Abandoned

Over the course of my writing life, I can think of very few occasions when I’ve given up on a piece of work and gone on to something else. I’ve seen the mantra repeated in tons of writing advice online – if it’s not working put it down, you can always go back to it later, ete etc. But I’ve never really heeded this advice (or been able to!)

I wouldn’t consider myself a stubborn person at all, but when it comes to fiction, once I start something I’m by damn going to see it through. My current novel (and it will end up a novel, a short one but a novel nenetheless) is proving extremely difficult to get done. I’m not even sure it makes sense anymore to be honest. My output is horrendous (about 6000 words a month, which is scandalous), and most days, I drag myself to the computer with a sense of dread, knock off a torturous 2 or 300 words, realise I’ve dug a few plotholes for myself, and repeat the cycle the next day.

So why not just quit and work on something else? This isn’t enjoyment, it’s tough. And you may be right. I guess I don’t get ideas that often, and the initial idea for this novel I still think is a good one.  It’s got lost in the morass along the way, but a re-write can help to bring out the main themes, so hopefully it’s still buried in there somewhere.  My time, of course. Countless hours have gone into this, and I’m loathe to let them be wasted. I know any writing time is valuable, but if I gave it up, I’d feel terrible about it. And lastly, if I get it done, that’s another one. My 4th novel. It will no doubt gather dust and be read by no-one like the others, but I’ll have a true and real body of work. Me. And I should be proud of that fact.

So on we go.  Given myself a loose target of completion by Christmas. Never going to happen but yeah, I’m carrying on. There’s a little stubborn streak after all.

Nearing the Fifth

So my 40th birthday is fast approaching, and its seen as one of the most momentous of a lifetime.  ‘Life begins at 40’ is a well-worn cliche that crops up every time this milestone is reached, and personally I think it’s a load of crap.  At least I hope it is, otherwise the preceding years have been a bit of a waste of time! But it does offer opportunity to reflect, and I’ve been mulling over my reading and writing life to date, and trying to get a handle on what I think about it all.

I believe that the greatest gift I got from childhood was a love of reading, and as I went through college and university, of literature. Everyone knows someone who says they don’t have time to read, and I’m grateful that I’m not one of them.  When I think of all the thousands of life-changing books that people are missing out on it makes me shudder. I appreciate I probably do have more time as I am single and childless, but there’s always time if you try.  I carry a book with me everywhere I go, and read whenever I have a spare moment. It’s a constant source of pleasure and I get great satisfaction from it.

Say I’ve been reading since the age of 10, that’s 30 years, probably a book a week on average since the age of 15, well, it’s got to be close to 1500 books so far in my lifetime.  Millions and millions of words, and I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface.  There’s genres I rarely read, great classics to get through, and all the brilliant books that haven’t even been thought up yet.  Hopefully I’m not halfway through my life yet, so I figure I’ve got at least the same amount of books left to read, if I can.  What an amazing thing to look forward to.

On writing, I’ve said before that creating fiction is when I’m at my happiest, and I believe it’s pretty much saved my life on occasion.  It’s where I’m most expressive, more thoughtful, and hopefully dynamic and challenging as well. It’s also one of the few things I’m really proud of, being a novelist. I knew from an early age I wanted to write a novel, and probably made my first naive attempts at around 16. Many get to that stage and give up, through fear or lack of time or real life getting in the way. I did too, to start with. But I didn’t let it beat me.  I forget how old I was when I finally got a novel written.  I think 23 or so. That seems impossible to me now, that I had the drive and focus to do it.  I was such a young man in so many ways.  There’s still aspects of that novel I like, too.

But you can always be accused of being a one-hit wonder, so I set out to see if it was a fluke.  And it wasn’t. The genesis of Playing with Fire and the effort it took are well-documented on this blog, and that feeling when the last word was written is one I’ve never forgotten. Almost like tapping into another world and being privy to something so extraordinary it makes the process seem like it was enchanted.  If nothing else, I’ll always have that moment.

And since the words have stagnated at times but on the whole kept flowing. Another novel is under my belt, some short stories and a novella, which is not a bad output of work. I’ve got content available for purchase in various places, and I’ve been published.  Whilst I’m proud of that achievement, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the be all and end all. It’s the craft that matters, the response from the people closest.  Having my novella Momentum discussed at my old book club was one of the kindest appreciations of my work, and that’s what keeps me going, not being published necessarily. Learning to appreciate that has given me a nice sense of calm, and has made me more immune to the midlife crisis, I hope. Besides, I write because I can’t not.  It’s a fundamental part of who I am. So I’m going into my fifth decade with less trepidation than I might. For there is so much more left to read, and many more words to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Sharing the Love

There is a brillant bit in Nick Hornby’s classic novel High Fidelity where our hero Rob has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura, and the first album he listens to at home after is Yellow Submarine by The Beatles.  The reason? Because it’s the only album he owns that doesn’t remind him of anything. Not of his lost love, of any good or bad times, nada. Just a piece of music that he can listen to, enjoy on its own merits, wallow in the nostalgia, and package up for the next time, untainted by the vagaries of the human heart.

Now Rob is more than a music aficionado, he is something of a snob.  Which is fine, if you’re passionate about something, it’s almost inevitable.  And I have definitely become the same about books, that’s for certain.  But the reason I haven’t gone full snob is for the same reason as Rob above. I’m terrified of having my favourite books remind me of anything other than my love for them. So I tend to keep my all-time favourites to myself, to wax lyrical about them but encourage others to seek them out themselves if they so wish (which doesn’t tend to happen very often as no-one is a more avid reader than me in my social group) and move the discussion on to other books. Be protective, secretive and precious about them, basically.  To avoid an all-time great being tarnished by a bad memory.

High Fidelity is a good case in point, as it happens. I have currently lent that to somebody (who already loved the film so it wasn’t too much of a punt), and if I’m honest, there is a small part of me that regrets it.  Because I’m running the risk that the book will always remind me of her, and if something bad happens between us, I won’t be able to read the book without thinking about her.  And I would be genuinely upset if that happened.  I think it will probably be OK, mostly because we have a shared appreciation for the novel which has actually enhanced the book for me a bit.  Also I have a long history with the novel and it has infuenced my life in countless ways which are deeply entrenched and for which I will remain forever grateful. I don’t think the biggest emotional heartache could completely rid me of that feeling.

But you have to be so careful, with music or literature, anything creative that is special to you, really.  It’s the great balancing act; spreading your love of something that changed your life, in the hope that it inspires others too, against the great worry that that action will fundamentally effect your appreciation of the work.

Stalling

Me and my big mouth.  I wrote in a post last month about a new novella that I was writing, and whilst I’m paraphrasing, wrote something along the lines that I was certain I would finish it.

Well, famous last words.  It’s not complete despair, as I’m still struggling along, but any momentum I had has virtually stalled. I wrote how I was working with a new narrative voice and the troubles that arose from that, and trying to keep that voice consistent is certainly part of the problem. But mostly it’s the same old affliction as always – getting the character’s actions to mirror their motivations.

When the story came to me it was in its essence very simple. A young girl falls for an older man, stakes her life on him, and is in the end let down.  A pretty well-worn furrow, but I had some nice detail in my head and the overall tone felt melancholic and yearning, which I wanted to bring out. But as other characters were introduced this straightforward plot has turned into something a lot more complicated, and all the usual worries about convolution and unrealistic plot development have reared their ugly head.

Of course some of this goes back to my lifelong aversion to making any kind of notes before starting, even anything as basic as character profiles. I’ve written tons on here about that so don’t need to repeat myself, but maybe I do need to be more organised before starting. I just worry that the natural flow of my prose will be stunted by too much forward planning.

It doesn’t help that I’m fucking tired all the time, either. I’m up at 6 every morning for work and the days of a good 8 hours sleep are pretty much over. And I’m a man who suffers with less than that.  So in the evenings I’m weary, my productivity is less, and cutting through the tangles seems a lot harder.

Fuck it. I’ll finish it eventually. Maybe.

Unreliable Memoirs

On the whole I find memoir a tricky genre to read and interpret. Any memoir seems to be at the mercy of two elements it seems to me – the memory of the author and how they select, reflect and analyse said memories. Whether the event’s of one’s past can be looked at with honesty and self-reflection, without falling into pity or an unwillingness to admit to mistakes.

Clive James wrote the first volume of his memoirs, which shares the title of this post, when he was coming up for his 40th birthday. Which was interesting for me as I am at a similar age, and I can safely say my memory is shocking. I have very little recollection of my early childhood and some of the memories beyond that are almost seen through smoke, so hazy are they.  And non-linear, too.  I would find it impossible to piece together everything into a coherent and threaded narrative.  So writing memoir is fraught with danger from the start – how reliable is the memory? And what does it reveal about the person in question?

James concentrates on his early childhood in Sydney, up to leaving for England in his early 20s. He plays with the idea of honesty throughout – one of the book’s much quoted lines is ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ So you may ask, well what’s the point? If you don’t know what to believe in the book, is it all a waste of time? And the nagging point that lies underneath is whether you feel vaguely manipulated by it.  All worthy questions, and this formed the basis of the discussion during my latest visit to my sister’s book club in Germany. I didn’t feel as strongly about this as others, but I did think that the embellishment of some scenes did render the tone of the book as somewhat uneven. There was an awful lot of stuff about sex that proved a little grating (there are only so many masturbation stories you can hear before it gets wearing) but I can’t deny it didn’t make me laugh out loud on occasion, so if the impact is profound I can’t say it mattered to me too much whether the set-up was true, partly true or a figment of James’s imagination.

James became somewhat of a TV treasure in this country during the 80s and 90s, and I remember his droll sense of humour when discussing the weeks TV or in his travelogue programmes. So it was interesting to see where his love of literature came from (mostly self-read, he eschewed traditional education by never attending classes) and some of the university magazine stuff was great fun. I would have liked on his relationship with his mother, which lacked detail, (other than his attitude towards her was selfish and cavalier), but this stuff may be explored in further volumes, which I have yet to read. I may go ahead and do so, as I figure the later years will be of more interest.

So there was a bit more meat to dig our teeth into than I thought after reading the book. But despite the belly laughs,  I felt a bit exasperated by its slipperiness, and frustrated that I could never quite get a handle on the boy presented within its pages.

Changing Tack

I tend to find my blogging pattern over the last year or so is to write a post once a month, usually in the last few days of said month.  Sometimes I’ve quite a lot I want to say, but in others I’m scratching around for a topic.  As you may have guessed, this is one of the latter moments! So I’m going to call this something of a ‘check-in’ post, which is my polite way of saying I may be going on a ramble…

Anyway, the writing, and the point of the title. Thankfully, I’m back writing on a frequent basis.  I’ve had a little idea buzzing away in the recesses of my mind for a little while, and I was reluctant to act upon it because it seemed so different to anything that has gone before.  The usual procrastination and fear, basically. First up, a first-person narrative, which I feel much more unaccomplished at than I used to.  Second, a female narrator. Gulp. And third, a female narrator who is 16 years old.  An unholy triumvirate if ever there was.

I always feel a complete fraud when writing a female narrator.  Of course women are human beings too (so I’ve been told, arf arf!) but I do struggle with getting the voice natural and realistic.  The third character of my novel Gaslight was a woman, and in some ways she was the easiest to write, because the character appeared almost whole and was ready to take me on a journey whenever the muse showed up and sprinkled her magic dust around.  But this narrator – she’s a lot more slippery.  I can’t quite get a handle on her, or what she’s going to do next. And her age makes me feel a little bit of a voyeur, too.  Particularly when writing about sex (already done) and violence (likely to come).  All you can do is tell the truth, of course, which will always offend someone.  But I’m not getting a huge amount of enjoyment out of it currently.  Leading me in directions I’m not looking forward to going down.

What does make me happy though is that it’s going to end up novella length, certainly Momentum in word count, perhaps even a short novel.  Which I think is probably my optimum scenario. Of everything I’ve ever written, Momentum is the one that has stayed with me the most. This is partly because of the difficult personal circumstances that I was under when writing it, which made it different in style and tone to anything I’d ever done.  But also it came out exactly as long as it needed to be.  My novels are certainly too long, and some of my short stuff lacks depth, but that one came out perfect.  And I think a 25 to 40,000 word count is just right in many ways.  Long enough to get your teeth into but a first draft that can be written in a couple of months, so not daunting like a novel can be.

So it feels likes this current story is a sea change from what’s gone before. The setting is similar to that of One Night Rebellion, but that is a cosmetic connection more than anything else.  And despite this change I’m certain I will go the distance and finish it, which is a niced feeling to have. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will turn out.

 

Why I Write

Apparently it’s National Writing Day today.  So, here’s ten quick reasons why I love writing, off the top of my head, slightly tongue in cheek, and in no particular order.

  1. You can write about people you know and they won’t realise. Enormous fun.
  2. You can write about people you hate and they definitely won’t realise. Cathartic.
  3. Living out your dreams. You want to fantasise about winning the lottery or finally getting the girl? Write about it.  It’s almost as good as the real thing.
  4. Better sleep. Seriously. I sleep great when I’m writing every day.  It’s satisfying going to bed knowing you’re one step closer to finishing.  Better dreams, too. I’ve worked out a number of plot snags through dreams.  Honestly.
  5. Talking of plot snags – when you have a work in progress that’s going nowhere and you can’t see a way out. You feel like giving up, and then without warning (usually out walking, in my case) it comes at you like a thunderbolt and another piece of the puzzle has been completed. Maybe the one that will solve all your narrative problems.  Guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face. If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it I would.  It’s almost like magic.
  6. Obvious point, but seeing your work in print.  Scarcely believable the first time it happens. Also when a stranger pays money to read your work. Can never be taken away from you. Plus that makes you an author.  Bonus!
  7. Knowing it gives you an excuse to read whenever you want. You can’t be a good writer without being well-read. So don’t worry about missing all those boring social events.  It’s for your art!
  8. Not knowing how it’s going to turn out.  One day at work, daydreaming. A scene came into my head from nowhere. Wrote 2 pages of A4 longhand as fast as I could.  Didn’t think much of it.  Turned into my second novel. (this one, if you’re interested…) That voyage of discovery is what I live for.
  9. Similarly, characters taking the story in unexpected directions. One minute it’s just lines on paper, next they are up and about and doing what the hell they want, and I’m just running along behind taking notes.  Nothing more exciting.
  10. Finally, because it gets to the core of who I am as a man, a sibling, a friend, and a human being. It allows me to express my hopes, fears, wants and needs. It’s my lifeblood. It keeps me going when I don’t have anything else. It’s my art.  It’s my life.  It’s who I am. It’s writing.