The Mathematics of Love

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 →

Never mind what you're burning to write

I know a couple of writers who, offered a two-book contract on the basis of their first novel, turned it down on the grounds that the book they wanted to write next wasn't remotely like this one, and they didn't want to be tied into a contract that was expecting it to be aimed at the same sort of readers. (There are other more businessy reasons for turning down a two-book deal, but that's for another day and probably another blogger.) And if you get in among any gathering of literary-ish writers, much of the grumbling is about how publishers... Read more →

Under your skin and into your core

The ever-admirable Litlove, of Tales from the Reading Room, asked me this in the comments on the differently fascinating Dirty Sparkle blog: As a writer you've had a great deal of external validation for your work, more than most writers are fortunate enough to have. How will you feel when you get some really stinking reviews? I mean,I hope it never ever happens, but you're going to have to have some solid core of trust in your own work to withstand that, and it can only be developed (I would think) by committing in the act of writing to doing... 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 →

The tree of life - and other anecdotes

I've been a tad busy this last few days, so I'm afraid this is a bit of a catch-up post. First, I've actually submitted my PhD! I can't quite believe how happy it's made me, not just because the last stages of a research project are notoriously fiddly and tedious and so I've been dying to get rid of it, but because, finally, I realise that I'm actually really quite proud of it. As well as A Secret Alchemy, which I can enjoy again now that the tooth-pulling process of writing it has faded from my memory, I do think... Read more →

(The right words in) the right order

Have you ever actually thought about the order in which you put the words - and sense - in a sentence? In In Praise of the Long Sentence I was thinking about how long sentences flow forwards - provide profluence, aka narrative micro-drive - in a way which short sentences can't. But there's also a flexibility about the structure of a long sentence which means you can control the order in which the reader experiences its elements. Narrative takes place in time even more unavoidably than music does, since we don't even have the equivalent of chords, so it's as... 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 →

All sorts of things from all sorts of places

The most difficult chapter of my PhD's critical commentary has been the one on voice. I don't see how you can write about the practice of historical fiction without tackling it, but as I've talked about before, it's both the most crucial and the most un-pin-downable aspect of writing. Its effect is simultaneously micro - a single choice of word - and macro - the thing which creates the world of the novel: the thing which makes the characters live and breathe for the reader. Different voices are central to the way that both The Mathematics of Love and A... Read more →

Courses for horses

Over on the always-interesting Strictly Writing blog, crime writer Helen Black has been discussing writing courses. I'll leave her to tell her story – I'll just say that only course she tried wasn't right for her at all. Many of the commenters agree: why not just write? Another describes herself as a serial course-doer, and wonders about it. And it got me thinking about writing courses, because on the one hand I've heard worrying things from aspiring writers about what their writing teacher said they must 'never', or 'always', do. And agents beef about the shortcomings of the MA novel,... Read more →

Town, gown and its own best self

One of the questions that’s asked a lot in creative writing workshops and similar contexts is ‘Why did you do such-and-such?’ And since you’re a thoughtful writer, you have a reason – you did it on purpose, after all – so you explain, and although the fact that someone stumbled over it may mean you do a bit of fine-tuning, that will be that. You have, in a sense, rebutted the challenge and proved your point: it is the right thing to have there. So it was a shock when my editor first asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ about... Read more →

You can't have one without the other

One of the things I've noticed, among the more thoughtful and less ooe-er-vicar-ish of the reviews of In Bed With, is that they often say, 'Some of these are real erotica/only erotica, whereas others are short stories with sex in them.' The 'real/only' division is the giveaway: do they approve more of the former, or the latter? The more I think about this difference, the more I begin to feel that it actually reflects a much wider question about what fiction's for, and how it works. This anecdote is relevant, so stay with me. I think it's Don McCullin who... 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 →

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 →

How to make a newish author happy, part two

You might remember that as a postscript (or should it be a postpost?) to a post about covers and blurbs, I linked to Musings from a Muddy Island, which is a booky-writey blog I enjoy, about one thing which makes authors happy: seeing people reading their book. A few other things which have made this particular author happy this week are: 1) A few months ago one of my longest-standing writing friends - let's call her Marguerite - whose beautifully built, beautifully written short stories I admire enormously, asked my advice about arranging and submitting a collection to agents, and... Read more →

Win a signed copy of A Secret Alchemy or The Mathematics of Love... and the winner is...

So, what a great collection of entries! Click on the comment trail to see them all. Thank you everyone: it was very difficult to choose, but in the end, the winner is... PAM JOHNSON for Love multiplies by alchemy; mathematics of this secret realm. The runner up is RODERIC VINCENT for Alchemy of love two fused as one when secret mathematics work. with an honourable mention to SOPHY for Though alchemy's goal, I am told, Was a new, secret way to make gold, The mind's acrobatics Of pure mathematics Are still neither hoarded nor sold. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sunday 9th of November... Read more →

Past and present tense

Since I wrote this post, I've blogged about Past and Present Tense in more detail, but this post explores some of my own decisions about it, in particular cases, in more detail, so it might still be useful. A writer friend, doing the last big revision of her new novel, emailed to ask me what I think of present tense narratives. She's used it for the main-frame structure because it's a story of urgency, pressure on the main character, and action, with excursions into the backstory in past tense. But a couple of her trusted readers have said they don't... Read more →

A single rope

Two things happened in the last forty-eight hours which, of all the strands of the writing life, came from the two furthest apart threads you can imagine. On Wednesday, just before midday, I put Radio Three on while I trundled through a pile of self-employed administration. I was knee-deep in receipts for coffee at Goldsmiths ("subsistence for professional training"), and packing up copies of A Secret Alchemy for all the members of the Richard III Society who ordered them after my talk ("stationery" "postage"). And then some gorgeous vocal music - brainy and sexy in the way only Baroque music... Read more →

Hearing voices

How many times do you hear an editor (less often, perhaps, a reviewer) say that the all important thing which will make them take a book on is the voice? Here's the latest version I've come across, from a 4th Estate Editor on the Authonomy blog: The most overriding thing I look for, though, is that all-important but impossible-to-define ‘voice’. You’ll no doubt have heard that a hundred times, and will hear it another thousand, but I can’t overestimate how important it is; there is no point in worrying about character or dialogue or pace or plot if you don’t... Read more →

A story in four dimensions

I'm feeling very benign towards the USA today, for reasons you can probably imagine. And among other things, I've been reflecting on how having a separate deal with an American publisher makes you realise how differently they present your work. (It also improves cashflow, but that's another blog post.) My two editors read my work itself in very similar ways, but how that expresses itself, for that market, in the whole package (yes, horrid word, but necessary) does vary. As you can see on the sidebar, the covers for The Mathematics of Love were very different, as were the blurbs,... Read more →