Can I Be Novel?

From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry.  Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.

I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement.  I clicked on the link and read the blurb:

‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’  I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…

I don’t even know how to explain it.  I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want.  And that is it.

When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff.  Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that.  To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand.  I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.

So why can’t I do this with prose?  Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases.  And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action.  Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside.  I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen?  Can’t I just carry on like this?’

I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought.  But plot?  Dear god – kill me.  Kill me now.

My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago.  I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish.  What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:

Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see?  I can’t even take that idea any further.  Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series.  See what I mean?

‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…

Kirk out


Monday Momentum

No, this is not a political post.  Regardless of what may be kicking off in the political arena, this is a writing post.  Since I don’t work at weekends, by and large choosing to mimic the typical working week (Monday to Friday, 9-5ish) by Monday my brain is fizzing with ideas and I am ready to hit the page running.  I write my best poems – or start them – on a Monday; I have my brightest ideas on a Monday.  The result can be that Tuesdays are a little flat.  I pick up on Wednesdays and sometimes go to perform at Sound Cafe too; then Thursdays are not too bad but by Friday afternoon I’m flagging and ready for the weekend again.

And there’s the rub: the work ethic.  The work ethic has its uses.  It’s useful for getting me to my desk in the morning and back to it after lunch.  It’s useful for getting me off Facebook and for dealing with distractions.  But there it’s usefulness ends.  I don’t need it to be nagging at me about how many hours I’ve done today or what I have actually achieved; because in theory although I do around eight hours, it is impossible to write (poetry at least) for that long, because it is so intense.  Actually I find prose almost as intense, so I tend to do it in short bursts.  But when I used to add up my hours and find that I’d only done 4 hrs of laptop-time or whatever, I’d feel discouraged.  I’d feel I wasn’t working hard enough.

But what is work, anyway?  In the field of ordinary employment work is fairly well-defined as tasks set by your employer (or, if you’re self-employed, by the needs of your business).  But how do you define it in the creative sphere?  Is it only work if I produce something that can be sold?  If I just fiddle around with ideas or stare into space or go for a walk, is that work?  Doing a cryptic crossword may not look like work but it helps my poetry enormously as it’s all about splitting words up: it’s about what they sound like and look like; how they live, move and have their being.  Going for a walk may not look like work but if I’ve been staring at a blank page for hours it can free up the mind and generate ideas.  Lots of activities – colouring, reading, listening to the radio, even sometimes looking at Facebook – can stimulate the mind.  And there’s the thing.  Creativity is sometimes like the wool-shop in Alice.  If you look directly at the thing you want to write, the mind goes blank, just like the shelves in the shop when Alice looks at them.  But if you look away; if you distract the conscious mind by ostensibly doing something else, the shelves become packed again.

It’s a hell of a job trying to understand this process, but anyone who’s creative will recognise it.  And one thing I can really do without is the work ethic nagging at me and telling me I’m not really working or I haven’t done enough.

So the work ethic can **** right off.

I don’t tend to read a lot during the day but as bedtime reading I’m into Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  At the moment I can’t decide whether it’s a corny rehash of the books or an exciting new venture.  Watch this space…

Kirk out


Yes! I Remembered! It’s ‘Be Insecure’ Day

It’s the first Wednesday in the month and for once I’ve remembered to be insecure.  I have to remind myself these days because I’m not half as insecure as I used to be.  I care a great deal less about what people think of me, and agonise a good deal less about whether they publish me.

So what – I hear you cry – has brought about this extraordinary state of affairs?  Well, it started with a pancake.  We used to have soya pancakes due to my daughter’s egg allergy, but since she’s left home we’ve reverted to the eggy variety: and as I was mixing, some thoughts were churning in my mind about Lent.   I have often in the past given something up for Lent but we are now so hard-up that the kind of things I used to give up (chocolates, TV, meals out, having a car, etc) I have perforce given up for good.  So the thought of renouncing yet another luxury did not appeal: take away my chocolate digestives and life is just not worth living.  And as the first pancake frazzled in the pan I had a brainwave: why give up something nice?  Why not something negative?  That, after all, is the idea of Lent: not spurious self-sacrifice but giving up those addictions and attachments which hold you back.  Like, say, insecurity and self-doubt.

So that was my decision: for six and a half weeks I would give up self-doubt.  The little voice that undermined my confidence and poured cold water on my dreams, would be shown the door.  But how? I hear you cry.

Well, there are various methods, but I chose to write affirmations.  Every day I would write at least 108 affirmations focussing on positive things (Why 108?  I’ll tell you in a minute).  I would write, for example, ‘I feel secure’ or ‘I am a good writer.’ (I mostly phrase things in the present tense to make them seem more real.)  After a while you start to feel it working – but then the doubts creep in – so to combat this I created a ‘doubt cloud’:  I squiggled a cloud-shape on the page and imprisoned all the niggling doubts inside it.

Writing – or repeating – affirmations is a technique I learned from yoga.  Traditionally yogis repeat a mantra; a word or short phrase in Sanskrit; and instead of counting they use a mala, a sort of longish rosary containing 108 beads.  The number 108 is held to be significant because it has so many denominators: it’s divisible by 3, 4, 6,8, 9 and 12.

Self-doubt and insecurity are the plague of the artist.  We need the critical voice but it comes in much too soon – at the start of the work rather than towards the end.  We need it when we’ve finished the first draft, but it pops up when we’re just beginning – and sometimes before, filling the blank page with dire prognostications.  For example, when I started writing again in 1981 I wrote a sentence or two and then underneath commented ‘too wordy and Dickensian.’

Consider the difference between these two poems:


Christopher Robin is going.
At least I think he is.
Nobody knows.
But he is going –
I mean he goes
(To rhyme with “knows”)
Do we care?
(To rhyme with “where”)
We do
Very much.
(I haven’t got a rhyme for that “is” in the second line yet.
(Now I haven’t got a rhyme for bother. Bother)
Those two bothers will have to rhyme with each other
The fact is this is more difficult
than I thought,
I ought –
(Very good indeed)
I ought
to begin again,
But it is easier
To stop.

This poem is written almost entirely by the critical voice.  There is no flow because Eeyore’s critical voice never shuts up.  Compare his effort (and I mean effort) with this flow of Pooh’s:

What shall we do about poor little Tigger?
If he never eats nothing, he’ll never get bigger.
He doesn’t like honey and haycorns and thistles
Because of the taste and because of the bristles.
And all the good things which an animal likes
Have the wrong sort of swallow or too many spikes

But whatever his weight in pounds,
shillings, and ounces,
He always seems bigger because
of his bounces

Piglet wonders whether the shillings ought to be there.  ‘They wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them,’ Pooh explains.  And there you have it.  Eeyore never gives anything a chance to ‘come in because it wants to’ and so his poetry never gets off the ground.

If I’ve learnt one thing in writing poetry, it’s this: you may have intentions.  You may intend to write a poem about snow, or autumn, or a garden.  You may intend to write free verse or a sonnet or a limerick.  But the poem has intentions too – and if you are wise, you’ll listen to them – and not your insecurities.

And here’s the link to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group:

Kirk out

Bumbling Sex

I saw this in my garden this morning:

Bombus lapidarius bumblebees mating

It looked very strange and I wasn’t entirely sure until I looked it up, whether it was in fact two bumblebees mating.  The white-tailed ones are busily bumbling in and out of the space in the roof, and I am now waiting for Holly to get home.  We are waiting dinner for her, and of course her train is delayed.  I’m starving!

Sooo – today I wrote the last verse of a poem I’m working on called ‘Hounslow West’.  It’s about the place where I grew up, and it’s a parody of Betjeman’s famous poem on Slough:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough

– it isn’t fit for humans now

It always seems to work best if I do poetry in the mornings and prose in the afternoons; so after a spell in the garden planting the seeds and petunia plants I unexpectedly acquired at Riverside and bemoaning the slow progress of the grass seed, I hied me to the shops to enprovision the house in advance of daughter’s arrival and then back to the laptop-face for some prose.  The pattern seems to be short stories followed by a chapter of the novel, following which it is usually time for dinner.

Except today.

Excuse me.  I have to go now to prepare the pizza and salad which we will eventually eat, East Midlands Trains permitting.

Kirk out

Today’s Guest Poem

As promised, here is today’s guest poem by Graham:

A Poem in Your Head Can Keep You From Your Bed

by Graham Gee Connolly, mentored by Liz Gray

When the lights go out, next thing I’m writing a rhyme

for it has to be in that moment of time;

if I don’t, the words go away –

write them down or they’ll be gone the next day;

my brain just works that way,

it’s just day after day.

Poems can be written from the past;

putting the words on paper they will always last;

poems can be instantly written

for words are never forbidden,

just seize the moment in time,

not recording them is a wasteful crime.

I try to go back to sleep

but my brain has been working for week after week

I go to JCB: my brain is tired –

I wonder if my brain’s retired?

I pretend to keep my mind on the job

I have to be professional: I can’t be a slob

I have to be at JCB all of the day

that’s how I earn my monthly pay.

Write the poem out of my head

it can be adjusted, then read.

Poem’s just like a machine,

it can run like a dream;

flow of the engine will show

enjoyment of the poem will grow

if you don’t put the words on paper it’s a wasted rhyme.

(c) Graham Gee Connolly, 2014