Sue Boyle*

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

QUOTE 1:  There’s a story in everything, my sister said. ( Safe Passage, 2015)

QUOTE 2: Now that my ladder’s gone  / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. (The Circus Animals’ Desertion by WB Yeats)



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 rewrite.  Twelve days to find the places which had existed only in my head. Except, when I started my walking, so much in my head proved to be cotton wool.  The story I 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. )


With grateful thanks to Swedish artist Maria Hamrin

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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