New novel in June 2018


My new book Jott will be published by John Murray on 16th June 2018.

In February of 1935, two young Irishmen walk in the grounds of a London mental hospital. Arthur Bourne, a junior psychiatrist, is about to jeopardise his future for his closest friend, an aspiring writer called Louis Molyneux.

Arthur has been overshadowed since childhood by his brilliant, troubled friend. But after years of playing the unassuming companion, he is learning that loyalty has its costs: that old friendship may thwart new love, and perhaps even blur distinctions between the sane and the mad…

Jott is a story about friendship, madness and modernism from the author of Communion Town.


What happens

Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us in reading a novel is not that of a “vision” (in actual fact, we do not “see” anything). Rather it is that of meaning, that of a higher order of relation which also has its emotions, its hopes, its dangers, its triumphs. “What takes place” in a narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; “what happens” is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.

Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, 1975

This seems opaque, but Barthes is actually suggesting something simple: that when we’re reading a story, the desire that draws us on most powerfully isn’t (as is commonly claimed) the desire to find out what happens next: at the deepest level, it’s the desire to find out what this thing means. When I’m absorbed in a story about a character going on an adventure, what’s really happening is that as reader I’m going on an adventure in interpretation.

Having mentioned this in workshops, I know some writers find it a pointless distinction… but for some it can be a useful way of thinking about what happens when a reader reads, and how we can handle that process in the writing.

On the other hand, Verlyn Klinkenborg sees the idea of ‘meaning’ as a distraction from what really happens when we write and read:

You were taught that reading is extraction. / You learned to gather something called meaning from what you read, / As if the words themselves were merely smoke signals / Blowing away in the breeze, leaving a trace of cognition in the brain. / You’ve been taught, too, that writing is the business of depositing meaning to be extracted later, / That a sentence is the transcription of a thought, the husk of an idea, / Valuable only for what it transmits or contains, not for what it is.


What if meaning isn’t the sole purpose of the sentence? / What if it’s only the chief attribute among many, a tool, among others, that helps the writer shape or revise the sentence? / What if the virtue, the value, of the sentence is the sentence itself and not its extractable meaning? / What if you wrote as though sentences can’t be summarised? / What if you value every one of a sentence’s attributes and not merely its meaning?


The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself, / Not merely a substrate for the extraction of meaning.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, 2012

Klinkenborg and Barthes don’t necessarily disagree. Barthes might be saying that reading for meaning is the learned method or habit by which I lead myself through a text — and in doing so I find something else, which is what I’m really looking for.

& cf Will Self on the snare of narrative — here shown as the basic addiction of Western culture:

“How does it all end?” was how the anthropologist began today’s homily. “Isn’t that the question that torments the Anglo — bothers him like a fly in his eye? The Third Act problem, the thrilling climax… then the drowsy resolution. Yes, yes, the Anglos’ lust for this is blatantly bloody sexual […] Sitting in the dark and smelly multiplex of their minds, gagging to know how their lives would turn out, while completely neglecting to bloody live them!”

Will Self, The Butt, 2008

Screen structure and the sentence

Because screenwriting is often collaborative, it’s evolved a technical vocabulary for discussing narrative structure. Because fiction writing is usually solitary, it’s never much needed one.

When we study fiction writing as a group, we sometimes reach for the screenwriters’ vocabulary of acts, midpoints, inciting incidents, etc. This can be useful, because a lot of it works for prose narrative, but it can also be distracting. It can distract us from the freedoms we have.

eg screenwriting manuals will say a protagonist must be ‘active’. This idea isn’t so important in fiction, because narration itself is active, just as reading is active. Consciousness in language is active.

eg the idea that we need a ‘hook’ at the start of a story. A sentence is itself a hook.

We have the freedom of living inside the sentence. Screenwriters have a technical vocabulary for their structural challenges — we have the same challenges, but we can address them by working at the level of the sentence.

cf John Yorke’s observation that stories are fractal:

Stories are built from acts, acts are built from scenes and scenes are built from even smaller units called beats. All these units are constructed in three parts: fractal versions of the three-act whole. Just as a story will contain a set-up, an inciting incident, a crisis, a climax and a resolution, so will acts and so will scenes. … The most obvious manifestation of tripartite form is in beginning, middle and end; set-up, confrontation and resolution. … What’s fascinating is that micro versions of the very same structure are formed from this secret ministry; the endless replication of narrative structure is going on within acts, and within scenes. (John Yorke, Into The Woods, 78)

For Yorke, even the most baroque accounts of story structure are a fractal elaboration of the simplest possible structure: beginning-middle-end, or breathe-in-breathe-out.

What this means for us is that the whole of structure lives in the individual sentence. That’s where we make our problems and solve them, that’s where we work.


We should be suspicious of claims for innate, untrained talent. “I could write a good novel if only I had the time” or “if only I could pull myself together” is usually a narcissist’s fantasy. Going over an action again and again, by contrast, enables self-criticism. Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing. Afraid of boring children, avid to present ever-different stimulation, the enlightened teacher may avoid routine—but thus deprives children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, pp37-8

Living and working inside your own practice, learning it from the inside.

Industry, application, technique

Angela Carter paraphrasing Michael Moorcock’s advice on how to write fiction:

Industry, application, technique. How do you acquire industry and application? By doing it. What about technique? You acquire that by reading. If you want to write a novel, you really ought to read one, first. Read several. Read history, geography, anthropology. Read ancient epics, myths, romances. Read cigarette cards, the backs of cereal packages, yesterday’s newspapers. [Moorcock] himself emerges as an omnivorously well-read man, but the inexhaustible curiosity that lies behind all that is something that can’t be acquired, is something you are born with.

Carter adds:

He doesn’t give anything away, because it isn’t possible for him to do so. There are no real trade secrets. Fiction is as individual as a fingerprint, even if all the history of storytelling is somehow involved in every story.

(Angela Carter, review of Colin Greenland’s Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, 1991)

No trade secrets: learning is by doing. By doing the work that’s yours alone to do, you commune with all the rest.