January 2021 – Look back

Last year, I wrote about fifty thousand words. Apart from the posts on my blog, none of those words were published. Most of them weren’t publishable – weren’t connected to a novel, or story, or anything else creative. Much of them were journal entries.

There was a lot to muse over. Coronavirus, having appeared, proceeded to sweep across the world and curled itself into a cosy corner of northwestern Europe called the UK, and has been hogging the duvet here ever since. In my household, this is a cause for concern. Hey, if it isn’t a cause for concern in your household, 1. where have you been and 2. don’t bother coming round to explain.

We’ve been shielding since before lockdown in March 2019. We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone.

We realise this may be… some time. We are prepared for this.

In terms of creativity, I spent a lot of words noodling over what to write. And why to write. Does my voice matter? (of course it does).text says Write because your voice matters

Of the many stories I have waiting for me to give them form, which of them call me right now? If none, why not? And also, I told myself, why not just come up with some new ideas (e.g. Project NEVADA).

As I wrote here last time, January 2021 – Setting my intentions, nobody wants more junk.

So part of my new writing year’s resolutions is to write with more focus on work which can be published, to finish that work, and submit more poetry to online journals.

There’s scope, room, for learning more skills. For reading widely, online and on paper, to research and build the worlds my stories will occupy.

Scope, too, for reading the guidance and wisdom shared so freely online by other writers – Joanne Harris, Kris Rusch, Terri Windling. And scope for humility too, accepting that my work isn’t ready, that I need more practise, that I need to take my time to make stories that enhance my body of work, not blight it.

Saying that, even with a whole fresh year ahead of us, how many of us believe time isn’t precious?

One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places. With six weeks of lockdown now in place over England, the old rules apply – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. (Might be longer than six weeks, but hey; six weeks is an old-skool beach-body diet plan…)

There are tales to be told of life on Plague Island, to be sure. Many will be horror stories, others tragedy. We Brits have a streak of black comedy a mile wide. What tends not to be noticed are the humdrum, daily dull, background stories of ordinary people who are managing, just fine or just coping.

Some of us aren’t struggling, although we’d like to get out more (but daren’t risk the plague).

Some of us can’t get out even if we’d love to (and to Hell with the virus), even in the Old Normal Age when disability kept us enclosed like rare, exotic pets.

Some of us are skating a thin line down the middle of Okay and Not-Okay, wobbling one way or the other from day to day, hour to hour, like a violin saw screeching not wrong but not-quite-right.

But there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news and the airwaves and online media will be detrimental to creativity.

Those fifty thousand words I wrote last year were mostly random musings. Life planning. Thoughts that wouldn’t stop bugging me until I wrote them down, let them flood out of my head through my hands and onto the screen, where I could pin them down like beetles in a Victorian collector’s case.

There’s a risk that this year’s writing might follow a similar path, if I don’t focus on specific goals.

I already have the skills to make this happen. I’ve written before about how I manage writing projects – spanners and screwdrivers at the ready – so I need to take my own advice as well as that of experts. I have to make a start on writing the works I want to see on my own private bookshelf by the end of the year.

More on that next time.


In the meantime, please enjoy the Yorkshire Musical Saw Players performing Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Yes, indeedy.

Other links I found while researching this post:

The Yorkshire Musical Saw Man(Charles Hindmarsh)

Saw Lady (Natalia Paruz)

Thomas Flynn & Co, the UK’s only musical saw manufacturer

January 2021 – Setting my intentions

Usually at the start of January, I have a burst of creative energy, planning all sorts of creative projects for the year ahead.

Some of these are writing; some are practical, like sorting out home improvements.

There’s a balance to be made between solitary projects and collaboration. Between enjoyable tasks, and chores.

Writing projects on my “Hmm…” list – stories and ideas that I can’t prioritise over any of the others – run to about forty, novels and non-fiction and series, over different genres. Project NEVADA is one of these.

Maybe I just don’t care enough about them. If the writer isn’t excited by the prospect of spending a few months coaxing the characters through the story, then the reader probably won’t want to spend a couple of days – or hours – doing the same.Vintage Typewriter with case

It’s easy to tell myself that if I’d thrown wordcount down on the page for those projects, I’d have something to publish, more novels to add to my body of work.

Another little voice tells me that I might just produce junk.

Nobody wants more junk.

So this year’s plan for creative works will be short.

What’s yours?

A New Hope

I’m writing again, after ages of not having a story I cared about enough to finish.

There isn’t scope in this brief post to cover why I stopped because the reasons are many and belong to the real world, not here. Maybe some time later I’ll cover this, when the need to explain exceeds the joy of writing. But…

…I’ve started preliminary work on a new story.

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book

Trying not to be overwhelmed by stories outside the book…

It’s that phase of creative excitement where ideas pour out onto the page, spilling over into short passages of text and the sort of questions that just keep adding richness to the story.

Characters begin as silhouettes with no more detail than a line drawing. As I ask them why they are here, and what they want, their wishes and plans and needs start to fill in that outline. They become people, with hopes and dreams and guilty pasts, irrational urges, emotional triggers – recognisably real.

More characters appear. They have their own plans and urges and histories, and the ways they interact with my first characters reveals more about the story and the people involved.

Some of the characters are not really who they seem.

There’s a very real, physical threat to my protagonist, with the risk of destroying all those hopes and dreams I’ve just uncovered.

The location is charming, simple and a little shabby around the edges. It’s a combination of places I’ve been, places I’ve read about, and places you can really only see in the cinema.

And there’s a deep, dark mystery in the very foundations of the story.

There’s more work to be done before I can start to write up the story as a novel.

I’ll make up a storyboard to stop the characters from haring off into odd places beyond the story, or disappearing without trace. (Readers notice these things. I notice too, getting bogged down in backstory or sidelines. A storyboard allows all this to run its course at the planning stage, before I commit to writing 80K-120K words on the page.)

A map, too, of where interactions happen, so I can keep track of who knows what and which secrets have yet to come out. Hopefully not as complex as this one, from The Count Of Monte Cristo (click on the image to see full size):

Character relationships in The Count of Monte Cristo - from Wikipedia

Character relationships in The Count of Monte Cristo – from Wikipedia

When the ideas start to flow it’s best to let them. Rinsing out the duds can come later.

It feels good to be writing again.

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.

A nice little bookshelf

Last month I realised I didn’t have a full set of all my novels in print, and none with the new covers, so I bought one of each off CreateSpace*.

Here’s my tiny bookshelf:

6 books by Lee McAulay and Vita Tugwell

I’m pleased with the covers but some of the interior files can be smartened up. I uploaded The Bead Merchant in 2012, for goodness’ sake, and not only have ebooks moved on since then, my interior layout skills have improved too.

For the sake of the postage I decided not to buy paperback copies of the Petticoat Katie short stories I put in print, although that would be instructive as – again – I uploaded some of those in 2012, before I began writing Maiden Flight.

But half a dozen novels isn’t enough.

It’s barely the foundation of a body of work.

Half a dozen novels, not even under the same name, not in the same series or universe. A bare scratch in the surface of literature, of whatever definition.

A handful of blocks to build a cathedral, one word at a time.

Back to the writing desk.


*You can do the same here.

N.B. See Reason No.1

Recently (so I’m told) there’s been a lot of discussion on the web amongst writers about the difficulty of making a living as a writer.

I’ve not been a part of this, for at least two reasons:

1. I think I’d be better off writing (the WIBBOW test); and

2. I’m a long, long way from making a living as a (part-time) writer.

This, currently, does not trouble me.

Bookshelf

I have a day job which provides just enough impetus to force me back to the writing desk when the working day is over (see Reason #1 above).

I have a long-term plan for my writing, which focuses on improving my craft with every novel I write (see Reason #1 above).

And I have a supportive partner who encourages me to focus on the dream of being a novelist, while reminding me how I can work towards achieving that goal (see Reason #1 above).

Maybe I’ll never be hungry enough to write with the prolific speed of the pulp masters.

Maybe I’ll never be good enough to write a masterpiece that endures.

Maybe I’ll never learn how to make characters people like, instead of ones whom readers hate.

Who can tell?

But one thing I do know: having finished SHADOWBOX this summer, I’m one step closer to that body of work.

Messages To The Future

Recently I had a look through my old posts on this blog and came across some surprises.

I’d forgotten about The Thrill of Being Published, and how I got caught up with Diversions.

And how many of the 7 places to find ebooks without selling your soul have endured these last three years?

Three years.

Seems a lot longer. I’m working on a ten-year plan, with a five year plan to add a bit of an impetus in the short term.

My aim, as I’ve said before, is a body of work. And with that in mind, I found some interesting echoes in books I’ve read recently.

After the push to get Shadowbox out, I wanted to kick back and relax. Refill the well. So I picked up a couple of favourite stories for re-reading, authors I admire, who have a body of work with which I’m very familiar.

The first of these was Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley.

He’s known more for Brave New World, but Crome Yellow was his first novel. I was surprised to find, buried in his story of a dinner party in 1921, the seed of his later fame and the major premise of Brave New World: the notion that in future societies, babies would be raised in glass jars.

The other story was The Stress Of Her Regard by Tim Powers.

A complex novel, two inches thick in mass-market paperback, the book heaves with elements of his later works: the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, supernatural beings of stone (most prominent in his much later novel Declare), vampires as in Bury Me Among The Graves.

Helen Campbell, a wireless operator, at her desk in 1917

Helen Campbell, A Wireless Operator. 1917

Finding elements of later stories within early ones is a good sign of a body of work. There’s an essential core of ideas which filter through each writer’s storytelling, as clear as a writer’s voice, as indicative as the “fist” of a telegraph operator tapping Morse code down a signal wire.

Messages to the future.


P.S. Here’s Margaret Atwood’s essay on Aldous Huxley, “Everybody is happy now“, on the Guardian from 2007.

Building A Cathedral, One Word At A Time

Far away in a bookA friend of mine, a voracious reader, recently said she will read the same books over and over because she wants to be with those people, to spend her life with them, and not here in the real world with all its harshness and doubt.

As a novelist I’m aiming to write books with that sort of magnetism, that glamour, whenever I sit down to write.

Those secret threads tug at my hands on the keyboard as firmly as the words of others, elusive wisps of other worlds which are harder to paint with text than with pencil or brush.

At times I wish I had more artistic skills. My hands are suited for brutish endeavours – hammering metal, sawing timber, shaping stone. The finesse of the fine artist eludes me.

Perhaps it’s the patience I lack.

Which makes writing novels even more of a mystery. Why spend months working on a story when a poem can move the same emotions in an hour’s preparation?

Perhaps it’s the grandeur I crave.

The satisfaction of a well-crafted poem is akin to a tiny tattoo. Sometimes only you and your beloved know of its existence.

The charm of a short story lies in its structure, in surprise, in a breathless rush like an afternoon’s concert enjoyed before the last train home to family, or to an evening job with no soul.

A novel contains more theatre than a short story, more hand-waving, more depth.

A sweeping panorama unveiled, word by word, from the mind of the writer to the reader beyond.

A snowdrift of ideas. An eiderdown when the world is cold; a welcome, when the world is harsh; a sanctuary to hold you safe until the story’s over.

A novel is a tapestry.

Many threads weave through a novel, layers and colours and textures, each adding their part to a story which can spread across space like a handshake. When one’s complete, the finished piece adds to the body of work in the same way each stonemason’s carvings add to a Gothic cathedral.

That’s the work of years, not hours.

Interior of a Gothic Cathedral, 1612, Paul Vredeman de Vries (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA)

Interior of a Gothic Cathedral, 1612, Paul Vredeman de Vries (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA)

2013: The year of three novels.

2013 was a remarkable year. The year I wrote three novels.

Let me state that again, for my own sake as much as yours.

I. Wrote. Three. Novels.

This is on top of a full-time Day Job and more than a dozen minor life events that took up weeks, weekends, time and emotional space I could have been writing. I should also give thanks to my partner for the times I’ve been lost in a book, either reading or writing or research.

Three novels.

Sure, I have to finish two of them. The plots are in place and I’m at the stage where I sift layers of colour and texture over them like a Buddhist sand painting, pulling scenery out of the darkness. I’ve made a start on one and have until the end of January to finish. Then the next, by the end of Feb. (First readers, you have been warned…)

The other surprise about my Year Of Three Novels is that my ability to write – 212,000 words, not including blog posts or emails or other writing not connected with novels or short stories – was focused by planning ahead. I have a five-year plan which shows me what my next writing projects are, well in advance, so I don’t have to worry about running out of ideas.

My aim for 2014 is to keep up the pace. On my plan 2014 has two novels scheduled to be written.

However, writing three – or two – novels in a year only adds to my Body Of Work on one condition: they must be published.

And that’s the first writing challenge I face in 2014.

Where will you be in ten years’ time?

This is a copy of a guest post I had published over on Do Authors Dream Of Electric Books? on 31 January 2012. I liked it so much I thought I’d re-post it here. Ta.


I recently fired up an old PC to rescue a novel from a zip disk, and in doing so I discovered a lot of old web links from ten or eleven years ago, saved onto the disk along with my novel. Reading through these has given me a lot to think about.

So many books, so little time

I thought about the ten years since I downloaded those links – life events, changes online and in the real world, successes and failures and other experiences. I looked at my meagre achievements as a writer.

And I began to think ten years ahead.

Last year, I wrote twenty short stories, one novella, one-and-a-half novels. I built a new blog up to fifty pages and had an article and a book review published in a niche magazine.

I work a full-time job. Last year I had an allotment garden and a hobby which took me away from home for a couple of weekends and occupied my spare time in the evenings and weekends for months beforehand.

I didn’t write nearly as much as I hoped. But I planned my writing around work, around the allotment, around the rest of my life including holidays and family visits and friends and exercise and learning new stuff.

And I wrote.

My output last year wasn’t prolific. Far from it.

However, I now have a suite of products up for sale on Amazon and via Smashwords to a number of international markets. I have publication credits in a print magazine. If I produce as much this year, I’ll double the size of my suite. I’ll also have a little planetary system of stories in the same universe. Two universes, in fact.

In ten years time, if I keep up the same leisurely pace of production and nothing else changes, I’ll have:

  • ten novels
  • ten novellas
  • two hundred short stories
  • ten non-fiction booklets
  • an as-yet-unplanned number of variety packs – novels+novellas, novels+shorts, twin novel packs, themed packs, character packs, etc. which add up to at least another hundred products
  • a 500-post blog

If I’d started this ten years ago, at this pace, even with all the life issues that cropped up in those years, how would that body of work make me feel?

Rather chuffed, I can tell you.

Never mind the state of publishing, the crisis of the internet, the downfall of western civilisation. Ignore it, and look at that body of work. I want to be able to look back in ten years and see that with my name against it.

Guardian Pix 2009, Shelves full of books

Image Credit: Guardian/Getty Images

What does your ten-year plan look like?