The query letter and the dreaded synopsis (2a)

I had one or two comments that there was not enough information given as to what should be written into your query letter. I did make the point that there is a lot of nonsense written about the query letter and what one should put into it. The more you put into it all the more formulaic and wooden it will become; the very antithesis of what your would be agent is looking for. Keep it simple. There was little point in me listing 1001 things which you should not include in the document. The few points given in my previous post used in right kind of way is quite sufficient to present yourself in a meaningful way, and catch the eye of an agent.

And now to the dreaded synopsis. I used to believe that condensing your 100,000 word novel down to 500-600 words to be even more difficult than writing the novel. But, of course, that is really not what is required. As with the query letter some creative thought is necessary.

1. Try writing the synopsis in much the same style as the manuscript you present.

2. Limit the synopsis to no more than 2 pages.

3. If your novel is plot driven then describe only the main plot. Do not describe your sub plots. The last thing you want to do is confuse your would be agent, for that would be the quickest way into the rejection pile. And make the writing both logical and interesting. Describing a long descriptive list such as: First this happens and then that happens and then this happens and then that happens may well be logical but it is also seriously tedious. Make your description interesting and to the point.

4. If  the novel is character driven then describe the main characters (5 maximum) and show how they drive the plot in the briefest of ways. Show you understand their interaction. Demonstrate that the novel works.

As with the query letter show the very busy agent that you can be creative and give them reason to want to read your sample chapters. The synopsis and the query letter are the only tools you have. Use them wisely.


The query letter and the dreaded synopsis (1)

Success tapped early on my window. My first attempt won the Constable Prize for the best first novel from the North of England. That was in 1985 and the book Doves and Silk Handkerchiefs was published in the following year. I had written neither query letter nor synopsis to gain my prize. Subsequent novels were published on the back of that success by the same publisher. Three novels in the bag and never the need to go through hoops which most must jump through to find both agent and publisher. It came as a huge shock when I had to join that great band of literary athletes who must negotiate the hoop strewn course. It took a long while for me to learn the art of assembling the query letter and the dreaded synopsis.

It seems to me that there is a lot of nonsense written about the requirements for each.

Let’s take the query letter first. I think we can all agree that the letter should be short, no more than a single page. An agent’s time is precious so she doesn’t want to be wading through mountains of paper describing unwanted irrelevances. In my view the most important thing is to put something of yourself into the writing of the letter. Give her a clue as to who she is dealing with; you are trying to sell yourself as a creative writer for goodness sake, so show her that you can be creative, and never be crass. However you might describe yourself a light touch is called for – even for those who see themselves as being deadly serious. In a single page you need to:

1. Describe why you have chosen her to represent you ( there is generally bags of information out there) and do be relevant.

2. Your writing experience including any credits you have to your name.

3. The type of book you have written. Don’t repeat the synopsis in the letter, a couple of lines of well-chosen words will be enough.

Don’t be wooden, no need even be business like, but be the human being that you are. Just present yourself.

Next post I shall discuss the synopsis.

Stork in the Heavy Woollen

I was having a look through the uncredited wing on my bookshelves the other day: those are the shelves where books and papers are sent to live out their odd little lives without much fuss, and sadly for most, never to be read again. They are too idiosyncratic ever to be hauled off to the second hand bookshops, yet had been precious to me at sometime, and for some good reason: but often a reason long forgotten. At the back of my mind I roughly know what is there, but unlike all other books they don’t sing proudly from the shelves of categorized material. I came across a copy of London Magazine in the uncredited wing. It’s the only one I have: that too was kept for a very good reason, and I had just about forgotten it.  The date on the cover is February/March 1989 and it contains a short story of mine; it’s the only one I ever sought to have published, and it ended up in the pages of one of the U.K.’s top literary magazines. The title is “Stork in the Heavy Woollen”. I settled down to read it and laughed until I cried.Back in 1989 it might have been read by three or four hundred people and probably by not a soul since. After the reading I wiped away my tears, thinking this story really does deserve an audience, and with that in mind I have made the decision to post it on my blog. See what you think. If, like me, you think it deserves a wider audience please share it with others.

Stork in the heavy Woollen

It was in March – a month too early my mother moaned whilst propped up in bed with broken waters – that the stork brought our Connie all the way from Africa. He took a wander about the mill town and deciding that he liked it here he built his nest on top of our chimney-pot and settled down to wait for his mate. I stood in the cobbled street, the rain glistening off the stones, and surveyed the wet roof as it cowered beneath the leaden sky. I judged the nest to have a diameter of about three feet. It was made from twigs, a few items of clothing from our washing line ( there were my mothers bloomers and I could make out several odd socks) and it was all plastered together with mud which he had scraped up from Balmy Dubs. He was a common white stork with fragile stick-like legs, which looked as if they were about to snap at the knees, and somebody had painted him pink all over, thinking perhaps that he should be flamingo.Mrs Pyke, shopping bag lolling on her arm passed me by. “He’s a bit far west isn’t he? was all she could manage, and it was said with a sour scorn which told more of the woman’s awkward shape than knowledge of either geography or bird migration. Our neighbour chewed on her gums for a moment or two, perhaps considering a turnabout, then quite suddenly she set her square face towards the shops. I watched as she gingerly walked down the cobbles, not worn flat as they will have been in most streets, but round and proud as they had been when the street was first constructed. We lived at the top of the town and the road was so steep that nobody came up our way. The few who lived at the very top like us and the Pykes didn’t go anywhere very much, except to the shops and down to work. Those who managed to find a job at all worked at Ridley’s Mill. I watched the black smoke billowing out of Ridley’s chimney in the valley below: watched the wet, the smoke, the rear view of the grey Mrs Pyke, old coat flapping as she picked her way down to the shops. We had no motors. or carts or anything with wheels which might wear away the stones, there was just us and our feet and a few dogs who had been set down at the top the hill. Like fairies on a Christmas tree, my father used to say. It was quite unfair to expect us to flatten them stones; like Mrs Pyke we all had to be careful how we picked our way for fear of bunions, and dropped arches. It’s quite unfair – that’s what my mother would often tell anyone who cared listen. The Boots Pharmacy wrapped in its aromatic smells of Tolu Balsam and toilet water did a bomb with felt-padded insoles and corn plasters. My parents visited the chiropodist every Saturday morning. He did a bomb too. It was quite unfair – my mother would moan on at Mr Palfreyman’s bowed head, as he pared away the dead skin from her feet. Meanwhile, my father wrote to the council, begging them to come and reset the road surface with cobbles which might be easier on the feet, but though he received many letters in reply not a soul came. We were on our own up there in that rarified atmosphere: we had to do our own flattening. Mr Pyke, who fancied himself an engineer, concluded that with the present population as it was we should each have to go about our normal daily activities for two hundred and eighty-seven years before an impression would be made on the rounded cobbles. Either that, or each household would have to produce over one hundred children for there to be even a slight wearing of the stone within a decade. At least, our Connie was a start on that long haul, I thought as I heard her cries from the cot in the bedroom, and as I watched the disappearing figure of Mrs Pyke winding into the valley where the town lived: standing on its two good feet and mostly unaware of our limping existence. I looked back to the nesting stork. I suppose Mrs Pyke was right; he was a long way west. But storks are like that, they have flankers who are supposed to warn the rest of the flock of danger as they flap their migratory ways from the great lakes of Africa all the way to Huddersfield. I guessed that the pink bird, who at this moment didn’t seem to mind the thick black smoke whistling through his feathers whilst he amiably sat waiting, had been a flanker who had drifted so far in his search for the unusual that he had completely lost touch with his fellow travellers. It seems he had picked up little Connie in her fall from wherever over Africa, and ended up depositing her down our chimney a bit on the early side.

Three months later the sun came out, Connie smiled at me for the first time in the drawing room as she lay in my mother’s lap, and the stork still sat on our chimney-pot waiting for his mate to show up. At the back of our house there is a narrow flat area in the centre of which there is a depression which holds the rain water. It’s a natural bowl in the sandstone and it forever fills with water, and breeds insects and frogs. It must have been this narrow pool, called Balmy Dubs, which had attracted the stork to our house in the fist place. It was an ideal dining area for a solitary stork in the Heavy Woollen – a place of natural sustenance. After Connie smiled at me for the first time I went out to Balmy Dubs to look at the bird. He came down from the black roof in a red glide, his wings spanning all of eight feet, and he stood beside me an inch or two taller than myself. After wading about for a while, and feeding from the army of green frogs which had marshalled itself by the pool, he slowly walked about drying his legs among the red and pink poppies, and the ivy-leafed toadflax which grew from the moss covered outcropping at the top of our hill. Then he suddenly turned, eyed me with curiosity and bowed like a courtier He held out a stiff leg, and lowered his head turning it to one side. His eye had informed me we were about to dance. I was petrified. As much as I liked the pink stork there was no way I would consider him as a mate, not even as surrogate in his courtship dance. “Bugger off,” I suddenly found the courage to shout, and he flew off to the chimney-pot where he nested: spurned and shaking until his feathers loosened. I ran into the house, slamming the door shut behind me. I stood like a wallflower by the drawing room window, gradually calming from the sudden rage which had stormed upon me. The poppies growing in the interstices between the cobbles made a curious scarlet and black chequerboard of the steep hill in front of our house.

That night we had burglars. They crept into the house while we all slept, and stole my mother’s gold ring: the one with the triple ruby inset which had been in the family for so many years that nobody could remember its history. After the evening washing of the pots my mother had accidentally left it on the draining-board in the scullery. It had been easy pickings for the thief and my mother, filled with remorse for her carelessness, spent the following morning under the trees at Balmy Dubs. My grandfather, who slept up in the attic, after hearing of the news leaned out of his window and yelled at the stork not six foot from his head. “If tha can’t guard t’ouse what bloody use are thee? Tha’d better clear off.” The stork caught him with a solitary movement of the eye and opened and closed his beak several times making a noise like two pieces of wood being clapped together. It made a terrible din. “It’s too late now tha daft ha’peth. Tha should’ve been doin’ that last night,” my grandfather admonished. The bird continued to eye him up. I looked at him too, and as she passed me in the cobbled road Mrs Pyke turned towards our wet roof, her large head heavy as stone on a short plinth of a neck. “It’s a rum bird is that,” she said. Then she set her face towards the shops, and hitched her shopping bag a little higher up her arm.

When September came and still our now sombre lodger had not received his mate we began to wonder glumly if she might never arrive. “He’ll have to be off soon, or he’ll miss the tide,” my father told us cryptically, for he made it sound as if we were about to launch a fish. Then, as the ragged army of frogs took to the highest branches of flimsy trees and their generals escaped with their medals down the cobbles and all the way to the canal, the stork had no choice but to change his diet. He lived off poppy seeds and bread crusts. My father went to get the chimney-sweep, and carried his brushes up the hill for him. The sweep, whose name was Mr Biddle, wore a sooty top hat and frock- coat, and he had a winged celluloid collar. He normally pedalled about on a large tricycle but our hill was far too steep and bumpy for him, so he agreed to try and dislodge our visitor only if my father carried the brushes. The two men walked up from the town, my father with a great bundle of wooden rods on his shoulder. In the drawing room Mr Biddle fitted his sticks together producing a pole every bit as fragile-looking as the stork’s legs, and he poked it, with the brush at the end, up the chimney. Then we had a massive fall of soot which covered everything in the drawing room, including my grandfather who had fallen asleep in his chair. We had all been so intent upon the stork’s removal that we had completely forgotten that the chimney might have needed a good sweeping. Mr Biddle apologised and my mother went about the drawing room flapping a duster at the furniture and crying a lot. My grandfather woke up. Mr Biddle apologised some more and my grandfather went back to sleep. Then my father sent my mother out of the house and asked me to go with her to see that she was alright. My mother and I stood in the cobbled street and turned our attention to the rainy roof. The brush suddenly emerged pushing up the nest with the stork still sitting in it. He just sat there, a large ball of pink wool, clacking his beak together, and sounding like a group of old ladies knitting pullovers. The nest rose about six inches off the pot and then plonked back down again, ending up in roughly the same position it hade occupied before. The brush appeared again: like a giant spider its black legs crawled stealthily under the nest. Once it had grabbed the basket of twigs, Mr Biddle strained to lift it and we could hear him asking my father to give him a hand. But this time the stork had been ready for the brush and we could see him bearing down with all of his might, holding his home to the chimney pot. He spread his wings, at first we thought to fly off, but as it turned out only to give himself more leverage by pressing his wingtips to the old, wet slates. “Come on father, you can help too,” I heard my father say to Granddad who must have woken up again. With the added effort on the rods, the nest was pushed up and hovered, spinning on the black bristles about a foot in the air. The stork was madly flapping his wings causing a terrible down draught, and we could here the three men coughing as debris from the nest must have been forced down the chimney and into their lungs. Then there was a sudden snapping noise and Mr Biddle said, “Bugger it.” The stork and his nest were back on the perch. My mother and I went into the house and found the men all in a heap on the sooty floor, and raising a squawk deafening as any three jungle parrots. Connie woke up and yelled from her cot in the bedroom adding an awful juvenility to the noise. Meanwhile, the stork on the chimney-pot went to sleep. My father paid off the sweep, and carried his broken rods down the hill for him. It took my mother a week to clean up the mess.

At the approach to Christmas our visitor was reduced to eating rotten acorns which months earlier had fallen out of the trees. He also managed the heads of some early snowdrops, which he took into his beak as a Chinaman might take in a single grain of rice with heavy wooden chopsticks. It was all very sad and nobody knew what to do for the best. I  was sitting on the frozen ground at Balmy Dubs watching him scavenge in the mostly iced-up pond. The cold was slowing him, and he shivered in a sudden snow flurry. Icicles hung from his lower beak and he had to clap his beak together several times, which was done very slowly, to be rid of them. He eyed my grandfather as the old man approached with a length of heavy linked metal chain slung over his shoulder. “Tha mother wants thee,” he told me, and I raised myself from off of my haunches without wetting my hands on the light covering of snow. I went to the kitchen, where my mother baked pies in a floury haze, and was welcomed to the warmth of her oven. Minutes later my grandfather burst in, his face filled with excitement and hardly able to control his gabble. “E’s gone,” he said, “She came and took ‘im  and they flew south together. If tha’s quick tha’ll see ’em out front.” My mother and I ran to the door and looked out on the cobbles. The icy hill fell away, into the smoking valley below. The snow was falling heavily now. There were two lonely birds fluttering far off in the grey sky. They may as well have been pigeons. My mother wiped her floury hands on her apron whilst standing on the doorstep, letting  snow into the house. She was crying. “What’s up now?” my grandfather asked.

Like me she was going to miss him. Then my grandfather held out his hand and said, “Got thee a Christmas present.” The gold ring with the triple ruby inset sat in his outstretched palm. “I found it when I slit the gizzard.” She wept buckets over her Christmas present, and my father said that he couldn’t understand why she was so upset by the rediscovery of the family heirloom. When she came across on Boxing Day for left-overs Mrs Pyke said she thought the turkey tasted funny, and pulled a perfectly square face. My mother smiled at that. It was the first time she had smiled in days.

Breathing life into your novel

I told my G.P. I thought I had always been a shallow breather. He put me straight, telling me that we adjust our breathing in accordance with lung capacity at the time: reduce it and we will exhale a reduced volume, increase it and we exhale more. Simple enough isn’t it?

I think he was telling me that faulty bellows will not engage the fire within; the bellows must first be fixed. With his help that is the task I undertake; I have no more thoughts of having been a shallow breather since birth.

Punctuation in a ‘living’ novel defines the pauses between the breath of words; get the punctuation right and you will see how the novel lives. Take any paragraph from any novel, remove the punctuation and you will see how it chokes and dies. Apply the comma, semicolon, colon and full stop (period in the United States) and see how the sense and the life return. But sense and life in this context implies nothing other than your novel’s subsistence: the way in which it pauses for breath to create an existence of its own. To gauge the pace of the novel you must punctuate wisely.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the four marks cited. Yes, by all means try to use them in a way that is grammatically correct, but just as importantly, if not more so, use them to pause the breath of words in appropriate ways. If you consider the full stop (period) to have a time value of 4, then the comma will have a time value of 1: similarly the semicolon a value of 2 and the colon a value of 3. There are no absolute values here, merely pauses relative to the pause value of the full stop. Try creating your paragraphs as you would hope to have them read, and that calls for a very clear voice in the head.

The pace of the novel is inevitably going to vary according to the narrator, the type of tale being told, and the stage you are at in relating the tale, so be sensitive to the needs of the characters and be true to yourself and your craft. Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Where you might use a comma on one occasion you might find it more fitting (in terms of pause and space) to use a semicolon, or a colon on another similar occasion. It may be necessary to make small adjustments to be grammatically correct, but the effort will be worth it to see your novel live and breathe as the type of animal you have strived for it to be. A tiger instead of a pussycat? Or, perhaps. a pussycat and not a tiger?

Mind, soul, body, brain; keeping ’em all together

I heard a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist being interviewed on the radio this morning. His work seems to involve the firing of individual cells and their appreciation by the brain. I supposed this went on with or without a functioning mind (one hooked up to other machines to keep it alive) which led me to see and to think in a clearer way than ever before how it is our minds that inhabit those machines we call our bodies. The brain controls the firing of the cells, it listens to the firing, presumably makes adjustments where necessary involving a zillion biofeedback mechanisms, and keeps the body humming along.

Now, we can define a body as many things: as an assembly or a committee, or indeed as any other kind of group; a form or a shape or even, most crucially, as a cadaver – or as the writer of crime fiction might have it, as a “dead person”. Of which there ain’t no such thing. A body in this sense may well be a late-lamented one, but a “person” can be nothing but a living soul. A body then is the contraption our minds traipse around in until it’s time to part. The brain directs things for as long as it is able but it too is eventually overcome and dies. The mind (spirit, soul, call it what you will) floats on its merry way looking for who knows what to infect, infest, imbue, fire up, illuminate and enlighten.

There is a novel in here somewhere for someone to create. Meanwhile the professor of neuroscience will continue to fiddle around in his laboratory laboriously looking for the next bit of the puzzle to fall into place. It strikes me that the scientist and the novelist respond to their thoughts in similar ways, but it seems the writer gets to where he is headed in so much quicker time.

I hear the philosophers right now sharpening their pencils to respond with arguments about truth and fiction and their comments will be welcome, but you know it is all true, and it is all fiction; all a part of the same story. It depends on whose story is being told.

Of second novels and the slush-pile

I wrote my second  novel “Grandmother, Grandmother Come and See” in super quick time. It had fallen from me as one great chunk of granitic prose. I didn’t feel the need for a rewrite and sent it to my publisher, apologetically admitting that I had hardly touched the original manuscript. My editor loved it, telling me that it was sometimes the best way to approach a novel. That was in 1988/9. When the novel was published the front cover carried a comment from a reviewer that it was “A masterpiece of English magic realism.”

Today, would be writers are told the secret of publishing success lies in the rewrite, and I would be the first to agree. Honing and polishing until your would be agent or publisher can see your face (or should that read “their faces”) in the manuscript seems to be the order of the day. Sound advice, I think, if you are to see yourself in print. I recently finished “Watching Sparks Fly”. I lost count of the time it took to complete and the number of rewrites I made until I was “happy” with the finished ms. I was about to say “entirely happy” here, but I realise there is inevitably a niggle or two with the product no matter what stage it is at; striving for perfection is truly a waste of time and effort. After all, there are so many choices to make as one writes: Is one word or phrase better than another, at that moment? Should one use a comma or a semi-colon in such a sentence? And related to the punctuation itself is the question: How should my novel breathe? And so it goes on: Would my character truly behave in such a way? How is it best to begin the novel: with what sentence, with which word? There are so many choices to be made it is a wonder that a novel ever gets finished at all. But they do; everyday, thousands of them.

Perhaps my editor, when telling me that it is sometimes best to accept the initial manuscript, was offering a truth we don’t always care to see: The writer with one novel tucked beneath his belt has the trust of his editor, who already knows how well the novelist is able to write, and almost by definition likes the writing. But, for all of those unpublished authors competing for acceptance out of the slush-pile, then yes, it is rather obvious isn’t it, that you must present with the very best you can write to catch an agent’s eye. And that means, rewrite, polish and hone until you are sick of it, hopefully improving upon what you initially had  but with no guarantee of it.

I wonder how many other second novels just fell from the type-writer directly onto the desk of their editor ready formed. I recall my editor saying when he phoned to congratulate me after first reading the manuscript, “It’s like in writing this book you have learned to do it.” Implying, I suppose, that it was so much better than my first novel. He would be disappointed to hear that I now find myself in a curious place. I did once have the recognition and the acceptance which the unpublished seek, but after so long a time since my last publication I find I must somehow shout effectively from the slush-pile. Let them all know that “I am trapped in here”. I am working on it, and have only in the last week or two been requested to send the full manuscript to an agent.

Writing may be a lonely old business..

The worst thing about being a published writer is not knowing what the reading public might think of your work. If you have read my earlier blogs you will know that success happened a long time ago for me. My last publication was in 1992: that was “Brightside” published by Penguin. My newspaper and magazine reviews always had been good, and those for “Brightside” were no exception. But that was in the days long before Amazon would invite the reading public to write exactly what they thought of a book, under the title name, on its website. My books are now out of print, so unless it is possible to review a second hand book on Amazon (and who knows, perhaps it can be done) I guess I shall just have to accept it as a boat I missed. Which is a pity because I am hoping at some future date to negotiate a reprinting of “Brightside”, and a whole bunch of first class reviews on Amazon would help enormously in achieving that goal.

I recently googled my name and received some rather pleasant surprises. The following is a list of references which quite unexpectedly were to warm  my heart:

b3ta qotw g.h.morris

eye candy for bibliophiles (click on g.h.morris)

William redfern g.h.morris g.h.morris

Friends and family almost always tell us what we want to hear about our books and the manuscripts we dump on them, and that’s to be expected. But learning your book resonates, lingers for years in the memory of strangers or features among the top ten books someone has read, and features in a list of recognisably worthy companions, gives one a sense of real achievement.

I also see that I get four mentions in the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide (1st edition 1988). To make a favourable impression is what we strive for, and to learn we have been successful should only be a dig in the ribs to move on to greater things. Writing may be a lonely old business, but to know I have touched base with somebody out there makes it less so. It tells me the meaning of those sweated words has, however miraculously, somehow been received and understood.

Have confidence and belief in your writing

I recently changed the title of the novel I am currently writing from ‘The Mathematics of History’, to ‘Watching Sparks Fly – the consequences of my mother’s affair with the man in the metal boot’. Dreadfully long title, but you have to capture the attention of any would be agent, and let’s face it, a title can be changed. Getting anyone to read your full manuscript these days is a difficult task.

I understand that each agent is looking at a slush pile of around 5000 submissions a year. They are reading the first 50 pages (3 chapters) of perhaps 25 of those, and eventually requesting to see the full manuscript of possibly a handful, of which 2 or 3 will see publication. You need to have a lot of nerve and persistence, and much blind faith in your abilities, to succeed with odds like that against you. It goes without saying that your manuscript must be as good as you can get it, but is that good enough? How many rewrites are going to make it good enough? How many misspelled words, or grammatical errors, are too many in the first few pages before the reader cries ‘too much’, and grumpily tosses your submission aside?

Perhaps I am being a little unfair on the agent here. Perhaps those first few pages are beautifully written, truly indicative of the rest of the novel. Perhaps you have put a big smile on the agent’s face, lent that warm glow inside which they get when reading great prose, made their week with it, and yet it in their heart of hearts they know it is not a manuscript they can sell to the publishers? In other words, it is not commercial. It may well be a manuscript they could have sold years ago, but not in today’s climate. Which makes me wonder how many great writers of the past would not find publication today. It used to be said that a great manuscript will always eventually find a home, but I really do not think that is true anymore.

In an interview in the Paris Review (1956) William Faulkner said,

‘There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow theory. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.’

It is probable that Will Faulkner, Nobel prize winner, would never have found publication in the day of the creative writing course. It is true that many of today’s successful writers are products of the ‘writing schools’ but I submit that most of them, more than likely, would have found success had they attended the course or not. More likely that like William Faulkner they have supreme confidence in their abilities to tell a good tale in their own ways, and keep it commercial. Whatever that might mean!

Are you blocked?

A young man wrote me the other day saying that he had been inspired by some ideas he had, but didn’t get too far in putting them in narrative form, and implied that he was awaiting the motivation to try again.

You can’t hang around waiting for motivation. You can wait for the inspiration to try motivating yourself, but that could mean doing nothing for an awful long time. We writers should always take the shorter route (in terms of time) and get on with the obvious. We already have the ideas ( or the material as my correspondent called it) even if it is in only some vague form. Writing is what cements them together. We have to dispense with the laziness, and the fears of failure that overcome us, and put in both the physical and the mental effort to motivate ourselves; apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and write. That is what those of us who tag ourselves as writers do, isn’t it? We write. We must dispel any notions of being blocked because that is only another way of saying that we are awaiting motivation. The effort can be punishing, but if you ever want to have that finished manuscript in your hand, wish to see the work published, then there is no other way.

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The first sentence is the hardest

I am a writer who has no interest in plotting his novels before he starts to write them. I like to be in the reader’s shoes, fascinated by developments. It is a way of entertaining myself, as I hope the reader is entertained. I allow the characters to surprise me as I hope they will surprise my reader. They have me laugh and cry and take me on their rollercoaster ride as they would you when reading the finished work. I run with my creations, listen to them talk to me as I write their words; sometimes amazed at what they say, often staggered at what they do, and by the course a life takes. I seemingly do little but follow them. But they are creating the plot for me, giving us their story as I report what goes on in each picture in my head; sewing it all together. I have very clear visual imagery, so description isn’t a problem. Creating the character isn’t a problem, in fact, it seems that he creates himself – initially as a cartoon – but that’s alright with me. I can always sketch in more detail should I feel it needed, but often I leave them to appear as they arrived in my head – seemingly from nowhere. Oddly, they very often arrive with a name stitched to them, and I rarely change that given name. So, even though I start without plot, I watch the characters creating their story for me, developing themes, creating their own psychologies, and philosophies, evolving their lives. Again it is odd that I am unable to do this outside of the writing process. To be honest I wouldn’t know where to begin. I have no concept of the characters unless, as it used to be, I had pen in hand or as I am now – sitting at the keyboard.

Working as I do I find the most difficult thing is to get started. I don’t mean that I am blocked. I don’t believe there to be such a thing as writer’s block. I think there is only fear; fear that the writing will be not good enough, that what we produce will be unacceptable. That we shall fail. Somebody once wrote that the art of writing is the ability to attach the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I think that just about sums it up; sit down, stay there, stop worrying and write. You are bound to produce something, and the worst it can be is a very bad piece of writing. So what! If you are any good the next day will show improvement. And the more often you try it, the more improvement there will be. If you want to write, you must commit yourself to writing. No, what I mean about getting started is that for all of those who do not plot the book, the first sentence is the hardest simply because we are writing both from and into a void. There is no clue as to what the sentence should be about. I usually find my first sentence is a line of what could be poetry. I think it’s a matter of recognising the rhythm. Because the mind at that stage should be empty of ideas, devoid of words, one becomes aware of rhythm which hums along a while, then is suddenly embellished by words. I can well remember when I sat down to write ‘Doves and Silk Handkerchiefs’, and out of the rhythm in my head I wrote the sentence ‘My great-great grandmother who was born on the day of the battle of Waterloo slowly climbed the slope of Hunger Hill’. It took a while to appear but once written it was never changed. And all followed from that. No longer writing from the void, sentence follows sentence, Idea follows idea, and so your novel grows.