Writerly Recklessness#4: Imagination is an immigrant.

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This week I visited, for the first time, somewhere my imagination had already been.

When I was at university, a friend gave me Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn to read, and this week, I found myself in the same position as Mary Yellan:

‘The country was alien to her, which was a defeat in itself. As she peered through the misty window of the coach she looked out upon a different world from the one she had known only a day’s journey back. How remote now and hidden perhaps for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford, a rain that pattered in the many trees and lost itself in the lush grass, formed into brooks and rivulets that emptied into the broad river, sank into the grateful soil which gave back flowers in payment.

This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil. No trees here, save one or two that stretched bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so blackened were they by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear that the late frost should kill them. It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom.’

Daphne du Maurier Jamaica Inn

The thing is, the excursion into deepest, wildest Cornwall also reminded me of other worlds my minds’ eye has been but my body hasn’t, such as Tolkein’s Middle Earth: it’s easy to belive your being chased by Ringwraiths when you’re passing through a terrain of steep valleys, scrubby moorland, jagged peaks that punctuate the horizon, and tall chimneys and squat houses of iron-grey stone. In fact, when I gave LJ the address for our B&B her comment was ‘I think you made this address up – or you’re going on an adventure to Mordor without me.’ Middle earth

The whole experience of leaving home and travelling to just another part of England emphasised to me how important landscape is to the author and the reader. Emily Bronte is another example – could Wuthering Heights, and the stormy, passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy have ever existed if it wasn’t for the Yorkshire moors? Or Pip and his Great Expectations without Dickens’ London? Wordsworth’s poetry without the Lake District? Hardy’s Wessex novels without Dorset?

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Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, Ireland

Literature is of course full of fantasty landscapes too, but even these often have their roots in real places: The Shire, home of hobbits, is said to be based on rural England, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia takes inspiration from Ulster, Northern Ireland.

As Lewis wrote: ‘I yearn to see County Down in the snow, one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true.’

In theory, the more I travel, the broader and more varied a landscape I could paint as an author. I’d like that theory more if I had the money to test it. The thing is, with the above writers, they all had a relationship with those landscapes, and that probably trumps merely being a holidaying alien to postcard-worthy scenery. TDL might not be set in a particularly exotic world, but it’s a world I know – in all its beauty and ugliness; its taste and texture; its history and present struggles– things that mean it is more than just a setting, but a character in itself – a breathing landscape with its own unique identity.

Cornwall well may become another of those places for me – it certainly has its own personality and I’d love to explore it further: where else do you find place names that appear to have been plucked from an Enid Blyton story – Washaway, Laughter Bridge, London Apprentice? Or roads that will never require the Satnav to say ‘straight ahead’? Or a horizon that can only be reached by crossing ten hidden valleys?

Reading Makes ImmigrantsAs it is though, I’ve never really been able to afford to travel much, but books are cheap, so my imagination is an experienced wanderer. And the difference when your imagination travels is that it never really leaves where it visits. It becomes an immigrant of other worlds – including, of course, the worlds it creates entirely of itself – worlds I hope I can invite others to explore through the pages of my books.

So, whilst my body is back at home, in front of the laptop, my imagination is still romping across the Cornish wildlands… I’m going to have trouble calling it home for tea, I think…

 

Writerly Recklessness#3: I plan, therefore I am…

cunning fox quote

Crushing the planning today (aided in part by homemade plum tart). I’ve even done some sub-planning – yes, my plan has a plan.

The more I write, the more I learn about myself, such as:

  • I need to stop directing my characters and kill the dialogue-tag adverbs (‘spat sneeringly’ I absolutely plead guilty too).
  • I have an irrational phobia of exclamation marks – I physically shuddered when A.M. (quite reasonably) made me put some in TDL#1 – yes, it was just a few and in completely appropriate places, but still…
  • I become over-attached to certain verbs – shrugging and sneering; sneering and shrugging…
  • I would make the world’s worst spelling bee contestant (I know this because I was once ‘Dictionary Corner’ in a spelling bee for 12-year-olds, and it took me ages to look up the word defnitions because I didn’t know how to spell the word well enough to find it in the dictionary…)
  • I like ellipsis…
  • And, yes, I am obsessively fond of planning, ordering, setting-out, arranging, organising and systemizing.

The last sounds the absolute opposite of a writerly mind that’s supposed to be imaginative, adventurous and the very essence of spontaneity – but the truth is that only by compulsively planning everything in real life can I get any grip on the stuff that’s having a free-for-all in my head – otherwise, I end up writing ten stories at once and never finishing any of them. I could fill a large bookcase with all the stories I’ve started (and WILL finish one day). It-takes-real-planning-to-organize-this-kind-of-chaos.-Mel-Odom

In fact, without planning even ordinary things, I’d probably end up lying in some sort of writerly coma for most of my life (provided someone was able to bring me homemade plum tart to consume three times a day, of course).

Anyway, I should be done planning soon – provided the sub-plan doesn’t decide it needs its own mind-map or something…

Writerly Recklessness#2: I have part of a plan…

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LJ came home last night to find the coffee table, and lounge in general, taken over by sugar paper and Sharpies. First thing she wanted to know was ‘Have you made sure the Sharpie pen hasn’t seeped through the paper into the wooden table top?’. My response: ‘Of course I have!’ – dangerous bluffing, but totally got away with it.

Then, of course, she wanted to know what I was actually doing. I thought it was fairly clear that I was planning my third novel in The Divinity Law series, but I explained this anyway. The fact is that TDL#3 has finally out-grown its space in my head (to be fair it has to wrestle with quite a lot of narratives, nerd trivia and general nonsense in there), so I’ve been forced to finally translate it all on to paper.

I did actually break my own golden rule – which is ‘NEVER start writing until you have done a PLAN.’ Not this sort of a plan:

But an actual, 100% complete, chapter-by-chapter, detailed plan: with finalised character names, days of the week, and seemingly insignificant details (that will create MASSIVE plot holes later if you’re flippant with them at the start) sorted out.

Instead, I planned about 12% and then went ahead and wrote the first four chapters anyway – which is NOT ALLOWED – although I’ve done the exact same thing for the other TDL novels. And every time I ignore my own rule, I hit the same problem: round about Chapter 5 I get stuck – even if my 12% takes me beyond Chapter 5, I hit a rut and can’t seem to push the narrative any further. And that’s because a narrative is actually a journey – exactly like a journey – that’s not even a metaphor or anything, because your story is taking your reader from a start to a finish (however complicated, abstract or circular your plot structure). Even if where they end up is ‘Where the hell am I?’ or ‘Back here again?’ they’re still somewhere different, with a different perspective/new information/insight/revelation/emotion etc.

Or at least I’d hope so anyway…

Improvising, going off road for a bit and taking a scenic (or not so much) detour is probably inevitable – but, after you’re done with that sort of reckless writerly-ness, you need to know how you’re going to get back on track to that final destination.

So today I continued with my sugar-paper-and-Sharpie planning frenzie. TDL#3 seems to be a bigger creature than its elder siblings; for the first time, I’ve had to convert my usual black and white notes into a colour-coded, timeline-map thing. LJ said that, being left-handed, she appreciated the fact I have obviously worked from right to left across the page. Actually, err, being generally backward, I’m working from top to bottom – but whatever – as long as it eventually transforms into a manuscript that makes some sort of sense… to someone.

My 12% plan has at least now progressed to about 20%, so tomorrow I will be back to it – and there will be no actual writing until it is done. LJ did express a concern that she might come home one day to find some sort of Sherlockesque crime wall, with bits of paper and string, tacked up on the lounge walls…

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I’m not ruling it out.

Writerly Recklessness #1

Choice chance change

If I’d woken up in a film this morning the soundtrack would have been Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.

It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life for me/And I’m feeling good

Because today is my first day as a full-time writer and nothing else. I’ve been a full-time writer juggling a 50+ hour-week job on the side for a while – but the 50+ hour-week job has now gone, so I’m ‘just’ a full-time writer now.

Yes, I voluntarily gave up my secure, salaried job to spend more time doing something that makes me £2.74 a month (if it’s a good month). I know. You’re not supposed to do that, but I did and I REGRET NOTHING!

Err… not yet anyway…

Seriously, I do actually have some very good reasons for making this insane decision and I’ve only been slightly reckless in that I don’t actually have to live off only £2.74 a month – that’s just my pocket money so I can treat myself to a coffee out, 12 times a year. Although I occasionally have a moment of mild panic – what have you done, you crazy fool?– I’m actually enjoying being reckless for once. I think there might be a latent inclination in all writers to be utterly foolhardy (just look at the stuff we write about – we’re all closet adventurers really – go on, admit it), so it’s not that surprising when it sometimes manifests itself in everyday life: wearing flipflops in the rain, booking a spontaneous weekend away, getting a tattoo, giving up your job to become a penniless writer… A bit of recklessness is good for your health and, personally, I AM feeling good about it.

I mean, so far, the career change is going well – I’ve had a lie in (though it is a Saturday, so that would have happened anyway), done a variety of domestic chores, burnt the fish fingers for lunch, used my work mug to have a cup of tea, annoyed the cat (who is used to having the house to himself), and checked the use of burnt vs. burned (fascinating).

But… err… no actual writing yet. So I’d better go and sort that out…