Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Talking Books: How to achieve 'epic'?

It's funny how books - like people I suppose - turn up in your life and deliver answers almost before you know what the question was.

I've been working on the novel, and got to the point where I was quite happy with the basics: storyline, character, language etc. But something else seemed missing. It didn't seem to have any gravitas. It was, I suppose, just a story, but not something that said anything profound about the world: and I like to read things that are profound.

I was thinking about this when I started reading John D. Rateliff's excellent The History of the Hobbit, which gives a draft by draft account of The Hobbit: where Thorin was Gandalf; Gandalf was Bladorthin; Smaug was Pryftan; and the Goblin king was called Fingolfin. All a bit obscure unless you're a Tolkien fan - but the important thing for me was a letter CS Lewis (of Narnia fame) wrote about The Hobbit, to Charles Williams 'The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious change of tone....we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsokn [hall-burning] and Badger had begun to talk like Njal'

It was the phrase 'escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot' that struck me. My novel felt like it was well-paced and drafted, but failed to reach to the pinnacle of relevance: when it says something profound about the human condition.

I came across a similar concept yesterday while reading VS Naipaul's Reading and Writing. He quotes a letter by Joseph Conrad, who is commenting on a novel by a friend: 'the novel was clearly one of much plot but all the drama all the truth are thrown away by the mechanisms of the story.' And Naipaul writes of Conrad: 'The discovery of every tale was a moral one.'

It's easy to understand what is missing and quite different working out how to fix it. I have my ideas, and will come back when I think I've solved it. There's another relevant quote from Naipaul which gives a very interesting insight: 'A novel was made up; that was almost its definition...at the same time it was expected to be true...so that part of a novel came from rejecting the fiction, or looking through it to a reality. '

Seeing reality through the fiction: this is of course what all good novels - good writing - all good art - does. It adds insight to our lives.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The First Man Asian Literary Prize

Not all hedge funds are bad: and in a world where literature - from the writers to the organisers of festivals -are usually involved in a loss-making business (writers usually receive something less than the minimum wage for the hours, or years on a novel), it is important that Man Group plc have stepped up to support a Asian Man award, a prize very much along the lines of the Man Booker in the UK.

It seems a little odd to encompass Asia into one literary prize, but actually all the other great landmasses already have their own prizes - a plethora of them in North America and Europe - and apart from the generic 'misery books' that China throws out, along the lines of Wild Swans, Asian voices seem under represented on the shelves of most bookshops.

Having spent the afternoon listening to the finalists of this, the first Man Asian Literary Prize, reading and talking about their work I have been struck at how universal their stories are, and how accessible and important. There is Jose Y. Dalisay's dark comedy about the body of an overseas Philipino who is sent home in a coffin, and gives us the flip side of the impact of US naval bases on a local community; Reeti Gadekar's clever and funny exploration of Western and Indian culture and society; and Xu Xi's novel which - like many of Hong Kong's residents - straddles cities as far apart as New York and Hong Kong.

Unlike most literary prizes, which peg their publicity on the 'big' names who file around the shortlists on 5-yearly intervals (please not McEwan/Rushdie again!) the names of this list, chosen from a staggering 200+ entrants from across Asia, are probably unknown to most people. None of them have been published in the UK or USA, which does not mean they shouldn't be. Jiang Rong's 'Wolf Totem', is a run-away best-seller in his native China, with sales figures in the league of JK Rowling (2 million official sales, and an estimated 4 million pirated copies). Nu Nu Yi, a favourite Burmese writer, has written fifteen novels, and over a hundred short stories, while five of Dalisay's novels have won the Filipino National Book Award. That writers of this calibre have remained undiscovered is surely a crime, and more than this: it is a loss to people who love literature.

Of course - and this is part of the purpose of the prize - this award will help propel some of these writers out of the 'Asian' world into a Western bookshop. Wolf Totem has been picked up by Penguin and will be out in the UK in March 2008, and many of the other writers have publishers who have shown interest.

It begs the question why do we need a prize to encourage readers to try something from a Burmese or Philipino writer? Stories are about people, and having written two novels about Chinese characters - both eminently successful - I heard nothing from the writers this afternoon that would preclude a Western reader from sitting and enjoying their tales. Because good writing is - and there is no doubt that the five writers shortlisted here are good writers - universal. It is about the human experience and that experience does not change radically if you are Thai or French or American or Chinese.

Hopefully this prize will put Asian writing more onto the map: and also give Asian writers more confidence and more encouragement to put their experiences and lives into literature. Certainly the profound changes that are happening here deserve a literary voice.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Harry Potter of Novel Writing

I've spent much of the last 6 weeks going back through the novel, teasing out scenes here, rewriting them at times, cutting in others. What has struck me and my readers is that I often build to a climax, and then avoid the climax and move on. Which means, when I go back I need to build all these scenes to their natural conclusion: which is truly exhausting work - and probably the reason I avoided doing it the first time round. I think of this process as a little like casting a spell, which is how Harry Potter comes in: because hitting these scenes is just like spell-casting.

Here's how:

Preparation: think about the scene, work out where you want it to end up, and what the climax should be. Get all the ingredients you need with you (not spider's legs but tea of coffee or cigarettes or whatever you're going to need for this process which might take anything up to a couple of hours.) Sit down. Clear away all the detritus of the day. Focus your mind.

Casting: Focus clearly. Put yourself into the characters - in wizard terms, possess your character's body and feel how they feel and see what they see and write it down as clearly and honestly as you can. There will probably be more than one character that you have to possess: which is an exhausting process as you take on the personality and backstory and experience of each of the characters in turn. Like a spellcaster, you are summoning spirits and illusions and movement to enchant and entrance the reader. Focus: your are summoning a world and a moment into being.

Recovery: If the spell has been cast properly then as all wizards in all tales - you will be exhausted. You're body will feel empty and dislocated from the world around you: because in truth you have passed from our world into the world of your imagination; have possessed the body of imaginary people and moved them like real.

The spell ends.

This analogy becomes much more understandable when you think of the original meaning of the word 'spell', whose spelling (from a different word source) hasn't changed since Old English times, and which comes to us in the word 'gospel' [O.E. 'godspel'].

For the original meaning of 'spell' is story. And what else is story-telling than the working of illusions, the charming and enchanting of an audience: once through sitting in a fire lit hall and telling them a tale, but now more likely through the words we write on a page.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ted Hughes Letters: Brilliant listening

I'm a big fan of Radio 4, and there have been a number of inspirational radio plays this year that have been a great aid in my writing.

I've just listened to the latest: Ted Hughes Letters. It's moving, beautiful, shockingly tragic: and exposes you to the private thoughts of a great writer. On a personal note, it reminds me of my Yorkshire childhood, and I'm lucky enough to have stayed at Lumb Bank, which is now one of the host sites of the Arvon Foundation. And not far from there is Sylvia Plath's grave. And his now, I guess, although he was still alive when I was there. [Actually he was cremated and his ashes spread far from Yorkshire and Sylvia, on Dartmoor]

But this is writing at its best: accessible to anyone. You've got a week to catch it - if you're reading this after 5th November 2007, then sorry. For the rest of you, this is a real treat:


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Revising: the Joys of Rewriting

Ok, it's not very glamorous, it's not sexy, and it doesn't do much for your home life: but revision is absolutely integral to any book. Some books more than less, but for the beatniks out there, while On the Road was typed on one long sheet of paper, it was heavily revised before publication.
I've not written anything here because I've been rumaging back through my novel, like nosing my way back into a wardrobe stuffed full of old clothes, trying to sort out which bits I want to keep and those I want to throw away.
And it's a process...I've been at work for about three weeks, putting alot of my other life on hold (answering emails, gaming, updating the website etc) - while I try and sort my way into some kind of sense. First of all I wanted to introduce my main character with a chapter of his own. In that chapter I introduced two new characters because I want a nice set of interesting characters well established by the middle of the book. And now I find that I need to write more about these two characters, and In doing so I'm altering where they are from, because I have found that I can use this group of three friends to tell the story I wanted much better than I was trying with the main character alone.
Alot of the work I am doing is because I have a clear idea of where I want the book to be by the middle of the novel - and how far from that I had got. By comparing the two, it allows me to assess how much I have achieved that I wanted to achieve.
I've also learnt something about my writing style, that I tend to plot very closely the movements of the characters through the physical geography of the novel, when I am not clear about where the novel is going. This all struck me when I started reading Far from the Madding Crowd, where each scene is clearly set out, and the consequences feeding into the next, and the unimportant details are then left out.
I'm bearing this in mind as I go back into the wardrobe, but also when I write my next novel, I want to plan out the process a little more clearly: because I think this will save me a few months hard work. I should work out the themes and the ideas I want to get across and then work out how various characters can carry each of these along. I feel I could go back and rewrite huge chunks now, and stick to the main scenes.
This all reminds me of something Mary Renault talked about: using the fast forward button for a story, just cutting unimportant details with the insertion of a sentence or paragraph, and getting back to the main details.
The best way of breaking down a novel, I find, is to take coloured cards - with each character getting a seperate colour - and then write what happens in each chapter on each card. I then pin these on my wall, chapter by chapter, allowing me to visualise the story a little bit better. If there are too many blocks of one colour, then I look where I can insert another story thread into the mix. Then I mark the main story events: and look through my list of events for scenes I can cut, or scenes that achieve the same thing as another, or just slack.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reviewing the novel so far.....

So - I've had a few weeks away from the novel and I take this opportunity to sit down and print it out and read it, a little fresher: and I have to say I'm disappointed.

There are a couple of things that are not as good as I had hoped.
  • the opening chapter is GREAT - but it feels as thought the narration loses some of its authority after that. Not sure why this is: maybe because I was less sure of the direction of the story after the first chapter, and spent a couple of months re-writing this point, and then cut lots of it and made it much more simple and straightforward.
  • I'm not happy with the main character's character: even though my readers have all said they're happy. I guess this is where being the novelist helps, as I have a certain idea of what I want this narrator to be like, and he's not as rounded as I want. Too much of his personality is shown by action, which is something that comes naturally to me (the infamous show not tell) but I need to find another way of developing and adding to his character. Note to self: This can be a very small touch, and might not necesserily mean more than a paragraph or sentence even. And in doing it, make sure you don't patronise the reader.
  • There's a point about half way though where the narration feels like it loses momentum, the main character going home in a way that is reminiscent of an earlier chapter. Perfectly fine in real life, but stories are not real life, and they shouldn't be. It would make a much more interesting movement to cut that chapter [point B] and get directly from point A to C. Also in this chapter the problems the character face are cast in too universal a light: so they are problems that seem to affect all of England. I need to find a way of making it personal to him. I keep in mind Dicken's Tale of Two Cities, where he's dealing with a big historical event, but where the French Revolution is made personal to all the characters involved.
  • Improving the characters: I have to admit I'm lazy in the sense that I don't do things that I've heard other novelists do (like writing letters in each character's voice, writing reams character background and motivations) - I like to sketch characters in bold black and white lines, rather than try and paint them in photographic detail. But there are times I need to update that sketch, especially as the story develops and the role of the characters becomes larger and more central than I had originally envisaged. I've had my wife read out a long list of questions about these characters I'm concerned about. I have her read the list to me (a very dull task) because I like the spontineity of the response that comes out, which I feel gives me more interesting and more truthful answers for these characters. I guess in the same way that we have to act instinctively to sudden changes or surprises, without lots of pre-thought.

It's great to have had this time away from the novel, though I wish I had come away feeling happier about it all, but novel writing is all a process, and if it makes the book better at the end then it's a good thing. But it does remind me how novel writing is a process of continual disappointment - like a child that never quite lives upto the parent's expectations. High expectations are cruel to impose on children, but I think you need to have high expectations of art, because its the only way you produce your best by pushing yourself, forcing yourself to improve and make the writing better.

I'm writing all this, knowing that my writing time is going to be limited in the next few weeks as I have a few things that will keep me occupied. One is a book I need to read and review by Monday. And another is a short story competition I agreed to help judge way back in the spring, and suddenly find I have 30-odd short stories to read and judge. But it's important to go in with the right mind-set, and I like looking at other people's work:they're a nice break from my own writing.

EDIT: I was walking last night and was convinced I had to go back to the end of the first chapter and cut the other 43,000 words and start again: but I think the problem is the way the main character is introduced in the second chapter. He is found in quite a passive way, and him being passive as his first moment in the novel, gives the reader a lingering sense of passivity about him. So I think I'm going to go back and introduce him in a chapter of his own, with all the details about him that give the reader quite a different impression of him from the start. Then, I think, there is not so much I will need to edit, because there is very little internal thought, and much more character shown through action - which will still work, but the reader will interpret him slightly differently.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ubud Literary Festival

The last few weeks have been a little crazy: in preparing to leave for Bali, being at the lit fest, and then coming home again and trying to tackle the snow drift of jobs that have been piling up - which is all a bit irrelevant, except for the fact it means a three week break from my novel.

I'm a little supersticious of taking any break from the writing, especially when the novel is flying along, but sometimes there's no choice. Shit happens. You are sick, your children are sick, the novel is stuck, you're out of enthusiasm for the novel, for writing in general.

So - I try and find ways to make this work for me. One nice aspect of a forced break is that it gives you a chance to put the book away for a while, and then come back to it a little fresher, a little more like a reader will come to the book. And that's a great thing to achieve, because you start to see the saggy bits or the bits that really shine.

Sometimes - and this is the same with many problems, not just writing - taking a break allows your subconcious to bubble away quietly, and then the solution or inspiration will suddenly spring upon you and surprise and delight!

I'm half way through the book. 50K in, and as this is a novel based on real events, the second half is vaguely set out for me. It's up to me to decide how to deal with these recorded events: maybe by following them like a dot to dot drawing, or filling in the gaps between.

I've almost finished digging through the snow-drift, but having waited this long I'm happy to wait a little longer. I hope to start reading next week, and deal with the results, and then pull the story along. Just add a thousand words or so.

Notes to self:
1. Make sure the 50k so far works
2. Make sure the characters are full and rounded and empathetic
3. Make sure I have enough characters to carry the story through the second half of the book. This is the most important one, I think.

This all brings me back to the reason I was away: the Ubud Lit Fest. I'm a fan of lit fests, mostly because I'm a writer who enjoys reading to an audience. Writing is such an isolated art form, my audience is usually a simgle person who picks up a book alone, in a room, maybe years after I have written the book, and opens the book to the first page, and starts to read. No other art form is the artist so divorced from the audience, so readings give me a chance to feel the audience reaction, like an actor or musician.

I used to feel somewhat schitzophrenic at lit fests, as you go from no one to speaker and then back to no one again. But I don't feel that any more: I like lit fests. They give me a chance to meet other writers, and to talk ideas, inspiration, techniques, experiences and problems with agents and publishers. They're the closest thing writers get to conferences, and the conferencing usually goes on with a bottle of wine. Because writers are solitary creatures, by necessity, which is not something that seems to hold true for artists, who seem to mingle much more easily.

Ubud is a beautiful place, and there was a great bunch of writers and artists and literary types around. Its a credit to Janet de Neefe, and all the other people involved, all the more remarkable that this festival is less than 5 years old.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Goodbye to all that

My first novel has just gone out of print. I didn't know books went out of print any more, what with print on demand publishing, and I it's left me feeling rather stumped.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse, because that is her name, was my first literary love affair: an intense and passionate love affair. I threw everything I had into her. When I was away from the computer, I couldn't stop thinking about the story and the characters, and what they were going to do next. I became tense and cranky. I wanted to get home and touch her again, I recited her opening paragraphs to myself and laughed out loud, and if she could have spoken I would have called her late at night on the phone. When I was writing her she made my life a mix of extremes.
When I had sat and written something that I knew was great, I could run a marathon; drink a case of wine; go find a woman. Sometimes I combined all three. And when she was finished, I plunged into depression and despair, and missed the excitement of creating. When she went out into the world alone, I probably sang 'Wild World' and thought of her and cried.
But now she's out of print. It's a personal thing for me. It makes me feel sad, like autumn, the scent of jasmine and walking along the playing fields I used to play in as a child.
Make no mistake: The Drink and Dream Teahouse was a great novel. The Washington Post picked her as one of the Top Reads of 2001. She won a Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; was translated into 13 languages, and she was so profound that the Mainland Chinese government even banned her! But she was charming too, and was good at attracting attention for me at parties: and it was because of her that I sat and shared a cup of tea with Valerie Eliot, TS Eliot's widow.
But also a lot of things happened which weren't great, like they do to all doomed relationships. My editor and I both left the publishing house before the paperback launched, so I guess she was launched somewhat half-heatedly. In the US she launched a month after September 11th, and disappeared, like so many people, into that great pile of rubble.
When I got the email last night, my first reaction was to go onto Amazon and search for new copies of her I could buy. I need new copies for my children, and their children, if life blesses me with those. But I also felt relief: despite the great memories. I left her behind a long time ago, went onto other novels and other stories, and now I feel that she has finally left me alone. The door is closed. She is that nagging ex-girlfriend who has finally got a life of her own, and has moved away from town.
She lives on of course, on living room bookshelves and in second hand bookshops, and when a reader opens that first page she blooms effortlessly into full flower, without regret or hesitation or remorse. Unlike real girlfriends, who age or sag or loose too much weight or hang around with dorks, or harbour bitter memories, she is still as beautiful as the day she left me. As the day we left each other, I should say.
You know, if I were you I'd go and find yourself a copy. Get a hardback and protect the dust jacket in a slip-case. Get a good bookcase to sit her on, and surround her with great books.
Cherish her - don't leave her there to dust and fade in the sun! Bring her down occasionally, open her wide on your lap, pick a page at random, or a favourite scene, and she will sing arias, as she sang to me that summer I created her.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Tolkien, writing, and raising the stakes

I had the toughest week getting the chapter I was working on right. Writing is a funny business: you get one chapter spot on, and then you try to do the same again, and suddenly you find yourself overwhelmed with the fear that the novel is becoming too generic: that the plot is repeating itself: in my case, the main character returns home, finds something from his father, someone arrives, and that arrival forces the main character to act.

I remember reading somewhere that the stakes should keep increasing for the main character, till the crescendo of the story is reached. If you think of Lord of the Rings, this process follows nicely for Frodo. He gets a ring. The ring must be hidden, then it must be taken to Rivendel, then it must be destroyed: and at each point the task becomes more and more difficult and the ring goes from a clever ring to a symbol of terrible power, then to a source of corrupting power in itself. In this way the stakes are ratcheted up. Imagine if Frodo had got to Rivendel and someone took the ring off him, or if someone said, oh - this ring is not so dangerous - then the story would have ended there. What could have happened next? Where could the story have gone?

Think of the Hobbit, for example: the majority of the book is about a journey ('There' in which the plot structure repeats itself even more obviously) where there is danger. The same journey is taken at the end of the book ('...and back again') but there is little danger after the defeat of Smaug and the goblins, and so this journey is dealt with in a much more succinct manner.

The Lord of the Rings, especially The Fellowship of the Ring is surprisingly generic: the plot repeats itself almost chapter by chapter. The hobbits face a challenge (black riders, the Old Forest, more black riders [who get increasingly close to the hobbits - till they break into their bedroom], the barrow downs, black riders again - and then the black riders stab Frodo with a magical knife that starts to burrow through his flesh to his heart.

If you go through this chapter by chapter, Tolkien was re-using a similar chapter structure of increasingly difficult challenges. And I think that it's important to realise as a writer that the reader will accept a certain amount of repetition, as long as that is interesting and exciting and informative. And repetition in that manner will not seem so apparent. The key is to getting the events that happen to the characters interesting and exciting.

Sometime on Friday afternoon I created a new character, who seemed to solve my problems. Not because he did anything particularly special, just that he allowed me to take some of the pressure off the main character by switching between their view-points and story lines, and I altered the timing of some of the scenes, and a chapter that had me tense and cranky suddenly seemed to work.

There's a lesson in here for me: that a problem that appears as difficult and impossible to cross as a brick wall can actually have an easy solution. I spent the week getting scratched knees and sore fingers, only to find a secret doorway that allowed me through to the other side.

When I finish a chapter I set myself a signpost to head to for the next chapter. It's like looking at a sea of mist, and seeing a tree in the distance, and walking towards it. These signposts often come to me just after I finish my writing on Friday, and I scribble them down and come back to them on Monday morning, and set off towards them. I'm reminding myself that I have to raise the stakes for my character: so that the forces against him grow in strength and threat. It's a hard balance to strike.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Getting started in the morning.....

Pst! It's past 11 and I've been here since 9 and I'm supposed to be working....

Work avoidance is fine when someone else is paying, but no one pays writers to cruise the internet; writers don't get overtime, and if you don't prduce books then you're not really a writer.

But what to do on mornings, like this, when life has just knocked the artistic creator out of you?

It's good to have little ceremonies that you associate with your writing, not because you need them very often, but at times like this, you need something to bring your mind away from bills, and deadlines and personal crises, and all that other stuff, and just bring you back to the book.

Here are some of the things that kick me off:

great music

a good cup of tea

notes and pictures

something that smells good

something completely different

revising previous pages

brainstorming characters, plots, emotions

and then just picking up the pen

Monday, August 27, 2007

Experience vs Imagination

I remember writing an essay at school about how writers had to experience things to write about them truthfully. My teacher wrote on the bottom of the essay 'what about imagination?' and that sentence has stayed with me since: and I'm still curious about where imagination and truth blend in fiction.

I think my essay was more of a personal ambition to break out of the confines of my York upbringing. I was impatient to escape childhood and break out into the world; reading was a free pass to the adult world. In my early teens I read a surprisingly adult collection of books including Icelandic sagas, histories, middle English poetry, and essays on Old English. I wanted to sail the North Sea in a longboat; carry a sword and a cloak and a shield; stand on the black Icelandic beaches; herd sheep from horseback; smoke pipeweed in the Shire. And that ambition to taste life stayed with me, and the conviction that it was only through drinking deep would I somehow find the material to become a writer. The armchair imaginer I would not be, I decided, and although I had not discovered them yet, I decided early on that I would devour life with the same energy as Hemingway, like Orwell, I would immerse myself in the dirt and grime and poverty.

That was how, I found myself in a rural Chinese town at the age of 21, with barely a word of Mandarin. In the next five years I drank deep: I was arrested by the Chinese police, played basketball with Tibetan monks, drunkenly toasted the Dalai Lama, pushed myself to the peak of physical fitness, almost died of dysentery, was evacuated from my home when Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war, felt the nervous prickle of a civilian listening in a city being bombed, and lost my father to suicide.

Of all the experiences, I think it was the last that had the most profound effect, and was the most unsought. At the time I remembered a line from Oscar Wilde, that the best thing for a father to do for his son is die young, and I tried to see the benefits of being fatherless. I am still coming to terms with that loss, or rather, I am still playing with the idea in my writing, and the relationship between fathers and sons is more relevant to me now that I am a father myself.

But I still feel the same as my 12 year old self: that life and experience is the kernel of imagination. But how does this leave the novelist when they try to recreate - say, Dark Age England, or contemporary China. People think that this is a big problem, but it's not something that anyone should be challenged by. I heard an interview with (black) crime novelist Dreda Say Mitchell, when she said that people asked how she could write a white lead. I had a similar experience when I wrote The Drink and Dream Teahouse, a novel in which all the characters were Chinese, at a time when Westerners uniformly included a Western character to hold the readers hand. Strangely enough, it wasn't Chinese people who said this to me, but a British reviewer, who asked what right Westerners had to 'ventriloquise the Chinese'.

It seems an incredibly racist idea that a white person cannot imagine what it would be like to be black, or a black person imagine what it would be like to be Chinese. That would say that each race is so unique that their minds are intrinsically different: and once you believe that they you on the slope towards apartheid. This sentiment is most commonly applied to Chinese than any other nation: they are inscrutable, the stereotype runs, although I have never found them so. They do have a different culture - and what is culture, ultimately, than a set of rules and understandings that govern our everyday interactions and relationships - but we are used to this. In the North Riding of Yorkshire we regarded people from the West Riding as a little odd, and so the people from the East Riding and the Wolds.

Body language is almost universal: the smiles of Amazonian Indians are as transparent to us as the tears of African flood victims, and I doubt they have changed much since Dark Age England. Because at the heart of all stories are characters and their experiences. We are interested in their stories. This is how a writer interests readers. Give readers characters that they can take an interest in, and you move them through the tapestry of life: with all its ups and downs and middling moments.

Aristotle started a debate about plot vs character way back in the BC years, but for me stories are all about character, and plot, as someone said, is just the footprint of characters in the snow.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

1066, Viking longships, treens, and all that....

The Danes reinvaded Ireland last week, which was all wonderfully topical for the novel I'm working on, which is involved in the run-up of the events that led to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.

It's great how much material there is on the web now that can help with research: youtube is one place, and I saw another video this week, of treen-turning, which I thought deserved a mention.


It's interesting because in the 1930s, a young English war-veteran and journalist, HV Morton wrote a bestseller 'In Search of England' - and came across the last bowl turner in England: George William Lailey, who:

'turns bowls exactly as they did in the days of Alfred the Great... to say that eight hundred years seemed to have stopped at the door conveys nothing. The room was an Anglo-saxon workshop! The floor was deep in solft elm shavings, and across the hut was bent a young alder sapling connected to a primitive lathe by a leather thong.'

Morton was an unashamed romantic: but he happened to be right, that Lailey's hut was a Saxon construction.

After Lailey died, in 1958, his lathe was taken to the Museum of Rural Industries (see here) and his workshop was photographed and recorded before being demolished.

Michael Wood, in his 'In Search of England' describes how eight here was an inner and outer chamber, with eight rough-hewn oaken posts holding up the roof. Inside were two chambers, an inner and an outer chamber, and the inner chamber, where the workshop was, was sunk three feet below the ground, with its sides lined with elm boards nailed to staves. The hut conformed to a type of hut called a Grubenhauser, a sunken hut that are found in fifth-century England - which the Anglo-Saxon migrants brought with them from the continent.

The sunken part of Lailey's hut was so packed down with decomposting elm shavings, that the decomposition served to heat the place.

I suppose I'm putting this in, because it shows just how much there is on the internet to educate and inspire the writer. My novel is currently taken up with events in Sussex, in the South of England, an area I have only loose knowledge of: but through the Victorian County Histories online, and Google Earth, it allows me to follow journeys and see how the elevation changes, and find places.

The other reason I mention this is that in our computorised, globalised world, we're only 50 years from the death of a man who turned wood with a pole pathe, in an Anglo-Saxon hut. Until 1974, England was still organised by Shires, a system set up by Alfred the Great and his sucessors, and often based on existing geographical units. This is all relevant because our national identities are more important now than ever before.

As Britain fragments into it's constituent nations, Scots and the Welsh have had the English to define themselves against, and it's the English who seem to have lost themselves most within 'Britishness'. 'British' as an identity is anacronistic. As a Spanish friend observed, the only people who describe themselves as British are old people and Northern Irish protestants.

Englishness was already a concept when Bede was writing, in the 8th century and there are many answers for us in the past. As we move forward into the globalised world its time to celebrate and redefine Englishness, and what it means to us.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Desperate Solutions

So: I sat and thought about the book, and it seemed to me that there were real problems with the main character: that he hadn't developed into a big enough/interesting enough character to carry the story.

Time for desperate measures: print it out and give it to my wife to read. I say desperate, because this is a tough moment for both the writer and the reader, made much more tough if that reader is also spouse. Too harsh a commentary and it'll send me straight to the office in a frenzy of words and storylines as I struggle to make the story work. Too bland 'oh it's wonderful darling' and I'll be left with nothing to work on and just as stumped as I am now.

What I'm looking for is a strange blend of support, encouragement, insightful input: and thank god, my wife came up trumps. She ticked the good bits. Noted the paragraphs where the story stalls for a moment. And when i asked her about the journey of the main character and my concerns, we worked out that part of his emotional journey was missing, and identified the point in the narrative where he could think and work out some of the challenges facing him.

I say all this, because yesterday (monday) i worked on the notes from that saturday night reading, and only added about 500 words: but it is startling how differently those 500 words make the story read. But it might have just been 50 or 100 words.

Readers pick things up as subtle as body language, as unspoken as feelings. Many writers make the mistake of not trusting their readers: and readers can smell an unconfident writer in the same way that dogs smell fear.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Aghh! So, I ended this week with 1,500 less words than I had last week, and have spent most of the time trying to work out how to move the story on in an interesting way. I haven't found a solution and I'm probably going to be gumpy all weekend, until I can get back to the computor on Monday morning and try and work out what I'm doing.

To make matters worse, this morning I read the first page of a novel my editor sent me (also about 1066 - which is vaguely the point at which my novel is heading to) and it seemed so much more lyrical than my own writing - which opened up another load of worries about my writing. Am i a good enough writer?

The weekend's arrival meant I had to give up on the novel as it was, and sat on the ferry and read a book: and it gave me all kinds of ideas for how to push on through this problem. I seem to remember the other novels being like this, higher and harder hurdles to keep jumping, which challenge you in all manner of ways, and some of the jumps you make, and some of them you have to keep taking run-ups to. And some of them you have to just give up on, and come back the next day and see if there is another way round. Giving up and reading another book does seem like a great way through problems - because there's no other option than to work out a solution.

I suppose the other solution is to give up, and this has always struck me as the difference between published and non-published writers. Published writers dont give up. And heh, we all start off as amateurs.

The problem is I have a pet theory that our strenghts and weaknesses as a writer stem from our strenghts and weaknesses of personality: which then lands me in all kinds of personal angst when I'm feeling my writing is inadequate.

Notes to self:

  1. Create some scenes for the minor characters: which will hopefully take some pressure off the main story line, and also give me some alternative storylines to explore, as well as adding depth to the canvas the main character is on
  2. Go back and brain storm motivations for the characters at this point in the story. What is their greatest fear at this point?
  3. Landscape: try and tie these in more closely to the mood and the subtexts in the plot
  4. Prise out interesting conflicts: is my list of main characters too limiting?
  5. Read Renault for inspiration from a master
  6. re-read the whole book so far
  7. read something inspirational! (*the green knight or heaney's beowulf)
Notes to self when finished this draft:

  1. Explore character's motivations and add as much flesh as possible
  2. titivate
  3. Read Thomas Hardy's poetry

Note to self when reading other people's work:

  1. how to make characters empathetic
  2. how to convey a sense of love/affection for home and people and country

Monday, August 6, 2007


Last night my children set up a little shop selling ‘hot tea’ and ‘ice cream’. The tea and cones were all blocks of wood, but they ate and drank each one, and when they gave them to me and my wife we ate them as well and handed them back to be turned into cakes.
It’s the first time we’ve eaten wooden blocks, but the little fantasy was the most enchanting moment of the day. It drew us all in, and it made me think of writing, and how all writing works by creating a world within which we can imagine.
Fantasy is often described as a bad thing, as if it somehow implies escapism; and ‘fantasy’ as a genre is often mocked as a hide-out for those who are unable to relate intelligently to the world we live in. I disagree with this, storytelling is one of the oldest human art forms, where as they were once spoken over the embers, now they are read or written, or filmed or broadcast. All storytelling involves entering a fantasy, the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that is talked about in theatre circles.
I say all this because I think the child’s ability to imagine is something we should all cling to, like a lifejacket.
This is all a roundabout way of talking about last week’s entry, which ended with the idea of taking my character’s hand as you would a child, and walking with them into the world.
That image stayed with me all through last week, when I sat and scratched my head and stared at the screen, and thought what next? – I reminded myself that my job was to sit down and take the character’s hands and walk with them through their stories. It puts the characters at the centre of the story, which is where I believe they have to be. Plot, someone wrote somewhere, is just the footsteps of characters in the snow.

I had a good week writing last week, but naturally enough I worry about all the work I did: too much action, enough varying of pace, is the story accurately showing what would happen, are the characters remaining true to themselves?
I spent most of my time moving the last chapter earlier into the book. The reason I did this was because it was my first kissing scene, and I was fascinated to find out what would happen next, and it’s a great tip to remember that when I get interested, then my reader will too.
But storylines are difficult things to balance. You adjust one item and it’s like moving a crate across a raft, which immediately is thrown off balance, and it’s a long task to go back to try and rebalance the storyline again.
I think this is the whole novel-writing process: loading your raft and then reorganising it until it sits well enough that you can push it out from the shore and watch it drift away into the distnace and leave it for readers to judge for themselves.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


It’s an odd thing writing a novel. I always start off with a vision of the book, that is as exciting and compelling as a medieval vision of an angel hanging in the daylit sky: so profound and brilliant and beautiful that it drives me back into the office, and on to the end of the first sentence, paragraph and page – and then back to the familiar process of produce and edit, and cut and produce.
I have high standards for my first pages: mainly because they have to do my excitement justice. But it gets harder from then on, because now there are story lines and threads to manage, action and pace to balance out with description and beauty. And the doubts, of course. The many doubts.
It is alone that the writer faces their demons, as Beowulf waited in the dark. Who will read this book. Will my editor like it. Will my wife like it. Will someone else write a better book on the same topic and release it just before mine. Will the marketing department like this book. Will it sell. Am I over the hill, have I used up all my talent, is my best already written.
I imagine all writers have these voices in their heads, slowly nibbling at the foundations of their confidence, and this is probably the hardest thing a writer must deal with – agents and editors are small fry when compared to the doubts that come – sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, and inevitably at times – in overwhelming floods. But one of the marks of a published writer is the ability to listen to them, and hear them or ignore them and to push on.
I’m on my third novel at the moment. Not long ago I felt I was near the beginning of the novel, but now, at about 50,000 words I’m into the story and excited about what the characters will do next.
I only ever wanted to be a writer, so writing sentences like ‘I’m on my third novel at the moment’ should bring me a thrill, but I see the reality, that this is only my third time struggling with a story, which makes me a novice, by most calculations. My third time riding a bicycle, my third time driving, my third time making love.
The first novel was like a passionate affair. It was quick and brief and intoxicating, and I went into it with all the naivety and enthusiasm of the novice. The second novel I was wary. I had been out into the desert and I knew that there were periods of drought and hunger and loneliness, and I tried to prepare myself with what I had learnt from before, loaded up my rucksack with all I thought I would need. But this desert was a different place. It was tricksy, there were hollows and detours that led my left and right, and I followed them for thousands of words, tens of thousands at times, before having to back track to the beginning and return to the point I had been a month or two before. The vision I had seen began to feel more and more like a mirage, and there were many times I had that doubt – perhaps the hardest for a writer to ignore – that I had chosen the wrong book.
Other book ideas came to me, glimmering in the noon sun, late at night, or in the supermarket, or on a journey. Like beautiful strangers, they all had the wonder of possibility. At home – familiar and unsurprising – my other novel waited.
It is good to bring these thoughts to mind at this point in my latest novel, because I forget so many aspects of writing. And I suppose, for me, this is what this blog is for, is to remind myself of the many things about writing I do know, and also to force me to confront the problems and joys of writing so next time I will be a little better prepared.
I wrote a note to hang above my desk one morning: I write because I love it.
I even sat one night in bed and wrote that sentence down a sheet of paper. Of course it seemed a little odd, like I was reading a self-help book. But it also made me laugh and smile. Because I dont write books for my editor, or his marketing department, or even, really for my wife. I write for me, I write the kind of books I want to read, and it was good to get back to the reason I write, to get to the essence of my inspiration.
I write because I love it is a shield against many of the worries that come. I love writing and I love reading, and it is a joy to sit down each morning and face those demons down and take your character’s hands – like a child’s hand who wakes in the morning – and to walk with them, again, into the world that you have created.