The New, Nameless Novel


... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ... - and you have an idea - the first idea... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers?"

Dear Jerusha: I had a one-to-one with an agent who said she felt my main character was rather dull and not pro-active enough. She was afraid that, not being like the usual feisty heroines who buck the system, my MC might fail to grab the reader's attention, and my writing friends have said similar things. I fully appreciate what they mean but I have struggled to correct the problem. The thing is, she is meant to be a bit 'wet' for want of a better word, or at least she is to begin with. She has to overcome this and... Read more →

The Thirty Thousand Doldrums

At the Frome Festival Writers' Question Time (click on Programmes > Frome Festival > Frome Festival 2011 Live Recordings) one question which came up was about keeping going: how do you deal with getting stuck? We all chipped in with our experience, from Debby Holt's Plotting Walk, to Matt Graham's printout of his mortgage payments stuck above the monitor. At one point I mentioned the notorious Thirty Thousand Doldrums: how for some reason, at least to judge by straw polls among my writer friends, round about the 25-30,000 words seems to be the sticking point for many writers. The odd... Read more →

Post(card) from Devon

So I'm not really blogging, because I'm buried in Devon at the entirely wonderful Retreats for You. So here, instead, is a little taste of my walk this afternoon (after 2000 words, in front of log fire, before delicious supper NOT cooked by me). 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 →

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 →

If a thing's worth writing...

As night follows day, a new novel has entered the works, just as the final draft of the novel I think of as my Betrayal novel, has left them, going from my desk to my agent's and onwards. Not that it's new in the obvious sense; it first appeared, untimely, almost exactly two years ago. Since then I've been... not exactly ignoring it, but making no effort to do more with it than I couldn't avoid. I've bought the occasional book that caught my eye, clipped articles out of the TLS, gone to exhibitions that were relevant, collected postcards and... Read more →

The common scaffold

So my agent was sitting on a delayed bus into work, and I was walking along a long and snowy road in lieu of spending half an hour digging my car out, and we were on the phone discussing the latest version of my new novel. Basically she loves it, and thinks it's very nearly ready to fly: she awarded the ending three hankies and we've settled on a great title. She even spontaneously suggested something for the ending which I'd wanted to do all along but hadn't dared. Her only reservations were about some of the new material. I've... 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 →

Wake up and re-write

Whenever an editor or agent is lured into listing the things which put them off a manuscript, it seems that well up the list is a novel which starts with someone waking up. And top of the list is the subset of these which start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover or a head wound. "But - but - but -" thousands of aspiring writers cry, and they have a point. What about Kafka's The Metamorphosis, just for a start, when Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he's become a beetle? Indeed, the unrevised version of my new... 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 →

Showing up for the genie

Has anyone asked about your writing recently in the voice we use for people with illnesses which aren't going to get better? 'How's it going?' they say, consciously radiating willingness to receive a terse 'Fine, thanks,' or a half-hour outburst of gruesome symptoms and existential fears. When you first declared, or mumbled, that you wanted to be a writer, did you get an anxious spiel about how agonising rejections are before you get a deal, and even worse four books down the line when even your agent will drop you? And how lonely it is! And what about the terror... 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 →

Storied creatures

I've never read any of Michael Crichton's fiction, but Mark Lawson's discussion of his work in The Guardian got me thinking. I've always maintained that, far from being sniffy about huge-selling writers with no apparent literary merits, all writers, whatever their ambitions for their own work, should have a long, hard look at what it is which those mega-sellers do, and readers in their millions so clearly want. Not just because snobbery is an unattractive quality, and even more unattractive in writers than in others because writers have some pretensions to seeing further into human nature. It ill becomes us... Read more →

The Other Novel

When you first start writing, it's wonderful: you're drunk on words, you're super-thin-skinned so you feel the brush of every idea and every emotion, you're obsessed with the magic of things in your head condensing, gaining colour and form, appearing on the page. You'll be seized with the passion at odd moments and have to run away and scribble. And then comes the point when something becomes big and important enough to need more: more work, more research, more planning and shaping and sitting down. Especially if it's a novel, it takes a lot of sitting down. It also takes... 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 →