My Brilliant Stand-Up Career

My First Venture into Stand-Up Comedy, The Comedy Pub, Leicester Square
My First Venture into Stand-Up Comedy, The Comedy Pub, Leicester Square
At the start of this year I did something I thought I’d never do — enrolled on a stand-up comedy course.

And even more daunting than practicing and performing a few attempts at stand-up in a classroom situation in front of a tutor and other students was that the course included a ‘showcase’ performance for all the newbie students to perform their routines. Add into the mix that it was at a “real” comedy venue to a real audience. All this after a whole six weeks of study.

My reasons for taking the course were partly logical and partly just a hell-of-it idea to push myself well out of my normal comfort zone. 

The logical justification was that I’d written short stories that had seemed to get a few decent laughs when performed by professional actors at Liars League. And, in general, my writing often has a habit of veering off in search of the humorous.

So, in theory, it wasn’t a huge leap to try my hand at writing the sort of material that might work in some types of stand-up. 

The big problem was getting up and performing it. 

That’s where the comfort zone thing came in. Talk to most people and they’ll say one of their biggest fears is public speaking. If it’s public speaking without notes to an audience that might include hecklers who expect you to be funny then it’s ten times worse. Many people have told me that having a go at stand-up is their worst nightmare.

In some ways stand-up is the opposite of writing — it’s performed in real-time, often with elements of improvisation, delivered in a uniquely personal style and involves direct interaction with an audience (unlike theatre, there’s no ‘fourth wall’). Writing distances the personality of the author, can be paused and re-read and is a solitary activity for the reader. Unsurprisingly, then, as a means of communication, writing often suits personalities on the introverted end of the scale, probably including me too.

But there are also similarities. Along with attending the course, I’ve read a few books about stand-up technique and by stand-up comedians. Sara Pascoe in her recent book Animal (it defies categorisation as it’s part memoir, part biology/psychology, part humour) makes a perceptive point — both authors and stand-ups effectively tell their audiences/readers to sit down and listen to/read their words for a long period. They’re not conversations. In her words, they’re both about showing off. Both stand-ups and authors of books have a story they ‘re insisting on telling the audience.

And as well as the general principle, many storytelling techniques are common to both genres, etc, etc. 

Well, that was the psychological lifebelt I was clinging to — as the showcase performance at the end of the course started to move closer.

Mike on the Mic
Mike on the Mic
There are many stand-up courses available, taught in contrasting formats. The course I took was with City Academy (who do a lot of other courses in the performing arts, for actors/dancers/etc.) over six Monday nights, with the seventh week being the showcase.

City Academy actually interviewed me about my experiences of the course:

The tutor was (and remains) Kate Smurthwaite. Since doing the course I’ve seen Kate interviewed all over the place, often about gender and feminist issues. She’s been on Sky News and became internationally famous a few weeks ago for showing her unshaven armpits on This Morning. She also even achieved a high accolade from the perspective of some of the posts on this blog — by being a guest on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2.

Besides her punditry in the media, Kate is also a professional comedian, touring her own shows and with writing credits such as Have I Got News For You. I found her a very broad-minded and supportive tutor, generating a rapport with all the students. She offered a good grounding in some of the practical aspects of starting off in stand-up comedy and provided positive, constructive feedback.

The other students were a diverse bunch (in terms of humour, especially) yet it was amazing how quickly we built up a shared sense of camaraderie. Perhaps it was the shared prospect of being thrown to the hecklers in the end-of-course showcase that helped us bond? Or maybe the ‘loosener’ improvisation exercises during the class — after which nobody can remain a shrinking violet.

There were some excellent budding comedians in the class. Each session was as entertaining as turning up to a comedy night in your own exclusive club. 

So how did the showcase night at the Comedy Pub (near Leicester Square) go? Taking myself out the equation, I thought everyone on the bill completely nailed their performances — i was on towards the end and watched with trepidation because everyone else’s practising and adrenaline obviously paid off. 

Coursemates After The Showcase at the Comedy Pub
Relieved Coursemates Celebrating After The Showcase at the Comedy Pub (top row: Adam, Rob, me, Kate; middle: Karolina, Mandy; front: Chantelle, Dave, Ian. Nick was missing from this photo.)
So, how did my career as a stand-up turn out? You can judge for yourself. Virtually all of my performance at the Comedy Pub near Leicester Square was recorded on the video below.  I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for a week but then I relented and thought it wasn’t too awful — so put it up on YouTube for posterity.

You can actually hear the audience laughing — and in mostly the right places. It was a pretty friendly bunch, generally friends and family of the performers (thanks very much for the great turnout from my supporters). If you listen carefully you can hear my heckler (a Chilean woman who was a friend of one of the other students who was apparently joining in because she liked me!). If you have any comments please leave them at the end of the post.

Was that night the beginning and end of my stand-up career?

Surprisingly, no. I know I’m not going to be the next Michael McIntyre, nor do I really have the desire to be (for one thing the slog involved in working ones way round the circuit is equivalent to writing a novel — and with a lot less tea and sitting down). 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the live performance experience and receiving that instant feedback from the audience , both during the the course and in the showcase itself. 

In fact, I enjoyed it enough so to subject myself to more! 

I joined up on Kate’s City Academy follow-on stand-up course, along with five other of the beginners’ course Monday students and others from the parallel Wednesday course, which Kate also taught. Sadly that course has no performance at the end but it’s meant to get students to a standard where they can venture out into the world of stand-up gigging with a five minute set.

Will that include me? Watch this space!

Before I Die

For the last few months the day job has led to me working most days in Southwark — right by the Thames — a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre and in a building that actually preserves the remains of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in its foundations.

It’s a wonderful area to stroll around at lunchtime in the winter — both full of history but also still undergoing a transition from a grimy, industrial area in the post-war period to a rejuvenated cultural corner of London. The Tate Modern and the Globe are the most obvious examples but there are also plenty of places like the Jerwood Space and the Menier Chocolate Factory that are examples of old warehouses being repurposed into arts venues.

View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014
View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014

The river also seems to demarcate the cultural divide. It’s exhilarating to walk out of an office and have an immediate view of some of the most iconic buildings in the country (if not the world) — like the Shard, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and others — but walk half a mile down Southwark Bridge Road and you’ll be in some the most deprived parts of London.

There are still plenty of semi-derilict spaces, like the poignant Cross Bones Graveyard, and the area towards Elephant and Castle, where I finally located the Ministry of Sound.

The feel of the place was summed up to me by a blackboard I saw outside a greasy caff very close to the Tate Modern, which seemed to draw most of its clientele from the builders who are busy demolishing or smashing through warehouses to create ultra-luxury penthouses or art spaces, like the Tate Modern extension.

The blackboard showed changing daily specials, usually involving chips or all-day breakfasts. I looked a bit more closely one day at this interesting menu — something which perhaps says something profound about post-industrial Britain?

On the Menu -- Sausage Mash and Unions
On the Menu — Sausage Mash and Unions

And speaking of blackboards, I was strolling along Union Street in Southwark when I came across this larger blackboard, which I discovered was part of a global network of similar blackboards all based on the simple concept of asking people to chalk up an ambition they’d like to achieve ‘before I die’.

The Before I Die concept was accidentally started in 2011 in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang who set up the first wall on a derict building while grieving over the death of a loved one. (The full story can be read on the Before I Die website.) Since then the concept has spread to many other cities across the world (at least 150 or so), including several in London.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

The board on Union Street (actually in a small square tucked away behind a railway viaduct called Flat Iron Square) was apparently the first of the chalkboards in London and had been up for about a year before I came across it.

I’m afraid that this board is no longer there, having presumably been removed a few weeks ago as part of the Thameslink/London Bridge viaduct works it was originally created to shield (as part of the Bankside Merge festival — see link above).

The idea behind the blackboards is brutally direct and straightforward — going to the heart of what motivates people — and reading through the anonymous, public declarations is a fascinating experience for anyone who writes fiction — or wants to understand the human condition in any other way.

As my photographs show, while there was some crass vandalism and pure obscenity chalked up on the board, this was surprisingly hugely outweighed by the clearly genuine sentiments that had stood out through the jumble of over-written messages — and perhaps they were all the more heartfelt from having been scrawled on the way back home after a well lubricated night at a pub or club.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

It’s a well known truism that no-one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time in the office, although plenty of people seem to ignore this in their own working lives. (I’m not sure whether to pity or respect people who get all the self-fulfillment they need from corporate life — on the one hand it must be gratifying to be paid to do the thing you most enjoy, but on the other you think they don’t realise the value of all the other things they haven’t experienced — a bit like blissful farm animals.)

Nevertheless, I’ve not spotted any comment on these chalkboard like ‘I want to be promoted’, ‘I want a comfortable pension’ or ‘I’d like the desk near the window’. Maybe if one of these chalkboards was put right outside a corporate HQ then it would be full of such ambitions but, even there, I doubt it.

Most of the comments seem to be on the themes of relationships (or ambitions that might help people improve their relationships) or travel — which are two of the subjects with which a large amount of fiction is concerned. (There’s also a more general theme of ambition and self-fulfillment, which tends to include both the first two categories.)

I’ll point out a few of the comments that particularly amused or intrigued me although you may be able to decipher some of the other comments in the following photos.

Before I Die -- Union Street SE1
Before I Die I Want to Visit Hull

In addition to someone wanting to meet Ed Sheeran (pop stars recurred on the board), fear nothing and stop worrying was the more modest ambition of visiting Hull ‘City of Culture’ (interesting when the board is about quarter of a mile from where the greatest writer in world history wrote his plays).

Before I Die -- Gallery and Italy
Before I Die — Gallery and Italy

This section of the board shows the ‘official art project’ notice linking the board to the Bankside Merge festival and has a nice combination of travel, artistic ambition and romance: ‘I want to live in Italy’, ‘I want to own my own gallery’ and ‘I will make Emma my woman’.

And as well as relationship aspirations there are plenty of messages of pure desire and lust — especially about someone called H Styles.

I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift
I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift

I found the message slightly buried in the centre of the photo quite intriguing: ‘I want all women to be the same size as Taylor Swift’ to which someone else has appended ‘but with a brain’.

Before I Die -- Union Street -- I Want to Have More Than Average
Before I Die — Union Street — I Want to Have More Than Average

And perhaps the most honest (and it seems to have some pointed phrasing that makes it particularly heartfelt) is on the left of this photo: ‘I want to have more than average tits!’

It would be interesting for anyone writing a novel to take a few minutes and consider what their characters might write on a blackboard like this — what’s most important to them, what do they really want to achieve, whom do they lust after?

When I took my photos I couldn’t see any chalk available to add my own contribution — and I think I could think of quite a few to scrawl on there — but there’s one ambition I don’t really need to chalk. The whole of this blog is dedicated to it.

Is It True What They Say, the Better the Devil You Know?

I had one of those metaphorical comic-book light bulb moments the other day while walking to the station. I realised what my novel, The Angel, is really about. That might seem odd as I’ve been working on it for so long but, perhaps, it’s because I’ve stood a back a little recently from the novel and possibly the Transmission project made me think more objectively about its structure (see lots about structure in the post below).

It won’t be a spoiler to discuss the basic plot premise of the novel to any of the growing band of readers who’ve become familiar with the draft in some shape or form or, in fact, to any reasonably long-standing readers of the blog  (I love all of you!). However, if you do really harbour aspirations that, come the hopefully glorious day, you’d like to approach the novel completely fresh then stop reading here.

The engine of The Angel’s plot is a triangular relationship. James and Emma are married and, outwardly, are a successful, attractive, high-achieving couple who ‘have it all’. Then James meets Kim, a German artist. Superficially, Kim is as alternative as James is conventional.

The dilemma that James faces in the novel is choosing between the two. He’s already embarked on a safe, traditional, reasonably satisfying but ultimately stultifying relationship with Emma, largely based around materialism and consumerism that reflects their professional status. Kim is a catalyst who makes James confront his latent dissatisfaction with his existing relationship.

James has to consider whether he opts to make a risky choice and pursue Kim. While he loves her unconventionality, he’s aware of some difficult baggage from her past. He thinks he feels instinctively  closer to Kim but doesn’t know if that’s a case of the grass being greener. And, of course, there are no guarantees. Even if he was to hedge his bets and try and engineer an affair with Kim (and that makes the huge assumption she’d be willing to) he runs the danger that he’d destroy his reasonably tolerable marriage for something that might only turn out to be a brief fling. This dilemma may be more complicated if James isn’t aware of the full picture — can he be so sure about Emma’s commitment and the enduring stability of his marriage?

Perhaps this situation reflects the sort of universal dilemma about risk and reward that most people have faced at some time — why Mephistopheles is required to broker a Faustian pact on one hand or as Kylie Minogue sang Better the Devil You Know on the other? Also, this kind of choice is certainly not exclusive to relationships — one might argue the current economic crisis is because the entire worldwide financial sector chose reckless thrill-seeking over stolid domesticity. However, when these choices involve human relationships, emotional responses are heightened. I deliberately chose adultery as a subject because it’s one of the few remaining conflicts within established relationships that triggers strong feelings.

The appeal of the story notwithstanding, it’s been something of a puzzle to me how I’ve come to write a novel and sustain my interest in it so long that has, in this respect, no direct parallel experience in my own personal life (the triangle dynamic is definitely not a case of ‘write what you know’). Ironically,if I’d been consumed by the emotional stress of prevaricating between two romantic partners then I doubt I’d have had the time to write a novel about it.  Yet the novel has felt very personal and it’s finally dawned on me that James’s situation and much else in the novel directly relates to the situation I’ve found myself in while writing it with the difference that James’s dilemma is a metaphor.

For me, the dilemma is between the ‘day job’ (Emma) — a career that probably looks quite planned and reasonably successful from the outside, not badly rewarded, fits my (technical) skills but is something that maybe I’ve fallen into doing. Kim is the writing — risky, economically a basket case, but a choice that I appear to be irresistibly and instinctively drawn towards. And at this stage it’s only a flirtation — a few encouraging responses but nothing approaching any substantial relationship and definitely no guarantee of commitment in return.

I suspect that the same is true for many writers in a similar position to me — striving to establish ourselves on the path towards Maslow’s self-actualisation while having to service the bills. In common with the fictional adulterer we’re almost illicitly wining and dining the seductive new partner and experiencing all the uncertainty, guilt, anxiety about being found out but also, perhaps, the thrill involved in juggling the two contrasting partners. Ultimately, like my character James, I don’t want to be a cheat.

Was It Worth It?

Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.

Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebrating’. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.

I’m probably at the place that’s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.

I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smith’s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipe that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.

At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.

I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.

Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.

But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.

And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.

Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’

But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paul’s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.

Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.

I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).

This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become – an obsessive quest like Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick. I’d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living – the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.

I’ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — it’s almost like doing two jobs.

I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.

This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible I’d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there haven’t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).

I guess it’s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps I’m subconsciously hanging on – not wanting to send the novel and the characters I’ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?

Yet I’m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because there’s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities can’t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; there’s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.

They’re all evidence of what I’ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether I’d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life – sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible – although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.

But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake – the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events I’ve been through in their company.

A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much I’ve learned through writing – not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (I’ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said they’d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.

So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, ‘as good as it can be’ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.

I already have my synopsis drafted – using Nicola Morgan’s e-book – and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued – twice. I’ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time – producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader ‘so much to keep a reader turning the page’. I’m hoping that I’ll soon move on to the next page myself.

Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript

I’ve been quiet on this blog for the last month or so for a a good reason, which is that I’ve been frantically trying to pull together a draft of the novel-in-progress to be professionally read by someone who knows me and my writing but has read little of this actual novel (I’ll reveal more later when she comes back and tells me what she thinks of it). However, how I got to this point — and the state of the manuscript — is a story worth relating first.

(There’s also a fairly tedious reason for the blog posts being more sporadic — the cumulative drag following the resumption of my daily grind into London to earn a crust doing the ‘day job’ — and even though I’m fairly new in this stint, my superiors seem to have twigged that the day-job, despite what it says on my CV is not actually my ‘passion’).

The most shocking discovery of the consolidation of many fragmentary files of novel was to find that I had 173,700 words — and that was after at least 20,000 words were dumped from the manuscript and with quite a few chapters either missing or in skeletal form.

I’d naively thought I could get the manuscript into reasonable shape before I started commuting again in mid January. This was way too optimistic but I eventually settled on a day I’d deliver a manuscript (early March) and then I had to push it back a week — partly because I fitted around work commitments in taking a couple of days leave to sit down and hammer out the manuscript. (That goodwill doesn’t feel as if it’s being reciprocated at the moment with a micro-managing boss who likes to suddenly appear at your shoulder and comment on what’s on my monitor — the kind of socially inept behaviour that one might hesitate to do with a trainee, let alone a supposed professional who he’s charging the customer a ridiculous daily rate for — that I don’t see much of. There’s a huge temptation to slip him in as a character in the next draft of the novel as revenge.)

But in the end, I managed to get a manuscript together of some semblance (it has a beginning, a middle and an end — of sorts). I wrote quite a lot of new material — including one piece for an MMU workshop that I stayed up until 6.45am in the morning to complete. Then I went to bed for an hour (it was a Saturday morning) and got the train into London for a 10.30am workshopping session with my ex-City friends on a piece I’d written earlier in the week.

To get the manuscript into one piece I worked for four days solid, getting up about 5.30am and working more or less steadily on it until about 10pm (quite a contrast with my enthusiasm for the day job). Even so, I know I’m still quite a way off getting anything that could be put in front of an agent. I was quite embarrassed that I’ve had to end up sending it in the state it is to my reader but at least I sent her something — perhaps this is some glimpse of what it may be to be a professional writer?

There were numerous ways in which it wasn’t wholly satisfactory:

  • Some sections were very sketchy (dialogue only) or even just brief notes
  • There were parts that are complete first drafts
  • There are, no doubt, many continuity issues involving times, plot events, minor characters (one changes nationality, people swap between driving a car and being a passenger), etc.
  • There were various duplications of exposition and no doubt many gaps too
  • Some of it is badly cut-and-pasted together so may not make complete sense.
  • There were definitely bits of content that I would have removed if I’d allowed myself longer to edit it.

While I think I’ve got lots more to do, I learned a lot from just pulling it together into one document (some of the files were so old that I had to do a bit of IT work with DOS command prompts and Excel editing to discover what was lurking in the mists of time on my hard drives — I even had to mine e-mail to get material that I’d forgotten to file away too).

One unique thing about writing a novel while on creative writing course is that the manuscript has largely been shaped by the demands of workshopping – and I’ve workshopped the pieces in a fairly random order as the novel wasn’t written sequentially. So due to the word count limits the novel tends to arrive in 3,000-5,000 word sections that are relatively polished then suddenly mutate into much rougher passages.

Also the sections of the novel were written over a period of a couple of years during which I ought to have learned something. I was quite dismayed when I went back to some material I’d written a couple of years ago, although I retained one chapter that was written in a completely different POV from the rest because I liked that one so much.

As it stands, from all the advice I’ve heard, the manuscript is probably significantly longer than publishers would want to consider for a writer’s first novel. If I could find an easy way of cutting it to a word count that publishers and agents might happily accept then then I’d be delighted. For example, I’ve just received some excellent feedback this morning from an ex-City coursemate who’s pointed out that I could easily lose about 5% of my word count in one recently-written section just by cutting out repetitions and echoing phrases in the dialogue and removing places where I explain in the narrative what the dialogue already states (or vice versa). I suspect a lot of the novel could be shrunk down by a similar ratio.

However, the question is whether to cut big sections and to leave the rest of the book fairly intact or should I edit down each and every sentence for brevity. I suspect that it’s a combination of both but I do think that novels with humour and social comedy will tend to, almost by definition, use more words for a given scene than thrillers and straight dramatic narratives. This because you’re often trying to surprise readers and to set up unusual situations to create the humour. My current MA writing tutor is a big fan of ‘what’s not said’ (or leaving material out). I’m intending to do this on a structural level in the narrative but, while I see the argument, I’m not convinced this can easily be done in a quirky humorous genre because a reader will inevitably fill in the gaps in the most straightforward and logical way — you can allow them to do this (as you might with suspense) in order to set up a punchline or joke but you still have to use the extra words in the end to create the humour.

To illustrate the point, here’s one I drew up that I think illustrates the point I’m at with the novel. I have good bits and not so good bits and parts that are relevant to the plot and sections that are more tangential. These can be mapped on a quadrant a bit like this:

Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'
Novel Revision 'Magic Quadrant'

And a note to any management consultants reading this who fancy ripping this off — the quadrant is mine (maybe I’ll write a creative writing book one day for burnt out consultants who’ll love this stuff?). In the meantime, I’ll license it to you for big bucks if you grovel.

So basically that means I have badly written material that’s essential to the novel plot and better written material that’s not so crucial. Rather than the facile (and perhaps deliberately sabotaging) advice of ‘kill your darlings’, I think I’d rather be more eco-friendly and recycle them back into the plot.

I have a list already of many aspects of the novel that are inconsistent and wrong and just plain embarrassing. But I’ve also come up with a list of really good additions and tweaks from sitting down and assembling it as a whole. Seems scary to think of putting more in a 173k document but hopefully I’ll get a second opinion on the stuff that really needs weeding out.

However, I’ve also wondered whether I could get two novels out of this and whether that might be another option (although I’d need to alter the narrative and the general structure) — though if any agents are reading (one can live in optimism), my intention is to try and get to about 120,000 words eventually, if possible.

I guess it’s not surprising that the novel is so long when I routinely write blog posts that are more lengthy than virtually anyone else’s. I guess the tangential nature of this blog is also reflected in the novel text.

But it might be incoherent, full of faults and inconsistencies and, in places, mystifying to read but the draft is done. Now I can try and get more than 5 hours sleep a night.


Having written a post about what a vibrant, international city London is — and having written a significant number of words for my novel that use London as a setting — I’ve been feeling physically sickened by the events over the past few days.

Many of the locations for the looting and arson (the criminal behaviour doesn’t even deserve to be termed rioting, let alone protesting or demonstrating) are places I know reasonably well, having worked there for a while (like Croydon) or been there recently to enjoy a drink (Clapham Junction and Hackney). (I was also in the Bull Ring shopping centre a couple of weeks ago which has also been broken into and looted.)

Pembury Tavern
Pembury Tavern, Hackney

As mentioned in a post below (with the bike photo) I was in Hackney around six weeks ago and started off an afternoon pub crawl at the Pembury Tavern.  This pub is apparently very close to the Pembury Estate which was a trouble spot last night.

The main flashpoint was apparently in Mare Street, which I travelled along on the number 30 bus a few weeks before and is very close to the Globe in Morning Lane, which was our next stop after the Pembury.

I won’t offer any in-depth opinion on the reasons behind the disturbances here except to observe, in the context of this novel and blog, that I’d been surprised that Hackney seemed to be nowhere near as intimidating a place as some people like to portray it and I enjoyed going there. But I’m also glad that I’ve already done that piece of research. Given the difficulties of throwing off a reputation for being insalubrious, it’s deplorable that the actions of a very few idiots will have so damaged the areas where they live — the physical damage can be rebuilt but the reputational and psychological damage will live on for decades. Areas like Ealing and Enfield are suburban enough to withstand the damage but the more deprived areas like Hackney and Tottenham will suffer more and a lot of the good that the Olympics promised to bring to these areas in terms of regeneration will have been outweighed.

Ironically, at the same time these events have unfolded I’ve been working on a couple of parts of the novel that discuss the living in the city versus the countryside question. I’ve been asked in feedback sessions why Kim, an artist living in Hackney and working in Shoreditch (thankfully spared from the trouble), would ever contemplate leaving those places to set up in bucolic Buckinghamshire.

This is a tension that runs through the novel but I do think it’s credible that she would want to move — and the causes of the recent disorder give some reasons why. As with elections in the 1980s, when everyone said publicly they despised the Tories but enough secretly voted for them out of self-interest (not me by the way), the debate about housing location is similar. Lots of people like to claim they like living in an ‘edgy’ area and few declare a love for the suburbs. Yet it’s an established demographic phenomenon that middle-class, university-educated people tend to leave London in large numbers in their thirties — particularly when they’ve had a family.

Also, while I recently read an article in the Sunday Times magazine (that I can’t link to because it’s a pay-site) about how some of today’s well-connected modern artists are doing quite well financially, I doubt if Kim would ever be able to come close to be able to afford to live in the sort of village where The Angel is the local. Such ridiculous property prices are a problem in the countryside where the preponderance of commuters and the retired creates demographic problems of another sort. But if Kim is given a cost-effective way of getting out of London, then I think she’d certainly consider it — which also gives the opportunity to leave behind problems of other sorts.

What’s most unnerving about the anarchy on the streets is it affects people’s sense of personal security — and, while, in

Pembury Tavern Handpumps
Pembury Tavern Handpumps

reality, the number of people causing trouble is very small, the psychological repercussions are profound. I’ve also been asked in workshops what attracts Kim to James.  One of the main reasons is, apart from his indefatigable admiration of her work, is that he boosts her own sense of security — something she doesn’t admit even to herself for much of the novel. A sense of one’s own personal security and physical vulnerability probably isn’t anything that’s going to be very honestly discussed in workshops but it’s something that, I suspect, deeply connects with a reader in the one-to-one situation that engages reader with a text.

I got too depressed about events to carry on watching rolling news on the television (which I think must examine its own role in the spread of copycat criminality) but have seen some hopeful reports about communities cleaning up and reclaiming the public spaces so here’s a photo of the Pembury Tavern’s line up of beers on its bars. I hope to go back soon.

Behind Closed Doors

In W.H.Smiths in Marylebone Station I recently spotted a new novel by Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s management correspondent, whose debunking of management theory codswallop is always entertaining. Her last novel ‘Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry’ was my holiday reading a few years ago (if you don’t understand the joke in the title then you’re happily innocent of one of the more ludicrous management bestsellers of the past few years).

However, it was in the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price’ offer and, of course, the fallibility of my mind to marketing psychology meant I scanned around for the ‘bargain’ book to accompany ”In Office Hours‘ and succumbed to the temptation of a book I’d seen partially serialised in The Times a few weeks ago: ‘The Sex Diaries Project’ edited by Arianne Cohen.

(Curiously, this book has a relatively high sales ranking on Amazon and is number one in its niche category in the health, family and lifestyle section but no-one has posted a review so far — which is odd.)

The book is formed of around fifty diaries kept by British people in which the diarists recorded their sexual activities and thoughts — although most diaries spend more time reflecting on relationships than recording the mechanics of sex. Perhaps calling the book ‘The Relationships Diaries Project’ would have been less commercial but a third of the diarists record no sex at all (for various reasons) during their week. The diaries aren’t, of course, a representative survey of the population — there are probably a few too many ‘unusual’ diaries for that — but there’s a very varied spread of gender, age and sexual orientation.

It’s not particularly salacious or erotic — it’s tame enough to have been discussed on ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 — I found an interview with Arianne Cohen on the BBC website. (It was quite amusing to hear Jenni Murray finely navigate the line between being over-euphemistic and speaking too frankly.)

I’d argue (honestly!) that this book is a very valuable resource for anyone writing a novel which emphasises the development of any intimate relationship between its characters. These are frank accounts of behaviour between real people written in the language they genuinely use. Almost by definition these activities are private — they’re not the kind of things a novelist can sit and wryly observe from a coffee shop. The diaries are published anonymously (although Cohen does a lot of checking to ensure they are not hoaxes) and, like diaries of the more conventional sort, the writers commit to paper much that they would never speak out loud to anyone else.

One assertion that Arianne Cohen makes in the interview, which is re-assuring to writers but also perhaps surprising given the tone of much of the debate on gender, is she believes that the male and female diarists ‘experience relationships in a very similar way’ and in terms of ‘minute-by-minute thoughts men and women are quite similar’.

Where the difference lies is that men express this experience somewhat differently — usually in a more explicitly sexual way. However, the female diarists are certainly just as capable of commenting explicitly on the sexual attractiveness of others. Maybe to emphasise the point, the gender of each diarist is printed in very small type. It’s sometimes easy to forget whether it’s a man or woman writing the diary.

Jenni Murray said she detected an undercurrent of misogyny in some of the male entries and Arianne Cohen agreed that around 15% of the male diaries showed a disturbing objectification of women. This might be summed up by the serial adulterer who also visited a prostitute almost every week and who seemed to believe his attitude to women was shared by most men. (It isn’t.)

On the other hand, it’s misleading and self-deluding to assume (as was possibly implied in the Woman’s Hour discussion) that infidelity is automatically linked to misogyny. In anything but the shortest flings, there are usually two people involved in the deception — in the case of (straight) male  infidelity it’s the despised ‘other woman’.  While the man may indeed be objectifying and using both women in a shallow way, it’s also equally true that his actions may be driven by passion and emotion — not a dislike of women at all.

This leads to the question of whether women can easily be categorised, as maybe they are in soap operas,  into the likes of predatory husband-snatchers or faithful home-makers. I’d guess it’s not so simple and there’s a continuum of behaviour that suggests, depending on circumstances and many other factors, that the majority of people could end up being either the ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ party in an episode of unfaithfulness.  I hope so as this is one of the main dilemmas for the characters in my novel.

The honesty and accuracy of the diary entries is perhaps vouched for by the frequency of the occasions where the diarists record masturbation. There really isn’t much kudos to be gained by an individual to record that they’ve masturbated — the nature of the activity itself means that anyone can do it and independently of any relationship. That people masturbate such a lot might be simultaneously the most enlightening and least surprising finding in the whole book — precisely because it’s an activity that is very rarely discussed or written about and only often in abstract, de-personalised, self-help terms.

But it’s the near ubiquity of the activity which is quite striking: it’s recorded at a similar sort of intensity by men and women, people who are single or in relationships, young or old (although not the very oldest). There are a couple of oddly touching anecdotes on the subject — one the man in his 60s who is unhappily resigned to the physiological challenges involved at his age and the pregnant woman who debates whether her unborn baby is technically a witness — and, if so, what does this mean ethically (she decides it’s OK).

The last point also stresses the privacy (usually) required. If the diarist is in a relationship, almost every incidence of what  is euphemistically called ‘self-love’ is kept hidden: people are aware that their partners probably do masturbate but the where and the when aren’t really considered, apart from one particular entry that stood out as the exception that proved the rule. (I was startled to read of some of the diarists nipping away from their work desks for the purpose.)

This revelation of the inevitable must be interesting to fiction writers — this is something your characters are pretty likely to do and it may reveal something of their inner-lives, unlike involuntary bodily functions that everyone does but don’t normally appear in novels. On the other hand, a solitary act of (another euphemism coming up — no pun intended) self-relief is almost, by definition, lacking in the drama that occurs when a sexual act is part of a relationship. I can see why masturbation is not a common event in fiction but the candour with which these diarists record it makes me wonder whether writers tend to shying away from using a fairly universal experience.

If every aspect of the book that’s fascinating to writers was discussed in detail  then this would be an even longer post than it already is (and I think it’s already the longest one on the blog — more of an essay than a posting). There follows a list of a few points that were particularly thought-provoking. Some are seemingly obvious and intuitive but that may lend credibility to the implication that the more apparently deviant attitudes are more common than might be generally supposed. Again, there’s no science to this list — it’s what struck me while reading the selection of  diaries.

  1. Ex-lovers feature a lot — both in people’s thoughts and in physical encounters. Many, many diarists long for a previous partner — and sadly many of these people are in other relationships with people they prefer less. This is often in spite (or because) of a recognition that any lasting relationship with that person is emotionally impossible (such as the newly-divorced woman pining for her ex-husband). Many report that sexual encounters with ex-partners continued on a sporadic basis long after the relationship finished. The ability to impulsively hook up with an ex has become much easier with new technology: mobile phone ‘sexting’ is another example of the greater intimacy and audacity people use with the written word. (I’m convinced that people tend to favour texting due to its privacy and asynchronous nature. There are a number of examples of where the utter simplicity of a text saying something like ‘Come over — I want to fuck you’ works very effectively for all parties and this brevity and directness is a lesson to writers.) The internet is another obvious tool (and Facebook is mentioned a lot in the book) for ex-partners to keep in casual contact. People tend not to talk about exes to their current partner — so again this is good, private, fertile ground for the writer.
  2. Many of the straight women describe an aspiration for sexual experimentation with another woman. This seems to be borne out of inquisitiveness and curiosity about whether this would be a different, maybe more sympathetic, sort of sensual experience than with a man. This was often acknowledged to be something that would remain in the realm of private fantasy although some expressed regret at having lost the opportunity to try it.  Straight male diarists seemed to have no interest in other men (except perhaps as an unavoidable consequence of group sex).
  3. When the respondents were interested in sex then there was little gender difference in the levels of desire recorded. However, it seemed in committed relationships that men were more likely view other people in terms of sexual attraction. Women, by contrast, tended to comment on others mainly when they were dissatisfied with their current partner.
  4. Traditional (or even stereotypical) roles seem to be preferred. To use a parallel from the dancing world (is it just tango?): it’s expected that the man takes the lead. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a green light for blatant sexism. It’s not — women want caring relationships with people who pull their weight domestically. However, effete ‘metrosexuals’ aren’t popular (there are various approving references to men behaving ‘like men’). Passive, indecisive, wimpy men appear to be held in almost universal contempt. (One woman complains she always ends up with docile partners which means that she ‘always seems to be the man’ in relationships.)
  5. Self-esteem is very closely linked to behaviour in relationships — sometimes directly when a person is suspicious of anyone treating him or her well because they don’t feel they have earned it or deserve it and sometimes people enjoy an inversion of status and control during which all their choice and self-determination is denied — something they curiously find empowering. The most bizarre entries are ‘dom/subs’ where the word ‘I’ is symbolically written in lower case by the submissives with their ‘Masters’ or ‘Mistresses’ referred to as He or She.
  6. Physical intimacy (feelings being safe, wanted, cared for) is perhaps more valuable to people than sex — particularly to those who have lost a partner through death or a traumatic split. However, there is powerful evidence of the beneficial effects to relationships of hormones like oxytoxcin or dopamine released during sex. Some diarists report deep frustration at their partner’s perceived withholding of sex over periods of days which ultimately comes across as near-loathing. Yet when they’re put out of their misery and have sex it’s a joyous experience and suddenly they record they love their partner very much. How long this effect lasts is questionable — I’d guess that anyone who internalises that their partner is using the restriction of affection perhaps as a power game is going to remain unhappy most of the time and that the humiliation of sexual rejection, whether deliberately or accidentally inflicted, probably contributes more to infidelity than any inherent predisposition.
  7. Availability often outweighs attractiveness: as the diarists are anonymous and there are no photos there’s no way of gaining an impression of their physical attractiveness but people’s own perceptions are hinted at widely, unsurprisingly women being self-critical about their weight and so on. While stunningly attractive people are often remarked on, sometimes people are far less selective about the choice of  the level of attractiveness of a potential partner than might be imagined — and this is not just men wearing ‘beer goggles’. One young woman, who would appear to consider herself attractive, describes her frustration that men appear to be wary of approaching her for fear of rejection. She correlates the increasing acceptability of potential partners with the length of time it was since she was last in a relationship and even makes an explicit plea via the diary for men to to be less reticent — saying that they would be shocked at the extent that ‘we can sometimes lower our standards’. This relates back to the point about exes and there are also plenty of examples where diarists describe incidents in their past when sex has often occurred spontaneously with an unexpected person.
  8. Volatility: people’s attitudes towards their partners are incredibly volatile. Two diary entries a few minutes apart can swing between radiant optimism and black despair or switch between profound love and vituperation — often as a result of a text, e-mail, casual remark or, sometimes, just personal contemplation. I’m not sure this comes across in a lot of fiction. Much creative writing workshop discussion focuses on rationally trying to examine the credibility of characters’ motives and actions — almost as if constructing some sort of probability decision tree. In reality people do not act impassively and deliberately — particularly not in emotional matters.
  9. There are more instances of  agreed ‘open’ relationships than I’d expected — both in the traditional ‘swinger’ style and those where partners were happy to allow each other to have independent sexual relationships (both casual and regular) with other people. Sometimes these were to accommodate bisexuality. This is the area where the editor says she was most surprised — and is happy to say she has reflected her discoveries in her own private life. However, I do suspect whether this is an area where the selection of the diarists has been a little skewed — but then I might be viewing this through my own moral conditioning?

The diaries encourage people to reflect on their lives in ways that are sometimes quite self-revelatory — re-appraising relationships. There’s also some speculation that’s quite thought-provoking about how one’s sexual experiences may affects one’s wider perception of the world.  A woman in her 20s who describes herself as bisexual and a masochist says: ‘I have a pet theory that much of the way men and women relate to each other, and hence how society is structured, comes from the psychological difference between penetrating and being penetrated.’ It might be physically fundamental but this may be at the root of many attitudes: I’d suggest that the vast majority of straight men aren’t able to even imagine the physical or psychological experience of being penetrated. This might make the fact that the experience can be extremely pleasurable for women quite mysterious and fascinating.

This relates, albeit anatomically rather than psychologically, back to an earlier post I wrote based on Graeme A. Thomson’s perceptive interpretation of Kate Bush’s work — the perhaps impossible desire to understand and experience what it is to be the other person in a relationship. Maybe a way for a woman to appreciate what her partner feels in being with her is to imagine how she herself might be touched by another woman?  Maybe? Who knows what goes on in other people’s heads and it’s why this book is so illuminating — revealing a few glimpses, albeit perhaps unrepresentative ones.

From a practical writing perspective, fiction writers would do well to study the diction used in the diaries. These are real people choosing their own words to describe their sexual experience. The editor believes that her British diarists are far more creatively verbose than their US equivalents — something that any reader would pick up from the styles of two publications I regularly read: Time and The Economist. (It’s also another reason why Stephen King’s views on brevity and adverbs don’t necessarily transfer without some refinement across the Atlantic.)

Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing absence of the sort of convoluted, obfuscatory prose that many writers might be tempted to use. People overwhelmingly describe their experiences as ‘we had sex’ (naughty passive voice there) or simply ‘we fucked’. Again, this is instructive for a novelist because, while people in polite conversation (for example at creative writing workshops) don’t generally talk in terms of ‘fucking’, these diaries show that’s the term that people most frequently commit to the page and, by extension, it probably indicates way that most people use in the privacy of their own minds. And, after all, filled also with all its hidden lusts and insecurities, one’s mind and imagination are the places where readers also engage with novels.

Do It Like A Dude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-Incidences Do Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pub Landlord Discovers the Art of Germany

Just like buses — you wait for a programme on German art for ages then a whole series comes along on BBC4, which started last night. This should be fertile material for anyone writing about a character who’s a German artist.

Part of the press release for the programme hints at an underlying reason why German culture is less known outside German-speaking countries than it deserves to be. The presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon said in a press release ‘Following two World Wars, there is a tendency to deny German culture the equal reverence of Italy or France, and this enlightening new series provides a wonderful opportunity to explore a great, yet often neglected, artistic tradition whose influence has been just as profound.’

BBC Four controller Richard Klein added: ‘Germany is beautiful and has a rich and luminous cultural heritage, but it is virtually unknown over here, or simply misunderstood.’

I caught the second half of the programme and recorded it so will return to watch the rest and found that even the section I saw was quite fascinating in terms of explaining the German character. There were plenty of shots of green plains, forests and Alpine meadows which illustrates the German love of the outdoors — despite some very urbanised areas (such as Berlin and the Ruhr) many German cities (like Hanover, Munich and Stuttgart) have large areas of forest or parkland close to their centres.

Whereas the English love of the rural idyll tends to be a romantic aspiration (with suburbs being invested with rural decoration) the Germans are, perhaps, more practical. They might be happy to live in apartments in the city most of the time but many of them love to get out into the countryside in practical terms.

I’ve experienced this several times. I once went for an overnight business meeting at a very rustic lodge hotel in the middle of a forest by a huge lake called the Steinhuder Meer. The manager, who lived in Frankfurt, who organised it always stayed in the middle of the forest rather than in the centre of Hanover, where the office was, about 40km away.

I’ve also been taken on long walks up hills with German colleagues and, in one very memorable event, walked up through an Alpine forest when we stayed in a ski resort in the summer to a ski lodge at the top of a mountain where we were all plied with schnapps and cold cheese and meats — and one of my English colleagues got so drunk she was ill the whole of the next day.

When I workshopped the last extract of the novel people were wondering about Kim’s ‘German-ness’ and I also had some comments about what does she see in James and why on earth would a left-wing urban artist want to go out and live in the countryside. To my mind these two aspects are bound together — because she’s German my theory is that once she gets out into the relative wilderness (Buckinghamshire compared to Hackney and Shoreditch) that some desire to escape back to nature will be triggered. It might not last but, as someone who’s already a bit rootless, it seems a bit more plausible for her to move as a German than perhaps as a native Londoner or English suburbanite.

The back-to-nature theme is continued on BBC4 as part of a wider mini-Germany season. Tomorrow night (1st December) Julia Bradbury starts a German hiking season with a walk along the Rhine — the spectacular valley between Cologne and Frankfurt is spectacularly pretty. ‘The Germans enjoy a relationship with walking that has lasted over 200 years. The exploration of their landscape has inspired music, literature and art, and Romanticism has even helped shape the modern German nation, as Julia discovers.’

Also tomorrow, Al Murray (probably one of the very few Oxford-educated ‘pub landlords’) does one of these documentaries where we’re believed to invest more in the subject because it’s of interest to a celebrity. Given Murray’s alter-ego this series should hopefully be of great interest to my novel (what could be better than the pub landlord going to discover Germany?) — and perhaps shows that there’s maybe a latent interest in discovering about modern German characters?

The BBC website says: ‘Making fun of the Germans has had ‘Pub Landlord’ comedian Al Murray’s audiences laughing in the aisles, but behind the scenes Murray is a serious historian with a fascination for the real Germany. In this two-part documentary, Al sets out to discover the truth behind the wartime jokes and banter that still plague all things German. In a breathtaking journey through one of Germany’s coldest winters, he discovers a country of warm and welcoming people and two centuries of stunning arts and culture. From Bach to Bauhaus and the Brothers Grimm, Al falls in love with the true historical, natural and cultural beauty of this much-maligned land.’

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.

‘A Beginning, A Muddle and An End’?

Interesting blog on the Guardian Books website today by Robert McCrum. He talks about Ford Madox Ford’s advice that the literary quality or narrative power of a novel should never be judged by the opening alone but by reading a random page from within the book — which has been called the page 99 test  (i.e. open any book at page 99 and see that is comparable with the opening).

He quotes Philip Larkin’s observation after being a Booker prize judge that modern novelists concentrate far too much on grabbing a reader’s attention with the opening — the books had ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’.

I guess no-one would say they would want to buy and read a book that had a stunning first few pages but which proved to be unrepresentative of the rest of the book. However, experience on the City University course suggests that novelists, particularly debut novelists, need to concentrate intensely on those first pages to have any hope of attracting an agent’s attention.

At the end of June, as mentioned at the time, we had an evening where we all read extracts from our novels to an invited audience of literary agents and other industry people. Because we had an hour for the reading, we each had four minutes each, which was rigorously enforced. For most of us that worked out about 600 words — or about two pages of a novel. Mostly we all chose the opening of our novels — or, if not, something that would work well as one.

It was interesting to listen to people’s polished four minute extracts. We workshopped them over the course of a few weeks and they were all excellent and sounded great when read on the night — it was fascinating to see the improvement as some took shape. It was also interesting to see how much the extract reflected what we knew of the rest of the novel in progress.

My own reading was, I think, fairly unrepresentative of the rest of what I’d written. The style was fairly typical — quite a lot of dialogue, not much exposition, although I’d edited out a lot of the more ‘literary’ description for timing purposes.

However, it may have misrepresented the genre as it was a firing scene set in a City office block — a corporate location that’s never returned to after the first few pages. The rest of the novel is about alternative lifestyles, art, beer, food, wine, dissolute afternoons spent drinking in pubs, relationships that break down, others that simmer, communities and sex is a recurrent theme, as I was reminded by Jennifer more than once.

So a scene in a modern office block meeting room with people sat behind desks talking corporate speak is very atypical of the novel — but it’s important as it’s a starting point that the characters react against and that drives the rest of the novel.

Just before the reading I got some advice from an agent to reverse my first two scenes and start the novel referring to the artistic elements rather than corporate. That was my initial instinct and it was very satisfying that she’d picked up the tone and theme of the novel from the few thousand words she’d read. (Obviously it’s her job to do that but my writing must have had enough quality for her to engage with it.)

But it was too late to change my extract for the reading — which I’d chosen after much indecision on the basis of its conflict and dramatic impact. So I’d have failed the page 99 test myself — at least on genre expectations.

However, the way novels and novelists are judged by agents and publishers  is on the first few pages — at least to determine whether they want to read more or reject the work. And that might be pragmatic because that’s what readers have traditionally done when browsing novels in a bookshop.

I read a worrying report in the Wall Street journal via a retweet from City coursemate Michael Braga about how e-books and the dire economy are making it virtually impossible for literary writers in the US to make a living — even if they’re published their advances are pitiful.

This is partly blamed on the effect  of e-books. These cost the customer less and publishers are proportionately reducing the income to the author. This seems unfair as its the publisher who’s saving the costs of printing and distribution. The writer still has to do the same amount of work as with a physical book.

Another effect of e-books is that they tend not to be browsed, as are physical books. Readers are said to be more likely to buy an e-book based on marketing (like film and TV tie-ins, Richard and Judy and so on) or from recommendations (such as published reviews, reader reviews on Amazon, word of mouth and so on).

This has led to fears that the reading market will concentrate more on blockbuster fiction and there will be much less opportunity for authors to grow into a career over the course of three, four or five books. Currently the view seems to be that a new author has to sell a lot of copies of their debut and, if they get the chance, second novel or else they will be dropped.

There is a counter view in the WSJ article that e-books, because they’re cheaper, will expand the market and, because they require much less capital investment in the product, will change the publishing industry from being largely controlled by huge multi-nationals to one that has many more independent small publishers. My own guess is that it may polarise the market at either end — a few mega-publishers and a lot of small ones. The fate of the literary writer is likely to be to start off at the small scale end and perhaps move across to big publishers once they’ve established a track record.

If the market changes like this then it means the role of the agent may also change. I’d guess they will still be as important to writers as ever but their skill may be required more to get a writer noticed and to build a reputation. There may be a situation where fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take chances on unknown writers but technology such as e-books and print-on-demand may mean it’s not as difficult as in the past for authors to be published.

The investment involved previously in getting a book onto a bookshop shelf has been a quality filter in itself and, to return to the original point, a reader might feel that if the first few pages are good then it’s likely that the rest of the book won’t be too dire, having been through a professional production process. If e-books are the future then covers and opening pages may play a lesser role than the general ‘buzz’ that gets book noticed in the first place.

I guess what the conscientious writer should do is to write the whole novel to the best of their ability and then go back to the beginning and work on that again once the book has been finished. This is what I’m planning to do and I’m not intending send anything to an agent until I have something that’s as good as I can make it all the way through.

This is a bit Catch-22 as it would be helpful to have some professional feedback to both motivate and give a realistic assessment of the whole endeavour. And I’m finding it’s taking forever. However, I wouldn’t want to end up with one of Philip Larkin’s muddled middle books.

Churning Through the Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any suggestions?

The Narrative Center

As mentioned in the last post, I just spent a very long weekend in Center Parcs (staying until late Monday afternoon. trying to get most value for money).

I’ve been to all the Center Parcs in the country although the one at Elveden in Suffolk the most often (about four times) — and would go more often if it wasn’t so ludicrously expensive. This is quite odd as I normally like holidays to be as independent and away from hordes of other people as possible — I much prefer self-catering cottages in the wilds of Wales or Gozitian villas to big hotel complexes.

The concept of entering a fenced-off compound, surrendering your ability to ‘escape’ because your car is parked (as in my case) literally a mile away and spending three or four days there with over 4,000 other people hell bent on a good time would normally be an anathema to me. And yet…

Like Disneyland or well-run theme parks like Alton Towers, there seems to be something quite re-assuring about these closed, contained, managed worlds. I can pretty cynical about most forms of entertainment and yet I found myself happily paying out extortionate prices — like £10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved £96 for a weekend hiring 5 bikes by strapping our own precariously on the car and spent more time looking in the mirror to check they hadn’t fallen off than I did looking forwards down the A11).

As far as I could tell, almost everyone else that I’ve ever encountered there has a similarly good time — again something that seems to happen at Disneyland, even to the most embittered sceptic. I was prompted to wonder why. It goes beyond the obvious factors like things generally working properly and having good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company of John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone a whole company training programme ‘Making Memorable Moments’ similar to the ones I used to do at BA when that company actually had good customer service). (It might be possible to spot my MBA training in the interest in customer service and operations management there — I’d love to write a thesis on how these places work.)

But what does this have to do with novel writing? On a psychological level, I think there are some startling similarities. A comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made  (commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster) seems very relevant. She said of reading the opening of a novel that ‘you must feel you are in good hands’ as a reader — and this is exactly what places like Center Parcs do. Well-written fiction has an authorial assurance (distinct from the narrator) that, ultimately, makes the reader feel safe — part of a contract in the reader suspending disbelief and also a guarantee that the time invested in reading will result in a satisfying experience.

Note that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ have the same etymological root. And so this is at Center Parcs and Disneyland — there’s an invisible sort of authority that derives from the exclusivity of the community — everyone’s paid a lot to be there so that’s a social leveller and they are literally gated communities where causes of social anxiety can be excluded. In Center Parcs case various design features ameliorate the fact that thousands of other people are also on the site: the accommodation is cleverly laid out so neighbours don’t overlook each other; the forest setting deadens the noise levels (and mobile phone signals!); and the absence of cars eliminates a source of status and also creates an environment which is a bit otherworldly (a bit like that created in fiction).

Center Parcs is also interesting when considered against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses the knows that physiological and safety needs need to be covered before the higher needs are fulfilled. It brings to mind an interesting quotation that I read recently in the Economist Blighty blog about wider society:  ‘the ultimate purpose of politics and the state [is]: the protection of people from each other.’ I’d argue that the attraction of novels to many readers, especially but by no means exclusively in non-realistic genres, is the sense of escape from anxieties about other people’s actions in the disordered ‘real world’.

Belonging/social needs are generally covered as people are on holiday with family or friends. However, the popularity of activities, like my doing archery or the tree-climbing that I blogged about below, is certainly associated with achieving self-esteem (overcoming fears, demonstrating ability). Some of the activities even inch towards self-actualisation — having a massage in the spa is very nice and I even got up at 6.30am on a Sunday to be educated by a wildlife ranger — going round looking for deer and birds (we spotted a little owl — which is apparently good going).

Also, as mentioned in a previous post in the context of rollercoasters, much of what we choose to do in our leisure time fits a classic narrative structure, which separates the experience from the inertia and continuity of real life — films, plays, music all tend to have beginnings and ends with middles arranged into some sort of anticipated structure. The same applies to holidays — there’s travel there and back and packing and unpacking, acclimatisation and so forth — although holiday companies seem to have been slow to realise the narrative. A subsidiary of my ex-employer, Thomson Holidays, has stumbled in its current TV advertising on the parallels between drama (films/plays) and a perfect holiday experience ‘authored’ by an expertly directed cast.

One re-assuring facet of holidays, planned activities and instances of fiction is that there is a planned end — in real life we never know when the end is.

A need for narrative structure must be somehow hard-wired into the human brain and is no doubt exploited intuitively by effective fiction writers. As a novel has an all encompassing narrative arc and many smaller arcs within that structure, so does the holiday experience. Even such basic events as a meal in a restaurant follow a set structure — and the more satisfying and memorable a meal the more likely it is to have an expectation setting opening and a satisfying resolution.

The more complex activities that I did at Center Parcs are similarly organised. A well-delivered massage certainly follows a pattern that ends with a rewarding, relaxing denouement. The tree-trekking starts with a briefing then has a series of 9 ‘acts’ of rope obstacles to be negotiated between trees (a place to pause) — tension is gradually built up as the obstacles rise higher above the ground. Then there’s the climax of suddenly descending at speed down the zip wire. You negotiate the course yourself (as you would read a book) but there’s always the re-assurance of the authority of the instructors in the background — like a safe, authorial presence — as with reading a book, it can be thrilling and feels perilous but you know it’s ultimately safe.

The Center Parcs Aerial Adventure could be quite an effective, if unorthodox, model for the plotting of a novel as it seems to tap into the same basic human psychology.

Also, many of these participatory activities are a little like a performance and perhaps it’s not surprising that I mentioned in the last post that I was struck that one of the climbing instructors reminded me of my character Kim — both are acting, to an extent, in some sort of artifice. It reminds me of the surreal line in ‘Penny Lane’ (that Ian MacDonald thought was one of the most truly avant garde lines The Beatles ever wrote) — ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway’.

Addressing Deficiencies

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

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

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

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

That Big Shiny Thing in the Sky

Not sure what happened but there was this huge, bright, shiny thing in the sky, which was strangely blue itself, over the weekend. I’m sure there was something other-worldly about it as it attracted me outside and away from any work on my novel.

Actually, this seems to be the worst thing about this time of year. I had great intentions about how much I could do this weekend but various things like the Grand National, the village horticultural show (at which my cheese straws got 20 out of 20 marks!!!) and the weather in general meant that I got sod all done in terms of words committed to paper/disk.  However,  I did a lot of thinking about novel writing. I have quite a lot now written in my head.

I watched the end of the South Bank Show Revisited where Melvyn Bragg went back to interview Ian McEwan on the occasion of his new novel ‘Solar’ being published and comparing it with an earlier interview from 1981. In the earlier interview, when he would have been around 33, McEwan came over as rather ostentatiously cerebral and pretty unlikeable — something he admitted himself now he’s mellowed into middle-age (61). He also turned up on an edition of The Book Show on Sky Arts with Mariella Frostrup that I got round to watching. It’s quite a good programme and features an impressive guest list of writers. Joanna Trollope was interviewed on the same programme (I was quite interested in this as someone on my course described my novel as a kind of male Joanna Trollope, which was compliment but made me wonder if describing it like that would make a publisher run a hundred miles).

There was an interesting discussion after a feature on Sally Vickers’ study (I have one of her books, ‘Mr Golightly’s Holiday, which was well-reviewed in the Economist but I’ve yet to read it). It’s not a tiny, dark, massively cluttered small space like mine which is barely possible to enter, let alone work in, but seemed huge and light with windows giving panoramic views overlooking most of London. Her method of writing was to get up in the morning and sit in her study, still in her night-dress and work until she thought she’d written enough and then get dressed and get on with the rest of her day: her logic being that she was more in touch with her  unconscious, creative side having just rolled out of bed. She also said she didn’t ever plan her books: she just started with a scene and wrote. Joanna Trollope was fascinated as her methods were exactly the opposite. She treated writing like going to work, having to get everything together and in order for the day before starting, and she is also a detailed planner. I guess the styles of the two writers reflect their different approaches. I think I’m more in the Trollope camp of planning and having an idea of where I want to go and also feeling like I need the discipline of deadlines, etc. However, when I can manage it, I do like getting up very early and writing. I think I tend to write more easily then and late at night, although this may be more to do with having less of the sort of distractions around that so displaced my efforts over the weekend.

48 Laws of Power

I caught a glimpse of an old favourite book of mine on my exceptionally cluttered bookshelves and pulled it out to have another look. It’s Robert Greene’s ’48 Laws of Power’, which is, I suppose, a sort of psychology book illustrated with some literary (and other) quotations. I’ve always thought that an awful lot of human motivation is about power and the book likes to allude to military strategies as quoted by Machiavelli or Sun Tzu:  I’ve had a fair amount of what recruitment agents call ‘board level exposure’ and know how much like medieval courts the top tier of management in plcs and AGs are — and the laws can also be applied to business relationships and office politics. Additionally most of the ‘laws’ in the book can be applied to the most intimate or domesticated of human relationships. So in many ways the book could be seen as quite a resource for novelists.

Here is a short selection of my favourite laws — the full list can be found on a website associated with the book (and Wikipedia).

  • Law 1 Never Outshine the Master
  • Law 4 Always Say Less than Necessary
  • Law 12 Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim
  • Law 15 Crush your Enemy Totally
  • Law 16 Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor
  • Law 17 Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability
  • Law 32 Play to People’s Fantasies
  • Law 33 Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew
  • Law 41 Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes
  • Law 42 Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter
  • Law 46 Never appear Perfect

Probably the most insightful law is the fifteenth. It stems from the famous Machiavelli quotation ‘men must either be crushed or else annihilated; they will avenge themselves for small injuries but cannot do so for great ones’. Law One is also extremely important as it takes into account people’s jealousies. This is why all job advertisements that ask for thrusting, confident, assertive types are fundamentally misconceived — anyone who performs too well in front of their boss and makes him or her look quite ordinary is going to be stitched up sooner or later in a corporate environment. Law 46 is fairly similar — no-one likes anyone who’s perfect but if you’re calculating make sure that your imperfections are carefully selected to be relatively cosmetic.

I wonder if it’s my interest in such theories of scheming and treachery that has led to a lot of feedback on the writing I’ve read so far to emphasise the reader’s dislike of my characters — who it’s been noted are quite often trying to stitch each other up?

Of course the law I ignore most myself is the fourth — ‘always say less than necessary’ as the length of this blog entry and the others confirms.

Crises of Confidence

One of our course (see the links to Bren Gosling’s blog on the sidebar) prompted an interesting e-mail exchange between several of us when he asked if anyone else had crises of confidence, particularly once they’d read a passage from a great novel which they’d compared with their own work.

I guess this is pretty universal. Almost everyone agreed that they had similar bouts of self-doubt. Rick made some good points: don’t compare your early drafts of your novel with the polished final draft of a master; anyone who thinks they’re a pretty cool writer when they’re only at an early draft stage is almost certainly not.

My own contributions to the debate were:

‘Paranoia, self-doubt and angst’ — sounds like the sort of job description that’s written for me. I must be aspiring to do the right thing — I’ve yet to experience that much despair yet but I’m sure I will.  I agree with everyone else’s comments about the ups and downs and the difficulties of the writing process. One paradox that several writers that I’ve read have commented upon, and that I also find myself, is that while you know the actual process of writing can be very stimulating and rewarding once you’ve started, that there’s a massive reluctance to begin and almost any other activity is used to displace starting it. In the end, once I make myself do it, I enjoy it to the extent that I often completely lose track of time and get completely drawn in to the process. I was flicking through the Carole Blake book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that’s on the reading list and she makes a point about the importance of positive feedback. She’s a literary agent and she says she’s full of admiration for writers who plug away in a fairly anti-social job for completely unpredictable rewards — something she says she could never do. She then admits to occasionally feeling hugely guilty, mainly due to time pressure, for giving her authors feedback that sums up the positives in a couple of sentences and then goes on to list several pages of corrections or suggestions for improvement (this is for established authors with books that are very likely to be published). She recognises that good writers are self-critical to the extent that the deficiencies in their own work leap out far more than the positives. However, often people (maybe this is a British thing in particular) tend to hold back on positive feedback, which they may feel is self-evident, when in fact the writer, suffering from self-doubt, would greatly benefit from the encouragement it gives. After all, what most writers are aiming for is to engage with and entertain people and any validation that this is being achieved must be welcomed. We can’t expect that sort of encouragement from literary agents but, as Nick mentioned last week, it’s good to try and find readers for what we’re doing, such as writing groups, etc and I’ve certainly found motivation from the comments that I’ve had back on the readings I’ve done so far.’

I would guess all writers get the up and down feelings you describe. I’ve just written another 3,000 words (see future post) and it was a real uphill slog — and without the prospect of reading it out on Saturday to get feedback then I’m wondering whether it’s any good or not.

I remember reading the time before last and thinking while I was reading that parts of it were rubbish — then I was pleasantly surprised when I got favourable feedback.

I tend to be of the opinion that I’m self-critical enough about my own work to be able to correct a lot of things given time so positive feedback is probably much more important than critical readers realise. I guess being self-critical is an important thing for being a writer and you tend to see the deficiencies more clearly in your own work than the strengths — which is why it’s nice to have a supportive group of readers to remind you about the good things when they give feedback.

Overall, however, I think when I read something good — or quite often experience some other art form that’s outstanding — then I feel it more inspiring than intimidating and it spurs me on to try and improve what I’m doing myself.

There were some curious comments made in the debate which were in the vein of  ‘artist be true to thineself’ and probably contradicted my comments about searching out an audience. The importance of plugging away in something you believe in — that you feel compelled to write — was mentioned and I guess that this is almost a given when you start to put in a lot of time to your writing before receiving any professional recognition — the position that this novel writing course assumes us to be in  Someone said that all art was subjective and there was no measure of what’s good and bad. I think there’s a lot in this viewpoint and its associated comments that you can put anything in front of a group of people and some people will like it and some won’t — regardless of what it is. I’ve had plenty of experience of Open University courses where people are graded in percentage terms for their creative writing and I still feel aggrieved that I lost possibly five percent on one assignment, missing out on a distinction, purely because the rather prim female tutor refused to believe my urban female character in her twenties would say the word ‘twat’ — even though I got feedback from a woman in the same age group telling me that line was ‘great’. I tend to think that that sort of marking should have a margin of error of around 20%. I remember another OU course member striking a rich seam of ironic eco-comedy (a little bit like Guy’s although this was a radio play) that the tutor loved and gave her 85% for. While this was well-deserved as it was well-written and observant, the writer unsurprisingly then repeated the same formula for every assignment possible thereafter and didn’t develop writing in any other forms.

However, I do think there’s a general assumption that if someone will publish something then that’s an affirmation of its quality and that courses like ours aim to equip us with the skills and knowledge to get to that fairly arbitrary level of quality. Of course it all depends whether the writer’s main objective is primarily internal (to express him or herself) or external (to engage with an audience). In my case I definitely tend to the latter but certainly have aspects of the former. For others it may be more extreme.

Sunlight at the End of the Tunnel?

Just as the weather has started to turn after the greyest, most miserable winter, I’ve been struck down by a horribly persistent virus that I thought a week ago was a cold but now I’m wondering if it might be some sort of flu. I’ve managed to drag myself into City University three times in eight days – two Wednesdays and a Saturday for my reading — but was certainly unfit for work duty between Friday and yesterday (Wednesday).

What’s most depressing is that the virus seems to be tapping my energy to write stuff. I did the piece of Kim’s hometown when I was coming down with it but have only done another 500 words since then. It’s been well over 10 days since I was able to get out for a run — and the weather for it is fantastic now compared with a week or two ago. I’m hoping I can get out and run tomorrow — I don’t always use the time to think about writing but sometimes it gives me a good opportunity to think these through. It also generates the various endorphins and dopamines (or whatever) that make me feel invigorated to get stuck in to things. (Incidentally I had James do a bit of internal monologue about hormones or other body produced chemicals involved in physical attraction. When I read this out on Saturday at City it caused a bit of debate. I didn’t have chance to say that I deliberately wrote it to show his confusion — not sure if that actually worked — but I originally started off from the premise that he’d be fantasising about touching Emma in a way that would set  off her oxytocin level — the human-bonding hormone or whatever it is.)

To try and impress the joys of spring, here’s a photo of the grass verge outside our house. I planted it a few years ago with crocuses and have added snowdrops in the green over the last couple of years. It looks wonderful when the sun is out on days like these. Soon the snowdrops will go over but hopefully they’ll come back stronger next year. (I’ve ordered another 100 to add to them.) This is quite an unselfish flower display as we can’t see it from the house — the main benefit is to people walking by — some of whom repay the compliment by letting their dogs crap on the grass.

Spring 2010 -- At Last
Spring 2010 -- At Last

This morning I had a tutorial with my Open University MSc. dissertation supervisor — Dr Lucia Rapanotti — who I discovered, is a real Italian. It was the first time I’d used Skype and, quite bizarrely, when I put the webcam on it inherited the settings that had been last used by my children — which included the image manipulation software that doctors the image in supposed funny ways. I couldn’t find a way to turn it off so throughout my tutorial, my supervisor saw my image with huge cartoon horse ears attached to my head! Talk about making a good first impression.

The MSc. work is hopefully part of a plan that will allow me to develop a specialism in an area of IT (IT Governance and Enterprise Architecture) which could lead to some opportunities to write and do consultancy. If I’m successful then this would fit reasonably well with doing creative writing as well — write the technical stuff to pay the bills and try and hammer out as much creative stuff as I can until the point where I might be able to ditch the more boring stuff. Still, I’ve not proved I can make any money from either yet so I need to do a lot of work to get to a point where I might. That’s why it’s pretty frustrating to be laid up ill — so much to read and write and the clock’s ticking.

More Reflections on Feedback

Receiving feedback in the tutorial in short, intense burst means that some comments have only just resurfaced in my mind. One really positive one was that someone said I’d taken a number of characters in a situation and made them really realistic and distinctive — they all came over differently from each other and were like real people — albeit unlikeable ones. This is one of the main challenges of any fiction so it was great to think that someone thought I’d succeeded.

I’m just preparing my next reading and working in a fairly similar way — mainly putting dialogue down at first. This isn’t even in any particular order — just conversations the characters might have with each other. I’ll then go back and write the description around the dialogue. One important piece of feedback that has come through consistently is that I both under and over use exposition. I’ll under use it when I set up a scene, maybe after a change of point of view or temporal change. I won’t always give the reader enough information to flag who, where and when. As a novel develops perhaps this is needed less but I can’t expect the reader to be too intuitive when I’ve made a change as an author. On the other hand, I overuse exposition within scenes and about characters. So a reader can work out that when Frances notices a white band on Gordon’s left ring finger then that’s where a wedding ring used to be — I don’t need to say it myself. Nor do I need to explain why Frances put foundation on her finger – an action that I was told was a first for any woman of the class’s acquaintance. So the message is trust the reader to  ascribe motivation to the character’s actions but give the reader some help in circumstances where it’s me, as the writer, who might be the source of confusion.