Monday, July 21, 2008


My wife is in diamonds, and the funny thing about these clumps of carbon, is that uncut, they're fairly uninspiring. There's certainly no sparkle.

I said before how, if I started writing the novel today I would a better and more succinct novel - and I'm not in a position to put aside the previous year and a half of work. So what to do?

I took a week off writing, and made a list of the twenty scenes left in the book. Which brought me, after a couple of days of mulling on the matter, to the core of the story: which is not the core I thought it was.

Illumination! Fantastic. Which brings me to diamonds. NOTE TO SELF: I write best when I write as succinctly and tightly as possible. When the words are as finely chiselled as possible. When the story moves as boldly on from one scene to the next. It's an exciting thing for a reader, to follow a story that leaps from scene to scene like a mountain goat: rather than one that cow-plods from field to field.

It's quite a simple thing really, but very hard to have that level of control/condifence over the story and the characters to write this well. I was listening to Bruce Springsteen at the time, and was fairly inspired by his style of lyric, which is fairly distinctive in that his songs tell a story. Dont believe me? Have a listen Or here

If a song can tell a story, with a voice and characters and conflict, then why can't a novel?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Plotting, Part 2

Life has given me a handy deadline of six weeks to get to the end of this novel - and it's a target that's just possible to reach.

How to do this best, I wondered to myself this morning an came up with a plan. I will limit myself to 20 scenes to bring all my characters to the end of thier stories. Which means sitting down this morning and looking at the story, and looking at the characters and working out which scenes are the crucial ones.

In fact, this seems like a great way to plan a novel. If I was to start again, I'd spend a few weeks or maybe months writing about the characters: so I could get to know them and how they act in different situations. Then I'd plan out seventy - and no more than seventy scenes for the whole novel. Then I'd sit down and write them. You wouldn't even have to write them in sequence.

It seems so easy, doesn't it?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

How to Structure a Novel

Some people use graphs to show how a novel should build and peak. Some think of concertos. Both these certainly have their uses. Structure is certainly something I struggle with - and hopefully next time I'm struggling I'll stumble upon this post and remind myself of the best way for me to understand how all this stuff fits together: Shakespeare, dear boy. Shakespeare!

By which I mean, Acts and Scenes.

I'm not sure how it works but maybe from my school days, of sitting in English class taking it in turns to read out that month's Shakespeare play, I seem to have absorbed some kind of understanding of what makes a scene. And then what scenes make up am act. And how acts work together - or build upon each other - to make a play. Or story.

And plan it out from the beginning, in acts and scenes.

Something that's true from my first novel is that I seem to work in chunks of about 30,000 words. Not that I get to 30K and stop, just that the seams of the novel start to strain and stretch at this point, and it's at this point that I tend to take those 30K out and look at them and fit them pack them down together with less air between them.

Actually I tried planning this novel out from the beginning. But my plan - like those of generals - did not survive contact with the enemy. But I do wish I knew then what I know now about the whole tale. I would have spent much less time on the beginning, and jumped ahead to the main grit. I've been pencilling in scenes I should have written into the first half of the novel, and just pushing along, assuming they have written.

Of course a lot of this will shake out when the first whole draft is written and then I can look at the whole lot - lay the body out on the slab in front of me - and I can cut away all the flabby and unpleasant flesh.

Lessons for next time? Plan as much as possible, and understand the story and it's affect upon the characters as much as possible before starting.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Yes, it's been a long time, hasn't it. I can't believe how long really, but there you go: I've been writing.

I think I had about 95,000 words for the first half of my novel, and I realised that it'd taken me far too many words to get to this point in the story: and so I went through it cutting and cutting and stitching the remains together.

On top of this I knew that I needed a wide spread of characters with which to enter the second half. This meant I added some new bits to the whole: scenes, comments, memories.

And after a month or so's work I had cut 95,000 words back down to about 55,000: and with a much stronger story than before.

When I was sure I had a solid foundation then I started the second half of the novel.

It was clear to me that the writing would have to be very tight to get all the key stories and storylines into the second half, and so I went through the novel, scene by scene, plotting it out onto the wall of my office.

There are many different ways of planning a novel, and I have heard and seen comparisons that range from concertos to graphs, but I find the best way is in terms of Acts and Scenes, much as I learnt at school when reading Shakespeare.

It's not only a good way of plotting the novel, but it also helps to plan the scenes ahead. I'm banging on now, and the writing has been flowing easily, almost too easily at times, and I've found I've had to go back at times to add scenes and flesh out storylines.

But it's all great fun. I've also identified a number of scenes I should have written in the first half, but rather than go back and write them now, Ive put them into my novel planner in different colours and am treating them as scenes that have been written, and pushing on towards the end: which is out there somewhere...

Characters: as a note to myself, I've also rediscovered that characters with pasts are more compelling than characters with futures. Something to remember for the future.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Suzhou: St Patrick's Day

My last day in China: it's an odd feeling. It rained during the night and the trees are dripping and the car park is wet and glossy, the air damp and chill.

The news this morning was the election of the Chinese premier and vice premiers. The news all week - or rather the non news - has been the riots in Tibet. These started out as a rumour someone said in Beijing. 'Have you heard about the riots in Tibet?'

Nothing more.

In Chengdu the only foreign news service was CNN, and it took me a day to realise that when the signal blanked out it was because it was a report from Tibet.

In Shanghai the censor was much more relaxed. And there was the BBC as well, covering the news in much more detail: namely rumours that a hundred have been killed by Chinese police/army. ('CNN is not covering this for fear of losing the Olympics' someone told me. )

In Suzhou there is no foreign news, just CCTV channel 9, which is the English language channel. They mention the Tibetan news, and the report is full of words like 'insurgance, seperatists, Dalai Lama clique'. 'Tibetan seperatists will be crushed' is a phrase that sticks in my memory as I go out to my talk with Brian Keenan. I'm a little hung over from St Patrick's Day the day before - but it is good to celebrate a good English saint, even though the Irish like to pretend he's there's. A great guy, by the way - Brian Keenan - and despite the fact I promised myself an early night I find myself at the bar chatting till midnight.

I was fourteen when he was kidnapped, and nineteen when he was released. 'Who's Brian Keenan?' my wife asks when I tell her - in fact most of the people can't really place the name. But I knew, and I read his book An Evil Cradling when I was in China: it's a great book, that goes beyond the experiences of a man who was a hostage, and says something profound about the world.

This blog was originally written March 18th, but this blog site is banned in China.


I spent yesterday afternoon on the roof terrace of M on the Bund, having lunch with Madelein Thien and marvelling at the sight across the river, which looks like Hong Kong Island, viewed from Kowloon.

Spent a very pleasant night last night, watching the last day of the six nations rugby, and England beating Ireland at last. And beating them in the line out. At last.

This blog was originally written March 16th, but this blog site is banned in China.


It struck me on the plane down here that I grew up in a medieval city, and that I find this scale of city comforting: which may be one reason why I so much prefer the hutong to the highway. I like tight and overhanging streets, full of people you can reach out and touch.


Chengdu is the only inland city I'm visiting on this tour, and not surprisingly I've been here more times than the other places put together: and I find these moments and 'me's crowding around me demanding to be heard, and remembered.

The first time was in 1994 when I came on a Shanxi Province Teachers Trip when we went to see some old dams and then took the Three Gorges. I came here in the summer of 1995, on a thousand mile trip from Lhasa to Golmud, to Xining, to Chengdu, to Kunming, where I was meeting my parents. I remember meeting my girlfriend then on a warm steamy night, just off the train. It was the last summer I saw my father. Two months after he left he killed himself in a cottage in the Lake District.

And I came here in the summer of 1998, drifting home from Hunan, with the seed of a novel in my head - the opening scene - where a factory closes, a man dies and it starts raining. And that seed grew like a weed, or a tall straight shaft of bamboo - into The Drink and Dream Teahouse. And I became a novelist. And I wrote a book I was really proud of.

This blog was originally written March 14th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Leaving Beijing

Thursday 13th March

There are moments when you wonder how you got here, like this. If ask myself this when I attend events and find myself standing talking or sitting on stage with famous writers.

I guess a large section of my personality is the budding writer, still trying to work out how to get published, so when I sat on a panel in Hong Kong with Colin Thubron a few days ago, it made me a little giddy. There have been more of these moments here in Beijing: bumbing into Arundati Roy and Hari Kunzru; being asked to moderate Brian Keenan (Justin - do you mind chatting with Brian on stage in Suzhou?) - Do i mind?! Hell no!

And then I interviewed bestselling Chinese author, Jiang Rong, about his book Wolf Totem. What do I know about China? I feel, but then I talk to other people, or read other books and it's only then that I realise that I know alot about China. And a lot more than other people who claim to know everything. No names mentioned. ;-)

It's also been nice to come back to Beijing and wander around the place with no destination other than lunch or tea. I don't like much of the new Beijing, but I've been taking lots of notes, and I see a lot of stories around me. I have just starting writing short stories, a form which has either alluded me or puzzled me before. I find it hard, I guess to start a story and then close the window on it without exploring the characters at novel length.

But I'm getting the hang of it now, I think: short stories are like little snapshots of a life or a moment, or in the words of Madelien Thien, when I asked her about her short stories, they're 'little universes all of their own'. This of course is the other great thing about lit fests - you get to hang out with other writers, and suddenly - after spending most of your life in an office, alone except for your imagination - you're not isolated. It must be how the puddle duck feels when suddenly the urge to migrate comes upon him and he seeks out all his fellow ducks and they gather in one vast flock to wing south - and I'm winging to Chengdu tomorrow.

This blog was originally written March 13th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Beijing Lit Fest

It is good to be back in Beijing. I guess I'm odd amongst ex pats who have lived in China, in that I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen - only passed through on the way inland. But of all those big cities, Beijing is the closest to me: it's where I first landed - on a Finn Air jumbo which, when taxiing towards the terminal we stopped abrunptly. It was a little odd, and I peered out of the window to see why, and saw that there was a crossroads at the airport, with traffic lights. Our light has turned red, and as I peered out, the opposing traffic - a lone bicycle - had right of way.

Anyay, that was January 1993, and now the new Beijing airport is open: the largest building in the world, and I doubt there are any bicycles allowed on the airport.

Still - it conveys a sense of how Beijing is changing. I never recognise the place, because most of the buildings - from the ancient hutongs to the dull Communist-era blocks of flats - have been demolished and been replaced with skyscrapers. The only bits I recognise are the streets around Tiananmen, which never really change. The city has undoubtedly deteriorated: it has switched from a city of the pedestrian and bicycle, to a city for cars, where pedestrians are like the little figures at the bottom of vast science fiction canvases, put in at the bottom to give the whole place a sense of scale.

And there's a lot of building going on: and vast holes everywhere. In fact, between my hotel, which was opposite Beijing Hooters, was a vast hole (see the size of the digger to get a sense of the size of the hole), being worked on by short tanned little migrant workers: peasants in effect, in hard hats and luminous jackets and I felt at home around them and their curious and amused looks because they come from places where I have lived, and they looked remarkably like the students I used to teach - who were short and dark little peasants.

But it is great to get off the ten lane highways and find the little streets that still exist behind the modern facades. Each time I go back to Beijing there are less and less of them, and little things or people I used to think would always be there have gone.

One of those is jianbing: a breakfast food that combines egg and crepe and a crispy biscuit thing - all smeared with plum sauce and chilli and coriander and spring onions. It's heaven, and there used to be guys all over the little streets making these: but now they're made - if at all - they are in the supermarkets. Which is not the same.

I knew a guy across Beijing, who I always used to go to and he would always remember me even though it was months between each visit. Sensing that street jianbing sellers are fading from Beijing, I got a taxi the next morning and told my wife that I would video 'our' jianbing man, before he disappeared. But when I went to where he worked he had already disappeared.

I managed to find another, and thanks to YouTube here is a jianbing:

And then I thought I should video what it was like to walk through a hutong, just for me to remember when these hutongs are also gone.

This blog was originally written March 9th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hong Kong Lit Fest 2008 and a little more Gygax

I have a personal bond with the Hong Kong Literary Festival: I came here for the first time on my honeymoon in 2002. While most newly weds spend their time in bed, I have to admit that my wife spent a number of mornings alone in our room at the Mandarin Oriental: listening to me on the morning Radio Hong Kong talk show. But our week was spiced up with lunches and meals with literary greats (Hanif Kureshi and Amitav Ghosh amongst others) - and more parties and champagne receptions than is decent in one week.

So it was with a little thrill that I unpacked my author's pack for this year's festival: the two week membership of the Foreign Correspondant's Club, the name tag and info pack of when I should be where.

The festival started with the launch of 50/50 - an anthology of Hong Kong writers, and the next night followed up just as well with an exclusive Asian Literary Review party, while last night I was with the Hong Kong Geographical Society, to listen to the great travel writer, Colin Thubron, talk about his journey along the Silk Route from Xian to the ancient Antioch, on the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, great writers often disappoint, but Mr Thubron was an excellent speaker, and spoke without looking at his notes for an hour, plucking facts and history and story in an almost breathless account. The audience questions were a little dull, with the dullest being one lady who was very concerned to know if Mr Thubron could use chopsticks - but overall a great event.

Meanwhile, to get back to the late Gary Gygax, here's a wonderful quote from him in 2005, which backs up my feeling that storytelling and role-playing are closely related.

"The story of the hero being called forth, usually unwillingly, and adventuring and undergoing a change has been with us probably since stories were told round campfires."

I like that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Magic of Gygax

The news is a fairly dreary procession of events and declarations, but once in a while you see or hear something that stops your little world spinning for a moment. In my inbox this morning was an email that Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, had died.

I was always quite impressed with the name 'Gary Gygax'. While you wouldn't be frightened of a dragon called 'Gary', 'Gygax' seemed a suitably esoteric and strangely archaic sounding name. Tolkien might have called his Farmer Giles of Ham dragon 'Gygax', rather than 'Crysophylax' - or maybe they were related in some way, hatched in the same dragon brood - because dragons lay eggs don't you know. The name also looked neat, and it alliterated: but most of all - I saw that name on the front of my Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. And - in some kind of Pavlovian response - that name began to symbolise that sense of magic, adventure, the feeling of my little village life in York opening up - and me growing up into something more exciting than a schoolkid with a bicycle.

But oddly, I don't think I've seen that name on the front of any rulebook for twenty years. In fact, I only played Dungeons and Dragons for about four years, but it did lead me onto other roleplaying games, onto roleplaying weekends when we would camp out in the grounds of a friend's house (whose parents just happened to own a country house and a theatre production company and so all the cloaks and shields and plastic stage armour any young lad could wish for) - where we cooked over camp fires and sat up late into the night - and I remember, it was then that I stayed up all night for the first time, and the toe of my wellington boot melted. But Dungeons and Dragons inspired me. It filled my hours in a strangely obsessive way. I wrote stories about my character's adventures. I drew maps of their temples and castles. I wrote letters to my brother's characters, and he wrote them back, and we tip-toed along the corridor that connected our bedrooms, late (as it seemed then) into the night. It was an old farm house and we knew that corridor and it's squeaky floorboards like the backs of our hands.

My parents were a little worried, I remember, and they sat in the same room and discussed me - in the way that parents do - while I sat and drew a new castle for my characters. Was it healthy, they wondered. Could it do any harm? Was it Satanic? (At the time D&D was banned by the monks at Ampleforth school for encouraging devil worship). I also remember hearing there was going to be a radio 4 play on called Dungeons and Dragons - and I sat and listened to it and was a little insulted, as (so it seemed to me then) tried and utterly failed the capture - the magic of being 10 or 11, and carrying a sword instead of a walking stick, or school bag.

Now: I had a lot of issues with D&D, but most of them were because it wasn't realistic enough. How could my 22 hit points fighter still fight with the same degree of strength when he had 1 hit point left? Runequest gave me the answers. And when I had enough little lead figures, Warhammer turned up and so my double life as an army general began.

There is no Rod of Resurrection, but there is magic in the name Gary Gygax, and it still brings that thrill of adventure - and the sense of opening, from this world to another where more is possible. And when I think about the events that led me to write novels, there are two that stand out in my memory: when I was nine or ten, hearing one boy give his book report on The Hobbit, and thinking that I should read that; and the year later when the odd boy in the back of the class was going on about this new game, D&D. I remember I begged my mother to get a copy. My school included Saturday morning, and I remember rushing home that Saturday lunchtime, and running in to see my boxed set - with it's red dragon curling on a bed of treasure -and my mother telling me that the lady at the Precious of Petergate toy shop told her that they had sold out - and I ran to my room sulking fiercely.

But there on my bed, lay a plastic wrapped copy of basic D&D.

'They said it was the last copy, but I asked them to check and the lady found one in the back,' my mother rather smugly told me, when I came back downstairs beaming.

And so it all began.

The news today is all about Ian Paisley resigning; the UK Transport Minister's plans to shelve road charging schemes; and the specultation about whether Obama or Clinton will win in Ohio and Texas. I'm actually supposed to be at work, but wanted to stay at home and try and capture this moment. And in my world - the mailing lists I subscribe to, and the message boards I visit - the death of Gary Gygax is the only real news there is. All the men who were once boys, and who sat in the same rooms as I did, rolling dice and staring at the player's side of the Dungeon Master's Screen - and graduating from hack n slay to a more intelligent way of interacting with worlds and monsters you have never come across before.

Gygax is dead, but there is still magic in that name: just seeing it and thinking about it has brought back all these wonderful moments that shaped my youth. And when the world presses too heavy and close, and I stray upon his name again, I know that I will feel that same sense of opening and possibility, and adventure.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Aftermath

Well. Did I did learn a couple of things. One: I'm not like Ian McEwan. Two: I don't want to write like Ian McEwan. Three: I wish I had McEwan's sales figures.

The other thing that struck me was something McEwan said when he talked about his early writing., which was along the lines of during his first four books he was under the misapprehension that you should not show a character's interior thoughts. And that clearly he changed his mind. Martin Amis said something along the same lines last week, talking about theme in his own writing - that when one has written a few books then you can go back and have a look at the preoccupations that unite them all. I find this very reassuring because I still feel I'm learning about writing, and clearly both of them learnt from their early books that then helped them go on and write more.

As far as the rest of the lunch: very pleasant, and McEwan was a good deal more humourous than his work might make you think. I even went so far as to buy his latest book, Chesil Beach, but found it hard to get through the first sentence without being repelled. No other writer has this affect on me - of turning me off immediately - and I tried to work out why and pushed on further into the book, and it's the narratorial voice I dislike, which is irritatingly all-knowing.

Still, Passing Under Heaven and Ciao Asmara both went into their second impression this week, which is great news, and I'm struggling against the deadline for a couple of short stories, which seems a much more difficult style of writing than writing books. Got a very exciting March coming up, with a tour of China's lit fests, from Hong Kong to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Suzhou. Strangely, it's the thought of the various foods I'll be eating along the way that is exciting me most. But food, intelligent conversation, and fine wine are about as good a combination as you can find. Which strangely brings me back to the lunch. More please!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Literary Lunches

I'm having lunch with Ian McEwan tomorrow. Well, not just me. There's about forty of us who have paid a nice sum for the honour of eating and drinking some fine fare, and then listening to Mr McEwan talk about his work for half an hour.

And all this feels very relevant as next month I will be taking a month off touring the various Chinese literary festivals, and I'm wondering what exactly lit fests and lunches are all about. What do we hope to achieve or learn by listening to an author talking about their work. And - as an author - what do I gain by meeting an audience?

I suppose that the author's motivation is clear. Beyond the pure ego-boost, and the chance to sell books, I'm very clear about the purpose of these events for me. It stems from the fact that writing is a peculiarly divorced art form, with artist and audience seperated by time and place and in case of translation - even language. Readings are the only time an author meets their audience and when I read I get to feel their reaction, in the same way that an actor can feel the audience from the stage.

As a spectator I'ma little more confused by lit fests. And I suppose there's a rainbow of reasons why people attend. I go to learn something from the authors, or to be inspired. But the problem is that authors are so random at delivering a performance anything like thier books. Very entertaining raconteurs I remember seeing include Louis de Bernieres and Simon Winchester, but - my first - AS Byatt was less interesting than a pot of paint.

I'm not sure what I'm expecting from tomorrow's lunch. I'm not a big fan of McEwan's writing, but he has certainly hit a groove in the popular British literary scene - and I am sure I can learn tomorrow - and now all that's left is to hope that McEwan is one of those writers who can hold the attention of an audience in the flesh, as well as on the page.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Phew! That's over then....

It's February, isn't it? I'm not entirely sure where the last three months went, but they've certainly gone. I blame all this on the fact that Christmastide coincided with an avanlanche of family visits. These started in November and ended mid-January, and all this means that life is only just starting to settle into its equilibrium. And life, of course, means the novel.

I actually got a fair amount of work done when they were here, but only in short bursts, and as soon as they left I got to get straight back to work, working full days and nights, and have been buried under drafts ever since.

People often ask me how to write novels, but I have no idea how to write, although I know alot more than I used to. I can tell you however, how I wrote each of my own novels: and they're all as different as children. Having written two novels I thought I knew something about how this one would go, but it's coming out in quite a different way from all the others - just proving the point that there are a hundred ways to reach the same destination.

But there are a few things that unify my novels:
  • My first chapters inspire me throughout the rest of the book
  • I have a strong sense of what I want the book to be: and when I'm far far out to sea, this is the light by which I navigate
  • Confidence: there is nothing as valuable as having confidence in what you're writing, and it's a hard thing to get when it's not there. This is especially hard when you're writing about a time and place you're not familiar with, which is what I'm doing. But a couple of years into researching and writing this novel, I feel I'm starting to get my confidence about my work and it feels great to come at my draft and decide what stays in and what goes
When I started work again this year I had about 80,000 words, and had only got about 2/3 through the book. This was clearly too long, and I'm currently going through the novel something like a dot the dot exercise, leaping to the critical scenes and cutting out the bits between. This is making a much tighter and more confident reading. So far it looks as though I will cut about 20,000 words from that when I finish the draft.

One of the reasons that this novel is quite different to the others is that I know what the second half of the book will be like, and paused 2/3 of the way through to assess if I had enough characters to get me through this second half. The first time I got there I was well short. About 7 drafts have followed, and as soon as that 2/3s was working as a group and got me to the point I wanted to be at, then I've started cutting it to retain the best writing.

Novels have long planning times, and most of March I am going to be attending lit fests across China, so March will be a bit of a miss. My aim is to get this draft finished and then start drawing up detailed plans for the last part of the book. I'm always impressed with the way Desperate Housewives delivers their stories: they're bold and confident - and I rarely plot my novels much, but this time I'm going to try and plot the last chapter out much more closely. It'll be interesting to see how it works, but I'd like to try and treat each chapter like a poem: so that it's intense and concentrate.

Well, I'll let you know how it goes.