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.

The Waterloo Rap

My wife and I were invited to a gloriously extravagant party recently, when we were invited to turn up dressed in the style of  ‘the French Revolution or Les Miserables’. We were also invited to submit a ‘limerick or clerihew’ on a relevant theme. My limerick grew, acquired an accent as English as my red tail coat, and became a rap. So here, for your gentle amusement, is

The Waterloo Rap

In eighteen hundred and then fifteen                                                                     That’s way before young Vic was Queen                                                                      We Brits marched South, tooled up to fight                                                           The Grand Armée in all its might.                                                                           See, we love French cheese, we love French wine,                                               We’d even love their Josephine,                                                                                But killing a king, now that ain’t right,                                                                    And égalité gave our toffs a fright.

So Wellington, yes, he De Man                                                                              Who’d stop the Frogs if anyone can,                                                                        Led me an’ Fred an’ all our crew                                                                            Along the road to Waterloo,                                                                                     And dissed that Boney                                                                                          Saying “Honi                                                                                                                 Soit qui mal y pense,”                                                                                              Which sounded good, but don’t make sense.

They came on hard, they came on tough                                                                Till Boney finally cried “Enough!”                                                                          And after a hell of guts and gore                                                                          There weren’t many left from the day before                                                         So I shared a pipe with a French Old Guard                                                         And told him “Man, you tried us hard                                                                    But killing a king, see, that’s a crime, and                                                               You can’t kill George, ‘coz that sod’s mine.”

The heroic view of history

This evening I poured myself a glass of wine, put on some music, and pulled a book off the shelf. I chose, not quite at random, the first volume of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’, since I wanted to see what the wartime leader and amateur historian had to say about the dawn of the English. It’s one of those books that are too finely bound or significant to be thrown away, but which somehow sit there yellowing and undisturbed for years. It was written in the 1930’s, and re-edited before publication in 1956, but it is stunning to see how how profoundly have styles changed in just 60 or 80 years. Here he is on the Arthurian legend:

‘If we could see what exactly happened [the reality behind the myth of Arthur] we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.’

Rousing stuff. For a moment my study filled with the scent of a thundering good cigar. Better historians than I might challenge Churchill’s academic rigour, but then he had an angle, in the same way that Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had an angle. There may even be a touch of self-aggrandisement there. But for those who have a taste for history that is robust, muscular, and heroic, he can’t be beaten.

When I reached for my glass, I was mildly surprised to find a humble red rather than a fine brandy.

Cheers!

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Bone JackPerhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.

Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.

Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.

 

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.

“Meet my character!”

Jacqueline Watts, author, reviewer, and blogger (click here to read her blog) sent me some questions about characters and characterisation, which I’m delighted to post below. 6620930By way of introduction, Jacquie read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and has 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.

Jacquie’s questions:

1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical?   There’s a guy called Fergus Sheppard in Saxon’s Bane, and as I wrote the book he became so real that I have to remind myself he’s just a figment of my imagination.

2. When and where is the story set?   Saxon’s Bane is set in the present day in a remote English village called Allingley, during the excavation of a Saxon grave. There are also flashbacks to Allingley’s Dark Ages origins as Aegl ingas leigh, the clearing of Aegl’s people.

3. What should we know about him?   In the first pages of the book Fergus is involved in a car crash near Allingley, when his friend and colleague Kate swerves to avoid a stag. Kate dies, and Fergus hears himself left for dead. Before that life-changing moment, he’d been a high-achieving, flash salesman, but in the book he’s on a journey towards physical and mental healing. He’s stubborn, vulnerable, and emotionally incontinent, but he’s a fighter. He’s had to fight his way back from a place mapped more by faiths than by science.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?   Fergus isn’t sure any more about the boundaries between reality and mystery, or past and present, and those boundaries become more blurred as the story progresses. There’s the tramp with the stag tattoo, for example, that appeared by the wreck just as archaeologists were uncovering a peat-preserved, Saxon body nearby with uncannily similar markings.

Fergus is a damaged innocent blundering through a rural community that hides some seriously nasty secrets. Tor.com summed it up as ‘Wicker Man by way of John Fowles’.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?   Fergus starts out needing to sort out his own mental turmoil. As can happen with people with Post-Traumatic Stress, his behaviour is not always appealing. His insecurity, for example, shows in a bit of a roving eye, but the young archaeologist who’s the object of his attentions is facing her own challenges; a preternatural understanding of the Saxon graves that she can’t reconcile with her academic discipline. The two of them become drawn into a very old, sinister conflict. Fergus stays to fight not because he’s particularly courageous, but because he’s too bloody-minded to run the other way. Plus, of course, there’s the girl…

6. How’s the book doing?   I’m eagerly awaiting the first royalty statement since just after the launch! The feedback is gratifyingly good, though, with an average of 4.4 ex 34 reviews on Amazon. I was over the moon when Ross Warren, reviewing for ‘This is Horror’, described it as ‘A supremely well-written novel… Saxon’s Bane is the book to thrust into the hands of any know-it-all who claims that genre fiction cannot be literary.’

7. Great! So what’s coming next?   I’ve just finished another time-slip historical with a supernatural twist and have posted an overview and extracts here. Now I’m sketching out two alternative scenarios for the third book. This summer I’ll finish my (part time) job and focus wholly on writing, which is wonderfully exciting.

…and the tour carries on   Watch this space for the next writers to introduce their characters.

“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?”