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Writing The Modern Novel: From Scott Fitzgerald to Sally Rooney

Jul 29, 2018
 

Shame and Sacrifice.

The modern novel, when it's great, turns these sad old tricks beloved of its forbears.

When I was reading Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, I was struck by the name of the male character, the romantic hero, 'Nick Conway'.

I thought - 'Nick Carraway'?

You will know that is the name of the narrator of The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, and when I started to compare those two books, I began to think about the prose and structure of both side by side. Then I began to compare the roles of the characters in the great classic Gatsby with Conversations with Friends. In Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes the romantic hero, admires him and his beloved Daisy. In Conversations with Friends, the narrator Frances observes and admires most of all Bobbi, who has no love object. This little matter creates a bit of a dead-end in the structure of the book; it turns out on closer inspection. Bobbi is self-sufficient in a way I guess many of us would wish our...

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Writers - Read Rooney!

Jul 22, 2018
 

Sally Rooney is my writer of 2018. 'Conversations with Friends' - my book of the year.

At just halfway through the year, and with Ms Rooney just 26, you may think this is a moment of ill-considered or reckless admiration on my part. You may think I'm really stretching things to claim she is the heir apparent to Hemingway, based on one novel.

But I will make a case for that based not just on that novel but the short story 'Mr Salary' for which Rooney was Winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. I should add that with her new novel 'Normal People' being published next month, Ms Rooney is not a one-book wonder. 

Sally Rooney writes with such a painstaking candour and more as I will show below, that I am sure we have great things to come from her. 

It is the case that the 'truth' will set you free as a writer, as Hemingway himself practised sp robustly, and Sally Rooney purveys the same unadulterated...

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The Female Writer and Anger.

Jul 08, 2018

If you are a woman and you are a writer, you are not allowed to be angry.

If you feel angry about something and write with high feeling, you may be described, as a former agent once described a piece of my writing, as 'hysterical.' 

She did not mean -  'very funny'.

Hysteria: extreme fear, excitement, anger, etc. that cannot be controlled.

- an old-fashioned term for a psychological disorder characterized by conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization) or a change in self-awareness (such as a fugue state or selective amnesia).

- "characteristic of hysteria," from Latin hystericus "of the womb," from Greek hysterikos "of the womb, suffering in the womb," from hystera "womb

Hysteria was a psychological affliction presenting exclusively in women during a period of greater individual freedom and migration in the Victorian era in the United Kingdom with a developing urban industrial economy...

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Politics in the Novel.

Jul 01, 2018
 

Most 'big' books will have a theme and that's what I mean by politics.

This is not to say that theme belongs to a party-driven agenda - a book should not be in my opinion a vehicle for an organized group. Party = partie, in French, parted or departed, divided, to one side. Taking a position which is aligned to any established group degrades the author and the reader. (I hate to see authors' politics trumpeted on social media, it puts me off reading their books. No one wants their nose pushed into the swill of the trough.) Readers are intelligent people who form their own opinions and many will have experiences and opinions quite different to yours and if you only wish to speak to those who agree with you, then you should stick to social media and keep hitting the unfriend button.

'Big' books fast-forward our collective thinking, usually by crushing or condemning a commonly accepted truth or way of life. They trample on convenient, fast-food commonplace ideas. 

...

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Defying Gender as a Writer.

Jun 17, 2018
 

 Women, Men & Other Clichés

 'I think being a woman is like being Irish... Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the time.' Iris Murdoch.

The Man Booker 2007 winner, Anne Enright has spoken out on how books by women are rarely reviewed by men, while books by men are appraised by critics of both genders. The implication is that literary editors believe books by male writers express universal concerns while those by women are regarded as much narrower in scope, lacking the subtlety needed to engage the mind of the cerebral male. Anne Enright has also observed that The International Dublin Literary Award (formerly known as the Impac), the richest on the literary landscape with a purse of €100,000, has been won by a man each year for the last 16 years.

New York Times Bestseller List  - Gender Representation Over Time:

In the 1990s, women finally made steady gains on the list over ten years. 2001 saw the...

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What's Your Genre?

Jun 10, 2018
 

Sometime back in the 2000's 'literary' became a dirty word.

My first book was published in 2004. My work was hailed as 'the opposite of chick lit' but that was a double-edged sword ... 

I didn't see myself as conforming to any genre. I had never considered genre at all. My first novel was a dark comedy, written in quite a light-hearted tone of voice entirely and purposely unsuited to the subject matter of a man trying to die with dignity. My second was, if you like, 'historical fiction', set in Belfast during The Troubles of 1979-1981. The third was another black comedy, concerning a hapless Englishman 'living the good life', a pharmaceuticals salesman selling anti-depressants to the African continent and enjoying sex with strangers. The fourth was a quainter comedy, an old man determined to claw his way back into the bosom of the family who do not want him.

Stop.

It's 2010. I'd produced four novels, one every one and a half years. 

I went to see my agent. 'How...

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The Importance of Tone of Voice in Writing Fiction.

Jun 03, 2018
 

 At more than halfway through writing this novel, I pulled into the writer's layby to check tone of voice as I was worried that in the darker parts I'd let the humourous voice slip. (As you all know, there comes a gloomy writing day usually followed by a brighter one.)

I took a reading break to spoon feed myself some literary Haagen-Dazs courtesy of 'A Man Called Ove'. The irascible but loveable contrary main character offers a comic touch that's as pleasing as raspberry ripple.

I went back and checked my work through. I went back to the first chapter. By coarsening the main character, being certain about her flaw, I was able to maintain the tone of voice better throughout, so I needed to tweak the beginning to make it more 'declaratory'.

So tone of voice and character go hand in hand. This guy/girl's bad, but it's ok, you and me can see it.

Getting tone of voice right and keeping it as the North star throughout your writing, occasionally stopping when the night is...

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Long live, Everyman.

May 27, 2018
 

Never mediocre.

Humbling, yet humble. A combination that made Philip Roth great.

His books were like knives we couldn’t put down despite them cutting our hands.

This is an article I wrote for The Independent in 2008 when asked to choose my book of a lifetime, which was 'Everyman' by Mr Roth.

Philip Roth retired from writing in 2012, appending a Post-It note to his computer which read simply 'The struggle with writing is done.'

Philip Roth has left us, but he has left us with an inspiring body of work and the humble reminder that every novel is new. Every time you write it, you learn how to write all lover again. 

'You begin every book as an amateur. ... Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself to you. ... Each and every sentence is a revelation.' (Philip Roth 2006).

Encouragement for writers in the middle of a book.

I am now some 34,000 words into the writing of my fable which I think will conclude at about...

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Francois Mauriac.

May 20, 2018
 

There is one reason I write.

There is a reason I write and will always write until they take the pencil away from me. The mystery.

The mystery of what’s going to happen on the page.

The mystery of what’s happening off the page.

Things occur to you differently. You see like a child, you're suddenly shocked at things you didn't see a certain way before and you're seeing them differently because of your emotional attachment to the theme of your book which was not the one you chose. You had an idea and a theme and you began to write, but then something mysterious happened. A wolf whistle in the dark. You were called away from your plodder's work to see behind a wall. You went. That's the main thing, you went.

I never expected the book I am writing to take the turn it has taken. I am now at 25,000 words and have had to regroup and revise the first part to take the beautiful blow of a change of theme and reassess where I've been and where I'm going with the...

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Find the Lie, Nail the Story.

May 13, 2018
 

'Why haven't you done anything with the book you wrote last year?' My son asked me.

'Because it's not important. I needed to write it but the world doesn't need it.'

'I would read it.'

'You can't because it's not published. I'm not publishing it.'

This is the nub of the matter for a writer; importance.  I know it's hard to confess it. But it's true.

It's only a sense of its 'importance' that will drive you all the way to the end to publishing that book. 

I have wrestled with myself to pinpoint the importance of the book I am writing. At first I began wanting it to be adorable, then I knew it had to also be important but I was only half sure why. After all, why should my time on this earth, my experience, my opinions lead me to any discoveries or convictions or ideas of any importance to others?

I had a premise and a plan for the book, and was armed with materials and ideas thanks to the studies of the Classic course which would stand a chance of the work being...

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The Novelry.