Addressing Deficiencies

Getting back to ideas for The Angel, I think I may have plugged a bit of a hole in the plot and balanced out the characters a bit by considering introducing a male admirer of Kim when she moves to The Angel. This chap will be actively sought out and encouraged by Emma (in some matchmaking activity reminiscent of her Austen namesake). Emma won’t rest until she’s paired Kim off with someone. Of course, the person she tries to pair Kim off with will be totally unsuitable, although the relationship will develop to an extent which will make James terribly jealous — and when James thinks they’ve slept together then he’ll be extremely agitated. It will be something of a dip in their relationship when he sees Kim having some sort of a relationship with someone who he used to think of as a friend but, in this context, sees as something of an arsehole. He’ll realise how trapped he his himself.

This person will probably have been a friend of James’ but they’ll fall out — and, because James is ostensibly a happily married man — he’ll have to find some other reason to vent his fury. Emma will try and coach the relationship on regardless — she’s the sort of person who thinks any outcome is possible, given the right sort of motivation.

Kim will confide a few things to James about how this chap is an utter philistine but that she’s initially flattered by his attention. Then Kim will start to notice a few suspicious danger signs that maybe the new boyfriend’s attention is beginning to wander — perhaps to someone who’s more receptive of his charms?

I’ll need to flesh this chap out — any suggestions as to his name and other personality features would be gratefully received. Perhaps with this character another piece of the jigsaw is falling into place?


Wordle Chapter Three
A Wordle for Chapter Three of The Angel

A fellow student on an online course I did last year with Lancaster University (and now a Facebook friend) introduced me to Wordle. This is a bit of Java code that runs on websites (doesn’t seem to work with Firefox but works for me on IE) in which you paste in a load of text and it counts the frequency of words and then redisplays the individual words in a random order with the most frequently used words having the largest font size. They can come out very artistically and there are options on the site to play around with colours and formats.

I produced the above Wordle from the 2,550 words of my Chapter Three reading.

The most commonly used words like ‘a’, ‘the’ and contractions like ‘nt’ are removed by default. Sadly my extract seems to fail the literary fiction test as most of the words are pretty common — ‘looked’, ‘cash’, ‘think’, ‘hand’, ‘floor’. It allows analysis of the most frequently used words and the two that stand out for me are ‘sorry’ and ‘work’ — even though I edited a few of these out while redrafting there are a lot left. I think ‘sorry’ is perhaps good as it emphasises their awkwardness in initially meeting. ‘Work’ is understandable in two ways. I think the word must be currently something pre-occupying my subconscious and it’s coming through in both the plot and the character’s diction — James has obviously been fired but there’s a lot of reference to creating art as being Kim’s work. I’m perhaps reflecting on my own view of the novel writing process in this too?

I put the text of the first two chapters as well into Wordle so it had about 10,000+ words to work with. The graphic below is what resulted: rather sadly most of the words would be appropriate for a reading age of about seven years old– ‘might’, ‘something’, ‘table’, ‘street’, ‘time’ and so on. There are a few that set the location and characters: ‘paint’, ‘Shoreditch’, ‘carriage’, ‘London’, ‘vodka’. The very few there that seem to be interesting are ‘shoes’, ‘metal, the frequency of ‘looked’  and, perhaps my trademark word, ‘hand’. Fortunately ‘sorry’ doesn’t seem to recur too much in the opening two chapters.

I’d be fascinated to see the Wordles that could be generated by the work of others on the course — would they also be so full of ordinary words?

Wordle Chapters One to Three
The Angel: Wordle Chapters One to Three

The less frequent words might be difficult to make out on the web graphics. Wordle can be used free by anyone for any purpose but it is subject to the creative commons licence which means that any representation of a Wordle must also credit the original website — which is

Revising Chapter Three

I’ve spent quite considerable time over the past week revising the chapter three that I read at last Monday’s workshop. As previously I’ve had lots of really useful comments written on my manuscripts by the other students. It’s also quite difficult and time-consuming to keep track of the changes marked in a dozen or so annotated scripts but I’ve been careful to go through all of the comments, note the parts where there’s obvious consensus and weigh up the different perspectives.

It’s quite difficult as people have different preferences and in more than one place I’ve had someone cross out a sentence that has been ticked or praised by another person. It’s the fourth time I’ve had the feedback now and I’m coming to know various people’s preferences, which unsurprisingly tend to mirror their own writing style (lean and taut in some cases, lyrical and colourful in others, empathetic and intense and so on). Having had a few days to mull it over, I’ve probably found the harshest feedback the most useful. I eliminated about 100 words out of the original 2,600 mainly by deleting adverbs and unnecessary bits of speech, such as ‘not really’. Some of the mistakes that I had in the extract are pretty obvious errors in retrospect. My thirteen year old daughter saw Rick’s corrections and told me off about ‘stared briefly’ as well — ‘you can’t stare briefly’.

I also managed to restructure some of the more troublesome sentences with some help from people’s suggestions. For example, this long sentence now reads better than previously, although I’m still not sure if I have it completely right: ‘As she breathed, her chest pushed forward and the outline of her breasts stretched the previously slack material, jolting James a little as he realised that hidden underneath her sexless clothing was a distinctly female form.’ (I’ve just revised it yet again while posting it here.) This was the passage was that caused the previously-mentioned controversy about James — whether he was outrageously judgemental about Kim’s appearance or just ‘doing what men do’.

While I’ve pruned it quite a bit I’ve also added in about 50 extra words to address other concerns. One was about emphasising the Kim’s German background. I’ve replaced one of James’ slightly lame phrases of approbation with ‘Wunderbar’ (actually the name of a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on sale in Germany). I also had Kim respond to James’ declaration of passion for food’s favours and textures by her saying that it didn’t really apply to German food — all sauerkraut and currywurst. (I’m quite an expert on the sort of food Germans eat, having had countless meals in the works canteen of a DAX-30 listed company and eaten in restaurants all over Germany as well as eaten plenty of beer-soaking-up food in Biergartens and Weinachtmarkts.)

One question I have that I’d be interested in having answered is whether if you’re writing a German noun in an English piece of writing whether you retain the initial capital letter — as in Biergarten.

While revising Chapter Three, I went back to Chapter Two of ‘The Angel just to check for continuity and it’s a good job that I did. Alison marked this over the Easter holidays and perhaps it’s no wonder she commented that the payment of the money for the painting was too long and drawn out in  Chapter Three: it had already happened in the Chapter Two that she’d read. She must have had at least a sense of deja vu.

Alison and a couple of other people also wanted Kim a little more agitated and stressed. I’m not sure if I’ve achieved that but I wanted to try and give James the effect of disarming other people — being quite good at putting people at their ease, mainly through his ability to not worry too much when he’s making a prick of himself. (I have an inspiration for this in mind — a famous TV presenter whose Tweets I follow and with whom I occasionally converse myself via Twitter.) I’m not sure about whether I’ve tightened up the pace a lot. This was something Alison commented on after hearing it read aloud but others had said it had gone quickly when read somewhere like a plane (good sign perhaps?).

I had quite a strange attitude to workshopping this piece. It was a piece I hoped I’d write past and so have something more filled with action to present to the group. When people were critical of certain aspects I was a bit non-plussed but I’d not had particularly high expectations for it. Perhaps I was hoping to ‘wing it’ a bit and hope that this part didn’t get scrutinised too hard — but found I was being picked up on things I’d tried to avoid thinking about, which was quite uncomfortable but necessary. In the end, I think I’ve got a pretty decent 2,500 now — quite a lot better than before the workshop and something that will better stand on its own rather than be a bit of a dump for setting up plot elements.

I’ve found it pretty difficult to get started again after this — partly events over the Bank Holiday (potatoes crying out to be planted) and the election is an incredible distraction. I’ve been staying up too late after debates and on other nights to take in all the coverage — good research for Burying Bad News, though.

The Eve of St. Agnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,

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

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,

Save wings, for heaven: – Porphyro grew faint:

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

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;

Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:

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

Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,

In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,

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

Looking for Inspiration

I wrote quite a bit in a short time up until the last Saturday workshop — around 7,000 words of the beginning of ‘The Angel — two sizeable chapters or perhaps three or four shorter ones. I tend to like shorter chapters myself when I’m reading a book — it leads to a feeling of having achieved more as a reader. However, the style I’ve written in tends to change point of view between James and Kim (in fact for the first chapter more than POV — the whole scene changes as they are apart). That might make for chapters that are too bitty or too obviously in parallel. No need to worry so much about that at the moment, though.

I also wrote about 4,000 words for Swan Supping — mainly a walk and the Beer Diet attached to a previous post — and submitted a 3,500 word assignment for my MSc. (However, there is a serial called ‘The Gravediggers’ Arms’ in Swan Supping, now in its fourth part, by a Charlie Mackle that concerns someone called James taking over a pub — a bit of a protoype for ‘The Angel’.) This probably came off worst in terms of quality. I’ve had it marked and got 60%, which is ok, but based on initial comments from my supervisor I’d hoped to bullshit a bit more effectively but she’d found me out in places and I realise I’ll need to put more time into the next one, which actually counts towards the course marks. Even so, I suppose I’ve taken the first steps to doing it, which is probably the biggest obstacle in these sort of things.

Given that about 3,000 words of The Angel’s extracts were written a week or two before then that’s about 11,000 words done in the space of just over a week. Since then I’ve found it quite difficult to get myself going again. I note from Bren Gosling’s latest blog post (that I note enviously was written from Sicily) that he’s also finding it difficult to start up again after the culmination of last term. In an effort to re-invigorate myself I’ve gone back and looked over the comments that coursemates made on the scripts of the extracts I read for my third reading, back at the end of February. That was two scenes — one of James and Emma looking over a spreadsheet about finances and one the fire scene with James and Kim. The comments were, without exception, really supportive and generous. Some queried a few practical things (volume of fire alarm, is dopamine a hormone? and so on) and made some constructive suggestions. A few comments recurred among several readers — ‘dialogue is always one of your strengths’, ‘the characters’ voices seem real’, ‘believe in the finance speak’, ‘fast-moving’, ‘a page turner’, ‘want to find out what happens next’, ‘deft and sly humour’ and there was also one comment that praised the prose, which I particularly liked as the writing wasn’t particularly showy in those sections. Most comments said this was the best section yet and how it was hitting its stride — which makes it all quite infuriating to find it quite difficult to make myself sit there and grind out more of it unless I have some deadline looming.

I’ve rewritten the ends of the two threads from James and Kim’s POV inside the tub carriage where he turns up on the morning he’s been fired to pay £500 for a painting that she tried to sell for £1,000 the night before at a viewing. This was the end of the chapter I submitted to Alison as my supposed 4,000 novel opening (it’s more likely to be the end of chapter one and start of chapter two). The rewritten part is just practical scene-setting for the 1,000 or so words I’ve managed since then. These, in themselves, tend to set up the rest of the day, which will be the long-anticipated bender (subject to much procrastination in writing terms). He’ll find out she’s in serious debt and she’ll reveal she makes ends meet by working some shifts in a pub (hardly on international art collector circuit money). I’ll also try to describe how Kim looks. It’s important that she’s not too good-looking but she has to have the capability of developing into someone he does find very attractive in the end (Jane Eyre similarities again). She’s also got to look fairly good from a distance in a soft-focus sort of way (I have some plot ideas about this) so he’ll get close up to her and find a few off-putting things like imperfect complexion, unhealthy pallor, bony face exaggerated by piercings and so on — all stuff that can gradually melt away.  

The bender scene will also pack in quite a lot of character exposition. I’m hoping I can get away with this by moving fast from location to location but I do have concerns that I’ll have perhaps an opening 15,000 words or so that almost entirely concentrates on the two principal characters over a period of about 30 hours in London. I raised this at my tutorial with Alison a week last Saturday and she seemed to think it was ok. I’ll end up following this introduction with an extended time period during which the two characters team up and build up their business, which will be quite a contrast. However, there will be quite a nice symmetry in that I plan the ending to be in London with a similar fast pace, though I may have to insert extra plot elements to bring it up to anything like 15,000 words.

Speaking of Alison’s tutorial, I specifically asked in advance about some concerns that I had and she replied in pencil on a printout of the e-mail in amusingly laconic fashion. ‘Is the scene with James fast-moving enough? ‘ [YES] ‘Are the ones with Kim on her own too slow?’ [OK — WITH EDITING — NB. I’m personally still a little concerned about these being static especially when I continue the action later in Village Underground.] ‘I’ve intercut the two threads in this extract and wonder whether this is a valid approach.’ [YES] ‘I’m also interested in what you make of the location for Kim — it’s a bit unusual but is it clear?’ [YES — GREAT]. And the real paranoid ‘is it any good question: ‘Overall, would this set up a story that readers would be interested in?’ [YES]. So I take all that as not a bad endorsement and really a call for myself to bloody get on with it.

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.


Both Alison and Emily have said they think it’s a great idea for me to start ‘The Angel’ with James and Kim going out on a massive bender together (or at least have the sequence quite near the start). I’m certainly of the belief that there’s no bonding experience like a session getting completely plastered in the company of similarly afflicted others — something to do with the lowering of inhibition and probably why it’s an ingrained part of UK working culture.

In the discussion I had last Wednesday on plot with Guy, Nicole and Sue we discussed, amongst other things, how this might happen and how it might end. I think we all thought it might be good if the two characters ended up in a posh hotel suite but were too tired and emotional to consummate any latent attraction. I’ve thought about this a bit further and have some ideas about how they might wake up the next morning.

I’m now giving some consideration to how the bender might unfold. I’d ideally like this to be the opening chapter that I submit to Alison before Easter. I want to make it fast moving and, towards the end, quite blurry and increasingly surreal (as much as I can get away with within my genre).

I have to admit to recycling this idea from two Open University assignments — one short fiction and the other a longer screenplay —  from 2008-9 where two characters, also called, by chance, James and Kim, went on a bender in similar circumstances. They went from Mayfair to Canary Wharf — where Kim pulled James out of dock.

I’ve settled on having both work around Shoreditch/Bishopsgate so this version will go in the opposite direction. It will be quite picaresque in construction and I want to move up a spectrum of the vast number of options in London and the diversity of drinking/eating places. So I’m minded to start in somewhere really shabby and edgy (in the truest sense) and then move via better pubs up to posy bars and to a top class restaurant and thence to some top hotel — I think something very boutique and designer with massive rooms. I feel a visit to a bookshop and a flick through a Time Out guide to London might be coming up. Actually I’d quite like to base the hotel on the Hotel Rival in Stockholm, which is part owned by Benny Andersson from Abba, and is incredibly Swedish-trendy. I’ve stayed in it twice and drunk in the bar for the beautiful people of Stockholm — with beer at £7 a bottle. The rooms aren’t huge but very stylish and have Playstations and DVD players — with, of course, ABBA CDs to choose from. I’m sure there’s some similar places in London but I may make one up. I may also make up the restaurant as I’m quite keen to reproduce a scene in that from my previous screenplay which was rather satirical about celebrity chefs.

As luck would have it, there was a broken water main on Euston Road last night, causing traffic jams all the way down City Road. I was driving to City so I decided to take an alternative route back to the A40 Westway which is similar to the route that my characters are likely to take. I turned down Goswell Road, then down Clerkenwell High Street and carried on the road (whatever it’s then called) to end up at Holborn. I could have gone round the back roads of Fitzrovia and Marylebone but I stayed on the routes I knew so ended up going down Shaftesbury Avenue, skirting Piccadilly Circus, down through St. James’ and along Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner and then up Park Lane to Edgware Road. I think James and Kim might, for the sake of the readers’ interest in setting, hit the river at some point. I’ll maybe have them go to the Anchor on Bankside and then maybe into the Royal Festival Hall — maybe they could go up the Eye. Now that would afford me a lot of opportunity for the sort of descriptive setting that Emily was recommending to us last night.

Something Borrowed…Leads to Plugging Some Gaps

The end of my last extract, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to read on Saturday, had a fire scene in The Angel. For some reason I was looking around on the internet for fire and ice imagery and came across some references to a classic novel which has a couple of fires. I decided to ‘borrow’ a bit of the action, although the original language was definitely not in keeping with the tone of what I was writing.

Here’s some selected parts of the source — no need to worry about quotation as it’s very out of copyright:

‘I hurried on my frock and a shawl: I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand…I [was] amazed to see the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, became further aware of a strong smell of burning…in an instant I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep. “Wake, wake!” I cried. I shook him but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him…I rushed to his basin and ewer…both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug,  baptized the couch afresh…the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr Rochester at last.’

This gave me the idea to have Kim empty ice on James to try and wake him, although my fire wasn’t dramatic enough to have flames inside the room:

‘ She coughed. The air stank. The smoke detector at the end of the hallway bleeped incessantly. She ran to the top of the stairs. Catching an orange glint in corner of her eye she stopped and looked out of the window. She saw flames through the outside glass door of the function room…”James. James. Wake up. Wake up. There’s a fire.” Kim shook him hard…flames were licking at the thatched roof…Turning the bar sink taps on full, she grabbed two bar towels and plunged them into the water. She picked up a plastic bucket and filled it from the ice machine. Carrying the bucket, she rushed upstairs, pressing a wet towel to her face. In her room she found James had put on his jeans but had then fallen asleep again on the bed. The thatch was now ablaze outside the window…Kim threw the ice in his face. “Get up you stupid man. There’s a fire. I’m not leaving you here.” As he awoke, a finger of black smoke entered the bedroom.’

I guess almost every writer who’s ever read Jane Eyre will probably have consciously or unconsciously borrowed something from the novel but it was quite fun to do. No one noted on any of the scripts that they’d spotted it, although had I got to read it out then perhaps it may have been more obvious.

I think there’s a bit of a Jane Eyre archetype in the plot of the book. While James isn’t really a Mr Rochester, Kim is going to be coming from somewhere different (Germany) to London and then will meet James and fall out and reconnect with him later (perhaps?) but I think her St. John Rivers phase will come before James. Hold on! That’s given me an idea for the sort of character she can hang around with in London — a supporting character and a bit of sub-plot that I noted I was lacking with the post-its.


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.

Village Underground

For ‘The Angel’ I wanted Kim to be a struggling (financially if not critically) artist based in inner London. I’d thought of Hackney as a location for her studio mainly because I’d met a real artist on a German course at the Goethe Institute a few years ago who himself had a studio in Hackney — somewhere he freely described as a ‘shit hole’ that artists flocked to solely because it was cheap.

When he heard the synopsis read, Michael B from the City course suggested that I might also consider Shoreditch as the kind of weird and wacky place where artists like Kim might hang out — and recommended a few places I might want to go to soak up the ambiance.

In the meantime, I’d bought a fantastic ‘London for Londoners’ type guidebook called ‘Secret London — An Unusual Guide’ by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash (Jonglez Publishing). Among the many fascinating sights that 99% of Londoners probably aren’t aware of was somewhere that seemed exactly the right setting for Kim.

Village Underground from the Street
Village Underground from the Street

It’s Village Underground which is, bizarrely, a huge open space that’s used for performances, fashion shoots and exhibitions and is topped by four old Jubilee Line tube train carriages — about 40ft above Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch. The tube trains have creatively been turned into office space and are used by local artists, actors, writers and creative people in general — at a relatively low cost.

Graffiti Art on Rooftop Tube Carriages
Graffiti Art on Rooftop Tube Carriages

The book mentioned that someone might be willing to show visitors round if they asked nicely so I called Village Underground and said I was writing a novel and I’d like to see if would be a suitable setting for my character. They were extremely friendly and accommodating and even allowed me to turn up yesterday to take a look around at short notice while the performance space was being fitted out for a fashion show (lots of designer types hanging around outside). I was allowed to take plenty of photos, some of which are interspersed in this post.

Old Jubilee Line Carriage
Old Jubilee Line Carriage

Tam took me up the spiral staircase on the outside of the building on to the roof to get a close look at the tube carriages, most of which had been grafitti’d by the graffiti artists who based themselves there. It was a miserable day in February so the roof garden wasn’t at its best but apparently it’s a very social place for the artist types to hang out in the summer. I peered into some of the carriages, which had indeed been turned into creative workshops.

As well as showing me round Tam gave me a lot of useful advice on other places in London where artists congregate in numbers. As I’d originally thought, Hackney has a real concentration — particularly Hackney Wick — somewhere else I’ll need to investigate. She told me about a few places locally in Shoreditch to have a look around and after I left I went on a very long walk around the area which took me to Brick Lane. I then set off back into the City, going through Liverpool Street and Barbican and heading back to City University for the evening’s class.

It was an odd experience to stand above Shoreditch in the  artists’ community and look at the skyscrapers encroaching northwards from the City of London. (I took a cab up Bishopsgate to Village Underground and passed the construction site of the Heron Tower, which became the tallest building in the City a couple of months ago, as well as the big hole in the ground that will become the Pinnacle tower, which at 63 floors will overtake the Heron Tower.)

The City Encroaching On Shoreditch
City Encroaching On Shoreditch

It’s staggering how the wealth of the City suddenly changes in the space of a hundred yards or so into the ‘edgy’ area of Shoreditch. Tam said the City is encroaching further into the area and the artists are being priced out — I later saw a new Crowne Plaza hotel on Shoreditch High Street.

This is all fantastic stuff for the novel as I have a good reason for James, who’s working in a financial institution, to end up pretty close to Kim in geographical terms. He could easily pop out to Shoreditch after work or even in his lunchbreak if, like me, he occasionally tends to take rather long ones.

Many thanks go to Jack and Tam at Village Underground for being so hospitable and I’m hoping to return there to enjoy the roof garden when the weather’s more clement.

Kim’s Hometown

We got given some homework yesterday — to write in one of our characters’ voices about their hometown. Strangely I didn’t leave it until a few hours before the next class to think about starting it. This probably followed on from our discussion about plot where a small group of us considered potential holes in each others’ plots — mine was getting my unlikely protagonists together, Kim and James in ‘The Angel’. I was probably also motivated by my visit to Village Underground (see forthcoming post).

Making Kim a German has let me re-use a lot of my knowledge about Germany — a country I’ve probably visited about once a month between 2001 and 2009, sometimes more frequently. Despite my shameful ability to speak the language I actually know and recognise quite a bit of German. I’ve also met hundreds of Germans and visited more or less every large city in Germany and Austria, with the exception of places like Leipzig and Dresden. So writing about Kim’s hometown was like teasing open the floodgates. I got to the 500 word limit fairly rapidly: Kim’s Hometown .

Incidentally, the Benther Berg is completely real and so is the hotel — I’ve stayed there a couple of times and there’s a photo in existence of me fallen asleep in the bar there worse for wear having consumed Herculean quantities of red wine on the company’s expense account. It can be looked up on German Wikipedia here.

Sunset over ‘The Angel’

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 into the valley of the River Misbourne towards Little Hampden 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.

Sunset Looking Towards Oxford
Sunset Looking Towards Oxford

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. ‘

‘It’s a lovely sunset,’ 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 Sally’s faces.’

Feeling Happily ‘Validated’

Another intense Saturday tutorial yesterday — so much so we over-ran by an hour, which no-one seemed to mind. Seven 2,500 (mostly) readings were followed quickly by intense bursts of feedback from 12 people (including Alison).  It’s quite draining and even my very fatty Hale and Harty (sic) all-day breakfast at the Exmouth Market cafe didn’t give me the afternoon snoozes.

It’s absolutely fascinating how different the novel extracts are in both style and subject matter. And they’re also all very good. You get the impression that people are thinking that they’ll use the opportunity to show others how well they can write. I was wondering about spatially mapping where the different novels fit on a two dimension matrix (in true Boston Consulting Group fashion). I couldn’t decide on the axes but I thought of something perhaps fairly crude like the commercial to literary spectrum and putting it against something like narratorial viewpoint — empathetic with one character or quite distant. You’d then have some boxes like ‘commercial realism’ (comedies of manners, thrillers), ‘commercial empathy (chick-lit might fit but there’s other categories like horror perhaps), ‘literary empathy’ (bit like Ian McEwan stuff) and ‘literary detached’ (your experimental stuff perhaps). I think we’d have a fairly equal spread between the first three categories, less so in the experimental one.

We got some good debate going where, unlike the first session where people tended to reach a consensus, we had some disagreements — particularly over Jennifer’s now-infamous prologue but also topics of disagreement in virtually everyone’s pieces. This is really good as we have to develop our own individual voices and this almost, by definition, means that other people would prefer we do things a different way.

In my reading Charlotte didn’t like the slightly more lyrical writing at the end where I got into high-flown wine-taster mode whereas most of the other people who commented said they really liked it. After last session where I read mostly dialogue or fairly functional description I wanted to submit something where I could indulge myself a bit but I stopped almost in midflow because of the word limit. (I actually deliberately ended with something a bit ambitiously descriptive as I knew that would be the point at which Alison would start her comments.) I know where Charlotte’s coming from in suggesting the concept’s cliched but I think I was writing in the voice of the character who would buy into those cliches. I’d put some deliberately dreadful cliches from Fawlty Towers and the Audi adverts into Gordon’s idiom.

We’re always going to disagree somewhat about style. After all, if a writer really believes in his or her style then they will likely to be pretty evangelical about it and want to offer advice to others that would have the effect of promoting their own preferences. Both Rick and I suggested to Nick that he might want to trim down some of the discursiveness in his characters’ voices but Eileen disagreed, saying she loved the realistic impression this created. Both viewpoints are valid and it’s up to Nick to take whichever advice best furthers the intentions he has for his novel.

I was really eager to look through the comments on the scripts of my reading as I find them incredibly valuable. Quite a lot of people had picked up on faults that were related to the artificiality of writing to the word limit. I severely under-wrote a scene with James and Emma that interjected into my longer exchange between Frances and Gordon and I could have flagged the change of POV and given more clues to the reader a lot better. I had some suggestions about putting the scenes together and making them more fluid with characters coming and going — and this is something I may well do when I redraft it. There was also far too much exposition in some of the dialogue, which was picked up by some. Again I’ll plead word limit but I should have thought of a better way round it — was that exposition necessary in the piece at all?

I put in a mixture of description and dialogue and interior and exterior and I was very pleased when I had feedback that suggested that the writing of all these had largely been successful. Odd as it might seem, that session seemed to validate to me that I was a credible member of the course — able to produce work that bore comparison with that of the others — and, therefore, also a credible novel writer. Theoretically this shouldn’t have been in doubt because of the selection process for the course itself but producing something which is, at least, competent and well received is a good confidence booster.

At the end of last term I was getting a bit fatigued with the two nights of class a week but I’m now really quite motivated. I’ve enjoyed a lot of what has come with writing and researching the novel — going to the Tate Modern, getting a few books on modern art, thinking about wine and music. And perhaps the best stimulus of all is the encouragement of coursemates and I hope I’ve been able to return some of the favour to them in small part with some of my feedback.

People didn’t really warm to my characters and Guy said that I’d well and truly ‘skewered’ them all, which I took as quite a compliment if I’d manage to do that in 2,500 words. What I’d like to achieve is for the reader to form knowledge of the character that the characters don’t (yet) have themselves. Some comments were that the dialogue was a bit ‘soap opera’  like  — possibly the pub situation influenced this. I don’t really mind that sort of flavour comes across, so long as it’s a comparison with a soap opera with good dialogue — because good soaps can feature vivid and realistic dialogue. I also like a soap’s blending of comedy and tragedy. A couple of people also said that the writing was very visual and reminded them of a BBC drama series. Although I think that I do this unconsciously, it’s probably the effect I’d aim to achieve — I do imagine the scenes visually when I write them. All this feedback makes me wonder whether I should be aspiring to write ‘Coronation Street’ rather than a novel!

‘You Must Be An Angel…’

…I can see it in your eyes, full of wonder and surprise’ — from Madonna’s ‘Angel’ off the ‘Like A Virgin’ album from 1984.

I heard this song for the first time in years tonight on ‘Only Connect’ — an interesting quiz show hosted by Victoria Coren. (The title is presumably based on E.M. Forster’s famous quotation, which was much referenced by the Leavisite deputy head, Mrs Silverman, when I was in the sixth form who gave a couple of us extra sessions tuition in English Literature in case we wanted to do the Oxbridge entrance exams. I’m sure that our MP at the time, Joel Barnett (of the famous devolution-related Barnett formula) once said that she was related to the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, whose bill abolished the death penalty. She may even have been his wife, although she must have been quite young when he died in that case as that was 23 years before she taught me.)

Anyway, I always thought ‘Angel’ was a wonderful song because, like many others on the album, it was very subversive — at first hearing innocent electro-pop but finding all sorts of darker meanings on closer examination. I love the way she stresses the word ‘must’  in the line ‘You must be an angel’ — you’d expect the stressed word to be angel. The album came out in my first year at university and, having been one of the very small number of people who’d bought Madonna’s first album when it was eponymously titled in 1983, I bought both the single and album of ‘Like A Virgin’ on the day they were released.

I wondered why I thought ‘The Angel’ was a good title for the novel and it’s partly to do with Angel tube station (the lovliest named tube station on the whole underground) being the closest to City University but it’s also because I’ve always pictured, without actually realising it, the Kim character to look quite like Madonna of that era. Odd how it all comes tumbling out of the subconscious.

The Shock of the New

It’s going to be quite an intense day on Saturday for a few of us: Rick, Nick and myself have both a reading and a tutorial. The reading is c. 2,250 words and the tutorial extract can be up to 3,000. I slightly exceeded the word limits on both so I’ve got about 5,600 words in for feedback in one way or another — in two different novels, which might land me in trouble.

I really wanted to make a start on ‘The Angel’ and I began by trying to do something clever and writing a scene which, like Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’, brought together characters from different works and had them interact in scenes which were interchangeable. I will probably still use the scene. It’s when Sally(from ‘Burying Bad News’) wants to bone up on wine. It turns out she knows Kim (from ‘The Angel’) from London and Kim persuades James to put on a wine tasting at ‘The Angel’. Sally brings Jez along and meets Emma and Gordon, Emma’s doctor father who tries to take over the wine tasting duties. Both Sally and Emma get smashed and Sally sees glamorous Emma as someone who can help make her image over and persuades her to accompany her to Bicester Village Designer Outlet to buy some discount brand label clothes cranking up the balance on the credit card she’s just wangled. In the course of this Sally would give Kim the third degree about why she’s left London and come to the sticks to work for an ex-banker. Kim would show Sally the space in the pub that she’s planning to turn into her studio. Quite a nice little scene I thought but it was quite dialogue heavy and didn’t really get into the meat of the story so I thought it might be a bit of a missed opportunity to present that for the tutorial.

Interesting that I referred to Alan Ayckbourn as I’ve long admired his plays — the way he works within a limited scope and is marvellously funny but still exposes the deepest recesses of his characters’ psyches. What I’ve described above is not too dissimilar to one of his plots.

So I decided to put the wine tasting writing on hold and write something different — and I had about two or three days to do it and last night’s class to fit in as well (in addition to work). I had a very firm image in my mind about how I wanted the novel to end and, bearing in mind feedback about how a reunion on the Millennium Bridge was a bit of cliche, I decided to construct an ending to the novel that took the cliche and subverted it.

I worked pretty obsessively on the piece as there’s not much opportunity for ‘face-time’ with the tutors and I wanted to deliberately address a lot of my concerns about the novel in the submitted extract. I got up at 5.30am this morning so I could send it in before midday (I failed by 8 minutes).

I also put my fieldwork research in the Tate Modern to good use by setting almost all the action in the gallery. I don’t know how successful a strategy it will turn out but I had the characters look at painting that were then used to reflect concepts and emotions from the plot. I tried to use paintings that readers would have a good chance of knowing, such as Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. My reference to the latter wasn’t very subtle but it’s not a subtle painting. I really want to use the Cy Twombly paintings I saw last week but can’t find them on the internet. I’m planning another trip to the Tate next week to check. I also ensured that my semi-mystical experience inside Balka’s huge box was put to good use (see blog posting below). I hope Alison says that this works because, if it does, it could be quite a hook for the novel as I would see it being marketed at the kind of people, like me, who are reasonably educated and open to new ideas but who know very little about certain types of culture (in this case modern art). It works very well with things like Morse and his fixations with Wagner and Mozart.

I’m not sure how the piece hangs together. Because of the word limit (yes I came up against the word limit and had to edit it down even though it was put together quickly) it’s probably more rushed than I’d anticipate in a full length novel. For example, I’m concerned that I’ve telescoped the plot a bit too rapidly into the dialogue so there might be some cliches in there. However, some of the most basic emotions must transcend cliche. If a character says ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’ is that a cliche? I don’t think so but I still feel like there must be cleverer ways of writing that or something like ‘Be there for me.’

I wanted to write something that had both dialogue and some extended description but I think I would want to hone the diction and rework some of the imagery in a re-draft. However, I wanted to use the extract to bring in and work on some of the themes I would see running through the novel, such as obsession, depression, communication, misunderstanding, ambition, modern art, etc. There’s also themes pubs and urban-rural tension but these aren’t so evident in the extract.

Now I’ve sent it in I’ll probably do something completely different tonight like watching television — I thought the new Rab C. Nesbitt wasn’t bad last week (I watch it with subtitles as I like to read how the dialogue is written) and ‘Bellamy’s People’ was ok last week.

And I’ve got six absorbing chapters from the other class members to read in detail before Saturday.
I’ve read through two or three quickly already but I’ll read them all through, let them stew away in my subconscious for a while, and then annotate them with any detailed comments I might have.