In the last post I mentioned the ‘Transmission Project’, which according to the Manchester Metropolitan University student handbook is ‘an independent research unit, undertaken at the end of the taught element…to explore a specific area of the transmission of text.’  This basically means students have to submit work in a form that’s not the chosen ‘route’ of their MA (be it novel, poetry or children’s writing).

Some of my course mates have devised original and innovative ideas for their own Transmission Projects. Anne devised an experimental website to examine readers’ reactions to discontinuous, interrupted narrative styles (using embedded hyperlinks, for example) that modern technology can enable. Kerry has produced an e-book of 51 pieces of fiction (Fifty One Ways to Leave Your Lover — click here for Amazon link) comprising ‘short stories, flash and micro fiction pieces which reflect and explore some of the problems, issues and triumphs faced by women and girls’. Sales of the ebook raise funds for the charity, Platform 51, which assists women in disadvantaged areas. It’s not only an original project but helps a very worthy cause — and a bargain at only £1.02.)

Originally I had a plan to develop my project in an unorthodox literary form but I was deterred from that particular idea by the course director on the basis that it was content that might eventually form part of the finished novel. My next idea, a screenplay adaptation was thought a better alternative. While it is based on the same characters and roughly the same scenario (I hesitate to say plot), the ‘transmission’ of the text is very different. (I wonder if I should have done a screenplay for TV as that would be ultimately the best match for MMU’s curious transmission terminology.)

As I’ve only just submitted the project for marking, I’ll deliberately make no further comment on the specifics of my screenplay or explanatory essay. (But should any of the English faculty at MMU be reading this, I must stress my summer of dedicated research into the form and months of locking myself away in a darkened room to draft and redraft the project.)

One very obvious general point that I made in the accompanying essay is that a screenplay is a working document, which others in the creative process use to make the final artefact. It’s not intended to be a work to be enjoyed directly by the viewer, as would a novel by a reader.  This difference in approach proved surprisingly useful to me with the novel at its current point of development.

A screenplay passes responsibility to intermediaries for execution of the pleasurable details — actors nuancing their lines with gestures, expressions and inflections; a director and cinematographer developing its visual styling; designers creating costumes, sets, make up and so on. The writer provides the framework for others to use their talents.Virtually all exposition must be external: with rare access to the characters’ inner thoughts; description of character and setting is minimal.

Components of a film that chiefly within the control of the writer are character, plot, setting, scene selection and dialogue. With the possible exception of dialogue, these elements also provide the structural ‘scaffolding’ which holds a novel together. The difference is that it’s also the novelist’s job to evoke all the other elements too: the imagery, detail, sensory appeal and inner character exposition are hung with evocative prose on the structural framework that the reader should never obviously notice.

Another factor that belongs in the specialist subject of the bleedin’ obvious is that a film (or even TV serial) takes less time to ‘consume’ (is there a better word for this?) than a novel. Although the standard feature length screenplay is 120 pages, this equates to around 100 minutes of screen time. I doubt even the fastest readers can get through an average 80-100,000 word novel that quickly (although I’m often dumbfounded at the number of books some people claim to get through — maybe I’m a slow reader).

So, depending somewhat on the source material and the approach of the adaptation, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the novel’s content is omitted. Anyone who’s ever watched a screen adaptation of a novel they know well has the experience of noting changed or absent characters, plot twists or settings.

Books on screenplay technique encourage the writer to work within what, compared to prose fiction, appear to be limiting constraints: to produce work that emphasises the visual and fast-moving and to use short, snappy dialogue. (When dialogue is written in a thin column down the centre of the script, it’s easy to spot verbosity and talking head scenes stand out immediately.)

Advice is also concentrated around the structural aspects of plot. A separation of a script into three acts, divided by plot points, is given as practically a natural law of the genre.

The project meant I finally read Robert McKee’s Story, a screenwriting guide recommended by many as the best work on plotting for almost any dramatic or fictional form. It takes a scientific approach and, in places, it’s more like physics textbook — with lots of diagrams with arrows about how different levels of conflict within characters intersect with the structure of the plot and many other factors.

It’s drawn from fundamentals of storytelling that have endured from time immemorial. These follow, roughly, a pattern that goes: introduction to a character and setting; then a source of conflict that the protagonist(s) need to overcome; finally an event which triggers a resolution (which can either be complete or not).

It’s argued that this basic narrative pattern is something humans are either born to respond to or that it becomes ingrained in us from an early age. Whilst most people aren’t explicitly aware of the fundamentals of story structure, it’s said that most readers (or viewers) will feel react with innate dissatisfaction when a story lacks this shape.

The Transmission project, while delaying the revision needed on my novel, may have been opportunely timed. The research I’d carried out into the screenplay form focused on the mechanics of plot, making the story work, ensuring pace and rhythm, distilling the essence of a scene and so on.

Applied to novel writing, these are all very useful aspects to consider after completing a full draft, compared to the original plan (however sketchy and flexible); has the novel lost its balance, become bloated in some sections, under-developed in others and the task of revision is to sharpen the novel, omit extraneous material and add in any necessary additional material required to make the novel work as a whole.

Assembling the screenplay from the manuscript has been fascinating. I’ve pulled scenes pulled from chapters in very different parts of the novel, often brutally extracting small portions of the action or dialogue and redeploying it in a quite different context — and it’s surprising and pleasing to see how often these small sections then work on their own terms.

(For this type of task I may, unusually, be able to call on skills I use in the day job — which requires me to often deconstruct complexity and draw out underlying themes and causes. I’m also experienced in constructing sophisticated solutions from orchestrating many component parts (if this sounds jargony and baffling you should see my CV — I have an MSc in this). Perhaps this background is one reason why the novel hasn’t been written in sequences but largely slotted together around its most fundamental parts.)

I relocated part of a scene that appears about a third of the way through the novel into part of the opening section of the screenplay. I needed to write a new, short sequence of dialogue to knit the two together but the effect seemed to work so well that I’m considering putting the new dialogue into the novel. Play around with the material and discovering how it works in different configurations gives a refreshing new perspective, but one that’s also scary in opening up many new opportunities to tinker around. This is where deadlines are useful, as I had with the screenplay project itself.

I’m confident that The Angel has a sound structure. It’s not fundamentally changed since I first mapped it out with Post-It notes on a conference room wall — see post here from two and a half years ago. (Two and a half years, blimey, I really do need to get it finished and over with!). However, since then I’ve inevitably ladled in lashings of sub-plot, themes, brought in the odd new character and so on.

While people who’ve read parts of the novel tend to say that it reads easily and quickly, I know that I’m going to get a more favourable response from agents if I send in a manuscript of a length that doesn’t scare them off. I went to the September meeting of the London Writers’ Club in Clerkenwell last week. During a break I had my opportunity to buttonhole the guest agent speaker and asked whether agents made a snap judgement on manuscript length: would a ‘typical’ agent look more kindly on (i.e. read) a file of 90,000 words, say, as opposed to one of 120,000. While she said a lot depended on the quality of content and the genre, she recommended avoiding any extremes and mentioned an old-school agent she used to work with who would refused to read any submission that wasn’t between 70,000 and 100,000 words (although this isn’t common nowadays).

If it’s wise to err on the side of brevity when revising that raises a latent paranoia I have that I may discover, after trimming my work down to a sleek and concise 70,000 word draft, that this might only represent the innards of the novel — a prose version of the skeleton of the story represented in a screenplay. All the distinctive parts that might mark it out as individual might be squeezed out — the humour, observation, reflection, insight into the characters’ internal thoughts and so on. I worry that I may end up with a story that might work very efficiently but wouldn’t the novel that I originally set out to write.

This is a concern I can’t resolve without getting on and doing it — and now the Transmission Project has been safely bound at Rymans and delivered to Manchester I can completely focus on finishing the novel — from both a personal and an MA perspective. The only remaining piece of assessed work is a finished draft of the novel itself. We get another year to complete this — although I may try and submit mine in the spring (surely it will be done by then?) so I can have an earlier graduation date.

With the other coursework over (unless my screenplay is so bad it fails and I have to resubmit) and with the nights rapidly drawing in, I need to settle back into writing mode — or, more precisely, editing mode. And on that valedictory note to the summer of 2012, it might be appropriate to post this rather sad photo of Horse Guards Parade, now restored to its original state. (This photo was taken only about five weeks after those on this post that show a 15,000 seater stadium on the plot.)


London 2012 -- Horseguards All Gone 070912
Not a Grain of Sand Left in Horse Guards Parade

By the end of September, virtually all the other temporary infrastructure had been removed from the Mall and St. James’s Park (as I saw when I walked across the park to the Mall Galleries to view the entries for this year’s Threadneedle Prize, one of which was by my artist reader Adeline de Monseignat — see previous post).

Incidentally, I was very pleased to manage to finally visit the Olympic Park itself, during the Paralympics. I’ve posted a few photos of the park on this blog page.

Was It Worth It?

Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.

Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebrating’. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.

I’m probably at the place that’s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.

I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smith’s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipe that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.

At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.

I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.

Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.

But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.

And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.

Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’

But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paul’s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.

Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.

I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).

This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become – an obsessive quest like Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick. I’d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living – the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.

I’ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — it’s almost like doing two jobs.

I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.

This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible I’d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there haven’t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).

I guess it’s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps I’m subconsciously hanging on – not wanting to send the novel and the characters I’ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?

Yet I’m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because there’s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities can’t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; there’s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.

They’re all evidence of what I’ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether I’d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life – sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible – although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.

But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake – the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events I’ve been through in their company.

A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much I’ve learned through writing – not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (I’ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said they’d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.

So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, ‘as good as it can be’ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.

I already have my synopsis drafted – using Nicola Morgan’s e-book – and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued – twice. I’ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time – producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader ‘so much to keep a reader turning the page’. I’m hoping that I’ll soon move on to the next page myself.

Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript

I’ve been quiet on this blog for the last month or so for a a good reason, which is that I’ve been frantically trying to pull together a draft of the novel-in-progress to be professionally read by someone who knows me and my writing but has read little of this actual novel (I’ll reveal more later when she comes back and tells me what she thinks of it). However, how I got to this point — and the state of the manuscript — is a story worth relating first.

(There’s also a fairly tedious reason for the blog posts being more sporadic — the cumulative drag following the resumption of my daily grind into London to earn a crust doing the ‘day job’ — and even though I’m fairly new in this stint, my superiors seem to have twigged that the day-job, despite what it says on my CV is not actually my ‘passion’).

The most shocking discovery of the consolidation of many fragmentary files of novel was to find that I had 173,700 words — and that was after at least 20,000 words were dumped from the manuscript and with quite a few chapters either missing or in skeletal form.

I’d naively thought I could get the manuscript into reasonable shape before I started commuting again in mid January. This was way too optimistic but I eventually settled on a day I’d deliver a manuscript (early March) and then I had to push it back a week — partly because I fitted around work commitments in taking a couple of days leave to sit down and hammer out the manuscript. (That goodwill doesn’t feel as if it’s being reciprocated at the moment with a micro-managing boss who likes to suddenly appear at your shoulder and comment on what’s on my monitor — the kind of socially inept behaviour that one might hesitate to do with a trainee, let alone a supposed professional who he’s charging the customer a ridiculous daily rate for — that I don’t see much of. There’s a huge temptation to slip him in as a character in the next draft of the novel as revenge.)

But in the end, I managed to get a manuscript together of some semblance (it has a beginning, a middle and an end — of sorts). I wrote quite a lot of new material — including one piece for an MMU workshop that I stayed up until 6.45am in the morning to complete. Then I went to bed for an hour (it was a Saturday morning) and got the train into London for a 10.30am workshopping session with my ex-City friends on a piece I’d written earlier in the week.

To get the manuscript into one piece I worked for four days solid, getting up about 5.30am and working more or less steadily on it until about 10pm (quite a contrast with my enthusiasm for the day job). Even so, I know I’m still quite a way off getting anything that could be put in front of an agent. I was quite embarrassed that I’ve had to end up sending it in the state it is to my reader but at least I sent her something — perhaps this is some glimpse of what it may be to be a professional writer?

There were numerous ways in which it wasn’t wholly satisfactory:

  • Some sections were very sketchy (dialogue only) or even just brief notes
  • There were parts that are complete first drafts
  • There are, no doubt, many continuity issues involving times, plot events, minor characters (one changes nationality, people swap between driving a car and being a passenger), etc.
  • There were various duplications of exposition and no doubt many gaps too
  • Some of it is badly cut-and-pasted together so may not make complete sense.
  • There were definitely bits of content that I would have removed if I’d allowed myself longer to edit it.

While I think I’ve got lots more to do, I learned a lot from just pulling it together into one document (some of the files were so old that I had to do a bit of IT work with DOS command prompts and Excel editing to discover what was lurking in the mists of time on my hard drives — I even had to mine e-mail to get material that I’d forgotten to file away too).

One unique thing about writing a novel while on creative writing course is that the manuscript has largely been shaped by the demands of workshopping – and I’ve workshopped the pieces in a fairly random order as the novel wasn’t written sequentially. So due to the word count limits the novel tends to arrive in 3,000-5,000 word sections that are relatively polished then suddenly mutate into much rougher passages.

Also the sections of the novel were written over a period of a couple of years during which I ought to have learned something. I was quite dismayed when I went back to some material I’d written a couple of years ago, although I retained one chapter that was written in a completely different POV from the rest because I liked that one so much.

As it stands, from all the advice I’ve heard, the manuscript is probably significantly longer than publishers would want to consider for a writer’s first novel. If I could find an easy way of cutting it to a word count that publishers and agents might happily accept then then I’d be delighted. For example, I’ve just received some excellent feedback this morning from an ex-City coursemate who’s pointed out that I could easily lose about 5% of my word count in one recently-written section just by cutting out repetitions and echoing phrases in the dialogue and removing places where I explain in the narrative what the dialogue already states (or vice versa). I suspect a lot of the novel could be shrunk down by a similar ratio.

However, the question is whether to cut big sections and to leave the rest of the book fairly intact or should I edit down each and every sentence for brevity. I suspect that it’s a combination of both but I do think that novels with humour and social comedy will tend to, almost by definition, use more words for a given scene than thrillers and straight dramatic narratives. This because you’re often trying to surprise readers and to set up unusual situations to create the humour. My current MA writing tutor is a big fan of ‘what’s not said’ (or leaving material out). I’m intending to do this on a structural level in the narrative but, while I see the argument, I’m not convinced this can easily be done in a quirky humorous genre because a reader will inevitably fill in the gaps in the most straightforward and logical way — you can allow them to do this (as you might with suspense) in order to set up a punchline or joke but you still have to use the extra words in the end to create the humour.

To illustrate the point, here’s one I drew up that I think illustrates the point I’m at with the novel. I have good bits and not so good bits and parts that are relevant to the plot and sections that are more tangential. These can be mapped on a quadrant a bit like this:

Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'
Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'

And a note to any management consultants reading this who fancy ripping this off — the quadrant is mine (maybe I’ll write a creative writing book one day for burnt out consultants who’ll love this stuff?). In the meantime, I’ll license it to you for big bucks if you grovel.

So basically that means I have badly written material that’s essential to the novel plot and better written material that’s not so crucial. Rather than the facile (and perhaps deliberately sabotaging) advice of ‘kill your darlings’, I think I’d rather be more eco-friendly and recycle them back into the plot.

I have a list already of many aspects of the novel that are inconsistent and wrong and just plain embarrassing. But I’ve also come up with a list of really good additions and tweaks from sitting down and assembling it as a whole. Seems scary to think of putting more in a 173k document but hopefully I’ll get a second opinion on the stuff that really needs weeding out.

However, I’ve also wondered whether I could get two novels out of this and whether that might be another option (although I’d need to alter the narrative and the general structure) — though if any agents are reading (one can live in optimism), my intention is to try and get to about 120,000 words eventually, if possible.

I guess it’s not surprising that the novel is so long when I routinely write blog posts that are more lengthy than virtually anyone else’s. I guess the tangential nature of this blog is also reflected in the novel text.

But it might be incoherent, full of faults and inconsistencies and, in places, mystifying to read but the draft is done. Now I can try and get more than 5 hours sleep a night.

The Rules of Creative Writing

In January I asked on Facebook and Twitter if any of my writing friends could supply some examples of the mythical ‘Rules of Creative Writing’ (they’re really like urban myths) for my essay for the Creative Writing MA — which was really an exercise for me to take out one of my hobby horses on an extended canter. I said I’d post the responses up on my blog which I’m doing now I’ve had the essay marked — and discovered, to my relief, that what I thought was something of a rant, had passed rather than failed, as I feared it might have done.

So here are rules identified by friends from the City University Certificate in Novel Writing via Facebook (thanks to Guy Russell, Rick Kellum and Charlotte Haigh):

  • Point of View switches – but they can sometimes be ok – even EM Forster’s ‘Aspects of a Novel’ says so
  • Uninterrupted page of dialogue – John Fowles does this a lot – so does Hemingway.
  • ‘Make your character likeable’ – lots of examples where they aren’t! Eg American Psycho!
  • ‘Remove noise words’ – for some first-person voices they’re an important part of the character
  • Never start a chapter with dialogue.
  • Never begin a sentence with “and”.
  • And of course, write what you know. How many dull novels about young men moving to the city to become writers has that last rule produced?
  • You’ve already got the adverbs one. Ditto adjectives.
  • Also, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Excellent advice in most cases, but there are exceptions.
  • And maybe something about the importance of strong plot, which I think is partly just a taste and fashion thing – I’ve read a lot of early-to-mid 20th century novels this year without strong plots, and they have still been brilliant, gripping reads (Carson McCullers, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys).

And here are the four that I particularly concentrated on in the essay, which I’d identified through reading similarly sceptical blog postings (such as those by Debi Alper, Emma Darwin and Nicola Morgan) and ‘how-to’ books (notably Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’).

  • ‘You must not over-write’ – a rule that aims to curb excessive or indulgent writing but can, if misapplied, limit ambition and innovation.
  • ‘Adverbs suck’ – this is the most extreme form of much advice about diction which discourages writers from using types of word such as adjectives and adverbs but also celebrates a conservative approach to vocabulary.
  • ‘Do not have whole pages of dialogue’
  • ‘Show don’t tell’ – this injunction is widely used for many different purposes and interpretations and has many subordinate rules that seek to influence narrative strategy and form (e.g. description, tense, character interior/exterior,etc.).
The 3,300 words were put together in a frenzied couple of days so the prose and formatting aren’t wonderful but if you’re interested in reading the whole diatribe (which has now passed muster at MA level) then click on the link to read –> Reading Novels 2 Assessment MMU MA in Creative Writing.


Broad Beans and Sea Urchins

Writing in the Field -- Tate Modern Espresso Bar

I was in London today and took the time to do a bit of novel-related research. I’m planning on setting a small part of my novel in the Tate Modern and so thought it might be in the spirit of the novel to actually write some of it there.

So, as the picture shows to the left, my netbook is out next to my Tate cappuccino while I wrote a few hundred words about what my characters were doing in the same place — I’m not sure if that does anything for the authenticity of the words on the page but it probably helps me feel that I have some sort of credibility in attempting to use this as a location.

I guess the photo is a bit symbolic in showing the subject of the writing along with the means by which it’s intended to be captured — the Word 2007 screenshot.

The floor where I was sitting is home to the current Gerhard Richter exhibition. This is an incredibly well-reviewed exhibition featuring the works of one of the world’s leading artists, who happens to be German, which fits a little with my novel.

I went to see the exhibition (it’s one of those you have to pay to go in) about five or six weeks ago and was actually very impressed with it. Richter is an incredibly versatile artist who’s created abstract art as well as fascinating landscapes and portraits and still lives — two of his works are exceptionally well known: one of his daughter turning her head and another of a candle that was used on a Sonic Youth album cover .

The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia
The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia at Christ Church Greyfriars

I then had a look around Daunt Books’ new Cheapside shop.

Nowadays I have to enter bookshops with a resolution of steel — I WILL NOT BUY MORE BOOKS (because I haven’t even got room for all those I currently have — let alone time to read them all). But as soon as I set foot over the threshold I’m ready to be seduced.

And seduction was on the menu for the book I found on one of the tables in the store was The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia by Mark Douglas Hill. And seeing as my novel has lots of food in it and relationships then it immediately attracted my interest.

Co-incidentally I was pleased to see this book as I’ve spent an amount of time on the web trying to see if I could get any more seriously foodie information on this subject myself and oddly enough the range of websites that come up tend to be a bit gimmicky or commercial.

I won’t reveal exactly what my intentions are for purchasing this particular volume of literature to peruse but I think some of the more unusual combinations might give me a bit of fun.

Looking through the table of contents, I initially wondered what wasn’t an aphrosidiac — there were quite a few foodstuffs that are pleasant to eat but perhaps not best known for their aphrodisiac qualities — e.g. steak, honey, caviar, chocolate (although I guess a lot depends on how one might use the last three on that list).

Then there are the sensual or symbolic foods that would go on any Valentine’s night menu — oysters, asparagus, truffles, figs and maybe a few others.

I was quite puzzled over the aphrodisiac qualities of some of the book’s contents — watermelon, celery, pine nuts, quince, anchovies, cheese (which sort — presumably not Stinking Bishop, which I bought recently from Neal’s Yard). Having read some of the foods’ entries these less erotic inclusions appear to made on the strength of their vitamin and mineral content — zinc being a favourite plus various amino acids or similar, like trpytophan, which apparently triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Apparently, the book says, eating a banana mimics in a presumably more muted way the taking of ecstasy.

The book gives a recipe (for two, obviously) for each of the ingredients — and some look rather nice. I’d guess most lovers would appreciate a well-cooked meal, even if the ingredients were fairly commonly eaten anyway — like eggs or pineapple. However, some choices seemed utterly bizarre — such as broad beans. How a food so unavoidably associated with flatulence can be considered at all sexually alluring is something of a mystery — apparently it’s all something to do with the ancient Greeks and Pythagoras and the supposed similarity in the bean’s shape to the male gonad (and it also produces dopamine, apparently — better tell the ravers).

At least broad beans are quite familiar unlike some of the aphrodisiacs. The most unusual include pufferfish, sea urchin and iguana. I’d probably rather breakfast on cold pizza in the morning or a leftover kebab heated in the microwave than eat sea urchin. But, then again, in the words of 10cc, eating pufferfish might be one of the things we do for love.

As for iguana, I don’t think even the characters in my novel would go so far as serving that up in pursuit of seduction. (Apparently iguanas have some powerful glands in their inner thighs that produce powerful sex pheromones, which causes them to be turned into an aphrodisiac stew in their Native Nicaragua.) It’s a shame as the book has a recipe for ‘Roast Iguana with Chipotle and Oregano Marinade’, which would have been an interesting dish to feature in my novel. Maybe I’ll go instead for symbolism and have a character with a pet iguana which the cognoscenti will know is a symbol of their hidden, raging sexual passion.

Of course, the Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia doesn’t take itself very seriously (see the link to the author bio above). This is a point that seems to be missed in a rather humourless and contradictory review of the book in the Observer — stating that the way to spot a mediocre novelist is the inevitable use of a meal as a metaphor for sensuality but then goes on to equate eating with sex and states that an intimate meal involves ‘wearing your elemental self on your sleeve’ (maybe it’s OK to use the metaphor in a review but not a novel or maybe I’ve missed some self-reflexive irony?).

Of course  there’s not much science behind the claims for most aphrodisiacs — although the social and cultural associations of some of the better known foods in the book are enough to make the consumption of these foods in the right context a suggestive and potentially innuendo laden act. I’m sure I can put the research to good effect.

And on the way between the Tate Modern and Daunt Books where I was seduced by this volume, I walked over the Millennium Bridge, which gave me the opportunity to monitor the progress of the Shard again. This time I’ve got a smeary-lensed, city scape with what my blogging acquaintance Female PTSD describes as a giant Issey Miyake perfume bottle (that’s an analogy as a male I never would have got).

The Shard 6th December 2011
The Shard Nearly Finished -- 6th December 2011

Apologies to Tamara Watts

The user name below, found on an office ‘multi-function device’ (i.e. printer), appealed to my puerile streak.

Office Print Jobs
Are You Sure About Allocating That User Name?

I guess I shouldn’t laugh — maybe Mr Timothy or Ms Tamara Watts has had to deal with such sniggering throughout their lives — although the way computer user names are constructed to an unbending formula might prevent subtle ways of avoiding the construction. At least there’s a bit of ambiguity in the plural, I guess it’s even worse for someone with the surname Watt.

That particular piece of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary intrigues me as I was once pulled-up by an Open University Creative Writing student for using it in a screenplay writing assignment (and I suspect she deducted marks from the assignment in question). The objection wasn’t to the word itself — it was because I’d dared to put it in the mouth of a female character (in fact a prototype Kim).

She actually said that something along the lines of ‘a woman would never say that word’. (It might be an unwelcome consequence of feminism that many women — and I do think this is far more true of women than it is of men — seem to feel qualified to make sweeping statements on behalf of their whole gender group. It brings to mind Harriet Harman’s periodically facile assertions about women running organisations more effectively and compassionately — and in the next breath she denounces the uncaring destruction wreaked on the country by Margaret Thatcher.)

Every other woman who read that use of the word had no problem at all with it — so I don’t think it’s a gender issue — more of a generational one. Female baby-boomers, especially middle-class ones, have probably been conditioned by parents and peer-pressure not to swear in company but this doesn’t hold true for Generation X and Y — and especially not the generation who come after Y — whatever they’re called. (I’m a Generation Xer, by the way.)

‘The Angel’s’ characters straddle the boundary period between Generation X and Generation Y. (I’m using the most common definitions, according to Wikipedia, of X starting in 1964 and Y starting in 1982.) James and Emma are the tail end of the Xers, while Kim’s an early Y…and to some extent James will look at Kim as an example of a new, exciting generation (even though she’s not much younger).

But both the female Xs and Ys will swear a lot (I’m also going to have a woman Baby Boomer character too, who won’t). In fact the dialogue in the novel is so full of swearing that it breaks one of the cardinal Rules of Creative Writing that you tend to find in books — readers don’t like reading lots of profanities.

I’m not really sure about this rule on a couple of counts.

  1. I can see dialogue in which every other word is effing and blinding will be tedious but some of the most captivating speakers I’ve listened to in real life use frequent swearing in an expertly oratorical way — to contribute to the rhythm of a phrase or for comic timing — think of some of the most popular stand-up comedians.
  2. As with their reactions to sexual content, or something similarly taboo, what people say they think about a book/film/play/artwork is not necessarily what they think privately about it. I’ve blogged before about this issue might prevent honest discussion of a piece of writing in a workshopping situation — where it’s human nature for participants to use their feedback to reveal or conceal aspects of their own characters or experiences to the other participants.
  3. The advice might be sound in that it points out the costs of alienating a significant portion of a writer’s potential readership. However, if you worry too much about offending people as you’re writing then you may end up with a story as inoffensive, uninteresting and utterly bland as if it had been written by a focus group.
Mind you, having expounded about how my professional and arty middle-class characters indulge in the joy of swearing, I’ve realised that I didn’t hear a single profanity (aside from a few ribald songs) in a location that I visited today (see photo below) that, perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been a bastion of male working-class culture — and which is now going-on for half female and with a very cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities (I particularly liked the personalised ‘Van Der Singh’ shirt I saw someone wearing).
Old Trafford
Old Trafford Half an Hour Before Kick Off
I’m currently writing James and Kim’s initial restaurant conversation chapter and she teases him by suggesting everything about him says he’s an Arsenal fan.
Inside 'The Theatre of Dreams' (And No Swearing)

So Man Utd 2 Norwich 0 is my excuse for not getting that much writing done today.

Non-Instant Karma — We All Shine On

I’ve recently been writing a very tricky chapter of The Angel in which Kim falls over and hurts herself and believes it might signify some sort of bad karma — which it may well be bearing in mind what she’s been up to. It’s quite a crucial point in the plot and I’ve found that I’ve put her in a situation that’s full of dilemmas and choices — which I suppose is good for the novel but quite risky to write in case I go off down a blind alley.

I originally wrote it predominantly with dialogue between Kim and James and relatively little interior exposition. When I workshopped this with the ex-City die-hards the majority view was that it would benefit from much more of Kim’s internal debate. (We also had a discussion about whether characters would have ostensibly frank conversations volunteering the number of sexual partners they’d had — which is perhaps the subject for another post.)

So I rewrote the chapter in a very different style — in places with long paragraphs of contemplation about what motivates one through life, etc. I then took advantage of a tutorial with Jenny Mayhew, our first term tutor on the MA at MMU, to get some feedback on the balance between interior/exterior. She thought it was generally about right — which shows the City feedback had helped but that there were some over-long deliberations which could be cut.

Jenny also gave some advice about increasing the amount of ‘stage-direction’ and playing up aspects of the fantasy and dreaming in the dialogue — things I’d deliberately toned down after having feedback in the opposite direction in the previous term. Jenny’s advice tends to echo my natural style and inclination, which is not particularly lean or taut, more observational and discursive.

I re-jigged again and added in some new ideas, some lifted directly from a conversation about different names for common field weeds in England and Scotland. The weeds discussion was in the office in London where I’ve now been working for the past four weeks, of which perhaps more in future posts. Time spent in this job explains the relative lack of blog posts as I’m burning the candle at both ends, catching the 0637 train into Marylebone and not going to bed correspondingly early enough as I’m trying to keep the writing still moving forwards — although to look on the bright side I’m close to some of my locations to return to do easy research.

Last night a dedicated group of the MMU MA students workshopped a revised draft of the chapter following Jenny’s comments (we do this without any tutor involvement from the university so shows we must be relatively dedicated and, to use one of Emma’s horrible HR phrases ‘self-starters’).

I’ve still yet to re-read the transcript of the online discussion, which is always very useful, but the material generated a lot of discussion — it must have done as we ‘chatzied’ for nearly an hour. (To get an hour of four people’s time — plus their reading in advance — on a piece of around 3,000 words was very fortunate — another student had to drop her piece at the last minute.)

We’ve got one more workshopping session left with Emily in about ten days time and then a long break for the summer — the MMU term finishes at the same time. As far as I’m aware, about four people from the City course have finished — or are close to finishing — their novels, including two who are in the workshopping group. Another four or five of us are making steady progress but aren’t there yet.

I must have written enough words for a respectable length novel — as an example I extended the original 2,500 word extract mentioned above by at least another 2,000 words in the rewriting — and I’m sure I can find a use for much of that, if not in the original chapter then elsewhere.

In our MMU workshopping session last night one of the other students presented a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of her projected novel, which reminded me that I’m long overdue a re-assessment of where I’m at. I don’t feel I’ve diverged too much from the original plot that I planned out with post-it notes well over a year ago but I’ve probably only covered about half the planned events or chapters, although what I’ve written has expanded in word count beyond that which what I originally anticipated.

Maybe because of Kim’s interest in karma, I’ve been noticing a few instances of Angel-related serendipity to inspire me to keep plugging on with the writing.

Angel Street EC1
Angel Street EC1

The first was the name of a street I noticed in the City near Pasternoster Square and opposite bombed-out Christ’s Church Greyfriars, where I’m planning to have James and Kim sit and have a drunken conversation on their first day together — the street is, appropriately, Angel Street.

The Angel, Old Street
The Angel, Old Street

Then I also belatedly noticed that the pub over the road from Mike B’s wonderfully stylish apartment near Old Street where we’ve been meeting to do our Saturday workshops is also called, you guessed, The Angel — although looking like a traditional London boozer it’s a very different sort of Angel to the thatched country local I’m going to write about — but it’s a nice co-incidence anyway.

The Angel, Bicester
The Angel, Sheep Street, Bicester

And, just for completeness, although there’s no special connection to me, here’s another Angel — this time in Bicester. This is a town that Emma would never dream of living in but she goes there fairly regularly to snap up a few bargains or ten at Bicester Village — outlet store shopping centre for all brands she likes to dress in. Perhaps James might slope off for a pint there while she browses in Alexander McQueen, Diesel, Jimmy Choo, , Karen Millan, Radley, Hobbs, maybe buying Kim a cheap Superdry T-shirt and perhaps even nipping into Agent Provocateur.


On ITV as I write:

Next programme - 7th June, The Chilterns

The team travels to the Chilterns, an area steeped in ancient crafts and traditions, which is less than 50 miles from the centre of London. Paul Heiney meets the men still making bricks by hand, historian Bettany Hughes tells the story of boating on the Thames, and chef Mike Robinson visits a farm rearing a centuries-old English duck.

Countrywise seems like an ITV landlubbers’ version of the BBC’s Coast — a bunch of TV-friendly faces descend on somewhere very rural and quirky — and ‘discover the stories behind it’ or some such.

It’s presented by Paul Heiney, whom I still remember from being one of Esther Rantzen’s acolytes on That’s Life along with Glyn Worsnip and Kieran Prendeville.

They’re at Waterperry Gardens now, which isn’t really in the Chilterns — it’s in a place so flat it gets flooded by the River Thame — funny how they didn’t feature the nearby M40 too.

But the overall premise of the programme was that it was amazing that this area of beech woodlands, quaint hand-made brick houses, free-range ducks in the forests and so on was a ‘mere stones throw from the capital’. There was a view repeatedly shown throughout the programme which was filmed from Coombe Hill towards the south-west — if there was an incredibly high-definition TV picture you might have been able to see where I live. It’s exactly the same view as the first of the panoramic photos in this posting from a few weeks ago.

There were a couple of local pubs I saw in passing — The Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden (near Henley) and the George and Dragon in Quainton (north of Aylesbury).

The Chilterns must be almost unique in this country as an area of outstanding natural beauty that very few people actually go and stay away in. The North and South Downs are similar distances from London but I’d bet that the North Downs get more tourists — and the South Downs definitely would.

So the area is potentially rather good for a novel setting — very few places in the country can offer the contrast of amazingly well known and surprisingly unknown within the space of 40 miles.

Claire King’s Rules For Writing Novels

I was tweeting in pique at the weekend while watching Sue Perkins’s documentary on genre fiction — a programme that I’ll probably get around to blogging about more at length but I put a comment on The Art’s Desk’s review — click here to read it.  A couple of my tweets were picked up and replied to or retweeted by literary people, including one of the Independent’s Offical Top 100 Tweeters, Carole Blake and I picked up a few extra Twitter followers to add to my modest total as a result.

One of these is the writer Claire King and I followed a few links to her very interesting blog, which has a very sensible comment on the holy wars between literary and genre fiction that Sue Perkins’s documentary appeared to have stirred up.

However, I was most intrigued by the fifteen rules of writing that featured in another post:

I’m sure that almost anyone who has been in a creative writing class will twitch in recognition at most them. It’s interesting to read the list of comments as it seems not every contributor seems to have inferred the same intention from the rules as I did. I particularly like number 7.

A few commenters have added rules from famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s don’t seem to particularly helpful, more a manifesto for his own approach (particularly his phobia about the Internet) but I particularly liked his first: ‘ The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator’.

This tends to contradict most of his other rules imho but I believe it should be borne in mind far more in creative writing workshops than it is. A normal reader wants to like a book. After all they’ve paid for it (or gone to the trouble of borrowing it) and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time with it. They’re not taking 3,000 words and examining every single one as writers and critical readers who review each others’ work for the best of motives. They’re not going to throw the book in the bin because a writer has used a lazy ‘then’ in a sentence (his rule three) but they might feel resentful if something on the macro level leaves them short-changed, like an unresolved and poorly developed conclusion to the plot.

The Shard Rises

I was in London yesterday around Oxford Circus then went to St.Paul’s and Southwark to have a walk around the settings I’m using for the first few chapters of The Angel — including the Tate Modern again where it was amazing to hear the number of French and German speakers.

Walking across the Millennium Bridge I was impressed again by the height of the internal core of concrete core of the Shard, which I think I heard became the tallest building in London in the last week or so.

Here’s a photo I took from the Millennium Bridge and the scale of the Shard can be seen in comparison with Tower Bridge and One London Bridge (the square building at the foot of the Shard).

The Shard Rising -- 18th February 2011
The Shard Rising -- 18th February 2011

The literary agent Carole Blake  (who I follow on Twitter) tweeted about this interesting article on the Shard’s construction from today’s FT which is currently available for free.

It does present a conundrum for my novel though as when I started it the Shard was a hole in the ground and by the time it’s finished then the Shard will be an unmissable landmark. However, although my novel is set in the present the time elapsed in the plot will be shorter than the time I’ve taken to write it. I suppose it might be a nice little touch at the end to mention the erection of the tall, central shaft (also adding in a bit of the rest of the book’s symbolism there too!).

I also solved a slight problem I had in the early chapters where I have James and Kim around St.Paul’s but doing something that would probably need a bit more privacy than they could find in the piazza around the cathedral. I think I’ve found an ideal replacement location on the way between St.Paul’s and the Viaduct Tavern — Christchurch Greyfriars. This, like the Aegidienkirche in Hanover, is a bombed out shell and has a rose garden where the nave of the church used to be — although it currently is closed off for some sort of refurbishment. It will be a very suitable place for the two of them to sit and I won’t need to be too heavy with symbolism — the location will do it on its own. I read on Wikipedia that the church, before the war, had a huge angel on its spire, which now sits in the entrance of a nearby (non-ruined) church.

It’s also opposite the Boots pharmacy where Kim will later go — my research for this section is pretty anal!

Also to get to Christchurch Greyfriars they will walk through Paternoster Square and there’s quite a curious sculpture there that marks its ancient use as a livestock market. It’s by Elisabeth Frink, a sculptor who liked to specialise in the human male nude form — and perhaps there’s something quite symbolic for the book about that sculpture as there are plenty of sheep where the two will end up. Despite the German sounding name, Frink was English but I read on Wikipedia that she was taught by an Austrian refugee from the Anschluss. Amazing how it all comes together.

Shepherd and Sheep - Elisabeth Frink - Paternoster Square
Shepherd and Sheep - Elisabeth Frink - Paternoster Square

On Misinterpretation

If I ever get very rich (from writing or otherwise — though neither possibility is likely) one thing I may do is go to every bookshop I can find (possibly not that many if they keep closing at the rate they do), buy every copy of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and hide them somewhere safe from over-eager creative writing students. If a few copies were removed from circulation I don’t think it wouldn’t be a terribly bad thing — at least not for people in writing workshops.

It’s not that I dislike Stephen King or think it’s a poor book — I have my own copy and read it with great interest. In fact it’s in many ways too good: the advice it contains is so directly and unambiguously argued that it works like a loaded weapon — let a gun get into the wrong hands and you’re asking for trouble (and I don’t exclude myself from this as I’m now questioning whether some of my own writing style has been too directly influenced by its recommendations).

The book is subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ — which is something that most of its proseltyizers  fail to read — but that is exactly what it it is. It’s King’s account of the techniques of the craft that have worked well for him — and he’s an outstandingly successful novelist who is also a fine writer and much underrated by literary snobs who look down on genre fiction. However, some of the justified anger that he perhaps feels about the lack of seriousness with which his work is taken seems to me to translate into a rhetorical rebuttal in which he passionately defends his position but, simultaneously, appears to some readers as ‘this is the way it must be done’ — or worse, ‘follow these golden rules and you’ll be a bestselling writer’.

King is, no doubt, sensible enough to have put a disclaimer in the book saying that it’s not a ‘get-rich-quick’ manual (and he’s by no means the first person to have given similar advice, as he acknowledges by referring to Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’). However, it’s ironic that, given the poor esteem in which he says he holds the writing workshopping mentality, his book appears to have provided a source of ammunition that feeds the exact behaviours he criticises.

There seem to be a lot of dubious ‘rules’ whose current popularity could be perhaps be traced back the ten years or so to when ‘On Writing’ appeared — which was probably not co-incidentally a time when many creative writing classes and courses were becoming much more popular. (Disclaimer: I’m not remotely suggesting that any of my fellow students on university creative writing courses are guilty of this sort of crass simplification — they’ve all been selected by interview and on the basis of their writing ability — nor the excellent tutors. However, it doesn’t take long to come across really stupid examples of misinterpretation and perversion of King’s advice if you browse a few writing blogs or exchange experiences with other student writers.)

Possibly the most notorious example of dangerous over-simplification is King’s injunction that ‘the adverb is not your friend’. This seems quite a nuanced phrase to warn writers off using adverbs as an unnecessary crutch — for example using an adverb in a phrase like ‘he walked quickly’ rather than  ‘he dashed’ or similar or in stating something that should be obvious to the reader from the context like ‘he said threateningly’. King doesn’t say adverbs are bad — he just asks, because adverbs are modifiers of verbs, the reader to consider their use carefully — which is a variant on the good advice that every single word in a novel should have to justify its place.

However, after this fairly considered section he later casually refers to ‘all those lazy adverbs’ and — a remark that is interpreted by some as implying that any use of an adverb suggests a lazy writer. This seems to have metamophosised into a dictat that all adverbs are bad — partly because it’s a ‘rule’ so simple that idiots can follow it (‘if it’s a describing word that ends in -ly it is a sign of Bad Writing).

I found a post on a writing blog (Novelr) titled ‘Why Adverbs Suck’, which starts by taking examples of sentences with adverbs and proceeds to rewrite them minus the adverb — but usually including some extra element of detail that ‘shows’ the sentiments that the dreaded adverb ‘tells’ (illustrating that the adverb is a casualty in the philosophical battle between show and tell — see Emma Darwin’s excellent post on this issue). In most cases the sentences become considerably longer. (The insertion of such ‘reportage’ is something I tend to do — and, as it’s recently been pointed out, perhaps over-do.)

The Novelr blog post is worth following for the debate that follows in the comments in which the pro- and anti-adverb camps state their positions in the religious war. Imho those writing in defence of the adverb have more logic and evidence on their side and those arguing against it seem more motivated by dogma and simplicity. It’s asked why adjectives are far less reviled than adverbs (I’d suggest it’s because most of them don’t end with the same two letters and are less easy for pedants to identify).

I’d also suggest that a piece of writing which is marred by clumsy over-use of adverbs is also likely to be littered with unnecessary adjectives, rambling sentences, bad grammar and other evidence of incompetence or perhaps ‘first-draftiness’ (what an adjective — shows you can make one out of a noun by suffixing -ness just as you can make an adverb by adding -ly to a verb!). (Time constraints mean the stylistic quality of the writing on this blog is sadly very much an example of this first-draftiness.)

Just as bad writing isn’t just typified only by use of adverbs (or any use of the passive voice or dropping in back story or other of King’s bêtes noir) then their use in the right context can be extraordinarily skilful. On the City course, one of the students (who is a professional writer) sprinkled her prose with adverbs — in some cases they had a breathtakingly subversive influence on a sentence, or even whole paragraph.

Of course much is in the context, the talented writer on our course was writing about suburbia from an ironic narrator’s perspective, whereas Stephen King writes horror: there’s less need to describe the nuances of exactly how a character might sink an axe into someone’s head than to describe the action itself — and I don’t mean this disparagingly to the genre as I recently workshopped an action scene myself and probably followed King’s stylistic advice to the letter on that.

Stephen King says he thinks adverbs (and the passive past tense) have been designed for the ‘timid’ writer. That may be true if they’re over-used as some sort of extra insurance policy that is meant to affirm that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. But, in an example of extreme irony given the general low opinion that King has of writing groups, courses and workshops, his uncompromising stance towards the adverb has led to a situation where it’s the timid writers who now avoid adverbs — because of the possible mauling they will receive for any use of them whatsoever if given feedback from one of the many people who has simplified King’s own stylistic advice to the point of absurdity.

Other resources, given in good faith, can also be horribly misinterpreted. In its creative writing assessment booklet, the Open University gives a list of points for students to check through before they submit their short piece of fiction for assessment (probably based on the guidance given for marking). It’s a long checklist and includes pretty commonsense questions like ‘does description utilise the senses’, ‘are metaphors or similes used’, ‘does the story move forward’ and ‘is the point of view consistent’.

The danger is that some people misconstrue this checklist (which is principally for short stories) into rules that say: all description must utililise the senses; there must be metaphors and similies; the narrative should always move quickly forward; the point-of-view must not change and so on. The last two points, while probably necessary in short stories, certainly shouldn’t be dogmatically applied to novels.  So what starts off as a useful aide-mémoire becomes a bible for the workshop pedant. Lists like this also seem to encourage people in writing workshops to read a text in a way that would be alien to any reader who might pick up a novel in a bookshop.

Imagine a contemporary creative writing workshop sent back in time to early 19th century Hampshire — considering the opening lines of a possibly timid female writer. ‘You’ll never get this published — you use an adverb only five words into the book — an example of a lazy, profligate writer. Wouldn’t it be better to write “It is a truth acknowledged’ or, better, “It is an acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. The word universally is clearly unnecessary as it merely re-inforces the meaning of the word truth.’  And you wouldn’t want to be there when they start on the length of her sentences…or the pace.

Co-Incidences Do Happen

Yesterday, in an example of complete chance the first non-league team in the FA Cup 5th round for 17 years, Crawley Town, drew Manchester United away — for anyone who doesn’t know, Manchester United are unbeaten in the Premier League and Champions’ League this season (and haven’t lost a league game since April).

This was the sort of draw that has the pundits talking about the romance of the cup — with by a club that normally plays in front of a crowd of 2,000 going to Old Trafford, which is, at 76,000, by some distance the biggest club football stadium in the country. (It’s fifth largest in Europe after Barcelona’s Nou Camp — the biggest by quite a long way — and not far behind Real Madrid, Dortmund and the tw0 Milans at the San Siro).

I’m not sure of the odds of the draw happening (I’d guess several thousand to one) and it attracts interest because these Cup pairings are unusual — but it has still happened. And this is a lesson, I think, to writers — just because something is very unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

I experienced a very odd co-incidence of my own on Saturday in London. I’d gone to Emily’s first post-course workshop (after Alison had filled in over the autumn due to Emily’s maternity leave) at Mike B’s very stylist apartment near Old Street.  (Emily has a different approach to Alison — as she reads the extracts in advance then she sees no reason for the writer to read material out loud so we ended up having quite interactive discussions on more general themes in the novels rather than each of us examining and then commenting on the individual pieces of writing in detail. At the point that most of us are in our novels then this seems to be a good approach.)

I then ended up with Guy in the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton for a couple of pints (a dangerous 6% porter in my case) — the Wenlock appears under a pseudonym in the novel so it was good research to go and check it out again. That’s my excuse.

Getting back to the mainline station was complicated by the Metropolitan line being out of service so I had to take a series of buses and, of course, arrived at Baker Street at the time when my train was pulling out five minutes walk away at Marylebone. So to kill a bit of time I wandered into the Metropolitan Bar (a huge Wetherspoons over Baker Street station) and almost literally bumped into Dave, someone I know very well from Aylesbury. Neither of us had an inkling we’d be in London on that day but we still walked into exactly the same place within a minute or two of each other — and I’d not been in the place for at least a year. We both had a quick drink and then got the next train back together.

However, I thought that this sort of chance meeting was exactly the type of event that, were it in a novel, would be mauled in a workshop discussion — being considered implausible or lazy on the part of the writer.

Of course, in this case, the odds of the co-incidence happening weren’t as high as if we’d bumped into each other in some quiet place elsewhere in London — it was in a place near the station we both knew — and in a busy pub at a transport interchange — and it was a Saturday afternoon when it was more likely we’d be making our way back but the timing was very strange as Dave was was the first person I saw when I walked through the door.

Novelists and dramatists are often condemned for using co-incidence in plots — the argument being that all action should be directly related to the effects of the characters of the protagonists on their environment. But co-incidences may actually be less accidental than they may otherwise appear to a reader — in my case it was more likely we’d meet in a pub than in a coffee shop, for example.

Also, it’s intrinsic to the appeal of almost all novels and dramas to the reader or audience that they concentrate on unusual events or stories that are atypical — that’s what makes them interesting. Quite often in writing workshops people will consider the ‘plausibility’ or motivations of a character’s behaviour — would that character in reality strike up a conversation with a stranger on the tube, for example? The answer may be no — 99% of the time that character would ignore eye contact and stare at the Poem on the Underground — but it’s the 1% of events where something different happens that makes an interesting story that people want to read.

‘The Angel’ has some co-incidences — it opens with one, of a sort. Someone questioned why so much happened on one day — would someone suddenly hang around with an artist all day when he’d been fired that morning. Well, perhaps most City types would either go home and lick their wounds or go out and buy a Ferrari with their redundancy. But I want to write about the one in several thousand who doesn’t do that — the one that interests me (and hopefully enough people to want to read beyond the novel’s first few pages).

Francine Prose in ‘Reading Like A Writer’ questions tacit assumptions that are often taken for granted: ‘as anyone who has ever attended a writing class knows, the bottom line of the fiction workshop is motivation. We complain, we criticise, we say that we don’t understand why this or that character does something. Like Method actors we ask: What is the motivation? Of course, this is based on the comforting supposition that things, in fiction as in life, are done for a reason.’

She uses Chekhov’s short stories and letters to contradict many of the supposed truths that are routinely deployed in creative writing teaching and literary criticism — including often, she says, those she has taught herself. She quotes Chekhov’s letters to argue that everything in fiction should not necessarily be explainable through deconstruction of motivation and cause-and-effect because the world’s not like that: ‘It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything…And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees — this, in itself, constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought and a great step forward.’

Francine Prose then elaborates the argument, saying that what she finds most unique about Chekhov is that his ability to reflect his characters rather than interpret or understand them allows him to write without judgement.

We had an example of what happens when characters are judged in our City group when someone wrote a very funny and realistic chapter that was predicated on a character unknowingly having had her drink spiked with drugs. When workshopped, a lot of debate centred on the morality of the other characters having done this to her — and how could we as readers forgive them for it?

I was in the minority in not thinking that the morality of the action wasn’t that relevant to the success of the incident as a piece of writing — while it’s a Bad Thing to spike someone’s drink, it does happen and between friends and those people quite often stay friends. Maybe that’s the exception but because it’s not the most likely, nor the most comfortable, course of action that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written about.

Fortunately, the author has kept the incident in the novel but addressed many people’s concerns by having a later section where the offending characters are taken to task over the irresponsibility of their behaviour.

Of course, by extension, fiction shouldn’t over-use chance situations or unpredictable characters because that too would be unrealistic but people behave oddly and irresponsibly and, as with co-incidences, it is more realistic to include the inexplicable in fiction than to exclude it on the basis that we can’t easily rationalise or understand it. And we tend to be more interested in the mysterious too.


One handy aspect of this blog from my own perspective is that I’ve gradually found many other blogs that I’ve linked to and taken RSS and Atom feeds from (see toolbar on the right). Some are those written by friends and others are some really useful sites written by editors, agents and authors.

I was reading a post of NaNoWriMo on How Publishing Really Works which had a link to a page on This Itch of Writing, novelist Emma Darwin’s blog, about revising and editing. The article starts off by discussing the semantics of what the words editing and revising actually mean but goes on to make some excellent points about the teaching of writing  — some which have similarly occurred to me.

Emma Darwin uses some railway and engineering metaphors to argue the logical point that writing a novel is such a huge undertaking that, even with careful planning, it’s usually inevitable that it does (or should) become evident while writing that there are structural issues (plot problems, characters that don’t work) which will need addressing. Rather than give up and start again, she recommends carrying on with a very rough first draft on the basis that, once at the end, it will be easier to address the structure of the novel as a whole.

Interestingly, this was the advice — plough on and finish a rough first draft — that we received from our tutors towards the end of the City Novel Writing course — and that many of us have realised in practice. However, it’s very difficult advice for students on courses to take for a couple of reasons — one internal and one external.

Most people who can write to a reasonable standard, but who haven’t had the experience of producing a work of about 100,000 words plus are probably instinctively unhappy in writing something that they know can be improved without going back to edit it fairly soon afterwards. There are some comments on appended to the post on This Itch of Writing that suggest writers go back and hone recently written prose because it’s a bit of a cop-out — that’s it’s easier than telling oneself it will be sorted out eventually as it’s more important to continue on with a roughly-written draft that will expose plot, setting, character and so on to greater scrutiny.

I think those comments are somewhat self-deprecating — that sort of close line-editing is actually quite hard to do well and very time-consuming in itself. I suspect that one reason why people do it is that they perhaps lack the confidence that they will ever return to re-write it — that the whole enterprise may be abandoned and, therefore, it might be better to produce a well-written chapter partly perhaps to demonstrate that one’s capable of it and maybe to be re-used in the distant future. Perhaps.

However, the external reason that applies to people on Creative Writing courses is all to do with how writing is taught.   Emma Darwin says in her post ‘I think it’s because so much writing-teaching focuses on the small scale. That’s partly because prose is easier stuff to read and write and teach on in class-sized chunks, than structure is…So writers embarking on their first novel are often quite aware of the micro-work it takes, but much less aware of the macro’. For example, on the City University course the  workshopping is structured into about six or seven opportunities to read 2,250 words — perhaps not uncoincidentally each about the length of the short stories that are assessed on the OU Creative Writing courses.

I wondered after finishing the course what difference it might have made to have given each writer a couple of slots of about 7,500 words each. I can see that practically it might make some students wait a long time for a workshop and also wouldn’t allow much opportunity to develop the work having received feedback but it would give an experience less like writing a short story — both to the writer but, also more importantly perhaps, to the other students offering feedback.

Someone called Sally Z posted a comment after the Itch of Writing post relating her experiences with a writing group. The members would always ask the ‘big’ questions when asking for criticism on a piece of writing (e.g. do these characters work?). But the sort of feedback that was offered tended to be detailed stuff about punctuation and on the over-use of adverbs. (The ritual slaughter of adverbs is a bête noir of mine that seems to be promoted by people who seem to over-evangelise some of Stephen King’s style advice in ‘On Writing’.)

Close attention to the text is certainly necessary before a novel is submitted to a publisher or agent but Emma Darwin argues that a writer who has polished up a section of a novel to publishable standard may be much more reluctant to subsequently make wholesale changes that may be necessary to improve the structure of the entire novel. However, if you participate in a writing course then it’s almost unavoidable that you will sweat hard to make your prose as good as possible as you won’t want your precious feedback to solely consist of other students pointing out passive sentences, repeated words, too many adverbs and similar textual elements. And it would also seem a bit perverse on any writing course to ask someone to circulate first draft work without worrying about typos and errors as other people will get distracted by them whatever — it’s a bit like walking down the street with your flies open.

However, if one does feel capable of creating reasonably good prose given the opportunity to edit later, what’s most important is to discover how the novel works as a whole — which is fairly tough when readers are exposed to small chapter-length chunks, especially if not in sequence, as I tend to have presented mine. I have a slightly perverse theory that if a 2,250 word extract of a novel works perfectly as a self-contained piece and doesn’t raise any questions of context with the rest of the novel then the writer isn’t really producing a novel — because a novel must necessarily have strands and elements that only make sense when read in its entirety.

Another unintended side-effect of over-examining the prose style is that writers may be tempted to concentrate on a sort of  literary ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ — it’s much easier to praise someone’s brilliant imagery or use of metaphor because examples can be cited from the text than it is to praise something more abstract — such as empathy with an emotion or resonance of setting. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some competition spurring people on to better writing but some genres are more suited to the sort of writing that’s easily praised than others.

For various practical reasons, it might be impossible to teach the more structural aspects of novel-writing in a course or to offer feedback in most writers group — mainly because of the investment in time required. What might be better is for novelists to learn from the examples from the canon of literature — this ties back into the much repeated recommendation that ‘writers have to be readers’ (more Stephen King advice like over adverbs that’s sensible in itself but not when mis-applied in extreme). I know one person from the City course who’s considering doing his next course not in creative writing but in English Literature — and this may be a very astute choice.

The Manchester Metropolitan University MA course has so far taken a similar path — we’ve been studying one novel a week from a brilliantly varied and idiosyncratic list but together by the tutor Dr Jenny Mayhew. When we’ve come to discuss the texts, rather than a loose ‘book-club’ type discussion, we’ve largely concentrated on the ‘big’ questions — like structure, character, narration, use of time and so on. The discussion on these points has the benefit of being able to examine finished, published works.

Personally I’ve done something of a mixture of the rough and (hopefully) more polished. I have quite a bit of rough draft that I’ve produced with the aim of ploughing on and just getting it done but, because of the workshopping and, also because I like to get feedback in other ways, I’ve gone back and spent a long time re-working certain sections for the benefit of other readers — partly with the objective of pleasing the adverb police and also a bit of vanity in fishing for compliments on phrases, metaphors or imagery — which is dangerous as it’s an encouragement to over-write.

As is mentioned in the original blog posts, there are two sorts of professional attitude required by successful novel writers — the discipline to plough ahead and get a first-draft finished and then the maturity to realise how much revision and re-drafting that draft needs before you even think about line-editing.

Does anyone else have any thoughts about how to address the ‘big’ issues in a novel while mired in the middle of writing it?

Noise Words

Over the summer I sent out a chapter of ‘The Angel’ to Guy to read, who’s a fellow (ex-)student from the City University course and always gives excellent, well-informed and comprehensive feedback.

One thing he pointed out, which was blindingly clear to me in retrospect, was what made that chapter look like an early draft as much as anything is that it was littered with what he termed ‘noise words’. These are words that tend don’t tend to do much work and clutter up the space needed by those that do. In my case particular offenders are words (or phrases) like: quite, slightly, only, good, just, a little, perhaps, maybe, well (as in the pause), something, like, might, think, thing, actually, rather and a few others that annoyingly I can’t think of off the top of my head.

(I’ve found now that the term ‘noise words’ is something that comes from database analysts as they like to remove these redundant words from things like database and web-searches.)

If I’m writing fast — such as e-mail or even blog postings — my own writing tends to be littered with these horrible words — they’re probably the written equivalent of saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’ as a pause to think (something I also do a lot). They probably make a piece of supposedly well-written prose look even more amateurish than other classic mistakes like boring verbs sexed up with extravagant adverbs and so on.

Unlike some other examples of bad writing practice these noise words are usually just that — noise — and can be often eliminated almost without any other compensating action — whereas it would be a lot more difficult to freshen up tired imagery, cliché, repetitive sentence structure and so on.

So for the last couple of extracts I’ve send out to be reviewed in our workshops of ex-City students, I’ve made myself sit down with a supposedly fairly finished draft and do repeated ‘Find’s in Word for the whole beastly family of noise words. I’m thinking of trying to freshen up my Word macro writing skills and create myself a little macro application that might hunt them all down in one go.

I would also like to have a macro that made words flash luminously when they were repeated fairly closely to each other — another blind spot of mine — although it would need to exclude ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘it’ and so on to avoid giving people migranes. (In my latest extract I’m paranoid about the number of times I keep using ‘her’ and ‘herself’ when narrating from a female POV — I’m not sure if that’s a problem if it’s impossible to avoid if you’re quite close to a character.)

Perhaps because I know I’m now going to try and make myself do this I’ve found disappointingly few of these noise words in my latest repeated searches through the document. That’s not to say there’s none there but a lot are in dialogue and, while I appreciate that dialogue doesn’t reflect everyday speech verbatim, I think that a few strategically placed ‘just’s and ‘slightly’s can give as much insight into a character as a whole screed of internalised self-analysis.

I do also think a few noise words typify British English writing over American writing whose dynamism comes from an intense conciseness where verbs work their US butts off and anything extraneously discursive is ruthlessly edited out. I had experience of this when studying screenwriting at the University of California, Santa Barbara where the tutor (a former Columbia and Warner Brothers executive and organiser of the Santa Barbara writers conference, Paul N. Lazarus Jr) used to tell me to take out half the words in my dialogue. But they’re English people who are talking, I’d say.

Hopefully, people at the weekend won’t have so many of these noise words to remove as perhaps I inflicted on Guy previously but I do think there is still room for a few. One of my favourite sentences from what I’ll read on Saturday has two of the dreaded things in succession. It’s a moment where Kim’s inner voice reveals her intense dislike of Dido’s music but, suddenly in the context of the moment, changes her mind and thinks the track is ‘actually quite beautiful’.

PS. Any further suggestions for noise words gratefully received. If I ever get round to doing a macro I’ll share it with anyone who comes up with good ones.

Character Names

It always seems to me to be more difficult to think of names for my characters than virtually any other of their attributes. If you look online for any inspiration there are a large number of baby naming websites which handle Christian names and a few that give historic frequencies of names given at birth.

However, I’d not come across much in the way of surnames until I did a Google search and came up with a brilliant site which is apparently part of a website for women called So Feminine.

Why it’s located there among articles about fashion and understanding your man, I can’t really explain. However it allows searching for individual surnames and gives an approximate breakdown for most surnames of geographical distribution around the country — I found that my surname is the most popular in Oxfordshire. (Odd as I thought it was most common in Nottinghamshire, although it’s not the overall accuracy that I’m interested in here as much as just a list of names.)

There are also lists of the most popular surnames — 8,500 of them in order should you wish to plough through them all.

While naming characters can offer possibilities of investment with some sort of allusion and meaning, this list perhaps throws up a few random bit of inspiration?

Strictly No Sex Please in the British Literary Novel?

After the Facebook campaign that led Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ to be involuntarily moved within bookshops to the war or crime sections, there’s much excitement that a passage from the book has been urged for short-listing in the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’.  (Technically it isn’t eligible as it’s not fiction, but the organisers may alter the rules to include it.)

This was mentioned in an article by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian’s book section yesterday in which she advanced the argument (and also voiced some opposing views) that the modern British novel now shies away from anything like explicit descriptions of sex. This probably applies to a certain more literary strata of novels as the article cited the Man Booker Shortlist — there’s plenty of racy action still to be found in other genres of novel, as I found when skimming through a Freya North sort-of-chick-lit book recently.

Andrew Motion was quoted, apparently semi-facetiously, as saying that perhaps authors were scared of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award and the Literary Review’s entry on Wikipedia lists many previous winners as stars of the literary firmament: Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer — and John Updike got a lifetime achievement award.

I wonder if all the people who would wish Tony Blair to join this company realise that the Bad Sex Award was invented by Auberon Waugh — whose conservative views were so detested by Polly Toynbee that she wrote a hostile article about Waugh three days after his death. (I would guess Waugh would also have detested the Blair government but for different reasons than most critics of ‘A Journey’.)

The article also had a very interesting Martin Amis quotation which, perhaps, sums up why many people (like me) find his technical ability to be sometimes quite spellbinding but are unmoved, or even repelled in some way, by the tone and attitude of his novels. He’s reported as saying at a literary festival ‘it’s “impossible” for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. “Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal,”‘ [he added later]'”It’s not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.’

I can see his argument — that he can write about sex in an ironically, pseudo-pornographic way because the formulaic narrative of most porn is something that is widely, perhaps not universally, recognised. But that seems to suggest a specific intent for a novel — that it exists to provide an ironic, maybe subversive, commentary on society’s mores or literature and other art forms themselves.

I think that’s a valid purpose for a novel, at least in part, but it appears to ignore one of the key differentiators about fiction as opposed to many other art forms. A novel is an entirely personal dialogue between an author and reader. It’s unlike more social forms of storytelling, like plays, films and television — which also provide visual and auditory representations. The personal nature of this dialogue also makes me query whether a public reading of a part of a novel can ever properly represent private, individual readings of a novel — apart from being influenced by irrelevancies like the reader’s public speaking skills, the audience reaction will influence one’s perception of the words and, unlike the private reading experience, one can’t pause to reflect, re-read a sentence and so on.

It seems the form’s ability to connect directly at a one-to-one level gives a novel’s author a unique opportunity to explore the personal rather than the universal. A novel can give its characters experiences that are beyond the knowledge of most, if not all, readers but by building connections between the personal and universal can create understanding and empathy for the most extraordinary characters and scenarios.

Therefore, because emotional experience is often the most personal and, often, least rational of human nature, I would think this is where the novel can explore in a way that is more intense and more insightful than other narrative forms. And there’s nothing that illuminates characters’  most inner emotions than their sexual motivations, attractions and behaviour.

The Guardian article suggests that it might not be the sniggering-behind-the-bike-sheds tone of the Bad Sex Award that’s preventing the literary authors from writing about sexual relationships but because it’s actually very hard to do. ‘But plenty of authors share the view that writing about sex is difficult, and presents particular challenges – and that sex that might be described as ordinary, or even enjoyable, is hardest of all.’  Hilary Mantel says ‘In good sex the individual personality kind of gets lost, people transcend themselves in a way. In bad sex people become hyper-aware of their bodies, the isolation of their bodies, of shame and humiliation.’

Of course, everything depends on the context but, if there’s a traditional ‘romantic’ narrative where two characters are attracted to each other and have a good and satisfying sexual experience I’d argue it’s as necessary to show this (principally as character development) as it would be to describe some sterile or comical failure — although the latter has more potential for dramatic conflict.

On how graphic a writer wants to make their depiction of sex, I think that all depends on the situation, the characters, the tone of the book (is it inclined towards metaphor and imagery), narrative viewpoint  (how would he/she/they/it view the scene?). I’m reminded of Graeme A. Thomson’s interpretation of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (see previous post) for how a male and female point-of-view might retell the same sexual experience.

In many cases novels probably work well enough to take the Hilary Mantel and Andrew Motion view that readers can do a bit of work and use their imagination — using hints and implications and ‘closing the bedroom door’. However, if interpreted as writing advice, it seems something of a cop-out. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can only be witnessed, by definition, behind the privacy of the bedroom door — characters may act in a completely different, surprising and uninhibited way. This might not always be relevant to the later narrative but it could be — many an otherwise odd coupling might be held together by what goes on in the bedroom and, conversely, it might doom ostensibly compatible pairings.

The biggest argument against writing explictly about sex is perhaps the range of language available. Colm Toibin is quoted in the article as saying: ‘If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader’s irony will come to the fore.’  So if similes and metaphors are out and you also exclude the sort of vocabulary that would remind you of a doctor’s surgery, you’re left with not many words left — and if you avoid the Anglo-Saxon then there’s even less.

Toibin praises Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ as the ‘perfect example. “There isn’t one single piece of language that describes anything other than what occurred.”‘ However, I know from discussing this book personally that it’s exactly that clinical tone to the prose that has made some readers detest that final section of the book — as it’s a story of sexual failure and miscommunication perhaps the language is appropriate but it’s not, in Hilary Mantel’s words, about people ‘transcending themselves’.

Oddly enough, while literary authors are (if you accept this article’s argument) backing away from the representation of sex and some concluding it’s perhaps impossible to do properly, BBC1 is now presenting an hour and a half of some of the most sexualised entertainment for Saturday tea-time viewing.

While the likes of Anne Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are about as asexual as one can imagine, some of the more accomplished dance partnerships move in a way that might cause some of the literary novelists to shy away — ‘he put his hand on her what?’ and so on. I’m no expert of the various dances but clearly many have highly eroticised Latin roots. Many of these dances, with their close physical contact and outfits that are more bare skin than material, are actually transcendent representations of people having the sort of good, enjoyable sex (with hints occasionally of some less wholesome variations) that Mantel and Motion believe is difficult for the novelist to represent.

I know a number of writers who enjoy dancing — either something like Tango or other types as well as getting into ‘Strictly’ — so I think there’s something quite deep-seated in this between dancing and uninhibited self-expression.  It’s also interesting that so few professionals on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ are British (less than a third, I think, with the rest being Italian, Australian, Russian, American and Eastern European’) — perhaps the Guardian article’s concerns are very specific to the British novelist — it does seem that one might learn more about genuine sexual attraction by watching Bruce Forsyth’s programme than reading the Man Booker shortlist.

Dein and Ihr Confusion

I had an e-mail from my ex-manager in Germany today. I sent him the first few chapters of ‘The Angel’ to read and he’s told me that he took them on holiday and he really enjoyed them. He’s a pretty fluent English speaker and, as is quite common now in Europe, the artefacts that he largely works with (meetings, presentations, documents) are all in English but there’s still a lot of German spoken between colleagues. The language often marks the boundary between work and social interaction, formality and informality.

So that’s really encouraging — a native German speaking endorsement of the start of the novel — so Kim must be plausible.

He’s also helped me with a bit of German translation. The bit of German at the end of the ‘Linguaphone’ posting wasn’t exactly wrong but it was confusing as it changed the familiarity of the ‘you’ mid-sentence — so it should be ‘Ihr Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber Sie sprechen’ or ‘Dein Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber du sprecht’. And I’ve been given a choice of two phrases for another line: ‘”Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” or may be better just “Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie deutsch?”‘

Totes Meer

I’m finding it quite tricky to write a section of ‘The Angel’ in which Kim is in transition between London and the rural countryside. Part of the reason is that she’s currently making a journey alone, which isn’t a great source of dramatic conflict, except if the conflict is played out within her own mind — and the ideas that I want her to grapple with are difficult to convey without becoming a pretentious candidate for pseuds corner in Private Eye.

I’m tempted to bin, or severely edit, what I’ve written but as I’ve ploughed on I discovered some very surprising connections that suggest that certain themes in the novel are coming from deep in my subconscious.

I have Kim standing at a viewpoint and being blown away (almost literally) by the view. This sets off a series of associations as she spots that the view towards a place called Wittenham Clumps is signposted. This is a series of hills near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and my friend Kathy finds it a beautiful, meditative place and has sent me photos. It has the mystical appearance of the many of the chain of ancient locations that lie on the northern slopes of the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs  — such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, the Uffington White Horse, Whiteleaf Cross, Beacon Hill (near Chequers) and Ivinghoe Beacon. Most of these are linked by the Ridgeway.

Wittenham Clumps was also a location frequently painted by Paul Nash — who is sometimes described as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He admired Wittenham Clumps in the same way he revered the standing stones of Avebury which he described as ‘wonderful and disquieting’. Nash’s paintings examine the English landscape in an intuitive, slightly surrealist way that conveys as much about the interior thoughts of the painter as much as the physical landscape. The effect was described by Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ as being ‘in a distinctive, painted world that is part William Blake, part JRR Tolkien and all England. Red suns rise over chalk hills, grey breakers hit coastal defences. The landscapes of Kent keep recurring, along with unfamiliar views of London…[Nash] paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to Dalì’s mythologising of Catalonia…his sensibility is as ­knotted as an English oak.’

The quotation above was from a review of an exhibition of Nash’s work in Dulwich earlier this year which was widely reported so I don’t think I really need to stretch artistic licence too much for Kim to have known about Nash and even attended the exhibition. What’s also striking is that, before I found that review, I’d written a description of what Kim sees in the landscape and alluded to both Middle Earth (Brill Hill can be seen from the same view, on which Tolkien based the village of Bree) and the ‘feet in ancient times’ from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

I knew that what was also notable about Paul Nash was that he was an artist in both the World Wars. However, I learned a lot more from watching a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about the art of the second world war. One of Nash’s most famous paintings is ‘The Battle of Britain’ and perhaps his best known work, which is owned by the Tate, but doesn’t appear to be on display, is ‘Totes Meer‘. This is German for ‘Dead Sea’ and is a depiction of a scrapyard near Cowley (also visible — and referred to frequently in ‘Burying Bad News’) full of fighter aircraft wreckage which he paints to look like a moonlit sea.

I’d enjoyed the David Dimbleby landscape art series ‘A Picture of Britain’ a few years ago and bought the accompanying book as it has some reproductions of some beautiful paintings. I liked the painting featured on the cover of the book so much that I bought a canvas print reproduction from the Tate — it’s called ‘The Cornfield’ and is a late afternoon view of an unmechanised harvest just after the first world war in the rolling Chilterns somewhere near Chalfont St.Giles. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study all the time I’ve been writing this novel. The artist is John Nash — who I didn’t realise was Paul Nash’s older brother.

The connections are almost spine-tingling: ‘The Cornfield’, Cowley, the Ridgeway, ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’, Blake, Tolkien — it’s no surprise I’ve ended up writing about a modern-day German artist marvelling at the history of the English landscape.

A Tense Debate

There’s an interesting post by Richard Lea on the Guardian books blog about Philip Pullman’s recently reported comments about the growing use of the present tense in novels — reflected by half the Man Booker shortlist being written in the present.

Pullman is reported to have said the use of present tense is becoming a cliché, adding ‘it’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy’. Hensher apparently said ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won’t do that for you…What was once a rare, interesting effect is starting to become utterly conventional….[The present tense] is everywhere in the English novel, like Japanese knotweed.’

The novelists on the City University course had a varied approach to tenses and there was considerable experimentation by some people about whether past or present suited their novels. There were some examples of using both tenses — for example, present for the main story and past to denote flashbacks. The present tense certainly gives immediacy to a piece of writing — the Guardian blog suggests that its increased use might reflect our 24-hour news culture and the cultural impact of immediate informational gratification via the internet. Perhaps. The present tense seemed to work very effectively for two or three people when reading their pieces at our end of course event. (Another piece that made a big impression on agents avoided the simple past tense and used the past perfect, past continuous and past conditional.)

I doubt whether the present tense is as prevalent as reported, although the more ‘literary’ the aspirations of the writer, perhaps the more likely they are to experiment — maybe in a few years the past tense will be the daring, radical choice? As might be inferred from the example above, the past tense offers a writer far more variations in its use — although one of the missions of creative writing courses seems be to make to make the passivity of the past continuous tense almost as endangered as the adverb (and using less of both is usually the best policy). Good use of the present tense requires skill on the part of the writer. I was at a Q&A with a commissioning editor (of genre fiction) when she was asked what mistakes writers should avoid — ‘First person present’ she said as she received a lot of it and it was, in her opinion, almost impossible to pull off.

I’ve experimented with writing pieces in the present tense and enjoyed the effect — and I’ve also had my work re-written by someone else in the present tense and thought that had improved it. However, I’m quite happy to write my novel in the past tense, even if it reduces my chances of winning the Man Booker!

Churning Through the Mud

Autumn seems to have crept upon us — it’s grey, drizzly and windy outside — and I’m facing the realisation  that I’ve not written half as much as I hoped over the summer. I made some amends last week by bashing out about 15,000 words. I deliberately just sat down and wrote and didn’t go back and revise anything methodically — and I know some of it is very bad.

I’ve developed a pattern of writing a first draft, printing it out and making corrections on the paper (they seem easier to spot), then printing it again and reading the whole piece out loud (not just the dialogue). After that process I’m usually reasonably happy with it but if I give it someone else to read I then tend to identify a whole slew of other mistakes. I guess this is the basis of the ‘put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks (or months) before looking at it again’ school of advice. This is all very time consuming — but necessary.

I found some sections quite easy and enjoyable to write and I’m still struggling on others. In fact, I may try writing some poetry to describe some of the natural features of the Chiltern landscape I’ve been trying to portray and then cannibalise it.

One good thing about grinding out the words is that I can suddenly take off in unexpected directions and I’ve come up with more ideas for plot and character later in the novel than if I’d just considered them in my head. But that also has the disadvantage of bringing in diversions and new directions in the material I’d originally intended to write.

So while it’s gratifying to have 15,000 more words (probably a sixth of a novel) more than I had ten days ago, I’m also a little exasperated that it’s going to need maybe twice or three times as much time again to revise and that, as with my opening chapters, not a lot seems to have happened in a large number of words. However, my intention was in this section to deliberately slow the pace almost to the point where the reader becomes impatient for fireworks to start exploding and I’ve tried to weave a lot of plot background and backstory into these sections.

Overall I think what I’ve written is good and that I definitely believe in it — and I often surprise myself at how much the novel reflects me personally — which shows that at a deep psychological level I’m probably impelled on an irreversible course to write this. However, I’m probably both a bit of a ‘needy’ writer and one who tends to write for an audience rather than just please myself so that’s why it’s a good thing that in less than four weeks I’ll be workshopping some of this material with the majority of the City novel-writing group. We’re meeting monthly on an extra-curricular basis.

Penny Rudge, when she visited the course, said that virtually every chapter of ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ had been through a post-course workshopping process with her peers. I tend to want to make use of peer feedback to a similar extent – while I could plough on independently  it will be fascinating to meet up with everyone to see how people are getting on.

As mentioned in a previous post we have at least one person whose work on the course has led to being signed by an agent and I know that a few people sent work out to agents after the reading, although I know of only the person who’s actually finished the novel — and he’s now redrafting. In my case it would probably instill some discipline by having an agent’s validation, encouragement and deadline setting. Yet agents can only make active progress when they have a full novel manuscript to work with and I don’t have anything yet in a shape I’d be happy to send out. The way I write means it’s not going to be a quick process for me to get the material into the shape that most advice tends to emphasise before one’s work goes near an agent or publisher – for it to be ‘the best it can possibly be’.  My tendency, mentioned above, to branch off tangentially in a random or arbitrary direction as I’ve been writing is sometimes good and serendipitous but means everything will need to be looked at again i.e. once I get to the end of the novel then I’ll want to make some significant changes to the start.

As an example, I had some very useful feedback from Guy and Charlotte on the course to chapters six and seven and, even though I’d spent a lot of time writing the chapters, Guy pointed out lots of ‘noise words’ like ‘just’, ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘a little’ and so on that seem to become invisible on the page if you’ve stared at it too long in one session.

I also posted a reference to a recently written part of the novel a fellow student’s wall on Facebook and the brief exchange of comments that followed opened up a new aspect to Kim and James’ long, drawn-out first day that I’d failed to explore. That accounted for the rather meagre 300 words I managed on holiday.

There will also be a need to maintain consistency, particularly in dialogue. As mentioned in previous postings, Kim will be fluent in English but will perhaps have some transatlantic turns of phrase plus perhaps a tendency to construct sentences grammatically as they would be in German.  I think I’ve largely achieved this as I’ve gone along and she speaks little phrases in her first language from time to time. I’ve been dropping these in with increasing frequency making use of my limited German.  Kim’s English is described by another character (I’m told that this is grammatically correct, which surprised me): ‘Dein Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber Sie sprechen mit einem leichten deutschen Akzent – sehr Hochdeutsche.’

Any suggestions?