The Road Home

This weekend saw my occasional visit to my sister’s book club in the wonderful city of Cologne, Germany. It was my third appearance and since my last, at the beginning of this year, the makeup of the group has changed somewhat, with a couple of long-running members leaving for various reasons.  Book clubs can contain some friction between members, primarily over choices for forthcoming meetings, which sounds fickle but can result in some real arguments over the direction of the club. Anyway, ths turbulent passage has passed for the Cologne club and the core group is the same, so there were plenty of familiar faces to catch up with and an interesting book to discuss.

Rose Tremain is probably most famous for her novel The Gustav Sonata, which I believe was a Man Booker winner. Our choice was The Road Home, her tale of immigrant Lev, who comes to London from an unnamed European country (a stylistic decision which I found a little grating) to try to provide a better life for his family back home. In the current political climate this topic is something of a hot potato, so I was looking forward to a warts-and-all story of hardship and toil which sunk its teeth into the issues surrounding those who seek a better life in a faraway country.

Unfortunately I came away from reading the book a little disappointed. Whilst Lev does go through many travails as he attempts to carve out a niche for himself, the narrative never gave an impression that these problems would prove unable to  solve. Indeed, Lev’s rise from humble sawmill worker to leading chef required an enormous suspension of disbelief to get your head around. The plot was unrealistic to me. On a number of occasions I thought Tremain relied on a perfect coincidence or a vast gesture of goodwill from a fellow character to propel Lev’s journey along. The right person tended to pop up at exactly the right moment, either with financial help when he most needed it or the offer of a roof or employment.  I wanted to enjoy the kindness of the strangers he met, but I’m afraid my possibly world-weary cynicism prevented me from doing so.

There were some very jarring episodes in the story that felt completely out of place, too. Lev gets into a relationship with fellow kitchen worker Sophie, a woman many years his junior, and after it breaks down, there is a bizarre, borderline rape scene which is explicit in detail and is glossed over with very little explanation or fallout. Later on, Lev goes to work picking fruit on an East Anglian farm and there is another peculiar scene where two Chinese workers seduce Lev after a night out.  Again, it’s as if Tremain forgets this ever took place, for it is barely mentioned the next morning. The flow of the story is interrupted by such acts and just added confusion and a hint of ugliness that is completely at odds with the charm and romanticism of the rest of the narrative.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, for I admired some of the minor characters greatly and Tremain skeched them with a lot of skill. And I liked the positive theme of human kindness that threads through the book. We could all be more empathetic to our fellow human beings, after all. But the narrative flaws were too much for me to get over and as such I’d have to say that the book is an gallant, but flawed exploration of the immigrant experience.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

One of the things about being deeply immersed in the first draft of a novel is how it is virtually impossible to get a grip on the overarching theme that holds everything together.  I begin every day’s writing with a sense of what is going to happen in the immediate scene that is approaching, but for anything further down the line, it starts to get a little hazy.

This is good in a way, but causes problems in another.  As I’ve written many times before, not knowing with complete certainty what is going to happen is exciting.  I’m as eager to find out as anyone else.  And you would hope that if I can’t work it out, when the novel comes to be read by someone else, they will react in the same manner.

The downside of this method is twofold.  Firstly, it’s very easy to overwrite.  As the characters start to come alive and make decisions on their own, I find that most of my job at that point is simply running to keep up.  I’m taking down as much as I can of their actions, but in the moment, I have no idea whether what they are doing is important or not.  Some of it surely will be, but a vast swathe will not. Good editing will eradicate most of the superflous stuff, if you have a sturdy mind and the ability to get rid of something even if it’s the best paragraph you’ve ever written. The length of my latest novel is already getting out of control, heading for 150,000 words with no end in sight, but if I can be disciplined, that will be substantially cut in the first edit.  Applying the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to its core will do a lot of the work.

So far then, so good. But the second risk is that the manuscript disappears so far down the rabbit hole it’s impossible to see the way out.  My manuscript is written from three characters perspectives, in overlapping time and with a substantial amount of back story to refer to. The pitfalls are enormous – not just making sure that character motivation is realistic, but also that their actions are based on what they know.  All the protaganists have turned out more devious, secretive and opportunistic than I envisaged, so it’s a constant struggle trying to remember the secrets they have and what has and hasn’t been revealed in their interactions with others.

This tangled thicket is one that would be easy to become trapped in, and I fear that I’m vulnerable to its grip. I feel I am juggling so many balls in the air already, and I’m sure they will be further unseen twists to come that will make my job all the more difficult.  And this trap is one that is so much harder to deal with in a re-write.  Not only will the novel need paring, but substantial scenes will need to be completely rewritten to ensure the threads all tie up.  Which could lead to a maze of deadends, like trying to work out a sudoku when you’ve added a wrong number somewhere along the way.

For now though it’s a case of full steam ahead.  The clock has ticked up to nearly ten months on this novel, and I need it finished. WIth the right mindset, and a careful analysis of back story, I can hopefully avoid mistakes of motivation and emerge from the rabbit hole with a coherent story intact.

Hubris

One of the joys of modern life is that someone somewhere has probably started a podcast on your favourite topic.  Literature is no exception, and I’ve found recently than one of my favourites is The Moment, hosted by Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the TV series Billions.

The reason I like it is because it endeavours to get under the skin of the guest and find out how and why they do what they do.  It’s not just committed to writers, there have been actors, even politicians, but I find the author based episodes the most revealing, and the latest, with Don Winslow, author of The Force and The Cartel (one of my books of 2016), to be one of the best so far.

Writers talking about their creative routines are an endless fascination for me, despite everyone doing it differently and there being no magic bullet. Winslow started on yellow manuscript paper with nothing more than a title for his first book, no outline, nothing. Now he writes for ten hours a day starting at 5.30am, which makes me feel positively lazy.  And a phrase he used really hit me between the eyes – write like you’re afraid of getting caught.  Exactly how it is.

What really interested me is when the discussion moved on to hubris.  Because wanting to be a writer is very much a tale of opposites.  You need the ego to say with confidence that your writing is worthy of the readers money, and more importantly, their time.  When you are struggling, as I am now with my latest novel, it’s difficult to approach your work with this confidence, almost arrogance that your work is worth it. Once you have success under your belt, which Winslow does (and well deserved it is too), it is easier to come to the page with less fear, and he talks really well about this.  The danger of course is when this slips into hubris. Hubris is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily stem from high self-esteem, it’s more an inflated sense of self-importance compared to a perhaps more modest reality.  The conflict between these two extreme states is a pitfall many writers experience and is one I can really relate to.

There are tons more titbits to chew over from this episode and all I want to do really is give the podcast my whole-hearted recommendation.  Two writers talking candidly about the craft is a joy to listen to. The back catalogue of episodes has some great archive material too – Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Block are two that stand out in my mind.  It’s a podcast that makes you think, and best of all for any budding writer, helps you realises that a) you aren’t alone and b) the bad times and the rejection letters are something every writer goes through. Which is nice to hear when you really need it.

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.