Blog Archives

The Daily Writes: Day 1

MY DAILY DIARY, WRITING A NOVEL FROM DAY ONE

Image

My third novel, as yet untitled, will be published next Spring (2015), and this is the first entry of a daily diary throughout the writing of the first draft. With it, I hope to externalise the process a little, sharing the writing of a book. Before I wrote my first novel (written long ago, and long before I wrote a book that was published), I was always looking for writers to tell me how it’s done, to help me. The whole process seemed shrouded in mystery.

What I’ve learned is that there is a mystery involved, some magic that’s inexplicable, when a character says or does something that seems to have come from them, and not from you, or a piece of the jigsaw just lands in your lap, and it’s exactly right. There’s also a magic to the final thing, this whole world you have created that seems absolutely real, even though you know it came from your mind. A finished book is a mysterious object.

But there is also hard graft – structuring, developing characterisation, plotting and pacing, that all need to be worked out, in not such a magical, mysterious way.

 

THREE ACTS

For my last books, which had multiple narratives, I drew up plans before I started writing. These plans were based on the three-act structure of most screenplays, and indeed, most books:

 

Act 1. The Beginning – in which we meet our hero, learn to sympathise with him as he tries to get something he wants, before coming to the conclusion that he desparately wants something else entirely.

Act 2. The Middle – In which our hero pursues the thing he desparately wants against mounting odds and ultimately achieves it, before everything goes pear-shaped again.

Act 3: The End – In which our hero overcomes the pear-shaped situation to get what he wants and learn something about himself in the process.

 

This is a very simplified version of the three-act structure, but basically that’s what it’s all about. This structure worked for me so well that when my editor read the third draft of my first book, she told me she’d never seen a first novel so perfectly plotted. She just had a major problem with my characterisation, which suffered while I was trying to get the structure right.

It was a good learning experience, re-writing with only character development on my mind, and it served me well for my second novel, the writing of which concentrated just as much on character as it did on the plot I’d worked out for it.

 

CAUTION TO THE WIND

For this book I’m coming at it in a very different way. I have a basic plot (I know the beginning, end of the first act – when everything goes pear-shaped – and I have some inkling of the ending), but I am setting out without a plan. I’ve spent some time developing three of the main characters (the fourth, a child, isn’t as developed at this time), but I don’t really know what’s going to happen to them for the majority of the book.

I’m going to try to feel my way forward with the writing, to see what happens. This is both frightening and liberating. It’s hard not to have my map, because when I had it, I knew exactly what I was going to write each day. But at the same time, I’m letting my characters come to life, letting them determine the action, which is exciting. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to mapping solutions.

Today, as my book was beginning its birth, the little boy at the heart of it was born. His name is Elijah and he has two gay dads, and surrogate mother. I learned that he has a loud, throaty cry, and that he will grow into a very loud boy. I learned other things about my main character’s insecurity.

Tomorrow I will read what I wrote today, revise quickly and then move forward. This is a piece of advice I took from another writer. Don’t revise too much, always move forward. When you have a first draft, you have something to hone. Concentrate on getting that first draft done, day by day.

 

A without the BBA: Reading between the lines of Agnetha Fältsgok’s BBC Interview

Image

In the 31 years since ABBA split up, Agnetha Fältsgok has avoided or made light of questions about her time with the world’s second bestselling band of all time. But last week, during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Frontline, she opened up at last about the highs and lows of the superstardom she eventually shunned. Or so it seemed.

 

 She talked about breaking up with Björn, about how difficult it was for her to be on the road, about the experience of singing The Winner Takes It All – the song her ex-husband wrote about their divorce. But at the same time, she said nothing new at all.

 

These are well-known, rehearsed facts about Agnetha and ABBA. Although it seemed as if she was baring all, she wasn’t telling us anything new at all. But then John Wilson tried to get beneath the surface story. He asked her if she’d be going back to Stockholm for the opening of ABBA: The Museum on May 7, to which she replied:

 

 “I’ll still be here in London, I’m afraid.”

 

Wilson sounded shocked that she wouldn’t be going and then asked: “Would you like to sing in public together again, the four of you?”

Image

 

Agnetha gave a soft laugh and then said: “I think we would like it, but I don’t think that we’re going to do it because we have our separate lives now, we are much older, and I can’t see a reason why we should do it, really.”

 

Wilson wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You must wonder what it would be like of the four of you got together in a room, and just to hear what happens in the air when the four of you sing,” he said. ‘You don’t think that will ever happen again, even in private?”

 

“No,’ said Agnetha. “I don’t think so.”

 

 ABBA do reunite in my novel, Knowing Me Knowing You. It’s a dream that may never come true, but at least with fiction we can try to write between the lines. Between the lines of Agnetha’s interview there was a very different story going on.

 

It’s hard to match up what she said earlier:  “I think we would like it”, with her flat, firm refusal to even broach imagining singing in a room privately with Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, which leads me to think that her excuses for not getting back together – separate lives, too old, no good reason – are yet more surface statements, and Agnetha isn’t letting anyone in at all.

Image

 

Her new album is simply titled ‘A’, a direct reference to her initial being used as part of ABBA. She’s taken it back, and it’s as if she’s saying that although ABBA still retain their epic popularity, her initial will never be linked up to B, B and A again in real time.

 

 There’s a mystery at the heart of this that may never be made public, but you can’t help but wonder if Agnetha’s lack of enthusiasm isn’t somehow linked to the other A in ABBA. 

 

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World: A Review

 

Image

At the beginning of Janet E. Cameron’s book, Cinnamon Toast and The End of the World, Stephen Shulevitz’s world as he knows it comes to an end. He’s reached the sudden realisation that he’s in love with his best buddy, Mark, and that he desperately wants to kiss him.

This is a ‘coming out’ novel. You know from the opening scene that Stephen will have to overcome a series of emotional obstacles before eventually coming to terms with his sexuality; that towards the end he’s going to tell Mark that he fancies him, for better or worse; and that there’s going to be some deep issues with Stephen’s parents that he’s going to have to sort out along the way. There’ll probably be a story arc featuring Stephen’s close female friend too. As with any romance novel, where the two paramours are introduced in the opening chapter and you know that on the very last page they will get together, the table is set for a three-course meal you’ve consumed several versions of before.

The desire to keep reading a novel in such a well-trodden genre is founded in questions about how the journey will unfold, and the mark of success is whether it keeps the reader questioning.

Luckily Cameron knows how to keep the questions popping up. She’s a talented writer, and the journey she takes us on is always pleasurable, sometimes moving, and has a lyrical literary style that separates it from the masses of ‘coming out’ fiction that litter the queer cannon. It also dares, at times, to jumble up the equation and come up with different answers, as in a later reunion scene between Stephen and his absent, drop-out Dad, Stanley, in which a lesser novelist would have given her readers warm, fuzzy emotional resolution.

Before any conclusion is reached, Stanley says: “I think this conversation has run its course.” Stephen, instead of getting his father to say he loves him, is left in confusion, and Cameron resists any urge to move Stanley centre stage again for the tying up of loose ends.

The tale is set in 1987, mostly in the small Canadian town of Riverside, where boredom rather than outright prejudice drives the violent motivations of its teenage population. Cameron clearly loves the eighties. The book is filled with playful cultural references to the era. When Stephen contemplates suicide, he does so through the filter of watching an umpteenth Friday The 13th sequel. At the inevitably excruciating prom, he dances with rebellious abandonment to Aha’s The Sun Always Shines on TV.

He may be surrounded by stalwarts of the genre – the best girlfriend (Lana) who secretly fancies him, the ambivalent but unavailable love interest, the school bullies – but its in her depiction of supporting characters, like Lana’s immigrant father, Mr. Kovalenko (“a look on his face like he’d been chewing old sardines”), and Stephen’s fleeting, sexually gluttonous girlfriend, Tina Thompson, with her “muscular tongue”, that Cameron really lights up. Stephen himself is a sharply drawn protagonist, his teenage view of the world suitably cynical, but underlined with almost poetic, acute observation.

Towards the end the inevitable happens, and as Stephen’s orientation becomes known to his peers, he becomes more and more vulnerable. Cameron isn’t afraid to shift the lighthearted tone of the first half of the novel into much darker territory, and during the penultimate, chaotic scene between Stephen and Mark, you begin to think this might not turn out the way all ‘coming out’ novels turn out, after all.

You’ll have to read the book to find out if it does, but in the meantime I’m taking bets that Cameron’s second novel will leave the ‘coming out’ genre behind. She’s simply a writer, a good one, who likes to tell a cracking story. That this story is about a gay boy finding himself is incidental.

Can Men Write Chick Lit?

There’s a bit of difficulty in figuring out what genre to market my novels in, given that I’m a man writing books with principally female leads and a romantic underpinning. But the books are also told from the male character’s point of view, have multiple narrative strands, and so far they also have strong storylines that address LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues.

A brief from my editor to the cover designer for my next book, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ says: “Genre: Hard to categorise strictly. In the main, contemporary women’s fiction (as the title suggests) but there are strong male characters, always a gay character, so it nods to crossover too.”

Chick Lit? Contemporary Women’s Fiction? Although I have no issues with either category, and greatly admire writers like Marion Keyes, Sheila O’Flanagan, Roisín Meaney, and Sophie Kinsella, I don’t see myself as a Chick Lit writer. I also believe that Chick Lit is a reductive term. There is a snobbery around it that dismisses ‘Chick Lit’ writers, and it puts certain readers off.

So, I’ve decided that I am not a Chick Lit writer. Nor am I a writer of Contemporary Women’s Fiction. I am a writer of Literary Rom Coms.

More than one interviewer during the publicity round for my last novel The Forced Redundancy Film Club, suggested that it would make a great movie. To my mind that’s not only because the book features lots of beloved classic movies, but also because I have a great love for rom com movies, particularly those written by Richard Curtis, who uses multiple narrative in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and to a lesser extent in one of my favourite rom coms of all time, Notting Hill.

Image

The inspiration for the romance in The Forded Redundancy Film Club is my favourite rom com of all time, When Harry Met Sally (which features as one of the movies in the book too).  When writing the book I structured it like a screenplay, I used short scenes throughout the novel that had the function of moving the story along. The book also has an underlying soundtrack, with mentions of certain songs in almost every chapter to underpin the atmosphere.

Image

At the end my two main characters share this moment of dialogue:

“Do you know what I’d like to do?” said Katherine.

“Walk off into the sunset?” asked Martin.

A little bubble of joy exploded in Katherine’s belly. “Maybe later,” she said. “But right now I’d like to dance.”

So, can men write Chick Lit? They certainly can write rom coms, as the Richard Curtis films prove. So, yes, of course we can. But just don’t call it Chick Lit!

The “walk off into the sunset” line is a deliberate cinematic reference. At the end of every rom com, our heroes walk off into the sunset. We know at the beginning of the film that this will happen, but the joy of a good rom com is seeing how they get there, despite their differences.