Here’s One I Wrote Earlier

Diary Entry February 2016

I wake as daylight begins. The dogs are still asleep, Alice snoring gently in a reassuring rhythm, Rowan curled into a tight black, brown and white ball. Lazy pair, I think, as I stumble over to the bathroom, climbing into nightgown and slippers as I go. I register the temperature of the air. Yes, colder than yesterday. I hear the rush of a sharp gust of wind as it rips its way through the tree at the end of my garden. Then the sound of a tin can being blown down the street. Reaching over the now-waking Rowan, I peer through the curtains to see what today has to offer. It’s grey but there’s a brightness to it. A sharper clarity to the view than yesterday’s mists and fogginess allowed. Today’s rain is washing the street clean, polishing up the cars and roofs, brightening the colours. Rowan licks my left knee with a warm, affectionate tongue.

I make my way downstairs, wrapped in my thick purple dressing gown, its soft fleeciness providing a reassuring comfort in the gloom. I reach for the kettle, refill the water jug and trip over the cat. Minginish glares at me, silently demanding breakfast. “Good morning to you, too,” I say, pulling open the back door, which today releases after only five tugs on the handle. The storms before Christmas have seriously warped it. Strangely, it now opens more easily when it rains.

I breathe in the soggy, cool air. The mingled scents of wet greenery and damp, rotting leaves greet me. The rain has stopped and a steady flow of grey and white clouds chase each other overhead, blowing in from the south. The wind is vehement. The noise it’s making as it travels through the estate is loud and powerful, like a lion’s roar. A crow is hanging onto a high leafless branch, sitting into the wind as it is blown this way and that, until it gives up the fight and takes off, allowing the gusts to take it, going with the flow.

The kettle boils behind me and, closing the door again, I pour the water with a satisfying hiss onto the waiting teabag, then grab a cloth to dry the crockery sitting on the draining board while it brews. There’s a pleasant ritual-like quality to replacing each item in its correct position, to begin the day anew. With the cleared space left behind, I can set up today’s food.

I feed Minginish first, before he can start complaining. His grating whine will quickly irritate me, as I realise I’m still cross about the form-filling and hurdle-jumping from last night’s writing class. Don’t these people know that’s the quickest way to kill creativity? By trying to control it. I feel the sense of constriction it imposes, as I begin to fill the plastic container in my hands with frozen chicken wings for the dogs’ tea. Their icey rigidity will thaw as the day progresses.

I fetch the milk from the doorstep, pick up the sodden towel which Minginish – grumpy old man that he is – insists is the only thing he can pee on successfully in winter, and place it in the washing machine. It stinks of fish.

I lift Oriah’s book* from the shelf and open it at random. Mug of tea in hand, I sit down to read. She’s writing about letting go of her finished books, about the contradictions within success and creativity, about the attachment writers feel to their work and how easy it is to over-identify with what we’ve created, so we become vulnerable to rejection, focusing on the end-product instead of the joy of the process.

I feel my heart warming. I look up to see the sparrows have arrived for breakfast on my bird table, hanging on precariously to the swaying feeders being blown unceremoniously from side to side. They are joined briefly by a darting coal-tit before they all rush away, disappearing into thin air.

I turn back to the book. She’s quoting from an interview she’s seen with Martin Sheen. “I’m not asked to be successful,” he says. “I’m asked to be faithful … to myself.” Now I feel ready to begin my day. I pick up my pen and start to write.

*What We Ache For by Oriah Mountain Dreamer


Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Keep It Stupidly Simple)

Turns out writing the novel was the easy part. Trying to write a synopsis is much harder! But the conventions of the publishing world require this as a necessity. Agents and publishers, it would seem, rarely have time even to breathe these days, let alone read unsolicited manuscripts. So the condensed, yet enticing, whilst also extremely informative, version is essential to get their attention.

Synopses (lovely word) are not like book blurbs. Apparently, you have to include the entire plot – denouement and all – in your synopsis. Something you would never want to do on the jacket of your paperback. Encouraging a publisher to read your completed book is an entirely different feat from encouraging a reader to do so.

I mean, I might persuade you to purchase my novel by a few short sentences, such as:  Who is the girl in the red coat? Why has she disappeared? And how is she the connection between a murdered singing star, a corrupt police officer and an international conspiracy? Two DI’s – Gavin Pearce and Katriona McShannon – collaborate in a case based on a true event. A case which threatens to spiral out of control and end both their careers, if not their lives.

A publisher, however, wants to know the exact details of what happens in, sometimes, not many more words. The latest website I visited requested only 250! How on earth am I going to reduce two and a half years writing into so few words and not miss out on essential plot twists and turns?

Do I choose to overlook some of the ‘lesser characters? Like Tom, my forensic scientist, with his brilliant and unpredictable mind, and his cheerfully spontaneous approach to life – a bit like a male version of Abby. (Any NCIS fans out there?) Or Elayne, Katriona’s beautiful partner, a talented and innovative architect, whose turbulent childhood has gained her exquisite insights into understanding humanity – insights which inform her much-sought-after houses. Or the quiet and dependable Charlie, Gavin’s right-hand man, who is always unperturbed by even the most shocking discoveries the two officers uncover.

Not to mention the panoramic scenes set on the mysterious Isle of Skye with its stunning scenery and magical energy, which has a profound effect on everyone who visits, and is now the home of the enigmatic Katriona. Or the emotional – as well as physical – journey that Helen, my young singer, undertakes as she tries to make sense of a world that has dramatically fallen apart, leaving her in a complete state of panic and with no-one to turn to for help.

You see my dilemma. As a person who loves words – and details, descriptions and dialogue – trimming down a huge story into a nutshell that still includes a deliberately complicated plot in all its convolutions, feels like an impossible task.

The trick, I suppose, is see it rather as a challenge – to take the Star Trek approach. What is it Picard says? Let’s work the problem. Good advice. Well, that may be my challenge for this week. Please drop in again to see how it went!


My First Time

Last week, I finished my first novel. What a privilege to be able to say that. After two and a half years of struggling, dogged, determined hard work … Actually, that’s not true. I know it’s what you’re supposed to say. Any writer worth her salt, these days, seems to want to tell you “it’s such hard work”. But for me, the complete opposite has been true. I have loved every minute of it. It was the previous fifty or so years that were composed of struggling, hard work and pain. From the moment I picked up my pen, at that first writing class, I was hooked.

It didn’t take long for me to develop what they call a writing discipline. Basically, I get up, brew a pot of tea and sit down to write. There, how difficult is that? Admittedly, I don’t have the distractions and responsibilities of a family, or a ‘job’, or any of those grown-up sort of things that other people collect as they go through life. I am, however, often required to negotiate my way around a complex game of ball with my young puppy, as I try to persuade her that hiding said ball under my chair and then barking like crazy is not going to endear her, either to me or the neighbours, at seven o’clock in the morning.

That, generally, is the only obstacle I face, however, before settling to the next hour or so of discovering what my characters will do next. No, I’m not one of those writers who pre-plans their plot, prepares their purlieus or pre-determines the fate of the participants. I don’t write a synopsis, use the snowflake method or even opt for a sketchy first draft to ‘flesh out’ later. Where’s the fun in that?

How can I be creative if I’m already limiting what will happen? In fact, discovering that there were ‘approved’ methods of writing – which happened very quickly after my first naive beginnings – was almost too big an obstacle to overcome. But thankfully, one of the benefits of having those previous fifty or so years in the bank, is that I know the importance of finding my way without resorting to convention.

Is what I’ve produced any good? Well, that remains to be seen. I intend to begin navigating the weird and wonderful world of publishing, soon. Does it matter? Well now, that could be a subject for another blog.

This, you see, is my first.