WESTLEY WRITERS Chapter 4

Julian has taken his time walking back from the pub, having declined Stephanie’s advances hasn’t he? It must be about 8 months by my reckoning! They are about to be reunited however as the new Westley Writers are due to hold their first proper meeting to elect officers and hear what they have all been doing since the split.

If you want to read yourself in or catch up with what has happened so far go to Westley Writers

 

CALM

‘Morning Julian, how are you?’

‘I’m well, thanks June. And yourself?’

‘Oh you know, hanging on.’

‘Sounds a bit grim. Things getting on top of you?’

June sighed and stopped unpacking her bag. ‘You know the Readers section are getting uppity about this place?’

Julian took off his coat and hung it over the back of the chair at the other end of the table from where June was unpacking.

‘No. I haven’t really heard anything from them since the split. What’s the matter with them?’

‘Oh some of them think they should have three weeks out of four here as they are bigger than the Writers group.’

Straker pulled a face of discontent at this news.

‘We sorted all that out the meeting and told the library didn’t we?’

‘Well yes, of course but…’

‘What do the library say about it?’

‘Well they’ve just apportioned the bookings 50-50, alternate weeks but they don’t want any trouble or too much attention, so we must be careful.’

‘Attention? I can understand them wanting to avoid trouble, but surely they want the attention. The council are always saying nobody uses the place and here are two local community groups fighting for access.’

‘For a service we don’t pay for.’

Straker’s mouth creased open in a wry smile. ‘Ah of course. An empty conference room not making cash. The horror!’

June looked around the room. ‘Hardly a conference room. It seats about 20 people at pinch. But I suppose that’s what some councillor will call it when he’s asking why the library isn’t making maximum commercial use of the facility.’

‘They used to teach night school classes in here’

‘Yes, languages wasn’t it? Nobody does that any more.’ June looked over at Straker.’ You used to teach some didn’t you?’

Straker dipped his head in acknowledgement.

‘For my sins.’

‘What was it again?’ June asked.

‘Bloody Russian. Who wants to learn that?’ Ashby walked in

‘Quite a few before austerity.  False economy if you ask me.’

‘Why? Who needs to speak Russian round here? Not going to have Putin coming round on a bear wrestling expedition are we?’ He peered at Straker, ‘Are we?’

‘Don’t look at me John, but I think learning about other cultures through their language has its own reward.’

‘Bloody hell. Sorry June. When did you become a hippy?’

‘There are no hippies left John. I just think it’s interesting.’

Ashby laughed. ‘Depends what you do with that interest.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction, ‘Doesn’t it Julian?’

June had heard this sparring contest many times and John Ashby never got anything out of Straker about his facility with the Russian language.

‘Are we expecting the others?’ she  asked.

‘I hope so. I emailed everybody as agreed. Well not Sarah or Alan obviously.’

‘Are they still not online? I can’t see the point of having a computer if you aren’t online.’ Ashby said.

June looked at her watch. ‘Well it looks like it’s just us. Stephanie normally turns up though. Shall we wait or make a start?’ She voted with her feet and went to make a cup of coffee.

Ashby put his bag on the table and shed his coat.

‘We’re supposed to be electing officers and agreeing a constitution today.’ Straker said. ‘Not sure we can go ahead with three of us.’

‘Course we can.’ Ashby said. ‘Three best writers are here anyway.’

‘Not sure we should be judging people like that John.’ June replied, but the pride in her tone was evident. ‘I really think we need Steph here as well though, she’s always so practical.’

‘If people were online and paid more attention’ Ashby murmured, ‘they’d maybe realise why Stephanie wasn’t here.’

Straker paused on his way to the hot water jugs and coffee.

‘Oh?’

‘Still not bothering with Social Media then Julian?’

‘Not particularly. I’ve never seen the need to listen to speculations about lizard people or watch cats falling into wastepaper bins myself.’

‘Well forewarned is forearmed is all I’ll say.’

The day when John Ashby kept quiet about anything would be a day of miracles and wonders, Straker knew, so he kept quiet and moved off to make a coffee.

As June finished making hers and went to sit down Ashby bustled over.

‘She posted quite a witty piece about being stood up in a country pub the other day.’ He spooned coffee. ‘Sounded as if it were from the life.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction. ‘You know, like it had really happened.’

‘Thanks John, I know what “from the life” means.’

‘Wonder where she got the idea from?’

Straker sighed.

‘It’s called creative writing John. You make it up from the imagination.’

‘Oh aye. If you say so.’

They pumped hot water from the flasks provided by the library.

‘So why did you think that meant Steph wouldn’t be coming today?’

‘Couple of things in it suggested maybe she, excuse me Julian,’ he interrupted himself, ‘I mean the protagonist of the story, had fallen out of love with the idea of writing for the time being. Emotional conflicts and all that.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction and displayed the subject matter on his phone.

Straker let a little smile play on his lips.

‘She really can capture a feeling of moment can’t she?’ he said and dropped the used spoon into a spare mug. ‘Almost like one were in the room at the time.’

Ashby followed Straker back to the table and they busied themselves with notepads and pens.

June asked if they were ready to start but before either of them could respond the door opened and a gaggle of latecomers pushed their way into the room.

Straker looked at Ashby, expressionless as they both noted Stephanie Williams was among the group.

The noise levels rose as people exchanged greetings and comments about the weather, the library and of course the momentous events of their last meeting. Straker remembered that this was the first time many of them had been together since the split.

‘Thanks for the email Julian.’ Diane Eaton said. ‘Sorry I missed the other week, I was so worried about poor old Bill here.’ She pulled Parker into view. ‘I missed everything that was said after that.’

‘That’s okay, good to see you.’ Straker turned to Parker. ‘You okay now Bill?’

Parker nodded and prodded at a strip of plaster on his head where the skin surrounding it was still discoloured by bruising.

‘Rather sore still but the doc says I’ll live.’ He smiled at June. ‘And I’ve decided not to sue.’

Diane punched him gently on the arm while June blushed.

‘Leave her alone Bill. You know how upset she was.’

Parker shrugged.

‘Only joking ladies. Smiling through the pain and all that you know.’

Diane raised an eyebrow.

‘I’ll give you some pain if you don’t leave it. Tea is it Bill?’

‘Aye, one sugar please.’

Parker sat while Diane went to get the drinks.

Veronica Goodman offered a tight smile and slid round the table to sit opposite Ashby. Straker offered a flash of teeth in return and Ron ducked her head.

‘Julian.’ Steph said and sat next to him.

‘Stephanie.’ He responded. ‘Can I get you a coffee?’

‘Thank you, but Diane’s getting me one.’

‘Okay.’

Stephanie turned round to face him.

‘Seriously Jules, she offered as we came in.’

‘It’s okay. I believe you.

‘Sorry.’

‘Me too. My feet were killing me by the end.’

‘Serves you right.’

‘There you are Steph.’ Diane said. ‘What serves him right?’

‘Walking for miles at his age.’

‘How far?

‘Only about four miles.’ Straker answered.

‘Nothing for a man of your years.’

‘That’s what I thought when I started.’ Straker grimaced. ‘Anyway Steph, I read your Facebook piece. Very good.’

‘Yes, thanks. I was inspired. I didn’t know you were on Facebook?’

‘I’m not. John was kind enough to show me this morning.’

Stephanie leaned back and beamed at Ashby.

‘Thanks John, it’s appreciated.’

‘No problem Steph. Glad to be of service.’

Straker listened to that exchange. That was, he decided, an odd bit of phrasing. He’d remember that and use it in a story somewhere. He couldn’t make his mind up whether it was a deliberate tell of a conspiracy, an accidental giveaway, a meaningless exchange of pleasantries between two acquaintances or a piece of deliberate misdirection. He blinked. That way lay indecision and inaction. But then he didn’t need to decide right now did he. There was time for a longer game yet. He smiled.

‘Shall we get this meeting started then June?’ he said. ‘With any luck we can read some of the things we’ve been writing as well. I’m sure people will have made good use of the period since we last met.’

June put her coffee down and raised her whistle to her lips.

 

 

 

WESTLEY WRITERS CHAPTER 3 (CONTINUED)

 

As promised the last bit of chapter 3 of Westley Writers.

The whole thing so far can be read here

WESTLEY WRITERS

CHAPTER 3

(PART 2)

 

They stood in the car park for a few moments, saying things about stories read that had not seemed appropriate in the meeting itself or exchanging tangential thoughts about writing in general and then June and Ashby departed.

‘Drink Jules?’

Straker looked at his watch.

‘Go on then, just a quick one.’

Stephanie drove them out to the Dragon. There was a fire in the grate and the place was about half full. Not bad for mid-week. Half the pubs around the village had closed in the last ten years. Straker was pleased to see no-one he knew.

‘What will it be Jules?’

‘An orange juice thanks.’

‘Nothing stronger? You’re not driving are you?

‘No, but I’d like to keep my wits about me thanks.’

‘Jules! I’m not going to leap on you. Not without a bit more positive feedback anyway.’

‘It’s the positive feedback I want to control. So an orange juice please.’

Stephanie beamed at the barman and ordered the drinks. Julian carried them to a table tucked away in an alcove.

‘What did you really think of my piece?’ Stephanie asked as they settled down.

‘Good.’ he said. ‘No seriously. I can understand what John was saying about it needing work to remember which level of the narrative we were in but he was right at the end as well. You need to read it as a piece, not in segments strung out over weeks to do that easily. You should email a chapter to him and he’d pick it up easily enough.’

‘Do you pick it up?’

Straker looked at her over the rim of his orange juice. There was no obvious flirting going on. It might have been a straightforward question.

‘I did. I remember the last few excerpts you’ve read and I like the dream in dream reality.’ He smiled. ‘Not at all like the protagonist waking at the end of an entire series of soap opera.’

‘Bastard.’

‘Joke.’ It’s not. It’s really engrossing’

‘Hmm. Thanks, I think.’ Stephanie took a sip of cranberry juice. She was driving after all. ‘I liked yours. A bit biographical wasn’t it?’

Straker grimaced.

‘You noticed did you?’

‘Don’t worry. Your life’s been a bit more complicated than most. It makes a good novel, or two.’

‘I’ll take that as a compliment’

‘You should.’ Stephanie took a sip of her drink and continued, ‘So the boy, William. He’s Crispin?’

‘Not an exact copy but there are facets of him in there.’

Stephanie nodded before proceeding.

‘And how is he?’

‘Crispin? Speaking again.’

‘Bad divorce was it?’

‘They never actually got married.’ Straker sighed, ‘Which was behind most of the problems.’

‘No commitment?’

Starker laughed.

‘Well, I took that as read but no, it was more all the legal complications about the kids and the house and, well just about everything.’

‘But it was fairly amicable?’

‘As far as these things ever can be I suppose. I thought given they both wanted to go their own ways it would have been simpler. Lots of buggering about with signing off saying you had considered the cat’s mental welfare and taken its best interests into consideration, that sort of crap.’

‘Jules! I’m shocked. You used to be such a progressive thinker. All Guardian and Left Bank Show sort of thing.’

‘I still am really but, well you know, some of it’s yoghurt knitting Tofu spinners.’

‘I bet you read the Telegraph and go “harrumph” every morning.’

‘Do not.’ Straker looked a little uncomfortable. ‘Well, I do read it, but only for the rugger and the cricket. The Guardian’s not interested in rugger, unless it’s women’s. And I’m sorry Steph but I can’t take that seriously. I know it’s a fault but there it is.’

‘Short sighted Jules. I always enjoyed scrumming down with you.’

‘Steph…’

‘Don’t worry Jules.’

‘Look, you know I still fancy you but I’m married…’

‘So am I.’

‘Yes, but you seem to regard Benedict as an optional extra or something.’

‘Listen Jules, my relationship with Ben is my business. But you and me, we were always something else. God knows why we didn’t…’

‘Steph, no offense but you’d be having this discussion with someone else and I’d be sat at home, or wherever Benedict is tonight if we had stayed together’

Steph slid a gloved hand along his thigh.

‘Don’t think so, Jules. Not bored yet.’

‘But having me on tap for twenty years would have been different. It’s the rarity value, the forbidden nature that make you still want what we had.’

‘I don’t remember you being this logical in Pembroke.’

Straker swallowed hard.

‘Well I wasn’t, and Pembroke was a mistake.’

‘Felt like the best thing that’s happened to me in years. I thought you enjoyed it too?’

‘Steph it was gorgeous, just like you. But the guilt nearly killed me.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I’m married and I owe Emily a lot.’

‘I notice you didn’t say you loved her.’

Straker finished his drink and stood up.

‘I need to get back Steph. Could we go please?’

Stephanie finished her drink, got her car keys out of her handbag, rose and then paused at the table.

‘What if I said “No”? What if I said I wouldn’t drive you home until you’d given me a kiss in the car?’

‘I can still walk three miles you know Steph.’

‘Good to know.’  And with that she walked out of the bar.

 

NORMAL SERVICE WILL BE RESUMED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

If anyone was wondering, I will be writing more about writing and less about ‘Stuff’ soon – honest!

Indeed, there will be Part 4 of Pendragon later this week (written and being mulled over about long term direction as I write – well, it will be as soon as I post this and get back to work!).

There is an SF piece I may have mentioned before which started as a long short story – target c10K words which is already at 17K and nowhere near the end so I think it is safe to say it is a novella at least, and probably a novel. Decisions need to be made about cutting or expanding certain passages. If it’s a novel then character and place need more work I think, and sub plots which were truncated probably need to be expanded and reintegrated to the main story arc at some point. Maybe more about that process later.

There is another long SF short story, c12K words, which I have out with a magazine at the moment – been with them for a while, which is a good thing as they have passed it on to an editor. Not sure whether it will see the light of day. I hope so – they are a very good magazine, and it was nice just to get over the first hurdle with them. I won’t embarrass them or myself at this stage by saying who it is. Many a slip etc. but fingers crossed.

There are several other things that all these stories were a ‘break from’ which need pushing forward. So I hope you can see my ‘ramblings’ are simply a way of expressing a general concern about life while I let the writing ferment in the background (and more importantly, a way of putting off real hard graft!).

So – back to the word mill.

 

 

AN UNCOMFORTABLE SUBJECT FOR A WRITER?

Confession time. I’m writing about a book I haven’t read. That doesn’t stop a lot of critics I know, but I feel you ought to be aware that this bit of ramblings is triggered by media and critical response (mindless furore?) rather than a close reading of the text. Of course I’m not really talking about the book. If anything I’m talking about the TV series of the book and one particular incident in one particular episode. But I’m really talking about the response itself.

The work? Game of Thrones, which I know is both a book in a series of (enormous) books and the title the TV has given the whole series. I have read one George RR Martin book, Fevre Dream, which was an interesting take on the vampire genre set on a riverboat on the Mississippi, but none of the ‘fantasy’ series. I find ‘fantasy’ genre hard to read generally. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings as a teenager but, having tried to read it again in later life, wonder what on earth I saw in it. It is one of those rights of passage books for me, you probably have to read it once, but it doesn’t bear critical (or uncritical come to that) re-reading. Tolkien’s world is a little more integrated than most but it still suffers from so many of the tropes of ‘fantasy’ plus a tweeness that makes one want to throw up at times. I put ‘fantasy’ in quotes because of course all novels are fantasy in as much as they are a type of make believe. But ‘fantasy’ dwells on the obvious, unbelievable end of imagination with its goblins, elves, fairies and dwarves littered picturesquely about the landscape. I love Alan Garners work by the way, but although this has its share of other worldly folk they never slide into fol de rol tra la la sweetness.

Which (at last!) brings me to the point. George Martin’s work seems to be a Dark Age story, with added dragons, but not too many. As such he does not do tweeness, but rather realistically unpleasant nasty brutish and shortness, by the sound of it in spades.

All of which has seemed to wow fans and critics alike, via the TV screen at least. Until now, when realism has stepped over a line it seems. Rape is, I am unequivocally happy to say, a bad thing. I’m not going to make any excuses for it, I think the ‘she was asking for it dressed like that’ brigade are idiots and possibly dangerous idiots. A woman (or a man come to that) should be able to dress as they like and not have it regarded as prima facie consent to assault. But neither do I think that writing about it should be banned. It depends to some extent of course on context and if someone wrote a paean of praise to the act then I would be amongst the first to condemn it. But writing it into an historical novel (albeit with fantastical seasoning) set in an age of brutality and naked power seems a realistic if unpleasant part of the requirement.

Yes, it is possible to write such novels without reference to such acts, but one suspects that this leads to a bowdlerised and completely false impression of the past. We are back, if we are not careful to Tolkien. The chivalric code was there for a purpose: to try and ameliorate the excesses of a caste of brutal psychopaths and near psychopaths who got their position by the naked violent aggression of their family forebears. Anyone who has cosy ideas of the mediaeval period, early or late, should read some real history and realise that George RR Martin is toning it down for TV.

For me, the question raised by all this, is should a writer be censored, or self censor him or herself, because we are uncomfortable with the facts of our history and our present? No-one should be writing to encourage violence against the person, but does that mean no mention of battles, the excesses of real politik, state deprivation of the poor, the problems of unfettered capitalism, slavery etc? If we are too squeamish to admit the existence of our unpleasant side as human beings, too prudish to write about our excesses and explore the darkness in a novelised form, we are not helping banish it. We are like those who chose to ignore the excesses of Savile and co, allowing it to flourish in the dark. I don’t know whether George Martin has any noble cause in his books, I suspect his aim is to write a good story, but we should not make writers portray a candy coated ‘fantasy’ version of the human condition because we are too scared to face the facts. Writers should hold up a mirror to society, and if we don’t like the reflection, we need to change ourselves, not break the mirror.

Whither/Wither le Carré ?

I finally got a chance yesterday to read the Review section of the Observer from the weekend just gone. ‘Paperback of the Week’ grabbed my attention because it was about ‘A Delicate Truth’ by John le Carré. I read the book when it came out and was interested to see what the ‘smart money’ thought of it.

Edward Docx (hmm?) thought there were flaws, the character of Mrs Spencer Hardy being the main one. She is, for our Edward, too much of a cartoon character, a two dimensional device to serve a plot requirement. This flaw, if it is one, and we’ll come back to that point in a second, is one which many believe ‘late le Carré’ is prone to, according to Edward.  He asks the question whether it is possible to believe le Carré is both an important writer whose works will be read for centuries, and a writer whose formal skills are undermined by ‘a weakness for clichés of characterisation and pedestrian late period imaginings of “good” and “bad”’.

He doesn’t give us answer but falls back on saying that le Carré gives him great reading pleasure.

I’m glad he does.

I would agree that le Carré’s later works are sometimes not quite as brilliant as ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but are we surprised at this? How many novels of that quality does one man have in him? There is also the point, and it is a major one, that the world has changed.  We should not forget the shock that the murky, seedy world of espionage as portrayed in the cinema verité form of le Carré’s early works, caused. In a post war flight from reality, espionage stories had been about a fantasy world of upper class heroes, partying their way across the glitzy resorts of the world. Le Carré shocked because he turned his back on this fantasy world, and shone a light into the murkier demi monde  of what spies really did.

When he did that his work was considered ‘edgy’, exposing great truths about society. We expect that sort of world to exist now. It no longer shocks or surprises. To keep plugging the same line would be flogging a one trick pony to death. The world has moved on, and so has le Carré. Perhaps more than those who grew up reading him would like. In the cold war it seemed that despite everything, if one dug deeply enough we knew who was good and who was bad. Psychopaths were there but the system in the west restrained and channelled them whereas the Communists gave them free rein. Flawed, nuanced, doubtful characters abounded, but we knew ours were safer than theirs.

 

We don’t know that now. Our society revelled in beating communism and forgot that bit about psychopaths being everywhere. Le Carré hasn’t, and if some of his obsession with good and bad seems just that, an obsession, it may be because he sees it more clearly than those blinded by the smoke and mirrors. It may very well be that Mrs Spencer Hardy is a little two dimensional. Some people are. She may be a thinly drawn cipher of a right wing American whose hatred of everything governmental transcends sense and morality, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t an accurate portrayal of what is going on in some areas of the western establishment.

Le Carré’s ‘imaginings’ of good and bad only appear pedestrian because so many of us have swallowed the relativist pap we have been fed in recent years. Le Carré has well rehearsed worries about where our Intelligence Services may take us if we allow them to go unchecked. I don’t think that is as much of a problem as it may appear. What worries me more is the privatisation of the intelligence and security sector. A concern le Carré now seems to share. In ‘A Delicate Truth’ he refocuses, in a well timed swing, on the ‘Private Contractors’ who increasingly act as highly paid, unaccountable, self appointed mercenary arms of the State. And increasingly of a State which represents not the will of the People but the will of Global Corporations whose reach and interests subvert and obscure the real purpose of Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

A writer who will be read for centuries? Depends who is controlling what we read.

Lay of the Land

I have just finished reading ‘Lay of the Land’ by Richard Ford, something I have been meaning to read for years. I found it hard going despite the critical praise for Ford, this book, and the central character.

The NY Times says of Bascombe, the ‘hero’ of ‘Lay of the Land’:

‘Sunk deep in the effluvia of day to-day routines, he broods over the big, existential questions of the human condition, seeking “to maintain a supportable existence that resembles actual life” while trying to manage his expectations and his dreams.’

What that means is he rambles to himself about the state of the world, his changed and

changing place in it, and his health. As someone about the same age as Bascombe is in this book, I guess it should speak to me. Except I do that myself already, and frankly in a much more relevant and cogent manner than Bascombe does. He is probably more relevant to an American audience as it is the minutiae of social change as evinced by real estate mores and morals and development in small town USA that occupies most of his time. I am less certain whether he is more cogent for an American audience than he is for (this, at any rate) British one.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, once I stopped expecting anything to happen. I confess this is the last of the Frank Bascombe works published to date and yet it is the first one I have read. So I know I shouldn’t have really started here if I wanted to get a proper feel for Bascombe. Had I begun at the beginning I would perhaps not have had irrational expectations. This is not an action story; it is a novel of reflection and some quite angry, though understated dissatisfaction with the way the world has gone, both in general and in personal terms. And yet, and yet…

Without giving the game away, the book suddenly resolves many of the long-winded- discussed-at length-and-in-small-recurring-incoherent-ways-which-accurately-reflect-perhaps-how-reality-works-and-yet-is-even-more-irritating-in-fiction-than-in-life, problems, in a couple of odd deus ex machina ways which break in from other genres. [The multiple word, connected by dashes, concept is one of Ford’s slightly odd stylistic habits]. I won’t say what the sudden plot twists/resolutions are but I will say that one appeared highly unlikely, generally irrelevant and a bleed over from high paranoia action movies. The other was a sort of 19th century rounding off of a difficult situation whereby everything is resolved in a ‘Reader, I married him!’ manner, without the sense of control and action that ending implies. Indeed Bascombe’s fortune is that doing nothing him brings him a lot of what he wants. Most unsatisfying.

It may be that this eastern, Buddhist acceptance, although there is a Buddhist who doesn’t get what he wants and Bascombe who at least claims not to be a Bugghist and does, is what the book is actually about, but frankly I don’t want to wade through another 500 pages to discover something I could have worked out in half the time and without the floopy ending. It would probably merit a re-reading but I don’t think I can face the length of it again. To be fair neither can Ford who has in a recent interview eschewed the idea of turning out another 500 page tome at his age.

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.

Banks Raid

Have just read two Iain Banks novels – technically one Iain Banks and one Iain M Banks. I feel rather useless as I waited until the man was dead to get around to reading him, which is pathetic I guess for someone who writes.

I remember starting to read ‘Whit’ when it came out, but I just could not get into it. I think it probably said more about what I was doing at work at the time rather than any problem with the book. I was very absorbed and had almost given up recreational reading. Work and sleep were about the limits of my world (and I had just discovered computers and the early internet to soak up my small amount of spare brain capacity).

I suppose it was Banks’ death that prompted me to read ‘The Player of Games’. I selected this book for no particular reason; it was an arbitrary choice. I struggled again and thought perhaps his works were just not for me. The problem here I realised very quickly was the genre rather than the writing. I have trouble with Fantasy and SF. I am not sure why. I used to read quite a lot when I was younger. I read Bradbury and John Wyndham and Tolkien and I love Alan Garner. But beyond that narrow field (and I confess that to me at least, Tolkien does not bear re-reading as an adult) much Fantasy and SF was at best gauche and at worst appallingly badly written.

I couldn’t level that charge at Banks, here was a good, possibly a great writer, but the genre itself has some tropes that annoy me. One of the things I liked about Wyndham and Bradbury in particular was not the massive leaps away from where we were but rather the closeness of their vision to our world. At first ‘The Player of Games’ seemed a little too distant from my experience for me to engage with; a little too ‘tricksy’, with a humanoid life that had moved so far in scientific terms from our own as to have wandered into a fantasy realm rather than live in an extrapolation of current technology. That may well be a problem of the limits of my imagination as much as any problem of overreach by Banks.

After a while though the writing pulled me through and the purpose behind the story, the social commentary disguised within the SF light show, appeared. The tricks became either understandable in plot terms or less intrusive as the scene setting phase (too long even after my epiphany) ended and dropped further away, and the story telling took over.

Emboldened but not sufficient to risk another of his ‘M’ persona works, I tried his last book written as Iain Banks, ‘The Quarry’. There was an obvious poignancy about the narrator’s father dying of cancer, and some of the set piece invectives, his word not mine, read a little like a rage from the edge of the grave. They are no less affecting or effective for that.

I felt that this was much more my cup of tea. It’s not a perfect book, but it is engaging and the character of the narrator is well drawn. The surface plot, such as it is, is a little thin, but the underlying commentary is a lot deeper than it may at first appear. I’m not sure it warrants a second reading but it does merit fairly close attention rather than a superficial skimming on the first run.

I shall definitely return to Banks now and read more. I’m not sure about ‘M’ Banks, but I may give SF another chance