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.
I could say I’ve never read anything like the first book, but that wouldn’t be true, because there are other stories that are as sublimely transporting and otherworldly as The Vorrh, and all of them are titans of their type: Gormenghast, Dune, Earthsea. I’m not exaggerating to place Catling in the company of Peake, Herbert and Le Guin. The Vorrh is a titanic work of imagination, simply sensational in its scope and reach. Essenwald and the forest make for a hypnotic kaleidoscope of the real, the surreal and the metaphysical, while the supporting characters simply sing, a chorus of humanity adrift in a world both wonderful and godless.
Sequels The Erstwhile and The Cloven round off the trilogy, and they are narratively compelling, but flawed. Modern publishing hasn’t done Catling any favours, as both books are littered with typos and read as an edit short of finished — rushed to market, I suspect, when they needed the craft and care of the first one. The big ideas are undercooked and confusing. The trilogy consistently considers questions of being and belonging, but where The Vorrh explored the boundaries of human consciousness in a sort of careful, measured ambiguity, The Erstwhile and The Cloven crash through them in bouts of confusing exposition.
As works of speculative fiction, they’re essential. As works of literature, they offer diminishing returns on a staggering beginning — the sequels still brilliant, but bound to fall short of the first. Frustrating, inspiring, bewildering, mesmerising, sincere — completely crucial to all writers and readers of speculative fiction. I’ll carry The Vorrh with me for a long time.
This, in one interview, is me in my 20s versus me in my 30s.
As demanded of me by precisely no one, I thought I’d share my current writing jams. I haven’t written much of anything while we’ve been working on the house, but now we’re finally out the other side of it, I’m trying to remember what words feel like. If all you have is a hammer, indeed.
Anyway — writing to music is important to me. I need music to get myself into a place of focus, and most especially to maintain it. Focus is pretty hard to come by at the moment, but I’m working on it, little by little, as my brain starts to process stories again after a year without them.
I recently caught the astounding film Arrival. First of all, it’s extraordinary, and secondly the soundtrack is exactly the sort of thing I look for when I’m working. I’ve known of Johann Johannsson for several years, and his album IBM 1401: A User’s Manual is a longstanding favourite of mine — but his work on Arrival is even better. Nuanced, complex, curious, cohesive, entirely otherworldly, always evolving — it’s perfect for the film, and perfect to write to. Johannsson was a mighty talent gone too soon.
I’ve also been listening a lot to Thomas Was Alone by David Housden, and added another computer game soundtrack in Disasterpiece’s tremendous music for Fez. The palette of instruments from both games is ideal — all bloops and synths and fuzz and chimes and the sound of the sea.
Special mention to Roni Size and Reprazent, too — I haven’t been story-writing to this, but it’s been the soundtrack to the last month of college marking. I think it was in 1998 or 1999 when my friend Bob and I caught the first train out of Aberdeen and danced all night at Homelands, where Reprazent played a set much like this. Sobering to think of that being more than half my lifetime ago. Roni Size is still banging though.
That’s me for now. I’m finding it very hard to write at the moment. I’m missing the fizz of being fully immersed in a story, but I’m trying to give myself a break for the physical and emotional toll of renovating the house, plus running two film courses, plus this fucking toxic Brexit bullshit, plus the colossal existential horror of environmental collapse in our lifetime, all of which I soak up, constantly. There’s sometimes not much left for writing. But without it, I’m not sure who I am.
For the last couple of months I’ve been teaching myself to juggle. I learned the basic three-ball cascade when I was 18 or 19 or so, but haven’t really juggled since. My excellent wife gave me some balls and a second-hand juggling book for Christmas, and since then I’ve been practicing wherever I can, a ten minutes here, five minutes there. I’m rubbish, but getting better, and can now do runs of the basic patterns. I’ve nailed the Cascade and Reverse Cascade, the Half Shower and Juggler’s Tennis — eventually I’m aiming for Mill’s Mess and Windmills and Box and Rubenstein’s Revenge. (Like mushrooms and moths, juggling patterns have tremendous names.)
Why? I’m doing it for fun — because it reminds me not to take myself too seriously, which I’m far too capable of. I’m doing it for fitness, too, and something like mindfulness. But mostly for fun.
This is a long overdue post. Actually, all my posts are overdue these days. Last month I was honoured to take part in Nothing Stays Secret For Long, a one-off event at Manchester’s Chetham’s Library organised by First Draft cabaret nights. Chetham’s is an extraordinary place — the oldest public lending library in the English-speaking world, and a collage of architectures — it’s been a house, a courtroom, a school, a college, and at one point served as home to Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, scientist, philosopher and spy. We left our coats in the room where he accidentally summoned the devil.
Nothing Stays Secret For Long gathered several poets, writers, singers and performers to respond to a key item in the library’s collection — the diaries of Dora Turnor, an invalid Victorian teenager. She was very poorly but also very rich, and the survival of her diaries offers an astonishing window into her life and times. We were asked to create a ten-minute piece from the transcripts of her journals, some of which can be read online.
Reading someone else’s diaries is an extraordinarily transporting thing. Taking that private experience for your own is a betrayal, a theft and an intimacy, all at once — even 150 years later. I liked Dora. For all of her wealth and occasionally snobbery, there was a humour and a hope that carried her personality across the decades. When she was ill — and she was often ill — her loneliness, frustration and misery boiled on the page. There were also plenty of wry moments that are still written in teenage diaries all over the world — ‘Will I die alone?’ — ‘Does everybody hate me?’
With such rich source material, I was absolutely flooded with fleeting ideas — writing boxes and grumpy golems — but none of them seemed to stick. I wrote a story about a haunting in the waters of a Victorian spa, but it wasn’t working either. With less than a week to go, I started anew, and wrote a story called A Choice & A Choosing — although, in the end, it almost wrote itself, as many of my favourite stories seem to. When in doubt, go weird. I’ll pop it up at some point.
The event was a wonder. I love the sense of community at spoken word nights, and Nothing Stays Secret was packed with it — 80 of us sharing the vaulted ceilings of Chetham’s, swords and lances on the wall. I loved how each of the performers had taken something slightly different from Dora. In combination, the patchwork of our words brought something of her into the room as well (though I imagine she’d have been rolling her eyes at it all). In particular, I want to acknowledge the startling, mesmerising poetry of Nasima Begum and Amina Atiq, the bittersweet cabaret “or whatever this is” of Mitch Robinson, the comedy of Sophie Galpin and the music of Yemi Bolatiwa. It was an absolute honour to share the stage with such talent.
I’ve been needing something like this to remind me who I am. Mon and I are scrabbling for every scrap of time we can find, engrossed in a project that’s taken over much of our lives — I’ll share news of that later — and it’s all too easy, when I’m not writing, to wonder whether I’ll get back to work at all. I’m thankful for nights like this to remind me where I’m going — a map to my compass.
First Draft are doing five more of these events in Manchester and Newcastle, so try to support them if you can. They’re doing good work.
Let’s play out with this woozy delight from audio whizz Rickerly, produced in response to Dora’s diaries. Rickerly is also the magpie maestro who creates the Hillside Curation podcast with genius David Hartley, and you should definitely check that out too.
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.