Monday, 29 December 2008

A new arrival...

So, how was your Christmas? Peaceful and happy I hope.

OK, now for non-Christmas news. Today, my paperback copies of Testament arrived in the post. Not quite as astonishing a moment as when the hardbacks arrived and, for the first time, I saw my book as a real thing which other people would buy, but still quite something. And paperback – I mean, that’s a real book isn’t it, the kind of book ordinary people like you and me buy? (Many thanks, however, to all the wonderful, noble people who bought it in hardback…)

Interestingly, Pan has decided to retain the hardback’s dust jacket design for the paperback’s cover. I have to admit, it’s very distinctive and looks brilliant in the paperback format – just enough out of the ordinary to make people pick it up (or out – even the spine is gorgeous) and wonder what it’s about. I know we’re proverbially warned not to judge books by their covers but we all do, don’t we? So I’m very pleased with how it looks. Here it is...


It's slightly brighter (more red, less brown) than the original hardback image but in other respects it's the same. Actually, the published version is slighly different to the one above, with the ‘shout line’ (‘what would you sacrifice to carve your name in history?’) dropped further down the cover which I think looks better, though I’m not sure I understand why. Maybe a graphic designer out there could clarify the visual psychology?

The publication date is this Friday – the 2nd of January – so it’ll soon be out there in the bookshops… I shall be in Canterbury on Friday seeing if I can spot it. If any of you manage it, let me know!

I keep reading in papers - and even in The Author - that the dreaded credit crunch is going to mean an upswing in book sales as people decide that they can’t afford to eat in restaurants or treat themselves to expensive evenings out. And, when you think about it, a paperback book is amazing value when compared with other forms of entertainment. At 568 pages, Testament represents around 8 or 9 hours of reading time (if you’re a slow reader like me, at any rate) which, at £7.99 seems like a lot better value than a cinema ticket at anything upwards of £6.00 for a couple of hours’ viewing. And you can’t even take the film home and lend it to your friends! Scale up for the theatre (or premiership football match) and even more so for eating out and, suddenly, paperbacks seem like astonishingly good value.

Of course, I’m preaching to the converted here but I am pleased that the industry I’m part of offers such good value.
Here’s to a New Year which sees publishing bucking the crunch trend!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Just to wish all visitors to Hawkins Bizarre a very


Thanks to all regular readers and commenters for your cyber-company this year - let's hope 2009 is happy, healthy and peaceful (with a bit of success thrown in) for all of us!
Have a good Christmas and some wittering here will recommence sometime between Christmas and the New Year.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Back online

Hooray – we are connected to the world again! Can’t quite believe how bereft we all felt. We live in a digital blackspot and don’t have satelite TV so we were limited to the usual 4 channels (can’t get Channel 5 because we live too near France and the wavelength is used by a French channel) so the boys couldn’t watch lots of the stuff they normally catch up on online.
For me it was the sheer inconvenience of not being able to check stuff (as well as not being able to blog). And I did feel cut off. Although I refered elsewhere to blogging and reading blogs as being the solitary writer’s equivalent of water cooler conversation, I hadn’t realised how much I needed the human cyber-contact until it wasn’t there.

Still, I am hoping that a week of having to do his homework without the accompaniment of Facebook and MSN might convince the Bassist that this is a viable alternative form of work and that his output might even improve as a result. OK, as I hear the derisive laughter of parents the country over, I have to defend myself - I did say might.

I have now officially finished work – ie writing – until the 29th of December which is when the extended family which has begun to arrive chez Bizarre will depart. I’m connoting this positively and hoping that stuffing myself with unnecessary amounts of carbohydrates, alcohol and fats will somehow induce a spurt of creative energy which will induce the final few chapters of the work in progress to write themselves, instead of dragging their wordy little feet as I try and rip them out of my subconscious.

Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering about my best books of 2008 list. I realised I’d left out Sebastian Faulks’s Engleby which was an amazing read…sure I’ve left out lots of others too.

What about everybody else? What are your best reads of 2008?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Testament is on You Tube!

Still without the internet at home.... sigh...
Will, my editor, sent me this link - check it out, the trailer for the Spanish version of Testament.
It's amazing on many levels...

Monday, 15 December 2008

Great Books of 2008

Still without the internet (come on Thursday, hurry up) I’m in Chambers - a wi-fi enabled café in Canterbury (thank you Denise and Bill!) catching up with emails, doing my Sainsbury’s shopping and putting up something on the blog lest you all forget me and go off somewhere else…

Since it’s that time of the year, I thought I’d talk about great books of the year but, instead of trawling through my reviews to see what I’d reviewed, I thought I’d just talk about the ones I actually remembered, because they’re the ones that have obviously made an impression.
So they are, in no particular order:

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. If you are in any way tempted by historical fiction, you seriously must read this book. Actually, even if you’re not into historical fiction you must read this book, it’s just brilliant.You can read my review (paean of praise) of it here.

Resistance by Owen Shears. Period fiction rather than historical as such (WW2) so I’m resisting the idea that I’m descending into predictability. Wonderful book. Review here.

Wife in the North by Judith O’Reilly. The book of the blog. Very funny, very real, terribly moving at points. For sheer blistering honesty combined with brilliantly funny turns of phrase it’s a winner. The blog is here.

Light Reading by Aliya Whiteley. I know Aliya is a fellow MNW writer but that’s not the point. It’s just a great book by somebody who I’m betting is going to be a literary star one day. There, I’ve said it. Go to it Aliya. Review here.

The People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks. Yes, Ms Brooks again. I haven’t reviewed this one on the blog because I read it at a moment when the work in progress was particularly demanding and all I could do on here was write blah blah blah. If you’re going to read this book do not under any circumstances read the reviews on Amazon because they seem, universally, to be written by people who either didn’t like or didn’t ‘get’ the book. Read this instead.

Brain Rules by John Medina
Not a novel, a non-fiction book about how your brain works. Or, more specifically, why it fails to learn as efficiently as it could. He feeds into at least one of my hobby horses when he says – basically – if you wanted to design educational establishments which stop children learning efficiently and happily, you’d come up with schools. But that’s a side issue. If you read it you’ll start taking exercise when you’re blocked, make sure you get decent sleep and will turn off the internet when you’re trying to concentrate on what you’re writing. It’s also one of the most entertainingly written non fiction book I’ve ever read. Oh, and there’s a website which goes with it which is always good.

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo
This is a bit of a cheat as I’m still reading this right now but it is amazing. I’ve always been interested in social psychology and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak reminded me about the Stanford Prison Experiment when he was doing A level psychology. I actually got this book for him but I’ve got completely into it as it starts with the prison experiment and then goes on to look at the ways in which basically decent people do horribly evil things. It goes a long way to explaining things like the Rwandan genocide and the atrocities committed during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. It also – chillingly – makes you realise that, in all probability, you would be no different.
Website here

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale. The family in this book has stayed with me since I read it, months ago. Always a sign of wonderfully drawn characters. I’ve read various others of Patrick Gale's books and his characters do have a tendency to step off the page and into your imagination as real people. If you haven’t read any of his work yet, I recommend him and this is a wonderful one to start with. My review is here.

That’ll do for now. Hopefully we’ll be back on the net at home soon and there will be more… of something…

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The internet

Aaaargh! We are without the internet at the moment at home so I'm at a friend's house telling you this. 
We are assured - huh! - that normal service will be resumed this Thursday... We shall see...

Friday, 5 December 2008

Lights out, people still home...

I suppose it was inevitable given my rant about the dark the other day that the lights would go out in our house.
One day there was flickering in the kitchen, next day (which would be the day my parents arrived to see the Bassist in his school play) there were no lights in the kitchen, the downstairs loo, the utility room or the cellar. Fortunately, the socket circuit was unaffected so we were working by the light of our SAD lightbox which was slightly surreal.

Amazingly, when I rang the electrician he said he’d be out today ( I was thinking Monday at the earliest) and when he came (which was at the time he’d said he would arrive, more miracles) he was able to fix the problem in twenty minutes with the aid of a natty head-torch. As he went down the steps of the cellar (where the fuse box and other things electrical whirr and shine and have their mysterious being) he looked more like a caver about to navigate an unknown system than an electrician who was about to discover and change a dodgy, burned-out fuse module (or something).
So we are lit once more – hooray! I don’t like using torches, unless it’s to read in bed so I don’t disturb the Other Half.

I wish glitches in novel-writing were so easily fixable. I wish I could delve into the depths of the work in progress, metaphorical head-torch affixed,a and surface mere minutes later waving a burned-out bit of narrative and saying ‘that’s it, everything should be fine now.’
But it’s not that easy.
Having said that, things are proceeding nicely with the work in progress after months of chopping, fitting, dashing ahead and then meandering at the pace of a bemused snail.
I’m not sure draft one (or is that draft three and a half?) is going to be finished before Christmas but it’ll be a close run thing.
Then there’ll be the small matter of a couple of months of editing… I know the book is too long (over 150 000 words already) and there are bits which need some reworking but I think I’m happy with the overall shape and flow now.

Still, it’s taken me the best part of two and a half years to write, though I did stop and pretty much start again in April and begin a complete rewrite with different characters and a different backstory which, inevitably, affected the narrative as I’d originally conceived it. The same things just can’t happen to different people, not unless you’re writing a ruthlessly plot-driven novel.

So, much as I say I’d like to be able to fix things quickly, I guess I wouldn’t. Anything good – including revisions and rewrites – takes time to get right, so it needs whatever time it takes.

I’m blinking glad the lights are back on though.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Meeting the real David

I had a lovely afternoon on Friday going to London to meet David Isaak. He was in the UK on business and was taking the opportunity to catch up with as many of the MNW crew as he could. There was a big get-together organised in the evening which I couldn’t make so David very kindly agreed to come and have tea with me after a lunchtime rendezvous.
[Ooops, that sounds like the beginning of an interview. I feel I should now go on to say ‘So, David, your book…’ If you’re interested in Shock and Awe, David’s thriller, you can always read my review…]

It’s a slightly strange experience meeting people whom you’ve only ever ‘spoken’ to in the public forum of their blog or yours (or, in the case of David and myself, on the blogs of other MNW writers) in the sense that you feel you know them quite well but have no idea what they’re ‘like’ in a personally present sense.

For me it raised interesting questions (which I pondered on a long and almost infinitely delayed train journey home) about what being acquainted with somebody actually means. David and I have participated in lots of online discussions about writing – I know quite a lot of what he’s prepared to reveal in public about his writing habits, I have got to know at least some of his taste in reading, films and music. So I wasn’t meeting a stranger by any means, but I didn’t feel I knew him as well as I would know somebody from whom I’d learned all that information in verbal conversation.

David and I tangentially discussed this, wondering why he had had to come to London for a business meeting when none of the participants are based there. Why wouldn’t a video conference have done the trick? We both agreed that, despite the assumptions of the 80s technology gurus when we were young, meetings where everybody is only virtually present haven’t really taken off as a way of doing business.

What is it? Do we need to see the whites of peple’s eyes before we know that what they’re saying is what they really mean? Do we need to see what people look like before we really feel we’ve got a handle on who they are?

It’s an interesting philosophical question. More and more, our society seems to be coming to the conclusion that ‘we’ reside in our brains which may or may not be coincidental with our minds. If that’s the case, why the concensus that we need to ‘press the flesh’ before a real meeting of minds has taken place? Sounds to me as if minds are a good deal more spread about our whole person than we like to (rationally) think.

But, all that philosophising aside, it was absolutely great to meet David who is the kind of person you could just chat to for hours and hours. Now, when I read his blog, I’ll mentally hear his softly-spoken voice speaking his words and I’ll be able to think ‘yes, that sounds like the lovely person I met’.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Dark...

I hate waking up in the dark. Not hate as in ‘with venom’: that kind of hate – like the hate you have for injustice or stupid cruelty – I can cope with, get my teeth into, be passionate about. No, my hatred of waking in the dark – well, of anything in the dark really – is composed more of a cold fear in the pit of my stomach, an atavistic dread seeping through me, a physical teetering on the edge of sanity, if sanity is the ability to remember that most of my life is lived in the light, that it is good, and not be overwhelmed by negativity and despair.

Often, when asked about my favourite time of the year, I say I dislike winter but I don’t, actually. I mean, winter’s got a lot going for it – frost, wonderful light, snow, better stuff on the telly, comfort food. And the clothes - I much prefer winter clothes to summer ones. It’s something to do with the absence of doubt about whether you’re going to be warm enough (constant for me in British ‘summers’), about not having to slap sun screen on for a ten minute think in the garden and not having to sit in people’s gardens as the midges bite and we eat rapildy cooling barbecued food while I lose touch with my extremities...
And I love the lights of winter – Christmas lights on the high street, fairy lights in people’s windows, open fires, candles…

No, it’s the dark I hate and I’m quite capable of hating it in the summer too, it’s just that there’s so much more of it in the winter. Like when you wake up, which is where we came in…

We get up at 6.30 in our house, like lots of people, I guess, to get us all through the shower and a staggered breakfast before leaving for school, work or – in my case – a before-writing walk. Though I’m not the biggest morning person in the world, I’m ok at getting up when it’s light out. I actually resent having to sleep (at all) pretty thoroughly, so getting up and getting on seems like a good plan. But when it’s dark everything in me screams that this is not natural, that we should be being woken up by the sun when the day’s properly beginning, not by a little beepy noise which says ‘I know it’s dark, I know you hate and fear it, but tough, open your eyes and get up.’

I think the light box that the Bassist and I huddle in front of every morning for six months of the year has got to migrate upstairs in the evenings, so that I can flick it on as soon as the alarm goes. I covet one of those dawn-light thingies which simulates sunrise but that’ll have to wait until we’re rich/the boys are through university…

And the point of all this maundering?
I think fear of the dark is, at some quite fundamental level, why I write at all.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Bassist and his Bass

The Bassist, who was 17 on Friday, has added to his Bass-player credibility by making his own bass. Yes, from scratch,with wood and stuff. It was his Dad's idea - he thinks that you can do anything as long as you've got a book telling you how. Sadly, he's often right.

This is the result.

For those of you who know about these things, it was going to have a through neck but something warped and the strings lay too low on the fretboard (there's a technical term for this but I've forgotten it and, as the B is at school and the UFF is still in bed as befits a gap-year student, you will have to remain in ignorance. Or not if you know about these things.). So he had to buy a ready-made neck and attach it which was a bit sad but the bass plays beautifully. Apparently, not varnishing it gives it better low tone... he might wax it but then again, it sounds so good as it is he might not want to block up any spaces in the wood... Hmmm.

There are technical details about bridges, pickups etc which I can supply on request if readers of this blog are remotely interested, but only when the Bassist comes home.


I am amazingly impressed - at his age I could barely make toast...

Monday, 17 November 2008

Two Booker books



I’ve just read two books which had a similar feel – one was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year and the other won this year. As long as you know that this year’s winner was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and have even a passing acquaintance with last year’s list, you’ll probably guess that the other one was Mosin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Why the similar feel? Well, Adiga’s novel is set in India, Hamid’s in Pakistan (though much of the action takes place in New York) so there’s the subcontinental resemblance, but that’s not it.
Both are first-person narratives detailing the dramatic changes in one person’s circumstances as they move away from the place they have grown up to seek their fortune elsewhere. But that’s not it either.

No, the thing which gives these very different books such a spookily similar feel is the fact that they are both constructed as stories which are being told to an audience of one.


Balram Halawi, a sweet-maker by caste and a cut above those around him by his own estimation, describes himself as a social entrepreneur. At the beginning of the book he is in his incongruously chandelier-lit office in Bangalore late at night, waiting for his ‘start up’ business to come alive as the call centre workers begin to trickle home. He is, improbably, speaking to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who is supposedly making a visit to Bangalore. Balram knows what Mr Wen will be shown on his visit and he wants to tell him what India is really like. So he tells him his own life story, the story of the one-in-a-generation phenomenon, the white tiger.

Mr Wen, he knows, will be shown the upside of modern India, the technology companies, the businesses ‘outsourced’ from Europe and North America, the shiny malls, the extensive building projects, the rising entrepreneur class which is going to propel India into the forefront of twentyfirst century economies.
What Balram Halawi wants Mr Wen – and, of course, us – to understand is that this dynamic modern India is an insubstantial urban mirage accessible only to the rich, the successful, the privileged; that the other ninety nine point nine percent of Indian society exists, in some sense, to service this mirage.
Balram’s India is a place where ruthlessness and not merit is a guarantor of success, where corruption is not simply common but necessary, where the vast majority of the populace are content to live in what he calls ‘the Rooster Coop’, unaware that they can break out, flap away and live a different sort of life. He presents an India where, despite the modern veneer, the caste system is as predictive of one’s chances of success as the feudal system was of the villein’s. In other words, if you’re born poor, don’t expect to be rich any time soon.
In Balram’s India the family structure – far from being the supportive, wisdom-imparting social network which we all mourn the loss of in the west – is a leech on a man’s talent and a bar to his ambition.

Balram’s India is not a nice place and Balram is not a nice person. He is, the novel asks us to believe, what his life, and India, has made him.


Changez – the considerably more likeable narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist – directs his narrative to someone considerably closer at hand, an American whom he has encountered in a restaurant and whom he treats to dinner and his life story. But, like Wen Jiabao, the American remains silent all through the book-long encounter. Though we infer his reactions (nervy, mistrustful, gun-toting) from the comments Changez makes in his slightly stilted, formal English, we never hear him speak, never hear his reactions to the picture Changez paints of a young Pakistani intellectual who goes to Princeton on a full scholarship, falls in love with an American girl (and her country) and then goes on to work as an analyst at a very prestigious firm. It is this business, with its constant insistence that its employees focus on ‘the fundamentals’ (ie the bottom line) which gives the book the reluctance of its title.

Or is it? While the novel shows how Changez grows disenchanted with America’s assumption of superiority in all possible spheres and rejects it in favour of his own country and its more ancient, less brash culture – his rejection of the ‘fundamentals’ of capitalism – I wonder if it’s also trying to suggest that, in rejecting one empire’s assumption of the right to dominate, Changez has made a positive decision for an alternative kind of domination?

The ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is ambiguous – at least to me.
As the novel unfolds, it has become clear that the large American is armed and military; given his constant silent watchfulness, it’s hard not to see him as an intelligence-gatherer of some kind. Is Changez’s insistence on taking hours to tell him his life-story an elaborate attempt to keep the American in the restaurant until some plan can be put into place? The final page certainly suggests this, or this possibility.
Has Changez, however reluctantly, abandoned the fundamentals of the capitalist creed only to take up those of another creed altogether?

So, similarities:
Both books ask what individuals will sacrifice to be successful in the world; each comes up with very different answers.
Both books, in very different ways, offer a critique of capitalism which has come adrift from morality.
Both books have narrators who are quite confident that they have seen the truth. In both cases the reader questions this.

I’d recommend both books – though, to be honest, I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist more as the world it portrayed wasn’t so brutal and its narrator was more engaging – and reading them back-to-back is an interesting exercise in various kinds of comparison.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The hardest thing...

Is it just me, or do other writers have problems getting in to scenes? As in, finding the right words to get the thing in motion, bridge from the last thing and into the next, mark the passage of time or just plain get the reader into the tortured thinking of the central character? I think I spend more time on these jumping off platforms than anywhere else in the book.
Once I’ve climbed up there and looked at the teeny tiny pool I’m aiming for and taken a deep breath and funked it, walked back, breathed again, aimed again and jumped… then, I’m usually OK…after the odd second failure to jump, near miss or weird landing in a different pool altogether.

But getting up there, leaving everything else behind and knowing exactly what you’re aiming for in this next effort – that seems to be the hardest thing for me.

What’s the hardest process thing for the other writers out there? Other than sorting out strained metaphors in other people’s blogs, obviously.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

An auspicious 200th post!

There was a note blu-tacked to the bathroom door this morning. It read ‘Obama won! He is now president elect of the United States!’ The Ultimate Frisbee Freak had stayed up til God knows what hour this morning to watch the coverage and relay this happy news to the rest of his family who have to get up early. This, I have to tell you, is a young man who struggles to remember which party forms the UK government and what the real name of the Tories is. Like so many of his generation, he doesn’t do politics. Just like so many people in the States who have never registered to vote before and yet did just that so that they could vote for Obama didn’t do politics. Just like young Jewish people who watched comedian Sarah Silverman’s Great Schlep video and took her seriously enough to mobilise not only themselves but their grandparents don’t generally do politics.
This was an important election.

I don’t think it was the fact that Barack Obama is of mixed race and therefore that history was about to be made by the first black president that made my son stay up. It wasn’t just that which made me well up and cheer at the news.
I think the emotions evoked by Barack Obama’s victory were the same as those I felt when I watched TV coverage of the first free elections in South Africa – people queuing hours to cast a vote they’d never had before - and Nelson Mandela became the first properly elected president of his country. What we saw then was a good man being chosen to run a newly liberated country and I think that what we are seeing today is a good man preparing to move his family into the White House. I think that’s what motivated the Ultimate Frisbee Freak’s vigil – he wouldn’t have stayed up to watch an African American with, for example, Sarah Palin’s views get elected.

I profoundly hope Barack Obama is the good man he appears to be because the world is in such a mess that the most powerful nation on earth has never been in greater need of a good man as its leader.

Good luck, Barack Obama, from a family that celebrated your victory with a note on their bathroom door.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Feeling at home

I like going abroad but I’m even fonder of coming home again.
I like home.

France is a fascinating, beautiful, rich country but I couldn’t live there; I have known for years that I couldn’t live, permanently, anywhere non-Anglophone. Though I’m a competent linguist and pick up languages quickly, I know that I would never reach the stage where I would simply be able to open my mouth and speak my thoughts in the way that I can in English. I can say this with certainty because I was brought up as bilingual as it is possible for a person to be who does not have parents who speak different native languages and I was always aware that I thought in English, never in Welsh. However easily Welsh came to me, it never came with quite the fluency of English, there was never the sensation that language formed no barrier to thought.

And, quite simply, communication is so important to me that I couldn’t possibly forgo the ability to communicate effortlessly with the people around me.

I know I’d get by. I’m fairly confident I’d be able to do more than get by after a while but it wouldn’t be enough.

The sunshine wouldn’t be enough either. I know I’m sufficiently contrary that I would begin to miss clouds and rain and frost and drizzle after a while.

Quite apart from the language thing, there’s another barrier to living somewhere other than Britain. Like lots of writers, I’ve always felt that I exist on the edge of things, always an onlooker, an observer, never quite a full, self-forgetful participant. There’s always a part of me which is standing aside, watching myself doing things. I’m never more than an unwary step away from a feeling of alienation, a feeling that I don’t belong, that I’m not quite part of things in the way that other people are.
If I feel that in my own country, imagine how much of an outsider I’d feel elsewhere.

What do other writers reading this feel? Is alienation a common affliction for those of us whose default setting is ‘observe’? Is easy, thought-to-speech communication a fundamental need for you, too, or is that a foible of mine?

Such are the thoughts generated by a holiday….

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Code word thingies

Is it just me, or have the 'I'm not a spammer' code word thingies on Blogger turned from random jumbles into vaguely credible words? They suddenly seem far easier to get to grips with and type.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

My Secret Vice...

Neil Ayres, over at the Veggiebox which he shares with Aliya Whitely, has started a meme. It’s not one with loads of questions; in fact it has only one question – what’s your secret vice?

So far, people’s secret vices seem to be rather TV and film based. OK, I have that sort of vice too but it is AS NOTHING compared to my real vice.

Rucksacks.

Yes, rucksacks. Bags which you carry on your back, with shoulder straps. They’re everywhere now, from schoolchildren’s backs to pensioners’ garden-wandering shoulders and every kind of back in between. You can get teeny weeny little diamante encrusted numbers (except why would you?) and mammoth things which look as if they would literally hold the kitchen sink as you backpacked around the known universe. Everybody’s got one these days.

But I loved rucksacks well before all this ubiquity. I have loved them since I was thirteen and saved up my pocket money to buy my first one from my Mum’s catalogue – a grey canvas number with two outside pockets fastened with leather straps and buckles and leather shoulder straps. You pulled the thing closed with string strung through eyelet holes and buckled it up. Nobody had heard of snaplock buckles in those days. Nobody outside the American military had thought of ripstop nylon and waterproofed materials in the context of rucksacks. If you wanted things inside to stay dry, you put them in a plastic bag. Or a bin bag if you had a bigger rucksack, like the one I went around bits of Germany and Scandinavia with in my second summer at university. A huge blue karrimor beast with an external aluminium frame. I was also accompanied by my friend Jane, but she is not what this post is about.

Lots of people carry all their baby-changing paraphernalia in a rucksack now (from Mothercare, natch). I did it nineteen years ago in one from Milletts. It didn’t have a changing mat or a bottle pocket. Not that I had any time for either of those things anyway, but you get the point. If it can be carried in a rucksack, I will carry it in a rucksack.

My family is tolerant of my vice. If I don’t buy or otherwise acquire a rucksack in any given calendar year, I tend to develop a tendency to stand outside Millets, Blacks, Field and Trek or luggage shops with my little nose pressed against the window, muttering about compression straps, map pockets and attachment points. As we walk down the relevant street (in Canterbury all three outdoors shops are within 50 yards of each other – bliss or torture depending on my rucksack-affording status) one of the boys is apt to bark ‘step away from the rucksack shop, Mum!’ or take my by the arm and gently steer me away, depending on how manic the gleam in my eye is.
The Other Half is kinder, she lets me go in and stroke them.

So, for your delight and delectation, may I introduce a few of the current stars of my rucksack collection.

Cue music...




This is my current 'everyday' rucksack. Just big enough to get my little laptop into if I need to. I don't do handbags, this is as handbaggy as I get.
This one's a recent acqusition, replacing one I used for more than ten years ( I may be acquisitive, but I ain't fickle) until the main zip gave out a couple of months ago. I haven't been able to bring myself to throw out this old friend yet:


Then there's the walking rucksack for when the hiking fit is upon the Other Half and me...



...which also doubles as the 'I'm going shopping' rucksack for carrying loads of rice and stuff from the local wholefood shop.


The leather 'it's not a briefcase' rucksack:


...and the piece de resistance, the good old backpacking rucksack. This is the one I took when I went to the Reading Rock Festival last year with the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist. It's still got the multicoloured straps i used to attach things to it...


I could go on, and on.....but as regular readers of this blog are probably already doing the cyber-equivalent of sidling away nervously and wondering whether to delete me from their favourites list, I shall desist.

I blame Neil... then again, perhaps I should have just talked about my dodgy addiction to the Archers...

Monday, 20 October 2008

Busman's holiday?

As I said in my last blog-post, I had intended that our time away in the Cevennes should be a complete break from the work in progress but things keep breaking in, and not entirely as a result of my inability to stop thinking about the book. So, as the weather is horrible today, I thought I’d tell you about one of the break-ins.

On the day after we arrived, there was a wedding in the village. As we’re across the valley from the church here, we wouldn’t have known anything about it but for the local custom which involves driving from church to reception-venue with one’s hand held permanently on the car’s horn. This produces an ever-increasing cacophony of horns at all kinds of pitch which, in the stillness of a remote French valley where every car engine is audible, is quite something.

So, why did this remind me of the work in progress, sitting on laptop and memory stick at home? Because this local custom is – I think - a remnant of the tradition of charivari whereby some marriages (and, more specifically, consummations) would be greeted by a noisy accompaniment from village people. Though this is known as a French custom, the sources I have read (for reasons which become obvious in a minute) suggest that it may, once upon a time, have been a far more widespread European folk-custom which sought to regulate and regularize marriage practices.

The reason I have been reading about folk customs is that a colourful one appears in my current book. The carrying of the ceffyl pren, or wooden horse, is likely (apparently) to be an offspring of the same ancestor as the charivari. Used, in the period in which my current book is set, as an tool of social disapproval, the ceffyl pren probably had its origins in a charivari-like ceremony which was then, by extension, invoked to punish those who were failing to be married in an acceptable way – wife beaters, adulterers and those who fathered and then rejected illegitimate children were all suitable candidates to be made to mount the wooden horse and be paraded and jeered at all around the village, with a little rough-handling from the men en route to make sure they mended their ways.

By the nineteenth century, its use had been extended far beyond marital misdemeanours and was used to punish anybody who was infringing generally-held social rules that were not otherwise safeguarded by the law. Cheaters, swindlers, sellers of substandard produce – anybody could find their door being knocked on in the middle of the night by a mob of their neighbours beating drums and blowing horns to create the maximum public kind of embarrassment as the miscreant rode around the village on an uncomfortably thin wooden horse.

The Rebecca Riots – rural unrest sparked off by the multiplication of illegal and overcharging tollgates on turnpike roads and the central theme of the work in progress – used the ceffyl pren and its associated carnival to great advantage. Men dressed as women, their faces blacked, rode out at night to right the wrongs being perpetrated in their community. And sometimes got a little out of hand...

From marriage 2008 via agricultural workers’ protests back into the mists of European folk history… as a novelist with a strong historical bent it seems I’ll never be safe from my source material; perhaps I should have brought the laptop after all…

Thursday, 16 October 2008

We're all going on an autumn holiday...

Having worked some time in lieu I have next week off from the day job as well as the following week (half term) so the Other Half and I are off to France to stay with her mother for a bit, leaving the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist to fend for themselves for a week or so (with a freezer full of food…) They are under strict instructions not to let us come back to find that our feet stick to the floor and we can’t see any surfaces for unwashed crockery…

I was going to take my beloved laptop and put in a couple of hours’ work a day on the novel but, having thought about my current productivity (poor), I have decided to take a break. I have been working on the wip solidly for four and a half breakless months since the OH and I had a week’s walking in the Peak District, so I reckon I’m due a bit of a brain-holiday.

As I’m taking the only thing I bought with my recent royalty cheque – a new digital SLR camera – there will, hopefully, be some decent-ish pictures of the Cevennes in autumn to stick up here when we return.

Meanwhile, don’t do anything I wouldn’t.

PS, what about The White Tiger winning the Man Booker, eh?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius

Garrghh! The internet… Or rather internet service providers… Or, more specifically, BT telephone exchanges…
Thanks to one or more of these factors we won’t be getting a new ISP anytime soon, so all my hard work changing my email address and letting everybody know was a waste of time.
I say again, Garrghh…

I shall not vent my spleen a la Marcus Brigstocke on the Now Show (excruciatingly funny on the subject of his internet service provider’s shortcomings – can’t remember who they were but never mind, best not anyway [sorry to those who aren’t avid BBC Radio 4 listeners who will be baffled by these references.]
Instead, I shall pick up on a theme from a recent post on Tim Stretton’s blog. J K Rowling. What has the poor woman done to provoke such animus? (Not from Tim, I hasten to add..) Not to mention resentment and envy.
All it seems to me that she has done is write the most extraordinary series of children’s books since Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series.

A commenter on Tim’s blog is a prime example of the kind of thing often said about the Harry Potter books; not – one suspects – always by people who have actually read the books.

He is representative of the kind of thing Rowling is routinely criticised for.

Sample criticism 1: The Harry Potter books are a success because they are based on a clever idea, it’s just a shame JKR can’t write.

This implies that the person levelling the criticism thinks ‘writing’ is nothing more than prose style, the putting of one word after another into well crafted sentences; that inventing a unique setting, an internally consistent and believable world in which the great struggle between good and evil is satisfyinglyplayed outwith emotional realism is nothing more than cheap trickery which anybody could manage after breakfast and before lunch.
Hah!


Sample criticism 2: The books’ popularity is entirely down to the unfeasible attractiveness of Hogwarts and the japes which go on there.

OK, Hogwarts is a wonderfully seductive place – no bedtimes, wonderful meals, competition between houses, freedom from pretty much any rule outside the classroom, Dumbledore’s twinkly wisdom at the helm - what’s not to like? But I think this criticism completely ignores the fact that the Harry Potter books are actually far deeper than simple boarding-school-with-magic stories. They’re full of archetypes which, as any storyteller knows, is the best way to ensure that your books hook the readers in ways they don’t understand; and they’re about the eternal battle between good and evil. Neither archetypy nor the eternal verities are typical elements of most school stories. And, let’s face it, Hogwarts is not what has hooked hundreds of thousands of adults on the books, is it? [No, it’s not. At least not this adult.]

Sample criticism 3: JKR can’t write, has a dreadful prose style and so many other variations on a theme of ‘how can she have made this much money when we think our prose is far more deathless?’ that it makes me sick.

Style. Hmmm. OK, it’s not going to win the Pullitzer prize and the Man Booker judges haven’t troubled JK much. But let’s not forget something fundamental – these books are aimed primarily at children. Personally I think that’s something other YA writers of series have lost sight of in their rush for the 'crossover' market. I found at least one other highly successful 'children's' trilogy so bleak by the final volume that, had I read it as a child, I would have been deeply troubled.

Sample criticism 4: She just bolted lots of winning formulae together. To whit school story, magic story, cinderella story.

There are elements of all those things in the Harry Potter books but, for me at least, the narrative which makes up the series is far more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think JKR has just done a literary cut-and-shunt. I think she’s created a consistent and believable world. Magic is an excellent and ancient symbol for power and the witting misuse of magic is – in the Harry Potter books – always a misuse of power. The books are about power and its moral/ethical use to a far greater extent than they are actually about magic. That’s why they work for adults. If they were just about magic, they’d only work for small children who are OK with inconsistency and things happening improbably and without consequences.

Sample criticism 5: Her editors must be doing some of the writing because the books are a lot better now than they were at the beginning.

Are they?
Personally I don’t see the Harry Potter oeuvre fundamentally as a series of 7 books. I think they have to be seen as a continuous story, much like the Lord of the Rings (Nobody ever says, Oh, I really liked the Fellowship of the Ring but I didn’t go much for Two Towers or the Return of the King, do they?)
JK Rowling knew how the whole series was going to pan out from the very beginning and I think that shows. So I don’t see one book as better than another and I think those who think the later books are better than the earlier ones are just reflecting the fact that they have been progressively drawn in to Harry’s world. Those of us who found the world vivid and compelling from the beginning find locating our favourite HP book quite difficult.

The blog commenter on Tim’s blog also comes up with a less representative gripe as well:

To my mind the greatest sin Rowling commits is the clumsy and inappropriate juxtaposition of the cutesy and the deadly serious. It seems like she either couldn't make up her mind, or couldn't come up with a story that worked one way or the other.

That would be like Shakespeare in Hamlet, then. Gravediggers with laboured jokes… obviously the man didn’t know he was writing a tragedy.
Would we care about Harry if it wasn’t for the ‘cutsey’ elements with his friends and, presumably, the Weasley family in the Burrow? If the whole series was ‘deadly serious’ wouldn’t we be a bit tired and harrowed by the end of Philosopher’s Stone, never mind the rest of the series?
For me the juxtapositions of high and low drama are not clumsy but well-thought out, the ebb and flow of the heartbeat of life, pathos and bathos, tragedy and comedy.

I’ll come out and state my position with absolutely no embarassment at all – I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My two hats

Generally, my day job – working with teenagers on the autism spectrum – doesn’t really intersect with my writing life at all, apart from the need to think very carefully about what you say before you say it. (Misunderstandings, as those of you in any way acquainted with an individual on the spectrum will know, arise easily and are not necessarily as easily cleared up...)

But then, along came Vicky Warren from The Bookfiend’s Kingdom. Vicky runs her site entirely in order to draw attention to the work of The Disabilities Trust which look after adults with autism, and to raise money for it. And, to do this, she talks to a lot of writers and works her way around the country tirelessly talking to novelists about their books, going to book fairs and generally being seen about at literary happenings.

She interviewed me in May and, a couple of days ago, I heard from her again, telling me that she had chosen Testament as her October book of the month.
How kind! Something tells me she really does like my book.

When she interviewed me, Vicky asked whether I’d be interested in writing something on what I do in the day job for her site. Given the state of the work in progress, I said I’d love to but would have to take a rain check. I’d still like to but the rain check’s still in my pocket (getting a bit limp) as the wip’s nowhere near finished as yet.

But, if and when I get around to writing my piece for the BFK on working with high functioning autistic teenagers in a grammar school setting (or whatever catchy title I manage to come up with, certainly not this one) it will be weird for both bits of my working life to be together under the same cyber-roof.

I’ve often thought of writing a book called something like ‘Ten Things every Parent of an Autistic Child should Know’.

If I did, would I publish as Alis Hawkins or would that just get horribly confusing?

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

That most delicate subject...

So, today is a very significant one in my life as a writer. No, we didn’t get signed up to a new internet service provider – haven’t even got our migration authorisation code yet and we can’t begin the move until that arrives, so we’re still on line here chez Bizarre – no, today I got my first proper royalty cheque, the one in March having only covered the period up til Christmas, ie before Testament was published.

And you know what? I feel rich.
OK, objectively I am far from rich. The amount I’ve earned is less than a third of the annual sum I gave up in cutting back on paid work but it’s still more money than I’ve ever earned in one go before. And it’s the only money I’ve ever made from writing, never having been one of those writers who enjoyed years of success in the short fiction market before moving seamlessly into novels.

And I noticed a strange thing in contemplating this royalty cheque - money earned from writing feels more worthwhile than other money.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that, instead of being paid by some faceless bureaucracy which doesn’t actually have the smallest idea what I do on a day-to-day basis, the cheque sitting on my kitchen table is made up of myriad individual purchases by the reading public (even if some of them are prospective and German)
That’s why the money feels more worthwhile, because people have paid it over for this particular, specific, unique thing – my book.

So, on this very significant day in my writing life I would like to say thank you to all the people out there who have parted with their hard-earned cash to buy a hardback copy of Testament.

I am humbly and genuinely grateful.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Art and Craft

Clearly, I have no thoughts of my own at the moment. This post, like the last, was sparked off by one of Emma Darwin’s on her excellent blog (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it, one of the best writers’ blogs around).
And, while I’m in confidential mode, posts may be even thinner on the ground than of late in the near future as my family is embarking on the hazardous enterprise of changing internet service provider… I know I need say no more. To paraphrase Captain Oates, I may be some time…
Anyway, on with the post.

What’s the difference between art and craft? And which is novel writing? Or is it possible to do it as either?

Personally, I’ve always felt that unless art has shedloads of craft behind it that it’s just a clever idea (like half a cow in formalin – not even necessarily a clever idea, just a novel one) and not art at all, but that’s just me. Think of the craft which went into the Mona Lisa, Canterbury Cathedral, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Swan Lake.

Obviously, novels have to have craft – nobody produces in excess of 80 000 words that people want to publish and others want to read without demonstrating quite a lot of it – but where is the boundary between workmanlike, knowledgeable application of one’s craft and the extra something which makes a book into a work of art?

I always come back to furniture whenever I find myself having this kind of conversation with anybody.

Making decent furniture requires a lot of craft – you’ve got to know what the basic principles behind any sofa, chair, table or cupboard are. What are the accepted dimensions, how do you make joints which are going to stay joined, what is the best wood for a particular task, how do you finish surfaces….etc
And, if a person who has some natural feeling for making things with wood puts all that knowledge into operation in an intelligent and intuitive fashion, they will produce something which is functional, well built and pleasing to look at in the way that things which perfectly suit their purpose (think Shaker) are pleasing.

So, where does art come in?

OK, let’s narrow our field of vision and think about chairs.

Craft produces a chair that is wonderfully comfortable to sit in, a chair you sink into with a sigh and can remain in indefinitely without fidgetting, a chair which supports, envelops or displays you according to your taste.
But, bring art into the equation and your heart does a little leap every time you see the chair, it makes you think of beauty and timelessness and aspiration, it makes you glad on a level which isn’t just to do with comfortable sitting for weary limbs.

So what’s the analogy with novels?
Craft produces novels which people can immerse themselves in and enjoy for what they offer – plot, character, setting. The reader may forget themselves for a while and finish with a satisfied ‘yes, I enjoyed that’. But craft alone doesn’t produce a book which people will keep thinking about, which will make a reader stop at the end of a paragraph and think about what they’ve just read, which will cause people to re-read sentences, paragraphs – even the whole book, again and again because of the beauty of the words or the perfect encapsulation of the idea they contain.
Art produces books which make people see the world differently, if only for a while; which cause their readers to view their own life in a slightly different way.

So I ask the readers amongst you – do you have a different view of the difference between art and craft?

And as for the writers – do you see yourself as a craftsman/woman or an artist. Or are you both?

I’ll be back when our broadband’s migrated….

Monday, 22 September 2008

Voyeurism and The Mathematics of Love

Goodness, I feel so very dilatory at the moment as far as the blog’s concerned. Nearly every bit of creativity, effort and focus I possess is being poured into the work in progress and, if there are any scraps left, it goes into being a halfway decent person for my family to live with.

But something has made me want to post. A couple of days ago, Emma Darwin put up this intriguing post on her blog and it got me thinking, both about her book, The Mathematics of Love, and my own writing.

Having explained far more cogently than I have ever been able to (go on, read the post) why it’s easier to achieve the distance necessary to lift a story out of the morass of detail and on to a more abstract plane when dealing with historical narratives rather than with an all-too-familiar contemporary world, Emma goes on to say:

Fiction.. doesn't always want to be either abstract and eternal, or contemporary and particular: I don't think I'm unique in demanding of myself that it should be not either-or, but both-and.
I want to write particularities so that something - often I don't know quite what - emerges, is sensed and felt, which goes beyond the particular.

I admired and enjoyed The Mathematic of Love very much so, having read this post, I asked myself what she was using the particularities of the two narrative strands in her novel to say. What emerges from the particular circumstances of Napoleonic war veteran-turned landowner, Stephen Fairhurst and the naïve, worldly-wise 1970s teenager, Anna Ware?

Though it’s a little while since I read the book the word ‘voyeurism’ springs to mind. I was struck by how many times the word itself – or one of its grammatical relations – is used in the text and it is the concept of the voyeur that is the most definite ‘something’ that I felt behind the particularities of the text.

There is some blatant voyeurism (though I’m using the term somewhat loosely here to mean anything which gives the viewer a kind of illicit or societally shocking thrill rather than anything explicitly sexual) in that Stephen Fairhurst supports himself in the immediate aftermath of the war with France by doing battleground tours for parties of curious English tourists. These people have heard about the war from afar but now – now that it’s safe – they want to see the places that they’ve only heard about in the newspapers. Some want to see where loved ones died, others just want to see the place where unimaginable carnage took place, to get a safe echo of it.

But The Mathematics of Love also concerns itself with a kind of voyeurism which is nearer to the novel-writing bone and I found myself asking whether all artists (and, by extension, those who consume art) might be seen to a greater or lesser extent as voyeurs - as those who watch but don’t engage.

Lucy, a young woman frustrated by and intolerant of the social conventions of early nineteenth century gentility, is an artist; she hides behind her sketchbook and pencil, using them as a socially acceptable buffer between her and the censure of the world. Her art gives legitimacy to her need to look at things, however societally shocking, and to see them for what they are.
But, for whom is Lucy drawing? Whatever her stated reasons, whatever society’s complacent nod, it seems to me that she is drawing for herself, as a way of both seeing the world in a more objective way and of engaging with it in one of the few ways which is open to her.
So much, I suspect, is familiar to most novelists – isn’t that what we do – watch, interpret, produce something new as a way of communicating a vision of the world?

Is Lucy a voyeur – feeding on other people’s lives because she isn’t allowed to choose one of her own - or a clear-seer, someone for whom her sketchbook is not just a buffer but a lens?

In the twentieth century strand of TMOL, during the famously desiccated summer of 1976, fifeen year old Anna is also seeing things differently. During an enforced stay in what was once Stephen Fairhurst’s house and is now a struggling boarding school owned by her uncle, she becomes involved with photographers Theo and Eva. They introduce her to photography – both theirs and, as the novel progresses, her own – and, as Anna learns to look, to see, her excitement at watching things and people form before her in the red darkness of the developing room is the thrill of observing those who have been unaware of being watched. They come into view, coaxed by enlarger, developer and fixer and suddenly exist – the little strips of time represented by the negatives now a positive version of what the photographer has seen; her own take on the world and the people in it. And all seen from the anonymity which exists behind the lens.
The artist as watcher rather than participator.

But does the camera ever lie? More importantly, can a photograph ever tell more than a tiny part of the truth?
When Anna asks Theo what became of the Spanish woman he photographed during the Civil War, he is forced to tell her that he doesn’t know, that it was the moment that counted, he needed to capture that moment, the truth of it, the story of it.

But snapshots – though they tell a kind of story – can never give us the whole thing, can never tell us what came next.

Do novels, I wonder, do better or just differently?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Back Story

Long ago, says David Isaak, at least as time is measured in the blogosphere, I posted on the subject of unpublished works and the number of unpublished novels many well-known writers had piled up before they published their debut novel.

What, he asks his readers, do we have in our trunks, or our drawers? And, yes, he does acknowledge that unsold writing is ‘apparently always stored somewhere synonymous with points south of your navel.’

So, what’s in my nether regions?

Novel one – Making History – a non-murder crime story featuring a police officer protagonist and a historical element based in the Rebecca Riots (a theme I’ve returned to in the wip, see below). The agent who read it said that she wasn’t sure I was really a crime writer and that the book was more concerned with other things. I think that was very astute of her.

Novel Two – Hugo’s Words – a novel for teenagers about a boy (the eponymous Hugo) who has invented his own language and whose disaffected brother convinces a television celebrity that Hugo has – through some kind of spiritual contact – channeled a native American language lost to science in to the modern world.
Yes, I know…

Novel Three – Hearts and Minds – a homeless girl accuses a vicar of paying her for sex. The son of the psychiatrist who treats the vicar is, quite separately, drawn to spend time with a homeless youth, the best friend of the girl in question.
Much angst ensues. One of the publishers who read the novel (sent by an agent I had briefly persuaded to represent me) said that the psychiatrist (who I allowed to intrude into the action, erroneously as it turns out) emoted so much that if there was any more angst she would bite her own leg off, or words to that effect. She was right. Though I still think that the teenagers in the book were strong.

Novel Four – Testament. My MNW debut novel. Originally called Toby for reasons that will immediately be obvious to anybody who has read it.

Novel Five – the only novel I’ve ever abandoned unfinished. It’s also unnamed. Another children’s book, this time the beginning of a trilogy. Essentially a semi-supernatural quest novel but including a twins-separated-at-birth theme and a grandmother-granddaughter relationship which, I have realised (by reading my own writing) is a major preoccupation for me.

Novel Six – the work in progress. Details scattered here and there on the blog and on my website.

I’ve returned to the theme of book one in the work in progress in the sense that it concerns the Rebecca Riots in West Wales in the 1840s and an incoming entrepreneur in the present day who wants to set up a historical visitor attraction based on the riots. These two central ideas are the same, the rest of the book is totally different.

I’d quite like to return to the central premise of Hearts and Minds at some stage as I feel I’d do the idea more justice now, but we shall see.

As for Hugo’s Words. I really liked it but never attempted to get it published as everybody at the time told me that there was no market for teenage fiction.

Given the varied works outlined, it always feels weird referring to the wip as ‘my second novel’ and I sometimes qualify this with reference to the distinction between writing and publication.

Publication, unless you’re Faye L. Booth it's a long road.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Publication and Perseverance

Recently, on the Macmillan New Writers’ collective blog, David Isaak asked ‘How does it feel’? How does it feel, x amount of time on from your baby’s release into the world, to be a published writer?

My response at the time was:

‘I think being published has changed the way other people see what I do rather more than the way I see it. I've always taken my writing very seriously but other people would look at my days spent writing while I worked part time at the money-generating job and think 'Isn't this a bit sad? Doesn't she realise that publication is monumentally unlikely?' Now they just ask, meekly, where they can get a copy of my book and when the next one's coming out. Prior to MNW saying they'd like to publish Testament, I always said I wouldn't stop trying to be published until I stopped developing as a writer. That hasn't changed either!’

But, in the weeks since I posted that reply, I’ve realised that there is something more fundamental that being published has done for my writing – it’s given me more confidence in what I do, in my own abilities and, possibly, my own potential.

Had I not had Testament published, I wonder whether I would have persevered with the work in progress. It’s not proving an easy book to write and, without the confidence of having been accepted into the MNW fold, without Testament going into paperback, I wonder whether I would have had the confidence to weather the difficulties which writing the current novel has thrown up and simply persevere.

Interestingly, it’s not just having had Testament published which has made the difference but one of the consequences of that publication – being a blogger and a reader of blogs. Without the posts of other writers which make it clear that not only is writing a first draft monumentally hard, it is also likely to yield only a ‘shitty first draft’ which must then be crafted via second and third drafts into something presentable, I might well have thought that I was alone in my frustrations.

So, another benefit of being published – it makes you believe in yourself, in your writing, despite struggles.

I just hope it’s not a misplaced belief.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Location, location, location

Shoulder on the mend, edit got back into after enforced layoff of holiday and agony, blogging recommences…

Sometimes, I wonder why any novelists set their books in real places. It involves a huge amount of extra research and the fictional evocation of any given town, city or country area is likely to annoy as many people familiar with it as it delights.

Obviously, those writing historical fiction concerning real people and events have no choice, they have to set their characters in their proper geographical context. But what about the rest of us? Does the portrayal of a specific place add an extra dimension to a novel that simply wouldn’t be there if its setting were fictional?

Apart from historical fiction, the genre which seems particularly keen on real locations is crime. Rankin’s Rebus, Brunetti’s Venice, Marcus Didius Falco’s Rome, Morse’s Oxford…Though I’m a crime fan, I’ll come clean and say that I’ve never read any of Colin Dexter’s Morse books though I have watched quite a number of the television adaptations. In the TV versions, the colleges and other locations are always fictional, though the game of ‘spot the college’, not to mention ‘spot the cut where the characters walk out of the main quad/library/lodge of one college into the garden/cloisters/hall of a totally different college’ is endemic amongst those who know Oxford well and accounts for at least half the fun of watching the programmes. But, on the page and away from the self-satisfied building spotting, would the Morse books be any less successful if they were set somewhere other than Oxford? Afer all, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford seems to troll around to his readers’ perfect satisfaction in the fictional town and environs of Kingsmarkham.

The question is, do people read novels – especially novel series – set in a recognisable location because the city is like another character, a known and loved one?
All I can say is that I don’t. Though the cities in all the crime series I’ve mentioned are splendidly realised, I would just as soon read about cities which came totally from the writers’ imagination.

And sometimes, your novel just demands that the place it’s set should have features and characteristics which mean that you have to invent, that no real place will quite fit what you’re trying to do.
That’s why Testament takes place in the fictitious city of Salster. It might have seemed that the more obvious setting would have been Oxford or Cambridge but so much happens in the book which – historically – couldn’t have happened in either of those cities because of their socio-political context that I had to set the novel in a place whose context I could manipulate and bend to my will.

Salster, though fictitious, is set in a very recognisably English context. I’ve invented a city, not a whole world. But what if the things you want to say in your fiction demand the creation not of a conveniently different city, but of a whole new world?

A book I recently read - Tim Stretton’s The Dog of the North - takes place in Mondia, a place not of our own world but which is recognisably northern european in terms of weather, custom and race. Similarly, its cities - Croad and Mettingloom - are sufficiently like medieval European cities to make the reader feel at home in them. In fact, the novel reads – as somebody more pithy than me has pointed out – like a historical novel based in a country you’ve never heard of.

But there’s more to the cities than just familiarity. In Mettingloom, Tim has created the most beautiful fictional city I’ve ever come across. It has the feel of a smaller, more intimate Stockholm, a frozen Venice, a city whose entire character changes between summer and winter, a change symbolised by the two palaces of Printempi and Hiverno with their own kings, courtiers and loyalties.
As a device for complicating a political situation, having two kings who each rule for half the year is wonderful but the winter and summer kings are also a fantastic metaphor for a city gripped in ice for half the year, warmed by the sun for the other half. People’s concerns about surviving the cold echo their difficulties in staying alive in the tricky political situation of a city divided. When characters obsess about being warm it’s both a mark of wealth and a metaphor for safety; keeping warm means not invoking the wrath of the Winter King and losing your comfortable appartments or the wealth with which you can clothe yourself in furs and provide yourself with the warmth of the mysterious dimonettoes.

I imagine it was the demands of plot which led Tim to set his book in an alternative world rather than the one we’re all more familiar with. It’s clear from his deft handling of political intrigue, his light touch with military strategy and single combat, his understanding of the way church and state lived symbiotically in the medieval period - not to mention his use of voice - that he would be a fine historical novelist if he so chose. But I’m glad that he chose to write under the fantasy banner – if he hadn’t, we would have been denied the creation of Mettingloom, a city which has the brittle beauty of a spun sugar swan, whose glassy surfaces mask the disturbing currents beneath and whose warming furs cannot quite keep out the chill of death.

Mettingloom has leapt over all other contenders to become my favourite city in fiction, somewhere I feel I’d recognise if I was transported there by some literary device and my blindfold taken off.

So how about everybody else? What are the other contenders for most memorable city in fiction, either real or imagined?

Saturday, 23 August 2008

holidays...

Well, the Bassist is celebrating his clean sweep of As at the Reading Festival and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak has gone to London for the Notting Hill Carnival so I should be getting down to work. But I've done something to my shoulder and sitting at the laptop isn't much fun, so I think it's going to have to wait a couple of days. V. frustrating. Still, nice to be back in the South East after the incessant rain and cloud we always seem to take with us to West Wales. Of which visit, more when muscles aren't complaining...

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Hooray

Well, it's clearly the Ultimate Frisbee Freak's summer. Three days back from playing in the world ultimate championships in Vancouver where his team (GB under 19s) got to the semi-finals, he has now made a clean sweep of A-grades in his four A levels. What a star! Takes his proud mother's mind of the wip that's for certain!

Next week, the Bassist's GCSE results...

Meanwhile we're away for a few days playing frisbee and seeing grandparents variously. I'll be back next week.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Notes and the first person plural

My notes for whatever I happen to be working on usually take the form of spider diagrams done in pencil (love the flow of a propelling pencil on paper...) in lined spiral bound A4 notebooks(difficult to get unlined, I would if I could, but don't want to pay lots) . These gobbets of thought generally discuss what happens, why and how in any given scene (or even conversation) but, occasionally, I have discussions with myself, in pencil, about where or how the scene should go. In these discussions, I address myself in the first person plural, as in 'do we think it's a good idea to...?, 'shall we get x to do y..?'

This has only recently struck me as odd, despite the fact that I know I've been doing it for two decades or so. Does anybody else address themselves this way, or am I alone in this particular kind of personal identity instability?

Friday, 8 August 2008

Hearing voices

Narrative voice. Authors are preoccupied by it but it seems hardly to be mentioned by critics/reviewers. Or maybe I’m just not reading the right reviews.
Reviews seem to concentrate on two, or maybe three things:
1. do the characters strike the reader as ‘real’ and their actions convincing given the personality which has been built up?
2. is the plot credible?
3. (depending on the type of book) is the pace of the book right?

OK, fair enough, if you can’t get those things right, why are you bothering? But why are we all struggling with narrative voice and structure if these things are never given a look-in at the critical table?

There are writers who have ‘a voice’ which doesn’t vary from book to book, one could hear their voice from any of their novels. Hemingway springs to mind, as does Austen, Dickens and Hardy.
But there are others of us – you can tell I’m indluding myself here as I’ve used the first person plural – whose voice depends on whose point of view we’re writing in. Which means that our ‘voice’ may feel different in each book or at different points in each individual book.

The trouble is, it’s possible to get a bit carried away with voice/s.

In the previous version of the work in progress, events were narrated by three different voices (three in the present day, anyway, there’s also - surprise surprise - a historical voice which has changed a lot less in the rewrite). A problem ensued - each character had so much of their own stuff going on (to ensure that 1 above was taken care of) that the central events of the book had a tendency to get lost in the noise (leaving 3 above very definitely not taken care of). The book was about too many things, too many people. It rambled.

Don’t get me wrong - I liked each of the characters, I’d spent a lot of time and effort in developing each of their individual voices and I’d become fond of them. It was hard to give them up. But the structure of the book suffered because of the extent to which each of the voices belonged to a fully-developed person with ideas of their own about what was happening and lives of their own which were going on against the backdrop of the central events. What didn’t work was the relative weight I’d allowed each character to give to their own lives in relation to the novel’s central events.

The current version of the story has only one viewpoint character in the present day and one in the nineteenth century. It’s a lot easier. And 1, 2 and 3 above are falling into line nicely.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Things are looking better

It’s been a good week. When I decided that the work in progress needed to stop progressing and go into reverse in order to sort out characters and movement at the beginning of the action, I had racked up almost 106,000 words (353 pages). As of yesterday, I have re-written the first 44,000 words (155 pages) to my much greater satisfaction. So, despite the fact that I have enjoyed a minimal amount of the fantastic weather we’ve been having this week, I feel that the week has been well spent and the work is back on track. The character who had so concerned me has now assumed more of the space she should occupy in the book and events have fallen into a better rhythm around her. And, because relationships in the book are now better defined, other plotlines have assumed a greater degree of clarity as motivations come to the fore and I have been able to foreshadow things which (I know because I’ve already written them, now) come later in the book.

I’ve gone from knowing that something was wrong and almost being afraid to look in case more was wrong than I thought (don’t forget I’ve already put a previous version based on the same idea, which ran to 120 000 words, on a shelf somewhere with ‘OK but not good enough’ mentally stamped on to it) to facing up to the structural inadequacies of the narrative, setting about it, getting it right (or right enough for now) and now facing the rewriting of the middle section of the book with far more equanimity.
Which is a considerable relief.
Stephen King says you need to write a first draft to find out what your book is about. Not only is that true in my case but I’ve discovered that sometimes I need to write the first draft to find out how best to tell the story too. Emma Darwin’s current blog has this quote from a ‘how-to’ book: Shitty First Drafts: "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts."

Here’s hoping!

Sunday, 27 July 2008

progress

I’m working very hard on the work in progress at the moment. So hard that I seem to have absolutely no mental energy left for the blog. Sorry. Things have, I know, been kinda dull here recently.

As those of you who have been following closely will know, I have stopped three quarters (if not more) of the way in to the current novel to go back and fix a character; and therefore fix the novel. It’s working, I’m happy with it, I’m approximately 25-30 percent of the way through the rewrite which I think is the most difficult bit. I’m much happier with what I’m producing now and I’m also happy that the book is about what I thought it was about, I just need to do it better.

When I stomp around the city on my daily walks, thinking about the book, things assume a very clear and defined shape. I see the themes, the layers, the interconnections in the narrative very clearly and this encourages me – I do know what I’m doing. But when I’m actually sitting there working on a scene, it’s difficult to maintain that ‘helicoptering’ over the book which keeps all the strands, metaphors, themes, recurrent images in mind. The whole thing becomes difficult to see and as a consequence, what appears in my mind when I’m away from the book is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve when I’m sitting there at the kitchen table working at it.

But… I know I’m closer to that vision this time around. When I’ve finished these rewrites and then when I’ve finished the whole draft, doubtless there will be more rewriting to be done. And so on until I’m completely happy with the result.

I rashly told Will, my editor at MNW that I’d have a draft to show him by September. Don’t think that’s going to happen. Because, even if a draft has been finished by sometime that month, it’s unlikely to be something I’d be happy to show him. Or anybody else.

Though it was an artificial deadline, set to give myself something to aim at, I feel bad that I’m not, realistically, going to make it. But the last thing I want to do is rush to get a version of the book done just so I can put it on Will’s desk when I said I would. It took me years to get Testament right and I need to remember that.

So, if blogging is sporadic over the next few weeks, please forgive me. Writing is in progress elsewhere.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The lush green work in progress

Our garden is not what it was. When we bought this house, five years ago, it had a ‘mature’ garden of unpruned shrubs blocking out the light from the back of the house and a monster privet hedge.
Over time, the Other Half - ably aided and abetted by my Dad (who says, and makes good on the saying ‘I’ll just rip it out, shall I?’) has removed all the shrubs, and chopped, hacked and, yes, ripped out the monster hedge. She has made a new border, altered the shape of the other borders (from straight to sinuously curving) and made a new sloping bed at the back. And now, following the demise of the last two shrubs a year or so ago, she has re-turfed a chunk of the garden. A small chunk, admittedly, but then it’s a small garden.
So we now have a beautiful patch of sink-your-toes-in green just outside the back door. For those of you in the horticultural know, we are aware that this is not the time to put turf down but, in our family, we decide when to do things on the basis not of the appropriateness of the season but of a) having the time b) having the money and c) having the inclination. Actually, c) trumps a) and b) pretty much every time. Inclination (otherwise known as being arsed) is all.
So, for two weeks we have (when I say ‘we’ I basically mean the Other Half who likes to commune with vegetation when she gets home from work on the basis that it tends not to answer back) watered and tended the new turves, hoping that they will ‘take’ and that the edges of each turf will not go brown and die, making the thing look like a shrunken, badly laid carpet.
Thanks to the assiduousness of the OH, it has taken. Hooray. And today when I was sitting on it having lunch (I’m allowed to sit on it, now it has ‘taken’) I was thinking how the process of writing a novel is a bit like this laying turf.

Stay with me here, people.

Each turf is a scene or a chapter and, if you’ve done your work properly and prepared the ground it will ‘take’ because you’ve done the preliminaries, got your subsoil right and put down a good matrix for the turf to lie on. In other words, your book’s structure is well thought-out and you write scene after scene, butting them up nicely against each other and hoping the joins between them don’t show. Or go brown and curl up. You want it to look nice and even at the end, not full of gaping cracks.
If your structure’s wrong, the scenes don’t lie properly, bits of them die because they’re in the wrong place, or you’ve not watered them (aka worked hard) enough.

The WIP, now I’m reworking the first 75% so that the last 25% will work properly has its share of brown curly edges. Some of the strips of turf are definitely in the wrong place and need to be cut up and laid in smaller fragments at the difficult-shaped edges of the garden. Some strips are totally dead and need to be pulled up (not hard because they’re not well bedded-in) and thrown away with a muttered ‘God…that so didn’t work!’ But – and here’s the bit which makes me want to curl up my toes in the lush green grass of it all – some strips are really beautiful. They are in the right place, they are bedded in well and they have nice green edges to match other strips up to. I am pleased with those bits. But they are only about half the story…

Fortunately (also fortunately for you, end of strained horticultural metaphor) the boys are away with their Dad all this week and are helping him move house next week, so, now that I’m on summer hols fron the day job, I have uninterrupted time to devote to the WIP.

Always supposing I can tear myself away from Wife in the North which, I have to tell you is considerably fab. But more about that anon.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Nice surprises

Work ‘dos’ can be very tedious but ones at the Other Half’s workplace are generally hilarious and we went to one yesterday evening which was no exception. As well as the usual suspects, all of whom I know reasonably well as she’s been working there for nearly three years, there was a daughter-on-holiday who had been persuaded to brave the middle-aged lunatics and eat barbecued food and consume wine in the garden.
The Other Half and I shamelessly monopolised her all evening. As an ex advertising executive from London who is now a farmer’s wife (yes, farmer’s wife) somewhere in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, even if she hadn’t been a delightful person (she was) her story of culture-shock would have been interesting. I also picked her brains mercilessly on the Ultimate Frisbee Freak’s behalf as the UFF has two career paths in mind – clinical psychology and advertising.

Poor girl, she must have thought she’d arrived in some kind of demented version of a careers evening. Still, she managed to look as if she thought I was a normal person and was, eventually, able to fend off brain-pickings by telling us about a friend of hers who is also a metropolitan transplant to the other end of the country. This person – Judith O’Reilly - has a blog which has now been turned into a book. I’ve been reading the blog today. It’s absolutely hilarious, particularly the bits about appearing on the Richard and Judy show. I now have to get the book. Off to Canterbury tomorrow to see if Waterstones have it. They’ve been coming up trumps recently – had a nice shiny copy of Tim’s Dog of the North on the shelves for me to buy, so I’m hoping that they won’t have missed a R and J book.
Also, in this post, Judith O’Reilly talks about a friend helping her to put together an advertising video clip. The friend, in case you hadn’t worked it out, was the young woman I was monopolising last night over sausages and chicken-on-a-stick.

Here’s said video clip. Also makes you want to read the book.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1guh4zx0O8&eurl=http://www.wifeinthenorth.com/


Who says partners’ work affairs are always a chore?

PS, can't seem to work out how to 'embed' the YouTube clip in the body of the blog - can anybody help me?

Friday, 18 July 2008

Testament goes Baltic


Just got an email from the Macmillan Rights Department telling me that Latvian publisher Diena are buying rights in Testament. So far Testament is being translated into German, Spanish and Latvian. Amazing!


I've never been to Latvia, or indeed any of the other Baltic states, though the Ultimate Frisbee Freak went there last year for an international Ultimate tournament. My book (not to mention my offspring) is fast becoming better travelled than I am.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Getting There

When you start revising bits of your book, one thing leads to another. Bringing in one of my characters earlier in the action seemed like a relelatively simple manoeuvre but, once I’d started, all sorts of other things became necessary so that she could appear sooner. And those necessary things are having a dramatic impact on the book – for the good, I hasten to add. Its original sprawl over the first hundred pages (me writing my way into the book) is being tightened and focused, the cut and paste functions of MS Word, not to mention the option of being able to view two documents side by side onscreen, have never been so busy on my laptop. And I’m getting there. I’m a much happier writer this week than I was last. Events are more clearly defined, as are motivations, characters are getting sharper. I’m pleased.

During a particularly doldrummy period over the weekend I read an interview with John Mortimer in which he said something to the effect that he’s only happy when his writing’s going well and if it’s not going well he’s in despair. Well I know exactly what he means. It just messes up my whole life if the writing’s going badly. there was a phase when it felt I was never going to get this book right and, as this is the second major re-write, that felt like a big deal.

Does anybody know which famous author it was who said that what they liked about writing was the sensation of just having finished a book? That they didn’t particularly like the process of writing? I know I’ve read it somewhere but I can’t remember who said it, though I have in mind it was a woman writer. Probably means it was Hemingway knowing the accuracy of my memory. But that’s what I’ve felt like recently – the pleasure in writing had begun to fade and I was beginning to just look forward to having finished. Now the pleasure in the process is back, thank goodness!

By the way, in case any of you aren’t regular readers of Tomorrowville, do go over and read David’s latest post on point of view. It’s fascinating and may spark an answering reflection here in a couple of days when the cut ‘n’ past is assuming manageable proportions…

Monday, 14 July 2008

Making Novels

The Other Half and I both love Terry Pratchett. Our house has at least one copy of every adult book he’s ever written and most of the ones for children too.
We’ve always got a TP on the go which we read aloud to each other and, at the moment it’s Making Money, Pratchett’s take on the banking industry.

Last night I came across this paragraph:

The bit of Moist’s [the central character is called Moist von Lipwig – don’t ask me why but it is significantly horrible to read aloud – conjures horrible images] brain that was trying to keep up with his mouth thought: I wish I could make notes about this, I’m not sure I can remember it all. But the conversations of the last day were banging together in his memory and making a kind of music. He wasn’t sure he had all the notes yet, but there were bits he could hum. He just had to listen to himself for long enough to find out what he was talking about.

Is it me just seeing novel-writing detritus everywhere at the moment, or is this TP talking about the process of digging a novel out of the subconscious?

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Funny old weather

For some weird reason the horrible weather is proving far more conducive to producing decent prose than the lovely weather we were enjoying last week. Suddenly, despite giving in and starting on a few ‘fixes’ in the wip, things are looking better. Actually, I’ll be honest and say that once I got back to the fixes I realised that the holes/difficulties weren’t as horrendous as I’d allowed them to become in my imagination. And I had a look at the first chapter again yesterday. Prior to that I’d decided that three pages of dialogue was no way to start a book. Now, I’m not so sure…
Maybe rainy old Britain is a good place to write from after all.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Getting things in focus

I’ve always thought writing novels must be a lot like acting. You’ve just got to get inside the character’s head to be able to portray his or her every move, word and action convincingly. You’ve got to stop being you and be the other person while you’re writing him or her. Even if all characters ultimately have their roots somewhere in your own subconscious, you have to stop being the everyday you and take on the mantle of somebody you have never been and, if they’re the other gender, could never be.

The problem with a novel is that you’ve got to do this for multiple people rather than just for one. And, while I can happily reside in the heads of a couple of people – the two main protagonists of my novel – trying the ‘method’ on three or four is a far tougher proposition.

There is a character in the wip who has been given insufficient of my time. Or I think she has. On the other hand, it may be that she has been hiding herself, waiting to reveal all in one climactic scene. Clearly, though I say ‘she has been hiding’ I mean ‘my subconscious has been hiding her’, my subconscious knowing better than my conscious brain that she should not be in front of the camera, as it were, the whole time. She should be keeping her mystery.

But the question is – is she mysterious or just underdeveloped? I need to read what I’ve written as a whole to really know, and I don’t want to do that at the moment as I need to keep up the momentum to the end of the book. Or it think I do.

I know that the received wisdom is that you just carry on, plough through until you’ve reached the end of the action and then go back and fix the details in the rewrite – what an electrician would refer to as a second fix. But this is my fifth book and that’s never really worked for me. I’ve always been the kind of writer who needs to be pretty happy with things as they’re unfolding, rather than thinking ‘doesn’t matter, fix it on second draft’ because one of the problems - if you’re writing essentially character-driven stuff rather than plot driven - if you haven’t got the characters right, then the story’s not going to work.

All of this may simply be rubbish of course. I may just be feeling wobbly because my whole writing rhythm is off at the moment now that the boys are done with school for the summer and are at home when I’m used to having an empty house to write in; an empty house which I can pace around looking for my characters, wondering what makes them do things and what will happen as a consequence. Wandering around a house full of young men (the UFF, the B and their friends) trying to listen to my characters inside my head is a little like trying to watch one of those overhead TV’s in a service station – you catch the odd thing but mostly you can’t hear what’s going on and the actions you see onscreen are meaningless without the words and background.

If only the garden were big enough for a shed…

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Not in the zone

Sport has ruined my writing today. No, not Wimbledon, though I really would like to watch the Murray match later – his comeback on Monday night was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen at Wimbledon. No, ultimate frisbee has thrown my writing to the winds today. The Bassist is off to play for the Under 19 Great Britain B-team in the European championships in Slovakia and he was packing this morning.

I was at the dining room table attempting to push forward the literary fronteirs while fending off…
‘Have we got…
‘Do you know where…
‘Are there any clean…
‘I think it might be at Dad’s but…
‘Do you remember that…
And, sometimes, as we all know, it’s just easier to go and find whatever it is than to explain where to find it. Especially to someone who is 16 and has a Y-chromosome.

To be fair to the Bassist, he has only just got back from a week’s work experience at a design company in London where he had a great time, so it feels as if he’s a very busy boy at the minute.

What with that and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak dashing off to Birmingham, Manchester and other places north of the Watford Gap to attend GB training camps in preparation for the UF World Championships in Vancouver at the end of July, it feels like ultimate frisbee is dominating our lives even more than usual at the moment.

So here I am, having seen the Bassist off on a train to London, trying to gather my scattered wits and finish the scene I started yesterday. But wits seem to be all over the place and if rain hadn’t stopped play I’d be watching Roger Federer mince Mario Ancic by now because one thing I've learned in writing is that if it persists in not going well for more than an hour or so, it's time to do something else. My brain needs downtime when it’s scrambled and trying to cudgel it into co-operating a) doesn’t seem to work and b) makes me depressed at my failure to be able to do it.
And it was all going so well yesterday.

Later…
OK, it’s now an hour later and Federer and Ancic are back on centre court. Federer has clearly got my problem – something (in his case having a 2 hour rain break) has totally thrown him out of his rhythm and, after winning the first set 6-1 he just can't seem to get back into his groove. Boris Becker has just remarked that tennis is ‘a mental game’ and whilst it sounds silly, I know what he means – with no team-mates to buoy you up you’ve just got to keep yourself in the zone, believing in yourself, seeing the game going your way inside your head.

Well, writing is the mental game par excellence. Definitely no team mates unless you’re Aliya Whiteley and Neil Ayres or Sean French and Nicky Gerrard. You just have to keep yourself on top of your game and interruptions, particularly if they are long or persistent are ruinous to the trick of being able to stay in your fictional world. And there’s no way you can write convincingly unless you’re there. If you’re on the outside looking in all you’ll ever write is pedestrian reportage.

Ancic has just gone 4-3 ahead in the second set. At this rate I’m not going to see any of the Murray match - book group tonight where we'll be discussing Engleby. I'm confidently predicting an argument as I'm pretty sure at least one of our number will have deeply hated the central character and therefore the book.

Oh well, I shall be earning a crust tomorrow at the day job and then back to work on the wip on Friday. If it goes well until late in the afternoon, maybe I’ll reward myself with a little look at a semi-final.
Then again, maybe not.