East of England: crowdfunding and me

Hi all. First up, here's the call to action: my new novel East of England is crowdfunding now via the fine folks at Unbound, who are experts in this kind of thing, and I'd love for you to help make East of England a reality. You can do so by following the link to Unbound's site, where you can find out more about the book (there's a video, a synopsis, and a sample from the beginning of the novel) and about how you can support it. 

If you don't know much about crowdfunding, here's how it works.

First, the book's written. Don't worry about that bit. I've taken care of that for you. 

Second, fine people taste and distinction  - very much like you, dear reader - decide if they want to support the project. As the Unbound site shows, there are different levels of what they call 'pledges' - essentially, pre-orders - (ebook, paperback, special editions with mentions in the book, even the chance to have a character renamed after you, and so on) - at different price points.

When the funding target is reached - the amount of cash needed to edit, proofread, and copyedit the book by salty professionals, plus marketing and promotion to get it into bookshops and so on, as well as printing, cover artwork and all the behind-the-scenes stuff - then the book becomes live, gets finished off and sent out to you. 

Johnny-Come-Lately can, of course, then buy East of England from Amazon / Waterstones / HIve / your friendly neighbourhood independent bookshop / the supermarket / WH Smiths, but what he and his similarly tardy chums won't get is a) to be the first and to have an active hand in bringing the project to life, and b) the chance to brag that you are now a patron of the arts.

Remember, if the book doesn't reach its funding total - progress can be checked on Unbound's website - then the book doesn't get published, and everyone who's pledged to support it gets their pledge money back. So there's no risk to you from that point of view.  

How long all of this takes is up to the public. Some projects get funded in days, some take a few months. Some, it has to be said, never reach that point. And I don't want to be in that category. And you don't want that either. Do you? 

Here's how the book came to life. 

I've had the idea for the opening - it's the scene used as the sample which you can find on the Unbound site - for years. I tried writing it as the beginning of a screenplay, but never quite had a story to go with it.

Early last summer (2017), I was struggling with a different piece of writing - my long-gestating novel about Francis Walsingham which will get finished one day, oh yes - and I went back to this scene. Sat down. Wrote. Got to about 15,000 words, and took a break. It didn't read too badly, and it was quick in comparison because I was working with elements that I had in my head - a more-or-less contemporary setting, locations familiar to me - rather than cross-checking everything in history books. I took a break, because of moving house. 

At about this time I saw a tweet. A call for submissions from a chap called Simon Spanton at Unbound. Send us a sample of your work etc. So I tidied up the first 10K words and sent it through. Nothing ventured, and so on. I carried on boxing up stuff. I heard back a few weeks later. Simon said he liked the sample. Is there more? 

Nothing engages the sweet spot between creative endeavour and harnessing a bum to a chair than someone saying they'd like to see a full manuscript that you haven't got yet. So, that was October and November taken care of.

And here we are. The book's written, though in its raw state pending the full quantity of pledges being received. I really like it, and I really enjoyed writing it. The folks at Unbound have been both incredibly supportive and professional in ways that makes you realise there's more to this publishing lark than tall afternoon drinks in swish hotel bars over industry gossip about so-and-so at such-and-such.

The next bit is over to you. Have a look at the details about East of England. Hopefully, you'll see - like Simon and his colleagues - that there's something worth supporting, and a book that's worth reading, and you'll make a pledge. 

Thanks for reading. And for reading. 

Eamonn

On cliches

Cliches (or, if you prefer, clichés, because though the accent's a bit old-fashioned, it points the way towards pronunciation) aren't all that bad.

Not all the time, anyway.

Because they're well-known, a cliche can convey meaning directly in ways that are mutually understood. They're fast, and to some extent ready-made, so we don't have to think about them. These pre-assembled language chunks are ready to go. When we're speaking they can be useful for all of these reasons: immediacy, intelligibility, efficiency.

If you were a lexicographer, you might refer to cliches as being examples of lexical phrases; pre-prepared language for easy insertion. Not all lexical phrases are cliches (there's polywords such as "at any rate", and sentence heads and tails like "Could you just..." and "...if yo don't mind", that are raring to go to start off or complete an enquiry) but all cliches are lexical phrases.

That's why we use them. Over time, the individual words within a cliched phrase have become fused together into a single entity. The phrase "avoid like the plague" might once have been funny, because the Black Death is best skirted around for all kinds of health-troubling reasons, so there's an amusing and perhaps jarring exaggeration to a social or other situation that one might not want to get involved with. Through over-use, though, any novelty or invention associated with the phrase has been worn away. All that's left is the base meaning of "avoid".

In everyday speech then, cliches have their place. Heck, in drama or fiction, a character using cliched terms might be useful, either for reasons of immediacy or because it tells us something about that character (their lack of imagination, for example).

However, someone who can only converse in cliches, whether that person's real or fictional, is going to get boring to be with sharpish. And if you're the writer, and cliches infest your writing (both dialogue and descriptive) then it's you that are boring. And boring writers don't get read.   

So here's what I do. Maybe it'll work for you. Perhaps you've got a different approach to cliche; if so, share!

In the first draft, I don't worry, but I'm mindful of the potential for cliche. If one appears in a sentence, and it's immediately apparent that it's there (not as easy as it may appear because if I'm writing, then I'm often too focused on getting the words down than to fully appreciate what words are actually appearing on the left-hand side of the cursor) then I'll sort it out.

How?

I'll tell you in a minute.

If I can't operate straight away, then I'll flag the sentence up. I'm a Word user, so I'll use the comments facility to leave myself a message. Then I keep writing.  

Between the first and second draft (and usually the day after writing the first draft, as my routine is to re-read the previous day's work, and then sort out any typos and vivid language no-nos before getting on with the fresh day's word count. I remove the comments as I work, to tell myself that the issue's been seen to. 

Now, there'll doubtless be over-used phrases that'll get by a first or even a second draft, but with a little distance from the words, some focus, and a thimbleful of creativity, then cliches can be eradicated. 

My way of approaching cliches is to look for a way to twist the original slightly; just enough to retain the intended meaning, but with something - anything - that makes it different. Here's an example:

Ist draft: as pretty as a picture

2nd draft: as pretty as a photograph/landscape/portrait/cameo/mugshot

Not very creative perhaps, but there's a few options to select from, and I'd argue that each of them is better than the over-used "picture". And that's just from playing with one word. Can we do better than "pretty"?

And of course, the phrase "as pretty as a picture" is a simile. Any form of modifying word or phrase (adjective, adverb etc) should be scrutinized also. If it's needed, fair enough, That's your justification to use it. If not, and it's just an easy word that's inveigled its way in during first-drafting, then there's an easy edit to be made.

And does the sentiment even need to be there? Cliched writing can be filler. Stuff you write as you're working out what it is that you're really trying to say. Can it be cut? If so, then delete.   

So, a) I try to be aware of cliched phrases, and b) leave myself notes to act on them later if I'm not going to do that work immediately. Then c) I make a change small enough to keep a relationship to the original, but sufficient to keep the language as fresh as I can.

If I can, I cut.

The best cure for cliche is to read more. If you read other people using particular phrases, either repeatedly or jarringly, then that's something to remember for your own practice; not to use those constructions yourself.  

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Books by me are here, by the way: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eamonn-Griffin/e/B00XJEK2PC

 

Time flies by, when you're writing on a train...

I've probably mentioned this before, but there's no place finer for writing than on a train. Now I know that some of you will be commuters, and will have torrid tales of there being no seats and of being squished up against faulty doors between Hither South and Yon Central, and all for the price of a gajillion pound season ticket, but I don't have to ride those kinda trains.  

Most of my train travel is east-west across the middle of the country, on the train equivalent of the M62, the service run by the aptly-named Transpennine Express. It's pretty quiet, at least between Cleethorpes and Doncaster. Donny's where the action is, you see. Change for London and points north. Keep an eye out at the western end of platform 4 for the gaggle of what Network Rail somewhat coyly terms "rail enthusiasts".

Sometimes there's a few on board; in the run-up to Christmas and those making their retail pilgrimage to Meadowhall shopping centre; a portal to Hades, except with a Debenhams and a Nandos. Football will put a few on board too, generally stalwart fans of non-league teams with a pleasant sense of ironic distance from their obsession. Otherwise, it's holidaymakers. Yep, we've got our own little airport, but there's plenty who take advantage of the direct rail link to Manchester Airport to start or finish their vacation in style, with a few cans on the train, the way God intended.

Time your journey right, though, and it's pretty blissful. A bliss punctuated by the remnants of the industrial north; Grimsby Fish Docks, Scunthorpe steel works, former collieries throughout South Yorkshire. Meadowhall itself is built on old mining land; locals reckon they dug too deep, and had to cap the shaft with something worse than anything Old Nick could come up with himself; and that's why Meadowhall's where it is. 

These are flatlands for the most part. Reclaimed land, silt-rich soil clawed back from the Humber and the Trent. If there are growth industries around here, then they're in crumbling warehouses on the edges of conurbations, and wind farms. When coal was king, this was where the country generated its power. Now we claw back what we can from the sky, but it's not the same.

Only three stops, most journeys, along this bit. Habrough, Barnetby, Scunthorpe. That ghostly works is a titanium dioxide plant; the white filler they put in toothpaste and Polyfilla. 

It gets busy around Doncaster. Busy for Lincolnshire folk, anyways, blinking our eyes in metropolitan wonderment at the paved roads and the kids with shoes instead of clogs. Doncaster to Sheffield is a through-line past the backs of Virgin Actives, Tesco warehouses, and the friendly-looking Big Red Shed, which might wholesale booze. There's a chirpy-looking gurdwara, and some not-bad graffiti. Keep an eye out as we zip unstoppingly through Mexborough and you'll see Conisborough Castle.

Meadowhall is an arrogant surge of Thatcherite brick, red as City slickers' braces, a Loadsamoney fuck-you to them who don't have much from them who took it from you.

Five more minutes and we're into Sheffield. This is not a point to be locked to your screen or huddled into the fictional arms of your paperback; check out the evidence of some glimmers of the old ways. Cutlery workshops. The English Pewter Company. The run into Sheffield station is sheathed in tall brickwork on both sides, but this time it's the soot-grey of honest work that keeps you close till you get stationwards.

There'll be a kerfuffle here. Those hopping from Donny or Meadowhall will be off, and those commuting to Manchester crowd on. Now's the time to relish your seat, to give yourself a little power-up for having the foresight to have booked.

Sheffield's behind us now. There's a chance of a brew. The trolley gets on at Doncaster; no drinks between there and Cleethorpes, so come prepared. The coffee they have these days has fancy new lids. A straining contraption to keep you filtered from the grounds in the cup. Puzzling as heck first time out. It's not bad, but it's not the same as a brown spoonful of Nescafe from a catering drum of the stuff into a polystyrene beaker.

Civilisation cuts out, and you've got a good twenty minutes of the middle of nowhere. Forget your 4G, phone boy. Watch the clouds over the hills. Count the sheep in the upper fields. Then what it would be like to be that woman hauling hay from the back of a Land Rover for a day.

Manchester comes up on you slowly. Places you'll never get off; Hazel Grove. Then Stockport; the pyramidic Co-Op building, the hat museum. A brace of pleading signs on the outward surge; office blocks from a previous generation pleading with you. Low rents. Ample parking. Anything.

Pack your stuff away. Manchester in less than ten minutes. Again, the backs of industry. A cemetery, an old cinema, long-since converted to other use. Cash and carries, breakers yards. Up ahead its skyscrapers and stadia; Manchester's an ambitious city. Here, though, the railway line remembers what got it there.                   

It's two hours twenty minutes Grimsby to Manchester Picadilly. That's maybe 1500-2000 first draft words if I'm on a roll. A hundred and fifty pages or so if I'm reading. A thousand words if it's a commission. You can get a lot done. But that's no reason not to keep a check every now and again on where you are.    

 

Doing the work - Steven Pressfield on overcoming "resistance"

At the time of writing, I've just finished pulling together some notes and resources for a writing workshop that I'm running in my home town. This brought me back to my spine-damaged and well-read copy of Steven Pressfield's The War of Art; for my money the best book on overcoming obstacles to doing creative work.

That led me onto YouTube, and to this clip, in which Pressfield summarises his ideas on getting past those negative forces, which he terms "Resistance":

The War of Art (and its sequel Do The Work) is well worth your time, as are Pressfield's novels, most notably Gates of Fire and The Afghan Campaign, which are among the finest historical novels I've ever read. Pressfield's website is here.   

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My own novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available here

My favourite sentence

It's maybe my favourite sentence in the world. Not because it's the first line of a great story nor because it encapsulates any human truth. It's because it works.

Here's the sentence: The cat sat on the mat.

OK, so what's so very special about that, then? Surely that's the kinda stereotypical pre-school learning-to-read sort of sentence that's about as basic as you can get? Well, yes. And that's part of its attraction and the point of this post.

Now, I was brought up and was primary-schooled in the 1970s, a time when there wasn't much attention being paid to the formalities of the English language. I can't recall being taught anything about how English works at all. That may be a credit to my teachers being able to sugar the pill of learning; it might not. So I'm coming to this late, and am slowly forcing myself to learn about language and linguistics, retrofitting the theory from the practice.

A cat on a mat, yesterday. 

A cat on a mat, yesterday. 

Let's take the sentence in question. It follows a standard English sentence format: subject, then verb, then object. Cat, sat, mat. SVO for short - subject, verb, object. It tells us a range of things: what's the subject of the sentence (the cat), then what it's doing (it's having a sit-down) and where (on the mat).  

Also, the sentence dispenses with complex and/or unnecessary words. Neither adverb or adjective is present. We don't need them, so we don't have them. If there was a second moggy in the vicinity, then perhaps we'd need some description so we could tell them apart. There isn't so we don't. Same with the mat. Its colour, materials, texture; all of these are unimportant here.     

I've used this in the past as a teaching sentence. It tells you everything you need to know about what's going on, and it isn't encumbered with unnecessary information. There's clarity, direction and purpose. Plus it's straightforward; we're not being sidetracked by the writer's overblown vocabulary or on their ability to flick through a thesaurus. We're just told what we need to know.

So it's a test I give myself; can I make what I've written any simpler? This is second / third / fourth draft working. First time round, just get the sense of what's going on down on the paper. Simplicity has to be worked at sometimes. And writing is always an iterative process. 

Follow-up. There are seven basic sentence patterns in English. There's a useful list of them here. Note that they're all active (the subject comes first). 

     

 

    

Old notes from the classroom...

So. I got a new phone, and as part of the setting-it-up rigmarole, along with the minor awkwardness of shifting contacts and whatnot over from old device to new, I came across a load of pictures that had been backed up onto the SD card in the old phone. 

I spent a happy hour or so going through the images, deleting many of them as I went, backing a few others up, and then I found a sequence of pictures that I took to make a record of some notes given in class to email onto the students after the session. 

I was good like that, you see. 

So here they are. They're a partial record of some notes (mostly crowd-sourced from the group, though with some guidance in places from me). These were undergraduates studying short story as part of a wider degree, and IIRC, were at the beginning of their second year of studies. So they'd had a first-year experience to reflect on, and some regrets and success as part of that first year to inform the discussion.

I can't be certain if these images are in the same running order as the notes made on the whiteboard in the session, but they're a not-bad reflection of a couple of hours' worth of discussion.  

First up, some observations from me. These notes were capturing general observations on issues with year one work. These observations were entirely consistent of what I'd see year after year from first-year undergraduates, and, I'd extrapolate, from people whose adult creative writing experience was comparatively limited.  

Technical issues. A lack of attention, basically. Many were the times when stories handed in bore little relation to any story anyone might have seen printed in the history of anything, ever. I'm not talking publication-quality work (which was never the objective). I'm talking work that if you squinted at it without reading it, you would know, in a single rush of cognizance, that the author had a shaky-at-best grasp of what a story looked like. 

The main issues are as indicated above: 

  1. The lack of a focal character. "Whose story is it?" I would ask in feedback. And also, oftentimes the lack of a character who we might be inclined to empathise with. Not necessarily a "nice" character, just someone who we are allowed to understand a little and perhaps become involved as to their predicament.
  2. Dialogue punctuation. Weak stories are invariably punctuated poorly, and dialogue punctuation is where it shows up most. Top tip: if the dialogue punctuation is off, then the story is seldom worth your time. 
  3. Tense control. Present to past. Now to then. Often patchy and spasmodic; little nuggets of writing from different sessions stitched together without the courtesy of a readthrough for the barest bones of consistency. 
  4. Detail. Often too much. Adverbs and adjectives a go-go. A lack of understanding/appreciation of what's the important aspect of the item being described. And conversely, sometimes the important thing was hidden, sometimes because it was buried in extraneous detail from elsewhere, sometimes from a misguided sense of craft - because this item was being concentrated on, it got the care that the rest of the writing also needed but didn't always get.  

And then some promises to selves based on the previous writing experience (and sometimes the feedback as well, I'd have thought). Apologies for the blurriness of the image; posterity wasn't my aim. 

Managing writing time is so important. All too often, tyro writers make the assumption that writing is easy. That assumption comes from a straightforward though tricksy observation; that because I already know the alphabet and have seen stories before then it can't be too hard. You see, many other creative and/or artistic endeavours come with a practical competence in a skill. Compare playing the piano, for example, or painting watercolours. Or juggling. Writing doesn't. It's easy to mistake the observable skill for the creative/expressive practice. The two are not the same.

This leads to the second observation: stories take time. They gestate. They fester. They lurk and pounce. So you need time for that to happen.

Third:  originality. Too often, what would come out would be rehashes of stuff the writer liked. Emulations, not stories. Don't copy. Make something up. Imagination is free and your pockets are full of it, even when there's nothing else in your pockets.   

But don't be reckless. What we meant here was the notion that stories aren't complete until they're read. And it's useful to have a readership in mind. That ideal reader might be a specific person, a genre fan, simply "someone like me". But work to evidence some control in the writing and in the planning of the story so that your ideal reader can be challenged and surprised as well as entertained/entranced. Don't give them exactly what they want, but don't piss on their chips either.

The last one was the "use the tutor" reminder to self. Weaker stories tended to be written late, sketchy, and entirely un-workshopped in class. That way madness tended to lie.  

The next pic was a summary of what students thought of their own submissions from the last year, given time and reflection. They're all reasonable observations. "Unfair marking bastard" was my interpretation of their comments, and not meant wholly seriously... 

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The next image; a recapitulation of the idea that writing is a process, and that story-drafting is iterative. It takes a few goes over the work to get it as good as it can be. So, a sample way of working: 

  1. Sketch an idea. Get the ending if you possibly can.
  2. Plan it out. Work backwards from the ending if you can.
  3. Write a first draft.
  4. Edit it. My suggestions were invariably that first time around, just fix the typos and punctuation issues so that you're left with a clean first draft.
  5. Then redraft, and re-edit. Do this as many times as is necessary. I'd usually suggest going in this order structural fixes / character consistency / scene fixes / paragraph fixes / line fixes. Adverbs and adjectives to be scrutinised.
  6. Then proofread. Get opinions from critical friends if possible.
  7. Then leave the story be, and come back to it after time has passed. Then see what you think.  

An initial shopping list. What ideas have you got? What kinds of people are you interested in writing about, or who would work in the context of the story that you're interested in telling? What do you need to research (research here is interpreted pretty widely - anything from books and libraries kinda research to going on a mooch down the promenade to get the atmosphere of a seaside setting, to making a mood board for ideas on locations and the like.

And then reading needs. It might sound counter-intuitive, but many creative writing students that I worked with weren't very well read. And I don't mean in the classics / the literary canon sort of reading. In everyday "I always carry a book in my bag" reading. Many were quite cine- and tele-literate, but not necessarily with the written word. And that, as you might imagine, could cause issues from time to time. 

And now a set of promises from second-time-around creative writers. Most of them are very sensible suggestions and ones that derive from hard-won experience; a couple perhaps need a little bit of fleshing out. 

Write what you know. Maybe this should be a bit broader, but the sense is there in the bald statement. Too often, people wrote about stuff that they hadn't got a clue about, or situations and perhaps whole genres they knew only vicariously. This is the "Don't set your story in a US high school if you've not been to the US, let alone an American high school" commandment. Your John Hughes movie expertise is insufficient here. All too often, stories were clearly TV and popular movie franchise emulations; as a consequence, the stories felt second-hand. Several times, and in several different situations we had conversations along the lines of "You can't learn anything about fantasy from reading Harry Potter". What you have to do is read the stuff that JK Rowling read so that she could synthesize those materials into a new universe. That kind of thinking. 

Start the story as late as possible. Often, the first thousand words or so of stories would be world-building, character set-up and/or establishing an equilibrium. Or the student didn't yet know what the story was going to be except in its most general terms, and was writing out from an uncontentious start point and hoping that the story would design itself along the way. 

The story starts when things go wrong. Why not start there? In short fiction especially, each word is both a vital word and a luxury. Let's not waste it on the "character gets up out of bed so we can observe them about their morning routine and so learn something of them including what they look like when they check themselves in the bathroom mirror" malarkey. Let's crack on.  

The last one's a companion piece; things I'm not going to do this time out. Some of them are pretty obvious, but that's not to say they don't bear repeating. The first draft is simply that; a good start. Not good enough to hand in / submit to a competition / send off to a magazine.

Check your damn work; if the dialogue punctuation is inconsistent, then I know that you don't know what you're doing, or you don't care about what you're doing.  

Don't cock it up: tell the story.

Don't be too ambitious: tell a story that fits in the word count. Don't try and fob me off with a cliffhanger or make out that "it's a story, yeah, but it's also the first chapter of a novel".   

Use the word count. If you don't need it all, fair enough. But better to over-write word-wise and cut back than find yourself struggling. 

And an oldie-but-goldie to round things off. A bit of tell is okay, but if you can show, show. Reserve tell for those occasions when you've got no other option. 

Hopefully, it's all common-sense stuff. Teaching creative writing, I found, isn't really possible. What is possible, though, is that you can encourage / support / nurture other people into learning for themselves. You have to work it out for yourself. I'm still doing just that. Creative writing is a set of processes; it's not a straightforward A to B sort of journey. Which is why, I think, I find myself coming back to the first principles over and over, and why I've got a fascination with the mechanics of writing and the how and why of their communication.  

Derby Writers' Day 17th Oct 2015 - part 2

This is the second half of a two-part post covering Derby Writers' Day. The morning's panels are here.  As usual, these are my written-up notes; they're not a verbatim record!

1pm: Historical Fiction panel.  Panel sponsored by Writing East Midlands.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Claire Harvey, James Wilde/Mark Chadbourn (chair)

Question: how did you started?

EC: I was writing from childhood, though not published until my thirties. 

CH: 15 years from first starting to be published.  As I am newly published, I still feel an imposter.

MC: For me, short story success led to an approach.

Question: Agents?

EC: I have been with Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann for 25 years. She is especially good for foreign rights.

CH: I’ve had an agent for less than a year.

MC: I’m on my fourth agent, plus an agent for screenwriting.

Question: what makes a good agent?

EC: contacts.  Tact.  Stickability.  Someone who listens and advises.

CH: I sent work out to about seven; my agent is the only one who picked me up, but I am very happy.

MC: much depends on the individual agent’s taste.

Question: research?

EC: I have a good base line of knowledge after 25 years writing.  I now work on a need to know basis.  I use primary and secondary resources.  Plus I am a medieval re-enactor.  Research must be used organically in the novel though.

CH: I do it as I go along.  As I work in the 20th century, that means there’s an awful lot of audio visual material available, plus I can conduct interviews.

Question: trends?

EC: there were doldrums for historical fiction in the mid-1990s.  I took a cut in advances to keep published.  But there was a renaissance in the genre after the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl.  The genre is healthy at present.

MC: Roman fiction is still strong.  Also, historical fiction lends itself well to other genres.  We have not yet hit peak Roman.

Question: plot or pants?

CH: you have to write the book that you’ve got.  You can’t predict the market.

EC: in my biographical historical fiction, you have a map to follow.  I write a 16 page synopsis for my agent, and the blurb.

CH: I write a synopsis and a route plan but it’s all subject to change.

Question: what advice would you give your younger self?

EC: Edit!  Making the best it can be before it goes out into the world.

MC: I wish I’d learned more about the business side of publishing sooner.  Agents, income, genre considerations.

Question: can a writer make a living?

EC: Yes, and a good living too, in time.  You’re in it for the long haul.  Advances vary, but they are decent for me at present.  Some publishers give very small advances though, and poor sales records can haunt you for years.

MC: The trick is staying published.  There is a high attrition rate.  You have to publicise yourself these days.

EC: You have to offer more than the book.  Facebook etc.

MC: You have to treat social media as part of your business.  You are the product as much as your books.  There is an element of personal branding.

Audience Q and A:

Has steampunk impacted on Victorian?  Not sure, it’s just an aspect of Victorian.

Vocabulary? CH: my tip is to read it aloud. EC: use clear straightforward English.  The language should be a clear window to the story. MC: As long as it feels right, then the language will be all right.

Are there any publishers to avoid? MC: stick with the big five or six; that you can’t go too far wrong.  But be cautious always.  Always check out their economic model. EC: you can also check with the Society of Authors who will check a contract for you, as well and good agent. MC: small publishers struggle sometimes to get your books in shops, therefore they might make money but you might not.  The basic advance these days is 10 to 15,000.  For a big author, perhaps 50,000.  Small publishers will offer in the low thousands or perhaps even only a few 100 pounds.

When to stop?  After about six drafts.  Give yourself time and space between the drafts.  Always try to read it aloud.  Some use editorial services and get feedback.  Don’t rework part drafts; do the whole thing.

 

2 pm. Literary Fiction panel.  Alison McQueen, Alison Moore, Nicola Monaghan (chair).

First, the panel discussed definitional issues.  Literary fiction is that which might engage with weighted topics, privilege meaning over entertainment, feature an emotional journey, be judged primarily on the quality of its writing, or just a clever marketing device.

AM: Yes, real-world and online bookshops both love categories.

AMc: I dislike the term.  It’s also sexist.

NV: As well as focusing on the middle-class and the white.

AMc: Some so-called literary fiction can be verbose, dense, and portentous in its writing.

NV: Marketing loves categories.

AMc: Yes, there can be an element of snobbery.

NV: Genre fiction can address social topics and be as well written as any literary fiction.

AMc: Does your voice stay the same when writing literary/genre?

AM: Yes, though horror-specific writing will naturally lean towards a darker tone.

AMc: My five Housewife books had some of the darkness toned down by the publisher. You don’t want the reader running for a dictionary. Having a copywriting background helps.  I try to be as clear as possible. The industry loves pigeon holes. After the five Housewife books, I was done, and broke my contract.

MV: Voice develops all the time.  As does process.

AM: Process stays the same for me, the context changes.

AMc: Writing process is endlessly fascinating; the things that other writers do.  I’m always looking for tips.

Some people prefer chaos, whereas other.  Others preferred detailed Excel spreadsheets!

Question: how did you get your break?

AM: Through short stories; that's how I met my agent and editor Nicholas Royle.

AMc: Competitions can be really useful.  My original contract didn’t mention ebooks, so I didn’t get paid when Macmillan published ebooks of my first Housewife novels.  Rejection is part and parcel of the industry.  You have to get on board with the knockbacks.  Many authors are increasingly dissatisfied with the publishers.  Self-publishing is a real option these days.

NV: Yes, I’m sensing optimism from self-publishing circles.

AM: There are some good independents out there also.

NV: But distribution can be an issue for independents.  Also self-publishers may not face rejection and so not learn from it.

Question: what’s your voice?

AM: I’ve never been taught.  I’m guided by my characters, plus the time and mood of the piece.  Many writers have recurring themes.

AMc: I’ve had no training either.  Voice is ½ invisible watermark; it's always there somewhere.  Voice is recognisable in good writers.  Be honest and authentic and it will come through.  Strip away the bullshit.

Question: what about endings?  Is literary fiction less plot-driven?

AM: Yes, but if it’s good, there will be all the ingredients there.

NV: Genre doesn’t have to be closed.  The good novels carry on inside the readers.

AM: Screenplays need more plot.  I’ve supplied additional notes to clarify the ending of the book for the screenplay version of my novel The Lighthouse.

 

3 pm Keynote panel: Are writers thriving or surviving?  Emma Bamford, Elizabeth Chadwick, Alex Davis (chair), Stan Nicholls.

Q: What changes over time have you seen?

EC: The internet, the rise of small press and self-publishing. Also there are more people writing, and being enabled by writing.

SN: Nowadays you get one shot. Talent isn’t nurtured. Also, “bestseller” status has changed; it’s almost a meaningless term nowadays. You have to be versatile and adaptable. There’s a resurgence in short fiction, but there are fewer paying markets.

Q: What qualities do you need to be a writer?

EB: Perseverance, an element of luck. Also, you can’t afford to be precious. Everyone gets edited. Everyone gets rejected. You need marketing skills and a thick skin. You need to be able to operate in both the online and the “real” world.

SN: Publisher support isn’t there to the same extent that it was. Most books don’t turn a profit; it’s a bit of a lottery at times. Also, there are so many books out there. The publisher’s role as gatekeeper is still relevant, but it’s not the whole story.

EB: I agree. You have to give more than just the book these days – such as extras online and via social media. Structured interactivity, especially via Facebook, is important – you can build a community of readers via networking. However, you can’t do this cynically, and you must beware that you don’t oversell your books.

Q: are livelihoods being squeezed?

EB: I recall a 2002 survey that said that average writer earnings were around £10K. A much more recent survey estimated that figure to now be £8K. In other words, you need a day job.   

SN: The industry’s always looking for new blood, though, and large advances are out there for newish writers. In many ways publishing is a 19th century industry trying to take on board the 20th century while being in the 21st!

Independent presses are doing as good a job as the majors, but they can struggle to get distribution. I’d like my work to get to a readership, even if it’s not a huge one.

It’s best not to get into writing for the money.

EC: At the end of the day you have to reach your readers, so give yourself the best edge that you can.

Floor questions:

What issues should we be wary of as writers?

EB: Always check out publishers that aren’t household names. Check contract terms and conditions carefully.

EC: Both the Society of Authors and any decent literary agent, if you have one, will be able to give contractual guidance. There are also good sites like Predators and Editors.

SN: I’ve seen some shocking contracts being offered to writers. Be wary. There are vanity presses and sharks out there, and they prey on the gullible and the desperate. There are no short cuts.

AD: Also, self-publishing is increasingly an option.  

Question: Self-publishing – Yes or No?

EC: I like the idea of mixing and matching. Some of my backlist novels would be ripe for self-publishing, though I probably wouldn’t consider it for new work unless I had no other option.

EB: I like the idea of the control of self-publishing. But one would have to be really brave to walk away from a traditional publishing deal. That said, self-publishing can work really well for genre fiction.

SN: So many self-published books sell under a hundred copies though. I might consider self-publishing passion projects. There is still a stigma to self-publishing in some quarters.

AD: “Hybrid” authors who self-publish and are traditionally published simultaneously are growing in numbers all the time.

Q: What tips have you got for promoting yourself online?

EB: Be authentic

SN: Give bonuses – free shorts and extra chapters, for example. Also, involve people in some way. Devise interesting competitions.

Q: How best to grab readers while they’re young?

SN: Write something good! The challenge in the digital world is copyright protection. A whole generation is used to the idea of free content.

EB: Be cinematic. Jump cuts and short chapters.

EC: Short paragraphs. Be punchy.

Q: What good news is out there for writers?

EB: Writing is rewarding in and of itself. Do it for that reason. Not for fame or riches.

SN: When you get random contact from strangers saying that your writing’s had a positive effect on them or their life in some way. You can’t beat that. Also, you keep learning, so don’t be put off.

And with that, the session and the day ended. Thanks again to the event organisers and sponsors!

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My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now in paperback from this very website and in Kindle ebook and paperback via Amazon.  

Libraries as work-spaces for writers, and more.

I don’t use libraries as much as I ought to. At least, not for the purpose of borrowing books. I’ve got all-too-used to simply Googling for the books that I want and either buying them straightaway or sliding them into a wish list for picking up later. And that’s a habit I should really get out of, for a bagful of reasons. I’ll try to get to them in this post.

I live in a town without a bookshop. Yes there’s a handful of charity shops that sell books (and the pros and cons of the second-hand book market to writers are a post for another time), and there’s a branch of a well-known high street newsagent and stationer and a supermarket, though their shelves don’t stretch much beyond the current bestseller lists. But there’s no bookshop. And the town’s not been able to sustain a dedicated book retailer for over 30 years – we can’t necessarily blame the behemoth Amazon here. That’s not helped me though in defaulting to the internet when I want/need a book.

library.jpg

What I do use the library for, though, is a as a place to work. Our town’s library has a great little reference / local studies room. The papers, a selection of standard reference, works, lots of local history. Plus, best of all, a table, some chairs, and a power supply. I’m best at motivating myself when writing to be somewhere out of the house and the library suits me just right. Not too many distractions and just the right amount of background noise.

I’ve got some previous with this as well. In an earlier life I did a couple of Open University courses – a BSc and then an MA – and the best way for me to get some studying done was to take my books down to the library and crack on with it. That’s not to say that I can’t work at home (I’m at home now, for example), but I’ve always been able to get more done if I put myself in an environment that’s work-specific.

So it’s off to the library I go. It’s not an overly fancy or huge place; there’s no café onsite, the WiFi is iffy and you have to go and ask for a key if you need to use the loo, but the staff are pleasance, it’s never too busy, and you can rent DVDs for a pound a week. Plus there’s the books. What’s not to love?

Also, with the library membership I get access to a range of online databases (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a godsend by itself), there’s a scanner and a printer / photocopier if I need one, and there’s usually a shelf or two of out-of-circulation books that’s at least worth browsing through to see if any of them are worth picking up.                  

I’m lucky in that I don’t always have to plan ahead or save up if I want to buy a book; I can go and buy it without worrying. But that to some extent does me a disservice. Online buying is great if you know what it is that you want to buy; but it’s not the be-all and end-all. For one you don’t get that sense of browsing you get in a real-world book shop; and this is something that you can replicate in a library. Yes, you can look for something specific, but you can also be taken by surprise in a way that’s not easy to do online. And, of course, the author gets paid for the book’s loan through the Public Lending Right Scheme. You don’t get that from a second-hand sale.

I’ll be in the library tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do something a little different and take a tour round the shelves and see what’s in stock. I think I’ve talked myself into it. 

My novel The Prospect of This City is out now, and is available from me in paperback (signed if you prefer!) or in both ebook and paperback via Amazon . 

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has been around since the late 1980s. It’s a variant of timeboxing workload-management methods. It’s simplicity itself, and - for me - it works. Here’s how:

Your work period is divided into half-hour chunks. Say that you’re going to write for a couple of hours. That’s four lots of thirty minutes each. The trick is to work for 25 minutes, and then rest for 5. And then repeat.

The Pomodoro Technique takes its name from the clockwork plastic tomato (other fruits and vegetables are available) kitchen timer. Use the timer to keep track of the minutes. If you prefer, there are no end of browser plug-ins and downloadable apps that you can use instead, but there’s something pleasingly low-fi about the old-school approach. Plus the ticking of the clock adds an incentive.     

A 25-minute Pomodoro usually means that I’ll write about 600 first draft words. There’s an element of race-against-time, plus the nearness of the finishing line doesn't give time to slacken off. The 5 minute break allows for a regroup and/or a reward. If the rest itself isn’t enough, then make a drink / have a smoke / go for that pee you’ve been holding off from / whatever. And then back into it for another 25 minutes.

So in that two hours, I’ll get down about 2400 words.

As a first-draft tool it works really well for me. Also, it can be useful for making use of relatively small periods of downtime. Got an hour between TV programmes? 2 x Pomodoros, and another thousand words in the bag.

It’s not an all-day tool for writing; a couple of hours first thing, and then another couple later in the day would be my preferred option. 

Try it out! And if it doesn’t work for you, then at least you’ve found another method that’s not perfect for your writing.

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The Prospect of This City is out now and is available from me (signed if you prefer!) and also in both paperback and ebook via Amazon. 

 

...and first day in the new job

So here we go. September 1st is the first day in the new job; being a full-time freelance writer. I've never been self-employed before, so as you might imagine, there's something of a learning curve to be scaled. 

Some of the past few days has been spent setting up a basic-but-workable system of keeping track of accounts (in other words, I've got an A4 file), ordering some business cards, hooking myself up with the tax and National Insurance folk; all of that.  

I've tidied up my online presence, backing up and archiving a couple of old blogs, and redirecting URLs that I've got for those back here. I'll keep a weather eye on traffic from those addresses, and if it's useful to do so, I'll renew them. If not, I'll let them go. Also, I've joined Facebook - something I dabbled with back in the late 00s but found it not for me - partly to keep in contact with former colleagues, and partly to help support me doing this. 

So, yeah, I'm making this up as I go along.    

However, as making things up is now the day job, let's hope that this just becomes a new normal.  One of the key steps along that particular path is to establish a new writing routine; one that doesn't have to work around the restrictions of office hours plus commute plus marking and so on at home. That'll be the focus of Friday's post. 

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My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and available in paperback from me (signed if you prefer!) an in ebook and paperback formats via Amazon

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 2

Continuing on from the previous post, here's the second excerpt from the PhD thesis that I wrote alongside Prospect's original version.

This section discusses genre definitions, historical fiction, thrillers, inspirations and contexts of the novel's writing, and some of the practical issues involved in writing a fiction set within a defined and well-known historical context.


On the face of it, Prospect may be categorised generically as an historical novel, in that the book is set in a specific real-world past, that of the years following the 1660 restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and to a significant date and event within that, the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Historical fiction, as both de Groot and Green (2011: 59) note, is undergoing something of a commercial and critical renaissance. Hilary Mantel’s back-to-back successes in Man Booker Prize terms with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies being perhaps the most conspicuous example of the turn in making ‘historical fiction respectable again’ (Jeffries 2012) .

That said, the historical in itself does not necessarily lend itself to accuracy in terms of genre identification; the temporal location of the (or indeed, any) novel’s events doesn’t necessarily provoke a kind of novel in itself. As someone who’s unpublished in the novel form, there are no clues which might be deduced from my name in the way that a potential reader might assume certain (albeit differentiated) expectations from a recognised thriller writer such as Lee Child or John Le Carre or indeed historical novelists such as Bernard Cornwell or Lindsey Davis.    

The concept of genre is usually bound up with that of with questions of narrative, though Mullan offers useful additional definitions: story is what happens in the novel, narrative is the way the story is told, plot being the ‘causal chain that connects events and characters (2008: 169 - 70). Bulman defines genre as meaning ‘kind, sort, type or category’ (2007: 104). Genres often indicate plot archetypes - romance, thriller, science-fiction, and horror - though may not always communicate much by way of specifics.

The term ‘historical novel’ doesn’t necessarily do this in quite the same way, though it may suggest an approach that the author might take in telling their story. Johnson (2005: 1) offers an opening definition of historical fiction as that which is ‘set before the middle of the last century and [where] the author is working from research rather than personal experience’. De Groot focuses on the ways which the genre ‘fundamentally challenges subjectivities, offering multiple identities and historical story lines’ (2010: 139). This latter definition was where I was headed, though in the early parts of the project I was burdening myself with the assumption that there was an imperative to deliver history and fiction rather than fiction that was in some way historical.   

To acclimatise myself to the genre I set myself the task of reading as much historical fiction as I could. I put parameters around the reading: I’d restrict myself where possible to English-set historical fiction, and to work by practising authors and to work set pre-1800. This was to limit the reading to something manageable and also to give it some coherence, and partly to give myself an overview of the condition of historical fiction as it is now. By reading in depth, I could better understand the genre: what worked and what didn’t work for me within it. I looked for London-set novels where possible. So I read over one hundred and fifty historical novels between 2008 and 2012. In doing this, I found out a huge amount about what was and wasn’t interesting to me within the genre. These ideas fed into the structuring, writing and rewriting of Prospect.

The Prospect of This City began as another book altogether.  In 2006 I’d started writing a novel as a response to the July 7th 2005 bombings.  I’d been in central London that day (I live in Lincolnshire and had taken the week off to help my brother set up his final show for his BA in Fine Art). The experience of being at once close to and distant from that event was in many ways thrilling.  The novel I’d started (though it was never completed) concerned a young man with Down’s syndrome who worked in the backroom of a flagship London chain bookstore as a cleaner.  A set of terrorist attacks similar to the 7/7 ones occur, and the young man tries to make sense of them.  He begins a journey around London, visiting friends, churches, a mosque, asking questions and trying to work out why someone would seek to kill themselves and others in service of a faith-related cause. Eventually he decides that the only way to understand the act is to replicate it.

I put the project on hold at about the 30,000 word mark.  In part this was because I’d prepared inadequately for the project.  I’d written from a random start point with little in the way of organised planning, character thought or forward plotting. I ran out of steam. Also, I’d been concerned that the book was too similar to Mark Haddon’s The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which had been a recent success in critical and commercial terms (Freeman: 2006), and that I’d grafted Haddon’s naive protagonist onto the terrorism-related premise without sufficient thought.  Any resulting book would seem, I determined, an emulation of Haddon’s.

The idea behind Prospect came along at the same time.  My intent was to write the two novels back-to-back, exploring in different but related ways aspects of the city, of terrorism, of faith extremism and its dark possibilities; one from a contemporary standpoint, one with an historical bias.  An element of this was derived from JG Farrell’s The Siege of KrishnapurThe Singapore Grip and Troubles, novels which individually and collectively critique aspects of the British Empire.  Again, the idea was one of emulation: to examine terrorism in a manner similar to how Farrell had his.  I had nebulous ideas for a third book, a contemporary thriller involving a forgotten IRA arms cache, the son of a soldier killed on active duty in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, and video evidence of a hushed-up atrocity committed by M16 officers acting undercover inside a terrorist cell.

The Prospect of This City was to be the second-written of the three books.  I didn’t feel confident in starting an historical piece first, so I went with one of the others, thinking  that a present-day setting and direct references to contemporary issues would make for more straightforward writing.

I was wrong. I wasn’t ready to write a full novel. I licked my wounds and in time I turned to Prospect. I felt sure that there was enough in the log-line: ‘a race-against time conspiracy thriller set during the Great Fire of London’ to be able to construct something, though in 2006 I had little in the way of potential character ideas, of detailed plotting or specific knowledge of the period. 

Though I had not investigated in depth, it felt that the Restoration was relatively underused as a setting for novels and within that, there was space for the Fire to be explored.  My hope was that approaches would be provoked by doing the reading. 

As it was, two novels had already presented themselves as models. These were Thomas Harris’s second Hannibal Lecter novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal.  In particular I was taken with the mentor-student relationship between Lecter and FBI trainee Clarice Starling, and with the implacable nature of Forsyth’s unnamed assassin. From these I took guidance on the fascination that procedure can bring. Harris details FBI protocols on search and entry, on forensics and pathology, on painstaking leg-work.  Forsyth generates suspense by juxtaposing twin processes. The novel shifts from observing the assassin’s preparations to intercutting between his progress towards Paris, where he intends to strike, and police commissioner Lebel’s methodical approach to securing the positive identification of the hit man. Though I wasn’t interested in writing either a cat-and-mouse thriller nor one which focused on a dogged investigator, I was interested in the planning, assembly and execution of an event, and in the particularities involved.

My own short stories evidenced repeated use of compressed timeframes or real time narration. The ‘race against time’ aspect of my logline resonated here; I wanted to construct a story that took place in as short a period as I could justify. The finished novel, an epilogue aside, is related over two and a half days, with the last 40,000 words before the coda - from the start of the Fire to the novel’s climax - covering perhaps five hours. 

 Some of this came from my interest in compact timeframes, some was necessitated by the records and retellings of the Fire itself.  In essence, my narrative could not tell the whole story of the Fire, as there was no single climactic event to work a whole-Fire narrative towards. 


The next section's a bit spoilery, so I'll leave it there for the time being, and I'll post up some more material from the reflective thesis in a few days' time, once I've cut out sections that are focused on plot specifics and suchlike. 

The Prospect of This City is available in paperback and Kindle ebook here

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 1

 

My novel The Prospect of This City was originally written as part of a PhD in Creative Writing I studied between 2009 and 2013. The now-published version isn't identical to that submitted for the course (and there's a post for another time right there in the alterations made and the rationales for them), but it's pretty close. 

Alongside the creative work that I submitted, there was a dissertation about an aspect of the experience of the novel's writing. Mine was called "Mapping the author in The Prospect of This City". Hmm. I'm not sure that I'd go with that title now, but there you are.   

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting up (fairly lengthy) excerpts from that accompanying non-fiction work. Some of it will be rewritten/clarified from the submitted version, but it'll be substantively the same. 

If nothing else, it records how the book was written, the decisions and choices made along the way, and the reasons underpinning them, as well as an account of the different kinds of research done. some interest here if you're into writing generally, historical fiction more specifically, or the kind of work that might go into writing a book. 

I'll include the (somewhat weighty) bibliography as the last blog post in this sequence. 

At the point where we get potentially spoiler-y for those of you who haven't read Prospect yet (and why not, if you haven't?), I'll flag it up in advance. Don't worry this time around though, as there's nothing that'll let anything too contentious plot/character-wise out of the bag in this post. 

Here we go with the first excerpt. This is approximately the first half of chapter one of the dissertation.


The Prospect of This City (hereafter referred to as Prospect) begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here, stories that had not been told before. This feeling was backed up by Sarah Johnson’s exhaustive 2005 librarians’ catalogue Historical Fiction: A Guide To The Genre.

That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 - 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain.

This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ recently announced two - book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire (Williams 2012).

The approach wasn’t of interest to me, because I had seen it done before and because I was unconvinced of the usefulness in linking the two very different disasters together, except in the minds of those who sought conspiracy theories and thus could make their own connections from events which were otherwise coincidental to each other.

Nevertheless, I maintain an interest in the potential in fiction of conspiracy and it was my intent to articulate this in Prospect. Chapter Two looks at this in more detail.

The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. The Fire is often taught at primary school, where it’s used to exemplify breadth of study, wherepast events from the history of Britain and the wider world (for example, events such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Olympic Games, other events that are commemorated)’ in Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum (Department for Education 2012).

There are many supporting texts written for Key Stage learners such as Lynne Benton and Peter Cottrill’s The King and the Great Fire and Margaret Nash and Jane Cope’s Toby and the Great Fire of London. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.

I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.

The idea that there was an element of awareness of the event residual from childhood history lessons, general knowledge and the like was an appeal, as was the open-endedness of the Fire. As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property (Bell: 226), there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.

The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.

The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Another is the writing commenting on, analysing and - crucially for me, replaying - the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. Such fictional representations, as Knight has it, raise “fundamental questions about the connection between conspiracy plot and narrative plot; about the nature of character, agency and causality; about the relationship between fictional narrative and historical truth” (2007: 105). These are all areas in which Prospect, as it developed, has fostered interest.    

I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.

I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted (Tinniswood: 161), and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.

The question of fidelity to the historical record in genre fiction is an ongoing topic of discussion in academic, readership and professional writing circles. Though the parameters of that discussion are outside the scope of this reflective thesis, it should be acknowledged that a range of opinions exist and are of concern to authors, to readers and to commentators also. To some extent, this reflection is my take on that debate, by way of extended example. This is what I did, how, when and why.

Outside of the perhaps necessarily subjective nature of history as a discipline and the obvious point that historical fiction, by its nature, will make play with aspects of the past, one of the purposes of the genre is to find points where the two (history and fiction) may be combined. The medievalist Ian Mortimer’s useful concept of ‘free history’ might be employed here: ‘the totality of all possible human engagements with the evidence relating to a past event or state of being’ (Mortimer 2008: 1).  For Mortimer, free history ‘lies somewhere between “what happened in the past” and “what historians do”, being less than the former and more than the latter. It encompasses the full extent of activities which could be considered “historical”’ (2008: 8). This includes historical fiction, where, as de Groot puts it: ‘novelists concentrate on the gaps between known factual history and that which is lived’ (2010: 3).   

For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession (and its retail ancillaries) and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.

Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia. Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome series, 2009 onwards) and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester (2009 onwards).

Notwithstanding those badges of authenticity - or at least of verifiable expertise in the historical - authors need to ensure that their texts are seen to be based on historically accurate source material and that licences and adaptations taken and made to the record are documented to have been taken into consideration.

This may be evidenced in several ways. Some, like the author biography, links to personal and publishing company websites, social media contacts, and fly page lists of other publications, are perhaps standard across many genres.

The author’s note, usually (though not exclusively) appended as a suffix to the book, is an inclusion so common to become almost a genre expectation within the historical. Some are brief, light-hearted, offer a couple of pointers for additional reading and give thanks and acknowledgements. Others run to several pages and give a more in-depth background to the historical contexts of the fiction being presented, often with acknowledgement of omissions, elisions and/or changes to the sources used in the piece’s development. This may also feature an extensive bibliography. Some authors use a non-fiction preface. The most common textual inclusion is a map. Some novels include dramatis personae. At one extreme, the 2012 paperback edition of Michael Jecks’ King’s Gold contains, in order and before the first chapter: a glossary of technical terms, a cast of characters, an author’s note, a map of London and a second map of the River Avon.

The purpose of these paratextual additions is to attempt to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader: the fiction is derived from authentic and verifiable occurrences.  In addition, there’s an opportunity to showcase the author’s knowledge and historical bona fides as well as their elisions and inventions. There’s also an opportunity to refer to ‘awareness of the strange project in which they are involved’ (de Groot 2010: 7-10) in presenting an amalgam of fact and fiction as a historically-relatable invented past. Within the novel itself, the historical fiction author may have to navigate between creating plausible dramatics, explaining specific terminology and contexts for the unfolding drama.

To some extent, if the contextual burden is being carried by extra-textual materials (and in series, by predecessor and successor novels) then the authorial responsibility to explain within the fiction might be eased. The extent that this is generically tolerable, notwithstanding the possibility that a reader may / may not skip the preface pages and dive straight into the first chapter,  and / or ignore any appendices, may vary from reader to reader.

This tendency is particularly evident in paperback editions, where along with the aforementioned inclusions, the edition may also include author interviews, reading group questions and also the first few pages or chapters of the next volume in the sequence, the newer book often appearing in hardback at an approximate time to the paperback of its predecessor (Wilde 2012, Parris 2012 as examples).

This may have the effect of stimulating sales of the series, of reminding the reader that there’s more to come and perhaps ‘upgrading’ the reader from paperback to hardback purchases, and thus provoking a spike in revenue, both in terms of the price uplift between hard- and paperback edition and in terms of recency, foreshortening the buying of the next volume from the next paperback release (perhaps a year away) to the immediately-available hardback. This would map across to ebook sales; UK ebook pricing tends to shadow the most current paper edition.

Prospect does not feature these inclusions, and indeed was written to be self-supporting without them, but it’s recognised that they’re generically appropriate and may even be seen as necessary in a potential published version’s ‘package’. There are some indications, if only in the reading I did while working on this project, that this pattern isn’t followed through to those novels which may be historical in terms of setting but are positioned as literary works rather than genre ones. Representative examples include Clare Clark’s The Great Stink (2005) and Maria McCann’s The Wilding (2010) where additional material is limited to brief acknowledgements after the novel.

However, whatever the usefulness in additional material being presented with the novel text may be (added value to the purchased product, familiarisation, verisimilitude, the provoking of authenticity and accuracy in the fiction, showcasing of research, offering follow-on reading as possible examples), Prospect needs to be able to stand on its own. The idea of the novel being self-contained in these terms was important from the outset.

Notwithstanding this, the title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of ‘The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city (National Archives 2012).  I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.  

The more I thought about it, the more promise the idea of the map held in articulating positions that I’d begun to take. Maps were everywhere in the books, not least in my personal favourite novel, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1984), which opens with a diagram of the abbey in which the drama is located and is concerned with the need for a map with which to navigate the labyrinthine forbidden library at the novel’s centre, the library itself organised as though it were a map of the world (Rice 2003: 249-354). I was also taken with the conceit of the historical novel as a kind of map itself, a map of a fictionalised version of a real past. A research notebook entry of mine from 2010 reads:

Novels are symbolic, not iconic. But they don’t help themselves because they encourage being seen as iconic through (visual) signs such as covers, maps, etc. And by non-fiction supplements intended to be decoded as iconic rather than symbolic. 

 

In discussing Eco’s novel, but expanding his point more generally, Rice (2003: 350) comments:

 

the artist encodes meaning, maps cognitively a conceptual space, a world that the audience decodes by a reciprocal mental mapping process. That, of course, does not mean that these maps are interchangeable or simply superimposed upon one another; they are supplemental.

 

Perhaps the definitive statement on this comes from Jorge Luis Borges (though the concept may be traced back to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded). The Borges short fiction On Exactitude in Science posits a map of identical size and scale to the real empire that it’s based on (Eco 1998b: 84). This map/territory conundrum - that the map is not the territory, and not only should the two not be confused for each other but that to accept the map (or the copy) over the territory (or the real), itself exhaustively dissected by Umberto Eco (1998b: 85-94) stayed with me throughout the research, writing and reflective periods of the project.    

The issue of the relationship between the historical and the novelistic, long an area of contention within the field of historical fiction, felt analogous here. The novel is not the history in ways similar to those indicating that the map is not to be confused with the territory. There may be relationships and referents between the two, but one (the novel, or the map, to follow the analogy) is not the other (the historical background of the novel, or the territory).

I saw that there were freedoms and opportunities here. Understanding that my obligations to the Fire and its personages were not ones of literal, mimetic reproduction or ones of exactitude was a liberating one, and ones which I’d not fully taken into consideration in the novel’s planning and early iterations. I’d been overly preoccupied with the former rather than the latter word in the phrase ‘historical novel’. This reflection is the closest I’m going to get to producing such a map, because, as I came to understand, that burden of obligation doesn’t need to be borne by the novel.  


That's the end of this excerpt. More in a few days (the posts will be tagged "Behind the scenes"). And here comes the hard sell: Prospect is available here

The second excerpt's here