Archive for November 10th, 2011

Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. His poetry appeared regularly in small press magazines during the seventies and eighties. In the nineties he turned to prose-writing and has completed five novels and a collection of short stories. His first novel, Living with the Truth, came out in 2008; the sequel, Stranger than Fiction, followed in August 2009. In 2010 his collection of poetry This Is Not About What You Think appeared and this year his third novel, Milligan and Murphy, based on the writings of Samuel Beckett, will be published in paperback.

About the book

This volume contains two novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction, depicting the three days a world-weary old bookseller gets to spend in the company of Truth, an omniscient being with a wry sense of humour and an interesting agenda. Think Douglas Adams meets Alan Bennett with a touch of Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett thrown in for good measure.


Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I am a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. I began my writing career as a poet. In the seventies and eighties my poems appeared regularly in the small press magazines that were legion at the time but by the nineties I had allowed myself to become disillusioned and stopped sending stuff out. I didn’t stop writing, however, but in my thirties I moved onto novels and in my forties jumped into short stories. Strange way to go about it, I know.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

No. Neither of my parents were readers. I don’t think my father ever bought a newspaper and my mother certainly never read any women’s magazines. So although I wasn’t actually discouraged from reading I was never actively encouraged. The books they did buy me when I was very young were mostly Hamlyn’s Enid Blyton books and I still have a special fondness for her retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories. Before I started secondary school (that would place me about twelve) I can only remember reading two proper novels, Kidnapped and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I’m sure there were more but I could never call myself a voracious reader in fact I find reading hard work much of the time; I bore easily.

I was determined my daughter would not be like me and so before she was born she already had a library of 100 books (including all four Brer Rabbit books) waiting for her and I’m pleased to say she hasn’t taken after her old dad.

Describe your working environment.

Like most people I like to see photos of the rooms writers work in and for years I was desperate to have my own office, so much so that when my wife and I started looking for the flat we’re in just now I placed two preconditions on her (she did most of the looking): firstly, no garden – I hate gardens, can’t stand them – and secondly, that we should each have our own office. I’m pleased to report both conditions were satisfied. The thing is, after a few years of working in my office, once I got a laptop I gravitated to the living room and I’ve worked there ever since. The bottom line is that I can work anywhere. I’ve written by hand, on a manual typewriter, an electric typewriter and on a computer; in trains, on buses, on my lap, standing in the middle of the street and when I should be working. I guess I’m lucky that way. I don’t need much to be able to write. I’ve gotten into the habit of playing music – classical mainly or soundtracks (I can’t write over vocals) – but I don’t need it. I got into the habit as a kid, to drown out my family next door.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

People. I’m not really interested in nature or politics or big issues like the environment or human rights. I like small, intimate chamber pieces. My novels always have a small set of characters and indeed are character driven; plot doesn’t really interest me. Basically I place a character in a situation, give him, her or them a problem to deal with and watch what follows naturally. The most extreme example of that is my first novel, Living with the Truth, where I literally have Truth in human form knock on some bloke’s door one Tuesday morning.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

I have gone through long periods of not writing (the longest was three years) but I’m not sure I believe in writer’s block per se because I’ve never lost the ability to write; I just found at times I had nothing I particularly wanted to write about. When you’ve only been writing for a few years you don’t really know what’s natural for you. When I hit that three year gap I thought that was me done with writing for good, but the first thing I did when it ended (or that caused it to end) was to sit down and write two novels back to back in the space of about three months, having written nothing bar poetry before then.

What I have come to realise is that writing is more than simply transcribing words onto paper. It’s a way of life. In my novel The More Things Change I write:

Writers don’t have lives. They have ongoing research. Every day is a work in progress. Nothing’s sacrosanct. No one’s exempt. You can’t hand them a note from your mother to leave you alone. It doesn’t work like that.

I believe that. That’s why after a three year gap I had enough material for two novels. I hadn’t frittered it away off a few dozen poems. I still write poetry – poetry has its place and is very important to me – but it also has its limitations.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

At the moment I’m promoting my ebook, The Whole Truth. It’s an omnibus edition comprising my first two novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction. Here’s the basic blurb:

Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a drab north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He’s both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.

The knock comes. Only it’s not Death. It’s the truth. Literally. The human personification of truth.

Truth proves to be a likeable, if infuriating, character with a novel mode of expression: “glib dipped in eloquence and then rolled in a coating of irony,” to quote one reviewer. He knows everything and has no qualms revealing intimate details of lives of the people who cross his path while he’s with Jonathan. He’s quite indiscriminate. The same reviewer described him as “one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across.” So comparisons with Peter Cook’s devil in Bedazzled are not unreasonable.

Jonathan learns what he’s missed out on in life, what other people think and the true nature of the universe which is nothing like he would have expected it to be. At the end, having learned far more than he ever wanted to know, he finds out that it’s usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is: no Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey-esque turnaround for poor Jonathan.

Between 1991 and 1994 my life was going through a rough patch. Now normally that would be the sort of thing that I would end up writing about but not this time: nada. In what I suppose one might call a fit of desperation I sat down one day and tried to write something, anything. For the previous twenty years I’d written only poetry. I was a poet. I was happy being a poet. But then I was nothing. And I was afraid I was going to stay nothing for the rest of my life so I imagined a worst case scenario: what might my life be like twenty years down the line? And I sat down and wrote the line:

Now had it been Death that had called that day it would have been all right.

I had been trying to read a novella by Patrick Süskind called The Pigeon. I never got very far through it and the fact is that I only finished the book a couple of years ago. The central image stayed with me, though, a man who was terrified of leaving his apartment because there’s a pigeon blocking his way. Preposterous I know. I imagined my character looking out of his window one morning and seeing, although he doesn’t realise it at first, the personification of truth standing outside. Don’t ask me where that idea came from because I couldn’t tell you.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

I have never plotted. With that first book I simply placed my character in an awkward situation and let things develop naturally. It’s not stream-of-consciousness writing, though, not like Ulysses or Beckett’s trilogy, there is a story. I simply had no idea what that story was. Basically I write in chunks, a chapter at a time. I edit constantly. After I’ve finished a section I’ll go back to the beginning of the book and read right though to where I’ve stopped, tweaking as I go and then I do what feels natural at that point. No big things happen in any of my books (unless you count having Truth knock on your door) but after Truth makes his entrance what happens next? They go to work, have lunch, wander along the esplanade, go back to work, visit a carry-out, entertain Jonathan’s sister, watch an old Carry On film and go to bed; that’s the first half of the book. I just needed some stuff for them to do; it could’ve been anything. To be totally honest the whole book could have taken place in a single room.

In Milligan and Murphy the main action consists of two blokes wandering down a road; in The More Things Change another bloke sits on a park bench for forty years; and in Left a woman wanders around her late father’s flat, watches the neighbours and chats on the Internet.

Who is your target audience?

Me. That’s not as facetious an answer as it sounds. Every book, every story, every poem I have ever written has been for me and me alone. That other people get something out of them is an added bonus. Essentially I write to – exorcise is probably too strong a word – to clear my head, to work things out. Once the words are on the paper I can stand apart from them and view them objectively. Writing is a process I have to go through. The end result is peace of mind.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

I’ve never belonged to one, not one where I had to put on my hat and coat and go out of an evening to attend one. I did hang around on Zoetrope’s workshop for a while which was an interesting experience. The rule there is that you have to review poems or stories by five other people to allow you to post one of your own. Some of the comments were interesting but I never changed a word of anything I posted afterwards.

I always keep in mind the fable by Aesop – you’ll know it – about the two men and the donkey – but for those who don’t know it, here’s how it goes:

A man and his son were once going with their donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the man put the boy on the donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours with you and your hulking son?”

The man and boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them.

The moral of the fable? Please all and you’ll please none. And I’ve always said that I won’t carry a donkey for anyone. Everyone has an opinion which they’re entitled to but they can’t all be right. Listen to them all by all means but make your own mind up.

In some respects I was lucky as a young writer. There was no Internet and where I lived there were no other writers. So I wrote alone and, although I’m glad the Internet exists now, in the midst of all the pluses for writers there are definitely a few negatives and one of those has to be access to immediate feedback – I’m not sure that’s necessarily such a good thing. No one, not even my wife, gets to read anything by me until it is finished. That doesn’t mean I won’t make a minor change or two after she’s read it but I am never in a rush to show anyone anything. I finished Left in January. My wife read it, told me it was good and I’ve not looked at it since. Eventually I’ll get back to it when enough time has passed; I’ll do a final edit once I can look at the book objectively and then it’ll be off to the beta readers.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

Website: http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/
Blog: http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.com/
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jmurdoch

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You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there: the one-third slump, when a manuscript runs out of steam maybe thirty-thousand words in. Something about the story simply isn’t working.

So what’s gone wrong?

When I first started out as a writer, I read up on the different approaches used by novelists I admired. I found that many of them, particularly Stephen King, didn’t like to plan things out. They were seat-of-the-pants writers, who liked to come up with a situation, then watch where their characters took them. For such writers, part of the pleasure of writing was the sheer unpredictability involved.

All well and good, but it took me a long time to work out that this wasn’t the right approach for me. Over the next several years, I started and failed to finish a ridiculous number of stories and novels. I knew the characters, the basic story, and the conflicts. What I didn’t have was a clear enough idea where the story went after a certain point.

This continued to be a concern even when I got my first book contract. Although my first two novels, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, were well-received, I was never quite satisfied with the plot in either. I became highly stressed while trying to find the direction of the story in each. And so, when it came to writing my third novel, I took a radically different approach.

Whenever I pitch a book to my publishers, I’m required to provide a rough outline of the story. This time, I determined to write a much more detailed synopsis than before, but for my benefit rather than that of my publishers. I wanted to be absolutely sure not only how the book started, but exactly how it would end. I broke the story down on a chapter-by-chapter basis until I had approximately six thousand words of text.

Then I started writing what later became my third novel, Stealing Light. I hit a one-third slump anyway, despite all my planning. I found what had sounded good in the synopsis wasn’t necessarily panning out in the actual manuscript. I suspect this happens even for those of you who do plan your novels.

So I stopped writing and, for the next four or five weeks, did nothing but revise that synopsis. I made a point of not worrying about my deadline. By the time I finished those revisions, the synopsis had ballooned to a little over twenty-four thousand words – one quarter the length of an average novel. I had every little detail absolutely nailed down, as well as having made major revisions to some of the principal characters.

It occurred to me during this that all those seats-of-the-pants writers were being a touch disingenuous about their writing process. Either they did plan out their stories, but kept it all in their head, or their offices were filled with a vast number of unfinished stories and manuscripts (or, indeed, screenplays). Both, I think, are true.

When I write editorial reports for new writers, time and again I find that a novel hasn’t been planned in sufficient depth, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because the author read the same interviews I did when I was young – interviews with writers like Stephen King, who can produce hundreds of thousands of words of text every year, without fail, even if much of that effort winds up in the bin.

Writers like King are the exception, I believe, rather than the rule. The rest of us, in order to write a saleable story, must instead plan everything out in as much detail as possible before we start writing a novel or screenplay. Think of it as building a roadmap; without the map, you become lost in the woods, but with the map, you can see not only where you came from, but where you’re going. Without the map, you might be able to find your way out of the woods eventually, but it might take you far, far longer, and the journey might be considerably more frustrating and much less fun.

And what about if, like me, you find even with that map – that outline – your story still isn’t coming together in those early stages?

Do what I did: stop writing the book, and rework the synopsis instead. Treat those first thirty-thousand words as a kind of testbed for your ideas. Use it to figure out what does work, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to play around, to develop alternate paths for the story to develop. Treat the synopsis as an end in itself, and take satisfaction in developing its twists and turns. Allow yourself as much time as necessary to do this, and don’t even think about starting work on a book unless you know how it ends.

Don’t believe writers who tell you doing this can ‘kill’ the story for you: just because it’s true for them doesn’t mean it is for you, and you could save yourself weeks or months of frustration.

That third novel of mine, Stealing Light, was an enormous success, and my ‘breakout’ novel. It was also my first book to be issued in hardback, and was soon followed by two sequels. I attribute this almost entirely to the care and attention I took in plotting every twist and turn. Ever since then I still stop at roughly the one-third mark in a manuscript to revise and alter the synopsis, based on what is and isn’t working.

Instead of an object of frustration, that one-third slump has become an opportunity for inspiration.

Harry Bingham invited Gary Gibson, noted sci fi author, to contribute the above piece. Gary is one of the novel editors for the Writers’ Workshop, which offers online writing courses and editorial critiques.

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