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Report from the Writing Den

20 Apr

I’ve just returned from the writing den and a very restful week in the Breton countryside. There was a trip to the coast with beach-combing, a visit to a beautiful town filled with timber-framed buildings, long country walks and a meal at a crêperie for a friend’s birthday.

My reading material consisted of the first draft of a writing friend’s very long novel. It was just as well that it was entertaining and well written! And then I began re-reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. It’s every bit as good as I’d remembered.

As mentioned, I’ve recently switched from writing one work-in-progress to another. I’d actually left this manuscript on the back-burner for a year and a half. For all that, I’ve managed to get fully immersed in it again already and I’m currently feeling pretty confident about it. It’s a sequel of sorts to the war novel that I’ve written. As I’ve remarked before, it’s probably deeply unwise to embark upon the sequel to a novel that has yet to find a publisher. But it’s a book that I want to write, so what the hell! Even if it turned out to be a work of genius, such is the state of UK publishing, it probably still wouldn’t make it into print. I’ve added another five thousand words or so. Almost from the outset, I’d imagined a sequence of three books – the first set in the Second World War, the second in the Cold War and the third in the near-future. I even wrote a couple of thousand words toward the last of these projects, so all in all, it was a very productive break.

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Early spring view through the writing den window

I noted that I’d finished reading Tove Janssons’s Moomin books to my children and that we were going to have to decide what to read next. We took The Wizard of Oz with us and we’re now near the end. They’ve enjoyed the story and I’ve enjoyed doing the voices (you should hear my Dorothy…). Any suggestions for our next read will be gratefully received.

HappyEaster or Ēostre’s festival, whichever you prefer!

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From Project B to Project A

7 Apr

As those who’ve read this blog from time to time will be aware, for the past eighteen months, I’ve been working on a novel that is now around 80,000 words in length. For three or four months before that, I was working on another manuscript with a Cold War setting, a sequel of sorts to my previous work. I called this my twin-pronged approach. The idea was that when Project A ran out of steam, I could switch to Project B with renewed enthusiasm and a rested eye. In recent weeks, I’d started to feel that I’d maybe reached that point.

So this week I’ve begun to revisit that long sidelined project. The sections that I’d already worked on are far more complete than I’d remembered. It’s an idea that I first thought about some six years ago, so I’ve had plenty of time to mull it over. The structure and cast are very much in place. I talked about the writing process that I employ in my previous post. In essence, I work as some sculptors do. Just as the sculptor might begin with a wire armature, so I create a narrative skeleton first of all. The artist will then flesh out his figure in clay while I drop passages into my framework.  In theory, all of this ought to make it easier to return to after such an extended break. Hopefully, it won’t turn out to be a Frankenstein’s Monster, requiring 240 volts through its chest to shock it back to life, an Odbod that walks and talks but whose constituent parts have quite clearly been stitched together. Time will tell…

Inside the writing den - somebody really needs to tidy up in there...

Inside the writing den – somebody really needs to tidy up in there…

I’m off to the writing den with my two little horrors in tow. We shall see how much writing I actually manage to get done… In the meantime, here’s a little snippet from Work-in-Progress No. 2.

Vales. Although a native of the Wednesfordshire Ledge, Patrick Stevenson had become familiar with the hills further to the north, with the Pennines and the Cheviots. Low flying practice generally involved swooping down through the steep-sided valleys of those hill ranges, terrifying villagers and their sheep. The navigator’s view of the countryside was pretty restricted in the rear of the bomber but he’d visited that part of the country before. One school holiday, his mother, grandfather and he had spent a couple of weeks during August in a rented cottage in a hamlet in Northumberland.  The boy had been fascinated by the shadows of the clouds as they scudded overhead, throwing fantastic shapes across the pastures that climbed the hillside on the opposite side of the valley. And one day, toward the end of the fortnight, he’d seen a spectacular sight that made a great impression upon him, the memory of which he’d found coming back to him from time to time ever since. As he’d wandered in search of bugs between one sloping field and the next, three mute swans had come flying along the valley toward him. Although he’d often seen the birds on the river at Wednesford, he’d never viewed them in the air before. On the ground, they looked far too big and awkward to achieve flight. And yet they did so with an effortless dignity, their snake’s heads and necks held out straight, the massive wings behind beating the air with graceful strokes. As the birds passed directly overhead, he’d been able to hear the deep thrum of their wings. He’d stood transfixed until they’d become three distant white specks a mile or so further along the valley, and then he’d been left with an overwhelming sense of melancholy that he’d been at a loss to explain. 

All text and images © PSR 2104

Writing a Sequence of Great Novels

16 Jul

I’ve just finished reading The Rebels by the Hungarian author, Sándor Márai. Its atmosphere was pleasingly surreal and it contained some wonderfully executed set pieces. Márai wrote a number of novels in the 1930s and 1940s that weren’t translated into English until comparatively recently and so only now are being discovered by modern readers. I was impressed enough with The Rebels to try another.

There are numerous books that I’ve enjoyed reading, and a smaller number that I’ve loved. I have my favourite authors, of course, all or most of whose works I’ve read. Some writers have even written several books that I hold in the highest regard (Perec, Sebald and the deeply unfashionable, Graeme Greene, for example). And then there’s that select band of writers to whom I’ve referred before and who, from the outset of their writing careers, published one fine novel after another. I’m sure that readers of this post will have their own contenders in mind (please feel free to share them on this blog). Many would argue for Austen or Dickens, say (authors for whom I admit a blind spot). I would choose the first five novels by William Golding. The composition of Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall and The Spire seems to me an unrivalled achievement. More obscure and largely out of print are the first five novels of Rex Warner. The Wild Goose Chase, The Professor, The Aerodrome, Why Was I Killed? and Men of Stones form a hugely impressive sequence. These books have in common a quality that I admire, each is different from its predecessor. It’s a great joy as a reader to discover these sequences, reading them one by one and remaining spellbound. Omitting A Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell’s novels remain a formidable presence. More recently, Magnus Mills looked like he might be a contender with the publication of his superb first and second efforts, The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express. I read each of his next four novels with an increasing sense of disappointment.

This refers to published novels, of course. Golding wrote three earlier novels, I believe, before he eventually found a publisher with Lord of the Flies. I recently re-watched Five Minutes with Iain Banks on BBC iPlayer. Banks noted that he’d also written several novels before The Wasp Factory was published. The interview was notable in two other regards. The interviewer cheerfully declared that he was only part of the way through The Wasp Factory. You’d have thought he’d have finished reading that slim volume before interviewing its author. I was also struck by how full of life Banks seemed so soon before his premature death. If we relaxed the rules a little and ignored earlier, inferior works or later works when the writers powers were diminishing, there’d be further contenders. Some writers manage to have their earliest work published. Others don’t. Some writers, like Banks and Orwell, die early so we never find out if their writing would have trailed off. Some simply stop writing novels altogether (E.M. Forster, for instance, for whose novels some might make a claim).

There’s a further connection here. In creating these sequences, some writers appear to exhaust their novelistic resources. Upon completing The Spire in 1964, Golding published no new novel until Darkness Visible in 1979. The same was true of the brilliant comic novelist, Michael Frayn. He wrote five superb novels between 1965 and 1973, then nothing until 1989 (he did, though, write a series of highly regarded plays). I don’t have time for a 15-year drought. I’d probably be in my box before I got anything else finished…

The creation of such a sequence must be what every writer aspires to, I should have thought. As far as my own works are concerned, there are three that I’ve disowned and a further two novellas which remained unpublished. If by some miracle, then, my war novel were to find a sympathetic publisher, it would be my ‘first’ fictional work. I’d be loath to make any great claims for my own work but it’s the best thing that I’ve written and my readers seem to have liked it so far (see here). And that would make the work in progress my second. It’s coming along quite nicely and is certainly different from the war novel, that’s for sure. Time will tell.

I’m dipping into the Icelandic Sagas at present then I’ll be turning my thoughts to what to read over the summer break. Márai is a possibility. I’ve yet to read Mills’ latest novel. I’m not sure that I’ll be giving him a seventh chance…

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The work of the great Norwegian sculptor, Gutsav Vigeland – surely influenced by the Icelandic Sagas

All text and image © PSR 2013

What Next? …or The Horror of Sequels

29 Mar

My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I talk from time to time over a coffee or a beer about future writing projects. We’ve discussed at length the folly of embarking upon sequels to novels that have yet to find a publisher (it’s high time, by the way, that something of Huw’s was published). And yet both of us have done just that. The lure of the serial… Huw has written two-and-a-half books of his fantasy-sci-fi-detective series and is considering writing the sequel to his last book as his next project. One of the WIPs that forms my current twin-pronged approach is also a sequel – only very loosely, though, set a quarter of a century later and having very few characters in common with its predecessor. It’s more of a thematic sequel, you might say. As such, I intend it to end up as a stand-alone work, that won’t require the reader to be familiar with the book that preceded it.

Sequels are common in genre fiction, as are trilogies and longer sequences. Think of Stephen Donaldson cranking out The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a fantasy sequence that eventually reached double figures. When I was very much younger, I began reading the first book. I got as far as the part where the supposed hero commits rape before I threw it across the room, never to pick it up again. Who knows, perhaps it’s still there? I read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up and novel sequences are rife in SF too. At Rayleigh public library, I stumbled upon the work of a certain Jack Vance – still alive at 96, I find – and his quartet of novels, Planet of Adventure. Each book was named after the particular alien species with which hero, Adam Reith, had to contend. Something was definitely lost in translation, though, from US to British English with the second book, entitled The Servants of the Wankh, in which subjugated humans known as wankhmen made their appearance. Ahem… Lewis and Tolkien with their fantasy sagas, Asimov with his Foundation space opera sequence – they have a lot to answer for.

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First came one, then another and another…

In crime fiction, of course, multiple volumes featuring the same grizzled detective are almost de rigeur. One has only to think of Iain Rankin, who retired Inspector Rebus in his seventeenth book only to bring him back, apparently. And then there’s Stephen King, a man who has written across many genres, throwing any number of them together in The Dark Tower series that runs in excess of 4000 pages (multiple genre fiction is a subject to which I intend to return in a future post). Although I’ve  read none of these books myself, I know that they’ve inspired devotion among millions of readers worldwide. While King’s really not my kind of writer, I can’t help but like the old boy. I’ve read a few interviews with him and he always comes across well. And there’s no doubting his storytelling skills and his imagination, a fact witnessed by the numerous diverting films that have been based upon his shorter fiction.

Sequels and sequences are less common but by no means unknown in literary fiction. After all, Hilary Mantel has just won the Mann Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to her prize-winning Wolf Hall. Marcel Proust set the template for dedicating one’s writing life to a single sequence in À la recherche du temps perdu, before passing the baton onto Anthony Powell for A Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Burgess brought back his failed and flatulent poet, Enderby four times (including from the dead for his final appearance, perfecting a Rebus-like U-turn). This was no bad thing since the poet is an inspired comic creation. Another fine game is writing the sequel to someone else’s book, such as Jean Rhys did with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea.

There’s also the temptation, to which some novelists give in, to revisit a much earlier work. In recent times, Julian Barnes did so with Love, Etc., reconvening the love triangle from Talking It Over while Dan Rhodes reprised his Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories with another collection of relationship flash fictions in Marry Me. Perhaps most famously of all, Joseph Heller re-assembled the cast from his masterwork, Catch-22, in the late novel, Closing Time. Is it a mistake, then? Certainly, there are some literary novelists who merely replicate the same book, over and over, just as crime writers turn out formulaic books revolving around the cases of their two-dimensional investigators. I can’t help but think that there’s something rather lazy on the part of the writer in supplying, and the reader in demanding, more of the same. I’m sure it’s all very comfortable but shouldn’t the novelist be trying a little harder?

All of which leads us back to the second side to my twin-pronged approach. As I was thinking about the project upon which I’m currently working (very brief extract here), a terrifying thought occurred to me. The book could have a sequel. But it was worse than that. It might actually prove to be the first in a series of five. I found my mind rapidly sketching out the sequence. Given the time that I’m able to give to writing, such a project could tie me up for at least the next decade. Could it become my Dark Tower? Pray to God it never comes to pass…

So is it wise or unwise? As usual in these situations, the answer is ‘it depends’. Obviously, it depends as to whether the sequel is any good and whether the original book merits revisiting. Does the book move on significantly from its predecessor? Gormenghast is the perfect sequel to Titus Groan. While Peake’s world remains consistent, Titus barely appeared in the eponymous book and the second book drives the narrative forward to its spectacular climax. For the unpublished author, though, it’s almost certainly unwise. I must listen to my own advice! Another writing acquaintance has been working on a series of science fiction novels aimed at young adults and is just beginning to find out how hard it is to get work into print, three books in… There’s a consolation, though. In the era of the prequel, if you do manage to interest a publisher in taking on a later book in a sequence, you already have your next book lined up.

I feel the writing den beckoning me… Enjoy the remainder of the holidays!

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The writing den

All text and images © PSR 2013