Friday, 30 January 2009


John Irving’s friend once told him that everything he did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying. How pretentious, I thought at first. And wrong. What about smelling the first cut grass of spring, knowing the cricket season approaches; the first sip of ale after a day’s trek across Dartmoor; reading a William Trevor story by an open fire. And so on. But then I realised his emphasis was on ‘vaguely’, as if not doing it would defy Irving’s nature somewhat; that he’d ache with something’s absence. Now, I certainly wasn’t born to write; it’s not particularly in my blood, or anywhere else: I’ve looked. Nor would I use affected hyperbole such as ‘writing chose me’. But it’s what I do. I need to do it almost as much as I need to read. Which begs the question: why?

John Fowles addresses the reader in The French Lieutenant’s Woman thus:

"I’m a novelist, not a man in the garden.

[N]ovelists write for countless different reasons. For money*, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement.

Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than, the world that is. Or was."

* Really?

Do we write to be read? Well, yes, mostly. I don’t know many contented writers whose work never sees the light of day. We have (at least we think so) something to say.

Again, the pretentious might suggest writers search for truth, which I’d agree with to some extent. For me, though, it always comes from reading someone else, reading something so remarkable, so utterly compelling, that I want to see if I can produce this effect in another. That and a violent dislike for being in an office.

Monday, 26 January 2009


I want to start. It's my nature: plunge straight in, worry about the temperature or lack of bathing costume after. So what if some of the characters are a little vapid, indistinct? They'll flesh out as I go along.

They won't. Hence my self-imposed ban on beginning until I know everything about them. And that means everything: physical characteristics, temperament, hopes, fears, secrets, habits. How they vote, how they cry, how they make love. Their childhood, puberty, first kiss. Biggest regret. What would they kill / die for?

Most of this is unlikely to find its way into the prose, but the writer needs to know it. Think of an iceberg, its tip the story, all informed, held up by, the 90% or so hidden below the surface. I need to know how they'd react in any situation. They need life breathing into them to resonate, to be believed. (I actually talk to mine. Out loud.) Give them lines of dialogue to see if they sound authentic. Shout at them, see how they react.

Not that any of this means I retain utter control over them. (One awoke me at 4am today, insisting I change something about her now, lest I forget in the morning.) It's also important to remember people are unpredictable at times; characters must be too. And they should evolve as a result of the things that happen to them, just as we do. So keep them on a leash, yes, but make it a long one.

Name them with care. Try different ones out; they'll let you know when one suits. Don't just use any one now, thinking you'll change it later - they'll become that person and it'll be too late. And watch out for overly artificial monikers. I remember an article by Sven Birkerts for Angi magazine where he described rejecting a story after the opening sentence because the character's name was too contrived, too literary. Harsh, but it happens.

This done, reveal their character slowly, through behaviour and dialogue. Nurture them. Make them the most important people in your life.

Oh, and try not to fall in love with any of them; it'll only end in tears.

Friday, 23 January 2009


Today's research took me to Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor, which is close to a character's home. It's one of only three ancient copses on the moor and is the oldest in Devon. Its gnarled, stunted oaks, verdant fern and lichen engender a mystical, eerie feel, and as you clamber over the sprawling roots and mossy prehistoric boulders, the finger-like branches seem to reach out and grab you.

Apparently, after dark, the Wisht Hounds chase sinners through the woodland.

I also had to research a nearby pub. For authenticity's sake.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


I am researching a bleak subject. Immersing myself into the darkest corners of human behaviour. It ain't pretty. To temper this I need to indulge in lots of these...

Sunday, 18 January 2009


I tend to subscribe to Keats' advice that if poetry doesn't come like leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. And for now I extend this to flash fiction, which I find more closely related to a poem than the short story. I do, though, enjoy reading it when done well, the effect that can be achieved in such few words. Hemmingway once said his best work was this six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Brilliant.

A few years ago the Guardian invited other authors to pastiche this extreme brevity. Here are some of my favourites; the only rule: six words.

Dad called: DNA back: he isn't. Helen Fielding

Juicy offer. Must decline. Still paralysed. Richard Ford

Evil isn't necessarily unkind. Gran next. DBC Pierre

It was a dark, stormy...aaaaargggh! John Lanchester

Catherine had treasonable sex. Heads rolled. Helen Simpson

Womb. Bloom. Groom. Gloom. Rheum. Tomb. Blake Morrison

Armageddon imminent. Make list. Tick most. Ian Rankin

Had a go myself, though see above mitigation: Trust your instinct. Unless serial killer.

Anyone do better...?

Thursday, 15 January 2009


Can't remember the first time I heard/read this maxim, but needless to say I doubted much of its wisdom, which goes something like: If you write something, step back, read it and think 'Wow, that's good. Boy, I've nailed that, oh yes' should instantly bin it. What! That can't be right. Long sweaty hours, well minutes, composing prose that's near sublime...and I'm supposed to ditch it. And for years, I didn't. Editors, friends, publishers would (mostly) politely suggest a phrase, sentence, occassionally a paragraph should, not be re-written, but put entirely out of its misery. The argument being if the much adored words provoke some sense of vanity, indulgence or smug pleasure in the writer, then it has little to do with strengthening the writing.

At the risk of eliciting deserved derision, I'll give you an example. Feeling a description lacked a certain poetic nuance, I (many years ago, I'll add) came up with the following: The vista ahead was soon sullied by the incongruous metallic structure that had passed him earlier. This may not have been a 'darling' as such, but the purpose is served. Today that line reads: Ahead, in the lay-by, the car was parked.

The former is all about writing something for me - 'literary masturbation' I like to call it. It's a phase most beginners go through (though I doubt Carver ever did), and goes hand in hand with cramming in adverbs and adjectives ad nauseam. Okay, occasionally I write something now and think it works, that it does the job I want, but I'm never entirely satisfied with it. It could always be better. Edit down. Cull. Be brutal. And, yes, murder. Thoughts?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


A good place to start. I know of few books that begin elsewhere. The hard part is: Where does your story start? Well, presuming research, characterisation, plot and structure have been mulled over aplenty, get straight in there. Too many stories (long and short) amble, opting for slumberous build ups, by which time half the readers are chewing through their wrists for distraction. An opening needs dramatic tension, a sense of conflict, so begin just before it. Or in the middle of it. The tension/conflict may not climax for several chapters, but draw the reader in, giving them some essence of the story from the off. Get your hands around their throats, so to speak. Subtly, of course.

And avoid too much expostition, too many characters and lengthy descriptions. You're trying to engage the reader, tease them along, plant seeds - some they're aware off, others not. One of the best ways to show and not tell is through dialogue, so reveal a voice or two early. William Trevor is a master of drawing a reader into a story, but (a lot) more of him later.

Whether you like McEwan or not, the opening chapter of Enduring Love is a brilliant example of how to set up dramatic tension. The reader is almost out of breath at its end, compelled to go on. Think of your favourite novels, then read their opening chapters/first lines. See what the author's trying to do. Avoid weather.

Caveat: such rules could and should be broken occasionally, if you're brave and good enough.

Monday, 12 January 2009


I love this. (Cruel) friends use the Cook retort whenever I talk about my day.

Peter Cook: 'What do you do?'

Bore at a Party: 'I'm writing a novel.'

Cook: 'Neither am I.'

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Why would you? Why would anyone? Because it's there? Well, it's not there, and that's the terrifying / exciting (delete as appropriate) rub. All very well having an idea burning inside, a story demanding to be told, characters yelling at you...But you still begin with a lot of white space, as you scratch around the literary foothills. Even before you've loaded your bags onto some under-paid Sherpa (I'll stop the mountain analogy now), there is much to be resolved.

Genre: It's tempting to think - I'll write my novel, leave categorization to others: it will be what it will be. This may be creatively liberating, compromising none of those artistic sensibilities, but there are rules worth considering depending on the style of the novel. Breaking them in a first novel is risky. Hideous as it sounds, half an eye (certainly no more) should be kept on who is going to publish, market and read it. You should also be familiar with your genre and trends within it. It's fine to discard such notions, immersing yourself in the frisson of creativity; but if it's been done before, better, or if such fiction is anachronistic / unfashionable, the words are unlikely to see the light of day.

Voice: Who's story is this? How are they going to tell it? Is their narration reliable? First- or third-person? If people are going to follow this person/s through 300+ pages, the voice needs to be convincing, compelling and original.

Research: Never skimp on getting it right. The worlds created may be fictional, but characters must still resonate, remind us of people we know or have met. Someone, somewhere will know that detail that seemed insignificant at the time. Most people are happy to give some time to answer a few questions, especially if they will be acknowledged. Don't guess how someone might feel or behave or think. Don't just Google the intricacies of bee-keeping - make friends with someone who does it.

Editing: Everyone works differently. Some surge on, amassing chapters of chaotic prose, revising only once finished. Others (myself included) prefer to edit yesterday's words before continuing. Try different methods, find what works best. How are you most productive? And realise this process is (almost) endless. One of the greatest assets is a dissatisfaction with your work. It should never be good enough.

Word count: All the writers I know set daily or weekly (minimum) targets. These can be modest (1,000 words a day) or more ambitious, but they are crucial. Firstly, however bad a day you feel you're having (there will be many), you will still have 1,000 words to show the next day to revise. Secondly, if you can stick to this commitment, you will have some idea how long the novel will take to write, allowing a glimpse at the finishing post. Thirdly, writing needs to be habitual. You need to be able to work regardless of mood, levels of inspiration or that thing what gets in the way: life. Think craft not art.

Right, did I pack those crampons?


'Those who live the longest and those who die the soonest lose the same thing. The present is all you can give up, since that is all you have.'

Writers will give you all number of reasons for why they choose to spend long hours in isolation, the prospects of publication fragile, financial reward moderate (all but a rare few earn enough to live on from writing fiction alone). Personally, there's no better motivation than stumbling upon a remarkable tale, and wanting to emulate it, to produce a similar effect in someone else.

Gerard Donovan's third novel, Julius Winsome, is one of those rare cases - a book so masterful, so compelling, I found myself reading more slowly towards the end, just to stretch the experience to its fullest, savouring the beautiful prose a little longer.

Set in the wintry wilds of Maine, Winsome lives in a log cabin, alone apart from his dog, Hobbes, and surrounded by books (his father lined the walls with some 3,000 classics) that insulate him literally and metaphorically. The narrative is stark yet poetic, as we glimpse Winsome's harsh existence, a sense of forboding and loss quietly stirring. When a hunter flippantly kills his dog, it acts as a tipping point for Winsome who starts to unhinge: 'I didn't have feeling where I should and too much where I shouldn't. You keep away from men like me and you'll be alright in life.' His revenge - never fuelled by rage - is calm, meditative and murderous. It’s no surprise to learn Donovan is a poet, his precise language perfectly evoking the beautiful and austere landscape, to which the story is inextricably bound. This is a novel of wonderful contrasts: bleak but gentle; slow-burning yet tense; and the sympathy elicited for a killer we both understand yet don’t.

The ghostly presence of Winsome’s father and grandfather echo through the Lee-Enfield rifle brought back from the killing fields of Europe, a meditation on violence skilfully woven in. Winsome’s losses and grief never become sentimental despite the often allegorical subtext: even his name suggests contradiction (the imperious ‘Julius’ Caesar, ‘Winsome’ suggesting something more benign). As a quiet madness takes hold, Winsome begins quoting Shakespearean archaisms, the fire crackling and spitting as the world closes in around him.

The reader is horrified yet intrigued by Winsome's actions, which evoke an empathy despite their increasing insanity.

By turns tender and brutal, I was haunted by this lyrical tale for days. It probably won’t win the awards it deserves but I suspect time will reveal it to be a modern classic.