Wednesday, 12 December 2007

John Irving on the Writer's Craft

Jonathan Tropper - Everything Changes (Review)

Jonathan Tropper's novel Everything Changes opens with an earthquake, and a similar seismic event is about to disrupt the perfect life of Zachary King.

This is what happens. You are about to get engaged to a fantastic girl who is way out of your league but who for some reason is head over heels in love with you. You have a decent job, a rent-free apartment in Manhattan and things can only get better. Except you think you have fallen in love with the widow of your best friend and your long-lost father has just turned up with a constant, Viagra-fuelled erection.

Tropper has been styled as America’s answer to Nick Hornby, and in a sense that’s a fair description. He is certainly very good at the ‘30-year-old male angst’ thing, and everything in this book rings true. If, like me, you enjoyed How to Talk to a Widower then you will probably enjoy this, too, but I was a little disappointed. Everything Changes is a good read but it isn’t quite as funny as Widower when it’s funny, and it isn’t quite as heartbreaking either.

The reason, I have since discovered, is that Everything Changes actually pre-dates Widower and is being released here in the UK some three years after its 2005 publication in the States. Tropper has improved since then.

Having said that, I enjoyed the pacey way Tropper kept the story moving, I liked most of the characters and even though I found the ending a little too syrupy for my taste the twists and turns getting there were neatly executed and often unexpected. If you haven’t read Tropper yet then this is a good place to start. Everything Changes is good, but it’s not quite in the same league as How to Talk to a Widower.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Writers' Forum

Back in June, I was interviewed for an article in Writers' Forum magazine. During the interview, as I mentioned in my blog at the time, I was asked for my top tips for writers. In an effort to avoid all the usual suspects, I resorted to the following running tips:

  1. Run every day, whatever the weather.

  2. Set yourself goals and targets.

  3. Keep a training log or journal.

  4. Run lots of shorter races before you attempt the marathon.

  5. Study the way successful athletes tackle the race.

  6. Join a running club.

At the time I said these all had a direct equivalent in writing, and I would leave it to you to do your own translation. Just in case you didn't quite manage it, the current issue of Writers' Forum has kindly revealed all. You can read my piece on page 27 - including a full running-to-writing translation. There's also a couple of other pieces on running and writing . . .

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Stories for a Wet and Windy Night

To Deal tonight for a meeting of Deal Writers. Despite the wet and windy weather a dozen writers made it, with six giving a reading. I had set the group a challenge inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercise in Style. Here is the scenario, suitably adapted and Anglicised:

The narrator bumps into a long-necked man on a bus and later sees him in a train station in the company of a friend who pins a badge on his coat.


The challenge was to recount the above incident as a brief chapter in a romantic novel, a spy story, a detective story, a western, a Greek tragedy. The writers could choose one or more of these styles, all of them or none.

The six writers who shared their efforts with us took the same scenario in remarkably different directions. We had a crime story, a romance, a comic-thriller, a poem featuring Madonna, and a spy story that morphed into a vampire tale. The winner on the night was a tremendously creative east-meets-west tale set in 19th Century London and featuring Sherlock Holmes and haiku! The odd thing about the six readings was that, although we are based on the south east coast, every one of the writers set their stories in London. Perhaps that’s because Deal is such a quiet and charming place. A peaceful seaside haven would be an unlikely setting for tales of murder and Madonna and vampires and spies.

But not ghosts. If you don’t believe me then I recommend the latest issue of Deal Today, the lifestyle magazine for the east Kent town of Deal. Deal Today is available for the bargain price of £2.00 in all good newsagents and bookshops in and around Deal. Why am I hyping this august publication? Why, because the Christmas ghost story was written by yours truly. Okay, it may not be Dickens, but it’s worth two quid of anyone’s money!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Lishy Writing

I finished the redraft of The Long Week (the novel formerly known as An Honourable Man) yesterday. I’ve cut nearly 4,000 words from it, which was quite distressing at the time but I think it makes it a much better, tighter read. I’m trying very hard to teach myself to RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) everything, leaving things for the reader to work out or just leaving them unsaid.

I’ve always considered the master of concision to be the great Raymond Carver. I read a few weeks ago that his widow was planning to bring out the original ‘unexpurgated’ versions of some of his short stories, unsullied by editorial intervention, and I was eagerly awaiting their publication. Imagine my distress, therefore, to learn from last Saturday’s Guardian that most of the things I really like about Carver's writing weren’t written about Carver at all – they were written by his editor Gordon Lish.

Of course, I knew about Lish’s influence on Carver. I was once told for instance that Lish made him rewrite the 8,000 word A Small, Good Thing which resulted in the 2,000 word The Bath (although I've since learnt that Carver wrote the longer version two years after the shorter story). But I always assumed it was Carver that had penned the rewrites. Now it seems it was Lish all along. I’m pleased to say I’m not alone in feeling somehow let down. Marcel Berlins shares my sense of . . . well, if not betrayal then at least disappointment.

It’s not the fact that the stories are less good, or in any way devalued by not being entirely by the hand of the great man. It’s more that I like to aspire to describing my writing as ‘Carveresque’. From now on, I suppose I’ll have to say it is a bit ‘Lishy’.

Advice from Stephen King

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Good to be Back

I was reprimanded this morning for not updating my blog. Which is fair – I haven’t even visited the site in weeks. Months. But I have good excuses, I think.

First, the Deal Writers anthology View from the Pier was published. This involved a considerable amount of organising as we self-published. But we also received an awful lot of local publicity. I was interviewed by the East Kent Mercury and got a half-page spread with a terrible photograph of me taken with a wide-angle lens. (Wasn’t it Tony Benn who said he hated wide-angle lenses because ‘they make you look like a loony’? Well, he was right!). We had a very successful launch in a bookshop in Deal, and as the East Kent Mercury sent a photographer we managed to get another page of decent publicity. And I’m pleased to say the reviews have been good, too. But the result has been that we have already completely SOLD OUT of the first print run and I’ve just had to order an emergency reprint.

Second, I’ve been rewriting my novel An Honourable Man, changing it from third person to first person – which is a lot more work than you might think. I've also re-titled it The Long Week.

Still no news on the publication of The Belfast Boy. It has been with the publisher – who insists they are still ‘very keen’ on it – for over a year now. I’m told this is par for the course . . .

Plus, of course, my dad died and I’ve been having to deal with the sale of his house and dispersal of his estate.

So I think I have some decent excuses for my absence. But it’s good to be back!