Posts Tagged how to write literary fiction

‘What you do with difficult ideas is turn them into art’ – an interview with Mat Osman @matosman

My guest today, Mat Osman, is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are touring again, and now he’s published a debut novel, The Ruins.

I was drawn to The Ruins because of its musical DNA. Musicians are one of my enduring interests, as you might know from My Memories of a Future Life and my series The Undercover Soundtrack. I’m not finished with musical souls either – there are plenty in the novel I’m finishing, Ever Rest.

As you might expect, Mat’s novel The Ruins has satisfying musical ingredients. It also poses intriguing questions about identity and a sense of self. The main characters are twins, Brandon, a rock musician, and Adam, his reclusive twin brother. When Brandon is assassinated in bizarre circumstances, Adam is dragged into his unfinished business. But it’s more than that. The novel is exquisitely aware of primal bonds – the bonds of twinhood, motherhood and the mysterious, transcendent bond of music itself. Anyway, I’m thrilled that Mat agreed to be interviewed. (My review is here.)

Roz Mat, I’ve said writing is your second artistic career. Is that strictly true? Did music come first or writing?

Mat As a career it was definitely music. I wrote in school but that was mainly because you had to, and from the age of about 12 I was obsessed with music and bands. That life is so all-encompassing that, although I read obsessively (all those plane journeys, all those hotel rooms), I really didn’t consider writing. But when the band split in 2003 I worked for a while as a journalist and I found that I loved to write. I did mainly non-fiction; I edited a London guidebook and wrote about art and travel but I also started to write short stories. It was a way of getting certain odd ideas out of my head. I’d wake up thinking ‘what would it be like to live in a house where everything was just as it was in the 1950s’ and take it from there. One of the advantages of a life in music is that you get used to the concept that what you do with difficult ideas is to turn them into art.

Roz So The Ruins is your first published novel – was it the first manuscript you finished?

Mat Yes and no. The Ruins sprang from those short stories. I did what I think a lot of first-time writers do – cobbled together a few of my best stories that seemed to fit into the same universe and called it a novel. It was a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, and I cut 90% of it, but it meant that I’d started, and that’s just about the hardest thing.

Roz The novel is brash and flamboyant and fun, with music, rock-star parties, high living and lowlives, twins, Las Vegas casinos, gangsters, a murder. It’s also highly sensitive to the characters’ inner emotional lives. It’s the kind of novel that can operate on several channels, depending on how the reader’s mind is tuned. I’ve seen some reviewers describe it as a story about identity. What I most enjoyed was its examination of deep attachments, how they’re never predictable, never static and have to be formed on their own terms. Adam’s connection with his twin Brandon; Brandon’s connection with his girlfriend Rae and his child Robin; Adam’s connection with Robin and with Rae. What were the main curiosities for you?

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I think at its emotional heart it’s about how one wants to be loved: by one person, entirely and deeply, or by millions of people, but in a shallower way. Especially nowadays there’s this constant pressure to have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ and Adam is just kicking back against that idea.

The twins thing originally came about because I wanted to write about what would happen if you you could go back and choose the path not taken. Adam gets to see what being selfish and outgoing would have brought him. Brandon tries to be a sober and careful man. But also I have twin nieces and they were a constant inspiration – I love watching the way they are almost forced apart by our expectations. One has to be the smart one, one has to be the funny one, etc. etc. and as they try to fit into those roles they grow to be different from one another.

Roz The blurb mentions that the novel is set in 2010, when a volcano eruption put the world on hold. Does that indicate you began work on it that year? I’m certainly a long-haul writer – the book I’m finishing has been in transit for six years. The idea is even older – from a short story I wrote about 25 years ago. I could have dashed the novel off quickly, but my initial idea didn’t satisfy me. I felt it held a much bigger resonance and transformation – and I needed to discover what that was.

I recognise – I think – similar layers in The Ruins. Are you also a slow-burn writer?  (PS If you dashed it off in just a year, I will flounce out in a jealous huff.)

Mat It took about three years from me thinking ‘this is a novel’ to finishing it, but there were lots of cul-de-sacs and dead ends along the way. I’d had in mind to set a book in that time period for a while. The sense of being stuck while the world falls apart adds a layer of tension to the whole story.

Roz Did you have a process?

Mat I started without a process and found I needed one if I was ever to get anything done. If I was at home I wrote in the Map Room of the British Library. It’s hard-core researcher world – lots of beards and sandals – and I couldn’t even open Twitter or Facebook for fear of lowering the tone. On tour I wrote in hotel rooms. I use a program called Cold Turkey Writer which doesn’t let you use your laptop for anything else until you’ve done a set number of words. I regularly curse it but it got me used to the idea that you just write, every day, and I wrote very long and then cut a lot. And then my publisher cut more.

Roz Did you mind that the publisher cut so much?

Mat I don’t mind it – even the pieces that got cut were useful, I was thinking about the characters while I was writing. At first I hated the idea that there were something like 60,000 words that didn’t get used. Now I just think of them as back-story.

Roz Who were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Mat It’s hard to know who actually influences you and who you just like. But among the writers I love and was reading at the time this lot were definitely part of its world: Michael Chabon, Michel Faber, Patricia Highsmith, JG Ballard, M John Harrison, Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Jennifer Egan, AM Homes and China Miéville. Lots of films were an influence too – especially Performance and Mulholland Drive.

Roz Another signature element is, of course, the musicians in the band. I want to discuss their connection through music. Away from their instruments, they’re chafing, squabbling. When they play music, they find a place of respect. It’s still a battlefield, but it also straightens them out and unifies them. It’s even ennobling. We feel that music is a personal quest and at the same time, a very scuffed marriage.

Mat Anyone who’s seen the Suede Insatiable Ones documentary will know the truth: most bands only really communicate through music. Most musicians put the very best of themselves into their music which is why often people are disappointed when they meet their heroes. They’re meeting the 100% grumpy, insecure, tired, petty, cruel person rather than the 10% of themselves that they save for their art.

Roz I also loved your sense of the bizarre. When Brandon walks on the frozen lake. The party with the beached chandelier and the red swimming-pool. The half-built complex in the desert where Rae lives with Brandon. Kimi with her electronic voicebox, which becomes a strange musical phenomenon. The couple who live on the boat in the field of bluebells. You make them totally believable. Were any of these from real life? Of course, I might be doing you a disservice by asking you that, as the fiction writer’s job is to make things up….

Mat The frozen lake is right where it says it is in the book – in Tahoe City behind a diner called Rosie’s. I stay there a lot and use it as a short cut. But of course that’s in mid-winter! The half-built complex is based on a spectacular photo-essay on this abandoned real-estate project where they’d cut into the hillside but gone bust before the houses were built. The boat has its origins in Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness, similarly close to a nuclear reactor. The voicebox and the pool of blood? No idea where they came from.

Roz I saw in another interview that your original title was Control. What led you to The Ruins? Control must have been a suitable title in its own way, though. Can you talk about that?

Mat Control felt, in a strange way, too accurate. Much of the book is about control and I realised it was a title that described without adding anything. Whereas The Ruins felt more oblique but somehow more informative. It was almost called This Is What You Get Instead Of Love but it just looked too ungainly on the page.

Roz Tell me about your path to publication and how you met Repeater Books.

Mat I went all around the houses to end up where I started. Tariq who runs Repeater was the first person to read it. I wanted someone who I trusted to tell me if it was worth pursuing and luckily he liked it, and offered to publish it. But then I went away and got an agent and went through meeting publishers because I wanted to make sure Tariq wasn’t the only person in the world who thought it was any good. I had offers elsewhere but there were certain things – I got to design the cover – that only Repeater were prepared to offer. And they’re fantastic people who love books, which helps.

Roz What are you working on at the moment? Is it similar or are you trying something else?

Mat I’m writing about The Blackfriars Boys; a troupe of Elizabethan child actors who were taken from their families and made to take part in these very satirical, very adult, plays and masques. I wanted to write something that was way outside my field of reference to get a sense of not falling back on my own anecdotes and stories. It makes it a lot slower but there’s something really rewarding about having to invent every little moment.

Roz Are there are any consistent territories or themes you’re drawn to?

Mat The new book has a lot about London. And about how making art changes a person. So there are recurrent themes.

Roz Is there anything you’d do differently with this next novel?

Mat I swore I would write smarter; make fewer revisions and stick to the plot, but I’m finding that’s just not me. I have a mind that loves digression. I have to write out these odd side-alleys only to cut them later.

Roz Does music help in your writing process at all? I know writers who build soundtracks to evoke characters, settings or a general writing mood (hence my blog series, The Undercover Soundtrack). I know others who say music is too distracting and they must have silence. I’m both. I find music infuriatingly distracting. If I can hear builders playing the radio in my street, I find it unbearable – so unbearable that I can usually persuade them to turn it off (hell hath no fury like a writer who believes their work is being spoiled). But that distraction is perversely useful if I’m dithering in a first draft, looking for a way into a character or a scene. I put on music and a battle begins in my mind. I’m trying to ignore the music and concentrate, like swimming against an opposing current, which brings instant focus because I can’t be distracted by anything else. Meanwhile, the music is colouring every thought. An interesting tension emerges. It can’t be builders’ radios, though…

Mat I usually play music when I work, even on headphones. There’s a certain kind of instrumental music that works for me: repetitive but not too energetic. People like A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Bohren Der Club Of Gore. With The Ruins I played a lot of the music the characters listened to as well, just to check the mood. There’s a playlist of every track mentioned in the book at Spotify.

Roz You set The Ruins in 2010, in a time of interesting world crisis. You’ve published it in perhaps the strangest, most disruptive crisis we’ve seen so far this century. Any thoughts? There must be months of plans that have had to change…

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I managed to squeak in most of my readings and Q&As before the lockdown, which I’m so grateful for but I’m disappointed I never got to do any of the big literary festivals because a) years of music have made me a feedback junkie and I miss hearing what people have enjoyed about the work, and b) there are so many writers who I admire who I’ve never met.

Find The Ruins here and connect with Mat on Twitter here @matosman

And speaking of novels in progress, here’s how Ever Rest is doing

 

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What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one

Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.

I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.

I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.

And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.

Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.

In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.

I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?

I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.

Is it still the same story?

Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.

The how-to bit: making the story bigger

Find the other characters who have a story arc

My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.

Go beyond the original timescale

Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.

Look for missing moments

As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.

Brief moments become major turning points

This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.

The end of exploration

Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)

The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.

When it felt like it had been there all along.  

If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!

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The slow-burn writer … What takes literary authors so long?

Nail Your Novel literaryYou could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)

This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.

And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica:  ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’

Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.

Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff  ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.

I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .

A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.

Or that’s my theory. What say you?

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‘A cracked but steely song of survival and beauty’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller

for logoMy guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.

That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .

An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).

Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?

When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.

Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:

Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.

But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.

The conflagration spread to Twitter

And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’

Stop, please

It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?

It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.

Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?

This is something, as writers, we must avoid.

I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.

Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.

We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?

Brideshead Re-revisited

Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.

Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.

Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.

So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?

Again, I’ll let Dave speak:

In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.

Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

So, er, what?

I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.

Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.

So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958” by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

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