Let’s start at the very beginning

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Recently, I started my new novel. It’s taken several hours, but I have the best part of the first chapter written. My task for next week will be to decide how many of those words I actually keep. My estimate is, less than a quarter. You’d think that, with a head teeming with plots and scenes and characters that never leave me alone, not even when I’m asleep, starting something wouldn’t be such a very difficult thing to do. After all, you just gather those imaginative thoughts together and away you go; Bob’s your Uncle; Charlie’s your Aunt and all other such sayings that no one really understands. But, you know what I’ve found out? I’ve found out that the start isn’t always the very best place to begin …

My first manuscript, installment number one of a trilogy (currently languishing alone on a pen drive, hoping for the still unwritten partners that will make it whole) took me over three years to complete. From first to last draft, the changes are astonishing. In fact, from a less than cursory glance from one to the other, you could be forgiven for thinking they were two completely different novels. So what happened? Too many ideas, that’s what happened. And I didn’t have the experience or self-discipline to say: Now, I know you are a very good idea, but you don’t belong in this story. So, for now, I’m going to file you under ‘Ideas; other’. What happened was that I gorged on good ideas and tried to stuff as many of them as I could into my plot. Result? I proved the truth of that worn out cliché that too much of a good thing can be very bad for you. Especially if you’re an overfed novel who doesn’t know its beginning from its middle from its end.

My second novel fared better. I’d learned from my mistakes. So, when I began to write and quickly realised that the beginning wasn’t actually the beginning, I was perfectly happy for it to shift positions. That meant hitting the delete button on a few of my favourite things, but sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. (Don’t you hate it when a cliché turns out to be right. Again?) ‘Strong as Death’ was the result of this process and, although I wrote in a more or less linear way, it wasn’t always a very straight line.

My third novel, currently in the final editing stage, had an opening chapter that went more or less according to plan and which has changed very little with subsequent redrafts. But the way I kept control of the writing process for the rest of the novel meant that, in order for the pieces to fit together, I had to be prepared to leave some sections for a while whilst I wrote others. It was a bit like braiding hair, where some strands have to be held in a waiting position until their turn comes to be woven into the final pattern. One minute, it can all look a bit of a mess, the next, voilà! C’est fini!

So, my latest novel. The one I started this week. The one whose first chapter is almost complete. Though I love much of what I’ve written, it doesn’t belong in this tale. So, reminding myself that the beginning isn’t always the very best place to begin, delete button at the ready, ‘Ideas; other’ at hand, I have started bringing my strands into line. Irrelevant ideas, stand back and make way; the story weaving is about to commence!

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Where characters come from (1): Minnie Shilling

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St Malo, on the coast of Brittany, France, home to pirates and privateers of times gone by. August 2010. Drawing to the close of a sunshine-filled afternoon, a dark haired young man in full pirate costume lounges in one of the cafés just under the ancient fortified walls. He rolls a cigarette, making it look, as only the French can, like one of the most glamorous acts on earth. And then he passes it to the girl sitting opposite him. Meanwhile, seated on the terrace of an adjacent café, I watch. I can’t help it. Sometimes, people capture my imagination and characters are born. Not the pirate, though shades of him do appear in another of the characters in ‘Strong as Death’; I watch the girl with the pirate. I am looking at Minnie Shilling for the first time. But this is Minnie Shilling who doesn’t yet have a name, who doesn’t yet have a story. This is Minnie Shilling after ‘Strong as Death’ has ended. Why this girl with the confident bohemian soul? It isn’t because of the way she’s dressed (reproduced to the best of my memory at Dee’s eighteenth birthday party, wearing the same dress that Minnie wears to her audition and during her time on the Plain of Ethad), nor is it because of the long dark hair that looks chic loosely piled on her head, hair I would have loved to have been blessed with even though it’s what my grandmothers would have described as ‘tatty’. Nor is it her deep tan and the easy way she smiles and flirts and smokes a cigarette as though she’s immune from ever contracting lung cancer. Her aura oozes confidence in spite of her youth, without screaming arrogance. She’s the young woman that accident-prone, self-doubting Minnie longs to become but, aged only just seventeen, would never believe she could be.

2014-03-16 16 59 53 Nana STNeither of my grandmothers liked their names. Both chose alternatives that aren’t the same as those on their birth certificates. One of those grandmothers was known as Minnie. I didn’t realise she had any other name until long after her death. As a child, I was fascinated by the thoughts of anyone being called Minnie. I only knew about Minnie Mouse. To this day, so far, the only other Minnie I have met is the fictional one in ‘Strong as Death’. Shilling? Who knows? It just came into my mind, linked itself to the girl whose story I knew I would write, and got stuck there, even though I tried to change it many times.

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An overnight coach journey from London to Carlisle in April 2012 didn’t provide much opportunity for sleep, especially when a couple of sentences wormed their way into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote them down: ‘Minnie always knew she was going to die. Not in the way that made her live half a life, but in the way that made her look over her shoulder to see if Death was following her.’ Once I’d given in and jotted those words down, I couldn’t stop, and a whole host of other thoughts tumbled from my pen onto the page. Very few of those original sentences made it into the final draft of ‘Strong as Death’, but, during that long journey north, something of Minnie’s story finally revealed itself to me.

In May 2012, I wrote the first scene for strong as Death whilst visiting friends in Dubai. The actual scene doesn’t appear until the beginning of the 2nd movement of the final draft, because at that time, I wasn’t quite sure where Minnie’s story would start. All I did know was where it would end. As I wrote that scene, what I found out was that Minnie’s voice flowed in the first person. Previously, I had always written in the third person, so Minnie took me by surprise.

From the start, I knew that Minnie was a musician, but I mistakenly thought she was a pianist. It was only after many awkward writing moments when I couldn’t get Minnie to cooperate that I realised she was a cellist. That revelation came as, frustrated one day with my lack of progress, I began leafing through some of my treasures that I keep close by in my favourite writing haunt. From the age of nine until I was eighteen, I played the viola. I still have the books of music I attempted to master, one of which is a collection of Bach cello suites, transcribed for viola. I never played them well, though longed to. At that moment, I had Elgar’s cello concerto playing in the background (sometimes I write with music, at other times, I write in silence. I have no rule about that). And that’s when I knew; Minnie played the cello, not well, but exceptionally well. Beyond exceptionally well. Perhaps her gift developed at the expense of her poise, the lack of which makes her so clumsy and accident-prone, particularly in the first few chapters? Or perhaps, the hours she spent practising her music meant that she didn’t have to focus on fitting in with her peers; after all, the socially adept and ever popular Dee was always ready to fight Minnie’s corner and make a space for her where there otherwise may have been none. What is indisputable is that the death of her father pushed Minnie into a world she thought would have pleased him most, a world where only music counted. A world where she hoped to keep her connection to him alive. A world where time spent playing music was a world he’d never left.

I cannot pretend that the death of my dad when I was little older than the fictional Minnie has had a profound effect on the themes I write about, themes of love and loss that recur in other books I have written and plan to write. But I hope that the journey Minnie undertakes in ‘Strong as Death’, a journey that sees her develop into a young woman who grasps the gift of life, embracing its losses and loves with both hands is a journey that readers will want to travel with her, willing her on with every step she takes.

Strong as Death by Julia Lund. Available to download from Amazon

Strong as Death by Julia Lund. Available to download from Amazon

Promises to keep …

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This poem has always drawn me into its world, a world of breath-holding depth and mystery-laden simplicity. So many different interpretations. So many possibilities. So many emotional responses to a scene I have never literally experienced and yet whose memory seems my own. And miles to go before I sleep. Words too beautiful to try and explain. Too poignant to linger over too long. Too mesmerising to stop the echo of their whisper once the page has been closed.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Miles to go before I sleep ... Mixed media on canvas by Julia Lund

Miles to go before I sleep … Mixed media on canvas by Julia Lund

I feel scared

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I’ve published my book and now I feel scared. The sort of scared that springs from the question: ‘What have I done?’ Scared that no one will read it. Scared that, if they do, they won’t like it; scared that people will judge it and find it so wanting that they will tell me, along with anyone in the world who will take the time to listen: ‘Don’t waste a second of your precious time reading the rubbish she’s produced. She’s a delusional narcissist. She can’t create a coherent sentence, let alone a captivating plot with characters who capture your imagination.’

 But hang on a minute. This morning I read in Isaiah: ‘Do not be afraid of people’s scorn, nor fear their insults.’ Those words pulled me up short. Not because they encouraged me to brazen out any criticism that may lay in wait for me. Not because I suddenly remembered the old ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ default inner defence position of childhood. Those words pulled me up short because I was reminded of where I stand in the universe. If your faith is something you don’t really explore, or if you don’t believe in God, then this next bit may sound like the ubiquitous fairy tale you may believe faith in Him to be. I have tried life from that viewpoint and, though I longed to stay put in that position, I found it impossible. But I digress. Where I believe I stand in the universe is this. I stand in the presence of the God whose fingerprints and DNA run through the whole of creation. I stand in the presence of the God whose heartbeat sustains the fabric of the heavens and earth. I don’t understand much science, try as I have, but what I have grasped makes me gasp in amazement at the complexity, the simplicity, the pure genius of nature. People far more intelligent than me understand how the stars give light to the night skies; what makes the wind blow. How rain falls. Theologians with more wisdom than I can ever hope to amass grapple with the questions of suffering and disease and disasters. I just stand as someone who can be over awed by the wonder of creation, overwhelmed by the sadness and injustice that exists in this beautiful world. And yet, through all the things I know I’ll never understand, things like the untimely death of my father; watching helpless as my mother died from cancer, events that I tried to use as reasons to prove there is no such thing as a God of love, I stand as someone who cannot hide from the touch of God’s love and grace in my life. And believe me, I have tried.

 I don’t want anyone to criticise me or my writing. But they will. I want everyone to love what I create. But they won’t. I don’t want anyone to be indifferent. But they may be. But what I want to want more than anything is to become a person who has a universal perspective on my place in my family and my community, a perspective that makes me compassionate, reflecting the love and grace I have experienced in my own life into the lives of those that touch my own. What I should be scared of is falling short of who I should be, not of anyone’s scorn or insults for the books that I write.

Once upon a time

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There are few words that grab my attention as surely now as they did when I was a child as that timeless story opener. Those words make me metaphorically snuggle down, pin back my ears and await, with suspended disbelief, the tale the teller promises to unfold. And it would seem I’m not alone. I know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t stop me looking, and what I found when I googled ‘Once upon a time …’ both astonished and thrilled me. A huge long list of variants of the same phrase from every language I could think of, and several more besides. It would seem I am not alone in being captivated by the start of a good story that takes me by the hand into some un-named time where I can share in the light and dark, injustice and heartaches, victories and defeats of persons who live forever in imagination. I wouldn’t pretend to have an academic understanding on the psyche and impact of the world of stories, myth, folklore, legend. Fairy tale. All I know about is what they have meant in my life.

Bottom of the Garden - mixed media on canvas by Julia Lund

Bottom of the Garden – mixed media on canvas by Julia Lund

 The first time I saw fairies, I was about four years old. And yes, I was playing at the bottom of the garden at the time. By myself, oddly enough, so no one else can verify my account. Actually, it was the only time I’ve ever seen fairies. But once was enough to get me hooked, not actually on fairies (though I know many people are, and their charms are not lost on me) but on hearing about them. Anyone who would take even a few seconds to tell me snatches of stories about them had my eternal devotion. I began asking for fairytale books for Christmas and birthday presents, some of which I’m lucky enough to still have in my possession today. Now the funny thing about fairy tales, is that fairies don’t even have to put in the briefest of appearances for a story to count as a tale that belongs to them. And yet, fairy tales they are; stories without fairies; stories that often lack even a hint of magic; stories where bad things happen to good people; stories that can terrify; stories where sometimes it seems as though the good people never seem to get any rewards in this life. Of course, there are the some ‘lived happily ever after’ endings that, let’s face it, we’d all choose if we could have them. But, in reality, life can be hard. Unfair. Unjust. Unlovely. Unhappy. So why would we ever want to hear or read tales that underline those truths? I guess because they can help us try to make some sense out of some of the hard things that happen. As G.K. Chesterton claimed: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And, as Jack Zipes explains: “Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.” Perhaps these people know a thing or two about these tales? 

Sketch book exercise - coloured pencil on paper by Julia Lund

Sketch book exercise – coloured pencil on paper by Julia Lund

 

 On my author facebook page recently, I quoted Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”  That comment got quite a lot of ‘likes’. Einstein is also recorded as saying: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” Quite an astonishing conclusion for someone who achieved so much (not that I claim to understand his mathematical discoveries). I’m not sure what Albert’s favourite fairy tale was, but I asked people to share theirs, and I shared mine: Hans Christian Anderson’s version of The Little Mermaid. Here, the eponymous heroine is willing to risk everything she has ever known for the chance to experience the love she longs for, even though the Sea Witch promises her: “But it will hurt. It will be like a sharp sword slicing through you. Everyone who sees you will say you are the loveliest girl they have ever seen …every step you take will be like treading on a sharp knife, a blade that cuts to the bone.”

 I’m not going to tell the whole of the little mermaid’s story here, but I guess, from first hearing it as a child, and what I have taken from it into adulthood, is that sometimes, hoping something might happen just isn’t enough. Sometimes we have to risk ourselves, even if it means much pain, to even stand a chance of touching what we hope for. For me, at this stage in my life, that has been to take the step of publishing my writing. The result, ‘Strong as Death’ as an eBook in the first instance with plans for a paperback version to be available in the next couple of months, followed by a second novel, ‘Selkie’ later in the year. I’ve had to push my head above the parapet and wave my hands about, saying to people who don’t know me, and to several who do: “Look! I’ve done this thing; I’ve written a book and now I’d like you to read it.” And now, as I wait to see whether anyone will listen, whether anyone will read, I know how that little mermaid felt. Only it’s not my feet that hurt as I wait. Nevertheless, from the highs of soaring optimism to the depths of the deepest self doubt, I know that, one way or another, risks where your heart and soul are exposed, where your dreams are laid bare to be trampled or cherished, are worth the taking. The Little Mermaid may not have ended up marrying the prince, but she did something she’d never done before: “And the little mermaid raised her translucent arms to the sun, and for the first time she shed a tear.”

 We all have different dreams, different ambitions, different hopes. Some will come true in the fairy tale way that ends with ‘they lived happily ever after’. Some will have different endings. What is really magical are the stories we walk along the way. 

Could the clip below be one example of a modern fairy tale? Love this particular story, or hate it, it still moves me when I watch.