‘NO ONE RISES SO HIGH AS HE WHO KNOWS NOT WHITHER HE IS GOING.’

A friend, I think of him as a friend, I hope he feels the same, especially after he reads this, recently sent me (and a fair number of other people) a link to a blog about how to plan your novel writing. Not plan your novel; you know, cards, plot lines, character development charts, timelines, making sure X doesn’t reveal they know W before the denouement etc. but rather how do I actually get around to finishing this thing. They are going to cover routines, staying ‘energized’ to the end, balancing writing and life, and of course setting effective writing goals.

Goals.

I have a hobby and I think I have mentioned before, (I’m sure I must; it’s one of my hobbyhorses – see what I did there, hobby, hobbyhorse? Suit yourself.) that I frequently quibble with those who talk about it in terms of projects and goals. It’s my hobby, and let’s face it, it’s playing games with toy soldiers. I take it seriously up to a point, that point being when I start having a desire to keep spread sheets on the types and number of figures I possess and need for various battles and campaigns, progress charts on painting and more paperwork than a tax return. At that point it is time to get a hobby to relax from the hobby.

Okay the point of this diversion is to admit that I am not naturally predisposed to goals. They are the big thing of modern management speak. How can you organise and maximise efficiency without ‘goals’?

I can just about accept that running a business requires a need to know what you are trying to achieve That for some purposes it is a good idea to break this overall aim into manageable chunks, so that the processes involved can be managed within budgets and achieve the aim of selling widgets and making a profit.

But we’ve got into a mindset, and I have to point a finger at the self help brigade here who have bought into lazy acceptance of business speak and vice versa, where we think it is a good idea to run our personal lives as if they were a business. It’s your life. Enjoy it without a spreadsheet.

But writing I have always said is a type of business. I like writing, don’t get me wrong, if I hated it I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not sure I would do anywhere near as much of it if I didn’t get some reward from it.

Over the years, in different contexts, my writing has made me a living. It has been part of various more formal jobs where the writing was conveying ideas or reports of things done to people who needed to know, or just as an end in itself for people to read for enjoyment, sometimes as part of their hobby. My general rule of thumb has been to follow Johnson’s ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’. So while there is an enjoyment to writing, I can’t say I see it as a hobby.

So should I have goals?

I can’t say my life has had goals, and yet here I am. Generally happy, solvent with a family and not yet ready to give up on possible new avenues of experience and adventure. I won’t be playing full contact rugby again I guess, or at any rate, not more than once, but I am open to many other ideas. Whilst not a complete hero; I don’t like the idea of heroes, I am suspicious of the concept; I feel Oliver Cromwell, a man who made his way to the top if anyone did, had something useful to say to those obsessed with micromanaging life:

‘No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.’

And while accepting that like any self made man our Oliver may sometimes have been economical with the actualité, I like the idea of someone who was ‘living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity’ ending up as head of state against all expectation.

So no novel writing goals for me I think, and as for managing life and writing, it’s difficult but I feel another quote from Dr Johnson coming on: ‘A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.’

(With apologies to any and all genders – he lived in different times, and although an Enlightenment man, he was not enlightened in that way).

Of course, if this were the only thing involved in success, I should be at least PM or a Nobel Laureate in Literature by now. So perhaps a little more career planning on the writing front? Sounds a lot of work, almost like a hobby.

ANOTHER VICTIM OF AUSTERITY

This was written in response to an exercise set by a member of a writers group I belong to. I confess I am not usually that asiduous in completing these types of tasks as I probably should be as I have quite a lot of my own ideas awating attention. Julie has brought such a fresh approach to the group with her writing however, that I wanted to do this. I also felt it I was worth an attempt because it seemed so simple at first, and yet the more I thought about it the more perspectives it offered.

The brief was to write a short piece about a crime connected with something in the room we meet in. Here’s my attempt.

 

‘Hello Delyth, what you doing?’

‘Trying to move these shelves a bit.’

‘Why’s that then?’

‘We’re going to have to clear this room before the redesign.’

‘I know that, but that’s not for weeks yet.’

‘Pinner wants the shelves out before then.’

‘They haven’t moved for years – aren’t they screwed in or something?’ Bob said.

‘No.’

‘Well, don’t you need a note or something to start doing that?’

‘Are you going to stand there criticising or are you going to help?’

Bob stood in the doorway and watched as Delyth, a small bird like woman with grey hair and over large glasses, tugged ineffectually at the edge of a bookcase full of children’s stories.

‘I don’t think I should Delyth. Not with my back.’ he wandered into the room a little despite himself. ‘You know what Pinner said, we aren’t covered for that sort of thing anymore. If you need to move anything bigger than a chair you need to get a qualified kinetic handler in.’

‘Stuff Pinner. I only need it moved a few inches.’

Bob considered this. It seemed a bit unreasonable to phone someone to book a mover to come round to shift a set of shelves a couple of inches, and then presumably put them back. But his sciatica had only just subsided after the last bout of agony, and he didn’t want to tweak the nerve again. Then a thought occurred to him.

‘Why do you just want to move it a few inches if you’re getting ready for the redesign?’

Delyth gave up her fruitless assault on the shelves.

‘I… never mind.’ She started pulling books off the shelves and stacking them on the table. ‘Give me a hand with these then. They aren’t heavy enough to damage your back, and they’re smaller than a chair.’

Bob conceded the point and shuffled round the table. He began to follow Delyth’s lead, taking small groups of books from the shelves and placing them neatly on the table.

‘What are we doing?’ he asked.

‘Moving books.’

‘But why?’

‘To make the book case lighter, then I can move it.’ Delyth said through gritted teeth.

The logic was impeccable but didn’t explain why Delyth suddenly wanted to move the shelves a couple of inches. He moved a set of Harry Potters in Welsh and felt the need to clarify.

‘But if he’s arranged to move them out before the move, why are we doing this now?’

‘There we are.’ Delyth ignored the question. ‘That’ll be a lot lighter.’

Bob pushed at the shelving. ‘Yeah, it is.’

‘You can go then if you like. I can manage now.’ Delyth said turning and managing a smile at Bob. ‘Thanks’.

‘No. It’s okay Delyth. I’ll help.’

And with that he took one end of the shelving and waited while Delyth stood there hands on hips.

‘Come on Delyth, before Pinner comes and fires us both for breaking health and safety orders.’

Delyth’s smile returned

‘Couldn’t have that could we.’ she said.

They lifted and slid the shelves forward.

‘That’ll do thanks Bob. You can go now.’

Bob stood up.

‘I’ll help put the books back will I?’ he said.

‘No need. Off you go.’

Bob shrugged and as he did so bumped the shelving with his shoulder. There was a thump as something hit the floor and then another.

‘What was that?’ he said.

‘Just a book. Off you go Bob.’

But Bob was already behind the shelving.

‘There’s something down here. Two. Two packages. Looks like they were sellotaped to the back of the shelves. Thin but wide and long mind.’

‘Bob…’

‘Don’t worry Delyth I can get them.’

With that Bob dragged the packages out from behind the shelving.

‘This one’s weird. Actually they’re both weird.’ And with that Bob ripped open the brown wrapping paper.

Delyth hadn’t wanted to hurt Bob, but hitting him with a copy of “Harri Potter y Maen ar Athronydd” seemed a decent way for him to go. She picked up the two packages and the £50 notes that had fluttered loose from the one he had ripped open, before pushing the shelving over to make sure the sharp heavy edge hit him neatly on the neck with a satisfying crunch. She scattered the books from the table about his body before putting the packages in her large shopping bag. She walked out of the room and wondered whether she should ring to tell Pinner there had been an accident before she left on her half day. Best not. He’d like the ‘I told you’ so moment of discovery. Not to mention filling in the health and safety forms.

Besides she needed to put the £100,000 somewhere safe from Council cuts.

 

You can find this and other pieces of flash fiction here

CARDIFF BOY by Bernard John

Yesterday saw me in a rather fetching, if slightly tighter than I remember, jacket prancing about in front of a small audience, getting in the way of a proper poet at his book launch ‘Somewhere in South Wales’ (okay Caldicot).

Bernard John read from his new book ‘Cardiff Boy’, a collection of his poems about and inspired by his childhood in Cardiff and his family’s roots. I can wholeheartedly recommend getting, and reading, his volume. I say ‘and reading’ because I have acquired many books at launches and  ‘events’ as a goodwill gesture and read, perhaps, a token number of words from many of them before they slide backwards on my shelves never to be seen again. This is not one of those volumes. I have read most of it, will finish it with alacrity and revisit it many times.

Bernard read selections from his book at the launch in two tranches and both inspired me to rush home after the event and spend the evening reading more from the book. Difficult at the best of times to carve out such a space, but in the circumstances, it required even more of an effort of will as the carefully constructed order of the launch day disintegrated in the face of a family car crash (literally – no-one hurt thank goodness) and myriad minor examples of the entropy of life. Relative calm eventually restored, I treated myself to a quiet period of contemplation and solace in Bernard’s words.

Bernard has had a fascinating life and some of the inspirations for that are revealed in this volume. Growing up in Cardiff immediately after the war, his Cardiff was not the bright reconstructed persona of Cool Cymru (where did that go?) and gentrified docklands. His was the harder world of brick and stone terraces and steel works, rail yards and coal with the ribbon of the Taff flowing through it and the grassy strip alongside it. It obviously gave him character and his twinkling smile must have given much joy to Cardiff in return.

I helped the publisher, Carys Books, out at the launch and managed a little by-play with Bernard about his background and life as an introduction to proceedings. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in the day as both Bernard and Sam Knight, the boss of Carys Books have been inspirational in various ways.

Sorry you missed the launch, but you can still be part of the experience.

Bernard’s book is available at bookshops or direct from Carys books new website

http://carysbooks.co.uk/

TROUBLE AMONGST THE TURNIPS

I confess I have never read any Poldark novels and have watched none of the recent television series. (I saw part of a couple of episodes of the earlier version many years ago). I bear it no ill will but was recently given a sentence from one of the books as part of an exercise/game and could not think of anything in the same vein except this rather silly pastiche. With apologies to my O level history master and lovers of Winston Graham’s work everywhere

Trouble Amongst the Turnips:

Or

A Counterblast to Television Remakes

 

In the hot sunshine of the early summer afternoon Demelza and Prudie were thinning out the young turnips which had been sown in the lower half of the long field. Prudie dashed a particularly weedy specimen to the floor in disgust.

‘Why is he growing turnips in here again?’ She asked in a tone that matched her actions.

Demelza turned her head quickly, the dark curls flashing in the sun.

‘You shouldn’t be speaking like that of your betters Prudie.’ she said her mouth set in stern disapproval.

‘Stuff that. He’s mad. I thought he was a follower of old what’s his face from Raynham?’

Demelza was shocked by the impertinent tone and the offensive language.

‘If you mean Viscount Townshend, Mr Poldark is indeed a fervent admirer of the Norfolk four field system and our late Secretary of State. And I’ll thank you to remember your manners.

Prudie dashed another stray turnip to oblivion and sighed.

‘Sorry missus but be fair, if he’d actually bothered reading them pamphlets proper like, he’d know you have to rotate annual or you get all sorts of bother.’

Demelza gently pulled a wastrel root vegetable from the ground and laid it aside.

‘How so?’

‘Leaving aside club root, flea beetle and root maggots you mean?’

Demelza nodded sagely not having heard of any of them.

‘Well has he had any nitrogenous fixing crop in here recent like?’ Prudie fixed Demelza with a gimlet eye. ‘Well? ‘as he or ‘an’t he?’

Demelza had not the faintest idea what a nitrogenous fixing crop was but was reluctant to let her beloved Ross take any blame.

‘I’m sure that your master has attended to all the needs of…’

‘Tush my pretty one, he had turnips in here last year and he tried wheat the year before and it was turnips again afore that. And why? What beasts have we to feed ‘em to? We ‘ad boiled neeps, fried turnip, turnip fricasee, roast turnip, turnip soup, turnip broth, stuffed turnip, turnip hash, turnip gallimaufry, and turnip surprise.’ She looked around to ensure their privacy, which was a rather pointless exercise as they were in the middle of an empty field. ‘I don’t like turnip.’ she confided.

‘Ah.’ cried Demelza ‘but the noble turnip…’

‘Noble! Pah! god rot ‘em. And let me tell you another thing. They’ll be weedy little runts anyway without no dung on em. And if you haven’t had any clover in for so long where will the goodness be anyway? And why’s he growing wheat this far west? Barley I could see but when have we had barley? Never. He should ave stuck to fighting and wandering around without a shirt. It’s what he’s good at. Bloody turnips.’

‘Ah but you see Prudie Mr Poldark has read the works of other great agriculturists and whilst he rightly respects and admires Viscount Townshend he believes that Mr Tull had the right of it when he observed ‘Too much nitre corrodes a plant.’

‘Tull?’ Observed Prudie with a sneer. ‘Posh bloke from Berkshire, big hair?’

‘That was a wig Prudie, it was the fashion.’

‘Aye I knows him. Jethro. Stood on one leg all the time?’

‘I believe at one time he did have a certain preference for a monopedal stance, but that has little relevance to his agricultural credentials.’

‘That’s as maybe but its hard to develop real hands on experience hopping behind a plough playing a flute that’s all I’m saying. Should have stuck to his flute. Folks would have paid good money for a big haired bloke playing the flute on one leg. And he could have let country folk get on with a proper crop rotation system.’

Demelza decided that perhaps, despite Ross’s nascent one nation Toryism mixed with quasi socialist overtones, she would let the hired help get on with the work themselves. She rose to her feet, playfully boxed Prudie’s ears, told her to keep her radical ideas to herself and marched off for a quick gin, wishing that someone would hurry up and invent tonic water and a refrigerator, whatever that was.

Book Launch: The Tall and The Short

If anyone is in the Caldicot area next Thursday 20 November 2014, you are very welcome at the Caldicot Library. From 1400hrs Caldicot Writers Group is launching its new book ‘The Tall and The Short’.  It comprises examples of the work of members: poems, short stories, extracts from novels and family/local history.

There will be readings by actor Terry Victor and Drama teacher Eryl Sheers (mother of Owen). There will be refreshments available and a chance to meet the authors and buy the book at the special event price of £5.99.

Although the main event will last until about 1500hrs, members of the group will be present in the library until closing at 1900hrs to talk to anyone interested in joining, buying the book or just knowing a bit more about writing.

Looking forward to seeing you.

 

Tal and Short cover

If you miss us you can still buy the book direct through Carys Books:

Oh yes – I have two short stories and three poems in it – worth the price alone!

FORMULAS FOR SUCCESS?

Last week I gave a talk to the writers group I attend (somebody different does it every month – it’s not that I am that erudite – just buggins’ turn). I talked about planning and plotting a novel. You could just about apply the method I discussed to a short story but it would be overkill I think.

I picked one particular way of identifying the main character, their journey to the end you decide (or they decide) their story takes them and the pitfalls and joys they experience along the way. There are various types of format for identifying your main character, describing this process and the ways the main protagonist progresses and struggles and the sidekicks who aid and obstruct them on that path. In the end however they are all much the same.

 

As I prepared for the talk I wondered how much I actually use these formulas (and that for me is one of their problems – their formulaic nature) and how much I use them, when I do, to deconstruct what I have already written and see if it hangs together and makes sense. This is a little cart before horse perhaps but I find it much more useful to take a segment of a longer novel (or the outline of it) and subject it to analysis, after I have done a fair bit of spadework. Is the main protagonist the person I thought it was going to be or am I more interested in someone who was going to be a side character (I always got bored with Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio bows out)? Is their goal what I thought it was or is it a minor peak in the journey to a bigger end?

I normally get a pretty good idea where I am headed instinctively after an idea pops into my head. It doesn’t always remain the goal, but I would probably lose all enthusiasm if I sat straight down and worked through the process of laying it all out as the various pro formas suggest one ought.

I have found JK Rowling style spread sheets very helpful in keeping me on the straight and narrow for plotting. I tend to use it as a way of keeping track of what has happened to now though rather than being too precise about keeping to milestones on a pre-planned journey. I generally know where I am headed but some of the byways are a surprise to me. However had I adopted this method earlier I would undoubtedly not have made what was, on re-reading, a fairly glaring plot error in my ‘Lagan Bubbles’ screenplay (nobody pointed it out at the BBC- but they didn’t like it for other reasons anyway so I wonder how seriously they read it). Re-write in progress (which I hate).

My concern, to which I alluded earlier, is that sticking rigidly to any of the plans and plotting course recommendations (web, college, correspondence course based etc etc) leads to very rigid formulaic stories. They may tick all the boxes but I’m not sure I want to read by the numbers novels.

Some of them do make a lot of money however. :^)

Plans and Prospects

So where are we?

I am well over half way through Cinderella, my next cruel manipulation of a childhood favourite, in fact it is finished in my head and just needs the last bits putting on paper, putting away in a drawer for a couple weeks and then reading through. Then it will need a few bits I know about, and a few bits I don’t, rewriting slightly. Then I’ll think about what to do next. I have a couple of other fairy tale/pantomime pieces in my head – Hansel and Gretel and The Three Bears at least, that are bubbling away in the background – so I suspect I will wait for at least one of those to be finished so I can try putting together an anthology package for a hard copy publication rather than Kindle first.

In the meantime I have a commitment of sorts to write around 4,000 words for a group publication. I like my writers group but I am not certain that the things I write are necessarily appropriate or of the right length. The first deadline for this is the end of February so I am going to have to get myself sorted here.

I also have a commitment to speak at a military dining club event in March and I haven’t done anything about that yet.

Then there are a couple of short story and flash fiction competitions – Bristol and Bridport which have caught my eye. I think I have a couple of things written which would suit them very well. The closing dates are not until the end of April and May respectively so I have time to let the stories mull before I have a last read through and rewrite if necessary before submission.

I have a possible collaboration beginning on a historical novel which is an interesting idea for a project. It is a departure for me both in terms of the collaboration and because I have fought shy of historical fiction. Being a historian I have to work hard not to nitpick when I read it and it has made me somewhat shy of attempting it myself. We’ll see.

I have several other novels on the go but I am beginning to fret that they are somewhat formulaic at least in general subject matter if not in style. So although I have more than enough to keep me busy, I am looking around for some material for inspiration, if only to make notes and/or a skeleton idea for future work. I suppose part of the problem (if it is a problem) is that I do tend to write what I know (although I am not now nor have I ever been a Wolf of indeterminate legal status). This means that there is a lot of legal/intelligence/police based writing. All good stuff but I fancy a slightly different take on writing, as well as, not instead of, my existing themes.

So my main plan for the next few months is to finish Cinderella, fulfil my outstanding commitments, push on with the two or three novels I am already into and remain open to new ideas.

I’ll probably get hopelessly sidetracked but as long as I remain sufficiently on track to keep the existing projects moving along I’ll be content. Finishing a couple would make me very happy. Getting one or two published will make me ecstatic.

Writers’ Groups

Off and on over the years I read some horror stories about writers’ groups. Holly Lisle deals with some of the pitfalls I was concerned about: http://hollylisle.com/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-or-how-to-choose-a-writers-group/ and to be fair she also lists some of the good points which I missed when I was worrying about the idea of finding one.

If I was concerned why did I go ahead and join one? And I did join one. I was at that point where I had written quite a lot, had had some discussions with agents and publishers and most of those had ended up with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ variation on a theme. (The big mistake here was trying to sell something first up that, although I remain convinced it is of interest to a very large audience, had the terrible sales pitch – all mine unfortunately – of ‘memoir’. I now know that unless you are already massively famous or riding a wave like ‘mis lit’ the very hint of the word memoir is the kiss of death to a story. I am stunned I got as far as I did in some negotiations given this knowledge.)

So I wanted to see what other people who didn’t know me thought of my writing in other genres, what feedback I could get and also just that feeling of belonging to a group of like minded people.

I was really lucky. Caldicot Writers Group was, and remains, very welcoming to new members. There is no master slave relationship present and if there is a ‘Shark/Dinner’ vibe going on I have missed the bloom of fresh blood in the water. There are people who have won prizes and published, and people who don’t have any great urge to enter the publishing world but love writing for its own sake. The feedback and critique I have received has been helpful and well voiced and if I haven’t always agreed with it I have taken the opportunity to go away and think about it and play around with alternatives. Sometimes I have returned to my original and at others I have seen exactly what they meant and changed it to something better. There is a wide variety of work on offer at each meeting, light fiction, quite dark psychological stories, historical fiction, poetry, family history and sharp observational journalism. There are workshops and challenges and directed writing and a couple of months back we almost organised an inspirational outing together but couldn’t quite agree on what and where. Next year maybe.

What have I given them? Probably a lot of earache and argument about their feedback to me. I hope my comments are positive and helpful, but you’d have to ask them what they think. I hope I’ve brought something new with my background if nothing else.

It has been a very positive experience for me. I have met a lot of very interesting and enjoyable people and I have learned a lot. So, have a read of Holly Lisle’s notes and dip a toe in the water if you feel like sharing. If you recognise any of her warning signs – run. If you find a group like Caldicot: enjoy the experience, soak up the knowledge and put back what you can. It may be that it is not forever, but a good writers’ group is definitely worth experiencing.