Creative Writing – survival of the fittest

[Ivan’s note – I found this post sitting in draft state. It had lain dormant since early 2012. I post it because I am always slightly bemused, often plain embarrassed, and occasionally delighted, by things I used to think / feel / say. An awful lot of *stuff* has happened since, not least another child, and three of my classmates being published. Which in itself casts a different light/shadow/pall/nappy-changing routine over these words].

It’s been over a month now since I finished the second creative writing course run by Curtis Brown (Curtis Brown Creative).

Some background:

I have always wanted to be a writer. This is partly because it is something I have always been told I’m good at, and partly because it is something I enjoy doing. These two things are inextricably linked. However, as the world and his dog on the internet (with his iBone or Woofberry, no doubt) will tell you, it is one thing to amuse your friends, it is quite another to get them to buy you a drink. I’m sorry, that should have read ‘it is quite another to persuade another human bean to give you money in exchange for words wot you have ritten’.

Things, not least my self-discipline and self-confidence, kept getting in the way. Bathos, that’s another thing. Ooh, and baths. Or more strictly, alcohol. Baths of booze. But that’s another story.

My last formal employer had an education fund. This was very wise of them. All my other formal employers have had Personal Development sessions with life coaches and all sorts (not the licorice kind, alas, the fancy business card’n bullshit brigade). This has made me – indirectly – leave my then employer because I felt so Personally Developed that I could do Better Things. Anyway, the education fund meant I got to go on an Arvon course.

If you’ve never been on one and you want to be a writer, book yourself on one at once. Please stop reading this self-justifying drivel and do it. Their brochure is here. It changed my life. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who wanted to write. And cows. The cows didn’t want to write. I suspect that is why we may have eaten one of them. I digress. It was brilliant. Fun, cosy, morning pages, evening readings, knit your own yoghurt and laugh at skipping the visiting lecturer’s Taking It All A Bit Seriously With The Hippy Shit Talk.

It gave me a push. I left full-time work. I wrote most of Tom’s Universe by being chained to a desk and going places with no internet. The bollocking internet is now creeping everywhere, even the wilds of Devon. I digress again.

I finished the novel and sent it off to friends. Then I committed an absolute cardinal sin. I queried agents. I’ve been buying The Writer’s Handbook or Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook every year since about 1990. I call it my tax on ambition. I was desperate to use it in anger.

Two weeks later two form rejections came back. Six months later the agent I wanted eventually sent it back. By then I’d read it, and read all my friends’ criticisms. I was mortified. Bits of it were ok. But bits of it – most of it – was utter bilge. And it simply did not hang together as a story. The plot wandered all over the place, characters repeated themselves ad nauseam, the leads were unlikeable, the denouement too hollywood…. In short, it was a first novel. Self-indulgent twaddle. Like this blog post.

I started to attend the London Writers’ Club Live events, where an author/agent/publisher (and if you were unlucky publicist (kidding!)) comes to give a speech about ‘the biz’. I started to appreciate the sheer scale of the unfathomable unlikelihood of Tom’s Universe ever being published. I won some kind of twatter contest for one of their courses, and did a telephone-based thing with four deathly silent types and a chatty girl from Oz. I realised, shock horror, that what I thought was entirely mainstream was in fact literary. I didn’t read literary fiction. I had stopped reading almost all genres except crime.

So, I did something about it. I bought or read all the recent Desmond Elliot Prize winners. I subscribed to Granta (sigh). I tried very hard to like some beautifully written but deathly dull books. I (shock) didn’t finish every book I started – a cardinal sin in my world. I slowly begun to change what I was writing, and dreamt up The God of Onions. It opened with a bit of kitchen sink drama. Literally.

At the same time, there was a new kid in the creative writing school town. Curtis Brown Creative – the first course to be run by a literary agency, and with the promise of commercial feedback on your work. I had always wanted to work with them, or rather Jonny Geller, because he represented my favourite author – Michael Marshall Smith. (As it happens, this is no longer the case, but it did lead me to contacting Michael and having a brief email correspondence with him, which was A Big Fucking Deal to me). I digress.

I applied. I failed to make the cut – I was told I was down to the last 20, they would take 15. I was, as they say, sick as a parrot. I thought about giving up completely.

Then they announced they were running it again. Hurrah! Now I could write something, get accepted and then turn THEM down. Hurrah! I decided that if I was going to write another book, it was at least going to be a book I would enjoy writing. I’ve always wanted to be the next Douglas Adams (how many have fallen at this hurdle?). So I wrote some old nonsense on the day the course deadline expired.

Unexpectedly, I was offered a place. Completely to everyone’s expectations, my earlier enthusiasm to thumb my nose at them disappeared. Fired up, I wrote 35k words before the course started.

The course itself? Bloody hard work. It coincided with the birth of my first child, root canal surgery, the near-fatal collapse of my freelance business and well, crises of every possible angsty type. I made next to no ‘real’ progress with the word count – constantly having to return to the start to prepare submissions to tutorials, or for workshops, or the submission package for the critique at the end of the course. It was incredibly frustrating – a constant process of two steps forward and N steps back, where N was always a higher number than you wanted it to be.

Three things made/make this course unique:

  • the peer group workshops. By the end of the course I had critiqued 28 pieces of work and had mine critiqued twice. It’s very hard not to learn something from the process.
  • the industry seminars. From the eye-popping speech from Jeffrey Archer, to the potty mouth of Jojo Moyes (kidding!) through the stars – sung and unsung – of Curtis Brown itself and some of their industry contacts. The basic message was relentless. It’s tough out there. Toughen up, work harder, work smarter.
  • the pastoral role of the workshop leaders. In many respects there isn’t a lot to learn about creative writing. You risk turning it into woodwork, rather than craft. But the care and focus of Anna and Chris was exemplary. And often brutal.

I was expecting to add a fourth here. The agent critique was what had sold the course to many of us. Curtis Brown can’t take us all on. In just two cohorts of students, it will have seen more prospective debut authors than it takes on in the normal course of events over several years. We were assigned an agent reader at random, with some happier with their choices than others. I was very happy with mine. And before I go any further, I was very happy with my readthrough, in the Ronseal sense. But what effectively happened is I got a 45 minute rejection ‘talk’, instead of a form rejection letter. Think back to the last time someone broke off a relationship with you – 45 minutes is an awful long time

Fellow student Sarah’s reflections are on her blog.

Writer vs storyteller

Am I a writer? Or am I a story-teller? What do I want to be?

An interesting conundrum from last week’s visit from Major Author – do I want to be a ‘writer’ or a ‘storyteller’. The implication being that ‘writers’ are usually not commercially successful, only admired by their peers, but they may collect a few baubles along the way. Whereas a ‘storyteller’ will have a career, audience, and money.

I went into the talk thinking I wouldn’t agree with anything Major Author would say (almost as a matter of principle). I thought I would find it good theatre (I did) but dismiss the author’s way of doing things as easily as I have dismissed their work to date. I certainly don’t agree with the distinction between the two (writer/story-teller) – but perhaps I’m being naive.

For the most part, the talk went as expected – lots of grandstanding, a little boasting, light on detail and strong on personality. And yes, that was all there. But then they went through a writing exercise they’d undertaken. And the embarrassment gene kicked in and I thought it was going to be shoot under the desk time. But it wasn’t – at all. The seriousness which MA took it (both in having done the exercise – ‘drive’ being one of the key impressions of the night – and also the care with which they explained how they’d chosen words or phrases) really drove home three things:

  • Every word matters
  • Keep the reader wanting more. Never leave them satisfied.
  • And most contentiously, don’t always know where you’re going to end up. That is what the second / third/ Nth draft is for. In MA’s own words ‘if I know where I’m going, I will give it away – I will spoil the surprise.’

As someone who despairs at ever finishing this specific draft, the idea of ‘wasted’ words fills me with dread. We had Other Major Author in the week before, and they’d cut 130k words from the latest draft over the course of a year. Madness!

But… but… but. I’ve been examining my manuscript, and been thinking about my process and ‘what kind of writer do I want to be’ (simple answer – the published kind)? And I’m slightly horrified to find myself more and more thinking along Major Author lines. Not that I suddenly start writing sagas or poor-boy-come-good-against-the-odds type things, but there is a lot to be said for their basic approach. Write and enjoy yourself. Entertain people. And make it work in the second draft. Or third. Fourth etc. Think about how you’re ending each para, each chapter. Revise, revise, revise until it works (MA also did this with their speech, and it’s something I’m well aware I do with my ‘jokes’) Make dialogue do the heavy lifting. Think hard before wasting time and effort describing things. If you need to simplify your language to get someone to turn the page, then do it….

I have bigger issues – principally whether I’m writing science fiction (well, cyberpunk or some new form of cyberpunk that allows for social networks – cyberspunk (HA!) or soc-sci-fi?)  – or whether I’m writing dystopian literary fiction.

I’m trying to write accessibly, but maybe the plot itself is too far out? I’m trying to write a funny story, that is also gripping. I’m not sure the two things are compatible. It’s certainly a hard sell…. Decisions, decisions….

Am I a writer? Or am I a story-teller?

That nagging, clawing, bitching and biting sense of….

Routines, and why they’re not always good for the process.


You sit in Starbucks and go through the routine. First, you will have slogged your way up the High Road at ‘How Early?’ O’clock in order to try to snaffle your favourite writing space in the coffee shop – the one where you can be easily distracted by the hundreds of nearly-but-never-quite accidents at the junction; the spot where the simple human drama of people parking illegally and then running back to their cars to avoid a ticket (oblivious to the CCTV now trained in their direction); the chair where you can see the queue best (and evaluate shoes and haircuts), where you can hear the sofa-groups that form impromptu behind you, and study your fellow mac-worriers (there’s rarely any war going on, let alone work) from the back of the class.

The tiny victory of beating a certain gentleman to that spot. The tedious weekend tussle with research girl who never stays for long. The frantic scramble when the certain gentleman leaves, as you know he always will (his schedule varies, you are sure, just to irritate you). The knuckle-eating misery of waiting for ‘some random’ to finish their phone-call / extra hot extra wet caramel soy machiavelli machiatto / fruit toast, blissfully unaware of the importance of The Seat.

And then the routine can begin in earnest. Pull the laptop out of the bag and twist – it is never in the right way. Walk around the table and plug it in. Take headphones out of centre pocket. Leave draped to the left of the machine. Never, ever, ever to the right. Order your drink. When the baristas recognise you and start to offer you ‘the usual’, get paranoid and change. Or change out of spite, or a pathetic pretence at free will. Always answer ‘yes’ to butter and jam, even though you like neither. Wait for your drink. Add sugar and stir three times. Pick up two napkins. Try to deposit all these items on your never-level table without spilling any.

Update your spreadsheet. Writing is all about spreadsheets, at the end of the day. Better get used to it now. Watch your average output plummet. See the projected completion date slip further and further into the land of futility. Tap at the screen in the ‘hours remaining’ column, and kid yourself that you can pull the same kind of shifts you did ‘in the old days’. The ‘old days’ being any time before this spreadsheet began. On no account check the accuracy of that statement. This is about present and future despair, not regret.

Listen to the same song as you take your first sips. Ponder on the consistency and composition of fruit toast. Stare out of the window. Wonder why you ever chose such a terrible waste of chord changes as ‘your song’ for this novel. Stare out of the window.

Eventually, you may start your Scrivener session. You will hope that you left some words straggling over from the last one – otherwise you will have to read what you wrote yesterday (and that way madness truly lies). If you are lucky – very lucky- you will catch a flier, and something you saw or heard or thought about or the colour of someone’s dress or a random tweet will worm its way into your fingers and occupy them for a while. You have no real idea what it has to do with the plot, characters or price of fish, but hey, you’re writing – be pleased.

And then the nagging begins. The little pecks on the shoulder. The doubts. A child falls over outside the window. Or an old lady holds the traffic up to have a chat halfway across the junction. A bus, steaming like an overweight pig, slumps sideways across the junction, waiting for other, less piggy, vehicles to cede ground or nip impatiently past.

And *bouf* there it is. Focus gone. Concentration wandering up the street with someone’s heels or peculiar mode of transport. @Ememess wrote about the feeling in Only Forward – the sensation where you’re dreaming and you are tricked into falling awake. It is that same feeling.

You must keep dreaming. You must keep being somewhere else. Because if you look up, all you will see is reality. And all you will feel is that nagging, clawing, bitching and biting sense of despair. And you update your spreadsheet. The numbers change but the doubts grow. You pack away your things and pretend to be happy.

Tomorrow, the fear will return.

Cough cough, is this thing on?

The end of a long hiatus. And the beginning of a new dream.

Hello blog – long time no see. All the cool kids have moved on to twitter and tumblr and other lrs, but I wanted to resurrect this blog to help me get my head around my new writing project and occasionally vent a little. I find that if I vent in public fora I spend far too long waiting to see if anyone has read it. By writing it here I can be pretty sure that nobody does, but every now and then some poor bewildered soul might stumble in and start talking to the drunk tramp in the corner. I doubt anyone is reading, but if you are, and feel so inclined, a little wave hello in the comments is always appreciated. Or tweet me @monkquixote.

So – to work. A lot has happened since my last post. Mojo has come and gone, had a little dance, left some uncatholic doings and generally laughed in my face. ‘Ha ha,’ it said, ‘you think you have the tenacity to write at volume, but you haven’t met my friend Duende’. Seriously, the little imp gets everywhere. Jobs to do. Lists to write. Angsts to slice. I even went as far as researching what mojo actually means – or at least what some oik on wikipedia says it means. That was/is dedication to mojo. It didn’t/doesn’t help that I am more familiar with the Canary Island sauce mojo – garlic has little place in writing endeavours. Unless you’re that Twilight woman.

But I digress. I have shelved Monk Quixote the novel for now. And I have also shelved The Onion Man which was partly MQ attempt 2, and partly my attempt at a more serious narrative style. I used semi-colons and everything. Possibly incorrectly, but that’s not the issue; the important thing (see what I did there) being I tried to write a kitchen-sinker-get-me-on-Faber type book. I perhaps took it too literally – it did start in the kitchen. And it was much better ‘written’ than Monk Quixote. However, in its only industry runout, I once again wrote a muddled synopsis and couldn’t produce  a strong enough plot on paper – so that too has been put in a folder somewhere (although I have added onions to my recurring tropes – currently seagulls, crows, cats (angry and fluffy efforts), number plates, fixed bear stares and staring bears).

So I’m writing something new. And I’m writing mainly to please myself. My oldest piece of fiction – in the sense that I’ve been nibbling away at this story for 20 odd years (some of them more odd than others, although all equally as old – time being regular SI units after all. Are they SI units – one of my physicist friends will be along in a minute to correct me. Pun not intended, but hey, we’re on a roll here). I’ve started the story many times over the years, but I never quite had the courage of my convictions. Who on earth would want to read about talking cockroaches, llama policemen and mentally disturbed children? Well, so far, at least one person does. Correction – two (I like it too) – and for now that’s all that matters.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time not writing things that I didn’t think people were going to like or writing against type or worrying about saleability, markets and tastes – and yes, I’m still worrying a little about all of these, but fundamentally I think that if I am enjoying my writing it will show on the page, and that may (may!) be enough to get people to turn to the next one. My natural style is morbid comedy, absurd satire, and occasional pathos – occasionally there is the dim dying embers of political/philosophical thought (but less as I get older). So that’s what I’m writing – or rather ‘how’ I’m writing. Not everyone will like it – even among the tiny group that have read my previous full length efforts – in fact some people will positively hate it – but I guess that’s also what will hopefully make it individual, unique – more ‘me’.

The hero is still Tom Esher – part Arthur Dent/Marvin, part Tim from Spaced, part misanthropic Charlie Bucket – and some of the characters from other stories have been recycled, but then it was always my intention to have a series of novels taking place in Tom’s Universe. I can see a sequel to this one, and then another – and then possibly a new version of MQ down the line. I’m enjoying myself a lot more. Some of what I’m writing is pure nonsense. I have to make it easier to read than on the blog, so there’s less word play and general arsing about, but it’s quite similar in some regards – but with dialogue and stage directions. I worry I write too much dialogue sometimes – that I’m really writing a screenplay lite, but anyway, that’s for another day.

Some of what I’ve written is macabre. Some, I hope is touching. And some is gratuitous writing in of reference points and characters that I want played by specific people in the movie who in the cold light of an editing pen will probably get removed (or I could release an Edgar Wright style – this is what this cereal packet represented type extra on the e-book). You’ve got to dream, after all….

So, we live again. We dream again. We fight on. We fight on to win. I will write a bit about process and story arcs in the next blog post. But for now… can you hear The Hum?

Generally inefficient – hiatus

Hello blog, my old friend. I have – with equal degrees of non-success, kept a blog for going on 10 years now. I have never really built a rhythym of posting, or a readership, or really got what I wanted out of it.

Initially, I wrote a blog because I was lonely. And it’s difficult to see self-indulgence when the mirror has no back. Before blogging I belonged to various mailing lists and a couple of telnet-based chats. I wouldn’t join in much – just occasionally writing screeds of tightly wound nonsense, usually while drunk. Blogging was part of the same thing, really – just barking at the moon. Someone! Please! Pay me some attention!

But not too much.

At various times I tried to write poetry or short fiction via the blog, but it didn’t really work out. It’s also not much of a substitute for letter-writing (I used to write epics up until my mid-twenties – probably until I started working online, in fact). I never really worked out who I was writing for, or to.

The most ‘successful’ period of the blog was when I simply used it as a statistical diary. A web log, in the formal sense. How many words written, miles run, idle thoughts wasted. It did at least serve some sort of purpose, and it is vaguely amusing for me to review it once every couple of years (I’ve taken most of my old blogs down over the years).

I keep a blog – and this domain – purely because I still live in the perhaps naive hope that I will be published, that somehow documenting the process will be worthwhile – or from a marketing viewpoint, necessary. But again, this lack of clarity of purpose leads to a lack of engagement – from me, from my non-existent readers. And as a writer if your heart’s not in it, then why should you expect a reader to care?

And blogging itself – well… the internet winds have shifted – first to social networks, now to twitter, soon to short alliteral grunts via facetime or somesuch, who knows? An augmented reality feed straight into your neural cortex -> Walk down this street and see it as Paris Hilton sees it! Think like Justin Bieber. Taste like Neil Gaiman. Etc.  I’ve been there at or near the beginning of most of these ‘phenomena’, but not really established a use, or a niche, or engaged much. I just kind of wander in, reserve a username, fumble about a bit, and then realise that my online life pretty much mirrors my offline life.

For someone who has made a living from being a creative generalist (damned with faint praise) and generally solving problems in some form of creative fashion, I have been remarkable uncreative in my online activities. I have not started memes. I haven’t made pretty pictures which other people have stolen without attribution. In fact, damn it, I don’t think I’ve even had any of my blog posts hoovered up by some emo high school student and shared as her own angst. And everyone has that claim to fame….I have not become a guru. I have not become anything much.

When I left my last employer I had some re-career training, trying to re-focus into a copywriter, or features writer. Anything with the word ‘writer’ in it. Except underwriter. That would have involved an even longer hiatus. Anyhoo, I had a very pleasant day writing with a journalist (I was the only person on the course) who asked me what my specialism was. And I couldn’t really answer him, beyond the life and times of me (and even then, my friends, parents and ex-girlfriends have quite different versions of that topic). I know a little about a lot, and what I don’t know, I know where to find. I can’t pretend otherwise.

So anyway, next year, as Del Trotter would have it, there will be change. And blood. Possibly, depending on what I get for Christmas. I will find something to be good at. And, if necessary, tell people about it.

Otherwise, I think it’s probably time to let this blog persona go. I’ve just done a cursory edit on the above (is it just me that always expands things when they’re editing? I’ve never known a shorter second draft, but I digress) and I realised I was vaguely enjoying myself. I like putting one word after the other. Playing with rhythym. Tangentalising. Making nouns into verbs. And word soup.

But that’s what the novel is for. I haven’t written any of the second novel since May. I’ve been busy doing nothing and being generally inefficient. In fact, I’d like that as my epitaph – ‘generally inefficient’. Perhaps there is a little of the Dougals Adams spirit left in me after all.

This blog. Generally inefficient.

Be excellent to each other.

Motives and motivation

See you when the next novel is complete.

I haven’t written any fiction for eight weeks now. I am a creature of habit and routine – and fragile ones at that. ‘What I do’ is shaped over sequences of days – three, usually. After three days of doing something I feel ‘this is what I do’. And then, if – as I frequently do – I forget to keep going, I ‘reward’ myself with a break, or a distraction. Only to find that the break and the distraction are now ‘what I do’.

This is hardly a unique situation – most, if not all, people will feel like this at some point, and it’s a recurring theme of my adulthood. There are so many things, both current and past, that feel like I only ever did or do them to use up time. Not all of them are ‘fun’. Most are not exactly life-enhancing. At least now I’m generally happier they are not so overtly self-destructive or plain doofus. But like all habits, they become hard to break through sheer repetition.

As an aside – it’s probably the lack of an over-arching religious drive, or meta-habit, that causes this. If I were driven by God, or greed, or injustice or whatever, I imagine I would compartmentalise my life better – use one part as fuel for the other. Whereas in actuality it all bleeds into one mush of confusion and conflicting emotions. I have too much time and headspace to fill with empty little rituals and muscle-memory actions.

Speaking of muscle-memory…I sometimes wonder what the mental equivalent of a physical injury is. I don’t mean mental illness, or depression etc. But bruising, or sprains, or you know – the stuff you just learn to deal with – for example, most years I will have several weeks when I can’t run at all due to an injured ankle, or knee. I get cross, and tetchy, and heavier. I lose the will to run. I lose speed, and the love of running. And there must be an equivalent for the brain, but I have no idea what the symptoms look like. Or rather, feel like.

I suspect my head is mildly sprained at present. And that I am not quite treating it right. What is the equivalent of RICE for the head? I’m currently dosing with audiobooks and films recommended on lovefilm.

Anyway. This is just to say – to my one reader (and myself, if I am not that reader) – that I think it’s about time I stopped this nonsense (blogging, following, tweeting – generally drowning in a soup of trivia) and got on with some serious living. I can see my fortieth birthday looming over the next hill, and while I feel – and act – like a small child, the fact of the matter is that significant numbers of others don’t. And those others get publishing deals, or become VAT registered, or simply learn to be happy disconnected – untainted by the ephemera of other people’s lives. I need to busy with myself, not the lives of others.

So, let’s see how it goes. See you when this/the next novel is complete.


Chastisement to self.

As I write these words, I am meant to be busy typing and clicking in another window, in another language, with another hat on. Yet I am self-evidently not. Instead, I am tying myself in knots. Self-evidently.

In the past few weeks the little engine that keeps my head spinning, and the sky from caving in (it’s ok – it’s a very personal piece of sky, there’s no need to be alarmed or look up, or invest in U-SAVE-ME Head Protectors) has moved from WWII-destroyer-cannae-take-any-more-cap’n, through to Model-T-any-thought-you-like-as-long-as-its-black to itty-bitty-kitty-lying-in-the-sun-purring to Norwegian-blue-cold. Mon head-engine est mort. Deceased. Moved on. Past it’s sell-by date. Past it’s use-by date.

Paid work and fiction deadlines have streamed past, like meteors. The hull of the mothership has maintained integrity, while little else of me has. The temptation to do a dying swan in a matt-black ship into a white-hot sun is ever present – but fortunately I lack both the energy and well, the energy, to do anything excessively maudlin.

I do not seek pity, or condemnation. I write these words to myself – a minor public flagellation. I operate at my best under pressure, but my duende and assorted internet gremlins are always seeking to release the pressure. Distract me. Disinflate. Disfunction. As Philip K Dick wrote, everything tends towards kibble.

My head, my words, my actions. All kibble-bound. It’s at times like this that I am reminded that no matter how privileged, or happy, or healthy, one may feel, there is always a need for a sense of injustice, of struggle, of need required, to achieve anything worthwhile. And because I lack such focus, I simply trip myself up – like millions of others. Just to see if I can get back up again.

Anyway. Six weeks or so I haven’t touched the novel. I’ve barely done anything beyond run and exist. And yet still there is not an aching unhappiness. Just a general sadness. I used to wonder if I ever really felt anything – if I was simply too controlled, too passive, to succeed as an artist (or as anything much). This, and other nonsense, is the outcome of the luxury of spare time,  a navel, and half a brain.

I’m nearly 40 years old. I feel about 12. I suppose it’s about time to get back on the horse of time and try and catch up with the grown-ups. While I still have clients, stories in my head, and nerves in my fingers. Push the button.


Rewriting my rules

On how I stopped writing for writing’s sake, and instead learnt to write better, by reading, listening and thinking. Hard stares and ginger beer all round.

Ok. Enough writer’s woe. I feel I’ve given myself enough of a kicking over the various faults with my writing process, soliciting feedback, editing, querying and sulking. Yes, even my sulking sucked, in retrospect. Time for action. So – here’s what I’ve done:

  • I’ve read the manuscript all the way through. I tried to read it as an outsider – and summarised at the end of each chapter what it was I appear to have been trying to say and/or do with the plot. This in itself has been an education, but the time I have spent away from fiddlign with the plot has also helped me to identify problems easier (because I’m not kidding myself it’s fixed in chapter N or saying ‘ok, I wrote that but I meant this’).
  • Each time the writing drew attention to itself, I circled the phrase or section in pencil. Sometimes this was an adverb, more often a simile – occasionally something so entirely self-indulgent that nothing short of my new favourite marginal mark (WTF!) was sufficient.
  • Each time a new character, motif, key item or location is mentioned, I made a note in the header in ink, so that I can flick through and check back. In an early draft I’d lost a dog for three chapters because I’d forgotten about him. (If I were writing from scratch in Scrivener, I would add these as keywords). Each character also has the age they are at that time – this would have helped me with various continuity errors I made, had I been more diligent first time around.
  • Alongside the summary, I have made three types of comments on each chapter:
    • Starred items are things to keep but improve. For the most part these are ‘sharpen dialogue between X and Y’, ‘make more realistic’ or simply focus more on a specific plot point.
    • Question mark items are things I want to look at and think about in the edit, such as new character interactions, things to check against the timeline, or things I’m not sure whether to keep or not.
    • Delta mark items (what do you mean you don’t know ‘delta’ – that almost complete triangle from maths lessons aeons ago) – means ‘change this’.
  • Together these form a sort of ‘to-do’ list for the entire novel.

And now that I have the whole novel sitting in my head again (it’s rather disconcerting how so many weeks of effort can be digested again in just a few hours) I have made some adjustments to the plot that I, as a reader, would like to make. I parked these for a couple of days. No need to rush.

I went back to the list of things that my early readers liked or disliked, and I’ve measured them against the notes I’ve already made, adding a few things, and ignoring others. What I initially thought was inevitable (‘you can’t please everyone all of the time’) I now interpret as ‘this is how I pissed this (type of) reader off at this point’. Most, if not all, of the points they made need fixing. But it’s my choice/responsibility as to how this is achieved.

I revisited the notes I made listening to the authors and agents at various LBF and London Writers Club events I’ve attended recently – in particular Miranda Glover’s comments (documented in the previous blog entry), and Lucy Luck’s impromptu list of first-novel-cliche-bingo (rather mortifying to hear them direct from an agent at LWC Live): avoid writing first person, present tense, spiritual journeys that resolve broken relationships involving alcoholic fathers, and starting the novel with the lead character waking up from a hangover.  Oh dear. I did not call ‘house’ at the time, but I did want to crawl under a rock. Admittedly this may have been the lashings of ginger beer I had consumed that evening (top tip, writers, as a rule, like a drink. Next time, bring my drinking head). She was at least engagingly non-commital about the appeal talking pigeons, but sadly my pigeons merely bob, they do not speak.

The net result is that I have survived my first major test of faith, I think. I’ve blown it with the agent I really wanted (or thought I wanted, anyway), but Lucy recommended approaching at least 20 before accepting that perhaps this piece is not for public consumption. I’m on 2 formal rejections, of something I accept now wasn’t polished enough. So, there is hope.

And where there is hope, there is a drink, I mean way. Thus armed with oodles and squoodles of guidance, I have a plan:

  • Write to be read, not to draw attention to myself as author.
  • Self-indulgence is for blogging, not for fiction. I want to be a professional storyteller, not a professional blogger. I have a duty of care to the poor sods who may end up paying money for what I write. You, dear blog reader, get the more narcissistic/angst-ridden/petulant side. And aren’t you the lucky one?
  • I can ignore all of Lucy’s rules, as long as I observe Miranda’s (and so on and so on). No-one I’ve met, read or listened to agrees 100% on process, or plot or anything in fact. But all of them agree on one thing: write the best story you can in the most original voice you can.
  • I will not write to a word count, or to simply finish a chapter. I will write to the end, wherever that may be. I will keep the reader in mind at all times, and that reader will not be me, or my wife, or my mum, or my friends. It will be someone who only has the book to go on. Obvious, I know – but so much of what I’ve read in the manuscript is obviously (to me) aimed at one or more of the first group that it makes me a little mad with myself. Again, it’s about professional craftmanship, not being the best novelist in my own study.
  • I will stop worrying. I know I can write. The right words in the right order in the right voice. Prove it, monki.

Which all means that it’s not an edit, or a re-draft, but a more or less complete rewrite. But I’ve learnt so much along the way, that this can only make for a better book. It’s just taking a little longer than I’d have liked….

Do let me know of any other tips you use or have come across for self-editing or rewrites. (And while not specifically referenced above, I’d recommend ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers‘ to anyone who’s OCD about filling their shelves with books on writing rather than books they’ve written)

Writer’s woe

I have decided, with a typically male lack of need for scientific, or indeed, observable, corroboration, that I have writer’s woe.

*Updated and edited for clarity*

I have decided, with a typically male lack of need for scientific, or indeed, observable, corroboration, that I have writer’s woe. It’s a bit like tennis elbow, or runner’s knee, but much more French.

In the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about, listening it and reading around a lot of professional advice on how to get published. In particular:

  • The LBF Masterclass that I’ve already posted about – although the more I think about the £40 plus travel, for two hours of informed, but ultimately neither specific nor novel (no pun intended, I already own @caroleagent’s excellent From Pitch to Publication) advice, I do think this was incorrectedly advertised as a ‘class’ and consequently overpriced;
  • The slightly odd experience of winning a place (via twitter) on the current London Writers Club Fiction Masterclass – on the strength of my revised pitch for the novel, itself revised because of something Carole Blake said at the event I’ve just been slightly sniffy about, so in some ways I’m £57 up on masterclasses at present. Strictly speaking I think this is the first thing I’ve ‘won’ as an adult fiction writer.
  • Meeting one of my heroes – Ian Rankin – nutching about the quality of Highland Park and on writing to instrumental music. I listened to him being interviewed at LBF (and then repeat the same anecdotes on a comics panel later that day) – and I thought ‘here’s a man who doesn’t care what his hair looks like, drinking a free pint, telling stories about himself and the people in his head.’ Yes, dear reader, there was a wistful sigh at this point.

The LWC Masterclass is a series of tele-conferences – one a week. Initially, this felt a bit odd, as it reminded me a little of my old job – but Miranda Glover’s lecture was delivered in such soothing and polished tones that it was occasionally difficult to remember I had a handset on loudspeaker, and that I wasn’t listening to the radio. It’s a testament to the amount she packed in to her initial slot that I filled several pages with notes – she covered a lot of the basics, but also went into quite specific details as to process and her technique, using examples from her own career to back up her points.

I’m always impressed by authors who give something back – Glover not only runs a writing group, she has also set up her own Press. I was really impressed by the way she addressed the Q&A bit, being both highly specific and making people feel that she was interested in their work, their issues and genuinely trying to help. Not all authors I’ve met or paid to hear have been so magnanimous.

More importantly, perhaps, is that unlike so many other bits of advice I’ve read/paid for/ listened to or simply been on the end of in the pub/facebook/twitter (just as everyone thinks that they have a book in them, lots of people also have an opinion as to what you should be writing, or how, I’ve discovered), I put some of what she said into immediate action. I was also helped by something Jacqueline Burns, who co-runs LWC, said – suggesting I approach my imminent readthrough of the novel with one very specific question in mind (doing several if needs be).

Sadly, the net result has been writer’s woe. I currently hate – ooh, 90% – of the novel, I’d say. Having put it in a drawer for a few months, I’ve since discovered that the lead character spends most of his time drunk, grasping people’s shoulders, tracing outlines of text or pictures. Pigeons always bob. Computers always mechanically wheeze into action. And various things are constipated. It is the fate of all artists to struggle with their creations, I suppose.

And Glover again came up trumps for this scenario – declaring that the drafting process was only finished when she felt ready to move on to another story. When there was nothing left.

Without mentioning the shape-shifting dogs, random cliff-hangers, and the very obviously episodic way I’d written it. The embarrassment is that I really thought this was good enough to go out to people – and it so obviously isn’t, now that I read it as a whole, on paper, and without the rose-tinted glasses of finishing the damn thing.

Because I haven’t. Finished, that is. As she said, the end of the first draft is a momentous thing, but it’s only the start of the next round of the process.

So much of all of this process stuff is subjective – when it makes sense, it just makes sense… others will disagree wildly. One of my – perhaps male, perhaps not – criticisms of a lot of seminars I’ve attended, creative writing and otherwise, is that people aren’t specific or detailed enough.  The initial talk / lecture therefore gave me plenty of material to chew over, and made me feel that Miranda was genuinely interested in improving the writing / process of others.

In particular I loved three things she said which I hope I captured correctly:

– writing a novel is a commitment, like joining a gym. (My extension – I go through regular gym-fixations, but equally months of gym-avoidance. I need to make the most of my short-term focus). Because:
– you have a relationship with your novel (and within the novel with your characters and your readers); which in turn explains:
– you’re finished only when you feel ready to move on (again, my analogy – I’d fallen out of love with my novel, but the relationship is worth saving).

I liked that she wasn’t afraid to give advice, could back things up from personal experience, and did so with grace and enthusiasm. I’ve yet to meet or listen to an author that I haven’t learnt *something* from, but it’s rare to get so much in such a short space of time – without feeling patronised or naive or ‘why the hell didn’t I take this more seriously earlier’.

The next class (Emma Rose, out of sequence) was on the publishing process, something that I am sadly already intimate with, having started my grown up career as the web ‘guy’ for a major academic publisher. Funny how little has changed over the years, and how much the textbook and ELT markets (ruthless, in all senses) led the way. Little did I imagine that I would ever picture myself as an academic monograph, waiting to be found and filed in some dusty library somewhere.

And tonight I am attending the LWC Live event with Lucy Luck. Let’s see how grim the market really is for ‘London commuter belt Iain Banks-esque family dramas’.

Woe, indeed.

London Book Fair virgin #LBF10

In which I describe losing my London Book Fair virginity. Quick, embarrassing, and not eked out to make it value for money. No change there, then.

It was all fine while I was reading Private Eye on the tube. It was all fine while I was walking around to the pleb’s entrance. It was all fine while they conspicuously failed to scan me on my way in (ooh, what larks I could have got up to in my ‘not-really-here’ way). But then I was in and on my own, in a very, very big shed. The London International Book Fair – a trade show, and not just any trade show – the biggest publishing event in the UK, and one made memorable this year for the various and increasingly expensive Fogg-like tales of ingenuity in the face of Le Manche. And Eyjafjallajokull.

Apparently exhibitors are down by a fifth – and it was certainly painful to walk around the non-UK stands and see the number of deserted stands and the odd rather lonely looking rep staring balefully at their laptop, cardboard boxes half-heartedly ripped open behind them.

DIY publicity - Mantel on stage, and top-middle right, man fixing DIY posters to the wall

But first and foremost I had no real reason to be there – the events for prospective authors are sales pitches for companies I hold in varying degrees of fondness (the Arvon Foundation changed my life, Author House is unlikely to ever feature on my Christmas card list. I was considering using The Literary Consultancy until I attended their event). And because of this I felt very much the outsider. I’ve been to oodles of trade shows before – indeed, one of my first jobs was helping to assemble the stand for a disco light manufacturer for PLASA, and I’ve presented and attended lots of digital / web conferences. But always the primary focus was my job – picking up trends, new suppliers, a day larking about, or simply out of the office.

I didn’t have that context for this show. I wandered around a bit aimlessly, gawping at the big trade publisher stands, pausing briefly outside the academic publishers that I’ve worked for in the past, and half-heartedly talking to a couple of folk I know from Twitter who were manning the Bookseller stand.

But I felt very much like a fish out of water. It’s a serious business, and none of mine (yet). I felt a little deflated – I had hoped to chat to a few people and – not necessarily network per se – but just talk to people I don’t usually talk to. But I had a fit of the shy-boys, and slunk off to the PEN Literary Cafe, to wait for Kate Adie to interview Hilary Mantel (got to justify the ticket price somehow, right). And then something clicked. Watching, listening, observing. I have at least two stories worth just from overhearing my elbow-neighbours.

And Mantel was great value (and Adie is a great interviewer), but while they spoke I couldn’t help but notice the suited man in the empty stand behind. He’d hand-written some headings on sheets of A4 and was busy pinning them up on the wall. Presumably the publicity materials for the stand had never arrived, or were stuck in a warehouse somewhere waiting for a volcano and wind patterns to behave. The signs were for digital services – and the wonky, hand-drawn lettering just seemed to make the little scene even more pathetic.

Then, just to further make the gentleman’s day, a trio of ‘other’ suits came and sat on his spare table, and began passing around and stroking an iPad as if it were a newborn baby. Or a puppy. A4 sheets of paper just isn’t going to cut it, son. Personally, I’d have gone down the pub, but manfully he didn’t. He sat there and made some posters on his Toshiba. And then somewhat bizarrely didn’t take down the handwritten ones, but put the printed ones next to them. I wish him and his company well.

And all the while, Mantel’s voice, elaborating on the politics of Tudor England, and the very non-digital process and workflow she uses (giant pinboards, and index cards). Talking about an ‘unsellable book’ that has racked up more sales and awards than I could ever hope to achieve.

All very poignant, somehow.

I then had an impromptu meeting with someone researching collaborative writing tools, had a blander-than-bland sandwich, and trooped around again – trying not to stare at the graphic novels, Harper Fiction heels or the strange man dressed as a wizard. By then I’d decided my time was better spent at home, doing something more likely to get me on to the business end of the Fair. I’ll be back tomorrow, to hear Ian Rankin do his thing, and I will again be too shy to say that I listen to Mogwai while I write because he said he’s done this in the past, and that my scotch of choice is Highland Park, a la Rebus.

Because that would be fanboy behaviour. And this is serious business.