2021 – Updating my intentions

Halfway through the calendar year, I thought it was time I reviewed my writing plans for 2021. I took three posts to get round to stating my intentions.

January 2021 – Look back mostly skimmed over a year tainted with COVID-19. In a moment of hope, which currently seems somewhat over-optimistic, I said:

We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone… We realise this may be some time.

Well, bugger. Just when it looked like things were going well, and a visit to friends for the first time in aaages was on the horizon, the Delta variant arrived and scuppered those plans. Back into household lockdown we go. And thankful for the ability to do so, while furious at the mismanagement that failed to mitigate the risks.

I did warn myself:

“there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news… will be detrimental to creativity”

This. So much this.

Like picking at a scab and wondering why it won’t heal, scrolling social media for an echo of the same tale minute by minute just leads to wasted hours with nothing to show for ’em. No creative writing, no tasty meals prepared, no grass mown.

In the same post I wrote:

“…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.”

Yeah, nice idea. Still, I have half a year left to work on it.

On top of that, I also suggested:

“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.”

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book

At least I’ve been able to make a start on some of this. Books, fiction and nonfiction, feed the imagination, and I have a stack of ’em to work through. Haven’t kept my Goodreads up to date though.

A trip to a museum is right out at the moment, sadly – I’d love to revisit the magnificent Kelvingrove, for example, and I’ve mothballed a proposed visit to Calke Abbey – but I’ve enjoyed the scenery of far-flung places through the writings of others.

All grist to the mill.

Here’s a reminder of my writing goals for 2021:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals.

How have I done so far?

Hmm…

  1. I have more than one non-fiction project on my to-do list. Prioritise!
  2. Yes, I have written more this year than last, including a quarter of a new novel (Project NEVADA, somewhat stalled) and some new poetry.
  3. Umm, I submitted a couple of poems and had them returned.

Ooh, I mustn’t forget the twelve posts I wrote for The Last Rhinemaiden! And the regular posts on here.

Overall, still at “hmm…” though.

Six months to go. Time to get on it (again).


And here’s this week’s links (I think we could do with some cheering up):

A throwback to the 1970s, and a staple of my childhood: The Goodies (YouTube link, surreal humour involved). Also the official fan club, going strong at The Goodies Rule – OK. OMG I feel like I’m ten years old again… Their newsletter is superb!

Take a scroll through the collections at Calke Abbey on the National Trust’s website – I promise, there is so much junk in there that once you’ve stopped going “you what?”, your fingers will be itching to do a Marie Kondo (“The family were avid collectors but also they tended not to throw anything away”). There’s some really nice stuff, and then there’s the cr@p… small fragments of stained glass; rusted iron wotsits; illuminated manuscripts; buttons; and much more, like this:

Paper label "cut out of pheasants throat 1887"
Paper label “cut out of pheasants throat 1887”

Fab biographical article on the multi-talented Robert “Bob” Calvert at Thanet Writers Spotlight. And for those of you anticipating a return to the office once coronavirus has receded, his poem The Clerk.

Published in: on July 11, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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100% Writer’s Block

Now, having set out a dozen posts on The Last Rhinemaiden and how it came about, I’ll tell you how it ended.

For a while it seemed like every novel I read was based in London. And I noticed that I was also writing stories set in London, which bothered me somewhat.

The Cuckoo Club series is set in London, and Paris (so far). After two books I paused, and switched to Petticoat Katie.

The characters live in a shared house and go to work every day like ordinary people. Their adventures began in short stories, but their lives expanded in the first trilogy to include job loss, urban violence and unexpected pregnancy (and airships, betrayal, Turkish delight, guerrilla gardening, far too much cake, a whole cabinet of outrageous gadgets and a hundred monkeys).

a street corner in a Victorian city - Steep Street, Bristol, 1866
Steep Street, Bristol, 1866

But… still based in London.

And it got a little tiresome. Long before COVID, long before lockdown, I began to look further afield – looking for more interesting places to visit, and explore, and conjure up in my imagination for my characters to inhabit.

We think of certain cities in very limited terms – sometimes the place itself hasn’t gathered much history, but also because of choices and the perceptions forced upon us by marketing.

Why do we focus on Viking York, for example, and not so much on Roman York? When do we ever hear about Tudor York? How about glorious York during the Danelaw, when it was no longer Eboracum and halfway through Jorvik?

Great places within which to set novels and tell stories are available. Using London (or New York, or Vienna) as a setting is just laziness.

So I started thinking about place, in a very specific way, and how to change my writing to express more of this variety.

Why have steampunk always in London? Why not those other great cities of the British Empire – Birmingham, Belfast, Bombay?

Why not steampunk Havana? Steampunk Shanghai, or Lagos, or Djibouti?

And why Empire? Why British? Where’s the steampunk set in Bougainville, or Brazzaville, or Bogotá?

Probably I haven’t cast my nets widely enough to find those stories. Maybe I overlook them because of blurb or cover art or sub-genre.

Are they out there, waiting for me, if only I can lift my eyes from a limited set of map co-ordinates, and explore?

There are plenty of novels set in alternative cities, some of those contemporary with the steampunk timeframe like the stories of Jack London (another real-life adventurer).

Some are set in entirely imaginary cities, places upon which we can paint our home towns to add familiarity, but which are otherwise entirely fabricated out of magic and ink.

Ankh-Morpork.

Arkham.

Foundryside.

Later stories in the Petticoat Katie series take place outside of London, but I haven’t got round to writing them yet. The fourth novel in the series is 70% complete and has been since – och! – 2015.

It’s sat like a lump of 100% writer’s block on my desktop and I can’t shift it, even though I can see beyond it to other stories, other locations, other characters.

Places where there are statues on rooftops, locksmiths in narrow alleys, and a mist rising from the river at sunrise.

Now doesn’t that make you want to visit?

a cobbled street lined with shops with bright clothing hanging outside -
Calle Caldereria Nueva, Granada

In search of locations and art and gadgets, here’s this week’s links:

The anthem of Ankh-Morpork performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra (YouTube link)

Forsyth’s Compendium of Curious Contraptions – curious railways, steam engines, Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Glorious art and design posted regularly on Twitter at @NouveauDeco


Also this week – an update on this year’s writing goals:

  1. Non-fiction project has moved from the design phase to writing and formatting.
  2. Project NEVADA – added 1000 words – yes, it’s slow, I’m pacing myself.
  3. Poetry submissions came back unplaced; more submissions required.
Published in: on April 4, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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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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