The festive excuse note

It looks like the post a week thing has finally crumbled, but I’ll let myself off because over the whole year I’ve missed very few weeks. It’s the festive season, specifically that weird bit between Christmas and New Year when everything’s on hiatus. Including, apparently, me.

I’ve been avoiding writing since I’ve been on holiday, too much like hard work. I’ve got the Debut Dagger entry to put together, which is frankly terrifying, and I should tidy up some mostly-finished stories to send off to places. Inevitably of course I’ve been eating mince pies, doing vastly important rearrangements of the newly reinstated bookcase, and generally filling up my days such that I go to bed wondering where the time went.

Thankfully, Neil Gaiman has set me back on track. Not personally, of course, and I haven’t even been reading his usually absorbing journal lately. I have been travelling on trains a lot though, and yesterday I picked up a book almost at random (it had a purple cover, which was enough to catch my eye) from the To Read pile. It was Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, which has a long introduction with notes on each piece.

One of the things I like about Neil Gaiman’s journal is its feeling of honesty (I’m not saying it is honest, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t filtered and buffed up and slanted in particular ways); the illusion that here is this perfectly ordinary Englishman, with the same problems of self-doubt, occasional laziness, lack of inspiration, and looming deadlines as the rest of us. Here, we think, is something I could aspire to, it’s not entirely beyond my reach, no superhuman powers needed. Of course that’s glossing over the ability to write gripping stories well, but that’s not necessarily relevant at this point.

And so to Smoke and Mirrors. I’m about halfway through and though I confess I’ve been more puzzled than anything by the poems (I think I knocked my poetry Off switch a couple of years ago and I can’t seem to accidentally elbow it back into life), almost all of the stories so far have made me berate myself for letting such a book languish on my shelf for six months. Though if I’d read it immediately in the summer, it wouldn’t have been available to provide that much-needed spark of inspiration now. Which it has. The stories themselves have fired me up, but the notes in the introduction have been useful in an Ah, he does that too sort of a way, like a narrowly-focused version of his journal.

Not having a hat with me, I’ll raise my sister’s jaunty Christmas-pudding-shaped hat to Mr Gaiman and wish him a marvellous festive season and all the best for 2012. And that goes for you, too.


This book should be consumed within six months of purchase

I read a lot, but not as much as I’d like, or rather, not as many books as I’d like, which isn’t quite the same thing. New books emerge every week, I hear about old ones or get recommendations, and my To Read pile (which has now taken over the original cupboard and a small bookcase) keeps on growing. Inevitably some books get pushed to the back – I get a new one that attracts me more immediately, or I borrow a book so I only have a short window of opportunity. There are books on my shelves that I’ve moved off the To Read pile because I’ll get round to them when I get round to them, and they’re taking up room.

Which brings me to my current problem, which isn’t so much a problem as a pang of regret with a lesson attached. Some books have a Read By date.

By this I don’t mean some flavour of the month bestseller that wasn’t very good anyway, so needs to be read during the hype period while all your friends are insisting it’s ironic and subversive – so bad it’s bloody marvellous. What I mean is there are books you grow out of, and not just the ones whose puerile humour appealed at 14 and appalls at 40.

The book I’ve been slowly reading on my daily commute for the last couple of weeks is an abridged (but still hefty) edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I bought it, as far as I can remember, with a Christmas book token 13 or 14 years ago and had I read it then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. I had more uninterrupted reading time, I could remember a lot more Latin (Gibbon assumes, no doubt perfectly reasonably for the time, that if you’re reading his book you must be educated enough to translate the Latin quotes and inscriptions, so he doesn’t patronise his readers by doing it for them), and I had more of an idea which order the Roman emperors came in and what each was usually remembered for. Even 8 years ago when I did a couple of open learning courses on the early middle ages at my (then) local university, I would have been immersed in the period though my Latin was already patchy.

The lesson to take away from this is: don’t keep shoving things to the back of your To Read cupboard.

Unless it’s: don’t buy more books than you can manage.

November ended a few days ago

NaNoWriMo resulted in just over 23,000 words of detective novel, so no winner’s certificate but I’m still counting this as a win of sorts, and so should you if your NaNo activity didn’t make the 50,000 but did get you writing. As well as 2 days selling comics, which I’d planned for, I was ill for a while so in all I had 10 days where I didn’t write a single word. I’ve kept up my habit of lunchtime writing, and I’ve now conclusively shown I can write lots, regularly, without becoming a total stranger to OneMonkey. I am feeling rather pleased with myself.

I lost track of time a bit towards the end of the month, where I was frantically making up for the lost days. So I never got round to blogging last weekend, and I missed 2 short story deadlines right at the start of December, which I’m really kicking myself for – the story submissions have been almost non-existent while I’ve been concentrating on detective novels.

And now we’re counting down to Christmas; I’m limbering up for full-on bah humbug mode, and in the meantime I’m filling up on mince pies and dry roasted peanuts. And planning the long writing sessions I’m hoping to get in over the Christmas break. We’re due our first snow tomorrow, though it’s already been sleeting, but instead of worrying about the rose trees I haven’t planted yet, I’ll focus on the prospect of getting stuck at home – I have a cupboard full of mince pies and teabags, a laptop and a head-full of ideas. Sounds like heaven.

One last thing: my detective story is now up on the Comets and Criminals website if you’d like to check that out.

Those who don’t want to know the NaNo score, look away now

This is turning out to be ScriptFrenzy all over again… But hey, there’s only one (two at the most) more of these NaNoWriMo posts to go, so grit your teeth and it’ll all be over soon.

As this post goes out, I will actually be at (or on my way to – I haven’t set the time yet) the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds. With luck, I will be selling comics, but at the very least I’ll be with friends in interesting surroundings and I should be able to find some new comics to get interested in (these events can get expensive).

Where does this leave my frantic novelling, I hear you ask (look, just pretend you asked). It pretty much wipes out two days, but since one of the aforementioned friends is also in the midst of NaNo frenzy, we may goad each other into amazing literary feats on Saturday evening. My total should be at around 16,000 words by Friday night (Friday night itself being scratched out due to the Damned gig – got to get your priorities right) so fingers crossed for a decent total by the end of the month.

I’m enjoying NaNo – after ScriptFrenzy I thought I probably would. I’m taking it slow and steady, not worrying too much about the final total as long as what I’ve got is usable, and it’s taking me down some interesting avenues. I’ve already uncovered a weird antagonism between two secondary characters that needs exploring further, and I may even have got the wrong murderer (how can the author get it wrong?). Very much an enjoyable Sunday drive rather than a satnav-planned A to B dash.

Best of luck for the second half of the month to all those participating, further apologies to anyone who’s being neglected (more than usual). Back to the fray.

The bright side

I’m cultivating a positive outlook at the moment; maybe it’s the cold affecting my inner curmudgeon, but there you go.

Strange, Weird & Wonderful has published its final issue, just before the one that my story was due in. So while that’s a sale I won’t make (payment on publication, not acceptance), a credit I can’t chalk up on my scoreboard, and a story that’s back to doing the rounds, if I was looking on the bright side I’d say at least I don’t have to produce that audio version after all (though I’d actually started to feel good about the challenge).

NaNoWriMo is going slowly, probably even slower than I’d anticipated, but if you know you’re not going to make it to 50,000 words, any number’s an achievement and you don’t end up feeling stressed and guilty if you do other things for a while during November. Such as a 2-day comic convention.

Thought Bubble is less than a week away which is a bit scary (in an exhilirating way). I also know that I’m not going to get an early night before it, and I’ll probably have had to put up with a late-night long-distance taxi ride. The bright side of that one is positively dazzling though: we’re off to see The Damned on Friday. Excuse me while I touch up my black nail varnish.

It’s November and there’s too much to do

Time ran away with me last week and I never made it to my blog. We had a friend to stay for a few days, then suddenly it was November and I had a novel to write. Another one. I haven’t even quite finished the last one yet (a couple of thousand words away from a complete first draft, I reckon) but it’s been put aside so I can participate in the madness that is NaNoWriMo. I’m already behind schedule and it’s only day 4.

However, as those of us who listened occasionally at school may remember, it’s not the winning it’s the taking part. NaNoWriMo is a good excuse to write furiously, without giving yourself enough time for the self-doubt to creep in. I’ll settle for 20,000 words I can work on later. A belated appreciative moment for the support crew of friends and family that make these intensive writing challenges possible – once again, I take my hat off to you all.

And while I’ve got my hat off, consider it also doffed to Chris Packham – anyone that can manage (with a straight face) to work so many Damned titles (but particularly Machine Gun Etiquette) into a BBC Wildlife Programme deserves recognition. Well done Chris, and I apologise for considering you a poor second to Terry Nutkins way back when.

Dystopian inspiration is all around

No, not a comment on the economy, global or otherwise. Though it’s true it should be prodding your muse up the backside with a sharp stick if near-future sci-fi is your thing. What I actually meant was the (presumably temporary) giant bronze statue of Freddie Mercury that’s appeared in Leeds. It’s advertising a musical at a local theatre, but it dominates the square, vying for attention with a long-dead horse-bound royal, fist aloft and looking like something intended to inspire the workers behind the Iron Curtain. The posters that put the statue in context are low down and easy to overlook; visitors would be forgiven for thinking it’s a perfectly serious tribute to a departed icon. Which got me thinking about dystopian SF and the use of revered celebrities as pacifiers of a restless mob – you can have that spark of inspiration on me, I haven’t the time to use it at the moment.

For those who may be vaguely interested, the detective novel slid past the 50,000 word mark this week, and the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award is now open for entries. Hmm, worth a shot I think.

Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

Wet weekend words

After an unseasonable week more summery than most of the summer, we’re now in full-on autumn. The curtain of rain hides the other side of the valley and gives me a good excuse not to leave my bureau to work on the garden, and I can break out my favourite jumpers again. Unfortunately it’s discouraging me from participating in the local literary festival – I hadn’t been organised enough to buy any advance tickets so I was planning on heading to the free events and some of those I thought would have tickets on the door, but twenty minutes’ walk which can be so pleasant and invigorating on a fine evening becomes much less so when you get chilled and wet on the way, and spend an hour sitting still, acutely aware of damp shins.

NaNoWriMo looms large on the horizon, and I’m wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, though I’m still determined to give it a go. The first draft of the detective novel, which I’d planned to complete by the end of September, is limping towards 50,000 words at the moment, disrupted continually by predictable distractions. Writing at home more or less came to a halt, first with clearing out and packing, then the move itself, followed by unpacking, DIY, gardening and suchlike. I realised yesterday that I don’t have a single short story doing the rounds, in fact I haven’t made any submissions since July (which is when I started the detective novel; I don’t think that’s a coincidence). Time for a reassessment of priorities, a flurry of submissions, maybe a break from the novel-writing to finish up some nearly-there shorts which can then be sent out, before I start the other detective novel at the beginning of November. Phew! Who’d have thought such a relaxing and peaceful hobby could be so hectic.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

Can I use moving house as an excuse?

You may not have noticed, but I forgot to blog last week. The two weekends prior to that I’d scheduled pre-written posts because I knew I’d be without broadband for a short while (and pretty busy) in the week before and after I moved house. What I’d forgotten (because it’s been all of two years since I last moved) is that I’d be busy for a while after that too, all normal routines would be cast aside, and I’d forget there was ever any life before I lived here. Writing? Oh yes, that’s the thing that used to fill my hours before I had a big garden that’s been neglected for a while and needs a lot of work before the winter sets in. OneMonkey and I have spent more time in wellies since we moved here than I would care to admit.

Needless to say, the detective novel’s slightly behind schedule (just over 40,000 words written) as I’m only writing in my lunch-hour at the moment, and reading is something I do to fill in the commute, but I have (slowly) worked my way through Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds in the past few weeks and I enjoyed it so I’ll share. It’s the first in a series, and is set in the 26th century. A self-important archaeologist, Dan Sylveste, is working on a dig which seems to relate to his life-long obsession, the Amarantin, a long-dead race. What he discovers changes the way the Amarantin are viewed, and his single-mindedness tries the patience of the colony he’s supposed to be in charge of. Meanwhile in another part of the galaxy, a soldier-turned-assassin, Ana Khouri, is selected for a covert mission which involves infiltrating the crew of an interstellar ship, who are scouring the galaxy for a cure for their sick captain. Everyone has their own agenda, their own secrets (sometimes hidden even from part of themselves), and there are some pretty long games being played, with lifetimes of waiting for the payoff. Manipulation is rife and nothing is quite as it seems, with strange loyalties forming and shifting. As an astrophysicist himself, Reynolds also gets the science seeming plausible, which is always a nice touch.

I’m looking forward to starting book 2, Redemption Ark, in the morning but for now, back to garden design.

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks

Feersum Endjinn is one of the few non-Culture sci-fi novels by Iain M Banks; I’ve already reviewed one of the others, The Algebraist. This is a much thinner novel than the Algebraist, at only 275 pages, but Banks packs a great story in nevertheless (possibly with a few loose ends, or possibly I didn’t pick up on something subtle).

Each chapter is split into 4 sections, each following one of the four main characters (or small connected group of characters). One of these is Bascule, a sort of lovable rascal of a novice monk who lives in a brotherhood and communes with the dead (or rather, their downloaded representations). OneMonkey was put off the whole book, unfortunately, because of what he saw as the ‘textspeak’ in which Bascule’s first-person sections are written. However, given that Banks is British and probably around Big Brother’s age I’ll take a guess that they’re more likely to be influenced by Whizz For Atoms and the like, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (he of St Trinian’s fame). If you’ve ever read those you’ll have little trouble with Bascule, but as he says himself ‘I tolkd farely normil but I thot a bit funy’ so it might not be that easy to grasp straight off.

It has overtones of Gormenghast in places; there is a whole landscape within a huge castle, and for a while I wasn’t sure if the people were miniature or the rooms were huge. As you might expect from a contained society like that there is murder, intrigue, civil war, a possibly corrupt government and various conspiracies. Add the downloaded personalities of the dead, who live through eight lives in the speeded-up time of the cryptosphere, and you have a rich construct woven around a gripping story.

Paris Noir anthology

I’d seen a couple of the other anthologies in this series from Akashic Books in the library before but Paris was the first one that prompted me into borrowing it, as I’ve actually been there. I figured that part of the idea behind a one-city setting was that you could immerse yourself, and it helps if you can picture the streets, hear the sounds. All the stories were translated from French, which adds an authenticity (and sometimes a confusion, though no more than I occasionally get from, for instance, American writing).

I nearly gave up on this book, I will admit – the first 2 or 3 stories I dipped into were, to my mind, more monosyllabic brutality than richly atmospheric crime fiction. However, I persevered and the next couple were OK, and then I hit upon The Revenge of the Waiters by Jean-Bernard Pouy. It takes a theme I often play around with (but have never yet finished a story on), that of the familiar stranger and particularly the way we notice their absences and wonder what’s become of them. With a welcome injection of dark humour, Pouy sets a band of bored waiters on an investigation into such an absence, with escalating consequences.

La Vie en Rose by Dominique Mainard makes good use of a technique that’s sometimes seen as old-fashioned, that of having our main character sit down and listen to a long and almost unbroken exposition of the back-story from the other main character. As an interesting twist, the listener is a proto-crime-writer pretending to be a private detective in order to gather material, but he soon finds he’s out of his depth.

I’m not sure if I’d read other volumes in the series, but if I do dip in, I’ll let you know how they measure up.

A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett

A history of the Protestant Reformation sounds like it should be dry, dull, of narrow interest, and not at all relevant today. Which is why I’d like to tell you about this book. William Cobbett is marvellous, sadly not as widely-known as he should be, and an inspiration. If he were alive now he would be blogging and tweeting every moment of the day, trying to bridge the ever-present gap between truth and the population at large. This book is written in Cobbett’s usual style, not so much conversational as like the man who corners you at a gathering and begins a lot of sentences with ‘And I’ll tell you another thing about…’; it’s certainly not formal and dusty, though he does like to cite references (primary sources if possible so you can go check for yourself) and he gets himself wound up to a pitch and repeats things sometimes (this was serialised, too, so no chance for him to change his sections around later).

The main spur for this book was the ridiculous and appalling anti-Catholic laws still existing in England in the early 19th century (some, like no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic can be the monarch, are in place even now). The point that tells you the most about Cobbett is that he and all his family were members of the Church of England, he had no personal axe to grind but he saw an injustice and he couldn’t resist bringing it to public attention, questioning it in a reasoned and logical manner, and campaigning for its end. Although the book, and the creation of the Church of England, are nominally about religion, Cobbett argues persuasively that it’s all about greed, power, corruption, and land-grabbing. Everything rides on a political agenda.

It’s the same today, which is why Cobbett’s book is still relevant. Not only did I learn some unsavoury things about the Tudors, but it made me think in a joined-up way about the things I already did know, which was part of Cobbett’s point – you don’t have to hide unpleasant truths, you just have to present them in such a way that people are unlikely to go ‘but hang on, didn’t he also do…?’ and want to dig deeper. How many contradictory things do governments say on a regular basis, and how many laws or policies are formulated ‘after careful consideration of expert evidence’ meaning ‘we read it, it didn’t fit our pre-formed ideas or political goals so we discarded it’?

If you’re not interested in religion, or you’re not British (or Irish – they came under the same heavy-handed laws at the time, of course), or you’ve never heard of William Cobbett, it doesn’t matter – you might not be familiar with all the players but the game itself may be enlightening. I would also suggest that if you enjoyed Josephine Tey’s unusual detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, this might appeal to you in that same spirit of painstakingly uncovering historical facts that weren’t hidden, but have just been publicly contradicted so often that ‘everyone knows’ the complete opposite.

New genre excitement

It’s reasonably apparent to anyone reading this blog that (Anthony Trollope aside) I go for genre – count the references to sci-fi, fantasy, the occasional bit of horror, and detective stories, and…actually you’d be bored quite quickly so I wouldn’t bother, but you get the gist. OneMonkey likes a similar mix, and my dad got me into both Raymond Chandler and Philip K Dick. So for all of us, and those with similar tastes, Comets and Criminals sounds like a good plan. Starting in October, this New Zealand-based outfit will be offering up sci-fi, crime, adventure and westerns in a quarterly package. Why am I telling you this? Well, the eagle-eyed will have spotted earlier in the week the new ‘forthcoming’ line on my list of successes, though this post is scheduled for my usual weekend sort of time (at the weekend I will probably be writing the detective novel: 24,000 words and counting). Ladies and gentlemen, I have sold a detective story; all that wearing of a trilby at a rakish angle was not in vain.

Two more books about writing

Procrastinating as I often do, I went book-hunting in the city library recently, looking for how-to books on writing. What tips could I pick up, what had I missed, where was I going wrong..?

Among the books I brought home was This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley (author of, among other things, Devil in a Blue Dress, later made into a Denzel Washington film which I haven’t seen but should – detection in 1940s LA, just my kind of thing). You can tell from the title that this is a no-nonsense book from a man who is not prepared to take any of your pathetic excuses, like the one that mentions how many writing books you need to read before you get going. It’s a short book (about 100 pages) but he could have made it shorter, maybe one page that said ‘Shut up and write. No-one else is going to do it for you’.

I don’t mean to make Mosley sound harsher than he is, I think it’s a good book. This isn’t a book full of exercises (in fact I think there’s only one), but it does give you pointers and lots to think about. Including the importance of poetry in writing fiction – not something I’d thought much about, and I don’t read poetry very often these days, but it’s true that it’s a good way of learning how to use just the right number of words in just the right combination to say what you mean (preferably with additional layers), as well as getting a feel for the rhythm of language. He uses an example story to keep coming back to throughout the book to illustrate different things, stresses the importance of a regular writing routine and gives useful, detailed advice on redrafting. Crucially for me, he also mentions 3 months (the deadline I’d given myself for the first draft of my detective novel) as a reasonable time in which to produce a first draft.

A complete contrast to Mosley’s angle is Writing Fiction by Linda Anderson and Derek Neale; it’s an Open University book, and you can tell. It’s two hundred pages packed with exercises and points to consider, enough to generate years’ worth of inspiration, and it sets about it all in a systematic teacherly sort of way which I found reassuring. Although I loathed and detested English Literature at school, I even found the sections of this book where they present an extract from a novel or short story interesting. A couple of paragraphs, or an exchange of dialogue, are laid before the reader with questions to have in mind beforehand, then a brief analysis afterwards. The key (for me) is that there’s no picking every word apart for meanings that aren’t really there, just a study of rhythm, pace, and technique which you can learn from. Even on a first read-through, without doing any of the exercises, I found myself jotting ideas down, and I know I’ll come back to this book when I’ve got more time to experiment.

Of course we all know by now where I was going wrong: I was reading about writing, not just sitting down and doing it. Back to the typeface.

Revelation number nine: detecting a good ending

A blogging prompt I saw a while ago was ‘describe a recent Aha! moment’. None of you want to relive the last time OneMonkey burst into the room singing Take On Me (least of all me) so I’ll take that to refer to a revelation of some kind. Maybe it’s down to me writing some crime stories recently but I find I’m working out the culprit more often recently, when I’m reading detective novels. Not that I was always unaware till the last moment, but I’m definitely getting it right more often, working it out earlier in the book, and also figuring out motives and details to a certain extent too. Perhaps the writing mind is beavering away in the background working out plausible ways to get out of the situation, as though I was writing the novel, not reading it.

The big exception (there’s always one) is Reginald Hill’s Pictures of Perfection, which starts with the description of the crime then goes back a couple of days to describe the events leading up to it, which involve other crimes (some of which I did figure out). The sleight of hand involved, and possibly also the idea from the start that you know what’s happened so you’re not there to figure it out, you’re there to enjoy the ride, meant that the ‘real’ ending was as much of a surprise to me as if it hadn’t been included at the beginning. That takes some doing, and I doff my trilby to Mr Hill with great pleasure and an elegant flourish.

There are some readers who feel cheated if they don’t work out who did it, others who feel cheated if they do (at least with more than a few pages to go). I enjoy puzzling it out, there’s a real sense of achievement if I get to the end and find out I was right all along (though I rarely mind if I was wrong, as long as I’ve enjoyed myself along the way). The only caveat is that there has to be ‘an Aha! moment’ – the solution needs to hit as things slot into place, rather than be handed to me on a plate or ringed with neon arrows leaving no room for doubt. Why did I decide to write a detective novel this year?

Freedom to rock

This is a time-travel post, written earlier in the week so I didn’t forget to blog in the excitement (or extended follow-up sleep) of the long-awaited trip to see Iron Maiden at Newcastle Arena (OneMonkey, myself, and the nephew have had tickets since November). The title of the post came from an Alice Cooper song, which took me back to an Alice Cooper gig in Newcastle in July 1997 after which, for some reason that entirely escapes me now, I got on a late-night coach to be collected by my indulgent parents at a Yorkshire bus station in the early hours. Long distance journeys on late-night coaches certainly seem to be part of what freedom’s about, at least if all the American films are to be believed.

I’ve been glancing through the WordPress daily posts and came across a recent one asking What does freedom mean? Funnily enough, on a hot day last week when I was in sandals and loose cotton I bumped into a fully suited and tied male colleague and the phrase ‘freedom is never having to wear a suit’ popped into my head. Freedom is also, in the words Janis Joplin keeps singing in my head, another word for nothing left to lose – there is definitely some truth in that. From a writing perspective, acknowledging you’ve missed your deadline, or your target wordcount, or can’t think of how to tie the story that wants to come out in with the theme you’re trying to write about, completely frees you up for creativity. It takes away the performance anxiety and the narrow focus, and lets you roam.

So, wearing a suit or not, go away and free your mind. I can’t guarantee the results will rock your world, but you won’t know till you try.

Books about writing

This week I’ve been to a real library (in the pouring rain – there’s dedication for you) and got out a couple of books I thought I’d mention. The first one I’ve read before, and may even have mentioned but as I remember it being pretty useful, I’ll mention it again. It’s by Janet Laurence and is called Writing Crime Fiction. Yes, the detective novel’s still in progress, thanks for asking – it currently stands at a little over 9000 words (slightly below yesterday’s target, and I haven’t written any today yet since I’ve mostly been out of the house). I read Janet Laurence’s book a little over a year ago (and judging by the date stamps, no-one’s had it out since then, which is a shame) when the idea of writing crime was still a scary distant aspiration. Now I’ve written a crime story I’m quite proud of, and I’ve started on a novel, so I figured it was a good time to refresh my memory. The book is full of writing exercises, general writing topics like dialogue, third vs first person narratives etc, but naturally there are vast amounts of crime-specific advice. From hooks and pacing to notes on poison, it packs a lot into 180-odd pages and is well worth reading at least once if you’re interested in writing crime fiction. It may even be of interest if you’re a keen reader of crime, and are the sort that likes to get glimpses behind the scenes.

The other book is quite different, though still related to creative writing. It’s called Write for your Lives, and is by a cognitive behavioural therapist (I think) called Joseph Sestito who follows Tibetan Buddhism and has written a guide to becoming a more liberated and less self-critical writer, free from writer’s block. Bearing in mind I’m a sceptical atheist, I might not read the whole thing, but having read the introductory chapter it’s already given me something to think about, which I’ll share here so you can think about it too. As far as I can tell from the introduction, he seems to be suggesting that writer’s block stems from self-absorption. You focus on your performance, the goal being to write something that gains praise or gets published, or earns you money – so you freeze up (like stagefright). If instead you focus on whether the piece of writing will be entertaining or useful to a potential reader, and work on making it the best it can be for selfless purposes, it might come easier. I’m not saying I agree, and these things often depend largely on your personality, but I can see how the second way would be more like writing for fun whereas the first way has aspects of stressful exams (and I know all about going blank under exam conditions). Why are you writing, or why did you start writing in the first place? Probably because it’s something you enjoy doing (it may be because it’s a compulsion, but I’ll put that in the enjoyment category in the same way that scratching a persistent itch might bring pleasure/relief). Wouldn’t it be better all round if you could keep it that way?

My own personal lending library

I meant to write a post yesterday, but instead I was raiding my dad’s bookshelves. Big Brother asked to see my library card at one point when I wandered past with another couple of books in my hand, which made me think how lucky I am to have access to such a resource. My parents have thousands of books, crammed into every available space in their relatively small house. Years of birthday and Christmas presents, weekends spent at bookshops, charity shops, car boot sales. Inherited books from half a dozen relatives. Not all of it’s to my taste but what a place to spend a couple of hours. It doesn’t follow the fashions of public lending libraries, never clears out books that no-one’s looked at in a while, and out of print books are a speciality. Hooray for bibliophile families.

As you may know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I go a bit mad in libraries, and the family one is no exception – I emerged with a carrier bag full of detective novels. My dad’s got me into Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series recently – think Dashiell Hammett with literary pretensions – so I nabbed another couple of those. All this could be considered research for my own detective novel, now just over 4000 words in (it’s been a very productive week). Learning from my experience of ScriptFrenzy, I’ve written daily targets on my motivational writing calendar and at the end of each day this week I’ve written my wordcount next to the day’s target. Until yesterday, when I didn’t write anything at all, I was past my target every day. It’s working at the moment, but I’m not sure how long it will be effective as a motivational technique.

Best go put the inspirational trilby on and get writing – I’ve got two days’ targets to meet.