthetic pleasures of art with the sensual satisfaction of food.
I also like to think Forster’s maxim works at the subconscious level too — that all the experiences you have and the information you absorb get filed away in your memory somewhere and start to connect and form new ideas without any conscious effort.
This might be why a common piece of writing advice is to put a notepad by the bed to capture the seemingly random pieces of imagination or association that sometimes surface in the transition between sleep and wakefulness. I’ve almost trained myself to slumber into this semi-conscious state when commuting on the train — and I’ve often emailed myself ideas or phrases that seemed worth noting and might have been forgotten otherwise.
It’s not ‘write what you know’ but I’m of the belief that the more experience and information you use to fertilise your mind then the more chance there is of all those neurons and synapses bearing fruit with some connections that are really interesting.
By contrast, I sometimes wonder what the sort of writer who lives like a hermit finds to write about — are they constantly drawing on childhood experiences or perhaps they find enough inspiration from secondary sources?
However, having had a ‘day job’ that’s delivered me into central London for a few years, I’ve tried to take the opportunity to load up my own brain cells. I’ve tried to do something new every day if work time and the weather have allowed. (On a warm summer day I’ve taken advantage of the nearby park and laid out on the grass for half an hour — rationalising I’m letting ideas subconsciously ferment!)
Of course, it’s not necessary to go to London to load up your brain cells but there’s so much (often free) access to huge sources of cultural stimulation that it’s very easy to do so. When the weather’s not been kind enough for sunbathing — oops I mean meditating — then I’ve met up with friends or taken myself off on walks or lunchtime visits to of museums and galleries.
I recently discovered the charming Geffrye museum in Hoxton, which is particularly atmospheric when its living rooms through the ages are decorated for Christmas. Only last week I viewed the National Gallery’s side-by-side Van Gogh’s Sunflowers exhibition and it cost nothing to do so. (Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, mentioned above, is also free as part of the Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art exhibition).
There are also the many special exhibitions held at the various galleries — I visited the Richard Hamilton exhibition at the Tate Modern last week in its first couple of days and before any reviews had been published, which made them all the more interesting when I read them.
I should make particular mention of the brilliant Only in England photographic exhibition in its last few weeks at the Science Museum. It features Tony Ray-Jones’s spontaneous pictures of English eccentricity (I’m desperate to find a print of the Whitstable Bay lovers on the boat trip) along with Martin Parr’s poignant photographs of isolated 1970s Yorkshire communities (actually near Hebden Bridge — not far from where I was brought up).
And with two thousand years of recorded history, London itself is full of connections between old and new, especially in the areas around the City and the East-End and docklands — with possibly the best example the fabulous Millennium Bridge creating a spectacular connection between St. Paul’s Cathedral (which occupies a very ancient site) with the Tate Modern building, an icon of post-industrial transformation and one of the largest-scale examples of how artists have taken over what were once resolutely functional and non-decorative buildings and neighbourhoods (see forthcoming post).
While I like the serendipity of walking aimlessly around the city, I’ve also used various books of guided walks to explore areas I’d never routinely visit. Steven Millar’s two volumes of London’s Hidden Walks have been particularly inspiring. I’ve wandered with his books in hand around Soho, St. James’s, Marylebone, Clerkenwell, the City, Temple, Westminster, Chelsea and Covent Garden.
I’ve also explored areas further off the beaten track like Whitechapel, Lambeth and Vauxhall (where I discovered the fascinating enclave around Bonnington Square Garden), Rotherhithe and Deptford (see the spectacular view in the photograph above).
One of the most poignant sites I’ve discovered while walking around London was on the walk around the South Bank and Southwark. The site of the Crossbones Graveyard contains the unmarked graves of 15,000 children and prostitutes — those who for hundreds of years until the mid-nineteenth century weren’t considered worthy of a burial inside the boundaries of the grounds of the Winchester Palace and Southwark Cathedral . The graveyard’s existence was only discovered when the Jubilee Line was constructed in the 1990s. It has now become a shrine for modern day sex workers — with memorial ribbons tied to the gates. It’s still a derelict site owned by London Transport and campaigners are trying to resist development plans and preserve the area as a memorial.
In common with others I’ve found wandering London, it’s a touching and surprising story and will lodge in my mind for a long time. In years to come, might the memory of this walk randomly cross-fertilise with some snatch of conversation, a recalled art exhibition or museum exhibit — and out of my subconscious might emerge some original idea or compelling concept might bubble its way out of my subconscious? Who knows? In any case, it’s great reward in itself to cram all this material in my mind in the first place.
UPDATE 9th March 2014: A photographer I met at The Other Art Fair last year, Maria Konstanse Bruun (who’s from Norway but based in the UK) posted this article on her Facebook page. It’s from the Huffington Post and is a list of the 18 behaviours that apparently mark out creative people from others. I certainly recognise many in myself: daydreaming, observing people, liking solitude, seeking out new experiences (see the above post), losing track of time and, of course, ‘connecting the dots’. It’s well worth a read.
And I’m wondering where on earth did 2013 go? Certainly not writing lots of blog posts — it’s been a very lax six weeks since the last update — but if I get this post published today then I’ll at least have posted a blog entry in each month of the year.
Writing more frequent (and shorter) blog posts will have to be one of 2014’s New Year resolutions. I’ve had several absolutely fascinating (he says) posts mulling in my mind over the past few months but I’ve not found time to commit them to cyberspace.
At this reflective time, it’s tempting to look back and wonder what happened during the preceding 365 days. In many ways I’m doing the same day-to-day as I have for the last few years. I’m still writing, tweeting and doing a day-job. I’ve been enjoying my time in London as much as I did at in 2012 (when I wrote a post last New Year’s Eve celebrating what a remarkable experience 2012 in London had been).
I started this blog in earnest in January 2010 — when its principal purpose was to follow my progress through the City University Certificate in Novel Writing. I doubt that I’d have expected to be still blogging about my continuing development as a fiction writer — three years of an MA following the City course would have seemed a long slog back then.
So, in some ways it seems that little is different but these are probably the most superficial. In a deeper sense this blog has recorded much more profound changes — the huge amount I’ve learned about writing, how the skills I’ve developed have matured and how my perspective is much better aligned to the commercial realities and demands of the publishing world.
I spent time this summer revising some of the first sections of the novel. These were written back in 2010 and, while reading the material was surprisingly pleasurable, I feel I’ve improved as a writer very significantly.
And, as well as learning and honing a craft, I’ve enjoyed some brilliantly sociable and stimulating times with so many other creative people along the way.
I’ve been so busy that it’s easy to lose sight of two major achievements that happened in 2013: I finished my three-year MA Creative Writing course and, in doing so, completed as good a draft of my novel as possible. Sure it would benefit from some more work — I’m sure virtually all writers would like to polish their work were it not for deadlines — but I’ve reached that fundamental milestone.
And it’s a novel that I’m proud of having written — with characters I haven’t tired of in over three years (the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to them is the flip side of this coin) and imho the novel says many things worth saying about life in contemporary Britain. Possibly the best compliment of the 2013 was when one of our ex-City writing group, who’s not afraid to be critical, read the whole manuscript and said it was ‘a terrific read’.
Completing a novel is such a massive undertaking that I have huge respect for anyone else who shows the necessary qualities of perseverance, motivation and self-belief required, especially if fitting it in around work or other commitments. That’s in addition to any innate writing ability. I don’t particularly agree with the aphorisms often tweeted that suggest that talent is commonplace whereas it’s hard work that’s rare but completing a novel is a certainly a slog that requires a lot of sacrifice.
I’ve been careful to say I finished the MA course — another achievement in persistence — but I’m yet to find out if I’ve passed. I’ll get the official results in June so hopefully, this time in 2014 I can say I’m in possession of a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
Now the course is over, it’s probably fair to say that, for all of us, taking a long course like an MA or the year-long City Certificate (now Novel Studio) isn’t the fastest way to write a novel. There’s a lot of time spent on absorbing best practice from established writers’ texts, workshopping and critiquing with other students, engaging in discussion, learning about aspects of the publishing industry, writing in other forms (as I did for my screenplay in the MA) and writing assignments. It’s surprising there’s enough time left to even make a start on the novel. However, all who complete these courses should emerge much better equipped to go on to write more successfully in the long-term.
We’re promised feedback on our completed novels in mid-January. This seemed a rather distant date when I submitted the novel in early October, when my instinct was to try to finish work on it and move on to something new as soon as possible. However, if the forthcoming feedback is as comprehensive as the university have suggested then I guess I ought to be prepared to go back to the manuscript and act on any recommendations. The novel should have been read by at least two markers and also externally moderated so a fresh perspective will be really valuable (especially when compared with the cost of other manuscript appraisal services).
And I finally met up with one of my virtual coursemates. About six weeks after the novel submission deadline I was in Birmingham visiting some classic pubs with friends and took a detour to the Black Country to have a very pleasant chat in person with Kerry Hadley. We met, appropriately for my novel, at a famous pub — The Vine in Brierley Hill — otherwise known as the Bull and Bladder. What a spectacular sunset too. I’m sure that during 2014 a publisher would like to snap up Kerry’s excellent novel from the MA course. Maybe I’ll finally get to meet up with Anne in 2014 — another who survived until the bitter end?
So if 2013 was about completing the novel and the MA course. 2014’s resolutions are going to be about trying to get it published — a process that’s probably going to be long, difficult, frustrating — the archetypical emotional roller-coaster. Time to develop a thick, calloused skin? As mentioned previously, I’m not going to catalogue the submission saga on the blog. However, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the process at networking events like the York Festival of Writing (where I received some excellent one-to-one feedback from a couple of agents), London Writers’ Cafe (I slurped a large G&T at the Christmas party) and London Writers’ Club. I’ve also exchanged notes with many other writers over Twitter and email so I have a reasonably informed idea of which agents I perhaps ought to approach. In most cases I’ve seen the agents speak or had short conversations with them myself, which makes the process less daunting (or perhaps more so in some cases).
(Having said that, should an agent I’ve not met or listened to stumble across this blog is interested in reading some of the novel then please get in touch!)
2013 has also been tremendously encouraging for me as several writing friends and acquaintances have achieved success — showing that signing with an agent and getting a book published happens to people who’ve followed a similar route to myself. I wrote a post in the late summer about the great news of Rick Kellum from my City course being signed by Juliet Mushens. I heard recently that Bren Gosling, also from the City course, and who’s often commented on this blog, has also been taken on by a leading literary agency.
Also, Isabel Costello (who I last saw at Anastasia Parkes’s ‘interesting session’ at the York Festival of Writing — see post below) of the excellent On the Literary Sofa blog I’ve mentioned on this site, has also recently been signed by Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath for her debut novel. In all the above cases, I know the writers have worked extremely hard on revising and reworking their novels over a long period and their achievements are very well deserved.
Talking to Jennifer has given me an insight into the commercial demands of the publishing world — with deadlines for submitting, revising and proofing new titles stretching many months ahead. She’s also a practising barrister and has a family so I’m in awe of her industry — again another example that, in addition to talent, published writers need to put in a lot of hard work. In my case, with course deadlines no longer a factor, I perhaps need that sort of external discipline to give me a kick up the backside every so often (not that Jennifer needs one herself, I’m sure).
Like many other writers, I’ve also been juggling the demands of the ‘day job’ with making time for writing — which often feels like I’m burning the candle at both ends — sometimes trying to eke out time to write from what’s available in the rest of the day, even maybe a token effort of writing a few sentences.
In many ways the writing is like taking on a second job — one with a long, unpaid apprenticeship except with myself as boss to sporadically crack the whip. It often seems I have to snatch time to write: on the train, at lunchtimes (sometimes in St. James’s Park), unearthly hours of the day and night and at the expense of more conventional weekend pursuits (such as the urgent repairs required to my disintegrating garden shed — I’m sure Roald Dahl’s famous writing shed didn’t have a gaping hole in the roof).
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to write tens of thousands of words in 2013 — and also cut several thousand too in the process of editing, revising and proofing a completed draft. I must have found a writing routine that’s sufficiently accommodating. Of course, it remains an ambition to make writing bring in enough income so that I can have some dedicated, professional writing time. On the other hand, I guess putting in so many hours up to this point shows how much I must enjoy writing for its own sake and also my belief that this work will pay off in the long run.
So I start 2014 hoping that this might be the year that all that time writing and studying will pay dividends. Whatever happens I’m looking forward to starting to write the new novel that I’ve been writing in my head and jotting down ideas for while completing The Angel.
But to see in the New Year I’m going to do some well-earned research — and, considering the main setting of the novel, where else to do it but in the local village pub? I even wrote a scene in the summer set at The Angel’s chaotic New Year’s party. I hope no-one’s end of year celebrations are quite as bizarre as my fictional pub’s musical celebration — singer-songwriter Jason’s ‘whiny-voiced set about dusky maidens and mysterious sex beasts’.
So good luck and the best of wishes to everyone who’s read the blog or who whose company I’ve enjoyed in any writing-related (or other) way during the last twelve months. Let’s look forward to 2014 and hope it brings all of us something of what we’re hoping for.
It’s four weeks since the end of my intense period of editing that finished with me frantically e-mailing my novel manuscript to the printers and bookbinders and heading up the Holloway Road to have the satisfaction of picking up my own copies.
The printers sent two bound copies directly to Manchester Metropolitan University — who kept me in suspense a while before acknowledging receipt. I felt relieved when I eventually received a confirmation e-mail, although I now need to wait until late June to hear whether I’ve made the grade.
Many people I’ve spoken to about the course have been quite incredulous about this nine month delay in communicating students’ marks. It’s apparently because the awards committee only sits once a year (in the summer) and, as we part-time students are given until the start of the next academic year to write our novels, we have to wait for our marks to be confirmed when all the conventionally scheduled English and Creative Writing courses are assessed at the end of 2013-4.
(Since submitting the novel I’ve now heard that MMU have changed their schedule so they intend to give us our marks and feedback by mid-January next year — at which point we should know whether we’re going to graduate but will still have to wait until the summer for it to be official.)
While it would be nice to be able to put the letters MA after my name (should I pass) it’s been the process of taking the course that’s been of much more value to me than gaining the qualification.
After all, agents and publishers don’t look at the Creative Writing MA on a graduate’s CV and immediately decide to your manuscript will do the business for them.
But the process of taking the course and sticking with it to the end ought to show evidence of many desirable qualities in a writer. At York Festival of Writing, one agent in particular told me how much she likes Creative Writing MA students and graduates. Other agents have also said that a mention of an MA in a covering letter means that will give a submission more serious consideration on the grounds that the writer has invested time and money in improving their own writing.
Completing an MA course should demonstrate:
The standard of your writing as a whole has met (and maintained) the quality criteria of the course admissions tutor — for the MA I needed to have my own creative writing assessed as well as a piece of criticism
The potential to take a professional attitude towards your writing — motivation and enthusiasm are some of the qualities that are examined in the interview process. Also, students on an MA course have to be able to take and receive criticism and feedback from both students and tutors
An ability to deliver work to deadlines — not only the final novel but several other pieces of academic work must be submitted on time. There are also many other dates that that have to be met — when it’s your turn to distribute a 3,000 word extract for discussion — or to send another writer feedback on their work. The MMU course was structured so that, at times, each student was expected to provide a new section every second or third week — it could be an intense schedule.
You can write a novel! At the end of the course, at least for MMU, you should have a work that’s potentially publishable that can be before an agent — if you don’t you’ll fail.
Unlike the MMU course, not all MA courses insist on a novel length piece of work be submitted as a final assessment. Given that the MMU 60,000 minimum word count is about four times the length of a typical academic Masters level dissertation then some courses might not consider this length of assessment necessary (in terms of course credits the novel forms 60 out of 180 points overall — only 20 more than the much shorter Transmission project).
But it’s been the experience of writing a novel-length piece that’s been the most valuable aspect of the course for me and it’s by completing the draft, going back and revising and altering and grappling with the many tentacled octopus that has taught me lessons that can’t be taught as theory.
I’ll be much better prepared to write the next novel purely by pushing myself through the experience of completing The Angel and, in that regard, MMU’s decision to devote the third year of the course to independent writing with one-to-one support from a tutor might ultimately teach students as much as in the more formally taught sections of the course.
I found an interesting blog post by Andrew Wille, who was a ‘book doctor’ at the York Festival of Writing: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing . It’s worth reading the post for his list of recommended writing books, including several I’ve read such as the excellent Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, Harry Bingham’s pragmatic How to Write, the amusing How Not To Write A Noveland the ubiquitous Stephen King book.
Andrew Wille has substantial experience of teaching and studying writing and argues that any novel submitted for a Creative Writing MA will need substantial revision before it’s commercially publishable (and often more than one redrafting).
Having gone through the MA experience I don’t disagree — read the comments after his blog post and you’ll see a conversation between us on the subject.
Despite the apparently leisurely deadline, I’d guess that most of the novels submitted for MA deadlines only come together very near the end of the writing process as long, organic, rich works formed of interdependent strands. Their writers might therefore benefit from a period of reflection at the complexity of the work they’ve created.
And the writers wouldn’t likely to be taking an MA if it wasn’t the first time they’d worked so seriously on a novel to the point of its completion. So any MA novel is likely to undergo plenty of changes if it’s taken up by an agent and publisher — but at least the novel exists.
It’s probably inevitable from workshopping in 3,000 and 5,000 words discrete segments for the MA course and writing groups that the finished work when it’s put together bears a risk of repetition.
When writing sections to be presented out of context, it’s difficult not to anticipate comments and questions from readers who may have last encountered the story weeks or months ago: there’s a temptation (perhaps unconscious) to drop in a piece of exposition or dialogue that illustrates just why a certain character might behave in a particular way or to establish setting or theme.
It’s not too difficult to spot the blatant repetitions but it’s harder to identify actions or dialogue in scenes that perhaps do the same job as examples in other sections but do so in subtly different ways. It’s a tough judgement call to cull these, especially when they might be also serving another purpose in the novel. It’s another example of where workshopping in sections doesn’t recreate the experience of a ‘real world’ reader who’d hopefully have conjured up their own unique interpretation of the novel having read the novel as a continuous whole.
On the other hand, to avoid embarrassing themselves with work littered with typos, clumsy phrasing and bad grammar, I’ve noticed that most students and writing group participants will polish the extracts they present for workshopping to a standard that’s far above first draft.
I tend to write a first draft, print it, revise it on paper, make alterations in the manuscript, then read it aloud again and proof-read before I’ll send the work out for comment. That’s more like third or fourth draft — and still typos creep through. But this ought to mean — in addition to the copy editing and proof reading before the final submission — that novels produced on MA courses are probably presented in a more respectable state than the average manuscript an agent will receive, even if structural changes are required.
I hinted in the last blog post that the location of my novel/dissertation printers on the Holloway Road was a little serendipitous. It’s because the famously grimy, largely down-at-heel north London road was often my route to City University for the Certificate in Novel Writing — and it’s likely many of the ideas that formed the conception of the novel were mulled over while stuck in its traffic jams.
My journey down the Holloway Road started from a grotesquely ugly office block where I was working at the time which was stranded in the middle of a housing estate on the very margins of Luton.
While I’m sure the local area was a perfectly acceptable place to live — it was one of the more desirable areas of Luton — it wasn’t exactly thrilling as a location to spend one’s working day. The only ‘entertainment’ nearby was an Asda and a small parade of local shops containing an Iceland, various takeaways and an estate pub.
Nevertheless, the Asda had quite a sizeable book section and I used to think (and still do) that it would be a great ambition to have a book of mine on sale there. Of course Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Waterstones on Piccadilly would be great, as would all the wonderful independent booksellers, but making it to the shelves of Asda in Luton would make a different sort of statement.
At lunchtimes I escaped by running around the pleasant country lanes that lay beyond the suburban sprawl. I sometimes did a bit of writing in the office and remember getting inspiration for a poem I wrote for an OU course from all the plastic carrier bags being blown into the branches of trees in the scrubby wasteland behind the office — it was that kind of place.
It was the safe, uniform suburban location that, for different reasons, would drive both the leading characters in the novel absolutely crazy — and in retrospect the city versus country conflict and the themes of escape and ambition in the novel may well be rooted in the journey from Luton to Islington.
When I was working in the office, I’d leave on Mondays and Wednesdays around five, drive past the airport, barrel down the M1, then take the A1 through Henlys Corner and under the bridge at Archway, from where I had a glimpse of one of those marvellous, tantalising views where London suddenly reveals itself — the Gherkin, Tower 42, Barbican and other City towers (the Shard was yet to be built) rising in the distance.
Then it was a crawl along the Holloway Road, dodging buses and stopping at traffic lights every hundred yards, but I got to know the road well — the tube station, the bizarre architecture of the London Metropolitan University’s new extension, the art deco Odeon and the Wetherspoon conversion of the Coronet cinema.
Holloway Road shares similar characteristics to other areas adjoining large football grounds — a lot of rather folorn looking takeaways and pubs that do most of their business on match-days.
Once I drove obliviously down the road just before an Arsenal Champions’ League game. Even taking my usual shortcut down Liverpool Road to avoid Highbury and Islington roundabout and Upper Street, I was caught between coaches and police vans and ended up a stressed three-quarters of an hour late for the City tutorial.
So the Holloway Road represented the twice-weekly transition I made from the Home Counties to the centre of London — the scruffy but vital artery that connected the inner-city cool of Islington and slightly edgy Finsbury, where City University’s campus is located in the middle of one of the closest pockets of social housing to the centre of London.
Many other routes in and out of London are fast dual-carriageways or even rise on viaducts above the zone two fringes, like the A40 Westway that I normally used to drive home. Unlike these, the traveller on the A1 Holloway Road experiences the grinding pace of city life. While nowhere near as hip, it’s not too unlike the Great Eastern Street/Commercial Street area that features in the novel.
The place also has associations with the City course as one of the students set part of her novel in the area. She wrote beautifully and she described very evocatively the experience of living just off the Holloway Road, albeit a few years ago when it perhaps held its connections with the lost London of the mid-20th century a little more strongly (there was a famous eccentric department store whose name escapes me). But the writing confirmed a sense of latent oddball seediness — an area in a liminal zone between gentrified Islington and Highgate and the grittier localities, generally to the east.
The road does seem to have something of a middle-class foothold amongst the seediness — with even a Waitrose in its smartest sections. However, the Highbury and Islington end is still more kebab house than cup cake.
So it was oddly appropriate that over three years later when the novel was finished (in its MA submission form) that it would be printed right next to the road I’d regularly driven down when I first started writing it. Collis, Bird and Withey, whose service overnight service I’d recommend, are just in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium (and I’ve made James an Arsenal fan in the novel).
And as a further little co-incidence bonus, I walked past this cafe below on the way back to the tube station with my bound manuscripts in hand. Anyone who’s read the start of the novel will spot the reason.
Well, ‘the end’ might be an over-dramatic way of putting it but it does mark a significant watershed: 1st October (tomorrow at the time of writing) marks the end of my Creative Writing MA course. It’s the day that we students have spent just over three years persevering towards — when we hand over the fruits of our labours to the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University to cast their verdict.
It’s also why, when there are only a couple of hours left in the whole month of September, there have been no updates on this blog during the month. Getting the novel into a decent enough shape to submit as a text for academic assessment has been bloody hard, knackering work — about two months intense effort over and above the normal writing time I try to eke out around the day job and other commitments — so not enough time even to post up the holiday photos I hinted about in the last update (but persevere to the end of this post and any disappointment might be alleviated in that department).
Part of the reason it’s been something of a grind is that I’d not realised, until it was mentioned by fellow students, Kerry and Anne, that we were required to hand in hard copies of the novel — it’s effectively the dissertation component of the Masters degree — and with a dissertation the university requires the document not only to be physically printed but professionally bound like, er, a real book!
Fortunately there’s no additional commentary or analysis required (that tends to come at PhD level) but, with a minimum word count of 60,000, it’s a very weighty document for all students. And, as I have no worries about meeting the minimum word count (thankfully there isn’t maximum), then I’m expecting my dissertation to be something of a bookend when I pick my copy up from the bookbinders.
Interestingly, my MSc dissertation for the OU was a much more manageable 17,500 words — not much of gripping story there, though — and I was able to submit that purely electronically. I later had it printed and bound for my own reference — and it sits doing a bit of bookshelf ego massaging next to the MBA dissertation from years ago that I actually printed on an inkjet printer before having it bound (that would probably cost me about £500 in ink if I tried it now on my current money pit of an HP printer).
It seems ridiculous to have been working on a novel for so long and to have to suddenly shift into a higher gear when the end of the course suddenly creeps up. But I guess that’s the way of deadlines — I know from some of my published and agented friends how they’re often set exacting deadlines. Most published books would probably only live on their authors’ word processors if it wasn’t for that external kick up the backside. But I had a deadline and I made it, however generous it seems in retrospect.
To get the revision process kicked off in earnest, at the start of August I went through the laborious process of printing off my draft and then took it on holiday to France and Germany to read. Relaxing in a lovely tranquil gîte in the Vosges mountains (see picture below) perhaps put me in a similar frame of mind perhaps to an authentic reader. I had the weird experience (a bit like when characters ‘take over’) of looking at the text a little like a reader rather than the person who wrote it — I surprised myself by getting to the end of a chapter and feeling that reader’s compulsion to start straight away on the next one. And I knew the story!
I’ve spent the last six weeks working through the notes that I made — making some very difficult decisions about dropping whole sections (the infamous ‘calendar’ chapters that I workshopped have gone), taking fragments from several chapters and altering them to form completely new scenes (there’s one continuous event in the novel that I constructed from three previously completely separate sections) and trawling through the text for consistency and checking facts (for example, I had to change a child’s age in several places when I realised there was a scene when she was in a pushchair).
Having to hand in hard copies effectively tests your self-publishing skills. I spent hours checking pedantically through the whole manuscript for formatting errors, stray punctuation and the smallest typo (although it’s sod’s law that many will inevitably remain). I had to worry about mirroring the margins for the binding, ensure that sections started on odd pages and lots of other issues that writers who e-mail Word document to a publisher don’t have to pore over.
Once I’d formatted the PDF for the professional printers it was only a few minutes’ work to create a reasonably passable e-book version of the finished MA version of the novel. It’s now on my Kindle and has made me wonder if I should spend a little more time polishing it and take the plunge and properly self-publish it. Maybe.
Certainly, the self-publishing route is becoming a much more common way of getting agent interest — as I discovered in some panel discussions when I made a fleeting visit for the second year to the York Festival of Writing at the beginning of September.
I was also surprised to hear in a session by a couple of literary agents that almost all the manuscripts that they receive as submissions are in need of a thorough line and copy edit.
Moreover they expect this, almost to the point of being a bit wary of the most perfectly edited examples, on the basis that authors are better employed on the more creative tasks of the publishing process — inventing ideas, plots and characters — rather than combing through manuscripts for errors. Proof reading is usually more effective if done by someone new to the text and it’s also a dedicated (and very different) skill in itself.
I may blog later at more length about my visit to York — Isabel Costello has written a very good blog post about the benefits of attending for a second time.
I thought I was being rather brave by attending Anastasia Sparks’s workshop on writing erotica. However, everyone seemed to be surprised that there were more men in the room than women.
However, as might have been anticipated some of the men were much more uncomfortable than the women when asked to do an exercise in erotica and then read out what they’d written — using some of the words written on the blackboard in the photo below (guess which words I volunteered). Two made rather lame excuses and refused to share even a mildly erotic word.
As the novel is going to be academically assessed, I didn’t want to take the risk of submitting something that looked unfinished so I’ve gone through the rather bizarre and very time-consuming process of using Acrobat’s ‘Read Out Loud’ function to speak every line of the novel in its default, robotic American monotone while I’ve read the text on the screen. (It takes about five minutes to read and correct each page this way and it’s not foolproof as corrections have a way of introducing their own typos.)
After working on something for so long, it’s amazing how many errors you can spot just by hearing the words are spoken out loud. There are some sentences in the book that have taken over three years to write — and I was still altering them at the last minute.
The proofing process over the last few days has been exhausting and, in places, very frustrating when I came across something that I wasn’t happy with but which was too complex to fix in the time available.
I’m also greatly indebted to Guy Russell, from the City course who’s very technically knowledgeable and a wonderfully humorous writer himself, for reading through a half-edited version of the manuscript in a week and giving me extremely very helpful and honest feedback.
I also did some very analytical MSc-type things with spreadsheets — making graphs of chapter lengths and finding a Word macro that allowed me to count all the unique instances of words in the novel — the number is easily into five figures. I rather like the fact I got ‘rhombus’ in the book (it’s about plate shape not a treatise on geometry), not so sure about ‘sentient’ though.
So today the novel is hitting the press at a printers and bookbinders just off the Holloway Road in London, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium — there’s a little serendipity there as I made James an Arsenal fan and the friendly woman I’ve been talking to there is called Magda — like one of my favourite characters in the novel.
Sadly, there will only be a handful of very expensive copies but I’ll pick up a copy for myself tomorrow and it can sit proudly on my shelf — I’ll try and post a photo of it at some point when I’ve recovered from the whole draining process.
There’s still plenty I’d like to change about what I’ve submitted but at least it’s a completed novel with a beginning, middle and end, even I might dare suggest a narrative arc, and no obvious ‘work in progress’ bits of sticking plaster holding it together.
While I was at the Festival of Writing I had two one-to-one meetings with agents who’d read the first 3,000 words of the novel in advance. As with the same sessions last year, they were very positive about the writing and were keen to see more — asking me very practical questions about the novel and how I came to write it — rather than making lists of recommendations to fix faults. I guess that’s a good sign.
However, having gone through the editing process for the MA submission I realise there’s still a little more structural work that needs doing before I start submitting it in earnest, if I decide that’s the route I want to take. I’ll try to address those and then go through the proofing process again. So, the novel hasn’t quite been put to bed yet.
While I’m going to carry on updating the blog with writing and novel-related posts, I’m not intending to chronicle anything about the submission process, should I steel myself to put myself through that agony. I know from my many friends who are excellent writers that it’s a frustrating and painful process and full of raised and dashed hopes and interminable waiting. Better to maybe start talking about the next book instead.
One of the agents said she’d heard good things about the MMU MA Course, which was quite reassuring, but also took me back a little as I’d recently been so focused on completing the novel as an end in itself.
There are quite a few short courses and events now that promise some professional writers’ feedback on aspiring authors’ work, which is always useful, but what I mentioned to the agent in reply was how valuable it had been to have the input over an extended period each year in the course of three authors, each who’d each published many books of their own.
Rather than see the writing as a one-off, they got to know each student’s style and novel-in-progress over an extended period of time. While the feedback could be challenging at times, it was always encouraging.
However, it was a little disconcerting reading the reviews for my tutor in the second year’s recent book. Nick Royle’s First Novel has a protagonist who’s a creative writing lecturer, working with students on their, er, first novels. I’m sure he completely fictionalised everything in there!
I’m feeling a little rudderless and cast out into the wide-world now as I’ve been more or less constantly on writing courses (often more than one simultaneously) for the last six years. It was September 2007 when I started the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course (highly recommended) and I’ve gone through several more, including the intensive City Certificate in Novel Writing 2009-2010, to the point where I’ve now completed the MA.
It’s taken way longer than I expected to get to the point where I can hand in a novel with which I’m reasonably happy. There was some material that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover — ‘Did I really write that then?’ — from years ago but plenty of stuff that made me wince (which hopefully has been mostly excised now).
My friend Kathy, who I’ve known since the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and is a Creative Writing MA herself, tells me that my writing has improved considerably since she’s known me — so I guess that’s testament to the courses and all the practice that they’ve forced me to put in. Hopefully, the process of writing the next novel (or completing the one that’s been in abeyance for the last three years) will be consequently speedier.
But at the moment, having had plenty of nights going to bed at two and being up by seven, I’m reminded of Adele Parks’s very entertaining keynote speech at this year’s Festival of Writing.
She explained how she completed her first published novel while working in a demanding day-job — ‘Basically, I gave up sleep’.
I’ll second that but wouldn’t recommend it!
Now for those left on tenterhooks by the lack of holiday photos as tantalisingly promised in the previous post, here’s a few with some relevance to the novel.
This is a wonderful view of a bend in the Rhine, taken near Boppard, a place I last visited on a school trip.
Trabants are now as scarce as the remants of the Berlin Wall.
And this peculiar view is of the ladder used by border guards to climb up a border watchtower. I climbed up and down this watchtower ladder near Potsdamer Platz and it was quite hair-raising but what I love most is how the 1980s East German lino has been preserved.
I’m able to mention a bit of news about a friend which has the moral that talent combined with self-belief and hard-work eventually gets its reward.
A major advantage of taking creative writing courses, if not the principal benefit, is becoming part of a group of like-minded writers in a similar position. If the course is selective in its entry requirements then you should expect to be in the company of other students who are capable of producing pretty good writing — and know their metaphors from their onomatopoeia.
Another important criterion for selection is an individual’s preparedness to comment on other students’ work and also to be capable of receiving comment on their own writing. The ability to be generous with feedback on others’ writing and to make criticism constructively is probably rarer than the innate ability to write well. The best courses are typified by the amount of interaction between the students – especially if that continues beyond the course.
The City University Certificate in Novel Writing course – now rebranded as The Novel Studio – was extraordinarily effective in that respect. Not a single student dropped out of the course over the ten months that it ran – despite a demanding schedule of two evenings (or one evening and alternate Saturday) a week. Over three years after our year group of fourteen students finished the course, the large majority of us are still in regular contact.
The Novel Studio’s strapline is ‘We spot the talent, you develop your potential’ — which is pretty accurate in my experience. Much credit must be given in retrospect to Alison Burns, who was the course director. She selected a cohort of very capable writers with very differing but complementary styles and interests . Moreover, the feedback sessions were intense and lively – people regularly ran out of time to give verbal comments and we all left the sessions with sheaves of invaluable notes that we’d scribbled on each other’s manuscripts.
As mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been part of a group who have met up every month with Emily Pedder, who’s now in charge of the shorter writing courses at City, to continue workshopping extracts from each others’ novels-in-progress.
People have left and rejoined the group – sometimes for practical reasons like having a baby or workload from taking other courses and also, in a couple of cases, because their writing has been picked up by agents or publishers who’ve set exacting deadlines. Jennifer Gray’s children’s books have been very successful – with the Guinea Pigs series for Quercus and Atticus Claw for Faber and Faber. I spotted that she had a session for the books at the Hay Festival earlier this summer and would liked to have gone along. I’ll have to catch up when I next meet Jennifer for a drink.
Partly because we’ve formed a group that’s been supportive and encouraging of each others’ efforts, I’ve hoped that as many of us as possible will go on to achieve success with our novels and build writing careers. There are certainly some excellent novels in the works and nearing completion – and they’re all the better for having received detailed feedback from other members of the group.
Imho all the other students on that course were very capable of producing novels that would be an asset to the shelves of any Waterstones (as have been plenty of other writers I’ve met on the MA course and other courses at the Open University and Lancaster University). However, after observing from the fringes of the publishing industry, it’s sobering to learn that just because a novel is very good there’s no guarantee that it will be published, let alone be a success. Like other creative industries, as far as predicting what’s going to be a big success in the market then, in William Goldman’s words, ‘nobody knows anything’.
I’ve been at question and answer sessions where agents have been asked ‘Can you tell me what to write about from a commercial perspective so I don’t spend three years writing a novel no-one wants to publish or read?’ The question almost answers itself — putting in those three years shows belief in both your idea and yourself as an author — and your writing ought to improve along the way too. And that time and effort is put in without any guarantee of a reward — if you’re lucky enough to get published the chances are you’re not going to be able to live comfortably off the proceeds, at least straight away.
Maybe the second most sobering thing to learn from meeting writers is that it’s a hell of a lot of hard work for a small chance of a reward that is, in all likelihood, to be rather modest. Calculate all the time required to write, edit, revise and polish a novel begun on a creative writing course and divide it by the reported revenue generated by a debut novel and it’s very likely to come out well under the minimum wage (and, for most people, the time is effectively overtime, because it’s fitted around work, family or other responsibilities). However, the figures for average earnings are an example of the infamous long-tail — a small number of writers have very healthy incomes, whereas there’s a large number of published writers who aren’t so fortunate.
Even to make it through an intense course like the City course, it was clear that everyone loved writing with a passion. But I can understand why some very talented writers might have decided it’s not the right time in their lives to make the enormous commitment to complete that novel.
Many of the group – and other writers I’ve met in other ways – are now at a point where their work stands on a boundary. It’s poised to transform from an endeavour that’s been personal, shared privately with friends, and becoming a commercial proposition, something to which rights can be sold to agents and publishers. The wheels of the literary industry can turn very slowly, with decisions taking an agonisingly long time which means that I often hear hints of promising news in the pipeline but is subject to confidences which mean it can’t be mentioned publicly, let alone on a blog.
However, last week we heard some great news from an ex-City student that can be publicly shared. The collective thrill of receiving the news shows that despite all the above, when someone you know is recognised and gets a deserved break the feeling is almost euphoric and makes all the effort seem very worthwhile. Rick Kellum announced that he’d signed as a client of Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Rick, one of our three North Americans, has been working hard on his fantasy novel since we finished the City course – he was posting up his word count daily on Facebook at certain stages.
As well as putting in the hours, Rick is a gripping and imaginative writer. He was also one of the students on the course who was most open with his feedback on the course – no-one could nail a lazy adverb more quickly. His scrutiny and attention to detail certainly helped me so I’m particularly pleased about the news.
Rick is also an excellent and entertaining reader of his writing. I imagine he’d go down a storm at author events — which won’t harm his chances of developing a successful writing career. I’ve also met his agent, Juliet, on a couple of occasions and she leaves the impression that she’s very ambitious and will work hard to get the best for her clients. Her Twitter feed is both entertaining and very informative (with regular #askagent sessions held, often on Sunday evenings). I look forward to hearing further good news from both of them.
For anyone wondering why this blog’s been a little more quiet than usual, it’s because I’ve been on holiday and, for the first time in a while, I spent a decent amount of time in the home country of Kim, one of my novel’s principal characters. Some photos of Germany and Berlin may follow.
Ironically, the big literary story of July, and probably of 2013, has been the real-life whodunit over the authorship of a novel about a private detective. Even those who don’t follow book news with my keen interest will know the story of how the sleuthing instigated by India Knight and the Sunday Times uncovered the ‘real’ identity of debut crime novelist, Robert Galbraith as being the phenomenally best-selling J.K. Rowling.
‘Harry Potter Author ‘s Pitiful Sales Figures’ seemed to sum up the tone of much coverage – the implication being that books that Rowling puts her name to sell on reputation rather than merit. However, one of the most sobering facts one learns about the publishing industry from a writer’s perspective is that Galbraith’s hardback sales of 1,500 before the unmasking (as the BBC reported) are relatively impressive for a debut author. The book industry’s sales volumes are very polarised, weighted towards a tiny number of best-selling titles — not so much the 80-20 principle but probably more 99-1.
The story has been well publicised about how a lawyer’s wife’s indiscretion on Twitter caused the secret to be spilled. Yet how Galbraith’s ‘debut’ novel managed to attract enough interest to merit such investigation into the author’s identity is less clear. India Knight’s attention was aroused by a review in the Sunday Times — but it’s a very lucky debut author who gets that kind of coverage from the critics.
To many yet-to-be published novelists – from whose ranks Galbraith was meant to have emerged – there seemed to be a red herring in the detective story. It was reported that the unusually high quality of Galbraith’s debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had set the antennae twitching of some big name authors and literary establishment figures. In her Sunday Times column India Knight qualified this by pointing out Galbraith made observations she thought would only be perceived by a female writer.
A work by an unknown author has enormous odds stacked against its chances of publication. Accordingly, to mitigate the risk of rejection, much of the most sensible advice to the aspiring novelist is simply to ‘make it the best that it can be’. To ensure that manuscripts are suitably honed and polished there’s a multitude of courses, writing groups, conferences, magazines, mentors, manuscript assessment services. (And that’s before the publisher’s expert professionals get to work on a title.)
To those working on a putative debut novel, it seems that the bar for acceptance of a manuscript is set exceptionally high. A number of unpublished writers I know are also going through the soul-destroying process of submitting the product of their hard work to agents, or through agents to publishers (a process which appears at least equally frustrating as acquiring an agent in the first place, although difficulties at this stage are less well publicised.)
So it seems puzzling that someone might say: ‘We must investigate that Galbraith ex-army chap because his book stands head and shoulders above the rest of those so-so debuts.’ Unsurprisingly, the explanation that The Cuckoo’s Calling was a beacon of assured writing in a sea of emergent mediocrity didn’t go down too well with several first-time novelists I know on Twitter – who ironically began to refer to their work as ‘mere’ debuts.
I was reading Into the Woodsby John Yorke when the controversy erupted, a book recommended to me a fellow student from the City University course who’s been part of my workshopping group for the last year or so. As well as being a fascinating read in its own right, some of the insights in the book may offer a more persuasive explanation of why Rowling’s work – rather than being subjectively better – may have stood out from the crowd because of the its unique path to publication.
Yorke is a TV executive who has been responsible for many of the most successful and innovative programmes of the last decade or two (e.g.Life on Mars). Into the Woods is a book on the fundamental importance of structure in storytelling and to all literary and dramatic forms.
The book references other well-known works on story and plotting, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. At times I found it irritatingly dismissive of others’ theories, with Yorke claiming more fundamental insights.
However, the book is less about originality of analysis than stripping back well-known concepts to expose their basis in some universal truths, common to all humanity. In places this reduction appeared to have been abstracted to a level of almost meaningless generality — every event has a beginning and an end and something happens in between or that things change over time (and Newton’s Third Law is cited as the a root of character interaction).
The structure of the book itself also ignores its own advice. Rather than build revelation of its conclusions over a narrative arc, the main points are stated upfront in the first chapter and to a large extent repeated and refined in later chapters – a fairly common trait in non-fiction books that don’t have the momentum of a plot to carry the reader through to the end.
On the other hand, I was intrigued by the breadth of research. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was referenced — a psychological model of human motivation that I studied on my MBA and that I’ve used to some extent to explore characters’ motivation in my novel.
The book also touches on the importance of story in non-creative writing and other types of communication. The book has made me realise that the aspects of my ‘day job’ which I gravitate towards usually involve some sort of narrative. Typically, I examine the underlying structure of interactions and consider root causes of conflict and risk. I then create narratives which transforms a situation as is it now into some future current state, breaking it down into sub-components and their impact on individual ‘actors’. Conceptually, it’s not hugely different to novel writing.
When the underlying concepts are interlinked to create the template of a classic three or five act story, the book’s arguments become very persuasive. Most of the many examples Yorke uses to demonstrate his arguments are films or television programmes (Thelma and Louise is a particular favourite) but he also references Shakespeare’s plays and some novels.
The emphasis placed on symmetry throughout a story is fascinating. The mid-point of a well-constructed plot is pinpointed as the pivot at which the most fundamental change occurs. This complements the more traditionally taught theory of a pair of inciting incidents (the call to action and the precipitating crisis) at the ends of acts one and act two/four (depending on whether a three or five act structure is applied).
It’s not just fictional narratives that fit this basic structure. Like me, Yorke has noted the way the classic act structure is ruthlessly applied to reality television. Every episode of The Apprentice is a template of archetypal narrative clarity: the task is set, problems are overcome until a defining moment of crisis, then there’s the reckoning in the board room and the resolution of the firing. Its brilliant and ruthless editing is an example to anyone with an interest in storytelling: every shot and cut has significance and the viewer is challenged to piece together the subtext behind even the most apparently trivial details.
Yorke also argues that story structure exists in fractals — i.e. each larger unit of story is formed of a collection of similar sub-components down to the level of scene (and, arguably of paragraph or sentence). Each of these elements must also conform to the demands of a universal dramatic structure. Like the stunning geometric images that are generated from the aggregation and interaction of repeated fractals, the rich complexity of a great story is also formed out of tiny, similar components.
However, few (if any) writers plot such a low level in deliberate detail (chapters certainly but less so scenes and certainly not paragraphs). So, if the fractal argument holds, then writers must subconsciously arrange these small-scale structural elements. The better storyteller the writer is, then arguably the more innate is their mastery of these fundamental patterns. This aptitude then, perhaps, represents an essential quality that suffuses an author’s writing.
As with natural orators, these qualities might be psychologically rooted in personality, reflecting the way a writer interacts with the world as a whole – or something learned through cultural osmosis — and difficult, if not impossible, to teach.
This leads back to the Galbraith/Rowling identity question. While J.K. Rowling’s prose style attracts criticism – for its unfashionably frequent use of adverbs and adjectives as qualifiers and a tendency to be very heavy on description – it’s commonly agreed that she tells a good story and can handle a large set of characters. Yorke himself uses examples from the narrative arc that spans Harry Potter’s seven volumes.
Rowling’s success managing Harry Potter’s epic narrative may signify an instinctive ability to handle the fundamental building blocks of story. If this talent is combined with the experience of the adaptation of the series over eight films, then it’s hardly unexpected that she could master a highly structured genre, such as detective fiction.
I’ve not read any detailed accounts of the extent to which The Cuckoo’s Calling was offered around other publishers before being taken up by Rowling’s existing imprint. However, the circumstances under which the book was written would have been almost the opposite to those experienced by most debut authors (including Rowling herself in the past). The manuscript was almost certainly assured of publication (revealing the real author’s identity would have done the trick instantly) and the motives for using a pen name may have been to gauge the reception of the work when given a low-key launch without any attendant hype. The text may have been reflected these circumstances.
If you’re not J.K. Rowling or other writer with an established track record, then the first objective is to catch the attention of the professional reader who might give your manuscript little time to make its impact. Much advice to aspiring writers concentrates almost exclusively on perfecting a novel’s opening (I even have a book called The First Five Pages).
This is where the interests of the typical reader diverge from the professional sifter — the agent, editor or review short-lister. Someone who’s made an investment in cash and set time aside to buy and read a book contrast with those under pressure to convert the time they spend reading submissions into money. When we pay money up front for a book it’s after being influenced by factors other than the text itself — and our expectations are set to enjoy the read. It’s also why so many more readers will read The Cuckoo’s Calling now the real author has been identified.
The review by Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Bookseller is honest and very eye-opening for a writer. She quickly skimmed a pre-publication copy of The Cuckoo’s Nest to select titles for a crime ‘best of’ list, reading 18 pages before passing over the book. After Rowling was revealed as the author she read the whole novel and freely admitted that her initial judgement wasn’t able to reflect the quality of the overall book, because the opening hadn’t done it justice. Similarly, other reviews mentioned the slow opening and a ‘gentle pace’. An editor who admitted rejecting the book described it as ‘well-written but quiet’.
It could be argued that Yorke’s approach to structure is at odds with the advice to start in media res that is commonly given to writers. Of course, it should go without saying that a novel ought to open in a way that immediately engages the reader’s interest – every word in a novel should justify its place. Also, if you buy the fractal theory, the opening should be a hook into the first act, which ought to have a narrative arc of its own.
Nevertheless, the model of symmetrical story structure requires that characters, their predicament and the setting be properly established. It sets up the significant action of change or transformation which takes place at the inciting incident at the end of the first act – generally about a fifth to a quarter of the way through the story. This then allows a corresponding period for resolution at the end of the story.
If a writer jumps straight in at the outset with an inciting incident then the reader may become disorientated and to compensate the author may try to shoehorn vital missing information into clunky passages of exposition or the confusing overuse of flashbacks.
The writers and critics who read The Cuckoo’s Calling and formed a favourable impression may have unconsciously identified that it was somehow different to most debut novels. Perhaps debut novelists, assimilating all the advice on how to attract attention to their work, share certain traits — and possibly other authors with a long backlist can identify these. Perhaps Robert Galbraith was a notable exception? The idea might have be more plausible than the notion that debuts are inherently of lower quality.
I’ve spent much time concentrating on the opening of my novel. I know that it’s crucially important in demonstrating the complete manuscript’s potential to the time-pressed readers. The first three chapters have been professionally read twice. But as Yorke’s book argues and, perhaps the Rowling/Galbraith story demonstrates, the rest of the book also needs to perform as a coherent and satisfying whole. And it’s perhaps the writers who also understand and appreciate the fundamentals of storytelling that eventually stand out — once they’ve nailed those first five knockout pages.
It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.
Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.
Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.
Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free –if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)
The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.
Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.
And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.
Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.
Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?
And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.
For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?
Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?
Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?
I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.
Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).
While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.
Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.
(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).
What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)
I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.
It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.
From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.
Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)
That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.
The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’
Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.
‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’
Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.
The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).
The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).
Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.
The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?
I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.
In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.
The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.
While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?
It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.
I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.
A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.
We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.
This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.
It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.
But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?
While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.
My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.
One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’
There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.
Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.
While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.
Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books). I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.
The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.
‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.
I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.
The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.
Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.
Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.
I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.
The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.
Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.
The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?
Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’ approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.
I wrote in a post over three and a half months ago about the MMU MA Creative Writing ‘Transmission Project’. That’s the second largest piece of assessed work on the course, which was due to be submitted in September.
As with all Masters’ degrees (at least in common with my fairly recent OU MSc in Software Development), the course is structured into 180 credits. The largest component is the dissertation or project — in our case a novel of at least 60,000 words — which is worth a third of the marks (60 credits).
The MMU course then weights the Transmission Project and the two Reading Novels units at 40 credits each (the latter split across years one and two, which are assessed by essays). I found both the Reading Novels units that I did to be the best parts of the course — with very good tutors in Jenny Mayhew (who’s since left MMU and has published a novel of her own — see this interview on the Waterstones blog) and Andrew Biswell.
The Text Assignment (the publishing industry strand for which I wrote an essay on literary agents) makes up 20 credits and, interestingly, the Writing Novels workshops make up the remaining 20 credits, split over the two years, quite a small weighting considering that this is the part of the course where creative writing is taught in earnest. I’d guess it could be argued that the novel, to which the third year is devoted, is also the end product of these sessions, which means 80 of the 180 credits are devoted to the novel (and the extra 40 for the Transmission project specifically non-novel).
Anyway, I had an e-mail a few days ago with the welcome news that I’d passed the Transmission Project with a mark that I wasn’t displeased with, given that I’d pulled it all together in something of a mad scramble, post York Festival of Writing, whereas some of my coursemates had been sensible and started well in advance. This may have been reflected by the marker’s comments that the accompanying essay rather let down the screenplay with which it was submitted, in terms of the scores.
Most of the comments were quite positive — it was noted that the characters and their situations came across strongly. That’s important in a dramatic form such as a screenplay, which is all ‘show’ with very limited options to ‘tell’ — so you can put a few, brief notes in the script about a character (INT. JAMES’S OFFICE. DAY. JAMES, mid30s, is staring at a computer screen) that’s about it. You can’t spend half a page of exposition describing how James came to be in his office that day or, most crucially, how he feels about it (more than a stage direction like ‘bored expression’). It all has to be told by action and dialogue. So it’s an achievement that my two main characters’ predicaments came over to the marker very clearly.
It’s amazing to be reminded how much readers can infer from a very limited amount of words. I once converted into a poem a piece of prose description that set the scene for a chapter in the novel. I guess it probably wasn’t a great poem if it was born of a piece of prose — it wasn’t that long, possibly a sonnet structure –but I took it to the Metroland Poets workshop and a couple of the poets who listened to me read it completely nailed what it alluded to. I’d attempted to describe a barbecue outside a pub held on the day England played Germany in the 2010 football World Cup (the infamous ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard disallowed goal game) using only 70 or 80 fairly oblique words (and without calling the poem England v Germany or similar) but they identified it exactly — probably more of a testament to their poetry interpretation skills than mine as a poet.
(As an aside, I’ve just purchased Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, this year’s T.S.Eliot prize winning poetry book. As widely reported, it’s a very personal collection themed around the break-up of her 32-year marriage around 15 years ago. I’m currently revising a section of the novel that deals with related themes and I’d like to read her poetry to gain some additional insight into these situations.)
As with poetry, screenplays are a medium where brevity is paramount. My Transmission Project was more like Spooks than Ingmar Bergman — I had about half a dozen scene changes per page on a couple of pages (and a page in screenplay time is meant to equate to about a minute). I’d say that was quite conservative compared with many modern films but the feedback suggested I’d have earned slightly more marks with less slicing and dicing. Possibly so, but it’s all good practice for injecting some of that pace into the novel itself.
So, to use an athletic analogy, I’m on the home straight with the MA with everything completed and, even more importantly, passed apart from the submission of the novel itself. However, the somewhat ridiculous mismatch between the course deadlines and the annual sitting of the examination committee means that we’ll have to wait eight months after finishing in October to hear our results. Unless I submit early, in March, then I won’t graduate until 2014.
What’s worse, we won’t even get our student entitlements during the wait. I think I’m due at least one visit to the student bar to get the cheap beer which is part of my student human rights. I might even bump into the sort of characters from Fresh Meat who’ve been my virtual, fictional colleagues over the past two and a half years.
As a post-script to the posting on the blog technical problems, I reported to my wonderful internet hosting provider that they’d managed to corrupt the historical content of the blog by interspersing it with peculiar characters seemingly at random. According to various Google searches, there are ways of fixing this automatically but I’m not sure I’d trust either the hosting provider or my own PHP and mySQL skills to implement these without cocking the whole lot up even more — so I may have to work my way through and manually remove the extraneous characters. I’ve done a couple of posts already and there’s loads more to do — but it’s a good displacement activity.
I had one of those metaphorical comic-book light bulb moments the other day while walking to the station. I realised what my novel,Â The Angel,Â isÂ reallyÂ about. That might seem odd as I’ve been working on it for so long but, perhaps, it’s because I’ve stood a back a little recently from the novel and possibly the Transmission project made me think more objectively about its structure (see lots about structure in theÂ post below).
It won’t be a spoiler to discuss the basic plot premise of the novel to any of the growing band of readers who’ve become familiar with the draft in some shape or form or, in fact, to any reasonably long-standing readers of the blog Â (I love all of you!). However, if you do really harbour aspirations that, come the hopefully glorious day, you’d like to approach the novel completely fresh then stop reading here.
The engine of The Angel’sÂ plot is a triangular relationship. James and Emma are married and, outwardly, are a successful, attractive, high-achieving couple who ‘have it all’. Then James meets Kim, a German artist. Superficially, Kim is as alternative as James is conventional.
The dilemma that James faces in the novel is choosing between the two. He’s already embarked on a safe, traditional, reasonably satisfying but ultimately stultifying relationship with Emma, largely based around materialism and consumerism that reflects their professional status. Kim is a catalyst who makes James confront his latent dissatisfaction with his existing relationship.
James has to consider whether he opts to make a risky choice and pursue Kim. While he loves her unconventionality, he’s aware of some difficult baggage from her past. He thinks he feels instinctively Â closer to Kim but doesn’t know if that’s a case of the grass being greener. And, of course, there are no guarantees. Even if he was to hedge his bets and try and engineer an affair with Kim (and that makes the huge assumption she’d be willing to) he runs the danger that he’d destroy his reasonably tolerable marriage for something that might only turn out to be a brief fling. This dilemma may be more complicated if James isn’t aware of the full picture — can he be so sure about Emma’s commitment and the enduring stability of his marriage?
Perhaps this situation reflects the sort of universal dilemma about risk and reward that most people have faced at some time — why Mephistopheles is required to broker a Faustian pact on one hand or as KylieÂ MinogueÂ sang Better the Devil You Know on the other? Also, this kind of choice is certainly not exclusive to relationships — one might argue the current economic crisis is because the entire worldwide financial sector chose reckless thrill-seeking over stolid domesticity. However, when these choices involve human relationships, emotional responses are heightened. I deliberately chose adultery as a subject because it’s one of the few remaining conflicts within established relationships that triggers strong feelings.
The appeal of the story notwithstanding, it’s been something of a puzzle to me how I’ve come to write a novel and sustain my interest in it so long that has, in this respect, no direct parallel experience in my own personal life (the triangle dynamic is definitely not a case of ‘write what you know’). Ironically,if I’d been consumed by the emotional stress of prevaricating between two romantic partners then I doubt I’d have had the time to write a novel about it. Â Yet the novel has felt very personal and it’s finally dawned on me that James’s situation and much else in the novel directly relates to the situation I’ve found myself in while writing it with the difference that James’s dilemma is a metaphor.
For me, the dilemma is between the ‘day job’ (Emma) — a career that probably looks quite planned and reasonably successful from the outside, not badly rewarded, fits my (technical) skills but is something that maybe I’ve fallen into doing. Kim is the writing — risky, economically a basket case, but a choice that I appear to be irresistibly and instinctively drawn towards. And at this stage it’s only a flirtation — a few encouraging responses but nothing approaching any substantial relationship and definitely no guarantee of commitment in return.
I suspect that the same is true for many writers in a similar position to me — striving to establish ourselves on the path towardsÂ Maslow’s self-actualisationÂ while having to serviceÂ the bills. In common with the fictional adulterer we’re almostÂ illicitlyÂ wining and dining the seductive new partner and experiencing all the uncertainty, guilt, anxiety about being found out but also, perhaps, the thrill involved inÂ juggling the two contrasting partners. Ultimately, like my character James, I don’t want to be a cheat.