Getting Stuck and Getting Unstuck

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I’m stuck. I’m not talking stuck as being fifteen and locked in your German pen friend’s bathroom on your very first evening in Cologne and the only way out seems to be climbing out of the window. But it’s on the second storey and you can’t even climb a ladder … And I’m not talking stuck as in when you get your palazzo pants caught in the wheel of a supermarket trolley and the only way out you can think of (because no one stops to help mad stuck-in-supermarket-trolley women) is to take your trousers off. But it’s broad daylight, you’re in the middle of a busy car park and you’re wearing your worst underwear and your husband’s socks …

I’m writing stuck. Maybe this is writer’s block? But I’ve always thought that meant you didn’t know what to write. That’s not my problem. I’m over forty thousand words into the first draft of my current novel and I’m loving the first thirty five thousand words. I know how the plot develops, I’ve seen how it ends. It’s the couple of chapters linking where I’ve got to and where I want to be that are the problem. It’s not that they’re bad chapters, in fact I love them. I’ve done some of my best writing in them. But they don’t work. I’m stuck in the middle of a novel and I don’t know how to get unstuck.

Strangely enough, this has happened before. The first time, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the same section until months passed by. Each time I tried to progress the story past that being-stuck point, something stopped me. I call that something “the voices” (you know, the ones that all writers hear, the ones that shout: “Don’t write them, write me! Me! Me! Write me!” All writers do hear them, right?) By the time I finished that (unpublished) book, I must have written at least half a dozen different versions of the same novel.

With ‘Strong as Death’ and ‘Selkie’, I experienced similar struggles, but by the time I tackled ‘Selkie’, I’d managed to convince myself to plough on past the being-stuck point to finish a first draft. I then went back and fixed what was wrong, and it worked.

I’ve got to a bit of a of being-stuck point in my life. I know where I want the plot (if that’s not stretching the analogy too thin) to go, but one thing my life has taught me time and again is, though I may think I’m writing it, I may think I have it all mapped out, that is rarely the case. So, prayerfully handing over my life stuck-point to the God I trust, my job is to keep moving forward, believing that in His time and in His hands, a resolution that hasn’t even figured in my very fertile imagination, will come about. And it will be perfect. Well, that’s been my experience thus far in my story, and believe me, some of the stuck-points I’ve been in have been more than tricky …

So, back to my WIP (or should work in progress be wip, or WiP?). I’m going to ignore the voices, leave those chapters as they are, and I’m going to move forward and write the parts I know will work. Sometimes, it’s only looking back you can see how things should have been written. Fortunately, with novels, we get that luxury.

Oh, and the German bathroom incident? The host family eventually realised something must be wrong, after all even cultural differences don’t account for unusually prolonged bathroom breaks. I threw the key out of the bathroom window and someone managed to unlock the door from the other side. (That was a master piece of communication through a locked door when neither party spoke the other’s language terribly well. Good job I knew the word for window. Fenster, in case you ever need it.) And the trolley incident? Knights in armour, I find, tend to be well over sixty and don’t even flinch when their quite creaky knees complain that there are better things to do than lie down in the middle of a wet, busy car park to fiddle with a mad stuck-in-supermarket-trolley woman’s trouser leg.

I’d like to say that I’ve never again had to be rescued from a bathroom, or a supermarket trolley. I can’t, though I am beginning to learn from my mistakes.

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The Worst of times, the best of times …

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At the northern tip of the stunning Lake District National Park, just west of the designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty that is the Solway Coast and less than ten miles from the gateway to magnificent Scotland, stands the beautiful and ancient border City of Carlisle. It’s my birthplace, it’s my home. Its streets and buildings echo with memories of those who over the centuries have built this community. Though it sits in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, it’s a part where life has often been brutal and harsh, where the words blackmail and bereaved were born. It has withstood siege and curse, prosperity and poverty.

I love my hometown.  It’s the setting for my first novel,  Strong as Death, and my current Work in Progress is set in the countryside in and around the city. But the words I write today have nothing to do with fiction.

This weekend, the North of England and Southern Scotland saw their heaviest ever recorded rainfall. Communities all over the region are witnessing the devastation of their infrastructures, homes and livelihoods, as they are swallowed by floods for the second, and in some cases third time in a decade.

BBC news footage of the Cumbrian floods in the wake of Storm Desmond

I wept when, aged eighteen, I moved away from Carlisle and, throughout the almost three decades I was away, I yearned to return. When I finally did, however, my homecoming was not a joyful one (a tale for another time). Nevertheless, I found arms strong enough to hold me when I was too weak to stand, hands to steady mine when they shook from fear and hearts quick to embrace my broken one. Here in my hometown, I rediscovered the strength and faith I needed to rebuild. To restore.

Long after the news reports, Facebook posts and Tweets have grown quiet on the subject of the #CumbriaFloods, I am in no doubt that strong arms, steady hands and full hearts will be giving time and resources with unstinting generosity in these ruined communities that overflow with the resilience needed for rebuilding and restoration.

 

It’s only words

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Words. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a writer, I think about them a lot. Sometimes, capturing them is like trying to trap breeze-blown soap bubbles. Other times they hang rich as ripe blackberries in a thorn-filled hedgerow. How to pick and pour and blend and mix and mould them into the smells and tastes and touches of the story that plays through my mind like the dream of someone else’s life? How to turn them into feelings and sights and sounds when they are just marks on a page? Words.

Some words I’ll always remember writing. Or reading. Or hearing. Words that made me feel safe, words that made me feel smart, words that made me feel stupid. Words that shattered my world. And then there are the words I can’t even remember writing. Or reading. Or saying. Words that came out of my mouth and made someone’s day. Or destroyed it. If only I thought as much about the words I speak as the words I write.

Words written almost two thousand years ago, words that millions of people have heard or read, still have the power to make me forget to breathe as their truth reminds me it’s not the eloquence or beauty of my words that that write the most powerful story.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” St Paul, writing to the Corinthian church in his first letter to them. Chapter 13.

The season changes

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Last of the summer roses

Last of the summer roses

Today, as I sit at my desk in my garden room to write my first blog post in many weeks, the fragrance of autumn is in the air even as the garden clings on to the last signs of summer and I am reminded how much I love these times of year when one season hands over to the next. I even love it when winter begins to breathe its frosty breath across the last of autumn’s leaves; I love the anticipation of cosy fires and evenings snuggled as a family and Christmas to come – winter’s bribes for all the harshness of the dark, cold months it will surely carry in its wake.

Feeding an elephant

Feeding an elephant

This summer, I’ve lost count of the thousands of miles I have travelled; I’ve touched an elephant, seen the wonders of the Swartberg Mountains looking as though they’d been folded like soft sheets of golden pastry. I’ve seen Table Mountain disappear under a cloud as though it had never been there and tasted sunsets that stopped my breath. I’ve seen fish eagles soar and hippos sleep and humming birds sit still as they preened. I’ve seen the first shoots of answered prayers I’ve prayed for years and I have seen the hearts of people I love broken. I’ve seen poverty that is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet still I haven’t met the poorest the world tolerates. I’ve seen the evidence of wealth most only imagine and have struggled for breath in the humidity in which it thrives. And against such backdrops of wonder, I have been reminded of just exactly where my treasure lies. It’s in the love of the family and the friends and the God who scoop me up when I fall, who fight for me when I have no strength, who hold me when I cry and who rejoice with me when I’m overjoyed.

Table Mountain from Blouberg

Table Mountain from Blouberg

And my writing? As the season is changing, so is the project I’m working on. Just as nothing we go through in life, the storms and the calms, are ever wasted, so it is with the years of planning and writing and losing my way and the struggling to discover just what has been missing from this project. As the fractured pieces begin to make sense, I’m excited to see what the coming autumn and winter will bring. And I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with the many amazing people I’ve met through my blog. I’ve missed you.

Sunset at Blouberg

Sunset at Blouberg

How does your garden grow?

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Rain, rain Go away

Rain, rain
Go away

It’s midsummer, days at their longest, nights at their shortest, sun-showered days when the garden bursts with blooms and buzzes with the hum of honey bees … Good job I have such a vivid imagination – the build up to my midsummer has included downpours (hailstones being a peculiar feature this June) and blustery breezes that have no right to show their faces between April and October. And it’s so chilly. The time of the year that’s supposed to help you forgive the cold, dark mornings and early nights of Winter just isn’t doing its job in 2015. The only clue that it’s summer is my garden, which, even though it has been battered and blown, continues to grow.

Picnic in June

Picnic in June

Perhaps it’s the unseasonal weather, but there’s one border, lying under the shade of a silver birch, that is shooting out some unidentifiable flowers. Or are they weeds? Neither I nor my husband can tell. Every time I walk past it, I pause and wonder: weed or bloom? Pull it out, or leave it to see what happens? Wait and see, my husband says. A weed is only a flower growing in the wrong place, my daughter advises.

Second edition cover

Second edition cover

After publishing the second edition of ‘Strong as Death’ earlier this year and ‘Selkie’ in May, I turned my thoughts to my next project. I have notes on at least four ideas that I hope to develop at some stage, so which to choose? None of them.

After lying dormant for over four years, I have gone back to the first novel I ever wrote, the first of a trilogy for 11-14 year olds. The space and experience I’ve gained in the intervening years has shown me just where the ‘weeds’ are in this novel, and I’m not afraid to pull them out by the roots, even though that may result in some major disruption to the perfectly lovely flowers around them.

Pink poppies June 2015

Pink poppies June 2015

Currently, I am reworking the first few chapters. At first, I tried vigorous snipping round the edges and careful pruning in the middle – there were parts I didn’t want to lose – but the result was a sort of lopsided, badly-trimmed hedge. So, with a huge dose of potent weed killer (aka the delete button) I have cleared the first twelve thousand words and have fertile, uncontaminated pages to sew with new life. My husband tells me that gardening is hard work, but I bet it’s got nothing on the proverbial blood, sweat and (not so proverbial) tears that writers shed.

As for those unidentified flowers, should they prove themselves undesirable, I will have no trouble telling my husband to pull them out – I’ll be far too busy growing my own new garden …

It’s got to be perfect?

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‘The trouble with you is you’re a perfectionist,’ said my mother. ‘I’m not,’ I replied. ‘I’m not good enough.’

new shoots

new shoots

Virtually all of my writing hours so far this year have been spent redrafting and editing. First there was the second edition of my novel, “Strong as Death”, which took a conservative six weeks longer to complete than I had planned. Then there was a quick redraft-reprieve whilst I planned my next project (I always like to leave ideas alone for a while. Once I stop poking and prodding them, it’s astonishing the new shoots that sprout whilst my attentions are otherwise engaged.) Then came the current marathon redraft of my next novel, “Selkie”.

Last autumn, I spent some time discussing my work with a very experienced editor who has published many novels. Although this had costs, both financial and time-wise, I think my money and hours were well spent. The major change I took from those consultations, and which I then decided to implement, was to write my YA crossover novels from one character’s perspective rather than from multiple points of view. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that multiple view points are somehow inferior. Far from. I am currently enjoying Kate Mosse’s “Citadel”, in which she uses differing character perspectives, as well as slipping between centuries, to unfold her tale. Even within her third person voices, she also handles omniscience with skill. But, apart from not being as experienced as authors such as Kate Mosse, I decided that my novels warranted a different approach.

One at a time, please!

One at a time, please!

Both the second edition of “Strong as Death” and my up-coming novel, “Selkie”, are now written from first person perspectives, Minnie Shilling in the former and Sam Harris in the latter. This technique has its challenges, and at times I find myself grappling with how to unfold part of the story, or reveal things without just interjecting an authorly aside or some sort of contrived plot convolution. However, the pay off works (I hope), as readers go on exactly the same voyage of discovery at exactly the same pace as the protagonist, adding tension, suspense. (Unless, like me, you are blighted by a read-the-last-page-first compulsion, something from which, I am happy to report, I am in recovery).

So, where does my mother’s observation come into all this? I have been known to spend upwards of an hour revising just two or three sentences to get it ‘just right’. I want sentences that slip almost unnoticed past a reader’s eyes whilst at the same time touching their hearts. The challenge: how to produce a beautifully written whole without over-written individual parts. So, ever mindful that my mother was so often (annoyingly) right, it’s time to get a move on, after all there are plots to plan, characters to fathom, worlds to create. And I mustn’t forget to peek at those shoots that have been sprouting all by themselves whilst I’ve been poking and prodding my words.

Look out for news of “Selkie” coming out at the end of May

When it all goes quiet

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The viola's the big one ...

The viola’s the big one …

Quite by chance, I used to play the viola. When I was nine, someone from the Local Education Authority visited the school and offered anyone who wanted the chance, with no charge, to learn how to play a stringed instrument. (That was in the days when education wasn’t just about exam results. Don’t get me started). I stood in the queue for wanna-be violinists – it was a looong queue – and finally reached the front. No violins left. The last one had just been allocated. But, how about a viola? What’s a viola? A sort of big violin, not much difference really and you’re tall for your age; you could handle a viola. Alright then.

Youth orchestra circa 1975 - I'm about in the middle, wearing light top.

Youth orchestra circa 1975 – I’m about in the middle, wearing light top.

Years passed and I learned that, if I wanted to play the viola well, I had to practise (that’s another story, but let’s just say it took me a long time to discover the difference between imagining playing well and the hours of frustration, ear-achingly awful failure and disappointment that taught me creativity is more about commitment and perseverance than dreaming.) The day arrived when I passed the audition to join the city’s Youth Orchestra. That’s when I found myself amongst truly gifted musicians. It’s also when I learned why all the pieces I had played until then were compositions that had been ‘transcribed for viola’: the viola section rarely (and never in my limited orchestral experience) plays a leading role. It was in the viola section (supported by third violinists who always looked rather annoyed to be lumped with the ‘big violins’) that I discovered how much music involves waiting and counting. It could go on for bars and bars.

I’ve never been much good at anything to do with numbers, and I can’t count the number of times I lost my place in the music. On occasions, I finished my part long before the rest of the orchestra and tried to hide the fact by miming. On others, I still had two pages left when the last chord was played. It was a frequent occurrence to have the conductor stop the whole orchestra and ask them to go back to the bar I knew I’d just ruined by sounding a note out of place. On other occasions, the viola section was sent to another room to practise alone. There was no hiding then; with only two other viola players and a couple of third violinists, my short-comings always shone through. Being part of an orchestra taught me an invaluable lesson; the pauses and the silences are as important to a composition as any note in any chord. Pauses and silences demand skill; it’s vital to listen and wait and know just the right moment to break them, and that involves not taking your eyes off the conductor.

Recently, as a result of a particularly vicious virus, I lost my voice. It didn’t matter what I wanted speak or sing, nothing beyond a pathetic croak left my mouth. Not that I felt much like speaking or singing, pinned as I was for almost two weeks to my bed. During that time, and in the slow period of recovery afterwards, it wasn’t just my physical voice I couldn’t use; I couldn’t read. And I couldn’t write. What physical resources I had were all focussed on repairing my body. Rest and brief interactions with family who ensured I was comfortable and hydrated, were all I could physically cope with. Sick as I was, I was tempted to succumb to frustration, after all, I had plans for time being wasted on illness. And then I remembered the pauses, the silences that are as much a part of a composition as the notes.

In my most recent pause, I have learned more about praying for friends who are going through far greater trials than me. I have had time to reflect on the countless (yes, I still struggle with numbers) blessings in my own life. And as for my writing? I have had insights and breakthroughs about the way to tackle some particularly tricky sticking points I’d come up against. When my next pause comes, I don’t want to waste time being frustrated; keeping my eye on the conductor, I want to listen to what it teaches me.