Writing and Reading for Pleasure: A Tree | Douglas Burcham

Douglas continues his writing and reading for pleasure posts by setting up a research task on book structure for the summer.


A tree 

A woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground. 

— Oxford English Dictionary

I would also add; a deciduous tree bears all by losing its leaves once a year.

Scenes, chapters like pennies becoming pounds, and jigsaw pieces forming completed puzzles were the subject of my last post. All well and good, but the next part of the matter is what to hang all these components on.

A human skeleton has been on my mind for months as I struggle in the doldrums with self-editing and restructuring. I have to admit the greatest weakness in my writing seems to me a lack of strong enough skeletal frameworks in many of my draft books.

While walking my dog early last month, dodging showers and mud, a sudden thought of an alternative form of skeleton came into my mind.

Perhaps I should look at my books like trees in leaf to attract wind and blow me along. The analogy seems good to me. Trees are used to make paper and books are printed on paper. The tree planting process is also relevant and comparable to writing.

  • Dig a hole. Avoid falling in and if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging, as the saying goes.
  • Fill the hole up with ideas and fertilise it with plots and characters.
  • Watch and feel your book tree grow and grow and grow. It will take time. Go away from time to time and be surprised how your ideas have grown in your absence.
  • The central tree trunk feels like the skeleton I have been looking for. The branches are the stays onto which can be hung the chapters and scenes, some just with green leaves, others with seeds and even flowers.
  • Near the end the tree can lose its leaves and expose all the hidden plots and nuances to its readers.

Of course the tree leaves can hide all the mysteries and confuse and tease readers during the book and maybe at the end, too.

My thought on the dog walk came as I was thinking about a new book purchase because yet again one thing has led to another.

I find it strange in life when I experience a chain of events. Last month it was finding Albert Vadja after talking to an old friend about his detached retina.

In March I purchased a used copy of a book of illustrations by Michael Ayrton. In the early 1980s, I looked into the history of the National Institute of Medical Research Building in Mill Hill North London. I found out then the architect was Maxwell Ayrton who also designed the original Wembley Stadium. I wondered whether Michael and Maxwell were related but it appeared to me they were not. However, while looking I noticed a reference to Maxwell Ayrton’s son Tony and Operation Bertram in North Africa in WW2, which led onto me finding the Phantom Army Alamein book by Rick Stroud. A great read and the book states Michael and Tony were brothers. I am still not sure they were. Is there anyone out there who can tell me?

I chuckle to see there is even a book about one thing leading to another.

During the last five years I have looked at numerous books about how to write and be a better writer. This will be the subject of my next monthly post in June 2015. It will be the five year anniversary of when I started to write and when I will pose the question — Can one teach oneself to write? I have also looked for inspiration in many books written about other books of fiction. Four of these from recent years have been:-

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots – 736 pages and 34 years in the writing. I have dipped into this mighty tome on several occasions. From what I have read so far it appears most novels are single genre/plot, whereas my writing is often multi genre/plot.

Passing Time in the Loo – 608 pages. I see from the faded receipt inside the front cover that I bought this for £16.75 in Waterstones on 11/4/2001. The quote on the cover pages “Take care of the minutes and the hours will take care of themselves,” Lord Chesterfield … same man I quoted about the pennies and pounds in my previous post.

Pages 269 to 443 are about Literary Classics and Modern Literature sandwiched between other relevant sections for writers on Personal Effectiveness, Quotations, Word power and Knowledge.

501 Must Read Books 504 pages. This book is divided up into genre sections. The children’s book section confirms the requirement for clear simple writing and advice I received about children’s books being hard to write. I started a book for children but I found it hard to avoid it becoming an adult book. The classic fiction section leaves me cold but the biography and science fiction sections give me excitement and interest. More study is required.

The Book Lovers’ Companion – 224 pages “Life’s too short to read bad books,” Lionel Shriver, 2007. In contrast to the three ‘doorstop’ tomes above this is a gem of a book. A brief description and setting, critics comments and questions for readers against each book provide stimulating reading and especially reassurance when one has read a particular book and the views of the reviewers of the book correspond with one’s own reading experience.

Philip Pullman says he does not like or do much research for his books. I try to keep research to a minimum. Looking at the various books I have purchased to read to support finalisation of my existing draft writing, I am actually doing more research than I perceived myself to be doing.

In my life to date my main detailed research has been family history. All very time consuming and in many ways one dimensional. I could not find out how my relations lived and loved other than going time travelling in my dreams. However, this has formed an enjoyable theme in my writing. If one cannot find out one can image and speculate and again one thing leads to another.

The purpose of my limited research effort this coming summer is to look through all the above books and the books listed below for inspiration and ideas about book trees to get me out of the doldrums I entered in February 2014. I have no idea where I may end up. I propose reporting on TPIM at intervals from June onwards. This is an important exercise for me because I feel I am held up on my self-editing and restructuring of my million draft words for want of really good structures in the form of trees.

I must find the right kind of trees for me in genre and subjects. I need to establish some boundaries and check to see what I have is good enough. Clearly some writers have produced bestsellers on a very simple plot while others are dense and complex. I write what I enjoy writing about. Looking at the 501 books sections, I think I need to build on the areas of most interest; science fiction, transport, travel and characters from obituaries and biography non fiction. I am attracted by semi fiction where fiction is hung onto actual people and events, but I do not feel able enough to write this as well as others, and in particular Pat Barker in her Regeneration Trilogy. The actual people I might write about are also not dead or old enough to avoid me being taken to court!

Although my boundaries of what I can write have been extended by writing short pieces on a wide variety of subjects for my writing group, I do not expect my summer research to take me to writing outside what I enjoy or what I am interested in and also where I have existing knowledge and expertise. Being an ex-figures engineer does not qualify one for a wealth of interesting experiences for readers. However, one never knows what journeys hold in store. On this basis, my starting lists of subject matter look like the following…


Family trees: their problems, omissions, loves, secrets … memories and more memories, especially day to day things. For example, do you remember (William Harbutt’s) Plasticine … Letraset dry transfers and facsimile machines, as well as buildings, sea, air and rails … biographical based characters. Women’s history. The plausible impossible. Multi genre. Dream-like backgrounds. Work situations.

Not About

Big social issues, sexual orientation, romance and crime. History before 1900. Game of Thrones and Harry Potter type fantasy.

I am currently reading a prize winning book The Sea by John Banville. Dream-like memory ridden-writing of various scenes close to where I want to be in my own writing.


Source Material

In my book pile I have the following research material for this summer.

1001 Books Must Read Before you Die

Ways of Looking at the Novel

The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950

50 Books that Changed the World by Andrew Taylor. This includes Telephone Directory 1878. I am unlikely to enter such a list but there is no harm in seeing what is possible.

How Novels Work. John Mullan will provide a map and guide for my research. Contemporary fiction. Structure 33 pages as chapter six, sandwiched between other elements of writing. Of all the books listed, I feel this in the end may rise to sit along side Stephen King’s On Writing and John Braine’s Writing a Novel to sit on my bookshelf.

The key issues are:-

  1. Will I be able to make any progress in my restructuring and self editing efforts using the books above especially given my slow progress on writing since I completed a million draft words in January 2014?
  2. What surprises await me on my research journey? Always the unexpected. Anyway, my advice to new writers: I am about to make a start and then I know the doors (in Goethe’s words) will open.
  3. Not to get bogged down.


Starting points – What I have written so far 

Each part is about 16,000 words.


My first book, started in June 2010 – 16 parts. It traces the lives of my main character Henry Cross and the Cross family against my main themes of being under threat of death and a technical topic of writing. Many family secrets and references to work and relationships. The tree is mature.


5 parts. This is about the life of Henry’s Aunt Florence and her relationship with seven children close to her as a young woman. Technical background of aircraft and events of 1922. Material research input. The tree needs water and nourishment.


4 parts. Henry’s interaction with Kathrynne Scarlet. This is a book about looking, seeing and aging with a technical background of camouflage. The tree needs pruning and fertilising. This could be my next publishing effort if I decide to publish.


4 parts. This is about sailing, a ship wreck and remote islands. Material research input. The tree needs pruning and fertilising.


4 parts. A book on time travel and motion. It is still a sapling.

My eye

4 parts. A book about blindness. Material research input. Still a sapling.


5 parts. Florence’s life. A vigorous sapling.


5+ parts. This goes to the root of the Cross family history with art and politics as the background. This one could turn into a big tree.


4 parts. This is about the buildings in Henry’s life. Still a sapling.


4 parts. A computer technology book. A vigorous sapling.

A46 Clockwork Railway

3 parts. A Railway and a catastrophe. This tree needs pruning and fertilising.


4 Parts. A post apocalyptic event with sailing and survival. I am very exited about the themes in this book.


15 parts. Four other outlines and hundreds of short stories. 


So I have plenty to work on! Help on final titles is also in prospect.

And as a last thought, I notice another relevant book about memory and trees.

Good reading and writing to you all as always


DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney of TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories ‘Ywnwab!’ in September 2013. In their 2014 and 2015 Writing Plans, by working in 16 to 18K word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress in 2014 and 2015 has been slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing.

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