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.

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.

My Other Magnum Opus

Apart from the two novels in progress I’ve also authored a more prosaic volume over the past fifteen months or so. And — spit on me now — I’ve decided to self-publish it. I don’t have much capital so it’s only a print run of two — but it’s available in both hardback and softback binding (see photo below).

My MSc Dissertation
Available in Both Hardback and Softback -- My MSc Dissertation

At 17,000 words (not including appendices) it’s a slightly shorter read than the creative works in progress but at least it is finished, although it’s not yet been marked.

For anyone who’s interested in the title it’s:

IT Governance Design: An Application of Problem Oriented Engineering to Enterprise Architecture, TOGAF and SOA Development

When I did the literature search I didn’t find much other work in this general field and my supervisor has raised the possibility of presenting my findings as an academic paper at a conference in Barcelona in the autumn — and now they’re suggesting I consider carrying on my study with a PhD. If this is a hint that my dissertation has earned me a pass then I’m on course to end up by 2013 with three Master’s degrees — an MBA, this MSc and an MA in Creative Writing (although there’s a long way to go with that one yet). Continuing studying seems a bit like overkill but they say learning is lifelong these days — and maybe it will entitle me still to a discounted subscription to The Economist — so there may be some plus points.

The printing and binding process does show how relatively simple it is now to get work into print — I found a specialist thesis printer online and submitted a pdf through their website — although the economics aren’t very good for short-runs — it cost me a lot more than a typical Amazon purchase. Maybe I should produce a Kindle version?

There are some interesting comparisons between the MSc dissertation and creative writing. Enterprise Architecture, the specialist area of IT that I concentrated on, is all about being able to sift through the detail of business process and IT systems and then to arrive at an abstracted, high-level view of the ‘big-picture’ of how everything connects and interacts (if, indeed, it does). It seems a relatively simple discipline but, the literature and evidence suggests, that not many people are able to do it — it’s all about pattern recognition.

In many ways a novel writer needs similar skills — to sustain plot, theme, consistent characters that interact together and so on — but a novel is harder because all the underlying structure is then hidden again under descriptions and dialogue (assuming that the author approaches it in anything like a methodical way).

I was also lucky with my dissertation as I had a lot of guidance from my supervisor and my specialist advisor. My supervisor was a very conscientious and dedicated Italian woman whose fluent but distinctive way of speaking English has helped me along with Kim’s dialogue. (One thing I’ve learned from having had conversations in English with probably hundreds of Germans and other Europeans is that there really isn’t much that marks out a fluent English second language speaker from a native English speaker — except that the second language speaker is usually more precise.) If you have a good supervisor as a mentor and follow their instructions and put the work in then you’ll probably do OK in a dissertation. The same can’t be said for a novel, which is a far more risky and speculative undertaking.

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.

One Day

‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.

I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.

One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)

These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).

I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.

The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.

Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.

Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.

Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.

Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.

Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.

Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.

I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.

Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.

Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.

It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.

I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.

‘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.

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’.

‘Is It Any Good?’

I would guess anyone who doesn’t ask themselves this during the course of writing a novel is not going to produce a very good one.

What’s probably not such a good idea is to include this angst in comments accompanying a chapter sent to a tutor for a tutorial. Asking ‘Is it any good?’ really means ‘tell me lots of nice things about it please to boost my writing ego’. So when I didn’t immediately get that response from Emily my reaction was ‘She must think it’s rubbish’. The tutorial in question has been an odd, long-drawn out affair as it couldn’t take place in person due to illness and we exchanged e-mails instead (Emily now being on maternity leave). I also talked about the issues with Alison last night in person.

There were lots of things that Emily didn’t like in the extract I’d sent — plausibility issues about James’ behaviour, not really seeing into what motivated the characters and so on. In some ways it’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that she said she thought I needed to know my characters better — but the best way for me to do that is to write more and to live with them, which is more difficult to do if your motivation is ebbing away partly because a tutor has said you need to know your characters better.  I think I do know my characters pretty well but perhaps they hadn’t come over that well for a couple of reasons. One is stylistic — I do tend to write much more from an exterior perspective than interior so I only infrequently inhabit the characters’ innermost thoughts. The second is the structure of the novel which starts with two people flung together in crisis and then develops from there. There’s a huge amount of back story that comes with both the two main characters and I’m finding it very laborious to drip feed into the first chapters. I’ve done about 15,000 words and they’ve not really found out much about each others’ backgrounds. I’m tempted to just write a couple of scenes from the past and show them in flashback and be done with it.

On Saturday night I got pretty downhearted — not because I thought the novel was no good — but because I thought I might need to totally overhaul the way it was written. I considered crawling into a hole and not bothering to emerge until after our end of course reading. However, once I’d mulled over the feedback I found it quite inspiring in a way. This is because Emily seems to have high ambitions for the story and characters — possibly higher than my own. Once I’ve got to the heart of the dilemmas and decisions facing both characters then the novel could say an awful lot that is relevant to readers in the modern world. I do think I have thought this through in my head in terms of concepts but it perhaps has to translate to the characters. It was suggested that I place my novel in the bitter-sweet human relationship genre defined by Anne Tyler’s novels. I was flattered that it was thought I operate in that difficult genre myself.

I’m also probably guilty of treating my characters as tools to be pushed around to achieve my own ends in terms of writing. For example, I thought it would be a good scene for James to turn up to see Emma at work to tell her he’s been fired (she won’t answer her phone). I had him bring Kim along principally because I wanted to write a bit of Emma, Kim and James having an argument, which is something I enjoyed doing — lots of conflict and dialogue. However, in reality, even if James had gone to break the news to his wife in a five-star hotel then he would have left Kim in the lobby while he did it.

It seems I’m in a very uncomfortable position but one that is really of quite profound significance as getting this feedback shows that I’ve created characters who demand my respect — it’s their story now and I have to let them get on with it. I can’t force a situation on them just because I want to write it. This is really odd. I’ve seen many authors describe this process but even so, it’s quite disconcerting. This perhaps re-inforces the strong views that have been expressed after my readings on the way the characters have come over.

There were also straighforwardly positive comments in the feedback — strong sentences, good description, good dialogue (when it’s serving a purpose) — and it’s re-assuring to have the quality of the actual writing re-affirmed. I’m very self-critical of my prose as I think I write too quickly — beginning sentences without thinking how they’re going to end. In fact it’s been concerns over my self-diagnosed clunky prose that has put me off attempting a novel before.

In the end I e-mailed Emily back and said that I’d taken the comments on board and on reflection they were very helpful and motivating and she e-mailed back saying that being able to act on feedback, particularly if it’s not all glowing and telling you how wonderful it is, is a mark of a ‘true writer’.

As for the ‘Is it any good?’ factor, I’m reminded of the famous Stephen King story about ‘Carrie’ — that he’d thrown a draft away in despair into the wastepaper basket and his wife fished it out, read it and persuaded him to finish it. 50 books later he’s still going strong.


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.

Looking for Inspiration

I wrote quite a bit in a short time up until the last Saturday workshop — around 7,000 words of the beginning of ‘The Angel — two sizeable chapters or perhaps three or four shorter ones. I tend to like shorter chapters myself when I’m reading a book — it leads to a feeling of having achieved more as a reader. However, the style I’ve written in tends to change point of view between James and Kim (in fact for the first chapter more than POV — the whole scene changes as they are apart). That might make for chapters that are too bitty or too obviously in parallel. No need to worry so much about that at the moment, though.

I also wrote about 4,000 words for Swan Supping — mainly a walk and the Beer Diet attached to a previous post — and submitted a 3,500 word assignment for my MSc. (However, there is a serial called ‘The Gravediggers’ Arms’ in Swan Supping, now in its fourth part, by a Charlie Mackle that concerns someone called James taking over a pub — a bit of a protoype for ‘The Angel’.) This probably came off worst in terms of quality. I’ve had it marked and got 60%, which is ok, but based on initial comments from my supervisor I’d hoped to bullshit a bit more effectively but she’d found me out in places and I realise I’ll need to put more time into the next one, which actually counts towards the course marks. Even so, I suppose I’ve taken the first steps to doing it, which is probably the biggest obstacle in these sort of things.

Given that about 3,000 words of The Angel’s extracts were written a week or two before then that’s about 11,000 words done in the space of just over a week. Since then I’ve found it quite difficult to get myself going again. I note from Bren Gosling’s latest blog post (that I note enviously was written from Sicily) that he’s also finding it difficult to start up again after the culmination of last term. In an effort to re-invigorate myself I’ve gone back and looked over the comments that coursemates made on the scripts of the extracts I read for my third reading, back at the end of February. That was two scenes — one of James and Emma looking over a spreadsheet about finances and one the fire scene with James and Kim. The comments were, without exception, really supportive and generous. Some queried a few practical things (volume of fire alarm, is dopamine a hormone? and so on) and made some constructive suggestions. A few comments recurred among several readers — ‘dialogue is always one of your strengths’, ‘the characters’ voices seem real’, ‘believe in the finance speak’, ‘fast-moving’, ‘a page turner’, ‘want to find out what happens next’, ‘deft and sly humour’ and there was also one comment that praised the prose, which I particularly liked as the writing wasn’t particularly showy in those sections. Most comments said this was the best section yet and how it was hitting its stride — which makes it all quite infuriating to find it quite difficult to make myself sit there and grind out more of it unless I have some deadline looming.

I’ve rewritten the ends of the two threads from James and Kim’s POV inside the tub carriage where he turns up on the morning he’s been fired to pay £500 for a painting that she tried to sell for £1,000 the night before at a viewing. This was the end of the chapter I submitted to Alison as my supposed 4,000 novel opening (it’s more likely to be the end of chapter one and start of chapter two). The rewritten part is just practical scene-setting for the 1,000 or so words I’ve managed since then. These, in themselves, tend to set up the rest of the day, which will be the long-anticipated bender (subject to much procrastination in writing terms). He’ll find out she’s in serious debt and she’ll reveal she makes ends meet by working some shifts in a pub (hardly on international art collector circuit money). I’ll also try to describe how Kim looks. It’s important that she’s not too good-looking but she has to have the capability of developing into someone he does find very attractive in the end (Jane Eyre similarities again). She’s also got to look fairly good from a distance in a soft-focus sort of way (I have some plot ideas about this) so he’ll get close up to her and find a few off-putting things like imperfect complexion, unhealthy pallor, bony face exaggerated by piercings and so on — all stuff that can gradually melt away.  

The bender scene will also pack in quite a lot of character exposition. I’m hoping I can get away with this by moving fast from location to location but I do have concerns that I’ll have perhaps an opening 15,000 words or so that almost entirely concentrates on the two principal characters over a period of about 30 hours in London. I raised this at my tutorial with Alison a week last Saturday and she seemed to think it was ok. I’ll end up following this introduction with an extended time period during which the two characters team up and build up their business, which will be quite a contrast. However, there will be quite a nice symmetry in that I plan the ending to be in London with a similar fast pace, though I may have to insert extra plot elements to bring it up to anything like 15,000 words.

Speaking of Alison’s tutorial, I specifically asked in advance about some concerns that I had and she replied in pencil on a printout of the e-mail in amusingly laconic fashion. ‘Is the scene with James fast-moving enough? ‘ [YES] ‘Are the ones with Kim on her own too slow?’ [OK — WITH EDITING — NB. I’m personally still a little concerned about these being static especially when I continue the action later in Village Underground.] ‘I’ve intercut the two threads in this extract and wonder whether this is a valid approach.’ [YES] ‘I’m also interested in what you make of the location for Kim — it’s a bit unusual but is it clear?’ [YES — GREAT]. And the real paranoid ‘is it any good question: ‘Overall, would this set up a story that readers would be interested in?’ [YES]. So I take all that as not a bad endorsement and really a call for myself to bloody get on with it.

Opening the Novel?

Unlike the majority of my fellow students on the City course I’ve not approached the writing of either of my novels-in-progress in any kind of sequence — either chronologically or in anticipation of the eventual order in the book. I’m not too concerned by this as I think my brain works in a non-linear way — my (by now fairly distant) past in computer programming means I’m quite familiar with defining the meaty, functional bits of a concept and then choreographing these together — in the same way as one might write a coherent argument or report. The exercise I did with the post-it-notes (see post below) was quite useful for taking stock of where I planned to get compared with where I am now but it’s evident that I still need an opening for ‘The Angel’ and that, while I’ve written an opening for ‘Burying Bad News’ that’s likely to be superseded by later developments.

Over the weekend I thought I had a plan. I would start off ‘The Angel’ in dramatic fashion with James being unjustly fired from his financial job — being made a scapegoat partly because he’d been slowly drifting away from being ‘one of the lads’ and engaging his interest in arts. I guess this subject could be the most autobiographical of any of my writing as I’ve now twice been on the wrong end of this experience myself — currently going through the consequences of this ‘process’ as HR people like to term it. Perhaps, because I’ve aired quite a few of my own grievances, I’ve managed to do 3,000 words of this opening.

It’s in three sections — starting in media res halfway through the meeting where James is ‘re-organised’ in clinical HR speak; then a scene which is quite useful in a number of ways where he packs up his mementos from his desk (lots of character clues through the artefacts) and befriends the Somali security guard; finally a more dramatic scene in the gents where the real reasons that he’s been fired are revealed — not going to the lap dancing club being one — and he hits his erstwhile boss.

It was a real slog to write all this and took me a whole day to revise it (I think I was still feeling the effects of my cold/flu). However, 3,000 words is quite a lot, especially when this section doesn’t impinge much on the rest of the plot. To break it up a bit and avoid the impression it’s a book wholly about City types, I’m planning to interleave James’ section with Kim’s own crisis which I think  I’ll have happening in parallel.

I have a nice vision of her having an almighty row and bust up with the St. John Rivers-type character I’m yet to define — I see her standing on the top of Village Underground in Shoreditch throwing his stuff down to the street from 40 feet above Great Eastern Street. The trouble is I’m finding it difficult  to think of what she could throw without her getting arrested. I’ve wondered about her pouring paint on him. Maybe she could do it on the other side of Village Underground near the entrance to the warehouse and the spiral staircase which is currently a dead end due to the construction of the new Shoreditch High Street station? I think this would work quite well if it’s quite physical and visual as it would contrast with the corporate stuff. The two would then turn to each other in the aftermath of their stressful mornings and head out on the aforementioned bender.

If I do two scenes with Kim at about 1,500 to 2,000 words and I guess the bender is going to take about 4,000 words (I’d like to write this for my tutorial with Alison on 27th March,  although I need to get it to her earlier than that) then I’m going to have about 9,000 words of an opening to the novel, which I think might be ok if I’m looking at around 80-100,000 words overall. I’ve already written an ending of about 3,000 words which could be expanded (I wrote it bearing in mind the tutorial word limit) and it needs some context preceding it. I’d then probably have my two pivotal plot points at about the 12-15,000  and 70-75,000 word points — where the action leaves London and then returns. Seems far too neat to actually work out properly!

Speaking of Village Underground, I was quite alarmed to hear on the radio this morning about the huge fire in an ‘office and bar complex’ in Shoreditch. Fortunately, for my own selfish purposes, it’s not Village Underground that’s gone up in flames, it’s a place about half a mile away from Shoreditch High Street — but it just shows how real life can intervene in these things.


Both Alison and Emily have said they think it’s a great idea for me to start ‘The Angel’ with James and Kim going out on a massive bender together (or at least have the sequence quite near the start). I’m certainly of the belief that there’s no bonding experience like a session getting completely plastered in the company of similarly afflicted others — something to do with the lowering of inhibition and probably why it’s an ingrained part of UK working culture.

In the discussion I had last Wednesday on plot with Guy, Nicole and Sue we discussed, amongst other things, how this might happen and how it might end. I think we all thought it might be good if the two characters ended up in a posh hotel suite but were too tired and emotional to consummate any latent attraction. I’ve thought about this a bit further and have some ideas about how they might wake up the next morning.

I’m now giving some consideration to how the bender might unfold. I’d ideally like this to be the opening chapter that I submit to Alison before Easter. I want to make it fast moving and, towards the end, quite blurry and increasingly surreal (as much as I can get away with within my genre).

I have to admit to recycling this idea from two Open University assignments — one short fiction and the other a longer screenplay —  from 2008-9 where two characters, also called, by chance, James and Kim, went on a bender in similar circumstances. They went from Mayfair to Canary Wharf — where Kim pulled James out of dock.

I’ve settled on having both work around Shoreditch/Bishopsgate so this version will go in the opposite direction. It will be quite picaresque in construction and I want to move up a spectrum of the vast number of options in London and the diversity of drinking/eating places. So I’m minded to start in somewhere really shabby and edgy (in the truest sense) and then move via better pubs up to posy bars and to a top class restaurant and thence to some top hotel — I think something very boutique and designer with massive rooms. I feel a visit to a bookshop and a flick through a Time Out guide to London might be coming up. Actually I’d quite like to base the hotel on the Hotel Rival in Stockholm, which is part owned by Benny Andersson from Abba, and is incredibly Swedish-trendy. I’ve stayed in it twice and drunk in the bar for the beautiful people of Stockholm — with beer at £7 a bottle. The rooms aren’t huge but very stylish and have Playstations and DVD players — with, of course, ABBA CDs to choose from. I’m sure there’s some similar places in London but I may make one up. I may also make up the restaurant as I’m quite keen to reproduce a scene in that from my previous screenplay which was rather satirical about celebrity chefs.

As luck would have it, there was a broken water main on Euston Road last night, causing traffic jams all the way down City Road. I was driving to City so I decided to take an alternative route back to the A40 Westway which is similar to the route that my characters are likely to take. I turned down Goswell Road, then down Clerkenwell High Street and carried on the road (whatever it’s then called) to end up at Holborn. I could have gone round the back roads of Fitzrovia and Marylebone but I stayed on the routes I knew so ended up going down Shaftesbury Avenue, skirting Piccadilly Circus, down through St. James’ and along Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner and then up Park Lane to Edgware Road. I think James and Kim might, for the sake of the readers’ interest in setting, hit the river at some point. I’ll maybe have them go to the Anchor on Bankside and then maybe into the Royal Festival Hall — maybe they could go up the Eye. Now that would afford me a lot of opportunity for the sort of descriptive setting that Emily was recommending to us last night.


I adapted Emily’s suggestion about using index cards to plot novels (and do various other things) by using post-it-notes on a conference room wall in our offices. It’s not as permanent a reminder as having index cards arranged on a corkboard at home but it was quite useful for seeing how the plots were working out. I went way over the 12 suggested plot points — with 44 for Burying Bad News and 32 for The Angel.

For both novels I seem to have two main points of view so I used different coloured ink for either: red for Frances/James and blue for Sally/Kim. There were a couple of general plot points in each which I wrote in black.

Here’s how Burying Bad News looked:

Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
The picture’s probably too small and reduced in definition to read but it shows a few deficiencies — Sally’s story carries the narrative mostly in the first half, to be replaced by Frances’ towards the end. I think I need more resolution for Sally and more introduction for Frances. Seeing as what’s represented on the board is a little less than double what I’ve already written, which is about 50,000 words, then adding in the extra will probably take me substantially over 100,000 words in total — so making me less than half way through. Mmm.
Here’s the Angel:
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
This has a more symmetrical feel to it and it’s nicely balanced around two plot points about 25% and 75% through the story (like the classic Hollywood screenplays that I was trained to write at UCSB). I feel like I’m still short of sub-plot for this and I’ve only really got three well developed characters who could sustain a love triangle through the first half of the plot but Emma seems to disappear afterwards. More minor characters are required but there’s some good themes coming through with some juxtaposition of art/sex/money/food and drink.
I only had this stuff on the wall for about half an hour so I took photos to preserve the display. I’ll need to come back and do it again but it was a useful exercise in taking stock so far.

The Shock of the New

It’s going to be quite an intense day on Saturday for a few of us: Rick, Nick and myself have both a reading and a tutorial. The reading is c. 2,250 words and the tutorial extract can be up to 3,000. I slightly exceeded the word limits on both so I’ve got about 5,600 words in for feedback in one way or another — in two different novels, which might land me in trouble.

I really wanted to make a start on ‘The Angel’ and I began by trying to do something clever and writing a scene which, like Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’, brought together characters from different works and had them interact in scenes which were interchangeable. I will probably still use the scene. It’s when Sally(from ‘Burying Bad News’) wants to bone up on wine. It turns out she knows Kim (from ‘The Angel’) from London and Kim persuades James to put on a wine tasting at ‘The Angel’. Sally brings Jez along and meets Emma and Gordon, Emma’s doctor father who tries to take over the wine tasting duties. Both Sally and Emma get smashed and Sally sees glamorous Emma as someone who can help make her image over and persuades her to accompany her to Bicester Village Designer Outlet to buy some discount brand label clothes cranking up the balance on the credit card she’s just wangled. In the course of this Sally would give Kim the third degree about why she’s left London and come to the sticks to work for an ex-banker. Kim would show Sally the space in the pub that she’s planning to turn into her studio. Quite a nice little scene I thought but it was quite dialogue heavy and didn’t really get into the meat of the story so I thought it might be a bit of a missed opportunity to present that for the tutorial.

Interesting that I referred to Alan Ayckbourn as I’ve long admired his plays — the way he works within a limited scope and is marvellously funny but still exposes the deepest recesses of his characters’ psyches. What I’ve described above is not too dissimilar to one of his plots.

So I decided to put the wine tasting writing on hold and write something different — and I had about two or three days to do it and last night’s class to fit in as well (in addition to work). I had a very firm image in my mind about how I wanted the novel to end and, bearing in mind feedback about how a reunion on the Millennium Bridge was a bit of cliche, I decided to construct an ending to the novel that took the cliche and subverted it.

I worked pretty obsessively on the piece as there’s not much opportunity for ‘face-time’ with the tutors and I wanted to deliberately address a lot of my concerns about the novel in the submitted extract. I got up at 5.30am this morning so I could send it in before midday (I failed by 8 minutes).

I also put my fieldwork research in the Tate Modern to good use by setting almost all the action in the gallery. I don’t know how successful a strategy it will turn out but I had the characters look at painting that were then used to reflect concepts and emotions from the plot. I tried to use paintings that readers would have a good chance of knowing, such as Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. My reference to the latter wasn’t very subtle but it’s not a subtle painting. I really want to use the Cy Twombly paintings I saw last week but can’t find them on the internet. I’m planning another trip to the Tate next week to check. I also ensured that my semi-mystical experience inside Balka’s huge box was put to good use (see blog posting below). I hope Alison says that this works because, if it does, it could be quite a hook for the novel as I would see it being marketed at the kind of people, like me, who are reasonably educated and open to new ideas but who know very little about certain types of culture (in this case modern art). It works very well with things like Morse and his fixations with Wagner and Mozart.

I’m not sure how the piece hangs together. Because of the word limit (yes I came up against the word limit and had to edit it down even though it was put together quickly) it’s probably more rushed than I’d anticipate in a full length novel. For example, I’m concerned that I’ve telescoped the plot a bit too rapidly into the dialogue so there might be some cliches in there. However, some of the most basic emotions must transcend cliche. If a character says ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’ is that a cliche? I don’t think so but I still feel like there must be cleverer ways of writing that or something like ‘Be there for me.’

I wanted to write something that had both dialogue and some extended description but I think I would want to hone the diction and rework some of the imagery in a re-draft. However, I wanted to use the extract to bring in and work on some of the themes I would see running through the novel, such as obsession, depression, communication, misunderstanding, ambition, modern art, etc. There’s also themes pubs and urban-rural tension but these aren’t so evident in the extract.

Now I’ve sent it in I’ll probably do something completely different tonight like watching television — I thought the new Rab C. Nesbitt wasn’t bad last week (I watch it with subtitles as I like to read how the dialogue is written) and ‘Bellamy’s People’ was ok last week.

And I’ve got six absorbing chapters from the other class members to read in detail before Saturday.
I’ve read through two or three quickly already but I’ll read them all through, let them stew away in my subconscious for a while, and then annotate them with any detailed comments I might have.

‘The Angel’ Changes

I reworked the synopsis of ‘The Angel’ based on the feedback I’d received.

Probably the biggest change was that I gave James and Emma a different backstory that changed the start of the novel — I married them — unhappily of course as there wouldn’t be much of a novel otherwise. Actually, in terms of a catalyst for action, he doesn’t actually fully realise that he is unhappy until the relationship develops with Kim. Emma will have some good qualities but I think theirs will be one of those functional sort of relationships that people drift into, ready to be shocked out of them at some point.

Because James will be newly married then his relationship with Kim will need to start more gradually — and this will hopefully give her decision to run the pub with him some more plausibility. She’ll need to be running from something in London, however, as much as being attracted to the countryside. James and Kim can still go on their massive bender round London — that’s a slightly environmentally friendly approach as I’ve already written something very similar for an OU course (albeit as a screenplay). It should be good for location and setting, though.

Most of the middle of the synopsis has stayed the same but Kim’s story follows a simpler narrative arc — she arrives, settles in eventually, deals with some crises which eventually lead her to move away again — and at the end the big question is ‘does she come back again?’ She does undergo some change, however — a development of calm and spirituality.

I’ve cut some of the ending of the previous synopsis — the bit about the abortion and so on. It was a bit too rushed to properly do justice to in the synopsis and I need to think whether it’s appropriate in the light of the other changes. The way the synopsis now reads, she could be motivated to leave by the fire.

One thing that’s not in the synopsis that I’ve been considering is making Kim even more of an outsider by having her as a non-white character. I think it would make a negligible difference to the plot – but it might give the outsider theme some more resonance. It would also be a challenge to write — and a potential minefield.  However, I’ll carry on considering this as it’s not something I’d want to take over the novel.

I kept the locations at the end in (Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge) mainly to give some sort of sense of location.  In practice I may well go for something more original — or perhaps subvert expectations by having them set-up to meet on the Millennium Bridge but things don’t go to plan and they are reconciled somewhere else — the skateboard park under Waterloo Bridge perhaps?

I created a spreadsheet based on Emily’s list of questions/attributes for characters. I still need to properly fill it in but it made me realise another flaw in my synopsis — I don’t seem to have enough characters. I can see this might have been a reason behind some of the feedback. There’s really only two who play a role all the way through — James and Kim. If you don’t like them then you’re not going to like the book. I have Emma and her predatory father as additional characters in the synopsis but I think I need a couple more significant characters.

So I’ve simplified my original ideas but I think I need some new ones for the actual novel. The synopsis itself is much improved, however. Here’s the version I handed into Emily.The Angel Revised Synopsis v4 — Distributed Dec 09

Perils of Living in the Country

Last night I ended up getting a good knowledge of the many traffic lights along a 15 mile stretch of the A41 by crawling along at about 5mph. This was due to all the traffic coming off the M1 due to an overturned lorry blocking two lanes. I also had to take a last minute diversion because I realised Arsenal were playing at home in the Champions League and my direct route down into Islington via the Holloway Road was going to be flooded with Gooners.

In the end I was pretty brain dead by the time I made it to the class– about 45 minutes in. However, it was a class where everyone (except me as it turned out) read out their synopses and deconstructions into chapters of chosen novels. There were some quite interesting observations about variation in terms of narrative time (one chapter describing a few minutes whereas the next might describe 10 years elapsed time). Guy had one of the most interesting approaches (unfortunately I’ve forgotten the book he chose) as he broke the chapters down into a spreadsheet analysis with stark plot event, POV, time, setting and so on in columns. This is something I’ve actually done myself with the novel that I have in progress — a list of completed chapters and a list of chapters to write. It’s useful as it really boils down the plot to basic events. I distil about 1,500 words into a sentence ‘Declan rescues Frances from a car and discovers her self-harming’, for example. (I’m even thinking of being really techie and putting the chapters in an Access database so I can somehow re-arrange them at the click of a mouse and do all sorts of clever things like analysing dependencies. On a related note, MS Project could probably be very useful for plotting a novel with its Gantt charts and resource allocation interfaces.) Guy also realised that his chosen (mystery) author always used the same structure within a chapter — establish a setting; introduce characters; have the characters ruminate over what has elapsed since the last chapter; then some action begins. Although it might seem repetitive he said it wasn’t really noticeable in the book.

I hadn’t properly prepared for this so was quite glad when Emily forgot to ask me for my thoughts. I’d looked at three fairly conventional narratives at a high level and may do the exercise on these as Emily suggested. The first was Ian Rankin’s ‘Exit Music’  to see how a detective novel is structured with all its clues and red-herrings. The second was Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ which is cleverly plotted with mysteries created for the reader along the way and everything resolved in the denouement. I would also have mentioned Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ — see below on Historical Fiction — where she uses devices like the cast list for each section so the reader has an artefact at the beginning of the novel that exposes its structure quite openly.