Up and Down

I’ve found the biggest challenge to getting any writing done since my last post has been a mental one. I’m doing all the right things: devoting a period of time each evening to write (excluding weekends at the moment), getting my daily word count done by hook or by crook, and being as intuitive as I can by writing in my notebook when a plot point sorts itself out or a character description becomes apparent. So in terms of a narrative, it’s coming along, inching towards 20,000 words. Still a long way to go though, so if completed it will definitely be of novel length.

But the mental task of getting through the words is harder than it’s ever been. I’m struggling to get into that headspace where the words flow from nowhere. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, I have a lot more in my life to think about. Being in a relationship is great, but it comes with extra emotional heft, as I’m not able to be selfish anymore. Don’t get me wrong, things are going well, but without getting too corny, we’re a team now, so her worries and issues are mine too. I feel like my mind is flitting all over the place thinking of various things, and it won’t settle down when it comes to writing time.

The same could be said of family of course, and there are a couple of health-related issues there which have been playing on my mind a bit. And to top it off, I have distinctly noticed my own mental health has taken a bit of a hit recently. It’s the general stress of everyday life really, work is a huge cause of stress for me and it isn’t improving on that front. I’m not sleeping too well, and am plagued with surreal dreams or nightmares practically every night. And the days when I slept in until my alarm went off appear to be over. I’m awake most days before 7am, no matter what time I go to bed. Most irrational of all is that I’m starting to get lost in fears about my own mortality again. This happens on an occasional basis. I get into a sort of malaise about being halfway through my life and not having much to show for it, and that simple conviction can keep me down for weeks. It passes eventually, with no rhyme or reason, but I know it will come back soon enough. It’s actually quite debilitating.

So it’s a bit of a tough slog at the moment, but I’m surviving, and the words are still coming out, however painfully. I can’t ask for any more than that.

One Trick Pony

I’ve had a brief hiatus from posting on this blog, for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been completely lazy with my writing. It has been a tough few weeks work-wise, as the pandemic has come a little closer to home. First I had to self-isolate again for 10 days after being pinged by the Covid app, then immediately after that my boss caught Covid-19, which meant half the office had to self-isolate. So I’ve been in the office virtually every day for the last 3 weeks, and the long hours and lack of staff has meant I’ve been very tired once I get home, and finding the motivation to write has been difficult. Coupled with that, I had my 2nd jab this week and have suffered quite badly from side-effects the last few days, which hasn’t helped.

That said, I have managed to start something new. I suspect we’re going to see novel number six if I can sustain the narrative, and so far the voice is interesting to me, it’s a first-person who is a bit of an unreliable narrator and has something of a violent personality. So I’m being surprised by what he comes out with next. At the moment I’m heavily into the back-story of the character, a part I always enjoy writing, but I don’t know how it’s going to tie up to the opening scenes. That’s another thing about this one, the timelines are all out of whack, I’ve started towards the end of the story and am filling in the back story as I go.

So a different challenge, and an enjoyable one, but despite the differences in pace and time, I’ve got the nagging feeling that the style and themes are one’s that I’ve gone over in previous novels. A relationship that breaks down – check. Obsessive feelings, jealousy and paranoia – check. Drug and alcohol abuse – check. Violence in all its forms – check. Even the age of the protagonists is similar, teens to mid twenties. One of a writer’s greatest fears is that they have nothing new left to say, and that fear is stronger this time around than I can remember. It’s probably just overthinking on my part but it’s a feeling I’m struggling to shift.

Untitled: Number Five

Looking back over recent posts I haven’t been very prolific on here as of late. There are a number of reasons for this but the most obvious is, in a writing sense at least, there isn’t a whole lot going on. I stated in this post that I had completed the first draft of the still untitled fifth novel, and after my usual break of 4-6 weeks to let the manuscript mellow (hopefully), I’ve gone back and done the first re-write.

Thankfully, it read back OK. I was a bit more nervous about this one because it’s quite a departure from my usual style. I’ve spoken about this previously, and it was interesting in the re-write to find how heavy and emotional the whole piece is. It’s about grief, so is bound to be I suppose, and I brought all of that to the forefront as much as possible. My two main questions were: How do you go on after a life-changing, traumatic loss? And is it possible to find happiness? I had those buzzing around my head as I attacked the manuscript, and everything that explored those questions was kept and hopefully improved on, and some of the other stuff fell by the wayside.

The balancing act of course is to try and keep the tone from becoming too heavy. There are some funny moments, which are needed to provide a different flavour and give some respite. Some of this was cut, but most of the dialogue of these scenes I wanted to keep, and I think I made the right decision. I want some lighter stuff in there. I might pare back the dialogue a bit more on the final edit, because I do have a tendency to let characters waffle. But I believe most of the final cutting will be interior monologue stuff, because the ‘show don’t tell’ principle is one that keeps most writers awake at night, and I will always have the worry that I’m spoonfeeding the reader something that is better described through dialogue or action.

But the novel at its heart is a romance. Whilst it doesn’t have a happy ending as such, it was imperative that there were glimmerings of hope at the conclusion. And I’m quite pleased with it. I don’t think it diminishes the memories that haunt the main characters, or comes off as trite or saccharine. I finished the last page with a smile on my face, and a sincere wish that it works out for them both. What can I say? I’m an old softie at heart.

And the novel has more relevance on a personal level because I’m in a new relationship myself. It has been interesting to read a manuscript containing romance that was written whilst I was single, and had been for a long time. I think I actually got most of it right, those fluttery feelings and the excitement that something special could be on the horizon, mixed in with some trepidation and uncertainty about the future. That’s how I feel right now, anyway. I tried to distance my personal life from the manuscript during this re-write, to let the characters tell their own story, but I think it’s inevitable than any future tinkering will probably try to enhance the romantic elements. But I can live with that. It’s funny how much life changes when someone comes along. I had none of it a few months ago, now I can’t imagine not knowing her. Almost like it was a miracle. Funny how things can turn out.

So I’ll do some more fiddling about with the manuscript in the coming weeks. I haven’t decided what to do with it yet, but I need to scope out some first readers before I make a decision. I’m much more unsure about where the land lies with this one.

Catch It As It Fell

It’s no great secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge Raymond Chandler fan. And today I saw on Twitter a link to a letter he wrote to a friend about emotion vs action in story. The quote is so beautiful it made me feel quite wobbly and sad after reading it (I had my first Covid vaccine today which could also be a reason!) and I had to share it.

It’s the most wonderful, haunting letter anyway, and shows what an elegant writer Chandler was, but it basically gets to the very heart of what great fiction is. The ‘creation of emotion through dialogue and description.’ That’s what I care about, too. More than I can ever express. You’re a true genius, Mr Chandler. And continue to inspire me after all these years.

The Bad Girl

Yet another offering from a South American author for the German book club this month, and one from an author who has one the Nobel Prize for Literature, no less. Last month our club member who put Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl forward had some pre-match nerves, warning us that reviews of the novel were less than stellar. Perhaps Vargas’s reputation had preceded him, for whilst the novel didn’t set my world on fire, I found it an enjoyable read.

The plot, such as it is, is age-old. It’s the impossible love story. Boy meets girl as a youth, falls in love, they have a brief, passionate, but volatile tryst that ends with her leaving without a trace, rinse and repeat throughout, ending with an emotional death to conclude the never-ending cycle. I’m obviously over simplifying, but that’s the main gist. If that sounds sneering it’s not meant to be, some of the greatest novels of all time follow a doomed love, it’s the fabled automatic. And it can be utterly compelling and heartbreaking. The Bad Girl doesn’t quite touch these dizzy heights, but the theme of obsession and being stuck in a fatal loop that will always end in tears rings true. You know it’s never going to work out, and you shake your fist at the hapless Ricardo for allowing himself to be drawn in by the ‘bad girl’ time and time again, but you empathise. We’ve all been there, if in a lighter shade.

The obsession is partly sexual, and it is sexual desire that comes between them at times. The sex scenes in the book are reasonably graphic and probably the weaker sections. I can do without phrases like ‘arrogant breasts,’ which are stupid and make no sense, and generally I think ‘less is more’ would have been a better approach. I suspect this is what my fellow member feared would blight the book, especially when it veers dangerously close to misogyny (you probably learn more about the bad girls body parts than is necessary). What I liked much more was the scene-setting (the book takes place mostly in Paris, but in other parts of the world too), which draws out the various cities in nice detail, and the backdrop of Peruvian politics taking place throughout the novel in Ricardo’s homeland and weaving in and out of the narrative as it proceeds.

I think this novel lives or dies for the reader if you can empathise or relate to the bad girl. If you think of her as just a gold-digger, you may struggle to get through this. I did feel this to a certain extent, but there were enough nuances in her personality and relationship with Ricardo to keep my interest.

Five Alive

So, the simple update to this post is that it’s done. The first draft of novel number five is in the bag.

The feelings that I shared in the linked post above is pretty much where I’m at now. I did have a lovely moment in the last knockings where I saw round a corner and smoothed out a plot niggle into something that worked out a lot better. I live for those moments, when it all comes together like a miracle, and almost always when I’m thinking about something else, too. I spent the rest of the day running it over, looking for the sharp edges, grinning when I realised there weren’t any. It’s nice, especially when you work without plotting as I tend to do, when it clicks. The rest of the book was done within a week.

The doubts about it remain, while I’m in that hinterland between first draft and rewrite. I’ve never found it hard to leave the manuscript alone. I’d say at the moment it’s ideal, in fact. It will be a few weeks yet before the urge to take a peek will come. Then the unease will crank up a notch. At the moment I’m content to allow the characters to slowly fade into the background. They told their story, so their job is done. It’s up to me to mould it into the best it can be. The pace is the main concern. I’ve no idea whether all the interior monologue is going to be compelling, or just plain boring.

The novel is on the short side as it is, so it doesn’t give me as much to play with in future drafts if I want to keep it that way. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it does end up novella length, who cares really in the end? But I guess there’s something a bit more special about saying ‘I’ve written a novel.’ So we’ll see what happens. Every completed work still feels like magic. The fire is still there. That mixture of pride and relief and sorrow that comes after writing the final word is still the most honest feeling I have experienced, and the closest to defining me as a human being than anything else I’ve ever known. It takes a whole lot to get to that point, but that’s why I do it.

Nearly two decades I’ve been at this game, now. I’ve got more from it than I dared to hope. Loved it more than I could imagine. That’s all I can wish for. But would I like to call it my fifth novel? Hell, yeah.

Ficciones

When I was at university many years ago I undertook a module on Modernism as part of my Literature degree. I think before I went to uni I had swam around in the shallow end when it came to my reading breadth and depth. I’d include college in that too. I certainly had my eyes open to what was out there through my college studies (it was where I decided I was going to write fiction for the rest of my life after reading Catcher In The Rye), but it was once I got deep into the subject at university that I really saw the staggering originality, ideas and vivid imagination that were present in literature.

The modernism module was the catalyst for this – Woolf, Rushdie, Coeetzee, Carter, and so on. All writers who delve into magic realism, fable and myth, new narrative devices, the list is endless. But it was Borges who really captured my imagination. The book I read back then was Labyrinths. This month’s German book club offering, which contains some of the same stories, was Ficciones.

It’s almost impossible to pin down the stories of Borges. The narratives are non-linear, and describe infinite universes, and in his most famous story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, the infinite outcomes theory, where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously. Time is an abstract concept throughout. Mirrors and labyrinths add layers of duplicity and intrigue. His work is a kind of maze, passages opening at random, sometimes circling back on each other, or adding new layers on top of existing ideas. Dreams are prominent, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. There are passages of surrealism. Tales of mythology. Philosophy. It’s a breathtaking array of ideas.

Now to be honest I can admit that some parts of the book I didn’t fully understand, or at least the tales themselves didn’t open to me on first reading. But this is a book that cries out for multiple readings anyway, to try and unlock its secrets. You can tell from the prose that Borges had the most dazzling mind, playful yet sincere, satirical yet earnest. A sheer intellectual heavyweight. It feels daunting initially, reading something with so much heft, that explores such a vast expanse of terrain. But persevere and many delights will be revealed.

Progress Report

So, the latest news here in the UK is that at long last, we have a roadmap out of lockdown and dates for our diaries when (all being well of course) restrictions can be lifted and life can return to something approaching normal. I have found this lockdown (I believe it’s our 3rd) probably the toughest. Being stuck indoors during the stark winter months, with little allowance to go outside and get fresh air, means I’ve felt a little starved of sunlight and despite getting a daily walk and doing workouts at home, I just don’t feel in tip-top condition. Everyday monotony doesn’t help my mental state either – I can say that I have probably gone no further than the nearest supermarket and local walking trails in the whole of February.

So with this backdrop I am in the surprising position of almost having another piece of writing finished. I’ve only spoken about this as yet untitled novel a little bit, and I’m still quite perplexed by it. The tone of the novel is quite far removed from State Line, which is great, I don’t like to do the same thing twice, but there is a ton of inner monologue stuff and very few set-pieces. It’s more psychological and emotional, the main themes being grief and how to start over after significant personal tragedy. And I have no idea how to pace this one. My main worry is that the reader will get bored wading through paragraphs of character self-analysis. When I come to the rewrite I know I’m going to find it so hard to judge what is extraneous and what should remain.

Although I have yet to finish the novel, the first draft should be complete in the next couple of weeks. Another concern is that the conclusion is almost certainly not going to tie up all the loose ends. It’s going to be very open to interpretation, which always annoys some. I think there is a risk that a reader could struggle to see what the point was. I’m asking them to do a lot more work filling in the gaps, and I guess some may think the pay-off isn’t worth it.

All told it should come in about 45-50,000 words, which places it right at the border between novel and novella. Slightly shortly than State Line, but not by much. So that will mean I have written two novels in the space of 18 months, which sounds miraculous written down and even more so repeating back to myself. Whether this one will go on Amazon or not I’ve yet to decide. Once the first draft is complete I’m taking a break for a month or two, which will hopefully coincide nicely with the extra freedoms and the chance to actually see friends and hang out again. I’m looking forward to it, in all truth. Much as I love writing, the thought of having a few weeks of watching Netflix and giving myself some downtime sounds like heaven.

One last push to get there, though.

Year of Wonders

For reasons either of familiarity or to gain knowledge and experience, in the last twelve months the German book club has explored books to do with pandemic or plague. Albert Camus’s The Plague is the most famous, and one I have discussed at length on this blog before, and this month saw us discuss a much earlier tale of pestilence and misery, Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders.

Now the old football cliche is ‘it’s a game of two halves.’ This novel is somewhat like that. Let’s start with the good. The novel is based on a true event, the bubonic plague which afflicted the town of Eyam in Derbyshire in the 17th century. Essentially the town, led by their rector Mompellion, decide to isolate themselves from the outside world after the plague is bought in by a traveller from London, who dies an excruciating and graphically told death in the house of our heroine, Anna Frith. Despite making this decision many of the villagers are wiped out, including Anna’s children. It’s visceral, brutal stuff. The villagers agreed to this self-isolation and saw it as a test of their faith and trust in God, and firmly believed that reward would be waiting for them if they survived.

For the first 250 pages of so, Brooks weaves a tale of immense suffering, persecution under the guise of religion in the form of witch baiting and Wicker Man style ostracising, brutality and pain. But also the great endurance of the human spirit, as Anna helps Mompellion and his wife to administer help and prayer to the sick and dying. Despite all the tragedy their underlying goodness and faith shines through. You can tell an enormous amount of research has been put into the book, and the atmosphere, scene setting, and tone are all spot on.

Then we get to the last 50 pages and the novel turns into a Mills and Boon bodice ripper which runs completely at odds to all that went before. My personal feeling is that Brooks had all of her research to fall back on to start with, but when the characters actually needed a story beyond just that of the plague, she didn’t know where to go next and the whole thing fell apart. It’s genuinely like two different books. Really awful, convoluted plotting (absolutely tons of stuff happens very quickly with minimal explanation), character actions that make no sense, and frankly all plausibility went out the window. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Really a great shame in the end then. I think the novel could have ended once the village had been rid of the plague and it would remain an atmospheric tale. Don’t read the final 50 pages and you’ll probably enjoy it.

Unorthodox

Actually, the title of the book, as detailed above, is appropriate in more ways than one. Thinking about it now, it’s obvious that was the intention, but this memoir that we read for this month’s German book club, about one woman’s escape from an ultra-religious community, is Unorthodox to its core.

The author Deborah Feldman grew up in an unbelievably strict Hasidic sect in New York. And I mean strict. The first thing that struck me was the utter stupidity of some of the rules she had to live under – showing her soiled sheets to a priest when it was that time of the month, for example. Another jaw-dropping bit, just thrown in at the end of a paragraph, was a teacher who told the class that assimilation into society was the cause of the Holocaust. I was completely taken aback by that. Right from the very start Feldman is confronted with this rhetoric, and like many religious denominations, there is an ongoing struggle to adapt ancient traditions and customs to modern life. In the Hasidic community they mostly don’t, hence the dress etc, but when frictions arise it sows the seeds of doubt in Feldman’s mind.

Her love of reading is highlighted from the opening pages, and it is this that keeps Feldman questioning the orthodoxy. Reading for pleasure (and in English) is banned, so she hides books in her bedroom. Exploring literature opens her mind to new experiences and this exploration was the strongest part of the book for me, it reflected how virtually everyone gets the bug of reading, for the avenues of imagination and freedom it opens up. Indeed, Feldman ends up enrolling on an English course, and through the confidence and strength it gives her, enables her to leave the Hasidic community with her son, and eventually write the very memoir we read.

The other main thread of the story is her arranged marriage to Eli, and the subsequent difficulties they have, mainly around sex, at least to start with. Feldman’s naivety around sex (not even knowing that she had a vagina) is almost impossible to comprehend. Such are the clouds of secrecy that surround the act, with all the rituals to undertake to become as clean and pure as possible for your husband on the wedding night. Of course the problems are evident outside the bedroom as well, as you would expect of a couple who only met twice briefly before they tied the knot. Eventually they divorce and she leaves the community.

Where the waters muddy is in that age-old discussion point of the memoir – how much is really true? Unbeknownst to me, the book was published to a storm of controversy. You would expect pushback from those still within the community, but some eager fact-checkers did some digging and came up with large swathes of Feldman’s past that never came up and would certainly change the narrative (an unmentioned younger sibling for one). She has admitted that some people were left out to protect their privacy, and some events were condensed or given to one character to streamline the story. The disclaimer before the first page suggests as much. But once the questions are there, they are hard to dismiss. I read the book with an open mind and was willing to accept the contents at face value, but with every new facet of information revealed, the questions increase.

I guess every reader has to try to make up their own mind about the essential truths of the book. As a light shining into a reclusive and extreme religious sect, the book is a success. Whether the embellishments and changes made are deliberate misdirection or outright dishonesty are harder to define.