How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

This is a really important point here when it comes to keeping your project up. If you start a Rom Com but then read a really good thriller and wish you were writing one of those, what do you do? A Hugh Grant floppy haired hero suddenly gets badass with guns in Act II – then for a real finale, goes all Star Wars for a bit before pulling off his mask to reveal he’s the elf king. Doesn’t have to be anywhere near that extreme to be lethal. The killer blow is if you now hate your initial Rom Com idea and give up on it (but fail to retain enthusiasm for your thriller or sci-if or whatever).

“I can’t help you because I don’t know what it is you want,’ says the character Tre Cooper in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, ‘…one moment it’s the tortured genius creating great art and the next you just want your face on the telly.’ It’s a big thing – you have to choose what you most want to be as an author and reluctantly let go of the other choices of identity.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like Knowledge in a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.

Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.



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.



e-book marks

Six-thousand years ago, the Sumer-Akkadians enjoyed a rich civilisation in what is now Kuwait and Iraq. This was the land of the Gilgamesh epic, of complex laws and coherent social systems, of communication that would cross the millennia through painstakingly-created cuneiform texts. The Sumer-Akkadians had a belief system that allowed multiple and flexible deities. With no common gods, each area had its own local selection. The power of any god was identified in the number of its followers.

We  look to the well-followed as much as ever.  Although our heroes and gods are as likely to be worshipped through the media as through sacred ground, the means to become well-followed, and our common respect for this power, is at the heart of what many are hoping for when they look towards publishing their writing.

Have we changed our attitudes as to how these followers can or should be gained? Does the digital world offer something that was never so democratic, or something of the same basic structure as was ever so?

The market for information delivery has changed, as marketing executive Neil Perkin has noted around the notion of dis-intermediation: “Digital is good at enabling people to go direct to others, changing the ‘middle-man’ and moving away from a linear communication model characterised by interruption and frequency towards a new place.” (Arts Marketing Conference on Digital Marketing 2011)

Perhaps even more pertinent to this trend, Ben Cameron, arts programmer at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, says, “Just as the religious reformation challenged the necessity of the intermediary priest in a spiritual relationship…many in today’s arts reformation question the necessity of a professional artist in a creative artistic experience.”  Is engagement with the arts – writing among them – turning away from one very traditional model towards another? Or is it business as usual but with pixels replacing  pulped trees?

Does the written story change now ?

Is it still writing?


What’s a book these days? Have we yet reached the time yet when a book is no longer thought of as a paper thing? Does everyone have an e-reader?

At the time of writing there is another typically odious advert on British television trying to show the joys of the e-reader for the reader. E-books (“ebooks”?) being read under trees and even in bright sunshine would you believe it? Also ebooks read by increasingly young actors all of whom will now embrace reading like never before thanks to the compulsion of the pixelated screen over the printed page.

So far, though, we still can’t read them safely in the bath. Or, at least, they take far longer to dry out on the radiator.

There seem to be a number of  issues for amateur writers to muse over as far as the new digital opportunities are concerned.

  • Is an e-book still a ‘book’? Is it just a book?
  • Do we write differently in digital? Should we?
  • Do we still long to be ‘published’ in the traditional sense?
  • Will individual, copy-writable stars give way to something more diverse, more openly-sourced? Is this more democratic?
  • Will classics still emerge? Will single books still emerge and be treasured, or will there be a perpetual wash of short-lived interests around our taste tribes?
  • Do we feel more alone or more in company in this world of e-books and digital dissemination?

I don’t have any answers, partly because these are unanswerable questions. They did however give me some thoughts and these days thinking has to lead to blogging, and blogging feeds the global digi-brain, followers or no.

Gifting books

I’ve recently had bemused scoffing when handing paper books over as presents, because of course these aren’t quite the thing now, not for anyone in possession of a Kindle. Perhaps my  technologically-savvy friends no longer touch paper? Or perhaps the platform is now the driving pleasure in the interaction and experience?

Or perhaps  it shouldn’t matter at all. Isn’t the gift actually one of these words in this order? Isn’t the gift that, having read them myself and connected said words in said order with said friend, I now offer to share an experience and create an additional connection.

Giving books of course does this for us. If you give books as presents you’ll know there’s a particular sense of what the gift is and although the look and feel and bilblio-pyshicality of the whole thing can be important, especially if you’ve scribbled on the flyleaf and added a special bookmark and discovered it’s a first edition Fleurs du Mal, there’s something more.

The thoughts that we had when reading can be magically transferred to a friend or colleague simply through the gifting of a version or copy. We choose to do this, believing perhaps that the gift will return to us its fruit in the form of some classic pub conversation or a sudden realisation in that friend that his/her own problems and proclivities are curiously recognisable in the fictional beings they are introduced to. Maybe we have a faint hope that the giftee will recognise their own disastrous failings in one of the book’s plots and be magically transformed.

What are we gifting then when we give a digital text and what is the commitment of the giver?

Some considerable effort has been expended by publishers to manage the “perceived value” of the e-book. Ideally for publishers and perhaps authors, these dig-tomes are self-evidently the equal of a paper book. This runs counter to the attitudes of many a grumpy Yorkshireman, my father included, who feels that value is best appreciated by weightiness. Gifts, according to many a sage pragmatist east of the Pennines, are best appreciated when they take up some suitably large storage space rather than on any superficial qualities such as meaning. Calling a spade a spade and a book a book leads quickly to the kind of notion that anything electronic – any e-book or e-spade – should be a fair bit cheaper. After all, no paper no ink no transport costs. What else goes into a book? Assuming that writing is, after all, a hobby for the Bronte-minded and should, in any sane world, be handed straight down the digi-path for free.

What is the “perceived value” as marketeers would have it and is this quite so self-evidently the same as a paper book? We might accept that the text is being purchased rather than the book as such. Fine editions aside, there is now an alternative to culling trees and building bookshelves. But the e-publishing phenomena has more questions. If nothing else there are new opportunities around the authors’ delivery of a near complete version of the traditional experience. All the old work around making writerly thoughts look bright and pristine on a page are done direct into machine. For my generation this still has the power to amaze. Writing used to be typewriter and carbon sheets, then it was green type on black screens. To enjoy watching something that looks so like a beloved page appear black on white in a neatly shaped rectangle, how joyous!

There we go, the end product can be whipped out from the desktop and can now sit beside billions of other texts on digital shelves.

Billions. Is that a newly scary thing for us. How many words can now be published direct. No editors. Perhaps no edits. Or perhaps a draft in public now to be tweaked over and over.

If libraries and book shops ever seemed oppressive to an amateur, to the unpublished, what now?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

We can let Robin Williams and the i-pad ad deliver an answer this question – but how much bigger is that digital library, the electronic version of the warehouse of forgotten books that kicks off Shadow of the Wind? How much more space to get lost in?

With our ability now as authors to publish direct, there are numerous potential shifts in the power nexus. If traditional fame and the desire to be known, to spread ideas and images that are identifiable and individual, is as strong as ever then it is marketing gurus we now want. This is the apparent shift in the business of the publisher. But perhaps, like the digital coding world, other things are shifting too. The need to recognise individual sources may become less important to us. Sharing, mashing, borrowing, using – are these a stronger direction for the digital than a simple repackaging of something that looks and feels very like its papery forebear?

Paratext, hors-texte and other useful trucs from France.

Critics are hot in pursuit of questions around what a digi-text is. For a start whether format can be separated from the “text”. Can the paratext as Genette has it can be regulated to interesting effect?

Paratext, for those who aren’t working on their narratology dissertation at the moment, is basically what exists as a housing or context for the words – typeface, number of words on page, cover, shop its bought in, friend who recommends, colleague who dogears the naughty bits etc. Some of this has a parallel in the e-reader, some doesn’t. E-readers have their own and will no doubt improve upon the current offer which in 2013 is a fairly bland casing and a do-it-yourself kit of sizing and percentage shifts.

Derrida famously said “Il n’ya pas de hors-texts” – which in our devious English way we have toyed with and mauled, largely considering it to either imply that “everything is language” or that there is nothing outside a/the text.* Is this as true for the digital text that feels curiously both more fixed and yet more mutable than its paper-based equivalent. Housed behind glass and in many ways untouchable, un-dog-earable, unattainable etc. Highly permanent and at the same time strangely fragile – where does it exist? Is its being simply a tide of binary possibilities?

If there’s nothing outside a text or no “hors-texts” our digital version is surely different in many ways. It’s not the same thing as giving/reading/owning a traditional book. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be.

Will we reach a stage where paper versions are only produced in swanky bindings at extraordinary prices, leaving run-of-the-mill reading experiences to the screen edition?

Already, first time authors are lucky to be offered a paper version of their first novel. Yet, this is what writers seem largely to want. The digital edition is somehow not quite as authorised, not quite as respected. It’s not quite the same thing to be published for e-book as to have a version in Waterstones that you can go in and fondle, point your friends to and sign.

However atavistic, the pull of the reading tradition as we consider a new digital version highlights the newness of a digital reading experience:

  • One reader mentions the memory we hold of whether a piece of reading was on the left or right hand side of a book, a sort of geo-location for favourite quotes and a bond with the book.
  • Many discussions have been held on page counts and what the reading experience requires in a novel in terms of that sense of when to anticipate the major turns, including the conclusion.
  • Others wonder at book marks and dog-ears – nicely illustrated by Alan Yentob’s programme on the subject – and at the need to shout to book group members, “but what about when he gets his kit off on page 69..?”
  • The very coverlessness of e-books allows for new reading habits, public consumption of texts that are not an advert for what we’re reading
  • And our bookshelves, the display of our pasts and our proclivities. Do we choose differently now they’re all in a download cloud from Amazon?

Websites and front covers

While we’re talking about those paratexts or hors-texts that condition our thinking around books, there’s a heavy expectation that we go in through a title page, first page or cover. This is a particular way of looking at the world in general and it has an interesting effect on how people react to websites.

Early websites had ‘splash pages’ replicating a cover, or gateway experience, a moving graphic that was in essence a book cover, one which said, “now we’re starting”, “get ready”, “begin to expect”. These even felt half-way to a film experience, as though the new web-reading was going to borrow from a range of exciting sensory possibilities.

It’s still very common for the uninitiated to be overly concerned with the notion of what’s on the homepage of a website. In fact homepage access to many large websites is low, typically below 35%. We no longer have to have a homepage or title page or book cover. We can go straight into whatever gobbet is delivered at random or by choice and deal with it according to need or whim. Nice. It’s a new feature, isn’t it? Except that many – most? – books allow a ‘dip in’ option… so is this new to digital? Or better in digital? Who’s choosing how we read? Do we even need a digital author to enable our selectivity?

is it still writing?

Ahead of a conference paper on digital writing I tried out a sort of artwork. The words “is it still writing?” were put up on a computer-fed screen, appearing at intervals and in a font to suggest a trace of neon signage.

For me, if not for those who walked past it, this had a number of possibilities that vied for attention as the principle statement, among them: Is the machine continuing its writing? Are the words an example of non-moving writing? Does this process continue to be defined as writing?

In the same vein, but more usefully for this post, in what way do we approach the ebook or the word-processed writing exercise and in what way has this affected how we choose to write?

Some tutors are legendary in forcing classes to work with pen and paper. It requiring a different pace of thinking. This ties in nicely with the photographer who uses glass plates in order better to engage with the process and the need for patience, selectivity and dedication to a single creative event.

If you like putting text cross-wise like a Georgian crossed-letter, or like to make a line bend from horizontal to vertical, or if you like an illustration, diagram or set of linking arrows, then the e-writing method seems horribly limiting. It’s almost as though the published page has choked creativity and still forces us to mimic it. All those years of English teachers trying to get language students to arrange their vocabulary into mind-maps and mushrooms and snails and webs rather than making lists that start in the top left – always a method that fails to work with the brain’s best practice and yet so familiar to the reading experience.

Text that defies linearity has brought some famous cases. Remember when Lewis Carroll was trying to get the mouse’s tail poem correctly to the type-setter he had to clip out each word from the proof and paste it into place, this having been expunged in the process. It’s hard to imagine a new Appolinaire coming up with graphic poetry as a writer in a world dominated by digital writing – this kind of practice seems much more likely to be fostered in illustration or graphic design or something else that has paper and pen at its core and hasn’t quite leapt aboard the one-way digi-train.

Links and loops

There are two things that digital writing has claimed as its own domain for creative practice: links and loops.

Much work exists on how loops now replace directional narratives. Many a critical theorist has spent many an hour noting the incremental changes in the notion of story. New thinking encourages us away from the traditions of a linear effect with start and finish clearly indicated and instead offers notions of restarting at recognisable points  in order to retrace or redo what is already known. It seems to be one of society’s inherent gameification modes, we treat everything in the way we treat computer games ,with multiple lives and multiple opportunities to repeat and reassemble and revisit.

The phenomena of rewatching, reviewing, re-reading what is familiar is also up for discussion, do we value something more that we have read twice. Do the dead come back to life? Does the digital encourage this any more than having a favourite book? If so does it encourage this to an extent that can challenge our notion of what reading quintessentially is?

The loop allows us, though digital means, to introduce gobbets that can then be put together in an order that pleases the end user. We don’t have to indicate a beginning or an end. We can offer a random beginning. We can make this beginning change. Rather than random generation of an entry point, one can be generated dependent on the user, governed by gps locators or time zones. Wow. Stacks of potential.

But hang on, has story itself been transformed?  Does anyone actually want to read this way (anyone who’s not doing academic work on the digital story)?

Does any story experience allow for there to be no beginning and end, or is this part of a set of definitions that separate it usefully from the more messier set of “stories” that is life itself? Does the reader wish to approach a story with a sense that this is the beginning of an experience or to be treated as an interloper in process? 

Some theorists argue that story will have a necessary intimation of prior completion. Where is the story before it is told? Although the answer is of course ‘no-where’ and this is a the root of the illusion of prior conception, neither is it easy to conceive of as being without a beginning. The bounds of what a story is are stretched if there is only infinite possibility and nothing seems to have been structured, whether that is in linear or looping form. If it just goes on and on like Eastenders or virtual life games, is this a story or something different, something too much like life itself.

The lack of beginning, the opportunity not to start from a page that is turned over, the notion that we are not dealing, when we take on a website or other digitally transmitted text, with a gateway to the experience as we looked at above with the replica of book cover, this is not an easy shift in terms of readerly thinking. It is one however that begins to suggest that the digital reading world might offer challenges to the traditional experience.

The other “extra” we get in a digital engagement is, apparently, choice. Choices in the traditional book market are fairly straightforward and fairly drastic. Do I keep reading or not? If NO please dispose of paper in suitable recycling bin. Do I recommend, do I share, do I buy multiple copies, do I re-read, do I re-visit favourite portions? If so, in what order? These seem to be the types of choice around the old fashioned paper variety of book. If YES, please purchase signed first edition for self to possess.

Hypertext fiction seems to be offering something else, something that allows even at its most basic, a choice of reading directions. Something not so different from the footnote/endnote potential most common in reference and academic text but also present in a few much-enjoyed novels. Do I click here to find out more about the background of character x – do I ‘carry on’ with ‘the story’ without knowing this additional detail that was promised? Alternatives can take us neatly along the lines of those 1980s children’s magazines that allowed you to choose with the character, or the comfortingly primitive algorithms of the early adventure games – do we enter the beast’s cave Yes or No? If yes go to page 5 if not go to page 10.

If we have choice – if these are choices that provide loops and revisits and new ideas of where a beginning might be or what an ending (closure) might be – does it feel like a narrative, does it feel like a story, or is this something else?

The truth of linked text is perhaps that there is limited potential here that is not dealt with better by more formalised genres that cover this kind of choice. Adventure gaming on boards or online gives, for my money, a better version of that sense that we are “inside the character’s response to choice”. If these are the new reading, then what has become of the old reading?

Choice and loops. This seems to characterise the departures that e-books can and have made. In some extreme versions the experiments depart far enough from the accepted definitions to require new terms and not to be seen as the simple advance of the book, the text or the story. In some ways it re-establishes the best definitions of story.

There may well be nothing outside the text, no hors-texte – do we care?

The whatness of bookness

There are some good examples of e-storytelling that aren’t books or games. Here’s a plug, Ingen elge på vejen den dag – No Elk on the Road that Day (also No Moose on the Road that Day – but let’s save it for another post that this translation misses the the careful distinction in English between elk and moose). Anyway, check out a nice little essay on loops and those narrative-types that allow you in and out with no beginning or end other than the one you bring to it as an engager – Cf when life becomes a loop Noah Niehaus

Engaging with this story means entering on a real day, finding oneself with a lexis that offers something of a traditionally written portion and then exiting in order to re-enter and find another portion on another day, there being a correspondence between real and story days of the week.

Is this a book? What is a book? In a set of handy notes on the whatness of bookness, Philip Smith recognises that the defining point is not so easy. “A teddy bear with writing on it is not a book.” No, well, probably not, though I’m not sure who might ever be in a position to wonder if it was or not.

The book is not the text, although it is traditionally associated with it, and these two elements appear often to be mistaken for the same thing. The book is the hinged multi-plane vehicle or substrate on which texts, verbal, or tactile (the latter would include braille and other relief or embossed effects, found objects, pop-ups) maybe written, drawn, reproduced, printed or assembled.

What is a book, and is an e-reader in any way a part of that book or is the book going on “within” or “without “ it. Without the human (e)reader? –perhaps some sure-footed academic could get a handsome grant to run a project of that title at some university or other.

E-publish and be damned

Technophile Douglas Adams was passionate in many interviews on the subject of the need to get rid of the papery thing that the book was and for it to be replaced by a technological advance of some sort. Yet for the current crop of writers, especially those who grew up reading books of the heavier, more papery, page-turnery variety, there remains something holy about print and about the book.

Ask anyone who is aching for publication and it is unlikely that the ebook carries the principal thrust of their dreams. A publisher offering e versions only, even with a modicum of promotion as part of the deal, is considered a pretty charmless alternative.

Can you blame them? Writing a book is hard work and for most has no rewards beyond completing the tale itself. Here’s a scenario: if you are remarkably best-selling for a first timer let’s say you do a classic print run of 2000 copies for which there’s a one pound royalty and the book is 80,000 words, You write 500 decent words per day – allowing for deletions, self-editing and so on – which means 160 working days if you remain inspired, do no planning and have no breaks. As an earner that means 32 working weeks and the kingly sum of 4K in the bank. You might get a real break and sell 5 times that but even then it’s only just sounding a plausible alternative to real work and it’s only for that one with no guarantee of a follow-up success. So – given the work load it seems pretty empty result if you’re just being thrown up on an e-publishers website.

It also flags up the passion with which many writers commit to their work regardless of publishers, agents, readers or other elements of the industry.

Then there’s self e-publishing. Is that another step down some scale of what being published is? For most it’s not actually being published, is it? You’d be disappointed if a published author came to visit your writing group and you found they’d just lobbed their own stuff through Kindle Direct, wouldn’t you? You want someone who’s followed, who’s known, who has been dubbed worthy by the multitude. Nothing wrong with the self publishing route of course, there’s that legendary group who kickstarted immortality in this way – Bronte sisters, Kenneth Graeme, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and so on – but it’s not quite what you’re aiming for when you sit down at the word-processor with an ambition to write. As an author you want something else.

What is that something else? Recognition perhaps, not in the sense of global fame, but more that someone has appreciated your efforts and given it the stamp of that approval. Someone who matters, someone who knows what a good book is.

Something more like the stuff that bookshops trade in, something with weight and solidity.

If your main aim is to commit your emotional and intellectual self to some hard version that can live through the ages in the manner of the Lindesfarne Gospels, somehow a float of pixels seems a bit lightweight. A bit easy to do, perhaps. Not the right sense of privilege that a book would give. The next stage in the degrading of the written word and the biggest change since Gutenberg. And of course what is really wanted is that sense of being special. If not hand written, they should at least be works that have been pointed out and labelled as fit for human consumption.

Is this kind of statement still valid in the digital ocean?

Publishers often seem like the enemy, the gatekeepers, the threshold guardians. They have risen to a position of power over a process and in our world where power is at its most palatable when shared or democratised or decentralised. Publishers are  in possession of a sort of imperial blessing. They can touch works and make of that typescript something other, something better, something that has been approved.

In the look-at-me-daddy of the grown up writerly world, the publisher is the ultimate parent figure, one given largely to scorn.

No, there is something about the printed work that is not in the digital work. Of course the digital extras are fine, pretty handy for the extra clients we have no doubt. Sell a few hundred thousand of those to the e-reader clients, yes please, but what we really want is something else. It’s perhaps best represented by the library or the shelf or the bedside cabinet and the contents of a piece of furniture that houses, or is built to house the literary work. A print version has something, and it does not even have to be the nicest print version.

Yes we want followers, but in some way we want our followers, like our gods, to be real.


Tips for writers: should I e-publish?

Yes – it’s out there rather than in a drawer. Especially if you’ve got an old MS you’re not going to do anything more with.

You may not get the editing that publishers offer, and you may not get the bragging rights you crave, but for most people it’s better than nothing and it may keep you going for that next big project that you do want to hawk around agents.

Worth bearing in mind that some genres do well for amateur e-publishing – romance for example.

Companies offer opportunities and tools for promotions.

Use the e-book to test the marketplace. If it sells it could impress someone who’s prepared to help with publicity. Is our book and our need for the printed version any different?

Don’t think that just sticking it online is publicising. If you want to actually get the book to go anywhere it takes constant marketing – through social media etc. Some sources reckon on 80% of your time being on sales, hence the attraction of a publisher.

How easy is it? Very – lots of handy hints on publishers websites. Just create an html file ( Systems don’t even require clean html and it can be generated through word) upload a cover and you’re up and published. Anyone who fancies the hobby of a smarter cover etc, it’s catered for too.

*(A digression here which also serves as a test for footnotes in the digi-lit:
On Derrida and his horse text, I’m reminded of a good little thread in an alumni magazine not so long go in which academics were asked to note amusing mistakes in literary history. This is of course a fantasy for academics who get to chuckle into their chests about that simply hilarious jape that Virginia Woolf pulled on Lytton Strachey over a misplaced colon. It’s not the most comedic of professions after all and the chance to air that much loved and fiendishly arcane witticism can reward the kind of ribald prof who’s been wondering for years why he never got his chance in stand-up.

So, the joke I’m thinking of goes something along the lines of this: There’s this earlyish translator of Jaques Derrida goes into a pub… his efforts manage to become acknowledged as a standard translation soon after publication and, well, this nobly bilingual phraseologist manages to work havoc in the academic world by translating “[I]l n’ya pas de hors-texte” as “there is nothing outside the text.” Chaos spews forth as of course countless anglophiles now believe that Derrida is making a claim that bewilders in its boldness. Cue four decades of academic debate and much beard scratching, black polo-neck tweaking and a pipe or two of rough shag.

Perhaps you’ve not yet managed to quite “get” this gag. No worries. It’s never made Channel 4s ultimate comedy routines, although I think there was a video-log version of it among the prize winners on You’ve Been Framed.

The joke is, apparently, that the “hors-texte” holds a meaning that some less philosophical minds would see as critical. The “hors-texte” was mis-delivered as “hors de texte” something along the lines of the “out-text” rather than the “out of text.” The “out-text” however includes various interesting bits of a printed page for the Francophile bibliophile. It includes the margins and gutters and page corners and illustrations and captions – possibly a whole range of such things and leads nicely to that whole preoccupation that inspired Genette and his paratext.

So Derrida, apparently was not so much saying that everything is language as that everything on and around a block of writing is actually part of the text.

Joke’s over.


under construction

Well, if you’ve clicked through to this page its probably because you’re the web police and want to know why a page has been called “under construction.”   Or perhaps, like me, you have some nostalgia for those websites in the mid nineties that announced “site under construction,” presumably because publishing workflows hadn’t been invented. I remember one friend had a page that happily said, “no this page isn’t under construction, it’s just crap.”  Fair dos.

In fact this isn’t under construction in that sense, not as a page anyway. More of a construct if anything. That is, I don’t imagine either coming back to it regularly for changes or leaving it in this state with a nice excuse hanging, like those 90s single page hand-coded websites with their two blocks of rough-hewn html and an airbrushed jpg.

Bear with me, as well as the rambling prose, i’m hoping to pull together tips for writers and something vaguely philosophical about writing. Have I used “writing” enough to get a google trace, maybe, writing writing writing.

Now where was I…

The point

I guess one slightly obnoxious point, if we need one, is along the lines of how does our work exist before completion?

Do we dare to start, or are we too precious about the onward pace and the need to finish?

Are we scared to commit, to commit ideas to the page or to commit our work to critical eyes?

Do we dare to finish? To say this is done, it is no longer part of me. My story must make its way alone.

What is it to finish? What is it to travel hopefully? And are amateur writers more likely to ditch their projects because the journey is no longer enough fun to bother with.


Committing to the start, preparing and then ceasing to prepare – changing into the doing mode. That isn’t always easy.

Starting to write…again

There was an interesting case with an individual I know who requested a website for himself and a project. He asked for 100 pages to be “created” to begin with, ready for the content to be put into them when the time was ripe. Some explanation was needed. Pages don’t need creating ahead of time. There’s no wood pulp needed, no bleaching no drying. It’s digital. Just launch yourself into it.

But maybe, for those who have lived through the printed paper phase and watched the world gradually become digital, there is something about the preparation of the platform on which to write. There is a need for the deep breath before beginning. There’s a need for that blank page, to know its there and that there is space to write.

I’m reminded of that terrific image from Virginia Woolf:

“she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.” [Mrs Dalloway]

The beginning. That moment before it is all under construction. The moment when waiting stops and excuses start. That moment when the end begins stretching horribly away from grasp.

Real feel – does it help you begin?

Stepping back more than a few years, I recall what seemed to me a sudden opportunity to type onto a white screen in black type. Of course I found out later – actually by reading Sephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles (super book, buy it and read it regularly) – that the marvellous apple™ company were doing this way ahead of anyone. Nonetheless, the power of the phantom page, the ache to be creating a book with Times New Roman on a white page-shaped rectangle on the screen, that was what motivated me. In fact,not having access to the proper equipment was enough to put me off, being lazy to the core, and unable any longer to stoop start writing in a green typeface on black screen. Better not to start and instead to concentrate on making endless cafetieres of coffee and being grumpy.

It is a seductive thing, knowing that your preparation must be done carefully, so carefully in fact that the real work needn’t begin for a while.  If you’re really, really lucky someone else can be given the major preparatory work, the paper making, the quill sharpening, the website building, the sacred creation of that tabula rasa before which to stand in awe of the creativity to come. Cue Virginia Woolf again.

Beginning badly

There’s a popular type of scene in novels or films which has a would-be (I’m avoiding the odious “wannabe” expression and hope to repopularise “would-be” as a phrase) a would-be creative, in the first throes of their work and, of course, finding – to wonderful comic effect – that they are so busy preparing the background to the publication that they can’t get on with the  task in hand.

This seemed to be a problem even before the green type on black was there to provide excuses.

Keith Waterhouses, Billy Liar (Michael Joseph, 1959) has a great example reworked in the film of 1963 and if I can sidestep copyright law for illustrative academic purposes, it would be good if you could home in on the scene in question. Not least because it is a bazzing good scene and worth trying to get hold of:

Billy Fisher, full of grandiose promise and self-delusion, is beginning his novel while at work. He writes the title, writes it again, writes a large “by” and then begins inventing names for himself. After a while preparing this header to the work he types a sentence and then scraps the sheet, ripping it from the roller of his cast iron Imperial with a sound you just can’t get from the delete button on a Mac.

Good scene. A classic for writers who fail to start. There’s the grandiosity with which the title and the opening paragraph are felt to herald the entranceway to a masterwork. Then the need to go over it again and make sure that entrance way is properly formed, with bells, and buzzers, and cherubim. At this point the beginning takes over. I’ve seen it plenty of times, someone with a film or a novel or even a story, and what they’ve really got is an opening chapter, or opening scene or line.

(Another nice example from David Nichol who in One Day has a not dissimilar chuckle at seedling creativity. High-minded and expecting to change the world, Emma Morley has her first go at novel writing and offers a marvelously naff half page, again with the title and the word “by” together with much agnoising over the potential pseudonyms.

[Writing exercise 1: construct a scene where a would-be creative gets overpowered when trying to begin a new work.]

Writing, possibly more than many other hobbies, passions, callings or whatever you wish to call them, seems to encourage this.  We want to begin, we want to tease out a thread that will seem like a starting point. Writing a story, whether based on something that has befallen us or that we wish or dread to befall some invented other, is a powerful motivation to sit down with whatever implement is to hand and to promise ourselves that we will begin at the beginning and, with some meandering through sagging middles, will arrive at an end.

Can we end, are we like Eyore who points out wisely in TH@PC “I would like to begin again but it is easier to stop.”  Stopping is not easy. Nor is it easy to erase what we have begun with: “the moving finger writes” as Fitzgerald has it in the Rubaijat, and not that the past is done and we move on, but that it is there for us to live with. Unable to stop we must press towards the end. If our story has proved too much for us, so way too much that we are not able to finish it but cannot bear to destroy the work, then it does seem easier to leave it until later, wait for the muse, or maybe do a bit more preparatory work, a bit of preparing of the Booker Prize acceptance speech, a bit of work on the font we should have for the cover, a bit of work on the dedication…

A philosopher equal in many ways to Eeyore, Gerard Genette points with adroit wisdom at the impossibility of beginning a narrative, looking to complex restarting as “mimicking as it were, the unavoidable difficulty of beginning the better to exorcise it.” Narrative Discourse trans. Lewin, Cornell UP, p.46.) We organise our every thought into narratives of being and the compulsion to write is the need to find meaning through organisation, through example, through the hope to find a beginning and to head towards what can be satisfactorily thought of as an end. “Closure” seems to be a word that has gained ground through American politics as much as through narratology,  and while we look for this in some instances, there is the pull of the need to end against the need to be alive to the ongoing pursuit of that end, something worth pursuing, via Walter Benjamin, through Peter Brooks’ ideas that “narrative has something to do with time boundedness, and that plot is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” Reading for the Plot, (Harvard, 1992, p.22.)

Ultimate excuse #1 –  “It’s not finished yet” aka work in progress 

There’s another scene of would-be writers that springs to mind. Isn’t there a Comic Strip Presents episode when  Dawn French is a lonely writer, typing away at her book and getting shirty with anyone looking over her shoulder – “it’s all changing, I’m changing it all, it’s not finished” or something of that nature – and over her should you see her writing “run spot run” or some other 6 word todder book – great scene and one that You Tube has failed to pitch up for me. Never mind.  The impulse is there to hide the work, deny the creative process and to believe that it’ss possible to begin again.   The classic riposte from the challenged creative. My work is in progress, don’t judge me yet, let it be known that this is under construction and is mine, still mine. You can’t have it yet. It’s not ready to go off on its own.

How long have you been meaning to write, or meaning to finish or meaning to start again?

Of course I’m aiming towards amateurs and hobbyists here. Professionals don’t do this as they are given deadlines by others who depend on their work, or at least they don’t do it much.

I often wonder, did Isaac Walton ever complete the Compleat Angler, or was it a work in progress?

So, why is this post “under construction”? The clue is probably in the opening to this post. Fear to commit, fear to share and be scrutinised. Fear to finish.  In such circumstances, give your post a title no-one would ever want to read.


Tips for writers

  • Accept the possibility of what Anne Lamott hails as  those “shitty first drafts” (Bird by Bird) whether you end up flushing it down the pan or keeping it for a bit of further modelling, there’s a lot to be said for actually having the shitty draft there to deal with.
  • It’s not yours. It only completes itself in the mind of a reader. Know how to let go.
  • Invite others in to see your work in progress. Prevent yourself from being precious around what is finished and what isn’t.
  • Write towards getting an idea into the open rather than filling space or filling time. Don’t worry how many words, megabytes, hours have gone in, but what you’ve managed to bring into the open.

Who knows, maybe someone will read it.