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…

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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…

The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

The Death of the Pen

Who writes in longhand these days? Well-according to Google [such that it must be true] many famous writers prefer to apply themselves via pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. In my ignorance I should confess to not having heard of all of these acclaimed authors but some I know of and some I’ve read, even. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, J K Rowling and Danielle Steele are some, as is Quentin Tarantino. Those who do prefer hand writing cite more romantic or abstract reasons for wanting to do it this way over practical concerns.

Since letter writing is a dying art, postcards are no longer sent and email and social networking are taking the place of paper communication the skill of making squiggly marks is slowly becoming redundant. How much longer will handwriting be taught in schools? When I began my teaching career in what was then a somewhat tempestuous area of Lambeth, London I learned that I could more or less guarantee a period of peace and calm by chalking something on the blackboard to be copied by all as ‘handwriting practise’.

As a young child in the 1950s I loved the act of writing. I adored all aspects of written work presentation. At school we entered competitions run by the Osmiroid fountain pen company, when a beautiful fountain pen would be the prize for copying a poem in curly cursive script and presenting it without blots or mistakes and surrounded by a hand-designed frame in coloured pencil.

At secondary school they cared little for coloured borders around the writing, wanting only swift note taking into a scruffy ‘rough’ book.

Later I learned calligraphy and produced a number of works as part of my A level art course using a calligraphy pen with a slanting nib and illuminating the first letter of each piece-the entire activity a satisfying kind of escapism that I’ve subsequently forgotten all about.

I am sorry to say that my handwriting, rather than improving with age has deteriorated due to lack of practice. Young members of my family are unlikely to receive cards and letters written in immaculate copperplate as I did from maiden aunts or grandparents on birthdays and at Christmas. Handwriting can be an indicator of age, becoming more wobbly and spidery with the writer’s advancing years so that you can imagine the knobbly, liver spotted, arthritic fingers that laboured over it.

Something strange and magical does happen though, when pen is put to paper. There have been occasions while away and deprived of internet when I’ve been obliged to take to scribbling in a notebook rather than tapping on a keyboard and it has had the wondrous effect of dragging me from the quicksand of writer’s block. Of course I’ve had to decipher the weird and incomprehensible scrawl once returned to the civilised environment of connectivity, but still…

Punctuating the Years

I began as the third of three bullet points, like this:
• Child 1
• Child 2
• Me
Life continued in a small way, but developing, gathering commas, growing, learning, shuffling, crawling, walking, attending school.
School was a series of quotations. ‘Don’t be late’ ‘Do your homework’ ‘Read this’ ‘Take notes’ ‘Write that’ ‘Line up’ ‘Don’t talk’ ‘Sit up’ ‘Wear this’ ‘Don’t wear it like that’ ‘Too short’ ‘Too untidy’ ‘Get changed’ ‘Get ready’ ‘Sit down’ ‘Stand up’. Sometimes the orders were exclaimed: ‘Stand!’ ‘Sit!’ ‘Quiet!’ ‘Girls!’ Sometimes they were questioned. ‘Where’s your kit?’ ‘Where’s your book?’ ‘Where’s your homework?’ ‘Why are you late?’ ‘Why are you early?’ ‘Have you practised?’ ‘Have you finished?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why not?’
I became a student. Student life was all about ellipses… We stayed up all night… We got drunk… We tried various substances… We got up late… We skipped lectures… We went on the pill… We had unsuitable liaisons… We had suitable liaisons… We shared flats… We somehow managed to stay the course…
The world of work seemed, initially to be a place organised into neat brackets. I rose [early], went to work [walk, train, tube, walk], taught my class [reprobates], went to meetings [tedious], received a salary [a relief].
I became a married woman, at which point I was hyphenated-a mere adjunct-even more so when motherhood occurred-. “What do you do?” I was asked-but before a reply was supplied-“Oh of course-you don’t work, do you?” They were the wilderness years-the 1980s-my ten years of hyphenation-stagnation; but punctuated with babies-[!]
They grew older. I returned to work, [brackets again] but harder {{{{more stressful}}}. There was ‘accountability’. There were computers [!] There were inspections [!!!] But there were also colleagues…who became friends…I took up running…and exercise classes…
I became an ‘unmarried woman’! … Moved house…Ellipse life returned… with interludes of exclamation! I was happy-or unhappy-by turns.
I met Husband, moved house again, changed job, settled, waved goodbye to the offspring, said hello to them again, [by turns]. Then a grandchild made an entrance! Grandparenthood was embraced with some bemusement-. Where had the years gone? Why so fast? How had all these events occurred [behind my back]?
Older age was here- The bonus-the consolation was retirement. I travelled. I read. I wrote. I followed pursuits I’d always wanted to. Bits of me hurt more when I exercised. I gave up running [for walking]. The return to work came back to haunt me in the form of chronic disease. I was diagnosed: it was all about the colon; which had deteriorated into a semicolon; somehow, for now it survives; even if-in the future-the colon gets discarded-after all, what is life except one, long series of ellipses?…

Mars-Travelling Hopefully-Never to Arrive

If the writers in my writing group, The Spokes had begun writing whilst young I’ve no doubt that any one, or all of them would, by now have become best-selling authors. As it is we have left starting on the writing journey much, much too late. This is not a catastrophe-as we none of us are dependent on writing for an income [just as well] and all most of us want at this stage is some recognition.
This week there were a variety of readings as usual; one extremely hilarious on the subject of political correctness gone mad, another a whimsical tale of neighbourly domestics, one a police drama, one an extract from a [very promising] mystery novel and one a science fiction short on the subject of a manned mission to Mars. The Mars story got me thinking. An expedition to establish a human colony on Mars is no longer the stuff of sci-fi drama and written fiction. It is most definitely on the cards and is, as I write, being planned.
I understand that humans are programmed to want to know about everything within their world and beyond it. I understand that exploration and science are vital for any improvements in any area in the future. But I do think it dispiriting that having made an unholy mess of one planet, man is now set on going off to another one and messing that one up, too. It is not difficult to imagine how Mars will be in the future-over-populated, polluted and beset by tribal, religious and power wars. It all has a depressing predictability. Humankind as a species is programmed to cock up…isn’t it?
There is a wonderful children’s book called ‘Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish’, about a wealthy industrialist who, having destroyed his own environment sees a beautiful star and wants to travel there. In his absence Earth is restored by the forces of nature, becoming beautiful again and unrecognisable to him. Thinking it is another beautiful ‘star’ he returns and is taught his lesson. Simplistic, yes-pertinent, also yes.
In 2013, more than 200,000 people applied to become part of the Mars mission.          Although there is no upper age limit [applicants must be over 18], a cursory glance at the application criteria is enough to demonstrate that an attempt from the likes of me would be futile since I am defective in most areas. Besides being dependent on medication I am also prone to aches and pains, as well as inclined to believe the apocalypse has come when there is a power cut.
But surely we should be putting our own house in order before going off and getting another one?
Once you have reached that age where there is more of life behind you than in front, do plans such as these seem to ease the pressure of life ending? Or are you excited enough in your dotage to want to know the outcome of such exploits? Myself I feel we are most fortunate not to have the choice.

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!