Saturday, 28 June 2008

Good and Bad things happening in the w-i-p

Something very gratifying ocurred this week in the work in progress. I’ve known since the beginning of the book that a certain thing happened between two of the main characters but what I didn’t know was why. Now I do. It just emerged one day from thinking about the characters and what was happening to them at the time. It was a relief as I’m heading inexorably towards the scene where this event happens and I was beginning to worry that it wasn’t going to happen at all as the motivation wasn’t there. But now it is and I’m left thinking, ‘of course that’s why it happened, how could it be otherwise?’

I find this whole process – that of knowing that things must happen but having to find out through familiarity with the characters exactly why they happen – to be simultaneously baffling and fascinating. And, in its fascination, it’s one of the things I love most about writing, the fact that these characters have become so real to me that watching them interact explains the reasons behind events I imagined before I knew them.

Another gratifying thing was that I wrote a scene I was very pleased with. It was something a little out of the ordinary and I knew it was going to be a difficult thing to get right but, after a couple of days I found I’d achieved what I set out to do in terms of action, voice and emotional interplay.
And then the bad thing happened. The following day, when I came to review the scene and move on to the next, I realised that it didn’t fit.
As a rule, I tend to write chronologically, writing scenes in the order in which they’ll be read rather than employing a cut-and-paste technique where scenes get written as they occur to me and are then slotted in when their moment appears to have arrived. And this just wasn’t the next scene. I had thought it was for various reasons but, once I’d written it, I realised that it had the effect of brining things in one narrative thread to a head much too soon. But all is not lost – the scene still has a place in the book, it’s just much later on. Because it will now be out of the immediate narrative flow, putting it in later will inevitably entail some re-writing as things will have moved on in various directions but, nevertheless, I think the bulk of it will be useable.

Thankfully, I don’t tend to write scenes in the wrong place too often. What I do have a tendency to do is to write scenes which don’t actually belong in the book. I write them and I read them the next day and I think ‘this is OK but it doesn’t need to be in the book. It’s too long, the same effect can be achieved by putting in a few lines somewhere else. Then again, sometimes I think I’m going to sit down to write one kind of scene but a chance remark by one of the characters (this happens a lot in dialogue scenes which is why there’s quite a lot of dialogue in my books – I need to hear my characters interacting) takes it in quite another – usually much better – direction.

All of which makes it sound as if my method of constructing a book is chaotic verging on anarchic. Not so. I go for weeks just putting scene after scene after scene, like a brickie putting one course on top of another to make a wall, then a room, then a house. I reckon I’m halfway up the first floor (second if you’re in the US) at the moment and the roof’s in sight. Windows and the rest of the ‘making the house watertight’ I consider to be final draught stuff. We’re not quite there yet but I know what sort of windows I need and I’m pretty sure they’re available.

Oh, and the other thing I’m happy about this week is the way I haven’t allowed Wimbledon to get in the way of work. I watched my first match today – Murray v. Haas. It was a good one to have saved up.
(For those of you who didn’t see it/aren’t interested, Andy Murray, the young Scot, won in four sets. Except… why am I telling you if you’re not interested?)

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Listening to me rabbit on

Back at the end of May I did an interview with the delightful Vicky Warren from the Bookfiend’s Kingdom, a literary website set up to raise money and awareness for the Disabilities Trust which cares for adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s a fascinating site with interviews (some written, some spoken) with people as varied as Danny Scheinmann (Random Acts of Heroic Love), Charley Boorman (Long Way Round and Long Way Down with Ewan McGregor) and MNW’s own Len Tyler. And now me.

When Vicky initially got in touch, I assumed that she knew that I worked with teenagers with autism and had decided to interview me because of that. But no. She just liked the look of Testament and had decided to interview me. So she came, chauffeured by her friend Debbie and, having propped up her little recording device on our kitchen table, we did an interview. Amazingly, I sound quite coherent.

If you’re remotely interested in hearing me rabbit about Testament for many minutes, or even in just hearing what I sound like, (not what I think I sound like, incidentally, but that’s universal) click here.

If not, have a look at the BFK site anyway, Vicky has interviewed numerous authors so you’re bound to find somebody you’re interested in!

Sunday, 22 June 2008

A Tag...

I’ve been tagged by Akasha Savage over at Aspirations from the Darkside. Quite a restful post to put together on a Sunday evening…

What was I doing 10 years ago?
Working as assistant to the fundraiser at a local charity for homeless people. Writing a novel about a homeless girl who accuses a vicar of paying her for sex. Meeting my sons – then aged eight and six - from school every day and playing a lot of football with them. Those were the days when I could actually keep up with them when playing sport…. sigh….

Five things on my 'to-do' list for today.
When I worked for the NHS, I was obliged to keep a ‘to do’ list which my manager was entitled to see at any given moment. Suffice it to say that I have never kept such a list since.
I do, however have a Don’t Forget whiteboard in my kitchen which has things on it like ‘Ben birthday’ ‘ring C’ ‘car Friday’ and so forth. This is just to remind me of the things which I cannot afford to forget without a) losing money b) losing friends c) losing my mind.

What I would do if I were a billionaire.
Give all but a million of it away. I feel that I could use a million constructively without ruining my life or anybody else’s. And I wouldn’t have any of that ‘set up a charitable trust’ thing. Too much decision-making and letters and stuff. Just make some decisions, give it away. In big chunks so it might actually do some good.

Three bad habits I've got.
Taking my glasses off and either forgetting where I’ve left them or sitting/standing on them.
Answering the phone when I’m writing instead of doing what I’m always saying I do and letting it ring. It’ll only be people trying to sell me stuff as all the family know to ring me on the mobile if there’s anything I need to know during the day.
Reading into the early hours of the morning instead of going to sleep and getting a proper seven or eight hours. Tsk...

Snacks I enjoy.
Snacks? What are they?

The last five books I've read.
The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Should have blogged about it but didn’t. Probably too busy writing.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka. Good, amusing, poignant, learned stuff about Ukraine. And tractors.
Engleby – Sebastian Faulks. See last post.
Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. I love Terry Pratchett. His biog says he is ‘occasionally accused of literature.’ I am one of the accusers.
Brain Rules – John J. Medina. Non-fiction. Twelve things from neuroscientist John Medina that you need to know about how your brain works. Exceptionally accessible and amusing.

Five jobs I've had.
Cooking at a cafĂ© attached to a working water mill (and therefore tourist attraction) near my childhood home in West Wales. This was during the summer before I went to university. I worked with a lovely girl whom I knew vaguely from my village (she’d been at boarding school) who taught me how to cook ‘make it up as you go along’ soup, was unfailingly lovely to the punters and very nice to me. Her name was Pat Llewelyn and she went on to discover Jamie Oliver and the Two Fat Ladies (for those in the US, both JO and the TFLs are celebrity TV chefs). She’s one of my few claims to fame.

Serving burgers in Burger King for a year between Oxford and training as a speech and languagae therapist. This was a necessary corrective to three years at Oxford.

Speech and Language therapist for various NHS trusts. I discovered that a) I was atrocious at filing b) I dislike working for big organisations c) I dislike the words ‘the Trust’s policy on this is’ and ‘the guidelines specify...’ Phrases of this kind make me want to swear and throw crockery.

Assistant to charity fundraiser (mentioned above). This was unpaid but one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever had. I learned loads of stuff including that requests beginning ‘It would be really great if..’ worked much better on me than instructions beginning ‘You can’t/must/should…’

Independent SLT specialising in autism spectrum disorders. My current day job. This is v. cool mainly due to having a boss who has about as much regard for ‘the rules’ as I have.

These are pretty much all the jobs I’ve had, ever, apart from the long term ones of a) mother b) writer. None of the others has been remotely as interesting as a) or b)

Five places I've lived.
On a dairy farm in CwmCou – a little village in Ceregion, West Wales. This is where I grew up. Idyllic is the word.

In Oxford (as a student) first of all in a 60s block where, for the first time in my life, I could lie full-length in a bath (they were built for rowers when the college was men-only, I’m five foot ten); then in a little terraced house down the Abingdon Road where none of us did housework and I discovered (from a housemate who was a chef) how you test when spaghetti is done; finally in a first floor room on the main quad of my college. College founded 1516, date of room unknown but probably thereabouts. Friends could stand in the quad and shout 'Alis are you in?' V. Oxford.

Inside my head… This is where all writers live, really.

That’s it folks! If you’d like to do this one, consider yourself tagged and go to it…

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


I’ve just read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. It is in many ways an amazing book. The phrase tour de force springs to mind and when you see that the OED defines this phrase as meaning ‘a performance or achievement accomplished with great skill’ you see how apt it is.

It takes great skill to write a case study in personality disorder and make a gripping novel out of it. It takes great skill to tell you everything and nothing at the same time. It takes great skill to revisit episodes several times, from perspectives different or the same, and tell your readers more each time without making them feel that they have been short-changed first time around.

It takes great skill to engage a reader with a central character who is pathologically egocentric, who describes a life of unutterable desperation and who cogitates frequently on the meaning of life, time and death without appearing pretentious or up yourself.

Michael Engleby (alias Toilet, Groucho, Irish Mike, Mike(!), Michelle Watt, Michele Watts and latterly Michael Watson) is not a nice person. Even he doesn’t like himself. But then, he doesn’t really like anybody. He thinks he likes Jennifer Arkland, but in fact he is merely obsessed with her, or with the idea of her. And he clings to this ‘idea’ of her despite all evidence which would alter it, including her own words in her diary. He idolises her, or perhaps fetishises would be a better word.

Michael Engleby is emotionally abnormal and his voice in the book bears this out. He describes things without emotion. This horrendous thing happened, that horrendous thing happened. We would weep, except that Michael seems almost untouched by brutality, seems to expect nothing else, is – if anything – simply baffled by his tormentors’ failure to be satisfied when he is utterly humiliated.

He is a morally complex character – he thieves constantly because, in his terms, he needs to but he does not lie. He says he cannot. Whether he means that he does not know how or that he knows he will be detected in the lie is not clear, probably even to him.

He is as unaffected by success as he is by failure. Nothing moves him. And his prose is similar. It is pedantic, almost scientific in its precision, its concreteness, its lack of metaphor and simile. He observes, he reports, he is on the edge of things. Always on the edge.

Late in the book Michael is diagnosed as having a personality disorder. Various evidence – all of which has been described to us, first hand, by Michael – is brought forward to support this diagnosis. It seems right, inevitable. Yes, we think, this sums Michael up.

But, all the while, Michael himself is calling the diagnosis into question. Can this car crash of nature and nurture (this is, roughly, how Exley, the psychiatrist in the novel, describes the genesis of personality disorder) adequately explain such a thing as? Does personality become disordered as a result of temperament being at odds with environment? Michael seems to doubt it, seems to invite us to believe that nothing he has done has been ‘disordered’; nothing has been done unconsciously or without thought.
He also invites us to believe that he wishes things had been different, that, perhaps, in some parallel reality (‘if only we could travel in time’) they were.

I can’t quite believe that I have enjoyed a book so unremittingly bleak so much. Good things do happen to Michael Engleby, under one or another of his various aliases, but none of them seems to touch him; no more than the bad things do. The crash of nurture and nature had already happened before his brutal, brutalising school, before his friendless university career, before his life of borderline alcohol dependency and unfulfillment.
None of these things can seem to matter too much to him, we come to realise, because he already is who he is. For this reason, there is no ‘character arc’ in Engleby. Our narrator and self-revealer is not changed by circumstance, he is not redeemed, damned or moved by the events we see unfolding. That’s the whole point of the novel - for whatever reason, Michael Engleby is as he is. Not money, relationships or success can alter him.
The reader, expecting techtonic shifts in a book of 342 pages, is initially baffled by this, looking for change and movement in a character. But that’s the genius of Engleby. We have to see Mike as others see him, not as he sees himself. We have to pick up the slightest of clues – that he is ‘nervy’ in school slang, that Jennifer refers to him in her diary as ‘Mike(!)’, that his friend Stellings invites him to a dinner party attended entirely by couples without making any attempt to provide him with a ‘date’.

They all know Michael from the outside. We know him from the inside and it’s only at the end of the book that the two come together and we see what Engleby really is – a soul lost to himself and to the world.

Not a comfortable read but a quite, quite brilliant one.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Bookarazzi on Amazon

There’s a very interesting blog post here on Bookarazzi about the latest attempts at world domination by Amazon. They suggest that bloggers put the text on their own blogs, but I’m leaving you to follow the link if you’re interested in Amazon’s hegemony.

I find myself torn in this whole debate. And here’s why. Testament is now ‘temporarily out of stock’ on Amazon and, though the site still confidently says ‘Order now and we’ll deliver when available’ it’s not clear to me that it’s going to be available anytime before January and the publication of the paperback. Because, essentially, it’s sold out. As in, the whole print run has been sold to booksellers, not as in every copy printed has now ended up on somebody’s shelf. (Because I do not have a subscription to Nielsen Bookscan (surprise!) I don’t know how it’s sold out of bookshops. I’d be delighted to hear from anybody who has seen it in a bookshop recently…)
Would Testament have sold so well if people had had to get off their bums and go to bookshops and buy it? I don’t know. The fact that it has sold so well is a great mystery to me. Not because I don’t think people will enjoy it – clearly, I very much hope they do – but because I don’t know how people have come across it.

Who has been buying it? And why? It’s not won prizes, it hasn’t caused any kind of scandal, there aren’t huge ads on buses and on tube stations, so where have people heard about it? Is it this blog? Unlikely. I’ve never been brave enough to put any kind of traffic-meter on the site as I don’t want to know how few people read it but I am under no illusions that these maunderings about my writing and reading life have produced hundreds and hundreds of sales.

It’s been reviewed here and there. I think some of the recent sales on Amazon are probably due to the really nice review which I mentioned here in the Church Times. But, apart from that, am I seriously to suppose that reviews in various local papers have generated hundreds of sales? Or my popping up now and again on BBC Radio Kent? Maybe I'm just ignorant of the publicity power these appearances generate...

The question I’m getting at is, has Amazon generated lots of sales for me via its ‘Perfect Partner’ and ‘People who looked at this also looked at this other book’ features? Because if that is what’s going on, then my reaction to their attempts to squeeze publishers (and therefore authors, therefore me) are bound – on a selfish level – to be different than if they did not contribute to my earnings in any way but the negative.
They may be squeezing the price by discounting and paying less for the book in the first place but if they then sell more, I’m no worse off.

Or am I? Sales on Amazon could potentially be made in a real live bookshop. But the thing is, would they be?

I have to put my hand up, here, and admit that, many a time, I have read about a book online and immediately clicked over to Amazon and bought it instantly (yes, I am on one-click ordering) whereas I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write the title down, go into town the following day or on the weekend and buy it. Or, more likely, order it.
So is Amazon denying real bookshops sales or are they doing two different things?

Does Amazon exist for immediate must haves, especially of the kind of book likely to have disappeared from the shelves; while bookshops exist for browsing, talking to booksellers and seeing what’s hot and what’s not. Because all of the latter are difficult, if not impossible, on Amazon.

What do other people think?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Thanks and writing essentials

Many thanks to the blog-friends whose wise, kind and compassionate comments have helped me out of the ‘what the hell am I doing being a writer when people are starving in the world?’ crisis of confidence/conscience. Believe it I say that your comments made a big difference.

Many thanks, too, now I’m feeling a better (helped by passing the 200 page mark in the wip Mk 2 today) to Stuck in a Book for alerting me to Litopia, the Writers’ Colony which has a weekly and – as from this week – a daily podcast on all things writerly.

I’m still getting to grips with it but it seems to be trans-Atlantic by which I mean that contributors from both side of the pond are included in both colony and podcast. I listened to a discussion on one of the podcasts I’d downloaded and definitely came away with the impression that, of the ‘round table’ contributors to the discussion, one at least was sitting at a table on a different side of the Atlantic from most of the rest. And the rest – for all I know – were sitting at their kitchen tables doing it all by the wonders of modern technology.

Their aim, especially with the ‘litopia daily’ podcast is to become as essential to a writer’s day as the morning cup of coffee. I’m going to give it a go for a bit and see how it pans out. I don’t drink coffee in the morning but if it becomes as essential as my wake-up cup of tea, then I’m all for it!

Monday, 9 June 2008


Having a bit of a downer at the minute. I’m not generally one to be depressed by world affairs but I spent some time over the weekend working on a session on the charity Water Aid for our 10-14 year olds at church and was just horrified at the scale of the problem. For instance, one child dies every fifteen seconds from the effects of water-born diseases or lack of sanitation. Half the population of Bangladesh (50% of 150 million) have no access to a proper toilet. Etc etc etc. Depressing.

And I started thinking insidious thoughts like why am I writing novels? How does that help the world? OK it might cheer up the odd person in the rich Northern Hemisphere but how am I making the world better for all those people we keep hearing about who live on less than a dollar a day? Can I do anything? Could I ever have done? Bit late to start regretting life choices etc but suddenly, just over the weekend, I kind of lost faith in what I’m doing with my life.

Any other writers out there suffer with the same kind of angst?

Oh and, by the way, if you have any spare pennies you were wondering what to do with, will take them off you happily. They also do that ‘buy a present for somebody and give it to somebody who really needs it’ thing. Like taps and well-digging kits and toilet covers.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Notes from an Exhibition

Just read Patrick Gale’s excellent Notes From an Exhibition for our bookgroup. Actually I had bought it before it was chosen as a book group book because I’m a PG fan but, anyway, last night was discussion night.

The starting point of the book is the recent death of once famous, now rather declined artist Rachel Keen. The narrative approach uses the eponymous exhibition notes to introduce various paintings which have resonance with different episodes in her life. Each episode is narrated through the third person viewpoint of either Rachel herself of her family – husband, four children, sister.

Since the book spans a time period of forty-odd years this device to pick out key, emblemmatic bits of Rachel’s life works extremely well and having the various episodes told through the eyes of her family gives us a glimpse into what has made the life of this woman so precarious and her art so powerful.

Rachel Keen is not a likeable woman. A personality dominated by the pervasive effects of her bipolar disorder (what used to be called manic depression), she is self-centred to a pathological degree (and I’m not using pathological there simply as an intensifier, I believe Gale is portraying a very specific, damaged kind of personality) she seems oblivious to the emotional needs of her children and husband and often appears, by neglecting to look beneath their careful, surface responses, astonishingly harsh and unkind to quite small children.

Notes from an Exhibition is a quite brilliant study of what someone who has a mental illness can do to a family. Because her husband, Anthony, fell in love with Rachel (or the idea of her) before she knew he existed, their marriage represents nothing more nor less than a heroic rescue and their children fall in behind Anthony as little footsoldiers in the fight to keep their mother sane. It drives at least one of them mad. (I say that, but it was probably genetics...)

But is Anthony’s loving care actually a gilded, chemically-barred cage in which Rachel is forced to live? Are her children actually not the products of a happy and successful marriage but a necessary expedient for Rachel whose only escape from Anthony’s benign regime of antipsychotic medication (which dulls her creativity) is to become pregnant? What is the relationship between artistic inspiration and mental instability? What do we owe our children? What do they owe us?
These were all questions which were thrashed around in our book group but I think the one, for me, which was most interesting is the one about the nature of bipolarity and artistic creativity. Yes, I can see it sparking creativity in artists, particularly those who do more or less abstract work; I can even see it working for poets. But novels? Plays? I’m not so sure. I don’t think the bursts of intense, visionary creativity which mania seems to afford would sustain the necessary plodding effort which you have to put in to a novel, I can’t see them providing a coherent plot.

Am I wrong? Does anybody have experience of bipolarity in novelists?

Oh, and because the novel has got a bit lost in the questions, Notes from an Exhibition is brilliant. I think it’s the best Patrick Dale I’ve read yet. If you’re interested in families, madness, characters and a story perfectly told with a beginning a middle and an end (but not necessarily in that order) I recommend it.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Thoughts from the Peak District

The Peak District - for those who have (like me until last week) never been there - is extremely fab. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to an area of British countryside which I liked more. In the southern part (or White Peak) where the Other Half and I were staying there is a dizzying combination of limestone uplands and escarpments, wide valleys green with pasture and steeply wooded river valleys. You can walk for a day and be surrounded by different kinds of landscape each hour if you plan your route carefully. And Buxton! Previously I knew it only as a bottled water; now I discover that it is an elegant Regency spa town with beautiful gardens (grade 1 listed no less) and an opera house. Opera House! Not to mention 5000 students from the university of Derby which has a campus in the town.

The weather – for once – was better in the north than in the south. In a week when it rained in Canterbury every day, we had only one day’s rain. Hooray!

I don’t know how other people do their walking but the OH and I tend to favour the companionable silence, often going half an hour at a time without uttering more than an ‘interesting white butterfly’ or ‘God, I swear these stiles are getting narrower!’ So, tramping the hills and looking at the wildlife left a part of my brain free to wander and think.

And what I thought about, amongst other things, was the work in progress. My thoughts were these:

It’s very different from Testament – will people who liked that book be disappointed?

It depends what they liked about Testament. If all they liked was the medieval setting then yes, they will find the nineteenth century angle of the wip very different. If they liked the fictitious city, Salster, they’ll find rural West Wales very dissimilar. If they enjoyed the academic politics and were looking for more of that they’ll have to make an adjustment to the nationalist politics in the new book. But if they appreciated the characters and they way they interacted with the situations they found themselves in, if they enjoyed being presented with a set of circumstances which is not most British people’s everyday experience then they’ll find a lot to like in the wip.

Should I, anyway, be trying to write books which resemble each other, like writing a series without writing actually writing a series?

I wouldn’t have thought so. How dull to keep writing (or reading) the same book over and over again. It also misses the essential ingredient of the good series – seeing the characters grow and develop through the circumstances they encounter.

How much of a contract does a first published novel make with a readership about what it can expect of subsequent books?

Thinking of novelists whom I read with the greatest pleasure I can see that they all share one central element – characters whom I believe in and engage with (not necessarily identify with) whose progress through the vicissitudes of the novel I am spellbound by. They don’t have to be dramatic, thriller-type vicissitudes. In fact, they mostly aren’t. I’ve just read The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson and a less thriller-type book it’s hard to imagine; we are firmly in the territory of family interactions here. I have seldom been as gripped by a book. Another book I read on holiday – Patrick Gale’s wonderful Notes from an Exhibition – is another which lays bare a family’s interactions; I loved it.
I would hope that I’m not breaking the contract I made with readers of Testament. The wip is another book which has characters caught up in and trying to make their way within political situations not of their own making but which they can, in some way, influence for the better or fight against, as in Testament. That the characters also have their own demons to fight and their own stories to reveal to us keeps another part of the promise which I was trying to make with Testament – to have both a defineable plot and characters who are real, and developing, people.

The holiday was also a great time in which to allow my brain to relax away from the wip which I have been working on, in one form or another, for over a year. It gave me the chance to step back from the book and to accept that it has a very different identity, that it is not ‘son of Testament’. I hope I’m moving on as a writer, developing, learning from what has gone before, what I now feel I’d like to change about Testament.
As I write this, I’m very aware that I’m about to go back to the wip. Half of me is apprehensive – what will I think of the last couple of chapters which I rattled off at a furious pace before we left for Derbyshire? The other half of me is looking forward to getting back to it, to immersing myself in that other world, those other ways of thinking.

I’ll let you know about those chapters…