05 February/ March 2016


houghton-hall-libraryFebruary 1st, 2016

When the book seems to be going particularly well, should the writer worry?

For the past two or three weeks while I’ve been revising, mine has seemed both clever and entertaining. Whoah, you think. First, never fall in love with your own work, and second, keep your critical knife honed sharp. Complacency is a deadly sin in writing. D’you think that’s good? D’you think that’s it? That is never it. You are never finished.

The book may, as in my case, be heavily scrawled over and densely altered, but there is always, always room to improve. Maybe it doesn’t need a few small improvements; maybe it is fundamentally wrong. These doubts are familiar to nearly every writer; at some stage the draft seems little more than rubbish. Then the black dog howls.

So am I never to enjoy my own creation – must I always criticise? Yes to both, I think. A writer must always criticise the text – and I certainly do. There is never a time I don’t read a text I’ve written without a real or imaginary blue pencil to hand. But I can enjoy it too – sometimes. For if the writer doesn’t like it why should anyone else?

I’ve decided to sit back and enjoy this one while I can. I still have a distance to travel and at some point along that journey (probably sooner than I expect) the black dog will appear again at my ankles, dribbling with disdain.

February 8th, 2016

I’m going to miss this. It will soon be time for me to end my days as a pig in squalor and transfer to a new pen (a new pig pen, that is, not to a new pen with a nib). Soon I shall raise my head from the dense thicket of hand-written, much amended prose and begin the move from paper to screen.

I shall miss my humid jungle. Whenever I peer into the forest of close-packed words and squeeze my pen into the tiny gaps of heavily annotated text I seem to sense a warmth rise from the pages, the warmth (if you can bear a more indelicate comparison) that lingers in one’s own unlaundered bed-sheets or unwashed clothes. Fresh linen is cooler, cleaner and can invigorate ( a little) but you too must know that comforting familiarity that comes from slipping back into those that carry traces of your sweat.

My grubby text, though, has been worn enough. It has become saturated with the signs and scents of heavy labour, and must be cleaned. Linen goes to the laundry basket; paper to the PC. I shall allow myself another week perhaps before I pick up my dirty pages and launder them on screen.

February 15th, 2016

Having chosen to write this novel in an unusual format I am revising it in an equally unusual way (unusual for me, at least), a way which must surely strengthen the book as a whole. With each of my 12 main characters taking turns and jumping in to give their own slanted versions of the past (along with their excuses) I am revising not in the usual straightforward sequence (from page 1 to the end) but character by character.

I worked on Freddie first, revising only his monologues (there are 14), checking that he kept a consistent voice and style of speaking, that he didn’t repeat or contradict himself, and ensuring that we become gradually aware that what he is telling us is not the whole truth. Having then moved on to work exclusively on sections narrated by Charles and then Lucy I hope I have ensured that their voices are equally distinct and that they gradually release information which will inform Freddie’s “truth” – and indeed each other’s.

I am working through several minor characters (whose voices are even more distinct) before tackling the person focal to everybody’s narrative, Ruth, whose 100th birthday they have gathered to celebrate. By the time she appears we will have seen her through several different pairs of eyes – but what was the truth? Will we learn it? (Spoiler alert: we will.) I have yet to read the whole narrative in sequence and watch the speakers jostle and disagree with each other, but I feel that by working on the text person by person I shall make the overall work more sound. I have let my characters have their run, but am now taking firm control of the reins.

Getting Tough

February 22nd, 2016

Oh, all right, then. A number of you have said (in effect): “Come on, Russell, you’ve gone on about the mechanics of writing this book of yours, taking us through the problems and progress week by week, but what’s the novel actually about?” It’s a fair question, and you can’t have been too happy when I fell back on that old writer’s cop-out: “I won’t know what it’s about until I’ve written it.” That happens to be the truth (as it is for many writers) but it wasn’t the answer you were looking for. Many a book is a journey for the writer, just as it will become one for the readers, and I have found this particular journey to be one in which not only did I stray from the charted path but I have ended in an unexpected destination.

How do I like it, now I’m here? Quite well, actually. I’m pleased to have taken this extraordinary journey and to have arrived in this unintended place even if, to borrow the words of J Alfred Prufrock, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” So what did I mean – originally?   In truth, it no longer matters what I meant when I set out, because that journey never happened; it was the road not taken. It is the book that exists that matters, the book that, whatever I intended, I have now produced. So what is it about?

That’s what I’ll tell you next week.

February 29th, 2016

It has taken four years to this particular date – and it’s time for some straight talking. “No more beating about the bush,” you said (after last week’s entry), so all right, I hear you: here’s the answer. (The question, should you not have seen last week’s entry, was: “What is this book of yours actually about?”)


A family gathers in a remote hotel for Mother’s 100th birthday. She was a stripper in her youth – not now, of course: she’s 100 – and she had, let us say, a complicated love-life. Some say she was wicked. The family deplores her scandalous past – but might they not have far worse secrets of their own?

The novel is written entirely in dialogue. For the most part the format resembles that of a play script, in which the characters make their cases (or their excuses) directly to you in a series of darkly comic dramatic monologues – though from time to time they interrupt each other or break off into cross-dialogue. The birthday party, of course, does not go according to plan. The unexpected happens. Of course. This is a story, after all.

March 7th, 2016

They were no fools, the old masters. A style of novel completely out of fashion now is the symposium novel, which in some ways shares its form with the one I am writing. (Trust me to be up to date.) Practically everything that happens is described in speech rather than narration.

Dialogue novels can be too discursive, I know, privileging thought over action to such an extent that the novel becomes all thought and no action. Readers today want action. Yes, they always did want action, perhaps because much of today’s fiction comes from TV where dramas demand action, even if the fast-moving plots do not necessarily make sense.

Too much thought from the characters breaks the cardinal rule of Show Don’t Tell. Characters should be revealed by what they do rather than by what authors tell you about them. So the symposium novel was a kind of halfway house, in which the characters were revealed by what they said, rather than by what the author said about them. Only by sharing their thoughts did the characters show who they were.

One of the old masters of symposium novels taught me an additional trick. I was reading Crotchet Castle in which Thomas Love Peacock slipped a number of amusing off-topic interjections into his mini-dissertations. For example, when his characters were at a kind of wine and nibbles party for the literati: “I will thank you for an anchovy.” Another character breaks off to tell us, “I do not fancy Hock till I have laid a substratum of Madeira. Will you join me?”

This switch to sudden levity enlivened his dialogue – and I suddenly realized that I’d seen that trick before. Where? In Plato’s Symposium – which was written 2,500 years ago. (You’ll remember that some of his characters get increasingly drunk, while others become amorous.) So there’s nothing new. I am proud to have enrolled myself a student at Plato’s Academy.

Penny Dictionary

March 14th, 2016

A rewrite is not a rewrite unless you rewrite.  Blindingly obvious as that may seem, it’s a truth ignored by many writers now – some of whom are going to disagree with what I’m saying.  Writing directly onto screen as most writers do today means that editing and rewriting are done directly on screen also.  At any one time there is only one text visible, the one before you.  (I know there are tools for computer editing that keep old text before you, but how many of us use them, and how convenient are they anyway?)  Earlier versions of your text, some of which, certainly on a phrase by phrase basis, may be better than the substituted version, have been lost.

Working as I do from longhand onto screen has two advantages.  First, you have all the earlier versions (and your struggle to improve them) at your fingertips, and second – more importantly – you cannot avoid doing a proper rewrite.  When you correct screen-text on screen you tend not to reconsider every word.  You read the text, make some changes, and imagine you have created a new draft.  But when you physically rewrite (by typing) every single word, every phrase and every sentence, you find that many of those tiny snippets don’t run as smoothly as they appeared to do when you merely read them through on screen.  Others that did indeed run smoothly can still be improved as you write.  (True writers can never read their text without an imaginary blue pencil.)

Because you’re making yourself work more slowly (at reading-aloud pace, rather than reading in your head) your writer’s brain sparks up new images, jokes, asides and sharper phrases.  You also notice, in a way your screen-reader’s mind did not, those passages that seem a little turgid, even a tad obscure.  To correct and improve as you retype will come more naturally and more thoroughly than when you merely modify on screen.  To do that is not to rewrite; it is only to alter.  To rewrite you must rewrite.

March 22nd, 2015

Am I revealing too much too soon?  Now I’ve started typing the novel onto screen I am at the early stages of introducing characters, some of whom should be revealing themselves as they want to be seen, rather than as they really are.  Well plied with drink and feeling they have little need to hold back from the reader, they are more garrulous than they ought to be.  So far so good.  Except … I had thought they would reveal themselves in stages.  Yet because I already know them so well I see them mercilessly exposed from the start.  (They can’t fool me.)

What, then, will the reader see?  If I were writing a crime novel or conspiracy thriller I would want those true identities to be concealed behind a mask of face-paint – but that isn’t my intention here.  I want the reader to intuit that there may be more interesting truths below the surface.  The book is about hypocrisy; the reader should sense deception early on.  If my readers were to swallow the deceptions and accept my characters’ bland convivial fronts then surely their interest would flag?  Pleasant the characters may appear to be, but who wants to read about pleasant people?

To know that some of these characters are not quite who they say they are will, I hope, keep the readers hanging on.

Catch up with earlier entries here: