Selfie Stick

Selfie Stick, the short story of mine which won through to the first Liars’ League London event of the year is now online in all its formats. Watch the video of Lois Tucker’s excellent reading on YouTube below…

And if you’d rather read the words, the story is now available on the Liars’ League website — here. And there’s a podcast too, which you can also find on the LL website.

The story on the website is the edited version of the story, as close to the performed version as I can remember. One of the great things about having a story read at Liars League is the opportunity to attend the rehearsal in which the actor and also the Liars organisers contribute their thoughts on the story. Everything’s very democratic and the author isn’t obliged to accept any changes but I’ve found that everything that’s been suggested as an edit in my stories has always been for the better. Not that huge alterations are made but it’s an unusual and very valuable opportunity to get a reader’s (or listener’s) perspective on a story.

Seventeen Sizzling Sex SecretsI was very fortunate that Lois was able to read my story. I felt confident that she really understood the tone of the story and the character of Ellie, the narrator and protagonist — she really looked the part too — and even apparently lives not too far from Stoke Newington (watch, read or listen to the story and you’ll understand). It’s a brilliant (and addictive) experience to listen to words that you’ve written hold the attention of an audience and also produce more than the odd laugh and I’m very grateful for Lois’s professional skill in allowing me that privilege.

Speaking of addiction, this is my third Liars League London story and the fifth overall but it’s certainly not a case of everything that I submit to Liars League being selected — far from it. Apart from a lucky streak with my first couple there have been many short stories I’ve sent in that haven’t made the cut. I like to think that’s because I tend to write them at the last minute and may have run out of time to finesse the ones that fell by the wayside but, in truth, it’s probably down to the excellent standard of the stories submitted by other writers.

On the PullI was told that the number of submissions for February’s Clean and Dirty theme was particularly high and, as evidence, the other stories read out on the night were all extremely good. These were:  Coming Clean by Sherry Morris, Zoe versus Zita by Michael Button, Saving Face by Emma O’Brien, Gloves by Elisabeth Simon and The Marriage Inspector by Niall Boyce. They can all be found on the Liars League website and I highly recommend them.

My story was last to be performed on the night and it was unnerving to listen to the stories preceding mine. I was paranoid whether it would hold its own against what the audience had already enjoyed. Hopefully, in no small part due to Lois’s performance, it went down well.

As the venue, the Phoenix in Cavendish Square, was packed out with punters who’d paid for their £5 worth — with literally standing room only — I hoped they’d feel like they’d got their money’s worth at the end of the night. For this sort of event it was a very respectable sized audience. It’s a venue used by many well-known stand-up comedians — the likes of Russell Howard and Holly Walsh were playing the venue at the end of February as part of the Phoenix Phringe.

Another brilliant aspect to having a story read at Liars’ League is the way the Liars promote the performance on social media — both before the reading and afterwards when the videos and website are updated.

I’ve taken a few screenshots of the tweets and Facebook posts that have very inventively promoted my story and, if I can be forgiven indulging myself, I’ve added some into this post.

I particularly like the Tweet below, which I’ll resist repeating in the main post because I don’t want to receive even more spam.

Ear P*rn

As can hopefully be divined by the tone of the tweets, the story is a very post-ironic, tongue-in-cheek description of a couple revitalising their relationship through homage to a particular genre of 1970’s film-making (and making a few nods to its more modern and ubiquitous re-invention). When I started writing the story I asked my Facebook friends for inspiration on the genre (which is euphemistically referred to as featuring ‘soft-focus sex kittens’ in the story — not to be confused with internet cat memes). My friend Jon, who came along to the reading, pointed me in the direction of this classic Grolsch ad Fortunately my timeline didn’t become any more polluted. I have very upstanding friends.

Spice Up Your Sex Life

Despite the tweet above, when I re-read the story I was surprised that despite its depiction of rather graphic situations, the writing itself is not explicit at all — nothing that would remotely interest the Bad Sex Award. Anything lurid is all in the reader’s imagination — and in the case of the performance given an expertly knowing wink from Lois’s reading. As she comments on Facebook…PHWOOOAAAARRR…


Elevator Pitch

As mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been fortunate enough to have another of my short stories selected as a winner by the Liars’ League . Titled Elevator Pitch, it featured in the May event, themed Beginnings and Ends.

Elevator Pitch was the final story to be performed on the night. This will have been due in no small part to the actor, Sarah Feathers’s, tremendously energetic and humorous performance, which I’m sure will have sent the audience homewards with a real buzz.

The video is now available on the Liars’ League website along with the manuscript of the story. I’ve embedded a link to Sarah’s reading below. It lasts just under fifteen minutes. (A podcast is also now available of the whole night’s readings.)

As in March, I went to the rehearsals the weekend before the show, met Sarah and sat in on the read-through. The story involves three characters in a confined space and Sarah did a brilliant job of bringing each character to life, using body language, gestures and facial expressions to complement the dialogue.

It’s an incredible privilege to watch a professional lift your words off the page and voice plausible characters that hold an audience’s attention. It feels like alchemy – and, as mentioned in the post after March’s Liars’ League, it’s an invaluable insight into how writing is interpreted by a reader.

It’s fascinating to discover details that an actor has added into the story on their own initiative before the rehearsal – in this story Sarah had some great views on how to deliver the male character’s voice.

Some of the Liars’ League stories tend to focus on narratorial exposition or one character’s internal voice and this can make them extremely compelling (Birth Plan by Uschi Gatward in the latest event was a good example). However, my story is quite dialogue heavy, with three very different characters and this can be quite challenging for an actor performing a reading – how many different voices (accents, variations of delivery) can be juggled simultaneously in such a short time?

As did Alex Woodhall with his reading of my previous story, Sarah met the challenge brilliantly — each character has an unmistakable and convincing identity. This shouldn’t be surprising as Sarah is one of Liars’ League’s most regular actors and she’s also narrated many popular audiobooks, including the recent, bestselling Philippa Gregory novel, The White Princess.

Katy and Liam, who run the Liars’ League are also very insightful editors and directors: with their help the story also evolved considerably during the rehearsal – and afterwards. Its many contemporary references – mainly movie actors’ names – were batted around with alternative suggestions offered, even by email on the day of the performance itself.

We found it most difficult to settle on the heroine in Isabel’s pitch: a kick-ass, British submarine commander – you’ll need to watch or read the story before this makes much sense)

After going through countless others, we settled on Kate Winslet. There was something a little surreal — and metafictional — about how we ended up casting an imaginary lead role for a piece of fiction within a piece of fiction that itself was concerned with casting movie stars. Weird – but it didn’t raise any Sunset Boulevard mogul ambitions in me (although I wouldn’t mind living out in Santa Barbara again – the place where I was trained in screenwriting by a genuine Hollywood old-timer).

The story appeared to go down well with the audience – Sarah promptedlots of laughs (in the right places) from the audience, which included my friend Fay again plus ex-City University coursemates, Guy and Sue and Alison Burns, who ran the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio) at the time Sue, Guy and myself took the course.

The night went far too quickly and it was fantastic to see everyone – and to meet Jim Cogan – whose excellent and poignant story The Memory Man preceded Elevator Pitch. In fact, all the stories were entertaining and captivating and would repay anyone’s time watching, listening or reading them on the website or podcast.

I feel very lucky to have had two stories chosen recently (the selection is done anonymously, by the way) and the quality of the writing on the evening shows how difficult is the Liars task every month — picking from what obviously seems to be a sea of excellent submissions. It’s no wonder the event was recently voted one of the UK’s Top Ten Storytelling Nights by The Guardian.

The Liars’ League Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strictly No Sex Please in the British Literary Novel?

After the Facebook campaign that led Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ to be involuntarily moved within bookshops to the war or crime sections, there’s much excitement that a passage from the book has been urged for short-listing in the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’.  (Technically it isn’t eligible as it’s not fiction, but the organisers may alter the rules to include it.)

This was mentioned in an article by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian’s book section yesterday in which she advanced the argument (and also voiced some opposing views) that the modern British novel now shies away from anything like explicit descriptions of sex. This probably applies to a certain more literary strata of novels as the article cited the Man Booker Shortlist — there’s plenty of racy action still to be found in other genres of novel, as I found when skimming through a Freya North sort-of-chick-lit book recently.

Andrew Motion was quoted, apparently semi-facetiously, as saying that perhaps authors were scared of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award and the Literary Review’s entry on Wikipedia lists many previous winners as stars of the literary firmament: Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer — and John Updike got a lifetime achievement award.

I wonder if all the people who would wish Tony Blair to join this company realise that the Bad Sex Award was invented by Auberon Waugh — whose conservative views were so detested by Polly Toynbee that she wrote a hostile article about Waugh three days after his death. (I would guess Waugh would also have detested the Blair government but for different reasons than most critics of ‘A Journey’.)

The article also had a very interesting Martin Amis quotation which, perhaps, sums up why many people (like me) find his technical ability to be sometimes quite spellbinding but are unmoved, or even repelled in some way, by the tone and attitude of his novels. He’s reported as saying at a literary festival ‘it’s “impossible” for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. “Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal,”‘ [he added later]'”It’s not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.’

I can see his argument — that he can write about sex in an ironically, pseudo-pornographic way because the formulaic narrative of most porn is something that is widely, perhaps not universally, recognised. But that seems to suggest a specific intent for a novel — that it exists to provide an ironic, maybe subversive, commentary on society’s mores or literature and other art forms themselves.

I think that’s a valid purpose for a novel, at least in part, but it appears to ignore one of the key differentiators about fiction as opposed to many other art forms. A novel is an entirely personal dialogue between an author and reader. It’s unlike more social forms of storytelling, like plays, films and television — which also provide visual and auditory representations. The personal nature of this dialogue also makes me query whether a public reading of a part of a novel can ever properly represent private, individual readings of a novel — apart from being influenced by irrelevancies like the reader’s public speaking skills, the audience reaction will influence one’s perception of the words and, unlike the private reading experience, one can’t pause to reflect, re-read a sentence and so on.

It seems the form’s ability to connect directly at a one-to-one level gives a novel’s author a unique opportunity to explore the personal rather than the universal. A novel can give its characters experiences that are beyond the knowledge of most, if not all, readers but by building connections between the personal and universal can create understanding and empathy for the most extraordinary characters and scenarios.

Therefore, because emotional experience is often the most personal and, often, least rational of human nature, I would think this is where the novel can explore in a way that is more intense and more insightful than other narrative forms. And there’s nothing that illuminates characters’  most inner emotions than their sexual motivations, attractions and behaviour.

The Guardian article suggests that it might not be the sniggering-behind-the-bike-sheds tone of the Bad Sex Award that’s preventing the literary authors from writing about sexual relationships but because it’s actually very hard to do. ‘But plenty of authors share the view that writing about sex is difficult, and presents particular challenges – and that sex that might be described as ordinary, or even enjoyable, is hardest of all.’  Hilary Mantel says ‘In good sex the individual personality kind of gets lost, people transcend themselves in a way. In bad sex people become hyper-aware of their bodies, the isolation of their bodies, of shame and humiliation.’

Of course, everything depends on the context but, if there’s a traditional ‘romantic’ narrative where two characters are attracted to each other and have a good and satisfying sexual experience I’d argue it’s as necessary to show this (principally as character development) as it would be to describe some sterile or comical failure — although the latter has more potential for dramatic conflict.

On how graphic a writer wants to make their depiction of sex, I think that all depends on the situation, the characters, the tone of the book (is it inclined towards metaphor and imagery), narrative viewpoint  (how would he/she/they/it view the scene?). I’m reminded of Graeme A. Thomson’s interpretation of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (see previous post) for how a male and female point-of-view might retell the same sexual experience.

In many cases novels probably work well enough to take the Hilary Mantel and Andrew Motion view that readers can do a bit of work and use their imagination — using hints and implications and ‘closing the bedroom door’. However, if interpreted as writing advice, it seems something of a cop-out. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can only be witnessed, by definition, behind the privacy of the bedroom door — characters may act in a completely different, surprising and uninhibited way. This might not always be relevant to the later narrative but it could be — many an otherwise odd coupling might be held together by what goes on in the bedroom and, conversely, it might doom ostensibly compatible pairings.

The biggest argument against writing explictly about sex is perhaps the range of language available. Colm Toibin is quoted in the article as saying: ‘If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader’s irony will come to the fore.’  So if similes and metaphors are out and you also exclude the sort of vocabulary that would remind you of a doctor’s surgery, you’re left with not many words left — and if you avoid the Anglo-Saxon then there’s even less.

Toibin praises Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ as the ‘perfect example. “There isn’t one single piece of language that describes anything other than what occurred.”‘ However, I know from discussing this book personally that it’s exactly that clinical tone to the prose that has made some readers detest that final section of the book — as it’s a story of sexual failure and miscommunication perhaps the language is appropriate but it’s not, in Hilary Mantel’s words, about people ‘transcending themselves’.

Oddly enough, while literary authors are (if you accept this article’s argument) backing away from the representation of sex and some concluding it’s perhaps impossible to do properly, BBC1 is now presenting an hour and a half of some of the most sexualised entertainment for Saturday tea-time viewing.

While the likes of Anne Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are about as asexual as one can imagine, some of the more accomplished dance partnerships move in a way that might cause some of the literary novelists to shy away — ‘he put his hand on her what?’ and so on. I’m no expert of the various dances but clearly many have highly eroticised Latin roots. Many of these dances, with their close physical contact and outfits that are more bare skin than material, are actually transcendent representations of people having the sort of good, enjoyable sex (with hints occasionally of some less wholesome variations) that Mantel and Motion believe is difficult for the novelist to represent.

I know a number of writers who enjoy dancing — either something like Tango or other types as well as getting into ‘Strictly’ — so I think there’s something quite deep-seated in this between dancing and uninhibited self-expression.  It’s also interesting that so few professionals on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ are British (less than a third, I think, with the rest being Italian, Australian, Russian, American and Eastern European’) — perhaps the Guardian article’s concerns are very specific to the British novelist — it does seem that one might learn more about genuine sexual attraction by watching Bruce Forsyth’s programme than reading the Man Booker shortlist.

Poetry Reading Today

Don’t forget, anyone who happens to be near High Wycombe this lunchtime, that I’m going to be reading six poems (of my own) at the Metroland Poets reading at the Oak Room in the Swan Theatre at 1pm. Free entry too — what a bargain.

Then I shall dissipate the after-performance stress with a poetry installation tour of the hostelries of Wycombe with my friend Jon — all in the name of research for my pub-based novel, of course.

‘A Beginning, A Muddle and An End’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It Worth It?

Just on the way back from our group’s reading event which was at a lovely venue — the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury.

I enjoyed the night as a social event but it feels rather like work for me as I stepped into the breach as temporary webmaster and spent ages knocking up a website for the reading (the time taken representing my competence at web design rather than the sophistication of the task itself) and also supplying all the drinks. The latter was a particularly stupid thing for me to volunteer to do in retrospect as it’s going to involve two three and a half hour round trips into London (one tomorrow to clear the stuff out of the venue as we only drunk about half of the wine). So I’m completely mentally and physically burned out now.

Overall,  I think the practice of reading aloud in a social venue like that is great but, I wonder if the preparation for the event has taken such a large part of the end of the course it’s in danger of becoming almost like the opposite of a novel writing course — more like flash fiction where people are encouraged to hone the 600 words or so that might catch an agent’s ear. I think I’d rather end up with several thousand words of reasonably good prose than having spent nine months working on a few hundred – but perhaps I have it all wrong?

A Great Scene for My Novel Happens in 45 Minutes?

I wonder whether today might be an occasion I could use in my novel — pubs should be doing well out of this great weather and the World Cup. 45 minutes to go until England play Germany — that would be a great event to have Kim reflect on English attitudes to the Germans. What would she make of the papers or the massive build up to what’s just a second round game — and exiting it would mean a pretty disastrous World Cup for either side.

I’ve been e-mailing my German friends in the build up — wishing Germany luck but not as much luck as for England. I’m also wearing my new England away strip (the red one) that I’ve worn quite incongruously to a couple of classes at City. I turned up after watching England v Slovenia on Wednesday in the Freemason’s Arms, Covent Garden (where the rules of football were first written down). I was about 6 pints worse for wear and that might have been why my reading rehearsal was rather slow.

I’m also really pushed for time with the end of the month coming up — notably our reading night on Wednesday. I’ve made things worse for myself by volunteering to create a website for the evening — something that took me most of yesterday to do.

Lots of things I need to blog about but haven’t done so far and may not do until the end of the week:

  • A bit of agent reaction to the first few pages of The Angel
  • The antidotes I’ve experienced to the angst that has featured in a few recent posts
  • A write up of Penny Rudge’s visit from a couple of weeks ago (we’ve exchanged a few comments via Facebook in the meantime)
  • The experience of using this blog as the basis for my end of term commentary assignment
  • And much more…

Watch this space…but now it’s time for the football. Come on England — and we’re owed something special from The Big Man and Fat Frank.

Word of the Week…

…from Monday’s workshop and Wednesday’s reading run through is ‘rippling’. I used it right at the end of my reading and it was used to great effect by Rick in his workshopped chapter and by Charlotte in her reading.

I’m wondering what might happen on Wednesday’s run through as it comes on the same day as England’s match against Slovenia — which is ‘must win’ and I shall be in London early in a pub (not sure where) to watch it.

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.

My Reading Problem Solved

We had a run through of our readings in Wednesday evening’s class. I’m currently second on the bill so was one of the first to get up and read. I chose what I think will be the eventual opening of the book — the firing scene. This is a lively scene but difficult to read as it has three characters and some narration — to do it proper justice I need to read in four slightly different registers. I have a cunning plan to try and help me with this BUT I got some extra inspiration from one of the contestants on last night’s Britain’s Got Talent.

He’s Mark James from Barnoldswick and performed a duet from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in the auditions — where he had a costume split down the middle — one female side and one male. He stood facing different directions when singing the appropriate part! Complete rubbish — and even worse when last night he did Elton John and Kiki Dee which was a much more interchangeable duet so he was forever spinning round. (I was a bit gutted the extraordinarily talented pole dancer went out tonight.)

But — maybe that’s my solution — perhaps I dress in some sort of split female (for Kate the HR woman) costume on one side and a male costume for James and his boss Will (Will is balding so maybe when I’m James I can put a wig on or something)? Then perhaps for the narration I take the mic and hide behind the lectern — very omniscient.

I’m sure all the literary agents would remember that sort of performance?

Emily was ill, which was bad luck for me as I had a tutorial scheduled with her to discuss chapter 5 and other stuff. However, Emma Sweeney was a very capable replacement — she teaches at various places like Cambridge University and New York University (London campus) — a bit more exotic a version of our curiously named Bedford University Buckinghamshire campus that does nursing teaching, presumably for Stoke Mandeville (see below). To digress even further when I Googled her name, I found a syllabus for a course that someone called Emma Sweeney teaches, or has taught, (could be a different person but it’s not so important as the following goes on to say I found a good idea) at a U.S. university that  includes a module on ‘sex and the body’ — a potentially awkward subject that I’d guess causes writers more anxiety than anything else and I’m really wondering whether I should make myself write something similar for my last workshop reading. It might be difficult but it would be a good learning experience.

Mind you I say that as someone’s whose writing always seems to veer towards the smutty — to the extent that other students like to insist I mention that one of my male characters is ‘sex mad’.

Visit from Judith Murray

One of London’s leading literary agents, Judith Murray from Greene and Heaton paid our group a visit on Wednesday night. She has a number notable authors on her list, perhaps the best known being Sarah Waters.

Judith mentioned at one point that the part of the role of an agent was to be an author’s advisor and advocate — and she spoke with such enthusiasm and showed such huge knowledge of the publishing business that it wasn’t hard to imagine the excellent job she would perform looking after her clients. I’d be tempted to say the authors on her list are a lucky bunch but that would belie the huge amount of effort that we learned is involved from both writer and agent before Judith represents a writer.

That said, sometimes there has been an element of serendipity in the way that Judith has come across authors — Sarah Waters had been sending off her manuscripts to publishers’ slush piles without success until she mentioned in passing to her neighbour that she was looking for a publisher — the neighbour happened to be a colleague of Judith’s at the time who suggested that Sarah sent the book to Judith — and it all went from there. Apparently the first few chapters of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ were published virtually unchanged from how they’d appeared in the first manuscript — requiring next to no editing. That the novel went on to great success makes a couple of related points: firstly, the opening pages of ‘Tipping the Velvet’  must have languished unnoticed on various publishers’ slush piles; secondly, the later success of both novel and author show the value of an agent who is passionate about the work.

This need for the professionals in publishing to be passionate about a novel was also emphasised by our visitor last week, Francesca Main. Judith receives about  20-25 unsolicited submissions a day — and she reads them all — but is likely take on a smaller number of authors than that in a whole year — less than half a percent.

Clearly, to have a chance of making it into that small number of acceptances, the novel will need to immediately engage her interest. Moreover, she reads the submissions from a necessarily commercial angle — if she can’t immediately think of three or four editors (out of the large number she knows) who would also be interested in that type of novel then it would be uneconomic to progress any further. The book might be a great piece of work but if there’s no market for it then it’s a tough fact of life.

Judith was candid enough to admit that she has passes over books that have later gone on to be published with success — she turned down at least one novel that went on to win a literary prize. However, that book that wasn’t to her personal taste and an agent really has to love a writer’s work for the relationship to be a success.

As we find with our own readings in the class, everyone has different literary preferences, and being rejected by an agent is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the work. Writers need to develop a thick skin to cope with rejection — a quality that might count as much as many facets of literary ability but, given how novel writing is often so bound up with one’s own personality, then such persistence and self-belief are probably some of the most difficult personal qualities that writers need to develop.

Judith’s tastes, incidentally, tend towards good literary writing — but of the sort that has a strong narrative and engaging characters. She’s not a fan of intentionally self-conscious, experimental writing, which she enjoys intellectually but she says there are other agents who specialise in such genres.

As Francesca mentioned the previous weeks, Judith also re-inforced the tough conditions in the publishing market at the moment — since September 2008 publishers have become much more risk adverse and have erred on the side of safe bets — principally established authors with a good sales track record or the amazingly talented and disciplined celebrity novelists who somehow manage to dash off a novel while appearing in their soap operas or reality TV series. That said, Greene and Heaton had a particularly good year in 2009.

Nevertheless, the market is very tough and publishers won’t invest in a new author unless they’re confident that booksellers will promote it — the 3 for 2 table at Waterstone’s or its equivalent in Amazon. And the publishers are expected to contribute to those promotion so there goes any hope of an advertising budget.

The need to drum up interest in a new author in these straitened times also explains the long lead time often experienced by a novel from a new writer. Any promising work that lands on Judith’s desk now might not be published until early 2012. This is because the publishers will try to create a ‘buzz’ about the author — try to get good word of mouth recommendation, or endorsement by influential bloggers, solicit favourable reviews and so on. There’s a lot of work goes on to attract interest and raise the novel’s profile — and often the author’s personality can make a big contribution to this effort (again, it’s becoming less of a world for shrinking violets).  Literary prizes are particularly important in boosting reputations.

Bearing in mind the long lead time, I asked a question about whether contemporaneously-set novels might be seen to date very quickly. Mine is set around now, or maybe in the last year, but would an agent think that in 2012 or 2013 that readers would think ‘Oh that’s so 2009’? On the other hand historical novels wouldn’t have that issue. The answer was not to worry — the main criterion is the quality of the writing by far.

All the work an agent does for an author was comprehensively outlined — including many aspects that most of us have hardly given a thought to, such as foreign rights. Essentially the agent is the author’s first professional reader and, as such, a good agent can use experience and contacts to guide an author right the way through the publishing process. An agent will offer sound advice throughout a writer’s career – and, given the investment in development of a new author, agents are interested in writers who offer the prospect of a long career (I hope that doesn’t mean that if you’re over 30 you’ve got no chance — let alone over 40).

One thing that authors in our position can’t expect, though, is a large amount of editorial intervention. While Judith really enjoys the process of working with an author to identify what might need to be improved in a novel, time-management pressures mean that she can’t help to substantially rewrite a novel. The writing has to be good in the first place. If it’s not then an agent won’t have the resources to turn prose that’s just OK into something better.

One piece of very useful advice, therefore, is don’t send work out to agents before it’s ready. The novel should be ‘good to go’ before it goes before an agent’s eyes. An agent generally won’t be able to give detailed feedback on novels that are rejected so it would be futile to send a first draft out and expect it to be returned with lots of detailed annotations on how it might be made better. Instead you’ll get a rejection but you’re not likely to know whether it was because the book as a concept was not commercial or because it was just sloppily written. At least if an author sends the best, most complete version of a novel then the chances of it being rejected on pure quality grounds are much reduced.

Similarly, there’s not much point sending in the first three chapters and a synopsis if the novel’s not complete. The agent might love it but won’t sign you up until he or she has read the whole novel — an agent needs to know if the writing can be sustained and developed over the course of a longer work.  We might get some useful encouragement but no deal until the book’s completed. That said, Judith is very enthusiastic about spotting new talent and supports events such as our course reading evening and she encouraged us all to contact her with our work.

So how to contact an agent? The covering letter is important and is the first thing that is read. The quality of the letter will say a lot about the quality of the submitted novel. It should be concise — but should give an idea of what the novel is — just something like ‘thriller’ will often be sufficient. Information about the author is important — and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of writing courses such as ours — saying you’ve written the novel during the City University Novel Writing Certificate course will definitely make an agent take the submission a lot more seriously. Judith will then read the first part of the novel and only if she’s interested will she then read the synopsis — any decision will be made primarily on the writing itself.

So many writers don’t do research on which agents to contact — and the result is that much effort is wasted when agents receive work in unsuitable genres and the like. So how do you find an agent who will love your work? Apart from the Writers and Artists Yearbook, one clever trick is to find a book by an author whose work is similar to your own and then look in the acknowledgement pages — so long as the relationship hasn’t exploded there should be some thanks given by the author to an agent.

Or you could sign up to the City University course and have a few of them come along to listen to you giving a personal reading of your work — more scary than putting an envelope in the post but, fingers crossed, more effective: Judith represents Kirstan Hawkins, a course alumnus, who spoke to us last term after the reading event a couple of years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rick from the course had a look at some of the first chapters of The Angel. He made quite an interesting suggestion regarding the selection for the reading event that’s had me thinking.

At the moment I have an opening with the two principal characters facing up to some life-changing events but James’ scene is the one that is most dynamic — we  see him getting fired — but there’s not so much action in Kim’s scene — she wakes up feeling crap and sends and receives a text message. I’m quite happy with writing a scene in which so little action happens but I’m now having doubts if that should be the opening.

We were talking about openings on the way back to the tube station on Wednesday in relation to the piece we should select for the reading and the consensus was that your opening should be the best part of your novel — to grab the reader (and commissioning editor/agent, etc.) — and that the best part of your novel should obviously be what you read out at our event.

Rick suggested it might be worth writing the events that cause Kim’s evident grief at the start of the novel as a counterpoint to the James scenes.

I noted that Bren Gosling had written a prologue to his novel which he read out for our feedback on Wednesday, which received positively, and which he intends to read at the event at the end of June.

So I’m seriously thinking of writing my own prologue which captures Kim’s source of dissatisfaction at the start of the novel. I know in my mind exactly what happens but it will be something of a challenge to distill this down into the 600 words that I’ve timed myself as being able to deliver in our allocated four minutes. One major problem is that I don’t have much use (at the moment) in the rest of the novel for the character that precipitates Kim’s distress — and if I read this out then it may raise expectations that he will be a major character.

The obvious answer to my dilemma is to write it and then see how it turns out. However, time is at a premium at this time of year — with the election intrigue, running five miles in Marlow plus planting a bunch of beetroot, lettuce, celery, cabbage and spring onions earlier today.

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.


There’s another story on the BBC website about the benefits of the ‘cuddle hormone’ — oxytocin. I referred to James’ view that human attraction was based on a whole mix of chemicals in the reading I did before Easter — and there was a quite a lot of feedback on whether the various things I’d referred to were hormones or not.

The story had links to an old web page from 2006 which caught my attention because it promoted something that was guaranteed to prevent fear of public speaking — which would be very handy for our reading evening on 30th June. It was titled ‘Sex “cuts public speaking stress”‘. It goes on to say ‘Forget learning lines or polishing jokes – having sex may be the best way to prepare for giving a speech. New Scientist magazine reports that Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley, found having sex can help keep stress at bay.  However, only penetrative intercourse did the trick – other forms of sex had no impact on stress levels at all.’ It’s all to do with something called the vagal nerve, as well as oxytocin apparently. (Maybe James can do some reading up on it?)

It doesn’t say how far in advance of the speech you have to engage in this therapy to make it most effective, though.

My Penultimate Workshop Reading

I read out my Chapter Three at our first evening workshop last night. I’d actually forgotten many of my misgivings about the piece and now I wish I’d ploughed ahead more over Easter and been able to submit the next chapter — which will move fast from place-to-place and start to build a bit of intimacy between James and Kim.

The first two chapters were comparatively much faster paced and had a lot more action as well. However, it seemed to be necessary to use the third chapter to slow the pace to seed a lot of plot elements and themes: Kim was given more reasons to get away (health, debts), it established James liking of cooking and explained why Kim would be a good person to try and get to run a pub. I also tried to dampen the reader’s expectations of a possible romantic involvement between the two in the next chapters.

I was concerned that I might have been accused of homophobic stereotyping as I added at a late stage an idea that James might think Kim was a lesbian, based on the ‘a little knowledge’ principle. I actually did quite a bit of research on body piercing (which James had supposedly read about in Time Out) and one person wrote on the script — ‘like a Prince Albert’. Obviously Kim wouldn’t have one of these (click if you want your eyes to water like James’ did) but she may have slightly less spectacular piercings. (I did once know someone who had a Prince Albert.) There was a discussion about whether James would be quite so ignorant of gay culture as perhaps he came over but no-one objected to sowing this seed of doubt in his mind as a plot device, which was a relief. I’m still not sure whether I’ll continue with it but my objective is to have them both bond together without cranking up the sexual aspect.

I took the attitude that if I sent out a piece of 2,600 words that was basically just two characters in a confined space then I’d be doing well just to sustain people’s interest to the end.

I deliberated about sending out one of the first two chapters, which had both come back from Alison with positive feedback, but I thought that might have the effect of both wasting her time by going over familiar work and it would also perhaps be fishing for compliments on work I knew she generally liked.

Maybe I should have done this as, in the event, I felt I got quite a negative reaction to this new piece from Alison. I think her comments were generally fair in that the piece was probably too long to sustain pace and that Kim’s voice didn’t come over as distinctly German — I was a bit annoyed with myself that at a late stage I’d cut and pasted a bit of Kim speaking German (translating musical chairs) out of the extract it  to use in the next chapter. However, at least one person had picked up on parts of the dialogue where she is struggling to find the correct vocabulary and the speech patterns of young Germans who are fluent in English are not actually that different to many native speakers — they’re quite close to American English.

So I think the way that I’d read out the extract probably did no justice to any subtleties in the dialogue.  And I’m not much good at reading aloud anyway so me rushing it must have been really bad — and I was hampered a bit by wearing contact lenses that are not good for reading close up — at times I was struggling to read my 12 point Times New Roman, even though I’d written it myself!

Paradoxically the pace would probably have come over better if I’d have added in some dramatic pauses and the like. On the other hand, I was quite struck by the number of comments, both written and spoken, that said they’d read through it quickly and easily and thought it had a good pace but then seemed to have second thoughts on hearing it read out.

I’m not sure it’s going to help people write novels, though, if we get encouraged to write prose that sounds better read out loud than on the page — you could understand that with poetry or drama. I’m a bit perplexed by that aspect of the course — it’s not much good for someone writing prose fiction if someone says ‘now I’ve heard you read it out then it seems better’ as the ordinary reader will never hear it read, they just have to go with what’s on the page. Perhaps it’s to prepare us for the reading event at the end of the course?

An average reader isn’t going to read the prose three times over in order to fully appreciate it or have the experience of the dialogue being brought to life by a lively authorial reading. That’s why I find the written comments enormously useful as they generally tend to be more individual observations. I find we don’t really get long enough to hear others’ comments and my tactic is to hear people out and listen as much as possible, although I was dying to say ‘yes, but wait for the next bit’ or ‘that was explained in the chapter before’ a few times.

I respect everyone’s opinions, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything. I think I was quite loose with the use of adverbs in some parts of the extract but I’m not sure that a zero tolerance policy towards them is entirely necessary — sometimes they can be used very effectively in the free indirect style to establish a character’s POV.  I think perhaps I have a prose style which makes the odd bit of ornamentation stand out.

One point I was very pleased about was that the rest of the students were very divided about James. One or two people loathed him with a passion while others thought he was potentially quite nice. Some thought him a blundering clown and others a straight banker. This shows that he’s got contradictions and people seem to be reacting to him like a real person. Also, a lot of that chapter was very close to his point-of-view and some objected to him looking at Kim supposedly as a sexual object and how dare he make judgements over her appearance — but this is all going on in his mind. Unless he’s being very unsubtle in his observations, she isn’t going to know any of this unless he cares to tell her. The controversy is such that I even got an e-mail of support from someone the day afterwards in support of him.

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’.).

End of a (Mini) Era

Ayla's Cafe
Ayla's Cafe, Exmouth Market

We had our last Saturday workshop of the course at the weekend — forever! We’d even got into a little routine — the people who weren’t having lunchtime tutorials would go to Ayla’s Cafe (pictured) in trendy Exmouth Market (though not so trendy at midday on a rainy Saturday) and have a ‘hale and harty’ (sic) or ‘award winning’ breakfast or omelette. The problem was with up to a dozen of us ordering at once, they often didn’t bring serve the food until about fifteen minutes before we were due back. I had a tutorial so I ordered a tuna sandwich on Saturday but still had to grab it from the counter and eat it on the way back to the university.

We still do the same style reading and feedback in Alison’s classes next term but on Monday evenings — and so no scope to go for a greasy breakfast — maybe the pub afterwards but that doesn’t tend to get so many of us along.

With just one Wednesday evening session to come this week before the Easter holidays, it emphasises that the course is two thirds over. Because of the Bank Holidays in May our Monday sessions are rescheduled into an eleventh week next term but in three months and a week or so the whole thing will be over and we’ll be on our own. (Actually it’s one of my hopes that, as the Kirstan Hawkins session informed us, that people on the course will carry on keeping in touch and encouraging each other and reviewing each others’ work but that remains to be seen.)

A Less Fraught Workshop?

Yesterday was the fourth of our five Saturday ‘workshops’ (I rather agree with Alexei Sayle’s famous quotation about the word — that anyone who uses it ‘without referring to light engineering is a tw*t’). As things worked out it was the first time that I wasn’t doing a reading. (We got a chance to sign up for our readings and tutorials next term. I made sure I didn’t do consecutive reading this time, although I only get two goes.)

This meant I had seven pieces to read and make comments on in advance — which takes a surprisingly long time. What also took quite a long time was the workshop itself. We over-ran by nearly an hour which was ironic as Alison asked us all to be brief and succinct in our comments. (I’m getting a little paranoid that whenever a reminder is given about concise comments it invariably seems to come just before I speak even though I’m pretty convinced that I’m not one of the worst culprits in ploughing through every single annotation they’ve made on the script.) She also didn’t stop anyone reading their piece in the middle unlike last time when Michael B was cut off in mid-flow and I sabotaged myself my making it clear when about three quarters through that I was moving to a new scene which was completely different. I’m still a bit piqued by being stopped from reading (I’d only got to 1,750 words) and it must have made the subsequent discussion a bit incomprehensible to Alison herself as there were as many comments from everyone else about the bit that wasn’t read out as the stuff that was. Maybe this was why everyone was allowed their full allocation this time, although I thought it was a little unfair on Guy that he had to read after a few people had to leave for other commitments. It’s a good job his piece was so accomplished — and funny.

Hopefully my comments will have been of some use to the people who did the readings but I had the opportunity to think of what I got out of the session myself. It’s interesting to compare the development of others’ novels compared to my own. There were a couple of people whose work didn’t really give me much scope for offering feedback — not only was it generally very good and polished (revealing the work that had gone into it) but it was also consistent with what they’d produced previously. The feedback is really — ‘it’s very good, please carry on and do more like this’.  There are also cases where I’m not sure soliciting feedback from the whole group is particularly useful for the writer because of it may be in a style that is not to everyone’s taste and one or two people, with the best of intentions, like to offer suggestions to the writer of how that piece of work could be transformed into something the person giving the feedback would prefer to read. This can be a bit destructive if the writer has the whole novel planned out and is writing the start of the novel in a particular way for a specific reason that is yet to be revealed. I’m reminded of the Thomas Hardy novel  — ‘Return of the Native’ I think — which spends a whole chapter at the beginning describing the landscape of Egdon Heath. Imagine if he brought that into his creative writing workshop — ‘The setting is great but I think you’re lacking a bit of characterisation’, ‘what would work for me personally is a bit more plot’.

There are also some works-in-progress that seem to make most use of the workshop by bringing in experimental and less well-developed pieces that invite opinions from everyone else because the writer hasn’t fully decided in which direction to go. I may be a bit guilty of wanting to shape other works to my own preferences with some of my comments but there were a couple that I thought — ‘yes, this could be really, really good if only the writer put a bit more x,y or z into it’.

A few of us had an interesting discussion over lunch about sex scenes. I’m a little surprised that we’ve not had anything more explicit in our workshops. My description of James’ imaginings of Emma’s naked (upper) body probably lead the field jointly with Nicole’s excellent Gypsy girl seduction scene, which I thought was great. Jennifer has also put in a couple of honourable mentions with Connie standing starkers on the balcony and Peter greedily ogling the doctor’s receptionist. This might be something to do with us having to read the material out loud. However, I know this is an area that I’d probably have substantial difficulty with in my own novels — and I’ve put off writing them. I have plenty of ideas about what I might imagine writing but it’s really an area that, if I’m honest, I would benefit hugely from having some frank feedback about. Some genres aren’t going to go into this territory but most modern novels will deal with relationships and readers are going to expect the author not to shy away from sex scenes and discussions if the characterisation and plot seem to suggest that’s where the novel should be heading. I think I may have to pluck up the courage to bring something like that to one of my two remaining readings as I’ll either get some valuable feedback or have my confidence boosted in having made a reasonable job of it (hopefully).