Sunday, 27 July 2008


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.

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.

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.