Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:


1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards – if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.

Subjectivity, James Wood and First World Problems

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.

Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.

Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.

reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).

It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough.  When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.

May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:

Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.

For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).

Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.

Make things happen.

There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.

Show it to friends who know about writing.

You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.

Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.

Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.

Encourage your editor to challenge you.

For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.

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