Category: Writing

Down By Law

Here be spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I teach films, I make films, but I very rarely get to watch films. So it’s with great pleasure I sat down tonight with Down By Law, the Jim Jarmusch prison/buddy/road movie in which Jack, Zack and Bobby find themselves sharing a cell. It’s hard to switch off teaching mode, and about a third of the way through, I found myself idly wondering why it had been shot in black and white…

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…and eventually decided that it was because it’s an existential story. Suddenly, the rest of the film swam into focus. All three are in prison for morally uncertain reasons — Jack and Zack have been set up, while Bobby’s manslaughter was a freak accident. Their situations are anything but black and white, so to render their world in high contrast B&W makes a nonsense of their injustice. As it unfolds, the film feels more and more like a Beckett play, the pointlessness playing out in theatrical, meditative wide shots — I don’t remember a single close-up in the entire movie.

Much of the story occurs as loops of nonsense — Bobby reciting American poets in Italian, or Zack recording the passage of days in fives or sixes or sevens, some vertical and some horizontal, none of them in any particular pattern. In the scene below, the three walk in endless circles — “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” — while the other prisoners bellow the song along with them. It’s the only time they’re completely of one mind, and it’s over something pointless and completely unachievable.

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The cabin they escape to is a mirror of their cell, while the Louisiana swamps unfold in circles. When they argue over the rabbit, Zack leaves to the right, then appears walking to the left — while Jack leaves to the left, and then appears walking right — and still they end up back at the campfire. On reaching the road — “Civilisation!” — both directions are identical and endless and pointless.

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When Jack and Zack finally go their separate ways, they have literally no idea where they’re going — only that each needs to go away from the other. As solemn as Vladimir and Estragon, they swap jackets before walking away, right and left. I had the sense that they’d probably end up in much the same place they started.

Not Bobby, though. Bobby goes through life with an open heart and an open mind. He talks to people, he wants to communicate, and so he reaps the rewards of food and wine, a roof and a song, love. For all his nonsense, there’s a bigger meaning behind Bobby’s story — he perseveres through the babble of his world, and so he earns his happy ending. It’s all part of the joke that he’s the one who likes to speak — and it’s in a language no one understands.

A clever, entertaining, charming film.

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Fail again

Nearly four months since my last post! Ooof. This isn’t a very good blog, is it? Loads has happened, but I’ve been too busy to talk about it — my usual morass of college marking was swamped by the millstone of an Ofsted inspection, and for weeks all I’ve done is stare at assessment forms. Around all of that, I’ve performed some new stories at Spotlight in Lancaster, had work accepted by Jellyfish Review, National Flash Fiction Day and Ghostland Zine, was longlisted for a NFFD contest and am currently shortlisted for a Liars League competition on the theme of Heads & Tails. I’ve written lots of new flash stories and nearly finished what might be another collection, maybe, probably, perhaps. I also read my version of the Hobyahs at Verbalise in Kendal, which went like this:

 

I love telling that story, and I need a haircut.

Away from writing, Mon and I are now actively collecting the 214 Wainwrights, having climbed Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Coniston Old Man, Illgill Head, Whin Rigg, Castle Crag and Helm Crag since my last post. It’s fascinating trying to decode old Wainwright’s spidery notes. He was barking. I quite enjoy the uphill climbs, and I absolutely love the sense of being atop the hills — the way the ranges link into plateaus, and it feels as though you’re walking on the roof of the world. Downhills are not so much fun, but there’s usually a beer somewhere at the bottom, so all is well. A Wainwright looks like this:

The big thing is the novel, I suppose. When I last wrote about it, it was finished, for the third time, redrafted, and sent away to my excellent agent, who gave me some excellent notes. As always, Sue sees what I can’t, and while she loved a lot about the book, there was a structural issue I hadn’t considered, and it needed sorting. She’s absolutely right about the structure, but I can’t go back to the book. I can’t. This is my third distinct version of The Hollows, as well as countless false starts and variations, and I honestly estimate I’ve written about 500,000 words of this story across about forty different incarnations. It has melted my brain and stifled my imagination. I thought for a day or two about whether I should redraft it again, but honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard. For now, The Hollows is shelved.

Given that it’s swallowed three years of my life, I feel surprisingly okay about putting it away. I did most of my grieving for the second draft, which was the one I loved most. The third draft deals with profound ideas, and is more LiTeRarY, but it lost all the impetuous fun of the second draft — it wasn’t fun to write, and I want to enjoy my writing. It had become such a corkscrew of ideas that I could barely think of anything else, and it was making me unhappy. Since putting The Hollows to one side, my brain has begun to thaw, and for the first time in a year, I’m feeling the fizz of ideas. Until that sensation came back, I hadn’t even realised it was gone.

In a few years, I think I’ll go back to the Hollows. There’s a whole world there, and that world is exciting, but I need a better story to navigate it. I’ve already sketched out the plot for a completely different (and simpler!) version of the same idea, and when I’m ready, I’ll see where that goes. Until then, I need a break from swamps and memories — and instead I’ve launched myself into one of the other stories I’ve had circling overhead. I’m taking the advice of sensei Stephen King, though, and writing this one with the door closed. I’ve learned a lot about getting ahead of myself. I’ve also learned why they called it ‘the difficult second novel’.

Because it bloody is.

That’s me for now. Fail again, fail better, right?

 

Notes on a redraft

I’m fortunate to have some terrific writers as friends. On finishing my third version of The Hollows, I sought the indulgence of their feedback, and they were kind enough to give it. As well as my wife Mon, who reads everything first, I’ve now bounced the book off David Hartley, Abi Hynes, and Ali Shaw, and had the time to digest their thoughts.

The first piece of good news is that all four readers had almost the exact same reactions to the book. It would have been abominable if they’d had totally different responses. The second good thing is that their responses made complete sense to me — they chimed with a lot of my own thoughts after some time away from the story. The third good thing is that although, from the feedback, there are definitely things I need to change — none of them are very terrible in terms of the structure. Reworking the structure is what hurts the most. And the final good thing is that all four readers seem to have enjoyed the book very much. After so long buried in the mazes of The Hollows, it’s been incredibly uplifting to feel that the work has not been wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t need the validation of others, but I do. I do.

So — what needs redrafting?

The book is too long. My first draft came in a whisker under 140,000 words, and I already knew I needed to cut it down, a lot. I wanted to get it below 120,000, and that’s not the sort of change you get by combing through the manuscript and filleting the adverbs. I’ve needed to cut and combine chapters, which means removing minor story strands. It wasn’t until I started writing novels that I truly understood the meaning of ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ — and that’s what my first readers have done. It’s the advice of Abi, Ali, Dave and Mon that helped me prioritise what matters to the core of the story, and what’s only fluff.

Secondly, and connected to the length, there’s a lot of repetition and some exposition. In writing such a long book, I needed this to help me navigate the plot and maintain the atmosphere — the descriptions were for me, I suppose, signposts to know where I was. By its nature, repetition is pretty easy to cut and undo, and this has been one of the easiest parts of the redraft.

Third, killing darlings. Grotty work, but important — all those clever little stylistic tics and tricks that I was so proud of when I wrote them, but stick out like sore thumbs for readers. The indulgent stuff, basically. This part of redrafting isn’t hard so much as humbling. What’s the quote? Chandler or Carver or someone — “If it looks like writing, get rid of it.” That’s true up to a point. I love a decent bit of splashy flashy writing too. If you kill all your darlings, then what’s left to love?

Fourth — the only thing I completely cheated on was a character’s reason for doing something. I didn’t believe it myself at the time, but having exhausted dozens of other possibilities, it was the least bad thing I could come up with, so I tried to sneak it in regardless. And obviously all four readers saw through it like a window, which forced me to think again — as I should have done at the beginning. My readers have made me work harder and work better, and I’ve come up with a solution. Threading the new idea into place has required significant changes throughout the manuscript, and this has been the most challenging part of my redraft, even though it’s the right thing to do. For all that editing is painful, it helps to remember that these changes make the story stronger.

Fifth is the scraps. A line of dialogue that doesn’t ring true — an inconsistency in character — the things that smack too much of coincidence. None of it is very difficult, but this is the stuff that makes me wince, because it seems so obvious once it’s been pointed out. How could I have missed it in the first place? …because of the wood and the trees.

I was terrified of sending the book out. I’ve invested three years in The Hollows, and the thought of wasting all that time — all that work — was excruciating. What if my readers came back and said yeah, all right… but naw? In the end, their responses have made it worth the while. I don’t have a deal in place for the book, and it may never be published. That would hurt. But I now believe I’ve written something worth reading, and maybe that’s enough. That’s what I’m writing for.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but writing is nothing without community. Mon, Abi, Ali and Dave — thank you. I owe you, and I won’t forget.

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Always, always, always the sea

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea, lately — I was lucky to be given several books about the sea for Christmas presents, and then my excellent wife tracked this stunner down for me too —

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The next story I write will be about the sea — the idea fell into my head, perfect as a cowrie, while I was working on the closing chapters of my last book. And although I was planning another novel altogether for my next one, the sea book has overtaken it. I’m excited.

I’m desperately trying to finish off a film edit right now, so bear with me — I’ll write more about the sea another time. For now, I’ll leave you with this — a quick mix I threw together of ocean songs, featuring British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston, The Waterboys and many more. Enjoy.

Peril

 

This afternoon was glum and rainy as Storm Barbara rattled across Cumbria, so Dora and I made a film starring her toys. The idea was hers. I helped with the technical stuff and a little narrative guidance here and there.

It was the best way to spend a rainy afternoon that I know. Being with Dora, and seeing her play, seeing her imagination expand and explode and take flight — that’s something truly humbling. Human imagination is a ferocious engine, and to witness it in children is to see it pure and whole, before the hooks of self-consciousness and adulthood begin to pluck and nip and pull it down. Picasso was right — every child is born an artist, and the challenge is to remain so.

As anyone who’s met her already knows, Dora is a challenging girl. We’ve never known anyone like her. She is hot-headed and obstinate and fierce and contrary and rude, and there are times when she drives us up the fucking wall. She is also clever, funny, wildly inventive and capable of staggering compassion, and we adore every fragment of her wild and fizzy heart. She lives as much in a daydream as the real world. As her parents, we’ve decided that our job is getting her to adulthood with as much of that intact as possible. At the moment, she’s an artist. The challenge is to keep her so.

Counting beans

Ever since losing a large document many moons ago, I have become a compulsive hoarder of files. I email myself a copy of the manuscript every time I make any significant changes, keep the files neatly labelled by date and word count, and sleep safe in the knowledge of a bombproof back-up (until the day that California slides into the sea).

The second draft of my story is now finished. This also means, as a curiosity, that I can look back and map my progress with a chart like this:

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So there we go. I didn’t really start backing up the manuscript until I had something worth saving, which was in late summer — and thereafter, almost every Thursday and Friday (my writing days) had a file of its very own.

Now, what does this tell us?

Yes, that’s right — bugger all. What we therefore need is some context. Here is my context.

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Here’s the thing — I know that word counts don’t actually count anything at all, whether it’s 500 a day or 5,000. They measure only a quantity of words, not a quality. Grinding the fuckers out in the right order is what matters. Counting words alone is the same as counting beans, as Jack Torrance knows all too well—

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— and still, with all that said, I like looking at that chart and how it simplifies the last 11 months into the zigs and jigs of gradual progress. There have been so many times when I thought I wouldn’t finish the book, and so many times when it bamboozled me completely, and there’s an odd sense of finality to seeing it mapped out. Those 4am and 5am mornings, those eye-dragging days of staring at Scrivener, and those crushing, inevitable moments of deleting a chapter here, a character there — all that graft set out into a neat blue line.

Will it need edits? Very much so. I’ve now sent the manuscript to some writery friends because I need walls to bounce off, and I’m both dreading and excited at what they’ll have to say. Their perspectives will help me triangulate my own sense of what needs doing. For now, I’m going to put the book away and not think about it until 2017. I might drink a beer or something.

 

The Old Man Of The Sea

Help me, internet.

When I was a kid, I remember reading a short story, possibly from a book of short stories, that finished with the Old Man Of The Sea swimming away in a furious huff. He was seething because his plans had been somehow thwarted. I remember the illustration in particular — the old man, long hair swamped by the sea, low down and mean in the waves.

I’m now trying to find this book, but haven’t a clue what it’s called or who wrote it. I’m fairly sure it’s not the Grimms or Andersen, and we’ve also now discounted The Water Babies, Rupert the Bear, Sinbad, and The Old Man Of Lochnagar.

Dora loaned me her good pencils so I could draw an approximation of the old man in his grump. Here he is — any ideas?

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