Mobile writing room

I have a lot of train journeys coming up.  I could have hired a car for but why? What luxury to be seated on a train with ever-changing landscape and fascinating tail-ends of cities to observe – all those gardens, kitchens, sheds and conservatories to look out on; all those other lives to imagine. The comfort of a rattling tea trolly or bar to visit, and conversations to listen into and jot down, AND you can write, think, muse and not have to steer anything except yourself occasionally to the loo.

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Apart from walking and swimming, I’ve probably had more writing ideas on trains than anywhere else – something about the movement and the gentle hum of voices and ready material all around.

I can still recall London train journeys from my childhood: sitting on bumbling old trains with that particular itchy seat cloth, looking out on stringy suburban gardens as we took an overground to Kew, or got off at Mortlake – or some other such marvellously bizarre named station. Clapham junction, Blackhorse Road, Wapping, Gospel Oak, Turkey Street, Seven sisters, Hatch End, Bushy . . . poetry in motion.

New approaches

I’ve tried approaching agents before but a tad half-heartedly – bang off the required pages and a quick fairly standard letter but after reading some generously – ‘put out there’ stuff by established authors about their own missions I thought, yep, the way to attack this is like any other styling or art project I’ve ever done: like a brief and thoroughly.

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I’m sleuthing now, not idly flipping through a few web-site pages. I need to find out what each person really wants: friendly warm approach or to the point information; potted life history or just facts about the proposed novel, or all of that or none of that. And above all will they cast an eye over the genre I am proposing and think, ‘God, no’. No point then. Move on.

So. What to do?

I gathered things I like: an old hardback book of music that husband never plays – now my sleuthing book to be filled with agent info, letters sent, dates etc; fountain pens, ink, nice paper et al, and made a special place where everything is ready to go anytime I have the time to work up another ‘dossier’ to send off.

They take time these compilations. Every submission requires a separate and different approach, different numbers of pages/chapters, short synopsis, detailed synopsis, reference to similar books, or not, etc. But it can be viewed as a challenge, each book submission something to be sure of and confident of. I need to be ready, after all, for when I receive that computer email ‘ping’ announcing We-like-the idea-of-your-book associates’s interest in seeing the whole manuscript . . .

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.

 

 

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.