November Happened

November seemed like it disappeared in a flash. One minute I was sat in the Waterstones café setting down the first tentative words of my Nanowrimo project, the next I was plugging the numbers in to the website to get my little winners medal. 50,000 words in 30 days is the goal. I managed it in 27.

I went in knowing I was going to give it my best shot, but I had some reservations. I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to give it the time it needed. Coincidentally I had the first week of the month off from work, which gave me a good boost at the beginning, but for the rest of the month my schedule away from writing was far more hectic than usual. Work has been intense and demanding a huge amount of my time and energy, both physical and emotional. I was certain at some point it would all catch up with me and something would give. But it didn’t. I found time to write every day but one, and wrote more on average than was required to finish on time. The intensity of it was actually very useful. It gave me an outlet that I needed. A thing that wasn’t work to focus on.

I wrote in cafés, I wrote at home, I wrote at work during my lunch break, I wrote in the kitchen while I was cooking. I wrote fast and I didn’t look back. Now, looking at my scruffy first draft, I can hardly remember where all these words came from.

This was my first successful attempt at Nanowrimo, and was the first time I have ever gone into it with a decent plan for what I was doing. I had a near complete outline, themes, characters and some specific scenes in mind for key points in the story. Really by the time November started I was straining at the leash to get going and so the first 10,000 words spilled out so easily that I was starting to wonder why the whole endeavour had seemed difficult at all. By 30,000 words, I had remembered. There came a point where I had written everything I had planned to write and was struggling to keep the momentum up. Around the middle of the month I started to falter.

But things kept happening. I would stare at the screen for twenty minutes, and then a character would take the lead – say something I wasn’t expecting, do something I wasn’t expecting – and I’d be off again. By the time I set down my 50,000th word I had a complete arc of the story I had intended to write, but with some huge gaps here and there and a bunch of inconsistencies to resolve. I am taking a little break from it for a while. I’m going to get Christmas out of the way, I’m going to wait for the intensity of my work life to lessen a little, and then I’m getting back in there. I’m excited about this novel. I think it’s got something.

When Nanowrimo was over, once I had written my final word, it was actually hard to think what I used to do with my time before I filled every minute of it with writing. For a few days I just seemed to walk around the house, blinking in the light, trying to figure out what to do next. I’m glad I did it though. It was intense but valuable. I went from having an idea I was excited about and a few pages of notes to a (very rough) first draft in an amazingly short space of time. And the knowledge that I was sharing the experience with other writers all over the world was surprisingly motivating. I didn’t make it to any of my local groups write-ins and meet ups, thanks to my busy schedule, which was a shame. I would have liked to. But maybe next year, since I am sure I will want to do this again.

I am pathetic, I know

Outside, in the early evening darkness, the children sound manic. There is a chaos in the way they laugh and storm up and down the street. It is only seven thirty, and they are only young, still in single digits probably, but the whole arrangement is so threatening.

It would have been easy to buy some sweets of something. That’s really all that is required of an adult on Halloween. You just buy a big bag of sweets, go about your day the way you normally would, and when they knock on the door you just give them the sweets. They knock on the door and say trick or treat in a slightly sheepish way, the grown-ups standing at the end of your front garden offer you a sort of apologetic, empathetic shrug, you hold up the bag and they grip as many as their tiny hands can manage. Then it is over. They leave and you go back to your normal weekday evening.

So why am I sitting in the dark? Why is the living room door closed when it is almost never closed? Why do I creep into the kitchen and open the fridge a crack in order to get a drink? Why did I just take a shit in the dark? Because it is imperative, absolutely critical, that the house appears unoccupied. I am not home, and so no one knocks on the door. Perfect. Except I doubt I am fooling anyone. The adults know I am home. The car is on the drive, the dull light from the computer seeps under the crack in the door and gives the house a feint electric glow. It is different from real emptiness. They know what I am doing. So they tell the kids ‘not this one, no one is home’. Except the kids know I am home. Some instinctive thing. They don’t know how they know, they just do. And they can’t believe their parents are falling for my ruse, but they have no authority to argue back. I know what I am doing. They know what I am doing. But this is the arrangement. This is how we do it.

Opening the door is not an option. I have nothing to give them. It’s not that I fear the trick. I don’t think anyone comes equipped with a trick any more. I fear having to explain why I am unable to keep up my end of the social contract that Halloween insists upon. I am supposed to provide sweets, but the best I could offer is a bottle of mineral water or an avocado. When a ten year old says trick or treat you can’t offer them a coffee, no matter how good the coffee might be. It just isn’t allowed. Why didn’t I buy a big bag of sweets? Because even if I had them I still would have hid in the darkness, same as every year, and the big of sweets would have sat uneaten. There is no way I would eat them. And I can’t take them to work, even though people bring treats to work all the time. I can’t do that because this would clearly be a bag of Halloween treats. Either I didn’t get anyone knocking on the door or I spent the night hiding with my lights out, and I don’t want people thinking either of those things.

I am pathetic, I know. But tomorrow nanowrimo begins and I can disappear into thirty days of intensive writing. I’ll be doing my best to ignore the world and get some serious writing done. That’s how this blog post started; just a bit of free-writing to get some momentum up. I have been preparing my nano novel for a while now and I am looking forward to getting started, but I have been disciplined and not written any prose for it at all. I have an outline and notes, and I have done a number of free-writing exercises to get warmed up. It is going to be hard to fit writing 50,000 words into an average month, and so having a bit of momentum seemed a good idea.

That’s my nano tip. Build some momentum in order to start writing at a jogging pace.

So I Unpublished All My Books On Amazon

I’m a little embarrassed about how neglected my blog has been. Months and I haven’t found time to write a single word on here. I feel vaguely justified given how much harder my work life has been than normal, but still, I thought I was better than this. Turns out, I’m not. Turns out I am exactly this.

Even though I haven’t been writing on the blog at all I have been doing plenty of reading and more writing than usual. So, about four-ish years ago I got very excited about the idea of independent publishing (I wrote a bit about it on here) and published four books on Amazon. Two novels, two collections of five short stories each. I put a ton of effort into it, not just trying to get the books as good as I possibly could, but also on presentation, cover design and all of that other stuff that goes with it. There was a bit of a learning curve. The first cover for my first book was terrible, the second version was a lot better. The way I put the ebooks together was initially very clumsy and became more refined as I went on. I made paperback versions through createspace, which I think turned out very nice. But overall, the whole experiment was a bit of a failure. Sales were very low, free giveaway were respectable (mostly) but didn’t manifest into many reviews. So a few months ago I pulled the plug and unpublished all four books.

The idea was not to give up, but to try a different approach.  I loved the idea of indie publishing. I was inspired by indie video games and the way that people who made them used the platforms available to them to create new, esoteric forms of games that wouldn’t have been possible without independence. But indie publishing wasn’t working for me the way it was working for some writers, and I had to be realistic about it. What I realised, a little slowly perhaps, is that there was a place for the kind of books I was trying to write, and it was traditional publishing. All the books I love come from there. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it sooner.

(It’s not that indie publishing is bad by the way, I definitely don’t think that. My books just didn’t fit in there. That’s all.)

So once I had pulled my books down I thought I’d better get on with doing some new writing and actually start sending stuff out again. It had been ages and I had to remind myself how it was done. I even bought the latest copy of writers and artists yearbook. Then I wrote a new short story, the first I had done in a while, and entered it into the Bridport prize. I never expected to have any success with it so I kinda just forgot about it, but I ended up being shortlisted. This is by far the best writing success I have had and it has energised me. I am just getting ready for this years Nanowrimo by actually planning and getting myself all set up for it. I have never succeeded at nanowrimo, though I have only tried twice, but I am feeling excited to get started. I even bought a Bluetooth keyboard for my ipad so that I can write in coffee shops and libraries. I’m writing this blogpost on it now. If you have noticed typos, that may be because this keyboard is going to take a little getting used to.

I kinda miss having my books for sale on Amazon, even if no one ever actually bought them. It felt like I had done something. But taking them down has turned out OK so far. This is the most inspired I have felt for a very long time.

We Are All Politicians Now

On Facebook recently I saw someone post ‘Is it safe to come out yet, or is everyone still a politician?’ There has undoubtedly been an explosion of political discourse recently in the wake of some major political events. The UK’s In/Out referendum stirred up a lot of heated debate about some very emotive issues like immigration, NHS funding and sovereignty. So yeah, for a while Facebook did seem like it had become swamped with politicians. But you know what? In a democratic society we are all politicians. We should be engaged with these things, and we should be vocal about it because the issues at hand are big and hard to understand and we won’t get anywhere by politely keeping quiet about it all.

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This week I read a book called Five Ideas To Fight For by Anthony Lester. The five ideas are Human Rights, Equality, Free Speech, Rule of Law and Privacy. Lester, a human rights lawyer and liberal democrat peer, goes over each of the five, giving a short historical account of the UK’s relationship with them and exploring the difficulties we seem to be having in maintaining them. Things that seem fundamental might be on shakier ground than we might think.

It’s not always easy to tell when change is for the better. Was the conservative policy of scrapping the European Courts Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights an improvement or a dangerous slide away from the protection of those rights? Where do you draw the line between free speech and hate speech? Is government authorised invasion of privacy justified by security risks? It takes a lot of information to actually arrive at a well-formed opinion on these sorts of questions, and unfortunately well-formed opinions are not always easy to come by.

Five Ideas To Fight For wants to refocus our political discourse. We talk about border control but we should be talking about human rights. We talk about benefits but we should be talking about equality. Don’t lose the heart of the issue by surrendering to the details. Don’t act rashly and then realise the value of the things we just threw away. Especially when a lot of those things were so hard-won in the first place.

Even though Lester’s alignment with the Liberal Democrats is evident throughout one things shines clear through the book; the core ideals that form the bedrock of a civilised, free-thinking society are not the property of any of the political parties. They are the standards by which the actions of politicians should be judged, (and in a democratic society we are all politicians). The question of where we draw the lines is important because those lines are where our principles and our values lie. Fighting to keep them when it would be easier to let them go is what integrity is all about.

This book is absolutely worth reading.

You can buy it at Waterstones

Or at Amazon

Also, one of the nicest things to come out of what is often quite a bleak book is the small insight it offers into the House of Lords. Mostly the Lords are characterised as a bunch of unelected old men who sleep through the afternoon and get in the way of parliament. Anthony Lester offers a glimpse into a place where getting in the way of parliament is often a good thing, and being unelected actually has some valuable qualities to it.

Mr B’s Reading Year

If you love books (and I know that you do) then probably the best birthday present you could receive would be some sort of monthly book subscription where a bookseller takes note of all the things you like the best, and all the things you would like to try, and all the things you aren’t interested in, and then sends you a hand-selected book in the post every month. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

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These are the first six books that I got from my Mr B’s Reading Year. Every month they turn up wrapped in brown paper with the Mr B’s wax seal and it has become a highlight of the month. My personal bibliotherapist selects books that he thinks I will like from the answers I gave in my introductory questionnaire and so far they have been fantastic. The best thing about the books he has selected for me is that I had never heard of any of them before they turned up. I wonder if I even would have picked them up from a shelf in a bookshop or if my hand would have just drifted over the top of them. How many times has my hand drifted over them? This is a great way to find some excellent new books, and gives you something completely different from browsing bookshops, or even recommendations from friends. I know book recommendations can be clumsily given, because of the number of clumsy recommendations I have given. I usually just recommend whichever book I happen to be most excited about when asked, which is why I would make a terrible bookseller.

All six have been great, but The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury really stood out for me. Some of the driest, most subtle humour I have ever read, compounded by some truly heartbreaking stuff toward the end. I won’t spoil it, just check it out. I’d recommend it to anyone (even people who probably won’t enjoy it.) I read most of it one day over the Christmas break when I couldn’t sleep and got up at five am. I sat there reading it all through the morning and well into the afternoon.

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I made a new shelf on my Goodreads to keep the books together, and they all sit side by side on my actual bookshelf too. I like this disparate collection of books that have only come together because someone thinks I would like them. Naturally, you can see the thread that runs through them. The literary/realistic/experimental quality that obviously came through in the things I wrote in the questionnaire. And you know what, the questionnaire was one of the most fun parts. You can gush about books you love as much as you want, and no one is going to ask you to shut up and leave them alone.

If you like the sound of it, check out the shop, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights.