Mountains

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I’ve been climbing a mountain of college work, which is why I haven’t blogged for a while. There are a few things to report, though: my first ever panel event, for Waterstones Argyle Street in Glasgow; another open mic for Verbalise in Kendal; and some lovely reviews for The Visitors.

In the weeks beforehand, I made myself quietly terrified of the panel event, though I loved the theme. It was called ‘Islands Are The New Cities’, and brought me together with two other crime writers and a chair to discuss the attraction of islands as story locations. This is something I’ve already explored a little right here, and I was looking forward to discussing it. The terror came from the unknown: I can prepare for a reading, but had no sense of what the panel would involve.

I needn’t have worried. The Argyle Street Waterstones is a glorious bookstore, chair Douglas Skelton was funny and relaxed, and the other writers, Craig Robertson and Alex Gordon, were really engaging and easy to talk to. I was surprised at how far the discussion ranged. From a springboard of introducing our own books, we ending up debating alcohol, Faroese Hell’s Angels, caravan parks, the place of fantasy in crime novels, being a teenager in a small town, our daily working routines, tax deductible research and grandmothers. Douglas kept us on track whenever we wandered too far.

For the record, I think islands are perfect locations. They are miniature worlds, with all their own rules and laws contained within the boundaries of the coast. My friend Ben maintains there are two stories: either ‘boy/girl leaves to seek fortune’, or ‘trouble comes to town’. Islands make that sense of arrival or departure far more tangible, more immediate. The physical space of an island is an entire universe. Anything can happen on an island, and the rest of the world will never know.

There was a great moment before the event kicked off. I’d just met Alex, who is a veteran sports writer turned novelist. Breaking the ice, I pointed out that he, I, Craig and Douglas were all wearing shirts in shades of white or blue. I suggested that we should sit in a row from lightest to darkest, ha ha ha. He fixed me with a piercing eye.

‘What kind of a mind even thinks like that, man?’ he said.

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On to Verbalise. It was packed out for headlining act George Wallace, pictured above. George is an award-winning beat poet on a busman’s holiday from his residency in the Walt Whitman Centre. I was delighted to find my friends Joy France, BigCharlie Poet and Harriet Fraser at the open mic – I don’t see them as often as I’d like, and it was grand to catch up.

Almost until the moment I walked onstage, I was umming and aahing over which story to do. I’d settled on either The Matador, which is an old piece about a Spitfire pilot, or new story Cuts Like A. I’d already decided that if I did the second piece, I was going to read without notes. My dilemma was that the story was brand new – only a few weeks old – and I didn’t feel I’d quite yet come to know it. During the first interval, I raced off to scribble it from memory in my notebook, writing from start to finish without breaks. I hit everything important, as well as adding a few things in, and that gave me confidence to gamble on the new piece rather than the safety of the old.

It went well. I loved performing the story, using my hands and face and eyes to invest in my characters. I’m coming to feel more and more that this is how to read a story live. (David Hartley is right.) Writers read best when they’re committed. Cuts Like A is about a drunken knife thrower, and I enjoyed being able to mime the knives, and mime the rotating disc to which his wife is cuffed – to make those actions part of the story. I simply couldn’t have done that with paper in my hand. It felt even better than the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, and it’s good to think I’m still making some progress on my reading. I’ll never be a professional performance storyteller, but that’s the sort of place I’d like to move towards.

Cuts Like A is here, if you’d like to read it.

The other open mic acts were very good. I’ve always found Verbalise to be consistently strong. Harriet, Joy and BigCharlie were brilliant as ever, and I enjoyed the work of those writers I haven’t yet met. After the second interval, George Wallace took the stage by storm. The next half hour was like being inside a Tom Waits album. I especially loved his first poem, I Want To Go Where The Garbage Men Go, a beat epic about pre-dawn New York. You can (and should) read it here.

Finally, the reviews are still coming in for The Visitors. Everyone so far has been really kind. It’s humbling to think that people are enjoying the book. I’m keeping a round-up of press articles on The Visitors page, and there are more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you’ve read the book, please do leave a review. After spending so long inside my own head while writing the novel, it’s simultaneously petrifying, compelling and rewarding to discover what people think of Flora, Ailsa, Izzy and the island of Bancree.

I’m going to sign off with Joy France and her mesmerising poem Home Truths. This is important:

 

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.

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The Blog Tour – answers

I was delighted when Elizabeth Stott invited me to follow her on the blog tour. I’m a fan of Elizabeth’s writing – I bought her short story Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers from Nightjar Press last year, and was engrossed in the tense, almost existential body horror she conjured in a few short pages. A lot of Elizabeth’s work generates that sense of claustrophobia – another of her stories, Mrs Wetherby, delivers simmering sexual tension amongst uptight ex-pats in the setting of a baking Gulf. Have a read – highly recommended.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for the invitation – here are her answers to the blog tour questions – and here are mine:

What am I working on?

More than I can handle! Foremost is new novel Grisleymires. Whenever possible, I’m trying to guide my rare writing days towards this; it’s the story of a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them. It’s set in a huge swamp, which is great fun to write, and I’m really excited by the characters and how they’re evolving. The issue is finding time to write around my other projects. I’ve been working on a novella called The Year Of The Whale for about five years (though I haven’t touched it for the last two). That’s about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s about 20,000 words finished, with only another 5 or 10k to go, but novels are taking precedence. I’d love to finish it soon, though – my partner Monica wants to make a series of linocut prints to illustrate it, and I think that could look fantastic – something like Alex Garland’s novella The Coma.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to my first flash fiction collection, Marrow, and starting to draft the second, which might be called Real Life. Around all this, I’m periodically developing my future novels – I already have plans for another four or five after Grisleymires. I’d love to write more often, but I struggle for time around my teaching and film jobs.

The final thing I’m working on is the copy edit of my first novel, The Visitors. The editor’s notes are due back next week, and I’ll need to go through those slowly and carefully (and with flagons of cider, according to Ali Shaw).

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I believe all writers differ from others – that’s part of the wonderful polyphony of writing. As soon as a writer begins to speak in the first words of their own voice, they’re different. Genres are useful for sifting and gathering – I use genre far more as a reader than a writer.

That said, I guess I’m moving increasingly towards low fantasy. That’s where I can best tell the stories I want to tell. If my stories are in any way unique, it’s because of the themes I work in and the juxtapositions I explore. When I walk through woodlands, I worry about velociraptors. When I visit London, I imagine minotaurs haunt the Underground, dodging Tube trains as they roam beneath the city. There are doppelgängers watching from rooftops, waiting to make the switch. There are secret societies of pigeon fanciers that keep the internet alive, and kelpies working for the local council. I try to infuse my work with the same sense of magic I find in the world. I think every writer tries to do that. I’m interested in memories, and walking, and the idea of threshold spaces. I’m interested in myths and especially in folk tales. I’m interested in the breakdown in gender and what it is to be alive. Ultimately, though, lots of writers are interested in those things. What makes my work different is that it’s mine.

Why do I write what I do?

Writing brings me comfort through escapism, I suppose. I’m an army brat – we didn’t settle in one place until I started secondary school in Inverness, and I’ve often struggled to feel at home. Books and stories have been havens for as long as I can remember, and it was probably only a matter of time before I tried to create my own. As for the actual topics I write about – that’s evolved wildly over the six or seven years that I’ve been writing fiction. I started with experimental, deliberately obscure literary pieces, aping the styles of challenging writers like Hubert Selby Jnr and William S. Burroughs. After finishing my first attempt at a novel, which took me to some personally unpleasant places, I started to rediscover my love of stories that took me on adventures, rather than stories that were flayed to the bone. I reread David Mitchell and Sarah Waters and Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman – and I realised that those were the worlds that sang loudest to me. And so I started again, near enough, finding new ways to tell my stories. The more I’ve worked in this vein, the more I’ve enjoyed my writing.

How does my writing process work?

My ideas tend to arrive as acorns – I stumble upon them everywhere, buried in mud or blown into gutters. Some of those ideas never escape my notebook – and others explode, branching and sprouting into completely new directions. I can’t explain how an idea arrives already fully formed, but my best stories are already bristling with life. They evolve as I write. I know I’m working with strong characters when they start doing things I don’t expect; when it becomes inevitable, no matter what I’ve planned, that they’re going to do something else.

Landscape and place are important to the way I work – I like those strong characters to be in landscapes that I care about, so the air fills my lungs and I can feel the ground beneath my feet. In good locations, the story is a drop of water, taking the most organic route to ground. Place is as important to me as character, plot and emotion – when I write, I try to keep all those strands of story entwined together. Writing is a holistic process, following disparate elements all at once. That’s one of the things that makes extensive redrafting so hard. It’s easy for the fabric of the story to become tangled. When my stories are in a muddle, so am I.

Because I have so little time to work, I tend to write in fierce bursts. If I’m on a roll, I can manage more than 10,000 words a day, but that’s rare. A good writing day is 2,000-3,000 words I’m really pleased with. When I’m not writing, I think about my work constantly. I’m often awake at night, staring into darkness, tracing my way through story strands, trying to work out where they run to, where they meet. More often than not, I fall asleep without working it out – but sometimes I have to turn the light back on and write them down.

I’m also an helpless tinkerer. I can’t let go of my stories, and I return to them obsessively – even years after they’ve been published – to develop the story and tweak the prose. My flash fiction collection Marrow is typical of this – of the 28 pieces, around half have been published elsewhere – but in preparing the collected manuscript, I’ve spent months compulsively redrafting them. Some no longer bear any relation to the original. I can’t help myself. That tweaking and revising comes into first drafts, too. My stories are probably one third writing, two-thirds editing.

Another of the keys to my workflow is reading aloud – as I write, I constantly read, lips moving, shaping the phrases to find the most organic flow, and then reworking it on the page. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, that’s my first suggestion. Nothing has done as much for developing my work as reading aloud. My second suggestion is to carry a notebook. You never know when those acorns will tumble from the sky.

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So there we have it. If anyone’s still reading, these are some of the things that go into my work. I’m now passing the baton on to David Hartley and Iain Maloney, who’ll publish their blog tour answers on Monday 3rd February. In their own words, they’re a bit like this:

David Hartley is a story botherer and blog tickler based in Manchester whose debut collection of flash fiction ‘Threshold’ was published by Gumbo Press precisely a year ago. He is one fifth of the writing collective Flashtag and can be regularly seen haunting the open mic stages of the North West. He blogs at http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets at @DHartleyWriter

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Komaki, Japan. A widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, his debut novel, First Time Solo, a story of World War 2 RAF pilots and jazz, will be published be Freight Books in June 2014. He blogs at http://iainmaloney.wordpress.com
Thanks for reading.

Keys

I’ve just been paid for a big film job I completed earlier in the year, and I decided to treat myself. It’s not exactly special, but I’ve invested in a new keyboard. Here’s why:

I work on a Mac, which is the only sensible choice for my video editing. The Mac came with a wireless keyboard and magic mouse. Now, the mouse is superb. No complaints. It’s a dream to use, and I don’t begrudge it batteries. And in isolation, the feel of the keyboard is ideal – the keys are low and responsive, and for a clumsy typist like me (for the most part, I’m a four-finger thug) there’s nothing to trip over. As a result, it helps me type quickly and efficiently.

BUT… it’s too damn short. Look at it against the new one. It’s smaller than my last laptop keyboard. Where are the number keys?

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I fact, I don’t care about the number keys. But why are the cursor keys packed together like urchins in a bus stop? My hands are big and I type too fast, so I constantly hit Shift when I’m pitching at Up. And where are the Home/End travel keys? And where’s the Delete key? I miss all of that, and I want it back. Pus I resent dripfeeding batteries into it every two months. Plus it gives me RSI in my right hand little finger, which hangs useless and suspended while my middle and forefingers hammer out der stories. I don’t know why, but the pain goes away with a bigger keyboard. A wired mouse is a pain in the ass, but when I work glued to a screen, a wired keyboard makes no difference whatsoever to my workflow, either for editing or writing.

So there you have it: time for a new, full-size, slimline, wired keyboard. Happy days. If you write a lot, then it’s important to be comfortable in the tools of your trade; over the last few years, I’ve used keyboards that I cursed every time I touched them. Or thought about them. Keyboards with stuck or missing letters. A keyboard where the space bar only worked if it was smashed on the left. A keyboard with a dodgy USB cable, leading to entire lost paragraphs when the thing came loose; though maybe this is my fault for staring at the keyboard, rather than the screen. I wore through the keyboard on my old laptop to the point that my most frequent letters ceased to function. I’ve written on typewriters before, too. I love the clunk-thwack-bang of a solid metal typewriter, but all romance aside, those things are completely unsuited to the way I work: constantly revising, deleting, reshuffling, backtracking, jumping ahead, cutting and pasting and stitching it together. I use Cmd+S, X, C and V more often than full stops. And I often work out of sequence, too; a necessarily chronological workflow would drive me distracted.

Speaking of which – I’m currently giving the free trial of Scrivener a run, on the advice of novelist pals Ali Shaw and Iain Maloney. For the most part, I’m extremely impressed at how it helps me organise my work – but I’ll write more on this another time.

For now – a pox on miniaturisation!

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Postscript: my friend Tom has just alerted me to this. Oh, my.

A little light reading

We’ve just returned from a brilliant fortnight in France. We racked up 2,500 miles in a round trip that encompassed Ile de Noirmoutier, which is reached by a two-mile causeway at low tide; Rauzan, where we camped in the shadow of a ruined medieval castle; and Marais Poitevin. This last spot, nicknamed ‘Green Venice’, is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. Centuries ago, it was a vast swamp, but Dutch settlers drained it with a labyrinth of canals and ditches, leaving hundreds of island pastures connected by causeways and bridges. The architecture is just as unique, with balconies and shutters adorning every house, and punts moored to jetties in gardens. Poplars and alders tower into the sky, the canals are thick with lurid green algae. Fat dragonflies zip and pop between shrubs and creepers, and the trees are alive with cicadas. Filtered through high branches and reflected from the water, the light itself is tinted green.

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It’s genuinely one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve experienced and, much like Grogport for Riptide, it’s been a real inspiration for my next novel. In the space of a few days, I filled an A4 pad with notes and dialogue, and I feel really excited about starting work. There’s still plenty to do before I can begin, but the foundations now feel firmly set.

The other great thing about the holiday was having time to read. I managed six books, which is no mean feat when juggling a toddler in a campsite. And I had a great run of books – not a single dud:

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was bold and convincing, subtly switching a range of voices to make folk myths contemporary through personal memory. I enjoyed it a lot, but found it ever so slightly cold, and wasn’t as blown away as its reputation suggests.

Cumbrian Folk Tales by Taffy Thomas was a fascinating collection of the county’s legends and myths, made all the more immediate through its connections to a landscape I’m starting to know. It was amusing to recognise the names of not just local places, but also local people – people I’ve met, worked with, drunk with. The tales were strongest when connected to geography, giving meaning and history to a witch’s cauldron or a devil’s bridge.

I read The Blackhouse by Peter May – this was a present from Jane Wood, my publisher at Quercus. She thought I’d like a look because, like Riptide, it’s a crime story set in the Hebrides, though it doesn’t have the supernatural elements of my book. I enjoyed it a lot. The plot was dovetail-tight and engrossing, and the landscape was intoxicating.

Next up was I Love You When I’m Drunk by Empar Moliner, Spanish short stories in translation through the tremendous Comma Press. Despite some uncharacteristic typos from an excellent publisher, it’s a solid collection, each story exploring and exploding conceits of modern life. Some of the stories felt a bit like shooting fish in a barrel – taking aim at soft targets of liberal, middle-class pomp – but the writing was good throughout, and there were many outstanding moments.

Moliner’s collection was good, but the next book was astonishing – a class apart. The Dog Of The Marriage gathers Amy Hempel‘s four short story collections into a single volume, and they are consistently superb. There isn’t a single wrong note across dozens of stories. Hempel’s work is voiced through emotionally damaged or stunted narrators, trapped or somehow left behind in their lives, caught between stasis and decay. The stories are not without hope, though, and Hempel writes with unceasing, unfailing humanity. Her sentences and structure are scintillating. I cannot recommend this highly enough. This is the sort of book I buy two copies of, expecting to have one out on loan.

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Finally, I read Snake Ropes by Jess Richards. This was another corker. Alternate narrators explore life on a mysterious island, ‘just off the edge of the map’, eventually combining to bring the distinct halves of the story together around a single, long-forgotten trauma. This novel holds trade and barter at its heart, exploring themes of presence and absence, balance and weight; of exchange, and what it means to give and get. It’s a real triumph, made all the more masterful in how Richards weaves the fantastical through the fabric of base human instinct, conjuring talking keys, sentient trees, and a walking doll with a seashell for a heart:

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The last fortnight has reminded me, as stupid as it sounds, of how much I love to read, and made it painfully apparent how little reading time my regular schedule affords me. I’m determined – on top of carving out more writing time – to read more. I miss it.

This holiday has been essential. I’ve worked stupidly hard over the last two years without much of a break, and I’ve badly wanted some time off. Looking ahead, the next two months are going to be frantic – but I feel better for a break. I have my next novel blocked out and the sights and scents of a swamp fresh in my mind. One more draft of Riptide to go, and then I’ll be starting my new story.

Wino time

‘Wino time’ is Beatnik slang for ‘Drunk & Disorderly’. I haven’t been arrested, but I am going on holiday for a couple of weeks, and I plan on drinking quite a lot of wine, so you never know. I’m taking books, notebooks and pens. See you in a couple of weeks, and thanks to everyone who’s stopped by in the first few months since I started this blog.

Labour

Physical work is a counterpart to writing. I wrote my first novel while working in a furniture workshop; I wrote dozens of short stories, and started Riptide, while making yurts for a carpenter.

As a teacher, my life is at once more manic and more sedentary, but my ongoing house restoration has provided frequent and occasionally brutal reminders of what it is to work with my hands. This weekend, it was the turn of the garden. Along with my dad and my father-in-law, I put up a fence, laid a patio, cut down two trees and cleared a ton of rubble. It’s been an exhausting, sweltering few days, and my hands and arms are riddled with scratches and grazes and splinters, but that seems a fair price to pay for the achievement.

Physical labour is good for my brain. It allows me to switch off, for a while, through either the concentration or monotony of the task, and the blank space it leaves allows the formation of thoughts. Climbing does the same trick. About halfway through the fencing, I had a mini-brainwave about my new novel. Two sequences quietly switched places, and the narrative opened up a little more. I’m coming closer to blocking out the plot all the time, just making notes and letting it simmer in the background. Even if my hands are cut to shreds, it’s healthy to remember how to use them for more than typing.

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Friends Iona and Ali Shaw stayed with us this week. Ali and I studied English at Lancaster University, many moons ago, long before I started writing and when Ali was already laying the groundwork for his career. He’s a brilliant author, with novels The Girl With Glass Feet and The Man Who Rained winning awards and translations all over the place. I was privileged enough to read an early draft of Glass Feet, and Ali kindly took the time to read through my first draft of Riptide. His subsequent advice, notes and hour-long phonecalls were extremely helpful in shaping my third and final draft. Over the last few months, I’ve leaned heavily on Ali’s experience of being published, and his knowledge has helped me work out some of what I’m doing with the good people at Quercus Books.

Mon and I don’t get to see Ali and Iona very often, so it was fantastic to have a long overdue catch-up. We mostly nattered about babies, but we also discussed our current projects (his new book sounds AMAZING) and some wider publishing news. Ali recommended two things: firstly, that I try Scrivener. It’s a writing program dedicated towards managing large documents, with all kinds of bells and whistles for organising plots, characters, locations and notes. The various features sound extremely useful, and it’s available on a free 30-day trial, so I’ll definitely give it a go.

The second recommendation was for Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I was describing my own new work, which is set in a maze of bogs and marshes, and Ali (who reads more graphic novels than me), thought Swamp Thing might be good for inspiration and ideas; another book on my birthday wishlist, then. I enjoy graphic novels, and own several of the real classics (Maus, Watchmen, From Hell, Ghost World, etc.) but seldom know where to begin with trying something new. Good stuff.

Les Malheureux in Kendal

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I popped out last night to see Les Malheureux (a.k.a writers Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney) performing at the Lakes Alive Mintfest fundraiser in Kendal Town Hall.

It was a brilliant little show, with Sarah-Clare reading flash fiction accompanied by David’s Wurlitzer-style noodlings and extremely funny PowerPoint presentations switching slides in the background. The stories were fantastic – by turns poignant, reflective and darkly comic.

I especially loved the story about Eggborough power station, where the narrator paints the chimney stacks – and ‘Little Jan’, which is a perfect slice of poisonous office politics.

It was also great to see Sarah-Clare and David so soon after Flashtag – with the swifts soaring overhead and the sunset tinged pink over the Lakes, we had a balmy chat about day jobs, notebooks, Italy, the amazing Scottish literary scene and the quest for decent pubs in Kendal. (If you want an answer to the last point, there are three: Burgundy’s, the Brewery, and the Rifleman’s Arms.)

Before they turned up, I sat scribbling in my notebook. After a mini-brainwave about the protagonist in my new novel, I now know what she’s called and what she does for a living; and that in turn revealed another layer to the story which I’m really excited about. I also worked through some potential titles, though nothing stuck. I’m going to be flat-out on film jobs and college for the next month, but I’m starting to assemble more notes and ideas all the time.

Bogs and marshes

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Okay; this is extremely premature, given I’ve just started writing the second novel, but there have been developments on another story I’ve had brewing in the background. I’ve known for ages that I wanted to write about bogs and marshes, and I had a very vague narrative in mind. That idea has been simmering away for a while, and last night, just before I went to sleep, an entirely new aspect bubbled to the surface. As simply as that, the full story swam into focus. I had the sense to tell Mon, thankfully, because otherwise I would have forgotten. My memory is appalling, so I carry a notebook everywhere – but not in my pajamas.

This new dimension transformed a vague story into a concrete story, and I can now envisage so much of how it will play out. While I’m working on second novel Heaven, all I’ll do is write up some notes and salt them away in the depths of my hard drive. Premature, but it’s good to have that skeleton structure in place for when I’m ready (in 2013? 2014? 2015?) to start writing.

In the meantime, new novel has crept up to 2,500 words. Small steps, but I’m pleased with how it’s going. I’m deliberately taking it slow while I develop a new vocabulary – I’m trying to be quite careful about making the language distinct from Riptide Heart.