Tuesday, 31 July 2007

David Peace - Tokyo Year Zero (Review)

Tokyo, August 1946.

It’s always hot in this city. I take out my handkerchief. I wipe my face. I wipe my neck.

In a Japan destroyed by war, Detective Inspector Minami from Metropolitan HQ is on the hunt for a serial killer.

I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari.

But in post-war Tokyo, no one is who they say they are.

I bow and I apologise.

Based on a true story, David Peace tries to recreate through a cinematic style the sounds and smells and heat of a war-torn, defeated nation.

Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton . . .

The sound of hammering and hammering.

I’m afraid for me all this hammering home, all these descriptive asides and repetitions, become a bit too much. The book is just too stylised for my Western tastes, I guess, and for me that tended to get in the way of the story. I found myself skipping too many paragraphs to get back to the meat of the story.

I bow and I apologise again.

Peace’s great achievement, though, is in conveying a real sense of time and place. The heat and the squalor and the hunger are almost tangible.

I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari.

But in the end, I found it all rather overwhelming. And the revelation at the end was, to me, a little predictable.

I bow and I apologise again.

This is an interesting book, certainly original, but I couldn’t decide whether it was intended as a clever literary novel or a pretentious crime novel. Either way, for me, Peace hasn’t quite pulled it off.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Do Writers Need Agents?

Last year I sent my crime novel to an agent and in return the agent sent me a very encouraging rejection letter. It more or less confirmed what I had suspected – that my novel was well written but it would be difficult to market. So instead of wasting time and postage costs on sending an unmarketable book to other agents, I rewrote the novel to try to make it more saleable. ‘Make it less gritty’ was the advice I was given.

So I did. Does that mean I sold out? I don't think so. It’s a crime novel, after all – what Graham Greene would have called ‘an entertainment’ – so artistic integrity doesn’t apply!

As I was rewriting, I heard about a publisher who had identified a gap in the UK market and was looking for ‘gritty crime fiction’. I sent my novel off to them, they sent it back asking me to put back in all the stuff I’d taken out, and they are now considering the result. Early feedback was positive: ‘We like it,’ they said. I’m still waiting to hear whether they like it enough to publish it.

Which brings me to my question: Do I need a literary agent? If this publisher likes my novel and offers me a deal, why should I give away 20% of whatever I get to an agent? I’ve heard plenty of stories about authors who don’t have agents, who deal with publishers direct and conduct their own contract negotiations. They seem to do well enough.

On the other hand, what do I do if my publisher eventually decides NOT to offer me a deal? A lot of publishing houses have stopped accepting unsolicited mss from the general public and will only look at submissions from established literary agents.

A fellow writer, himself a well-established novelist, thinks I was crazy not to have gone back to the agent with my rewritten novel, rather than sending it direct to a publisher. Finding the right agent is, he says, far more important than getting your book accepted by a publisher. He says the best thing about an agent is that he or she will know exactly the right editor at each relevant publishing house to approach.

As an example he cited a friend who had a somewhat chequered publishing career. Her first two novels were published by a major publisher who had bigger fish to fry in terms of spending money on marketing. Her agent then got her a better deal with another large publisher, but again her next two novels were undermarketed. Sales were very poor and interest in her waned. Her agent, however, kept faith in her work and last year signed her with a third major publisher. Since then her career has really taken off. Her latest novel is just outside the top 20 fiction list. Without her agent, he says, none of this would be happening.

I have to admit, that's a pretty compelling argument in favour. I guess that’s why it is so hard for a new writer to get accepted by an agent!

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

A Bit of Company

My short story A Bit of Company will be published in the 7th August 2007 issue of Woman's Weekly magazine, out next week.

Mrs Parsons has a visitor, and it isn't the gas man:

I don’t let him come no farther than the scullery though. Well, you can’t be too careful. Mind you, he looks on the level, if you know what I mean. Nice coat. And a proper shine to his shoes. You can tell a man’s character by the shine on his shoes. In my day, if you couldn’t see your face in a man’s shoes you’d give him a wide berth. That’s why there’s so many young girls in trouble these days, if you ask me. No one bothers with shoes any more. They all wear these plimsolls.

Read more in next week's Woman's Weekly!

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Why I Like Storytelling

I quite agree!
With thanks for this and other gems to FOUND magazine.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

It’s a Lottery

There was a lot of press coverage this morning of the prank played by David Lassman, Director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath and rejected thriller writer. Unable to find a publisher for his own novel, Mr Lassman decided to conduct a little experiment. He sent updated versions of three of Jane Austen’s best known works to eighteen leading publishers and literary agents, pretending they were written by wannabe author ‘Alison Laydee’. Guess what? All but one of the recipients failed to notice Austen’s sparkling prose. Worse, they all rejected the manuscripts. Penguin, who only recently republished Pride and Prejudice, described the updated version as a ‘really original and interesting read’ but not right for them!

Something similar happened just last year, when The Sunday Times anonymously submitted the first three chapters of a couple of 1970s Booker Prize winners – V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State and Stanley Middleton's Holiday - to agents and publishers. As with the Austen submissions, neither book was recognised, and both received standard rejection letters.

It’s all jolly amusing, I’m sure, to the majority of people. But to a lot of writers it’s all immensely depressing.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Shameless Plug - One-Act Play Competition

This is a shameless plug for Deal Writers' new competition.



Submissions are invited for a one-act stage play from Kent residents. This must be an original, unpublished and unperformed play to consist of one set, from three - six characters and to be of 30 – 45 minutes’ duration.

PRIZES: 1st Prize: £100, 2nd Prize £50, 3rd Prize:£25

Full details can be found on the Deal Writers website.


Monday, 16 July 2007

Penelope Lively - Consequences (Review)

A couple of years ago I did a creative writing course at my local university in preparation for the launch of me new ‘career’ as a writer. One of the things that began to irritate me a little, having spent most of my working life taking practice-focused training courses, was the academic slant to the course (yeah, I know – what did I expect!).

I could understand studying Chekhov and Mansfield if I were taking an Eng Lit course, and I could certainly understand why we needed to be aware of the innovations these writers introduced a century or more ago. But I wanted to study the techniques used by modern writers, authors who were at the top of their game now.

Modern masters such as Penelope Lively, in fact. Lively has been writing for thirty years , and she has produced around forty novels. A Booker Prize winner in 1987, there's no doubt she is a writer to learn from.

So I began reading her latest novel, Consequences, from a writer’s point of view, trying to learn her techniques and how her effects were achieved. From that point of view, I thought her new novel was a master class. In fact, it was so good I couldn’t help forgetting myself, and just reading the book as a reader. I found it completely enthralling.

Consequences is the story of three generations of women, beginning in the 1930s with Lorna, then focusing on Molly in the post-war years and finally rounding off the tale with up-to-date Ruth. But this is no ‘family saga’ novel. The book is about the way time changes perceptions, and about memory and loss.

Lively paints with quick, broad brushstrokes, then suddenly paints in a detail that brings her characters and their emotions to life on the page. The history of seventy years is sketched out in less than 300 pages, and yet you feel you know the principal characters intimately. Lively is a master at telling the reader more by writing less.

There’s a heavy tension hanging over the first part of the novel. Wealthy debutante Lorna’s love affair with struggling artist Matt is brilliantly drawn. The young lovers run off to Somerset to live in Arcadian bliss and a poverty that Lively carefully describes yet still seems idyllic. Baby Molly is born, and you know that in a few years the perfect life of Lorna and her little family will be shattered by war. With the benefit of what we know now, the events are predictable. But Lively’s technical skill in telling the tale makes that predictability acutely poignant.

Molly’s leg of the tale is concerned with post-war austerity and the dawning of the sixties. Everyone is artistic and bohemian, and they are all very nice. When Ruth comes along I thought she might rebel, and for a while it does indeed seem that she will succumb to the lucrative allure of Thatcher’s Britain. She marries, and her husband Peter is the one character we find it hard to sympathise with.

Lively is a master of plotting and structure, and this story is satisfyingly symmetrical. We end up pretty much where we began, and it feels like we have come home ourselves.

This is a novel to be savoured.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


Is any writing wasted? I’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the past few days trying turn an idea into a short story. It began well, on Friday, with the germ of the idea and an opening line. It was the sort of story I was sure I could sell to a magazine. On Saturday I spent the morning working on it in some detail over a large cafĂ© latte or two in a coffee bar in Broadstairs. I completely rewrote in yesterday, after a day’s reflection, and improved the opening line and beefed up the ending. But today I can see it just doesn’t work. The whole story is based on an idea that seemed brilliant on Friday but that now seems a bit dull. I feel I’ve been wasting my time working on it.

But really I don’t think any writing is a waste. The struggles I’ve had over the past few days trying to convey a certain emotion, or sketch out a sense of time and place, have if nothing else been good mental exercise. There’s an analogy to be drawn with running, but I’m constantly boring people with my running analogies so I won’t labour the point. Other than to say that I feel I’m in a more fit state to tackle my next writing project.

It’s not rubbish. It’s an investment . . .

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Susanna Jones – The Missing Person’s Guide to Love (Review)

It’s going to be difficult to review this book satisfactorily, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I will have to be careful not to give too much away. This is what the publisher says about it:
Isabel, Owen and Julia were childhood friends. But when they were fifteen, Julia disappeared without a trace – an event that had a devastating impact on the others.

Years later, Isabel returns to her home town in the north of England
for Owen’s funeral. She hadn’t seen him since they recklessly burned down the local supermarket together; he was sent to prison and she, just shy of her 18th birthday, to a young offenders’ centre. Isabel suspects that Owen was responsible for Julia’s murder, and she’s hoping finally to find some kind of resolution.

Feeling cut off from her husband and child in Turkey, and awash with unexpected memories, Isabel ventures further into the murky depths of her past. But nothing is as it seems – either past or present – and as Isabel’s world unravels we finally realise the stunning, shattering truth . . .

If you have read either of Susanna’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird and Water Lily, then you will have an idea of the sort of thing to expect. The writing is superb, deceptively simple and with real pace. I had been warned on Wednesday that I needed to concentrate so I made a conscious effort to read more slowly. If I hadn’t I would probably have whizzed through the book in a single sitting, and may have ended up as confused as dovegreyreader. Because – as the blurb says – nothing is as it seems.

I think if you read the book as a detective novel (which up to a point it is, with Isabel trying to discover the truth about what happened to her friend Julia) you should spot the clues to what’s really going on. This is a very clever book by a fine writer.

Up and Running

Back in January I seriously injured my knee through over-training for the Flora London Marathon. I rested the injury for a while and ran again too soon in February and made it a whole lot worse. The result was that I haven't been able to run since. For the past month or so I've been planning to start running again but every time I make a firm commitment to myself the wretched knee begins to hurt again, before I've run a single step!

But today I ignored the little twinges from my patella and set of on a very gentle jog to get started on the rocky road to fitness. The fact it was such a lovely morning helped, too! Within four or five steps my knee had tightened up and was begging me to stop. I didn't, and pretty soon the tightness had gone and I began to enjoy myself again. I even ran further than I'd planned I felt so good. And I'm pleased to say the knee feels fine.

What's this got to do with writing? Well, I always feel that I'm more productive after I've had a run in the morning. And the past week or so in particular I've been very unproductive indeed (which may of course have something to do with The Secretary being away on an island off the coast of Africa!). But I'm sure physical fitness has a positive effect on mental abilities, and I know running gives me the opportunity to mull over an issue I might be struggling with in my writing. So, in theory at least, I should be a bit more creative today.

We'll see . . .

Thursday, 5 July 2007


To Brighton last night to attend the launch party for Susanna Jones’ new book, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love. The bash was held at a bar/restaurant called The Terraces, overlooking a wild and choppy English Channel. Lots of local writers, journalists and film-makers who were all very friendly, and a contingent of students from the MA course Susanna teaches on in London. Susanna’s agent, Bill Hamilton, told me the book was intelligent and demanding – the reader has to really pay attention. I can’t wait to read it. In fact, I really can’t wait to read it – I started it as soon as I got home last night. A full review will follow . . .

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Drama Competition

I've agreed to help judge a one-act playwriting competition being organised by a local amateur dramatics company in association with Deal Writers. I met with the other two judges today and we thrashed out the competition rules and began thinking about publicity.

The competition will be open to any amateur playwright living in Kent, and the winner will not only receive a cash prize (we're thinking £100 at the moment) but will also have the opportunity to have her/his play performed by the New Deal Theatre Company. The closing date for entries is likely to be towards the end of November.

Full details will appear on the Deal Writers website shortly.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Haruki Murakami - After Dark (Review)

The first Murakami story I ever read, not very long ago in the grand scheme of things, was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo from his After the Quake collection. I loved it, and I’ve been a fan of Murakami’s writing ever since, but especially his short stories. A few people I know don’t get Murakami – ‘How can you take seriously a six-foot frog as a central character?’ they say. To which I say, ‘How can you not?!’

After Dark is a very short novel, almost an extended short story, so I was sure I was going to really like it. The action takes place over the course of a single night in a city ‘like a single gigantic creature’. During this night we are going to meet nineteen year-old Mari, her sleeping sister Eri, a young man called Takahashi and Kaoru, the retired female wrestler and currently manager of a love hotel, together with sundry peripheral characters. There are all living their lives in the darkness of the night, ‘when everybody’s supposed to be asleep’. It is an alien environment, as alien as being under water.

The novel is narrated in the first person plural, often as if through a camera. We have the characters under surveillance, even the sleeping Eri. At the love hotel, we watch CCTV images of a ‘guest’ who has beaten up a Chinese prostitute and later, on the same screen, watch Creatures of the Deep along with several of the characters. We see ‘weird deep-sea creatures. Ugly ones, beautiful ones. Predators, prey’. Geddit? One of the characters moves from one side of the TV screen to the other, and mirror images remain in the mirror long after the reflected character has departed. This is Murakami, after all.

But I have to say I read the novel with a degree of disappointment. Maybe that’s because of my own unrealistic expectations. I think it just wasn’t surreal enough for me (after a throwaway comment by Takahashi I was expecting a giant octopus to appear – sadly, it never did. Or did it . . . ?). Nevertheless, the story is always interesting and the ending nicely satisfying. I was expecting a truly great novel from one of my favourite authors, but After Dark is just very good.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Arvon Calling

Last year I went on an Arvon writing course in the Clun Valley in South Shropshire and met some great chaps, including my fellow runner Julia Buckley who I'll hopefully be seeing again next week. I'm looking forward to hearing how her own novel is coming along. Julia has persuaded me to sign up to Facebook where I'm sure I must be the oldest person on the site!

The reason I'm hoping to see her next week is that we have been invited to the launch of Susanna Jones' new book, The Missing Person's Guide to Love. It will be good to see Susanna again, too, as she was one of the inspirational tutors on said Arvon Course.

The other inspirational tutor was Courttia Newland, who I was delighted to discover today has been nominated for the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library Award.

Good news all round!