Wednesday, 29 February 2012


(From the archive)

As I near the end of my reading for Short Fiction this year (about 550 stories), I have to say there’s a lot of  good writing out there. If you’re going to take the trouble to submit to a quality journal, chances are you can write a bit. But every once in a while, say one piece in fifty or sixty, the words sing from the page, they become a delight. I forget I’m reading, so immersed am I in the writer’s world, compelled almost breathlessly to continue, happy to relinquish my time, my self, to the words in front of me.

This, as writers are aware, is incredibly hard to do. To stand out from the ordinary, to rouse an editor/publisher/agent with prose that refuses to be ignored. For me, the first sign a piece of writing is exceptional is when I start to wish I’d written it. Not in an embittered sense, just that a small admiration has occurred. It happened last night, reading Denis Johnson’s short story, ‘Work’. I read:

The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guess Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here.

I stopped and read that second sentence again and again, in awe of its simple brilliance. Why is it so strong for me? Well, that's not always easy to pin down, but I love how it exudes control, how it's not overwritten, that it's the antithesis of cliche. The words, the voice, work hard without seeming to. Now without knowing details of the story’s composition, we can’t know how these words were born. Perhaps they emerged in seconds, without need of revision. Maybe they were painstakingly sculpted over days. Doesn't matter; their strength endures regardless.

My point is not a new one. Writing like this doesn’t just happen. And if it does, it’s because you are already very good. I’ve looked before at whether you can teach creative writing; course attendances suggest people seem to think you can. But I’m not so sure you can teach that elusive quality that turns good, formulaic writing into the sort of remarkable work we should all aspire to produce. I think that can only come from reading the best fiction out there, considering how it achieves what it does, then giving yourself about ten thousand hours to be in a position to do the same.

Thursday, 23 February 2012


(A guest review today by friend and fellow scribe Jack Harris.)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Sceptre, 559 pages

In the world the novelist creates there is invariably a tension between memory and imagination; the need to use, recall or transform real events juxtaposed with the novelist’s duty to produce a fictional platform in which everything is imagined or invented. Few manage this - Mitchell in this work has given it his best shot so far.

Compared to his earlier works, which are diverse, eclectic, freewheeling and sometimes difficult, this novel is firmly set in the historical tradition (as Mitchell admits in an excellent essay posted as an epilogue) dating from Scott through to Mantel, Barker and Faulks, and draws parallels with other fine English maritime classics such as Golding’s Rites of Passage and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. A hint of Murakami (magic cat) and Umberto Eco (secret scrolls) and a nod to late magical realism is thrown into the mix by the man many think the finest extant English novelist.

The principal character is a strongly upright, ginger-headed, fiercely Protestant Dutchman seeking to make a name in the Dutch colonies so he may return and marry his beloved. However the latter is rapidly replaced by a facially scarred Japanese midwife Miss Aibagawa. (These ill-starred lovers meet at a seminar on obstetrics which moves from bathos to pathos via hilarity and screams and out to be filmed.) Their affair is short lived yet is the dominant theme throughout. She becomes a victim of Japanese usury and ends up in a malign nunnery where gang rape and infanticide is the norm. He remains in the small Dutch occupied floating island of Dejima to suffer the indignities of his conniving fellow Dutchmen, assorted Japanese bad eggs and a full frontal attack from a British frigate masquerading under a Dutch flag intent on usurping the Dutch from their superior trading position. (A thinly disguised re-working of a real historical event.) A strange brew of betrayal, imperialism, love, superstition, power politics and murder delivered in multiple perspectives helps to serve up an enriched emotional comic-tragedy. One conceit is to use the 3rd century oriental board game ‘Go’ to amplify the adversarial nature of the relationship between the senior Japanese characters in a similar manner to the use of a chess game in one of Satyajit Ray’s films.

So much for the plot - it’s the words and sentences that matter. A vernacular spectacular to rival Joyce on occasions and anything Dylan Thomas wrote in Under Milk Wood with a marvelous prose-poem homage to the Welsh windbag at the beginning of Chapter XXXIX. The real novelty however is his amplification of the difficulty the Dutch and Japanese have in understanding each others vocabulary and culture. This ‘lost-in-translation’ provides a platform for much delicate hilarity but does not prevent Mitchell (who lived in Japan for a decade and has a Japanese wife) from suggesting that ‘obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence. The country doesn’t want to be understood’.

In this extraordinary prose every sentence yields magnificent surprises that few could match. In a novel where the challenge of communication is paramount, dialogue dominates, segueing masterfully between bawdy dialects, halting translations and a discrete inner voice. There are magnificent aphorisms, haikus and a very novel use of paragraphs and photographs. There’s something for the ‘lads’ as well. Just when you thought you knew all the names for female genitalia Mitchell gives you half a dozen more.

Longlisted for the Booker (the third or fourth time he’s made it) the book has had mixed reviews – nothing new there. The jealous, priggish Philip Hensher, in an extremely niggardly piece, suggested it ‘will certainly entertain the simpler reader that lurks within all of us’, whereas the doyenne of literary critics James Wood called it a ‘formidable marvel’. I know which side I’m on.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


A real treat today, please welcome Ray Robinson, author of three novels, including the brilliant Forgetting Zoe. We talk lacunae, the solitude of writing and baby oil. Enjoy!

- Welcome Ray. I have to say what a fine book Forgetting Zoe (your third novel) is. A powerful story of a kidnap victim and her relationship with her captor, the narrative voice is instantly compelling / convincing. How easy did the book’s voices come?

Thanks for asking me to do the interview, Tom.

Well, you’ve really opened up a can of worms here. The voices, as I’m sure you can guess, were a total ball-ache to nail. Naively, I’d set myself the challenge of locating the book in Arizona, where I’ve never been, and a set of islands off the Newfoundland coast, which are completely fictional. If the islands were to exist, then the islanders would speak with a mixture of the Newfoundland dialect -- Bristolian and South Eastern Irish -- and Anglicized Scandinavian, similar to the dialect spoken in the Orkney or Shetland Islands. This is based on the fictional premise that in 986AD, Bjarni Herjolfssonand, Erik the Red’s son, settled there after getting lost on his way to Greenland to find his dad. There is an actual Viking settlement, however, at L'Anse Aux Meadows, which was discovered in Newfoundland in the 1960s.

Narrated in third-person, with limited-omniscience, and a mix of protagonists each speaking different regional American dialects, the narrator had to speak a generic North American English. It was just too confusing otherwise, especially when writing dialogue.

One critic vilified me for not using British English -- though it was the fact that I was from Yorkshire that seemed to piss her off the most! How dare this Northern oik write a novel set in North America and write in American? Oh, the democratisation of literature. Can you imagine what a horrible, mid-Atlantic hodgepodge it would have been?

I wrote the novel when I was living in Manchester. I’d sit in a dark recess on the second floor of the Rylands Library, trying to imagine the arid heat of the Arizona desert and the frozen wastes of Newfoundland. I also watched many Westerns shot in Arizona, making notes on vernacular and jargon, etc, and read novels set in that area. Ultimately, it was a case of having to weigh up each character’s idiolect: the weight, register, and tone of every single word within their lexicon, making sure to get the general music and quality of the character’s voice right. Once I’d finished the novel, I ran it by my friends in Arizona and Canada and they helped me iron out any remaining issues.

- When teaching, I try to bestow my students with a sense of narrative silence, where details of plot / character can resonate more profoundly when merely hinted at, or glimpsed. There are wonderful examples of this in Forgetting Zoe, where, to great effect, you keep the reader at arm’s length from the unfurling narrative. How conscious are you of this during composition?

Writing is about what you don’t say. Writing isn’t expression, it’s communication, and you’re communicating with a reader you usually don’t get to meet. It’s a two way art form and also a freaky type of telepathy because the writer gets inside the reader’s head without once moving their lips and that comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I had the added problem of writing about subjects that no one wants to read about in too much detail (child abduction, incest, murder, rape – you know, my usual, cheery subjects). In addition, no reader interprets what you write in the same way (which is a beautiful thing, and sets literature apart from most other art forms). Therefore, you have to leave semantic lacunae -- gaps -- for the reader to fill. It’s what makes reading such a satisfying experience, because the reader gets to inhabit the work and create their own, unique inner fictional world. If you tell a reader too much, and there is no space left for their imagination to wander, all you’re doing is patronising them.

It’s just basic good manners, Tom!

- As I bed down into the long hours of writing my second novel, I’d almost forgotten how isolating and lonely the process can be (even my cat has stopped attending the office Christmas party). Fortunately there are some great pubs on Dartmoor. How do you tackle what Orwell termed the ‘long bout of painful illness’ that is writing a novel?

I think Orwell was referring to psychological illness, because we’re talking short-term physical solitude here, which is a beautiful thing. If you can’t stand your own company then you won’t last long as a writer. As you hinted at, writers are also very sociable because of this – you need to escape your own head, to be around people, to switch off, and where best to do this than your local boozer? I also try not to talk about whatever I’m working on at the moment, which helps. If you can talk about it, then why write it?

This might sound weird, but I also believe you have to be physically fit to be a writer, and take care of your back, because it’s probably the most sedentary of jobs. Hemingway claimed to write standing up, but he was a macho knob, so he would say that. I reckon he wrote in a silk smoking jacket, lying on a bed of rose petals, listening to Leonard Bernstein while having his daily pedicure.

Writing is also punishing on your eyes and wrists (or is that something else?). I’ve started running a lot over the past year and find a bit of exercise and fresh air really helps the writing process.

- People remain fascinated with the writing process, the alchemical nature that sees endless and terrifying blank pages become, we hope, a wonderful book. Can you reveal a little of how you work?

Writing isn’t an esoteric art, it’s a craft; however (and this might sound contradictory) I believe that any writer who says they understand what they’re doing while writing is talking out of their arse -- though writers lie for a living, so who can blame them?

Editing is different, of course, and the bulk of the novel writing process is editing, but when you’re there, in that moment, with the blank page screaming, “Who are you going to be today?” and you start hammering away – fuck knows? Whatever it is, I just hope it keeps on happening.

- In the parallel universe where you’re not a writer, what are you doing?

Not sure, but I think it would involve Ryan Gosling, Christina Hendricks, and baby oil... Seriously, though, I’ve just started working on a short-film, and I’m also doing a script writing course. I love travelling to unusual, far-flung places, and I love the natural world, so ideally, in a parallel universe, I’m a young David Attenborough.

- Meanwhile, back here, what are you working on?

I’ve almost finished the first draft of my fourth book (remember what I said about not talking about your work-in-progress?). It’ll be published by Random House next summer. It’s inspired by something tragic that happened to a good friend of mine, and he said I could whore his experience and use it as the starting point for my novel. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve written, has taken me to some weird places, and almost got me killed last year. But that’s all I’m willing to say for now.

- Once folk who haven’t read Forgetting Zoe get their hands on a copy, anything else you’d recommend? 

Sure. I love recommendations. These are some of the best books I’ve read over the past few years. In no particular order (but I’ve saved my fave for last):

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. Epic Danish seafaring tales that will blow your sou’wester off.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Bleak Osark Mountains. Crank. Ultra-violence. A heroine I want to marry. Totally stunning writer.

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Elegiac. Poetic. Really fucking weird. Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Runt by Niall Griffiths. The best writer in the UK today. Kes in the Welsh mountains. Inarticulate young narrator. Beautifully crafted prose. Stunning ear for vernacular. Brutal, heartfelt, love it.

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles. Bad acid trip in Morocco. Pisses all over Burroughs and Kerouac.

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. Innovative collection. Massive in scope, detail, and depth. One of America’s future literary stars, no doubt about it.

The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert. Published by Salt, one of my favourite publishers in the UK. I could easily have adjectival overload describing this almost perfect collection of Lamberts. Just buy it!

Tinkers by Paul Harding. Fuck me sideways, Mr Harding can write. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Old man in bed, dying of cancer, hallucinating his tits off. Clocks. Epilepsy. The sky falling in. An almost perfect novel.

The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Haves and have-nots in California. Racism. Greed. Mexicans. Natural disasters. The message is this: basically, rich or poor, everyone’s shit stinks, even in America. Amazing, Dickensian satire.

And finally:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. ‘The Catch-22 of the Iraq War’. Indeed. Blame American society, not the government. Not released until July (Canongate). Instant modern classic. Fountain (with this, his debut novel, no less) will be regarded as one of the best writers alive. Absolute fucking masterpiece. Filled my mind with awe, and my pants with love-piss. Do yourself a favour: get it pre-ordered! 

More about Ray here.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Hands up who likes rejection. Thought so. Which is a shame, because as a writer, you can expect a lot of it. An awful lot. Doesn’t matter where you are on the hierarchical ladder (if such a thing exists), you will experience a lot of rejection. I know of some rather successful writers who have submitted to rather successful journals, expecting to grace their pages with little more than a glance at their words from an editor, and have been, well, pretty pissed off with the Sorry-it’s-not-for-us response.

But generally, if you’re any good, and are open to learning, to criticism, and a lot of hard work, the frequency of rejection will fall.

So what should you make of a little slip in the post, a generic, impersonal email, or, worse still, no response at all?

Well, firstly, for the most part, let’s say 95% of the time, there’s good reason why your story, sample chapters, proposal has been returned to you unwanted. (Yes, there are genuine times when editors, agents, publishers get it wrong, but don’t kid yourself that they just aren’t seeing your genius all the time.) Get your disappointment out of your system in whatever way you choose (I’ll tell you mine one day), and then sit down and have a good look at both the rejection (if you’re lucky enough to receive any feedback), and your submission. Be honest with yourself. Was it absolutely your best work? Had you revised it to within an inch of its life? Had you let it sit alone in a drawer, and come back to it with fresh eyes a few weeks later? Had you researched the journal, agency, publishing house you submitted to thoroughly, knowing what does it for them? Do you read almost everything that’s currently being published that resembles your own work? Are you a lucky person? (Okay, forget that last one, but I'm reminded of the person who said, Funny how the more I practice, the luckier I become.)

If the answer is No to any of these, then, well, you haven’t given yourself the best chance of success. If the answer to them all is Yes, and you’re still getting rejection after rejection, then perhaps this mucky world of writing isn’t for you.

Either way, you have to expect a low strike rate, especially when you’re still learning your craft. You wouldn’t expect to play Carnegie Hall after a couple of years on the piano. Give yourself a chance; start with the smaller competitions/publications, which will give you a sense of whether this is for you or not.

And when you’ve been rejected, it’s best not to tell the bearer of this news what they can do with their note/email (quite creative, some of the ones I receive). Editors talk to each other.

Try to see rejection as a nod that the work isn’t quite good enough. Yet. Leave it a while, and come back to it. Lots of my rejected stories have gone through a few more edits, emerging successful on their next submission.

Devour winning stories, work out why they’ve done well. Look at the few chapters of yours that agent didn’t like, and be objective. Do they really stand out from the hundreds of others on the pile that day?

And keep going. When you least expect it, you’ll open a letter, an email, and be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


I don't think I'm alone in my dread of synopsis writing. Give me a novel to write any day; just don't ask me to do it justice on one or two pages. (Unless you take pleasure in seeing someone squirm and writhe and whine.) And so before I began submitting my book last year, I asked friend and author Nicola Morgan for some help. Coincidence or not, I was soon signed by this lovely agency

Anyway, Nicola, author of the acclaimed Write to be Published, as well as around ninety books of fiction and non-fiction, has published (as an ebook, published on Jan 20th) a snappy and definitive guide to this bugbear of every writer.

Near the end of Write a Great Synopsis, after explaining and demonstrating all aspects of the subject, Nicola Morgan makes a champagne-related challenge on the subject of verbal profligacy:

“I have never seen a piece of writing I couldn’t reduce significantly without changing the meaning at all. In fact, give your draft synopsis (in an acceptable state) to me with a) the word loss you require (anything up to 60%) and b) a bottle of half-decent (or, if you prefer, whole-decent) champagne or payment of £50 (which says nothing about the type of champagne I appreciate but a lot about how highly I value it), and I will do it for you.”

Who’s going to take her up on it?

For details about the book, including buying options, go here.  The link direct to Amazon UK is here. And hurry because until the end of January (that’s SOON) it’s a crazy cheap price of under £1! Remember: you do not need an e-reader to read an ebook; you can read it on any laptop, ipad or many other devices.

All commenters below (by Feb 15th) will be entered into the Big WAGS Competition, with chances to win a critique of your synopsis by the Crabbit Old Bat herself. One comment per person on each blog – though you can add to your chances by commenting on the other posts on the tour. Details of all stops on the tour are on Nicola’s blog (Help! I Need a Publisher!) and will be added as each one goes out. 

Writers need never fear the synopsis again.

Thursday, 2 February 2012


(A previous post on some things to bear in mind during our Sisyphean endeavour. Feel free to add your own.)

1. Rejection is the norm, the default. Each time you achieve some success, regard it as a mistake and get back to work.

2. Your biggest asset is a dissatisfaction with everything you write. It’s never good enough; you can always improve it.

3. Don’t dabble; it’s not a hobby (unless it is, in which case stop reading this). Regular (preferably long) hours is the only way.

4. You are always writing. There is no time off for good behaviour. Every tiny event, each smell and sound, is material. Bank it.

5. Read. Everything. Past and present. You simply can’t be any good at this otherwise.

6. Take risks.

7. Don’t show work to friends and family. Unless they’re in the business, their opinion has nothing to offer you. Let them buy your book like everyone else. Perhaps with a discount.

8. Every time you announce you’re writing a book, the response will be, What’s it about? Reply, It’s about 90,000 words and quickly shuffle away. Even if you can do your book justice in thirty seconds at a party to someone who really doesn’t want to know, DON'T. The only time you tell your story, during composition, is as you write it.

9. Just get the words down. Worry about how good they are and the order they’re in later. All writing, as the cliché goes, is rewriting.

10. If you’re in this for money or fame, stop now.