Kim’s Hometown

We got given some homework yesterday — to write in one of our characters’ voices about their hometown. Strangely I didn’t leave it until a few hours before the next class to think about starting it. This probably followed on from our discussion about plot where a small group of us considered potential holes in each others’ plots — mine was getting my unlikely protagonists together, Kim and James in ‘The Angel’. I was probably also motivated by my visit to Village Underground (see forthcoming post).

Making Kim a German has let me re-use a lot of my knowledge about Germany — a country I’ve probably visited about once a month between 2001 and 2009, sometimes more frequently. Despite my shameful ability to speak the language I actually know and recognise quite a bit of German. I’ve also met hundreds of Germans and visited more or less every large city in Germany and Austria, with the exception of places like Leipzig and Dresden. So writing about Kim’s hometown was like teasing open the floodgates. I got to the 500 word limit fairly rapidly: Kim’s Hometown .

Incidentally, the Benther Berg is completely real and so is the hotel — I’ve stayed there a couple of times and there’s a photo in existence of me fallen asleep in the bar there worse for wear having consumed Herculean quantities of red wine on the company’s expense account. It can be looked up on German Wikipedia here.

Skewering the Adverb — Deconstructing My Text

It seems that many of the writers who provided the Guardian’s Top Tens share the hatred of the poor old descriptive adverb that is also drilled into students on creative writing classes. (Looking at my Oxford A-Z of grammar I was surprised to see that many of the functional pieces of English Language are classified in the adverb family — such as conjuncts, disjuncts, places and times. I don’t think even Elmore Leonard could do without those.)

I agree it’s often the refuge of writers who are trying too hard or are perhaps writing too quickly to think of a better verb (e.g. ‘walked quickly’ rather than ‘rushed’ or ‘dashed’ or ‘ran’ or ‘skipped’ or various other phrases). However, they have been around in the English Language since before Shakespeare (who wasn’t afraid of throwing a few adverbs into his own works himself). I guess it’s because many adverbs are quite lazy modifications of other types of word that they tend to jar but I don’t think a writer can really banish all instances of words like ‘quietly’, ‘deeply’ or ‘vainly’.

I started to get curious, and not a little paranoid, about how many adverbs I used myself so I took the 2,572 words of my reading for Saturday’s tutorial and crunched them into a word frequency counter on the Internet. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated one as it couldn’t deal with apostrophes so there were a few peculiar words like ‘t or ‘d which inflated the word count artificially.

Having identified the frequency with which I used certain words (always useful to see if I’m overusing something). I then pasted the output into an Excel spreadsheet and spent a very boring 45 minutes coding each of the 984 different words I’d used into noun (including proper noun), verb, adjective, adverb and other (the vast collection of articles, pronouns, conjunctions and so on — the ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘there’, ‘now’, ‘then’, ‘next’ and many others). There was some arbitrary classification of homographs (words that are the same but have different meanings) and more than a few mistakes along the way but the general results are probably fairly accurate.

The results were:

Nouns: 578 (including 350 different words)

Verbs: 519 (303)

Adjectives: 242 (184)

Adverbs: 13 (13)

Other: 1316 (134)

See the pie chart for percentages:

Lexical Analysis of Extract
Lexical Analysis of Extract

What’s quite remarkable is that my use of adjectives is almost 20 times my use of adverbs. I only use 13 adverbs — which is 0.5% of the word total. None of the adverbs is used more than once. (This is according to my classification of adverb — it could be argued there are a few adjective in there which are used in the manner of adverbs). So, in this piece at least, I’ve pared down their use quite a bit though, no doubt, I’ll still be picked up (probably rightly) for having used an adverb where a verb might have done better.

Now I’ve realised I’m not a massive over-user of adverbs, I’m now alarmed at my huge use of adjectives. Is this normal? I’ve got a ratio of over two adjectives for every five nouns. However, 146 out of the 184 adjectives are used only once — so that’s not too repetitious — but the total sounds like rather a lot to me. I’m also curious at the ratio of nouns to verbs — I’m almost at a 1:1 ratio. I suppose that’s understandable when you consider that I classified the likes of ‘is’, ‘are’ and ‘was’ as verbs (which they are but they don’t seem very writerly words).

I’m also rather ashamed that almost half the words are ‘other’ — the bits of plumbing that connect the more interesting material together. Does that mean I’ve got a really waffly style — full of ‘as’, ‘into’, ‘the’, ‘on’, ‘with’ and so on. These are the types of words that are ruthlessly pruned out of poetry — and one modest claim to fame I have is that I’m a published poet. Time for a breakdown?

Of course, this is all not much use unless I compare it with something else. Perhaps if I go back a few years and pick some less experienced writing that I’ve done I could compare it or maybe I can find some text file of a great novel by a famous writer (in a similar style) and crunch that to compare.

I’ll attach the pdf file of the whole word breakdown here. Word Breakdown — The Accounts Summary 220210 I’d be interested to know if anyone would like to take the words and assemble them into something completely different.

Guardian’s Top Tips For Writers

The Guardian’s review section on Saturday had about 30 writers give their Top Ten Tips (or in some cases less) for fiction writers. They were a mixture of the facetiously personal, obvious, pedantic,contradictory and genuinely interesting. I liked David Hare’s comment that the most dreaded words in culture were ‘literary fiction’. Of those that were trying to give practical advice, the same types of theme cropped up: persistence (making yourself sit down and write and not procrastinate was by far the most common); style (most but not all recommended plainness over ostentation); self-belief (take criticism but be selective about what you act on); and being realistic (quite often a solitary life writing is exactly the wrong thing for some people who might have the artistic aptitude).

I particularly liked those that emphasised humility in writing and brutal self-assessment (not everyone can write well enough) which combined with the maxims about writing the sort of book you’d want to read yourself and don’t pretend you can write to order for a market (be true to yourself). If you do that and, take Ian Rankin’s advice to “be lucky and stay lucky” then that might be the best route to success. 

I’ve now come to a point where I’ve done quite a few creative writing courses, read a lot of books on the subject and workshopped a fair amount of fiction and poetry and I start to see some of the more pat advice that comes up in these type of top ten lists being misapplied. Doing a creative writing course might not get someone published but it will certainly equip a keen student with a checklist of well-intentioned rules that many tutors and students quite ruthlessly apply but seem to be broken by many of the greatest writers in history. Maybe more of this in the next post.

Sunset over ‘The Angel’

I need to make up an exact location for the village in which ‘The Angel’ in located. In my mind it’s somewhere on the top of the Chilterns between Wendover and Lacey Green, probably fairly near Great Hampden or Speen. The Cross’s farmhouse/vineyard is to my imagination somewhere around Hampden Hall (the exterior location where many of the Hammer Horror films were shot). There’s a view from the road near Hampden Hall looking into what develops into the valley of the River Misbourne towards Little Hampden and Buckmore End which I think is possibly the most beautiful view in the south of England — particularly of rolling hills. Of course this is very near Chequers and I might make it a minor point of the plot that Robert Cross’s land adjoins that of the Prime Minister’s country retreat — may help in increasing the plausibility of a news blackout.

Sunset Looking Towards Oxford
Sunset Looking Towards Oxford

Here’s a photo I took recently in the general area. There was a really nice sunset in the early autumn that was even more spectacular. I wrote a paragraph of description of it in ‘Burying Bad News’. I posted it up as part of a Lancaster University creative writing course and someone commented that although describing sunsets is often avoided to prevent lapsing into cliche that he thought I’d done a reasonable job. ‘

‘It’s a lovely sunset,’ Sally said, joining Robert gingerly at first to watch the spectacle. Her concentration on the interview faded as she gazed at the startling palette of cinnabar, vermilion and violets splashed high across the westerly sky. She lifted her head to stare at the sky overhead, already the deepest shade of blue but borrowing a barely distinguishable lustre from the fading light on the horizon. The texture was like a luxuriant ball gown, its satin sheen arching above. As the light dimmed, a few scalloped clouds scuttled into the scene, reflecting and refracting the reddening light high into the sky like an invisible hand had pulled a ruche in the material. A softening red glow bathed Robert and Sally’s faces.’

Tony Beckton — ‘Beyond Reason’

I’ve been involved in quite a few reading sessions where people (including me) have read out loud pieces of writing. They can be quite intense and draining experiences so I found it hilarious to watch a series of piss takes of the whole reading aloud process on ‘Bellamy’s People’ tonight. The book in question was probably by the least literary character of the whole lot — Tony Beckton — an East End Kray wannabee (hilariously played by Simon Day). The book is called ‘Beyond Reason’ and it’s an autobiography/confessional about his life of crime — supposedly forty or so years banged up in prisons and mental hospitals. The prose style is a clever blend of monosyllabic repetition (‘we changed cars’) and some incongrously flowery prose about his anguish. It also alternates between the banal and the surreal — a rhesus monkey is used as an accessory in a robbery and cheese and Christmas cake are weapons used in prison.

It can be seen for the moment on the iPlayer— Tony Beckton’s reading starts about 15 minutes of the way through and there’s about 5 short clips spread over the remaining 15 minutes.

More Reflections on Feedback

Receiving feedback in the tutorial in short, intense burst means that some comments have only just resurfaced in my mind. One really positive one was that someone said I’d taken a number of characters in a situation and made them really realistic and distinctive — they all came over differently from each other and were like real people — albeit unlikeable ones. This is one of the main challenges of any fiction so it was great to think that someone thought I’d succeeded.

I’m just preparing my next reading and working in a fairly similar way — mainly putting dialogue down at first. This isn’t even in any particular order — just conversations the characters might have with each other. I’ll then go back and write the description around the dialogue. One important piece of feedback that has come through consistently is that I both under and over use exposition. I’ll under use it when I set up a scene, maybe after a change of point of view or temporal change. I won’t always give the reader enough information to flag who, where and when. As a novel develops perhaps this is needed less but I can’t expect the reader to be too intuitive when I’ve made a change as an author. On the other hand, I overuse exposition within scenes and about characters. So a reader can work out that when Frances notices a white band on Gordon’s left ring finger then that’s where a wedding ring used to be — I don’t need to say it myself. Nor do I need to explain why Frances put foundation on her finger – an action that I was told was a first for any woman of the class’s acquaintance. So the message is trust the reader to  ascribe motivation to the character’s actions but give the reader some help in circumstances where it’s me, as the writer, who might be the source of confusion.

Feeling Happily ‘Validated’

Another intense Saturday tutorial yesterday — so much so we over-ran by an hour, which no-one seemed to mind. Seven 2,500 (mostly) readings were followed quickly by intense bursts of feedback from 12 people (including Alison).  It’s quite draining and even my very fatty Hale and Harty (sic) all-day breakfast at the Exmouth Market cafe didn’t give me the afternoon snoozes.

It’s absolutely fascinating how different the novel extracts are in both style and subject matter. And they’re also all very good. You get the impression that people are thinking that they’ll use the opportunity to show others how well they can write. I was wondering about spatially mapping where the different novels fit on a two dimension matrix (in true Boston Consulting Group fashion). I couldn’t decide on the axes but I thought of something perhaps fairly crude like the commercial to literary spectrum and putting it against something like narratorial viewpoint — empathetic with one character or quite distant. You’d then have some boxes like ‘commercial realism’ (comedies of manners, thrillers), ‘commercial empathy (chick-lit might fit but there’s other categories like horror perhaps), ‘literary empathy’ (bit like Ian McEwan stuff) and ‘literary detached’ (your experimental stuff perhaps). I think we’d have a fairly equal spread between the first three categories, less so in the experimental one.

We got some good debate going where, unlike the first session where people tended to reach a consensus, we had some disagreements — particularly over Jennifer’s now-infamous prologue but also topics of disagreement in virtually everyone’s pieces. This is really good as we have to develop our own individual voices and this almost, by definition, means that other people would prefer we do things a different way.

In my reading Charlotte didn’t like the slightly more lyrical writing at the end where I got into high-flown wine-taster mode whereas most of the other people who commented said they really liked it. After last session where I read mostly dialogue or fairly functional description I wanted to submit something where I could indulge myself a bit but I stopped almost in midflow because of the word limit. (I actually deliberately ended with something a bit ambitiously descriptive as I knew that would be the point at which Alison would start her comments.) I know where Charlotte’s coming from in suggesting the concept’s cliched but I think I was writing in the voice of the character who would buy into those cliches. I’d put some deliberately dreadful cliches from Fawlty Towers and the Audi adverts into Gordon’s idiom.

We’re always going to disagree somewhat about style. After all, if a writer really believes in his or her style then they will likely to be pretty evangelical about it and want to offer advice to others that would have the effect of promoting their own preferences. Both Rick and I suggested to Nick that he might want to trim down some of the discursiveness in his characters’ voices but Eileen disagreed, saying she loved the realistic impression this created. Both viewpoints are valid and it’s up to Nick to take whichever advice best furthers the intentions he has for his novel.

I was really eager to look through the comments on the scripts of my reading as I find them incredibly valuable. Quite a lot of people had picked up on faults that were related to the artificiality of writing to the word limit. I severely under-wrote a scene with James and Emma that interjected into my longer exchange between Frances and Gordon and I could have flagged the change of POV and given more clues to the reader a lot better. I had some suggestions about putting the scenes together and making them more fluid with characters coming and going — and this is something I may well do when I redraft it. There was also far too much exposition in some of the dialogue, which was picked up by some. Again I’ll plead word limit but I should have thought of a better way round it — was that exposition necessary in the piece at all?

I put in a mixture of description and dialogue and interior and exterior and I was very pleased when I had feedback that suggested that the writing of all these had largely been successful. Odd as it might seem, that session seemed to validate to me that I was a credible member of the course — able to produce work that bore comparison with that of the others — and, therefore, also a credible novel writer. Theoretically this shouldn’t have been in doubt because of the selection process for the course itself but producing something which is, at least, competent and well received is a good confidence booster.

At the end of last term I was getting a bit fatigued with the two nights of class a week but I’m now really quite motivated. I’ve enjoyed a lot of what has come with writing and researching the novel — going to the Tate Modern, getting a few books on modern art, thinking about wine and music. And perhaps the best stimulus of all is the encouragement of coursemates and I hope I’ve been able to return some of the favour to them in small part with some of my feedback.

People didn’t really warm to my characters and Guy said that I’d well and truly ‘skewered’ them all, which I took as quite a compliment if I’d manage to do that in 2,500 words. What I’d like to achieve is for the reader to form knowledge of the character that the characters don’t (yet) have themselves. Some comments were that the dialogue was a bit ‘soap opera’  like  — possibly the pub situation influenced this. I don’t really mind that sort of flavour comes across, so long as it’s a comparison with a soap opera with good dialogue — because good soaps can feature vivid and realistic dialogue. I also like a soap’s blending of comedy and tragedy. A couple of people also said that the writing was very visual and reminded them of a BBC drama series. Although I think that I do this unconsciously, it’s probably the effect I’d aim to achieve — I do imagine the scenes visually when I write them. All this feedback makes me wonder whether I should be aspiring to write ‘Coronation Street’ rather than a novel!

A Short Extract — Prime Numbers, A Sink, A Gun and Two Rabbits

We were given an exercise to do a fortnight or so ago in which we had to write a maximum of 500 words in which a character from our novel was in a particular predicament. I’d better not say exactly what it was as that’s Emily’s IP but it needed to include a certain number of elements that turn up in my attempt (they didn’t include rabbits or the what Frances does herself in what I’ve written, though). I came up with a scenario that could fit very easily into the plot of ‘Burying Bad News’.

I didn’t get to read mine out due to time constraints but several other people did and they were all very good. I included it the material I submitted for my tutorial last night, though. Here’s a pdf of it (just over the word limit at 551).  (Be aware that it’s a little gruesome and involves a couple of fairly common psychological disorders:

 Sink and Oaks 110201  (Ignore the rather flippant subtitle too.)

I was very pleased that Emily really liked the writing in this, particularly the descriptions. She thought there was something of a disjoint between the contemplation and Frances’ eventual performing of the action and that her thought processes needed to be better explained.

One thing above all others that I’ve learned since getting both the tutors’ and class’ feedback is that I tend to underwrite the interior thoughts and motivations of my characters. I suppose I write from a visual/screenplay perspective for various reasons (doing a six month course at UCSB on Screenwriting might explain something about it). This is a tendency I need to counterbalance.

Silly Love Songs

In the reading I’m doing for the workshop on Saturday I mentioned a couple of pieces of background music that set the mood in a tastefully refurbished pub (‘marinated in a knowing, post-modern irony). These happened to be playing on shuffle on my computer as I was writing it. One is ‘Amoreuse’ by Kiki Dee, which is a song that few people probably know by name but most people will recognise. It’s actually a French song to which Gary Osborne put English lyrics (who wrote ‘Get the Abbey Habit’ and the lyrics to Elton John’s ‘Blue Eyes’ if I remember correctly).  

The other was one of my very favourites (and not just because of its drinking related title) — ‘Love Hangover’. I like the Associates version but the original Diana Ross recording is both incredibly seductive (in the opening) and then has the most incredibly charged erotic energy — the hi-hat making it pound along. I think I remember some Paul Gambaccini programme on Radio 2 describing how that Diana Ross was reluctant to record such a blatantly sexual song at first and the producer had to seduce her into it with the lights turned down very low.  (There’s something similar about it on this website.) It’s unusual as it’s written by two women — Pam Sawyer and Marilyn MaLeod.

I came back to try and find it on the laptop and did a filter for everything tagged with the word ‘love’. I don’t consider myself to have a collection with loads of soppy songs and it probably removed about 80% of the tracks. However, I was stunned by how many of those that were left were tracks that I really like. Having ‘love’ in the title almost seems to be a predictor of quality. Of those that are on the playlist are gems like ‘Big Love’ by FleetwoodMac, ‘I’m in Love with A German Film Star’ by the Passions, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ by Tears for Fears, ‘Love at First Sight’ by Kylie, ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘Friday I’m in Love’ by the Cure, ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc, ‘Justify My Love’ by Madonna, ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s, ‘Love is the Drug’ by Roxy Music, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppellin, ‘Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding’ by Elton John,  ‘Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover’ by Sophie B Hawkins, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ by Whitney Houston, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar (I Love That) and, of course, ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings…though I wasn’t so enthused by ‘Boys (Summertime Love’) by Sabrina.

I’m not arguing the self-evident point that lots of pop songs have ‘love’ in their title but that I’m far less likely to skip to the next track when I’ve filtered for the word. This makes me think that. perhaps, that for a lot of artists that they are more confident of titling a song with a potentially ‘cheesy’ like ‘love’ when it’s a strong, good quality track (i.e. because it’s good they don’t need to be defensive about it). Paul McCartney’s lyric to ‘Silly Love Songs’  sums up this critical tendency. This is less true of the likes of Diana Ross but very true of the more macho male groups and singers. I think that may be a lesson for writing as well — if you’re dealing with emotions then it will work if you do it directly and confidently then that will be the best remembered of your work.

‘You Must Be An Angel…’

…I can see it in your eyes, full of wonder and surprise’ — from Madonna’s ‘Angel’ off the ‘Like A Virgin’ album from 1984.

I heard this song for the first time in years tonight on ‘Only Connect’ — an interesting quiz show hosted by Victoria Coren. (The title is presumably based on E.M. Forster’s famous quotation, which was much referenced by the Leavisite deputy head, Mrs Silverman, when I was in the sixth form who gave a couple of us extra sessions tuition in English Literature in case we wanted to do the Oxbridge entrance exams. I’m sure that our MP at the time, Joel Barnett (of the famous devolution-related Barnett formula) once said that she was related to the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, whose bill abolished the death penalty. She may even have been his wife, although she must have been quite young when he died in that case as that was 23 years before she taught me.)

Anyway, I always thought ‘Angel’ was a wonderful song because, like many others on the album, it was very subversive — at first hearing innocent electro-pop but finding all sorts of darker meanings on closer examination. I love the way she stresses the word ‘must’  in the line ‘You must be an angel’ — you’d expect the stressed word to be angel. The album came out in my first year at university and, having been one of the very small number of people who’d bought Madonna’s first album when it was eponymously titled in 1983, I bought both the single and album of ‘Like A Virgin’ on the day they were released.

I wondered why I thought ‘The Angel’ was a good title for the novel and it’s partly to do with Angel tube station (the lovliest named tube station on the whole underground) being the closest to City University but it’s also because I’ve always pictured, without actually realising it, the Kim character to look quite like Madonna of that era. Odd how it all comes tumbling out of the subconscious.

Encouraging Alumnus

Later this term we’re having a visit from a ‘real-life’ author but, as an encouraging testament, she is an alumnus of the Certificate in Novel Writing course itself. It is Kirstan Hawkins whose novel, Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop, is being published around now. There’s a short biography on what seems to be her agent’s page and it’s quite re-assuring to see that she’s a veteran of various creative writing courses as well as having quite an extensive writing history related to her academic career.

Sally Hits Facebook

Inspired by Emily’s suggestion about creating diaries and the like for our characters I’ve come into the modern world and set up a Facebook page for one of mine — except that it’s a bit more complicated as this is something that will probably really happen in the novel. It’s for Sally Hunter — alter-ego wine writer of eco-grunger Sally Edmonds — and she’ll use her Facebook persona to establish her wine-writing credibility.

It’s early days yet — I want to her to become a fan of various wine related things and so on but I’ve had to put in things like education and date of birth. I’ve kept those pretty true to Sally Edmonds’ details. I’ll be interested to see if Sally gets mail (she has her own genuine e-mail address which she needed to set up the account) from people who went to Aylesbury High School or  Birmingham or Birkbeck Universities thinking they remember her. I think if Harry Hill’s Knitted Character can have a Facebook page then so can Sally.

Here’s how she appeared on my page — note her relationship status.

Sally Appears on My Facebook Page
Sally Appears on My Facebook Page

And here are the personal details from her page (or wall or whatever it is)

Sally's Info
Sally's Info

Click on the images to read the info in more detail.

Sally’s only got one friend at the moment so I’m sure she’d love more. You can search for her on Facebook using her mail address sally.hunter@mcnovel.org.uk (note there’s no ‘a’ in that spelling of mcnovel).

In due course Sally’s network will extend to other social-media-using characters who will make friends with her — Ana, Frances and maybe even Robert.

Back to the Tate

Had a meeting in London today between Mansion House and Cannon Street that I’d partly arranged in the hope of hitting the pub with friends afterwards and getting well lubricated. This didn’t come to pass but I didn’t waste the trip as I zipped over the river to check a few details out in the Tate Modern.

I wrote a piece for last Saturday’s tutorial by using the Tate website to look up the paintings so I thought I’d better go and see them for real before I revised the piece. Good job I did as I now know better where they’re physically located in the room. They are principally Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’, Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and Rauschenberg’s ‘Almanac’.  I may also use Claeus Oldenburg’s ‘Giant Three Way Plug’ as it didn’t realise it hung in the air or was so big.

I went down and revisited the big box — not as spooky this time as there seemed to be more light and there were more people around — and also checked out the Cy Twombly paintings which I found all to be called Bacchus (untitled) in a collection called Material Gestures. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever ‘got’ a painting which to all intents and purposes looks like someone’s had a breakdown while doing some interior decorating. I can’t find it on the web but there’s a review in the Telegraph that shows a similar work. I’ve now found Twombly’s site. There are two Bacchus paintings at 21 and 22 on this page.

Next door to the Twomblys was something which was, re-assuringly, the sort of pretentious rubbish I’d normally expect. I can’t seem to find it on the website and I was quite interested as there was a warning about the room containing sexually explicit material. Unfortunately it was some old bloke’s home movies of himself stark naked in a mask hitting himself on the head with a boxing glove and smearing himself with paint (I luckily missed the bit where he uses bodily excretions). Not something that I’ll probably use in a novel.

More On the Ground Research

I wrote a section of ‘Burying Bad News’ in the summer which was a flashback to 1995 when Frances was a young GP in Feltham, in south-west London (famous for its Young Offenders’ Institution which takes the worst young criminals from the whole of London and visitors to which can often be seen on the local trains and buses).

I used to work there in the late 80s/early 90s and often travelled through there for the rest of the 90s. The whole town centre was a 60s planning disaster and over the last five or ten years it’s been completely redeveloped. My old office has been turned into Yuppie flats and the local boozer (whose beer garden was the only bit of green in the whole centre) has been flattened.

I went back there last night and spent two or three hours in the Moon on the Square — a Wetherspoons pub which replaced the infamous Cricketers, which was a place where 70-year-old Irishmen offered each other out for fights, customers let their rottweilers roam around and pushed trolleys full of shopping into the pub from Tesco’s next door (Tesco has relocated down the road and has been joined in Feltham by Lidl, Aldi and Asda).

The whole area is a vast improvement on what it was like at the point I set my chapter. The beer was very good in the Wetherspoons too. It’s good to revisit the places that I’ve used for settings. I drove on the bridge over the Stokenchurch Gap cutting last week and I’ll try and get to the Tate Modern again tomorrow .

Compliment?

I had the experience of being workshopped in the tutorial on Saturday, which was particularly nerve-wracking for me as I was the last one to be done (and we had over-run as well so I guess people needed to get away).  Even though I’m quite used to this process, both in person and on-line, reading for the first time in front of a new group of people is quite daunting. It’s worse when people who go before you get very positive comments as well and you think ‘Oh no, mine’s nothing like the style of the one everyone loves.’

What was most useful was getting the notes that people had made on the scripts. I read these on the train on the way back (and again on Saturday evening) and I was very encouraged. In the main people must have made the comments in advance and I was struck by the differing views. Listening to the class discussion, one might be tempted to think there was a uniform opinion (possible influenced by Alison giving her comments on hearing the extract read out.) However, there were plenty of instances where one person had scribbled something out as being, for example, over-written whereas another person had written ‘this is great’ next to the same line. I guess it goes to prove the truth of the Vonnegut quotation where he instructs writers just to write for one person and not try and please the whole world. (Bren Gosling mentions similar thoughts on his blog.)

One comment that slipped into the back of my mind on Saturday but has now come back to me was that someone said that she didn’t know how to interpret some of the material. I take this as something of a compliment now I think about it as some of the writing (and other art forms) that I enjoy most are those where the reader (or viewer) is not sure how to take it. ‘The Office’, for example, is comedy that borders on tragedy and parts of it stir emotion much more than many straight dramas. Similarly, Jane Austen’s writing is overtly humorous in places (Mr and Mrs Elton) but much more subtle in others. Two of my favourite TV series, ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’ (which I’ve just unearthed on DVD) are simultaneously deadly serious and incredibly hilarious. I don’t think I’ve seen anything funnier than Phil Collins with his ‘Nonce Sense’ T-shirt or ‘Dr’ Fox saying in all seriousness ‘This has no scientific basis whatsoever but it’s a FACT’.

Poem from Metroland Poets Meeting

In the environmentally friendly spirit of recyling I re-used some of the novel extract I sent out to the writing class to create a poem to be workshopped when I went to Metroland poets on Friday evening. This was the first poem I’d read and it was quite favourably received. One poet said it made him feel disgusted, which I think was a compliment!

Kebabbed

The day yields to the glow
thrown by vibrant, violent lettering,
lurid ribbons of plastic fascia.

Aromas of frying fat saturate
the air, oozing from the slick
of takeaways greasing the road
to the car factory.

Shards of compacted meat
weep from the window rotisserie.
Betelgeuse burns on a concrete post.

The K Factor – So You Think You Can Knit

After a long day thanks be for Harry Hill and the Knitted Character. He rose from the flames to have his own reality competition: the K Factor.

TV Burp is a masterclass in building humour from the compounding effect of repetition and self-deprecation. Now I’m not sure which is the best of the two. Which way to decide?

Political Research

Seeing as Frances Cross, the MP’s wife, is a principal character in ‘Burying Bad News’ it was quite nice to bump into Helen, my local MP’s wife briefly at the weekend. I don’t know her particularly well but certainly well enough to say hello to and have a chat. I know David, her husband and a shadow minister, slightly less well but I’ve met him on quite a few occasions and enough to say hello. (For the sake of their confidence I won’t say exactly where or in what circumstances I met her or even how I know them but it’s not in an overtly political context). Unlike Frances, Helen is a completely approachable, friendly and level headed person as is her husband, who’s pretty likely to become a minister should the Conservatives win in May.

I’ve also met quite a few other MPs and Ministers. I used to live in Vince Cable’s constituency and once took a deputation of neighbours to his surgery (an experience that I allude to in a chapter of BBN). Phil Woolas, who’s Minister of Immigration, came to my mother in law’s birthday party a couple of years ago and I had quite a chat with him. My mother-in-law used to have a photo taken of herself with Tony Blair every year at the Labour Party conference. She’s not managed it so far with Gordon. I told her before last year’s conference that she’d better be quick in getting one.

The Shock of the New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Extract Sent Off

I was hoping to write something brand new for the reading in the class on Saturday but got a bit bogged down. I’m still hoping to write something on the new novel, even if it is a collection of fragments, for the tutorial with Alison.

For the reading I looked at what I’d written most recently for ‘Burying Bad News’ and was guided by the 2,250 word limit more than anything else in picking two of the sections set in Oxford, which came to about 2,500 words. They are when Sally and Ana are roaming the streets and when Sally argues with Emily Smiley. They’re mostly dialogue, which will be interesting as I’ve had a quick scan through some of the other extracts sent around for reading and, as might seem sensible at this part of the course, they’re first chapters of novels so set the scene for the rest of the story and tend to have a lot less dialogue. I wonder if picking something out from the middle of my novel will totally confuse everyone. The problem is that the novel doesn’t have a chapter one yet!

I knocked off a quick 500 words of ‘Gravediggers’ for Swan Supping. This is basically a more comedic version of ‘The Angel’ but allows me to try a few things out for ‘The Angel’. Again it’s almost exclusively dialogue with a reference at the beginning to a famous work which might set some expectation about what may happen in the end. Click here to read: Gravediggers Part 3