A Pilgrim's Progress and other novel adventures

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A little bird told me...

...about Donna Tartt's new novel 'The Goldfinch'.  The beginning describes a terrorist bomb explosion in a New York art gallery.   It feels so real, and is so relentless that it literally made my ears ring.  The writing is superb.

Tartt's prose reminds me a bit of Hilary Mantel's.  But where Mantel's writing is like a piece of antique treen, mellow and polished smooth by experience - Tartt's has protuberances - phrases and passages of such beauty and clarity that make me weak-kneed with jealousy. 

If you enjoy virtuoso literary fiction, I heartily recommend The Goldfinch.

Photo courtesy of my 'little bird', book doctor and writing guru Andrew Wille.
You can find him at  www.wille.org.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The triumph of hope

I take the dog for a walk every morning along the river.  The path is made of grit and gravel, and yet I always see a dozen snails bang in the middle of it, trying to get from one side to the other.  It must be agony on their tender little bellies.  So why, I wonder, do they do it?  Do they just set off in a straight line, and stick to it, come what may?  At what point does tenacity cease to be a personal asset and become a liability?  At what point does it become stupidity?

Or is it really about hope?

Do the snails simply hope that there is something better on the other side of the path, and keep going, buoyed up on a slime of optimism?  I can tell, of course, from my lofty point of view, that the vegetation on the left hand side of the path is no more likely to satisfy snail-y appetites than the vegetation on the right.  Does that necessarily invalidate the snail's quest? Who can say?

I guess it depends on your point of view. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Rewriting wrongs #2

Anything happened in the last few weeks?  Heatwave?  What heatwave?

Have just emerged blinking and bloody from my rewrite of The Alchemist's Heir, that was more gruelling than I ever believed possible. I suspect it's now in worse nick than it was when I started.  What I'd really like to do is put it out of my misery by burning it ceremonially on a bonfire, but I suppose I should put it away for a while and return with fresh eyes and a slightly less hysterical gameplan.

In other news I've just got a contract through for my first-ever paid screenwriting gig, working on a bio-pic for Equation Pictures. They're a newish company, headed up by Diarmuid McKeown, associate producer on some of Danny Boyle's films, including Trance and 127 Hours.

Spookily, Diarmuid started out as assistant to Neil Jordan (see my last post).  I LOVE synchronicity, don't you?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Fact or fiction? Who cares?

Yay!  The Borgias are back!

Monday evenings have perked up no end, now that Cesare, Lucretia et al are back on Sky Atlantic.  I love it.  I love its energy.  I love the acting (Jeremy Irons seems to have no vanity at all.)  And I love the way Neil Jordan and his writers don't let facts get in the way of a good story (there's no historical evidence that the Borgias resorted to poisoning, murder and extortion to support the Papacy - or of incest either, for that matter.  But who would want to see that on tv?)

'The Alchemist's Heir' is set in Florence some 40 years after the Borgias had Rome by the throat.   There are similarities.  One of my main characters is a ruthless Cardinal who uses his daughter - and everyone else - for his own nefarious ends.  And, of course, there are poisonings, stabbings and seductions galore.  It is Renaissance Italy, after all.

Telling any kind of historical tale inevitably raises the spectre of research.  How much do I need to do to bring it alive?  How much should I actually show in the writing?  I'm having to feel my way by trial and error. 

The novel features some real historical characters - Benevenuto Cellini, Cosimo di Medici and Michelangelo - so I can't ride completely roughshod over the known facts.  And of course I've discovered lots of delicious little bits and pieces that I'd love to shoehorn in there  (Renaissance ladies, for example, used to bleach their hair with nuns' urine.  True.  Ok... maybe not true, but it should be.)

There have been times when the whole story has got horribly bogged down by fact.  The only solution was to sluice it out, see what was left sticking to the walls, and hope that was going to be enough to give the novel the right flavour (er... scent?)

So... I'll continue to tread that line between fact and fiction, taking lessons from Jordan the Maestro on a Monday night.  

Bring it on, you bloody Borgias!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Rewriting wrongs

Now that Monday's euphoria (and champagne headache) has worn off, reality is setting in about the work that needs to be done to 'The Alchemist's Heir' to get it publisher-fit.

It reminds me of an old (and possibly apocryphal) Ad Agency conversation...

Account Exec (to Creatives) - 'The client LOVED the concept using Max Wall and the parrot. He'd like us to look at it again - without using either Max Wall or the parrot.'

It wasn't quite that bad, but... it's fair to say that it won't be a 'clap a sticking plaster on it and hope for the best' type rewrite, but a 'let's get bloody up to the elbows and hope the patient doesn't die on the table' one.

Bring it on. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A decent proposal

The very nice man at A.M.Heath did indeed pop the question.
To which I answered 'I do' (natch!)

Cheers, Charlie! 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Meet my trainer

I'm violently allergic to Lycra. And to sweating in public.  If it wasn't for this little lady my backside would be the size of a 4-berth caravan.  Thanks to Bonnie, it's only the size of a 3-berth one.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

First date. First base?

"OMG!  He asked me out!  I don't believe it.  
And I was, like, sooooooo shocked I just stood there.... 
with my mouth hangin' open, like a balmpot."

I must have done something right with 'The Alchemist's Heir', because I've just had THE PHONE CALL.  An agent wants to meet me, to talk about the book.  We've set a date.

I feel like a teenager again.  Will he like me?  Will I like him?  What if we don't have anything in common?  What if he wants to take liberties with my plotting?  I suppose I might let him.  But what if he wants to touch my prose?  Is he just toying with my affections, or could he be THE ONE?

I'm probably over-thinking it. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013


Was 'The Alchemist's Heir' ready for its close-up?  God, I hope so.

After several serious rewrites (including chucking out 30,000 words to write a different ending) I'd reached the point where I was fiddling with sentence structure for the sake of it, and obsessing about the teeny-tiny stuff.  I could have put it in a drawer for a month or two, and come back to it with a fresh eye for (yet another) go-through. 

But I decided instead to put a toe in the water and send it out to a couple of carefully selected agents. 

To be honest I've been writing this novel for so long (about five years, off and on) I thought I'd explode if I didn't get it off my desk, if only for a month or two.

So, into Agent-land it went.. I think we're ready for our close-up, Mr de Mille.

(Is it just me, or is Gloria Swanson actually pretty hot in Sunset Boulevard?  She's supposed to be a crumbling, delusional movie star, but from where I'm standing, she looks in damn fine nick.  I suspect the key to the mystery lies in the phrase  'from where I'm standing'.)

'Words, words, more words..."


Saturday, 1 June 2013

Hard truths and humiliation

It's back to the drawing board for Harry Pilgrim.  Well... not the drawing board exactly, but somewhere not too far from it.   Thanks to some fair but pretty far-ranging editorial comments from a man who knows what he's talking about, the flaws in the novel are now waggling their fingers and blowing raspberries at me. 

And throwing custard pies. 

Lack of focus is the main problem.  I have two many point-of-view characters and too many subplots pulling in different directions.  If I can't re-align them so they're pointing the same way, I'll have to strip them out all together, to keep the focus on Harry Pilgrim.  Which effectively means chucking away two thirds of the novel. 

Heigh ho.  No-one said it was going to be easy...

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Give 'em the treatment

I've spent the last couple of days writing a movie treatment. I've never actually written one before, and let's just say it's been something of an experience.

I'd pitched a story online to an anonymous production company in LA. I know, I know... it sounds well dodgy... but if no-one knows you in Hollywood they like to keep you at arm's length, in case you infect them with your unreasonable expectations.  Probably just as well I didn't know who it was at the time, or I might have poo-ed my pants a little.

Any way... they 'loved' it.  Is the script still available? Can we see the treatment?  Erm... yes.  (The script is SO available it exists no-where but in my head).  And of course you can have the treatment.  Cue two days of no sleep , and a crash-course in writing movie treatments.  Actually, I think it's probably a bit easier to write a treatment if you haven't already written the script.  Trying to condense six months and 110 pages of blood/sweat/brain-ache  into 8-10 pages of plain prose would like trying to squash a baby into a thimble (ok... unpleasant... sorry)
Somehow you have to communicate all the main plot twists, character arcs, theme, setting, AND sprinkle it with enough fairy-dust to make someone want to make the damn thing.

I have no idea if I managed it.  But... it's gone anyway.  The chances are I'll never hear from those charming people again - even if they think it SUCKS they won't say so.  Far too polite.

So... what now?

I'm still stumbling around, slightly dishevelled and wild-eyed from too much caffeine/excitement/delusion.  Of course, I'm trying not to imagine myself on the red carpet... (I'd like to thank my granny, my dog... Vivienne Westwood for this lovely frock) but, after all, I'm only human.  I should probably go and lie down in a darkened room for a while.

On the other hand... perhaps I should start writing the damn screenplay.  Just in case. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013


The skies above Haddington were filled with starlings first thing this morning.  It's that time of year.  Apparently Swindon is having a bugger of a time with them at the moment, all ignoring their one-way systems and befouling their multitude of roundabouts (an obsfucation of roundabouts?)  

Collective nouns are great: a paddle of ducks, a business of ferrets, and - my personal favourite - an implausibility of gnus.

Gnus are strange - ungainly and badly put together, as if someone gave up on the job half way through, or cobbled them together from the odd bits of horn, leg and dewlap left over from the other antelopes.  They are highly improbable, even in the singular.  But in the plural...? I don't think I'd like to get tangled up in an implausibility on the Serengeti... or Swindon, for that matter. 

Monday, 25 March 2013

Blue sky thinking

My sister and I used to spend a lot of time with my Auntie Nellie in the school holidays.  Which was brilliant, because she always had something exciting planned - a bus trip, a visit to the fair, or to the races.  But the North East weather often threw a spanner in the works.  It rarely looked promising at seven in the morning.  We would hop about on the back step, trying to work out whether the weather was going to spoil our fun.  Auntie Nellie would always call out, around her first fag of the day, 'Is there enough blue to make a waistcoat?'  We would dutifully inspect the sky.  If we thought there was enough blue showing through the clouds to cover our skinny torsos, Nellie would take a leap of faith, and take us out anyway.  Nine times out of ten it worked out fine.

Which is a bit like writing a novel, really.  Having just finished 'An Act of Kindness'* I've been hopping about on my metaphorical back step, wondering whether to start the next one.  I have a working title - 'A Beast of the Field' - I know who Pilgrim's main adversary is going to be, where and why the first murder is committed.  I know what the main sub-plot is, and how it will tie into the main plot.  But do I know enough to make a start?

I'm not the kind of writer who has to have everything planned meticulously in advance - every twist and turn, every cough and fart.  I'd bore myself witless before I got quarter of the way through. But I still need to know enough to take that leap of faith and start writing.

Do I have enough to make a waistcoat?

I'm not sure yet.  My torso is - sadly - quite a bit bigger than it used to be.  Perhaps I need to keep looking at the sky for a little while longer?

* ok, not finished exactly. There's still a lot to do, but I have to admit to myself that I've got as far as I can without editorial help. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Going underground

Endings matter.  Any agent, publisher or two-bit writing guru will tell you so.  Even my 10 year old son is critical of a sloppy denouement  ('Quantum of Solace was ok, Mum, but the ending was rubbish. I'm not bothered about seeing the next one.')

Fans of crime fiction are particularly picky when it comes to conclusions.  We want the hero to get up close and personal with the bad guy at the end.  With real jeopardy.... and knuckledusters, if possible.  So when it came to writing the penultimate scene of 'An Act of Kindness' I knew I had a fierce tradition to uphold.  I'd planned roughly WHAT was going to happen when my Victorian Detective Harry Pilgrim confronted the Hackney Cab Killer, but not WHERE.

Tower Bridge? Sadly, it was still to be built in 1850, and besides, Robert Downey Jnr has already been been there, done that, got the t-shirt (top hat?) Big Ben? Nope.  Big Ben was nothing more than a horological gleam in architect Charles Barry's eye in 1850.  Then it struck me that I was looking in the wrong place.  Rather than look up for inspiration, perhaps I should be looking down...

Although London's Victorian sewers as we know and love them weren't constructed until after the 'Great Stink' of 1858, several of the old city rivers had been built over on an ad hoc basis before then.  The Fleet seemed particularly promising.  A large stretch of it - from Holborn to the Thames - had been enclosed to build the Farringdon market.  At first the tunnel was used for transporting goods to and from the market, but it quickly became too clogged up and unpleasant for use as anything other than a sewer.


'Last year,' said Fields, gazing up at the map, 'there were thirty-two murders in the Metropolitan area.  Thirty two murders, eighty four assaults, sixty house breakings, nine suicides and twenty eight rapes.'   He swung round to face Pilgrim.  'It's an unending tide of shit, Harry.  And we're the only things stopping it from swamping this sorry cesspit of a city.'

So... the Fleet Ditch it would be.  The next problem was how to write the scene convincingly.  I wanted readers to feel as if they were actually in the tunnel with Pilgrim.  How could I do that if I hadn't been there myself?

I dusted off my Dad's fishing waders, and rummaged in my son's swimming bag for a nose-clip.  And then it occurred to me that a council that doesn't look kindly on tourists cooling their feet in the Trafalgar fountain is unlikely to be happy with a faeces-smeared writer popping in and out of the sewers like a Jack in the Box.  It was going to be more difficult than I thought. 

And then I remembered that I wasn't actually living in 1850. Yay for the Internet!

I Googled The Fleet, and discovered urban guerilla explorer Steve Duncan.  Not only (like Mr Downey) has he been there and got the t-shirt, but he's written about it vividly AND taken photographs.  I was able to write the denouement of 'An Act of Kindess' with authority, without getting my hands - or any other part of my anatomy - dirty. 

So I'm happy to report, this tale has a satisfying, yet sweet-smelling ending of its own.

Follow the link if you fancy taking a trip down the fleet in the company of Steve Duncan


Whistle and I'll come to you...

I've discovered that the police in London used whistles from around the 1820s. Originally they weren’t issued to every officer but were kept for special operations and situations. They only began to equip all officers in the 1860’s.