In The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen, a loser staking everything in a game against the best, faces Edward G. Robinson over the poker table.  The film has built to this moment.  He places his winning hand on the table and waits for his opponent to declare his.  The camera cuts to the eyes of all those watching.

I won’t say what happens.  But the point is, you probably want to know.  When someone risks everything that is important to them, we remain in our seat to find out, we turn the next page…

Soon after I began writing, I started to hear ‘The stakes aren’t high enough.’

Imagine The Cincinnati Kid as the following: a rich man, who plays poker as a hobby, enters a major game, and plays safe throughout.  On balance he loses more than he wins.  At the end of each evening, his chauffeur drives him home.

Imagine that for 300 pages, or two hours of celluloid.  The story has no pull.  I might even start to get annoyed with that character for wasting my time.  Interestingly, in Molly’s Game, there is a minor character who does this for a significant portion of the film.  And then he makes a wild bet and loses.  Rather than withdraw, as he always has, he starts to try to win it back.  By the end of this section, he has lost everything.  Now that’s story.

The definition of what is important to a character can vary widely.

In a romance, the protagonist risks losing the one who could make them happy for the rest of their lives.  Elizabeth Bennett risks the dreaded spinsterhood and obscurity; she wins the man, the money, the social status.

In a detective novel, the protagonist will risk their lives, but will win the defeat of a monster and moral perfection of doing the right thing.

In fantasy, the protagonist risks death/torture but will win new powers and an expanded sense of who they are.

And cetera, and cetera.  But the one that has always fascinated me is Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels.  What does he risk?  In each story, he is threatened with a) the loss of his butler, Jeeves, the best of all butlers, b) marriage to a dreadful partner who would have no patience with the life he currently lives and would add her own brand of misery c) the loss of access to Anatole, his aunt’s chef.  Ultimately, he may lose his late breakfast-in-bed with kippers and toast.

Ridiculous.  Yes, but it’s a comic novel.  And within that world, these losses are convincing.  What he often wins back is what he had in the first place, comfort and happiness.  But, in doing so, he has risked the loss of it all and replacement with some upper-class hell.

Note, his wealth is not threatened, his life is not threatened.  Yet still, it feels as if he is playing a high-stakes game.

The key is that what is put at risk is of ultimate importance to that person and that the reader is convinced of that.  The loss will lead to disaster; the gain, to joy.  Also, there is only one route to happiness.  The protagonist risks all.

Dialogue: Yap, Yap

I didn’t even know it was bothering me.  A couple of times in writers’ groups I’d struggled to explain what I liked or didn’t like in dialogue and was puzzled that I couldn’t.  Then my book group (I go to a lot of groups) decided to read The Salt Path.

Firstly, I recommend it. The true story of a couple in their fifties.  The husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness and their house is taken from them after an unwise investment.  So, being ramblers, they decide to walk the South West Coast Path, all six hundred miles of it.  Great story and a genuine feel of there-but-for-the-grace-of-god.  But there’s a problem with the dialogue.  Try this:

A Land-Rover pulled up next to us and an old couple got out.

‘Excuse me, what’s going on here, where’s everyone going?’

‘To the theatre.  This is the Minack, the famous theatre.’

I’m tempted to turn this into a game.  ‘Where shall we meet?’ ‘At Charing Cross, the famous London station.’  People don’t speak like that.  It sounds as if the writer had a crisis of confidence and tried to let the reader know – via the speaker – what it was.  Which is a shame, because in other parts of the book she uses factual asides, which work perfectly well.

Then there’s this from earlier in the book, where the couple meet a young man.

‘We thought about going to the pub.  Are the meals reasonable there?’

‘No.  I work in this one; they charge a fortune.  They even charge me.  That’s why I always go to the visitor centre to buy a pasty before I start work.  I mean, that and the girl with the pink hair that sells them.’  He smiled.

‘Sorry to hear that, mate.  Oh well, thanks for the tip.  It’s tough to find a cheap pub around here.’

‘Tell me about it.’  (This goes on for another half-a-page.)

There is a story of when Arthur Miller went to see a play recommended by Laurence Olivier.  It was one of the moribund drawing-room dramas from the early fifties.  If a character on one side of the stage spoke, then the next person to speak would be on the other side of the stage.  This went on throughout the evening.  It was like dead tennis.  Olivier, perhaps a little annoyed that his choice had been badly received, insisted Miller choose the next one for himself.  Going by the title alone, he picked Look Back in Anger.

 The dialogue in Salt Path, has a drawing-room-drama lifelessness.  One person says something, the next person responds.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Perhaps it is genuinely what was said.  It’s reported speech, after all.  My guess is, however, that in remembering the conversations something got lost, added or flattened out.

So, what constitutes good or bad dialogue?

Both David Mamet and Margaret Atwood (Masterclass) insist that the primary role of dialogue is for the characters to get something from one another. Mark Ravenhill says characters use language to change one another.  Alice La Plante, inThe Making of a Story, describes dialogue as something that characters ‘do to one another….a verbal sparring.’

All of this emphasises that dialogue is active.  The speakers are trying to do, get, achieve, win, subvert etc.  If this sounds a bit aggressive, it could be that what they want is as simple as attention.  A friend of mine wrote a scene in which a political canvasser knocks on the door of a local voter.  The mother, bored by her many kids, is desperate to have adult conversation; it’s the canvasser who ends up trying to get away.  Drama thrives on conflict of any sort.

The character may also fail to speak.  There is an extended passage in Anna Kareninain which Levin is unable to decide whether declare his love.  The conflict becomes internal, created by his inability to risk the truth.

What else?  Alice La Plante lists four functions of dialogue:

  1. Adding to the reader’s knowledge of the situation. (Knowledge as distinct from facts. Not every character tells the truth.)
  2. Keeps the piece moving forward.
  3. Reveals something about the speaker’s personality, both directly and indirectly.
  4. Dramatises the relationships between characters.

Then there is subtext. What is not being said, but is clear to the reader by its absence.

Also, it’s a truism but dialogue is not everyday speech – which is often a lot more quirky, illogical, random, repetitive, interesting, dull.  When thinking about this post I asked fellow writers if they had any thoughts.  One of my favourites was ‘dialogue is two monologues that occasionally come into contact with one another.’  But actually, I think this is just a very good definition of everyday speech.  In novels, there is usually a great deal more contact between the speakers – if only for economy – unless the writer is trying to mimic the everyday.

La Plante also lists what dialogue is not:

  1. An important source of facts about a piece. (‘…the famous theatre.’)
  2. Not good for describing people, places, or objects. (‘What a lovely brown coat you’re wearing.’)
  3. Absolutely no substitute for direct narrative. If you have basic facts to supply to the reader, put it in the narrative.
  4. It especially should not be used for extended brooding by a character. (No soliloquys in novels.)

She also makes a very good point about the use of silence or gesture in dialogue.  A pause, filled by an action, can set the scene but can also tell us something about the character’s attitude.

‘Are you sure?’ he said.

She put her cup down and looked at him.  ‘Yes.’

For me, dialogue is what happens when I try to write dialogue.  By which I mean that I very rarely write it from a theoretical point of view (is there enough conflict? Is it revealing character?)  I just start writing with two or more characters in mind and see what happens.  It is considerably easier if I am clear on what the characters are like.  Their choice of words becomes more distinctive, it’s more fun.  After that, I’ll go back and edit and add.  Most often, I am interested in whether it sounds right.  Margaret Attwood says, ‘Dialogue should ring true and be appropriate to the speaker.’

Also, a character can come out of dialogue.  I had a character from another country, she spoke in flowing English sentences.  One day, I heard her speaking in a stilted form of English and everything about her crystallised.  From that point on, it was very clear to me who she was.

Most ‘How to…’ books for novels suggest character-attribute lists.  As if, once you have written them, dialogue will flow.  Ready, Set, Novel lists eleven bits of information:  e.g. sex, age, appearance etc.  The Manuscript Makeover suggests over fifty aspects of physical appearance and emotional/intellectual disposition.  These include teeth size and colour, body smell, humour and the expression of it.

I have tried these exercises over the years, but I’ve found that I can create a list of twenty aspects and still be no clearer about the fundamentals of the character.   I find it easier to do it the other way around.  Once I have a basic idea of who they are, I get them talking.  Crucially, I hear their attitude, what they think of themselves or other people, how they present themselves.  All the character details then fall into place.

For me, dialogue also comes out of movement, it’s physical.  Aaron Sorkin (Masterclass) acts out his dialogue.  Dickens had a mirror where he would contort his face to match the character.  When I write, I see the characters moving, interacting, gesturing.  The words are just part of that dance.

As for attributions, I prefer he said/she said, when it becomes unclear who is speaking.  It’s a bit like the word ‘the,’ unless it’s overdone, no one notices it.  I have a problem in my current novel in that the two main characters are women.  I can’t rely on he said/she said and the use of their names to establish the speaker occasionally becomes noticeably repetitive.

Then there is the question of speech patterns and dialect.  Nineteenth-century writing involved a lot of language-as-it-is-spoken. This from George Eliot’s Adam Bede:

‘Well, I’m half a mind t’ ha’ a look at her tonight, if there isn’t good company at th’ Holly Bush. What’ll she take for her text? Happen ye can tell me, Seth, if so be as I shouldna come up i’ time for’t.’

These days, unless you are part of that culture (e.g. Irvine Welsh), you are open to accusations of appropriation or condescension.  Even worse, it sounds naff.  Also, with globalisation and the fact that we are reading and watching the same things, distinctions in local speech are disappearing.  When I went to research in Yorkshire, I found the main verbal tic was saying ‘Y’alright?’ as a greeting. If I put that into my novel every time characters met, the repetition would be grating.  Alice La Plante suggests putting in the occasional distinctive word.

In my opinion, difference comes back to attitude and that can be culturally influenced.  There is still a flavour of f-you as a Yorkshire trait. I was told that one of the guys who runs fishing trips for tourists believes they can ‘fish and fuck off.’  With some writers, you can detect the attitude from the speech patterns.  This, from John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy where a member of the secret service tries to get hold of a department head and comes up against his secretary.

‘I can only tell him,’ Pym warned.  ‘I can tell him and I can see what he says and I can ring you back.  His card is veryheavily marked this month.’

This is Pym’s only appearance in the novel and, just from the repetition of ‘can’, I know who he is.

For me, there is also something about dialogue being interesting.  I like it when people say odd things.  Particularly if they lead out of the conversations.  In The Dresser, Norman says, ‘Who then?’ Sir replies, ‘Who then what?’  Who then what?  Terrific.

I want to be entertained, amused, appalled, saddened.  If the dialogue can do that, all the better.

 We’ve already seen that exposition is not the role of dialogue.  People will only explain things if they’re forced to (unless they’re a Bond villain).  But sometimes there is a lovely moment, in the writing, when it arises naturally and with purpose.  My novel is set in a Yorkshire fishing village.  I know that fishing has all-but died out in such villages.  Even larger towns such as Whitby are now tourist centres.  The fishing industry proper has moved up to the larger ports in Scotland.  I can’t have my characters explain this to one another, as they’d already know.  At the start of the novel, Jade, a local fisherwoman, is trying to sell her paltry catch to the local wholesaler:

It took an age for Bill Nayes to come out from the back, scratching his head, his beanie riding up over his ear.

‘Candy Crush, is it?’ said Jade.

‘Hard work, that’s what.’

‘What level you on?’

He nodded at her catch.  ‘What you got?’

She put the bag on the counter.  They stared into it.

‘I’ll take gold.’

Not even a smile.

‘Haven’t they put prices up at the restaurant?’ said Jade.

‘No business of mine.’

‘It’s exactly your business.’

He looked at her, straight, ‘No business of yours, I meant.’

‘But –’

‘Jade,’ he said, ‘when they drop a bomb on the big port, I’ll come to you on bended knee.  Right now, I’m having trouble shifting them as it is. And what with the uncertainty.’


Proud of that, I was.

There is much more to say about dialogue.  Manuscript Makeover includes a list of thirteen characteristics of successful dialogue, e.g. keep it short, make use of incomplete sentences, as well as many of the characteristics I have mentioned here.  But as with most of these posts, this is an attempt to think through a subject for myself.  So, what do I take away from it?  That dialogue should ring true, reveal character and dramatize power struggles. And most of all, it should hold the attention and be interesting.

Not too much to ask…


(I am grateful to the London Bridge Writers for a very useful WhatsApp discussion, and to Annabel for book recommendations.)

Research: Serendipity, Throwing Up and Learning the Truth

DICYik4nQSOM7ARS8PZRbASix months into writing a novel set in a Yorkshire fishing village – with a background of Brexit and immigration – I thought it might be a good idea to go up and find out what one actually looks like.  The story had come out of an exercise which involves writing as if no one will read it – which means it doesn’t much matter what you write.  But at some point, fantasy has to meet reality.

I was lucky enough to pick Staithes in Yorkshire, partly because it is quite idyllic and partly because there are all sorts of interesting things going on.  Trouble is, they’re not the interesting things I had imagined.  Which leaves me with the problem of marrying the two. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first evening was beautiful.  The tide had gone out and I spent ages wandering amongst the rocks and rock pools. I kept seeing surfers (surfers?!) in ones and twos.  As I made my way back, I decided to ask one of them where they were going.  I greeted the next one, and he said, ‘Hello, Mr Gapper!’ He turned out to be Adam, an associate trainer at the company I work for.  Once we’d got over the shock of the coincidence, I told him what I was doing there, and we agreed to meet up.


jNPZCqTcS0u4+kyVyJeZsAHe turned out to be incredibly helpful.  One of the things I’d got wrong was that the incoming tide goes right up to the cliff edge (I had written a character who slept on the beach each night).  He said, oh, you should go along to Port Mulgrave, there’s a little encampment by the sea.  And he was right.  The next day I followed his instruction to ignore the ‘Path Closed’ sign and made my way down the long descent, through the overgrown plants, down a makeshift stepladder and onto a flat lip of land where there are tin huts and wooden constructions.  There, I got talking to the only one of the residents present who told me the whole history.



The first two days had a slightly magical feel.  As if, I just had to remain open and things would turn up.  The next couple of days were harder.  I learned that this was not the thriving fishing village I had imagined. A local book describes only one full-time fisherman, Dave Anders, who has now retired and passed the business on to his son.  I spoke to him, and though it turns out there is actually quite an active, small fishing community, the real business of the village is tourism.  Me, for example.  So, what of my novel?

I booked myself onto a chartered fishing trip.  Now, the first thing to be said here is that I have never fished before in my life, and I found myself on a six-hour trip with seven experienced fishermen. Fortunately, the guy running the trip, Sean Baxter, was really helpful and took my ineptitude in his stride.  He very quickly taught me how to fish and, when he found out I was writing a story, kept making suggestions.  Even when, four hours in, I threw up twice due to motion sickness, he just told me to get everything out and then passed me a couple of tablets.Oghv3n22RZSybx%hN3Vfdg

By then, through the banter on the boat, I had already got a sense of the real tension in the village. A place where, in the 80s, locals were priced out of the housing, and, by the noughties, people with those houses – who now had second homes – were renting out their properties on Air BnB.  The thing you notice as you walk through the village are the number of key lockboxes on the outside of the homes. In the meantime, the original locals either hung on, got by, or moved out.  Adam introduced me to a younger local who confirmed that this is what is happening.  In other words, the same story that is being told up and down the country.

Interesting.  But how to adapt it into my story?  Well, that’s the next challenge.

Let it Grow, Let it Grow

In trying to write novels, I have found myself trying to reconcile two different views.  One says that it is necessary to know the start and end point of your story and preferable to know all stages in between.  The other, that writing should be like jazz, an improvisation with no certain end point: explore possibilities, allow yourself to be diverted.

I have read advocates of the first view say this is something you have to do; of the second, that this is real authorship.  The world of writing is thick with other people’s rules.

I’m enjoying writing my current novel.  It started with an image of a woman looking out over a waterway.  I wrote – discovering characters, writing scenes – and ended up with about 30,000 words.  At a certain point I felt the need to summarise what I had discovered and created a synopsis, then offered it out to my writers’ groups for feedback.

Five characters have emerged.  Their history, their relationships, their wants and needs.  During my early exploration, one of the characters did something very odd to another, and that has become the inciting incident.

Having riffed some more, I have, once again, put that early part of the story into order.  I discovered Amazon’s Storybuilder (see picture above right), which is an easy way to arrange the elements.

Which is a very long way of saying, I find myself moving back and forth between views one and two.

If I could describe a common theme in the way I’ve been working, it would be closer to ‘that’s interesting,’ or, ‘wouldn’t it be enjoyable if…’  There’s growth and paring back.  It’s so far led to some strange characters, an unexpected love story and an inter-familial conflict.

Mostly, it’s just fun to write.  A sort of extended what if? With a licence to go anywhere I want to or use any method that seems to fit.

Perhaps, there are no view-one/view-two purists, they’re just censors I’ve made up in my mind.  But if they exist, I suspect I’d be a disappointment to them.


Write Your Own Self-Help Writer’s Book

One of the problems I have is writing main characters who are slightly depressed and face problems which anyone else could easily solve.  Imagine James Bond going in to speak to Q, who sets aside his design for laser-firing bullets with flying knives and says, ‘Have you tried Meet-Up?’

Typically, at times like these, I wonder if there is a writing book that might help.  This gives me the sense that I’m doing something, while actually just enabling me to procrastinate.

But the original problem is real.

Most of the time we already know the answers to our problems.  We just need a wy to look at them differently.

I began to imagine a self-help book that would specifically address the issue I face and then wrote out what it would say.  I came up with:

  1. Turn it inside out: make the character outward-facing.  Attempting to achieve something concrete in the world but being frustrated in their efforts.
  2. Make the goal simple and clear, with a reward that anyone can identify with: love, money, defeating an enemy
  3. Make their opponents determined to thwart them and in ways that eventually test all of their abilities.
  4. Write scenes that are entertaining but have a sense of risk: trying to attain or achieve something that is important
  5. For each scene or plot, is there a sense of excitement? 

I went back to my plot and began to see how I might refocus it away from the heroine’s internal doubts, towards a challenging situation that she needed to deal with.


Last night, I dreamt I was going to write an autobiography of Daniel Defoe.  Stupid unconscious.  I’m not going to write it – even if it were possible.

What I am doing is entering the second stage of my latest writing project.

I started one earlier this year.  Using the book Ready, Set, Novel, I got some way into writing a whole new story.  Then, in September, I went to the York Writer’s Festival and changed my mind.

The festival gave me a renewed sense of enthusiasm.  I got encouragement from an agent and publisher and attended some interesting workshops.  One piece of advice stuck away.  ‘Write as if no one’s going to read it.’

Having spent the last few months planning and writing a novel under the pressure of how it would be received, this was good advice.

I dumped the old idea and started again.  Using an image that came to me during meditation, I wrote characters as they appeared and followed them where they wanted to go.  Or, wherever seemed most interesting.

25,000 words later, I began to feel a need for direction.  I went back to the Ready, Set, Novel and did the ‘What is the Novel’s Core?’ exercise: trying to find a short sentence to summarise what the novel might be about.

With five characters, all of whom could be the lead, I decided to write brief synopses with each, in turn, as the main character.  It soon became clear who the lead was.  All the other characters became part of her story.  And, what followed was an interesting synopsis.

A final element from York was the suggestion to read Albert Zuckerman’s How to Write a Blockbuster.  This is the kind of idea I like.  A ‘What If?’ that suggests a new structure.  Already, the idea of setting it within an existing or past political event is appealing.

Don’t be surprised if I you see another blog post in a couple of months describing yet another new start.  But, I don’t know…

One Tomato…

I’ve been facing the perennial problem of keeping my word count up.  When in doubt, buy an app.  Last year I tried out Flowstate which deletes all your writing if you pause for more than five seconds.  I wrote a lot of words, but it didn’t produce much that I could use, and the general experience was one of unnecessary anxiety.  Good for a kick-start but not for making progress on a story.

I have run a couple of time management courses recently where people have mentioned the Pomodoro technique: work for twenty-five minutes, rest for five, at the end of four sessions rest for quarter of an hour.  The technique is based on the kitchen timer shaped like a Pomodoro tomato.  Each session is called a Pomodoro, but I am English and refuse to use silly names.

A couple of articles mentioned Focus Time, and as the ticking of an actual kitchen timer would drive me up the wall, I downloaded it.  I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  There’s just an alarm at the start and end of each session (and break).  I find that I can comfortably finish 250 words during a session.  It gives me the freedom to check references on the internet or notes from other pages.  The website recommends recapping and reviewing as part of the session, and I have found it useful to pause occasionally to think about what I want to write next.  The thought of the timer does get me started and bring me back quicker from drifting thoughts.

I have found myself getting into a state of flow quickly, even if I’m feeling a bit pessimistic at the start.  There’s a reward star for each session completed and the overall stars are recorded on a simple table and graph.  A sucker for a star chart, I was motivated to do an additional session this morning.

Another advantage is that if I’m on a work day, then I can usually complete a session or two before going which gives me a sense of achievement.

Link to the official website:



In Which the Author Loses Control of his Metaphors and Similes

All sorts of sea imagery occurs: fog, heavy waves, riding the wake of larger boat, but sometimes in the however-long-it-is I’ve been writing (thirteen years and four months) I have found myself becalmed – ooh look, there’s another one.

Stuck, in other words; dispirited, in another.  There seems to be no particular way of dealing with it, other than to hope it passes: a favourable wind blows, clouds part, etc. etc.  Sometimes it looks like it’s going to be fine for a while but, like a weather app, it changes its mind two hours later (don’t get me started on weather apps).

Occasionally, all hope goes.  I stare, like the mariner, over the side of the ship, and know that in thirty years or so I’ll be waylaying a stranger on his way to a wedding, saying, ‘I tried to write a novel once…’

Anyway, the clouds seem to be lifting, which is why I felt able to write this.


(For wiser people saying much the same thing, try:

Bardo, Bardo

Tibetan Buddhists believe in a drifting state between lives, where the soul waits to find its new home.  Me?  I don’t believe in rebirth or reincarnation, but a purposeless state between lives I absolutely get.

A month ago, I submitted my latest, and possibly last, draft of my novel to an editor.  It’s been nine years since I started it, so coming to an end leaves me kicking my heels.  The obvious answer is to get back into writing another.  I already have an incomplete novel, started during a time when I thought the last one was done with, but I’m no longer excited by the premise and the writing now seems clunky.

The ideal was to start something new.  I already had an idea.  A friend of mine is a real character, so it seemed like a good idea to start with him.  Then another character popped up, someone else I know.  Then another, less clear.  I had fun writing a past and present for them, and then began to get stuck.

I have a guilt-provoking belief that proper novels start from character, and even though this is not how I have always worked, I keep trying to do it.  I found myself in a mid-state, flicking between character studies, and searches for purpose.  The main character seemed to be stuck in his house and bedroom, the writing became thinner.  I stopped.

On Saturday, I had a day free and decided to go for a walk in London.  As usual, I headed for the bookshops.  Foyles in Charing Cross Road seems to have regained its status as the place to go, so I went for coffee and cake, then walked down through the floors.  In Reference, I looked through Grammar and saw a display of How to Write books.

One stood out.  Ready, Set, Novel!  Another guilt-provoking belief I have is that you shouldn’t use ‘How to’ books to write a proper novel.  But flicking through, I liked it.  Lots of space and simple exercises.  And something struck me.  I have been writing properly for 13 years.  Two novels completed.  Haven’t I earned the right to go back and have fun?

And it has been.  Scribbling pictures in a blank square; brainstorming places and things that inspire and excite me; randomly assigning the top nine to three ‘novels’; and using the ‘What if?’ etc. etc.

Lord knows what will come of it, but I’m motivated to continue.  And in the meantime, I seem to have recovered my sense of purpose and, maybe, a new life.

Zen Exercise or Sea Wreck?

At some point this year, I will reach the ninth anniversary of having started my novel.  Nine years, thirteen drafts – still plugging away.  ‘It’s like a zen exercise,’ said my sister, when I last met her.  Pretty much.  Each time I feel I’ve got to the end, there’s another reason to start again.  Usually feedback from an agent or an editor.

In this latest draft, it has lost fifteen thousand words.  Maybe more.  The last one was over seventy thousand words, it’s now at fifty-three.  I might eventually get it published as a short story.

But I’m still learning.  Most of the loss has been the flashback chapters that the current editor felt held up the pace of it.  What is interesting, is that having removed them, they aren’t too much of a loss.  I’ve cut a character and bolstered up another.  I feel like some bloke in his shed, tinkering at something mechanical that will never quite be finished.

Though, this draft feels close.  I think one more read through and I might be ready.  And if I get asked to do another draft?  Maybe.  My friends and writing colleagues seem to be past the point when they asked me if this was really the last version.  They may even have forgotten that I’m writing.

I have in mind a sea wreck, jutting up from the tide, some mad bloke running up and down the shore shouting, ‘It’s nearly done!  Nearly done!’  It’s not me, of course.  I’m just nine years into writing a short novel: on my thirteenth draft, which I’m calling a fourteenth because I think it might be bad luck.