Paris Mon Amour — A Review

Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents  e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review. 

First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).

As well as an enthralling plot, I loved  the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.

Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.

As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British,  American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.

The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.

Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.

Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.

Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.

Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.

For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.

Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.

What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .

As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.

Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.

Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations

Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.

(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)

There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.

As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.

While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.

Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.

While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.

While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.

At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.

I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.

The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category. 

One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.

Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.

Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.

A Stop on the Blog Hop (or a Quick Introduction to My Novel)

I’d like to say thank you very much to Lisa Goll for inviting me to take part in this ‘blog hop’. Lisa is organiser of the extremely successful London Writers Café Meetup Group — her entry on this Blog Hop was published last Monday.

I’ll answer the three vital Blog Hop questions below but, as an aside,  I’d recommend anyone in the London area who’s interested in writing to go along to one of the London Writers’ Café events — I’ve been to some great agent and author talks and also to the convivial Christmas party at the BFI on the Southbank.

The answers below are about my ‘just-about-to-be-almost-finished’ novel The Angel but, for a short taster of my writing, I’d invite anyone who’s interested to read the previous post on this blog — that’s directly below this one. It tells how one of my short stories was read at an event last week by the amazing Liars League London. Or just check out the Liars’ League website directly (after reading my answers, of course) where the text of the story can be found, along with a video of a great performance by actor Sarah Feathers. There’s another story of mine in the March section too.

1. When and where is the story set?

My novel is set in the recent past in the aftermath of the credit crunch. In retrospect, I think this will be a fascinating time for people to reflect back on — a time where economic ‘certainties’ evaporated and many people’s lives were thrown into turmoil unimaginable a short time earlier.

Where is it set? In the pub!

The Angel is an idyllic village pub that gives the novel its title. Although plenty of boozy action happens in and around the pub but there’s actually much more to the novel’s setting. There are two principal locations:  the early action mainly happens in Shoreditch and the City of London, then the story moves to the bucolic Chiltern village where The Angel stands next to the green. While it’s less than forty miles from Shoreditch, the many contrasts between the two locations echo the conflict between the main characters which brings me to…

2. What can you say about the main characters?

…James, Kim and Emma.

I could talk all day about my main characters (and the minor ones) — in fact sometimes I feel like I’ve been talking all day to the characters. I’ve become so involved with them while developing the novel that they seem like old friends. I occasionally see people in public and think ‘Yes, the way her hair is cut is just like Kim or she stands exactly like Emma would’.

With an Oxford degree, well-paid City job, beautiful wife and enviable house in the country, James ought to feel like life’s served him up a banquet. But, a fanatical home cook, he nurtures a frustrated ambition to set up his own restaurant and hopes his appearance on a TV cooking show contest will kick-start his gastro-career.

Kim is a German abstract artist with a studio in Shoreditch and an unscrupulous art-dealer boyfriend who’s manipulated her into a few dodgy commissions that she might come to regret. She abuses her body, is steeped in debt but determined to succeed as an artist — publicising her work by climbing East End buildings to painting street art.

Emma, James’s wife, is a senior human resources manager for one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets and is extremely ambitious and aspires to the lifestyle of a director of a FTSE-100 company, with all its luxurious trappings. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly — and this often includes James.

3. What is the main conflict?

At its heart, The Angel is a romance and the principal conflict occurs when James buys one of Kim’s paintings and becomes intrigued by her — she represents everything he feels he’s constrained from becoming himself. And although she’s far from conventionally beautiful — she’s studded with piercings and wears fetish gear — he finds himself unaccountably attracted to her. How prepared is he to risk his marriage to Emma to get close to this quirky artist?

There’s plenty of psychological conflict within each character too — James is struggling to assert his own ambitions against the expectations of others, Kim is fighting to keep faith in her destiny as an artist, despite continual setbacks. Emma is coming to the realisation that her husband may not share her dreams.

The novel also highlights the conflicts between a life in the City, über-hipster, post-industrial Shoreditch and the timeless villages of rural England — between the traditional British identity and the cool perspective of modern Europeans.

So there’s a whistlestop tour of the background to my novel and its main characters. There’s plenty more about The Angel and how it’s evolved if you dip into the blog.

So who’s next on the Blog Hop? The three people who’ve kindly accepted to take the baton from me in this blog tour are all ex-coursemates from my Manchester Metropolitan University MA in Creative Writing — and three marvellous and very different writers and their work kept me gripped throughout the course. They will be publishing their answers to the three big questions on their own blogs on 26th May (see below for details).

Matt Cresswell

Matt Cresswell is a writer and editor from Manchester. His fiction has appeared in Icarus, Southpaw, PIYE, Iris, Hearing Voices and Shenanigans (Obverse). He is the co-creator of End of the Rainbow webcomic, with the omnibus due out from Lethe Press any day now and the editor of Glitterwolf Magazine, a literary and arts magazine showcasing lgbt contributors.

His blog is at

Kerry Hadley

Kerry Hadley is author of an anthology of short fiction called Fifty-One Ways to Leave your Lover,which available from Amazon. All proceeds from its sale go to the charity Platform 51, which helps girls and women in challenging circumstances. Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing and her novel will, hopefully, be published by spring next year.

Kerry’s blog can be found at:

Anne Jensen

Anne Jensen was born in Denmark – she moved to England in 1995. Having recently completed an MA in Creative Writing, she is now currently working on her second novel, House of Scars. She lives and writes in Salisbury.

Anne’s blog can be found via:

The Liars’ League Experience

My short story Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? was selected as a winner for this month’s Liars’ League London event (see previous post for an account of its selection and the rehearsal).

It was performed last Tuesday evening by Alex Woodhall and, as the Liars video all the stories, the reading is now available on Youtube (along with the other four excellent stories by Ursula DeweyKassalina BotoPhilip Suggars and Eleanore Etienne (co-incidentally a fellow graduate of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing — now the Novel Studio).

The video is embedded below. It lasts just over fifteen minutes.

The transcript of the story is now also on the Liars’ League website — minus a one or two slight tweaks made at the rehearsal for the performed version.

My story was the last on the bill, which meant me enduring an evening of nervous anticipation, although this was eased a little by my consumption of more than a couple of drinks on the house. I made such good use of this unexpected author benefit that I turned up at Marylebone station suddenly realising I’d lost an hour somewhere (chatting to the actors, other writers and organisers I think) so had to get the slow, stopping train and didn’t get home until nearly 1 am. The next day I felt like one of my characters the morning after the story’s night before.

I was very grateful for the company of several friends who came along to support me, including Rachel and Bren Gosling from the City course, my writer friend Fay and Sabina, the street art guru (see previous posts). There were a couple more people from the City course who were intending to come but who were beset by last-minute hold-ups.

It was a fantastic evening — the downstairs bar at the Phoenix was packed-out. I reckon there were well over a hundred people.  I needn’t have fretted about the reception for my story — Alex read with such verve and superb comic timing that the audience’s attention seemed to be seized for the whole fifteen minutes it took to reach its climax — and with plenty of laughs heard along the way (thankfully I didn’t imagine them — they’re on the video).

I was flattered afterwards to receive some enthusiastic compliments about the story, not only from friends (Bren wrote me a wonderfully congratulatory email) but also from some encouraging comments made via Twitter and Facebook. And the story’s characters appeared to have been vivid enough to pass the crucial ‘what happened next?’ test. I bumped into one of the other authors on the tube on the way back and she asked me ‘Did they go on to have sex? I think they did.’ If you want to see if you agree with her then listen to the story — I’d be very interested in blog readers’ opinions.

Having a winning story for the Liars League would be great news at any time but it was particularly welcome for me at present — a couple of months after the much-anticipated results of the MA novel dissertation — when I’m still wrestling with a few changes to the end of the novel prompted by the feedback. It’s also been five months since the MA draft of the novel was handed in — so it’s been brilliant to had have this event to give real impetus to my writing.

I can also draw some motivation because, while it’s a self-contained work, Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line? perhaps unsurprisingly shares similarities with the novel: genre, setting, brand of humour. While the narrative perspective is different –it’s first-person, present tense — the dynamics between the characters are reminiscent of some scenes in the novel — the tensions and awkwardness of trying to guess the intentions of others whom one cares about — or wants to. That the story was picked as a winner and enjoyed apparently positive reaction of the audience encourages me to think there’s a market for more — at least a novel’s worth I hope.

Besides the thrill of hearing my words read expertly by a professional, the Liars League experience also allowed me to get some insight into my writing from a refreshing and almost unique perspective. One of the great mysteries of the writing process is that all readers interpret fiction in their own personal way — a skilled author employs words economically enough to communicate the essence of the story’s action while prompting the reader’s imagination to invoke scenery and background.

It’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act: too little exposition and the reader will fail to grasp vital elements of the narrative; too much detail and the pace will falter and the reader will be swamped and bored — and in a short story there are far fewer words than a novel to play with.

Working with the Liars League actor and editors, and also sitting in the audience and observing the reaction of people hearing the story for the first time, provided valuable insights into what worked in my story and what didn’t — and also how the Liars had imagined the action, setting and characters. While the event is a reading, the actors can dress to some degreein costume  and their delivery, spoken and non-verbal, projects their own interpretation of character, particularly for first person narratives. 

It is, therefore, rather the opposite of the sort of forensic collective copy-edit of prose that risk bogging down Creative Writing workshopping sessions (‘I’m really not convinced by that comma). Nor, because the story has won through the selection procedures, will it be the kind of creative writing workshopping experience when, for the best of intentions, workshoppers’ suggestions extend a little past the scope of a structural edit: it would be great if turned your shy, sensitive artist character into a grizzled Scottish trawlerman possessed by an alien or why not relocate your novel from a Deptford loft apartment to a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre? ‘It’ll up the conflict and sense of place’.

Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in a workshop the written text can be seen as something malleable and interactive — when it’s read out loud as a story it seems much more fixed psychologically.  

Often writers are asked to read out their own prose in Creative Writing workshops before it is discussed — this was the way the City University Certificate worked, although I don’t know how the Novel Studio handles it. This has its merits — certainly reading out loud exposes clumsiness in phrasing and the rhythm of the prose that often lies undetected when read silently on the page — I always read drafts of my novel out loud for that reason. Reading a piece in a class also ensures that any less conscientious students, who’ve not prepared properly, will know what’s goingabout to be discussed.

Nevertheless, a writer who has an aptitude for reading out loud will always breathe extra life into prose whereas a hesitant, self-conscious monotone will muffle the merits of the word on the page (most writers I know tend slightly towards the latter). Also, a writer will always know his or her own intentions — where to place the emphasis, what type of voice or accent to use for a character or narrator — even if this isn’t evident on the page and, consequently, not communicated to a reader of the written word.

If a piece is to be read out loud in a Creative Writing workshop, I prefer it to be read by another student. This lets the writer hear the words spoken by a reader new to the work and takes away any direction that’s not explicit from the text itself. It gives an insight into how an ordinary reader might encounter the writing on the page.

That’s why Liars League was so illuminating. From my experience at the rehearsal (see previous post) Katy Darby and Liam Hogan, the editors, had clearly made a connection with the voice in the narrative and cast Alex in the part accordingly. It was very satisfying to me, as the writer, that they’d also picked up the subtle dynamics between the three principal characters, even when this was only hinted at with a line or two in the story.  The changes they suggested to the text served to increase clarity and remove ambiguity.

Alex also made contributions of the type a reader might unconsciously add to the text. He’d decided the character Anja was Icelandic — which I thought was a great — there’s nothing in the text to suggest any nationality beyond her name and the rhythm of her speech. He also used some great comic timing to emphasise lines that I’d hoped might raise some amusement if read as I’d intended by an ordinary reader but, when spoken to an audience, raised a proper laugh — the ‘distressed [BEAT] brick’ being a great example.

(One of the advantages of writing plays or screenplays is the ability to add in [BEAT]s or other direction that’s not seen by the audience.)

Despite having written the words, it was a process of discovery for me to see how the story came alive in the minds of other people. The imaginary world of the story as viewed through the lens of Alex’s performance was different to what I’d envisaged while writing it — but that’s the magical property of fiction — everyone has their own interpretation. 

So while it was an honour and a great pleasure to have my story selected and read by the Liars’ League, I also learned a surprising amount from the experience about my writing, how it’s interpreted by other people and how I can improve it. And it’s for that reason, as well as being a great literary night out in the pub, that I’d wholeheartedly recommend other writers submit their short stories to the Liars — either for truth or dare.

Anne Tyler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Along with 850 other fans, I was lucky enough to have a ticket to this morning’s Oxford Literary Festival interview with Anne Tyler at the Sheldonian Theatre.

It was an absorbing event – the first public appearance of its type, I believe, that Anne Tyler has ever done.  Before this year she hadn’t done an interview in the last forty. As she is a Pulitzer Prize winner with 19 novels published, this lived up to its billing as a unique event. There were apparently many writers amongst the audience, including, apparently, Nick Hornby, who was being quoted on Twitter as saying the interview was the best literary event he’d ever witnessed.

I didn’t take any notes down and, not having read as many of her novels as many in the audience, some of the discussions on individual novels only served to whet my interest for future reading (I was recommended to read Anne Tyler’s work by Emily on the City University course who said that I might learn a lot from her novels because of the style of my own writing). However, there was still a huge amount of detail about how this outstanding novelist practices her craft. The whole interview is apparently available in the public domain on the Sunday Times website for download but I found the points below of particular interest if I remember correctly.

For someone who’s gained a reputation as a recluse, Anne Tyler was a remarkably engaging interviewee – attentive, humorous, concise and self-deprecating in her answers, which, through being delivered free from any famous author egotism, gave a fascinating insight into the way she crafts her work.

Work was a word Anne Tyler returned to frequently. When asked about how she began a novel, she didn’t talk about waiting for any precious bolt of inspiration. In fact, starting a novel was something she didn’t enjoy, saying she much preferred to be in the middle of writing a novel – drafting and revising – because that was when she felt busy and productive.

The process of writing a novel started with sitting down for a month or so with a blank sheet of paper and looking through a store of index cards she keeps with ideas for the genesis of stories or characters, often based on real-life events. Some of her cards are over 30 years old but still may end up in the latest novel.

After a month or so she often experiences a moment of revelation when a character’s voice suddenly enters her head — and that’s the point when she guesses her subconscious has absorbed the prompts and has started to create an organic, dynamic novel. She then writes longhand drafts before entering it all into a computer. She then prints off the hard copy and rewrites it – then dictates the revised draft into a recorder and then uses a transcriber’s pedal to play the spoken draft back while she updates the draft on the computer.

She described this process as having started accidentally but she recommended the speaking aloud part of the process as being particularly important – especially for dialogue – which may explain why the dialogue in her novels is so good. (Or, more likely, an innate ear for dialogue probably demands that speaking aloud forms this vital part of the writing process.)

By the time she starts writing the drafts, she said she has the characters and the plot planned (although she claimed that she ‘doesn’t do plot’ and that time passing is often a plotting device in itself and may be the only momentum necessary in her novels of family and relationships).  She did say she starts out writing always knowing the ending of the novel ‘and about fifty per cent of the time it turns out I’m right.’

With such a meticulous approach to creating the final draft, it wasn’t surprising that Anne Tyler’s editor (who’s worked on all 19 books before retiring with the latest one) is not an interventionist type. She described her initial reaction to an editor’s change as one of ‘what the hell does she know about it?’ but then came round to usually seeing the merit in her suggestions – for example for extra exposition.

One aspect where Anne Tyler said she was most often over-ruled was titles – many of her favourite working titles have been changed by the editor or publisher. This surprised the audience because her novels’ titles are often intriguing and paradoxical – e.g. The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons.

Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer, who was the interviewer, drew attention to her extraordinary attention to detail and said that he didn’t know of another writer who illustrated character and emotion by detailed reference to gestures and objects. She replied that she thought that was a reflection of how she saw the world herself – noticing the detail while sometimes missing out on the more general picture.

This may be a modest way of answering but this eye for the specific, allied to an ability to pick precisely the right diction, elevates her prose above the danger of providing too much detail (or ‘clutter’ as one of my creative writing tutors described this style when it may not be expertly executed).

I was reading Breathing Lessons before going to the event and I was in awe of some of the language of detail she used. Referring to the detritus in the back of a car she writes ‘The floor was cobbled with cloudy plastic lids from soft drink cups’ and that Maggie ‘carried a fistful of lids around to the rear of the house and dropped them in a crumpled garbage can. The cover was only a token cover, a battered metal beret that she replaced crookedly on top.’ The verb ‘cobbled’ is so unexpected and apt and its contrast with ‘cloudy’ is brilliant and the image of the metal beret is simultaneously obvious and extraordinary. And I’m glad that a writer of her calibre is not afraid to use an adverb like ‘crookedly’ so brazenly.

Such rich diction using adjectives and adverbs that enhance already strong verbs and nouns reminds me of Nabokov – and it was interesting to find out that Anne Tyler majored in Russian at university and cites Russian literature as a big influence.

Her precision with language may explain one answer that I thought might be controversial. Her novels are written very successfully in both first and third person and she was asked if she preferred either style. She replied that she always started off novels in the third person and that she thought ‘first person was a bit of a cheat’. I can’t remember whether she justified this comment as she then went on to talk about when it became technically necessary to convert a narrative into the first person – when a closeness to a character becomes an over-riding factor.

However, I feel I understand exactly what she means. A third person narrator is closer to being an authorial construct and, perhaps, is more accountable to the reader. A first person narrative can be viewed as a kind of extended monologue — any imperfection, unreliability or idiosyncrasy in that voice can always be explained and excused away as being part of the fiction (e.g. when analysed in creative writing workshops). It’s the question of whether an effect was intentional or not – and I have the impression that Anne Tyler is such a meticulous writer that she’d ideally like to demarcate the characters voices with dialogue and develop a more flexible, independent narrator. But, as she said, it all depends on context – first person is sometimes the only way to tell the story.

There were a huge number of questions from the audience and the event stretched on way past its billed hour duration. Many people prefaced their questions with profuse thanks to the author for having written something that had had a profound effect on their own lives – and sounded very sincere, perhaps not surprising bearing in mind Anne Tyler’s subject matter, which includes families, relationships, bereavement, ageing, etc.

One question I found particularly interesting was asked by a man (the female-male ratio in the audience and with the questions was about 4 or 5 to 1). He asked Anne Tyler how she created such plausible male characters – successfully articulating a man’s perspective on the world.  Her answer was commendably straightforward in saying that she’d been fortunate to get to know many men who’d been ‘fixed’ (I think that was the word) in her life (such as father, husband, other family members). (Her attitude to men in that answer reminded me of Graeme A. Thomson’s description of Kate Bush’s.) She added that, in her opinion, men had less freedom than women emotionally and, when writing male characters, she had to be more indirect, substituting a gesture or oblique comment for expressions of feeling.

There were a couple of encouraging comments for new novelists. One was that her first published novel had to do the rounds before it found a publisher. The other was that she said she particularly looked out for novels by new writers – believing that the standard of first novels nowadays was much higher than when she started writing – bearing out the reality that writers now appear to have less time to grow into their career (that last part is not so good, I suppose).

And maybe the surprise of the day was it turned out that Anne Tyler is a huge fan of the TV series ‘The Wire’ – the epitome of urban realism. Maybe that’s not quite as big a surprise considering it’s set in Baltimore and that the series is lauded for its taut, lean writing – both qualities shared by her novels (although there are some set elsewhere).

Apart from the great writing and emotional depth, Anne Tyler’s writing is suffused with subtle humour and parts of my own experience at the event were almost like something out of a novel. I was one of the first into the Sheldonian Theatre and sat with an eccentric woman who started off having a blazing row with the ushers about where they’d let us sit (although she made a big point of apologising to them later on) and then she mumbled comments through the event. Also, the first ‘question’ must have lasted several minutes during which we had the irony of hundreds of fans sat waiting for the first utterances from one of the greatest living novelists while all she could do was nod her head in agreement. Fortunately, as the session extended beyond its scheduled end time, there were plenty of fascinating answers once she started speaking.

A Dickens of a Pub Crawl

As anyone who’d watched TV or picked up a newspaper since Christmas will know, 2012 is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of arguably Britain’s greatest novelist. If you’re a person with more modern tastes in literature you may believe that the quality of his actual writing is less laudable (he uses plenty of adverbs and adjectives, omniscient narrators and other contemporary sins), you’d still have to concede the lasting influence of Dickens on British society and culture.

I would be interesting to see how a modern-day Dickens fared in a creative writing workshop. As Armando Ianucci argued in his recent BBC programme celebrating Dickens, it’s the writer’s gift for creating memorable characters, evoking setting, raging against social injustice and, above all, as a humorist that make his works so memorable — and so widely adapted into other media. Character, setting, theme and the ability to give a reader the sheer enjoyment of reading are vital ingredients of a successful novel but are very difficult to teach on creative writing courses that necessarily focus on analysing shorter passages.

I bought Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature for my recent MA essay on The Rules of Creative Writing and Nabokov uses a lecture on Bleak House to examine Dickens’s techniques in detail. Nabokov identifies thirteen different different attributes of the style of Dickens’s language — including repetition, evocative names, plays on words, oblique description of speech, epithets and something called the Carlylean Apostrophic Manner.

Nabokov criticises Dickens’s storytelling ability but still rates his as a great writer, as well as a particularly enjoyable one to read. Bearing in mind the extended form of the novel Nabokov says ‘Control over a constellation of characters and themes, the technique of holding people and events bunched together, or of evoking absent characters through dialogue — in other words, the art of not only creating people but keeping created people alive within the reader’s mind throughout a long novel — this, of course, is the obvious sign of greatness.’

This last point is so obvious it often seems to be omitted from a list of techniques required by novel writers — ‘the art…of creating people [and] keeping [them] alive’ — all other novelists techniques are really subordinate this aim.

Dickens’s actual birth date is the 7th February, next Tuesday, but I’m paying tribute to the great man in a way that he would surely approve of — by organising a pub crawl around some of the drinking establishments that he visited himself and featured in his novels. So tomorrow (as I write it — Friday 3rd February for clarification) I will be leading a party in literary homage visiting the following places at approximately the following times:

6pm Cittie of York, 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BS (Chancery Lane Tube) – The Cittie of York is on the site of Gray’s Inn Coffee House, mentioned in both David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge.

6.45pm Knight’s Templar, 95 Chancery Lane, WC1A 2DT — not much of a Dickens association apart from being in the middle of Chancery Lane — so bang in legal London — it’s a Wetherspoon conversion of what was apparently the Union Bank.

7.30pm Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,  145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU — the current building dating to a rebuild in 1667, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese was one of Charles Dickens’s favourite pubs, along with many other famous authors. It is likely the inspiration for a pub on Fleet Street mentioned in The Tale of Two Cities.

8.15pm Ye Old Mitre, 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ — Dickens was known to drink in the historic and secluded Old Mitre — a pub that has so much bizarre history (its licence used to be granted in Cambridgeshire until the 1950s) it could fill its own guidebook.

9pm Craft Beer Company, 82 Leather Lane, EC1N 7TR — close to Bleeding Heart Yard (in Little Dorrit*) but it’s the best new beer pub in London (*anyone know which flower’s most well-know variety is named after this novel?)

9.45pm The One Tun, 125-6 Saffron Hill, EC1N 8QS – The One Tun is believed to have inspired Oliver Twist. The Three Cripples fictional public house was located next door to the One Tun and a real-life Fagin lived nearby. Dickens drank in the pub from 1833-1838.

If you’re in any of those pubs on Friday 3rd February then come and say hello — although it might need to be a virtual one via the blog. If I say you’ll be able to spot me as I’ll be semi half-cut (a tautology I used in work submitted on my MA course) with a group of around half-a-dozen males looking desperate for the next ale then it won’t be much use as half the pub will answer that description.

Some of the historical information was gathered from Time Out’s recent Dickens edition and some from the interesting Digital Dickens site.

Anyone familiar with London will notice that this subset of pubs with Dickens associations is in the Holborn-Fleet Street- Farringdon-Clerkenwell area — not a particularly touristy part of the city even now — and one that changed a greatly in the nineteenth century with, among other developments, the culverting of the River Fleet in the Farringdon area in conjunction with the construction of the Metropolitan Railway — the world’s first underground.  (Crossrail now means the Farringdon area is being dug up all over again.)

Even so, the area north of Hatton Garden around Gray’s Inn Road and Mount Pleasant and stretching towards King’s Cross retains a more raffish atmosphere than most parts of London — this was the territory of Bill Sykes and his presence still seems to permeate the area. Perhaps it’s the geography of the area — much more vertical separation than most of London with a roads on different levels and a few steep streets?

I’m attracted to exploring these lesser known parts of London and the characters in my novel will make a journey on the other side of the Fleet valley (the contours of a river valley are very noticeable, particularly where Clerkenwell Road crosses the Metropolitan Line near Farringdon station) from Shoreditch to Bankside via Hoxton, Finsbury, Clerkenwell, St.Paul’s and Blackfriars — not the areas you normally find on the open-topped bus routes.

Infinite Universes

I watched an edition of Horizon on BBC2 a few weeks ago which attempted to discuss the utterly bizarre nature of what we perceive as reality once it’s considered by physicists — quantum, astro- and various other varieties. (It’s available to view again on iPlayer until 15th March.)

Many people are familiar with the ‘unreal’ concept that, under quantum theory, a particle can be in two places at once and can cease to exist and then re-appear and all kinds of weird behaviour that seems to be the exact opposite of what people like me, with an ‘O’ level in it, understand about physics.

I was reminded of this programme when I saw this page of writing ‘top-tips’ retweeted by Emma Darwin (whose ‘Itch of Writing’ blog is linked to on the sidebar). It’s by Irish author Joseph O’Connor and seems to be aimed at an Irish audience (but, of course, many of the finest writers of English come from that country) and is on Blake Friedmann’s website (the Blake being well-known Twitterer Carole Blake).

The tips are all very sensible. I thought the last one — about knowing who you’re writing for — was very useful for new writers as the ‘democracy of the creative writing workshop’ (or some may say tyranny) sometimes gives the impression that it’s possible for a writer to connect with every reader — or at least the dozen or so strong opinions who tend to be on these courses. People have different tastes and if a writer removes everything that doesn’t get a positive reaction from every person in a workshop then he or she is likely to produce something so bland that no-one will love it. Workshops are great for getting feedback on technical writing issues from most participants but it’s not likely that more than a handful of participants will really get excited by each writers’ work — no matter how outstanding the quality. So O’Connor is right to advise people to write for a specific reader or small number of readers.

The point that most resonated with me, however, is the start of tip number five — ‘Make Something Happen’. If his first two sentences are concatenated as ‘Stories are…records of the exceptional’ then it perfectly sums up a point that I think is lost in the workshopping culture. It also reminds me, returning to the Horizon programme about the bizarre but apparently perfectly plausible, infinite universes theory.

This suggests that, despite its unimaginable vastness, our universe is only one of a massive number (infinite in theory) of co-existing universes where, because of their infinite number any variant of any event that we might think of has actually occurred in some parallel universe.

It sounds odd but an example from my novel might illustrate it: take as a starting point the one day James gets fired. Every event subsequent to his firing over which he makes a decision or is affected by the actions of other people or things may ‘split off’ into its own parallel universe. So in one universe he might get the train home immediately, in another he might head to the pub with his mates and in another he might decide to go and buy the painting from the artist he met the night before. The first two scenarios are much more likely but if I wrote about events in the parallel universe where that version of James now exists then it would be less interesting than following the universe in which James strikes up with Kim.

The same goes for all plot events — there are often many choices a novelist and his or her characters make but, in general, the most interesting stories are those which follow the parallel universes of the unusual choices — or in Joseph O’Connor’s words ‘records of the exceptional’.

Of course there needs to be a degree of plausibility and too many random events will make a reader feel cheated but the main source of credibility should be whether the character would behave in the way that the novelist chooses. For important drivers of the plot, it’s almost required that the character chooses an option that, while still credible, is less likely than the choice he or she would normally make. The day that’s really interesting is when your main character’s boss decides to fire him rather than all the days he doesn’t.

It’s the debates over plot and character that seem to be most problematic about writing workshops. Most people will come with an idea of the stories they want their novels to tell. These ideas may range between teens having their souls taken over by ancient evil spirits or they may be about unrequited love where most of the action occurs in a character’s imagination. Some are fantasy or magic realism, some are comic, some are totally realistic — but they are all stories to be told that require a suspension of disbelief from the reader, albeit at different levels. Central to this bargain of the suspension of disbelief is the concept of storytelling — i.e. reading is not a co-operative, interactive experience. The danger of workshopping is that the readers approach each others’ writing from a completely artificial perspective — that the story can be changed to match their personal preferences — ‘I think the character would appear nicer if he didn’t leave his wife’.

As with the point above about writing for a select group of readers, the novel has to be about what the author cares passionately enough to devote the massive amount of time required. While films now have endings changed by the initial reactions of advance screening, not even Hollywood seems to create its films solely by focus group.

One Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardboard Megaliths

Those from the City course who’ve carried on with the monthly workshopping read an extract of mine in the last session where James is struggling to build an IKEA wardrobe.

The piece is intended to cast light on the state of James and Emma’s relationship — both by using the wardrobe as metaphor and also flashing back to his recollections of their trip to the Milton Keynes branch (the new city being somewhere that Emma instinctively detests as she doesn’t like its appropriate of the Celtic mysticism that she has a great interest in herself.)

IKEA also reflects James’s fairly half-hearted attempt at fiscal belt-tightening — he tried to persuade Emma to buy a wardrobe that was a cheap piece of MDF crap but instead they settle for something fairly decent made out of solid wood (that nearly kills him to lug upstairs) — but it’s still not the Heal’s wardrobe she really wanted (see post below — ‘A Solid Piece of Research‘).

I did a bit of quick research in Milton Keynes IKEA after I visited the nearby Open University a few weeks ago but this week I had cause to go there again for the purposes of actually thinking about buying some of their furniture.

IKEA Milton Keynes
Inside IKEA Milton Keynes

I took a few photos on the way round. Here’s a montage of a few — showing the curious juxtaposition of the nicely-staged rooms upstairs compared to the functional warehouses where you have to get the flat-pack stuff.

The bizarre names of IKEA furniture are staple jokes — see Dave the Laptop Table and Gilbert the furry brown placemat above.

IKEA Kolon
Who Says IKEA products Are Crap?

However, I noticed a floor protector thing with one of the most bizarre names. As it’s a medical term I think the word spelled with a ‘c’ must be the same in Swedish.

IKEA's Rats
The Welcoming Rats

I also thought it quite surreal that customers were greeted on entering the showroom with a crateful of furry-rats.

I had another opportunity to inspect the wardrobe that I had in mind for James to build for Emma. In the novel it’s not exactly like this one — I think it may have its drawers inside the doors — but it’s fairly similar.

Emma's Wardrobe
Emma's Wardrobe

It’s pictured here in a trendy looking bedroom that Emma may not even have turned up her nose at.

In the end, I had my own cardboard megalith experience as the furniture that I wanted to buy (including two wardrobes as luck would have it) was in such huge cardboard packages that they wouldn’t have fitted in the car.

In fact, probably they were so heavy (two boxes weighing about 50kg for each wardrobe) that perhaps the easiest way to have got them home might have been to put them on rafts and float them down the Grand Union Canal — in the same way as Stonehenge’s builders transported their rectangular megaliths all the way from Wales?

(And perhaps it might make Emma feel better to know that I bumped into the Minister for Europe’s wife in the IKEA café and said hello — if it’s good enough for ministers of state? Or maybe they’re being mindful of expenses?)

Lip Service

A fascinating aspect of reading fiction is that, sometimes despite the best efforts of the author, every reader must have a different mental image of each character — most likely a synthesis of their own experience and from triggers picked up from the text. Most ‘best-practice’ writing advice tends to suggest the author should leave as much detail to the reader’s imagination as possible — only providing concrete descriptions that are vital to quickly establish character or to provide information necessary to the plot.

When a novel is adapted for film or television this often leads to disappointment for readers of the original novel — an actor or actress may be physically dissimilar to how they imagined a character or, perhaps worse, behaves in an entirely different way. I read something recently in the Radio Times complaining about Stephen Tompkinson not being at all like the writer had imagined Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks in ‘Aftermath’.

Stephen Tompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks
Stephen Tompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks

(Parts of the second episode of which were filmed on the moors very near where I grew up. Look at those intimidating pylons on the picture on the left. They loomed over me every day. ).

The converse of the reader’s mental image is that a writer must also have a picture of a character in mind when writing fiction. Again this must be a mixture of experience and imagination that rarely transfers directly into a reader’s imagination, although, like screenwriters, if a novelist is writing a series of books that has been featured on film or television then they may start writing for a specific actor. I seem to remember Colin Dexter saying this about John Thaw as Inspector Morse.

Occasionally, however, writers must have the image of a character in mind and see some sort of very close likeness in the visual representation of a person — a photograph or picture or something on film or television. I recently had that sort of revelation in connection with the new BBC3 drama series, ‘Lip Service‘. It was the publicity photos for the series on the front of, I think, the Guardian’s Saturday Review section that made me take notice: the actress Ruta Gedmintas, pictured as her character Frankie in the series is a very close fit for how I see my character Kim — at least Kim at the start of the novel.

It’s partly the urban-arty clothing (Frankie’s meant to be a photographer) and her gaunt physical appearance — and she has short-ish blonde hair and a nose piercing, even green eyes. I don’t know whether Frankie is meant to portray a particular lesbian style of dressing. Kim in my novel isn’t gay (I think Frankie is actually meant to be bisexual) but Kim certainly comes from a arty-edgy culture in Shoreditch and Hackney where she will mix with and be influenced by a lot of gay people.  (And similarly in my writing experience I have and have had plenty of contact with gay writers and have workshopped gay fiction.)

Ruta Gedmintas as Frankie on the cover of Guardian Guide 9th Oct (Linked to Guardian Website)
Ruta Gedmintas as Frankie on the cover of Guardian Guide 9th Oct

Frankie is, of course, different to Kim in many ways but, the character, as played by Ruta Gedmintas, captures a startlingly arresting attitude. She has a very interesting, expressive face that varies between a the kind of ‘fuck you’ arrogance of an urban artist and a very genuine smile that shows flashes of concealed vulnerability — two contrasting character facets I’m trying to work on bringing out with Kim. Ruta Gedmintas is probably prettier than I imagine Kim to be but that may be because in my novel, Kim deliberately makes herself look confrontational to start with but she will have the sort of understated beauty that becomes increasingly attractive to James.

I was a bit intrigued by having stumbled over such an uncanny resemblance to a character I’ve had living in my head for around a year. I found from a couple of interviews online that Ruta Gedmintas comes from a Lithuanian family (hence the unusual name) — so perhaps her appearance has an Eastern European aspect, which may have made me think of German Kim — but the actress was brought up in Buckinghamshire which, co-incidentally, is where the bulk of my novel is set — in the Chilterns. (This, perhaps, explains why Frankie curiously speaks with an accent that’s pure Home Counties — or maybe her lack of the Scots brogue might be explained in later episodes with further revelations from her mysterious past?)

In the imaginary sequence of events whereby my published novel gets adapted for film or TV and then (possibly the most unlikely of this chain of possibilities) the original novel writer got asked for opinions on who should play the female lead then I think I’ve now found a perfect recommendation — so long as she can do a Hochdeutsch accent.

‘Lip Service’ has attracted controversy as it’s a series about the lives of lesbians in Glasgow. Apparently it’s the first British-made series specifically about gay women (as opposed to men) and the programme makers have to address a dilemma in that they want, on the one hand, to portray the women’s lives as being as ‘normal’ as possible (i.e. not contingent on their sexuality). But on the other hand if they’ve created a unique platform for the portrayal of intimate scenes between gay women characters then obviously they feel it’s something that they ought not to shy away from using — and, in my opinion, this is achieved very successfully — frankly (or, perhaps I should say, Frankily) but not salaciously.

I’ve watched the first couple of episodes and it strikes me as it’s quite like a gritty Glaswegian ‘Cold Feet’ with added sex (sex is something I always thought ‘Cold Feet’ could have explored more) — a comparison I mean as a compliment as I liked ‘Cold Feet’, especially the first few series — and it had some great actors in it. Like ‘Lip Service’, ‘Cold Feet’ also uses music effectively — and quite a lot of my writing throws in references to music (the latest extract I workshopped mentioned ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ by The Smiths and ‘Big Love’ by Fleetwood Mac — the latter in a slyly filthy context).

I’m interested in that ‘Cold Feet’ genre — tangled relationships between people who are starting to deal with the responsibilities of adulthood — and think that my writing is probably pitched at the same kind of audience. The success of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ that I read recently and learned quite a lot from (Nicholls wrote some of the scripts for ‘Cold Feet’). The book gets fervent reviews  on Amazon from the many people who say it’s their favourite ever demonstrates that this is also a commercial genre. I have to say too that David Nicholls is a nice chap as he replied very quickly and politely to an e-mail I sent him about the clever playlist feature he did have on the book’s website — which now seems to have disappeared unfortunately in favour of some of the book’s film adaptation promo material.

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.

Time on Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Freedom’ has been causing a stir among reviewers — one Guardian Books blogger is already calling it the novel of the century.

Time magazine a couple of weeks ago gave Franzen the honour of being on its cover — something achieved by very few authors and was the magazine’s gesture towards placing him in the canon of ‘The Great American Novelists’.

The accompanying article was, compared to most of these profile pieces, long and thoughtful and had some comment on where novel writing might be heading in the future:

‘Early readers of Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever — that word again — to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books. That awareness has changed the way he writes.’

Franzen, suggests the profile’s author, Levi Grossman, argues that this need to work to engage harder with the reader by implication means that to avoid becoming an obsolete and arcane art form the novel needs to avoid intellectual novelty-seeking and boundary stretching. Perhaps the self-indulgent aspect of literary fiction might finally be exhausted:

‘A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader: you suck up a certain amount of difficulty, of resistance and interpretive work and even boredom, and then you get the payoff. This arrangement, which feels necessary and permanent to us, is primarily a creation of the 20th century. Freedom works on something more akin to a 19th century model, like Dickens or Tolstoy: characters you care about, a story that hooks you. Franzen has given up trying to impress with his scintillating prose (which he admits he was still doing in The Corrections). “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist,” he says. “To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.”‘

Read more:,8599,2010000-4,00.html#ixzz0yAaJL6mA

Reviewing the Literature

There are two reasons why the blog has been a little quieter than usual recently. One is that an element of my ‘other life’ intruded – hopefully the side that will continue to pay the bills in future.  I had to submit an assignment for my Open University MSc in Software Development. I’d set aside a fortnight or so to concentrate on this but I ended also producing going on for 7,000 words of ‘The Angel’, which diluted my efforts somewhat.

I ended up sitting at the laptop in the end from 6am one day until 2am the next morning to try and complete the assignment before the deadline.  The way this OU course works is to build up the final dissertation of about 15,000 words in incremental assignments so you start off with a proposal and then add the literature review and the draft research before submitting the whole thing at the end all polished up and with a conclusion.

What I had to complete was the literature review – which isn’t an enjoyable account of a few choice novels read recently but an attempt to track down academic literature relevant to your subject and assess its contribution to the body of knowledge. My topic is Enterprise Architecture, which is basically how one organises the many IT systems within an organisation to work effectively rather than, as usually happens in practice, allowing IT to re-inforce the warring sectarianism and factionalism within any large organisation.  The term ‘architecture’ has been appropriated by the IT industry to the annoyance of some of the building variety but the analogy transfers quite well. (And I believe that the same sort of skills used in this line of IT work transfer well into novel writing — being able to see the underlying structure of plot, pace, character and so on which lie beneath the surface detail and complexity — I think some of the feedback I gave in the City course owed something to these skills.)

In this area, where IT interacts deals with the corporate strategy of an organisation, it’s quite difficult to find any contemporary academic literature in the first place. This is probably because, despite IT all being based on the work of very clever people in universities, many contemporary practitioners are militantly anti-academic – wanting to prove) how macho, hands-on and problem solving they can be to ‘the business’ (a meaningless and self-loathing term that is used to elevates the status of anyone in a company NOT in IT the IT department as doing the real work).

In ‘The Angel’ James is motivated to leave his City job by this sort of philistinism. Despite his outward gaucheness  and blokey good nature, he’s actually a very bright chap – he has some Masters degree in Finance – his (ex-)job is in the application of clever computer systems which few people (including Will, his boss) can understand. He wants to learn – except now about art and cookery – and he’s pretty appalled by the crass anti-intellectualism of those around him.

So I’ve been finding recent academic papers in my area from places as diverse as Venezuela and Taiwan and I’m a little guilty of not really reading them properly – just finding a quotation which illustrates a point I’ve wanted to make. Doing the novel writing course has made me aware of the main criticism I’m likely to get from my supervisor for what I submitted – the narrative coherence could be improved.

There are a reasonable amount of references and it’s all pretty much on-topic but there’s probably far more work require to relate these to my own argument and research question (and the vagueness of exactly what it is what I’m meant to be analysing in my own research is another bigger flaw).

Even so, this is exactly why the OU structures these dissertations as it does — so when you make a cock-up of the first attempt you have plenty of time to improve it before the eventual submission deadline. Hopefully!

It’s an interesting time management challenge to juggle a serious MSc project and trying to complete the novel started on the City course — a distillation of the question about what I need to do to make a living against what I think I’d like to do.  However, I read a few writing magazines on holiday which gave some information about average published novelists’ earnings suggests that no matter how successful the writing goes, the day-job is likely to be needed for a while yet.

Zipping Up Kim

It’s a paradox that characters in fiction tend, naturally, to be figments of the author’s imagination but also have to be real and credible enough for the reader to maintain the suspension of their disbelief. Of course authors piece together characters from traits they tend to observe in many different people in real life —  but those different facets need to meld together to make a coherent whole.

I had a moment yesterday, while at Center Parcs Elveden, which was remarkably satisfying because I came across someone who not only looked similar to my character Kim but also seemed to have many of the exterior character attributes that I’d pieced together, which is great because Kim is probably the most complex and contradictory character in the novel.

Kim is able, for a while at least, to be something of a chameleon and be an efficient but sympathetic barmaid (or bar manager) whilst also having the disclipline and concentration needed to work on her artistic pursuits.  She’ll have a curious outward mixture of empathy and assertiveness whilst also combining an outwardly approachable, friendly  humour with a sort of inner-steeliness. (And she’ll also show anger and vulnerability to those who get to know her more closely.)

It was this unusual fusion of personality traits that I thought I recognised in the Center Parcs instructors working on what they called the Action Company Challenge Aerial Adventure. It’s like Go Ape ! which, ironically, James enjoys doing — maybe he sees something of the instructor in Kim? (I’ve done three Go Ape’s myself including the one in Aberfoyle in Scotland with the country’s longest zipwire at 426m that dangles you over 150 feet above a valley.)

In the Center Parcs Aerial Challenge participants follow a course ascending through a stand of conifers by negotiating about about nine obstacles placed between the trees (wooden beams, rope swings, rope ‘spiders’ webs’, wobbly bridges and so on).  You eventually end up about 40 feet up on a tree and have a choice of getting down by 120m zip wire or just jumping off with a rope breaking your fall (you hope!).

In fact, the whole course is incredibly safe as, unlike Go Ape! there’s a safety wire permanently fastened and a high staff to customer ratio. Despite knowing it is safe, some people tend to get irrationally terrified even a few feet off the ground, partly as being elevated off the ground and swinging by a rope is such an alien environment.

So the qualities needed by the instructors are both assertive — I was shouted at to perch on a little wooden step to give my safety rope a yank to get it round a corner and also when I somehow tangled my safety line by going through a rope bridge the wrong way. On the other hand,  some panic stricken people need a lot of encouragement to jump off a platform and swing across a gap of several feet hanging to a rope. It’s interesting as these people aren’t performing a straight pleasing-the-customer role, as might the waiting staff in one of their restuarants, as they also need to be able to try and generate a sense of cheerful confidence to get people around (although they sometimes have to lower people down on ropes who can’t face going further).

They also need to be very fit, professional — and probably a bit unusual. The woman working on the course managed to scramble up a 40 foot vertical pole to get ready to kit me out for the zipwire in the time it took me to get walk over a rope bridge. I was having a zip wire attached to me and had the strange experience that the person who was doing it was behaving exactly as I anticipated my main female character would act when at work meeting new people. Then I had to step off the edge and whizz down the wire.

Clearly, there are many dissimilarities — Kim is a German artist, which I doubt this climbing instructor was — she had a touch of Australian in her accent, although it may have been a very prononounced version of Estuary English. However, she also looked fairly like I imagine Kim to do, as much as you can tell under a safety helmet — she had quite a number of ear piercings.

Kim is meant to be quite distinctive looking — having fairly prominent facial features that she can either accentuate or soften — she’s an artist so she knows what effects she can achieve with her hair and make up should she be so inclined. James finds her at the start of the novel looking quite unattractive — and this disarms Emma to some extent — but she soon develops into someone whom Emma would like to see safely paired off (see comments under previous post).

I suppose if a character is synthesised using some imagination and lots of different sources, then there’s a decent enough chance of bumping into someone who can reflect that mixture of attributes at a certain time and circumstance — it verifies that those sort of personality attributes can plausibly combine together in a character — but it’s odd to discover this standing on a tiny platform up a tree 40ft high off the ground.

Now I only need to worry about how well I transfer the character out of my head on to the page and recreated in a reader’s mind.

Addressing Deficiencies

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

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

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

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

Strengths and Weaknesses

For our commentary we need to list the strengths and weaknesses in our writing. I won’t list what I plan to write are my strengths but I came up with a rather long list of weaknesses, although some are the inverse of possible strengths. For example, one person’s superfluous dialogue might be another’s illustration of character or inconsistency of character might also be viewed as adding complexity.

  • Over-explaining — insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling out what can be inferred
  • Occasionally over-writing — though this depends a lot on the reader’s taste and the genre
  • Lapse into cliché/corniness — in the more emotional scenes I can put in soapy dialogue but when it’s real emotion I don’t think it pays to think of clever ways of having your characters avoiding saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’.
  • Balance of interior/exterior — I often avoid the interior (could be linked with the POV issue)
  • POV not clearly enough signalled (or just inconsistent) — my POVs tend to confuse at times because I’ll allow the character whose POV I am writing from to infer observations (the other character must have entered the room because the POV character assumed she heard the door open — perhaps easier to say ‘she must have heard the door open’)
  • Not ‘listening’ to characters — being an authorial bully — thinking ‘wouldn’t it be a great scene for him to parade this other woman before his wife and provoke an argument between them all’ for the sake of creating a dramatic scene when really the characters don’t want to do that.
  • Lack of conciseness (inc. superfluous dialogue) — the universal reluctance to kill your own babies
  • Consistency of characterisation — readers thinking ‘x or y wouldn’t do that’ — but do I do this badly enough to make the reader give up or would be cumulative effect be to increase complexity if done properly?

‘Is It Any Good?’

I would guess anyone who doesn’t ask themselves this during the course of writing a novel is not going to produce a very good one.

What’s probably not such a good idea is to include this angst in comments accompanying a chapter sent to a tutor for a tutorial. Asking ‘Is it any good?’ really means ‘tell me lots of nice things about it please to boost my writing ego’. So when I didn’t immediately get that response from Emily my reaction was ‘She must think it’s rubbish’. The tutorial in question has been an odd, long-drawn out affair as it couldn’t take place in person due to illness and we exchanged e-mails instead (Emily now being on maternity leave). I also talked about the issues with Alison last night in person.

There were lots of things that Emily didn’t like in the extract I’d sent — plausibility issues about James’ behaviour, not really seeing into what motivated the characters and so on. In some ways it’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that she said she thought I needed to know my characters better — but the best way for me to do that is to write more and to live with them, which is more difficult to do if your motivation is ebbing away partly because a tutor has said you need to know your characters better.  I think I do know my characters pretty well but perhaps they hadn’t come over that well for a couple of reasons. One is stylistic — I do tend to write much more from an exterior perspective than interior so I only infrequently inhabit the characters’ innermost thoughts. The second is the structure of the novel which starts with two people flung together in crisis and then develops from there. There’s a huge amount of back story that comes with both the two main characters and I’m finding it very laborious to drip feed into the first chapters. I’ve done about 15,000 words and they’ve not really found out much about each others’ backgrounds. I’m tempted to just write a couple of scenes from the past and show them in flashback and be done with it.

On Saturday night I got pretty downhearted — not because I thought the novel was no good — but because I thought I might need to totally overhaul the way it was written. I considered crawling into a hole and not bothering to emerge until after our end of course reading. However, once I’d mulled over the feedback I found it quite inspiring in a way. This is because Emily seems to have high ambitions for the story and characters — possibly higher than my own. Once I’ve got to the heart of the dilemmas and decisions facing both characters then the novel could say an awful lot that is relevant to readers in the modern world. I do think I have thought this through in my head in terms of concepts but it perhaps has to translate to the characters. It was suggested that I place my novel in the bitter-sweet human relationship genre defined by Anne Tyler’s novels. I was flattered that it was thought I operate in that difficult genre myself.

I’m also probably guilty of treating my characters as tools to be pushed around to achieve my own ends in terms of writing. For example, I thought it would be a good scene for James to turn up to see Emma at work to tell her he’s been fired (she won’t answer her phone). I had him bring Kim along principally because I wanted to write a bit of Emma, Kim and James having an argument, which is something I enjoyed doing — lots of conflict and dialogue. However, in reality, even if James had gone to break the news to his wife in a five-star hotel then he would have left Kim in the lobby while he did it.

It seems I’m in a very uncomfortable position but one that is really of quite profound significance as getting this feedback shows that I’ve created characters who demand my respect — it’s their story now and I have to let them get on with it. I can’t force a situation on them just because I want to write it. This is really odd. I’ve seen many authors describe this process but even so, it’s quite disconcerting. This perhaps re-inforces the strong views that have been expressed after my readings on the way the characters have come over.

There were also straighforwardly positive comments in the feedback — strong sentences, good description, good dialogue (when it’s serving a purpose) — and it’s re-assuring to have the quality of the actual writing re-affirmed. I’m very self-critical of my prose as I think I write too quickly — beginning sentences without thinking how they’re going to end. In fact it’s been concerns over my self-diagnosed clunky prose that has put me off attempting a novel before.

In the end I e-mailed Emily back and said that I’d taken the comments on board and on reflection they were very helpful and motivating and she e-mailed back saying that being able to act on feedback, particularly if it’s not all glowing and telling you how wonderful it is, is a mark of a ‘true writer’.

As for the ‘Is it any good?’ factor, I’m reminded of the famous Stephen King story about ‘Carrie’ — that he’d thrown a draft away in despair into the wastepaper basket and his wife fished it out, read it and persuaded him to finish it. 50 books later he’s still going strong.

Everything But The Bar Sink…

…but I did get the dishwasher in!

Bearing in mind Judith Murray’s comment that ‘in some sense all novels are historical’, I decided to load my last reading with as many contemporary cultural references as I could think of. ‘Decided’ isn’t actually a good definition — throwing in various things that pop into my head is how I tend to write anyway although maybe I’d decide to delete most of them if a book got published.

I’m rather dreading reaction to the scene I’ve just written because it could go either of two ways. It’s a climactic scene after months of simmering, smouldering sexual tension between James and Kim and this comes to the boil (good cooking metaphors there, albeit cliched). To counter the tension as it rises I start off with the most banal sort of conversations. In one point (a cop out I’m sure I’ll be picked up on) I have the narrator say ‘she didn’t care who was talking’ and then throw in three or four unattributed pieces of dialogue.

The cultural references are quite a bizarre bunch. Remember these are all in a 2,600 word piece which is meant to pivotal to the plot: Amazon, Katie Melua, Charlie Brooker, the Guardian, the Wombles, Mike Batt, William Orbit, Orbit’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’, Katie Melua’s ‘The Flood’ (which goes on to supply metaphors for the later scene), Virgin TV’s ‘Naked Office’ (see below), Jamie Oliver, a Sky+ box, the Carry On films, ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ (and various of its contestants), Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell, Ant and Dec, ‘Sex and the City’, Heston Blumenthal, ‘The Fat Duck Cookbook’ and Heston Blumenthal’s notorious snail porridge. That’s well over 20 references that only someone living in this country in 2010 would really understand. Apart from the BGT references most of these aren’t gratuitously contemporary as they illustrate character and move the plot in some cases. The music is interesting as (it will be interesting to see if anyone picks this up) as Emma has bought the Katie Melua CD as it’s produced by William Orbit, whose works ten years previously (see above) were the soundtrack to a holiday she and James had in Ibiza when they first began their relationship. He’s meant to see the romantic significance in this — but doesn’t and needles her about Katie Melua’s previous association with Mike Batt (of the Wombles). So, a little vignette of their relationship.

I had to rush writing this piece and sent it out late to everyone. I’m still unhappy with the end and may revise it even further before I read it. I was totally knackered once I’d written it. Partly this was because I was determined to write something new and that pushed the boundaries a bit for me in terms of how comfortable I’d be with reading it. It’s also partly because I’m pushing myself to write new material for each reading and tutorial rather than polish up previously reviewed material. I also went to France very early on Tuesday morning partly to buy wine for our course reading. This produced probably a course first — for the first reading ever to be written, partially, on a cross-channel ferry. On the way out I annotated a printed draft then coming back I had the netbook out by the window looking out into the channel. Wonder if any of the nautical flavour comes through?

The piece was also very emotionally draining, which I found quite surprising. As it’s the consummation of a relationship I was trying to imagine and hold in my mind the feelings and emotions of the characters. When this involves scenes of a disintegrating marriage, seriously unrequited love and then some sudden switch into passion between two people who had (on the surface) treated each other as friends then this takes a lot of mental effort. I did this for three or four days and thought about it so much I was more than semi-detached from reality. I don’t know if it will be good for the writing that it felt like I was so intensely involved in their predicaments — your characters can’t do anything much more real than have sex with each other — or whether I might have got too close?

The writing was also difficult as I thought I had to do a sex scene for a reading as this is what the plot of the novel calls for and I wanted to get feedback on it — good and bad. I’m sure this is very difficult to get right and constructive feedback (though not sniggering) in this area would be a lot more useful than on a scene with people walking around London, for example. In the first drafts I had some graphic descriptions and used some very earthy Anglo-Saxon words. In some ways I’d rather these had stayed in as from a reading perspective because I’d like to have made myself read these out, to overcome the embarrassment. However, the word limit chopped any real physical description of the sex — there’s only really the build up but that’s the most interesting bit for the characters.  Even so, I’ve probably laid myself open to bonkbuster piss-taking.

‘I Agree With Nick’

Seems to the new catchphrase of the moment — and very apposite as both Cameron and Brown desperately try to convince Clegg that they do agree with him just enough to get him to drop his core demands and prop up their minority parties.

I find politics absolutely enthralling, especially when politicians aren’t in control of events, as in elections, and are unable to spin their way out of setbacks, compromises, about turns, revelations of hypocrisy and duplicity and so on. Election night coverage is fantastic as the politicians have to constantly adjust their positions to the results as they unfold. They normally have to try and pretend they’ve understood the will of the people and accept defeat gracefully through gritted teeth or try not to sound too triumphalist or relieved if they’re winning. Normally by the weekend after the election we’re into some refreshing honesty with the new government trying to dampen the expectations they’ve just spent weeks raising and some public back-biting and candid blame allocation in the defeated parties’ ranks. Not this time, though — the intrigue continues with plenty of politicians petrified of what their party leaders might sign up to and some coded warning shots coming out in interviews.

The aftermath of the election promises to be more fascinating than the election night itself. I stayed up for the whole duration of the BBC Election programme — 9.55pm until 9.30am the next morning. I caught myself nodding off only once or twice for five minutes at a time around 5.30am. I wanted to stay up to see if the Greens won their Brighton seat (who I probably would have voted for if they’d stood in my constituency — which was had no serious candidates as boundary changes have put me in John Bercow’s speaker’s seat). I set myself up with two laptops streaming Sky and ITV’s coverage and which I used in conjunction with the BBC and Guardian websites to do my own analysis on the seats as the counts were announced. (I used up all my remaining mobile broadband allocation for the month by using it to watch the Sky pictures).

Election Night 2010
Jeremy Vine augmented by Two Laptops -- Election Night 2010

Here’s the scene from my sofa with Jeremy Vine on the BBC with Sky on the laptop and ITV on the netbook. (Jeremy Vine is in my academic year — he shares a lot of cultural reference points with me when I hear him on his Radio Two show).

Those on the City Course and close readers of the blog will know that I have about 50,000 words written of a political novel. It’s gone on the backburner a bit for two reasons. One is that I’ve used parts of the City course to develop a new idea — and that’s gone pretty well as ‘The Angel’ is probably a better structured novel. The other is that I’ve been aware of events making my political angles in the novel obsolete or dated — one point being that it involves a New Labour minister. Politics isn’t the main driving force of the plot, though, and a rewrite could probably have made it appropriate to a Tory administration.

But a traditional change of government isn’t what we’re going to get — which means the legacy of Labour is likely to be felt for quite some time, either through their participation in a Lib Dem-Labour coalition or in their machinations if some alternative arrangement works. We’re also likely to have another election sooner or later.

Another interesting factor is the resurgence of interest in politics — with increased turnouts demonstrating the evidence.

So I’m quite encouraged that my political novel isn’t going to be obsolete or dated and might actually have something to say that’s going to be quite relevant to whatever happens in the next couple of years. Also, Oxford East, the constituency that my MP’s is based on stayed Labour against the odds. I just have to get writing the two novels — great fun as the election was it meant I wrote nothing myself.

Top Bombing

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube link to the new John Smiths’ Peter Kay advert. His observation in sending it was that it picks up a subtle difference between the sexes in that often women try to guess which other women men find attractive — glamorous celebrities often being cited. This advert shows that this view is often very wide of the mark.

The advert is a model of economy but crams an awful lot about a relationship into its thirty seconds. It’s very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ in terms of being honest with a partner (‘I won’t get upset. It’s only a game.’) Peter Kay’s character is very well behaved ‘There’s only one lady in my life’ until he’s pushed three times by his partner.

The setting is also quite subtle — some upmarket restaurant pub and the other couple’s presence, although they don’t speak, is essential to the drama. It also cleverly bridges the gap between the fantasy of showbusiness and celebrity (Kelly Brook, Tess Daly) and people’s own lives: ‘Clare from work’. (Great choice of name to bring out the northern vowels — Peter Kay’s from Bolton, not too far from where I come from — Rochdale.)  The shot at the end with the photocopier is one of the truest representations of interior characterisation I’ve seen for a long time. ‘Oh aye’.

Some of the books that examine men’s and women’s different behaviours in relationships from an evolutionary psychology perspective make the point that availability and proximity are  often more prescient factors in a typically male assessment of a mate than the attractiveness. (And this tendency is amplified by alcohol — the infamous ‘beer goggles’).

It’s very much in the vein of James’ point of view in The Angel in the scenes I’ve written with Emma and Kim. These promoted one coursemate to suggest that the log line for my novel should end ‘can James keep his mind off sex for long enough to stop the business falling apart’ — a line that everyone found rather hilarious though I’m not sure if poor old James would.