Holiday snaps for book covers?

thumb_P1110061_1024Wracking your brains out for a good picture to transform into a book cover? Well, very likely you won’t find it here, but you’re welcome to read on anyway!

Since returning from my UK writing expedition, I’ve been busy ‘re-engaging’ with a normal life — and all of the everyday responsibilities that come with that. Like getting on top of the garden, which I’m certain went into a weed frenzy to spite me for being away for so long. And like trying to get the rainwater water tank under the house working again. And like getting up early and heading out into the cold, rainy mornings to earn a living again.

And, with the normal life, come oh-so-few exciting photo opportunities to show you in a blog post.

But then, out of the blue a writing buddy put in a personal request for some pictures of castles or old homes from my recent UK shots. He was on the hunt for a good pic he could turn into the cover for a book he has completed. I think he was hoping for something semi-creepy. After a mad search through my photos, the below (and the one above) is the best I could do, I’m afraid. Still, I had a lot of fun raking through my collection and finding the pics. And now I can present my choices to you in a blog post. Ta da!

I took many holiday snaps while I was away. I have just under 11,000, would you believe. And that’s after cutting them back. It’s so terribly easy to take photos in this digital age. You merely need to hold one finger on the button as the train shoots along, sip your coffee, and gaze back out of the window … all the while, snap, snap, snap.

See what you think of the following pics I offered my writing mate. The above one, by the way, is Inverness in Scotland. Here’s another from Scotland. Can you imagine it as a book cover? Maybe.

Scotland again? Most likely, judging by the clouds.

Scotland.  The clouds give it away.

I really like this next one. I took it in Wales. Isn’t it great?

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I’m not too sure where this below building is from. Manchester? It’s not a castle, more like something out of a Garth Nix novel. Keys to the Kingdom.

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This next one is definitely from Manchester. Isn’t it fabulously creepy?

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Here’s London… Perhaps a little too many cranes and people (when you look closer). This is near the Tower of London.

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A much better one (below) from London. Don’t you just love those couches set out in front of the castle wall? Why the hell are they there? But one might be able to crop and use some of it…

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This last one is from my childhood hometown, Luton…

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I suspect none of these will meet the needs of my writing buddy. Still, the exercise made me think about my attitude towards my ‘normal life’. Who says there are no photo opportunities for one’s day-to-day world? Perhaps I need to cultivate more of the eye of a tourist, even at home. My ‘normal world’ is not your normal world.

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…

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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).

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

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I had the room directly above me in this photo…

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

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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

 

Back from Bali, Back to writing

The memorial for those who died in the first of the terrible Bali bombings.

I am back from my family holiday and am working hard to re-establish my writing rhythm. Family holidays are important, and this last one especially so as it’s likely to be the last with the whole family – my son and daughter are getting older!

As a writer, you’re never too far away from thoughts about your writing projects. I may have spent some time sitting on a banana lounge by a pool, but let me reassure you I was still very much engaged in chapter revising on my iPad.

And I also read my very first ebook novel. A copy of Hunger Games a friend gave me. Easy reading! But I was amazed at the number of typos. It was like an un-proofed copy. Perhaps it was? My daughter owns the print version and the typos weren’t there. So what’s that all about?

I also read about half of Catherine Ryan Howard’s ebook The Best of Catherine, Caffeinated: Caffeine-Infused Self-Publishing Advice (available here). Catherine Howard is an indie writer who very much wishes she was a traditionally-published writer. She’s from Cork, Ireland (where they say Cark  for Cork). As my parents and my eldest two siblings are all born in Ireland, I feel a sense of connection in a number of ways.

I recently began following her blog for her self-publishing advice and this ebook is essentially a collection of her website posts over the last few years on indie-publishing. It’s marvelous, honest stuff, full of big-picture as well as micro advice, and is engagingly written and super generous. I happily downloaded it as a part of her free launch back in May, but it’s well worth the tiny price tag attached to it, if you’re after self-pub advice.

Catherine Howard lays out her posts as chapters and you can easily dip into them in any order that takes your fancy, or follow through chronologically, as I am doing, as it gives more of a sense of story.

Her passion to be traditionally published is her life’s ambition (well a prominent one, she has a number) and the irony that she is not, and yet clearly can write, makes for an intriguing subtext. One can’t help wonder along with her why she isn’t (as she does dwell on it a few times). She feels – largely based on publishing house feedback – maybe it’s because her non-fiction writing is ‘too niche’. Certainly, travel writing doesn’t appeal to me (perhaps because I want to go there and do that too, but can’t!). Yet it’s interesting to see how many travel writers there are in the global indie writing community. It’s clearly popular.

The view from my window in Ubud, Bali. I kid you not.

Well, enough about Irish Catherine – this has turned into an unintentional review!  I’m confident she will achieve her ambition one day – all she needs is staying power, like the rest of us. But now you know a little about my Bali holiday. Not really. But you know about what I was reading by the pool and on the plane home, crammed in with everybody else (watching Hunger Games on airline iPads).Meanwhile, I am very happy to be back at my desk and ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into promoting EleMental: A First-person Shooter and preparing its follow up.

PS: Having spent some time on Catherine Ryan Howard, I should also link you to her website here, if you are interested in checking out more about what she has to offer.

One of my favourite books on writing

 

If you love writing like I do, then you’ll also love reading about writing. Surely? If I spot a book about the craft of writing in a bookshop, I can’t help myself, I have to buy it. I guess I feel about writing as I do about life. There is always something more I can learn. And as I do, I feel I’m growing as a person.

And in this post, I want to tell you about one of my favorites, an eighties book on writing with the intriguing title Writing Down the Bones. It’s by Natalie Goldberg.

Her book is both about both the craft of writing and the craft of living.  I have read other books that blend the themes know yourself with know how to write, but few, to my mind, succeed to the degree Goldberg has. She manages to perfectly balance a Zen-like reflective tone with hard-nosed advice on honing one’s writing skills, exploring the art of the creative writing process and identifying many important signs that might help others travelling a similar road.

She even has her very own Zen master – and she quotes his advice to her in the introduction: ‘Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.’

Throughout her book, you can easily see Goldberg has taken her Zen Master’s advice. Her book has a loose structure that permits you the reader to enter at any point, and find yourself anywhere. Everyplace. You can browse through her pages, reflecting, and treat her book like Lao Tse’s Tao De Ching (or pretty much anything by the Dalai Lama).

I read her short chapters (they average two pages and are interestingly titled – ‘Don’t Marry the Fly’ is my favorite) in an order more borne out of whim than anything.  And I found her many thoughtful messages – many feel more like that than hard-and-fast lessons or rules – apply no matter the context of your life.

But what’s with the book title? She does explain. ‘When I teach in class,’ she says, ‘I want the students to be “writing down the bones”, the essential.’ That’s the essence of a Zen approach, I understand: cutting back and searching for the essential, finding what is important. You can feel she’s doing just that in her elegant prose, and in the overall simplicity of the book itself.

She is also a fan of writing in cafes, often with a fellow writing friend. Something I can relate to.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book once very cool to own and carry about in your bag, some people even read bits of it), praises her book and likens her style to a Zen archer ‘who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s-eye time after time.’ I agree.

 

Not writing, reading

A character trying to get the reader’s attention

Sometimes one should allow oneself to take a break from one’s writing projects. That can be frowned upon in some quarters. A writer who isn’t writing isn’t a writer.

Tosh.

I guess if I never returned …

But, if I’m anything to go by, even away from writing (to enjoy more time with wife and family, for example) most writers’ minds are not far from their projects. Their most recent ones or ones in the wings.  I am looking forward to returning to my latest, hoping to find I still like my sentences and ideas. (So a little fearful too.)

But in the mean time I am reading. Often I like to read about writing, but at the moment I appear to be having a break from that too. Instead, I am reading a brick of a tome about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. It’s Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This historical drama is also a mini-series, which I’m looking forward to viewing one day ­­– but not until I’m through the book. It’s 1076 pages and I am a slow reader.

According to Jennifer Byrne, ABC presenter, Follett’s Pillars is one of the most successful international bestsellers of all time. It was sixteen weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, number one in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and, to top it all off, in Germany it was voted the third greatest book ever written.

Oh wow, who wouldn’t want to read it? Even if it equals the size of a cathedral corner stone.

The thing I am most enjoying about Follett’s writing, and why I believe his book is so popular (and no doubt his others), is his knack of seizing upon a marvellous action sequence and wringing it for all it’s worth. For example, the other day I read an engrossing scene where a bishop and some devious characters arrive at the monastery, ready to spoil the start of the cathedral building – only to have the tables turned on them. Does that sound boring? I reckon it does. Well, I’m telling you, it wasn’t. Why not? Well-paced action and good tension.

And now I’m reading about the engagement in battle of two evenly matched armies. Follett springs between two points of view, giving us close-ups from one character in the thick of the clash, and long shots from a priest watching from the cathedral roof. Do you know, this is probably my favorite scene of the whole book.

All writers reading books also have an analytical eye open. How could they not? For me, it doesn’t spoil the reading, it’s just another dimension. I am constantly looking out for what I can learn, what I can apply to my own writing. And I notice things I might do differently.

There are two such things in Pillars.

Ken Follett at times likes to communicate details several times over and in various ways, as if to make certain the reader will get it. I will never forget Mark Macleod, my mentor during a residency at Varuna Writers’ House, waving a page of my manuscript in my face and telling me: ‘Steven, it’s all right, we get it!’

To be honest, it’s one of the things I find most challenging about story writing: gauging when a reader gets it. Especially if the story idea or scene sequence is complex. It was very useful to have Mark point that out to me. Reassure me when I could stop. Now, once I’ve said something, I do my best to get out and not repeat it elsewhere, unless it’s for thematic deepening. If a reader misses an important point, that’s just how it is.

The second thing Ken Follett does that I know I would do differently, is include so much research. Perhaps this is a trait of historical dramas? Perhaps readers expect this genre to include highly specific details, for example on cathedral architecture, for a sense of accuracy and authenticity. I read little of this genre to know.  I do love including detail in my own story writing, especially for visual colour, but I also love the movement of a story. And, as a reader, there is a point I reach in reading research-based information where I begin to feel disengaged from the story.

We’re all different.

Overall, as a writer, when I read I become restless. Reading fills me with excitement and anticipation for when I return to my own writing projects. But for now I will keep that in check and return to Follett’s drama about the building of a cathedral a long time ago in Kingsbridge, England.

Writing and The Guardian

Steven O'Connor looks at The Guardian on Writing

Not everyone will have cottoned onto the wonderful writing series recently published across about ten days in UK’s The Guardian.

It was a little while ago now, but is still well worth checking out. It kicked off  with Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi , 2009) on freedom. In it he quotes the controversial words of the playwright David Hare: ‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’”. Dyer himself goes on to say literary fiction isn’t a standard to be aspired to – and likens it to a comfy old sofa writers and readers can collapse into.

The rest of the series covers authors on such topics as point of viewdialoguesuspenseplot and that all important thing … redrafting.

 

Reading about writing

It is constantly recommended that, if you want to be on top of your writing you must read. I find it quite extraordinary that this obvious truth needs to be stated at all – let alone so often repeated as essential advice for those of us with writing ambitions – but it’s true! Examine advice from any great writer, and pretty soon you’ll come across this so-important advice. Want to be a writer? Then read, read, read. Only if you happen to be Madonna can you afford not to bother reading. And if you can’t be bothered reading, really, you have no right to write.

And then, on top of it all, remember also to read about writing.

So why not get stuck into these great articles? I recommend starting with Dyer’s article and working your way through by following The Guardian’s links on the right side column.

Here’s the link to Dyer’s article: The Guardian: How to write fiction.

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About Steven O’Connor

I’m currently working hard to get complete my second novel, A  young adult near-future thriller about virtual reality video games.