Friday 19 February 2010

The Michaelangelo Option

Búcaro. Museum no. 307-1872

In my workshops I am always looking for ways of expressing how  a large novel emerges  from the sprawling largesse of ideas, inspiration,  life experience, literary apprehension and  academic research that go into the writing of a novel. For me this can only really be expressed  by analogy.

Because in another life I taught pottery I often use this very practical art to help me illuminate the process of making a novel and making it work. So -  

You start with this great sloppy pile of clay                               (your ideas etc – see above).                                                           

Then:                                                                                                      Búcaro. Museum no. 307-1872 (V &A Museum)

You let your clay dry a bit.

- Some salient notions and structures emerge from the mass (see above…).  

You observe  the colour and consistency of the clay.

- Imagine the energy of a particular  story potential in the mass.

Then you take a useable handful and put it on a board.

- Write sketches that might be an element in the whole of the novel.

Then you ‘wedge’ your clay, slapping  and pushing it on the board to drive out air bubbles that might explode in the kiln and ruin your creation.

- Test out the potential for order in your speculative writing; consider whether the sketches and ideas can sustain a whole novel without destroying it before you start.

Now you centre your air-free clay on your wheel, start spinning and  pull your shapely pot out of the hard packed clay.

- Now you write your novel…. it will take much longer than throwing a pot , although it is no more or less art.

Then last week at the Ashington workshop I  met Julie, a sculptor who is writing a novel,  so we had some fun thinking through the Michaelangelo option as an analogy for the novel writing process.

Michaelangelo allegedly searched and searched the Carrara quarries for the right giant  block of marble to fulfil his commission to create a great statue of David.  When he found it and embarked on this enormous task he said that David was already in there, in the block of marble, and his task  was to free David from the marble with his  sculptor’s tools.

That also could be a good analogy – chipping and chipping away at a resistant mass to allow the shapely novel to emerge.

So on the way home from Ashington I  wondered whether - as a novelist  - I was a potter or a sculptor, a thrower or a chipper. Both analogies  in their own ways, work for me,  but my feeling is I’m more a thrower than a chipper: I tend to like building up rather than cutting out.

This writing  business can be great fun.


Thursday 11 February 2010

Title Magic and The Naming of a Novel

Notebook and laptop

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) WS

Having finished the new novel I’m still struggling with the title for  It’s a big responsibility…

What’s in a name?   The title of a good novel pulses with a special magic. It’s the cultural signal for the novel; it’s a label for a novel; it’s a cool code for a novel;  it  synthesises the meaning of the novel; it can be a metaphor for the novel. The title can be the magic reason why readers pick a book off a shelf or a bookseller’s list; in a good dream world it can be the reason why a bookseller orders fifty or five thousand copies from s publisher.

Various sources – books and internet – will tell you lots of cutesy and fairly mechanistic ways of arriving at a title. I can’t say this works for me.

All I know is that you have to stay with the writing, stay with the novel for the title to emerge.  Deciding on the title can take as long it takes to write the novel itself.  The endgame will be talking  with the editor to to find at title that works for my reasons and for hers.

When I start a novel I give it a working title - like a hook on which  to hang your hat. just for the time being.

So,  through the years  we’ve had The Coventry Novel  which became Land of Your Possession; The Hartlepool  Novel  which became ‘Children of The Storm’;  The Settlement Novel which became  ‘Where Hope Lives’ ;  the Mary Ann Cotton Novel which became ‘A Woman Scorned’; The London Novel  which became ‘The Lavender House’; The Factory Novel which became ‘Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker’ ; the Polish Novel which became ‘The Woman Who Drew Buildings’.

Kitty Rainbow – whose name I found on the births and deaths column in the local  paper -  ‘Kitty Rainbow, sister to Bunty…’ – stayed ‘Kitty Rainbow’ from beginning to end. Maybe the spirit of the real Kitty stayed around to make sure that happened.

The only title which I think didn’t work very was The Settlement Novel, Where Hope Lives – about a young miner who was made redundant and became a respected artist through involvement with the Settlement Movement. Possibly both my then editor and I lost the plot on that one. I think Where Hope Lives is one of my most interesting novels but neither the title nor the cover sang any magic song and in general it got good reviews but a restrained reception.  Funnily enough  my PLR statistics tell me it is one of my most borrowed books. Perhaps library fans see further than the title or the cover… 

Anyway,  now I’m having this big struggle  with the novel  that I’ve been calling for ‘The French  Novel’ for more than a year. For a time  it seemed to want to be called   The Maison d’Estella, after the spooky house at the centre of the novel. Then it became Starr Bright after its astrologer heroine. But now I ‘m haunted by the thought that it should after all be At The Maison d’Estella...

Any views out there in the blogosphere?  Does either of these titles hold any magic for you? Time is running short…




While I’ve been obsessing about titles I’ve made a a little quiz for some of you book beavers to do over your coffee.

Name the writers of these successful well-titled novels.

A small twist. Two of these  great titles (not mine,,,)  are not (yet) published novels.

The Edible Woman; The Lost Symbol;  Kenya Dawn;  The Sweet Track;  Slaughterhouse-Five;  A Flag On The Island;   Naming of The Dead;  The Black Moth;  The Sugar Accounts;  Jamaica Inn;  Fleshmarket Close; Firefly;  Persuasion; Blood River;  The Distance Between Us;  The Sweet Track;  My Lover’s Lover; ;  Alias Grace; Saturday;  Against the Streams; Alone in Paris;, The Road To Samarkand; An Expensive Way To Die



Saturday 6 February 2010

Writing Competitions and How Not To Shoot Yourself in the Foot

The short story can be as diamond bright as a poem – although it’sKnives Cover often more accessible; it can be as epic as a novel, although it’s a much shorter read. My own first publication was a short story and I have published various short stories among the novels ever since. Last year Iron Press published a collection and this winter - at rest between two novels - I have been gathering another dozen in the hope of another collection.

In addition to this,  for the last fifteen years or so I’ve been involved in sifting, evaluating, adjudicating and  judging short stories entered into competitions by writers hoping to launch their own writing careers. Some writers who have drifted to the top of my various story piles  have gone on to have writing careers; to publish novels; one winning story went on to be a film.

One consistent experience,  as an evaluator faced with a pile of hundreds of 'Short Stories' scripts, is the reassuring certainty that the cream of the writing does generally rise to the stop. The  eye and the mind are  arrested by crisp  imaginative writing,by  innovative notions and by glorious language. They are heartened by powerful renderings of authentic emotion - from pathos to panic, from passion to murderous hatred, from despair to delight – all  in fresh modern prose. Great writing has such qualities stamped through it like Blackpool through rock.

Although the ‘fresh modern prose’ must be a constant, one has to admit that it is rare indeed to find all of the above named qualities in a single text.  But any story that rises to the top of the judging pile will demonstrate at least two or three of these qualities.  And every top class story showcases a unique voice, that story-print that defines any successful writer.

On the other hand, through the years I have been increasingly haunted by potentially talented writers who could end up nearer the top of the pile, but instead they shoot themselves in the foot by submitting their precious stories  in a form and style that stops a judge seeing through the jungle of infelicities to the good story at the core.  There should be no barrier between the  reader and the meaning. A judge ,who should not even have to think about the presentation, has to deal with creased, over-used paper; indistinct, ill photocopied text;  and single-spaced text instead of easy-to-read double spaced text.

In terms of style I’ve been amazed to encounter some highly inspirational writers who don’t have a handle on syntax. Sometimes paragraphs are used as spacers rather than a framework for meaning. I’ve met one or two cases where the writers  just abandoned the problem of paragraphs and presented  their story in Soviet blocks of print.

And I am sympathetic with - but disappointed in  - writers who avoid the vivid and life-giving energy of dialogue and retreat into telling and exposition – to the detriment of both style and story.  Knives PagesThe fact is,  dialogue dresses the page with white space and allows the reader to breathe her or his imagination into your story. It makes them listen as well as read…

I know from my workshops that some new writers struggle with dialogue. However, to  make a story live it is seriously worth studying good modern writers. How do they achieve good dialogue without exposition? How do they breathe sound and life into these speakers.?

Finally a word about themes.  Many – even most - writers dig into their own lives to excavate themes and incidents for their stories. Death, birth, lives in retrospect, love, betrayal in the family- all these themes come up again and again on these piles. Where this works it can be brilliant. However, much that one encounters is very thinly disguised autobiography - as appetising as thin soup.  It’s more akin to therapy than literature. One’s own experience needs to be re-imagined, re-located, objectified and universalised in a  powerful fashion to make it work afresh for others. (This is why some stories based on ‘the child’s eye view’ can  work well – here time, transformation and distance come to the writer’s aid in re-imagining experience).

I think that if some of the good, competent writers who end up in the middle if the pile would take notice of any or all of these points then the possibility that their work might rise to the top in their next competition would be very much enhanced.

Happy writing


PS  Don’t forget to look out for The Woman Who Drew Buildingsthe woman who drew buildings[1]  – Just out in paperback.


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