My Guest Post on the Romantic Novelists’ Association Blog!

My last blog post, about my happy experiences with the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), was read by several of the committee of the RNA itself and they were so interested in the post and my thoughts on the scheme that I was granted the unlikely honour of writing a post for the RNA’s own blog.

The blog is updated twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday and covers a wide range of topics of interest to the RNA with contributions from many well-known and highly respected writers.

My post, titled ‘Romance — “A Bloke’s Point of View”‘  covers similar points to the one I posted on this blog but the content is completely new — and starts with a little taster of how the characters in my novel might react if I walked into their local pub, The Angel, and announced I was a member of the RNA NWS.

Read it (and all the other fascinating posts) by following this link. If you’d like to add a comment or ask a question on there then that would be great.

As part of my membership of the NWS I get sent their newsletter, Romance Matters. The latest issue contains some very intriguing articles based on sessions at the RNA conference.

One considers how effective fiction works by triggering chemical responses in the brain that are identical to those in real, physical situations (e.g. desire, fear) — releasing oxytocin, adrenaline and so on. Another, quoting a session by author and academic Catherine Roach (who writes as Catherine LaRoche), discusses the psychological benefits to the reader of the romance narrative — suggesting that traditional romantic plot types work because of their empowering effect on readers, which, for the purposes of the argument, were assumed to be women. If female readers feel relatively disempowered and disenfranchised in society in comparison to men then the heroine redresses the balance, achieving happiness and fulfillment through risking her vulnerability and being true to herself.  ‘The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.’

It’s all really thought-provoking analysis, and as with my RNA NWS readers’ report, has provided me some with some intriguing insight when I’ve applied it to my own novel. I also found via Google that Catherine Roach has also published a feminist-orientated academic work called Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture (available as a free pdf download) which is very relevant to one plot strand of my novel — not wanting to let slip any spoilers I’ll say no more than that.

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

I revealed, rather coyly, in this blog post earlier in the year that I’d been accepted on the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. When I mention this to people in conversation I occasionally receive the polite astonishment that I imagine a woman bricklayer might experience or a female pest-controller.

Seeing as a woman once climbed around my loft removing a wasps’ nest quickly and efficiently why should it be strange that a man might be a member of a Romantic Novelists’ Association scheme? Nevertheless, I’m subliminally tempted to add ‘No, I’m not planning to change gender or anything else. I’m still male’ – and during last week being able to point to the temporary beard I was forced to grow a beard after I fell over while out running — cutting my chin and breaking my thumb!

Entering a world popularly associated with the opposite gender is an illuminating experience — and valuable for a writer. Not that I’ve encountered any sexism at all through my membership of the scheme. The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) appears extremely keen to be inclusive towards men, as I’m sure it towards everyone, and there are men who are full members of the RNA. I found a couple by Googling, although one writes under a female pseudonym and another specialises in male-male fiction and I’m doing neither of those. (I must point out that I can’t be a full member of the RNA myself until I have a suitable book published.)

Nevertheless, there are cultural perceptions about how men’s ability or desire to write romantic fiction. I’ve been reminded a few times of the discussion earlier this year on the Today programme between Jojo Moyes and Cathy Kelly on whether ‘men can make good romantic fiction writers’.

That’s an interesting question to think about while I’m writing today – the publication date of David Nicholls’s new novel Us – which brings up all sorts of issues about gender stereotyping of marketing and covers and reviews and so on, which could occupy a whole different blog post, maybe after I’ve read it. (I was surprised to read so many positive reviews of the novel in the weekend broadsheets after all the sniffiness about its Booker longlisting.)

However, any ribbing in the pub will be, ahem, small beer compared to the brilliant benefits of my membership of the RNA New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which have surpassed all my expectations.

For those who haven’t yet discovered it, the RNA NWS allows all its members to take part in RNA activities but offers the invaluable service of using the expertise of one of a panel of 50 established authors to review each member’s full length novel manuscript.

Unsurprisingly the scheme is very heavily oversubscribed and reaches capacity within minutes when applications open each January. I tried and failed to join a couple of years ago but this year had better luck. The deadline for submitting a manuscript is the end of August, although well-organised writers submit theirs well in advance to avoid the last minute rush.

Of course I wasn’t one of them. Mine was sent in around 29th August. Given the manuscript’s substantial size I wasn’t expecting to get a response for several weeks. So I was stunned by its amazingly quick turnaround – within about three weeks. And I was taken aback by the wonderfully detailed and insightful report that I received from my reader (as the scheme is run anonymously all I know about her is that she is, indeed, a she).

While the scheme is intended for ‘romantic fiction’ this definition can include novels that might also be thought to belong in other genres provided it meets the criteria that ‘romantic content and love interest are integral to the story’. I’d like to think of my novel as ‘accessible literary fiction’, perhaps the sort of book in the intersection between mass-market and ‘literariness’ that reading groups often choose (my wild optimism is creeping in here).

While the novel’s narrative is anchored against the relationships between the two chief protagonists, it’s also full of content that I wouldn’t have expected to crop up in traditional romantic fiction — as a glance at some posts on this blog might suggest (spray painting street art, tapping and spiling barrels in pub cellars, TV cookery shows, German modernist artists, dodgy photos, ancient monuments and so on).

Therefore, when I received the manuscript back I was a little worried that perhaps the reason for its remarkably quick turnaround would be that only the first few chapters had been read and ‘Wrong Genre’ would be written on the title page in huge red letters.

It wasn’t — which was a huge relief and maybe showed up some preconceptions on my part about romantic fiction — preconceptions that were completely blown away when I started to scan the comprehensive reader’s report which started with the reader saying she enjoyed reading it. Phew!

The reader’s skill and experience clearly identified the conflict that propels the narrative — where two people meet, begin to realise how desperately they need each other but have to overcome huge obstacles in their way — and obstacles that they may not surmount. And if deciding who’s the person you want to spend the rest of your life with — and then trying to make it happen — isn’t a question worthy of a romantic novel then I’m not sure what is.

I needn’t have worried about the content either – my reader wasn’t at all shocked or surprised or puzzled by what was in the novel. All her comments were constructive – and, in the spirit of the best feedback, considered the writing on the terms of what it was trying to achieve rather than through any subjective personal preferences. That said, all feedback was made with the experienced critical eye of an author who was focused on how to get a manuscript into commercially publishable shape.

I can only go on my experience of what I received back from my reader but it consisted of a lengthy report on the whole novel – and she’d gone through the manuscript and noted typos and formatting issues in pencil. This was the result of the investment of a considerable amount of time – so I’m glad she said she enjoyed reading the novel.

I mentioned in a covering letter that the novel had been workshopped through the MA and City University courses and workshopped with coursemates and tutors – and my reader was generous enough to say that ‘it showed’ (I’m interpreting that as a compliment!) I’m sure the RNA NWS readers wouldn’t hold back out of politeness if a manuscript was technically flawed or was full of poorly-written prose. However, one of the most valuable aspects of the report for me was that it casts a fresh eye over the whole novel from the perspective of a new reader — and, as the report carefully pointed out — the type of reader who’d most likely be the commercial target audience for the novel.

This brings an entirely different viewpoint to feedback received on a creative writing course from a tutor or fellow students – people who’ve provided expert, generous and vital feedback but who’ve also become familiar with the book’s evolution over an extended period — and have read it in three- or five-thousand word extracts over a long period.

Both approaches are, of course, extremely useful and complementary but the RNA NWS reader was in a position to focus on points that I’d begun to lose sight of through familiarity and through the way the novel has changed over time. She was able to remind me about bringing to the fore the aspects of a character or plot that a reader might instinctively root for (or be less engaged by) — and where to place the events that motor plot forward (and where to relax the pace).

Principles of narrative technique and structure are taught on creative writing courses but, given the limited size of extracts that can be workshopped in a course environment, they’re necessarily difficult to assess over a novel-length work — and unless your course lasts forever they’re impossible to work on as exercises.

While the reader commented from a perspective of commercial marketability, she certainly didn’t do so from a ‘dumbed-down’ perspective. Obviously a well-read book-lover outside as well she referred me to a book translated from Dutch which proves that as well as being an authority on romance that she’s also well-read outside the genre.

The report was crammed with so much useful comment that I was prompted to write my own response to it where I took all the points and listed most of them out in ‘to-do’ list fashion – and I’ve been ticking them off.

There are also points that I’m going to need to reflect on carefully. The report picks up some elements in the novel that are deliberately subversive and individual and, while I want the writing to work as well as possible, I want to ensure I preserve everything that might make the novel quirky and original (a word used approvingly by the reader about the heroine).

Nevertheless, the recommendations for change are about aspects of the novel that can are easily fixable — essentially honing and tweaking the writing incrementally — rather than having to address major flaws. The report was sprinkled with some very complementary words — reading these made my week. I won’t repeat them here but they provided encouragement to get on and put the revisions into the manuscript. Having received this extremely useful feedback from the RNA NWS, I’m relieved that I’m still yet to properly start the submission process to agents in earnest. Once I’ve worked through the feedback through the novel can’t fail to be stronger.

I’d imagine the RNA NWS offers something different to the various manuscript assessment services available because it’s an initiative that aims to help writers become eligible for its professional membership (and I’d love to go along to the RNA events, although I admit I’d be a little hesitant before walking through the door.) Based on my own experience (an admittedly small sample of one) I’d wholeheartedly recommend the RNA NWS to anyone whose novel fulfils the acceptance criteria (see above and the RNA website).

I’d like to thank the organiser, Melanie Hilton, for finding me such a suitable, knowledgeable and diligent reader who, though anonymous, knows via Melanie that I’ve passed on my deep gratitude.

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

Next Stops on the Monday Blog Hop

As mentioned in my Blog Hop post from last week, the relay has continued this Monday with three writers from my MA Creative Writing course taking up the baton. All are great posts about three fascinating novels.

I’ve seen drafts of Kerry Hadley’s novel The Black Country while workshopping on the Manchester Metropolitan University course. She describes it very well in her post — a story that skilfully reveals a very dark core from an ostensibly everyday suburban situation. And the narrator plays an intriguing role that’s still a mystery to me, having not had the chance to read the complete novel. Kerry’s blog is at:

Anne is working on a new piece of writing, House of Scars, which is in the science fiction and/or fantasy genres, as was her work on the MA course. In her previous work, Anne showed her talent at creating a credible , dystopian world — inhabited by characters the reader can immediately relate to. To do this in an alternative reality seems a lot harder task to me than placing a novel in the contemporary world where the reader can bring their own points of reference to the writing. Anne originally comes from Denmark but the quality of her writing is so fluent you’d never suspect she comes from the trendy land of Scandi-noir and this year’s Eurovision. Anne’s blog is at:

Matt Cresswell, who’s based in Manchester. In addition to his writing he runs Glitterwolf magazine which is described on its website as ‘a UK-based literary and arts magazine that publishes the best poetry, fiction, art and photography by contributors identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’ Matt is also working on a new project since workshopping with me on the MMU course. From the blog post it sounds like a highly imaginative story —Tintwistle & Co., which is set in ‘a sort of steampunked London’ and featuring ‘a short, sharp, opera-singing detective’. Matt’s blog can be found here:

And next week the blog continues (and goes international too) with contributions from:

Kip Jankowski:

Eygló Daða Karlsdóttir:

Leonie M. Smith: who Anne will be hosting on her site:

Emma Yates-Badley:

I look forward to reading their Blog Hops on 2nd June and thanks very much to Kerry, Anne and Matt for their great contributions.

Into the Woods with Robert Galbraith

Ironically, the big literary story of July, and probably of 2013, has been the real-life whodunit over the authorship of a novel about a private detective. Even those who don’t follow book news with my keen interest will know the story of how the sleuthing instigated by India Knight and the Sunday Times uncovered the ‘real’ identity of debut crime novelist, Robert Galbraith as being the phenomenally best-selling J.K. Rowling.

‘Harry Potter Author ‘s Pitiful Sales Figures’ seemed to sum up the tone of much coverage – the implication being that books that Rowling puts her name to sell on reputation rather than merit. However, one of the most sobering facts one learns about the publishing industry from a writer’s perspective is that Galbraith’s hardback sales of 1,500 before the unmasking (as the BBC reported) are relatively impressive for a debut author. The book industry’s sales volumes are very polarised, weighted towards a tiny number of best-selling titles — not so much the 80-20 principle but probably more 99-1.

The story has been well publicised about how a lawyer’s wife’s indiscretion on Twitter caused the secret to be spilled. Yet how Galbraith’s ‘debut’ novel managed to attract enough interest to merit such investigation into the author’s identity is less clear. India Knight’s attention was aroused by a review in the Sunday Times — but it’s a very lucky debut author who gets that kind of coverage from the critics.

To many yet-to-be published novelists – from whose ranks Galbraith was meant to have emerged – there seemed to be a red herring in the detective story. It was reported that the unusually high quality of Galbraith’s debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had set the antennae twitching of some big name authors and literary establishment figures. In her Sunday Times column India Knight qualified this by pointing out Galbraith made observations she thought would only be perceived by a female writer.

A work by an unknown author has enormous odds stacked against its chances of publication. Accordingly, to mitigate the risk of rejection, much of the most sensible advice to the aspiring novelist is simply to ‘make it the best that it can be’. To ensure that manuscripts are suitably honed and polished there’s a multitude of courses, writing groups, conferences, magazines, mentors, manuscript assessment services. (And that’s before the publisher’s expert professionals get to work on a title.)

To those working on a putative debut novel, it seems that the bar for acceptance of a manuscript is set exceptionally high. A number of unpublished writers I know are also going through the soul-destroying process of submitting the product of their hard work to agents, or through agents to publishers (a process which appears at least equally frustrating as acquiring an agent in the first place, although difficulties at this stage are less well publicised.)

So it seems puzzling that someone might say: ‘We must investigate that Galbraith ex-army chap because his book stands head and shoulders above the rest of those so-so debuts.’  Unsurprisingly, the explanation that The Cuckoo’s Calling was a beacon of assured writing in a sea of emergent mediocrity didn’t go down too well with several first-time novelists I know on Twitter – who ironically began to refer to their work as ‘mere’ debuts.

I was reading Into the Woods by John Yorke when the controversy erupted, a book recommended to me a fellow student from the City University course who’s been part of my workshopping group for the last year or so. As well as being a fascinating read in its own right, some of the insights in the book may offer a more persuasive explanation of why Rowling’s work – rather than being subjectively better – may have stood out from the crowd because of the its unique path to publication.

Yorke is a TV executive who has been responsible for many of the most successful and innovative programmes of the last decade or two (e.g. Life on Mars). Into the Woods is a book on the fundamental importance of structure in storytelling and to all literary and dramatic forms.

The book references other well-known works on story and plotting, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. At times I found it irritatingly dismissive of others’ theories, with Yorke claiming more fundamental insights.

However, the book is less about originality of analysis than stripping back well-known concepts to expose their basis in some universal truths, common to all humanity. In places this reduction appeared to have been abstracted to a level of almost meaningless generality — every event has a beginning and an end and something happens in between or that things change over time (and Newton’s Third Law is cited as the a root of character interaction).

The structure of the book itself also ignores its own advice. Rather than build revelation of its conclusions over a narrative arc, the main points are stated upfront in the first chapter and to a large extent repeated and refined in later chapters – a fairly common trait in non-fiction books that don’t have the momentum of a plot to carry the reader through to the end.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by the breadth of research. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was referenced — a psychological model of human motivation that I studied on my MBA and that I’ve used to some extent to explore characters’ motivation in my novel.

The book also touches on the importance of story in non-creative writing and other types of communication. The book has made me realise that the aspects of my ‘day job’ which I gravitate towards usually involve some sort of narrative. Typically, I examine the underlying structure of interactions and consider root causes of conflict and risk. I then create narratives which transforms a situation as is it now into some future current state, breaking it down into sub-components and their impact on individual ‘actors’. Conceptually, it’s not hugely different to novel writing.

When the underlying concepts are interlinked to create the template of a classic three or five act story, the book’s arguments become very persuasive. Most of the many examples Yorke uses to demonstrate his arguments are films or television programmes (Thelma and Louise is a particular favourite) but he also references Shakespeare’s plays and some novels.

The emphasis placed on symmetry throughout a story is fascinating. The mid-point of a well-constructed plot is pinpointed as the pivot at which the most fundamental change occurs. This complements the more traditionally taught theory of a pair of inciting incidents (the call to action and the precipitating crisis) at the ends of acts one and act two/four (depending on whether a three or five act structure is applied).

It’s not just fictional narratives that fit this basic structure. Like me, Yorke has noted the way the classic act structure is ruthlessly applied to reality television. Every episode of The Apprentice is a template of archetypal narrative clarity: the task is set, problems are overcome until a defining moment of crisis, then there’s the reckoning in the board room and the resolution of the firing. Its brilliant and ruthless editing is an example to anyone with an interest in storytelling: every shot and cut has significance and the viewer is challenged to piece together the subtext behind even the most apparently trivial details.

Yorke also argues that story structure exists in fractals — i.e. each larger unit of story is formed of a collection of similar sub-components down to the level of scene (and, arguably of paragraph or sentence). Each of these elements must also conform to the demands of a universal dramatic structure. Like the stunning geometric images that are generated from the aggregation and interaction of repeated fractals, the rich complexity of a great story is also formed out of tiny, similar components.

However, few (if any) writers plot such a low level in deliberate detail (chapters certainly but less so scenes and certainly not paragraphs). So, if the fractal argument holds, then writers must subconsciously arrange these small-scale structural elements. The better storyteller the writer is, then arguably the more innate is their mastery of these fundamental patterns. This aptitude then, perhaps, represents an essential quality that suffuses an author’s writing.

As with natural orators, these qualities might be psychologically rooted in personality, reflecting the way a writer interacts with the world as a whole – or something learned through cultural osmosis — and difficult, if not impossible, to teach.

This leads back to the Galbraith/Rowling identity question. While J.K. Rowling’s prose style attracts criticism – for its unfashionably frequent use of adverbs and adjectives as qualifiers and a tendency to be very heavy on description – it’s commonly agreed that she tells a good story and can handle a large set of characters. Yorke himself uses examples from the narrative arc that spans Harry Potter’s seven volumes.

Rowling’s success managing Harry Potter’s epic narrative may signify an instinctive ability to handle the fundamental building blocks of story. If this talent is combined with the experience of the adaptation of the series over eight films, then it’s hardly unexpected that she could master a highly structured genre, such as detective fiction.

I’ve not read any detailed accounts of the extent to which The Cuckoo’s Calling was offered around other publishers before being taken up by Rowling’s existing imprint. However, the circumstances under which the book was written would have been almost the opposite to those experienced by most debut authors (including Rowling herself in the past). The manuscript was almost certainly assured of publication (revealing the real author’s identity would have done the trick instantly) and the motives for using a pen name may have been to gauge the reception of the work when given a low-key launch without any attendant hype. The text may have been reflected these circumstances.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling or other writer with an established track record, then the first objective is to catch the attention of the professional reader who might give your manuscript little time to make its impact. Much advice to aspiring writers concentrates almost exclusively on perfecting a novel’s opening (I even have a book called The First Five Pages). 

This is where the interests of the typical reader diverge from the professional sifter — the agent, editor or review short-lister. Someone who’s made an investment in cash and set time aside to buy and read a book contrast with those under pressure to convert the time they spend reading submissions into money. When we pay money up front for a book it’s after being influenced by factors other than the text itself — and our expectations are set to enjoy the read. It’s also why so many more readers will read The Cuckoo’s Calling now the real author has been identified.

The review by Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Bookseller is honest and very eye-opening for a writer. She quickly skimmed a pre-publication copy of The Cuckoo’s Nest to select titles for a crime ‘best of’ list, reading 18 pages before passing over the book. After Rowling was revealed as the author she read the whole novel and freely admitted that her initial judgement wasn’t able to reflect the quality of the overall book, because the opening hadn’t done it justice. Similarly, other reviews mentioned the slow opening and a ‘gentle pace’. An editor who admitted rejecting the book described it as ‘well-written but quiet’.

It could be argued that Yorke’s approach to structure is at odds with the advice to start in media res that is commonly given to writers. Of course, it should go without saying that a novel ought to open in a way that immediately engages the reader’s interest – every word in a novel should justify its place. Also, if you buy the fractal theory, the opening should be a hook into the first act, which ought to have a narrative arc of its own.

Nevertheless, the model of symmetrical story structure requires that characters, their predicament and the setting be properly established. It sets up the significant action of change or transformation which takes place at the inciting incident at the end of the first act – generally about a fifth to a quarter of the way through the story. This then allows a corresponding period for resolution at the end of the story.

If a writer jumps straight in at the outset with an inciting incident then the reader may become disorientated and to compensate the author may try to shoehorn vital missing information into clunky passages of exposition or the confusing overuse of flashbacks.

The writers and critics who read The Cuckoo’s Calling and formed a favourable impression may have unconsciously identified that it was somehow different to most debut novels. Perhaps debut novelists, assimilating all the advice on how to attract attention to their work, share certain traits — and possibly other authors with a long backlist can identify these. Perhaps Robert Galbraith was a notable exception? The idea might have be more plausible than the notion that debuts are inherently of lower quality.

I’ve spent much time concentrating on the opening of my novel. I know that it’s crucially important in demonstrating the complete manuscript’s potential to the time-pressed readers. The first three chapters have been professionally read twice. But as Yorke’s book argues and, perhaps the Rowling/Galbraith story demonstrates, the rest of the book also needs to perform as a coherent and satisfying whole.  And it’s perhaps the writers who also understand and appreciate the fundamentals of storytelling that eventually stand out — once they’ve nailed those first five knockout pages.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

An Off Stage Question

I was wondering about the point in the last post where David Nicholls mentions the impact of having important event happen ‘off stage’ and their impact being made greater when viewed from the perspective of their subsequent impact on characters’ lives — the example he used was a wedding in One Day.

It raises an interesting point about the distinction between author and narrator and the limits of narrative voice. A narrator can act as voice that’s independent of the author — being a first person fictitious character or unreliable or a different gender or even a wine bottle (in the case of Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine).

But it’s the author who makes the crucial decisions about which parts of the characters’ stories are related in the text — such as where to start and end, the timescale of the novel, which plot events and interactions with other characters are represented and so on. These decisions are crucial for all novels, but the plots of genres such as mysteries and detective fiction hinge on precise choices about what the author shows. For every saga that stretches over decades, there are novels that concentrate action into one day, like Ulysses.

There’s a huge amount of debate in creative writing classes and on writing blogs about narrative voice but sometimes it seems these underlying structural elements are less discussed, perhaps because they’re much more abstract and can’t be illuminated by textual analysis. The plot itself gets a fair amount of attention. Although it’s more difficult to teach by analysis of passages in novels, the principles of plotting and the enigmatic narrative arc can be found discussed in plenty of books and blogs.

But having an established plot is not quite the same as deciding how to show the plot action to the reader. David Nicholls, once he came up with his concept for One Day made it fairly simple for himself — he showed events that happened on that one day, even though life-changing plot points occurred on other dates. For most novelists, the decisions about what to reveal to the reader are much more potentially difficult to choose.

This might be my biggest problem at the moment — that I can write at such length about so many incidents that are connected to my novel’s plot that I end up combining the detail of the novel-in-a-day approach with the scope of the saga (well, I don’t see my plot lasting longer than a year or so but that’s still a lot longer than a day).

I’m not convinced about the ‘less is more’ approach to this sort of dilemma, which seems to be the standard sort of advice that’s given but I’m sure a lot harder to apply successfully as it depends on the recipient of the advice having the skill to retain all the ‘more’ while discarding all the ‘less’ . If I cut out everything that’s not directly plot-related then I’d lose a lot of what I enjoy about the writing, such as humour, and it would be a different sort of book entirely. It looks as if I’m going to have to resign myself to producing a long-ish book.

While I’ve been musing about how the novel seems to be lengthening overall, there is a particular issue that I’m wondering about that relates to both point-of-view and revelation of plot. I alternate point-of-view between two characters, male and female, although not equally, probably about 60-40. This has its issues in terms of ensuring that important plot events can be witnessed or experienced feasibly by the character whose point-of-view is being used. It can also, however, be used to withhold information.

I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to use this withholding of the reporting of direct experience for one character to allow its discovery later in the plot by the other character’s point-of-view.  It’s not crucial to the overall narrative arc but I’d like to introduce a temporary relationship for one of the characters which the reader will know has happened but only through the perspective of the character who isn’t involved in that relationship (if this makes sense). Then later this character discovers more about what happened — and this has a bearing on the overall plot.

My question is simply whether the reader would be satisfied by this selective revelation of information through use of point-of-view. Would they say ‘If we were told her point-of-view about event X then why didn’t we find out about event Y at the time — and not later?’

My instinct is that this is probably OK and selective revelation like this occurs all the time in books I read but, obviously, don’t analyse in this sort of depth. But if anyone has any ideas about this, especially if it looks like ‘cheating’ then I’d be fascinated to read any comments.

One Day I Went to Listen To David Nicholls

I’m rather late in posting about this but last week I went along to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival at Christ Church College, Oxford. I was hoping to spend the best part of a day there but one session that I was hoping to attend — an interactive culinary lecture in the college’s kitchen had been booked up before I arrived.

I did get to see the main event I’d planned to see — a conversation between the Sunday Times literary editor, Andrew Holgate and David Nicholls, the author of the phenomenally successful novel One Day, which I’ve mentioned a few times before on the blog.

I arrived in plenty of time and got a good seat in the marquee in the grounds of the college. I was interested to see the size of the audience, which probably numbered at least a couple of hundred and its composition, which was probably 70-80% female, as was the gender of the questioners at the end of the session. While it’s true that women read the majority of books, it seemed from the interest in the author and the nature of some of the questions that Nicholls has done something fairly unusual in being a man writing a book about relationships that has a broadened appeal beyond conventional genre boundaries.

This seems to send some commentators into confusion, such as in this article on the Orange Prize on the Guardian website by Jean Hannah Edelstein that states: ‘Then there’s the fact that David Nicholls’s One Day has been such a runaway success among both men and women, despite the fact that it succeeds as a novel because of its careful adherence to the tropes of so-called women’s commercial fiction (but, hey, it has a manly orange cover).’ After reading this many times I still don’t understand this sentence because I’m not sure which qualifiers apply to which phrases and its internal contradictions (e.g. despite it succeeding, tropes that are so-called). I’m still not sure whether she approves of men writing books that appeal to women — women who can be marketed to by the ‘tropes’ of this ‘so-called’ genre (obviously not Guardian readers or columnists). And if it doesn’t really matter to the argument about whether there should be an Orange Prize then why has she thrown it in — maybe to say that here’s a man invading traditional women’s genre-gender territory so that perhaps justifies a prize that excludes men? And ‘manly orange cover’ — what does that say about the Orange Prize?

Perhaps the answer to why Nicholls works so naturally in this genre is explained by his unusual background for a novelist. The discussion spent rather a long time, a bit too much for my liking, on Nicholls’s biography rather than his novels. He studied English and Drama at Bristol and tried to make a career as an actor — which has supplied him with a library full of self-deprecating anecdotes. Through working with friends and colleagues he branched out into drama writing, eventually giving up acting altogether and working mainly on film and television, including the third series of Cold Feet, which has a demographic of principal characters and audience that’s very similar, I imagine, to One Day.

A few critics, and Amazon reviewers, have said that One Day is a visual novel to the point that they think it’s half-way, if not more, to being ‘a screenplay in disguise’ (Nicholls’s own quotation). The author refutes this — he’s written screenplays and deliberately used fiction as a form when he realised that it was more suitable for the idea he was developing into what became his first novel (Starter for Ten). One Day is his third novel and the first one he wrote in third person — a narratorial style that he found almost like cheating because ‘you can tell the reader things’ rather than have to carefully choreograph exposition using action, as in drama.

While the novel certainly uses the tropes of fiction generally, it’s probably true to say that a lot of its commercial appeal is because it is reminiscent of film and TV drama — partly in theme, style and structure. Perhaps the duality of the characterisation borrows from drama more than fiction — it’s both Emma and Dexter’s story — neither really predominates, although I do think Emma is his real favourite. This goes against a lot of creative writing course advice — ‘a novel must be one character’s story above all others’. Hmm.

The clever premise — of revisiting characters on the same day of the year for twenty years — definitely has the air of the dramatic set piece. I didn’t realise how autobiographical the novel was — all the locations where the action is set on those 15th Julys were places (apart from the one in Goa) where David Nicholls actually was at the time — Edinburgh, a Greek island, a tawdry London fast-food restaurant, Paris and so on. The device of using the same day of the year also allowed some of the biggest life-events, weddings, for example, to happen ‘off-stage’ — another effective dramatic technique where sometimes it’s more powerful to relate important moments in a plot via the reactions of characters rather than depict them literally.

It was interesting to listen to how the idea for the novel developed and, then, to see in hindsight what universal themes Nicholls had tapped into. If I remember rightly, he started thinking about the novel as a reaction to the prospect of becoming a father himself (parenthood features in the novel but not as a major factor in the plot) and also reaching the wrong side of forty — what happened to my life? He said he looked back in eternal regret that he’d been at university a couple of years too early and had missed out on the party and rave culture of the early 90s, unlike many of his friends and Dexter in the novel.

Looking back through the lens of impending parenthood also made Nicholls reflect on the changing nature of friendships — in your twenties you feel you had intense relationships with friends for whom you felt you’d sacrifice anything but by your forties, while you were still perhaps good friends, the relationships were more measured and different. It was this maturing process that he was interested in capturing in the book.

He also said, relating back to the hedonism he felt he missed out on, that some of his male friends had behaved like complete idiots, ostensibly self-centred, egotistical and destroying relationships in their twenties and this may have been related to circumstances —  and that monstrous as they may have become, these people weren’t actually bad.

The hero of One Day, Dexter fits this mould and Nicholls said he used two techniques to humanise him. Firstly, he is given a foil in Emma — the woman who comes from a contrasting background and who sees the germ of decency and attraction in someone who becomes a New Laddish oaf. Secondly, he said he was able to use the odd piece of interior dialogue to signal that Dexter had a twinge of regret when behaving badly and that redeemed him to many readers in a work of fiction — something that would be more challenging in drama. It also fits an archetype of a misguided man being put on the straight by a good woman.

Nicholls also said something interesting about romance as a genre that he’d learned through writing drama — romances are only really interesting if there are obstacles in the way of the lovers. And many of the traditional obstacles that provided sport for writers in the past were no longer relevant — particularly sexually. Class is also much less of an obstacle, although it features in One Day to some degree. I realised that I must have unconsciously realised this myself with my own plot because it hinges on an obstacle that is still problematic enough to create conflict — adultery and the lure of another.

I also got an interesting insight into the work involved in being a writer. David Nicholls said his biggest frustration at his novel’s success was that he’d spent two years not having time to write a follow-up — being involved in promotion and the book’s film adaptation. I also felt sorry for his arm as a long line of people queued in the marquee afterwards for book signing. I tagged along right at the end of the queue so saw that he was genuinely keen to engage with his readers, given the time constraints.

When it was my turn, I had a brief chat with him in which I mentioned I’d e-mailed him last year through the book’s website to comment on his compilation tape playlists (which I’ve mentioned on the blog before). He remembered my e-mail (as he mentioned The Smiths before I’d had a chance to prompt him). I mentioned my creative writing courses and he was interested enough to ask where I was studying, asked after the progress of my novel and wished me luck in pushing on with completing it. And if someone who’s just sold 600,000 copies of his book in this country wishes me luck then I really ought to get on with it.

My Signed Copy of One Day

Here’s my signed copy of One Day — David Nicholls’s signature really isn’t that messy — I just obscured it a bit in photoshop so it can’t be copied.

Infinite Universes

I watched an edition of Horizon on BBC2 a few weeks ago which attempted to discuss the utterly bizarre nature of what we perceive as reality once it’s considered by physicists — quantum, astro- and various other varieties. (It’s available to view again on iPlayer until 15th March.)

Many people are familiar with the ‘unreal’ concept that, under quantum theory, a particle can be in two places at once and can cease to exist and then re-appear and all kinds of weird behaviour that seems to be the exact opposite of what people like me, with an ‘O’ level in it, understand about physics.

I was reminded of this programme when I saw this page of writing ‘top-tips’ retweeted by Emma Darwin (whose ‘Itch of Writing’ blog is linked to on the sidebar). It’s by Irish author Joseph O’Connor and seems to be aimed at an Irish audience (but, of course, many of the finest writers of English come from that country) and is on Blake Friedmann’s website (the Blake being well-known Twitterer Carole Blake).

The tips are all very sensible. I thought the last one — about knowing who you’re writing for — was very useful for new writers as the ‘democracy of the creative writing workshop’ (or some may say tyranny) sometimes gives the impression that it’s possible for a writer to connect with every reader — or at least the dozen or so strong opinions who tend to be on these courses. People have different tastes and if a writer removes everything that doesn’t get a positive reaction from every person in a workshop then he or she is likely to produce something so bland that no-one will love it. Workshops are great for getting feedback on technical writing issues from most participants but it’s not likely that more than a handful of participants will really get excited by each writers’ work — no matter how outstanding the quality. So O’Connor is right to advise people to write for a specific reader or small number of readers.

The point that most resonated with me, however, is the start of tip number five — ‘Make Something Happen’. If his first two sentences are concatenated as ‘Stories are…records of the exceptional’ then it perfectly sums up a point that I think is lost in the workshopping culture. It also reminds me, returning to the Horizon programme about the bizarre but apparently perfectly plausible, infinite universes theory.

This suggests that, despite its unimaginable vastness, our universe is only one of a massive number (infinite in theory) of co-existing universes where, because of their infinite number any variant of any event that we might think of has actually occurred in some parallel universe.

It sounds odd but an example from my novel might illustrate it: take as a starting point the one day James gets fired. Every event subsequent to his firing over which he makes a decision or is affected by the actions of other people or things may ‘split off’ into its own parallel universe. So in one universe he might get the train home immediately, in another he might head to the pub with his mates and in another he might decide to go and buy the painting from the artist he met the night before. The first two scenarios are much more likely but if I wrote about events in the parallel universe where that version of James now exists then it would be less interesting than following the universe in which James strikes up with Kim.

The same goes for all plot events — there are often many choices a novelist and his or her characters make but, in general, the most interesting stories are those which follow the parallel universes of the unusual choices — or in Joseph O’Connor’s words ‘records of the exceptional’.

Of course there needs to be a degree of plausibility and too many random events will make a reader feel cheated but the main source of credibility should be whether the character would behave in the way that the novelist chooses. For important drivers of the plot, it’s almost required that the character chooses an option that, while still credible, is less likely than the choice he or she would normally make. The day that’s really interesting is when your main character’s boss decides to fire him rather than all the days he doesn’t.

It’s the debates over plot and character that seem to be most problematic about writing workshops. Most people will come with an idea of the stories they want their novels to tell. These ideas may range between teens having their souls taken over by ancient evil spirits or they may be about unrequited love where most of the action occurs in a character’s imagination. Some are fantasy or magic realism, some are comic, some are totally realistic — but they are all stories to be told that require a suspension of disbelief from the reader, albeit at different levels. Central to this bargain of the suspension of disbelief is the concept of storytelling — i.e. reading is not a co-operative, interactive experience. The danger of workshopping is that the readers approach each others’ writing from a completely artificial perspective — that the story can be changed to match their personal preferences — ‘I think the character would appear nicer if he didn’t leave his wife’.

As with the point above about writing for a select group of readers, the novel has to be about what the author cares passionately enough to devote the massive amount of time required. While films now have endings changed by the initial reactions of advance screening, not even Hollywood seems to create its films solely by focus group.

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 Cake

Following various tweets and retweets I came across a great blog posting from the US by writer J.M. Tohline about approaching agents via query letters and submitting manuscripts.

There was a response from an agent called Amy Boggs that not only identified what should go in an agent query letter but neatly summed up the dynamics of virtually any novel (if you substitute ‘novel’ for ‘query’).

The bulk of a query should consist of 1) the main character, 2) what happens to complicate their life, 3) what goals they now have in response to that complication, and 4) the main obstacle between them and their goal. That is the cake of the query; everything else is just frosting and sprinkles.

Of course there’s an awful lot that needs to go into the writing of a novel that is just frosting and sprinkles but the cake is what most readers really want.

Click here to read the full, comprehensive posting.

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.’

Spooked by Heartbeat’s Demise

I was rather gutted (as footballers say) a week last Sunday by the transmission of the last ever episode of ‘Heartbeat‘.

No really — this isn’t meant to be a piece of wry irony. I enjoyed the programme, and admired in many ways, its comfortable Sunday night formula of mostly gentle drama and character-based comedy.  I only started watching it about 1996/7 when it had been going a couple of years when I was bogged down at the weekends doing a part-time MBA course — it seemed to be a non-demanding distraction and it reminded me of ‘The North’.

This was in symbolic terms — I’m a Lancastrian and I’ve never even been to the interior of the North York moors (although I think 25% of my genetic make-up may be from there) but it reminded me of outings and school trips to the Yorkshire Dales and so on. ‘Heartbeat’ itself also seems to use many of the elements of the classic late 70s series — ‘All Creatures Great and Small. (I sometimes wonder if my love of the English pub dates back to Tristan’s (Peter Davison) adventures in The Drovers’ Arms, which made a big impression on me in my early teens.)

What really grabbed me, though, was that while on the surface ‘Heartbeat’  appears to be all whimsy and sentimentality, it could treat its characters with merciless brutality. The Niamh Cusack doctor character developed leukemia and I wondered how she was going to be cured – and then she suddenly died – which was genuinely shocking. Many other lead characters have met gruesome ends – in explosions, shootings, falling off railway bridges and so on. We were left on tenterhooks as to whether Oscar Blaketon would survive his impalement on a piece of agricultural machinery.

With a long-running series it’s often necessary to change the cast in this sort of way as actors leave (or get ill or die) but this leads to a type of plotting that isn’t normally available to the novelist or dramatist – to kill off your principal character well before the end. In the 80s series ‘Robin of Sherwood’, which I still think is the best Robin Hood series ever due to Richard Carpenter’s liberal infusion of Celtic mythology, I was also stunned to see Michael Praed’s Robin get killed by the Sheriff’s men – ‘that’s not meant to happen!’. They then used a Doctor Who type regeneration to get the next actor into the role, which I didn’t think worked particularly well.

‘Heartbeat’ is also a good example of how the plot can often be an almost perfunctory piece of machinery. The supposed lead characters – policemen, doctors and nurses usually – seem to act out their roles mainly to elicit some reaction from the large cast of secondary, but more permanent characters, usually sat around the bar of the pub.

There was almost always a comedy sub-plot involving the ‘mechanical’ character  – originally Bill Maynard but later Geoffrey Hughes and ending with  Gwen Taylor. Sometimes the two plots ran totally separately – the characters in each never interacted – which was again quite bizarre.

So I think ‘Heartbeat’ was more than a small part subversive – the more so because it seemed so conventional – and there’s quite a lot of ‘Heartbeat’ that has made its way into the Angel.

Of course many of the characteristics of long-running drama series are shared by soap operas – long standing characters, anchored settings, traumas and plot points occurring almost as in real life rather than by dramatic convention and so on.

Some people have said that there are soapy elements too in my novel extracts and I agree to some extent – and also bearing in mind the point that some soaps are examples of exceptionally good dramatic writing that are worth aspiring towards — and I like the emotional directness that’s often exposed in soaps where characters are pushed to breaking point (the drawback for soaps is that these events happen implausibly often to the same characters) .

In ‘The Angel’ I have a pub setting and a small cast of characters who will inter-relate closely. What I’m finding is that I’m working with a nod towards the soap genre rather than try and write something that goes in the opposite direction (e.g. a pub where the most exciting thing that happens is someone cleaning the beer lines every week).

One of my first blog postings was on the plotting of ‘Spooks’ last autumn – and this is another series which regularly kills off its key characters — except for the perennial Harry who’s always wondering about leaving. I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Sophia Myles character develops (I loved the Doctor Who episode where she featured as Madame de Pompadour) as I never really liked Hermione Norris’s Ros.

‘Spooks’ returned again this week. Graeme A. Thomson (author of ‘Under the Ivy’) tweeted a review on The Arts Desk website which described the series as something like ‘last week’s newspaper headlines fed through a scriptwriting program’.

I tend to agree – the characters dialogue has to be short and punchy because if it was any more contemplative then the issues involved would be so ponderous and loaded with politics that each episode would turn into a moral treatise. But the dialogue is not really the point about ‘Spooks’ — it’s an excellent example of how fast-paced plotting (and editing) can transform the mundane. Apart from the one spectacular explosion per series, almost all the scenes are on anonymous London streets, in ‘The Grid’ or somewhere pretty dull like the bridge of a container ship — all intercut with stock footage of places like the Freemason’s Hall on Great Queen Street (not the real Thames House).

Yet it all works brilliantly on its own terms (like ‘Heartbeat’) which means it doesn’t matter that the scenarios are complete nonsense and the script seems to have been written by people who are fortunately unencumbered by any knowledge of computing or the internet.

It’s a bit of a salutary lesson to what I’ve been writing recently — which has been pages and pages of two characters explaining how they feel about each other. I’m not sure whether in the end I’ll take a hatchet to this dialogue but it does help me explore what the characters are feeling. If I leave much of it in, though, it will probably take the reader as long to read about two characters talking over breakfast than for a plot for London’s imminent destruction to be planned, discovered and foiled in ‘Spooks’!

Time on Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Freedom’ has been causing a stir among reviewers — one Guardian Books blogger is already calling it the novel of the century.

Time magazine a couple of weeks ago gave Franzen the honour of being on its cover — something achieved by very few authors and was the magazine’s gesture towards placing him in the canon of ‘The Great American Novelists’.

The accompanying article was, compared to most of these profile pieces, long and thoughtful and had some comment on where novel writing might be heading in the future:

‘Early readers of Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever — that word again — to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books. That awareness has changed the way he writes.’

Franzen, suggests the profile’s author, Levi Grossman, argues that this need to work to engage harder with the reader by implication means that to avoid becoming an obsolete and arcane art form the novel needs to avoid intellectual novelty-seeking and boundary stretching. Perhaps the self-indulgent aspect of literary fiction might finally be exhausted:

‘A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader: you suck up a certain amount of difficulty, of resistance and interpretive work and even boredom, and then you get the payoff. This arrangement, which feels necessary and permanent to us, is primarily a creation of the 20th century. Freedom works on something more akin to a 19th century model, like Dickens or Tolstoy: characters you care about, a story that hooks you. Franzen has given up trying to impress with his scintillating prose (which he admits he was still doing in The Corrections). “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist,” he says. “To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.”‘

Read more:,8599,2010000-4,00.html#ixzz0yAaJL6mA

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?

Everything But The Bar Sink…

…but I did get the dishwasher in!

Bearing in mind Judith Murray’s comment that ‘in some sense all novels are historical’, I decided to load my last reading with as many contemporary cultural references as I could think of. ‘Decided’ isn’t actually a good definition — throwing in various things that pop into my head is how I tend to write anyway although maybe I’d decide to delete most of them if a book got published.

I’m rather dreading reaction to the scene I’ve just written because it could go either of two ways. It’s a climactic scene after months of simmering, smouldering sexual tension between James and Kim and this comes to the boil (good cooking metaphors there, albeit cliched). To counter the tension as it rises I start off with the most banal sort of conversations. In one point (a cop out I’m sure I’ll be picked up on) I have the narrator say ‘she didn’t care who was talking’ and then throw in three or four unattributed pieces of dialogue.

The cultural references are quite a bizarre bunch. Remember these are all in a 2,600 word piece which is meant to pivotal to the plot: Amazon, Katie Melua, Charlie Brooker, the Guardian, the Wombles, Mike Batt, William Orbit, Orbit’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’, Katie Melua’s ‘The Flood’ (which goes on to supply metaphors for the later scene), Virgin TV’s ‘Naked Office’ (see below), Jamie Oliver, a Sky+ box, the Carry On films, ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ (and various of its contestants), Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell, Ant and Dec, ‘Sex and the City’, Heston Blumenthal, ‘The Fat Duck Cookbook’ and Heston Blumenthal’s notorious snail porridge. That’s well over 20 references that only someone living in this country in 2010 would really understand. Apart from the BGT references most of these aren’t gratuitously contemporary as they illustrate character and move the plot in some cases. The music is interesting as (it will be interesting to see if anyone picks this up) as Emma has bought the Katie Melua CD as it’s produced by William Orbit, whose works ten years previously (see above) were the soundtrack to a holiday she and James had in Ibiza when they first began their relationship. He’s meant to see the romantic significance in this — but doesn’t and needles her about Katie Melua’s previous association with Mike Batt (of the Wombles). So, a little vignette of their relationship.

I had to rush writing this piece and sent it out late to everyone. I’m still unhappy with the end and may revise it even further before I read it. I was totally knackered once I’d written it. Partly this was because I was determined to write something new and that pushed the boundaries a bit for me in terms of how comfortable I’d be with reading it. It’s also partly because I’m pushing myself to write new material for each reading and tutorial rather than polish up previously reviewed material. I also went to France very early on Tuesday morning partly to buy wine for our course reading. This produced probably a course first — for the first reading ever to be written, partially, on a cross-channel ferry. On the way out I annotated a printed draft then coming back I had the netbook out by the window looking out into the channel. Wonder if any of the nautical flavour comes through?

The piece was also very emotionally draining, which I found quite surprising. As it’s the consummation of a relationship I was trying to imagine and hold in my mind the feelings and emotions of the characters. When this involves scenes of a disintegrating marriage, seriously unrequited love and then some sudden switch into passion between two people who had (on the surface) treated each other as friends then this takes a lot of mental effort. I did this for three or four days and thought about it so much I was more than semi-detached from reality. I don’t know if it will be good for the writing that it felt like I was so intensely involved in their predicaments — your characters can’t do anything much more real than have sex with each other — or whether I might have got too close?

The writing was also difficult as I thought I had to do a sex scene for a reading as this is what the plot of the novel calls for and I wanted to get feedback on it — good and bad. I’m sure this is very difficult to get right and constructive feedback (though not sniggering) in this area would be a lot more useful than on a scene with people walking around London, for example. In the first drafts I had some graphic descriptions and used some very earthy Anglo-Saxon words. In some ways I’d rather these had stayed in as from a reading perspective because I’d like to have made myself read these out, to overcome the embarrassment. However, the word limit chopped any real physical description of the sex — there’s only really the build up but that’s the most interesting bit for the characters.  Even so, I’ve probably laid myself open to bonkbuster piss-taking.

Penthouse and Pavement

We ran on past our finishing time last night in our workshop — so late that the university building was locked up before Guy and I had our tutorials with Alison. These then took place on an amenable table outside the Queen Boadicea pub on St. John Street (quite apt for my novel). More of the consequences of the tutorial in a later post. This meant I missed a meeting I was hoping to pop into in High Wycombe (also in a pub) and got home quite late. However, I stayed up to watch a fascinating documentary on Heaven 17’s 1981 album ‘Penthouse and Pavement’.

This came out around the time I did my ‘O’ levels and, while I loved the Human League and Soft Cell and others, I wasn’t quite old and trendy enough to have bought ‘Penthouse and Pavement’, although I think I knew of its existence. When I went to university I got to know the album pretty well. I even think I played tracks off it, like ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ when I did the Friday night disco a couple of times at the student union. (It’s hard to believe, I know, but I did a bit of DJ-ing when I was 18 and then did a weekly show with my friend Hog Head on the student campus radio station when I was at UC Santa Barbara.)

Watching the documentary made me realise how much of a subconscious influence it must have been on me as many elements seems to have already turned up in my novel so far. It was said on the programme that ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ was actually a concept album for the 80s — obviously contrasting the disparity of wealth in the Thatcherite early 80s of the penthouse dwellers with those living on the pavement: the vinyl LP had a ‘Penthouse’ side and a ‘Pavement’ side. The brilliant cover, ‘like a cheesy company annual report’  as I think someone commented, was an ironic, arty comment on capitalism with the suited, pony-tailed band members striking yuppie poses — handshaking, on the phone doing a deal — which anticipated the Loadsamoney culture by five or six years.

The part of ‘The Angel’ that I’ve written so far has remarkable similarities — James starts high up in a gleaming office block, coming down to street level to meet grimy, struggling Kim. A stretch of pavement also plays a big part in one chapter. Thematically the characters represent the tension between penthouse (James) and pavement (Kim). The vocals on the title track, my favourite, are also an interplay between Glenn Gregory’s world-weary, deep male tones and sparky, soulful female vocals on the chorus (someone called Josie James, who’s not the woman on the video). That’s similar to the exchange of points-of-view I have so far in the novel. I’d also like to achieve a similar effect (for the City part of the novel anyway) with the prose as Heaven 17 achieve with the music — quite fast, sparse, sly, unpredictable — but not taking itself too seriously.

I guess I could elaborate further and speculate that the first track off Heaven 17’s next album, ‘The Luxury Gap’, becomes the next theme of the novel — ‘Temptation’. This track has been released in several different edits — and often turns up on compilations. My favourite is when Carol Kenyon’s ooh-oohing is allowed to run its full length (just before ‘step by step, day by day’). This is another track with a male-female dynamic and is relevant to the next part of The Angel — particularly the lines taken from the Lord’s Prayer ‘Lead us not into temptation’. In fact the next two singles off The Luxury Gap also fit my story — ‘Come Live With Me’ and ‘Crushed By The Wheels of Industry’ — this is now starting to get worrying.

I looked up the video of Penthouse and Pavement on Youtube after the programme, which I vaguely remembered — and in another stroke of perhaps unconscious serendipity the actress who plays the spying secretary is almost the spitting image that I hold my mind of Kim — once she’s got herself healthy in the countryside — she’s even got green(ish) eyes. (The actress is called Emma Relph — who was in the 1981 Day of the Triffids and is now apparently an astrologer.) The video is embedded below — take a look at the typewriter and photocopier — yet other artefacts don’t seem to have changed too much in 29 years.

Revising Chapter Three

I’ve spent quite considerable time over the past week revising the chapter three that I read at last Monday’s workshop. As previously I’ve had lots of really useful comments written on my manuscripts by the other students. It’s also quite difficult and time-consuming to keep track of the changes marked in a dozen or so annotated scripts but I’ve been careful to go through all of the comments, note the parts where there’s obvious consensus and weigh up the different perspectives.

It’s quite difficult as people have different preferences and in more than one place I’ve had someone cross out a sentence that has been ticked or praised by another person. It’s the fourth time I’ve had the feedback now and I’m coming to know various people’s preferences, which unsurprisingly tend to mirror their own writing style (lean and taut in some cases, lyrical and colourful in others, empathetic and intense and so on). Having had a few days to mull it over, I’ve probably found the harshest feedback the most useful. I eliminated about 100 words out of the original 2,600 mainly by deleting adverbs and unnecessary bits of speech, such as ‘not really’. Some of the mistakes that I had in the extract are pretty obvious errors in retrospect. My thirteen year old daughter saw Rick’s corrections and told me off about ‘stared briefly’ as well — ‘you can’t stare briefly’.

I also managed to restructure some of the more troublesome sentences with some help from people’s suggestions. For example, this long sentence now reads better than previously, although I’m still not sure if I have it completely right: ‘As she breathed, her chest pushed forward and the outline of her breasts stretched the previously slack material, jolting James a little as he realised that hidden underneath her sexless clothing was a distinctly female form.’ (I’ve just revised it yet again while posting it here.) This was the passage was that caused the previously-mentioned controversy about James — whether he was outrageously judgemental about Kim’s appearance or just ‘doing what men do’.

While I’ve pruned it quite a bit I’ve also added in about 50 extra words to address other concerns. One was about emphasising the Kim’s German background. I’ve replaced one of James’ slightly lame phrases of approbation with ‘Wunderbar’ (actually the name of a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on sale in Germany). I also had Kim respond to James’ declaration of passion for food’s favours and textures by her saying that it didn’t really apply to German food — all sauerkraut and currywurst. (I’m quite an expert on the sort of food Germans eat, having had countless meals in the works canteen of a DAX-30 listed company and eaten in restaurants all over Germany as well as eaten plenty of beer-soaking-up food in Biergartens and Weinachtmarkts.)

One question I have that I’d be interested in having answered is whether if you’re writing a German noun in an English piece of writing whether you retain the initial capital letter — as in Biergarten.

While revising Chapter Three, I went back to Chapter Two of ‘The Angel just to check for continuity and it’s a good job that I did. Alison marked this over the Easter holidays and perhaps it’s no wonder she commented that the payment of the money for the painting was too long and drawn out in  Chapter Three: it had already happened in the Chapter Two that she’d read. She must have had at least a sense of deja vu.

Alison and a couple of other people also wanted Kim a little more agitated and stressed. I’m not sure if I’ve achieved that but I wanted to try and give James the effect of disarming other people — being quite good at putting people at their ease, mainly through his ability to not worry too much when he’s making a prick of himself. (I have an inspiration for this in mind — a famous TV presenter whose Tweets I follow and with whom I occasionally converse myself via Twitter.) I’m not sure about whether I’ve tightened up the pace a lot. This was something Alison commented on after hearing it read aloud but others had said it had gone quickly when read somewhere like a plane (good sign perhaps?).

I had quite a strange attitude to workshopping this piece. It was a piece I hoped I’d write past and so have something more filled with action to present to the group. When people were critical of certain aspects I was a bit non-plussed but I’d not had particularly high expectations for it. Perhaps I was hoping to ‘wing it’ a bit and hope that this part didn’t get scrutinised too hard — but found I was being picked up on things I’d tried to avoid thinking about, which was quite uncomfortable but necessary. In the end, I think I’ve got a pretty decent 2,500 now — quite a lot better than before the workshop and something that will better stand on its own rather than be a bit of a dump for setting up plot elements.

I’ve found it pretty difficult to get started again after this — partly events over the Bank Holiday (potatoes crying out to be planted) and the election is an incredible distraction. I’ve been staying up too late after debates and on other nights to take in all the coverage — good research for Burying Bad News, though.

Sneaker Pimps

More odd musical/novelistic connections: one song I belatedly discovered is by a little known band called The Sneaker Pimps. Even though I only heard it properly on a compilation last year it dates back to 1996. Given my recurring themes in The Angel it’s probably not a surprise (but one I only just realised) that it’s called ‘6 Underground’. It’s more than just the title that resonates — it’s also the general feel of the track (a sort of soporific shuffling beat) and the lyrics.

There’s a bit of a refrain alternating ‘underground/overground’, which is quite apt but I particularly like the sense of contempt hidden behind a veneer of patience. I especially like the couplet:

‘Don’t think because I understand that I care/Don’t think because we’re talking that we’re friends.’

And I like the nihilsm of:

‘Talk me down, safe and sound/Too strung up to sleep/Wear me out, scream and shout’

The intonation of the singer, who’s now called Kelli Ali, fits in my mind the sort of attitude that I’ve tried to depict in Kim in the extract that I’ve written to send out for my reading when we come back after our Easter holidays on Monday. She’s massively in debt, been betrayed by someone who she thought was her boyfriend, is hungover and has to entertain this City banker type who she thinks feels quite sorry for himself as he’s just been fired — but she needs his money. She’s only really prepared to be as civil to him to start with as is strictly necessary (‘don’t think because we’re talking that we’re friends’) but he disarms her by his childish enthusiasm and honest compliments to the point where he wins her round and actually manages to get her to drop a lot of her front too.

I’m not too sure what I think about what I’ve sent out to the rest of the class overall. It’s 2,600 words (a little over so Alison might shut me up again) and it’s just two people in a confined space in real time from one POV. It sows a lot of backstory and primes the rest of the narrative though, after the initially more dramatic scenes of the first two chapters. (Most of the class haven’t seen these but Alison has — and she’s given me feedback on them so I’m not going to get her to sit through me reading those again.) The reader will find that James is into cooking, that Kim is in a bad state (asthmatic. in debt), that she works in a pub part-time, that James doesn’t find her very attractive (bloodshot eyes, dirty clothes, spotty) — he’s surprised at one point that she has a female shape.

Yet the two of them both want something from the other. James wants some sort of validation and approbation of his appreciation of art and music. Kim wants to keep her head above water professionally and financially: she’s also in a situation from which she could be persuaded to escape.

I found the video for the song on You Tube so here it is. (Note the nose piercing.)

I came across an autobiography of Kelly Ali, the singer in the Sneaker Pimps (at the time of ‘6 Underground’ anyway). It’s quite fascinating and she has the same kind of voice and philosophy that I imagine Kim to have, with a few important differences. Seems the other pimps were posh kids from the north east — one of them and his father were accomplished fine wine tasters and could identify reds from tasting them (more echoes of my writing there, especially from ‘Burying Bad News’.).