One book I bought a while ago and have been trying to start reading in the New Year — it’s ‘Too Big To Fail’ by Andrew Ross Sorkin — subtitled ‘Inside the Battle To Save Wall Street’. It’s not a novel but is written very much in a novelistic style with the author taking considerable artistic licence to describe the actions of the principal characters in a very realistic way — ‘leaning over, Fuld swept his arm across Kaplan’s desk with a violent twist, sending dozens of papers flying across the office.’

The book is notorious for its colourful language. I’m looking forward to reading its infamoususe of the word ‘grinfucked’.

It’s given me an idea for developing the synopsis of ‘The Angel’. I had James, somewhat arbitrarily, as a headhunter — mainly as I imagined him doing the kind of job that relied on personal charm. However, I also have to have a device that moves him out of the corporate background into the pub. I’d settled on redundancy but I the Sorkin book has given me a better idea. I’ll give him a background in some sort of City firm. This will allow me to use the background of the credit crunch — which I may use as an analogy to the pub’s ups and downs (big crisis at the end when everything threatens to collapse into catastrophe). I don’t want him to be a red-braces type trader as that wouldn’t give his subsequent character development much credibility. I’m thinking of making him one of the kind of very clever financial manipulators whose computer models ended up causing so much damage — if not the cause of the crash in the first place they certainly exaggerated the faults. And he will get fired because his clever financial scheme has lost lots of money. In fact, as he’s not terribly senior he’ll be the scapegoat for a whole management chain, which will cause him some bitterness.

This will also use a bit of my own background, to some extent, in business administration and IT. I could have chapters of his previous life coming into the novel as flashbacks. However, I want to keep this more as backstory than intrude into the main plot.

I think that might fill a few holes and inconsistencies and give another angle to the novel.

Annoying Space Bar Problem

My writing is suffering from a serious impediment. The space bar on the laptop I use most often has gone faulty and rarely works with pressure on the right hand side only. This is extremely irritating as I can sometimes type quite fast and I keep having to stop and backtrack to insert a space.

I did a bit of research on the web and it’s quite feasible to mend keyboards although if you cock it up you’re left with an unusable machine. It might be a precaution to order a whole new keyboard and install it myself.

The laptop is a Dell and is not very old. The keyboard quality is far inferior to an older Toshiba laptop and less robust than probably a plug-in USB keyboard that can be bought for about £10 at Tesco.

‘The Angel’ Changes

I reworked the synopsis of ‘The Angel’ based on the feedback I’d received.

Probably the biggest change was that I gave James and Emma a different backstory that changed the start of the novel — I married them — unhappily of course as there wouldn’t be much of a novel otherwise. Actually, in terms of a catalyst for action, he doesn’t actually fully realise that he is unhappy until the relationship develops with Kim. Emma will have some good qualities but I think theirs will be one of those functional sort of relationships that people drift into, ready to be shocked out of them at some point.

Because James will be newly married then his relationship with Kim will need to start more gradually — and this will hopefully give her decision to run the pub with him some more plausibility. She’ll need to be running from something in London, however, as much as being attracted to the countryside. James and Kim can still go on their massive bender round London — that’s a slightly environmentally friendly approach as I’ve already written something very similar for an OU course (albeit as a screenplay). It should be good for location and setting, though.

Most of the middle of the synopsis has stayed the same but Kim’s story follows a simpler narrative arc — she arrives, settles in eventually, deals with some crises which eventually lead her to move away again — and at the end the big question is ‘does she come back again?’ She does undergo some change, however — a development of calm and spirituality.

I’ve cut some of the ending of the previous synopsis — the bit about the abortion and so on. It was a bit too rushed to properly do justice to in the synopsis and I need to think whether it’s appropriate in the light of the other changes. The way the synopsis now reads, she could be motivated to leave by the fire.

One thing that’s not in the synopsis that I’ve been considering is making Kim even more of an outsider by having her as a non-white character. I think it would make a negligible difference to the plot – but it might give the outsider theme some more resonance. It would also be a challenge to write — and a potential minefield.  However, I’ll carry on considering this as it’s not something I’d want to take over the novel.

I kept the locations at the end in (Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge) mainly to give some sort of sense of location.  In practice I may well go for something more original — or perhaps subvert expectations by having them set-up to meet on the Millennium Bridge but things don’t go to plan and they are reconciled somewhere else — the skateboard park under Waterloo Bridge perhaps?

I created a spreadsheet based on Emily’s list of questions/attributes for characters. I still need to properly fill it in but it made me realise another flaw in my synopsis — I don’t seem to have enough characters. I can see this might have been a reason behind some of the feedback. There’s really only two who play a role all the way through — James and Kim. If you don’t like them then you’re not going to like the book. I have Emma and her predatory father as additional characters in the synopsis but I think I need a couple more significant characters.

So I’ve simplified my original ideas but I think I need some new ones for the actual novel. The synopsis itself is much improved, however. Here’s the version I handed into Emily.The Angel Revised Synopsis v4 — Distributed Dec 09

Revising Synopses

After Emily’s feedback I sent round the revised synopses to everyone in the class and we then workshopped both — the result being, obviously, that only half the time was spent on each one.

As with everyone else, it was an intense but fascinating and immensely valuable experience.

Having been the only one in the class to bring along two ideas we had a unique vote at the end of the session to see if there was any consensus about which should be developed further in the class. Surprisingly the vote was inconclusive — this reflected the previous discussion in some ways with certain members of the class having strong preferences for one synopsis or the other. I think this is positive as it shows that neither of the ideas was rubbish and also that there was a diversity of appeal between the two synopses.

‘The Angel’ (which I’d renamed from the working title ‘Pub Story’) brought out some fairly strong reaction. This is partly because, as Emily had picked up, it was a much more recently developed idea (in truth underdeveloped) and so it was more raw. That gave much more of sense of immediacy but it also showed a lot of defects. I needed to do a lot more thinking about Emma — James’ unattractive girlfriend.

I would also have a challenge to make some of the main characters appealing to the reader — the fact James was a drinking, rugby-playing headhunter branded him as the spawn on the devil to some people (in fact, I generally loathe such types as well).

There were also some comments on implausibility of parts of the plot — would Kim really follow James to the country on the spur of the moment? Also some of the settings were thought a bit clichéd – the Millennium Bridge, for example. There are plenty of other places I can think about while I write.

However, this is all good for the purpose of the course as it gave me a lot to revise and food for thought for the novel in general — and I’m still having quite radical ideas about changing it now it’s January (see later prospective later postings). I was also offered to be shown round Brick Lane and Hackney for my research, which sounds fascinating.

‘Burying Bad News’ was preferred by quite a number of people who liked the potential in the themes of wine and politics — useful comments received about making analogies to grape varieties and so on. Others picked up on probably the biggest question mark about this novel — that come May this year a lot of the political context may look like ancient history. Given the length of time still needed to finish a first draft then the subject matter could end up being quite stale. On the other hand it might appeal to nostalgia. I’ve been conscious of this while writing parts of the novel (I’m now up to 45,000 words of a first draft) and have been careful for a number of reasons to try and keep the political references incidental to the main plot, which is about human relationships. If need be I could probably change the political context that anticipated future developments, although it would take a bit of the fire out of my belly as I try to excoriate some of the excesses of New Labour. 

As a contrast to ‘The Angel’ some people thought the synopsis was a bit antiseptic and was a bit distant from the character. This might be partly because some perform roles that tend to have preconceptions — such as a scandal-hit MP and a dirt-digging journalist. It may also have been because I’m so familiar with the characters through writing that I’m taking it for granted that they will be similarly known to readers of a retrospectively written synopsis.

Even though I’ve worked a lot on this novel, I found the comments tightened up the synopsis itself immeasurably.

I revised both synopses in the light of the feedback. I worked more on ‘The Angel’, which I submitted to Emily as coursework because it was clearly in need of more development and I had used techniques learnt on the course to do this.

I found all the other synopses that were workshopped to be highly enjoyable and had great potential. It was interesting to see that some other writers were touching on similar themes. I loved Guy’s creation of a bohemian seaside community of exiled arty city types and was interested that they’d come out of the same sort of urban maelstrom that my artist character Kim does.

Real Life Did Intervene

The best of intentions…but real life has intervened leaving a two month hiatus in the blog. Apart from Christmas, New Year and the snow I’ve been recently quite busy writing but more of that later.

As of the last posts I was discussing my synopses which were going to be workshopped both in class and also in an individual session with Emily.

I’ve put both original synopses on their own pages in the blog. There are links on the navigation pane or else click below to read each one.

Burying Bad News — the politics and wine one.: BBN 500 Word Synopsis v2 500 words

The Angel — the pub one: The Angel Synopsis as of 17 Nov 09

I’ll outline the feedback and the main changes I made in the next post.

Real Life Intervenes

I suppose there’s always a trade-off when you’re trying to write something between being a complete hermit and staying in solitary confinement to get something down on paper and also going out and interacting in order to collect experiences to write about. It’s often surprised me on some of the creative writing courses that I’ve done that a lot of people tend to end up on the extreme side of staying in and writing. I’m always surprised that they can write about so much without experiencing it themselves.

I’ve had the opposite problem in the last few days — very little time to spend on the writing as I’ve been doing so much. Last night I was out in Marlow and High Wycombe — experiencing market town circuit drinking bars at their most prosaic in Wetherspoon’s in High Wycombe at 10pm. Then it was back on the train through Wycombe this morning to go to Wembley to watch England Under 21s play Portugal with my son’s football club (the tickets were very cheap and we had a superb position on the centre line just below the television cameras — see the photo).

Fantastic seats or what?
Fantastic seats or what?









And this weekend we have a momentous thirteenth birthday happening in the house — and I might have to go and watch the 2.5 hour long ‘2012’ film as part of it. And I need to plant a boxful of bulbs (mainly tulips) that should really have gone in at half term — and I need to go for a long run to work off all the crap (doughnuts, sweets, crisps and so on that I ate at Wembley). And I need to write some articles about walks I’ve done locally. And I have a bunch of interesting programmes waiting to be watched on the hard drive.

I suppose I ought to be happy if I just get the synopses rewritten as opposed to anything else.

Feedback on Synopses

I had my one-to-one tutorial with Emily and she was happy to go through both synopses — although this made it quite frenetic as we only had ten minutes to cover both.

I was most surprised that she liked both synopses equally — both “had legs” she said. This was was interesting as I had thought one was a lot stronger than the other — or at least one was more developed to the extent of a lot of the synopsis actually having been written.

The most vivid synopsis was the one that was the newest, although it had plenty of flaws, such as the lack of development of a potentially interesting character — Emma the status conscious girlfriend who gets the elbow somehow. This was also picked up by my friend Kathy (who’s doing an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University) who also kindly read through the synopsis.

I was a bit worried that the pub setting of what is currently called ‘Pub Story’ would be thought of as humdrum but Emily thought it potentially rich and entertaining.  The newer synopsis also had an immediate ‘inciting incident’ (the point at which the reader is invited into the story) that set the tone for the rest of the novel. The ‘Burying Bad News’ synopsis was much more confused as it was difficult to work out at which point the reader was going to be pulled in. This probably reflects the indecision that comes with having written substantial parts of this novel already — I’m really not sure whether it should open chronologically or in ‘media res’. 

Both synopses failed in some of the most important aspects — they didn’t communicate effectively what I’d planned for the novel. One example was setting. I’d planned to use as settings a combination of London and the area around where I live (literally Midsomer Murder country — it’s filmed all round here and people are surprised it’s not the West Country or Cotswolds but Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in reality).  The setting is obviously pretty vivid to me but I didn’t get this across at all in the synopsis — and clearly the setting is appealing in general or else Midsomer Murders, Morse, Rosemary and Thyme and all the rest of these dramas (loads of them) wouldn’t be filmed round here.

So I think I’ve learned a lot about synopses and hope to work on the two to correct the flaws. I see it needs to do a lot but the most important is to hook the reader with the inciting incident and set the tone. Also, elements such as setting and a vivid sense of character are just as important as plot. I have different jobs to do with either synopsis.

For ‘Pub Story’ I need to think more about the actual plot  and characterisation and I’ve given this a lot of thought and come up with some interesting ideas for Emma and to link her in to some of the other characters. I’ve thought some more about Kim and also about the need for a better title — preferably something that can work as a pub name and a metaphor for the story in general. I’ve decided that ‘The Angel’ might be good — and it’s a nice reference to the tube station just up the road from City University too.

‘Burying Bad News’ is slightly more problematic as I have to rejig what I already have rather than have the freedom to think of new ideas. However, the questions that Emily raised are more problems with the synopsis than the ongoing work itself — I need to make it more obvious that the story is told from the perspective of the two women and that the role of the MP is more of a foil than anything else. I also need to tick a few more boxes as regards the genre — it’s a thriller rather than a detective story (as the detectives are fairly peripheral).

So quite a bit of revision to do to the synopses but I’m fairly encouraged that the ideas themselves are appealing. One point that Emily made was that they both had plenty of character in opposition and potential for conflict — which is the basis of any dramatic action.

Working on Synopses

I have a one-to-one session with Emily on Wednesday about the synopsis for my novel. The finished synopsis needs to be no more than 500 words, which is a very small number to recount the plot, introduce the main characters and establish setting. The synopsis for Wednesday can be longer than 500 words, which may be useful as Emily can then point out the fat to chop out rather than point out what’s missing.

As practice I wrote a 500 word synopsis of the novel in progress I have at the moment. It was very difficult paring it back from about 850 words and it’s probably too much basic plot summary. I’ve put it in a page as a Word document. Click here to go to it.

I’ve got so far down the road with that story that the characters, setting and most of the plot are pretty fixed, although I’d like help on a synopsis. Therefore I want to use this part of the course to develop a new idea.

I want to set my novel in a pub. This has advantages and disadvantages: I can easily introduce a diverse range of characters to the narrative but it also risks being seen as a bit mundane and it will be a challenge to construct a single narrative arc suitable for a novel when the setting is ‘soap opery’.

The novel will be set in the present, or very recent past, and will reflect some general sociological changes in society, particularly the perceived shift from collective and community leisure activities (going to the pub) to more isolated activities (watching Sky TV at home). Many pubs are struggling to survive in this climate. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of optimistic people who think their vision of a pub or restaurant will buck the change and make them a fortune. Using this scenario allows a classic ‘trapped situation’ narrative that is most often used in sitcoms but could equally be adapted for a novel, although a conclusion to the narrative will be required. To create more of a predicament for the characters I’m considering stacking the odds further against them by introducing characters who want to be the agents of their downfall. In plot terms, this would mean having characters take over a pub whose owners who are secretly engineering their failure – so that the pub can be proved to be unviable and so win planning permission to convert it to more lucrative private housing.

I also want to use the tension between city and countryside – setting Metropolitan attitudes against more traditional mores. I’m also interested in how subtle social changes filter from urban areas into rural communities.

Here’s the plot so far in an attached Word document. It’s not complete and I don’t have many names for the characters. I think I have the start and middle but I’m not sure about a satisfactory end. It’s also a badly written first draft attempt and is, at nearly 1,200 words, about three times longer than it should be (even without a conclusion). Pub Story Synopsis v3.

Plotting Spooks

When it comes to pacy plotting, Spooks on BBC1 is pretty good. It’s also quite a model of editing what are, in essence, pretty bland scenes together. ‘The Grid’ is basically a dark room with a few tables and computers and that’s where at least 30% of the action happens. The exterior action is mainly shots of people walking down streets intercut with other shots of people sitting in cars or also walking down streets. Then there are very ordinary looking safe houses on Peckham council estates and disused warehouses where all the villains threaten to remove bodily parts from the heroes. No wonder they like to stick in a spectacular explosion every so often. When you realise the action is largely banal and repetitive it shows that the dialogue is very clever in transforming the mundane into a cliffhanger — and quite a bit of it can be classed as ‘telling’ — ‘he’s got a dirty bomb in that suitcase that will kill half of London’ suddenly gives a whole new meaning to another shot of a bloke walking along a street with a bag. It’s very clever and makes good use of the characters being hard-bitten secret agents to ensure they never let the dialogue-driven pace flag with sentimental asides.

Another good example of well-structured ‘plots’ are in the more classy reality series like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Restaurant’. These are edited into little dramas with a very clear narrative arc — the obstacle or challenge is defined, the contestants try to overcome the obstacle, they succeed or fail and then have a short review of how they performed with the help of Raymond or Siralan to ensure they take away some self-knowledge. The climax is the firing but there’s a short period of resolution and reflection afterwards. You can almost set your watch by the plot points on ‘The Apprentice’ — about 7 minutes for the task to be set, 12 minutes or so when they’ve decided how they’re going to organise themselves, 20 minutes when they first start blundering into disaster, 30 minutes when the outcome of the task is teetering between success and failure, on about 37 minutes they’ve finished and prepare for the boardroom, at 52 minutes someone’s getting a roasting, 56 minutes when someone gets fired, then there’s the taxi ride.

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.

Historical Fiction

I missed Monday’s class this week on historical fiction so I’ll post a few thoughts here. These apply to modern writers setting novels in the past rather than looking at historical books set in their contemporary time. However, I’m aware that writers such as Dickens, Hardy and (I think) Austen sometimes set their novels in a historical context (e.g. writing about events in 1820 in 1860 and so on, which isn’t that much different from modern writers setting novels in the second world war or sixties or whatever). I’m not really a big reader of historical fiction. However, I can see why it appeals to many readers. When we were asked on the first day of the course what we thought made a good read more than one person said it was escapism and being transported to another world — and that’s what well-written historical fiction should do. This also puts a responsibility on the writer to create a plausible and credible historical world and seems to me to add an extra dimension to the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. One concern that I worry would preoccupy me if I was to write historical fiction would be to unwittingly introduce historical inaccuracies which I would think would break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. I guess in practice that readers do not expect complete historical verisimilitude. There will always be compromises between historical accuracy and communicating effectively to a modern audience — one obvious one is the way language and conversation change over a period of years. A writer probably has sufficient resources to accurately recreate language dating back for about 400 years (from Shakespeare onwards) but a mass readership would probably find this wearing and the use of modern vernacular is probably more practical. Paradoxically most care probably needs to be taken with vocabulary and diction of the more recent past — many common modern figures of speech are quite recent, although many others are centuries old. Clearly good reference material would be essential. The historical writer will also need to do considerable research about the world they are trying to recreate — historical events, social upheavals and changes in response to inventions and innovations (e.g. agricultural and industrial revolutions). Some periods are more interesting than others. I remember someone on an Open University course writing a novel about a blacksmith in 13th century England and he also tried to authentically recreate the speech of the time. I thought the combination of the two was pretty ambitious. In normally set my own writing in the present or fairly recent past — partly because I feel I want to write and comment on the present but also don’t fancy putting in all the time and effort to research a historical setting. However, in the novel I’m currently working on I realised that I wanted to give a character a backstory so I decided to write a couple of chapters in flashback. I took a specific date — June 1995 — which I think came to me quite subconsciously. It was the time when John Major suddenly stood for re-election as leader of his party. My character was the wife of a prospective politician and I used the historical event as both scene-setting detail and also to show her husband’s obsession with politics (and emotional neglect of his wife). I surprised myself by really enjoying the historical research (the period co-incided with the beginnings of the web so I could look up newspaper stories from the time online). I’m now thinking of doing the same with another character and going back a shorter time — to the Iraq war protests. So maybe I’d like writing historical fiction more than I thought? As regards an example of a historical novel, I bought ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. I’ve not had time to read it yet but I’ve had a look through it and noted a few things. As is mentioned in reviews, she uses the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy. The prose is also vivid and sensuous — the opening chapter evokes feelings of pain and smell is mentioned several times. The narration and dialogue are also written in a modern idiom. I thought she borrowed some techniques from film (as some modern writers consciously do): there is even a cast list at the start of the book organised by historical context; the chapters are captioned in filmic style with the year of the action and sometimes the location. This book is also quite clever in the way it’s marketed — a revisionist view of Thomas Cromwell — which means that readers can feel they are engaging in a self-improving, earnest, intellectual discussion as well as having a good read. Mike