Tag Archives: How to

Dear Jon . . . (#16) Re: Crime and Punishment, Trials and Castles


The digital flap rings out, and a writhing mass of bletters slap down onto the mat, each one struggling against the dark red elastic band that binds them to each other.

A bletter gets loose and wriggles away so, in order to keep it from slipping down the hole in the skirting board chewed long ago by an ancient king-rat’s many teeth in many heads, you skewer it on the end of your bletter harpoon and chew away the edible flaps to reveal the words etched into the skin of the bletter in rattlesnake venom.

Dear Jon,” the bletter begins. “Being, shall we say, terminally unhip – I too had an angst canon, though the bulk of it came out of the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s. Specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, the connections with your canon are there, no? Instead of a murderous Manhattanite, there’s the axe-wielding Raskolnikov killing old women in St Petersburg…”

To read the rest of the bletter turn to page 34, or click here .



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The Best Books For Writers – Part 4: Books on Reading


Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing

Part 3 – Books on The Writing Life

Generally speaking the advice all new writers get is: 1) Write. A lot. 2) Look over everything you write critically. Ideally with others. 3) Read widely and closely.

If you dropped English after GCSEs and didn’t pay that much attention before them, is that reading is often a really passive activity. Reading closely, which is the main way one absorbs the interesting stuff from what one reads, is a learned skill. These are some books that help guide you towards that.

Part 4 – Books on Reading Like A Writer

1. Top Pick: Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose


Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

Probably the first best book to read on this subject, Reading Like A Writer goes step by step through the kind of things to look for when close reading: words, sentences, paragraphs etc… up to higher level structural things.

As the title suggests the focus is on reading to figure out how a piece works, and to collect examples of good writing in our brains for reference. To that end the book is full of practical examples and comes with a reading list at the back.

2. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by Various

A huge book with all the key texts in Literary Theory from the Ancient Greeks to the latest trends. Each author and gets an short introduction and biographical note that puts their work in context.

This is probably the best reference for how other people have viewed reading over-seriously throughout history. Like most of the humanities – ideas which are stupid or monomaniacal as individual ideas add up to provide a nuanced and interesting collage of a world view when anthologised.

3. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

VW’s multivolume collection of critical essays aimed at the reader who has a taste for books but is not concerned with the kind of ‘rigorous’ criticisms of the Norton anthology.

She gives her thoughts on the work of a huge range of literary greats and sidetracks into other bookish musings throughout. Worth reading for Woolf’s prose alone.

4. How Fiction Works by James Wood

A slightly odd book, but informative. This is Wood’s analysis of the realist novel, and gives a readable breakdown of a particular sort of style, raising writerish questions and providing at least one of the answers to them.

I’m not sure I fully trust Wood’s manifesto as being what all fiction should be, but deffo some of it.

5. The Fun Stuff by James Wood and 6. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis and 7. Many other similar collections.

Plenty of writers – like Amis – have turned critic for at various periods in their lives, some have always and only been critics – like Wood – collections of their essays on other people’s writings are a source of ways of thinking about what you read, and can help prod your brain in interesting directions about books you’ve already read.

5 and 6 are just two examples that I happen to have dipped into and found useful recently. I leave the possible 7s to your personal researches.

Coming soon…

Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General



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The Best Books For Writers – Part 3: Books on the Writing Life


Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing


A page from Linda Barry’s What It Is.

These books have some crossover with the books on craft (the first half of King’s On Writing is memoir rather than guide).

1. Top Pick: A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

This is my top pick for a number of reasons. It touches on so many aspects of the writing life, detailing Woolf’s concerns and ideas, various manifestos, the thoughts behind her novels. You get to see things grown from a vague idea and take form for her on the page.

But the main reason I would recommend it to anyone who writes is for the violent mood swings. Entries that are days apart can assess her current WIP as being either a worthless self-indulgence that should be burned, or a satisfying piece possibly her best.

It is always good to see someone else come out of that slump time and time again.

2. A Life in Letters by Anton Chekov

Penguin produced this set of letters in which Anton Chekov touches on every part of his life. Somehow both prolific and brilliant, Chekov is someone to worth listening to.

3. Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

Written as a novel, with most of the real life names obscured, though often not very well (Wystan Hugh Auden for example is called Hugh Weston), Lions and Shadows covers Isherwood’s formative years as a writer and the drafting of his first works. It is facinating to get a sense of how his friends influenced him and how he figured out what he wanted his books to do.

Also recommended are Isherwood’s Diaries which come in several volumes.

4. What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is another recommendation from Interior DaseinWhat It Is is part artistic guide, part memoir, part objet d’art. With each page a collage of drawings and handwritten notes.

5. Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers by Various

A book of interviews made up of writers who were asked, “Who would you like to interview about writing?”. These writer to writer conversations are a great source of writerly tidbits.

6. Paris Review Interviews by Various (in many volumes)

Covering decades there are hundreds of these interviews with writers, all focused on how the writers write, what their approaches to literature are, the arcs of their careers. It is probably one of the most interesting and useful resources out there.

The interviews can also be found for free on the Paris Review website.

7. The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot by Lyndall Gordon (reviewed here)

This is both a biography and a biographical reading of Eliot’s work. It is fascinating to see the mirroring of his concerns both in life (where he was a persistently troubled and terrible human) and in his works (where he is brilliant).

A good place to see how not to let one’s artistic concerns rule your actual life.


There were several memoirs which didn’t make it either because they failed to cover writing much (e.g. Martin Amis’ Experience) or because I haven’t read them or been recommended them by friends (e.g. Dante’s La Vita Nuova).

I am sure you’ll be able to find plenty more yourself, and I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Coming soon…

Part 4 – Books on Reading Like a Writer

Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General


Filed under Reading, Writing

How to Write Novel: Part 1


Image by Ralph Steadman.

Having finished Part 1 of 5 of The Novel,  now might be a good point to talk about how that got done. So, here goes…

I once pestered Jim about how he does his planning. In usual writery style he went into ten or twenty minutes of incoherent blather using his mouth, then went away and wrote it all down with great clarity and style on paper. His comments, and the writings of A L Kennedy, Stephen King, Martin Amis, Uncle Jim, Bisherwood, Lifehacks.com and any number of other writers on Writing all contributed to my thinking and doing on this. None of those people work in the same way. What follows is what has worked for me, so far.

The Throb

‘How do you come up with that?’ is one of the more flattering questions a writer can be asked. It’s also an unpleasant one to answer. While the process remains invisible it can also remain impressive. And you and the questioner can continue to look on your writing as the work of a genius, bestriding the world like a Colossus, great verdigrised balls dangling high above the peons who crawl about in their shadow.

Unforch, the reality is that ideas come not from genius but from an accretion of smaller ideas, each one thought up assessed and then followed for a little while until it starts to branch out into interesting possibilities.

For the current novel, I was originally thinking about writing a Vietnam novel, something based on the shlockier end of cinema’s dealings with the American involvement over there. But I was also on a kick of reading difficult books at the time, the variations of the voices and form of Ulysses got into my head. The verbal and temporal shenaniganising of Will Self’s Umbrella gave me more thoughts, and The Novel became a whole other thing. Something rather more serious and far less about Vietnam itself. More about the legacy.

Martin Amis talks about Nabokov talking about ‘the Throb’ a kind of building need to write one particular thing over the many others. It is one of the writerly metaphors I buy almost completely. For me it tends to feel more like a snowball as those notes accrete, so does motivation and research and thought-space. At some point it becomes The Thing to Be Done.

I wrote six first chapters for six different novels while I waited for the contractions to begin on one of them. In the end it was this.

The Wrong Way For Me.

The last two novels I wrote were written after Stephen King’s approach: one draft with the door closed, one with it open – the idea being to write the thing start to finish as fast as possible working out what it is as you go. When you get to the end you read it through and remould the mass of word clay into something more novel-pot shaped.

The result after the first draft for both of those last two novels was something too close to a novel to make a total rewrite acceptable, but much much too far from anything coherent or readable to be worth saving. They were worthwhile exercises and the process was educational. I wouldn’t be writing the current work as well as I am, if I hadn’t got those two failures under my belt.

So it turns out, Stephen King’s approach was not the one for me. I might still recommend it to someone just starting out. There is a sense of momentum, and of fun, in seeing your word count build. And it gives you a huge pile of rough sentences to go over and correct and learn all the ways to say things badly from. The more you write the more you learn about writing, and the faster you write the sooner that learning comes. Assuming you are stopping regularly to pore over the words you are producing.

Step 1– Prep Work

So with the new novel a far greater level of planning is involved. So I have fussed more, working out how my many narrators interact, and the different plot threads, theme threads, needle and threads connect up or work together. I also needed to do a ton of research on the late sixties in America and Vietnam and early noughts in the UK.

But research is not just stuff like ‘When were the moon landings?’, ‘Could someone have eaten KFC in 1969?’, or ‘Was 9/11 on a Friday?’. It was also things like seeing how other writers had handled similar themes, settings, or formal approaches. That lead to one of my favourite things: reading lists (click to see mine here).

The prep period was – or rather ‘is’ as the whole business continues even as I write the darn thing – also a time of just mulling. After reading stuff, I have to think stuff, then scribble the stuff down before I forget it. I suspect that in a lifetime everyone has the ideas for a great work of art; but because your brain – like mine, and like Soylent Green – is made of people those ideas are lost the minute attention is diverted. This is why writers should always carry notebooks. Always. Just like I would if I didn’t constantly forget them. Also pens, carry pens.

The notes, when they do get writ, are rarely original. They’re more likely to be triggered by some fact (For example, have you heard of Operation Wandering Soul?) but also things I watch or read. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘I have seen X done before, how could it be done in a fresh as fresh new way?’ or something more along the lines of ‘Y is great, what is the next logical step to that?’ or sometimes just, ‘Z is great. Let’s do Z, but in space.’ The old saying about ‘bad artists borrow, great artists steal’ applies.

Step 2– Outlining

At some point the miasm of notes, thoughts, ideas, sexual fantasies, &c… begin to condense into a sticky dew. At which point a more analytical sort of brain steps in and starts to order the fragmented notes (and images and sentences and plot lines and characters and trivia) into something that might, if you squint, start to look like a blueprint for a piece of art.

With this novel I broke the whole thing down vertically into columns which represent the chronology of the book, and horizontally into rows threads which represent various elements: in this book there are several time periods running concurrently, and different narrators for each. Then I add another row for thematic development and another for general notes.

Once I had a sort of map sorted in my head and on paper, I moved on to to a planning document, referring to the table I drop the notes into a rough sort of order, hen jot down specific scenes.

As I go along the planning document changes; I write from start to finish so I have detailed notes of the next few chapters, then less detailed notes for the chapters after that, and vague sentences outlining the sections beyond that; the further away the sentences are from being written, the vaguer those sentences.

Step 3– Drafting

I then set up another document to act as a workspace, notes are transferred here scene by scene. Sentences are jotted down, paragraphs too. Bit by bit they get linked up into scenes or sequences, and finally chapters.

As a section takes shape I go over it again and again filling in the gaps and correcting the more heinous incidences of cliche and general ugliness. Once it looks roughly right, it goes into the first draft document which will eventually contain the entire work in progress.

So far the first draft doc contains the thirteen chapters of section 1.

Step 3.1 – Words

When time, and concentration, are on my side the process of writing looks something like  this article by A L Kennedy only less accomplished. A sort of slow working and reworking, fussing over word choice and rhythm. Looking for something that is stylish and which works with the themes and atmosphere of the particular scene and the general book.

The writing of sentences involve a few main concerns. The negative concerns are avoiding clunky phrasing, ugly repetition, accidental rhyme (deliberate rhyme – or half rhyme – is fine), words with the wrong connotations, phrases containing  dead language, phrases containing cliches. The problem is that the first thought is always the most natural, but it is also the most likely to be derivative. Borrowed language is, as the joke goes, to be avoided like the plague.

The positive concerns of writing sentences are packing as much plot, character, theme, and what A L Kennedy calls ‘atmosphere’ in one of her other essays, as possible into every fragment of language. While doing this you are also looking to make something that sounds readable and/or euphonic and/or stylish and/or beautiful. It has to serve a function in the scene, be clear in what it is describing, and never lose sight of the way the book as a whole works.

The sentence by far the most enjoyable and/or gruelling bit of the writing process for me. As world building, or storytelling, or seeing what characters will do next is for others.

I think there is a subtle divide, one which lives close to the genre/literary divide, between those who enjoy the creation of the story: plot (Dan Brown), character (Chandler), and world building (Tolkien); and those who enjoy dealing with ideas or concepts (Huxley); and with those for whom all of that is just a vehicle for fucking about with words  (Amis, M).

Step 3.2 – The Scene

At a scene level I tend to rush, often back and forth, over the scene. Or write one ideas progression, and go back in the next pass writing in the other thought, or the action, or whatever.

Scenes for me tend to be built up step by step out of stage directions (blocking and dialogue, who goes where, does what, in the course of the scene), exposition (what information is revealed about stage directiony stuff that isn’t directly in the scene), and thoughts. Other passes may focus on tightening up things like how a symbol is used, or details which point to something that I don’t want to state explicitly but I want to be there in the text.

This more rushed the back and forth the more work to be done either in later passes, or in future when I come to do the second draft.

Step 4 – Rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

The result of all those threads and sentences is a block of material which should read like a coherent passage. At that point I start to go over it, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, smoothing out the wrinkles, fixing grammar and typos. If it needs big structural changes, or just seems dull, I’ll add notes to look specifically at large scale changes in the second draft.

The ‘step’ nature of this essay is a bit misleading, as at this point and for most of the process all four stages have been in progress, overlapping. I start new scenes before putting old ones to bed. I’ll fuss over sentences before I’ve worked out what all the threads of a scene will be, and I’ll stop mid-scene to go and write an overview of something else later in the book. There’s no hard split between these stages.

Step 5 – ….and Beyond.

So I go back and forth over it all. And then again. And again. Once I can’t see it anymore – because its all patterned too deeply into my retinas, and neural networks, then I copy and paste the piece of writing into a third Document entitled FIRST DRAFT.

Or at least that’s what happens in a perfect world, more likely I rewrite it till I’m sick of it.

And then it is onwards towards the second section.


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Where did all that Summer go?


June in one of the years of Victoria’s reign. Now that we’ve Brexited I assume we can also start reinstating the Empire. Image from this guy’s Pinterest.

In November when I quit work and moved from my island home to Bristol, I had a pretty clear timeline for The Novel in my head, and a years worth what I thought was a years worth of savings in my bank.

Now, I am several months behind on the novel and looking at falling much, much further behind. And as for the savings… yeeesh.

This isn’t entirely a negative thing. A lot of the time lost on the novel has been to ‘reading weeks’ spent working on research, and on time given over to payed writing of the freelance variety. Some of these distractions have  even turned into regular gigs with Poker Tube and a few more articles – and now a longer term contract – writing for Front Vision. And then there was the move earlier this month from Bristol to Leamington and all the hassle that things like that entail.

For those who are interested, here are the highlights of what I have not been posting about over the last 2.5 months.

First, There Was June

  • The first of the pieces went up on Poker Tube (my full oeuvre there can be read here).
  • I also learnt the hard way not to read comments on Facebook for anything, especially articles (like this one) where you talk about something people love in highly-qualified but negative terms. The comments on PokerTube’s site were pretty civil, the ones on the FB page, less so.
  • I also had a trip back to the island home for a friend of the lady-friend’s wedding. It was lovely to see those few I did manage to see while I was there, and heartbreaking to not see all those I didn’t. On the whole though, I am still thrilled to be away from the place. Small island life is exactly as small islandy as you think it is.
  • I read a bit, wrote a bit, and time moved on…

Then After Came July

  • July brought with it some bad news: a parting of the ways between me and the lady-friend, and some good: new start in Leamington and getting moved and settled with huge amount of help from some top qual friends.
  • I also did some volunteering at Bristol Zoo before the move. It involved more yelling at kids who wanted to pull the lemur’s tails than actually cuddling the adorable – or wrestling the dangerous – animals. Several people dropped their phones in with the seals.
  • I then spent a couple of weeks in Leam on Jim‘s spare bed, while hunting up a flat and generally sorting the new life in Warwickshire.

And Now, August

  • With the kind help of loads of nice people at the Warwickshire end I have completed the move of all my stuff and said a farewell to the Ladyfriend and to Bristol.
  • I have begun tentatively to get back into the novel (aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on it), and am juggling that with the other various writing commitments while also cautiously hunting for some sort of more regular employment.
  • I now have the pleasure of re-ordering my books on their shelves to look forward to, and now have access to the youth restoring springs of the Leamington Spa. Ponce de Leon, eat your heart out.

I think that covers most of it. Hopefully things should start getting back to business as usual now. See you mid-week for something about reading most likely.

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Finally Writing

Photo on 19-01-2016 at 13-06.jpg


Another general update on the passage of works and days.

I have at last begun to write properly, and am getting into it. Yesterday was the first day where I got down more than 1k words on the novel and, just as importantly, they mostly felt like roughly the right words. A scene that was otherwise a slightly flat bit found its third heat and has given me another thematic thread to work into the rest of the novel.

I currently write new stuff for an hour a day, then spending an hour editing, rewriting and adding to the older stuff. The hope is that this will balance forward momentum with a quality first draft.

Today marks the passing of the 5k mark in total and so am feeling that there is a proper opening developing. The whole thing will be about 80k in total I expect, so I am storing this optimism for when the going gets stickier and stodgier in the often troublesome second act.

The rest of my days are given over to reading (I have just finished Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-En and am getting started on Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea #islandhome) and to hunting up some magazine work that will hopefully bring in a little bakshish to keep me in caffeine and calories.

More on other stuff some other time.



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America! 2016; or the Whales

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The author, with the smell of pulled-pork still on his breath, meets the second most famous pig after the muppet.

I have swanned back to civilisation from a lovely holiday with the in-laws to Orlando’s magic kingdoms: where Mickey Mouse is Führer, the happy blackfish dance, and everyday is Christmas but never winter. Which means the year of writing seriously begins yesterday. So I thought an update for the interested would be in order.

As well as putting about 1300 words to paper, I spent a chunk of yesterday setting up Twitter (@jonpill) and rather threadbare Linked In and Facebook pages because, you know, that’s what professional people do, I guess. It’ll need to do a bit of googling on what people actually use those for in terms of “raising one’s profile”.

More enjoyably I have moved all my ‘read in xyz’ lists, going back to mid-2010 over to my Good Reads profile, where I can now enjoy fiddling with the page count stats and spend hours trying to find the exact out of print penguin edition of Animal Farm that I have on my shelves. All of which feels far more worthwhile than other social media.

In terms of the actual writing I’ve started sketching out the second chapter of the current WIP and spent this morning plotting out the main structure of the novel. Which, inspired somewhat by a picture of J K Rowling’s planning for HP5 that went around the internet a couple of years ago, I have been doing in a spreadsheet.


A leaf from Rowling’s notebook.

My breakdown is in much broader strokes at the moment, and there are sections that require a lot of knitting between the columns.

My approach to planning this WIP is iterative. Gather all those sketched out notes into one spreadsheet and sort them into a semblance of order (easier said than done with something as non-linear as the WIP). Then it’s a matter of teasing out one sentence descriptions of each scene or sequence in each column. Then turning those sentences into short paragraphs. Adding in details that foreshadow the scene to earlier paragraphs and payoffs to later ones. One hopes there will be a critical mass reached at some point where I can start writing from the beginning, but likely the planning will still be ongoing until I write: ‘And they they all died horribly. FIN.’

There is also the business aspect of being freelance: before I start looking for magazines to pitch articles to I have an interview at the Job Centre tomorrow to get my Nation Insurance number which, having lived in Foreign so long, I do not have at the moment. From thence I need to talk to HMRC about sole trader registration and the NHS about not dying of tuberculosis like so many other writers, artists, badgers. I also had a moment of genuine pleasure at filling in the double entries for my purchase of a printer and toner cartridges into my ledger (a gift from the Lady Friend). Those three years of working in the financial sector are not to be wasted.

And until that starts to pay off I’ve been setting up my profile on a tutoring website, if you know anyone who needs help with their GCSE or A-Level Biology or Chemistry . . . you know who to send them to.

Until next time, that’s all folks.


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