Was It Worth It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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

Real Life Did Intervene

The best of intentions…but real life has intervened leaving a two month hiatus in the blog. Apart from Christmas, New Year and the snow I’ve been recently quite busy writing but more of that later.

As of the last posts I was discussing my synopses which were going to be workshopped both in class and also in an individual session with Emily.

I’ve put both original synopses on their own pages in the blog. There are links on the navigation pane or else click below to read each one.

Burying Bad News — the politics and wine one.: BBN 500 Word Synopsis v2 500 words

The Angel — the pub one: The Angel Synopsis as of 17 Nov 09

I’ll outline the feedback and the main changes I made in the next post.

Feedback on Synopses

I had my one-to-one tutorial with Emily and she was happy to go through both synopses — although this made it quite frenetic as we only had ten minutes to cover both.

I was most surprised that she liked both synopses equally — both “had legs” she said. This was was interesting as I had thought one was a lot stronger than the other — or at least one was more developed to the extent of a lot of the synopsis actually having been written.

The most vivid synopsis was the one that was the newest, although it had plenty of flaws, such as the lack of development of a potentially interesting character — Emma the status conscious girlfriend who gets the elbow somehow. This was also picked up by my friend Kathy (who’s doing an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University) who also kindly read through the synopsis.

I was a bit worried that the pub setting of what is currently called ‘Pub Story’ would be thought of as humdrum but Emily thought it potentially rich and entertaining.  The newer synopsis also had an immediate ‘inciting incident’ (the point at which the reader is invited into the story) that set the tone for the rest of the novel. The ‘Burying Bad News’ synopsis was much more confused as it was difficult to work out at which point the reader was going to be pulled in. This probably reflects the indecision that comes with having written substantial parts of this novel already — I’m really not sure whether it should open chronologically or in ‘media res’. 

Both synopses failed in some of the most important aspects — they didn’t communicate effectively what I’d planned for the novel. One example was setting. I’d planned to use as settings a combination of London and the area around where I live (literally Midsomer Murder country — it’s filmed all round here and people are surprised it’s not the West Country or Cotswolds but Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in reality).  The setting is obviously pretty vivid to me but I didn’t get this across at all in the synopsis — and clearly the setting is appealing in general or else Midsomer Murders, Morse, Rosemary and Thyme and all the rest of these dramas (loads of them) wouldn’t be filmed round here.

So I think I’ve learned a lot about synopses and hope to work on the two to correct the flaws. I see it needs to do a lot but the most important is to hook the reader with the inciting incident and set the tone. Also, elements such as setting and a vivid sense of character are just as important as plot. I have different jobs to do with either synopsis.

For ‘Pub Story’ I need to think more about the actual plot  and characterisation and I’ve given this a lot of thought and come up with some interesting ideas for Emma and to link her in to some of the other characters. I’ve thought some more about Kim and also about the need for a better title — preferably something that can work as a pub name and a metaphor for the story in general. I’ve decided that ‘The Angel’ might be good — and it’s a nice reference to the tube station just up the road from City University too.

‘Burying Bad News’ is slightly more problematic as I have to rejig what I already have rather than have the freedom to think of new ideas. However, the questions that Emily raised are more problems with the synopsis than the ongoing work itself — I need to make it more obvious that the story is told from the perspective of the two women and that the role of the MP is more of a foil than anything else. I also need to tick a few more boxes as regards the genre — it’s a thriller rather than a detective story (as the detectives are fairly peripheral).

So quite a bit of revision to do to the synopses but I’m fairly encouraged that the ideas themselves are appealing. One point that Emily made was that they both had plenty of character in opposition and potential for conflict — which is the basis of any dramatic action.