Monday, 28 March 2016

Scenes from a novel

It would be nice to be able to say that the reason I haven’t written anything on this blog for the best part of a year was that I’ve been too busy writing a novel. Nice, but not strictly true. As I’ve doubtless written before, it’s more a case of life getting in the way – work mainly.

But more recently, I have been working on a novel (my fourth, in case anyone’s counting), one that I started way back in 2010, and that I’m determined to finish this year. Finish a first draft, I mean – let’s not go crazy.

The reason I’ve been able to pick up where I left off after a prolonged period when I did no work at all on the novel is the software I’m using to write it. It’s called StoryMill, and I can highly recommend it. (And no, I’m not receiving any enticement to endorse it.)

I wrote my first three novels using basic word-processing software (Word, mainly), but when I started this one, I did some research to see if a package designed for writers might suit my way of working. StoryMill fits well with my methodical mindset, with the capacity to create, sort and label characters, chapters and scenes.

It’s this last feature that I’ve found most useful. I’ve always thought of my plots in terms of a succession of key scenes, linked together with whatever is needed for the flow of the story – exposition, interior monologue, narrative links and so on. With StoryMill, I started by creating the scenes I knew I wanted to include, playing around with the order and then piecing them together to create chapters. Each scene includes a ‘Notes’ tab and a ‘Text’ tab, so it’s easy to leave reminders for yourself of what you intended the scene to consist of.

As of today, my menu includes 42 scenes, of which I’ve written 31 and assigned 26 to chapters. This feels as if speeds up my progress; there will be chapters where I can simply slot in pre-written scenes and add any necessary linking text.

The real beauty of this, for me, is that it mitigates against writer’s block. If I reach a point in the narrative where I’m not sure how to proceed, I simply skip ahead and write a scene from further on where I do have a clear idea of what I want to achieve. To kickstart my writing in the past couple of months, I’ve taken a sub-plot and followed it through to its conclusion; I’ll decide as I go along where the scenes that make up this sub-plot fit in the bigger narrative.

None of this would be impossible using ordinary word-processing software, of course, but it would be more cumbersome, requiring much annotation and cutting and pasting of text. StoryMill simplifies the process, and I find it very satisfying to use.

Friday, 19 June 2015

To rave all night and to surf all year

“All my friends said ‘I wish that I was you’
They don’t say that any more”

Years ago, I spent a Bank Holiday weekend in the West Country with my best friend and his wife. It was a year or so after their wedding, at which I’d developed a bit of a crush on one of the bridesmaids, and we spend an idyllic afternoon at the cottage where she was living a bohemian existence in a tiny village in Somerset.

Sitting there in the sunshine in her garden, surrounded by flowers and artsy knick-knacks, I had a brief glimpse of an alternative life. How would it be if I chucked in my dull job in London and came down here to live with her? She would paint and I would write, and we would drink in country pubs and go on long walks and be part of an artistic community…

All complete fantasy, of course, not least because she already had a boyfriend and didn’t give me a second glance. At the end of the weekend I returned to London and my workaday existence. But the memory of that afternoon has always stayed with me, and it’s what I think of now when I listen to my favourite song of the past year, ‘Crackington’ by Police Dog Hogan.

The song (which you can find on their 2014 album, Westward Ho!) takes a similar scenario to the one I fantasised about all those years ago and follows it through to its (logical?) conclusion. The narrator has given up his job, bought a van and a surfboard, and moved to the Cornish village of Crackington, but it’s safe to say it hasn’t worked out.

The opening line finds him sitting, hungover, on the cliffs, “smoking a spliff through red wine lips”, watching kids surfing far below, and the lyric goes on to paint an impressionistic picture of a life of boozing and failed relationships. What first attracted me to the song was a clever rhyme near the end; “Spent a night in my car with/a girl from Trebarwith/and never saw either again”, and the song has some fun with Cornish place names. (Though I confess that I had to use Google to find out why “Got slated in Delabole” is funny.)

But after a few listens, it was the melancholy that underpins the song that grabbed me, propelled onwards by the banjo-driven, folksy lilt of the tune. The killer line, almost hidden in the middle of the song, is: “Now I’m too old to go back again/I’m too old to stay here”.

The song suggests that maybe it’s best if fantasies of escape remain just that – fantasies. And if I ever find myself daydreaming about my alternative, bohemian life with Jane in Somerset, I will listen again to ‘Crackington’ and count my blessings.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Revived parrot sketch

For years, I never reread books. Partly it was a reaction of years of studying, when I had to slog my way through set texts several times in preparation for exams. There was also the persistent feeling that there were too many exciting new books to read, leaving no time for going back over old ground.

Finally, a few years ago, I grudgingly accepted that I was never going to get around to reading all the novels on the Booker prize (or whatever it’s called these days) shortlist, all the ‘recommended reads’, the complete works of every author I liked. That being the case, why not occasionally revisit novels that had made a great impression on me when I was younger and see what I made of them now?

I’m not one of those readers with a photographic memory for plots, characters and incidents. For the most part, what stays with me after reading a novel is a single overriding impression; of the book’s tone or atmosphere, of an aspect of the plot or its narrative style. And what I’ve generally found from my rereading to date is that these impressions are more akin to false memories.

Take The Great Gatsby. I studied Fitzgerald’s classic for my A levels, and I’ve seen two different film versions, so I ought to be fairly familiar with the text. But the thing that had stuck with me through the years was a sense of mystery: I ‘remembered’ that the story hinged on the question of who Gatsby was and where he’d come from.

On rereading it, I discovered that this question is answered, comprehensively and unambiguously, about two-thirds of the way through. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the power of the novel, but it changes the nature of that power.

Another example is Graham Swift’s Waterland, which I read during the summer before my final year at college, and instantly elevated into my all-time top 10. For those who don’t know it, it’s one of those stories that flashes back and forth between the present and the past – in this case, the Fens in the 1940s, when the narrator was growing up.

It was this aspect of the novel that remained in my memory long after I’d read it, so that I assumed it made up the bulk of the narrative. Not a bit of it: when I reread Waterland, I found myself ploughing through lengthy (and comparatively tedious) sections set in the present day, when the narrator is a history teacher in a London comprehensive school, and getting increasingly irritated because I wanted to get back to the Fens.

The latest novel I’ve revisited is Flaubert’s Parrot, which I was surprised to find I own a signed copy of. (I have a feeling Julian Barnes came to the literary society I occasionally attended at Cambridge, and it must have happened then.) I certainly admired the novel, which I remembered as a frothy, playful confection, a post-modern literary game of the type that was fashionable in the 1980s.

Well, I wasn’t completely wrong. Flaubert’s Parrot is certainly playful in places – I particularly like the chapter framed as a mock exam (“Marks will be deducted for facetious or conceitedly brief answers.”) But it’s also a weighty work of disguised literary criticism which poses serious questions about writers and writing, and about life and living. 

I’m still not sure that the central conceit works; that the novel’s ruminations on the life and works of Gustave Flaubert are the work of an amateur scholar who is trying to avoid dwelling on the suicide of his wife. There’s so little space devoted to this aspect of the ‘plot’ that it risks the reader forgetting about it altogether. But even here, there is poignancy, given that Barnes’ most recent book is a memoir describing his grief at the loss of his wife. (Another one for the reading list.) Of all the books I’ve reread in recent years, this is the one I’m certain I’ll come back to again in another 20 years or so.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Hearing difficulties

I’ve been listening to music for 40-odd years now. Ask anyone who knows me what my favourite activities are, and they’ll put ‘listening to music’ high on the list. But it’s only recently that I’ve realised that, despite all those years of practice, I’m actually rubbish at it.

Thinking back, the clues were there at school. In music lessons, the teacher would put a record on the turntable – something by Beethoven or Britten, say – and tell us to listen to it so that we could discuss it afterwards. You then had three choices. You could look around the classroom while the music was playing, but you risked being distracted by your classmates who were doing the same, some of them doubtless up to something they shouldn’t have been, like flicking bits of rolled-up paper at each other or trying to write in chalk on the blazer of the boy in front without them noticing. You could stare out of the window instead, but again, there’d be something going on which would catch your eye. Or you could just rest your head on your folded arms, close your eyes and absorb the music – and risk nodding off. I usually favoured the latter method, but it didn’t really work. Even if I didn’t fall asleep, my thoughts would soon turn away from the music onto something else entirely.

And it’s been the same ever since. Essentially, I am incapable of simply listening to music. I can sit in a chair, will myself to concentrate – and within a couple of minutes, my mind will be somewhere else entirely and the music will have passed me by.

So the answer is to do something else while listening, obviously. Except that if it’s anything that requires any mental activity, that automatically shuts down the part of my brain that’s in charge of listening. If I’m reading, surfing the web, doing a crossword, whatever, there’s no point even putting a CD on; it really will go in one ear and out the other.

The best solution I’ve found is to occupy myself with something that requires minimal brainpower. Mindless computer games (the kind that involve clicking on brightly coloured shapes) are good. So is ironing, though it’s not something I do a lot of. Driving isn’t bad (which is a bit worrying, when you think about it), though for some reason I prefer to listen to people talking when I’m in the car these days.

Part of the problem, I think, is the way my brain is wired. It favours activities that involve the eyes, particularly reading. Even when I’m just listening to someone talking, I sometimes catch myself looking round the room for visual stimulation, rather than focusing 100% on what they’re saying.

So it seems that I’m simply not a good listener, in any sense of the term. Whether that’s genetic, or something that developed while I was growing up, I can’t say. It is a bit of a paradox for someone who loves music, though, isn’t it?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Always the traffic, always the lights

“I opened a notebook, it read ‘The Darlinghurst Years’
I snapped it shut, but out jumped some tears”

So begins the song that I’ve been mildly obsessed with recently, ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, from the Go-Betweens’ final album, Oceans Apart, released in 2005. It’s one of those songs that only reveals its mysteries gradually, over repeated listens.

As the opening lines suggest, Robert Forster’s lyric is an (autobiographical?) exercise in nostalgia, looking back to his student days, or maybe just afterwards, living in a shared house where “people came and went”. But rather than a straight narrative, the song is a series of disjointed memories, deeply personal. He remembers “gut rot cappucino, gut rot spaghetti”, and the exaggerated way he pronounces the last syllable, to rhyme with ‘say’, suggests a private joke.

There’s more obvious humour, too, in the way he takes the mickey out of his ambitious, and quite possibly pretentious, former self. “I’m going to change my appearance every day/ I’m going to write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play,” he sings. I remember people like that at college.

As for the music, it starts with a strummed acoustic guitar, then builds slowly after the first verse to incorporate electric guitar and drums as the rhythm gradually becomes more insistent. But what I really love about it is the brass section that you start to notice in the background from about two minutes in, and that slowly becomes more prominent until it dominates the last couple of minutes, like a mutant New Orleans jazz band freeforming over Forster as he repeats the song’s refrain, “Always the traffic, always the lights” until the fade.

Why a horn section? A less imaginative band would have used strings, both because they’re the classic signifier of nostalgia, and because the lyric repeats the line “Joe played the cello through those Darlinghurst nights”. But the horns contribute perfectly to the weird, skewed atmosphere of the song, adding an extra layer of mystery.

Like I say, I love the fact that Forster makes you work to get into the song, and leaves so much unresolved. Above all, I still can’t decide if the tears that jump out are tears of joy or sadness. I think I’ll just go back and listen one more time...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

All change!

When I started this blog in 2009, it was essentially a marketing exercise. The conventional wisdom was that self-published authors like me needed to find ways to connect with potential readers, and the internet was the perfect vehicle for this.

So I started a blog in which I would write about my novel, First Time I Met The Blues, and matters relating to it; places and people who had inspired it, the blues music which forms the basis of my characters’ journey, the process of self-publishing, other writing projects and so on.

Four years on, that flame has pretty much burnt itself out. My full-time job has taken precedence over my part-time writing to such an extent that I’ve had less and less to write about, and less time in which to write about it. From a peak of 26 posts in 2010 (that’s one a fortnight, on average), my output dwindled to 12 posts in 2011 and just 6 in 2012. This is only my second post of 2013.

But I still want to keep the blog going, and I’m finally finding the time to make progress with my fourth novel, so I’ve decided to tweak my editorial policy. From now, I’ll be writing about music in general, and books in general, as well as my own writing and anything else that takes my fancy. It’s not a complete change of direction – I’m not going to start blogging about politics, or ranting about the public transport system – more of a broadening out of the original themes. At the same time, I may play around with the look and feel of the blog, to reflect the change of emphasis. Stay tuned…

Saturday, 5 October 2013

An Olympian effort

I’m not sure what the ethics are of reviewing a book that you’ve contributed to, but what the hell – I’m going to anyway. Besides, my contribution to From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea amounts to two pages out of 200, so I reckon I can still be reasonably objective.

FTSOOTTBOTL (as no one is calling it) is the first book from the team behind the late lamented Smoke: A London Peculiar, a lovingly produced magazine that was effectively a fanzine for London. It stopped publishing a couple of years ago, but lives on as a website, and this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of books.

The subject, in case you hadn’t guessed, is last year’s Olympics, as seen through the Smoke prism; that is, tangentially, quirkily, occasionally movingly, but usually with a certain wry humour. Contributions include short stories, autobiographical snippets, reportage, poetry, cartoons, photography and unclassifiable snippets of silliness. (Special plaudits for the footnotes, by the way, which are simultaneously useful and splendidly daft.) None lasts more than a few pages.

This isn’t a book about the Games, as such: it’s a compendium of Londoners’ reactions to hosting the event, starting with the award of the Olympics in 2005 and ending in late 2012. The Games themselves don’t feature a great deal, so if you want to read about running and swimming and stuff, this isn’t the book for you.

Certain themes recur. The early section of the book is heavy with a bittersweet nostalgia for the area of East London that had to be razed in order to create the Olympic Park, however rough and down-at-heel it may have been. Co-editor Matt Haynes lives in Greenwich, so there’s a lot of material (possibly a tad too much) about the disruption caused by staging the equestrian events in this genteel village, and the outrage felt by the locals at the prospect of horses churning up the grass in their park. Later, there are various musings on the cultural collisions between Londoners and the influx of foreign athletes and spectators. If there is an overall theme, it is that of habitually cynical Londoners learning to relax and enjoy the spectacle.

Matt and his fellow editor, Jude Rogers, wrote a sizable proportion of the pieces, which does occasionally make it feel like a vanity project. Then again, they were probably short of suitable contributions – which might explain why they included mine, an autobiographical sketch with only the most tangential connection to the Olympics. No matter; I’m glad they did, and honoured to be part of such an unusual, and enjoyable, anthology.

To find out how to get hold of a copy, click here. You won’t regret it.