How we write

York

York

I’m currently in York (‘Old York’), having just come from Stratford-upon-Avon, and I’m working my way up to the Scottish Highlands where I will participate in one last writing event — a writers’ retreat just outside of Inverness.

Where I met up with the 'London Literary Cafe'.

Where I met up with the ‘London Literary Cafe’.

I’ve been pondering on the differences and similarities in how we all write as I’ve travelled about. Some of us, like me, try to write everyday, lest our rhythm and energy slip. Many, like me again, like to write to music — whether this is to simply cut off distractions from the world or perhaps even draw on the mood of the music as you try to effectively turn ideas into written words.

As I attend groups and retreats (only one of the latter, so far, but another coming), I am struck by how many of us still write from pen to paper, transcribing to computer at a later date. This is something I rarely do. For me, writing from pen to paper just adds hard labour to the task. I avoid it where I can. I much prefer to use all of the devices available to me to aid my writing. For me, this is a part of the fun. I practically surround myself with devices. But at the writers’ retreat in Shropshire I was especially aware that those with a laptop were in a distinct minority. Interestingly, London was different, with many writing with the aid of bot laptops and iPads.

Where I met up with 'Write Together', London.

Where I met up with ‘Write Together’, London.

I often think about rhythm in my writing, which for me is an intuitive thing, the sense of my words and sentences flowing together in a way that supports the images I am trying to convey. I think this is the same for most writers, but one writer I met talked to me about the melody in his writing, and how this was different to the rhythm of his words. Something I’ll need to give some more thought to.

The same goes for the writing spaces we choose. I write wherever I can (I’m writing this sitting up in bed). For others it must be a desk. And perhaps even one specific desk. Many writers also love a good view before them. Of course I like a terrific view as much as anybody, but for writing? I would find it distracting. I would just want to gaze into it. But we’re all different.

Dunstable Downs. Close to where I grew up in the UK.

An incredible view! Dunstable Downs, close to where I grew up in the UK.

I’ll leave you now with a few more travel snaps, and let you know more about the final writers’ retreat soon.

In Shakespeare’s old house, in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can buy the complete set of Shakespearean Star Wars books. Here’s two…

The Phantom of Menace

The Phantom of Menace

There's a complete set of Shakespeare Star Wars books.

The Clone Army Attacketh.

And a Dr Who…

Shakespeare Dr Who.

Dr Who? That is the question.

A literary construction site in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A literary construction site.

And finally, ending a serious note, the house where Shakespeare grew up…

P1090681

At a writers’ retreat in Shropshire

long shot of Hurst

My post about the writers’ retreat in Shropshire has had to wait until I finally got over a nasty chest infection (well, almost over) — a hearty thanks to the UK’s National Health Service for their support in this.

So what, in a single sentence, did I get out of my near-week long retreat in a remote part of Shropshire? Easy. Two answers. I spent a week rebooting the writer in me (something I’ve come to realise I needed). And I made a whole host of brand new writer friends.

Pat

Sharing our work

There were sixteen of us — emerging writers — staying in the Georgian Manor pictured above. Plus, the two established authors, Mavis Cheek and Stephen May, who looked after our writerly interests for the week. Then of course there was also the onsite staff, including a poet laureate who helped with lunch meals in the day. Some like me brought their works in progress, others were there to kickstart new projects. There was so much diverse and energetic writing talent in one place, it was wonderful to be a part of it — hearing first hand about each other’s projects, and listening in as they shared their work. 

A typical day for me began with getting in some quick writing (with the aid of a plunger of coffee) before grabbing a small breakfast and gathering in the main tutorial room. In these morning sessions, all of us fresh and ready for the day, we would look closely at any number of aspects of writing, from enriching dialogue, to the eight-point structure, creating good place and setting, and research. While I was already familiar with many of these topics — as were others too — they came very candidly from the personal perspectives of the two established authors and so felt new and engaging.

garden group

Spending some time in the afternoon sun.

The afternoons were given over to our own writing time, informal chats about writing, walks about the grounds and on-on-one sessions.

In the evenings we had the cooking groups. This was my only stress of the week. Recipes were there to help us, and staff were on hand where possible. Yet it was still an ordeal given the number of us and the variety of dietary preferences. In the end, I was proud of the chocolate pudding I somehow created (I kept the recipe but I’m not sure I could ever manage it a second time), but I felt for my fellow writers Pat and Anne who took on most of the lasagne cooking tasks. Imagine making vegetarian lasagne for that many people — plus two smaller ones for other dietary requirements. I helped them where I could.

The evenings after dinner were devoted to presenting written works. We heard from the author tutors, a guest writer  Selma Dabbagh (who was very generous with sharing her personal writing experiences) and, of course, ourselves. 

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later)

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later, as did much jolly abandon)

Happily, much of the feedback for my draft of Beneath the Surface was of a fine tuning nature — or ‘grace notes’, as Mavis Cheek liked to call them. Significantly, however, I was compelled to revisit my opening lines. The opening lines of a novel are critical. No matter how exciting the rest of your story may be, if you have not engaged the reader’s interest from the start, they will not stick around to marvel at those gems waiting later in your book. It was good feedback which I have gladly taken.

So, enough chat, onto some more pictures….

First up, a shelfie. This is a shelf from one of the bookcases I noticed when I first wrote about this retreat some months ago (back in Australia). It now has a new home next to the author tutors’ rooms (and mine – clearly I’d been the first to book in).

P1050248

Here’s John Osborne’s (playwright and former owner of the estate) favourite view. I’m standing just beyond the back of the house…

P1050206

I had the room directly above me in this photo…

P1050284

A walkabout, one afternoon, as I was reflecting on exciting writing ideas, perhaps…

P1050224

P1050190

P1050184

P1050217

Finally, I leave you with a short piece I wrote during one of the morning sessions. It’s about my visit back to the old house where I grew up. I’ve not reworked it since the session, besides fixing a typo.

The wide avenue of my memory

Last week I visited my childhood home for the first time in over 40 years. The road up was bendy and thin. Not the wide avenue of my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the red sold sign attached to the hedging. So the people here don’t want to be here anymore? I thought. What a silly thought. What did it matter?

The house, two-storey, semi-detached, leaned to one side and seemed the worst kept in the street. Its sad eyes looked out and passed me.

It was as if I was visiting something I’d once read about in a book.

I peered up at the upper bedroom window, knowing that was where I and my two brothers once slept.

How did a family of seven live in this place for so many years?

I wasn’t going to, but I tried the door knocker. A dog barked. No one was home. But I remembered the sound of the door knocker well. Deep, warm and woody. Want a funny, unexpected thing to remember.

When I walked on to top of the hill, the way I used to go to school as a child, I turned around and looked down. I saw a view I did not recall. I did not know was there. I saw the town stretch away across the valley. I saw where it ended, and there were open fields rising into hills. I saw jets in the distance, landing and taking off.

Shelfies

11 Cardiff Castle library

I have some shelfies to share with you from the UK.

While viewing on the internet the place of my forthcoming writers’ retreat — a mere few days away — I was struck by the bookshelves in the manor displayed in the background of one photo. I found myself wondering what could be in them. Possibly they will be filled with ‘stuffy books’, things put there more for their dignified appearance than their content, but we shall see.

Meanwhile, here are a few shelfies I’ve taken as I make way way about the UK. (Taking ‘shelfies’, by the way, according to a librarian relative of mine — is quite the thing with the librarian set. And here I was, thinking it was just me.)

London secondhand bookshop

Shelfie No.1: From a London secondhand bookshop

This first one is a shelfie through the window of a secondhand bookshop (Quinto Bookshop) near Covent Garden, London. They’re rather rare books, hence the protective coverings. ‘The Horrid mysteries’ — love that name. It could be worth a flick through. And the first book, a sci-fi with 50s-looking spaceships on its cover is selling for 75 pounds (US$116.00). It’s by EE ‘Doc’ Smith and was first published in 1948 (though written for the Amazing Stories magazine in 1934).

A tower of  British books

Shelfie No. 2: A tower of British books, British Library

This next one is from the British Library. Books preserved behind glass. Never to be read. Well, who would dare ask one of the librarians to fetch you one to thumb through? ‘That  one near the top, on the right, please. Many thanks.’

From Chapter Arts Centre,  Cardiff

Shelfie No. 3: From Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales

Here’s a much simpler shelfie, from a vibrant local arts centre in Cardiff. An interesting selection of reading. I’m guessing people leave them for others to collect. The Good Beer Guide — very Cardiff, I’m told. I’ll let you look at the others for yourself.

From an artist's house in an inner suburb of Cardiff.

Shelfie No. 4: From an artist’s house in an inner suburb of Cardiff

Look at how neat and exact this is! It is in the room I am sitting in as I type this. It is so perfect, she has paid a lot of attention to visual presentation. There is another shelf beneath, where the books taper down. Here it is…

Another from the artist's house in Cardiff

Shelfie No. 5: Another from the artist’s house in Cardiff

It’s like installation art!

This next isn’t really a shelfie at all, and it is a little disturbing…

From Torre Coffee, Cardiff

Shelfie No. 6 (but not really a shelfie at all): From Torre Coffee, Cardiff

This is wallpaper. It’s from a cafe opposite the castle in Cardiff. The coffee was good, thankfully, and they had some nice pictures hanging elsewhere in the cafe. But this looks dead. If, for thousands of years, elderly Italian monks piled up the bones of their dead monk ancestors in a deep chamber of their monastery, it would look more jolly than this.

And so finally I end on a high note, bookshelves featured in a Dr Who episode, no less…

From the library at Cardiff Castle.

Shelfie No.7: From the library at Cardiff Castle.

There is a lot of Dr Who about Cardiff. BBC Wales produced Torchwood, the spin-off series situated in Cardiff, and a number of Dr Who episodes themselves, including, Journey to the Centre of the Tardis were filmed there. Plus, they have a big Dr Who Experience exhibition down by the bay. These very shelves feature in the background in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis. Exciting indeed.

I leave you with a close up of some of the shelves, the Dr Who director left the same books in when they filmed the episode…

From the library at Cardiff Castle

A closer look, from the library at Cardiff Castle

 

What on Earth is the ‘StokeyLitFest’?

Stoke newington BusThe Stoke Newington Literary Festival, or as it’s more affectionately known, the StokeyLitFest, is quite possibly the coolest lit fest on the planet. And it’s getting bigger year by year. If you live in London, you’ve probably heard of it. But living Down Under, I hadn’t — until this big UK trip of mine.

It’s a short bus ride for me from my mind-boggingly ‘compact’ accommodation near King’s Cross Railway Station. I arrived in London a few days ago, and the Festival is my first, full-on writing event. It’s where I’ve been spending my day today. It’s a two-day festival, in its sixth year, and here’s what I chose to see…

Tracy Thorn

Tracey Thorn

Tracey Thorn

The wonderful Tracey Thorn, from Everything But the Girl fame, was a special highlight of the day. She was at the festival to promote her second memoir, Naked at the Albert Hall. Amongst many things, she talked in detail about her very real stage fright, leading her to make the decision not to perform live as a singer again.

She also recounted many funny anecdotes, such as the challenge — as a well known and highly regarded singer — of singing ‘Wheels on the bus’ in play groups. Would she somehow be expected to perform the song far better than the other parents? Should she try to? Or maybe she should be doing the opposite?

She also talked about her love of the X-Factor TV show, to everyone’s surprise!

Mark Ellen (Q mag, NME, Live Aid…)

Mark Ellen (right)

Mark Ellen (right) with Danny Kelly

Mark Ellen was at the festival to talk about his very exciting-looking book (well, to me), called Rock Stars Stole My Life! It’s all about his experiences working for some of the greatest UK music publications Q, NME and many others, and commentating for Live AID (which I watched the telecast of from start to finish on the other side of the world, while living in Canberra, Australia).

Both Mark and Danny spoke at breathless speed, trying to fit in as many of their amazing experiences as they could. It was both overwhelming and mind-blowing. My favourite quote: ‘But it wasn’t all laughs and drugs and stuff,’ — when talking about the screaming matches that could occur between different music staff.

While I attended numerous other sessions, I’ll tell you about one more, because — in truth, I only have the energy to tell you about one more (I’m keen to head off to bed!)…

Richard King

Richard King (left)

Richard King (left)

Richard King worked for years in Bristol’s notoriously ‘independent’ record store Revolver, and has written about his experiences in Original Rockers, especially about the store’s aloof manager who refused to sell customers records by bands he didn’t approve of, even if the store stocked them. Or, the reverse, treating his customers with great disdain for their lack of good taste and refusing to sell them albums by the likes of Tim Buckley if he didn’t believe the customer looked worthy enough. Classic independent record shop stuff taken to its absolute level.

As you can see, I chose to attend rather a lot of music-related events. Such is the person I am. I leave you with two more pictures from the day…

Tracey Thorn again (and why not?)

Mark Ellen and me

You can check out the festival’s website here.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve signed up for a writers’ retreat in Shropshire, UK

Arvon 2

Shropshire, in case you didn’t know — I didn’t! — is between Cardiff and Manchester, in the UK. You have to catch a train that leaves from either of those places to get there. And now, amongst my growing list of writerly things to do in the UK, I’ve signed up for a week-long writers’ retreat in an out-of-the-way manor located somewhere in the ‘rolling hills’ of Shropshire. No mobile phone signal. No Internet. No social media. (Oh, what?)

The manor, called The Hurst, once belonged to British playwright John Osborne. Mr John Osborne’s most famous play is Look Back in Anger. In fact, the term angry young man was coined to describe him. Look Back in Anger was also a highly successful film from the late 50s, starring the wonderful Richard Burton. LBiA 1

Of course, John Osborne won’t be there to greet me when I arrive and to help bring in my bags. (He died in 1994.) But I will be in his old home with a group of fellow enthusiastic writers for a week.

So what do writers do on writers’ retreats? (I hear you ask.) Well, write a lot, obviously. (At least, I hope that will be true.) But I’ve selected to go to one of their retreats that isn’t totally heads-down and write, write, write. We’ll be talking about writing too! There will be morning group sessions conducted by established authors, and one-on-one sessions throughout the week.

I believe every writer can benefit from a retreat, no matter your level of experience, and I’m just as much looking forward to learning new things from my fellow emerging writers as I am from the well-established writers. Like any creative art form, you never stop learning, and from all directions.

An angry young man

An angry young man

The retreat’s afternoons will generally be given over to one’s own writing, back in the privacy of your own room. I plan to focus that time on Beneath the Surface (the complete draft of which, by the way, is still currently on Wattpad).

It’s only the evenings I’m less keen on. There will be cooking teams for the dinners, with everyone taking turns. Oh dear, cooking isn’t really my thing. Not sure how I’ll fare there.

So let’s quickly get back to the writing. The Arvon Foundation run the retreats and courses at The Hurst. (They also have locations in West Yorkshire and Devon. Arts Council England support them.) The established authors at my retreat will be:

  • Mavis Cheek

Pause Between Acts

Mavis Cheek is the author of 15 novels. Pause Between Acts won the She/John Menzies First Novel Prize. More about Mavis Cheek here.

  • Stephen May

Wake Up Happy

Stephen May has written three books including Life! Death! Prizes! which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. His latest novel is Wake Up Happy Every Day. More about Stephen May here.

  • Selma Dabbagh

Out of ItSelma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer who gained fame in 2011 with Out of It, an acclaimed novel centred on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. More about Selma Dabbagh here.

I have read none of the author’s books, I must confess, and will need to get cracking and download at least one thing from each of them before I head off. One more task to add to my still-long Going Away To Do List.

I’m not sure yet if the above authors will be living-in with the rest of us (if so, they’d better be in a cooking team!), but I expect so. The Hurst manor looks to be quite a big place with plenty of room for us all. Here’s a little something I found in The Shropshire Star about the restoration of the 200-year-old Georgian manor in readiness for its new role as a writers’ retreat.

I couldn’t find any pre-restoration shots, but here’s how it looks now…

The Hurst

Arvon 3

Arvon 1

Lounge at The Hurst

Do you like checking out other people’s bookshelves? I couldn’t help but notice those shelves in the above pic. Tidy! They put mine to shame. Checking out other people’s shelves can be rather revealing sometimes. What’s in those two, I wonder? Just John Osborne’s stuff? I’ll have a look when I get there, and let you know. Other people’s bookshelves can be little glimpses into their worlds.

Here’s a bookshelf from my home. (Plus dog.) Not quite so tidy, I’m afraid.

Sparks, defending some of my books -small

Here’s a slightly tidier one, I’m happy to say. Yep, that’s 45s and LPs on the lower shelves. (I like to check out other people’s record collections too. That’s just a bit of mine.)

Bookshelf (small)

And one more. A random bookshelf from my place of work…

Work shelf

Pretty tidy again, perhaps it’s a corporate thing. Not even a stray book chucked on top. And what’s with that book Insults?

I have significantly drifted from my main topic about writer’s retreats. I promise I will tell you more about the retreat once I get there (or afterwards, really, given it’s in a blank zone, phone signal and internet-wise).

If all goes well, my next post will be from London. I’m flying out from Down Under next week and will be in a position to speak first-hand about writerly things in the land Up Over, as I encounter them.

Meeting up … Down Under and Up Over

My plans to immerse myself in the ‘the life I never lived’ — as I’ve come to think of it — are progressing very nicely. I’ve bought my ticket for the long journey on the A380 airbus. I’m officially leaving Down Under and going … Up Over (sorry!) at the end of May. 

I’ve already joined three London-based writing groups, signed up for a week-long writers’ retreat in Shropshire (I love saying that … Shropshire), and badgered (more than once) a literary festival in Stoke Newington about their ongoingly imminent program.

And today, I thought I might tell you a bit about the writing groups.

MeetUp logo To start of with, have you heard of Meetup? It’s an absolutely buzzing website, it almost sparks off the screen at you. Basically, it’s is a social media platform through which you can seek out groups of like-minded people anywhere in the world.

I found the London Literary Cafe, Write Together and the London ALLI Meetup group. (ALLI stands for Alliance of Independent Authors. It was nice to see that the London-based members of this important online group of indie writers catch up face to face.)

I found heaps of other groups too, but these are the ones I’ve joined and I’ll let you know about each of them in more detail when I actually get along to them. (Pictures and all, if the members will let me!)

Two other groups I joined are ‘London for Less’ and ‘London for Less than a Tenner’. Ha! I’ll let you know if I actually get along to any of their stuff. They both seem to get along to a lot of plays, musicals and comedy shows — and if you’re to go by the photos, they appear to have a very jolly time.

And while I was on the hunt for London-based groups, I suddenly thought, I wonder if there are any people using Meetup back here in my hometown? I was amazed! There are thousands of Melbourne groups on Meetup. Possibly more than London. Some fantastic-looking groups, and about all manner of things. I won’t tell you what’s there. Way too many. Have a look for yourself, if you’re interested. See what’s happening in your neck of the woods. Here’s the link (but if you go, don’t forget to come back!).

Warf Hotel reducedI’ve been along to two groups already. I especially enjoyed The Melbourne Writers’ Social Group who meet at The Warf Hotel on the Yarra River (in Melbourne, obviously). The group turned out to be just the way they sound: a laid back, welcoming bunch of writers (and interested others), who sit around with a beer or wine and chat about writing. (Me included, now.) A number of us read out short excerpts of our stuff and I was very appreciative of the quick and useful feedback I received from around the table. Their Meetup page is here, if you’re curious.

Now that I’ve made a song and dance about it, maybe have a look at Meetup and check out what’s going on in your own area? You’ll need to register (free, of course) if you want to join anything.

Meanwhile, because I like any opportunity to stick pictures into posts that I write, I’ll sign off with this pic of the tree in my front garden. (What the hell, why not?) Do you recall it from my previous post? This is how it looks right now, in Autumn, in Melbourne. They don’t call the tree Sunburst for nothing…

Tree1 reduced

My final manuscript is complete. So what now?

Beneath the Surface

My 60,000 word novel manuscript — Beneath the Surface — is now fully posted to Wattpad. It’s about a young boy who enters a fantasy world under his garden. While writing the fantasy story, I partly drew on my experiences working as an HIV/AIDS social worker in the 80s and 90s.

Publishing the book chapter by chapter to the social media site Wattpad as I reworked it has been quite an experience. There wasn’t a moment when I didn’t brace myself before opening an email with a new comment from a reader. What if this one blasts the hell out of my story? Yet, all of the readers’ comments have been positive — many confirming they were enjoying the story, and some special ones offering thoughtful, constructive advice.

Wattpad offers writers something very special. The chance to hear directly from readers what they think about your book. And my book has changed in certain ways because of the feedback. Often these changes were descriptive details — things that were not as clear as they could be. The one that comes most to mind is the description of the moment when Christopher first enters the fantasy world of The Underplane. The use of ‘micro-chapters’ also received plenty of support. This approach led to many ‘upbeats’ in the story’s rhythm, as I like to finish a chapter on an upbeat (with a sense of actively moving forward). I enjoyed writing in this style and plan to try it again, no matter what my next story may be.

Other aspects of my story may change as I now progress to the next stage of manuscript development. The title, for instance, may change. It used to be Under the Garden, and for one brief moment it was Christopher from the Middle Bit (only I seemed to like that one!). Who knows what it might be called in the future. And new feedback may lead me to alter key moments in the story. We shall see!

But where to now for me with this book? That’s what I have to decide. The idea of seeking out potential interest in the more traditional way does entice me. I thoroughly enjoyed the formal editing process that my first, traditionally published novel underwent. I am also looking forward to engaging others in professional consultation about the story.

I will give myself a little break and begin to explore the options for Beneath the Surface soon. And I’ll most certainly let you know when I have any news.

I also need to decide just how long I should keep the complete manuscript of Beneath the Surface posted to Wattpad. I have no idea how traditional publishers will respond to that — yet visibility on the internet is crucial in this new world of ours.

If you’re interested in checking out my story while it’s complete on Wattpad — some holiday reading of a brand new novel before it’s even published! — here’s where it starts: Beneath the Surface on Wattpad.

Drafting Beneath the Surface

The next chapter of Beneath the Surface I post on Wattpad will be Chapter 23. This is still less than a third of the novel, but Christopher’s adventure in The Underplane is well underway. I’m aiming to have the complete draft novel posted for your ongoing feedback within the first week or two of December. Another 45,000 words (give or take) to go!

Beneath the SurfaceMeanwhile, I would like to present to you my latest chapter, just completed this morning. Bells are ringing throughout the village of Onehill, though Christopher — or Cee as his new friends call him — has yet to know what they signify. Christopher is eating breakfast with Ria and the children, and recalling…

Chapter  23: The church by the sea

I want to tell you about another time I heard bells.

On that day, I’d no idea where Dad was taking me and I knew better than to ask. All I knew was it took us a long time to get there. Hours spent in silence and bitter cold in Dad’s old Ford Falcon. The heater had packed up long before we’d ever owned it.

We arrived at a tiny church by the sea. It sat on a sandy strip opposite some shops and looked more like an abandoned portable classroom. Ferny branches hugged it, keeping it close and protecting it. When we left the car and made towards it, I could hear the rush of the sea somewhere out of sight. A sound, I thought, that had been going non-stop forever — before all things to do with humanity. Before that even. And would continue to go on forever. Way beyond us.

It almost suggested that the church, as piddling as it looked, was connected to greater things.

Almost.

I kicked at a pine cone and Dad tsked at me without looking up. But the pointy things were everywhere, just begging for it. More of them were piled up in the church’s lopsided gutters above us as we entered. Someone wasn’t doing their job and clearing them out.

And that was when I heard the bells. But they didn’t ring out all over the land like the Onehill bells. They dinged in a shrill, plasticky way. They came from a cassette player sitting on a trestle table just inside the door. The player looked like something left behind by a handyman; it was paint-spattered and the slot in the front where the cassettes went was held together with a rubber band.

People sat on rows of wooden benches. We stood sidelong to them and they turned and faced us. No one waved or nodded. I knew a few by sight — aunts and uncles I’d met once or twice. There were about fifteen in all.

I sat where Dad pointed, in the front row. Everyone behind us. Except for a lone man dressed in what looked like layers of green and white curtain lining. He jumped up from a chair as we sat own and hurried over and clacked off the bells. They went off mid-ding.

Din— Nothing.

Except for some sniffs, and creaks from benches.

Before us was a long wooden box. It was on a metal wheelie stand and in front of a colored glass window showing a bleeding man who was doubled-over, carrying a massive cross on his back. The wood of the box was glossy, I couldn’t stop gazing into its soft reflection. It looked as if it could be warm to touch. The lid was bolted down with shiny bronze knobs and Mum’s photo was on top of it, in a little frame.

I knew Mum must be in that box. I didn’t want to know, but that picture made sure I didn’t forget it. Though I couldn’t sense her with my radar illness. She was long gone.

With only the box to look at, I concentrated instead on thinking about the time she’d spent propped up against a stack of pillows in a hospital bed in our family room, gazing through the bay window and into our garden. She’d been dying for months but living every moment, with her family. That was what her illness had taught her, she’d said. Live every moment.

Not so, me. Born ill, everything just was the way it was.

The man in curtains told us he was Scottish, in case we hadn’t guessed. He laughed loudly, like that was an amazing joke. But the only thing funny was his accent, as if he was always on the verge of cracking another joke, but then thinking the better of it. Thank God.

He told us he’d become a priest a long, long time ago and had been sent here. Across the sea. We were his family now. He raised his arms as he said that last bit. As if to a great crowd.

I twisted around and checked out this ‘family’, half-expecting to see a gang at the back, cheerily waving. But there was only us few bunched up the front.

And then it struck me. Dad was returning Mum to the town where she’d grown up. She would be buried in this place she’d left years ago. A place of happier times, maybe? Or not — she’d run away as a teenager (something she’d told me, but Dad didn’t know I knew).

So why?

I wished she could have stayed with us. We could have buried her in our back garden. That was not as silly as you might think. Who was to say anyone would have found out? (And maybe she would have appeared in The Underplane? Met my new friends?)

I’d never been to that church before or any other and I’d no idea why the priest included me in his so-called family. Same went with the rest. I bet they weren’t regulars either.

A lonely man.

And now, as I ate breakfast in a village in The Underplane with my new-found friends, remembering these things and thinking about lonely men, I wondered if Dad missed me.

Was he out wandering the streets of Acity, searching for me?

I let the thought go, stopped eating and sat back. The others munched on. Maybe my stomach was smaller than theirs? But honest to God, I couldn’t have eaten anymore.

One last thing, back to remembering the church by the sea. There were two things that most bothered me, and I don’t know which was worst: the priest at the end taking the photo of mum and shoving it in a trouser pocket deep beneath all of his layers, or two black-suited strangers turning up and, without a word to anybody, wheeling the wooden box away with Mum in it.

***

If you would like to check out my progress on Beneath the Surface (and the earlier chapters too), my Wattpad page is here.

Workshopping with the world – How it’s going!

Beneath the SurfaceIf you’ve been following my posts and tweets, you’ll know I’ve been workshopping my new draft novel as I revise it. It’s a young adult fantasy novel about an unwell 14-year-old-boy who enters a secret world under his garden. I have posted seven draft chapters so far, which comprise Part 1 of the story.

I’m happy to report the use of Wattpad for workshopping is going well. All was going well on Widbook until recently. Here’s a little more detail about them both…

Steady feedback on Wattpad…

A useful thing about Wattpad, from a workshopping point of view, is that one can put comments at the bottom of each chapter. This has been a very useful way for me to pose specific questions. For example, What do you think about the title? What do you think about the short nature of my chapters? Do you feel like reading on? These questions are not always responded to and that’s OK, but it’s great when they are. I genuinely want to know!

I’ve received all sorts of advice, some of which I’ve immediately acted upon, some I’m still thinking about, and some I’ve parked to one side in my mind, waiting see what a professional structural editor might suggest, when that time comes.

It’s been extremely useful to hear what readers have found interesting in the story, their various observations and reactions. I am not always sure I’m getting the balance right in terms of suggested symbolism, subtle meanings, character portrayal, plotting and so on. I’m wary of overstating something, which then may seem labored and obvious, or slipping into ‘clever writing’, which can interfere with the reader’s engagement to the story. It has been greatly reassuring to hear from readers that they are picking up on the story’s depth and various dimensions in an enjoyable way.

And I do have to say, the positive comments have been very gratifying too! They have helped me feel, Yes, this is a story worth writing. This is something others would like to read.

But slower on Widbook…

threeThe news on Widbook is not so good, I’m afraid. Sadly, after an initial burst of activity, feedback has dried up. At kick off, things were similar to how I’ve described them above, but not so any more. I believe there are still a number of Widbookers reading my draft chapters — my book was added to someone’s shelf only yesterday and I received a new follower today. (I always follow back, because I think that’s nice to do, but that’s just my style and obviously not a rule). But the energy has waned.

I have received some excellent support from a number of the Widbook staff (I’m yet to hear from anyone on Wattpad!). They made one of my earlier books ‘Book of the Week’ and also invented me to write a blog post for them. They were very friendly and I immensely enjoyed my interactions with them.

There are a range of possible reasons for the drop off in responses to my writing. Here are two that I’m pretty sure haven’t helped…

There are many Spanish-speaking writers/readers on Widbook, and no doubt this has an impact on ongoing interest in my English written work, even though users generally appear to have a good handle on English, especially from a reading point of view. However, as I cannot understand the Spanish language at all, I’m unable to reciprocate the gesture of feedback by commenting on a Spanish written piece.

Widbook has a five star rating system — this is probably not a good thing when it comes to formative writing/drafting. A rating system leaves writers too open to the subjective impulse of others. And of course — as we indie writers know only too well — it is open to easy abuse: friends giving each other top stars, or tit for tat.

Olearia-stuartiiSo, after posting only a few draft chapters (three, I think), the book was awarded an ‘average’ three star rating. Ow! This a draft I’m workshopping, people! Not a published book on Amazon — ready for customers’ reviews and ratings. Now, no matter how many revisions I undertake and further draft chapters I post, that mediocre rating will sit there for the rest of my draft chapter postings (nine tenths of the book is still to come!) and until I take it down from Widbook, in readiness for publication. The average rating has the potential to put off further readers who may have had highly useful feedback.

How I wish that that reader had instead chosen to give me actual feedback. Why did they find it average? That could be marvelously useful to know. Instead, I’m left guessing and others are possibly being influenced and staying away. A rating system (especially one akin to Amazon’s customer review system) in a creative space can only serve to throw a wet blanket over creativity, don’t you think? 🙁

What’s next…

I love the story I’m writing, and the feedback from these two social media writing sites has definitely contributed to story improvements, revision ideas (not to mention one helpful typo spotting!) and the keeping up of my energy —  serious redrafting can be exhausting.

Regrettably, after a very promising start, I may need to rethink how useful Widbook is for workshopping a draft novel, but I most certainly will continue to post to Wattpad in readiness for professional structural editing later in the year.

By the way … why all the damned daisies? They make sense if you read the story.

Here is where you will find me slaving away on the redraft of ‘Beneath the Surface’:

If you visit – be sure to leave some feedback!

D1208025898Bz-500

 

Workshopping with the World

Beneath the Surface

My new novel is called Beneath the Surface and it’s about a 14-year old boy who, not long after his mother’s death from a mysterious illness called Radar, enters a fantasy world under his garden. The boy’s name is Christopher Reuben and he suffers from the same illness that took his mother’s life.

I know this sounds a bit gloomy! But — as with all of my writing — I work hard to make sure there’s fun and action in there too. As I wrote the first draft, I imagined stories such as The Wizard of OzSpirited Away and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe. And I also mixed in some of my own experiences from working as a social worker with people with HIV/AIDS.

Beneath the Surface is still a draft manuscript (I’m hoping it will be ready for a professional editor’s structural edit come December — for those of you interested in the writing process), and I’m trying out something different this time around. Something that has me a little nervous, but also excited. I’m posting my manuscript chapter by chapter as I redraft them further in the hope I receive good honest feedback from others. I want to make this story the best I possibly can. I’m really hoping fellow readers and writers — you! — will tell me what you think. Nicely.

There are a number of social media sites available for writers these days, and I’ve decided to post Beneath the Surface on two: a well-established one (Wattpad), and a reasonably new one you may not have heard much about (Widbook). Both of these ‘writing e-communities’ allow me to post my manuscript in an ebook style (Widbook is particularly good on this score), and they allow for comments from others. They also have things like ‘votes’ and ‘numbers of reads’ etc, which are all fine but I’m more interested in hearing from interested others about my story as I write it. And of course, I’ll make sure to acknowledge all helpful advice givers when my story’s finally published (indie or trad).

You’ll see from the picture above that I have created a cover for the manuscript. Creating a cover is not something a writer would normally do at this stage, but as I’m pushing my little story out into the world, it needs more that than the usual plain, typed front page of most manuscripts. I hope my effort will suffice until the book is finally published and I pay for a professional cover design.

In the hope it will stir your interest, here are the opening sentences (at least, they are at the moment, feedback may suggest changing them)…

I was ready for my dad when he approached the daisy bush, big plastic spray bottle held up like a gun, like he was going to put something down. I stood before the bush, arms folded, doing my best not to trample on his precious damned flowers. 

‘Christopher?’ he said. ‘What are you doing?’ He spoke slowly, worn out. His voice matched his slumped shoulders and his tired eyes.

Now, don’t bother hanging around here anymore. What I’d really love is for you to check out my draft and tell me what you think. Thank you!

You can find it on Wattpad here.

And you can find it on Widbook here.