We had our last Saturday workshop of the course at the weekend — forever! We’d even got into a little routine — the people who weren’t having lunchtime tutorials would go to Ayla’s Cafe (pictured) in trendy Exmouth Market (though not so trendy at midday on a rainy Saturday) and have a ‘hale and harty’ (sic) or ‘award winning’ breakfast or omelette. The problem was with up to a dozen of us ordering at once, they often didn’t bring serve the food until about fifteen minutes before we were due back. I had a tutorial so I ordered a tuna sandwich on Saturday but still had to grab it from the counter and eat it on the way back to the university.
We still do the same style reading and feedback in Alison’s classes next term but on Monday evenings — and so no scope to go for a greasy breakfast — maybe the pub afterwards but that doesn’t tend to get so many of us along.
With just one Wednesday evening session to come this week before the Easter holidays, it emphasises that the course is two thirds over. Because of the Bank Holidays in May our Monday sessions are rescheduled into an eleventh week next term but in three months and a week or so the whole thing will be over and we’ll be on our own. (Actually it’s one of my hopes that, as the Kirstan Hawkins session informed us, that people on the course will carry on keeping in touch and encouraging each other and reviewing each others’ work but that remains to be seen.)
We had a session with Emily about how themes and connections will start to emerge in our work. I realised that I had an interesting location with Village Underground and that there was something subconscious in why I liked it so much. During the class I realised that the trains were a metaphor for the whole city-rural tension in the novel — something that connects the two halves together and they were also an inversion of the natural order — underground trains being on the top of something rather than the bottom.
But other odder influences are at work in my mind. One CD I’ve been playing in the car is possibly the most untrendy album ever released by the untrendiest of the Beatles — it’s ‘London Town’ by Wings. I’ve always liked the album since I recorded it on cassette from someone over 30 years ago. It was released just after ‘Mull of Kintyre’ had become the biggest selling single ever (until Band Aid) — and this was just as punk was coming down from its heyday. There’s little classic rock/pop on the album in the mould of ‘Band on the Run’, which might have gained it fans. In fact some of the album is pretty rubbish — the Elvis style rockers for example. However, it has the fairly ground-breaking single, ‘With A Little Luck’ which is almost all synthesizers and was released a good three years before the Human League, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and so on got started with Synth Britannia. Also, the title track ‘London Town’ that was McCartney’s first flop in years is a beautiful piece of music with Linda McCartney’s harmonies sounding beautiful, especially at the end — it’s a shame the lyrics are so ridiculous. When I’ve been walking round looking at London with an eye to finding usable locations I’ve had ‘silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London Town’ going through my mind on many occasions. The main strength of the album, to me, are the four or five folk-rock tracks mainly co-written by McCartney and Denny Laine — ‘Deliver Your Children’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are cracking songs. The last track, and this is the point of this diversion into ‘London Town’, is called ‘Morse Moose and the Grey Goose’ which is something of a concept song made of a few fragments but the ‘Grey Goose’ bit is a salty sea-shanty type song — complete with West Country sounding accents: ‘the Grey Goose was a steady boat, people said she’s never float, one night when the moon was high the Grey Goose flew away’.
So I’ve had this playing in my car recently.
I was writing about Kim getting herself hammered in the putative first chapter of ‘The Angel’ and I was wondering what she might drink. I thought gin maybe but opted for vodka as it’s in less need of mixers so I wondered about a suitable brand — being the proud owner of a botle of Smirnoff Blue that I bought in 1989 on my first BA staff travel flight and have never opened since. I don’t think I’ve ever actually drunk vodka at home. So I got on the Ocado website to check out some vodka brands — and there are plenty of variants with all kinds of provenance and flavours. I had to go through about 30 before I found one that I’d seen advertised in an expensive magazine like the Economist and that cost about three times the Waitrose own brand stuff. This seemed like something that might be served in the bars of Shoreditch too — it’s apparently distilled from wheat in Cognac and was sold to Bacardi as the most expensive spirit ever at $2bn apparently. The website is very Flash.
The BBC’s reporting on the British Airways industrial dispute with Unite has been fascinating in terms of the nuances of meaning that can easily be interpreted to favour one side over another and also how the juxtaposition of human interest stories (‘how do you feel about your honeymoon being cancelled?’)Â with reporting of arcane negotiation details can influence the message of the report — there’s a lot of subtlety, whether deliberate or through lazy reporting — and the subject is interesting in a wider writing context.
One particular example was heard on Five Live’s bulletins on Saturday night. The newsreader stated that BA had said more Unite cabin staff had turned up to work ‘than expected’ and consequently the airline had ‘re-instated’ previously cancelled flights.
The number of staff ‘expected’ in this report was Â entirely BA’s own subjective figure, which as it had previously not been published could not be verified. This tactic was obviously BA PR spin designed to give an impression that the strike was weakening and the BBC reported this clear inference despite this assertion having no independently verified basis.
More rigorous journalism would have attributed to whom the verb ‘expected’ was related — e.g. ‘A BA spokesperson said more staff had turned up than BA’s management had expected’.Â By missing out the vital attribution of who expected the turnout, any listener is invited to infer that it is the reporter or the supposedly impartial BBC who has made the judgement about whether the strike is being well observed or not.
Unattributable quantitative judgements like ‘higher than expected’ play with the reader or listener’s expectations and relate very much to the point-of-view discussions that we’ve had in the classes at City. Whose expectations are these that are being reported? It’s vitally important. Obvious authorial interventions, as in the BBC report, imply an omniscient narrative voice that, in BBC News Bulletins, should be impartial. Fictionally such leading assertions belong more rightfully placing red herrings in a detective novel (where even then they’d be rather too obvious).
Yesterday was the fourth of our five Saturday ‘workshops’ (I rather agree with Alexei Sayle’s famous quotation about the word — that anyone who uses it ‘without referring to light engineering is a tw*t’). As things worked out it was the first time that I wasn’t doing a reading. (We got a chance to sign up for our readings and tutorials next term. I made sure I didn’t do consecutive reading this time, although I only get two goes.)
This meant I had seven pieces to read and make comments on in advance — which takes a surprisingly long time. What also took quite a long time was the workshop itself. We over-ran by nearly an hour which was ironic as Alison asked us all to be brief and succinct in our comments. (I’m getting a little paranoid that whenever a reminder is given about concise comments it invariably seems to come just before I speak even though I’m pretty convinced that I’m not one of the worst culprits in ploughing through every single annotation they’ve made on the script.) She also didn’t stop anyone reading their piece in the middle unlike last time when Michael B was cut off in mid-flow and I sabotaged myself my making it clear when about three quarters through that I was moving to a new scene which was completely different. I’m still a bit piqued by being stopped from reading (I’d only got to 1,750 words) and it must have made the subsequent discussion a bit incomprehensible to Alison herself as there were as many comments from everyone else about the bit that wasn’t read out as the stuff that was. Maybe this was why everyone was allowed their full allocation this time, although I thought it was a little unfair on Guy that he had to read after a few people had to leave for other commitments. It’s a good job his piece was so accomplished — and funny.
Hopefully my comments will have been of some use to the people who did the readings but I had the opportunity to think of what I got out of the session myself. It’s interesting to compare the development of others’ novels compared to my own. There were a couple of people whose work didn’t really give me much scope for offering feedback — not only was it generally very good and polished (revealing the work that had gone into it) but it was also consistent with what they’d produced previously. The feedback is really — ‘it’s very good, please carry on and do more like this’. Â There are also cases where I’m not sure soliciting feedback from the whole group is particularly useful for the writer because of it may be in a style that is not to everyone’s taste and one or two people, with the best of intentions, like to offer suggestions to the writer of how that piece of work could be transformed into something the person giving the feedback would prefer to read. This can be a bit destructive if the writer has the whole novel planned out and is writing the start of the novel in a particular way for a specific reason that is yet to be revealed. I’m reminded of the Thomas Hardy novel Â — ‘Return of the Native’ I think — which spends a whole chapter at the beginning describing the landscape of Egdon Heath. Imagine if he brought that into his creative writing workshop — ‘The setting is great but I think you’re lacking a bit of characterisation’, ‘what would work for me personally is a bit more plot’.
There are also some works-in-progress that seem to make most use of the workshop by bringing in experimental and less well-developed pieces that invite opinions from everyone else because the writer hasn’t fully decided in which direction to go. I may be a bit guilty of wanting to shape other works to my own preferences with some of my comments but there were a couple that I thought — ‘yes, this could be really, really good if only the writer put a bit more x,y or z into it’.
A few of us had an interesting discussion over lunch about sex scenes. I’m a little surprised that we’ve not had anything more explicit in our workshops. My description of James’ imaginings of Emma’s naked (upper) body probably lead the field jointly with Nicole’s excellent Gypsy girl seduction scene, which I thought was great. Jennifer has also put in a couple of honourable mentions with Connie standing starkers on the balcony and Peter greedily ogling the doctor’s receptionist. This might be something to do with us having to read the material out loud. However, I know this is an area that I’d probably have substantial difficulty with in my own novels — and I’ve put off writing them. I have plenty of ideas about what I might imagine writing but it’s really an area that, if I’m honest, I would benefit hugely from having some frank feedback about. Some genres aren’t going to go into this territory but most modern novels will deal with relationships and readers are going to expect the author not to shy away from sex scenes and discussions if the characterisation and plot seem to suggest that’s where the novel should be heading. I think I may have to pluck up the courage to bring something like that to one of my two remaining readings as I’ll either get some valuable feedback or have my confidence boosted in having made a reasonable job of it (hopefully).
We had an exercise to complete for last night’s class which was surprisingly difficult — the task was to write ‘an honest description’ of one of our parents. Most of us, I think, approached this with some trepidation as writing about close family members is often outside a writer’s comfort zone. In fact, it’s a surprisingly common reason why writers get mental blocks — that they worry about whether something unflattering or critical they’re presenting about a character might be internalised by a parent or sibling. And there’s also the inhibiting effect that’s often quoted about writing sex scenes — that a (usually would-be) author avoids these due to anticipated embarrassment if a parent read it. Then there’s the famous quotation ‘When a writer is born into a family, the family dies’ which is attributed to various different people on the web — Philip Roth and the Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz being the two most popular.
In the end, everyone produced fascinating pieces of writing which were a mixture of the humorous, poignant, intimate, touching and angry. They all also tended to resemble quite closely the individual voices of the writers as can be heard in the excerpts of their novels.
One of our course (see the links to Bren Gosling’s blog on the sidebar) prompted an interesting e-mail exchange between several of us when he asked if anyone else had crises of confidence, particularly once they’d read a passage from a great novel which they’d compared with their own work.
I guess this is pretty universal. Almost everyone agreed that they had similar bouts of self-doubt. Rick made some good points: don’t compare your early drafts of your novel with the polished final draft of a master; anyone who thinks they’re a pretty cool writer when they’re only at an early draft stage is almost certainly not.
My own contributions to the debate were:
‘Paranoia, self-doubt and angst’ — sounds like the sort of job description that’s written for me. I must be aspiring to do the right thing — I’ve yet to experience that much despair yet but I’m sure I will. Â I agree with everyone else’s comments about the ups and downs and the difficulties of the writing process. One paradox that several writers that I’ve read have commented upon, and that I also find myself, is that while you know the actual process of writing can be very stimulating and rewarding once you’ve started, that there’s a massive reluctance to begin and almost any other activity is used to displace starting it. In the end, once I make myself do it, I enjoy it to the extent that I often completely lose track of time and get completely drawn in to the process.Â I was flicking through the Carole Blake book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that’s on the reading list and she makes a point about the importance of positive feedback. She’s a literary agent and she says she’s full of admiration for writers who plug away in a fairly anti-social job for completely unpredictable rewards — something she says she could never do. She then admits to occasionally feeling hugely guilty, mainly due to time pressure, for giving her authors feedback that sums up the positives in a couple of sentences and then goes on to list several pages of corrections or suggestions for improvement (this is for established authors with books that are very likely to be published).Â She recognises that good writers are self-critical to the extent that the deficiencies in their own work leap out far more than the positives. However, often people (maybe this is a British thing in particular) tend to hold back on positive feedback, which they may feel is self-evident, when in fact the writer, suffering from self-doubt, would greatly benefit from the encouragement it gives. After all, what most writers are aiming for is to engage with and entertain people and any validation that this is being achieved must be welcomed. We can’t expect that sort of encouragement from literary agents but, as Nick mentioned last week, it’s good to try and find readers for what we’re doing, such as writing groups, etc and I’ve certainly found motivation from the comments that I’ve had back on the readings I’ve done so far.’
I would guess all writers get the up and down feelings you describe. I’ve just written another 3,000 words (see future post) and it was a real uphill slog — and without the prospect of reading it out on Saturday to get feedback then I’m wondering whether it’s any good or not.
I remember reading the time before last and thinking while I was reading that parts of it were rubbish — then I was pleasantly surprised when I got favourable feedback.
I tend to be of the opinion that I’m self-critical enough about my own work to be able to correct a lot of things given time so positive feedback is probably much more important than critical readers realise. I guess being self-critical is an important thing for being a writer and you tend to see the deficiencies more clearly in your own work than the strengths — which is why it’s nice to have a supportive group of readers to remind you about the good things when they give feedback.
Overall, however, I think when I read something good — or quite often experience some other art form that’s outstanding — then I feel it more inspiring than intimidating and it spurs me on to try and improve what I’m doing myself.
There were some curious comments made in the debate which were in the vein of Â ‘artist be true to thineself’ and probably contradicted my comments about searching out an audience. The importance of plugging away in something you believe in — that you feel compelled to write — was mentioned and I guess that this is almost a given when you start to put in a lot of time to your writing before receiving any professional recognition — the position that this novel writing course assumes us to be in Â Someone said that all art was subjective and there was no measure of what’s good and bad. I think there’s a lot in this viewpoint and its associated comments that you can put anything in front of a group of people and some people will like it and some won’t — regardless of what it is. I’ve had plenty of experience of Open University courses where people are graded in percentage terms for their creative writing and I still feel aggrieved that I lost possibly five percent on one assignment, missing out on a distinction, purely because the rather prim female tutor refused to believe my urban female character in her twenties would say the word ‘twat’ — even though I got feedback from a woman in the same age group telling me that line was ‘great’. I tend to think that that sort of marking should have a margin of error of around 20%. I remember another OU course member striking a rich seam of ironic eco-comedy (a little bit like Guy’s although this was a radio play) that the tutor loved and gave her 85% for. While this was well-deserved as it was well-written and observant, the writer unsurprisingly then repeated the same formula for every assignment possible thereafter and didn’t develop writing in any other forms.
However, I do think there’s a general assumption that if someone will publish something then that’s an affirmation of its quality and that courses like ours aim to equip us with the skills and knowledge to get to that fairly arbitrary level of quality. Of course it all depends whether the writer’s main objective is primarily internal (to express him or herself) or external (to engage with an audience). In my case I definitely tend to the latter but certainly have aspects of the former. For others it may be more extreme.
Just as the weather has started to turn after the greyest, most miserable winter, I’ve been struck down by a horribly persistent virus that I thought a week ago was a cold but now I’m wondering if it might be some sort of flu. I’ve managed to drag myself into City University three times in eight days – two Wednesdays and a Saturday for my reading — but was certainly unfit for work duty between Friday and yesterday (Wednesday).
What’s most depressing is that the virus seems to be tapping my energy to write stuff. I did the piece of Kim’s hometown when I was coming down with it but have only done another 500 words since then. It’s been well over 10 days since I was able to get out for a run — and the weather for it is fantastic now compared with a week or two ago. I’m hoping I can get out and run tomorrow — I don’t always use the time to think about writing but sometimes it gives me a good opportunity to think these through. It also generates the various endorphins and dopamines (or whatever) that make me feel invigorated to get stuck in to things. (Incidentally I had James do a bit of internal monologue about hormones or other body produced chemicals involved in physical attraction. When I read this out on Saturday at City it caused a bit of debate. I didn’t have chance to say that I deliberately wrote it to show his confusion — not sure if that actually worked — but I originally started off from the premise that he’d be fantasising about touching Emma in a way that would set Â off her oxytocin level — the human-bonding hormone or whatever it is.)
To try and impress the joys of spring, here’s a photo of the grass verge outside our house. I planted it a few years ago with crocuses and have added snowdrops in the green over the last couple of years. It looks wonderful when the sun is out on days like these. Soon the snowdrops will go over but hopefully they’ll come back stronger next year. (I’ve ordered another 100 to add to them.) This is quite an unselfish flower display as we can’t see it from the house — the main benefit is to people walking by — some of whom repay the compliment by letting their dogs crap on the grass.
This morning I had a tutorial with my Open University MSc. dissertation supervisor — Dr Lucia Rapanotti — who I discovered, is a real Italian. It was the first time I’d used Skype and, quite bizarrely, when I put the webcam on it inherited the settings that had been last used by my children — which included the image manipulation software that doctors the image in supposed funny ways. I couldn’t find a way to turn it off so throughout my tutorial, my supervisor saw my image with huge cartoon horse ears attached to my head! Talk about making a good first impression.
The MSc. work is hopefully part of a plan that will allow me to develop a specialism in an area of IT (IT Governance and Enterprise Architecture) which could lead to some opportunities to write and do consultancy. If I’m successful then this would fit reasonably well with doing creative writing as well — write the technical stuff to pay the bills and try and hammer out as much creative stuff as I can until the point where I might be able to ditch the more boring stuff. Still, I’ve not proved I can make any money from either yet so I need to do a lot of work to get to a point where I might. That’s why it’s pretty frustrating to be laid up ill — so much to read and write and the clock’s ticking.
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:
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.
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.Â
I’ve now come to a point where I’ve doneÂ quite a fewÂ 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 studentsÂ quite ruthlessly apply but seem to be broken by many of the greatest writers in history. Maybe more of this in the next post.
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 –Â an action thatÂ I was told was a first for any woman of the class’s acquaintance. So the message is trust the reader toÂ Â ascribe motivation toÂ the character’s actionsÂ but give the reader some help in circumstances where it’s me, as the writer, who might be the source of confusion.
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).Â 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 thisÂ almost, by definition, means that other people would prefer we do things a different way.
In my reading CharlotteÂ didn’t likeÂ the slightly more lyrical writing at the end whereÂ 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 suggestingÂ the concept’sÂ 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 thatÂ the writing of all theseÂ 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 isÂ the encouragement of coursemates and I hope I’ve been able toÂ 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’Â likeÂ — 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 theÂ 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!