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Touching the Starfish Paperback – 1 Feb 2010
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"Crisp, witty and scalpel-sharp, Touching the Starfish doesn't miss a trick in its arch description of the orthodoxies and absurdities of Creative Writing Programmes and the many varieties of pond-life to be found therein. It's deadly accurate too on the often hilarious miseries of the writing life." --Lindsay Clarke.
"A fine first novel." --Eastern Daily Press
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Never start a novel with a sentence like: Locally respected creative writing tutor Nathan Flack strode out through the double doors at the back of the Eudora Doon Building and watched the Folder-Holders as they arrived in the famous university's carpark below. Rethink a first line that utilizes the blunt, inanimate `was', like: Nathan was very hopeful, or: Nathan was in a well chipper good mood as he met up with his beautiful yet impossible ex-girlfriend, Frances and speculated on the new Folder-Holders and their potential for foibles, or `Nathan Flack - John Cusack in a crap leather jacket - was leaning forwards hopefully and in a well chipper good mood because he knew, and the much-admired poet Frances Mink knew that this was the last time he would have to do this job. Don't, like one student of mine, trigger a novel with: On the one less than half a dozenth storey of the building somewhere in the eastern city in the country exotic, she patted her fat belly pregnant and said, `C'mon, we've got to stop the genetically-modified Jesus from porking the nuns. Or, like another, kick off with: She needed his hot enormity suddenly inside her like she needed Coldplay on rainy afternoons. Never emulate the ex-student, a retired Deputy Chief Constable no less whose opening gambit was: The thatch of her pubic hair resembled a red squirrel's arse hanging from a laburnum tree in a small back garden on the outskirts of Hull .
Opt instead for something crisp and simple that locates our protagonist just before a moment that changes the status quo, and then try to hint at something consequential to come. Suggest that something has happened, is happening and will happen. If you can also supply a sense of the narrative voice, your unique style, your personality and moral perspective as it filters through your prose, then you're laughing.
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(Some copy-editing also needed: the grammar-stammerer in me wants Stokes (or his editor) to learn how to spell ‘lightning’ and ‘liaise’, to read up about parenthetical commas, and to understand that ‘may’ and ‘might’ are present and past tense and not interchangeable.)
The characterisation is superb. The main thing that made me want to keep reading was to find out more about the characters. The structure of the book is somewhat experimental. One of the chapters is in the form of a role-playing adventure book. This and other devices are used deliberately to make fun of the dumbing-down of the publishing industry and they are all handled adeptly, by a writer who knows exactly what he is doing. It is virtually the only book I have ever read (certainly the only work of fiction) which makes liberal use of footnotes, and in which the footnotes are actually worth reading rather than being merely an irritation.
The book's big idea is that modern literature has become a victim of a publishing industry which only knows how to promote books written by people who aren't writers, for readerships of people who don't really like reading. I greatly look forward to Ashley Stokes's second novel. It will be interesting to see whether he decides to continue to experiment (that is to continue to write what are at least partly parodies) or to write an "old-fashioned" novel, which would at least have the merit of moving against the tide in these days of Ricky Gervais and Alan Titchmarsh.
By the way, I am a current student of Ashley Stokes (though he won't recognise me here, as the Amazon account is in my wife's maiden name) so I found the student nomenclature particularly entertaining - I wonder whether a later footnote describes the type of student who shows no sign of life other than to request extensions on assignment deadlines and post reviews of the teacher's work on Amazon. ;-)