Sleeping with the Goddess I created

I went to Iceland in October and I came back a changed writer.  Before I write about the single most magical place on the planet I’ve visited and what happened, we need some backstory.

Colours that you can’t believe until you see them

I’m not a particularly well travelled person. I’m also not someone with an enormous wunderlust who is always destination dreaming. I do have a list, a short list, dominated by places I want to go in order to do certain things rather than just seeing places. Iceland was top of that list. And anyway, my travel dreams are usually about places that don’t exist, where sorcery is real and you can find goblins and flying reptiles in deserts protected by shape shifters. In other words, BA doesn’t fly there. But Iceland is different. Iceland I have dreamed about for years in both waking and sleeping dreams. It’s my go to place for landscape images and of elements of nature when I’m thinking about where to set a scene or build the countryside of Barclan and the other kingdoms. It’s one of the few places where, when I read about it, see images, or watch programmes about it on television, I get that little flutter of longing deep in my chest. It also has nordic and germanic mythology wrapped around its coastline which I personally love.

So why hadn’t I gone before? I can’t answer that. Honestly I don’t know. The point is, I did go. And it wasn’t just any old trip. I went to Iceland on a yoga retreat organised by Reclaim Yourself with a bunch of about 17 strangers from all over the world and my aunt who is best described as a feminist pagan extrovert, essential if you are an extrovert IT nerd who happens to write books but isn’t great in big groups.  The trip was more than I could have hoped for. By noon on day one I realised that I was seeing and experiencing the places I had written into Hummingbird, and Giant’s Echo which is being edited at the moment, and book 3 which is 27 pages so far.

From now on, I will always imagine the sound of weeping as the roar of a waterfall.

Hummingbird opens with the cosmology of the Gods creating the world and I think Iceland is where all four of them stood as they sang their songs of creation and brought the world to be. The Godafoss waterfall is, I’m sure, where Evram beat her tiny hummingbird wings, bent her head, and began her song of weeping. It’s where her teardrops formed a puddle, then a trickle, then a mighty river that crashes and roars and pours across the faceless world giving it emotion and sound and a feeling that you can only describe as alive.

Total isolation and tranquillity.

There is so much I could write about in this blog post, a lot of specific experiences, but I want to keep it general because for each thing that I did or saw, I keep coming back to my Goddess. An’dorna the giantess who clapped her great hands and cracked the world. She who stamped her feet and raised mountains and whose voice made the earth quake and the land fall away to be filled by the sea. The Goddess who went to sleep after the songs had ended, and became a mountain herself.

An’dorna of course.

Each night I kept my curtains open, my eyes open and my mind open and rested my weary head on a soft pillow, staring at my giant stone Goddess asleep in the mountains that kept guard over the valley. At night I stayed awake and felt a deep sense of belonging; to the dark, to the quiet, to the stillness. I felt vulnerable and small when the sun rose and I watched the way the light, moving faster than anything in our universe, could only manage a sluggish crawl up the mountain face illuminating peaks where the snow never melts. An’dorna, asleep so close to me, this Goddess I’ve created in my mind was never my creation. She is just a name I’ve given to let my mind wrap around how humbling it is to look at something truly timeless.

The boiling noxious birth of the world.

Can you see the face of the troll?

Smells like a corpse in the sun.

When I wrote about Xynel and Shaa I was thinking about how in nature unity, chaos and destruction are all words we’ve created to describe what happens around us because we fear what we see. We have created entire civilisations, buildings, financial institutions, weapons of war, religions, rules and science to make us feel in control and safe. We’ll do anything to take away that yoke of vulnerability that we feel because deep down we know we really are nothing in the grand scale of time. Whether we are or are not alone in the universe, we are frightened. I made Shaa a grotesque hunchback who’s reflection is that of absolute beauty because I wanted a very simple way of having an actual being that is the extreme of how we as people see the world. Things, ideas, concepts, even other people are either something we like or something we don’t. I gave Shaa both those elements and then I made him the unifying God because he had to step back and see himself before he could influence the others. Xynel was the beautiful corruption, the phantom.  She is the mean, nasty, horrible comments we sometimes say to ourselves but never say out loud. And she’s what we do say aloud when we cause pain and upset.  She’s the feelings that we pretend we don’t have and the guilt that we trap ourselves in because we feel like with everything we’ve built we’ve elevated ourselves above mere animal. But we are what we are. She is what she is. A force of nature who blows away and destroys that which is so carefully created, crafted and planned. And that was everywhere in Iceland. I stood on pseudo-craters blown out by water and molten rock. Lava fields with conglomerations that look like troll heads from the right angle. A world that is beautiful because it is sharp and can cut you. Land that is black hard rock which sparkles and shines if it catches the sun because nothing is what it seems if you just bend down and take a closer look. I stood next to a chimney spewing gas that smelled like eggs and corpses, and was choked on the scent of the world forming literally at my feet. I pictured Shaa breathing his unifying breath as Xynel stood in the smoke, her phantom form shimmering in and out of view.  The sound coming from the natural vents is as loud as a jet engine, you have to shout to be heard. I imagined that in-between the deafening rumble of the world forming, I could hear the faint echo’s of An’dorna’s claps that shook and shattered and shaped the world.

How am I a changed writer? I care more because I met the Gods I created.

I care about my Gods. I care about my kings and queens and sorcerers and soldiers. I care about the world I’ve created. I want to give them richer experiences because I’ve stood at the spot where the world was made. And I’ve sat with An’dorna and watched time pass under her gaze. I’ve seen the hazy figure of Xynel challenging Shaa on the planes where the world is still being born from their song of chaos. I felt the spray from the water Evram cried onto the world.

I came back with a sense or calm about writing book 3. Normally my writing habit is organic and haphazard and a little bit frantic.  I keep notes and track details but I don’t sit and plan the story through, it evolves. That approach isn’t going to work for book 3. I changed in Iceland when I saw my fantasy world in-front of my eyes.  Now, the trick is to write my world so you can see it as clearly as I can.

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How fitness helps my writing

I consider myself pretty sporty. I run quite a lot. I regularly spend solid hours in the gym doing weights and using the cardio machines a few days every week. I do yoga. I do karate and I do aikido, and I walk everywhere I can. And the irony is, I don’t do it because I’m sporty, and I am absolutely no one of those ‘gym is life’ people who  meticulously weigh the protein and drink those revolting milkshakes. I do it because it helps me write and without it Hummingbird wouldn’t have happened.

Writing and fitness takes exactly the same dedication.

Number one. Writing means hours, and days sitting at a computer.
1 – that will do nothing for your posture and is a slow descent into back pain. And once you sit down to write, and you get uncomfortable quickly it can destroy your concentration or really break up the flow of the scene you are working on.

2 – the body is built to move, being sedentary, especially as your years advance-which is inevitable- just isn’t good for anyone. I know when I don’t get enough exercise I feel tired all the time, sometimes too tired to sit down and put the hours into a manuscript that it needs.

When you are refining your work you need to be awake and alert.

3 – when you starting getting into sport, or fitness, or gym, or whatever you want to call it, you start out and the first weeks there isn’t much to show for it except a bit of a buzz and the urge to tell all your friends. It’s the same with starting a new book. Those first few weeks it’s a bit rushed, you jump around characters a lot. It takes a while to get to into your stride and start being able to put down some solid pages in a session. Sound-gym-familiar?

4 – Sitting up, arms resting on a table, only moving your hands, but not that much, as your fingers fly across a keyboard is extremely bad for shoulders and neck in my opinion (I am not a doctor or in any way medically trained). Those micro-movements I make from the elbow up are enough to make it hard for me to get comfortable on my pillow and then sleep stays away and the next day I’m grumpy and tired and I don’t want to write regardless of what I had on my schedule for the day. And that’s never good.

Number 2 – books -in my opinion-need to be planned.
5 – just like you plan your training for your sport or gym session, I feel you should plan what you are going to do with your writing time. I used to aimlessly sit down and write whatever came next into my head. That led to a lot of rewriting and some chapters that never advanced the story. What I know is that my story is complete in my mind, I know where I want to take the reader, and so I plan out how I’m going to take them there, what mechanisms I want to use to tell that story, and I set out how I’m going to write it. It’s the same with a fitness goal.

I have a lot of things I’m aiming for. A 10k race in November. Yoga and hiking in Iceland in October. Getting the Giant’s Echo edited and out by Christmas-if possible. Next year, maybe a half marathon, and a marathon who knows. Finishing the Barclan series and writing a book of short stories. Oh and Japan yoga and martial arts in November. None of it will happen unless I plan and work toward all those goals. And the only way I stick to the writing and am clear headed and feel comfortable enough to spend those sometimes 8 hours a day at a desk writing hardly moving is because what I put my mind through, I put my body through.

Dedication and hard work pay off

And as I’ve been weaving into The Hummingbird’s Tear and The Giant’s Echo, the mind and body is one.

Are you in your novel? Hope not.

One of the things I am asked the most by people I meet and on direct messages from twitter is if any of the characters ‘are me’? The glib answer is no of course none of them are me. I am neither a sorceress, nor am I a knight, a King or a sea witch.  But am I ‘in’ my books? I hope not, I work very hard to not be in anyone from Hummingbird.

When I was much younger (minus more than ten years but not as many as 25) my head was filled with romantic ideals of what it would be like to be a writer. I pictured myself as a mysterious recluse living in a lighthouse in a small town where no one needed to lock their front doors at night. In my daydreams there was always a fierce storm battering the lighthouse while I was tucked away in my study sitting in a dark green leather armchair behind an enormous wooden desk and a typewriter. The lights would flicker on an off as often as the lightning would strike and the banging of the keys of the typewriter would be just as lough as the claps of thunder outside. I imagined myself a brilliant writer who would magically write perfect narrative and prose based on how I felt (I didn’t have much of an idea of the role of editor during this day dream, and I lived in romantic clichés), and I would only venture out of my solitude to post off manuscripts and occasionally hurl stones at sea gulls. To me, at that tender age, it was all about the emotional desolation that gives birth unwittingly to imagination and stories. And let’s be honest, no one does self impose emotional angst quite like a teenager.

The thing to remember is at the age I was wrapped in my own day dream melodrama, I was also writing my first novel and I was pouring myself into that story. It was a diary/fantasy/historical mess; serving the purpose not of writing or the art of writing, but of the discipline of writing. I was 14, sitting down every single day, hand-writing a novel. And I did it, I finished it.  And I still have it, very proud of it in fact.  When  I go back and pick parts of it to read, I see myself in every character, every line of dialogue, and every scene. It’s as if doing that day after day for well over a year, almost two in fact, removed any spare parts of myself I may have had and saved me from putting them into Hummingbird or Giant’s Echo.

Why do I try to make sure I don’t put myself into what I write? Because it wouldn’t be any good, and would screw my characters.

What? Bear with me.
In my opinion the best thing about a book is a believable character regardless of whether you love or loathe them. And as a writer I know good characters aren’t random acts of good luck or happenstance. A good character takes planning and dedication and a lot of good characters takes an excel spreadsheet of character traits, habits, personality types and very detailed story arcs. They don’t happen organically, at least not for me. I wrote out back stories, relationships, how they feel about certain other people, political views, beliefs, even family dynamics. None of this is directly in the story, but it’s what I did to build the characters over months before really starting to put the story together because I knew the narrative but I wanted to bring the people alive who were telling the story.

I firmly believe if you write under certain circumstances you’ll end up putting your own emotions or a personal event into that part of the story, and it will take away from the character or the story and the reader will pick up on that blip and it could affect their response to the rest of your book.

So, some things I never do to make sure I never put myself into my characters.

1 – never write happy or sad. It will alter the rhythm of what you’ve written and affect your choice of wording and the length and content and the reader will pick up on this. A sudden dip or uplift in tone is unwanted. Rather, if you want to write and are feeling strong emotions, turn to a piece of personal work, write a poem, or start a short story.

Old Manual Typewriter

Or write 5000 words and do unspeakable things to some random person you’ve plucked from thin air that is never going to see a copy and paste moment into your manuscript.

2 – never take something that has just happened to you, and be so impressed with your own handling or response to it that you feel it just has to make it into your work. If you have a set of events that are unfolding in your narrative stick to it. A small deviation event can have dire consequences a few chapters in when you have to reference back to something or, even worse, this new event you wrote in has had enough of an effect that it’s changed the course of your story and now it’s a new story. Seems over the top? Trust me, something small, and new, can end up with you writing a different book to the one you thought you would.

3 – never trust in your memory so much that you stop checking your character notes and sketches. Your memory is not your friend when continuity errors are in print and social media is a cruel beast.

4 – write for yourself, knowing that a lot of people out there like the same books you do, and will like your story. And that has to be enough. Know that you cannot write for everyone and if you try you will be writing a soundless drum that doesn’t make music for anyone.

Giant’s Echo is coming along nicely. I’ve not poured myself into any character, I’m pouring myself into the process of writing the characters and putting stories around them. I hope it’s working. The manuscript is going to the editor this week and then the work begins on more revisions and all the little things I can’t see any more that need a subtle tweak or a little bit of action and spice. And that leads me to the final point.

5 – don’t ever forget that as good as your writing is, a fresh eye will always spot something. That’s a good thing, because you’re always writing today to become the writer you will be in ten years time, and that you is better than now, but only if you love what you do and don’t lose yourself every time you try to write something.

Save the writer for the writing and your readers will appreciate it.

Taking ideas for free from the North Shore

I’ve just come back from three weeks in Minnesota, a family holiday that was exhilarating.  I made a deal with myself-no laptop, no manuscript, no worrying about character development, no agonising over adjectives, no writing. Just being with family and enjoying what we were doing. Hiking, camping, fishing, sight seeing, skipping stones on Lake Superior, swimming in secluded spots, evenings on a pontoon, barbecuing, resting.

I lied to myself, I was never going to mentally switch off from the book.

What I did though was better than any amount of time spent with a laptop or pen-at least in my opinion. I sat and did a lot of staring at what was around me and for the first time in maybe a year I wasn’t trying to develop a specific story I indulged in new ideas for new works down the line. I spent a lot of time in the kinds of setting my characters will be in in Giant’s Echo, the Hummingbird’s sequel, which will hopefully translate into a more authentic experience for the reader. And I let my imagination run wild.

What would it be like to live near this waterfall. I imagined a village of tiny people, no taller than my knee.  They are born out of the trunks of trees and look like animated sticks. They spend their day tending to plants and small animals and at night dissolve back into the tree trunks that they were born from. Life is not idyllic though, there are monsters in the river and in the tree tops and at night they slink through the forest and use sharp fingernails and long front teeth to gnaw at the bark of the tree trunks hoping to bite into the wood creatures so they can feast on them.

This was our camp. I took this standing across the lake taking a minute to press ‘cliclk’ in between swatting at mosquitoes and wiping the sweat off my forehead. The river was brown from the tannin in the water leeched out of the tree roots and about as deep as your waist for maybe twenty feet. Just right for cooling off after putting up tents, gathering firewood and setting up ‘home’ for a few days. While channelling my inner Adams I started to imagine being a backpacker lost in the wilderness desperately hungry and scared. Imagine stumbling along the edges of just another lake in a million mile maze of mirror lakes, and suddenly seeing a tent. A sign of habitation, a person, maybe people, someone who could help you. And then it turns out it’s a serial killer who comes up here to dispose of the bodies. Or maybe it’s a couple who are having last stab at saving their relationship and you stumble in with blistered lips on the verge of starvation and in your recovery you somehow help save their marriage. Or doom it, and they chase you off, chase you into the woods maniac and angry and you’re on the run again this time from the very people you thought would save your life. I admit, at this point, the mozzies were driving me crazy which is why this was a pretty doom and gloom idea.

This is one of my favourite shots from a particular day of driving up the North Shore. When I imagine scenes for my writing I always try and think of something that looks wrong so when I put it into words I can make it memorable. This tree sums me up when I try and write. Beautiful setting, wonky tree. Let’s talk about the tree for a paragraph, especially if the tree can be a visual representation of a character’s personality or used to reveal something of them personally.

Last but not least, I made a collage of 4 photos that I took because who am I kidding, my books are part of me and are never far from my mind. My books are about elemental magic and have an undercurrent of the consequences of climate change. Everything was inspirational. I took notes on my phone about how I felt sitting in isolation during the night, how did I feel looking up and seeing the stars with such unusual clarity (London sky at night versus North Shore sky at night). How did I feel knowing I was totally off grid, at least 45 minutes drive from the next person – it’s not often I feel vulnerable and that was a real lesson for me. And the sounds, just how loud nature really is and the fact that when you are camping, there is no rest, you are always busy doing something to assist in staying alive. Big lesson, if you have a journey in your book and it requires camping don’t have your characters lounging around. It just isn’t realistic, being in nature is hard and anyone who has done it will know that and reel at the in-authenticity of what you are writing.

I don’t suggest everyone writing something goes off and tries to live scenes from their own book. But if you can, what a great experience.

 

People pleasing Writer? Me?

Context is important so let me paint you a picture…I don’t keep a copy of my book by my bedside, in fact it’s in a cupboard. I don’t generally tell people I’ve written Hummingbird’s Tear (sorry Calumet marketers), am writing the second, have drafted the 3rd, or that I wrote a short story that was selected for the Boundaries Without anthology. I don’t go to writer meet-ups, I don’t bring it up in conversation, and I certainly never go out of my way to see what people think of my book.  Why?  I don’t know, lot’s of reasons, every reason and no reason I suppose, I don’t tend to dwell. So…

This took a ton of work

About two months ago I was roaming around Amazon looking at nothing in particular – virtual window shopping, we’ve all done it. I was bored, running out of things to search for and so unusually for me – I never do this – I decided to go see if anyone had left a review of Hummingbird’s Tear.  There were a handful, mostly nice. Which makes me feel nice. And we all want to feel nice, right.  And then, staring at me, was one that was not like the others.

The reality of creating any form of art – and writing most certainly is just that – is that on that spectrum of personal experience and opinion, it’s either going to be liked, or disliked and no one who creates anything is should be foolish enough to think their work will be universally liked. Also, that people voice their opinion and have every right to do so, and that as an author, you have to be prepared for it. And that is what this review was. I read it and immediately blew it out of proportion so much that I never digested what was actually written. All I took away from it was a feeling of being punched in the gut because someone voiced an opinion disliking something I had spent literally years creating. So I did what I usually do when I’m feeling anything negative about my work or my books or writing in general, I told one of my best friends about it. She immediately went and read it and came back pointing out a few bits I had missed in my emotional read of it all.

That the reviewer pointed out the use of a wrong word – and that yes, that’s a mistake but I missed it, so did editorial and that’s easily fixed with a revised edition and it’s ONE word so ‘move on’.  I mentioned it to the publisher and it’ll be fixed. Thanks reviewer, you helped make my book better, by a tiny amount, but it’s still an improvement. I’ll get to why this hurt so much, why one word is important to me.

Secondly she pointed out the reviewer mentioned they hadn’t actually read the book, just the free first few pages, so what they referenced, actually wasn’t true, because they didn’t read the book and didn’t follow through how the story actually twists and changes. And immediately I was thinking, that’s sloppy reviewing. I’m not sure I’d be brazen or self-opinionated enough to make assumptions about how a book plays out,

It isn’t all keyboard

without actually reading the book.  But that’s just me.

The rest of the points she made are irrelevant because by this stage I’m feeling better. But much more important than the plaster for my bruised star-flower ego, is the fact that by this stage, I’m actually making notes about what the reviewer said. I’m taking notes and I’m making them into the prompts I go through when I’m reviewing my work. And that’s when it hit me. I felt bad because the reviewer wasn’t pleased with what I had produced. I let out a moan, OH GOD! I’m a people pleaser… And I’m okay with that. Because I think that’s what drives the effort I put into the books.

Let’s ‘talk’ for a second about choosing words – believe me picking the right word for the effect a writer is building is not easy. It isn’t finished yet but I’m going to use book 2, Giant’s Echo as an example. I want to build up a picture of a character in the reader’s mind without ever saying ‘he’s like a snake’ because it’s a cliche (although the snake image works so well for me in book 2), and because that’s lazy and readers deserve more.

First things first, there are three things to do.
1 – make actual notes because you’ll forget otherwise, of what your character is like and then be very sure you can be consistent with the personality because if you want to show a change you have to have a strong base. I have all my characters mapped, literally drawn, mannerisms written down, and charts showing how they compare to the primary characters they mostly interact with.
2 – be prepared for the long haul, you don’t build up subliminal imagery and atmosphere in a paragraph and it does take skill so prepare to challenge yourself and have your editor and publisher come back with some critique.
3 – think of all the senses. When I’m writing dialogue I try to choose words that have a cadence – I don’t just mean picking lots of words that start with the same letter, that’s crap. I have people react to the character in a way that mimics how they would react to an actual snake, you want people to feel something, so give those feelings to other people. Create environments for your character to be in that feel like where you’d find the change you’re implying. My guy doesn’t walk straight, he meanders and constantly moves his head looking at everything around him.  A lot of his scenes take place in dark rooms, in cool conditions he’s a lot calmer and steadier, when it’s hot he acts sluggish and lashes out in anger when confronted. I write about what he can smell, how he reacts to foods, what he notices.

This is a very specific example of effort I suppose, the personal effort of producing something that very well may be disliked by more people than liked – although I sincerely hope not. And why I was so annoyed when one word was wrong. What I am really trying to illustrate is that writing isn’t just someone sitting down writing a stream of consciousness that becomes a finished manuscript. It’s actual work that becomes months and sometimes years of concerted creative focus and attention. I’ve produced hundreds of pages of backstory for my characters over the years. A whole creation mythology body of work. One does not simply ‘write a book’.

 

Can you imagine maintaining concentration on the same thing for years?

So take the bad reviews and the negative opinions people offer at you, use what you think is a useful insight that can improve your craft, and just get back to it. Shrug it off, grow a thicker skin -whatever cliche works for you – and get back to writing.

 

Sorting out when your book exists

I haven’t written a blog entry in quite a few weeks. It’s more like months actually but like everyone else (except the lucky few) I have a full time job to do in between novels so day-jobbing can take up more of my time than I’d like and  things slip. Blogging slipped. Because the blog – and many other things – slipped, the writing didn’t.

I’ve been very busy with a specific element for Giant’s Echo, book 2 following Hummingbird’s Tear, which have very little to do with plot or characters but everything to do with the reader experience  which is – to me – number three of the ‘good book’ rule of 3.

I’ve been going through the manuscript looking for time-stamping words. There’s probably a more professional or sector way of describing the process but in essence what I am doing is looking for text where I’ve described something that gives a time frame for where and when my books are taking place. This is important because fantasy stories need a lot of realism if the reader is going to connect with the story and invest in it and it helps make the magic and fantasy elements more vivid and easier to imagine if you can place it in something a reader is familiar with when you have it during the narrative. And some things in your book very firmly place your story in a time period in history. Pick a century, it’s important.

So, the words. For example, Castle. Castles conjure up a certain visual, they’re imposing, built for war and the planing of war.  Conquest. Empire building. A certain type of King or Queen. They sit on hilltops and are surrounded by moats or a forest graveyard of cut trees to provide sight lines. There will be stables nearby with war horses and walls so high that you’d die if you fell from them.  Castles are familiar and almost ageless for many of us. Castles have been around for over a thousand years in some form or other and are very firmly embedded in the mind’s eye. So that’s a safe word to use and readers will quickly build up their own  image in their mind probably broadly in line with yours if you add in a few  halls, strong walls and a portcullis. Throw in a throne room with some tapestry, winding stair cases, decide how you want the kitchen and how the castle sounds at night and have some staff moving quietly through the halls and voila. It such a strong image you only need a bit here and there. A word of advice on castles, don’t forget the gardens, half the majesty and myth of castles is where they are placed. Are there medicinal gardens, if there are then it implies healers and medics and gives an air of compassion and caring. Unless the medicinal gardens are in ruin, then your King or Queen doesn’t care at all and immediately you leap to unhappy citizens, which is great for the reader to see.  Are the gardens full of whimsy and fancy? Did your ruler not care about the kingdom and just want to indulge their own importance and capriciousness. Imagine what loyal subjects would think about that. Want to ramp up the action, show opposing view points, bring in allegory, chaos and order, metaphor, then add to the garden around the castle. Add elements, water, flowers, secret paths for lovers. All this from a word that can be moved up and down the timer of history.

Throw in glass windows in your castle though and it’s a whole new issue. Two things about glass. 1 – most people don’t actively think about it when they imagine scenes with it but people assume it. So in your castle, do you have stained glass windows? I do. And that makes it a very different castle. It adds color to grey stone walls at the very least and implies a certain amount of technological advancement about the civilization in your story.  2 – thinking it through, if you have glass you have furnaces to heat it so you probably have a smith and forge both of which are common in fantasy and history so we’re good with that. But you also need clay moulding facilities (image below).

Do you know what the places you’re talking about look like? You need to know what your reader will assume is in a place where a scene is taking place

Think about the purpose of some of these places you’re conjuring because they may be fantastic opportunities for some scenes later on. Once you’ve created the castle, leave it there in the reader’s mind, and take the action outside the castle into those places. Now we’re talking small industry. Now we’re getting an idea of size and scope of the castle if you want these things conceptually made there, and what about the people making them? You need masters, you need apprentices, who are these people, what do they look like, what about the place where they are from? You might never mention a blacksmith or a glass blower and the reader might never make the conscious link and ask themselves that question but every word on every page is weaving that visual and it has to make sense and feel well place so it all becomes real. When you broaden the window concept and make them large, make them stained glass windows, floor to ceiling, arched, wide or narrow, you’re giving the castle a personality. Small random windows in a big castle makes me think of circa 12th century buildings and I’m picturing narrow slits in enormous ugly walls only used for archers. But when it’s large, ornate and people talk near them or notice them in the narrative I’m starting to lighten the color of the stone in my mind toward lighter sand tones away from grey. My mind is throwing in some stone carvings and intricate designs here and there and I’m moving away from a place that is military and starting to wander into a ceremonial place that is a little more palace and I’m also filling it with more people.

A word that enables the reader to build up a vision of living in a place is half the work done for you. And what about the seasons? Add glass and you have colder winters, so are there curtains, how heavy are they, are they open or closed, are they embroidered, what with, and now we’re building up a scene in a room. And let’s play with a character. You want to say something about a person in a scene without directly describing them, use their room. Are they smart? Fill the room with bookshelves and a deep set armchair near a window in direct sunlight behind heavy velvet curtains, somewhere a book worm could sit during cold winters days when the sun is out but there’s snow on the ground outside the castle walls.

Actually, glass, what else is glass for,what else do you think of when you read that single word. My mind does this:

Glass. Color. Mirrors. People Weapons. Knives.  Sharp. Murder. Gifts. Beauty. Wealth. Smudge. Dirty. Poor. Hungry. Cold. Draught. Window. Glass.

That’s an example of what I have spent a lot of time doing, looking at words that are like a breadcrumb path that lead the reader up a visual path that isn’t something I’ve explicitly written but something that they are creating for themselves out of words I’m choosing.  Plus, since it’s a sequel, it has to follow on from what I built in Hummingbird’s Tear. Continuity counts!

 

 

 

Writing after watching the news, aka London

Last Wednesday – 2nd March 2017 – Westminster was in the news. I’m not going to say more than that.  There is a lot being written about it by men and women with far more insightful views that my own and who are more eloquent in the their words and thoughts have a great understanding of what is happening in the world right now. I don’t watch a lot of news, I don’t spend much time on politics and global current affairs are not something I keep track of daily.  But as a child growing up in South Africa I did holiday to London a few times, and then I moved to London when I was 17, so what happened on Wednesday affected me deeply.

I watched the news for about four hours.  How do you process something like that in your living room?

It’s taking place somewhere that you know so well, have walked past and driven past and helped who knows how many tourists with their directions. But what you are seeing is wrong and feels alien. By the time I went to bed I felt flooded with the imagery of eye witness reports and the scenes that had be replayed to fill the airtime of continuous coverage. London had been reduced from a massive vibrant exciting ageless city to just a few hundred meters of blood and wreckage and twisted steel.

On Thursday – the day after – I sat working on a chapter that I’d been struggling with for some time. I just wanted to add a bit of scene setting to a harbor – so that is what I intended to do. I cracked my knuckles and was going to add a few sounds of some boards on the quay, some brine on the wind and a few whores hanging about. What actually happened was I started thinking about where I used to work in the docklands in London. A hundred years ago it was a working dock with a customs house – now it’s swanky offices and the Emirates cable car. I kept thinking of that custom house and the stories I knew of the East End of London. And I added a custom house to the chapter. Then I added a bit more and, well, you know how that cliche works. By the end of it I’d rewritten the whole chapter and changed the course of one of the sub-plots. And all done without me realizing it was how I was processing what I had seen and what was still the only news on the TV and radio. I had drawn a part of my London – not that London – but the London I know and worked it into my book.

I went and opened up some of my picture folders and started rooting through them looking for pictures from my many days out in the city over the years. A few struck a chord, and looking at them I saw something different and had a new idea for the book that I hadn’t thought of before.

This one. It’s obvious when you look at it. This is London across it’s ages with all it’s cultural influences that are as much the history of the place as is the present and it’s future. And I think it captures the city perfectly – it is the city of every man woman and child who ever walked or took a buggy, hailed a black cab or took the tube. When I see it I see a map of how to tell stories set in a city and how to use those stories to build the story of the city. Layers within layers (I’m loving my cliches tonight). In Hummingbird I needed to do a lot of character development in a very short space of time and I did this by setting my ‘people’ in the city and giving them a short sub-story. I put Orren and An’eris in the sewer to establish their love-story. I made Calem burn a man alive to accelerate his development and counterpoint his actions with Brennan so in growing Calem I gave the reader Brennan on the side.  I killed a king in a castle in the city to show Homen’s grip on power and balance this with how deeply he felt the death of his friend – it also set up half the plot but I was prouder of the character growth. And last but not least, Orren the prince, Orren the lover, Orren the diplomat, Orren the nihilist, Orren the realist, Orren the man confronts an honorable nomad who is cradling his days old infant daughter, and suggests she has to die because of the nomad’s own traditions. A tense scene set at the castle gates which are in the center of the city. The modernity of the city as a backdrop to two worlds colliding, two different beliefs with different customs and opposing ways of life. Orren resolves the situation with words, swords are drawn but no more than that. Hummingbird is about the characters, and the plot and everything else. And it’s about Kraner and that city having a life of its own as all great cities do.

 This is one of my favorite photos because it shows how many things in London are a little bit ridiculous. It’s all about perspective. You see London is over 1000 years old – it was settled about 45 AD, so in fact it’s closer to 2000 years old than a thousand. It has a lot of history and the most interesting history of the monarchy is only a few hundred which is actually rather recent.  The new-old as I think of it is quirky, quaint, and usually in the way – wonderfully demonstrated by a practical modern fence and gate set as an escape route leading straight to a locked older fence and gate. Why is the older one there? Because it’s old damnit, and attached to an important place, and in London, we keep the old even if it’s silly and in the way and makes to sense to anyone else. As a writer I love this. To me it’s what happens when tradition, majesty, empire and modernity all crash into each other and you had something physically curious and  impractical that serves as a reminder of something grand that is out of reach to nearly everyone on the planet but also so close. This is on the Mall, the road that leads to Buckingham Palace, and it is going to pop up in Kraner the main city in The Hummingbird’s Tear.

Last but not least. This next one is what happens when you have an idea but not enough time and a lot of concrete left over from a previous job. This building is not far from the BFI and is hideous – like a gargoyle I often think. Among the buildings in the area – some of which are mmodern glass edifices and others a few hundred years of pomp and fancy – sits this bland homage to cement. In all its glory it is a psychical epiphany of function over form, beauty be damned. I see a citadel in a dessert. A place of wandering ghosts, where the wind shrieks whether it’s a zephyr or a gale and people walk for miles to avoid passing under the shadow thrown from the turrets that I always imagine should be there. Although very descriptively different to the citadel I am writing in the Giant’s Echo, Hummingbird’s sequel – this picture is what I look at when I need to remember how I felt and how I want the reader to feel.

I’m writing Giant’s Echo and rereading Hummingbird and I’m understanding more about myself as a writer. Where my inspiration comes from, how I see objects and places and how I see deeper into them and morph these images into stories.  I am so lucky to live in a place with so much inspiration.  Long live London

 

You ask I say

As soon as people find out you’ve written a book, in my case The Hummingbird’s Tear, I get questions. Usually it’s “how many have you sold” or “where do you find the time”.  To be honest those are really boring questions.  Every now and again though I get a few good ones so I thought I’d put a little collection of them  together.

Do you ever hit a brick wall with inspiration?

No. My problem isn’t a lack of inspiration, it’s too much inspiration. I write fantasy novels, mostly. And not just one at a time. When I was writing Hummingbird I was also writing the sequel, and notes for the third. Then I started a story about a chemist that I am still dabbling with. I also have 4 stories that I dip into that are a mix of drama, horror and sci-fi. Those 4 are my indulgences. They are filled with cliches, stereotypical characters, lots of angst and really cheesy characters.

basically my equivalent of indulging in Rick Astely when you are trying to compose a symphony

I am constantly coming up with ideas for stories and plan on jotting down a few ideas, and then a week later I’ve got 7 chapters done and I’m in love with a new character. My brick wall is focus. Luckily I have amazing support and prodding from Calumet to keep me on track and working on The Giant’s Echo which is the Hummingbird’s sequel due – at least planned – for late  summer 2017. While editing I have to admit I’ve started a series of short stories about growing up in a remote farming town in South Africa. I can’t help it, the idea and inspiration came along, who am I to tell it to wait it’s turn.

If my favorite functional character lived in our universe, what job would they have?

Good question, and not as hard as you might think. My favourite character is Sioned (pronounces Sh-ned, it’s welsh) from Meanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series. Sioned is a Sunrunner, a type of magic user that weaves the magic of sunlight and moonlight. When I first read the series in my teens I was captivated by this strong woman who basically goes through hell pretty much through the whole series but has incredible fortitude and perseverance and a strength of character that you can relate to. She finds ways to overcome every situation and establishes herself as the pivotal character in a time of epic wars, conspiracy, battle and a nation’s rise,and her own downfall, redemption and personal revolution. She’s magically very powerful but vulnerable in the same human ways as you and me and I felt a very real connection to this character. Because of this – can you respect and be in awe of a fictional character? – I picture her in a leadership role, commanding and inspiring, but more likely to be a rebellion than something in the establishment. Probably an activist for human rights, women’s rights, something like that.

Which book that you’ve read do you wish you had written yourself?

This one took a little while. Probably all 5 of the books of the Belgariad, but if I had to pick one of them it would be Magician’s Gambit. Why those? Because I love those stories. I  worked some of it into my family, my nephew is named Darian, a name I suggested based on Garion (his parents wanted a name with a D). Those five stories for me have everything. You can read them for what they are – a sword and sorcery tale, or you can look as deeply as you like and see the nuancing of politics, human behaviour, social injustice, rebellion and social commentary. The characters are good fun and you get to know them intimately. The language doesn’t try to be too clever and there is a lot of action that keeps the story telling fast, fresh and interesting. Overall, I’d say these books because they’re timeless, accessible to everyone and provide genuine enjoyment.

 

Is it a love of writing, or  of story telling that drives you to write?

Predominantly writing. I have stories I want to tell, but I’m not overly confident around people and a bit of an introvert so for me writing is how I am able to connect and give people the stories that I want to tell.

 

Do you read books and ever rewrite them in your head as you’re reading them?

I never used to. Now I do. As I’m being mentored through the editing and publishing process of my own work and becoming better at the craft and skill of putting together the story for the reader I’m noticing things in other works that I read. Repetition, I spot it now and never used to. An idea that gets overused and the plot becomes predictable – I end up asking myself if the writer is lazy or it’s intentional and it detracts from the story. In those cases I don’t rewrite I mostly lose interest and put the book down.

Sometimes I pick up a book that has taken over the world and I’m so excited to read it.  I want the experience that everyone is talking about – I love being moved and astounded by an amazing story and riveting writing, I crave that experience from a book. And sometimes those global phenomena leave me utterly disappointed. Life of Pi was one of those. I thought it was boring and repetitive. As I was reading that, I did find myself starting to reorder events and rewrite elements of it. I made it more classically magical and mythological instead of what I felt was bad allegory. Fundamentally, I just didn’t like it, it wasn’t my type of book. I would add, for a while I felt like I had missed something from Life of Pi – how could all these thousands of review be so positive and moving (some reviews were better than the book) so I reread it looking for what I had missed. But no, just not my thing.  And that’s the trick sometimes, recognizing the difference between a story not well put together, versus something that just isn’t to your own taste. Big lesson for me as I try and write for everyone, but aware that some are going to feel about my work how I feel about that book. So you write the best book you can and tell the story you are able to, and hope someone likes it and thinks you did a good job.

That’s it, thanks for the questions. Now back to editing, and the short stories, and the next novel. Honestly, even I don’t know how I focused long enough to get Hummingbird out!

One of my favourite books – The Spitting Image

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There are a few things I own which are very precious to me. Both of them are books, and both are the only books I chose out of over 100 to pack into my small suitcase when I left South Africa in 1997 after finishing high school. Both books have survived three different continents more than 11 house moves in these last 20 years. One of those two is a book by Kathleen Hersom, The Spitting Image.

I’ll say right from the start that it is a children’s book but I urge everyone regardless of their age to read it. Like most things aimed at children (think Disney) there is so much in the storytelling that an adult would pick up and enjoy that to me, makes this story ageless.

It starts with a fantastic black and white illustration of a stone gargoyle’s face on a man’s body. The story opens at night in a churchyard and sets a creepy scene using a weathervane, squeaking bats and snuffling hedgehogs. I was 9 when I first read this, and was captivated. My imagination immediately added tombstones covered in lichen and bare sycamore trees standing like sentinels to keep the dead in their slumber. We’re introduced to Jacob who we learn straight away is a gargoyle and the first things we learn about him is he hates his creator for carving him so roughly and giving him such ugly features – wide stumpy teeth, one eye forever closed and a mouth that was permanently scowling.   The story continues and we find out there were two mason who didn’t get on. One had as ugly a spirit as he did a face and so the other more skillful mason carved the gargoyle in his likeness and gave it the same name.

What I read as a child was wonderful and vivid. All I read at first was a tale of how a gargoyle was carved for a church tower and was intended to be ugly and frightful to scare the devil to make him stay away. That the gargoyle was20170209_105722 alive and in perpetual torment. Jacob hates the mason and so hates everyone that has come down the mason’s line for the last 5 centuries. He hates how he is the target for the choir boys who sing so beautifully in the church then throw rocks at him afterwards. He hates his draughty corner of the church tower and he hates the other statues carved around him. In fact, it seems the only thing Jacob loves is how much he hates.

The book carries on. Each chapter is a story about something unusual and exciting happening in the town told from Jacob’s vantage point above everyone else. In each chapter there is a small group of children who to the churchyard for all sorts of reasons – choir practice, a shortcut through the village, playing in summer, or just to sit on the church-wall and talk. The children talk about, as children do, about everything that they have seen and heard and give their own explanation for the goings on. The young children attribute things they don’t understand to magic and fairies, the old children think things are tricks and of course the older children don’t have time for the things the younger children talk about. They bicker and the argue. One family is always at odds with the other and you quickly discover it’s the families of the two original masons. In each chapter Jacob watches and listens and hates that he can’t join in. He hates that ‘his family’ is always losing out to the other mason’s family and at about halfway you get the feeling the gargoyle’s animosity and desire for revenge may be fueling the family’s rivalry.

One of the threads that runs through each chapter is the telling and guessing of riddles. There are different riddlers but it is always the children and poor old Jacob who are the ones trying to puzzle out the answers. The children learn the answers much faster than he does; they are living their lives, growing older and learning through experience whereas he is stuck on his church tower, living through everyone else. There is one riddle that no one guesses, one so hard, it stumps the village for centuries and even a stone gargoyle who’s life span is so much longer than the flesh and blood people he watches being born, grow up, and end up in the ground in the churchyard he watches over – even he cannot puzzle out the answer.

The stories move through time. They start in the very distant past with travelling hunchback friars and men on horseback until they come into the present day – well, the 720170209_1102080s or thereabouts. The stories in the chapters are fantastic and I love the frustration that runs through each story as no one can solve the greatest riddle ever told in the town. I won’t spoil the ending but I will say that justice is served up at the end and the final revelation of the answer to the riddle gives Jacob the centuries old stone gargoyle a moment of happiness that whether you think he deserves or not, you can’t take away from him.

Hersom creates scenes with the children that everyone will identify with because we’ve all done the things they have. We’ve all say on a wall at some point bickering and arguing. We’ve all walked aimlessly on summer days kicking clods of dirt, picking flowers and pulling the petals off while we looked for something to do. It’s the type of cliched nostalgia that works perfectly and effectively from an adult perspective because one thing we all have in common is that we’ve all been children.

As a child I laughed at images of the gargoyle with pigeons on his head that he couldn’t shoo away. I was more intrigued with the riddle that ran through the stories and wondered how ‘alive’ the gargoyle really was. As an adult now when I read – and reread – this amazing book I see how cleverly characters are created in each short chapter and the skill in the writer to advance the themes and concepts of the book through simple plot devices. I’ve tried to use similar skill when writing The Hummingbird’s Tear.

On the one hand it is a lovely story to read and enjoy. On the other hand, it’s a masterclass in story telling.

It won’t take more than 90 minutes to read. The illustrations at the start of each chapter are excellent and whether you take away a colorful and engaging tale spanning life in a small town over a few hundred years; or treat it as a tutorial for writing clever engaging stories. It’s worth it.

 

 

Arthur and Merlin talk language in the pub

About a month ago Calumet’s very own Ian Leask was in London and we arranged to meet at a pretentious pub. Why pretentious? Cue low ceilings, five strategically placed fireplaces (think aesthetics not warmth), uninspiring beers on tap and a menu filled with words like puree instead of mash and jus instead of gravy.  All the patrons looked bejeweled. The women wore their shiniest gems and there were rather a lot of dapper grey suede dinner jackets with plaid elbow patches (tan loafers offset the colors so the effort wasn’t too obvious). Little girls felt like princesses in dinner dresses and the boys did their best not to scratch their necks at the odd sensation of a tie that’s not elasticated. The atmosphere was genuinely happy with pre-Christmas dinners and small-group parties, family get togethers and a few groups of friends knocking around for an impromptu after work drink. Laughter, glasses clinking, cheers and a roaring punchline every now and again ensured the background noise was at that perfect pitch that two people need for a serious discussion in a casual place. I got there dead-on time, Ian was already there. We shared a long-overdue and welcome embrace and then settled into cavernous well stuffed chairs at a small round table; like Arthur and Merlin in our own world straight away.

Our quest for the night was straightforward: discuss the Giant’s Echo manuscript. Or, book 2 as I usually reference it. It’s been over a year since The Hummingbird’s Tear came out and it’s time that I got moving on that damn sequel. Ian had recently finished reading the draft of the Giant’s  manuscript (emphasis on the draft being rough, like railway sleepers against your cheek rough). I knew we were going to ‘talk about it’ and I admit I was apprehensive to hear his feedback (early days author-ego issues).

We launched immediately into what had worked really well in book 2 – character development, dialogue, the development of the overall plot and scene setting for the major events of the book. It was a relief to hear that the sections I had worked particularity hard on to really bring them to life and world build around them had come across strongly on the page for the reader. World building was the perfect segue into what areas needed improving. Some scenes needed enrichment, some plot devices weren’t complete, some characters – the new ones mainly – needed a bit more ‘do’ and less ‘tell’ from the reader perspective.

The crux of a lot of our conversation was that the story was there, all the events and action was spot on, but I needed to use the craft-skills to bring it alive for the reader and make it easier to read. Easier to read – a conversation I have had with Ian before on Hummingbird’s Tear.

We had finished our meal and were sitting back when we got round to the pesky topic of what I can only call ‘the peculiar way I write’.  Most people are taught their primary language and those lessons are made up of grammar and literature. Literature lessons are reading books, poetry, plays and so on, and understanding all the devices used and how they are artfully constructed and the skills in the prose to convey what the author intended. Got it? Easy stuff. Grammar lessons on the other hand, are exactly that. Nouns, adjectives, metaphor, simile, double negative, punctuation, possessive verbs, tenses (there are 16 in English by the way), indefinite this, intransitive that, conjunctions. Complex stuff on its own yes? Now bear in mind, I was an absolutely outstanding English student, it’s my first language and I speak correctly and I logically know how to construct correct sentences. So the question from Ian was, why, when I’m writing, are my sentences put together in such a peculiar way and my word bundles strangely grouped?

Because of the other languages I speak. Am I English? Yes. But I also grew up speaking Afrikaans. And Zulu. And for 6 years at school I studied French. So when I am ‘in the zone’ and I’m beating at the keys as fast as I can to keep up with the idea tsunami coming from my brain, sometimes I don’t even realise I’m switching into a different way of writing because of what I’m writing.

What do I man by this? Let me set the scene. People say French is the language of love, the old cliché that sweet nothings sound sweeter when whispered in the words associated with the city of love?  Well, let me tell you, when you are having an argument with someone, and you really want them to know how pissed off you are, how angry you feel, there is nothing like yelling guttural aggressive Afrikaans slurs at the top of your voice when you are right in someone’s face. That person knows in no uncertain terms things are going to get physical any minutes (same thing with some words in French, but that’s a different type of physical). Throw in Zulu, which is – for me – the most amazing of all four because of the variety of sounds it uses. Take the word qhuqha which means shiver, the only English sound in that word you or I know is a. ‘ooo’ and an ‘uh’, the consonants are clicks you make using the tongue pulled down sharply off the roof of the mouth. Zulu also isn’t naturally a written language it’s an oral one so the syntaxing, yeah, good luck with that.

So that was four languages, speaking and living them day to day – English as a first language, Afrikaans exams and with friends, Zulu with friends, exams and at home, French with some friends, exams; all four requiring talking, writing, reading, memorizing, exams, fluency takes enormous effort and, concentration.

Words and sentences structure, what can I say except I write like I think, and I don’t always think in English. Hell, I don’t even always dream in English.

I had a bad test day once, English, Afrikaans and French tests all in one day – and I remember in each one this overwhelming sinking sensation as I sat in the quiet classroom, that goddamn clock on the wall ticking away the test time, trying and forgetting which language I was sitting and trying to sort out the words in my head. I remember once sentence in particular about a plate that was blue, and I couldn’t figure out how to spell such an easy word, I had language blindness. Blou. Blue. Bleu – goddamn it.

4 language punctuation rules? The comma? A rule too far I’m afraid.

Interesting – my first few drafts of Hummingbird are littered with words in Afrikaans and Zulu, Giant’s Echo draft has more Afrikaans sentence structuring, but more French word mistakes.

So there you have it. To everyone who reads anything I write – this blog will have the same issues as my books – sorry. As I said, I write as I think, and it is an enormous effort (and I suspect a thankless and ultimately unnecessary one) to correct every little idiosyncrasy to my writing. I suppose it’s the personality of my writing, and this explains it – picture me sitting down to write at my keyboard, and in my brain a man with a striped vest and hat steps up behind my eyes and yells at me to ‘pick a language, any language’ before putting his hand on a board and pulling it to set it spinning. Which language will the clacker stop on, it’s anyone’s guess, even I never know!