Friday, 25 July 2014

Using real events and missing home

Using Real Events

I mentioned this in my previous blog so for once I thought I had better follow up. One of the short stories I’m attempting to write at the moment uses a real event as part of its storyline, not exactly a plot device, nor simply background description. It’s an attempt to create some sort of analogy with the transition from youth to teenage years or possibly adulthood. I haven’t really smoothed it all out yet so I can’t admit to it being any more than wishful thinking on my part. For this blog however I’m not going to discuss the story. I’m going to talk about what happened once I decided to look into this event in more detail and the feelings it brought up.
First off, the event I’m referring to is the storm that occurred in the UK and other parts of Europe in October 1987. Therefore it has a historical element too i.e. it’s not a very recent event when relating it to a person’s lifetime, although not historical in the sense I immediately think medieval for some reason. So I think it’s different from using a real life event that say, is set in modern day London and describes getting on the bus. Secondly, I was only 8, about to turn 9 years old, so I cannot claim to be a reliable witness. I was a child who thought and spoke as a child and trying to describe the event as a 34 year old creates problems.
The main problem is that I can hardly remember a thing about it! It’s strange but when I found the original note for this story, a scrap of paper amongst the files, I immediately thought, yes, this is great, I remember this really well, I can easily write about what went on. That turned out to be a huge assumption because actually when all these years later I sat down to start on it, I found that what I thought I remembered proved false.
I should quickly say that I mentioned in the previous blog that the story changed quite dramatically from the idea I had noted down however long ago and that’s true, once I did start on it the story became something far different from its conception and I won’t talk about that today, ahem, you can all wait for the story ;) It’s part of the reason it has taken me so long! I honestly thought it would be a quick 5k words, a straightforward recollection of a memory. Instead it has morphed into something that has really tested me. I am extremely happy about it and very excited by the story so I’m glad it went this way, but dear me, it has been a painful process.
Back to the point. This specific event had now turned into the most important aspect of the story. Not because of the physical event itself, but more because of the impact it has on our characters and what it signifies to them. So all of a sudden I’m panicking a bit because I’m writing about something I have no confidence in. I can’t really remember it properly and where I thought I could blag it before because it was only a small part of the story, I can no longer get away with that. Time to research!
This may seem the most obvious statement in the world to you but when you are writing fiction (listen to me talking as if I know what I’m going on about! I promise you I haven’t forgotten I’m a novice in all this!) and you are writing about things you know most of the work comes in developing the characters. You are either good at describing a bus, as per above, or you’re not. You don’t need to study buses unless you are going for fantastic levels of realism, or you are inferring knowledge that your characters possess i.e. there is a conversation concerning the designers and engineers who built the buses, when certain lines or routes opened, their top speeds, the size of their engines, their braking time, and all that type of stuff. If you are just describing someone getting on the bus, well I have done that a thousand times so I don’t need to research it to that extent. Get some photos or look up the specific bus stop or station you mention, that sort of thing sure, but more than that in most cases won’t be necessary because you are using your skills of description rather than replicating data (I can feel the wrath of your feedback already...)
Let’s cut to it then. What did I do in order to make sure I felt confident describing this event? Well, the first step was Google. Come on, don’t scream at me! Of course I Googled it! First off, I’m in another country with no access to local libraries so what else am I supposed to do? It was a very interesting journey. I learnt through sites such as Wikipedia, the BBC and other news and reporting sites detailed information about the storm itself: the scale, the speeds, the timelines, the financial cost, very sadly the human cost – most reports indicate 22 people died in the storm - so that was a shock to me and suddenly made my somewhat light approach much more serious. It was never going to be a funny story and I was never going to joke about the storm but after reading that I felt a sense of duty not to slack about describing it faithfully. I read about how many trees had fallen, I read about what train lines were closed, what buildings were affected, what utility supplies were affected; I read about the theory on its influence on (what in the UK was named Black Monday) a stockmarket crash in the city, I read about its effect on parts of the country I have absolutely no connection with but by that time I was into it and wanted to know as much as I could. I read about the media response. I read about the meteorological reasons it took place, and so on and so on, you get the idea. I read up on it so much that I got lost in the details. I read one hundred times the amount of information I would ever actually need for the story and if you look at it that way I probably wasted a huge amount of time researching far too much unnecessary info.

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Then I moved onto friends and family. The obvious first hand sources such as my mum! That was a funny call. Mum, do you remember that storm in 1987? Oh yeah, one of the biggest storms in UK recorded history that nearly blew our house down? Yeah that one.
It’s funny because my memory was corrected immediately. Did I do this, did I do that? No, actually you did this and you did that. The total opposite! So straight away some of my assumptions were destroyed and I had to start again in terms of how I wanted to use that intended info.
However, what was fantastic is that I received really, really good information. First hand accounts from people who were adults at the time. Specific info that tallied up to national records but gave a local feel and local sensibility, which is of course exactly what I was after. I’m not writing a school report after all, I want emotions, I want reactions; I want real life.
Then I looked at information regarding the locations I was using. I won’t go into it because as I said, it’s not even finished in draft form yet, but I have two specific places, real places, that I am using and one is inferred so I suppose could be anywhere, but the other is specifically named. So I have a duty to describe it and describe it well. Again, the whole point of using this real place is that it is meant to signify a turning point in their lives and the place itself almost takes on the role of an extra character.
Imagine a place you have been to a thousand times. Imagine somewhere you think you know like the proverbial back of the hand. Imagine somewhere that is such a part of your life it feels as if you see it everyday. Well, that is what I thought of this location. And then I did some research. It wasn’t that I was wrong in what I knew…it was just that what I knew was so little compared to what there was to know!  It was a fantastic time looking at various websites and online reports.  I really enjoyed learning about a place I thought I knew well. And that’s justified I think. Why would any of us, unless we are really into history, research the every day places that are in our lives? That’s part of the fun of writing. I get to look at things differently. That pub you go into every week – do you know its history? That train station you journey into every day – do you know its history? That road you drive up to get home every night – do you know when it was built and why and the reason it has the name it has? Probably not, we can’t spend all our spare time researching info we will never have any reason to use. But when you are writing, even if 99% of the research will be discarded, it is enormous fun to learn and use it for your work, and the best thing of all, is that even if only one tiny gem, one small nugget of gold, comes from your research it will improve your story a million fold. There is nothing better than looking at something and going – yes! That will work, that will really add something to the story…and sometimes even better, you get that yes moment and it takes you into a new direction that you may not have thought of before and it is fantastic and adds  something new to your work. It really is a great feeling. As I say, even if it is just 1% that gets used, and you have spent an entire week reading countless articles that in the end you never use, it still makes you feel better.
So I think I’ll leave it there for now. The importance of research you probably already knew no doubt, but I thought I would add my own slant of researching something you thought you knew personally. For instance if I am writing about the second world war then it is something you already realise you know only generalisations about, you may know about certain key events, certain key figures, certain key locations and so on, but unless you are a scholar in the field there is no shame in admitting you don't know a huge amount of fine detail, statistics, etc. sure it’s part of my life as it is most peoples, my grandparents were involved, I learnt about it at school and so on…but for deeper insights and concrete information you know you have to hit the reference books, no two ways about it. But when I am working on something that I was there for, actually in the middle of, then the need for research is vital because you can be too confident in your own recollection, it's hard to admit that you cannot trust your own memory, after all if you are claiming to be a writer then that's the whole point of your craft isn't it? To make things up from memory, but actually, if you are honest, you need evidence for what you are saying more than you probably realise and you need to learn more about it in more detail than you think because you can be damn sure you don’t know it all, and more than likely got some stuff wrong.
And all that for a short story that will probably be about 15k words and hardly mention anything about the bloody storm! Well, it kept me busy I guess.

P.S: Remember a bit earlier I mentioned I’m abroad so I can’t access local info such as libraries? Well, that is on my to-do list. I’m not publishing anything while I am out here, it will all remain in draft form until I get back. I need to get proper critical feedback on them and that will give me the chance to do a bit of local research so for now I just want to get the bulk of the story completed. I can do a bit of finessing later.

P.P.S: I can’t emphasise enough how much of an amateur I am. I am only trying to explain my feelings towards the process of writing and to share my experiences. I am in now way trying to claim I have expertise in the art of writing! This is my process and my journey. I don’t want people thinking I am trying to give a master class here.

Spain Update

I co-titled the blog missing home because it’s true, the last week to ten days I’ve felt pretty homesick. I think it is for two reasons: the first is that, as I said in my last blog, I’ve gone over the six month away mark. There is something about milestones, I can’t help but focus on them. Days, weeks, months and years take on far too much importance for me when I know they signify nothing really but I haven’t broken the bond with them just yet. So when I thought about being away for six months and the obvious resulting thought that it is therefore six months until I am back and I’ve completed more than half of my time out here, it felt a bit odd and I had the feeling that I could quite easily pack up my bags and go home now.
            Then of course I have this little chiringuito (beach bar) at the end of my road and I had a couple of beers and I wasn’t in so much of a rush to get back, hehe.

Rookie mistake - laptop reflection!!

The other reason is that I am in a small town that for the vast majority of the year is extremely quiet. However, July and August are the busy months as with all summer vacation places and the difference between the last weeks in June and the first week in July is incredible. The beaches now have actual people on them, there are people in the cafes and restaurants, there are people swimming in the sea, on jet skis, playing Frisbee and all that other type of stuff. The reason why this has contributed to my sense of homesickness is that of course the holidaymakers tend to be families or groups of friends. So every day I see large groups of friends hanging around enjoying themselves, or mums and dads taking their kids out and it reminded me of what a good time I have with my friends. I miss them a lot. It’s easy to forget that when it is quiet because there are no reminders, you just get on with life.
I’m going to add another reason and it’s partly to do with the main section of this blog, the short story I told you about. I have got pretty much nowhere with the novel I am working on, I’ve spent the vast majority of my writing time on shorts, but the story is set in London so I have been thinking about the place. Then of course I have been researching London for the shorts and that made me look at a lot of photos of all the places I know so well. Combine the two and I really miss London, as much as I was nearly having a panic attack every time I stepped out of the front door before I left, I still miss it and can’t wait to really crack on with the novel and explore first hand all the locations I want to describe. Believe me, I am not unhappy here, it’s fantastic, but this week has been a bit of a test. I think seeing so much trauma, sadness, pain and suffering in the news these last few weeks has had its effect too. Here I am, in a beautiful sunny town in Spain, with no cares in the world (for now) and there is nothing I can do but watch as innocent men, women and children suffer death and mutilation at the hands of powers they have nothing to do with. I can’t help but feel guilty. It’s terrible. It just seems so incredibly unfair that I’m able to pop out to a bar and make myself feel better by having a couple of beers when the most basic of freedoms and liberties and pleasures are denied to so many. Anyway, that’s enough of that. I try to keep this blog mostly non-personal outside of writing so I’ll stop. I’m still having Spanish language lessons and failing miserably to learn. I’m still getting to the gym at least a couple of times a week. I’m enjoying the July sun. So I’m not quitting just yet. I’ll be seeing the year through and what’s more, even though I'm not writing as much as I should be, I'm realising more and more every day how much improvement there is to make and how much care, effort, research and plain old hard graft is involved in producing work of a decent calibre. 

Take care everyone,


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Monday, 14 July 2014

Progress without exams; no appraisals; no grade progression & a short story taking up too much time

Something came to mind yesterday, as I was wasting time checking and rechecking I had enough beer for the world cup final. Even though I am now six months, more even, out of formal work (I have my own company of course and fully include writing as work! but I just mean a traditional 9-5 role) I have kept up, for the most part, a fairly traditional day routine. I don’t get the train into town anymore but I’m still up early-ish and stick to a standard working day structure. I could have fallen into a variety of different routines, most of which would have been disastrous for any useful productivity…but a lot of fun…but I haven’t and the thing that struck me was that although my day schedule is the same, the way I plan my year is entirely different from before.
I spent the last nine years working in an educational environment, specifically an art and design university. It meant working to a very structured (no laughing please) year plan. What’s more I worked in the department that was responsible for managing the estates use of space and course and resource timetabling (again, no laughing please).
            I’m not going to go into the role in detail here, that is behind me now and I’ve no desire to think about it but the reason I tell you is that the nature of my job instilled in me (or did I already have it which is why I was in that job) a very disciplined idea of structuring time. I would know dozens of different term dates, exam dates, building opening times, tutor teaching days, open days, student exhibition dates (install, opening and takedown), I would know individual course timetables, workshop and resource opening times, travelling times between sites, I would know dozens of meeting calendars, project board meetings, university holiday dates, library opening times, gallery opening times and exhibition dates, I would know when staff took their holiday, what resources were used and when by pretty much everyone…the point is, my diary used to be crammed full of dates that I needed to know in order to plan properly. Most of those would be one or two years in advance, some three or four.
            As of today, the only dates I have in my diary are my friends and families birthdays and alas now the world cup is finished not even the football schedule! My to-do list never encroaches into the week after the one I’m in.
            Okay, so I can on one hand gloat and say how free I am and how all of that pressure and complex planning has disappeared from my life but the truth is that I enjoyed it and what’s more, it was important to my progression.
            What has this got to do with writing I hear your tired brain crying. Well, I didn’t mention it above but there is another series of events that would be in the diary and this will be recognized by anyone who has worked in an organization that has even the most limited of management structures. The annual appraisal.
            I’ll talk another time about how I structure my day now that I am in charge of my own timetable, for today I’m going to stick to the disappearance in my life of that yearly milestone where you tell your boss how fantastic you have been and that you deserve a huge pay rise and a massive expenses account…shortly followed by walking out the door having accepted a two year pay freeze and being transferred to head office to squeeze into an overcrowded open plan office next to the people you have only ever emailed and never met in person but just know you are going to hate.

Allow me one brief moment of gloating…this was my office today
Whether it is called Year Review, Personal Appraisal, Development Review, Year End Interview or whatever, there are a million names for it, it is when you sit down with your manager and discuss how the year has gone. You may be in an organization that has a fifty page document full of checklists and ‘Your Comments’ sections and so on, or you may be in a place that simply goes to the local pub for a sit down chat. You may be in a place where the appraisal is aligned to your salary, a good year you get a raise, a bad year and you don’t. You may be in a place that sets you lots of targets so that you must go on three training courses, two research trips and collect at least ten chocolate eggs at the company Easter egg hunt in order to qualify for the recommended for a raise signature.
          I don’t know what you think of them, I’m sure a large proportion hates them and think they are condescending wastes of time. I’m sure there are those who really value the opportunity to sit down with your boss and speak openly and honestly. In my case, I actually didn’t mind them. I saw value in having the opportunity to speak my mind, ask for things (I was one of those annoying people who actually wanted to go on training courses) and discuss the ideas I had for the future.
The point is I don’t have them anymore.  So how do I gauge my progress now!

  • How do I know I am doing good job if I don’t get a pat on the back from a boss? How do I know I am being successful if I don’t get a raise?
  • How do I know I am doing the right thing if no one is there to tell me I am?
  • How do I know what skills I need to develop?
  • How do I know if I am learning all the right things?
  • How do I know…well…anything, if I don’t have someone more important than me and who is paid more than me and is older than me telling me what to do?

Well being self employed certainly puts this into perspective and for the sake of this blog I’m going to call writing being self employed, let’s just put all the possible ways you work under this for now.
            Also, sorry to sound so blasé but let’s also forget about the company accounts and self assessment stuff (I’m kneeling and doffing my cap to the HMRC as I type), of course that is vitally important but I’ll blog about that another time, business and financial matters.
            What I am talking about here is suddenly being on your own with no one to direct you. I have to set my own targets and that is not as easy as it sounds. There are so many wonderful people that offer free advice on their websites and blogs about how to ‘be a writer’ and it covers everything you can possibly think of yet it is still just you, sitting in front of your computer/laptop/pad of paper/typewriter (I still like to think) that has to push themselves to make that advice a reality. There are no longer organizational parameters you have to work to and as liberating as it is, there are reasons why successful companies have them.
            I have drafted a few versions of a business plan and there is a lot I am looking forward to achieving yet the core business of writing is much harder to put into a diary than I ever expected. I know I am sort of on holiday too so that isn’t the best state of mind to start cracking the whip but I have no doubts at all that I need to take writing more seriously than I have ever taken anything in my life. I am going to have to take all of the skills I have developed in my working life and apply them to create a structured and demanding schedule. I cannot afford to flit from day to day, week to week and month to month without any sort of plan or target. That is the easiest way to suddenly say hello to birthdays I never saw coming. I will turn thirty five years of age this November, if I am blowing out the candles on my fortieth without any significant progress made then I will only have myself to blame and it will be because I never set myself targets and treated writing like a business. It is no good saying, ‘the novel is coming along’ or ‘I am working on new ideas’…and so on.
            I need a formal structure and that includes being disciplined with my writing time. I need to know exact dates when I am filming interviews for my YouTube channel. I need to know exact dates and times of everything! I am not in an organization where this is all provided anymore. I can’t rely on anyone else. There are no markers and milestones other than what I set so I had better bloody well get on with setting them as otherwise years will disappear and I will still be talking about how great it is to have freedom and be my own boss yet never finish a bloody story or earn a bloody penny!
            I have talked enough for now, this was just a general feeling I wanted to share with you of comprehending the impact of being disjointed from the workplace and some of the more formal structures that are no longer there for me to use. What I will do is come back to this subject next year, when I am back in the UK and working full time on writing (man, that sounds so fantastic on one hand, yet I’m going to miss this weather and lifestyle! It’s going to be damn tough!) and share with you my timetable, my week, month and year planner, my objectives, my aims, my targets and see what you think. After all, I want to be a writer yes, but I also want my business to succeed, I also want to improve as a businessman and grow the company so it will be interesting to hear your thoughts on that. So please stay in touch with me on this one.

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Spanish Update

Learning Spanish is still taking its toll out on me. It’s a slow process no denying that. I have accepted now it will be many years before I get to a basic conversational level. Talking in stuttered three or four word present tense rhetorical questions is one thing. Having a natter as we say in the UK is another. It’s great though, having such a big task ahead of you and thinking…one day…
I won’t mention names for the sake of privacy but I was very kindly invited to a birthday party this week. I went along only knowing one person and I was seated in between a dozen people all heartily debating the world cup and so on. That’s when you realise how far away you are because I struggled to understand a bloomin’ word. I could get snippets here and there but of course once I had digested a few words the conversation had moved on and I had not an idea how to connect the words into sentences and understand the gist of what the overall meaning was. However, it was a fantastic time, great food and great company and every time you are in a situation like that I am sure you learn more than you realise at the time.
I am still in awe of people who have mastered two or more languages. Just the thought of trying to write in another language as well as I know English seems impossible to me right now. Some very famous writers achieved their best work writing in their second tongue, wow, simply wow.

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Writing Update

I’ve spent a long time, at least two weeks, working on a short story and it has been a very frustrating process. You see it started off as a very short piece connected to a real event in my life, the storm in the UK (and elsewhere) in 1987. However, the reason it has been frustrating is that the original concept I had has now changed and turned into something entirely different. This is frustrating not because I don’t like what has happened, I’m very happy about that, it’s because I haven’t done any writing!
That’s what happens sometimes and you can’t get too upset about it. Par for the course as they say, ideas change and develop, that’s what it is all about however the pain is that it feels like two weeks wasted because hardly any words have been put down on paper, when you look back at so much time spent on something yet no actual physical work to show for it, it can be a bit depressing. Deep down however you know it’s for the best. It has been a very valuable process and I’ve learnt a lot from it. Developing an idea can be exhausting and more than a bit masochistic, constantly beating yourself up over and over to get something right…and knowing each time that it is still not right! Yes, a bit further in the right direction but…
It also shows that you are taking it seriously, because to take that extra time and that extra care shows you are dedicated. I know I won’t use a fraction of the research I have undertaken, I won’t use hardly any of the character profiles I have worked on, I won’t use probably 70% of the work I have done over these last two weeks, but I’m okay with that. I know that the story will be better because of it.
The biggest disappointment is knowing that in your head an idea is getting better and better and really developing into something you think is great but knowing you’re not good enough to express the idea. You know you won’t quite do it justice. Yet again, that is okay, you have to live with that, you have to believe that one day you will get better and that in the long run these disappointments were all building towards something. So it does in one sense feel like a total waste of time because all of that work won’t translate into a product that truly represents the intention.  Yet I have to do it in order to get better  - there is no shortcut – THAT is why it is a frustrating process.
There is one further reason why this particular story has been hard work. It is because it has a real life event in it. It has been fascinating for me to research into something I barely remember (I was 8 or 9 years old when the storm occurred) but do have concrete specific memories for certain parts. To talk to people who were there, to read about the consequences I can only understand now as an adult and so on. I know I keep saying this but I think this warrants another blog, I’ll talk about this again soon. 

Before I go: Congratulations Germany!

© Getty Images

Take care everyone,


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