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

Last FM, at last…

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I can’t afford the premium subscription, so when Spotify shut me off last month, I tried Last FM. I was converted within the hour. Can’t believe it’s taken me this long. I love Last FM. I’ve created a library of a few dozen of the bands that have that tonal or emotional consistency I seek in my writing soundtracks, and Last FM mixes them up with random songs from their catalogues. I like not knowing what’s coming next, but it’s less random/irritating than BBC 6Music or iTunes.

As well as perennial British Sea Power, I have ambient, trip-hoppy jazz/fusion bands like Bersarin Quartett, Portico Quartet and Hidden Orchestra, and more abstract electronica from Stars of the Lid, Gonjasufi and Marihiko Hara. My fix of Scottish indie comes from Arab Strap, Meursault, Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat, Twilight Sad, Mogwai and Malcolm Middleton, with US indie in The National, Modest Mouse and The Antlers. If it’s all sounding a bit male, I’ve Russian Red, Cat Power, Bat for Lashes, Lykke Li and Daughter to redress the balance. I’ve also a spectrum of folk music from Beirut, Dan Haywood’s New Hawks, Bellowhead, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, James Yorkston and Dead Belgian. Some of my friends’ bands are on last FM, too, so I can throw Seven Seals, Dan Haywood’s New Hawks and Yeah Sparrow into the pot.

Last FM maintains consistency without the boredom of familiarity. I’ve discovered more new music in the last month than in the two years beforehand, but more recommendations would be very welcome – I’d especially like some more in the vein of Bellowhead, if anyone has suggestions…

Soundscape

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When I’m writing, I listen to music. I can barely type a word without it. Music helps me focus. Occasionally, I’ll use music to steer my emotional response towards a certain tone in my writing, but more usually, I simply need a soundscape filling the space in my head. I tend to avoid music with vocals – or rather, if there is someone singing, I prefer the vocal to blend tonally with the track.

I’ve returned to some records endlessly over the years. I’ve listened to Mogwai‘s Come On Die Young literally thousands of times. I’ve spent entire weeks working to the British Sea Power back catalogue on repeat – or Arcade FireArab Strap, Throwing Muses, The Antlers or Godspeed You Black Emperor.

All these bands have similar musical themes: they drone and fuzz, they soar and soothe – but ultimately, the music they create is cohesive, regular or continuous. Their albums tend to run without breaks or interruptions, creating sonic soundscapes. Call it post-rock – call it what you like – it works for me. It helps me tune out and focus on the story.

I develop different soundtracks for different projects. My 2008-2009 novel-length prose-poem Meat was soundtracked almost exclusively by Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 2-disc, 4-track epic album Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!, while first novel The Visitors was heavy on Mogwai and British Sea Power (two of Flora’s favourite bands). As I moved from writing to editing and redrafting, the soundtrack changed, and I built a playlist that was energetic and snappy; exactly what I needed to fuel my 12-hour redrafting sessions.

Now I’ve started work on my second novel, the music has changed again. At the moment, if I listen to Mogwai or BSP – as much as I love them both – it takes me back into The Visitors. So I need something new, at least while I’m making the transition from one novel to another. Even as I’m feeling out a fresh vocabulary, I’m developing a different soundtrack. While working on Grisleymires, I’ve been listening to a lot of Beirut, Bat For Lashes, The Antlers and Super Furry Animals. Thanks to Last FM, I’ve discovered Portico Quartet, Hidden Orchestra and Bersarin Quartett, all whom play organic, slightly sinister trip-hoppy movie-type soundtracks. At the other end of the spectrum, childhood favourites Crowded House are also back on the stereo, though I’m not totally certain why, as they go against all the conditions I suggested above; but they just fit, and that’s fine. Most startling (to me) is that I found myself wanting the sound of wind chimes to work to, and downloaded an hour-long track of chimes and trees designed for meditation. I can’t see it lasting, but for now, it helps me into the world of my story.

Does anyone else need music to work? Who and what soundtracks your writing?

Hello Sunshine

I had a few hours working on Heaven yesterday. Over the last week, slowly but surely, I’ve crept up to 5,000 words. That’s still a drop in the ocean, but to consider it as 1/20th of a first draft is strangely sobering.

Long miles still to come, and I’ll try and write some more tonight… but for now, the sun is shining, Mon and I are taking Dora to the wildlife park, and here’s the Super Furry Animals doing what they do best. Enjoy.

A painting on the wall, a kite in the sky

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Kites are a big part of my second novel, and I’ve been doing lots of research into their history, construction and art. This morning I was browsing my favourite charity shop, the incredible Age UK South Lakeland warehouse (which is here, if you’re ever in Kendal). Monica called me over to look at a Chinese dragon head she’d found in a decorated box. I was absolutely blown away to discover that the head had a body, and that the whole assemblage was in fact a two-metre centipede kite.

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Centipede kites are one of the scores of primary kite types. Each of the circular discs – usually made of painted silk, stretched over rattan, with feather stabilisers – is essentially a miniature kite. By the time dozens of discs are combined, there’s enough lift to support a lightweight dragon head, decorated with deer horns for longevity and luck, tiger eyes for strength, catfish whiskers for wealth, and a human beard, signifying wisdom.

This dragon is in a rather sorry state. He’s missing one of his polystyrene horns and some teeth, his paint work is chipped, and one of his whiskers has broken. His ribs are tangled and some of the feathers are missing. He looks quite angry about it, doesn’t he? Well, he cost me 50p. He’s now sitting in his box on my bookshelves, waiting for me to try and revive him. I’d planned on building a kite for myself as part of my research, and this will be a nice warm-up.

I found this excellent quote (which I’ve paraphrased) while reading up on centipede kites:

“It’s a painting on the wall; it’s a kite in the sky.”

Magpie

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In odd hours and half-hours, I’ve been chipping away at Heaven. I’m writing and rewriting the first chapter, combing through it over and over again, settling on a style and language that feels right. It’s starting to work, and the first draft of that first chapter is pretty much finished. My main character’s voice rings true, I can envisage the geography exactly, and I’m happy with the plot.

The biggest stumbling point so far has been the need to invent a religion. When I was blocking out the story, this wasn’t an obvious problem – I drifted past the religion that pervades the culture of my story. Now I’ve reached a point where it matters, and I’ve had to take a step back and consider details. I’ve always imagined this religion blending Buddhist and Hindu iconography with a militarised Catholic Inquisition attitude – almost like a junta, woven into the fabric of the culture. So far, so good… but now I need specific rituals, and the actual wording of prayers. That’s going to take a little time to make concrete, though it will develop as I go. Like most successful religions, I’ll be a magpie, stealing, adapting and borrowing from others on the way. So far I’m thinking shrines, tributes, sacrifices, tithes, prayer wheels, prayer flags, wind chimes, omniscience, monks, robes, bindis and torture.

Not much to report on the manuscript submissions so far. It’s hard to focus while that’s bubbling away in the background, but I’m making myself sit down with the new novel whenever I can. It’s a strange feeling, at once intimidating and exciting, to look ahead and see the rest of the story stretched out like an endless ladder, ready to be climbed.

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.

Beginnings

When Monica was pregnant, we didn’t tell anyone the baby’s name. We had a funny idea that telling someone else might jinx it, so Dora’s name remained a secret until the moment she was born.

It sounds daft, but I feel the same way about the title of my new novel. I know what it’s going to be called, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. I have this strange sense that I don’t want people to know. So, for the moment, I’ll use another name. This was actually the first title I thought of, but decided was a bit of a mouthful; it’ll do for now. When I talk about the new novel, I’ll call it ‘We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven’.

I mention this because I started writing today. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, because I’ve been stewing on the idea for months, but this morning I divided the story into chapters and blocked out the scenes, then copied the whole plan into a new document. Each of the chapters has a summary of the action, ready to go, so I can work on whichever part of the story shouts the loudest without losing sight of the whole. This method worked nicely for me with Riptide Heart, as I seldom write in chronological order (I like to write my ending early on – it gives me a destination to work towards).

Then I simply started writing. The first line was quick, and the rest of the paragraph took me an hour, trying sentences, rephrasing them, deleting them, rewriting them…. and it evolved, slowly, feeling out the words, building a story. It’ll take a while to settle on a voice and a vocabulary that works for this story – and to keep it distinct from Riptide Heart, which is still fresh in my mind after such intense redrafts.

So there it is – the first 500 words of my new novel, down on paper. It’s an odd sensation to be in a triple figure word count after dealing with a redraft of 105,000 words, but I’m quietly excited about it. And I need something to keep my mind off Riptide Heart while agent Sue starts the nerve-shredding process of submitting the manuscript to publishers.

Books in boxes

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For the last three years, Mon and I have been living with her parents. All of our things have been stored in boxes in the cellar, with the inevitable result that whenever we’ve needed a particular item – a plug adaptor, a passport, a DVD – we’ve had to rummage and excavate our possessions to find the missing thing. Some boxes were needed regularly, and these stayed on the surface. Others were out of sight and out of mind, and they sunk deeper into the mire, their contents forgotten.

We moved into our own house on Christmas Eve. Moving has been a slow process, and it’s only today that we brought across the last of our boxes. As we unpacked and sorted the contents, I was delighted to discover my research books. These are the weird volumes that have grabbed my interest in charity shops and jumble sales. I seldom know exactly why they spark my interest, but they’re always about something peculiar, and they trigger my imagination. After three years, it was a strange feeling, both energising and nostalgic, to unpack this box of forgotten books and browse again through a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration. There are studies of sumo wrestling, devils, tattoos, smuggling, bicycle mechanics, Vikings, saints, medicine, art, juggling and more…

Of the titles pictured here, Whale Nation inspired my long-running novella-in-progress, Year of the Whale, while David Pelham’s Kites (a classic of the kiting genre) and Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja are dripfeeding imagery and history into plans for my next novel. Finally, P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1971) is research for another story to be written in the distant future, if I ever have the time to write it.

Part of me wishes I was called P.V. Glob.