On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Advertisements

Does the universe need another writer?

Since joining Twitter a couple of months ago, two things have become immediately obvious: (1) that I’m not half as interesting as I secretly hoped I was, and (2) approximately 97.5% of the population of planet earth is currently writing a novel.

Another wake-up call came via a recent workshop run by Writers’ Centre Norwich (you can also read my guest blog on their website if you’re so inclined). From the doctor-esque scribble I found in my notebook the morning after, I’ve managed to decode (and probably falsify) the following, rather sobering, fact: each year around 86,000 new titles are published in the UK. Around 59,000 of those titles will sell an average of… 1000 copies? 100 copies? 50 copies? (Knees trembling slightly now.)

The answer is 18 copies.

And that’s the average. Meaning, of course, that many new titles sell fewer than 18 copies. Which, by all accounts, is a bit of a slap in the face.

It could be that I’m labouring day after day (my social life dwindling to Howard Hughesian proportions; my bank statements gathering dust in the hallway – too frightening to open) on a book that only my mum will buy. (And, if I’m honest, she’s not that keen on my fiction anyway, so…) Gulp. And that’s if it’s even published. Anyone fancy an uphill struggle?

Well, yes, actually. I do. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m really wholehearted about, but writing is one. And here’s why: I can’t not do it. Jump cut to Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ And writers write. A day without writing feels wrong and unworthy. A day without tumbling headlong into something made-up makes my brain feel like two pennies rattling around in a pauper’s money box (by which, of course, I mean my money box): depressingly lonely. That’s right, yes, I’m really that sad: I feel lonely without my imaginary friends. And since they’re still there, in mid-gesture (a bit sore and stiff from their freeze-framing yesterday, when I had ‘proper work’ to get on with), I’d better scoot off now (my brain nicely heated from writing this blog post) and bring them to life again.

Thank you, Writer Squirrel.

Day One of NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month if you’re one of the remaining 0.0001% of the population that hasn’t heard of it) and I seem to be playing an awful lot of online boggle… (Still, at least it’s not Candy Crush.) My word count for the day is a sorrowful 706 (as opposed to the 1667 I’m meant to crank out).

Last year I scrambled across the 50,000 word finish line by literally (oh all right, figuratively) vomiting ten thousand of those words in the last six hours. What did I write about? Don’t ask me. After roughly an hour I moved to Auto Pilot. My hands seemed to type independently of my head. Looking back on that draft – or, rather, peering at it from behind a cushion – I feel like a 1960s acid casualty watching herself writhe topless on screen in WoodstockIt must have been me who wrote that thousand word scene about peeling potatoes, because – look – it’s right there on my laptop. But, equally, if you told me that one of my cats had randomly tapped out the contents of that document whilst chasing an insect across the keyboard I wouldn’t have had to struggle too hard to believe you. In fact, I’d have been relieved.

The truth is – the whole thing was drivel. M’Lord, I present the following evidence from the festering pus-filled document entitled ‘NaNo2012’ to support this claim:

Thump, thump, thump. Silence. Thump, thump, thump.

Was Miss Bellcomb a virgin, she wondered momentarily, as Nick writhed towards her, grabbing her hair.

‘Oh crap,’ Arthur said. He leaned on the wall. ‘Oh crap. This is bad.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself, Arthur. And who’s Arthur? Forget him: he doesn’t exist anymore. My point is, finding something like this – that you wrote – on your laptop could easily get a girl down. You could start to have dark bleak thoughts of the ‘I’m not worthy’ variety. And perhaps you’re not worthy. (That is, of course, always the possibility.) But aren’t we writers too often too hard on ourselves? Any musician, for instance, will tell you it takes years of practice to master their art. Unlike writers, musicians commit their mistakes to the ether: there’s nobody there with a dictaphone, taping their every last error and storing it up for posterity (by which, of course, I mean future humiliation). Writers, though, are like squirrels in autumn: religiously hoarding our every last sentence in case we can use it one day. What I’m trying to say (I think) is that nothing is wasted. And don’t be ashamed of your drivel. Embrace it. Your drivel is part of your journey, your scales and arpeggios on the way to your Emperor Concerto.

And, while trawling last year’s NaNo drivel for some of the ickiest phrases, I found one I rather quite like:

She sat up, alert, on her chair, as if someone had just pulled her laces too tight.

So, thank you, Writer Squirrel. Keep hoarding.

If Scrivener was a man, I’d marry it.

I’ve always been gripped by the thought of a house so huge you could stumble, one day, on a door that you never knew existed.

In my real life (the dull one), I live in a flat that a Hobbit would find a bit snug. In my writing life, though, I spend most of my day in the titular Hall of my novel, a great sprawling beast of a place in the wilds of rural England: ‘In a normal-sized house you could hold all the rooms in your memory like birds in a cage. Not at Madder. At Madder they perched for a while, and flew on.’

It’s analogy time.

In my head a short story is ‘normal-sized’. I can feel the whole shape of it; see it, as if it was there – like a bird in a cage… or a chair, or a lamp, or a table – in front of me. Solid and real.

But a novel is more like London, say. You can see the whole thing in instalments, but not all at once. And you might have a vague sense of concrete, or shop glass, or buses, or Buckingham Palace, perhaps, when you’re thinking of London, but all your attempts to imagine it, whole, as a single appreciable object – a lamp, or a table – are doomed from the start.

On a good day, a novel’s like London. On bad days it’s more like…

Unknown

Enter Scrivener.

Thanks to my fellow writers (and future bridesmaids) Mary Nathan and Meghan Purvis, I made the wise decision – one morning, adrift in the London-ish land of my novel – to pick up a half-price copy of Scrivener, courtesy of those lovely folks at NaNoWriMo (who kindly offer a voucher code to those who ‘complete’ – which is markedly less sinister, by the way, than ‘completing’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go…).

Best. Decision. Ever. All right, so you must schedule four or five days to do no actual writing at all while you run like a loose-limbed child through your shiny new playground, but really, believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll never again have to scroll through 142 pages in search of that scene that you half-think you maybe half-wrote… You’re in Scrivener now: and you’ll store all your scenes in a series of files with their own little names (of your choosing) and mini-synopses on file cards, and photos and paintings and audio files that you’ve grabbed off the web in your modern-day version of research. Your London has boroughs now. And your London will let you take photographs of it (with Scrivener’s handy ‘snapshot‘ function that allows you to keep hold of multiple versions of scenes… and roll back to a previous version whenever you like).

With this piecemeal approach, you can isolate problems more easily. Why was my novel so boring, I wondered? Ahem, answered Scrivener. Have a quick squint at your scene files. And lo, and behold, my protagonist had returned to the kitchen four times in a single chapter. Perhaps, whispered Scrivener, you could offer variety to the reader? I will, I said boldly. And grabbing our camera we set off together to tackle the sprawling metropolis of my novel. 

Glassworks. A cryptically-titled post about seizing the day and all that.

What’s the secret of artistic success? According to the (prolific and phenomenally successful) composer Philip Glass it’s very simple: get up early, and work all day.

In the spirit of Mr Glass, for the last three weeks I’ve been setting my alarm clock 45 minutes earlier and attempting to write. Unlike Phil (as I’m now calling him, after two sentences’ acquaintance) I don’t have the luxury of devoting his average ten hour stretch to my artistic endeavours – and neither did he for a very long time (having spent the lion’s share of the 1970s as a plumber and/or taxi driver) – but I’m finding, to my huge surprise, that the ‘getting up early’ part of the equation is working swimmingly well.

Now I speak as a woman who’s had to be crowbarred from bed on a number of gloomy occasions. I do love my bed. I love dreaming. I love sleeping in. I love long lazy mornings in blanket city with nothing particular making demands on my time.

But the thing that I’ve learnt in the last three weeks is that, yes, I love sleeping – but really, when’s all said and done, I love writing much more. In an oddly circuitous way I love writing with Philip Glass’s Glassworks in the background. (Have a listen; you might love it, too.) And, occasionally, when I’m listening, I’ll think about Phil and his ten hour day… and my measly two hours, here and there, feel like blinks of an eye, and each day when the clock makes that horrible peeping at half past six (and I long to curl up in a dream again) I chastise myself with the knowledge that Phil has been up for two hours already.

Oh yeah, and he’s 76.

Enough said.

To doll or not to doll? That is the question.

Any writer currently tiptoeing through the cliché minefield that is the Ghost Story will likely have pondered this question at some weary, uninspired point in the wee small hours: can I, or can I not, have a scene with a Scary Doll™ in it?

6729_123848397207_2646959_n

The Scary Doll™, as we all know, has been Done to Death. But so, too have shadows and candles and sinister disembodied giggling – and I’ve happily included all those clichés in my Magnum Opus. But is the Scary Doll™ a step too far across the cliché minefield? Will the Scary Doll™ explode in your face?

For this particular writer the answer is: yes.

In draft 1 of the novel I bravely attempted to ‘doll’ (And now came a clack as it hauled itself up and sat stiffly in lace dress and bootees, the hint of a tooth in its sluttish red mouth). Other drafts have been burdened with kilt-wearing dollies and dollies with teapots and balding monstrosities smothered in lace. But, in each case, the sinister hellspawn I’d set on the page was not, in fact, a Scary Doll™ but, rather, its devious (and far more terrifying) cousin: the Hilarious Doll.

So, regrettably, I’m putting the dolls to bed. There may yet be mileage in a one-eyed teddy bear, but for now I’ll leave with you Hugo, a genuinely terrifying doll from the 1945 horror classic Dead of Night

124e1ff090a57786db7d109158a79462

A visit from the evil word-fairy.

She comes in the night. Like the tooth fairy. Or perhaps a succubus. And what does she do? She takes the 522 words you lovingly crafted yesterday morning in the white heat of creative genius… and she hands you back something a nine-old-year child would be ashamed to have written.

Last night I had such a visit. This morning I find myself facing The Book in the cold light of Monday morning (and we all know Monday morning light is the coldest morning light of all) and wondering – as I believe Keats once put it – WTF?!?!?!

But where there’s tea, there’s hope. Kettle boiled, mug in hand, there’s no option but to plunge back into the ludicrous piece of sub-Downton nonsense I found on my laptop this morning… and try to write better today.

Sigh.

Blowing my own trumpet. Just momentarily. (Sorry.)

Image

Being British, I’ve always struggled a bit with blowing my own trumpet. It’s not quite the done thing, is it, chaps? It’s not quite cricket.

But a group of us got together last week at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road to read from our burgeoning novels, and (even if I say so myself) we did pretty bloody well. Every bone in my British body is screaming at me right now to temper that statement (rather well, okayish, marginally above average, slightly better than a smack in the face with a wet kipper) but, screw it, we acquitted ourselves with style and aplomb and it deserves saying. Here’s Laura Stimson saying it much better than me in her blog about the event (on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich).

For those who don’t already know, I’ve recently enjoyed a period of professional support from those lovely folk at WCN as part of their Escalator Literature programme 2012/13 (in conjunction with the UK Arts Council). They’ve produced a rather lovely booklet (which you can see in all its glory in the photograph above) containing quotes from myself and my nine fellow ‘Escalatees’ : Mary Nathan, Meghan Purvis, Megan Bradbury, Jonathan Curran, L. E. Yates, Kyra Karmiloff, Sue Healy, Ian Madden and Linda Spurr. There’s some extraordinary talent among them, so do check out their work at the WCN website. That’s me in the spotty dress, clenching my prosecco.

Image

And here’s me reading from my novel-in-progress Madder Hall, a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s and very nicely summed-up by my lovely mentor Michelle Spring as a ‘playful and menacing’ mix of the Gothic and the grotesque. (All credit for pics and video to the equally lovely Lucy White and Gordon Smith.) Having always loathed reading in public and, let’s be honest, majorly sucked at it too (see my last post), I found the experience about 67% less hair-raising than expected and feel only a modicum of dread at the thought of repeating it all at the Writers’ Centre’s Salon next month. N.B. The instrument I’m describing in this extract is the glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, and here’s what it sounds like in the expert hands of Thomas Bloch.

Here endeth the trumpet blowing. Rest assured, normal self-deprecating service will be fully resumed in my next post.

Fear of the blank page…

‘Get black on white,’ as Guy de Maupassant apparently once said. (Presumably in French.) ‘Black words on a white page are the soul laid bare.’

So no pressure there, then.

Writing your inaugural blog post, as it turns out, is almost as daunting as writing the first line of a story. Happily, in a blog, you can call on Maupassant to do the job for you.

Anyway… I’m Lynsey, a prize-winning short story writer and fledgling novelist. As a short story writer I’ve bagged the prestigious Bridport Prize and a Canongate Prize for New Writing. As a novelist I’ve kindly been taken under the wing of Writers’ Centre Norwich. Earlier this year I was chosen as one of the ten most promising genre novelists in the Eastern region as part of their Escalator Literature programme, and offered a year’s mentoring from the wonderful Michelle Spring. Very happily, I’ve also received a grant from the UK Arts Council to write my magnum opus, Madder Hall. And that’s mostly what I’ll be blogging about on this site. The highs and the lows (and yet more lows) of writing a novel.

In the meantime, here I am on the Future Radio archives waffling on about music (and myself) instead of writing.