…Retiring to Spend More Time With Their Remaining Limbs…

It reads like a list of what’s leaving Netflix in November, the MPs who are standing down. There’s a lot of ’em, many more than usual, and a number are citing abuse or the toxic environment of politics at the moment. Hardly surprising when the man at the top has all the tolerance and openness of a blind alley with high walls where you can’t see over the top. I won’t list them all but one that caught my eye was our own MP Nicky Morgan, who also cited abuse and the toxic atmos in the Big Brother House as one of her reasons for going. I won’t miss her; her voting record was awful and her judgment seriously called into question when she joined Johnson’s cabinet and thereby aligned herself with a possible hard Brexit, something she said she’d never do. Nevertheless, nobody deserves abuse for doing their job and I took the time to send her a quick email saying I’d have wanted to beat her in the polls but I wouldn’t have chosen to do it like this.

Still, it gives Stuart Brady a good chance to win the seat for Labour.

Speaking of Big Brother, I watched a documentary/reality TV show last night called ‘Who Are You Calling Fat?’ It takes a group of obese people and puts them in a remote country house to exchange ideas and experiences. If that sounds a bit ‘Big Brother’ it is, in that some of the characters come with conflicts ready made, and each of them can talk to the camera about what they’re thinking. Most prominent member of the group – and also the least overweight, as far as I could tell – was the frankly unbearable Victoria, a self-confessed evangelist for the ‘body-positive’ movement. The dynamic between her and some of the other residents formed much of the conflict in the group, as she refused to accept that losing weight might be a good thing and saw the health issues associated with obesity as a ‘social construct’. Then there was Del, a 50-something Sikh who struck me as the most sensible of the group, and to whom Victoria reacted in horror on hearing of his bariatric surgery. I’m totally on board with a lot of the ‘body positive’ movement but when it comes to denying the medical facts and saying that losing weight is a bad thing, I part company with it. Anyway it’s an interesting programme even if some aspects did remind me of this sketch on ‘Not the Nine o’Clock News’.

Kirk out

The Secret Ingredient is….


…I’ll give you a clue – it begins with ‘t’ and ends in ‘me’.

Warning – contains spoilers

I bought The Secret Commonwealth on Tuesday and finished it yesterday, which should tell you something about its unputdownableness (unputdownability?) And yet…

Let me say at once that it’s a stonking book, and if it weren’t for the high standards Pullman has set himself in previous novels I would hardly have any fault to find with it. But this novel, compelling though it is, bears the hallmarks of something rushed, perhaps to meet a publishing deadline. In ‘La Belle Sauvage’ we saw Lyra as a baby being rescued and taken to Jordan College by eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his friend Alice. In this second book in the trilogy Lyra is an adult studying at St Sophia’s but still living in Jordan College. But things are about to change; the Magisterium is on the rise again and Lyra’s friend and ally, the old Master, has died giving way to a much less sympathetic new Master who is not an academic but a businessman. There are five or six interwoven storylines involving Lyra, Malcolm (now a college professor and in love with Lyra) Lyra’s daemon Pan who separates from her and goes on his own journey, and several other characters including the members of the secret society known as Oakley Street. The gyptians come back into the story and Lyra learns about the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ of the title; the hidden world of sprites and will-o’the-wykses which can help or hinder humans depending in their intent.

Yet, vividly imagined though it all is, the novel isn’t quite integrated. The stories don’t entirely mesh together and when Lyra arrives at the final stage of her journey across the desert to find Pan, the journey itself feels rushed and there’s no satisfying conclusion, only a ‘to be continued…’ and a quote from The Faerie Queen.

I also felt it was a bit ‘issue-y’, by which I mean that bits of polemic stood out from the narrative and felt more like lecture than story. The trigger for Lyra and Pan’s ‘divorce’ (and it feels like a marriage gone wrong) is the influence of some books Lyra reads which insist on rationality and the irrelevance of ‘mere imagination’. This is one of Pullman’s central tropes in the series and where, as an atheist, he differs strongly from Richard Dawkins – but here it doesn’t seem quite real. There’s also a digression on liars and bullshitters – liars know the difference between truth and lies, bullshitters don’t care – which seems aimed squarely at Trump (perhaps Johnson hadn’t yet slithered to the top by the time it went to press) and an affecting scene where a boat Lyra travels on collides with a dinghy full of refugees.

I also was left wondering, who is he writing for? The Secret Commonwealth feels much more like an adult (or young adult) book than the others, which are clearly written for children. There’s a leap here in terms of vocabulary and subject matter: a rape only hinted at in ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is openly acknowledged and a scene where Lyra is sexually assaulted on a train is described in detail. Yet despite these shortcomings the novel rattles on and is still well worth reading, which says a great deal for the high standards Pullman has set himself.

I’m going to tell you a story now. There was once a businessman who was always on the move. He was very impatient and whenever he stopped to eat he was in a hurry for his food to be cooked. One day he ended up in a strange village where he was offered hospitality by a yogi. The yogi took an age to cook the food and the businessman kept asking impatiently how long it was going to be. Finally the food arrived and the businessman was astonished at how good it tasted.What’s your secret?’ he asked.

‘No secret,’ smiled the yogi.

‘Oh, come on!’ insisted the businessman, ‘you must have some special ingredient, some herb or spice or something.’ The yogi leaned forward and looked in his eyes. ‘There was one special ingredient,’ he said.

‘What was it?’ The businessman was already imagining the money he could make from knowing this astonishing recipe. ‘Tell me! What did it take?’

‘It took… Time,’ said the yogi.

And so does writing. As for The Secret Commonwealth, I’d have given it another two years. But then when you consider phenomena such as ‘rapid-release’ publishing, perhaps he was under pressure to produce it sooner. Anyway, go read – and when you have, let me know what you think. Here’s an independent, non-Amazon link.


Kirk out

Just When You Think It’s Safe…

Just when you think it’s safe to get back in the murky blue waters of the Facebook NaNo group; just when you’re thinking that folk cannot get any more manic or driven, along comes the phenomenon of ‘rapid release‘. I’d never heard of this but it’s basically the triathlon of writing: instead of writing one novel in a month you write three in three months and edit and then release them!!!This is a self-publishing phenomenon linked to Amazon (reason enough on its own to avoid it) but am I alone in thinking it’s bananas? When I’ve finished NaNo I need a complete break from novel writing and the thing I’ve produced needs to gestate for a while. I sometimes wonder about where our culture has got to: I used to think running a marathon was bizarre and inexplicable, yet now we have quite ordinary people running triathlons. But even that’s not enough and so you find otherwise totally benign and inoffensive folk signing up to do Iron Man (or Woman) challenges. Am I the only person in the world to howl Why???????????????? I simply don’t understand the urge to do crazier and crazier things to your body. And I can’t help thinking that it’s all just a little bit Driven.

We seem more and more to make a virtue out of this nowadays. If you’re not producing, you’re nothing. And enough is never enough; we must set harder and harder challenges. Run further, swim the channel backwards and upside down because swimming it normally is not enough. Run a marathon in high heels and an evening gown. Do something different! Prove yourself!!! Isn’t that the goal? If you’re not baking the most extraordinary cake ever or dancing the best dance or pushing your mind and body beyond their ordinary limits, you basically don’t exist. It’s capitalism gone mad.

Back to writing, and the same phenomenon is infecting Nanowrimers, who are proposing to get up at 3 am to write or to set themselves a 70K challenge or – or to do the ‘rapid release’ thing because when you do that you maximise the – what is it, SEO? Search Engine something – in other words, you get more hits. More attention. Which is what it’s all about.I’m not against dedication to your art but there must be balance, there must be rest. Nothing in nature produces without resting, so do your 50 K (or whatever you can) and be satisfied.

Kirk out

The Minutiae of Life

You know how you can look at everyday objects for years without wondering why they are as they are? Nicholson Baker wrote an entire book (Mezzanine) on the subject of Things You Look At Without Realising; such as how the hand belt on the tube escalator goes a bit more slowly than the steps so you have to adjust your hold every twenty seconds; or how many times the bag containing your lunch is folded over, or the degrees of difficulty in getting a straw to puncture a thin round section of a carton – all these things the mind notices but doesn’t dwell on – because there’ll be another one along in a minute.

I used to be a bit like that in church services; there’d be something I’d want to think about, like the turn of phrase in a reading (why does it say ‘believe on’ instead of believe in? or the vellum-like texture of the hymn book covers or the font of the prayer sheet) but there wouldn’t be time to reflect on that because something else would happen to drive it out of your mind. Sure, you could sit there for an hour pondering the unique shine of a brass lectern with the light coming through stained glass – but it’s not the Done Thing and besides, it seems a little pointless to spend the time doing that when you’ve gone for the service (come for the service, stay for the hymn-book covers…) Which is why I like Quakers – a while ago I was staring at a mural of seagulls without a single thought in my head, and suddenly it occurred to me that each bird was at a slightly different angle from the others, yet they were all flying together as a group. This gave rise to some thoughts about individuals within the Meeting, in that each of us has our own ‘angle’ but we fly together as a group – and I stood up and gave this as ministry.

I’ve forgotten now what this post was going to be about. Oh yes, I just realised as I was gazing at the things I have plugged into USB’s on my laptop, that they have the same symbol on them. I’m sure you know it; it’s like an unravelled wand of Caduceus and denotes wires plugging in to something. It seems utterly right; yet I don’t know why. Why should that particular design be chosen to indicate plugging in? Yet somehow as you look at it, the thing seems right.

Anyway wish me luck darlings. NaNo starts on Friday and I’m not remotely ready.


Kirk out

Constructing the Other Half of the Policeman’s Beard?

I have discovered, via my perusal of various Nano groups, that I am what is known as a ‘pantser’, in other words, one who flies by the seat of their pants and does not plan much, if at all. I’m not sure I embrace being in the ‘Pantser Division’ (ho ho) but it’s good to know I’m not alone. As I’ve said before if I knew what was going to happen in each chapter I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing.

I’ve also discovered the meaning of that bizarre phrase ‘Save the Cat Beats’ – at least I have a vague idea of what it means; that there is a sort of structure which your novel should follow in order to get the right measure of ups and downs. Insert crisis here. Here be dragons/ghosts/murderers. Your main character should make an entrance here. That sort of thing. But even though I have a vague idea of what Save the Cat Beats means, I still don’t get why it’s called that. Is there a cat that needs saving? Or is ‘cat’ short for category? Do ‘beats’ refer to… actually, what do beats refer to? It’s all too much effort and I’m sure I could find out but right now after all that effort, I need a lie down. In any case I utterly reject this phenomenon because it sounds horribly close to another, which is (or so we are constantly told) that soon all novels will be written by computer. https://www.mhpbooks.com/computers-can-write-books-now-but-we-probably-dont-have-anything-to-worry-about/

Still it might be a while: up to now the results have not been terribly coherent: ‘The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed‘ was one early effort and an attempt to make a digital film (if you see what I mean) resulted in this. But even if some machine manages to pass for human my response is, ‘bring it on.’ Although some more formulaic novels might possibly one day be written by algorithms (I’m thinking Mills and Boon, perhaps, or the more predictable sort of genre writing) I believe there’s something so fundamentally unpredictable, so weird and outlandish and unexpected about human creativity, that digitised fiction can only sharpen the sense of what it means to be human.

Kirk out

I Need a Title! I Need a Cover!!

More Nano-nonsense – or Nanonsense, if you will – abounds on Facebook, and today people are talking about the need for a title. ‘I must have a title!’ they cry, ‘or I don’t know what I’m writing!’ Now I know everyone has their own process but as far as I’m concerned that’s putting the cart before the horse. For me the title comes at some point while I’m writing – during the planning stage, after a chapter or two; maybe even later than that. Sure, it’s a good thing to have a working title, even if it’s only ‘Novel 2019’ or, taking a leaf out of Friends, ‘The One with the Fake Monica’ or whatever – because it helps to have a title to refer to even if you’re only referring to it in your own mind. But having to have a title in order to know what you’re writing seems silly to me.

But it gets sillier, because there are people Out There who also need a cover before they can begin. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about a cover for any of my novels – as far as I’m concerned that’s for my publishers to consider. Then again I’m not interested in self-publishing – and even if I was, the whole process fills me with, to quote Blackadder, ‘a due sense of exhaustion and dread.’ Exhausted dread and creativity do not make good bedfellows.

Some problems, however, I can totally get on board with. ‘My first draft is garbage, why do I bother?’ is the cry of every writer – at least every writer who does not suffer from terminal egomania. Of course your first draft is garbage – every first draft is garbage. What you have to remember when you read a published book and compare it with your draft, is that the published book went through x number of edits, was tossed back and forth between editor and author, revised, stamped on, buried in soft peat for several millennia, dug up and thoroughly redrafted before finally, just as the author was losing the will to live, making it into print. If we could see these author’s first drafts it would give us hope I’m sure.

But there’s an uncomfortable truth here – an elephant in the writers room, if you will – which is that not everyone who wants to write has talent. As an occasional leader of writing workshops, I am all in favour of people expressing themselves; I wouldn’t dream of telling one of my students that they have no talent. For one thing, I might be wrong – how many great authors were told this at one time or another in their lives? – and for another, it goes against my professional ethics. Besides, it doesn’t make good business sense: my approach has always been that if you have talent, it will come out – and if at the end of the process you discover that you have no gift for writing, you have gained self-knowledge – something which is in itself invaluable.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again – if you want to be a writer, write. There’s no other way.

Kirk out

PS I’ve found out what Save the Cat Beats are. And now I really have lost the will to live.

How Much is That Thingy in the Window?

Things are becoming very Thingish nowadays. We say to each other, ‘is that a Thing?’ meaning, ‘is that a cultural phenomenon/extant object/recognised custom?’ We package stuff; ‘reify’ it, make it into a Thing with a use value and an exchange value, so that it can take its place in the marketplace of Things. We don’t just assemble objects, we ‘curate’ them because ‘curating’ is a Thing. We don’t just have experiences, we have ‘issues’ or, if they’re more intense, ‘mental health issues’, because these are things.

Anyway, to cut to the chase (that’s another Thing) in searching for a Viz cartoon I came across a post from 2008. I’d not long started this blog when I was plunged into a period of psychosis that lasted three months. Psychosis is defined as being out of touch with reality as it is usually experienced and in touch with a different reality – at least, that’s a non-judgmental way of putting it.

So what happened? Basically the menopause happened. I was expecting it of course, but I’d anticipated hot flushes, night sweats, all that sort of thing. Then one night it hit me with no warning: I woke up in the early hours with a strong desire to meditate. From then on I found myself waking up at three or four o’clock every morning to meditate and believing that in meditation I was in contact with Someone (the Someone was an actual human being but we’d never met.) At three a m I’d be ecstatic, high as a kite; then I’d go back to bed and sleep. But the corollary was that in the afternoon I’d come crashing down to earth with a deep depression. This cycle went on for three months and I could no more stop it than I could stop the sun rising and setting.

Eventually it slowed and faded – but it never completely went away, and even today I get moments of it. They’re almost like an attack of faintness, except they’re mental not physical events. Momentarily I lose everything: my sense of myself, all idea of what and where I am and what the hell I’m doing. It’s like the earth moving under you (and not in a good way). It’s frightening.

Anyway, here’s the original post, which includes some strategies which worked for me.


Kirk out

The Joy of Notebooks

In spite of all my snarky comments about Nano apps and tools, I have to confess to a predilection for buying new notebooks. We have a branch of The Works just down the road that does a mouthwatering selection of notepads in all sizes and colours and with a variety of inspiring covers (previously on this blog I have featured a few and one is on the cover photo.) Not only can you get spiral-bound, hardbacked A4 pads, you can get similar articles in A5 and A6.

My main notebook is the ‘diary’ – not so much a Pepys-like record of events as a place for random scatterings: thoughts, ideas, proto-poems and embryonic stories. You might find brief shopping lists there or simply random words. I keep the book by my bed at night and as well as writing a little before I go to sleep, I sometimes scribble thoughts in the middle of the night. I go through one of these diaries about every 3-4 months and I never throw them out. I’ve kept this sort of diary since 1981; since the day I decided to start writing again. Sadly I don’t have those early notebooks as I was re-reading them too often and they had to go.

For poems I use an A5 notebook and for ‘roving thoughts’ – as I call them – a tiny little A6 notebook tucked in my bag.

So much for the everyday, now for the project books. Every new project, be it a novel, a collection of short stories or something else entirely, needs its own dedicated notebook. This helps the thought processes to gel and means that when I come to write whatever it is, my ideas are all in one place. They may not – nay, they will not – be organised or coherent but at least I’ll know where to find them.

In the summer I developed a bit of a notebook habit; it even got to the point where I was keeping notebooks for gardening and yoga. I’ve managed to dial down this addiction now and I’m back to just the usual half-dozen or so.

Speaking of diaries, I’ve recently borrowed Tony Benn’s (the ’77-’80 volume – interesting times) which are fascinating. What strikes me most of all is how appallingly the standards of behaviour have declined in recent years. People were much more polite and respectful then – and I don’t mean deferential; Benn was an outspoken opponent of privilege and no respecter of status.

So now that I’m writing ideas for my Nano project the question is, does it need its own notebook or shall I just stick with the one I’m using?

Answers on a postcard please.

Kirk out

Do You Have a Cross Head?

I do sometimes take a break from writing in order to engage with the Real World – and in so doing I think I’ve discovered a new law of nature. Have you ever noticed that every time you need a Phillips screwdriver all you can find are straight ones but should you ever actually need a straight one your entire stock of screwdrivers will have become stubbornly cross-headed? I’ve found this to be true time and time again, and it’s my belief they change in the tool box. As soon as they see you doing a job they say, ‘Quick lads! She’s looking for a straight one today!’ and hey presto, they hybridise like bluebells so that all you can find is an array of gleaming cross-heads.

Not that my tools do gleam – they sort of sulk a bit and rust under the armpits. But despite these obstacles I decided yesterday that it was time to change the doorbell. It has got to the point where unless someone hammers on the door like a bailiff come to distrain all your worldly goods (lovely word that, distrain) we don’t know there’s anyone there. The ancient discoloured object in situ used to emit a plaintive two-tone whimper but can now barely manage a wheezy monotone. This must cease. Visitors must be acknowledged. Doors must be opened.

The new doorbell is frighteningly loud and efficient and vibrates on a frequency which not only sets off all the other alarms in the house but probably disrupts pacemakers and police radios. Still, at least we know there’s someone at the door.

And I did eventually find a cross-headed screwdriver. But not until after I too had become very cross-headed.

Kirk out

Nanowriming? We’ve Got The Whole Package!

Bees are buzzing mightily on the Nanowrimo page and all the talk is of Preparation. How do you plan your novel? What tools do you use? Do you download this or that package? Is there an app for that? Which software is the most useful?

Dear god, I think as I read this stuff. All I do is get hold of a notebook and write ideas in it. And I wonder what motivates people to shell out on stuff to enable them merely to plan (not even to write) a novel that will probably never be published? It beats me. Other questions on the group include ‘What’s your favourite nanowrimo snack or meal?’ and ‘what music do you listen to while writing?’ Deep stuff.

I don’t know what I expected. Discussions about how to plot a novel? Disquisitions on the origins of character? Debates on the philosophy of literature? Arguments about the Booker prize? But whatever I expected I was hoping for some kind of fellowship – comradeship, if you will; a sense of being in the same boat and on the same journey. Whereas up to now I’m feeling as if I’m in a completely different boat headed somewhere else entirely.

There’s also a whole load of jargon which I don’t understand and which life is too short to look up: for example I just came across the phrase ‘I’ve started plotting for Nano using save the cat beats.’ What? Save the what who? Who does what and how? I don’t even know where to start with that one.

There’s an entire industry devoted to ‘helping’ writers write and I want none of it. To paraphrase George Herbert:

There is in life a story ready-penned;

copy out only that, and save expense.

So I guess I’ll carry on doing the only thing I know how to do…just write.

Kirk out