Saturday, 29 January 2011

Exhaustion = Inspiration?

After an exhausting week I find myself facing a busy weekend. In fact, looking at my diary, not only am I working a 12 hour shift as well as my regular 10 hour shift next week, but I’m not due any down time until next weekend. You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to that weekend. I can see it now: me, in my slanket, a book, a cup of tea, the sofa. I’m only leaving the house for jalapenos, black beans and a gentle little run (maybe). Because sometimes, I just need to recharge my batteries. So don’t even try to get me out and doing anything more energetic than a jog. It ain’t gonna happen.

I am gradually getting into the routine of my new – hopefully permanent – rota. So now I’m slowing adding to my week. This week I successfully added in the hours that I can collaborate with my script-writing partner (although that’ll take a battering this week with that big fat 12 HOUR SHIFT). This week’s challenge is to fit in at least three runs while figuring out how to work Run Keeper from my Android phone. This is possibly a challenge too far…

Still, despite the long hours at work and the hours wasted travelling there and back I am not lacking in inspiration. The strange thing with me is that when I have all the time in the world, words are not forthcoming as when I’m trudging to the train station at 7am with my flask in one hand and brolly in the other. It’s like they know I really ought to be making productive use of the day.

In fact I always found at uni that I was at my most productive and creative when it was term-time and I was juggling lectures, deadlines, reading and my part-time job. In the summer, when I always intended to write loads and steal a march on the upcoming year, I always ended up craving fiction. My brain just refused to produced – it wanted to consume. The same happens on my weeks off and during those vast sands of unemployment. What my brain demands is a rest from producing and thinking. What fiction is for me and my brain is grist to the meal because when I’m back at work or wading through a to-do list that reaches my belly-button, I’ll be musing vaguely on something I just read or watched and through a convoluted train of thought I’ll arrive at a spark of an idea.

It also helps that being busy, having a life beyond the tapping of keys and the glow of a computer screen brings you into contact with people, events, snippets of conversation… gossip basically. I have to admit to lapping up the tales my friends tell – everything from funny things that happened to them and stuff that happened to their friend’s-brother’s-cousin-in-law’s-wife.

And yes, I have to confess, some of those stories have made their way into my notebook.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Define thyself.

I’ve been AWOL for a bit due to more hours at work. It’s still not full time, but the travel and the early mornings (ergo, early nights) have meant that I haven’t fancied sitting down in the front of the computer more than I have to. I’ve also had less time for reading, but I will have a review up on VL this week. I’m also planning a big one for mid February – comparing a 15th century text with its modern-day counterpart. I shall say no more till then…

Apart from that, I’ve been wondering the last week or so about definitions. How do you define yourself? It’s pretty important really. Your definition of yourself affects how you approach the world. But who can define themselves in one word? There’s probably a handful of words that you would use to define yourself, to say “This is the person I am” – cheerful, ugly, intelligent, happy, pessimist, sexy, creative, lucky. But do you also define yourself by what you do, by your job?

When I was at uni, despite also working at least two days a week I defined myself as a “student” because that’s what I was. I was only working in retail because I was a student. As I’m currently working 4 days a week as a receptionist and my days of being a student are over, I’m wondering how I’d define myself now. Say I get talking to someone in a bar and they ask “And what do you do?” How would I respond? I would probably say, “I’m a receptionist,” because that’s what I am, that’s what I’m paid for. I’m also not very comfortable telling strangers “I’m a writer.” You inevitably face the “Have I read anything of yours then?” question which can be very embarrassing if, like me, you’ve only had a couple of short stories and poems published. The only person who has read my complete published works is my Mum. An unpublished novel is not half as impressive once people realise that it’s just unpublished, not unpublished-at-the-moment-but-it’s-due-out-in-March.

But in my heart, I don’t consider myself a receptionist. It’s what I do to earn money, to pay bills, buy clothes, books and paper. It is not who I am. In my heart I am a writer. I write every day, even it’s just my diary. No, I’m not a career writer. I don’t have things regularly published and it doesn’t pay my bills. But I think about it constantly. My characters live in my head. I will write on anything, including my arms, in the middle of the night when I can’t find my notebook (everyone knows when this has happened because it ends up on my face) When I’m in the bath, I chatter away into a Dictaphone (the best present ever for someone who narrates long passages when up to her neck in bubble bath and then can’t remember a word of it when she can touch her notebook without water logging it). I read books and have one of three reactions:

1. Here’s where I think they went wrong...

2. Hmmm, I would have done this… (believe it or not, but that’s the genesis of Novel Number 1).

3. That was brilliant, I wish I had written it.

Even if my published tally remains a couple of short stories and poems, I won’t stop writing. If you told me I’d never publish another word I’d still write because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself otherwise. I’d have to take up… oh, I don’t know. Oil painting. Dog breeding. Pottery.

So, should you ever meet me in a bar and I say I’m a receptionist, remember how I really define myself:

Londoner. Vegetarian. Optimist. Passionate. Writer.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Kill your darlings!

PE01602_ A little while ago I said that I was returning to my first novel because something that had been niggling at me suddenly made sense and I was embarking on changing that particular strand of the story. While I was at it I realised the death of another character felt a little off too. Not that she died, but the manner in which she died. So I've been thinking and thinking about that and I've come up with another way of killing her off that is much better. At the moment she dies of meningitis, which she catches while nursing a young soldier that reminds her of her son. I'm keeping the part where she nurses the boy soldier, but that's not what kills her in the end. So now there's no death-bed confession which I always felt was a little awkward. The death-bed confession is a bit of a cliché, but there were lines in her death scene that I loved so much I was loathe to cut it. I could hear my lecturers screaming "Kill your darlings!!" but I couldn't at that point. Now that I have the distance and am editing another element of it I'm able to look at it more objectively and see that what I'm planning to do now works a lot better. It creates a much more believable reason for her husband to be guilty which is very important to the story.

It really is amazing how much of a difference a break can make. I was working for about six month solid last year on actually writing and then I ploughed straight into editing. I know now that that was the wrong thing to do because I was very quickly bored. I'd been churning out on average 1,000 words a day and for that to come to an abrupt halt really didn't help the editing process, which is a frustrating, lengthy and quite boring process anyway. Next time I think I'll start on something else and get that going before I come to edit something. That way I've got something to write as a "reward" for doing some editing.

I'm also only just really learning that the phrase "Kill your darlings" is totally true. The two plot strands that I'm changing - the marriage of the hero's lover and the death of his wife - were ones that I doggedly hung onto because they made the story go a certain way. A way I needed it to go for the rest of the story to happen. However, given time and space I've come up with much better ideas that avoid death-bed-confessional clichés, create more truth, are more believable and still drive my story in the direction I want. But much more smoothly than in it did in the original. I used to scoff at the phrase - they're my darlings for a reason. And this is my story and surely I know best?? But I know now that it's true - you can never be precious about anything in your novel because then you can't be ruthless enough to cut something that's dragging it down.

But that's not to say my darlings have gone completely. They've been re-homed in a "Scraps" file should a home become available.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Hello 2011!

Remember me saying that I was certain 2011 was going to be a great year? Well, I still think that but it didn’t get off to a flying start. I started to feel a little odd on Boxing Day and then the next day, I woke up feeling a little achy and thought I must have slept funny. By that evening though it was clear that I’d caught something. Turns out I got the norovirus! I popped out Monday before I got really ill and today was the first day out since then. Felt absolutely rotten and bored beyond all possible belief. I had such a great pile of books for Christmas (mindful of how many Arthurian books I’d taken out of the library, Mum got me a stash of my own!) and I couldn’t read one, just didn’t have the energy.

Mum also got me Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas for Christmas. I read it last year and thought it was wonderful. I read it when I was in my government-funded job and was feeling just as lost as Meg in the book. I reviewed it on Vulpes Libris and it was my pick for November’s book of the month at the Big Green Bookshop. So to ease me back into reading I’m re-reading it. I’m finding Thomas’s prose just as delicious the second time round, but I’m curious to see if I respond to it as enthusiastically now that I feel more settled and focused.

So my big New Year wasn’t the greatest party ever. I admit to sitting in bed, hugging a hot water bottle and scowling when I could hear all the fireworks and the laughing and singing. This virus made me lose 4lbs! I had a new dress! I was going to look great and have a great time! Still, there’s always next weekend. But I did manage my usual New Year ritual of having a clear out. I like to start the year with a clean slate.

I’m back to work tomorrow. I was very annoyed that I had to take Thursday and Friday off last week, given that I’ve only been there five minutes, so I’m glad to get back there. I’m also going to ease myself back into my running, that’s one of my resolutions and another one is to always carry my alcohol hand rub with me! I don’t want anymore viruses!

And last but by no means least, I was very sad to hear this morning that Pete Postlethwaite, “the best actor in the world” according to Steven Speilberg, died yesterday. I really admired this man, he seemed a genuinely good bloke and was a brilliant actor. I first saw him in Dragonheart, years ago and he never disappointed me. I have a list of actors I really rate and want to see live on stage and he was on that list. I’m sad that I’ll never see him on stage, but I’m just glad that he’s left behind such a wealth of great film and TV work. He will be very sadly missed.