Squeeze

Finding time to get stuff down is the age-old problem for any writer, as real life tends to get in the way, most notably employment. For the last six months I haven’t had that problem and have enjoyed the luxury of writing whenever I want, but I’ve just got back into full-time work and so my opportunities are more limited. As I discussed in my last post, I’m still wading through the first draft of my third novel, and I’m desperate to get it finished so I can take a short breather and work on something else. But now I’m working again my writing time is shoehorned into a few frantic minutes in the evening.  This is having a notable effect on two things, one of which is certain and the other is more tenuous, but both worthy of explanation.

To say that work makes it more difficult to write is a bit of a misnomer, if I’m honest. Only the very best make a living out of fiction, the rest of us muddle through as best we can. But if you want to write every day, you can.  Elmore Leonard used to write two pages before work every morning, getting up at 5am to do so. I suspect some snatch small periods of time whenever they can, regardless of location or time of day. I wrote my second novel Playing with Fire whilst working nights, and this suited me perfectly. Home at 5am, sleep until lunchtime, write for a couple of hours every afternoon, then do it all again. This suited me well and I think helped shape the narrative. Once it got to around 1pm I started to focus on the upcoming writing period, the problems of everyday sliding into the background somewhere, trying to encourage the muse to show up. Having this regimented structure I think was the difference that got the first draft completed. It’s hard when you’re unpublished and halfway through something that has grown bigger and scarier than everything that went before.  It’s a weight, and one than can be so daunting the fear can inhibit. But for me, having that couple of hours, that thousand to two thousand words a day to work on in a specific time window, got it done.  It made it more manageable, breaking it down into one session at a time, and I managed to overcome my doubts.

Now though, I’m on a more regular nine-to-five schedule. Due to the travails of commuting, I’m up at 6am and home over twelve hours later, Monday to Friday. Unlike Mr Leonard I’m not much of a morning person, so getting up at the crack of dawn to write would see me flagging with exhaustion after a few sessions. So my only chance comes post-dinner in the evening, once the thoughts of the working day have cleared and there’s space up top for creativity to flow. But even that this period seems to have squeezed into an hour at most at the laptop. I can barely write for more than that before fatigue sets in. In days gone by, two to three thousand words per session was achievable. Now I’m lucky to get a quarter of that.

I also worry if my physical state is affecting the quality of the manuscript. I like to hope that the characters voices will push themselves through regardless, but as tiredness takes me over the concern is that whilst I’m getting the bare minimum down, it could easily be of such a poor state that it will need to be discarded or heavily edited in the rewrite. I used to have brilliant days where I’d look at the clock and two hours had gone by and somehow three or four pages had been written like it was an elaborate magic trick. Now I clock watch and get frustrated when in my short time frame I’ve written barely a paragraph.

Still, the draft will be finished by hook or by crook if I’m drawing a bus pass by the time it’s finished – I am nothing if not stubborn. I guess it’s impossible to quantify whether my new lifestyle has helped or hindered the work, or if it would have come out the same regardless; it doesn’t stop me wondering, though.

The Right Words at the Right Time

That’s a line from a Tracy Chapman song, and its one I think about a lot when discussing the vagaries of writing. In my experience, when the right words do come, it’s never at the right time.

I, like virtually all writers I suspect, have little way to predict when a good idea will strike. I’ve dreamed a great subject for a story and then forgotten it on waking, I’ve had ideas at work, on the toilet, and in annoying moments when I don’t have a pen and paper to hand to scribble something down before I forget it. It’s how to process these ideas that I struggle with. Obviously most can be discarded as being ridiculous, but there is the odd one that I run over in my mind for a few days, trying to get a handle on the characters and what they want to say. I take a few notes, nothing too concrete, just a few possible scenarios, and if it all sounds promising, make a start. I have no clue about length, very little finalised plot, just a blank Word document and hope that the muse will come.

Which is exactly how I started Novel 3 (which is all I can call it, as I still don’t have a satisfactory title!).  And within a week or two, I knew it was going to be longer than I had first anticipated, a lot longer. Now I’m coming up for half a year on it and I’m only at 90,000 words with no end in sight. A poor work ethic really, only around 20K a month of writing and I still have no clue how I fell about it. Half the time I dislike the characters and I’m sure there are gaping plot holes along the way too. I just want the first draft over. And one reason for that is another idea is pushing at me to be written.

I was listening to a song and by its conclusion the idea was almost fully formed in my head. It fit in with my state of mind at the time and I could picture a few scenes very vividly in my head. Yet there it remains, some lines in a notebook and nothing further. Unfortunately I don’t have the ability to write two things at once, or stop writing one thing and start another. Perhaps I should have left the novel for a while to write this story, while it was still immediate and fresh. Now I worry that I won’t be able to get that feeling back when I eventually come back to it.  I feel I’ve made a mistake which may have cost me a great story.  When I’m writing the novel I’m conscious of a growing concern that by neglecting the story I may have ruined both; the complexities of the novel are dragging me down and the story is fading ever further into the background.

I hope I can resurrect it in the future, and I’ll do my best to. And then maybe Ms Chapman’s words might be right after all.

The Chosen One

It was one of those quiet days between Christmas and New Year.  You know the type – friends are away with family, you are hungover in all senses of the word from overindulgence, and there’s not much to do but veg on the couch and watch TV.  And so it was that I sat down one evening and was flicking through the channels and found a programme just starting that caught my eye.  It went on to be one of the most popular shows of the 90s and early 2000s, and one that had an enormous and almost profound influence on me.  That show was of course Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had its American premiere on this day 20 years ago, all the way back in 1997.

I have to admit, one of my initial reasons for sticking with the show was the women in it were so hot. (I was a teenager, what can I say?) But straightaway you could see that this was going to be something different. The very first scene of the pilot episode shows a male student being attacked and killed by a female vampire, completely subverting the tired narrative of the defenceless young girl at the mercy of a male demon, like all the horror movies that had gone before. And the hero, at the centre of all this mayhem and fighting to save the world from the vampires, is a teenage girl. In between maths homework, of course. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I was hooked from the off.

The real power of the show was that it showed real problems than teenagers face, using the demons and monsters as metaphor. One example – the Angel and Buffy romance, which was a masterpiece of romantic writing. After their first night together, Angel loses his soul and reverts to his vampire self.  Basically, the one night stand gone wrong. Instantly relatable to many.  And it did this sort of thing all the time, episode after episode. Buffy herself is the embodiment of teenage alienation, the perennial outsider standing against the rebellious vampires.  But all this was done with a light touch, the writing alluding to these metaphors without layering it on with a trowel.

It’s main and most obvious legacy is its feminism.  Name a show before or since with such strong female characters?  There probably isn’t one, and Buffy was groundbreaking for its time in its empowerment of women, flaws and all. The relationship between Willow and Tara was one of the first lesbian couplings on TV that I can remember, but it always felt like a natural progression of the story rather than an exercise in virtue-signalling. It was remarkable, but there was nothing so about their relationship.  It just seemed to fit.

Throughout the show the viewer was never treated as dumb, never condescended to, and was dragged through the emotional wringer.  The shows creator Joss Whedon was never afraid to make sweeping, heartbreaking decisions about where the story would go.  The show wasn’t afraid to take massive risks, including killing off main characters abruptly mid-season. The death of Miss Calendar in my all-time favourite episode Passion was genuinely shocking.  Indeed, the whole making Angel bad thing was a hugely daring storyline – the Buffy and Angel romance had vast followers who wanted to see a happily-ever-after storyline, bu no, that would be too easy. And still the viewers stayed in their droves. My favourite character is Spike, the English rock’n’roll vampire. The story of his falling in love with Buffy and their violent and destructive relationship in season 6 would have outraged many, particularly  a close-to-the-wire attempted rape scene which I still find tough to watch. I respect Whedon enormously for taking the choice to bring the two together, knowing it could turn off large numbers of the audience but doing it anyway.

But audiences were treated with intelligence. After the show was greenlit for further seasons, it created long, sprawling story arcs that stretched across multiple seasons, something that had never really been done on such a scale in a TV show before. Indeed, the first episode of Season 2, When She was Bad, follows on almost directly from the last episode of the first season in its emotional structure.  The stand alone episode aspect of the series was over, and the viewer was on a journey with these characters now.  Later episodes would reference little plot points from years before, something which later shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad did so brilliantly. It felt immersive, a proper world with real consequences and decisions being played out further down the line.

I think the real power of the show was that it resonated far beyond its target audience. I will never forget the episode The Body, where Buffy finds her mother dead on the sofa after a long battle with a brain tumour. Here is a foe that Buffy was unable to fight, the death of the person she was closest to. The episode is brilliantly structured and written, with long takes and virtually all of the music stripped out, heightening the intensity.  It’s a very moving and hard-hitting to watch episode. I lost my mother as a teenager to the same horrible disease  and the vast range of emotions Buffy and her friends experience are absolutely bang on.  It’s an extraordinarily bold piece of TV for what was a mainstream show.

But Whedon revelled in challenging the viewer. One episode, Hush, takes place in virtual silence. Another, Once More With Feeling, in the form of a musical. Both could have been ridiculous, but actually are two of the show’s greatest moments. Again, down to a pitch-perfect script and a sheer confidence in its actors. Any accusations that they are nothing more than gimmicks are defeated from the get go, especially when you realise that both are pivotal episodes in the development of each particular season. Huge advancements in plot and character relationships take place in each, all done in a unique and hugely satisfying way.

I could go on and on about this show really, and I haven’t even mentioned how funny it was, the one-liners, the sarcastic humour. How you have moments of sheer comedy one moment, then fraught danger the next. It really gave me everything, laughter, the odd tear, monsters, big, sweeping storylines, complex relationships, warmth and heart. When I first became a fan I was a little embarrassed to say so in polite company, fearing that people saw it as a silly, trite show for the teenage girl market. The show transcended that sterotype and soared to something much more inclusive, that has had a huge impact on modern popular culture and me as both man and writer. I’m very grateful that on that December night, I paused and watched rather than flicked through to another channel. If I had, I’d have missed out on so much. Happy birthday Buffy!

 

Taking A Risk

It wasn’t exactly a New Years’ Resolution, but I made a vow for 2017 to try and take my writing more seriously, and treat it like a job. I think it’s very difficult to convince anybody else of my desire to write if I don’t devote as much time and energy to the craft as possible.  In fact, when I meet new people and they ask what I do for a living I call myself a ‘freelance writer.’  I felt quite embarrassed the first time I did this, I find it comes across as self-indulgent, but it does start some interesting conversations if nothing else.

To what end is it a factual statement, though?  Well, to be honest I’m bending the truth a little by saying it.  I am only working part-time at the moment and this is as much by design as circumstance.  Since returning to this country I’ve been floundering around trying to find work, and it’s been tough.  My big problem throughout my life is that I have never really followed a specific career path.  I wrote my first novel in my early twenties and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.  Of course this doesn’t help with paying bills and keeping a roof over my head, so real life has gotten in the way of chasing that dream.  I’ve fallen into jobs as they have come along, mostly in the print industry, where I spent nearly a decade, but that career only really begun on a whim and progressed from there.  And the writing has stayed in the background, catching the odd hour between shifts, cramming in a couple of hours late at night or first thing in the morning, before the work day begins.  Sending off my SASEs and piling up rejection letters, you know the drill.  And it was OK.  I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, and I was content enough to just be doing it.

But now, I’m approaching it differently.  It has all the symptoms of a mid-life crisis, but I’m trying to throw all I have into my writing and see what happens.  I have one short story being published in the next few months which is my first success and one that I’m proud of, so maybe the hard work is paying off.  I’m writing a novel at the moment that has mushroomed from novella length to a much more complex story.  It’s hard graft, and the characters are forever expanding the narrative in their own directions, but it’s good to be in deep with something again.   I expect to have the first draft complete by the summer, then I’m going to throw everything I have at getting it published in some form or other.  I’m 40 in 2019, and part of me thinks this could be my one last shot at it.  It’s scary, and I’m having sleepless nights over it.  I’m broke virtually all the time, and I generally think I’m taking a massive risk that could cause me loads of problems down the line.  I’m single and childless so I don’t have any financial responsibilities other than to myself.

I’m not completely going off the deep end – I’ve done the odd freelance work through Upwork and as I said earlier, still doing the odd shift of menial work to get some pennies coming in.  The struggling writer thing feels like a terrible cliche, but that’s where I am right now. It feels reckless, but enormously exciting.

 

German Return- Stones from the River

So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year.  As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy.  I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants.  It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!

The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town.  The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here.  It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth.  These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.

The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative.  But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place.  The fascination of this tale for me was twofold.  One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society.  Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that.  Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments.  To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief.  Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late.  The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.

Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression.  The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages.  How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.

The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events.  It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened.  I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.

 

2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.

 

 

Small Steps

A couple of months ago I wrote a post detailing my desire to get my writing available online and my reasons for doing so. I haven’t posted for a while, and in the interim there has been a couple of developments involving my writing.  I hope that this post won’t come across as too self-indulgent or self-congratulatory, it is just an honest update.  The small steps I have taken are pretty inconsequential anyway, but I find noting them down is a record of how I am navigating the sometimes overwhelming ocean of options for publishing material. And if anything I say helps others on their journeys, then that’s all to the good.

After posting my novella ‘Momentum’ on Amazon I received an extraordinarily kind email from the organiser of my old book club in Melbourne.  Without my knowledge, he had talked with the rest of the group and decided to make my novella one of the two choices to talk about for their December meeting.  This meant a great deal for me and I am super grateful for their support, but it still filled me with some trepidation. The thought of fifteen friends sitting around dissecting my work was a scary one, even though I would be asleep on the other side of the world whilst they were having their meeting.  I’m happy to report that most of the feedback I received was positive, although of course the opinions of friends have to be taken with a pinch of salt as they tend to err on the side of praise to avoid upset.  Best of all was that a couple of members purchased the novella from Amazon rather than go through this blog, which means for the first time in my life I have made financial gain from my writing.  The royalty payments for an Amazon sale are frankly a pittance, but I still feel proud.  As the title of this post suggests, it’s a tiny step but worth commemorating, I think.

More exciting was the fallout from a novella competition I entered on the website Booksie, which is basically a portal to upload and critique work.  It was a lucky accident that ‘Momentum’ fulfilled the criteria for the competition, which was run by a small American publishing company.  I didn’t win, but shortly after the competition closed I was contacted by someone from the publisher saying how much they enjoyed my work and inviting me to contribute a short story for the next volume of their literary journal, due out in 2017.  I sent them my story ‘In The Doghouse’, and I’m very pleased to say that it has been accepted for the volume.  So I will see a piece of my writing in print for the very first time in the next year.  Which I am very excited about.  I’m receiving no payment for it but the exposure will be invaluable and now no-one can ever take the achievement away from me.  I have really taken more of a commitment to writing this year and to see it pay off, even in only this small way, is really rewarding.  I guess it’s like any other job – work hard and take it seriously and it really can happen.

So, a nice finish to the writing year for me.  I’ve been more prolific this year than in probably a decade or more, and I think this is down to pushing through when creative thoughts are hard to come by, rather than admitting defeat.  It makes an enormous difference.