Friday, 27 April 2007

I've just read ...

Last week I read Jed Rubenfeld's 'The Interpretation of Murder' - and I'm galled to find that as April draws to a close that's the only book I've read this month, because of the obsessional revising I've been doing on my own book. I keep a total every month of the books I've bought and the books I've read, and the former always outnumber the latter - hands up all those who buy books addictively, regardless of how many books sit reproachfully on their shelves, waiting to be read - or re-read. How many of you have bluffed your way through a conversation with guests who admire the wealth of intelligent reading in your bookcase and who, you hope, have no idea that the book you're wittering on about is one of the many you haven't got round to reading yet? Oh yes, you know you do it ...

Anyway, Rubenfeld's book is a good read, if not quite as cracking as I'd expected (hype always has that counterproductive effect). It is very clever and has one of the best first pages I've read in a long time - once again demonstrating how important it is to get your opening right when you're writing. I didn't really believe in any of it - the characters, the murder plot: it was an intelligent game and somewhat chilly. What I did enjoy enormously and did believe in, was the portrayal of early twentieth century New York, with skyscrapers and bridges in frantic, vulgar, competitive construction. It's worth reading the book for that alone.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Baby? Bathwater?

Well, dear readers, after holding off from it for the best part of a week, I went back to the children's novel to read it straight through and do some potentially final nibbling at the text. The good news is that it definitely reads with more pace and I'm pleased about that - it isn't just the subtraction of nearly twelve thousand words - it is that I've rejigged the run-up to the denouement and it doesn't feel anymore is if the story has been diverted and left in a waiting room, tapping its fingers, waiting to be called.

That said, it's actually been a difficult few days. I want to send it off, free my mind from it, go on with Book Two, impress my agent with my efficiency and smiling professionalism (Cut my novel drastically? No problem! Consider it done.)

On the other hand, I can't let it go. Not yet. Surely more can be done to polish and refine it, make it shine more dazzlingly. Surely?

The question is - when is enough revision enough? Is it ever enough? I often feel reluctant to look at my published novel, 'The Chase', because every time I do I see things I'd cut or change. Nothing is perfect - but the impulse to try to achieve it is there, and should be there, if you've any self-respect as a writer.

What have I learnt/relearnt? I've learnt that I spell things out too much, that I am adverb and adjective-heavy. I exhibit Roget's Thesaurus tendencies and have to stop this. Use one adjective. Decide if even one is necessary. Use good verbs rather than an adverb-plus-verbs - but keep things simple too: don't use overly melodramatic verbs.

Repeated reading of your text makes you realise how often you repeat yourself, how you have favourite items of vocabulary which you return to over and over again. Partly it's laziness or habit, partly it's because you were in the white heat of composition and didn't want to slow the flow by casting around for the mot juste, partly because the damn book took months/years to write so you'd forgotten you'd used the very same expression five chapters back. This is what editing is for. You have to become the Reader with the Critical Eye, not the Writer. When I wrote The Chase I used 'grey' and 'juddered' so frequently that I'm almost phobic about using them now. The prize for Most Over-used Word in the new book is 'peered'. People peer up, along, into, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Stop it, already! They now gaze, glance, stare, and simply look.

So, back to the question - have I done enough? Enough to please agent/editor? Enough to get the deal, to get the book, a year or so down the line, on the bookshop shelves? And the other question - have I done too much? Have I killed the essence in the search for commerciality? Have I thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Should I go through it just one more time ....?

Monday, 23 April 2007

If you build it, they will come

I don't know if you've heard about the creation of the funpark Dickens' World as yet - and yes, it's as ghastly as you imagine - but the Guardian blog today has had fun with the idea: check out I particularly like the idea of Kafka's castle and the Alan Bennett World of Adventure. As a parlour game, see how many you can come up with ...

I also read today that Kazuo Ishiguro bought a study guide to one of his own books (see, we authors don't know what we're writing after all) - and ever since, Amazon has been recommending his own books to him!

Finally, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Jenny Colgan has landed a £1m deal to write 2 novels, because she now ranks as a "recognised brand" in the romantic comedy genre. (You may have noticed that authors are increasingly becoming brands.) All credit to her for breaking free from the day job - she was originally an NHS administrator. However, the article on her in Scotland on Sunday goes on to say that 'According to experts, only a small number of authors earn a fortune from their novels' - this is news to us? - and 'there a large number of well-reviewed, high-profile writers living on around £30,000 a year.' Don't know about you, but from my perspective at present £30,000 looks damn fine ... Then again, having watched a programme last night about city traders and their bonuses and the Maseratis and £5m crash pads in London they buy with them, and knowing how many hours of hard graft go into writing a book, £30,000 is actually sod all.

Anyway, back to the article - Jenny Colgan's agent says the deal is a reflection of Colgan's 'potential to make huge sales at a time when readers were staying loyal to well-known writers. ... It reflects what's happening in publishing now. Books are achieving either massive or miniman sales. Supermarkets are fuelling the huge sales. The top 50 titles in the UK are selling 40% more than they did five years ago. And titles at positions 51 to 200 are selling 40% less than five years ago.'

Laugh. Cry. You choose.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Public showman, private shaman? Be true to the kind of writer you are.

A few weeks back I attended several talks at the Oxford Literary Festival, which has grown over the past decade from a very small weekend event at the Oxford Union, to the Sunday Times-sponsored sprawling behemoth it now is. Though it is impressively wide-ranging and well organised I do miss the spontaneity of the original festivals - but then again, this was before festival-fever well and truly hit our land and every town and hamlet worth its salt felt it must put on some sort of Event with Words, Fashionable Topics and Glamorous In-Authors. I have to confess a kind of weariness when I contemplate the bulging programme, with all the Right People being wheeled out to promote their latest books, sometimes collected under PC or trendy themes. Have we not all heard it all before? Writers, once elusive, mysterious creatures who retreated from the world to think deep thoughts and emerge with sybilline wisdom every now and again - writers are now unashamed showmen, practising all sorts of huckster-techniques, giving us the well-honed schmooze, the well-turned anecdote (and I've been to enough of these things to have heard the same worn anecdote or witticism trotted out just that once too often). And yes, I know there were always writers-as-performers (Dickens springs to mind immediately) - but the point is that nowadays, published writers are automatically expected to be performing seals too, whether it's congenial to their nature or not; it's part of the pact with the publishing devil, it's part of what a publishing house considers before they take you on: are you marketable?

All this cynicism serves as a prologue to talking about a writer who was anything but a huckster, and for whom the idea of appearing at a festival like this would have been utter anathema. A writer who, when shortlisted for the Booker, absolutely refused to come south and have anything to do with the shenanigans of rivalry and prize-winning. I went to a talk by Maggie Fergusson about the life of George Mackay Brown, the Orcadian novelist and poet who was renowned for scarcely venturing to the Scottish mainland, far less anywhere else - although he did visit Oxford in 1989 for the centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he greatly admired and to whose poetry he is clearly indebted. GMB said 'Nothing much happens to me but words' and those words are a blend of the starkness of Norse legend and the ceremonies of celebration, woven with rich alliteration and assonance and the images of nature, tradition, religious awe and time. Maggie Fergusson played a tape of him reading his poem 'Hamnavoe', about his father who was the local postman, his sense of the sanctity of a simple life and the rites of passage of a community both nurtured and threatened by the sea. I found myself enormously moved, partly by the beauty of the poem, partly because it evoked for me memories of my own childhood in a fishing community in northern Scotland.

Here are excerpts - if you like them, go in search of him. And yes, this is one of the things I will do with this blog - if I will inflict my recommendations on you. There's bound to be something you'll like.

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring.
And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Letting it Lie

You'll remember I talked about the three stages of editing in an earlier post - well, I've come to the end (or perhaps the interim end) of stage three, the one that's toughest. I had to stand back from my novel and take a long hard look at where the story was slowest. No point thinking that I know what's coming and that the investment of the reader's attention will be well rewarded by the imminent dramatic moment or the climactic final chapters. You can't think like that, because your reader, not knowing what you know, will just wander off.

So, it was time to grab the slow chapter-sequences and start dropping, moving and conflating the events to tighten the story and rev up the pace. When I say pace I don't mean to say that every story you write has to have the speed of a Formula One racer - just that there should be enough forward momentum to carry the reader along and not give them the opportunity to think 'we're in the doldrums here - why am I spending valuable time reading this stuff when I could be on You Tube instead?' Back in Victorian times when letter-writing, beadwork and decoupage were the only competitors, writers could shamelessly explore location, mood and genealogy at enormous and frequently tedious length, but now, in the age of the nanosecond attention-span, the restlessly devouring spirit which says 'shock me, grab me, be new, be fast, do it all for me because I am an avid Consumer', nobody's going to hang about if there's the slightest danger of being bored.

There were times when, having dismantled my story-sequence, I thought I'd never manage to put it together again. There were precious passages I wanted to shoe-horn in somewhere, rather than lose them. Some, sadly, just wouldn't fit - my only comfort is the thought that I can use them in a later book.

The result is that I have a book more than eleven thousand words shorter than it was. Isn't it ironic - to triumph when you take away all those laboriously-composed words, to tot up totals of reduction rather than addition?

Now I have to follow another sort of discipline: I have to stand back from the book for a few days (don't want to leave it any longer - want to impress my agent with my industry). I need those few days for a small degree of unfamiliarity to creep in. This is a crucial aspect of revision - you need to come to your book with the eyes of a stranger, if possible. After three incredibly close-focus sweeps through the thing, I'm too close to it to see any of it clearly. When I return to it I will have yet another read through - and perhaps something else will leap out at me. Perhaps not. Perhaps I have done as much as I can do and it will be time to send it to my agent again.

We'll see.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

The Diagram Prize in all its glory

I know I promised you more news from the front line of decimating my text but I've decided to let you off the hook for now and introduce a new category in this blossoming blog: Quirks and Funnies. These are the fascinating, humorous or just plain weird things that catch my eye, whether in the world of publishing or the world at large.

So we start with the annual Diagram Prize, awarded by the trade magazine The Bookseller to the oddest title of the year - and these have to be genuine books that really were published. The winner in 2005 was 'How People Who Don't Know They're Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It'. Like I said, the oddest titles ... (I particularly like the 'What to Do About It' tag on that one).

This year's shortlist went like this:

How Green Were the Nazis?
D Di Mascio's Delicious Ice Cream: D Di Mascio of Coventry - an Ice Cream Company of Repute, with an Interesting and Varied Fleet of Ice Cream Vans
Tattoed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan
Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium
Better Never to Have Been: the Harm of Coming into Existence
The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification

Take a moment now, and consider which you would have voted for.

I was torn between the Nazis and the Spoon Boxes.

The actual winner was the Shopping Carts guide.

To add to the fun, Radio 4 ran a competition inviting people to write a spoof excerpt from one of the above, and I'm delighted that one of my ex-students, Pamela Morley, was runner-up for a hilarious version of the Tattoed Mountain Women. She was beaten to first place, dangnabbit, by a wonderful How Green Were the Nazis piece. If you go to you ought to be able to track it down, or just Google Pamela's name. Many congratulations to her - she was a skilful comic writer when I was teaching her - and you've either got the gift for that or you've not.

Other Diagram nominees in previous years - The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy: Open Your Mind to Greater Creative Thinking; Guide to Owning a Quaker Parrot; Bombproof Your Horse; Living With Crazy Buttocks; How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (tricky if you have the aforesaid crazy buttocks) - the list is a long and wonderful one, and if I dredge up any others I'll let you know.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Thanks Jacqui!

In my last post I mentioned The Writing Coach - the site run by my friend Jacqui Lofthouse, which she tells us is soon to metamorphose into The Essential Artist. I want to thank you, Jacqui, for mentioning this blog - and I know all you Would-Bees out there think there's a bit of mutual back-scratching going on. But why not? Jacqui and I have both been through the literary mill over the years and we - like many we know - value each other's support and respect each other as unrecognised writers who just don't know when to roll over and play dead. Check out her novels 'Bluethroat Morning' and 'The Temple of Hymen' - different from each other in time and place but both full of evocative detail and passionate messages, questioning the roles of art and identity and purpose. (By the way, on the subject of friends undervalued by the literary establishment, check out Anna McGrail's novel, 'Mrs Einstein' which superbly explores how Einstein's missing and unacknowledged daughter - and there was one - would have felt about him. And what she would have done about it.)

The other reason for saying 'Cheers, Jacqui' is the creeping sense that I'm typing up all my thoughts and sending them out into the ether - and No One is Reading Them!

Rather like publishing a book, really ...

The Continuing Story of the Drastic Edit I'll save for my next post. Meanwhile, I've started a list of creative writing books you might enjoy - and I'll give reasons for some of the choices in another post. Because you are out there - aren't you?

Monday, 9 April 2007

Literary Links

As I continue to feel my way into this whole blogging thing, I've just started a links page. The first is to a writing friend of mine whose site, The Writing Coach, is informative, inspirational and true of heart. Like me she's trying to carve her own path in this market-led literary world - and she is enormously supportive and helpful to others who are doing the same. Check it out.

The other link is to a blog I discovered last week and it's an absolute hoot: it's Miss Snark, a New York literary agent, who dispenses cruel but deadly accurate, barbed advice (with the help of her dog, Killer Yapp) to all us nitwits out in struggle-to-be-a-success land. It's no holds barred, so brace yourself, but it's damn fine. There's loads of information in the Snarkives.

Like Miss Snark, I was immensely saddened to hear of the death last week of the writer Michael Dibdin. Apart from his Aurelio Zen mysteries, I loved his 1980s novel 'Dirty Tricks', about all sorts of blackly comic shenanigans at an Oxford language school. I live in Oxford and oh, there was so much to recognise ...

Michael Dibdin was 60. Yes, all you would-bees out there, pull your fingers out and get writing. Life is short. 50 may be the new 40 and 60 the new 50, but dead is the same old dead.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Tightening the Thumbscrew: the stages of editing

I'm getting near the second longhaul through my children's novel, trying desperately to get the wordcount down to under 60,000 so it looks to my agent as if I'm doing what she wanted. I have to admit, grudgingly, that she's done me a favour. I can see the longeurs and I can see that what I've taken out so far has increased the pace. It's getting beyond painful now, though, partly because I'm sick of the sight of the thing and want to be writing Book Two - which is still in that wonderful not-written-yet-therefore-all things-are-possible state which is the honeymoon period of creativity. Also, because I've reached the desperate stage of removing a word here, five words there and totting the deducted wordcounts at the end of every chapter in the forlorn hope that a few ones and fives will miraculously come to two thousand ...

It has to be faced: I'm fast approaching Third Stage Edit. First Stage is Blithe Willingness: you go back to your book full of the optimistic sureness that you can wave a magic wand and ten thousand words will vanish. And you won't feel any regret. Second Stage is Increasingly Desperate: you realise the little devils won't pack their bags and leave your book without a fight. Plus you really really don't want them to go. You invited them, for Godsake. They've got squatter's rights.

Third Stage is Grit Your Teeth and Reconstruct. You've evicted the squatters but things still aren't right. Nipping and Tucking won't do. You're going to have to take out whole chapters and rebuild sections of your construct from the ground up. Fun it's not. And that's the stage I'm on the brink of. God help me.

Sorry for the overuse of metaphors in this post. But hey, that's the way my mind works. Plus, I want just to write and post my idle thoughts - the time to worry will be when I spend too much time polishing and editing entries for this blog.

You mean I don't do that already?

Monday, 2 April 2007

Isn't nature wonderful?

So, it's one of the many half-terms my children enjoy. They're still in bed (the elder one is definitely getting into the teenage stay-in-bed-all-day-with-occasional-grunt phase) and I'm trying to be virtuous. Up early. Things to do, novels to cut. Out on the patio, I see a squirrel come over our fence and dig industriously but unproductively under one of our bushes. Maybe I should employ him - I know so many people who love gardening and can give you the Latin sub-category of any plant you point at (whereas my description tends to be 'It's, um, that pretty blue one next to the orangey ones'). The two magpies which started squatting in our apple tree the year before last don't like this - and they like it less when the squirrel charges across the garden at THEIR apple tree. Up he goes, up the tree trunk, stop, start, stop start, punctuated with nifty little tail flicks. The magpies hop menacingly down from branch to branch. It's a face off. The magpies are like East End bouncers. They strop their beaks against the branch as if sharpening their weapons. The interloper is completely unfazed by this: he makes sudden darts upwards at them, forcing them to flap around. They're big bullies, all talk and no action. He forces them to flee, flings himself back across the garden at them, scurries along the fence top where they perch, and they all dive into another tree. They've taken the conflict to another garden.

I cheer for the squirrel. Those magpies need taking down a peg. Plus, what I said about being all talk and no action isn't true. For years we've had blackbirds in this garden. Last summer we found a hen blackbird dead under the tree. Turning her over, I found a big hole driven into her breast. She'd been spiked by a bird's beak, poor thing. Guess who we believe are the culprits.

This is one of the purposes of a blog, isn't it? To share idle thoughts about common and uncommon experience? We're all in this game of communication to give ourselves the notion of significance.