Some friends of ours are producing a facebook virtual store and community celebrating local artists at Light Leaves Experience! . In the spirit of sharing there are two stories below – one featuring the narrator from a series of stories I am writing based on three young people with disabilities in a children’s group home, and the second my fantasy take on the holocaust The Cat Factory.A Night at the Library The Cat Factory
For the past year or so I have been a member of the Kessingland Library Creative Writing Group which meets every month. Like the Open University Course I did in creative it has been positive in forcing me to write outside of my comfort zone.
Some of the work I did in the Library group has been published in their anthology including an extract from The Revolutionary Tapestry : anthohttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Kessingland-Library-Creative-Writing-Group/dp/1500951617/logy . If you want to read them I’m afraid you will have to buy the book – there are some excellent pieces in there from other group members as well and it is well worth the cover price. The other two pieces in the anthology were written for the OU course – one to create a character and the other to create a character that didn’t share anything with me.
Some of the other pieces we have written are on their website. The one I found particularly challenging was “Half Rhymes” where we had to write a poem where the “rhymes” had a match in the consonants but not the vowels – the opposite of assonance. I rhyme by instinct so having to do what my perfectionist brain says are “not proper rhymes” was difficult. The Picasso story was inspired by one of his paintings our leader Rebeccah Giltrow handed out at random. I had thought of calling it “50 Shades of Blue” but as it was from his cubist period the joke wouldn’t really work.
I decided to put some more of the work here with some explanation of what the challenges were.
A A Conversation With The Other had to be a dialogue with nothing other than questions. To make it more interesting (hopefully) I did an internal dialogue with my internal parent voice.
Rumbled – the challenge was to update a fable. I had had the idea about looking again at morals of people involved in the Rumplestiltskin story many years ago – none of them are very nice and I was never sure what the moral was supposed to be. Having a Chandleresque detective walking those Grimm streets seemed a good way to do that.
I always have a tune in my head when I write lyrics, even though it may turn out to have a completely different one when I finish the song. This was our exercise at Christmas – to create something harking back to the Christmas song of the 70’s and 80’s. I may get round to doing a proper tune for it for the Christmas Eastern Edge Cabaret.
Writers write was a failure as I misread the instructions. It was supposed to be a poem about a parent inspired by a rap poet. I got the second bit but missed the theme.
Limericks were written for an open mike night organised by the library. As Rebeccah is a great fan of OULIPO I thought it would be fun to do a more modest version of Quenneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems and did a set of limericks with the same rhyme scheme. These were performed by asking people to shout out a number from one to five which would pick each successive line in the eventual random poem.
Finally –I have no mouth and I must speak. This was supposed to be a piece of writing using only single syllable words. I decided to write a piece about a computer being programmed to emulate the learning process of a human mind. One word = one bit. It is harder than you may think to stick to one syllable. My original title was Monolog until I realised that had three.
Like the members of OULIPO I found the challenge of having restrictions on what I was creating exhilarating rather than constraining.
Lots of authors I admire have been prolific in their output, but I have to admit that that output can be variable. If they are writing for a living, then there will be pressure to keep producing books to keep the money coming in, and not all of them will be up to the standards of their best.
On the other hand, there are authors who wrote a few novels and short stories and then vanished off the scene, leaving us wanting more.
One example is James Stoddard, whose High House and False House owed an obvious debt to William Hope Hodgson (including character names) and were great fantasy novels. The only other work he seems to have produced since those books at the end of the 90s is a retelling of Hodgson’s wonderful but challenging The Night Land for those who find the deliberately archaic prose of the original hard going.
Another great fantasy series is Robert Stalman’s Beast trilogy which looked at the human side of lycanthropy long before the current crop of Twilight clones. The author’s early death robbed us of a great talent.
Another talent robbed by an early death as Tom Reamy who left one novel and one short story collection. The stories in San Diego Lightfoot Sue are variable as Reamy was still learning his craft, but some are wonderful, as was Blind Voices. The circus setting with talented youngsters has been done before and since and for me the pre eminent example is Charles Finney’s Circus of Dr Lao. Finney produced two other short novels and a short story collection – all brilliantly bizarre and eccentric and worth a look if you can find copies.
My final suggestion is Jody Scott who wrote the great Passing for Human and the pretty good I Vampire which are scathing feminist satires including shape changing aliens.
I’m back writing the rest of The Revolutionary Tapestry having had some interest from agents. For someone who is new to writing this is enormously encouraging as it shows I have good ideas and some ability even if I need to work hard to get it to the next level.
Sending stuff out is scary. Even letting friends see it is an anxious experience. Everybody has that little voice in their head that says they are an imposter and someone will find them out. Writing is always an expression and extension of your personality to a greater or lesser extent and sharing it is an invitation to judge not only your words, but you. I should be used to it, having been both a journalist and a music performer, but in both those cases the feedback is quick and can be quickly forgotten. It’s only if you consistently get criticism or bad crowds that you start to take it really to heart. A novel or even a short story takes more sustained effort and is more personal than a quick bit of factual copy or a three minute song.
My first reader is, of course, my wife Jules. When she first started reading and commenting on my stuff it was hard to take. Overall she has always been positive and her critique is always valid and I have learned a lot from it. There is still the stray thought however that this is someone who loves you so should only say nice things. What I quickly realised is that (a) she was right in questioning the things she did and changing them would make the story stronger and (b) as a parent you should never shrink from being honest with your children so as a writer you should expect the same from your readers. It’s like the people who go on X Factor and react to criticism from Simon Cowell by saying he isn’t a singer. He is something more relevant – a consumer.
My other readers have been similar enthusiastic and positively critical – the story is good, there is good writing there, but there are also things that could be improved. As they are either writers or experts in aspects of the story, this is very heartening and only a fool would ignore their points. I know what I wanted to say and what the characters are thinking and doing, but if that doesn’t come across to the reader it is useless. And I have occasionally also suffered from making the characters say or do things that are out of character because I needed it to happen, so finding that out is invaluable.
The key lesson, I suppose, is that if people say something is not right, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. Just that you have made a mistake, and pointing out a mistake is not an attack on your personality or talents.
So, onto the next 100,000 words and some more good readers.
Jules and I have been busy over the last month getting our cabaret nights at Lowestoft off the ground – first one this evening and then every fortnight at the Seagull Theatre.
The idea behind them was the pain of travelling three hours each way to London to do a five minute comedy spot. If Jules found it a challenge to get a gig in this area, then there should be lots of other talented people with the same problem. The only way to improve your performance is to perform, but if there are no venues around how do you do that? And if lack of experience means the first few gigs are not a great success, that long drive back seems even longer.
With lot of publicity online and in local media we have eight acts tonight and some lined up already for future shows. They range from performance poets to comedians (including none who has braved the Lowestoft/London journey the other way) to a drag act and a character comedian/singer. Plus me singing a couple of my own songs and Jules compering. variety seems to be making a bit of a comeback on TV with Britain’s Got Talent and the Palladium so fingers crossed.
The intention is to provide a showcase where the atmosphere is friendly and supportive and people are not scared to make mistakes as well as get positive support. The best will get progression to a longer spot on nights we will put on in the main auditorium rather than the bar area where the normal nights take place.
I’m looking forward to performing as well as being general factotum – I used to sing in folk clubs, but most of them have disappeared, and playing again may encourage me to perform in more general open mike nights. Writing does not provide much in the way of immediate feedback so putting myself in front of an audience will be frightening but fun.
Not quite what the title suggests, but I managed to achieve the 50k target for the National Novel Writing in a Month challenge by day 17 instead of 31. However it took another couple of days of work to actually finish the book and it will take about twice as long to get it to a state I’m happy with. Nevertheless not too bad an achievement.
I had done some work before I started – a general idea of the plot, characters and enough background reading to have lots of info to drop in at appropriate times. As it was set in a city I lived in for 25 years I just needed the odd peak at an A-Z to remind myself of street names (Like most old cities Norwich’s street names can change halfway through to reflect the medieval street layout) and what connected to what at what point.
As a conspiracy thriller, I had to decide what the conspiracy was, and its historic origins. This was a mix of join the dots history (this looks a bit like this so they must be connected) and if in doubt, making it up.The vast majority of the historic background and myths about the city are real, but the way I link them up is imagined and I did invent a couple of historic documents to link things up.It is, of course, not quite the Norwich of today. Although I tried to base the novel in the period I was writing it, the people are made up and the core drivers of the plot are imaginary, though plausible.
The only real character (apart from versions of myself and Jules I couldn’t resist putting in) is local former bookshop owner Norman Peake and I hope he forgives me killing him off (spoiler alert if it ever gets published). Any resemblance to other real people alive or dead is probably libellous so will be strenuously denied.
The timing was quite good as Jules has been working as a supporting artists in London on a six week shoot so I was able to sit at home or in a café in London and type for dear life. It was quite good discipline, though as I have since rattled out 50 pages of notes for a potential sit com and done lots of housework and admin stuff. Our accounts are now up to date, as are those for the Dare2dream Charity, and I’ve finally got round to ordering the 30 light bulbs I need to replace around the house.
Next job is to go back to the Revolutionary Tapestry and edit it into a decent shape so I can start sending it to agents. That is a more ambitious book with a bit of worldbuilding and a lot of period feel to get right in both the setting and characters. I got a couple more books with background info for my birthday so will read and make my usual copious notes on them.
The other good thing is that three stories of mine will appear in the anthology being created for Christmas by the local writer’s group so relatives and friends can guess one thing they may get as a present this year!
Two days in to National Novel Writing Month and still going strong! I’m ahead of my word count but it is the weekend so that makes life easier. Jules is working in London a lot of this month so I will have lots of opportunities to either work at home on my own or sit in a café and write while she does some supporting artist work or rehearses for her understudy role at a Christmas show.
I did a fair bit of prep in October – I already had the basic plot idea and some thoughts on locations and characters and I’ve raided some stuff from a short story I started and decided wasn’t working. As it’s set in Norwich I’m familiar with the geography and the background politics and institutions so don’t have to do the same amount of research I did for the Revolutionary Tapestry.
The extra stuff was reading more detail on Norwich in the 1750s and rereading books on the Hellfire Clubs and links between Freemasonry and architecture.
The basic concept hasn’t changed but I moved the time period to the present day rather than the 1990s and wrote biographies of the main characters. That helped as I was able to build in thoughts on the relationships between the characters and background tensions and conflicts not relating to the main action but informing it. While writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I realised it was about family and parenthood and while thinking about Masonic Fire I’ve realised it is about politics and elites and what marginalisation or exclusion does to people.
I suspect I’ll reach the target of 50,000 words in plenty of time and continue writing for a significant word count after that but, as always, the hard work will then be editing it down. It’s not about word count its about making every word count.