Shakubuku, n. — a swift, spiritual kick to the head.
I’ve been needing one for a long time. I’ve needed a change of direction.
Writers have different reasons to write — callings that send them back to those keyboards day after day. For some it’s character — others write for the love of language — some write with a message, or to exorcise a ghost. And all these things are connected, of course, but I suspect each writer has a particular theme or mission that drives them more than the others. I write for the story. Stories are a purely human magic. They fascinate me and have always fascinated me. I don’t know of anything in art as satisfying as a complete and perfect story, completely and perfectly told. That’s the compulsion that drove me to writing and filmmaking and editing, and it’s story that keeps me working despite the reasons not to.
I teach film production. Each year, I work as something like a producer/story supervisor on many dozens of student films, contributing anything from gentle advice to full rewrites — I’ve overseen literally hundreds of student shorts in the seven or eight years I’ve run the course. During the final projects, I invest a huge amount of creative energy in making sure my learners are heading in the right direction, and that’s fine — that’s part of the job, and I certainly don’t begrudge the students, who are awesome. But I need to start conserving more of that energy for myself. Last year, I spent so much time writing with students that I didn’t manage any of my own — not a word of it, not for months. I was drained. As the college workload has increased, year on year, my ability to sustain a novel has declined. I’m sad about that, but I’m not going to drown in it.
I’ve been brewing for a while on trying something new, and maybe writing some film scripts of my own — it’s a medium I love, a process I know, and I wondered whether I’d find a script easier to pick up and put down than a novel. After months of doldrums, I did something about it. I started writing.
It’s true that a change is as good as a rest.
I’ve now finished three short films, coming in at variously 3, 11 and 23 pages. I’ve written and submitted a pitch to this competition, booked myself onto this short film workshop and started organising my ideas. At the moment I can envisage another half-dozen shorts and a couple of feature films. Not to say that I’ll write them all, or even start them all, but I have plenty to think about, to be getting on with. I’ve loved the exchange of dialogue, of honing lines, of stripping a story back to the bones. I’ve thrived on the blocking of scenes and the problem-solving, unravelling snags in the story. I’ve even loved learning new software. Finding my way in a new medium has been a joy, and I’ve enjoyed these steps in screenwriting more than I can say.
In tandem with this, I’ve been reading some classic works on story structure and writing for film. I’ve worked my way through Syd Field‘s Definitive Guide To Screenwriting and his excellent collection of analysis, Four Screenplays; Blake Snyder‘s cynical but efficacious model of conventional film structure, Save The Cat; Darren Aronofsky‘s blistering Guerrilla Diaries; John Yorke‘s sublime study of storytelling, Into The Woods, and am currently reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. After that, I’m heading into the bible of storytelling, Story by Robert McKee. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to be learning again — it’s been too long since I threw myself into something new, and I’m really enjoying the knowledge I’m gaining.
None of this means I’m giving up on writing novels or surrendering my short stories. Indeed, I’ve been writing lots of flash fiction lately, if you’d like to have a read. But for the good of my mental health, I need to do something different, even if it’s only for a little while.
Here’s a thing: a long time ago, I studied English Literature at Lancaster University. In the last weeks, after the exams, one of my tutors asked me a question that completely disarmed me — why, he wondered, had I written all my final year essays about films? At first, I was puzzled, but when I checked — he was right. Unconsciously I’d been exploring cinema, rather than literature. It was his observation that sent me off to study film in depth, and from there to work in television.
I’ve been thinking about some of the things people have been kind enough to say about my work. The single comment I hear most often is that my stories are ‘atmospheric‘. I’ve taken that to mean that readers have enjoyed the emotions and tensions of the worlds I’ve tried to make — that they’ve shared a feeling of empathy for the world — that they’ve been convinced by the places and feelings I’ve tried to create. But any richness I’ve managed to capture in my prose has come from my film training — imagining those locations as though composed through a camera lens, then layered with sound, light, weather, the bustle of background detail.
As with my university essays, all those years ago — maybe I’ve been writing the wrong way round.
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’ve been tinkering on my new book since the summer. It’s coming together, slowly, slowly — I learn more about the world of it every time I sit down to work. My writing days have been overtaken lately with a succession of film jobs and Real Life things getting in the way, but I’m still onboard with my second 100 Days Of Writing, and I usually manage somewhere between 30 and 300 words a day. One step at a time, right? It’s all going in the right direction.
After this morning’s writing session, I’ve been reflecting on how stories change. Halfway through The Visitors, the lead characters took me completely by surprise with the way they wanted to go. By the time I’d finished redrafting and rewriting, it was a completely different book to the one that started out. It’s sometimes only on finishing that I realise what the story actually is. That’s true of every long story I’ve worked on, I think, and it’s almost certainly true of the current book. The core idea has stayed the same throughout, but the characters have swirled about it like satellites, each waiting for the gravity of the plot to draw them in. The ones I thought would lead the story have drifted away into space, mute, watching the world recede into a dot of light. And others, characters I assumed had only minor parts to play, have crashed into the story like meteors, hitting hard enough to shake the orbit — to tilt the axis into something new.
If you’re new to my blog, please note that I love an extended metaphor.
Back in November, I cut the story from 35,000 words down to 15,000, as the characters corkscrewed into my head and the story revealed itself as something new. Having steadily built my way back to 28,000 words, I’m about to cut the first two chapters — they’re only short, but I thought they were important for backstory and building the world. (And actually that’s true — but only for me and my understanding of the journey I’m embarking on.) No one else needs them, not really. Instead I’ve come up with a single sentence that literally does the job of 2,500 words. Knowing that I’m going to dispatch them to the great black hole of deleted chapters feels rather freeing — like dropping ballast. Ballast has an essential function until the exact moment it becomes dead weight.
The book calls louder, the further I run with it. The relationship between the lead character and a very minor character has become the hinge on which the whole story swings, and it’s quietly stunning for me to sit back and soak that in — to think that it’s been there all along, and only now do I know why. Back to it tomorrow. 100 words a day. Steady away, lad — casting ballast, rising up.
I forgot to do this last year for a bunch of reasons I can’t completely remember, but I’m back on track for a round-up of my favourite things that have happened in the last 12 months. In no order, these are:
1. The kids. This year has been another cracker with my wee family. It hasn’t always been easy, but seeing Dora and Indy getting on with the world has been a treat. In particular, Indy learning to talk has given us such joy — almost every day now we get a new word, and with every word our communication grows, our interactions develop, our bonds become stronger. He’s funny, he’s happy. Dora is still mostly feral, but she’s finding her way, all the time, a few steps back and then a few more forward. She’s developed an addiction to Lego, she loves reading Ottoline and Harry Potter and the Worst Witch, she argues about pretty much everything, she laughs all the time. They’re good kids, and I love getting to know them.
2. Mon’s art. Mon’s finally, slowly, getting to paint again with some regularity. Like me, she doesn’t get nearly enough time to make her work — and it’s therefore brilliant that she’s finished off these astonishing paintings and started on some really exciting new work. After she lost so much time in Indy’s first year, it’s been a real thrill to see these pieces coming together, and I’m so so excited by the work she’s sketching out and backpainting. She’s a bloody genius, my wife, and I count myself beyond lucky to watch her art unfolding in the studio.
3. Kefalonia. I used to write long posts about my holidays, but don’t blog as often as I used to, and so haven’t. But we went to Greece for two weeks in the summer, and it was brilliant. We went swimming every day and collected pretty pebbles. There was a titanic storm that rumbled all morning while Indy stood at the window and thumped the glass every time the lightning struck, and the day broke into vast grey Miyazaki clouds that washed away into the bluest of sweet blue skies. Waves had painted the beach in perfect smooth sand. The insects were incredible — a praying mantis, big black bees with pearlescent wings, swallowtail butterflies, a great emerald beetle that zipped about my head and lit on my hand. It then bit me, which wasn’t quite as cool, but for a wee moment I felt like Dr Doolittle. I read loads, wrote loads, and threw Dora in the swimming pool about a thousand times. It was brilliant. This is the actual moment Indy fell out of the sky. We decided to keep him.
4. Reading sea books. My original resolution was to read only sea books in all of 2017, and in this regard I’ve failed. I abandoned the task around August after finishing Moby-Dick, firstly because I stopped writing the sea book I’d been working on, secondly because very few of the sea books I tackled actually had much to say about the true nature of the sea, and finally because nothing else quite cut the mustard after the Melville. The stand-out was Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, which is an extraordinary book and everyone should read it. Overall, though, I mostly felt relief when I decided to let it go and read some books that were not about the sea.
5. Wainwrights. As a family, we’ve started the long, slow process of sending Wainwrights. We’ve now walked about 16 of the 214 fells that Alfred Wainwright ascribed in his famous guidebooks, so there are clearly still loads of them to go, but we’ve loved every one we’ve done so far. The uphills are hard, the downhills are hard, but the tops are completely worth it — especially the plateaus and ridges, and earning a sense of having climbed up out of the world below. At some point Indy’s going to get too heavy for the sling, and then we’ll have to slow the numbers a wee bit, but for now — up we go.
6. Film and video work. This has been a fairly steady year for my freelance video work, but most of all I’m soaringly proud of my work for Kendal Mountain Festival. Along with my friend Dom Bush, I edited the trailer for this year’s festival, as well as copyediting the voiceover poem. The film edit was difficult and time-consuming, and I’m really proud of what we made:
7. Getting veganised. Come June 2018 I’ll have been vegetarian for 10 years, a decade in which I’ve eaten wider and healthier, become a much better cook, and made better decisions in spending my money. Taking that to the next step hasn’t been easy, but over the last two years, Mon and I have moved steadily towards a vegan diet. We’re pretty much dairy-free and I go weeks at a time without eggs — and again, it’s improved my cooking and my eating and my thinking about where my food comes from. I’m not quite ready to go fully vegan, but I am moving steadily in that direction (especially since working out how to make my own seitan, which is just tremendous).
8. British Sea Power. I saw my favourite band three times this year. First was in London, where I took my students on a college trip — on the Tuesday we watched Under The Skin with a live soundtrack by the London Sinfonietta, and the students all despised it — beautiful, discombobulating enigma that it is. But on the Wednesday, we watched BSP perform a live soundtrack to a collection of Communist-era existential Polish animations, and they were majestic. Their music was sublime and transporting and wonderful in every way. The second gig was on the tour of their new record, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party. It’s another cracking record — of course it is — that slots in perfectly with the rest of their catalogue. Fave tracks are Electrical Kittens, What You’re Doing, St Jerome and Bad Bohemian, but the whole album’s brilliant. Third and finally, Mon and I zipped down to Manchester to see them headline the People’s Festival in the Albert Hall, which was epic — Dutch Uncles and Field Music playing too — a heart-thumping whirl through their finest moments. Their music is consistently superb and in constant reinvention. They’re the best band in Britain. I hope I see them three times in 2018.
9. Moy’s 90th. My grandmother Moy turned 90 this year. She’s amazing. She’s travelled all over the place. Once, in her 80s, she sent me a postcard from a youth hostel on a glacier in New Zealand. For her birthday she wanted all of her grandchildren together, and so we went — Kate, Anna, Ali, Emma, Kirsty, Tim and me, plus partners Kees, Ian, Adam, Ina and Mon, plus great-grandchildren Tom, Jack, Dora and Indy. We descended on Aberfeldy in the rain and spent all day drinking tea or wine, and it was brilliant. I don’t get to see anyone in my family as often as I’d like to, and it’s always a treat to catch up. Anyway, Moy’s a badass. Here’s the squad:
10. Writing. A year of ups and downs for me and my writing. Then again, aren’t they all? In the last 12 months, I finished my third distinct draft of The Hollows, decided against rewriting it again, and moved on with surprisingly few regrets. No regrets, really. The more space I put between me and that third draft, the less I like it, and the more I want to get the story right. I’ve now sketched out the plot for the fourth draft, which already feels more cohesive and engaging, but that’s on a back-burner until I’ve finished something completely different. To that end, I’ve been working on another novel since June or so, tapping away with 100 Days Of Writing. It’s going okay, by which I mean that I’m enjoying it. I very seldom had fun while working on The Hollows #3, and on leaving it behind, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend all these hundreds of hours wallowing in my own head unless it was making me happy. Novels aside, my short story output and publications have been very few and far between — only half-a-dozen pieces here and there, with barely as many written again. I’ve mostly finished a couple of short film scripts, another flash collection and a ‘novella-in-flash’, but there’s nothing wrapped up and ready to go. I only get one day a week to write, and that time needs to go on the new book. And that’s okay. I like the novels best of all.
So that’s that. Looking ahead to 2018, there are a few things I want to do. Most of all, I hope to finish the new novel and another flash collection. And if, by hook or crook, I somehow manage to get those finished, then I’ll start The Hollows #4. I’d like to go back to a Scottish island for a bit. I’d also like to direct a short drama film, which is something I’ve had in my mind for a while. It’s about 12 years since I directed people, and I’ve learned a lot about cinema since then — and about people. Finally, I want to read more, because books are the best of things.
2017 has been a strange one. For all of the terrific things I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, Brexit is still the batshit stupidest thing in the world, and Trump is still a howling sphincter. Those twin sprawling catastrophes have haunted and defined my year, and they both push me into furious despair pretty much whenever I think about them. It hasn’t got easier. It’s worse. The longer they endure, the worse they become. Maybe 2018 is the year we can put them both to bed and step back into the light. Please, 2018. We’re ready.
Yesterday was day 100 from my 100 Days of Writing challenge, or #100DaysOfWriting if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. It’s an initiative from the excellent Jenn Ashworth, who challenged herself to write once a day for 100 days and document the experience — as well as inviting other writers to work alongside her. I got involved after spotting all round top bloke Dave Hartley going for it, and tagged along with him. That was more than 3 months ago, and yes, I’ve written every day. Sometimes it’s only been a sentence, hacked out before bed or in the winter pre-dawn, and sometimes it’s been entire chapters. I’ve only once struggled to get anything at all down — while I was drowning in my video edits — but even then managed to grab a scrap of paper and claw something out of my brain. I’ve added 28,000 words to the new manuscript, and what have I learned?
- Writing every day is not a chore. And if writing becomes a chore, perhaps don’t do it. That’s okay.
- Writing every day forms muscle memory — pen in hand, fingers on keyboard, bum on seat — that makes it easier to write every day.
- Writing every day, even on the shitty days, keeps you in touch with the draft. You can’t possibly come to it cold if you’re working on it every day.
- I don’t feel quite right if I’m not writing. I knew that already, but this has completely affirmed it.
And no.5, I guess, is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve enjoyed this so much I’ve decided to crack on and do another hundred days. If I can add another 28,000 words, then the book will be close to a finished first draft by Easter. That might be wishful thinking — but I guess I’ll find out a hundred days from now.
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:
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.
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—
— 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.
I’ve now seen Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power‘s astonishing documentary, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, about ten times, including a live screening at Glasgow Film Festival last year. It’s an astonishing work—a feature length film comprising entirely of archive footage and BSP’s score, by turns haunting and playful. The footage was lifted entirely from the BFI archives, and tells nothing less than the social history of Britain through our relationship with the sea. It’s extraordinary: through the flickering windows of hundred-year old reels, the film explores Britain’s food, wars, suffrage, leisure, the rise of the middle class, industrial action, economic boom and bust, immigration, capitalism and more.
Ever since watching From The Sea To The Land Beyond, I’ve wanted to work with some archive footage. I used a little of it in my hay meadows documentary To The End We Will Go, but when I recently happened upon some fascinating public domain material, I decided to cut something entirely from archive. And here, then, is something of a music video; taken from my friend Dan Haywood‘s wonderful album Dapple, I’ve cut together footage of USAAF atomic bomb tests and the seminal agricultural documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, all soundtracked by Dan’s glorious song I’ve Got Heaven At My Door.
It’s not the most complex thing in the world, but then again, I have very little time right now—I’ll write more about that in my next post—I threw this together over a couple of lunchtimes at college. For now, here’s the video, and I’ll get back to my novel.