Climbing the Novel Volcano

How it goes:

  • You think you can write a book. ‘Everyone has a book in them’, don’t they? You toy with the idea. You start. You stop. You think again. Maybe you start.
  • You plan it, idly. One rainy day you write a beginning. It’s rubbish. You bin [delete] it.
  • Another idle afternoon you begin again. Maybe you write 500 words!
  • You continue. Maybe you have a chapter.
  • You’ve got going. You become absorbed. You write. And write. And write.
  • You stop. Months pass. Life intervenes. The boiling has slowed to a simmer and become still. The words lie gathering [virtual] dust in a file somewhere on the PC.
  • Months later, in between scribbling flash fiction, blogging or writing Tripadvisor reviews you come across the dusty file. You read it.
  • ‘Hm’, you think. It’s not that bad! You apply yourself. You have another couple of chapters. Hooray!
  •  Life intervenes once more. The file languishes unloved in the depths of ‘documents’. Months pass.
  • One day you mention it to someone. They express an interest, thus re-kindling your own enthusiasm for the project. You get going once more. Hooray!
  • At long last you complete the first, raw, ragged draft of a novel. You feel accomplished/uncertain/satisfied/unworthy/confused/conflicted.
  • The someone wants to read it. Hooray/ Horrors!
  • The someone likes it!
  • You know you need feedback. Another someone suggests you try a shared edit. You try this. The someone likes it. Hooray! But they want you to rewrite the plot. Bleurgh!
  • You edit. And edit.
  •  Enough editing. You consult the Bible [aka the Writers and Artists Yearbook] and find a meagre handful of possibly sympathetic publishers/literary agents.
  • You must write a synopsis. This is the writer’s bete noir. You think about it. You lie awake thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t want to be published anyway?
  • One rainy day you apply yourself to synopsis writing. You consult online advice. Horrors! You know it’s crucial. Maybe you don’t want to be published?
  • It is still raining. You make a start. It’s terrible. You get a cup of tea. You start again.
  • It’s hopeless.
  • You read it aloud to your writing group. It sounds rubbish.
  • You return to the task. You edit. It’s still awful.
  • You rest the hopeless synopsis and attempt a cover letter. You write a blurb. You read it. It doesn’t sound like your novel at all. Perhaps getting published is not all it’s cracked up to be; Waterstones’ window can probably survive without your best seller…
  • In the night you make promises to yourself: I will submit the work to a publisher before I make my next trip away. I will complete the synopsis tomorrow. I will get up now and write the cover letter. You fall asleep.

 

 

Second Time Around

You know that adage about clouds and silver linings?

One side effect of rain and of confining illness is productivity.

I have been sporadically working on ‘that difficult second novel’ for several years, blocked at times, stuck at times, making excuses, indulging in displacement activity and generally procrastinating. I have taken the almost finished first draft away with me more times than I’ve cared to admit.

When I finished writing the first novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’

I experienced a euphoria. I had written a book, and not just any book, but one that had rattled around in my head for years, niggling away at the edges of consciousness and invading my dreams. The euphoria that accompanies the completion of a novel lasts until the first rejection letter/email appears, or at the first, coldly polite ‘You’ve written a book? Well done!’ from friends and family.

The finishing of a second novel is tempered by your experience of how your first has been received. There is a satisfaction at having got to the end. There is a wry anticipation of the huge mountain to climb that is editing. There is a reluctance, this time, to confess to having produced another tome.

But alongside all this doubt there is a satisfaction and a steely, stubborn streak of determination to have another go. To this end I’ve bought a new copy of this:

P1070552

Which must be the first, actual, real, paper copy of a book I’ve bought for a number of years [since becoming a Kindle convert]. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has to be a paper copy in order for scribbling, highlighting, asterisking and tearing out of pages to be undertaken.

When I dip into this writer’s Bible I note that some articles remain from my last copy, as do many of the agents and publishers whose stinging rejections I was handed last time. But there are new, useful chapters. For starters, I’ve learned that my new novel’s genre is known as ‘speculative fiction’. This is useful because I’ve been thinking of it either as science fiction-a genre that appears to be reviled by many agents, judging by their preferences, or as an ‘eco-thriller’; this being a term invented purely by the writer [ie myself] and thus unlikely to score any pints with the publishing business.

Speculative fiction is a genre I’ve been reading for some years, including such novels as the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, several books by Barbara Kingsolver such as ‘Flight Behaviour’ and most recently, John Lanchester’s ‘The Wall’. ‘The Wall’ is a chilling forecast of what could occur in the not-too-distant future if we in the UK continue to pursue current paths and neglect issues like climate change. When I read examples of speculative fiction I am both encouraged by the ideas-some of which are addressed in my own work, and dismayed at how much better written their novels are.

So it’s back to The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, with my highlighter pen in hand. Because you never know…

Picture-free Posts

As a child I learned to read early, almost immediately I started school, at four and a half. And this was in spite of the deadly reading schemes that abounded at the time [in the 1950s]. Two years ago I wrote about reading schemes [ ‘Reading the Years’ ]. Reading is a fundamental, key skill and once you’ve acquired the key everything else in life is unlocked.

During my career as a teacher of young children I met many parents who’d say, regarding the process of ‘hearing’ their child read at home, that the child was not ‘reading’, rather describing the pictures and we’d have to explain that the pictures are the clues, the scaffold that supports the decoding process. Take the scaffold away and the structure may collapse.

And as an early, able reader myself I must confess that I wanted pictorial content in my reading matter until I was around ten or eleven years old, despite being able to read quite sophisticated books.

And these days the genre of the graphic novel has its own following, albeit niche.

As fully literate adults, however we should be able to read without pictures, which is why I am interested in how it is that blog posts with pictorial content produce a greater footfall than those without. I assume that one of the many reasons for tabloid popularity and the more contemporary ‘youtube’ is the lure of pictorial content as opposed to pure text.

A substantial portion of adults never reads for pleasure, four million according to a 2013 report.

Each week I post something in the region of 500 words-most of it, admittedly, drivel. A great deal of it is travel-related and of course it is entirely suited to photographic inclusions. I post a link on to social media. There is footfall from the WordPress community and there is a little footfall from the link. The ‘likes’ are on Facebook, rather than under the WordPress post itself, which is preferable.

But I know that those ‘likes’ on social media are from some who’ve viewed the photo accompanying the link without following the link to read the post! I know this because comments pertain to the picture and not the body of the post. Aha!

So this week’s post is entirely without pictorial content. And next month, being November will be Fiction Month, when I will be posting short stories, some in instalments. Short stories, completely without cost, for the whole of dull, cold, miserable old November, to curl up next to the fire and read!

Fiction Month is the exception to the non-pictorial rule, inducing more traffic than most months, which is heartening! Someone, somewhere out there is happy to sit down and read a story, even in these times of tabloid immediacy.

The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

Writing Superstardom

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Booker Prize 2014 for his novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep South’. I have yet to read it, but fully intend to, not just because the judges were unanimous in their praise for the book but because I like to think the act of reading such an acclaimed and feted novel is a piece of research. Maybe there is a remote chance I will be able to uncover the secret of writing superb and successful prose by reading it.
When casting around for something new to load on to my Kindle I often turn to the long or shortlisted books that are in the race for a prize. I learned some time ago that Amazon reviews are not to be trusted [with the exception, of course of my own reviews]. I have posted before about the ghastly mistakes I’ve made-most notably in the case of the tedious ‘One Day’, a predictable rom-com set in the eighties [not a thrilling decade]. The book prize method of selecting reading matter is not always reliable and needs backing up with additional reviews, generally from a respected newspaper.
The only 2014 Booker contender I have read so far is American writer Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, a story which captivated me for a number of reasons. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and tear provokingly tragic. The subject matter-the tale of a child growing up with a chimpanzee as not only a sibling but a ‘twin’ is unusual and compelling. The book raised many issues including parental, children’s and animal rights. It is certainly a book I would have been proud to have written.
There was something of a shumuncous regarding the opening of the Booker prize to anyone who writes in English. I can see that widening the field does increase the competition, but perhaps it also leads to more diversity. As time goes on it becomes harder to find new subject matter. It is accepted that there are only seven basic story lines and that each and every tale is based on one of them.
The two world wars have spawned an explosion of literature both fiction and fact, much of which is very good-[Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulkes] and so any further foray into war territory must necessarily attack from a new angle. I gather Richard Flanagan’s novel is inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is the author’s sixth novel and one that took him twelve years to write, a fact I find most heartening given that my novel 2 is stubbornly resistant to progress!
I wonder how winner Richard is feeling-beyond the euphoria of victory of course. There could be an element of pressure, I imagine, as once the excitement recedes the pressure must surely mount to produce another blockbuster, Hilary Mantel style!

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…