An Author's Diary - My Lockdown Challenge
Me, Peter Crawley, the writer at www.peter-crawley.com
A fictional novella titled What You Don’t Know About Me
5th November to 2nd December – 28 days
At my desk
A goal for lockdown
Now that’s my challenge!
Tuesday December 2nd – Day 28
I realise this is supposed to be a page-a-day diary, but… Last night, I went to bed and was just drifting off into the arms of Morpheus when I remembered something I’d forgotten, if you get what I mean. So, back out of bed and down to the keyboard: strictly speaking and if I was to follow my own rules, I had to finish the manuscript by midnight, which I did.
This morning, I woke not to mellifluous birdsong, rather to the grinding rumble of bins across pavements. Well, anything but the shouted conversations of cyclists. Funny how some sounds grate and others grate even greater.
Sat down at a respectable hour to clean up the paragraphs and line spacing; it’s all dull process and yet very necessary, as further examination throws up all sorts of anomalies and few of them are positive. You speed read the odd page and pick up pieces of narrative that trip you up mid-flow or just plain don’t look right on the page. It’s a little like a teacher proof-marking his own work.
So, what did I learn this time round?
I suppose the most important lessons to take on board are that I can write to a deadline and that I can be harder on my editing. Again, I’ll make the point: if it sounds like writing, it generally is and has no place on the page. I’ve also learnt that in order to get the prose rolling, I am apt to conjure too much wordy intro. Really, this is nothing more than the equivalent of stretching one’s muscles, either intellectual or physical, in preparation for a day’s progress. It might help in limbering up and cooling down, but it doesn’t need to be included in the main event. What else? I have relearned that there is no time like the hours before dawn for freedom of thought. I remember my mother, in an effort to shovel her son off to bed, telling me time and again that the hours of sleep gained before midnight were worth double or triple those after. Call it an old wife’s tale, call it a clever ruse, call it what you like, but my mum got to spend some uninterrupted time with my father when he got home from work, and I now get the requisite sleep that allows me to rise early without falling asleep at my desk. What else? I have also relearned that writing is the same as any other discipline: one needs to practice, even if one isn’t going to use the material. If you don’t practice; you don’t get so lucky. And we all need a little bit of luck now and again, even when sitting down to hunt for the next sentence.
Today has been a day of writing what we call straplines, the back-cover-blurb and dreaming up a cover: I’m not so good at this and I don’t really enjoy it, because I’ve found the only way to do it is to list all the characters in an order of primacy, apply the same to the events and nucleate – ghastly word!
So, here is the back-cover-blurb:
A woman alone, a clandestine immigrant on the run and a journalist looking for a story he’s going to wish he’d never found.
2.30 in the morning Easter Friday and in a layby off the Surrey section of the M25, journalist Simon watches as police officers discover a clandestine immigrant, Daniel, lurking in the back of a truck.
“What are you going to do with him?” he asked.
“Being as young Daniel here is sixteen and therefore a minor, we are unable to hand him over to the Border Force; so, we will be taking him back to the nick and hanging about until a representative of social services pitches up to take charge of him.”
“And then he’ll very probably be found hostel accommodation, which he will immediately skip and some low-life will sign him up to ferry drugs about for a County Lines gang.”
A car pulls up behind them; the driver, a woman, gets out and dashes into the bushes. It is clear to Simon that Shona has been drinking, so to save her from arrest he drives her the rest of the way home, with the police and Daniel following.
Three months later, a body is found on a building site in Thornton Heath and soon afterwards, a young man turns up at Shona’s door.
In the next few days, What You Don’t Know About Me will be available free to download from my website www.peter-crawley.com and at Amazon for Kindle. Also, if there is sufficient demand, I hope to have a small number of paperback copies available in the New Year.
I’ve enjoyed writing this diary and I’ve enjoyed having you along. Thank you for your company.
Ciao. Until next time.
Tuesday December 1st – Day 27
Shock, horror! Found out this morning that the current restrictions end at midnight tonight, not midnight tomorrow. So, an uber-early start, a day with my backside glued to the chair and two thousand plus words to lose. Pleased to report, the words are lost and the work is complete: What You Don’t Know About Me is done and dusted, my nether regions have surrendered any feeling and my eyes resemble those of Kaa, the hypnotising snake from Disney’s 1967 version of Kipling’s Jungle Book.
I’m going to keep this short – unusual, I know – however, I’m a little weary and my brain hurts. This final editing has proved even more taxing than either the first or second edits, because I knew it would be my final opportunity to alter any or all of the narrative. Spelling, syntax, context, punctuation… it all ends this evening. No more here instead of hear, titled instead of tilted and no more indetity in place of identity. Please don’t ask me why, but these are just a few examples of my typing-dislexia. Then of course, there’s punctuation. Ten years ago, I attended a seminar on novel writing at the Wellcome Centre in London. Several tens of aspiring authors sat and listened to published authors, agents and publishers wax lyrically about the many pitfalls and minefields first-time authors are prone to ignore and therefore fall right into. It wasn’t the most exciting of days and, probably like most of the attendees, I came away thinking as if I would make those kind of dumb errors and promptly fell right up to my neck in them. One of the speakers, I wish I could remember her name, regaled us with a tale of how her husband was a director of a well-known publishing house, and how she had to put up with listening to countless dinner conversations about how he and his colleagues had had to wade through so many cover letters and synopses containing lousy punctuation. One evening, she told them to change the record or get a take-away. They, in turn, challenged her to write a novel without incorrect punctuation. She did, or so she thought until the manuscript was returned from proofreading. She lost the challenge having made one error; the omission of a rather crucial comma. “F**k Henry!” she had written, instead of “F**k, Henry!” I’ll leave that with you.
Last diary entry tomorrow: a little round up, a brief summary, an observation or two.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Monday November 30th – Day 26
More rereading, editing and proofreading today. Excising dead wood is a delicate operation and weighing up whether a sentence or paragraph justifies its place in the narrative is a chastening exercise: there’s no ‘no, please no, let’s leave it in, I like it’; it either does add to the narrative or it doesn’t. And if it does deserve its place, quite often you find yourself distilling a paragraph or two into one slim and efficient sentence. Dickens executed this perfectly with his opening line in A Tale Of Two Cities – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ – which says it all.
As far as the day went? Up at a reasonable hour and just got on with it. There’s nothing remotely romantic about editing and proofreading, they are rather dull but necessary processes and there is no way of hurrying them along. Now and again, you come to a section and realise you haven’t expressed yourself either articulately or accurately, and you have to extract the piece from its place in the narrative and examine it with the same care a jeweller examines a diamond. By the end of your examination, if you don’t think you can polish the piece into something shiny and attractive, you have no alternative but to give it the deep six, a nautical metaphor for exclusion. I remember, while editing an early draft of Mazzeri, I accidentally deleted most of the novel. Yes, I know, it’s difficult to imagine one can do something so asinine, but I managed it. I was alone in the house that day, which was just as well because I recall inventing a whole new language of expletives, and once I’d gotten down off the ceiling, I passed the next few weeks attempting to knit the novel back together from a bird’s nest of strands. Don’t do this. Do anything else, but don’t do this!
I’ve already explained how your villain defines your hero; but how do you write a villain if you’ve never met one. Fortunately – no, not the appropriate adverb, but you know where I’m coming from – I have met a couple of villains. Working in the motor trade for so many years, it was impossible to avoid contact with a few. Yet, the most unassuming of villains, I met in the West Indies. Age twenty-two, I found myself marooned on the island of Bequia, an old whaling station just south of St Vincent in the Grenadines. Okay, Port Elizabeth is a busy harbour, but marooned sounded better. One evening, I was invited to a jump-up, a party, at Princess Margaret Beach. There was punch, there was lobster and breadfruit, there was music and dancing; in fact, there was pretty much everything one could ask for. I was sitting at the bar when a young English woman, a stewardess off a private yacht, sat down next to me. She seemed upset: I consoled her. Nothing physical; just words. All of a sudden, this guy grabbed my hair and pulled my head so far back over my neck I thought it was going to part company from my shoulders. That was when I noticed his eyes and the muscles twitching in his face. I was in serious trouble: he had my full attention. The music stopped, the dancing stopped and one or two even stopped drinking. “That’s my girl,” he hissed. “That’s my hair,” I pointed out, adding, “and you’ve got three seconds to let go of it.” “Or what?” “Or I’m going to kill you,” I replied. Now, there was at that time an enormous guy called, appropriately, Magnus, a Swede off another boat and we got along quite well. God bless him, Magnus was the size of a block of flats and I thought ‘well, if I can’t handle this guy, Magnus will surely come to my rescue’, so I began counting “One.” Nobody moved. “Two.” Nobody moved. All of which left me no alternative but to begin mouthing the word ‘three’ when, to my astonishment, the guy let go, turned and walked out of the bar. Cue, an awful lot of punch. I don’t think I’ve ever been bought so many drinks in my now thankfully extended life. Sometime later, I was leaning at the bar when the Swedish block of flats joined me. “You have some nerve,” Magnus said. I shrugged, nonchalantly, though I couldn’t have spelt it I was so drunk by then. “Not nerve, Magnus, if it all went cocoa-bananas I knew you’d help me out.” “Help you out?” Magnus shook his head. “No way, man, you were all on your own. That was Dutch Bob. He’s wanted by the police for killing a guy in Antigua.”
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Sunday November 29th – Day 25
Today was one of those unavoidably messy days. Carol read the second draft yesterday evening and, in consequence, I had some corrections and alterations to complete before I could start reappraising the novel as a whole. A second pair of eyes and a second opinion is invaluable but, as I have said, not after the first draft, only after the second or subsequent drafts. So, there was a good deal of yellow highlighter present by the time I got back to the manuscript this morning.
I woke late, relatively, and set to it. Finished around midday and went for a stroll; the weather was not conducive to staying out long, so I returned and got on with the epilogue, or the epilog as Hollywood spells it. The only reason I know this disparity in spelling exists is because I have been watching old episodes of the television production of The Fugitive. Running for four years in the mid-sixties, the series tells the story of Dr Richard Kimble’s search for the one-armed man who murdered his wife; some may remember the later movie starring Harrison Ford. However, the black and white TV series heralded my introduction to television and the good-looking, sensitive and surprisingly versatile David Janssen was one of my favourite actors. His filmography was extensive, running from 1945 through to his death from a sudden heart attack in 1980; Janssen was rarely unemployed and was equally at home on small screen as large.
An epilogue is not always necessary, yet it serves two masters. The first is to explain or justify the actions of incidental characters the narrative couldn't accommodate. And the second is to tie up all other loose ends, as in what happened to those characters after the denouement. Some readers don’t bother to read an epilogue and some, who may have associated with the incidental characters, do. Each and every episode of The Fugitive has an epilogue; so-and-so went to prison, so-and-so went home and the so-and-sos lived happily ever after, had three children and... I am more comfortable with an epilogue than without.
In The Wind Between Two Worlds, the epilogue pretty much began on the first page and continued all the way through to the last. In the final chapter, we get to find out who survives and who doesn’t. One reader made the point in their Amazon review that I had omitted one particular incidental character, for which I can only apologise. Yet I was rewarded by the reader’s observation, as her character must have been well written to have left such a marked impression. Some days, measure for measure, you get it both right and wrong.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Saturday November 28th – Day 24
Woke at 5.00am and tossed the salad of life around before eventually getting up at 6 to complete the second draft. I wish I could now remember all the ingredients of the salad; some of them seemed so pertinent at the time. However, as with many thoughts that fly at that time of day, few of them take purchase.
Second draft now complete and I have managed to reduce the total to 42,000 words. Now, there’s a surprise! 2,000 words over my intended limit. Well, I suppose the consolation is I’m not the usual 40,000 words over. Third draft tomorrow, so I’ll see what can be done then.
As far as my characters go, I’m happy with them. Simon, we already know from The Wind Between Two Worlds, though I’ve had to introduce him to those who haven’t read his previous incarnation. Shona is fresh out of the box and I like her; she’s a little complex, a little vulnerable and yet when stirred, quite feisty. She reminds me of the TED Talk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave on the danger of a single story: if you haven’t already watched it, I can thoroughly recommend it. Here’s the link: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
As I have mentioned, her TED Talk inspired me to write this novella and, even though I laboured through certain sections of her novel Americanah, I am an ardent fan of her writing. History, whether personal or otherwise, cannot be encapsulated in one single story: we humans are complex creatures and some more complex than others; our histories, our stories, are begun and developed long before we become a light in our parents’ eyes, and each day we absorb and react to volumes of information. One cannot possibly define that accumulation in one story; the DNA is too labyrinthine.
I recently received an email from Scott Alexander Young, he of the silken tones who so brilliantly narrated Constant Tides for the audiobook version; and recent reviews endorse his sublime talent. We were discussing the curious nature of atmosphere during this period of restrictions and, sadly, fatalities. One of the points he made was that in the bad old days of Budapest, when officialdom was positively Orwellian and perhaps Kafkaesque(his words, he’s a far better writer than I), one could always go find a café, bar or party to lift the gloom. He writes, ‘It was like living in a spy novel one minute and a Henry Miller book the next.’ I think he hits the nail on the head; for just now, there is something of the Communist-era in the way we plan and go about our day. First thought: is my next activity in contravention of regulations?
I sat and watched the news while I ate breakfast. In one feature, the anchors referred to a well-known and eminently sensible virologist, who used the word ‘efficacious’ in response to questions regarding one of the proposed vaccines. As a result, I’ve spent most of the day trying to banish from my head the lyrics and tune to Lily the Pink by the Scaffold. Where on earth did they get hold of Mr Freers, Robert Tony, Old Ebenezer, Johnny Hammer, Aunty Milly and Jennifer Eccles? They’ve been driving me right round the bend. Having said that, what wouldn’t we give for a dose of Medicinal Compound right now?
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Friday November 27th – Day 23
Back in the saddle and started fairly gently, as there is now no profit to be had from hurrying. Redrafting is an ordered, meticulous discipline. Outside of checking spelling and grammar, which is more proofreading than redrafting, there are other fundamental benefits: ensuring you have not omitted information necessary and relevant to the story, maintaining continuity and attending to rhythm. Accumulating and including all the information you require is readily obvious and yet it is surprisingly easy to forget details vital to the story: you can’t have your hero riding a bike if you haven’t given him one to ride; although that’s a simplified example, you’d be amazed at how easy it is to overlook such detail. Maintaining continuity is also paramount: in writing Mazzeri, a friend of mine who offered to read an early draft pointed out I had Manou drinking whisky at the beginning of a scene and brandy by the end of it; an example of the pen running faster than the mind driving it. And, the narrative has to have its own cadence, much like the pedalling of a bicycle; in the same manner each revolution has to advance efficiently from one to the next, sentences also have to advance efficiently and progressively; unwanted or unexpected interruptions stilt the natural progression of the narrative and produce inconsistent prose. This all sounds like common sense and it is; however, in one’s pursuit of the finished article, they are pitfalls easily unseen. Too much haste, as they say, usually results in less overall speed; so, nice and easy does it every time.
Perhaps more importantly, though, second drafts also allow a writer a fresh pair of eyes with which to analyse the novel as a whole and to polish the raw and often sharp-edged material into a shiny, bright story more pleasing to the eye. To use the motor racing metaphor, the author can tweak the suspension and tune the carburettor so that the vehicle runs as fast and as smoothly as possible. This is not a time to make compound changes in the pursuit of glory. Again, I’ll mix my metaphors: too much alteration risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I have only five days to complete the challenge, so I’m proofreading, tracking changes and polishing as I go. One hundred pages today and the same again tomorrow; on Sunday I’ll review the order of service.
One of my favourite novels is James Jones’s Some Came Running. Coming off the back of his critically acclaimed From Here To Eternity, Jones’s second novel was considered by many to be a fictional disaster: one critic going so far as to label it twelve hundred and sixty-six pages of flawlessly sustained tedium. Frank Sinatra starred in film versions of both novels, though that isn’t why I like either, and both movies gained Academy Award nominations, From Here To Eternity winning eight and Sinatra the best supporting actor Oscar. What draws me to Jones’s writing is his acute observation of character; he makes it possible for the reader to understand why his characters behave and react as they do. That, for me, is a prize worth pursuing.
Thursday November 26th – Day 22
A day off… well, nearly. So, what does a writer do on his day off? Answer: stay in bed a little later, get up and go for a walk, have breakfast and then enjoy attending to tasks that warrant very little cerebral exercise: fix this, fix that, wash up, get some logs in, raid the supermarket… and offer to cook dinner; all the kind of stuff Carol has had to attend to while I’ve been selfishly committed to my novella – not to mention falling asleep in front of the plethora of cooking programmes, only to come to every now and then and make an amusing observation I probably would have been better keeping to myself. Tonight, if all goes to plan, Rognons a La Crème: kidneys in cream and brandy with button mushrooms; and I know I’m going to regret dozing off in the middle of Masterchef. Please don’t ask about the desert. Oh, all right, salted caramel ice cream coated in chocolate, aka a Magnum. Disappointing, isn’t it?
I managed to stay away from the keyboard until around three o’clock, which was easier than anticipated. Inevitably though, there were a number of issues that required my attention before getting back in the saddle tomorrow morning. First, type up the notes from the pile of papers I’ve been scribbling on these past three weeks, some of which made sense and others which needed deciphering. Second, type up a timeline and debate moving chapters around to see if I was going to assemble them in chronological order, my preferred option, or rearrange them to up the dramatic quotient. Notable movies that have altered timelines include, Sliding Doors, It’s A Wonderful Life, Back To The Future and Jumanji, which I really like, mostly because I’m a fan of Robin Williams and I’m drawn to the premise of an adult mired in childhood. The best, in my opinion, is Groundhog Day, though that’s better defined as a medley of Deja Vus. I mean, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to return to some of one’s life events and mould them to a more satisfactory conclusion? I know I have a locker full. When it comes to novels, I prefer my stories ordered and not disordered. In The Wind Between Two Worlds, I employed the flash-forward method to illustrate one of the central character’s history, both as a means of explaining why she behaved and reacted to certain circumstances, and to keep the reader guessing as to whether she made it through to the end of the story – no spoiler alert. And in Boarding House Reach, I used flashbacks to similar ends, but also to build the characters' back story so the reader would develop a closely personal association.
On the wall in our downstairs cloakroom, a wall papered with old greeting cards, there is one in particular that makes me chuckle every time I read it. Above a painting of several tomatoes, the lines read ‘Sometimes I’ll think about something you said, and I’ll laugh, and then the people choosing tomatoes at the grocery store will wonder what’s so funny about that tomato’. This morning, in the supermarket, I walked past a guy with a Terry Thomas moustache and buck teeth, and remembered the scene from It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World, where Thomas is driving a Cadillac in the back of which Ethel Merman is sitting bending his ear. He turns to the camera, bridles and mutters, “Ghastly woman!” Every time I watch the scene, it makes me laugh and this morning, standing in the vegetable aisle, I couldn’t keep from doing the same. I really shouldn’t be allowed out when I’m in the middle of a novel.
Ciao, Until tomorrow.
Wednesday November 25th – Day 21
Peace, bells and whistles; the first draft is in the bag!
43,500 words in 21 days. And, I’d be lying if I denied there were times when I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew. There were many and I’m given to think most authors encounter and triumph over the same doubts. It’s a strange moment, the completion of a first draft. One senses a form of tempered euphoria; euphoria for having assembled such a volume of material and yet tempered because I am aware that a second shift of work is about to begin. The task now is to turn the body of work into a novella that is pleasingly legible and which maintains a consistent rhythm. For the moment, though, it is important to step back and enjoy the reward of having achieved base camp.
I was up in the early hours, it wasn’t a hardship, and savoured the anticipation of reaching base camp. I didn’t walk, preferring to get a few words on the page so that after breakfast I could sit down at the keyboard and know precisely where I was going and what I had to do. I’ve kept sight of the far-off summit, in terms of which tools and mechanisms I’ve needed to nourish me through this rapid journey. Normally, you plan the hike, and in the days leading up to the start you visit various sites along the route to drop off supplies. The point of this is that when you get to the end of each day’s march, you have at your disposal sufficient provisions with which to recharge your mind. It is not possible to carry on your back all you require to get you through each and every day’s exertions; that load would not only exhaust you; it would also slow and truncate your progress. However, writing a novella in such a short time frame, I haven’t had the luxury of planting those provisions; I’ve had to carry them with me on my back. Practice, as with any other form of exercise, whether physical or mental, is key and knowing when to push on and when to rest is also vital. Novel writing, as I have said, is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. This challenge has been more like a three-week sprint. Make no mistake, I’ve enjoyed the experience; it’s been a pleasure, particularly when compared to the trials and tribulations some folk are enduring right now. Would I willingly challenge myself to run this gauntlet again? Probably, or there again probably not. I am reminded of my father’s gently amusing response to people who asked him what he did when he felt like exercise. “Why,” he would say, the light of mischief twinkling in his eyes, “I lie down and wait for the feeling to go away.”
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Tuesday November 24th – Day 20
Woke up at four-fifteen: far too early. However, I woke to bright lights and a meeting room in which the three central characters were putting their individual cases for… being alive at the end of the novel. I know it sounds a little like I’m playing God and yet in a way I suppose I am. By the last day or so, the characters have grown very real and I take no pleasure in waving them goodbye. In this pre-breakfast meeting, each character justified his or her existence beyond the last page, so I lay patiently and listened to them. The episode took me back to school, where once a year we held what was known as a balloon debate. The balloon in question accommodated a number of people, usually half-a-dozen or so, and was being blown over the Alps, or perhaps it was the Andes or Himalayas; anyway, it was a forbidding landscape in which no man could survive. The problem facing the passengers was that the balloon was beginning to lose height and every piece of unwanted baggage had to be jettisoned to reduce weight. This, of course, included the passengers. One by one, those brave enough to sign up rose and put their case; at the end of each round a vote was cast by the audience as to who would suffer the fate of being cast out. On the first occasion I took part, I decided I would convince the crowd of my intellectual value; after all, the balloon would surely only clear the mountains if a true thinker and problem solver was retained. It was a very sudden and early departure and a long way down to ignominy. In the second, I threw caution to the wind and told jokes, not many of them funny, yet apparently sufficiently amusing for me to avoid the attention of the voracious raptors hoping to see school colleagues they despised suffer at their hands. Guess what? I was the last man left in the basket and thus I survived the slings and arrows of my contemporaries’ designs.
Resisting the temptation to kill off characters you have invented is similar to voting for them in a balloon debate. Each one has to justify his or her inclusion, particularly if you want to preserve the option of using them in future novels. This is a far from facile process and requires time and concentration. You can, if you’re not careful, end up engaging in a talking heads confusion which takes place only in your mind, a variation on schizophrenia.
I had hoped to complete the first draft today, but… tomorrow should see it done. Finishing is as important as beginning and deserves as much, if not more, attention.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Monday November 23rd – Day 19
First off, I need to make clear that yesterday’s aphorism was in no way intended as a criticism of Stephen King; it was simply a quasi-amusing, if not ironic, anecdote about how writers can sometimes feel about their chosen path. How could one who has produced a meagre six works have the temerity or arrogance to criticise an author of King’s output and quality? Misery, a story about a writer held hostage by one of his fans, is one of my favourite novels and as for The Shawshank Redemption! “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Writing just doesn’t get much better than that. King is a master of his craft and I salute him.
I’m running a little dry this evening and that’s no surprise. I was up early-early, keen to get to the desk; the reason being that I should complete the first draft sometime tomorrow. Words ran onto the page, took root and quickly began to bear fruit. Getting to the end of the first draft is a rewarding experience, as long as you manage to keep the harpies of doubt at bay. The temptation is to see inaccuracies that don’t exist and go back and embroil oneself in eradicating them. That’s hard to resist, but in the last few scenes you very naturally have to pick up the tempo; surrendering to voices of doubt is not at this stage helpful. Head down, breathe deep and don’t hesitate. Keep running right through the finish line before you even begin to consider letting up.
Dawn this morning was spectacular. The sun painted layers of altocumulus every shade of red from carmine through vermilion; a rime hung low over the Meads; and the world was suspended in gentle repose. I have been fortunate enough to witness some awe-inspiring sunrises, the most memorable of them in the middle of the North Atlantic when sailing a ketch from Spain to the West Indies. The world wakes slowly, the sun creeping above the eastern horizon to leave what appears to be a portal to a wholly separate universe. To witness this alone and in silence is a humbling and enriching experience. In the 1950 film The Glass Menagerie, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, Tom Wingfield (Arthur Kennedy) stands watch on a merchantman and looks back on his life with his delusional mother and disabled sister in their down-at-heel St Louis apartment. Sounds depressing, I know, but the ending in the movie is alternative to that of the play; it’s uplifting. I like the film, some critics less so. However, standing watch in the early hours gifts one the opportunity to reflect without judgement, and sunrises provide the perfect platform for mellow self-examination. The middle of the North Atlantic may be a journey too far for many, so why not take a walk down by the Meads, the peace is empowering.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Sunday November 22nd – Day 18
Excluding the current chapter, I believe we have three more to go and we are up at 35,000 words; all of which means we are going to be over the prescribed 40,000. That’s not so bad and in a small way it is comforting, as losing ten per cent should not prove a problem. Editing, in a roundabout way, is not far removed from slashing a path through the jungle; the trick is not to slash so haphazardly that you take the trees down with the unwanted brush. Having them land on your head hurts and trying to put them back up can require an awful lot of unwanted and unnecessary effort. Be the surgeon, not the demolition man.
This morning, I was up late. In truth I very nearly got up at two-thirty I was so wired. The same at three, four and seven, when I finally decided I might as well get on with it. I slept in between of course, and by the end of the morning was relieved I had managed to resist the temptation. The day began inauspiciously: my laptop suffered some form of brain fart and required restarting and a little patient investigation and rectification before it would behave itself; the jolly cyclists, on the Thames Valley Cycleway that passes our door, designed to ensure every person within a mile of their route hear the specifics of their conversation, even though you could have heard a church mouse sneeze in Shepperton; and as soon as the clock struck nine a selection of power tools – the like of which wives buy husbands for Christmas only then for them to be put away until the coming November when they are brought out in order to remind their wives they already have them… Now, where was I? Oh, yes – a selection of power tools shattered the silence and whined away for the rest of the morning. I walked fast, a half-hour, returned and sat down to keep calm and carry on.
This year. This year lists among the strangest many of us have known and would appear to have been written by Stephen King and directed by David Lynch. King, I doubt needs any introduction, he is one of the most prolific and well-known writers of his generation. Lynch, on the other hand, is not perhaps universally known outside of film circles and was the director of mind-bending and surreal movies such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, and the even stranger television series Twin Peaks. In his autobiography, King relates how he was phoned one day by his agent and told there was good news and bad news. The good news was that his breakthrough novel, Carrie, had been picked up by a publisher and he was going to receive a substantial down-payment. The bad news was that King would be writing similar – well, to be kind, let’s say – novels for the rest of his life. The moral of this story is that writing what you want to write is a luxury few writers have been fortunate enough to enjoy. There are many gently amusing aphorisms about writing and writers, but perhaps my favourite is the one about the writer who dies and goes to hell. “Okay,” the devil says, “you haven’t been that bad a boy, so I’m going to give you the choice of two rooms.” He shows him the first in which rows of writers are chained to desks where they are destined to tap away at their keyboards for eternity; the dull news is that their feet are weighed down in some foul liquid, the smell of which they are powerless to escape. “No thanks,” the writer says, “may I see room number two?” The man in red leads him next door. “Excuse me, but both rooms seem the same. What’s the difference?” “Ah,” the devil replies, “the difference is that the writers in room number one are all published.”
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Saturday November 21st – Day 17
The shortest day can’t come too soon. Up early this morning, driven out of bed by a desire to get the work done and watch the international rugby this afternoon. Fly in the ointment was that I hadn’t realised daybreak was set to pitch up at 7.30am and therefore I had to wait a while before going out for a walk. My gilet, hat, jeans and trainers are dark in colour and I did not want to be mistaken for a cat burglar or other nefarious prowler! However, the hour at the desk before I went out and put the frighteners on the denizens of Chertsey meant that by the time I got back I knew exactly the day’s task: one chapter – now attending to individual chapters rather than overall output – and three perhaps four to go. There is, though, no doubt that the mind is both fertile and liberated through the early hours. As it was, just after the sun rose behind a blanket of grey altocumulus, I strode round the corner by Bates’s boatyard and surprised a couple out walking their English Bulldog, Winston. Yes, I know: Winston! You couldn’t write it!
As I walked, the subject of poetic licence came to mind. Why? In two words, The Crown, or rather the series currently showing on Netflix. Is it Season 5? I enjoyed the first two and lost interest after that; probably something to do with Claire Foy’s brilliant acting and Vanessa Kirby’s masterful portrayal of Princess Margaret. Now, here’s the thing, as they say in all the biopics of Hollywood directors. I have a confession to make and it is this: I have issues with films and television programmes which feature some script writer’s view of real, living people. Call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t get it. Only those to whom the Queen talks know precisely the conversations they shared; the rest is pure conjecture, if not ludicrous, populist fantasy. Enough said. If I have offended, I apologise, and I get it that one man’s meat is another man’s poison – er, are we still allowed to say that? I’m not sure. The thing is – yes, another thing – I get the hump with movies that manipulate history. Whoa, I’m not naïve enough to think that many great, historically-placed and highly enjoyable movies haven’t bent a fact or two. Lawrence of Arabia directed by David Lean was a fabulous piece of story-telling, as was The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom written by TE Lawrence, the basis for the movie, and both versions contained historical inaccuracies and stretched truths. Yet, the essence of both was fair and directly related, and if you write about characters long departed, very few of your audience will be able to stand up and tell you it wasn’t so. A Perfect Storm, a movie about the crew of a trawler lost to a hurricane, was advertised ‘based on the truth’ when the events post loss of radio communication have to be taken as complete fiction; a melodrama dreamt up by a studio. If people need a diet of historical inaccuracy, then that’s up to them; it’s a free country and people are therefore free to believe whatever they prefer to believe. Putting words into the mouths of living people, words likely to influence those more easily influenced, is dishonest. You could level the same accusation at me with my inclusion of Queen Elena of Italy in Constant Tides; however, I was careful to cast her in a sympathetic light, a light garnered from weeks of studying The Times archive, tracking down eyewitness testimonies and locating many reference books. I hope, in a dewy-eyed way, my portrait served her well.
The film U-571 told the story of how an American submarine captured a German submarine from which an enigma code machine was recovered, thus altering the course of the war. For a start, in May 1941, it was not an American submarine that captured the German, it was HMS Bulldog, H91, a British Destroyer. I often wonder whether the crew nicknamed their beloved B-class destroyer Winston. Or is that stretching imagination too far?
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Friday November 20th – Day 16
Walking across the Meads this morning, I was reminded of the scene HG Wells described in his 1898 novel, The War Of The Worlds. ‘Maxims have been absolutely useless against their armour; the field-guns have been disabled by them. Flying Hussars have been galloping into Chertsey. The Martians appear to be moving slowly towards Chertsey or Windsor. Great anxiety prevails in West Surrey…’ And standing in awe of the toga purple sunrise, it came to me that the tall electricity pylons bestriding the Thames resemble the gangly and lethal alien contraptions that so petrified the young man hiding in the school library. Was Wells’ crystal ball so polished and clear that he could foresee a time when vast metal behemoths stalked the countryside?
After yesterday’s comparatively easy accumulation of words, today was a bit of a struggle: it is often the way. Some days the ink flows and some days it issues like treacle from a faucet. It’s not simply writing fatigue; it’s also that I’m very wary of falling into the trap of enjoying myself too much and that at some stage I have to come to terms with the fact that the end is nigh. The temptation is to keep writing because you don’t want the process to end, but by indulging yourself, you fall prey to finding more, and more ridiculous, excuses with which to justify adding more words. The danger here is to overwrite and thereby muddy what was once a clean narrative. Beginning, middle and end, that’s how it goes. It’s a little like a fabulous party you don’t want to leave yet know you should. Go when it’s time; not before and not when it’s too late. The trick is to know when. After all, how many of us remember staying out so late we missed the last bus home? Unsurprisingly, I have no desire to reprise that long walk of shame.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Thursday November 19th – Day 15
Conscious at 5.00am and up at 6.00. Cooler this morning; a breeze from the north. The sunrise over Dumsey Meadow was memorable; crimson and golden and every hue in between. Today is the first day of the third week and the third Thursday since we began: a monster day of 3,000+ words. Or, if you’d like a 400metre metaphor, we’ve been steady up the back 100 and now we can cut loose; we’re giving it all we’ve got off the final bend and into the home straight. If that sounds a shade melodramatic, then let’s channel the energy off that melodrama right to the tape: limping over the finish line may appear noble, but right now I feel the need – the need for speed. Yes, I know, Top Gun and it was awful in a kind of can’t-take-my-eyes-off-it sort of way.
But, a conjunction, preposition, adverb and occasional noun; but however we define it, it is the most over-used and at the same time useful and useless of words. I didn’t but… one can’t but… never anything but… but a shadow of… nice but… and no ifs and buts. When I’d come to the end of the first draft of The Wind Between Two Worlds, I had a sneaking feeling I’d overemployed a number of words and foremost among these was ‘but’. I can’t now recall the exact total; except I do recall it embarrassing. As I mentioned yesterday, the first draft topped out at 150,000 words and ‘but’ must have accounted for at least 1,000 of them. It was a horror show. Editing took the novel down to 125,000 and by the time I’d slashed and burned, only 312 of them were that word, you know the one, the one I’m doing my best not to use. I had substituted the words 'except, apart from, only, merely, simply, besides' and so on. Yet, the best method of removing the word comes in the form of changing the context of its location and rewriting the sentence, if not paragraph. That can be dull; that can be onerous; and, surprisingly, that can be fun as well. But is, if you’ll excuse the pun, an Americanism and a butt-ugly word; it possesses no real poetry and serves only to break the flow of your narrative. Get rid of it, erase or delete it. Find another route. Repetitive words can also hinder the flow of a narrative, though these days one can buy a program that will tell you how many times you’ve used particular words: this is not word count in Word, whereby you enter the word and see how many times it comes up, this program identifies which words are most used and how many times you’ve used them. I keep meaning to get it… Last weekend I read a review of the recently published biography of a well-known writer in which the same individual words were used 103, 117, 118, 132 and 139 times. Strange but true.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Wednesday November 18th – Day 14
Halfway! Up at 5.00am, fired up the laptop and went for a walk while the technical Gods rose from their slumbers. Outside of the artisans in their vans rushing hither and thither, the world was tranquil, the Meads picturesque and the air fresh. 26,000 + words and if my planning, for that read estimation and guesswork, is correct, I have another five to six days first draft writing to go.
Rule no 1 when it comes to drafts: never show your first draft to anyone, no matter how pleased you are with it or how well you know them. If you do, you risk wanting it back every five seconds because, no matter how many notes you’ve written, you’ve forgotten some vital information you meant to include. In general, and immediately on completion of the first draft, I like to put the work-in-progress down and distract my mind for a couple of days. Two reasons for this: one, it affords time to recall what I’ve forgotten; and two, it makes it easier for me to return to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. As to the number of drafts, that can vary. The Wind Between Two Worlds, 125,000 words down from its first draft of 150,000, took upward of ten drafts. I lost count, primarily because the story was complex in construction and I needed to simplify the telling over and over again until I was happy with the way the story read. Boarding House Reach ran to 134,000 down from 140,000 and Constant Tides 171,000 down from 200,000. Redrafting and editing are the most demanding disciplines. If you think writing a novel is challenging, wait until you get to the editing; it can be soul destroying having to omit tracts of narrative you have sweat tears over and which you believe to be as beautiful as Michelangelo’s David. My first novel, Mazzeri, accumulated 220,000 words with its first draft. How I got it down to 150,000, I’ll never know and even now I believe I could have, or perhaps should have, whittled a further 10,000 from it. There was too much ‘writing’ and the rule is, if it sounds like writing, it usually is and has no place on the page. Sounds harsh, I agree, and for a first-time writer it is the hardest lesson to learn. Mind you, I have four handwritten manuscripts from my late teens and early twenties – Broken Glass and Dawn Comes Too Soon being two of them –gathering dust on a shelf: I dare not read them. No, don’t go there. Oh, okay, maybe one day, but I may have to hide behind the sofa.
As diaries go, I am reminded of my father’s, which I recently came across in a box of family items. The reason I am reminded is that other people’s diaries are rarely interesting unless they contain some personal reference. My father’s, from the late sixties, though noting the occasional ‘day out with the boys’ or lunch with so-and-so, was remarkable for its record of the weather. These references don’t hold much weight or relevance now: knowing whether it rained fifty-five years ago to the day won’t alter my memories in any compound manner. However, the reason my father recorded the prevailing conditions in such detail was that having served in the RAF through the Second World War and flown both fixed-wing and helicopters afterwards, the meteorology mattered to him. Bad weather may have curtailed flying, but bad weather also meant none of the pilots and crews died that day. We are fortunate not to have to pray for inclement weather.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Tuesday November 17th – Day 13
Another ordinary – if writing can ever be described as ordinary, as no two days are ever the same – day. Realised I’d made one or two errors yesterday, so had to go back and highlight changes for the second draft, and had to switch between characters, which always takes a little time in adjustment. The reason for this is because the language you allocate one person doesn’t always work for another, and because of their back-story, each individual reacts in their own individualised fashions. Shona is thirty-five and not the most confident of individuals principally because of her turbulent childhood; Simon is twenty-seven, a journalist and therefore very determined, though with perhaps more compassion than your stereotypical movie hack; and Daniel, the clandestine immigrant is… Well, nobody is too sure of his age and explaining more about his character would require a spoiler alert, so we won’t go there. Changing characters, in a multi-voiced novel, is a little like changing cars right in the middle of a race: you could, at driver change-over, jump straight into the car: it would save time. However, writing a story is a long-distance race and not a sprint, so it pays to take your moulded seat with you otherwise a few laps in, you grow very aware you’re uncomfortable and can’t concentrate, because the seat you’ve got your backside in has been made for someone else’s quite possibly more generous contours.
It struck me last night that writing a novel is a little like applying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Bear with me on this; I know that sounds a touch left field. In Therapy 101, Jeffrey C. and Minnie Wood used their own experiences with the writing and publishing of their insights into Modern Psychotherapy Techniques as examples to illustrate common distortions in thinking to which CBT can be applied. My favourite observation regards reactions to positive and negative reviews. I’ll paraphrase: positive review – the reviewer is just being kind: negative review – the reviewer will obliterate your career. Apparently, that’s known as minimization and MAGNIFICATION. I so know that feeling and how much better do I feel now that my ridiculous reactions are explained? Yet it is the end of the chapter about CBT that makes the most sense regarding the practice of writing. Again, I’ll paraphrase: they suggest you write a couple of sentences summarising whatever’s on your mind, how it makes you feel and what your thoughts are. Then, note down the evidence that both supports and contradicts the former. Finally, write a balance that sits somewhere comfortably between the two and examine the way you feel. If you feel more positively disposed to what is on your mind, then you are in a better place. This is often the method a writer employs to examine a line or paragraph or chapter and ascertain whether each segment justifies its inclusion. Mind you, and according to some reviews, there have been too many times when I’ve left out what I should have included and included what I SHOULD HAVE LEFT OUT. But that’s the way the ink dries.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Monday November 16th – Day 12
A comfortable day, today. Didn’t get up too early, slight hangover from the neuralgia rather than the Scotch, and knew pretty much where I was going. Some days are like that: it’s not boring, though the procedural aspect of getting from start to finish can often seem that way; and I really don’t have anything of great excitement or substance to report. This part of the process is rarely revelatory; there is no eureka moment, no awakening, no epiphany; it’s just plain and simple keeping the narrative on track. There may a gentle manipulation or two through poetic licence, garnished with a side-order of whizz-pops, but definitely no whizz-bangs or mortars; we’ll save those for the crescendo. This is the period I like to think of as kismet, a period of the character’s progress towards their predestined end, a period divinely ordained by a plot already designed, a fate predetermined. Half a minute! Even I haven’t worked out whether the rabbit I intend to pull out of the hat is going to be pink with yellow spots or yellow with pink spots. Right about now, I’m too busy showing you the empty hat.
As an aspiring writer in my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to spend time in the company of one of my literary heroes, scriptwriter and radio and television presenter Dennis Norden CBE. Most of us – of a certain age – remember Dennis from My Word, in which he appeared alongside Frank Muir, his long-time writing partner. Others will remember him from the outtakes show It’ll be alright on the night. Apart from being a hilarious raconteur and skilled wordsmith, Dennis was a kind and sensitive man. On mentioning I had written the draft of a novel, he suggested I let him cast his eyes over it. Dennis then sat me down and in the gentlest possible manner pointed out the many errors of my ways. In essence, he said, his genial light twinkling behind his glasses, writing a novel is much like a magician’s trick; you must in the end pull the rabbit out of the hat, everyone knows you are going to and you mustn’t disappoint them. How you manage the deception… well, that’s the story.
Now, if you’re one of those people…
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Sunday November 15th – Day 11
An uncomfortable day. I had been going to say ‘tough’ and had to rethink. Tough is for intensive care, for the patients and the doctors and nurses, not sitting at a desk in the warm, knowing that you can get up and go make yourself a cup of tea whenever the mood takes you.
Cleared the 20,000 word aggregate this afternoon, so I’m far from unhappy. The number of words written per day is how many first-time writers gauge their progress and maintain their output, a mechanism for both motivation and goal achievement; like putting in the miles when training for a big run, it’s got to be done or there’s no point in getting to the starting line and no hope of getting to the finish. All writers have their own path to completion as much as they have their own ways of motivating themselves. Many years ago, I read an interview with Frederick Forsyth in which he explained how he got the job done. Forsyth completed all his planning, legwork and research (my words, not his) and then locked himself away for as long as it took to write the novel. So, what happens when you get up in the morning and the last thing your corpus et animam meam, your body and soul, wants you to do is sit down at your desk and begin hammering on the anvil.
Thanks to an unpleasant dose of neuralgia, a legacy of intra-cranial surgery 27 years ago, I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning, let alone start banging away at the keyboard. That legacy, neuralgia, is closely comparable in pain and discomfort to toothache, only the tooth is acidly sharp and takes up the greater part of your skull, the inside of which rapidly fills with cement. Thought processes take place in a kind of dense fog and the simplest of tasks, like rearranging words into a coherent sentence, can take on the significance of a minor miracle. Ibuprofen works, though not instantly. A walk seemed a good idea until the heavens opened and stayed that way for most of the morning. Getting soaked to get a clear head? Muddled thinking. But then what was I thinking and was I thinking? Are you getting the picture? So, I thought of the patients, the doctors and nurses who couldn’t, and made a cup of tea, sat down at the desk and bribed myself with the carrot of an afternoon on the sofa once, and only once, I’d written those 2,000 words.
The job is done, the afternoon has gone, the evening is come.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Saturday November 14th – Day 10
A better day. Woke around 5.00am; hit the desk around 6.00. Far from the lethargy of yesterday, I found a rich seam of confidence that extended through the morning and into the afternoon. Daniel became more a solid entity than a work in progress and the depth of his potential began to reveal itself. It’s a little like peering down a well; sometimes you think you can see the bottom and at other times you can see nothing further than a round, black hole at the end of a long tunnel. For me, and I can only speak for myself, the reason has to do with both my ignorance and the difference, as I understand it, between method and methodology. Method is a systematic or established procedure, such as research, with or through which we achieve a task; whereas methodology is the system of those methods and how we employ them. This is going to sound like one of those dreadful sporting axioms – if the ball had gone in the back of the net, it would have been a goal or if he’d crossed the line first, he would have won – but writing a novel is a fairly simple ‘a to b’ process. You interview your sources, accumulate your information and pick up the pen; that’s the method. How we justify inclusion or exclusion, how we apply or employ that accumulated information, to aid us in figuring out the plot and the order in which we lay it out, is a wholly separate discipline; that’s the methodology. As to my ignorance? Well, ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge or information. So, I’ve realised my challenging day yesterday was down to my not allowing myself sufficient time for accumulating the right information, establishing the correct procedure or working out how to apply both. This is, of course, why it takes a long time – with Constant Tides, it was two years – to write a novel.
This lockdown challenge doesn’t permit me time to accumulate information, establish procedure or play with both; I have to rely, pretty much, on the information already spread about my grey matter. Sure, I have Google open, but you can’t assimilate much information in the time it takes to read a page and hope to use it in the better interests of your characters and story: it’s just not enough time, believe me. So, how does one navigate without a sextant and clock? The answer is to go where you know, try not to get drawn into rocky waters and don’t put your sail up until you’re sure the wind is coming from the right quarter. In other words, write what you know, avoid what you don’t and don’t allow outside forces to influence your thinking.
Just now, I don’t have the facility to get out and do my legwork, which is crucial to assembling information. I’ll give you an example. Sitting outside the Bar Santoro in the Piazza Cairoli, in Messina, I was driven to ask the names of the trees providing us with shade. Christine thought they were a genus of fig; Tony and I were none the wiser. So, Tony got up from our table and buttonholed a passer-by, asking him if he knew. He apologised, he didn’t. We tried Google and various apps, but no, they were no help either. Ten minutes later, our passer-by reappeared to inform us the trees were ‘ficus benjamina’ or weeping fig trees, and showed us a picture from an old, leatherbound encyclopedia of trees. Sometimes, there is no substitute for legwork.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Friday November 13th – Day 9
Woke early, but lacked the requisite motivation to get down to my desk. Walked up around Chertsey green to try and shake off the lethargy. Received an email from an Amazon representative informing me they couldn’t adjust the price of my novel, as the book had been placed with them by my publisher and, therefore, they own the distribution rights. Quite what that had to do with Amazon advertising the book at the wrong price, I’ve no idea. If there is any consolation, it was to be found in their not quoting data protection, an excuse for inaction that drives me up the wall. Forwarded the relevant emails to my publisher and hoped they could do what I couldn’t. I’ll hurry up and wait, as they say.
Although I’ve already introduced my third principal character, a young, black clandestine immigrant by the name of Daniel, I have now to start revealing his place in the story. This also means I need to have more information regarding his personal trials and tribulations which, though half-formed, are not yet adequately crystallized in my mind. This, very possibly, explains my lethargy. Not only after eight straight days at the keyboard is my bank of words beginning to run dry, but also my legs ache and my back is sore. It is strange how the body has the habit of reflecting the fitness of one’s cerebral matter. I don’t necessarily feel tired in the physical sense. Why would I when I have been sitting down for much, if not most, of the time? The problem is more the business of locating the right words and then assembling them in the appropriate order: my mind falls blank; my ears fill with tinnitus; and the rod I use for fishing my words from the pond of my mental thesaurus feels leaden in my hands. To employ an alternative metaphor, I’m reminded of that marvellous scene from Morecambe and Wise, the one in which André Previn informs Eric Morecambe he is playing the wrong notes, only to be told by Eric that he is, in fact, playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Les Dawson also managed a similar discordant assembly. Sometimes, that’s how it gets you.
So, how do I find my way out of the jumble of notes? The answer, I hope, lies in a day separated from the keyboard, combined with a longer walk and, afterwards, a day of reading. I tend to keep three or four books on the go, switching from one to the other as the mood takes me: it’s also a process of filling the word-bank with words, as you can’t take them out until you’ve deposited sufficient; a bit like a high street bank and funds, I suppose. And what am I reading just now? Two books by Catherine Buckle, African Tears and Beyond Tears, both first-hand accounts of the land grabs by Mugabe’s war veterans in Zimbabwe. Buckle’s writing is searingly honest and her story no little distressing for a number of reasons: in March 2000, her 1,000 acre farm was occupied by so-called war veterans, many of them not old enough to have fought in the independence war. They claimed the farm was left to her family by her forebears. It wasn’t. Catherine and her husband bought their farm from Mugabe’s administration post-independence. Losing the farm cost Buckle not only her marriage, but also her livelihood and the livelihoods of her family of cherished farm-workers. Many white farmers were murdered, beaten and raped while the police and judiciary turned a blind eye. The once productive lands now lie barren and untended, creating a shortage of food and a cost of living few can afford. The world, too, turned a blind eye and reading Buckle’s second journal, Beyond Tears, reminds me of the saying, and I paraphrase, ‘all it takes for evil to triumph, is for a few good men to do nothing’. Catherine Buckle has her own dedicated website, though today I notice the world has been denied access. Recently, I wrote to Cathy via email and have not heard back: the dark hands of the Zimbabwean authorities are at work and I fear for Cathy’s life. Also, I am reading FC Selous’ remarkable journal of his travels and adventures in South-East Africa through the second half of the nineteenth century, and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. McEwan is a master of his genre and even though his conclusions may leave one feeling a shade bleak, I envy him both his choice of subjects and his craft.
That’s it for me today. Let’s hope I’ve found a fresh pair of eyes by the morning.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Thursday November 12th – Day 8
Woke at 4.00am: considered today’s challenge. If you’ve already read yesterday’s, you’ll understand what’s involved. Quick resumé for those who haven’t: man and woman, dinner… and the next part is the tricky part. Lay there and looked for answers waiting for dawn to creep beneath the curtains. Remembered we were nearly halfway through November and that dawn wasn’t going to be happening until sometime around 6.30, so slinked out of bed. The house was unexpectedly warm: left the heating on all night. Idiot! Tea and toast; fired up the laptop and remembered I needed to be up early to write an email to Amazon who have, in their wisdom, managed to cock up the price of one of my novels on their site. ‘Dear sir…’ Ventured out for a walk. Funny how most of the women out exercising smile at you in sympathetic association, whereas the men studiously ignore you, as though they risk contracting the virus through mere acknowledgement. Returned and checked Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
One of the curious benefits of posting this diary is that some readers like to interact, for which I am very grateful and which I heartily welcome. One respondent in particular supplied me with an alternative route to progress I had not considered – Brilliant! – and that got me thinking.
When writing The Wind Between Two Worlds, a more standard thriller than the historical/locational stories I’m used to, I kept a whiteboard handy on which I had scrawled the words ‘Remember to turn left’. The reason for doing this is that we get channelled into thought processes by the information we absorb from countless novels and films, both on television and at the movies, though I can’t recall the last time I went to the pictures. This little reminder to turn left stopped me from taking the easy route and caused me to direct the plot in a non-standard format. The Irish have a saying that also helps in plot development: ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it’. I love this logic, for there’s little as dull or unsatisfying as ‘getting’ the story long before you reach the denouement. On the other hand, you shouldn’t turn so far left that you end up meeting yourself coming back the other way or – like Monty Python and their gloriously funny scene when Brian of Nazareth gets to the top of the minaret, falls and is collected by a cyclopean, egg-shaped space person. Sorry, but that does me up every time I watch it – descend into parody. Yet, turning left has the habit of grabbing the reader’s attention and making him or her concentrate, believing that there may just be something more intriguing going down. I remember as a junior salesman at a garage in Dorking going through a fallow patch. Whatever I tried I couldn’t seem to sell a car, even if the aliens were about to invade the Surrey Hills and I had the last car available. I sought the advice of a salesman I admired. “Try going to work by an alternative route.” So I did just that. The fallow patch ended and I was off and running again. The change to your norm alters your outlook and your actions.
Oh, and the man and the woman and dinner? You’ll have to wait and see – or read.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Wednesday 11th November – Day 7
A sobering thought that this is already day seven and I have a little in excess of 12,000 words. Sobering, because I have also realised that I will need to have the first draft completed by the 27th, if I am to allow myself time to rewrite and edit by the end of lockdown. Having the facility of rewriting is comforting: one can tweak the narrative with the odd twist and turn, provide characters with greater dimension, if required, and change the ending. It’s a little like seasoning – occasionally a tad more salt, sugar, spice or pepper. In a culinary context, if you haven’t added the seasoning at the appropriate moment, right at the end is generally too obvious. In a writing context, you have the luxury of being able to apply the extra during the rewriting, but only as long as it doesn’t affect the overall construction. Rewriting, though, is exactly what it says on the tin and you can’t start rewriting until you’ve completed the first draft; to do otherwise risks creating a confusing narrative. So maybe I’m wrong: maybe rewriting is similar to seasoning a meal right at the end. Nigella often likes a soupcon of salt before she presents and her meals turn out okay – well, she seems to enjoy them.
Woke at 5.00am, considered yesterday’s effort, wrote a few notes on the ceiling and gave some thought to today’s task. Up at 7.00am: toast, tea, the news, a walk, though some might term my stride a quick march, 4-5 miles in the hour if my memory serves me correctly. Sat down at 9.00am with a blank page – not ideal. I knew where I was going but had to work out how to get there and there are no maps or templates for a man, a woman and – yes, you’ve guessed it – sex or not sex. I say not sex, because I haven’t worked out which is best for the plot progression and the conclusion. There are a number of options available. The couple consummate their attraction for each other, simple. They don’t, simple, too. Er, it’s not that simple as both ends carry protracted subsections. Eugh! That didn’t come out quite the way I wanted it to, but you probably get my drift. If they do: is she happy, fulfilled, grateful, regretful, annoyed with herself, annoyed with him. Did everything work out swimmingly and does she want to see him again, does she not, does she think he wants to see her again and why, etc? The same applies to him. If they don’t consummate, then why and why not? This may sound as though I’m over-complicating the matter, but the result of their union, or disunion, will have a considerable bearing on the reader’s sympathy towards the characters and how the reader approaches the rest of the novel. Sex is also extremely challenging to write: how much should you – I was going to say ‘put in’ but again, eugh? How much should you leave out? Should it be Mills and Boon or Basic Instinct? Is it carnal or sex-light? And what terminology should you employ? When is a penis not a penis? No, I know it’s not Shakespeare and no, I’m not joking. It’s challenging unless you want to trade in pictorial metaphors, as Monty Python so famously and precisely managed.
When I ask people if they’ve read Fifty Shades, most roll their eyes or suck their teeth and tut-tut. I’ve read it – but only for research purposes, you understand – and I’m in awe of Erica Leonard, or EL James I should say. The characters may seem a shade cardboard, yet James reveals her characters through their attitude to the sex they engage in. For everybody, Fifty Shades isn’t; but I think James’ writing is both personally brave and sensually real. There I said it. That’s me unmasked.
So, tomorrow’s task is to work out whether they do or they don’t. Watch this space. No, look away!
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Tuesday 10th November - Day 6
Woke at 7.00am. Late! Ridiculous! Fortunately, I knew where I was going and was reasonably happy with Monday’s efforts, so I could get on. I’m beginning to remember the feel of Simon; no, not in any physical sense, more a confidence about where I am with him, how his character will place in the story and how happy I am to have him on board as one of the three drivers.
Yesterday was a day of dialogue and I’m mindful of the fact that most writing class masters decry the use of any adverb to modify verbs, especially beyond the word ‘said’. And they’re right, except that we all like to cheat a little now and then. They say the prose shouldn’t demand clarification: the language one uses in the dialogue ought to be sufficiently efficient and accurate that the reader knows in what order and sense the dialogue is carried. Scriptwriting is often a useful form of practising writing dialogue. If one ends up with stodgy conversation, one is apt to switch off or start daydreaming: I know, I’ve switched off on more than one occasion, especially at dinner parties. So, if you’re not happy with the interplay between your characters, and you’re working on a word document, simply cut and paste the section you’re concerned about onto a blank document and try to fashion the dialogue to make sense without he said, she said or they said - seriously. I took an online scriptwriting course a few years ago at the University of East Anglia, at the end of which we had to write a short script without using the word ‘said’. Each spoken sentence from one character had to funnel the listener into the spoken response from the next, and so on. In my case, I cooked up a conversation between two Southside gangsters, Vinney and Jo, standing outside an Italian restaurant. Mori had died from lead-poisoning the evening before, but…
“Jo, you know how much Mori liked his spaghetti?”
“Loved it? He would have died for it.”
“Well, the guy doing the job was late and if Mori hadn’t stayed for a second helping, he would have been gone before the guy pitched up.”
“Okay, I get it. So, it was the spaghetti that killed him.”
“Yeah, Jo, the spaghetti. Sometimes… Sometimes I just wonder if you’re worth the effort.”
Guess you had to be there.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Monday 9th November - Day 5
Woke at 5.00am. Assessed yesterday’s contribution and decided I didn’t like much, if any, of it. Realised that my criticism was down to fourth day dip. Nothing unusual, in fact it is quite normal and natural. Day four is always about the time when you start to wonder if what you’re writing is worthy and whether you should be doing it at all. Still, the basis of day four’s work is there and can be jigged and sorted later. Wrote mental notes on the ceiling and hoped I could remember them by the time I got to my desk. It is a minor tipping point, day four; a little like writing a letter and managing to resist crunching up the paper and throwing it in the bin. So, turning from negative to positive, I lay and ordered today’s contribution. Slipped out of bed just prior to 7.00am, watched ten minutes of news – good news; it seems we may soon be rid of the chump, though I’m sure the eye of Sauron, as I refer to the cabal of political journalists running the news department at the BBC, will soon enough fix on some other victim. Made tea. Fired up the laptop. A good day, today. Located and read some ghastly yet fascinating facts and statistics regarding knife crime and policing. Had a dozen pages of reference open on Google and switched backwards and forwards while working out both where the gruesome figures would place in the rhythm of the narrative and whether they justified their inclusion. And all that, whilst trying to avoid sounding like a polemic or recording words some pressure group might take unkindly to.
Invoking polemic is an easy and lazy trap to fall into; for there are stretches of narrative that readily come across as though one is attempting to put individual’s views across, as opposed to refining their character. If a little argument fits in, then no problem; some people are prone to argument or just plain argumentative, and if that’s a characteristic particular to a character, fine. However, argument, or making a case, is usually best left to dialogue and has to be relevant in the grand scheme of the premise. There’s a touch of ‘deus ex machina’ about an argumentative character. In the truest sense of the expression, its origins lie in Greek tragedy: ‘deus ex machina’ was a mechanical device that transported the Gods onto the stage at the end of a play to allow them to solve the so far unsolvable plot and explain the conclusion. Nietzsche reckoned it to provide a false sense of consolation. Aristotle, conversely, reckoned it fundamental to surprise. I, as most writers do, employ it from early on, whereby we sow the seeds of the dramatic finale all the way through the narrative. Thus, the reveal is a surprise, even though we have expected it, or hoped for it, all along. Argument can point the way and direct the audience down a path.
Some months after the publication of Ontreto, I asked a friend what he thought of it. Of course, one shouldn’t. Yet rather than looking for affirmation, I very much wanted to hear logical criticism. One of my aims in writing the novel was to produce a homage to a hero of longstanding, Andrea Camilleri, the writer of Montelbano. Much in the same way as Greek tragedy has as much going on off stage as it does on, Camilleri’s style was to bring together disparate events and people which and who combine to make everything plain in the gripping finale. My critic, and I paraphrase, accused me of parachuting my uber villain in to the end of the novel with the sole intention of solving a plot I could not write my way out of. “Page 26,” I replied. “The bad guy first appears on page 26.” Sure, if you blink, you’ll miss it, but that’s what makes Camilleri’s works so entertaining: he asks the reader to donate his concentration in return for his effort. That and the inescapable and obvious fact that this is part of the beauty of Sicily: feast your eyes, concentrate; blink and you’ll miss the glorious detail.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Sunday 8th November - Day 4
Late start on account of needing to exercise the body alongside the brain. Windsor Great Park was resplendent – I don’t think I’ve ever used the word resplendent before, but it kind of describes the joy one feels when presented with autumn to winter colours. The ochres and umbers, mixed in with a spray of evergreens were a balm to eyes weary from staring at a screen. The many and varied forms of wildlife, too, were pleasantly calming.
Yesterday evening, the story came to me. I was sitting in front of the television, watching without watching, and my mind wandered. Was it the beige fodder on offer – the current diet is somewhat less than inspiring – or was it thought, fertile and uncontainable, forced like molten lava up from the depths of a recently stirred imagination? Or perhaps it was simply that I realised I needed to decide which story to tell and where it should be headed. Stories, I have learned since I started writing in earnest back in 2011, evolve in this manner. They begin with one direction and gradually, the deeper one descends into the pages, a more engaging, more relevant, more meaningful and more rounded project appears. A premise stands out, plans take shape and a plot comes together; though I dislike the word plot, it’s so unattractive, so unemotional. Only when these issues are attended to can I progress or know the direction in which I need to be travelling. This is natural and organic, and born not only of creating the characters I am now beginning to know intimately, but also characters I want to succeed. Today proved a good day, a key day. I have made mistakes – I know it – and written myself into a little bit of a corner, but days like these must not be allowed to get in the way of progress: I’ll bypass the problems for now and solve them later.
One school of thought encourages a writer to commence his second novel immediately he finishes his first; for having another project to apply one’s energy to softens the disappointment of rejection at the hands of agents and publishers. It is a critical point in a writer’s journey and putting the pen down at such a juncture can be fatal, so fatal in fact that many aspiring writers never pick it up again. I relied on this motivation when writing Boarding House Reach. What began as a number of character studies rapidly developed into the basis of a novel. Stella, Audrey, Philip, Phoebe and Hacker grew to become my friends and accomplices in persevering through countless and continuous rejections: they softened the blows, blunted the arrows and helped me dodge the boulders of my doubt. For getting me through that challenging period, I thank them. After all, what are friends for if not to help you through the tough times?
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Saturday 7th November - Day 3
Woke at 2.22am. All the twos, is that an omen? Probably not; I’m not much of a one for the Ides of March – ugh, stabbed in the back. Used to have a schoolmaster who quoted the line on all too regular a basis, but can’t now recall his name; shame! I digress. Sorry. Went back to sleep after some thought for Shona, one of my three central characters. There’s much to like about the girl/woman – now that’s a tricky one. When does a girl become a woman? I only ask because I know a few women who are most definitely girls and vice versa. If you have a firm idea, please let me know. Shona is in her mid-thirties, so where does she lie on the age spectrum definition?
Yesterday, I touched on character development and the manner in which one reveals the dramatis personae. I realised sometime around 4.00am this morning that I had omitted another reason why we take such great care to build character so meticulously. The reason is this: for every story we encounter on the surface of a novel, there is a far deeper story lying beneath. This deep-story is the footing we dig into the grounds of our build. Like surveyors, we test the surface of our plot to ensure the ground will take the weight of our construction: then, we read the design, and measure and mark out where we need to dig. This is in part called groundwork – or research, although the academics don’t like us describing it so – and every type of every story, or any story for that matter, relies on groundwork. Tommy Cooper would practice his groundwork for hours. He could probably do the trick standing on his head: however, in order to make the trick attractive, he needed to build his delivery to match his trick. In writing Constant Tides, I had to lay the foundations for transporting the reader to the location; if you like, I had to build the road that would make the reader believe they had actually travelled to the location and were now a part of the local community. Building appropriate characters is fundamental to this process. You can’t place a cheeky Cockney in Messina, no more than you can place a harbour thug, like Piero Ullo, on the streets of London – an extreme example, I know. Sure, they’re made of the same flesh and bones, but a square peg will not look right jammed in a round hole– if you’ll excuse the cliché. They are fundamentally alternative characters and each represents just one more supportive section of the underlying story: these are groundworks one has to lay.
Some of the reviews for Constant Tides have mentioned how the narrative has transported them to the Strait of Messina; one going so far as to suggest that though our travel is restricted, she feels as though she has been away in Sicily all summer. If one needs affirmation that the groundworks of the story are solid, then an observation like this will do very nicely.
There are also other pitfalls with foundation. On reading the manuscript of The Wind Between Two Worlds, Peter Matthews, who interviews me at the book launches, pointed out that I had a bus travelling in the wrong direction down the Marylebone Road. Now, I pride myself on not making these kind of stupid miscalculations – so cue, much effing and blinding! Proof-readers are the buildings inspectors of our construction; they have an intrinsic part to play in ensuring we have done an honest day’s work and woe betide any writer who does not ask a third party to run their eyes over the novel. Mind you, Pete was the only one of many proof-readers who spotted that particular howler. Thank you, Pete.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Friday 6th November - Day 2
Woke at 4.00am and spent a while considering the merits of writing in the present tense as opposed to the past tense. Drifted back to sleep. Idiot! Had to draft 200 words of text for an advert in a local magazine and was then bothered by a phishing call from a woman on behalf, or so she maintained, of Amazon. She wasn’t, though she was extremely convincing. By the time I’d dealt with all that, I was late at my desk: the grandmother clock chimed nine.
Spent much of the day working on character backstory development: a slow drawing back of the curtains which allows characters to justify their actions; a dribble and drip of information that accumulates into a pond of reference, that helps the reader understand the character. Most of the villains I’ve met, or have designed, fall into two categories: premeditated and spontaneous. The former is calculating – the career or serial criminal; the latter is reactive, the kind who acts without thinking and therefore relies on confirmation bias as a means to justify his or her actions. Whoever he or she is, it is also important to remember that your villain defines your hero; for without the one, the other wouldn’t need to exist.
When it comes to character development it is also important not to base your characters on people you’ve met, as this limits the breadth of their development. Perhaps it is better to derive them from compendiums of people you’ve known; that way you can add, subtract and alter as your narrative demands.
In the initial draft of Ontreto, I cast one of my central characters as the owner of a boat yard on Lipari, an island just to the north of Sicily. He came from the small village of Capistello, had wavy, jet-black hair and was known as Il Corvo, the raven. Before going to publication, I sent the manuscript to Ariana Longo who, along with her father, owned and managed the hotel we frequented. I asked her to read it through to ensure my colloquialisms were correct. They were. However, there was a snag. This man I had invented actually existed. What was I to do? I took advice from a friend, a lawyer for the Press Association. His advice: perhaps you’d best change him, rather than end up either on the end of a protracted lawsuit – the norm for Italy – or a bullet in the back of the head. Later, at the launch of the novel at the cultural centre in Lipari, Ariana introduced me to Il Corvo; at least that was both his sobriquet and the name of his boat. Angelo Plautillo was beside himself with anger: apparently, I had denied him the immortality my words on a page would have granted him.
The moral of this story is that when it comes to writing fiction, erring on the side of caution is prudent: ‘the raven’, therefore, became ‘the sailmaker’.
You couldn’t write it.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.
Thursday 5th November - Day 1
Woke at 4.00 am. Or rather the lights in my head flickered through the fog of my thinking. Last night: one too many final, one-for-the-road beers before lockdown: not the ideal preparation for starting a novella. In fact, no ordered preparation at all; but then that’s the idea. No point in lying there, watching my thoughts navigate the dark – how do bats do that? – so I stole out of bed and downstairs: damp chill and very, very dark and quiet; made tea and got the log-burner going while I waited for my laptop and screen to wake, too.
So, first to choose a subject. Stories and characters came, went and returned. A couple or three insisted on hanging about, so I thought I’d run with them and see where they went.
How best to tell the story? Do I write the story chronologically and then mix and match the plot at the end, or do I write the story as it comes to me – as it unfolds to me, as I hope to unfold it to my reader? If I’m honest, I had decided to get the story down in some form of timeline: that’s normally how it works when I have time on my side. This time, I don’t; so, I have decided to write it as if I’m the reader. I can always change the order at the end, if I have time.
The challenge, if that’s what it is, is daunting. I am nervous, though maybe that’s no bad thing, and I try to recall similar situations when and where I have thrown myself in at the deep end.
That first day on the feluca, the Antonio Padre, in Ganzirri by the shore of the Strait of Messina, provoked a similar void of confidence. I knew none of the crew, neither Nino the funcitta, nor Michele the capo barca, yet there I was strolling through the lanes in the early hours to work for a few days on a fishing boat. I’d never worked on a fishing boat. What the hell was I doing? Why on earth did I think I was up to the task? Sure, I’d sailed a 50ft ketch across the Atlantic, but that was in the company of a friend; a man who understood the sea, a seasoned sailor who imbued me with a sense of purpose and whom I trusted. That time in Ganzirri, I knew nothing and had no idea of what was, if anything, expected of me. Well, after three days hadn’t Ninolino, Karl, Giovanni and Antonio become friends, trusted friends? On my last day on board the feluca, the boys had offered me a share of the roe from that day’s catch and invited me to join them whenever I wanted to. I was to learn later, from Francesco, that this was a considerable honour; this was their way of telling me I was, from that moment on, their brother.
The recollection proved my anchor point and quickly provided me with the confidence to start writing.
The day has passed smoothly – surprisingly so, except for my forgetting to feed the log burner with wood – and already I have most of the first chapter: 1,800 words.
Is it good enough? Good enough for me to carry on with? I think so. No, I believe so; I have to, which is fundamental; for there is little more debilitating that persevering with a destination that grows colder the nearer you get to it.
Have I cheated? Well, I have to admit I have stolen a character from The Wind Between Two Worlds: Simon, the journalist. I like him: he has motivation with dignity, and now and then he is unsure of his path, so why not bring him on board? As for the other two central characters, they are forming slowly, organically, which again is no bad route: I get to know them at the same pace as my reader, they reveal themselves to me as the story gradually becomes clearer. Characters are the tools with which we build the story, for without them imagination cannot move forward.
As usual, I have left myself short of completing the chapter: I do this so that I don’t have to start tomorrow’s narrative from cold. It is a trick I have learned; it aids flow and reduces the chance of a WTF do I do next moment.
Ciao. Until tomorrow.