Goodbye freedom: it’s been fun.

Well, here it is at last: the final week before I return to the daily grind, the rat race, the spirit-sapping, temper-testing, stress bucket that is paid employment.  And what better way to celebrate this milestone than to throw myself out of the nearest window? Return to work

Sadly, however, the nearest window is right in front of me and a mere seven feet or so from the ground.  And there’s a plant pot just underneath and I’d be bound to end up crushing the miniature daffs.  And they’ve only been out for a week.  It hardly seems fair.

So fie to window jumping! Instead, I thought I’d use this post to look back over what I’ve learned over the last eight months.  Here it is, pop pickers, one last list before I go over the top…

1. I am not my job.  I’ve always suspected as much, but it turns out it’s really true! I don’t need validation through a performance marking. I don’t need to feel like a failure if I haven’t listened to the Today programme. Guess what? Lots of people don’t! Lots of intelligent people! I know some of my colleagues won’t believe this, but honestly, it’s true. I’ve met them!

2. My writing is not a complete dead loss. I’ve finished a book. A whole one. And I’ve got an agent and everything.  And a publisher! Okay, a French one not a British one, but still.  That means I can’t be completely rubbish.  It does mean that, right?

3. How I love praise! I love it. I love  it, I love it, I love it.  It embarrasses me too, and I never really know how to reply – but oh, how it motivates me!  If only someone had told me I was good at my job – unequivocally, mind, without any of the ands or buts – in say, the last five years, I might still care about my career in the civil service.  I only say “might”.

4. It’s not all about me. No matter how “self-directed” I’d like to think I am when writing, if I want my work to see the light of day – at least through the traditional publishing route – the time comes when I have to place the product of my blood, sweat and tears in other people’s hands. I may be closer to being mistress of my own destiny, but I’m not its absolute dictator.

5. That thing about perseverance over talent? Oh yes.  Okay, it’s hard to judge talent, but there’s absolutely no doubt about the other bit. The emotional see saw of the submissions process is like nothing else: from the kind of happiness that makes you wake up with a smile on your face each morning (the editor’s taking it to acquisitions!) to feeling like a deluded, talentless, idiot (they’re not making an offer). There’s only one way to deal with it: cry like a baby, then dry your tears and get on with the rewrite.  Happily, though…

6. There are a lot of lovely people out there. There’s a vibrant, passionate community of writers at all stages in their careers ready to offer guidance and support.  There are bloggers, and writing groups, and book clubs, and insightful people who love to read. And they’re all producing a wealth of content, all that wonderful stuff to learn from, accessible in a few clicks of a mouse.

And that brings me to you.

When I started this blog I did it because I’d heard that it was important for aspiring writers to have a “platform”.  I didn’t realise that it would help me find my voice as a writer, or that I’d come into contact with so many people who were prepared to give their time to read my work, to give me their thoughts, and even to come back and do it more than once.  I didn’t realise how much pleasure and stimulation and kindness I’d find in my own little WordPress family.  It’s been a blast.

I’m going to have to parcel out my time more sparingly in the months ahead, so there’ll be fewer entries here.  But I’m intending to post at least once a month, just to whinge let you know how I’m getting on. And I’ll be spending my evening commute catching up on what my fellow bloggers are up to.

And there’s one thing I’ll be holding onto when I’m standing on that platform on Monday morning.  It’s not rocket science, and it sounds annoyingly like one of those irritating posters they stick up on the walls of gyms with some smug sod climbing a rock face or surfing a massive wave. But still, it’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve walked away once and the world didn’t end.  And I can do it again.

 

Qualification shmalification: who needs an MA in self-publishing?

What’s the point of a qualification?

If anyone had asked me that question before today, I would probably have answered something along the lines of it being a combination of a) proof for an employer either that you already have the knowledge and skills needed to do their job, or that you’re generally bright enough to pick them up; and b) a sort of pat on the back to yourself for spending time and energy learning something new. It can be both of those things, or one or the other, and either is fine. But basically, that’s what it’s all about.

"To Amazon!"

“To Amazon!”

That was until today.  Because today I heard about the University of Central Lancashire’s new MA in – wait for it – self-publishing.

Now I’m not going to come over all Michael Gove here.  If someone wants to do a doctorate in the evolution of the daleks, or the plot structure of Hollyoaks, or how that fairly thin woman without luggage managed to take up the entire corridor all the way between the Jubilee and Bakerloo lines at Baker Street this morning, that’s fine with me.  Hell, my degree was in Egyptology, so you’re not going to find me throwing stones in that particular glass house.  All of these topics come under the general heading of “self-fulfillment” in my book, and if you can afford the time and money, why not?  Who knows, you might even stumble across a shiny new logarithm to prevent tube station corridor-hogging by skinny women in leggings.

But self-publishing? Really?

I mean, presumably the way you demonstrate you’re up to the requirements of the course is – I don’t know – to publish something? And if you’ve gone to the trouble of writing that something, wouldn’t getting it out there for the world to see be reward enough?  Wouldn’t wanting people to read the thing that you’ve pored over and sweated over and drained your very lifeblood into be kind of the most important thing?  And wouldn’t the best possible indicator of how well you’ve done the job be, not a certificate and a photo of you wearing a silly cap, but the number of copies you sell?

As for impressing a potential employer… Imagine the conversation – sorry, monologue:

“Well when I’d finished writing The Amazing Adventures of Millicent Muckraker, I naturally considered self-publishing. So I took myself out for a coffee, and I was really impressed with my vision for the book.  I was nice enough too, and I obviously had my best interests at heart… But when it came down to it, I just wasn’t happy with my credentials. Anyway, a year later, I got in touch with myself again and this time I had this great qualification – oh yes, from the University of Central Lancashire – and I thought: yes, this is the self-publisher for me!”

And before people tell me I’m underestimating the new market in assisted self-publishing, that’s not how this course is selling itself. There’s no mention of “assisted” in the title; no reference to dealing with authors who refuse to have their work edited, or to accept that they might not meet with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Needless to say, that doesn’t mean the marketing team haven’t mentioned E.L. James in the blurb, for they have, the not-so-subtle implication being that fame and riches await those prepared to shell out a little upfront investment in the other UCL.  After all, says course leader Debbie Williams, gamely attempting to maximise her market, “Everyone has a book in them.”

A course in self-publishing I can get behind.  Everyone I’ve spoken to who has any experience in it says it’s bloody hard work, and giving people the skills to do it well seems a perfectly legitimate endeavour. But the idea of self-publishing as an end in itself? An MA – a post-graduate degree, no less – not because you’ve managed to produce anything worth reading, but because you’ve got something, anything, published on Amazon? That seems a pretty hollow enterprise to me.

Let me know what you think! Am I being narrow-minded? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a self-publisher getting an extra couple of letters she’ll never use after her name when she’ll be doing all the work anyway?  Add your comments below…

And the pot of gold goes to…

Pot of goldWhen I was very little, perhaps four or four years old, I was fascinated by rainbows; and, mercenary little so and so that I was, what fascinated me most of all was the promise that at the end of the rainbow lay a pot of gold.

It seemed to me that this was something I would rather enjoy possessing. So when one day an April shower had been followed by a particularly brilliant spell of sunshine, I was thrilled to see a perfectly formed rainbow with one end very clearly resting in a field some little way from our house. Unfortunately for me, getting to this field meant walking along a main road, something I knew I was not allowed to do on my own. Being of a practical turn of mind, I therefore announced to my father that I wished to go and collect the pot of gold, and asked him to take me to its location.

I recall dad attempting to explain that this was not as easy as it looked – the rainbow would move the closer we got to it. I was not to be put off by this kind of defeatism, however, oh no! Poor dad was urged to leave his cup of tea and set off immediately before the rainbow – and my valuable reward – disappeared.  Ever the good sport, he complied, and we both trotted off down the lane, dad carrying the shovel used for cleaning out the grate and which I’d insisted he bring along so that we’d be able to dig up the buried treasure.

Well, it must have taken all of five minutes to discover the unfortunate truth. We’d barely walked ten paces before it appeared that the rainbow had moved. Dad pointed out that its end now lay in the middle of the road. Clearly, this presented a problem: not only did the new location raise some Green Cross Code related difficulties, but digging up the tarmac would probably require something with a bit more heft than a fire shovel.

But I refused to give up that easily – if getting the pot of gold was simple, after all, there’d be troops of people dotting the landscape after every light shower. Keeping tight hold of dad’s hand, I pressed on, eyes fixed to the treacherous rainbow. It made no difference: a few seconds later it had moved again, now appearing to rest half way up the side of the mountain. At that point I was forced to concede: there would be no pot of gold that day. With a patience I’m confident I wouldn’t have been able to muster with any child of my own, dad attempted to explain to me how a rainbow was formed. Most of it, I’m sure, passed me by, but I did take the words “optical illusion” into my heart from that day on. I wouldn’t be fooled again.

This Sunday changed all that.

Returning to London from a visit to the self-same hero of our tale, the skies had opened up for their customary celebration of our motorway driving. The day was dark, the roads were wet, the radio was playing its usual rubbish.

And then it happened.

A rainbow appeared on the road before us. It was bright. It was beautiful. And it ended at our car.

I looked.  I looked again. I exclaimed and alerted the Husband.  There was quite a lot of pointing.  Some jiggling in my seat may have been involved.

Clearly not a frustrated rainbow hunter himself, the Husband failed at first to grasp its significance.  But the rainbow didn’t care.  It stayed where it was for ages – well, three minutes at the very least – shimmering and glittering and very decidedly ending on our bonnet. The Husband said something uninteresting about headlights; then, rousing himself in an unsubtle attempt to humour his jibbering spouse, put forward the rather sweet theory that this made us the proverbial pot of gold.

I’m not buying it though.  Since an exciting looking casket had sadly not materialised in our boot by the time we reached home, there can be only one possible conclusion: this is an omen! I’ve bought the lottery ticket.  Roll on Saturday…

UPDATE: Lottery ticket unsuccessful.  Perhaps the rainbow got the week wrong? Will try again next Saturday…

Malevich, Danielowski and the Importance of Form

At the tail end of the horrid throat infection (I’ve been ill – have I mentioned?) Husband and I had run out of crap telly to watch and were searching for something to do that didn’t involve leaving the house or, ideally, the sofa. Given that we’re past that kind of thing except on high days and holidays – and besides, I was still infectious and revolting – we turned to the obvious option: the board game. Well, not quite a board game as there wasn’t actually a board, but a game involving cards and stuff, nonetheless. It was called “Psychogames” and was a Christmas stocking filler I’d bought my psychology graduate spouse a couple of years earlier but had never made it out of the box. It contained a series of quizzes, questionnaires and so on intended to give you an insight into your “true self” – and who doesn’t enjoy that?

Well, we worked our way through the first few, and they were entertaining enough (“which image of a garden reminds you most of your relationship?” was a particular highlight); and then we came to the pictures. No photos or Old Masters here, and no Rorschach ink blots either: these were all abstract art prints. We were instructed to talk about what we thought of them – did they remind us of anything, how did they make us feel? – and then to turn over the card and read the text on the back, which would help us consider what our responses told us about ourselves.

Now I’m not very good with abstract art. Occasionally I come across something I like – I’m capable of appreciating a Kandinsky on a purely aesthetic level – but spend time considering whether that line might be running either in front of or behind that circle, and what that’s allegedly saying about the duality of life and the impermanence of matter? No thank you. So I struggled here, feeling ever more of an unimaginative dolt as we went along. The text pretty much corroborated that conclusion. To summarise: appreciate the line/circle/duality of life metaphor and you’re a risk-taking, adventurous creative type (or to put it another way, “better”), think it all looks a bit of a mess, you’re an over-cautious, uncreative pedant (or to put it another way, “FAIL”).

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these.  And a red one.

Evidently sensing he was onto a winner, Malevich painted at least four of these. And a red one.

Increasingly desperate to prove that I did have an artistic bone in my body, I found myself looking ever closer at the images, wracking my brain for something interesting to say. Which is why, when we came to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (surely you know this one, daahling? Don’t you know it’s a seminal work?) I found myself squinting at the – er – black square, and wondering aloud whether the faint network of creamy coloured lines I could just about make out on its face was there by design or the result of age or damage.

It turns out it’s damage – the square started off pure black and the paint has cracked over time (see Philip Shaw’s commentary on the painting http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459). But that made me think: if you can spend time pondering a black square and its failure “to represent this transcendent realm” which apparently “serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature” – why not spend as much time on the cracks that have appeared there as a result of “nature” itself? Why, in fact, would anyone spend any time at all looking at a black square of paint and thinking anything of the kind? Any more than they’d spend time looking at – I don’t know – a blackboard against a white wall and considering what it has to say about the meaning of life?

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves.  "A meditation on the way we read" according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Some of the goodies in store for you in the House of Leaves. “A meditation on the way we read” according to Peter Beaumont of The Observer.

Which brings me to one of the books I read over Christmas: Mark K Danielowski’s House of Leaves. It’s a remarkable novel for many reasons – not least that a publisher was persuaded to make what must have been a significant outlay on a debut author, producing pages with the text at funny angles, loads of blank space, facsimiles and maps and photos, and a doorstep sized volume.  It’s a sort of Blair Witch Project in print, purporting to be an academic book on the supernatural events – partly documented on film – at a particular house, written by a man who is now dead, to which copious notes have been added by some chap who’s come across the book as a series of unsecured pages, post-its, maps etc and is attempting to piece it together, whilst apparently being targeted himself by supernatural forces. It’s not easy to describe, and it’s not a walk in the park to read either – footnotes all over the place, footnotes on footnotes, appendices by the armload. However…

And there's more...

And there’s more…

I read every word. I read the long, long, long, list of architectural styles and notable buildings that formed a single footnote running down the side of about six pages in what must have been eight point font. I read every single appendix (though I was relieved when I turned to the one that the “editors” then informed me had been “lost”). I looked at the sketches of the black interior of the subterranean structure of the house – not a million miles away from Malevich, now that I think of it. Some of it was interesting, some of it was scary, and quite a lot of it was really dull. But I read it all because I didn’t want to miss anything important. I read it with more attention than I would ever have given a bona fide academic treatise because it was a work of fiction.

It's even got it's own black square. Take that, Malevich!

It’s even got it’s own black square. Take that, Malevich!

I have to conclude then, that despite my irritation at being asked to stare at a square of black paint, there is something about the medium that commands attention; something about the intention of the artist or writer that elevates a work from its material form.  It’s because he or she produced their work with a purpose, trying to communicate their ideas, that it’s worth spending time on our response. Perhaps after all, even if it’s not my thing, it’s only polite to reciprocate the effort?

I can’t help though, but feel a faint distrust of the particular kind of abstract art – Malevich’s squares, pretty much anything by Rothko – that looks as if it could have been dashed off in approximately eight minutes. I can’t rid myself of the creeping suspicion that that is precisely what the artist has done, and is laughing up his sleeve at the idiots spending hours planted in front of his canvas, declaiming its fascinating insight into the “principle and passion of organisms” (in case you’re wondering, that was Rothko on his own work), the only real principle at work that of the emperor’s new clothes.

That, at least, is something it’s nigh on impossible to pull off as a writer of novels.  No matter how much blank space Danielowski incorporates in some of his pages, it must have taken him ages to put together House of Leaves. And it’s undeniably well written.  The characters are utterly believable, the story is intriguing, the whole reading experience feels unusual and discomfiting. I suppose you could say that, as a reader, you feel a faint echo of the discomfort of the characters, adrift in an alien environment.  It certainly gives you plenty to think about.

Even so, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it any time soon. And I won’t be making a weekly pilgrimage to the Tate Modern either. But perhaps, next time I’m confronted with art that makes me uncomfortable, I’ll try not to get irritated by the implication that I’m not clever enough to understand it. I’ll try to recognise that the artist is seeking to communicate ideas, in a way that makes sense to him or her even if it doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll try to spare a bit more time to hush the internal sceptic and think about what those ideas might be.

Something wicked this way comes

alarm clockOn this day in six weeks’ time I will be reintroducing myself to a sound I have learned to ignore over the last six and a half months: the garbled blaring of the radio alarm. No longer will I turn over with slight and fleeting sympathy as the Husband drags himself from his duvet nest and stumbles to the bathroom. From 3 March, I shall not ask for whom Capital FM tolls: it will toll for me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a civil servant who looks forward to returning from leave is a Treasury tag short of a paper trail. That’s not me, dear reader, and after spending more than six months away from the daily grind, I have to conclude that I have missed the open-plan blandness not one teeny tiny iota.

I haven’t missed the erratic heating, nor the staticky blue carpet, nor the plasticky desks, nor the crap canteen, nor the cold, depressing reception area, nor the lackadaisical lifts with the scratches at the edges of the doors that give the uneasy impression they’ve had to be crowbarred open on more than one occasion.  I haven’t missed the sheer bone-numbing knackerdness of those mornings of untangling myself from the still-dozing cats, feeling as though it’s as much as I’m ever going to be able to do just to get myself vertical and it’s still only Wednesday.  And most of all, I haven’t missed that ever-present knot of anxiety, the stress of the current crisis, the foreboding about the next one, the corporate bollocks, the emails, emails, emails…

I could go on, but if I do I’ll have to throw myself out of the window.

Still, having failed to land my six figure publishing deal/ lottery win, there’s only one thing to do from here – back to the Rat Race I shall go. Ee aye ee aye ee aye sodding oh.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can... oh God, I feel sick.

I think I can, I know I can, I think I can… oh God, I feel sick.

In the interests of avoiding the Slough of Despond, I have decided to take heed of the words of the great Monty Python and attempt to look on the Bright Side of Life. So with that in mind, here are twenty, ten, five, three reasons that going back to work will be A Good Thing.

1. We will have more money.  This is not to be sniffed at. The house needs various things doing to it. We found a roof tile in the front garden yesterday.  And we’ll be able to afford more exciting holidays.  Not a big deal for me at the moment – what do I need a break from? – but the poor Husband is stressed to the eyeballs and could do with more than a weekend on a freezing campsite.  Which brings me to…

2. I will appreciate holidays more.  The downside of not spending every day anxious/frustrated/depressed is not needing an escape from it!  Now I can recapture that blissful moment of shutting down the PC for the last time after a week of working even longer hours than usual to buy myself a break from the office.  Hurrah!

3.  I will have a renewed sense of urgency about my writing.  Book Two will gain new status as My Potential Way Out.  Okay, I won’t spend so much time on it.  This blog may have to hibernate (besides: what will I actually have to talk about when anything juicy will have to be censored?). I may not get along to so many readings/ book club meetings/ writing workshops.  But hey, that will just motivate me even more!

I’m sure there are other benefits too. I just have to find them.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

Not plot? What rot! Or not?

“You way wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer anyway – is nowhere… I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve been puzzling over this passage from my Christmas reading for a few weeks now.  The Master clearly considers plotting a waste of time, veritably inartistic in fact.  As someone who spent months faffing about with storylines, character summaries and even a spreadsheet of scenes before attempting to make a start on the actual business of writing my novel, this is somewhat disconcerting.

Most definitely a plot.

This one’s most definitely a plot.

King is very clear that he sees “story” as paramount and plot as something altogether different, which – slap me around the face with a wet kipper for never having done a creative writing course – is something I’d never thought about before.  And annoyingly, he doesn’t explain what he sees as the difference between the two – presumably because he believes it’s so basic he doesn’t need to.

In the hope that I’m not the only one sitting at the back looking shifty and avoiding eye contact at this point, I thought I’d do a bit more digging into this question of plot versus story.  In other words, I googled.  Here’s a summary of the explanations I found:

A story is a chronological sequence of events; a plot is the causal and logical structure that connects them (http://www2.anglistik.uni-freiburg.de/intranet/englishbasics/Plot01.htm, drawing on EM Forster’s Aspects of a Novel). Example of a story: “The king died and then the queen died.” Example of a plot: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” Hmm – not sure this makes the story very exciting.  Surely that can’t be what King – the one who’s alive – meant?

Plot is your protagonist’s physical journey; story is your protagonist’s emotional journey (https://www.udemy.com/blog/tips-for-writing-your-novel-difference-between-plot-and-story/). This is quite neat, isn’t it? But then, a story that’s only about emotional change doesn’t seem quite right either. Surely you have to know what’s actually happening to elicit those changes for a story to make sense?

Turning now to Yahoo Answers, the “best answer”, we are told, is that “You can think of the Plot as the map that the story follows, or as the skeleton of the story… The STORY is the…details of things that happen along the way. All that stuff…the details that make quests stories different from each other. The “skin” on the skeleton (plot).” Notwithstanding the erratic use of upper case, this feels right to me – but isn’t it sort of the opposite of the king/queen Forster definition?

Oh, and that thing about there being only 7 or 12 or 15 or 39 stories, or whatever it is?  I’ve found some people saying this refers to plots, not stories at all. And let’s not even get started on narrative.

Confused? Join the club.

Apparently, “you have to know when you’re telling a story or elaborating on a plot. A work of fiction … that only has a story will be flat and boring.” (http://ladylovelace.hubpages.com/hub/The-Difference-Between-Story-and-Plot). Disaster! I’ve written 100,000 words without knowing any such thing! (Though Lady Lovelace? Really??)

Never fear, however.  Just as I was beginning to despair, I found this nugget of hope: “Some critics even claim that the distinction between plot and story is artificial and of no practical use in the analysis of literature (Wenzel 1998: 175).” Sadly, there was no biog at the end of this piece (University of Freiburg again), but whoever this Wenzel person is, I could kiss him/her.  So it turns out we needn’t worry about this anyway.  Sorry for wasting your time.

Even so, I can’t help feeling rather uneasy at the continuation of my imperfect understanding.  If you’ve got a view on this whole story vs plot business, I’d be very pleased to hear it.

 

 

 

The Special Chair – or the Psychology of Writing

Monday 13 January – and thanks to a rotten throat infection, the first day in 2014 where I feel healthy. Things can only improve from here (did you hear that, Fate?). Not that I’m fishing for sympathy, you understand. No really, not at all. Have I mentioned I’ve been ill?

But the streptococcus-induced hiatus has left me champing at the bit to get back to the old keyboard. It turns out, these days I really do miss writing when I’m prevented from doing it for a while. Surely that means I’m now fully qualified to drink from my new Christmas mug – “Keep calm, I’m a writer”? (Though in all honesty, I’m not sure that “writer” is the number 1 professional you’d be calling for in the implied emergency. “Keep calm, I’m a doctor,” yes. Or a firefighter. Or a plumber. But a writer? I can see it now: “Just keep your finger on that split in your downpipe, love; I’ll just compose a bit of flash fiction and we’ll be right as rain.”)

That’s not to say that the laptop and I have been completely separated over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been reading a manuscript for a friend; I did manage a blog post for the New Year; and of course, with my return to the day job approaching with indecent haste, there have been one or two visits to the National Lottery website. But this has all been done from a semi-recumbent position, propped up against pillows or sofa cushions. How could I possibly write anything serious when I wasn’t sat in My Special Chair?

My Special Chair sits – as you might imagine – just in front of My Special Desk. Both items of furniture were upgraded to their current status when I started my unpaid leave, retrieved from their old spot in the smallest bedroom and swapped with an armchair in front of the window of what the estate agent described – with some hyperbole – as our “sun room”. This was to be my work space, the place in which I would finally complete The Novel, unlock the mysteries of Twitter, and work out what this blogging malarkey was all about. And so on day 1, and every weekday I’ve been at home before the throat infection struck, this has been the place I’ve come to write.

Over the last six months, it’s become strangely important to me. Besides the desk and chair, there’s just enough space for a small bookcase, a plug-in radiator, and a basket for whichever of the cats gets there first. It catches the morning sun, gently lifting my mood as I sip a cuppa and gradually acquaint myself with a new day. And it gives me a view out over the garden, allowing me to keep track of any incursions by The Lynx (annoying and enormous Tomcat who enjoys regular missions to harass our own furry girls); and beyond the garden fence to the street beyond, where the passage of the occasional car and pedestrian satisfies my rampant nosiness.

The great Stephen King at work. Will you look at the size of that phone?!

The great Stephen King at work. Will you look at the size of that phone?!

It doesn’t, it turns out, entirely fit the Stephen King criteria for an efficient writing space as set out in his excellent book, On Writing. My desk is against the wall, it’s true – which, given the diminutive size of the sun cupboard, as good as places it in the corner (where King states your writing desk should be as a reminder that “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around”). But the view out of the window isn’t the plain wall he calls for as a means of avoiding distractions. Instead, it reminds me that I’m here, in my home, looking out over my garden, doing something I love – in other words, most definitely not in the wood veneer monotony of the open plan office.  In any case, Mr King also tells us to avoid having a phone on the desk, despite the cover photo showing him with his feet up on his own desk, scribbling away on a notepad balanced on his legs, with his trainers right next to – you’ve guessed it – a bloody great telephone. This is one of those occasions, it seems to me, when knowing the rules means you can break them.

There are unwanted side effects, though, to the creation of my lovely little writing nest. The addition of an armchair to the smallest bedroom – which already contained a sofa bed and a canapé – means that if you were to stand in the doorway and launch yourself in any direction, you’d almost certainly land on something upholstered. It’s reminiscent of a chill-out room at some 80s rave.  Or possibly a padded cell. I’d always thought this would be a temporary issue, and that I’d replace the armchair with My Special Desk and Chair when I went back to work.  Now, though, there’s something vaguely threatening about that idea. It feels like throwing in the towel, admitting that I’m never going to be a serious writer.  It feels a bit like throwing away my dreams.

Can it really matter, having one particular place where you write?  The thing is, I’ve started to believe it matters to me.  And perhaps that’s all it takes.

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

Today I’m hoping to channel the great Pam Ayres, whose new book, “You Made Me Late Again” had me chuckling over my Christmas stocking (thanks Dad!). I suspect I’m a couple of decades younger than the average PamFan – surely that has to be one word? – but I do love her folksy, homely verse, full of irritable cows, waggy-tailed dogs and anxiety over whether or not she’s left her curling tongs plugged in. So today I thought I’d celebrate the New Year with my own attempt at Pam-type verse on a subject that always occupies my thoughts at this time of year…New year's resolutions

 

New Year’s Resolutions

 

Today is January the 1st,

The day this year I’m at my worst;

Because from henceforth I shall be

Improving incrementally

 

This year I’ll lose a stone or two,

Just like the Biggest Losers do

I’ll feel so fit and full of beans,

And slide into my skinny jeans

 

My swearing days are over now

Displeased, I’ll simply raise a brow

Uncouth expletives I’ll replace

With genteel words of tact and grace

 

My bills and papers I’ll keep neat

My handbag cleared of old receipts

Odd socks will once again be matched

Lost buttons found and reattached

 

Oh, I’ll be great by next December!

Problem is, though, I remember

Old ghosts of resolutions past

But this year, I’m quite sure they’ll last…

 

 

 

The Ideas Factory

But when you got a story idea, no one gave you a bill of sale. There was no provenance to be traced.  Why would there be?  Nobody gave you a bill of sale when you got something for free. You charged whoever wanted to buy that thing from you – oh yes, all the traffic would bear, and a little more than that, if you could, to make up for all the time the bastards shorted you – magazines, newspapers, book publishers, movie companies. But the item came to you free, clear, and unencumbered.

Stephen King, Secret Window, Secret Garden

I never believed that babies were delivered by a stork when I was a little girl. I don’t think my parents ever tried that kind of nonsense on me, and I like to believe I’d have seen through it if they had(though given that I fell hook, line and sinker for Father Christmas, that’s probably unlikely).  Well before the time my mum told a five-year-old me that I was going to have a brother or sister, I had arrived at my own theory, which seemed to me to be self-evidently true and to require no further explanation: a woman became pregnant in the same way she caught a cold or had heart problems or whatever – it was just something that sometimes happened to her body. Apparently, I was always something of a fatalist.

Hans Andersen's Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Hans Andersen’s Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Now that I’ve been asked a couple of times where I got the idea for my book, I find I have much the same kind of explanation: it just “came to me”. But that’s not very satisfying really, is it? And for someone who’d dearly love to be able to make a living from writing, it feels like a very sandy foundation on which to attempt to build a career.  I mean, if ideas just pop out of the ether, what’s to say that one day they won’t stop coming just as inexplicably?

At the Faber Academy course I attended three months ago, I heard that a commercial author should expect to write a novel a year. That’s not too bad really, I thought. I mean, setting aside the small matter of the work involved in actually coming up with a novel length manuscript, that’s essentially one core idea a year. Surely that should be manageable?

But what if the ideas aren’t fit for purpose?

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by noted short story writer Zoe Fairbairns, organised by the London Writers’ Café. Someone asked her why she had focussed in her career on writing short stories rather than novels, particularly since the market in short stories in the UK is nowhere near as developed as that for novels; in other words, and without wishing to sound too craven, even a successful short story writer isn’t going to make very much money. The main reason for her chosen medium, she said, was that she found she had plenty of ideas that would make good short stories, but she’d simply run out of ones that would stretch to novel length.

I found that a slightly alarming thought.  It’s not that I don’t like short stories, but given the choice I’d much rather curl up with a novel. I want to be immersed for hours, developing my opinions about the characters, trying to work out that’s going on inside their heads, watching as some kind of mystery unfolds and is then resolved.  And because that’s the kind of experience I most enjoy about reading, it’s why I’ve always wanted to write novels.

So where do novelists get their ideas? How do they keep them coming, without finding that they’re unconsciously giving different ideas to the same characters, changing the place names but creating parallel sets of circumstances? How does someone like Stephen King keep coming up with things that are fresh, whilst at the same time having the same sense of King-ness that means his readers know the kind of thing they’re going to get, and that they’re going to enjoy the ride?

I can see that there are techniques for stimulating the creative process: the daily writing prompts that appear all over WordPress, the pictures and the snippets of prose that invite you to imagine what is happening and develop a story around them. Zoe Fairbairns suggested building a short story around an object, preferably a small one (her most famous short story centred around a bus ticket).  I can see how that would work to stimulate some writing, any writing – and there are times, of course, when that’s just what you need – but is it really possible to keep extrapolating until you hit 100,000 words? I think I’m with Ms Fairbairns here – there are surely some ideas that just aren’t big enough for the job.

At the moment, I’m in the preparation stages for the next book. The idea is there, just waiting to be brought to life.  And I have a great title for another one – at some point I’m hoping that’s going to be enough to get the creative juices flowing.  But – then what? I’ve never been one of those people who feels they have so many ideas bubbling around that they don’t know which one to start with.  It’s a scary thought that the time might come when my meagre store just runs out.

So I’m going to ask that question.  You know, the really annoying one that makes you feel as if you’ve failed somehow if you don’t have a proper answer.

Where do you get your ideas?

Inspiration for a mid-life crisis

How old do you have to be to have a mid-life crisis? I’d always thought it was the kind of thing that hit in the 40s, but at 37 I’ve given into the compulsion to say goodbye to the day job – for a few months anyway – and immerse myself in writing. So does that mean that my mid-life crisis has come early? Or is another one going to hit in a few years?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that even the modest step of asking for six months of unpaid leave once felt like a Very Big Deal.  Sitting here now, almost six months in – and with the luxury of the two months extra I was granted a couple of weeks ago ahead of me – I wonder why I sweated over it so much. The truth is, though, it’s not easy to break out of a routine, even if it’s a routine you’re not enjoying very much.  Routine is safe; and I like safe.

So I needed a bit of a kick.  There were a lot of things that helped, various events that put on their football boots and gave me their own little nudges up the derrière.  There was the sight of lots of former colleagues biting the bullet, taking voluntary redundancy and packing up their desks to pursue opportunities they’d had in the backs of their minds for years; there was the moment when I realised that the big 4-0 really was coming for me very quickly, so I’d better start getting used to the idea; and there was that weekend alone on Lundy when I started to realise what it might be like to have every day free to write whatever I wanted (albeit not looking out over the glorious view of cliffs and sea that I was treated to there).

But there was also one Victorian lady who made me believe that it really was possible to do something different and exciting with your life, even if you didn’t start out that way. And I think it was she who gave me that last, decisive kick.

If you’ve ever visited Kew Gardens, you may have come across the Marianne North Gallery, tucked into the greenery at the eastern edge, just along from the folly of the Ruined Arch.

Interior of the Marianne North Gallery, Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew

Interior of the Marianne North Gallery, Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of walking through that crisp white portico for the first time, opening the inner double doors, and entering what somehow contrived to be a cross between an old library, a colonial tea room and an Amazonian rainforest all at once.

Every inch of the walls of that wonderful building are covered in Marianne North’s paintings of her travels across the world, each with the same gold mount and dark wood frame, each painting jostling up against its neighbour, creating such a riot of colour and activity it’s difficult to work out where to look first.  It’s worth taking a deep breath and choosing a spot to start, though, because as soon as you do, you find yourself in an exotic world of faraway places, tropical plants and fascinating people, all seen through the eyes of someone who, even in these days when air travel has shrunk the world, qualifies as a bona fide explorer.

Night-Flowering Lily and Ferns, Jamaica

Night-Flowering Lily and Ferns, Jamaica

At the rear of a gallery is a small room with photos and a film about Marianne’s life.  She was born into a family of considerable means and connections: her father was an MP, and family friends included Edward Lear and the Director of Kew himself, Sir William Hooker.  Her mother died when Marianne was 25, and she became mistress of the household, around the same time devoting herself to the painting of flowers.  She travelled extensively in Europe with her father and sisters, but when her sisters married and her father lost his parliamentary seat, Marianne and her father ventured further, wintering in Egypt and trekking through Syria.

So far, not a story with which I could identify much. But then came the good bit: when her father died, a 39-year old Marianne packed up her bags and – at a time when a woman travelling alone was an oddity – spent the next 16 years crossing the globe, documenting what she called “plants in their homes” in beautiful, evocative watercolours.  She travelled from the United States to Singapore, from Jamaica to Borneo, Nepal to the Seychelles, Australia to Mexico, Fiji to India. There was not a continent across which she did not travel extensively, and the walls of the Marianne North Gallery – which she designed and paid for as a permanent home for her 800 or so paintings – bear testimony down the decades to the wonderful sights she saw.

Bombay Pedlars in Mrs Cameron's Verandah, Kalutera, Ceylon

Bombay Pedlars in Mrs Cameron’s Verandah, Kalutera, Ceylon

Marianne had been very close to her father.  His death could have seen her closet herself away in a quiet, English village, occasionally getting out her paintbrushes to record the purple gown of a foxglove, or the springtime celebration of the daffodil. And there would have been nothing wrong with that.  Instead, she took her courage in both hands and set off on a series of adventures that only came to an end with her own failing health, recording them in a series of paintings that, a century later, still have the power to delight and absorb.

Avenue of Royal Palms at Botafogo, Brazil

Avenue of Royal Palms at Botafogo, Brazil

Arty types might be sniffy about the quality – even one of the contributors to A Vision of Eden, the book which brings together a collection of Marianne’s paintings and her memoirs, described her as merely “reasonably talented” – but it’s impossible to look at one of Marianne’s pictures without feeling as though you are yourself part of the scenery.  You can almost hear the tropical birdsong and the singing of the cicadas; you can feel the jungle heat or the crisp air of the mountains; you can travel the world within the four walls of that little gallery.  What a legacy to leave behind!

So this is my thank you to Marianne; because when you’ve got a role model like that to look up to, asking for six months off work doesn’t seem like quite that much of a big deal after all.