2016 Wasn’t All Bad — If You Picture It Like This

On top of everything else that happened in 2016, it wasn’t a great year for my blog posts. I’ve managed to update the blog at least once a month for the past few years but since my post on the EU referendum at the end of June, I’ve only managed one more — an overdue review of Isabel Costello’s debut novel (albeit a long one).

Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.

But one thing I’ve kept  doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.

So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way

Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…

Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho
Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho

…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…

Swinging Soho July 2016
Swinging Soho July 2016

I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…

Liberty at Night
Liberty at Night

…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…

Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016
Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016

…or just weird London scenes like this.

Oxford Street, Summer 2016
Oxford Street, Summer 2016

Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.

The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime
The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime

I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.

While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.

And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).

It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.

The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different.  I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…

The Future of Entertainment?
The Future of Entertainment?

(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.

2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.

I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.

I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.

Here’s the image that adorns my entry in the BGBW website directory.I’m hard at work at the beer tasting side of the job!

British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture
British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture

Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.

Two Hairy People
Two Hairy People

But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).

Writing by the River Dronne in France
Writing by the River Dronne in France

I could get used to that lifestyle.

With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving, I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.

I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.

By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.

The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.

The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.

Honest Feedback
Honest Feedback

I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However,  the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.

Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…

Books for Research 1
Books for Research 1

…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).

Research 2
Research 2

I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).

But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.

Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016
Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016

Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.

Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016
Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016

I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.

It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.

What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.

Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).

Grimes at Latitude, July 2016
Grimes at Latitude, July 2016

While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, 
I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.

Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.


I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors  spent much the year cultivating.

Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?

At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.

Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…

Starting Them Young at Latitude
Starting Them Young at Latitude

…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of  younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.

Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.

David Shillinglaw at Latitude 2016
David Shillinglaw’s Exhortation at Latitude 2016

I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.

Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.

The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.

I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.

Dublin Castle, Camden
Dublin Castle, Camden

And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.

A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle
A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle

It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.

I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.

A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.

So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like  taking a bit of time out and reflect.

So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.

Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset
Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset

Paris Mon Amour — Très Bonnes Nouvelles pour Mon Amie

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).

Isabel announced on The Literary Sofa that she’s sold her debut novel Paris Mon Amour to Canelo. It will be published on 13th June this year and will be immediately available as an audiobook from Audible, which is fantastic.

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.

How I Fell In Love with the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme

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 – and she’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 are taught 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.

Click on the following link to find the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme website.

The Word Factory

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.

My Copy of Nick Royle's latest novel -- called First Novel.
My Copy of Nick Royle’s latest novel — called First Novel.

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.

The Liars’ League Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Mastered It!

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.

A Bit of Sex on the Literary Sofa

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 Fiction and 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.

Eurovision, Bowie and Homogeneity

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.

My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection
My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection

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.)


Radio Times 25th May 2013
Radio Times 25th May 2013

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.

David Bowie Is Inside
David Bowie Is Inside

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.

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Flaming Pudding

My novel has a lot of food in it — and probably one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve received from the many and varied people who’ve been kind enough to read parts of the manuscript (or have been forced to endure it as part of a course) is that they enjoy the writing about food — the sensory appeal and so on. (Maybe it might not be thought a Good Thing by readers if I make them hungry?)

As a follow up question, people often ask if I like cooking or if I’m much good at it. I was even asked by an agent who read the first chapter if I’d actually been on a TV cookery programme. (She was reading the chapter for one-to-one feedback at York Festival of Writing — I’ve yet to submit it properly to her.)

Interestingly, the novel has various other ingredients too — a liberal seasoning of sex, for one thing — but no-one asks me the same kind of questions about that. So, partly to celebrate the newly-allocated extra database space which allows me to put even more photos on here, I’m going to use this blog post to demonstrate with lots of salacious photos that, despite the novel writing’s effect on the frequency with which I’m able to manage it,  I still work enough on keeping my hand in to participate enthusiastically in the annual orgy

The Bible
The Bible

of gastronomy that is preparing Christmas dinner — a labour of love that started a whole month before the climax (beat that, Sting).

I’m not making any extreme claims of epicurean expertise. After all this is Christmas dinner — Sunday dinner on steroids — although some of the supermarket advertising on TV this year has stirred up controversy by suggesting this is beyond anyone but ‘mum’.  My culinary achievements are much overshadowed by my old secondary school friend, David Wilkinson, who puts mouthwatering photos of his ambitious creations (such as Kale Chips and Fruit Kimchi — not together, though) on Facebook pages and his blog Nothing But Onions.

(He’s a better photographer than me too — as an aside, we both visited Abbey Road Studio Two together earlier this year — where the Beatles recorded almost all their songs and a fantastic experience I’ve yet to blog about.)

But now to my cooking. It would be interesting to see if my style of cooking has any parallels with the way I write. Perhaps there’s a parallel with my Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake making — a sensory profusion of fruity ingredients, loads of booze involved, it takes ages to get to the table and I made so much mixture that there’s still a bit left over in the fridge that I’m reluctant to throw away?

Christmas Pudding Mixture -- Three Weeks Ahead
Christmas Pudding Mixture — Three Weeks Ahead

Looks rather unpromising in the bowl — mind you, the beer looks tempting — but on the day it will become the pièce de résistance.

Being a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type, especially when overdue for a haircut, I sourced my turkey from a relatively local farm (look out for the flooded River Thame in the background.)

Driving down the narrow lane to the farm I had several close encounters with other ethical turkey customers, many somewhat weakening their eco-credentials by driving tank-like 4x4s (probably using their vehicles for the only time in the year on the sort of road they were designed for).

The Turkey Farm and the Flood
The Turkey Farm and the Flood

In an even more River Cottage touch I had to drive through this on Christmas Eve — makes negotiating the Waitrose car park in Thame look slightly less of a perilous hazard by comparison (although it’s a mean middle-class battlefield when people stampede for the red sprouts and Heston puddings).

Turkey collected, it’s time to do all the boring, necessary stuff like chop all the veg. But being Christmas (and actually also because it’s miles cheaper than buying the stuff pre-made in the supermarket) I also made my own breadcrumbs.

These were destined for both the bacon-wrapped stuffing balls and, possibly my favourite dish of the whole meal, bread sauce.

Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated
Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated

I possess the basic cookery knowledge that chopped onion and garlic sweated a long time in a pan gives savoury dishes the flavour equivalent of a satisfying bass note — a subtle depth that’s usually only noticeable by its absence. A chopping board of alliums was given the sauna treatment.

I can’t say all this chopping and preparing is much fun but the exception is creating the clove studded onion that’s used to infuse the bread sauce. I always think it’s like a tiny alien space ship that’s landed in the pan of milk — or a mine, but that’s not very Christmassy.

The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo
The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo

The turkey giblets go into making proper stock — this precious home-made liquid that’s so much more nutritious and worthy than the cubed or powdered stuff but that still never seems to get used beyond the Christmas gravy.

While the preparations were underway, sustenance was needed for dinner on Christmas Eve so I baked some salmon in foil, marinaded in plenty of white wine, naturally. And, as Delia instructs, mince pies have to be baked to the strains of carols from King’s (or was it sausage rolls?). I also got ahead with the bread sauce, which looks far better in the pan that it eventually did in the serving dish but its savoury clove taste is appropriately divine.

Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce
Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce

Salmon, of the smoked variety cooked with scrambled egg also goes well with a glass of nice fizz on Christmas morning — something I first made after that Denis Healey ‘puts the top hat on it’ advert from the days when Sainsbury’s was almost as Waitrose as Waitrose. I don’t think Denis did it but marinading the salmon in cream overnight doesn’t seem to do any harm — nor adding a little flat-leaved parsley.

Puts the Top Hat On It
Puts the Top Hat On It

Refuelled by the Champagne Socialist scrambed eggs on toast, it was then to the main business of cooking the turkey and, most crucially, getting everything ready to serve with it. This is the aspect of Christmas dinner which I think is more like project management than cooking (and if my dinner had been delivered like some of the projects in the organisation where I do my day-job I think it would have been lucky to be on the table by New Year’s Day or Easter or, more likely be frazzled and cancelled altogether with the diners sent a huge bill).

The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be 'red')
The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be ‘red’)

Those roasties are pure foodie p&rn  — ampersand to discourage spammers and perverts who I’m sure will be very disappointed to find only a well-greased King Edward. Even so, they’re enough to set my heart racing (although the accumulations of duck fat might slow it down a bit).

I guess this is also where cooking at home starts to slightly take on the stresses of a professional kitchen. Although they will be co-ordinating many dishes to many different times, it’s still quite gratifying to get the roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, sprouts, carrots and so on to the table before everything else goes cold.

Then there’s the Christmas tradition of being paranoid about whether the turkey is properly cooked or not. I looked through several different books, magazines and websites to find a consensus about how long to cook it and at what temperature — but they were all different. No wonder people get confused.

I probably cook mine longer than necessary but to stop it drying out I put some flavoursome things in the cavity — lemons, onions, herbs, garlic — but not too many to stop the air circulating. Instead of putting the stuffing inside the turkey, I use a method which isn’t for the squeamish (and for which it helps to have had a glass or two of early morning fizz) that involves pushing the stuffing into the neck and then between the skin of the breast and the meat underneath. It looks good when the turkey’s carved if it’s been worked through well enough under the skin.


That’s a rice, mushroom, apricot and pistachio stuffing, by the way. The breadcrumbs went into the ‘other stuffing’ with sausagemeat.

Of course, after a huge meal with unnecessary accompaniments like devils on horseback and homemade cranberry and orange sauce as well as all the above, it’s utter madness to follow it with even more calories but that’s what tradition — and Delia — insists on.

As well as Delia’s cake, I made a dessert that Delia may well have approved of but isn’t in her Christmas bible — a jelly made from almost 100% port — just a little added lemon juice. Next time I may add a bit of sugar to sweeten it but the jelly did its job of making everyone jolly — as did the cake, fed on a diet of brandy and calvados.

Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake
Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake

But to finish almost where this post started — the end result of that unpromising sludgy-stuff in the mixing bowl was repacked into its mould (again looking so much like an alien craft I wonder if it was made in Roswell), steamed for a couple of hours and then soaked in hot brandy and ritually immolated (a process bound to kill off any extra-terrestrial life-forms, just in case).

An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?
An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?

So, yes, I do cook but, like a few other interests, it’s something I’ve cut back on the time I spend doing while I’ve been writing this novel — although I do cook a lot more often than once a year, it’s the Christmas dinner that is the most intensive burst of activity so, given the general lack of other evidence of my foodie interests, hopefully this post has redressed the balance rather than been self-indulgent.

I suppose cooking a big meal is a bit like writing in that you put in a lot of preparation, transforming your ingredients into an something that you enjoy yourself but also hope that others will appreciate too. And hopefully both the writing and the Christmas dinner will leave a final impression that’s a little memorable and entertaining — there’s nothing quite like a flaming pudding.

The Flaming Pudding
The Flaming Pudding


Christmas Bestsellers 2011
Christmas Bestsellers 2011

There’s a lot of discussion in creative writing courses about how authors can find their voice. It’s quite a difficult concept to articulate — most simplistically it’s what defines the distinctiveness of an author’s style. This may, depending on the author, be generic to all their output or restricted to a subset of their work. Also there is debate about how some authors use a consistent voice whereas others vary their narrative voice according to the tone of different parts of a book. In this post I’m mainly concerned with the sort of authorial voice that suffuses most of a writer’s work.

Maybe one of the best ways of capturing an author’s voice was to do what we did in the most recent term of the MMU MA course — when every week a couple of us would contribute a short piece of original writing ‘in the style of’ whichever author we’d discussed the previous week in the Reading Novels module.

So I contributed short pieces inspired by Vladmir Nabokov, Margaret Drabble and John Banville (in the guise of Benjamin Black). I couldn’t help my examples of writing go beyond even pastiche and into the territory of parody — but with different degrees of subtlety they seemed to work.

It was fascinating to see how the other students tackled the exercises too. Who were the literary chameleons who could identify the elements that made another writer’s work distinctive and impose these on their pieces — and who were the types who would nod in the direction of the writer’s style but still make the piece recognisably theirs. Sometimes there were students who alchemically combined the two — both embracing the writer who inspired the piece and also making it unerringly their own.

Writing parodies or pastiches is an incredibly useful exercise — according to one of my friends at Metroland Poets, W.H.Auden said that if he was to teach poetry then he’d restrict it to parodies only.

But imitating other writers, even if it gives a fascinating insight into their techniques, isn’t going to establish a new writer with an unmistakeable voice – the sort of semi-mythical, startling new voice that agents say leaps off the slush pile and transfixes their attention for hours. I guess agents spend enough time reading submissions that they’re the experts at spotting voice leaping from the written page. I tend towards the romantic notion that your writing personality is like a fingerprint or indelible watermark: uncontrollably unique like your spoken voice and the result of hundreds of thousands of experiences and encounters as well as reflecting your genetic personality. How it’s formed must be the subject of many literary PhDs –also witness the popularity of books like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens.

The spoken voice analogy is where the horribly blurry photo comes in at the top of this post. It shows books on promotion as Christmas presents at a local W.H.Smith branch.  It’s a collection mainly of celebrity memoirs and TV cookery tie-ins — which as the Guardian’s round up of Nielsen’s Bookscan sales figures shows comprised the bulk of the top sellers this year (apart from David Nicholls’s ‘One Day‘).

My wife was reading the Michael McIntyre book and said ‘You can imagine him speaking every single line of this’  and then I realised the stunningly obvious fact about the whole selection: the common factor shared by virtually every single one of these books is that they are purportedly written by (or about) people whose spoken voices are very familiar to the reading public — clearly McIntyre, the Hairy Bikers, James Corden, Lee Evans, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall but also, in the collective memory, Steve Jobs and Jonny Wilkinson.

Knowing the public persona of the (supposed) author immediately changes the way a book is read. There’s no discovery process about the author (or the voice of the author) — if the author’s meant to be a celebrity then it immediately contextualises the words on the page for the reader.

I was flicking through Alison Baverstock’s ‘Marketing Your Book’ and noted another glaringly obvious (but revelatory) point she made: unlike repeatable commodities such as bread or milk or shoes, books aren’t bought more than once (except on occasion for presents and the like). That’s why publishers must love franchises. Readers might spend ages deliberating and prevaricating about trying something new but once they know they like an author then they’re hopeful of the same pleasurable experience again and will repeat purchase — part of the reason why book series are so attractive to publishers. It’s also inherent in the behaviour of book buyers — people go out to get the new Terry Pratchett, Lee Child, Sophie Kinsella and so on because they know they’ll encounter something familiar — if not the same characters then certainly the authorial voice.

Perhaps what’s most terrifying for putative writers who aren’t celebrities is the question of whether theirs is a voice that people want to hear? For a comedian or celebrity chef their written voice is something they don’t need to worry about making their own — the cover page and their TV appearance should see to that. But if it’s a first novel then the authorial voice will be new and unfamiliar (unless it’s an attempt at bandwagon-jumping and imitating someone else). That’s why activities that promote new writers, such as literary prizes and competitions, are so important. (Speaking of which, one of my ex-City coursemates — Bren Gosling whose blog is linked in the sidebar — has had the great news that the manuscript of his recently finished novel — ‘Sweeping Up the Village’ has been put on the longlist for the Harry Bowling prize 2011.)

A final point on the W.H.Smith display is to note how little fiction it contains — only the Martina Cole and the Christopher Paolini — and the Wimpy Kid book (if that counts). Perhaps that’s a little unfair as next to the shelves was a rack containing Richard and Judy’s latest seasonal selections — all recently-published fiction. What’s also startling is the predominance of books about sportsmen, comedians and cookery.

I guess a humorous novel about an ex-rugby-playing, TV cookery show contestant who leaves an IT job to run a gastropub might have a bit of appeal to a publisher’s marketing department at least. Let’s hope 2012 at least sees it finished.

Happy new year everyone — I’m hoping the next 12 months will see the publication of some of the great writing that’s been produced by my coursemates and other writing friends.

Non-Instant Karma — We All Shine On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel Street EC1
Angel Street EC1

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

The Angel, Old Street
The Angel, Old Street

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

The Angel, Bicester
The Angel, Sheep Street, Bicester

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

Do It Like A Dude

The Angel has an old-fashioned love triangle at its heart and, while I know the eventual outcome I want to write, I’ve been gripped by an internal debate about how much of this tension should be shown in the novel in terms of what the BBC call ‘sexual content’.

This is a difficult question to wrestle with in various ways although I’m convinced that all writers of novels (or of drama) that involve adults in close, emotional relationships must at least consider, but not necessarily write about, the sexual behaviour of the characters — even just to establish that there is no sexual relationship between them.

In real life, as well as in literature, there are many relationships that seem to defy gravity on intellectual, social or various other personal issues but must obviously work at a deeper sexual level — women falling for the bastard or cad or men being mesmerised by a pretty girl are stereotypes that are clearly true. There are many biological and psychological reasons why relationships aren’t driven by rationality — and that people often pursue relationships that logically they know aren’t good for them.

Also, despite (or perhaps because of) much more openness about ordinary people’s sexual behaviour — look at the covers of most women’s magazines and a few men’s — no-one really knows with much certainty what everyone else is up to. There are plenty of surveys but they’re almost by definition self-administered so no-one can verify how truthful are the responses (it’s considered that men tend to exaggerate, women to under-report). This is probably truer the more unusual the behaviour is. Paradoxically, despite sexual behaviour being driven by very deep biological and psychological motivation, most people seem to be anxious to know what’s ‘normal’ — if only to then outwardly appear to be so.

For this reason it’s probably one area where workshopping might yield responses which would be not that representative of readers as a whole. I’ve participated in a few workshops where the writing has involved descriptions of illegal drug usage. People tend to be quite guarded in their reaction — ‘I have a friend who told me that this description is more like ecstasy than speed’ — not wanting to be thought too boring and unconventional as to never have tried the drug but certainly not wanting to admit anything like familiarity with it. And why should they do anything else? Participating in a writing workshop doesn’t oblige anyone to reveal their history of drug usage.

Assuming the feedback gets beyond the tittering ‘Bad Sex Awards’ stage and one gets an honest and adult discussion, it’s still probably true to say that a similar type of reaction applies to sex as it does to drugs: an understandable wariness of revealing personal experience through expressing views on the writing (although people’s experience of sex must be much more widespread and doesn’t (normally!) have associations of illegality). This is wariness is probably more true the more unusual, or even deviant, the behaviour. Consider what might happen if (say) a woman wrote a scene where a man pays a prostitute to perform something exotic for him and one of the men in a workshop starts to correct all the details — she might get useful feedback but no-one would look at him in quite the same way again. (There are all sorts of intriguing permutations about who may be bluffing who in this sort of scenario.) There may be an exception when the action described is so extreme and unusual that it can be thought of abstractly and impersonally — in the City course there was one novel that dealt with incest and this was so bizarre that it was surprisingly easy to comment about.

Reading fiction is also appealing to many people because of its privacy. If you’ve never touched drugs, and don’t ever intend to, you might still have a fascination for imagining what it might be like to snort line-after-line of coke at a glitzy party or have some hallucinogenic trip. Similarly, most readers of the Twilight books don’t want their blood sucked by a vampire but that doesn’t stop them being amazingly popular. So it is with sex in fiction — there’s no doubt people like reading about it but a lot of this enjoyment is probably down to its absolute privacy.

While I’ve been agonising about how much of my characters’ sex lives I show or tell or hint at, I’ve realised that I may being incredibly prudish by the standards of popular culture with which young people are familiar. One of the most popular songs of the last couple of years is about, to put it mildly, curiosity about the same sex — Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ (‘and I liked it’). My eyes popped out last year when I saw my children quite happily watching Katy Perry’s video for ‘California Gurls’. While I think it’s pretty harmless and, in some places, quite hilarious (the whipped cream aerosols) — she ostensibly appears in it stark naked (albeit lying down) — see embedded video below from YouTube.

Katy Perry says she was brought up a strict Christian and has been critical of her current rival — Lady GaGa, whose exuberance I quite admire. My teenage, secondary school age daughter asked me if I knew what the song ‘Poker Face’ was about? ‘A card game,’ I said innocently. ‘No. It’s about a woman having sex with a man while fantasising about it being another woman.’ ‘Oh!’ Things have definitely moved on a bit since ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.

Similarly we were listening to the Top 40 rundown and I asked the title of the Rihanna song at number two. ‘”S&M”, dad.’ I’m not sure if my teenage daughters knew exactly what this meant but the lyrics of the song didn’t leave much doubt: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones/But whips and chains excite me.’

People might argue that this is all about boundaries being pushed but I’m not sure where the limits will stretch to after the precedent set by a new singer from Essex, who’s just won a BRIT award, called Jessie J. Her first single was called ‘Do It Like A Dude’ and, while I’ve only heard the less explicit version, there’s no doubt what it’s about — something that ‘Lip Service’ pushed the boundaries of terrestrial TV (albeit digital BBC3) by showing — although even then Ruta Gedmintas was only shown from the back. (And I don’t think ‘Do It Like A Dude’ refers to same sex relationships either.)

When I was doing the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course I was picked up by the tutor when a female character says the word ‘twat’ (as an insult about a man) — ‘a woman wouldn’t say such a word’. While this could be the view of a certain demographic of readers, if the generation who have been brought up listening to Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Jessie J take up novel reading then it  will take considerably more to shock them.

On Misinterpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-Incidences Do Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churning Through the Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any suggestions?

The Power of Dreams?

I’m currently trying to write the part of the novel that follows on from what I submitted at the end of the City course. I’ve approached it in an odd way as I’ve written mainly dialogue for about six different scenes — all on in the afternoon and evening continuing on from the same day as the first five chapters. I’m already up to about 4,500 words so, once I’ve added in more description and context I guess I’m going to get at least two chapters of 3,500-4,000 words out of the material — but at the moment it’s slow going and without a deadline for workshopping I’m able to flit from one scene to the next adding a bit in here and there.

I would like to get this finished asap though as I’d like to send it out to get a couple of well-respected opinions on it — but I’m also up against a deadline in just over a week to do a literature review for my MSc project.

Perhaps all this is churning round in my subconscious as I had a rather strange dream. I dreamt for some reason I had gone back to our old house in Twickenham and the postman arrived with some ridiculously huge parcels — I think one may have been a bed all wrapped up. Among these pieces of post was an envelope with my marked assignments from the last term at City University (which I’m yet to receive) — chapters 3 to 5 in my case and a commentary and blurb.

As well as the marked assignments the package from City also contained a pepperoni pizza (rectangular shape like the envelope) and two garlic baguettes.

I had great difficulty reading the marked assignments for some reason — perhaps my contact lenses wouldn’t focus?. They were covered in remarks written in large green felt tip pen. Somehow I ended up trying to read the feedback in a car near my old dentists in the terraced houses on the edge of Rochdale town centre. Eventually I made out the words ‘poor’ and I turned over a page of my writing to see that the marker had written ‘KILL’ in huge great letters right across the whole page — the letters were filled in with fluorescent stripes from different coloured highlighter pens and were rounded — rather like psychedelic worms. Obviously that passage of description hadn’t gone down well.

I saw on a cover sheet that I’d been given 60% — and that’s when I started to wake up a realise it a dream as we’re not given any quantitative marking like that on the course.

If anyone is good at dream interpretation I’d be intrigued to know what this might mean — especially the pizza and the odd locations.

Positive Feedback from Agents and A Publisher

I’ve been so busy preparing for Wednesday’s reading that I haven’t had time to blog about other events that may have more eventual significance.

I went to the Winchester Writers’ Conference last Friday and had three appointments — two with agents and one with a publisher.

The agents had both read work that I’d supplied in advance and gave me useful feedback. I sent the first fifteen pages of The Angel (about 5,000-6,000 words) to someone from one of the biggest literary agencies in London (A.P. Watt). She was very complimentary about what she read — said she’d ‘really enjoyed it. She praised the evocation in the sense of place as she lives in the Hackney/Shoreditch area herself. She gave some constructive comments about perhaps changing the opening around a bit — which were quite intuitive in a way as what she suggested was the original way I’d opened the novel before changing it to reflect what I read at our showcase on Wednesday. It was a bit too late for me to change the reading. The two points of view worked well for her and also the genre — which she described as on ‘the border between literary and commercial fiction’ which is a good place to be apparently. I asked if this was the type of novel that she would represent and she said that it was. I seem to remember her complementing me by saying I ‘could write’.

I also pitched the novel completely cold to an editor from a huge publisher (I happened to get a spare slot in her schedule on the day). I had to show her my blurb and my reading for the City reading as that was all I had available. But she was also very encouraging — saying it was ‘funny’ and something that people would definitely want to read. In the end she took away all the improvised material I showed her and it’s now at the publishers.

The other agent I saw only asked for the first ten pages and he had a different take on the novel which, I suspect, might have been influenced by not seeing the missing five pages that the other agent had read. While she thought it would appeal very widely as it was, at heart, a love story I think that’s because the extra part had a lot of Kim and her interior. The first agent complemented the quality of the writing but wasn’t sure where it would be positioned in the market — although one of the other delegates later told me that this agent wasn’t a fiction specialist — but perhaps that was because he hadn’t seen enough of the book? Certainly, the majority opinion out of the three was that it was very marketable.

After these sort of events, it’s probably natural to wonder if the agents really meant what they said or were they just being polite but it’s not really in their interest to say something’s good if they don’t like it — it just means wasted time for them in the office. So I think that’s pretty encouraging — everything was read and submitted as it would be for a proper agent submission when a novel’s finally ready and they were quite lengthy samples of the book so weren’t taken out of context.

‘Is It Any Good?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie and the Bulgarian Carrot

For various reasons I’ve been incredibly pushed for time over the last week — principally related to a suspected outbreak of an unpleasant type of virus in the household. While it didn’t affect me directly, it had quite a knock on effect but I won’t go into the gory details. I was also quite addicted to watching every news programme and political discussion going that read the runes of the post-election negotiations — and I got most indignant at times about one potential outcome. Also, while it’s wonderful at this time of year, especially where I live, to see the trees coming into leaf and the days lengthening, it brings all kinds of tedious jobs in the garden like lawn mowing and weeding. I got nearly 200 little bedding plants delivered in plugs during the week which needed potting up, which I couldn’t do until this evening, so I lost quite a few. I also got five chilli plants delivered — one has the great name of ‘Bulgarian Carrot‘.

While I was otherwise occupied time was running short all week and I had a couple of novel course related pieces to produce. Most worrying was my looming tutorial with Alison on Monday for which I needed to send up to 3,000 words ‘by Friday’. I also have a major stage looming in my MSc dissertation and had to postpone my regular Skype chat with my supervisor by two days. I hastily revised the ‘problem overview’ section of the dissertation (2,000 words in all) and sent that off for review by Thursday afternoon (I’m very behind on that). This meant I had about 300 words written by about 3pm on Thursday for my tutorial. With the liberal assumption that ‘by Friday’ would mean by about 5pm on Friday I sat down to write a chapter as quickly as I could.

I wasn’t particularly well disposed to writing towards the end of the week. In Emily’s class we were reading extracts that we had potentially chosen for the evening event in June. I wasn’t sure what to use and hadn’t had time to write the Prologue idea (see previous posting). Alison had helpfully responded to an e-mail that I’d sent out bemoaning my inability to choose and she suggested a section from Chapter Two where Kim pelts Nic with paint from the roof of Village Underground. I quite like that bit too but it was over 900 words. I managed to pare it down to just under 700 in an editing session on Wednesday afternoon and then read it a few times for timing — marginally over 4 minutes.

Because of the virus issues, I had to miss the class I’ve started doing on Wednesday afternoons at City Lit and drive instead to London. I set off late and got stuck in traffic, due to an broken down horsebox, and then it took twice as long as on Monday to get from Finchley to Islington. So I arrived about 25 minutes late for a 90 minute class.

We had quite a few readings to hear and I happened to sit at the end of the row and was last in the reading order. I spent most of the class wondering if time would run out before it was my turn as well as being very impressed with the quality of the material that everyone else was reading. Some people read familiar stuff we’ve already heard and others read out reworked pieces that were significant improvements on the originals. A couple of people read completely new material — and it was all good — frighteningly so.

We ran out of time before Simon and I could read. I wasn’t in a particularly good mood anyway but I knew people had to have their tutorials so I asked Emily if I could mail the piece to her as I really wasn’t sure whether it was the right one. She then took pity on the two of us that hadn’t read and let us run on late. Simon read his novel’s opening of his — which had impressed us all the first time he’d read it.

I read mine but found what seemed to work ok on the page tripped me up as I read it out, although I’d generally managed it ok when I practised it — mainly stumbling over tongue-twisting alliteration. A few people in the class had read this chapter but most hadn’t — including Emily — so the location and situation were new to them as well as one character. I got a few laughs as I read, which was good, but the feedback afterwards seemed to be somewhat underwhelming. People seemed to think other scenes might be better. Emily said it was a good scene — very visual — but perhaps I should use something about when James and Kim go on a bender together — had I written that yet?

I came back home in a pretty foul mood. I think Emily had a good point about the choice of scene — I want something that features both my main characters — but I brooded over whether that meant I’d not yet written anything good enough to read out yet. The readings had also shown me how much progress other people were making on the course and made me think that somehow I was regressing. Almost as soon as I got home I went upstairs to bed and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

So I wasn’t in too much of a hopeful mood to set down writing for the tutorial the day afterwards — but nothing focuses me like a deadline. I wrote most of a first draft on Thursday night — about 2,000 words — then got up at 6am and added another 500 or so — and I added in the 300 I’d previously done. By 10am — when I Skype’d my MSc supervisor, I’d got a first draft of 2,800. I printed it out and made many corrections on hard copy then revised in Word. I then printed it out again, read it out loud, and did a further revision. By 3.45pm I was able to e-mail it off to Alison.

I was very pleased to have been able to write so quickly although in retrospect I think the piece is flawed by a few misjudgements about plot and tone more than there are problems with the writing. I ran the risk of planting issues in Alison’s mind before she read it by asking ‘is it too melodramatic?’, ‘are the main characters sympathetic?’, ‘is the balance between humour and dramatic action ok? ‘.  Some of the description is a bit clunky but what can I expect?

Part of the reason why I feel happier with the writing is that it’s moved back into a situation where I’m very at home — a pub. Kim works at a pub that I’ve based very closely on a spit-and-sawdust boozer in Hoxton that I’ve visited a few times, the last being a couple of months ago. I’ve tried to describe the varied clientele and the down-at-heel ambience. Before Kim goes in to work she winds James up by telling him he’ll be unwelcome if he looks like ‘a City arsehole’. He then asks her if it’s the Blind Beggar that she’s taking him to. This, unknown to Kim, is a pub notorious for its connections to the Kray twins (it’s also where the Salvation Army started, which is ironic for a novel about a pub) — click on the link to find out more.

This immediately made me think about how the Krays and their associates are such an ingrained part of popular folklore — but something that’s probably not very well-known to people who’ve only been in the country for the last few years. Even though the events were 45 years ago and these people were in reality unpleasant, violent criminals, the exotic names of some of the players in the Kray story have entered a collective cultural consciousness — Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie is my favourite but also ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and ‘Nipper of the Yard’ (though he was on the good side).

In a section that no-one but me will probably like, but that cheered me up writing it no end, James reels off these bizarre nicknames to Kim, who is utterly bewildered. It also brings to mind the brilliant ‘Cockney Wanker’ cartoons in Viz which features some hideous East End boozer — which has two framed portraits on the wall — one of Winston Churchill and the other of Hitler.