19 March 2014
Late again! And my excuse this week is just as lame as last – a weekend at Kings Lynn Lit Fest followed by some catching up. The fact that I was poorly yesterday didn’t help either. Anyway, here we are
DAY 4 : THURSDAY 27 FEB 2014
My propensity to lag behind continues. It’s now Friday afternoon and I’m struggling to remember what happened yesterday ...
Ah yes – Hallgrimskirkja. After breakfast we decide to walk up to the cathedral. Except of course it’s not a cathedral, just a large church. And an extremely beautiful one at that, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Firstly it’s a creamy colour – magnolia for those familiar with decorating. Viewed from the front the tower appears like the outline of a space shuttle, a pair of swept-back wings adorning each side. Inside it’s incredibly plain – and so full of light! None of your old Victorian clutter here. If you get to go, make a point of looking at the beautifully simple font.
We’re welcomed by the sound of the organ. The organist is practising. It’s a piece by Peeters (Op 28) but instead of full bore we get a bubbling stream that suggests something cold and truly Icelandic. I’m so overwhelmed I make enquiries. Can I buy a recording? Yes, but not in the way it’s being played. The organist has muted the music for the purpose of his practise and with the recording at full blast it’s just not the same. I’m disappointed.
We ascend the bell-tower by way of consolation. What a view! We must be at our highest point in Reykjavik – metaphorically as well as physically – and we can see for miles in the crisp clear air. 80 did I hear someone say? Far enough for me, at any rate. Suddenly the bell calls the three-quarter hour immediately above our heads, reminding us we need to be back at Fosshotel Baron ready for whale-watching.
Whale-watching ... Well, the least said about that the better, I think. This is the one experience of the trip we could have done without. Conditions are adverse enough at Reykjavik to require us to transfer to Keflavik. God what it must have been like at the capital then because we get it rough – with knobs on. I look out from the safety of the harbour and wonder how we’re ever going to negotiate the 20ft breakers. The answer is to go round them – but then we hit the swell. Mercifully none of our party is sick as we roll around and buck up and down. All this might have been acceptable had we seen any whales but all we get is two pods of White-beaked Dolphin. Better than nowt, I suppose. Before long it becomes a question of endurance rather than enjoyment and we’re all glad to get out of it alive. The longest fairground ride ever, Anna calls it. And she hates fairgrounds.
No time to dwell on it because as soon as we hit the hotel we discover that conditions for Northern Lights are just about perfect and so we book up for a second attempt. A quick change of clothing and we’re off for a swift bite at Kryddlegin Hjörtu (Seasoned Hearts). We don’t stay long but I mention it because of the Fiskar Dagsins (fish of the day). This comes in two varieties – tandoori flavoured or marinated in coriander and lemon. I take the latter, the fish is haddock served on a bed of couscous and it’s delicious – even though I’m really not that hungry.
We race back to the hotel for our 8.30 pick-up. As we emerge from the foyer, someone points upwards. A pale green band snakes over the roof of the hotel and we get a glimpse of the lights starting before we even get on the coach. Something tells us we’re in for a great evening.
We head out toward þingvellir National Park. The idea is to get away from the city and the light pollution. But we don’t get that far as our guide calls a halt in the middle of nowhere as the lights have progressed to a stage where we dare not wait any longer. The coach pulls off onto the snow-covered verge. We all pile out to witness one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena as bands of green translucent light sweep right across the sky. To the north-east they’re partly obscured by cloud - which only adds to the drama – while to the west the light falls like a curtain. A second curtain forms beneath the first and then starts ‘dancing’. Oohs and aahs rise from the admiring crowd. It’s impressive – one of the best displays of the season, we’re told.
This information helps ameliorate the news that our bus is stuck in the snow. In the rush to get off the road we’ve become bogged down. We wait 20 minutes for a replacement vehicle. We’re not that bothered as there’s plenty to keep us occupied ie. the ever-changing sky. Gradually the lights fade and we think about getting back on the bus.
The rescue vehicle arrives, a rope is produced and we’re pulled out backwards. No-one cares too much – we’ve just seen the greatest show on earth!
PS : The Party in Room 102 is cancelled for the evening as we’re all knackered. So it’s straight to bed and dreams of fabulous things ...
13 March 2014
I meant to post a blog about my trip to Iceland every other day until it was done but life has got in the way as usual and here we are a week later and it’s still not finished! I’ve been busy with Book Talk and preparing to go to Kings Lynn so time has been precious. Anyway here’s
DAY 3 : WEDNESDAY 26 FEB 2014
A seven-thirty alarm although I’m already awake. We’ve agreed nine o’clock breakfast and I’m still struggling to keep up to date with my journal. I manage to report most of the day’s goings-on but I have to break off before I get to The Lights. I’ll have to play catch-up later.
Today we’re due on a ‘Nature Tour’ but it doesn’t start until 12.30pm so the morning is free. So guess what? I decide on a bird-walk along the promenade – it’s only a hundred yards from our front door and I’m in need of some exercise. I set off at ten. The outlook is as good as it could possibly get – a clear blue sky, a clear blue sea, white-capped hills to the north-east and the harbour to the west. It’s an amazing view.
The bay is thronged with birds. I think the world population of Eider Duck has chosen to winter here. There’s Red-breasted Merganser too (I count at least half a dozen pairs). I can’t get over the quality of the light - it’s so clear and sharp, like a really good summer’s day in the UK but in HD. It affords exceptional views of the birds. Male Eider are so beautiful (see my pic for DAY 1) and the R-b M are great too with their crests and blood-red bills showing well.
Then I get a Wow! moment as what I assume to be another male Eider turns into a Long-tailed Duck. This is a bird I’ve only seen twice before and on both occasions they were in variable plumage. But today this male is in his full breeding outfit and it takes my breath away. And with such good light I get treated to the kind of close-up personal view I may only get once in my life. Fantastic!
I continue along the promenade in the hope of finding some white-winged gulls. They’re nowhere near as spectacular as the Long-tailed Duck but they prove much more difficult to find. Which is surprising, given that I’m on the sea-front near to the harbour. I see something flying some way off. It’s large so I assume it’s probably Glaucous but my view isn’t good enough to confirm the sighting. I walk on, pausing to photograph the sculptures outside the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum, and find a low cliff with roosting gulls. But they’re too far away for a definitive view and with time running short I’m forced to abandon my search and head back to Fosshotel Baron. No ticks for white-winged gulls today.
At twelve midday we gather in the foyer for our afternoon tour. We’re off to Geysir, Gullfoss and þingvellir and an education in Iceland’s amazing geological history. We spend most of our time on the bus – something I’m not always keen on – but today I’m happy to be driven through the iconic landscape. We see flat plains, snow-capped mountain ranges and at least two (sleeping) volcanoes, Hekla and the now infamous Eyjafjallajökull (I checked the spelling). Here and there, columns of steam escape from the ground. The surface may be covered in snow but we’re travelling over the second hottest spot on earth – only Hawaii tops it. This is truly the land of fire and ice. There’s a furnace down below boiling up the water which it sends spouting up through the frozen crust.
At þingvellir we get evidence of the fact that Iceland lies across the joint of two tectonic plates. They’re moving apart and the gap between them is growing at 2-3cm per annum. What chance that in another 10000 years, Iceland splits in two? Who knows? But for the present I can walk across the bridge that separates the North American plate from Europe and Asia. No wonder Reagan and Gorbachev chose to meet here in 1986. We digest this possibility on the coach on the way home – or at least, we pretend to as we close our eyes for a while. On the way we pass the simple white house of Halldör Laxness, Iceland’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. I make a mental note to read one of his books.
PS : The Party in Room 102. Tonight we’re all shattered and feel too exhausted to go out to eat. The upshot is a trip to Domino’s Pizza, a walk of all of 100 hundred yards. We blag 5 small boxed pizzas and head back to ours. In the foyer I enter into a bizarre conversation regarding a sighting of Redwing at the end of which I’m donated a half-consumed and redundant bottle of Famous Grouse. I nip back out to the corner shop and buy some ginger ale to go with it. Our evening meal is a mixture of garlic bread, spicy BBQ and cream mexicano accompanied by G&T and whisky mac. What was I saying about doing things in style?
Join me again soon for DAY 4 when we resume our search for The Lights.
7 March 2014
The last couple of afternoons have occupied themselves with writing my review of THE ORPHEUS DESCENT and preparing for Book Talk on Monday – and I was supposed to have a one o’clock guru appointment today to fathom more of the mysteries of my new mobile phone (including how to download the photos I took in ICELAND) but that’s been postponed until tomorrow. So I suddenly find myself with two spare hours on my hands and time to set down the next instalment of The Search for The Northern Lights. Here you go then ...
DAY 2 : TUESDAY 25 FEB 2014
And yes, it is a busy day – busy, long and rewarding.
Up at 6.30 (which is late for me) and I begin to see how difficult it’s going to be cramming everything into each day. I make tea and write up my journal while Dear Lady Wife bathes before breakfast at eight. We fill up with a full English – who knows when we might eat next?
The airport bus is a doddle – a five minute walk to the bus-stop, a ten minute wait and a fifteen minute ride to our terminal. There’s a hold-up at entry, new barriers have been installed since the terrorist attack a few years ago but once beyond them all goes smoothly.
It’s supposed to be a two and a half hour flight to Reykjavik but with a tail wind we manage it in two. The plane’s half empty and I blag a window seat next to the emergency exit over the wing (twice the leg-room). But I inadvertently choose the wrong side of the aircraft and instead of the grandeur of Iceland, all I get as we approach is a view of the sea. Still, I’ve at least been able to read a substantial portion of THE ORPHEUS DESCENT.
Keflavik Airport is situated on a flat, featureless peninsula to the south-west of the island. But it’s bright, sunny and the visibility is good. My first thought on leaving the terminal is Where are the birds? We’re next to the coast and at the very least I expect to see a row of seagulls perched on the terminal roof (Glaucous and Iceland hopefully amongst them). But sadly not. I hunt around for sparrows and starlings and draw another blank. It’s a birdless as well as featureless outlook.
This continues on the shuttle bus to the hotel and I begin to worry. Have I made a mistake in bringing my ‘scope and bins? But then everything changes. A range of snow-capped hills appears to our right, an outcrop of rock to our left surmounted by stone statues and a sign, ‘REYJÄNESBAER’ (don’t ask, I haven’t a clue). The sea comes into view and flying over it, six large black birds ...
I conclude they must be Raven. They’re not Cormorant, my Collins bird-guide tells me there are no other corvids on the island and they’re big enough to justify my diagnosis. Then I get some gulls sitting on the water, at least two pairs of duck and some geese and I’m starting to feel relaxed. I can’t tell what they are (I’m on a bus remember) but at this stage I don’t care. At least I know I’m going to get something to look at. As we enter Reykjavik I spot some starlings and a really nice surprise awaits me at FossHotel Baron. We’ve upgraded to a larger room overlooking the bay and setting my scope up at the window I get a flock of Eider Duck not far off. The males are spectacular in their black and white plumage and I can make out the green patches on the backs of their necks. Fabulous! I’m looking forward to a trip down to the seafront ... What does DLW make of all this? She’s just happy I’ve got something positive to do.
Enough birding, I hear you say – we want Northern Lights! And so do we, and so do we. We have a trip organised to look for them on our very first evening. There’s barely enough time to check in, unpack and grab a quick bowl of soup before we’re off down to the harbour for our 9 o’clock excursion.
We’re going out on a boat in the bay. The theory is we’re away from any light pollution, there’s less cloud cover and we’re mobile. But it’s cold! So we’re all bundled up in our thermals looking like Eskimos. But glory be, the sea is relatively calm, it’s not raining and it’s not blowing too hard. The stars have come out so we know the sky must be clear. What more could we want? Northern Lights!
And we get them – sort of. A pale green band (which to the untrained eye could be mistaken for a bank of cloud) stretches across the night sky in an arc from the south-west over to the north. From time to time it changes shape, almost imperceptibly. Our guide (Sven?) encourages it to brighten and dance for us. He does so by reciting verses of Icelandic poetry dedicated to The Lights like some mystic attempting to lure an animal from a fable out of its cave. The beast responds – but only to the extent that we hear it growl as it refuses to come out and play. We know it’s there but we’re not too sure what it looks like. It’s certainly not the mind-blowing psychedelic display Joanna Lumley’s DVD led us to believe we’d see before we came away. Instead of a curtain of light we get a diaphanous veil and if there is any dancing it’s a slow waltz rather than a foxtrot. We cross our frozen fingers and hope for something more but after an hour such show as we’ve had begins to fade. Somewhere behind us the lights of Reykjavik are burning bright but ours have gone out like a guttering candle. We go below and warm up with a cup of hot coffee. We’ve glimpsed our target but we’re left wanting more. We’ll try again another day.
Footnote : The Party in Room 102. We head back to ours and break open the gin we bought at the airport (I told you the girls did things in style). Analysis and debate about our day rumbles on while the level of gin in the bottle declines. Bed at 1.15am.
4 March 2014
Writing Life is fun but I thought I might take a break from it for a few days and tell you about my trip to Iceland instead. Whilst I was away I kept a log of our travels and I don’t see why I shouldn’t share that with you. In a day or so I should have some pictures to go with it. And what pictures they are – Iceland is a truly fabulous place, in every sense of the word. So let’s start at the beginning ...
DAY 1 : MONDAY 24 FEB 2014
I’m off to Iceland in the company of my wife and two of her friends. In fact it was all their idea (a girl’s outing) but I managed to get myself invited along. We’re going to try and see The Northern Lights (it’s supposed to be one of the best seasons for doing so) but we’re going to take in a lot more besides along the way. I’ve looked at trips like this before but they’ve invariably involved an Arctic cruise, Spitzbergen, polar bears and walrus. Carefully placed adverts in a birding magazine or the colour section of my weekend newspaper have looked fantastic but they’ve always cost the earth. So when Dee told us we could get 5 nights in Reykjavik, a trip out to look for the lights, a nature tour and a whale-watching expedition all for less than £500 I thought I’m having some of that!
Even Barry (our regular taxi-driver) was impressed. When we told him about it on our drive to the station he whistled through his teeth Blimey! That’s good! It seems that he and Trish have wanted to go for years. When we get back, we’re lending them the brochure ...
So, a train heading north up the East coast and an overnight stop in Glasgow. Dee has booked us four seats at a table and we’ve all brought something to contribute toward lunch. We pass Durham and its resplendent cathedral in welcome sunlight as we sip our glass of Sauvignon Blanc - a great start (the girls do things in style, I discover). Berwick slips by in sunshine too, and despite the attractions of the view, I’ve progressed onto reading my chosen book for the trip. It’s THE ORPHEUS DESCENT by Tom Harper and I’ve already got one eye open for the review I’ll need to write for Book Talk when I get back. Our three and a half hour journey is over before we know it.
Glasgow is not at its best, grey skies and wet streets. But we haven’t come to admire it, merely to borrow it for the evening. There’s talk of a lively Italian restaurant (Sarte’s?) but we just need something quick so rather than tramp through the rain, we settle for next door and Wetherspoons. It’s cheap, convenient and adequate – and that’s the best you can say about it. (What was I saying about style? Maybe that comes later.)
We check out the airport bus stop and head back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day ...
Join me again soon for DAY 2 when we hit Reykjavik and go out looking for lights.
24 February 2014
What’s this? Monday and another change of routine? Just when I’d got used to Thursdays ... The fact is I have to take any opportunity as everything has been out of kilter in the last week or so. It all began with my son’s wedding last Saturday (l’m now the proud possessor of a daughter-in-law) and continues with a trip to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights tomorrow. In fact, I haven’t got long as we’re due to catch the train to Glasgow shortly.
So ... All this has meant I’ve needed to keep my head down and finish my rewrite of Part Four of AS DAD LAY DYING. That’s now safely done, I’m pleased to say and I can go away with a clear conscience. Part Four is Pat’s story, Pat being Frank’s elder sister. She’s ‘the go-between’, the peace-keeper and family co-ordinator. She’s in her mid/late forties and like so many women of that age, has both children and parents to consider. She’s caught in the middle, you might say, so we get to learn quite a bit about the family’s relationships through her eyes. Unlike the other five parts, I’ve even written it in first person as it seems to suit the narrative – I’m just hoping it isn’t out of place compared to the rest of the book. It makes an interesting change for the reader anyway.
When I get back in a week’s time, my next task will be to tackle Part Five which is Geoffrey’s story. This will fill in the gaps in the back story, give greater insight into his character (is he as bad as Frank would have us believe?) and reveal the family secret. Then everything will be set up for the final piece of the action.
In the meanwhile, I’m looking forward to an exciting few days away. We’ll be staying in Reykjavik and going out on a boat at night to look for the Northern Lights. I’m hoping for cold and frosty conditions with clear night skies for better viewing. No guarantees of course but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. By day I’ll be getting some bird-watching done. I’ve highlighted a few target species and I’ll be keeping a log. There’s one duck in particular, Harlequin, which is rarely seen anywhere else other than Iceland. As is Barrow’s Goldeneye which together with Snowy Owl and Gyr Falcon make an ambitious hit-list. If I get to see any one of them, I’ll be delighted. Plus Glaucous and Iceland Gull, of course. I’ll let you know when I get back. As to whether there’ll be a plot in it all, as there was when I went bird-watching in Egypt, only time will tell.
And while we’re speaking of BIRDS OF THE NILE, I have some progress to report. My appearance on Lilas Taha’s blog appears to have been successful and she tells me there were 5432 hits on her website in the week. That’s fantastic as it would probably take me a year to garner that many. I’ll have to wait for a month or two for sales figures to see what effect it’s had.
I’ve also been invited to put on a talk at Helmsley Weekend of Writing in June (as I’d hoped). There’s also mention of an event at Leeds Library in conjunction with The Big Bookend. And in breaking news, two local book clubs have opted for BOTN as one of their chosen reads and I’ve volunteered to attend their discussions in an author Q&A session. All this makes for a busy season coming up and on that basis I’ve ordered another consignment of books from John Hunt Publishing. Let’s hope my faith in my sales abilities is justified and I can make more progress toward my target for the year end.
Now, must stop here as the taxi’s arrived, my bags are packed and I’ve got a plane to catch. Iceland, here I come!
12 February 2014
It’s 2 o’clock (no surprise there) – but it’s WEDNESDAY! Something has obviously gone wrong ...
Actually it hasn’t, and something has actually gone right. I’ve completed Part Three of AS DAD LAY DYING well ahead of schedule - but instead of taking tomorrow morning off in celebration and writing my blog before breakfast as I did a couple of weeks ago, I’ve decided to get it done today and press ahead with Part Four. Blogging tomorrow afternoon is not an option. My son is getting married on Saturday and as of midday on Thursday the house is being turned upside down. I will get my writing done first though.
Why do I set myself such stringent targets? Why can’t I be relaxed about it and say, ok, job done, let’s have a few days off and enjoy ourselves? In fact, as a writer, why have targets at all? Targets aren’t for creative people like us, surely. What we need to do is wait until ‘The Muse’ inspires us.
Personally, I take the opposite view. If I didn’t set myself targets for my writing and waited for ‘The Muse’ to strike, I’d never get very much done. ‘The Muse’ is a fickle companion and she’s just as likely to stand you up as keep a date. Recent weeks have been an exception, but I normally fail to meet any of the targets I set myself. What I do know however, is that I get much more done than I would have if I’d set no target at all.
The other week we discussed this at our monthly Novelists Support Group meeting. It seemed to me there was a general consensus amongst the professional authors present that imposing some element of discipline into their working routine was essential. The people concerned already had external deadlines imposed upon them by their respective publishers and so their need was obvious. My publisher has imposed no such deadlines on me – so why am I so concerned?
Actually, I do have a deadline – it’s called death. I’ve left my attempt at a writing career until rather late in life and I’m very conscious of the fact that I have only so many years in front of me. I have (at least) eight novels in my head and if I don’t get them out and into print before you know when, I’m going to pass away a terribly disappointed man. I have to say this haunts me and I’m certainly driven to complete ‘my life’s work’ while I still can. Hence the targets, hence the discipline. AS DAD LAY DYING is only the second of the eight – there’s so much more to come. Anyway, best get that one done first and not get too far ahead of myself. Back to the desk in the morning then ...
Meanwhile, I’ve been experiencing some frustration at the level of online sales for BIRDS OF THE NILE. Face to face sales are going quite well. Every time I get in front of people and get engaged, I seem to be able to sell a few books. Fortunately, I’ve a few face to face events in the diary – especially as I’ve been working hard at my Lit Fest campaign. In addition to Kings Lynn and York, I’m appearing at Doncaster and Darlington and I’m hopeful of Helmsley, Leeds and Middlesbrough. I’ve also pitched for Lincoln and Harrogate. And that’s only the first half of the Lit Fest season. After a break in July and August, things get going again in September and I’ve yet to start tackling that. I’ve a few writing groups to go to as well, plus an RSPB AGM and a WI meeting. The diary is filling up.
It’s the online campaign that’s bothering me. I haven’t yet been able to master the technique for selling via Twitter etc. despite countless hours sat at my computer sending messages into the ether. There isn’t a magic bullet either, and I’ve no doubt I’m not the only author who hasn’t got it together online. I have an active website, I’m regularly on Goodreads and I promote myself on Twitter – none of it to great effect. I’d welcome any tips.
I’m obviously hoping that Book Talk will help raise my profile. I did the second show on Monday and so far, so good. It’s been a great experience and I’ve enjoyed myself immensely on both occasions. As to whether it will help sell any books, the jury’s still out. It is another pressure though and I’m now in a position of having to read at least two books a month. On Monday week I’m off to Iceland for a few days in search of The Northern Lights. It won’t be all play however as I’ll be taking one of March’s books with me. But hey ho, I’m looking forward to it. We’ll speak again soon.
6 February 2014
Guess what? It’s 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon ...
The thing about routine is that it gets the everyday tasks accomplished. Not that Writing Life is an everyday task, but you know what I mean. If I didn’t set aside the time, it wouldn’t get done.
It’s the same with the writing. Day in, day out, rain or shine, 6.30 to 11 with half an hour for breakfast. Last week I afforded myself the luxury of a day off but I’ve been back at the desk every day since - to good effect in that I’m well into rewriting Part Three of AS DAD LAY DYING. And I’m pleased to say that things could hardly be going better ...
Although I want to begin by correcting a mistake I made last week. I said I was trying to get the work down to 100000 words from 111000. It’s actually 115000. The 111000 relates to the original draft and I discovered I was working on version 2 which had gone up by 4000 words. So it looks as though I’m going to have to cut a little harder than I thought.
Not that this concerns me. In fact the more I strip the thing down the better it seems to become. This is important because Part Three is the heart of the book. It deals with Frank’s formative years as a child on a caravan site in the late 1950s. An event takes place which scars him for the rest of his life and there’s a need to get that right. Fortunately, in my opinion it’s the best piece of writing I’ve ever produced and I’m really, really pleased with it. Rewriting it is a pleasure. Other than strip it back a bit, I don’t need to do a lot to it and I’m rattling through it. At my current rate of progress I’ll have it done by this time next week, even allowing for a day out birding on Sunday. You’ll obviously be kept informed.
I’ve also made significant progress with my Lit Fest campaign. I’ve secured a place at Darlington, and both Helmsley and Leeds look promising. I’ve discovered some new venues too, particularly in Harrogate where I’ve struggled to find anything suitable in the past. Bids have been submitted.
I’ve just been to a couple of Writing Groups as well (Batley and Holmfirth) although I’ve no more visits planned in that respect for a while. The online Blog Tour has also come to a grinding halt and the moral of the story is that you can’t keep on top of everything and expect to have a life. I’m reminded (once again) of the juggler trying to keep all the plates spinning on the end of the sticks. The one stick I won’t be letting go of is the writing ...
And in other news, I’ve received a (very polite) rejection from the Richard & Judy Book Club. I don’t think it was a personal letter but it felt like one all the same. Well done Andrea Sansum for letting my balloon down as gently as possible.
On the good side of the balance, Book Talk continues with our second programme on Monday when I’ll be looking at STONER by John Williams and THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon. I’ve already posted my reviews on the Book Talk page of the website but if you can join me at 4pm on BBC Radio York on the 10th I’d be delighted to have you listen in. Bye for now.
30 January 2014
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks bemoaning the passage of time and regretting how little use I seem to make of it. You’re probably tired of hearing me tell you that I never get anything done. Today I’m changing my tune and instead of whingeing I’ve decided to celebrate. And the reason? I’ve finished rewriting Part Two of AS DAD LAY DYING well ahead of schedule. I’ve even given myself the day off from the desk so instead of this being written at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s 8 o’clock in the morning. And there’s no greater testament to the way I feel than when I can afford to give up a day’s writing.
I started out with the intention of whittling the work down from 111000 words to under a hundred. Part Two (Elisabeth’s story) originally comprised some 26000 words of that and I’d set myself the task of reducing it to below twenty by the end of January. So far, I’ve worked 25 out of the 29 days of the month, Part One is down to 11000 words and yesterday I completed Part Two at just under 20000, on time and on target. Other things may have gone by the board, but the priority has been achieved.
I’ve learnt from my experience with BIRDS OF THE NILE not to be too precious about throwing words away – there’s so much dead wood you can get rid of. I remember when I rewrote the first section of that book and eliminated my ‘grammatical crutches’, ie. all those little expressions that make you feel comfortable about your writing. It was a ‘wow’ moment as I sensed the prose literally lifting of the page in front of me and I knew then that I’d become a genuine writer – it actually began to read like a proper novel.
I’m hoping to repeat that with AS DAD LAY DYING. The crunch will come when I re-read the re-write and I see whether I’ve been able to achieve the same effect. In the meanwhile I intend to keep going rather than make the mistake of going back to the beginning now. So tomorrow I start on Part Three (Frank’s story). That currently weighs in at close to 24000 words. I’ll need to read through it first to see if it’s properly paced. I know of one (small) piece that can probably come out but I don’t feel the need to cut this back so much as I did Part Two. A normal word cull and I suspect 22000 words will be ok. It’s a crucial part of the whole so I don’t want to skimp. My target this time is to get it done before Monday 24 Feb as I’m going away for a few days then and it would be great to do so with that out of the way. Then I can relax and enjoy myself.
I know I said I wasn’t going to whinge but as to other matters, I’m still some way behind. It’s quiet season for Lit Fests and I’d said I was going to focus on my online campaign for BIRDS OF THE NILE. I’d hoped to set up a Blog Tour with at least one a week. I’ve managed that for the first three weeks (my thanks to Susan Buchanan, Ben Warden and Lilas Taha) and I have a promise of one in Feb but beyond that I’ve arranged nothing else. I’m not sure how successful those first three were and I’m planning to conduct a review of my online campaign before committing myself to more. Despite some really encouraging reviews on Amazon (10x5*, 5x4* and 1x3*) online sales are not as good as they could be and I need to find an effective way of boosting them.
Face to face sales are a lot better and I need to continue that programme too. And although there are no Lit Fests at present (the season starts at the same time as F1, ie. March) if I don’t make bids now, I’ll have nothing to go to in April, May and June. So when writing was done on Tuesday I spent the rest of the day on the phone. I’m currently appearing at Kings Lynn and York in March and I’ve enquired about Scarborough in April. I’ve a spot at Doncaster in May and I’ve also put bids in for Helmsley, Lincoln and Darlington in the same month. Next bit of ‘free’ time I get I’ll be looking at June and thinking about Middlesbrough, Hebden Bridge, Leeds, Holmfirth and Grassington. Amazing to think that there’s so much literary activity within an hour or so’s travelling distance. I’ll keep you in touch as to progress.
Now it’s time to look at my emails. Yesterday I had 98 from Twitter alone. Oh joy ...
23 January 2014
I’ve just settled down to ‘Writing Life’ so I guess it must be 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. Isn’t it amazing what creatures of habit we are! It’s almost as if there’s an internal alarm clock that subconsciously calls us to duty. The thing is, I know that if it isn’t done now, it won’t get done at all.
As you might gather from the tone of the above, my battle with time continues. When I review my diary to see what achievements I can report for the week, I am appalled at how little it amounts to. And it’s not as if I’m controlled by some external force – the fact is that almost the whole 24 hours of the day are mine to do with as I wish. It would be handy if I could blame it on someone else, but I can’t.
The truth is there are only two commitments in my diary for the week, a day out shopping with my wife (which we thoroughly enjoyed and I wouldn’t have swapped for the world) and Book Talk with Elly Fiorentini at BBC Radio York on Monday. I wouldn’t have changed that either, even though it did take up quite a bit of time in terms of preparation. As it was the first edition to go out, I was anxious to make sure it went well and I had my comments documented in readiness. Having said that, I think you’d be surprised as to just how much of it we make up as we go along. You really do have to be able to respond quickly! Anyway, I enjoyed that too and the feedback afterwards suggested it was fine. It doesn’t end there of course, and there’s another half a day of tidying up to do on the website when the programme has finished. Even now, I’ve still got a couple of jobs to do but I’m hopeful that the further we get into it, the easier it will become. If you’ve got your diary handy, the next broadcast is due out on Monday 10 February. Fortunately, I’ve already read the books concerned.
And yes, I’m still ploughing on with AS DAD LAY DYING – that is a permanent fixture in my work schedule. Come rain or shine I begin each morning at the writing desk and I sit there until I feel I’ve done enough to justify a decent day’s output. At present that’s averaging about 1200 words (this is re-writing, remember, I could never keep that up for a first draft) and since I began on Jan 4 I’ve only had one day off. I’m currently 23000 words into it and so far, so good. The first section is done (11000 words) and the section I’m working on at present started off with 26000 words. I’ve always known it’s far too long and my target is to get in down to below 20000, hopefully 19000. At the latest count it’s under 22000 so I’m gradually getting there.
What has surprised me is how easy this is to do without harming the essential content of the book. We’re often precious about the words we’ve sweated blood to get down on paper but I find that on revision, less is invariably more. My first draft was wordy and I found I’d repeated the same sentiment time and time again. Cutting out the dead wood improves my prose and reduces the risk of boring the reader. It was a lesson and a skill I acquired while redrafting BIRDS OF THE NILE. I blogged about how I did it in an article called ‘Trimming The Fat – How To Cut Your Word Count’ on Jan 14 last year. If you want to look it up, it’ll be in the Blog Archive. There’s one thing I’d add to it with hindsight – the longer you leave it before starting the revision, the better. You forget how much effort it cost you in the first place and why you included things you can’t now see the point of. My initial notes for AS DAD LAY DYING are dated March 2009 and I have a record of a rejection dated a year later so it’s been in the drawer for almost four years. A bit extreme, I suppose, but it doesn’t half help. And by the time I get it back to the agent, they’ll have forgotten why they rejected it too ...
16 January 2014
Well, another week of 2014 has flashed by and although I’ve set aside an hour or so to tell you about it, I’m not sure I’ve achieved enough to warrant making a record. As I said last time, I put things on my ‘to do’ list but it just keeps getting longer and longer and making myself document things in this way only serves to remind me how little I seem to get done.
But throughout all this there is one ‘must do’ priority – and that is to continue writing. I was forcibly reminded of this on Tuesday evening when I went to Keighley to give a talk to Airedale Writers Circle. They had requested ‘A Defence Against The Dark Arts – Writers’ Block And How To Beat It’ which is undoubtedly the most popular of all my talks. In it I speak about what a writer needs to give up in order to write – what sacrifices will we have to make? All too often it’s the writing itself that gets sacrificed and I’m utterly determined that won’t happen to me. So the writing comes first - and if I manage to get anything else done, that’s a bonus.
So I’m making steady, if unspectacular, progress with AS DAD LAY DYING. Day 12 of the re-write and I’ve reached page 53. You might think that’s quite slow but this is a root and branch re-write in which I’m dissecting every line to squeeze the best out of it. I’m also looking to cut the word count substantially. I began with 110000 words and I want to get that down to below 100000. This is a good discipline as it’s making me tighten the prose more than I would otherwise have done and I’m hoping that it will read much better as a result. It needs to, as the original wasn’t that great. But that’s what you have to do, time and time again until it’s right.
Meanwhile, my blog tour for BIRDS OF THE NILE is underway and last week I kicked this off with Susan Buchanan. Tomorrow I will be the guest of Ben Warden and next Friday I’ll be with Lilas Taha in the States. Beyond that, I have nothing else in the diary but I’ve put a couple of feelers out and I’m awaiting replies. So when I said last week that I needed to focus on February, that was what I meant. Needless to say, acting on this has been one of the things to go by the board while I’ve continued writing. Do you remember those juggling acts where the artist was required to keep a dozen plates rotating on sticks? Now you know how I feel. I’m sure you feel the same.
Something I can’t afford to let go by the board is Book Talk. This is my new monthly radio spot with Elly Fiorentini on BBC Radio York (due to first go out on Monday 20th Jan between 4 and 4.30pm). In fact I spent yesterday afternoon preparing what we might talk about and emailing her my suggested format. I’m proposing to review two books each month plus do a bit of chat about local events. To start us off I’m going to be talking about THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence (you may remember it’s my Book of the Year 2013) and then I hope to say a few words about THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield (the TV adaption was shown the other week). I’ve also decided to dedicate my blog to Book Talk in the future so I’ll be making some changes there too.
Busy times. No wonder I never seem to actually get anything done ...
9 January 2014
Well if I’m not back into the swing of things now after the Christmas break, I guess I never will be. So it’s back to the old routine, up with the lark and writing until 11am followed by a break for coffee and sorting through the emails - then doing whatever else I can get done in what remains of the day. Something I’ve learnt from all this over the years is that I only ever seem to achieve half the things on my list. There is a remedy of course, and that’s to put twice as many things on the list. That way I should get a lot more done ...
Anyway, is it working? Last week I went public with my objectives for 2014 so I thought I’d better get stuck into them as soon as possible. And with MÄLAREN on the back burner, I’ve gone straight for AS DAD LAY DYING and I’m already six days into the rewrite. I’d read the work through and reviewed the characters and the plot before the break so I did at least have a head start. For the most part I’m happy with those aspects of it and I like the way the book is constructed. It’s ‘bookended’ ie. a contemporary beginning and a contemporary end section. In between we go back in time and hear the voices of the four main protagonists, each telling their own part of the story. This means we can gradually fill in the background whilst at the same time getting different perspectives on what are sometimes the same events. Secrets are revealed and so by the time we get to the final section we are ready for the denouement. All well and good, except that I’m not entirely happy with the denouement and I believe it needs to change. Although how it needs to change is still a mystery to me. My plan is to soldier on, section by section, editing and improving the prose whilst cutting out the parts we don’t need in order to tighten it up (it’s currently 110000 words and possibly a bit too long). Then, when I’m happy with sections one to five, I can concentrate on the ending. How long all this will take, I don’t know. After six days work I’ve reached page 30. There are 390 pages altogether. Work that one out! Sometime around Easter? Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy ...
Meanwhile, my campaign to improve sales of BIRDS OF THE NILE is well under way. Having said that, it’s the quiet season for Lit Fests etc. and my first serious engagement isn’t until the beginning of March when I go to Kings Lynn for the weekend. When I get back, York Lit Fest will be upon us (I’m on the organising committee) and then things get into full swing. In the interim, I’m concentrating on the online area and I’ve taken the opportunity to bring my Goodreads and other web presences up to date. I’m also starting a Blog Tour, beginning tomorrow (Friday) when I’m being hosted by Susan Buchanan. She’s read the book and written a nice review (bless her). Other Blog Spots are in the offing and I have a programme booked for January. What I need to do next is focus on February.
(Committing all this to paper(?) is actually quite illuminating as it helps me see the wood instead of the trees. Of course I need to focus on February - why couldn’t I see that before?!)
And finally, in breaking news, I have today secured a regular spot on BBC Radio York where I will be joining presenter Elly Fiorentini once a month to talk about the latest books and to recommend some good reads. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Book Talk’. How inventive is that?! I’ll keep you posted.
3 January 2014
So, here we are, back from our fortnight of rest and recuperation and ready to begin another New Year. And firstly let me wish you a happy and successful one, but most importantly, a healthy one. The more I come across those who are unwell, the more I realise how crucial it is to stay fit. All else pales ...
But that’s enough of that and let’s try and be a bit more cheerful by looking forward to the year ahead. Last week I threatened to inflict my annual Business Plan on you. I did so at the end of 2012 when I suggested that every professional author should have one. If you take your writing seriously enough to the extent that it becomes your ‘business’ then I firmly believe that you should plan ahead and that means setting Aims & Objectives. Last year I shared mine in the hope that by stating them in public it would shame me into achieving them as I would not have wanted to come back here and have to report failure. To a certain extent that has worked and last week I was happy to provide feedback. This week I’m going to stick my neck out again for 2014.
So what is my long term Aim? I’ve said on my Home page that I’ve set out to become a nationally recognised author. What does that really mean and how will I know when I’ve got there? That’s rather like trying to describe an elephant – difficult to do but you know one when you see one. And notwithstanding the publication of BIRDS OF THE NILE, I know I’m not there yet.
So how about my Objectives? What do I specifically want to achieve this year? Firstly, I want to continue to spread the word about BOTN. The simplest way of quantifying this is via the volume of sales. I have an agreed target figure with my publisher and I would very much like to have surpassed this in the next twelve months as by doing so it will make publication of the next book all the more easy. At present I have done about 30% of my target so let so let the defining measure of success be 100%. Objective number one then - Achieve my Sales Target for BIRDS OF THE NILE.
And speaking of my next book, I come to The Unfortunate Case of the Broken Arm. As I’ve already explained, this has forced me to change my plans and instead of MÄLAREN I’ve had to bring forward AS DAD LAY DYING. I’ve recently become rather attached to both the story it tells and to the character of Frank so I would really like to get it finished off. Besides which, it was the one objective for 2013 that I didn’t manage to get done. So, objective number two – prepare ADLD ready for publication. This probably means quite a lot of work, by the way.
All of which will be of no use if I can’t locate a publisher for it. I doubt if one could be found, the book got ready and be out by the end of the year but if I want it out in 2015 (which I do) I will have to have got a home for it in 2014. So objective number three must be to find a publisher for ADLD.
And I still don’t have an agent. Every self-respecting author has an agent and I don’t see how I could claim to be a nationally recognised author without one. Plus the fact that I need the kind of career guidance only an agent can give – perhaps ADLD isn’t the next book and I should possibly be trying something else. Anyway, objective number four – find myself an agent.
Other things may come along in the meantime but that will do. Only four objectives but if I succeed in achieving them all I shall count myself well satisfied. They sound like small steps forward but they are in fact the hand and footholds, the cracks and ledges by which I must try and haul myself up the cliff-face. The alternative is to shoot for the moon and rely on something like The Richard and Judy Book Club or winning a notable prize as a means of attaining national prominence. But these are long shots and I can’t count on them. As it was explained to me once – it’s hard by the yard, but it’s a cinch by the inch.
Hmm ... Time will tell as to whether this saying has any truth in it. In the meanwhile, back down to work.
As I confidently predicted, I have failed to find any kind of routine over the Christmas period and the stability I need to achieve any rhythm in my writing has eluded me. Rather than wait until normality returns on 6 January I had managed to rewrite the first few thousand words of AS DAD LAY DYING (one of my New Year resolutions will be to change that title) but I was forced to abandon it in the face of the inevitable onslaught of turkey and plum pudding. To further complicate matters I am now in Devon and there’s no routine here either.
But this frustrating ending should not detract from what has otherwise been a good year in the writing department. And now I am out of routine, what better time to take the opportunity to review it.
You may remember that I ended 2012 with an article entitled ‘Why Every Writer Should Have A Business Plan’. Naturally I could not then escape writing one myself and in it I gave several hostages to fortune by setting out a certain set of objectives. To save you the trouble of looking them up, here they are.
- I will convert my third novella to ebook and have it available on Kindle.
- I will publish BIRDS OF THE NILE.
- I have a second novel, AS DAD LAY DYING, in first draft. I will finish this and have it ready for publication in 2014.
- I will complete the first draft of my third novel, MALAREN.
(NB : Back then, I hadn’t learnt how to spell MÄLAREN correctly)
So how did I get on? I’ve already charted some of my progress in My Half Year Report (4 July) so there’s no need to go over old ground – ticks for items 1&2 then. At that stage items 3&4 were still in doubt but if you’ve been following Writing Life at all you’ll know that the first draft MÄLAREN was successfully completed before I went to Chicago. Well that’s good you might think, but although it has width (94000 words) I am concerned as to the quality. But let’s not worry too much about that for the time being and give a tick for item 4.
The problem has been with item 3. My original plan was to make a start on it after I’d finishedMÄLAREN but then I changed my mind. MÄLAREN was the natural successor to BIRDS OF THE NILE, I thought, so why not crack on and get that ready for publication instead. I got so far with it (first 3 chapters revised and polished) and even started sending it out to agents but then Fate lent a hand and the typist I’d engaged to get it onto a USB broke her arm (bless her). So no final m/s to work on and me wondering what to do next. Somebody somewhere was obviously trying to tell me something. No option then but to revert to Plan A and work on AS DAD LAY DYING. So that’s where I am now and no chance of getting finished before the year end. To be truthful, I don’t think I’d have got it finished even if I’d stuck to Plan A in the first place – there’s a lot of rewriting to do.
Anyway, three out of four isn’t bad plus the fact that I’ve got a headstart for 2014. Which reminds me - I must write a new Business Plan. Maybe next time …
The last week or so has been difficult. Ever since I returned from Chicago I’ve struggled to get back into any kind of routine. I personally find routine helpful, especially when it comes to the writing of books. Falling into a (good) routine means setting aside a prescribed time each day for writing and knowing that something positive is going to be achieved in that time. Without it, little seems to get done.
The accident which befell my typist hasn’t exactly helped. I had trained my head to look in one direction ie. MÄLAREN and now it’s being forced to look in another. I find I need to immerse myself in my characters and their story - to simply move from one to the next overnight isn’t feasible and it’s taken me time to adjust. So instead of ploughing straight on from where I left off in mid November, I’ve had to pick up a piece of work I last looked at over eighteen months ago and try to re-connect.
Well, ok perhaps if I could settle to it but we are of course at a time of year when other things demand one’s attention – you can’t escape the need for a Christmas tree and lights and decorations and presents and cards and everything else that goes with the season. Then there’s the visiting of relatives, the travelling and suddenly it’s New Year’s Eve and another set of celebrations are upon us, so there’s little hope of any routine kicking in before the first Monday in January. And having just taken ten days out of the schedule to go to Chicago (probably fourteen by the time you reckon on preparing and packing and unpacking etc.) it seems it will have been six whole weeks gone by and nothing concrete to show for it.
I was speaking to a fellow author on Monday (we met for tea and a chat at City Screen) and I suggested that she take some time off and relax (as you do). She retorted that for her, stress arises out of not being able to write and the thought of sitting around doing nothing over the holiday period would be intolerable. I know the feeling. We take weeks out of our lives preparing for time off – and when we get it, we wish we were doing something else.
I can’t say that the last two weeks have been entirely wasted. I have got over my disappointment with MÄLAREN, I have decided to proceed with AS DAD LAY DYING instead (I really must do something about that title) and I have read the piece through in advance of starting work on it. That at least is progress. I have begun making notes – not for the first time in respect of this novel, I have to say. The first draft was originally written in 2009 and so it’s very nearly 5 years old already. I have made attempts at re-writing it before (twice, I think) and I am revisiting old ground. But it all takes time to re-assimilate.
The good news is I am convinced of the worthiness of the subject. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I become engaged by it. I find Frank (the main protagonist) to be a fascinating character and I really want to tell his story. I also find that the story in itself is immensely powerful and that is a driving force too. And for me, that is what literary fiction is about – the exposition and exploration of character through the telling of a story. The same is true of BIRDS OF THE NILE where in Michael Blake I like to think I have created another interesting and credible character. I have recently received a kind review to the same effect and I find that extremely gratifying. If I can do the same with AS DAD LAY DYING (I’m determined to change that title!) I will be delighted.
All I need to do is find the time – and that means getting into a routine. Must I really wait until 6 January? I hope not and I must try and find a way of moving things forward amidst all the disruption that surrounds me. Wish me luck.
When Harold Macmillan was asked what he feared most he is reputed to have answered ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Although whether he was referring to foreign policy or matters at home, nobody seems to be sure.
One thing is certain. As an author I am fascinated by the way in which random occurrences can have life-changing effects. Without them, no matter how interesting we manage to make our characters, they don’t develop and their stories become predictably prosaic. There are no surprises.
Sometimes, these events have huge consequences. What if Archduke Ferdinand’s car had changed route as intended? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? The world might be a very different place and we might all be leading different lives.
On a lesser scale, what appear to be everyday occurrences impact on us personally and cause us to change as individuals. In BIRDS OF THE NILE, what if Michael Blake had not decided to go on his birding trip? He would not have met Lee Yong and Reda and he would not have lost his eyesight. In MÄLAREN, it’s a phone call and the arrival of two unwanted guests that upset the new-found harmony of Alan Harrison’s life. And in each case, the characters involved have to make life-changing decisions and are forced to act. So where is this going? you may ask. Well, in my life someone has tripped over a door-step and broken their arm and it’s caused me to amend all my plans.
But let’s end the drama there. I doubt that this is a life-changing moment – I can’t imagine that my existence is going to be radically altered as a result. (Actually, I can – and that’s exactly why I’m an author.) But it’s certainly having an effect. The person in question is the typist to whom I had entrusted converting my hand-written manuscript of MÄLAREN into an electronic copy. The idea was that while I was away in Chicago for Thanksgiving the job would be got onto a USB ready for me to sit down and work on pretty much as soon as I got back. Well that’s now gone out of the window. I had a phone call last week to say she’d had an accident and what did I want to do? And with her side-lined for the foreseeable future I had no choice but to recover the m/s and have a rethink.
Perhaps it’s Fate taking a hand. You may remember that when I’d completed the first draft of MÄLAREN back in October, I agonized over what I should do next. Should I set it aside and work on AS DAD LAY DYING as was my original plan? Or should I plough on with it, thinking it to be the most likely successor to BIRDS OF THE NILE? I decided the latter, hence farming out the typing in a bid to have the work back in time for my return. Now, I’m forced to do otherwise. What I should have done was allow DLW (my Dear Lady Wife) to do the typing as she so graciously volunteered in the first place. But she had her own work to do (a dissertation for her MA in History of Art – she passed with flying colours, by the way) and I didn’t want to burden her. I’m sure that now she’s free of her studies she will volunteer again – but there’s the jet-lag to overcome (she arrived back from Chicago on Tuesday and is still a bit bewildered) and Christmas to organize so it will be January before she can get going on it. So I’ve searched through the filing cabinet and found a printed copy of AS DAD LAY DYING and I’ll be making a start on it tomorrow. C’est la vie, I suppose.
Meanwhile, DLW tells me that Chicago has radically altered since I left and Christmas is now in full swing. The tree is up in Macy’s and street decorations have appeared through out the city centre. I know this because she showed me the photographs – all 92 of them. It seems that everything gets going as soon as Thanksgiving is out of the way. Had I stayed the few extra days that she did I could have seen it for myself. Instead of which I elected to come home to an empty fridge, a cold house and someone’s broken arm. Next time I might not be so hasty to get away.
Apologies for my absence - I’ve been to Chicago for Thanksgiving. The Windy City. But as I indicated in my Blog, I wasn’t blown away. Nithered, yes, as night-time temperatures dropped to -5C, but blown away, no.
Which is all rather a shame as I have often gained inspiration for my writing from trips abroad. Both MÄLAREN (Sweden) and BIRDS OF THE NILE (Egypt) are obvious examples and the idea for FERIA came from one of our Spanish holidays. Bur so far my American experiences have failed to provide anything concrete. Having said that, I was intrigued by a painting in the Art Institute of Chicago which set me thinking if it did not actually inspire me. ‘Mrs Darrow’ by Manierre Dawson (c1911) is a cubist (?) representation of a woman (I can tell that much) who appears to be a well-to-do socialite. The warmth of the painting’s colours and her engaging smile (a bit crooked, but it is cubist) drew me in and I was fascinated to know who she was. I have searched the net but I’ve not come up with anything. Perhaps that’s just as well as it leaves room for my imagination to work on it – but I have enough on my plate for the time being without the distraction of writing about a New York socialite. One day, when I have time …
At least my break away gave me the opportunity to catch up on my reading – there were two eight hour plane journeys to fill if nothing else. I make a point of taking something that relates to the country I’m visiting so on this occasion I selected The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon (F.Scott Fitzgerald), Stoner (John Williams) and an old favourite, Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). I take particular interest in American literature of this type and when I have a chance I will post a blog with my thoughts about them. On perusing the bookcase in my daughter’s flat I came across The Bean Trees, an (early?) novel by Barbara Kingsolver so l read that too. Add to that Seating Arrangements (Maggie Shipstead) and I’m just about read out. Goodread reviews will follow.
So what have I come back to? A pile of washing and ironing and an empty fridge by the look of it. My wife is staying on for another week so I’ve been left to fend for myself. Please don’t feel sorry for me though, I actually enjoy being on my own for a few days. Before you know it, Christmas with all its attendant demands will be upon us and the chance to get anything done at all will have eluded me, so I must take this opportunity and press on. Now let me see – where was I? Oh yes, trying to find a clean pair of socks …
Monday afternoon and here’s an opportunity to post something before I zoom up and away across the Atlantic for a week in Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with my daughter. I’ve never been to Chicago and I’ve never experienced Thanksgiving. But as I keep telling myself, life is a continual voyage of discovery. Hopefully I will have lots to report on when I return – and in particular on our planned trip to the Art Institute there. I can’t wait – you know how much I love modern art.
Meanwhile, following the encouraging response from agent X (she’s keen to see what I write next) the inevitable rejections for MÄLAREN have started to come in. None of X’s pleasantries here, no ‘I really like your writing, send me something else’, just plain old ‘No thanks’. I console myself with the thought that there will always be some form of instant reaction (some may not even have bothered reading the submission but simply have too much work already) and that acceptance is more likely to come from a much more considered response. I live in hope.
And I’ve actually decided to hold off sending out any more advances. After X’s comment regarding the need for a more creative ‘pitch’, I think I’ll wait to see what others think before I commit myself to completing the exercise. I’ve sent out to about one third of the market so far – let’s see what they have to say before going any further. Then, if the general opinion is that I need to change it, I still have some more to go at. Perhaps, by the time I get back from the windy city (and it’s very windy at the moment according to the news this morning), I’ll have more to go on.
As for BIRDS OF THE NILE, better news. My entry for the McKitterick Prize has been accepted! It’s maybe not an award that readily springs to mind but it’s certainly prestigious enough to warrant serious attention. It’s offered by The Society of Authors for a full-length novel in English by a previously unpublished writer over the age of 40. I just qualify (by about 20 years) and as I will only ever be previously unpublished once, it seems to make sense to have a go. Whether this will prove justified or not, time will tell. The winner will be announced in June next year – long enough into the future to keep more hope alive. There should always be something to look forward to.
And as I mentioned a week or so ago, I’ve also been busy working on next year’s Lit Fest programme. So far I have a spot at York in March where I will be talking about making use of history in my work together with fellow York author Tom Harper and I will be at Doncaster at the end of May as part of an author’s day. I’ve also applied to Huddersfield, Hexham and Helmsley (but not to Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire) plus Scarborough, Lincoln and Darlington. I was aware of the festival at Kings Lynn but had thought it too distant (I’m focusing on Yorks, Lincs and Teesside) but then I had an email. It appears that the Chairman of Kings Lynn Lit Fest had got hold of my book, has read it and was thoroughly impressed – to the point where he’s asked me to take an active part in next year’s event. So in the middle of March, I’m off to Kings Lynn for the weekend!
But that’s next year. In the meantime, I’ve a trip pending to Chicago. Time to go and pack some bags ...
I’ve decided to post a little earlier than usual this week on account of a reaction I’ve received from an agent regarding MÄLAREN. Last week I was keen to tell you how I’d gone off my own work and how I’d become contemptuous of it. Well, this week it seems my writing is back in favour – but still no cigar.
I hadn’t expected such a swift response. My experience with agents leads me to believe it will be weeks (if not months) before I get any form of meaningful reply – which is why I’m sending off now in advance of my trip to Chicago. So you can imagine my surprise when I got an email on Saturday night(!) saying that X had read my submission and was giving me some feedback. She says I write quite well (bless her) but doesn’t think the idea behind the book is strong enough to convince a publisher. In other words, a rejection – and my first cut.
My reaction was twofold. Firstly, I was naturally delighted regarding the comment about the writing – although in some ways I wish she hadn’t responded so quickly. X is an agent I would really like to work with, having met her at a recent Festival of Writing. Had she not come back to me so soon I would have been able to cling to the idea that her response was still to come when all else had failed. Ah, well ...
But secondly, her comment about the need for a stronger ‘conceit’ intrigued me. This is something I have only recently come across. It appears that these days we not only need to write well, to plot well and to have structure to our work but we also have to have a clever and/or original idea. The implication is that in order to succeed we must somehow shock, surprise or amaze our audience (the audience being the agents, editors and other gatekeepers to the publishing world). I’m not sure I like this any more than I like being obliged to write a sensationalist first sentence/paragraph/page etc. to attract the reader.
We’ve talked about this in our writing group and we’ve come to the conclusion that some of what we would now accept as ‘classics’ in the world of literature would simply not be published these days for this very reason. They are well (and in some cases, brilliantly) written, have great plots and great structure – but they don’t say anything new. I have recently read ‘Stoner’ by John Williams, a book much lauded by the media and others (eg. Ian McEwan) for its lucid prose. But although it ticks all the conventional boxes, it tells us nothing we didn’t already know. Would a publisher want it today?
This brings me to an important point. As those who’ve read my blogs about art will know, I am scathing about conceptual art and the idea that the skill behind the painting/sculpture doesn’t matter any more and it’s ‘the concept’ that counts. Are we headed the same way in literature, I ask myself? Are we going to see the well-written book side-lined simply because it doesn’t say something new and/or shocking? If so, I begin to see how artists have been forced into producing ‘conceptual art’ in order to survive and I find myself having some sympathy for them.
The solution, for the time being at least, seems to be for me to tart up the pitch for the book rather than the book itself. I’ve spent seven months writing it and ‘it is what it is’ as they say. Has anyone got any thoughts as to how I could dress it up a bit? How about some monkeys and a typewriter? Answers on a postcard ...
2pm Thursday afternoon and it’s time to bring my writing diary up to date.
Last week I set off with the intention of revising the opening chapters of MÄLAREN. (Please note how I now have the correct spelling ie. with the two dots over the first A. There’s probably a name for this and if anybody wants to tell me what it is in Swedish I’d be glad to hear it. In German, I think it’s an umlaut.) I spent a few of my morning sessions so doing and by Monday I was in a position to begin making submissions to agents. I got as far as sending off to number six and then had second thoughts. Had I really polished my work up to the highest standard I could reasonably achieve? Was it really good enough?
The answer, on re-reading it carefully, was no – and then the rot set in. The problem was that by then I’d probably read it three or four times, it was no longer new to me and the words had all become familiar. And we all know what familiarity breeds. So yes, I grew contemptuous of my own work and decided I hadn’t actually done the best I could do and that I needed to look through it again. It’s not bad, mind - it’s just that it could be better and I owe it to myself to try again. I think I was in too much of a hurry first time round – better to take a bit more care for the sake of a few more days. The likelihood is I won’t get all the submissions done before I go to Chicago anyway, so why the big rush? So here I am, part way through Chapter Three for the second time with another half-day’s work to do.
Meanwhile, I’ve made serious progress with my Goodreads entry and that’s now pretty much up to date. Please feel free to visit it. Leave messages. And /or reviews. Let me know what you think of it – I’m open to suggestions. If there’s anything missing that I should be doing please tell me. Soon, I’ll be trying to build up my reviews for BIRDS OF THE NILE on both Amazon and Goodreads but for the moment I’m focused on the 99p ebook promotion. When that finishes in a week or so’s time, I can move on to something else.
While I’m waiting, I’ve been talking to my publisher about entering BIRDS OF THE NILE for prize competitions. Their response has been extremely encouraging and so far we’ve agreed to put in for two – The McKitterick and The Desmond Elliott Prizes. To get short-listed (or even long-listed) for one of these would be a major coup – never mind actually winning. These are prizes for debut novels and there’s only ever going to be one opportunity to do that so carpe diem, as they say. I’ll let you know how things work out.
My next priority, along with the matter of reviews, will be tackling next year’s Lit Fest programme. More about this next time.
Another week gone by and I’m obliged to look in my diary to see what I’ve been up to. Ostensibly not a lot, only one evening out and that was at a University of York lecture regarding the links between ancient Egypt and Yorkshire. A strange topic you might think, but as I count myself as part of that link (albeit in a very tenuous way) I thought it worth while attending. And having discovered the possibility of a cultural exchange between York and Luxor is on the cards, I guess you could say my trip was worthwhile irrespective of the lecture itself.
Meanwhile, it’s what’s been happening at home that’s of more immediate interest. Last week I said that Part One of MALAREN was back from typing along with some encouraging comments. I’ve now had the chance to read it and judge for myself. I have to confess I was reluctant to get going on it. I dread that moment when I’m confronted with the product of my own making – will it be good enough? Or am I going to be disappointed? It’s at these moments that I refer myself to my own seminar, ‘A Defence Against The Dark Arts’, and remind myself that what I think ultimately doesn’t matter and that it’s down to the market to be the final arbiter. My responsibility is to produce the best work I can and offer that for consideration. I’ve taken a sow’s ear before and with help I’ve turned it, if not into a silk purse then at least into something readable. Now I must do the same again. And so, armed with a good dose of my own philosophy, I made a start.
And much to my surprise and relief, it isn’t that bad. Chapter One is actually quite good I think, and Chapter Two isn’t far behind. Chapters Three and Four need a bit of revision (and in one instance, rewriting) but with time, effort and a following wind I think I could make something out of it. So with that in mind, I’ve devised a plan. We go to Chicago on 21 November to visit our daughter for Thanksgiving. By then, my objective is to have Chapters One and Two polished (I may even recast them as Chapters One, Two and Three) and sent out to agents. When I get back and while I’m waiting for the inevitable slew of rejections, I can crack on with the rest. Yesterday I wrote a synopsis (one side of A4) and today I revised half of the original Chapter One. Tomorrow I will be revising the second half which will be the new Chapter Two. By Monday (ish), I’ll be in a position to start compiling a list of potential agents. What all this tells me is that MALAREN is the next work in progress and the most natural successor to BIRDS OF THE NILE, an issue which has been bothering me for a while.
As for BIRDS OF THE NILE itself, I have news – but I’m going to delay passing that on for the moment. My priority there is to help with the campaign to promote the EBOOK PRICE REDUCTION (did you get that?) that starts today. So I’m getting ready to tweet and I’ve been tinkering up my Goodreads page in readiness. Some of you may have already noticed ...
Well, Monday’s been and gone and rather than contribute something here I chose to resurrect GETTING TO KNOW and feature my fellow York Author, Helen Cadbury, with whom I spent a pleasant day on Saturday at The Ryedale Book Festival. See my Blog for the details. This after spending the whole day in Louth on Friday at Wolds Words, including a morning signing books in Wrights of Louth, the bookshop with the (famous) upside-down shop sign. I’m told that when they took the sign down a few years ago to paint it, there were articles in the local paper and a visit from the local council along the lines of You are going to put that back as it was, aren’t you (note the lack of question mark). A local landmark, indeed. Anyway, two days out and about with a total of eleven books sold can’t be bad.
Meanwhile, my daily read continues and I can now report that I’ve finished The Universe versus Alex Woods and I’m well into Stoner. When I’ve completed it, I’ll give a summary of all three novels I’ve read during my enforced break from writing and we’ll have an exercise in ‘contrast and compare’. But it will be just the three books as the initial section of MALAREN is back from typing and I must now press on with revising the first three chapters in preparation for sending out to agents (still no reply from Zoe King of The Blair Partnership, by the way).
And with it comes the first piece of feedback regarding my new work in progress. DLW (my Dear Lady Wife) doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to literary critique and I was rather hoping that she might keep her comments to herself until such time as I’d had the chance to polish everything up. But no, and with delivery of the USB containing Part One came a wry smile and words to the effect that I seem to have ‘captured the despair of a man whose life is spiralling out of control following the death of his beloved wife’. Although I’m sure it will want tidying up, this is very pleasing as it will help to draw the reader in, create empathy with the character of ALAN and make some of the things he does later in the book much more understandable. I am greatly encouraged and look forward to starting work on it next week. You will be kept informed as to progress of course.
The promotional campaign for BIRDS OF THE NILE continues although at a reduced pace. The Lit Fest season seems to have come to an end (I’ve not been invited to Humbermouth and the Newcastle Book Fair isn’t running this year) so I’ve resorted to planning for the spring. Huddersfield, Hexham,York and Scarborough are all within my sights and I have made pitches for each of them. York is looking good but the jury is out on the others.
I have a couple of writing groups coming up and through a personal contact DLW has landed me a talk at a local WI meeting. Last night I was at The Sandbar in Horsforth at Leeds Trinity Open Mic and tonight I go to Give Back Works at The National Railway Museum. I was originally booked to speak but this has been postponed in favour of the full-time membership. I shall attend nonetheless.
Next week looks quiet though. Time to review Part One of MALAREN and get the red pen out ...
It’s 2pm and having completed my ‘must do’ tasks for the day, I have a free hour or so in which to update my Writing Life diary.
Ever since I abandoned the summerhouse on Monday, I’ve been getting used to my new routine. There are no more early mornings with pen and paper in my retreat at the bottom of the garden – and I have to say I miss it. There will now be an unnatural and unwanted lull while I wait for Chapters 1-3 of MALALREN to be typed up by my Dear Lady Wife (God bless her) before I can get to grips with the rework. This, of course, will be the next step in my campaign to attract an agent for my new book. I’ve already made a start in that respect, having sent an email to Zoe King of The Blair Partnership as my first choice. We met at the York Writers Conference in September when she kindly volunteered to take a copy of BIRDS OF THE NILE to read. Anyone who is prepared to do that clearly gets preference. I await her reply.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken to filling my writing time with reading, not something (I’m ashamed to admit) I’m normally able to manage. I seem to have accumulated a pile of books on my bedside table which I’ve told myself I should read as soon as I have the time. Now I theoretically have the time, so my excuse is gone. Just out of interest, here they are in no particular order.
The New Middle East by Paul Danahar : A (weighty) reference book about the politics of The Arab Spring which I began in readiness for my Wakefield Lit Fest event (Egypt in Crisis). Pages 1-125 seemed to provide me with all I needed to know and I haven’t yet progressed beyond there.
To Catch A Rabbit by Helen Cadbury : Helen is a fellow member of York Authors and I bought my copy at her book launch in June. I read it over the course of last weekend and as I am working with her at Ryedale Book Festival on Saturday, we will be no doubt be discussing it then. Watch this space ...
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence : My current read. I first met Gavin on the York leg of his nationwide (hardback) book launch tour where he seemed to enjoy good support. I came across him for the second time at Wakefield (by which time the paperback was out) where there were more good comments. On the strength of these I bought the book for my wife who has thoroughly enjoyed reading it and recommended that I do so. And as I always do what DLW tells me ...
Stoner by John Williams : I first heard of this via an interview given by Ian McEwan and thought This sounds like my kind of book. Time will tell.
And finally, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates : A perennial favourite, this haunts my bedside table. Having read it once a few years ago, it has remained in situ ever since so that I can dip into it from time to time to remind myself of what great prose reads like.
Then, after my morning read, I revert to promoting BIRDS OF THE NILE. The manic period leading up to and following the Big Book Launch seems to have quietened down and things are returning to something like normal. The face-to-face campaign continues and so far I have personally sold 149 copies. Having taken delivery of 285 to begin and given 17 away as complimentary and lent out 14 on sale or return, I am left with a further 105 in stock. At the current rate, these should last until Christmas. My stock sheet (I keep an inventory) looks like the scorecard for a Geoff Boycott century ie. all in ones spaced out over a long period of time. Having said that, I seem to have managed a boundary at Ilkley last Thursday.
More opportunities for sales over the next couple of days as I am at Wolds Words (Louth, A Defence Against The Dark Arts) tomorrow and at Ryedale Book Festival (Malton, Does Travel Broaden The Literary Mind?) on Saturday. That being the case, I may not pass this way again before Monday. I’ll hopefully talk to you then ...
A sad day, yesterday. The weather didn’t help – and may have even caused the problem. I have decided that the summerhouse is no longer a practical proposition for working in and I have retreated indoors and to the comfort of the study. It’s not that I can’t bear the cold (sometimes I actually enjoy it) but now that I’ve finished the first draft of MALAREN, the purpose of being down there seems to have evaporated. And with yesterday being rather dreich as the Scots would say, it seemed like the natural time to pack things up and move out.
Which all gave rise to a general feeling of melancholy. I am reminded of some of the words to Danny Boy - The summer’s gone and all the roses falling. My summer has definitely gone and I am rather regretful. I had a vision of what the summer would be like – mornings in the summerhouse, writing, afternoons working outdoors in the sunshine. I succeeded in accomplishing the first but not, I fear, the second, and spent the time working indoors instead. I remember using the barbecue once or twice early on in the season, but hardly at all recently. As for my intention of building a path (that was supposed to be my outdoor project for the year) I’m afraid it went by the wayside. So I’m feeling a little glum ...
Anyway, all things must change and it’s an opportunity to start something new. The question is what? Firstly I’m going to draw a line under Writing Life (March to October) and archive it off. That means I can start the next phase afresh – Part Two, if you like. Then I need to set some objectives for this next phase, however long it may be. I am minded that I have a trip to Chicago coming up in November and I would like to be doing something positive in the period beforehand. When I come back, I will probably want to settle down to a writing project for the winter. As yet, I’m not sure what that will be. My plan for 2013 suggests I should focus on getting AS DAD LAY DYING polished up but I have a feeling that MALAREN is a better prospect. It’s much more of a natural follow on to BIRDS OF THE NILE and probably more marketable. I am also still without an agent and I really ought to have one. So what if –
- I continue with my promotional programme for BIRDS OF THE NILE
- I polish up Chapters 1-3 of both AS DAD LAY DYING and MALAREN
- I try and snare an agent for either
This would then dictate my project for the winter ie. bringing whichever of the two is best done next up to a publishable standard so that by sometime in the spring/summer of 2014, I have another book ready. Well at least it’s a plan ...