Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Full English - Ready To Eat!




Thanks to my dear friend Mike Wade for the Art



Finally, I’m pleased to offer up the first chapter of The Full English, that long awaited novel I’ve been teasing you with all summer.

As many of you know, I’ve had a right old time of it this year and trying to get Ben Webster on the page has been both my constant toil and my saving grace. There have been many times when I should have been doing my accounts or changing estate agents or washing up when I chose to go on Ben’s journey instead of my own. He’s kept me sane and, in return, I’ve done unspeakable things to him. What can I say? A protagonist’s lot is not a happy one, happy one. And I have so little power to express my vast repository of angst. In any case, all the other jobs got done before my predicament came to the attention of either a tax inspector or a plague of rats. It proves that the world will stop for a good story.

That you are getting this first chapter is in no small part due to the kindness and expertise of a very special person. I hope she won’t mind my revealing that she is none other than Reading the Signs. Signs has scrutinised draft after draft of these first ten pages as well as later sections and offered me the most insightful help and advice I’ve ever had from anyone. Signs, words will never be enough. Thank you.

Last week The Inner Minx posted a fabulous piece on critiquing works in progress. She says,

‘I have strong feelings that a critique should be of some benefit to the writer, a fresh pair of eyes that can say honestly what they liked/disliked, how it made them feel and whether they enjoyed it, or not, what worked and what didn't. Critique should make you look at your writing, does it flow, make sense, and in essence is it readable? We all like to think that we are going to produce the next bestseller but writing is a craft, a craft that carries its own self-apprenticeship. Criticising at this level is about the help and support of fellow writers.’

This especially resonated with me because I have legendarily huge trust issues with the world. Even though I think I’m quite good at dealing with criticism I know I’m total pants at trusting people. The Inner Minx goes on to say that she thinks it essential that the writer trusts the critic. But trust is more than just satisfying yourself that the person you’ve given your work to is not going to be mean for the sake of it. That’s easy – don’t give your stuff to mean people and that won’t happen. I once got a really mean response when a friend gave her friend who’s always disliked me an earlier version of The Way of the Pear to read, unaware that this woman and I had history. What she basically said was that I had barely the right to exist, much less exercise the audacity to write a book! Easy to dismiss that sort of bile.

The trust you absolutely need to have is in your critical friend’s knowledge and expertise. You need them to understand where the story is trying to go which means they must recognise devices and be able to assess creative decisions in the context of the narrative. It’s no good them just saying ‘this doesn’t work’. You need them to be able to say why. This means they must be able to read on a number of levels which requires both skill and commitment. I had a very interesting conversation over on Fiction Bitch with Elizabeth Baines where we talked about the much misunderstood level of investment that the reader is prepared to make in a novel. This is not to say that you can write any old guff in the opening pages, as I’ve learned the hard way. But concepts like ‘the first five pages’ that are tailored to meet the needs of literary agents and publishers rather than the book’s actual target audience ought to be openly and regularly challenged. We readers are generally flexible and willing to follow the writer - for a goodly long stroll in my case. I rarely give up on books and I prefer my literature not to read as if it came from a production line of creative writing class graduates.

One of my great failings as a writer is that I find it difficult to discipline my thoughts. This is something that Signs has helped me with a lot. I’ve tried everything that she’s suggested and it’s added a whole new dimension to the way I work. The story hasn’t changed much in the last three years but the writing has altered a great deal. She said to me very early in the process that she was concerned about putting me off my stride. Of course I confidently quipped, ‘Don’t be silly. Say whatever you want. I can take it.’ Then the reply came back – the beginning wasn’t working - at all.

I agree completely with The Inner Minx that this is exactly the right time to be hearing this – before you’ve wasted your chances and sent it off to agents. There’s no denying it’s a blow – but it’s the kind of blow that makes you start thinking like a boxer. You’ve got to stay in the ring and start fighting for your story like you want it to win.

I’m basically a collaborative animal so having the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone who knows what they’re talking about has been the best possible scenario for me. So, to my dear mentor Signs, thank you.

And so it begins,

Hi, I’m Ben. (Now read on here)

21 comments:

Andrew said...

Constructive criticism from people who you trust must be a wonderful thing if you want to be published. You must listen to their sound advice. But I can't help but think that the the raw version might be more interesting.

That's so pants said...

No dice Andrew

I'm not putting up my crappy early draft for anyone's amusement.

I take it that means you hate this right?

Oh well.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

I liked it. But if Andrew means a thing can be too smooth, polished, correct, I agree with him .

Reading the Signs said...

A pleasure, Pants - and you have also helped me with kickstarting mine and having the confidence to continue.

Andrew, is this the "only first drafts are preserved in heaven" idea? Well sometimes yes and sometimes no, is what I think (and what an angel once whispered in my ear). What's important is to be true to the intention of the story.

I hope a few people will take the time to read and enjoy - as I have done.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

Thanks... I think


Signs - my dear friend - I hope you don't mind me mentioning your contribution. Forgive me for not clearing it with you.

xxx

Pants

Reading the Signs said...

Pants, of course not - just blushing a bit (or would if I could) from all the lovely things you said.

I agree that a thing can be too polished and have experienced, particularly in poetry workshops, a process by which a piece has been perfected to within an inch of its life. I don't think that's happened here. Pants, you brought up the issue of trust, which I think is vital. Also, it should be understood that a writer must only ever take on board what resonates.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs

Well you know from working with me that my first response is usually a defensive one. That is in fact what builds up the trust. The honest critic is not afraid to challenge the core of the work. The writer then must decide who is right and why. The end result is a better story - of that I'm certain.

xxx

Pants

trousers said...

I've read, and I've commented over there.

That's so pants said...

Thank you fellow strides.

xxx

Pants

Minx said...

Thanks for the link, Pants.

Like writing, I believe that there is an art to criticising (horrible word in itself). Knowing what a writer goes through, I feel kind of honoured that a number of people have allowed me to take a hatchet to their babies! In the early stages it is so good to have a sounding board, someone who will gently point out mistakes, holes and also celebrate the good and the great.
I would venture to say that a writer who thinks that they are above this is a writer who will never progress. This is a hard craft to learn and we need all the help we can get. A full edit and copy edit before publishing sorts out the men from the mice so best get used to it now!

Andrew, trust is the key but saying that the writer 'must' listen sounds as if the editor issues orders for change. As I said in my post, a good editor does not disturb the essence of the writing, only enhances it by making suggestions and offering support.

Now, I am off to see if you write pants, Pants.........

That's so pants said...

Hi Minx

Pleasure - I thought that was a great post of yours.

For me, one of the very toughest things is deciding whether to stick with an artistic decision when there is quite overwhelming opposition to it. Sometimes those are very elements that make the work unique. I feel one of those dilemmas is imminent for me!

xxx

Pants

phil said...

Pants, having read the comments first before going to the excerpt turned out to be an interesting exercise.

I read the exchange and thought, "the main thing for a friend who acts as critic is to be authentic - if you've got that, it'll be OK."

And so to the excerpt, where I immediately started identifying words, phrases, and thinking "hmm, I wouldn't have used that." Authentic, perhaps, but maybe not so helpful to someone I've only recently found via the internet. Presumptious, perhaps, after all I'm not the novelist.

So I went back and simply read it through and thought, "yeah, that's good." I've been to Spain, it rang true.

Good on you. I really hope it all works out well for you. And I hope you receive this small rant in the good humour it is intended.

best wishes

Phil@chateau VVB

That's so pants said...

Hi Phil

Rant away to your heart's content. The perspective you've brought to the argument is both interesting and important. The word 'authenticity' is always at the top of any list of criteria of what a novel should contain. Yet a lot of people confuse authenticity with expectation.

Your experiment showed that by simply altering your agenda as reader, the piece of work 'changed'. It had not changed itself. The only thing that had changed was your approach to it. In doing that, you got a different result. It was the context that created expectations and not the work itself.

This is a book about a London-born man living in Spain in 1994 by an Australian-born woman living in London in 2007. The only 'authenticity' Ben has is that which I've created for him. Of course I do try to make sure that what he says and does is appropriate to his circumstances and background.

There's nothing worse than being pulled up in the middle of a novel by some howler of a false fact. But when you agree to enter the novelist's fictional world the deal is if they say the sky is pink candy stripes, it IS pink candy stripes.

This is exactly why I do put excerpts from larger pieces of work on this blog. The spectrum of responses is huge. They're always very honest and frequently off the cuff which is exactly what you want. I like it and I appreciate that people have gone to the trouble to read and tell me what they think.

When you send work out to agents and publishers, as I did with The Way of the Pear and will do with this book once I'm perfectly satisfied it can get no better, there is only one aim - to get it published. Consequently the response is either a yes or a no and anything else is just padding.

Both the excerpts get a lot of hits. Of course many people don't comment in public. Some send me emails. Many more read it and don't say anything. That helps me too because I know it's being read, where geographically the interest is and how people access it. All helpful.

I honestly don't mind what people want to say about any of my work because I'm truly not precious about it. As I've said many times before, the only thing I have no patience for is being told I should have written a different book.

Thanks again.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

Hi, I'm Ben sounds like the start of an advert, or a speech at Alcoholics Anonymous. "Hi, I'm Ben, I'm an alcoholic."
But it's your baby, dress it how you like.

The RH method is just common sense; an asset bashed out of people at university:

1. Be clear.

2. Check your work.

Misspellings are unforgivable, and so are other mistakes (the the); one crack brings down the whole thing. Don't use big words or foreign phrases, except as a joke. Don't be wordy, when I see that I stop reading. Be fierce, but don't feel clever -until afterwards.
And for goodness sake, don't be an aristocrat; the internet is full of Blackadders.

R.H. said...

And darlings, this might only be me, but if you get weepy over something while you're writing it, it'll be no good.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

Good advice - thanks.

I make a point of never crying while I'm writing. I laugh a lot though. Is that bad?

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

It's bad to be smug. I might laugh at the time, but it can fall flat later.

I'll listen to anyone, any advice at all, I poke fun at the literati, but I'd never ignore them, I'm not that stupid.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

I have the luxury of being able to be myself, however odious, most of the time because no one's taking a blind bit of notice of what I do or say. You are at liberty to take me as you find me at all times.

There's a gin and tonic needs my immediate attention.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

Truly, if I had lots of dough I could be myself because the law won't prosecute rich weirdos.
And so I let it out at home.
But still I have to be careful, the neighbours suspect everything.

R.H. said...

I'm never sure of my situation with you, but so long as I'm still receiving x's I guess I'm doing okay.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

The xxx's are the key indicator, true.

xxx

Pants

(that's three by the way rather than six - no mixed messages is our motto here at HOP.