Sunday, 1 November 2015

Fear of the blank page and other ongoing concerns...

Hello blog. Hello world. Hello handful of compassionate, kindly personages who read this as their good deed for the day/week/year...

It's been a while but let's not dwell on the past, let us look to the future...

...and the sword of Damocles which is the 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo threatening to crush me beneath the weight of failure.

Every October I consider whether or not NaNoWriMo is going to govern my existence for the following month and every year I succumb to its fiendish charms... Damn you NaNo, with your allure of domestic avoidance, ungoverned and wildly spirited words and the opportunity to put whatever I'm meant to be editing on hold and have a wild verbose affair with something exciting and new.

I normally love and equally curse you NaNo...
But... this year I am using you for my own ends; twisting you beneath the whip of my desires and I'm going to use your word count demands to crush my necessary novel re-write beneath your spreading chair bound arse! (Yes I said arse not ass... I know it sounds horribly English, but every time I write ass I feel like I'm doing a bad impression of an accent and implying I'm more hardass than I am... Damn...)

I realised about three months ago that the much ignored second draft of one of my first books no longer needed editing - it was way beyond that. I mean, it was kinda shapeless and its weight distribution was all over the place... if editing is cosmetic improvement then this draft needed to be taken to a lab powered by lightning, where my helpful assistant, (let's not say beautiful, he's kinda lumpen like the draft), Igor, would cut off every appendage and replace them with parts of better books. Levers would be thrown on a stormy night and "It's alive! IT'S ALIVE! WaaaHaaaHAAAHAAAARRR!" type thing would occur.

But rewrites are hard. And demoralising and they kinda make you feel like a teenager scuffing your Converse and groaning about it not being fair and but I've already done it once and why do you hate me so much! I wish I'd never written you in the first place!


But it needs to be done.
So I'm trying to suck it up and get on with it and if I'm going to have to substantially rewrite this creature of mine, then I'm going to use one of the best motivation tools the internet and writing world has ever birthed and I'm going to have fun, (and alcohol and junk food and not shower or clean myself, the house, the cat or the husband), for thirty days whilst doing it!

YYYAAAAAAAARRRRRRRR! (Battle cry whilst holding a plastic sword in pajamas and over stimulated by tea).

So... she says looking sideways at the bloody misshaped manuscript lying wet on the operating/dinner table...

Wow, I'm really behind on Pretty Little Liars and it's kinda research and inspiring...
(Note to husband: please remove fuse from TV whilst out. x)

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Once darker than the night...

“Every star was once darker than the night, before it awoke.”
- Dejan Stojanovic, The Sign and Its Children

I was walking home from work and the sun had well and truly set. The street lights were bathing everything in honey except for the glitter of frost on the pavements. Ice only ever seems to reflect the stars, that pure blue white light that's so sharp it almost cuts. But when I looked up at the sky it was black. Like looking into a pit, like looking into an empty forever.

In the city the stars are sometimes shy. Hiding behind clouds darker than pollution and unseen by eyes too blinded by tungsten and headlights. We look up and our hearts sink without a star to guide our paths even when we know exactly where we are going.

Stars may be thousands of light years away, may even have faded into nothing long before we see their light, but they are beautiful and there is something so hopeful about them. They are magic floating in the velvet of the cosmos, impossible and glorious, ready for wishes and delight.

There are places in the world where there is so little light pollution that you can see the milky way with your naked eye. You can actually see another galaxy hanging above you like a breath frozen and scattered with diamonds.

This was not one of those places. This was not one of those nights.

There was only the city, the glow of electricity, the slow rolling tidal wash of car tyres on wet tarmac and my footsteps echoing off the houses lining the empty street.

I hadn't realised how lonely the night could be without stars.

My feet plodded on, my eyes lingering on the cold shimmer of frost beneath my shoes and I turned the last corner before home.

As I passed beneath a street light, taking one last gaze at the darkness hanging above me, one hand rummaging for a key as my feet automatically carrying me forward, the street light winked out. Fading down to nothing but an amber ember faint behind glass. And beyond, in the sky, a star winked into existence, almost as if it had been waiting for that very moment to shine.

As I watched, the night sky awoke in the space between the street lights, glistening bright and luminous, a hundred galaxies, a hundred possibilities, a hundred wishes to wish upon.

Starlight makes the soul open. Starlight nourishes hope like the sun and water nourish a seed.

Sometimes the night can seem endless and dark. But all you need to do is turn a corner and look up. The stars are always there, it's just that we don't always see them.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The start of something new...


New Years Day.

A day of thinking of the year ahead, of contemplating dreams, locking down plans and starting to build that Ultimate Weapon for taking over the world.

And also the day to beat yourself up for the failures of last year, wallowing in the fears which held you back and nursing the scars sustained from that terrible explosion when last years Ultimate Weapon short circuited, gave you third degree burns and covered the whole north of the city in a strange green syrup which the police could never pin on anyone...


Whilst in the past I've subscribed to both schools of thought, age and experience is teaching me to keep things simple. So this year this is my plan:

1)  Write. Every day. Anything. It can be a blog post like this, a page of writing practice or add to the word count of the almost finished novel. And if I don't write something, it better be because I'm editing something - even if it's only a paragraph. Write or edit. But mostly WRITE.

2)  Blog.
As a creative person with a full time job, the brain farts coming from my head may well be utter shite, but every now and then I might accidentally stumble upon a pertinent point or some deep emotion which I feel it's my duty to share with the world because it's cheaper than therapy.
But even if I'm only typing out loud and repeating the ramblings of gutter hermits from time immortal, at least I'm talking to the world. It would be egotistical to presume the world's listening anyway.

3)  And I can't believe I'm putting this out there and ergo tying myself down to some kind of unspoken cyber contract, but here goes...
I work in a bookshop and I buy too many books.
It's been two days since my last book purchase.

(breathes out slowly)

That was easier than I thought.
Firstly, I know there's no such thing as "too many books" with an addendum dependent on the size of your house and secondly, that's when most people realise they need to move or get rid of all their furniture and construct it from carefully stacked hardbacks instead...
But, I have a tendency due to the divine intervention of Staff Discount, to buy books and hoard them, never quite getting round to reading them because I'm reading something else which has been published subsequently; or, and this is worse, buying books on a whim because of the divine Staff Discount and realising after two years that I'm never going to read them and donating them to charity instead.

Some of the unread books. Don't feel sorry for them, they have a warm home and don't have to do any chores

I buy too many books and I need to read the ones I already have because I hear them weeping quietly in the middle of the night when I can't sleep because I'm thinking of the next books I want to buy or working on the next phase of the Ultimate Weapon.

(Deep breath, long rambling sentence which editors would cringe at now follows)

I buy too many books and need to save some money for a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter where I can truly delude myself that magic exists and that the Harry Potter books are a gentle mass introduction to the concept in the same way that The X-Files started to get us used to the notion that aliens were real and the American government has been harnessing alien tech in secret for decades but knew we'd freak the hell out and so kept it on the down low...

But basically I buy too many books.

So, during 2015 I plan to only buy one book a month.
I can't believe it's there in black and white. I think my palms might be sweating a little.

One book a month. Exclusions can be made for gifts for others and titles for the bookclub which I run in our store, (January we're reading The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, but I already have a copy as you could probably guess. Jeez, I sound like a real HP/Rowling nerd... Oh wait, I guess everyone knew that already) and any other rational, plausible reason which I can't think of right now due to the palpitations and nervous glances at my bookshelves...

So, write, blog and one book a month.
Sounds simple right?

Wish me luck.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ultimate satisfaction...that got you reading!

With The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy comes to a close, and what a close it is. The All Souls trilogy has always been a many layered story. At its heart the forbidden relationship between our supernatural Romeo and Juliet, Matthew and Diana, and the battles they fight to remain united and protect their family; the greater tale of relationships which span history, the globe and supernatural species; and the war between tradition and progress - two disparate entities which, with every page turned, come closer and closer to each other and the truth.

The Book of Life brings all aspects of the trilogy to a climatic and incredibly satisfying resolution, but leads us through woods thick with ghosts, body-littered caverns, genocidal torture chambers and top-of-the-line scientific laboratories en route. Without giving away any spoilers, our favourite characters will all be changed by the experience in this volume - their world will never be the same again. And not just their world, the world.

By reading this series you won’t be the same either, because the essence of this book will weave its way into your blood like rosemary and rowan incense, sharing a real-world truth that we all know in our hearts - whether witch, daemon, vampire or human, we are all the same. We all live, hope, dream and die.

I know every book has this message in one way or another - the criminal loves his mother, the saint still feels jealousy, the serial killer still laughs at looping gifs of kittens tumbling - but the Book of Life is beautifully written and the supernatural element takes away the sense of soapbox. It holds the mirror up to modern society with a subtlety and a flair for the dramatic which is inspiring. 

The depiction of power is also a thing of wonder. In the All Souls trilogy, both sexes are warriors, scholars, scientists, soldiers, strategists, geniuses, feral and caring. And isn’t that how it is and how it's meant to be? And I can't help but adore the fact that the most powerful character in the book magically becomes a natural redhead! It feels like a fictional finger gesture for the women throughout history who have been unfairly ostracised, tortured and killed purely because of the colour of their hair...

Deborah Harkness will enthral you with her web of words, open a velvet surrounded window into another world and show you the truth of living. It doesn’t matter if you’re a witch, a vampire, a daemon or a human - everyone will love the All Souls trilogy. What are you waiting for? A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night are already available, The Book of Life is out on the 15th of July.

I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Above the shit and the piss...

I'm currently working on something which is set in a small city, has time-traveling witches, ghosts, vampires and mediums... You would think I wouldn't have time to miss some of the characters from the first novel and a half I wrote. But I do and so I indulged in writing a scene which I probably won't come back to for at least a year...

Lucielle and Raven almost have a thing. They are both magic users and are part of a dysfunctional magical society in a city which is pretty much London. Lucielle's only living relative, Henri, is a powerful witch, impatient and frustrated aunt and has a terminal diagnosis. Go scene...

* * * * *

Raven took the hospital stairs three at a time and wasn't even breathing hard when he reached the roof. The emergency fire exit had been propped open with a lump of concrete and he kicked it out of the way as he stepped onto the flat cigarette-butt strewn asphalt, hearing the door slam shut behind him.
She was standing on the low wall surrounding the roof, her feet bare, her dark hair drifting in the wind and half-hiding her face from the city. Beyond her the sky was bruised with storm clouds, making the street lights glow like fireflies far below them. Raven stopped, clenching and unclenching his fists, mentally calculating the distance between he and Lucielle, between the edge of the roof and the pavement. The maths were not good. He took a deep breath and took a step towards her.
“Lucielle... Get back onto the fucking roof.”
She tilted her face towards his voice, her eyes shut behind her hair.
“Fuck, Raven. I thought you'd be faster, I could have stepped off this edge a hundred times already.”
He clenched his teeth, taking a step towards her.
“So why haven't you?”
Lucielle laughed but the sound felt brittle. “I'm fairly certain that's not the kind of question you're meant to ask.”
She raised a half-empty bottle to her lips, the label frayed and torn where she'd been picking at it. Raven frowned. The alcohol complicated things, it always did with Lucielle.
“Get back onto the roof and we can talk about this.”
Lucielle turned towards him, her body stiffening, her face tight as she grimaced.
“Who said I wanted to talk? And even if I did, why the fuck would I talk to you? Christ, Raven. You could have at least sent Sophie...”
“Sophie’s in the ward. With Henri.”
The words landed like blows and for one moment Raven thought she would fall, just topple backwards like a windswept leaf and drift out of sight. Lucielle sagged and stepped forward onto the roof, her legs crumpling beneath her as she sat on the wall. The wind lifted her hair from her face and Raven could see the smudges of make up streaked down her cheeks, see the grey pain around her eyes.
“Lucielle, she needs you...”
Lucielle shook her head, distracted and then determined, the bottle returning to her lips.
“What good am I right now? How exactly can I help? It’s not like I can cure her, or even help... All I ever do is fuck up and make things harder. If I’m around she’ll just worry about me rather than actually looking after herself. This is MY FUCKING FAULT!”
She threw the bottle at Raven as she shouted. It flew wide and smashed on the tarmac near the door. Her arms dropped limply to her sides, her fingers brushing against the loose chips of gravel and bird crap. Raven took a step towards her and sank to his knees, his eyes searching for hers.
“Luce... It’s not your fault. How could this be your fault?”
The tears were running openly down her face, dripping onto her bare arms and feet. She lifted her hands to cover her face.
“If I hadn’t been fucking up, if she’d not been freaking out about Chase and Sophie... She’d have realised that there was something wrong. She’d have been...operable...”
Raven could feel his throat tightening and he tried to swallow, tried to find his voice. A growl of thunder dragged itself across the city and he waited for it to pass but Lucielle spoke before he could.
“Did you see her face, Raven? When she asked what the treatment was and the doctor, he just looked right at her and said there was no course of treatment. She looked so scared, it was like her face had slid aside to reveal her soul... I saw her, I really saw her and she was lost. I saw her hope wither, her strength crushed... She was like a child, like a lost child...”
“I did that, Raven. I stopped her from realising she was ill... and now, now the Conclave are already hounding her, demanding I leave the city... What good have I been? With everything that has happened... My parents, Sophie, the fucking knife, Chase... What good am I? I just make people die. Where’s the grand fucking scheme in that?”
She stood quickly and turned back to the wall, lifting one pale foot to rest on the smooth grey concrete. The first drops of rain began to darken the stone around her foot in big coin-sized circles.
“Lucielle?” Raven asked, his voice flat and hard like the pavement way, way below.
She stepped up onto the wall and turned away from him, raising her voice so he could hear her.
“So what I really want to know is, if I’m meant to be so fucking special, from such an esteemed bloodline; if destiny and fate are bending over backwards for me to fuck them up the arse, then surely I can’t just step off this fucking wall and stop being such a total fucking fuck-up...”
Raven took a step towards her already knowing in his gut that he was too far away from her, that he wasn’t going to be fast enough. He called her name but his voice came out strangled by fear, buried beneath another rumble of thunder.
She didn’t look back, she just took a step forward into the rain and dropped out of sight like a stone.
Raven screamed her name as lightning scorched the air and for a moment he thought he’d been struck. His breath was knocked from him as he rolled across the roof, feeling the stone chips embedding themselves into his jaw and one cheek. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, feeling his heart pounding against his ribs like a punch, his whole body shaking and all the time unable to tear his eyes away from the last spot he had seen her in. That rain drenched roof edge, with the city lights beyond.
As he shuddered, his brain numb and his eyes stinging from the rain, he became aware of a sound, a buffeting of wind, like the slowed down whomp of helicopter rotors. Raven glanced around, seeing only the rain and buildings jutting up into the tomb dark sky and then movement caught his eye.
It was a flicker of black, peaking over the edge of the roof. It appeared again after a second, the sound of pushing air accompanying it and then Lucielle’s face appeared above the concrete.
She rose majestically, lifted by a pair of ebony wings which seemed larger than her small frame. Raven scrambled to his feet and approached the edge of the roof as her feet reached for the wall. She landed awkwardly, the wind tugging at her wings before she could fold them and Raven reached out to grab her hand, holding on tightly, anchoring her to the rooftop with an iron grip.
“What. The. Fuck...”
Lucielle glanced over her shoulder at the folded feathers and then met Raven’s gaze and there was steel there. Strength and conviction and what-ever else came to mind when you looked at someone who had just discovered they had the power to change the world. Lucielle squeezed Raven’s hand.
“I didn’t know I could do that...”
Raven stared at her wings. “I don’t think many people can... Probably not that fast either...”
“You know what this means?”
Raven’s eyes dropped to their clasped hands for a moment. “Destiny, fate... It seems you are fucking special after all... Maybe you have a chance of helping Henri?”
Lucielle smiled softly. Behind her the rain was easing off and shards of pink and golden light were spearing through the grey and licking at the city.
“First things first; it means we have a way off this rooftop after you kicked the door closed.”
Raven looked over the side of the building, his eyes widening.
“You can’t mean...”
Lucielle unfolded her wings with a shiver, wrapping both hands around Raven’s. Her wings dipped, the lift pulling her up onto her tiptoes. She grinned at Raven and pulled him towards her, his arm just wrapping her waist as her wings thrust down again.
“Oh hell yeah...”

Sunday, 28 July 2013

If words are weapons, writers are assassins...

"Every story written is
marks upon a page
The same marks,
repeated, only
differently arranged"
Max Barry, Lexicon

We all know the power of words, that a rousing speech can raise the rebellion or give the hero time enough to foil the evil villain... We all know that words can take us to worlds which don't exist, create lovers and friends that we will never meet but we'll adore for the rest of our lives... We all know that words can wound. That hearts can be broken with just a sentence and that a well placed word will create scars that will never leave us...

So is it so hard to believe that there are words out there that can cut through all of our rational defenses, all the social programming, to our very cores? That there are words which make us totally vulnerable to suggestion, instruction and command?

You know that flutter in your stomach when you answer the phone and the line is silent but you know that someone is about to speak... There's your answer. We intuitively know that words have power and we also know there's not a damn thing we can do about it. We are so easy to Derren Brown.

Max Barry knows this and that's why Lexicon is so good.

Lexicon, (isbn 9781444764659), was published in June this year and I've been meaning to write a review for it ever since I raced through the proof copy a few months back. But something kept holding me back...the fact that it was so damn good.

Set in a world where a secret agency has harnessed the essence of language, identified the key personality types and the specific sounds that can hack each of our brains, this is a novel like nothing I've ever read. From the start it throws you in at the deep end and by the time you realise which way is up, you're already well out of your depth. And it's an immersive, obsessive read. I ate it greedily, spending an entire day off reading in bed with a near constant supply of tea and chocolate biscuits and there aren't many books which grip me like that - I think the last one before this was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and if you read this blog regularly, you'll know exactly how I feel about that book :)

But Lexicon is something different.

It is a great read, it has a compelling plot, fully fleshed characters, ingenuity and cleverness by the bucket but there's also something else...

You know that moment when you could almost believe that the X-files is an authorised government leak? That the truth is just a scrape of the surface below the unbelievable... That there's an element of truth in the horror stories which scare us...

With Lexicon there is always an undercurrent that Barry is pulling back the curtain and giving us a glimpse, not of the wizard, but of our programming. Of the way our minds perceive and comprehend language and sound, from the unspoken command of someone saying our name, the instinctual reaction of a mother to her baby's cry, to the way the hairs on the back of our neck stand up when we hear a scream in the middle of the night. A glimpse of how words and sound manipulate...

That sounds could cut through all the bullshit in our heads and leave us vulnerable...

But Lexicon takes it one step even further... What if there were a word, a phrase that could hack everyone? That there was no defense against. What if this wasn't a new word, but a forgotten word, a word that had been with us since the beginning of us grunting and gesturing at the rock, the cave, the fire... What if this word wasn't ours, what if it had come from before... What does that mean? Where does that leave us?

This is a well crafted, incredibly easy-to-read tale that behind the romp and adventure, exotic locations and death toll, behind the curtain are a lot of Big Thoughts. Note the capitals. This is linguistic philosophy masquerading as mainstream fiction. This is subtle, compelling and essentially, this is fucking clever. And not a literary fiction, big-words-and-podium clever. This is a book which knows it's readers can be smart and still like a damn good read. A book that knows you can like Kafka and Iron Man with the same brain.

This is the kind of book that every writer wishes they could write. I know I do. In an industry where some books bludgeon heavy handedly, this is a showman with an assassins blade, this is misdirection and mass entertainment. This is Derren Brown as fiction.

Now, I might be loving Lexicon too much. I might be reading too much into it... I might be selling too hard and showing you the inside of the empty top hat...

But the best thing... The thing that's really going to bake your noodle... The only way you're going to really know whether this book is everything that I say it is... The only way you can decide for yourself is to read Lexicon.

Consider yourself Derren Browned.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Three brothers...

Somewhere on the Devon coast line, near two villages divided by a river, above a bay containing many coves and one crumbling church, there is a cluster of three pine trees. These trees are gnarled by wind and sea spray, baked and bitter from the seasons and within their roots lie the ashes of two generations of my family. And it's not the windy dark days that make me think of those trees and the remains which brush against their feathered roots. It's the days like today when the sky is clear and bleached by the sun, when every other breath almost tastes of the sea from desire and imagination, regardless of where you are. In the middle of London I could turn a corner and step into an unexpected but adored breeze which suddenly seems salty and thick with the scent of seaweed.

The summer makes me think of the bay, the trees and the sea because that was where so many of my childhood summers were spent, with my family, staying at my grandfather's caravan in the private farm/campsite called Stoke Beach. We would head down to Devon within a week of the end of the summer term and stay with my grandmother in Plymouth for a few weeks and then at Stoke Beach for anything between a week and four. I and my brother would spend weeks clambering around cliffs, swimming, turning over rocks, climbing trees and grumbling any time our parents wanted to take us away to towns or National Trust properties. We spent our summers getting roasted brown and developing the ability to walk across the gravel car park without flinching. These are some of my strongest memories of my childhood and almost my only memories of my grandfather.

He was weathered and strong, a pipe always in his mouth and we rarely saw him when he wasn't at Stoke. Between March and November he lived at the caravan, only heading back to the house he shared with my grandma once a fortnight when they met to go to the library. And before you start thinking he was an odd sort and that this was a strange way to live; my grandma had a caravan of her own, further inland, set in wooded shade beside a river on the edge of Dartmoor. And so they would spend their years, apart for most of the warm seasons and cramped together near the gas fire during the cold.

Stoke Beach had begun as an evacuation camp for children from the cities during the second world war. Both my grandparents had volunteered there, bringing along their three sons to play with the evacuees, enjoying the weather and the sea, attempting to ignore reality and the looming fear. After the war many of the children and parents had become attached to Stoke Beach and the farmer established firstly a campsite and then a caravan site in this sheltered wood enclosed cove. My father, his twin brother and his elder brother spent their summers doing exactly what I and my brother had done, making memories and friends, slowly making the sand and soil of that place as much of their genetic make up as their eye colour. It was only when the three brothers left home and found their own adventures that my grandparents sought separate caravans, my gran opting for the dappled serenity of a riverside rather than the sun bleached power of the sea.

When my grandfather died, suddenly, within a week of the doctors discovering his lungs and liver were riddled with a cancer that he had never complained about or sought attention for, my grandma took over his caravan, knowing how much her many grandchildren adored Stoke Beach. It was only as her own health failed her and she had to give up driving that she gave up the caravan, a decision that we all understood, but that caused an unexpected ache in many of us. It was the end of an era. The end of a stream of generations who found solace and peace on that ragged coast.

My grandfather was the first to have his ashes scattered beneath the three pine trees overlooking the bay above Stoke Beach. I can remember that no matter where you were in that bay, unless you were squeezing through the few strange pock marked natural tunnels cut into the cliffs by the sea, where ever you were you could see those trees. Like calm sentinels on the horizon, or three weather beaten old men, sticks in hands and pipes in mouths, standing in silence and enjoying the view.

My father's twin brother died suddenly at 55 and he joined his father on that horizon, followed by my grandmother and then my father, who died five years and two days ago. I and my husband took my father's ashes to the trees on a bright November morning, scattering them beside his parents and his brother, the breeze snatching at his remains almost as if it were trying to shake his hand and welcome him home.

Stoke Beach was in our family's blood and it always seemed fitting that they should sink into that soil at the end of their adventures.

On summer days like this I think of that cliff top and I can see them standing there together in the shade of the trees, looking out over the bay at the grey blue sea, foam kissed waves drifting lazily towards the sand. I know they mostly stand in silence, admiring the view, my father and grandfather occasionally pointing out a bird or a boat and passing the binoculars to each other, pushing their glasses up on their foreheads, their faces wrinkling with squinting concentration.

The third brother passed at the start of this year and at some point I'll be taking his ashes to that cliff top and returning him to his brothers. Three trees, three brothers. It was almost as if nature always know that this was going to be home for them and left a mark so that they could find it.

As the sun sets tonight, I'll be thinking of how the stars always looked so bright at Stoke Beach. How without street lights and civilisation the sky was so clear you could see the milky way and watch the satellites skipping across the curve of the heavens. I'll be thinking of three brothers reunited and enjoying the view.