Fair winds and a prosperous voyage

Good luck to everybody preparing to set sail on the good ship NaNoWriMo!

I won’t be taking part, having found several years ago that such a gigantic wordcount was incompatible with a full-time job, at least for me. Besides, I hit fifty thousand words half-way through September (well, I did start in March…) I remember it being tremendous fun, though, and the combination of low stakes, an ambitious target, and a community of enthusiastic people, was a potent mixture.

If you’re writing a novel this November I hope you have a fabulous time.

Crossing the meseta, a rant that isn’t really a rant, and a status update

The meseta

The meseta

The film The Way follows a baby boomer dentist, played by Martin Sheen, and some acquaintances he picks up along the way, along the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela.

I am the worst person with whom to watch it – well, me and every other returned pilgrim, I suppose – because I find it difficult to restrain myself from giving a running commentary on every building and geographical feature I recognise. And, at a little more than half way through, screaming, ‘Where’s the meseta gone?’

The meseta is the plain that takes up a lot of Castile and a significant distance of the Camino – nearly two weeks, at the speed we went. It is day after day of flat, grinding, almost featureless, path. It’s either hot and dusty, as it was when we walked it, or bitingly cold, as it will be when my brother cycles it in November. There is an awful lot of it, and it goes on, and on, and on.

You wouldn’t know this from The Way. Oh, there are some shots of cornfields and what have you, but they come nowhere near conveying the sheer thirsty tedium of the meseta. In The Way, you get the mountains at the beginning and the hills at the end, but you don’t get the long, long plain in the middle. It’s like one of those greetings cards that pulls out from both sides to reveal as much again in the middle. It’s an oddly truncated pilgrimage.

Of course, a hundred kilometres of nothing would have made The Way a very different film. Havi Brooks talks about the slow motion montage, how practice (or any repetitive activity, really) feels like you’re not getting anywhere, and how in a film it would be over in a flash, except you’d still have the sense of time passing.

In terms of the current book, I am in the middle of the slow motion montage, half-way across the meseta. Slogging away. Cranking out another hundred words, another page, another five hundred words. Catching sight of a snippet, and thinking it’s terrible. Re-reading a page, and thinking perhaps it isn’t so bad. Re-reading a chapter, and counting the holes in the fabric.

Filling the holes.

Another hundred words. Another fifty words. Another sentence.

I am beginning to see a line of hills in the distance.

What it’s like at the moment

It’s been an exhausting autumn for me. September is always difficult, October takes me further into the darkness (until that blessed moment when the clocks go back and I’m getting up in the light again) and this year it’s been further complicated by my having begun a new job just over a month ago.

I’m enjoying the job, but it takes up a lot of my brain capacity, and by the time I get home I’m good for nothing but a cup of tea and an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Nor are my (usually infallible) train journeys working. Part of it is where I’ve got to with the book: I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, where the majority of the plot is down on the page, and I don’t have any big scenes left to throw myself into. It’s detailed work now, filling in little gaps, writing perhaps a sentence at a time. Those magic summer evenings when the words were dropping off my pen feel like a very long time ago.

I’ve been taking things easier. For the first time since I started this project, I’ve modified my goal and entertained the possibility of writing less than eight thousand words in a month. I’ve hit the fifty thousand word mark, and from here on in it’s as important to take out unnecessary words as it is to put new ones in.

The traditional storm of doubt has swept in. It feels as if it’s never going to be finished, and that I am going to offend all my friends, and nobody will ever speak to me again, and also it’s not worth bothering with. The infuriating thing about this round is that I now know that this is a temporary state of affairs, so I might as well just push on through. I can’t really allow myself the luxury of a good sulk, because it would feel ever so fake.

There are two things that are encouraging optimism, however:

  1. The majority of the plot is, as I say, down on the page. I’m using the red pen more than the black pen, and I really enjoy editing.
  2. November is just around the corner, and that means that my secret online writing group will be firing up for another month of cheerleading.


Talk of the Town


100 untimed books: comforting

13. comforting

13. comforting

It’s been a while since I cooked anything out of this book, and years since I lived in a bedsit, but I still turn to it when I need a dose of Katharine Whitehorn’s humour and realism. It makes me believe that I can get through pretty much anything, and reminds me that I’m free of the mice and the leaking roof, too.

100 untimed books100 untimed books

I want to do that


Unexpectedly, I had lunch with two of my brothers last Thursday. If I’d thought about them at all when I got into London on Thursday morning, I’d have assumed they would be minding their own respective business on the Isle of Wight, but I got a text message at about half past ten asking if I had any plans for lunch.

It turned out that one of them had come up to London to get ski boots fitted and, while he was in the area, to visit the Confraternity of St James and see if they had any advice on cycling the Camino de Santiago.

Why do the Camino?

When one arrives at Santiago de Compostela, one is asked to give one’s motivation for doing the Camino, choosing from religious, sporting, cultural, historical, spiritual, and so on. Well, I am a fairly religious/spiritual sort (often coming down more decidedly on one side of the balance or the other, depending on my mood), and so, when offered a choice by the pilgrim office at the cathedral, I went for that, and got my certificate in Latin. But really, I can’t claim that religious and spiritual reasons were what sent me off down that road.

Why do the Camino?

Because it’s there.

But it’s more than that – at least, it is in my experience. The Camino isn’t pure nature, pure challenge, the way that Everest is. The Camino is a human construct, human roads leading to a human city, and it’s often the human connection that draws us to it.

My brother wants to do the Camino because I did the Camino, back in 2007.

I wanted to do the Camino because a group of family friends did the Camino, back in 2000. The postcards, in Andrew’s spiky or Heloise’s scrawly handwriting, arrived over the course of several weeks, bringing with them the sense of space, of adventure, of time, and leaving me with a tiny seed of a wish.

I wanted to do that.

I did it.

The way I get into most things is by hearing somebody else talk about them, and thinking, I want to do that. I bet I could do that.

My brother wants to do the Camino. He knows about the Camino because I did the Camino, and because Andrew and Heloise and John Murray did the Camino.

I want to do the Camino again because I did the Camino before, and my greatest regret is that Anne, my companion of my last Camino, is not well enough to join me again: my best friend, who, when I said, ‘I want do do this,’ said, ‘I want to do that too,’ and came with me.

As for my other brother’s reason for coming to London? He just thought it sounded fun.