It’s Just a Book

When writing a novel, or any other piece of literature, I’ve found one thought that’s useful to bear in mind is that it’s just a book. What I mean is, it doesn’t have to be THE book. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you’ll ever write.

Most inexperienced novelists, myself included, often put themselves under enormous pressure when they start out. They want to write something brilliant. Something that will advertise their writing prowess and define them as a unique and original voice. This can lead to all sorts of problems, not least the critic sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, really, is that it?

Anne Enright hit such a wall when she started her MA in creative writing at the celebrated UEA:

‘I failed and failed again. I had a huge sense of myself as a writer but I had no huge sense of what I wanted to write about…I sat and unwrote my great book which was hugely overambitious… I came home and I wrote three stories in a row and they got published by Faber. They were small and I could do them. The novel I’d planned was set in three different centuries in three different languages.’

Anyone who’s read her novels will know that she went onto execute brilliant, complex and masterful pieces of work. But she had to rein in her overarching ambition first.

When Maggie O’Farrell wrote her first novel, it had four plots. The constructive feedback she received was that it was three plots too many.

I’m not arguing against ambition or complexity or profundity or gravitas or any of those things. I’m just arguing against writers crippling themselves with too much expectation and a doom-laden sense of make-or-break.

I used to think that I should dedicate myself to the highest branch of writing I was capable of and pursue it with single-minded discipline. But, many writers take time to write books that, on the surface, may seem irrelevant or inconsequential. Sometimes these more obscure or ‘lightweight’ works tend to be rather good. Occasionally, they’re even more enjoyable than a writer’s so-called masterpieces.

Take Hilary Mantel. It’s not a common stance I know, but I’m not a huge fan of her fiction. Her memoir, however, Giving Up the Ghost, I thought was just great.

Al Alvarez was a prolific poet, novelist and critic. But have you read his book, Pondlife? It documents his regular swims in the outdoor Hampstead Heath ponds alongside his ruminations on growing old. It’s short, quiet, conversational, almost incidental, but absolutely wonderful.

It doesn’t have to be memoir that a writer chooses to broaden their horizons. John Banville, the literary writer who boasted that his Booker prize-winning novel, The Sea, had won because it was a work of art, also writes detective fiction. I found Snow a captivating read. Many literary writers dabble in crime. I say ‘dabble’ as if it takes no effort. But it does take effort, as well as time and skill. Not all of them can pull it off.

What I’m getting at is that it’s easy, in a bid to be taken seriously, to forget there are more, and perhaps better, reasons to write than to impress. If you take time to have fun, to play, to go off piste, you may produce something light and flimsy, but it may also be something wonderful that soars. Each piece of writing is only part of a body of work and attaching less significance to it may, paradoxically, release you to write your best.

A great tome is a wonderful thing. But don’t underestimate the slighter project that slips into your pocket and brings unexpected delight to both writer and reader.

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Short Story Finalist

To celebrate the little pluses that come our way is an important part of writing. I’m not much of a short story writer. I spend most of my time grappling with the beast that is the novel. But, occasionally, I try my hand at the shorter form and, occasionally, I get myself organised enough to enter a competition. Recently, I discovered I’d been shortlisted for the London Independent Story Prize. There’s a brief online interview here.

I took the option not to have the story itself published. Once you have a story published, you usually can’t enter it for any other competitions or publications. You’ve got to squeeze every last drop of opportunity out of each one. If anyone says being a writer is easy, they’re wrong.

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The would-be author industry

When I studied for my Masters in Creative Writing years ago, there was a module called Paths to Publication. For this module I wrote an essay about the industry that had sprung up geared towards helping unpublished writers get published.  I looked at writing courses, like the MA I was on, mentoring services, manuscript editing services, how-to books, online forums and writing workshop groups.

The would-be author industry was big then. It’s even bigger now. Every day I’m bombarded with emails and notifications about some new resource or some new avenue of feedback. But there is a danger inherent in such a plethora of advice.

I recently came across a passage from Little Women, about the character, Jo’s, response to early criticism of her first novel:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing every one, she took every one’s advice and, like the old man and his donkey in the fable, suited nobody.

If you don’t know the fable of the old man and his donkey, you might want to check it out. It’s a good one. It doesn’t end well for the donkey though.

My first novel, like Jo’s, is a dismembered creature, a coagulated mess, hacked to pieces to satisfy all the conflicting advice I received from writers, agents and editors. It simply doesn’t make sense any longer.

This is the great danger of availing yourself of too much feedback. The would-be author industry is supposed to help you improve your writing. Which is great. Which is all well and good. Except that this is predicated on the notion that there is an objective gold standard of writing. There isn’t. A huge amount boils down to taste.

There are two key, but apparently conflicting, skills a writer must learn: to judge when advice is sound and will improve the quality of their work and to judge when they should follow their own conviction and reject advice in favour of personal vision.

It may seem hypocritical for me to say this, seeing as I run my own manuscript editorial service. But, my professional opinion is just that: an opinion. The work and the final edit belong to the author.

Taste is often a slave to fashion. I’ve lately been enjoying reading some quiet, brilliant works of fiction by twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym.

For a long time Pym went out of fashion because her novels of staid middle-class lives didn’t reflect the hip, sexual revolution vibe of the 1960s. Thankfully, after many years writing in the wilderness, she was later rediscovered and then her novels were treasured because she had remained true to herself.

So, as I get back to writing after a dry spell, I’m switching off all notifications of seminars and author talks and guru workshops and writing do’s and don’t’s and I’m just getting back down to me, the page and the donkey.

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The Biggest Obstacle to Writing

What is the biggest obstacle to writing?

Lack of time, maybe. Lack of money. Lack of confidence. Lack of ideas. Lack of discipline. Lack of space. Lack of stamina.

According to American author and teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, the greatest obstacle to writing is interruption.

My heart leapt when I heard her say this. Yes. This is so true and it’s so underestimated.

Writing is not a switch on, switch off, process. When I sit down to write, my mind initially reaches for other things. I begin in a stilted, half-committed way. The words stutter onto the screen. I sip my tea. I peek at the overgrown flower bed outside. Have a think about something unconnected. Write. Think again.

It takes time to get down to that inner seam, that subcutaneous layer of consciousness, that focussed, but equally dislocated, frame of mind, where the original ideas and words slip through. They come slowly, at first. Then, given space and time, they build. Once the flow sets in, I work quickly. I know it won’t last. The stream will stagnate at some point. The words will turn flat and hackneyed and self-conscious and, eventually, fizzle out. But, by then, hopefully I’ll have harnessed some gold.

Unless, that is, I’m interrupted.

There’s a special kind of focus required, not only in the white heat of creation, but whilst editing too. For example, when picking up my work and trying to read it as a reader. This is a particularly precarious exercise. I need space and time to nurture the illusion. It’s impossible, of course, to approach the work I already know so well as a real reader would, but if I clear my mind, I can try. Putting aside my editing pencil, I allow my reactions to buzz around freely in my head and, only once I’m finished, do I jot them down. By then, hopefully, I’ll have harnessed some invaluable raw data.

Unless, that is, I’m interrupted.

Interruption kills momentum. It stems the flow. It breaks the spell. It clouds the vision. It shatters the focus.

That’s not to say, those things are irrecoverable. But, getting back into the zone takes a whole new effort and, often, a particular nugget of insight will be lost for good.

The problem is bad enough at the best of times, but, for so many writers, under Covid-19 restrictions, it’s been so much worse.

You can ask people not to interrupt, but they won’t necessarily comply. People genuinely just don’t understand how disruptive it is. They will find a reason why they had to just ask this one little question, check this one little fact, point out this one little outstanding issue. If it’s just for a moment, what harm can it do?

On top of that, there’s the anticipation of interruption which, for me at least, is almost as bad as the thing itself. A little portion of my mind is constantly listening out for it. I find myself hurrying through whatever writing task I’m engaged in so I can get to the end before the dreaded intrusion arrives.

With regards to this last dilemma, I’ve come up with a handy little remedy. During lockdown, I invested in a set of noise cancelling headphones. This wasn’t because my work space is noisy. I’m very lucky in having a relatively quiet writing environment. But, it crucially cuts out any hint of approaching danger.

When I’m plugged in, I can’t hear those footsteps shuffling past the study door. I can’t hear that phone ringing upstairs. I can’t hear the car pulling up outside. This is enormously useful because, even though these events might not actually translate into a positive interruption, by thinking they might, I’ve already lost my full concentration. But, by wearing these remarkable headphones, I finally do away with that excruciating anticipation.

An added bonus is that, should anyone make a half-hearted attempt at an interruption – should they call my name quietly, just to see – I won’t hear and I won’t respond. Which might possibly be enough to put them off and send them packing.

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Writing Advice – how useful is it?

This year has been a mixed bag for writers. Some have kept on with their daily, solitary routine pretty much as before. Some have found more time to write than before. Many, it seems, have taken the opportunity to send out their novels to agents. One agent recently announced she’d closed for submissions after receiving an incredible 400 a month since March.

Other writers, like me, have found it hard to create. What’s the point in writing fiction when hospitals are overwhelmed, people are dying and livelihoods are being decimated? What voice do I have to add to the other voices that are finally and rightly being pushed towards the forefront of the social agenda?

Instead of embarking on something new these last months, I’ve gone back to editing an already completed novel while trying to keep sane with weekly doses of Bake Off and taking up running.

I’ve also attended a couple of author talks via Zoom. One of these was hosted by a writer I greatly admire who delivered a  tutorial on character. She had lots of useful stuff to say about how we should get to know our characters and bring them to life. In response to a question of mine, she warned against using people from real life and adapting them for fiction. Making people up from scratch, she reasoned, was freer and more fun.

Thinking about this subjective response, I was reminded of a number of other pieces of writing advice I’ve heard over the years. Here are some examples.

Write what you know.

Write what you don’t know.

Never use a prologue.

Never write about abuse.

Avoid domestic settings.

(And the latest doing the rounds right now) Don’t write about pandemics.

I think we can safely say that none of these should be set in stone. There are countless examples I could cite to debunk them all.

It made me wonder what the aim of all this advice is exactly. Is it geared towards creating a fabulous work of fiction? Or simply towards securing a publisher?

With so many courses, books, editing services (my own included) abounding, there is a huge market dedicated to helping writers find an agent and a publisher. What will agents like? What do publishers want? In the face of a mass charge to get through the gates, the gatekeepers have become the arbiters of taste and quality.

A quick glance at the list of past Booker winners will, however, tell you how many books slip into obscurity. If these last few months of great uncertainty have demonstrated anything, it’s how ephemeral our world is. As we now emerge (hopefully) from this most insecure and unsettling episode, I’ve given up worrying about my own puny standing in the world. My advice to myself right now is to write what the hell I want.

Yes, bear in mind all the things that can make a book enjoyable and satisfying to read. Bear in mind what techniques can help lift the quality of a work of fiction to the next level. Hone your craft. Harness the essential tools and skills that will help channel your vision into something that can be shared. But don’t be a slave to the tastes of others or the dictates of a fickle market. Rather than trying to second guess what agents want, give them something they don’t even know they want and see what they do with it.

Perhaps it’s a recipe for failure. But what is failure? Writing something that never gets published? Writing something that you don’t quite pull off? Writing something that’s excruciatingly bad? So what? If you have your eye all the time on recognition and affirmation, you risk overlooking the thing that makes you unique. The elusive quality that makes your writing stand apart.

Here’s another piece of advice I’ve heard in the past: give the reader what they want but not in the way they’re expecting it.

It sounds like a requirement to be technical and clever. But could this not be achieved by simply being true to yourself?

Three of the best books on writing

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A New Venture

For the past few years, while I’ve been busy writing, I’ve also been reading and giving feedback on manuscripts by other writers. I’ve worked on manuscripts written by established, illustrious authors and on others by writers just starting out. It’s work I hugely enjoy; analysing the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript and suggesting areas an author might like to think about in order to make it better.

I’ve always paid close attention to how a work of art achieves its effect and this probably stems from my father, who loved the arts and viewed all artistic endeavour with a passionate, sensitive, but hyper critical eye. I remember discussing books and paintings and films with him from a very young age. I’d come out of the cinema, or close the covers of a book, eyes brimming with tears, or heart full of joy, only for him to turn to me and ask if I didn’t think the story line was a little weak, or the ending a cop-out, or that the characters lacked substance.

It didn’t matter whether it was Fellini or Disney, Tolstoy or Dr Seuss, his critical scalpel was always razor sharp and he never condescended to me and my own critical facility.

His standards for my artistic endeavours were incredibly high. I remember him coaching me in the role of Shylock for my school production. He wanted me to forgo all the hammy acting my teacher had instilled and aim for something more real and true. At the age of eleven. I tried, but when performing  on stage, with my teacher hamming it up in the wings, demanding I give it more bluff and bluster, I couldn’t help but go along with her. I remember afterwards my dad telling me what a disappointment it was.

His criticism wasn’t driven by cruelty, but by passion. There should be no compromise or laziness in the pursuit of art, at whatever level. This was a man who cried only three times in his adult life, one of them being when he first laid eyes on Michelangelo’s David.

For me, it’s a privilege and pleasure to be entrusted with other people’s work and I always try to give constructive, supportive, but honest feedback.

If you’re interested in making use of my service at any point, the link to my website is here.

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Where do ideas for novels come from?

I’ve been thinking recently about a question that’s often intrigued me,  both as a writer and reader: where do ideas for novels come from?

According to Colm Tóibín, ‘the first sentence of the book comes to you unbidden, unexpectedly, as rhythm and rarely changes.’ After that, comes ‘the work.’

Ian McEwan’s ideas, ‘pop out of nowhere really.’ He tries to make himself available to inspiration by maintaining a state of ‘useful passivity.’

Rose Tremain similarly advises writers to ‘follow the Yogi Masters’ philosophy of Alert Passivity – staying quietly tuned to how everything unfolds day by day and where the truth of things resides.’  

Elena Ferrante says, ‘One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind (from the Los Angeles Times 2018).

Anna Burns knew what she was going to write after ‘Milkman’ because, she says, the book ‘gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, “Back later.”’ (New York Times 2019).

Bernardine Evaristo talks of ‘an ever-growing morass of ideas’ which she has to ‘write down as notes, knowing I will return to explore them further.’ (the stories we tell, Arvon Oct 2019)

It appears, then, that writers, at least at the literary end of fiction, often struggle to define exactly how ideas come to them. They seem to form in a nebulous way, through an infusion of conscious and subconscious thought, experience and memory, with some trigger in the present. It’s a strange alchemy.

Right now, events across the world have taken over and, to me at least, waiting for random inspiration to descend seems largely inadequate and irrelevant. I hope that, whatever I write in the future, these events will have some impact on the novel to come, for those ideas that pop out of nowhere, also pop out of the world around us.


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My failed career

I recently applied for a Saturday job at a local branch of a well known bookshop. Obviously, I love bookshops and when I saw the ad in the window I was drawn to the idea of finding out what it was like to work in one, for a while at least.

I took in my CV and was invited for an interview that afforded me an exciting peek behind the scenes. I was led through a code-locked door, up a twisty staircase to a draughty attic office with flaky paintwork, a paper strewn desk and weathered sofa. All as delectable as I’d imagined.

The interview started with the basics. Did I read a lot of books? Duh. Which books did I think would make it into the top ten sales charts at Christmas? I reeled off a couple of top selling authors and my interviewer nodded her agreement, whilst pointing out that celebrity memoirs and cook books would outsell everything else. She also complained that one of the authors I’d mentioned had been very lazy lately and taken well over a year to produce his latest novel. I quashed the urge to ask if she’d ever tried writing a novel herself.

As the interview progressed, I started to struggle with some of the questions. Having devoted much of the last twenty-two years to raising my children, I couldn’t think of an example of when I’d provided good customer service. Nor could I cite any evidence that I was able to use my initiative.

Was I flexible? Yes. Could I put in extra hours around Christmas? Yes. Travel to different stores? Yes. Did I want to build a career as a bookseller and become a shop manager one day? Um…

It came as no surprise when I didn’t get the job. Nor would I argue with the manager’s decision. I do read a lot, but I know very little about selling books and, on reflection, I’m not sure that I want to know.

Going through that forbidden door I gained entry into an engine room of the book trade. Working at a bookshop you get to see what sells and what doesn’t, which books are promoted and how the marketing machinery makes, or breaks, careers. Useful information, you’d think, for an aspiring writer. Or is it? When I’m sitting at my screen for months on end, is it helpful to know what’s happening at the coal face of the industry? Or is it healthier to remain a regular punter labouring in the background to produce the best book I can?

Of course, lots of writers do work in bookshops without coming to any harm. It makes a kind of sense. But, apart from missing out on the staff discount, I’ve decided I’m more than happy for someone else to take that place behind the counter whilst I browse the shelves and give the memoirs and cookbooks a miss.

This wasn’t the place, but rather a nice example of an indie bookshop.

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What is Good Writing?

When I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing, a few years ago now, the characters in my fledgling novel weren’t allowed to nod. Nor were they allowed to sigh, smile or frown. My tutor banned these and many other stock reactions that spring so readily to the writer’s mind.

Have you ever noticed how frequently characters in novels nod? But how often do you actually see anyone nodding in real life? Seriously, nobody does!

These actions are the tools in the lazy writer’s toolbox. They’re what saves a writer from having to think up a more original, accurate and telling way of getting their characters to react. It’s often said that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, apart from the former being more character driven, is down to the quality of the writing. But what does quality mean? It doesn’t have to mean poetic or obtuse or experimental (although it can be). To my mind, quality means the triumph of invention and originality over laziness.

That’s not to say a writer must never use a stock phrase. In all things there has to be balance. Sometimes a simple nod will suffice and to run around in circles trying to avoid it will become distracting. A novel doesn’t have to be an exact replica of real life. In fact, it really oughtn’t to be. If you were to extract dialogue from real life, with all its hesitations and repetitions, it would be hell to read. But, the best writing resists falling back upon lazy, generic phrases that neither capture real life, nor inform us of what makes a character unique.

Literary writing is often the opposite of what you’re taught in English Language classes at school. At school, for example, you’re told to avoid writing he or she ‘said.’ You’re supposed to write she exclaimed, she gasped, she yelled. But a skilful writer will convey how a character says something simply by the words that they speak. There is no need for any description of how the words were delivered at all.

Similes earn you a lot of marks in your creative essay at school. In quality fiction, not so much. The problem with similes is that they are very difficult to do well. Too often they sound clunky and contrived and fail to add anything to the original idea. They tend to either simply repeat the idea using different words, or they’re so elaborate they bear no relation to the thing that’s being likened to at all.

Clichés are another obvious obstacle to good writing. The problem is what was once an original image or metaphor quickly becomes a cliché through over exposure. I’ve noticed, for example, that in a lot of contemporary novels the word pebble keeps appearing. My heart was a pebble. His love was a pebble…  All writers are thieves to some degree, but we need to be careful not to steal what everyone else is stealing.

It may sound as if I’m a literary writer who produces nothing but the most exquisite prose. I’m not. At the moment I’m trying to write a thriller. Thrillers, like every other kind of writing, are hard to master. I read quite a lot of thrillers to see what does and doesn’t work. It is, of course, much, much easier to criticise others than to do a good job yourself. However, I have discovered one particular recurrent mechanism that I do find hugely annoying. It is this: the big reveal that is hinted at all the way through the book but withheld until the end for no other reason than to tease the reader.  Ugh, I hate that. It’s so annoying. By the time the reveal arrives, nine times out of ten, I’ve already guessed it. And if I haven’t guessed it, I’m so sick of it being dangled in front of my nose, I don’t even care what it is any more.

In order to make my novel the best it can be, therefore, I am trying to avoid nods, similes, pebbles, and gratuitously withheld reveals.

Of course, many readers will be completely okay with these things, if they even notice they exist. I was talking to a police detective recently who said he couldn’t stand watching any kind of police procedural on TV. When I asked why, he said it was because they were so untrue to life. In what way, I asked. In that they get the crime solved and sewn up in no time at all, he said. To me that simply doesn’t matter. In fact, this makes them much more entertaining than if they adhered to reality.  But each to their own. Writing, like reading, is a highly subjective matter. You need only adhere to what matters to you.



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New Year’s Thoughts

I haven’t blogged in a long time, mostly because I haven’t had any significant writing news. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I am now busy editing my second novel. I think that’s going ok, but what do I know?

As always, I’ve enjoyed reading lots of great books. No day ever goes by for me without literature. It is my most dependable companion. Literature allows me to step into other people’s lives and have my own reflected back at me. It provides escapism, but it also reminds me of what’s important and how ephemeral it all is.

Platitudes abound at this time of year but mostly they’re not very helpful. I get really tired of hearing phrases like, ‘seize the day,’ and ‘you only live once,’ and ‘make the most of every moment.’ What does all that mean? It’s impossible to live life to the full all the time and it’s not helpful to be made to feel like a failure if you don’t. There should be plenty of latitude to be morose and bored and lost.

For me, a more useful maxim is ‘don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Of course, it’s impossible to adhere to this too. We all sweat the small stuff. This is the danger of human interaction: obsessing about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. Relationships can turn on such trivial and insignificant concerns. Two people can have very different interpretations of the same thing. We all have our own reality. This is one of the driving forces of conflict in fiction. So easy to recognise in others, not so easy to call to attention in ourselves.

Another common theme in fiction is the transience of life. ‘This too shall pass’ is a saying I’ve never really understood. To me, it’s always sounded like an inane, bland and somewhat negative take on life. It seems to say, nothing matters because you’re all going to die. But I’ve come to realise that it’s a more compassionate message than that. No matter how bad things are, they won’t stay that way. The same is true for good things – you can’t sustain them forever so don’t pin all your hopes and happiness onto a transient state. You cannot control life, but that doesn’t mean it has to control you.

Fiction often deals in make-believe, fantasy and heightened reality. But it can also encompass the ordinary, the quiet and the every day. While social media is obsessed with proving how exciting and extraordinary our lives are, when the chips are down, I’ve often longed for those normal, uneventful days when I can go about life without fuss or pain. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but sometimes I love waking up and thinking, today is an ordinary day.

Literature for me acts as a counterpoint to all the noise and the hype. Sometimes when someone tells me they’re upset, frustrated, depressed, or anxious, I feel like saying, why don’t you read a book? I don’t say it, because it sounds far too trite. Reading a book won’t solve your problems or reveal the meaning of life. But, if it’s a book worth reading, it will be an enriching experience. Rather than seize the day, or live life to the full, ‘read a book’ makes the most sense to me.

This post is dedicated to Alan Doyle, who set up and managed this website for me as a friend for free and who sadly passed away this month.

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