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.
Six months since my last blog post. Six bleeding months. At this rate, I’ll be blogging once a year, which isn’t really blogging at all. But this year has been strange and full of changes, and it continues to be odd. I’ve been brewing on a lot of things.
It all started in August 2017, when Mon and I drove past a very neglected house for sale in the middle of Kendal. It’s a grand old Victorian thing, all wonky floors and high ceilings. The garden backs onto the grounds of Kendal Castle through thickets of trees thronging with birds, and we fell in love with it at once. After months of wrangling, we bought it, then set about weeks of demolition, stripping out countless bags of blown plaster — by my estimation, about 12 tonnes of the stuff — while getting quotes from builders. Then the real fun started. To cut a very long story short, while our love for the place grows day by day, it’s been something of a rollercoaster. It’s still nowhere near habitable, and we’re currently living with Mon’s long-suffering parents while the builders do their buildery thing. Moving house with two kids, dealing with the renovation, and still trying to juggle all of our various jobs, has been nothing shy of demented.
This wasn’t supposed to be a gripe. I only wanted to explain where my writing has gone. On top of everything else, I’ve been absolutely inundated with video work, most especially as an editor, which is increasingly the way I’m moving — I love editing. In the last three months I’ve cut a short film for Alpkit about mental health and frostbite, a promotional film for the Komoot app, and most recently the trailer for Kendal Mountain Festival 2018, which looks like this:
I’m proud of this — as well as editing and writing the poem, I co-directed the little drama sequences that bookend the montage of festival films. I’d forgotten the peculiar adrenaline of directing — it made me hungry for more. I’ve been working a lot with filmmaker Dom Bush and his company Land+Sky, and we’ve more films planned for next year. We’re making a documentary for The Guardian about the sustainability of Cumbrian hill farms, and exploring several other interesting projects. This is the moment to say:
If you need a badass film, get in touch, and we will make you a badass film.
I have managed a little writing this year around everything else. I’m 40,000 words into a completely new book. I haven’t opened the manuscript for a couple of months, but it’ll be there when I’m ready. I’ve also finished a long and weird short story that I don’t quite know what to do with. It’s called Sharks, and it’s simultaneously too odd for a literary submission and not odd enough for a speculative/genre submission. My friend Mark suggested recording it as a wee audio thing, which would be fun, but again it’s time, time, time. I never have enough of it, and I’ve never felt the need for it so keenly.
What else? I’ve read The Vorrh and The Erstwhile as well as fantastic draft novels from a couple of friends. Mon and I popped down to London for the Frida Kahlo show at the V&A, which was extraordinary. Killing Eve is the best BBC drama for years, and I recently caught the Wim Wenders film Wings Of Desire, which has been a firework in my head ever since. I still feel sad when I listen to Frightened Rabbit, but I’m still listening to Frightened Rabbit. There’s more to say, but I want to switch off. I’ll try to blog more often. Things should settle when we get into the house — hopefully in the New Year — and I’ll see if I can remember how to write. Speak soon, comrades.
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 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.
Day 84 of my 100 Days of Writing! I’ve been steady away on the novel, and it’s been feeling pretty good. Managed to blast through 4,074 words, and I liked most of them, too. It’s been my most productive writing day in well over a year — a year of missteps and wrong turns, 100 words here and 200 words there, fuelled on the blind optimism that it would somehow work out in the end. It’s strange how these things go. After three versions of The Hollows, plus my very first, mercifully unpublished novel, I’ve now written five of the blasted things, of which only The Visitors was published — and that came after a torturous year of redrafts and rewrites. As much as I’d like to, I don’t know if I’ll ever work out how to write a long story in a single go. My stories seem to meander and discover things along the way. Characters change, plots change, I change — in particular, I change. Once I’ve lost faith in my writing, I find it hard to reclaim.
I needed a total break from The Hollows, and I have one in the new novel. Writing into the new and empty pages is my favourite part of the process — it’s like reading a book for the first time, and knowing I’m the first person in the world to read it. Possibly the only person, given how the stories stutter. So far on this book, I’ve already battled up to 35,000 words and then promptly cut 20,000 of them. No matter how it hurts, the last years have taught me to understand when it isn’t working — and why. If it takes all that pruning to discover the true shape of the thing, then not a word of it is wasted.
My soundtrack today has been a combination of Mogwai, Rachels, and Gavin Bryars. I first heard Bryars’ astonishing work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me on BBC 6Music, and immediately set out to track it down. It’s twinned with the equally extraordinary Sinking Of The Titanic — two tracks soaring through 50 minutes of woozy wonder. Check it out, popsters:
I’m absolutely thrilled that friend and fantabulist writer David Hartley has gathered my short story Hutch into the sweeping, surreal cradle of The Hillside Curation, his excellent occasional mixtape. With a themed selection of stories and poems performed by Dave, and a swaggering electronic soundtrack mixed by his brother Rick, the show is 45 minutes of brain-bending brilliance. This episode is themed around animals — as well as my story (guinea pigs) there’s work by Kate Feld (cats), Lewis Carroll (crocodiles), Joanne Limburg (ants) and Dave himself (myriad sorts of buggy beasties).
I’ve written before about how professional performers can transform a story, and I feel the same here. Dave’s reading of Hutch is a hundred times more powerful than mine, and Rick’s soundtrack lifts it into another space altogether. It’s like hearing the story anew. My humble thanks to the brothers Hartley.
Friends, go seek thy headphones: