Nothing Stays Secret For Long

first draft

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.

First Draft are doing five more of these events in Manchester and Newcastle, so try to support them if you can. They’re doing good work.

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.

 

The Old Man Of The Sea

Help me, internet.

When I was a kid, I remember reading a short story, possibly from a book of short stories, that finished with the Old Man Of The Sea swimming away in a furious huff. He was seething because his plans had been somehow thwarted. I remember the illustration in particular — the old man, long hair swamped by the sea, low down and mean in the waves.

I’m now trying to find this book, but haven’t a clue what it’s called or who wrote it. I’m fairly sure it’s not the Grimms or Andersen, and we’ve also now discounted The Water Babies, Rupert the Bear, Sinbad, and The Old Man Of Lochnagar.

Dora loaned me her good pencils so I could draw an approximation of the old man in his grump. Here he is — any ideas?

old-man-of-the-sea

Watershed

verbalise

Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.

It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.

BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?

I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)

The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.

I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.

But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how    S    L    O    W    my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.

So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.

 

Dare bared

And while I’m breaking radio silence, I might as well say that after selling out Marrow earlier this year, I’ve decided to self-publish another flash collection. I don’t know when I’ll be releasing it, though, so don’t get any funny ideas. It’s called Dare, it will contain two poems and twenty-four very short stories, and the cover looks like this:

dare snapshot

Not The Booker

I’m cautiously delighted to say that The Visitors has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. It’s been a rather bruising process to get this far. The longlist was very long, featuring a hundred novels. Not The Booker is infamously decided by public vote, which leads to all kinds of hijinks from authors, publishers and agents drumming up support. That’s a hundred clusters of psychic tension detonating online simultaneously. No wonder things get heated.

I was in Greece for the first two days of the week-long voting window, by which point there were already clear leaders. With five days to go, I started doing what most of the others had done, and announced my part in the longlist as loud and far as I could. I was fortunate that a lot of people who’d read and liked The Visitors voted for me, and I managed to reach the shortlist. I’m extremely thankful and humbled by the support for my book.

The shortlist holds some intimidating competition – genuine literary titan Donna Tartt, no less, as well as Louis Armand, Mahesh Rao, Tony Black and Iain Maloney. I’m a little concerned that The Visitors seems to be the only work of genre fiction on the list; I’m worried it won’t be deemed worthy enough. And now I’m actually up for review, there’s the prospect of this sort of evisceration at the hands of Sam Jordison, too. Ouch. All in all, I’m expecting dark things from the Guardian readers – which begs the question: why bother entering?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first time my agent and I went to meet my editor at Quercus, we discussed the importance of promotion and self-promotion. It’s simply a mandatory part of an author’s life, now – especially a debut author. Publishers are spread thin. They can’t afford to spend time plugging new writers, and that means new writers have to plug themselves.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’m not great at selling myself or my work. I feel embarrassed at intruding on other people’s time, and I despise arrogance so much in other people that I cringe at anything that could make me seem arrogant. It took months of goading by my wife before I summoned courage to introduce myself to my local library and local Waterstones. On both occasions, I fumbled through a minute of apologies before finding a way to explain who I was, that I had a book out, and that I wanted to say hello. They were perfectly nice, and keen to discuss running some future events, but the process leaves me feeling weird, and even a little cheap.

If I’m ever going to find a way to write full-time – or, being more realistic, to better balance my life and jobs around writing – then this is the sort of thing I need to do. As my Dad says – you’ve created a product, and now you need to sell it.

Books are products, for sure. I think stories are far more than that. Books are the vessels that carry stories, though, so maybe I’m splitting hairs. I know that I want to write stories, but also that I don’t really want to sell my own books, because it makes me feel so uncomfortable; I know that I want as many people as possible to read my work, and that selling my own books, and selling myself, is one of the only ways I can find to keep writing my stories. For most writers, that’s the binary pair of modern publishing.

When I try to reconcile these two distinct strands of my industry, I have to accept that all I want to do – what I wish for every day – is to write full-time and get these stories onto paper, into people’s heads, into people’s hearts. Whether I like it or not, that means playing the game.

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my money’s on Tartt or Black.

Weird days. Remember Remember have been helping:

 

Coffin Routes

A couple of months ago, I posted about the Drowned Villages Poetry Competition. There are flooded villages in Cumbria, Gwynned and Lanarkshire; the competition was open to poets within those library regions, working with that theme. The top prize was having your poem soundtracked by Mogwai. I’m very guarded about my poetry, but Mogwai are one of my favourite ever bands and creators of my all-time favourite album, and so I entered the contest.

Rounding up what’s been an astonishing month for me, I’m both delighted and devastated to reveal that I won the regional contest for Cumbria. I’m absolutely elated that the judges enjoyed my work. I’m still brewing, awestruck, on the momentous thought that Liz Lochhead, Ian McMillan and Nicky Wire have read my poem. But I’m also utterly gutted that having come so close, top prize went to the contestant from North Lanarkshire.

I feel bad even writing that. The first place piece, Never Come Home, is a really striking poem, and I’m sincerely happy for winning writer Catherine Baird. I didn’t expect to feature in the competition at all, so taking a place as runner-up is excruciatingly bittersweet. Having Mogwai do something with my work would have been astonishing – I can’t even frame the shape of it in my mind. I can’t articulate the joy I would have felt. Coming so close has turned me upside-down. I’m genuinely thrilled for Catherine Baird, and delighted with my own poem doing so well, but this one hurts. So near, and yet so far.

I know this sounds churlish. I don’t mean it to. But I discovered Come On Die Young in 1999, and Mogwai have soundtracked the last fifteen years of my life. Without exaggeration, Mogwai’s music has accompanied at least half of my entire writing output. I feel ecstatic to have come so close, and I feel heartbroken to have come so close.

For Facebook users, here’s the winning poem by Catherine Baird. My heartfelt congratulations to Catherine, and I can’t wait to hear the finished song. Like all of Mogwai’s work, it will be extraordinary.

When I was writing the poem, I played Hungry Face from Les Revenants on repeat in the background, hour after hour. I’m listening to Come On Die Young as I write this blog post. May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door is playing. It’s the pivotal point in the album. Next comes the calm before the storm of Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up, and then the astonishing, burning, towering trio of Ex-Cowboy, Chocky and Christmas Steps. I will never stop listening to this album – or the others – the otherworldly Rock Action, the ferocious Happy Songs For Happy People, the dreamworld EP+6, the snarling Young Team, the smouldering Les Revenants, the muscular Hardcore Will Never Die, the reflective Hawk Is Howling, the utter majesty of Government Commissions, the blistering uppercut of Rave Tapes.

I will never stop listening to Mogwai, and I will never, ever stop wondering what if…

What if.

Here’s my poem.

Drowned Village screenshot

 

Drowned villages

I’m a little ashamed to say that I nearly didn’t post this. It’s probably the most amazing writing competition I’ve ever seen, and I’m so hungry for it that a purely selfish part of me doesn’t want anyone else to know about it. But that’s not how a writing community functions, and I’d rather the prize-winner was the best possible piece of work. So take a look at this: a brand new poetry competition where the top prize is having your work soundtracked by Mogwai.

In case you missed that, I’ll say it again.

THE TOP PRIZE IS HAVING YOUR WORK SOUNDTRACKED BY MOGWAI.

I’ve written about Mogwai before (here and here). They recorded my favourite ever album, Come On Die Young, and they’ve been one of my favourite bands for well over a decade. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have soundtracked around half my writing output. Although I don’t really count myself a poet, this is too good an opportunity to miss. What’s more, the theme is tight and thrilling: the judges are seeking poems about drowned villages, and this is where the competition gets really interesting. There’s a submerged village in Lanarkshire in Scotland; another in Cumbria in England; and a third in Gwynedd in Wales. The competition is only open to library members of those specific regions. By happy coincidence, I’ve been a member of Cumbria Libraries for years.

The judges are Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead, top poet Ian McMillan and Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire. I’ve never known a catchment so small for such an intriguing competition, such big judges and such an amazing prize. The theme really sings to me; I’ve written before about my love of French mystery drama The Returned (also soundtracked by Mogwai) which features a drowned village, and I’ve often been haunted by the thought of steeples emerging from Haweswater.

By weird coincidence, I also have the makings of a poem that fits the theme. A year or so ago, I started work on a piece about the landscapes of the Lakes. While I was pleased with the language and form, I couldn’t find a hook to hang it on, and abandoned it unfinished. This competition gives me the hook.

I’ve spent most of today working on the poem, writing and redrafting and always reading – reading it to myself, reading it to the cats – trying new forms, new phrases. I’m pleased with it, as far as it goes, but I’m really unsure about my poetry, and I don’t know how it will fare against stiff competition. I’m going to revisit several more times over the rest of the month, and submit only when it’s as tight as possible.

Soundtracked by Mogwai. A man can dream…

UPDATE – If you want to see my thoughts on the winning poems, mosey over here.

haweswater-2

Inky Little Fingers

Okay. Steady breathing. I’ve finally sent Marrow off to the printers. It’s a nerve-wracking process, especially for a first time. I’ve gone with Inky Little Fingers on the recommendation of Flashtagger Fat Roland. If it goes wrong, I’m blaming him. 

Early in the process, Inky Little Fingers estimate the thickness of the spine from the number of pages involved. That measurement (in this case, 5.6mm) needs to be factored into the dimensions of the custom document created for the cover. Then, when you upload the cover art and contents, they generate an online proof for a final check. I was extremely relieved to see that my measurements were right, as I was certain I’d get everything horribly wrong and have to start again. Then I paid for 100 copies (which didn’t hurt too much, because I’ve been saving for this for a year) and submitted the final order. So there it is. Out of my hands, and into the production queue. The next step is a box of books turning up in a week or so, just in time for my spoken word support slot at February’s DreamfiredI’m looking forward to reading from the book, rather than from the tatty shreds of paper I keep in my back pockets, all crisscrossed with notes and late amendments. I’m also terrified that I’ve missed something really obvious and the cover will be printed upside-down. Something abominable is bound to happen. 

A couple of people have asked if I’m going to have a launch for Marrow, but I don’t think so. It was never supposed to be a big deal – just something to sell at readings, and something to teach me new skills. I’ve learned big chunks of Photoshop and InDesign over the last few weeks. And it’s been fun to oversee the entire process, too. I’m already drafting the next collection, which I think I’m going to call Real Life, after a story about checkers.

Here’s the final version of the Marrow artwork, with front and back covers.

Marrow full cover low-res

 

Flash fiction challenge: Libraries

BigCharlie Poet (the nom de guerre of Simon Hart) and I have been trying out a picture-based flash fiction vs. poetry writing challenge. In case you missed it, here’s round one: Cathedrals.

It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:

libraries

I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.

I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 11.49.06

Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.

Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:

“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”

Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:

Engines of Thought

by BigCharlie Poet

There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor

The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor

The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor

They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor

But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor

And here’s my response:

Books Like Grains Of Sand

The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.

It led her to a door.

“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.

In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.

“All of them?” she whispered.

The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.

“All of them,” it said.

It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.

Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.

She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.

“But where to start?” she murmured.

She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.

The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.

In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.

She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.