writing

Cryptic notes of a time-strapped writer

In amongst the day job and household life I get brainwaves, flashes of inspiration and insight that I can’t let go but don’t have time to act on. So I write myself a note, on a corner of scrap paper or in a draft email, and later on when I’ve got more time I read the note. And wonder what the blazes it means.

Northern King. Hefting. Rebanks.

Individually I know what all the components of that note mean. The Northern King is my semi-rural fantasy novel. James Rebanks is a shepherd who wrote a great book about Cumbrian hill-farming, which I don’t have a copy of and therefore can’t look anything up in. If I recall correctly, hefted is how you describe sheep who are so used to a particular fell that they won’t stray. Can I tell you what was in my mind when I wrote these crucial words down? No, I can’t. I could guess at an analogy between my main character John (a former shepherd) and the hefted sheep, but exactly what I was driving at I couldn’t say. The significance of this moment of clarity is lost.

All Points North, Ch1. Rules.

A few weeks after I’ve scribbled this in the margin of a notebook I can clearly recall reading the first section of All Points North by Simon Armitage and being hit by something I needed to say, related to a line he’d written that was about rules. This note has done its job. I pull the paperback from the shelf and flick through the first few pages. The only instance of the word ‘rules’ that jumps out at me is connected to train fares: “There are also rules against travelling on Fridays and travelling north at teatime,” it begins. I read it a few times, wondering what was so important about it. A political point to make? A story set in a world where you’re not allowed to travel north at teatime? Had it jogged a memory of some other tangentially related passage, perhaps in a travel-related piece by Stuart Maconie or JB Priestley? I can’t remember and doubt I ever will, though I’m sure it will periodically resurface to taunt me.

I could, I suppose, learn to let go. If an idea arises while I’m wrestling with a database at the office I get paid to turn up at, let it float on by. Give a mental shrug, get back to the SQL and trust that if it was important it will come back around later. Like the word ‘Walt’ and a flash of a memory related to Walt Whitman, that resurfaced as I was typing this. It’s crucial, I know it is, and the story it relates to is almost graspable at the back of my mind.

I remember walking from the station to the office one morning last week and the next part of that story writing itself as I walked along. I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have the time (or paper) to write it down before I arrived, and making a conscious effort to hang the whole thing on a key word. Walt, I thought, if I keep saying Walt to myself it’ll cement the thought and I can retrieve it later. Indeed, that afternoon in a meeting at which a colleague named Walter sent his apologies the whole idea flashed into my mind again. Fantastic, I thought, this is really working. Since then, it’s gone. It’ll come to me. It’s something really crucial to the next part of a half-written story, and it vaguely relates to Walt Whitman.

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Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

National Flash Fiction Day recommendations

It’s National Flash Fiction Day again, and there’s enough short fiction on the go today to keep you going for weeks, even though each one is bite-sized. There’s my Badge of Honour, of course, and fellow Ilkley Writer Emily Devane’s unsettling Laundry, as well as a host of others by names that will be familiar if you’re into your short short fiction (Helen Rye, Anita Goveas, Stephanie Hutton…).

There are also many stories by debut flash writers, and people who I at least haven’t come across before. In my first half-hour of reading on the day I particularly enjoyed Emulsion by Liz Wride and In the Field by Simon Lee-Price.

They’re releasing writing prompts throughout the day so you can join the fun, and you can read the whole FlashFlood at http://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.com/

Spring, not so much sunshine

I often see the question, “If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?” Never mind what I’ve said before or may say again, the only piece of advice that genuinely matters in terms of writing or anything else is, “Look after your back!”

You guessed it, my unreliable back has given up on me again (on day one of a ten-day break from the day-job, just to rub salt in). Truthfully it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things but it does mean I can only do short bursts at a computer, and I can only read chunky paperbacks (Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott is my current reading material) if they’re on a pile of cushions on my knee – flat on the knee means bending forward to read, holding the book up puts a strain on my back. I feel like one of those historians on telly, carefully opening the ancient leatherbound tome on a stack of foam with suitable wedges.

I have been listening to podcasts a fair bit though, so for the writers among you I can recommend Lit Mag Love featuring the melodious Canadian voice of Rachel Thompson of Room magazine. She interviews the editors of litmags about what they do and don’t want to see, the ethos of their magazine etc, and covers poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

I’ve also been catching up on Reasons to be Cheerful, which I listen to quite often but not every week. Neither Ed Miliband nor Geoff Lloyd has what I’d call a melodious voice, but they do have some interesting guests and generally come out with a thought-provoking podcast (recent topics have included university admissions, cycling, English identity, the power of protest, and innovative taxation). I suppose it helps to be reasonably left-wing if you’re going to listen to it.

I’ll leave you with a reminder that I have a story in this year’s National Flash Fiction Day FlashFlood on June 15th, and other things you can listen to include mine and Roz’s radio drama Lavender Ink, or our recent performance of stories and poems accompanied by live music (The Food of Love).

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

Writing on Air Festival 2019

The beauty of radio in the internet age is the listen-again function, which means that when a local station’s annual celebration of writing blossoms into a four-day extravaganza featuring hosts of established and emerging, amateur and professional writers from across the region, you don’t have to try and take it all in at once.

Last month was my fourth year of being part of the Writing on Air festival from East Leeds FM (Chapel FM as it’s sometimes known, it being based in a converted chapel complete with organ and stained glass) and it continues to be a pleasure. Because it’s a community arts venue there’s some great encouragement for young writers in the area, and I particularly enjoyed Scattering Sounds, which collected some writing from the Associate Writers group. Throughout the festival there were interviews, discussions, readings; poetry, prose, drama; the topical, the evergreen; gravity and humour.

You can see some of the bustle of the festival (including Keely and Karen rehearsing) via the Chapel’s photo collection on Instagram, and all the programmes from this year’s festival are available to listen to online on the ELFM player (last year’s festival is still available too, and many of the participants appear regularly on ELFM throughout the year).

This year I featured in The Food of Love with Rosalind Fairclough and Emily Devane, where Emily and I read three of our stories each, Roz read three of her poems, and throughout it all we had marvellous, specially-arranged accompaniment on cello (Keely Hodgson) and violin (Karen Vaughan). You can listen to us, or you can even watch the video we didn’t realise was being recorded (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to access it).

(And for those few who still haven’t heard the radio drama Roz and I wrote for last year’s festival, here’s a direct link to listen to it now).