Posts Tagged ‘New Writing


“Under The Arcade”: my first novel

So: it took the best part of three years, eight rewrites and many sleepless nights – but I’m happy to say that, as of autumn 2013, I’m finally publishing my first completed novel. It’s called Under The Arcade, it clocks in at 53,000 words (186 pages in print) and it’s best described as a piece of literary fiction.

You can buy it in paperback here:

You can buy it in paperback or Kindle format at

Novel or novella?

Under The Arcade book coverPerhaps my first novel should in fact be called a novella. It’s tough to say, because the classifications for novels and novellas are hazy at best. It all comes down to a subjective matter of word count. Literary agents will tell you that a novel must be 80,000 words or longer; anything less is a novella. But some established bodies – the British Fantasy Society, for example – consider 40,000 words to be the point where the novella ends and the novel begins. In his famous 1927 treatise Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster declared that a “fictitious prose work over 50,000 words” should be categorised as a novel. So where to turn when deciding which camp your 53,000-word manuscript falls into?

Personally, I consider my book to be a long novella and I wrote it with this format in mind. It has no divisions or chapter breaks. It deals with one character and one emotional viewpoint. It pays particular focus to place and description. Some would say these are typical traits of a novella. Warren Cariou, Professor of English at the University of Manitoba, sums it up best:

“The novella…usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.”

Beating the blank screen

I’ve always wanted to write a full-length piece of prose but something has always held me back. A lack of inspiration, a lack of confidence, a lack of commitment to see the job through: something always seemed to be lacking and I knew that authoring a novel was no job to take on lightly. So I waited and waited, all through my 20s, until I felt I had something to say and the right tools to say it with.

One day in 2010, I read A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean, 1976). It was very short – a hundred pages or so – but it was incredibly moving and expertly written. When I closed the back cover, I said to myself: “If I could write a hundred pages of that calibre, I’d be over the moon. It’s just a case of capturing 25,000 words or so. What, really, is stopping you?”

That night, I sat down at a blank screen – the same blank screen that’s defeated me many times before – and started to write Under The Arcade. It quickly took on its own momentum and came to a natural end, three years later, at 50,000+ words.

The keystones

Under The Arcade charts one day in the life of Jackson, a young man who returns to his hometown on the anniversary of his brother’s death. On the hottest day of the summer, he roams around his old neighbourhood – trying to process his grief and make sense of the past.

Sutton ArcadeThe town he wanders through is a lightly fictionalised version of Sutton, the borough in south-west London where I grew up. Sutton is one of the keystones of my novel and it’s almost a character in its own right. It acts as a catalyst for some of the themes and subjects I wanted to explore: memory, nostalgia, regret, ennui.

The title of my book refers to a glass-roofed arcade that still stood in Sutton when I was a boy in the 1980s. Built in 1926, it was a unique piece of inter-war history that gave the town some added architectural charm. When it was knocked down and replaced by a Virgin Megastore in the 1990s (thank you Richard Branson), I remember being shocked that the Sutton locals – and the borough council – could so willingly erase such an asset from their town.

To my mind, Sutton has declined rapidly in the last 20 years. You only have to take a short walk down the high street to find boarded-up shops and angry, antisocial people. I felt I had to use it as a cultural backdrop; not only because I spent my childhood there and know it like the back of my hand – but also because Sutton’s vanished arcade seemed to symbolise everything that’s eating away at the town: a lack of community, a loss of pride, a total indifference to the past, present or future.

Urban decay is a prevalent feature in many British towns. I hoped, with Sutton – which is never explicitly named in my text – to strike a chord with anyone else out there who feels like their neighbourhood’s falling apart, brick by brick. Even as I write this, the things I used to love about Sutton are being torn down. There’s an old Victorian wall close to my parents’ house that’s well over a hundred years old (described on p.54 of my novel, if you’re interested). When I drove past it just the other week, half of it had been demolished. And the old primary school pond that used to sit behind it (p.50) was gone, too.

Another keystone of my novel is the subject of grief: how it works on the mind and how it colours perception. In Under The Arcade, Jackson is mourning the death of his younger brother Sean. He wants to revisit his past but at the same time he wants to avoid certain parts of it. He holds back the memory of Sean for as long as possible – and when it finally demands his attention (see the boxing sequence at p.98), he’s keen to suppress it and move on to other things.

The Sportswriter book coverThis is one of the effects I was hoping to create: the sense that surface details are masking the true depths of an inner struggle. I wanted Jackson to walk around in a self-imposed daydream, seeing the world through a distracted filter that occasionally gives way, revealing the deeper turmoil hidden beneath.

Another novel that does this well is The Sportswriter (Richard Ford, 1986). In that book, the lead character tries to cope with his recent divorce and the death of his eldest son. He finds himself in a restless, “dreamy” state in the suburbs of New Jersey – focusing on the routines of daily life, in an effort to heal and forget. But the sense of loss is always there in the background, gnawing away at his composure. Ford captures this perfectly, largely through inference and the things he leaves unsaid. It was a memorable style of storytelling and it’s always stuck with me.

The inspirations

Major inspirations for the tone and style of Under The Arcade would include the likes of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, 1925) and Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man, 1964); two excellent novellas that both take place across a single day, relating the thoughts and experiences of one individual. My story’s written in the third-person present tense, an approach that took me a little while to get comfortable with. I’m a big fan on John Updike, whose five Rabbit novels are nothing short of modern masterpieces. The way Updike used the present tense was truly sublime and it’s a poignant effect I wanted to incorporate into my own writing. In Updike’s own words:

“I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.”

Rabbit Redux book coverI’ve always been fond of fiction that takes place in the suburbs, too. American writers are particularly adept at this subgenre – Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, 1961; Young Hearts Crying, 1984), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar, 1963) and John Cheever (The Wapshot Chronicle, 1954) immediately spring to mind. As do most of the short stories of Raymond Carver. I love the tree-lined streets of suburbia and the restless, angst-ridden literature inspired by it. So it was an easy choice to set my first novel there. We have no shortage of leafy suburbs in Britain, so I wonder why more of our novelists don’t write about them?

Another big influence I have to mention is William Faulkner and his astonishing 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury. If you can get beyond Part 1 of this book, narrated in stream-of-consciousness by a raving lunatic, your efforts will be rewarded. It’s one of those books that can genuinely change the way you look at life – especially Part 2, an achingly beautiful piece of writing about the inner strife of Quentin Compson.

Quentin is a young man studying at Harvard, who takes a long walk through Cambridge on the day of his death. As he roams through the city, his thoughts churn between the past and the present in some of the most exquisite prose I’ve ever come across. I’ve read many novels in the last thirty-odd years and Quentin’s section in The Sound and the Fury is the only passage of literature that’s ever made me want to break down and cry. It’s powerful stuff!

A final word on style

I want to close with a quick comment on the style of writing you’ll find in Under The Arcade. I chose very consciously to adopt dense, florid description for my first novel. I did this because I admire writing that demands something back from the reader. Creative writing gurus are always advising new authors to “write what you know” and craft something that you yourself would want to read. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

I’m sure, however, that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. One agent who rejected my manuscript told me: “To get away with this level of detail, you need to earn your stripes as a writer beforehand: and you haven’t.” The idea that description and detail was something to “get away with” really stuck in my craw, at the time. Ever since Ernest Hemingway came along with The Sun Also Rises (1926), the “less is more” approach has become the unofficial golden rule for all novelists everywhere.

The Highly Sensitive Person book coverAlthough I enjoy Hemingway’s economical style of writing, I don’t understand why it should be the template that everyone else should follow forevermore. Why shouldn’t a book swamp you with empirical detail? Novels like Under The Volcano (Malcolm Lowry, 1947) and The Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell, 1957-1960) do this to splendid effect. Why not revive the spirit of Modernism, from time to time? I’m sure it’s due for a comeback. Will Self tried something along these lines recently with Umbrella, to generally accepted success.

In my head, my lead character Jackson has what C.G. Jung called “innate sensitivity”. In today’s terms, he’d be labelled a Highly Sensitive Person. As an HSP, he’s processing exterior detail at a higher level than most and his grief is exacerbating the experience. Hence the heightened description, the magnified perception, the feeling that the outside world is infinite and overwhelming.

Maybe the desire to write in this way is a side effect of being a copywriter by trade. Every working day, I try to cram as much meaning as I can into as few words as possible. I even keep a syllable count, rarely going above three syllables per word. But when I write for pleasure, the freedom to let language run free is just too tempting to resist. I hope Under The Arcade is no less enjoyable for that. And I hope it offers the kind of escapism that factors in the pure joy of words.

But I’ll let you, the reader, be the final judge.


“My Friend Pookie”: Part 2

Here is the second instalment of “My Friend Pookie” – an experimental webcomic written by myself and illustrated by David Frankum. You can check out the first instalment right here (originally published online by Top Shelf Productions, based in the US).

In this follow-up, we return to the story of Jack… a six-year-old kid with an imaginary friend he likes to call Pookie. At the end of the first episode, Pookie went missing when Jack lost his temper. Now, Pookie has reappeared in Jack’s bedroom: but something about him is unaccountably different.

Mr Frankum came up with some wonderful artwork for Pookie #2. I love the first panel on Page 2, where Jack is yawning in bed – rendered in neon shades of chalk. Equally impressive is the way the “scrapbook” background goes from light to dark as the story is told (we were trying to strike a more sinister tone, this time around).

If you like “My Friend Pookie” so far, please get in touch and let me know your thoughts!

My Friend Pookie #2: Page 1

My Friend Pookie #2: Page 1

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 2)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 2)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 3)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 3)


an original prequel to the tempest

In a previous post, I mentioned that I once tried to write a graphic novel prequel to The Tempest. Sycorax Waning, as I called it, ground to a sad halt when my artist moved on to other things… but I still have lots of materials left on file – like concept drawings, back-stories and character profiles.

Concept art for Ariel

Concept art for Ariel, the androgynous spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It took me a long time to create a believable story that could precede the action of The Tempest. Many nights were spent poring over the play, working backwards in time to build a consistent “origin” tale for Sycorax the witch. I also read a great deal of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as Sycorax (many will argue) shares a lot in common with Medea, the ancient Greek sorceress.

Concept art for Bruin

Concept art for Bruin, an original character I created for a prequel to The Tempest.

I was pleased with the story that eventually took shape. I’m not going to post the full plot here, as I still hope to do something with it in the future. But I am going to publish the character profiles I wrote for the project. These contain detailed breakdowns of every single character in the prequel… and give a better idea of the kind of tale I was hoping to tell.

Read all of my Character Profiles right here: Sycorax Waning_Character Profiles

Concept art for Augusto

Concept art for Augusto, a 16th century Spaniard I created for Sycorax Waning.

Let me know your thoughts on the cast of this fantasy Shakespearean prequel! Some day soon, I’ll publish the first chapter of the final script.


an abstract comic strip

The Angriest Dog In The WorldAt the end of this post is a simple comic strip I created, one day, after reading through a book called “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity”. The book offers up a collection of tips from David Lynch – yes, that’s the same David Lynch who brought us the likes of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway… a man who, it would seem, owes much of his success to the daily practice of Transcendental Meditation.

David Lynch is something of an enigma, as everybody knows. I love his work but at the same time I find it frustrating. His path to creative greatness was a truly unique one and as such, very difficult to follow. Abstraction and surrealism will more often kill a career than make one – and while Lynch has proved it’s perfectly possible to put a dancing midget in a TV sitcom or a psychological Kabuki demon in a feature film, if almost anyone else tried to do it… they’d probably get laughed away as self-indulgent navel-gazers. This makes me slightly wary of Lynch’s artistic advice, therefore, although “Catching the Big Fish” still makes for an inspirational read. Pick it up if you can find a copy.

One thing in the book that caught my attention was The Angriest Dog In The World, an absurdist comic strip created by Lynch between 1983 and 1992. I’d never heard of this strip before (published in the LA Reader and the Village Voice, it never appeared in the UK press) but it struck a chord with me nonetheless. What intrigued me most about it was this: Lynch only ever drew the strip once – four self-repeating images of a dog straining on a leash – but he kept it fresh for nine years, simply by updating the dialogue. His visual framework was flexible enough to allow for an almost endless stream of scenarios… but when you look at the strip itself, it seems anything but flexible; all of the hand-drawn panels are virtually identical. As a concept it’s a total paradox and yet somehow, it just works.

Something about this minimalism appealed to me, so I decided to give it a go myself. I drew a crude sequence of panels in Microsoft Paint that I felt, given the right dialogue, would always be able to tell a different story. The visuals include two floating spheres (gods? planets?), some speech bubbles… and absolutely nothing else. I called it “The Music of the Spheres”, an attempt to introduce some bathos i.e. what if the stars/constellations/heavenly bodies that hold us all in awe are, in fact, just brainless entities making stupid comments? The four-panel sequence runs like this and, in theory, would never change:

FIRST PANEL: Sphere 1 makes a comment to which Sphere 2 responds.

SECOND PANEL: both spheres stare blankly for a moment.

THIRD PANEL: Sphere 1 makes a comment that negates their conversation.

FOURTH PANEL: both spheres turn away in irritation.

My childish artwork appears below. All comments are welcome!


THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: High above the Earth, the celestial bodies weave our fate in perfect harmony… by Russell Norris

Music of the Spheres - Panel 1Music of the Spheres - Panel 2Music of the Spheres - Panel 3Music of the Spheres - Panel 4


a script for travis the chimp

Travis The ChimpI came across a truly awful story on the internet, once, about Travis the chimpanzee. I won’t go into any details about the reason for his fame – you can learn all about it on Wikipedia. It makes for some seriously gruesome reading, though… and for many weeks after I first came across this info, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I was writing lots of comic book scripts at the time and felt I had to somehow incorporate this shocking material into my work.

In the end I wrote a six-page script focusing on Travis the chimp, with FutureQuake Press in mind as the publisher. I was happy with the story once I got it down on the page – but I always had misgivings about the ending. FutureQuake tend to prefer a “twist in the tale” and I struggled, for a while, to think of a suitable twist that would work with the story I was trying to tell. What I came up with wasn’t 100% right and, in hindsight, it feels forced… like I’ve tacked it onto the end just to get a reaction. FutureQuake agreed, once they’d read the script – and decided to pass on it.

My script, “An Unconventional Pet”, can be found here: An Unconventional Pet_Script_R Norris

What do you think of the ending? Any ideas on how to fix it are welcome!


a graphic novel prequel to “The Tempest”

Prospero: Hast thou forgotten the foul witch Sycorax, who, with age, and envy, was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?

Ariel: No, sir.

The Tempest (Act I Scene II)


Sycorax Concept Art

Some character sketches for Sycorax the witch

For a while now, I’ve been trying to get a particular project off the ground… a new graphic novel I’ve written called Sycorax Waning. The story is a prequel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and features some of the key characters from the play: namely, Sycorax the witch and Caliban her deformed child.

My plot is fully developed and I’ve written the first 25 pages of the 200-page script. Earlier this year, after a long search for a suitable artist, I teamed up with a very skilled lady named Inko based down in Brighton. She’s put together a collection of excellent concept drawings for me, some of which you can see in this post.

My aim is to work with Inko over the coming months to get the first 15 pages of the script illustrated. Using this sample, I’ll approach relevant publishers to see if they’ve got any interest in the project. As I’ve been discovering the hard way, UK publishers really aren’t keen on graphic novel scripts on their own. They want to see the finished, fully drawn product… or a chapter-length portion of it, at the very least!

Caliban Character Art

Some character sketches for Caliban: half man, half fish

If you fancy an introduction to the project and some background to The Tempest, you can read my high concept story proposal right here: Sycorax Waning_Introduction

If there are any publishers or editors out there who want to know a bit more, please get in touch with me and I’ll send you a whole swathe of supporting materials. To get this project off the ground would be a dream come true and I’d love to see Inko’s drawings really get a chance to come to life.

PS – in case you weren’t aware, The Tempest itself has recently been adapted into a graphic novel by the clever folk at Classical Comics. I highly recommend it. Their entire collection, in fact, is seriously impressive and is doing great things for Shakespeare in the 21st century.


an experimental webcomic

My Friend PookieNot so long ago, I collaborated with the artist David Frankum on a short three-page comic called “My Friend Pookie”. The story’s all about Jack, a six-year-old kid who has a strange imaginary friend he likes to call Pookie. The tale is told from Jack’s point of view, as though we’re looking at his own drawings scribbled down on paper in felt tip.

It was an interesting challenge for Mr Frankum, who had to try and “forget” his artistic skills and draw like a young boy. He came up with some really creative ideas: for example, Pookie’s look and feel were achieved almost entirely through “bubble paintings” (remember blowing poster paint through straws in primary school?). Also, one of the panels on Page 2 was created by cutting up pieces of coloured felt and arranging them into a picture, just like a kid with a scrapbook might do.

We submitted the finished product to Top Shelf Productions, a very cool comic book company based in the US, who agreed to publish it online as a webcomic. You can read it on the “Top Shelf 2.0” section of their website – or just click here to check it out.

I’ve also decided to publish my script for this comic, which you can read right here: My_Friend_Pookie_Script_R_Norris

It might give you some further insight into the story’s concept. Let me know what you think!