Monday, 31 December 2012

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

2012 is fading away, and 2013 approaches... Has it been a good year?

Yes, personally I'd say so. At work things continued to go well, and this year I got to make a lot of documentaries and feature programmes, which are always fun as they allow me to write narration scripts, and to employ some of the same creative and editing skills you use in writing, to piece the programmes together from their disparate elements. Making a documentary is much easier and more enjoyable than writing a novel, though!

I made a lot of these programmes, but my favourite would have to be Radio in a Roundabout Way, because it was mine through and through - from conception, to recording the interviews, writing and editing it, and I even put my voice on it as narrator too. Plus it got me a lot of very flattering e-mails from colleagues and strangers, and was even the subject of a professionally-published review (in The Lady magazine, of all places...).

But writing-wise...

I did write one short novel this year, but that was a purely private project as a gift for a close friend. I did a lot of work editing and refining The Wicket in the Rec, and in 2013 I will once again have a go at submitting that to agents and publishers.

It is time, though, to think seriously about the next novel or novels. So, a public declaration that...

By the 31st of December 2013 I plan to have written the first drafts of two novels. One a 'serious', contemporary fiction piece called Another Life, probably about sixty to seventy thousand words long. The other a science-fiction action/adventure story called Time Engine, probably about eighty to a hundred thousand words.

That's the challenge I'm setting myself for 2013 - two first drafts.

So we'll see how that goes. Happy New Year, everyone. Take care of yourselves, and look after your ambitions.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

My Novels: Forget Me Not

Forget Me Not

Word count:

February to July 2006

Here’s what I wrote in submission letters to agents and publishers at the time...

Forget Me Not takes place in a world a little way removed from our own but still very recognisably originating in modern Britain as we know it. It tells the story of a regime where the ruling classes have decided that those who do the dull, ordinary, menial tasks of the world would be far better off and happier with life if they were not bothered with such soul-destroying handicaps as love, ambition, hopes and dreams. To this end they have conditioned the majority of the populace to forget all the personal details of their lives – they wake up each morning with their memories wiped clean, a blank slate with only the basic knowledge needed to perform their allocated jobs being maintained. Then, one day, a young woman who is a part of this class – labelled ‘the Saved’, as the ruling elite believes they have been salvaged from a life of depressed drudgery – begins to remember the details of her life from day to day, and the novel follows her story from her first remembrance to her tragic conclusion.

It was a day just like any other day.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the plain grey ceiling. Instinctively, she knew it was time to get up, but she did not want it to be. She wanted to remain where she was, warm and safe under the white bed sheets. One quick glance to her right, at the chronometer mounted next to the window, told her that this was impossible. Seven o’clock. Time to get up.

Why she had to get up at this time she did not know. She was though aware that there would be terrible, dreadful consequences if she did not. So with a last, savouring moment’s snugness and warmth under the covers, she braced herself, flung them aside and exposed her naked and trembling form to the harsh realities of the cold morning.

The cold and the dawning realisation of a day at work ahead gave her the urge to throw herself back into bed at once, but her instinct to save herself from harm was stronger, and groggily she stood. Aside from the bed, the only other furniture in the small, square room was a plain brown wardrobe. Just along from the wardrobe, in the far corner, a doorway with no door led to whatever lay beyond. She had a hazy, vague impression of what that might be, but no concrete images came to mind.

I don’t recall specifically what prompted the idea of Forget Me Not, other than the idea for the basis of the story coming randomly into my head at some point, and deciding it would be an interesting idea to pursue. I wouldn’t say I am a particular fan of dystopias as a literary genre, but being a great fan of George Orwell I was, of course, already very familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I think that not long before I wrote Forget Me Not I had read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, so that would undoubtedly have been an influence. The lead character in Forget Me Not is called April, a very definite nod to Nineteen Eighty-Four (which takes place in that month, and I had a theory at the time that the month crops up more often than others in Orwell’s work).

I actually started writing Forget Me Not before I had even finished Lone Britannia, which probably shows you how much faith I had in how that other novel was going. Throughout 2006, I was employed in a very dull job at Norfolk County Council, as an administration assistant (i.e. a paper pusher) in the adult social services department. Part of my role involved spending hours at a time working in a windowless room in the centre of the sixth floor which was, effectively, a large stationery cupboard. This dull work gave me a lot of time to think, and as I was usually on my own, I must confess that I took to writing out sections of Forget Me Not in longhand.

After I’d finished Lone Britannia in the spring, I began typing up and fleshing out Forget Me Not, and the writing continued into the summer, battling against a laptop which was on its last legs and needed to be turned over and repeatedly whacked on the bottom to get it to boot up. It also had a propensity to freeze while writing, making almost constant control-Ses between sentences an absolute necessity!

Looking back:
It’s a short novel, which almost invariably means better when it comes to my work – tighter and more focused. It has a definite beginning, middle and end, and the protagonist, April, undergoes one of the better examples of character development I’d come up with to this point. I think it’s a nice central idea, too, and in better or more experienced hands something might have resulted from it.

Once again, though – and thankfully, I think, for the final time in my novel-writing efforts to date – it suffered from my impatience with the process. I still had a naive belief that the first draft was pretty much it, and hadn’t yet learned to take notice of all the very clever and successful writers who said in interviews and articles that the rewriting and redrafting was the important part of the process. I regarded a first draft as the best I could do – foolishly, given how much you can improve a piece of writing with hard work and care.

It actually turned out to be the last novel I would write for three years. I did start some projects in 2007 and 2008, and got tens of thousands of words into a couple of them, but everything eventually ground to a halt, novel-wise. This was partly due to apathy on my part; partly due to developments in my personal life; but mainly I think because I suddenly had something very new and exciting happening in my life. In the summer of 2006 I began getting one day a week of voluntary phone-answering work at BBC Radio Norfolk. This gradually developed into regular part-time and fill-in paid work in 2007, and a full-time job there in the spring of 2008. As I climbed my way into the spectacular good luck of a job at the BBC, writing took a bit of a back seat.

It’s wrong to ever let your work get in the way of your passion, and I would always throughout this period have said that writing was the most important thing to me, if anyone had asked. But on the other hand, escaping from Norfolk County Council was pretty important, too – it was a morale-sapping place to be.

Forget Me Not was the first ever novel of mine to have had its full manuscript read by an agent, so that was progress of a sort. I’d submitted it first to Laura Morris, the agent who’d entered into correspondence with me over 1963. It took her a few months to reply, and when she did get back to me it was a personal, kind and entirely reasonable “no thank you”.

In late 2006 and early 2007 I sent it to another 38 agents and publishers – as with 1963, I actually kept a spreadsheet tracking them all! One of these was the agency Gillon Aitken Associates Ltd. A lady called Billie Hope wrote me an e-mail that contained one of the most exciting lines of prose I have ever seen – I still get a little burst of adrenaline now looking back at it:

“I read with interest your letter of introduction dated the 5th of January and would very much like to see the manuscript of ‘Forget Me Not’.”

She didn’t even ask for sample chapters – the whole manuscript, straight away! I duly sent it off and of course the result was a rejection, but she was good enough to exchange a few e-mails with me telling me what she thought was wrong with it, and why she didn’t want to take it any further. One of the major flaws was the simple fact that it was so much like a first draft – still so full of clumsy writing and typographical errors, etc. She advised me in future to take more time over the re-drafting, although it would take another novel and another lady to drum that message more forcefully into my head.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Folk tales, fairy stories and nursery rhymes are perhaps the most powerful narratives that we have, because they have been subjected to the strongest and most stringent editorial processes possible. Over hundreds, in some cases perhaps thousands, of years, they have been polished clean and smooth in the telling and the retelling, as one generation hands them on to the next.

All the rough edges are gone, only plots and characters that are the most engaging and affecting remain. The collective popular consciousness is a fine judge of when a story works and when it does not, which is why the narratives formed in this way have stood the test of time, and why these tales first heard in childhood are often the ones that stay strongest in the memory.

It takes a special talent, then – perhaps a unique one – to consciously and single-handedly create a story so organic, so natural and so powerful that it feels like a folk tale.

And yet, A Christmas Carol did indeed spring from the mind of Charles Dickens. He was influenced of course by the world and the society around him, of attitudes and realities of the early Victorian age; and he had, after a fashion, piloted the story before, in the The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. No piece of writing is created entirely in isolation, but when Dickens sat down in the autumn of 1843 and formed the plot to convey his message, he hit upon something so utterly perfect in every way that he initiated one of the few folk tales – the only one, perhaps? – with a very definite date of publication and a single author. Characters who are familiar touchstones in popular culture to this day, and will remain so for generations to come – Scrooge, the three spirits, even Tiny Tim; he came up with them all.

Like all folk tales, A Christmas Carol is a story that is told and re-told again and again, its form and format changing for the age, but Dickens’s central narrative always remaining at its heart. There is not a year that goes by without some new adaptation or pastiche appearing either in the cinemas, on the television, on the radio or online. The Hallmark Channel in the United States alone seems to manage to turn out a new version each year, usually an overly-saccharine modern-day adaptation, featuring the Scrooge character as a heartless female celebrity or executive of some sort.

These adaptations vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, but whatever the heights some of them can reach, there is nothing that can match the joy and the sheer excellence of the prose in the original. If you’ve never read it, I beseech you to try it – you may have some idea of Dickens as being overly long and ‘difficult’, but A Christmas Carol remains perhaps his most readable work. You can polish it off in an afternoon, it has a lightness of touch that comes perhaps from his driving sense of purpose and message, and from not being weighed down by having to be published in serial form. A Christmas Carol, unlike his longer works, first appeared all of a piece; a perfect whole, ideal for consumption in a single sitting.

In an early entry on this blog, I played with an analogy of writers as footballers, musing that I was more of a Steve Claridge than a Maradona or a Pele. A Christmas Carol shows why Dickens was clearly Maradona, Pele, Best, Messi and anyone else you may care to mention all rolled into one. Take, just as an example, the initial description of Scrooge’s house:

“They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.”

The text is fairly littered with gems such as this, scattered so frequently through the story that each page is turned with the delight of a walk in the woods where you continually find diamonds underfoot. It actually feels a disservice to lower A Christmas Carol to the level of being a mere “text”, but there we go; I am an English Literature graduate, after all.

The very first page alone must surely be one of the greatest single pages of any piece of prose fiction in the English literary canon. In the pantheon of great opening lines, Dickens is perhaps better known for “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” but that doesn’t set up the mystery and wonder of the story anywhere near as well as the Carol’s “Marley was dead, to begin with.

The very first sentence – this chap Marley is dead, but only to begin with? How can there be any further story to come after that...?

Further down the page we have Dickens’s clarification of Marley’s status: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” In between, we’ve had Dickens’s playful musings on the nature of one of the great English similes; he compares Marley to being “as dead as a door-nail,” and then points out that:

“Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

To use another footballing analogy, Dickens is – as my colleague Rob Butler would perhaps put it – “unplayable.”

If Charles Dickens had never written another word after A Christmas Carol – or indeed, another word except for it – then such is its quality, he would still be famous. Such is the power of the book that it has even been credited with inventing, or at least helping to invent, the modern celebration of Christmas as we know it in the English-speaking world. It is a high watermark, not simply for Dickens, but for all of literature – and even the man himself was never again to match it. What perhaps makes this all the more amazing is that Dickens wrote the Carol quickly, and because he needed the money. Having said that, he clearly had some idea he was on to a good thing, as he later related how he would pace the streets of London at night, forming the storyline in his head, laughing and crying at the wonder of what he was concocting.

After the instant success of the Carol, Dickens did his best to capture the lightning in a bottle. For each of the following three Christmases, and again in 1848, he produced another Christmas book. None of them come anywhere close to the Carol, however, and even had they not been overshadowed by it, they would probably still have been pretty much forgotten among his lesser works.

The Chimes feels too much like an artist doing a cover version of his own hit record; The Cricket on the Hearth verges too far into the territory of the twee fairytale, although the construction of its title did inspire a much lesser scribbler in the titling of one of his own works many years later; The Battle of Life was poorly-regarded by even Dickens himself, although the first two or three pages are worth a look, as Dickens rather startlingly seems to invent First World War literature about 70 years early; and The Haunted Man is a stodgy and confusing read.

None of Dickens’s attempts to replicate the success of A Christmas Carol can ever cheapen the impact of the original, however. It is a story for the ages, and in these more secular times it has perhaps in some quarters become the Christmas story. After all, it is just as believable, and a much more satisfying read, than the tale to which Christians cling.

Indeed, it would not surprise me if, in the future, there are children who understand Christmas to be the season when we celebrate the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. And why not? If the genius and sentiment of A Christmas Carol isn’t worth a day of praise and commemoration, then I don’t know what is.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Wicket reviewed

"Astonishingly good," it says here.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has downloaded The Wicket in the Rec. It's so far been downloaded over eighty times, which is many more than I had expected. Who are all you people...? Do let me know!

Admittedly, I have been pushing it a bit, putting the link on several internet discussion forums where I post from time to time. One of these was the Gallifrey Base Doctor Who forum, where it was spotted by a chap called Lawrence Burton. I don't know Lawrence at all and had never had any communication with him before he downloaded Wicket to read, but he's a writer himself and has been kind enough not only to read the book, but to post a review of it on his blog. He also did the rather fetching cover mock-up at the top of this blog entry, as he always puts the covers of books he's reviewed on his blog, and of course Wicket didn't have one, so he had to make it!

I was rather taken aback by Lawrence's review, I have to say. Firstly because it's fairly staggering to have any kind of publicly-published review written about one of my novels, but secondly because it's almost embarrassing in its praise. After reading it, I couldn't help but think - "is he sure he means me...?"

I'd almost given up on Wicket, but Lawrence's comments have been enough to steel me to have another go at submitting it to agents and publishers in the New Year. Why not? If someone who doesn't know me from Adam and has absolutely no reason to give me any false praise thinks I can actually write, then perhaps it's not such a lost cause after all?

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Pie Fairy of Old Norwich Town

It must nearly be Christmas, because I've just been able to buy my copy of this year's Radio Times double issue, in the Co-op on Unthank Road. Therefore, this seems a good time to bring you a little festive oddity of a few years back. A ghost of Christmas writing past.

These days my good friend and colleague Thordis Fridriksson is one of the finest and most esteemed producer / presenters in the BBC Radio Norfolk ranks. However, back in 2008 she was still only a casual broadcast assistant at the station, keenly working her way in and making her mark. She spent a lot of the rest of her time working as a volunteer with Future Radio, Norwich's community station, and it was in this capacity that she enlisted me to pen a short children's Christmas tale for their Sunday Stories slot.

So I duly bashed out The Pie Fairy of Old Norwich Town, a rather silly little monologue for Thordis herself to perform. It remains the only thing I have ever done for a non-BBC radio station (unless you count a couple of meet-and-greets for RTE!), and I haven't dared listen back to it all the way through to remind myself quite how daft it is. Nevertheless, Thordis delivers it with gusto (as she always does with everything), and I suppose it's all good harmless fun.

Anyway, you can click below to judge for yourselves!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Wicket in the Rec - free download

Late last year, I finished the first draft of a novel called The Wicket in the Rec. Over the past twelve months I have spent a lot of time redrafting, cutting, tweaking and generally improving the manuscript, and submitting it to various publishers and agents.

Sadly, to no avail.

But I like Wicket, and I’m pleased with it – I don’t think it’s the greatest novel ever written, but neither do I think it’s entirely awful. I think it’s a decent little read, and I always want as many people to read my books as possible.

So, as nobody seems to want to buy Wicket, I thought I’d give it away. It is set at this time of year, from November through to late December, so it seemed appropriate on this first day of the festive  month to unleash it upon the world as my seasonal gift to you.

Yes, I’m giving away Wicket to download for free. All I ask is that, if you do happen to read it, you at least let me know what you thought of it. For those of you who like a bit more information about a book before you decide whether or not to read it, here’s a little blurb I wrote when trying to get some colleagues at work interested in reading it:

September 1939 – a cricket match between two Sussex villages is abruptly suspended, as German tanks roll across Poland and Britain declares war.

November 1989 – ten-year-old Nathan Wright is hit by a car as he runs from a dying man’s last confession.

Between the smoke of Bonfire Night and the lights of Christmastime, winter’s grip tightens on the Downs. The reconciliation of a family, the reunion of long-parted lovers and the saving of a village all depend on the uncovering of a secret that has stood for half a century.

So, there we go... Fancy it...?

Click here to download The Wicket in the Rec as a PDF file.

Edit, Monday 3rd December:

A couple of people who downloaded the above file reported problems with it displaying properly on their Kindles. So, with thanks to the incredibly generous (and published, damn him!) Lawrence Burton, here is another PDF copy which should be Kindle-friendly, should you wish to enjoy Wicket on your e-reader:

Click here to download the Kindle-friendly Wicket PDF.