Tag Archives: story

Why aren’t novels illustrated?

illustration collage

This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…

But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?

Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.

The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.

curious

Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?

Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?

Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?

The brilliant illustrations at the head of this post are from:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Takes From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

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The merest hint of snow (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

Overnight,
The temperature dropped,
Wafting the merest hint of snow,
Through the air,
Like dandelion seeds,
Gently blown,
Then blown away,
To make you wonder if they were ever there.

The loneliness of being a writer

DSC_0771

“What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with problems in solitude.”

– Henry Miller

A writer’s world can be a strange one: we desperately try to find moments of solitude but then, when we get it, often struggle to adapt to the loneliness.

The truth is that writing can be a lonely old business. It usually needs to be. And different people cope with that in different ways. What’s important is that we choose and embrace this solitude rather than feeling powerlessly cut adrift. I guess that’s the difference between solitude and loneliness.

I actually like the solitary nature of writing – but I’ve found that I’ve been at my most productive on writing retreats, where I’m surrounded by other writers. In it’s own way, this is still isolation: in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions and nothing to do except write from morning till night. It’s inspiring to feel the energy coming from the other writers in the group – that was the additional motivation I needed – but I still had to find my own bubble to write in.

There’s also the ‘no-one else understands’ loneliness. Oh yeah. If you stick your head out the window right now you’ll be able to hear that wail from a thousand heads looking up from a thousand keyboards.

And it is true. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else (except other writers) will understand exactly what it is you go through every time you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, knowing that you’re embarking on a process that will take months, if not years, to complete. Not only won’t anyone understand why you do what you do – but they may not understand what you end up writing either!


It’s not so easy to fit all this in to our day-to-day lives. We crave the moments we manage to find for ourselves: after work, before work, at weekends, when the kids are out, on that weekend away, on the train. And it’s never enough. But then we make the time and guess what?

1. We procrastinate

There’s always that friend you meant to email, the youtube clip you meant to watch, the washing-up left in the kitchen sink, that thing you had to do that you’ve been meaning to do and you should probably at least look in to how you go about starting to do it.

If only someone would ring on the doorbell, you’d invite them in for tea and cake.

And sure, you want to build up a social media profile, to update your blog regularly, to make contacts… but if you haven’t made peace with the solitude and put the time in to your writing then the other stuff is all for diddly squat (is that even a phrase or did I just make it up?).

Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

I guess this is now a tough love post!

2. The pressure, the pressure!

We’ve found the time and the space to sit with our pen and paper or at our keyboard… but what if the words won’t come? What if everything I write is shit? It’s making me crazy!

You know what? Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

Ok, I know I’m being harsh. There are plenty of techniques and exercises to help get the words flowing – I’ve suggested and discussed a lot of them since I’ve started blogging. But being a writer is tough, no matter how much we love doing it or how much we feel that we have a story that needs telling. We need to learn to make friends with solitude and be hard on ourselves. Think of it as a privilege to do what you’re doing, not a chore, no matter whether your friends or family understand. For me, it’s all about being continually surprised and excited by what I’m writing… and if I can stay in that place then I’m a happy man.

(Photo by me)

(One day I’ll learn how to write a structured article)

Dancing on sand / Living for the now (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

The coach headlights are thrown on full beam,
Illuminating a sandy stage,
As the dancing pairs,
Defy their age.

And though the evening is warm enough,
That coats aren’t required,
You still couldn’t have guessed at the inspired,
Choice of attire on display.
Sequins, sequins everywhere,
Heavy make-up,
Cumulus hair,
No colour to garish,
No trouser too tight,
An army against blandness,
Dressed for the fight.

Here, there’s no disgrace,
In a belly that struggles to remain penned,
By the buttons on a shirt,
Or a jowl that wobbles more,
Than a few years before.
It’s not about being airbrushed and pert,
Because the reality,
Is that this happiness comes more,
From enjoying the commonalities,
We find with other people;
More from appreciating what you’ve got,
Than what you had;
Not from being grateful,
Just from being glad.

His longest minute

I’ve written this from the writing prompt over at Nostrovia Poetry: ‘Write a scene where the subject experiences the longest minute of their life.’ I haven’t written from a writing prompt before – I’m not sure that this entirely works but it was fun to give it a go. And it was a great way to get my ‘writing head’ on today…

Is this it?

A car sits in the road ahead,
Where it’s impossible for two vehicles to pass.
Dark grey paintwork,
Tinted windows,
Expensive looking.
Even up close,
He can’t see through the glass.

Is this it?
Is she in there?

For the longest moment,
The stillness,
Is like a word on the tip of his tongue,
And uncertainty is hung,
On tightly strung wire,
In the space,
Between fear and desire.
He holds his breath,
Shivering as he exhales,
Trying to remain calm,
Though anxiety is king here,
And it’s anxiety that prevails.

God damn,
Why aren’t they doing something?

A door opens,
A booted foot reaches out,
And feels for the tarmac.

Is this it?
Is this it?
Is she here?

We each erect our own barriers (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

In the back of the car,
Victor runs his hands over the soft, cracked seats,
That always seem to smell like new.
His view out the window is incomplete,
Through the hazy tint,
As if he wants a hint,
Of what’s going on in the world,
But has no desire to be hurled,
In to the grime and banality,
Of what he perceives as reality.

The car leaves the steel and the concrete,
The chaos and the bustle,
Of the city behind,
And enters a suburb defined,
By it’s residents’ desire,
To separate themselves from each other.
Infinite lawns,
And hedges like fences,
Ensure that their lives are isolated,
By their own defences.

They pull up to a security gate,
And are granted entry,
By an anonymous sentry…

A woman stumbles in the ocean (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

(And this where I share – and bring to life – one of the problems I face in trying to write an ‘accessible’ narrative in verse: how do I write the dialogue? If I make it fit with the more descriptive elements in the story then I think it becomes too unrealistic – however, if I make it too straight then it feels completely out of place. So far, it’s been a struggle and I definitely haven’t yet got it right. This is a short example of where I’m at. As with the other excerpts I’ve shared, this is only a first draft so who knows where it’ll go from here).

“Damn, those waves are stronger than you think,”
Says X, offering his hand.
“Here, let me help you up,
Before you sink,
In to the sand.”

“I’ll have you know that was entirely intentional,”
Says the woman,
Waving help away,
And climbing to her feet unaided.
“It may not be the most conventional,
Way of taking a dip,
But I’d highly recommend it.”
She brushes herself down,
And mini avalanches fall in clumps,
From her half sodden clothes.
“However, I thank you for unnecessarily attempting,
To be my saviour.
Most commendable behaviour,
For a complete stranger.
Speaking of which,
My name’s Esme.
Pleased to meet you.”

X shakes hands with this impressive force in woman form,
And though it would obviously be the norm,
For him to then offer his name,
He instead says, “Pleased to meet your acquaintance.
It’s just a shame,
We couldn’t have met in a drier circumstance.”

“My acquaintance?”
It’s half a yelp and half a whine,
“Have you arrived here from Victorian times?”

And there’s something about the way she pouts,
And the way the shock of red hair sprouts,
From the top of her feisty, pale face,
All blown out of place,
And flaming around her head,
That he just finds immediately adorable.
But he doesn’t say this out loud.
Instead, he just stares back,
Grinning,
Head spinning.
She interrupts his daydream stare:
“Hello? Is there anyone there?”