I have a manuscript… almost

Four obstacles to writing by Tom Gauld

I’ve overcome two of Tom Gauld’s four obstacles to writing (thankfully, I’ve not encountered the other two*) and the next novel is nearly complete.

I have only the final scene of the last chapter to write, and the celebratory table is booked for fizz and red meat on Saturday night at Tarantella, our favourite Cockermouth restaurant.

The story of Grace and Jamie that has been rattling around in my head for so long is out on paper, more or less as I imagined it. The phase of getting as many words down as possible is almost over.

But this is just the beginning for Pressmennan – and the next part will be far harder, as it means taking a huge step back from my baby and thinking about quality rather than quantity.

Once those final paragraphs are written, I have to go back to the beginning and start editing with a highly critical eye. I need to straighten out my facts, tighten up the dialogue, fill in the missing thoughts and descriptions, and tidy up every last detail of spelling, punctuation, grammar – and story.

It’s never easy to do this to your own work, but it’s an essential part of the process of making it publishable. I’ve done it before with Tandem, so I know I can do it again – and if I can share any tips along the way, I will.

* Anyone who knows me may be able to work out which ones I’m referring to. Clue: I’ve never kept a pram in the hall.

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Take that, William Wordsworth!

Painting of William Wordsworth

My very frivolous novel Tandem has dealt a knockout blow to William Wordsworth’s highly serious poetic output.

The shop at Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, the poet’s National Trust-owned birthplace, and my workplace, reports that Tandem is number five in its list of top-selling items for this year.

That makes it the best-selling book, after the house’s guidebook, and puts it ahead of Wordsworth’s Selected Poems and The Golden Store, an illustrated anthology of his work, which are the next most popular titles.*

Maybe William Wordsworth should have written more poems about penguins and bicycles?

My second piece of news is that I’m up to 75,000 words on my new novel Pressmennan. The main character, Grace, has just had a disturbing encounter on the 16th floor of a Glasgow tower block – and I now have just four more chapters to write.

Finally, this blog is entered in two categories in the UK Blog Awards, where my other blog – Fletch the Perchcrow – was shortlisted in the Most Innovative Category last year.

Click here to vote for me in Arts and Culture. And here to vote for me in the Most Innovative category.

Thank you!

* The other items in the top five were a garden plant of some kind, a picnic rug and a Wordsworth tea towel!

Time for some serious plot wrestling

Cumbrian wrestlers

The end is nigh, and I’m excited and worried in equal measure. I’ve written 65,000 words of my new novel, Pressmennan, and reckon I have, at most, 20,000 more to go.

This is good because I’m keen to get finished so I can find out what the world thinks, but it’s also bad because I’m nearing the point of finding out what the world thinks.

So far, I’ve been focused on getting as many words as possible down on paper, preferably in a reasonably sensible and interesting order.

Now, with the various characters and their story threads well established, I’m moving into a new phase: bringing it all together. And that means some nimble footwork to ensure I don’t trip up as I wrestle a complex plot into submission.

Basically, everything depends on everything else. A passing comment made by a minor character 150 pages ago needs adjustment in light of something happening now. What someone else did or didn’t say in chapter one has to be clarified as it’s crucial to a scene I’m about to write.

And, if such and such is going to occur in a couple of chapters, I need to revise the groundwork laid when the characters involved first appeared.

In other words, each little detail, each conversation, each thought needs to be choreographed into a seamless whole. No loose footwork, no missteps. It’s making my brain hurt, but it must be done – and it must be done well.

Wish me luck!

PS: I’ve been named Oxford University’s Alumni Author of the Month for my novel Tandem. How nice is that?

Take the ten book challenge

Six of my top ten books

Have you come across the Facebook ten book challenge? The idea is to list the ten volumes that have stayed with you over the years. They don’t have to be great literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.

My friend Suzi posted her top ten the other day and challenged me to share mine. As I compiled my list, I realised that whether they were novels or autobiographies, all the books I’d chosen were about wonderful characters involved in amazing stories.

What more could any writer offer? It’s certainly what I want to do. So what are your ten most memorable books? I’d love to know. Here, in no particular order, are mine:

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger Holden Caulfield has stayed with me since my teenage years and there are echoes of him in Sanders, one of the central characters in my novel Tandem.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Another one from my teens. Sadly, the novel that cemented my love of Austen’s unparalleled powers of characterisation has long since vanished from my bookshelves.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin I read and adored this series in my 20s. Mary Ann Singleton and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver are two of my favourite characters. Great storytelling too. Unfortunately, I lent the whole lot to a friend years ago and never got them back.

Growing up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser The omnibus edition tells the story of Glasser’s childhood spent in desperate poverty and his escape, against the odds, to Oxford University. Truly inspiring. Not sure where it went, but it’s no longer on my shelves either.

The Shipping News by Annie E Proulx I’ve loved this book for two decades. Again, characters are key, reinforcing a powerful lesson that I’ve tried to apply to my own writing.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg Another one that has stayed with me since I first read it 20 years ago. More wonderful storytelling woven around a great central character.

Toast by Nigel Slater My favourite autobiography. I can identify very strongly with many of the food memories that provide the framework for this deeply affecting story. I’m hoping whoever I leant it to will read this and let me have it back soon – it’s the second copy of this book I’ve lost!

This is Not About Me by Janice Galloway Another stonking autobiography that – along with its sequel All Made Up – contains some unforgettable characters.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel My favourite book of all time. Thomas Cromwell? What’s not to love – there is no greater character, real or imagined.

Tandem by Alex Morgan I’ve included my own first book not because it’s great literature, but because it contains the characters and story that launched my career as a novelist – and, for that, it will be with me forever.

Do you see what I see?

Typewriter illustration by Chris Madden

I realised long ago that dialogue is my thing. Unfortunately, you can’t write a novel with nothing but dialogue.* That would be a play – and I don’t want to write plays.

So I struggle on with the descriptive bits that go between the conversations. They provide a necessary variation in the pace and delivery method of information, but I have to fight the urge to bang out a scant paragraph and return to the reams of dialogue that flow far more easily from by brain, through my fingers, and onto the page.

I did read something helpful recently, though, and am trying to keep it in mind. It was an Oliver Burkeman column in The Guardian magazine. He was talking about a forthcoming book by the psychologist Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style.

He quotes Pinker as saying: “When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

Sound advice – the only problem is that what I tend to see, and be interested in, is people talking!

*Actually, Nicholson Baker did back in the early 90s. It’s called Vox, is about phone sex and, perhaps surprisingly for someone who has such trouble writing sex scenes (see my novel Tandem), I seem to remember enjoying it.

PS: The illustration is from Oliver Burkeman’s column and is by Chris Madden.

Every novel needs a spreadsheet

Recommended reading

I’ve just spent a very productive week on the lovely Galloway House Estate in south-west Scotland working on my new novel – and I’ve learned three things I think are worth sharing.

1) Excel is the novelist’s friend. It wasn’t until I was deep in the process of revising my first novel, Tandem, that I realised how useful it would have been to have a plan listing the main events of each chapter, who was involved and where to find it in the manuscript. One of the first things I did this week was to create just such a spreadsheet for Pressmennan – and it’s already proving invaluable.

2) My reading brain is easily fooled. When I’m immersed in writing my own fiction, I don’t like to fill my head with other people’s. Not because I think it’ll somehow “influence” me, but because I’ve only got so much space for stories and I need to focus on creating my own. I want to read something for a change of scene, but I find a lot of non-fiction heavy going. I’ve discovered the answer: autobiography. I get the satisfaction of reading something really interesting, and my brain’s happy because it isn’t fiction. My top choice this week was Liza Campbell’s Title Deeds, the riveting story of her dysfunctional upbringing in a Scottish castle.

3) Every book needs at least one dog. My other reading matter was Terry Darlington’s Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, the wonderful tale of his travels by narrow boat through England, Belgium and France accompanied by his wife Monica and Jim, their pork-scratching-loving whippet. Jim is a star. As Terry says, he is “cowardly, thieving and disrespectful and hates boating” – and the book wouldn’t be half so much fun without him. There are several dogs in Title Deeds, and Tandem features a greyhound called Bovis. Pressmennan, although only five chapters long so far, already has its quota of dogs – dachshunds Oscar and Peterson, aka the Wee Buggers. I think Jim would like them!

Please vote for Tandem!

National Reading Group Day logo

Book lovers, I need your help urgently! My novel Tandem, winner of the Hookline Novel Competition, has been long-listed in National Reading Group Day’s search for a “hidden gem”. Voting has opened and the winner will be announced on June 28.

Please visit the site and vote for it asap – you don’t have to be in a reading group. Also, please spread the word far and wide, and encourage everyone you know to vote.

http://readinggroups.org/news/hidden-gems-longlist.html

Thank you!

Into the dustbin of literature

Tom Gauld cartoon

This cartoon by Tom Gauld made me smile. I’m only on chapter three of my new novel, Pressmennan, and already one of the characters – a Swedish film star called Bibi – has been consigned to the dustbin.

When it comes to editing your own work, it’s not indecisive to make changes – it’s essential. Knowing when to hit delete is a skill every writer must learn if they want to be successful. And the parts to look hardest at are often the ones you’re most proud of.

As Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in On the Art of Writing: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Sometimes the bravest and best course of action is to dispose of a character, scene or even a whole plotline. Occasionally, the wastebasket, electronic or actual, is the right place for an entire manuscript.

It’s where my first two went. It took me a while to realise I needed to let go of them, but once I did, I was able to move on and put everything I’d learned into writing Tandem.

Decisive use of the red pen is what made it publishable and turned it into the winner of the Hookline Novel Competition.

Journeys with strangers

Bookshelf


There are only two basic novel plots. This is something I remember reading years ago, and it has floated to the front of my mind over the past few days as I’ve started thinking seriously about my new novel.

It was the American novelist John Gardner who said it all boiled down to this: the central character goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

It may seem simplistic but I think it’s true. All novels are about change. Something must happen to the main character, otherwise there is no story. And that change must be prompted by something they do themselves – a physical or emotional journey of discovery – or by someone else – the stranger – who does something to affect their life.

Think about the books you love and see which category they fall into. Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourites, revolves around the arrival of several (male) strangers. Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell’s journey from poverty to power.

My first novel, Tandem, is actually about both. The Amazon blurb says: “Paula abandons her London life and travels through the night to a Scottish village where she once spent a childhood holiday. Desperate to avoid a painful loss, she tries to hide away. However, the locals are keen to know more about their unhappy visitor and she is soon tangled in the life of 12-year-old Sanders. Can Paula help her new friend? Can we ever run away from the past?”

So Paula embarks on what turns out to be both a physical and an emotional journey, while for the villagers of Craskferry, particularly Sanders, she is the stranger who comes to town and changes lives.

My new novel, Pressmennan, has just one plot theme: it’s all about strangers. What will your novel be about?

Beginning with the blurb

The cover of Tandem by Alex Morgan
One of the hardest tasks I faced when Tandem was accepted for publication was trying to write an intriguing, spoiler-free summary of the story to use on the back cover, in press releases and so on.

In the end, after many false starts, my editor Yvonne and I agreed it was too difficult to sum up and we’d simply do without, going instead with the plaudits I received from “real” writers Sara Maitland and Cleo Gray.

This time round, as a way of focussing my mind on what I want Pressmennan to be about, I’ve decided to start with the blurb. So, here goes with Version One of what I’m guessing will be many…

Grace Hendry leads an enviable life. She runs one of Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions, is married to a successful journalist and is surrounded by friends and relatives she can rely on. When a series of unexpected events reveal that the people and places she has built her world around are not what they seem, she must choose how to respond.

I can also disclose that there will be dachshunds, provisionally entitled Oscar and Peterson.

What do you think of it so far?

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