Wilderness Festival: How To Write Your First Novel

The Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire.

What else was there to do on a Saturday morning, when the beating sun had already stirred me from slumber by thickening the air inside my tent? Groggily I pulled back the zips and climbed out to greet the day. My fellow festival frolickers at Wilderness, who seemed to have suffered a similar sunny affliction, were joining snaking queues for showers, or for coffee and bacon sandwiches. While my ears still rang with the sounds of the night before (where Nils Frahm had been the perfect warm-up to the inimitable Björk), this early wake-up call meant there was plenty of time to gather thoughts (and pens and notebook) before making it down to the Secret Forum Fiction Tent for the opening talk.

Saturday in the Fiction Tent was hosted by journalist Alex Clark and Vintage, with talks from authors on a variety of topics from literary heroines to macaroni and cheese. I was not surprised to find that an attentive crowd had already gathered at the tent for the first talk in this programme, “How to write your first novel”. The rise and rise of creative writing courses in this country has been well reported (and subsequently debated) and this talk seemed to have judged the audience well, falling into this demographic of curious and aspiring writers.

Nicci Cloke (whose most recent novel, Lay Me Down, was published earlier this year by Vintage) was on the stage with Anna Whitwham, the author of Boxer Handsome (paperback published by Vintage). Both authors were refreshingly humble and honest about their experiences of establishing themselves and their first novels. I gleaned the following amusing and enlightening points from the discussion.

Forming characters

“Well, he is my ex,” Cloke confided about her protagonist, which roused amusement from the audience. It was a great place to start, she explains, as she got out a lot of frustration by making things happen to him in her novel, but it was only once she had exorcised those demons that she was then able to fully form him from ex-boyfriend into her character. He does not recognise himself in the final book, Cloke remarked; “nobody ever recognises themselves in novels.” For Whitwham, the inspiration for her first protagonist came from a combination of her grandfather, and a young man who lived quite an isolated life in a flat below her parents. She would often ponder the nature of his day-to-day life, and in doing so combined this with what she knew of her grandfather’s. Finally she opted to make him “good-looking”, so more people would want to read it, she confessed.

Developing dialogue

“Read and listen, and listen and listen,” Whitwham advised. To avoid slang was some advice she received upon attending a talk by Zadie Smith. Slang is a living language that moves and changes so rapidly that you are almost certain to get it wrong in the course of producing a book. Less is always more, both authors agreed. But there is always a challenge in avoiding the mundane while retaining an authenticity to dialogue. Both authors found that rhythm was an important guide to keeping dialogue “snappy”. Cloke explained how she imagines a beat running through the dialogue in her book and will write notes to herself in the margins like, “needs another beat here”. “It’s like music,” she pondered on stage. “I never thought about it like that before.”

Agents and editors

Both authors found that their careers working for publishers was insightful in terms of learning what it takes to get published, and having an agent was a necessary part of that process. But finding the right agent who is going to be sympathetic to your intentions is key. Whitwham explained how she found hers by looking through the acknowledgements pages of books she admired, where agents are often thanked. Agents will often wish to see just an extract of your work initially, but if they like what they read they will expect you to be able to send them the rest, so make sure you are ready with the most comprehensive draft of the whole work that you are comfortable to share with someone. Any author should also appreciate the value of a good editor, and trust them, even after they have drawn huge red lines through what you believe to be your best work. Being able to accept this process is part of what helps you grow as a writer.

Creative writing courses

Despite the various cynical remarks made in the press about creative writing courses, Whitwham and Cloke both recommended them as places for developing your work and yourself as a writer. A good tutor is the precursor to a good agent, who can advise and encourage. Research courses well and find out about the tutors and what they write before enrolling.

Knowing when to let go

Finally, while working through criticism and standing up to it is important, it is equally important to know when to abandon ideas that are no longer working. Cloke described putting things in drawers with a thought to one day returning to it, to which Alex Clark remarked “nothing good ever goes in a drawer. If it goes in bad, it often comes out bad as well”. As this first discussion was being wrapped up I realised I was not going to have time to ask the authors (who both have active Twitter accounts) what impact or influence (if any) social media and blogging had made on their development to becoming published novelists. As they whisked themselves off to sign copies of their books, the second talk of the morning followed swiftly on from the first, despite one of the speakers (Evie Wyld) being initially absent, hauled up somewhere at the front gates of the festival.

What is fiction for?

With Evie Wyld battling the security to get in the festival, it was Samantha Harvey’s duty to step up to the plate and address the question “What is fiction for?” Harvey spoke lucidly and with great sincerity about what she believes is the value and significance of the novel in a contemporary world where culture proliferates in a variety of media. A novel could be considered merely one form of expressing an idea among many, Alex Clark suggested. It is in this context that Harvey’s views hold fast. She is unwavering and serious in her view of the novel as a “prolonged deep thought experiment” and an “elaborate exercise in empathy” unlike any other. She evocatively describes a novel as “a world made of words”, with gateways and passages formed of language which form unique passages different for every reader. It is hard not to feel the audience of literary enthusiasts agree with such assured, impassioned descriptions.

She is a pertinent choice of author for this topic of discussion. Her own novel, Dear Thief, has received high critical praise from journalists and reviewers, but as Gaby Wood reported for the Telegraph earlier this year, the book has barely made it into bookshops and sales figures have been poor compared to her debut, The Wilderness, which has sold 25,000 copies since its release in 2009.

Gaby Wood’s article for The Telegraph ponders the reason for Dear Thief’s predicament is whether “serious” and “thought-provoking” books are no longer to modern taste (an opinion supported by Harvey’s editor). It is hard to agree with this statement when the new books of Ali Smith and Will Self receive such commercial success. Nevertheless, the market for these types of books appears to be tiny from the point of view of the booksellers and the major publishers.

Of course the question “what is fiction for?” could be asked from a variety of different perspectives, and its “value” has meaning in different contexts. While the market may appear unmoved by literary fiction, Harvey speaks to a much more profound notion of value, one that Roman Krznaric would agree with, whose book Empathy: a Handbook for Revolution regards novels highly for his vision of an “empathy revolution”. From this point of view perhaps the imperative for literary fiction is as high as it was in the nineteenth century.

Harvey insisted, comparing the novel to visual media like film and TV serial dramas, that it is the novelist’s willingness to withdraw and abstract that invites participation from readers when other forms “feed” and “presume”. I wonder however if Harvey’s view of the novel’s unique position is in some ways simplistic here. To argue that visual forms of culture only “feed” and “presume” is in itself quite a presumption. Throughout the twentieth century and into the current one, visual culture has become highly sophisticated, not always so prescriptive, and we have developed the ability as audiences to interpret visual media in a variety of ways in order to “unglue” ourselves from the mirror, as Roland Barthes referred to it.

It was therefore great to see Evie Wyld finally arrive to join the discussion, armed with her very recently published book. Everything is Teeth is a graphic novel written by Wyld in collaboration with visual artist Joe Sumner. It is a memoir told in visual form. For Wyld, the process of creating this work was about “taking words out” in order “to make the silences bigger”. The book invites readers’ participation in a different way, but no less than a conventional literary novel. Of course this is no revelation to those familiar with graphic novels, but to view them alongside “serious” literary fiction in this way was refreshing and demonstrated how the notion of a “great novel” or “serious fiction” can be discussed without placing in opposition to visual forms. It was only a shame that Wyld had made it so late on to the conversation in order to develop these ideas further.

Becky Ayre

About Becky Ayre

Becky is a writer, editor and researcher of visual arts and the environment. She lives in Oxford.

She works collaboratively with Inheritance Projects—a small group of independent curators and researchers that organise exhibitions, events, new commissions, publications and research projects.

She blogs at Atmospheres of Uncertainty.

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