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Words and Stuff

‘… as good as some words are, defenestrate (to throw someone through a window) being my favourite one ever, I am not sure I will ever get away with using it.’

I’ve been thinking about words this week. Why, you ask? Partly because I was reminiscing about the word I invented. ‘Frell’. It means fridge-smell. The otherwise poorly described and elusive smell that develops and pervades in your fridge if it is not cleared in a timely fashion. It can be deployed in adjective and verb form as well (eg, ‘this fridge is frelly’ or ‘my croissant has been frelled’). Personally, I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on yet and I regard its creation as one of my most valued achievements.

Aside from this, I have been considering the use of words in more depth following on from some much-valued feedback that I received on my novel. I will address the value of such feedback in a future blog, but a specific aspect involved the importance of using words effectively and, in particular, not using them when they are not needed. This may sound fairly obvious but do read on as I have not gone completely bonkers.

The more one reads about writers who are just getting started, everyone who critiques them seems to come up with a common observation – that they tend to ‘overwrite’. It is tempting for some to pull out the thesaurus and generate as many complicated and intellectual words as possible, perhaps in the hope that it will add some credibility to their writing. In reality it is more likely to send a reader off course and may have the opposite effect. It is worth noting that fancy words, particularly if not used in the correct context, have the potential to disturb the focus of anyone who is otherwise engrossed in a book. This is liable to bring a reader briefly into the real world again which is not where you want them. This can be at best troublesome for the flow of the book, and at worst catastrophic for the immersion of the reader in the story.

Unfortunately that makes it all the more painful to resist the multitude of cracking words and phrases out there which, if a little more well known, would be really useful. Take the French phrase ‘l’espirit de l’escalier’ for example. It essentially means the act of thinking of a witty comeback after the moment has passed. Quite apart from wishing I was much better at this myself, it is an excellent observational phrase that has real applications in the right situation. Likewise the word ‘Mamihlapinatapa,’ which is used in Chile to describe the look between two people that suggests an unspoken desire, is great and in the right situation could be either quite poignant or even a bit racy.

Needless to say, it would be a bit difficult to surreptitiously fit either of these into the average novel without shattering the unseen barrier between the worlds of the reader and the characters. We are therefore left with far simpler words – but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though I know from experience that these can be overused just as much as the fancier words. My use of the word ‘slightly’ is, as has been pointed out at times, criminal. A character is either jaded or not jaded – a reader is not interested in whether they are slightly jaded. I am currently hard at work trying to cut out unnecessary words from my novel and this is an important point. Anything that is surplus to requirement has the potential to disengage a reader and turn them off whatever story is underlying. The better novels – arguably – are the ones which flow and much of the time a reader will fill in any gaps subconsciously. To spell everything out is to stifle the imagination of anyone following along.

To some extent, this will vary with genre. I would say that the fast-paced crime thrillers will derive most from this minimalist approach. Only the most vital details will need to be written in the relative absence of any unnecessary and extraneous words so as to remove or at least largely avoid obfuscation. (That last sentence was on purpose).

Even the more literary and scene-setting pieces will need to avoid most of the above. So, as good as some words are – defenestrate (to throw someone through a window) being my favourite one ever – I am not sure I will ever get away with using it. Having said that, these words are still worth knowing about. For those of you that know of the ‘Googlewhack’ phenomenon (in which one types two random words into google and receives only one result back excluding word lists), you may be interested to know that several years ago, after reading ‘Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure’, I paired ‘defenestrated’ with ‘clodhoppers’ and scored me my one and only Googlewhack. If that is not using words effectively, then I don’t know what is.

W

7 Reasons to Write a Novel

‘…the potential to have that physical copy of something created by you and you alone is something to savour.’

Let’s be honest, if Katie ‘Jordan’ Price can produce a publishable piece of written output, I guess it really is true that everyone has a book in them. Nowhere in that well known sentiment does it comment on the quality of that piece of work but I suppose that’s not the point.

So if everyone can do it, then the question remains, why do some rise to the task while others don’t? In our younger years, most likely the first bits of creative writing we embark upon will be set tasks given to us by tired English teachers with unironed shirts and bad haircuts. At least that’s my memory of things. Of course when we do something because we have to rather than choosing to, it becomes onerous; a form of work. When it comes to writing stories or essays, some will thoroughly enjoy the process and the spark will be ignited there and then. They begin to write in their spare time and may even forge careers as writers of some kind, able to enjoying what they create for a living.

What might be the motives for the average person to write a novel though? For my part, this was an interesting question to mull over because if someone were to ask me that out of the blue, I don’t think I would be able to answer it – at least not satisfactorily. Having now thought it over, I have broken it down into different aspects which may or may not apply to others but I suspect at least some or maybe even all will apply for most.

1 – An idea for a story that just needs telling – This is a fairly obvious one. If you have that sudden moment of inspiration and stumble across a unique and unbeatable format then there is almost a responsibility to get it done. As rare as that is, I suspect a lot of the best pieces of work have come about because they are simply too good not to have been followed through. A bit like Velcro (great invention).

2 – A creative distraction – This was a big factor for me due to my line of work. I work in the medical field and as such am surrounded by facts, figures and absolutes. A lot of the time, particularly in the beginning, it was a case of accumulating knowledge and being taught at 24/7. It follows that there was a part of me that wanted to explore my more creative side and I imagine it would be the same for someone who is punching figures in an office all day or trying to stay awake during droning presentations and arduous meetings. The freedom in creating something of your own, whether it be a piece of writing or a piece of music or a painting, is that it is yours to do with what you want. There is no part of it that must be learned or that must conform to a set curriculum. There is no one telling you what to do. You can simply get on with it without any supervision and see what happens.

3 – A way to explore your own thoughts and views – In the creative process of writing a novel or even an essay or a work of non-fiction, chances are it will be a solitary task; something you undertake without any other’s influence, at least directly. This is a fantastic opportunity to have a think about what your own views are on the greater topics at hand. Certainly during the writing of my novel, many a night has gone by contemplating topics ranging from the universe, human behaviour, mortality and happiness. Particularly during early adulthood, our long-term outlooks on life begin to properly develop but it is not until later that the dust starts to settle. Once we have a little experience behind us and have had a chance to think about what everything means, we can begin to get a grip on the world around us, thereby refining our personalities and producing something approaching a well balanced individual. Some are better at this than others. From her extensive biographical output alone, clearly Katie Price has her shit together. My point is this – having something to focus all of these thoughts on and actually getting something written is, I suspect, more useful than experience alone. If you are considering your opinion on something, whether it be science, religion, a certain branch of politics or whatever, thinking about it in isolation and writing it down is far more rewarding that simply following a chosen path set out for you and everyone else.

4 – A way to express yourself – With point number 3 in mind, perhaps you feel about something strongly but, until now, have no way to let anyone else know; no outlet. Maybe it’s frustration over a political frailty (and God knows there’s a lot of that around at the moment) or it could be more of an escapism; a chance to live vicariously through one of your characters or to let others into your imagination to view your dreams and desires. Some people are more shy than others and the medium of words is a brilliant way to show everyone what’s going on in that head without having to explain it to them face to face at some posh cocktail party. (I must stress I have never been to a proper one of these but am perpetually on the alert for the eventuality that such an invite comes through my letterbox).

5 – To influence the thoughts and thinking of others – A more forceful personality may want to take the above point a bit further. If one has a strong belief, they may try to ask others to consider their point of view and adopt it. Matters of conservation and human rights are examples of this. Things in which the collective actions of large numbers of people have real impacts on things around us can be influenced by various means. Film and TV are obvious illustrations here but the written word, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, also has the potential to galvanize a readership and rally people around a particular viewpoint. There are certainly enough satirical works of fiction out there that may well have been written directly to influence ways of thinking.

6 – Lifestyle of a writer – I will admit a lot of my motivation for starting a novel was the idea of the lifestyle. For me, there is an almost mystical draw to the process behind writing something and one of its draws involves the lack of any deadline but your own. (I never said my inspirations were necessarily grounded in reality!) As well, a large part has to do with the locations and surroundings involved. It is an activity quite unique in the sense that you can pick, within reason, where you want to do it. Personally, I always envisage a cosy country pub, ideally in autumn or winter with a nice view or a quiet corner somewhere busier where I can keep an eye on the world passing around me, whilst able to sink into my own little world for a time if needs be. Once you’re on a roll in this environment, it’s almost a meditative process; a way to relieve stress, particularly if you partake in work of a more hectic nature at other times.

7 – Sense of achievement – My final point is something I suspect that, even if we don’t admit it, all of us have to some degree in the backs of our minds. I would be lying if I said I don’t want any of my pieces of work to gain viral status and my novel to become some sort of runaway international best seller, forever on the all time classics lists. While that will probably (almost definitely) not happen, any sense of achievement in even finishing something like a novel is draw enough for many. It’s tough and involves unbelievable amounts of work. But the potential to have that physical copy of something created by you and you alone is something to savour. Something that, however small, will leave your own individual foot-print behind; that will potentially be there, at least for a while after you are gone. I like that idea most of all about creating anything – the chance to generate these ripples of yourself that are still spreading out even after your own story has ended.

Scuba!

‘Scuba diving smashes through this plateau of excitement and carries the line up several notches.’

Everyone has things they’ve always wanted to try. In many cases it boils down to the age-old ‘I’ve just not got round to it yet’ scenario. In my case there are many of these life goals still on the list. Aside from the novel, a skydive is right up there (pun intended) along with playing a round of golf without losing even a single ball. Until recently, scuba diving was on that list too but fortunately I’ve now quite literally taken the plunge.

Having done so I am frankly annoyed with myself that I have left it until now to immerse myself in this world (again I’m sorry for the punnage, I’m in one of those moods). This self-directed annoyance is reminiscent of the time I had a Boost bar for the first time, a magnificent occasion that happened not that long ago – so many wasted years eating Whispas.

I have always loved the water and I spent several years in my youth as a lifeguard (pool, not one of the cool beach ones). Diving had always been in the back of my mind as something I would definitely do someday but, as always, work and other things get in the way. Part of the appeal in diving is of course gaining access to a completely new version of the natural world to which we are used to. A childhood watching shark documentaries sparked the interest I suspect. There was always something fascinating in watching hippy scientists falling backwards into pristine Caribbean waters. Sean Connery’s Bond searching for downed nuclear war-heads in bright red scuba gear brought that element of swagger to the discipline and of course the cinematic genius of programmes like Blue Planet are simply awe-inspiring.

So it was that I finally decided enough was enough and I arranged to go on the initial PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) open water dive course. The idea of heading into the murky waters of a reservoir just outside Slough for my first real experience was not one I particularly savoured and so I decided that somewhere abroad would be preferable. So it was that, having convinced my brother to join me (he’s even older than me so must be even more annoyed that it’s taken this long to try it), we jetted off to the Spanish island of Menorca to sample the waters of the Mediterranean.

Aside from the fact that it ended up being warmer back home than in Menorca for that week, we had an awesome time. It was quite early in the season and as such we were the only two taking the course, adding a welcome element of focus from our instructors. We had swatted up on the reasonably extensive theory beforehand but were still put through our paces with a test before we got to grips with all the equipment. Our first dive was in a swimming pool but the following day we got to try out all our newfound skills in a shallow bay. Only a few weeks later, there was a shark spotted more or less exactly where we had been diving. Close call.

Once we were confident enough, the following few dives were more routine and our instructors really pushed us. One in particular was pretty exciting because of the entrance and exit, essentially a steep rock face with crags sharp as a knife down which we had to lug our equipment. At the bottom, we had to launch ourselves into the surf and swim out quickly into calmer waters before being dashed on the rocks. It got a little sketchy when we first tried this, to the extent that we had to abort it on the first day and try again the next. I’m glad we did because the resulting dive was spectacular. Jellyfish in high definition inches from our faces, starfish of varying colours (partly due to the change in the colour spectrum at different depths) and a little underwater cave that we hovered in for a little while.

The feeling of diving is like nothing I’ve experienced before. It is such a new and unique feeling that is refreshing to experience at my age. I’m not saying I’m really old or anything but in youth, our lives are filled with new experiences and discoveries which tend to thin out as time goes by. Scuba diving smashes through this plateau of excitement and carries the line up several notches. The element of danger gets the adrenaline going (a bit like how camping in the Canadian wilderness is a bit more exciting than popping down to the New Forest for a couple of nights) but more than that, the wonder of being in this completely fantastical environment is quite something. It’s something you know has always been there and you have gazed across it, even skimmed quite literally across the surface of it countless times, and yet when you enter it, it’s like a different realm altogether. That feeling of weightlessness is pretty liberating and, though I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, it’s the closest thing I think I’ll ever get to flying (Superman-like flying, not flapping-your-arms-flying).

If you’ve not guessed by now, I am now hooked and to that end we’ve already booked our advanced course which is happening next week. There are now a plethora of different diving interests that one can branch into including wreck diving, dive photography and night dives and, once a few of these elements are tackled, the possibility to head out further afield to make the most of these qualifications really opens up. I suspect in another life I would have enjoyed being some sort of underwater cameraman! I’ve always been drawn to stories of the first explorers who all lived in a world uncertain of its own boundaries and whose walls were adorned with unfinished maps. Now the only maps that are left unfinished are the ones that relate to our oceans and I suppose some of that mystery draws me towards life beneath the seas now. Bottom line, if you get the chance to try it, do it!

The Perfect Working Space

It was that bird’s-eye view that appealed to me, observing everything going on without being in amongst it all.

The discussion around where to write is somewhat of a cliché in the blogging world, but it is an interesting topic nonetheless. After all, finding the right environment to craft your literary masterpiece is an important decision and one of the first ones I had to make when embarking upon the novel.

I commenced the actual manuscript when I was living in London having just arrived from the leafy countryside of Yorkshire (full of awe-inspiring and quiet locations to put pen to paper). Although I knew I was leaving a menagerie of prime writing spaces behind me, I was confident that the urban mess of the capital would provide at least as many ideal spots, if not more. My assumptions were perhaps a tad naive.

There are some incredible spots in London, no doubt. In an ideal world I could head up to the top of the Shard and sit at my own personal desk looking out over the city each day, sipping on fine wine and eating a selection of luxury fruits served by quiet but efficient servers with perfectly ironed clothing and impossibly good looks. Thinking about it, that all might actually have been a bit too distracting.

In reality it took me several months to find a spot I was happy with. In my mind, I had envisaged a quiet and trendy cafe in some stylish backstreet with Hugh Grant types popping in for their morning Espresso every now and again. And I did find a few contenders. None of them however felt quite right. For a start, in some of them the coffee practically blew my head off producing hands so shaky that I had trouble hitting the keys of my laptop. This left me with an unacceptable typo rate. Added to that, the seats were often made of the finest wood which, although very pleasing to the eye, was not pleasing to the buttocks.

I shifted my attention the various museums dotted around and their respective cafes. These often proved far too busy and too far afield to be a viable option. Libraries seemed like a possibility for a while, but again, for me at least they seemed a little cluttered and obvious. I wanted somewhere a bit more exciting; somewhere different. I ended up gravitating towards Westfield shopping centre, near the BBC (now sadly relocated to a more central location). You may feel this would be busier than anywhere, but for a time, I sat in the rafters outside the cinema with a takeaway Costa and began happily typing away. It was that bird’s-eye view that appealed to me, observing everything going on without being in amongst it all.

Before long I found somewhere else and this was to be my main writing space for the rest of that year. It was a pub funnily enough, one of these gastro pubs attached to the shopping centre, complete with chaotic revelry on a weekend. Fortuitously, my week day schedule meant that it was practically empty at the times I wanted to write and their comfortable tables and chairs, coupled with just enough activity to be stimulating but not intrusive meant that I got a lot of work done. I even scored the occasional free drink as staff got to know me.

In the end, a writer’s space is very personal and of course everyone works differently. Take the famous authors for example. Roald Dahl had a tiny shed in his garden that he called the ‘Gipsy House’. I found a video on YouTube once showing him going through his set-up complete with armchair, blanket and what is essentially a wooden board he puts across his lap before he is ready to go. Apparently Charles Dickens preferred to work at his own desk which he shipped with him whenever he was going to be away for any length of time. Ian Fleming of course had a luxury retreat (the Goldeneye Retreat) in Jamaica which is fairly outrageous and JK Rowling apparently finished her final Harry Potter book in a Scottish hotel.

Since that year, I have written everywhere from poolside at a Spanish villa, in a cabin in the Canadian Rockies, and at various cafes in my hometown. Unlike the jobbing author who writes full-time, For me, the process of writing is almost that of a leisure activity. Working at a traditional desk feels too much like I am doing ‘work’. Having said that, writing the creative aspects of a novel are altogether different from going back over things and editing. Once I had reached this stage, the desk in my flat was more appropriate. Despite the obvious distractions that the home environment presents (PS4 and Netflix being the main culprits), sitting in the office and hunkering down to focus isn’t really that bad once you’re on a roll. For me, I prefer winter evenings, ideally when it is raining outside; far more of a cosy experience where one can put on several warm layers and reimmerse oneself in the story that is already set out. Working in the height of summer for me is not very productive; either that’s just me or the sign of an underlying thyroid issue.

I’m about to embark on the next draft so I suspect this is where I will do the majority of the work from now on, but of course if The Shard were to offer me one of their penthouse offices, that would be difficult to turn down.

One can live in hope.

W

A little explanation

The phrase goes that everyone has a novel in them and these words certainly echoed in my mind around the time I decided to give it a go. Strangely, the words of Karl Pilkington had a small part to play as well…

I decided that I wanted to write a novel around ten years ago while I was at university. I can remember quite vividly popping into the Cardiff branch of W.H. Smiths with a fresh face (or possibly a hangover) to buy some sort of fancy writing pad into which I could pour some of my ideas. If I’d known I would still not be quite finished almost a decade later, I’m not sure to this day how I would have proceeded. But thankfully, perhaps in part to the rather swish suede portfolio case I emerged with at the time, I now have a finished novel. It has been through six drafts so far and if I look back to the first one, the change and development is quite dramatic but I can honestly say it has been one of the most enjoyable and challenging things I have ever done.

The phrase goes that everyone has a novel in them and these words certainly echoed in my mind around the time I decided to give it a go. Strangely, the words of Karl Pilkington had a small part to play as well. For those not aware of him, he was the radio producer for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant who gained fame himself in a series of podcasts the three of them put out and that I listened to avidly when I could. He was described regularly as ‘a little bald-headed buffoon’ quite often by Gervais, though deep within his ramblings I managed to find a spark of inspiration. Rather embarrassingly this involved the idea that people’s minds could be transferred from body to body, thereby involving incredibly long life. Thankfully this aspect is completely absent from my story – it is not a science fiction novel – but it did help shape my own ideas and themes in the development of things to come.

As a side note, Karl missed a trick as his idea about transferring minds into new bodies has been used since in at least one TV series that I can think of. There are probably more.

So there I was with a seed of an idea. The trouble was, I had a degree to finish and the small obstacle of the wider world beyond this. I started work immediately and throughout, I had my sites now firmly fixed upon writing this novel at some point or another. Two years later, the time came for me to take a year out of work and this is where I put most of it down on paper (or actually on a hard drive). By this time, I had accumulated a lot of notes and ideas about the story; how it would end and the themes I was trying to convey. The fact it was on the back burner for such a long time may have been a blessing in disguise as all the little notes and musings I would jot down helped give the story a depth that it may not have done if I had gone straight into it.

Fast forward a year and I can remember the day I sat back having typed the last words of the first draft and feeling an immense sense of achievement. Writing a novel is a solitary task, and I was sat amongst strangers in a quiet pub at the time so couldn’t really jump up and down in celebration. As it happened I didn’t really want to. Rather than make a scene, I was content to sit back with a new found sense of calm and reflected on the time and thought that had gone into what I had just written. I also ordered myself a pint of beer.

Little did I know then that it would be another 4 years or so before I would be at a stage where I was happy to share it with a wider circle. And sharing something like that is actually far more nerve wracking than I had anticipated it to be. A novel is quite a personal thing and I confess I felt quite exposed when I first let other people read any of it. Was it actually any good? Would people think I was mad?etc…

Thankfully I received some vital and much appreciated feedback from certain individuals who know who they are and it is because of this that the project has survived to this point. The subsequent drafts were done in a more disjointed fashion, fitted around work when I could and there have been at least 2 occasions where I have declared to all that it is done and finished. It’s the sort of thing one could work on forever, constantly tweaking and altering so it is just right in my mind. The danger here is that, in altering it too much, one loses the essence of the novel itself. Something that was initially quite readable could potentially become unreadable in the blink of an eye and this is something I am wary of.

Now on its sixth draft, I have cautiously begun to send it to a select group  for the first time, to see what happens and to discover whether it has legs in its current form. Yes there are aspects that I could and definitely will improve and now that this process is up and running, I thought it would be interesting to share my experience along the way. Having recently popped along to the London Book Fair, I discovered how many aspiring writers there are out there, and moreover the friendly atmosphere that this community seems to generate.

It dawned on me that perhaps opening myself up into this community might, in the first instance, help me find new insights into all the different avenues of writing and perhaps even make some new friends along the way!

 

 

Welcome!

I’ve decided to write a blog. Why you might ask?

Because I think it would be a laugh, but also because I have lots of interesting and insightful things to say. At least I like to think so.

Primarily however, I would like to focus on the trials and tribulations involved in writing a novel. My own novel, tentatively named ‘On the Shoulders of Men’, is now on its 6th draft and is at a stage where I have put out a few feelers. It occurred to me that it might be quite interesting to post both my experiences thus far in writing it and those yet to come in trying to get it published (or not as the case may be!)

Fear not, as I will be sure to expand into other topics regularly in order to keep things interesting. Think music, pop culture, science and nature –  I have a fairly broad set of interests (not to be confused with a particular set of skills a la Liam Neeson). I’ll post a list of the books I read and may include some of the medical articles I write for the local paper from time to time. Look out for videos and audio of any music I record and, who knows, you may even get to hear the joke I made up about the CIA. It’s world class.

So if this all tickles your fancy, follow me on instagram and twitter and on this blog to subscribe to all of the updates.