‘What kind of language is this?’ *

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

My ability to ignore distractions is pretty good. So long as I’m at home writing, as opposed to hanging in a cafe or suchlike, I can concentrate reasonably well on my current work in chaos. The world at large is far too interesting & full of shiny. Paradoxically, silence is a complete no-no too – there’s no such thing when you live in even a small town & distractions abound. When I’m writing I need familiarity: a touch of Radio 4 in the background, music that fits my mood; add the view from Withering Heights & I’m good to go.

Background is the operative word. I don’t need to be able to distinguish particular words. My own are what count. So long as I’m where I belong, the lyrics to songs turn into a sweet humming & I can crack on happily.

What interests me though is how, when I’m editing, some words do get through. It’s only certain songs that can do this. I don’t have a play list – my choices are pretty random. Or are they? An album I return to over & again while editing (& writing) is Kate Bush’s Aerial. In particular, the second CD: A Sky of Honey. I know the words to every song almost by heart. If I could only take one album to that desert island, this would be it. And this week, as I began the first important pass on Book 3, I returned to these songs once more. In the background you understand, but as present as the real, word birds still edging their way into my consciousness. (They have shiny too & secrets.) More often than not they know far better than I how this editing process needs to go.

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Oh, editing… What fresh hell & all that. What gibbers (thank you dear Juliet Greenwood for this perfect expression of the editing writer’s almost constant state of mind.)  What terror as you approach The Bit You Know Will Need A Vast Amount Of Work Because You Kidded Yourself You’d Nailed It When Clearly You Have Done No Such Thing. That said I enjoy editing. For me, in the first instance at any rate, it’s the smell of printed paper, sharpened pencils & a different outlook. Literally – I hard-copy edit in my sitting-room rather than my study, sofa bound & cushioned & very familiar.

Five days ago, having rescued Book 3 from the Dark Drawer after a month of marinating, I began. And when I get fed up with Jenni Murray chatting earnestly about vaginas, when the state of Bob Flowerpot’s compost & Pippa Greenwood’s sweet peas lose their allure, when the news stops being news & sounds more like coffee adverts, I reach for Kate.

And even though I have the volume turned down, some of the words do get through. I pause & listen: What kind of language is this? / I can’t hear a word you’re saying… And yet somewhere I can. In some part of my edit-addled brain, the right words exist. If I try really hard, make sure I have enough tea & chocolate to sustain me through the gibbering, I’ll hear them. My best words are in there somewhere.

Better get on then – see if I can find them.

*Kate Bush

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Writing in the margins – somewhere in between

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

In spite of a lush sun trying to burn it off, the mist sticks. The swallows are back, Mistress Crow is in her tree & all’s right with the world. My bit of it at any rate. And for that I’m grateful.

With Book 3 still resting in the Dark Drawer, I’ve been busy Harassing the Hovel & restoring ten months of disorder. Apart from general cleaning, I’ve been decluttering, frightening the filth into submission & chalk-painting furniture. Larks galore! And not much writing done, frankly. I’m between [drafts], so to speak.

I don’t believe writers ever stop writing mind, even when they aren’t physically wielding a pencil, they’re at it in some form or other – ‘not writing’ their little socks off. ‘Not writing’ takes many forms, from actually not doing it to scribbling in your head. This is what I’m currently doing. With a Big Fat Edit looming, I’m already harking back (& forth) to scenes I know I’m going to play with (aka: mutilate.) The word birds are in whisper mode – they know how this works far better than I do. As I paint & clean & tidy, they slip notes into the mental chaos in the margins of my mind.

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I slipped in a few of my own too, last Sunday. As part of the Llandeilo Lit Fest I attended a poetry workshop run by the poet Kathy Miles. My admiration for Kathy’s work is huge. And the title of the workshop – The Changeling Poet: Writing Out the Narrative Voice – intrigued me enough to sign up. As did the description: A workshop which explores the persona poem, and how we can write ‘out of ourselves’. We will look at different ways in which the poet can write as animal, object, ghost or mythical figure, some of the techniques used to transform the narrative voice, and use these techniques to produce a piece of writing.

The persona poem form wasn’t unknown to me – it was absolutely not a motif I’d ever explored. (My forays into poetry pursued the patriarchy & shouted, ‘Watch out, the feminist is cross! Again!’) I wasn’t mistaken in my certainty that Kathy’s workshop would be useful. It exceeded my expectations & not only did I leave with ideas galore, I even wrote a poem that wasn’t livid & snarky.

A goodly number of the whispered words in my head involve my ghost. She’s different from Angharad in Snow Sisters & nothing at all like wee Dora in Ghostbird. Her voice has a quirky edge & I like the idea that I can play with it, perhaps create something unusual. The workshop definitely gave me food for thought – mine & my ghost’s.

I’m still working on it – Kathy has kindly offered some tips & I may one day be tempted to share my poem. Then again, I may not… In the meantime, I’ll keep writing in the mind margins, translate the whispers. Once the painting & housework are done, I’ll delve into the Dark Drawer & dig out Book Three.

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The Dark Drawer

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

At the end of May last year, I ran a story idea past my mentor, Janet Thomas. (I blogged about it here.) I had 2,000 [random] words down. Ten months later, dear reader, I did it. I finished Book 3.

spinning

Checking my writing diary this morning, I saw that on 7 October, I was ‘back in the chair for Bk3.’ (The bit in between involved copy edits for Snow Sisters, getting the book ready for it’s September release & the blog tour.) I still managed days here & there, writing the beginnings of the story.

It feels longer than ten months. I’ve struggled with parts of this book & I’m by no means out of the wood. (Note to self: Order more bread crumbs.) Nonetheless, it’s done & I hope, like the ecclesiastical egg, it’s good at least in parts. Time to step back & leave well alone for a while.

In terms of a completed first draft, The Dark Drawer is often a metaphor. Not everyone prints off actual hard copy & stuffs it in a literal drawer. In my case, I do. It’s part of my process & when it comes to the first round of edits, I prefer paper, sharpened pencils & a box of tissues. (Weeping may be involved – I have to shift a minimum of 20 k to make this story viable.)

I’m not normally very good at not writing, but I’m fairly relaxed at the moment. No idea how long it will last; I have a couple of talks to polish (& a neglected house to be kind to.) For the rest, it’s thumb twiddling time I guess. I’m taking bets on how long I can resist opening The Dark Drawer.

Girl is a feminist issue

Island Life, Word Birds & Process

This week I completed a draft of my third book. (Hoorah! Cake! Etc!) As I edit like a loony along the way, I don’t tend to number drafts. Technically, it’s the first complete one; realistically, it’s part tidy & part messy. My next trick is to print a hard copy which I’ll leave in a darkened drawer for as long as I can bear the suspense. In the meantime, I’m attending to the ‘throwaway’ words.

And pondering the title.

Like it or loathe it, Girl in the title of a contemporary novel, however ubiquitous, appears to sell books. As a woman who writes largely about women (albeit about girls as well), I have long eschewed reaching for the Girl word. And yet I find myself unexpectedly in love with a title I conjured several months ago for this story. It contains the word Girls – plural – & I like it. I allow it as it’s part metaphor & because it takes into account the fact that some women in some stories (as in life) will always be girls. (Two of mine certainly are. One is a girl of seventeen so points anyway.) More importantly, regardless of age, some women will always be intimately connected to their girl self.

Against all my previous feminist conviction, I’m now convinced Girl can work in certain kinds of grown-up fiction titles. And I’ve reached this conclusion after a great deal of thought. It’s exercised me in a way nothing has for a long time. And I think – for me at any rate – writing the story of Ida & Heather has sealed my certainty; I know why I’ve changed my mind.

It’s because both pain & a sense of wonder are never completely eliminated from most women’s lives. Girl in fiction is part of an important, ironically feminist, narrative. At a certain age (ambiguous in itself) women are expected to conform to a norm no one really understands. (Certainly not men.) And for those of us of a certain generation, not least our mothers (surviving the patriarchy by the skin of their collective teeth.) These excellent, brave, hopeful, frustrated women, insisting we were old enough to know better & yet too young to understand.

Go figure.

I deliberately made my Girl character seventeen. It’s my own go-to heart age. I may not recall eight or twenty-five in any detail, I remember being seventeen as if it were yesterday. It’s a magical age: girls on the cusp of womanhood, when they have more power than they have the wisdom to appreciate.

The woman, as Girl, is saying she isn’t prepared to let go. Girl allows her to reach back & touch the luminous moments. Girl keeps her safe & her dancing dreams alive.

Blue Shoes

It’s a wonder all by itself. So I’m risking it – it feels too right not to.

#GirlIsAFeministIssue

‘A note…*

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process.

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf is a book that accompanies me. By that I mean, it’s a companion. I don’t take it with me when I go shopping, but I don’t stay away from home overnight without it. My copy is heavily annotated (in pencil) & I return to it over & again. This morning, I opened it randomly, at Wednesday, November 14th, 1934.

* ‘A note: despair at the badness of the book: can’t think how I could ever write such stuff – and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up and down – and Lord knows the truth.’

The passage is underlined & the word ‘Rewriting‘ written in the margin. This writer has been here before, methinks [knows]!

I’m indulging myself in a moment of angst. Even though I have it all – blocked in & laying the foundations (in some instances, the detail) for the final chapters – I’m still beating myself up over this story. I oscillate between ‘the badness‘ & ‘thinking it good again‘ like a wildly out of control lighthouse beam. (To the Lighthouse? Some puns have no sensitivity whatsoever…)

woolff      woolf diary

Mrs Woolf said this too: ‘My head is a hive of words that won’t settle.’

Hives & lighthouses, bees & beams. Whatever, it’s all absolutely in my head.

Onward & sideways.

 

Tempus fidgets…

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

There are mornings when it’s as if I ordered the mist. Oh, the smother of it – draped like adornment left over from a Fäe wedding! Concealing & tricksy too: time, at the beck & call of Daylight Saving, catching me unawares. (I’m a winter person – I like the dark.) Last night I was ready for it – only not ready enough it seems – this morning finds me trailing.

My Irish mother was a great one for playing with language. It was she who defied Latin & came up with the notion of time ‘fidgeting’ which to this day I approve of. Time, for a writer, is often a luxury & even for me – retired from the day job – storytelling gets done between other commitments. Waking up & finding I’d lost an hour reminded me how time is never static & not always compliant.

One of the things I do in the morning – because I can – is write in bed. I read a bit, over the first cup of tea, but more often than not set the book aside in favour of the notebook & the pencil. My brain is alive in the morning & I love writing by hand. And I have a cat on Cat Time which means early mornings absolutely are a thing. (I’m no owl, so early nights are by & large a given too.)

I’ve reset the clocks & mentally reset the body one. It’s Sunday – Withering Heights sits in the mist, adrift & rather lovely, paying no regard to time. And I have notes.

Onward & sideways. (Also my mother.)

Island Life & catching up

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Not only are the hills shrouded in mist this morning, they’re littered with whirling, sideways snowflakes. Trés pretty, but yes… I think all that needs saying about unseasonal weather has been said. And having written about it at length in Snow Sisters,* I feel my work here really is done.

I didn’t write a blog post last week – largely due to the nature of the current Work in Chaos which required my attention. ie: My obsession with wordcount needed taking in hand. Mercifully, it’s a thing of the past & I’m returned to writing terra firma. And a satisfying session with my mentor gifted me a new bag of breadcrumbs. The wood now feels more manageable; the last leg of the narrative less haphazard.

My inner excited writer is delighted. Sometimes, all we need is to be asked a few pertinent & thoughtful questions: ‘Would she want to do this?’ And ‘ Why doesn’t she do that?’ (Sisters you see – tricksy creatures…) And so forth. All grist to my proverbial & something for the word birds to think on too, while they cwtch down to wait out this unexpected snow. (It’s not giving up…)

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I shall dance in it – metaphorically you understand – & wait for them.

* “Sometimes it snows in April”
~ Prince

 

Writing by numbers

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Those of you who keep up with my ramblings (thank you, dear reader – you are my favourite) may have spotted a recent hint of wordcount mithering. Once upon a time, it hardly concerned me. I am my mother’s daughter. She was a great one for saying things took as long as they took. Driving to Rhyl on holiday for instance: ‘Are we there yet?’ And Ma insisting that knowing how many miles we still had to cover didn’t help one bit, so my sister & I may as well give over.

For years, wordcount struck me as something similar: it wasn’t how many words I wrote each day, it was the process that mattered. Showing up & writing what I could happily conjure. I was almost dismissive of wordcount. It was a hindrance to creativity & could wait until it became important to someone. Like an editor.

Perhaps the pressure of writing a third book was what changed things for me, saw me gradually getting caught up in wordcount worry. And an actual numbered goal. (90 k to be precise.)

Recently, I’ve found myself far too hung up on numbers. At about 70 k or so, I began eyeing the thin blue line that is the Word toolbar, checking the damn thing every five minutes. If I didn’t get a minimum of 1,000 words a day down, it felt like a fail. And it was at pretty much this point I lost my way for a week or two. I ran out of breadcrumbs & found myself running round the wordy wood in circles.

The plot was quite literally lost.

For a while, frankly, writing became a chore. This has never been the case with me. Never. I was still showing up & banging away but it felt like pressure.

Yesterday I had an email conversation with a friend. As we chatted about our ‘next book’ & the usual concomitant pressures, she reminded me that the most important thing was to enjoy the writing, for it’s own sake. And it occurred to me that I was in the process of becoming my own worst enemy. For a short precious time, I’d stopped enjoying myself.

And it was the wretched wordcount doing it. What I’d lost sight of was that I’m on track to finish this book & to do it fairly soon. As things stand, it’s coming out at roughly the same length as the other two. And that’s the magic. There’s an instinct at play – mine – & it’s been there from the beginning. My story knows the way. All I need to do is show up. Get the words down & enjoy myself.

Listen to my mummy – my very own Irish word bird, gone these past eighteen years but still whispering in my ear.

‘It takes as long as it takes, acushla.’

BIRD HAIR mags phelan stone
Picture © Mags Phelan Stones

Up the down staircase (with a parachute?)

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It’s highly likely I’ve used the above title before. (Sans the parachute reference.) No matter – if the cap fits & so forth.

Two weeks ago I was feeling a bit aimless. After waffling on about Saggy Middle Syndrome (Except it’s Further On & a Bit Of  a Worry) & my options, I knuckled down. That was the plan at any rate. Monday morning found me knowing what I wanted to write (what I needed to write) only quite lost because the way in alluded me. It’s a thing with me – every now & then I find myself armed with a good scene or chapter & stumped, because I have no opening line.

It took me two days to write a single chapter.  I was all over the place – the words were there but without that essential first line, it had no heart. Good first lines aren’t confined to the opening chapter of a book. Every chapter needs to entice. (Closing ones are pretty important too.) My enticing skills had deserted me until – in the end (so to speak) – it was a simple as this:

She hadn’t closed the curtains.

Who knew? And don’t ask me where those five words came from – I have no idea, only that some dear bird took pity on me & left them in the edges of my hair. I was off & it’s been a lovely week. Writing early each morning – still in my PJs – putting in the hours before my bit of the internet woke up.

I still have no idea if this story is a flyer – I think it is but there are no guarantees. It’s well quirky & in places quite off the wall. Bits of it please me hugely – lots of it will need serious attention.

Above all – I’m mad about my new sisters. I love them, even though a good deal of the time they lead me a merry dance & it is like going the wrong way up (or down) an escalator. If I hang on to the invisible parachute though, I’m fine.

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As for my ghost, dear reader, I adore her. Would you like a little more?

   It isn’t my job to make things easy for you, Ida – I am not yet at peace. Until I am, I’m tricksy. I’m the tick of that old clock and the wordless whispers in your cobwebbed sleep. I’m the scent of apples and soot and feathers. I slip through open windows, in and out on your whim now, not mine. I drift through woman-shaped keyholes as easily as breathing. Slip and smile and you taste me on your bitten lip.
© Carol Lovekin

And that, as they say, is your lot!

Dust – & writing about nothing

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As it’s Sunday, my first thought was – after tea & my morning read – what could I conjure by way of a blog post? With the best will in the world, I have virtually nothing. I’ve reached the stage with my Work in Chaos that some writers refer to as Sagging Middle Syndrome. As I’m well over half-way I’m not sure whether to panic or relax. Relaxing feels like a bit of a risk & I’ve never been keen on panic. Takes up too much precious energy.

I could ignore the whole thing & do the dusting. (You could create bas-relief on my furniture right now – no really, you could.) My bet is I’m not alone when I say, housework is the first casualty of the First Draft. I’m disinclined though – it is Sunday after all…

As you were then – as I was. There’s only one thing for it. Summon the word birds & perhaps, prove to myself that if I can’t tap-dance on a tightrope – which is why I took up writing in the first place – I can cycle on a telegraph line!

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Writing about nothing is a piece of cake.