The night sky here is beautiful,
not a cloud to be seen. Filled with stars that burn like wildfire
a picturesque view, this could only be a dream.
Because you are never kind enough,
to let a moment like this be true
to give me such pure solemn joy
to provide me, my picturesque view
All I want is for you to show me
that things like peace & love are true
And that I can find them in my own life
That I can find my picturesque view.
On Sunday I was helping out behind the scenes of a drum clinic, getting to help and hang with top drummers, carrying drums, cymbals and hardware. Some would call it roadying, others teching. It was just humping heavy stuff around and trying to be helpful, understand their needs and the needs of the day.
When I say top drummers, I mean it. Mark Richardson, he of Feeder and Skunk Anansie. Ash Soan, a top session man - think Robbie Williams, Will Young and that level of playing. Talking of level, Phil Gould who propelled the 42 version through a string of hits in the 1980s and 1990s.
Robin Guy, whose been there and done it, and brings to clinics an awesome spectacle of power, energy and manic fun.
Emily Dolan Davies and Cherisse Osei - the young guard who have both been givien the nod from such a music luminary as Bryan Ferry, as well as major world tours with other artists, with Cherisse becoming famous with Mika. I interviewed her a few years back, when she'd just spent a few months on the road with him, and she remains as grounded, cheerful and in love with her chosen career as is possible.
I'm a nobody, who at one stage was a quarter of somebody, but to see the likes of these guys giving time to the fans, young and old - and I mean time. Talking about drumming, asking the youngsters about themselves and their drums. It's a major restoration of faith in humanity.
I've been fortunate to meet, be friends with and interview many top musicians down the years. Some are complete retards who I'm glad I'll probably never meet again. But drummers, generally, are a different breed.
Possibly my act yesterday appeared as if I knew what I was doing, and each drummer was interested in my opinion of how they'd played. What do I know? But I was honest and they were all so pleased and proud to know how much they'd been able to entertain, inspire and please the crowd.
Time? They'd given it for free to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust. A friend of mine and his wife lost their son to cancer at 15. They've relentlessly worked hard in Jordan's memory to raise tens of thousands of pounds for other teenagers suffering from such a vile disease.
I wrote this little snippet, a blog, a feel, rather than a piece of merit in writing. Our craft is about communicating, and it does that okay, I guess, but cannot match the standard of playing, of politeness, of decency, care and love experienced yesterday.
So about four years ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to turn my day dreams, into stories. For those people who know me, well they can definitely tell you that I can be a little stubborn. Needless to say, I'm very happy that I am the way I am. I persisted, and kept on working on Echoes of The Past finishing the first draft, second, third and all the other drafts I churned out until I was satisfied that I had done as much as I possibly could.
Whenever I mention to someone that I've written a book they always ask me how I find the time and how I motivate myself to do so. For a long time now I've been flirting with the answer to this question, trying to understand myself, where this drive comes from. It’s kind of ironic isn't it? That only now, four years down the track and with the second book well under its way that I think I have discovered the answer.
Originally my only dream was to be able to walk into a book store, and see my novel on the shelf, available for anyone to pick up, browse through, express an interest for or put back down. However after a while, I realized that this was not my motivation for writing. It was far far more than that.
To use Shrek’s analogy of Ogres and onions, I want to do the same with the answer, for you see, I think the reason I write, is a bit like an onion. As with anything for which I express passion, I feel like there are many layers which bolster and fuel the energy behind it.
First of all I have a love for reading, and if you un-wrap this layer of the writing onion, you come across vivid imagination. Why, Alex, what has a vivid imagination got to do with enjoying reading and why is that the second layer of your onion? Well, it is my belief, strictly my belief, may I add, that those people who love to read, do so because they fall in love with the pictures, accents, characters that they create in their minds using the combination of their imagination and the beautiful words of an author. This desire to allow my imagination to be unlocked is what triggers my passion for reading. Now, let’s strip the writing onion of its vivid imagination layer, and beneath this I discover a layer of day dreams, dreams that flicker across the edges of my mind while I sit in a boring lecture, or gripping thrillers which are left behind, hidden in the fog of my dreams that sneak up on me in my sleep. Each one of these is a tale inspired by what I have read, what I have seen, but most importantly what my vivid imagination has conjured. Removing this layer of my writing onion, I am left with the burning desire to express my dreams in such a way so that people, who like me, have vivid imaginations, and love to read, are able to enjoy my words and use their imagination to paint a picture in their minds which tells my story.
So to sum it up, the reason why I love to write, the reason I am able to sit down and stare at a blank page in Microsoft Word for hours on end, before typing out one sentence and then having to stop as nothing more comes to mind and yet I still continue is because of the writing onion.
So, tell me, why do you write?
The local kiwi
Since then I’ve started at least six other novels. Every one has been started with high hopes, and every one has been abandoned, though one did get as far as 87,000 words. They’ve all died on me somewhere along the line. Inspiration has faltered, I’ve come up against a brick wall, faith has been lost. Looking back, I believe I never really did have enough faith in any of them, and that’s because they really were simply not good enough, despite the odd passage here and there I actually felt quite proud of.
Again in retrospect, it seems to me that, introvert that I am, I was making the basic mistake of really writing about me all the time, projecting myself into imaginary (or wishfully thought) situations and letting all the other characters revolve around me. It’s significant that all of my attempts were first-person narratives. One of them was even quite blatant fictionalised autobiography. Okay, maybe I needed to get it off my chest, but I also needed to do some growing up.
There have been times – sometimes for years at a stretch – when I’ve shelved or given up entirely all thoughts of being a writer, but somehow I always find myself coming back to it. It’s the only talent I know I’ve got, after all, and I owe it to myself to use it.
For the best part of a year after our move to Wales, it seemed that my contentment with our new life was even removing the need I’d once felt to escape into a fictional world, but in the spring of this year an idea started to take shape. This one was going to be different. In this one I would be able, at last, to stand back and watch my characters evolving as they acted their parts. This one might even work.
‘Oh yes?’ said the demon of discouragement that always sits on my shoulder, whispering doubt into my ear. ‘Haven’t we heard this before? You won’t actually do it, you know.’ I told it to belt up, and in May I started writing.
There have been times when it’s been hard. There have been difficulties (Aren’t there always?), but I this time I haven’t lost faith, and I haven’t given up. The result is that tonight, a mere thirty-eight years after I first started trying to write a novel,
I. Have. Finished. The. First. Draft.
Well, there’s one little gap that needs filling, and a short conversation I want to insert (less than 500 words, all told), but I’ve got to the end of the story. Yes, there’s still lots of work to be done, but it feels pretty good, all the same.
Pass the champers, would you, Jeeves?
This did seem to do the trick until about a fortnight later one of his abdomenal muscles swelled up as though there was a ping pong ball under his skin. This time he went to the hospital where they drained it but yesterday morning it looked more like a tennis ball had somehow lodged itself there.
My other employee took him off to the hospital and called me to come along with a wadge of cash as he needed an operation this time.
That's the background.
So when I get there, the first thing I'm surprised by is that the room actually has air conditioners. Let's just say Lao hospitals are not exactly renouned for their facilities. But as I sat there, I was itching to take out the trusty notebook and get down some of the quirks. Somehow, however, it never really seemed quite the right time to note the loose wires hanging on to the fluorescent bulbs, which made me want to hold my breath as I waited for the bulb to explode over the patients awaiting their ops, or the dog that kept wandering in and out (never mind the cat that I saw later being shood out of the recovery room next to the operating theatre by a guy who'd already scrubbed up (maybe!)), or the thick layer of dirt that had turned the top of the airconditioners black, or the fact that my best guess was that the bedding had last been washed probably a month ago, or that we had to half carry him the half kilometre over what could best be described as a building site for his operation - there was no vehicle access to the operating theatre - of course not, why would you? Or the fact that he was given a blanket about the size of those you give babies in their cots and, in the middle of the corridor, whilst lying on a stretcher, around two minutes before his op, with people going to and fro - patients, visitors, the surgeon shooing out the cat - that is where he had to strip naked (bearing in mind he was in enough pain to require an operation) or the fact that just twenty minutes later we were called in to visit him where he was tied to a bed in a state which literally translates as drunk medicine whereby he was confused and telling everyone he loved them or that the monitor kept showing him flat lining because the connection wasn't good.
At none of these points did I feel that I could get out my notepad.
And when I got back to my bike to find it had a flat tyre which couldn't be fixed because it was gone midnight (we couldn't leave before because you have to pay cash for each step of the process as you go along and, if needed, fetch the medicine yourself and we couldn't pay until the surgeon had finished all his patients and then had a rest and then written up the bill). There is a curfew in Laos at the moment because there is a big meeting coming up - I've even been invited to a party with William Hague preciding to celebrate the final opening of a British ambassadorial presence arriving in Laos - and the curfew is midnight. So no cars, no taxis and no choice but to share a motorbike with my cleaner. I'd never driven a bike with no brakes before. Interesting experience.
Then the bit that really made me think, am I now thinking like a writer was when I was stopped from going in this morning by two soldiers who yelled at me and tried to charge me a tenner just for trying to get in and as the stress and lack of sleep of the previous few hours caught up with me and as I was, much to both my surprise and theirs, suddenly sobbing uncontrollably - so much so that they looked terrified and told me I could go in after all and not pay - even then, I was thinking I must get this down as soon as possible.
So now home, showered, snoozed, checked my emails, eaten, posted a bit but in the total wrong frame of mind to be able to write any more of the book, I thought I'd get it down on paper here. A memory jogger maybe if I ever need one.
So my enthusiasm for all things writing is still huge, but my ability to sit down and commit words to paper is minimal.
I’ve hit the writer’s equivalent of the marathon runner’s wall.
It’s not that I haven’t any ideas. They’re flowing. It’s not writer’s block, as such, it’s more writer’s not. Or should that be writer’s knot?
Yet, now I’m writing a
blog. I’ve written several magazine and newspaper stories, I’ve
written notes thanking people for their time and trouble in
offering advice or seeking advice. So I’m still writing.
Just not what I want.
I’ve seen it coming. I’ve
tried music, watching films and old TV series, reading books,
continuing my research, but to no avail.
For me, it’s perfectly natural. The cycle of writing life. Sometimes it flows like a tsunami and my pen struggles to keep up (yes, I still write on paper with pen or pencil – the stage of transferring it to computer is a first edit). At other times I’ve absolute control of the writing. Then this. The next stage, normally a period of a fortnight or a month, is a complete lack of ideas and disbelief in some of my storylines.
Nine years ago, I complete abandoned the one story. It wasn’t working, I’d hit the buffers. Life was changing; new job, new part of the country and I’d left behind the muse who had inspired me. At that time, I hoped forever.
I carried the hand-written sheets in my luggage, longhand and shorthand, and in no particular order, and they stayed at the bottom of one box.
I think the break was healthy. By the time I had a letter from a girlfriend I’d broken up with ten years earlier, I was contemplating the lead character again. Try as I might to consign him to the bin of history, he was starting to be with me, prompting me. A half-written, crazy first novel at the bottom of a packing box and suddenly a second novel was beginning.
I sketched 40 odd chapters and wrote six, all from the heart. I was pleased and proud. They provoked such emotion in me.
Then the muse contacted me. Out of the blue and out of all hope. The woman I loved, was scared of loving, had re-entered my life. I picked up the first novel again, saw how amateurish it was in thought and execution and started rewriting it.
It consumed me, much as it had done in the beginning. Struggling to sleep, I was working through the night, scribbling away. I wrote what I felt like, inspired by thought and emotion. It meant I had a disjointed series of scenes and chapters, but I was going with the flow.
And then it stopped abruptly. I started to hate it, just as I moved job again and the muse came fully into my life. There were lots of distractions. It was as if being with her was everything, and the writing was the best substitute for being away from her.
We became boyfriend and girlfriend and the writing, all of it, remained a day job and nothing more. We got married and those scenes and chapters stayed at the bottom of another packing box.
It doesn’t take a brain of Britain to realise that our split saw me return to the writing, but this time it was much more than the muse. It was because I wanted to write, realised it was a kind of calling.
So I wrote. The first novel became 80 per cent finished, with a fifth major redraft and rewrite. Some scenes and chapters were consigned to the bin forever, others formed from nowhere. The second book raced ahead in the bid for draft one being actually completed. Then a third story began to scratch at my conscious. Several months of unadulterated writing joy.
Before the writer’s knot returned.
It hit me harder than ever before. The sheer creativity and playing with words, language and emotion had been like a drug to me. I felt alive. Then suddenly I felt dead. But I was patient. Six months I waited. Then a seventh. I tried to force myself to write. In my case, it failed. I dreamed of my characters. They were omnipresent. Almost real. But still I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read what I’d written. It passed.
In April this year, in a short burst of time I’d ‘finished’ book one. I knew it wasn’t complete, needed revising, editing, reviewing, rewriting and more. But it was finished. The plot was finalized with a few additions from I know not where.
Hot on its heels came book two. Again, the plot seemed to complete itself. I was reminded of the old children’s story of the elves and the shoemaker, where the elves come in and make shoes from the leather the shoemaker had put out.
What was more special to me was the fact that book three came along – although it’s still in very raw, draft form at 110,000 words – in six weeks.
I had to stop myself forging ahead with book four. Oh, the best of intentions.
I first went through books one and two with a fine toothcomb looking for spelling and grammar mistakes. There were a few. Then I read book one looking for plot holes. Again, there were a few. Then I found I didn’t want to read it any more. I was too close. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
By now I was back in the UK and quite horrified by what I saw had happened to my city. I realised I preferred the past glories and was sad they’d gone. Before I knew it, up the garden and ringing the doorbell was a new character. He introduced himself to me and my other main protagonist. We were all in the same game, journalism, but all so very different. I felt my first main character put up with me rather than liked me. He was too rebellious and hard-minded. My second character was more forgiving, more accepting, a man who made a rod for his own back, whose fortunes were waning.
Sod books one, two and three, a new series was being born. There was writing and ideas and research. It was a crazy story. While the first series was rooted in real life, this was fantasy stuff. Possibly a little too complex, weaving together the mundane with the astonishing, stretching the imagination perhaps more than it could be stretched, but still with murder, mayhem and mystery at its heart. I wrote furiously, sketched furiously and smiled furiously. Until the character, this mild-mannered, apologetic, grounded sort of man and I started talking about his future. Unlike the first character, his issues were all going to be resolved in the one book.
He convinced me was worth a second shot at fame (as if) and also told me what happened next. And here I was, 20,000 words in, the plot drafted but still open to change and he’s gone and disappeared.
No, I’m not crazy. I am
not living out a fantasy in the same way as Elwood P Dowd and a
small army of pookas. It’s imagination and inspiration hitting
and then running. It’s frustration.
So what am I going to do about it?
Absolutely nothing. The muse, no not that one, might come back today or tomorrow. Or next month. Or on the day before Christmas. Or next summer. Or in two years or ten. I believe it will return. And soon.
I’m not disappointed. We need a natural break in everything we do. Sport, work, life. There’s obviously a reason and I’ve perhaps enjoyed a purple streak of imagination and inspiration. Maybe I’ve overdone it at the well.
Maybe, and most likely, I need a break to come back and really concentrate on shaping the stories the right way, into a form that an agent might like.
But then, we’re back to the world of imagination…
ONE of the skills I’ve learned down the years is the power of language. In a 300 word news report you’ve got to get the importance and salient points across, but word choice helps.
I’m struggling to get to grips with longer writing. I seem able to get across a point or emotion in the shorter form of the written word.
Yet, I marvel at the skill of the popular ‘poets’ of my age. Able to twist a nerve within by use of a single line, conjuring up images in a dozen words or less.
Sometimes I sit and work out a phrase or line I’m particularly pleased with. One that gets over an emotion, or value. One that stands out. Then I look at it and feel sorry that it looks so lonely. Do I take time on the sentences around it to try to find a similar heady concoction?
The answer is not always obvious.
Lines provoke different reactions in us all. And music, too.
10cc, especially in the days of their own Fab Four, before Godley and Crème quit to continue the experimentation that people forget led to their most famous track, were wordsmiths as well as musicians.
The wheedling attempt to get people to agree that Eric Stewart is not in love, is followed by some killer lines.
I keep your picture, upon the wall, it hides a nasty stain that’s lying there…
Wow. The picture of you is still on my wall, but it’s not there for the reason you expect.
Kevin Godley, the all-conquering vocalist, drummer and musical and lyrical brain, who I had the good fortune to interview several years ago, insisted the song was not a love song, more a backlash against the soppy rubbish of the day. People have other ideas. It works on many levels, least not the experimentation he proposed of the ‘chorus’.
But dozens and dozens of bands in my musical collection managed equally well, if not better.
And while Eleanor Rigby’s waiting and watching with her face in a jar by the door, Father Mackenzie is writing the words of a sermon that no-one will hear.
The Fab Four came in for tough competition in those days. Songwriters struggled, pored and scratched their heads over lyrics.
This slice of Chief Kink Ray Davies’ homage to suburban nostalgia came in the 1980s, although he’d penned a classic line or two before.
The day they knocked down the Palais, my sister stood and cried, The day they knocked down the Palais, part of my childhood died
Of course, the emotion in Come Dancing is accentuated with the choice of chords and build up, both musical and lyrical, but it’s still powerful.
Gerry Rafferty’s Don’t Speak Of My Heart offers this little gem: Every day’s an endless daze of dreams that fade and die, while the Eurythmics’ The Miracle Of Love offers: They say the greatest coward can hurt the most ferociously.
Wow, and double wow. I want to write like this. Language I relate to.
I actually would love to write music like that, too.
Today, my Windows Music Player shuffle brought me The Jam - A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts; Madness – I just left Victoria Gardens and walked through cardboard city land, A burnt out star was asking How would I like to shake his hand?
Prog rockers turned AoR band, Camel have an extensive back catalogue of clever, well-thought out lyrics, many the work of Susan Hoover, the partner of lead guitarist and sole survivor of the band’s own Fab Four period, Andrew Latimer.
But he penned a tribute to the fallen of September 11, inspired by the horrible footage of those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers.
It’s a ten minute-plus opus. From the heart. Of beautiful music, beautiful message. Of guitar solo, quiet build up and choir. It had quite an impact on me at the time and never ceases to when I play it.
Nothing can last
there are no second chances.
Never give a day away.
Always live for today.
There’s none of the clever wordplay of Godley, Creme, Stewart and Gouldman, Lennon and McCartney, Davies or the Nutty Boys. Just simple lines that punch above their weight.
So I’m back to writing novel X. Inspired by music and the turn of phrase in so many clever lyrics. Knowing full well that a handful of words, well constructed, can achieve more than a handful of paragraphs, no matter how well written.
Knowing full well that it’s within me, as it’s within all of us.
It’s just bloody hard.
That’s not the only way in which she’s courageous. She must have been born with a very sunny nature, because she’s had a lot to put up with in her life, and still comes up smiling. Her father was an alcoholic, and she had a difficult and abusive childhood. About fifteen years ago she and her English husband moved from the Midlands to a brand-new house in Cornwall. It should have been a dream home, but it turned into a nightmare, as they had one problem after another with it. Then she did her back in trying to lift something heavy at work. To this day she can only walk slowly and painfully with a stick.
Her son (whom I shall call Alan) was living with his wife and child in a village about a mile from where I live, and on their visits to him Monique and her husband fell in love with the area. They sold the house in Cornwall and moved to their son’s village (which is how she got to study Welsh with me), and prepared to settle down to a peaceful retirement in the Welsh countryside.
But fate hadn’t finished its games. First Alan and his wife lost their child (I have not heard exactly how), and then she contracted cancer and died. That would be enough trouble for one family to bear, you would think; but early this year, in the midst of his grief, Alan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For the first time I saw Monique laid low, and all of us on the Welsh course really felt for her. The only bright spot was her husband, a laid-back man with a ready sense of humour who is attentive and considerate to her at all times and obviously loves her very much.
So where does the heart-warming come in? Well, back when Alan was visiting his dying wife in hospital, he struck up a friendship over visits to the coffee machine with a woman whose husband was also dying of cancer: mutual support and all that. When she heard he was in hospital himself with MS, she dropped everything and rushed over to see him. One thing led to another, and they are getting married in a couple of months’ time. Although she already has some children by her late husband, they are planning to have more together. I think she must be quite some woman.
And Monique is smiling again.