Lost Christmas – Writing a Christmas Story

Everyone should have a go at the Christmas genre. Needs to be short – readable on Christmas Eve.  Usually includes a character who doubts the power and potential of Christmas. Some supernatural intervention. Someone who’s loveless or troubled. Babies or children in a key role.  For me there should be a balance of traditional and contemporary achieved through setting and style. It doesn’t need to be awful, although the film equivalents have often tried their best to be so. Some two-per-center nod to A Christmas Carol or Gift of the Magi seems pretty essential and a universally recognised theme that transcends anything too specific about Christmas celebrations whilst still wallowing wholeheartedly, effectively and convincingly in every last pudding that has fed the plump Christmas Zeitgeist. Pick all or any of the above or ignore as necessary – So…

In this one,  stifled by yet another worst Christmas ever and family pressures, Geoff gets a chance to change everything

Lost Christmas – A Story for Christmas

Now. The end. Finish. Take your parsnip mash, your Harrods crackers and your bacon-crusted line-caught cod….  Geoff had stifled the explosion but this was it. My thoughts. To you. All. Take the drizzle of pureed fish eggs and the brassica shavings, take and stuff ’em… stuff ’em where…

Down the table Gwen had prepared a special face, a long-term married and terminally disappointed face. Her face allowed scorn and frustration to creep where her husband could find it, while the family got her tight smile and placid forehead. ‘No more wine, Geoff, darling.’ And as she swept past him, ‘Red cheeks. Just leave it will you.’

‘Is Geoff going to cheer up for tomorrow.’

‘He will Mummy.’ A grin, a laugh, the same chuckle she’d been giving here since she was five. ‘Won’t you, Geoff?’

Her familiar glare. Almost comforting after twenty years. Twenty years in which he’d failed to fit into her ambitions and ideals. Twenty years of her self-critical disappointment that Geoff wasn’t in so many ways someone entirely else.

Season of good will? They’re kidding. Season of hard work. Season of keep your mouth shut. Season of pleasing a family you never knew were part of the deal. Why do we, why do I have to cook? Why not do something different on the twenty-fourth? Just once. ‘My nephews and nieces like it. It’s traditional. Daddy expects it, so does Mummy.’ Well that’s fine then. That’s a good reason to spend the day in the kitchen. And now the traditional fish, before the traditional going to bed, all to remind your dad what traditional fun you all had thirty traditional years ago.

‘Your face. Change it.’

‘I’ll try. I’ve had it since before we met you know.’

‘More fish, darling?’

Gwen’s nephews and nieces seemed to increase annually, all of them with angelic foreheads and poisonous smiles. They hated half the things he’d spent the hours preparing, largely the green half. He felt his wife’s eyes take him in with another slap, before she beamed at dauphinoise from down the table and Puligny from up the table.

‘Geoff looks as though something’s wrong.’

‘He’s fine, Mummy. Aren’t you Geoff.’

Geoff tried to mould his face into something more Christmassy. The conversation about him would, he knew, continue as if he weren’t there or were too young or thick or foreign to understand their language. Perhaps he was.

‘You’re so bloody negative, Geoff. So bloody useless.’ Gwen spat into their austere,married silences. Over their twenty Decembers together, his under-tree offerings had become increasingly extravagant while Gwen’s face had had become increasingly dismissive. Geoff had haplessly suggested an amnesty. He couldn’t imagine her wanting anything he was likely to buy, and he’d got used to agonising at the way she peeled at the layers of gold-trimmed, velveteen paper. It was all too far from what she really wanted, too far from the promises they’d first made.

‘I’ve got another test,’ she hissed crisply as they shimmied past each other at the threshold to the kitchen.

Geoff had an armful of plates, reminding him of his student employment and years when Christmas had been worked for and well spent. Gwen had the corkscrew.

‘Didn’t you do one last week?’

‘That was speculative. I do one on the 24th of every month. You know that. And you’d better not have drunk too much.’

‘We can have a break you know.’

She twanged at the corkscrew and otherwise didn’t respond.

Routine had eaten at the best parts of him. Geoff was at his happiest when he could slide from between the jaws of routine; most full of cheer when the daily, weekly, monthly cycles of their lives could be ignored. Then December came around and the timetable had been arranged years before he’d even met his wife. Her family’s yuletide togetherness was hallowed, awash as it was with pillowcases of chocolate and family treasures made from toilet rolls and doilies, silver foil everything, plates and plenty, and a way of laughing that wasn’t altogether wholesome or shared.

There were more recent routines. Routines involving Gwen’s nieces and nephews:cabaret, jokes, recitals and the latest school reports. At regular intervals Geoff had had some infant’s Christmas puking to put up with, and was systematically relegated down the table to where this year, again, a highchair was rammed in between himself and one of the sisters. More spitty bits of napkin blow-darted through sawn-off drinking straws. This year, too, humanity’s most vile ten-year old was placed opposite, compere and chief contestant on his own rolling quiz. The child must have spent his year memorising Wikipedia pages and pronounced sagely and shrilly on everything from Roman mosaic culture to the chemical composition of sausagemeat.

Then crackers. Christmas Eve crackers. ‘Make a wish,’ came the annual bellow from Gwen’s father, accompanied by an expensively-mellowed guffaw. Geoff had once grumbled they were confusing the tradition with birthday candles. ‘You’ll make a wish now and join in, sunshine,’ was the retaliatory growl from a parent keen to assert the rites and responsibilities of his house. Geoff had never argued again. Instead he cooked the dinner for them all then ate fish and grinned and popped crackers, suffered baby belching, and read a joke. He usually pretended to join in with the wishes while he watched Gwen down the table closing her eyes so tight they seemed to suck the rest of her face into them. He’d studiously never asked what her wishes were. This year a surreptitious wish of his own had crept through his mind, but he was ashamed of it and knew he’d lie if anyone asked.

‘I’ve told you, that’s what our Christmas Eve has always been,’ argued Gwen through their bathroom door at the top of the house. ‘And always will be. For us as children and now for…’ she swallowed, ‘…for my nieces and nephews. It’s what makes it special. Sorry you can’t see that.’

‘I can see that. I just wish we could relax a bit.’

‘Relax?’ Her voice rang once more with the disenchantment she needed to blame him for. ‘And I know what present you’ve got for me,’ she said, glaring. ‘I’ve squeezed it. Not much thought went in, did it.’

Geoff gave a queasy grin. Christmas, despite the best efforts of the tv and the magazines and the radio and the department stores, had become a routine of tracking down gifts that others didn’t want, a traipsing through town in an effort not to be ridiculed by Gwen’s family come Christmas Day.

‘I just wish you’d try a bit harder,’ she continued, firmly enough for her voice to carry back downstairs. ‘It is Christmas time. Everyone else is trying for me.’

‘Very trying.’

‘I used to have such special times in this house,’ she sighed. ‘And Daddy will have questions, you can bet.’

Geoff had a dozen things he ought to say under his breath but couldn’t muster the energy. After a palliative hour’s silence, Gwen eventually leant over across the pillow and he got a rustly ‘sorry’ breathed into the cup of his ear. He felt uncomfortable. There had been so many sorries, and there was always one more for bedtime.

‘What for?’ he tossed back, not whispering.

‘For all this. For what we haven’t got.’ She frowned at the radio he’d put on and changed channel.

‘Doesn’t matter, love,’ he tried.

‘You don’t want it, do you.’

Geoff was caught by the abrupt untruth of this. He turned the radio off. ‘I do,’ he said at last. ‘I just, well, don’t see it as the only thing.’

‘Jesus, Geoff,’ she choked. ‘No wonder. No bloody wonder.’

He knew that her frustrations were deep and that these exchanges helped, whatever his own sentiments. It seemed useful to be silent.

‘Geoff. Are you listening? Do you care at all?’

He did care. He cared too much at times, although he had not shared the stages of despair and anger that were fuelled by Gwen’s sense of last chances.

‘I’m going to do my test,’ she heaved, wearily. ‘Not that you’re interested.’

Geoff closed his eyes, collapsing under an antagonism that had amassed over two decades and was pressing its full force onto the worst Christmas Eve they’d yet known.

‘I’m going out.’

‘What?’She said, crossly, rooting in their suitcase.

It was best to remove himself, he knew. He dressed again and told her he needed a breath of air but what he really needed he couldn’t express politely enough. ‘I won’t be long.’

‘If that’s what you have to do. I’ll text you the result.’

‘Sure. It’s just – these things are always so claustrophobic. Good luck.’

‘I wish you meant it.’

‘I do. Honestly I do. It’s just – oh, never mind.’


He left the bedroom that he and Gwen were always given, a roost for some shivering maid or nanny in Georgian times, he guessed. It now had cardboard boxes lining the walls and picture frames balanced against the furniture and it never felt a homely enough haven for the whole of Christmas.

Down past bedrooms for the siblings and their herds of kids, he went through the back way, pausing to admire the family’s fireplaces, which seemed to gape into the enormity of the house and promised easy access for the most obese of Santas. Four faces beamed out at him from endless stairwell galleries, Gwen and her sisters, chock full of Christmas spirit year after year and surrounded by gifts that would have embarrassed any number of kings.

Once outside, he took a right turn down the avenue between the rows of stately white buildings. A wintery dark snuggled against the porticoes, while subtly festive lights winked within each smug window. He’d been at university here but had never seen these houses. He went through other streets. The same after same. The same unblemishable whiteness, save those spikey stretches of forbidding black ironwork.

A jingle in his pocket told him a text had come. He went to answer it out of habit and then stopped himself, wanting something to reject. There was no need to answer. Not till he’d had a walk. Not till he’d had enough time to feel clear and fresh and re-enter life with a quick breath of something clean.

He spotted a shortcut. Past some crumbling stonework, under a particularly grotesque pair of frost-capped gargoyles, his feet clapped down the passage and, with a need to find old comforts, he picked his way gradually towards the town centre.

The lost familiarity of the place came quickly back as he padded through the remains of a recent flurry of snow. Roadside trees jolted a set of pleasant memories, as did a broken sign and, in the corner of his eye as he passed, a shabby shop window. This was where student life had been and, for a while, young happiness and the beginnings of work.

Smiling despite the ache of the evening he’d just lived through, despite the knowledge of his many failures, he passed the place where the old kebab van had parked. Past the police station. Past what had been a stationer’s and was, he knew, a coffee shop now. Like most town centres, everything was coffee houses or charity shops now. Except – it wasn’t. When he passed it had become a stationer’s again and he felt a slow welling of delight come from his boots through his groin to his stomach as he looked at rows of chipper pencils and stately fountain pens.

Then he cheered to see, down a well-known street, that the council had removed their hideous new traffic bollard. A couple of favourite shops seemed to have come back. All good news. He’d once stumbled along drunkenly here, hot and blathering with semi-scholarly joy, calling goodbyes up to unknown windows. A forgotten end-of-term exuberance came to him, rich and warm. There had been Christmas Eves here when groups of them had stayed on in digs, unwilling to let their perpetual party end. Then those years after uni. First desperate job. Those too brief years around these streets scraping a living and enjoying…

‘Watch where you’re going, son.’

‘God. Sorry.’ He managed simultaneously to smash into a lamppost and push an old man into the street.

The skull crack hoisted him back from the trance of living souvenirs. Looking down the street, he found the view strangely complex. Some elements slotted neatly into the gaps his memory had left, others brought a fretful jarring. Was something missing?

Drawing closer to classic haunts, the pleasures of recollection loosened from their stiff packaging and he allowed them to swell and spill, to find the old receptacles, the long empty hollows and pits. He noticed a gyrating mishmash of graffiti halfway along a crumbled brick wall. He warmed to see a clothes shop that had supplied him with university togs, still offering the same stuff to the same types.

Approaching the wine merchant’s on the corner of a favourite square, more thoughts began to break from his long-trussed memory. He paused to look up into the sky, isolating a specific day from the swirl of thoughts. It was a day he had thought of often, but never daring more than the lightest of touches on those original sensations. Now though, enriched by this pause in the beginnings of snow outside the booze shop, every sense took him back. He felt an almost breathless harmony with this space, remembering with troubled emotions that exact day.

Yes. He had come to this shop on the whim of an extra bottle to share, eager that the evening shouldn’t end, eager to encourage an ambitious optimism. He’d bought champagne, or a near-ish substitute. He’d taken it back to the dim, low-ceilinged flat that he’d laughed in and smoked in and told stories in through most evenings that year. Ellie’s flat. The flat of endless conversations. The flat of words that mattered and glasses of wine that were important.

What had happened to Ellie?

He shook himself again, wondering at the snow and the preponderance of reminders. A smile was making his cheeks ache. It was a smile he’d forgotten he could do and one he really couldn’t help.

The off-licence. Drink? Well, rude not too, Geoff, mate. One for old time’s sake if nothing else, even if he had to push the cork in and swig it from the bottle.

Inside the shop, the champagnes lay cradled in wood and straw right where they always had. When he caught a large, hand-written pricing he couldn’t help chuckling at his luck. Clearly an error, but maybe if he just wiggled the bottle and chucked the cash on the counter, who knows?

As he went to pay, though, he felt a pain in his face. Something in his nostrils that seemed to pull him back towards Gwen and the tribulations with her loathsome father. With a sudden, sober need to do a good turn, he decided he’d point out the ticketing error.

‘Some joke, mate?’

The youth at the counter looked at him with gormless indignation.

‘Is it some joke – the prices?’ There seemed a familiarity about the shop assistant. Someone’s cousin, someone’s son? Who knows what sad characters stick around these death-trap university towns for life.

‘Do you want the manager? They should be right. Sorry.’

Geoff glanced down the shelves. This was not the only top value offer. The next bottle. The shelf, the row, everything. Geoff felt his cheeks reddening. All too cheap. The hotness and the headache returned viciously. With a sudden compulsion to follow lost habits he went for tobacco instead. He hadn’t smoked since he’d first started going out with Gwen. A pack of the old favourites would be good, though. Rolling papers. A lighter. As he picked them off the counter he felt himself shake with the memory of nightly emergency trips, Ellie shouting from the high window for extra Rizla. He stuffed into his pocket a handful of unexpected change, pushing his way onto the street as a man bounced past him through the door. He lit up and gasped through the rush of easy pleasure.

Ellie. He sucked at the warm smoke and held onto it contemplatively. Of course. She’d had the flat at the top there, just as it rounded the square. They’d yelled whole conversations between her window and the door of the offie. Or they’d hovered there together and watched college friends beetle through the summer streets, or they’d inhaled the late-autumn dawn together after a night sat up talking about the world, its worthies and its worries. Wine was what they both liked. Wine, coffee, cigarettes and plenty of toast. Ellie had been the first person he told anything to: failed ambitions, future hopes, lost loves and those bright new girlfriends who’d seemed to promise everything. He’d had no secrets from Ellie. He’d told her about the sex he was having, the crushes he ached with and the foolish, foolish things he’d said in the mornings after dizzy discos. He’d told her about Gwen, the hot ambition and intoxicating pointlessness that was Gwen. Anything he’d wanted to share he’d shared with Ellie first, expecting her to help him celebrate or help him through.

It was a pristine night. From a window came a classic tune. He hummed to it, adding words where he could. Contrary to the forecast, snow was starting to fall again. His eyes went down the street. Parked cars, old but smart, their numbers… and before he’d had chance to clock the registration plates properly, words from past times rushed to fill his whole head. Loud came that flurry of phrases as he’d told Ellie about the new girl, the womanliest woman, the beautiliest beauty, the first sight he’d had of Gwen. A waft of skirt and sleek hair, an explosion of eyes and lips and flying to some cocktail do. Gwen who offered challenge and kudos and a whiff of some lifestyle he’d never yet known.

‘How can I ask her out, Ellie? I just melted, honest, melted at the opposite side of the road as she got out of that slick little MG she drives. What will I do?’

As he’d prattled and babbled from one sighting to the next, Ellie had coached and coaxed and gone to town on what he’d have to change to win over this new creature.

Christmas Eve. Of course, it had been a Christmas Eve. He recalled the burning conversation with Ellie about the baldness of their futures and the slender chances that we take or miss. With Ellie he’d ascertained the madness of the world and the need to grasp at what could too easily slip away. And it was after that conversation, after that cheeky extra bottle of champagne, that he’d gone out to catch Gwen. That was when… if he hadn’t managed to get the courage that night… and he’d run, run all the way to the pub he knew she’d be at, planning, always planning to race back to tell Ellie… to tell Ellie that he had found someone he could spend the love-bits of his life with.

Ellie, dear Ellie. He’d forgotten when or why they’d lost touch. Feeling a keener chill in the air now, Geoff gave another smoky blast out towards the window high among the roofs. He felt his palms moisten. Oddly, the curtains had never changed. He was sure he saw a face appear from among the snowflakes. Then there was a cough behind, a small group pushed around him, headed for the square, chattering busily, voices he knew, and a terrible thought began to creep into him.

He lost the stub of his cigarette and stumbled towards the nearby electronics shop, breathing hard. Opening his eyes, he found not sleek, trim televisions but fat, shiny black blocks. No phones, no tablets. Instead, bright rows of cassette players and chunky video recorders. Dread racks of out-dated electronics, here now and new. Geoff wretched, and his knees momentarily crumpled.

Quivering, he dragged his phone from his pocket. It wasn’t showing the time. The signal bars were dead. Nothing. Stranded. Except – there was still the message waiting. Gwen’s message. The little icon lit up cold and innocent as he gazed down at the screen. For a moment he wanted to press the button. He had a finger ready, but then, no, despite the headache and the shock there was something purer and brighter about his mood here and he couldn’t bear to cloud that feeling.

From the wine merchant’s, a young man was stepping onto the pavement. He was trying to light a rolled cigarette while hugging his bottle of champagne. There it was, that rhythmic stroll, as though caught between true laziness and an eager enjoyment of life. Never properly not hung-over. Keener on rolling that rollie than toeing the pavement line. It was him. Geoff felt as if he were inside the very shoes. He could recall precisely the way those steps negotiated cobbles and kerbs when drunk or excited. In fact he had vivid hold of those happy seconds. In a moment that young man – too young to know, too young to care – would tap his pockets and would find he’d left his lighter back in Ellie’s room.

Geoff watched, grasping at a tumult of ideas. He was hypnotised by this younger gait, the motion of his feet, the careless fall of the shoulders side to side. The feeling that he was inside those legs, those hands, those elbows, was too much. He stumbled into the road.

‘Y’okay mate? Y’don’t look too steady.’ The youth gave him a quick hoist back to a standing position. Geoff wobbled and held his arm up to clutch a nearby pillar-box. A sickness seemed to twist and drag at his stomach as though time were ripping within him.

‘I’m okay. Honestly,’ he panted, his chin on his chest obscurely.


‘Yeah. No matter. I’ll be fine.’

‘Cool. Got a light?’

Geoff tapped a pocket and, trembling, produced his new lighter for the youth to dip into.

‘Cheers, mate. A smoke in frosty air. Always a treat.’

‘Yes. A treat.’ And Geoff let him tramp towards the building opposite and the well-known row of buzzers.

He knew that this young self would be back out. A flickering confusion of fear and release struck him, adding to the race of blood in his head. So, it was still to come. It hadn’t happened. It was stuck here waiting, was it? That dash through the snow to where Gwen was – beautiful, unreachable, lofty and pristine Gwen.

The high window opened and closed. A motion of other colours moved as a veil between him and the snowy buildings. Ellie comes back from the window where she’s been checking for him. She rinses two mismatching glasses and waggles the half-made paper decorations she’s been doing. She switches the extra bar on the fire and tucks her knees under her chin. Now they’ll talk. They’ll talk about Gwen and this, his best, last chance.


There was something tearing at Geoff, a memory that was being shaped in one brain and desperately scrabbled for in another. He coughed desperately and the argumentative agonies of his latest meal with Gwen and her family crowded back in on him, overblown and raucous with Christmas. He surprised himself by suddenly bellowing out across the still and snowy square,’Are these the shadows of things that will be or that…’

Immediately heads at a second floor windows around the off-licence suggested he shut the fuck up.

‘And a happy bastard Christmas to you too!’

The swift exchange of expletives left their plug of adrenalin and anxiety. The on-going, abrasive recall of Gwen’s parents made his fingers curl into fists: ‘Can you give her what she deserves, Geoff? Are you up for the job, Geoff? She’s the second most difficult person in the world Geoff – after me.’ Oh the comedy he’d gone through. The comedy. The anger. The hate. A snowflake hit his lower lip, hauling him back to the bad tastes on his tongue, his first rollie for years, and this burying growth around him of a time that had ceased to be.

Was he a shadow then, sent to tease the past? It seemed for a moment that he was a spirit of Christmas future for the figure whose tobacco he’d lit. He flicked again at the lighter, gradually beginning to quake at the hard realities of his own form and presence. Fear shook him. The responsibility made him retch.

What could he do? Could he help out that former self? What had twenty years given him that he could now give back? Wisdom? Perhaps, but then he didn’t feel wise. Patience? He wasn’t patient. Maybe he was harder. Not in all ways but he believed his opportunities had hardened. Life had once been pliable. Opportunities had arced out into a boundless future like fishing rods to a summer dawn and his slightest twitch could shift their tips one way or the other. But as he’d grown older he’d found nothing was flexible any more.

For a moment he felt the freeze in his fingers and along with it a piteous,spiteful envy for that young man who had danced himself down the street and into a studio flat of conversation and laughter. What a world of opportunities that youth would see and scorn and allow to vanish. Here in not too many minutes he would be racing to catch Gwen – still only a faint fantasy and a lustful dream, still a chimera of selfish invention – to catch her before she left the pub for home on a Christmas Eve.

He tried to plant his feet through memories, and felt increasingly frustrated, as though time had cheated him, failing to behave, and was instead beginning to fizz and fade and reform, shaping him as it did. What had he said or done that had brought him here?

He looked back to the window in the rooftops. Ellie. What was the best of those visits to her flat? He thought back to the sunny radiance as dawn broke the flimsy curtains and he found himself on the sofa, waiting for her to get up and suggest a place for breakfast. Had she ever mentioned men she liked? Not often. Perhaps never. Perhaps just enough for their conversation to shift momentarily away from himself.

The snow was falling now in fat flakes on his shoulders, against his cheeks, making his face wet and cold.

‘Got somewhere to get to, mate?’ Someone passing had seen him swaying again.

‘I’m fine. Just… remembered something.’

‘Forgotten the kids’ presents, eh.’

‘No. Forgotten… something else,’ his foothold was loosening. His words sounded hollow, awkward, beyond drunk, yet horribly sober.

‘Hope you get what you need.’


‘Happy Christmas.’

Yes, Ellie was the person he could have spent happier Christmases with. They could have had this very Christmas together, but he’d never returned from the mission that had begun his life with Gwen.

‘She’s class, Ellie,’ he wittered into a chipped glass of tepid booze. ‘Little black dress. Expensive earrings. Sits with the smart set. Smells of Chanel.’

‘You don’t learn, do you?’ That’s what Ellie had smiled back, fostering silence after those words. That’s when he’d decided they should drink champagne. That’s when he’d headed back out across the whitening street.


Outside the off-licence, Geoff stood waiting, the weight of twenty years pressing each square centimetre of his flesh, waiting for the young man he knew in some ways so well and in other ways not at all, waiting for him to broach the snow on his foolish, self-perplexing quest.

Inside the flat they laughed at the wine and the half-made decorations, enjoying the warm comedy of their shared ignorance. For a while they watched the white feathers in a dense, tenebrous expanse. Ellie picked up a sad-looking paper lantern again. ‘The place needs something more… heartening.’ She concentrated on the paper for a while, snipping. ‘So, what are you going to do?’

He didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m going to go and talk to her.’ He even grinned.

‘Sure I can’t tempt you to help clip out some snowflakes. Stick around. More warm wine in crap beakers. More mouldy wallpaper. You could have a present if you’re lucky.’

His grin was bright and champagne flavoured. Had he even listened? ‘I’ve got to dash. This is my best chance. Maybe my only chance.’

Her face kept a smile despite the grim, firm nod. ‘If that’s what you need.’

‘It is. If I dare. I’ve got to catch her now though. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.’

He would be running through the snow to introduce himself to Gwen. Gwen who came from a world that had bits he believed he wanted and could deal with. Gwen who had business and future and a leap away from a place that lacked anything to feel proud of. She was part of a smarter world, a successful world. Poised, solemn and infinitely elegant. She could help him. They could kick off a business together. Had he glimpsed stability? He could never have guessed at the tears to come.

‘Wish me luck, then, Ellie.’

Her voice was gentle and easily lost among the young man’s latest cacophony of hopes. ‘Good luck, mate,’ she said.

Geoff fumbled again in the deep pockets of his coat. A blink and he could be back with hatred and disappointment and a barking old father-in-law. A life where dissatisfaction clung to every footstep he made on their expensive carpets. All those nieces and nephews. The reminder of everything that Gwen wanted and everything he’d failed to give her. His mobile phone was under his palms, with batteries, with a message, but with no signal.

He kicked out at the snowy kerb and spat into the road. The door was opening opposite. Suddenly he saw the world again through those same young eyes. White. Clear. Open and hopeful. He felt the heart race, the muscle quiver. Off to claim ambitious love.

But it needn’t happen. He could stop this callow creature.

A word or two. Advice?

A fist or two? If he knocked himself to the ground would it hurt? Would it keep hurting? Would that pain transform him? Was that other life a wiser track to follow?

Geoff screwed his hands deeper into his pockets, readying himself. The phone he’d refused to look at became stuck between his fingers and, frustrated by duty, he pulled it out. Text. There was that one text that had rung in a time that seemed too distant to worry about. It clung though to his most tightly compacted memories, and was there to be read even though he could make no response. A sickness inside and a hot acid feeling in the muscles at the back of his hands and his wrists and his shoulders. He had to check what it said. It was the last thing to connect him with the places he most belonged.

There it was. One word. Two punctuation marks.


The word. The announcement. The one message that Gwen had been desperate to deliver in their twenty years together. The single thing that she’d truly wanted. Perhaps the only thing they’d shared a desire for, something that would sort out the hurt and the mess and an everyday routine that had become a challenge with no comforts.

A pulse of celebratory warmth took over Geoff, competing with the laborious logistics of escape. He stood in the street, beaming at the display on his phone. Positive. A father. Or he could be. He could be if he went back. If he responded to that single, simple call – a life in time that he had helped to start was crying now for permission to remain.

That was the question. Was it enough?

His youthful self was emerging now from a door just venturing to be ajar, an unsophisticated soul seeking protection from the problems it barely understood. A challenger to those possible worlds.

Geoff stared out at the falling snow. He felt for the first time a slowly squeezing breathlessness of choice. Weighing the world and his life of decisions, some too hastily taken, some only the shadows of decisions that had allowed him to drift in velvet air, he held onto a lamppost. As he chewed his lip a little sadly, the burden of all life’s choice of troubles filled his mind for a moment and then seemed to drop around him In a speckled wonderland of flakes.


How to get a novel published – if that’s what you really want…

Take heart. Take a big slice of heart. It’s actually easy to get published.

It’s obviously a lot less easy to publish exactly what you want to write, or exactly what you’ve managed to write, and it’s pretty damned hard to get a devoted readership. But…

Let’s start with easy – and I’m saying this after a newly mailed rejection’s just pinged the email with its next nail for the coffin – Yes. It’s easy. I keep telling myself that despite everything. For one it’s easier than a heap of other things that people don’t spend half as much time dreaming about.

It’s easier than getting onto TV. It’s easier than becoming than becoming a circus performer. Easier than becoming a tapestry-maker or a thatcher. Easier than getting to direct films. Maybe easier than finding an honest politician or a till-death-do-us-part relationship. Take heart. When you walk into a book shop, don’t feel depressed at all those lucky, lucky published people. Rejoice. The system wants this many published authors – even if they’re stuck on the shelves and the remainder piles – and it craves more.

Yes, getting published is a really achievable ambition. It’s obviously a lot harder to make a living at writing. It’s very hard to become known as a writer. It’s very hard to produce a treasured classic. But for many there’s a simple dream of is just being published.


Well, probably for simple affirmation, an acknowledgement by someone else that you deserve to be called a writer. It also chimes with all those reasons for being published that feel so wrong. Who do you want to teach you creative writing, for example, the lady who’s published or the lady who isn’t? That’s usually a question that everyone answers without even asking the potentially more important stuff: how good a teacher they are, whether their own work chimes with the student in question, never mind what they’ve published exactly and how reputable it really is outside a niche of die-hards, No. Published. That’s what makes you an author. That’s what makes your work worthwhile. And, if you’re not very psychologically careful, you end up thinking that’s what makes your life worthwhile.


Write because the writing is what you need to do. If you’re published by someone it’s because they can see something beyond that need, an inroad, a paying audience, or a business opportunity – publication s not a sign that you are or aren’t a writer. Of course bad writers generally get published less than good writers, so, in some quarters at least, it is a badge that confirms you’re not a bad writer. It’s far from the case though that only good writers get published, or that somehow it’s being excellent that gets you published.

If you want to be published then the path is well known. It’s a fairly straightforward set of steps. The problem comes when… No, save that for the end. Here’s what I believe the steps are, and you just need a 90% productive effort on ALL of them.

Here are the steps

  1. Know what writing is
  2. Know the craft of writing
  3. Know the audience that suits you
  4. Make your suitably deliverable USP
  5. Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers
  6. GO! (write…or rewrite…. or patch and scrape at what you’ve misguidedly started)

If you’ve done all of these properly, there you are. You should have no trouble getting published. Agents want books, good books, books they can sell, books from writers who know their audience and have got that neat USP. Publishers want the same. It doesn’t particularly need clever writing or deep philosophy or society-changing themes. If you’ve got your book done to the steps here then there shouldn’t be a problem. If you haven’t got one, then go back down the ladder and see where you didn’t get the 90% productive effort for one of the steps.

Getting published, step one: Know what writing is

You could by-pass this if you were already famous for something else, but let’s for a minute assume the publication will be because of the writing. Here’s your first step. Know what writing is.

Do you? Really?

For those who want to write and who need all their words in writing this stage may have been completed between the ages of 4 and 14, but then you have to be wary that your sense of what good writing is isn’t obfuscated by literature courses and social snobbery around what reading should be.

Reading is key. It needs to be reading that teaches you what writing is, though. You need to be alert to why a set of phrases works or doesn’t. Why one passage of writing is pompous and off putting, why another seems frothy and overly-sweetened. Classics are a must but it’s probably a 10% dose. The reasons why Joyce and Dickens are still read are not always because they illustrate what writing should be.

Get to know which writing you want to emulate. Make sure it’s writing that living readers acknowledge as good writing. Your style could well do with the spice of Woolf or Wilde or Wodehouse but beware of making that spice the substance of the meal. You need to practice your way into a deeper understanding. Exercise across a range of styles, do pastiches, emulate writing that delivers emotion successfully to you – and spread the range of emotions as wide as possible, emotions of pity, hilarity, anger, fear, disgust, affection, scorn. What writing does that for you? How could you do it for others?

Pick up on all aspects of style. Emulate it. Then step away from the copies and begin to understand what writing is for you.

Getting published, step two: Know the craft of writing

This is where the hard work starts. It’s not particularly hard work to know what good writing is for you and your hoped-for circle of influence. Knowing the craft of writing is something else.

There’s a few hundred thousand books out there, courses too, some good some bad. Blogs galore, as the developing craftspeople try to fathom what their shortfalls are and what aspect of the craft they’ll take to next.

For me being able to articulate craftspersonship is part of the process. That’s not to say you can’t do it without. There’s plenty of great books written through intuition and just riding the time-honoured patterns that you’ve been steeped in through endless reading. If you want to improve at anything though, get to the stage where you can articulate the essence of that craft.

It’s like chess. You can intuitively move pieces into or out of danger. Once you’re a grand master you probably have a raft of unarticulated sensations about the game. Yet in the step between beginner and master you will improve fastest when you’re able to say exactly why one move is better than another, to talk it through in words. Same with snooker, same with football. If you can give name to it then you begin to really know it. If you have to teach grammar, to explain the rules and the exceptions, then you know grammar. If you are a designer you know why something will work and can explain the parameters of design function – it’s not just a case of moving stuff about and maybe getting lucky.

It’s the same with writing. Can you say which bits of your writing are good and explain why?

That’s craft and if you can’t then this is possibly a step you’ll struggle to pass.  Why does one set of sentences work with better rhythm than another?  Why does one combination of words have more potency than a set of synonyms. What is fresh and what is stale? What is expansive and what is cluttered?

What qualities of character are most likely to get audience response? How are traits described and nuanced? How does conflict flow, develop and resolve? How are readerly expectations toyed with and variously delivered? How is a familiar pattern thrown open to unexpected delight.

Get the books. Do the courses. Think long and hard why some things work and some things don’t.

Understand all the rules. And if you’re breaking them understand exactly why.

Getting published step three: Know the audience that suits you

If you’ve got an eclectic taste this might be a difficult step. If you are desperate to be innovative and experimental then this could be the most difficult step.

It’s easiest if you love one kind of book and you’re desperate to emulate it. Romance. Fantasy. Teen dystopia. Tartan noir. Dada. These are genres with audiences and if you know that you want to grab that particular audience’s attention, then this should be a breeze.

Publishing is not about literature. That fact used to confuse and beguile me. I studied great works that had stood the test of time. That was what i thought literature meant. I believed natively that the literature had come from brilliant minds as a conduit of great souls, that there was something in the work itself that was of quintessential literary greatness and that that was why it had been published and cherished through the decades.

Bollocks. Of course.

Literature studies are not about great works, they’re about great publications. As a subject of study, a book that has had a publishing history and an audience and a social reaction and a critical history is a far far different thing from an identical book that was never noticed.  Even if you are going back to the text itself with the New Criticism the fact is that those texts have risen to a point of critical attention. They are works within markets and within social contexts. Whether it was the direct aim of the writer, or of someone who discovered the works lying in a drawer, or of some unscrupulous literary thief, the work evolves into, of and for an audience.

So, if you want to be published you cannot be sniffy about audiences. You can’t be random or natively optimistic either.

Nothing short of this: you need to define who will read your work and guarantee that, given the opportunity, they would respond to it as with a range of their favourites. No point saying that a work is for porn lovers who also like a bit of Enid Blyton, that isn’t a valid target audience; no point saying your audience is all those who’ve caught the Kabadi on TV and are sure to want a horror story based on the ghosts of former champions – that’s at best an uncertain audience.

Look at who’s reading books and make sure yours could be tossed into a pen of at least a few thousand who would welcome it as a familiar if uncommonly interesting friend.

Getting published, step four: Know your USP

Once you’re among that audience and you know them well and can imagine the looks on their faces when you show them your front cover – and as you picture a persona of a reader and take your imagination through their reactions to your work – this is the step where the difference, the exception, the quirk, the niche, the je-ne-sais-quoi is utterly essential. The Unique Selling Point.

This audience wants more, they can’t wait to get the next great thing, the novel that will make them feel the way they have with all their favourites in the genre, they want more but why do they want this one? The same but different. That’s what everyone wants. Same ball-park but a remarkable variation in the bleachers.

The best end of this is a quirky, utterly Zeitgeisty premise that makes everyone pant to get the full story. Easier said than done, but framing this is the best step in any journey to a publishing deal.

Again, articulate the difference. Show the significance and originality of that difference, and understand exactly how different it can be whilst still being with the same audience.

Getting published, step four and a bit: Make your USP suitably deliverable

It’s the same point but different. Call it a log line or a premise or a blurb but what you’re after for this step is an astonishingly concise and beautifully delivered sense of where that USP lies. If it’s all in the twist at the end that you don’t want to reveal until the close then you’ll struggle. If the USP is its befuddling complexity then you’ll struggle. If the USP is not unique enough then you’ll struggle. If it’s unique but not something that will sell then you’ll struggle. If it’s not one point but seven then you’ll struggle.

For maximum appeal then, you know your audience, and here is a concise statement of the one clear, exciting difference that makes it wonderfully saleable. If you’re unsure how it should go imagine how you’d sell Silence of the Lambs with a USP. Or Northern Lights, Bridget Jones’ Diary, High Fidelity, To Kill a Mockingbird – they all did it to a level that made them exemplars. 

There’s a stack of posts on log lines and blurbs. I did one myself a while back but have forgotten what I said. (How to craft a logline or blurb.) Egri and McKee have interesting opinions to share. Basically it needs to conjure the possible development in the mind of whoever reads it.

Getting published, step four: Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers

So you’ve got the book done and written, it’s great. It’s got a USP, you can deliver it – who do you deliver it to?

Consider the tale of the Most Unloveable Man on Earth though.  This MUMonE wanted to find love. He bought a bunch of flowers and thrust them in the face of the first supermodel that walked out of the Ritz. No dice. He got new flowers and thrust them at the first supermodel that walked out of the Hilton. Still no dice. He did the same thing a third and fourth time and then gave. Convinced he must be unloveable and unattractive he threw himself off the nearest bridge.

The most demoralising thing for amateur writers is the endless stream of rejections. You’ll get plenty of those, everyone does. But as with the parable of the MUMonE, you can do yourself a favour and at least be pitching realistically.

How do you find an agent – well, of course you google ‘em up. Those first page of google agencies must be choking for unknowns. You want a publisher, well whack your manuscript off to Penguin, why not?

Just as some footballers are at Stevenage and some are at Liverpool, just as some horses are doing the Grand National and some are pulling drays, as some chefs are at The Dorchester and some run burger vans outside Dorchester, you need to recognise what your Zone of Proximal Development is and where you belong at this stage in your career. If there’s a pyramid to climb with your literary heroes at the top then its unlikely you’re going to leap up there immediately. Be sensible. Be patient. Be realistic.

Your, ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development, is where you’re capable of moving to next. Understand that while some publishing is a rags-to-riches success story for an ambitious unknown, most of it isn’t. There’s a publishing house for you, there’s an agent for you. Assuming you’ve got through all the steps so far then you’ve got something to sell and someone will join in your quest (publishing) rather than no-one (self-publishing)

Here you go. Find the right person to support you and go for it.

But is being published a real and worthy quest?

The problem of course is that you don’t really JUST want to be published. You want to write what you want, you want to do it your way. Or you do want the publication but not the work. Or you do want the work but not the achingly dull practice of the craft before the work becomes justifiable as a potential fame-maker. 

Is that a word? It should be (or someone can tell me what the established term is). Fame-maker. We sift around in the dirt, cringing at our own anonymity and we’re looking for the elusive Fame-maker. The illusive Fame-maker. The thing that will get us recognised and will validate us. That will make us good in another’s eyes.

We are alone, reaching out here and there. Our published work seems a chance that a larger than normal number of people will connect briefly with us, they will seize our ideas and understand how we feel. It’s great to reach out and connect and great to make a gift of your ideas.

Don’t get too distracted by that, though.

There’s something in the process that must take precedence over the product. The steps above aren’t just steps towards getting published, not really. They’re steps in making the experience of writing better, better for you the writer. If you know what’s good, know the craft, if you think about audience and who might ideally read what you write, if you focus in on what is unique about your own practice and you do that well enough to get a concise simple statement as to why what you offer is valuable, then you’re not simply making steps towards some business ideal like publishing, you’re developing a craft, one that is intimate with the human brain and its craving for language to make sense of experience.

Do the steps anyway. Don’t treat publishers as gods that you need to please. Please yourself. Just move those few steps closer, wherever possible, to those great ideals that our literary heroes have established.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a published novelist. Why do we write fiction, and what of our self (and not-self) remains?

Book cover with title and author and narrow street view of walking person

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 2016 novel, Framed.

I’m not sure I’ll read Ronnie O’Sullivan’s novel. I might. I didn’t read his autobiography, but I have an interest in snooker and in the plight of those who’ve reached enviable levels of excellence and struggled to cope. I may even go to it in disbelief – a novel? Rocket Ronnie. But then why not, and I warmed to his comments during the launch publicity that the fictional story, in contrast to his autobiography, had helped him better understand himself through the process.

Do we write to know ourselves or for others to know us?

There’s a heap of reasons why someone wants to write. I’ve talked to people about the mass of words that burden their heads, the way every thought seems to require a fine sentence to make it more real and manageable. Others talk of the need to get that rush of evaporating thoughts into some permanent state in order to reorder and to play. Others need the invention, the pleasure that comes with manipulating a narrative around invented characters who may or may not have the quirks and traits of our friends and enemies.

For some there’s the expectation of that warm hug of childhood memory, that our works are loved and wanted and so we are too.  It can become a need to be heard, a tool for response in the desire to be unachievably meaningful to others’ lives. There’s the ‘being read’ and that’s where it all changes.

And of course anyone who can physically write can creatively write. At the very least they can contribute meaningfully to a ghosting process, and that’s perhaps no worse that Jeff Koons directing a porcelain factory to make a model Michael Jackson. One way or another craft has a democracy about it that many find enormously irritating. While musical composition or painting or magicianship need a journey of skill enhancement before you have anything to show another human being, while stand-up comedy or juggling require  some honing and testing before you dare go before a critic, writing is one of those things – like photography perhaps – that few people want lessons in and that everyone can get an odd good random result at, even if they’re not sure why.

Writing though is the use of words, as are many of our thoughts, as is our examination of self and motive. Whether we are good with them, or great, or not so terrific, there’s a familiar urge to get words down in a form that others might take them on board. There’s a sense that the self has gone with them in some form. There’s a chance that what that self becomes is distorted by our clumsiness, our ungainly phrase, our less than perfect delivery of narrative flow. What changes when we want to write but can’t.

Kundera springs to mind as someone who has characters that want to write but can’t. There’s a whole genre there, even, from Adrian Mole through Stephen Daedalus back to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee. Not everyone who can’t write is lucky enough to have help – or to have major companies happy to launch us as first timers. Nevertheless, those who can write do; and then they often expect an audience. And there have been many explorations of what it is to hanker to express something through fiction and to struggle with the process.

This brings an interesting question about the need to write. Some of this is of interest in the consideration of what the author might be doing when the writing is shown to another person, and how the self might be adapted or tested upon the reception.

There are a set of circumstances through which this transfer might take place, and again I’m minded of Kundera and that marvellous passage possibly in Laughter and Forgetting where he talks of a desire to be seen by unseen eyes. Here’s a quick set of thoughts that someone else has probably done as a research project but strike me as important to revisit.

Types of audience for writers

  • The author reads their writing aloud.
  • The author has the writing read in their presence.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, knowing who will read it later
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing those who will read it later, but certain that it will be read.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing whether or not it will be read later.
  • The author reads the piece themselves then destroys.
  • The author destroys the piece without reading it themselves

This seems to offer some sort of parabola, the elements in the middle are distinct in scale. Those at the beginning and end are opposites but have a distinct authorial involvement.

Also each of these allows one of at least two distinct versions, those being whether or not the author is identifying themselves before hand as the author. This may then grow to a veritable hall of mirrors of possible versions, with authors announcing known or unknown versions of themselves, or any number of variables on the false author possibility from a simple pseudonym to an elaborate additional authorial being.

Back to the simple list above. The first two give some direct feedback and have a relationship with performance acts and the multiplicity of creative interplay between performer and audience. This is not normally the preference of an author, though. It is unusual in traditional written fiction and more familiar to publicity tours or fully-performative events for which a piece is specially written.

Many writers would harbour an ambition to be in at number four on the list. An audience that is guaranteed but unknown to us. As amateurs we are most regularly in at number five – like some am-dram Waiting for Godot, our hoped for audience may never come.

There are nuances of the exposed self in each one of these. Do we know the reader of our work, do we know their type or how they will make their judgements? Are we inviting this scrutiny from a predicted reader? How does that condition us and what does it make of self when we write for them?

Stories are legend of those whose readership has passed outside the one they had hoped for or predicted. It’s hard to say ‘poor’ JK Rowling without a snigger, but, if for a moment we have some sympathy, there was an author who created a quite wonderful saga for 7-11 year olds, replete with the many tried and tested literary elements for the age group. Suddenly however, global fame means that it’s being read by those who are rather older, and criticised for what it is or isn’t or, worse, what it should or shouldn’t be. (I’ve heard literary critics moan about everything from unrounded stage baddies in the series, to the lack of a coherent principle of physics.)  JK is famous for keeping her private life as private as possible and has said that, through publication, she expected to stay unnoticed in the background while the book and the characters became famous. Hard cheese, JK, hearts are bleeding.

That’s quite an interesting notion of what a book does for an author, and one that many would perhaps recognise. Our book is what has become famous. Our book is looked at, examined and tested against the rights and wrongs, the excellencies and deplorabilities of the world’s expectations. And – by chance – we, the author are not.

It’s not true of everyone and there are plenty of flamboyant, extrovert characters in the pantheon of literary high-achievers. They don’t seem to be the norm, though. Salinger and Harper Lee may be examples of those who rebuffed journalistic approaches and were characterised as reclusive and perhaps they are good examples of authors who actively feared the fame that their books had achieved and the scrutiny that they themselves were then under.

It may not be too wide of the mark to say that those who gravitate towards writing are seeking something of this possibility around the written word. Writing becomes us, (it goes with our hair…ba-boom!). It does though, we momentarily become our writing, but then it passes from us, never to grow old in itself but to find new life in other minds.

There’s a common trope of the aging painter collecting their early works around them. Collected works perhaps provide a literary equivalent. Here is a chance to assess, to see what we sent out into the world and get a sense of how those representatives fared without us. A chance to reflect how much of self was in them, to see if we still recognise what is there and to see if we can welcome them home without shame.

They are us when we want them to be. How many authors write under a pseudonym and for what reason? One reason is certainly the distance that it allows, as well as the active ‘becoming’ of some other self that it allows. How do we feel if our work is being talked about with the talker unaware that we are listening or that we are the author. Do we pounce into the conversation – well actually, you’ll be amazed to know…. Or do we stay silently proud or shamed?

Are we nervously weighing the control we have over the offer of visibility, like someone dressing to please, we tread slowly away from what is unremarkable and find our way across the see-saw ever closer to what is only too noticeable. Where is the balance and where do we feel most comfortable.

The real fear, surely, is that we will not be able to control the overbalancing rush if it comes. That others will be making the decisions. We offer up control, and, at the same time, seek vainly to retain it.

Jeanette Winterson has been very clear on many occasions that she is a fiction writer. She sees it as a misogynistic belittling of women’s writing that they are accused not to be writing fiction but instead can only write what they know, or about who they ‘really’ are. Is it that fiction is part of a more cultivated approach? In the same way that a more brilliant painter will see the world anew and paint it beyond its own reality, perhaps the fictionalist is getting at the world in a more productive, deeper way.

Autobiography is a well-examined phenomena in literature that is known to shed interesting lights on their authors that weren’t desired, predicted or acknowledged. False auto-biography is commonplace. In the case of Thomas Hardy, he released an official ‘biography’ which was later revealed to be an auto-biography.  There are a range of pseudo auto-biographies, among which are those that:

  • are openly autobiographical and read as informative and semi-objective in scope and tone
  • are openly autobiographical and acknowledging the subjective point of view and its likely limitations
  • claim to be autobiographical but admit swaying from facts (as others would likely accept them)
  • claims to be autobiographical and are consciously but covertly altered from facts others would accept
  • claim to be autobiographical and are unconsciously misrepresenting facts others would represent differently
  • are released as a fiction with disguised autobiography – possibly without full recognition of that likelihood

Is there a sliding scale here, from the desperate attempt at appealing to possible truth to the conscious attempt at falsehood? And does that scale include another parabolic feature, where the centre of the two extremes is something else, something more furtive yet literary.

There are ways for things to not be autobiographical when they emerge: a pseudonymous author, an Alice B Toklas alternative, a non-person, a fictionalised self, a mock self hyped and remedied, or just a character in and of itself alone, the simple way in which all fiction has something of the author’s life in them just as all portraits are in one way or another also self-portraits.

How might any of these identifiably contain more or less of a self that we would choose to show or hide? Or is it simply text from which the author evaporates, freed by their own Barthesque under-importance?

And which is Rocket Ronnie? Hopefully for him a happier man for his writing.

What’s on the opening page of your novel? – A first page check list…

Check listers – the life-saving nerds

A check list. Not the most flamboyantly creative solution to a writer’s journey, but a pretty useful base camp. Masters of a craft of course have an auto-checklist – just as any experienced traveller subconsciously cycles through the daily requirements and quickly senses when something is missing.  Such is craft.

If you’re not yet on auto-pilot, though, a list can push some useful questions at you. It needs to be your own check list – you can’t engage with some other anal-retentive’s bullet-pointing habits. That’s not to say you can’t take a few looks at what others are doing – others’ lists of essentials are part of that hive-mind development to which centuries of literature are testament. But make it your own. It’s your writing it has to work with.

Against the grain – I’m not the most natural list-maker – I’m trying to evolve a check list of what to put on the first page of a novel or, what to look for on the first page of a novel – gradually it’s seemed more like a wish list – sometimes it seems like it could work for any fiction – sometimes it seems to offer just some possibilities to think back over.

First pages of novels – the welcome mat on which the hasty traveller wipes her feet

Why a first page check list? There are plenty of blog posts about not getting trapped in the minutiae of first lines and first paragraphs – and they’re right. There’s no point blowing your valuable time titivating a primary page if everything else is sliding into oblivion.

When everything’s looking good, though, when you’ve got your magnificent work in place – and it is magnificent, trust me, you can’t put years of work into  something and it not be magnificent in one way or another – at that point give the first page of the novel a last rigorous check against a robust set of known non-variables. This is, after all, the calling card, the best foot forward, the tice and tempter – this might be all anyone ever sees.

And at the backs of our minds, however much we try to ignore it, we can’t help pondering what those fiends in the publishing business will think as their gattling-gun fingers rattle our offerings from in-box to trash. That submission of yours is one of thousands they’ll be skimming and binning between the breakfast pastries and the first triple espresso. Maybe – just maybe – they may snag on something of what you’ve spent your hours on, they may feel the feelings you’re trying to express, wake up to your USP – but then, who knows if they have human feelings anyway, such is business.

Forget publishing biz.  If nothing else you can reflect on whether you’ve produced your best work and whether there’s an easy-to-open doorway into that best work, or whether you’ve accidentally laid a minefield of savage and inhospitable material and a wasteland of dullness at the entrance.

What a reader should get from the opening page of the novel

There’s plenty of advice on opening a novel – any favourites?  It’s clearly useless and irritatingly vague to simply command – Interest me!

It’s equally obvious that a rewarding first page of fiction can come in thousands of possible forms from a set of jarring words or series of punctuation marks through to something that’s actually worth reading and those novels whose first pages have gone down in literary history.  “Tom!” “It was the best of times…” “It is a truth universally…” “and the clocks were striking thirteen”. There are many ways to flay this feline.

This then is some basics that I felt I wanted or needed when I looked at a first page – a list I came up with as I culled from here and there and added my own learning from favourite first 500 word blocks, opening paragraphs and so on, particularly when venturing near unknown authors’ works.

As a reader I want to believe :

  • It is clear who or what I need to focus my attention on here

  • This prose has made me engage emotionally and/or intellectually

  • I could trust this author. They know how to write for me

  • I have a strong sense of setting through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I have a strong sense of character through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I feel my emotions shifting around what is written here

  • I admire / pity / fear / am amused by this character

  • I sense a threat and want to know what the character’s response will be

  • I sense conflict and want to follow the counter response

  • I’m predicting the immediate next step for this character in terms of a clear problem or opportunity

  • I would want to know what happens to this character longer term

  • I would be sorry not to find out what this page leads to.

This seems to get a little bit further than just hopeful ‘give it your best shot’ advice. It speaks to mechanics and fundamentals rather than prescribing a type or style or formula. It allows for all but the most ‘experimental’ of openings, and might even give the experimenter some consciousness of what aspects they’re experimenting with. What it doesn’t give is the ‘how’ and that’s where personal inspiration and industry can be allowed near the list.

That’s my current list. It might change next week. Good luck with your own.

Is my scene a scene? Writers’ ‘idle drift’ and the amateur novel…

I’ve been taking the scenic route again. One thing I’ve found more helpful than it ought to be is to accept that ‘scenes’ can be meaningful in the novel as well as the play and screenplay – whatever ‘scene’ is and we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s a fact of my own practice, though, that once I’d accepted the idea of scene and how it can focus a passage of writing, I realised there was a strong chance that any slackness in the dramatic thrust of the work can quickly be put down to a poor scene.

There are a lot of poor scenes in first draft novels. Bad scenes – non scenes – flat scenes… One reason for this is to do with the old chestnut that has preoccupied me throughout this blog. Novelists don’t like the trappings of the screenplay trade. Novelists like ‘voice’ they like ‘word’ they like character. Novelists like psychological tension and complex internalised brooding. They like slow pace and the see-saw between showing and telling. They hate ‘scenes’. They hate all that associated scenic scaffolding that underpins success for the mass-audience screen industries.

Yet it is ‘scenes’, in a very theatrical sense, that make up many of the most memorable chunks of favourite novels. Scenes are a dramatic unit, of course, and a scene shouldn’t be confused with a setting, To my own lists for regular examination I’ve recently added Sergeant Troy’s sabre wielding and Eustacia Vye’s twilight bantering from Hardy, Austen’s Mansfield Park theatricals, her P&P dance, Jeanette Winterson’s school scene with Sister Virtue in OANTOF, Hornby’s Quiz questioning in Fever Pitch, the Cricket matches in Fry’s The Liar or LP Hartley’s Go Between and certainly anything by converted screen writers like David Nicholls.

Even if you reject the practice, it’s important to recognise what a scene is and to make the most of one as it begins to suggest its place in your novel.

But what is a ‘scene’?

The best definitions of scenes, like it or not, come from playwrights. Scene is something that imposes itself much more readily on structure in theatre and film – it chimes with the audience’s consciousness of place and time, a contained unit of physical activity. A scene is more clearly a something when we talk theatre, and cinema is a short step away.

Historically, however, the English novel is rooted in epistolary practices rather than the stage drama, and this leads to obvious differences in approach. Technique at the arty end of prose writing tends to eschew scenic structure in favour of tensions between word groups and spidering psycho-dynamic evolution. I even reckon some scenes in novels only seem like scenes after they’ve had a film or play treatment – as we can see from films like Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses.

Yet it’s useful to reflect on what a consciousness of scene can do. Thinking in scenes brings a focus on contained environment, characters meeting for dramatic reasons, dialogue and action that has progress, dynamism and a shift in tensions. For the dramatist who has to haul their players into a space – real or imaginary – for a finite timeframe, the drama is driven by the act of creating scenic unity, the containment and the resultant tension. It is the scene that proves the dramatist’s best method for building dramatic tension.

This is not always how chapters or paragraphs are driven, and sometimes, perhaps, they should be – for their own good.

Scene shifting and the writer’s idle drift

Scenes – and its important that this means a unit of drama rather than a block of prose – attract attention and live long in the memory. They can be any length – any percentage of a chapter. Yet as novelists we can end up with scenes that fail to work in the way that dramatic scenes should. Sometimes this can be because the writer is not aware that they have a scene or because they are purposefully rejecting the notion of scenes.

Often a scene has emerged not through conscious, artful dramatic building but instead has crept up on us unawares. It’s common to find a scene has developed and been quickly killed flat through what I think of as my “writers’ idle drift’. They appear something like this – writer knows that there are ten pages needed before the crucial pivot action is delivered, ten pages of time need to pass in order to have too sudden a leap since the last main action. So what to do? Needs some build up, bit of tease, bit of foreshadowing? Or maybe now’s the time to make sure everyone’s fully aware of the troubled childhood of the character; or the grand philosophy of life from the point of view of the antagonist…. Or, while we’re wondering, look,  there’s a handy table for the characters to sit at, great, and they need some descriptive dressing of the  shadowy bar and there’s some menacing extras at a distant table and… they can talk…. and I’ve got some beef to get off my chest so one of them says that and then they keep talking… about…

It’s a horrible but common trap – a ‘scene’ becomes a place to bring characters rather than a unit of drama. This is especially true if our characters start gaining a life of their own. If we’re not careful they begin not to understand their place as fictions but instead become friends and enemies, lovers or dopplegangers. Soon, instead of functioning within a framework of drama, the characters are suddenly having quiet cups of coffee together, sharing a silence over a pint, yarning about their troubled weekends, playing unnecessary sports. Characters are soon running the show, having a gossip while you wonder what they’ll be up to later. They’re not part of a dramatic scene, they’re just there and you’re building the atmosphere around them and just hoping it’s a scene.

It’s essential to check first drafts for failed scenes, non-scenes, accidental scenes. To get myself to focus on these I put together a quick check list. This practice probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s a handy class exercise for you to invent your own system of ladders to get out of holes. Here’s what I ended up with as a first go:

Checklist for dramatic scenes

  • A charged environment. Some environments are naturally ‘charged’ and it’s important that they’re charged with expectation and potential rather than just noise or lights or gloom. Weather alone does not a charged atmos make. What’s charged about the environment here and how can that develop through the scene?
  • Conflict. The usual first request of any scenic endeavour. Opinion on this is often extreme and says “no scene without conflict”. It’s certainly difficult to make sympathetic, patient explanations work for you in terms of gaining interest from a reader who could put the book down at any second. What dynamic is there that pits one will against another. In other words what does one character want and how is that want being prevented. Is there any conflict in the scene? If it’s not open conflict is there a sense of tense expectation and an aim to achieve.
  • Unanswered questions. A staple from basic literary theory. What question is being asked at any given point and how long are we likely to wait for the answer? We could be waiting for explanation, or detail or the why and what that will fill out the theme.
  • Unresolved action. The other staple. If you’re trotting out a sluggish scene, is there something before it that we should be waiting for? Something as simple as a hovering fist or a lover doubting the next kiss can be enough to lift the flagging dialogue.
  • Change. Meaningful change, that’s another thing that everyone feels should be part of the whole work but often fails to be built into the individual scenes. Have a go. What change has taken place over the two or three pages you’re dealing with. Growth, realisation, disillusion. If it’s a scenic scene then how does this change, what steps what patterns of focus – how is this made meaningful? What swings have you established between high moods and low moods, positive values and negative ones, seeming success and seeming failure.
  • Beats/Steps. A movement towards a known goal.  A movement away from that goal. A shift of power from one character to another. A change from low to high mood, pessimism to optimism. A shift of pace in terms of change. – these all count towards a beat planning – beats make scenes – and again it might seem a bit screenplay and rigid but its amazing how much more effective a passage can be if it’s scenically viable in these terms.

Is my scene a scene?

One to answer for yourself and evolve what a scene usefully is for your practice. Basically, though, does your scene contribute to an ever strengthening set of reasons to keep reading?  It’s  worth asking yourself the question at any point – could I put this book down? What’s making me want the next parcel of information? What’s up in the air? When will the secrets be revealed? Will it go in that direction or the other? What if these people don’t move on?  Of course if you over-dramatise these elements then the cliffhanger effect can skew your attempts at subtlety, but at  every dramatic unit – scene –  think what is shifting ground, moving, threatening to change.



Literary agents and coping with rejection

The kindest rejection letter I ever got was from a literary agent in the US. He gave me a few pretty solid reasons why he thought the MS wasn’t going to suit his lists and why he had doubts on its saleability. Then he concluded with “now go and prove me wrong.”

How kind – how un-agent like. It was many years ago and still sticks in my mind as the latest, po-faced rejections come slithering in. Not that they slither onto doormats anymore, of course. A ping of email delivery and it’s over, another dream for the trash.  A hobby so lonely even Robinson Crusoe wished he could give it up just got lonelier.

If nothing else the latest round of rejections had me reflecting on coping mechanisms and what attitudes my thicker skinned, older self had developed that were unavailable during those early years.

It’s not as painful, but it’s still not pleasant. Exactly how it feels to a first time amateur is always hard to explain to non-writers. It’s also hard to explain to professionals, Professional journalists, broadcast and film writers – along with fellow professionals from acting to architecture – live on a diet of rejection and have their own numbness its sting – they also have a professional plan. These plans involve pitching ideas before committing, repitching an idea to suit a market, testing the market for new ideas, reusing project material for the next pitch and then pitching a lot.

It’s a bit different for the hobbyist who’s looking for a step towards publication. Especially for a novelist, for whom the markets are rarely a set of professionally orientated pitch and sell cycles. More common for the amateur is to spend years of dedication on a project that has personal meaning and commitment. The desire to publish is more to do with affirmation of deep emotional factors. It craves a reward that is very different from the professional pitch-monkey’s rolling band-wagon.

For plenty of would-be authors, the literary agents’ rejection of your manuscript isn’t the same easy agony as, say, a casual “get lost” from someone lovely you’ve asked on a date. For those of a certain mentality it’s more like someone has scorned your new born child, has made an insouciant and abiding decision that  the babe needs to die to save the world from its pernicious lack of promise. Yes there’s a strong tendency to make metaphors of parental loss. “Of all stillborn books the stillest” said Mr Swinburne of his first book – and he was right, a massive, massive flop, now unread and largely unreadable and worth a few thousand if you ever find a copy.

It especially hurts your pride of course, because the years of writing have brought with them a relationship with the work that is a deep form of love. It also tears away your dreams of what the future might hold. It’s wretched if you’re on your second or third effort and have improved hugely as to the craft. You think you’ve ticked all the boxes this time, fine-tuned like crazy, plotted to perfection and market-researched your characters’ likeabilty – generally upped your game to make your offerings better than lots that are already roosting in the bookshops. You’ve been nurturing a fledgling hope despite your fear of its growth. You’ve told yourself for days that super agent x wouldn’t possibly want your book, they’re too… but what if they did?  What if this was the magic boost that transformed you from unpublished to published author and thus miraculously turned your sad and sorry hobby into something you could actually be proud of?

Literary agents – the grim gatekeepers?

Of course the promised-land of publication is easily over-wrought by hope and imagination. For one thing we know (or at least know of) plenty of authorial experiences that are not as magically transportive as might have been hoped. There are hundreds of thousands of published authors. You’ve hardly heard of any of them. Hardly any of them are full time. Many are stressing over where their difficult second book is going to come from. Many of them are hawking their own books round provincial shops. We also know just how many books are out there – count them at Waterstones and the city library. So many books. An ocean of independently sprinkled drops. Surely they can’t all be so skillfully crafted and divinely inspired that they cannot be replicated by mortals. So maybe the success of publication is not about gift or skill or divine inspiration. And when you send to an agent or publisher, as satisfying as the rite-of-passage will no doubt be, it’s certainly not a golden ticket out of a hum-drum existence as a hobbyist.

It’s interesting that most hobby writers still long for traditional publication. There’s something about the confirmation and the sense of belonging that remains important to the writing mind. Despite the known ocean of books, when we get to add our droplet it’ll be because we were better rather than just luckier than the rest. Is this because we have a strangely awed impression of what a literary agent is or does? Or is it something about the hallowed nature of the book itself? Somehow a low-selling book that is stocked at Smiths and can be signed on the flyleaf  seems, for many, preferable to a better-selling, self-published e-tome.

For all the leaps towards democracy enjoyed by the digital practitioners, podcasters and YouTubers, the traditional prose fiction writer still craves affirmation in traditional ways and from a set of people that are almost mystically distant from our current base of associates. Like a toddler pleading for parental praise, we look to agents, publishers and strangers-who-like-books in order to get their blessing and feel approved. In this way it’s most unlike gardening, cooking, DIY and a number of other creative hobbies we could be doing instead.

Coping with rejection

It may be that literature needs agents the way pocket watches need Salvador Dali. However, for those that feel the craving for traditional acceptance we allow ourselves to feel as though someone mean and malicious and unreasonably powerful has strung us up despite our pleading and struggling.  My latest was a standard rejection, too, which for the hanged man seems like an extra bit of gleeful drawing and quartering and a voiding of rheum upon the pendulous body.

Why do we imply it feels so much like death and loss?  I had a book as a child that had an author father as a character and the MSS that came back through the door were described as “the bodies” – “I’ve removed the bodies”, says the father. That stayed with me. I think the novel was ‘Cross Country Pony’ by Patricia Leitch (fantastic read as I recall and well off the beaten track today – worth getting from ABE books if you have animal-loving children – and maybe a demonstration of how books float forever in minds and second hand bookshops and why as writers we want to gift our works to a traditional system…)

So, loss, sadness, vile bodies and fear in a handful of dust etc etc etc. Well, if it is grieving, then according to the Kubler Ross model you get five stages to go through – denial, anger, bargaining, depression before finally reaching acceptance. Accept what though? Accept that it’s rubbish and don’t bother?  Accept the monstrous difficulty of the task and keep going? Maybe accept that it’s really not a loss at all.

Let’s run with this one. What have you lost:  a magic carpet to sudden success – a self-pride you’ve always struggled to muster – five years of your life and sanity – your only child? Er – no, not really. Maybe it’s not loss at all. Taking something from the professionals, perhaps it’s a gain. A gain in experience, a pleasant well, maybe at the end of the more important journey of the artistic, creative practitioner.

However much of a knock back it feels not to have got your literary dream this day in this way, it was really only a passing attempt in a task that has so much more to it. It takes a bit of self-persuasion, but the step forward I know I need for myself is to stop seeing today’s email to super agent x as the final conflict and climax to my life-story as a writer. This isn’t a resolution to a complex tale in which I failed to triumph. It’s just a smile to a stranger in the street who may not have smiled back, but so what, I’m still walking onward.

There are a stack of coping mechanisms all of them have been useful to someone. There’s the sour grapes about the worthlessness of agents. There’s the claims of misunderstanding – they didn’t  get it, they didn’t even read it, “the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”… and so on. If you’re still young enough to do it you can always stick up and stare at the old Samuel Beckett favourite from Worstward Ho (1982) …”All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Although some Godot fans might prefer “Let’s hang ourselves immediately.”) There’s the beefier end of coping if you’re inspired by Beatrice Dalle in 37° 2 le matin (Betty Blue) – stick a pencil into the offending agent’s head through the eyeball.

We can be glibber than that, surely. We can be bolder. We can be more realistic.

To share my own coping mechanism here, I’ve made two lists. One is the way agents can appear when you’re investing emotionally and you’re daring to hope.  One is a bit more sensible to the realities.

Is this list-making practice part of the grieving process – is it anger, or bargaining? Or is it perhaps perhaps just acceptance of a landscape that is rich in unpredictability, ignorance and unreplicable lucky breaks:

Ways to see literary agents

1 – the agent is an omnipotent god

  • I believe that an agent’s aim is a concrete judgement of the literary quality of my work
  • I believe an agent makes empirical, evidenced and unchallengeable decisions as to the merits of my work.
  • I believe that an agent is a gifted and brilliant literary critic of impeccable taste
  • I believe that an agent has read and re-read my work, got to grips with its nuances and subtleties and has now realised the text was worthless
  • I believe that agents are world-leading business entrepreneurs whose every decision is strategically miraculous
  • I believe that agents have scientifically ascertained which books succeed and can replicate a best-selling formula with whatever works they choose
  • I believe that an agent sneered and joked with colleagues at the temerity of me sending to their sanctified agency
  • I believe that this agent represents the likely point of view of all agents, who all share a taste and judgement
  • I believe these people are agents of a Salieri-style god, sent to torment me in my mediocrity

Or, 2 – the agent is a human business person

  • I know the agent is making one decision only –  will this text be worth them backing as a business proposition.
  • I know the agent has to make quick decisions and will only pay close attention to one or two proposals that leap out for them personally as business ventures
  • I know that agents need a “same but different” guarantee to work on and will only invest their time in something that has this slight stretch on a current and known market
  • I know that agents reject thousands of scripts that are perfectly readable and enjoyable but would just take too much effort to push from an unknown
  • I know that agents are readers that have likes and favourites and are influenced by their ordinary, readerly tastes
  • I know that unknown authors are hard, hard work to get into a reading public that’s content with the status quo
  • I know that agents take on works that don’t get published or which don’t get readers – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny
  • I know that all agents have passed on works that later gained success elsewhere  – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny

Add your own points – or make a new list “the agent is a….”

For me it’s back to some sending. At least these days it’s cheaply done by email. Agencies, like critics, have a certain place in the scheme of things that can seem daunting and are a momentary nucleus of power over your destiny. There’s no hotel booking style website for us to rate our experience with agents. They won’t get dissed online if they fail to be friendly or polite or just or fair – and we don’t get stats on who’s accepted or passed on the next biggie.

If it suits you, go back to the most favourite literary coping mechanism of them all, a list of the now treasured works whose authors had to self-publish or self-fund or who were surprise successes, originally pushed into minor rivulets of the literary rio grande. From the Brontes to Captain Corelli to Harry Potter to Lolita and Lord of the Flies we’re afloat on a set of random decisions that we’re just hoping will go our way.


First blog…last rites

So what’s a blog? A question to answer as we go along, maybe. Is it tone, is it format, is it regularity?…hmm. This one might be a blog or not, but, whatever it is, has its beginnings in a hodgepodge of thoughts, insights, ideas and general stuff collected in the interests of discovering some of the ins and outs of fiction writing.

With any luck it will have, as promised, some of the “art and craft” of story writing. Ars and techne in equal measure with maybe an extra bit of ars showing for fans of Sid James.

Not sure yet what the direction will be – if a hodgepodge can have a direction – but there should be some hints and tips among the waffle, largely culled from people of great insight, sometimes just things that have struck me along the way through my own learning journey. Anyway,  it’s the result of notes made for teaching and learning how to write. It deals largely in prose, largely in traditional forms, with maybe a few extras along the way.

Like most people who like writing I’ve been doing it from before I can properly remember, certainly at a time when I was too young, or at least not precocious enough to have opinions about narrative, turning points, focalisation, character arcs and the like. Like most people who keep their writing interests up, there was an ongoing need  to slap something down on paper (or  screen), some representation of the thoughts and ideas and the various worlds and characters that inhabit those minds with no great destiny or responsibility of their own and plenty of time to chuck away.

I’m lucky enough to have been both a learner and a teacher of creative writing. Learning shouldn’t stop. As a teacher, particularly, there was always learning to do. A teacher learns by delivering their recent thoughts to an audience that needs clarity and cogency. A teacher learns by rehearsing what they think they know and then having it challenged by learners. A teacher learns by sharing insights with a developing peer group.  So by reaching towards some personal development, buoyed by an odd success here and there, and by offering this out to students and seminar groups, there has often been a clear sense of improvement – enough at least to be handy to pass on.

In fact, being a teacher and student roles combine and this blog offers a bit of each, what the learner might be gaining from the teacher and what the teacher might want the learner to know.

So, having been introduced by new people to new ways of shaping story-thoughts, new ways of considering what literature was and what story could be I did end up with a mass of notes and some of them should find their way here. Hopefully there’ll be  insights of one sort or another with a few tips here and there, hoping to get a discussion going and help wherever possible to take people to the next stage for their – skills, knowledge and technique.


How (not) to write a novel #7 – language for emotional range

A couple of sobering thoughts this week along with home truths and lessons from the mouths of pre-teen upstarts. So, why wasn’t my son able to finish that manuscript I was testing on him… Story not quite exciting enough? Characters not believable enough? I thought I had put serious craft into this one.. Well, says my eleven year old, who’s just been through some pretty in-depth literary analysis of A Christmas Carol at school, the thing about really brilliant authors is that the emotional value is underpinned linguistically at every stage.

Well, he didn’t use exactly those words, but that was the gist I took away from the conversation. Could this be shaped into a valuable lesson or should I just bury myself along with my badly clobbered pride?

Staring into space over the heads of those engrossed in the Xmas X-box (will any writing get done in a home with such an addictive narrative engagement toy?), I did nurse a thought or two about the things that perhaps I was beginning to neglect, things that are first base-camp technique, ‘the basics’, yes, but those many essentials which, if we’re not careful, we begin to leave out.

What is it about the Basics? It seems to be the first thing to disappear for those of us who drift and dream and remain mediocre. It’s easy to become sloppy drivers who no longer check the mirrors and take corners in third gear. Really though, these basics should be so engrained that they can never be forgotten, like Ronnie O’Sullivan’s cue action or Nijinsky’s plié.

Those who are at the very top end of their game also seem to keep revisiting those basics again and again to see if they can claw an extra 0.002% advantage over similarly matched top-end opponents.  Concert pianists don’t stop practising scales as they get among the big audiences. They don’t decide they can get away with a couple of bum notes in the andante as long as they’ve got a stack of big guns for the tortuous bit. No, the best musicians do more scales as they get better. They make sure every note has every possible chance of being perfect, just as Heston Blumental takes burgers to new heights by getting every element from bun to cheese to work its hardest, just as Brendan Rogers coaches perfection into each element of… well some analogies are better than others but you get the point. The last slow steep climb towards perfection may well require some more of what the beginners have to do – but better.

So, perhaps, for those who’ve improved a lot but are wondering where their next development is coming from, there’s some chance to improve a few elements by looking back at the writing basics. My chance this winter was to look at what kids are expected to deal with when faced with a page of prose in class, kids whose teachers are reading Dickens or Poe with them and asking ” so what words does the author use to make the mood more sad/scary/jublillant etc?”

Young literature students, those who are just beginning to recognise how textual features operate, are asking why the writer has used particular words in particular combinations; they will be looking at whether the word choices are commonplace or unusal, whether the sentence length makes us ponder or skip, what the combined run of images builds up to en masse; they will be looking at how all these things contribute to the emotional impact of the character, setting and point of narrative development.

For anyone who writes regularly these things tend to be as natural as adding decent punctuation. Yet if we stop every so often and try to become newly conscious of these things, our writing must surely improve. What effect does that comma have? What added value does that adverb bring? What stray connotations does that noun have?

Imagery into emotion

It’s a fact of basic literary intuition that, when given a choice between “shout”, “bellow” or “roar”, the last of these has intimations of power and ferocity that the two others do not. Lions roar. This could develop into a ham-fisted paragraph grunting with bestial allusions, of course, but it could also be a quick hint that is developed later, something that triggers a momentary recognition of leonine capacity in a character who will be rounded and filled later in the work.

Ask any school student. A whole literacy lesson can be spent spotting such things and grasping the subconscious impact on a reader whose concentration is elsewhere. Wordsworth doesn’t just have yellow daffodils, they are “golden”. This gives a sense of value as well as colour, so the effect can then be reinforced at the point of the “wealth to me” in a later line. A few literary classes later and the poem can be broken up into its ideas of relative value systems and the individual building blocks of the work can be brought under the microscope.

As a experienced writer keen to improve you may find you’re not always fully conscious of these techniques as you employ them, some will come  automatically or fortuitously. If however they are coming randomly, then perhaps this is an area to improve your craft. We could all get better just by homing in occasionally on an odd piece of text to check whether all our words are worth writing and that we are wringing maximum value out of each. [Or rather not “wringing” as we don’t want connotations of damp laundry – one to go back to… maybe “mining” or “extracting” or “sucking” or maybe this is one for just plain “getting”].

Dickens has examples on pretty much every page. Here’s a favourite of mine at the meeting between Mr  Toodle and Mr Dombey over the fate of the infant Paul.

Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths. Dombey and Son, Chapter 2

Our emotions towards these characters are set in this scene and take us onward through the book. Our contempt for Dombey’s arrogance and his ignorance of human feeling through the pursuit of power and money are given in an elegant paragraph here towards the end of that scene. Dombey is money. His clean crispness is artifice and even his cleanliness is associated with non-functional, decorative gold furnishings. Dickens plays this against the natural state of Toodle, whose oaken strength comes through above his grubbiness and for all his shortcomings owns an earthy honesty.

It’s stretching it to say a page of Dickens is a tight construct where no word could be changed without the structure collapsing, but there’s plenty of master craftsmanship going on and with a bit of observant reading even pretty reluctant school kids can see him building towards great moments and interesting characters through subtle stylistic choices. The emotional connectivity in the passage above is done entirely through the choice of imagery. Like all masters of the craft Dickens exploits the complementary function of word, tone and the actual goings on of character and environment. The emotion we feel towards his characters in their situations is underpinned throughout by meaningful linguistic choices.

Alexander Pope was eloquent on sound and sense working in tandem and the necessity of craftspersonly awareness. Each element of the page should be a rhetorical gift:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse should like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

So, with a page of your own prose, what rhetorical gifts are you giving? What would a school class be able to point to if asked how the author has created the mood or the character or the setting? Would each word become delightful when brought under the microscope of close scrutiny? Would there be a delicacy of development, finely wrought through clever stylistic choices? Would there be emotional range and weight and elegant nuancing throughout?

It is in these details that the emotional range can be properly crafted, either bringing some extra force to a single high emotive factor or tempering the primary emotion with some delicate balance. A keen reader might be able to track an image of animal ferocity through from early sneak references such as a growl into something that is more key to an interaction or narrative turn. Or they might take an emotionally rough-riding page apart to discover the disconcerting swing of one image to its opposite.

While looking at the minutiae of your word choices, what about focussing on the way a well chosen word or two can act like seasoning in a stew, adding the lemon zing to cut into overly rich sauce.  Well used, a phrase might be repeated but gain new weight and new meaning from what surrounds it.

On any powerful page  the elements that bring the emotion out have been built carefully in through many earlier words, lines and scenes. Again and again, we see how a writer has the chance, through consciously excellent choices of word in one direction or another, to create something that is far more fulfilling than, say,  a straightforward stab at woe. If you are fully in control of your linguistic choices you get the best chance to profit from complex elements in the emotional palette shifting one degree here and there to suggest what will come or develop what lingers in the memory. Every word can contribute.

Tips for writing: check your emotional range

Heighten your awareness

Written fiction allows that particular blend of explanatory depth and emotional connectivity that makes it still attractive and valuable despite the distractions for the Xbox generation.   Whether as a writer you like a meticulous planning session or something a bit more suck-and-see, it’s worth training yourself to judge the emotional weight of what you’re building. Test slabs of prose occasionally and investigate whether each word is giving its best effort.

While you’re reading try making notes on the emotions that are being pulled from you as you read. Can you give them all names: love, delight, hate, fear, gratitude? Or is there something more tacit, something that is in-between single adjectives or even something better understood with a diacricital nuance such as Bartok used to show quarter tones when jotting down rural songs.  Whatever your own system [“love/regret +7§”] give the emotional value a tally of intensity and then look at what language effects have heightened that emotion. Look beyond the plot structure – this is important but part of other aspects of development. Look at what a prose work gives that would not be used by, for example, a screenwriter (and of course read Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact for those elements that are).

For a bit of an awareness-heightening drill on a Sunday morning, try checking through what you’ve written on two different pages from separate sections. How similar is the prose, how great the emotional range? Are these sections connecting, if so what language signals this? What have you done to establish the tone in each? How does this complement and enhance the action, activity, character and dialogue.

Plan towards emotional range and impact

Make yourself a column in your scene planner that can take a few notes on the emotion you wish to create and the intensity you want to build it to. Another column for some word groups. Intensities will probably mirror the action, activity, conflict and character development stages you are using for your story arc. The emotional intensity can complement or counterbalance these plot and scenic points.

Be conscious of what emotion you are trying to draw from the reader, whether or not you think of your prose as a fundamentally emotional experience.  Know what emotion you need to bring out.  Start effects early. Imagery of warmth or coolness can, for example, give hints as to where readers’ sympathies might be drawn and can be subtly increased over large sections.

Challenge yourself and test as often as you dare

Keep testing on your own sensibilities – it’s likely to be too late by the time you get an audience.  Again, are all the possible elements being used to advantage? Would a Year 7 class have something to spot and work with? Has anything being overused? There’s only so much fog and rain to be used in reflecting low moods. Yes it works, but we need to be careful to adjust for everything that has gone beyond cliche into some awful postmodernist parody of itself. It’s one thing if readers don’t quite get the emotional force, but if they want to laugh when they should be crying then you’ve done your job badly.

Gladly wolde we learn and gladly teach*

So what did I learn from my conversation with disappointed young manuscript reader:

Firstly, something in the exchange reinforced for me the commitment to what it is to be a craftsperson. Consciousness of each element and patient dedication to perfecting it is vital, but at expert levels the consciousness transforms into something else, a flow of sorts, something that perpetuates through skilled decision making. It is to reach this master-state that we dedicate our apprenticeship in early career.

Secondly, there is never a craftsperson that can forget the basics. It may become largely subconscious but its still worth checking that everything is running smoothly. Never allow one element of the craft to escape while others are being developed. If cunning plot points are the current main aim don’t allow that to be at the expense of characterisation or style.

Thirdly, always test your material, be prepared to take criticism and realise that there’s always more to be learned and the learning can come in all sort of shapes and sizes.

What my son actually said was that school taught him that the best writers used not just a good trick or two here and there but every good method when it came to establishing and building the emotions on the page.

As he’d been doing in class, and as every reader knows, each word each element of style, each choice of word, each rebalance of sentence length, everything works towards an emotional connectivity and the real expert will use these to establish an emotional range that builds a journey and underpins a powerful premise. This is rhetoric.

It’s good to be reminded of how much goes into a marvellous novel or written story, all of which should be there in perfect proportion: meaningful ideas, believable characters, tight plot structures, pacy dialogue, primal values, subtle psychologies, delicate developments, recondite references, elegant phrasing, cunning vocab…

There is a lot to remember, so it’s not surprising that we occasionally let a few things slip. Don’t beat yourself up for errors or shortcomings. This is a craft that takes a lifetime of inching towards mastery, and it doesn’t hurt to go back sometimes to the basics.



* Motto of the Victorian Old Mortality club at Oxford 

How to write a novel (#3) – managing conflict

If you’re reading up on how to write, you’ll have been sieged, bombarded, pelted and shelled all in the name of conflict. It comes up in every “how to do” and you’ll be told and told to the point of haemorrhage itself that there’s no story without conflict – or at the very least there’s no interest without conflict, nothing to resolve and no tale to be told. Conflict it would seem is the first word in what narrative is. For one thing to progress to another with a chain of cause and effect is fine, but it’s not a story until there’s conflict, and if you’ve not got conflict then you’ve got nothing worth a reader’s while.

This is always another one of those sharp-suck-of-breath moments in the creative writing class. Conflict! What! You just try and make me deal with conflict! Cue demands for money back and what do universities think they’re playing at… how dare structures of violence be imposed on creative free-spirited souls et cetera…

So. When we say conflict we mean something subtle, perhaps. Something even the most gentle teller of super-subtle stories would deem suitable. Something that accounts for lonely youths patting their yellow wallpaper, or mountains built with peaceful citadel. Of course, when we start discussing conflict then we’re not necessarily talking blood-fest or suicidal angst.  There’s something quietly conflict-ridden about many of our lasting literary gems. Conflict takes many forms and, in the right hands, could be just a well observed process of choosing – that dilemma that craves unwelcome resolution.

Even so, it’s amazing how many scenes just seem to escape the first draft stage without any conflict at all – not because they’re subtle and cleverly unruffling but because they’re a dull chain of events that you’ve just put down on screen because you can type quickly enough and you wanted to take your beloved character for a walk. Recognise the tempatation?  My beloved-character needs to meet someone to love…so, well, they have to get ready…and I want to talk about how nice their shoe collection is… and then they can ponder for a bit about all the rejection they had back in a time that doesn’t really matter anymore because its all resolved… and then there’s the staring into space over a coffee at the independent on the corner that will be good to describe because I was in a coffee shop just the other day and its look and smell are still with me and should be with my reader for a bit ..  and… and ….   Hang on!  Beloved-character hasn’t been allowed off the lead yet and is already becoming tiresomely unchallenged.

If you’ve got a manuscript and you’re wondering where it’s flagging, check your scenes.  Go on, challenge yourself. Be tested. Dare to be found wanting. Do your scenes have a conflict and more importantly does that conflict develop in intensity?

If you’re just embarking on a story, then your conscious mind should be checking where the conflicts occur and make sure they keep stepping up and up.

If your current work’s a few drafts-old then check out each scene, who’s in confict? with whom? with what?   And then what kind of conflict, with what stakes and with what possible outcomes. 

So what is conflict for novelists?

Stories are largely about someone working through against a trouble of some sort or another even if that’s just a confusion as to why they’re sitting in a dustbin.

But a problem doesn’t necessarily mean conflict, does it?

A woman who is unsure what to buy her husband for his birthday has a problem but is not in conflict.  A woman who has to chose between a present for her lover or a present for her husband has a different kind of problem and one that is already more interesting. There are decisions with a range of outcomes in this situation and apart from the birthday there is an irreconcilable challenge for the protagonist’s principle affections. It is the irreconcilable nature of this that lies at the heart of our craving for conflict and its well managed and meaningful resolution.

So, this helps make us aware of what kind of conflict we’re dealing with as story writers. Our conflict may be quiet and may be wholly psychological, but it should suggest in the reader an incompatability between possible outcomes. The woman’s story above would not have meaningful conflict if she could afford a present for each of her loves and keep them both secret from each other. The solution has to imply problematic choice and one where something is necessarily relinquished – these are the stakes at the heart of meaningful conflict. If our plot’s conflict is a fight then it shouldn’t be a fight that could be walked away from, nor a friendly wrestle. It has to be a fight with potential for considerable loss.

There are some ground rules for the most satisfactory conflict too. Have you ever noticed how irritatingly pugnacious types – particularly in political spheres – will characterise their battles as one of beleaguered freedom fighters against a dangerously powerful foe? This tells us something about the appeal of certain kinds of myth-making and what an audience responds to.  Whether its Hamlet, Finding Nemo or the 1988 Cup Final, there’s a love of the underdog that we respond to in remarkable ways. Even if our hero is not actually characterised as underdog, we like the situation to be one that puts the odds heavily against them.

Not only that but if our plot’s conflict is a fight then the loss should be disproportionate to the gain. Risk of life for the lady’s kiss. Risk of permanent psychological destruction for the opportunity to challenge the authority figure to a game at chess. (BTW Re hero as underdog, check out Karl Iglesias who has three types of relationship of reader to protagonist depending on whether we see ourselves as equal, pitying or admiring – v v useful.)

As the marvellous Malcolm Gladwell writes: “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts [David and Goliath] because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” David and Goliath,  2013, p.6.

It should be easy. In your scenes, decide who wants what and who or what makes that goal incompatible with their own goals or existence. If what the character wants is necessary enough, with high enough stakes should they fail, then how they act in order to get it will allow interest to evolve in the reader together, hopefully, with the kind of greatness and beauty that the best stories abound in.

Can conflict be against fate or the facts, an endlessly mocked and hapless hero trying to get out of his dustbin – course it can, but where is this conflict going and how does it build? Only when his very frustration  (or his Mr Bean-esque ineptitude or his moral blindness) becomes an antagonising influence, only then do we start to feel that this is writerly conflict rather than a set of simple misfortunes. And, to repeat the lesson, there needs to be something to lose, something that’s irreconcilable with the success. The conflict isn’t just a person against fate, sympathy though we may have for his luckless plight. Satisfying conflict of a writerly kind has to have something else to engage us, something other than just an obstacle course of problems. Stories of this type tend to finish with some nod towards irony – the ladder that was in the corner all along – and maybe we feel the conflict is not the character against the environment but is a type of conflict that operates through the character, either as some kind of desperate gene that pits survival against annihilation, or as some cosmic battle between conflicting sides of human nature, the will to succeed pitted against the desire to relinquish all and go gently into that good night.

There are  successful stories where the conflict is not always easy to define. There are however very few successful stories with no succession of well-managed conflict.  We’ll leave aside those poetic descriptive tracts that can claim to be literature without ever actually being stories as such, but even great descriptive chunks, at their best, have their conflicts woven cleverly into the scene.

Yes, if you have major scenes without conflict (and there are good commentators who point to their being other kinds of scenes and breathing space required from the major turns so use your judgement of course – more on this in  a few paragraphs’ time, bear with me), if you have major scenes without conflict, do ask yourself who would get this far through your text and feel aggrieved if you took the book away.

I do understand the groans from the class of aspirant novelists though. For the novelist, there’s always a sense that things aren’t as straightforward as for screenwriters, and there’s always that lurking question of what else there is instead of wham! bam! conflict, or why does conflict have to be talked about this way when we’re trying to write literature or produce art.

Types of conflict in stories

So, can you articulate where the conflict is in your scene? Is the conflict perhaps hidden in the depth of the writing –  Conflict of perception –  Conflict of tone  – Conflict of imagery  – Conflict of senses – Conflict of ideas… the clever oxymoron or the devilish litotes.

Here’s some ways you might judge your conflict if, as many teachers and mentors would recommend, you are going through your scenes patiently checking for their readerly value.

Person v person:  This is an easy one to get right. What does each person want? Are the two things incompatible? How will each person deal with the need to get their way over the other?  Dig into the characters –  passive aggressive, cunning, ignorant, tenacious, devious, forthright or just plain aggressive – are they expressing the conflict openly or is it something the reader gets through the tension in the atmosphere – are they in conflict right now in the scene or is it something simmering – are  both characters conscious of the conflict, or just one of them, or neither of them, with just the reader’s knowledge allowing them to recognise what is about to explode (plenty of comedy uses this kind of conflict to great effect).

Person v self: Again, the consciousness the character themselves has can often make this type of conflict more interesting.  Engaging characters often have one goal they are conscious of, making their surface-level conflict a battle to get a clear something; what they really want however – love, power, peace – is something they’re unaware of, and, perhaps, the reader knows this all along, or gradually learns of this thing with them, or just ahead of them.

Person v inanimate objects: Sideshow Bob’s rakes spring to mind or something with Harold Lloyd… anyone lost in an environment alone – although this kind of conflict can be going on alongside other types with people involved. The trick is to make the thing become a character. If it looks as though the inanimate object is mysteriously trying to upset the main character, challenge them and defeat them, this will yield more for the reader than a simple tripping up over stuff.

Person v the ineffable: pride, appearances, destiny. If your character seems to be up against “IT” then maybe their conflict is just something in the ether. It could be psychological troubles, cosmic intervention, divine testing, self-ignorance, hubris, an inability to love or to commit. Often there’ll be something of this in a character arc anyway because this is what novels are particularly good at. But maybe you also have a scene-level conflict of person versus… something.  Rather than scratch your head wondering what your character is in conflict with at this moment (again, assuming you want to go patiently through scene by scene and ask yourself where the conflict lies) perhaps you look to what is preventing their peace of mind – if this is where the conflict lies then perhaps you have a chance to expand and heighten it.

And to close this section, it’s in this type of conflict, the person vs the ineffable, that you find that curiously passive protagonist that film-makers hate and novelists are usually much more patient with. Conflicts that are thrown at human beings for their patient withstanding, hapless heroes struggling to keep their dignity – there are many successful examples of the inactive protagonist, one who seems not to take arms against their seas of troubles. On the whole you’ll be recommended not to do this. Readers at heart want to see an active protagonist, one who is matching up to the conflict in a way that demonstrates their worthiness to be followed as the central character in a story.  Spare a thought though for other kinds of conflict. Again there are plenty of worthy literary examples where the reader’s pity for the character’s struggle against constant subjection to forces beyond their control is at the heart of the reading experience. 

Transition scenes in fiction

To go back momentarily to the idea, popular in a number of writers’ guides,  that there are different kind of scenes and only the major turns need to have conflict.  This method allows for a sort of trans-scenic downtime. Now, a cleverly paced book will have those quieter moments and it is these that give context to the major conflicts. Conflict scenes must rise, there must be a change in intensity or we risk anticlimactic dissapointment in the reader. Clever pacing might be mapped out as a steady hike up and drop back, each hillock and dip being slightly higher than the last, the hills gradually rising towards the mountains, a breather before the next climb and so on.

Be careful however that the troughs are just as well thought through as the peaks.

Your trans-scenic downtime isn’t then just an excuse to lie back with a foot off the pedal. There’s no cruise control in a well crafted piece of writing. If you’re going to deal with a scene between two points of major conflict, that transition still needs something to hold the reader’s attention. Often the transition scenes are an excuse to give something the reader hasn’t been made to want: backstory, musing, description, philosophical asides. Good books do have these things, but again, find some of the great examples and examine them closely. It’s likely that the characters aren’t actually in a limbo or a conflict-free happy land. It’s likely that there’s something waiting for them or some likelihood for problems. It’s more engaging to read a description of eating a plum if you know that its a stolen fruit from the icebox of a lover – it’s more engaging to read backstory that’s being forced out of someone who has yet to confront their own past.

As far as conflict goes, use it wisely and subtly, make it a conflict against self or the ineffable, make it a wholly psychological confrontation, just make sure it’s there. Or else.



How to write a novel (#5) – What is good writing?

Improvement. Like many would-be writers, I’ve been through a few periods where advice, information, tuition, critique were all doing their job well and I really felt that I was improving. Thrilling times. There’s no better feeling than a sense of rapid improvement at something you’re enjoying. That’s one reason why it’s such fun to be at an intermediate level – rapid improvement at something you’re beginning to get a grip on. But as you get better, it’s harder to improve. It’s not easy to be specific about exactly how we improve as writers, either, and I have to admit that I’ve also been through highly frustrating periods when not only do I appear to be getting no better at all, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to see where the next stage of betterment might come from.

One of my own most fruitful leaps came with the almost scientific approach to narrative form and three act drama. Lagos Egri, Rob McKee and Joseph Turner became my heroes and companions, and, helped by friends who were mastering film and screen writing, I came out at the other side of this journey with a new understanding of how much of this fascinating science should be balanced against other elements of fiction writing. The source of this particular pleasure in improvement  is interesting. It does come from a sense of the science, the hard factual foothold you get as you search for improvement. Can you write? Well, I know that x and y and z have to happen for a storyline to “work”. When you have this knowledge you can challenge your own writing, test it against principles, give it a bashing with the lump-hammer of  evidence-based plotting controls, and you can feel that you’ve got something that works, something that the critics will have to accept as “better” than your less rigorously-built pieces.

Science is reassuring but we can’t rely on such platforms in the arts. It reminds me of the episode the young Jude the Obscure goes through when he believes that his learning of Latin of Greek will come in some swift and secret trick that his new books will offer. Junior Jude gets an early taste of the miserable disappointments Hardy will drag him through, finding that there’s no quick fix, no single secret, and that learning the classics will take long labour, patient discovery, and a less than firm set of steps towards improvement. Improvement in the arts is more subtle, more nebulous, more troubled by a not-knowing. It requires leaps of faith, testing, probing and a following of hunches. It requires trust.

So when we look at our writing and wonder how “good” it is, what are we testing against? What’s the evidence that a piece has improved? That one piece is better than another?

Mysteriously, publishers are unable to be very useful in this.  Almost conspiratorially, the how-to-do-it books also struggle to be firm what good writing looks like. We know it needs to be clear and needs to have some flow of sense – this comes from all writing lessons from infant school onwards and is no great surprise. Beyond this though, what is good writing? Go on, ask a publisher or professional reader, scout or agent what they’re looking for in an MS submission.  I’ve heard a bunch of variations on the mightily vague “good”:  “It’s how the writing grabs you”, “it’s about a fresh voice”, “I look for a new approach”, “a good novel just hits you”, “the prose  sparkles”.


Now this isn’t very useful really, is it? Certainly it’s not presented as something that could be learnt or taught. This seems more like the stuff of miracles, of “inspiration” (talent that is breathed mysteriously into a being), or of sheer bloody good fortune. Maybe it’s a bit like rearranging furniture: you just need a willing husband to hump sofas round the space for a day or three until the ideal arrangement falls before the eye. At some point you’ll know the arragement is “good”, “suitable”, “nice”, or plainly “a good fit”.

As those who’ve tried designing anything will tell you, whether it’s circuit boards, cathedrals or the daffodil beds, there’s a difference between just hit and miss arrangements and a real consciousness of what works. It’s a difference of professionalism. Good design begins with good principles. Of course, we all know “good” design when we see it. The professional can do it again and again though, with variations and with very few misses compared to hits. That’s not to say there isn’t space for testing and trialling and feeling for what works, just that this needs to be done with a thorough knowledge of all the parameters and possibilities.

So whadawelearn wiseass?

I don’t think that just reading books is the answer, although this tends to be the favourite piece of advice from the inner sanctum of the publishing and the published. Further belief in the serendipity cum inspiration cum let-it-all-flow style of creative practice. Fine. You can have fun this way. But what if you want to move on? What is it that makes writing good? Good for whom? Good for what purpose?

Apart from the science of narrative structure, on which there are plenty of good books from Aristotle to Blake Snyder with wise words as to what makes a good (aka well-structured) story, there’s also Rhetoric,  another topic with some sense of a knowledge base and a set of defined techniques that can improve your craft. Again, our Classical forefathers had sets of codes, sets of known effective patterns, and whether you’re using repetition or contrast or open-questioning there’s a set of marvellously detailed Renaissance rules aimed at Elizabethan poets, the majority of which will add a formal spice to your prose or poetry. There’s also a whole lexicon of arcane dictionary terms to impress your friends with and after a bit of study you can  spot a litotes and a zeugma on the darkest night. It remains unpopular as a formally taught discipline, though, and the ways into persuasive writing tend to be more through feeling than design these days, despite some well-known tricks around tri-fold repetition “Education, Education, Education” and so on that still fill the speechwriters’ packet of tools.

How do we find good writing then? How do we get writing of the brilliance that General Woolfe saw in  Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, about which he apparently said that he would rather have written those verses than successfully take Quebec… that’s a hell of  good bit of writing, isn’t it? Can you imagine Norman Schwartzkopf saying he’d rather have written Simon Armitage’s ‘Harmonium’ than smash the Gulf?

Let’s start smaller. Maybe start with a hunt through your favourite six pages from a range of novels. Read them carefully, then read again. Why do they grab you – as pages rather than as stories or characters? What have they done? What will you need to do to match them?

I’ve tried this myself. And I’ve listened to tutors and publishers and authors. Below are a few of my own ponderings as to how we might track down an answer to what “good writing” is, by which I mean writing that is satisfying for readers. It’s not comprehensive, and may not even be what you want good to mean, but for the moment it’s something to be getting on with. I’ll make a couple of simple divisions:

  1. Good writing at a word and sentence level
  2. Good writing at a content level

Of course these need to work together for a truly “good” piece of writing to emerge. I’ve also got a couple of extra ones to save till later.

Good writing at a word and sentence level

The music of the English language

When I was learning to teach English, a lecturer pointed out that some of those languages which we as English speakers believe to be musical are not in fact as musical as English itself. Some for example are more rhythmic. Italian is a fine example, with a dactyl stress you can march troops to. What English speakers often fail to be conscious of is the wondrous musicality of the English sentence (and this rangy intonation proves highly problematic for those who are trying to learn English and failing to stress at a sentence level can make intermediate English speakers sound abrupt, rude or just bad.)

English is a musical language. The arc of an English sentence builds with the same shape as a finely worked piano etude, rising towards the end and with a dying fall to the perfect strain. Set a long sentence against short ones, add clauses to clauses until they seem to be at the end of a breath – to listen to English being well-spoken is to enjoy an immense tonal range and a splendorous rise and fall that  mirrors the narrative arc itself. Add to this the flexibility of English tone, the ways in which it has been remodelled to suit sub-cultures the world over, and how this remodelling has come back with its own set of over- and under-tones to the standards. One thing you know when you’ve got good writing in your hands is that it fits the music inherent in English. I read the stories in a penguin anthology of Russian shorts not too long ago and Oh, the revelation when the last one was a translation by Nabokov himself from his own early work (presumably with plenty of licence).  Compared to the hollow thud of a standard translation into English, to have a glimpse of good writing but through another language, this was an astonishing experience.

Do your sentences read with a rise and fall to die for? Some people can produce this music with what seems a minimum sweat, but of course its a sense of music that has come through years of listening. Train your ears, write pastiches and parodies, copy the masters – these are the traditional routes to learning the musicality of fine sentences. If the music’s there then whatever your content and structure, you’ll be onto something.

Here’s a favourite sentence  of sheer loveliness from Stephen Fry’s The Liar (Heinemann 1991), and although the theme and the echoes of Richard II and the compellingly wistful portrait help here, I think you can replace the English words with corresponding non-linguistic sounds and still hear the beauty of a masterly composer of words:

This fantasy of England that old men took with them to their death-beds, this England without factories and sewers or council houses, this England of leather and wood and flannel, this England circumscribed by a white boundary and laws that said that each team shall field eleven men and each man shall bat, this England of shooting-sticks, weather-vanes and rectory teas, it was like Cartwrights’ beauty, he thought, a momentary vision glimpsed for a second in an adolescent dream, then dispersed like steam in to the real atmosphere of traffic-jams, serial murderers, prime ministers and Soho rent.

The Liar, Ch.9.,Pt.3

I love the second that in “laws that said that” and the rhyme of dream and steam,  the vowel progressions in the lists /or/ /ew/ /ou/. Super, fluffy and completely darlingie. Make sure this is on your reading list – this sentence is followed by one more to round to the paragraph’s end where the vision becomes the only reality and leaves its “image, scents and textures bottled and laid down against the long, lonely melancholy of adulthood.”

Now I, for one, would rather have written that sentence than be taken roughly in Quebec.

The right words

The basic principle seems to be to use as few words as possible, use them in ways that will be readily understood, but use them in ways that are eye-catching and maybe even breath-catching.

Conciseness is usually considered the best attribute of a marvellous writer. Accounts of the need to crop and cut and refine and hone are legend and of course this is a favourite part for most writers. Much nicer as a hobby to go back in and do some tweaking rather than stare at the blank page and wonder where the filling will come from. Perhaps this is what Wilde was enjoying when he famously noted on a proofing quest, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”

Repeating yourself is therefore a complete no-no. It starts to remind us of those real conversations we have with friends or at home – or even in university colloquies – where the same thing is said again and again in cycles as though a problem is best dealt with if we can keep it in the front of us, and, who knows, perhaps that’s true. In writing, however, you can keep going back to the bits you want to read again so having something repeated by the writer is generally considered bad form. Don’t say the same thing twice, unless it’s clearly being used for emphasis. Don’t reuse a word too quickly (unless it’s a conscious stylistic device). Don’t over-use your favourites. Also, don’t repeat yourself.

There’s something about “le mot juste” that is essential to the “harmonious sentences” that Flaubert treasured. Readers appreciate a well chosen word. Favourite writers may even have use for an occasional word we don’t know, but will use it in a way that we feel its a new friend rather than an attempt to make us look ignorant. Beware overly arcane vocabulary – beware trying to use the vocabulary of sub-cultures unless you really know what you’re talking about. Use words in slightly unusual ways but which make complete sense in context – oxymorons and that quirky paradox of a phrase like “darkness visible” for example. Add an adjective to a noun it might not readily be associated with – colours with sounds, visuals with touches. Seek out the anti-cliche, something that sounds so neat it ought to exist already but doesn’t.

Get playing. Make lists, fill books.

Avoiding cliche is also highly  recommended as the first, basic job of a writer. Not just avoiding it but smashing it into irresolvable pieces and rendering it unusable. There’s a cute trick around defying cliche but managing at the same time to demonstrate how you’ve smashed it. Homilies can be subverted with new endings or  a tired metaphor can earn some new jazz. “I have nothing to declare but my genius” and so on.

Words, sentences paragraphs. Make them suitably neat, clear, error-free, with a music that feels unlike either the standard and acceptable tone, nor too much like a well known style.

If that’s asking too much then keep it simple and make the words neatly functional so that no-one trips over them.


Good writing at a content level

Bridging the gaps

Remember The English Patient (film) and the way the aeroplane at the beginning only makes sense once you get to the end of the film. Remember the beginning of Lolita? No, not the Lo-Lee-Ta bit, I’m thinking about the crafted Preface in which we learn about the destiny of Mrs Richard F Schiller, another beginning that only makes sense once you’ve reached the end and a bit of the book some readers never get.

Both of these pack their punch because of that love of the long gap, the way some seed retained in the memory suddenly flowers. Is this simply the smug bit of the brain being proud to have worked it all out? Or is there some electrical impulse that fires  pleasure across the dormant memory cell? Whatever the cause, it’s well known that gap filling is one great thrill for readers. The bigger the gaps the more sophisticated – the more literary – the work.

Gaps. Not saying too much. That’s seems to be one clue around so called good writing.  Hyper-detailed factual blow by blow narrative is usually not thought to be good… and the risk of unnecessary detail is high. It’s an easy trap to fall into if your technique is to write largely by imagining or remembering a scene and then adding what you see into the mix. Elements should be chosen because they bring out conflict or shape something, not because they’ve popped into your head.

There are a wealth of different kinds of gaps. There are those Lolita moments – hints that many will never notice. There are those that complete the story or offer a twist, a retrospective revision of everything we have experienced, the end of Corrimer’s I am the Cheese, Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  There are those that are neater, compacted into a chapter perhaps, scenes which start you in an unfamiliar environment and then take you backwards in time to explain, or forwards in time, with the initial befuddlement becoming understood through the growing context.  A gender that isn’t initially clear, the work you have to put in to guess at what relationship characters have, or how old they are. The identity of the narrator as in Nesbitt’s Treasure Seekers. Get us a bit disorientated, makes us work for the meaning. The popularity of Pulp Fiction was not only in its snappy dialogue and loveable criminals, it was also in the diegesis, the narrative that leapt across the times of the story and kept hitting you with familiar characters in different clothes or with a new knowledge-base. The more this needs piecing together the better for a sophisticated reader. In this way some of the gap filling becomes like a reward, you puzzle things out and then after a well judged inverval, a clearer clue is given.

Basically if you can make someone’s brain work over for a few seconds before they work something out, then that’s a short cut to good. My favourite of Graham Rawle’s masterful Lost Consonants was always a picture of Andrew Lloyd Webber at the piano and underneath “Andrew Lloyd Webber writes another hit musical”… have you got it yet?  – When you do, that’s the gap that is working.

Avoiding the commonplace

It’s easy to emerge from literature studies with the idea that good writing can never show activity. Books that have “action” are to be shunned by those whose recognition of good writing has come from a sound education. Activity without action, without meaningful plot action, is worse. It’s tempting then to look at a few pages where characters are in motion and think they can’t possibly be good.

?? But our screenplay experts fill books with the importance of quality suggestive motion and gesture. Can good writing only be thoughts, reflections and philosophies. Or could it be good and give a description of the race-about world.

Part of the answer to that may lie in an understanding of what is commonplace activity and what is uncommon. What the activity does in order to engage you.

One of the functions of  gaps is its sidestepping of what is commonplace, what is inherently dull. It is very easy to launch into a description about something that has interested you – much harder to find what’s of interest to others. The commonplace is boring even if it’s hectic. We know that already. Good writing helps us see something we don’t know or a refreshing new angle on something we thought we knew.   I’m grateful to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer for reminding me of this quote from Chekhov:

Commonplaces such as “the setting sun bathed the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.” – such commonplaces one ought to abandon…. one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.

This comes in one of the best sections of Prose’s book, and she goes on with further statements that lead towards this sense that the avoidance of the commonplace (as with the avoidance of the cliche) is what good writing has as its primary trait

Mediocre writing abounds with physical cliches and stock gestures… not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer, 2006, p.210

She goes on to describe writing that is perhaps familiar to many, whereby actions are placed in the middle of conversations, simply to avoid the reader’s rushing through them. In such ways come the weighty pauses and the cigarettes and the turning and staring back out to sea where the settling sun bathes the purple gold of the waves….

Spinning the yarn

While no one wants the same thing repeated, everyone wants more writing, that’s why they read. Some of the greatest pleasures from a passage of writing come when the author spins a conceit for miles, talks lyrically and expansively on something that could have been dismissed in a single word. It’s especially effective if this is counteracted by its opposite, something major that is reduced to single words.

Witness the marvellous description of Tom Jones’s beating from Thwackum and Blifil:

… he dexterously drove down the fist of Jones, so that it reached only his belly, where two pounds of beef and as many of pudding were then deposited, and whence consequently no hollow sound could proceed. … And now both together attacked our heroe, whose blows did not retain that force with which they had fallen at first, so weakened was he by his combat with Thwackum; for though the pedagogue chose rather to play solos on the human instrument, and had been lately used to those only, yet he still retained enough of his antient knowledge to perform his part very well in a duet.

The History of Tom Jones, A foundling, Bk.5, Ch.11.

Goodies to unpack

What we are looking for in good writing is the sense that there are goodies here to be unpacked. Goodies that take a brief moment to apprehend and, ideally, further goodies that reward a patient and close reading. Making your writing look like such goodies exist there – but without it becoming so dense that no-one wants to bother – this is where the goodness lies.

This leads to that popular and useful creative writing course exercise:  describe a barn/chair/pencil from the point of view of a grief-stricken character without referencing the grief itself. If you haven’t done that one before it’s a very good warmer.

When well-done, this sort of exercise gives students practice in what to say and what not to say. It helps a writer understand how to make the reader burrow in amidst the words in order to look around and, from new perspectives, to make a meaning for themselves.


Finally some thoughts on how what you choose to write about can be good.

Human nature is at the heart of any story, so it follows that any story can be a good one. However there’s a certain kind of prize given to a certain kind of book and this regularly gets tagged with the label “good.” We’re talking Man Booker good or Orange good. It’s a bit different from other kinds of good, but we know what to expect and when it’s good it’s very good. This isn’t just worthiness, the charitable cause or some universally understood testament to the plight of human misery – although that all helps too. Make sure, if you’re trying to impress, that you’ve got the right themes for the right audiences. Make sure they can trust you.

We want to trust our writers. We also want to spend our time well. Ideally the time spent reading book x will result in: A) something to talk about after having read it; B) a few little gems, facts or alternative slants on subject matter. If your page leaves people feeling they’ve gained knowledge, or had knowledge affirmed, this is a quick passport to ‘good’ writing.

Clever humour. That’s another way to be good. Not too much of course, that would make it either silly or daft or kiddish or jokey or tiresome. No, you need that droll half-gag that raises a slight curves at the mouth of the most imperturbable barrister. Something about farts or willies probably. No but seriously, that serious slant on humour does get you called good in the right circles. Literary types just love to show how they understand true comedy, Swift, Kundera, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson, all comedians at heart, but deliverers of that wry and irreverent snook-cock that could never be mistaken for anything but goodness.

And, as a final final pointer, don’t forget the meta- para- meta-meta supra-textual world, one replete with goodness, cleverness and super-humourousness. A good text is often in some way about text. This can be boldly symbolic – books’ graveyards, text blankets etc – or can be more subtly evocative of how or why books are written, words deployed and phrases ingested. It includes all sorts of techniques of writerly revelation and what can be very tedious, self-conscious references to one’s self as fictionaliser. Nevertheless, build this in subtly and it will amuse and delight everyone at parties with an English degree and a bent for modernism.

Good writing at an achievement level

There are other things that just have to be in place. You need good, clear writing structure – and I’m not so much thinking about plotting and narrative structure here, heroes’ journey and the turn of the second act – I’m thinking more about the elements that just lead us forward and make us want to read. What have you done to make your writing clear, what have you done to flag up the direction and what have you done to engage the reader? This tends to be the lessons in the earliest days of writing, but don’t let that stop you from keeping the good work up. Basic techniques of flagging the theme of a paragraph, moving through explanation and detail and leaving a thread to carry into the next paragraph. There needs to be the throat grabbing opener, and every paragraph needs to have something that makes it worth reading. Unlike readerless blog writers, novel writers can’t afford to let a dull paragraph escape into the final draft. Keep it up. Make them all useful. Make them all engaging. Make them all achieve.

Of course good writing has a simple definition and one that excuses all manner of vagueness when it comes to stating what “good writing” really is. Good writing must work on the reader, must achieve what it aims to do, and as all readers are different, this can be a tricky task:

Good writing must engage its readers intellectually and emotionally.

Some works fail to do both of these, or are at best a horrible imbalance. Whichever of the two extremes you end up with, a blubbery mess of pap or a dry, rigid treatise, neither is good writing. One of the things writing does for us is to bring together the ways we react intellectually and emotionally to people, problems, effects, causes and situations. For the entertainers and fictionists, it’s only good writing if you’ve done this.


Tips for Writers – make a check list for your own good writing

Make your own, it’s the only way to learn. But here are a few examples to get going with:

  • Have I removed all cliche – two or more words that are commonly placed together but needn’t be, especially if there is a metaphorical intent. Good as gold, piercing stare etc.
  • Do I appear in control of my language – no words you can’t quite use or edits that don’t quite hang together
  • Have my statements been ordered to produce a clear sense of sequence, direction without inappropriate looping back. Have I removed any ideas that fork into two suggested threads, only one of which we can deal with immediately.
  • Do my phrases have a musical cadence to them.
  • Is there some disorientation to motivate the reader – a satisfying where am I, what’s going on?
  • Has each paragraph elicited bemusement, curiosity, wonder.
  • Do all my gestures and words show some character trait that is not overtly described.
  • Is there a memorable phrase, succinct idea or compelling character?