A New Year, a New Me

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

A new year, a new me?


The last day of January looms as has the last day of the past four months, and I have not posted a blog. After such a long time, I should be writing a pithy piece: I warn you, I will not. Will I post a blog once a month in the New Year? If I were really clever, I should do one today and one tomorrow and have two months off. But I don’t think I am going to be really clever.

It was no idea of mine to start a blog. Someone suggested to me that I should as an ‘unpublished writer’ have a web presence. A number of things have been suggested to me over the years, all entailing a great deal of work. That I should write novels I have not written . . . a screenplay . .  . a biography.

“Listen here matey, I have not had a single thing published, nor won a competition nor even come in the first hundred. Let me continue to giving my all to something I am not getting anywhere with, rather than take on new work in which I have no interest. Do you think, by the way, that I have a little writing laboratory and a writing mixer into which I toss words like ‘screenplay’ or ‘novel’ or ‘biography’ and some paper and ink and I press a switch and the machine whirls the whole thing together and produces a finished piece of work in less than a morning? No, not at all. Novels, I have found take about two years, and then . . And then what? Nothing it appears.”

That’s the end to that rant. A friend of mine was talking about doing a course called ‘A New Year, A New You’. But I have been working on the ‘new me’ since November. I am in the process of metamorphosis now. The key change is positive thinking. I did read Norman Vincent Peale’s book. I read it before. Obviously the mistake I made was not to apply it. I have also dipped into many self-help books. I don’t, of course, wish to be one of those pathetic people who read self-help books and learn nothing from them. (I was such a person.) But remember it’s a ‘new me’. You want some evidence: you shall have some.

I have no ‘success’ (as the word is generally used) to relate but I have rehabilitated my ‘attitude’, I am moving from negative to positive. It is not the work of a moment.

I wrote some time ago of having had a novel critiqued by The Literary Consultancy, maybe I did not disclose the name. The first critique was favourable, and I spent about 10 months incorporating the changes before re-submitting it a second time (a different reader). Then I got an unfavourable critique which devastated me. I put the book aside. (A fourth completed novel mind you) and turned to writing plays. I couldn’t bring myself to write a fifth novel. As regards the plays, it was a good change.  A director of an amateur company, in Ireland, intends to produce the first play I wrote this autumn. I also wrote radio plays and sent them to the BBC. Not one was accepted. I might have gone on sending out the plays until someone accepted one, but instead I decided to return to the abandoned novel, after over 18 months away from it. I have now revised it. I am planning to send my first submission this week. My aim is to send 100 submissions out, and see what happens. In the past, about 30 odd submissions was the most I sent out.

No doubt rejection is ahead, but this time my expectations are different. Let’s see if a positive attitude will pave my way to success.


Writing: now for a bit of drama

March 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

I have written of my experience of having a novel critiqued twice by professionals: the first (2015), a positive experience, was a boost to my confidence; the second (2016), a negative experience, was a devastating blow. Now it is 2017. I am not simply stating the obvious. I am just reminded again that years pass and writers may have nothing to show for them.

Later in 2016, I finished a children’s book. I gave the book to an eleven-year-old boy, the target market, to read. I was asking too much of him. He wasn’t enjoying the book. I discreetly took the manuscript back. The free critique amounted to:  “This is unreadable.”  Not quite what I had in mind.

Apart from feeling sorry for myself and thinking that some sort of success was long overdue, I began a new writing venture. In tandem with the revision of the children’s book, I was writing a play.

I had never considered writing a play. I had believed a “play” was completely beyond me. Having discovered novel-writing (in the view of the industry) to be beyond me, I thought why not a play? I soon discovered that a chapter in a book could be reduced to one page of dialogue. Best also to set the play in one place, if possible. Apart from running out of material quickly and the limited things I could deal with in one room, I found the business of writing a play extremely liberating. Its three chief attractions were:

I didn’t have to bother with description.

I didn’t have to set any scenes and worry about the type of chairs people should be sitting on.

I didn’t have to worry too much about “my writing”. After all, my characters were ordinary people, not literary geniuses, talking to each other in ordinary language.

Nor did I have to worry about transitions. Act one is Christmas Eve 1956, act two Christmas Eve 2056, if I chose.

Of course, when I completed the play, I was back to square one. Another finished piece of work and no one clamouring for it. I sent the play to someone I knew who is involved in amateur dramatics. (That is after sending it to someone I didn’t know who boomeranged it back to me.) He said he liked the play. He later said he would try and produce it locally (Portlaoise, Ireland) this year. I do not know if it will be produced locally. But I was pleased by the novelty of someone actually wanting to do more with my work than fire it back at me.

One lesson I did learn was: confidence in your work must come from you. If people praise the work, you may doubt them. And the other important thing is: you must find a way of getting your work to as many people as possible, so that it will land on the desk or in the email inbox of that one person in 100 or 1000 who will like it. You may get good advice. It will be free and you will also be establishing connections.

Better to send your work to people you “know” than you don’t. The word “know” means someone you have a very vague connection to. Any degree of introduction is better than none at all. Send sample work by email to “helpful” people, asking for their advice: not asking for them to do anything as momentous as publish you. Persevere with one work. Don’t keep moving on to new work. Promote the work you have already done.

In the absence of any better tips, this is the advice I am trying to follow myself.



How not to write a novel by David Armstrong

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The essence of David Armstrong’s advice to those who would wish to become writers is: “Don’t”.

He was “lucky” enough to be one of the 1 per cent picked from a slush pile and published. Although his first published book was well-received by critics, this was not the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, but of the more plateau-like career of a midlist writer.

The earnings of a midlist writer are probably less than a steady job working in a supermarket. The midlist writer can, without ceremony, be dropped by his publisher. She might never do better than the sales of her first book. He will never be important. No one will be booking him to talk at important literary festivals. She will never see anyone reading her book on the tube. He will remain not very well-off and obscure.

Some readers may consider David Armstrong’s view of the life of the midlist writer to be depressing and negative. But I found it reassuring. On the contrary, it is the stories of unknown writers coming first in their first literary competition and then signing a three-book contract that depress me.

To know that most writers have to work long and hard for little reward is good news to me.

“When Night’s Black Agents was eventually published, the very things that it had (allegedly) been declined for were exactly the same things that reviewers found to single out for praise.”

For example:

The ‘lack of pace’ that had made the book ‘unsuitable for today’s market’, metamorphosed in the Daily Telegraph into ‘prose with a slow, dark, rhythm’.

In the Guardian the ‘Midlands setting’, frequently cited as an insurmountable barrier to publication, was now, ‘unique and interesting’.




Rules to write by

January 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Mr J L Garvin, editor of the Observer to Joyce Grenfell:

Avoid ’which’ and ‘and’.  Stop and start again.

Facts first-feelings later.

Indicate, don’t elaborate.

Short sentences are more telling.


In 1937 Joyce Grenfell agreed to a six weeks’ apprenticeship for the job of radio critic. For three weeks, keeping in mind the rules, she wrote and rewrote practice columns. On what should have been her fourth week of the apprenticeship, her unsigned column appeared in the Observer, 11 April 1937.


From the book,  Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure

What I don’t like about American novels

July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I read American novels I am struck by the number of products, food in particular, that are given their brand name. It is true that these ‘consumables’ are very common in America but are they quite as common as American novels would lead you to think? Identifying food or drink by brand is not as evident in English literary novels. The branded food, mentioned in American novels, is usually bad (unwholesome) food.

You will find brand-naming in novels written in the 1960s, perhaps earlier. And also in novels, set in 1950s, though written in the 1990s, for example, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House and Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven. Why do American novelists advertise denatured mass-produced consumables that don’t do people or the environment any good?

Any Irish or English or Scottish or Welsh reader of American novels should be able to answer the questions below.

Give the brand name for the following:

A fizzy non-alcoholic drinks (four letters or two four-letter words)

A breakfast cereal (eight letters)

A biscuit (four letters)

A fast food ‘restaurant’ (nine letters)

A cake (seven letters)

Shouldn’t novelists be a little bit charier of mentioning branded products and so giving free advertising to companies who have enormous advertising budgets? And clearly are doing their jobs very well if the branded product has, in the consumer’s mind, become almost become synonymous with the biscuit or drink. Aren’t small ethical companies, aiming to give farmers a living wage, or trying to preserve traditional skills, or providing for the education of children, far more in need of novelists’ gratuitous advertising? Why must novelists always be helping those giant multinational companies?

Before your made-up character reaches for a very real and much-advertised cold drink, think.

Revision: is the end in sight?

March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

We want, unless perhaps very intellectual, to write a readable novel, do we not? Writing something readable is not easy. When I read through my own work, as I am constantly doing these days, reading and re-reading with an adversarial eye to weed out all its flaws, I find that no matter how adversarial I have been there are always more flaws. And however exasperating it is to discover them, I am always dogged by more depressing thoughts. Is this novel interesting? Do these people seem real? Would anyone want to read the novel?

I hate to revise on Tuesday what I wrote on Monday. But this was Trollope’s method, and it is the method of other writers too. So, I have imposed it on myself. All the same, this method of revision does not seem to abbreviate the revision process.

My latest method: a revised print-out of the entire novel is to hand. I read it through, as a reader, for an overall feel of the story. As I read, I highlight the errors until I come to the end. If a chapter is in grave need of revision this may have priority. Before I revise a chapter, I read it again and use another colour pen and find (surprise! surprise!) more mistakes. Then it is time to return to the computer. The idea is to incorporate the two revisions in one go. Alas, I see that there are other things that need to be corrected. In all, three revisions are incorporated in this re-write. The following day I re-read on the computer’s monitor the same chapter and correct it again: I hope that when the chapter is printed off and read as part of the entire revised novel that it will stand up to scrutiny.

An unmarked novel print-out awaits my attention. But Hark! Something is wrong. It needs a new beginning. Not a revised chapter one but a whole new chapter to go before what was chapter one, and will now be chapter two. I believe it was Joyce Carol Oates who said you can only write your first sentence when you have written your last. Might it be true too that you can only write your first chapter when you have written your last?

One thing is clear: if you want advice on how to revise, I am not the person to turn to.

A thousand words a day

February 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

If ever a daily amount of writing is recommended, 1,000 words a day is the figure which crops up. Graham Greene told Theodora Fitzgibbon (noted in volume two of her autobiography, Love Lies a Loss) that you could accomplish a great deal by writing 1,000 words a day. In theory, you could indeed. If you write for five days a week, you clock up 20,000 words in a month, and have finished your novel within four months.

However, we know writers, with the exception of Trollope, are not producing three novels a year. (Trollope managed about one thousand words an hour and wrote for two and a half hours; for another half an hour, he revised his previous day’s work.) One would very much like to emulate Trollope, but one has to be realistic.

Writing one thousand words in an hour, in the early stages of a book, is not difficult. Words gush forth. Something goes wrong though. Our 1,000 words a day are not fit for consumption and it is overhauling them that takes time. The revision process is a very strange one for me: to be sure I am not methodical enough. I often believe I am working on the pen-ultimate draft but that is mere fancy, it is the pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-ultimate draft.

When we start to revise, some problems glare out at us. We fix them and think, “Next time final draft”. Having fixed the glaring problems, we begin to see the less glaring problems: they then glare out at us. We fix them. And perhaps a draft or two later, we realise that some of our earlier work (already fixed) drops below the standard of our later revisions. That now must be fixed. Do not think I am aiming high. I do not spent days searching for the right word or manipulating syntax, I operate on a lower level than that, and I am merely trying to create something that is identifiable as a novel.

On the other hand, I am not without ambitions. I feel my “novel” is in want of some very good descriptions, moving scenes and insightful commentaries about the human race but I flounder. It is all that I can do to get my story straight or straighter. I must lower my sights and aim for a novel that makes sense, at least, to me.

What analogy is fitting for writing a novel? Barbara Pym likened it to making a sauce that you add things to and then reduce and perhaps continue this process. That is quite a good one. One is always adding and taking away and even taking away what one has recently added.

You could liken the writing of a novel to a drawing. Let us say we have almost drawn a pig but the pig does not look right. We change the pig’s face, and a dog’s face begins to emerge. For quite some time, the pig drawing and the dog drawing remain conflated. (Our book has become neither one thing nor the other: in other words got worse.) We sometimes forget to remove parts of the pig and the emergent dog looks a little peculiar. Finally the dog resembles a dog. On the whole the dog seems to be a better dog than the pig was pig. Not a wonderful image, we must confess, but at least it is a dog and not a pig-dog. We would very much like a better drawing of a dog. It is in want of improvement, but we fear that the dog may start to become an elephant. The dog will do. Let’s leave it like that. It will do!

The “it will do” standard does not impress others as very high but when you have worked and worked with your little book which takes so long to assume a recognisable shape, you can hardly be accused of being slipshod. We cannot spend the rest of our lives improving our novel. The “it will do” standard is not a low one, it often feels impossibly high and something we think we might never be able to say of our novel.

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