I hope I’ve not embarrassed myself with my dodgy French title but who cares when there’s some good news to celebrate. This week I learned of another book deal for one of my writing friends — this time Isabel Costello of The Literary Sofa blog that’s been mentioned a few times in posts on this blog (it’s linked via the sidebar).
I’ve referred to The Literary Sofa a number of times from here. It’s often been because Isabel hasn’t been afraid to write the sort of posts that many people want to but haven’t quite dared to themselves. She wrote a wonderfully balanced post on sex in fiction which prompted me to post my own thoughts on here and, even more bravely, posted on even more taboo subject of rejection by publishers for writers who’ve achieved that prized agent deal (referred in this post). Her original post generated a phenomenal number of comments, with Isabel opening up the floodgates for a discussion by many people in a similar position.
Having written about the pain of rejection and the effort of maintaining motivation to start all over again with a new novel means it’s especially great news that Isabel has achieved success so soon afterwards with Paris Mon Amour. The deal also shows how well-placed Isabel’s confidence was in her agent, Diana Beaumont.
From my perspective, it’s encouraging to see someone achieve a publishing deal who has followed a similar route to my own — attending creative writing classes, conferences like the York Festival of Writing, writing and networking events such as the Word Factory and the potential ego-shredding experience of submitting your work to writing groups.
Canelo is a digital publisher and Isabel explains what attracted her to them in her post on the Literary Sofa. She writes about the huge amount of support her publishers have for authors and for their enthusiasm for her novel.
Coincidentally, I went to a great event last weekend organised by the London chapter of the RNA (of which perhaps more in another post) at which Lyn Vernham, Managing Director of publisher, Choc-lit made a really informative presentation on the current state of the fiction market. As might be inferred from the name, Choc-lit aims at what’s called the ‘women’s fiction’ market (a term many people feel is problematic but that’s another blog post) and publishes in both in digital and physical format. Lyn’s talk illustrated how the distinction between the two is becoming much more fluid and interrelated.
For example, if a book is bought from a digital platform (i.e. Amazon) then the reader will very often have browsed the first chapter that’s usually available online for free, even if bought physically, so the distinction between the two is becoming much more blurred.
As with my MMU coursemate Kerry’s success with her recent novel, The Black Country, I’m really pleased to be able to report on another person know whose work has gone from idea in progress that I’ve heard about to publication. I can also vouch for Paris Mon Amour being an excellent read and will look forward to purchasing a copy to see the final version in June.
I have another short story being read at Liars’ League London. Titled Selfie Stick, it’s part of their Clean and Dirty pre-Valentine’s themed event for February 2016 (guess which of the two it tends towards).
The evening starts at 7.30pm downstairs at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London — near Oxford Circus tube and close to John Lewis.
I believe it’s going to be read by an actor called Lois Tucker. I found myself mentioned in her tweet (pictured below). ‘Fruity’ and ‘SAUCY’ is her verdict!
No more spoilers — all will be revealed on Tuesday on the night itself. There should be a video, transcript and podcast to follow provided by those nice folks at the Liars League.
Please come along and join me for what’s always a great evening — only £5 on the door. There are five other stories to enjoy — the website teaser sounds intriguing.
The media last week was dominated by the sad death of David Bowie. Television specials and special printed tributes were ubiquitous, packed with quotations from figures from all walks of life — not only musicians and artists but the most un-Bowie-like people, such as politicians like David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon (ironic, given that one of the very few public comments Bowie made during his final illness was to urge Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence).
The release of his last album only two days before his death heightened the shock many felt at the news. This was perhaps all the more profound because of his influence on the tail end of the baby-boomers. This is the generation that’s slightly younger than Bowie, in their mid to late fifties and early sixties — and hence likely to be at the high point of their careers. These include people likely to be in positions of power in the arts and media establishments and to thank Bowie for . They’re likely to thank Bowie for bringing a sense of subversion and his message of individuality to their formative years.
Now he’s gone — and by natural causes too — everyone who remembers him in his prime has a reminder of their own mortality.
I’m too young to remember much of Bowie in the 70s — just a few catchy singles but definitely nothing of Ziggy Stardust.
It was Ashes to Ashes that made the first significant impression on me. I can still listen to the song over and over again. I love its its uniquely strange sound (especially the grunting monster yells on the album version) but listening to it again, it’s amazing how much of a template the rhythmic elements in the backing track became a template for so much eighties music (listen to the funk bass and the choppy guitar sound).
I did think the video (with all the nascent New Romantics as extras) was mostly a load of pretentious bollocks it was still quite a moving experience to see the famous Pierrot clown costume in the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in 2013. I wrote about my thoughts on Bowie and the exhibition at the time in this post especially his influence countering homogeneity.
In retrospect the fact that the exhibition was staged while Bowie was still alive showed how indisputable his influence had been — even before the inevitable posthumous reassessment.
While Bowie has been mourned and celebrated worldwide, he emerged from London at the turn of the sixties as a completely original talent — typical of the eccentric and unconventional type that England has the indisputable knack of creating.
It’s been plausibly argued, for example in a recent London Evening Standard article, that the creative arts industry is the UK’s biggest industry sector (if you deduct the taxpayers’ bailout of the financial industry which is officially first). And while Bowie was a product of this uniquely British creative culture, he’s certainly done a lot to perpetuate its continuity, (Although it’s been pointed out that Bowie and Alan Rickman, who sadly died a week after Bowie, were both products of a socially upwardly mobile culture that may have already begun to recede).
On a similar theme of post-war British upward mobility, I read that Major Tom, Bowie’s persona in Space Oddity, was inspired by a poster he saw as a child in Bromley for a music hall performance by a Major Tom. This turned out to be Tom Major-Ball, the father of another high-achiever from Brixton, future Prime-Minister John Major.
With its themes of isolation, disconnection and remotely observing the world while also being the centre of its attention, Space Oddity can be seen as more than a topical song that was cleverly timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. It can be interpreted a prophetic analogy of the journey into the orbit of celebrity stardom that Bowie had been set on trying to achieve for several years while working packing boxes and in other dead-end jobs in 60’s Soho.
David Bowie’s wider influence on modern culture was so significant that he must have the rare distinction of special tributes in the likes of OK! and Hello magazines as well as the very rare honour of a two page (rather than the standard one page) obituary in this week’s Economist(note the respectful reference to Mr Bowie.
The proof was in the playing. Mr Bowie grew up as David Jones, a sharp-toothed kid from dull suburban Bromley whose parents held no aspirations for him. Through a talent born of yearning he had transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust: extravagant, flawed and sexually polymorphous, tottering on platform shoes and hiding behind a mask of paint…Mr Bowie had taken a while to attract attention. Stuck in 1960s London, he picked up a saxophone and considered jazz, then flitted between bands; he moved from mod to Buddhist, from rocker to folk artist, hanging around London’s Soho with its sex shops and music clubs, exploring sexual ambiguity. Despite the success of “Space Oddity” his early albums drew little attention. It was only with the fifth, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, (1972) that millions of teenagers in semi-detached houses just like the one back in Bromley took him to their hearts and turntables.
As the article points out, what’s not been emphasised in most of the coverage of Bowie’s profound impact on 70’s culture (in music, fashion and, as it’s being argued in defining attitudes towards gender and sexuality), is that Bowie was far from an overnight success.
Ironically, for an artist who’s credited with revolutionising many genres, David Bowie (or at first David Jones) attempted to break into the music business for over five years before achieving a breakthrough.
His first single was released in 1964 and an album (which failed to chart at all) in 1967. The first chapter of the David Bowie Is book (which must be the definitive publication for Bowie fans with its vast range of photographs) relates how David Jones (and then Bowie) relentlessly tried to break through into the entertainment industry, following trends from Mods to psychedelia, and not just as a musician. He had a manager, Ken Pitt, from 1966 onwards who advertised Bowie as an actor in casting publications. Of course Bowie did follow an acting career later but it’s doubtful if he’d have diversified into a successful musical from an acting background (Kylie Minogue is probably the exception that proves the rule).
The first section of the David Bowie Is exhibition curated many exhibits from this long period of failure – and it’s telling that David Bowie preserved these artefacts as carefully as he kept the items from his more successful eras. They were placed at the start of the exhibition, perhaps to emphasise the huge but thankless efforts he was making while many other artists achieved instant success.
So the artist elevated by the cultural establishment now as a figure who is said to have changed the world with his innovative genius was almost completely ignored by the music and other creative industries of the 1960s. It’s only due to Bowie’s tenacity and belief in himself that he persisted and was very belatedly given the stage and exposure for his talent.
And although it could be argued, at least retrospectively, that Bowie was a product of the disruptions in social conventions of the time, there was no-one in the music business on the lookout for looking for a flamboyant, gender-blurring singer who’d constantly reinvent an image as soon as it became popular. Even a couple of years after its release in 1969 Space Oddity could have been viewed as a one-hit wonder. Life on Mars, Starman and Ziggy Stardust didn’t appear until the early seventies.
In some ways, Bowie’s career is great testament to the value of self-belief and perseverance. However, during this period he was disillusioned enough to announce in The Ship on Wardour Street, that he was taking a sabbatical from the London music scene.
He said his intention was to become a Buddhist monk. Fortunately he didn’t and he eventually worked on mime, dance and experimental art, such as the Beckenham Arts Lab. Such influences may have given him a more interesting image as an artist when he eventually became established as a singer but he could equally followed a non-musical direction.
Bowie had countless rejections over many years and the only person who can really take credit for David Bowie’s body of work and artistic legacy is David Bowie himself. No record company or manager was looking someone to fill a Bowie-shaped gap in their roster of artists.
Bowie is another example of an immensely talented artist who went from being virtually the only person who believed in himself at the outset to an undisputed, global cultural figure. And there are many examples of similar artists, famously The Beatles, and writers, most notably J.K.Rowling who were passed over by record companies or editors because they didn’t offer what was currently popular in the market.
Such examples are often used of how endless persistence pays off. This is true in the case of those who eventually break through, but it’s impossible to know how many potential Bowies fail to achieve recognition, no matter how hard they try.
It’s easy to tell creative people to be persistent because it’s easier to rationalise a lack of success due to an according lack of perseverance rather than lack of talent or (perhaps worse) a lack of appetite for risk or ambitions or just plain lack of insight by the cultural gatekeepers.
Perhaps this long period of toiling in the shadows is why Bowie was always regarded by those who knew him as polite, down-to-earth and very humble. Those who’ve lavishly praised him need to thank his persistence for the enormous influence that stemmed from it. As is said in a paragraph from the book of the V&A exhibition:
‘David Jones grew up in 1950s London dreaming of being a successful entertainer. As David Bowie he tried, tried very hard, and became a world-famous performer. In the process he helped establish a key part of Western twenty-first century liberal belief: that anybody should be allowed to be they want to be. Self before duty, with duty a choice. He did not invent the idea, but he did promote it to a huge audience. The marketing worked and the London of today, ethnically diverse, culturally open and relatively tolerant, is an ongoing testament to that belief. In the remaining years of this century there are plenty of groups for whom such a culture in anathema. It will be interesting to see how this journey, which started in Brixton, London SW9, continues to unfold’
Geoffrey Marsh, Exhibition Curator in David Bowie Is catalogue.
It’s been a long, wet, miserably dull December and now Christmas is over, here’s something bright and colourful to illuminate the darkness.
It’s an art installation called …—… SOS (the name will make sense if you watch the video) which is the third, and final, year of artist Bruce Monro’s installations at Waddesdon Manor. I’ve been impressed by the first two (and I think probably posted about them on this blog) but I absolutely loved this one (note the video contains flashing lights).
It’s a circuit of 167 tents set in the gardens, all lit in synchronised, changing colors to a soundtrack that was apparently inspired by the artist’s memories of listening to a transistor radio on camping holidays.
The soundtrack is fantastic — there’s three minutes of it in my YouTube clip. It’s mainly snippets of popular music from the last 40 years (Fleetwood Mac to Loose Fit), although there’s some classical and random bits of what sounds like Radio 4 (there’s certainly the shipping the forecast and the Today programme’s infamous racing selections).
I could have crawled into a tent and listened to it all night.
It’s a real serendipitous mix and exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Kim in my novel — the bold, primary colours, the repurposing of clips of well-know songs and the esoteric weirdness of the spoken sections.
Sadly the exhibition has finished now but enjoy the video. Happy New Year.
I caught the start of one of those property ogling TV programmes yesterday. A pair of high-flying lawyers wanted to move out of their flat overlooking St. Paul’s to live a life of bucolic bliss in the New Forest. While the female of the couple wanted a huge kitchen and reception rooms to entertain friends in (i.e. show off their house), the male partner wistfully imagined a life where he’d grow a few vegetables in the garden, stroll down to the village shop on a Saturday morning for a paper and occasionally visit the village pub for a Sunday lunch.
It was all perfectly achievable for their property budget of £1.5m. It’s ironic that the local businesses that they imagine happily serving them with their Telegraph and roast beef probably need a lot more custom than the occasional weekend visit to continue their effect on buttressing property prices. Properties in villages with shops and pubs will have a significantly higher value than those in dead, commuter dormitories — but the people who can afford those prices often work during the week elsewhere.
Nevertheless, this is another demonstration of the way the local pub is so ingrained into the country’s collective consciousness. Even people who barely venture inside a pub (and the busiest pubs are the likes of cavernous Wetherspoons these days) cherish the idea of the welcoming, thatched local on the village green with its lovable eccentrics at the bar.
In fact, as David Cameron recently proved, the idyll of the English pub and its pint of foaming brown ale extends well beyond these shores. It’s often reported that foreign tourists put the experience of visiting a pub near the top of their to-do lists when visiting this country. And one of the most high profile overseas visitors of them all got his wish last month visiting a pub just up the road from me.
As was widely reported, Chinese President Xi was taken on a brief visit by our Prime Minister to the Plough in Cadsden.
The Plough gained some notoriety a few years ago as the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind in the toilets after a lunchtime visit from his nearby country house retreat, Chequers.
This autumn the Plough can justifiably lay claim to the title of most famous pub in the world given the brief visit’s huge coverage in the Chinese media — and also in many other countries.
It seems the Chinese leader had been determined to sample what must be known in China as two of Britain’s great traditions — fish and chips and a drink in a pub. Of course the traditional way of eating fish and chips is out of newspaper with the grease soaking into your palms so perhaps it was diplomatic to combine the two in the pub visit. However, it’s certainly not a British tradition to eat a tiny portion out of a wire basket at the bar.
Nevertheless, the starter-sized portion of President Xi’s fish and chips has now gone on the menu permanently in the Plough. In the weeks after his visit, coach parties of Chinese visitors pitched up at the pub to sample this rather non-traditional method of serving the national speciality.
Equally significantly, the visit has led to British real ale becoming a much sought after drink in China, with demand for Greene King IPA after the Chinese leader drank a pint in the pub. (A regular beer at the pub is local brewery Rebellion’s IPA — perhaps David Cameron steered clear of that particular brew given his company?)
Like many other pubs in the Chilterns, the Plough has featured as a picture-postcard hostelry in many different television programmes, notably Midsomer Murders. In fact, what’s probably Inspector Barnaby’s most frequently visited pub, The Lions of Bledlow, is only a few mies down the road, also nestling against the foothills of the Chilterns.
Midsomer Murders is an exceptionally popular programme internationally, particularly in Scandinavia, and is another example of how the rest of the world is fascinated by the British pub.
And it’s not surprising why anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of this country should be interested in experiencing life in the pub. Other countries have their wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and other meeting places but with the possible exception of Ireland, where pubs still seem to provide a subtly different function, it’s difficult to think of an institution quite as casually inclusive, socially democratic and (usually) community focused as the pub.
It’s not even a pre-requisite to drink alcohol — I’ve gone into Wetherspoons during the day and had a cup of coffee and, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Tom Kerridge (whose pubs in Marlow are not that far away from The Plough and Lions of Bledlow above) have made pub food a Michelin starred but (by most accounts) without throwing out the pub experience completely.
It’s little wonder that the pub is a central feature in many dramas — the Bull in Ambridge, the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic are central to their respective soaps — but there’s many other examples of pubs of all varieties in sit-coms and other dramas in — the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses and the period seventies The Railway Arms in Life on Mars come to mind — both as far away from the bucolic Lions of Bledlow as it’s possible to imagine.
There’s an equally long tradition of pubs in literature — stretching back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — although many pubs are better known for authors’ real-life drinking than their fictional representations. Possibly the most famous modern fictional pub is the Moon Under Water — George Orwell’s description in an article for the Evening Standard of the elusive ideal pub.
In novel writing terms, a pub offers countless opportunities for characters to meet, information to be passed on and conflict to arise. It can also introduce the community in which the protagonists exist — and also make a large contribution to establishing the culture and ethos of that fictional world.
And anyone who’s spent some time around the pubs of London and other large British cities — or has opened a weekend newspaper food and drink or travel supplement — can’t fail to have noticed the new-found fashionability of ‘craft beer’ and the trendy pubs that serve (and often brew) it.
The craft beer phenomenon has been building for a few years but craft or artisanal beer has become so popular that Time Out devoted most of a recent issue to London’s breweries — which are often located in hipster hotspots like Hackney Wick, Cambridge Heath or Bethnal Green (see photos of the Crate Brewery on the canal in Hackney Wick).
With the likes of Brewdog opening bars across London and elsewhere (I visited the new one in Soho last week), pubs are no longer best known for their links to tradition and the past but for being as much part of the cultural Zeitgeist as street art and thickets of facial hair.
And as plenty of the new breweries and pubs are producing excellent beer then this popularity is likely to continue. However, I can’t say my ‘unfiltered’ pint from the Crate Brewery pictured below is one of the best examples I’ve drunk recently.
When I started writingThe Angel it may have seemed odd that Kim, an uber-hip street artist (and uber is a word that’s recently taken on a new meaning) would be an expert in beer, working in a pub and having an intimate knowledge of how beer is brewed. Now it’s clear Kim’ was ahead of the trend, being into beer and brewing before the typical Shoreditch hipster — not that she’d care about being the height of uber-cool.
As this post was written on Hallowe’en, it ‘s very appropriate that it’s about a rather flesh-creeping novel.
I’ve previously posted about my fellow MMU MA graduate, Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s, debut novel, The Black Country, when its publication was a few weeks away. Then I wrote about how I’d seen the novel develop during our course’s workshopping sessions in the first two years of the course.
So I couldn’t wait to get hold of the book and read how the final, published version compared with what I’d remembered. Amazingly, those workshop sessions were back in 2011 and 2012 — well over three years ago — the workshopping each others’ writing part of the course being in the spring term of the first two years.
Kerry has had some great reviews for The Black Country, including one in the Independent on Sunday and a piece on the Black Country (the geographical area, not the novel) written by Kerry herself that was published in the Metro — see photo on the left. As I know from observation on the 0744, the Metro shares its readership with many voracious consumers of novels so I hope this was a well-targeted piece of publicity.
I don’t think Kerry is a regular commuter herself, benefiting from what’s possibly a less frenetic working lifestyle in the Black Country. The day the Metro article was published she hadn’t actually managed to get hold of a physical copy of the paper.
Discarded on trains and tubes, copies of the newspaper disappear very quickly indeed, especially in London, where their dispense points are filled in the afternoon by the Evening Standard. However, I managed to save the day by finding a couple of spare copies left over in my local station, which were dispatched, post haste, up to the Black Country. Kerry kindly signed a copy of the novel for me in return.
I read the novel very quickly. That’s partly because it’s very concise (about 170 pages) and also because it’s difficult to put down. Having finished the novel I can’t add much to what I previously posted based on the sections I remembered from the course. To do so would risk giving away too many spoilers to those who take up my recommendation and buy the book.
I did, eventually, discover the identity of the narrator, which had been on of the most intriguing aspects of the novel during the course and one that Kerry had refused to reveal. I was certainly surprised when all became clear — and if I can be surprised after two years of reading and commenting on sections of the novel then I’m sure other readers will find the way the novel develops equally gripping.
As I’d hoped, reading the novel in the light of having read earlier drafts of substantial parts was a fascinating experience. I remembered some sections very clearly while, at least according to my memory, others had been reworked, with familiar passages appearing among what seemed to be new writing. Of course, the various aspects of editing are fundamental to the publishing process but it’s been a unique insight to compare memories of the original text with the printed book. It’s a testament to the quality of Kerry’s writing on the course that there are long passages that appear completely unchanged from the MA workshop sessions. There are many such passages of excellent, evocative prose, particularly describing the uniquely dour, post-industrial landscape of the Black Country itself.
Kerry’s biography states that she’s been teaching creative writing at secondary school level for a number of years and has also been writing herself for a considerable time. On reflection, perhaps The Black Country illustrates the experience she brought along to the MA course.
Whereas others may have started the course with the proverbial blank page and used the workshop sessions to experiment and shape the direction of their novels, I feel Kerry had a good idea at the outset of how and where she wanted to go with The Black Country, perhaps not in mechanical terms, such as the exact plot, but certainly with the tone, the characters of the protagonists and the identity of that narrator.
That confidence certainly seems to be in evidence in the published version of the novel — and was no doubt a major factor in Salt’s when they decision to buy the novel. From a creative writing MA perspective, The Black Country is an admirable piece of work — succinct and focused unerringly on what it wants to say and the innovative way it wants to say it — without a word wasted. I’m sure the MMU MA course and the input of the lecturers and other students was invaluable in helping Kerry hone and test her bold ideas.
I’d like to urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Black Country, although I do feel I should point out that, as the title suggests, its contents are rather on the dark side and, while bleak, psychological novels are currently popular, the novel definitely mines the more depraved aspects of the human condition
So many congratulations to Kerry to be the first of my writing friends whose work from a course has made it through to publication. I’m hoping I’ll see plenty more in the future.
Shoreditch was in the news last weekend when the organisers of the ‘Fuck Parade’ pelted the Cereal Killer Café at the hipster end of Brick Lane with ‘paint and cereal’. This must be one of the first times that Cornflakes and Rice Krispies have been drafted in as ammunition in a class war protest against gentrification and the reach of global capitalism!
For those who don’t know, Cereal Killer Café attracted notoriety in the media when it opened at the end of last year. Its unique selling proposition is simple: choose a cereal, put milk (or alternative on it) and an optional ‘topping’. Then hand over a fiver. (To be fair it’s not quite that expensive and there are some imported American cereals along with the Weetabix and Krave.)
The concept was seized upon as an example of the hubris of ironic artiness (quite possibly, even meta-irony where those responsible are making an ironic response to an ironic concept — otherwise known as ‘who’s actually taking the piss out of whom?’). ‘A bowl of Weetos? You’re havin’ a larf mate?’
It didn’t help that the two twin brothers who set up the café had the Shoreditch hipster image nailed: with their bushy beards and tattoos they looked like the archetypical ‘Shoreditch twat’ squared.
The protest’s organisers (if indeed, the protest is organised — this was Shoreditch) have been widely condemned for attacking an independent business that is, at worst, a gimmicky tourist-trap for those with more money than nutritional sense.
The real irony is that, for those who say they want to rally against gentrification and the change in the area’s character, there’s something to properly protest about within fifty yards of Cereal Killer’s doors.
I took the photograph above last week on Sclater Street, which leads from Shoreditch High Street station to Brick Lane — Cereal Killer is in the block behind the mechanical digger. Despite the street art on the hoardings, this space is being turned into a development called The Fusion. The cheapest apartment in The Fusion is a mere £757,500 (you get all of one bedroom for that plus a fitted Smeg fridge). The hipsters in Cereal Killer would need to sell a lot of Frosties to afford to move into one of those.
Not that the developers are targeting the Shoreditch arty set who have created the ‘buzz’ that makes these new apartment blocks so lucrative — if the flats are inhabited at all (rather than kept as empty investments by overseas buyers) their occupants will no doubt be making the 10 minute commute to the heart of the City rather than to some loft studio. (See previous post for more details of developments in the pipeline.)
The very deep excavations that can be viewed through the security fence show the scale of the development — is this for a garage or maybe an underground gym or swimming pool?
It’s this development and the many others like it that represent the threat to the character of the area. As soon as they’re completed, they will radically change Shoreditch in ways that go way beyond gentrification. The developers’ marketing material even contains the following: ‘Shoreditch is becoming more and more affluent and even being labelled as the ‘New Bond Street,’ plus it is a great location for City commuters’.
I took the photo below in May last year on a street art tour. We’re standing on the old car park that has been excavated in the image above — the London Clay that has been the foundation of the area dug up and dumped somewhere else, replaced with an empty void.
The walls of the adjoining building were a popular site for street artists — they’re just about visible now through the security fences but will soon be obscured by steel and concrete. The Shoreditch of my novel is fast becoming history.
Around this time of year, back in 2012, I wrote a number of blog posts that were tangentially-related to my writing, celebrated that London felt like it was the centre of the world due to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. (Imho London carried this off so successfully that in the intervening three years, the city seems to have consolidated, if anything, its hold on the title of global capital.)
One of the least successful aspects of the Olympics was the disastrous system of ticket allocation (something the coming Rugby World Cup appears not to have learned lessons from). Although I made it to the Olympic Park, I didn’t get inside the stadium itself.
I’ve visited the local area many times since access to the Queen Elizabeth Park (as the old Olympic Park is now called) has allowed public access — mostly because it’s a pleasant walk between two excellent brewpubs, Tap East in the Westfield shopping centre and the Crate Brewing Company in the White Building by the Regent’s Canal in Hackney Wick.
This weekend I finally managed to get inside — in one one of the first events since the stadium’s post-Olympic reconstruction.
The occasion was a friendly rugby game between the Barbarians and Samoa (one of the latter’s warm-up games before the World Cup). We have to hope a few teething problems are ironed out before the start of the tournament — the sprinkling system was unexpectedly deployed during the match on my visit, much to the embarrassment of the ground staff.
The stadium has been remodelled for a smaller capacity, down from 80,000 to 54,000, and there have been some substantial changes, particularly in expanding the roof and retaining the distinctive, original, triangular floodlight structures but inverting them below roof level.
I’ve visited most of the comparable new stadiums — Wembley, Old Trafford, the O2 — and the Olympic Stadium (or The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Park as it’s officially known — are they waiting for sponsorship?) proved a more pleasant experience with less claustrophobic concrete and, because the pitch area is a sunken bowl, the access and hospitality areas seem lighter and less congested.
However, with West Ham going to make the stadium their home in under a year and the Rugby World Cup approaching, I wonder (as would James in my novel) where the fans are going to congregate around this area of idealistic, futuristic design when they want a few drinks. There are a couple of chain pubs in Westfield in addition to the marvellous (but small) Tap East — nothing likely to satiate up to 58,000 tribal drinkers.
The Manchester Metropolitan University MA is apparently ‘the most successful writing programme available in the UK today in terms of students and graduates achieving publication’ (according to the Manchester Writing School website).
And who am I to disagree? Not only am I a graduate of the course but I’m delighted that one of the novels that our group workshopped during the first two years of the course is now almost ready for publication.
While I’ve got to know many published writers, this is the first time I’ll have seen text that was e-mailed around in Word files for us to comment on become transmuted through that still magical process into a ‘proper book’ — and what a fantastic cover Kerry’s publishers, Salt, have come up with.
It’s a while now since those workshopping parts of the course and I’m sure the text has changed substantially through the editing and publication process but I’ve seen and commented on a large part of (what was at the time) the opening of the novel. And on that basis I can thoroughly recommend Kerry’s excellent writing (see this blog post from last year)..
It’s certainly a story that grabs the reader and sucks you in as the events in the novel turn from ordinary to sinister — and I’m as keen to find out how the narrative ends as anyone. Unless the novel has changed substantially then the narrator is as intriguing as any of the other characters.
Kerry lives in the Black Country — I’ve even had a drink with her in one of the area’s legendary pubs, the Vine (or Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill). As far as I remember the novel was untitled when we first started to workshop it and I’m not even sure if it had a precisely-defined setting at the time.
I went to Birmingham University as an undergraduate and some of Kerry’s writing reminded me of the near apocalyptic, post-industrial landscapes my train used to pass on the way there between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. It’s all been cleaned up now (mostly) but we exchanged comments about how the waterways that thread through the West Midlands still give the area a sense of sinister melancholy — and this seemed to also be captured by Kerry’s writing style.
So for many reasons, The Black Country is an excellent title for the novel — both geographically and psychologically – and I’m really looking forward to reading the end of the story that I was lucky enough to read as it was being developed.
I’d have said that I’d have ordered my copy from a huge, rather market-dominating website (from where it’s listed and available) but I’m hoping to buy a copy and see if I can get Kerry to personalise it, possibly at a launch event.
It’s always fascinated me that one of the fundamental attributes of a book is the immutable, unalterable nature of the words on the page compared to when a draft is sent round for comment on a course or in a writing group when it’s usually in a word-processing file that is fluid and designed to be changed. To go from Word file to typeset book is a the fundamental transition and I can’t wait to see the words printed in finalised form that were once submitted for discussion in our MA workshopping group.
The Black Country is available for pre-order now from all the usual suspects. I’ll update the blog with news of any launch events.
I read a beautifully written guest post recently on Isabel Costello’s blog The Literary Sofa. It was by Antonia Honeywell whose novel The Ship was published earlier this year and was one of Isabel’s picks for 2015.
The post describes her perseverance in continuing to write novels when they failed to find a publisher, even though the second book was picked up by an agent, who also represented the third. She makes the analogy between writing the novels and children’s sandcastles on a beach — impermanent structures that will inevitably be washed away by the tide but we are still somehow compelled to construct them. She makes the point that the enjoyment of the act of creation itself is fulfilling — the results aren’t expected to endure.
One reader commented that after reading the post he was glad he’d stuck to writing short stories and not novels! And the post has been written from a point in time where Antonia has been able to celebrate the publication of her debut novel, although it appears to be the fourth she’s actually completed.
But the post resonated with many others who commented and makes the point that such is the effort and discipline required to achieve publication (with Antonia’s fourth time success being more typical than the lucky first-time novelist) that it’s essential that anyone who sets out on a major writing project enjoys the process of writing itself because that might have to sustain you for a long time. (I’m sure this is a factor behind writers seeking out courses, writing groups and the likes — because these can give affirmation about your writing from a reader’s perspective, albeit a very different one to that of either the book-buying reader or an agent or author.)
As the photograph above suggests, I often apply a more conventional metaphor to the writing process than washed-away sandcastles — long-distance running.
At the weekend I ran the Thame 10k race. It might just be possible to see my not very impressive time of 58 minutes 47 seconds on the timing slip on the photo — but I completed it in under an hour, which was my modest objective. I’m hoping for a similar pace at slightly more than double the distance in ten days time when I enter the Wycombe Half Marathon for about the fifth or six year running (if you excuse the pun).
Earlier in June I competed in the most lunatic and masochistic race — the 6k Coombe Hill run — which is apparently the only fell race in the south of England. Like the Thame and Wycombe races, this isn’t a fun run, it’s officially licenced by UK Athletics and organised by Aylesbury Vale Athletics Club.
The race starts with a solid mile of running up the Ridgeway on a gradient of about one in ten, although it’s steeper in places. Then after a steep descent the runners have to scramble up a 190m near-vertical climb (some people use their hands as well as feet) to the top of the Chiltern Hills highest viewpoint — the war memorial on the top of Coombe Hill. It’s as far removed from a running track as is imaginable and overlooks Chequers.
I once bumped into David Cameron doing the Sport Relief Mile at a local sports club. I’d rather enjoy seeing him huffing and scrambling along if he decided to enter the race held closest to his weekend country pile.
I managed to drag myself around that course, having been persuaded to do it by the postman, who’s involved in the club that organises it! Like a Home Counties Everest, I did it because it was there. It wasn’t quite as gruelling as I expected. Not knowing the course and fearing the worst, I paced myself on the long uphill too cautiously, trying to leave something in reserve. I didn’t need to call on it in the end — but it was still bloody tough. (Is there a writing metaphor in there somewhere?)
I tend to amble along towards the end of the field in these races. I must be reasonably fit to complete the distances but I ‘m not a natural distance runner. Like James in my novel, I’m physically built more like a rugby player (though more of a back than a forward!) than a rival to Mo Farah — and that’s without the evidence of enjoying too much good food and drink that I carry around my waist to a greater or lesser extent depending on how virtuous I’ve been recently. But there’s something about running that seems to resonate with writers.
I’ve read many articles, interviews and blogs where writers reveal that they’re keen runners (Claire King’s blog entry has particularly stuck in my mind).
One thing writers appreciate is the solitude of running (except if, like me, you occasionally scramble up a hill where you almost need to use handholds with a couple of hundred others).
It’s a different solitude to sitting in front of a computer typing away. It engages you with the outside world but in a slightly removed, distant manner that appeals to writers: you’re passing through, observing, watching, experiencing the sounds and smells and, if you’re running at any sort of pace at all, physically connecting with the environment in an intense way.
You’re breathing in huge lungfuls of air, so being at one with the weather (warm, freezing, humid, wet) and acutely aware of the ground under your feet — the sapping hard stone on the Victoria Embankment or the wonderful bounce from the soil on a Chilterns footpath that’s been drying in late Spring.
As I’ve said, I’m almost embarrassingly poor as a competitive runner, but I drag myself out in my trainers because some runs can be so pleasurable they verge on transcendent experiences. I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to run through fields full of wildflowers and butterflies, a slog up a steep hill being rewarded with amazing views as far as the Cotswolds.
I try to fix these moment in my memory as a moment to remember, a reminder of how precious it is to be alive in that second and be grateful that I’m fit enough to experience it.
And its not just running through countryside that can be exhilarating. I’ve been fortunate enough to use a gym in the bowels of a prominent building in Westminster. I’ve often emerged from there in my running gear to do circuits of the Royal Parks (from St. James’s via Green to a loop around the Serpentine in Hyde Park and back) and to run along the river from Westminster Bridge up to the Millennium Bridge (or Tower Bridge if I’m really energetic) back along the South Bank. That’s an incredible way to get different, slightly detached perspective on London and an amazingly concentrated piece of sightseeing.
For a writer, running gets you away from the desk and out into a different environment with new stimuli and the thinking time it imposes can be invaluable. Characters, plot ideas, ways of resolving problems can all be reflected on without any feeling of compulsion to get something down on the page.
Sometimes this freedom becomes a bit worrying — when I’ve come up with some idea I like about 3km into a 10km run I become paranoid that by the time I’m out of the shower it’ll have disappeared from my mind.
And sometimes I’ll use the undisturbed time on my own to indulge in something that demands my mental concentration but not any physical presence — listening to The Archers’ omnibus and Desert Island Discs on a Sunday morning run is a particular pleasure.
But above its practical benefits, I’m sure writers appreciate running as a metaphor for the process of creating their work. The analogy works at several levels. Both are usually solitary activities and they need self-discipline and determination to be applied to reach a goal — finishing the section, chapter or book and completing whatever distance you choose to run.
In training you’re usually running against self-imposed targets: try to run under a 10 minute mile or complete a 10k in under an hour is like achieving a target word count (although with writing there’s little danger of being stranded miles from home if you don’t make it). Even in a race, you tend to compete against personal targets (your personal best — PB) rather than try to outrun everyone ahead.
It’s difficult to motivate myself to get going with either writing or running (the infamous displacement activities, like filling the dishwasher, often suddenly demanding priority) but, once started, I realise how much I enjoy both. Writing has the edge here as it’s not quite so physically demanding. (Unlike running, energy can be restored with a cup of strong coffee — as happened last week when I was working to a deadline so intensively that I stayed writing until 4.15am — when I got up from my computer the sky was becoming light.)
Running has its downsides as exercise. While it has cardiovascular benefits (my resting heartbeat is reassuringly low), it hammers other parts of your body. I’ve had tendonitis, an MRI scan on a knee (fortunately revealing nothing worse than normal wear and tear) and a number of accidents. Last autumn I tripped while running the Ridgeway near the Whiteleaf Cross and hurtled into a bed of exposed flint. Fortunately I was able to run home, albeit covered in blood and dirt and nursing a broken thumb, which was in a splint for the next six weeks.
Luckily, writing isn’t so physically dangerous but it can be just as brutal in terms of its demands on free time and the sacrifices required to embark on the huge task of writing a novel — the Coombe Hill race with its ‘climb the biggest hill the hardest way possible’ ethos is an apt comparison.
The different distances in running offer up parallels. Maybe a short poem or a piece of flash fiction is like running the 100m? The short, intense product of a lot of training. A short story might be more middle distance — 800m perhaps — with elements of the long haul but still speedy.
A novel is pure marathon. Metaphors abound. Consider the gruelling preparation, the need to hang in there for long haul when every sensible muscle in your body wants to stop, the inevitability of hitting ‘the wall’ — yet all these masochistic hardships are forgotten in the glow of satisfaction of achieving the goal. (I have to imagine this as, despite entering the ballot for London several times, I’ve never run a marathon but I’ve done several half-marathons, which are pretty tough.)
And the process of getting your writing published stands comparison with running a long, tough race. Some people don’t enter, despite having the ability to complete. Some shoot off ahead: maybe they succeed quickly; maybe they burn out with exhaustion. Others, having started, calculate the effort isn’t worth the reward and withdraw.
Sometimes the course is uneven — a steep downhill slop where you pick up speed and think you’re rushing ahead is followed by a lung-busting, leg-trembling climb that leaves you wondering why on earth you chose to put yourself through this ordeal in the first place. But with friends and bystanders cheering you on, offering moral support, you pace yourself — discover the limits of what you’re able to put into the race, dig deep and realise you’re still enjoying it.
As happens in the Wycombe Half Marathon, you might pass very close to the finishing line but then be directed away for a further agonising stretch before you turn into the last straight but with the finishing line appearing to be way in the distance. But if you keep on moving, you’ll keep on closing in. If you stop you’ll never make it.
Update: 12th July 2015
As mentioned above, I entered the Wycombe Half Marathon this year, as I have for the last five years or so. It’s a course for masochists as it has a huge hill right at the start (up through Wycombe Abbey).
Running the race today, I had plenty of chance to put my ruminations on perseverance into practice. I’d run a relatively comfortable race at a slow(ish) but achievable pace (on course for a finish between 2hrs 10 and 2hrs 15) when at the 8 mile stage I felt a sharp pain on my forehead. I’d been stung by some sort of insect. I tend to react badly and unpredictably to insect stings and bites and I was worried enough about an adverse reaction to run back to the water station and ask a marshal if I could be checked by the first aiders.
At one point they wanted to take me to the minor injuries unit at Wycombe hospital but I managed to get seen by the St. John Ambulance people instead. I didn’t seem to have any bad reaction apart from the sting itself so they gave me an antihistamine tablet. This all took so long (I had to fill in forms and so on) that the last runners were just passing as I finished. I was given the option of a lift back to the finish but I decided I’d carry on running and try to complete the remaining five miles — as the last runner in the race. I managed to catch a few of the other runners so didn’t have the ignominy of finishing last and I even managed a little surge at the finish to beat the 2hr 40 mark by a few seconds. Then it was into the St. John Ambulance medical tent to be checked over by the nurse.
‘Are you feeling short of breath?’
‘Well, no more than usual after running 13 miles!’
I hesitated outside the venue, sweat beading on my brow, nervous about what would await me inside.
I stepped over the threshold, walked into the bar, checking the place out – fairly empty, a mix of tourists and ale drinkers — not the gang I was gunning for. After all, it was a pub that was well known for its beer – but it wasn’t a need for anything alcoholic that I’d made the journey up to London. (If I’d have wanted beer I wouldn’t have passed up the invitation I’d been offered to visit a brewery on this very day. Isn’t that what real men did at the weekend?) I was looking for novelists – romantic novelists – mean, hard-scribbling people.
They must be upstairs, holed-up in the function room already, the inner sanctum, doing whatever a group of women do in a place where, I guessed, no men dared to tread. I climbed fearfully up the staircase. Would I have to knock or would I stand there in the doorway, faced by heads turning faster and faster revealing stares of incredulity and shock. ‘What is hedoing here?’
And then I woke up . It was still Saturday morning. I could change my mind — and go to the brewery visit instead — not the London Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association as I’d planned. I’ve blogged before (and on the RNA’s own blog) about the perceived gender issues associated with the romantic genre — and how, in reality, I’ve discovered there not to be any problems at all. But it’s one thing sending in a manuscript or e-mailing a blog post remotely and another actually meeting people face-to-face.
So deciding to go along to the London Chapter meeting of the RNA at the end of April did take a bit of courage — and maybe the thought of a little of the Dutch sort was quite appealing as the meeting was held above the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Like most people, I expect most of my trepidation was because I’d be walking into a meeting not knowing anyone while anticipating that everyone else would have been friends for years. But there was still an element of anxiety at being male and walking into what was likely to be an overwhelmingly female meeting, if not exclusively.
But, I rationalise, that’s a good experience for a writer — there must be many occasions when women feel ‘different’ walking into a predominantly male gathering — and the feeling of being ‘other’ must, by definition, be common for people from minority backgrounds.
In the event, I was sweating uncomfortably when I did walk into the room but this was less to do with any nervousness at arriving at the meeting and more connected with having walked all the way from the Euston Road on a humid day.
Needless to say, I was actually made to feel extremely welcome by the organisers and, among the twenty-five or so attendees, there were two other men — one a husband of a member and another a writer. There were also a few other first-timers, including a very pleasant woman writer, whose husband had a job that almost cries out for novel treatment itself. He is Elvis. Or at least an Elvis tribute who is so popular overseas that he takes a whole touring show out to places like China. He apparently started off in a karaoke competition in a pub and it took off to the extent it eclipsed his day job and he went to being Elvis full-time. It shows how careers can grow out of hobbies.
While it was a very sociable occasion, I was struck by hard-headed attitude of many of the established writers. This wasn’t a meeting that was the sort of exaggerated stereotype that some might imagine — of sighs over Christian Grey or discussion on Mr Darcy. It was the opposite — it was as business-like as any other conference or trade association meeting I’ve been to. For the more established writers, romantic fiction is a very much a business — one that provides an enjoyable and fulfilling livelihood.
This theme was emphasised by the guest speaker, Victoria Connelly, who gave a fascinating and very informative talk about how she juggles both traditional and self-published routes to market. As Victoria’s website shows, she’s written a very impressive back catalogue of books and her choice in publishing and marketing many of these titles herself (also employing her husband to help her) shows that once an author builds a market and readership then the self-publishing option can be as financially viable as traditional routes and allows much more independence for the author.
After the meeting I felt encouraged and invigorated by spending time with a group of writers who were not only friendly and welcoming but great examples of people who approach writing practically and successfully.
As mentioned in a previous post, I was also in London on that day to hear one of my short stories being read to an audience. Fay and Sabina, organisers of Studio 189′s Spring Ball, had heard Alex Woodhall’s excellent reading of Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? at Liars’ League last year and when they had the idea of ‘something literary’ to entertain their guests on the evening, wondered if a repeat performance could be arranged.
I was flattered to have been asked and fortunately Alex was free to repeat his performance. Studio 189 has a wonderful secluded garden, which where the Spring Ball’s entertainment had been planned — we’d earlier had a spectacular performance from an opera singer. However, the heavens opened and Alex had to do the reading inside. This meant grabbing the attention of the whole party for the duration of the story (there was nowhere to escape but into the rain).
It’s testimony to the effectiveness of Alex’s performance that the audience remained captivated by the reading for the full fifteen minutes or so of the story — with no audible side-conversations or distracted chat. And it was a big audience. Apparently over a hundred guests were at the party. It’s an exhilarating and addictive feeling to hear the words you’ve written providing pleasure and entertainment. Reading the expressions on the audience’s faces is much more immediate feedback on your writing than comments made a reader’s had some time to reflect (as happens with written work).
Oddly enough, it had been well over a year since I’d written the story and, perhaps I’d had too much wine, but I’d forgotten some of the details and some of the writing actually surprised me!
So thanks to Alex (who recently read another Liars’ League story in London) and Fay and Sabina who are organising several other intriguing events at Studio 189 — the latest being a sushi school and a comedy night.
It’s taken me a while to write it up (and apologies for the cryptic placeholder message that’s been on this site for a week or so) but that Saturday in April demonstrated several facets of the writers’ life — that, for most, it’s a business that needs hard work and a commercial focus but that knowing people enjoy something that you’ve created is immensely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that many other professions aren’t.
I’ll be going to the RNA Conference in July and look forward to meeting many other friendly and professionals writers there — and with much less trepidation.
Don’t forget that Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? is still available to download as a Kindle book from Amazon along with three other Liars’ League stories of mine. I’m afraid the free promotional days have been used up for the time being and it’s currently £1.99 — but that’s still less than the price of even a Prêt coffee.
As hinted in the previous post, I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of ebook creation and my first offering is now available for download (free for a limited period until the end of Tuesday 7th April) on Amazon for Kindle readers (and Kindle reader apps).
The ebook features four short stories, all of which were selected and performed by the Liars’ League.
Naked photography in a hipster’s Shoreditch loft kitchen in Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
An intern’s impromptu elevator pitch for the most calamitous disaster movie ever in Elevator Pitch
The petrol-headed rage of a spurned, blade-wielding opera singer in The Good Knife
Lovesick rapping from the dock by a guilt-ridden, Premier League hard-man in Well Sick for a White Guy.
All are 2,000 words or under so can be read in ten minutes or so. 10-15 minute stories that were memorably read by actors at Liars’ League’s award spoken-word evenings in London, Leicester and Hong Kong. Click on the cover image to download the book.
Links to three of the live performances can be found elsewhere on this blog. The exception is Well Sick For A White Guy, which was performed in September by Liars’ League Leicester. The video for this story hasn’t been made available online and the only place the text can be found is in this ebook (unlike the two Liars League London stories which can be read on the Liars League website).
Well Sick For a White Guy might actually be my favourite story of the four. The reading would certainly have been fun and I’m rather sad that I missed it, although Alex Woodhall and Sarah Feathers’ readings of the first two stories in London were excellent in person and Bhavini Ravel’s great reading of The Good Knife can be viewed below.
I’m not normally a fan of giving away intellectual property for free because of the way it eventually undermines the ability of creative people to get a decent reward for their work. However, it’s the fact that these stories are in the public domain already which has encouraged me to publish them together as an ebook — and people did pay to hear all of them read for each public performance. Therefore I’d have the book on free download indefinitely if it wasn’t for the rather strict promotional rules on Kindle Direct Publishing (only five days in any ninety day period).
When the promotional period is over, the book will revert to the current Amazon Kindle minimum price of £1.99 — which is less than the price of a cappuccino in Pret A Manger or half a pint of beer in most pubs in London (i.e. not much at all compared with the relative effort that goes into the creation of each).
You don’t need a Kindle to download to as Amazon will provide Kindle reading apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PCs and so on.
As well as experimenting with the mechanics of self-publishing, my motivation for publishing it is purely give anyone who’s curious enough a concise taste of my writing and if anyone who downloads it feels kind enough to leave a review then that would be great.
I don’t make any great artistic claims for the cover image above (anyone spot where it is?) but it’s a fact of self-publishing that you need to have one — and not one that rips off anyone else’s image rights (that’s my own photo). The eventual image was voted for overwhelmingly (out of a not-very-inspiring selection) by my Facebook friends!
And my stories are rubbing literary shoulders in exalted company as Liars League is now on Radio 4! A series of three readings — from Hong Kong, New York and London — is currently running on Sunday evenings at 7.45pm. The first story was broadcast yesterday. While my stories have no connection with those broadcast, it’s a fantastic endorsement of overall quality threshold of the Liars’ League events and is a very positive reflection on my fellow LL writer alumni.
My collection has been put together with the blessing of Liars’ League — Liar Katy Darby helped me pick the title and had a look at an early version of the ebook. I’ve actually been doing Katy’s highly-recommended Writers’ Workshop short course at City University between January and March this year to help develop ideas for the next novel — keep reading this blog for more news on that over the next few months).
I’ll be looking at other means of distributing the ebook but it needs to be exclusive to Amazon for the next three months so, if you’re interested, download it as soon as possible. Watch the blog or follow me on Twitter for when it goes on free download again.
Incidentally, if you want to watch Alex Woodhall’s superb reading of Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? one more time in person then he’ll be performing it at a special event — the Studio 189 Spring Ball organised by my friends Sabina and Fay on 25th April in north London. It also offers a private viewing of some erotic artworks and an opera singer — all for the bargain price of £30.
My short story, The Good Knife, was performed on 23rd February as part of Liars’ League Hong Kong Hunter and Prey themed evening. The story was read by actor Bhavini Ravel.
Please do watch and enjoy Bhavini’s performance in the video below – she delivers the story with drama and suspenseful timing and does a great job of getting into the character of the narrator. It was a shame to have missed through being in stuck in the UK — unfortunately a return plane ticket isn’t part of the deal but it’s a great feeling nevertheless to know your work is being enjoyed half way round the world.
The video lasts just under 10 minutes (1,200 words) it comes in a little shorter than the other videos posted from Liars’ League London last year (Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line?and Elevator Pitch.) The sound is a bit indistinct in places but the story’s still audible.
The Good Knife is my fourth story to be read by one of the Liars’ League franchises (I had another read in Leicester in September) and slightly different in tone – being a story of revenge and abandonment although it still has a little of the humour of the London stories (well, the audience laughs in the places I hoped they would, anyway).
As far as I can tell, the text of The Good Knife isn’t on the Liars’ League Hong Kong website (the video is on their Facebook and YouTube pages) but should you want to read the text then watch this space over the next few days for some news about how you might do so.
The first part of my novel — and some of the later action — is set in Shoreditch. I first got to know the area when I was taking the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio). Although City University itself is about a mile or so west of Shoreditch (I know this as I walked the exact journey last week), it led me to start looking around adjacent areas of London.
I can’t remember whether I’d decided to write a novel with an artist as a main protagonist before I came across Village Underground (and its rooftop tube trains) in the Secret London guidebook. However, very shortly after reading about this artistic community space with an events venue underneath, I’d been up on the roof to visit for myself and had the start of a novel set in what was then, despite some creeping commercialism, a part of London that had a genuine alternative and bohemian feel.
What’s most fascinated about Shoreditch, as opposed to further flung artistic enclaves like Hackney Wick, is its location right on the edge of the City of London — in the novel this geographical closeness enables the two characters from completely different world to meet.
Apart from one residential block, the very unironically named Avant Garde tower at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, there’s been surprisingly little encroachment by property developers exploiting Shoreditch’s position on the City’s northern fringes.
The Broadgate development (seen above) was completed in 2008 and, since then, the City seems to have grown upwards with the likes of the Walkie Talkie, Heron Tower, Cheesegrater and Shard (albeit on the other side of the river).
While the character of Shoreditch has undoubtedly changed with the arrival of the Overground and Shoreditch High Street station plus associated developments like Boxpark, the physical environment has changed little from when I first got to know the area (and probably hasn’t changed that much since the area was first industrialised).
I put this hiatus in development down to the delayed effects of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences.
This is all about to change and, sadly for the Shoreditch I’ve come to know, I feel that the last few years will come to be seen as a stay of execution for one of London’s most characterful areas. As an example, since the New Year, the car park on waste ground opposite Village Underground seen in the photo above has seen construction activity begin — and it’s deep piling work that’s being carried out — of the type required for the foundations of very tall buildings.
Those who have been on street art tours of Shoreditch will know this car park as one of the areas that featured the most frequently changing graffiti art. Now it’s fenced off and will soon be transformed into a ‘mixed use’ development called Shoreditch Village — the first part of which will be a ten storey Citizen M boutique hotel, due to open by this time next year. For an artist’s impression of the finished site, click on this story.
This development is relatively modest but it will still tower over all the buildings in the immediate area — and will change the character of Village Underground. It used to be a quirk that the tube trains were, ironically, the highest point in the local area and, counter-intuitively, looked down on everything below. Soon all the trendy guests in the hotel will spy on them from above.
For a taste of what the area around Village Underground may look like in a year or two, then take a walk a mile or so to the area to the north and west of Old Street/’Silicon Roundabout’ (known also in the media as the risibly-named Tech City).
The area around the City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal is undergoing a dramatic change with several huge, upmarket apartment blocks currently being constructed. This is a huge change for an area that, even when I was doing the City University novel-writing course, in 2009-10, was still genuinely down-at-heel and post-industrial, unlike Shoreditch. There’s even a drive-through McDonald’s there — which would be unimaginable down the road in Shoreditch.
Construction on one or two of the tower blocks was started, and then paused, during the recession and, like Shoreditch, the areas of derelict land and waste ground were likely to have been earmarked for development that was put on hold. But no longer. The construction has restarted and the place will soon change forever.
There’s a scene in the novel based in the City Road area, near the canal, as at the start of the book Kim works in a pub that’s based on the Wenlock Arms, which has near-legendary status amongst serious beer drinkers for being one of the very few basic, spit-and-sawdust, unreconstructed back-street boozer that wasn’t too far from a central tube station. in a location.
The Wenlock itself was victim to the gentrification of the area. It was closed a few years ago and was threatened with development into flats. After a landmark local campaign to get the pub protected by Hackney council (of which I was a supporter) it has now been included in a conservation area and has since been rescued and sympathetically refurbished. The holes in floorboards and barely functioning toilets have gone to be replaced by craft beers and trendy square hand-basins but it’s now thriving again.
Shoreditch Village is nothing compared with some new developments that are either in the pipeline or currently going through the planning process. Plans for the Bishopsgate Goods Yard site around Shoreditch High Street station are so dramatic that Hackney’s mayor (Shoreditch is on the fringes of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) has started a petition on Change.org to protest to Boris Johnson about his decision in principle to approve them.
This is a massive development site, derelict for over fifty years after a fire destroyed the old railways goods yard that previously occupied the site. Shoreditch High Street station has been built on some of the area — and the reason why the railway is enclosed in a concrete box in the station is to allow building work to commence without disrupting the railway that runs through the site.
But the developers plans are equally huge — they include seven tower blocks, with two forty-six storeys high (much bigger than those pictured on City Road above). A little of this will be affordable housing but it’s inconceivable that the character of Shoreditch (and the Brick Lane area to the east) will remain unchanged with development of such scale encroaching almost into the heart of the area.
The likes of Pret a Manger and Pizza Express are one thing but, if the development is anything like One New Change, Cardinal Place in Victoria or the many in Canary Wharf, then there will be less galleries, oddball clothes shops and organic cafes in Shoreditch and many more familiar names from any high street.
It would be somewhere that my artist character Kim would never contemplate living or working in. And so my novel might, perhaps, have captured a particular moment in the development of Shoreditch — when it had established itself as quirky, creative and fascinating and when the hipsters could enjoy the place in almost suspended animation for a few years. Now it’s in danger of the City speculators moved in to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. Let’s hope not. Sign the petition.
Next Saturday I’ll be reading some poetry from the First World War (therefore not my own!) at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury along with some of my fellow members of Metroland Poets.
I’m due to be reading at 1,30pm and 2.30pm (there’s another, later, reading at 3.30pm).
The poems I’m due to read are:
Recruiting by E A Mackintosh;
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by W. B. Yeats;
and The General and Base Details, both by Siegfried Sassoon.
It’s all free and it marks with the end of an exhibition about the First World War, which tells the story of the war viewed from a local perspective and by local figures, including the war artist, John Nash (whose First World War painting, The Cornfield, I have on my wall and a figure whom Kim reveres in my novel).
For the last few months the day job has led to me working most days in Southwark — right by the Thames — a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre and in a building that actually preserves the remains of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in its foundations.
It’s a wonderful area to stroll around at lunchtime in the winter — both full of history but also still undergoing a transition from a grimy, industrial area in the post-war period to a rejuvenated cultural corner of London. The Tate Modern and the Globe are the most obvious examples but there are also plenty of places like the Jerwood Space and the Menier Chocolate Factory that are examples of old warehouses being repurposed into arts venues.
The river also seems to demarcate the cultural divide. It’s exhilarating to walk out of an office and have an immediate view of some of the most iconic buildings in the country (if not the world) — like the Shard, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and others — but walk half a mile down Southwark Bridge Road and you’ll be in some the most deprived parts of London.
There are still plenty of semi-derilict spaces, like the poignant Cross Bones Graveyard, and the area towards Elephant and Castle, where I finally located the Ministry of Sound.
The feel of the place was summed up to me by a blackboard I saw outside a greasy caff very close to the Tate Modern, which seemed to draw most of its clientele from the builders who are busy demolishing or smashing through warehouses to create ultra-luxury penthouses or art spaces, like the Tate Modern extension.
The blackboard showed changing daily specials, usually involving chips or all-day breakfasts. I looked a bit more closely one day at this interesting menu — something which perhaps says something profound about post-industrial Britain?
And speaking of blackboards, I was strolling along Union Street in Southwark when I came across this larger blackboard, which I discovered was part of a global network of similar blackboards all based on the simple concept of asking people to chalk up an ambition they’d like to achieve ‘before I die’.
The Before I Die concept was accidentally started in 2011 in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang who set up the first wall on a derict building while grieving over the death of a loved one. (The full story can be read on the Before I Die website.) Since then the concept has spread to many other cities across the world (at least 150 or so), including several in London.
The board on Union Street (actually in a small square tucked away behind a railway viaduct called Flat Iron Square) was apparently the first of the chalkboards in London and had been up for about a year before I came across it.
I’m afraid that this board is no longer there, having presumably been removed a few weeks ago as part of the Thameslink/London Bridge viaduct works it was originally created to shield (as part of the Bankside Merge festival — see link above).
The idea behind the blackboards is brutally direct and straightforward — going to the heart of what motivates people — and reading through the anonymous, public declarations is a fascinating experience for anyone who writes fiction — or wants to understand the human condition in any other way.
As my photographs show, while there was some crass vandalism and pure obscenity chalked up on the board, this was surprisingly hugely outweighed by the clearly genuine sentiments that had stood out through the jumble of over-written messages — and perhaps they were all the more heartfelt from having been scrawled on the way back home after a well lubricated night at a pub or club.
It’s a well known truism that no-one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time in the office, although plenty of people seem to ignore this in their own working lives. (I’m not sure whether to pity or respect people who get all the self-fulfillment they need from corporate life — on the one hand it must be gratifying to be paid to do the thing you most enjoy, but on the other you think they don’t realise the value of all the other things they haven’t experienced — a bit like blissful farm animals.)
Nevertheless, I’ve not spotted any comment on these chalkboard like ‘I want to be promoted’, ‘I want a comfortable pension’ or ‘I’d like the desk near the window’. Maybe if one of these chalkboards was put right outside a corporate HQ then it would be full of such ambitions but, even there, I doubt it.
Most of the comments seem to be on the themes of relationships (or ambitions that might help people improve their relationships) or travel — which are two of the subjects with which a large amount of fiction is concerned. (There’s also a more general theme of ambition and self-fulfillment, which tends to include both the first two categories.)
I’ll point out a few of the comments that particularly amused or intrigued me although you may be able to decipher some of the other comments in the following photos.
In addition to someone wanting to meet Ed Sheeran (pop stars recurred on the board), fear nothing and stop worrying was the more modest ambition of visiting Hull ‘City of Culture’ (interesting when the board is about quarter of a mile from where the greatest writer in world history wrote his plays).
This section of the board shows the ‘official art project’ notice linking the board to the Bankside Merge festival and has a nice combination of travel, artistic ambition and romance: ‘I want to live in Italy’, ‘I want to own my own gallery’ and ‘I will make Emma my woman’.
And as well as relationship aspirations there are plenty of messages of pure desire and lust — especially about someone called H Styles.
I found the message slightly buried in the centre of the photo quite intriguing: ‘I want all women to be the same size as Taylor Swift’ to which someone else has appended ‘but with a brain’.
And perhaps the most honest (and it seems to have some pointed phrasing that makes it particularly heartfelt) is on the left of this photo: ‘I want to have more than average tits!’
It would be interesting for anyone writing a novel to take a few minutes and consider what their characters might write on a blackboard like this — what’s most important to them, what do they really want to achieve, whom do they lust after?
When I took my photos I couldn’t see any chalk available to add my own contribution — and I think I could think of quite a few to scrawl on there — but there’s one ambition I don’t really need to chalk. The whole of this blog is dedicated to it.
No wonder NaNoWriMo (see last post) is held in November. Getting 5,000 words down, let alone 50,000, in December would be a challenge for me. I wonder whether all writers regard December as a month to (apologies for the pun) write-off.
Writers are notorious for finding displacement activities as a way of putting off sitting down at a desk and starting the hard work of putting words on the page. Suddenly tasks like ironing, filling in your tax return or going to the supermarket all acquire an attractive urgency compared with doing what you supposedly aspire to make your vocation. (I’m told this affects all writers — probably more so for those who make their livings writing as then writing equals the dreaded four letter word that begins with W.)
But December is something else again — all that precious time you normally manage to find by clearing time at weekends, grabbing the odd couple of hours on a weekday evening or even a little scribbling on the train is mercilessly elbowed aside by the extra demands of the festive season.
Like most people I’ve been up to my eyes in shopping, putting up decorations and, of course, lots of socialising. I’ve tried to convince myself that some of that socialising counts as writing-related, such as the excellent Word Factory Christmas party that I attended with Guy from the City course.
Unlike most Word Factory events, where I’ve listened to writers as diverse as Alexei Sayle, A.L. Kennedy and my own second year MA tutor, Nicholas Royle, the floor is open at the Christmas party for readings from the Word Factory audience and there were some excellent short stories read at the event by their authors, including those from friends Isabel Costello and Pete Domican (who were much braver than me by putting their names into the hat — maybe next year for me).
I’ve also tried to convince myself that, because food plays a large part in the novel, that all the time I’ve spent preparing mountains of home-cooked food for Christmas will contribute
as research time — that I’m connecting myself to the tastes, aromas and textures of food preparation. Perhaps there’s a case for this when I’m kneading out the dough for stollen, spicing some slow-cooked red cabbage or getting my hands up to my elbows in a mixing bowl of herby stuffing mixture but there doesn’t seem much inspiration to be found in peeling King Edwards at one in the morning (writers’ block would need to be rather severe for that to be a displacement activity).
The novel also follows the rhythms of the English countryside’s changing seasons of the best part of a year — the principal characters meet in late summer, experience a few chills and blasts over winter and then burst into new life in the spring. So it’s surely for research purposes that I made my own version of the bottled essence of summer that is traditional sloe gin. The prickly business of picking over a hedgerow on a fine, early October day, gathering a couple of kilos of
the tiny purple fruits certainly gives time to meditate on the shortening days and ripening of the harvest. And the periodic shaking of the steeped liquid through early winter heightens the anticipation of its eventual bottling at the end of the year when it takes on a gorgeous deep red hue. It certainly warms you up inside when you drink it so it’s best drunk in small quantities– mine lasted until the start of Lent last year. Maybe a small slug of the 2014 vintage will kick off my writing at the start of 2015?
December is also a time for visiting family and most of mine are quite a distance away. I may have mentioned on the blog previously that I originally come from the Lancashire side South Pennines in a town hemmed in by hills. Virtually every upward glance would take in the ‘wily, windy moors’ that provided inspiration for a surprising number of great writers and poets, the most local being Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and, of course, the Brontë sisters. My theory is that the wild and desolate landscape represents forces of nature that can’t be conquered or subjugated by civilisation and they’re also a potent metaphor for the subconscious.
While visiting the north a few days ago I took the opportunity to revisit the Brontë Parsonage Museum (bizarrely driving about fifteen miles of the route of this summer’s Tour de France — the roads are still marked with slogans encouraging Wiggo and company). It’s a fascinating museum cataloguing the family’s life. But for me the highlight was standing in the dining room.
Maybe it’s something innately writerly but I felt transfixed in an almost religious experience when I read that this was the room where both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written, probably side-by-side at the dining table. I know Jane Eyre intimately, having studied it at school and written a dissertation on the novel and early feminism in the first year at university. To witness where the books were created (and the room is largely preserved as it was at the time) helps develop an understanding of the process of writing.
But perhaps my most tenuous piece of research was to investigate setting up a possibly lucrative sideline in Scandi-noir. At the start of December I spent the weekend in Stockholm. It was a bit crazy really — flying out first thing on Saturday and returning
Sunday night — spending about 34 hours in the city. I’d been there a few times before in my previous job (and got to know a few Swedes quite well) but a visit in December, when the light starts to fail about two in the afternoon and doesn’t return until about nine the next morning, helps to explain why the Scandinavians are particularly good at the dark side of fiction.
The northern Europeans have a reputation of doing Christmas ‘properly’ — with Germany’s Christmas markets being so popular that they’re popping up all over London — and the
Frankfurt market that takes over Birmingham city centre is phenomenally successful. (This welcoming of other countries’ customs is another reason why I believe the British aren’t Eurosceptics at heart.)
Sweden celebrates Christmas in a way that doesn’t appear brashly commercialised — with its own traditions such as baking saffron bread and celebrating St. Lucia’s day around a
fortnight before Christmas. I visited the most famous Christmas market in Stockholm, at the Skansen open air museum, which was a relatively rustic affair with open log fires and arts and crafts and reindeer meat stalls.
Stockholm itself is a beautiful city and would provide plenty of inspiration for writers. The Vasa, an incredibly well-preserved 17th century battleship that was lifted from Stockholm harbour, is jaw-dropping when first sighted in its museum and would provide all kinds of period inspiration for historical and nautical sagas.
Another theme of the novel is looking at this country (and London, which is arguably a unique place in itself) through the eyes of a European. There’s immense insight to be gained in seeing how other countries celebrate festivals — the better to understand the unique aspects of our own.
Kim in the novel is a devoted anglophile who thinks her excellence at spoken English and several years living in London means she understands the country completely but her German logic is occasionally confounded by the sheer eccentricity of the British.
While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have
loved to write Kim’s fictional reaction to a traditional mummers’ play performed by local morris side, the Owlswick Morris, in my local pub on Boxing Day.
Mummers’ plays date back to the middle-ages as they are very
loosely based on the crusades. When I was at school we performed a Lancashire version at Easter called the Pace-Egg play. I was the Prince of Paladine and had to have a swordfight with St. Andrew, as I remember.
The version performed by Owlswick Morris gave a few more nods to contemporary sensibilities and featured, among others, Father Christmas (not principally known for crusading through the Levant) who was played by a woman and a cross-dressing St. George.
The top-hatted doctor, whose resurrection skills make him one of the most recurring characters, fortunately made an appearance to revive slain Slasher. (Who knows, he might be an early precursor of Doctor Who?).
I can see the slapstick elements of the mummers’ play appealing to Kim’s German sense of humour but I imagine she’d still be puzzling out how to interpret it several days later.
And thinking of Kim, whom my RNA reader described as a ‘great character and an unusual and original heroine’, I came across the beer in Utobeer in Borough Market that I mentioned a year or so ago on the blog was presciently appropriate for her — Redchurch Brewery‘s Shoreditch Blonde. (Not so much for the hair colour but because at the start of the novel she works in a pub near Shoreditch and her expertise with beer puts her at the vanguard of the recent popularity of craft beer. Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is also a place where she’d get out her spray cans and create her street art.)
I didn’t have a choice but to buy a bottle to open on a special occasion (like Kim, it’s sophisticated and not cheap). So what better time than New Year’s Eve?
Here’s a toast to Kim, and all my other characters, and to hope they help make 2015 a very special year. And a happy New Year to all my blog readers and best wishes for all your plans and endeavours (writing or otherwise) in the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
It’s been so long (over a year) since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation (i.e. novel) for marking by Manchester Metropolitan University that it was quite a surprise when a stiff-backed envelope arrived through my letterbox a few weeks ago.
So, documentary proof that I’m a qualified creative writer. Unfortunately, rather than being framed and displayed on the wall (apparently toilets are meant to be the place to hang these things for the ironically self-deprecating of us) the certificate is still languishing in a big pile of other post and papers (lots of not-so-nice things like credit card bills).
Such is the course structure, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to celebrate before receiving the official certificate: when I submitted the final draft; when I received the results of the dissertation, meaning I’d passed; when the examination committee sent me a letter saying they’d ratified the marks and I’d officially graduated. I could have attended the graduation ceremony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester but, having done the whole thing online up until that point, I decided to celebrate my graduation virtually instead.
Of course, the question now is how much doing the MA has advanced my writing career compared with the JFDI school of just getting my head down and writing — something many other writers have been hard at doing in November with NaNoWriMo.
I’ve meant to try and commit to NaNoWriMo myself for the past couple of years and had hoped to do this year. Whether I’d complete the 60,000 words in a month would depend on balancing my perfectionist instincts to go back over a piece of writing and revise it several times with my ability to bang work out to a demanding deadline. (I can work at a fast pace right up to a deadline as I did with the stories I had performed at Liars League stories, which were submitted just before the midnight cut-off on submission day and I can quite happily draft up 1,200 words in a couple of hours, as I did at last weekend).
I’m sure NaNoWriMo works for many people because it provides a similar sort of external pressure which is probably the second most valuable aspect of having done the MMU MA and City University course (and the OU and various other courses before that). If something has to be submitted by a date then the tendency to hone the writing by making lots of small incremental changes can’t be indulged indefinitely. The most valuable aspect of doing the courses has been, of course, the wonderful feedback that is generously given by peers and the expert recommendations of the tutors.
Nevertheless, an MA in Creative Writing is less of a guarantee of gaining a foothold in a profession than probably any other higher degree. While study and passing assessments and exams are necessary to join professions like the law, medicine, accountancy and many scientific specialisms, the path to becoming a ‘proper’ writer is much less clear cut.
In fact, when you talk with writers, the definition of when you actually become a writer is often rather nebulous and open to interpretation, partly because so many people who’ve published a book (or maybe lots of books) still have to work at their ‘day jobs’ in order to make a reasonable living. (One agent told me that he though it was odd to the point of endearing that lots of aspiring writers talked about their ‘day jobs’ — because so many published writers have other careers that it’s quite a rarity for any writer’s day job actually to be writing for a living — or writing fiction, at least, as opposed to journalism, copywriting, etc.)
So the time and money spent getting an MA in Creative Writing isn’t going to gain you automatic entry into the writing profession, however one defines that.But what it ought to do is equip you with the techniques, tools and, probably most importantly, the practice to make you more capable of writing a novel (or poem or play or memoir — whatever the genre) that will stand a far better chance of reaching an audience. I’d guess that the people who say they’re content to write solely for their own pleasure are probably less likely to go through the course or writing group approach because of the need to share your work with an audience whose opinions on it (not always positive) are discussed in detail.
In my case, and I suspect for most other students too, it’s gaining an audience for your work that’s one of the biggest attractions of a course — both in the direct sense of the feedback from tutors and other students and the indirect sense of training you to write work that’s capable of reaching the reading public.
Any decent creative writing course will also teach you that to reach that public (at least for the traditional publishing routes) the first step is to find representation by a literary agent — and an agent presentation is usually part of an MA course and they will often turn up at end of course readings and the like. However, the biggest concentration of agents in one place is at writers’ conferences, such as the York Festival of Writing or the similar festival in Winchester.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win the prize of lunch at Edwins, a very nice restaurant in Borough High Street, with Isabel Costello through a competition on her excellent blog The Literary Sofa, which has been mentioned in one of my previous posts. Isabel was signed up by agent Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath as a direct result of attending last year’s York Festival of Writing. Over lunch I had a great opportunity to ask Isabel about her experiences of the past year as an ‘agented’ writer. Coincidentally she wrote a very honest and informative post on this subject on her blog, which generated an astonishing number of comments.
It’s a fascinating and upbeat read about Isabel’s relationship with her agent (although some of the long list of nearly 100 comments could potentially be subtitled What They Don’t Teach You on Creative Writing Courses). I won’t paraphrase the post here but the original post (and the many comments) highlight how the publishing industry currently works. There are many talented writers who’ve written great novels which, even with the committed and enthusiastic support of their agents, haven’t been sold to publishers. (And because agents get a commission on their authors’ earnings, they don’t make a penny if a novel’s not taken up, despite potentially spending a considerable amount of time working on a book with a client.)
That said, of all the writers I’ve met who’ve not yet had a book taken up by a publisher (as opposed to those whose novels have been published or are already in the pipeline) the only one who I know has achieved a publishing deal for definite is a friend from the MA course (more details on that great news next year). Of course it’s likely that some of my ‘agented’ friends have some good news that’s under wraps or whose novels will successfully negotiate the slow-moving machinery of the publishing industry but that known success is a positive testament to the MMU MA.
(I haven’t forgotten that one of my City University coursemates, Jennifer Gray, has
published an extraordinary number of excellent, and well reviewed children’s books over the last couple of years — Atticus Claw, Guinea Pigs Online and the chicken books — but Jennifer had these moving along the pipeline when we met on the Certificate in Novel Writing.)
Reasons why books are sold or not can be very capricious — often reflecting what’s selling in the market at that moment (‘I want the next…’) based on factors that writers can’t influence, bearing in mind the time spent writing a novel (even the most ardent NaNoWriMo fan would concede that a novel written in a month represents a first draft that will benefit from much revision).
What Isabel’s blog post mentions is the importance of the hook or concept in selling a book to an agent (a subject that I used with respect to the film world in my Liars League story Elevator Pitch). She says her new novel, of which she’s just completed the first draft, is more focused on the hook than her first was (perhaps the benefit of discussion with her agent) but I’m sworn to secrecy about what it is. Isabel’s experience in this respect might be more valuable than elements of serious creative writing courses because, in my experience, these focus more on developing skills and competences in one’s writing in a way that can be applied to the prose and to the structure of the novel itself.
Courses are largely agnostic about the subject matter of a book. If you want to write a precisely observed story about, say, people sitting on a sofa watching TV in a suburb of Manchester then that’s fine, as might be writing about a civilisation-threatening invasion of supernatural zombies from another dimension. Talk to an agent and they might not only help you develop a novel with a killer hook but point you in the direction of the type of killer hook that’s snagging editors.
I’ve sometimes wondered why editors or agents, with their knowledge of what’s hot in the market, don’t use a Hollywood screenplay model and hire a bunch of talented writers to write a blockbuster to order. I guess there’s at least three reasons:
No-one’s actually that sure what will work in the market or how long a trend will last — certainly not sure enough to pay people up front to write a book on spec.
There are so many unsolicited manuscripts arriving from aspiring writers anyway that enough publishable and marketable books with irresistible selling points will be submitted anyway
That writers, agents and editors see books as something more than commodities to be marketed – that they’re intensely personal to both reader and author and that the success of a novel is more about serendipity and catching the Zeitgeist than any carefully designed marketing plan.
And if number three is the most overriding of reasons then that’s, in my mind, another justification for taking the writing course route. If there’s no way of second guessing the market (and no winning short-cuts for attracting the attention of agents and editors) then the only way to do so is to write what you feel you have to write from the heart and make sure you’re practiced enough at the craft of writing to do the novel justice. I’m hoping the process of gaining the certificate proudly displayed at the top of the post will have taken a considerable way along the road to achieving that level of skill.
I’d love to hear other writers thoughts on MAs (worthwhile or an academic distraction?) and I’ll happily answer any questions put in the comments section on my own experience.
As a sad postscript to the post above, I was very saddened to hear about the death of one of my previous creative writing teachers, Dinesh Allirajah. Dinesh was a tutor on an online course I took with the University of Lancaster in 2009 that bridged the period between finishing my Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and the City Certificate in Novel Writing. I remember that his extremely positive comments on the prose fiction I submitted in my portfolio was one of the first pieces of feedback that suggested to me that I’d be capable of writing a novel. Dinesh kept up a blog throughout his illness, which he catalogued with fortitude and good humour. His last post can be found here. He was only, I believe, in his forties and he leaves a family with teenage sons. His legacy will hopefully live on through the many students he inspired.
My last blog post, about my happy experiences with the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), was read by several of the committee of the RNA itself and they were so interested in the post and my thoughts on the scheme that I was granted the unlikely honour of writing a post for the RNA’s own blog.
The blog is updated twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday and covers a wide range of topics of interest to the RNA with contributions from many well-known and highly respected writers.
My post, titled ‘Romance — “A Bloke’s Point of View”‘ covers similar points to the one I posted on this blog but the content is completely new — and starts with a little taster of how the characters in my novel might react if I walked into their local pub, The Angel, and announced I was a member of the RNA NWS.
Read it (and all the other fascinating posts) by following this link. If you’d like to add a comment or ask a question on there then that would be great.
As part of my membership of the NWS I get sent their newsletter, Romance Matters. The latest issue contains some very intriguing articles based on sessions at the RNA conference.
One considers how effective fiction works by triggering chemical responses in the brain that are identical to those in real, physical situations (e.g. desire, fear) — releasing oxytocin, adrenaline and so on. Another, quoting a session by author and academic Catherine Roach (who writes as Catherine LaRoche), discusses the psychological benefits to the reader of the romance narrative — suggesting that traditional romantic plot types work because of their empowering effect on readers, which, for the purposes of the argument, were assumed to be women. If female readers feel relatively disempowered and disenfranchised in society in comparison to men then the heroine redresses the balance, achieving happiness and fulfillment through risking her vulnerability and being true to herself. ‘The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.’
It’s all really thought-provoking analysis, and as with my RNA NWS readers’ report, has provided me some with some intriguing insight when I’ve applied it to my own novel. I also found via Google that Catherine Roach has also published a feminist-orientated academic work called Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture(available as a free pdf download) which is very relevant to one plot strand of my novel — not wanting to let slip any spoilers I’ll say no more than that.
I revealed, rather coyly, in this blog post earlier in the year that I’d been accepted on the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. When I mention this to people in conversation I occasionally receive the polite astonishment that I imagine a woman bricklayer might experience or a female pest-controller.
Seeing as a woman once climbed around my loft removing a wasps’ nest quickly and efficiently why should it be strange that a man might be a member of a Romantic Novelists’ Association scheme? Nevertheless, I’m subliminally tempted to add ‘No, I’m not planning to change gender or anything else. I’m still male’ – and during last week being able to point to the temporary beard I was forced to grow a beard after I fell over while out running — cutting my chin and breaking my thumb!
Entering a world popularly associated with the opposite gender is an illuminating experience — and valuable for a writer. Not that I’ve encountered any sexism at all through my membership of the scheme. The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) appears extremely keen to be inclusive towards men, as I’m sure it towards everyone, and there are men who are full members of the RNA. I found a couple by Googling, although one writes under a female pseudonym and another specialises in male-male fiction and I’m doing neither of those. (I must point out that I can’t be a full member of the RNA myself until I have a suitable book published.)
Nevertheless, there are cultural perceptions about how men’s ability or desire to write romantic fiction. I’ve been reminded a few times of the discussion earlier this year on the Today programme between Jojo Moyes and Cathy Kelly on whether ‘men can make good romantic fiction writers’.
That’s an interesting question to think about while I’m writing today – the publication date of David Nicholls’s new novel Us –which brings up all sorts of issues about gender stereotyping of marketing and covers and reviews and so on, which could occupy a whole different blog post, maybe after I’ve read it. (I was surprised to read so many positive reviews of the novel in the weekend broadsheets after all the sniffiness about its Booker longlisting.)
However, any ribbing in the pub will be, ahem, small beer compared to the brilliant benefits of my membership of the RNA New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which have surpassed all my expectations.
For those who haven’t yet discovered it, the RNA NWS allows all its members to take part in RNA activities but offers the invaluable service of using the expertise of one of a panel of 50 established authors to review each member’s full length novel manuscript.
Unsurprisingly the scheme is very heavily oversubscribed and reaches capacity within minutes when applications open each January. I tried and failed to join a couple of years ago but this year had better luck. The deadline for submitting a manuscript is the end of August, although well-organised writers submit theirs well in advance to avoid the last minute rush.
Of course I wasn’t one of them. Mine was sent in around 29th August. Given the manuscript’s substantial size I wasn’t expecting to get a response for several weeks. So I was stunned by its amazingly quick turnaround – within about three weeks. And I was taken aback by the wonderfully detailed and insightful report that I received from my reader (as the scheme is run anonymously all I know about her is that she is, indeed, a she).
While the scheme is intended for ‘romantic fiction’ this definition can include novels that might also be thought to belong in other genres provided it meets the criteria that ‘romantic content and love interest are integral to the story’. I’d like to think of my novel as ‘accessible literary fiction’, perhaps the sort of book in the intersection between mass-market and ‘literariness’ that reading groups often choose (my wild optimism is creeping in here).
While the novel’s narrative is anchored against the relationships between the two chief protagonists, it’s also full of content that I wouldn’t have expected to crop up in traditional romantic fiction — as a glance at some posts on this blog might suggest (spray painting street art, tapping and spiling barrels in pub cellars, TV cookery shows, German modernist artists, dodgy photos, ancient monuments and so on).
Therefore, when I received the manuscript back I was a little worried that perhaps the reason for its remarkably quick turnaround would be that only the first few chapters had been read and ‘Wrong Genre’ would be written on the title page in huge red letters.
It wasn’t — which was a huge relief and maybe showed up some preconceptions on my part about romantic fiction — preconceptions that were completely blown away when I started to scan the comprehensive reader’s report which started with the reader saying she enjoyed reading it. Phew!
The reader’s skill and experience clearly identified the conflict that propels the narrative — where two people meet, begin to realise how desperately they need each other but have to overcome huge obstacles in their way — and obstacles that they may not surmount. And if deciding who’s the person you want to spend the rest of your life with — and then trying to make it happen — isn’t a question worthy of a romantic novel then I’m not sure what is.
I needn’t have worried about the content either – my reader wasn’t at all shocked or surprised or puzzled by what was in the novel. All her comments were constructive – and, in the spirit of the best feedback, considered the writing on the terms of what it was trying to achieve rather than through any subjective personal preferences. That said, all feedback was made with the experienced critical eye of an author who was focused on how to get a manuscript into commercially publishable shape.
I can only go on my experience of what I received back from my reader but it consisted of a lengthy report on the whole novel – andshe’d gone through the manuscript and noted typos and formatting issues in pencil. This was the result of the investment of a considerable amount of time – so I’m glad she said she enjoyed reading the novel.
I mentioned in a covering letter that the novel had been workshopped through the MA and City University courses and workshopped with coursemates and tutors – and my reader was generous enough to say that ‘it showed’ (I’m interpreting that as a compliment!) I’m sure the RNA NWS readers wouldn’t hold back out of politeness if a manuscript was technically flawed or was full of poorly-written prose. However, one of the most valuable aspects of the report for me was that it casts a fresh eye over the whole novel from the perspective of a new reader — and, as the report carefully pointed out — the type of reader who’d most likely be the commercial target audience for the novel.
This brings an entirely different viewpoint to feedback received on a creative writing course from a tutor or fellow students – people who’ve provided expert, generous and vital feedback but who’ve also become familiar with the book’s evolution over an extended period — and have read it in three- or five-thousand word extracts over a long period.
Both approaches are, of course, extremely useful and complementary but the RNA NWS reader was in a position to focus on points that I’d begun to lose sight of through familiarity and through the way the novel has changed over time. She was able to remind me about bringing to the fore the aspects of a character or plot that a reader might instinctively root for (or be less engaged by) — and where to place the events that motor plot forward (and where to relax the pace).
Principles of narrative technique and structure aretaught on creative writing courses but, given the limited size of extracts that can be workshopped in a course environment, they’re necessarily difficult to assess over a novel-length work — and unless your course lasts forever they’re impossible to work on as exercises.
While the reader commented from a perspective of commercial marketability, she certainly didn’t do so from a ‘dumbed-down’ perspective. Obviously a well-read book-lover outside as well she referred me to a book translated from Dutch which proves that as well as being an authority on romance that she’s also well-read outside the genre.
The report was crammed with so much useful comment that I was prompted to write my own response to it where I took all the points and listed most of them out in ‘to-do’ list fashion – and I’ve been ticking them off.
There are also points that I’m going to need to reflect on carefully. The report picks up some elements in the novel that are deliberately subversive and individual and, while I want the writing to work as well as possible, I want to ensure I preserve everything that might make the novel quirky and original (a word used approvingly by the reader about the heroine).
Nevertheless, the recommendations for change are about aspects of the novel that can are easily fixable — essentially honing and tweaking the writing incrementally — rather than having to address major flaws. The report was sprinkled with some very complementary words — reading these made my week. I won’t repeat them here but they provided encouragement to get on and put the revisions into the manuscript. Having received this extremely useful feedback from the RNA NWS, I’m relieved that I’m still yet to properly start the submission process to agents in earnest. Once I’ve worked through the feedback through the novel can’t fail to be stronger.
I’d imagine the RNA NWS offers something different to the various manuscript assessment services available because it’s an initiative that aims to help writers become eligible for its professional membership (and I’d love to go along to the RNA events, although I admit I’d be a little hesitant before walking through the door.) Based on my own experience (an admittedly small sample of one) I’d wholeheartedly recommend the RNA NWS to anyone whose novel fulfils the acceptance criteria (see above and the RNA website).
I’d like to thank the organiser, Melanie Hilton, for finding me such a suitable, knowledgeable and diligent reader who, though anonymous, knows via Melanie that I’ve passed on my deep gratitude.