I’m a writer, really I am.

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A well-established author acquaintance recently told me to say this in the morning when I look in the mirror – well, often half a day passes or more before I look in a mirror, but it was nice of him to say it as he meant it.

I have ‘been published’ – short stories and a children’s book but am seeking that real affirmation that what I do currently is as good as friends and contacts have told me – and that my work could be published and put on shelves in shops.

Hoxton got as far as submission and has been turned down after I had waited in that rather comfy little bubble of hope for a considerable time. Yesterday I moped a little but soon recovered knowing I just need to find the right person at the right point.

Here’s an extract from my other working novel, developed from a short story called The 158th Book, where the main character, Hamish (at this point in hospital after falling though a floor) asks himself the question: when is it OK to say you are a writer.

The ward is quiet this morning, just the sound of the squeaky-wheeled medicine trolley and my adjacent neighbour reading a crossword out loud. He stops, exasperated by a clue.

    “Hamish?”

    I turn, wincing a little at my shoulder’s protest.

    “Leroy?”

    “Dog crossing undefined wilderness sometimes in underwear’. First letter P.”

    I look at his old black face, grey eyebrows furrowed in friendly question and wish I could help. Crosswords always elude me.

    “. . . er. Something to do with the night sky?”

    He peruses the page again: “P . . . mm. Nope. What about, ‘oves snared within foliage’? Three words starting with S.”

    “Sheep-eating plant.”

    “ . . . . S. H. E.E.P. Yes . . . man, how’d d’you know that?”

    I’m stunned myself. “I just remember feeling horrified that there is actually a plant that reaches out and grabs large animals.”

    “Not in London?”

    “No. Peru, I think. Although, apparently brambles can do the same thing.”

    “Blackberry plants can eat sheep?”

    “Not as such. It’s the thorns . . . the sheep gets stuck as it tries to free its wool from the plants, gets more stuck and eventually dies, thus nourishing the bramble bush – for ever pretty much considering the size of the animal.”

    Leroy looks impressed. “What did you say you do?”

    “I’m a writer.”

    He nods, smiles and goes back to his crossword and I sit there thinking about that phrase. ‘I’m a writer’. Do you become a writer when someone with special powers says so – like a chief editor at a major publishing house? Or are you allowed to just say, ‘I’m a writer’ if you write?

Oh, I remember those

 

How exciting cassette recorders were back in the 70s. I recall receiving one for, I think, my ninth birthday. It was oblong and black with chrome (plastic) bush-button keys at one end: stop, start, fast forward, etc, and I loved it, mainly for inventing and recording, with a group of friends, The Muck-spreaders, a  piss-takes of The Archers. The days before Youtube . . .

My current book is set in 1985, the main character being somewhat techno-phobic, like me. After being told by his ex-wife who can never get hold of him that he must purchase an answer machine, he ventures into an alien environment to do so . . .

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An hour later, I’m walking up the Tottenham Court Road in a post-beer dreamy state, mind still buzzing from Mr Narche’s extraordinary words. In passing I glance in the window of one of the many electrical shops and notice amongst the avalanche of sleek and grey, a display of answer machines. Time to join 1985, Hamish – within reason.

    I step into the burrow of technology and stand gawping uncomprehendingly at the mass of bleeping, flashing . . . stuff.

    “What you after today, sir?”

    I jump at the voice coming from behind the counter. A youth clad in a satin purple and turquoise outfit is grinning at me. He pushes a hinged lid down on a small rectangle of orange plastic in front of him. I can just make out the upside-down words: Donkey Kong.

    “What is Donkey Kong,” I hear myself ask.

    He looks at me as if I have travelled in time from 1837.

    “Game and watch – hand-held games. There’s tons ‘appening – the future innit . . .” He gives up realising his adolescent enthusiasm is wasted on me. “VCR? SLR? Pack of VHS?”

    “Actually . . . I just want an answer machine – a simple one.”

    He nods: “Right-o,” lifts various chunks of plastic off a shelf, places them reverently before me and instructs me in their various attributes. I glaze over after forty seconds and point at one with a rather fetching band of real wood veneer.

    “That’s nice.”

    He says something that sounds like: ‘sgdtfsj’, ‘tvjjjdsds,’ and ‘sdchduhd’, plus it can, ‘dcsdumaadd’.”

    I smile and say I’ll take it. A boxed version is found, slid into a slippery, yellow logoed bag after which I hand over the required sum, walk out into real air and wonder what just happened.

Oh, hello

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I’m feeling a lot happier after posing the question ‘authors who write without a plan’to uncle Google. Seems as if it’s an accepted way of working and even if it wasn’t I don’t think I can work any other way. I’ve tried making chapter plans , thinking ahead – who’ll do what, where, when, but a mind-block always seems to appear suggesting I need to plan other things like car repairs, vet trips, earning a living . . .

It’s an odd way to work; a little scary, like walking a bit too close to a windy cliff edge just to see what’s down there. Often the path meanders into good terrain, fertile and exciting and equally often comes to a halt in front of a huge pile of literary manure from which I have to hastily back-track to find a different lane.

Characters I find equally difficult to pin down. Like the lady above, they often appear, semi-formed and reveal their true identities as I write. I have heard people say that you should work ever last thing out about a character before you introduce them into the story. A great idea except characters change and morph as I write, sometimes slightly, sometimes to almost take over the story, causing me to re-write and re-think – maybe a useful process in itself.

So, my planning: an early morning scramble to get words down, reflecting throughout the day, occasionally with a Eureka moment at some point and some hasty note-making followed by a re-cap early the following morning before the story moves on, slowly, speedily, sideways, backwards and (happily)mostly forwards.

 

Writing tools

I seem to have sadly (and hopefully temporarily) mislaid the magnificent fountain pen that Mark gave me for my birthday. Wishing to find something to use in the meantime and not spend a load I went into a junk shop in our nearby bigger town and asked if they had any ‘stylo à plume’ he proceeded to root about in a grubby box and produced three specimens: one grey and bent, another that must have been through a 90 degree wash and this one. “It’s Russian,” he said as if this was a good thing – I’ve no idea, are Russian pens extra marvellous?

 

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Actually it is marvellous and for the price of a couple of coffees on the square I have a lean, clean soviet writing implement. Now. Where would it have been made, used, and by who, in what bureau, to sign what. A short story in the making perhaps.

 

 

What to write about

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I caught the end of a interview on radio 4 with Tom Stoppard this morning. The interviewer asked him what he felt he might wish to develop next as a play. With a rather heavy voice he said something along the lines of: “With so much terrible stuff in the world there is a lot of material but maybe I’d rather reduce my subject down to something smaller –  family relationships, a farce, perhaps – ha-ha.” And I’m not quoting, as I can’t remember the actual words he used but I’ve been having the same feelings myself.

I naturally want to write about what I feel we may be ‘in for’- an end of this chaotic, money-obsessed, creative, beautiful, politically and environmentally-fucked, terrifying, ridiculous and awful 21st century society. Hence I’m on the third volume of my series Hoxton and nature is well and truly making a comeback; humans where perhaps where they/we should be, just another species of animal living with respect and in awe of everything natural that surrounds us.

But. As Mr Stoppard observed, perhaps it’s also important (and good for the soul) to write about something well removed from the screaming headlines each day. So, I’m currently also working on an ‘enlargement’ of my short story, The 158th book: set in the early 80s (not quite sure about exact dates yet) before screens and phones ruled the day, and starring a hapless but thoughtful poet who stumbles on great fortune, ultimately brought about by himself . . .

Up to 35,000 words now and its a great antidote each day to thinking about what unnecessary havoc has been added to the previous day’s havoc on this particularly wood-wormed political stage of the current time.

Photo from The Telegraph

The usefulness of cafés

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For many reasons: tea, coffee, toast . . . but also as a sanctuary for writing, especially if ‘forced’ to be in one.

This morning after taking the car in for a ‘small service’ the mechanic phoned to say that they would be obliged to clear out our bank account as all disc breaks needed replacing. Shit. So I’m stuck in the local supermarket café with an endless supply of cheap tea and no need to do anything else but write; no distractions of cleaning, in-tray investigation, chickens to deal with, dogs to walk, people to phone, etc.

French cafés are particularly good as, although my French is reasonable, I don’t tune in to other conversations as with my mother tongue, AND, there’s no gabbling TV screen in this eatery, so just me, my laptop and no excuse . . . right, back to the novel.

Genies and/or sub-conscious

Unknown.jpeg  Last night, in the bath, I was listening to a Ted talk by the author of Eat, Pray, Love – a book I have still to read but was hugely put off by the glacially-long and tedious film of the same name.

Anyway, Ms Gilbert gave an engaging lecture with some great ideas and illumination to anyone facing the odd day/week/month/lifetime of artistic struggle. The part that particularly intrigued  me was the suggestion that ‘outside forces’ might be assisting with the creative process; in fact in Roman times they apparently  believed that ‘genies’ lived within the walls of an artist’s/writer/creative person’s work space and would appear, insinuating themselves into the tortured virtuoso, to help steer the work in the right direction.

Certainly when I am at my most involved it’s true that words and phrases do shuffle forth and present themselves, seemingly with me having nothing to with it, and those are often the most flowing and free sections. So, is there a genie sitting on my shoulder having materialised from behind the plaster-board  or is it just the brain shutting off all exterior influence and ‘going for it’?

At the moment one of my projects in re-writing a short story as a novel. This morning I was ambling around a paragraph of said work, stopping and starting, changing, not quite sure what I was doing. As I added in a couple of lines which were possibly more decoration than moving anything concretely forward, the genie suddenly poked me and we were off on a completely different plot line, me running behind: ‘wait . . .I’m not sure if this a good idea.’ But having looked at it a few times, it works, and I’m looking forward to continuing with this whole new tangent that I don’t think would have occurred to me if I had sat down with notebook and tried to plan ahead.

I run to the main road, catch a bus and claim the upstairs front seat. Poems are still shuffling about in my mind: stanzas, couplets, brave paragraphs and solitary dangling words. I stare out on pubs, hardware shops, hairdressers, couples arguing and couples entwined.

Miniature universes surround me, even on the seat across the aisle; that young man engrossed in reading a letter . . . his expression when he opened drew the sheet of paper from the envelope then folded it, put it away to then retrieve it again. Something he couldn’t take in the first time: love, death, revenge, hatred . . . loss?

Above, the section I was fiddling with when seized with the idea of making the young man and his letter part of the plot rather than more of an embellishment to the main storyline – a whole new direction in the book which I hadn’t planned at all . . . confusing; quite a bit of re-juggling but a new turn that I’m happily reflecting on as I go about the rest of the day’s jobs.

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