He’s Not Omniscient, He’s Just A Very Naughty Boy

This week’s creative writing class got into some excellent debate about narration, voice and point of view and I learnt something very interesting about my style of writing. A brief discussion of the main options available to the aspiring author can be found here . I for one am extremely glad I did no research on this before starting as it would have confused the hell out of me and even worse I may have adopted a style that I thought would be appropriate rather than just get on with telling the dammed thing in a way that felt right. However hindsight being a wonderful thing and the fact that I am now approaching 15k words means I feel confident to find out just what I am actually doing.

Apparently I am not using the most popular technique of the third party omniscient narrator but a somewhat weird hybrid of first person free and indirect speech or discourse but in the present rather than the past tense. I know, I have no idea what it means either, but there is a wonderfully up it’s own arse definition  that you can find here. Anybodywhocantranslatethatintoengishpleaseletmeknow.  Better by far is this blog which gives some excellent worked examples and illustrations of various authors styles. However none of them seem to actually match how I am choosing to tell my story, or perhaps I’m just being thick.

From my perspective what I am actually trying to do is tell the story from one characters perspective (his name is Francis Perrin a young Victorian gentleman scientist) with access to his inner voice but describing the events as they happen around him as if he had a go-pro recording the whole thing. The use of the present tense to my way of thinking gives the story more immediacy and presence. The reader is right there with him experiencing what he does at the very same time and like real life the future will only be understood when you get there.

Here is a short example: First in the present tense in italics followed by the same passage rewritten in the more familiar past tense.

Order whatever you want, The Cadre are paying, it’s mostly good, especially the chops.” Babbage is keen to seem helpful and placate their guests. To Perrin the menu is a revelation, brought up to eat whatever was in front of him whether at home or in University rooms the choice is bewildering, roasts, soups stews, pies and more than one type of fish identified by name no less. Free will when it comes to ordering food is an alien concept to Perrin and although suddenly utterly ravenous he struggles to choose.

“Steak” says Salt, “rare.”

“Certainly sir” replies the waiter, “and for the vegetables?”

“Oh, they can order for themselves.” Says Burton with an evil grin.

Perrin, grateful that someone has made a choice dutifully follows suit.

“Order whatever you want, The Cadre are paying, it’s mostly good, especially the chops.” Babbage was keen to seem helpful and placate their guests. To Perrin the menu was a revelation, brought up to eat whatever was in front of him whether at home or in University rooms the choice was bewildering, roasts, soups stews, pies and more than one type of fish identified by name no less. Free will when it came to ordering food was an alien concept to Perrin and although suddenly utterly ravenous he struggled to choose.

“Steak” said Salt, “rare.”

“Certainly sir” replied the waiter, “and for the vegetables?”

“Oh, they can order for themselves.” Said Burton with an evil grin.

Perrin, grateful that someone had made a choice dutifully followed suit.

Dunno about you but to me the first version is more alive and immediate, you are moving through time with Perrin experiencing what he sees and feels as he does whilst the second reads as if you were watching through the window or on a TV screen at characters in someone else’s story. So if someone out there can tell me the official classification for what I am writing and how I would be eternally grateful.

See you next week.

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My Writing Day

This week I shall mostly be inspired by the Guardians “My Writing Day” a weekly article that appears in the Saturday Review and is also available online. I read this avidly. Initially hoping to discover the secret of the right way to write a novel, however it soon became very obvious that there is no ideal way. It should come as no surprise that every author is different and the way they write differs wildly. From those like Sarah Perry who bottle it up until it explodes out of them. To the method men like Michael Bond who have a well honed technique/routine that seems to define their whole existence. From them I have learnt the following.

  1. With a few exceptions most authors write most days. As Barry Cryer once remarked when asked how he remained funny and relevant after so many years as a comedy writer. “Humour is like a muscle, the more you exercise it the better and stronger it becomes.” Writing regularly usually results in better writing.
  2. There is no such thing as the right way to write. You have to find a way that suits you. Some authors can write anywhere anytime the muse strikes them, others need to be seated in a particular time in a specific place to allow for concentration and focus.
  3. Word count varies wildly. Apparently Ernest Hemingway was satisfied if he wrote a hundred good words a day. Others can bash out several thousand. Some edit as they go and some plough on almost regardless of tone and continuity to create a first draft that they know with subsequent editing and re-writing will be wildly different in the finished work.
  4. Some like Emma Donoghue reassure me that my approach is not unique and my desire to have the context right even when my real-life characters are doing fictional things is not unusual. I quote.

 “The main variation among my novels is not the writing but the research. Sometimes I stick closely to facts. Other times, as in my latest book The Wonder, I make up the story but the background is as historically accurate as possible, so I spend time checking whether a particular bird would have been in the Irish Midlands in 1859.”

So this is my writing day.

I get up at 08:00, and try to leave the house by  08:30. I cannot work from home. My last job was basically home based and I found that I was incapable of concentrating. My lack of discipline meant I inevitably started searching for shows I had not yet watched on Amazon Prime or whether King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard   or Steven Wilson have any new videos up. I need a place of work free of distractions. There is a 20 min walk into town to the local library, luckily we haven’t lost ours yet, and I use the time to think about plot, research and what I plan to try to write today. Once there I find a spare table unpack my laptop, water and any books I have brought with me to help with background etc. Then it is a question of starting, sometimes the first word is difficult and I fear I will loose the tone or atmosphere of the scene I am halfway through, however even if the first words are rubbish the characters soon take over and sort me out. By 13:00 I am done, my typing is slow and rudimentary and I have a tendency to edit and re-read as I go, so anything over a thousand words I deem a successful and productive morning. I pack up and return stopping only at Nero’s for a regular mocha extra shot extra hot to  drink on the way home. Lunch is followed by any number of permutations of the following, gym, blog, research, Amazon Prime, housework, email, You Tube, plot notes, new ideas, and Spider Solitaire. I’d be the first one to admit It’s not pretty or very inspiring, but it seems to work for me.

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Vaguely Right or Precisely Wrong

I have been thinking a lot about plot this week. The problem is one of inexperience. There seems to be two schools of thought. On the one hand the plot is mapped, planned, sub-divided into chapters and each chapter sub-divided into sections until you have effectively written a skeleton and the only task left is to clothe it with words. In fact this approach is so popular it has been reduced to a system which means anybody can be a writer hurrah! The other one is what I seem to be doing and there appears to be sod all about it.

I’ll be honest with you the first approach frightens me and whenever I have attempted it I have failed miserably. Why I hear you cry. Well dear reader it is because….(come close because I need to whisper so only you know) I don’t know what is going to happen. There I have said it, confessed my sin. Actually having written it down I feel better, my dirty little secret is out in the open. No going back, everybody now knows I haven’t an actual clue what I am doing. This issue really came home to me when I re-read my original plot ideas and synopsis that I wrote about six months ago. Oh dear. When I compare that to what I am actually writing there is very little in common apart from the setting the basic characters and a working title. The thing is, what I am actually doing feels so much better, the emergent narrative feels more natural, the characters more real and the story more engaging. I now look back at the original plot and see it is wooden, laboured and in service to the idea. What I mean by that is the characters are there to serve the plot rather than the plot emerges as the characters uncover it for themselves, which seems to me to be more exciting and interesting.

So does this mean I have no idea where the story is going and have no plot no end point? Will the narrative just wander aimlessly on until everybody, including the characters gets bored/boring? Well unlike Tales From a Topographic Ocean  I do have some ideas. Instead of a detailed plot outline I have staging posts, or scenes that I have in my head and also jotted down in note form. I have a framework, a set of rules about how my take on Victorian society would operate, but within that the plot and the characters have free will. I have written a broad synopsis about the overall story arc and the major plot strands for the first two novels, but that’s it. What is very interesting is that this approach allows me to add/refine/uncover new ideas that are rooted in the approach and what has gone before but add a level of complexity or detail to the plot or the world building. A recent example was when researching the East India Company  I came across this wonderful piece of serendipity Nemesis. What a name what a ship! Well as soon as I discovered her I knew that she must form a key part of the story. The Cadre (more of them later) would have been all over such a technology and so am I. So as the story emerges you and me can speculate about what might happen, but if no-one not even the author knows exactly what happens next, well that’s just ………

To finish with here is another creative writing class exercise. For this one (and I suspect all subsequent ones) I have used the premise as an excuse to write from the perspective of one of the characters in the novel rather than witter on about myself. This may or may not end up in the final draft but it’s a very good way of exploring/developing your characters in situations not of your choosing.Enjoy.

A Place of Tranquillity

Francis Perrin a young Victorian gentleman scientist is in West Africa searching for Oklo the “God of Steam” a deity said to possess the power of infinite energy. He and Lemmuel Salt his bodyguard have run into a spot of bother with the local Orungu tribe who believe they have desecrated the cave where Oklo lives.

Knocked flat and winded, Perrin turns to confront his fate and instead of an Orungu with spear and death he sees Salt in perfect harmony with the world. Sword in one hand his thick veined stick in the other, every limb operating independently and in perfect rhythm. In this sphere of death his movement is balletic a block a bend a kick a slash each action perfectly coordinated in time and space. The stick catches the next victim, he staggers, and is kicked hard in the groin, he doubles up and the sword enters his back, perfectly aligned with his heart. Then without hesitation weight is transferred to the other leg, the stick swings, a head jerks back, the body falls and is impaled in movement so smooth, so precise, so efficient as to be not of this world. Salt has commanded that this offering be delivered at a time and place of his choosing and so it has come to pass. Chaos reigns all around him but Perrin is in the eye of the storm, a place of peace and tranquillity, created by a monster. He notices Salt’s face has no anger, no frustration, the expression is calm as on waking from restful sleep, his eyes are soft and there is the hint of a smile on his lips as if a small child had amused him. Salt is in the moment, he is time itself, in complete control of their destiny.

“Oi Mary, get off your arse stop and stop staring at my crotch, it puts a bloke right off his stroke!”

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At some point you have to get feedback. No man or book is an island. It may on occasion  be a peninsula with very few visitors and no gift shop. However whilst it is often said you should create art for your own pleasure without reference to others, the reality is that all acts of creativity exist in some form of context and it would be a perverse type of solipsist that didn’t want some reaction to their work  critical monetary or otherwise. Of course friends and family are usually the first port of call and, let’s be honest, you are expecting uncritical praise and encouragement which by and large I have received . Except from my eldest son  who, as a scientist and blogger in his own right, is genetically incapable of not telling the truth who struggling, I suspect, with my slightly florid faux Victorian style suggested that I should read Hemingway “he’s a really good writer.” Point taken David. In my defence the style, however badly executed, is deliberate.

Eventually though you need to show what you have done to someone who doesn’t know you, has no idea about the context or reasons for your writing but who does have experience and knowledge of writing and the publishing world. You need to do this for many reasons the chief of which is “am I deluding myself that I can write” closely followed by “is what I am writing of any merit or interest to anybody else”. I genuinely don’t believe there are many artists who do not want their work to be enjoyed or appreciated by others. Even if driven by inner demons, we are at heart social creatures who prefer to be accepted and by extension that includes any act of creativity. So objective feedback is critical, nothing and nobody is perfect whatever we aspire to say or do.

So here is verbatim my first objective independent feedback on the first few thousand words of my first draft.

“Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read so far of your book. The thing that stands out the most is the characterisation which I think is superb. Mr Babbage and Salt really appeal, though the others are very distinct also.I think that’s one of the most difficult things to do; to give a number of characters distinct and three dimensional personalities. They all really come alive. The whole idea of the cadre is apparent here..each one bringing a particular skill to a particular enterprise. The fact that they are personally at odds with each other makes it really funny . Tennyson and the poem for example…….Salt’s overpowering, threatening presence amongst the learned men..though he’s certainly not without humour himself. I keep seeing Oliver Reed.

I can see that dialogue is not a problem for you here. I think you’ve captured the texture and mode of the elongated sentence  structure associated with the period. My only point here is that it may obscure meaning for the average reader who may find this sort of language difficult. At this point you really need to ask yourself who the intended reader is. I think also you should spell out in this opening segment what exactly ‘the mission’ is going to be ( the idea is implanted) though you don’t have to go into a massive amount of  detail.

I like the roughness, rowdiness of the general scene created. I think a lot of writers and screen -writers avoid that kind of detail…the sheer filth of it all. I do think the first segment could be cut back a bit but don’t worry about that now.

Is this novel going to be from Perrin’s point of view throughout? Are we going to follow him through the whole novel? He’s a really good character. ..rather naive though by no means stupid.I think the reader will want to get to know why he is there pretty soon.

I do admire your ability to stay in the present tense. Our natural story telling mode is in the past tense. I don’t think you slipped once!

What fun you must have doing  some of your research on the streets of London.”

Yeah, I know what you are thinking. “He only published it ‘cos it was positive. I bet he’s got lots that told him  not to give up the day job”. Well all I can say to you unbelievers is no that’s it. As and when I start to get rejection or negative correspondence I shall publish that to. However at the moment I am buoyed and comfortable in the thought that I am not completely mad and useless, which is after all what we all want to know.

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First Contact

We are all sitting in the reception area of West Suffolk Regional College not making eye contact. Are all writers introverts? Discuss in no more than 250 words and 3 paragraphs. You have 20 minutes to complete the exercise. Welcome to wacky wild but very polite world of a creative writing course. Our host for the evening is Pat McHugh who I suspect has done this sort of thing before. What must she be thinking. “Oh good/god here we go again.” What motley band of miscreants near do wells and fantasists have decided that a degree of self actualization lies at the end of 10 weeks trying to write about themselves, a tree falling in a forest or even (god forbid) poetry! Don’t take that last sentence seriously I am just channeling the likely response of Charles Babbage one of the main characters in my book who hated poetry almost as much as he hated street musicians.

My rationale is clear, I am trying to write a novel. I have never attempted such an exercise. I need help guidence and insight into almost every aspect of the process, from point of view and tone to charater and plot development. As for the rest of our merry band of pranksters the reasons are many and various from just wanting to complete a piece that they are proud of; those wanting to hone their blogging skills; someone who believes there must be more to life (amen to that brother!); some like me who want to write a novel or short stories but need help and those that see writing as a form of catharsis and self development. Some are here for the first time and some are repeat offenders one of whom is here because ………well actually I have no idea why they are here, but it is their choice and we respect that.

So the bulk of the evening is spent  going round the room establishing our motives and alibis for being here and at the moment the only thing we have in common is the  very real fear that none of us will be able to find this room again next week having followed Pat through a labaryinth of school corridors that all look exactly the same. Finally we get the chance to do some actual writing. The challenge is as follows. In no more than ten minutes write about an early childhood memory. We all scribble wander around stare into space until told to stop. We are then all asked to read out our meagre offerings and accept the encouragement and praise that is/is not our due. We are given homework, 250 words on an object that is important to you. Describe it and explain why it is important. You will note that both exercises are rooted in the individual. As I said in the last blog “write what you know” and for us this is the tried and tested way to start taking our baby steps. Don’t try to  create something new reflect on what you already know and put it into words. Here is what I came up with in my ten minutes.

“Pea Shoots”

My brother and I are sitting on the steps in front of the French windows. The summer sun is filtered through the garden’s growth and the gentle breeze creates dappled motion on the two of us. We have a saucepan a colander and a large brown bag arranged between us. The bag contains fresh peas secure, for the moment, in their green amour. We are engaged in fecund activity at the behest of our mother who has asked us to shell the peas into the saucepan. However we are engaged in a ferocious pea battle. Running our fingers along the margin to reveal the fresh peas within then then flicking them at their giggling target as fast as possible. The colander is full of spent green cartridges and the saucepan remains empty except for the few that bounce off their intended target and fall in, and we are surrounded by a squishy green carpet, a testament to our industry and application to the task at hand.

See you all next week.



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How Many Books Does it Take to Write a Book


Write what you know they say. Well as I wasn’t around 200 years ago there has to be an alternative way. So over the last few months I have been gathering my own rather arcane library of background material and references. Some are contemporary, big shout out to Lovelace & Babbage by the ridiculously talented Sidney Padua, some are historical Like Mayhew’s London  and Bradshaw’s Handbook (particularly useful if you want to know what pubs were around at the time) and some are tech support. This plus Wikipedia and my own ideas will form the basis of this first novel of a rather sketchily mapped out set of books. Everybody loves a good trilogy especially  in the fantasy/steampunk/alternate reality/grimdark seam I am going to mine and it also allows one to expand and develop your pocket universe. This is a concept I have loved since the days of Larry Niven and more recently the late great Iain M Banks wonderful universe of The Culture and Joe Abercrombie’s very hard nosed First World novels. Of course no discussion of pocket universe’s can pass without mentioning Terry Pratchet’s Discworld so I have. Actually Discworld (surely you don’t need a link for this?)is also an influence from the contemporary narrative parallels that formed a core part of Pratchet’s books. The difference here is that I don’t have to go looking for them. Victorian society is a mirror of our own and history truly does just repeat itself, all you have to do is just exaggerate it a little. Oh and some of the eagle eyed amongst you may spot the autobiography of Lemmy in the pile. WTF is he doing there you might well ask. To which I reply wait and see………

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How To Write Your First Novel without ever starting it.

As Peter Cook once observed. “Everybody has a book inside them. Luckily that’s where most of them stay”. The thought that as a avid reader of novels you are qualified or even able to write one is either based on blind arrogance about your own ability or a wilful ignorance of the issues and complexity of actually writing the dammed thing.

Yet here I am having handed in my notice at work preparing to embark on such a process. Is this merely a new year fad like abstinence from alcohol or that gym membership that finds itself increasingly unused from February onwards or will  I actually find that the creative process itself is something I crave and that has been missing from my life. In my more lucid moments  I suspect that the actual novel  will merely end up in a state of perpetual unfinishedness or just cluttering up the self publishing websites that now cater for the aspiring/deluded JK Rowling’s of this world. But what the hell, if crap like 50 Shades can make it why not me…..Actually that’s pretty hard to argue against as it is crap on almost every level but it did make EL Grey a shedload of money, so kudos, and please can I follow in her footsteps along with the thousands that use her as an example and or excuse for not doing a proper job anymore.

So this blog will be an outlet to the process and frustrations that I encounter whether it be issues of plot, characterisation, world building, writers block, sheer naked fear and even the dreaded creative writing courses – oh yes I have succumbed to the new year lure of signing up with other hopeful/desperate  souls eager to learn the secret truth about writing and how to do it proper.

Do I actually have an idea? Well yes actually I do. Have I got the plot and characters all sorted errr well mostly. Has it got a title? The working one is “The Differences”. Do I have any prior experience? Well I have written two pantomimes and adapted/re-written over a dozen. I have  dabbled in sketch writing and during my so-called career written a lot of PR and technical literature, so sort of but not really.  Have I actually written a word of it? Oh yes he said smugly a pristine 6.5k worlds that I gaze upon with the fondness and love only a father can for his new-born. Have I dared tell anybody else? A few select people know, my partner who reads more books in a month than most people do in a year my kids who say (in the same breath) “Well done go for it…are you completely mad?” The response is usually the same, a sort of bemused encouragement occasionally tinged with a hint of jealousy, not that I am writing, but that I have given up work to do it. Why am I doing it? Well when you have a mother only twenty years older than you with vascular dementia and your better half lost both parents in the space of eight weeks it does rather crystalize the fact that we only have one shot at this life and you are more likely to regret the things you didn’t do than the things you did.

So to finish this first post I will just explain the title of this blog. It refers to an insult a colleague at work was once on the receiving end of. “You are like a lighthouse in a desert….brilliant but fucking useless!” Let’s hope that only the first half of that is true eh.

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