The art of non-linear writing & not being scared of bears

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Apropos my notebook post, I’ve been chatting with other writers about them. More importantly, what goes in them. As Jan Baynham pointed out in the comments, pretty or plain, it’s what we put on the pages that counts.

If I slack in my writing routine – which in spite of a level of self-discipline I sometimes do – my defence is often that I’m still scribbling notes. My handwriting is quite striking but it has wings. It isn’t very well-mannered & spreads itself. This is why I prefer unlined notebooks. I’m a big dismisser of lines in any case. Ever since, as a child, I read Lines and Squares by A A Milne, I rebelled! Bears didn’t scare me then & I still eschew lines!

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In my unlined notebooks I can ramble at will & do. It makes for a decidedly scattered approach to story construction mind. There’s no method, no ‘Once upon a time – Middle bit – The end’.  But I enjoy the challenge of unravelling the random & making it fit. Coming across scenes I wrote months previously, & only half remember, delights me. And they often provide answers to issues I’m trying to work out. Oh yes! Already sussed that! (Long term memory, dear reader – par for course?)

I have no idea if my way is a recognised way of constructing a story. It works for me is all I know.

Mrs Woolf had a few words for it…

Arrange VIRGINIA

I have 27,000 words down of Underwater the Stars Shine Brighter. Some drifting & without direction, others quite orderly & pleasing; none of them pandering to bears. (I know – almost a dreadful, dreadful pun…)

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Notes in the margin…

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On reflection, I may have used this as a subject tag before. No matter – I’m not writing the same thing (at least I hope I’m not.) I’m writing about notebooks – which are, like every writer I know, part of my toolkit. I’m not imaginative in my choices – there are few pretty, decorated notebooks in my collection. I am choosy however. I write in pencil & eschew the shiny paper which most notebooks are made from. And lines. I don’t do lines.

A5 art sketchpads fit the bill exactly. The mildly textured paper is perfect for pencil. They can be expensive though – artists are even choosier than writers! I’ve been known to spend stupid money on a simple notebook. A few years ago, to my delight, I discovered a line in a local shop where nothing costs much. They have plain, unromantic black board covers & they’re spiral bound, which I also like.

For each book I write, I make copious handwritten notes & can fill up to six notebooks before I type a single word. Currently, I’m working my way through the ones pertaining to Book 4: Underwater The Stars Shine Brighter. Last year, Janey, my writing sister who knows me well, bought me one with exactly the right paper but an unexpectedly green cover. Lush!

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Book 4 unfolds in two time frames. The first, involving my main character’s backstory, is told through a diary she wrote, for about a year, when she was eighteen going on nineteen. The events of that time hugely impact on the second element of story told in the present, nearly sixty years later.

One of the early motifs involves Grace falling in love. For the first & only time in her life. Reading through the green notebook this past week, I came across several scenes I’d written ages ago – so long I’d forgotten them. They almost made me cry. This is still a work in progress; these are very much notes in the margins. But this is one of the ‘notes’ I made which I think will stick…

I want to be like her. Wear the same clothes, make up my eyes the way she does, with black lines & layers of mascara. I want to walk the way she does & dye my hair black. I wish I’d heard of Billie Holliday before I knew her so she would have been delighted when I told her. I want to hold a wine glass the way she does. With the stem at an angle so it looks as if the wine will spill, only it doesn’t because she’s in absolute control. I want her to be as much in love with me as I am with her.
© Carol Lovekin

Grace - aged sixteen  grace 10

I love Grace… I’m pleased she won’t let go…

As the hashtag says #amwriting…

Ritual

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This morning my writing mojo rolled out from under the bed. Somewhat dusty, tangled in cobweb but definitely made of words. And for the past day or two there have been CROWS.

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Far more than usual & although I imagine the wild, windy skies have tempted my feathered sisters to the dance, I like to think they’re here for me too. Eyeing my frustration, knowing that scribbling notes is not enough. Lousy, lazy ligaments notwithstanding (ha!) I need to work.

My new story (Book 4) is also an old one. Those of you who follow me will be au fait with Riverbook & know it’s history, be familiar with Grace – the central protagonist – a woman of a certain age. Twice, poor Grace has been set aside to make way for younger, livelier characters. At one point I wondered if I might be writing the wrong story but it won’t give up. Once the manuscript for Wild Spinning Girls was complete & I returned to Riverbook, out of the blue, it acquired a proper title: Underwater the Stars Shine Brighter & all at once there was a fresh connection.

It felt like validation – confirmation that the story wasn’t dead (pun alert) in the water.  And long before I broke my leg, at our weekly writing group sessions I’d tossed ideas around with Janey. (She’s very good at taking a glimmer & running with it.) Since I broke my leg I’ve filled two entire A5 notebook with scribbles – ideas, tangents, re-imagined versions of the story’s essential premise; scenes & all manner of scraps.

But it’s no longer enough. It’s time to crack on & return to the story proper. I’m bored by inactivity – physical & mental – & a sense of wasted days. And I’m an Aquarian – the mistress of the Plan. Ritual gives shape to my days & I need to reclaim one that works. A familiar one made of discipline & word birds.

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Onward & sideways, dear reader.

Don’t tell anyone – I have another book deal…

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It was the best Solstice gift ever – an email from my editor confirming acceptance of my third book, Wild Spinning Girls. Protocols & paperwork meant I couldn’t immediately go public. I was able to tell my nearest & dearest which mitigated the frustration a little.

In all honesty, I quite liked having a bookish secret. It’s different from a debut, when you want to Tell Everyone In The Entire Universe Immediately! You can relax a bit. And if you’re fortunate enough to be published by a tiny press; one that consistently produces classy books to an exceptionally high standard & takes infinite care with your words, you learn to be patient. The book won’t be published until some time next year & that’s okay too. All good things & so forth.

In any case, there’s a great deal to be said for space between books. I’m not sure how I’d fare in a world that required a book (or even two) a year from me. How do people even do that? Okay, some stories write themselves (Snow Sisters did); others are far harder & need nurturing. Wild Spinning Girls is done, but still not finished. There’s more finessing to do & I’m glad. I know I haven’t yet reached the stage where I’m ready to relinquish it, because I know there’s editor-driven magic still waiting to be conjured.

All of that notwithstanding mind – get me! Who knew, back in March 2016, when I first held a copy of Ghostbird, my debut novel, in my hand, I’d do it not once more but twice?

Wild Spinning Girls is another story set in Wales. It has many of the elements of the previous two books, not least an old house. This time, a very remote one… There’s a ghost too & a secret…

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It will be down to my reader to decide if a level of familiarity is a good thing.

I’ll be revealing small hints over the next however long it takes; small clues & visual images. My favourite fairytale, The Red Shoes plays a part. If you examine it closely, TRS is both a fascinating & horrible story. Hans Christian Andersen hated his sister Karen so much, he gave the beleaguered heroine of his grisly tale her name. As a child however, training to be a ballet dancer & loving fairytales, it was inevitable this one would fascinate me.

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And because I don’t do even numbers, here’s another hint.

CROWS GIRL

Island life is still a thing, never more so than during the past eight weeks. Breaking my leg was a thing too. A massive shout out to everyone who wished me well, not least in the writer/reader community. As for my tribe, the sisters who came to my aid, day after day, you have my gratitude for ever.

Suspending disbelief

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Dear reader – I know, poor, neglected blog. My writing process being the point of this thing (& I am writing, I promise) you’d think…

Book 4 is emerging & now being written in third person present which is interesting. Those of you who’ve followed me from the olden days will remember me referencing a story I called my RiverBook. It’s been set aside several times & almost drowned to be honest. I’m firmly of the belief that some stories aren’t meant to be written & ought to be allowed to pass peacefully. (TreeBook anyone? I think not…) RiverBook refuses to let go however – largely because the central protagonist is old[ish] & curmudgeonly. She keeps nagging. I’m acquiescing then & embracing Grace…

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The other thing – & why I really came here this morning – concerns a conversation I had last week with my writing group sister, Janey. We were discussing the nature of magic & how, in authentic magical realism, the author asks only that her reader suspend disbelief. I wondered if it was sometimes a lot to ask & perhaps, I write for a fairly niche audience.

Alongside my sisters, mothers & daughters, I write so-called ‘witchy’ characters: wise women with one foot in the ‘normal’ world, the other on the threshold between the veil. Ordinary women who happen to have that wee something that sets them apart. An affinity with the natural world & a heritage connecting them to the Old Ways.

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Janey made an astute & very smart observation. We live in a land steeped in magic, in myths & legends. Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, as a nation we Brits (Welsh, Irish, Scottish & English) have magic embedded in our history, our bloodlines & our collective psyche. We find it easy to believe in ghosts & spirits & the supernatural. We love a haunted house, a ghost story, a dragon & a faerie; we relish fantasy & myths brought to life in ways we can relate to. The huge success of the BBC drama series Merlin (2008-2012) is a terrific example.

Other, older ones, Janey pointed out, are numerous: from Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970) & Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1980s) to The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012) to the recent re-imagining of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Documentaries & dramas – we love them equally. And if we don’t, it’s more often than not because we’re too scared to watch them!

Yes – skeptics abound – but I’m less concerned than I was a week ago. I shall continue writing my ‘wise women’ characters, place them in their odd cottages, twisty houses & magical gardens. Set them baking good spells into bread, stitching protective ones into curtains; healing with herbs & kindness. I shall write them wrapped in mystery & concealing clothes, allow them to conjure what enchantments they will.

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The characters I conjure come from my own ancestral memory bank. Lili in Ghostbird & Mared, the grandmother in Snow Sisters. My own ‘disbelief’ is non-existent, frankly – I’ve been wandering between the veil since forever. Nothing to frighten the horses, but I know stuff & every now & then, it’s as real as breathing. And my characters know it too.

Showing up … with a new notebook.

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“[I] am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.” 

Virginia Woolf was talking about her diary. She could just as easily have been referring to her books. She often had a haphazard relationship with both. As do I. Although, unlike Mrs Woolf, I keep a sparse diary these days. More a daily, brief note frankly. My writing style is equally random. All over the shop to be honest – rarely linear but it works for me, so onward & sideways…

My third story is out on submission. It’s time to show up & write another. And so I bought myself a new notebook. Partly because I need one & also because the focus for #Book 4 has shifted hugely. It already exists in a complete first draft. The writing of it has happened over a period of several years. It’s been a thread, winding in & out of Ghostbird, Snow Sisters, a story about a fire-ruined house & #Book3. (Don’t ask – I’m terribly superstitious & until/if, too terrified to reveal the title.)

#Book 4 then kept getting eclipsed. I wondered at one point if it was one of those stories that wasn’t meant to be written at all. But I kept going back to it & to Grace, the central character. Grace is unlike anyone I’ve written before. She’s older for one thing. I’m very keen to write an older woman protagonist & I’ve been thinking about Grace a lot over the past week or so, wondering if I can finally write her & do her justice.

arthur-rackham Fair Helena

There will be a selkie too, although not in the way most people imagine. Mine bears very little resemblance to the ‘conventional’ selkie myth & she’s never been near the sea…

The distance between my original vision for this story & being ready to write it properly means it was inevitable that aspects would change. And so it’s proved. This is the best time of year for me to write. Darker evenings, lush morning mists, nights drawing in… So yes, bought myself a new notebook…

All the stars… My book of the year

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There are certain books that, when you come to the end of them, you have no idea what you are supposed to read next. A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is such a book. On the morning I finished it, I sat in bed in a state of mesmerised shock because this is an utterly beautiful story & after two days, I still have no idea what to pick next.

toor ud

This book is elegant, eloquent & elegiac; profound, breathtaking, filled with the kind of prose that must surely have begun life in the author’s head as a poem. It shines with poetic moments & they stun, softly, like tiny birds beating against your rib-cage.

It’s a deceptively simple tale, one of love, loss & grief. Poor Jonah, lost without his dead wife Audrey, picks at your heart. Harry – an integral part of Kew Gardens, where the story is set – won me over from the beginning. Chloe & her paper skills, her delicate strength. Audrey with her secret… Everyone in this book is made from a version of love & each one is different: sweet, bittersweet, kind, capricious & as fragile as a paper bird on a lily pond.

Perhaps it’s because I write on the edges of magical realism that I found much in this book to enchant me. It’s certainly because I love rain & snow & write about them both, that I found this passage captivating.

My favourite character is ten-year-old Milly, who is explaining rain to Jonah:

‘It rains. Then the puddles evaporate and become clouds again. Round and round it goes. It got me thinking how nice it must be for a raindrop to become a snow-flake. For months you’re just rain and everyone hates you. But then one winter the weather gets chilly and you become a snowflake with its own shape and pattern. And you’re the only one of your kind of snowflake and everyone loves you. I reckon snow must be God’s gift to the raindrop.’

A Thousand Paper Birds is my book of the year.

Resting… or not, as the case may be…

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Dear reader, how nice!
It’s been a while, but there’s a clue in the subtitle: ‘process…’  For a while, as I waited, there was none – not so’s you notice. Waiting is waiting & must be braved. The joy is in the outcome: a measure of progress within the process, so to speak.

Having untangled the minutiae of the structural edit, I dived in again. That’s the beauty of smart, intelligent, instinctual editing – it makes you want to do better. And as it turns out, I’ve been aided & abetted by an injury to the plantar ligament in my foot. (If you know it, you know it… There aren’t enough versions of ‘ouch’… And no need to commiserate. Cake will be fine…) The only treatment is rest.

Rest & write then. My brain, a thing of furious, focused energy, unpicking my story & stitching it together again; my body inert & aching from inactivity. The ridiculous irony is, in this rearranged version of my story (starting in the right place this time), I’m writing about a ballet dancer who injures her foot…

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Go figure…

Into the stream…

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I may not be blogging much for a while.

Structural edits are in. The End as I know it becomes redundant. One thing’s clear – I don’t always begin at the beginning either. Not the right beginning at any rate. Or end the way I’m meant to.

I’m off then, to wander – less aimlessly I can only hope. Re-assemble this story & say what I meant to, at the beginning, when I first had the idea.

Writers do a great deal of wandering off. What Virginia Woolf described as, ‘the line of thought [dipped] deep into the stream.’ The perfect metaphor for editing.

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See you, dear reader… I have to sharpen my pencils & grab my galoshes.

In love with blue

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It’s a typically ‘island’ morning. Heavy mist brings a sense of isolation, perfect for a writer, pondering what to write on her neglected blog. It’s a month since my last post. It occurred to me just now that it’s three days shy of a year since I revealed the cover for my second book, Snow Sisters.

Snow Sisters Cover final front only sm

Tenterhooks wasn’t in it. I’d spent weeks, watching the process of cover-creation unfold, silently screaming, ‘It’s too blue!!!’ The original image was a lot paler & it was partly why, when I was offered the image, I jumped at it. And then the designer came on board & the blue set in.

‘Trust the process,’ said my editor, when I voiced a small concern.
Too blue, I muttered to myself.

Oh, ye of little faith.

One of the things you learn, as you navigate the publishing world, is that the importance of a cover has little to do with what you, the author, imagines it to be. It isn’t about your vision or the pictures you’ve been hoarding ever since you thought up your first title. (Which, FYI, could well end up have nothing to do with your initial idea either.) It’s about marketing: shelf-appeal, genre-style & how customers (often subconsciously) react to covers, to colours & font. And getting all of this right is a skill. Like professional editing & diligent proofreading, cover design is down to someone else’s skill-set & rarely to yours.

Blue then – deep, subtle blue with hints of ice… Perfection. And apparently, popular.

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I love my book covers. On the shelf, my wee books are bobby-dazzlers.

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In a year (minus three days) of Sundays I doubt I could have come up with anything remotely as sweet. Brava Honno, (longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK, by the way) you do us proud.