No – nothing to do with another visit from Santa. I’ve had problems with Amazon running out of copies of my book, Deacon by Design. So I’m very relieved that VeriteCM, who published it, are now stocking it themselves and hopefully, that will be an end to the out-of-stock issue. Hurray! https://veritecm.com/product/deacon-by-design
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A Facebook friend of mine, Carol Kingston-Smith, has recently written and posted this truly beautiful, and very challenging reflection on the turn of the year. It has stayed in my mind, and I have her permission to share it.
The year of the deer: Those who mourn will be comfortedAs 2020 draws to a close and 2021 emerges I reflect on the year gone by and ponder what lies ahead. I stand in the stillness of the fractal seam between the two and allow myself the time to fully experience the feelings evoked by both without judgement.I am wracked.Primal emotion giving strange and discomfiting voice to my sense of failure, incompetence, vulnerability and powerlessness, finding endless echo chambers in the outer worlds of sufferings past, present and future-its not a place I can stand for long at a time!Later, I climb a hill in the snow reaching out for Divine Love to comfort me. As the light and beauty of the last day of 2020 ebbs away, dragging its light into the seam of a New Year, I make my way back down the rapidly darkening hillside; the snow glistening and sparkling.I am startled to find myself being watched; a herd of deer motionless, contemplative and silent meet me in the seam, and for a moment we coinhere, exchanging breath before the noisy agitation of other walkers shreds the moment and they leap noiselessly into the shadowy line of trees bordering the field.Divine Love has spoken through their gentle gaze:As the deer pants for streams of water,so my soul longs after You, O God.My soul thirsts for God, the living God.When shall I come and appear in God’s presence?My tears have been my foodboth day and night,Why are you downcast, O my soul?Why the unease within me?Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Himfor the salvation of His presence.Deep calls to deepin the roar of Your waterfalls;all Your breakers and waveshave rolled over me.The LORD decrees His loving devotion by day,and at night His song is with meas a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42 excerpts)Peace and comfort to you all for 2021.
“One day I accidentally learned about Tristan da Cunha, called the loneliest island in the world, and I immediately wanted to know more about it. I read its history and articles about how people arrived and lived there but still felt like I needed to know more from someone who actually was there. Since I will most likely not have enough time to go there myself anytime soon, I looked for a book and couldn’t have been happier as I stumbled upon Gill Kimber’s Between The Mountain And The Sea.Gill Kimber accomplishes three tasks at a time: to inform you about Tristanians’ way of living in the 1950s, to entertain you with short stories about her and her family as they were there and to reflect about life in general at the end of each chapter. Not only does she answer main questions such as how to get there or what they work on, but also tackles issues such as their vocabulary, their idea of social interaction and their spirituality. She conveys all these subjects with the help of short stories narrated from the point of view of herself as a child and using dialogues, which makes it very easy to read.I think she did a great job reproducing the views of a much younger version of herself. The way she laughed, the way she cried, the way she played, the way she tried to understand the world around her really reminded me of my own younger self. She looks at the world with a great deal of curiosity and innocence, just like children do, and I think that’s something difficult to remember and to write about once you become an adult. Through the book you can really imagine very well what it would have been like to be a child during that time on the island, which was exactly what I was looking for.I particularly liked the bits at the end of each chapter, in which she comments on the narrated events with her brother, who often has a different perception of the same stories. These dialogues are a reflection not only on the story itself and how it has influenced their own lives, but also a kind of moral in which the reader can also think about the world, society and nature back then and nowadays.To sum up, we’re talking about a book that manages to both inform and entertain the reader, leaving him/her with a good feeling at the end. I am really happy to have found it and I’m sure I’ll reread it in the future. About the delivery and the quality of the physical book: it was delivered promptly, as promised, and the book was in a very good condition. The font is quite large, which makes it easy to read, and the material is comfortable to hold.”
I have spent hours, over the past few weeks, struggling to understand the publishing process on Amazon Kindle, and learning from my rookie mistakes. I’ve at last managed to produce an updated version of my childhood memoir, ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea‘, which I am partially serialising on my writing group’s blog.
This is the paperback version: I’ve not (yet) touched the Kindle ebook version. It’s still not perfect, but I’ve learned a great deal, and there’s a big improvement. When I bring out my next book, I will know better what to do!
This edition is better-edited, has a new cover, and includes photos from my parents’ personal scrap books of that time. We went to Tristan da Cunha in 1956, and shortly afterwards the Duke of Edinburgh arrived for a day. My parents wrote extensively of his visit, so I have been able to use their letters and cables to recreate the story accurately.
Later, there is the story of the Lost Boats – only a community which depends on the sea and on fishing will know how it feels when some of the boats don’t come back. To this day, the islanders consider that a miracle occurred. Again, I have used my parents’ archive.
If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will enjoy it!
Well, I decided to finish ‘Perfect’: not because of the unpromising prose, but because I got interested in the story and wanted to know how it ended – no bad thing for a novel!
I decided next to re-read Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’. Wow, what a book. It packs such a punch. Apparently Greene decided that he would write ‘unemotional prose’: the result is a very powerful story and vivid characters. In a muddled and self-doubting way, the priest in the story finds himself led time and again not by his own personal inclinations, but by his irresistible commitment to priesthood which rules his decision- making and goes against his personal safety. A book to read and read again.
How to follow that, I asked myself, especially now the charity shops are closed? Hub has been stacking up on John Le Carres. I’ve read quite a few, but not this one: Absolute Friends. Another writer who ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’, in a deeply absorbing way. Another reason to chuck some of the current creative writing rule books out of the window.
Since finishing reading ‘The Good Companions’, I’ve poddled through another Georgette Heyer, which is always good recreation for the mind, and now I’ve started on ‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce.
Rachel’s previous book, ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize a few years ago. I read it at the time but retain very little of the story. However, when I came across her second book in the charity shop I decided to give it a go.
Perhaps it’s unfair to read it almost immediately after Priestley’s book. Where his prose is rich and full and paints vivid pictures, hers reminds me of an army. Her words seem to wear the same uniform, and march along the pages all at the same pace, as if they are socially-distanced.
And where Priestley evokes a whole society as it was just before the second world war, when Joyce uses details you get the strong impression that what she’s saying is ‘see, I’ve done my research, and I know what sort of cards schoolchildren in those days (the book is set in the 1970s) were swapping.’ It doesn’t evoke. It simply informs.
Because her prose strikes me as samey and superficial, I find I’m getting bored already. I’ll persevere for a while and see if I can prove myself wrong.
Writing gurus are constantly telling us to ‘show’, not ‘tell’. In other words, we are expected to write in such a way that we don’t simply describe things, but work out how to evoke the same information through the thoughts and words of one of the protagonists.
I can see why we’re told to do this, but I don’t agree with it fully. There’s a very strong case to be made out for ‘tell’, and we should be encouraged, if we’re learning how to write, also to learn how to ‘tell’ in a way that engages the reader’s attention and enjoyment.
After all, most of our English classic novelists ‘tell’, not ‘show’! I’m rereading JB Priestley’s immensely enjoyable picaresque novel The Good Companions, published in the 1920s. Here’s a fabulous piece of ‘tell not show’ – hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
“It’s getting quite warm in here,” Mr Mitcham observed, and began taking off his overcoat.
“Exit the Silver King,” murmured Susie. This was the name they had given Mr Mitcham’s overcoat, which was no ordinary garment. It had first made its appearance in Haxby …. and immediately it had seemed as if another person had joined the party. Mr Mitcham was now described as “travelling an overcoat,” just as some players are said to “travel” a mother or other relative. It was a gigantic plaid ulster and its collar was decorated with a few inches of fur from some mysterious and long extinct species. It had the air of having been round the world far more times than Mr Mitcham himself, and of having seen places that its owner would never be permitted to see. At any moment … you felt that this astounding overcoat might begin to supplement Mr Mitcham’s travel reminiscences or set him right in a loud voice. And Jimmy Nunn swore that he had to take out an extra railway ticket for it and that every time it was taken into a third-class carriage its fur stood on end. Such was the Silver King, which Mr Mitcham now folded and, after some difficulty, found a place for on the rack.
I love the humour of it! Doing ‘tell’ well depends entirely on where the author wants to stand in relation to the story. This example is so satisfying because the writer presents himself as a jovial, kindly observer who is telling us what he sees. This ‘psychic distancing’ is crucial, especially in ‘tell not show’.
Of course, not all of us have the awesome talent and command of his craft of Mr J B Priestley.
(image from Canongate)
Leave, leave your well-loved nest,
Late swallow, and fly away.
Here is no rest
For hollowing heart and wearying wing.
Your comrades all have flown
To seek their southern paradise
Across the great earth’s downward sloping side,
And you are alone.
Why should you cling
Still to the swiftly ageing narrowing day?
Shake your pinions long untried
That now must bear you there where you would be
Through all the heavens of ice;
Till falling down the homing air
You light and perch upon the radiant tree.
John Keats – 1795-1821
The beautiful images in this classic poem lift my spirits every autumn.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
I have just finished the 832 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton. I watched the dramatisation on TV and was thoroughly confused, and hoped that by reading it I’d fathom it better.
No, I couldn’t. If anything, the story in the book is even more confusing. And it doesn’t help that the dramatisation started in the middle of the book, and pulled out of the story aspects which are only hinted at in the narrative.
What I find fascinating is that Eleanor Catton has abandoned so many of the things which we writers are regularly told we ‘must’ do. This is particularly interesting in the light of the fact that this book won the Booker Prize in 2013. For instance, we’re usually told by teachers of creative writing that it’s much better to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, ie to seek to draw the reader into the story by exposing what the characters are thinking and feeling.
However, Catton does the opposite. She’s written her book in the style of a nineteenth century novel, which is – well – novel: the story is almost entirely ‘tell’, and not ‘show’. She stands back from her narrative and invites us to stand with her and observe what’s going on, rather than leading us to enter into it. It made me wonder why today’s would-be writers are taught how not to do this.
The other thing that really strikes me is that modern writers are normally encouraged to make everything clearer than clear. The other day I read out to my writing group the prologue from my Tristan memoir, and I was told that I should make it obvious from the start that ‘Mike’ is my brother and not ‘a servant’, although I consider I made it clear a few paragraphs further on.
Catton does the opposite. She explains nothing. Throughout the book are drawings of astrological tables, yet there is no explanation of this at all. I have no idea what they mean, or why they are there. I think there is one paragraph in the whole book which mentions the way that the stars and planets are understood to have influence. By contrast, the TV dramatisation made quite a big thing of it. In addition, she has two of her characters speak in Chinese and Maori, but no translation is offered, which I found annoying, as it was wasted on the reader when it might well be offering something valuable.
There’s also a complex cast of characters, and I never really got on top of them all, nor their attitudes and motivations, despite the detailed and deep observations that Catton gives us. And she never explains why the book is called ‘The Luminaries’ – I had to look it up.
What the film did make clear, which the book only hints at, is that Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines were born at the same time on the same day, and were therefore psychically connected, so that what happens to one is manifested in the body and mind of the other, even when they are not together and don’t know where each other is. I think this could have been made a much more fruitful development of the story.
Altogether intriguing! Now I’m off to look for a book which doesn’t make so many demands on me …
(image from Online Accessibility Toolkit) (image of phases of moon from New Zealand Film Commission)
Some time ago I had a couple of fantasy stories published in a book of science fiction called Cyber Pathways, published by AudioArcadia, which you can buy for a mere £1.99 as an ebook on Lulu, or as a paperback at various prices on Amazon.
It was fun doing this! – a new genre for me, and not one I ordinarily read. If you’ve been busy, make yourself a cuppa, find a comfy chair and read this extract in case it should tempt you to read more!
THE SEA CHILDREN
The children of the sea are restless. They climb up the walls of the nursery with their strange, prehensile feet and hands, and they push at the transparent ceiling where the sky sometimes filters through in winding columns of blue light. They converse in chirrups, shushing to each other sibilantly, their pale bodies chubby and dimpled like putti.
Presently the white nursery door opens and closes again soundlessly. The children hover from the roof, looking down at her, their prodding of the ceiling forgotten. It is their nursemaid. She pours into the room in a long, fluid train and stabs each one with her aquamarine eyes. She hisses. They slide down the walls and scamper to their white cots, lying down immediately, their eyelids drifting shut. She glances sharply from one to the other until they are motionless, as if tacked to their golden blankets by the needles of her stare. She catches up her long white tresses and sweeps them around the room, each tendril hovering momentarily over their cots.
There is no sound. The ceiling ripples, and is still. The children are silent. Satisfied, she leaves. The nursery door opens for her without a push and swings back in one gliding motion.
High above them and unaware of their presence, the human children play on the beach wearing swimsuits of pink and yellow and turquoise. They build sandcastles with moats, paddling into the shallows and filling their purple and green buckets with sea water. They bury each other in the red sand, squealing with delight and sitting on their siblings. They get out bats and knock the balls to each other or into the sea. Parents, half-clad, sun-blistered scarlet, throw orange Frisbees and shout. Sandwiches are produced and half-eaten, while gulls dive-bomb the picnickers with aeronautical precision and snatch the food from sandy hands. Little ones bawl, frightened. Tiny ones sleep in prams under navy parasols. Adults stretch out on beach towels patterned with tropical scenes. Old ones settle into red striped deckchairs, dozing in the shade.
Julie undoes her long brown hair from its band, smooths it out , twists it and replaces the band quickly. She fishes around in her beach bag and finds her sunglasses, but when she puts them on she discovers they are smeared. She takes them off, licks her finger and rubs it over the lenses, then polishes them with a corner of her leopard-print kaftan. She puts them on again and looks at the little girl kneeling nearby, upending her bucket on the sand. Her mother’s eyes caress every part of her, from the blonde hair tied into a top-knot like her own, to the little feet that bustle to and fro. She fills her yellow bucket methodically with sea water and returns to her chosen spot to add another sand pie to the ring she is creating.
I’ve discovered something rather weird.
For a long time I thought I had lost the ability to imagine a story. I used to be able to do it at the drop of a hat, up to and including my thirties: but once I was ordained and started in ministry, all my creativity went into the job. I had no stories starting unbidden in my head, and that has been the situation for decades.
Then a few years ago, after we had retired, I took two online courses on writing memoir with Exeter university. Out of this, the rusty muscle in my imagination started to work again – painfully slowly, and needing lots of encouragement, but it produced two fantasy sea stories which were published by AudioArcadia in a book called Cyber Pathways.
The diocese then dumped in my retired lap a very time-consuming job which also siphons off a great deal of imagination. Whereas a long time ago I could start off half a dozen stories inside my head, once again I could discover nothing.
The opportunities created by lockdown brought about a rush of activity: I published three books, learning a great many new skills in the process. They were memoirs: imagination is needed, but the story does not depend on it.
Then recently I found I had an idea for a novel. Don’t hold me to this – I’m not promising anything, least of all to myself, especially as I found my imagination stalling once more at an apparently closed door. The lifting of lockdown has meant that once-quiet walks are now crowded with summer holidaymakers, and instead of a peaceful environment, my mind was busy dodging people on narrow paths, and adjusting my mask.
Except. In order to get away from the holidaymakers, and also to stay out of the sun as I have had surgery for melanoma, Hub and I decided we would go for green, leafy, shady walks to some Iron Age forts. As I climbed the narrow paths, listened to the birdsong and looked up at what Keats called the ‘green-robed senators’ of the woods, something odd began to happen. The door of my imagination creaked open. By the time we had reached the top of the hill, I’d seen my heroine, and what she had thought, and what had happened to her.
I think I should have a writer’s shed in the middle of a forest. In order to bypass the writer’s blocks I’ve collected over the years, it’s clearly the place I need to be.
It’s all quite exciting!
Today I had a zoom coaching session with author Wendy H Jones, on the subject of publishing through Amazon.
It’s been really useful. She was able to confirm things I was beginning to suspect through my limited experience. For example, do not use Amazon templates for a book cover. They are invariably awful! This is something I’ve found, and so I must bite the bullet and get covers done professionally.
Then all the other things: the ugly fonts, the wrong margin sizes, the inconsistent spacing between paragraphs, etc. Wendy discovered that I had simply turned my ebook into a paperback, as Amazon invites you to do. This is something else I should never ever do, apparently. Any manuscript must be immaculate and in pdf before it is uploaded to the kindle site. We had a good discussion about how to do this, without my paying through the nose.
Altogether, she was a very helpful, practical, down to earth and highly experienced coach. When I’ve followed up on all I learned this morning, I shall be going to her again with my next batch of questions.
My memoir about my childhood on Tristan da Cunha, the world’s loneliest inhabited island, is leading to all sorts of unexpected contacts. I’ve just been sent some DVDs with ancient films on them. One is of the island, just a couple of years before we arrived in the 1950s; and another, an eyewitness record of the volcano as it erupted, completely unexpectedly, at one side of the plateau where everyone lived.
(image from Devastating Disasters)
The film, plainly taken on an expat’s cine camera, is jerky, but it captures the utter devastation of the islanders as they pack up a few belongings and are evacuated onto a ship. I recognise all those faces, and feel very moved.
They spent a couple of years in England, but on the whole they hated it, and most returned to the island as soon as it was deemed safe to do so. As Basil says at the beginning of one film, living on Tristan is like a bird living wild in its native habitat. Living in England was like cageing the bird. As soon as that bird gets the chance, he says, it will fly back to its nest where it can be free again.
I was interested to read a post by a fellow writer on the way her neck, head and shoulders ache when she’s writing. Recently she had a week away, and all these aches and pains disappeared. It’s well-known that looking down at our screens so often is bad for our posture and our muscles.
Image from Jacky Dahlhaus
It got me thinking about the precautions I take. As I’m prone to regular bouts of fibromyalgia which always settles in my head, neck and shoulders, I realised some time ago that I was going to have to take ‘desk health’ more seriously.
Consequently, I bought a proper office chair, with a high back and good support for my head and neck. I also have a small, but proper desk so that I’m not trying to write on my lap, which exacerbates the problem with aches. It’s not a grand job with tooled leather … there isn’t room in the tiny bedroom which doubles as my den. It’s shiny and red from IKEA with removable legs, which is very handy when the grandchildren arrive and need the room to sleep in! Our small spaces have to work hard.
Then, more recently and on advice from my IT guru brother, I invested in a 48cm monitor which sets itself automatically to relieve eye strain. This means that I’m looking straight ahead at my monitor, instead of down at my laptop screen, and makes a huge difference.
I also used to get aching in my wrist. This disappeared when I bought a mouse mat with a wrist rest (say that quickly three times!)
And of course the other thing, which is common sense but which I don’t do enough, is to take regular breaks from your work and do some physical work, or some exercise, to give your body a break.
Hope it’s helpful!
I’ve just finished this book, about a slave boy who is semi-adopted by an abolitionist white man, who helps him escape and takes him to the Arctic. And dumps him there. Washington has to negotiate his own life from then on, learn independence, survive, always in fear of his life, build friendships and relationships, and wrestle with feelings of loss, abandonment, and identity. It’s an interesting read.
I realise more and more that I need to like at least one of the characters in order to like a book. I liked several of them in this book, luckily! What I liked most, though, is Edugyan’s lovely, flowing prose and her vivid, crackling use of image. This section stays in my mind: Wash is deep-sea diving, to collect live specimens for the Ocean House exhibition that he and the Goff family are setting up.
The octopus arranged itself in a smatter of algae, its body hanging blackly before me. When I came forward to touch it, it sent out a surge of dark ink. We paused, watching each other, the grey rag of ink hanging between us. Then it shot off through the water, stopping short to radiate like a cloth set afire, its arms unfurling and vibrating. There was something playful in the pause, as if it expected me to ink it back. I held my hands out towards it, gently; the creature hovered in the dark waters, almost totally still. Then, shyly, it began to pulse towards me, stopping just inches away, its small, gelatinous eyes taking me in. Then it swam directly into my hands.
What an enchanting piece of writing.
I was enchanted to get some royalties from Amazon! How exciting. It’s not enough to buy me a villa in Italy … but I could buy an extra bar of chocolate.
Today I received a remittance for the sale of Deacon by Design books too! Life is looking up.
image from Knowles Warwick
Well, I went and amended the manuscript for ‘Redemptive Healing‘, and worked my way through the process of filling in all the questions that Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) asks you when you’re about to publish a book with them. This time I pressed ‘Publish’ with a sense of relief.
Only to have an email from them 24 hours later, telling me that I had two ISBNs and I had to delete one and use the other.
So I went back to the manuscript and obediently changed the ISBN. But every time I uploaded it, it failed to register.
So I got in touch with them. I must say, they are very good, I always get a response within about 24 hours. They explained that I had to choose one of them. So I did. And uploaded again.
24 hours, the same generic email as before. Again I got in touch, and this time had a rather complicated explanation. However, I was also told exactly how to do it this time. I went, I changed, I conquered.
And three cheers! Grandpa’s book ‘Redemptive Healing’ is now available for purchase. Especially interesting for those who want to know more about Christian healing, and for church people involved in the ministry of healing.
I’m learning new skills all the time, and currently I’m discovering how to publish a book through Amazon.
I’ve already brought out my childhood memoir, ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea: memories of a childhood on the world’s loneliest inhabited island’ on this platform, both as an ebook and as a paperback. I’m not entirely satisfied with it, and decided to do better next time. Thus armed with my mistakes, I turned my attention to the little booklet my grandfather had published in 1953.
I’d already uploaded this, and opted for a proof copy. When it arrived I went through it with a fine toothcomb. The problems were mainly of layout rather than the text, which was pretty well accurate, apart from the odd comma.
So I went back to the Kindle platform to see if I could rectify these. I found that I could edit quite easily, although what you see on the kindle platform is what it would look like on an ereader, not in a paperback. But it’s a useful tool for uploading your text and licking it into shape, using all the templates provided.
Having made the changes, I went to ‘upload as paperback’ on the Amazon author site. Although there were about three drafts there, I have no idea where they have come from as I have only uploaded it once previously, and I didn’t trust them, so I started the upload process all over again. This involves deciding whether you will let Amazon give you a free ISBN (which you can’t use if you want to publish it elsewhere) or paying £80 for the privilege of having your own. As I’d settled on going with Amazon, I might as well commit, so I went for their free one.
You can then choose the size of your book, the colour and style of the pages, where you want to put the page numbers etc.
Then you are urged to select a cover. Again, these are templates: there are about 9 options, where you decide what font you want, how you want the layout to be, and what colours you prefer. I liked the pink and black until Hub turned up his nose at it and informed me loftily that, if he came across a book in those colours he wouldn’t want to read it. Sigh. And this from a man who enjoys Georgette Heyer. I ask you.
You can now go straight to ‘save and publish’ if you wish. The temptation to just go ahead and do that was great, but I have opted for another proof copy, so that I can be sure. So, more waiting. *impatient tap of toe*
As I was wending my way through the labyrinth of details, I discovered that there was a different way of uploading a manuscript other than through Kindle. I might try that next time, for my fictional African short stories…
I follow writer Emma Darwin’s wonderful blog, This Itch of Writing, full of encouragement and the most practical of practical help.
Most of us who aspire to write know too well that imp living in our heads, our Inner Critic, and how it conspires with other imps to shut down our efforts as not being ‘worthy’. Emma picks it up, turns it over, dissects it, puts it back together again, and returns it to us as Helpful Imp instead. Have a read!
I know so many aspiring writers who would say that their problem is not getting going: good ideas come along often, and for a while they find it easy and exciting to devote lots of their available time to the project. But “for a while” is the problem: their past is littered with brave beginnings that petered out, half-filled notebooks, unfinished drafts, and finished first drafts that they never revised “for their reader”. So I thought I’d pause the Write Your First Novel course, for a moment – I promise I’ll get back to it – and have a quick think about this.
The “Divine Spark” – or not
The first problem is the way our culture conceives of creative practice, from interviews and events to the self-help, feel-good rhetoric and movies sloshing around in public space. It’s so often a version of the “divine spark” stuff: the Romantics’ idea that you are visited by passion which demands to be fulfilled. To be fair, that is almost certainly what drove you to start writing, but the consequence is that when the passion fades, we assume it’s a message that this is the wrong project, or we are the wrong writer for it.
So it may simply be that you need to internalise what all professional authors know: that some days writing is boring, some days it’s difficult, some days it’s baffling, some days you do it incredibly badly and slowly and stupidly, some days you cut far more than you add, some days you are seized with terror or fury at your own inadequacy to the task – and almost all days you’d be earning more working in a supermarket. When Hilary Mantel was asked if with all her success and experience and prizes, she felt more confident starting a new project, she said no: that with every book you are right back at the foot of the mountain with absolutely no confidence that you will be able to climb it. That is just business as usual, so things being difficult is not a sign that you should give up.
If the reason you tend to abandon projects is that another, more promising one comes along then, like much adultery, it’s very likely that it’s chiefly about the problems back home with your original relationship. I blogged about the allure of The Other Novel a while back, so I won’t go on here.
The Thirty-Thousand Doldrums
This is a more practical form of running out of steam, which seems to be incredibly common in writers of all kinds. I think that many of us, starting on a project, have the story-fuel – the larder full of imagined, remembered and researched material – to last for 25-30,000 words of a story: the first third, say. After that you have to refuel, and I’ve blogged more about this, too.
The Inner Critic
But if the reason you give up is those voices whispering that this project’s no good, you’ll never do it, it’s a waste of your time, you’re stupid to persevere, it’ll never be published, then we’re on slightly different territory. These are Anne Lamott’s Chattering White Mice: the voices of what Jay Earley calls your Inner Critic. I like that link because it makes clear that these voices are trying to help you and keep you safe . They are just very out-of-date about what you need.
The thing is, writing makes you vulnerable. You may not have the least intention of baring your soul, but here you are, working hard, for a long time, at something difficult, with the intention of sending it out to discover if anyone likes it. You are risking exposure, disappointment, rejection, disapproval, scorn, and humiliation – and the more you’ve put into the project, the worse those will feel. So to keep you safe, the Inner Critic gets in first, by saying whatever comes to hand which will get you to give up. If “You’re bad at writing and you’ll never be any good” doesn’t work, it says all the other things it can think of that will get you to come back to safety.
Much out there on Inner Critics is quite shouty-fighty: shut them down, beat them, ignore them. It’s all very exhausting. The rather amazing Internal Family Systems paradigm, which Earley is working with, is far more gentle. It begins by acknowledging that the Inner Critic is trying to protect you from all these horrible things: its intentions are good, it wants to help. But what if, instead, it knew that you could look after yourself? What if you could show it that they can trust you to cope, to be OK in the end? Then they could stand down, and finally have a rest – and wouldn’t that be nice!
A potentially gifted writer and I were talking about all this, yesterday, because they’d just felt the energy of several weeks’ blast at a new project suddenly sucked out by those inner voices. And I had a revelation.
The Stakes are Getting Higher
We all know from plotting that our stake in a game is made up of two things: what we stand to gain if we win, and how we stand to suffer if we lose. When what you might gain gets bigger and richer then the potential suffering of losing gets bigger, and therefore scarier.
So if the Anti-Writing Demon’s job is to protect you from the dangers of writing, then when it smells danger it will start to murmur, and as the stakes rise, the murmurs get louder and more insistent. There’s “danger” here, they believe: this project is turning into a Good Thing, you are more and more committed to it, you will finish it, you will it send out, people with power over it and your writing life will read it – and who knows what agonies will follow?
As my friend the thriller-writer R N Morris says, “The longer you go on, the more you have invested in it, so the more you stand to lose. Walk away from it early on and you haven’t lost so much.” Your Inner Critic and the Anti-Writing Demon therefore team up and work hard to make sure you do walk away.
But what they don’t realise is that by this very token, they’re showing you that this is a project you shouldn’t walk away from: that it has legs, mileage, potential, excitement, value – if you only keep going.
Inside and Outside the Writer’s Bubble
In the same conversation children’s writer Sarah J Dodd said: “I have realised that my inner critic often prevents me finishing a first draft or going on to do a second. BUT if I wait long enough (3 years in the case of current WIP), I find it has gone away, replaced with Inner Cheerleader who also happens to be sensibly critical but also wildly enthusiastic.”
I think this is fascinating, because we usually think of drawer-time giving us distance to be less wildly enthusiastic, less “in the bubble”, and more able to stand outside the story and see objectively how it’s (not) working. Inside the bubble, to keep what Rose Tremain calls the “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the writer’s mind” working freely, we have to shut of the “knowing” part, the premature “editor”, the judging-too-soon part of our minds.
But Sarah’s experience suggests that Inner Critic voices – which sound so like our teachers, twitterers, workshop mates and industry gurus – are not real, objective voices carried into the bubble, but produced inside it by our own subjective selves. Maybe it’s our more “knowing”, “editing”, “judging” parts which would know the Inner Critic’s judgement for the untrue or unhelpful thing it is – except that being in the bubble requires us to shut out those useful, knowing parts.
So what does this all mean?
- The fact that your Inner Critic is chattering is not a sign that you and/or your writing are pointless.
- The core creative process may, by definition, make it difficult to police inner, critical voices, and discern whether what they’re saying is good sense, or simply a protective spasm designed to stop all movement.
- It’s tiring and unhelpful to keep having to overcome or shout down your Inner Critic, and it’s certainly unhelpful to scorn yourself (i.e. let your Inner Critic scorn you) for failing to cope with it. It’s actually doing its best to protect you, as with a protective muscle spasm. Acknowledging its efforts and good intentions, while reassuring it that it can trust you to cope if anything bad happens, may be enough to get it to calm down.
- The shoutier your Inner Critic becomes, the stronger the sign that this project is not only not pointless, it’s all beginning to get very pointful: that it has legs, that it’s substantial, it has potential, the work is worth it: that it’s better, not worse, than you’ve done before.
So maybe you’d better get on with it.
The first paragraph of any novel is always important. It often makes the difference between deciding whether it’s worth continuing to read, or whether the book can go back on the bookshelf. Unless you are like me: I read the back pages first.
I thought it would be fun to compare the opening paragraphs of the two books I mentioned in my post yesterday. Here’s Graham Greene:
Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them.
And here’s Le Carre:
On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles. It wasn’t a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn’t an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker’s grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.
Apart from stating the obvious, that the two writers are very different, there are all sorts of observations to be made. The first is that writing style has clearly changed over the years. Greene wrote his book in the 1970s and set it in 1920s Mexico: Le Carre published in 2004 and set his in the cold war.
When we read Greene, questions immediately arise. Who is Mr Tench? Why does he need an ether cylinder? Why is he going out to look for it? Why does he feel rebellious – although this is easy to answer for anyone who has ever been eyed by a vulture!
There is also the evocative description of outside, drawn with precise strokes like a painter: the blazing sun, the bleaching dust, the watching vultures. He’s described as not carrion – ‘yet‘, which gives us an instant insight, half-humorous, not only into how the vultures see him, but how he may see himself and his future, without much hope. Somehow the presence of the vultures makes him angry; he wants to make a gesture that he is not ready to die and so the vultures must not wait for him. He tears up the bit of road, adding to his discomfort by breaking his nails, and tosses it feebly, indicating that he’s not very committed to his gesture, and indeed, may not be someone with much physical strength.
The heat, the vultures, the weak reaction all paint a vivid picture of a place where life is demanding, does not hold much promise, and is stalked by death.
Le Carre also immediately creates questions in our minds: who is Ted Mundy? Why is his destiny returning to claim him? What has he done in the past? Will he know it’s his destiny? What form will it take? Why is he wearing a bowler hat and standing on a soap box? Why draw our attention to the non-Englishness of the hat?
It doesn’t have the gravitas of Greene, but nonetheless we want to keep reading in order to answer these questions. The Germanness of the hat is clearly important – why? It can’t be that Ted Mundy considers himself German: he wants to be seen as patriotic, hence the Union Jack. He is also clearly down on his luck, as the age of the label suggests.
It’s lively. It would be fun if we hadn’t been told that Ted’s destiny is on its way, and destiny does not always have a good import. The apparent randomness of the descriptive details is a clever way of holding our attention, and Le Carre’s style strikes me as more kaleidoscopic than Greene’s, throwing impressions at us until we begin to form a picture. It’s very able writing, and it’s clever. It draws us into the story, teasing us with titbits of information, creating a character who is clearly of some enterprise.
And again – tell rather than show. Greene draws us into his character much more quickly, more show than tell, in that we have an insight into Mr Tench’s mind. Le Carre’s psychic distance is further away: he is observing the scene, noting the little details, narrating them to us so that he can give us the impression he wants. More tell than show.
For would-be writers, these are guys to learn from. What’s our opening paragraph like?