My First Novel

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August 30, 2107

Quite a few years ago, I met a woman who described herself as a novelist. ‘I’m a literary writer,’ she told me, setting herself apart from those who write commercial fiction. I didn’t know the difference then and I still find the dividing line between the two categories blurred but her attitude made me curious.

I told her that I had been writing for years first as a journalist and then as an advertising copywriter.

She gave me a horrified look. ‘I would NEVER write advertising!’

A picture started forming. It was a pyramid. On top were literary writers who wrote things of worth that did not necessarily sell well. Below this were commercial writers who wrote less worthy words but sold more books. I lumped journalists in with this lot because at this point, you could still make a living from writing for newspapers and magazines. At the bottom of the triangle, rubbing shoulders with the ne’er-do-wells rustling sheep and stealing money from pensioners were advertising copywriters.

The woman’s dismissal of my writing career affected me. It made me question what I had been doing with whatever talent or skills I had managed to assemble. Her snobbery could have very easily put me off attempting a book of my own but instead her words made something flare inside me. It was bright and hot, like the tongue of flame from a Bunsen burner.

I decided to write a novel.

I had no idea how to start a book. What I did have was a story to tell, several in fact. I also knew how to string sentences together. What was missing was an understanding of novel structure or form. I didn’t know that fiction needs a spine of sorts, a narrative arc to carry its characters through trials and tribulations and to give the story tension and intrigue. Basically, the narrative is what compels you as a reader to keep turning the page. How the writer tells the story is what makes you love what you are reading.

I had to learn how to write fiction the hard way through a long process of trial and error. My first book was written and rewritten many, many times. Early on, I threw away the first 40,000 words and started again. At another point, I threw away the latter 50,000 words and rewrote the second half completely. I didn’t want to write any old book. I wanted my book to be brilliant.

The novel that came out of all this is called ‘Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar’ and after many years of waiting, it will soon be made into a feature film.

 

 

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Self Possession

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August 13, 2017

Yesterday while walking up the hill from St Albans station quietly resenting everyone walking down the hill, I passed a boy of about eight. He was flinging his arms about. As we passed each other, I heard him say, ‘I’m still ridiculously angry.’ This was meant for his father who was walking several paces behind, fiddling with a mobile phone, looking disengaged.

A Road Map of Scars

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July 18, 2017

I have a scar on my left eyebrow, a vertical dent that bisects the eyebrow fur near the arch. The scar has revealed itself as I’ve got older. It’s a rut I have to negotiate with my eyebrow pencil.

My brother Robert noticed it on one of my recent trips back to New Zealand. Delicately, he asked, ‘What the hell happened to your face?’ Robert looked slightly, not remarkably, surprised when I reminded him of the time he and my brother David threw a cast-iron lawnmower wheel at my head. I was about nine at the time and was doing a headstand when the wheel knocked me flat.

As my mother used to say, ‘Wounds on the face always look worse because they bleed a lot.’ She said this often because her children were often getting damaged in the bump and grind of childhood. In my wild, high-energy family, one minute your sibling was your friend and the next he was trying to put pepper in your cup of tea. You had to strike fast and run like hell because in our house, revenge was a dish served piping hot.

‘What about you?’ asked Robert. ‘I’ve still got lumps where you hit me over the head with a steel pin.’ He touched his scalp to indicate the general location of the lumps. I had whacked him, too, quite a feat for a seven-year-old. The steel pin (a long, metal rod used for concrete construction) had been extremely heavy but rage had given me the strength of five ponies. I’d crept up on my brother, dragging the pin behind me. At six years old, I already had the sense to attack my enemy from behind.

I have a scar on my left leg where my sister Jocelyn drove a pair of hairdressing scissors into the fleshy area below the knee and on my right ankle, I have a scar where my brother Bruce branded me with a toasting fork, glowing red hot from the fireplace. These are just some of my souvenirs from childhood.

In my twenties, I worked in a newspaper office with an American man who told me his body was a roadmap of scars. He’d had operations on several of his organs and while he didn’t actually show me the scars, he conveyed their size by holding out two fingers and saying, ‘It’s about yea big’, as he revisited each surgical procedure.

He was a nice man. His eyes would bulge and his lips would form a small O whenever he was being confidential. He once told me in this manner about a friend of a friend who used to tie a brick to his penis with a long piece of string. The man would hang the brick out of his bedroom window while he slept in an effort to stretch his penis.

This story still troubles me. I imagine a heavy pigeon alighting on the brick. The sudden tug on the penis end of the string. The man waking up in pain. In another scenario a window washer comes across a brick dangling from a window.

 

How to Build a Novel

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July 6, 2017

I write best in the quiet of the morning. When I sit down to my computer soon after waking my brain is not cluttered by the business of living and I can tap into that big imagination machine of dreams. My thinking is unbounded and playful then, more eager to take risks. The work I do tends to be more authentic and original. I have great moments of, well, illumination. At this time of the day, I am audacious and open to possibility. I can happily give a character wings, steal the family silver or put a house to flames, huge flames that lick the bubbling paint off a window frame and explode the wall clock in the kitchen with an almighty bang.

I am a morning writer but I have friends who write best in the quiet of the evening, who do their finest work when they write late into the night. What we all have in common is the experience of finding a still point for contemplation and self-reflection, of engaging one to one with our page.

Writing is a solitary endeavor and unless you are part of a team project, you need to give yourself time to work on your book. Allocate this time and then ring fence it. Put up barbed wire and bring in the German shepherds. As a writer, you must guard your time and space fiercely because there is a world of distraction out there – needy friends and family, social media, a barking dog, the unwashed dishes, telephone calls. It’s a lot of noise and it wants to lure you away from the silence of commitment.

Writing, when you take it seriously, is not a hobby. It’s art and it’s work. It’s more important than watching television or mowing the lawn. It’s more rewarding than driving a fast car or spending a night at a pub. If you are compelled to write then it is the very thing that will bring you happiness.

When I write seriously, when I routinely sit down and plug into that big creative engine, I feel very good about myself. When I’m distracted and avoiding the page, I am a vague and self-doubting animal, wrong-footed and itchy inside my skin.

It’s not always possible to engage or create but the more you put aside time to work, the easier it gets. When you write as part of your daily routine, the connection to imagination and inspiration widens. Words and ideas come more easily to you. You see symbols and discover patterns and dovetails that give your work fascinating complexity. There is flow, and flow is where the joy is.

It takes effort, commitment and skill to write but good writing is not just about the mechanics of getting words down on paper. Good writing contains within it something of the divine, the stuff that falls into your head from the big ‘out there’. These are the ‘I don’t know where that thought came from’ and the ‘How did I write that?’ bits that charge your writing with electricity.

The best advice I can give new writers is to be serious about your craft while also leaving room for play. Be serious about your intention and commitment. Indeed, do the work. But be playful with what you create. Leave the door open for the unexpected and the remarkable. Seek out and open up to your muse.

Let the kitchen clock explode and a neighbour’s dog start barking. Wake up the woman sleeping off a hangover in the bedroom down the hall. Fling open the window and hurl her to safety before the entire house goes up in flames.

Mother Knows Best

June 27, 2017

I’ve just spoken to my mother. She’s in a fabulous mood. Very happy. She laughed sweetly. It was a tinkle.

What’s up, I asked.

‘Everything’s all right because New Zealand has won the America’s Cup,’ she said. Another tinkle of a laugh.

When did they win? I asked.

‘Just now, you Wally.’

For the past few weeks Mum has been getting up at 4am and driving herself crazy by watching the yacht races. ‘New Zealand has only one boat,’ she told me. ‘The Americans (Oracle) have four. An unlimited budget!’ She hated the commentators. ‘I have to turn the sound off when they talk about the New Zealand team. They say a lot of bullshit about us.’ She hated the way the competition was rigged. ‘They keep changing the rules, the bastards.’ She hated the way the opponents kept copying Team NZ’s innovations. ‘We put cyclists on board so the Americans had to copy us. Ha, it didn’t last.’ She hated the way the Oracle captain bragged all the time. ‘He’s a wanker. A bloody Australian.’

Last week my sister watched one of the races with Mum. She found it terribly stressful. Mid-race, she stood up and began to pace. This and the fact she dared say something about Team New Zealand drove my mother wild. ‘Just sit down and zip it!’ she scolded. ‘You don’t know what you’re bloody talking about. Team New Zealand is the best.’

Is my mother ever wrong? No, she is not.

Hen Parties

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June 2, 2017

This is Martin, dressed up as an elf and soon to be married. He got off the train in Newcastle with a large group of friends for his stag party.

The Friday train from Aberdeen is alcohol free because of (mainly) stag and hen parties. Martin and his friends had had their booze confiscated but they got it back at Newcastle.

The hen parties are the worst, the guard told me with a smile. ‘I’ve only been assaulted twice in 10 years and both times it was by women. I went home to my boyfriend with scratches all over my face.’