Does it Matter if Novels Aren’t Plausible?

Does anyone care about plausibility in novels anymore? Or are readers just so hungry for twist upon twist, they don’t mind how improbable this renders the story line?  

Read a book like ‘Gone Girl’ and you could well believe the latter is the case. In an age where so many books are being published, the author is perhaps under more pressure than ever to come up with ways of taking the reader by surprise. They can achieve this by feats of imaginative ingenuity or by making the story, frankly, ridiculous.

It’s not just genre novels that seem to be prone to this trend. The literary novel in recent years, particularly in its quest to hit that literary/commercial sweet spot often referred to by agents, has often stretched the limits of probability.

Of course, there needs to be an element of the fantastical in all but the most rigorously naturalistic fiction. That’s what makes it engaging. Readers of fiction want to be lifted out of the everyday and to be immersed in fresh experiences and scenarios. We want to be asked to suspend our disbelief. So, surely, there is nothing wrong with straying from the realms of plausibility if it makes for a good read? 

Whilst thinking about this, I chanced upon an essay by David Lodge called ‘The Novelist at The Crossroads’ (Routledge 1971) in which Lodge argues that the constraints of plausibility in the realistic novel is like a regular rhyme and metric scheme in a poem. Whilst it may at first appear that the discipline of regular verse would fetter the poet’s imagination, it actually forces him or her to reach for a higher plane of expression. It prevents the poet from accepting the first set of words that pops into the head, which are almost always banal, cliched, or exaggerated, and makes them come up with something more interesting and unique to comply with the rhyme or scan scheme. Similarly, the novelist who has to ground their work in plausibility must be more resourceful and skillful in the story line they conceive and in its execution.

The reason, of course, why I’m grappling with this issue is because I am in the process of planning my next novel. I am trying to negotiate that fine line between what is likely and what is exciting: to exploit the tension between fiction and reality which, when done well, makes reading such a joy.

In short, I want to take my reader on an invigorating and captivating journey, without taking them for a ride.

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Writing for No-one

Writers are often told they should keep a journal. I imagine a writer’s journal to be something erudite and practical: the exposition of process, working through problems and strategies, accruing material and ideas. I’ve never written a journal like this. What I have done, however, is to sporadically keep a personal diary, ever since the age of seven, when my first entry read: ‘Today I ate a Curly Wurly.’

Diary writing is the strangest kind of writing. Who is it for? Posterity? Well, I’m certainly no Samuel Pepys. My diaries would be of no use as historical documents because I include very little in them about the society in which I live (apart from its chocolate bars). It’s true that during some of my teenage, self-obsessed years, I was writing with half an eye to future fame and glory. But I soon got over that.

So, if not for posterity, or the development of craft, what purpose does a diary serve? I’m not sure what made me keep writing. Perhaps, it was simply the compulsion to write something, when I didn’t know what else to write. At times my diaries have been flippant and joyful. At other times, they’ve been the repositories of unspoken, secret emotions. A valuable means of expression and catharsis whenever I’ve felt myself to be overwhelmed, or silenced, by life’s circumstances.

Given that they are very personal, I don’t want anyone to read them. Not even when I’m dead. Nor, surely, do I want to read them myself. Why else would they have remained stuffed in boxes in my loft? Why should I want to read them? The catharsis is surely achieved and exhausted at the moment of writing. Why not just burn the lot and keep burning them every couple of years?

To find the answer to this question, I took down my old diaries from the loft and carted them off with me to my Scottish retreat to re-read them, possibly one last time. I expected them to be cringe worthy. They were. But they were also fascinating and revealing in unexpected ways. People often ask, ‘What would you say to your younger self with the benefit of hindsight?’ Reading my diaries turned this question around to, ‘What would your younger self say to you?’

I found my younger self saying things like, ‘See here, you always wanted to do such and such, you’ve wanted to do it ever since you were very young – why, oh why, have you left it undone?’

Also: ‘That story you’ve been dining out on all these years: you do know it didn’t happen like that at all?’

Or: ‘See how you let yourself be pushed around here, are you going to carry on like that for ever?’

And: ‘That time you harp back to when you were really happy? You were miserable.’

And: ‘You do realise you’ve always loved writing stories? Don’t give up now.’

Our memories are a narrative written in the past tense, edited and refined for our own consumption, as much as anyone else’s. We put a spin on our memories to make us feel better about ourselves, to excuse our failings, to mollify our self-doubts. But in a diary you have a first person present narrator talking right back at you, telling you how it really was. Although this narrator, too, can be unreliable.

One of the most fascinating facets of human beings lies in the gap between perceived self and real self. A lot of fiction, my own novel included, explores characters for whom this gap is unusually wide. It can have comic or tragic consequences, or both. Either way, the reader gets to delight in their superior understanding of a character, in knowing that person better than the character knows him, or her, self.

Well, for once, I gained a superior understanding of a character straight out of real life: me. IMG_3346

I won’t be burning my diaries just yet. They are little missives to myself that I haven’t quite done with. But one day I most certainly will, apart from the Curly Wurly entry, which I believe should be preserved for posterity.

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Season of Hope

Right now is my absolute  favourite time of the year. I love it. Whilst people around me are bemoaning the passing of summer and the return to school runs, stews and soggy weather, I’m relishing the absence of barbecues, bared flesh and general all round joviality. I’m getting out the hot water bottle (actually I never put it away), readying the grate and closing the curtains on the world earlier and earlier each evening. What bliss.

To me, despite the fading light, Autumn always feels like a new beginning. Perhaps it’s because it’s the start of the academic year and anyone with children knows how this acts as a marker for change: much more so than the start of a new calendar year. For me, ever since I was a child, September has seemed like a time to gather my bearings and look to the future.

Amongst other things, I’m naturally taking stock of my writing. I think we all pretty much know where I am with that: I’m looking for an agent. So… how’s that going?

Although I’ve had my little moans about agents along the way, by and large I’ve found they do get back to you eventually and they often have some nice things to say. I’ve been circumspect in my submissions in that I’ve kept the numbers small. This means I can use the feedback received along the way to improve my submission and I still have many more avenues to explore. I try, of course, to target those agents to whom I think my work will appeal. It’s not always easy to tell. I’ve misfired a couple of times. I should have known better, for example, than to send it to an agent who spends all her time tweeting about cuddly kittens and handbags.

I’ve had some success with competitions. The opening eight thousand words were shortlisted for an agent-run competition. And the first page of my novel came first, as in actually won, the Words with Jam First Page prize. If you’d like a sneak preview of the opening of my book, it appears on their website here. (You’ll see what I mean about kittens and handbags).

Which all points to me thinking that I’m doing okay. Things are generally heading in a positive direction. I’m still in with a chance.

And now that the clamour of summer is dying down, I can enjoy getting on with the next novel without the need for ear plugs and Piriton. Yay!

I could have spent my prize money on groceries or pet insurance, but I decided instead to re-invest in my writing by purchasing this rather gorgeous desk chair.

I could have spent my prize money on groceries or pet insurance, but I decided instead to re-invest in my writing by purchasing this rather gorgeous desk chair.

 

 

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A Writer’s Escape

For the past couple of summers I have taken myself off to the wonderful Retreats for You for some dedicated writing time. Here I was given a room, a writing desk, good food, drink and company.

This year, however, I decided to do something different. Instead of a communal writers’ retreat, I would escape into complete isolation and silence. My decision was in part influenced by two books: one was ‘Into The Wild’ by Jon Krakauer about Chris McCandless’ ill-fated sojourn into the Alaskan outback and the other was Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, in which the author’s investigation into the experience of silence, its psychological, physical and spiritual effects, culminates in her building a house for herself in a remote Scottish landscape.

Yes, that was how I wanted to live, well, for a week at least. Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked the remotest dwelling I could find: a two-bedroom cottage in the Cairngorms. No neighbours for miles, no mobile phone signal, no internet reception, no TV. Just woods and mountains, deer, red squirrels and birds.

I took with me two dogs and, along with a small suitcase, a rucksack stuffed with books, some old diaries of mine I’d found in the loft and my laptop. I didn’t know if I’d actually manage to read or write anything and it didn’t matter. I didn’t go with any agenda other than to spend some time with myself.

I consulted the map the night before and discovered I would be driving no fewer than 550 miles. Some trepidation crept in. How will I manage the journey? How will the dogs manage? How will I feel on my own in the cottage? Will I miss my children? Will I be frightened? What will it be like?’

The eight and a half hour journey ended up taking nearly twelve hours with breaks for the dogs factored in. I left at 6 am and I arrived at 5 pm. The last part, off the main highways, took the longest, but the spectacular scenery spurred me on. Soon I was unpacked and had got the wood burner going, albeit mid-July.

The owner had kindly left me some homemade fudge, shortbread, ginger cake and a bottle of white wine. Three months before, I had given up alcohol and now the last thing I wanted was to waste my evenings here in a maudlin stupor in front of the fire. So I popped the wine away and cracked open the Highland Spring Water I’d brought with me.

It took a long time for darkness to fall. I hadn’t appreciated how the light lingers this far north. It was still only dusk at half past ten. I let the dogs out and, as soon as they were outside, they began barking and staring rigidly at a fixed point in the dark woods beyond. Thanks, girls. Naturally, I assumed an axe murderer was making his way towards me. I called the dogs in, locked the door and took a kitchen knife and a pair of sharp scissors to bed.

I awoke to find myself alive and well the next morning and still in ‘mum’ mode, trying, and failing, to call my son to check he was up for his paper round. But a walk in the countryside soon knocked that nonsense out of me. Actually, ‘countryside’ is too twee a word for it. This was wilderness. As I took a steep narrow track up a local low mountain, pheasants flew out from the dense heather all around, a bird of prey wheeled above and the clouds cast fleeting patterns on the desolate hillsides.

I thought I must strike an incongruous figure: a poorly equipped woman from the south east roaming the Cairngorms with two dogs and an old SLR camera slung around her neck.

I had decided I would take proper photos on this trip, on film, like. Normally, I snap away with my mobile and upload the results within seconds to my computer and/or Facebook without much care for quality. Here, I wanted to pay attention to matters such as depth of field and composition and light.

After lunch back at the cottage, I felt tired from my journey the day before, but was reluctant to give into an afternoon snooze. Already, I was beginning to worry about how little time I had left.

I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered how expansive time becomes when there is nothing – nothing – to interrupt your day. And it’s not just the not being interrupted: it’s the not anticipating any interruption. It made me realise how much this anticipation lurks in the back of my mind at home all the time. I’m always half expecting something to break into my concentration, be it the children, the telephone, the dishwasher cycle, some outside disturbance, or whatever. I realised how distracting this sense of anticipation is.

Here, in clear open time and space I could get truly lost in what I was doing. I might decide to make a cup of tea and then find a couple of hours later that I hadn’t made a move towards the kettle. The longevity of each moment was a most precious discovery.

And the silence itself. On that first day sitting in the easy chair of the living room, all I could hear was the blood pulsing in my head.

Such profound peace and quiet is something I imagine lots of people would cherish, but for a writer, it’s especially blissful. It gave me a chance, not only to become deeply involved in my work, but, conversely, to change from one task to another without fear of losing the thread. When I picked up the writing after a break, no junk had infested my mind. It was like that mental freshness you have first thing in the morning extending right up until bedtime.

I found the life of the mind, combined with bracing walks, gave me an appetite for a particular kind of food: the good old heart warming, comforting kind. I wanted none of your bistro frippery. I cooked my frozen steak and kidney pies and baked beans whilst eyeing the leftover balsamic vinegar from a previous occupant with deep suspicion.

The only human contact I had was at the checkout in the local Co-op (12 miles away) and the few other walkers I passed by. Whilst hiking up Cairn Gorm towards the end of the week, I came across a couple of families all kitted out in full outdoor regalia. I felt envious of these children whose parents were initiating them so early in the great outdoors and then I felt guilty because I wasn’t one of those parents.

I received my one and only phone call half way up Cairn Gorm. My mobile reception suddenly kicked in to allow my youngest son to get through and ask me about putting out the bins!

On one occasion I thought I’d lost my mobile. Normally this would send me into paroxysms of panic and despair. Was I bothered? Not remotely. All week the only thing I used my mobile phone for was to time the pies in the oven.

Did I get lonely? No. I loved being on my own. Except for one time immediately after I’d finished reading the first novel I’d taken with me. I realised then how a good book can become such a close companion. But I soon found a new friend in the next one.

I did, however, at times feel low. But then, this wasn’t meant to be a holiday. I’d come in part to think about some personal stuff and there was no reason why this would be a comfortable experience. It did help though.

‘Longer,’ I wrote in my logbook at the end of the week, ‘I really need longer.’ I avoided totting up how many books I’d read or how many words I’d written (a lot). I didn’t want to look upon the week in terms what I had ‘achieved.’ I wrote effusive thanks in the visitors’ book, left the keys in the shed and began the long journey home.

Half an hour in, I couldn’t work out what was wrong with the sat nav. A tangle of confusing gridlines and signs appeared on the screen. What did it all mean? Sadly, it meant I had hit civilization. All week, wherever I’d gone, the screen had shown just one meandering line: a solitary road surrounded by green.

Back home, I wasn’t able to rush straight to the computer screen to remind myself of where I’d been. I had to wait for my photos to be developed and posted back to me. Can you imagine? When they arrived, the memories were all the sweeter for having waited.

Meanwhile, I ploughed through hundreds of emails. Unbelievably, there wasn’t a single one from a literary agent offering representation for my novel. How strange.

Oh well, sometimes all you need is a bed, a book and a running burn in the woods nearby to gain a real sense of affirmation.

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Writers and Artists Blog

Just posted another guest blog on this excellent website for writers. This time all about the etiquette surrounding multiple submissions. Read it here.

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How to Get a Clear Perspective on your Manuscript

I have actually lost count of how many times I’ve revised my manuscript. It makes no sense to talk in terms of numbers of drafts any more. I’ve made minor alterations and I’ve done full scale re-writes. I’ve made changes and unchanged changes.

It is said you shouldn’t submit your novel to agents until you are absolutely convinced it’s in the best shape possible. But, we all know that if you work on your manuscript until it’s ‘perfect’ you may never send it anywhere. Put it away in a drawer and take it out in six months’ time and there’ll be plenty you want to change. Put it away for another six months and the same will be true again. You can go on like this forever.

The problem is you are just too close. Whilst you can gain some perspective by discarding it for a while, you are still too close, emotionally as much as anything else.

At some point you have to take the plunge and submit to an agent. I would argue that the act of doing this is, in itself, a way of gaining perspective, of seeing the novel better. One reason, of course, is that you may receive constructive feedback. But even an agent’s feedback is subjective and, often, contradicts another’s. What I’m arguing is that the very act of submitting brings a fresh perspective, irrespective of the outcome.

It’s like handing in your paper at the end of a maths exam. Sometimes it happens that the moment you let go of it, the moment you surrender it to the invigilator, you realise you got a question wrong and you know, all of a sudden, what the answer should have been. Somehow, it was the act of handing it over that triggered this realisation. You might never have spotted the error if you’d kept staring at the sum for the rest of the day. Or if you’d put the sum away and come back to it at a later date. Something about relinquishing it for good released a thought pathway that was supressed, or blocked, before. The same can be true when you release a manuscript for the perusal of an agent. It might not be an instantaneous realisation, or a simple one. But it can trigger something.

The downside is that the first agent, or round of agents, who receives your manuscript, gets the dud submission. Why risk such a waste? Surely, the same revelations can be triggered by submitting to a trusted reader for constructive criticism. To a degree, yes. But not completely. In this scenario you have nothing to lose. The worst that can happen is that they lay into your novel and you decide whether or not they’re right. This is not the same as a rejection. A rejection is like a fail in your maths GCSE. It is an irredeemable loss. That’s why, I think, something in the brain gets released as soon as you make the possibility of that loss a reality. And that’s a useful thing because you can do something about it for next time.

If you’re lucky, you get to pass your GCSE, despite the error, or the agent takes on your manuscript, warts and all. However, for most un-agented, unpublished writers, the submissions process is ongoing. Most of us don’t get snapped up right away. It’s important not to get defeated by this. As I mentioned in my previous post, agents’ tastes are highly subjective. Hopefully, as I go along, honing, improving, refining, I will end up with a manuscript in which I believe completely. Which I feel to be as good as I can get it. I hope to reach a time when I can hit the ‘send’ button without thinking in the ensuing minutes, days or weeks, ‘Shit, I should have…’

 

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Write What You Read

As I start to think about my next novel and what kind of book it might be, I remember the advice meted out by a lecturer on my MA. She recommended trying to write, not the kind of book you think you should write, but the kind of book you’d most like to read.

What kind of book do I like to read? It’s an interesting question. This blog isn’t intended to incorporate book reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading most in recent months.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, about a woman growing up in England during the first half of the twentieth century, living and dying over and over, with resulting alternative outcomes.

John Williams’ Stoner, about a boy raised on a poor Missouri farm who went to college to study agriculture and discovered literature and became a professor and led an unremarkable life (imagine trying to sell that plot line to an agent).

John Willliams’ Butcher’s Crossing, about four men who head out into the mountain country to kill a herd of buffalo for their hides.

Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, in which Jesus’ mother gives her painful, bitter and wry account of the Passion and of her life as the mother of the so-called Son of God.

Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room, in which a young woman artist loses her brother to the First World War and learns to sketch the injuries of war casualties for the purposes of assisting plastic surgery.

Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, about a psychiatrist’s wife who becomes passionately involved with a patient who severed the head of his first wife.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, in which a widower retreats with his two daughters to the wilds of his native Newfoundland.

Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield, about a series of dog poisonings in a well-to-do American Massachusetts suburb where psychiatrists are in high demand.

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, in which an American ambulance volunteer in the First World War faces the realities of the Italian front and falls in love with an English nurse.

Blimey. I’m a cheerful soul, aren’t I?

So, where does all this lead me? Perhaps it’s easier to see where it doesn’t lead: the comic novel, for certain. Or anything approaching fantasy. It seems I really like the bleak stuff. Stuff about people and their aspirations and their relationships, their trials and failures and their small successes. I can appreciate being transported to a different time and place and learning something new, but this is not crucial to my enjoyment. I don’t require a novel to educate me, except in the general way of humankind.

You know, I’m fully aware that it would be a tad ambitious to set out to write a book like one of these. These are beautifully written, complex and subtle books, which include one of the giants of modern literature, no less. But I believe that as a writer it can do me nothing but good to immerse myself in the very best examples of my literary tastes. So, when I set out to write my own novel, which, at a guess, will be a little on the bleak side, I keep at the back of my mind the experience of reading these books as a guide and inspiration.

I’m also toying, for the first time, with the idea of writing some non-fiction. So, to finish, here are some of the books I’ve most enjoyed recently in that area.

Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When you Can Be Normal?

Luckily, the job of being a writer begins with the great pleasure of being a reader.

Ernest Hemingway's Recommended Reading List for Writers

Ernest Hemingway’s Recommended Reading List for Writers

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Guest Blog

On the Writers and Artists website about writers’ groups – are they a good idea?

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Pass the Port

To be a writer you’re supposed to write every day. I try to adhere to this, although I don’t crucify myself over it. During the mayhem of Christmas and the New Year, I tend to put aside my ongoing projects and allow my writing to wander along different tracks. It’s a time for freewheeling. For writing anything. Stuff I wouldn’t normally ‘waste’ time on. A bit like the delight taken in frivolous presents. Just as I find myself playing silly games pulled from the bottom of a Christmas stocking, I also find myself writing odd paragraphs spilled from the bottom of a glass of port. Hey, it’s still writing.

I’m always hopeful I’ll get lots of reading done, but I rarely do. It’s not so easy when the giblets need boiling and The Snowman needs watching.  But I can at least dip into the magazines piled in a corner, or read some short stories.

My year ended with a short story of mine being published in a small anthology. It’s nothing major, a mere stocking filler. Without wishing to sound greedy, I’m hoping the coming year will bring me bigger presents in the world of writing and publishing. But, remembering how my grandma was grateful as a child if she received an orange for Christmas and nothing else, I’ll settle for just being able to carry on writing.

Happy New Year.

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Shhh!

I have the seed of an idea for my next novel. Don’t tell anyone, Claudia. Keep it a secret. Don’t say what it’s about. Don’t say what kind of novel it is. Don’t say ANYTHING.

Tentatively, I’ve begun to write a little scene. Maybe it will form a short story to test the waters. Maybe it will form a future chapter. Surreptitiously, barely consciously, I’m jotting down ideas. Just characters for now. And a key situation.

But I don’t know, I don’t know, if it will grow into anything. At the moment it’s just a wayward seed on the ground. It needs to sink into the darkness and be ignored for the most part in order to grow.

Don’t tell anyone.

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