I finished my novel! (Well, the first draft)

I’m very happy and relieved to say that I finally finished the first draft of my novel today!

That’s right. After a false start in 2014 and then about year of concerted concentration, my novel English Interiors has now got a beginning, a middle and an end. So I decided to celebrate by printing it all out in this big wad of literary loveliness.

img_0016 Excellent news, I know. Thanks very much. You’re too kind.

Now I know there are tonnes of problems with it which I need to sort out, including the fact that characters’ names and personalities change throughout (or they just disappear entirely), and there are pages and pages of longueurs, and the pivotal middle section is an incoherent mess.

I also need to ask myself some pretty fundamental questions like: is this one novel or a trilogy? It weighs in at 240,000 words (which is about 800–1000 pages) so I either need to cut it in half somehow, or split it into three.

In fact, I know that the second draft is probably going to be longer and harder than this one – next I need to figure out what it’s actually about, how it all fits together, how to cut out extraneous scenes and how to make the language sing.

But for now I’m just going to breathe and relax and enjoy the fact that my first draft exists.

Anyway – regardless of what happens in the future, this is the most rewarding thing I have done. Ever. (Maybe.) It’s the only thing in my life that I am completely responsible for, and that I can take all the credit for. I’m massively proud of the fact that I had a goal and stuck with it.

I hate cheesy quotes, but a few months back when I wanted to ditch the whole thing, one of them spurred me on:

You only fail if you don’t try, not if you don’t succeed.

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The two times I got paid for my writing

That’s right, paid! After writing free articles for free student newspapers, and free short stories for free magazines, and doing free interviews and reviews for free – in the past year I’ve been paid twice for writing something.

So now you know that it’s not a vicious rumour that writers can get paid. Ah, but nor is it some cash-filled nirvana where you and J. K. Rowling and Stephen King just sit around writing words as money kerchings into your pockets.

This is the reality of getting paid, or at least for me it was:

1. The first time I got paid for my writing was when I self-published my first novel, Banes of Boys and Girls, on Kindle and Nook. It was the summer of 2013: they were the hottest months on record, Rolf Harris was still a national hero, and beards were still cool. And into the swell I plopped my little homegrown handmade coming-of-age novel (which had been turned down by agents the previous summer). I didn’t expect it to earn me thousands, but here are the (depressing) maths…

My debut novel

I sold 114 units at either £1 or for free through Amazon’s promotions tool. Then minus fees by Amazon and Barnes & Noble of up to 70% per unit. Then I was left with… 

Total = £22.80

2. The second time I got paid for my writing was when I submitted an article to The Writer magazine. I had kept in touch with Cathryn Summerhayes at WME, one of the agents who I contacted with my novel (see above if you’ve forgotten already or are reading from the bottom of the page upwards – weirdo). And by “kept in touch” I mean “pestered with intermittent emails”. I asked Cathryn if I could interview her about being an agent and what she looks for in submissions. Short story: the interview happened, I submitted it all over the shop, and The Writer magazine picked it up.

Now here’s the good bit… When The Writer accepted the interview they sent me a freelancer contract which said I was getting paid $400 (something like £233) for it. I figured it was some sort of bizarre practical joke, but the piece went in print and I got paid. Needless to say I submitted another piece to them again.

Total = £233

The moral of the story is that you can get paid for writing. The other morals of the story are that you might not get paid as much as you want or need. And that the amount you get paid probably won’t match the effort you put into it. (Unless you think writing an interview is harder than a novel. Again – weirdo)

Have you been paid for writing anything recently/ever? What do you think? (No need to divulge bank details.)

My interview with Richard Milward

My interview with novelist Richard Milward is in the May edition of Bookslut. You can read it here: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2014_05_020639.phpmilward

 

Richard is the writer behind novels like Apples (2007), Ten Storey Love Song (2009) and Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2012), who I was lucky enough to meet at a pub in Middlesbrough last Christmas. He told me about his next novel The Headaches, gave some great advice about writing, and was generally a good laugh.

Let me know what you think…?

Revolution is in the air! (And on your Kindle)

I co-edited the March issue of Myths of the Near Future magazine, an online literary magazine by under-25s. You can download it now onto any Kindle reader for less than £2, or just search “Myths of the Near Future Revolution”.

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It’s the first time I’ve edited a literary magazine, but was great fun and filled with new experiences. We held a launch event and open-mic event as part of the 2014 Student Writers’ Toolkit hosted by Writing West Midlands, and we were lucky enough to get an interview with one of Granta’s Best Novelists 2013 and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize winner, Evie Wyld. Plus there’s an article on Modernism in there, and an interview with me!

Here’s a sneak peak from my interview…

“What were you looking for in terms of style?” 

“Good question! I suppose it was the same as with any poem or short story, I went into it looking for literature that had impact. Hence the choice of ‘revolution’ as the theme, as it encourages writers to make work which is about urgency and immediacy and which is tense. I think this kind of impact is a real strength of writers under-25, where emotions are still very raw. We got through some incredible pieces, across poetry and fiction. I particularly love some lines from Richy Campbell’s poems, as he has really compact, economical couplets which are also kind of emotionally stunted: “Pigeons peck at pave-squashed gum,/hop tiles as I stagger to mid-platform.” On the other side, I’m awe of the emotional intensity of the pieces by Eliot Mason, those free-form poems which are all about repetition and disgust in the modern world, and with moody refrains like “enjoy it now/the revolution is about to start”. I tend to be more of a short fiction fan, so co-editing this issue has kind of opened my eyes too as to the diversity of great literature out there. As the wide range of work we’ve got in Myths shows, it’s not really about the style of the piece but about how well the words work semantically and poetically to create that impact.”

We are currently looking for submissions for issue 4 on the theme of ‘Money‘.

My favourite Christmas story: ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This article was first published by Liars’ League

6a00e551c6d2b28834019b02200aa1970c-800wiI first read ‘The Dead’—the last piece in James Joyce’s 1914 short story collection Dubliners— because someone told me it was much shorter than Ulysses. And thank God I did, because ‘The  Dead’  is essentially a jolly fantastic  story  about  a  family  gathering at Christmastime. It has all of the festive gripes that you would expect from the debut of a 22-year-old writer:

  • Having to put up with Irish nationalist grannies (“— And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”)
  • Wishing you were out in the snow, or in a food coma, or anywhere else “much more pleasant than at the supper-table!”
  • Putting your foot in it by saying something inappropriate, then trying to ‘gift’ yourself out of it.

But the beauty of the story is in its gradual movement away from the pettiness of the dining-table and towards tender remembering of past years, as in a  speech given by the protagonist, Gabriel:

“— But yet, continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth,  of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely withour work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.”

I have a suspicion that when — ninety-nine years later, this Christmas — we speak about “remembering people no longer with us”, our words will be somehow directly descended from Gabriel’s speech. Later, at home, as Gabriel’s wife recalls a boy she once loved who died at seventeen years old, and Gabriel finds that he knows nothing at all about his wife’s past, then Joyce is at his best: completely wrought and epiphanic. For such a well-known piece of literature, with one of the most quoted last sentences (you’ll have to read all 15,000  words to get there: no peeking!), this is a beautifully unassuming story. To me, it captures the weird mix of emotional intensity and sheer inanity that can only come at Christmastime.

You can read The Dead at this link: http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/

A question of genre

This article previously appeared on NAWE Young Writers’ Hub

Readers and writers often find themselves stuck in the same old genre, but would it be better to ask more of other forms? Jonathan Aldridge reflects on a very literary education, and wonders if he hasn’t been missing a trick…

I don’t think the question of genre ever came up at university. We studied novels, plays and poems which fell into the canon (by writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce) and which are called ‘classics’ in bookshops. Our faculty library was arranged by date (with surnames A-Z from 1500-1670, for example) instead of by genre like in a bookshop. And neither students nor tutors ever considered that there was more than one worthwhile genre, especially nothing that resembled sci-fi, romance, fantasy, crime or horror. Maybe studying gothic literature comes close, but even then we called it ‘the Gothic’ and referred to ‘tropes’ and ‘transcendence of boundaries’.

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Actually, the question of genre came up once. I remember a conversation with a South African literature tutor. We spent a lot of time studying Apartheid literature, learning about how authors wrote politics and war into high-end literature. So I ask what sort of literature South Africa is reading and writing now (twenty years since Apartheid ‘ended’) and my tutor says “Oh, genre fiction, mainly. A lot of crime novels.” That was the only time genre was ever mentioned. And to me, it cemented an idea that genre fiction was the product of a safe culture full of lazy readers (like the modern-day UK?), whereas meaningful literature was a response to and catalyst of social change (like modernism during the early 20th-century).

So if there’s a reason I only write and read ‘literary fiction’, it’s because that’s what they teach you. In university circles, no one asks any questions of genre fiction; and in popular circles, no one asks any questions of literary fiction. I think we should ask more questions of each other.

It was failing to broaden my bookshelf which meant my early writing failed. In my late teens and early twenties I had little life-experience and would have done well reading and writing young-adult fiction or sci-fi as a way of expanding my horizons. But instead I was emulating TS Eliot, Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, and I was trying to write free verse, villanelles and avant-garde short stories. I guess it taught me an appreciation of those forms, but what I wrote was bad. It was like making little models of Big Ben or the London Eye out of matchsticks: I didn’t have the skill or the material to do it properly.

I think my literary education left me slightly skewed—so when I came to write my first novel, Banes Of Boys And Girls, I was more concerned about how the thing fit in with the Bildungsroman tradition or explored the ‘politics of desire’, rather than how interesting the plot and characters were and, basically, how good it was (I do think it’s good). It’s a novel about coming-of-age and falling in love for the first time, so I could have been reading young-adult and romance fiction to see how they navigate that territory. But it didn’t occur to me.

So for my next projects I’m going to change. I’m going to ask more questions of genre fiction in the hope of diversifying my writing. So before I get around to writing the office novel that is going round my head, I’m going to read some ‘office romance’ novels as well as masterpieces like Something Happened by Joseph Heller.

I’m already starting to kick the habit, and remind myself that plenty of genre fiction has merit. I’ve held literary fiction on a bit of a pedestal. They (Wikipedia) say it isn’t even a genre in itself, but it still has its own conventions: complex characters, minimal plot, linguistic texture, introspective style, slower pace. Just like crime fiction has its rogue detectives, sympathetic villains, dramatic clauses and plot twists. There is plenty of bad literary fiction, where boring characters doing nothing, just as there are bad crime novels with hammy dialogue and stupid plots.

But there’s also the chance to learn from other forms. I’ll give you a couple of sentences which to me epitomise the best literary fiction, especially in its ability to re-imagine a regular occurrence. In Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark On The Wall’ the narrator has been thinking to herself uninterrupted until “something is getting in the way […] Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—”I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”” I like the idea that being interrupted from your private thoughts is “a vast upheaval of matter”: it’s really subjective and lightly melodramatic. You sense the narrator waking back into reality from a place of abstract thought. This is the cadence and mood you get from literary fiction; and the scene is typical too: domestic, psychological, nuanced.

I honestly don’t know what sort of sentence you get from genre fiction, but for the sake of my writing I need to find out. Maybe they can give the urgency, drama and scale which literary fiction lacks. My interest in genre fiction started recently, with something that Michael Crichton said in an interview with The Paris Review. He said that he was trying to write The Andromeda Strain (sci-fi) but couldn’t get it to be “factually persuasive”. So he “started thumbing through” We Are Not Alone by Walter Sullivan and “noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.” I would advise anyone who reads only literary fiction (including myself) to ask more questions of genre fiction in order to find a new “vocabulary”, “cadence” and “structure”.

I don’t think I see myself writing an all-out genre fiction anytime soon, but I want to ask more questions of it. To learn new techniques and conventions beyond literary fiction; to use a sentence structure from sci-fi, or a plot framework from crime; to better my craft. That’s my answer, anyway.