Not right not writing

I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.

I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.

I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.

What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.

Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.

Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?

The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.

Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.

Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man:

scare crow

A year in the life

I’ve just realised that my blog is one year old. I had no idea when I wrote my first post, about Quitting Writing, that I’d be blogging so often. It’s become the space in which I organise my thoughts, and rationalise this topsy-turvy journey to publication. A year ago, I had an agent and the first draft of a manuscript called Riptide Heart. A year later, the novel is called The Visitors. I’ve completed multiple marathon redrafts, worked myself into exhaustion on insane strings of 11pm finishes, and spent hundreds of hours thinking about the book. Looking back, finishing the first draft feels like one of the smallest steps on a road that doesn’t truly finish – once the book is out there, it will continue the journey without me.

The proof copies should be going out any day, which is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Because my day job remains so frantic, my experience of publishing tends to occur to milestones. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I sometimes wish I had more space to enjoy it. It feels like I lurch from one deadline to the next, and seldom savour the completion of a job. The blog has therefore become essential to me personally: in sharing and formalising the milestones, I’ve created my own map of the voyage. Thanks to everyone who’s visited.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of the sights along the way. Of all the things I’ve posted to the blog, I think this is the one that’s stuck with me the most. Enjoy:

Slamadangadingdong

Like some crazy storytelling masochist, I’ve signed myself up for the Flashtag short short story slam. This is another level in terms of live performance – take a look at the highlights reel from last year to see a far more explosive, intimate and vociferous gig that I’m used to:

I think I’m going to write some new stories for this – I have something involving a hat in mind for the third round, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far, but I’m not really happy with any of my other shorter pieces. I have work that is elegiac or lyrical, but none of them feel quite right for the slam. That gives me five weeks to write two new pieces with teeth. When I get knocked out, I want to go down swinging.

rocky-balboa

Borderlines & The Writers Quarter

I’m delighted to share the news that Brindley Hallam Dennis has decided to organise a festival of writing in locations throughout Carlisle this September. Rather than traditional book festivals, which sustain the celebrity of authorship, Borderlines will celebrate writing itself, using workshops, readings and guerrilla flash fiction to connect reading and writing.

Given the location, this is especially exciting for Cumbrian, Scottish, Northumberland and Lancashire writers. I’d love to take part – I like the idea of celebrating writing for writing’s sake.

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Verbalised

On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.

Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:

After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:

 

The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.

Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.

After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)

After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow. 

Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.

Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.

Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.

Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.

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Dreamfired with Kat Quatermass

Last night was my third Dreamfired storynight, and my second reading in support. It was a wild and windswept night in Brigsteer, but a decent crowd of thirty or so had battled through the rain and sleet. The open mic is always good fun, and I was absolutely delighted to see Trev Meaney again – he’s a dazzling slam poet who I’ve seen in action at Lancaster’s Spotlight. He combines breakneck delivery with great comic timing, and his quick-fire poems never fail to impress. Last night he performed several pieces, including the excellent confessional ‘Lancaster to London’, which looks like this:

I was the last of the support acts. For the first time, I was reading from Marrow (because yes! The books turned up on Thursday. I’ll write more about that in the next post). I read The Black And The White Of It, Hutch and After The Rains – sad, dark and joyful, by turns. It seemed to go quite well – I didn’t fully relax until the second story, but then I started to enjoy it, to really take my time with the words. If I can get to that place at the start of a reading, rather than halfway through, I’ll count that a success. I’d love to perform with Trev’s confidence and flair, but I’m still learning to walk. Running comes with time.

Kat Quatermass – who runs Dreamfired – was the headliner. She performed a startlingly original sequence of contemporary fairytales, couched in feminism and queer culture. It was an excellent show. First she painted a modern city, with an abandoned fairground, pebbledash tower blocks, supermarkets and a polluted river – then she populated it with modern kids, kids looking for ways to fit in, ways to escape – ways to survive. Kat then sent her cast of disaffected adolescents into the gritty, fantastical city, where their stories intermingled with talking foxes, golden birds, the months of the year and Hungarian hag Baba Yaga. The stories chop and change and intermingle, played out in a carnival of urban fairytales. The show was equal parts Neil Gaiman, Brothers Grimm and Arcade Fire’s LP ‘The Suburbs’. Kat’s city made me think of my short story Vanishings – that sense that anything can happen in cities when the lights go down and no one’s looking. She explained that this was a work in progress – she plans to refine and develop the show over the next six months. If last night was anything to go by, audiences are in for a real treat over the lifetime of the show.

All in all, another cracker from Dreamfired. Next up, my 20-minute guest slot at Verbalise

To finish, here’s a picture of Baba Yaga’s hut, which walks around on chicken legs, because Baba Yaga is awesome. This is by illustrator Bojana Dimitrovski:

Baba Yaga hut Bojana Dimitrovski freelance illustrator advocate art