Friday, 27 March 2015

Muse

Yesterday, I wrote a sort of angry letter to my muse, telling him (it is a he) that unless he came up with ideas, I wasn’t going to write anything else except memos and shopping lists. I felt melodramatic afterwards, but I’m sick and tired of going to the blank page day after day and straining to come up with. Stephen King thinks of his muse as the fat guy who sits in the corner of the room smoking cigars whilst King does all the donkey work. So it is with me. Unless my muse gives me something, that’s it, we’re finished.
They say that, if you want something done, delegate it to a busy person. That person’s mindset is already thinking speed, efficiency; you don’t need to wind her up. Another way of putting it is, that you get ideas when you’re already working on something else. Ideas come to you at a time when you don’t need them just yet. That’s definitely the case with me. Right now, when all I need is one workable story idea, I’ve got nothing.
You can’t do anything without the muse. He might not do a lot, but the  little that he does do is crucial. Unless you get a story idea which you think is good, which you think that you can write, and which excites, perhaps even scares you, it’s no good. The conscious mind can do everything else, but it cannot supply that spark.
Anyway, maybe now is the time for a change of pace. I’m re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder And Lightning, her book about turning your writing practice pieces into finished work. She says that if you are a beginner writer, you should do writing practice for five years before you attempt to write something for somebody else to read. If you have been writing already, you should give yourself six months when all you do is writing practice.
I balked when I first read that. 6 months of nothing but writing practice? I’ve got deadlines to meet, competitions to enter, things that I want to write. I want to make enough money to quit my job.
But this week, I’ve been doing writing practice (which does have a slightly religious element- Natalie Goldberg uses the word practice as in buddhist meditation) all week, and to be honest, it feels like a big, long job, to get in touch with my own mind. I’ve gone over some painful stuff, and it’s left me feeling raw. Sometimes I’ve felt angry or depressed for no apparent reason.

What I think is happening is this: that I’m going through a personal change. This week, I also picked up an anthology of poetry and a copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I’ve also began to watch/read/listen to the news, and have begun collecting newspaper stories. Simultaneously, I’m reading up about political and social matters. I want to try to get to grips with both my past and the world around me. I want to try to write a straightforward contemporary story, perhaps as a novel, perhaps as a short story, perhaps as a drama script. And that means digging deep.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Writing Practice

            I’ve made a new resolution: I’m going to carry out Writing Practice each day, regardless of whether I’m engaged in a project or not. I know it will stand me in good stead. If you want to know how it works reading Natalie Goldberg’s brilliant Writing Down The Bones.
            Basically, you buy a notebook, put a heading at the top of the page each day, and then for a time which you set yourself, write everything that comes to you about that subject. You don’t edit or censor it in any way, you don’t even worry about grammar. What you write is for your eyes only, the writer’s equivalent of the visual artist’s sketchbook. You are after honesty.
            It is slightly different from Morning Pages (see Julia Cameron’s equally brilliant The Artist’s Way) in that you set yourself a topic. With Morning Pages, which are equally important, you write in a stream of consciousness fashion whatever comes up as it comes up.
            I’m not engaged in a project at the moment, and maybe that’s a good thing. I was beginning to feel like I was on a treadmill. I was obsessed with horror fiction, whereas now I would like to write whatever story comes up. Whether it’s in a genre or whether it’s a straightforward contemporary story; provided only that at least one character tries to do at least one thing in order to achieve at least one goal, makes at least one mistake in the process and learns at least one hard lesson as a result.

           

Friday, 13 March 2015

What You Got Cooking?

          The delivery men brought our new cooker on Sunday morning. Once again, there was that sense of High Noon: would they be idiots? Would they take all day? Would they arrive at the crack of dawn? They said they would arrive between 9.30 and 1.00, so potentially we could spend the whole morning waiting. One of us would have to wait indoors until they arrived.
          We’d been to the theatre the night before, and got home at midnight, so when my alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning, I could not drag myself out of bed. Nor could I at six or seven. It wasn’t only tiredness but the feeling of dread. I had to keep telling myself that it would be alright. Chances are, they’ll be quick and professional, and afterwards we’ll have a brand new cooker, the first one we’ve ever bought together in twenty years of marriage.
          We said farewell to the old cooker, which was rusty, grease-stained, with a defunct grill and loose lock on the oven door. We’d inherited it when we bought the flat, in 1994, and I’m not sure how long it had been there before us. Its particular model is no longer manufactured, and it was apparently thinner than all current models, which is why we had to have the alcove enlarged. We still didn’t know whether the new cooker would fit.
          There were two engineers, both dressed in Knowhow t-shirts and what looked like black combat trousers. One was cheery, the other- who was in charge- more serious. They attended to the new cooker with spirit level, electric screwdriver and electricity detector.
          I don’t know why I feel such dread about these things. I couldn’t honestly say I’ve got any real horror stories about workmen. But each time we need work done inside the flat, my nerves are on red alert.
          After the engineers had fitted the cooker, they told us that we needed to replace the carpet on which it now stood with kitchen tiles, because carpet is a fire hazard. My heart sank. Had it been a fire hazard when the old cooker stood there? It would mean more workmen, more disruption. Also, because the old cooker had a control panel above the hobs and the new one doesn’t, the back wall was now exposed, and we would have to get the power cable covered with something called metal trunking. The new cooker apparently blows hot air out the back, which the old one didn’t, and tcheaphis might melt the cable, another fire hazard.
          They left, and we congratulated ourselves on our brand new cooker. But then we began worrying about the safety aspects. So we walked down to Homebase and bought some cheap floor tiles, with the idea of putting them loose across the carpet- that should give you some idea of my diy skills. Eventually, we would hire a professional carpet fitter to remove the carpet and put new flooring down properly.
          I had Monday free. I pulled the cooker out to try and place the tiles down. For some reason, it came forward a few inches, then the front end lifted itself up in the air. There was some obstacle. I eased the cooker back, then tilted it towards me to try to free it. I looked at the back. The engineers had fixed it to the wall with a metal chain on a clip, which I hadn’t realized they’d done. I unclipped the chain and then I heard something snap.
          It was the front leg. A simple plastic thing, an inch long with a screw fixing. It had snapped under the weight of the cooker as I had tilted it. I felt cold sick. My wife was going to give out to me. We’d only had the cooker for 24 hours and I’d broken it.
                                                *
          I’ve barely written anything since my last post. Only morning pages, on those days when I could get up in time. Rarely did I fill the six sides of A5. I think it’s best to write morning pages all in one go, rather than fits and starts. I didn’t read much, either. And in all the leave I’ve had lately, I’ve hardly seen anything of my own choosing. Consequently, I had no inspiration.
          Then on Sunday, before the women’s programmes took up the airwaves (Poldark and Mr Selfridge), I persuaded my wife to let me put a dvd on. I chose The Godfather, the first one, with Marlon Brando in it. I’d forgotten how good it was. And watching it, getting involved with a fictional story, seemed to rejuvenate me.
          I also began listening to stuff on Radio 4. I began a Radio Drama diary, as advised by Claire Grove and Stephen Wyatt in their book So You Want To Write Radio Drama? Somehow, the very act of writing seemed to loosen me up. I began a new writing practice notebook, too.

          I had to admit it, but going back to work seemed to help, too. It wasn’t as mad as it usually is, I actually got to chat to workmates. In a more relaxed frame of mind, I began thinking about a couple of story ideas I’d had kicking around. And while I can’t say that I’m out of the woods just yet, I do feel as though I can see a clearing.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Handyman



                The handyman arrived early, while I was still cleaning the area behind the cooker. It was caked with grease and covered with cobwebs. The cooker itself looked like The Mary Rose after they brought it up from the ocean floor.
          He rang me from outside in the car park, and I had to put away my cleaning stuff, then run out to the car park and unlock the bollard, to allow him to park his van. We don’t have a car, but we do have a parking space, and without the bollard, other people park, and even dump their vehicles in it. We want our guests to be able to park whenever they visit us, but as we don’t get many guests (we deter them, actually) and as the guests we do get tend not to be motorists, the bollard tends to stay locked for years at a time.
          It was a good thing that he arrived early, because this was another day, like my nan’s funeral, which had been looming like High Noon; and as with my nan’s funeral, I needn’t have worried. The handyman, when he finally stepped out of his van, turned out to be polite, quick, competent and cheap. He’d sounded gruff on the telephone, but in person he was good natured.
                    He was in the flat 15 minutes tops, and then away again. He sawed three centimetres off the edge of our kitchen worktop, so we now have room for a new cooker. Best of all, we now have a handyman to call on if we ever have any other jobs which need doing. I’m ridiculously proud of having found him (on the Check A Trader website) and of ringing him. That might sound like nothing to you; but if you knew how I procrastinate and worry, you’d understand. I felt the fear and did it anyway.
          It was buying the new cooker which I’d underestimated. I thought we only needed to go to Currys, pick one out and pay. Instead, on a quiet Thursday afternoon, we had to wait around for salespeople to come and serve us. There were staff milling about on the ground floor, but when I went down and asked if somebody could come upstairs and serve us, they said no, you’ll have to wait. The placards above the cookers say that they’ll install your new cooker within three days, but for some reason Currys can’t deliver to us until Sunday week. And the saleswoman got huffy when we told her (about three times) that we didn’t want to join their protection plan.
                   Still, it will be nice to make welsh rarebit once again.
                                                *
                    My writing has stalled to a trickle. Mostly because I’ve been off work and have been sleeping in late. I kept up my morning pages, but as for any work on an actual project, I barely did anything. A sentence here and there on these character biographies.

                   I wish I could see my next story. Have scenes come alive in my head, get ideas for it as I walk along. I just can’t seem to visualize my characters doing anything.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Dread

We’ve been trying to get a handyman. We need a new cooker; and they don’t make the cooker that we’ve got any more. All the new models are wider. But if we can saw off about an inch of our kitchen worktop, we reckon we can fit a new cooker in. It’s only a small job. Not worth hiring a carpenter for. If I was more confident, I might even attempt it myself.
We don’t know any handymen, and we don’t know anyone who can recommend one to us. So for the past few days, we’ve been going through Yellow Pages, Check a Trader, etc. But the whole thing is a displacement activity, because what we’re really scared of is having strangers in the flat. I have a dread of workmen (I’ve never yet had a work woman; I might prefer it if I could).
The worry is that you’re going to get a cowboy; somebody who will botch the job, or overcharge you. Even the idea of ringing somebody up and getting a quote turns me to ice. But it’s a fear; I’ve got to conquer it. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Because there’s a lot, an awful lot, which needs doing around the flat.
*
This week, I’ve been on leave. I’ve hardly written anything, but even so, life feels good. We all need downtime. I’ve done some more to my characters’ biographies. I wish to God I’d done them for a lot of my other projects, if not all of them. They always repay dividends to your fiction. But when it’s come to flash fiction, I’ve literally just written them on the hoof. It’s time for a change.
I’ve been trying to ease myself away from horror fiction and onto other sorts. It’s been partially successful. I’ve started watching episodes of Only Fools And Horses again. My favourite sitcom, and I haven’t watched it for ages. John Sullivan’s wonderful characterization and dialogue, the innate sense of farce that runs through it all; the pairing of David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst. Yet to me, putting an Only Fools dvd has been like climbing Everest. Your instinct is always to put a horror film on.
I picked up Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy from the public library the other day. I loved the first two Bridget Jones books, yet when this one came out, I just sort of shrugged. Anyway, it’s good, so far, one chapter in, as good as the other two. Again, though, I had to make myself borrow it and make myself read it. I haven’t even seen Nick Hornby’s latest yet; in fact, I haven’t read Slam, Nick Hornby’s teenage novel, or any more of his collections of book reviews. It wasn’t that Nick Hornby has got worse, as far as I can tell. Only that as soon as I read M.R. James, I went overboard for horror.
Yesterday, we went into our little public library, and I came away with four books about the supernatural. Obviously this isn’t an addiction like a heroin addiction; on the contrary, in many ways it’s improved my life. I’ve begun to enjoy reading again, and that’s fed into my writing. I’m finishing stories and sending them out; and some of those stories have ended up published on Microhorror and Paragraph Planet. I feel a little disappointed with myself.
What I’m hoping is that, when I start writing my Cinderella story, as I think of it, it will encourage me to read more broadly. Perhaps it might get me to read poetry, dramatic plays, ‘serious’ novels.
But I don’t want to knock it. Life feels good, at the moment.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Ending The Curse


About a week ago, I got a letter telling me that my nan had passed away. You might wonder why a letter and not a phone call. My nan lived in the same house as my mum, and my mum threw me out of the house two years ago, and I haven’t been back there since. And although my nan lived in a separate household, and although I would probably have been welcomed there if I’d gone back, I couldn’t bring myself to go there. And so my uncle, who was looking after her, never realized what had happened, and we lost touch.
Yesterday was my nan’s funeral. I was determined to go. I loved my nan, and I feel bad that I never saw her again after that row with my mother. Nan’s memory was going by then, and she didn’t really know who I was, but even so, she was always pleased to see me. I didn’t know what sort of reception I was going to get from my uncle, or any of the rest of the family; so the day felt like High Noon as it approached.
In the end, though, it went well. Nan was laid to rest, and I had a chance to talk to my uncle, and explain. He didn’t bear me any malice, he was only glad I was there, and he understood now what had happened. Better still, I met relatives I hadn’t seen for years, we reminisced and caught up, and the hours flew by. It’s odd how jolly a funeral can get.
All though the week, my wife was fantastic in keeping up my morale, and she was wonderful with my relatives. I always think of her as my Princess Diana, the woman who makes me look good. She’s wonderful with other people, even complete strangers open up to her.
It looks as though the family home, the house where I grew up, will be sold, soon, and everyone living in it can move away to wherever they like; and I couldn’t be happier. It was not a happy house. To me, it seems like the House of Usher. I hope whoever buys it can put some happiness in it, and end the curse.
I come from a weird family, and when I see people from close families, I feel like I carry some curse with me; the curse which began when two generations of a family bought it and began living together. My nan was happy enough through her life, even right at the end when her mind started going; but there was a lot of sadness in that house, a lot of unnecessary misery. I genuinely hope that now my nan has passed away, the people in that house can find happiness.
*
My writing is going…okay. Cautiously. In fact, when I re-read my last post, it feels awfully melodramatic. All I needed to do, really, was wait for the clouds to lift. Which they have.
I don’t feel quite so bad about writing horror fiction now. It may be a lowly genre, but it can be done well or badly, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. I finished typing up a story to present to my writers’ group, and felt that it hung together pretty well. I think that even that jokey vampire story I mentioned last time won’t be quite as bad as I thought. In my experience, very often when you reread something of your own, it’s usually better than you remembered.
In any case, I’ve begun working on something else. Something which isn’t in a genre. A contemporary, mainstream, straightforward story. I had a story idea kicking around. I won’t tell you exactly what it is, you’re not meant to give away the details of a story you haven’t written yet, but supposing it was this: Cinderella updated. There was a little more to it than that, but not much. I was using an archetypal plot, anyway, like Cinderella, a plot capable of adaptation, one which I knew other people had used before.
Well, I had a reasonable story idea, but I couldn’t seem to bring it to life. In any case, I was sick of beginning projects with a story idea. I felt lately that my stories were becoming plot-driven, and that the characters were mere puppets to move about. Here, I had an opportunity to create a real character, a character who would move the plot, rather than the other way around. I have a conviction that, in the best fiction, characters make mistakes, even when the stories ultimately end happily (in most cases, characters should learn hard lessons as a result of their mistakes, but I can think of at least one story- Waiting For Godot- where they don’t). Here, we had the chance to follow a character trying to achieve a goal, making a mistake and learning a hard lesson. Perhaps even stretching to a novel.
Except I couldn’t bring it to life. I didn’t know who my Cinderella was, who my Prince Charming was (in the film Rocky, which is also a varation on Cinderella, the ‘Prince Charming’ was the fight with Apollo Creed- see what I mean about adaptation?).
Then I read Paul Chown’s post, which I reprinted, about creating character. And I began making notes about my Cinderella. I found it helpful, too, to make notes about my protagonist’s parents, too (my Baron and Baroness Hardupp- no Wicked Stepmother here). The results have been interesting, and I’m glad to say that I have written something every day this week.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Paul Chown: Looking for an idea for a novel?

Another interesting exercise:





Paul Chown: Looking for an idea for a novel?: From How To Write Your First Novel by Sophie King, an exercise to help you find ideas for a novel: Write down five different ‘canvases’ for...