A century of…

I realised, after posting this video about a ballerina dancing on butcher knives, that I’d hit a hundred posts on the blog. A century is still pretty arbitrary, really, but it’s as good a place as any to stop and think about why I keep a blog.

I started writing the blog six months ago to track the progress of my novel. The book was called Riptide Heart, back then. It’s now called The Visitors, and it will be published by Quercus Books in 2014. All that has happened in the lifetime of this blog. I’ve tracked my highs and lows and uncertainties throughout the publication process, from finding an agent (a year ago) to signing the contract (last week).

As well as the novel, I’ve written a lot about reading my work live, and the struggles I’ve had with my nerves. Each of my various readings has been painfully revisited, but that return has helped me filter and understand the experience. I’ve also explored my decision to gather my flash fiction into a collection, which is called Marrow, and will almost certainly be self-published, and teaching myself InDesign to lay it out professionally. (More on this soon! As I approach the end of my redraft and clear my backlog of film jobs, I should have the time and space to push ahead and get this wrapped up and printed.) I’ve posted published and unpublished flash fictions, and talked about my writing processes. I’ve written about my film work, and catalogued some of the things that I find inspiring or magical. I’ve posted galleries of the threshold spaces I’m so obsessed with.

All in all, then, my blog has ranged far wider than I ever thought it would. More than anything else, I’ve been surprised at how personally I’ve addressed some of these subjects. When I started, I expected the blog to be fairly analytical, for want of a better word; dry, professional. But in struggling with my live performance readings, and in wrangling my novel redraft, I’ve found myself at times alarmingly open about how I feel about my work. I like that the process of writing has taken me in that direction quite organically.

One of the joys of using WordPress is browsing through the stats, which tell me what brings people to the blog, what they look at, and often where they come from. I’ve had visitors from as far afield as Mozambique and Mongolia, searching for everything from devil dogs to gay porn. (Hopefully not everyone will be as disappointed as those two internauts.) I’ve had a week without any views, then hundreds of visitors the day Neil Gaiman retweeted this post about libraries. Have a look at this screen grab and see if you can guess which day that was:

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The two things that bring people to the blog most often are on the periphery of my interests; this post about a nursery rhyme and this post about a WW2 fighter pilot preserved in a peatbog. People have searched for Bancree, which is the fictional Scottish island I created for The Visitors, and for novelist friends like Iain Maloney and Ali Shaw. Lots of people come to the blog looking for information about my agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and my publisher, Jane Wood at Quercus.

More than anything else, though, the blog is for me. It’s how I filter my ideas and monitor what I’m doing. Writing about my life is what I need to live my life.

Little paranoias

Jane Wood, my editor at Quercus Books, sent her notes on my novel this week. It’s a moment I’ve been dreading and craving in equal measure, and I wanted to take a moment to think about what it means now it’s actually here.

I’ve already done four drafts of The Visitors. Some of the drafts were very heavy, and some were extremely light. Redrafting is essential to all writing – I still, even now, return to stories published years ago to tweak and rework them. I have little paranoias about all my work, and can’t help but return to it. Sometimes I make changes of single words, and other times I excise entire scenes. Sometimes I catch myself totally rewriting published work, and I have to make myself leave it behind – I have to take stock and force myself to walk away.

On the second draft of The Visitors, I pussyfooted around Sue’s notes, making tiny changes, scared of diving in. When I came to a third draft, I made myself stamp on it, brutalising the manuscript with broad changes and moving onto the next alteration, no matter how ugly the massacre I left behind. Then, when it looked like a crime scene, I started rebuilding again. That’s what I’ll do this time, too, no matter how hard I find it. And I’m going to find it hard.

Whenever I come to editing and redrafting, I think there are two broad categories of change:

Cosmetic

These are the easy ones, often little more involved than line edits. Cosmetic changes this time include switching a character’s name, cutting some internal monologue and reconsidering some of the vocabulary used by my main character. I could blitz through that in a day, tops. Unfortunately, the other editing category is:

Structural

…and this is the big stuff. Making structural alterations means redrawing the map of the story while trying to maintain the same emotional trajectory, and that can be difficult to keep in balance. In this case, I have two substantial changes to make. Firstly, a minor character needs to become a major character, and he needs to appear much sooner in the story. I already know this is going to be awkward, because I attempted something similar in the third draft, and I struggled to bump him up the narrative even to his current position. It’s going to be tough to find or create somewhere to introduce him sooner.

The second change initially felt even more challenging, but on reflection perhaps isn’t quite so bad. Jane has suggested a different direction for the ending that I’m really excited about. At first I was really worried about it, but I’m starting to see it as a case of unravelling the current conclusion and retying the strands of story into a different shape of knot. This will involve more writing, but actually it’s less of a challenge – with the current ending gone, I’ll be writing into blank space. That’s a thrilling proposition at this late stage of the manuscript.

While it’s still a skeleton, a novel plot is essentially arbitrary. Things can be changed extremely quickly and easily. New characters come and go, and the story shifts like a dune, blown into organic and occasionally bizarre shapes by the wind of imagination. But the more developed a story becomes, the less arbitrarily it can change. There comes a point where making big alterations means breaking the momentum you’ve fought to generate, then patching up the holes and hoping no-one can tell the difference. That’s where a writer needs to have paranoid convictions about the emotional tone of their work, and strive to make it as cohesive as possible in plot, character, voice and soul, then work it again and again and again, hammering and thrashing and beating and combing through the manuscript until it’s carved against your optic nerve.

Editing is frantic. It’s really hard. Throughout the process, a storm cloud hangs over you, an implicit sense that you didn’t do it well enough the first time. Then there’s the crashing changes you wreak on something you loved. And then there’s the dread that whatever you make to take its place won’t come close to what you had before. It’s an exciting time, too, but the whole process is riven with a crawling, monstrous, excruciating anxiety.

This is mostly my load to carry, but I’m glad I’m not taking the journey alone. I’m now far too close to The Visitors to critically appreciate it, and working with other people helps triangulate my own perspective about the story. I’ve often stated my belief that writing is as much about the community as the individual – not least as it counts for little without a reader. When I write short stories, I read them to Mon, and I send them to writer friends. And I pay attention to what they say, even if I disagree. Working with other people – and working with Jane and Sue, now – has repeatedly shown me the importance of opening myself and my ideas to an audience. I have people I can talk to, and that makes me lucky.

Of course, I say this before actually beginning the edits. Try me in a week.

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Photo lifted from ‘Minuscule Series’ by Maité Guerrero

What’s in a name…

This post is about names for stories. Sometimes I come up with a title first – I have a story called You Don’t Talk To The Driver, The Driver Talks To You, which developed entirely from the title. And sometimes the title is really obvious – The Lion Tamer’s Daughter couldn’t be anything else. Sometimes it’s lifted from a phrase in the story, like The First Time I Died. Sometimes it evolves after a struggle, like my novella The Year Of The Whale (which I will finish one day). And sometimes, I just can’t think of anything at all. And all this is relevant because we’ve just changed the name of my novel.

I’ve been calling it Riptide for the last six months, but my novel has had dozens of different names. I went through bucketfuls of working titles – occasionally to the point that I was changing it two or three times in a single writing session. Nothing stuck. I’d reached a point where the novel was finished, and I wanted to send it away, but it didn’t have a name. After another few days dedicated only to looking for titles, I called it Riptide Heart because it had to be called something, then sent it to some friends.

“Love the book, mate,” came one of my first responses, “but the title’s balls.”

In the end, a lot of people said pretty much the same thing. But no-one had any better ideas, so I sent it off to Sue as Riptide Heart. I used Dora’s grubby paw to click the send button. A week later, Sue got back to me, and here we are – a year has passed, and once more I’ve been driving myself up the fucking wall looking for a name for the book.

We moved on from Riptide Heart fairly quickly, and I was fine with that. Everyone involved has been calling it Riptide, because that’s better than ‘the book’ or the ‘the novel’. But the closer we’ve moved towards publication, the more important the title has become. Sue and Jane and I have been searching for a month. Churning through endless combinations of possibilities has turned my brain to mush. I’ve ransacked the manuscript half a dozen times and tried literally hundreds of potential titles. Last week it reached a point where not only could I not think of anything better, but I was no longer capable of judging other suggestions. That’s one of the reasons I’m fortunate to be working with such professional people at Quercus and Conville & Walsh. Linking wonderfully to the stunning cover art commissioned by Jane, I’m delighted that we’ve finally settled on a name which I’m happy with – my first novel is now and forevermore called The Visitors.

So, what’s in a name? A rose would smell as sweet, and so on… but a novel is like a child, and you spend so much time with it as it grows, learning what it wants to be, getting to grips with its tantrums and moods, guiding its ambitions, and being constantly surprised and amazed by what it becomes… I can’t imagine Dora by any other name. Knowing that Riptide was a temporary title hasn’t lessened the jolt of losing it; after so many months, it had become Riptide.

The Visitors grows on me by the day. It has the human element I wanted so badly, and it has a ghostly feel which I love. As my friend Iain pointed out, I spent so long looking for The Best Name Of Any Book In The World Ever Ever Ever – which doesn’t exist, of course – that I stopped being able to consider what was right in front of me. I’ve often used the idiom of not seeing the wood for trees when discussing writing – and writing novels in particular – and it’s proved true for this title search as well.

I can barely express my relief of being out of those woods…

Jane’s editorial notes have arrived, and I’m really excited about some of her ideas. Next stop: the final draft.

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The horizon

What a couple of weeks. The start of college has been a bit rough, but we’re getting there. I’m spread fairly thin at the moment, and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting much done… but in the background I’ve completely redrafted my flash fiction collection Marrow, so that’s ready for typesetting when I find the time to get to grips with InDesign. Paragraph Planet published a 75-word story from that collection last week, too, which is pretty cool. I’ve also redrafted the longer short story I talked about in my last post, and started blocking out my new novel in the excellent Scrivener.

Even more exciting, Riptide is beginning to gather pace. I’m expecting notes from my editor this week, so I can start work on what should be the final draft, and I’ve just had a sneak peek at a rough of the cover art, which is scintillating. While I’ve been so busy drowning in real life, just trying to stay afloat, seeing the cover has been a timely reminder of what I’m working towards. The artwork is simply perfect, but I’ll wait for a final version before I share it.

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The 200th Spotlight Club in Lancaster is looming on the horizon. It feels like only last week I was reading at their open mic night. I’m excited about performing there again, and hopefully catching up with old friends Rich Turner, Dan Haywood and Paddy Garrigan (pictured above) – Paddy’s playing out the night, which should be a blast. I have two or three new pieces lined up. I’m going to start with a short story about guinea pigs, and finish with a very short 75-word piece about avocados. I think there’s probably time for another story in between, but I haven’t decided what just yet.

After Spotlight comes the Brewery open mic, if I can get a spot, and then Dreamfired in October. By happy coincidence, my storytelling uncle Rich Sylvester is up from London that night. I don’t get to see Rich very often, so if we’re organised enough, I’ll try and knock up a quick video of one of his stories.

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Who likes short shorts?

I’m between novels – making notes for the second while working on edits for the first – and as a result of this fairly disjointed workflow, I’ve also been writing a lot of flash fiction. I write flash fiction for three reasons. In order of importance, these are:

1. To keep my writing and imagination ticking over.
2. As a depository for the ideas I haven’t time to develop.
3. To create short sharp stories for readings.

However you feel about flash fiction – and there are a lot of people who deem it totally irrelevant – these reasons are good enough for me. Number one, in particular, is very important to me when I’m so busy. I can’t work on a novel if I have a spare hour – I need more space in my head – but I can write flash. For me, flash fiction is a fun and constructive way to write more often (notwithstanding J. Robert Lennon’s excellent ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’, of course).

Like most writers, I suppose, I started learning my craft with short stories. In the first two years, almost all of them fell between 1,500 and 2,500 words. This wasn’t deliberate – I was simply writing stories that told themselves in that sort of space. As my writing developed, the scope of my ambition widened; I wrote Meat (mentioned briefly here), abandoned a subsequent novel at 50,000 words, and started work on my extremely long-running novella The Year of The Whale, which I had almost finished when Riptide exploded in my life. Over the following year, Riptide was pretty much the only thing I worked on. By this point, my longer pieces had absorbed any time for short story writing, with flash fiction increasingly fitting into the small hours between proper writing sessions.

In essence, then, I’d stopped writing short stories. But I’ve had an idea nagging me for a while, and it clearly wanted to be a short story. I decided to make it a little more considered than my older shorts, and spend more time letting the character paint the world around her. I finally settled down to work on it last week, and I finished a first draft last night. In my head, I expected it to be about 5,000 words, which is easily double the length of my next-longest short story. It has been a very strange space to work in, especially after so long away from the form.

Some flash fiction packs a conventional narrative into a smaller space, and some flash fiction snatches at a single moment, a single voice – a heartbeat – and gives the reader just enough to fill in the blanks themselves. The short story expands on those themes (obviously), giving them greater room to grow, but for the form to have an inherent function, it needs to achieve more than simply stretching out those moments – more than filling in some of those blanks.

I seem to recall a quote – possibly by Chekhov, though I can’t find a source – declaring that all short stories are the end of longer stories. I think there’s something in that, and I like the abstraction inherent to the form. My best short stories – the ones I personally consider most successful – are the ones where I’ve managed to hardwire some sense of trajectory. I want my writing to have momentum. I aspire to a ferocity, a certainty of narrative. I don’t know how well I achieve that, but it’s what I’m working towards.

I have now finished this new piece, and I think it’s come the closest yet to what I’m trying to create. It’s abstract and a little dangerous, but I think I’ve generated the emotional whirlpool I strive for, with discontiguous strands of story focused to a single point. After so much time away from the medium, I found it quite difficult to write. Although I knew my character’s voice right away, and I knew what I wanted to achieve in the story, it took me a long time to untangle the threads and find my way. I’ve been plodding through it, whisky in hand, on odd nights for a couple of weeks. Last night I finally had the breakthrough, which involved redrafting the whole thing from present into past tense, cutting a couple of sections and writing a new scene. I’m now going to take a day or two away from it, and see if a little distance helps with the redraft. Happily, the first draft came to 5,220 words.

I’m now waiting for feedback from a couple of readers, but I wanted to write this post before talking to anyone about the story; I needed to get my own thoughts in order. At some point I’m going to write more about my ultra-flash fiction on Twitter, but I wanted to use my first short story in a year to have a think about why I don’t write them any more.

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.

To Do: Part Two

Okay, back to work. College returns in three weeks, which feels frighteningly imminent. I’ve films to finish for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Three Dimensional Tanx and Seven Seals, some short stories to write, the Riptide edits to complete for Quercus, Scrivener to learn, family and friends coming to stay, a log store to build, readings to practice, paperwork as deep as my hand, and Marrow to edit and complete.

Head down. Press on. Fail better.

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Swamp Thing indahouse

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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.

Ghosts in kelp

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Mon pointed this excellent photo out to me – it’s Kyle McBurnie’s winning picture from the University of Miami’s Underwater Photography competition.

This seal seems to be floating in air, rather than water, and I love the way the strands of kelp drift like ghosts. This remarkable picture also strikes a chord for me as it brings a scene from Riptide to life…

Quercus Books

Now then, people: I’m pleased to be writing with some extremely good news. After weeks of turmoil and torment, I am utterly delighted to announce that my first novel will be published by Quercus Books in 2014. The last month has been something of a rollercoaster, to say the least, but I’m just blown away to have landed Riptide with such an amazing publisher. It’s still sinking in, but I’m starting to believe it.

My editor, Jane Wood, is really enthusiastic about the novel, and I can’t wait to work with her on the manuscript. I’m just home from meeting with Jane and Sue, my brilliant agent with the bodacious Conville & Walsh team. It was an incredibly surreal experience to talk about release dates, discuss options for the cover art and explore where I’d like to go with my next few novels. I have three solid ideas plotted out and ready for writing; I know what I want to do with the stories, but it was very odd to expose them to publishing professionals for the first time, as I hadn’t had to vocalise or pitch them before.

So what happens next? For now, it’s business as usual: I’m working on a number of films for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and college is about to go ballistic with end of term projects and paperwork. I’ll have the summer holidays to get my teeth stuck into another draft of Riptide, then we’ll be looking at proofs in Autumn, and publication in Spring 2014. Around all that, I’m keen to get my head down and start making progress on my second novel. The bogs and marshes idea I mentioned last month is shouting louder and louder – I think I’m going to work on that one next. It’s great to have the ideas lined up – it’ll take me years to complete them all – but now I need to carve out some defined, scheduled writing time. I don’t know where that time is going to come from, but I’ll find it. The further I take my writing, the further I want it to go.

I’ve worked hard to reach these early stages, and I feel extremely humble to have had that work embraced by such amazing people. It makes me want to strive even harder with my stories. I wouldn’t have come this far without the support from Sue, from writer friends Ali Shaw, Iain Maloney and Steven John Malcolm, and most of all from my wonderful wife Monica – and my daughter Dora, in her own way – because this is all for her. I’m fortunate and grateful to have such incredible people in my life.

It’s a sunny day in the Lake District, and I’m going to have a wee celebration – time to take the family for some cider in the park…