I finally made it to Edinburgh for the fringe this year!
So many people had recommended it to me over the years — and now I see the reason why. It was only a fleeting visit of two days — and, even then, because of the expense of accommodation, I stayed in a hotel a distance away from Edinburgh that would have constituted a respectable London commute. (Because of the travel I wasn’t able to join some of the late night events, such as my ex-tutor Kate Smurthwaite’s Late With Kate, which I would have liked to have gone along to.)
Even so, I managed to squeeze in eight shows over two days, almost all comedy. Even if you stayed for the full duration it would only be possible to take in a tiny sample of the thousands of shows on offer. Only by walking around and seeing virtually every public surface plastered with posters is it possible to comprehend how many different venues and acts are competing for the audience’s time.
The official Fringe programme also makes this point — it’s almost telephone directory size — putting many a Thomson local (of days gone by) to shame.
Thankfully there’s a useful official Fringe website and mobile phone app that allows a prospective fringe-goer to search for shows, enter them into a useful day-by-day planner and book tickets online (with lots of physical ticketing points).
I didn’t want to pre-plan too much — I imagined before I arrived that there would be lots of opportunities to grab flyers and spontaneously pitch up at rising stars’shows. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to leave everything to chance and so browsed various online recommendations from the likes of the London Evening Standard, The Arts Desk, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, Chortle and various others.
I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing established performers that I already knew — or could probably go and seek out on tour or in London in the near future. The type of act I was most interested in were those who were “emerging” — those gathering a reputation and who were on an upward trajectory. I also wanted to see at least as many women performers as men,
I’m not a reviewer but I’ll try to sum up my thoughts about the performers I saw in a couple of posts following this one. Overall, I was pretty satisfied with my choices, although it felt a little like sticking a pin in the catalogue. Many of my decisions were driven by time. As you may expect, the most established acts tended to play in the 8/9pm slots — so any sensible up-and-coming act would work around that and either go for a later or earlier slot. Because I was looking at the emerging acts, my most difficult decisions were around who I’d see at 4-7pm — and there were so many that clashed or had too little time to travel between venues.
In the end, I enjoyed a very concentrated programme of shows that took in many of the most atmospheric comedy venues — especially those in the arches of the North/South and George IV Bridges — like the Caves, Monkey Barrel and Cabaret Voltaire.
Not having visited before, I didn’t realise that many of the countless venues were repurposed teaching spaces from Edinburgh University. Lining up for a show at the “George Square Studios” was a little like the last time I waited outside a university examination room (actually only about ten years ago before any comments about long memories!).
Maybe it was the brevity of my visit or that I didn’t venture too far out of the main Old Town venues but I was surprised at the corporate feeling of the Fringe — most performers that came to my attention (either personally or via posters) were linked to promoters or groups like Soho Theatre. (I go to Soho Theatre quite a lot but I know where to find them the rest of the year.)
I had the possibly naive notion that there might even be Open Mic events that could be rolled-up to on the night. Perhaps there are but I didn’t come across any. Given the performer to venue ratio, it seems that the venues have the upper hand — and many in the centre had at least seven or eight different performances during a single day.
But my time in Edinburgh didn’t completely pass without me enjoying a bit of the limelight. I went along to Naomi McDonald’s show Copycat — it was unscheduled and driven purely by her posters (see below). I was picked out of the audience and spent a few minutes on stage being a straight-man to a selection of Naomi’s character impressions.
Naomi is a superb vocal mimic — particularly when she sings — and I thoroughly enjoyed her show and the large and varied cast of characters of whom she performs.
In the last post I mentioned the ‘Transmission Project’, which according to the Manchester Metropolitan University student handbook is ‘an independent research unit, undertaken at the end of the taught element…to explore a specific area of the transmission of text.’ This basically means students have to submit work in a form that’s not the chosen ‘route’ of their MA (be it novel, poetry or children’s writing).
Some of my course mates have devised original and innovative ideas for their own Transmission Projects. Anne devised an experimental website to examine readers’ reactions to discontinuous, interrupted narrative styles (using embedded hyperlinks, for example) that modern technology can enable. Kerry has produced an e-book of 51 pieces of fiction (Fifty One Ways to Leave Your Lover — click here for Amazon link) comprising ‘short stories, flash and micro fiction pieces which reflect and explore some of the problems, issues and triumphs faced by women and girls’. Sales of the ebook raise funds for the charity, Platform 51, which assists women in disadvantaged areas. It’s not only an original project but helps a very worthy cause — and a bargain at only £1.02.)
Originally I had a plan to develop my project in an unorthodox literary form but I was deterred from that particular idea by the course director on the basis that it was content that might eventually form part of the finished novel. My next idea, a screenplay adaptation was thought a better alternative. While it is based on the same characters and roughly the same scenario (I hesitate to say plot), the ‘transmission’ of the text is very different. (I wonder if I should have done a screenplay for TV as that would be ultimately the best match for MMU’s curious transmission terminology.)
As I’ve only just submitted the project for marking, I’ll deliberately make no further comment on the specifics of my screenplay or explanatory essay. (But should any of the English faculty at MMU be reading this, I must stress my summer of dedicated research into the form and months of locking myself away in a darkened room to draft and redraft the project.)
One very obvious general point that I made in the accompanying essay is that a screenplay is a working document, which others in the creative process use to make the final artefact. It’s not intended to be a work to be enjoyed directly by the viewer, as would a novel by a reader. This difference in approach proved surprisingly useful to me with the novel at its current point of development.
A screenplay passes responsibility to intermediaries for execution of the pleasurable details — actors nuancing their lines with gestures, expressions and inflections; a director and cinematographer developing its visual styling; designers creating costumes, sets, make up and so on. The writer provides the framework for others to use their talents.Virtually all exposition must be external: with rare access to the characters’ inner thoughts; description of character and setting is minimal.
Components of a film that chiefly within the control of the writer are character, plot, setting, scene selection and dialogue. With the possible exception of dialogue, these elements also provide the structural ‘scaffolding’ which holds a novel together. The difference is that it’s also the novelist’s job to evoke all the other elements too: the imagery, detail, sensory appeal and inner character exposition are hung with evocative prose on the structural framework that the reader should never obviously notice.
Another factor that belongs in the specialist subject of the bleedin’ obvious is that a film (or even TV serial) takes less time to ‘consume’ (is there a better word for this?) than a novel. Although the standard feature length screenplay is 120 pages, this equates to around 100 minutes of screen time. I doubt even the fastest readers can get through an average 80-100,000 word novel that quickly (although I’m often dumbfounded at the number of books some people claim to get through — maybe I’m a slow reader).
So, depending somewhat on the source material and the approach of the adaptation, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the novel’s content is omitted. Anyone who’s ever watched a screen adaptation of a novel they know well has the experience of noting changed or absent characters, plot twists or settings.
Books on screenplay technique encourage the writer to work within what, compared to prose fiction, appear to be limiting constraints: to produce work that emphasises the visual and fast-moving and to use short, snappy dialogue. (When dialogue is written in a thin column down the centre of the script, it’s easy to spot verbosity and talking head scenes stand out immediately.)
Advice is also concentrated around the structural aspects of plot. A separation of a script into three acts, divided by plot points, is given as practically a natural law of the genre.
The project meant I finally read Robert McKee’s Story, a screenwriting guide recommended by many as the best work on plotting for almost any dramatic or fictional form. It takes a scientific approach and, in places, it’s more like physics textbook — with lots of diagrams with arrows about how different levels of conflict within characters intersect with the structure of the plot and many other factors.
It’s drawn from fundamentals of storytelling that have endured from time immemorial. These follow, roughly, a pattern that goes: introduction to a character and setting; then a source of conflict that the protagonist(s) need to overcome; finally an event which triggers a resolution (which can either be complete or not).
It’s argued that this basic narrative pattern is something humans are either born to respond to or that it becomes ingrained in us from an early age. Whilst most people aren’t explicitly aware of the fundamentals of story structure, it’s said that most readers (or viewers) will feel react with innate dissatisfaction when a story lacks this shape.
The Transmission project, while delaying the revision needed on my novel, may have been opportunely timed. The research I’d carried out into the screenplay form focused on the mechanics of plot, making the story work, ensuring pace and rhythm, distilling the essence of a scene and so on.
Applied to novel writing, these are all very useful aspects to consider after completing a full draft, compared to the original plan (however sketchy and flexible); has the novel lost its balance, become bloated in some sections, under-developed in others and the task of revision is to sharpen the novel, omit extraneous material and add in any necessary additional material required to make the novel work as a whole.
Assembling the screenplay from the manuscript has been fascinating. I’ve pulled scenes pulled from chapters in very different parts of the novel, often brutally extracting small portions of the action or dialogue and redeploying it in a quite different context — and it’s surprising and pleasing to see how often these small sections then work on their own terms.
(For this type of task I may, unusually, be able to call on skills I use in the day job — which requires me to often deconstruct complexity and draw out underlying themes and causes. I’m also experienced in constructing sophisticated solutions from orchestrating many component parts (if this sounds jargony and baffling you should see my CV — I have an MSc in this). Perhaps this background is one reason why the novel hasn’t been written in sequences but largely slotted together around its most fundamental parts.)
I relocated part of a scene that appears about a third of the way through the novel into part of the opening section of the screenplay. I needed to write a new, short sequence of dialogue to knit the two together but the effect seemed to work so well that I’m considering putting the new dialogue into the novel. Play around with the material and discovering how it works in different configurations gives a refreshing new perspective, but one that’s also scary in opening up many new opportunities to tinker around. This is where deadlines are useful, as I had with the screenplay project itself.
I’m confident that The Angel has a sound structure. It’s not fundamentally changed since I first mapped it out with Post-It notes on a conference room wall — see post here from two and a half years ago. (Two and a half years, blimey, I really do need to get it finished and over with!). However, since then I’ve inevitably ladled in lashings of sub-plot, themes, brought in the odd new character and so on.
While people who’ve read parts of the novel tend to say that it reads easily and quickly, I know that I’m going to get a more favourable response from agents if I send in a manuscript of a length that doesn’t scare them off. I went to the September meeting of the London Writers’ Club in Clerkenwell last week. During a break I had my opportunity to buttonhole the guest agent speaker and asked whether agents made a snap judgement on manuscript length: would a ‘typical’ agent look more kindly on (i.e. read) a file of 90,000 words, say, as opposed to one of 120,000. While she said a lot depended on the quality of content and the genre, she recommended avoiding any extremes and mentioned an old-school agent she used to work with who would refused to read any submission that wasn’t between 70,000 and 100,000 words (although this isn’t common nowadays).
If it’s wise to err on the side of brevity when revising that raises a latent paranoia I have that I may discover, after trimming my work down to a sleek and concise 70,000 word draft, that this might only represent the innards of the novel — a prose version of the skeleton of the story represented in a screenplay. All the distinctive parts that might mark it out as individual might be squeezed out — the humour, observation, reflection, insight into the characters’ internal thoughts and so on. I worry that I may end up with a story that might work very efficiently but wouldn’t the novel that I originally set out to write.
This is a concern I can’t resolve without getting on and doing it — and now the Transmission Project has been safely bound at Rymans and delivered to Manchester I can completely focus on finishing the novel — from both a personal and an MA perspective. The only remaining piece of assessed work is a finished draft of the novel itself. We get another year to complete this — although I may try and submit mine in the spring (surely it will be done by then?) so I can have an earlier graduation date.
With the other coursework over (unless my screenplay is so bad it fails and I have to resubmit) and with the nights rapidly drawing in, I need to settle back into writing mode — or, more precisely, editing mode. And on that valedictory note to the summer of 2012, it might be appropriate to post this rather sad photo of Horse Guards Parade, now restored to its original state. (This photo was taken only about five weeks after those on this post that show a 15,000 seater stadium on the plot.)
By the end of September, virtually all the other temporary infrastructure had been removed from the Mall and St. James’s Park (as I saw when I walked across the park to the Mall Galleries to view the entries for this year’s Threadneedle Prize, one of which was by my artist reader Adeline de Monseignat — see previous post).
Incidentally, I was very pleased to manage to finally visit the Olympic Park itself, during the Paralympics. I’ve posted a few photos of the park on this blog page.
It was an absorbing event â€“ the first public appearance of its type, I believe, that Anne Tyler has ever done.Â Before this year she hadnâ€™t done an interview in the last forty. As she is a Pulitzer Prize winner with 19 novels published, this lived up to its billing as a unique event. There were apparently many writers amongst the audience, including, apparently, Nick Hornby, who was being quoted on Twitter as saying the interview was the best literary event heâ€™d ever witnessed.
I didnâ€™t take any notes down and, not having read as many of her novels as many in the audience, some of the discussions on individual novels only served to whet my interest for future reading (I was recommended to read Anne Tyler’s work by Emily on the City University course who said that I might learn a lot from her novels because of the style of my own writing). However, there was still a huge amount of detail about how this outstanding novelist practices her craft. The whole interview is apparently available in the public domain on the Sunday Times website for download but I found the points below of particular interest if I remember correctly.
For someone whoâ€™s gained a reputation as a recluse, Anne Tyler was a remarkably engaging interviewee â€“ attentive, humorous, concise and self-deprecating in her answers, which, through being delivered free from any famous author egotism, gave a fascinating insight into the way she crafts her work.
Work was a word Anne Tyler returned to frequently. When asked about how she began a novel, she didnâ€™t talk about waiting for any precious bolt of inspiration. In fact, starting a novel was something she didnâ€™t enjoy, saying she much preferred to be in the middle of writing a novel â€“ drafting and revising â€“ because that was when she felt busy and productive.
The process of writing a novel started with sitting down for a month or so with a blank sheet of paper and looking through a store of index cards she keeps with ideas for the genesis of stories or characters, often based on real-life events. Some of her cards are over 30 years old but still may end up in the latest novel.
After a month or so she often experiences a moment of revelation when a character’s voice suddenly enters her head — and that’s the point when she guesses her subconscious has absorbed the prompts and has started to create an organic, dynamic novel. She then writes longhand drafts before entering it all into a computer. She then prints off the hard copy and rewrites it â€“ then dictates the revised draft into a recorder and then uses a transcriberâ€™s pedal to play the spoken draft back while she updates the draft on the computer.
She described this process as having started accidentally but she recommended the speaking aloud part of the process as being particularly important â€“ especially for dialogue â€“ which may explain why the dialogue in her novels is so good. (Or, more likely, an innate ear for dialogue probably demands that speaking aloud forms this vital part of the writing process.)
By the time she starts writing the drafts, she said she has the characters and the plot planned (although she claimed that she â€˜doesnâ€™t do plotâ€™ and that time passing is often a plotting device in itself and may be the only momentum necessary in her novels of family and relationships).Â She did say she starts out writing always knowing the ending of the novel â€˜and about fifty per cent of the time it turns out Iâ€™m right.â€™
With such a meticulous approach to creating the final draft, it wasnâ€™t surprising that Anne Tylerâ€™s editor (whoâ€™s worked on all 19 books before retiring with the latest one) is not an interventionist type. She described her initial reaction to an editorâ€™s change as one of â€˜what the hell does she know about it?â€™ but then came round to usually seeing the merit in her suggestions â€“ for example for extra exposition.
One aspect where Anne Tyler said she was most often over-ruled was titles â€“ many of her favourite working titles have been changed by the editor or publisher. This surprised the audience because her novelsâ€™ titles are often intriguing and paradoxical â€“ e.g. The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons.
Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer, who was the interviewer, drew attention to her extraordinary attention to detail and said that he didnâ€™t know of another writer who illustrated character and emotion by detailed reference to gestures and objects. She replied that she thought that was a reflection of how she saw the world herself â€“ noticing the detail while sometimes missing out on the more general picture.
This may be a modest way of answering but this eye for the specific, allied to an ability to pick precisely the right diction, elevates her prose above the danger of providing too much detail (or â€˜clutterâ€™ as one of my creative writing tutors described this style when it may not be expertly executed).
I was reading Breathing Lessons before going to the event and I was in awe of some of the language of detail she used. Referring to the detritus in the back of a car she writes â€˜The floor was cobbled with cloudy plastic lids from soft drink cupsâ€™ and that Maggie â€˜carried a fistful of lids around to the rear of the house and dropped them in a crumpled garbage can. The cover was only a token cover, a battered metal beret that she replaced crookedly on top.â€™ The verb â€˜cobbledâ€™ is so unexpected and apt and its contrast with â€˜cloudyâ€™ is brilliant and the image of the metal beret is simultaneously obvious and extraordinary. And Iâ€™m glad that a writer of her calibre is not afraid to use an adverb like â€˜crookedlyâ€™ so brazenly.
Such rich diction using adjectives and adverbs that enhance already strong verbs and nouns reminds me of Nabokov â€“ and it was interesting to find out that Anne Tyler majored in Russian at university and cites Russian literature as a big influence.
Her precision with language may explain one answer that I thought might be controversial. Her novels are written very successfully in both first and third person and she was asked if she preferred either style. She replied that she always started off novels in the third person and that she thought â€˜first person was a bit of a cheatâ€™. I canâ€™t remember whether she justified this comment as she then went on to talk about when it became technically necessary to convert a narrative into the first person â€“ when a closeness to a character becomes an over-riding factor.
However, I feel I understand exactly what she means. A third person narrator is closer to being an authorial construct and, perhaps, is more accountable to the reader. A first person narrative can be viewed as a kind of extended monologue — any imperfection, unreliability or idiosyncrasy in that voice can always be explained and excused away as being part of the fiction (e.g. when analysed in creative writing workshops). Itâ€™s the question of whether an effect was intentional or not â€“ and I have the impression that Anne Tyler is such a meticulous writer that sheâ€™d ideally like to demarcate the characters voices with dialogue and develop a more flexible, independent narrator. But, as she said, it all depends on context â€“ first person is sometimes the only way to tell the story.
There were a huge number of questions from the audience and the event stretched on way past its billed hour duration. Many people prefaced their questions with profuse thanks to the author for having written something that had had a profound effect on their own lives â€“ and sounded very sincere, perhaps not surprising bearing in mind Anne Tylerâ€™s subject matter, which includes families, relationships, bereavement, ageing, etc.
One question I found particularly interesting was asked by a man (the female-male ratio in the audience and with the questions was about 4 or 5 to 1). He asked Anne Tyler how she created such plausible male characters â€“ successfully articulating a manâ€™s perspective on the world.Â Her answer was commendably straightforward in saying that sheâ€™d been fortunate to get to know many men whoâ€™d been â€˜fixedâ€™ (I think that was the word) in her life (such as father, husband, other family members). (Her attitude to men in that answer reminded me of Graeme A. Thomsonâ€™s description of Kate Bushâ€™s.) She added that, in her opinion, men had less freedom than women emotionally and, when writing male characters, she had to be more indirect, substituting a gesture or oblique comment for expressions of feeling.
There were a couple of encouraging comments for new novelists. One was that her first published novel had to do the rounds before it found a publisher. The other was that she said she particularly looked out for novels by new writers â€“ believing that the standard of first novels nowadays was much higher than when she started writing â€“ bearing out the reality that writers now appear to have less time to grow into their career (that last part is not so good, I suppose).
And maybe the surprise of the day was it turned out that Anne Tyler is a huge fan of the TV series â€˜The Wireâ€™ â€“ the epitome of urban realism. Maybe thatâ€™s not quite as big a surprise considering itâ€™s set in Baltimore and that the series is lauded for its taut, lean writing â€“ both qualities shared by her novels (although there are some set elsewhere).
Apart from the great writing and emotional depth, Anne Tylerâ€™s writing is suffused with subtle humour and parts of my own experience at the event were almost like something out of a novel. I was one of the first into the Sheldonian Theatre and sat with an eccentric woman who started off having a blazing row with the ushers about where theyâ€™d let us sit (although she made a big point of apologising to them later on) and then she mumbled comments through the event. Also, the first â€˜questionâ€™ must have lasted several minutes during which we had the irony of hundreds of fans sat waiting for the first utterances from one of the greatest living novelists while all she could do was nod her head in agreement. Fortunately, as the session extended beyond its scheduled end time, there were plenty of fascinating answers once she started speaking.
I’ve recently been writing a very tricky chapter of The Angel in which Kim falls over and hurts herself and believes it might signify some sort of bad karma — which it may well be bearing in mind what she’s been up to. It’s quite a crucial point in the plot and I’ve found that I’ve put her in a situation that’s full of dilemmas and choices — which I suppose is good for the novel but quite risky to write in case I go off down a blind alley.
I originally wrote it predominantly with dialogue between Kim and James and relatively little interior exposition. When I workshopped this with the ex-City die-hards the majority view was that it would benefit from much more of Kim’s internal debate. (We also had a discussion about whether characters would have ostensibly frank conversations volunteering the number of sexual partners they’d had — which is perhaps the subject for another post.)
So I rewrote the chapter in a very different style — in places with long paragraphs of contemplation about what motivates one through life, etc. I then took advantage of a tutorial with Jenny Mayhew, our first term tutor on the MA at MMU, to get some feedback on the balance between interior/exterior. She thought it was generally about right — which shows the City feedback had helped but that there were some over-long deliberations which could be cut.
Jenny also gave some advice about increasing the amount of ‘stage-direction’ and playing up aspects of the fantasy and dreaming in the dialogue — things I’d deliberately toned down after having feedback in the opposite direction in the previous term. Jenny’s advice tends to echo my natural style and inclination, which is not particularly lean or taut, more observational and discursive.
I re-jigged again and added in some new ideas, some lifted directly from a conversation about different names for common field weeds in England and Scotland. The weeds discussion was in the office in London where I’ve now been working for the past four weeks, of which perhaps more in future posts. Time spent in this job explains the relative lack of blog posts as I’m burning the candle at both ends, catching the 0637 train into Marylebone and not going to bed correspondingly early enough as I’m trying to keep the writing still moving forwards — although to look on the bright side I’m close to some of my locations to return to do easy research.
Last night a dedicated group of the MMU MA students workshopped a revised draft of the chapter following Jenny’s comments (we do this without any tutor involvement from the university so shows we must be relatively dedicated and, to use one of Emma’s horrible HR phrases ‘self-starters’).
I’ve still yet to re-read the transcript of the online discussion, which is always very useful, but the material generated a lot of discussion — it must have done as we ‘chatzied’ for nearly an hour. (To get an hour of four people’s time — plus their reading in advance — on a piece of around 3,000 words was very fortunate — another student had to drop her piece at the last minute.)
We’ve got one more workshopping session left with Emily in about ten days time and then a long break for the summer — the MMU term finishes at the same time. As far as I’m aware, about four people from the City course have finished — or are close to finishing — their novels, including two who are in the workshopping group. Another four or five of us are making steady progress but aren’t there yet.
I must have written enough words for a respectable length novel — as an example I extended the original 2,500 word extract mentioned above by at least another 2,000 words in the rewriting — and I’m sure I can find a use for much of that, if not in the original chapter then elsewhere.
In our MMU workshopping session last night one of the other students presented a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of her projected novel, which reminded me that I’m long overdue a re-assessment of where I’m at. I don’t feel I’ve diverged too much from the original plot that I planned out with post-it notes well over a year ago but I’ve probably only covered about half the planned events or chapters, although what I’ve written has expanded in word count beyond that which what I originally anticipated.
Maybe because of Kim’s interest in karma, I’ve been noticing a few instances of Angel-related serendipity to inspire me to keep plugging on with the writing.
The first was the name of a street I noticed in the City near Pasternoster Square and opposite bombed-out Christ’s Church Greyfriars, where I’m planning to have James and Kim sit and have a drunken conversation on their first day together — the street is, appropriately, Angel Street.
Then I also belatedly noticed that the pub over the road from Mike B’s wonderfully stylish apartment near Old Street where we’ve been meeting to do our Saturday workshops is also called, you guessed, The Angel — although looking like a traditional London boozer it’s a very different sort of Angel to the thatched country local I’m going to write about — but it’s a nice co-incidence anyway.
And, just for completeness, although there’s no special connection to me, here’s another Angel — this time in Bicester. This is a town that Emma would never dream of living in but she goes there fairly regularly to snap up a few bargains or ten at Bicester Village — outlet store shopping centre for all brands she likes to dress in. Perhaps James might slope off for a pint there while she browses in Alexander McQueen, Diesel, Jimmy Choo, , Karen Millan, Radley, Hobbs, maybe buying Kim a cheapÂ Superdry T-shirt and perhaps even nipping intoÂ Agent Provocateur.
As I decided to develop ‘The Angel’ during the City course, I’ve not done much bar think about my political novel since a I wrote a piece for a workshop in the spring which could have slotted into either novel.
Leaving it for a while was also a sensible decision in retrospect given the turmoil after the election and extraordinary way that the coalition was formed and has, so far, held together. Mandelson’s memoirs and the increasingly fratricidal Labour leadership election have also served to make the dog days of New Labour seem like an oddly far away era that most people would probably sooner rather forget — especially once the hullabaloo about Blair’s memoirs dies down (to be published on Wednesday).
So where does that leave a novel with a theme that was fairly contemporary about a year ago? Fortunately the way I approached the writing was to make the politics rather peripheral to the plot and it’s mainly the generic issues about politics that apply to any MP or government minister that affect the characters.
I had a run this morning and thought through a few interesting possibilities that wouldn’t involve a huge amount of rewriting and might also make the story very contemporary. Given that I have about 50,000 words already and I can come back and revise these having got months of safe distance away then I have hopes I’d be able to reshape and finish that novel relatively quickly — he said with the most naive levels of boundless optimism.
It may also have more of a hook for agents and publishers too if it’s tuned right to the new zeitgeist. Might need a new title, though.
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 Â£10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved Â£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 havingÂ good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company ofÂ John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone aÂ 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. AÂ comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made Â (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 readerÂ — 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 againstÂ Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses theÂ 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 theÂ Economist Blighty blog about wider society: Â ‘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 aÂ 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’.
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.
ï»¿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?
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.Â However,Â 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 Â 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.
Unlike the majority of my fellow students on the City course I’ve not approached the writing of either of my novels-in-progress in any kind of sequence — either chronologically or in anticipation of the eventual order in the book. I’m not too concerned by this as I think my brain works in a non-linear way — my (by now fairly distant) past in computer programming means I’m quite familiar with defining the meaty, functional bits of a concept and then choreographing these together — in the same way as one might write a coherent argument or report. The exercise I did with the post-it-notes (see post below) was quite useful for taking stock of where I planned to get compared with where I am now but it’s evident that I still need an opening for ‘The Angel’ and that, while I’ve written an opening for ‘Burying Bad News’ that’s likely to be superseded by later developments.
Over the weekend I thought I had a plan. I would start off ‘The Angel’ in dramatic fashion with James being unjustly fired from his financial job — being made a scapegoat partly because he’d been slowly drifting away from being ‘one of the lads’ and engaging his interest in arts. I guess this subject could be the most autobiographical of any of my writing as I’ve now twice been on the wrong end of this experience myself — currently going through the consequences of this ‘process’ as HR people like to term it. Perhaps, because I’ve aired quite a few of my own grievances, I’ve managed to do 3,000 words of this opening.
It’s in three sections — starting in media res halfway through the meeting where James is ‘re-organised’ in clinical HR speak; then a scene which is quite useful in a number of ways where he packs up his mementos from his desk (lots of character clues through the artefacts) and befriends the Somali security guard; finally a more dramatic scene in the gents where the real reasons that he’s been fired are revealed — not going to the lap dancing club being one — and he hits his erstwhile boss.
It was a real slog to write all this and took me a whole day to revise it (I think I was still feeling the effects of my cold/flu). However, 3,000 words is quite a lot, especially when this section doesn’t impinge much on the rest of the plot. To break it up a bit and avoid the impression it’s a book wholly about City types, I’m planning to interleave James’ section with Kim’s own crisis which I thinkÂ I’ll have happening in parallel.
I have a nice vision of her having an almighty row and bust up with the St. John Rivers-type character I’m yet to define — I see her standing on the top of Village Underground in Shoreditch throwing his stuff down to the street from 40 feet above Great Eastern Street. The trouble is I’m finding it difficultÂ to think of what she could throw without her getting arrested. I’ve wondered about her pouring paint on him. Maybe she could do it on the other side of Village Underground near the entrance to the warehouse and the spiral staircase which is currently a dead end due to the construction of the new Shoreditch High Street station? I think this would work quite well if it’s quite physical and visual as it would contrast with the corporate stuff. The two would then turn to each other in the aftermath of their stressful mornings and head out on the aforementioned bender.
If I do two scenes with Kim at about 1,500 to 2,000 words and I guess the bender is going to take about 4,000 words (I’d like to write this for my tutorial with Alison on 27th March,Â although I need to get it to her earlier than that) then I’m going to have about 9,000 words of an opening to the novel, which I think might be ok if I’m looking at around 80-100,000 words overall. I’ve already written an ending of about 3,000 words which could be expanded (I wrote it bearing in mind the tutorial word limit) and it needs some context preceding it. I’d then probably have my two pivotal plot points at about the 12-15,000Â and 70-75,000 word points — where the action leaves London and then returns. Seems far too neat to actually work out properly!
Speaking of Village Underground, I was quite alarmed to hear on the radio this morning about the huge fire in an ‘office and bar complex’ in Shoreditch. Fortunately, for my own selfish purposes, it’s not Village Underground that’s gone up in flames, it’s a place about half a mile away from Shoreditch High Street — but it just shows how real life can intervene in these things.