Coalface, yes: a face made of coal. A coal golem, animated and at work, joints grinding, black dust squeezing from each movement. The Word in his head tells him to dig, to dig, to dig, to haul the substance of his own body from the ground, to pry it from the great seams that thread the earth, to smash it into bricks, to bag it and banish it into the light. He digs, yes, and he dreams — incineration, immolation, white heat.
I didn’t mean to start like that. Sorry. Just a thought that ran away with itself. Reminds me of a David Hartley story.
I’m trying to write a little. This year has been exhausting. As well as the house renovations, things have been difficult in college, where we’ve struggled to find regular staff and I’ve done double the admin. My brain has turned to glue. I’ve spent my evenings editing student scripts and then having no energy for my own, though that’s no one’s fault but mine. Something else I need to work on.
But yes — writing again, just a little. I don’t have a name for it yet, and I’m reluctant to share too much of it publicly. I’m very conscious of the hope, emotion and effort I’ve invested in the novella, two novels and three half-novels I’ve written since The Visitors was published. The ideas are still there, battling for attention, but in truth my confidence is shot. I’ve lost some of my sense of what and how to write — the compass that helps me navigate through plot, characters, prose.
Reading and writing (and rest, probably) are the only things that will help me get the balance back, but I’m not good at giving myself that sort of a break. I have such little time to write, and I feel a huge pressure to fill it with perfect words — to feel like I’m making progress. When I don’t it brings me down. Writing 4,000 or 5,000 words a day feels a lifetime ago. A good day is 1,000 now, but I guess that’s the deal. If you want the diamonds, you need to be carving out the coal.
Watch out for golems though.
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.
Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.
It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.
BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?
I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)
The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.
I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.
But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how S L O W my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.
So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.
With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage.
I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.
Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.
Earlier today, my heart broke. I’ve been working on my second novel, The Hollows, for almost exactly a year – I started it on Christmas Eve 2013, though I couldn’t write for half the year. I’m now 30,000 words into my first draft. It’s excruciatingly hard to write this, but I’m about to change it all. The reason is the best-selling author Kate Mosse, who appears to have written my book already. I haven’t read it, but her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, explores the same themes of memory – suppressed, regressed and rediscovered – as The Hollows. Her novel revolves around a father-daughter dynamic, like The Hollows. Her novel is set in a huge marsh, like The Hollows. I could handle all of that. I’d guess that was true of lots of novels. But today, I also discovered that the lead character of The Taxidermist’s Daughter has no early memories after a traumatic childhood experience; that a modern crime begins to unlock those hidden memories; and that the unlocking of those memories reopens the wounds of an old injustice. That was basically the plot of The Hollows. I’m heartbroken, because I was finally beginning to gain some traction. It was finally starting to move, but I can’t stomach those similarities. It’s too close. It’s no good.
I’m not going to start again, because I’ve written some good stuff. But I am going to change it radically. That means significant cuts – again – and it means the whole enterprise will take longer than I’d hoped, and that’s devastating. I was almost halfway through, and now I’m back to the beginning. I can’t just get hold of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, read it, and rewrite around it; no story is built from omission, and the thought of it makes me sick. But it does mean revisiting the crossroads I discussed last week, and taking another path. It hurts, and I’ll set out with heavy heart, but I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’m nourishing the kernel of a good story, and I’m not going to let it go.
Whales, mandolins and singing bottles… and once again, I find myself staggered at how my stories hurt me.
I visited the awe-inspiring Furness Abbey last week. It’s one of those places that I find very hard to describe, and although I’m going to try, I don’t feel I’ll come close, so I’ll probably keep this fairly short.
The abbey lies in ruins, but the utter majesty of the place remains. Sandstone soars into the sky in towers, even as the wind and rain carve it back down into organic shapes. It’s humbling beyond measure to walk the grounds, to sit in the buttery, to peer up tiny spiral staircases, to measure spans and arches – to walk the same paths the monks would have walked, centuries ago. A watercourse trickles through the ruins, tight with brick and riddled with tunnels and drains, but also dense with willowherb. It makes the abbey seem both antique and feral. There are plants trickling from upper ledges, and swallows nesting in the cells. There are tunnels and alcoves and windows and doors. What survives of the former halls still feels enclosed. Parts of the abbey are completely removed from the main walkways, and it’s unnerving to stand in silence and stillness and reflect on the hundreds of lives to pass through the same space. It’s crawling with ghosts. They’re in every stone, in every blade of grass. The site is surrounded by trees that hush in the wind, and the place is full of whispers. It embodies that sense of threshold I feel so drawn to. There are blind corners, where the space is shut abruptly out and your skin crawls with presence. Gravity weighs more in the abbey. The stones have grown gaunt on life and death and time.
Time. That’s the abbey means. The whole place aches and creaks with a ferocious sense of time. It’s massive. It echoes, it rebounds from the rock, from the moss. Walking the walls brings our few moments in this world into ferocious, ridiculous focus. It’s magnificent. It’s extraordinary. Go and explore it for yourself.