A Secret Alchemy

Spring Roundup: Pinterest, the Postiversary, and other stories

It must be spring in the air: I'm fantastically busy on various fronts, but some of them might be relevant to all you lovely blog-readers, so here goes. Since October I've been absolutely loving my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths; it's been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable teaching I've ever done, so I'm delighted that playwright Annie Caulfield and I will again be there next year. Our job is to help with academic writing across the full spectrum of the College, from first years to PhDs and staff, from Fine Art to Social Work and Anthropology. I am planning... Read more →


So what did Richard III seem like to the man he murdered?

In my novel A Secret Alchemy, Antony Wydvil, Earl Rivers, uncle and guardian to the new, young King Edward V, has been arrested by Edward's other uncle, the Regent Richard Duke of Gloucester. In one, long midsummer's day Antony rides, under guard, from the castle of Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, where he knows he is to be put to death. It is some time after midday. Anderson spies a spinney a couple of furlongs off the road and orders a halt to rest the horses. The corn in the fields is well grown, and we ride along the rising ground... Read more →


Running with Wolf Hall

When Wolf Hall was published, I was up to my neck (and frequently out of my depth) in writing a novel. I love Hilary Mantel's writing, but I didn't dare go near it. A novel about high politics and low violence set only fifty years after A Secret Alchemy, and built round real historical characters? Might it just make me throw in the towel forever? Well, yes: the book is astonishingly, magnificently good, in everything from the big ideas to the small words. When I put it down yesterday I was about half-way through, and it took two hours and... Read more →


All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

I'm just back from the Festival of Writing at York, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, my post from the same point last year is here, and from 2010 is here. Apart from the usual frustration at having been too busy running my own workshops and doing 1-to-1 book doctoring to sit in on any workshops for myself, it was as much frantic, rewarding, alcohol-and-caffeine-fuelled fun as ever. The ducks were a bit quieter - maybe because it's September, not March - but other than that I'm going to need just as long to recover this time.... Read more →


Flashing, slipping and mixing things up

One of the most useful dicta (I won't say "rules" because there are no rules) I came across early in teaching myself to write was "start as near the end as possible". It was a propos short fiction, and of course it's not really as simple as that, but there's a lot to be said for remembering it in novel-writing too. Later I came across the thriller-writers' dictum "Get in late and get out early", which is the same idea and equally sort-of-true (see here for a discussion of the "getting out" bit). And I usually find that students' MS... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a writer any more, I'm a failure."

Oh, Jerusha, I hardly dare write to you, because I'm not a proper writer, not any more. I don't belong on this blog, or the postgrad course I'm doing, or anywhere. Two years work on the novel, and it's a failure. I'm a failure. A friend has just bagged a two-book deal after an auction. My novel's been rejected everywhere it's gone out to. I can't start something new because all my mental and physical energy - my very breath - is on hold for this one. I know that my writing's good, and I've worked and polished and re-worked... Read more →


Coming events and courses, Autumn 2011

Well, well, well, it's that busy time of year again. Here's some of what I'm doing, alongside writing a novel, teaching for the Open University, blogging, tweeting, cluttering up the forums at WriteWords... and occasionally remembering to breathe and feed the family. If you're free and feel like coming along, do come and say hello: HAVANT LITERARY FESTIVAL FACT AND FICTION: the role of the historical novelist Thursday 22nd September, 7.30pm, United Reformed Church Hall, Havant How can history be used to illuminate the present? Why did Shakespeare ruin the reputation of Richard III? These and many other questions will... Read more →


Prologues, and other stories

One of the things about doing Book Doctoring, as I'm doing at the Getting Published conference in October, is that you get to see a lot of beginnings of novels. I'm starting to think that a great many aspiring writers believe that a book isn't properly dressed without a prologue. And, to be frank, most of the prologues I see aren't earning their keep. It's not that they're never the right thing (I have one in A Secret Alchemy, and a sort-of one in The Mathematics of Love), only that usually whatever they're supposed to be doing would be better... Read more →


Finding the first line

In the film of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Leonard asks how Virginia's work is going, and she says (as I remember) "I think I've got the first line". A reviewer was scornful: how typical of Hollywood to have one banal speech standing in for the creative complexities of writing anything, let alone Mrs Dalloway. It is notoriously difficult to make drama out of writing (hence the clichés of the scrumpled pages and the clacking typewriter), but the reviewer was revealing how little he or she knows about writing fiction. I and lots of other writers know that's exactly how it... Read more →


A word in your ear

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine writing a novel which was trying to set forward a thesis, or prove a point. Indeed, when I told a literary journalist that one of the themes of The Mathematics of Love turned out to be lost children and she asked me what it says about lost children, I floundered: I hadn't had an argument or a thesis, just an emotional centre for the novel. But the novel I've just finished is the first which has come from an idea. I knew from the first moment that it was going to... Read more →


A very Itchy birthday

Today's the third birthday of This Itch of Writing, and a good moment to thank everyone who's joined in over the years. I really didn't know, when I started this blog, whether I would find I had anything to say, or anything I wanted to say, let alone whether anyone would want to listen or respond. So it's been a delight to find that I have, and people do. Indeed, it hasn't just been fun: I've thrashed out ideas on here which ended up in my PhD, and your comments have enlarged not just my ideas about writing, but my... Read more →


Ghirlandaio's maidservants

Thursday is TLS day, and I'm always pleased to see it coming through the door. Not for the fiction reviews - I don't read fiction reviews, for reasons I explored in Making the Skeleton Dance - but for everything else. It is, if you like, my liberal education in all the areas of all the subjects which my actual education didn't have space to expand into. In a review of the British Museum's exhibition of Rennaissance Drawings, which I must see, James Hall quotes a famous essay, which I must read, Wimsatt and Beardsley's The Intentional Fallacy. The Renaissance was... Read more →


Heisenberg's taste in tapestries

Talking to the Richard III Society today, I was reminded of the moment when I got the answer to the problem of how to write A Secret Alchemy. In a TLS review of two books on the Dark Ages, the reviewer R I Moore said this:Historians have to live with Heisenbergian uncertainty: they cannot simultaneously plot position and trajectory, without distortion. The forces that make for change are always more important for the future, and therefore in retrospect, than they seem at the time… At the time, the blinding light that it shone showed me why I didn't want to... Read more →


Help yourself: the novel-planning grid

A friend has just had feedback from a publisher who wants to buy her book. The main plot is great, but one of the subplots needs to go, and the other doesn't work, so it's a case of cutting one, replacing the other, and knitting the whole book back up together again. Much discussion ensued, because the issue is partly about getting the new stuff right in itself, partly about weaving it into the existing stuff, and partly about making sure she's fished the bones of the old subplot out completely, so that readers don't choke on them. Coloured highlighters... Read more →


The diaries you don't keep

Since no one can help me track back to the original source of the quotation, "Fiction is the memories we don't have", I'm going to claim it for my own, because it crops up so often that I'm getting bored with the virtual footnote I feel obliged to add. The original thought started with philosopher and novelist Richard Kearney's book On Stories. He talks about how narrative evolved as an integral part of evolving human consciousness: once you have an understanding of your self and then other selves, as individuals in time, you start trying to understand your relationship to... Read more →


The value of forgetting

By way of soothing my guilt and irritation at forgetting a much-needed appointment with my wonderful osteopath (I blame the York Festival of Writing for the amnesia, as well as the malfunctioning vertebrae) I've been thinking about how memory works in writing. You could make a powerful argument that all narrative works by using memory's neural pathways, even when it's fiction - "Fiction is the memories we don't have" - but that's not what I'm talking about. I mean using your memory as part of your process, and not just remembering things, but forgetting them. Actually, it's York, in another... Read more →


Ducks, dreams and cross-channel ferries: the York Festival of Writing

I'm feeling like Piglet after he escaped from Kanga's house: not yet my own, nice, comfortable colour again, and not at all sure what's just happened. Since rolling all the way home in the dust wasn't an option on a train from York which was so full that moving my foot to relieve my backache required carefully planning, I'm going to do my thinking aloud here. What was last weekend's Festival of Writing all about? At the obvious level, in my case it was about giving eight hours of workshops, solo and with others, and eighteen one-to-one meetings with writers... Read more →


The very final and very good word on my PhD

Oh dear, oh dear, time does slip by, and now I'm going to have to be brief, because I've got a novel to revise (yes, my agent has got back to me about A Twist of Gold...). Luckily, I have a nice thing to be brief about, which is that the final report from the examiners of my PhD has arrived, and it's probably as good a review of any piece of my writing as I can ever hope to get. Since I can't post a link or anything else, I hope I'll be forgiven a showy-offy moment, in assembling... Read more →


A few strings

I've just agreed to write a story for an anthology which is being published by Glasshouse Books in July. It's called 33 because that's how many London boroughs there are, and it's one story for each borough. I'm doing Bexley, and since Londoners are no less parochial (arguably more parochial) than anyone else, even my London-based friends might need explaining that Bexley is fairly south and very east London: specifically, it's lined up along both sides of the bit of the A2 which you hope to whizz through on the way to Rochester and ultimately Dover and then France, and... Read more →


Come back Mr Casaubon, all is forgiven

In putting together the list of Books for Writers, over there in Resources on the right-hand sidebar (which I keep adding to, and welcome more of your favourites in the comments), I realised that there's one kind of book I really, really wish someone would compile. There's nothing I enjoy more than a happy ten minutes (half hour... hour... Remind me what I was looking up?) pootling about in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example. But if I'm really in full, writerly cry, what I want is reverse dictionaries and encyclopaedias. For example, as a word-nerd I might... Read more →