My short story Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? was selected as a winner for this month’s Liars’ League London event (see previous post for an account of its selection and the rehearsal).
It was performed last Tuesday evening by Alex Woodhall and, as the Liars video all the stories, the reading is now available on Youtube (along with the other four excellent stories by Ursula Dewey, Kassalina Boto, Philip Suggars and Eleanore Etienne (co-incidentally a fellow graduate of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing — now the Novel Studio).
The video is embedded below. It lasts just over fifteen minutes.
My story was the last on the bill, which meant me enduring an evening of nervous anticipation, although this was eased a little by my consumption of more than a couple of drinks on the house. I made such good use of this unexpected author benefit that I turned up at Marylebone station suddenly realising I’d lost an hour somewhere (chatting to the actors, other writers and organisers I think) so had to get the slow, stopping train and didn’t get home until nearly 1 am. The next day I felt like one of my characters the morning after the story’s night before.
I was very grateful for the company of several friends who came along to support me, including Rachel and Bren Gosling from the City course, my writer friend Fay and Sabina, the street art guru (see previous posts). There were a couple more people from the City course who were intending to come but who were beset by last-minute hold-ups.
It was a fantastic evening — the downstairs bar at the Phoenix was packed-out. I reckon there were well over a hundred people. I needn’t have fretted about the reception for my story — Alex read with such verve and superb comic timing that the audience’s attention seemed to be seized for the whole fifteen minutes it took to reach its climax — and with plenty of laughs heard along the way (thankfully I didn’t imagine them — they’re on the video).
I was flattered afterwards to receive some enthusiastic compliments about the story, not only from friends (Bren wrote me a wonderfully congratulatory email) but also from some encouraging comments made via Twitter and Facebook. And the story’s characters appeared to have been vivid enough to pass the crucial ‘what happened next?’ test. I bumped into one of the other authors on the tube on the way back and she asked me ‘Did they go on to have sex? I think they did.’ If you want to see if you agree with her then listen to the story — I’d be very interested in blog readers’ opinions.
Having a winning story for the Liars League would be great news at any time but it was particularly welcome for me at present — a couple of months after the much-anticipated results of the MA novel dissertation — when I’m still wrestling with a few changes to the end of the novel prompted by the feedback. It’s also been five months since the MA draft of the novel was handed in — so it’s been brilliant to had have this event to give real impetus to my writing.
I can also draw some motivation because, while it’s a self-contained work, Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line? perhaps unsurprisingly shares similarities with the novel: genre, setting, brand of humour. While the narrative perspective is different –it’s first-person, present tense — the dynamics between the characters are reminiscent of some scenes in the novel — the tensions and awkwardness of trying to guess the intentions of others whom one cares about — or wants to. That the story was picked as a winner and enjoyed apparently positive reaction of the audience encourages me to think there’s a market for more — at least a novel’s worth I hope.
Besides the thrill of hearing my words read expertly by a professional, the Liars League experience also allowed me to get some insight into my writing from a refreshing and almost unique perspective. One of the great mysteries of the writing process is that all readers interpret fiction in their own personal way — a skilled author employs words economically enough to communicate the essence of the story’s action while prompting the reader’s imagination to invoke scenery and background.
It’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act: too little exposition and the reader will fail to grasp vital elements of the narrative; too much detail and the pace will falter and the reader will be swamped and bored — and in a short story there are far fewer words than a novel to play with.
Working with the Liars League actor and editors, and also sitting in the audience and observing the reaction of people hearing the story for the first time, provided valuable insights into what worked in my story and what didn’t — and also how the Liars had imagined the action, setting and characters. While the event is a reading, the actors can dress to some degreein costume and their delivery, spoken and non-verbal, projects their own interpretation of character, particularly for first person narratives.
It is, therefore, rather the opposite of the sort of forensic collective copy-edit of prose that risk bogging down Creative Writing workshopping sessions (‘I’m really not convinced by that comma). Nor, because the story has won through the selection procedures, will it be the kind of creative writing workshopping experience when, for the best of intentions, workshoppers’ suggestions extend a little past the scope of a structural edit: it would be great if turned your shy, sensitive artist character into a grizzled Scottish trawlerman possessed by an alien or why not relocate your novel from a Deptford loft apartment to a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre? ‘It’ll up the conflict and sense of place’.
Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in a workshop the written text can be seen as something malleable and interactive — when it’s read out loud as a story it seems much more fixed psychologically.
Often writers are asked to read out their own prose in Creative Writing workshops before it is discussed — this was the way the City University Certificate worked, although I don’t know how the Novel Studio handles it. This has its merits — certainly reading out loud exposes clumsiness in phrasing and the rhythm of the prose that often lies undetected when read silently on the page — I always read drafts of my novel out loud for that reason. Reading a piece in a class also ensures that any less conscientious students, who’ve not prepared properly, will know what’s goingabout to be discussed.
Nevertheless, a writer who has an aptitude for reading out loud will always breathe extra life into prose whereas a hesitant, self-conscious monotone will muffle the merits of the word on the page (most writers I know tend slightly towards the latter). Also, a writer will always know his or her own intentions — where to place the emphasis, what type of voice or accent to use for a character or narrator — even if this isn’t evident on the page and, consequently, not communicated to a reader of the written word.
If a piece is to be read out loud in a Creative Writing workshop, I prefer it to be read by another student. This lets the writer hear the words spoken by a reader new to the work and takes away any direction that’s not explicit from the text itself. It gives an insight into how an ordinary reader might encounter the writing on the page.
That’s why Liars League was so illuminating. From my experience at the rehearsal (see previous post) Katy Darby and Liam Hogan, the editors, had clearly made a connection with the voice in the narrative and cast Alex in the part accordingly. It was very satisfying to me, as the writer, that they’d also picked up the subtle dynamics between the three principal characters, even when this was only hinted at with a line or two in the story. The changes they suggested to the text served to increase clarity and remove ambiguity.
Alex also made contributions of the type a reader might unconsciously add to the text. He’d decided the character Anja was Icelandic — which I thought was a great — there’s nothing in the text to suggest any nationality beyond her name and the rhythm of her speech. He also used some great comic timing to emphasise lines that I’d hoped might raise some amusement if read as I’d intended by an ordinary reader but, when spoken to an audience, raised a proper laugh — the ‘distressed [BEAT] brick’ being a great example.
(One of the advantages of writing plays or screenplays is the ability to add in [BEAT]s or other direction that’s not seen by the audience.)
Despite having written the words, it was a process of discovery for me to see how the story came alive in the minds of other people. The imaginary world of the story as viewed through the lens of Alex’s performance was different to what I’d envisaged while writing it — but that’s the magical property of fiction — everyone has their own interpretation.
So while it was an honour and a great pleasure to have my story selected and read by the Liars’ League, I also learned a surprising amount from the experience about my writing, how it’s interpreted by other people and how I can improve it. And it’s for that reason, as well as being a great literary night out in the pub, that I’d wholeheartedly recommend other writers submit their short stories to the Liars — either for truth or dare.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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).
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).
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.
It’s four weeks since the end of my intense period of editing that finished with me frantically e-mailing my novel manuscript to the printers and bookbinders and heading up the Holloway Road to have the satisfaction of picking up my own copies.
The printers sent two bound copies directly to Manchester Metropolitan University — who kept me in suspense a while before acknowledging receipt. I felt relieved when I eventually received a confirmation e-mail, although I now need to wait until late June to hear whether I’ve made the grade.
Many people I’ve spoken to about the course have been quite incredulous about this nine month delay in communicating students’ marks. It’s apparently because the awards committee only sits once a year (in the summer) and, as we part-time students are given until the start of the next academic year to write our novels, we have to wait for our marks to be confirmed when all the conventionally scheduled English and Creative Writing courses are assessed at the end of 2013-4.
(Since submitting the novel I’ve now heard that MMU have changed their schedule so they intend to give us our marks and feedback by mid-January next year — at which point we should know whether we’re going to graduate but will still have to wait until the summer for it to be official.)
While it would be nice to be able to put the letters MA after my name (should I pass) it’s been the process of taking the course that’s been of much more value to me than gaining the qualification.
After all, agents and publishers don’t look at the Creative Writing MA on a graduate’s CV and immediately decide to your manuscript will do the business for them.
But the process of taking the course and sticking with it to the end ought to show evidence of many desirable qualities in a writer. At York Festival of Writing, one agent in particular told me how much she likes Creative Writing MA students and graduates. Other agents have also said that a mention of an MA in a covering letter means that will give a submission more serious consideration on the grounds that the writer has invested time and money in improving their own writing.
Completing an MA course should demonstrate:
The standard of your writing as a whole has met (and maintained) the quality criteria of the course admissions tutor — for the MA I needed to have my own creative writing assessed as well as a piece of criticism
The potential to take a professional attitude towards your writing — motivation and enthusiasm are some of the qualities that are examined in the interview process. Also, students on an MA course have to be able to take and receive criticism and feedback from both students and tutors
An ability to deliver work to deadlines — not only the final novel but several other pieces of academic work must be submitted on time. There are also many other dates that that have to be met — when it’s your turn to distribute a 3,000 word extract for discussion — or to send another writer feedback on their work. The MMU course was structured so that, at times, each student was expected to provide a new section every second or third week — it could be an intense schedule.
You can write a novel! At the end of the course, at least for MMU, you should have a work that’s potentially publishable that can be before an agent — if you don’t you’ll fail.
Unlike the MMU course, not all MA courses insist on a novel length piece of work be submitted as a final assessment. Given that the MMU 60,000 minimum word count is about four times the length of a typical academic Masters level dissertation then some courses might not consider this length of assessment necessary (in terms of course credits the novel forms 60 out of 180 points overall — only 20 more than the much shorter Transmission project).
But it’s been the experience of writing a novel-length piece that’s been the most valuable aspect of the course for me and it’s by completing the draft, going back and revising and altering and grappling with the many tentacled octopus that has taught me lessons that can’t be taught as theory.
I’ll be much better prepared to write the next novel purely by pushing myself through the experience of completing The Angel and, in that regard, MMU’s decision to devote the third year of the course to independent writing with one-to-one support from a tutor might ultimately teach students as much as in the more formally taught sections of the course.
I found an interesting blog post by Andrew Wille, who was a ‘book doctor’ at the York Festival of Writing: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing . It’s worth reading the post for his list of recommended writing books, including several I’ve read such as the excellent Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, Harry Bingham’s pragmatic How to Write, the amusing How Not To Write A Noveland the ubiquitous Stephen King book.
Andrew Wille has substantial experience of teaching and studying writing and argues that any novel submitted for a Creative Writing MA will need substantial revision before it’s commercially publishable (and often more than one redrafting).
Having gone through the MA experience I don’t disagree — read the comments after his blog post and you’ll see a conversation between us on the subject.
Despite the apparently leisurely deadline, I’d guess that most of the novels submitted for MA deadlines only come together very near the end of the writing process as long, organic, rich works formed of interdependent strands. Their writers might therefore benefit from a period of reflection at the complexity of the work they’ve created.
And the writers wouldn’t likely to be taking an MA if it wasn’t the first time they’d worked so seriously on a novel to the point of its completion. So any MA novel is likely to undergo plenty of changes if it’s taken up by an agent and publisher — but at least the novel exists.
It’s probably inevitable from workshopping in 3,000 and 5,000 words discrete segments for the MA course and writing groups that the finished work when it’s put together bears a risk of repetition.
When writing sections to be presented out of context, it’s difficult not to anticipate comments and questions from readers who may have last encountered the story weeks or months ago: there’s a temptation (perhaps unconscious) to drop in a piece of exposition or dialogue that illustrates just why a certain character might behave in a particular way or to establish setting or theme.
It’s not too difficult to spot the blatant repetitions but it’s harder to identify actions or dialogue in scenes that perhaps do the same job as examples in other sections but do so in subtly different ways. It’s a tough judgement call to cull these, especially when they might be also serving another purpose in the novel. It’s another example of where workshopping in sections doesn’t recreate the experience of a ‘real world’ reader who’d hopefully have conjured up their own unique interpretation of the novel having read the novel as a continuous whole.
On the other hand, to avoid embarrassing themselves with work littered with typos, clumsy phrasing and bad grammar, I’ve noticed that most students and writing group participants will polish the extracts they present for workshopping to a standard that’s far above first draft.
I tend to write a first draft, print it, revise it on paper, make alterations in the manuscript, then read it aloud again and proof-read before I’ll send the work out for comment. That’s more like third or fourth draft — and still typos creep through. But this ought to mean — in addition to the copy editing and proof reading before the final submission — that novels produced on MA courses are probably presented in a more respectable state than the average manuscript an agent will receive, even if structural changes are required.
I hinted in the last blog post that the location of my novel/dissertation printers on the Holloway Road was a little serendipitous. It’s because the famously grimy, largely down-at-heel north London road was often my route to City University for the Certificate in Novel Writing — and it’s likely many of the ideas that formed the conception of the novel were mulled over while stuck in its traffic jams.
My journey down the Holloway Road started from a grotesquely ugly office block where I was working at the time which was stranded in the middle of a housing estate on the very margins of Luton.
While I’m sure the local area was a perfectly acceptable place to live — it was one of the more desirable areas of Luton — it wasn’t exactly thrilling as a location to spend one’s working day. The only ‘entertainment’ nearby was an Asda and a small parade of local shops containing an Iceland, various takeaways and an estate pub.
Nevertheless, the Asda had quite a sizeable book section and I used to think (and still do) that it would be a great ambition to have a book of mine on sale there. Of course Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Waterstones on Piccadilly would be great, as would all the wonderful independent booksellers, but making it to the shelves of Asda in Luton would make a different sort of statement.
At lunchtimes I escaped by running around the pleasant country lanes that lay beyond the suburban sprawl. I sometimes did a bit of writing in the office and remember getting inspiration for a poem I wrote for an OU course from all the plastic carrier bags being blown into the branches of trees in the scrubby wasteland behind the office — it was that kind of place.
It was the safe, uniform suburban location that, for different reasons, would drive both the leading characters in the novel absolutely crazy — and in retrospect the city versus country conflict and the themes of escape and ambition in the novel may well be rooted in the journey from Luton to Islington.
When I was working in the office, I’d leave on Mondays and Wednesdays around five, drive past the airport, barrel down the M1, then take the A1 through Henlys Corner and under the bridge at Archway, from where I had a glimpse of one of those marvellous, tantalising views where London suddenly reveals itself — the Gherkin, Tower 42, Barbican and other City towers (the Shard was yet to be built) rising in the distance.
Then it was a crawl along the Holloway Road, dodging buses and stopping at traffic lights every hundred yards, but I got to know the road well — the tube station, the bizarre architecture of the London Metropolitan University’s new extension, the art deco Odeon and the Wetherspoon conversion of the Coronet cinema.
Holloway Road shares similar characteristics to other areas adjoining large football grounds — a lot of rather folorn looking takeaways and pubs that do most of their business on match-days.
Once I drove obliviously down the road just before an Arsenal Champions’ League game. Even taking my usual shortcut down Liverpool Road to avoid Highbury and Islington roundabout and Upper Street, I was caught between coaches and police vans and ended up a stressed three-quarters of an hour late for the City tutorial.
So the Holloway Road represented the twice-weekly transition I made from the Home Counties to the centre of London — the scruffy but vital artery that connected the inner-city cool of Islington and slightly edgy Finsbury, where City University’s campus is located in the middle of one of the closest pockets of social housing to the centre of London.
Many other routes in and out of London are fast dual-carriageways or even rise on viaducts above the zone two fringes, like the A40 Westway that I normally used to drive home. Unlike these, the traveller on the A1 Holloway Road experiences the grinding pace of city life. While nowhere near as hip, it’s not too unlike the Great Eastern Street/Commercial Street area that features in the novel.
The place also has associations with the City course as one of the students set part of her novel in the area. She wrote beautifully and she described very evocatively the experience of living just off the Holloway Road, albeit a few years ago when it perhaps held its connections with the lost London of the mid-20th century a little more strongly (there was a famous eccentric department store whose name escapes me). But the writing confirmed a sense of latent oddball seediness — an area in a liminal zone between gentrified Islington and Highgate and the grittier localities, generally to the east.
The road does seem to have something of a middle-class foothold amongst the seediness — with even a Waitrose in its smartest sections. However, the Highbury and Islington end is still more kebab house than cup cake.
So it was oddly appropriate that over three years later when the novel was finished (in its MA submission form) that it would be printed right next to the road I’d regularly driven down when I first started writing it. Collis, Bird and Withey, whose service overnight service I’d recommend, are just in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium (and I’ve made James an Arsenal fan in the novel).
And as a further little co-incidence bonus, I walked past this cafe below on the way back to the tube station with my bound manuscripts in hand. Anyone who’s read the start of the novel will spot the reason.
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 Fictionand 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
It’s a slightly cheesy caption for the above photo but those in the know will also recognise it as the name of a pub near Old Street, on the edge of Shoreditch and the place I ended up with the Love Art London group after the graffiti tour.
And even though I took it myself, I have to say I love the above photograph. It perfectly sums up the sense of place and the spirit of Shoreditch that I try to capture in part of the novel.
Itâ€™s not the most brilliant quality photograph (I took it with my phone), neither is it as well composed as it could be â€“ but the spontaneity of the moment is what makes it.
Theyâ€™re a little hard to spot at first but itâ€™s a bride and groom on the right of the picture, being posed by their wedding photographer. And rather than a verdant churchyard theyâ€™ve chosen to use Ben Eineâ€™s colourful mural on Ebor Street in Shoreditch. (Thereâ€™s a more sombre grey and black Eine work on the opposite side of the street on the Londonewcastle building that hosted the Catlin prize â€“ see previous post.)
Iâ€™d come across the wedding party by chance on a Saturday afternoon. Iâ€™d been to visit Boxpark â€“ the container mall shopping centre by Shoreditch High Street overground station. I was on my way back from a very pleasant Vietnamese meal (recommended by Bren Gosling) at a place at the end of the Kingsland Road with some of our ex-City writers after weâ€™d had a Saturday morning workshopping session. Afterwards Iâ€™d decided to have another wander around Shoreditch and see if any of the graffiti Iâ€™d seen a week previously had changed
As I was crossing Bethnal Green Road and heading for Redchurch Street, some wedding cars pulled up and all these smartly dressed people got out and headed for this remarkable area of street art. I wandered past while they shot a few photos and, while keeping a respectful distance,Â I realised I could get a photograph myself which principally featured one of Stikâ€™s figures on the Londonewcastle building and Eineâ€™s mural but also captured the incongruity of the smart, formal wedding party. The brideâ€™s stunningly white dress is such a contrast to the chaos of the street â€“ the bike, the bollards, the leaning traffic sign and the rubbish. But the bride and groom (Iâ€™ve no idea who they were) seemed to be loving the setting, although the Stik man appears to be anxiously casting his watchful gaze over the couple.
If I can manage to capture in my writing even a small amount of the sense of place and the exuberance and optimism in that picture then Iâ€™ll be very happy
Thereâ€™s another picture below from the Boxpark end of Ebor Street.
Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.
Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebratingâ€™. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.
I’m probably at the place thatâ€™s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.
I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smithâ€™s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipeÂ that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.
At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.
I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.
Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.
But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.
And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.
Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’
But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paulâ€™s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.
Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.
I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).
This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become â€“ an obsessive quest like Captain Ahabâ€™s in Moby Dick. Iâ€™d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living â€“ the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.
Iâ€™ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — itâ€™s almost like doing two jobs.
I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.
This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible Iâ€™d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there havenâ€™t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).
I guess itâ€™s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps Iâ€™m subconsciously hanging on â€“ not wanting to send the novel and the characters Iâ€™ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?
Yet Iâ€™m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because thereâ€™s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities canâ€™t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; thereâ€™s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.
Theyâ€™re all evidence of what Iâ€™ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether Iâ€™d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life â€“ sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible â€“ although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.
But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake â€“ the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events Iâ€™ve been through in their company.
A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much Iâ€™ve learned through writing â€“ not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (Iâ€™ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said theyâ€™d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.
So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, â€˜as good as it can beâ€™ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.
I already have my synopsis drafted â€“ using Nicola Morganâ€™s e-book â€“ and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued â€“ twice. Iâ€™ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time â€“ producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader â€˜so much to keep a reader turning the pageâ€™. Iâ€™m hoping that Iâ€™ll soon move on to the next page myself.
I’ve been quiet on this blog for the last month or so for a a good reason, which is that I’ve been frantically trying to pull together a draft of the novel-in-progress to be professionally read by someone who knows me and my writing but has read little of this actual novel (I’ll reveal more later when she comes back and tells me what she thinks of it). However, how I got to this point — and the state of the manuscript — is a story worth relating first.
(There’sÂ also a fairly tedious reason for the blog posts being more sporadic — the cumulative drag following the resumption of my daily grind into London to earn a crust doing the ‘day job’ — and even though I’m fairly new in this stint, my superiors seem to have twigged that the day-job, despite what it says on my CV is not actually my ‘passion’).
The most shocking discovery of the consolidation of many fragmentary files of novel was to find that I had 173,700 words — and that was after at least 20,000 words were dumped from the manuscript and with quite a few chapters either missing or in skeletal form.
I’d naively thought I could get the manuscript into reasonable shape before I started commuting again in mid January. This was way too optimistic but I eventually settled on a day I’d deliver a manuscript (early March) and then I had to push it back a week — partly because I fitted around work commitments in taking a couple of days leave to sit down and hammer out the manuscript. (That goodwill doesn’t feel as if it’s being reciprocated at the moment with a micro-managing boss who likes to suddenly appear at your shoulder and comment on what’s on my monitor — the kind of socially inept behaviour that one might hesitate to do with a trainee, let alone a supposed professional who he’s charging the customer a ridiculous daily rate for — that I don’t see much of. There’s a huge temptation to slip him in as a character in the next draft of the novel as revenge.)
But in the end, I managed to get a manuscript together of some semblance (it has a beginning, a middle and an end — of sorts). I wrote quite a lot of new material — including one piece for an MMU workshop that I stayed up until 6.45am in the morning to complete. Then I went to bed for an hour (it was a Saturday morning) and got the train into London for a 10.30am workshopping session with my ex-City friends on a piece I’d written earlier in the week.
To get the manuscript into one piece I worked for four days solid, getting up about 5.30am and working more or less steadily on it until about 10pm (quite a contrast with my enthusiasm for the day job). Even so, I know I’m still quite a way off getting anything that could be put in front of an agent. I was quiteÂ embarrassedÂ that I’ve had to end up sending it in the state it is to my reader but at least I sent her something — perhaps this is some glimpse of what it may be to be a professional writer?
There were numerous ways in which it wasn’t wholly satisfactory:
Some sections were very sketchy (dialogue only) or even just brief notes
There were parts that are complete first drafts
There are, no doubt, many continuity issues involving times, plot events, minor characters (one changes nationality, people swap between driving a car and being a passenger), etc.
There were various duplications of exposition and no doubt many gaps too
Some of it is badly cut-and-pasted together so may not make complete sense.
There were definitely bits of content that I would have removed if Iâ€™d allowed myself longer to edit it.
While I think I’ve got lots more to do, I learned a lot from just pulling it together into one document (some of the files were so old that I had to do a bit of IT work with DOS command prompts and Excel editing to discover what was lurking in the mists of time on my hard drives — I even had to mine e-mail to get material that I’d forgotten to file away too).
One unique thing about writing a novel while on creative writing course is that the manuscript has largely been shaped by the demands of workshopping â€“ and Iâ€™ve workshopped the pieces in a fairly random order as the novel wasnâ€™t written sequentially.Â So due to the word count limits the novel tends to arrive in 3,000-5,000 word sections that are relatively polished then suddenly mutate into much rougher passages.
Also the sections of the novel were written over a period of a couple of years during which I ought to have learned something. I was quite dismayed when I went back to some material Iâ€™d written a couple of years ago, although I retained one chapter that was written in a completely different POV from the rest because I liked that one so much.
As it stands, from all the advice Iâ€™ve heard, the manuscript is probably significantly longer than publishers would want to consider for a writerâ€™s first novel. If I could find an easy way of cutting it to a word count that publishers and agents might happily accept then then Iâ€™d be delighted. For example, Iâ€™ve just received some excellent feedback this morning from an ex-City coursemate whoâ€™s pointed out that I could easily lose about 5% of my word count in one recently-written section just by cutting out repetitions and echoing phrases in the dialogue and removing places where I explain in the narrative what the dialogue already states (or vice versa). I suspect a lot of the novel could be shrunk down by a similar ratio.
However, the question is whether to cut big sections and to leave the rest of the book fairly intact or should I edit down each and every sentence for brevity. I suspect that it’s a combination of both but I do think that novels with humour and social comedy will tend to,Â almost by definition, use more words for a given scene than thrillers and straight dramatic narratives. This because you’re often trying to surprise readers and to set up unusual situations to create the humour. My current MA writing tutor is a big fan of ‘what’s not said’ (or leaving material out). I’m intending to do this on a structural level in the narrative but, while I see the argument, I’m not convinced this can easily be done in a quirky humorous genre because a reader will inevitably fill in the gaps in the most straightforward and logical way — you can allow them to do this (as you might with suspense) in order to set up a punchline or joke but you still have to use the extra words in the end to create the humour.
To illustrate the point, hereâ€™s one I drew up that I think illustrates the point Iâ€™m at with the novel. I have good bits and not so good bits and parts that are relevant to the plot and sections that are more tangential. These can be mapped on a quadrant a bit like this:
And a note to any management consultants reading this who fancy ripping this off — the quadrant is mine (maybe I’ll write a creative writing book one day for burnt out consultants who’ll love this stuff?). In the meantime, I’ll license it to you for big bucks if you grovel.
So basically that means I have badly written material that’s essential to the novel plot and better written material that’s not so crucial. Rather than the facile (and perhaps deliberately sabotaging) advice of ‘kill your darlings’, I think I’d rather be more eco-friendly and recycle them back into the plot.
I have a list already of many aspects of the novel that are inconsistent and wrong and just plainÂ embarrassing. But I’ve also come up with a list of really good additions and tweaks from sitting down and assembling it as a whole. Seems scary to think of putting more in a 173k document but hopefully I’ll get a second opinion on the stuff that really needs weeding out.
However, Iâ€™ve also wondered whether I could get two novels out of this and whether that might be another option (although Iâ€™d need to alter the narrative and the general structure) — though if any agents are reading (one can live in optimism), my intention is to try and get to about 120,000 words eventually, if possible.
I guess it’s not surprising that the novel is so long when I routinely write blog posts that are more lengthy than virtually anyone else’s. I guess the tangential nature of this blog is also reflected in the novel text.
But it might be incoherent, full of faults and inconsistencies and, in places, mystifying to read but the draft is done. Now I can try and get more than 5 hours sleep a night.
The user name below, found on an office ‘multi-function device’ (i.e. printer), appealed to my puerile streak.
I guess I shouldn’t laugh — maybe Mr Timothy or Ms TamaraÂ Watts has had to deal with such sniggering throughout their lives — although the way computer user names are constructed to an unbending formula might prevent subtle ways of avoiding the construction. At least there’s a bit of ambiguity in the plural, I guess it’s even worse for someone with the surname Watt.
That particular piece of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary intrigues me as I was once pulled-up by an Open University Creative Writing student for using it in a screenplay writing assignment (and I suspect she deducted marks from the assignment in question). The objection wasn’t to the word itself — it was because I’d dared to put it in the mouth of a female character (in fact a prototype Kim).
She actually said that something along the lines of ‘a woman would never say that word’. (It might be an unwelcome consequence of feminism that many women — and I do think this is far more true of women than it is of men — seem to feel qualified to make sweeping statements on behalf of their whole gender group. It brings to mind Harriet Harman’s periodically facile assertions about women running organisations more effectively and compassionately — and in the next breath she denounces the uncaring destruction wreaked on the country by Margaret Thatcher.)
Every other woman who read that use of the word had no problem at all with it — so I don’t think it’s a gender issue — more of a generational one. Female baby-boomers, especially middle-class ones, have probably been conditioned by parents and peer-pressure not to swear in company but this doesn’t hold true for Generation X and Y — and especially not the generation who come after Y — whatever they’re called. (I’m a Generation Xer, by the way.)
‘The Angel’s’ characters straddle the boundary period between Generation X and Generation Y. (I’m using the most common definitions, according to Wikipedia, of X starting in 1964 and Y starting in 1982.) James and Emma are the tail end of the Xers, while Kim’s an early Y…and to some extent James will look at Kim as an example of a new, exciting generation (even though she’s not much younger).
But both the female Xs and Ys will swear a lot (I’m also going to have a woman Baby Boomer character too, who won’t). In fact the dialogue in the novel is so full of swearing that it breaks one of the cardinal Rules of Creative Writing that you tend to find in books — readers don’t like reading lots of profanities.
I’m not really sure about this rule on a couple of counts.
I can see dialogue in which every other word is effing and blinding will be tedious but some of the most captivating speakers I’ve listened to in real life use frequent swearing in an expertly oratorical way — to contribute to the rhythm of a phrase or for comic timing — think of some of the most popular stand-up comedians.
As with their reactions to sexual content, or something similarly taboo, what people sayÂ they think about a book/film/play/artwork is not necessarily what they think privately about it. I’ve blogged before about this issue might prevent honest discussion of a piece of writing in a workshopping situation — where it’s human nature for participants to use their feedback to reveal or conceal aspects of their own characters or experiences to the other participants.
The advice might be sound in that it points out the costs of alienating a significant portion of a writer’s potential readership. However, if you worry too much about offending people as you’re writing then you may end up with a story as inoffensive, uninteresting and utterly bland as if it had been written by a focus group.
Mind you, having expounded about how my professional and arty middle-class characters indulge in the joy of swearing, I’ve realised that I didn’t hear a single profanity (aside from a few ribald songs) in a location that I visited today (see photo below) that, perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been a bastion of male working-class culture — and which is now going-on for half female and with a very cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities (I particularly liked the personalised ‘Van Der Singh’ shirt I saw someone wearing).
I’m currently writing James and Kim’s initial restaurant conversation chapter and she teases him by suggesting everything about him says he’s an Arsenal fan.
So Man Utd 2 Norwich 0 is my excuse for not getting that much writing done today.
I always thought Victoria Coren — of Balderdash and Piffle and Only ConnectÂ was an intelligent person but now I realise she’s a rarer breed — an intelligent person who’s not a cultural snob.
In her column from today’s Observer (retweeted by Carole Blake) she ranges about familiar targets of intellectual derision, such as Harry Potter and Michael McIntyre, and exposes the very unpleasant assumptions that lie hidden beneath the snobbery.
However, it’s her story about how a King LearÂ DVD has become a surprise bestseller at Poundland that hits home because it ties in closely with the arguments in Jonthan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working ClassesÂ (review from the Independent here and Guardian here). Coren’s comment is true of far more walks of life than the literary:
Give it six more months, a million more sales, and we’ll start hearing thatÂ King LearÂ is a rubbish play from a second-rate crowd-pleaser; John Webster was always the man.
This makes the powerful point that many people marginalised by traditional intellectual educational establishments still have a thirst for the pleasure and satisfaction achieved through classical, literary or artistic knowledge. It seems to me that one of the most grievious mistakes the left has made in the post-war era is to conflate a lack of formal higher education with philistinism.
The comments she makes about the demise of The News of the WorldÂ also resonate with me. It certainy wasn’t my Sunday newspaper of choice but I can’t believe that everyone gleeful about its demise was motivated by concerns over voicemail privacy.
The same principles hold true in novel writing: the closer one comes to the language and experiences of ‘normal people’ the more people will try to dispute your characters motives and credibility. If one writes about a nineteenth-century, deformed, psychotic serial killer then few people in a creative writing workshop will try to put themselves in the position of the character and try to question his (or her) motivations — and they’ll discreetly leave it to the author to work on his or her impressive feat of the imagination.
Yet write something set in the present day about someone who’s been working in an office whose marriage is a little unfulfiling and there will be
I’ve recently been writing a very tricky chapter of The Angel in which Kim falls over and hurts herself and believes it might signify some sort of bad karma — which it may well be bearing in mind what she’s been up to. It’s quite a crucial point in the plot and I’ve found that I’ve put her in a situation that’s full of dilemmas and choices — which I suppose is good for the novel but quite risky to write in case I go off down a blind alley.
I originally wrote it predominantly with dialogue between Kim and James and relatively little interior exposition. When I workshopped this with the ex-City die-hards the majority view was that it would benefit from much more of Kim’s internal debate. (We also had a discussion about whether characters would have ostensibly frank conversations volunteering the number of sexual partners they’d had — which is perhaps the subject for another post.)
So I rewrote the chapter in a very different style — in places with long paragraphs of contemplation about what motivates one through life, etc. I then took advantage of a tutorial with Jenny Mayhew, our first term tutor on the MA at MMU, to get some feedback on the balance between interior/exterior. She thought it was generally about right — which shows the City feedback had helped but that there were some over-long deliberations which could be cut.
Jenny also gave some advice about increasing the amount of ‘stage-direction’ and playing up aspects of the fantasy and dreaming in the dialogue — things I’d deliberately toned down after having feedback in the opposite direction in the previous term. Jenny’s advice tends to echo my natural style and inclination, which is not particularly lean or taut, more observational and discursive.
I re-jigged again and added in some new ideas, some lifted directly from a conversation about different names for common field weeds in England and Scotland. The weeds discussion was in the office in London where I’ve now been working for the past four weeks, of which perhaps more in future posts. Time spent in this job explains the relative lack of blog posts as I’m burning the candle at both ends, catching the 0637 train into Marylebone and not going to bed correspondingly early enough as I’m trying to keep the writing still moving forwards — although to look on the bright side I’m close to some of my locations to return to do easy research.
Last night a dedicated group of the MMU MA students workshopped a revised draft of the chapter following Jenny’s comments (we do this without any tutor involvement from the university so shows we must be relatively dedicated and, to use one of Emma’s horrible HR phrases ‘self-starters’).
I’ve still yet to re-read the transcript of the online discussion, which is always very useful, but the material generated a lot of discussion — it must have done as we ‘chatzied’ for nearly an hour. (To get an hour of four people’s time — plus their reading in advance — on a piece of around 3,000 words was very fortunate — another student had to drop her piece at the last minute.)
We’ve got one more workshopping session left with Emily in about ten days time and then a long break for the summer — the MMU term finishes at the same time. As far as I’m aware, about four people from the City course have finished — or are close to finishing — their novels, including two who are in the workshopping group. Another four or five of us are making steady progress but aren’t there yet.
I must have written enough words for a respectable length novel — as an example I extended the original 2,500 word extract mentioned above by at least another 2,000 words in the rewriting — and I’m sure I can find a use for much of that, if not in the original chapter then elsewhere.
In our MMU workshopping session last night one of the other students presented a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of her projected novel, which reminded me that I’m long overdue a re-assessment of where I’m at. I don’t feel I’ve diverged too much from the original plot that I planned out with post-it notes well over a year ago but I’ve probably only covered about half the planned events or chapters, although what I’ve written has expanded in word count beyond that which what I originally anticipated.
Maybe because of Kim’s interest in karma, I’ve been noticing a few instances of Angel-related serendipity to inspire me to keep plugging on with the writing.
The first was the name of a street I noticed in the City near Pasternoster Square and opposite bombed-out Christ’s Church Greyfriars, where I’m planning to have James and Kim sit and have a drunken conversation on their first day together — the street is, appropriately, Angel Street.
Then I also belatedly noticed that the pub over the road from Mike B’s wonderfully stylish apartment near Old Street where we’ve been meeting to do our Saturday workshops is also called, you guessed, The Angel — although looking like a traditional London boozer it’s a very different sort of Angel to the thatched country local I’m going to write about — but it’s a nice co-incidence anyway.
And, just for completeness, although there’s no special connection to me, here’s another Angel — this time in Bicester. This is a town that Emma would never dream of living in but she goes there fairly regularly to snap up a few bargains or ten at Bicester Village — outlet store shopping centre for all brands she likes to dress in. Perhaps James might slope off for a pint there while she browses in Alexander McQueen, Diesel, Jimmy Choo, , Karen Millan, Radley, Hobbs, maybe buying Kim a cheapÂ Superdry T-shirt and perhaps even nipping intoÂ Agent Provocateur.
I was tweeting in pique at the weekend while watching Sue Perkins’s documentary on genre fiction — a programme that I’ll probably get around to blogging about more at length but I put a comment on The Art’s Desk’s review — click here to read it. Â A couple of my tweets were picked up and replied to or retweeted by literary people, including one of the Independent’s Offical Top 100 Tweeters, Carole Blake and I picked up a few extra Twitter followers to add to my modest total as a result.
One of these is the writer Claire King and I followed a few links to her very interesting blog, which has a very sensible comment on the holy wars between literary and genre fiction that Sue Perkins’s documentary appeared to have stirred up.
I’m sure that almost anyone who has been in a creative writing class will twitch in recognition at most them. It’s interesting to read the list of comments as it seems not every contributor seems to have inferred the same intention from the rules as I did. I particularly like number 7.
A few commenters have added rules from famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s don’t seem to particularly helpful, more a manifesto for his own approach (particularly his phobia about the Internet) but I particularly liked his first: ‘ The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator’.
This tends to contradict most of his other rules imho but I believe it should be borne in mind far more in creative writing workshops than it is. A normal reader wants to like a book. After all they’ve paid for it (or gone to the trouble of borrowing it) and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time with it. They’re not taking 3,000 words and examining every single one as writers and critical readers who review each others’ work for the best of motives. They’re not going to throw the book in the bin because a writer has used a lazy ‘then’ in a sentence (his rule three) but they might feel resentful if something on the macro level leaves them short-changed, like an unresolved and poorly developed conclusion to the plot.
The Angel has an old-fashioned love triangle at its heart and, while I know the eventual outcome I want to write, I’ve been gripped by an internal debate about how much of this tension should be shown in the novel in terms of what the BBC call ‘sexual content’.
This is a difficult question to wrestle with in various ways although I’m convinced that all writers of novels (or of drama) that involve adults in close, emotional relationships must at least consider, but not necessarily write about, the sexual behaviour of the characters — even just to establish that there is no sexual relationship between them.
In real life, as well as in literature, there are many relationships that seem to defy gravity on intellectual, social or various other personal issues but must obviously work at a deeper sexual level — women falling for the bastard or cad or men being mesmerised by a pretty girl are stereotypes that are clearly true. There are many biological and psychological reasons why relationships aren’t driven by rationality — and that people often pursue relationships that logically they know aren’t good for them.
Also, despite (or perhaps because of) much more openness about ordinary people’s sexual behaviour — look at the covers of most women’s magazines and a few men’s — no-one really knows with much certainty what everyone else is up to. There are plenty of surveys but they’re almost by definition self-administered so no-one can verify how truthful are the responses (it’s considered that men tend to exaggerate, women to under-report). This is probably truer the more unusual the behaviour is. Paradoxically, despite sexual behaviour being driven by very deep biological and psychological motivation, most people seem to be anxious to know what’s ‘normal’ — if only to then outwardly appear to be so.
For this reason it’s probably one area where workshopping might yield responses which would be not that representative of readers as a whole. I’ve participated in a few workshops where the writing has involved descriptions of illegal drug usage. People tend to be quite guarded in their reaction — ‘I have a friend who told me that this description is more like ecstasy than speed’ — not wanting to be thought too boring and unconventional as to never have tried the drug but certainly not wanting to admit anything like familiarity with it. And why should they do anything else? Participating in a writing workshop doesn’t oblige anyone to reveal their history of drug usage.
Assuming the feedback gets beyond the tittering ‘Bad Sex Awards’ stage and one gets an honest and adult discussion, it’s still probably true to say that aÂ similar type of reaction applies to sex as it does to drugs: an understandable wariness of revealing personal experience through expressing views on the writing (althoughÂ people’s experience of sex must be much more widespread and doesn’t (normally!) have associations of illegality). This is wariness is probably more true the more unusual, or even deviant, the behaviour. Consider what might happen if (say) a woman wrote a scene where a man pays a prostitute to perform something exotic for him and one of the men in a workshop starts to correct all the details — she might get useful feedback but no-one would look at him in quite the same way again. (There are all sorts of intriguing permutations about who may be bluffing who in this sort of scenario.) There may be an exception when the action described is so extreme and unusual that it can be thought of abstractly and impersonally — in the City course there was one novel that dealt with incest and this was so bizarre that it wasÂ surprisinglyÂ easy to comment about.
Reading fiction is also appealing to many people because of its privacy. If you’ve never touched drugs, and don’t ever intend to, you might still have a fascination for imagining what it might be like to snort line-after-line of coke at a glitzy party or have some hallucinogenic trip. Similarly, most readers of the Twilight books don’t want their blood sucked by a vampire but that doesn’t stop them being amazingly popular. So it is with sex in fiction — there’s no doubt people like reading about it but a lot of this enjoyment is probably down to its absolute privacy.
While I’ve been agonising about how much of my characters’ sex lives I show or tell or hint at, I’ve realised that I may being incredibly prudish by the standards of popular culture with which young people are familiar. One of the most popular songs of the last couple of years is about, to put it mildly, curiosity about the same sex — Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ (‘and I liked it’). My eyes popped out last year when I saw my children quite happily watching Katy Perry’s video for ‘California Gurls’. While I think it’s pretty harmless and, in some places, quite hilarious (the whipped cream aerosols) — she ostensibly appears in it stark naked (albeit lying down) — see embedded video below from YouTube.
Katy Perry says she was brought up a strict Christian and has been critical of her current rival — Lady GaGa, whose exuberance I quite admire. My teenage, secondary school age daughter asked me if I knew what the song ‘Poker Face’ was about? ‘A card game,’ I said innocently. ‘No. It’s about a woman having sex with a man while fantasising about it being another woman.’ ‘Oh!’ Things have definitely moved on a bit since ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
Similarly we were listening to the Top 40 rundown and I asked the title of the Rihanna song at number two. ‘”S&M”, dad.’ I’m not sure if my teenage daughters knew exactly what this meant but the lyrics of the song didn’t leave much doubt: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones/But whips and chains excite me.’
People might argue that this is all about boundaries being pushed but I’m not sure where the limits will stretch to after the precedent set by a new singer from Essex, who’s just won a BRIT award, called Jessie J. Her first single was called ‘Do It Like A Dude’ and, while I’ve only heard the less explicit version, there’s no doubt what it’s about — something that ‘Lip Service’ pushed the boundaries of terrestrial TV (albeit digital BBC3) by showing — although even then Ruta Gedmintas was only shown from the back. (And I don’t think ‘Do It Like A Dude’ refers to same sex relationships either.)
When I was doing the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course I was picked up by the tutor when a female character says the word ‘twat’ (as an insult about a man) — ‘a woman wouldn’t say such a word’. While this could be the view of a certain demographic of readers, if the generation who have been brought up listening to Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Jessie J take up novel reading then it Â will take considerably more to shock them.
I watched an edition of Horizon on BBC2 a few weeks ago which attempted to discuss the utterly bizarre nature of what we perceive as reality once it’s considered by physicists — quantum, astro- and various other varieties. (It’s available to view again on iPlayer until 15th March.)
Many people are familiar with the ‘unreal’ concept that, under quantum theory, a particle can be in two places at once and can cease to exist and then re-appear and all kinds of weird behaviour that seems to be the exact opposite of what people like me, with an ‘O’ level in it, understand about physics.
I was reminded of this programme when I saw this page of writing ‘top-tips’ retweeted by Emma Darwin (whose ‘Itch of Writing’ blog is linked to on the sidebar). It’s by Irish author Joseph O’Connor and seems to be aimed at an Irish audience (but, of course, many of the finest writers of English come from that country) and is on Blake Friedmann’s website (the Blake being well-known Twitterer Carole Blake).
The tips are all very sensible. I thought the last one — about knowing who you’re writing for — was very useful for new writers as the ‘democracy of the creative writing workshop’ (or some may say tyranny) sometimes gives the impression that it’s possible for a writer to connect with every reader — or at least the dozen or so strong opinions who tend to be on these courses. People have different tastes and if a writer removes everything that doesn’t get a positive reaction from every person in a workshop then he or she is likely to produce something so bland that no-one will love it. Workshops are great for getting feedback on technical writing issues from most participants but it’s not likely that more than a handful of participants will really get excited by each writers’ work — no matter how outstanding the quality. So O’Connor is right to advise people to write for a specific reader or small number of readers.
The point that most resonated with me, however, is the start of tip number five — ‘Make Something Happen’. If his first two sentences are concatenated as ‘Stories are…records of the exceptional’ then it perfectly sums up a point that I think is lost in the workshopping culture. It also reminds me, returning to the Horizon programme about the bizarre but apparently perfectly plausible, infinite universes theory.
This suggests that, despite its unimaginable vastness, our universe is only one of a massive number (infinite in theory) of co-existing universes where, because of their infinite number any variant of any event that we might think of has actually occurred in some parallel universe.
It sounds odd but an example from my novel might illustrate it: take as a starting point the one day James gets fired. Every event subsequent to his firing over which he makes a decision or is affected by the actions of other people or things may ‘split off’ into its own parallel universe. So in one universe he might get the train home immediately, in another he might head to the pub with his mates and in another he might decide to go and buy the painting from the artist he met the night before. The first two scenarios are much more likely but if I wrote about events in the parallel universe where that version of James now exists then it would be less interesting than following the universe in which James strikes up with Kim.
The same goes for all plot events — there are often many choices a novelist and his or her characters make but, in general, the most interesting stories are those which follow the parallel universes of the unusual choices — or in Joseph O’Connor’s words ‘records of the exceptional’.
Of course there needs to be a degree of plausibility and too many random events will make a reader feel cheated but the main source of credibility should be whether the character would behave in the way that the novelist chooses. For important drivers of the plot, it’s almost required that the character chooses an option that, while still credible, is less likely than the choice he or she would normally make. The day that’s really interesting is when your main character’s boss decides to fire him rather than all the days he doesn’t.
It’s the debates over plot and character that seem to be most problematic about writing workshops. Most people will come with an idea of the stories they want their novels to tell. These ideas may range between teens having their souls taken over by ancient evil spirits or they may be about unrequited love where most of the action occurs in a character’s imagination. Some are fantasy or magic realism, some are comic, some are totally realistic — but they are all stories to be told that require a suspension of disbelief from the reader, albeit at different levels. Central to this bargain of the suspension of disbelief is the concept of storytelling — i.e. reading is not a co-operative, interactive experience.Â The danger of workshopping is that the readers approach each others’ writing from a completely artificial perspective — that the story can be changed to match their personal preferences — ‘I think the character would appear nicer if he didn’t leave his wife’.
As with the point above about writing for a select group of readers, the novel has to be about what the author cares passionately enough to devote the massive amount of time required. While films now have endings changed by the initial reactions of advance screening, not even Hollywood seems to create its films solely by focus group.
If I ever get very rich (from writing or otherwise — though neither possibility is likely) one thing I may do is go to every bookshop I can find (possibly not that many if they keep closing at the rate they do), buy every copy of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and hide them somewhere safe from over-eager creative writing students. If a few copies were removed from circulation I don’t think it wouldn’t be a terribly bad thing — at least not for people in writing workshops.
It’s not that I dislike Stephen King or think it’s a poor book — I have my own copy and read it with great interest. In fact it’s in many ways too good:Â the advice it contains is so directly and unambiguously argued that it works like a loaded weapon — let a gun get into the wrong hands and you’re asking for trouble (and I don’t exclude myself from this as I’m now questioning whether some of my own writing style has been too directly influenced by its recommendations).
The book is subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ — which is something that most of itsÂ proseltyizers Â fail to read — but that is exactly what it it is. It’s King’s account of the techniques of the craft that have worked well for him — and he’s an outstandingly successful novelist who is also a fine writer and much underrated by literary snobs who look down on genre fiction. However, some of the justified anger that he perhaps feels about the lack of seriousness with which his work is taken seems to me to translate into a rhetorical rebuttal in which he passionately defends his position but, simultaneously, appears to some readers as ‘this is the way it must be done’ — or worse, ‘follow these golden rules and you’ll be a bestselling writer’.
King is, no doubt, sensible enough to have put a disclaimer in the book saying that it’s not a ‘get-rich-quick’ manual (and he’s by no means the first person to have given similar advice, as he acknowledges by referring to Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’). However, it’s ironic that, given the poor esteem in which he says he holds the writing workshopping mentality, his book appears to have provided a source of ammunition that feeds the exact behaviours he criticises.
There seem to be a lot of dubious ‘rules’ whose current popularity could be perhaps be traced back the ten years or so to when ‘On Writing’ appeared — which was probably not co-incidentally a time when many creative writing classes and courses were becoming much more popular. (Disclaimer: I’m not remotely suggesting that any of my fellow students on university creative writing courses are guilty of this sort of crass simplification — they’ve all been selected by interview and on the basis of their writing ability — nor the excellent tutors. However, it doesn’t take long to come across really stupid examples of misinterpretation and perversion of King’s advice if you browse a few writing blogs or exchange experiences with other student writers.)
Possibly the most notorious example of dangerous over-simplification is King’s injunction that ‘the adverb is not your friend’. This seems quite a nuanced phrase to warn writers off using adverbs as an unnecessary crutch — for example using an adverb in a phrase like ‘he walked quickly’ rather than Â ‘he dashed’ or similar or in stating something that should be obvious to the reader from the context like ‘he said threateningly’. King doesn’t say adverbs are bad — he just asks, because adverbs are modifiers of verbs, the reader to consider their use carefully — which is a variant on the good advice that every single word in a novel should have to justify its place.
However, after this fairly considered section he later casually refers to ‘all those lazy adverbs’ and — a remark that is interpreted by some as implying that any use of an adverb suggests a lazy writer. This seems to have metamophosised into a dictat that all adverbs are bad — partly because it’s a ‘rule’ so simple that idiots can follow it (‘if it’s a describing word that ends in -ly it is a sign of Bad Writing).
I found a post on a writing blog (Novelr) titled ‘Why Adverbs Suck’, which starts by taking examples of sentences with adverbs and proceeds to rewrite them minus the adverb — but usually including some extra element of detail that ‘shows’ the sentiments that the dreaded adverb ‘tells’ (illustrating that the adverb is a casualty in the philosophical battle between show and tell — see Emma Darwin’s excellent post on this issue). In most cases the sentences become considerably longer. (The insertion of such ‘reportage’ is something I tend to do — and, as it’s recently been pointed out, perhaps over-do.)
The Novelr blog post is worth following for the debate that follows in the comments in which the pro- and anti-adverb camps state their positions in the religious war. Imho those writing in defence of the adverb have more logic and evidence on their side and those arguing against it seem more motivated by dogma and simplicity. It’s asked why adjectives are far less reviled than adverbs (I’d suggest it’s because most of them don’t end with the same two letters and are less easy for pedants to identify).
I’d also suggest that a piece of writing which is marred by clumsy over-use of adverbs is also likely to be littered with unnecessary adjectives, rambling sentences, bad grammar and other evidence of incompetence or perhaps ‘first-draftiness’ (what an adjective — shows you can make one out of a noun by suffixing -ness just as you can make an adverb by adding -ly to a verb!). (Time constraints mean the stylistic quality of the writing on this blog is sadly very much an example of this first-draftiness.)
Just as bad writing isn’t just typified only by use of adverbs (or any use of the passive voice or dropping in back story or other of King’s bÃªtes noir) then their use in the right context can be extraordinarily skilful. On the City course, one of the students (who is a professional writer) sprinkled her prose with adverbs — in some cases they had a breathtakingly subversive influence on a sentence, or even whole paragraph.
Of course much is in the context, the talented writer on our course was writing about suburbia from an ironic narrator’s perspective, whereas Stephen King writes horror: there’s less need to describe the nuances of exactly how a character might sink an axe into someone’s head than to describe the action itself — and I don’t mean this disparagingly to the genre as I recently workshopped an action scene myself and probably followed King’s stylistic advice to the letter on that.
Stephen King says he thinks adverbs (and the passive past tense) have been designed for the ‘timid’ writer. That may be true if they’re over-used as some sort of extra insurance policy that is meant to affirm that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. But, in an example of extreme irony given the general low opinion that King has of writing groups, courses and workshops, his uncompromising stance towards the adverb has led to a situation where it’s the timid writers who now avoid adverbs — because of the possible mauling they will receive for any use of them whatsoever if given feedback from one of the many people who has simplified King’s own stylistic advice to the point of absurdity.
Other resources, given in good faith, can also be horribly misinterpreted. In its creative writing assessment booklet, the Open University gives a list of points for students to check through before they submit their short piece of fiction for assessment (probably based on the guidance given for marking). It’s a long checklist and includes pretty commonsense questions like ‘does description utilise the senses’, ‘are metaphors or similes used’, ‘does the story move forward’ and ‘is the point of view consistent’.
ImagineÂ a contemporary creative writing workshop sent back in time to early 19th century Hampshire — considering the opening lines of a possibly timid female writer. ‘You’ll never get this published — you use an adverb only five words into the book — an example of a lazy, profligate writer. Wouldn’t it be better to write “It is a truth acknowledged’ or, better, “It is an acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. The word universally is clearly unnecessary as it merely re-inforces the meaning of the word truth.’ Â And you wouldn’t want to be there when they start on the length of her sentences…or the pace.
Yesterday, in an example of complete chance the first non-league team in the FA Cup 5th round for 17 years, Crawley Town, drew Manchester United away — for anyone who doesn’t know, Manchester United are unbeaten in the Premier League and Champions’ League this season (and haven’t lost a league game since April).
This was the sort of draw that has the pundits talking about the romance of the cup — with by a club that normally plays in front of a crowd of 2,000 going to Old Trafford, which is, at 76,000, by some distance the biggest club football stadium in the country. (It’s fifth largest in Europe after Barcelona’s Nou Camp — the biggest by quite a long way — and not far behind Real Madrid, Dortmund and the tw0 Milans at the San Siro).
I’m not sure of the odds of the draw happening (I’d guess several thousand to one) and it attracts interest because these Cup pairings are unusual — but it has still happened. And this is a lesson, I think, to writers — just because something is very unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
I experienced a very odd co-incidence of my own on Saturday in London. I’d gone to Emily’s first post-course workshop (after Alison had filled in over the autumn due to Emily’s maternity leave) at Mike B’s very stylist apartment near Old Street. Â (Emily has a different approach to Alison — as she reads the extracts in advance then she sees no reason for the writer to read material out loud so we ended up having quite interactive discussions on more general themes in the novels rather than each of us examining and then commenting on the individual pieces of writing in detail. At the point that most of us are in our novels then this seems to be a good approach.)
I then ended up with Guy in the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton for a couple of pints (a dangerous 6% porter in my case) — the Wenlock appears under a pseudonym in the novel so it was good research to go and check it out again. That’s my excuse.
Getting back to the mainline station was complicated by the Metropolitan line being out of service so I had to take a series of buses and, of course, arrived at Baker Street at the time when my train was pulling out five minutes walk away at Marylebone. So to kill a bit of time I wandered into the Metropolitan Bar (a huge Wetherspoons over Baker Street station) and almost literally bumped into Dave, someone I know very well from Aylesbury. Neither of us had an inkling we’d be in London on that day but we still walked into exactly the same place within a minute or two of each other — and I’d not been in the place for at least a year. We both had a quick drink and then got the next train back together.
However, I thought that this sort of chance meeting was exactly the type of event that, were it in a novel, would be mauled in a workshop discussion — being considered implausible or lazy on the part of the writer.
Of course, in this case, the odds of the co-incidence happening weren’t as high as if we’d bumped into each other in some quiet place elsewhere in London — it was in a place near the station we both knew — and in a busy pub at a transport interchange — and it was a Saturday afternoon when it was more likely we’d be making our way back but the timing was very strange as DaveÂ was was the first person I saw when I walked through the door.
Novelists and dramatists are often condemned for using co-incidence in plots — the argument being that all action should be directly related to the effects of the characters of the protagonists on their environment. But co-incidences may actually be less accidental than they may otherwise appear to a reader — in my case it was more likely we’d meet in a pub than in a coffee shop, for example.
Also, it’s intrinsic to the appeal of almost all novels and dramas to the reader or audience that they concentrate on unusual events or stories that are atypical — that’s what makes them interesting. Quite often in writing workshops people will consider the ‘plausibility’ or motivations of a character’s behaviour — would that character in reality strike up a conversation with a stranger on the tube, for example? The answer may be no — 99% of the time that character would ignore eye contact and stare at the Poem on the Underground — but it’s the 1% of events where something different happens that makes an interesting story that people want to read.
‘The Angel’ has some co-incidences — it opens with one, of a sort. Someone questioned why so much happened on one day — would someone suddenly hang around with an artist all day when he’d been fired that morning. Well, perhaps most City types would either go home and lick their wounds or go out and buy a Ferrari with their redundancy. But I want to write about the one in several thousand who doesn’t do that — the one that interests me (and hopefully enough people to want to read beyond the novel’s first few pages).
Francine Prose in ‘Reading Like A Writer’ questions tacit assumptions that are often taken for granted: ‘as anyone who has ever attended a writing class knows, the bottom line of the fiction workshop is motivation. We complain, we criticise, we say that we don’t understand why this or that character does something. Like Method actors we ask: What is the motivation? Of course, this is based on the comforting supposition that things, in fiction as in life, are done for a reason.’
She uses Chekhov’s short stories and letters to contradict many of the supposed truths that are routinely deployed in creative writing teaching and literary criticism — including often, she says, those she has taught herself. She quotes Chekhov’s letters to argue that everything in fiction should not necessarily be explainable through deconstruction of motivation and cause-and-effect because the world’s not like that: ‘It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything…And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees — this, in itself, constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought and a great step forward.’
Francine Prose then elaborates the argument, saying that what she finds most unique about Chekhov is that his ability to reflect his characters rather than interpret or understand them allows him to write without judgement.
We had an example of what happens when characters are judged in our City group when someone wrote a very funny and realistic chapter that was predicated on a character unknowingly having had her drink spiked with drugs. When workshopped, a lot of debate centred on the morality of the other characters having done this to her — and how could we as readers forgive them for it?
I was in the minority in not thinking that the morality of the action wasn’t that relevant to the success of the incident as a piece of writing — while it’s a Bad Thing to spike someone’s drink, it does happen and between friends and those people quite often stay friends. Maybe that’s the exception but because it’s not the most likely, nor the most comfortable, course of action that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written about.
Fortunately, the author has kept the incident in the novel but addressed many people’s concerns by having a later section where the offending characters are taken to task over the irresponsibility of their behaviour.
Of course, by extension, fiction shouldn’t over-use chance situations or unpredictable characters because that too would be unrealistic but people behave oddly and irresponsibly and, as with co-incidences, it is more realistic to include the inexplicable in fiction than to exclude it on the basis that we can’t easily rationalise or understand it. And we tend to be more interested in the mysterious too.
One handy aspect of this blog from my own perspective is that I’ve gradually found many other blogs that I’ve linked to and taken RSS and Atom feeds from (see toolbar on the right). Some are those written by friends and others are some really useful sites written by editors, agents and authors.
I was reading a post of NaNoWriMo on How Publishing Really Works which had a link to a page on This Itch of Writing, novelist Emma Darwin’s blog,Â about revising and editing. The article starts off by discussing the semantics of what the words editing and revising actually mean but goes on to make some excellent points about the teaching of writing Â — some which have similarly occurred to me.
Emma Darwin uses some railway and engineering metaphors to argue the logical point that writing a novel is such a huge undertaking that, even with careful planning, it’s usually inevitable that it does (or should) become evident while writing that there are structural issues (plot problems, characters that don’t work) which will need addressing. Rather than give up and start again, she recommends carrying on with a very rough first draft on the basis that, once at the end, it will be easier to address the structure of the novel as a whole.
Interestingly, this was the advice — plough on and finish a rough first draft — that we received from our tutors towards the end of the City Novel Writing course — and that many of us have realised in practice. However, it’s very difficult advice for students on courses to take for a couple of reasons — one internal and one external.
Most people who can write to a reasonable standard, but who haven’t had the experience of producing a work of about 100,000 words plus are probably instinctively unhappy in writing something that they know can be improved without going back to edit it fairly soon afterwards. There are some comments on appended to the post on This Itch of Writing that suggest writers go back and hone recently written prose because it’s a bit of a cop-out — that’s it’s easier than telling oneself it will be sorted out eventually as it’s more important to continue on with a roughly-written draft that will expose plot, setting, character and so on to greater scrutiny.
I think those comments are somewhat self-deprecating — that sort of close line-editing is actually quite hard to do well and very time-consuming in itself. I suspect that one reason why people do it is that they perhaps lack the confidence that they will ever return to re-write it — that the whole enterprise may be abandoned and, therefore, it might be better to produce a well-written chapter partly perhaps to demonstrate that one’s capable of it and maybe to be re-used in the distant future. Perhaps.
However, the external reason that applies to people on Creative Writing courses is all to do with how writing is taught. Â Emma Darwin says in her post ‘I think it’s because so much writing-teaching focuses on the small scale. That’s partly because prose is easier stuff to read and write and teach on in class-sized chunks, than structure is…So writers embarking on their first novel are often quite aware of the micro-work it takes, but much less aware of the macro’. For example, on the City University course the Â workshopping is structured into about six or seven opportunities to read 2,250 words — perhaps not uncoincidentally each about the length of the short stories that are assessed on the OU Creative Writing courses.
I wondered after finishing the course what difference it might have made to have given each writer a couple of slots of about 7,500 words each. I can see that practically it might make some students wait a long time for a workshop and also wouldn’t allow much opportunity to develop the work having received feedback but it would give an experience less like writing a short story — both to the writer but, also more importantly perhaps, to the other students offering feedback.
Someone called Sally Z posted a comment after the Itch of Writing post relating her experiences with a writing group. The members would always ask the ‘big’ questions when asking for criticism on a piece of writing (e.g. do these characters work?). But the sort of feedback that was offered tended to be detailed stuff about punctuation and on the over-use of adverbs. (The ritual slaughter of adverbs is a bÃªte noir of mine that seems to be promoted by people who seem to over-evangelise some of Stephen King’s style advice in ‘On Writing’.)
Close attention to the text is certainly necessary before a novel is submitted to a publisher or agent but Emma Darwin argues that a writer who has polished up a section of a novel to publishable standard may be much more reluctant to subsequently make wholesale changes that may be necessary to improve the structure of the entire novel. However, if you participate in a writing course then it’s almost unavoidable that you will sweat hard to make your prose as good as possible as you won’t want your precious feedback to solely consist of other students pointing out passive sentences, repeated words, too many adverbs and similar textual elements. And it would also seem a bit perverse on any writing course to ask someone to circulate first draft work without worrying about typos and errors as other people will get distracted by them whatever — it’s a bit like walking down the street with your flies open.
However, if one does feel capable of creating reasonably good prose given the opportunity to edit later, what’s most important is to discover how the novel works as a whole — which is fairly tough when readers are exposed to small chapter-length chunks, especially if not in sequence, as I tend to have presented mine. I have a slightly perverse theory that if a 2,250 word extract of a novel works perfectly as a self-contained piece and doesn’t raise any questions of context with the rest of the novel then the writer isn’t really producing a novel — because a novel must necessarily have strands and elements that only make sense when read in its entirety.
Another unintended side-effect of over-examining the prose style is that writers may be tempted to concentrate on a sort of Â literary ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ — it’s much easier to praise someone’s brilliant imagery or use of metaphor because examples can be cited from the text than it is to praise something more abstract — such as empathy with an emotion or resonance of setting. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some competition spurring people on to better writing but some genres are more suited to the sort of writing that’s easily praised than others.
For various practical reasons, it might be impossible to teach the more structural aspects of novel-writing in a course or to offer feedback in most writers group — mainly because of the investment in time required. What might be better is for novelists to learn from the examples from the canon of literature — this ties back into the much repeated recommendation that ‘writers have to be readers’ (more Stephen King advice like over adverbs that’s sensible in itself but not when mis-applied in extreme). I know one person from the City course who’s considering doing his next course not in creative writing but in English Literature — and this may be a very astute choice.
The Manchester Metropolitan University MA course has so far taken a similar path — we’ve been studying one novel a week from a brilliantly varied and idiosyncratic list but together by the tutor Dr Jenny Mayhew. When we’ve come to discuss the texts, rather than a loose ‘book-club’ type discussion, we’ve largely concentrated on the ‘big’ questions — like structure, character, narration, use of time and so on. The discussion on these points has the benefit of being able to examine finished, published works.
Personally I’ve done something of a mixture of the rough and (hopefully) more polished. I have quite a bit of rough draft that I’ve produced with the aim of ploughing on and just getting it done but, because of the workshopping and, also because I like to get feedback in other ways, I’ve gone back and spent a long time re-working certain sections for the benefit of other readers — partly with the objective of pleasing the adverb police and also a bit of vanity in fishing for compliments on phrases, metaphors or imagery — which is dangerous as it’s an encouragement to over-write.
As is mentioned in the original blog posts, there are two sorts of professional attitude required by successful novel writers — the discipline to plough ahead and get a first-draft finished and then the maturity to realise how much revision and re-drafting that draft needs before you even think about line-editing.
Does anyone else have any thoughts about how to address the ‘big’ issues in a novel while mired in the middle of writing it?
‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.
I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.
One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)
These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).
I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.
The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.
Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.
Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.
Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.
Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.
Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.
Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.
I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.
Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.
Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.
It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.
I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.
Over the summer I sent out a chapter of ‘The Angel’ to Guy to read, who’s a fellow (ex-)student from the City University course and always gives excellent, well-informed and comprehensive feedback.
One thing he pointed out, which was blindingly clear to me in retrospect, was what made that chapter look like an early draft as much as anything is that it was littered with what he termed ‘noise words’. These are words that tend don’t tend to do much work and clutter up the space needed by those that do. In my case particular offenders are words (or phrases) like: quite,slightly, only, good, just, a little, perhaps, maybe, well (as in the pause), something, like, might, think, thing, actually, rather and a few others that annoyingly I can’t think of off the top of my head.
(I’ve found now that the term ‘noise words’ is something that comes from database analysts as they like to remove these redundant words from things like database and web-searches.)
If I’m writing fast — such as e-mail or even blog postings — my own writing tends to be littered with these horrible words — they’re probably the written equivalent of saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’ as a pause to think (something I also do a lot). They probably make a piece of supposedly well-written prose look even more amateurish than other classic mistakes like boring verbs sexed up with extravagant adverbs and so on.
So for the last couple of extracts I’ve send out to be reviewed in our workshops of ex-City students, I’ve made myself sit down with a supposedly fairly finished draft and do repeated ‘Find’s in Word for the whole beastly family of noise words. I’m thinking of trying to freshen up my Word macro writing skills and create myself a little macro application that might hunt them all down in one go.
I would also like to have a macro that made words flash luminously when they were repeated fairly closely to each other — another blind spot of mine — although it would need to exclude ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘it’ and so on to avoid giving people migranes. (In my latest extract I’m paranoid about the number of times I keep using ‘her’ and ‘herself’ when narrating from a female POV — I’m not sure if that’s a problem if it’s impossible to avoid if you’re quite close to a character.)
Perhaps because I know I’m now going to try and make myself do this I’ve found disappointingly few of these noise words in my latest repeated searches through the document. That’s not to say there’s none there but a lot are in dialogue and, while I appreciate that dialogue doesn’t reflect everyday speech verbatim, I think that a few strategically placed ‘just’s and ‘slightly’s can give as much insight into a character as a whole screed of internalised self-analysis.
I do also think a few noise words typify British English writing over American writing whose dynamism comes from an intense conciseness where verbs work their US butts off and anything extraneously discursive is ruthlessly edited out. I had experience of this when studying screenwriting at the University of California, Santa Barbara where the tutor (a former Columbia and Warner Brothers executive and organiser of the Santa Barbara writers conference, Paul N. Lazarus Jr) used to tell me to take out half the words in my dialogue. But they’re English people who are talking, I’d say.
Hopefully, people at the weekend won’t have so many of these noise words to remove as perhaps I inflicted on Guy previously but I do think there is still room for a few. One of my favourite sentences from what I’ll read on Saturday has two of the dreaded things in succession. It’s a moment where Kim’s inner voice reveals her intense dislike of Dido’s music but, suddenly in the context of the moment, changes her mind and thinks the track is ‘actually quite beautiful’.
PS. Any further suggestions for noise words gratefully received. If I ever get round to doing a macro I’ll share it with anyone who comes up with good ones.
I was watching Spooks last night and jumped up off the sofa, not at any cliff-hanging drama, but because the terrorist from ‘Azakstan’ who was after a deadly nerve agent that could kill everyone in London in a week, was walking up the stairs at the entrance of City University in Northampton Square. He wandered off down the long corridor towards the small snack bar in the direction of the lecture room in the Drysdale Building we used with Emily in the spring term!
Then the Section D cavalry charged in after him and the action had transferred to the Tait building where I’d had my Intermediate Fiction class with Heidi James in summer 2009. A shootout then followed around the long corridors that we had to walk around to find the toilets when we turned up on alternate Saturdays between January and March this year for our workshops with Alison. In fact, in one scene Sophia Myles looks like she’s about to burst through the door of the gents, which would have been interesting. The bad guy eventually finds the scientist he’s looking for in the actual room where we had our tutorials — or at least an identical one on a lower floor!
City University provided a good 5 or 10 minutes of locations for the programme, including a number of sinister looking stairwells and fire escapes (that are normally used to access the library!). In the end the suspect climbs out on to the university roof. Â It was quite a novel experience to see such familiar surroundings used in a plot that involved Russians, chemical weapons, separatists and as much else as is normally crammed in. It can be seen on the iPlayer for the time being. The City University locations appear at just over 22 minutes in.
It underlines the point in an earlier post that fast-paced editing can make almost any location appear intriguing or exciting.
I thought the episode used a few devices which were the wrong side of implausible. The power of the resident computer geek to rescue the plot from impractical dead-ends and to keep it speeding along has often been pretty unbelievable but a separatist from a ex-Soviet state got off a Eurostar unnoticed (of course French intelligence were far too slow off the mark) and all Tariq needed to do find him in central London was to run some sort of ‘probabilty algorithm’ and then some face-recognition software against hundreds of live CCTV cameras to locate him within a few seconds.
This begs the question that if it’s so easy to identify and locate the bad guys then why do they keep popping up and threatening world civilisation in episode after episode — surely they could run a few algorithms and feed a few intelligence photos into their face recognition software and they’d be able to pick them all of the streets at will?
I doubt whether there’s enough computing power in the world to carry out the identification that tracked down the suspect immediately to Charing Cross tube station — which apparently has 6 platforms. I thought this was an error because it only two lines serve the station (Bakerloo and Northern) but I forgot about the disused Jubilee Line that terminated there until the extension was routed via Westminster in 2000. However, seeing as they’re closed off from the public (and you’d guess from Azakstani terrorists too) then it seems likely that this line in the script was probably just thrown in from a tube reference book without much thought.
According to Wikipedia these very platforms are likely to have been the ones used in this episode for filming the tube train scenes (quite handy as they wouldn’t have even needed to alter the signs!).