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.

Kim of the Island

I am in the Orkneys, a little group of islands off the top of Scotland. There are only a few places in the world that I’ve long dreamed of going (Milford Sound was another: saw it last February. Iceland is still on the list) and the Orkneys is one of them.

Me at the Ring of Broadgar

To get here, though, necessitated me getting on a really really tiny plane with propellers. Propellers! In fact, it was so old there were still ashtrays in the arm rests. There was a string quintet on the plane too, with their cellos strapped into the seats next to them. I thought that at least, if we went down, they could play us some music, Titanic-style.

Flying off the edge of mainland Scotland and catching the first glimpse of the islands made me cry with excitement. Some of the islands are completely bare except for a lighthouse. I was expecting grey water, but it was clear and turquoise. Orkney is very sparsely populated, there are few trees, but the roads are good and it has incredible views. I’m staying at a cottage with a heavenly view across Scapa Flow to Hoy.

Today I’ve been to the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Broadgar, and Skara Brae. That’s right, it was neolithic sight-seeing day. Viking sight-seeing day is coming up on Friday, but it’s hard to escape the Viking influence here. Just reading the names of places should give you some indication of that.

Best things about today: talking to my kids on Skype, writing the prologue to my novella, blogging with my feet up and Sigur Ros on the stereo and drinking a fine Australian shiraz by the fireplace. Worst things about today: NOTHING.
And here, for your edification, is the (very short) prologue to the novella “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, as written on a tiny propeller plane over the Scottish highlands.

 

Shards of bright pain and bright light speared into the cloying vacuum of unconsciousness. He struggled upwards; he had something important to remember.

“Try to be still. You’ve had an accident.”

His tongue swelled against his teeth.

“Don’t talk and don’t move. We’re taking you into surgery.”

The darkness yanked him towards it. Surrender. Beyond this threshold was an end to the pain. But there was something else. Something waiting, as it had waited for nearly thirty years, tangled in seaweed and teeth and veins.

His voice broke from his throat, a blood-soaked gargle. “Jenny! Mary!”

The light blinked out.

Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods

I stole this blog title from Jimmy Page, who said these three things were what he always sought in art. I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been much entertained of late, so I’m blogging it.

Sigur Ros: ooh, so mysterious

I recently saw the movie “Inni”, which is a filmed version of a Sigur Ros concert, but so much more than that. Even though I referenced Led Zep in my opening line, and have long considered them the best band in the world, I think I’m having to admit now that it’s actually Sigur Ros who should be crowned lords of all rock music. The movie is a brilliant, spare, elegiac showcase of an incredible band at the height of their powers showing that when music is done right, it’s a kind of sorcery. The dynamics, the intensity, the humanity of this band are all beyond description. I was lucky enough to see Jonsi (who is the genius at the centre of Sigur Ros) on tour last year in Melbourne, and I have come to understand that he is some kind of music god, perhaps sent by the Aesir to Iceland in the hopes that Coldplay would just shut the fuck up. If you don’t know who these people are and would like to know, try here, here, here, or even here.

Don't worry, you can (and I do) play a girl.


But I’ve also been deep, deep, and far away in the province of Skyrim. This week, in a brilliant spot of timing, I tore a couple of ligaments in my left ankle while out walking up the mountain. “Can you stay still with your foot elevated for a few days?” my phsyio asked. Why yes, yes I can. I fired up the PS3 and haven’t really moved since. The game is sublime. The landscape and the music are enough to keep me playing it, but add in the rumbling nightmare of a dragon attack, the immersive thrill of lovingly designed dungeons, and the awesome little medieval towns and… well, why bother doing real life, eh? To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum: “Oh boy, Skyrim! That’s where I’m a viking!”

Art is sometimes seen as only encompassing a few, fairly delimited (and uppity) things. Paintings, opera, maybe poetry. I dunno. But to me, this movie and this game are art. They are incredible expressions of human endeavour, pushing right out there on the boundaries of feeling and technology, to make something that is meaningful and valuable to others. It reminds me that art matters; it always matters. And I am so grateful for it, in good times and in bad.

The romance of work

When I was a little girl, I read a book that would affect me profoundly. It was Gladys Malvern’s The Dancing Star, first published in 1944, an account of the life of Anna Pavlova, written for children. Like many little girls, I dreamed of being a ballet dancer but unfortunately I was very very bad at dancing and didn’t progress beyond the one disastrous Christmas concert (let me just say: if you’re a blue fairy and you’re with the pink fairies when you’re not supposed to be, you stand out). But it wasn’t the stuff about ballet that affected me so deeply, it was the stuff about work.

According to the book, Anna Pavlova was obsessed with dancing. She practised all the time. She did it until her toes bled and she just. kept. going. This notion, that one could work so hard and push through barriers of extreme discomfort, really took hold of my imagination. From that moment on, I understood the incredible romance of work: diligent hours spent on something that mattered to make an outcome appear in the world.

This is why I don’t hold much with the myth of inspiration: the idea that somehow you must have about yourself the perfect set of preconditions for creativity to be bestowed upon you by a muse. Coleridge stopped writing “Kubla Khan” when a “gentleman from Porlock” stopped by on some business or another, and interrupted his flow of inspiration (Coleridge clearly never had responsibility for small children, who are magnificent porlockers). The myth of inspiration is pleasantly mystical, I suppose, but it isn’t nearly so effective as work.

Work in the early morning hours when the family is asleep. Work until late when the words are flowing. Work on a freshly printed manuscript with a brand new pen while it rains outside. Work when it all seems too hard and your metaphorical toes are bleeding and you have to push through the pain. Work on something you care about so passionately that, like a new lover, you can’t leave it alone. Art, when viewed in this light, is not a divine bolt from above, but the sweet, constant labour of real human beings manifesting things with their feet in the soil. And there is no idea about art more pleasing to me than that.

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.

Weird, huh?

The Anglo-Saxons had this awesome concept called “wyrd”. So say it like “weird” (cos that’s where the word comes from: Shakespeare adopted it for his witches in Macbeth) but flatten the “e” sound and harden your “r” a little. Wyrd is a heathen concept, and is often translated simply as “fate” but it’s more complicated than that. It comes from the verb “weorthan”, which means both “to become” and “to happen”. And somewhere between those two words (which hint at both personal agency and random-shit-you-can’t-control) lies the meaning. Wyrd refers both to universal destiny: the uncontrollable factors around us that we are caught up in and can’t ever really escape; and personal destiny: the actions we take in every moment to become what we are going to be next. So wyrd is both woven for us and by us.

The best analogy I can think of is this: you’re out at sea on a sailing boat. You have no control over the weather, and there’s no point pleading with the sky not to storm because the sky won’t listen and wouldn’t care anyway. But what you can do is set your sails the best way possible to get through the storm: those actions you take shape what will become of you. Wyrd is the same idea, but applied to Life.

I like this idea so much I had it tattooed on the inside of my left fore-arm yesterday. The lettering is an early medieval scribal form used for Old English manuscripts like Beowulf and The Exeter Book (the “w” looks a bit like a “v” with a tail). It’s my first, and will probably be my only tattoo. I still feel quite giddy that I did it. Fear me!

So, that’s quite a complicated and long-winded explanation and I’m not going to repeat it. If people ask me what it says, I’ll direct them here. Or maybe I’ll just tell them it says “pwnd”.

Thanks to Scott at Wild at Heart for being so kind to this cleanskin n00b. Here are pictures:

Before

During

After

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!

Outside my window

I’ve been up early writing this morning. I promised myself I’d write just 300 words then go back to bed if I was tired, but I stayed and finished the scene and I’m quite pleased with myself. I turned off my internet connection so I wouldn’t be distracted, but found myself distracted instead by the view outside my window. All green and cool and white sunlight and Mt Coot-tha in the distance.

But it’s not just the gorgeous setting outside my window that attracts my attention. There’s a big wasp nest on top of my window (don’t worry, I have screens) and I’m fascinated by them. At five a.m., they’re all asleep. I come in here and open my window and the bumping makes them all stir but they just snuggle back down again. But now they are flying about doing wasp-y things. They are so industrious, they are an inspiration.


Much more fun than the interwebz.

A warrior poet

Quick quiz. Look at the two pictures below. Now tell me which one of the men is medieval poet Dante Alghieri, author of La Divina Commedia?

The answer is, of course, both of them. I have been playing Dante’s Inferno on PS3 and got myself so excited I just have to blog. I’ve been interested in this game since I first saw the trailer, with its fabulous “Go to Hell” shoutline. On reflection, Dante’s Hell seems custom made for adaptation to a video game, what with the nine circles and all. Before proceeding, though, I need to acknowledge all those people who are reading this and thinking “but it’s just a re-skin of God of War“. Yes, I understand it is, and there’s a great review article that deals with that issue here. Now, let it go.

My excitement is more about the fact that popular culture has now given Dante a giant weapon (it’s Death’s scythe, if you must know) and eye-popping muscles, and made him so unbelievably b’dass, so mighty to the power of win, so incredibly l33t and awesomezor. He’s a medieval poet, for chrissake! I love seeing elite culture adapted into popular forms at any time, but to reimagine a lily-skinned, soft-fingered poet as an action hero is just so very cool. But that’s not all. Virgil, the Roman poet, also turns up as Dante’s guide, and he too is ripped (though in ghostly form). What’s next? An RPG about Chopin?

I wrote some stuff...

...then I killed some other stuff.

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!