Sue Boyle*

PROJECT: To write a first novel of which I am not ashamed. ( December 2016)


THE VENICE BOOK is in complete draft now  ( fourth draft complete and fifth draft on its way out chapter by chapter to the wonderful friends who have offered to read for me. Huge thanks to ANN PRESTON, ANTONY MAIR and JUDE WISDOM and  for being willing to do this.)  It actually has a bit of structure now.   The index page looks like this.

Chapter One: Photographs in the Snow
Chapter Two: A Trip to the Puppet Barge
Chapter Three: The Costume Seller’s Child
Chapter Four: To Live  in Readiness
Chapter Five : The Underbelly of Masquerade

Here is a paragraph from Chapter Two that one of my readers liked. Angus is not a lover, but a dog. If anyone else likes Mrs Maybury, I would be delighted to have more critical readers for my book.

Mrs Maybury’s  living room was packed with salvage from productions in which visitors were encouraged to believe she had taken part, the walls festooned so thickly with her scraps and trophies that they closed in like a womb. An ancient sofa had pride of the living space, its missing leg replaced by a pile of tattered encyclopaedias. Visitors assumed that the flat must have a bedroom, but the ancient sofa was, in fact,  also the bed on which she and Angus curled up companionably at the end of their busy days. Many years later, when Frederick Westwood offered Mrs Maybury a set of rooms in his house in Sussex, she declined.  I do not feel the call of the wild, Mr Frederick.  Even when Angus was with me, I can truly confess we never felt that call.


This moment is just too good to miss. Reached 50% this morning, quite unexpectedly, and reached it with one of my favourite moments in the book. I have also tricked ANN PRESTON, author of the recently launched pamphlet A North East Light  into reading small extracts when I find an excuse for sending them – and had a tremendously generous offer from Bath artist illustrator JUDE WISDOM to read any chapter I want to send. It looks as though The Venice Book is going to come out of its closet this year after all. ‘Cucciolino’ sort of means ‘little wolf cub ‘ by the way.

‘We have uncles everywhere little wolf cub,’ said Ambrosino.
‘I have no uncles,’ Luca said.  ‘I only have my aunt.’
‘You have us, cucciolino,’said Pegase.  ‘We are your uncles now.’
‘And will you still be my uncles when they fetch me home?’
‘It will not be up to us,’ said Ambrosino.  ‘Your father, il tuo padrone, he will decide.’



Venice Book image one

Many thanks to the two unknown photographers whose images I have borrowed for the graphic to accompany the progress report on The Venice Book which will form part of one of the sets in the next meetup for the Bath Writers & Artists group. ( Saturday 6th October 2018.)  This is San Giorgio Maggiore behind a wonderful Venetian mask I found ( and alpha’ed) on Pinterest.

Today is a Celebration Day – the draft has just reached its 40% fourth-time-edited moment and I dare to believe that it will now be impossible not to reach the end. The key thing about the fourth draft is that it is readable – aloud, and, by anyone who is willing, from the page. Still full of faults, of course, and still capable of almost infinite editing – but actually readable.  EXCEPT I have now discovered that ONLY ONE* of the writing friends who have lined themselves up so generously as critical readers are willing to read anything other than the finished book. Obvious, really, and better for them and me.  If I hand it to a trusted reader now, and they, not knowing the already written further 60%,  were to suggest how the story might progress and end ……..and another trusted reader made their own, different set of suggestions ….. and another….. we might between us have a very enjoyable happening, but I would certainly never get to finish The Venice Book.

*But that ONE is hugely important to me.  Wonderful JUDE WISDOM is already planning a new suite of paintings inspired by The Venice Book.  Another reason I had better get to the end.

As everyone knows, reading aloud to a listener is extremely helpful, but I was surprised this morning to find myself awash with tears and unable to continue reading the death and garden burial of a little dog.  I would have expected the author/inventor to be more resilient.  After all, I invented this dog, and it is still in my power to let him live. I am also free to re-invent my doomed toy spaniel as a Caucasian Shepherd Dog who would turn on his would-be assassin and tear him limb from limb.



“The Caucasian Shepherd Dog is a strong willed, loyal, fearless dog. He is a formidable guard dog who is only suitable really to protect property such as large commercial estates, in prisons and by the Military .  Despite looking like an adorable cuddle monster – this breed is not a family pet! This dog will fiercely protect whoever he believes is his family (including children, other dogs and even cats) but will attack everyone else including friends of your children who may come to visit and play. The Caucasian Shepherd is not a breed for first time owners. It is for experienced dog owners only who can dedicate a lot of time to train and socialise this majestic breed. As a member of his family, and, provided he is well socialised and a lot of care, patience and attention has gone into his training, you can expect unfaltering loyalty, complete peace of mind from any intruders and total devotion from your Caucasian Shepherd Dog. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the breed is now becoming more popular domestically to protect property from thieves and in prisons to deter the inmates.”

Given the size of my Venetian Garden, I think this dog might have to feature in another book. This picture comes from a site called ‘Training your Caucasian Mountain Dog to Listen to You. ‘ I wonder………

Caucasian Dog 2

Training your Caucasian Mountain Dog to Listen to You (??????)


The same island, the same Guidecca canal, I’m sure, drawn in 1904 by artist Mortimer Menpes, but  from the lagoon end, with the gabled building now therefore on the left.  An early morning google discovery while I was looking for a place to hold a quiet wedding. I wonder if everything in this novel exists already on the web. If I trawl idly for long enough, will I stumble on golden-suited Impetuous Eidelweiss, asleep on the hall divan, cradling his doomed and devoted little dog?

Menpes Canal Guidecca

What a difference twelve months makes to a stumbling and ignorant novelist!

I finished the first draft of The Venice Book ( working title ) in time to take its 85,000 words off to Venice last November, as I had planned.  Twelve days of solitude to walk and think through the finished first draft of my story on the ground. Twelve days to catch the photographs I would need for this year’s planned rewrite.  Twelve days to find the places which had existed so far only in my head. Except, when I started my walking, so much in my head proved to be cotton wool.  The story I had imagined was so much less dark and unsettling in the face of the reality of the city than it should have been.

Back home in December, the real work began itself, with problem after problem after problem taking up the spaces that I had naively already allocated to the imagined pleasure of editing.  In particular, I realised that I hadn’t started my story with a coherent narrative point of view – a kindergarden error, which the simplest of novel-writing courses would have solved by preventing me embarking on such a mindlessly ambitious road. I had allowed the story to sprawl every which way, like a heap of lovely coloured fabrics tumbled randomly from a bag. I had no single narrator.  My story had no edges and no end. It was a rudderless boat adrift on a tossing sea.

Finding a possible solution has occupied the spring. I am now approaching the half way mark in the second, very different, very chastened draft and hope to take this back to Venice in late November and walk it all through again….and this time to get it right??????


Sunset on Guidecca November 2017


Off the Piazzetta

Looking across the Piazza November 2016


71,000 words as of today ( 25th June) and another lovely supportive reaction to the 1000 word chapter titled Reflections on the Water which the Words & Images Meeetup Group were kind enough to let me use as workshop material in the Murch Room yesterday. The novel has an endpoint now – or rather, two endpoints fighting for position – and in some places I have been able to start the process of revisiting first draft chapters to iron out the accumulated inconsistencies. In other places, there are still gaping black spaces, plotline ravines which have to be bridged, but no help on hand to advise me how.


What a difference a month can make!  41,000 words in the draft now and the story seems to have acquired an organic life, spawning new characters, new convolutions in its plot and unexpected outcomes.  ( A Sicilian wife, a baby, and a surprisingly Dickensian  secret concerning parentage…) What I cherish most about the month was the wonderful DAWN GORMAN’S generosity in allowing me an open mic reading slot in this month’s Words and Ears at the The Swan in Bradford-on-Avon, to launch the ongoing book. I had phrased my timid request to Dawn in a tactful way which would have made it very easy for her to refuse to let an unfinished novel crash into her poetry event.  But she welcomed it with her characteristic warmth and generosity, and so it was that ‘A Landscape of Green Flame’ became the first 400 words to make its modest little squawk in the outside world.( Or perhaps I should write ‘its modest little growl’ since it concerns a tigress rather than a bird. ) As a delightful postscript, today on my Facebook Page I found a really encouraging message from Chippenham writer/DJ  BRIEN REED describing my reading as a “sumptuous vignette.”  If only every taster from the novel could find an audience like that!!!!

I was lucky enough yesterday to have a conversation with AMA BOLTON about the way my novel was changing over time – how as characters emerged from thumbnail sketches and became the people they were meant to be, their stories needed to keep pace.  The conversation was unexpectedly prophetic.  Today I have had to rewrite a passage about a meeting in the café at Miramare Castle outside Trieste.  In the first draft, this rather ridiculous building came across as an object of quiet affection, as it was to me when I visited it some years ago.  But to my Venetian character, for whom the Austrian domination of North Italy and the Veneto was still an abiding and hateful shame, this clumsy wedding cake of a castle meant something completely else. To be obliged to sit and wait in a Hapsburg summerhouse….. to belong to a city looted by Napoleon ….. a city taken into custody for two years by the Third Reich …. out of the blue, my novel, by way of its complicated Venetian, found a way to express its passionate underlying politics.  ( Helped along perhaps by this being the week when the freedom loving people of this island are having to endure being lectured to by Commissar Jean-Claude Juncker, he who believes that the language of Shakespeare isn’t important any more. )

PROGRESS REPORT MARCH 2017 :  On the final day of March I managed to sequence the notes and scraps for 21 chapters and create the novel’s first ever paper self, losing one or two favourite moments in the chaos of cut and paste.  Have managed to create some opportunities for sex, but none yet for violent deaths and I still don’t really have villains to provide dark undertones.  As I home in on my villains , I get to like them too much to think that they are anything worse than fallibly human, like the rest of us,  even if they are commissioning arson attacks to achieve their wicked ways. Next task is to generate the calendar for the events and then to hunt down the weather reports the novel needs. Dogs down to three and have lost the snake dancer.

PROGRESS REPORT FEBRUARY 2017 : Well, at least I now have a beginning, a (rather muddled) middle and an end.  I have a shape. And a sprawl of notes up in the Cloud.  The characters are developing quirks, histories, unexpected relatives, and strange passions and enthusiasms which don’t seem to be mine. A promiscuous lady harpist has turned up. Four large dogs. A large French chateau. Also a snake dancer. And I am more in awe than ever of anyone who can see a novel through and get it on to a table inside the door in Waterstone’s.

PROGRESS REPORT JANUARY 2017 : Almost the end of January and time to sum up my project’s progress for the month.  Two false starts and a lot of learning, including of course beginning to learn just how much I didn’t know about this new medium.  ( A salutary experience for someone who in one of many other lives used to teach the novel on the Cambridge tripos. ) First thing I didn’t know as a practitioner was how to construct a working plot.  I had far too much faith in the idea that with enough application a work would  evolve towards what it wanted to be and say –  as, in my experience, a poem tends to do.  Plot-making over 80,000 words, I am learning,  is something else – a fascinating and unforgiving process which finds out unacceptable improbabilities,and refuses to move forward until you have faced the untruth you were trying to get away with, and worked down to the real truths you were trying to sidestep or cover up. I did not expect any of this when I chose this project and now have to decide whether to abandon it, or confront the demon which lurks inside.

Last evening I went to Ruth Sharman‘s marvellous reading in Bradford on Avon.  Like an ancient mariner, in the interval, I was explaining my predicament to poetry friends. Ever-wise friend Morag Kiziewicz  reminded me very kindly that in the workshops I am always insisting that real writing  requires the writer in a deep sense to tell the truth.  Not by revealing secrets and intimacies the writer does not want to share.  But in the sense that a writer must always be true to his or her understanding  of how things really  work and of what they really mean. Must see without  prior agendas, and without having already selected the significance of what is seen. This insecure would-be novelist is now totally hoist on her own petard….. wondering what painful developments might February hold….and how dark this bewildered little  book is going to be…..


Things seen in Venice I

The photograph of this canal bridge is called ‘The Nesting Box’.  I have just mailed it as a New Year greeting to the author of the exemplary  literary blog, SERAILLON which I cannot recommend too highly, and whose link is here. Seraillon’s author  knows where this nesting box can be found…… So (among many others) did Henry James….


Things seen in Venice II

Follow the book steps climb ….. a.k.a. whatever problems you meet in your writing, other people have been in this place before.


Things seen in Venice III

  • Founder organiser  Bath Poetry Cafe
  • Too Late for the Love Hotel ( Poetry Business Winning Pamphlet) 2012
  • Report from the Judenplatz first dramatised performance Torbay Festival of Poetry 2014
  • Safe Passage ( Oversteps Books) 2015
  • Report from the Judenplatz fully staged performance Taunton 2016
  • Guest Readings :  Torbay Festival of Poetry, Troubadour London, Ware Poets, Fire River Poets Taunton, Swindon, Reading, Sheffield.
  • Workshops and Writing Days: Bath Poetry Cafe Workshops, Cultural Olympiad series sponsored by Bath and North East Somerset Arts Development, Torbay and Paignton Festivals of Poetry, Cafe Writing Days Bath, Project 2017.
  • Organiser Annual World War One Centenary Evenings at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution sponsored by Bath and North East Somerset Council Arts Development.
  • Judge: Torbay Festival of Poetry Competition 2016
  • Magazines: Poetry Ireland, The Rialto, Magma, Acumen.


4 comments on “Sue Boyle*

  1. janetmcclean says:

    Great quote from Yeats, and really helpful advice from Morag Kiziewicz, thank you. Your books sounds facinating – shame about the Snake Dancer.


    • Thank you very much for being interested, Janet. The Snake Dancer became involved in a rather special garden and the Eden parallelism came to seem a bit too obvious. She might be allowed to resurface elsewhere in the plot. Dawn has offered the novel a very short reading opportunity at her wonderful Words & Ears event at the Swan in Bradford-on-Avon on 27th April . I am wondering who to bring!


  2. markhbooth says:

    Splendid ambition, striking photographs – may it all go well!


  3. veronabass says:

    How about a little progress report after your recent Venice sojourn?


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