Telling Tales

Some time ago, I asked on Facebook - which is where I do a lot of my writerly networking - why so many people I knew were being told that some of their work was 'beautifully written, but too quiet.' It had happened to me too. At the time, it seemed a little unfair, and there were those who said that it was 'just one of those expressions' that publishers or agents use when they have to turn you down, but can't really think of a valid reason. Which is comforting, but not, I think, entirely true! One friend and well-published fellow writer, however, said that she was sometimes told the same thing. She said most publishers and/or agents are looking for the holy grail of the beautifully written, stonking great story, but if they can't have both in the same package, they will settle for the stonking great story any day. I'm sure this is absolutely true, and as time has gone by, and I've been working on the latest (big, Polish, historical) novel, The Amber Heart, I have started to see just how right she was and how very much story matters.
We are, after all, creatures who love to listen to stories. It is one of the things that makes us human. From the time when we can first talk, we are enthralled by narrative, by the act of listening, or turning the page, (even little children are fascinated by the physical act of turning over, long before they can read) or watching the screen, to find out what happens next.
I've come to realise, therefore, that we ignore this natural instinct at our peril. We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does. It matters a lot. But if we are writing for other people, as well as for ourselves, we also have to be aware of the need to hook the reader into the narrative so that he or she is desperate to turn the page, desperate to know 'what next', and may even stay up all night, if need be, to find the answer.
I've been thinking about this a lot, recently, because it strikes me that Firebrand, Gillian Philip's wonderful and deservedly well reviewed new novel, has exactly this quality. It is beautifully written, it is hugely imaginative, it is involving and surprising and original  - but, above all, boy does it have a stonking great story. Not only that, but when you get to the end of it, you're left thinking 'so how quickly will she have finished the next one, so I can find out what happens next.'
It's a gift, this extraordinary storytelling ability and Philip has it in spades.
But it is also - to some extent at least - a craft and one which, as writers, we should all be aware of.
It isn't possible to teach somebody with no talent how to write. But, given that somebody has a natural talent, a natural curiosity about human beings, and the desire to learn,  they can be helped towards an understanding of what makes a good story. And I sometimes think it is an aspect of the craft of writing that is all too often ignored in creative writing classes, because teachers (and I don't necessarily excuse myself here) concentrate a little too much on the beautiful prose, and not quite enough on the nuts and bolts of plotting, the generation of excitement and drama, and the sheer skill of telling a great story and telling it so well that - as with all the fine storytellers you can think of - Dickens, Stevenson, The Brontes, Austen, Hardy, M.R. James, E.F. Benson and so many more - the joins between the wonderful prose and the wonderful story don't show at all. We read the book, we are in the reality of the tale and - as I recently did with Firebrand - we finish with a sigh compounded of satisfaction, regret that it's finished and anticipation for what might come next.

Tell Me A Story: The Pillars of the Earth and Single Father

Last weekend, I almost broke one of my cardinal rules, when deciding which TV programmes to watch. I paid attention to the previews in the Radio Times: fulsome praise for Single Father and faint damns for The Pillars of the Earth, from David Butcher. Normally, I read them and then ignore them, preferring to make up my own mind. In this instance, if my husband hadn't suggested that Pillars of the Earth might actually be good, I might well have given it a miss. 'It ought to be either a romp or a sweeping saga but it's neither,' says DB. Why ought it? Afterwards, it struck me that I get bored by romps and sweeping sagas in about equal measure. The Pillars of the Earth has - so far - kept me glued to my television, in a way that few other dramas have, this year, and the main reason is that it is a wonderfully involving story, beautifully acted, visually stunning, thoroughly well told. In fact it's just sweeping enough to be exciting but not so sweeping that the viewer doesn't give a stuff; just enough of a romp to be emotionally engaging, but not such a ridiculous mangling of historical fact that it challenges the viewer's suspension of disbelief. I love it and I love it most of all because it's telling me a damn good story, and I find myself sitting, enthralled as a child. Believe me, that doesn't happen very often on UK television these days.
On the other hand, reading Butcher's ecstasies about Single Father, I did wonder if we'd been watching the same thing. Don't get me wrong. I've been watching this and been entertained by it. Any new TV drama is to be welcomed. But this has been mostly because of the very fine acting of David Tennant and Suranne Jones, who could perform the phone book together, and still make you watch them. Did I find it 'grabbing me by the emotional lapels and demanding attention'? Er, no. And I'll tell you the thing that irritates me most about it. It's that they have set a drama in Glasgow, and not made it about crime, drugs and murders (two cheers). But then, they've chickened out, haven't they? They've deliberately manipulated the plot so that they can go to Edinburgh to make it picturesque,with lots of touristy shots of the castle, Princes Street Gardens, and so on, ignoring all the very real beauties of Glasgow itself. Shame on them.
More about 'story' in the next post.

Submissions, Rejections - and Reappearances.

This morning, my post contained a fattish package from Birlinn, who published my history of Gigha, God's Islanders, a couple of years ago. The package contained a very pleasant, albeit apologetic letter from the managing editor. Besides the letter, there was a little wedge of papers, the first three chapters, plus synopsis, of a novel called The Corncrake, which I had submitted to a Scottish publisher called Mercat Press, 'a number of years ago', having heard good things about them from one of their authors. I'm not exactly sure how many years ago, because I don't have my original letter and I had long since assumed that the submission had fallen into the Great Silence which usually befalls unsolicited manuscripts not sent through an agent. In 2007, Mercat merged with Birlinn, and 'some archive material was set aside and subsequently overlooked.' A quick glance at the chapters revealed that they had long, long ago been superseded by other work. What writer stands still for four or five years? Which made it all the more strange that they had 'reviewed it once more but regret that, bearing in mind current market conditions, we do not feel it would be suitable for our current list.'
This put me in mind, very vividly, of a story told with some relish by a friend who (sometimes) writes for television. She was surprised to find in her morning mail, a very old script, with a similar kind of letter. 'We have reviewed this but regret etc etc.' What was even more surprising was that the script had been bought, made and shown by this same company, some years previously...
Since submitting The Corncrake to Mercat all those years ago, I have - of course - moved on. I have a new agent, and the Corncrake itself has been more or less consigned to the dustbin. Writing is a job for me. Not a hobby. To be honest, I have taken a little of the material it contained and have rewritten it, comprehensively, into what amounts to a completely different novel. Both my new agent and I, myself,  feel that it is a much better novel. The characters are different, the names are different, the story is dramatically different. Only a little of the setting remains. But even that novel - although I am very fond of it -  isn't currently 'on the market' because it too has been superseded by a sweepingly romantic historical tale which my agent and I both feel is potentially more commercial, with the additional possibility of other novels on the same theme.
 I suspect that most professional writers would - if an old manuscript came dropping onto the mat - find themselves in much the same position. So while I genuinely appreciate the letter, which was kind, generous, and apologetic - I hope I meet this nice man, one day! - I find the assumption of stasis just a little worrying. But then, perhaps his experience has taught him that many people are content to recycle the same old stuff for ever and a day, without attempting to progress at all.

Some Useful Quotes from Playwright, David Mamet

I have found all of these useful, at some time or another, and not just for plays. They make sense when applied to other kinds of writing too!


1: Things have been disordered. The drama continues until a disordered status comes to rest.
We don’t have to worry about creating a problem. We make a better play if we worry about restoring order.

2: It is the objective of the protagonist to keep us in our seats.

3: Alice said to the Cheshire Cat, ‘Which road should I take?’ and the Cheshire Cat said ‘Where do you want to go?’ and Alice said ‘I don’t care.’ And the Cheshire Cat said ‘Then it doesn’t matter which road you take.’

4: How do we keep the audience’s attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but on the contrary, by withholding information. By withholding all information, except that information, the absence of which, would make the story incomprehensible.

5: The deeper you can think, the better it is going to be. Deeper, in the sense of writing, means ‘What would it be like to me?’

6: Clich├ęs in themselves are not necessarily bad. But maybe if we thought deeper, we could find a better way of expressing things.

Ten Practical Tips on Preparing a Manuscript for Submission.

A writer friend who teaches on various creative writing courses told me the other day that he had started one course by attempting to give students advice about layout, revisions and how to submit a manuscript. 'They laughed,' he said. 'They thought they already knew all about it.' Predictably, as soon as the coursework started to come in, he realised that they knew almost nothing about it. They just thought they did.
I've been considering this thorny issue recently for a number of reasons. My nice new agent, when reading through my latest manuscript, The Amber Heart, told me that he thought the actual novel was 'wonderful', but then went on to issue a rather stern admonition about my use of commas which was - seemingly - not all it should be. He was right, of course, and I went back over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. But I've also spent some time, recently, reading other people's manuscripts for a literary competition which I was asked to judge, and although the standard of the actual writing was - in many cases - very high, the standard of presentation, even among the prizewinners, was not good. And it wasn't just commas and a bit of careless word spacing, either!
So here are my ten practical pieces of advice on preparing your manuscript for submission.
1 Never send in a handwritten manuscript, even if it means bribing a friend or relative to type it up for you.
2 Never attempt to save paper by copying or printing on both sides of the paper. Printer paper is cheap, especially in supermarkets (you can buy 500 sheets of good 80 gm paper in Morrisons for rather less than £3.00) and just for once, forget about saving the planet.
3 Never attempt to save paper by formatting your manuscript in 9 point with no spaces between lines. You need decent margins, 2 or at the very least 1.5 spaces between lines, and 12 point font, something clear like Ariel or Times New Roman. So it uses a bit more paper. See (2) above!
4 By all means use a Fast Draft setting for your own printouts, but when preparing a manuscript for submission, make sure that it is printed out properly, even if it means buying a new print cartridge. (These are always cheaper online.)
5 Never staple the pages together. Leave them loose. For stories or poems, you can use a paper clip, top left corner. For novels, leave all the pages loose. They can go in a box or wallet file if you are posting them.
6 When sending speculative submissions to publishers or agents, these should never be more than the first three chapters and a synopsis, plus covering letter and CV if applicable.
7 Do not lay out your manuscript, whether story or novel, in the 'report' format that seems to have become increasingly acceptable for academic essays. Have you ever seen a published novel laid out like this? It is very disconcerting indeed to see these strange blocks of paragraphs, with acres of white space between them and no indents. Write your story in the format that you see on the printed page with proper old fashioned paragraphs, with indents, with dialogue also indented, and with the occasional space which may indicate the passage of time within a chapter, or a change of perspective.
8 If you are not good at punctuation, try to get somebody else to check it for you.
9 Make sure you use your spell checker before sending your manuscript out.
10 Make sure that your whole submission, whether it is for a competition, an agent or a publication, looks neat and professional. If you ever find yourself thinking 'that'll do' you can be sure that it won't. And all of the above apply, even if you are making an online submission.

This may seem a little pedantic, and it is! But consider for a moment - the person you are submitting to may well be seeing not just dozens but perhaps hundreds of submissions every week. There is never enough time, nor enough people to read them and - as an editor once confessed to me - the easiest way of sorting them, initially, is to take all the badly laid out, badly spelled, poorly presented manuscripts and put them right at the bottom of the pile. Where they may well remain for ever. If you don't care enough about your work to devote a little time to presenting it in the right way, why on earth would you expect anyone else to care enough to read it?

Play 200 and the Lunardi Bonnet

Play 200 at the Oran Mor - and an excellent review by Joyce Macmillan. I haven't been to see this - or my own contribution - yet, but plan on going on Saturday.  The show consists of lots and lots of 2 minute plays, loosely themed on Glasgow Then and Now. It's remarkably hard to write a 2 minute play without turning it into a comedy sketch. Mine was about eighteenth century balloonist Lunardi's visit to Glasgow. They tethered his balloon in Glasgow Cathedral, since it was the only public space big enough to hold it. I find that image enchanting! I've cheated a bit, though, since I've already used that story in a novel called The Physic Garden. Or perhaps I should say a 'half written novel' called The Physic Garden. Mind you, it's as good an illustration as any of how ideas germinate and grow and change. The Physic Garden started out as an idea for an Oran Mor play, which I even drafted out, but was never very happy with. At last, I decided where the problem lay. The whole idea was much too big for a 45 - 50 minute play. It kept fidgetting, pushing against the time constraints, desperate to break out. So then, I thought I might write it as a full length play. But I kept postponing it as a project, or tinkering around the edges, never feeling very happy with it. And all the time, I could hear this voice inside my head, telling a tale that - somehow - needed to be told. So I let the voice take me where it would, and some 90,000 words later, it turned into a novel. But that wasn't the end of it. Because - some months later - having left those 90,000 words to lie fallow, and having let one or two people read the novel, I now think that it's only half the story. So what I'm about to do is write the other half, prune the 90,000 words I've already written, interweave the two tales - and bob's your uncle. Or not, as the case may be.
Will it work? I've no idea. And if other, more pressing projects intervene, I'll probably shelve it and get on with more immediate work. But I know that it will be there, lurking at the back of my mind, waiting its turn. And I think that I now know what needs to be done. Just a case of getting on with it, really!
Meanwhile, I found the story of Lunardi and his balloon lurking in there, when I was looking for inspiration for a two minute play - so in a way, it wasn't only a response to a request for a contribution - it was also a small way of experimenting with the ideas in the novel, trying to find out if they might have a life of their own. I think they probably do!

The Publishing Angel

My agent is in Frankfurt, my novel is with my agent, and I'm here in Scotland, waiting to see what happens next.
Meanwhile, I'm saying prayers to the Publishing Angel.
Is there such an entity? I hope so. Because the Parking Angel works pretty well. I should know. I've been using his services for many years now.
I first heard about him/her from a friend who said that she always found a parking space by asking the Parking Angel to find one for her. I was suitably sceptical, but at the time I was doing readings in a wonderful tea house called Tchai Ovna, on the South Side of Glasgow. This has since closed, although the West End Tchai Ovna is still open. The South Side Tchai Ovna was in Shawlands, a place in which it is notoriously difficult to find any kind of parking space, in the evening - this is because it consists of rather narrow streets with lots and lots of small flats and houses. There was one memorable occasion when - having driven round for about an hour, occasionally hampered by pizza delivery vans parked in the middle of the road - I just turned around and went back home again. I thought I would have one last try, drove up to Shawlands in some trepidation and invoked the help of the Parking Angel.
Almost immediately, a van pulled away from the kerb, and a very large parking space materialised. Moreover, it was right in front of a church!
Since then, I have regularly employed the services of the Parking Angel in all kinds of tight places, and I can state that he almost never lets me down.
But it has occurred to me to wonder why I can't therefore invoke the Publishing Angel as well. I mean, there must BE one, mustn't there? And if there is one, I reckon he might look a lot like the rather militant chap above, who lives in Glasgow's amazing Necropolis. In other words, 'a bonnie fighter.'
So come on, Publishing Angel. Lend me your muscular right arm. Please.