The Power of the Written Word

So 2019 is grinding towards an end, and what a complex, mangled year it has been for us, here in the UK.

On our small island with its natural water barrier between us and the world, a civil war of words has raged since 2016, over whether we should pull up the drawbridge to our sea moat and withdraw into our brittle little shell or continue to relate with our nearest neighbours in the same convivial way we’ve enjoyed for 50 years.

I’m disconsolate to say to my overseas readers, not only that the drawbridge fans have won the war of words, but that all of we ordinary citizens, those of us who don’t have huge investments squirrelled away or are not hedge fund managers, who are not the fabulously rich elite and right wing newspaper owners, we have all lost.

I can’t dwell for too long on an issue which has been divisive enough to make me sick at heart. Instead I turn for comfort to my own community and to the groups which provide solace, friendship and distraction in these gloomy times.

While I have only been a member of my current book club for about a year, the members feel like old friends already, with their lively, cheerful discussions and their enthusiasm for reading and sharing views. During the evening we spent enjoying a Christmas meal I discovered I am the oldest in the group [by 4 days!], although I’ve never felt myself to be a different generation. I love the range of ages and stages of life. Members relate to the books differently depending on these stages, which provides a wealth of varied insights. The group has grown so much that numbers have had to be regulated!

In contrast, my writing group, the wonderful Spokes, has kept going for years with fluctuating numbers, on occasions dipping to three of us, the original three. We’ve moved venue several times and seen writers come and go, some getting published, some moving to new areas, others giving up their writing journey. But new members always turn up, currently a disparate but interesting set of characters with very different levels of expertise to bring to our group. People have different reasons for attending a group; perhaps writing is an outlet for them, perhaps they are serious about pursuing writing as a career, or perhaps the feeling of belonging and being valued is all they need.

We are fortunate, these days to be housed in our wonderful, local library, a facility denied to many since austerity crept around the country pruning services to the ground. If you are still lucky enough to live near a functioning library, please use it! There are few greater treasures than books, even in this digital age.

So at this point, I wish you-readers from all around the world, all faiths or none, all nationalities, a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

 

Climbing the Novel Volcano

How it goes:

  • You think you can write a book. ‘Everyone has a book in them’, don’t they? You toy with the idea. You start. You stop. You think again. Maybe you start.
  • You plan it, idly. One rainy day you write a beginning. It’s rubbish. You bin [delete] it.
  • Another idle afternoon you begin again. Maybe you write 500 words!
  • You continue. Maybe you have a chapter.
  • You’ve got going. You become absorbed. You write. And write. And write.
  • You stop. Months pass. Life intervenes. The boiling has slowed to a simmer and become still. The words lie gathering [virtual] dust in a file somewhere on the PC.
  • Months later, in between scribbling flash fiction, blogging or writing Tripadvisor reviews you come across the dusty file. You read it.
  • ‘Hm’, you think. It’s not that bad! You apply yourself. You have another couple of chapters. Hooray!
  •  Life intervenes once more. The file languishes unloved in the depths of ‘documents’. Months pass.
  • One day you mention it to someone. They express an interest, thus re-kindling your own enthusiasm for the project. You get going once more. Hooray!
  • At long last you complete the first, raw, ragged draft of a novel. You feel accomplished/uncertain/satisfied/unworthy/confused/conflicted.
  • The someone wants to read it. Hooray/ Horrors!
  • The someone likes it!
  • You know you need feedback. Another someone suggests you try a shared edit. You try this. The someone likes it. Hooray! But they want you to rewrite the plot. Bleurgh!
  • You edit. And edit.
  •  Enough editing. You consult the Bible [aka the Writers and Artists Yearbook] and find a meagre handful of possibly sympathetic publishers/literary agents.
  • You must write a synopsis. This is the writer’s bete noir. You think about it. You lie awake thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t want to be published anyway?
  • One rainy day you apply yourself to synopsis writing. You consult online advice. Horrors! You know it’s crucial. Maybe you don’t want to be published?
  • It is still raining. You make a start. It’s terrible. You get a cup of tea. You start again.
  • It’s hopeless.
  • You read it aloud to your writing group. It sounds rubbish.
  • You return to the task. You edit. It’s still awful.
  • You rest the hopeless synopsis and attempt a cover letter. You write a blurb. You read it. It doesn’t sound like your novel at all. Perhaps getting published is not all it’s cracked up to be; Waterstones’ window can probably survive without your best seller…
  • In the night you make promises to yourself: I will submit the work to a publisher before I make my next trip away. I will complete the synopsis tomorrow. I will get up now and write the cover letter. You fall asleep.

 

 

Second Time Around

You know that adage about clouds and silver linings?

One side effect of rain and of confining illness is productivity.

I have been sporadically working on ‘that difficult second novel’ for several years, blocked at times, stuck at times, making excuses, indulging in displacement activity and generally procrastinating. I have taken the almost finished first draft away with me more times than I’ve cared to admit.

When I finished writing the first novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’

I experienced a euphoria. I had written a book, and not just any book, but one that had rattled around in my head for years, niggling away at the edges of consciousness and invading my dreams. The euphoria that accompanies the completion of a novel lasts until the first rejection letter/email appears, or at the first, coldly polite ‘You’ve written a book? Well done!’ from friends and family.

The finishing of a second novel is tempered by your experience of how your first has been received. There is a satisfaction at having got to the end. There is a wry anticipation of the huge mountain to climb that is editing. There is a reluctance, this time, to confess to having produced another tome.

But alongside all this doubt there is a satisfaction and a steely, stubborn streak of determination to have another go. To this end I’ve bought a new copy of this:

P1070552

Which must be the first, actual, real, paper copy of a book I’ve bought for a number of years [since becoming a Kindle convert]. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has to be a paper copy in order for scribbling, highlighting, asterisking and tearing out of pages to be undertaken.

When I dip into this writer’s Bible I note that some articles remain from my last copy, as do many of the agents and publishers whose stinging rejections I was handed last time. But there are new, useful chapters. For starters, I’ve learned that my new novel’s genre is known as ‘speculative fiction’. This is useful because I’ve been thinking of it either as science fiction-a genre that appears to be reviled by many agents, judging by their preferences, or as an ‘eco-thriller’; this being a term invented purely by the writer [ie myself] and thus unlikely to score any pints with the publishing business.

Speculative fiction is a genre I’ve been reading for some years, including such novels as the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, several books by Barbara Kingsolver such as ‘Flight Behaviour’ and most recently, John Lanchester’s ‘The Wall’. ‘The Wall’ is a chilling forecast of what could occur in the not-too-distant future if we in the UK continue to pursue current paths and neglect issues like climate change. When I read examples of speculative fiction I am both encouraged by the ideas-some of which are addressed in my own work, and dismayed at how much better written their novels are.

So it’s back to The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, with my highlighter pen in hand. Because you never know…

Cracking the Second One-

We are in southern France, attempting to find some vestiges of the summer we felt cheated of in the UK.

I had also meant, whilst here to attempt to get the first draft of Novel 2 knocked off. In the event it’s proving more difficult than I’d imagined, for a number of reasons.

When I wrote the first novel I thought it was hard; now I realise that it was a proverbial walk in the park compared to the wild, flapping, untameable story that is the second book. Novel 1[ The Year of Familiar Strangers] ’s central character is loosely based around a person I knew in the past and many of the episodes in the story are real incidents that only needed a little embellishment, a little alteration, to form the basis of what I still consider to be a ripping yarn. Several of the peripheral characters were also lifted from real life and very little invention was needed. I even had the locations in my head [no surprise that much of it is set in France!].

Novel 2 is as different to 1 as a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. All of the characters are inventions. I’ve had to get to know them as the story has progressed, never sure if their actions are true to type or too far-fetched for credibility. The plot continues to escape my direction, twisting and turning and having a mind of its own. The nearer I think I’m getting to the denouement the longer it appears to be taking to crack it. There is a constant need to refer back in the text to ensure continuity and half the time I forget who did what, and when. I want to tie the ends up, bring the threads together in some semblance of logic, a conclusion that leads the reader to say ‘Ah, so that was why/where/ what, but like Alice, every step I take goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go.

A further difficulty is that having chosen to set the novel in the moderately near future and then taking too long to write it leads to ideas getting high-jacked by reality. Did George Orwell have this problem with 1984? I am now loath to tie it down to any date due to the rapid technological developments that are catching up with-and in some instances overtaking those in my novel! This is frustrating-technology moves along faster than my novel-writing! And the future is BIG. HUGE! It is a mistake to try and corral it into a novel.

Choosing to hand-write the last section hasn’t helped. Having visualised sitting in the sun scribbling away and penning the final words with a flourish I’m contending with strong breezes, insects and the lure of cycling, walking and sightseeing. Ah yes-I should be so driven as to eschew such pleasures. This morning we woke to rain, so if you will excuse me I can’t be frittering away my time on frivolous blog-writing; I need to get on before any more innovations come in…

Another Tedious Round of Kiss and Tell

                The customary, annual circus of celebrity autobiographies is cranking up already, as the first signs of sparkly window dressing in the shops appear and even the miniscule pharmacy next to our doctors’ surgery has sprouted some tinsel along its dusty shelving-that is, unless it has been left over from last year?

                First out of the traps are a couple of football managers, following up their published memoirs by appearing on an overabundance of talk shows and magazine programmes, promising plenty of ‘kiss and tell’ revelations. You can’t blame them. Presumably in retirement they need every penny they can get to keep them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. The level of writing competence will be adequate, since they will have engaged the services of ghost writers, and in any case I suppose their readership will not be purchasing their books for their literary qualities, characterisation, plotlines, descriptions, imagery or philosophical debate. No, the punters will be interested in two things only-whether they dish the dirt-and what the dirt is.

                Then there are actors, pop stars, footballers, ‘presenters’ and comedians. I used to feel it incongruous for pop singers or models barely into their twenties to pen [or have someone pen] ‘My Story’ but of course then I realised it is the ultimate gravy train. In another couple of years, having become addicted to some substance, had a couple of stints in The Priory, got married, had an affair or two, come out, been arrested and done community service the material is all set for ‘My Story-the Next Chapter’. Look at Katie Price. She has created an entire industry from living her orchestrated life in the public eye, thus generating enough story lineage for a library full of autobiographies.

                If I appear to be less than enamoured of celebrity autobiographies then it is true. In fact the biography is not a favourite genre of mine at all. Unlike the unlovely Noel Gallagher I’m a great fiction fan. Has Noel any plans to publish his own memoirs? If he has not already done so, I’m betting it will happen at some stage. I’m also willing to wager it will contain a fair portion of fiction, a genre that Noel abhors.

                I do make the odd exception to my biography reading rule. Jennifer Saunders has been reading her own on the radio; fresh, entertaining and funny. In contrast, Dawn French’s offering [doled out to my book club-hence not a choice] came across as self congratulatory, inflated and at times, resentful.

                If there is a redeeming feature about the eruption of Christmas biogs it is that they are unaccountably popular [or why would there be so many on the shelves of WH Smith and Waterstone’s], which means that a great many people pick up a book who would otherwise be reading nothing more than The Daily Mail or the numbers on their lottery tickets; that is, if they are read? They do, after all, tend to include a plethora of glossy photographs…

Snap!

                It is accepted that to be good at something, to excel, to be an expert-you must love that thing. You must have dreamed of doing it since childhood; have worked, or practised or studied at it in all your waking hours. It is true for great musicians, artists, sportspeople and of course, writers. But what if there is a pursuit you love, that you spend time on, you practise and you study-but you are, you remain, you continue to be completely useless at it?

                At school, for instance I was very fond of both geography and biology. In geography I loved drawing maps, shading in the contours and labelling everything. In biology I got enormous pleasure from drawing diagrams and again, labelling the bits. I’d spend time over these tasks, colouring along the coastlines in blue on a map, or shading in the joints on a skeleton. But it was to no avail. I bombed at both subjects and was [not unkindly] advised to ‘drop’ them like hot potatoes before ‘O’ levels loomed.

                So it is, nowadays with photography. I love photographing things. When walking in a new place I am rarely without my camera in my pocket-or more often-in my hand. I do, however have to have a compact, idiot-proof camera that will do everything for me except press its own button. I confess to no understanding at all of shutter speeds, lenses, exposures, filters and zooms [although I do have an excellent zoom on my little gadget]. I take snaps. I take many snaps of objects that have just gone past, or that are too far away for the camera to see, or are blurred or are in the dark, or are anyway, unrecognisable. But in this automated, computerised, digitalised age it matters not a flash, because that master capability exists-the delete button.

                These days anyone can have a go at photography and be ‘published’, [in much the same way as blogging]. Holiday snaps on Facebook must have become the new ‘postcards’. Myself, I’m not sorry about the demise of the postcard. They were a complete chore, a duty to be executed and got out of the way as quickly as possible. You had to choose them, buy them, get stamps. The shop selling the postcards might not sell stamps, or would sell stamps only of you bought cards from them. Then you had to think of something to write to Aunty Elsie or whoever. What could you write in that tiny space that would be interesting or amusing or informative? You could write in barely legible miniature documenting every moment of your vacation or you could use up the entire space with a vacuous ‘wish you were here’ kind of statement.

                No-I prefer the FB approach, except that due to an entrenched phobia about having my own phizog snapped I like to be behind the lens rather than the subject; and I get to be a published photographer –just like everyone else!