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.
In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.
After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.
I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?
I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.
So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.
Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.
Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.
Last night, with slightly more than an hour to go before the deadline of the MMU Novella Competition, I finally finished my novella The Year of the Whale. The image above is a randomised cloud of the most common words in the manuscript, which is a really satisfying way to look back on what I’ve made.
I started writing it in 2009, and it has spent entire years untouched, waiting for attention in the dusty recesses of my hard drive. It’s written in first person with a very particular voice, and it’s been strange to return to it so sporadically over the years, and take up the mantle of that voice again. I’ve wanted to finish it for a long time – it was one of my New Year’s resolutions, no less – and I’m thankful to the competition for giving me the spark to get it done. I don’t expect anything to come of it – that way madness lies – but I’m thrilled to have wrapped it up last.
The Year of the Whale is the story of a man called Henry Cowx. He is a fisherman and walking guide in Morecambe Bay, riddled with arthritis and wracked with guilt. His story explores that guilt, and gives some quiet thought to what it means to remember. It’s about walking and place and ghosts and folk tales, and our connections with the land. It’s at the heart of my obsession with threshold spaces. It’s a meditative, elegiac story, and a long way from where I’d like to develop my work – but Henry has never been far from my mind, and I’m glad to give him closure at last.
I discussed some of the genesis of the story in my Thievery post for Kirsty Logan.
I’m working my way through some film jobs at the moment, but it’s almost time to get back into The Hollows.
I’m honoured and delighted to have contributed a post to Kirsty Logan‘s long-running series of story inspirations, Thievery. It’s entirely possible to drown yourself in the wealth of stories Kirsty has curated, and I thoroughly recommend you do.
For my post, I confessed about a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words, because I no longer knew what it was about. One day, it will be reborn as The Year Of The Whale.
Here’s the story so far: Northern Lights / The Year Of The Whale.
I’ve talked a lot about wanting to get back to my novella The Year Of The Whale, and I’ve just spotted this novella competition judged by the excellent writer Jenn Ashworth. The deadline is distant enough that I think I can get it finished in time, so that’s now a concrete target for me.
In the course of researching and writing The Year Of The Whale, I’ve come across a huge variety of whale material. I’ve seen Medieval whales, drawn as dragons and devils, and countless images of beached whales, spilling themselves in streaks onto the shingle. And then there’s much weirder stuff, like this profoundly sad, surreal animation. It’s about childhood betrayal, I suppose, but there’s a lot of other things going on in there at the same time. I would say ‘Enjoy’, but it’s not that sort of film.
Okay. So I’m late to the Patrick Ness party, but delighted to be here at last. Agent Sue recommended the Chaos Walking trilogy to me earlier this year, which I read and loved; then my excellent wife Monica gave me A Monster Calls for my birthday. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever owned, and I’ve been saving it for a time I’m marginally less stressed. I planned to read a chapter or two each night, and really savour it. In the end, I devoured it in a single sitting. It’s one of the most striking, compelling, heartbreaking books I’ve read in a very long time. Jim Kay‘s illustrations – bringing almost every page to life – are sumptuously perfect, and Patrick Ness writes with power, precision and grace. The intertwining of artist and writer blurs the boundaries between novels and graphic novels. I think this is also the first book I’ve read that utterly defies ebooks. The story would be the same on a Kindle or Nook, of course, but there’s no way of electronically mapping this sort of paper book; the weight, the feel of the paper, the shape of the book, the stark integration of a full-page illustration with a page of a text. It’s an experience, and it’s simply beautiful. Read it.
It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:
I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.
I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:
Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.
Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:
“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”
Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:
Engines of Thought
by BigCharlie Poet
There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor
The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor
The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor
They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor
But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor
And here’s my response:
Books Like Grains Of Sand
The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.
It led her to a door.
“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.
In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.
“All of them?” she whispered.
The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.
“All of them,” it said.
It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.
Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.
She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.
“But where to start?” she murmured.
She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.
The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.
In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.
She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.