Notes From My Head – The Comeback – Week #7

Age. It’s just a number. Although the number does get bigger each year. And THIS (fucking) year I’m starting to feel like I am the number. Covid came and has lingered alongside the every present aches and pains. The year went from Covid directly into my first serious running injury since I turned my ankle into an ominously dark and bulbous monster with the help of a rabbit hole. Oh and then refusing to accept that it hurt for the final 40 odd miles of The Gower 50 ultra marathon (read all about that adventure HERE.)

When I went into the computer shop to change my last laptop, the 19-year-old kid behind the counter looked at my six-year-old model and described it as ‘vintage.’ ‘Vintage?’ I wanted to scream. ‘Son, I’ve got shirts older than you! I own underpants that have seen more of the world!’

John Niven – also feeling his age

All of which has got very little to do with writing.

Except that it has left me digging for answers to some existential questions deep down in my soul. And this has definitely allowed my mind to search for creative answers, mostly through words. The resignation that my foot injury probably spells the end of my big running ambitions has prompted me to spread my interest around and see what else this is on offer to challenge me in my leisure time.

I want to write without shame or pride or over-compensation in one direction or another. To write freely.

Zadie Smith

Swimming. I’m loving a bit of swimming and I reckon I can morph that into loving a lot of swimming. Cycling and strength training too, focussing on what I can do.

And, of course, writing (and reading).

For those that haven’t been following these blog posts, I’m writing a novel with the working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (or DTDLLTO) and I am using the blog to hold myself to account every week. This is week seven of the great writing comeback, you can read all about the previous 6 weeks HERE.

In numbers, this might look like a fallow week. A couple of thousand words of the first draft doesn’t quite hit my target of averaging 400 words a day. I need this number if I hope to have a rough first draft down by the end of the year.

That didn’t sound like much writing until I flick through my journal. I must have written about 30 pages in the last week. What on earth do I write about? Well, I am really into my my free writing. If I’m at work and 15 minutes ahead of schedule I might set an alarm on my phone for 15 minutes and then just write whatever comes into my head. I’ve read about something called ‘morning pages‘. A simple meditative tool – instead of reaching for Twitter as I make my morning coffee, I reach for my notebook and pen. Go me eh? Except…….

Embarrassed that I ever allowed a pack of sociopathic dweebs from Silicon Valley to manipulate my reality, to fuck with my dopamine levels, to monetise my personal information, replicating the details of my identity and selling them back to me.

Author Brad Listi on giving up Twitter

Except……. I know I’m a bloomin’ addict, and I know that addiction reveals its disgusting yet inviting head whenever Twitter saunters into sight. So keeping it out of sight is probably the way forward. From today (Monday) I will be writing in my journal exactly the amount of time I spend on Twitter, I’ve installed a brilliant app which counts this time for me. It is eye wateringly embarrassing just how much time on spend on the app, despite constantly declaring that I’m challenged for time.

Talking of time…..

We live by the clock.

I’d love to be so free spirited that time didn’t matter to me. We’ve set our lives up to happen in blocks of time. Some of this is of course essential – the dog needs feeding twice a day and never mind the dog, I NEED feeding at regular intervals. And in order to eat, I need to buy food. In order to buy food I need an income. In order to have an income I need to work. And work, like it or not, happens at VERY SPECIFIC TIMES. Not only that, once I’m at work, the customers expect their deliveries in the time windows they’ve booked. And on and on it goes.

We live by the clock.

Another phone gripe. Autocorrect. I’m writing this on the laptop. The WordPress app highlights in red the words which it doesn’t recognise or believes to be wrong. This is nannying to a certain extent but nowhere near as much as the feckin’ phone. The phone actually replaces words without asking me first. The thing completely rules us doesn’t it? Taking what we are trying to say and converting it into a sentence which pleases the algorithm.

I feel watched. But not in a morally superior way. I am aware that I too am watching.

There are five whole pages in my journal devoted to ‘wants and needs’. And this is the beauty of ‘morning pages’, the thoughts just pour on to the page before the challenges of the day have chance to distract me, to suck me in, to muddle my mind and leave me unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

These blog posts fulfil the same purpose – they’re just me being me. I’m nothing special, there’s nothing remarkable, astonishing, inspiring about me. BUT, this is about ME. And it feels good to have a relationship with the truths of my existence.

What do I need? What do I want?

They should be quite different questions.

I definitely need the basics of life – food, water, shelter, security.

But what about love? Freedom? Privacy? Having a voice? Are these needs or wants? Or are they simply rights?

And what about opportunities to be creative, to express myself? I feel like I need this in my life, but maybe I’m just greedy.

Here’s my take – I exchange my labour and my time for the means to secure my basic needs. I’m one of the lucky ones, I also have the means to enrich my life with pleasures that might be classed as wants. I believe that those of us with excess of any size should pool a proportion of spare resources in order to secure the basic needs, and rights, of those less able to do so themselves.

Some of the great art and culture this country has every produced was created in the time afforded by having a society which supports and rewards such endeavours. And unless we want to move towards a soulless, methodically sound but culturally empty world, we surely need to champion our creatives, not punish them for operating outside a world which celebrates the worst of capitalism.

That’s what I think anyway.

The main character in DTDLLTO is wracked with guilt and shame about the state of the world. He sees inequality, discrimination, othering, terrorism and any amount of ‘bad news’ and feels guilty that he feels guilty. But he doesn’t know what he can DO if he wants to be part of any counter movement. In fact he grapples with his own prejudices, he is aware of them but they might be culturally written into the dna of his life, and he doesn’t come up with solutions.

I think there’s a bit of all of us in him and maybe I’m looking to write my way to a clearer mind for myself as well as for him.

Seven weeks in to my writing recovery and I’m having a ball with the pen and keyboard. There are so many ideas appearing in my journal and it feels liberating. My writing time and energy might be shared out rather thinly amongst my projects and ideas but that’s ok, because, well, that’s ok.

Whatever else people, keep on keeping on.

Why, Oh Why, Oh Why?

The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life

Zadie Smith

Why am I writing THIS novel? Why am I writing it NOW?

We need to get to the root of my story…..

Is this story actually my truth?

Does it successfully and eloquently articulate the struggles,? The questions? The confusions of life? Does it ask and try to answer the BIG quandries?

Life eh – There’s no weekly email newsletter we can subscribe to which might act as a handbook – no roadmap to steer us from young to old.

We have to work this shit out ourselves.

If we’re lucky enough to meet someone who gives us the courage to tackle the questions, then that makes for a golden life.

It took me 47 years. And 8 years later it is still getting more golden by the day.

We’ve been married for 7 of those years – I have whatever is the opposite of a 7 year itch.

May 16th 2015

7 Years today, if you’re reading this, er, TODAY! (May 16th)

Yes, we’re celebrating the best 7 years of my life. Nicky truly has asked me over and over, “why shouldn’t people like ‘us’ chase our dreams?”

And so I write.

I’m getting much better at writing a shit sentence. I am allowing myself simply get the thoughts out of my head. Releasing them it into the physical world makes them real. My story needs to be a presence – a sentence may be shit, and I might cringe as I write it, but once typed, it is there ready to be edited.

You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Jodi Picoult

So, my book.

What book? The one I affectionately nick name DTDLLTO (working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners). My first book, my first novel, my first attempt to tell the truth and have the conviction to carry it through.

I was stuttering with it, but this year, particularly with my new gung ho draft zero approach, it has started to flow from me.

I needed the freedom, the freedom to choose to look inside myself, to find the truths of who I am.

I give myself permission to write it.

What are my truths? What are my stories? Who should be telling my truths and who has the authority to narrate my stories? Well, I’m finding out…..

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya Angelou

Traps I’m trying to avoid – creating a character in the shadow of me. I started taking all of the parts of my life where I believe I am morally right and getting my character to ‘virtue signal’ through their behaviour.

As Brad Listi says, the reader will spot the puppet strings pretty quickly. It’s bullshit anyway, nobody is that morally pure!

Who am I writing the book for?

Does it even need readers? Am I the author and the reader? Are you the reader? One tip I’ve heard is to imagine how different the story would be if it was read allowed to my mum, or my boss, or my best friend, or YOU! It’s a great exercise in finding the right voice.

In the first draft, everything seems to be all too obvious. It is in no way elegant. Yet. Hopefully this draft will contain the truth though and I can add my wished for subtlety in future drafts. I don’t want to dictate to the reader, whoever that might be.

There weren’t many words last week, about a 1000. What I have achieved is the feeling of why I’m writing this story and I’ve given myself the go ahead to crack on.

Life is confusing. Our emotions are confusing. Our opinions can feel confusing. The challenge for me is to harness all that confusion and let my two main characters in DTDLLTO navigate the swirling waters of truth.

You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.

F Scott Fitzgerald

Social media has us by the balls!

I’m still a Twitter addict and as with every other addiction that I’m recovering from, moderation seems to be an impossible option. I need to find a solution though because I like Twitter for the communities I’m lucky enough to be part of. I’m not great at ‘real life’ socialising, and the running, writing and Coventry City supporting friends I’ve made on Twitter have become important to me.

I’ve installed an app to monitor my internet use and have set limits for the sites I use – It’s working so far I’m pleased to say. Let’s see if more efficient Twitter time translates into more productive writing time!

Come on, let’s hurl ourselves into the next creative week.

Onwards comrades.

A Word After A Word After A Word

The previous week’s update highlighted a patchy performance but I’d still managed a few words – find out more here.

So, how has week 5 gone of my writing comeback?

I guess for anybody except a full time writer, scribbling opportunities will be ‘patchy’ to say the least. Full time writers, I would imagine, have just the same interruptions and distractions as the rest of us, not least from themselves – we can all procrastinate the time away….

I’m an expert of procrastination – Rob Deering on the excellent Running Commentary Podcast joked about writers taking to Twitter and using the hashtag #AMWRITING as opposed to, you know, actually writing! I can be guilty of this, although I do tend to wait for those times when I’m chuffed with myself for the progress I’ve made.

Writing doesn’t need to be complicated, in fact, it being something I do with my precious leisure time, it really should be a joy. And 90% of that time it is.

In the other 10% of the time, I try and remind myself how Margaret Attword tries to make the process of writing a little simpler:

A word after a word after a word is power.

I’m still not running (I know, I’m feeling a little bit sorry for myself!) due to this annoying foot injury, but I did have a run at DTDLLTO (Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners – the working title of my first novel) last week. I found a state of flow several times in the short windows of opportunity I’ve had available, and have written about 2000 words. My first draft, or draft zero, or whatever you want to call it is now sitting at about 11,000 words.

I’m drafting away on my opening scenes, working across the first three chapters. I’m really happy with my two main characters, the setting and what we see them getting up to. When I come back, in however many months time, I’ll be looking to find a less clunky way for them to move to the next phase of the book, the meat of it. My story has quite a powerful and ever present back story which steers and, quite deliberately, hangs a shadow over the present day. I’ll be checking myself that I’m not shoe horning that back story into the narrative, rather letting the reader gradually piece it together for themselves.

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

W. Somerset Maugham

It really is sinking in now, the message that I’ve just got to get the story out of my head and on to paper – creating this draft zero – and then I can zone in and edit it in to shape. So many writers echo the sentiment: “You can’t edit a blank page.”

I’m also getting better at realising that it’s about the story, the thing that is in my head. As writer Steve Almond said recently on The Other PPL Podcast, the point is to create a body of work which reveals the truths behind my writing, not to try and impress with the size of my vocabulary!

AND – I’ve read some cracking flash fiction this week, not least in The Smokelong Quarterly Journal. They also often interview authors about how the pieces came about. I particulalry enjoyed the piece from Corey Farrenkopf recently and the follow up interview. Check it out, if that’s your thing.

So another week goes by.

It’s good, my journal has had plenty of use this week, I’ve listened to and read plenty of writing craft advice, I’m still reading the beautifully written To Paradise and whenever I get the chance, doing the one thing which will keep my projects moving forward, I’m turning up!

Onwards my friends, onwards.

Week IV – The Scribbler’s Return

Following on from a very productive week of being Mr WriterMcWriteyFace, where the words flowed like a burst water main (don’t believe me eh? Have a peek HERE), last week was more of a dripping tap in comparison.

But there have been words. Some of them thrown together to make sentences. Some of which make sense. Others will be edited over and over until they no longer exist, then rewritten before starting the process all over again. It’s all writing though, it all counts.

Seriously though, after getting so much momentum the previous week, this has been a case of ‘After The Lord Mayors Show‘.

A bit like with my fitness goals, it is at these times when I need to pull up my mojo socks and focus. Just keep turning up Kevin, keep on turning up.

James Baldwin knew.

There isn’t a ‘cheat’.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

James Baldwin

There’s no Monday to Sunday updates this week – just a list of positives:

  • I wrote about 1000 words of DTDLLTO, my novel in draft.
  • There’s a blog post coming, my reminder to myself to be positive.
  • My journal has been very busy – ideas, poem drafts, diary entries.
  • I’ve listened to some brilliant writerly podcasts and other audio.
  • Dreams and half awake thoughts have been committed to paper for inspiration.

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

A.L. Kennedy

The host of my favourite writerly podcast, OtherPPL, has a book coming out. On the pod this week was a free sample of the audio book, read by the author himself, Brad Listi. Check it out HERE. I do harp on about OtherPPL, but that is because it really is a fine creation. Brad’s podcasts never fail to stoke my creative fires and I reckon his book will be a writerly tonic too.

Also in my ears this week has been Nikesh Shukla’s new writing craft offering, Your Story Matters, which has a fresh and pacy feel to it. Another book which is narrated by the author himself, it is a thoroughly engaging listen.

Shukla reminds us that the word count is only one measure of writing success:

Some days you get those words down quickly, other days you pad it out cos you’re tired or stressed or uninspired or it’s a hard sequence. Don’t write 1000 bad words down just to hit a word count. Think about it in terms of time rather than word count.

I’m also reminding myself that it isn’t just writing that counts as writing: thinking counts as writing, walking and imagining my characters in different surrounding counts as writing. Journaling counts as writing, listening to audiobooks counts as writing. Reading of course, without reading there would be no writing. Reading definitely counts as writing. Browsing, or better still, engaging with Writers HQ, yup that counts as writing. Blogging, diarising, taking about my writing, even tweeting my writerly chums, it all counts as writing. There’s even a tongue in cheek Counts As Writing Twitter account.

So I’m not beating myself over last week’s wordcount, in fact the process of tapping these few words has reinvigorated my get-up-and-sit-down-and-fucking-write-y-ness.

Yup, I’m all over it now.

On on for another week.

The Writing Comeback (Week III)

It’s Not All About The Numbers

Ahh, the blog post you’ve all been waiting for.

Here goes – week three of my writing comeback. Not everything can be measured in numbers.

Not for me anyway. Pleasure should not be quantified, happiness isn’t counted. Not in our house.

There’s a great interview with Zac Smith on this week’s Other PPL Podcast where Zac and host Brad Listi talk about how the pleasure of writing comes in the writing! It sounds obvious but, again forgive my analogy, it is just like running – one step at a time, one word at a time – it clears my mind.

Thinking very much counts as writing

What about progress? Surely I’ve always measured my running – longest distances, fastest times, PBs – and I’m guilty as charges I’m afraid. But it is till mainly about the feeling.

This reboot of mine (read this if you fancy) is all about BEING a writer and just as soon as my foot is healed, it will be about BEING a runner too

Of course I’ll be using numbers to measure my progress! Hopefully writing my estimated 90,000 words of the first draft of the novel, tentatively titled Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (DTDLLTO) by the end of the year. But a good stint of writing will still be successful, if it FEELS successful, regardless of how many words I get down on the page.

SO, for your (and my) pleasure, here’s week three’s progress (and yes there are some numbers!)

Monday: I finalised and posted two, count ’em, TWO blog posts – Click here to read all about the two months since Nicky and myself became vegans or here to catch up with last week’s writing update.

Making people on paper, much like making them in your uterus, takes a long time, is physically and mentally exhausting, and makes you wee a lot. So brace yourself, we’re going in.

Writers HQ offering a reality check for the writer!

Tuesday: Busy McBusyface didn’t get chance to add words today.

Wednesday: On the timer, I managed 1100 words of the first draft of DTDLLTO. I also pre-ordered David Keenan’s latest offering today. It is a prequel to the extraordinary This Is Memorial Device (which I reviewed here).

Thursday: Busy trying to keep fit and then grandadding, so little time for words. The wonderful non-fiction journal, Hinterland dropped through the letter box today – I managed to read some of the excellent articles in there while little Charlie (the grandson, not the dog – I know it does make for some confusion having a pet and a 10 month old sharing a name) had a sleep.

Friday: Not feeling great. Ran out of time. Bit of noodling with Writers HQ working out how to join the virtual writers’ retreat.

Saturday: We had a bloomin lovely day out I’ll have you know. You can read about it just as soon as I’ve written the next blog post!

Sunday: Writers HQ Online Retreat. If you’re fancying doing a bit of writing and find yourself struggling for time (& money) have a rummage around their website. This was the first time I’ve done one of their writing retreats – which became online when that there pandemic arrived – and what a marvellous success it has been.

It just shows that prioritising writing, sitting at a desk which faces the wall, rather than having the laptop on my actual lap and sitting downstairs by a window, works a treat. For me, writing in chunks of time works so well. I did 5 sets of 30 mins of my novel today and wrote 2990 words of this first drafting. I’m just getting the story out and trying not to edit as I go!

Using my desk to lean on, you’ll be shocked to learn, is more productive than my lap!

A big chunk of wordsmithery time today paid dividends in more ways the number of words. I also started to get a richer understanding of the relationship between my two main characters, I found I could tap into a wider range of emotions, hopefully gradually changing between scenes. When I write in very small time windows, I find I force a feeling into a scene without the context of the scenes either side of it.

As the wonderful AL Kennedy says, once characters start developing through the act writing their lives, they will start to live in the writer’s head more. Thus revealing themselves in greater detail. I’m just letting these two show themselves to me as I go. They haven’t been created from nothing, in many ways they’ve been created from everything. And what a privilege it is to be their narrator.

A Certain Thought To Finish

Now here’s thing. A proper thing.

There’s a certain something about a certain writer. Or a certain podcaster. A certain friend, a certain relative or even a certain random character on Twitter. There is a certain something about these certain people which instantly inspires me to write. There certainly is.

You people know who you are 🙏

Write Back Where I Belong

Week One Of The Comeback Is Complete

Well if the tax year started last week, then why shouldn’t the writing year, or for that matter the running year.

Running

Ahhh, the running year has got off to a hobbling start. I did go for a run on Tuesday. I quickly, and sadly, learned that my toe, foot thing definitely hasn’t healed. Luckily it only hurts when I use it……

Trying to be positive though, I can still do all the non weight bearing stuff in the gym and have swam a startling number of lengths during the week. I know I’m lucky to still be able to use my energy and I’ll wait for an actual medical professional to diagnose my foot rather than using Dr Google!

Writing

Monday: I finished writing, edited and published a blog post. It is the first self reflection on my writing for, oo, too fucking long. Clicketyclick HERE to have a butchers.

Tuesday: I pulled out a piece of flash fiction, or is it a short story, which has been working its way to the front of my consciousness for a week or so. Its working title is Why I Became A Grass and it was sparked by an unusually quiet shop I regularly walk past which appears to be thriving without ever seeming to have a customer!? about 700 words drafted.

Wednesday: I gave up on any notion that there isn’t something wrong with my fucking foot. In it’s last hurrah we finally got all the baby stuff in the loft and moved the electric piano upstairs. Phew!!

Anyway, a bit more work on the piece I was writing yesterday. Just another 500ish words today.

I’m pleased to say, he bloomin’ loves the library.

Thursday: reached 1700 words in my short story / flash fiction and called it 1st draft. It’s got a couple of lead characters, a bit of a story and a sort of truth running through it. I will return and edit and then consider 1st readers.

Also on Thursday, I spent some time reading poetry craft books. We took our youngest grandson, Charlie, to the library and managed to find a few books for myself as well as him! I’ve remembered that I appeared in an anthology last year and have had a couple of pieces featured here and there. So, with a motivational “c’mon Kevin!” I’m making the most of every moment to get some words scribbled.

Friday: I started a random stream of consciousness project on Scrivener. Some of the writing I’ve enjoyed most has started using this method. I just set a timer and write the words that appear in my head for 20 minutes or however long is available to me. I have to thank the brilliant Writers HQ for getting me into using the timer. I set the timer on my phone and then put it on the other side of the room. I find I can get into a zen like state and my writing becomes meditative. So much so, I’m often shocked and disappointed when the time is up! This particular project started with me typing “I need to be less easily distracted” and finished with a pretty strong story idea set around a massive clock in a railway station.

Saturday: I set about preparing to collate all the pieces I’ve written so far towards my novel. I started scribbling around with it (working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners) in 2018. It has been a hit and miss affair as regards making progress, but I worked through the Plotstormers course on Writers HQ, trying to put the parts I have written into some sort of order. And now I’m using their First Draft modules to help me build up some momentum. If the first draft of DTDLLTO is to be 90,000 words or so, I need to write an average of about 400 a day if I’m to have a body of work ready for editing by the end of the year. Doesn’t sound like much……….

Sunday: I guess this was contemplation day!

My journal is still getting its daily words too and, you know what, I’m really enjoying my writing again. Which is all I really need from it.

In the words of the great A.L. Kennedy, onwards………..

Fight For Your Write

One Word At A Time

It doesn’t matter what I am attempting in life: To progress, to proceed, to move on, to enjoy for goodness sake, there has to be a positive force behind me. That could be as clichéd as the wind literally at my back when I’m running. It could be the metaphorical wind at my back when I’m writing.

I need good, healthy energy. And a clear, even empty mind.

Distractions need to stop being distractions.

The dust and rubble of life’s challenges, the shroud of despair at news I can’t influence and the frustrations of everything I haven’t done, they all keep that wind from my back.

The writer in me gets buried beneath the clutter all too often. I know this, and I know it is mostly of my own making.

I cannot change what I haven’t yet done. Frustrations at my missed opportunities need to be acknowledged, but then forgotten.

Learn. Move on. Simple.

The great man back in the day.

The first draft of this blog post was written long hand, in my notebook, whilst munching on a avocado, red pepper and lettuce bagel, wedged in my work van, taking my lunch break. Just typing this paragraph gives me momentum, positivity, that clichéd wind in my sails!

The habits of 2020 and 2021 are returning. In both my reading and my writing. Take a bow Stephen King, because your gorgeous memoir and craft volume, On Writing, has yet again invigorated me. I own a well thumbed copy which has been devoured over and over. Not only that, On Writing has been my aural companion in the van for the last few shifts. Narrated by the great man himself too.

I’m hardly a fan boy, nor a religious devotee of King’s novels, but I know bloomin’ great writing when I see it. On Writing has fanned the winds of change at my back and I am letting it carry me.

A quick word for A.L. Kennedy’s writing craft volume of the same name too. A wonderful book which I’ve also devoured a few times.

Mobile telephone habits had started creeping back in, I was sinking into a “what’s the feckin’ point?” mood too regularly and spending far too long enacting the scroll of doom. I’ve got an app now which monitors my phone use and pings embarrassing messages on to the screen. These shame me into putting the thing down. It’s working too, I’m still keeping up to date with my little Twitter world, but avoiding getting sucked down an angry hole full of internet gloom.

I think about writing a lot. Nibbly, scratchy and proddy ideas whisper, or even shout sometimes, at my subconscious. These all keep me moving forward if I embrace them. The muse is back! Never went away really, I was just letting the bugger become idle. No more though, if he (or she or they) want to reside in my soul, then there is rent to pay. The rent is handed over in the currency of ideas, and there is no limit to how much I’ll accept.

Grandson, Charlie checking my notes.

All this enthusiasm returning to me and my writing is almost overwhelming. Previously, I might have got carried away with myself. Another lesson I’ve learned is to temper my short term ambitions. I do have a tendency to lose all sense of reality if I have a good day. “Excellent, I’ve written a thousand words, The Booker Prize will surely be mine next year“! That sort of thing.

If I have a flying thousand word day, I now bank it, but will happily settle for just a few notes in my journal the following day if that’s what time allows for.

Alison Kennedy is a bit of a hero of mine!

As Stephen King would answer in an interview “How do I write? One. Word. At. A. Time.”

Nicky, (regular readers will know Nicky through the gushing romantic references, prolifically scattered throughout my blog posts) my amazing lady wife, has always been 100% behind my writing ambitions and is frustrated on my behalf if I get stuck in a gloomy dead end. It is at best naïve and forgetful and at worse unfair and ungrateful for me to blame ‘family pressures‘ when my writing slows or stalls. Hell, even my brother eagerly offered to be a first reader. Nope, my family have my back, and I’d do well to remember that in darker times.

Some days are mostly fully booked before I get to add in ‘my’ goals. But if I’m honest they’re probably only 75% pre booked, even on the busiest days. The problem comes when I misuse the other 25% by wallowing and shouting at the unfairness of everything on the internet. Just accepting these truths helps, even the act of typing this gets me determined to be more focussed on being productive in the time windows which open up for me.

In our spare room we have bunk beds, a turbo trainer, more books shelves, AND A DESK! If I don’t want to be disturbed, why not go and sit at it!?

King is ruthless. He encourages us all to write, but offers no secrets, no hacks, no ‘cheats’, but insists “If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well.

A big up too for Writers HQ, their courses, blogs, writers’ tools and resources are arranged, as they say, to fit in with “bad ass writers with no time or money“! For a mere score (£20) each month you get access to everything they have to offer. I always try to do their snappy short course each month and have ongoing work-in-progress folders for some of their longer offerings. Checking in with Writers HQ once a day helps to wobble my head and prompt new thoughts and ideas.

What am I actually working on then?

I’ve got a flash fiction piece I’m batting around and there’s some new content appearing in my Scrivener which could well find its way into the novel (which I’ve only been working in for 4 years now!).

I like the idea of a regular blog post updating where my writing is at. It is the first week of April, the first week of the 2nd quarter of the year and it feels like I’m lining at the start of something.

What does that mean in reality?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Whatever progress I make this coming month, it’ll be………

ONE. WORD. AT. A. TIME.

The Real Thing #1

(even better than the real thing?)

“I’m downloading it now!”

The response of a good friend on Facebook after I shared my review of the beautiful Donal Ryan novel, Strange Flowers. I imagine the last year has seen many people choosing to add Kindle or other e-book downloads to their To-Be-Read collections. Like so many high street businesses, book shops have struggled with months of closed doors over the last year. With readers unable to get to choose books in the flesh, it is hardly surprising that book downloads are so popular.

That’s not the whole story though, Nielson Bookscan, who provide data to the book industry are reporting rises of over 5% in both volume and value of book sales in 2020. Heart warming to think so many are turning to the written word for comfort – however they decide to enjoy it.

Having regularly sacrificed clothes, and much in the way of holiday paraphernalia, in order to take a healthy pile of books on our adventures – without smashing the weight limit in our suitcase – we can certainly see the attraction of a hand held device with a thousand books inside!

Ultimately, it’s just not for us though. Nicky (my beautiful and beautifully bookish lady wife) has dabbled with a Kindle as a sort of ‘reserve’ if she ran out of books. Actually, I owned one too for a while, but I can honestly say I never read a book on it. No, we are suckers for the feel of a book (embossed covers are almost erotic are they not?) Oh, and the smell of a new ink on paper….

Holiday Packing!

On our last pre-pandemic adventure, we took a Megabus to that there London town and visited Foyles on Charring Cross Road. Oh we revelled in the cathedral like sensation of walking through those doors and just drinking in the potential of a billion words or more. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for Nicky. As a young woman, finding her feet in the city, she spent many an hour running her hand along shelf after shelf of magic in the historic book shop.

We enjoyed our time in that amazing paradise of literature so much, we did the same on day two!

Yup. We do like a book shop. And we do like a book. We are both trying hard to replicate it online, but that sensation of choosing a book after randomly pulling it from the shelves is hard to match – being drawn in by the blurb, the cover and the first page of a book by an author unknown to me is one of reading’s great adventures.

I wonder when we might next find ourselves walking through the doors of a bookshop?

Various ‘lockdown’s and restrictions as well as shielding advice and caution has led us to add to our supplies via the internet over the last ten months or so. We try and support actual book shops rather than that well known internet giant with its gazillionaire owner. We’ve ordered from the two most well known stores (Foyles and Waterstones) as well as independent retailers and, in some cases, directly from small publishers.

In fact, I pledged in my 2021 Manifesto to keep supporting the smaller stores and publishers wherever possible. The thrill of opening a parcel of books, the pent up fresh paper aroma as the books are pulled from their wrapping, it’s all part of the joy of reading for us.

There are so many ways to get your reading material. Kindle and other e-readers are a brilliant resource and if that’s your bag, read on my friends. If the purse strings are tight, once we venture out again, there are also some great second hand books stores around. Some even remodelled themselves to keep people supplied during 2020 and even more are adding online and telephone ordering to their menu. I enjoyed a great bundle of second hand nonfiction from The Old Curiosity Bookshop back in the summer and I know they have expanded their online offerings in this lockdown.

Once they are open again, libraries are still a wonderful and free resource in the community. We have really enjoyed getting our grandchildren to immerse themselves in books and discovery. The librarians are very patient and so encouraging with the little ones. Have a search locally, some libraries are doing click’n’collect services during the current lockdown.

An internet friend I’ve made through social media reading and writing groups, Gerard Nugent, has his debut novel published this very week. Sadly for me, who no longer even owns an e-reader, it is currently only available in that form. I will give it plug here and patiently wait for it to materialise in paper and ink.

In the meantime, checkout my reading list so far in 2021 as well as last year’s and the occasional book review too.

Happy reading , thank you for taking the time to humour me and my words……. and who knew that #nationalreadingday was even a thing? It seems like a good day to post this!

Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (and other stuff)

I read it in a day.

Ok, it’s not the heaviest tome, and maybe it doesn’t have the smallest font.

But still.

Read it in a day. It is a lovely book.

Somebody on Twitter suggested recently that a book review should never be about the reviewer. It would somehow became less worthy and lacking in literary qualities. I get that, but I like writing my blog in such a way that it feels like I’m creating a memoir. Each tale of running adventure offering a peek through the curtains into moments of my life, I simply enjoy writing like this. When it comes to the books we read, they often hold a mirror up to our own stories. And a memoir like Anderson’s also points me back to a certain time in my life. So please forgive me the indulgence!

Besides, as author Zadie Smith puts it (in Intimations), writing is basically talking to yourself but then allowing yourself to be overheard.

Listen in if you fancy.

The founder and singer of the band Suede, Brett Anderson has always had a mysterious, almost aloof persona, especially if the music press are to be believed. Coal Black Mornings actually charts Anderson’s early life (taking us from childhood to the time when said music press started to really notice them), through adolescence as it drifted towards adulthood. I guess in today’s vernacular, Anderson and his fellow creatives and dreamers would be accused of being from the ‘metropolitan elite’. The truth is a tale of somewhat less privilege than we’d been led to believe.

I was in Bedford in those heady days of British music back in the early 90s and had the pleasure of writing for a naively ambitious music magazine, Splinter. I brought my rocking roots to the publication as others introduced me to more obscure underground music and we all had a love of finding original live acts who we could champion.

Obviously Suede were on our radar as we clung to the coat tales of the NME and Melody Maker, trying to promote the cause of bands from Bedfordshire and Northants who we reckoned could compete with this wave of guitar fuelled indie music filling the jukeboxes.

I hold my hand up to having made my impressions of Brett Anderson based around the press I consumed. But also, of course, through the extraordinary music they made. That first album still gets a regular airing in the van as I drive around South Devon doing my ‘day job’. I guess I always imagined his androgynous stage presence (a bit like how I consumed Jarvis Cocker from Pulp) to be derived from a spoiled home counties up bringing, the swagger having an arrogance to it.

In fact, Anderson’s upbringing was more like mine; straightforward with very defined household roles. This ordinariness combined with the bespoke quirks I’ve know doubt every family can boast, I recognise this only too well. The seemingly effortless poetic use of language in Coal Black Mornings paints this domestic scene so vividly and in such colour, it had me at the dinner table with the Andersons.

.. a sense that his mood could suddenly, capriciously sour and the house would be plunged into a strange, dark theatre of Pinteresque tension.

Anderson describing his father’s sometimes ominous presence.

It is hardly surprising that this book seems to only feature beautiful phrases. It is a feast of subtle yet somehow expansive descriptions of everything from clothes and their place in the author’s early life to the debris and the bric-a-brac the adventurous youth found on abandoned waste dumps.

The writing is mature and classy but certainly not daunting. There is humility and some darkly self depreciating passages. Despite this, Anderson accepts that some of lyrical creations were (and are) quite beyond anything his peers were achieving at the time. He presented us, then through his lyrics, and now in this book, with snippets of his world through his far from predictable word play. The book joins all of those dots, puts reason to the rhyme.

Claiming to be happy to avoid the “primary colours of party politics”, Anderson still manages to be wonderfully acerbic when the mood takes.

..John Major’s irrelevant, dreary, Tory world of unemployment and cut-price lager and crap boy bands.

For those of us who gave our own peers knowing looks when we first heard those extraordinary riffs on Suede’s eponymous debut, it is great to read that Anderson himself was initially in awe of Bernard Butler (Suede’s original lead guitarist). It must have been breath-taking to be in the room when songs like Animal Nitrate first riffed and rolled into existence.

The music was over-simplistic until Bernard wrote a breath-taking guitar – gnarled, twisted, winding and almost Eastern in flavour, it utterly transformed the song and turned it into a slinky, prowling beast that melted into a terrifying maelstrom of raging noise.

Anderson’s humble nod to Butler’s guitar on ‘He’s Dead’

Is the book for those who have no feeling for, or recollection of Suede? Is it for those who were either not yet born, or already middle aged in the early 90’s? Is this poignant memoir for those who are indifferent to music at all? The answer to all of these is yes, of course. At it’s simplest, Coal Black Mornings is a story, from birth to finding his calling, of an extraordinary yet believable young man.

Anderson doesn’t delve too much into the years that follow Suede’s initial impact, or the huge successes, the world tours, gold discs and high profile disintegration of relationships and departures. This keeps the story at ground level. The fears, the mistakes, the fumbling through adolescence and the atmosphere of childhood are all relatable. Except of course, unsaid but constantly present, is the knowledge that here was somebody who could achieve so much with his art.

I’ve read too many memoirs of the rich and famous where I find myself flicking pages as some overly self-important sports star or musician tells me how great and successful they are. Coal Black Mornings could not be further from those ghost written hardbacks which appear in WH Smiths in October ready for us to wrap up for our parents’ Christmas present.

It is a pocket rocket of a book. A rat-a-tat rhythm to the prose keeps the pages turning but not without savouring every word. Anderson is an artisan with words. He moulds and crafts. Sometimes phrases are so simply beautiful yet I know, as a wanna-be scribbler I’d be chuffed to create prose a tenth as good.

When I was playing a very average guitar, in Totnes band New Shapes, clinging on to the pace of songs I’d helped write, my fellow musicians delivering effortlessly perfect timing as I chased the chords around the fretboard, it was enough to see one punter tap their foot as they supped their beer and regarded us as the curiosities we probably were.

Similarly, as I talk out loud, I’m humbled if any of you are still listening.

Onwards.

Book Review – The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

Myer’s award winning work of historical fiction (collecting both The Walter Scott Prize and The Roger Deakin Award) has been on the radar for a while. Despite this, we just haven’t got around to buying it.

We do buy plenty books. Lots of books. Piles of books. We always read these books of course. But there’s no denying, we do buy a lot of books.

‘We’ being my wonderful lady wife of course. My partner in life, my soul mate, my (literal) running buddy and, naturally, the other member of our two person book club.

So why hasn’t Benjamin Myers featured before now?

Well, it has come to my attention that there are some very organised book lovers who keep meticulous lists of books they intend to read. We’re not like that. We often start these lists but then forget where. Then we start the lists again but forget what was on the first list. Better still, the one place we definitely don’t take the lists is to the book shop when we have a buying spree.

Despite The Gallows Pole regularly appearing on my list, it had never quite made it into the basket. We do get distracted when we’re buying books.

This spring we saw the error of our ways and The Gallows Pole duly arrived in a lockdown book bundle. We both devoured it in rapid succession.

And here’s why.

It is a brutal, forceful telling of the story of the Crag Valley Coiners. On the Yorkshire moors, this 18th century gang were involved in the escalation of ‘coining’. Coins of the realm were clipped and these clippings melted down before being formed into new coins.

The gang were led by their self acclaimed king, David Hartley, and his family. They oversaw the ‘coining’ operation and had a ring of protection which demanded respect from the men who followed him and were happy to use whatever means necessary to keep their highly illegal and secretive work secure.

Settle your nerves before tucking into this. I found myself wincing and occasionally having to look away from the page as Hartley and his henchmen meter out punishment for disloyalty and violence towards any outsiders who might try to puncture the inner circle. Or on one occasion, an innocent bodger who stumbled into their territory and had too much to say whilst enjoying the wares of the ale house.

The bodger fell as the fists and clogs came. A hail of them. He was stamped and kicked down into the trees. Down and out of sight into the crisp dead leaves. Absolum Butts and Brian Dempsey and Paul Taylor said nothing as they thumped and pounded and worked and grunted and clumped and punched and slugged and sweated

(a ‘bodger’ was not an unskilled tradesmen, more someone who could turn and create with wood)

The industrial revolution was coming and the families found their moorland way of life threatened by the automation of their skills, particularly weaving. These truths, alongside the constant threat of the gallows if a coiner they to be caught, drive the pace of this bitter and desperate tale.

I found I tuned in quickly to the clipped and percussive pace of the dialogue. Myers creates a mercenary streak in the coiners but the violence he portrays, the dominant force with which the Hartleys keep their gang in line, appear to be justified by the carnage which is coming the way of the moors. The exciseman, Deighton, is the government’s envoy, tasked with hunting down, and catching in the act, the coiners. The book delves into the psyche of both Deighton and Hartley as they seem as hell bent on destroying each other as they do achieving whatever their version of ‘right’ is.

The book is absolutely a page turner. Sometimes the narrative bullies you from page to page. I found, even when dosing off reading, I would rush to splash water on my face in order to come back and have just one more page.

The research appears to have been extensive, the life that the lower classes in rural England lived was hard. So why wouldn’t they have pursued their illicit skills in an attempt to protect their families’ futures from the onrushing changes of the 18th century?

By creating (David) Hartley’s fictional prison memoirs, produced sporadically throughout the story, Myer’s has produced something which resonates on a deeply personal level. These memoirs are written as they might have been spoken, full of inconsistencies and Yorkshire slang. They add welcome pauses to the frenetic pace of the novel. There are subtle moments of dark humour, such as David reflecting on how he winds up his fellow prisoners with his singing and shouting.

An so I showts out I shout Get a wash yer blacc Lancastreen bustuds becors even tho the most of them is Jórvíkshire men lyke myself its bestst way to get theyr blud and piss boilin

Like much of my reading in these strange times, the bitter divisions, societal changes and personal tragedies resonate with all that is ill in the world today. Changes come and those that resist might have their moment of standing strong or delaying the inevitable, but at the coiners’ level, society was fragile and constantly in danger breaking.

I’d normally baulk at historical fiction but was enthralled, obsessed and appalled by this and regularly found myself reading it while cooking, on the ‘phone, walking to the compost bin…….

I’d heartily recommend you let this book muscle its way into your psyche and challenge you. And I’d be interested to know if you too found the words giving you shivers worthy of the cold damp Yorkshire moors and the dark secrets they harbour.