The Naked Desk

Writing a book, I’ve found, is like wading out into a river. At first, you can’t even see open water through the reeds, let alone the far bank, but you have a vision of what might be there as you struggle through waist-deep mud. There are times when you scramble back to firm ground to find a better way in, and even when you can see your way clear ahead, the silt slows you down. Eventually, you can swim. Finally the current takes you, and then the ride is spectacular. Nothing is going to stop you until your feet touch that far, glorious bank. And as you climb out, there comes a moment when you can sit, take a breath, and look back at how far you’ve swum.

That, for me, is the moment when the Work In Progress is finally worthy of being shared with beta readers. It isn’t finished, and it won’t be finished until it is sold into publication, edited, re-edited, and polished to a publisher’s satisfaction. But it has reached a milestone. It has moved from screen to paper for a last ‘red pen’ edit. It is as good as I can make it on my own. The criticisms will come, need to come, along with those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ suggestions, but for a moment the WIP is a fine and beautiful thing. I haven’t landed in the place I saw in my early dream, but then my dreams evolved each time the current took me in a new direction. The trick is to ride the currents and avoid the eddies.

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Today I’m sitting on that far, metaphorical bank, but in the real world I’m staring at a strange sight. Beneath the never-vanishing stack of bills, correspondence, and reading material, my desk is naked. The WIP has been sent out into the world. But on the shelf above are three books that I’ve bought to research the next project. They include ‘The Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry’, written by Geoffroi de Charny, who was to die as the standard-bearer of the French oriflamme at the battle of Poitiers in 1356.

It’s a good time to think about the next river. 14th Century and the chivalric ideal.

Total immersion.

What makes authors tick: J S Watts

Before I started writing, I imagined authors staring into space as they dreamed up the next best seller, spending a few creative hours scribbling, and then quaffing wine at book launches while they signed books for an adoring public. It was a good vision to hold in my mind as I crawled through the concrete canyons during the morning ‘rush’ hour, because one day, I thought, I’m going to write that book. Now I know the slog, the insecurity, the bruising rejections, and the small-change royalties, I ask myself ‘why do we do this?’ Perhaps even more, ‘why, when other careers are open to us, would we not do anything else?’

I persuaded Jacquie Watts to sit in the hot seat. Jacquie pinged me last month in the ‘meet my character’ blog hop, and I discovered that she read English at Somerville College, Oxford. She’s had poetry, short stories and book reviews published in Acumen, Envoi, Hand + Star, Mslexia and Orbis, and broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. Her novel, “A Darker Moon”, a dark literary fantasy, is published by Vagabondage Press. She was brave enough to answer some fairly hard questions:

GG: You’re an Oxford graduate. You could do lots of things. Why write? 

JSW: Oxford graduates don’t have all the fun, you know, but the very simple and direct answer is because I want to. I have actually done a lot of things since graduating from Oxford, including spending over 25 years in British education, but my passion has always been writing. I’ve written stories and poems for almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I even wrote plays that I forced friends and family to act out. Okay, as an eight year old I also coerced friends into a rather ridiculous pop group that fortunately came to nothing, but that’s just proof that the thing that really, really mattered to me, writing, was the thing that I pursued and persevered with. 

GG: In the literary field you’re a published poet, a published author, and a reviewer. How do you answer when someone asks ‘what do you do?’

JSW: I usually say I’m a writer and then, if the person’s interested, they can ask what I write. If I say poet, it seems to preclude writing anything other than poetry. If I say author, then people assume I only write novels. Sometimes if the situation demands it, I will say poet and author, but mostly I refer to myself as a writer as that seems to sum it up nicely and is how I see myself.

GG: I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) your short story in the June/July Plasma Frequency Magazine. Its main character is a woman whose memory has been erased. Your book ‘A Darker Moon’ has a protagonist who can’t remember his past. Why do you return to this theme?

JSW: Mmm… good question and I’m really pleased you enjoyed ‘e-razored’. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I’ve written other stories where memory (or lack of it) plays a key role, for example the short story ‘Jenny’.

The theme of memory attracts me for a variety of reasons. On one level I like the dichotomy between the known and the unknown and when memory is involved it’s possible for me as a writer to keep everyone in the dark for longer, including the main character.

My fascination with memory goes beyond that, though. I think there is a fundamental question to be asked and it is an increasingly important one as more and more of us live into advanced old age and experience the impact of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The primal question for me is, who are we? Are we more than the sum of our memories? If you take away memory, the recollection of where we have been, what we have done and how we have felt about it, what are you left with? I know that as an individual I have changed over the years because of what I have achieved (and failed to achieve), what I have experienced and felt. If my memory of that goes, what do I have left? I also pride myself on having a good memory. I would hate to lose it. It would be like losing a key part of me. Having said that, I recognise I do not remember everything in perfect detail, so my memories are selective rather than complete. Some people have memories they yearn to forget, that make their lives worse not better. Like everything in life, memory per se is neither good nor bad, but it’s what we humans have. Ultimately, I have no real answer to the question of memory and self, just my gut response, so I come back to it because it fascinates me.

GG: In the past few days I’ve come across an impressive variety works by you that include a psychological fantasy novel (A Darker Moon), a sci-fi short story (e-razored), some delightfully witty poetry (Songs of Steelyard Sue) and another, prize-winning, literary short story on Radio 4 (Jenny). You seem to be covering a lot of bases. Where’s your heart?

JSW: I think my heart is multi-faceted. I like classical music and heavy rock. I like literary fiction and genre fiction. I like poetry and prose. I like variety and I don’t have a problem with liking lots of contrasting things simultaneously.

Having said that, much of my writing does contain elements of what many would call speculative fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, magic-realism, the supernatural, myth and fairy story. My first full poetry collection, ‘Cats and Other Myths’ aimed to explore myth and legend through modern life and visa versa. I believe the stories we make up from scratch, the ones written on a totally blank page, contain a good deal of ourselves. We pour in our anxieties and interests, the questions we want answering or are pondering. It’s a way of exploring our humanity and, if I go delving after my elusive heart, I guess a fundamental fascination with what makes ‘us humans’ tick lies at the bottom of most things I have written. ‘Songs of Steelyard Sue’ is first and foremost a sequence of poems exploring the life and times of an everyman character (or, in Sue’s case, an everymechanoidfemale character) and the point of an everyman is that he’s supposed to stand for all of us. I can’t comment on whether Steelyard Sue achieves this, but I do know that amongst the humour (and the sadness) I have tried, in my own clumsy way, to explore the human condition and the myths that drive us.

GG: Like other poets I could mention, you write clean, evocative prose that’s better than many genre best-sellers. Does the lack of recognition frustrate you?

JSW: Thank you for the very kind words. It doesn’t frustrate me, as such. As a writer, and especially a writer of poetry, I’ve come to expect it. I’d love to be able to say I write only for the love of it and lack of recognition doesn’t matter at all, but that would be lying. I do write for the love of it, but I also want my stories and poems to connect with people. Writing is communication and the more people read my books, the more I am communicating. Finding someone who likes what I have written or is moved by it is tremendously rewarding. Also, I have a cat to feed and a mortgage to pay, so earning money from my writing doesn’t go amiss either. I should love my writing to earn praise and gold alike, but failing that I remain motivated by the writing itself. At least if I’m writing I can cling to the forlorn hope that one day recognition will catch up with me. My second novel, ‘Witchlight’ is due out sometime in the next twelve months (publication schedules permitting), I’m writing the third novel and am working on my next poetry collection, so at least there’s some hope that one day recognition might come calling, if not with the current book, then the next one.

GG: Jacquie, thank you so much for participating. I echo many of your thoughts, especially the need to engage with people, and the reward of finding that people like what you’ve written. I shall watch for ‘Witchlight’ with huge interest. Good luck.

“I never knew you were like that…”

Draumr KopaCindy Callens, on the Belgian book review site Draumr Kopa, kindly asked me to do a guest blog. I shared some of the more amusing comments people have made since Saxon’s Bane was launched. Click here for Draumr Kopa.

Here’s what I had to say:

People have said some strange things to me since Saxon’s Bane was published.

“I never knew you were like that,” an elderly lady from my local church said one Sunday.

“Like what?” I asked. The question made me stop in my tracks, and the departing congregation flowed around us.

She shuffled, making that eyes-lowered squirm with which Christian ladies of a certain age simultaneously mention and avoid mentioning delicate subjects. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t know. What’s the matter?” I sensed that the subject causing her such embarrassment was of a reprehensible and possibly sexual nature, and my mind raced in a frantic ‘Oh-God-what-have-I-got-to-be-guilty-about’ way. I drew a blank, but the worry remained.

“I read your book.”

Ah. Huge sigh of relief. Saxon’s Bane includes pagan practices and probably isn’t a book that the vicar would read from the pulpit.

“And?”

“Your character, he, err, notices women.”

Oh, that. Perhaps she had an innocent understanding of the male psyche. I explained that the main character was a single, heterosexual man in his thirties who has been cooped up in hospital for four months, when his only female company had arrived carrying a hypodermic needle. He may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and is certainly a little insecure. He’s courageous but stubborn, emotionally incontinent, and flawed. Yes, he notices women. Is that a problem?

The elderly lady made a slight flutter with her hands, vaguely indicative of an area below the waist, before she repeated herself. “I never knew you were like that.”

It was an early lesson for me in being a published author. The autobiographical element is assumed, but assumed selectively. Female characters may be “well drawn” but the male protagonist can only be me. His strengths are my aspirations, and his weaknesses are mine. I wonder what reaction Sebastian Faulks had after writing his brilliant novel Engleby in the ‘voice’ of a man you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Perhaps after you’ve written Birdsong and Charlotte Gray your readers take a more balanced view. For those of us still establishing our literary credibility, it’s worth remembering that although good stories match flawed good against complex evil, the trick is to make the flaws appealing.

The reality, of course, is that there is inevitably some autobiographical content. As I wrote Saxon’s Bane the characters became so well known to me that I was able to become the individual I had created, even the female ones, and as I set them loose they’d tell me how each scene must develop. The boundary between self and artifice became so blurry that I sometimes had to stand back and unpick myself from this world of my own creation.

I’ve found I can also write from a female point of view, with a little help and critiquing from my wife and from women at my writers’ group. Over half of my next book is written in a female ‘voice’, and I’m told it sounds totally authentic. I shall be fascinated to hear readers’ feedback, if and when it is published. Will the few, lyrically-crafted moments of female sexuality be dismissed as ‘pure male fantasy’? Will someone again say “I never knew…”?

It is a strange and delightful thing, this ability and willingness to craft a female persona from within a male brain. I think that by the time I finished Saxon’s Bane I may even have been a little in love with one of the female protagonists.

“Great character, that Eadlin,” a man said about her after Saxon’s Bane was book of the month at his book club. “Wonderfully fleshed out.”

“Excuse me?” I looked in vain for signs that the double-entendre was intentional. Eadlin’s character, I should explain, has an earthy, girl-next-door sexuality. She has curves.

“No, I mean she’s well rounded.”

It’s great to watch someone else dig themselves into a pit of their own making. I wish, eight months after the book was released, that I’d made notes of the best remarks that have come my way. Some have been amusing, like the ones I’ve shared. Some have been gloriously, ego-boostingly flattering, while some have been crushing, like the local independent bookseller who declined to stock because she was “inundated with local authors”.

But the prize for the funniest has to go to my wife’s mother, who held on for some time to the view that her son-in-law should be out earning a salary rather than indulging in all this writing stuff. My wife rang her up when Solaris bought the English language rights to Saxon’s Bane.

“Wonderful news, Mummy! Geoffrey’s got a publishing contract!”

“Oh.” A pause. “But has he got work?”

 

 

The WIP

Carol McGrathHistorical Novelist Carol McGrath kindly tagged me in her blog last week, and asked me what I’m working on. Carol, by way of reciprocal introduction, writes wonderful novels about the royal women of King Harold’s court in the years before and after the Norman conquest. Her book ‘The Handfasted Wife’ was a finalist for this year’s Romance Novelist Association’s historical award. Click the icon for more details.

Carol asked me several questions:

What am I working on?

I’m at the final draft and editing phase of a thriller with a supernatural twist. When newly affluent businessman Paul Devlin and his girlfriend Fiona buy a barn conversion near Halstead Hall, they think they’re buying a rural idyll. They are met by a wall of resentment, and are drawn into a conflict that has its roots in Dark Age, pagan times. There’s a fuller overview under ‘Current Projects’. I’ve also posted the first two chapters here and here.

What inspired you to write this?

Two years ago my wife and I visited the lovely Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which dates from the 12th to the 17th centuries. In the valley below there are traces of the ‘lost village’ of Nether Haddon, visible now only in ridge-and-furrow field patterns, tracks that are just patterns in pasture, and some exquisite wall paintings in Haddon Hall’s chapel. No-one knows for sure why the village disappeared, some time around the 14th century.

Wall Painting2Those wall paintings made the lost village seem more human. History is always written about the great families, the Vernons and the Manners of Haddon, but what about the peasant kneeling in the grass? What story might he tell?

So I had the idea of a rural dynasty that was born, over six hundred years ago, with a terrible oath that bound the Bonnevaux family to the soil and people of Halgestede, the ‘Holy Place’. In the present day, the Halstead estate is crumbling and the oath has been forgotten by the Bonnevaux but not, it seems, by the families that have served them for centuries. Families that might, perhaps, have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Land:

His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.

Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made.

And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line

Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

What’s your writing process?

I’m not sure I’ve defined it yet. It involves a lot of staring into space, inhabiting the world I’m trying to create. In the summer I write in an arbour I built in the garden, where I’m most productive. In the winter I replicate that as much as possible in my study by playing background ‘music’ of birdsong. As I come close to finishing a book I become very focused and tend to ignore all other tasks. Bills, jobs, even friends. At the beginning of a project it’s like wading out into a river, slow and sticky. Then the current takes you and nothing else matters.

Carol: Who would you like to introduce?

dave new pic mono copyDave Weaver‘s writing ranges from YA fantasy to literary fiction. He is married to a Japanese lady, and his fascination with Japan has produced some stunning work. He describes his love for the ‘beautiful colours of its landscapes and the subtlety of its culture, for its contradictions and certainties, intelligence and passion, spirit and diversity. Yet beneath all these things lies another Japan; one of ghosts and shadows, unspoken secrets, demons from the past and uncertain visions of the future. It’s what makes this intriguing country ultimately unknowable, unique, Nippon…

Dave will blog next week at http://daveweaver-unreal.blogspot.co.uk/

photo for WIP blogLibby McGugan and I share the same publisher, Solaris. Her fast-paced, intelligent novel ‘The Eidolon’ came out just after Saxon’s Bane. Libby grew up with an ambition to join the Rebel Alliance in a Galaxy Far, Far away, or get a job in film production (it was a tough choice). Instead she studied medicine and worked as an emergency physician. A travel junkie, she’s been trekking in the Himalaya of Bhutan, inter-railing round Europe and backpacking in Chile, USA and Borneo. She plays the fiddle and loves TED talks. Her biggest influence was probably Yoda. Libby will blog next week at http://libbymcgugan.com

toby_frostToby Frost always wanted to be an astronaut, but somehow reality got in the way. He trained to be a barrister, but decided to follow a career writing about spaceships instead. He is the author of four comedy novels, published by Myrmidon books, about the misadventures of British space captain Isambard Smith and his somewhat dysfunctional crew as they travel the galaxy conquering space and making tea. In 2013, his science fiction novel Straken was published by Black Library. The fifth Space Captain Smith novel, End of Empires, is due out in August 2014. Toby’s website, which contains details about the books along with other content, is at: www.toby.frost.com.”

Literature, Genre, and Geeks

In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.

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Literature, Genre, and Geeks

Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.

My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”

Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.

I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.

I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?

So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?

I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?

I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”

I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?

And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.

Hell, it’s a ghost story.

 

Three Short Bursts – FREE ebook

Three_Short_Bursts_1400My E-book of short stories has now been published by Solaris, and is available for free download in both Kindle (.mobi) and iBook (.epub) formats.

What’s inside:

MUSE: A powerful, emotionally charged story where old lady teaches a young pianist the true, evocative power of music. Winner of the ‘Get Writing’ Prize 2011.

THE OTHER WOMAN: In this light-hearted and amusing tale, a sailor becomes obsessed with restoring a vintage sailboat, which seems to have a character and a mind of its own.

SHORT BURSTS: The poignant story of an elderly veteran confronting his demons in an old people’s home.

Click the links to download. Enjoy!

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KINDLE/mobi

The (equine) inspiration

Since Saxon’s Bane was released the question I’ve been asked most frequently has been “what was your inspiration?” The literary answer has been covered elsewhere in several guest blogs, but I have to admit that one character in the book was drawn from life, in the shape of a four-legged, 700 kilo friend who is exceptionally fond of Polo Mints.

Bally & helmetSeveral reviewers and bloggers have commented on the way Saxon’s Bane touches on the healing power of horses. It isn’t the primary theme of the book, but much of the plot is set in a stables, and the main character Fergus’s growing bond with a horse is a factor in his journey towards wellbeing. In his first encounter with a horse, he finds the touch ‘unexpectedly comforting, like a distant echo of childhood, as if he was once again a hurt infant who had found a soothing presence that was large and gentle and warm. […] the horse lifted its head and touched its muzzle into the angle of Fergus’s neck, holding it there so that the warmth of its breath brushed over his skin. A strange sense of harmony started to fill Fergus’s mind at this unquestioning animal contact. It made him feel naked, with the essence of his being visible to the animal. Not judged, simply known, and accepted.’

I have not, in the years that I’ve been riding, been in the same need of healing as Fergus, but I have seen the transformative power that horses can have on damaged people, at both an emotional and physical level. What better excuse to write a friend into the story?

Bally ODESo let me introduce Bally, or Ballycormac Boy to give him his full name, who’s a 17.1 hands Irish Hunter that I bought in Ireland in 2005. He now belongs to a very good friend and his wife, who are kind enough to let me ride him regularly. We even compete from time to time, at a very local, amateur level.

Bally now lives on the edge of Hodgemoor Woods in Buckinghamshire. The Hodgemoor Riding Association (HRA) works in partnership with the Forestry Commission, raising funds from members to maintain the woodland tracks for all users. A local retailer is co-operating with HRA to offer signed copies of Saxon’s Bane at £6.99, including UK postage, of which £1.00 will be donated to Hodgemoor Riding Association.

If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, click on the small horse’s head image below (yes, that’s Bally!) and you’ll be redirected to the relevant page on the HRA site.

Bally
HRA