train lines: a writing exercise


When writing time is scarce, it helps to have some sort of ritual, something to mark the transition from ‘not writing time’ to ‘now we’re writing’.

Joanne Harris starts the day with a Tweet about her Shed. But I don’t have a shed, and I know that if I were to look at Twitter then I’d lose the rest of the train journey – and my writing time. So instead, I write a line in the back of my exercise book about my train, or about where it’s going.

Some of them come out better than others; but that’s not the point. It’s the writing of a single line, a single line that doesn’t matter at all, that bypasses the bit of my brain that thinks I can’t write the ones that do matter.

I thought I’d share a few of them:

The 0729 toils through a burning desert, over sand dunes a mile high, through strange landscapes that might only be a mirage (but best not to bank on it). Keep the window closed at all times.

The 1742 stands still while the world moves around it. Its passengers run, run, run on the spot to turn the earth.

The 0729 runs between rock strata, and chips of quartz glitter in its path.

The 1742 stops at a weathered halt in a village in a forest, where no birds sing, and no passenger waits on the platform.

The 1340 never runs at all. Also it’s a bus.

The 1742 flies noiselessly, without bump or friction, between the galaxies, guided by a pinprick of starlight.

The 0754 drifts from cloud to cloud. We’ll get there when we get there.

The 1712 bounces from wall to wall of a fibre optic cable, miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

The 1742 is a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a train on it, and if you shake the box hard enough it might assemble itself. Or the lid might fall off, sending pieces flying across the room.

December Reflections 21: paper


“What people bring with them is treasure“.

I was tidying my desk, as one does on the last day in the office before Christmas, and turned up my coursebook from the autumn’s tutor training course, and remembered what I’d scrawled on the cover.

I’ve underlined ‘people bring with them’, so that must have been a quotation. And I’ve double-underlined ‘treasure’, so that must have been something important.

My recollection is that we were talking about the mental and emotional baggage that people bring with them to courses. They bring bad memories from school. They bring a grudge about having been made to attend the thing in the first place. They bring cynicism. They bring whatever’s going on in their life outside the classroom.

They bring knowledge. (Something that stuck with me from the first two days of the course was the estimate that, when dealing with adult learners, 85% of the knowledge already exists in the room, and the task of the tutor is to bring it out and then fill in the gaps.) They bring wisdom. They bring experience. Curiosity. Good ideas.

And perhaps that was what I meant by ‘treasure’.

But I think it must have been something more than that, to make me write it down there, on the cover, rather than next the activity that prompted it. And I think I meant something like: people bring with them is everything that’s gone to make them who they are; all their triumphs and their tragedies; everything they’ve ever learned and seen and been through, and everything that they’ve forgotten; all their fortunes and misfortunes; all the lies they’ve heard and all the truths; all their hopes and fears.

People bring their whole complicated selves.

A phrase that has come up a couple of times for me this year is this: Nothing is wasted. I’ve seen it on writing Twitter (nothing you write is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day). It’s been murmured to me in church (to which I brought things ill done and done to others’ harm – or, in this case, my own – /which once you took for exercise of virtue). I’ve reminded myself of it as I wonder what I’m meant to be doing next, and whether I’m in the right place now. Even if I end up on a different path, my experience on this path will come in useful. (Sometimes I think that I see them converging at the horizon, and sometimes I think that’s just the vanishing point…)

Nothing is wasted.

What people bring with them is themselves.

What people bring with them is treasure.

Don’t look down


It’s been a while since I last began a book. I wrote down the first words of A Spoke In The Wheel in early 2016, just as I’d got Speak Its Name out of the door. It took me two years to get that written, edited, and published.

Then I decided I’d give myself a couple of months off writing novels, while I caught up on my travel write-ups.

Then I decided that actually I did want to get started on the next novels (yes, plural) after all.

Since then I’ve been very carefully not freaking out.

It honestly is like remembering how to ride a bike. (And I know what I’m talking about here.) It’s not so much that you forget how to do it, as that you lose your nerve. You don’t lose the physical ability; you lose the unthinking trust that you can take both feet off the ground and still not fall over.

Except in this case I’m not just riding the bicycle, I’m creating the very ground it’s traversing. I’m setting out into the unknown, knowing very well that the unknown doesn’t exist yet.

And it’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been writing blog posts; I’ve been writing short stories; I’ve been writing up my travels. It’s just that a full-length novel feels so much bigger, and until it’s written there’s so much empty space where I know there should be words.

It would be daunting, if I let myself think about how daunting it is.

I’m not a plotter, never have been. The best I can say is that I know where I’m headed. I know what needs to have happened for the ending to be satisfying. As to what’s between here and there, I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. It’s a bit scary, really. I find myself wanting to go slower. I want to get off my bicycle and walk.

Don’t look down, I tell myself. Don’t look at the yawning chasm that represents all the research you haven’t yet done, all the words you haven’t yet written.

Just write a little bit.

Put one foot after the other. Get the notebook out. Take the cap off the pen. Open the notebook to the next blank page.

If the world of fiction is refusing to co-operate, write about Venice, or Bratislava, or the red-painted wooden houses of Sweden.

Writing about my own experiences is easy, and, sooner or later, fiction co-operates. I try to remember what I had for dinner in Ljubljana and find myself writing Lydia’s musings on the question of idolatry instead. And slowly, slowly, the novel begins to materialise. The snappy exchange, written down, brings its context in after it. Writing down the context raises questions. Why does she think that? Oh, hang on, does he really know that, or is it just a lucky guess? Answering those questions invokes new scenes. The more I write, the more I know what to write next.

At the moment, the sequel to Speak Its Name is standing at about 6000 words. More to the point, I’m beginning to see how the whole thing is going to fit together. I’m beginning to understand the dynamics between the different characters. Things that I’ve known for as long as I’ve been planning this book suddenly make sense: Oh. She’s upset because they turn up unannounced. And the bedroom thing is awkward because they’re not allowed to live together… Awkward facts that I thought I was going to have to work around turn out to fit in nicely. OK, the timing won’t work for the transfer, but instead we could have the RA quitting, maybe he was really stressed because he was about to get married and thought it would get better when that had happened, but it hasn’t, but he can also be the example of the marriage that does work. And I am beginning to get a better sense of what I still need to find out, and who I need to talk to in order to do that.

What I’m referring to in my head as ‘the Ruritanian thing’ is a way behind, with a scant thousand words on the page and only the haziest idea of what needs to happen in between the beginning and the end. Half of the characters are missing names, and the plot is missing all sorts of vital components like what and how and why. Maybe this one won’t happen. I hope it does. I think it’ll be fun. And I’m aware that a large part of my unease probably comes from the fact that I haven’t got very far into it yet, that, the further I get in, the better I’ll feel about it.

Heigh-ho. All I can do with either of them is keep on writing. The main thing is not to look down.

In good company


A Spoke in the Wheel stands at 69,591 words, and I think it’s done. It’s gone through a ream of paper and goodness knows how many drafts.

So far, I’ve had comments from seven people on one or more of those drafts. Some were on early drafts that frankly I’m blushing to think about now. Some were on what was, up until yesterday, the very latest draft. Some of those comments have been detailed, line by line, word by word. Some have been more general. Some have been delivered in person, some via email, some over the phone. Some were on very specific aspects of the book. Some were on the thing as a whole.

(Nobody picked up on the fact that I had two Chapter 10s. Or Chapters 10. Whatever. I caught that just now.)

Some of them have me muttering, ‘Oops!’ Some of them have me muttering, shamefacedly, ‘Oh, good point.’ Some of them have me muttering, defensively, ‘Well, it works on the eschatological level!’ Some of them I just don’t agree with. Some of them flat out contradict each other.

Two novels’ worth of experiment have left me with a workable approach:

If two people whose judgement I trust make the same comment, I act on it.

One person might miss a reference or misunderstand something, or simply fail to see what I’m trying to do. But if two people say the same thing, I don’t argue.

I might not make the change that either one of them suggests. I might change something to make what I originally meant to say clearer. I might delete an entire scene to get away from it.

And I can be one of those two people. If one person’s comment has me muttering, ‘Oh, good point,’ then the chances are I’ll be changing something, even if nobody else mentions it.

And here’s the other important thing:

If someone who knows more than I do about the subject I’m writing about tells me that I’ve got something wrong, I act on it.

In this book, I’ve changed things after being advised on How Wheelchairs Work, How To Go Running, Things One Might Purchase To Improve One’s Bike, and How Prescriptions Work, among other things. No doubt there will be something that all of us have missed, and if I’m lucky it will be something as innocuous as that chapter heading, because, for a self-publisher more than anybody, the buck stops here.

That being so, I am most sincerely grateful to all my editors, beta readers, nitpickers, whatever you want to call them. Their work, their patience, their enthusiasm, their encouragement, make the writing process much less lonely and the work so much better. Without them I don’t think I’d ever finish this book. Indeed, the next thing on my list is to write the acknowledgements page.

A sense of perspective


A few years ago I read something about a woman who wanted to go to Africa. I forget where I read it, or why the woman wanted to go to Africa in the first place, but I remember that the moral was that she had to become somebody for whom going to Africa was normal. She would never go to Africa until she got to thinking of going to Africa as No Big Deal.

I felt somewhat ambivalent about this at the time, and I still do. On the one hand, I can see the point: if I see a particular ambition, desire, or goal, as being Not For The Likes Of Us, then I’ll never manage it.

On the other, if I see it as No Big Deal, then what on earth is the point of doing it at all?

There’s an irritatingly pious part of me – think first year Hermione Granger, if first year Hermione Granger was into self-help woowoo – that wants to point out that well obviously the moral is that I should try to be more present in everything, because everything is a Big Deal! Which is of course true, every bush is alive with angels and all that, but if she could only be less obnoxious about it then I might be more inclined to pay attention…

All joking aside, it’s very easy for me to forget how far I’ve come.

It’s only in the past few years that things like ‘publish a novel!’ and ‘go InterRailing around Europe!’ have moved out of the ‘things I’d like to do, someday’ category and into ‘things I’m going to do’ – or ‘things I’ve actually done’.

The problem is, the moment they move into ‘things I’ve actually done’, they become No Big Deal. If I can do that, I tell myself, then anybody could.

And I forget. I forget how once it seemed like something that was Not For The Likes Of Us. I forget how many times other people had to tell me, ‘That sounds amazing! You should do it!’ I forget how much work it took to get where I am. I forget that I’m a massive success in the self-publishing world. (It might help if I made more than pocket money from it – but then again, I’d probably think that that was No Big Deal, too.) I forget that I’ve made literal history, that I have been the first person to do this particular something. A small something, admittedly, but still a something.

What’s the answer? Listen to Hermione Granger, I think. Remember to look around, and see what’s there, and enjoy being with it, if possible. Remember to look back, and see how far I’ve come. Remember to look forward, and identify what I want to do, and see that there probably isn’t any particular reason why I shouldn’t.

You Are Here: style and substance

2013-06-15 13.22.06

At least somebody knows where they are…

I’m half way through the latest set of edits on A Spoke In The Wheel. Latest of how many? I’ve lost count. It feels like about six, but it can’t really be as many as that. Three or more, anyway. And I am still finding scenes where it isn’t clear which room the characters are in, let alone whether they’re standing, sitting, or swinging from the lampshades.

Dialogue is easy for me. It’s the first thing that appears as the book begins to materialise. I start out with indeterminate blobs in an indeterminate landscape exchanging stinging banter with each other. Perhaps I should write radio plays instead. I have no regrets about my Write Whatever The Hell You Want policy, but sooner or later the time comes when I have to fill in the gaps. And that time is now. I’m working my way through A Spoke in the Wheelagain – and asking myself where people are, and what they’re doing, and then putting in things to indicate that.

I write a lot about characters who are stuck in their own heads. But heads are attached to bodies, and bodies have to be somewhere in space. I’ve had to think more about that this time around, since these particular characters have more reason than most to be aware of their bodies, but even so I keep running across scenes where I can’t tell whether people are in the kitchen or the living room, or which pub they’re in, or what’s happened to the character who must have been there three lines back, because they said something hilarious. Did they tidy themselves out of the way, and, if so, why?

The only way to fix it is piece by piece: adding in a chair here, a glass there, some TV noise in the background. And then, of course, I have to go back to the beginning and see whether my use of chairs and glasses and TV noise is consistent through the book. Every little change can have consequences, rippling forwards and backwards through the text. If I mention a coffee table in chapter 14 (because the bowl that held the jewellery that gets stolen in the burglary has to sit on something) then I have to go back to chapter 3 and make sure it’s there when my characters are eating pizza in front of the telly, or else explain how it comes into the house somewhere in between. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s got to be done.

In a year or so I might try writing a murder mystery: something where I have to know exactly where everyone is, and exactly what they’re doing, all the time. In the meantime, I’m getting there. I am. On this edit, some pages have ended up without any red ink on them at all.