The video from December’s Liars’ League London event of Amy Neilson Smith’s brilliant reading of my story Glutent Tolerant is now on YouTube — the embedded video is below. Imho, Amy perfectly nailed my narrator’s voice and I love her voicing of the baker’s northern tones.
It was a wonderful night, full of festive bonhomie, and with another four excellent stories on the bill (see the Liars’ League YouTube site). There was a fantastic turnout of supportive friends, including Guy, Sue, Laura and Mike from my City University course, but it was also lovely to see Anna there whom I’d met at the London Writers Café Christmas party last year.
As hinted in the previous post, I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of ebook creation and my first offering is now available for download (free for a limited period until the end of Tuesday 7th April) on Amazon for Kindle readers (and Kindle reader apps).
The ebook features four short stories, all of which were selected and performed by the Liars’ League.
Naked photography in a hipster’s Shoreditch loft kitchen in Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
An intern’s impromptu elevator pitch for the most calamitous disaster movie ever in Elevator Pitch
The petrol-headed rage of a spurned, blade-wielding opera singer in The Good Knife
Lovesick rapping from the dock by a guilt-ridden, Premier League hard-man in Well Sick for a White Guy.
All are 2,000 words or under so can be read in ten minutes or so. 10-15 minute stories that were memorably read by actors at Liars’ League’s award spoken-word evenings in London, Leicester and Hong Kong. Click on the cover image to download the book.
Links to three of the live performances can be found elsewhere on this blog. The exception is Well Sick For A White Guy, which was performed in September by Liars’ League Leicester. The video for this story hasn’t been made available online and the only place the text can be found is in this ebook (unlike the two Liars League London stories which can be read on the Liars League website).
Well Sick For a White Guy might actually be my favourite story of the four. The reading would certainly have been fun and I’m rather sad that I missed it, although Alex Woodhall and Sarah Feathers’ readings of the first two stories in London were excellent in person and Bhavini Ravel’s great reading of The Good Knife can be viewed below.
I’m not normally a fan of giving away intellectual property for free because of the way it eventually undermines the ability of creative people to get a decent reward for their work. However, it’s the fact that these stories are in the public domain already which has encouraged me to publish them together as an ebook — and people did pay to hear all of them read for each public performance. Therefore I’d have the book on free download indefinitely if it wasn’t for the rather strict promotional rules on Kindle Direct Publishing (only five days in any ninety day period).
When the promotional period is over, the book will revert to the current Amazon Kindle minimum price of £1.99 — which is less than the price of a cappuccino in Pret A Manger or half a pint of beer in most pubs in London (i.e. not much at all compared with the relative effort that goes into the creation of each).
You don’t need a Kindle to download to as Amazon will provide Kindle reading apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PCs and so on.
As well as experimenting with the mechanics of self-publishing, my motivation for publishing it is purely give anyone who’s curious enough a concise taste of my writing and if anyone who downloads it feels kind enough to leave a review then that would be great.
I don’t make any great artistic claims for the cover image above (anyone spot where it is?) but it’s a fact of self-publishing that you need to have one — and not one that rips off anyone else’s image rights (that’s my own photo). The eventual image was voted for overwhelmingly (out of a not-very-inspiring selection) by my Facebook friends!
And my stories are rubbing literary shoulders in exalted company as Liars League is now on Radio 4! A series of three readings — from Hong Kong, New York and London — is currently running on Sunday evenings at 7.45pm. The first story was broadcast yesterday. While my stories have no connection with those broadcast, it’s a fantastic endorsement of overall quality threshold of the Liars’ League events and is a very positive reflection on my fellow LL writer alumni.
My collection has been put together with the blessing of Liars’ League — Liar Katy Darby helped me pick the title and had a look at an early version of the ebook. I’ve actually been doing Katy’s highly-recommended Writers’ Workshop short course at City University between January and March this year to help develop ideas for the next novel — keep reading this blog for more news on that over the next few months).
I’ll be looking at other means of distributing the ebook but it needs to be exclusive to Amazon for the next three months so, if you’re interested, download it as soon as possible. Watch the blog or follow me on Twitter for when it goes on free download again.
Incidentally, if you want to watch Alex Woodhall’s superb reading of Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? one more time in person then he’ll be performing it at a special event — the Studio 189 Spring Ball organised by my friends Sabina and Fay on 25th April in north London. It also offers a private viewing of some erotic artworks and an opera singer — all for the bargain price of £30.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been fortunate enough to have another of my short stories selected as a winner by the Liars’ League . Titled Elevator Pitch, it featured in theMay event, themed Beginnings and Ends.
Elevator Pitch was the final story to be performed on the night. This will have been due in no small part to the actor, Sarah Feathers’s, tremendously energetic and humorous performance, which I’m sure will have sent the audience homewards with a real buzz.
As in March, I went to the rehearsals the weekend before the show, met Sarah and sat in on the read-through. The story involves three characters in a confined space and Sarah did a brilliant job of bringing each character to life, using body language, gestures and facial expressions to complement the dialogue.
It’s an incredible privilege to watch a professional lift your words off the page and voice plausible characters that hold an audience’s attention. It feels like alchemy – and, as mentioned in the post after March’s Liars’ League, it’s an invaluable insight into how writing is interpreted by a reader.
It’s fascinating to discover details that an actor has added into the story on their own initiative before the rehearsal – in this story Sarah had some great views on how to deliver the male character’s voice.
Some of the Liars’ League stories tend to focus on narratorial exposition or one character’s internal voice and this can make them extremely compelling (Birth Planby Uschi Gatward in the latest event was a good example). However, my story is quite dialogue heavy, with three very different characters and this can be quite challenging for an actor performing a reading – how many different voices (accents, variations of delivery) can be juggled simultaneously in such a short time?
As did Alex Woodhall with his reading of my previous story, Sarah met the challenge brilliantly — each character has an unmistakable and convincing identity. This shouldn’t be surprising as Sarah is one of Liars’ League’s most regular actors and she’s also narrated many popular audiobooks, including the recent, bestselling Philippa Gregory novel, The White Princess.
Katy and Liam, who run the Liars’ League are also very insightful editors and directors: with their help the story also evolved considerably during the rehearsal – and afterwards. Its many contemporary references – mainly movie actors’ names – were batted around with alternative suggestions offered, even by email on the day of the performance itself.
We found it most difficult to settle on the heroine in Isabel’s pitch: a kick-ass, British submarine commander – you’ll need to watch or read the story before this makes much sense)
After going through countless others, we settled on Kate Winslet. There was something a little surreal — and metafictional — about how we ended up casting an imaginary lead role for a piece of fiction within a piece of fiction that itself was concerned with casting movie stars. Weird – but it didn’t raise any Sunset Boulevard mogul ambitions in me (although I wouldn’t mind living out in Santa Barbara again – the place where I was trained in screenwriting by a genuine Hollywood old-timer).
The story appeared to go down well with the audience – Sarah promptedlots of laughs (in the right places) from the audience, which included my friend Fay again plus ex-City University coursemates, Guy and Sue and Alison Burns, who ran the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio) at the time Sue, Guy and myself took the course.
The night went far too quickly and it was fantastic to see everyone – and to meet Jim Cogan – whose excellent and poignant story The Memory Man preceded Elevator Pitch. In fact, all the stories were entertaining and captivating and would repay anyone’s time watching, listening or reading them on the website or podcast.
I feel very lucky to have had two stories chosen recently (the selection is done anonymously, by the way) and the quality of the writing on the evening shows how difficult is the Liars task every month — picking from what obviously seems to be a sea of excellent submissions. It’s no wonder the event was recently voted one of the UK’s Top Ten Storytelling Nights by The Guardian.
It’s four weeks since the end of my intense period of editing that finished with me frantically e-mailing my novel manuscript to the printers and bookbinders and heading up the Holloway Road to have the satisfaction of picking up my own copies.
The printers sent two bound copies directly to Manchester Metropolitan University — who kept me in suspense a while before acknowledging receipt. I felt relieved when I eventually received a confirmation e-mail, although I now need to wait until late June to hear whether I’ve made the grade.
Many people I’ve spoken to about the course have been quite incredulous about this nine month delay in communicating students’ marks. It’s apparently because the awards committee only sits once a year (in the summer) and, as we part-time students are given until the start of the next academic year to write our novels, we have to wait for our marks to be confirmed when all the conventionally scheduled English and Creative Writing courses are assessed at the end of 2013-4.
(Since submitting the novel I’ve now heard that MMU have changed their schedule so they intend to give us our marks and feedback by mid-January next year — at which point we should know whether we’re going to graduate but will still have to wait until the summer for it to be official.)
While it would be nice to be able to put the letters MA after my name (should I pass) it’s been the process of taking the course that’s been of much more value to me than gaining the qualification.
After all, agents and publishers don’t look at the Creative Writing MA on a graduate’s CV and immediately decide to your manuscript will do the business for them.
But the process of taking the course and sticking with it to the end ought to show evidence of many desirable qualities in a writer. At York Festival of Writing, one agent in particular told me how much she likes Creative Writing MA students and graduates. Other agents have also said that a mention of an MA in a covering letter means that will give a submission more serious consideration on the grounds that the writer has invested time and money in improving their own writing.
Completing an MA course should demonstrate:
The standard of your writing as a whole has met (and maintained) the quality criteria of the course admissions tutor — for the MA I needed to have my own creative writing assessed as well as a piece of criticism
The potential to take a professional attitude towards your writing — motivation and enthusiasm are some of the qualities that are examined in the interview process. Also, students on an MA course have to be able to take and receive criticism and feedback from both students and tutors
An ability to deliver work to deadlines — not only the final novel but several other pieces of academic work must be submitted on time. There are also many other dates that that have to be met — when it’s your turn to distribute a 3,000 word extract for discussion — or to send another writer feedback on their work. The MMU course was structured so that, at times, each student was expected to provide a new section every second or third week — it could be an intense schedule.
You can write a novel! At the end of the course, at least for MMU, you should have a work that’s potentially publishable that can be before an agent — if you don’t you’ll fail.
Unlike the MMU course, not all MA courses insist on a novel length piece of work be submitted as a final assessment. Given that the MMU 60,000 minimum word count is about four times the length of a typical academic Masters level dissertation then some courses might not consider this length of assessment necessary (in terms of course credits the novel forms 60 out of 180 points overall — only 20 more than the much shorter Transmission project).
But it’s been the experience of writing a novel-length piece that’s been the most valuable aspect of the course for me and it’s by completing the draft, going back and revising and altering and grappling with the many tentacled octopus that has taught me lessons that can’t be taught as theory.
I’ll be much better prepared to write the next novel purely by pushing myself through the experience of completing The Angel and, in that regard, MMU’s decision to devote the third year of the course to independent writing with one-to-one support from a tutor might ultimately teach students as much as in the more formally taught sections of the course.
I found an interesting blog post by Andrew Wille, who was a ‘book doctor’ at the York Festival of Writing: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing . It’s worth reading the post for his list of recommended writing books, including several I’ve read such as the excellent Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, Harry Bingham’s pragmatic How to Write, the amusing How Not To Write A Noveland the ubiquitous Stephen King book.
Andrew Wille has substantial experience of teaching and studying writing and argues that any novel submitted for a Creative Writing MA will need substantial revision before it’s commercially publishable (and often more than one redrafting).
Having gone through the MA experience I don’t disagree — read the comments after his blog post and you’ll see a conversation between us on the subject.
Despite the apparently leisurely deadline, I’d guess that most of the novels submitted for MA deadlines only come together very near the end of the writing process as long, organic, rich works formed of interdependent strands. Their writers might therefore benefit from a period of reflection at the complexity of the work they’ve created.
And the writers wouldn’t likely to be taking an MA if it wasn’t the first time they’d worked so seriously on a novel to the point of its completion. So any MA novel is likely to undergo plenty of changes if it’s taken up by an agent and publisher — but at least the novel exists.
It’s probably inevitable from workshopping in 3,000 and 5,000 words discrete segments for the MA course and writing groups that the finished work when it’s put together bears a risk of repetition.
When writing sections to be presented out of context, it’s difficult not to anticipate comments and questions from readers who may have last encountered the story weeks or months ago: there’s a temptation (perhaps unconscious) to drop in a piece of exposition or dialogue that illustrates just why a certain character might behave in a particular way or to establish setting or theme.
It’s not too difficult to spot the blatant repetitions but it’s harder to identify actions or dialogue in scenes that perhaps do the same job as examples in other sections but do so in subtly different ways. It’s a tough judgement call to cull these, especially when they might be also serving another purpose in the novel. It’s another example of where workshopping in sections doesn’t recreate the experience of a ‘real world’ reader who’d hopefully have conjured up their own unique interpretation of the novel having read the novel as a continuous whole.
On the other hand, to avoid embarrassing themselves with work littered with typos, clumsy phrasing and bad grammar, I’ve noticed that most students and writing group participants will polish the extracts they present for workshopping to a standard that’s far above first draft.
I tend to write a first draft, print it, revise it on paper, make alterations in the manuscript, then read it aloud again and proof-read before I’ll send the work out for comment. That’s more like third or fourth draft — and still typos creep through. But this ought to mean — in addition to the copy editing and proof reading before the final submission — that novels produced on MA courses are probably presented in a more respectable state than the average manuscript an agent will receive, even if structural changes are required.
I hinted in the last blog post that the location of my novel/dissertation printers on the Holloway Road was a little serendipitous. It’s because the famously grimy, largely down-at-heel north London road was often my route to City University for the Certificate in Novel Writing — and it’s likely many of the ideas that formed the conception of the novel were mulled over while stuck in its traffic jams.
My journey down the Holloway Road started from a grotesquely ugly office block where I was working at the time which was stranded in the middle of a housing estate on the very margins of Luton.
While I’m sure the local area was a perfectly acceptable place to live — it was one of the more desirable areas of Luton — it wasn’t exactly thrilling as a location to spend one’s working day. The only ‘entertainment’ nearby was an Asda and a small parade of local shops containing an Iceland, various takeaways and an estate pub.
Nevertheless, the Asda had quite a sizeable book section and I used to think (and still do) that it would be a great ambition to have a book of mine on sale there. Of course Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Waterstones on Piccadilly would be great, as would all the wonderful independent booksellers, but making it to the shelves of Asda in Luton would make a different sort of statement.
At lunchtimes I escaped by running around the pleasant country lanes that lay beyond the suburban sprawl. I sometimes did a bit of writing in the office and remember getting inspiration for a poem I wrote for an OU course from all the plastic carrier bags being blown into the branches of trees in the scrubby wasteland behind the office — it was that kind of place.
It was the safe, uniform suburban location that, for different reasons, would drive both the leading characters in the novel absolutely crazy — and in retrospect the city versus country conflict and the themes of escape and ambition in the novel may well be rooted in the journey from Luton to Islington.
When I was working in the office, I’d leave on Mondays and Wednesdays around five, drive past the airport, barrel down the M1, then take the A1 through Henlys Corner and under the bridge at Archway, from where I had a glimpse of one of those marvellous, tantalising views where London suddenly reveals itself — the Gherkin, Tower 42, Barbican and other City towers (the Shard was yet to be built) rising in the distance.
Then it was a crawl along the Holloway Road, dodging buses and stopping at traffic lights every hundred yards, but I got to know the road well — the tube station, the bizarre architecture of the London Metropolitan University’s new extension, the art deco Odeon and the Wetherspoon conversion of the Coronet cinema.
Holloway Road shares similar characteristics to other areas adjoining large football grounds — a lot of rather folorn looking takeaways and pubs that do most of their business on match-days.
Once I drove obliviously down the road just before an Arsenal Champions’ League game. Even taking my usual shortcut down Liverpool Road to avoid Highbury and Islington roundabout and Upper Street, I was caught between coaches and police vans and ended up a stressed three-quarters of an hour late for the City tutorial.
So the Holloway Road represented the twice-weekly transition I made from the Home Counties to the centre of London — the scruffy but vital artery that connected the inner-city cool of Islington and slightly edgy Finsbury, where City University’s campus is located in the middle of one of the closest pockets of social housing to the centre of London.
Many other routes in and out of London are fast dual-carriageways or even rise on viaducts above the zone two fringes, like the A40 Westway that I normally used to drive home. Unlike these, the traveller on the A1 Holloway Road experiences the grinding pace of city life. While nowhere near as hip, it’s not too unlike the Great Eastern Street/Commercial Street area that features in the novel.
The place also has associations with the City course as one of the students set part of her novel in the area. She wrote beautifully and she described very evocatively the experience of living just off the Holloway Road, albeit a few years ago when it perhaps held its connections with the lost London of the mid-20th century a little more strongly (there was a famous eccentric department store whose name escapes me). But the writing confirmed a sense of latent oddball seediness — an area in a liminal zone between gentrified Islington and Highgate and the grittier localities, generally to the east.
The road does seem to have something of a middle-class foothold amongst the seediness — with even a Waitrose in its smartest sections. However, the Highbury and Islington end is still more kebab house than cup cake.
So it was oddly appropriate that over three years later when the novel was finished (in its MA submission form) that it would be printed right next to the road I’d regularly driven down when I first started writing it. Collis, Bird and Withey, whose service overnight service I’d recommend, are just in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium (and I’ve made James an Arsenal fan in the novel).
And as a further little co-incidence bonus, I walked past this cafe below on the way back to the tube station with my bound manuscripts in hand. Anyone who’s read the start of the novel will spot the reason.
Anyone who read the post from a couple of weeks ago ‘Out of the Chaos â€” A Manuscript’Â might be wondering, in the style of a minor cliffhanger, what wasÂ the verdict on the 174,000 words that I believed I’d pieced together in a somewhat desperate and incoherent dash to meet my reader’s deadline.
The verdict has now been delivered and, to my surprise, it appears I’ve been overdoing the Â mental self-flagellation. I received aÂ report on the manuscript, followed up with a face-to-face meeting, that was, overall, very encouraging.
In fact, it was my professional reader’s opinion that with about two weeks of solid work I could craft the whole novel into a shape that would be of a standard to send out to agents – which is fantastic. This ought toÂ certainlyÂ silence my inner-critic — the one that must have been responsible for the post dwelling on the manuscript’s shortcomings.
Of course, those two weeks are full-time writing work. This doesn’t include my current day-job, nor the hours sitting on a train I use to travel to it (as I’m doing now) – or family or social life. But, then again, I suppose it’s only seven solid weekends.
Before going into a little more detail I should reveal (now she’s said fairly nice things about it) that it wasÂ Emma Sweeney, who ploughed through the huge Word file and reported her findings.
Emma taught us at the very end of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing when Emily had left a few weeks before the end of term on maternity leave.
(As an aside, the Certificate in Novel Writing has now been revised and relaunched as ‘The Novel Studio’ with its first incarnation in this form starting in the autumn — Emily, who’s now Course Director is taking applications now and I know she’s made changes partly based on feedback from alumni so promises to be a great experience. Emma Sweeney is part of the teaching team on the new course.)
Emma also works individually with writers (see link to Emma’s blog). I know a couple of course-mates from City University have used her services as a mentor since the end of the course — Bren Gosling has mentioned this in his blog (see link on sidebar) and his first novel, ‘Sweeping Up The Village’, was recently short-listed for a literary award, the Harry Bowling Prize.
Emma’s blog also mentions that she performs manuscript appraisals. Â For me, an unavoidable side-effect of having workshopped the novel in and out of various courses over the past two years meant that most people I knew who might cast an eye over the coalescing manuscript (course-mates, tutors and other very helpful readers)Â would already have more knowledge of it than they might ever have wanted — and would remember the history of its development.
What I needed was someone to read it with a fresh eye — which Emma was able to do but also with some prior knowledge of my writing (see Onwards and Upwards).
So, after a few delays and postponements, I finally sent Emma the novel as it stood, with all its imperfections. She turned it round very quickly — in just over 6 working days — which is impressive for a manuscript of that length.
Moreover, it was clear, both from her report and from our subsequent discussion, that Emma had read the novel carefully — which isn’t always the case with creative writing classes and tutors. Of course, this reading was a professional arrangement, which has a not insignificant cost to the writer, althoughÂ this isn’t surprisingÂ if one considers the time taken to attentively reading that many pages. It’s very unusual to get more than 5,000 words read at one time by a tutor, even on advertised novel-writing courses.
As mentioned, I was amazed that Emma thought the manuscript itself was in much better shape than my doom-laden forewarnings had suggested. While some of the material was Â hastily cut and pasted as rough drafts were re-arranged and intercut and sections that had heretofore only existed in my head were written down in skeletal, first-draft form, the combined whole was adequate (in conjunction with the more polished bulk of the novel) to give a decent account of the plot and characters at least.
But — did Emma think it was any good?Â Well, yes she did — and said some very positive things which I won’t dwell on here — but she added some significant caveats about issues that have to be addressed in those two weeks of revision. Issues like:
Some work making a character a lot more sympathetic (any ideas gratefully received — what about bringing in a 3-legged dog or something?)
Aspects of the plot need revising and some sub-plots need killing or fleshing out
Characters’ motivations require better development in places
Evidence of my tendency (as blog readers will no doubt recognise) to slip into rambling, abstract, academic style prose needs ruthlessly cutting out — this is good because the word count is too high and if this can be lost without abandoning the reader then it’s good news for me
Various amounts of copy editing to do in the sections I haven’t buffed up for workshops, etc.
But all the above are within the realms of the fixable and the Emma said she enjoyed the few days that she spent with my characters in the novel’s world. In fact, when we met face-to-face, Emma said she was automatically discussing the characters’ options and decisions with me as if they were real people — which was a very good sign.
Emma also said she enjoyed the humour and the psychological side to the characters and plot — sometimes I’ve mulled over the characters’ dilemmas for hours myself and still not resolved them. She also found some of the sensuous writing to be one of the novel’s strengths, which is very re-assuring. Emma is the first person to have read a lot of the sex scenes. I was in too much of a hurry while editing to think about losing my nerve and coyly dilute them. (There’s a particular scene she thought must have been very hard to write but that she thought I got right. If, dear reader, you ever have a copy of the finished novel in your hand, you’ll probably be able to identify it.)
One of the most encouraging observations was that she thought the nature of the writing — a fair amount of dialogue plus the way the story is told from the perspective of the characters — doesn’t make the novel seem as long as it actually is. She thought it read like a novel about two-thirds of its actual length. This is particularly comforting as I erred on the side of caution and put in the manuscript several sections that I’m probably 80% certain to cut – I wanted a second opinion.
I realise that because someone with a respected reputation has said she lies the novel (pending fixes) that there’s no guarantee that anybody else will who might progress it to publication. There are loads of well-written, unpublished books.
However, I may have a few thematicÂ arrows in my quiver in terms of hitting the current Zeitgeist Â — a novel about quitting the City pressure cooker in exchange for a hot pub kitchen with food, art and sex thrown into the recipe along with some interesting settings might have some commercial appeal.
But, that’s all idle speculation without a polished, complete coherent draft. So now I’ve got to go and chisel out that two weeks of writing time and then, perhaps, bite the bullet.