Friday, 27 November 2009


What proportion of first novels are published? I’d love to know. Of course there’s no way of finding out, but I suspect it’s low. That means there’s an awful lot of manuscripts collecting dust in drawers around the world. Probably best that most of them stay there, but chances are there’s an absolute gem or two among them – a Booker winner, even – that was submitted to the wrong publisher at the wrong time, that wasn’t polished enough, that couldn’t be fitted neatly into a marketable genre, that was too experimental, too risky. But most will be ordinary.

Plenty of writers, with hindsight, are happy to not see their first effort grace bookshelves, going to great lengths to destroy what has since become an embarrassment. Others, once their second and third attempts start selling, suddenly receive a renewed interest in that initial labouring behemoth that had racked up rejections for fun five years earlier.

What should be possible to determine – if I had the time – is how many published novels are first efforts. (There are plenty of great examples, such as this, this and this.)

Again, though, I imagine the overall number to be low (one in ten as an utter guess, not including self- or vanity publishing. Probably fewer). There’s a sense of catch-22 here: the more of a name you have, the more titles behind you, the less risk a publisher has to take, though a proven track record is certainly no guarantee.

All this is to say it’s very hard to write your first novel and see it published. But then that’s the way it should be. I firmly fall into the camp of writers who wouldn’t really want my first novel to be published – not in its current incarnation, at least. I loved writing it, I learnt an enormous amount, it got some wonderful feedback, coming close a couple of times. But I have moved on. I’m not that writer any more. I would like to think I’m a better one.

And so I’m taking my time with finishing this one, keen not to make the same mistakes of verisimilitude. There seems little point devoting a year to something if it's not the best you can do.

So, what’s the best first novel you’ve read? The most disappointing second?

Monday, 23 November 2009


Last week I found myself at dinner with, among others, two writers of not insubstantial repute. I’m often surprised by the generosity of such people, their willingness to not only take an interest in your own literary struggle, albeit fledgling in comparison, but to offer valuable advice on related matters. (I wonder whether this occurs so profusely in other fields; I suspect it doesn’t.)

Anyway, one of them (a successful novelist and poet) told me to send him something I’d written. An insincere, end-of-evening gesture, the more cynically-minded might suspect. But I knew he was serious. I had to choose carefully. No point sending something totally polished, published even. But you don’t want to send a writer you have much respect for ten pages of sheer mediocrity.

The point I want to make – and this links to this earlier post – is that trusting feedback is a precarious business. But when you’re lucky enough to receive appraisal from Them What Know, you’d better take in on board.

In general, then (the feedback came), I often tend to make too many abstract observations, relaying a character’s reactions to things, rather than merely describing the things themselves, which is usually more powerful. (The writer as witness, as Chekhov put it.) If you recognise this in your own writing, try switching from first- to third-person narrative. I’ve also been known to explain too much, to not credit the reader enough. Far better to present what’s there, give the reader space to wander around – don’t tell them how to feel. Related to this, I’m prone to tie up endings too neatly. Check to see if your story could be more powerful by finishing earlier. We’re always told to start further in, but stopping abruptly, with a sense of ambiguity, can strengthen a piece of writing.

Further, I’d add some of my own, bad habits I have hopefully culled:

Don’t lecture, moralise or philosophise in your fiction. Your job is to entertain. Yes, characters have strong views on things, but they rarely move a story along. The same goes with character introspection / internal monologue – taking stock is not a scene, so weave it thinly into the action. Simply tell the story.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Dear Bella

I know the first-draft target date has been and gone. Like a stealthy, crepuscular creature it snuck up almost unseen, and now taunts me daily from the calendar above my desk: ‘Ha, you missed me.’ In mitigation I’d like to offer the following:

If every target were met, they’d be called something else. Missing them essentially legitimises their name.

When said date was set, I could not have anticipated the extraordinary incompetence of various solicitors, surveyors, internet providers, mechanics, plumbers and roofers, whose mess I’ve been clearing up for weeks now.

Writing a (good) novel is difficult (despite the sketch below). Sometimes a paragraph can take all day to write. Then the next morning it's deleted.

Like shares, word counts can go down as well as up.

Writers are prone to make silly mistakes during composition, such as using a tense or narrative perspective that is inappropriate to the exposition, resulting in lengthy rewrites. Damn.

Good things are worth waiting for.

So, thank you for your (for now) unfailing patience.

Love and grovelling


Thursday, 19 November 2009


When my girlfriend comes home from a hard day at work, she, if feeling brave, teases me using this sketch. She doesn't really think writing a novel is the same as tasting ice cream, but...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


I’ve posted an interview with William Trevor before, but this one’s more in depth. Here Trevor talks about the craft of writing, how the short story differs from the novel, what writers are like, failure, and much more.

Right, I've given up on the rain easing; off to the moor in search of Bronze Age potters, a ghost story, and perhaps a rustic pub.

Monday, 16 November 2009


A reader (Paul) asked me about the title of this novel, which got me thinking how we choose what to call our books. Mine has long since developed from the original short story it began life as, and so 'Old Enough' no longer does it justice. I always presumed something would just come along, that it would find its own name. Once this didn’t happen, I sat down, trawled the story’s themes, making a long list of words that became possible titles. The terrible ones leapt straight out, leaving a few to play about with.

So, how important are titles? Are the names of the books you love wonderful because of the stories within them, or do they draw a reader to them in the first place? Well, a little of both, I imagine. How much time should you spend choosing a title; surely an editor will change it anyway, and it’s just about the story. True to an extent, but why risk sinking deeper in the slush pile because your novel’s moniker is a stinker?

I think a title should at least pique some interest. It should provoke a response – from a prospective agent, publisher or reader. It needs to capture the story’s essence, resonating a little more as each chapter is read.

Titles are a personal matter, and people become very defensive of them. As a fiction editor, I’ve often loved a story, but suggested to its writer a, what I believe to be, stronger title, only for them to dig their heels in, intransigent to the end. Some people regard one-word titles as dull or languid, but that really depends on the word, and the story it describes. Whereas I’d caution greatly showing your WIP to every friend and family member, asking people who love books what they think of your title can be helpful. But as with all these things, it’s better to learn to trust you own judgement. (I've also been searching for the title of my short story collection, which was even harder.)

And, so, I’ve at least got my working title now. It was fun finding it, but back to the hard slog of the story. I’m strangely defensive about it, so it won’t appear here for a while.

So, how do you do it? Do you agonise ad infinitum, of have a more blithe approach? Can you think of other titles for your favourite novels, or does this destroy them in your mind? What's the worst title of a novel you know?

Saturday, 14 November 2009


At last. Finally the fabulously incompetent people who provide my web access have pressed the right button. Only took them four weeks, and the threat of physical violence, to locate it.

So this is where I’m finishing the book. When I posted a picture of my desk before, one of you questioned how I can work facing a wall, which got me thinking. As you can see above, I’ve rectified this. Okay, so it’s not rolling hills and flora as far as the eye can see, but, yes, I’m now a big fan of writing by a window. The eagle eyed of you will also see the cat has found himself a sunny spot that isn’t sitting on the keyboard.

So, what’ve I been doing? Unpacking, mostly. Making the cottage functional. I’ve even done some writing. Anyone a bit stuck with their WIP should try a change of scenery. Moving home might be a little drastic, but why not try a different room. Go into town, work in the library. Try the pub. I certainly felt bogged down a little; mid-manuscript blues, you could call them. But I returned last week with a renewed vigour to write, write, write. I fell back in love with the story. I even found a title. The title. And when it stops raining (9 days and counting), I’m off up the road to the moor where most of my characters live, see what they're up to.

So, thanks for sticking with me. Big apologies for the lack of posts of late. I’ll make up for up. Promise.

Monday, 9 November 2009


Am still webless. Grrr. This is coming to you telepathically, hence the lack of formatting.

The shortlist for the 6-word competion is:

Vanessa Gebbie
Alex Cox
Martin Reed

Lisa choose Alex's as the winner:

'Bride wanted. Size sixteen. Available November.'

Well done Alex. Email me your address to tomvowler at hotmail dot com and a signed copy of Lisa's wonderful novel, Prince Rupert's Teardrop, will be on its way to you. Thanks to all who entered.

Monday, 2 November 2009


I'm still webless, I'm afraid. The lovely telephone people went to the wrong cottage to connect me, and had the wrong mobile phone number for me. They've made vague assurances about next week. I'm currently in the library, where I get thirty whole free minutes to check several hundred emails and to post this.

Great to see so manay of you entered the competition below. I'll draw up a shortlist of five shortly and Lisa will pick her favourite, sending the winner a signed copy of her novel, Prince Rupert's Teardrop.

In the meantime, proof that I've left the city behind for a more bucolic, dare I say alternative existence, came through the letterbox by way of a 'Green Events' leaflet. There are some priceless (unintentionally) comic courses to attend, such as:

The Journey: Are you already in action but want to go deeper?

An Evening with Gordon Smith: Why do Bad Things Happen?
(Sod that philosophy degree - an evening would have done apparently.)

Five Animal Qigong Retreat

Fungal Foray - autumnal hunt for fungi with slideshow and feast
. (Now that's more like it.)

Gentle yoga with Derek the Dog

But my own personal favourite is:

Workshop on Angel and Animal Communication and Healing - communicate with lost and deceased animals - post photograph and sample hair.

Obviously time constraints mean I can't do all of these. Any suggestions?