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.
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?
Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.
I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?
I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?
Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.
I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.
The excellent people at Manchester’s premium spoken word experience Bad Language kindly invited me to join them for a reading at Kendal Calling festival this weekend. Wading ankle-deep through mud to the Carvetti stage in the Lost Eden area, I was humbled to join Mark Powell, David Hartley and host Joe Daly in bringing words to the woods. They are fantastic writers, and it was an absolute delight to hear more of their work. And because we all camped together, I was actually able to have a natter with them afterwards – on the rare occasions Mon and I go to Manchester, we always have to leave early, so it was a pleasure getting to know them better. Good people. Between Dave’s otherworldly species-bending marvels, Mark’s lists of life hacks and surreal perfume adverts, and Joe’s wonderful reinventions of everyday struggles as particular and personal Everests, it was humbling company to keep.
I read Coffin Routes, some of my new circus stories and several bits of Marrow. It was a tough and mobile crowd – the stage was right beside a main walkway between much louder stages – but there were gasps, winces and laughs throughout, so I think we held our own. We made the Top 12 highlights of the festival for Gigwise, too.
We didn’t catch much else of the festival, but what we caught was fantastic. As always, British Sea Power were magnificent. There aren’t many bands who sustain years of constant reinvention without sacrificing their core identity – Mogwai, for sure, and maybe Super Furry Animals – but BSP are treasures. They made ferocious headliners of the Woodlands stage on Saturday night, tearing through their back catalogue to finish with a sprawling Spirit of St Louis complete with crowdsurfing and Ursa the bear. One day, I will be that bear. One day. That was the sixth time I’ve seen them, and they keep getting better.
And then there was Kate Tempest. Mon and I knew and liked what we’d already heard of her work, so thought we’d mosey along to see her set on Friday. We were there early enough to be right at the front for one of the most amazing hours of my life. We thought she’d be good, but she was extraordinary. Brimful of passion, rage, courage and love, she was electrifying from start to finish, scintillating, blazing her way through the set like a sermon. And the music, too, was titanic, walls of sound that towered upward, a perfect fusion with the words. It was magnificent. Near the end of the set, Kate made eye contact with Mon for ten, fifteen seconds, rapped to her, sung to her. For the rest of that night, and the next day, and even now, aftershocks of her performance are still shaking through my life. Nothing seems quite the same.
The only downer was missing Seven Seals. They were playing at the same time as the Bad Language set on Sunday. In between readings, I could hear them scorching through their psychedelic synth-punk wonders. More people need to know about Seven Seals. Everyone needs to know about Seven Seals. Go and see Seven Seals.
When the reading was done, Mon and I said our farewells to the Bad Language crew and fled while we could, squelching through the swamps to the car. The campsite was a happy, slightly delirious Lord Of The Flies. Festivals and mud. That’s how it goes, right? A hundred tons of woodchip to soak up the swamps. It’s just as well I’m writing about bogs. Kendal Calling proved invaluable research.
Thanks again to Bad Language. It was an honour to serve with you, gentlemen.
Here’s Kate Tempest:
I haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.
I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.