2016 Wasn’t All Bad — If You Picture It Like This

On top of everything else that happened in 2016, it wasn’t a great year for my blog posts. I’ve managed to update the blog at least once a month for the past few years but since my post on the EU referendum at the end of June, I’ve only managed one more — an overdue review of Isabel Costello’s debut novel (albeit a long one).

Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.

But one thing I’ve kept  doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.

So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way

Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…

Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho
Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho

…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…

Swinging Soho July 2016
Swinging Soho July 2016

I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…

Liberty at Night
Liberty at Night

…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…

Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016
Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016

…or just weird London scenes like this.

Oxford Street, Summer 2016
Oxford Street, Summer 2016

Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.

The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime
The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime

I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.

While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.

And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).

It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.

The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different.  I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…

The Future of Entertainment?
The Future of Entertainment?

(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.

2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.

I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.

I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.

Here’s the image that adorns my entry in the BGBW website directory.I’m hard at work at the beer tasting side of the job!

British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture
British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture

Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.

Two Hairy People
Two Hairy People

But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).

Writing by the River Dronne in France
Writing by the River Dronne in France

I could get used to that lifestyle.

With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving, I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.

I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.

By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.

The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.

The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.

Honest Feedback
Honest Feedback

I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However,  the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.

Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…

Books for Research 1
Books for Research 1

…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).

Research 2
Research 2

I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).

But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.

Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016
Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016

Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.

Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016
Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016

I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.

It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.

What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.

Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).

Grimes at Latitude, July 2016
Grimes at Latitude, July 2016

While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, 
I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.

Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.


I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors  spent much the year cultivating.

Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?

At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.

Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…

Starting Them Young at Latitude
Starting Them Young at Latitude

…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of  younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.

Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.

David Shillinglaw at Latitude 2016
David Shillinglaw’s Exhortation at Latitude 2016

I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.

Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.

The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.

I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.

Dublin Castle, Camden
Dublin Castle, Camden

And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.

A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle
A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle

It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.

I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.

A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.

So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like  taking a bit of time out and reflect.

So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.

Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset
Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset

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.

Buckfast or Books?

I’ve sadly under-nourished this blog over the past few weeks for a couple of good reasons and one that’s, unfortunately, not so satisfying.

The first good reason is that I’m trying to get the novel manuscript revised after Emma Sweeney’s feedback (the two solid weeks mentioned in previous posts) and I’ve decided to ask her to look over the first three chapters of the novel in more detail as these are what it will initially be assessed on by agents.

Incidentally I was invited by Emma on Thursday to the Literary Club at New York University in London, where she teaches, and I met the novelist Edward Hogan who was giving a reading. I had a short chat with him and he’s really nice chap. Several people have recommended his novels Blackmoor and The Hunger Trace and the reading he gave us from the latter was very compelling.

The second reason for lack of blog updates is fitting in lots of commitments in general life. As well as the evening at NYU in London, we had a rare evening workshop with the ex-City stalwarts on Tuesday and there have been some gripping, if disappointing, Premier League matches that haven’t escaped my attention.

But Saturday was something of a ceremonial milestone as I went to up to Birmingham,

Graduation at Birmingham
All Robed Up

where I spent three years as an undergraduate, for my Open University MSc degree ceremony at the Symphony Hall.

(As a strange co-incidence, the redeveloped canals of city-centre Birmingham — one of which I’m posing next to — play a part in my MA course-mate Kerry’s novel-in-progress.)

It’s been over a year since I finished the MSc (see this post about when I got the hard copies back) and I could have gone to earlier graduation ceremonies but I wanted one at a weekend and I thought it quite appropriate to return to the scene of my undergraduate dissolution. The Birmingham Symphony Hall was an impressive venue — preferable imho to the OU’s London location for graduation — the Barbican (where I was presented with my MBA from Kingston University) — described as a ‘concrete bunker’ by someone I work with who had a choice of Barbican or Brighton Pavilion for his OU graduation.

I’m such an OU advocate that I went back to look at the website to see if there were any courses I could do that might advance some of the interests I’ve picked up in the long process of researching this novel — art being an obvious choice but also architecture and psychology.

I had a shock when I saw the cost of a 60 point humanities course had shot up to £2,500. I had a look at the prices for the Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing courses — and both were also the same price. When I first enrolled for Creative Writing back in 2007 I’m sure the cost was more like £600.

Perhaps the government has cut the OU’s funding — but the OU may also feel it can justify charging more because 360 points earns a student a bachelor’s degree — so £15,000 at current prices which is far less than the £27,000 or so students will have to pay at most conventional universities.

This means anyone taking the same creative writing courses as those I did will need to shell out £5k nowadays — which, I suppose, makes me appreciate more the amount and quality of creative writing teaching that I’ve been taking almost continuously for the last five years — and this in turn makes me think that I need to push myself to try and get a return on all this investment (hence less time spent blogging recently and more writing the novel). And perhaps mercifully for my leisure time the OU’s new fees deter me from casually signing up to a new Arts course on the basis that it looks interesting.

It’s very easy for an aspiring writer to spend a lot of money in the quest to become published and I wonder if more money is now made by people charging for courses, manuscript appraisals, consultancy, conferences and so on than is made by writers in the act of writing itself (if you take the likes of J.K.Rowling out of the calculation). It seems that plenty of excellent published writers supplement their scandalously meagre income from writing in this way.

However, this might not be such an odd model for the future — it’s how activities like sport, art or cookery are organised — with a few star professionals whom the masses aspire to emulate. Even though they know they’ll never be Wayne Rooney or Damien Hirst or Jamie Oliver, millions are happy to practice in their own leisure time and pay others for tuition. If writing hasn’t already adopted this model it might be because of the high fixed costs of publishing — but now with cheap access to e-publishing and print on demand — then there are fewer barriers to much wider, paying participation as with sport.

But back to the graduation ceremony. One thing that struck me was the demographic composition of my fellow graduates. Probably two thirds of those being ceremonially conferred with a degree were women — and women of all ages. The men were skewed much more towards the older age group — I was told that I was one of the few who didn’t have grey hair (not enough to notice on a stage anyway). This might not have been surprising for postgraduates but the undergraduates outnumbered us by about 8 to 1.

This ties in with evidence, such as that cited in The Economist’s Megachange book that I was given to read, that women already outnumber men overall in the tertiary education sector. If, as we’re told by forecasters like The Economist, that the future of work will depend much more on the sort of intelligence and innovation that comes from a higher level of education then the larger proportion of women than men! who seem to put in the sort of time commitment and motivation that an OU degree requires, ought to manifest some profound changes in the workplace.

I travelled up to Birmingham on the train and, as if to re-inforce the point, there was a large party of Scottish twenty-something men in my carriage. At 9am they were swilling Rab C Nesbitt’s favourite tipple — Buckfast — straight from the bottle and washing it down with cans of Red Stripe. Like most people I guess I have a fairly hypocritical attitude to public drinking if it’s not me that’s doing it — if I’m sober and I smell beer on someone’s breath on the tube I think ‘alky’ — even though I must often be that beery-breathed person myself.  So I was pretty appalled by this bunch even though they were (at that time in the morning) fairly good natured. Presumably they were on some weekend bender of which I was glad to have only to witnessed the beginning.

Nevertheless, while extreme, this seemed to sum up the contrast between feckless under-40 males and their more diligent and industrious female counterparts. At the risk of making sweeping gender stereotyping generalisations, the fact that, on average, men manage to hold their own in the workplace against better qualified women seems to me to be another instance of the ‘bias towards bullshit’ in British corporate culture.

This prejudice leaped out of one of Lord Sugar’s comments in the latest Apprentice — where he reasoned that Azhar ought to be fired partly because his sensible points and good ideas were ignored by other the more loud-mouthed and egotistical contestants — and that telling idiots who are too self-absorbed to listen that they are wrong is somehow ‘too negative’.

This is a theme, possibly unintentionally, of my novel — with two contrasting but highly educated and highly motivated female characters. Both Kim and Emma have Master’s degrees and are ascending to the top of their professions (albeit in ways that might not seem obvious at the time). James also has an MBA but he’s disaffected and marginalised by working life and the novel starts with him wanting to get out but drifting rather than than being driven to achieve his ambitions.

The MSc in Software Development is something of a clue that my ‘day job’ is something to do with IT, which is thought of as a fairly male-dominated industry. However, I tend to have always worked quite closely with women. My first job was as a graduate trainee at British Airways and I had a female on-the-job tutor and I’ve worked very closely with many women — for a long time in my last job I was the only male in a team of three who travelled abroad a lot together (mainly to Germany — hence the background to the novel) and I ended up for a time sitting next to the two PAs who worked for a FTSE 100 company’s UK IT director — which provided quite a few fascinating insights. (No surprise there’s also a PA in the novel.)

I’ve consequently found it odd to be working recently (the third reason for under-nourishing the blog is having to spend lots of time commuting for this job) in a team of people who are 100% male — the office environment and projects I mostly work on are fortunately quite mixed but the team meetings have been quite strange affairs. Today there was a discussion in blokily knowledgeable detail about how the missiles planned to be stationed in London for the Olympics would be used to shoot down any errant airliners. It’s as if it’s unsaid but everyone realises there’s something indefinable that’s missing –I’m sure there’s a similar sort of dynamic in all-women teams too in professions where women are dominant (apparently publishing is meant to be one).

Ironically, if someone said ‘what we need on this team is a few women’ then it would get exactly the sort of ribald, guffawing, nudge-nudge response that would prove the point. And I suppose a lot of the novel is about this subject too — the interactions between working men and women provide much of the novel’s momentum.

[NB. Post has been cleaned up after up the mess of trying to edit a blog on an iPad using Safari on a 3G connection on a train.]

Tasty British Exports?

I knew Gordon Ramsay had branched into US TV stardom with Hell’s Kitchen but I didn’t expect him to turn up on the second hour of US TV cookery primetime as main presenter of the American version of Masterchef – all on Fox TV.

It was the semi-final last night and the contestants were sweating over their lemon meringue pies — I wonder whether it’s actually possible to send up this TV genre.

Somewhat serendipitously Masterchef  had imported its floppy-haired, bearded, Johnny Depp-spectacled French judge — someone who I’d watched this time last year and blogged about when the programme was on when we were staying in Brittany. In its hyped-up introduction, the US show claimed that Masterchef is a TV phenomenon all over the world — India and Israel were mentioned.

What did seem telling was the contestants seemed much more openly competitive than those in the UK original, who almost seem embarrassed to get through. In the US version, they slag each other off like Apprentice contestants (who only seem to do that when goaded for pre-publicity — in the tasks the British Apprentice contestants are remarkably nice to each other).

Or perhaps Americans are just more honest — a big difference perhaps between British and US writing? I always think American writing is more direct — much more emphasis on active and imaginative verbs (as Stephen King would recommend) whereas British writing is typically more discursive. This doesn’t mean good British-style writing is bad — just different — compare the styles of Time and The Economist.

Ironically, given last week’s events, the British versions of these programmes seem to show a country more at ease with itself than the US — which has been brought almost to bankruptcy by the brinksmanship of its politicians, whereas in Britain they entered a coalition.

And on the other channel in the room next door were Piers Morgan and Sharon Osborne on America’s Got Talent. On second thoughts perhaps not all British exports are that tasty.

Plotting Spooks

When it comes to pacy plotting, Spooks on BBC1 is pretty good. It’s also quite a model of editing what are, in essence, pretty bland scenes together. ‘The Grid’ is basically a dark room with a few tables and computers and that’s where at least 30% of the action happens. The exterior action is mainly shots of people walking down streets intercut with other shots of people sitting in cars or also walking down streets. Then there are very ordinary looking safe houses on Peckham council estates and disused warehouses where all the villains threaten to remove bodily parts from the heroes. No wonder they like to stick in a spectacular explosion every so often. When you realise the action is largely banal and repetitive it shows that the dialogue is very clever in transforming the mundane into a cliffhanger — and quite a bit of it can be classed as ‘telling’ — ‘he’s got a dirty bomb in that suitcase that will kill half of London’ suddenly gives a whole new meaning to another shot of a bloke walking along a street with a bag. It’s very clever and makes good use of the characters being hard-bitten secret agents to ensure they never let the dialogue-driven pace flag with sentimental asides.

Another good example of well-structured ‘plots’ are in the more classy reality series like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Restaurant’. These are edited into little dramas with a very clear narrative arc — the obstacle or challenge is defined, the contestants try to overcome the obstacle, they succeed or fail and then have a short review of how they performed with the help of Raymond or Siralan to ensure they take away some self-knowledge. The climax is the firing but there’s a short period of resolution and reflection afterwards. You can almost set your watch by the plot points on ‘The Apprentice’ — about 7 minutes for the task to be set, 12 minutes or so when they’ve decided how they’re going to organise themselves, 20 minutes when they first start blundering into disaster, 30 minutes when the outcome of the task is teetering between success and failure, on about 37 minutes they’ve finished and prepare for the boardroom, at 52 minutes someone’s getting a roasting, 56 minutes when someone gets fired, then there’s the taxi ride.