I was wondering whether I had something of a plausibility gap in the premise of ‘Burying Bad News’ as I have an MP with an attractive young, Eastern European aide (though mine, Ana, comes from Latvia, which is inside the EU and makes her eligible to work here without a visa). But splashed all over the papers today is something a lot juicier from real life than how my plot is set up. As the SunÂ inimitablyÂ describes the story:
A DISHY Russian who worked as a British MP’s aide is facing deportation as a suspected spy.Â Sexy Katia Zatuliveter, 25 – employed in the House of Commons as an assistant – is understood to have been detained after a lengthy investigation.
So maybe not so good from the perspective of originality but certainly good for plausibility. It gives me more reason to complete this novel once I’ve done a first draft of The Angel — although the two are connected by literary connecting doors as it is. Sally turned up in The Angel in my reading at the workshop yesterday.
On a politically-themed tangent I’ve just seen David Cameron’s signature in the guest book of our local church. He visited the two local churches on Tuesday 30th November — putting his address as Chequers — which is only on the other side of the hill.
I also bumped into the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, on Friday night — he’s our local MP and was in Princes Risborough for the turning-on of the Christmas lights.
As I decided to develop ‘The Angel’ during the City course, I’ve not done much bar think about my political novel since a I wrote a piece for a workshop in the spring which could have slotted into either novel.
Leaving it for a while was also a sensible decision in retrospect given the turmoil after the election and extraordinary way that the coalition was formed and has, so far, held together. Mandelson’s memoirs and the increasingly fratricidal Labour leadership election have also served to make the dog days of New Labour seem like an oddly far away era that most people would probably sooner rather forget — especially once the hullabaloo about Blair’s memoirs dies down (to be published on Wednesday).
So where does that leave a novel with a theme that was fairly contemporary about a year ago? Fortunately the way I approached the writing was to make the politics rather peripheral to the plot and it’s mainly the generic issues about politics that apply to any MP or government minister that affect the characters.
I had a run this morning and thought through a few interesting possibilities that wouldn’t involve a huge amount of rewriting and might also make the story very contemporary. Given that I have about 50,000 words already and I can come back and revise these having got months of safe distance away then I have hopes I’d be able to reshape and finish that novel relatively quickly — he said with the most naive levels of boundless optimism.
It may also have more of a hook for agents and publishers too if it’s tuned right to the new zeitgeist. Might need a new title, though.
I adapted Emily’s suggestion about using index cards to plot novels (and do various other things) by using post-it-notes on a conference room wall in our offices. It’s not as permanent a reminder as having index cards arranged on a corkboard at home but it was quite useful for seeing how the plots were working out. I went way over the 12 suggested plot points — with 44 for Burying Bad News and 32 for The Angel.
For both novels I seem to have two main points of view so I used different coloured ink for either: red for Frances/James and blue for Sally/Kim. There were a couple of general plot points in each which I wrote in black.
Here’s how Burying Bad News looked:
The picture’s probably too small and reduced in definition to read but it shows a few deficiencies — Sally’s story carries the narrative mostly in the first half, to be replaced by Frances’ towards the end. I think I need more resolution for Sally and more introduction for Frances. Seeing as what’s represented on the board is a little less than double what I’ve already written, which is about 50,000 words, then adding in the extra will probably take me substantially over 100,000 words in total — so making me less than half way through. Mmm.
Here’s the Angel:
This has a more symmetrical feel to it and it’s nicely balanced around two plot points about 25% and 75% through the story (like the classic Hollywood screenplays that I was trained to write at UCSB). I feel like I’m still short of sub-plot for this and I’ve only really got three well developed characters who could sustain a love triangle through the first half of the plot but Emma seems to disappear afterwards. More minor characters are required but there’s some good themes coming through with some juxtaposition of art/sex/money/food and drink.
I only had this stuff on the wall for about half an hour so I took photos to preserve the display. I’ll need to come back and do it again but it was a useful exercise in taking stock so far.
I need to make up an exact location for the village in which ‘The Angel’ in located. In my mind it’s somewhere on the top of the Chilterns between Wendover and Lacey Green, probably fairly near Great Hampden or Speen. The Cross’s farmhouse/vineyard is to my imagination somewhere around Hampden Hall (the exterior location where many of the Hammer Horror films were shot). There’s a view from the road near Hampden Hall looking into what develops intoÂ the valley of the River Misbourne towardsÂ Little HampdenÂ and Buckmore End which I think is possibly the most beautiful view in the south of England — particularly of rolling hills. Of course this is very near Chequers and I might make it a minor point of the plot that Robert Cross’s land adjoins that of the Prime Minister’s country retreat — may help in increasing the plausibility of a news blackout.
Here’s a photo I took recently in the general area. There was a really nice sunset in the early autumn that was even more spectacular. I wrote a paragraph of description of it in ‘Burying Bad News’. I posted it up as part of a Lancaster University creative writing course and someone commented that although describing sunsets is often avoided to prevent lapsing into cliche that he thought I’d done a reasonable job. ‘
â€˜Itâ€™s a lovely sunset,â€™ Sally said, joining Robert gingerly at first to watch the spectacle. Her concentration on the interview faded as she gazed at the startling palette of cinnabar, vermilion and violets splashed high across the westerly sky. She lifted her head to stare at the sky overhead, already the deepest shade of blue but borrowing a barely distinguishable lustre from the fading light on the horizon. The texture was like a luxuriant ball gown, its satin sheen arching above. As the light dimmed, a few scalloped clouds scuttled into the scene, reflecting and refracting the reddening light high into the sky like an invisible hand had pulled a ruche in the material. A softening red glow bathed Robert and Sallyâ€™s faces.’
We were given an exercise to do a fortnight or so ago in which we had to write a maximum of 500 words in which a character from our novel was in a particular predicament. I’d better not say exactly what it was as that’s Emily’s IP but it needed to include a certain number of elements that turn up in my attempt (they didn’t include rabbits or the what Frances does herself in what I’ve written, though). I came up with a scenario that could fit very easily into the plot of ‘Burying Bad News’.
I didn’t get to read mine out due to time constraints but several other people did and they were all very good. I included it the material I submitted for my tutorial last night, though. Here’s a pdf of it (just over the word limit at 551).Â (Be aware that it’s a little gruesome and involves a couple of fairly commonÂ psychological disorders:
I was very pleased that Emily really liked the writing in this, particularly the descriptions. She thought there was something of a disjoint between the contemplation and Frances’Â eventual performing of the action and that her thought processes needed to be better explained.
One thing above all others that I’ve learned since getting both the tutors’ and class’ feedback is that I tend to underwrite the interior thoughts and motivations of my characters. I suppose I write from a visual/screenplay perspective for various reasons (doing a six month course at UCSB on Screenwriting might explain something about it).Â This isÂ a tendency I need to counterbalance.
Inspired by Emily’s suggestion about creating diaries and the like for our characters I’ve come into the modern world and set up a Facebook page for one of mine — except that it’s a bit more complicated as this is something that will probably really happen in the novel. It’s for Sally Hunter — alter-ego wine writer of eco-grunger Sally Edmonds — and she’ll use her Facebook persona to establish her wine-writing credibility.
It’s early days yet — I want to her to become a fan of various wine related things and so on but I’ve had to put in things like education and date of birth. I’ve kept those pretty true to Sally Edmonds’ details. I’ll be interested to see if Sally gets mail (she has her own genuine e-mail address which she needed to set up the account) from people who went to Aylesbury High School orÂ Birmingham or Birkbeck Universities thinking they remember her. I think if Harry Hill’s Knitted Character can have a Facebook page then so can Sally.
Here’s how she appeared on my page — note her relationship status.
And here are the personal details from her page (or wall or whatever it is)
Click on the images to read the info in more detail.
Sally’s only got one friend at the moment so I’m sure she’d love more. You can search for her on Facebook using her mail address firstname.lastname@example.orgÂ (note there’s no ‘a’ in that spelling of mcnovel).
In due course Sally’s network will extend to other social-media-using characters who will make friends with her — Ana, Frances and maybe even Robert.
I wrote a section of ‘Burying Bad News’ in the summer which was a flashback to 1995 when Frances was a young GP in Feltham, in south-west London (famous for its Young Offenders’ Institution which takes the worst young criminals from the whole of London and visitors to which can often be seen on the local trains and buses).
I used to work there in theÂ late 80s/early 90s and often travelled through there for the rest of the 90s. The wholeÂ town centre was a 60s planning disaster andÂ over the last five or ten years it’s been completely redeveloped. My oldÂ office has been turnedÂ into Yuppie flats and theÂ local boozer (whose beer garden was the only bit of green in theÂ whole centre) has been flattened.
I went back there last nightÂ andÂ spent two or three hours in the Moon on the Square — a Wetherspoons pub which replaced the infamousÂ Cricketers, which was a place where 70-year-old Irishmen offered each other out for fights, customers let theirÂ rottweilers roam around and pushedÂ trolleys full of shopping into the pub fromÂ Tesco’s next door (Tesco has relocated down the road and has been joined in Feltham by Lidl, Aldi and Asda).
The whole area is a vast improvement on what it wasÂ likeÂ at the point I set my chapter.Â The beer was very good in the Wetherspoons too. It’s good to revisit the places that I’ve used for settings. I drove on the bridge over the Stokenchurch Gap cutting last week and I’ll try and get to the Tate Modern againÂ tomorrowÂ .
I had the experience of being workshopped in the tutorial on Saturday, which was particularly nerve-wracking for me as I was the last one to be done (and we had over-run as well so I guess people needed to get away).Â Even though I’m quite used to this process, both in person and on-line, reading for the first time in front of a new group of people is quite daunting. It’s worse when people who go before you get very positive comments as well and you think ‘Oh no, mine’s nothing like the style of the one everyone loves.’
What was most useful was getting the notes that people had made on the scripts. I read these on the train on the way back (and again on Saturday evening) and I was very encouraged. In the main people must have made the comments in advance and I was struck by the differing views. Listening to the class discussion, one might be tempted to think there was a uniform opinion (possible influenced by Alison giving her comments on hearing the extract read out.) However, there were plenty of instances where one person had scribbled something out as being, for example, over-written whereas another person had written ‘this is great’ next to the same line. I guess it goes to prove the truth of the Vonnegut quotation where he instructs writers just to write for one person and not try and please the whole world. (Bren Gosling mentions similar thoughts on his blog.)
One comment that slipped into the back of my mind on Saturday but has now come back to me was that someone said that she didn’t know how to interpret some of the material. I take this as something of a compliment now I think about it as some of the writing (and other art forms) that I enjoy most are those where the reader (or viewer) is not sure how to take it. ‘The Office’, for example, is comedy that borders on tragedy and parts of it stir emotion much more than many straight dramas. Similarly, Jane Austen’s writing is overtly humorous in places (Mr and Mrs Elton) but much more subtle in others. Two of my favourite TV series, ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’ (which I’ve just unearthed on DVD) are simultaneously deadly serious and incredibly hilarious. I don’t think I’ve seen anything funnier than Phil Collins with his ‘Nonce Sense’ T-shirt or ‘Dr’ Fox saying in all seriousness ‘This has no scientific basis whatsoever but it’s a FACT’.
In the environmentally friendly spirit of recyling I re-used some of the novel extract I sent out to the writing class to create a poem to be workshopped when I went to Metroland poets on Friday evening. This was the first poem I’d read and it was quite favourably received. One poet said it made him feel disgusted, which I think was a compliment!
The day yields to the glow
thrown by vibrant, violent lettering,
lurid ribbons of plastic fascia.
Aromas of frying fat saturate
the air, oozing from the slick
of takeaways greasing the road
to the car factory.
Shards of compacted meat
weep from the window rotisserie.
Betelgeuse burns on a concrete post.
Seeing as Frances Cross, the MP’s wife, is a principal character in ‘Burying Bad News’ it was quite nice to bump into Helen, my local MP’s wife briefly at the weekend. I don’t know her particularly well but certainly well enough to say hello to and have a chat. I know David, herÂ husband and a shadow minister, slightly less well but I’ve met him on quite a few occasions and enough to say hello. (For the sake of their confidence I won’tÂ say exactly where or in what circumstances I met herÂ or even how I know them but it’s not in an overtly political context). Unlike Frances, Helen is a completely approachable, friendly and level headed person as is her husband, who’sÂ pretty likely toÂ become a minister should the Conservatives win in May.
I’ve also met quite a few other MPs and Ministers.Â I used to live in Vince Cable’s constituency and once took a deputation of neighbours to his surgery (an experience that I allude to in a chapterÂ of BBN). Phil Woolas, who’s Minister of Immigration, came to my mother in law’s birthday party a couple of years ago and I had quite a chat with him. My mother-in-law used to have a photoÂ taken of herself with Tony Blair every year at the Labour PartyÂ conference. She’s notÂ managed it so far withÂ Gordon. I told her before last year’s conference that she’d better be quick in getting one.
Â Here are the fruits of my laboursÂ of approximately the past six weeks — about 12,300 words in two sections. That’s about 12-15% of a whole novel by a rough estimation so I’m reasonably pleased with the amount I’ve done. The longer piece (working title ‘Bird and Baby’) is the more revised and redrafted of the two. It’s taken an awful lot of hours to produce that. The other one could probably benefit from a couple more redrafts.
Taken together, they give a reasonably good overview of the characters in the novel — the five principal characters are all featured between the two pieces. The two are fairly contemporaneous in terms of plot sequence too. I would probablyÂ divide the longer piece and use the shorter one to intercutÂ it. Â
In both I’ve tried to combine some character exposition with plot development. In ‘Bird and Baby’ I’ve also tried to reveal my character Robert Cross’s political views (I’ve actually made him a secret lefty) so I go into his opinions on things as weighty as the Iraq war. Hopefully the political exposition isn’t too tedious as I’ve brought in other characters and plot elements.
I found that this section expanded enormously as I was writing it — almost in the fabled way that writers talk about when they say characters take over. I threw in a few chance meetings to break up the scene and found that the interaction with the characters created whole new scenes I’d not anticipated. The same happened with a pair of shoes.
There’s a bit of self-reflexiveness in that there’s a fair amount that discusses writing and the English language — and there’s also a bit of a rant about getting published.
A read of the latest synopsis shouldÂ hopefully give some context to these two sections. Â This first (‘Bird and Baby’) comes when Sally has got to know Robert Cross (the minister) reasonably well in her subterfuge as a supposed wine-writer. She’s arranged to meet him in Oxford when he’s doing constituency business so she can hopefully try to press him on his political views. She starts the novel as a committed enemy — the references to the demonstration outside the Oxford Union and the aggressive woman are to SallyÂ as aÂ political agitator — she was the tormentor but is trying to keep thatÂ hidden.
SallyÂ is also responsible for having started a rumour that Cross is having a sexual affair with Ana. This has reached the press, via her political contacts. The story is just starting to break in the second section — Wendover Station.
Spot the carefully hidden references to Nancy Sinatra and Little Richard.
Click here to read ‘Bird and Baby’ (9,024 words): Bird and Baby — v44Â — featuring Sally, Robert and Ana
Click here to read ‘Wendover Station’ (3,323 words): Wendover Station v12Â — featuring Frances and Declan
The letter referred to in ‘Bird and Baby’ really exists and is exactly in the place described. I referred to my own photo when I was writing about it.
Should anyone have any comments then it’s possible to add them to the end of this blog post. I can also mail Word files if anyone’s really keen to suggest any changes.