Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My Novels: Love Letters to Amanda

Love Letters to Amanda

Word count:

December 2008 to August 2009

Set during the opening year of the First World War, Love Letters to Amanda tells the story of three British soldiers, named Fitcher, Hamilton and Deacon, who serve together in the same company on the Western Front. After Fitcher is killed in action, Hamilton begins corresponding with his widow, Amanda, and the two develop a close bond through their letters. When Hamilton is eventually mortally wounded, he persuades Deacon that he must pretend to be the writer of the letters when he returns to England, to save Amanda from the trauma of losing another man whom she has come to love.


The man’s voice carried clearly down the busy platform. He was walking quickly up to the family, and might even have broken into a run had there been the space amongst the crowds, but none of the three had paid any heed to his call. Not the man, not the woman, and nor the little girl between them, who held each parent tightly by the hand. They walked along three abreast, apparently oblivious to the short, evidently excited man pushing and shuffling his way towards them as the clouds of steam puffed out and rose up from the engine alongside.

People were scattering this way and that; those just missing the train as it departed, and those, like the family of three, who had just disembarked from the one opposite. Baggage was being collected, colleagues were shaking hands, children were being called for, and this man, in a black pinstripe suit and officious little bowler hat, was walking briskly, now waving his rolled-up newspaper to try and draw the attention of those he pursued.

“Jimmy!” he called again. “Jimmy old chap!”

Finally, a little out of breath, red-cheeked and perspiring lightly in the muggy summer heat, his exertions were rewarded as he caught up with the family. He tapped the man lightly on the shoulder with his paper, and the three of them stopped as one, turning to look.

The husband and father of the group was in his mid-thirties, although the first thing anyone would notice about him was not his age or manner, but the scar across his left eye, and the glass disc where once a window to the soul had sat. He had a short, bristled moustache clipped off neatly, and oddly wore a single brown leather glove, over his right hand.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, pleasantly. “Were you talking to me?”

The story of the writing of Love Letters to Amanda is the story of two dinners, with two different women.

The first of these dinners took place at a vegetarian restaurant in Norwich in December 2008, after Christmas, and after the pair of us had been to see the film Australia. I was excitedly outlining to this friend of mine the idea for an epistolary novel I had conceived called 26 Letters – or possibly 26 Characters, I wasn’t yet sure which to go for. Although I’d written large chunks of a couple of novels I eventually abandoned for one reason or another in 2007 and 2008, I hadn’t at this point finished a full novel since Forget Me Not, over two years previously. I am not quite sure why that is, but perhaps it is no coincidence that at the end of March 2008 I had the ridiculous good fortune to begin working for the BBC full-time, so by the end of 2008 I was feeling rather happier and more relaxed about life, and perhaps in a better state to do some writing.

The idea of this new novel would be that each chapter would be told from the first-person perspective of a letter writer. There would, as the title suggests, be 26 of these, one for each letter of the alphabet, with each character’s name to begin with the letter of their chapter. The story would take place across the decades, and there would be something in each chapter that linked it to the preceding one, inspired to some degree by David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which I had read a few years beforehand at university.

I didn’t have every chapter conceived in any detail yet, but one story I had come up with for one of them was set during the First World War, and broadly speaking would involve the storyline of Love Letters to Amanda, as outlined above. I was so excited about this story idea, someone having to go back home to England and pretend to be the dead man who had written the letters, that while discussing it I was making some sort of over-eager hand gesture and ended up spilling orange juice all over myself.

My friend was amused, but also taken with the idea, and insisted it was worth turning into a novel all of its own. I decided she was right, there was more than enough story there to work into a full novel. So I plunged myself into a few months of research and writing, investing in various books about the First World War and bashing a first draft into some sort of existence.

 Some of the research material I bought while writing Love Letters to Amanda.

Then there was the second dinner.

This took place in a Vietnamese restaurant, somewhere in East London, in late April 2009. My companion on this occasion was a different woman with whom I was friends at the time.

She had been interested in Love Letters to Amanda since I had first mentioned it to her, had been keen to see the finished result, and not long before this had read the first draft, which I had finished sometime in March.

She thought it was all right, that it worked as a story, but it needed more effort putting into it. Specifically, she didn’t think I had really got across just how utterly, grotesquely awful the whole experience of being in the trenches on the Western Front would have been. And also, I had severely under-written the main female character, the eponymous Amanda, who needed a much stronger personality.

She was a clever, perceptive woman, this lady, and she was of course right on both counts.

So it was back to my writing, back to my research, and for really the first time I gave a novel I had written a complete overhaul. The second draft of Love Letters to Amanda, finished in the summer, wasn’t simply a case of correcting typos and taking out poor-quality sentences. Whole new sections appeared, others were excised, some events were re-ordered and everywhere there were changes and, hopefully, improvements.

Looking back:
I am very fond of Love Letters to Amanda, and I think it represents an important step in my development as a writer. The second draft was so much better than the first, so inescapably superior, that it really made me realise for the first time how much of the work can be in improving what you have.

I’d always thought beforehand that when you’d written the first draft, that was pretty much your sculpture finished, bar the odd bit of chipping and polishing. But during the course of (re)writing Love Letters to Amanda, I realised that the first draft isn’t anywhere near that – it’s simply unloading your block of marble off the back of the lorry.

Mind you, I do think that, in retrospect, I approached the whole thing from the wrong angle. Instead of telling the story of what happened during the war, the novel really ought to have been set a few years later, perhaps during the 1920s, with someone investigating and discovering what has happened, uncovering the family’s secret, with perhaps some flashbacks to the war and excerpts from the correspondence.

I do tell myself that perhaps I will have another go at it one day, writing it from this other angle. After all, I have the characters and the story… simply moving the perspective ought to make the writing of a new version all the easier, when you know what’s going to happen.

I’ve also been thinking about perhaps putting the novel as it exists online, for free, as I did with The Wicket in the Rec after that failed to find a publisher. After all, it would tie in with the centenary commemorations for the First World War coming up over the next four years, so it would seem somehow fitting.

Although it was never taken up by any agents or publishers, Love Letters to Amanda did represent at least a small step forward, and another little boost in confidence. I submitted it to the agent who had been so promising about my previous few attempts, Laura Morris, and after seeing a synopsis and sample chapters, she asked to see some more of it.

So I excitedly sent her another chunk of it, and although she was very encouraging, she didn’t think it was quite good enough for her to want to represent. Which was disappointing but, as I say, another step further forward than I’d ever got before. Interestingly, Laura thought it was perhaps too similar to Atonement, whereas I’d been worried throughout the whole thing that it might come across as a poor man’s Birdsong.

Alas, when I tried other agents and publishers after this, it was pretty much back to square one, with nobody interested in seeing anything further after I’d sent them a synopsis and sample chapters.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Sherlock Holmes and The Adventure of The Waving Man

Earlier this year, in my day job as a radio producer I made a documentary about Sherlock Holmes - specifically, about the links between the character of Sherlock Holmes and the county of Norfolk. It was called Far From the Fogs and it seemed to go down rather well. Certainly I was very pleased with it - and incidentally, with a nice bit of timing ahead of the return of Sherlock on BBC One the same day, it's getting a repeat on BBC Radio Norfolk at 6pm on New Year's Day.

While making the programme, I came up with the germ of an idea for what I thought was a pretty good Sherlock Holmes case. I wrote a few thousand words in September, but then got sidetracked by other work matters and didn't have time to sit down and finish the thing until taking a week off for Christmas. I finished the story yesterday and today, and now here it is for your entertainment, as a sort of Christmas special!

Click here for a link to an HTML version to read online.

Click here for a link to download a MOBI file to read on your Kindle or similar device.

I'm fairly pleased with it - I think I've done a pretty good job of the characterisation, and I think the beginning is excellent. The second half probably isn't so good, and it might all be wrapped up a little too quickly... But I hope you'll agree the case and the crime itself is quite a clever one!

Do let me know what you think if you do get a moment to read it, anyway.

And incidentally... a happy Christmas to all of you at home!

Monday, 16 December 2013

A Christmas Confession

As I may perhaps have made clear from a blog post last December, wherein I eulogised about why I think A Christmas Carol is the finest piece of fiction ever written, I am rather fond of Christmas. This is almost entirely for nostalgic reasons, and as with many people in this country it's an enormous contradiction - some might say extremely hypocritical - because I'm not a Christian. Not only am I not a Christian, I'm not even a member of any religion at all. I'm an atheist, and have been pretty much ever since I can remember.

So this blog post is by way of a bit of a confession, an admission of a sordid secret from my past. I'm afraid that a couple of years ago I, Paul Hayes... helped to write a nativity play. A retelling of the most Christian of all Christian stories.

It was all because of my colleague Emma Craig, the station sound producer where I work at BBC Radio Norfolk, and formerly the presenter of our Sunday Breakfast show, from 2010 until 2012. Back in 2011, Emma realised that as Christmas Day fell on a Sunday that year she'd be presenting in the morning, so she wanted something a little special to mark the occasion. What she came up with was the idea of doing The BBC Radio Norfolk Nativity, starring our presenters.

I was Emma's broadcast assistant for the two years she presented Sunday Breakfast (basically, I answered the phones and made the tea). Knowing my penchant for a bit of writing, she asked if I would help her to write the script for the nativity - initially, I think she was planning to take an existing school nativity script and just tweak it to suit our presenters and add a few radio in-jokes.

I faced a bit of a dilemma over this. On the one hand I was very flattered to be asked to help out, and always enjoy taking part in special projects of this sort. On the other... well, being involved in anything religious is always a bit off-putting for me.

In the end though, my arrogance and my ego won out - I simply couldn't bear the idea of a bit of fiction being written involving the radio station, and not being involved in it myself. So I told Emma I'd have a go, and ended up bashing out the six episodes one morning before work - they were only short, about four pages each. In the end, I justified it to myself as being no worse than writing something based around any other set of godly myths, like the Greek myths of Zeus and so forth.

And do you know what? I think I actually did rather a good job.

Most of the main ideas were all Emma's, of course. It was she who decided we should cast our Treasure Quest team of the time, David Clayton and Becky Betts, as Mary and Joseph. She also decided that the Bishop and Archdeacon of Norwich, the dynamic duo of Graham James and Jan McFarlane, should be our narrators, which they very kindly agreed to do as they're good fun and up for a laugh. Emma also knew that we should have local MPs as the "Three Wise People." Casting-wise, I just made sure we filled the rest of the roles with as many regular on-air voices as possible.

 Emma Craig with two of our "Three Wise People" - South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon and Norwich North MP Chloe Smith.

I have always liked, and I think the audiences like, the idea that we are one collective whole at the station. That vague notion that we all live in the same house, and it's Nick Conrad's turn to buy the milk. I wanted to bring something of the sense of a broadcast pantomime, all your old favourites together and in roles that reflect and mock their on-air personalities. That old Children's BBC "the Broom Cupboard and Blue Peter" feeling of us all being together in a broadcasting factory.

I think I succeeded best at this in episode four, the best of the episodes, where we had our football commentary team doing a re-cap of events so far, and Nick Conrad chairing a debate in a "Bethlehem town square" with "Leader of Bethlehem City Council" - actually Norfolk County Council's then-leader Derrick Murphy.

The "Wise People" ended up being MPs Norman Lamb, Richard Bacon and Chloe Smith, opposite whom I gave my King Herod to the world. I was rather crestfallen when Chloe Smith said she'd been made to sound like "the boring one" when I thought I'd given her the best lines of the three! Probably because she had most of their exposition, I suppose.

We had regular on-air voices like antiques expert Mike Hicks and farmer Chris Skinner in it, and my fellow producers Thordis Fridriksson and Edd Smith were so keen to be in it in some capacity that Emma cast them as sheep!

After all the fun and games, to avoid offending anybody and bring home the point of the thing, the very end had to be done dead straight. To this end I had to write something completely alien to my way of thinking, a paragraph of straight Christian praise for the Bishop of Norwich to close the thing with. And do you know what? It's actually rather good. The Archdeacon of Norwich said how much she liked it. I was oddly rather proud of the fact that I could write a bit of effective prose about something I actually had no interest in.

Of course the main work was all down to Emma, recording everyone's parts, putting them all together and making the whole thing sound right. She did a superb job, we ended up with a great little production which was very well-received by the listeners on Christmas Day. Emma even ended up being nominated for a Jerusalem Award for it, which was thoroughly deserved. I don't know what ended up beating her to the win, but I bet they didn't have as much fun making it as we did.

So, despite not being a Christian, I have to admit I am rather proud of my little role in The BBC Radio Norfolk Nativity, which you can still hear online in its entirety by clicking here. I think it succeeded in doing exactly what we wanted to do with it, works as a nice time capsule of some of the people and personalities around and about at BBC Radio Norfolk in 2011. Something to be nostalgic for in Christmases to come.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

"Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book...?"

The best part of six months after I finally finished writing the first draft, my latest attempt at a novel is finally ready to be released into the wild, for friends, family and any interested parties to have a look at, if I am able to convince any of them to do so!

Yes, Another Life is finally in a fit state to be seen by the outside world.

I had hoped to have had it ready much sooner, but in the end it proved to be a very busy second half of the year. I had always planned to leave it for a couple of months after I'd finished the first draft, to be able to come back and proof-read it with a fresh eye at the beginning of September. The proofing stages always take a little longer than they perhaps otherwise might for me, because I like to print the novel off and go through it on paper, rather than reading it on a screen, so once I've scribbled all my changes on it in pen, I then have to go back to the keyboard and implement these on the actual manuscript.

That was all done by the end of September, but then I started getting rather busy with other things - mostly, producing our Doctor Who 50th anniversary coverage at work, and putting together our annual Treasure Quest Live stage show in aid of Children in Need. So I ended up grinding to a halt halfway through putting the changes onto the computer, and only picked up the thread again at the end of November.

Once that was done, I married the two halves of the novel together. It's told from the first-person perspectives of two characters, Rachel and Linda, with the novel alternating between them from chapter to chapter. I'd written and proofed them separately, so I now had to marry the two parts together, try and ensure they worked, and go through it all again for a second proof-read in its finished state.

I finished that this week, and put all the new corrections and changes through today. I've put an order in to print off a few copies via so I can try and force some copies onto friends and work colleagues to see what they make of it. But if anybody would like a PDF copy to read on a Kindle or the like, do let me know - I'm always happy to get as many people to read my work as possible, so long as I can get a bit of feedback!

But what sort of a novel is it, you may want to know before deciding if you want to read the thing?

It's a small, fairly simple story. The tale of two women who have each lost someone very close to them - Rachel is desperately trying to get that person back, while Linda knows that she never can. This is the story of how they try and rebuild their lives, and what ultimately brings them together.

I am pleased with it. I think it's got a good central idea, and is decently written. It's certainly the best novel I have so far written - but then again, you'd always want that to be the case with your most recent work, wouldn't you?

The only slight reservation I have is that it's still too long. In the proofing process I managed to get it down from 81,299 words to 74,854, which is better but still longer than I'd originally envisaged. So if you do read it, any recommendations of what I could cut would be very gratefully received!

After I've managed to get some feedback I'll try and work on any changes that come out of that, and then, sometime next year, begin the long slog of submitting it to agents and publishers. And then...?

Who knows.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Going Home

In the BBC East TARDIS at work, yesterday evening. 

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am writing and posting this while on a train speeding from Norwich to London, on the first leg of a journey home to spend a couple of days staying with mum and dad back home in West Sussex.

There are several reason for the journey. One is that, after a very busy few weeks at work, I wanted to have a little break from it all, a chance for a bit of rest and relaxation. (This is all relative, obviously – I am well aware that my job, even at its most stressful and difficult, is an absolute walk in the park compared to being a nurse or a teacher or anything else important that actually keeps things going, but anyway…)

The second reason is that it gives me the chance to meet up with some old friends tomorrow and join in with one of their gatherings to watch Formula One, which will be rather nice.

But there is another reason.

Today is, of course, the 23rd of November. Which is a date that means something to people like me. It is the anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who, and a rather special anniversary this year – the 50th. As you can’t have failed to notice from even a casual look at the rest of this blog, and as you surely already know if you know me at all, I am a Doctor Who fan. Always have been, always will be.

You can’t explain it, not really. It’s just something that I am, a part of who I am. An important part. It’s like being a fan of a football team – pretty much exactly like it, actually. It gets into you when you’re a child, you fall in love with it, passionately and completely, and then it’s there for life. You stick with it through thick and thin, enjoying the good times and staying with it in the bad times in the hope it will be better next week.

I could try and come up with some rational explanation for loving Doctor Who. It may be because it had a mysterious, enigmatic quality to it which greatly appealed to me as a child – the mythic quality it got from there being so much of it, so much history that you could only ever catch glimpses of, on BBC Two repeats. Or the fact that it can go anywhere and do anything, can change so much, and there’s always a completely different story, something new and unknown with the potential for brilliance, waiting just over the hill. Or the fact that, even when it goes away, there’s always the hope, due to the very nature of its format, that it will come back. Indeed, for fans, it never really goes away – someone will always be making professional novel or audio versions.

So I am heading home to stay with mum and dad because I love Doctor Who, and because I want to watch this evening’s 50th anniversary special in the very same living room where I fell in love with the series as a child. The living room where my brother urged us to be quiet because he wanted to record the opening titles of Battlefield on his personal stereo in case the theme tune was different. The living room where he and I mocked our sister for thinking the title sequence had changed that night, when we knew it was the same as last year. The living room where I sat on the floor, huddled in terror, at the first sight of Davros at the end of part one of the Genesis of the Daleks repeat in 1993. Where I ran, thrilled and excited, from the room to tell mum all about it when I actually saw a regeneration for the first time, in the Androzani repeat.

I was there when I saw the TV Movie for the first time at the age of 12, after mum had reluctantly driven us to Worthing and back to get the video on its pre-transmission release. I was there, on an Easter break from university, when the show came back in 2005. And I shall be there tonight.

 I don't usually wear anything Doctor Who-related, but as today is a special occasion I wanted to make an exception, and the badges are the only wearable-Doctor Who items I own! (Well, aside from a pair of Dalek cuff links!)

I could have gone to watch it at the cinema, in 3D, at one of the showings happening across the country. But while big screens and 3D are all very nice, mum and dad’s lounge at home is where great events in Doctor Who should be watched.

I’ve had a wonderful anniversary year. I’ve been lucky enough to attend four of the anniversary screenings at the BFI, including the première of An Adventure in Space and Time earlier this month. I’ve been part of Doctor Who News’s series of articles telling the story of the birth of the show. At work I have been incredibly fortunate to have been the one chosen to put together our local Doctor Who anniversary features, meeting and interviewing some fantastic people with some great stories to tell, and some real legends of the show. Our coverage was “mentioned in dispatches” on the main BBC Doctor Who website, and I even rather unexpectedly got a byline on a News Online piece by my colleague Martin today, written by him from one of my interviews. And I even had the "Star Letter" in the anniversary issue of Doctor Who Magazine!

But tonight will be the biggest thrill, as I get to regress to childhood and watch a brand new episode of Doctor Who, back home, in the lounge.

I probably won’t sit on the floor this time, though.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Far From the Fogs

 I know, I know, but I'll do anything for a few more listeners! Here I am on the cover of the Saturday supplements of the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News at the weekend.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how one of the aspects of my job as a radio producer that I most enjoy is the occasional opportunity it affords me to make documentaries. Pieces you can take more time over than the cut-and-thrust of live radio allows; something you can really work at and craft and get right, much like a piece of writing.

Today, my station – BBC Radio Norfolk – broadcast a programme I’ve been working on since the late spring. It’s a documentary called Far From the Fogs, and it looks at the connections between the character of Sherlock Holmes and the county of Norfolk.

I was quite pleased with how it turned out, and lots of people have been very nice about it. But what’s also something of an added bonus is the fact that making the programme has allowed me to do another little bit of professional writing for a change.

My boss at the radio station, David Clayton, suggested to his opposite number at the Eastern Daily Press (effectively Norfolk’s ‘national newspaper’) that a tie-in feature article would be a good idea. They liked the idea, and thanks to the editor Nigel Pickover and the features editor Trevor Heaton, I ended up not only writing a 1200-word piece for the weekend (or Weekend) supplement in Saturday’s edition of the paper, but also looking slightly silly on the cover of the supplement in a cape and deerstalker borrowed from the Maddermarket Theatre!

The piece also appeared in the EDP’s sister title, the Evening News. It’s probably the largest number of readers I’ve had for anything I’ve written since my broadcasting features for The Stage back in the day. Truly, I am now a proper member of the Norfolk media Mafia!

 My piece in the EDP.

What’s especially rewarding is the fact that nothing much seems to have been done to the article since I submitted it. Being a bit out of practice writing features of this kind, I had expected it to be cut to ribbons by a sub-editor, but it actually appeared in the paper pretty much word-for-word as written. Which means it must have been to a decent enough standard, which is a very nice thought.

I’m also pleased with the fact that I managed to write a completely different, shorter article for my colleagues at BBC News Online, for which opportunity I must thank Martin Barber. Whereas the EDP piece was a more authored article looking at the broad range of topics covered in the programme, the BBC News piece was shorter, more neutral and less authored in style, and focused on one particular aspect of the documentary.

 Top news for Norfolk!

So, not fiction, but nice to have a couple more professional credits to my name. Even if it does reinforce my belief that, rather sadly, I’m probably much better at writing non-fiction than I am fiction. I need to come up with an idea for a novel that I can write as if it were a piece of non-fiction, perhaps – as if reporting in a journalistic fashion on events which never actually happened.