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.
Nearly four months since my last post! Ooof. This isn’t a very good blog, is it? Loads has happened, but I’ve been too busy to talk about it — my usual morass of college marking was swamped by the millstone of an Ofsted inspection, and for weeks all I’ve done is stare at assessment forms. Around all of that, I’ve performed some new stories at Spotlight in Lancaster, had work accepted by Jellyfish Review, National Flash Fiction Day and Ghostland Zine, was longlisted for a NFFD contest and am currently shortlisted for a Liars League competition on the theme of Heads & Tails. I’ve written lots of new flash stories and nearly finished what might be another collection, maybe, probably, perhaps. I also read my version of the Hobyahs at Verbalise in Kendal, which went like this:
I love telling that story, and I need a haircut.
Away from writing, Mon and I are now actively collecting the 214 Wainwrights, having climbed Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Coniston Old Man, Illgill Head, Whin Rigg, Castle Crag and Helm Crag since my last post. It’s fascinating trying to decode old Wainwright’s spidery notes. He was barking. I quite enjoy the uphill climbs, and I absolutely love the sense of being atop the hills — the way the ranges link into plateaus, and it feels as though you’re walking on the roof of the world. Downhills are not so much fun, but there’s usually a beer somewhere at the bottom, so all is well. A Wainwright looks like this:
The big thing is the novel, I suppose. When I last wrote about it, it was finished, for the third time, redrafted, and sent away to my excellent agent, who gave me some excellent notes. As always, Sue sees what I can’t, and while she loved a lot about the book, there was a structural issue I hadn’t considered, and it needed sorting. She’s absolutely right about the structure, but I can’t go back to the book. I can’t. This is my third distinct version of The Hollows, as well as countless false starts and variations, and I honestly estimate I’ve written about 500,000 words of this story across about forty different incarnations. It has melted my brain and stifled my imagination. I thought for a day or two about whether I should redraft it again, but honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard. For now, The Hollows is shelved.
Given that it’s swallowed three years of my life, I feel surprisingly okay about putting it away. I did most of my grieving for the second draft, which was the one I loved most. The third draft deals with profound ideas, and is more LiTeRarY, but it lost all the impetuous fun of the second draft — it wasn’t fun to write, and I want to enjoy my writing. It had become such a corkscrew of ideas that I could barely think of anything else, and it was making me unhappy. Since putting The Hollows to one side, my brain has begun to thaw, and for the first time in a year, I’m feeling the fizz of ideas. Until that sensation came back, I hadn’t even realised it was gone.
In a few years, I think I’ll go back to the Hollows. There’s a whole world there, and that world is exciting, but I need a better story to navigate it. I’ve already sketched out the plot for a completely different (and simpler!) version of the same idea, and when I’m ready, I’ll see where that goes. Until then, I need a break from swamps and memories — and instead I’ve launched myself into one of the other stories I’ve had circling overhead. I’m taking the advice of sensei Stephen King, though, and writing this one with the door closed. I’ve learned a lot about getting ahead of myself. I’ve also learned why they called it ‘the difficult second novel’.
Because it bloody is.
That’s me for now. Fail again, fail better, right?
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.
Well, I could scarcely be more pleased with this: the mighty Liar’s League of London have accepted another of my short stories. After Carrie Cohen did such a fine job with Art Is Long, Life Is Short, I’m absolutely delighted to share this brilliant reading of What’s For You Won’t Pass You By.
The actor, Cliff Chapman, has transformed the story. The dull-witted violence I imagined for the farmer is gone — and in its place something far more human, far more visceral, and far more frightening. The farmer has become more downtrodden, more wounded, sadder and more reactive, and the character is all the stronger for it. I’d imagined him as Irish or Scottish, but Cliff’s West Country realisation is absolutely perfect — it’s better than my version. This is the second time Liar’s League have transformed one of my stories, and I absolutely love seeing what these talented actors bring to my work — on each occasion, they’ve elevated my story and made it into something bigger.
Here, then, and nicely in time for Hallowe’en, is my short story What’s For You Won’t Pass You By, read by Cliff Chapman for Liar’s League.
There’s a great line from Stephen King — one of many — that says something like,
If you haven’t got the time to read, then you haven’t got the time — or the tools — to write.
For pretty much all of last year, I didn’t read. This was for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was playing some truly imaginative and transporting video games on my iPad, like Year Walk, Limbo, Botanicula, Thomas Was Alone, The Room 1 & 2 & 3, Around The World In 80 Days. I convinced myself that they were an adequate substitute for books, and they also filled my need to solve puzzles and problems. Besides, I had so little time, and it was easy to get a quick fix of something in a game, where books needed concentration and space. In truth, of course, they were making me lazy. They needed more effort, but less imagination.
Secondly, as I became increasingly bamboozled by my own book, I deliberately and increasingly shunned other books. This time, I told myself that I didn’t need any more ideas floating around my head when I was drowning in too many ideas of my own. I wanted blank space in my brain, not clutter.
Thirdly, I was so damned tired that I was only managing two or three pages a night before my eyes began to drag. A book a month, a book in two months. I was writing faster than I was reading. So what was the point? In short, reading had become a chore, and my pile of books to be read was going up much faster than it was coming down. I was tired and lost and my wits were dull.
Eventually, something changes, because something always must.
Earlier this year, I taught a creative writing night class. There were some cool writers on the course, and we had a lot of fun. Each week I gave homework of short stories or novel extracts — Neil Gaiman, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel — and we’d begin the following session with close reading, trying to dig a little deeper into how the author made the story sing — and how we could test the same techniques in our own work.
Around the same time, my friend Steve started an online book club between a few old friends. Living in York, Kendal, Oxford, London and Nottingham, we don’t really get to see each other anymore, and he thought it would be a good way to stay in touch. (He was right.)
Between these two happenings, I started reading again, and more importantly, enjoying it. Somehow, I’d forgotten how much I loved to read. Before Dora exploded in our lives, I used to read two or three books a week. And I’m nowhere near that, but in recent months I’ve read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun, Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett, Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Slade House and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, The Book Of Strange New Things and Under The Skin by Michel Faber, The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, After The Quake by Haruki Murakami, Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, Stirring The Mud by Barbara Hurd, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, 1356 by Bernard Cornwell, The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an extraordinarily good short story collection by my pal Luke Brown and a bunch of others that I can’t recall. I also reread His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman — nothing makes me feel quite so aware of my own failings as a writer than that extraordinary trilogy of Northern Lights, Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass.
Now, I know that doesn’t come out at two or three a week, but it’s an awful lot more than none a week. And I’ve come to realise how right Stephen King is. You can’t take a drink without visiting the well. You can’t write stories without reading stories. I’d convinced myself that all those other worlds, other characters, other ideas would jumble and twist with my own, and make things worse — but it hasn’t been like that at all. I’ve come to discover that every time I read a book, it adjusts my compass for what I think writing is supposed to be — and that I can’t write without that compass. I’ve remembered what it is to drown in a story, to be so totally committed to another character that I forget myself, and to come out the other side it, changed.
Listen to the King — reading is the tools for writing. I don’t know how I’d forgotten it, but I’ve remembered now. My compass is beginning to right itself, and the needle ticks, ticks towards the track. The direction is still murky, but it’s surer underfoot, and I’ve Lyra Belacqua ahead of me, tutting.
What have you been reading, people? What have I missed? What are your tools?
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.