Kindred and Affinity

Nothing but the truth

One of the good things about teaching creative writing for the Open University is that I have permanently at my elbow one of the best and most comprehensive writing-courses-in-a-book, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale's Creative Writing, which is the coursebook for A215. But it was a student who mentioned something that the poet W. N. Herbert says, in his chapter on "Theme": There may be a set of subjects we write about which, on examination, share an underlying theme. Like voice, this is better discovered than imposed, but this does not preclude the search. The attempt to address large issues... Read more →

The darkroom and the double-helix

Because terror of the blank page and the "wrong" words hamstrings so many writers, I spend a lot of time saying, "Just write. Nothing's set in stone. You can change anything, once you've got words on the page to change". But in the long-gone days of silver halides I learnt that although you can do amazing things in the darkroom with both light and chemistry, you can't print what isn't in the negative. The pattern of dark and light across the film - what was there when you saw and took the photograph, that seemed to say what you wanted... Read more →

Writing for radio part 2: thinking

So, halfway back up the A23 to London from my research trip to Brighton, I had what I was fairly sure was a viable idea for my first ever story for radio. Pier Productions' brief for this trio of stories, 'Lost in the Lanes', gave me my central problem, and I had 2000 words to solve it in. Next had to come Who? and Why? And in beginning to think those out (dream them up? But it felt more like 'discover them'...) I realised I absolutely knew where the story ended both physically and emotionally, because it's bedded in the... Read more →

A Twist of Gold

Forgive me for how long it's been since my last post, but it's been a funny few days. Not, you understand, in a life-changing sort of way; in fact, my outside self is bored to tears because I've been doing almost nothing but work. My inside self, however, is feeling a bit shaky because I'm rapidly coming to the end of my life with this novel. A few weeks ago I was talking about the strangeness of the novel having become finite, though not finished, and since then I've been working my way through from the beginning, sorting out tweaks... Read more →

As if we'd been there

In A New Use for an Old Christmas Tree I was thinking of how I'd explain, to someone who doesn't understand, how I can be celebrating that the work-in-progress is finished, when it isn't finished. And the more I thought about the image of having built a house, the more I found that the 'snag-list' metaphor fits beautifully. I have two friends who routinely use the phrase: one is an architect, and as I said before, I realise that what I've done is build the house. It exists, standing four-square on the ground, with walls and roof, foundations and floors,... Read more →

A new use for an old Christmas tree

So, at 3.30 on Monday morning I reached the end of the story of my new novel: I finished it. I went to bed on a high, slept till nearly noon, did ten useful things around the house and then pranced off into a shiny afternoon of sun and frost to do some pleasurable shopping. But it isn't finished. In fact, there's a lot to do yet: it needs a bit at the beginning and a bit at the end, a full line-edit, and working through thirty or so pages of what an inspired writing friend has called the snag-list,... Read more →

Twisting the tale in cold blood

A lot of talking about writing ponders and circles around the mysteries of inspiration: the genie, the zone, the muse, the cloud of unknowing, the necessity for darkness or music, the fetishism about notebooks or mascots, the alcohol, the drugs, the digging in the garden, the long country walks, the endless games of patience (Heyer's preferred method, along with 'a little gin and benzedrine'). Some of the best-selling - and best - how-to books, including Brande's Becoming a Writer and Cameron's The Artist's Way, are all about such things, and the hands-down winner in the Most Often Asked Festival Question... Read more →

Not the 'right' book

So, I've got the work-in-progress - let's call it Three - which will absorb me for at least another nine months of revising and editing and contracts and editors and stuff. And Four, which I've told my agent I want to write next (up to and including a half-page pitch and a highly provisional title). Then there's the one which I thought was a short story till I took it for a walk in the park: now it's a novel. So is it Five? Or is it so compelling - so much sparklier and meatier - that it should be... Read more →

The third way

A while ago, in Ask Your Talent, I was thinking about what you do when you've learnt your craft, done your time, are writing really well, and just can't quite get an agent or publisher to take you on. The rejectors like your work so much that they're trying to help, but what they're saying is things like "The ideas and characters are subtle in a literary way, but the writing style is very commercial." Or, alternatively, "It's quite plot-driven and the characters are lively, which doesn't sit well with your sophisticated and allusive style". And the writer howls, "Why... Read more →

Work in progress

This afternoon I suddenly hit a winning streak, and wrote just over 4000 first-draft words in eight hours, when I normally reckon to write 1300 in four, and then lie down in a darkened room. Or go out and conquer the world. I think it helped that it was the end of the chapter and took me to exactly half-way through the novel, and that I knew exactly what needed to happen - well, almost. Having spent much of the last five chapters making two people who shouldn't be falling in love do so, and manoeuvring them into a situation... Read more →

Not hilly enough

I've been thinking about thinking, in between eating too many Easter eggs: specifically, about thinking - the consciousness of characters - in fiction. The editorial report on a friend's novel says it's 'too introspective', and it's something which is said by a lot of agents and editors about a lot of aspiring novels. It's true that there's all the difference in the world, to the reader, between the novel reporting what someone has thought, and giving us thought as it gives us dialogue, and the two work differently. But the depiction of consciousness is the only unique thing about prose... Read more →

The asymmetric hill

We were taking apart the opening of a novel in manuscript, and I was describing the classic way to shape narrative, as described by John Gardener. Gardener's diagram is an asymmetric hill: a right-angled triangle resting on its hypoteneuse, so that the scene works its way upwards to the point of climax, and then runs rather more quickly and steeply down to the close. I find this shape a much more useful way of thinking about such things than the arc which is often recommended, since it pin-points the moment of climax, and suggests that there's plenty of space for... Read more →

One frosty-misty evening

There have been times in the last few days I've thought that my head - my writing head, that is - would explode. Somehow, in just over a month, I've written longhand two first-draft chapters of Kindred & Affinity and after sixteen hours' sorting-out-and-typing of Chapter Two at the weekend, discovered that I've got 31,500 words. By the plan (which, of course, is never set in stone) that's a fifth of the whole thing, which would make it 10,000 words longer than The Mathematics of Love. Yes, there are already 150 separate notes that will take anything from a minute... Read more →

Timing the giant's strides

Time, in writing a novel, has two aspects. Obviously there's the time the story takes place in, both the 'real' time of a scene with full(-ish) dialogue and action, and the gaps which the narrative either skims through ("winter passed eventually, and with the spring came...") or jumps altogether. But there's also the time it takes to read the thing. How often the middle of a book seems to drag; but is that the writing, or the events, or our attention? One reason I prefer to read the novels I do reports on in a long, single sitting, is that... Read more →

A quick snack on the run

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the blog's hungry, and everything's been scuppered by the struggle to finish fine-toothed-combing the proofs for the US edition of A Secret Alchemy. So I'm going to do what I try not to do too often, and feed it with a series of links, and hope they're nutritious enough to keep it going till I've put the proofs into the hands of that nice man or woman from DHL, and got the bit further with Kindred & Affinity which has been displaced by them, which where displaced by... No, I won't bore you. Over... Read more →

Building the bridge

I've been thinking about structure a lot, lately, and one thing that keeps coming to mind is a story I wrote ages ago, which didn't really work for all sorts of reasons, mostly to do with my novelist's tendency to keep trying to squeeze not just a quart - that's easy - but a gallon into a pint pot, and partly to do with the fact that historical short fiction's a tricky beast at the best of times. It covered a long stretch of years, which is never easy in a short story, and as a way of placing and... Read more →

Under the bugle-beaded bonnet

A few weeks ago, in the piece I did for the Independent's My Book of a Lifetime slot, I found myself saying, "Both my first novel, The Mathematics of Love, and now A Secret Alchemy are about love, war, and the life of the spirit. At the most fundamental level, I sometimes think, what else is there to write about?" The rhetorical question was designed to get readers disagreeing, and of course it's only partly true of my own work, let alone anyone else's. There are a million other things to write about, from being conceived, to hunting a great... Read more →

Belated Happy Christmas

So there I was, Christmas Eve in deepest, darkest Suffolk, with an editorial report to send which I had absolutely, cast-iron-promised would get there before Christmas. I had two laptops and three ways of going online and could I get any combination of them to work? Could I hell! The local market town was showing signs of closing down, but mercifully the nicest café-wine bar, which combines 15th century half-timbering with posh cream teas and French brasserie cooking, also combines those with wi-fi internet and a sensible decision that someone was going to need reviving after the last minute shopping... Read more →

A cloud condensed

So, I have ten spiral-bound notebooks from W H Smith (they have to have the right, tolerant paper, and be identical so I can keep a rough track of the word count on the stripy-sweater principle) and a new packet of my favourite kind of biro. I've even been tidying the study because, even though I'm not naturally terribly tidy, it helps a lot to have a bit of elbow room: clear desk space to fan out the plan and current notes, neat ranks of books and files of learned paper and postcards ready to hand, and all without knocking... Read more →

Scenes from a life

Even if I don't write another word of the new novel for a week, to have got six longhand pages down - even in my big, sprawly writing, every other line - does feel very different from all the weeks and months when it's been in my head and not on the page. And suddenly the reading, all the accumulating ideas, the streets and gardens, the scents and sounds, the clear and immediate vision of people in a place, are alive. Until now they've been like ghosts: not ghosts of the past (though they're set in the past) but of... Read more →