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A postponement

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I can’t really explain fully at the moment, but I’m going through a very difficult spell right now.

I think, as writers, we have to know our limits, to know how many days of the week we can afford to write for and what sort of word count is sustainable. Also, though, we have to know when we can and can’t work.

If I was working in retail now, of course I would still be unhappy. That would reflect in my interactions with customers, and people might think I was unhelpful or unfriendly. However, as a writer, emotion is a fuel, and we need a good mixture in order to burn brightly.

Last week, even though I could write, I found that my writing kept bringing me to tears. And that is just not something I want, or think is good for me.

So I’m postponing my deadlines as of yesterday. I’m not going to punish myself for not forcing myself to write at a time that was simply not healthy. This way, I can get better, and my writing will get better too.

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78 days to deadline, 68,392 words to go

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I’ve decided to blog about my writing in this format, counting down. It’s just going to get increasingly exciting as the numbers get smaller.

The last few days have been really hard for me, and my word count has been low. J is away, basically just watching his grandmother die, and that’s been tough. We always want to protect the people we care most about, and when we can’t do that, we feel a bit useless. Forget useless, I think “terrible” is closer to the mark.

Luckily, it’s been a very long time since I had to endure a death in my own family. It’s weird how, as writers, we see death, quite often, as just another plot device. In real life, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Even a single death has wide-ranging repercussions, even extending so far as to touch those who never met the deceased. Even though it’s inevitable, it comes out of nowhere, derailing everything.

I feel terrible guilt for just feeling upset about this situation. How dare I? J is suffering. Meanwhile, J cannot speak, because he feels far too much to communicate. He is focusing on supporting his mother and his aunt, who are losing their mother. He, too, is trying to put his feelings aside for another.

I also feel terrible guilt, because above all things, I want this woman who never met me (because she has dementia and it would have confused her), I want this woman to die. I want this woman to die, quietly, surrounded by her family. I want her to have that last singular lucid moment where she tells them something wonderful, then is at peace. I want her family to have closure.

My writer’s mind wants cadence for this story. I can only hope that nature obliges.

Deadlines

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Based on the original plan of 857 words written a day, and a target of 80,000 words for my novel, I have the following targets.

16,000 words – 1st May – Reward: large gin and tonic.

24,000 words – 11th May – Reward: tapas.

32,000 words – 20th May – Reward: another, even larger gin and tonic.

40,000 words – 29th May – Reward: art materials.

48,000 words – 8th June – Reward: amusing t-shirt.

56,000 words – 17th June – Reward: Civilisation: Beyond Earth.

64,000 words – 26th June – Reward: day trip

72,000 words – 5th July – Reward: Picnic and Pimm’s, with extra gin.

80,000 words – 15th July – Reward: Victory is it’s own reward. But probably also gin and a book.

What I’m Reading: A Girl In Winter

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A Girl In Winter is set between a summer in Oxfordshire and a frozen January in somewhere desolate, presumably Hull. I do not mean that Hull is desolate, just that there is library in the story, and Philip Larkin (the author) was a librarian in Hull for many years.

So, as I’ve stated, A Girl in Winter was written by Philip Larkin. Yes, the poet. The one who wrote This Be the Verse. You do know it. “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad”? See, you did know it.

If you didn’t, don’t worry, I have it by heart, or you could just google it.

A Girl In Winter is not like that. It follows the twelve hour day of Katherine Lind, a “foreigner”, whose providence is never explicitly stated. During it, she remembers the summer she shared with a boy called Robin Fennel, a delightfully boring sort of boy who she was in love with for four days many years ago.

Descriptive passages were phenomenal. Of course, it helped that I read the book largely in the precise section of Oxfordshire described in the novel, and at the height of a beautiful summer heatwave too, but even the frosted-up windows of the bus Katherine rides with Miss Green and the darkening library at closing-time were vivid in my imagination.

I do not, as a rule, enjoy extensive description. I chase after the action. Still, I enjoyed the novel thoroughly. Characters were realistic, motives were plain and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sad, it is certainly rarely cheerful.

Anstey strikes me as the sort of man I should like to push down a flight of stairs and hope he hit his head too hard to testify. Miss Green is a spoilt little girl. Robin Fennel is ordinary, Jane Fennel is strange and Katherine is impotent, an outsider always. They all sit neatly upon their little wheel and play out their parts perfectly.

I was going to talk about the ending, but I won’t. I liked it. You may not. It’s an interesting one.

My recommendation is to the curious- many people do not know that Larkin wrote novels, probably because he wrote just two. Then again, many people know Wilde wrote novels, and he only managed one. A Girl in Winter is a slow read, perfect for eating up the hours on a long journey (not if you’re the driver/pilot) or, if you have time for such things, reading on a cold day indoors.

Not one for thrill-seekers or the sentimental.

What I’m Reading: The Night Watch

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Strictly speaking, I’ve finished reading it, but it’s not a review per se.

Sarah Waters is well-known for her historical novels, which all touch, in some way or another, on lesbian themes. They are exciting, well-researched and actually treat women like humans capable of sexual desire, rather than just being objects of it.

So, after reading Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, I was highly curious as to what a Sarah Waters novel was doing on my 14 year old cousin’s bookshelf. A quick look inside established that the book had been acquired from a charity shop, rather than sought out.

I slipped it out and rearranged the bookshelf to make it less obvious I had removed something. I’m not out to my family because I’m a spanner. I’m not ashamed, I just find it difficult rather to explain that I’m not a lesbian, and that there are alternative explanations for my interest in lesbian film and literature.

I liked Tipping the Velvet. I saw the BBC adaptation first, but thoroughly enjoyed the book too, much preferring the book incarnation of the main character, Nan. That’s not to say the TV version isn’t worth a watch, because it very much is. Off the top of my head, it has Keeley Hawes, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Vegas in it.

Fingersmith was less good. It was a riveting, complex plot, filled with duplicitous characters, but felt very much as if lesbianism had just been shoehorned into it. It might just have been me, but the ending left me feeling more than a little awkward.

So, I wasn’t expecting much. Doctor of English Literature Waters may be, but the vast majority only have one good novel in them. As Fingersmith wasn’t half as good as Tipping the Velvet, I was expecting The NIght Watch to be only a quarter as good as Fingersmith.

I am glad to announce that I was wrong.

Set, to begin with, in 1947, it marked a departure from the Victorian novels that I had read, which was a pleasant surprise. There were four central characters, all with enormous secrets, and it was engaging to try and work out the connection between the four of them, and what these secrets might be.

As the novel moves on, it also moves backwards, before climaxing in 1941.

Yes, that does preclude a happy ending, which bothers me only because I haven’t read one for quite some time. But it was really interesting to look at these stories as having a resolution, not for the character, but for the reader.

For example, the character of Duncan is first introduced as an anonymous young man being watched from a window by Kay. So much of his story is told from the perspectives of others, that I felt, as a reader, compelled to make the same assumptions that other characters made of him.

I wouldn’t say I was pleasantly surprised by the climax (read above re: no happy ending), but as a reader, I found it utterly compelling to the last.

In some ways, The Night Watch is better than Tipping the Velvet, because it reads simply as a novel, and not a “lesbian novel”. I would recommend it therefore, to anyone who is not particularly squeamish- set partially during the London Blitz and subsequent offensives. There are also some nastily graphic scenes which I cannot spoil, but just take note that this book is honest and brutal and sad.

Chapter lengths make it sometimes a tough read, but the prose is easy enough to follow. Just remember to stop when there’s a change in point of view, rather than trying to continue to the end of the chapter, because you will be exhausted.

So, yes. Utterly recommended, to men, women, straight, gay or anywhere in between any of the options. Just not people who faint at the sight of blood or desperately need happy endings.

The Week Off I Never Wanted

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So. I went to a wedding and ended up doing no work on my novel for a week.

To be fair, in this heat, I would have been flogging a dead horse anyway. I don’t know if you feel comfortable working at 29C (84F), but I don’t. So, I probably would have sat miserably staring at an open word document while I sweated out all the electrolytes my brain needs to function, and punished myself for it.

As it was, I read, wrote a little when it suited me, ate outside, took walks along the Thames and played and watched cricket. It was quintessential English summer stuff, and I found it rejuvenating.

If I was the sort of writer capable of taking breaks without them turning into a sabbatical, the holiday I just had would be part of my compulsory routine. It was intensely social, and has made me want nothing more than to retire to my tiny Liverpool bolt-hole and write some more.

It’s well-known that writers ought to read, and I will be reviewing the books I just read imminently. It opened my eyes to various techniques- I returned to Catch-22 a few weeks ago, and it’s evident how it has shaped my writing. I fell that Larkin’s A Girl in Winter has helped with my most prominent weakness, physical description, while Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch reminded me that I don’t have to include every detail to make people care about the story.

It is less often said that writers ought to enjoy themselves, and I can’t think why. Too often, we see the writer as an isolated beast, hunched miserably over a desk, typing out words he instantly hates himself for.

It is more acceptable for artists or musicians to actually go outside, and search for inspiration. Writers sit inside and wait for it to happen, and it won’t. The resulting work will be clawed-out and insular. Yes, that work can be fixed, with endless redrafts and cuts, but the original will be bilge.

Save yourself some time, and go outside for a bit. I’m still too sticky to go outside properly, but I feel better about my novel than I did a week ago. As my greatest enemy when writing is self-deletion, that sounds like a step in the right direction. Doesn’t it?

Setbacks

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Well, much as I can dream of writing 1000 words per day, it doesn’t seem to be a reality this week.

Currently, I am staying with family in Oxfordshire. Green space and blue sky abounds, and my family cannot see why any sane person should wish to be inside staring at a computer screen, or scratching tensely into a spiral bound notebook.

It’s because, if I hit 16,000 words before a certain date, I will allow myself to eat takeaway. This is a rare and exotic luxury in my world, along with ice cream and white wine spritzers, which are in contrast rather commonplace in my family’s corner of Oxfordshire.

Hemingway might have produced his best while three sheets to the wind, but after two days here, I could do with a detox before attempting any more fiction writing. The thought of crafting so much as a haiku makes me want to weep.

Just writing this blog post has been a considerable strain on my resources. Incidentally, the cricket scores have not helped.

I shall try to proceed through the week sober, but it is a constant trial. For now, my word count targets are delayed. Real life 1, Parker 0.*

*If anyone can think of a cricketing analogue, I would be curious to hear it. I doubt that there is, mind.