Archive for the ‘brown cardigan’ Category

Tug O War

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Bad blogger again.

I am very deep into my first draft of the third book. As yet mainly un-named. Just over 50k words in. I want to get it written as fast as possible because I can already guess the sort of editing that it is going to need and I want to give myself plenty of time to do it.

I didn’t think writing to a deadline would suit me but imagining my editor drumming her fingers on her desk waiting for me to type a bit quicker is actually very helpful. Vanishing into the spaces between the words and the noise the keyboard makes is wonderful. I reckon if I could fully explain how happy it makes me I wouldn’t need to do it.

But there are other demands on my time. I am pulled out of my head and into the world and then the book makes me irritable and hauls me back again. I can only imagine how fun this, along with the anxiety about Cold Light’s imminent arrival, is making me to live with.

Tugs in the other direction include two recent interviews – journalists coming inside the house, which was new and strange. Both very nice and polite and complimentary about my domestic offerings (tea, fig rolls, a token amount of pre-visit hoovering up) but Strangers all the same, inside My House and with Tape Recorders.

I was naively unprepared and expected to be asked only about the books, but that wasn’t how it panned out. I’d really like to have a body double Jenn for interviews. Someone bubbly and cheery with thoughts like lasers instead of grumpy, inarticulate woolly me.

Something I have learned this week about being interviewed: the only way to deal with the thoughts about what an idiot you were, and what stupid things you said, is to refuse to think them at all. Type, instead. Drink tea. Get over yourself.

Teaching – busy at this time of year as I have one set hurtling towards the end of their first year, and the handing in of portfolios. I suspect they are still disbelieving when I tell them one of the most useful things they can train themselves to do for their writing is to read it out loud to themselves, look up words they’re not sure of and be consistent about italicising the names of books and computer games. It is true. Little things count. And the other lot, slowly losing themselves in longer short story collections and novels and forgetting that they’re going to get marked on this sort of thing, because merits and passes and distinctions are not that important when it comes to writing good books. It’s a tiring time, working with them, but the best time so far.

On the way home from Manchester there’s a man who has sat next to me twice now who does that legs wide apart thing. He opens a textbook to learn Chinese and then puts his head back against the seat and closes his eyes. I coughed a little and touched his arm (I thought he was sleeping) and I told him he was squashing me a little bit. He said, ‘I know love,’ and I laughed, feeling envious of that amount of confidence, and leg room.

More things tugging me away from the first draft, and the pleasure of becoming invisible:

My first event in a long time as part of my fellowship at Manchester University. I read a bit from Cold Light AND a very early drafted part of something from book three. Which I worry might have been a mistake. It’s like a new love right now. I want to talk about how brilliant it is all the time, but I’m experienced enough to know we’re heading for a fall out sometime soon and those sort of spats are better fought and won behind closed doors. I read it anyway, never heard it out loud before (that’s right, I don’t take my own advice you clever, close reading devil, you!) but I think it worked okay.

I don’t think I would do it again. It felt like taking off my clothes and pointing out my problem areas to a gathering composed of all the people who have ever dumped me. But it only seemed fair – the audience was stuffed with students who have been trusting and brave enough to show me their drafts and speak to me about their ideas. It felt right to return the favour.

I ate frogs legs, that was new. And was very sad to wave goodbye to my fellow fellow, the poet Paul Batchelor who moves onto new things this month, and whose poems have restored me on more than one occasion, especially in the past few weeks when all my typing has left me emptied out and tearful by the end of the day.

This week there is lots of writing to look forward to and on Friday I am helping to make a book trailer for Cold Light.

(the picture is of Florence La Due who was a cowgirl and ‘champion roper’ and, I imagine, able to handle herself very well in a tug o war, thank you very much)


Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I think the fetishisation of process is both an exercise in procrastination (for the maker) and a refusal to engage with the finished work (for the audience).  But what do I know?

From the Q and A section of Jon McGregor’s website – in answer to a question about the pens and paper he uses to write with.

As always, I’m in two minds. I’m  not sure if I should have this quotation printed out on the back of my business cards, tattooed on the inside of my eyelids and scrawled in black marker on the wall in front of my desk  – or if I should write a long ranty blog post about how much I disagree with the sentiment.

I admire Jon McGregor’s work hugely and as a writer I can hear his frustration with interview questions about typewriters and at times I have shared it. But then discussions about ‘process’ more generally are a huge part of what I do as a teacher – helping students to learn technique, or to isolate and improve the technique they are already using instinctively. I think having students reflect on how they write and to examine how other writers read and write is integral to their improvement.And it is what I try to do to improve my own writing.

But then again, what do I know? I am always in two minds about everything.

I’ve noticed several spats going on in facebookland recently about various political events – topics I never talk about in public at all. This silence of mine is because I believe the days when novelists had status as public intellectuals and rent-a-gobs, trotted out for an opinion on every major event in public life are gone, and properly so. We make things up, more or less well. We use stories to comment on the real world. Or we don’t. We use fiction to tell the truth. Or we don’t. Why would any of that make our opinions especially valuable?

And my silence also exists because I am so utterly of my generation it is unreal. I find it more or less impossible to come down on any particular side in very many subjects. Everything I write examines the idea of truthfulness, of reliable arguments, of words meaning what they are supposed to mean. Point of view. It isn’t that I don’t care – it’s just that by virtue of being a writer I think I’ve made it impossible for myself to engage with these debates in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a household where there was certainly a right and a wrong way to see the world, and my opinions about things were consistently wrong. Growing up under the weight of that kind of intellectual violence makes me uninterested in dishing it out to others. So if you disagree with me, I’m not interested in proving you wrong or convincing you to think what I think. If I even think it.

It feels very important to me to practice informed disinterest. I know it is an impossible stance to truly have. But I am interested in getting there.

Which brings me back to Jon McGregor. Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong after all.

Maybe all this blogging about writing, teaching writing, reading writing and talking about reading is just getting in the way of the reading and writing. Maybe the reflection is the final step of the process, maybe it’s just all hot air.

I think it probably depends.

And if this all sounds like cowardly navel gazing and a waste of words to you, well, I can see the value in that argument too.

Sad Search

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

I have been reading such a lot for the past three or four months or years. Half of me has been wanting to research properly, like Ph.D. students do. So I have been taking references and doing research as to the reliability of sources. I am a member of a copyright library and am a librarian so I know about reliable documents. I want to be sane and sober and reliable.  My motivations are as pure as I can make them.

I don’t think it is possible for a human being to be disinterested but I am determined to try. Which defeats my purpose.

And on and on.

I want to put my hands on what is true.

And the other half of me has been observing confusion, and conflicting sources, and bias. In myself and my research. And that’s okay. Because I am more interested in people’s opinions than I am about the facts. I understand that that the facts are not accessible. And feelings are more true than facts.

And what are facts anyway?

I am deleting such a lot I want to write here and in my book and I am not sure I know the reason why.

I feel sad. There are hundreds of sentences and no-one would ever believe me. I am a fictionist. I lie a little lie a lot. I am more interested in fiction. I’ve made a bed to lie in. Lie in.

I have redrafted the previous sentences many times in order to make them seem less dramatic and narcissistic and silly. But it is the nearest to what I want to say.

I have even toyed with the idea of scheduling this post way into the future. Some of you will think I am speaking about Cold Light. You haven’t met that one yet, but it’s nearly done with for me and I am well into the next. Which is the one I am thinking about.

That’s all. Wish me luck. I have such things to say I don’t mind too much about sounding like a prick. People who mean things sound silly.

I am off into the novel.


Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Things I am interested in:

  • how writers turn autobiography into fiction
  • the idea that remembering is the same as making things up
  • using techniques of fiction making in memoir writing
  • the effect following a particular religion has on your voice
  • how the passing of time works in books of fiction and long, creative non-fiction
  • how writers use other people’s stories in their fiction and the ethics of this
  • Crufts and dog breeding and training generally

Book recommendations welcome.

I am learning to like the ‘research’ stage of a novel – although still finding it difficult to apply the things I read and discover to my own writing. Writing, for me, is a skill and a craft and while theory might be interesting I’m not doing an essay. I don’t need to back up everything my characters say or think with footnotes.

Method so far is: read a lot, think a lot and letting it all simmer for a while. When something snags my attention, follow it.

Current Reading:

Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone

The Journal of Discourses

Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars

Don’t need to know why or be able to explain my intentions to myself until much later, if at all. The answer to why I am interested in all these things is only: because I am. Because they appeal to me. Then scribble and scribble and scribble.

Then a book comes out a year or two later. In theory.


Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Progress on novel 3 goes slowly, combined with checking the proofs of Cold Light and planning a series of poetry workshops. And I’ve been reading! Joyce Carol Oates: My Sister, My Love (so far I am kind of agreeing with the New York Times review of it, but I’m persevering) and Sarah Hymas: Host and Emma Donoghue: The Room.

I think my problem with novel 3 is that I’ve been editing Cold Light at the same time as trying to write it. It’s too easy to look at my polished, finished Cold Light pages and all the other good books I’ve been reading and expect that my first couple of chapters of Number Three should look like that too. It is also easy to forget the three years and countless drafts, deletions, additions, rephrases, temper tantrums, weeks off and informed advice from two editors and my writing group. Of course Cold Light is better.

I’ve been going slow because I’ve been trying to write final draft, first time. I know this is a problem for lots of writers. Perfectionism is okay but not for first drafts. It’s something I try to address in all of my workshops – setting timed writing exercises, telling the participants it is okay to write rubbish, it’s only fifteen minutes, the important thing is to get the page dirty and we can sort out the mess later. That’s not the way to write a perfect poem, or story, or novel, or a perfect anything at all. But it is one of the perfect ways to make a start. To get over yourself and get on with it.

Which is one way of justifying me signing up for NaNoWriMo this year. November. 50,000 words. I am not so concerned about getting 50,000 words down and I know, with mothering being the way it is at the moment, it might not be possible for me. But I want to devote November to getting down as much of a first draft as I have.

I know lots of proper writers get sniffy about NaNoWriMo. ‘That’s not the way to write a real novel.’ Well no, it isn’t. The proper way to write a novel is to get the page dirty, give yourself thousands of words, and then edit them until your eyes bleed. One of my main tasks as a teacher is to convince new writers that first drafts aren’t writing: editing is writing. I know this. But my fast-typing muscles need a kick up the bum. Perhaps NaNoWriMo during November is just what’s needed.

For the daily dose of plugs,you could check out a really nice review of A Kind of Intimacy over at A Work in Progress. For a double dose, Jess Haigh has included it as one of her three favourite Scary Books at For Books’ Sake.

I have also been updating my links. I meant to import my best links from my old blogger blog over here but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped and it’s taken me this long to sort it out. Click through to have a look at what I’m reading blog-wise these days. Recommendations are always welcome.

Girls. Fun.

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

A tiny bit of writing done today – notes on the second and third chapters of book three. The first chapter is provisionally called ‘fairy cake’. The third will be called ‘bovril’s walk’. Not sure about the second one yet.

I doubt the chapters will end up with titles, but it helps me keep track. I’m really looking forward to writing ‘screwdriver’ and ‘bites down on a towel’.

The note-taking was done in my car on the back of a class 2 NI contributions bill while McTiny was sleeping. We were outside West View Leisure centre waiting for a class to start. There was a programme about The Kennel Club on Radio 4, which inspired me.

The class itself was something to write home about. I could store it in the place where I repress the rest of my trauma, but that drawer is getting full. So for your reading pleasure: the class. A kind of yoga / circuits / physio / new circle of hell type of class where you can take your progeny and be taught moves to ease your outraged abdomen back together.

I talked myself into going. Like this:

Come on Jenn, you need to get out of the house. It’ll make you feel better. Don’t be a tit, you might make friends.

I should have listened to the other Jenn, the Jenn who was quite happy being a tit and urging me to stay at home in my brown cardigan and scribble on the back of envelopes, leaning on McTiny’s back while he slept on my knee.

Picture me, if you will, running about in a circle with my arms outstretched, making little circles with my hands. Sleep deprived, shy and angry. Not owning the correct trainers either, I discovered. They played music.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (that’s all they really want).

What girls want:

not to have fun of any kind, better trainers – without having to enter a shoe-shop,
two hours more sleep, Bombay Sapphire, cake, not to walk in the sun.

I was on the brink of pretending I was nipping away for a wee and not coming back, (when you gonna live your life right?) but they had a Health Visitor on the door with a sheaf of leaflets about breast feeding and drinking and I didn’t dare.

Reading + Rage

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Something else I’ve been doing, while languishing (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it felt like it) is catching up with my reading. After a hectic few months at the beginning of this year working on the final draft of Cold Light it was good to get a few lazy afternoons under the duvet with my books.

Here they are. You’d think I’d chosen them to co-ordinate with my bedroom – all those moody blues and greys and blacks, but it just worked out that way, honest.

I’ve noticed what I like about books right now. The strange colliding with the domestic. The creepy and the unusual right up alongside cups of tea and cheese-graters, ashtrays and doormats and bottles of domestos. Until we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be scared of – the body hanging in the hallway or the half-chopped carrot on the chopping board. Odes to ordinary that are anything but.

I’m not going to get into this ‘domestic writing’ = ‘small, insignificant, female writing’ argument that crops up with dull regularity. I like novels about kitchens and marriages and houses just as much as I like novels about the end of the world, monsters, murderers and psychopaths. I like writing about people’s secrets, and to me, most of the secrets – the keeping and the telling – happen behind drawn curtains, closed doors and while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil. There’s nothing small or feminine about ordinary.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to get into, anyway.

So, I’ve read Lesley Glaister’s Chosen (in the interests of fairness, Tindal Street sent me this for free but didn’t say I had to blog about it, or anything like that…) and Tom Fletcher’s The Leaping – just out with Quercus (which I bought with my own money) and they’re such different books – worlds apart, really. Glaister’s is a kind of psychological thriller about a religious cult – a parallel narrative (they’re so easy to mis-step with, but she doesn’t) set in New York state and the UK. Fletcher’s book is a literary meditation on modern urban anxieties, the dead years after graduation, work, cancer and outside. And a were-wolf horror novel set in my favourite bit of Cumbria – Wasdale and Wast Water.

Actually, it’s not really Cumbria, it’s a kind of alternative West Cumbria. Like the Lancashire in my writing isn’t really Lancashire, but just the way I imagine it to be, or the way my characters think it is. I like writing where setting becomes character and theme, where it’s more than where it happens.

I think the thing these two books have in common and the thing I liked very much about them both was their attention to domestic detail – the dignity these narratives give to the ordinary, just by noticing it. In The Leaping we don’t just get a bloodbath, we get to see the characters cleaning it up. There are red skies and creepy snowmen and animals whose legs bend backwards and there are bits of bread going mouldy in the packet, dismal nights out at dismal nightclubs, horrible carpets, film posters, xboxes and arguments over who makes the tea.

Glaister’s book does this too. The hanging body and half-chopped carrot belong to her, as do the ‘spindly ends’ of meagre tab-ends crushed in an ashtray and smoked in a dreary house, on a dreary night. The Soul Life Centre – the house of the cult described in the book – isn’t mysterious so much as it is mundane, with piles of shared black socks and lilac pyjamas; constant tea that smells and tastes a bit funny and yet, without wanting to spoil the ending, there’s a lot here that is also too-strange-to-be-believed, unexpected and impossible-feeling.

Right now I’m reading P.D James, A Taste of Death. I really want to write a detective novel. I thought number three might be it, but I don’t think it will be. It will have elements of the form, but why always interests me more than how. The thing I notice about P.D James’ writing is how much information, how much detail we get – not all of it relevant or significant. I like James Wood on significant and insignificant detail, about using facts and information and noticings to build up ‘realism’. There’s a profusion of it in A Taste of Death – so much that it makes me forget the plot sometimes.  It works though – mainly, I think, because the narration is focalised through a series of detectives and police officers who of course would notice and give domestic detail significance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or the fact of the murder intensifies the noticing – casts a bright light onto things, makes the brand-name of the mushroom flan important.

…people’s living space, and the personal possessions with which they surrounded themselves, were inevitably fascinating to a detective, an affirmation of identity, intriguing both in themselves and as a betrayal of character, interests, obsessions.

I think you could replace detective with ‘writer’ here and you’d sum up a lot of writers that I know and admire. The stuff people carry around with them, forget they own, choose to hide or display or forget in their houses. When I’m trying to picture a character I often start with the objects they own – the things he’d hide away if his mother were staying over, the objects he’d put out on display if a new friend came for tea. Writers are like detectives. I will think more about this.

I’m looking forward to doing more reading over the next couple of weeks. I’ve decided to stay in from now on. From now until I’m thin again, which won’t be very long at all. Partly because I get tired and it hurts me to walk about, and partly because if I’m on the receiving end of one more piece of unsolicited parenting advice, if one more person says, ‘ooh, you not had that baby yet’ (yes, I did, but I didn’t like the look of it so decided to stuff it back in there…) or asks me how long there is to go (one day less than the last time you asked me) or quizzes me about things that I blush talking to my doctor about (you wouldn’t believe the sort of things people think it’s okay to ask you) I swear down on both my red bookcases I will not be responsible for my actions. Best for everyone I keep inside the house, I think. That’s probably the reason they call it your ‘confinement’.

Tinkering with Cold Light

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Even at this stage, I’m still writing new material for the novel. There are two new scenes I want to write – both of which are about developing the relationship my narrator has with one of the other characters. They sit very nicely together – one taking place in 1998 in a teenage girls’ bedroom, and another happening ten years later – the middle of the night in the bathroom of a run-down studio flat.

I thought of these scenes at separate times but now I’m coming to write them I’m seeing the similarities and the ways the present works as an echo of the past. I wonder if anyone else will notice this. I mutter to myself. Three years to write it, and it takes three hours to read. I feel curmudgeonly, and carry on scribbling and underlining and typing.

The rest of it though, is tinkering. This is how I do it:

1. Take the file on my memory stick to Granthams, get it printed out two pages to a sheet of A4, landscape, and then comb bound across the top. It sort of looks like a book, but it doesn’t work like one. Wide margins, so there’s plenty of room to write. And only one side of the paper.
2. Gasp at how much the printing costs, and
3. gasp again when I realise I’ve left my memory stick in the shop.

It’s lovely though. At Granthams, they put it in a box and wrap the box in brown paper. They are politer and dishier than the lot at Staples. I pretend I’m special – that I get the box and the paper because the Granthams-printing-and-comb-binding-massive know this is a novel and not a thesis or a catalogue or a report but a novel.

There’s a certain, breathy way you should be hearing that word in your head right now. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen it printed out before, yes? We’re concerned about the environment. We work on screen and save the wasteful treat of paper until the very end.

4. I get hold of the heft of the paper in my hands for an afternoon and then I give it away and pretend it doesn’t exist.
5. I get a friend or two to read it with pens and pencils in their hands.
6. I leave it a few weeks, and do something else / earn some money.
7. (a) I pretend I’ve forgotten.
7 (b) I get (even more) bad tempered.
8. Then it comes back, dog-eared and tatty and smelling like someone else’s house and I go over it and read it myself with another pen. Scribble away. Scissors. Post-its. The Small-Fry’s Christmas Crayola Marker Set.
9. Then there’s a day or two in bed with my ego and a bag of oranges, groaning. And feeling pleased, too – because it’s big – thousands of words, and I wrote it myself.

I’m there now. It’s going to take me another four weeks or so to translate all those scribbles into the document on my computer, and write those two scenes. But when I’ve done that, I’ve done with the book.


Discussion Time

Friday, August 28th, 2009

I’m back home safe, you’ll be pleased to know. Reading at the Edinburgh International Books Festival was Top Banana. And such a beautiful city. I wish I could have stayed longer. The hotel was pretty swish too. There was even a mini-bar, with mini bars of Green and Blacks (the Small Fry was very appreciative of this, and said I should go away for ‘book-fings’ more often.) The booksigning afterwards was also very civilised: someone gave me a box of Shortbread in exchange for a signed book. You can’t say fairer than that, can you?

A Kind of Intimacy got through the first round of voting for the Not the Booker and is now, along with the other five short-listed novels, up for discussion on the Guardian Books blog. If you’ve a burning desire to comment on anything you found interesting, or not – about Annie and her antics, then this is the place to do it.

I love and adore the picture Sam Jordison chose to go with his review. It is almost exactly how I imagine Annie’s new house to look like. All it is missing is her nice row of ornaments on the windowsill and Lucy’s bloody primroses. They’re probably there, behind the hedge.

For now, I’m back to the writing schedule. Next on the list of tasks is a day trip to Morecambe this weekend. I’ve brushed off my cagoule in preparation. I did invite the Mr, but after my last set of day trips to Fleetwood, he’s less than keen. Book number three is going to be set somewhere hot and swanky, I think.


Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Tomorrow I start the second week of being a Proper Writer. I still keep eyeing the iron and having to remind myself that there’s no need for the Sunday night blues any more.

In the past, when I’ve been asked if I’d like to give up my job and write full time, I’ve always said no, of course not – what would I have to write about?

My computer? My keyboard? My waste-paper basket full of orange peel, wet tea-bags, screwed up bits of note-paper and a pair of socks that even I, tight-arse of the year, could see had worn out long past darning?

And what about being lonely? And what about getting fat and lazy and spending the afternoons asleep, or watching Kim and Aggie on You Tube, or spying on the neighbours, or hoovering the cat-hair from the stair carpet?

And what about never having any money and starving to death and taking the Small Fry, who wants me to buy her a set of ballet lessons and a pony, with me? Starving? To death? To death! To actual, death. By starvation.

Deep breaths now. One at a time. That’s better.

And actually, I am doing okay. I am not bored. I am not lonely. It is not that different. I am doing during the day what I used to do long into the night. I get to wear jeans and odd socks. I don’t need to brush my hair if I don’t feel like it, and I rarely feel like it. I can be flexible about the hours I work. I can spend more time with the Small Fry in the evenings. I have not run out of ideas. If I start starving (to death!) I can get a job. I am still a librarian. I have skills.

This month has been a quiet month, events wise – and that, I think, has helped. Apart from the Edinburgh Festival later in August (with the lovely Ray Robinson) and a mentoring session, and a few extra meetings relating to the freelance projects I’ve taken on, there isn’t any signing and chatting about Annie and reading bits out of a book that is now three years in my past and nothing like what I’d write now.

August is turning out to be a good time to think about things, to come back to being the kind of person who wants to write about a woman remembering a teenage girl who did something that was worse than she realised at the time, and find out about Morecambe Bay, and drowning, and bio luminescence.

I think I was probably a proper writer before. Maybe everyone does it in bed, eating oranges and spitting the pips at the skirting boards by the side of the chest of drawers.

It’s ten points for a direct hit, you know.

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