A Running Metaphor

I read a beautifully written guest post recently on Isabel Costello’s blog The Literary SofaIt was by Antonia Honeywell whose novel The Ship was published earlier this year and was one of Isabel’s picks for 2015.

The post describes her perseverance in continuing to write novels when they failed to find a publisher, even though the second book was picked up by an agent, who also represented the third. She makes the analogy between writing the novels and children’s sandcastles on a beach — impermanent structures that will inevitably be washed away by the tide but we are still somehow compelled to construct them. She makes the point that the enjoyment of the act of creation itself is fulfilling — the results aren’t expected to endure.

One reader commented that after reading the post he was glad he’d stuck to writing short stories and not novels! And the post has been written from a point in time where Antonia has been able to celebrate the publication of her debut novel, although it appears to be the fourth she’s actually completed.

But the post resonated with many others who commented and makes the point that such is the effort and discipline required to achieve publication (with Antonia’s fourth time success being more typical than the  lucky first-time novelist) that it’s essential that anyone who sets out on a major writing project enjoys the  process of writing itself because that might have to sustain you for a long time. (I’m sure this is a factor behind writers seeking out courses, writing groups and the likes — because these can give affirmation about your writing from a reader’s perspective, albeit a very different one to that of either the book-buying reader or an agent or author.)

My Race Number and Timing Slip for the Thame 10K on 28th June
My Race Number and Timing Slip for the Thame 10K on 28th June

As the photograph above suggests, I often apply a more conventional metaphor to the writing process than washed-away sandcastles — long-distance running.

At the weekend I ran the Thame 10k race. It might just be possible to see my not very impressive time of 58 minutes 47 seconds on the timing slip on the photo — but I completed it in under an hour, which was my modest objective. I’m hoping for a similar pace at slightly more than double the distance in ten days time when I enter the Wycombe Half Marathon for about the fifth or six year running (if you excuse the pun).

Panoramic View from the Top of Coombe Hill
Panoramic View from the Top of Coombe Hill

Earlier in June I competed in the most lunatic and masochistic race — the 6k Coombe Hill run — which is apparently the only fell race in the south of England. Like the Thame and Wycombe races, this isn’t a fun run, it’s officially licenced by UK Athletics and organised by Aylesbury Vale Athletics Club.

The race starts with a solid mile of running up the Ridgeway on a gradient of about one in ten, although it’s steeper in places. Then after a steep descent the runners have to scramble up a 190m near-vertical climb (some people use their hands as well as feet) to the top of the Chiltern Hills highest viewpoint — the war memorial on the top of Coombe Hill. It’s as far removed from a running track as is imaginable and overlooks Chequers.

David Cameron After His Sport Relief Mile
David Cameron After His Sport Relief Mile

I once bumped into David Cameron doing the Sport Relief Mile at a local sports club. I’d rather enjoy seeing him huffing and scrambling along if he decided to enter the race held closest to his weekend country pile.

I managed to drag myself around that course, having been persuaded to do it by the postman, who’s involved in the club that organises it! Like a Home Counties Everest, I did it because it was there. It wasn’t quite as gruelling as I expected. Not knowing the course and fearing the worst, I paced myself on the long uphill too cautiously, trying to leave something in reserve. I didn’t need to call on it in the end — but it was still bloody tough. (Is there a writing metaphor in there somewhere?)

View of  Coombe Hill in Autumn with Chequers in the Foreground -- The Highest Point of the 6k Race
View of  Coombe Hill in Autumn with Chequers in the Foreground — The Highest Point of the 6k Race

I tend to amble along towards the end of the field in these races. I must be reasonably fit to complete the distances but I ‘m not a natural distance runner. Like James in my novel, I’m physically built more like a rugby player (though more of a back than a forward!) than a rival to Mo Farah — and that’s without the evidence of enjoying too much good food and drink that I carry around my waist to a greater or lesser extent depending on how virtuous I’ve been recently. But there’s something about running that seems to resonate with writers.

I’ve read many articles, interviews and blogs where writers reveal that they’re keen runners (Claire King’s blog entry has particularly stuck in my mind).

One thing writers appreciate is the solitude of running (except if, like me, you occasionally scramble up a hill where you almost need to use handholds with a couple of hundred others).

It’s a different solitude to sitting in front of a computer typing away. It engages you with the outside world but in a slightly removed, distant manner that appeals to writers: you’re passing through, observing, watching, experiencing the sounds and smells and, if you’re running at any sort of pace at all, physically connecting with the environment in an intense way.

You’re breathing in huge lungfuls of air, so being at one with the weather (warm, freezing, humid, wet) and acutely aware of the ground under your feet — the sapping hard stone on the Victoria Embankment or the wonderful bounce from the soil on a Chilterns footpath that’s been drying in late Spring.

Pyramid Orchid in a Chilterns Meadow on One of My Running Routes
Pyramidal Orchid in a Chilterns Meadow on One of My Running Routes

As I’ve said, I’m almost embarrassingly poor as a competitive runner,  but I drag myself out in my trainers because some runs can be so pleasurable they verge on transcendent experiences. I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to run through fields full of wildflowers  and butterflies, a slog up a steep hill being rewarded with amazing views as far as the Cotswolds.

I try to fix these moment in my memory as a moment to remember, a reminder of how precious it is to be alive in that second and be grateful that I’m fit enough to experience it.

And its not just running through countryside that can be exhilarating.  I’ve been fortunate enough to use a gym in the bowels of a prominent building in Westminster. I’ve often emerged from there in my running gear to do circuits of the Royal Parks (from St. James’s via Green to a loop around the Serpentine in Hyde Park and back) and to run along the river from Westminster Bridge up to the Millennium Bridge (or Tower Bridge if I’m really energetic) back along the South Bank. That’s an incredible way to get different, slightly detached perspective on London and an amazingly concentrated piece of sightseeing.

For a writer, running gets you away from the desk and out into a different environment with new stimuli and the thinking time it imposes can be invaluable. Characters, plot ideas, ways of resolving problems can all be reflected on without any feeling of compulsion to get something down on the page.

Sometimes this freedom becomes a bit worrying — when I’ve come up with some idea I like about 3km into a 10km run I become paranoid that by the time I’m out of the shower it’ll have disappeared from my mind.

And sometimes I’ll use the undisturbed time on my own to indulge in something that demands my mental concentration but not any physical presence — listening to The Archers’ omnibus and Desert Island Discs on a Sunday morning run is a particular pleasure.

But above its practical benefits, I’m sure writers appreciate running as a metaphor for the process of creating their work.  The analogy works at several levels. Both are usually solitary activities and they need self-discipline and determination to be applied to reach a goal — finishing the section, chapter or book and completing whatever distance you choose to run.

In training you’re usually running against self-imposed targets: try to run under a 10 minute mile or complete a 10k in under an hour is like achieving a target word count (although with writing there’s little danger of being stranded miles from home if you don’t make it). Even in a race, you tend to compete against personal targets (your personal best — PB) rather than try to outrun everyone ahead.

It’s difficult to motivate myself to get going with either writing or running (the infamous displacement activities, like filling the dishwasher, often suddenly demanding priority) but, once started, I realise how much I enjoy both. Writing has the edge here as it’s not quite so physically demanding. (Unlike running, energy can be restored with a cup of strong coffee — as happened last week when I was working to a deadline so intensively that I stayed writing until 4.15am — when I got up from my computer the sky was becoming light.)

Running has its downsides as exercise. While it has cardiovascular benefits (my resting heartbeat is reassuringly low), it hammers other parts of your body. I’ve had tendonitis, an MRI scan on a knee (fortunately revealing nothing worse than normal wear and tear) and a number of accidents. Last autumn I tripped while running the Ridgeway near the Whiteleaf Cross and hurtled into a bed of exposed flint. Fortunately I was able to run home, albeit covered in blood and dirt and nursing a broken thumb, which was in a splint for the next six weeks.

Luckily, writing isn’t so physically dangerous but it can be just as brutal in terms of its demands on free time and the sacrifices required to embark on the huge task of writing a novel — the Coombe Hill race with its ‘climb the biggest hill the hardest way possible’ ethos is an apt comparison.

The different distances in running offer up parallels. Maybe a short poem or a piece of flash fiction is like running the 100m? The short, intense product of a lot of training. A short story might be more middle distance — 800m perhaps — with elements of the long haul but still speedy.

A novel is pure marathon. Metaphors abound. Consider the gruelling preparation, the need to hang in there for long haul when every sensible muscle in your body wants to stop, the inevitability of hitting ‘the wall’ — yet all these masochistic hardships are forgotten in the glow of satisfaction of  achieving the goal. (I have to imagine this as, despite entering the ballot for London several times, I’ve never run a marathon but I’ve done several half-marathons, which are pretty tough.)

And the process of getting your writing published stands comparison with running a long, tough race. Some people don’t enter, despite having the ability to complete. Some shoot off ahead: maybe they succeed quickly; maybe they burn out with exhaustion. Others, having started, calculate the effort isn’t worth the reward and withdraw.

Sometimes the course is uneven — a steep downhill slop where you pick up speed and think you’re rushing ahead is followed by a lung-busting, leg-trembling climb that leaves you wondering why on earth you chose to put yourself through this ordeal in the first place. But with friends and bystanders cheering you on, offering moral support, you pace yourself — discover the limits of what you’re able to put into the race, dig deep and realise you’re still enjoying it.

As happens in the Wycombe Half Marathon, you might pass very close to the finishing line but then be directed away for a further agonising stretch before you turn into the last straight but with the finishing line appearing to be way in the distance. But if you keep on moving, you’ll keep on closing in. If you stop you’ll never make it.

My Wycombe Half Marathon Finishers' Running Shirt 2015
My Wycombe Half Marathon Finishers’ Running Shirt 2015

Update: 12th July 2015 

As mentioned above, I entered the Wycombe Half Marathon this year, as I have for the last five years or so. It’s a course for masochists as it has a huge hill right at the start (up through Wycombe Abbey).

Running the race today, I had plenty of chance to put my ruminations on perseverance into practice. I’d run a relatively comfortable race at a slow(ish) but achievable pace (on course for a finish between 2hrs 10 and 2hrs 15) when at the 8 mile stage I felt a sharp pain on my forehead. I’d been stung by some sort of insect. I tend to react badly and unpredictably to insect stings and bites and I was worried enough about an adverse reaction to run back to the water station and ask a marshal if I could be checked by the first aiders.

At one point they wanted to take me to the minor injuries unit at Wycombe hospital but I managed to get seen by the St. John Ambulance people instead. I didn’t seem to have any bad reaction apart from the sting itself so they gave me an antihistamine tablet. This all took so long (I had to fill in forms and so on) that the last runners were just passing as I finished. I was given the option of a lift back to the finish but I decided I’d carry on running and try to complete the remaining five miles — as the last runner in the race. I managed to catch a few of the other runners so didn’t have the ignominy of finishing last and I even managed a little surge at the finish to beat the 2hr 40 mark by a few seconds. Then it was into the St. John Ambulance medical tent to be checked over by the nurse.

‘Are you feeling short of breath?’

‘Well, no more than usual after running 13 miles!’

Officially Qualified!

A Qualified Writer?
A Qualified Writer?


It’s been so long (over a year) since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation (i.e. novel) for marking by Manchester Metropolitan University that it was quite a surprise when a stiff-backed envelope arrived through my letterbox a few weeks ago.

So, documentary proof that I’m a qualified creative writer. Unfortunately, rather than being framed and displayed on the wall (apparently toilets are meant to be the place to hang these things for the ironically self-deprecating of us) the certificate is still languishing in a big pile of other post and papers (lots of not-so-nice things like credit card bills).

Something for the Smallest Room?
Something for the Smallest Room?

Such is the course structure, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to celebrate before receiving the official certificate: when I submitted the final draft; when I received the results of the dissertation, meaning I’d passed; when the examination committee sent me a letter saying they’d ratified the marks and I’d officially graduated. I could have attended the graduation ceremony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester but, having done the whole thing online up until that point, I decided to celebrate my graduation virtually instead.

Of course, the question now is how much doing the MA has advanced my writing career compared with the JFDI school of just getting my head down and writing  — something many other writers have been hard at doing in November with NaNoWriMo.

I’ve meant to try and commit to NaNoWriMo myself for the past couple of years and had hoped to do this year. Whether I’d complete the 60,000 words in a month would depend on balancing my perfectionist instincts to go back over a piece of writing and revise it several times with my ability to bang work out to a demanding deadline.  (I can work at a fast pace right up to a deadline as I did with the stories I had performed at Liars League stories, which were submitted just before the midnight cut-off on submission day and I can quite happily draft up 1,200 words in a couple of hours, as I did at last weekend).

I’m sure NaNoWriMo works for many people because it provides a similar sort of external pressure which is probably the second most valuable aspect of having done the MMU MA and City University course (and the OU and various other courses before that). If something has to be submitted by a date then the tendency to hone the writing by making lots of small incremental changes can’t be indulged indefinitely. The most valuable aspect of doing the courses has been, of course, the wonderful feedback that is generously given by peers and the expert recommendations of the tutors.

Nevertheless, an MA in Creative Writing is less of a guarantee of gaining a foothold in a profession than probably any other higher degree. While study and passing assessments and exams are necessary to join professions like the law, medicine, accountancy and many scientific specialisms, the path to becoming a ‘proper’ writer is much less clear cut.

In fact, when you talk with writers, the definition of when you actually become a writer is often rather nebulous and open to interpretation, partly because so many people who’ve published a book (or maybe lots of books) still have to work at their ‘day jobs’ in order to make a reasonable living. (One agent told me that he though it was odd to the point of endearing that lots of aspiring writers talked about their ‘day jobs’ — because so many published writers have other careers that it’s quite a rarity for any writer’s day job actually to be writing for a living — or writing fiction, at least, as opposed to journalism, copywriting, etc.)

So the time and money spent getting an MA in Creative Writing isn’t going to gain you automatic entry into the writing profession, however one defines that.But what it ought to do is equip you with the techniques, tools and, probably most importantly, the practice to make you more capable of writing a novel (or poem or play or memoir — whatever the genre) that will stand a far better chance of reaching an audience. I’d guess that the people who say they’re content to write solely for their own pleasure are probably less likely to go through the course or writing group approach because of the need to share your work with an audience whose opinions on it  (not always positive) are discussed in detail.

In my case, and I suspect for most other students too, it’s gaining an audience for your work that’s one of the biggest attractions of a course — both in the direct sense of the feedback from tutors and other students and the indirect sense of training you to write work that’s capable of reaching the reading public.

Any decent creative writing course will also teach you that to reach that public (at least for the traditional publishing routes) the first step is to find representation by a literary agent — and an agent presentation is usually part of an MA course and they will often turn up at end of course readings and the like. However, the biggest concentration of agents in one place is at writers’ conferences, such as the York Festival of Writing or the similar festival in Winchester.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win the prize of lunch at Edwins, a very nice restaurant in Borough High Street, with Isabel Costello through a competition on her excellent blog The Literary Sofa, which has been mentioned in one of my previous posts. Isabel was signed up by agent Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath as a direct result of attending last year’s York Festival of Writing. Over lunch I had a great opportunity to ask Isabel about her experiences of the past year as an ‘agented’ writer. Coincidentally she wrote a very honest and informative post on this subject on her blog, which generated an astonishing number of comments.

It’s a fascinating and upbeat read about Isabel’s relationship with her agent (although some of the long list of nearly 100 comments could potentially be subtitled What They Don’t Teach You on Creative Writing Courses). I won’t paraphrase the post here but the original post (and the many comments) highlight how the publishing industry currently works. There are many talented writers who’ve written great novels which, even with the committed and enthusiastic support of their agents, haven’t been sold to publishers. (And because agents get a commission on their authors’ earnings, they don’t make a penny if a novel’s not taken up, despite potentially spending a considerable amount of time working on a book with a client.)

That said, of all the writers I’ve met who’ve not yet had a book taken up by a publisher (as opposed to those whose novels have been published or are already in the pipeline) the only one who I know has achieved a publishing deal for definite is a friend from the MA course (more details on that great news next year). Of course it’s likely that some of my ‘agented’ friends have some good news that’s under wraps or whose novels will successfully negotiate the slow-moving machinery of the publishing industry but that known success is a positive testament to the MMU MA.

(I haven’t forgotten that one of my City University coursemates, Jennifer Gray, has

Jennifer Gray's Latest Atticus Claw Story
Jennifer Gray’s Latest Atticus Claw Story

published an extraordinary number of excellent, and well reviewed children’s books over the last couple of years — Atticus Claw, Guinea Pigs Online and the chicken books — but Jennifer had these moving along the pipeline when we met on the Certificate in Novel Writing.)

Reasons why books are sold or not can be very capricious — often reflecting what’s selling in the market at that moment (‘I want the next…’) based on factors that writers can’t influence, bearing in mind the time spent writing a novel (even the most ardent NaNoWriMo fan would concede that a novel written in a month represents a first draft that will benefit from much revision).

What Isabel’s blog post mentions is the importance of the hook or concept in selling a book to an agent (a subject that I used with respect to the film world in my Liars League story Elevator Pitch). She says her new novel, of which she’s just completed the first draft, is more focused on the hook than her first was (perhaps the benefit of discussion with her agent) but I’m sworn to secrecy about what it is. Isabel’s experience in this respect might be more valuable than elements of serious creative writing courses because, in my experience, these focus more on developing skills and competences in one’s writing in a way that can be applied to the prose and to the structure of the novel itself.

Courses are largely agnostic about the subject matter of a book. If you want to write a precisely observed story about, say, people sitting on a sofa watching TV in a suburb of Manchester then that’s fine, as might be writing about a civilisation-threatening  invasion of supernatural zombies from another dimension. Talk to an agent and they might not only help you develop a novel with a killer hook but point you in the direction of the type of killer hook that’s snagging editors.

I’ve sometimes wondered why editors or agents, with their knowledge of what’s hot in the market, don’t use a Hollywood screenplay model and hire a bunch of talented writers to write a blockbuster to order. I guess there’s at least three reasons:

  1. No-one’s actually that sure what will work in the market or how long a trend will last — certainly not sure enough to pay people up front to write a book on spec.
  2. There are so many unsolicited manuscripts arriving from aspiring writers anyway that enough publishable and marketable books with irresistible selling points will be submitted anyway
  3. That writers, agents and editors see books as something more than commodities to be marketed – that they’re intensely personal to both reader and author and that the success of a novel is more about serendipity and catching the Zeitgeist than any carefully designed marketing plan.

And if number three is the most overriding of reasons then that’s, in my mind, another justification for taking the writing course route. If there’s no way of second guessing the market (and no winning short-cuts for attracting the attention of agents and editors) then the only way to do so is to write what you feel you have to write from the heart and make sure you’re practiced enough at the craft of writing to do the novel justice. I’m hoping the process of gaining the certificate proudly displayed at the top of the post will have taken a considerable way along the road to achieving that level of skill.

I’d love to hear other writers thoughts on MAs (worthwhile or an academic distraction?) and I’ll happily answer any questions put in the comments section on my own experience.

As a sad postscript to the post above, I was very saddened to hear about the death of one of my previous creative writing teachers, Dinesh Allirajah. Dinesh was a tutor on an online course I took with the University of Lancaster in 2009 that bridged the period between finishing my Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and the City Certificate in Novel Writing. I remember that his extremely positive comments on the prose fiction I submitted in my portfolio was one of the first pieces of feedback that suggested to me that I’d be capable of writing a novel. Dinesh kept up a blog throughout his illness, which he catalogued with fortitude and good humour. His last post can be found here. He was only, I believe, in his forties and he leaves a family with teenage sons. His legacy will hopefully live on through the many students he inspired.

Another Year Over…

And I’m wondering where on earth did 2013 go? Certainly not writing lots of blog posts — it’s been a very lax six weeks since the last update — but if I get this post published today then I’ll at least have posted a blog entry in each month of the year.

Writing more frequent (and shorter) blog posts will have to be one of 2014’s New Year resolutions. I’ve had several absolutely fascinating (he says) posts mulling in my mind over the past few months but I’ve not found time to commit them to cyberspace.

Oxford Street's 2013 Snow Globes
Suitably Seasonal –Oxford Street’s 2013 Snow Globes

At this reflective time, it’s tempting to look back and wonder what happened during the preceding 365 days. In many ways I’m doing the same day-to-day as I have for the last few years. I’m still writing, tweeting and doing a day-job. I’ve been enjoying my time in London as much as I did at in 2012 (when I wrote a post last New Year’s Eve celebrating what a remarkable experience 2012 in London had been).

I started this blog in earnest in January 2010 — when its principal purpose was to follow my progress through the City University Certificate in Novel Writing. I doubt that I’d have expected to be still blogging about my continuing development as a fiction writer — three years of an MA following the City course would have seemed a long slog back then.

So, in some ways it seems that little is different but these are probably the most superficial. In a deeper sense this blog has recorded much more profound changes — the huge amount I’ve learned about writing, how the skills I’ve developed have matured and how my perspective is much better aligned to the commercial realities and demands of the publishing world.

I spent time this summer revising some of the first sections of the novel. These were written back in 2010 and, while reading the material was surprisingly pleasurable, I feel I’ve improved as a writer very significantly.

And, as well as learning and honing a craft, I’ve enjoyed some brilliantly sociable and stimulating times with so many other creative people along the way.

I’ve been so busy that it’s easy to lose sight of two major achievements that happened in 2013: I finished my three-year MA Creative Writing course and, in doing so, completed as good a draft of my novel as possible. Sure it would benefit from some more work — I’m sure virtually all writers would like to polish their work were it not for deadlines — but I’ve reached that fundamental milestone.

And it’s a novel that I’m proud of having written — with characters I haven’t tired of in over three years (the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to them is the flip side of this coin) and imho the novel says many things worth saying about life in contemporary Britain. Possibly the best compliment of the 2013 was when one of our ex-City writing group, who’s not afraid to be critical, read the whole manuscript and said it was ‘a terrific read’.

Completing a novel is such a massive undertaking that I have huge respect for anyone else who shows the necessary qualities of perseverance, motivation and self-belief required, especially if fitting it in around work or other commitments. That’s in addition to any innate writing ability. I don’t particularly agree with the aphorisms often tweeted that suggest that talent is commonplace whereas it’s hard work that’s rare but completing a novel is a certainly a slog that requires a lot of sacrifice.

I’ve been careful to say I finished the MA course — another achievement in persistence — but I’m yet to find out if I’ve passed. I’ll get the official results in June so hopefully, this time in 2014 I can say I’m in possession of a Masters degree in Creative Writing.

Now the course is over, it’s probably fair to say that, for all of us, taking a long course like an MA or the year-long City Certificate (now Novel Studio) isn’t the fastest way to write a novel. There’s a lot of time spent on absorbing best practice from established writers’ texts, workshopping and critiquing with other students, engaging in discussion, learning about aspects of the publishing industry, writing in other forms (as I did for my screenplay in the MA) and writing assignments. It’s surprising there’s enough time left to even make a start on the novel. However, all who complete these courses should emerge much better equipped to go on to write more successfully in the long-term.

We’re promised feedback on our completed novels in mid-January. This seemed a rather distant date when I submitted the novel in early October, when my instinct was to try to finish work on it and move on to something new as soon as possible. However, if the forthcoming feedback is as comprehensive as the university have suggested then I guess I ought to be prepared to go back to the manuscript and act on any recommendations. The novel should have been read by at least two markers and also externally moderated so a fresh perspective will be really valuable (especially when compared with the cost of other manuscript appraisal services).

The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill
The Vine (or Bull and Bladder), Brierley Hill              (none of the above is Kerry!)

And I finally met up with one of my virtual coursemates. About six weeks after the novel submission deadline I was in Birmingham visiting some classic pubs with friends and took a detour to the Black Country to have a very pleasant chat in person with Kerry Hadley. We met, appropriately for my novel, at a famous pub — The Vine in Brierley Hill — otherwise known as the Bull and Bladder. What a spectacular sunset too. I’m sure that during 2014 a publisher would like to snap up Kerry’s excellent novel from the MA course. Maybe I’ll finally get to meet up with Anne in 2014 — another who survived until the bitter end?

Sunset Over Brierley Hill, November 2013
Sunset Over Brierley Hill, November 2013

So if 2013 was about completing the novel and the MA course. 2014’s resolutions are going to be about trying to get it published — a process that’s probably going to be long, difficult, frustrating — the archetypical emotional roller-coaster. Time to develop a thick, calloused skin? As mentioned previously, I’m not going to catalogue the submission saga on the blog. However, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the process at networking events like the York Festival of Writing (where I received some excellent one-to-one feedback from a couple of agents), London Writers’ Cafe (I slurped a large G&T at the Christmas party) and London Writers’ Club. I’ve also exchanged notes with many other writers over Twitter and email so I have a reasonably informed idea of which agents I perhaps ought to approach. In most cases I’ve seen the agents speak or had short conversations with them myself, which makes the process less daunting (or perhaps more so in some cases). 

(Having said that, should an agent I’ve not met or listened to stumble across this blog is interested in reading some of the novel then please get in touch!)

2013 has also been tremendously encouraging for me as several writing friends and acquaintances have achieved success — showing that signing with an agent and getting a book published happens to people who’ve followed a similar route to myself. I wrote a post in the late summer about the great news of Rick Kellum from my City course being signed by Juliet Mushens. I heard recently that Bren Gosling, also from the City course, and who’s often commented on this blog, has also been taken on by a leading literary agency.

Also, Isabel Costello (who I last saw at Anastasia Parkes’s ‘interesting session’ at the York Festival of Writing — see post below) of the excellent On the Literary Sofa blog I’ve mentioned on this site, has also recently been signed by Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath for her debut novel. In all the above cases, I know the writers have worked extremely hard on revising and reworking their novels over a long period and their achievements are very well deserved.

A few weeks ago I also met with Jennifer Gray from the City course who’s been working extremely hard on her rapidly growing number of children’s books. In 2013 she had the fantastic news of being shortlisted for the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize for Atticus Claw Breaks the Law — the first of the Atticus series. A search for Jennifer Gray on the Waterstones website comes up with at least ten books — including the Guinea Pigs online series and the intriguing Chicken series which will be published in 2014.

Talking to Jennifer has given me an insight into the commercial demands of the publishing world — with deadlines for submitting, revising and proofing new titles stretching many months ahead. She’s also a practising barrister and has a family so I’m in awe of her industry — again another example that, in addition to talent, published writers need to put in a lot of hard work. In my case, with course deadlines no longer a factor, I perhaps need that sort of external discipline to give me a kick up the backside every so often (not that Jennifer needs one herself, I’m sure).


St. James's Park -- Where Parts of the Novel Were Written in the Summer
St. James’s Park — Where Parts of the Novel Were Written in the Summer

Like many other writers, I’ve also been juggling the demands of the ‘day job’ with making time for writing — which often feels like I’m burning the candle at both ends — sometimes trying to eke out time to write from what’s available in the rest of the day, even maybe a token effort of writing a few sentences.

In many ways the writing is like taking on a second job — one with a long, unpaid apprenticeship except with myself as boss to sporadically crack the whip. It often seems I have to snatch time to write: on the train, at lunchtimes (sometimes in St. James’s Park), unearthly hours of the day and night and at the expense of more conventional weekend pursuits (such as the urgent repairs required to my disintegrating garden shed — I’m sure Roald Dahl’s famous writing shed didn’t have a gaping hole in the roof).

A Mobile Writing 'Office' run by Chiltern Railways
A Mobile Writing ‘Office’ run by Chiltern Railways

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to write tens of thousands of words in 2013 — and also cut several thousand too in the process of editing, revising and proofing a completed draft. I must have found a writing routine that’s sufficiently accommodating. Of course, it remains an ambition to make writing bring in enough income so that I can have some dedicated, professional writing time. On the other hand, I guess putting in so many hours up to this point shows how much I must enjoy writing for its own sake and also my belief that this work will pay off in the long run.

So I start 2014 hoping that this might be the year that all that time writing and studying will pay dividends. Whatever happens I’m looking forward to starting to write the new novel that I’ve been writing in my head and jotting down ideas for while completing The Angel.

But to see in the New Year I’m going to do some well-earned research — and, considering the main setting of the novel, where else to do it but in the local village pub? I even wrote a scene in the summer set at The Angel’s chaotic New Year’s party. I hope no-one’s end of year celebrations are quite as bizarre as my fictional pub’s musical celebration — singer-songwriter Jason’s ‘whiny-voiced set about dusky maidens and mysterious sex beasts’.

So good luck and the best of wishes to everyone who’s read the blog or who whose company I’ve enjoyed in any writing-related (or other) way during the last twelve months. Let’s look forward to 2014 and hope it brings all of us something of what we’re hoping for.

A Bit of Sex on the Literary Sofa

I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.

Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fiction and it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.

It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.

I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.

There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.

In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.

Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’

This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.

Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that  ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.

There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).

Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.

I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.

I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).

Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.

Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).

Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times – stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.

Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).

Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’

It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either.  Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.

I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.

It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.

(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)

It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.

It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.

Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.

As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.

Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).

While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent.  (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.

Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.

While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.

If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices.  I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour.  And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.

Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.

And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.

Eurovision, Bowie and Homogeneity

It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.

Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.

Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)

The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.

Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.

And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.

Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.

Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?

And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.

My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection
My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection

For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?

Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?

Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?

I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.

Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).

While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.

Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.

(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).

What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)


Radio Times 25th May 2013
Radio Times 25th May 2013

I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.

It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.

From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.

Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings.  (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)

That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.

The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’

Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.

‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’

Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.

The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).

The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).

Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.

The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?

I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.

In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.

David Bowie Is Inside
David Bowie Is Inside

The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.

While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?

It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.

I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.

A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.

We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.

This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.

It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.

But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?

While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.

My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.

One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’

There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.

Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.

While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.

Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books).  I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.

The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.

‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.

I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.

The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.

Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.

Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.

I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.

The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.

Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.

The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?

Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’  approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.