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.

Higher States of Confidence

An affliction that I think affects many creative types is being slightly embarrassed or even unwilling to talk about their work and sell themselves.  I’ve had a couple of conversations with a friend recently (an artist who designed the front cover for my novella Momentum) about what to say when asked the age-old question, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ by somebody you meet for the first time. And we agreed that we would both mention in the first instance what we did for the day job, rather than what defines us as human beings.

But why? In my opinion, the question is loaded from the start. There are thousands of people like us whose number one passion is not something they can make a living from. That’s a simple fact. Even published, established authors make money on the side. So for some, how they make money is not actually that important in the grand scheme of things. But yet I would still say I work in ecommerce if somebody asked me the question.

A better way to express it would be to say ‘what do you do?’ which takes the financial aspect out and gives the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I write.’ But even then I’d be reluctant to do so. The main reason for that is a lack of confidence, I think. Which is stupid, and my friend agreed. Why not big up the fact? Writing novels is not something many can say. People have paid to read my work, which means I am an author and that is no word of a lie. My friend does stencilling and art all the time for people and charges a fee for it, and he’s incredibly talented. This creativity is not an impulse, it’s at the heart of everything I do. How I pay the bills is not.

So we’ve decided to be more honest with everyone we meet about who we are. Not only is it the truth, it’s far more interesting than the 9 to 5 job. And being more open about it can provide opportunities, it’s good networking, to use that horrible business speak, and you never know, I might get a few more sales out of it. And being an author is cool, right?! That’s what I’ve always thought. So it’s a win-win all round.

Repetition

I’ve been having a read through my posts from 2018 and it’s fair to say that since the completion of my third novel first draft I’ve been feeling a little flat. I think it’s natural to have a down period after undertaking such a feat, but I’ve been surprised at how long this creative lethargy has lasted.

The editing of the novel continues apace – three or four pages are edited every weeknight, and I’m probably about halfway through the manuscript now. Other than that, there is nothing to report on any new pieces of writing, and my reading slump has continued. I’ve had a couple of further breaks in the last month, my sister’s wedding in Germany at the beginning of September and a few days in Dorset in the week just gone, and usually being away kickstarts my reading if I’ve fallen into a rut. Not this time – in fact I haven’t read anything new for ages. Sometimes re-reading an old classic will give me the spark back but that hasn’t worked either. I haven’t dared to check my Goodreads challenge for 2018 as I fear I’m 5 or 6 books behind schedule, and that’s pretty depressing as I’ve got a much smaller target than in previous years.

So it feels like I’m going over old ground, really. My posts in 2018 have had the consistent theme of a lack of creative output in all aspects of my life, and I wish I could say something different right now. It would give me something else to write about on here, at least! Still, October is a quiet month for me. Work will be as busy as ever, the nights are drawing in and I’ve got little planned for the weekends. So it’s time to get my head down, work hard, focus on completing the second draft of the novel and maybe I might have something exciting to write about in my next post. Which will be better for me and certainly better for you! We shall see…

 

Just Cutting

15351401250786135247105025381865.jpg

I think the time I feel closest to being a writer is seeing sheafs of paper scattered about the floor with various scrawled red lines on them. Because that means that A) I’ve got something of substance to edit, and B) I’m actually having the responsibility of omitting sentences of my work for the greater good, for the overall story rather than the great one liner.

The pic above is a pretty accurate example of where I’m at (and no spoilers, it’s the first page!). Tons of alterations. A lot of this is losing the extraneous material. Anything that’s too much like exposition, well that’s gone straightaway. Of course as many adverbs as I can do without. Spelling mistakes. Tweaking clunky dialogue. Most of this is actually quite fun, especially as parts of the story I’ve forgotten, so reading them through again is a surprise, almost a delight. The joy of re-reading a paragraph that sounds far better than I could have imagined is one of the greatest pleasures I have with this whole writing gig. It really does feel like magic that has come from somewhere else.

But, of course, a big problem will become apparent. This mostly comes in the form of structural problems with the story. A character might do something explicable, where I shake my head and say ‘where the hell did that come from?’. Often these faux-pas can just be deleted, but if they are connected up with developments further down the line,  you have a problem. On a first re-write I tend to star them and scribble a brief note in the margin, reminding myself that this bit needs an overhaul. Part of this is kicking the can down the road, I freely admit. But untangling the knots requires time and energy, and on the first read through, I mainly want to get a feel for the piece. The overarching story and themes (the what’s it all about? question, in essence) can be fleshed out and strengthened in future drafts.

So far I’ve been lucky, touch wood. I haven’t experienced any major deficiencies as yet. I know the novel is far too long, but I’ve found the cutting back a lot easier than I remember for my novel Playing with Fire. I think I’ve learnt that dialogue and the actions of the characters can show narrative without reams of further explanation. The reader can work it out for themselves – I might need to give them a nudge every now and then, but they don’t need everything spoonfed to them. I’ve also noticed how often I use certain words. Every writer must have them.  Mine? I use ‘just’ as an adverb a ridiculous amount, which is an awful habit I’ve picked up from God knows where. I even start sentences with it. Ugh. ‘Still’, is another I overuse as a shorter version of the horrible ‘nevertheless.’ So I’ve tried to kill as many of those little festerers as I can.

All in all it’s slow progress, a few pages a night at most, and there are 298 in total, so I’ll be here for a while yet. I’m not writing anything else at the moment so my full creative focus is on this, and it’s nice having that direction. If all goes well I might have another stab at getting the final manuscript published, but that’s getting way ahead of myself. Best to not get too greedy and try and make this the best novel that it can be.

Oh, and I STILL haven’t got a title!

 

 

Wellbeing

Just read my last post and to be honest, things haven’t changed much since then. I’m still not writing very much. The novel sits idly by waiting to be looked at. My enhusiasm for reading has continued to dwindle. What I would say is that my general mental wellbeing has improved somewhat. I’m certainly a little cheerier than I was. There are a few reasons for that, I think. The main one has been the sunshine. It really is amazing how much the simple pleasure of being outdoors in the sun can improve my mood. I definitely think I suffer from that seasonal syndrome or whatever it’s called. Living in the southern hemisphere where the sun shines every day, I got used to warmth and long, light evenings. Coming back to Uk winters and darkness at 3pm really affected me. Now we’re in the height of summer I feel a bit better.

And I’ve had some lovely distractions. In the last few weekends I’ve caught up with various friends I haven’t seen in a while. The World Cup is on, which is criminal for my writing time but has been enjoyable so far (and England are showing their potential, which is somewhat exciting). I’ve also got some good times to look forward to, another Germany book club coming up which I always enjoy, plus I’m getting away for a few days in Cornwall at the end of July, and I can’t wait for that.

I’ve decided to use that trip to begin the edit of my novel. I figure it will be a nice place to start. I have booked a quiet apartment near the beach where I can fully get into it, and have unfamiliar terrain to explore when I need a break. It will be my first real holiday in a while and I’m determined to use the time to properly refresh the batteries. Read some books, maybe do some painting, get into a creative headspace and hopefully that will give me some momentum to get working on the various short story strands I’ve got in various stages of completion, and get something fit for public consumption whilst I continue on with the epic novel re-write.

So I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth, I suppose you could call this the downtime whilst I get mentally prepared to dive in. I hope to have more to say and write about as we get into the second half of 2018.

 

Malaise

I’ve been in a creative funk since my last post, and even after years of ups and downs with my writing output and general mental health I still can’t predict when it will come. I don’t want to call it writer’s block, as I think that’s a lazy and overused term.  I’ve written a little bit, but it’s all coming out flat. Perhaps this is because I’ve fallen back on the old adage of ‘writing what I know.’ This phrase is nonsense and deserves to be treated with scorn, it’s anti-imagination at its very core, but I’ve gone and done it anyway. Reason being I actually wanted to write something about a sport that I play, and explore some of the feelings I’ve experienced in my years of playing. Nothing too horrendous there, I don’t think. Sport is a metaphor for life according to everyone who’s ever played any, and I approached it with some enthusiasm. But it’s not flowing as I would have liked, so the story is currently on the back burner. Sigh.

Some of this of course is to do with a slight downturn in my mental health. I’ve been in a mild state of depression for quite a while now. Part of it is my job, which is time-consuming and stressful and has a knock-on effect of exacerbating my insomnia. Which doesn’t help. I feel like I’m in a rut career wise, but have no choice but to put up with it as I’m saving for a mortgage. Most of the time I can see the greater good, but on occasion I get a horrible dread, a suffocation, that I’m trapped and going to be until I retire or lose my rag, and the darkness descends for a bit and I need to regroup. Loneliness has crept in too, which is unusual for me as I’m solitary by nature. All this is not the best cocktail for productivity.

I feel a bit whiny, just saying all that. It’s been worse, far worse. I had wild bouts of heavy drinking and self-harm in my twenties, and there were moments when I contemplated suicide. I got in an awful, awful mess, and at that time I was writing a novel, on and off. It almost felt like a bipolar episode – days when I could barely get out of bed mixed with partying, copious amounts of alcohol and attacking my arms and chest with knives and cigarettes. I’m not in that place, and touch wood never again will be.  But even then I was still writing something. This malaise feels different, like its seeping into my bones and sapping my creative energy. Often reading will help, a brilliant book will give me a jolt, but that isn’t working either. My reading rate is way down on last year, as it happens. So another aspect of life that usually brings joy has ground to a halt.

Ahh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just the fucking miserable weather.  Guess I could tell my boss to shove it and then I’ll have plenty of free time to bash this gloom out of me. I’m going to have to push through and write, no matter how bad it is or how much I don’t want to, and the sun will break through the clouds eventually.  I just wish it were easier, sometimes.

Untitled: The Finish

Finally, finally.  It’s over.  The first draft of my third novel is finally complete.  Given how long it’s taken to get here, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would never happen.  462 days.  Enough time to sail around the world and go back the other way to make sure you didn’t miss anything.  And somehow, 220,000 words have come of it.  Readers will know that I’ve been obsessing over the length of this novel for months, and I can believe the final word count less now than ever.   I don’t know where it has come from.  I’m surprised that I have that much inside I want to express.  I’m amazed the characters had so much they wanted to say.  I’m less surprised at my capacity for talking bullshit.  Somehow it’s all added up to the shambolic mess that makes up my still untitled, third novel.

It’s not even as if I had much to go on. I sat down that cold November afternoon with a vague idea tugging at the back of my mind. It had come from a song lyric.  Not one I’m going to reveal, for that would be a plot spoiler, but it planted the smallest of seeds. I did as I always do, started writing with no fully-formed characters, no idea of plot, only the very loosest ideas about what the story was going to be about, and went from there.  Writing in what some might call a reckless manner means you run the risk of flailing badly, especially at the beginning.  Down little back alleys that lead to nowhere, overwriting, emphasising aspects of character that turn out to be unimportant once the protagonists start to emerge from the shadows, and all that.  Only this time these problems seemed to rear their ugly heads throughout.  On a virtual daily basis, as it happens.  My great fear is that the re-write will bring all these flaws sharply into perspective, and the whole thing might be irretrievable.  So in a sense it’s over, but the real work is only just beginning.

It’s safe to say my emotions on having it finished are mixed.  I ploughed through the conclusion yesterday, smashing out 4,500 words over the course of an afternoon, but I never felt exhilarated by it.  It  is as the whole manuscript has been – a battle.  I’m relieved that I don’t have to devote hours of my life to it anymore (not for a while anyway) as quite frankly, it has consumed me whole for far too long. I got caught in the snake’s belly, that’s for sure.  There’s a certain amount of pride, and a sense of amazement that I have managed to sustain, for good or bad, an output that would run to about 800 pages in paperback.  I’ve read many a book of that length and often pondered how the author did it.  Well, now I know.

And yes, I do feel a bit sad that I won’t get to write about the characters every day anymore.  It’s always a privilege when they let me into their lives (this is genuinely the way I feel it works, no matter how stupid it sounds) and I just try to run and keep up.  They surprised me along the way, angered me, and made me laugh.  Yeah, it feels bereft without them.  Already they are starting to retreat into the distance, but I’ve just got to let them go.  They’ve got lives to lead, and so have I. I wish they’d bothered to help me with a title, though.  Would have saved me a few nights laying in bed thinking about it.

But the show must go on, as they say.  Besides, there are always more tales, right?