Goodbye To All Those

Since I started this blog, I’ve used the clever little WordPress “follow” feature to receive updates from a variety of other sites.

This was particularly useful when I was an active participant in A Round Of Words In 80 Days, as I followed a number of fellow participants when we all chipped in to report on our writing progress.

But: 100+ other blogs in my reader?

I can’t keep up.

Some of those sites have fallen silent, abandoned back in 2014 or earlier.

Some were only used to report writing progress as part of the RW80 Challenge, and the writer(s) have other sites off WordPress.

And some, I have to admit, were downright mind-boggling when I went through the list at the weekend to do some “weeding”.

As in, what the blazes was I thinking when I linked to this one? Since when was I interested in that subject? Has the writer changed focus so much in the last mmphle years that what was once fascinating is now tedious, or trite, or just off-key?

Quite a lot of those links were archived.

It’s 2017, after all. My recent sabbatical from posting online has taught me that a dormant site last updated in 2012 isn’t going to revive any time soon, no matter how interesting it might have been back then.

When the indie publishing scene kicked off big-time there was a lot of information to be assimilated, new ideas formulated and shared, upheaval and disruption and interesting times.

Not so much now.

Bertha Lum: The Fox Woman

Bertha Lum: The Fox Woman

We should all be open to new influences on our art and our writing: to fill the well, explore new ideas, be guided by different lanterns along an unfamiliar path; and to make space for those, some of the old used-up patches on our cloak have to be teased into rags, tied to a wayside tree and left behind to show our progress.

Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish.


(Art: while researching the copyright to an image I intended to use in the first draft of this post I meandered over wikipedia – as you do – until I found the fabulous Bertha Lum.)

Published in: on March 1, 2017 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Project Albatross: Rediscovery

In the middle of 2016 I rediscovered what I’ll call Project Albatross: my post-apocalyptic novel written in 1990, a wild crazy drama laced with climate change and socio-political upheaval on the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967)

My memory of the story played me somewhat false, however.

The storyline hangs together pretty well.

Some parts are written in present tense, some in the past.

Elements of the prose are lyrical as poetry – and just as obscure.

Other elements are clumsy – stilted dialogue, head-hopping, transitions awkwardly phrased.

My punctuation is wildly creative. From my current perspective, 25 years on, I can only wonder why I chose to use so many commas and semi-colons when the obvious thing to do is shut the flippin’ sentence off with a full stop and start a new one.

Literary paragraphs, running on and on without pause, without dialogue, without line breaks. Even when there’s a change of character speaking. I’ve read novels like that and given up on them halfway through (I’m looking at you, 2666).

Single-sentence chapters.

Typing it out from longhand sheets where very little alterations have been made – and very few crossings-out – it’s like reading a story I once knew by heart. While I’ve forgotten the complexity of the story, and some of the iconography, sometimes a phrase leaps out at me from the page as if fresh in my memory and I know exactly how it ends, like a quotation or a prose poem.

Overall, I’m surprised at the scope of my ambition, even if the 25-years-ago version of me fails to deliver on some of that. Huh: everyone’s young once.

It’s also undeniably different from the novels I’ve written since.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Published in: on February 15, 2017 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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2016: Sabbatical In Review

Welcome back. It’s been an odd year.

Yes, I have been busy, spending much of the summer whittling spoons in the shed, badly.

No, I haven’t written much, and certainly not anything I thought worth publishing.

Yes, I have read quite a few books.

No, I didn’t read as many as I hoped.

Yes, I found Albatross.

No, I didn’t think it was worth publishing. Not in its current state. As a part of my body of work, it stands alone, although probably less so than I think. (Apparently writers are not great judges of their own work.)

Will I publish it, and the dead novel from 2012, at some point in the future? Maybe.

The fourth Petticoat Katie novel is still waiting for me to iron out the kinks in the storyline and find a decent title that makes it stand out from the other three (Maiden Flight, Boom Town and Monkey Business), while showing that it’s still part of the series.

New stories beckon. Other craft and creative pursuits whisper to me, when my hands are idle. The garden always needs attention, one way or another.

So, in sum: life goes on. Raise a glass of whatever you fancy to the year’s end, and a new beginning. While I can’t promise to post every week, to quote Sam Gamgee:

“Well, I’m back.”


P.S. Another reason for posting again: it keeps the spambots away from the regulars.

Published in: on December 31, 2016 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Goal for 2016: Sabbatical

I have one – and only one – goal for 2016: taking a sabbatical.

I might post if I publish something, but for now, I’m off.

Have a good year!

Published in: on January 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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2015 in review

Here’s a summary of 2015. Not as productive as I’d hoped on the writing front, but there’s a time for filling the well, isn’t there?


BOOKS READ IN 2015

Stonemouth by Iain Banks – disappointingly similar to The Crow Road and Espedair Street, with a dash of Wasp Factory.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – twenty pages into this, I knew I wanted to read it again. The clockwork gadgets and charming characters drew me into a sense of place so genteel and stifling, yet plagued by violence; and there’s snow (always happy to read stories with snow).

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky – like reading through a subject on Wikipedia as if it were a travelogue. Not very deep but enjoyable while it lasted. Is it true, perhaps, that many of the non-federal roads between small towns in the USA originally followed animal trails between salt licks?

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore – interesting historical research written engagingly, but TBH I thought both characters in the marriage sounded pretty ghastly and felt sorry for their various kids.

Concrete Island by J G Ballard – strange to imagine how anyone could write this story now, thirty years or so later, with the rise of CCTV and near-ubiquitous smartphone ownership. Can’t you hear the SatNav berating the lead character for taking a wrong turn?

Lanark by Alasdair Gray – tortuous and bitty and self-indulgent. Can’t see why it was worth waiting for. Filed with 2666 and Moby Dick under “hours of my life I’ll never get back”, but at least I finished it.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell – seminal work that claims to have laid the foundation arguments for the nationalisations of the 1945-50 Labour government. Left me with a sickly notion that the lead characters might find our current world of zero-hours contracts and crushing urban rents somewhat familiar.

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There by Sinclair Mackay – an easy read which nonetheless makes the intricate and crucial work at Bletchley sound as dull and repetitive as office work everywhere. There’s a possibility I might cite this as research for a future Cuckoo Club story, as one of my characters in Dogger, Forties, German Bight has a hinted Bletchley past.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – having heard the author talk about this series at CrimeFest 2014 I was keen to read the novels, of which this is the first. Now, not so likely to go out of  my way. Well constructed story skilfully written but didn’t hold my interest enough (too contemporary, not enough clever gadgets or magic weirdness).

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – worth reading if you are interested in the historical groundswell that also gave us Brave New World, Metropolis and 1984. Has hints of Logan’s Run in places too. A slender tome.


I’m hoping that next year will prove a little more expansive on the reading front. Limiting my time online will help. Don’t expect much.

 

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on 2015 in review  
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Plumber’s Muse required, must bring own grommets

There’s a meme, a theory, call it what you will, that writer’s block is a poor excuse for laziness.

This is based on the premise that there’s no such thing as – for example – plumber’s block. That is, someone who makes their living as a plumber doesn’t spend days lying on a chaise longue wafting a scarf over their fevered brow while waiting for their Muse to turn up with a sink plunger and a set of tap grommets.Joseph Bazalgette (c) Science Museum London

I agree.

There is no such thing as plumber’s block.

Because, you see, when a plumber has had enough of plumbing, be it for the day, the week or for life, he hangs up his kneepads and overalls and goes out to the pub – or the beach, or nightschool, or whatever takes his fancy.

Without feeling guilty about Not Plumbing.

If he’s been successful, he will likely have a bunch of other plumbers working for him in the pipework technician equivalent of James Patterson blockbusters.

If he hasn’t been successful, one might ask why the blazes he bothered becoming a plumber in the first place if he hated the work so much (the usual answer is either money, or self-determination).

Nobody becomes a plumber in the hope they’ll become the next Joseph Bazalgette.


Plumbers, on the whole, are practical fellows. If plumbing isn’t floating their boat, the resourceful amongst them will look to start another line of work.

Often, the less resourceful are quite happy being told by someone else when to turn up, what to fit and how much they are going to be paid for the work.

Sounds like my day job.

But here’s the difference between plumbing and writing (if you haven’t already thought of at least one).

Writing novels is not my day job. I’d be surprised if it was yours (if it is, can I have the email addresses of your readers?).

Once the first twelve hours of the working day are over (prep and commutes and aftercare included), who has the energy to commit to creative works month after month, without respite?

That way lies burnout.

Those of us with office jobs know only too well how that feels. Even if you haven’t endured your own, you will know someone who has broken, or is currently resisting collapse.

If you work a day job where this is rife, you’ll know how the fracture lines spread from person to person like a flaw in a cut diamond – invisible to the naked eye, until the wrong knock in the wrong place and suddenly the world is just… splinters.

I’m not broken.

I’m not even close. But I’ve seen it too often, been close in the past when tight deadlines and project goals combine with the satisfaction of doing an enjoyable job, and you spend more time than is healthy on completing a task which doesn’t bring you much personal kudos and takes you away from family, friends and fun.

Maybe that’s the problem I’ve had this year, with the fourth Petticoat Katie story in the trilogy. This novel was never meant to be written right now.

Like the novel I killed in 2012, I’ve spent so much time making excuses to myself for not finishing it, I’d have been better off ditching it and splurging on short stories and poems.


Novels are great fun to write.

But they aren’t the only outlet for my creative energies, and while there is no such thing as plumber’s block there is also a contingent activity known as filling the well.

The phrase is attributed to Julia Cameron, she of The Artist’s Way, and she also says this:

During a sustained period of work, artists require special care. We must be vigilant to not abuse our health and well-being. We must actively nurture ourselves.

While it sounds like the plumber’s chaise longue and floaty scarf again, I’m also thinking of Dean Wesley Smith’s insistence that his perfect chair is ergonomically-fitted. Or, to take a different elemental allegory, there’s Terri Windling’s timely reminder that re-kindling the fire within is feasible, even when the spark seems damped.

So where does this take me?

I’m still ahead of the goals I set when I asked where will I be in ten years time? back in early 2012.

And I promised myself a “leisurely pace of production”.  This does not involve NaNoWriMo, nor does it involve thrashing myself into a tizzy because I haven’t spawned a set word count in any particular time frame, nor does it involve me using those creative energies to come up with elaborate reasons why.

I’ve done my words for this year. The current story’s limp, a steaming pile of spaghetti I don’t have energy to pick through, and my chopsticks are broken.

Other worlds are calling me, worlds where my imagination is happily designing people and cities and a very Scottish mythology underlying stories more graphic, more elaborate, more Gothic than anything I’ve ever written.

Would you rather explore them with me, or laze around while I kick holes in the pipework?

Reclining male nude, Bristol Art Gallery

Published in: on October 28, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Still Here

I’m still here. Fitzgerald's Very Thin Mints

I’m still working on the next Petticoat Katie novel, and I think I’m almost finished the first draft.

Unfortunately I have more goats than I can handle right now.

Not real goats, obviously.

Why the long gap between posts, when I’d hit such a good streak of posting every Wednesday?

Probably something to do with minor health issues, Extreme Gardening, and an overall lack of direction over where my writing goes from here.

I’m not about to run out of ideas – no sirree. But the Petticoat Katie series has another three novels waiting, there’s still life in Louis Beauregard yet, and I have at least two other sets of stories on my Explore Further kanban list.

Spoilt for choice.

There were books to be read, too. Stories from other people to be explored, and new art to discover. Friends to meet, focus to re-sharpen, batteries to recharge – a mini sabbatical, in effect.

And perhaps the chance to revisit the reasons why I write, especially on here, and to reduce the flow of unnecessary words that add little to the overall sum of human knowledge but still suck energy from the planet.

Nonetheless, I’m still here.

More later.

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Wild crazy drama, anyone?

With the announcement by Pope Francis that climate change is upon us, I wondered whether it might be time to dust off the post-Apocalyptic novel I wrote back in 1990.

Climate change isn’t the point of the novel. It’s an unusual mixture of WW1, religious upheaval and forbidden love.

OR (if you want the Hollywood version – you’ll have to imagine the accent however):

“One woman’s struggle against the forces of a world in crisis.”

It was hand-written, longhand, and I can’t remember if I even typed it up or just filed it away with my (two) previous unusual novels.

It was also the last novel I wrote without a structured plan. Chances are the storyline is all over the place.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967) That usually means a lot of work – far more than I’m inclined to take on.

My heroine set off through the story with a map which came straight out of “Albatross” by Judy Collins, a haunting song brimming with imagery both rich and powerful.

Somewhere in the middle was a scene of intense barbarism.

Somewhere parallel to my heroine was an anti-hero she was destined to meet.

Somewhere in my world-building, climate change had ruined the global economy and turned Britain into a poisoned, depopulated, pseudo-feudal state.

And the ending, that I spent (IIRC) 60,000 words charging headlong towards across a blasted near-prehistoric landscape, owed more than a little to Leonard Cohen‘s “Joan of Arc”.

Wild crazy drama and big scenes of bloodshed not dissimilar to (what I’ve heard about) Game Of Thrones.

But I’m not sure where I’ve put the flippin’ thing.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Wild crazy drama, anyone?  
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One Down, Many More To Follow

A couple of months ago I wrote a post justifying why the wordcount’s low on my current work-in-progress.

Basically, my creative time is limited – as is my creative energy. And I’ve been busy paving over my garden so I can free up more of my creative time and energy to write, instead of controlling parts of the garden that aren’t productive.

This work is now over, thankfully.

Summer is heading full-tilt towards us, less than a week before the solstice. The grass has gone, the paving is laid, and the remainder of the work falls under the heading of general pottering about – in other words, no heavy lifting.

Like finishing a novel, it’s been a long task, enjoyable, stretching, with a few false starts and moments of trepidation. Now it’s done, I can sit back and admire it look at all the bits I’d do differently if I had to do it again.

Bee on white oregano flower

My imagination hasn’t been idle, though.

I’ve sketched out a few short stories on rainy days when working outside was impossible, and pondered the work still to be done on the fourth Petticoat Katie novel with a view to finishing it as soon as I can.

More stories await. Characters clamour to say their piece, to have their lives imagined into being, to take me on their travels as if I were their own personal Boswell.

And now, of course, I have a neat and tidy garden space within which to imagine new tales while watching the bees amongst the oregano.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on One Down, Many More To Follow  
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Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

 

– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.