Saturday, 29 May 2010


Backs. We sort of take them for granted, being that we hardly ever see them. They are sort of just there, barely distinguishable from others, propping us up, joining top to bottom. But when they do go wrong…

And pain, like time, is supposed to be relative. Relative to your tolerance, to what you’ve experienced before, even, apparently, dependant on your attitude. Not that any of this was on my mind when, on Thursday, I injured mine, triggering a wave of spasms lasting two days, and with them pain I’d not really known the likes of before.

So as I lay there, begging for anything to take the pain away, my girlfriend set about making some calls. NHS Direct said maybe kidney stones, but to put some ice on it, take some painkillers (obviously, I’d stuffed everything I could find down my throat by this point), see how it goes. The GP, on hearing me groaning in the background, said he’d pop around, which 13 minutes later, he did. By the time he left I was on paracetamol, ibuprofen, diazepam (as a muscle relaxant) and some morphine-like opiate. An hour later, the edge just dropping away from the pain, it turned out I’m allergic to opiates, and so spent the next 12 hours being violently sick – not the ideal movement when you’re trying to remain perfectly still. Finally, after 36 hours without sleep, food and an absence of acute pain, the concoction of chemicals rendered me into a most welcome near-coma. And this morning, apart from feeling like a zombie whose been beaten by sticks, all is not bad.

Anyway, this has given me a newfound respect for people who put up with pain long-term. When the minutes become hours become days, it grinds you down, and you start to wonder if this is how you’ll always feel. The next time somebody tells me they are in a lot of pain, I’ll regard them with renewed empathy.

Saturday, 22 May 2010


Good song. Remember it?

I’ve touched on this before. The fact that writers inevitably lose much of their innocence when it comes to reading others’ work. No longer are you entirely in the author’s hands, free to experience their world, their prose, as they meant it to be. Critical faculties engage. The craftsperson in you is alerted. Every word passes through your own aesthetic filter. And it can be fucking annoying. I remember the unadulterated joy of yielding to a story, content to bask in the magical essence some mystical and revered Writer had somehow, remarkably, created.

A few years on, a few hundred books read, a few hundred thousand words written, and something, I feel, is lost. From the start of a new book I’ll gauge the tense and narrative point of view, wondering why the author chose them. I’ll appraise the opening paragraph, consider how hard it works, what it achieves, how it might have read originally. Why does the story start here? I’ll try to predict why characters are introduced in the order they are, whether they feel like caricatures, whether their dialogue is authentic. Verisimilitude will give me a nudge if events begin to strain credulity. Motifs dotted about will prick my attention, and I'll quickly scan back, suspicious I'm being manipulated.

In fact, it’s more deconstruction than reading.

That’s not to say I don’t still love the reading experience; more that it’s become something else, and it can never revert back. There are, I suppose, rewards: seeing a master at work, knowing just what they’ve done with a phrase, a shift in time, affords a quiet and adulatory nod to the writer, perhaps a little envy even. But I do miss the raw pleasure, being blind to the process that’s at work beneath the effect and affect that’s achieved.

I’m lucky enough to have a fortnight in Provence coming up, yet I’m already anxious about what to take to read. (Stunning recommendations left below please.) I read, almost exclusively, literary fiction, which is also what I write. Perhaps a shift in genre would recapture some of the innocence. Last year I read, and really enjoyed, R.J. Elroy’s A Quiet Belief in Angels, which is a thriller – a literary thriller, I suppose it would be termed, but a thriller nonetheless. I think it might have been my first, and I loved feeling like a reader first again. I may even read another one day.

What do you think?

Thursday, 20 May 2010


Lovely to see some friends on the Bristol Prize longlist. (Just the 1,500 entries.) I have my fingers crossed for all of you. One of them, Elizabeth Baines, is stopping by soon to talk about her novel, Too Many Magpies, as part of her virtual tour. I’ve asked her, among other things, how she composes her fiction, so don’t miss it.

Monday, 17 May 2010


This links tenuously to the previous post on research, relating to submitting work, whether to a publisher or agent, a publication or competition entry.

In reading both general submissions and those for a literary prize, it’s struck me more and more that a great many writers don’t take the time to familiarise themselves with the journal or competition in question. At the very least you need to read a story or two from previous issues, just to get a sense of the fiction they publish. Your story may be wonderfully written, but if the aesthetic is clearly disparate, it will almost certainly be overlooked. It may be that you don’t write the type of story for a particular publication. This is less so for competitions – a great story is a great story – but you need to look at what’s doing well in competitions at present. This might mean purchasing an anthology or two, but you’ll be writing blind if you don’t. Some of the more prestigious competitions charge a hefty entry fee, so it’s worth giving yourself the best chance possible.

This, of course, counts doubly when submitting sample chapters of your novel with a view to your book being solicited. Most rejections are standardised, so you won’t even know your work was rejected because it was unsuitable, or that there’s no market for it. What sort of writers does the agent you’re approaching represent? If your work is for another market altogether, don’t waste your (an their) time. Find a novel that’s similar to yours and see who represents the author.

Success in this game is hard enough to come by without diminishing your chances with poor targeting.

Sunday, 9 May 2010


Some writers love research; others see it as procedural, essential collation before the creative floodgates can part. As a former journalist, I enjoy the immersion into other worlds, gaining a flavour of lives only previously imagined. I don’t think you can ever research a subject too much. Most of the nascent knowledge won’t grace your prose, but it might inform character in nuanced, unconscious ways. Many authors (Proulx comes to mind) live entirely among the cultures and peoples of their fiction during composition, imbuing them with firsthand experience of such worlds. The temptation, when almost anything can be researched by the click of a mouse, must be to bypass such a naturalistic approach, but you do so at your writing’s peril.

In this novel what I’ve all but finished, there are many subjects I had little or no knowledge of, and whereas I began reading about them, it soon became clear I needed to spend time with people who did. One of my characters is a potter. Now I’m sure the wonderful Interweb has several million pages on every aspect of ceramics, just waiting for me to trawl through in the early hours. But the time I spent watching someone at a wheel actually making pots, listening to them as they worked, was, I believe, unrivalled. Even the subject matter I felt some expertise in, I tried where I could to experience the most apposite, well, experiences available to me.

As for the dark matter (those of you who’ve read any of my fiction will know I’m not much interested in saccharine or sentimentalism), it was certainly tempting to google my way through it. Instead, so that I could do my character justice, I sought people who’d gone through what she has. Tentatively I asked for help, and was overwhelmed by people’s bravery and generosity. Asking some of those questions wasn’t easy, but then this business isn’t supposed to be. As a result I feel my character has an authenticity she wouldn’t otherwise have had. She has come to life. She is real.

So whereas we don’t have to trudge to the library for much of our research nowadays, I’d say the next time you’re reading about quantum physics or yoga or S&M or gambling or murder on wikipedia or some such, think about the richness of exposure that will give you. Would a pint with Stephen Hawking (or equivalent) lend your research that extra dimension? A week on a yoga retreat? A day in the bookies? (I’ll leave you to fill in the others.)

You owe it to your readers, to yourself, to your story, but most of all to your character to occupy as much of their world as is possible. And legal.