Painting Pictures

I’ve got a new story to share, although the circumstances behind this one are a little different. Since finishing the rewrite of my third novel Gaslight I’ve not done anything in the way of new writing at all. Which was fine to start with, as I needed a break, but the desire to write is always there and sooner or later it becomes a necessity.

But I couldn’t get the spark, so fell back on an exercise of sorts. A lot of my writing ideas have been inspired by music, so I turned to a few old favourites on Spotify and came across an old romantic ballad from the early 90s which I’ve always kind of liked and a friend of mine is mad about. So I thought I’d basically write the story of that song. It didn’t take too much – a few listens and then I wrote it across two or three evenings. The story fulfilled its main purpose, which was to get the creative blood pumping again, and I thought I’d offer it here. It’s very short, not even 2000 words, and I’ve done next to no editing. I want the story to seem fresh, to come off the page as quickly as it went down.

For that reason it’s a little more rough around the edges and as such I won’t be publicising it too much. One for the diehards, as it were. It’s called ‘Painting Pictures’.

PAINTING PICTURES

For once, I was out like a light. The beer and marijuana had done their job. There were no dreams, just an inviting emptiness to wade into. Then a buzzing sound starting way back in the subconscious, growing louder with every heartbeat…

I snapped an eye open. A phone was ringing. I raised onto an elbow, the taste of weed on my tongue. Coming up for 6am. I could make out Elmore sitting on my computer chair, surveying the vast expanse of desert that lay beyond the window. The first flickers of sunlight threw pink tendrils across the horizon. Elmore was stock still, the only movement a faint flicker of his tail against the leather of the seat. Well, it was a great view.

It wasn’t my cell. Either of them. Coverage was spotty out here, and it was too early for work calls. Hardly anyone had my personal number. Those that did would be asleep. Now I was fully awake, I knew it was the phone in the kitchen. I ssat up and swung my legs out of bed. Looked down at my feet. Felt the mild stirrings of an alcohol-induced headache. The phone continued to ring. It wasn’t an emergency. I knew who was calling. The time of night, trying to make a statement, that it was really important. Unlikely. We’d been down this path before. I thought about letting it ring out, get back into bed and doze until the alarm went off. It was tempting, but there was no point. The ploy had worked. I pulled on a T- shirt and headed for the kitchen.

The phone was across from the breakfast nook, next to the fridge. I pulled the phone from its cradle and slid down into the vacant space beside the fridge, facing the screen door. One of its hinges was loose, and it rattled when there was a gust of wind. I stared out at the scrub, the barren patches of dirt beginning to lighten. The whiteness of Clyde’s fence starting to penetrate the darkness. Elmore leapt up onto the counter, narrowly missing the empty beer cans littering its surface. He miaowed softly, then fell silent. As if anticipating something. I knew how he felt. I placed the phone to my ear and waited, twisting the coils of the line around a finger. I could hear traffic. Then a slamming sound. The traffic quitened. Probably in a pay phone. I continued to wait. I could hear her breathing, but remained mute. It had to come from her. If we were going to start this again, it had to come from her.

‘Scottie,’ she said, and a tremor ran up my spine. Took me straight back to the first time she called me that, with my arm across her shoulder, parked up in a secluded spot under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and got lost in the memory. She giggled and said my name again. It was a high-pitched giggle, and right away I knew she was in one of her manic periods, riding the wave before the inevitable crash and burn.

‘Ali,’ I said. ‘It’s 6 in the morning.’

‘Well, duh. You know me, Scottie. Early to bed, early to rise.’ That screeching laugh once more. She sounded burnt out, or close to being so. There was another bang at her end. ‘Just a sec,’ she shouted, and her voice went away. The traffic sounds swarmed in, there was some more raised voices, then she came back on the line. ‘Won’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Had to give the guy two bucks. Can find another payphone, am I right?’

I rested my head against the cool fridge. ‘Ali, where are you?’

I heard the striking of a match, then a sharp inhale. Smoking again. That was never a good sign. ‘Where do you think? Sin City, of course. The perfect place for a girl like me, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Vegas? You’re in Las Vegas?’

‘Err, yeah. This place is CRAZY, I’ll tell you that. Yesterday, I saw a man in a cowboy hat ride a horse down the Strip. He was drinking a beer, too. The man that is, not the horse. Haha. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Yow!’

Las Vegas. I thought back to when she left, a scrawled note saying she needed some space, she was letting me down and had to get her head straight. Her closet empty, the vague trace of her perfume lingering. All her meds gone from the bathroom cabinet. No idea where she had gone, not knowing if it was for real this time, or just another stunt to leave me frantic with worry and sick with love, until she came down and came home, and I would always take her back. Knowing I was the only one who could keep her safe and happy. Until it all got too much again.

But I would never have expected her to turn up in Vegas. Can make a mess of the most sensible individual, and Ali was not one of those. The temptations, the drinking, the drugs, the gambling. Add a girl in the throes of an episode and it was a potent brew.

‘You never called,’ I said.

‘I’ve been busy,’ she insisted. ‘You know this city never sleeps.’

‘I was worried. I spoke to your Mom, she said…’

‘Don’t tell me. “’That’s Alison for ya! Always with her head in the clouds, that girl. If her father was here, he’d give her a good clip round the ear!”’

That was actually pretty accurate. Ali can be sharp as glass. ‘She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone.’

‘Probably cos she doesn’t know. When I disappear, I do it properly.’

She wasn’t thinking how much her words hurt, the lack of empathy for anyone, including herself. This was worn ground, but I knew one thing. She needed to come home.

‘You know better than anyone,’ she was saying. ‘How I get. The damage I cause. I can’t be around you when I get like that. It’s not fair.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I’m tired, Scottie. I’m coming to the end of the road. You understand that, don’t you?’

I swallowed hard. ‘You know I do, Ali. But I can’t keep chasing after you, baby. I love you so much, but I – ‘ Fuck. The tears were pricking my eyelids, as predictable as night following day. ‘Please. Get on a plane and come home.’

She laughed. The quiet moment had passed. ‘You know, I’ve got a better idea. I’ve been thinking about Mexico.’

‘What about it?’

‘Silly. About a trailer right by the sea. Crystal blue waters to wake up to every morning. Doesn’t that sound swell?’

My bottom lip was trembling. ‘Ali, not this again.’

‘You always say that! What’s the point in having dreams if we’re not gonna fulfil them? I’d be happier there. More secure. We can drink tequila and look for seashells on the beach.’

‘But it’s impossible – ‘

‘They have gardens in Mexico, don’t they? Plenty of rich gangsters needin’ some landscaping. And I’ve been waitressing, getting loaded up with tips. Some of the old fuckers here think a few dollars and I’ll be dropping my drawers for them. Haha, bunch of fools. We’d have the money. Come on, Scottie. Get in the truck and come save me.’

‘You make it sound so simple.’

‘Cos it is, you numbskull. How’s Elmore?’

He must have heard his name. His ears pricked up and he jumped off the counter, had a big stretch, and shambled to the screen door. Once set, he miaowed loudly and proceeded to wash his front paws.

‘I can hear him,’ Ali said, and her voice cracked. ‘My baby.’

‘Thought I was your baby?’ I replied, and she laughed. I was falling under her spell. This Mexico thing was a silly pipe dream we used to talk about when stoned. Walking away from society and setting up on our own. I imagined laying beside her in the warm white sand, Elmore chasing back the waves and running for cover when the water got too close. I looked around at this place, her pictures off the wall and in the drawer, physical traces gone but her spirit and soul everywhere. Maybe it would be something. A fresh start and all that. That was her power. She could sell me any dream.

I looked over at Elmore. He had finished grooming himself and was staring intently out into the yard. Every night he would sit there at dusk, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway. That squeal of excitement when she realised he was on guard duty. Opening the screen door and standing with arms open wide as Elmore jumped into them. Smiling at me over the top of his head.

Until she left. And he wouldn’t abandon his post. Sitting there every night until I had to pick him up and carry him away. I had the scratches to prove it. And just like me, as soon as he begun to realise that she wasn’t coming back, the car would backfire coming down the street and his ears would prick up and he knew she was going to weave her spell over him once more. She was good at that. Just as we were starting to get back on our feet.

‘So he’s doin’ good?’ she whispered.

I swallowed. I needed an aspirin. ‘Doing fine. He misses you.’

‘Bring him with you,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Use that mangy old cage in the garage. Fill up the car. Get some gas and get on your way. Drive like you’ve never driven before. Come on, Scottie. Please. I’m begging you.’

‘Hey sister!’ someone shouted in the background. ‘You gonna be in there all mornin’, or what? I got errands to run!’

‘The natives are getting restless,’ she said. ‘You have to come. You must. Think of Mexico, Scottie. Of Mexico, and me. I have to go.’

‘But I don’t even know how to get in touch with you,’ I shouted.

‘I’ll be here. Waiting. It’s now or never, Scottie.’

‘Ali, wait – ‘ But there was a click and she was gone. I slammed the phone back into the cradle. She always did this. That fucking trailer by the sea. I’d heard it countless times before, but yet. Something in her voice. Something with more longing. Knowing that it was her only hope, that if I didn’t go it would be the end. One way or another.

Elmore turned his head and looked at me. I knew it was stupid. But I couldn’t help but see it, the three of us together, as it should be. That beautiful water. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes, thinking that maybe this time it could work, maybe this time it would turn out just the way she planned.

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Gaslight

One of the advantages of being sober so far in 2019 as it has given me more free time to focus on my writing and no excuses to slack off because I’m hungover. The mammoth edit of my novel was taking forever to complete, but after a couple of long evenings of re-writing, it’s finally done.

It’s come in at a shade over 200,000 words, which is about what I expected. My rough rule of thumb is that the first re-write should collapse the story by 10%, and I’m in the ballpark. Once the final draft is done I would expect it to run just under the 200K mark, but for now I’m in a position where I can start to force the manuscript on anyone who wants to read it (and maybe some of those who don’t!)

This is usually an exciting time and as the days pass I’m sure I’ll get more enthused about it, but right now I’m quite drained and tired. I started this journey in November 2016, so this has been the longest gestation period for a novel I’ve experienced, and it’s taken a fair bit out of me. I do still feel a sense of wonder that I sat down and started writing what I thought would be no more than a novella and ended up with this behemoth, but that’s part of what makes it a thrill. I never know where it’s going to end up, or if it’s going to go anywhere at all.

So over the next few weeks I’ll approach a few people and see if they want to read it, then once it’s out in the world, it’s no longer mine. Which is always a daunting prospect after being a part of it for so long.

And finally I have a title for the novel, which also forms the title of this post. Any regular readers will know I’ve been struggling with this for months, so it’s good to be able to put a face to a name so to speak. Hints at some of the themes of the book whilst also creating a sense of mystery.  It’s growing on me.  Hopefully the novel will have a similar effect on its first readers.

Dark Days and Drinking

In the writing game, the propensity for substance abuse appears to be higher than in other parts of society, particularly alcohol. A number of my favourite writers all had problems with the bottle – Stephen King, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler to name but three. As King brilliantly articulates in On Writing, the idea that creative endeavour and booze or drugs are somehow connected and necessary in a world of emotional isolation and despair is a myth. Alcoholics drink because they are addicts, anything else is just another excuse.

Which brings me to my own battles with the booze. I’m obviously far from the standard of the legends I’ve mentioned, but I’ve used that excuse for my own excesses on occasion. And in the last few months the excesses are starting to get out of control. I drank heavily over the Christmas period, culminating in an ill-advised solo drinking session on New Years Eve which resulted in a substantial blackout period and one of the most savage hangovers I’ve ever experienced. I spent the first day of the year sleeping and puking and swallowed in a sea of self-loathing and guilt. Twenty six days later, I sit here and write, and I’m still sober.

I’ve been drinking for all the wrong reasons for a long time. It’s my fall back pastime when my mental health takes a tumble, which is the worst possible solution for that problem. When I’m bored, I drink. When I’m lonely, I drink. When I’m sad, I drink. When I can’t get the words down right, I drink. And on and on and on.  That my life is so much harder than anybody elses and I deserve to drink as some kind of a reward. It’s pathetic, really. I have friends with serious family stuff going on, life and death situations, and I get drunk because I feel I’m worthless as a writer or because I’m lonely. What a self-indulgent load of nonsense that is. Like I’m inviting the despair on to give me an excuse.

That’s not to say my mental health problems shouldn’t be acknowledged, far from it. But alcohol is not the way to do it. Once the fog cleared I made some enquiries and will hopefully be going back into therapy soon. I spent the best part of three years seeing somebody a decade ago and it really helped. More fool me for thinking I can do it on my own. And I’m sure that if I can keep my drinking under control my creative output should remain constant, and everything else will improve both physically and mentally.  I’m already sleeping better. My skin feels clearer. And its lovely to wake up in the morning without having to wonder how I got home. Simple pleasures.

It would be nice to get to the stage where I can enjoy a beer again, make it an occasional pleasure rather than a habit. If I can’t handle that, then it probably is time to give up for good. But I know now that I can’t go on as I have been, and that’s revelation enough.  I can not drink and be cleaner and happier, and still be able to write and live.

 

Stages

OK, so the first read-through and initial editing of the novel is complete. It’s difficult to try to formulate an opinion on it when there is still so much to do, but I haven’t had to shake my head in exasperation too many times. So I guess that’s a reasonable sign.

I like to do the very first edits on paper, as I tend to get a better feel for it that way. And there is great satisfaction to be had from putting a red line through a dreadful sentence before anybody else can read it. Saving my credibility one pen-stroke at a time. Now the task is to translate that work to the electronic manuscript. This stage I enjoy less, as it’s almost performing the same task twice. I’ll tidy up any extra continuity errors that may have slipped through the net, and get rid of a few more adverbs.

These are the manageable tasks. The main challenge will be to address any glaring plot holes. Why is a character walking when they have a car, that sort of thing. Developments in plot that hinge around a character’s actions that are a little too convenient. Sometimes this will mean a fair amount of juggling, as one action sets off another, and lo and behold a whole chain of events needs tweaking. These have only been starred in the manuscript, with a note that further editing is required. In the electronic edit, I will have to tidy these up. Thankfully the ones I remember should be reasonably straightforward to address.

I’m looking to get this stage complete in the next few weeks, certainly by Christmas. And then once that is done, I’m at the frightening stage – ready to give it up for people to read. This is the exciting but daunting part. At the moment I’m in control. No-one has read a word except me, and it can stay that way if I want it to. But as soon as the manuscript is in another person’s hands, it’s gone. Having the novel in the public domain is great, but then all the worry of criticism comes in. An inevitable part of the writer’s life.

With this one, there are two things that I want to gauge from the first few people I can corral into reading the novel. First, and this is one I have gone on about a lot, is length. I suspect I will have taken 5-10,000 words off the first draft after the re-write is complete. So we are going to be at 200,000+ words. So am I not being ruthless enough with the draft? Does the novel sag in places? In short language – is it boring? And if it is too long, can further reductions keep the manuscript a coherent whole but improve the structure? Big questions, but one’s that only a reader can really answer.

Second, are there themes that stand out? And are they ones that are interesting enough to keep a reader engaged for the entire novel? I will hopefully have bought the themes more to the forefront by the time the draft is complete, but will the reader get a sense of them? And be captivated by them? This is the important one, really. If they can’t get what it’s all about, or even worse don’t care, then I’ve failed. I’m concerned that the storyline is a well-worn trope, which could be enough for readers to give up on it.

All this is quite a lot to ask of the poor reader, particularly as they are most likely to be someone who knows me, so will have existing prejudices that may affect their ability to be impartial. Perhaps I’ll hawk the manuscript on social media and beg complete strangers to read it. Either way, the time to let the novel into the public eye is not too far away.

A Lack Of

Over the twenty or so years I’ve been writing fiction I’ve built up a fairly solid body of work, word count wise. 3 novels which must add up to 400,000 words or so, a novella of 30,000, and various short stories here and there. Call it half a million all in. Which, seen as a whole, is quite a number. You would think from such an expanse that I would have introduced a vast array of different characters, each with their own unique backgrounds, hopes and desires. Set against a plausible backdrop, steeped in a concrete sense of place, with character history and back story and development.

As I say, you’d like to think so. But through this novel rewrite I’m starting to get the impression that all these words are just repeating the same things over and over again, only with different faces and the same paper-thin depth of character. I get that every writer has their themes that thread through their work. Judging by what I write about mine would be substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, depression, and suicide. Cheery stuff. And somehow I keep returning to these themes every time I sit up and write. Not necessarily a bad thing, you might think. But I fear it’s more to do with my ignorance than any great overwhelming desire to write on these subjects.

Off the top of my head, some topics I know nothing about: finance, banking, mortgages, construction, architecture, housing, computing, technology, feminism, sociology, physics, science in general, archaeology, astronomy, economics, furniture, design, cars, fashion, marriage, children, the list is endless. And I would consider myself reasonably intelligent and more well-read than most. So with this shameful lack of knowledge on virtually everything, it’s no wonder my fiction is limited to the same tired topics, and my characters all start to merge into one another. I couldn’t even have a character with a complicated job, that would be enough to finish me.

Case in point – I have had a short story idea whirring away in my mind for a while now. But I anticipate it being set across the entire lifetime of a character (something I’ve never done before, believe it or not). Which would mean writing about the 1950s all the way up to the present day. Getting the details right. How people spoke, what they ate, read, drove, what jobs they would have for a lifetime, and so on. Details that have to be right or everything falls apart. Not part of the emotional story, but the nuts and bolts that bring it to life. The bits I’m bound to fuck up, basically.

That’s what research is for, I hear you cry. Yes, of course. I always feel I’ll be winging it, though. Worried about being tripped up by having someone watching TV in 1935 or being unable to properly describe what wainscoting is. And letting that anxiety feed through and affect what I really want to say.  I know it’s a stupid barrier I’m putting up, that to attempt to broaden my horizons will make me a better writer, but man it seems so daunting. Getting the words down is hard enough; expressing what’s in your heart even tougher. Not being able to describe a room because I don’t know what a chaise longue is just seems embarrassing.

Just Cutting

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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!

 

 

Sitting on the Edge

So it’s been over a month since I finally finished the first draft of my still untitled third novel.  I’ve found having an extended break before the re-write is essential, not only to recharge the batteries but to allow the story to become unfamiliar, almost as if it was written by somebody else. This allows me to approach the manuscript with a critical eye and be ruthless in my cutting, paring back scenes and chopping all that boring exposition that I’m sure litters the pages. I’m at that point now, having let the novel stew for long enough, written something else in the interim, and had a few weeks of writing nothing at all.

But there is a reluctance to go back to it. Why? Partly because it’s going to be a herculean task. Editing 220,000 words is more than laborious, it’s never-ending. And there’s always the ever-present fear that it will read terribly, and it will be a year and a half’s work for not much result. Same old, same old.  But it’s silly.  In contrast to these fears lies the much greater one that inflicts us all to varying degrees. That I’m running out of time. I’m 40 years old in 18 months. Plenty of writers had had a 20 year career by that stage. I’m still wading around in the shallow end. I’ve spent too many years worrying that I’m not good enough rather than getting down to knocking the words out. Time isn’t going to wait for me, like it won’t for anyone else. Sure, I have a hectic full-time job which leaves my writing window to a couple of hours a night. But only the very good have the luxury of a full-time writing career. The rest of us are down in the saltmines getting by.

I’m content when working on something, too. In this period of not working my sleep has suffered.  I’m restless in thought and deed. Writing helps keep me calm, more focused.  I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time so I wouldn’t go as far as to say writing makes me happy, but I feel closer to the person I truly am in those moments when it all feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside. From my core being, if you will. And that is what really matters. I will probably not make a living from this. I won’t see my books on the shelves. I should be satisfied with what I have. And I am, mostly. I guess that tiny kernel of me that craves recognition tends to shout the loudest, that’s all. But it will pass, this contradiction of inertia. When the increasing fear of time slipping away draws me back in.