Eight years old again

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

Sunrise on the Exmoor coast.

About a year ago, I had a dream that I found an old notebook with outlines and ideas for a story I was writing when I was eight. On the cover was a yellow-and-gold-toned photograph of the sea at sunset, and inside was lots of my loopy, girlish writing. Finding this notebook filled me with impossible bliss. I’d found it! That thing that made me happier beyond all other happinesses! When I woke in the grey dawn, I almost wept. That pleasure of putting stories together as a child was what had driven me to write for most of my life. But becoming a published author (or, in my case, two published authors) and having deadlines to manage, not to mention a job to hold down and children to raise, had more recently made writing a task to be scheduled into a busy life. Often, I would sit down feeling distracted and despondent, and take a good half hour to get any momentum. I was still writing, still enjoying my stories, but it wasn’t like in the dream, where it was the most perfect joy of them all.

That dream made me revisit my priorities. It’s taken some time and some tough calls, but right now I am writing the sequel to Daughters of the Storm (tentatively called “A Sea of Wings” and yes, it is mostly set by the seaside, just like the photograph on the cover of my dream-notebook), and the feeling is back! I wake up itching to write. The story is playing in my head like a movie the whole time. The solution all along was to make time and space in my mind all throughout the day, rather than forcing myself only to think about the story in the small windows of time I had to write. I’m writing reams and reams and it’s massaging my soul; I’m so happy. I’m even getting great ideas for the next book (a Kimberley Freeman) so I’m hoping to continue riding this wave for a long time to come.

Remember, kids: know the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Writing is the most important thing that I do. Everything else can wait a little while.

Music and Words

I hath finished “The Garden of the Mad King” after 3 and a half years of thinking, and just over a year of writing. I both love it and hate it, and there is a looooottta work to be done to fix it. But I’m not thinking about that just yet.

I always miss certain aspects of a book when the composition is finished, and in the few days since I finished this one, I’ve been missing my playlist. I always make a playlist of suitable music for every book I write; kind of a shortcut to get me in the mood. I am fiercely missing that music at the moment, or rather I am missing writing with that music on. Hearing any of the songs makes me long for the book. In particular, my three main characters kind of attached themselves to particular songs, and hearing those songs can make me yearn for them the way you might yearn for a lost lover.

Bluebell, the lead character and the oldest sister, is inextricable in my imagination now from The Tea Party’s Sister Awake. Rose, the second sister, who is embroiled in a forbidden love plot, will always be Regina Spektor’s Field Below. And Ash, the third sister, who is struggling with an uncontrollable supernatural ability, will always be The Waterboys’ This is the Sea (sorry, this video doesn’t really go with my book, but it was the only one I could find). There were so many other songs: a bunch of great English folk but especially Led Zeppelin and Nick Drake; some hard-edged dreamy post-rock from Hammock and Sigur Ros; and other random songs that just came to mean something to me over the time I was writing. Hard to acknowledge that it’s all in the past now, the lovely squishy sweet feeling of putting on the music, cracking my knuckles, and creating that world.

Time for me now to get out a new notebook, start thinking about a new Kimberley Freeman now, and collect songs for a new playlist.

On watching movies

I’ve seen a bunch of movies in the last week or so, and thought I’d blog about the experience. These aren’t reviews as such: a couple of the movies have been out for a very long time. These are just reflections on a medium of storytelling that I feel has incredible potential rarely realised.

The first was the CGI Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis), which I have resisted watching until now. Why resist? Well, the poem has a really special place in my heart and I don’t want to see it sullied. Also, about the time Zemeckis’s version came out, I watched on DVD the little-known Icelandic version Beowulf and Grendel (dir. Sturla Gunnarson) with Gerard Butler as Beowulf and it was really good: sure they dicked with the plot, but it looked stunning. But I slowly came round to the idea of Zemeckis’s adaptation. Neil Gaiman was involved in the screenplay. Anthony Hopkins and a few other good actors were in it. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.

Well, I guess I’ll never know precisely how bad or good it is because I couldn’t watch it for more than 10 minutes. It is officially the movie I have given up on quickest in my life. The CGI was awful, just awful. It looked like a cut scene from a PC game. I will never know if Neil Gaiman’s quirky brilliance saved it, or if Anthony Hopkins made a wonderful Hrothgar because I couldn’t look at it. FFS, if I’d wanted to watch Polar Express I would have rented it.

My second adventure was District 9, which a lot of my friends and family said was Teh Awesome. I’d really been looking forward to this one, but perhaps my head wasn’t in the right place to enjoy it more than “meh”. For one thing, I couldn’t stomach the violence but that says more about me than it says about the movie. I don’t actually mind violence. I like it in books, I love it in computer games. But for some reason movie violence irritates me. I always feel as though I’m being manipulated; it always seems a film-maker’s shortcut to a visceral reaction. Or something. I really don’t know. In any case, I recognise that this movie was a wonderfully original concept, and the aliens looked superb, and the sight of that big ship just sitting up there above Johannesburg was brilliant. But what killed it for me was the lack of a likable character in the first hour. I hated the protagonist (and I’ve forgotten his name, which says something). I didn’t care if he died. I certainly didn’t care if his adequately pretty wife was sad (she looked like she had an illustrious career ahead of her modelling knitware in Kmart catalogues) (seriously, just give the nerdy-looking man a nerdy-looking wife). I got more interested in the alien with the little son and genuinely cared about them, but it was a long time coming. And by then, my disbelief had returned from suspension and I saw ALL the plot holes. And they were huuuuuuuuuuuge. Fatal, even. So my verdict is: great concept, uneven execution.

And then, almost by accident, I watched Ponyo (dir. Hayao Miyazaki). A friend had loaned me a bagful of Miyazaki films to show my kids, and I thought my little girl might be taken by the cute, chubby-faced fish. I expected to do housework while she watched, but from the opening frames I was utterly captivated. So I sat on the couch and watched it all, breathless. It is a work of art. Utterly sublime. Some of the scenes will stay with me forever, especially those that captured to perfection the might and beauty and mystery of the sea.

My final adventure was in an actual movie theatre (gasp!) with 3D glasses on my nose and a squirming three-year-old in and out of my lap. We took the kids to see How to Train your Dragon. I have an interest in medievalism, and particularly in Vikings in popular imagination so I was really looking forward to this one (even though it’s Dreamworks who usually suck and not Pixar who usually rock). Oh my God. It was so amazing. It was beyond brilliant. The story was tight, tight, tight. The characterisation was superb. The CGI was flawless. The settings were incredible. The flying scenes in 3D made the pit of my stomach drop. And the big final scene had me in actual tears (but, okay, I cry easily). A perfect blend of controlled storytelling and real emotional depth. This is the stuff that I always want to see at the movies. Big story, big heart, beautiful to watch. I’d give this one 11 out of 10, and it’s going on the list of my Favourite Movies Evah.

Well, that’s it. Now I’ll go back to watching podcasts of Good Game and re-runs of Friends, and hanging out for The Hobbit. Meanwhile, check out my cat Onyxia: doesn’t she look a lot like Toothless?

I won't bite...

... honest!

A first scene

I’ve written a prologue and a first scene for my new book, an intimate epic fantasy called “The Garden of the Mad King.” I’ve been fiddling with a few ideas for a while, and have mapped out the first couple of chapters vaguely. But books are made of more than vague ideas, they are made of concrete scenes. Scenes that start somewhere, do something, then end somewhere. So “character A finds a portentous symbol on a guy she just killed” is not made of the stuff that people like to read. But once you set the scene: twilit snow, blood, a horse breathing hot fog; and imagine how it feels: the post-battle ache, the angry fear; and shade in some history to fill in what it all means, then you have a scene. You just need a killer opening line to drag the reader in, and a killer closing line to spit them back out the other side with enough momentum to land in the next scene.

I must warn in advance: don’t look for superfast word counts with this one. I’m taking my time. I’ve been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon elegies, and I want to imbue every scene, if I can, with that feel of melancholy longing. I intend to spend at least a year in this world, because ultimately I am writing it for my own pleasure, to recapture the feeling I had as a child: new, crisp-paged notebook; quiet place where nobody will bother me; head full of delicious ideas. For the first time in many years, I’m writing without a contract. If it sells to somebody, that’s great. If it doesn’t, look here for the free downloadable pdf!

I am going to finish this damn book

I have 20 000 words left to write (hit 100K yesterday morning at 6.25am), and I am damn well going to finish the book this week even if it kills me. And it might. I have a virus and have lost my voice (this is irritating, as I can’t rouse at my children and they are incredibly naughty most of the time) and I have a big pile of marking to do at work.

Some people compare writing a novel to giving birth. I usually roll my eyes when this happens, especially when men say it, because unless you’re squeezing a hardcover out your left nostril the comparison is flawed. But this close to the end of the process, there is the same kind of awful momentum, the same irresistible compulsion to get something outside yourself that has been growing within for a long time. I have lost the world; there is only the story. My family talk to me and all I hear is “bwah bwah bwah” like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. My brain is finding the ends of threads and pulling them together, tying them, untying them, retying them different ways. I shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

I’m in a scary place for other reasons, too. Five years ago, after I wrote Rosa and the Veil of Gold, I took a sabbatical from writing adult fantasy because I felt I’d said all I had to say in that genre. So I’ve been busy doing young adult books, and children’s books, and Kimberley Freeman books. But now I’m being called. No other way to describe it. I’m not a mystical new-agey pan-flutey person in any way at all. But I am being called, and I’ve got a story waiting just at the edge of my consciousness. I can feel it, but I’m terrified to write it. What if I can’t anymore? What if it’s not a grand idea and just a piece of silly nonsense with shouty characters? What if none of it matters to anyone ever in the history of anything?

I guess I’ll just write it anyway.