I hope I’ve not embarrassed myself with my dodgy French title but who cares when there’s some good news to celebrate. This week I learned of another book deal for one of my writing friends — this time Isabel Costello of The Literary Sofa blog that’s been mentioned a few times in posts on this blog (it’s linked via the sidebar).
I’ve referred to The Literary Sofa a number of times from here. It’s often been because Isabel hasn’t been afraid to write the sort of posts that many people want to but haven’t quite dared to themselves. She wrote a wonderfully balanced post on sex in fiction which prompted me to post my own thoughts on here and, even more bravely, posted on even more taboo subject of rejection by publishers for writers who’ve achieved that prized agent deal (referred in this post). Her original post generated a phenomenal number of comments, with Isabel opening up the floodgates for a discussion by many people in a similar position.
Having written about the pain of rejection and the effort of maintaining motivation to start all over again with a new novel means it’s especially great news that Isabel has achieved success so soon afterwards with Paris Mon Amour. The deal also shows how well-placed Isabel’s confidence was in her agent, Diana Beaumont.
From my perspective, it’s encouraging to see someone achieve a publishing deal who has followed a similar route to my own — attending creative writing classes, conferences like the York Festival of Writing, writing and networking events such as the Word Factory and the potential ego-shredding experience of submitting your work to writing groups.
Canelo is a digital publisher and Isabel explains what attracted her to them in her post on the Literary Sofa. She writes about the huge amount of support her publishers have for authors and for their enthusiasm for her novel.
Coincidentally, I went to a great event last weekend organised by the London chapter of the RNA (of which perhaps more in another post) at which Lyn Vernham, Managing Director of publisher, Choc-lit made a really informative presentation on the current state of the fiction market. As might be inferred from the name, Choc-lit aims at what’s called the ‘women’s fiction’ market (a term many people feel is problematic but that’s another blog post) and publishes in both in digital and physical format. Lyn’s talk illustrated how the distinction between the two is becoming much more fluid and interrelated.
For example, if a book is bought from a digital platform (i.e. Amazon) then the reader will very often have browsed the first chapter that’s usually available online for free, even if bought physically, so the distinction between the two is becoming much more blurred.
As with my MMU coursemate Kerry’s success with her recent novel, The Black Country, I’m really pleased to be able to report on another person know whose work has gone from idea in progress that I’ve heard about to publication. I can also vouch for Paris Mon Amour being an excellent read and will look forward to purchasing a copy to see the final version in June.
As this post was written on Hallowe’en, it ‘s very appropriate that it’s about a rather flesh-creeping novel.
I’ve previously posted about my fellow MMU MA graduate, Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s, debut novel, The Black Country, when its publication was a few weeks away. Then I wrote about how I’d seen the novel develop during our course’s workshopping sessions in the first two years of the course.
So I couldn’t wait to get hold of the book and read how the final, published version compared with what I’d remembered. Amazingly, those workshop sessions were back in 2011 and 2012 — well over three years ago — the workshopping each others’ writing part of the course being in the spring term of the first two years.
Kerry has had some great reviews for The Black Country, including one in the Independent on Sunday and a piece on the Black Country (the geographical area, not the novel) written by Kerry herself that was published in the Metro — see photo on the left. As I know from observation on the 0744, the Metro shares its readership with many voracious consumers of novels so I hope this was a well-targeted piece of publicity.
I don’t think Kerry is a regular commuter herself, benefiting from what’s possibly a less frenetic working lifestyle in the Black Country. The day the Metro article was published she hadn’t actually managed to get hold of a physical copy of the paper.
Discarded on trains and tubes, copies of the newspaper disappear very quickly indeed, especially in London, where their dispense points are filled in the afternoon by the Evening Standard. However, I managed to save the day by finding a couple of spare copies left over in my local station, which were dispatched, post haste, up to the Black Country. Kerry kindly signed a copy of the novel for me in return.
I read the novel very quickly. That’s partly because it’s very concise (about 170 pages) and also because it’s difficult to put down. Having finished the novel I can’t add much to what I previously posted based on the sections I remembered from the course. To do so would risk giving away too many spoilers to those who take up my recommendation and buy the book.
I did, eventually, discover the identity of the narrator, which had been on of the most intriguing aspects of the novel during the course and one that Kerry had refused to reveal. I was certainly surprised when all became clear — and if I can be surprised after two years of reading and commenting on sections of the novel then I’m sure other readers will find the way the novel develops equally gripping.
As I’d hoped, reading the novel in the light of having read earlier drafts of substantial parts was a fascinating experience. I remembered some sections very clearly while, at least according to my memory, others had been reworked, with familiar passages appearing among what seemed to be new writing. Of course, the various aspects of editing are fundamental to the publishing process but it’s been a unique insight to compare memories of the original text with the printed book. It’s a testament to the quality of Kerry’s writing on the course that there are long passages that appear completely unchanged from the MA workshop sessions. There are many such passages of excellent, evocative prose, particularly describing the uniquely dour, post-industrial landscape of the Black Country itself.
Kerry’s biography states that she’s been teaching creative writing at secondary school level for a number of years and has also been writing herself for a considerable time. On reflection, perhaps The Black Country illustrates the experience she brought along to the MA course.
Whereas others may have started the course with the proverbial blank page and used the workshop sessions to experiment and shape the direction of their novels, I feel Kerry had a good idea at the outset of how and where she wanted to go with The Black Country, perhaps not in mechanical terms, such as the exact plot, but certainly with the tone, the characters of the protagonists and the identity of that narrator.
That confidence certainly seems to be in evidence in the published version of the novel — and was no doubt a major factor in Salt’s when they decision to buy the novel. From a creative writing MA perspective, The Black Country is an admirable piece of work — succinct and focused unerringly on what it wants to say and the innovative way it wants to say it — without a word wasted. I’m sure the MMU MA course and the input of the lecturers and other students was invaluable in helping Kerry hone and test her bold ideas.
I’d like to urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Black Country, although I do feel I should point out that, as the title suggests, its contents are rather on the dark side and, while bleak, psychological novels are currently popular, the novel definitely mines the more depraved aspects of the human condition
So many congratulations to Kerry to be the first of my writing friends whose work from a course has made it through to publication. I’m hoping I’ll see plenty more in the future.
It’s been so long (over a year) since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation (i.e. novel) for marking by Manchester Metropolitan University that it was quite a surprise when a stiff-backed envelope arrived through my letterbox a few weeks ago.
So, documentary proof that I’m a qualified creative writer. Unfortunately, rather than being framed and displayed on the wall (apparently toilets are meant to be the place to hang these things for the ironically self-deprecating of us) the certificate is still languishing in a big pile of other post and papers (lots of not-so-nice things like credit card bills).
Such is the course structure, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to celebrate before receiving the official certificate: when I submitted the final draft; when I received the results of the dissertation, meaning I’d passed; when the examination committee sent me a letter saying they’d ratified the marks and I’d officially graduated. I could have attended the graduation ceremony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester but, having done the whole thing online up until that point, I decided to celebrate my graduation virtually instead.
Of course, the question now is how much doing the MA has advanced my writing career compared with the JFDI school of just getting my head down and writing — something many other writers have been hard at doing in November with NaNoWriMo.
I’ve meant to try and commit to NaNoWriMo myself for the past couple of years and had hoped to do this year. Whether I’d complete the 60,000 words in a month would depend on balancing my perfectionist instincts to go back over a piece of writing and revise it several times with my ability to bang work out to a demanding deadline. (I can work at a fast pace right up to a deadline as I did with the stories I had performed at Liars League stories, which were submitted just before the midnight cut-off on submission day and I can quite happily draft up 1,200 words in a couple of hours, as I did at last weekend).
I’m sure NaNoWriMo works for many people because it provides a similar sort of external pressure which is probably the second most valuable aspect of having done the MMU MA and City University course (and the OU and various other courses before that). If something has to be submitted by a date then the tendency to hone the writing by making lots of small incremental changes can’t be indulged indefinitely. The most valuable aspect of doing the courses has been, of course, the wonderful feedback that is generously given by peers and the expert recommendations of the tutors.
Nevertheless, an MA in Creative Writing is less of a guarantee of gaining a foothold in a profession than probably any other higher degree. While study and passing assessments and exams are necessary to join professions like the law, medicine, accountancy and many scientific specialisms, the path to becoming a ‘proper’ writer is much less clear cut.
In fact, when you talk with writers, the definition of when you actually become a writer is often rather nebulous and open to interpretation, partly because so many people who’ve published a book (or maybe lots of books) still have to work at their ‘day jobs’ in order to make a reasonable living. (One agent told me that he though it was odd to the point of endearing that lots of aspiring writers talked about their ‘day jobs’ — because so many published writers have other careers that it’s quite a rarity for any writer’s day job actually to be writing for a living — or writing fiction, at least, as opposed to journalism, copywriting, etc.)
So the time and money spent getting an MA in Creative Writing isn’t going to gain you automatic entry into the writing profession, however one defines that.But what it ought to do is equip you with the techniques, tools and, probably most importantly, the practice to make you more capable of writing a novel (or poem or play or memoir — whatever the genre) that will stand a far better chance of reaching an audience. I’d guess that the people who say they’re content to write solely for their own pleasure are probably less likely to go through the course or writing group approach because of the need to share your work with an audience whose opinions on it (not always positive) are discussed in detail.
In my case, and I suspect for most other students too, it’s gaining an audience for your work that’s one of the biggest attractions of a course — both in the direct sense of the feedback from tutors and other students and the indirect sense of training you to write work that’s capable of reaching the reading public.
Any decent creative writing course will also teach you that to reach that public (at least for the traditional publishing routes) the first step is to find representation by a literary agent — and an agent presentation is usually part of an MA course and they will often turn up at end of course readings and the like. However, the biggest concentration of agents in one place is at writers’ conferences, such as the York Festival of Writing or the similar festival in Winchester.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win the prize of lunch at Edwins, a very nice restaurant in Borough High Street, with Isabel Costello through a competition on her excellent blog The Literary Sofa, which has been mentioned in one of my previous posts. Isabel was signed up by agent Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath as a direct result of attending last year’s York Festival of Writing. Over lunch I had a great opportunity to ask Isabel about her experiences of the past year as an ‘agented’ writer. Coincidentally she wrote a very honest and informative post on this subject on her blog, which generated an astonishing number of comments.
It’s a fascinating and upbeat read about Isabel’s relationship with her agent (although some of the long list of nearly 100 comments could potentially be subtitled What They Don’t Teach You on Creative Writing Courses). I won’t paraphrase the post here but the original post (and the many comments) highlight how the publishing industry currently works. There are many talented writers who’ve written great novels which, even with the committed and enthusiastic support of their agents, haven’t been sold to publishers. (And because agents get a commission on their authors’ earnings, they don’t make a penny if a novel’s not taken up, despite potentially spending a considerable amount of time working on a book with a client.)
That said, of all the writers I’ve met who’ve not yet had a book taken up by a publisher (as opposed to those whose novels have been published or are already in the pipeline) the only one who I know has achieved a publishing deal for definite is a friend from the MA course (more details on that great news next year). Of course it’s likely that some of my ‘agented’ friends have some good news that’s under wraps or whose novels will successfully negotiate the slow-moving machinery of the publishing industry but that known success is a positive testament to the MMU MA.
(I haven’t forgotten that one of my City University coursemates, Jennifer Gray, has
published an extraordinary number of excellent, and well reviewed children’s books over the last couple of years — Atticus Claw, Guinea Pigs Online and the chicken books — but Jennifer had these moving along the pipeline when we met on the Certificate in Novel Writing.)
Reasons why books are sold or not can be very capricious — often reflecting what’s selling in the market at that moment (‘I want the next…’) based on factors that writers can’t influence, bearing in mind the time spent writing a novel (even the most ardent NaNoWriMo fan would concede that a novel written in a month represents a first draft that will benefit from much revision).
What Isabel’s blog post mentions is the importance of the hook or concept in selling a book to an agent (a subject that I used with respect to the film world in my Liars League story Elevator Pitch). She says her new novel, of which she’s just completed the first draft, is more focused on the hook than her first was (perhaps the benefit of discussion with her agent) but I’m sworn to secrecy about what it is. Isabel’s experience in this respect might be more valuable than elements of serious creative writing courses because, in my experience, these focus more on developing skills and competences in one’s writing in a way that can be applied to the prose and to the structure of the novel itself.
Courses are largely agnostic about the subject matter of a book. If you want to write a precisely observed story about, say, people sitting on a sofa watching TV in a suburb of Manchester then that’s fine, as might be writing about a civilisation-threatening invasion of supernatural zombies from another dimension. Talk to an agent and they might not only help you develop a novel with a killer hook but point you in the direction of the type of killer hook that’s snagging editors.
I’ve sometimes wondered why editors or agents, with their knowledge of what’s hot in the market, don’t use a Hollywood screenplay model and hire a bunch of talented writers to write a blockbuster to order. I guess there’s at least three reasons:
No-one’s actually that sure what will work in the market or how long a trend will last — certainly not sure enough to pay people up front to write a book on spec.
There are so many unsolicited manuscripts arriving from aspiring writers anyway that enough publishable and marketable books with irresistible selling points will be submitted anyway
That writers, agents and editors see books as something more than commodities to be marketed – that they’re intensely personal to both reader and author and that the success of a novel is more about serendipity and catching the Zeitgeist than any carefully designed marketing plan.
And if number three is the most overriding of reasons then that’s, in my mind, another justification for taking the writing course route. If there’s no way of second guessing the market (and no winning short-cuts for attracting the attention of agents and editors) then the only way to do so is to write what you feel you have to write from the heart and make sure you’re practiced enough at the craft of writing to do the novel justice. I’m hoping the process of gaining the certificate proudly displayed at the top of the post will have taken a considerable way along the road to achieving that level of skill.
I’d love to hear other writers thoughts on MAs (worthwhile or an academic distraction?) and I’ll happily answer any questions put in the comments section on my own experience.
As a sad postscript to the post above, I was very saddened to hear about the death of one of my previous creative writing teachers, Dinesh Allirajah. Dinesh was a tutor on an online course I took with the University of Lancaster in 2009 that bridged the period between finishing my Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and the City Certificate in Novel Writing. I remember that his extremely positive comments on the prose fiction I submitted in my portfolio was one of the first pieces of feedback that suggested to me that I’d be capable of writing a novel. Dinesh kept up a blog throughout his illness, which he catalogued with fortitude and good humour. His last post can be found here. He was only, I believe, in his forties and he leaves a family with teenage sons. His legacy will hopefully live on through the many students he inspired.
I revealed, rather coyly, in this blog post earlier in the year that I’d been accepted on the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. When I mention this to people in conversation I occasionally receive the polite astonishment that I imagine a woman bricklayer might experience or a female pest-controller.
Seeing as a woman once climbed around my loft removing a wasps’ nest quickly and efficiently why should it be strange that a man might be a member of a Romantic Novelists’ Association scheme? Nevertheless, I’m subliminally tempted to add ‘No, I’m not planning to change gender or anything else. I’m still male’ – and during last week being able to point to the temporary beard I was forced to grow a beard after I fell over while out running — cutting my chin and breaking my thumb!
Entering a world popularly associated with the opposite gender is an illuminating experience — and valuable for a writer. Not that I’ve encountered any sexism at all through my membership of the scheme. The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) appears extremely keen to be inclusive towards men, as I’m sure it towards everyone, and there are men who are full members of the RNA. I found a couple by Googling, although one writes under a female pseudonym and another specialises in male-male fiction and I’m doing neither of those. (I must point out that I can’t be a full member of the RNA myself until I have a suitable book published.)
Nevertheless, there are cultural perceptions about how men’s ability or desire to write romantic fiction. I’ve been reminded a few times of the discussion earlier this year on the Today programme between Jojo Moyes and Cathy Kelly on whether ‘men can make good romantic fiction writers’.
That’s an interesting question to think about while I’m writing today – the publication date of David Nicholls’s new novel Us –which brings up all sorts of issues about gender stereotyping of marketing and covers and reviews and so on, which could occupy a whole different blog post, maybe after I’ve read it. (I was surprised to read so many positive reviews of the novel in the weekend broadsheets after all the sniffiness about its Booker longlisting.)
However, any ribbing in the pub will be, ahem, small beer compared to the brilliant benefits of my membership of the RNA New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which have surpassed all my expectations.
For those who haven’t yet discovered it, the RNA NWS allows all its members to take part in RNA activities but offers the invaluable service of using the expertise of one of a panel of 50 established authors to review each member’s full length novel manuscript.
Unsurprisingly the scheme is very heavily oversubscribed and reaches capacity within minutes when applications open each January. I tried and failed to join a couple of years ago but this year had better luck. The deadline for submitting a manuscript is the end of August, although well-organised writers submit theirs well in advance to avoid the last minute rush.
Of course I wasn’t one of them. Mine was sent in around 29th August. Given the manuscript’s substantial size I wasn’t expecting to get a response for several weeks. So I was stunned by its amazingly quick turnaround – within about three weeks. And I was taken aback by the wonderfully detailed and insightful report that I received from my reader (as the scheme is run anonymously all I know about her is that she is, indeed, a she).
While the scheme is intended for ‘romantic fiction’ this definition can include novels that might also be thought to belong in other genres provided it meets the criteria that ‘romantic content and love interest are integral to the story’. I’d like to think of my novel as ‘accessible literary fiction’, perhaps the sort of book in the intersection between mass-market and ‘literariness’ that reading groups often choose (my wild optimism is creeping in here).
While the novel’s narrative is anchored against the relationships between the two chief protagonists, it’s also full of content that I wouldn’t have expected to crop up in traditional romantic fiction — as a glance at some posts on this blog might suggest (spray painting street art, tapping and spiling barrels in pub cellars, TV cookery shows, German modernist artists, dodgy photos, ancient monuments and so on).
Therefore, when I received the manuscript back I was a little worried that perhaps the reason for its remarkably quick turnaround would be that only the first few chapters had been read and ‘Wrong Genre’ would be written on the title page in huge red letters.
It wasn’t — which was a huge relief and maybe showed up some preconceptions on my part about romantic fiction — preconceptions that were completely blown away when I started to scan the comprehensive reader’s report which started with the reader saying she enjoyed reading it. Phew!
The reader’s skill and experience clearly identified the conflict that propels the narrative — where two people meet, begin to realise how desperately they need each other but have to overcome huge obstacles in their way — and obstacles that they may not surmount. And if deciding who’s the person you want to spend the rest of your life with — and then trying to make it happen — isn’t a question worthy of a romantic novel then I’m not sure what is.
I needn’t have worried about the content either – my reader wasn’t at all shocked or surprised or puzzled by what was in the novel. All her comments were constructive – and, in the spirit of the best feedback, considered the writing on the terms of what it was trying to achieve rather than through any subjective personal preferences. That said, all feedback was made with the experienced critical eye of an author who was focused on how to get a manuscript into commercially publishable shape.
I can only go on my experience of what I received back from my reader but it consisted of a lengthy report on the whole novel – andshe’d gone through the manuscript and noted typos and formatting issues in pencil. This was the result of the investment of a considerable amount of time – so I’m glad she said she enjoyed reading the novel.
I mentioned in a covering letter that the novel had been workshopped through the MA and City University courses and workshopped with coursemates and tutors – and my reader was generous enough to say that ‘it showed’ (I’m interpreting that as a compliment!) I’m sure the RNA NWS readers wouldn’t hold back out of politeness if a manuscript was technically flawed or was full of poorly-written prose. However, one of the most valuable aspects of the report for me was that it casts a fresh eye over the whole novel from the perspective of a new reader — and, as the report carefully pointed out — the type of reader who’d most likely be the commercial target audience for the novel.
This brings an entirely different viewpoint to feedback received on a creative writing course from a tutor or fellow students – people who’ve provided expert, generous and vital feedback but who’ve also become familiar with the book’s evolution over an extended period — and have read it in three- or five-thousand word extracts over a long period.
Both approaches are, of course, extremely useful and complementary but the RNA NWS reader was in a position to focus on points that I’d begun to lose sight of through familiarity and through the way the novel has changed over time. She was able to remind me about bringing to the fore the aspects of a character or plot that a reader might instinctively root for (or be less engaged by) — and where to place the events that motor plot forward (and where to relax the pace).
Principles of narrative technique and structure aretaught on creative writing courses but, given the limited size of extracts that can be workshopped in a course environment, they’re necessarily difficult to assess over a novel-length work — and unless your course lasts forever they’re impossible to work on as exercises.
While the reader commented from a perspective of commercial marketability, she certainly didn’t do so from a ‘dumbed-down’ perspective. Obviously a well-read book-lover outside as well she referred me to a book translated from Dutch which proves that as well as being an authority on romance that she’s also well-read outside the genre.
The report was crammed with so much useful comment that I was prompted to write my own response to it where I took all the points and listed most of them out in ‘to-do’ list fashion – and I’ve been ticking them off.
There are also points that I’m going to need to reflect on carefully. The report picks up some elements in the novel that are deliberately subversive and individual and, while I want the writing to work as well as possible, I want to ensure I preserve everything that might make the novel quirky and original (a word used approvingly by the reader about the heroine).
Nevertheless, the recommendations for change are about aspects of the novel that can are easily fixable — essentially honing and tweaking the writing incrementally — rather than having to address major flaws. The report was sprinkled with some very complementary words — reading these made my week. I won’t repeat them here but they provided encouragement to get on and put the revisions into the manuscript. Having received this extremely useful feedback from the RNA NWS, I’m relieved that I’m still yet to properly start the submission process to agents in earnest. Once I’ve worked through the feedback through the novel can’t fail to be stronger.
I’d imagine the RNA NWS offers something different to the various manuscript assessment services available because it’s an initiative that aims to help writers become eligible for its professional membership (and I’d love to go along to the RNA events, although I admit I’d be a little hesitant before walking through the door.) Based on my own experience (an admittedly small sample of one) I’d wholeheartedly recommend the RNA NWS to anyone whose novel fulfils the acceptance criteria (see above and the RNA website).
I’d like to thank the organiser, Melanie Hilton, for finding me such a suitable, knowledgeable and diligent reader who, though anonymous, knows via Melanie that I’ve passed on my deep gratitude.
As of today I can safely say, nearly four years after I embarked on the course, that I’m a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing!
It’s time to celebrate — in a suitably virtual way.
Having received a letter a week or two ago informing me that the Manchester Metropolitan University’s examinations committee had approved the award of my postgraduate degree, I was invited to the English Department degree congregation ceremony in Bridgewater Hall, due to be held tonight. I’d really liked to have attended — to mark the end result of all that hard work over a keyboard — but for various reasons, mainly geographical and connected with the day job — meant that I decided to stay in keeping with the philosophy of an online course and decided to have a virtual graduation instead.
So I got in touch with fellow graduates Anne and Kerry (who were also absentee ‘graduands’) and we decided to raise our glasses to each other this evening at the point where we’d have been on stage shaking hands with the vice-chancellor (or whoever).
Actually, Kerry had even more of a reason to celebrate in her absence as she was awarded the Michael Schmidt prize for best portfolio on the Creative Writing MA course which I see as a great vindication of taking the course via the online route. Well done Kerry from your fellow online students — I’ve heard murmurings that the novel (The Black Country) that won the portfolio prize may working its way through the publication labyrinth. I’ll post on the blog when the work that I saw emerge through the workshopping process might become commercially available.
As mentioned in my Blog Hop post from last week, the relay has continued this Monday with three writers from my MA Creative Writing course taking up the baton. All are great posts about three fascinating novels.
I’ve seen drafts of Kerry Hadley’s novel The Black Country while workshopping on the Manchester Metropolitan University course. She describes it very well in her post — a story that skilfully reveals a very dark core from an ostensibly everyday suburban situation. And the narrator plays an intriguing role that’s still a mystery to me, having not had the chance to read the complete novel. Kerry’s blog is at: http://kerryhadley.weebly.com/kerrys-blog/another-blog-hop
Anne is working on a new piece of writing, House of Scars, which is in the science fiction and/or fantasy genres, as was her work on the MA course. In her previous work, Anne showed her talent at creating a credible , dystopian world — inhabited by characters the reader can immediately relate to. To do this in an alternative reality seems a lot harder task to me than placing a novel in the contemporary world where the reader can bring their own points of reference to the writing. Anne originally comes from Denmark but the quality of her writing is so fluent you’d never suspect she comes from the trendy land of Scandi-noir and this year’s Eurovision. Anne’s blog is at: http://annekirstinejensen.wordpress.com/
Matt Cresswell, who’s based in Manchester. In addition to his writing he runs Glitterwolf magazine which is described on its website as ‘a UK-based literary and arts magazine that publishes the best poetry, fiction, art and photography by contributors identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’ Matt is also working on a new project since workshopping with me on the MMU course. From the blog post it sounds like a highly imaginative story —Tintwistle & Co., which is set in ‘a sort of steampunked London’ and featuring ‘a short, sharp, opera-singing detective’. Matt’s blog can be found here: http://mcresswell.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/blog-hop-monday-the-return/
And next week the blog continues (and goes international too) with contributions from:
On Saturday I ventured into London on my first visit to The Word Factory – a monthly event which is described as being a ‘literary salon’ and has been highly recommended by a few writing friends. Literary salon is a fairly ambiguous term but, now I’ve been to one, it’s not a bad description of a varied and convivial evening with a group of people who enjoy getting together around a common love of literature and writing.
My main motivation for attending the April event was that one of the featured writers was Nick Royle, who keen readers of this blog may know (and my MMU course mates will know for definite) was our fiction writing tutor in the second year. However, as the route of the course that I took was the online version, I’d never met Nick (or even seen him in the flesh) before. In fact, I’d only heard him speak about a week or so before the Word Factory event when he was one of Ian McMillan’s guests on the BBC Radio 3 programme The Verb.
So, having had an academic year’s worth of tutorials and web chat seminars with Nick, it was interesting to see what he looked and sounded like – and also fascinating to be on the other side of the table in some ways as he was invited to read a short story of his own at the event. Despite being a prolific writer of short stories (as well as several novels), this one wasn’t published anywhere else as Cathy Galvin, the Word Factory host, introduced it as only having been completed the day before. So we were a privileged bunch.
Rather than shrink into anonymity in the audience alongside the writing friends I’d happened to have bumped into (including fellow Lancastrian Pete Domican) I went up to Nick and introduced myself in what could best be described as the ‘interval’, although it was really a chance to chat over a glass of wine. I think he may have been mildly taken aback at being accosted by the physical manifestation of a previously online only presence but we had a pleasant chat and he asked me how the writing was coming along.
From my perspective, the fact I took the opportunity to meet Nick and introduce myself suggests that there’s possibly something significant in making the personal connection with someone who’s been offering feedback and advice on my writing – and it would be interesting to speculate if I’d have interpreted any aspects of the course differently had I been able to picture the tutors physically or read their written communication in the context of their voices and accents.
By coincidence on a related subject, during my last Metroland Poets meeting (also at the weekend) we workshopped some poems sent to us remotely by another poetry group based in Spain (fortunately the poems were written in English). Normally we have a system when workshopping each others’ work which functions quite well — the poet reads but must stay silent while the group discusses the poem (no questions and answers batted to and fro) and then gets a right of reply (or explanation) at the end of the debate.
With our Spanish counterparts not physically present, one of our members made the observation after we’d discussed two or three poems, that the tone of our debate was notably different to when a member sits mutely at the table during a normal discussion. This was true. Without feeling the need to be tactful, the comments tended to be blunter and more direct — that’s no reflection on the quality of the poems as they all had some considerable strengths.
It’s indisputable that no-one at a poetry group is likely to say ‘I hate this poem’ or ‘this poem is dreadful’ about the work of one of their members — I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of any writing group like that. However, having been part of a group’s discussions for a while, people can adjust for the collective politeness and understand the implications of faint praise along the lines of ‘I think this may need a little more work’ — or other typically English euphemisms.
And, of course, familiarity often leads to more candidness in the long run. Often the most useful feedback from readers is the most critical — ‘that doesn’t work’. But frank feedback can only be given in a trusted relationship — where the recipient knows that the comments are being made by someone who is sympathetic to the objectives of the writer (genre may be an example) and whose feedback will improve the work (i.e. knows what they’re talking about).
People will always have different tastes and there’s no point trying to mould work into a form with which a writer isn’t comfortable. This is probably what Hanif Kureishi meant in one of his notorious comments about creative writing courses: ‘You’ve got to try and find one teacher who can really help you.’ If I have time I’d like to blog at more length about his views which, as a soon-to-be MA Creative Writing graduate, I do have some sympathy with.
Personal relationships are also bound to influence the mechanics of the publishing trade, particularly in the way books are reviewed. Critics may well trouble their consciences less in inflicting witty put-downs on debut authors they’ve never met than an established author they’re likely to meet at some industry event. On the other hand, some reviewers may like to take an opportunity to puncture what they consider undeserved reputations — there are many simmering literary feuds conducted through the broadsheet review sections of which most ordinary readers are completely oblivious.
So while I think it’s perfectly practical to teach writing remotely (the OU offers some great writing courses exclusively online), it certainly gives a different perspective to meet the tutors in person (even the OU offers optional face-to-face sessions). I vaguely remember that MMU extends an invitation to online students to attend the social event that kicks off each academic year and, if time permits, I’d recommend going along to this to be able to put a face to a name at the start of the course — rather than six months after it finished, as in my case with Nick Royle.
Also on the Word Factory bill were K.J. Orr and A.L.Kennedy — referred to as Alison throughout the evening. Co-incidentally one of the set novels on the MMU reading list was A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. I enjoyed the book’s wonderful prose and dark humour but its subject matter is pretty bleak — about the effects of alcoholism — and I was curious about the story that A.L.Kennedy would read and whether the subsequent interview might be a bit, well, worthy and hard-going.
How wrong could I be? The story extract was hilarious — mainly musings about the absurdity of what’s sold in a Canadian sex shop and she was a humorous, engaging and, for a well-known author, remarkably self-deprecating interviewee. Only later on, when it was mentioned in the interview, I remembered that, as well as writing, she’s also known for her sideline in comedy. On the basis of this enjoyable evening at the Word Factory it would be well worth catching one of her stand-up shows.
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 Dewey, Kassalina Boto, Philip 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.
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.
Well, I did it. This week I received an email from Manchester Metropolitan University giving me the excellent news that my dissertation had made the grade — i.e. the draft of the novel I submitted in early October (see previous posts) had been through the double marking process from two lecturers not involved in its supervision and had been awarded what I consider a rather damned good grade.
I also received a commentary from the markers on what they saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. This was very illuminating and far more thought-provoking than just receiving a raw mark.
While I’m not officially an MA in Creative Writing yet — we have to wait for some external moderation and the ratification to the examinations committee — I now know that I’ve completed and passed all the modules required for the formalities to be completed in the summer.
As mentioned above, I was very happy — and very relieved — with my mark but I’m not going to go into detail about it on the blog. Apart from anything else, I’m not convinced that creative writing can be marked with the same exactitude as other academic subjects — I’d suggest its subjective nature may account for a wider margin of error than many other courses.
I’ll share a few selected excerpts from the feedback I was given, although this will be in true blurb writers’ style. The comments that I received were a snappily entertaining read in themselves, although verging on the sort of writerly self-consciousness that was in danger of parodying the creative writing tutor who wants to keep dazzling the students by example.
Naturally the feedback mentioned a few points about the novel that the examiners thought could be improved (after all there are very few perfect novels) but, fortunately, I was already aware that a few areas needed work when the deadline loomed, especially when I had to switch out of structural edit mode and into proof editing (which seems to have worked OK as there were no comments on presentation, etc.).
The feedback had a pretty accurate distillation of the novel’s premise: ‘The Angel is, at its core, a love story, and it is the suspense and tension of the illicit desire (and friendship) between City trader and would-be chef James and edgy Hoxton artist Kim that animates the novel.’ (Strictly speaking, Kim doesn’t live or work in Hoxton but it’s a generic shorthand for the areas she does move around in at the start of the novel.)
There are approving comments about some of the novel’s satirical targets: ‘a place of trashy TV, PowerPoint presentations for jargon-benumbed corporate drones…and vacuous materialism.’ The markers seemed to enjoy that ‘the City and the moronic lexicon of corporate Human Resources come in for a well-deserved kicking’ but they also appreciate that the novel needs to balance its satire with humanity and point out that authenticity ‘is to be found in the two principal protagonists’ with the novel having ‘an edgy affection for James and Kim’. It concludes that it is ‘a rather engaging love story’.
What’s most complimentary about the feedback is that the examiners see the characters as real, three-dimensional people with whom readers can empathise — to the point of being teased by ‘erotic tension’ as the characters pursue their attraction with each other.
Being told that I’ve created characters who engage with each other so vividly that and the reader feels their sexual attraction is a compliment worth more than anything connected with more overt or showy literary techniques or pyrotechnics. It’s this identification that keeps people reading and makes them care about what happens next. It’s almost magical and I’m not sure that MA courses can teach this innate skill — nor to be able to precisely analyse how the process works — but it’s good that the two anonymous but undoubtedly well-read and highly qualified writers have said that this works in my novel.
So I’ll take the comments and appropriate changes to the manuscript where necessary but overall, it’s time for a celebratory drink. It’s a shame I can’t walk into The Angel and buy a round for Anne, Kerry and Claire whom I know have also passed their dissertation and will become fellow MA graduates in the summer. A virtual raised glass will have to suffice. Here’s to more occasions to toast for our class of 2013.
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.
Well, ‘the end’ might be an over-dramatic way of putting it but it does mark a significant watershed: 1st October (tomorrow at the time of writing) marks the end of my Creative Writing MA course. It’s the day that we students have spent just over three years persevering towards — when we hand over the fruits of our labours to the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University to cast their verdict.
It’s also why, when there are only a couple of hours left in the whole month of September, there have been no updates on this blog during the month. Getting the novel into a decent enough shape to submit as a text for academic assessment has been bloody hard, knackering work — about two months intense effort over and above the normal writing time I try to eke out around the day job and other commitments — so not enough time even to post up the holiday photos I hinted about in the last update (but persevere to the end of this post and any disappointment might be alleviated in that department).
Part of the reason it’s been something of a grind is that I’d not realised, until it was mentioned by fellow students, Kerry and Anne, that we were required to hand in hard copies of the novel — it’s effectively the dissertation component of the Masters degree — and with a dissertation the university requires the document not only to be physically printed but professionally bound like, er, a real book!
Fortunately there’s no additional commentary or analysis required (that tends to come at PhD level) but, with a minimum word count of 60,000, it’s a very weighty document for all students. And, as I have no worries about meeting the minimum word count (thankfully there isn’t maximum), then I’m expecting my dissertation to be something of a bookend when I pick my copy up from the bookbinders.
Interestingly, my MSc dissertation for the OU was a much more manageable 17,500 words — not much of gripping story there, though — and I was able to submit that purely electronically. I later had it printed and bound for my own reference — and it sits doing a bit of bookshelf ego massaging next to the MBA dissertation from years ago that I actually printed on an inkjet printer before having it bound (that would probably cost me about £500 in ink if I tried it now on my current money pit of an HP printer).
It seems ridiculous to have been working on a novel for so long and to have to suddenly shift into a higher gear when the end of the course suddenly creeps up. But I guess that’s the way of deadlines — I know from some of my published and agented friends how they’re often set exacting deadlines. Most published books would probably only live on their authors’ word processors if it wasn’t for that external kick up the backside. But I had a deadline and I made it, however generous it seems in retrospect.
To get the revision process kicked off in earnest, at the start of August I went through the laborious process of printing off my draft and then took it on holiday to France and Germany to read. Relaxing in a lovely tranquil gîte in the Vosges mountains (see picture below) perhaps put me in a similar frame of mind perhaps to an authentic reader. I had the weird experience (a bit like when characters ‘take over’) of looking at the text a little like a reader rather than the person who wrote it — I surprised myself by getting to the end of a chapter and feeling that reader’s compulsion to start straight away on the next one. And I knew the story!
I’ve spent the last six weeks working through the notes that I made — making some very difficult decisions about dropping whole sections (the infamous ‘calendar’ chapters that I workshopped have gone), taking fragments from several chapters and altering them to form completely new scenes (there’s one continuous event in the novel that I constructed from three previously completely separate sections) and trawling through the text for consistency and checking facts (for example, I had to change a child’s age in several places when I realised there was a scene when she was in a pushchair).
Having to hand in hard copies effectively tests your self-publishing skills. I spent hours checking pedantically through the whole manuscript for formatting errors, stray punctuation and the smallest typo (although it’s sod’s law that many will inevitably remain). I had to worry about mirroring the margins for the binding, ensure that sections started on odd pages and lots of other issues that writers who e-mail Word document to a publisher don’t have to pore over.
Once I’d formatted the PDF for the professional printers it was only a few minutes’ work to create a reasonably passable e-book version of the finished MA version of the novel. It’s now on my Kindle and has made me wonder if I should spend a little more time polishing it and take the plunge and properly self-publish it. Maybe.
Certainly, the self-publishing route is becoming a much more common way of getting agent interest — as I discovered in some panel discussions when I made a fleeting visit for the second year to the York Festival of Writing at the beginning of September.
I was also surprised to hear in a session by a couple of literary agents that almost all the manuscripts that they receive as submissions are in need of a thorough line and copy edit.
Moreover they expect this, almost to the point of being a bit wary of the most perfectly edited examples, on the basis that authors are better employed on the more creative tasks of the publishing process — inventing ideas, plots and characters — rather than combing through manuscripts for errors. Proof reading is usually more effective if done by someone new to the text and it’s also a dedicated (and very different) skill in itself.
I may blog later at more length about my visit to York — Isabel Costello has written a very good blog post about the benefits of attending for a second time.
I thought I was being rather brave by attending Anastasia Sparks’s workshop on writing erotica. However, everyone seemed to be surprised that there were more men in the room than women.
However, as might have been anticipated some of the men were much more uncomfortable than the women when asked to do an exercise in erotica and then read out what they’d written — using some of the words written on the blackboard in the photo below (guess which words I volunteered). Two made rather lame excuses and refused to share even a mildly erotic word.
As the novel is going to be academically assessed, I didn’t want to take the risk of submitting something that looked unfinished so I’ve gone through the rather bizarre and very time-consuming process of using Acrobat’s ‘Read Out Loud’ function to speak every line of the novel in its default, robotic American monotone while I’ve read the text on the screen. (It takes about five minutes to read and correct each page this way and it’s not foolproof as corrections have a way of introducing their own typos.)
After working on something for so long, it’s amazing how many errors you can spot just by hearing the words are spoken out loud. There are some sentences in the book that have taken over three years to write — and I was still altering them at the last minute.
The proofing process over the last few days has been exhausting and, in places, very frustrating when I came across something that I wasn’t happy with but which was too complex to fix in the time available.
I’m also greatly indebted to Guy Russell, from the City course who’s very technically knowledgeable and a wonderfully humorous writer himself, for reading through a half-edited version of the manuscript in a week and giving me extremely very helpful and honest feedback.
I also did some very analytical MSc-type things with spreadsheets — making graphs of chapter lengths and finding a Word macro that allowed me to count all the unique instances of words in the novel — the number is easily into five figures. I rather like the fact I got ‘rhombus’ in the book (it’s about plate shape not a treatise on geometry), not so sure about ‘sentient’ though.
So today the novel is hitting the press at a printers and bookbinders just off the Holloway Road in London, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium — there’s a little serendipity there as I made James an Arsenal fan and the friendly woman I’ve been talking to there is called Magda — like one of my favourite characters in the novel.
Sadly, there will only be a handful of very expensive copies but I’ll pick up a copy for myself tomorrow and it can sit proudly on my shelf — I’ll try and post a photo of it at some point when I’ve recovered from the whole draining process.
There’s still plenty I’d like to change about what I’ve submitted but at least it’s a completed novel with a beginning, middle and end, even I might dare suggest a narrative arc, and no obvious ‘work in progress’ bits of sticking plaster holding it together.
While I was at the Festival of Writing I had two one-to-one meetings with agents who’d read the first 3,000 words of the novel in advance. As with the same sessions last year, they were very positive about the writing and were keen to see more — asking me very practical questions about the novel and how I came to write it — rather than making lists of recommendations to fix faults. I guess that’s a good sign.
However, having gone through the editing process for the MA submission I realise there’s still a little more structural work that needs doing before I start submitting it in earnest, if I decide that’s the route I want to take. I’ll try to address those and then go through the proofing process again. So, the novel hasn’t quite been put to bed yet.
While I’m going to carry on updating the blog with writing and novel-related posts, I’m not intending to chronicle anything about the submission process, should I steel myself to put myself through that agony. I know from my many friends who are excellent writers that it’s a frustrating and painful process and full of raised and dashed hopes and interminable waiting. Better to maybe start talking about the next book instead.
One of the agents said she’d heard good things about the MMU MA Course, which was quite reassuring, but also took me back a little as I’d recently been so focused on completing the novel as an end in itself.
There are quite a few short courses and events now that promise some professional writers’ feedback on aspiring authors’ work, which is always useful, but what I mentioned to the agent in reply was how valuable it had been to have the input over an extended period each year in the course of three authors, each who’d each published many books of their own.
Rather than see the writing as a one-off, they got to know each student’s style and novel-in-progress over an extended period of time. While the feedback could be challenging at times, it was always encouraging.
However, it was a little disconcerting reading the reviews for my tutor in the second year’s recent book. Nick Royle’s First Novel has a protagonist who’s a creative writing lecturer, working with students on their, er, first novels. I’m sure he completely fictionalised everything in there!
I’m feeling a little rudderless and cast out into the wide-world now as I’ve been more or less constantly on writing courses (often more than one simultaneously) for the last six years. It was September 2007 when I started the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course (highly recommended) and I’ve gone through several more, including the intensive City Certificate in Novel Writing 2009-2010, to the point where I’ve now completed the MA.
It’s taken way longer than I expected to get to the point where I can hand in a novel with which I’m reasonably happy. There was some material that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover — ‘Did I really write that then?’ — from years ago but plenty of stuff that made me wince (which hopefully has been mostly excised now).
My friend Kathy, who I’ve known since the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and is a Creative Writing MA herself, tells me that my writing has improved considerably since she’s known me — so I guess that’s testament to the courses and all the practice that they’ve forced me to put in. Hopefully, the process of writing the next novel (or completing the one that’s been in abeyance for the last three years) will be consequently speedier.
But at the moment, having had plenty of nights going to bed at two and being up by seven, I’m reminded of Adele Parks’s very entertaining keynote speech at this year’s Festival of Writing.
She explained how she completed her first published novel while working in a demanding day-job — ‘Basically, I gave up sleep’.
I’ll second that but wouldn’t recommend it!
Now for those left on tenterhooks by the lack of holiday photos as tantalisingly promised in the previous post, here’s a few with some relevance to the novel.
This is a wonderful view of a bend in the Rhine, taken near Boppard, a place I last visited on a school trip.
Trabants are now as scarce as the remants of the Berlin Wall.
And this peculiar view is of the ladder used by border guards to climb up a border watchtower. I climbed up and down this watchtower ladder near Potsdamer Platz and it was quite hair-raising but what I love most is how the 1980s East German lino has been preserved.
I’m able to mention a bit of news about a friend which has the moral that talent combined with self-belief and hard-work eventually gets its reward.
A major advantage of taking creative writing courses, if not the principal benefit, is becoming part of a group of like-minded writers in a similar position. If the course is selective in its entry requirements then you should expect to be in the company of other students who are capable of producing pretty good writing — and know their metaphors from their onomatopoeia.
Another important criterion for selection is an individual’s preparedness to comment on other students’ work and also to be capable of receiving comment on their own writing. The ability to be generous with feedback on others’ writing and to make criticism constructively is probably rarer than the innate ability to write well. The best courses are typified by the amount of interaction between the students – especially if that continues beyond the course.
The City University Certificate in Novel Writing course – now rebranded as The Novel Studio – was extraordinarily effective in that respect. Not a single student dropped out of the course over the ten months that it ran – despite a demanding schedule of two evenings (or one evening and alternate Saturday) a week. Over three years after our year group of fourteen students finished the course, the large majority of us are still in regular contact.
The Novel Studio’s strapline is ‘We spot the talent, you develop your potential’ — which is pretty accurate in my experience. Much credit must be given in retrospect to Alison Burns, who was the course director. She selected a cohort of very capable writers with very differing but complementary styles and interests . Moreover, the feedback sessions were intense and lively – people regularly ran out of time to give verbal comments and we all left the sessions with sheaves of invaluable notes that we’d scribbled on each other’s manuscripts.
As mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been part of a group who have met up every month with Emily Pedder, who’s now in charge of the shorter writing courses at City, to continue workshopping extracts from each others’ novels-in-progress.
People have left and rejoined the group – sometimes for practical reasons like having a baby or workload from taking other courses and also, in a couple of cases, because their writing has been picked up by agents or publishers who’ve set exacting deadlines. Jennifer Gray’s children’s books have been very successful – with the Guinea Pigs series for Quercus and Atticus Claw for Faber and Faber. I spotted that she had a session for the books at the Hay Festival earlier this summer and would liked to have gone along. I’ll have to catch up when I next meet Jennifer for a drink.
Partly because we’ve formed a group that’s been supportive and encouraging of each others’ efforts, I’ve hoped that as many of us as possible will go on to achieve success with our novels and build writing careers. There are certainly some excellent novels in the works and nearing completion – and they’re all the better for having received detailed feedback from other members of the group.
Imho all the other students on that course were very capable of producing novels that would be an asset to the shelves of any Waterstones (as have been plenty of other writers I’ve met on the MA course and other courses at the Open University and Lancaster University). However, after observing from the fringes of the publishing industry, it’s sobering to learn that just because a novel is very good there’s no guarantee that it will be published, let alone be a success. Like other creative industries, as far as predicting what’s going to be a big success in the market then, in William Goldman’s words, ‘nobody knows anything’.
I’ve been at question and answer sessions where agents have been asked ‘Can you tell me what to write about from a commercial perspective so I don’t spend three years writing a novel no-one wants to publish or read?’ The question almost answers itself — putting in those three years shows belief in both your idea and yourself as an author — and your writing ought to improve along the way too. And that time and effort is put in without any guarantee of a reward — if you’re lucky enough to get published the chances are you’re not going to be able to live comfortably off the proceeds, at least straight away.
Maybe the second most sobering thing to learn from meeting writers is that it’s a hell of a lot of hard work for a small chance of a reward that is, in all likelihood, to be rather modest. Calculate all the time required to write, edit, revise and polish a novel begun on a creative writing course and divide it by the reported revenue generated by a debut novel and it’s very likely to come out well under the minimum wage (and, for most people, the time is effectively overtime, because it’s fitted around work, family or other responsibilities). However, the figures for average earnings are an example of the infamous long-tail — a small number of writers have very healthy incomes, whereas there’s a large number of published writers who aren’t so fortunate.
Even to make it through an intense course like the City course, it was clear that everyone loved writing with a passion. But I can understand why some very talented writers might have decided it’s not the right time in their lives to make the enormous commitment to complete that novel.
Many of the group – and other writers I’ve met in other ways – are now at a point where their work stands on a boundary. It’s poised to transform from an endeavour that’s been personal, shared privately with friends, and becoming a commercial proposition, something to which rights can be sold to agents and publishers. The wheels of the literary industry can turn very slowly, with decisions taking an agonisingly long time which means that I often hear hints of promising news in the pipeline but is subject to confidences which mean it can’t be mentioned publicly, let alone on a blog.
However, last week we heard some great news from an ex-City student that can be publicly shared. The collective thrill of receiving the news shows that despite all the above, when someone you know is recognised and gets a deserved break the feeling is almost euphoric and makes all the effort seem very worthwhile. Rick Kellum announced that he’d signed as a client of Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Rick, one of our three North Americans, has been working hard on his fantasy novel since we finished the City course – he was posting up his word count daily on Facebook at certain stages.
As well as putting in the hours, Rick is a gripping and imaginative writer. He was also one of the students on the course who was most open with his feedback on the course – no-one could nail a lazy adverb more quickly. His scrutiny and attention to detail certainly helped me so I’m particularly pleased about the news.
Rick is also an excellent and entertaining reader of his writing. I imagine he’d go down a storm at author events — which won’t harm his chances of developing a successful writing career. I’ve also met his agent, Juliet, on a couple of occasions and she leaves the impression that she’s very ambitious and will work hard to get the best for her clients. Her Twitter feed is both entertaining and very informative (with regular #askagent sessions held, often on Sunday evenings). I look forward to hearing further good news from both of them.
For anyone wondering why this blog’s been a little more quiet than usual, it’s because I’ve been on holiday and, for the first time in a while, I spent a decent amount of time in the home country of Kim, one of my novel’s principal characters. Some photos of Germany and Berlin may follow.
I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.
Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fictionand it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.
It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.
I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.
There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.
In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.
Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’
This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.
Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.
There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).
Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.
I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.
I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).
Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.
Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).
Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times– stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.
Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).
Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’
It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either. Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.
I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.
It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.
(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)
It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.
It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.
Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.
As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.
Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).
While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent. (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.
Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.
While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.
If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices. I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour. And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.
Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.
And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.
It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.
Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.
Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.
Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free –if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)
The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.
Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.
And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.
Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.
Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?
And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.
For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?
Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?
Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?
I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.
Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).
While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.
Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.
(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).
What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)
I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.
It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.
From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.
Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)
That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.
The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’
Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.
‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’
Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.
The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).
The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).
Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.
The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?
I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.
In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.
The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.
While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?
It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.
I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.
A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.
We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.
This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.
It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.
But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?
While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.
My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.
One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’
There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.
Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.
While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.
Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books). I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.
The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.
‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.
I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.
The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.
Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.
Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.
I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.
The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.
Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.
The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?
Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’ approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.
I wrote in a post over three and a half months ago about the MMU MA Creative Writing ‘Transmission Project’. That’s the second largest piece of assessed work on the course, which was due to be submitted in September.
As with all Masters’ degrees (at least in common with my fairly recent OU MSc in Software Development), the course is structured into 180 credits. The largest component is the dissertation or project — in our case a novel of at least 60,000 words — which is worth a third of the marks (60 credits).
The MMU course then weights the Transmission Project and the two Reading Novels units at 40 credits each (the latter split across years one and two, which are assessed by essays). I found both the Reading Novels units that I did to be the best parts of the course — with very good tutors in Jenny Mayhew (who’s since left MMU and has published a novel of her own — see this interview on the Waterstones blog) and Andrew Biswell.
The Text Assignment (the publishing industry strand for which I wrote an essay on literary agents) makes up 20 credits and, interestingly, the Writing Novels workshops make up the remaining 20 credits, split over the two years, quite a small weighting considering that this is the part of the course where creative writing is taught in earnest. I’d guess it could be argued that the novel, to which the third year is devoted, is also the end product of these sessions, which means 80 of the 180 credits are devoted to the novel (and the extra 40 for the Transmission project specifically non-novel).
Anyway, I had an e-mail a few days ago with the welcome news that I’d passed the Transmission Project with a mark that I wasn’t displeased with, given that I’d pulled it all together in something of a mad scramble, post York Festival of Writing, whereas some of my coursemates had been sensible and started well in advance. This may have been reflected by the marker’s comments that the accompanying essay rather let down the screenplay with which it was submitted, in terms of the scores.
Most of the comments were quite positive — it was noted that the characters and their situations came across strongly. That’s important in a dramatic form such as a screenplay, which is all ‘show’ with very limited options to ‘tell’ — so you can put a few, brief notes in the script about a character (INT. JAMES’S OFFICE. DAY. JAMES, mid30s, is staring at a computer screen) that’s about it. You can’t spend half a page of exposition describing how James came to be in his office that day or, most crucially, how he feels about it (more than a stage direction like ‘bored expression’). It all has to be told by action and dialogue. So it’s an achievement that my two main characters’ predicaments came over to the marker very clearly.
It’s amazing to be reminded how much readers can infer from a very limited amount of words. I once converted into a poem a piece of prose description that set the scene for a chapter in the novel. I guess it probably wasn’t a great poem if it was born of a piece of prose — it wasn’t that long, possibly a sonnet structure –but I took it to the Metroland Poets workshop and a couple of the poets who listened to me read it completely nailed what it alluded to. I’d attempted to describe a barbecue outside a pub held on the day England played Germany in the 2010 football World Cup (the infamous ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard disallowed goal game) using only 70 or 80 fairly oblique words (and without calling the poem England v Germany or similar) but they identified it exactly — probably more of a testament to their poetry interpretation skills than mine as a poet.
(As an aside, I’ve just purchased Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, this year’s T.S.Eliot prize winning poetry book. As widely reported, it’s a very personal collection themed around the break-up of her 32-year marriage around 15 years ago. I’m currently revising a section of the novel that deals with related themes and I’d like to read her poetry to gain some additional insight into these situations.)
As with poetry, screenplays are a medium where brevity is paramount. My Transmission Project was more like Spooks than Ingmar Bergman — I had about half a dozen scene changes per page on a couple of pages (and a page in screenplay time is meant to equate to about a minute). I’d say that was quite conservative compared with many modern films but the feedback suggested I’d have earned slightly more marks with less slicing and dicing. Possibly so, but it’s all good practice for injecting some of that pace into the novel itself.
So, to use an athletic analogy, I’m on the home straight with the MA with everything completed and, even more importantly, passed apart from the submission of the novel itself. However, the somewhat ridiculous mismatch between the course deadlines and the annual sitting of the examination committee means that we’ll have to wait eight months after finishing in October to hear our results. Unless I submit early, in March, then I won’t graduate until 2014.
What’s worse, we won’t even get our student entitlements during the wait. I think I’m due at least one visit to the student bar to get the cheap beer which is part of my student human rights. I might even bump into the sort of characters from Fresh Meat who’ve been my virtual, fictional colleagues over the past two and a half years.
As a post-script to the posting on the blog technical problems, I reported to my wonderful internet hosting provider that they’d managed to corrupt the historical content of the blog by interspersing it with peculiar characters seemingly at random. According to various Google searches, there are ways of fixing this automatically but I’m not sure I’d trust either the hosting provider or my own PHP and mySQL skills to implement these without cocking the whole lot up even more — so I may have to work my way through and manually remove the extraneous characters. I’ve done a couple of posts already and there’s loads more to do — but it’s a good displacement activity.
In the last post I mentioned the ‘Transmission Project’, which according to the Manchester Metropolitan University student handbook is ‘an independent research unit, undertaken at the end of the taught element…to explore a specific area of the transmission of text.’ This basically means students have to submit work in a form that’s not the chosen ‘route’ of their MA (be it novel, poetry or children’s writing).
Some of my course mates have devised original and innovative ideas for their own Transmission Projects. Anne devised an experimental website to examine readers’ reactions to discontinuous, interrupted narrative styles (using embedded hyperlinks, for example) that modern technology can enable. Kerry has produced an e-book of 51 pieces of fiction (Fifty One Ways to Leave Your Lover — click here for Amazon link) comprising ‘short stories, flash and micro fiction pieces which reflect and explore some of the problems, issues and triumphs faced by women and girls’. Sales of the ebook raise funds for the charity, Platform 51, which assists women in disadvantaged areas. It’s not only an original project but helps a very worthy cause — and a bargain at only £1.02.)
Originally I had a plan to develop my project in an unorthodox literary form but I was deterred from that particular idea by the course director on the basis that it was content that might eventually form part of the finished novel. My next idea, a screenplay adaptation was thought a better alternative. While it is based on the same characters and roughly the same scenario (I hesitate to say plot), the ‘transmission’ of the text is very different. (I wonder if I should have done a screenplay for TV as that would be ultimately the best match for MMU’s curious transmission terminology.)
As I’ve only just submitted the project for marking, I’ll deliberately make no further comment on the specifics of my screenplay or explanatory essay. (But should any of the English faculty at MMU be reading this, I must stress my summer of dedicated research into the form and months of locking myself away in a darkened room to draft and redraft the project.)
One very obvious general point that I made in the accompanying essay is that a screenplay is a working document, which others in the creative process use to make the final artefact. It’s not intended to be a work to be enjoyed directly by the viewer, as would a novel by a reader. This difference in approach proved surprisingly useful to me with the novel at its current point of development.
A screenplay passes responsibility to intermediaries for execution of the pleasurable details — actors nuancing their lines with gestures, expressions and inflections; a director and cinematographer developing its visual styling; designers creating costumes, sets, make up and so on. The writer provides the framework for others to use their talents.Virtually all exposition must be external: with rare access to the characters’ inner thoughts; description of character and setting is minimal.
Components of a film that chiefly within the control of the writer are character, plot, setting, scene selection and dialogue. With the possible exception of dialogue, these elements also provide the structural ‘scaffolding’ which holds a novel together. The difference is that it’s also the novelist’s job to evoke all the other elements too: the imagery, detail, sensory appeal and inner character exposition are hung with evocative prose on the structural framework that the reader should never obviously notice.
Another factor that belongs in the specialist subject of the bleedin’ obvious is that a film (or even TV serial) takes less time to ‘consume’ (is there a better word for this?) than a novel. Although the standard feature length screenplay is 120 pages, this equates to around 100 minutes of screen time. I doubt even the fastest readers can get through an average 80-100,000 word novel that quickly (although I’m often dumbfounded at the number of books some people claim to get through — maybe I’m a slow reader).
So, depending somewhat on the source material and the approach of the adaptation, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the novel’s content is omitted. Anyone who’s ever watched a screen adaptation of a novel they know well has the experience of noting changed or absent characters, plot twists or settings.
Books on screenplay technique encourage the writer to work within what, compared to prose fiction, appear to be limiting constraints: to produce work that emphasises the visual and fast-moving and to use short, snappy dialogue. (When dialogue is written in a thin column down the centre of the script, it’s easy to spot verbosity and talking head scenes stand out immediately.)
Advice is also concentrated around the structural aspects of plot. A separation of a script into three acts, divided by plot points, is given as practically a natural law of the genre.
The project meant I finally read Robert McKee’s Story, a screenwriting guide recommended by many as the best work on plotting for almost any dramatic or fictional form. It takes a scientific approach and, in places, it’s more like physics textbook — with lots of diagrams with arrows about how different levels of conflict within characters intersect with the structure of the plot and many other factors.
It’s drawn from fundamentals of storytelling that have endured from time immemorial. These follow, roughly, a pattern that goes: introduction to a character and setting; then a source of conflict that the protagonist(s) need to overcome; finally an event which triggers a resolution (which can either be complete or not).
It’s argued that this basic narrative pattern is something humans are either born to respond to or that it becomes ingrained in us from an early age. Whilst most people aren’t explicitly aware of the fundamentals of story structure, it’s said that most readers (or viewers) will feel react with innate dissatisfaction when a story lacks this shape.
The Transmission project, while delaying the revision needed on my novel, may have been opportunely timed. The research I’d carried out into the screenplay form focused on the mechanics of plot, making the story work, ensuring pace and rhythm, distilling the essence of a scene and so on.
Applied to novel writing, these are all very useful aspects to consider after completing a full draft, compared to the original plan (however sketchy and flexible); has the novel lost its balance, become bloated in some sections, under-developed in others and the task of revision is to sharpen the novel, omit extraneous material and add in any necessary additional material required to make the novel work as a whole.
Assembling the screenplay from the manuscript has been fascinating. I’ve pulled scenes pulled from chapters in very different parts of the novel, often brutally extracting small portions of the action or dialogue and redeploying it in a quite different context — and it’s surprising and pleasing to see how often these small sections then work on their own terms.
(For this type of task I may, unusually, be able to call on skills I use in the day job — which requires me to often deconstruct complexity and draw out underlying themes and causes. I’m also experienced in constructing sophisticated solutions from orchestrating many component parts (if this sounds jargony and baffling you should see my CV — I have an MSc in this). Perhaps this background is one reason why the novel hasn’t been written in sequences but largely slotted together around its most fundamental parts.)
I relocated part of a scene that appears about a third of the way through the novel into part of the opening section of the screenplay. I needed to write a new, short sequence of dialogue to knit the two together but the effect seemed to work so well that I’m considering putting the new dialogue into the novel. Play around with the material and discovering how it works in different configurations gives a refreshing new perspective, but one that’s also scary in opening up many new opportunities to tinker around. This is where deadlines are useful, as I had with the screenplay project itself.
I’m confident that The Angel has a sound structure. It’s not fundamentally changed since I first mapped it out with Post-It notes on a conference room wall — see post here from two and a half years ago. (Two and a half years, blimey, I really do need to get it finished and over with!). However, since then I’ve inevitably ladled in lashings of sub-plot, themes, brought in the odd new character and so on.
While people who’ve read parts of the novel tend to say that it reads easily and quickly, I know that I’m going to get a more favourable response from agents if I send in a manuscript of a length that doesn’t scare them off. I went to the September meeting of the London Writers’ Club in Clerkenwell last week. During a break I had my opportunity to buttonhole the guest agent speaker and asked whether agents made a snap judgement on manuscript length: would a ‘typical’ agent look more kindly on (i.e. read) a file of 90,000 words, say, as opposed to one of 120,000. While she said a lot depended on the quality of content and the genre, she recommended avoiding any extremes and mentioned an old-school agent she used to work with who would refused to read any submission that wasn’t between 70,000 and 100,000 words (although this isn’t common nowadays).
If it’s wise to err on the side of brevity when revising that raises a latent paranoia I have that I may discover, after trimming my work down to a sleek and concise 70,000 word draft, that this might only represent the innards of the novel — a prose version of the skeleton of the story represented in a screenplay. All the distinctive parts that might mark it out as individual might be squeezed out — the humour, observation, reflection, insight into the characters’ internal thoughts and so on. I worry that I may end up with a story that might work very efficiently but wouldn’t the novel that I originally set out to write.
This is a concern I can’t resolve without getting on and doing it — and now the Transmission Project has been safely bound at Rymans and delivered to Manchester I can completely focus on finishing the novel — from both a personal and an MA perspective. The only remaining piece of assessed work is a finished draft of the novel itself. We get another year to complete this — although I may try and submit mine in the spring (surely it will be done by then?) so I can have an earlier graduation date.
With the other coursework over (unless my screenplay is so bad it fails and I have to resubmit) and with the nights rapidly drawing in, I need to settle back into writing mode — or, more precisely, editing mode. And on that valedictory note to the summer of 2012, it might be appropriate to post this rather sad photo of Horse Guards Parade, now restored to its original state. (This photo was taken only about five weeks after those on this post that show a 15,000 seater stadium on the plot.)
By the end of September, virtually all the other temporary infrastructure had been removed from the Mall and St. James’s Park (as I saw when I walked across the park to the Mall Galleries to view the entries for this year’s Threadneedle Prize, one of which was by my artist reader Adeline de Monseignat — see previous post).
Incidentally, I was very pleased to manage to finally visit the Olympic Park itself, during the Paralympics. I’ve posted a few photos of the park on this blog page.
Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.
Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebratingâ€™. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.
I’m probably at the place thatâ€™s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.
I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smithâ€™s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipeÂ that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.
At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.
I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.
Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.
But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.
And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.
Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’
But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paulâ€™s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.
Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.
I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).
This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become â€“ an obsessive quest like Captain Ahabâ€™s in Moby Dick. Iâ€™d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living â€“ the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.
Iâ€™ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — itâ€™s almost like doing two jobs.
I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.
This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible Iâ€™d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there havenâ€™t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).
I guess itâ€™s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps Iâ€™m subconsciously hanging on â€“ not wanting to send the novel and the characters Iâ€™ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?
Yet Iâ€™m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because thereâ€™s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities canâ€™t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; thereâ€™s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.
Theyâ€™re all evidence of what Iâ€™ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether Iâ€™d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life â€“ sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible â€“ although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.
But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake â€“ the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events Iâ€™ve been through in their company.
A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much Iâ€™ve learned through writing â€“ not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (Iâ€™ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said theyâ€™d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.
So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, â€˜as good as it can beâ€™ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.
I already have my synopsis drafted â€“ using Nicola Morganâ€™s e-book â€“ and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued â€“ twice. Iâ€™ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time â€“ producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader â€˜so much to keep a reader turning the pageâ€™. Iâ€™m hoping that Iâ€™ll soon move on to the next page myself.
In the MMU Creative Writing MA we don’t just work on our novels-in-progress. That’s the main body of work but we need to take a broader perspective so we understand the context of Â modern literature and the publishing world.
One significant component is appreciation of established and innovative novelists’ work — in the Reading Novels module — see my post on the Rules of Creative WritingÂ for more about work for that section of the course.
We also have to do something that I’m way behind on and still haven’t fully got my head around — called the Transmission Project. The objective of this is to work in a form that’s different to novel writing. I have a vague idea I might do a screenplay based on the novel.
But the joker in the pack has been a module called The Text, which is basically a piece of work on the publishing industry or something analytical about the way your work-in-progress makes its journey from your computer hard-drive potentially into the hands of paying readers (with the obvious caveats of being lucky and working hard).
Slowly,Â I’m reaching the point where I can no longer procrastinate and fiddle around perfecting my manuscript. The day is going to have to come soon when I settle on a file to attach to an e-mailÂ to literary agents — steel myself toÂ press ‘send’ and see what happens — if anything.
Therefore I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make literary agents the subject of my essay. In doing the work at least I’d get a better idea of what they do, should I get to start engaging with them. (Actually I’ve met a number of agents already and follow many on Twitter. While some of their number only seem to tweet about how wonderful their client’s latest books are, others provide an invaluable insight into the publishing process. Carole Blake’s tweets when ploughing though some of the weird and dire submissions she receives should be mandatory reading for any writer before they press the send button or post the envelope.)
But writing about ‘what a literary agent does’ wouldn’t really be stretching enough for a Masters degree so I tried to combine it with a quick survey of the current upheavals in the publishing marketplace, such as the growth of e-readers and the consequent explosion in self-publishing. Should anyone be interested in reading the essay itself, it can be found by clicking Â on this link:Â Essay on Literary Agents in Changing Publishing Word — April 2012.Â Note that it’s quite and dry and academic, although I do put in some entertaining quotations and it got a decent mark despite my mentioning ofÂ Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m sure any literary agent who might chance across this post will be extremely re-assured Â that my considered deliberationsÂ (who am I kidding?) were generally positive for their profession. In spite of the new technology-driven opportunities for disintermediation between author and reader (i.e. the ability to go straight to Amazon with an e-book rather than via agent and publisher), the agent still provides value for the author. This is particularly true for their established clients, for whom, undoubtedly, the agent is a tremendous asset — especially for the business-side of things — such as all those translation deals and foreign rights. These are complexities that new writers — focused on their books — will barely consider.
Many of the ‘unexpectedly phenomenally best-selling’ self-published authors tend to be snapped up by agents for this reason, although this has led to suggestions that self-publishing is starting to serve as a ‘crowd-sourced slush pile’.
However, one under-appreciated aspect of traditional publishing is the time and effort spent on perfecting the finished book. Agents will ensure that work they represent is of publishable quality: some will spend considerable time working with the author on a promising manuscript, others will only take on work that’s virtually ready to be submitted to a commissioning editor.
Because of the commission-based model on which they draw their earnings, new writers are always risks for agents — they won’t earn any revenue from new clients until most of the hard work has been done (getting the book into shape to be offered to publishers, selling it, handling rights). Apart from advances (which are getting much smaller), the lead-times of the traditional publishing model mean it might be two years before book starts bringing in revenue (that’s if it does make any money). Â So it’s not surprising that if a novel demonstrates it has a proven market in the e-book charts then an agent will see that as reducing many of these risks.
This development throws up an interesting point as to whether writers who are at the point of submitting novels to agents ought to also throw their work into the morass of self-published e-books. I’ve heard contradictory views from agents on whether they would be interested in representing a book that had already been published in some form.
At the London Writers’ Club, in response to a question, one agent told a writer she wasn’t interested in an already published book (though she would be interested in a follow-up). But I’ve also heard agents and publishers say they thought there was nothing to be lost by writers testing the market in that way.
Until very recently, many self-published e-books were likely to be those that had been rejected by traditional channels with the authors using this route as a last resort but this is no longer true. In fact the economics of publishing at very low cost favour authors who publish using very little outside assistance (maybe a cover designer and, if they’re sensible, copy editing and proof reading). If an e-book is sold at Â£1.99, a self-published author will get the majority of the revenue (depending on the sales channel). Whereas for a paperback discounted to Â£3.99 in Tesco or Amazon, an author isn’t likely to make more than 50p, probably a lot less. Combine this with the ability of writers to get more material out to market more quickly (the compromises in quality control this generates don’t appear to deter a sizeable portion of e-book buyers) and, from a business perspective, an author could make more income selling a smaller number of e-books (especially if they write more titles). Of course these books need to be marketed but some writers’ Â ferocious use of social media can be highly effective.
It’s potentially the role of the agents as gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry that is most affected by current changes. I know from my experience on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio), which has good links with agents, that ‘getting an agent’ is one of the two indisputable achievements (the other is having your novel published — after that everything is subjective).
The agent is positioned at the ‘this-is-where-the-bullshit-stops’ interface between subjective appreciation of one’s work and the objective, binary ‘yes/no’ judgement of ‘will this sell?’.
If writers believe that getting ‘an agent’ is an achievement in itself then they mayÂ feel impelledÂ to approach the wrong type of agent. It’s often said by agents that it’s far more important to find the right agent for one’s work, rather than find one quickly, but the seal of affirmation of being signed up is something of a creative writing course alumni honour.
Such is the pressure to achieve that affirmation that writers are tempted to be impatient and contact agents before their work is ready — sometimes before much is written at all. At the London Writers’ Club, one writer said to an agent that he had five great concepts for a novel and that if he wrote to her then would she pick the best one out for him so he wouldn’t waste all that time writing a novel that no-one wanted to buy. It seems a reasonable question — and a very sensible one if publishing was an industry that financed its own R&D efforts (because new product development is effectively what new authors are Â doing — unpaid). But, for fiction at least, the answer illustrated the toughness and resilience writers require to stand a chance of being published.
Her response was that he was the writer, he had to decide which of the concepts he believed in most and then he’d keep proving he had faith in his concept by completing the novel. And then he could send it in to agents. It wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted to hear but that’s how it works — the unsigned author spends large amounts of time and money on the project (if using courses, consultancies, etc) and only at that point might he or she be told the whole premise of the novel is flawed.
It’s not surprising that people feel rejection painfully — and that there’s a lot of manuscripts that never make it to agents’ scrutiny for fear of failure. And this situation shows the imbalance of power to which, perhaps, the e-book explosion is a reaction. I met a writer recently who took eight years to produce his first published book. That effort can be dismissed within a few seconds by an agent who’s always got another manuscript to look at on the pile.
But, on the other hand, it would be more cruel for an agent to encourage a writer in a particular direction only to find that the completed work is unsellable. The truth is that no-one knows what will be popular in the future. Agents can spot good writing but predicting the types of work that will appeal a couple of years in the future is a huge gamble. That’s why one hears of writers being given rejections that are impossible to analyse, such as ‘we really loved the book but we just didn’t love it quite enough’. Â Of course, what the writer then wants to know is how to change the book so it generates the requisite reservoir of love that will increase its chances of being published. But that’s the point — the busy agent doesn’t have the time to get into a dialogue about improving a book they’ve already decided they’re not going to take a punt on. Most of the agents I’ve met have been very pleasant people — but they’re professionals. Such is the potential deluge of requests for feedback and advice, it seems that they collectively cultivate a somewhat forbidding front, when one reads submission guidelines on websites and in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and similar directories.
Perhaps it’s because of its brevity and broadcast nature but agents can be quite approachable on Twitter (but never try to pitch a book to them there). I have a reference to Oliver Munson from Blake Friedmann in my essay and he was kind enough to verify the information for me while I was writing the assignment. He’s also taken the trouble to give the OK for me to put the reference on this blog.
Yet we also had a different London agent participate in a really useful on-line chat session during the teaching element of the MMU MA course. I quoted several of his answers in the essay as they were succint and very relevant. I tried e-mailing him to ask if it was OK to have his name in the essay if I put it on this blog but I’ve had no reply. So, not wishing to attribute his comments without permission I’ve made him anonymous. Perhaps the e-mail didn’t get through or, more likely, he had an incredibly busy day and couldn’t get round to reply to a query like mine but it’s still a shame. Google searches for agents by name account for a fair proportion of hits on this site: there’s a modest chance a potential client might have come across his sensible words on here. And if he’s too busy to reply to that sort of e-mail then perhaps he might not be so responsive when I’m thinking of submitting my manuscript.
Mind you, agents are often in the same position themselves .There was a flurry of Twitter activity when an anonymous agent recently posted a blog complaining aboutÂ Â sending out books on submission to publishers and hearing nothing. This drew a sharp retort from the very pleasant Francesca Main (who visited our City university class) who concluded her blog post with a paragraph that started with the re-assuring sentence for those of us writers toiling away in the margins around our day jobs: ‘Authors are at the heart of everything we do, and the reason we all chose to work in publishing.’
I’ve sadly under-nourished this blog over the past few weeks for a couple of good reasons and one that’s, unfortunately, not so satisfying.
The first good reason is that I’m trying to get the novel manuscript revised after Emma Sweeney’s feedback (the two solid weeks mentioned in previous posts) and I’ve decided to ask her to look over the first three chapters of the novel in more detail as these are what it will initially be assessed on by agents.
Incidentally I was invited by Emma on Thursday to the Literary Club at New York University in London, where she teaches, and I met the novelist Edward Hogan who was giving a reading. I had a short chat with him and he’s really nice chap. Several people have recommended his novels Blackmoor and The Hunger Trace and the reading he gave us from the latter was very compelling.
The second reason for lack of blog updates is fitting in lots of commitments in general life. As well as the evening at NYU in London, we had a rare evening workshop with the ex-City stalwarts on Tuesday and there have been some gripping, if disappointing, Premier League matches that haven’t escaped my attention.
But Saturday was something of a ceremonial milestone as I went to up to Birmingham,
where I spent three years as an undergraduate, for my Open University MSc degree ceremony at the Symphony Hall.
(As a strange co-incidence, the redeveloped canals of city-centre Birmingham — one of which I’m posing next to — play a part in my MAÂ course-mateÂ Kerry’s novel-in-progress.)
It’s been over a year since I finished the MSc (see this post about when I got the hard copies back) and I could have gone to earlier graduation ceremonies but I wanted one at a weekend and I thought it quite appropriate to return to the scene of my undergraduate dissolution. The Birmingham Symphony Hall was an impressive venue — preferable imho to the OU’s London location for graduation — the Barbican (where I was presented with my MBA from Kingston University) — described as a ‘concrete bunker’ by someone I work with who had a choice of Barbican or Brighton Pavilion for his OU graduation.
I’m such an OU advocate that I went back to look at the website to see if there were any courses I could do that might advance some of the interests I’ve picked up in the long process of researching this novel — art being an obvious choice but also architecture and psychology.
I had a shock when I saw the cost of a 60 point humanities course had shot up to Â£2,500. I had a look at the prices for the Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing courses — and both were also the same price. When I first enrolled for Creative Writing back in 2007 I’m sure the cost was more like Â£600.
Perhaps the government has cut the OU’s funding — but the OU may also feel it can justify charging more because 360 points earns a student a bachelor’s degree — so Â£15,000 at current prices which is far less than the Â£27,000 or so students will have to pay at most conventional universities.
This means anyone taking the same creative writing courses as those I did will need to shell out Â£5k nowadays — which, I suppose, makes me appreciate more the amount and quality of creative writing teaching that I’ve been taking almost continuously for the last five years — and this in turn makes me think that I need to push myself to try and get a return on all this investment (hence less time spent blogging recently and more writing the novel). And perhaps mercifully for my leisure time the OU’s new fees deter me from casually signing up to a new Arts course on the basis that it looks interesting.
It’s very easy for an aspiring writer to spend a lot of money in the quest to become published and I wonder if more money is now made by people charging for courses, manuscript appraisals, consultancy, conferences and so on than is made by writers in the act of writing itself (if you take the likes of J.K.Rowling out of the calculation). It seems that plenty of excellent published writers supplement their scandalously meagre income from writing in this way.
However, this might not be such an odd model for the future — it’s how activities like sport, art or cookery are organised — with a few star professionals whom the masses aspire to emulate. Even though they know they’ll never be Wayne Rooney or Damien Hirst or Jamie Oliver, millions are happy to practice in their own leisure time and pay others for tuition. If writing hasn’t already adopted this model it might be because of the high fixed costs of publishing — but now with cheap access to e-publishing and print on demand — then there are fewer barriers to much wider, paying participation as with sport.
But back to the graduation ceremony. One thing that struck me was the demographicÂ compositionÂ of my fellow graduates. Probably two thirds of those being ceremonially conferred with a degree were women — and women of all ages. The men were skewed much more towards the older age group — I was told that I was one of the few who didn’t have grey hair (not enough to notice on a stage anyway). This might not have been surprising for postgraduates but the undergraduates outnumbered us by about 8 to 1.
This ties in with evidence, such as that cited in The Economist’s Megachangebook that I was given to read, that women already outnumber men overall in the tertiary education sector. If, as we’re told by forecasters like The Economist, that the future of work will depend much more on the sort of intelligence and innovation that comes from a higher level of education then the larger proportion of women than men! who seem to put in the sort of timeÂ commitmentÂ and motivation that an OU degree requires, ought to manifest some profound changes in the workplace.
I travelled up to Birmingham on the train and, as if to re-inforce the point, there was a large party of Scottish twenty-something men in my carriage. At 9am they were swilling Rab C Nesbitt’s favourite tipple — Buckfast — straight from the bottle and washing it down with cans of Red Stripe. Like most people I guess I have a fairly hypocritical attitude to public drinking if it’s not me that’s doing it — if I’m sober and I smell beer on someone’s breath on the tube I think ‘alky’ — even though I must often be that beery-breathed person myself. Â So I was pretty appalled by this bunch even though they were (at that time in the morning) fairly good natured. Presumably they were on some weekend bender of which I was glad to have only to witnessed the beginning.
Nevertheless, while extreme, this seemed to sum up the contrast between feckless under-40 males and their more diligent and industrious female counterparts.Â At the risk of making sweeping gender stereotyping generalisations, the fact that, on average, men manage to hold their own in the workplace against better qualified women seems to me to be another instance of the ‘bias towards bullshit’ in British corporate culture.
This prejudice leaped out of one of Lord Sugar’s comments in the latest Apprentice — where he reasoned that Azhar ought to be fired partly because his sensible points and good ideas were ignored by other the more loud-mouthed and egotistical contestants — and that telling idiots who are too self-absorbed to listen that they are wrong is somehow ‘too negative’.
This is a theme, possibly unintentionally, of my novel — with two contrasting but highly educated and highly motivated female characters. Both Kim and Emma have Master’s degrees and are ascending to the top of their professions (albeit in ways that might not seem obvious at the time). James also has an MBA but he’s disaffected and marginalised by working life and the novel starts with him wanting to get out but drifting rather than than being driven to achieve his ambitions.
The MSc in Software Development is something of a clue that my ‘day job’ is something to do with IT, which is thought of as a fairly male-dominated industry. However, I tend to have always worked quite closely with women. My first job was as a graduate trainee at British Airways and I had a female on-the-job tutor and I’ve worked very closely with many women — for a long time in my last job I was the only male in a team of three who travelled abroad a lot together (mainly to Germany — hence the background to the novel) and I ended up for a time sitting next to the two PAs who worked for a FTSE 100 company’s UK IT director — which provided quite a few fascinating insights. (No surprise there’s also a PA in the novel.)
I’ve consequently found it odd to be working recently (the third reason for under-nourishing the blog is having to spend lots of time commuting for this job) in a team of people who are 100% male — the office environment and projectsÂ I mostly work on are fortunately quite mixed but the team meetings have been quite strange affairs. Today there was a discussion in blokily knowledgeable detail about how the missiles planned to be stationed in London for the Olympics would be used to shoot down any errant airliners. It’s as if it’s unsaid butÂ everyone realises there’s something indefinable that’s missing –I’m sure there’s a similar sort of dynamic in all-women teams too in professions where women are dominant (apparently publishing is meant to be one).
Ironically, if someone said ‘what we need on this team is a few women’ then it would get exactly the sort of ribald, guffawing, nudge-nudge response that would prove the point. And I suppose a lot of the novel is about this subject too — the interactions between working men and women provide much of the novel’s momentum.
[NB. Post has been cleaned up after up the mess of trying to edit a blog on an iPad using Safari on a 3G connection on a train.]
The user name below, found on an office ‘multi-function device’ (i.e. printer), appealed to my puerile streak.
I guess I shouldn’t laugh — maybe Mr Timothy or Ms TamaraÂ Watts has had to deal with such sniggering throughout their lives — although the way computer user names are constructed to an unbending formula might prevent subtle ways of avoiding the construction. At least there’s a bit of ambiguity in the plural, I guess it’s even worse for someone with the surname Watt.
That particular piece of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary intrigues me as I was once pulled-up by an Open University Creative Writing student for using it in a screenplay writing assignment (and I suspect she deducted marks from the assignment in question). The objection wasn’t to the word itself — it was because I’d dared to put it in the mouth of a female character (in fact a prototype Kim).
She actually said that something along the lines of ‘a woman would never say that word’. (It might be an unwelcome consequence of feminism that many women — and I do think this is far more true of women than it is of men — seem to feel qualified to make sweeping statements on behalf of their whole gender group. It brings to mind Harriet Harman’s periodically facile assertions about women running organisations more effectively and compassionately — and in the next breath she denounces the uncaring destruction wreaked on the country by Margaret Thatcher.)
Every other woman who read that use of the word had no problem at all with it — so I don’t think it’s a gender issue — more of a generational one. Female baby-boomers, especially middle-class ones, have probably been conditioned by parents and peer-pressure not to swear in company but this doesn’t hold true for Generation X and Y — and especially not the generation who come after Y — whatever they’re called. (I’m a Generation Xer, by the way.)
‘The Angel’s’ characters straddle the boundary period between Generation X and Generation Y. (I’m using the most common definitions, according to Wikipedia, of X starting in 1964 and Y starting in 1982.) James and Emma are the tail end of the Xers, while Kim’s an early Y…and to some extent James will look at Kim as an example of a new, exciting generation (even though she’s not much younger).
But both the female Xs and Ys will swear a lot (I’m also going to have a woman Baby Boomer character too, who won’t). In fact the dialogue in the novel is so full of swearing that it breaks one of the cardinal Rules of Creative Writing that you tend to find in books — readers don’t like reading lots of profanities.
I’m not really sure about this rule on a couple of counts.
I can see dialogue in which every other word is effing and blinding will be tedious but some of the most captivating speakers I’ve listened to in real life use frequent swearing in an expertly oratorical way — to contribute to the rhythm of a phrase or for comic timing — think of some of the most popular stand-up comedians.
As with their reactions to sexual content, or something similarly taboo, what people sayÂ they think about a book/film/play/artwork is not necessarily what they think privately about it. I’ve blogged before about this issue might prevent honest discussion of a piece of writing in a workshopping situation — where it’s human nature for participants to use their feedback to reveal or conceal aspects of their own characters or experiences to the other participants.
The advice might be sound in that it points out the costs of alienating a significant portion of a writer’s potential readership. However, if you worry too much about offending people as you’re writing then you may end up with a story as inoffensive, uninteresting and utterly bland as if it had been written by a focus group.
Mind you, having expounded about how my professional and arty middle-class characters indulge in the joy of swearing, I’ve realised that I didn’t hear a single profanity (aside from a few ribald songs) in a location that I visited today (see photo below) that, perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been a bastion of male working-class culture — and which is now going-on for half female and with a very cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities (I particularly liked the personalised ‘Van Der Singh’ shirt I saw someone wearing).
I’m currently writing James and Kim’s initial restaurant conversation chapter and she teases him by suggesting everything about him says he’s an Arsenal fan.
So Man Utd 2 Norwich 0 is my excuse for not getting that much writing done today.