As demanded of me by precisely no one, I thought I’d share my current writing jams. I haven’t written much of anything while we’ve been working on the house, but now we’re finally out the other side of it, I’m trying to remember what words feel like. If all you have is a hammer, indeed.
Anyway — writing to music is important to me. I need music to get myself into a place of focus, and most especially to maintain it. Focus is pretty hard to come by at the moment, but I’m working on it, little by little, as my brain starts to process stories again after a year without them.
I recently caught the astounding film Arrival. First of all, it’s extraordinary, and secondly the soundtrack is exactly the sort of thing I look for when I’m working. I’ve known of Johann Johannsson for several years, and his album IBM 1401: A User’s Manual is a longstanding favourite of mine — but his work on Arrival is even better. Nuanced, complex, curious, cohesive, entirely otherworldly, always evolving — it’s perfect for the film, and perfect to write to. Johannsson was a mighty talent gone too soon.
I’ve also been listening a lot to Thomas Was Alone by David Housden, and added another computer game soundtrack in Disasterpiece’s tremendous music for Fez. The palette of instruments from both games is ideal — all bloops and synths and fuzz and chimes and the sound of the sea.
Special mention to Roni Size and Reprazent, too — I haven’t been story-writing to this, but it’s been the soundtrack to the last month of college marking. I think it was in 1998 or 1999 when my friend Bob and I caught the first train out of Aberdeen and danced all night at Homelands, where Reprazent played a set much like this. Sobering to think of that being more than half my lifetime ago. Roni Size is still banging though.
That’s me for now. I’m finding it very hard to write at the moment. I’m missing the fizz of being fully immersed in a story, but I’m trying to give myself a break for the physical and emotional toll of renovating the house, plus running two film courses, plus this fucking toxic Brexit bullshit, plus the colossal existential horror of environmental collapse in our lifetime, all of which I soak up, constantly. There’s sometimes not much left for writing. But without it, I’m not sure who I am.
For the last couple of months I’ve been teaching myself to juggle. I learned the basic three-ball cascade when I was 18 or 19 or so, but haven’t really juggled since. My excellent wife gave me some balls and a second-hand juggling book for Christmas, and since then I’ve been practicing wherever I can, a ten minutes here, five minutes there. I’m rubbish, but getting better, and can now do runs of the basic patterns. I’ve nailed the Cascade and Reverse Cascade, the Half Shower and Juggler’s Tennis — eventually I’m aiming for Mill’s Mess and Windmills and Box and Rubenstein’s Revenge. (Like mushrooms and moths, juggling patterns have tremendous names.)
Why? I’m doing it for fun — because it reminds me not to take myself too seriously, which I’m far too capable of. I’m doing it for fitness, too, and something like mindfulness. But mostly for fun.
This is a long overdue post. Actually, all my posts are overdue these days. Last month I was honoured to take part in Nothing Stays Secret For Long, a one-off event at Manchester’s Chetham’s Library organised by First Draft cabaret nights. Chetham’s is an extraordinary place — the oldest public lending library in the English-speaking world, and a collage of architectures — it’s been a house, a courtroom, a school, a college, and at one point served as home to Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, scientist, philosopher and spy. We left our coats in the room where he accidentally summoned the devil.
Nothing Stays Secret For Long gathered several poets, writers, singers and performers to respond to a key item in the library’s collection — the diaries of Dora Turnor, an invalid Victorian teenager. She was very poorly but also very rich, and the survival of her diaries offers an astonishing window into her life and times. We were asked to create a ten-minute piece from the transcripts of her journals, some of which can be read online.
Reading someone else’s diaries is an extraordinarily transporting thing. Taking that private experience for your own is a betrayal, a theft and an intimacy, all at once — even 150 years later. I liked Dora. For all of her wealth and occasionally snobbery, there was a humour and a hope that carried her personality across the decades. When she was ill — and she was often ill — her loneliness, frustration and misery boiled on the page. There were also plenty of wry moments that are still written in teenage diaries all over the world — ‘Will I die alone?’ — ‘Does everybody hate me?’
With such rich source material, I was absolutely flooded with fleeting ideas — writing boxes and grumpy golems — but none of them seemed to stick. I wrote a story about a haunting in the waters of a Victorian spa, but it wasn’t working either. With less than a week to go, I started anew, and wrote a story called A Choice & A Choosing — although, in the end, it almost wrote itself, as many of my favourite stories seem to. When in doubt, go weird. I’ll pop it up at some point.
The event was a wonder. I love the sense of community at spoken word nights, and Nothing Stays Secret was packed with it — 80 of us sharing the vaulted ceilings of Chetham’s, swords and lances on the wall. I loved how each of the performers had taken something slightly different from Dora. In combination, the patchwork of our words brought something of her into the room as well (though I imagine she’d have been rolling her eyes at it all). In particular, I want to acknowledge the startling, mesmerising poetry of Nasima Begum and Amina Atiq, the bittersweet cabaret “or whatever this is” of Mitch Robinson, the comedy of Sophie Galpin and the music of Yemi Bolatiwa. It was an absolute honour to share the stage with such talent.
I’ve been needing something like this to remind me who I am. Mon and I are scrabbling for every scrap of time we can find, engrossed in a project that’s taken over much of our lives — I’ll share news of that later — and it’s all too easy, when I’m not writing, to wonder whether I’ll get back to work at all. I’m thankful for nights like this to remind me where I’m going — a map to my compass.
Let’s play out with this woozy delight from audio whizz Rickerly, produced in response to Dora’s diaries. Rickerly is also the magpie maestro who creates the Hillside Curation podcast with genius David Hartley, and you should definitely check that out too.
I’ve been tinkering on my new book since the summer. It’s coming together, slowly, slowly — I learn more about the world of it every time I sit down to work. My writing days have been overtaken lately with a succession of film jobs and Real Life things getting in the way, but I’m still onboard with my second 100 Days Of Writing, and I usually manage somewhere between 30 and 300 words a day. One step at a time, right? It’s all going in the right direction.
After this morning’s writing session, I’ve been reflecting on how stories change. Halfway through The Visitors, the lead characters took me completely by surprise with the way they wanted to go. By the time I’d finished redrafting and rewriting, it was a completely different book to the one that started out. It’s sometimes only on finishing that I realise what the story actually is. That’s true of every long story I’ve worked on, I think, and it’s almost certainly true of the current book. The core idea has stayed the same throughout, but the characters have swirled about it like satellites, each waiting for the gravity of the plot to draw them in. The ones I thought would lead the story have drifted away into space, mute, watching the world recede into a dot of light. And others, characters I assumed had only minor parts to play, have crashed into the story like meteors, hitting hard enough to shake the orbit — to tilt the axis into something new.
If you’re new to my blog, please note that I love an extended metaphor.
Back in November, I cut the story from 35,000 words down to 15,000, as the characters corkscrewed into my head and the story revealed itself as something new. Having steadily built my way back to 28,000 words, I’m about to cut the first two chapters — they’re only short, but I thought they were important for backstory and building the world. (And actually that’s true — but only for me and my understanding of the journey I’m embarking on.) No one else needs them, not really. Instead I’ve come up with a single sentence that literally does the job of 2,500 words. Knowing that I’m going to dispatch them to the great black hole of deleted chapters feels rather freeing — like dropping ballast. Ballast has an essential function until the exact moment it becomes dead weight.
The book calls louder, the further I run with it. The relationship between the lead character and a very minor character has become the hinge on which the whole story swings, and it’s quietly stunning for me to sit back and soak that in — to think that it’s been there all along, and only now do I know why. Back to it tomorrow. 100 words a day. Steady away, lad — casting ballast, rising up.
I forgot to do this last year for a bunch of reasons I can’t completely remember, but I’m back on track for a round-up of my favourite things that have happened in the last 12 months. In no order, these are:
1. The kids. This year has been another cracker with my wee family. It hasn’t always been easy, but seeing Dora and Indy getting on with the world has been a treat. In particular, Indy learning to talk has given us such joy — almost every day now we get a new word, and with every word our communication grows, our interactions develop, our bonds become stronger. He’s funny, he’s happy. Dora is still mostly feral, but she’s finding her way, all the time, a few steps back and then a few more forward. She’s developed an addiction to Lego, she loves reading Ottoline and Harry Potter and the Worst Witch, she argues about pretty much everything, she laughs all the time. They’re good kids, and I love getting to know them.
2. Mon’s art. Mon’s finally, slowly, getting to paint again with some regularity. Like me, she doesn’t get nearly enough time to make her work — and it’s therefore brilliant that she’s finished off these astonishing paintings and started on some really exciting new work. After she lost so much time in Indy’s first year, it’s been a real thrill to see these pieces coming together, and I’m so so excited by the work she’s sketching out and backpainting. She’s a bloody genius, my wife, and I count myself beyond lucky to watch her art unfolding in the studio.
Dora in The Window At Allen Bank
3. Kefalonia. I used to write long posts about my holidays, but don’t blog as often as I used to, and so haven’t. But we went to Greece for two weeks in the summer, and it was brilliant. We went swimming every day and collected pretty pebbles. There was a titanic storm that rumbled all morning while Indy stood at the window and thumped the glass every time the lightning struck, and the day broke into vast grey Miyazaki clouds that washed away into the bluest of sweet blue skies. Waves had painted the beach in perfect smooth sand. The insects were incredible — a praying mantis, big black bees with pearlescent wings, swallowtail butterflies, a great emerald beetle that zipped about my head and lit on my hand. It then bit me, which wasn’t quite as cool, but for a wee moment I felt like Dr Doolittle. I read loads, wrote loads, and threw Dora in the swimming pool about a thousand times. It was brilliant. This is the actual moment Indy fell out of the sky. We decided to keep him.
4. Reading sea books. My original resolution was to read only sea books in all of 2017, and in this regard I’ve failed. I abandoned the task around August after finishing Moby-Dick, firstly because I stopped writing the sea book I’d been working on, secondly because very few of the sea books I tackled actually had much to say about the true nature of the sea, and finally because nothing else quite cut the mustard after the Melville. The stand-out was Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, which is an extraordinary book and everyone should read it. Overall, though, I mostly felt relief when I decided to let it go and read some books that were not about the sea.
5. Wainwrights. As a family, we’ve started the long, slow process of sending Wainwrights. We’ve now walked about 16 of the 214 fells that Alfred Wainwright ascribed in his famous guidebooks, so there are clearly still loads of them to go, but we’ve loved every one we’ve done so far. The uphills are hard, the downhills are hard, but the tops are completely worth it — especially the plateaus and ridges, and earning a sense of having climbed up out of the world below. At some point Indy’s going to get too heavy for the sling, and then we’ll have to slow the numbers a wee bit, but for now — up we go.
6. Film and video work. This has been a fairly steady year for my freelance video work, but most of all I’m soaringly proud of my work for Kendal Mountain Festival. Along with my friend Dom Bush, I edited the trailer for this year’s festival, as well as copyediting the voiceover poem. The film edit was difficult and time-consuming, and I’m really proud of what we made:
7. Getting veganised. Come June 2018 I’ll have been vegetarian for 10 years, a decade in which I’ve eaten wider and healthier, become a much better cook, and made better decisions in spending my money. Taking that to the next step hasn’t been easy, but over the last two years, Mon and I have moved steadily towards a vegan diet. We’re pretty much dairy-free and I go weeks at a time without eggs — and again, it’s improved my cooking and my eating and my thinking about where my food comes from. I’m not quite ready to go fully vegan, but I am moving steadily in that direction (especially since working out how to make my own seitan, which is just tremendous).
8. British Sea Power. I saw my favourite band three times this year. First was in London, where I took my students on a college trip — on the Tuesday we watched Under The Skin with a live soundtrack by the London Sinfonietta, and the students all despised it — beautiful, discombobulating enigma that it is. But on the Wednesday, we watched BSP perform a live soundtrack to a collection of Communist-era existential Polish animations, and they were majestic. Their music was sublime and transporting and wonderful in every way. The second gig was on the tour of their new record, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party. It’s another cracking record — of course it is — that slots in perfectly with the rest of their catalogue. Fave tracks are Electrical Kittens, What You’re Doing, St Jerome and Bad Bohemian, but the whole album’s brilliant. Third and finally, Mon and I zipped down to Manchester to see them headline the People’s Festival in the Albert Hall, which was epic — Dutch Uncles and Field Music playing too — a heart-thumping whirl through their finest moments. Their music is consistently superb and in constant reinvention. They’re the best band in Britain. I hope I see them three times in 2018.
9. Moy’s 90th. My grandmother Moy turned 90 this year. She’s amazing. She’s travelled all over the place. Once, in her 80s, she sent me a postcard from a youth hostel on a glacier in New Zealand. For her birthday she wanted all of her grandchildren together, and so we went — Kate, Anna, Ali, Emma, Kirsty, Tim and me, plus partners Kees, Ian, Adam, Ina and Mon, plus great-grandchildren Tom, Jack, Dora and Indy. We descended on Aberfeldy in the rain and spent all day drinking tea or wine, and it was brilliant. I don’t get to see anyone in my family as often as I’d like to, and it’s always a treat to catch up. Anyway, Moy’s a badass. Here’s the squad:
10. Writing. A year of ups and downs for me and my writing. Then again, aren’t they all? In the last 12 months, I finished my third distinct draft of The Hollows, decided against rewriting it again, and moved on with surprisingly few regrets. No regrets, really. The more space I put between me and that third draft, the less I like it, and the more I want to get the story right. I’ve now sketched out the plot for the fourth draft, which already feels more cohesive and engaging, but that’s on a back-burner until I’ve finished something completely different. To that end, I’ve been working on another novel since June or so, tapping away with 100 Days Of Writing. It’s going okay, by which I mean that I’m enjoying it. I very seldom had fun while working on The Hollows #3, and on leaving it behind, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend all these hundreds of hours wallowing in my own head unless it was making me happy. Novels aside, my short story output and publications have been very few and far between — only half-a-dozen pieces here and there, with barely as many written again. I’ve mostly finished a couple of short film scripts, another flash collection and a ‘novella-in-flash’, but there’s nothing wrapped up and ready to go. I only get one day a week to write, and that time needs to go on the new book. And that’s okay. I like the novels best of all.
So that’s that. Looking ahead to 2018, there are a few things I want to do. Most of all, I hope to finish the new novel and another flash collection. And if, by hook or crook, I somehow manage to get those finished, then I’ll start The Hollows #4. I’d like to go back to a Scottish island for a bit. I’d also like to direct a short drama film, which is something I’ve had in my mind for a while. It’s about 12 years since I directed people, and I’ve learned a lot about cinema since then — and about people. Finally, I want to read more, because books are the best of things.
2017 has been a strange one. For all of the terrific things I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, Brexit is still the batshit stupidest thing in the world, and Trump is still a howling sphincter. Those twin sprawling catastrophes have haunted and defined my year, and they both push me into furious despair pretty much whenever I think about them. It hasn’t got easier. It’s worse. The longer they endure, the worse they become. Maybe 2018 is the year we can put them both to bed and step back into the light. Please, 2018. We’re ready.
Yesterday was day 100 from my 100 Days of Writing challenge, or #100DaysOfWriting if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. It’s an initiative from the excellent Jenn Ashworth, who challenged herself to write once a day for 100 days and document the experience — as well as inviting other writers to work alongside her. I got involved after spotting all round top bloke Dave Hartley going for it, and tagged along with him. That was more than 3 months ago, and yes, I’ve written every day. Sometimes it’s only been a sentence, hacked out before bed or in the winter pre-dawn, and sometimes it’s been entire chapters. I’ve only once struggled to get anything at all down — while I was drowning in my video edits — but even then managed to grab a scrap of paper and claw something out of my brain. I’ve added 28,000 words to the new manuscript, and what have I learned?
Writing every day is not a chore. And if writing becomes a chore, perhaps don’t do it. That’s okay.
Writing every day forms muscle memory — pen in hand, fingers on keyboard, bum on seat — that makes it easier to write every day.
Writing every day, even on the shitty days, keeps you in touch with the draft. You can’t possibly come to it cold if you’re working on it every day.
I don’t feel quite right if I’m not writing. I knew that already, but this has completely affirmed it.
And no.5, I guess, is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve enjoyed this so much I’ve decided to crack on and do another hundred days. If I can add another 28,000 words, then the book will be close to a finished first draft by Easter. That might be wishful thinking — but I guess I’ll find out a hundred days from now.
Day 84 of my 100 Days of Writing! I’ve been steady away on the novel, and it’s been feeling pretty good. Managed to blast through 4,074 words, and I liked most of them, too. It’s been my most productive writing day in well over a year — a year of missteps and wrong turns, 100 words here and 200 words there, fuelled on the blind optimism that it would somehow work out in the end. It’s strange how these things go. After three versions of The Hollows, plus my very first, mercifully unpublished novel, I’ve now written five of the blasted things, of which only The Visitors was published — and that came after a torturous year of redrafts and rewrites. As much as I’d like to, I don’t know if I’ll ever work out how to write a long story in a single go. My stories seem to meander and discover things along the way. Characters change, plots change, I change — in particular, I change. Once I’ve lost faith in my writing, I find it hard to reclaim.
I needed a total break from The Hollows, and I have one in the new novel. Writing into the new and empty pages is my favourite part of the process — it’s like reading a book for the first time, and knowing I’m the first person in the world to read it. Possibly the only person, given how the stories stutter. So far on this book, I’ve already battled up to 35,000 words and then promptly cut 20,000 of them. No matter how it hurts, the last years have taught me to understand when it isn’t working — and why. If it takes all that pruning to discover the true shape of the thing, then not a word of it is wasted.
My soundtrack today has been a combination of Mogwai, Rachels, and Gavin Bryars. I first heard Bryars’ astonishing work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me on BBC 6Music, and immediately set out to track it down. It’s twinned with the equally extraordinary Sinking Of The Titanic — two tracks soaring through 50 minutes of woozy wonder. Check it out, popsters:
I’m fortunate to have some terrific writers as friends. On finishing my third version of The Hollows, I sought the indulgence of their feedback, and they were kind enough to give it. As well as my wife Mon, who reads everything first, I’ve now bounced the book off David Hartley, Abi Hynes, and Ali Shaw, and had the time to digest their thoughts.
The first piece of good news is that all four readers had almost the exact same reactions to the book. It would have been abominable if they’d had totally different responses. The second good thing is that their responses made complete sense to me — they chimed with a lot of my own thoughts after some time away from the story. The third good thing is that although, from the feedback, there are definitely things I need to change — none of them are very terrible in terms of the structure. Reworking the structure is what hurts the most. And the final good thing is that all four readers seem to have enjoyed the book very much. After so long buried in the mazes of The Hollows, it’s been incredibly uplifting to feel that the work has not been wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t need the validation of others, but I do. I do.
So — what needs redrafting?
The book is too long. My first draft came in a whisker under 140,000 words, and I already knew I needed to cut it down, a lot. I wanted to get it below 120,000, and that’s not the sort of change you get by combing through the manuscript and filleting the adverbs. I’ve needed to cut and combine chapters, which means removing minor story strands. It wasn’t until I started writing novels that I truly understood the meaning of ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ — and that’s what my first readers have done. It’s the advice of Abi, Ali, Dave and Mon that helped me prioritise what matters to the core of the story, and what’s only fluff.
Secondly, and connected to the length, there’s a lot of repetition and some exposition. In writing such a long book, I needed this to help me navigate the plot and maintain the atmosphere — the descriptions were for me, I suppose, signposts to know where I was. By its nature, repetition is pretty easy to cut and undo, and this has been one of the easiest parts of the redraft.
Third, killing darlings. Grotty work, but important — all those clever little stylistic tics and tricks that I was so proud of when I wrote them, but stick out like sore thumbs for readers. The indulgent stuff, basically. This part of redrafting isn’t hard so much as humbling. What’s the quote? Chandler or Carver or someone — “If it looks like writing, get rid of it.” That’s true up to a point. I love a decent bit of splashy flashy writing too. If you kill all your darlings, then what’s left to love?
Fourth — the only thing I completely cheated on was a character’s reason for doing something. I didn’t believe it myself at the time, but having exhausted dozens of other possibilities, it was the least bad thing I could come up with, so I tried to sneak it in regardless. And obviously all four readers saw through it like a window, which forced me to think again — as I should have done at the beginning. My readers have made me work harder and work better, and I’ve come up with a solution. Threading the new idea into place has required significant changes throughout the manuscript, and this has been the most challenging part of my redraft, even though it’s the right thing to do. For all that editing is painful, it helps to remember that these changes make the story stronger.
Fifth is the scraps. A line of dialogue that doesn’t ring true — an inconsistency in character — the things that smack too much of coincidence. None of it is very difficult, but this is the stuff that makes me wince, because it seems so obvious once it’s been pointed out. How could I have missed it in the first place? …because of the wood and the trees.
I was terrified of sending the book out. I’ve invested three years in The Hollows, and the thought of wasting all that time — all that work — was excruciating. What if my readers came back and said yeah, all right… but naw? In the end, their responses have made it worth the while. I don’t have a deal in place for the book, and it may never be published. That would hurt. But I now believe I’ve written something worth reading, and maybe that’s enough. That’s what I’m writing for.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but writing is nothing without community. Mon, Abi, Ali and Dave — thank you. I owe you, and I won’t forget.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea, lately — I was lucky to be given several books about the sea for Christmas presents, and then my excellent wife tracked this stunner down for me too —
The next story I write will be about the sea — the idea fell into my head, perfect as a cowrie, while I was working on the closing chapters of my last book. And although I was planning another novel altogether for my next one, the sea book has overtaken it. I’m excited.
I’m desperately trying to finish off a film edit right now, so bear with me — I’ll write more about the sea another time. For now, I’ll leave you with this — a quick mix I threw together of ocean songs, featuring British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston, The Waterboys and many more. Enjoy.
This afternoon was glum and rainy as Storm Barbara rattled across Cumbria, so Dora and I made a film starring her toys. The idea was hers. I helped with the technical stuff and a little narrative guidance here and there.
It was the best way to spend a rainy afternoon that I know. Being with Dora, and seeing her play, seeing her imagination expand and explode and take flight — that’s something truly humbling. Human imagination is a ferocious engine, and to witness it in children is to see it pure and whole, before the hooks of self-consciousness and adulthood begin to pluck and nip and pull it down. Picasso was right — every child is born an artist, and the challenge is to remain so.
As anyone who’s met her already knows, Dora is a challenging girl. We’ve never known anyone like her. She is hot-headed and obstinate and fierce and contrary and rude, and there are times when she drives us up the fucking wall. She is also clever, funny, wildly inventive and capable of staggering compassion, and we adore every fragment of her wild and fizzy heart. She lives as much in a daydream as the real world. As her parents, we’ve decided that our job is getting her to adulthood with as much of that intact as possible. At the moment, she’s an artist. The challenge is to keep her so.