A writer's blog
In the washing machine - how to write under a pandemic
Pretty much all the writers I know are struggling to write at the moment. I tried to work out why, and in conversation with a friend on Twitter I decided it had something to do with a pandemic catch-22: you can't ignore the situation, but how can you write about it? It's like writing about a washing machine turning when you're inside it.
In the past week or so I've been less successful at writing my weekly piece of flash fiction. The last one didn't really hold together. I wondered if I was losing my mojo. On top of that, I printed off the short story I've been working on, The Truth Beneath Everything, and it was rubbish. Despite all the hours I'd poured into it, crossing out whole sections, adding new ones, it wouldn't cohere.
Many of my students were struggling too. To help them and to help myself, I decided to post a list with a few suggestions of what to do when the writing just isn't coming:
1. Leave it and watch a film that is in the genre in which you are writing. A number of writers have used this method (Graham Greene did). Watching something that inspires you and that is in another medium can spark inspiration. I love most of the Coen Brothers' and Lynne Ramsay's films.
2. Listen to some music. I find piano music helps (my wife is learning and hearing it from downstairs shifts my thinking).
3. Read some fiction that you admire. Immerse yourself in reading, forgetting about all else. I find this is always necessary to make me want to write.
4. Read a biography/autobiography of an author or anyone who has succeeded in their field. The times when they struggled are easy to relate to, esp. when you know they ultimately succeeded. Also, watch talks on writing. Just do a YouTube search. Read about writers' approaches to writing each day. The Guardian have a whole series on how writers write.
5. Go for a long walk. Let your mind wander and allow your subconscious to work.
7. Type up and/or edit what you have written. This uses a different part of the brain (I know all about the brain so you can trust me on this) and is still writing.
6. Don't push against the wall. Do one of the above if everything you write seems rubbish. If it isn't happening, give yourself a break.
I stopped writing. I went for bike rides and spent more time with the kids. Then, this Monday, the new Ian McEwan novel, Machines Like Me, came through the post. I was excited to be reading something new. At the same time I decided to take a look at the novel I'd been working on that I hadn't touched for a month. I was surprised to find it wasn't too bad. McEwan's writing is finely balanced, so that there is enough plot and character development to maintain the reader's interest. This in turn helped me to think in a more disciplined way about my novel. So I'm back to writing 300-500 words a day, despite the pandemic.
New year, new news
So, I'm still on submission, and the declines have been coming in slowly, but with many good things to say. Meanwhile, as I noted in my last post, I'm still writing the new novel. I posted on Twitter that I would aim to have a first draft done by December 31st. I didn't manage this, but I did turn out 37,000 words. It was worth giving myself that target.
While writing the novels, I've been working on flash fiction. I have a private group that I tutor every Friday, and each week I place around forty small images from Twitter on the table. Everyone then has to pick an image or two and write about it for 20-30 minutes. Then we read them out and get immediate feedback. It's a scary situation. There are no excuses. You have to produce something, no matter how you are feeling (and people have just had bereavements, or been ill, or have been reeling from the appalling lurch to the right that has been happening in our politics).
This kind of pressured situation produces some remarkable pieces of writing, and often they are self-contained pieces of flash fiction. I join in with this exercise, so I now have some 30-40 very short stories.
I've typed the best of these up and I've been sending them out. Hemingway once said you should never end the piece you are writing when you pack up for the day. Always leave that thought unfinished, so you don't have to begin cold the next day. The same applies for submissions. Always have something out there. And this is what I applied. I started sending out these stories.
At first I heard nothing. Then I got a shortlisting from Bridport. It made my day, though it was a shortlist of around fifty. Then in December, the day after a decline for the novel, I got longlisted for the Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Award. I was very happy about this. It meant that, whatever else happened, the story would be published at the end of 2020 in an anthology, as well as on their website.
January 6th is my birthday, and the shortlist came out that day. And there was my story. The best birthday present of all.
Is there a point to all this? I suppose it is that you've got to keep on getting material out there, and keep on producing. As I noted on Twitter, writing is solitary and is an act of faith. We don't see anything for a long time. When something good happens, it's a light in the dark. But we've got to keep writing and sending out to make it happen.
Happy New Year!
PS If you want to read the story, it's here: https://www.storyawards.org/amanda-forsyth-weathering
Scary Hallowe'en Latest
I've been here before. The Last Migration went to an editorial meeting at one of the big publishers back in 2015. It was almost through, then it wasn't. The marketing people had a problem with the setting and my nationality. It was a bit of a nightmare. But at least I had another novel I was working on, though I knew there was a long way to go before that was finished.
And that novel, Out of Nowhere, is now out on submission, which is scary, to say the least. There'll be nothing for at least two weeks, so no need to keep on checking emails. Meanwhile, the thing to do is to get on with the next novel, which is nearing 30,000 words in a first draft.
And as I progress I remember M.G.Leonard's (Beetle Boy) advice:
'You must not look back. You must only progress forward. You are Orpheus in the underworld, and your novel Eurydice. If you look back you will never drag your novel out of hell and into the land of the living'.
Scary. Nightmare. Hell. All those Hallowe'en words that seem appropriate. How do you keep going and face the fear of rejection? How do you not? You just do. Otherwise you are not a writer.
So, it's the waiting game. No more updates until I begin to hear something. And while the chances are the novel will not find a publisher, as all writers know, you've just got to keep on going until it happens. Which is scary, hellish, nightmarish, but fun. It certainly isn't dull.
Treat It Like a Job
...because it is. On Friday night, after preparing for teaching an advanced writing course at the National Centre for Writing, I typed up that day's 500 words. I was not allowed to turn on the TV and watch Graham Norton till I did.
Last week I came downstairs after my usual writing stint. I don't do anything but read then write once the girls are at school, at least until 10am. And I always have to read someone whose writing I admire to fire me up before I begin. Other work comes later. So, I went downstairs and a member of my family who was visiting asked what I'd been doing. 'Writing,' I said. 'Writing?' was the reply. The subtext was, What! Shouldn't you be working?
I was working, and anyone who doesn't get that can go forth and multiply. But I should have known better. Take care who you discuss your writing with. Some people just don't get it and never will until you win the Booker and can afford to buy two homes and a helicopter.
I remember being in a pub and someone saying to me, 'You do what? Really? Well, good luck to you. They say there's a book in everyone.' Do they? Do they really? They? The nob end Charlies of this world who don't know what they're talking about? They probably think Brexit is a good idea too. God help us.
Anyway (shakes himself and calms down), there are people I love who voted Brexit, and I've discovered that not really talking about it is the best policy. Or not too much. And the same goes for writing. It just isn't worth it. Sigh. Well, got to go. My helicopter has just arrived.
Seeking Out the Story
Out of Nowhere's final edits were competed just over a week ago, so now it's over to Sue. Submissions can last a short time. It's like making a meal and eating it. The meal-making takes hours, the eating takes ten minutes. And to get away from the analogy, that submission time can come to nothing, after all that time writing.
So, as before, the thing to do is get on with the next thing, which is my story set in the UK, just as the world is collapsing. Which brings me to why the last stories were set in Oz.
I remember Graham Greene writing about the 'parish pump mentality' of England. It was this that moved him to write novels set in South America, Mexico, Spain, East Africa, Vietnam, etc. He wrote stories with a good deal of dramatic plot, and England just didn't suit (except in the case of, say, Brighton Rock and The Confidential Agent, where he wrote about people on the periphery and in jeopardy). In my case, I can only write about this country at a remove - like a non-native film-maker.
So, the new novel is set in England, but one that has been devastated politically and environmentally (not so far from now, as it turns out). There is a fair amount of anger in it. I make no bones about how much I don't belong to the majority view in my country. And my protagonist is an outsider, living in one of the most deprived parts of East Anglia.
It begins with a man sitting on a porch, watching the sea in the evening, when a dog comes visiting. The dog belongs to a doctor who lives along the coast, and it has been injured. It has a torn ear and blood about its mouth. The man sets off to see what has become of the doctor...
And so I seek out the story and see if it will turn into a novel.
And so goodbye and here we go again...
Out of Nowhere is finished and off to my agent. Summer is here, and I've started back on the next novel. I already have 5000 words typed up. I started tentatively and with little faith, perhaps too soon and with little enough time to recover. But after a few days it really got underway.
Now my routine is to type up what I previously wrote in pen while writing new stuff from later in the novel in pen, so that there is always work to transcribe. It seems to be working. We shall see.
And this one is set in the UK.
Getting Close to Submissions and the Old Oz Problem Once Again
This will be a quick one, as it's late and it's been a tiring Easter, but all there is to say at the moment is that the novel is back from my agent, with some editorial suggestions (not major, major ones, but they'll take a good few hours), some lovely words of praise, and a dilemma. I'm a Brit writing about Australia. Which is the same problem as last time. Not good. But I just had to write the novel. Because I just had to. It was what I saw - that man walking up that disused railway line - that kicked the whole thing into gear. Nothing else was working.
So, what next? Once June or early July are here I need to have the redrafts sorted. Then it's off to a limited number of publisher's editors. There is interest, which is great, especially considering the Ozzy problem. But it will be a limited submission.
So, not great, but not shite either. I'll keep you posted. Right now, I need my bed.
'The missiles have flown. Hallelujah!'
Probably not the best heading, but this is what I thought yesterday as I finally shot my finished draft off to my agent, Sue. It is done. The quote, which is from memory, is from the Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone, where a man can see into the future. He foresees a man who is running for office who will push the nuclear button. So no, not the best analogy for finishing and sending off a novel. But it does feel at least a little momentous. If less cataclysmic. Maybe I was thinking about my next novel, which is about a cataclysm?
Anyway, here's a little of the novel that doesn't give too much away, but does give a taste, and it fits a little with this moment:
Now, as he stood in the corridor and waited for the guard to unlock the next door, he looked out through a window at all the windows of the cells while in the yard gulls circled and landed on the refuse bins. The sun was bright on the wall even though the grass was pale with frost.
The white birds turned in the clear air, their shadows on the wall. The windows they passed were small and square and let an apportioned amount of light into each cell and to the people inside those cells.
Come on, Neely, said the guard.
He took a breath, for he was still tired from working. His parole was in two weeks and he had to regain his strength for when he was out in the world once again. He had turned a corner, he knew he had. The world looked different to him now.
Neely! said the guard.
Okay, said Frank.
I have died and I have come back. That was what he said to Flyblow, when he first saw him after he came out of the hospital. Like Lazarus, said Flyblow. Yeah, said Frank. Though in his mind he was ever Jacob, wrestling out there with the man. He turned from the window and walked up the shallow steps and the guard held open the door and Frank went through and walked up the stairs ahead.
I began redrafting this novel over a year ago. I finally read it through on my wife's Kindle, and it seemed to finally flow effectively, with only small edits needed. So, I'll wait to see what happens next. And in the meantime, I'll move on to the next thing. Happy New Year.
Welcome to the Machine
Here's the latest on where things are going with the novel. I hope you find this useful.
In the last fifteen thousand word of the novel, my protagonist, Frank, finally arrives in Port Douglas and before he gets to his objective – his wife and daughter and their flat – he is shot by a right-wing policeman.
My agent’s assistant suggested it would be better if Frank got to meet his daughter, and thinking about it, it is his reason for walking all the way to Port Douglas from NSW. To have him fail to meet her would rob the reader of a payoff. But he’s on the run, and the police think he’s dangerous and wouldn’t they place wife and daughter in a safe place? How would he hope to see his daughter?
So, what I’ve been doing is trying out alternative ways in which Frank can plausibly meet his daughter before he is shot. In order to make this work, I decided that I’d have him go to her school and meet her briefly. She hardly says a word. I tried to make her speak, but wouldn’t she be shy, even if she values seeing him? She is five years old, and loosely based on my own daughter. Much of her communication is in her actions. I also wanted to make sure the scene wasn’t sentimental. It’s an emotional moment. The more I held back and didn’t give the reader all they wanted, the more powerful it would be. Which meant cutting a lot of what she says (she only says one or two words) and also cutting a lot of what Frank says.
But how does he meet her at the school fence? Another child goes up to Frank and talks to him, and when Frank mentions his daughter, the boy wanders off and tells her. This brings his daughter to the fence. Meanwhile his contact with his daughter is cut short by a member of the public arriving back from shopping and spotting Frank. So, there's a bit of a Brief Encounter disrupted emotional scene (remember the painful scene in the railway cafe?). And this person alerts the police so that when he tried to see his wife later, he is shot outside her flat. So we reach the same outcome, but at least Frank and the reader get their emotional payoff. That isn’t the very end of the story, by the way. Don’t worry too much about Frank.
I often think of a novel as a machine, with every part there for a purpose. This isn’t apparent until the editing process. And the machine parts don’t have to be highly functioning. They might be, and this is common in genre fiction, which is plot-driven, but the machine parts might be character shifts in mood/emotion, etc. In the end, it has to seem plausible on its own terms. I have to say that when I think about the outline plot, I think, Really? Is that even slightly plausible? But it’s the carrying out of those subtle shifts in plotting and mood that make it work. A minor point in one scene can explain a decision in another, etc. And it is very satisfying for the reader when the story works as a whole.
Graphic violence or restraint?
At present I'm two thirds of the way through the edits on the novel. I've restructured the beginning, and I'm reworking a section where there is a moment of violence. In the original version a farmer's wife (Ava) turns up at Frank’s/the protagonist's shack, covered in blood. Frank asks her what she has done and goes to the farmhouse, and finds the farmer (Ava’s husband, Folsom) on the floor of the bathroom. He's been shot in the back of the head.
Jimmy McGovern once asked, Where's the bomb in the story? Is it a ticking bomb? Is it a surprise bomb? Has it already gone off. In this case, the bomb exploded before the scene begins, but one editorial suggestion has been that that the protagonist, and so the reader, gets to witness the violence.
So, the question is, what is more effective? Seeing the violence or seeing its aftermath? This is all going to depend on the novel, and what impact you are hoping to achieve. I have a novel in mind that illustrates a good depiction of violence, and one that seems too graphic (to my mind): The Great Gatsby. In order to illustrate this, there are spoilers ahead. The two moments are where Myrtle is hit by Gatsby's car, and where Gatsby is shot. The first death:
'Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust… her left breast was swinging loose like a flap… The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.'
The 'flap' has always seemed too graphic to me. This one description seems in conflict with the tone of the rest of the novel, which is one of restraint. For example, Gatsby is revealed in a surprising, understated way after a long build-up, and the scene where Carroway witnesses Daisy and Tom plotting the aftermath to Myrtle’s death is seen but not heard, through a window. Similarly, Gatsby’s moment of death is distant, reconstructed in Nick Carroway's imagination.
Fitzgerald uses the first person modified to convey what ‘might’ have happened. The shot is never heard or described in any way. The horror of the moment is in ‘seeing’ the run-up to the moment of violence from the point of view of the man who is about to die, as Myrtle’s husband, Wilson, comes out of the bushes with a gun in his hand. It is the restraint used here that makes this powerful. Fitzgerald could have described the moment from Wilson’s POV or from a bystander’s POV. As it is, it is Gatsby who Carroway has identified with throughout the novel. And the imagined scene stops just at the point where Gatsby sees Wilson bearing down on him. The lack of a graphic finale is brilliant. Even the aftermath is restrained, as Carroway and others discover Gatsby, floating in his pool, a picturesque whorl of blood in the water.
So, down to my novel. This is the original version, in which the protagonist (Frank) goes to see the aftermath of the shooting:
‘When he reached the bathroom the door was half open and what he saw first were a pair of pale heels, the dry skin, yellowed and coarse like candle wax. The puckered skin of the soles, the bare and thin ankles. A dressing gown spread across the boarded floor.
He lifted the torch head and shone it into the room. Beside a cabinet with a length of mirror was a fist sized hole punched into the wall and a bloom of bright red across the wallpaper, thin streams running down. A sink full of water, brimming over and dripping to the floor. He lowered the torch.’
The version I have since written is too graphic, and already I feel it doesn’t work. But this may be because I prefer restraint. Another moment of violence comes to mind that shows my inclinations, as well as underlining the fact that thrillers are more about atmosphere than action. The scene is from a treatment Graham Greene wrote, called No Man’s Land, in which a man is shot (this can be found in Mornings in the Dark). We don’t dwell on the man. Rather, we watch his hat roll down a hill. In The Girls of Tender Means there is an understated moment of violence that shocks because of its brevity and apparent random nature. In The Third Man we hear the shot that kills Lime, and then see Holly Martin walk into view with a gun in his hand.
An equivalent might be the door closing on a sex scene, or the use of the sublime in a horror novel – what has been described as the thrill of fear through atmosphere, represented by the setting that suggests decay, death, etc. Again, atmosphere over the graphic.
The scene I wrote for my novel was graphic, and it didn’t work. Instead I’m trying for a shooting that happens with Frank in the next room, hiding from the man who is then killed out of view. Holes appear in the thin wall between the rooms, and Frank does see the aftermath. But the shooting itself is obscured.
Following Your Editorial Notes
Last September I finished a 70,000-word draft of my new novel, Out of Nowhere. It had its origins in another novel I’d been attempting to write. I abandoned that other novel after around 35,000 words, but there was a subplot about an escaped criminal that interested me, and when I imagined this character, who I named Frank, walking up a disused Australian railway line in the sun, I had my way in. The image was strong enough for me to want to explore what happened next. It has a narrative leading up to that moment (Frank’s escape from a prison van in New South Wales) and a narrative direction (he is on a mission to find his daughter, who he hasn’t seen for two years). His wife has moved to Port Douglas, way up north in Queensland, taking their daughter with her, and Frank is determined to walk a thousand miles to see her again.
So, there is the basic premise, and, feeling excited enough about the project, I wrote it in around eight months (very quick for me). Once I’d gone through it and edited it until I couldn’t see how to improve it, I gave it to my ‘Alpha reader’ (my wife). This is the equivalent moment to what Stephen King calls writing the second draft ‘with the door open’ (first draft with the door closed, second draft with the door open). I got her reactions and edited and, after leaving it for six weeks so I’d look at it in a fresh way, I worked through it again. Then I sent it to my agent.
My agent liked the novel, and went on to suggest where it needs work, with two pages of suggestions. The main point she made was that it reminded her of The Road, but that what it lacked and what made The Road more saleable was its emotional content; that both are literary and masculine, but that mine needs to move the reader more. Frank is too emotionally distant. Basically, we need to see him suffer. I also got two pages of editorial notes from my agent’s assistant. And I may be telling you what you already know, but this illustrates how vital it is to get used to critical appraisals of your work. You’ll get critiques from agents and, once they are happy, you’ll get suggested edits from the publisher (usually lesser suggestions, according to my agent, and according to how involved your agent is in the editing process).
So, a need for more of the emotional story. The material was ‘literary’ and ‘masculine’ and may be well written, but we need to know what is driving Frank to find his daughter. We need more of the emotional story. And this means giving the reader more of an insight into what is at stake for Frank. So, how to do this? First off, to establish his connection to his daughter from the beginning. The novel begins when Frank is freed from a prison van. The men who stop the van are freeing someone else, and they are extremely violent. So, how to bring in the daughter? My solution was to have him thinking about his daughter before the van is stopped. This establishes a contrast to the brutality that happens, and also gives us more of a connection with Frank’s character. He’s a dad who messed up when his daughter was three. He was driven away by the police:
The low sunlight, the road opaque through the rear window of the police car, that little girl running out and standing there in the roadside dirt, growing smaller as he twisted around to see her just for one moment more.
There were originally three prisoners who escaped from the van, but I realised that one of them – a young man who is due for parole and aching to get back to his young wife – could be cut out, his story added to Frank’s story. In effect, I collapsed two characters into one. This added to what is at stake. Frank doesn’t want to escape, and it is the violent death of the guards transporting him that makes him certain he will be held partially responsible for their deaths. So he sets off as a reluctant fugitive. Hopefully all this means there is an emotional pull at the beginning.
The lesson from The Road is that it has a relationship between a father and son at its heart. The son is the father’s conscience. He is his better self. Another traveller on the road says that when he saw the son, he thought he was an angel. It is this relationship that makes readers recommend the book to other readers. The post-apocalyptic genre is the main plot, but it is the emotional plot that engages. This is what I am now trying to improve on with my novel; to give the reader more of the emotional story.
I’ll keep you up to date with other thoughts I have as I redraft, but I hope this gives you a bit of an insight into the editorial process when working with an agent.
Re-engaging with the world
I sent my new novel out to a competition two days ago. And you know, it felt great. Regardless of what happens, it's me re-engaging with the world once again. Because writing is an isolating experience, and who knows how good you are until you put your work out to be read by someone else?
That's it, really. Nothing else to add. Except that, as I noted in a tweet earlier this week, everyone lacks confidence, and everyone is too busy to write, and everyone is isolated and wondering if they are fooling themselves. And you know what? I reckon that it's more about tenacity than almost anything else. The willingness to work away when no one knows what you are doing. And then the time comes, when you've been writing shite and rewriting it and cutting it down and losing the thread and throwing away 30,000 words and just keeping the subplot and listening to people say, 'Haven't you finished that novel yet?' ('No! And fuck off, if you don't mind.') - the time comes when you've got to send it out there. And once you have, you are re-engaging with the world again.
Getting the flywheel going again
If you leave it too long, the momentum you gained is lost. You've got to start again. Whatever it is that excited your mind and stimulated it into coming up with those lines that almost seemed to be dictated, you've got to find it again. A bit abstract, but the flywheel works as an illustration. In an engine this wheel has to be moved from a standstill until it turns smoothly, and its role is to deliver a smooth and regular amount of energy, regardless of what else is happening in the engine.
In writing terms, this is habit. As Virginia Woolf said, writing comes from habit. And I lost the habit. And habit is the flywheel. Once the habit is underway, it's harder not to write than it is to write.
Well, it's June, and I think the novel, Out of Nowhere, is becoming a major preoccupation once again, at long last. The summer is ahead of me. Lots of time to work. No money, but time. Time enough to get the habit firmly established.
The thing you long for and the thing you most fear
January 2018 part 2
I'm still editing the collection of writer transcripts. I'm frustrated, because when I read about writers I admire, like Andrew Cowan, and how he was first published (many rejections by publishers and agents, then a competition award - Betty Trask - then publication and more awards), it reminds me that I'm not editing my own novel. But I'm also learning a lot. And it's a very engaging job. But I WANT TO WRITE!
I remember reading George Orwell, who said he didn't write when he was in his twenties, but he was writing all the time. Noting how he opened a door, said things, etc. Thinking time is essential for any writer. Iris Murdoch worked the whole of her novels out in her head. Typing them up was just transcribing what already existed. And, to some extent, that's what I'm doing at the moment. Thinking through the problems that need fixing. One solution came to me in the kitchen.
I have three escaped criminals in a prison van. One is a young man who is almost ready for parole. He doesn't want to escape because he's due for release and he wants to get back to his young wife and their baby. The other men are long-termers. They want to keep on going. There is a fight. Two of the criminals are killed in the resulting crash, one of them being the young man. Pathos. From there we follow the criminal called Frank, who wants to get to see his daughter in northern Queensland.
Now, my agent, Sue, said she wanted more of Frank's motives. More of his emotional story. When I was in the kitchen I realised the solution. Get rid of the young man. Collapse his and Frank's story. Now it's Frank who doesn't want his parole messing up. The escape complicates things. It messes up his hopes. Now I have more of an emotional story. And the idea for collapsing characters came from an interview with Alan Ayckbourn. So, thinking time is essential.
Now, why the quote at the top of this blog? In his interview, Richard Holmes talks about the hope/dread axis. It's the thing we hope for the character and the thing we most fear for them. This axis is the way to make the reader engage in the character's struggle. That is what I need more of in my novel. Put another way, there is this mix of quotes that I have now stuck on my wall, ready for when I get back to writing. One is from Kurt Vonnegut, the other from David Mamet:
Be a sadist. Put your character up a tree and hurl rocks at him. Make him suffer.
The new year, learning from other writers and getting permission to write
It was my birthday yesterday and I'm suffering a bit this morning, after some Czech beers and a good time in a back bar with friends. The writing has kind of started again, but for January I've got a job on, editing transcripts of interviews with writers for an Open University book. If you want to be inspired and learn about the craft, read what other writers have to say.
I was talking to someone - rather drunkenly - last night, about how we set up so many obstacles that stop us writing. I had a student, recently, who hadn't written since she was at school. She was now around thirty. A teacher at school was so insensitive when he commented on her writing that it took her more than a decade to be able to write again. Really, where do they get these fuckwit teachers from? Anyway, she was writing again because she felt she finally could, because I looked at a draft and said what was working and what I'd change. Just an honest, balanced appraisal of her work. So she was back to writing. Obstacles. And many of them are placed there by us, the writers. For good reason, very often. So, my point? When we see that other writers have struggled, failed, loathed their early drafts, etc. it shows us the path we have got to tread, and says it's all part of the journey.
I really am suffering. It was that last pint. So, this is just a New Year message about what is on its way. Which is a book of interviews, then, from February, I've got some serious editing to do on Out of Nowhere. My agent got back to me and said it's a better novel than The Last Migration, which is good to hear. And it needs more work. I'll talk about what that means in another blog. I've also got a new novel underway, and what I'm going to do is write the new one in the mornings, and edit the old one in the evenings. Know where I got that idea from? Another writer. Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in the mornings, and The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. He also took some drugs to help him. But I think it was this approach that gave me the idea. And the permission.
Brushing your teeth or writing a novel - what's more important?
November 2017 part 2
My girlfriend said to me one day, 'You aren't doing any writing.' It annoyed me that she was talking about something I felt she didn't understand. I was busy. I was tired. I was tinkering with a new idea. But after a short while I got over my irritation and realised the reason her comment irritated me was that she was right. I wasn't writing.
So, I decided to do no work until 10am every weekday morning. My job was teaching online for the OU and in various places around the city, so I had flexibility. Until 10am, all I did was read (to inspire me/get me in the mode) and write. And because of this I wrote a novel that is now 90,000 words long.
I worked out, recently, that all you have to do is write 500 words a day, three days a week, to produce a novel of 78,000 words in a year. The idea of writing a novel can seem too great, but when you break it down it seems manageable.
People say to me, 'If I had the time...' To which I reply, 'Do you wash the pots? Do you make the bed? Put the washing on? Isn't writing at least as important as domestic chores? You have to give writing the same level of importance as brushing your teeth. And you need to set the right time aside in order to write in the first place. You need to take you and your writing seriously.'
Life does get in the way of writing. Of course it does. But I remember writing in my dinner hour when I worked full-time. And now I have children and work full-time in part-time hours, I still make time to write.
I think the following words, by MG Leonard, are inspiring and exciting. She was faced with the frustration at not getting down to write, and even when she did she was too tired, after a long day working and dealing with her young son. Here is how she found the time to write her novel, Beetle Boy:
'It occured to me; I was trying to write when I was tired. In fact 'I'm tired' is the most common thing to say. I had never considered how sharp your mental faculties needed to be to write well. I decided that I would try and write at the beginning of the day, before my son woke up, so I set my alarm for five o'clock in the morning.
At five, I'd get up, make a cup of tea and a hot water bottle - it's cold at that time of day - and sit down in front of my laptop, and, finally, I began to write my book.' - The Guardian November 3rd 2017
Writing the synopsis - an essential, whether or not you have an agent. Part 2
And so the synopsis. I have the one-line summary/strap line/pitch that can go at the head of the page. The synopsis needs to be one page long and in the present tense. And I really don't want to reveal everything about the plot, but if I'm sending this to my agent, I need to write the whole story out, from beginning to end.
So, what to focus on? I just need the main character/s and the main plot. Forget the subplots, digressions, minor characters. And it needs to follow the action of the plot and the emotion of the plot. When I teach screenwriting, I find it useful to look at what a character wants, and what a character needs. The want is the goal, and the need is usually in conflict with the goal. This is the emotion of the plot. So, to my mind, Gatsby wants Daisy Buchanan, but he needs to let go of his dream/the past and grow up. The tragedy of the story comes out of his inability to move on.
The easiest way to illustrate the synopsis is to show you what I came up with. I won't give you all of it. If the book comes out, I'd like to leave some surprises for the reader. But here is the first of the three paragraphs:
Frank Neely has messed up his whole adult life, but it is always God’s fault, not his. He has spent much of his adolescence in custody, but he meets Marianne - a woman who loves him despite his poor background. They marry, and all is well until the night his wife gives birth. He should be there by her side, but on the same night he gets drunk in a bar and gets into a fight that goes wrong. Instead of enjoying fatherhood he is given a ten year jail sentence. Worse still, his wife takes their daughter and moves away to northern Queensland. He has lost everything and there’s nothing he can do about it. Until one day the prison van he is riding in is stopped and all the guards are murdered. Taking the van, he and two other convicts head off from Victoria, but they disagree which direction to go, and during an argument they crash the van and only Frank survives. He sets off on foot along a disused railway, determined to walk the thousand miles to Port Douglas to find the daughter he hasn’t seen for years. She is the one good thing left in his life. If he can see her, he feels his life will have some meaning.
So, Frank Neely has an objective/a quest as he sets out to find his daughter. This is the end of the first act of the novel. The beginning of the novel comes here (the preamble is backstory): '...all is well until the night his wife gives birth'. This is where the trigger or catalyst comes in, and it is here that Frank's life/stasis/equilibrium is disrupted. From here on in he is attempting to restore what he has lost. I remember reading Steven Spielberg, who said many stories are about a person losing control and trying to regain that control. That is what my novel is about. Frank Neely is trying to regain control of his life, despite himself.
Writing the synopsis - an essential, whether or not you have an agent. Part 1
October 2017 part 3:
The novel went off two days ago. And my agent asked for a synopsis. I hadn't attached one. It took me three hours to write. Synopses are tricky, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on how to write one. Here is what I did:
1. Write a movie-like pitch to head the synopsis. Focus on these elements:
a. Main character
b. His or her flaw - his/her interior obstacle
c. The event that kicks off the main body of the story
d. The antagonist
e. The battle
f. The denouement.
Mine read like this:
A criminal whose life is blighted by poor choices escapes a prison van and has to walk a thousand miles while evading the police and a murderous woman to be reunited with the one good thing in his life - his daughter.
This contains the action plot and emotional plot of the story - the exterior and interior story. Both are essential. We need to know what happens, and we need to know why (the character's motivation). It also highlights the internal and external obstacles (poor decision-making/a thousand miles, police, murderer). It also has an objective. This fits the film world's plot resolution model. Looking at it, I think the battle could be more defined, the flaw more distinct. It isn't perfect. But this gives you an idea of how to sketch out a novel outline in a sentence. You can even do this before your novel is finished, to see if you are answering the important dramatic questions.
The next thing to write was the synopsis, which is usually a page long. I'll leave that to the next blog...
And so the novel is sent. But do I feel a sense of completion?
October 2017 part 2:
I sent Out of Nowhere off tonight. My agent has been to the Frankfurt Book Fair and I was waiting till she got back. It was pretty much finished last week, at the point where all I was doing was taking out a few words here, paring down a sentence there.
I've been trying to move the new novel forwards since then, but it's been a bit scrappy. All I have typed up are a few disjointed thousand words. Maybe I need to take a little time out? But the feeling isn't, Hey, I finished my latest novel! Instead it's, Oh no, I'm not working on anything. Not really. Not something that has momentum. I haven't a clear idea of it as a novel. I feel a little lost, but maybe it's just that I'm a little tired?
I do keep getting glimpses of what the new novel could be. A thriller/horror? A kind of post-apocalypse story? About a writer on the coast who is writing a story about a man who has crash-landed on Mercury, with no hope of being saved? All these possible elements I am juggling.
Last year I stripped out a subplot from a novel that wasn't happening, and that became Out of Nowhere. As soon as I could see this escaped convict walking along a disused Queensland railway track, I knew my novel was underway. It was very exciting. I have to have something similar happen again. Or something that has as much of a grip on me as last time. But right now I should feel pleased that I've send the last one off. Reading back, I can see I'm repeating myself about Out of Nowhere's origins. And that tells me that I really should get some sleep. G'night.
Does the magic work twice? That difficult-to-engage stage with a new novel
October 2017 part 1:
So, as I read through the novel for the last time, ready to send off after the Frankfurt Book Fair, I'm trying to make sure I have the new novel well underway. But you never really know if it'll turn into a novel or become another 30,000-word pile of shite. It's all part of the process, and I aught to be pleased I've pretty much completed a new novel, but this period when I wait to see if a new project will really 'take' is not pleasant.
To be honest, I feel like I've been drugged. My four-year-old woke twice last night and so I lost the hours between 2-4am. It takes the edge off my concentration. But I do have around 1500 words typed up in Scrivener (recommended - really easy to learn to use as you'll see if you check out the YouTube tutorial you can access here - as it lets you create small pieces that you can rearrange once the novel starts to take shape). We'll see. Last time I had 30,000 words of a novel that just wouldn't come alive. I took a very small subplot from that novel and set it in Oz and it just took off. If only the magic worked the same way twice.
And then you edit once again
September 2017 part 2:
B-loody hell, as my grandad used to say. You think you're pretty much there and then you find the backstory gets in the way of the main story, and that it doesn't make sense to drop it in where you've dropped it in. So I've just cut some backstory out and made the backstory that remains follow in some sort of logical order. The job is not yet done. And I'm losing words. I'll finish up with a piece of flash fiction at this rate.
No I won't. But I might. But I won't. Trust the process. And remember that if what's in the story doesn't serve the story, it's either got to go, or it's got to be moved to where it does serve the story, and it's probably got to be cut down and made to seamlessly become a part of the main narrative.
So I look at Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means to see how she does it (apparently effortlessly and in the 3rd person - just look at the first two pages of chapter two) and at Emma Healy's Elizabeth is Missing, which relies on backstory, since it's a dual narrative.
I'm sure they went through the same painful process. But b-loody hell.
The last read-through and being committed
September 2017 part 1:
A week into the new month. The kids are back at school and there's time before OU and WCN work begins to do those last rewrites and edits on Out of Nowhere. It turns out that my wife has a problem with the title. She says it's too 'nothing'. I like it because it brings to mind the noir film, Out of the Past. I'm not sure who's right. I'll see what Sue thinks. The biggest change I made in the script was to open out a space between two major events in the middle of the story. They followed on, one after the other, so that the drama was overloaded. Now there's a breather in-between. And to make it work I had to learn about how a character would rewire an old house. I had to give him something to do until the next bombshell.
On Saturday there's a meeting at Milton Keynes for all the MA lecturers. I could get a lift there but I've decided to take the train so I get all that time to do a last read-through of the novel and to scribble all over the mss. Which means getting the 6am train. Which means getting up at 5am and cycling to the station. You've got to be committed to be a writer.
What do you do when your first novel is on submission? And what do you do when you don't get an offer?
I'm at one of those places in the writing life where I've had that all-important recognition for my novel - the thriller, The Last Migration - from competitions (Bath and Bridport) and I've got a top class agent (Sue Armstrong). It was the competitions that led to representation - that and the excellent Caroline Ambrose, who runs the Bath Novel Award. She met Sue in her London office and while they were talking, she suggested she should have a look at my novel. A month later I signed with Sue and Conville and Walsh.
It took me a year to edit Migration, and from February 2016 it went out on submission. It got close to a 'yes' from a big publisher, but after an editorial meeting it didn't get published. Frustrating. Close but no publishing deal.
So, what do you do when this happens? Actually, what do you do while you are on submission, biting your nails and checking your emails constantly? Write. That's what you do. And that's what I did. I started a story about an escaped convict travelling up the coast of Queensland to find his daughter. I finished this novel in pretty good time, after just over a year and a half. It's called Out of Nowhere, and the first paragraph can be seen on my 'Home' page.
So, novel number two is almost ready to send to my agent. And while I wait to see what Sue thinks, I've tentatively begun something new - a story set in a shanty town in East Anglia, where an old man drinks his days away, all the time aware that something evil from his past is out searching for him. Another 'thriller', perhaps? We'll see. Early days. But whatever happens, I know it's important to keep on writing.
Broken Hill New South Wales - the basis
for Bordertown in The Last Migration
and Out of Nowhere. Photos from my travels.