From the Workshop to the Bookshelves

As this post was written on Hallowe’en, it ‘s very appropriate that it’s about a rather flesh-creeping novel.

I’ve previously posted about my fellow MMU MA graduate, Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s, debut novel, The Black Country, when its publication was a few weeks away. Then I wrote about how I’d seen the novel develop during our course’s workshopping sessions in the first two years of the course.

Article About the Black Country, Metro 28th September 2015
Article About the Black Country, Metro 28th September 2015

So I couldn’t wait to get hold of the book and read how the final, published version compared with what I’d remembered. Amazingly, those workshop sessions were back in 2011 and 2012 — well over three years ago — the workshopping each others’ writing part of the course being in the spring term of the first two years.

Kerry has had some great reviews for The Black Country, including one in the Independent on Sunday and a piece on the Black Country (the geographical area, not the novel) written by Kerry herself that was published in the Metro — see photo on the left. As I know from observation on the 0744, the Metro shares its  readership with many voracious consumers of novels so I hope this was a well-targeted piece of publicity.

I don’t think Kerry is a regular commuter herself, benefiting from what’s possibly a less frenetic working lifestyle in the Black Country. The day the Metro article was published she hadn’t actually managed to get hold of a physical copy of the paper.

Discarded on trains and tubes, copies of the newspaper disappear very quickly indeed, especially in London, where their dispense points are filled in the afternoon by the Evening Standard. However, I managed to save the day by finding a couple of spare copies left over in my local station, which were dispatched, post haste, up to the Black Country. Kerry kindly signed a copy of the novel for me in return.

My Signed Copy of The Black Country
My Signed Copy of The Black Country

I read the novel very quickly. That’s partly because it’s very concise (about 170 pages) and also because it’s difficult to put down. Having finished the novel I can’t add much  to what I previously posted based on the sections I remembered from the course. To do so would risk giving away too many spoilers to those who take up my recommendation and buy the book.

I did, eventually, discover the identity of the narrator, which had been on of the most intriguing aspects of the novel during the course and one that Kerry had refused to reveal. I was certainly surprised when all became clear — and if I can be surprised after two years of reading and commenting on sections of the novel then I’m sure other readers will find the way the novel develops equally gripping.

As I’d hoped, reading the novel  in the light of having read earlier drafts of substantial parts was a fascinating experience. I remembered some sections very clearly while, at least according to my memory, others had been reworked, with familiar passages appearing among what seemed to be new writing.  Of course, the various aspects of editing are fundamental to the publishing process but it’s been a unique insight to compare memories of the original text with the printed book. It’s a testament to the quality of Kerry’s writing on the course that there are long passages that appear completely unchanged from the MA workshop sessions. There are many such passages of excellent, evocative prose, particularly describing the uniquely dour, post-industrial landscape of the Black Country itself.

Kerry’s biography states that she’s been teaching creative writing at secondary school level for a number of years and has also been writing herself for a considerable time.  On reflection, perhaps The Black Country illustrates the experience she brought along to the MA course.

Whereas others may have started the course with the proverbial blank page and used the workshop sessions to experiment and shape the direction of their novels, I feel Kerry had a good idea at the outset of how and where she wanted to go with The Black Country, perhaps not in mechanical terms, such as the exact plot, but certainly with the tone, the characters of the protagonists and the identity of that narrator.

That confidence certainly seems to be in evidence in the published version of the novel — and was no doubt a major factor in Salt’s  when they decision to buy the novel. From a creative writing MA perspective, The Black Country is an admirable piece of work — succinct and focused unerringly on what it wants to say and the innovative way it wants to say it — without a word wasted. I’m sure the MMU MA course  and the input of the lecturers and other students was invaluable in helping Kerry hone and test her bold ideas.

I’d like to urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Black Country, although I do feel I should point out that, as the title suggests, its contents are rather on the dark side and, while bleak, psychological novels are currently popular, the novel definitely mines the more depraved aspects of the human condition

So many congratulations to Kerry to be the first of my writing friends whose work from a course has made it through to publication. I’m hoping I’ll see plenty more in the future.

The Black Country

Kerry's Novel: The Black Country
Kerry’s Novel: The Black Country

The Manchester Metropolitan University MA is apparently ‘the most successful writing programme available in the UK today in terms of students and graduates achieving publication’ (according to the Manchester Writing School website).

And who am I to disagree? Not only am I a graduate of the course but I’m delighted that one of the novels that our group workshopped during the first two years of the course is now almost ready for publication.

While I’ve got to know many published writers, this is the first time I’ll have seen text that was e-mailed around in Word files for us to comment on become transmuted through that still magical process into a ‘proper book’ — and what a fantastic cover Kerry’s publishers, Salt, have come up with.

It’s a while now since those workshopping parts of the course and I’m sure the text has changed substantially through the editing and publication process but I’ve seen and commented on a large part of (what was at the time) the opening of the novel. And on that basis I can thoroughly recommend Kerry’s excellent writing (see this blog post from last year)..

It’s certainly a story that grabs the reader and sucks you in as the events in the novel turn from ordinary to sinister — and I’m as keen to find out how the narrative ends as anyone. Unless the novel has changed substantially then the narrator is as intriguing as any of the other characters.

The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill
The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill (with assorted revellers)

Kerry lives in the Black Country — I’ve even had a drink with her in one of the area’s legendary pubs, the Vine (or Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill). As far as I remember the novel was untitled when we first started to workshop it and I’m not even sure if it had a precisely-defined setting at the time.

I went to Birmingham University as an undergraduate and some of Kerry’s writing reminded me of the near apocalyptic, post-industrial landscapes my train used to pass on the way there between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. It’s all been cleaned up now (mostly) but we exchanged comments about how the waterways that thread through the West Midlands still give the area a sense of sinister melancholy — and this seemed to also be captured by Kerry’s writing style.

So for many reasons, The Black Country is an excellent title for the novel — both geographically and psychologically – and I’m really looking forward to reading the end of the story that I was lucky enough to read as it was being developed.

I’d have said that I’d have ordered my copy from a huge, rather market-dominating website (from where it’s listed and available) but I’m hoping to buy a copy and see if I can get Kerry to personalise it, possibly at a launch event.

It’s always fascinated me that one of the fundamental attributes of a book is the immutable, unalterable nature of the words on the page compared to when a draft is sent round for comment on a course or in a writing group when it’s usually in a word-processing file that is fluid and designed to be changed. To go from Word file to typeset book is a the fundamental transition and I can’t wait to see the words printed in finalised form that were once submitted for discussion in our MA workshopping group.

The Black Country is available for pre-order now from all the usual suspects. I’ll update the blog with news of any launch events.

Officially Qualified!

A Qualified Writer?
A Qualified Writer?


It’s been so long (over a year) since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation (i.e. novel) for marking by Manchester Metropolitan University that it was quite a surprise when a stiff-backed envelope arrived through my letterbox a few weeks ago.

So, documentary proof that I’m a qualified creative writer. Unfortunately, rather than being framed and displayed on the wall (apparently toilets are meant to be the place to hang these things for the ironically self-deprecating of us) the certificate is still languishing in a big pile of other post and papers (lots of not-so-nice things like credit card bills).

Something for the Smallest Room?
Something for the Smallest Room?

Such is the course structure, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to celebrate before receiving the official certificate: when I submitted the final draft; when I received the results of the dissertation, meaning I’d passed; when the examination committee sent me a letter saying they’d ratified the marks and I’d officially graduated. I could have attended the graduation ceremony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester but, having done the whole thing online up until that point, I decided to celebrate my graduation virtually instead.

Of course, the question now is how much doing the MA has advanced my writing career compared with the JFDI school of just getting my head down and writing  — something many other writers have been hard at doing in November with NaNoWriMo.

I’ve meant to try and commit to NaNoWriMo myself for the past couple of years and had hoped to do this year. Whether I’d complete the 60,000 words in a month would depend on balancing my perfectionist instincts to go back over a piece of writing and revise it several times with my ability to bang work out to a demanding deadline.  (I can work at a fast pace right up to a deadline as I did with the stories I had performed at Liars League stories, which were submitted just before the midnight cut-off on submission day and I can quite happily draft up 1,200 words in a couple of hours, as I did at last weekend).

I’m sure NaNoWriMo works for many people because it provides a similar sort of external pressure which is probably the second most valuable aspect of having done the MMU MA and City University course (and the OU and various other courses before that). If something has to be submitted by a date then the tendency to hone the writing by making lots of small incremental changes can’t be indulged indefinitely. The most valuable aspect of doing the courses has been, of course, the wonderful feedback that is generously given by peers and the expert recommendations of the tutors.

Nevertheless, an MA in Creative Writing is less of a guarantee of gaining a foothold in a profession than probably any other higher degree. While study and passing assessments and exams are necessary to join professions like the law, medicine, accountancy and many scientific specialisms, the path to becoming a ‘proper’ writer is much less clear cut.

In fact, when you talk with writers, the definition of when you actually become a writer is often rather nebulous and open to interpretation, partly because so many people who’ve published a book (or maybe lots of books) still have to work at their ‘day jobs’ in order to make a reasonable living. (One agent told me that he though it was odd to the point of endearing that lots of aspiring writers talked about their ‘day jobs’ — because so many published writers have other careers that it’s quite a rarity for any writer’s day job actually to be writing for a living — or writing fiction, at least, as opposed to journalism, copywriting, etc.)

So the time and money spent getting an MA in Creative Writing isn’t going to gain you automatic entry into the writing profession, however one defines that.But what it ought to do is equip you with the techniques, tools and, probably most importantly, the practice to make you more capable of writing a novel (or poem or play or memoir — whatever the genre) that will stand a far better chance of reaching an audience. I’d guess that the people who say they’re content to write solely for their own pleasure are probably less likely to go through the course or writing group approach because of the need to share your work with an audience whose opinions on it  (not always positive) are discussed in detail.

In my case, and I suspect for most other students too, it’s gaining an audience for your work that’s one of the biggest attractions of a course — both in the direct sense of the feedback from tutors and other students and the indirect sense of training you to write work that’s capable of reaching the reading public.

Any decent creative writing course will also teach you that to reach that public (at least for the traditional publishing routes) the first step is to find representation by a literary agent — and an agent presentation is usually part of an MA course and they will often turn up at end of course readings and the like. However, the biggest concentration of agents in one place is at writers’ conferences, such as the York Festival of Writing or the similar festival in Winchester.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win the prize of lunch at Edwins, a very nice restaurant in Borough High Street, with Isabel Costello through a competition on her excellent blog The Literary Sofa, which has been mentioned in one of my previous posts. Isabel was signed up by agent Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath as a direct result of attending last year’s York Festival of Writing. Over lunch I had a great opportunity to ask Isabel about her experiences of the past year as an ‘agented’ writer. Coincidentally she wrote a very honest and informative post on this subject on her blog, which generated an astonishing number of comments.

It’s a fascinating and upbeat read about Isabel’s relationship with her agent (although some of the long list of nearly 100 comments could potentially be subtitled What They Don’t Teach You on Creative Writing Courses). I won’t paraphrase the post here but the original post (and the many comments) highlight how the publishing industry currently works. There are many talented writers who’ve written great novels which, even with the committed and enthusiastic support of their agents, haven’t been sold to publishers. (And because agents get a commission on their authors’ earnings, they don’t make a penny if a novel’s not taken up, despite potentially spending a considerable amount of time working on a book with a client.)

That said, of all the writers I’ve met who’ve not yet had a book taken up by a publisher (as opposed to those whose novels have been published or are already in the pipeline) the only one who I know has achieved a publishing deal for definite is a friend from the MA course (more details on that great news next year). Of course it’s likely that some of my ‘agented’ friends have some good news that’s under wraps or whose novels will successfully negotiate the slow-moving machinery of the publishing industry but that known success is a positive testament to the MMU MA.

(I haven’t forgotten that one of my City University coursemates, Jennifer Gray, has

Jennifer Gray's Latest Atticus Claw Story
Jennifer Gray’s Latest Atticus Claw Story

published an extraordinary number of excellent, and well reviewed children’s books over the last couple of years — Atticus Claw, Guinea Pigs Online and the chicken books — but Jennifer had these moving along the pipeline when we met on the Certificate in Novel Writing.)

Reasons why books are sold or not can be very capricious — often reflecting what’s selling in the market at that moment (‘I want the next…’) based on factors that writers can’t influence, bearing in mind the time spent writing a novel (even the most ardent NaNoWriMo fan would concede that a novel written in a month represents a first draft that will benefit from much revision).

What Isabel’s blog post mentions is the importance of the hook or concept in selling a book to an agent (a subject that I used with respect to the film world in my Liars League story Elevator Pitch). She says her new novel, of which she’s just completed the first draft, is more focused on the hook than her first was (perhaps the benefit of discussion with her agent) but I’m sworn to secrecy about what it is. Isabel’s experience in this respect might be more valuable than elements of serious creative writing courses because, in my experience, these focus more on developing skills and competences in one’s writing in a way that can be applied to the prose and to the structure of the novel itself.

Courses are largely agnostic about the subject matter of a book. If you want to write a precisely observed story about, say, people sitting on a sofa watching TV in a suburb of Manchester then that’s fine, as might be writing about a civilisation-threatening  invasion of supernatural zombies from another dimension. Talk to an agent and they might not only help you develop a novel with a killer hook but point you in the direction of the type of killer hook that’s snagging editors.

I’ve sometimes wondered why editors or agents, with their knowledge of what’s hot in the market, don’t use a Hollywood screenplay model and hire a bunch of talented writers to write a blockbuster to order. I guess there’s at least three reasons:

  1. No-one’s actually that sure what will work in the market or how long a trend will last — certainly not sure enough to pay people up front to write a book on spec.
  2. There are so many unsolicited manuscripts arriving from aspiring writers anyway that enough publishable and marketable books with irresistible selling points will be submitted anyway
  3. That writers, agents and editors see books as something more than commodities to be marketed – that they’re intensely personal to both reader and author and that the success of a novel is more about serendipity and catching the Zeitgeist than any carefully designed marketing plan.

And if number three is the most overriding of reasons then that’s, in my mind, another justification for taking the writing course route. If there’s no way of second guessing the market (and no winning short-cuts for attracting the attention of agents and editors) then the only way to do so is to write what you feel you have to write from the heart and make sure you’re practiced enough at the craft of writing to do the novel justice. I’m hoping the process of gaining the certificate proudly displayed at the top of the post will have taken a considerable way along the road to achieving that level of skill.

I’d love to hear other writers thoughts on MAs (worthwhile or an academic distraction?) and I’ll happily answer any questions put in the comments section on my own experience.

As a sad postscript to the post above, I was very saddened to hear about the death of one of my previous creative writing teachers, Dinesh Allirajah. Dinesh was a tutor on an online course I took with the University of Lancaster in 2009 that bridged the period between finishing my Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and the City Certificate in Novel Writing. I remember that his extremely positive comments on the prose fiction I submitted in my portfolio was one of the first pieces of feedback that suggested to me that I’d be capable of writing a novel. Dinesh kept up a blog throughout his illness, which he catalogued with fortitude and good humour. His last post can be found here. He was only, I believe, in his forties and he leaves a family with teenage sons. His legacy will hopefully live on through the many students he inspired.

Virtual Graduation Ceremony — I’m Now Officially an MA!

As of today I can safely say, nearly four years after I embarked on the course, that I’m a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing!

It’s time to celebrate — in a suitably virtual way.

Having received a letter a week or two ago informing me that the Manchester Metropolitan University’s examinations committee had approved the award of my postgraduate degree, I was invited to the English Department degree congregation ceremony in Bridgewater Hall, due to be held tonight. I’d really liked to have attended — to mark the end result of all that hard work over a keyboard — but for various reasons, mainly geographical and connected with the day job — meant that I decided to stay in keeping with the philosophy of an online course and decided to have a virtual graduation instead.

So I got in touch with fellow graduates Anne and Kerry (who were also absentee ‘graduands’) and we decided to raise our glasses to each other this evening at the point where we’d have been on stage shaking hands with the vice-chancellor (or whoever).

Actually, Kerry had even more of a reason to celebrate in her absence as she was awarded the Michael Schmidt prize for best portfolio on the Creative Writing MA course which I see as a great vindication of taking the course via the online route. Well done Kerry from your fellow online students — I’ve heard murmurings that the novel (The Black Country) that won the portfolio prize may working its way through the publication labyrinth. I’ll post on the blog when the work that I saw emerge through the workshopping process might become commercially available.

Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

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.

Blog Tour Monday

I’m privileged to be nominated to participate in the Blog Tour Monday project. I was passed the baton by my ex-MMU MA Creative Writing course mate, Anne Jensen, who blogged this post last Monday. Anne has also nominated her writer friend, Deborah Morgan, to contribute a stop on the tour in parallel (apparently termed the ‘other side’).

Anne was awarded her place in the relay team by another ex-MMU student, Kerry Hadley (who guest-blogged on Jo Nicel’s site). Kerry also nominated Matt Cresswell, another MMU alumnus, who also posted a blog last Monday. There is an illustrious line of bloggers who preceded Anne, Kerry and Matt on the tour – see Anne’s list of links in the introduction to her post.

The idea of the tour is to introduce ourselves and our blogs to whoever chooses to follow the excursion by answering four questions about our writing – I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do so as succinctly and wittily as my predecessors. As usual with my writing process I’ve left things right up until the deadline (it’s Sunday night) – oops that’s straying into Question 4. So I’d better start at the beginning.

What am I working on?

The novel – what else? I’ve been promising myself for about two years that it’s almost finished – and that was after starting the book a couple of years before that when I was on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing course. Since then the novel – called The Angel – has nourished a whole MA course – and then some.

Unfortunately for any Belbin completer–finisher impulses I might harbour, the creative writing course process has given me lots of reasons to do’ just that little bit more’. I completed a full manuscript for submission as the MA dissertation last October – MMU is one of the few MA courses that ends with submission of a full novel – but with the prospect of tutor feedback when it had been marked, I decided to wait until January to read the professional verdict (see previous posts on the blog) and make any changes accordingly.

Taking some of their useful comments into account, I’ve been making what I’m determined to be the absolutely final changes and then to move on to the half-finished novel that I ‘temporarily’ placed on hold when I started to develop ideas for The Angel.

But the novel isn’t everything I’ve worked on recently. I was fortunate enough to have a winning short story chosen by Liars League London this month. Liars League were featured as one of The Guardian’s Ten Great Storytelling Nights this weekend – it’s a fantastic evening out where actors read out the short stories in a brilliant way that the writers would never be able to compete with. A transcript of my story Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?  and the video of actor Alex Woodhall reading it at the event is currently right at the top of the Liars League homepage.

I enjoyed the experience so much I might try a competitions like that again.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Like probably most graduates of Creative Writing MA courses, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to single out my novel as being in a specific genre (which doesn’t help your chances of publication as genre is the first thing agents tend to think about). However, one ‘genre’ that people might associate with MA graduates definitely doesn’t fit my work — academic literary fiction. I’m probably a bit too lazy (see below) to attempt anything like tricksy meta-narration, post-structuralism and all that – not that anyone on the MA course was that pretentious .

Therefore one of the most useful pieces of feedback from the markers of my MA submission was to nail a genre. I was told that ‘at its heart [my novel] is a rather engaging love story’. I guess it is – in that it deals with a romantic relationship between its two protagonists.

Later this year I may find out definitively how my novel differs from others in the romance genre from true experts. It may astonish some people — it certainly does me — that I’m a now a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme (no mean feat as it’s exceptionally oversubscribed and, no, I don’t think they positively discriminated towards me based on my gender – I was just very quick to apply – spaces do almost as quickly as Kate Bush live show tickets are likely to do later this week).

The great thing about the RNA scheme is that your manuscript is given a critique by an experienced RNA reader. I’ll have to wait until I get the reader’s report back to be sure but I suspect most of the RNA’s members works won’t feature lots of wanton, late-night heavy drinking, heroines with fetish wardrobes, vicars dwelling on being beaten with metal combs, tattoos with plot significance, illicit substance consumption by canals in Hackney, World War Two re-enactments with condiments and a hero who has a virtual bromance over the airwaves with Jeremy Vine.  

Why do I write what I do?

Some of it out of laziness again. My writing is mostly about the contemporary world because it saves me having to do any laborious research – although I often stray into the Internet nevertheless to check insignificant but seemingly monumental at the time facts like ‘Do they really offer a PGCE in Art at Goldsmiths University?’

And I tend to attempt to slip humour into almost everything I write – even when not obviously appropriate – perhaps because I need to amuse myself and make up for not being in the pub or doing something more sociable than writing on my own.

How does my writing process work?

Generally it tends to expand to fit the time available – which is why I like deadlines.

I can write fairly quickly – but then I’ll rewrite it – usually by annotating on paper copy and then again by reading out loud and then I’ll check for overused words against a spreadsheet I use and then print it again and – see why I like deadlines?

I write in all kinds of places – at home, at lunchtimes during the ‘day job’, on trains, even planes. And I do an awful lot of writing in my head – when I’m running or just daydreaming – it’s a good job I get on with my novel’s characters or I’d have been driven mad ages ago. Perhaps I get on so well with them I don’t want to leave them?

And as for ideas and inspiration – I just metaphorically shove stuff into my brain cells and hope it somehow all connects (see blog post).


Now at this point, I should be naming who’s going to take the baton from me and do the Blog Tour Monday next week but, to my great shame, I’ve not managed to line anyone up – yet – but not for want of trying. It seems most of my writing blog friends have already just done the Blog Tour – or something very similar recently – but I’ll keep trying. Im waiting on a couple of responses. If you know me, write a blog and are reading this and would like to take part then get in touch with me asap.

So watch this space in the run up to next Monday to see if I pull a blog-writing friend out of the bag – so to speak.

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.

Another Year Over…

And I’m wondering where on earth did 2013 go? Certainly not writing lots of blog posts — it’s been a very lax six weeks since the last update — but if I get this post published today then I’ll at least have posted a blog entry in each month of the year.

Writing more frequent (and shorter) blog posts will have to be one of 2014’s New Year resolutions. I’ve had several absolutely fascinating (he says) posts mulling in my mind over the past few months but I’ve not found time to commit them to cyberspace.

Oxford Street's 2013 Snow Globes
Suitably Seasonal –Oxford Street’s 2013 Snow Globes

At this reflective time, it’s tempting to look back and wonder what happened during the preceding 365 days. In many ways I’m doing the same day-to-day as I have for the last few years. I’m still writing, tweeting and doing a day-job. I’ve been enjoying my time in London as much as I did at in 2012 (when I wrote a post last New Year’s Eve celebrating what a remarkable experience 2012 in London had been).

I started this blog in earnest in January 2010 — when its principal purpose was to follow my progress through the City University Certificate in Novel Writing. I doubt that I’d have expected to be still blogging about my continuing development as a fiction writer — three years of an MA following the City course would have seemed a long slog back then.

So, in some ways it seems that little is different but these are probably the most superficial. In a deeper sense this blog has recorded much more profound changes — the huge amount I’ve learned about writing, how the skills I’ve developed have matured and how my perspective is much better aligned to the commercial realities and demands of the publishing world.

I spent time this summer revising some of the first sections of the novel. These were written back in 2010 and, while reading the material was surprisingly pleasurable, I feel I’ve improved as a writer very significantly.

And, as well as learning and honing a craft, I’ve enjoyed some brilliantly sociable and stimulating times with so many other creative people along the way.

I’ve been so busy that it’s easy to lose sight of two major achievements that happened in 2013: I finished my three-year MA Creative Writing course and, in doing so, completed as good a draft of my novel as possible. Sure it would benefit from some more work — I’m sure virtually all writers would like to polish their work were it not for deadlines — but I’ve reached that fundamental milestone.

And it’s a novel that I’m proud of having written — with characters I haven’t tired of in over three years (the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to them is the flip side of this coin) and imho the novel says many things worth saying about life in contemporary Britain. Possibly the best compliment of the 2013 was when one of our ex-City writing group, who’s not afraid to be critical, read the whole manuscript and said it was ‘a terrific read’.

Completing a novel is such a massive undertaking that I have huge respect for anyone else who shows the necessary qualities of perseverance, motivation and self-belief required, especially if fitting it in around work or other commitments. That’s in addition to any innate writing ability. I don’t particularly agree with the aphorisms often tweeted that suggest that talent is commonplace whereas it’s hard work that’s rare but completing a novel is a certainly a slog that requires a lot of sacrifice.

I’ve been careful to say I finished the MA course — another achievement in persistence — but I’m yet to find out if I’ve passed. I’ll get the official results in June so hopefully, this time in 2014 I can say I’m in possession of a Masters degree in Creative Writing.

Now the course is over, it’s probably fair to say that, for all of us, taking a long course like an MA or the year-long City Certificate (now Novel Studio) isn’t the fastest way to write a novel. There’s a lot of time spent on absorbing best practice from established writers’ texts, workshopping and critiquing with other students, engaging in discussion, learning about aspects of the publishing industry, writing in other forms (as I did for my screenplay in the MA) and writing assignments. It’s surprising there’s enough time left to even make a start on the novel. However, all who complete these courses should emerge much better equipped to go on to write more successfully in the long-term.

We’re promised feedback on our completed novels in mid-January. This seemed a rather distant date when I submitted the novel in early October, when my instinct was to try to finish work on it and move on to something new as soon as possible. However, if the forthcoming feedback is as comprehensive as the university have suggested then I guess I ought to be prepared to go back to the manuscript and act on any recommendations. The novel should have been read by at least two markers and also externally moderated so a fresh perspective will be really valuable (especially when compared with the cost of other manuscript appraisal services).

The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill
The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill              (none of the above is Kerry!)

And I finally met up with one of my virtual coursemates. About six weeks after the novel submission deadline I was in Birmingham visiting some classic pubs with friends and took a detour to the Black Country to have a very pleasant chat in person with Kerry Hadley. We met, appropriately for my novel, at a famous pub — The Vine in Brierley Hill — otherwise known as the Bull and Bladder. What a spectacular sunset too. I’m sure that during 2014 a publisher would like to snap up Kerry’s excellent novel from the MA course. Maybe I’ll finally get to meet up with Anne in 2014 — another who survived until the bitter end?

Sunset Over Brierley Hill, November 2013
Sunset Over Brierley Hill, November 2013

So if 2013 was about completing the novel and the MA course. 2014’s resolutions are going to be about trying to get it published — a process that’s probably going to be long, difficult, frustrating — the archetypical emotional roller-coaster. Time to develop a thick, calloused skin? As mentioned previously, I’m not going to catalogue the submission saga on the blog. However, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the process at networking events like the York Festival of Writing (where I received some excellent one-to-one feedback from a couple of agents), London Writers’ Cafe (I slurped a large G&T at the Christmas party) and London Writers’ Club. I’ve also exchanged notes with many other writers over Twitter and email so I have a reasonably informed idea of which agents I perhaps ought to approach. In most cases I’ve seen the agents speak or had short conversations with them myself, which makes the process less daunting (or perhaps more so in some cases). 

(Having said that, should an agent I’ve not met or listened to stumble across this blog is interested in reading some of the novel then please get in touch!)

2013 has also been tremendously encouraging for me as several writing friends and acquaintances have achieved success — showing that signing with an agent and getting a book published happens to people who’ve followed a similar route to myself. I wrote a post in the late summer about the great news of Rick Kellum from my City course being signed by Juliet Mushens. I heard recently that Bren Gosling, also from the City course, and who’s often commented on this blog, has also been taken on by a leading literary agency.

Also, Isabel Costello (who I last saw at Anastasia Parkes’s ‘interesting session’ at the York Festival of Writing — see post below) of the excellent On the Literary Sofa blog I’ve mentioned on this site, has also recently been signed by Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath for her debut novel. In all the above cases, I know the writers have worked extremely hard on revising and reworking their novels over a long period and their achievements are very well deserved.

A few weeks ago I also met with Jennifer Gray from the City course who’s been working extremely hard on her rapidly growing number of children’s books. In 2013 she had the fantastic news of being shortlisted for the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize for Atticus Claw Breaks the Law — the first of the Atticus series. A search for Jennifer Gray on the Waterstones website comes up with at least ten books — including the Guinea Pigs online series and the intriguing Chicken series which will be published in 2014.

Talking to Jennifer has given me an insight into the commercial demands of the publishing world — with deadlines for submitting, revising and proofing new titles stretching many months ahead. She’s also a practising barrister and has a family so I’m in awe of her industry — again another example that, in addition to talent, published writers need to put in a lot of hard work. In my case, with course deadlines no longer a factor, I perhaps need that sort of external discipline to give me a kick up the backside every so often (not that Jennifer needs one herself, I’m sure).


St. James's Park -- Where Parts of the Novel Were Written in the Summer
St. James’s Park — Where Parts of the Novel Were Written in the Summer

Like many other writers, I’ve also been juggling the demands of the ‘day job’ with making time for writing — which often feels like I’m burning the candle at both ends — sometimes trying to eke out time to write from what’s available in the rest of the day, even maybe a token effort of writing a few sentences.

In many ways the writing is like taking on a second job — one with a long, unpaid apprenticeship except with myself as boss to sporadically crack the whip. It often seems I have to snatch time to write: on the train, at lunchtimes (sometimes in St. James’s Park), unearthly hours of the day and night and at the expense of more conventional weekend pursuits (such as the urgent repairs required to my disintegrating garden shed — I’m sure Roald Dahl’s famous writing shed didn’t have a gaping hole in the roof).

A Mobile Writing 'Office' run by Chiltern Railways
A Mobile Writing ‘Office’ run by Chiltern Railways

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to write tens of thousands of words in 2013 — and also cut several thousand too in the process of editing, revising and proofing a completed draft. I must have found a writing routine that’s sufficiently accommodating. Of course, it remains an ambition to make writing bring in enough income so that I can have some dedicated, professional writing time. On the other hand, I guess putting in so many hours up to this point shows how much I must enjoy writing for its own sake and also my belief that this work will pay off in the long run.

So I start 2014 hoping that this might be the year that all that time writing and studying will pay dividends. Whatever happens I’m looking forward to starting to write the new novel that I’ve been writing in my head and jotting down ideas for while completing The Angel.

But to see in the New Year I’m going to do some well-earned research — and, considering the main setting of the novel, where else to do it but in the local village pub? I even wrote a scene in the summer set at The Angel’s chaotic New Year’s party. I hope no-one’s end of year celebrations are quite as bizarre as my fictional pub’s musical celebration — singer-songwriter Jason’s ‘whiny-voiced set about dusky maidens and mysterious sex beasts’.

So good luck and the best of wishes to everyone who’s read the blog or who whose company I’ve enjoyed in any writing-related (or other) way during the last twelve months. Let’s look forward to 2014 and hope it brings all of us something of what we’re hoping for.

The Long and Slightly Winding Holloway Road

It’s four weeks since the end of my intense period of editing that finished with me frantically e-mailing my novel manuscript to the printers and bookbinders and heading up the Holloway Road to have the satisfaction of picking up my own copies.

The printers sent two bound copies directly to Manchester Metropolitan University — who kept me in suspense a while before acknowledging receipt. I felt relieved when I eventually received a confirmation e-mail, although I now need to wait until late June to hear whether I’ve made the grade.

Many people I’ve spoken to about the course have been quite incredulous about this nine month delay in communicating students’ marks.  It’s apparently because the awards committee only sits once a year (in the summer) and, as we part-time students are given until the start of the next academic year to write our novels, we have to wait for our marks to be confirmed when all the conventionally scheduled English and Creative Writing courses  are assessed at the end of 2013-4.

(Since submitting the novel I’ve now heard that MMU have changed their schedule so they intend to give us our marks and feedback by mid-January next year — at which point we should know whether we’re going to graduate but will still have to wait until the summer for it to be official.)

While it would be nice to be able to put the letters MA after my name (should I pass) it’s been the process of taking the course that’s been of much more value to me than gaining the qualification.

After all, agents and publishers don’t look at the Creative Writing MA on a graduate’s CV and immediately decide to your manuscript will do the business for them.

But the process of taking the course and sticking with it to the end ought to show evidence of many desirable qualities in a writer. At York Festival of Writing, one agent in particular told me how much she likes Creative Writing MA students and graduates. Other agents have also said that a mention of an MA in a covering letter means that will give a submission more serious consideration on the grounds that the writer has invested time and money in improving their own writing.

Completing an MA course should demonstrate:

  • The standard of your writing as a whole has met (and maintained) the quality criteria of the course admissions tutor — for the MA I needed to have my own creative writing assessed as well as a piece of criticism
  • The potential to take a professional attitude towards your writing — motivation and enthusiasm are some of the qualities that are examined in the interview process. Also, students on an MA course have to be able to take and receive criticism and feedback from both students and tutors
  • An ability to deliver work to deadlines —  not only the final novel but several other pieces of academic work must be submitted on time. There are also many other dates that that have to be met — when it’s your turn to distribute a 3,000 word extract for discussion — or to send another writer feedback on their work. The MMU course was structured so that, at times, each student was expected to provide a new section every second or third week — it could be an intense schedule.
Three Years' Worth of Effort
Three Years’ Worth of Effort
  • You can write a novel! At the end of the course, at least for MMU, you should have a work that’s potentially publishable that can be before an agent — if you don’t you’ll fail.

Unlike the MMU course, not all MA courses insist on a novel length piece of work be submitted as a final assessment. Given that the MMU 60,000 minimum word count is about four times the length of a typical academic Masters level dissertation then some courses might not consider this length of assessment necessary (in terms of course credits the novel forms 60 out of 180 points overall — only 20 more than the much shorter Transmission project).

But it’s been the experience of writing a novel-length piece that’s been the most valuable aspect of the course for me and it’s by completing the draft, going back and revising and altering and grappling with the many tentacled octopus that has taught me lessons that can’t be taught as theory.

I’ll be much better prepared to write the next novel purely by pushing myself through the experience of completing The Angel and, in that regard, MMU’s decision to devote the third year of the course to independent writing with one-to-one support from a tutor might ultimately teach students as much as in the more formally taught sections of the course.

I found an interesting blog post by Andrew Wille,  who was a ‘book doctor’ at the York Festival of Writing: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing . It’s worth reading the post for his list of recommended writing books, including several I’ve read such as the excellent Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, Harry Bingham’s pragmatic How to Write, the amusing How Not To Write A Novel and the ubiquitous Stephen King book.

Andrew Wille has substantial experience of teaching and studying writing and argues that any novel submitted for a Creative Writing MA will need substantial revision before it’s commercially publishable (and often more than one redrafting).

Having gone through the MA experience I don’t disagree — read the comments after his blog post and you’ll see a conversation between us on the subject.

Despite the apparently leisurely deadline, I’d guess that most of the novels submitted for MA deadlines only come together very near the end of the writing process as long, organic, rich works formed of interdependent strands.  Their writers might therefore benefit from a period of reflection at the complexity of the work they’ve created.

And the writers wouldn’t likely to be taking an MA if it wasn’t the first time they’d worked so seriously on a novel to the point of its completion. So any MA novel is likely to undergo plenty of changes if it’s taken up by an agent and publisher — but at least the novel exists.

It’s probably inevitable from workshopping in 3,000 and 5,000 words discrete segments for the MA course and writing groups that the finished work when it’s put together bears a risk of repetition.

When writing sections to be presented out of context, it’s difficult not to anticipate comments and questions from readers who may have last encountered the story weeks or months ago: there’s a temptation (perhaps unconscious) to drop in a piece of exposition or dialogue that illustrates just why a certain character might behave in a particular way or to establish setting or theme.

It’s not too difficult to spot the blatant repetitions but it’s harder to identify actions or dialogue in scenes that perhaps do the same job as examples in other sections but do so in subtly different ways.  It’s a tough judgement call to cull these, especially when they might be also serving another purpose in the novel. It’s another example of where workshopping in sections doesn’t recreate the experience of a ‘real world’ reader who’d hopefully have conjured up their own unique interpretation of the novel having read the novel as a continuous whole.

On the other hand, to avoid embarrassing themselves with work littered with typos, clumsy phrasing and bad grammar, I’ve noticed that most students and writing group participants will polish the extracts they present for workshopping to a standard that’s far above first draft.

I tend to write a first draft, print it, revise it on paper, make alterations in the manuscript, then read it aloud again and proof-read before I’ll send the work out for comment. That’s more like third or fourth draft — and still typos creep through. But this ought to mean — in addition to the copy editing and proof reading before the final submission — that novels produced on MA courses are probably presented in a more respectable state than the average manuscript an agent will receive, even if structural changes are required.

I hinted in the last blog post that the location of my novel/dissertation printers on the Holloway Road was a little serendipitous. It’s because the famously grimy,  largely down-at-heel north London road was often my route to City University for the Certificate in Novel Writing — and it’s likely many of the ideas that formed the conception of the novel were mulled over while stuck in its traffic jams.

My journey down the Holloway Road started from a grotesquely ugly office block where I was working at the time which was stranded in the middle of a housing estate on the very margins of Luton.

Even David Brent Would Probably Find This Soulless
Even David Brent Would Probably Find This Soulless

While I’m sure the local area was a perfectly acceptable place to live — it was one of the more desirable areas of Luton — it wasn’t exactly thrilling as a location to spend one’s working day. The only ‘entertainment’ nearby was an Asda and a small parade of local shops containing an Iceland, various takeaways and an estate pub.

Nevertheless, the Asda had quite a sizeable book section and I used to think (and still do) that it would be a great ambition to have a book of mine on sale there. Of course Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Waterstones on Piccadilly would be great, as would all the wonderful independent booksellers, but making it to the shelves of Asda in Luton would make a different sort of statement.

At lunchtimes I escaped by running around the pleasant country lanes that lay beyond the suburban sprawl. I sometimes did a bit of writing in the office and remember getting inspiration for a poem I wrote for an OU course from all the plastic carrier bags being blown into the branches of trees in the scrubby wasteland behind the office — it was that kind of place.

As Far From Shoreditch As You're Likely To Get
As Far From Shoreditch As You’re Likely To Get

It was the safe, uniform suburban location that, for different reasons, would drive both the leading characters in the novel absolutely crazy — and in retrospect the city versus country conflict and the themes of escape and ambition in the novel may well be rooted in the journey from Luton to Islington.

When I was working in the office, I’d leave on Mondays and Wednesdays around five, drive past the airport, barrel down the M1, then take the A1 through Henlys Corner and under the bridge at Archway, from where I had a glimpse of one of those marvellous, tantalising views where London suddenly reveals itself — the Gherkin, Tower 42, Barbican and other City towers (the Shard was yet to be built) rising in the distance.

Then it was a crawl along the Holloway Road, dodging buses and stopping at traffic lights every hundred yards, but I got to know the road well — the tube station, the bizarre architecture of the London Metropolitan University’s new extension, the art deco Odeon and the Wetherspoon conversion of the Coronet cinema.

Holloway Road shares similar characteristics to other areas adjoining large football grounds — a lot of rather folorn looking takeaways and pubs that do most of their business on match-days.

Once I drove obliviously down the road just before an Arsenal Champions’ League game. Even taking my usual shortcut down Liverpool Road to avoid Highbury and Islington roundabout and Upper Street, I was caught between coaches and police vans and ended up a stressed three-quarters of an hour late for the City tutorial.

So the Holloway Road represented the twice-weekly transition I made from the Home Counties to the centre of London — the scruffy but vital artery that connected the inner-city cool of Islington and slightly edgy Finsbury, where City University’s campus is located in the middle of one of the closest pockets of social housing to the centre of London.

Many other routes in and out of London are fast dual-carriageways or even rise on viaducts above the zone two fringes, like the A40 Westway that I normally used to drive home. Unlike these, the traveller on the A1 Holloway Road experiences the grinding pace of city life. While nowhere near as hip, it’s not too unlike the Great Eastern Street/Commercial Street area that features in the novel.

The Holloway Road
The Holloway Road

The place also has associations with the City course as one of the students set part of her novel in the area. She wrote beautifully and she described very evocatively the experience of living just off the Holloway Road, albeit a few years ago when it perhaps held its connections with the lost London of the mid-20th century a little more strongly (there was a famous eccentric department store whose name escapes me). But the writing confirmed a sense of latent oddball seediness — an area in a liminal zone between gentrified Islington and Highgate and the grittier localities, generally to the east.

The road does seem to have something of a middle-class foothold amongst the seediness — with even a Waitrose in its smartest sections. However, the Highbury and Islington end is still more kebab house than cup cake.  

Collis, Bird and Withey in the Shadow of the Emirates
Collis, Bird and Withey in the Shadow of the Emirates

So it was oddly appropriate that over three years later when the novel was finished (in its MA submission form) that it would be printed right next to the road I’d regularly driven down when I first started writing it.  Collis, Bird and Withey, whose service overnight service I’d recommend, are just in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium (and I’ve made James an Arsenal fan in the novel).

And as a further little co-incidence bonus, I walked past this cafe below on the way back to the tube station with my bound manuscripts in hand. Anyone who’s read the start of the novel will spot the reason. 

Didn't See Greg Wallace Here on the Holloway Road
Didn’t See Greg Wallace Here on the Holloway Road


The End

Well, ‘the end’ might be an over-dramatic way of putting it but it does mark a significant watershed: 1st October (tomorrow at the time of writing) marks the end of my Creative Writing MA course. It’s the day that we students have spent just over three years persevering towards — when we hand over the fruits of our labours to the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University to cast their verdict.

It’s also why, when there are only a couple of hours left in the whole month of September, there have been no updates on this blog during the month. Getting the novel into a decent enough shape to submit as a text for academic assessment has been bloody hard, knackering work — about two months intense effort over and above the normal writing time I try to eke out around the day job and other commitments — so not enough time even to post up the holiday photos I hinted about in the last update (but persevere to the end of this post and any disappointment might be alleviated in that department).

I'd Say The Jaegerbombs Kept Me Going But I'd Be Lying -- It Was Mainly the Tassimo Coffee Machine
I’d Say The Jaegerbombs Kept Me Going But I’d Be Lying — It Was Mainly the Tassimo Coffee Machine

Part of the reason it’s been something of a grind is that I’d not realised, until it was mentioned by fellow students, Kerry and Anne, that we were required to hand in hard copies of the novel — it’s effectively the dissertation component of the Masters degree — and with a dissertation the university requires the document not only to be physically printed but professionally bound like, er, a real book!

Fortunately there’s no additional commentary or analysis required (that tends to come at PhD level) but, with a minimum word count of 60,000, it’s a very weighty document for all students. And, as I have no worries about meeting the minimum word count (thankfully there isn’t maximum), then I’m expecting my dissertation to be something of a bookend when I pick my copy up from the bookbinders.

Interestingly, my MSc dissertation for the OU was a much more manageable 17,500 words —  not much of gripping story there, though — and I was able to submit that purely electronically. I later had it printed and bound for my own reference — and it sits doing a bit of bookshelf ego massaging next to the MBA dissertation from years ago that I actually printed on an inkjet printer before having it bound (that would probably cost me about £500 in ink if I tried it now on my current money pit of an HP printer).

It seems ridiculous to have been working on a novel for so long and to have to suddenly shift into a higher gear when the end of the course suddenly creeps up. But I guess that’s the way of deadlines — I know from some of my published and agented friends how they’re often set exacting deadlines. Most published books would probably only live on their authors’ word processors if it wasn’t for that external kick up the backside. But I had a deadline and I made it, however generous it seems in retrospect.

To get the revision process kicked off in earnest, at the start of August I went through the laborious process of printing off my draft and then took it on holiday to France and Germany to read. Relaxing in a lovely tranquil gîte in the Vosges mountains (see picture below) perhaps put me in a similar frame of mind perhaps to an authentic reader. I had the weird experience (a bit like when characters ‘take over’) of looking at the text a little like a reader rather than the person who wrote it — I surprised myself by getting to the end of a chapter and feeling that reader’s compulsion to start straight away on the next one. And I knew the story!

Not A Cold Sweat From Having Read the Draft Manuscript -- I'd Just Climbed a Small Mountain in the Vosges
Not A Cold Sweat From Having Read the Draft Manuscript — I’d Just Climbed a Small Mountain in the Vosges

I’ve spent the last six weeks working through the notes that I made — making some very difficult decisions about dropping whole sections (the infamous ‘calendar’ chapters that I workshopped have gone), taking fragments from several chapters and altering them to form completely new scenes (there’s one continuous event in the novel that I constructed from three previously completely separate sections) and trawling through the text for consistency and checking facts (for example, I had to change a child’s age in several places when I realised there was a scene when she was in a pushchair).

Having to hand in hard copies effectively tests your self-publishing skills. I spent hours checking pedantically through the whole manuscript for formatting errors, stray punctuation and the smallest typo (although it’s sod’s law that many will inevitably remain). I had to worry about mirroring the margins for the binding, ensure that sections started on odd pages and lots of other issues that writers who e-mail Word document to a publisher don’t have to pore over.

Once I’d formatted the PDF for the professional printers it was only a few minutes’ work to create a reasonably passable e-book version of the finished MA version of the novel. It’s now on my Kindle and has made me wonder if I should spend a little more time polishing it and take the plunge and properly self-publish it. Maybe.

Certainly, the self-publishing route is becoming a much more common way of getting agent interest — as I discovered in some panel discussions when I made a fleeting visit for the second year to the York Festival of Writing at the beginning of September.

I was also surprised to hear in a session by a couple of literary agents that almost all the manuscripts that they receive as submissions are in need of a thorough line and copy edit.

Moreover they expect this, almost to the point of being a bit wary of the most perfectly edited examples, on the basis that authors are better employed on the more creative tasks of the publishing process — inventing ideas, plots and characters — rather than combing through manuscripts for errors. Proof reading is usually more effective if done by someone new to the text and it’s also a dedicated (and very different) skill in itself.

I may blog later at more length about my visit to York — Isabel Costello has written a very good blog post about the benefits of attending for a second time.

I thought I was being rather brave by attending Anastasia Sparks’s workshop on writing erotica. However, everyone seemed to be surprised that there were more men in the room than women.

However, as might have been anticipated some of the men were much more uncomfortable than the women when asked to do an exercise in erotica and then read out what they’d written — using some of the words written on the blackboard in the photo below (guess which words I volunteered). Two made rather lame excuses and refused to share even a mildly erotic word.

Anastasia Parks's Blackboard 140913
Not Your Typical University Lecture — The Erotica Workshop Blackboard at the York Festival of Writing

As the novel is going to be academically assessed, I didn’t want to take the risk of submitting something that looked unfinished so I’ve gone through the rather bizarre and very time-consuming process of using Acrobat’s ‘Read Out Loud’ function to speak every line of the novel in its default, robotic American monotone while I’ve read the text on the screen. (It takes about five minutes to read and correct each page this way and it’s not foolproof as corrections have a way of introducing their own typos.)

After working on something for so long, it’s amazing how many errors you can spot just by hearing the words are spoken out loud.  There are some sentences in the book that have taken over three years to write — and I was still altering them at the last minute.

The proofing process over the last few days has been exhausting and, in places, very frustrating when I came across something that I wasn’t happy with but which was too complex to fix in the time available.

I’m also greatly indebted to Guy Russell, from the City course who’s very technically knowledgeable and a wonderfully humorous writer himself,  for reading through a half-edited version of the manuscript in a week and giving me extremely very helpful and honest feedback.

I also did some very analytical MSc-type things with spreadsheets — making graphs of chapter lengths and finding a Word macro that allowed me to count all the unique instances of words in the novel — the number is easily into five figures. I rather like the fact I got ‘rhombus’ in the book (it’s about plate shape not a treatise on geometry), not so sure about ‘sentient’ though.

So today the novel is hitting the press at a printers and bookbinders just off the Holloway Road in London, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium — there’s a little serendipity there as I made James an Arsenal fan and the friendly woman I’ve been talking to there is called Magda — like one of my favourite characters in the novel.

Sadly, there will only be a handful of very expensive copies but I’ll pick up a copy for myself tomorrow and it can sit proudly on my shelf — I’ll try and post a photo of it at some point when I’ve recovered from the whole draining process.

There’s still plenty I’d like to change about what I’ve submitted but at least it’s a completed novel with a beginning, middle and end, even I might dare suggest a narrative arc, and no obvious ‘work in progress’ bits of sticking plaster holding it together.

While I was at the Festival of Writing I had two one-to-one meetings with agents who’d read the first 3,000 words of the novel in advance. As with the same sessions last year, they were very positive about the writing and were keen to see more — asking me very practical questions about the novel and how I came to write it — rather than making lists of recommendations to fix faults. I guess that’s a good sign.

However, having gone through the editing process for the MA submission I realise there’s still a little more structural work that needs doing before I start submitting it in earnest, if I decide that’s the route I want to take. I’ll try to address those and then go through the proofing process again. So, the novel hasn’t quite been put to bed yet.

While I’m going to carry on updating the blog with writing and novel-related posts, I’m not intending to chronicle anything about the submission process, should I steel myself to put myself through that agony. I know from my many friends who are excellent writers that it’s a frustrating and painful process and full of raised and dashed hopes and interminable waiting. Better to maybe start talking about the next book instead.

One of the agents said she’d heard good things about the MMU MA Course, which was quite reassuring, but also took me back a little as I’d recently been so focused on completing the novel as an end in itself.

There are quite a few short courses and events now that promise some professional writers’ feedback on aspiring authors’ work, which is always useful, but what I mentioned to the agent in reply was how valuable it had been to have the input over an extended period each year in the course of three authors, each who’d each published many books of their own.

Rather than see the writing as a one-off, they got to know each student’s style and novel-in-progress over an extended period of time. While the feedback could be challenging at times, it was always encouraging.

However, it was a little disconcerting reading the reviews for my tutor in the second year’s recent book. Nick Royle’s First Novel has a protagonist who’s a creative writing lecturer, working with students on their, er, first novels. I’m sure he completely fictionalised everything in there!

I’m feeling a little rudderless and cast out into the wide-world now as I’ve been more or less constantly on writing courses (often more than one simultaneously) for the last six years. It was September 2007 when I started the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course (highly recommended) and I’ve gone through several more, including the intensive City Certificate in Novel Writing  2009-2010, to the point where I’ve now completed the MA.

It’s taken way longer than I expected to get to the point where I can hand in a novel with which I’m reasonably happy. There was some material that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover — ‘Did I really write that then?’ — from years ago but plenty of stuff that made me wince (which hopefully has been mostly excised now).

My friend Kathy, who I’ve known since the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and is a Creative Writing MA herself, tells me that my writing has improved considerably since she’s known me — so I guess that’s testament to the courses and all the practice that they’ve forced me to put in. Hopefully, the process of writing the next novel (or completing the one that’s been in abeyance for the last three years) will be consequently speedier.

But at the moment, having had plenty of nights going to bed at two and being up by seven, I’m reminded of Adele Parks’s very entertaining keynote speech at this year’s Festival of Writing.

She explained how she completed her first published novel while working in a demanding day-job — ‘Basically, I gave up sleep’.

I’ll second that but wouldn’t recommend it!

Now for those left on tenterhooks by the lack of holiday photos as tantalisingly promised in the previous post, here’s a few with some relevance to the novel.

This is a wonderful view of a bend in the Rhine, taken near Boppard, a place I last visited on a school trip.

The Majestic Rhine at Boppard
The Majestic Rhine at Boppard

Trabants are now as scarce as the remants of the Berlin Wall.

Trabants and Graffiti -- Very Achtung, Baby.
Trabants and Graffiti — Very Achtung, Baby.

And this peculiar view is of the ladder used by border guards to climb up a border watchtower. I climbed up and down this watchtower ladder near Potsdamer Platz and it was quite hair-raising but what I love most is how the 1980s East German lino has been preserved.

Look at that 1980s Lino -- Watchtower, Potsdamer Platz
Look at that 1980s Lino — Watchtower, Potsdamer Platz



I wrote in a post over three and a half months ago about the MMU MA Creative Writing ‘Transmission Project’. That’s the second largest piece of assessed work on the course, which was due to be submitted in September.

As with all Masters’ degrees (at least in common with my fairly recent OU MSc in Software Development), the course is structured into 180 credits. The largest component is the dissertation or project — in our case a novel of at least 60,000 words — which is worth a third of the marks (60 credits).

The MMU course then weights the Transmission Project and the two Reading Novels units at 40 credits each (the latter split across years one and two, which are assessed by essays). I found both the Reading Novels units that I did to be the best parts of the course — with very good tutors in Jenny Mayhew (who’s since left MMU and has published a novel of her own — see this interview on the Waterstones blog) and Andrew Biswell.

The Text Assignment (the publishing industry strand for which I wrote an essay on literary agents) makes up 20 credits and, interestingly, the Writing Novels workshops make up the remaining 20 credits, split over the two years, quite a small weighting considering that this is the part of the course where creative writing is taught in earnest. I’d guess it could be argued that the novel, to which the third year is devoted, is also the end product of these sessions, which means 80 of the 180 credits are devoted to the novel (and the extra 40 for the Transmission project specifically non-novel).

Anyway, I had an e-mail a few days ago with the welcome news that I’d passed the Transmission Project with a mark that I wasn’t displeased with, given that I’d pulled it all together in something of a mad scramble, post York Festival of Writing, whereas some of my coursemates had been sensible and started well in advance. This may have been reflected by the marker’s comments that the accompanying essay rather let down the screenplay with which it was submitted, in terms of the scores.

Most of the comments were quite positive — it was noted that the characters and their situations came across strongly. That’s important in a dramatic form such as a screenplay, which is all ‘show’ with very limited options to ‘tell’ — so you can put a few, brief notes in the script about a character (INT. JAMES’S OFFICE. DAY. JAMES, mid30s, is staring at a computer screen) that’s about it. You can’t spend half a page of exposition describing how James came to be in his office that day or, most crucially, how he feels about it (more than a stage direction like ‘bored expression’). It all has to be told by action and dialogue. So it’s an achievement that my two main characters’ predicaments came over to the marker very clearly.

It’s amazing to be reminded how much readers can infer from a very limited amount of words. I once converted into a poem a piece of prose description that set the scene for a chapter in the novel. I guess it probably wasn’t a great poem if it was born of a piece of prose — it wasn’t that long, possibly a sonnet structure –but I took it to the Metroland Poets workshop and a couple of the poets who listened to me read it completely nailed what it alluded to. I’d attempted to describe a barbecue outside a pub held on the day England played Germany in the 2010 football World Cup (the infamous ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard disallowed goal game) using only 70 or 80 fairly oblique words (and without calling the poem England v Germany or similar) but they identified it exactly — probably more of a testament to their poetry interpretation skills than mine as a poet.

(As an aside, I’ve just purchased Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, this year’s T.S.Eliot prize winning poetry book. As widely reported, it’s a very personal collection themed around the break-up of her 32-year marriage around 15 years ago. I’m currently revising a section of the novel that deals with related themes and I’d like to read her poetry to gain some additional insight into these situations.)

As with poetry, screenplays are a medium where brevity is paramount. My Transmission Project was more like Spooks than Ingmar Bergman — I had about half a dozen scene changes per page on a couple of pages (and a page in screenplay time is meant to equate to about a minute). I’d say that was quite conservative compared with many modern films but the feedback suggested I’d have earned slightly more marks with less slicing and dicing. Possibly so, but it’s all good practice for injecting some of that pace into the novel itself.

So, to use an athletic analogy, I’m on the home straight with the MA with everything completed and, even more importantly, passed apart from the submission of the novel itself. However, the somewhat ridiculous mismatch between the course deadlines and the annual sitting of the examination committee means that we’ll have to wait eight months after finishing in October to hear our results. Unless I submit early, in March, then I won’t graduate until 2014.

What’s worse, we won’t even get our student entitlements during the wait. I think I’m due at least one visit to the student bar to get the cheap beer which is part of my student human rights. I might even bump into the sort of characters from Fresh Meat who’ve been my virtual, fictional colleagues over the past two and a half years.

As a post-script to the posting on the blog technical problems, I reported to my wonderful internet hosting provider that they’d managed to corrupt the historical content of the blog by interspersing it with peculiar characters seemingly at random. According to various Google searches, there are ways of fixing this automatically but I’m not sure I’d trust either the hosting provider or my own PHP and mySQL skills to implement these without cocking the whole lot up even more — so I may have to work my way through and manually remove the extraneous characters. I’ve done a couple of posts already and there’s loads more to do — but it’s a good displacement activity.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Agents and the Changing World of Publishing — An MA Perspective

In the MMU Creative Writing MA we don’t just work on our novels-in-progress. That’s the main body of work but we need to take a broader perspective so we understand the context of  modern literature and the publishing world.

One significant component is appreciation of established and innovative novelists’ work — in the Reading Novels module — see my post on the Rules of Creative Writing for more about work for that section of the course.

We also have to do something that I’m way behind on and still haven’t fully got my head around — called the Transmission Project. The objective of this is to work in a form that’s different to novel writing. I have a vague idea I might do a screenplay based on the novel.

But the joker in the pack has been a module called The Text, which is basically a piece of work on the publishing industry or something analytical about the way your work-in-progress makes its journey from your computer hard-drive potentially into the hands of paying readers (with the obvious caveats of being lucky and working hard).

Slowly, I’m reaching the point where I can no longer procrastinate and fiddle around perfecting my manuscript. The day is going to have to come soon when I settle on a file to attach to an e-mail to literary agents — steel myself to press ‘send’ and see what happens — if anything.

Therefore I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make literary agents the subject of my essay. In doing the work at least I’d get a better idea of what they do, should I get to start engaging with them. (Actually I’ve met a number of agents already and follow many on Twitter. While some of their number only seem to tweet about how wonderful their client’s latest books are, others provide an invaluable insight into the publishing process. Carole Blake’s tweets when ploughing though some of the weird and dire submissions she receives should be mandatory reading for any writer before they press the send button or post the envelope.)

But writing about ‘what a literary agent does’ wouldn’t really be stretching enough for a Masters degree so I tried to combine it with a quick survey of the current upheavals in the publishing marketplace, such as the growth of e-readers and the consequent explosion in self-publishing. Should anyone be interested in reading the essay itself, it can be found by clicking  on this link: Essay on Literary Agents in Changing Publishing Word — April 2012. Note that it’s quite and dry and academic, although I do put in some entertaining quotations and it got a decent mark despite my mentioning of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m sure any literary agent who might chance across this post will be extremely re-assured  that my considered deliberations (who am I kidding?) were generally positive for their profession. In spite of the new technology-driven opportunities for disintermediation between author and reader (i.e. the ability to go straight to Amazon with an e-book rather than via agent and publisher), the agent still provides value for the author. This is particularly true for their established clients, for whom, undoubtedly, the agent is a tremendous asset — especially for the business-side of things — such as all those translation deals and foreign rights. These are complexities that new writers — focused on their books — will barely consider.

Many of the ‘unexpectedly phenomenally best-selling’ self-published authors tend to be snapped up by agents for this reason, although this has led to suggestions that self-publishing is starting to serve as a ‘crowd-sourced slush pile’.

However, one under-appreciated aspect of traditional publishing is the time and effort spent on perfecting the finished book. Agents will ensure that work they represent is of publishable quality: some will spend considerable time working with the author on a promising manuscript, others will only take on work that’s virtually ready to be submitted to a commissioning editor.

Because of the commission-based model on which they draw their earnings, new writers are always risks for agents — they won’t earn any revenue from new clients until most of the hard work has been done (getting the book into shape to be offered to publishers, selling it, handling rights). Apart from advances (which are getting much smaller), the lead-times of the traditional publishing model mean it might be two years before book starts bringing in revenue (that’s if it does make any money).  So it’s not surprising that if a novel demonstrates it has a proven market in the e-book charts then an agent will see that as reducing many of these risks.

This development throws up an interesting point as to whether writers who are at the point of submitting novels to agents ought to also throw their work into the morass of self-published e-books. I’ve heard contradictory views from agents on whether they would be interested in representing a book that had already been published in some form.

At the London Writers’ Club, in response to a question, one agent told a writer she wasn’t interested in an already published book (though she would be interested in a follow-up). But I’ve also heard agents and publishers say they thought there was nothing to be lost by writers testing the market in that way.

Until very recently, many self-published e-books were likely to be those that had been rejected by traditional channels with the authors using this route as a last resort but this is no longer true. In fact the economics of publishing at very low cost favour authors who publish using very little outside assistance (maybe a cover designer and, if they’re sensible, copy editing and proof reading). If an e-book is sold at £1.99, a self-published author will get the majority of the revenue (depending on the sales channel). Whereas for a paperback discounted to £3.99 in Tesco or Amazon, an author isn’t likely to make more than 50p, probably a lot less. Combine this with the ability of writers to get more material out to market more quickly (the compromises in quality control this generates don’t appear to deter a sizeable portion of e-book buyers) and, from a business perspective, an author could make more income selling a smaller number of e-books (especially if they write more titles). Of course these books need to be marketed but some writers’  ferocious use of social media can be highly effective.

It’s potentially the role of the agents as gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry that is most affected by current changes. I know from my experience on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio), which has good links with agents, that ‘getting an agent’ is one of the two indisputable achievements (the other is having your novel published — after that everything is subjective).

The agent is positioned at the ‘this-is-where-the-bullshit-stops’ interface between subjective appreciation of one’s work and the objective, binary ‘yes/no’ judgement of ‘will this sell?’.

If writers believe that getting ‘an agent’ is an achievement in itself then they may feel impelled to approach the wrong type of agent. It’s often said by agents that it’s far more important to find the right agent for one’s work, rather than find one quickly, but the seal of affirmation of being signed up is something of a creative writing course alumni honour.

Such is the pressure to achieve that affirmation that writers are tempted to be impatient and contact agents before their work is ready — sometimes before much is written at all. At the London Writers’ Club, one writer said to an agent that he had five great concepts for a novel and that if he wrote to her then would she pick the best one out for him so he wouldn’t waste all that time writing a novel that no-one wanted to buy. It seems a reasonable question — and a very sensible one if publishing was an industry that financed its own R&D efforts (because new product development is effectively what new authors are  doing — unpaid). But, for fiction at least, the answer illustrated the toughness and resilience writers require to stand a chance of being published.

Her response was that he was the writer, he had to decide which of the concepts he believed in most and then he’d keep proving he had faith in his concept by completing the novel. And then he could send it in to agents. It wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted to hear but that’s how it works — the unsigned author spends large amounts of time and money on the project (if using courses, consultancies, etc) and only at that point might he or she be told the whole premise of the novel is flawed.

It’s not surprising that people feel rejection painfully — and that there’s a lot of manuscripts that never make it to agents’ scrutiny for fear of failure. And this situation shows the imbalance of power to which, perhaps, the e-book explosion is a reaction. I met a writer recently who took eight years to produce his first published book. That effort can be dismissed within a few seconds by an agent who’s always got another manuscript to look at on the pile.

But, on the other hand, it would be more cruel for an agent to encourage a writer in a particular direction only to find that the completed work is unsellable. The truth is that no-one knows what will be popular in the future. Agents can spot good writing but predicting the types of work that will appeal a couple of years in the future is a huge gamble. That’s why one hears of writers being given rejections that are impossible to analyse, such as ‘we really loved the book but we just didn’t love it quite enough’.  Of course, what the writer then wants to know is how to change the book so it generates the requisite reservoir of love that will increase its chances of being published. But that’s the point — the busy agent doesn’t have the time to get into a dialogue about improving a book they’ve already decided they’re not going to take a punt on. Most of the agents I’ve met have been very pleasant people — but they’re professionals. Such is the potential deluge of requests for feedback and advice, it seems that they collectively cultivate a somewhat forbidding front, when one reads submission guidelines on websites and in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and similar directories.

Perhaps it’s because of its brevity and broadcast nature but agents can be quite approachable on Twitter (but never try to pitch a book to them there). I have a reference to Oliver Munson from Blake Friedmann in my essay and he was kind enough to verify the information for me while I was writing the assignment. He’s also taken the trouble to give the OK for me to put the reference on this blog.

Yet we also had a different London agent participate in a really useful on-line chat session during the teaching element of the MMU MA course. I quoted several of his answers in the essay as they were succint and very relevant. I tried e-mailing him to ask if it was OK to have his name in the essay if I put it on this blog but I’ve had no reply. So, not wishing to attribute his comments without permission I’ve made him anonymous. Perhaps the e-mail didn’t get through or, more likely, he had an incredibly busy day and couldn’t get round to reply to a query like mine but it’s still a shame. Google searches for agents by name account for a fair proportion of hits on this site: there’s a modest chance a potential client might have come across his sensible words on here. And if he’s too busy to reply to that sort of e-mail then perhaps he might not be so responsive when I’m thinking of submitting my manuscript.

Mind you, agents are often in the same position themselves .There was a flurry of Twitter activity when an anonymous agent recently posted a blog complaining about  sending out books on submission to publishers and hearing nothing. This drew a sharp retort from the very pleasant Francesca Main (who visited our City university class) who concluded her blog post with a paragraph that started with the re-assuring sentence for those of us writers toiling away in the margins around our day jobs: ‘Authors are at the heart of everything we do, and the reason we all chose to work in publishing.’


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course Junkie

Not satisfied with having recently finished the City University Certificate in Novel Writing while also doing the dissertation of an MSc in Software Development at the Open University, I’ve now taken the plunge and started an MA in Creative Writing. This is with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), although I’m doing the online route which can be done entirely remotely (they do offer some campus based activities and priority on their courses in association with the Arvon Foundation but they’re not compulsory). Due to my personal circumstances I can’t commit to physically travel to any particular place over the next year, let alone the two years a campus based MA would involve (the online route is three years).

Also, having travelled into central London two nights a week (or the weekend equivalent) for the City course during the last academic year, I think I pushed past the limits (in various senses) of physical course attendance, so won’t do more, at least for the time being. However, I will be meeting with most of the City cohort every month in London to continue workshopping — so that will mean some welcome human face-to-face interaction in addition to being a virtual student — and also, hopefully, a few sessions in the pub afterwards.

Ideally I might have taken more time out between courses but various doom-laden predictions of the axe currently being taken to higher and further education put a doubt in my mind about whether there would be the same level of choice of course available this time next year. I read a headline in the Times Education Supplement that a third of further education jobs would be cut. (Of course, this has the knock-on effect of reducing the usefulness of an MA in Creative Writing as one of its benefits over and above courses like the City Certificate and Arvon-style courses is that it increases one’s employability in the academic sector — something that would be figuratively academic were there a lot of unemployed creative writing teachers.)

There are a few online courses available but I liked the description of the MMU course as, for two terms a year, it employs as a teaching method a virtual chat room teaching method at set times with a tutorial led by a tutor. I was interested to see how this would work and, last Monday, I found out.

For the first term we look at examples of other novels, starting with ‘Old School’ by Tobias Woolff. This book is so well written that it has thoroughly depressed me, especially when at the same time as reading it I’ve been trying to revise some of my own first draft material, which seems so pedestrian and uninspired by comparison. However, it’s a very concise book (under 200 pages) and I suspect that Woolff’s superb prose was assisted by countless revisions and re-draftings.

The online tutorial seemed to work really well. It was led by Dr Jenny Mayhew, who’s the tutor of this module. The novel ‘route’ of the MA appears to be fully subscribed — with 12 students. (The selection process for the course was quite rigorous — with references required, a submission of both critical and creative work and an interview.) I was pleased to see a couple of students are based near me — in Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead — ironically places that I drove past on the way to Finsbury for the City course. There are people based in Spain and the Czech republic as well as elsewhere in the country. I’ve picked up a new blog reader already — Anne who’s from Denmark but lives in the UK and writes flawless English as far as I can tell. (I’ve already told her about having a fluent European ex-pat as a character in my novel.)

As well as criticism of a novel each week, we are expected to do a creative writing task inspired by the text — and I’ve got until Sunday to do one. I was pleased to discover this aspect as I enjoy writing exercises.

So now I can add Manchester Writing School (comprising the MMU department and its associated activities) to the lengthening list of universities where I’ve done creative writing — Open University, City and Lancaster. In case it appears that I’ll just end up with a bunch of certificates rather than a novel at the end of all this, the Manchester novel route carries something of a big stick that appeals in a masochistic way– you don’t pass until you’ve finished the bloody thing.