A Warning To Other Writers

Oh, this sodding book.

I…no, first, a little bit of context.

Those of us who call ourselves creatives, why do we create? Why do we have this need to make things? I know the usual answer is we write / paint / carve / whatever it is we do, because we have to, because there is something inside of us that needs to find an outlet. But what is that something? In my case, as well as a storyline it is frequently a place where I have spent some enjoyable time. It provides me with a comfortable setting in which to tell a story.

Most of what I do, certainly the work I feel is my best, my most successful (in the sense of expressing what I want to express), falls into that category. My long poem The Night Bus, for example, was the result of a thirty year (admittedly intermittent) search for a way to record my experience of a long bus ride across Northern India into Nepal. I attempted prose and paintings without success, although through this I did develop a style of painting I went on to successfully use on many Indian paintings, and had long given up on the project when chance showed me a way into the poem. The poem I completed succeeds in conjuring up (for me) the impressions and feelings I had on that journey; I can relive the journey again by re-reading the poem. Whether it conveys anything of that to other readers, I naturally cannot know.

And my stories, too. I look through Making Friends With The Crocodile, and I am in rural Northern India again. I re-read The Last Viking and can easily feel myself on an island off the west coast of Scotland. This is not to imply any intrinsic merit to my writing, other than its ability to transport myself, at least, into the setting I am attempting to describe.

These stories are a composite of three basics: a setting, as mentioned already, a storyline – and again this needs to be something important to me, or I find it pretty well impossible to put my heart into it, and strong, convincing, characters.

It is useful, then, to know where lots of my writing comes from, and what shapes it, what drives it. I have long suspected that this is frequently nostalgia and, recognising that, have wondered whether this might be a bad thing. Nostalgia, after all, has a rather bad press…does it just mean I am living in the past because I am viewing it through rose-tinted spectacles? As a way of not addressing issues of today I should be tackling?

This yearning for nostalgia, though, is a desire for something we see as better than what we have now. To write passionately about something it needs to be something I feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices, for example – but even in those cases the familiar provides a cornerstone of safety, even if only by way of comparison.

This is also true when I paint. I am not someone who can paint to order – if I’m not inspired, it does not work. A number of difficult commissions have proved that point to me. I paint what I like, what moves me. After all, whatever I am creating, it should be foremost for myself.

That book, then…

I began writing it about five years ago for all the wrong reasons. I had self-published Making Friends With The Crocodile and decided my next story should also be set in India, and as a contrast decided to write about British ex-pats living in a hill station in the foothills of the Himalaya. I wanted to write about India again. The trouble was, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I had no stories that might slot into that setting I felt in any way driven to write; it just seemed to feel appropriate at the time. I was pleased by the reception the first book had and felt I ‘should’ write this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

I spent time putting together a plot, with which I was never wholly satisfied, and began writing. Really, I should have seen the obvious at that point and bailed out. But I carried on, and twice reached a point where I thought I had the final draft.

My beta reader then proceeded to point out all the very glaring faults.

So twice I ripped out a third of it and chucked it away, then re-plotted the second half of the book and got stuck into the re-write. I’m sure you can see part of the problem at this point – I wanted to hang onto as much of the story as I could, instead of just starting completely afresh. And now here I am trying to finish the final draft for the third time, as my February project for this year. And it’s just not working for me. But at this point, after well over a hundred and fifty thousand words (half of which I’ve discarded) I just feel I’ve invested too much time and effort in it to abandon it now. Somehow, it has to get finished. I do have an idea for a couple of quite drastic changes which I’ll try this week, but unless I feel I’m making some real progress I’ll then happily put it aside for a while and concentrate on next month’s project: painting and drawing.

And, to be honest, if it eventually ended up as a story of less than ten thousand words, and if I felt satisfied with it, then I’d take that as a result, now.

And the moral of all this? I’m sure there was a point after a couple of months when I knew I shouldn’t have been writing this book. I should have binned it there and then and saved myself a lot of fruitless trouble, but stubbornly ignored the warning signs.

So, That Project…

January’s project was to tidy up the scrappy notes I had on my family tree and fill in a few of the gaps. Successful? I reckon so.

Parish Register from the eighteenth century – not one of my scrappy notes

It’s in much better shape than it was this time a month ago, and I feel I now have a developing narrative; I’m beginning to know a bit about the day to day lives of some of my ancestors, in a way that makes them real people rather than just a series of names and dates. Working class folk in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – poverty, sickness and, frequently, early death. Large families. Both rural and urban poor.

Then we had some milder, sunnier, days, and I guess I got a little distracted, going out and walking as often as I could. It was good to get some miles into my legs.

February’s project, then, is to finish the final draft of A Good Place ready for the final round of editing. Currently I’m reading through the manuscript and making notes, and will hopefully get down to some serious writing in a couple of days. I know what I want to do with the storyline, and it’s really just a matter of filling in some gaps.

Other than the editing, of course.

If all continues to go well, my project for March will be to spend the month painting and drawing. I’m not sure what the thrust of it will be, but at the moment I’m thinking skies and evenings and trees, or maybe a whole load of other things. We’ll see.

And then April? Whoa! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

January. A New Year, a New Project. Well…projects…

Well, here we are again. A New Year. At least we’ve had a few sunny days, recently:

On Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, Sussex.

Heading up on to the South Downs from Clayton, Sussex.

‘Jill’ windmill, near Clayton, South Downs.

‘Jack’ windmill – no longer working, and now a private dwelling.

And another shot of ‘Jill’ – restored and now working

I don’t miss 2021 at all, although I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But I got off much easier than many people, of course. I’m still here, for a start. But I had a few health issues that I’m now stuck with, and these have slowed me down a bit and have forced me to alter my lifestyle in small (but annoying) ways. And I feel old. I am old. If you’re under twenty one, then I’m incredibly old!

And for various reasons I had a very unproductive year in that I found writing really difficult and just couldn’t get my head around any art. Although I don’t make New Year Resolutions as such, I’m tackling the uninspired non-productivity by setting myself, well, not exactly goals, but projects for each month of the year.

I have been researching my family tree, and instead of nice neat charts and tables, I have reams of scrap paper with partly legible duplicated notes (and a few charts and tables). For January, then, I am sorting all of those out and making those nice neat charts and tables, and trying to fill in some of the many gaps I’m discovering as I do so. It’s only halfway through the month and it’s going well, so that’s a success so far. But the rest of the year will comprise creative projects. For the next one – February – I intend to fill all the gaps left in my work in progress, A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years). I won’t get around to editing it, but I intend to complete what I am determined will be the final draft.

And then for March, I shall…well, I’ll tell you that in February.

What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

Making Friends With the Crocodile – Again

Well, it’s only taken me about six months, but I’ve sent the e-book version of Making Friends with the Crocodile out into the world once more. I expect you thought I’d never get around to it.

Actually, I expect you’d completely forgotten about it. I unpublished both my books from Amazon back at the end of February (this post explains why) and since then I’ve explored a number of platforms, and most of them came up short. I’ve gone with Draft2Digital for the e-books, since I can specify they do not appear on Amazon, although even now I’ve an issue with how my second book will be labelled. It means the e-book is now available on a number of platforms, such as Apple, and this link will let you choose one of them.

It seems impossible, though, to find a publisher that doesn’t automatically offer the physical books through Amazon. Much the same as anything one sells anywhere today, either online or offline, can reappear on Amazon and there’s nothing one can do about it. Short of becoming a publishing house myself, I don’t think I can avoid it.

And before you ask, no!

I’ll now have a last scout around the internet to see if I can find a platform for the paperbacks that don’t sell through Amazon, but I suspect I’ll be unlucky. In which case I’ll probably stick with Draft2Digital and ask you nicely, should you buy one of my books, not to buy it through Amazon.

About Making Friends with the Crocodile:

‘There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.’

My Virtual Reality

One of the things about growing…older, let’s say…and I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, is the growing realisation that we’re never going to live in that place that we are convinced is perfect for us, or have the day to day lifestyle that is everything we want.

One consolation for the writer, even if it’s rather a shallow consolation, is the opportunity to write these places and lifestyles for ourselves. For the last year or so, nearly all my creative writing has been rather experimental, which is one reason I’ve not put much up on here. Rather than focusing on writing the complexities of a story arc, I have been very much concerned with the character of the characters I have written, and possibly even more concerned with the environment they occupy.

In a way, then, I’m exploring different versions of myself – although that, surely, is what all writers do anyway? – and it is instructive how much all of these versions have in common. For anyone who knows me, the information that these scenes involve almost nothing of town or city should come as little surprise. But it’s a learning process, a personal learning process. And even the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post serve to reinforce what I already know about myself.

And the other strand that occurred to me as I thought about all this, is how it has brought home to me that the priority in my writing – my absolute, number one priority – is that first and foremost I am writing for myself. Whatever I write has to please a rather demanding reader; myself. And if that means my writing is even less ‘commercial’ than it was before, then so be it.

Strangely, this seems to have removed the pressure of time. I’ve always ended a writing day either pleased with the amount I’ve written or berating myself for not having written more. As if that was the sole measure of how successful or productive my day had been! Now, though, writing just for myself, success can be equated with how good I feel the output is; and by ‘good’ I mean quality (as defined by me, for me). So even a few lines that work well may be a good day’s work. I think this time pressure, this fixation with writing a certain amount each day, is a purely commercial pressure; an I-need-to-finish-another-book thing.

So goodbye to that. It’s not for me.

So Little Time, So Much To Do

The last week or so seems to have been ridiculously busy. All my own fault, of course. I’ve become exceptionally good at realising I’m doing rather a lot…and then starting a new project to add to it.

I’m making good progress on my current work in progress, A Good Place. Check.

Totally irrelevant photo, but one of my favourite shots. Small boy carrying dead sharks on a donkey. As you do.

Now that I have unpublished both of my books from Amazon, I have submitted Making Friends with the Crocodile to a publisher who will accept work that has been previously self-published and am waiting on a yes or no from them. Check.

I have edited two of the poems I wrote last month during my Poem-a-day-for-a-week experiment, and my talented friend Mark Prestage is including them in a pamphlet / zine / chapbook /call it what you will with some of his superb linocuts and photos. More on that when it’s out.

And while I’m thinking about that, perhaps I should have a go at another Poem-a-day-for-a-week soon, it worked quite well, really.

What I haven’t yet done is put my short stories and poem book, The Night Bus, up on a new platform. This will probably be Lulu, and I really ought to do that soon.

I haven’t been very good at visiting blogs recently, as you might have noticed. I need to do a bit more of that.

I was going to start a painting, which I haven’t managed to do yet. Really, I do sometimes set myself too much to do.

So, a new project? Really? Well, yes, actually. Forty years or so ago my father began a family tree, which I occasionally helped him with. It has sat in a cupboard since he died thirty years ago. And now I’ve had the urge to take it up and do some work on it, partly because I’m aware that there is a whole branch of my family which has died out, and only myself and one cousin would still remember any of them. And, we’re not getting any younger, you know. So I’ve begun researching that.

And I wonder where the time goes.

Publishing Platforms – 2

My thanks to those who commented on my last post. I have now unpublished both books from Amazon, although Amazon won’t delist them on the grounds someone might want to sell them second-hand through their platform. I can’t do anything about that.

Making paper by hand, Kalimpong, West Bengal (2)

I will shortly re-publish The Night Bus, probably on Lulu, although I haven’t definitely decided on that platform, yet. I’ll do a little more research, first.

As for Making Friends with the Crocodile, I am persuaded to have a go at finding a publisher for it. We’ll see how that goes.

And in the meantime? Writing…

We Do Violence

Yay! Day seven of my Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So project. I’m jolly impressed I got this far, although I say so myself. And I’m quite pleased with this one. Although, like all the others, it’ll benefit from some work on it later.

We Do Violence

We all occupy two places simultaneously:

Wherever we happen to be in the physical world,

And wherever we currently inhabit in our heads.

The trick is to get the two to coincide.

.

We interpret our landscape as we walk,

Inflicting our thoughts upon it, changing it,

Or at the very least changing our perceptions of it,

Rather than being truly open to the experience.

.

To achieve that, like a meditation

We need to let go of our thoughts.

.

And the worst of these interpretations,

Is this absurd need to name everything.

We begin to only look for particular things.

And filter out those we cannot name.

.

We do violence to the landscape in this way,

Subverting it from what it is, to what we wish it to be.

.

We need to listen to the landscape in silence,

undistracted by thoughts or by words.

Words are, at best, a poor substitute for things.

As soon as we name a thing, we claim it as our own.

.

We limit it to our own understanding, and we dilute it,

By placing it in the company of other things

That we name the same. It is akin to taking away the

Individual names of people and referring to them all as person.

Quick!

Day 6 of my poem a day for a week or so project. Almost there! And this one is a bit of an experiment…

Quick

Quick, the useless and the wistful,

The deceitful and the unwary,

Come now to me, for I must be honest,

For I must write my poem

.

I have things to say which I must first discover,

Although this seems to take so long.

But time is perfectly without fault and

Time alone will determine how long I must take.

.

I am forever reinventing myself

Plunging in to find out what resonates

Immersing myself in this life

Until I understand or tire of it.