Friday, 15 April 2011

I'm getting this feeling that somewhere in my brain the entire plot of this novel is planned out. The story arcs are all there, the characters are fully formed and someone knows where it's going. Each day I sit down to write a little bit more and often it's really hard to drag something out. Then suddenly something just appears as if it were a giant map in total darkness and one searchlight goes on. That's all I get - one pool of light. I scribble it all down - I'm back to writing longhand these days because it just seems...right. What I've written is sometimes surprising and often sends me off in a whole new direction of thinking about how these characters behave towards each other. 

I so wanted to be totally organised and plan things out properly just like Iain Banks, I really did. It seems though that I rather like an organic feel to much of what I'm doing. Each day I reflect on the thousand or so words I've churned out and how that's going to fit into this Great Plan I have outlined. 

The best bit about it is that I wrote the end some years ago - that's all there complete and set in jelly. I know where I'm going but each day brings new ideas of how to get there. It's still entertaining me too and that's the most important bit of it all, after all, we are our own first reader. So I keep coming back to pondering how She ended up behaving like that. What was it, what is it that makes us the way we are? 

Today I also received a new book from Amazon - Daniel Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year'. There is a small church locally that stands alone, a good half a mile away from the centre of the village. Apparently this happened to a few churches throughout the UK. Various plagues hit and as villages were decimated so the people left the infected houses or burned them down and settled further away, leaving the stone churches to ruin. Once the Victorians came along they often rebuilt and revitalised the church but by that time instead of being at the heart of the village these churches stand in splendid isolation. 

What's all that got to do with the novel? Well the opening scene (at the moment) is set in a churchyard. I used this local churchyard because it's always better to go and write from direct experience. Then I became fascinated with this idea of isolation from the community - it's a theme that runs through the novel too. So now I'm tentatively researching the plague. It may never appear in the novel. Or it may end up being very important. Just now I don't really know...and I like that. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

What to add to the pot and how brilliant is Iain Banks?

I'm writing again. I'm putting more into the pot that was my novella. I'm wondering how much to add, what to add and how far this will take me from my first idea. I started the novella with a very clear scene in my head - the final scene and I worked back from there. The novella is written in Poetic Prose which is lovely to write as it twists and twirls, is full of curlicues of language and a dreamy sense of the world. It's also rather intense and rich; rather like expensive chocolate. Too much of it is just too much. To offset this expensive chocolate truffle of writing I decided to put a more traditional narrative alongside and then weave the two together. The problem is that every novel I pick up these days I scrutinise closely for its inner workings; how has the novelist structured their plot, what tense is it written in, how are the people characterised, how much is told and how much shown, and so on. Each answer throws up more questions and thoughts to consider for my own writing. 

At the moment I'm racing through Iain Banks's 'Song of Stone' which is not a book I'm particularly enjoying in many ways but having been completely transfixed by 'The Wasp Factory' I'm holding out and waiting for the big reveal. Banks is a masterful author. I heard Banks being interviewed on the World Service and my admiration for his abilities deepened. This is a writer who plans out every part of his novel meticulously before he begins to put pen to paper. I've always been something of an 'organic' writer...or perhaps better described as 'a wing and a prayer'. That's fine for writing short articles which is where my writing background has lain. It's even fine for writing poetry because you can keep coming back and worrying at the edges until you are happy with the piece. 

But fiction? 

I think it's a bit like driving to Scotland or the South of France. You could just get in the car, point it in the right direction and muddle your way through. You'll get there, especially if you've been there before or you're a confident experienced driver. Perhaps though it's better to have the route mapped out first. Know where you'll stop for lunch and loo breaks. Decide where you'll stick to the motorways and where you'll do a bit of sightseeing and take the scenic route. 

Iain Banks writes as if he's surveyed the entire route, bought guidebooks, planned the journey menu, timed each break, estimated the fuel consumption, avoided all the traffic jams and still managed to be exciting. He's not a man in a hat who pulls a caravan and notes down his mileage. This is a writer who, by planning meticulously, has the freedom to play I-Spy and listen to 'Just William' on the car stereo on the way while eating travel sweets. Iain Banks is a writer who won't run out of fuel or get a puncture on the Paris Peripherique.

At the moment I might be able to get us to Calais. 

Thursday, 31 March 2011

It's almost the end of term. I've marked all the assignments and caught up on all the paperwork (I think). I've even finished proof reading a brilliant novella by James D Quinton which I very much enjoyed. 

Now it's time for me to get back to my own writing. 

I ought to feel excited, enthused and full of anticipation. Instead I feel trepidation, anxiety and a little bit of fear. 

I know the rule is to just write; forget about the inner critic, where the work is going, who will read it, how it's going to develop...all that stuff. Just write. That's what I tell students and anyone else who sits and listens to me for long enough. Just write. 

Set aside time each day. Switch off your mobile phone. Disconnect the internet. Close the door and tell everyone you're not to be disturbed. Do this every day for one hour or two. Write without thinking. Write with freedom. Write for fun. Put the writing away afterwards and move on each day. 

Six weeks later take out what you wrote. Read it with a critical eye. Begin to redraft and develop. Finally show it to a trusted reader. Redraft again. And again. Keep at it until you have something worth reading. Keep at it until you have something which is polished. Proofread it. Ask someone else to proofread it. 

Then submit it. 

And repeat. 

So I need to stop whining about my work being crap and just get on with it. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Book launch and anniversaries

Yesterday evening we launched 'Slantways' an anthology of prose poetry written by a group of MA students at the University of Kent. Their tutor, Patricia Debney had been teaching them about prose poetry two and a half years ago when her son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Patricia took some time off but the MA group carried on writing and then decided to put together a book to raise some money for JDRF - the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. One year ago just as they were beginning to formulate what they'd do and how to go about it, my son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Patricia and I already knew each other as I'd graduated from the same MA course some years earlier. She was also the first person I contacted when R was diagnosed because I knew she'd been in the same place eighteen months before when her son was exactly the same age as mine. Within a couple of months I'd also been asked to contribute to the anthology - I'd already had some prose poetry published and it didn't take long for me to sort out some other pieces to add to it.

Finally last night we had the launch at Waterstones in Canterbury. The plan was to read one poem each and we'd go in alphabetical order - making me first up.

So far so good.....

Except that 22nd March 2010, exactly one year before to the day my son received his diagnosis and instead of me going to a reading of Scarlett Thomas's latest book I was in the William Harvey Hospital on the Children's Ward with him. In the past year R has been in hospital three times - the first on diagnosis, then six months ago he was readmitted because his blood glucose levels were so unstable and then he was transferred to UCLH where he remained for another few nights. He has gone from being a normal boy who plays rugby, enjoys meeting his mates, goes mountain biking, rock climbing and swimming to a boy who has only had about two weeks of school attendance since September and whose life has temporarily taken a back seat to this horrible condition. There have been two big positives in the last year - R was given an Insulin Infusion Pump which means that he no longer has to inject at least five times a day and we found a wonderful website and email list called Children With Diabetes and through that we've all met the most amazing families whom we're proud to call friends.

So, back to the book launch....Patricia said a few words to 'open' the reading and launch and then I was up. I'm used to standing in front of some very unfriendly groups - I've taught Ritalin repressed primary school children right up to hung over undergraduates. An audience of supportive poetry lovers should have been a breeze. I'd planned to explain how I'd come to be invited to contribute, how pleased I was to see everyone there and then finally tell them how the poem I was about to read, 'Beachboys' was written all about my twin sons who were both in the audience.

What actually happened was that I walked up to the front, faced the audience of about forty people, said thank you to them for turning up.....and then completely lost my nerve and almost began to cry. I turned not to 'Beachboys' which I knew would now make me blub like a hormonal teen in front of Justin Bieber, but instead I went to 'The Seahorse' and was about to begin to read before someone pointed out that I hadn't said who I was....
I read 'The Seahorse' despite my voice, my hands and my legs shaking. I didn't cry but I did look terrified, I didn't feel terrified, instead I felt very sad.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Stuff, nonsense and Fern Britton

What a horrible week! Actually, what a horrible month...R broke his arm three weeks ago so his blood glucose levels have been high, high, high. Monday saw R and I off to our local hospital A&E to get it all checked out - further blood tests and examinations. Of course everything came back as normal so it's just the arm that's making him run so high.
Then this morning I set off to work in our car which was only returned from the repair shop yesterday (did I mention I crashed it when exhausted a couple of weeks ago? I was only doing 10mph but had a collision with a cast iron barrier which isn't good for tyres or suspension). One mile down the road the car became very noisy and I discovered a flat tyre. Hooray. I swapped cars - we still have the hire car so I took that to work.
And then two miles down the road there was a hold up - a crash.
I reached work half an hour late. The first seminar of the day was a write off.

I did what any writer ought to do and turned it to my advantage - I headed off to one of the University cafes and had a large mocha. I also got out my notebook and began to worry that I've forgotten how to write. It's been so long since I've simply sat and thought about things other than Diabetes, family stuff or my teaching jobs.

Feeling like I've forgotten how to write makes it feel like a bit of me has gone - lost somewhere in the mess of my life. Now like all good stories I've got to pick up the threads and find my way back to me.

How dramatic!

Next week sees the launch of an anthology of Prose Poetry entitled 'Slantways' three of my poems are included. It's in aid of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and I'm really pleased and proud to have been a part of all this. But it's also reminding me that I'm no nearer to completing a collection of poetry or finishing the novel.

I need to set myself a series of goals - a timetable. I must finish the second draft of the novel by the end of the summer. I plan to hide myself away in the University library where I'll get some peace and quiet and just write. I know I need to map out each chapter, review what I've got so far, make some decisions about the plot, the story and character arcs, genre....oh, the big plans I had for it. What happens when, where and why. I need to get back into the story. Maybe I need to do a little research, or is that just procrastination? I need something to make it.....zing
What a terrible word - zing.
Okay, so I need to.....
1. Re-read the entire manuscript.
2. Map the manuscript - what happens where, the order of events.
3. Identify plot holes, points of development and so on.
4. Identify themes, motifs - what needs to be drawn out, ditched, tightened up.

And I'm reminded of The One Show the other night; they had Fern Britton on to plug a novel she's written. She explained how as part of her publishing deal an editor came to see her every month and essentially held her hand throughout the writing process. She was given guidance on how to map her story, what to put where and in short, how to write a saleable novel. Of course because she's already a celebrity she has an audience and a guaranteed readership. She's also not stupid so her novel hasn't been ghostwritten but instead just helped along the way.
I was still jealous listening to how much help she received. I am only human after all.

But I bet Fern doesn't break cars like I do.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Taking the plunge

My toes are curled around the springboard, I’m holding my breath and gathering up my courage to dive in….

Some years ago I wrote a novella of about 23,000 words as part of my Master’s Degree. I’d planned to redraft it and send it around to publishers but I never did. It had been written at a particularly difficult time in my life – I was going through a marriage break up as I was writing it. By the time I finished the novella I’d left behind a ten year relationship, my home and my job – all I took was my children, my clothes and my laptop. Once the novella had been submitted and I’d completed my Masters I soon filed it away and began working as a part-time lecturer in the English Department of a local university. At the time I was also writing freelance for a magazine and then doing some fiction editing, the occasional arts review, writing some poetry and generally getting on with life. The novella has continued to sit in the hard drive of various laptops – transferred across to new machines untouched. Every time someone has asked about it I’ve managed to avoid the question by saying it’s too soon to look at it again, and in truth it has been. I’ve been like the thousands of other writers all over the globe who are also not writing a novel…
So I’m taking the plunge now.

I’m going to print out the 73 page manuscript and hand it over to my trusted reader P and see what happens. I haven’t read it myself in four years but I’ll let him read it first and then I’ll begin the real work of writing – cutting, redrafting and making it readable.

Watch this space…..

Friday, 17 December 2010

To sleep: perchance to dream

I'm getting rather used to this nighttime netherworld I've been living in for the past week. In fact tonight I went right round to 3am before I needed to get up - we've organised ourselves into a shift rota and I only get called upon if R goes really low or else it's my turn to check - tonight he hasn't gone *that* low so the 3am check it was! Of course he was a little low then - 3.9mmols, only just a hypo but at 3am you're not going to leave it untreated until 6am when everyone begins to get up. So made him wake and drink some Lucozade then set my timer and waited the prescribed 15 minutes. Retested and he was 4.2mmols - a rise, yes, but not enough for me to think I can go back to bed now. More Lucozade and a Rice Krispies Square just to be on the safe side - normally this would be really over-treating a hypo but right now not much makes a dent in R's hypos. I'm waiting now for the timer to go off again.
I didn't need the alarm at 3am - I woke with five minutes to spare and I'm alert enough now to write this, in fact so far all night I've only hovered around the most shallow of dozes rather than dipping down into the soft folds of deep sleep. I feel very alert now but come 6am I'll feel as if I need to sleep for a hundred years. So far this week the longest I've slept in one go has been about 3 hours, any more would be a decadent and possibly dangerous luxury. I remember reading somewhere that you can survive for a couple of months without food, anything between 2 and 10 days without water and apparently about 10 days without sleep will kill you but after only three or four sleepless nights you'll begin to hallucinate, suffer mood swings and generally be unpleasant to be around.

Just did another test - he's dropped to 3.7mmols - so much for the Lucozade and Rice Krispies Square....He's had a mini can of Coke and I'll test again in 15 minutes. If that doesn't work I'll give him a whole bottle of Lucozade or maybe a honey sandwich made with white bread and no butter. All of this must be rotting his teeth...but it's keeping him alive.

So.....sleep. Who needs it?