The perils of going back

I’m in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at present, visiting for a few days. Over the past two decades I’ve been here dozens of times, three times a year for several years, in the fall, the deep winter and the very early spring, working with teachers and school leaders in various parts of the city and around southern Manitoba.Winnipeg skyline.@1x

This will probably be the last visit, and I was in two minds about it. Part of me wanted to see again people I’ve worked with closely, seen in their schools, shared evenings with and many glasses of wine. It’s a couple of years since I was last here, and as the plane touched down yesterday I hoped it wasn’t a bad idea to return.

Going back can be difficult. Times change, people move on, the work we thought at the time was so significant may by now have blurred and faded, or been forgotten all together. New people are in the schools, new ideas in the air. Would they remember me? Would some say, ‘Ruth Sutton? Who’s that? What did she do?’ All that may be true, but I’m still glad I came. The city I’d seen so often in monotones of white and grey,  snow on the ground, nothing growing, deeply cold and crackling dry, is now clothed in full leafed trees, stretching out towards the plains beyond. Balconies and porches smell of flowers, children play by the river and in the parks, the air is soft.

There’s a party tonight, a retirement and farewell party for me – the only one I’ve ever had – and I’m touched by the thought of it even before it’s taken place. So maybe coming back wasn’t such a bad idea. I used to be a teacher and an educator. Now I’m a writer, with five books already out and another ‘Burning Secret’ taking shape in my head. But I’m still the same person, and happy to see however many of my old friends and colleagues will come and say hello.

By the way, to hear more about the writing, here’s a link to a  conversation I had recently, about all the writing and publishing I’ve been doing since my ‘retirement’.  It’s quite long, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

Do I really need an ‘App’ for my writing?

I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. scrivener-essentialsHowever inefficient, my approach by last  year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.

My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.

Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.

Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.

I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.

In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.

A new chapter?

the-beacon-centre-in-whitehaven-harbour-cumbria-cyfge2

I knew this week would be busy but it’s been more than that: it feels like the start of a new chapter in my short writing life. Two events happened simultaneously. First, my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ was officially launched, on Friday at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, on the top floor (visible in the photo) with a superb view over the harbour and out to sea. It was a very enjoyable afternoon although I say it myself. One of the best parts was the introduction from the Director of the museum, Elizabeth Kwasnik – an off-comer from Scotland – who said that my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ had given her valuable insight into the recent history of West Cumbria and its people. The historian in me was very pleased about that.

Second, the night before the Beacon launch the new ebook version of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ appeared on Amazon and the Kindle Store, published this time not by me but by Fahrenheit Press, who specialise in digital publishing, mainly of crime fiction. I’ve been fascinated to see how they set about establishing their books – and now mine – on the radar of crime fiction readers, mainly using Twitter. Chris McVeigh, who started Fahrenheit Press has also written a blog piece about the details of the curious partnership between us, by which they publish digitally and I do the paperback version. Two different formats, two different audiences, two different approaches, and an interesting development in self-publishing. As I explained last week, Fahrenheit’s version of Cruel Tide on Kindle has a completely different cover. Click the link to see it. And while you’re there, check the new ‘Fatal Reckoning’ cover too.

Both these developments have made me think, yet again, about what I’m doing and what next. The setting in Cumbria has to remain central to my writing, no doubt about that. Also, I really enjoyed weaving fact and fiction in the trilogy, and want to do that again. Could I combine that approach with a ‘crime’ story, as I tried to do in the first book in the trilogy ‘A Good Liar’? Does the next book need to be the start of a new series, which might be more lucrative but can be restrictive too?

My fiction writing life will be shorter than many authors, simply because I didn’t start until I was 60. So if the number of books left in me is relatively small, what are my priorities? I don’t want to spend precious time churning out books that might sell but don’t really interest or inspire me. Needless to say, a new idea is already forming, but nothing I want to talk about just yet.

‘Angst’: does it undermine creativity, or inspire it?

There’s a Woody Allen movie – which one is it? – which opens with the young Woody talking to a psychiatrist. The boy is appalled by the idea that the universe is expanding, which he sees as a sign of impending doom. After the ‘angst’ of the past few months, I think I understand how he feels.

First there was the UK referendum decision, which was a shock. I went to bed before the first results came in, and when I turned on the radio the following morning I just sat in bed and cried. The immediate political implications – Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Michael Gove? – were dire, and the bigger picture – retreat to an offshore island cut off from Europe – was worse. Since then the future looks no better, with years and millions wasted on untangling a 40 year old legal, commercial and cultural framework that needed tweaking not tearing up.

Then there was Trump, and my mounting disgust at the man and everything he represented and stood for.
trump-hair-birdI longed for him to be not just defeated but annihilated.

 

 

 

 

Again, I woke the morning after the US election to find my worst fears realised. I sat with my head in my hands for a while, trying not to think seeing and hearing the ghastly man for the coming four years, and grieving the departure of the current President whom I and millions of others admire for his intelligence, rationality, optimism, grace and humour. The contrast could hardly be more extreme and disheartening.

There’s nothing to be done about either of these events and all their nasty consequences, but it’s taking me a while to pull myself around. For days I didn’t want to do anything. The new book seemed like a futile gesture, a waste of time. Future writing projects held no interest. But slowly the energy is returning. My writing is something I can do on my terms, inspired by my ideas and the glorious landscape all around me, which is still there and will continue, unless Mr Trump’s nasty little fingers stray too close to the nuclear button. My tiny contribution to creativity can’t overcome fear and hatred and racism and misogyny, but it might just push back a little, and every little helps.

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

Am I on another treadmill?

I’ve worked hard all my life, because I had to support myself and my child in the early days, and more recently for reasons other than earning enough to live on. As a self-employed education consultant I worked because it was fun, and creative and occasionally provided magic when everything came together and was indescribably satisfying. And I got to travel too, all over the place, and not as a tourist. There’s nothing like working in a community for a while to give you a sense of what it’s really about, not just the superficial view you get as a ‘visitor’. There were downsides too: working alone meant that the quality was down to me and no one else. I needed to think and plan well ahead to make sure things went well, and there seemed no end to it. As soon as one job was over I was into the next, and rarely felt free of the responsibility that is integral to self-employment.

Up to a point that’s fine. But somewhere down the line I’ve lost the art of doing nothing, if I ever had it. If there’s nothing on my mind I assume it’s something I’ve forgotten that will trip me up later. Having one major thing on my mind, to the temporary exclusion of everything else – like when I’m writing – is easier than spinning several plates at once, but not when that one thing invades my sleep as well as my waking hours. And trying to focus on one major thing while keeping other plates spinning at the same time – well, that’s too hard.

Maybe it’s something to do with age. Or maybe after decades of plate spinning I would like it to stop. The problem is, I want my writing to be successful, and that means keeping on writing. A book a year, that’s what it takes to keep up the momentum as a self-published author, and just recently I’ve detected signs that this could turn my pleasure in writing into an obligation, or – worse – a chore. If it is an obligation, it is to no one except myself: how self-indulgent and ego-centric is that? I have what countless other people crave – a high degree of control over my own life, and here I am finding that difficult.

Sometimes I would love to go to bed knowing that there was absolutely nothing to do the following day, except walk, or read, or swim, or eat and drink or sit in the sun. When I took six months off a few years ago, that was the plan. But then I decided there had to be a project, which was to write my first fiction, and with that decision the treadmill began to turn again. And now it’s turning like crazy and I’m still on it. It may be a different treadmill than the education work I was doing before, but I have to reassure myself that I can get off it if and when I want to. I drive my writing, the writing should not drive me, and the treadmill needs to be dismantled before it becomes truly addictive. Or maybe I just need some warm sunny weather to justify a day on the beach, or swimming in the Duddon. What happened to summer?

The upcoming trip overseas could be just the ticket. I have work to do in Edmonton, and a little more in Wellington, but that’s only a few days in all out of the five weeks of my trip. For the rest of the time I shall indulge myself, seeing friends who are important to me on the other side of the planet, eating and drinking and walking and talking. It’ll be early spring in New Zealand and probably not swimming weather, but I’m looking forward to everything else.