Tuesday, 21 July 2015

He Wants by Alison Moore

Publishers want novels of a certain length. Knowing this, many agents ask for manuscripts of no less than 70,000 words, often preferring 80,000-90,000, more for sci-fi/fantasy/historical.

Writers shouldn’t really be thinking about word count, instead, they should be focused on producing the best story possible, and many books could benefit from a serious reduction in length. The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of my favourite books, is a novella of 38,000 or so words. James M Cain’s first draft was lengthy, over 110,000 words, before he cut the unnecessary. What’s left is enthralling. Sharp. Every word counts - and so do the missing ones. It’s easy to read, to race through to the end, but you find yourself slowing down, admiring the writing.

If books were invented today, they’d be shorter, surely? Our attention spans and limited leisure time wouldn’t entertain something we’d need to invest 12-16 hours of thought in. I’m not suggesting we re-invent the novel, only that there needs to be a good reason to make one 80,000 words when 40,000-50,000 could allow for a better result. When I read a novel by Ian McEwan I often think it runs out of steam too soon. It’s like he’s said what he wants to say and is killing time. Another fine writer that I would prefer novellas from is Howard Jacobson. I mention him because his recent books, and their protagonists, remind me of Alison Moore’s leading middle-aged men. The difference is that Moore’s men know when to leave the building.

Size matters

Her novellas encourage the reader to slow down, breathe the words in, and have fun with the meaning. In real terms, there’s not enough plot for a novel. The Jacobsonian themes of identity and self-realisation are all present in the pages of He Wants, a book of 192 pages.

One of Moore’s talents is picking small actions and facts that are interesting, in the way a comedian might know what’s funny. Under another writer’s pen the everyday details would be mere condiments but Moore makes meat out of them. Writing is nothing more than selecting the right words and leaving out the wrong ones. Both are conscious decisions, and Moore is a master decision maker.

In He Wants Lewis Sullivan is approaching retirement. He’d taught RE at the local secondary school he’d attended as a boy, and where his father had also worked. He lives, as always, close to where he grew up. His daughter makes daily visits, bringing soup that he doesn’t want. It’s a life of routine. It’s safe. He Wants is a story of how life’s structures and expectations can come to define us. How we can drift through a life we didn’t want, consoling ourselves with what might have beens or living vicariously.

The ‘plot’ concerns the appearance of an old friend that kindles Lewis’s thoughts of freedom. Can courage be the route to getting what he wants?

Look out for the many references to D H Lawrence and his writing.  

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Zoo by Jamie Mollart

Fear and self-loathing in Leicester. 

There’s a joke about an optimist who fell off the Empire State Building. Whilst falling he was asked “How’s it going?” He replied: “So far, so good.”
James Marlowe was falling. A successful advertising executive, he – and his unlikable colleagues - lived the life of a rock star, balancing drink and drugs. But all the cocaine sniffing and champagne supping was at the expense of his wife and son, and, later, his sanity.

He lands a prestigious account, that of a Dutch bank wanting a campaign to improve their public image. Then, when he begins to learn of their ruthless exploitation of an African nation, the self-doubts mount up. He’d be able to examine his life if he wasn’t entrenched in addictions and heading for a breakdown. The chapters flip between this self-destruction and his post-breakdown life in a psychiatric hospital. The alternating between foreboding and psychosis makes for a dark read.  
His wife, Sally, had questioned the profession, saw them as smart arses; these admen that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Left to bring up their son, and look after James, she knew her marriage was in trouble. The presence of James’s wife and the son that looks up to him adds a vital dimension to the tale. Not only do you care about their future, and hope they can have one, you have a balance to the work-hard, play-hard, lifestyle of drink and drugs reminiscent of pre-crash city workers. You have a life that could have been.

The chapters in the hospital are particularly good. Here’s a place of rules and routine, a path to try and get James back out there, but it won’t be done for him. He must fantasize and analyse in the hope that it’ll reveal understanding, allowing for sanity, perhaps redemption. The delusions and psychotic episodes are visual as we see into the mind of a man over the edge.
The author has obviously drawn upon his job (Mollart runs an award-winning advertising business - write what you know) but there’s much evidence of research. The chapters set in the hospital seem authentic and the activities in the fictitious African country ring shockingly true.

The writing is spare, making for a good pace and flow as James struggles with identity, addiction and sanity. The insight is interesting; the light touches of humour are welcome, and, bleak it may be but The Zoo will stay with you.
You might even feel haunted yourself by the eponymous Zoo, this bunch of figurines, their physical descriptions detailed whilst their real meaning is clouded in metaphor. Like James, the reader tries to work out their significance and how facing The Zoo might lead to salvation in the form of family and redemption.

'Grippingly Dark' Alison Moore

Jamie Mollart benefitted from Writing East Midlands’ mentoring scheme which he has high praise for:

I was assigned Tim Clare, who by a twist of fate also had his debut novel out this April, and we're both on the Amazon Rising Star list for this year. We exchanged a number of sections of the book I was working on and he provided critique on them. I found it really helpful, he picked up the fundamental issues that were holding my writing back and although the manuscript we worked through wasn't The Zoo I genuinely believe that without the mentoring scheme I wouldn't have had it published.

This is Mollart’s debut novel and clearly draws on his own career. I asked him if he shared James Marlowe’s thoughts on advertising, and if he felt any self-loathing or doubts about the job?
No, I don't agree with James. I'm an adman through and through. I couldn't give up working in advertising just as much as I couldn't give up writing. To me it's more that if you have a product it needs to be saleable anyway, and if it is then you have to assume that other people have made a similar product that a consumer would be equally as interested in. All that advertising does is enable you to get your product in front of the right people ahead of your competitors.

What if you were asked to represent a seriously dubious company?

Thankfully I've never been put in that situation. Speaking to my colleagues we have turned clients down in the past because we don't morally agree with them. James doesn't find out about their corruption until after he's working with them, at which point they would be under contract and it would be difficult to get out of. If I knew in advance what they were doing I'd like to think I'd turn the account down.
Jamie Mollart lives in Leicestershire but is a member of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio.