An Off Stage Question

I was wondering about the point in the last post where David Nicholls mentions the impact of having important event happen ‘off stage’ and their impact being made greater when viewed from the perspective of their subsequent impact on characters’ lives — the example he used was a wedding in One Day.

It raises an interesting point about the distinction between author and narrator and the limits of narrative voice. A narrator can act as voice that’s independent of the author — being a first person fictitious character or unreliable or a different gender or even a wine bottle (in the case of Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine).

But it’s the author who makes the crucial decisions about which parts of the characters’ stories are related in the text — such as where to start and end, the timescale of the novel, which plot events and interactions with other characters are represented and so on. These decisions are crucial for all novels, but the plots of genres such as mysteries and detective fiction hinge on precise choices about what the author shows. For every saga that stretches over decades, there are novels that concentrate action into one day, like Ulysses.

There’s a huge amount of debate in creative writing classes and on writing blogs about narrative voice but sometimes it seems these underlying structural elements are less discussed, perhaps because they’re much more abstract and can’t be illuminated by textual analysis. The plot itself gets a fair amount of attention. Although it’s more difficult to teach by analysis of passages in novels, the principles of plotting and the enigmatic narrative arc can be found discussed in plenty of books and blogs.

But having an established plot is not quite the same as deciding how to show the plot action to the reader. David Nicholls, once he came up with his concept for One Day made it fairly simple for himself — he showed events that happened on that one day, even though life-changing plot points occurred on other dates. For most novelists, the decisions about what to reveal to the reader are much more potentially difficult to choose.

This might be my biggest problem at the moment — that I can write at such length about so many incidents that are connected to my novel’s plot that I end up combining the detail of the novel-in-a-day approach with the scope of the saga (well, I don’t see my plot lasting longer than a year or so but that’s still a lot longer than a day).

I’m not convinced about the ‘less is more’ approach to this sort of dilemma, which seems to be the standard sort of advice that’s given but I’m sure a lot harder to apply successfully as it depends on the recipient of the advice having the skill to retain all the ‘more’ while discarding all the ‘less’ . If I cut out everything that’s not directly plot-related then I’d lose a lot of what I enjoy about the writing, such as humour, and it would be a different sort of book entirely. It looks as if I’m going to have to resign myself to producing a long-ish book.

While I’ve been musing about how the novel seems to be lengthening overall, there is a particular issue that I’m wondering about that relates to both point-of-view and revelation of plot. I alternate point-of-view between two characters, male and female, although not equally, probably about 60-40. This has its issues in terms of ensuring that important plot events can be witnessed or experienced feasibly by the character whose point-of-view is being used. It can also, however, be used to withhold information.

I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to use this withholding of the reporting of direct experience for one character to allow its discovery later in the plot by the other character’s point-of-view.  It’s not crucial to the overall narrative arc but I’d like to introduce a temporary relationship for one of the characters which the reader will know has happened but only through the perspective of the character who isn’t involved in that relationship (if this makes sense). Then later this character discovers more about what happened — and this has a bearing on the overall plot.

My question is simply whether the reader would be satisfied by this selective revelation of information through use of point-of-view. Would they say ‘If we were told her point-of-view about event X then why didn’t we find out about event Y at the time — and not later?’

My instinct is that this is probably OK and selective revelation like this occurs all the time in books I read but, obviously, don’t analyse in this sort of depth. But if anyone has any ideas about this, especially if it looks like ‘cheating’ then I’d be fascinated to read any comments.

One Day

‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.

I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.

One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)

These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).

I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.

The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.

Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.

Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.

Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.

Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.

Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.

Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.

I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.

Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.

Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.

It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.

I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.

Spooked by Heartbeat’s Demise

I was rather gutted (as footballers say) a week last Sunday by the transmission of the last ever episode of ‘Heartbeat‘.

No really — this isn’t meant to be a piece of wry irony. I enjoyed the programme, and admired in many ways, its comfortable Sunday night formula of mostly gentle drama and character-based comedy.  I only started watching it about 1996/7 when it had been going a couple of years when I was bogged down at the weekends doing a part-time MBA course — it seemed to be a non-demanding distraction and it reminded me of ‘The North’.

This was in symbolic terms — I’m a Lancastrian and I’ve never even been to the interior of the North York moors (although I think 25% of my genetic make-up may be from there) but it reminded me of outings and school trips to the Yorkshire Dales and so on. ‘Heartbeat’ itself also seems to use many of the elements of the classic late 70s series — ‘All Creatures Great and Small. (I sometimes wonder if my love of the English pub dates back to Tristan’s (Peter Davison) adventures in The Drovers’ Arms, which made a big impression on me in my early teens.)

What really grabbed me, though, was that while on the surface ‘Heartbeat’  appears to be all whimsy and sentimentality, it could treat its characters with merciless brutality. The Niamh Cusack doctor character developed leukemia and I wondered how she was going to be cured – and then she suddenly died – which was genuinely shocking. Many other lead characters have met gruesome ends – in explosions, shootings, falling off railway bridges and so on. We were left on tenterhooks as to whether Oscar Blaketon would survive his impalement on a piece of agricultural machinery.

With a long-running series it’s often necessary to change the cast in this sort of way as actors leave (or get ill or die) but this leads to a type of plotting that isn’t normally available to the novelist or dramatist – to kill off your principal character well before the end. In the 80s series ‘Robin of Sherwood’, which I still think is the best Robin Hood series ever due to Richard Carpenter’s liberal infusion of Celtic mythology, I was also stunned to see Michael Praed’s Robin get killed by the Sheriff’s men – ‘that’s not meant to happen!’. They then used a Doctor Who type regeneration to get the next actor into the role, which I didn’t think worked particularly well.

‘Heartbeat’ is also a good example of how the plot can often be an almost perfunctory piece of machinery. The supposed lead characters – policemen, doctors and nurses usually – seem to act out their roles mainly to elicit some reaction from the large cast of secondary, but more permanent characters, usually sat around the bar of the pub.

There was almost always a comedy sub-plot involving the ‘mechanical’ character  – originally Bill Maynard but later Geoffrey Hughes and ending with  Gwen Taylor. Sometimes the two plots ran totally separately – the characters in each never interacted – which was again quite bizarre.

So I think ‘Heartbeat’ was more than a small part subversive – the more so because it seemed so conventional – and there’s quite a lot of ‘Heartbeat’ that has made its way into the Angel.

Of course many of the characteristics of long-running drama series are shared by soap operas – long standing characters, anchored settings, traumas and plot points occurring almost as in real life rather than by dramatic convention and so on.

Some people have said that there are soapy elements too in my novel extracts and I agree to some extent – and also bearing in mind the point that some soaps are examples of exceptionally good dramatic writing that are worth aspiring towards — and I like the emotional directness that’s often exposed in soaps where characters are pushed to breaking point (the drawback for soaps is that these events happen implausibly often to the same characters) .

In ‘The Angel’ I have a pub setting and a small cast of characters who will inter-relate closely. What I’m finding is that I’m working with a nod towards the soap genre rather than try and write something that goes in the opposite direction (e.g. a pub where the most exciting thing that happens is someone cleaning the beer lines every week).

One of my first blog postings was on the plotting of ‘Spooks’ last autumn – and this is another series which regularly kills off its key characters — except for the perennial Harry who’s always wondering about leaving. I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Sophia Myles character develops (I loved the Doctor Who episode where she featured as Madame de Pompadour) as I never really liked Hermione Norris’s Ros.

‘Spooks’ returned again this week. Graeme A. Thomson (author of ‘Under the Ivy’) tweeted a review on The Arts Desk website which described the series as something like ‘last week’s newspaper headlines fed through a scriptwriting program’.

I tend to agree – the characters dialogue has to be short and punchy because if it was any more contemplative then the issues involved would be so ponderous and loaded with politics that each episode would turn into a moral treatise. But the dialogue is not really the point about ‘Spooks’ — it’s an excellent example of how fast-paced plotting (and editing) can transform the mundane. Apart from the one spectacular explosion per series, almost all the scenes are on anonymous London streets, in ‘The Grid’ or somewhere pretty dull like the bridge of a container ship — all intercut with stock footage of places like the Freemason’s Hall on Great Queen Street (not the real Thames House).

Yet it all works brilliantly on its own terms (like ‘Heartbeat’) which means it doesn’t matter that the scenarios are complete nonsense and the script seems to have been written by people who are fortunately unencumbered by any knowledge of computing or the internet.

It’s a bit of a salutary lesson to what I’ve been writing recently — which has been pages and pages of two characters explaining how they feel about each other. I’m not sure whether in the end I’ll take a hatchet to this dialogue but it does help me explore what the characters are feeling. If I leave much of it in, though, it will probably take the reader as long to read about two characters talking over breakfast than for a plot for London’s imminent destruction to be planned, discovered and foiled in ‘Spooks’!

Opening the Novel?

Unlike the majority of my fellow students on the City course I’ve not approached the writing of either of my novels-in-progress in any kind of sequence — either chronologically or in anticipation of the eventual order in the book. I’m not too concerned by this as I think my brain works in a non-linear way — my (by now fairly distant) past in computer programming means I’m quite familiar with defining the meaty, functional bits of a concept and then choreographing these together — in the same way as one might write a coherent argument or report. The exercise I did with the post-it-notes (see post below) was quite useful for taking stock of where I planned to get compared with where I am now but it’s evident that I still need an opening for ‘The Angel’ and that, while I’ve written an opening for ‘Burying Bad News’ that’s likely to be superseded by later developments.

Over the weekend I thought I had a plan. I would start off ‘The Angel’ in dramatic fashion with James being unjustly fired from his financial job — being made a scapegoat partly because he’d been slowly drifting away from being ‘one of the lads’ and engaging his interest in arts. I guess this subject could be the most autobiographical of any of my writing as I’ve now twice been on the wrong end of this experience myself — currently going through the consequences of this ‘process’ as HR people like to term it. Perhaps, because I’ve aired quite a few of my own grievances, I’ve managed to do 3,000 words of this opening.

It’s in three sections — starting in media res halfway through the meeting where James is ‘re-organised’ in clinical HR speak; then a scene which is quite useful in a number of ways where he packs up his mementos from his desk (lots of character clues through the artefacts) and befriends the Somali security guard; finally a more dramatic scene in the gents where the real reasons that he’s been fired are revealed — not going to the lap dancing club being one — and he hits his erstwhile boss.

It was a real slog to write all this and took me a whole day to revise it (I think I was still feeling the effects of my cold/flu). However, 3,000 words is quite a lot, especially when this section doesn’t impinge much on the rest of the plot. To break it up a bit and avoid the impression it’s a book wholly about City types, I’m planning to interleave James’ section with Kim’s own crisis which I think  I’ll have happening in parallel.

I have a nice vision of her having an almighty row and bust up with the St. John Rivers-type character I’m yet to define — I see her standing on the top of Village Underground in Shoreditch throwing his stuff down to the street from 40 feet above Great Eastern Street. The trouble is I’m finding it difficult  to think of what she could throw without her getting arrested. I’ve wondered about her pouring paint on him. Maybe she could do it on the other side of Village Underground near the entrance to the warehouse and the spiral staircase which is currently a dead end due to the construction of the new Shoreditch High Street station? I think this would work quite well if it’s quite physical and visual as it would contrast with the corporate stuff. The two would then turn to each other in the aftermath of their stressful mornings and head out on the aforementioned bender.

If I do two scenes with Kim at about 1,500 to 2,000 words and I guess the bender is going to take about 4,000 words (I’d like to write this for my tutorial with Alison on 27th March,  although I need to get it to her earlier than that) then I’m going to have about 9,000 words of an opening to the novel, which I think might be ok if I’m looking at around 80-100,000 words overall. I’ve already written an ending of about 3,000 words which could be expanded (I wrote it bearing in mind the tutorial word limit) and it needs some context preceding it. I’d then probably have my two pivotal plot points at about the 12-15,000  and 70-75,000 word points — where the action leaves London and then returns. Seems far too neat to actually work out properly!

Speaking of Village Underground, I was quite alarmed to hear on the radio this morning about the huge fire in an ‘office and bar complex’ in Shoreditch. Fortunately, for my own selfish purposes, it’s not Village Underground that’s gone up in flames, it’s a place about half a mile away from Shoreditch High Street — but it just shows how real life can intervene in these things.


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:

Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
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:
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
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.

Perils of Living in the Country

Last night I ended up getting a good knowledge of the many traffic lights along a 15 mile stretch of the A41 by crawling along at about 5mph. This was due to all the traffic coming off the M1 due to an overturned lorry blocking two lanes. I also had to take a last minute diversion because I realised Arsenal were playing at home in the Champions League and my direct route down into Islington via the Holloway Road was going to be flooded with Gooners.

In the end I was pretty brain dead by the time I made it to the class– about 45 minutes in. However, it was a class where everyone (except me as it turned out) read out their synopses and deconstructions into chapters of chosen novels. There were some quite interesting observations about variation in terms of narrative time (one chapter describing a few minutes whereas the next might describe 10 years elapsed time). Guy had one of the most interesting approaches (unfortunately I’ve forgotten the book he chose) as he broke the chapters down into a spreadsheet analysis with stark plot event, POV, time, setting and so on in columns. This is something I’ve actually done myself with the novel that I have in progress — a list of completed chapters and a list of chapters to write. It’s useful as it really boils down the plot to basic events. I distil about 1,500 words into a sentence ‘Declan rescues Frances from a car and discovers her self-harming’, for example. (I’m even thinking of being really techie and putting the chapters in an Access database so I can somehow re-arrange them at the click of a mouse and do all sorts of clever things like analysing dependencies. On a related note, MS Project could probably be very useful for plotting a novel with its Gantt charts and resource allocation interfaces.) Guy also realised that his chosen (mystery) author always used the same structure within a chapter — establish a setting; introduce characters; have the characters ruminate over what has elapsed since the last chapter; then some action begins. Although it might seem repetitive he said it wasn’t really noticeable in the book.

I hadn’t properly prepared for this so was quite glad when Emily forgot to ask me for my thoughts. I’d looked at three fairly conventional narratives at a high level and may do the exercise on these as Emily suggested. The first was Ian Rankin’s ‘Exit Music’  to see how a detective novel is structured with all its clues and red-herrings. The second was Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ which is cleverly plotted with mysteries created for the reader along the way and everything resolved in the denouement. I would also have mentioned Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ — see below on Historical Fiction — where she uses devices like the cast list for each section so the reader has an artefact at the beginning of the novel that exposes its structure quite openly.