Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Writing and the Forth Bridge

My novel course with Curtis Brown has finished and I’ve begun to edit my manuscript. It’s a very absorbing process and has demanded much concentration. My main focus has been on the opening act of the novel. When I began to write the story, I was embarking on a journey towards an ending that I hadn’t yet imagined. Reaching the end of the novel gave me two things. Firstly, the sense of accomplishment of actually getting there. And secondly, the realization that I needed to go back to the beginning and revise it. This suggests that novel writing is similar to painting the Forth Bridge.

However, it turns out to be a bit more difficult than just going back to the start and repainting the bridge. The beginning that you wrote all those weeks before, may not now be the best place to actually begin the story from. So I reread the whole manuscript and made notes about what parts worked well and what parts worked less well. And after a lot of debate with myself, I realized that my story really started at chapter five.  So I rewrote that as chapter one. Then I had to rework the following chapters to include information necessary for the plot that had been in the previous chapters one to four.

The rereading also showed me that I needed to extend and deepen several of the characters. I made detailed notes about their motivations and desires. This was very helpful as it also led me to some new plot ideas. The manuscript was also too long. The advice from Curtis Brown was to cut a sub-plot and a minor character. I did this, which also involved a good bit of rewriting of the first act of the novel.

Now I’m editing the second act. The course called this, using a cake-making analogy, the great soggy middle. This is where the jeopardy for your main characters tends to diminish and readers may lose interest. But my second act seems to be in somewhat better shape than my first. The rewriting I’ve been doing on this so far has mainly been pruning unnecessary scenes and revising the tone of those that I’m keeping. But, I shall be doing some new writing here too as another of my fresh plot ideas is soon to be introduced.

Overall, I’m repairing the most obvious defects in the first draft of the novel. The result should be an improved second draft that works pretty well. I hope to achieve this by Christmas, then have a break and come back to it in the New Year with fresh eyes. Then I will reread it from start to finish and hopefully create a third draft that is in good enough shape to send out to an agent. In the end, this makes the rewriting process much more like rebuilding the Forth Bridge than repainting it.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Helicopter Money

The big excitement in our house this week is the arrival of my £100 pre-paid Mastercard. I’ve been given this by the Northern Ireland administration. It isn’t a prize, but a gift. And all residents over 18 are receiving it. The card can be used in any NI shop. But the money must be spent by 14 December. T is looking at my card enviously. She applied for her card a week or so before I did, but hers still hasn’t arrived. Now I have to decide what to do with the money. Have you spent your helicopter money yet? If so, what on?

It’s not an easy decision. There are so many options. A slap up meal in a posh restaurant? Or basic foodstuffs? Or something for the house? Or something from my local bike shop? Or do I donate it to charity? To help my decision making, some shops will be happy to exchange it for a store-card with a much longer expiry date and even 10% or 20% on top. There are some exclusions: you can’t exchange the card for cash, or spend it in a bookies, or on your mortgage, or for paying a fine, or on car tax and insurance.

There is a long history of giving money direct to individuals to stimulate the economy. This is often done in developing countries, especially those with fragile systems of administration. The small amounts of money that are given directly to the poor get spent in local markets and this has a multiplier effect. I was on the Board of Concern Worldwide for many years and oversaw a number of these schemes. They were a very effective way of helping the poorest of the poor.

The term ‘helicopter money’ was coined by Milton Friedman (Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist), as if the money was being thrown out of a helicopter to the citizens below. But in some war torn states, this is how it might actually be done. I recall that during the Iraq war, the Americans were paying certain tribes not to fight against them. Shades of Catch 22.

I’m still pondering what to spend my helicopter money on. For a treat, or on necessities? Maybe this year, for once, I might be buying my Christmas presents early. But I’d better make my mind up soon. Before T gets her hands on it.


Sunday, 31 October 2021

Curtis Brown

During lockdown, I wrote the first draft of a novel. Now I’m doing an online course called ‘Edit and Pitch your Novel’. The course is run by Curtis Brown, a large and well respected London agency founded in 1899. They have represented Margaret Atwood, Daphne du Maurier, John le Carre and AA Milne, amongst many others. The course is for writers who already have the first draft of a novel. And the purpose is to help a writer improve their first draft into something that is publishable and to guide them through the process of pitching their novel to an agent. The reason being, that most publishers of novels do not accept manuscripts direct from writers, they have to be presented by an agent.

The first half of the course taught you how to analyse your first draft like an editor. We were shown how to go through our manuscripts scene by scene: examining how well a scene moved the story on, whether it needed revising, repositioning or cutting. This has been hard work and has exposed many flaws in my first draft. But the reassuring message we were given is that all first drafts are flawed and that good novels are always made in the rewrite.

The second part of the course is about how to write a pitch letter to an agent and how to write a synopsis (a one page summary of your novel). I’ve found both of these difficult to do. First off, you have to find an agent who is open to the type of novel you have written. The letter needs to summarise the novel in a couple of sentences and explain where your novel fits in relation to the books that are already published in the genre or market that you are writing for. The synopsis has been even harder. You have to distill a book of 100,000 words or so into just one page.

The course has been very intensive too, hence my relative absence from social media. Each week we have been given several writing tasks to complete. And you must then post your work in an online forum, where it receives comments. As the course was entirely online, there were participants from Europe, the UK and the USA. Most of them had a good publishing record. So the comments given and received have been mostly very thoughtful and helpful.

I’d highly recommend this course and Curtis Brown, who have a range of other courses for writers. Not only has the course been very professional, but I’ve learned a great deal in a short time. I can now see that I’m going to be rewriting parts of my novel for a while yet. But I’m hoping to get to a place where I feel it is ready to send out to an agent sometime early next year. The most recent part of the course was a series of well-known agents explaining what they were looking for. They cautioned us to keep on editing until we were absolutely sure that the novel was polished enough to send out to an agent. It’s going to be a long winter!

Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Clare Retreat

For the past three weeks we have been hiding out in a cottage by the ocean in Co Clare. We went there for a good break and chose a fairly remote location. Although the cottage had good internet connections (and a large satellite TV) we decided not to do any social media whilst we were away. Instead we walked the short way to the ocean and observed its rhythms and moods. From our house we could hear the sound of the waves and smell the salty air. I found myself remembering ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield, especially the second stanza, which I recall Ciaran Carson declaiming at the Queen’s Writers’ Group.

Of course I brought my bike with me. The main roads of West Clare are few and rather narrow, so I spent most of the time cycling the back roads and byways. There is a big network of these but the surfaces can be a bit rough in places. Most of West Clare is a peninsula with the broad Shannon estuary on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. The climate is very mild and the hedgerows and ditches are full of plants that you don’t often see around here, like purple loosestrife and fuchsia. The best ride was along the magnificent cliff road from Kilkee to Loop Head and back along the Shannon estuary. Kilkee was a Victorian resort visited by Charlotte Bronte and Alfred Tennyson and the cliffs are similar to the Cliffs of Moher.

I also brought a print-out the first draft of my novel. Reading through it carefully for the first time, I noticed lots of flaws but plenty of good things too. The main problem I saw was that the opening was rather ponderous as it contained plenty of scene setting and backstory (the novel is set in 1961 and also refers to 1940). The novel didn’t seem to really get going until about chapter five. I think this was a result of how I wrote the first draft. I embarked on the story with just two characters and a vague idea of where it was all going. So I decided that the novel had to start with what had been chapter five and began my rewrite. By the end of the holiday, I’d rewritten ten chapters. T had brought books to read and worked on journaling and watercolouring.

On other days we went to Ennistymon and visited the Salmon Bookshop, where my new collection is now stocked, and to Quilty, which has a seaweed factory that exports all around the world. At low tide several fellas could be seen collecting sugar kelp from the beach beside our house. We went to Doonbeg and ate in the magnificent Morrisseys restaurant. They have a fish wholesaling business so the fish are fresh from the boats. They also have a fish shop that is open a couple of days a week, where we bought turbot, brill and mackerel to cook at home. We even swam a little in the sea, but it was certainly cool. The one place we avoided was the Donald Trump Golf Links and Resort. We did walk along Doughmore Strand and glimpsed the place beyond the dunes, but it was off-limits to non-residents.

All in all, we had a great time and the weather was mostly good. One thing that did stick out was the very high level of compliance with Covid regulations, which are much tougher than up here. I didn’t see anyone in a shop without a mask on. And you don’t gain entry to a pub, restaurant and cafĂ© without being able to prove that you have a double vaccination. No wonder that vaccination rates are higher and infection rates are lower there. And when we got back, Minnie and Chip (who had been looked after by neighbours) were waiting for us excitedly. Perhaps they knew we had fish.

Friday, 27 August 2021

The Daring Young Chip

Chip has continued to grow and thrive. He has even started to eat solid food. When not sleeping, he spends plenty of time play-fighting with Minnie. The two cats chase madly around the back yard and end up tumbling together, biting and clawing each other. It’s very rough play, but they enjoy it. It also seems to signify a subtle change in their relationship, as Minnie has now become more like a big sister than his protective mother. This does have its dangers.

Chip tries to follow Minnie wherever she goes. Our back yard has a four foot rear wall. Minnie can leap from the back garden to the top of the wall in one bound. Chip was stuck at the bottom, looking longingly upward. But later on we saw him following her along the parapet. We had no idea of how he got up there. The next day we waited and watched. Minnie jumped to the top of the wall. Chip bobbed his head for a while, as if sizing up the wall. He gathered himself and leapt at the pebble-dashed wall. We thought he would fall, but he managed to cling to the vertical face about halfway up. He was hanging onto the pebbled surface with his claws. Then he began to climb. He pushed one paw above his head, grasped the wall with his claw and pulled himself up. In a series of adept rock-climbing moves he reached the parapet, then ran across to the waiting Minnie. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t actually seen it.

But getting down from the top of the four-foot wall was a stiffer challenge. Minnie leapt down without any difficulty. She sat in the garden below and called to Chip to follow her. Chip stood on the parapet and looked down, bobbing his head. Minnie called him. But he turned back from the edge and wailed. We thought we should go and lift him down. Then Chip walked gingerly along the parapet, glancing over the edge from time to time. Near to the far end of the wall, he stopped and peered down. Minnie called him again. Chip launched himself from the top of the wall. He flew through the air like a ginger missile and hit the flagstones with a sickening thud. Minnie ran over to him. We did too. Chip got up, shook himself and bounced away.

It was an incredible leap for a small kitten. Minnie is four times the size of Chip. The equivalent leap for her would be from the apex of the roof of a bungalow. Minnie could probably do this if she really had to. But in order to keep up with her, young Chip is making this huge leap several times a day. Frankly, we are concerned that he might fracture a limb. So we have now put a large upturned cardboard box on the flagstones where he leapt down yesterday. We hope that Chip will use it to break his headlong dive.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Chipster

May I introduce you to Chip, son of Minnie and the late Ginger Dog, who was born in our back yard. At one week old his eyes and ears opened. At two weeks he began to crawl. And at three weeks he began to walk. At first Chip could only stagger on shaky little legs. But with Minnie’s encouragement, he became stronger and steadier on his feet. We have been completely fascinated.

Chip was so tiny when he was born. Minnie could carry him easily in her mouth. For the first week he and Minnie nested behind the bins in our back yard. Chip was either sucking milk or sleeping. Minnie kept going by eating enormous amounts of food and drinking loads of the lactose-free milk we gave her. She has six nipples, but with only one kitten in the litter, Chip had no competition for feeds.

After a couple of evening visits from Ginger Dog’s brother, who we managed to scare away, Minnie became quite anxious and started hiding Chip away from view. Each morning we had to search for him, to make sure that he was still alive. Her favourite hiding places for Chip were between two large flowerpots and behind the central heating boiler. We then encouraged her to nest in a cardboard box in the garden shed, which she did.  The shed was more secure because it smelt of humans and no feral cat would be likely to venture in there. This worked well and visits to our back yard from ‘the brother’ became fewer and further between.

When Chip began to walk, Minnie took him out into the back yard. She sat about six feet away and called him. He sat perplexed. She called him again. He bobbed his head at the expanse of gravel and weeds he would have to negotiate to get to her.  Chip opened his mouth and wailed. She called him again. He just sat there and continued to wail. Minnie remained unmoved. After a very long period of contemplation, Chip got to his feet. He staggered a few steps and then fell. He lay amongst the weeds and wailed. Minnie called him again. He slowly got up and headed towards her, before falling again. After a couple more falls, he finally reached her. Minnie bent down and licked his ginger head and back. Then Chip got his reward, a feed of milk.

This tough love continued for a day or two, until he was more secure on his feet. In spite of it all, or perhaps because of it all, Chip has more than doubled in size. He could well become a bruiser.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Cat Genealogy

Two days before our ginger cat died, another feral cat appeared in our back garden. He was half-ginger and half-tabby, small and fairly thin. We thought he could well be the son of our cat and had come to take over his territory. So we chased him away. But he returned the next day, whilst our sickly cat was in the back garden. Much to our surprise, no fight took place. The two cats tolerated each other well. We christened the new cat Mini Dog. The day after our ginger cat died, Mini Dog reappeared and T began to feed him. He was always hungry and ate enormous amounts of food. Over the ensuing weeks he put on a good bit of weight. Then he disappeared, only to return with a tiny ginger kitten in his mouth. So Mini was in fact Minnie.

She made a nest behind the bins in the back yard and nursed the kitten. It was tiny and helpless, being blind and with its ears fully closed. We gave Minnie plenty of food and milk. The kitten lay still and silent in the grass whilst she was away. She bolted her food down and went back to feeding the kitten. We tried to get her to make a nest in a cardboard box in the shed, but she felt more comfortable behind the bins. We also did a search of the garden for the other kittens, but found none. We have since learnt that young cat mothers may only have one or two kittens the first time. Minnie was certainly young, not much more than a kitten herself.

We christened the ginger kitten Chip, as in ‘chip off the old block’. We reckoned that our ginger cat was either his grandfather or his father; or possibly both (as morality is not a major concern of feral cats). And this theory was supported that very evening, for the only other ginger tomcat in the area suddenly appeared in the back garden and challenged Minnie. This ginger tom was the brother of our cat and had never come here whilst he was alive. We feared that the brother might want to kill Chip as he wasn’t his offspring. So we scared him away and kept watch. Luckily the nest was underneath a motion-sensitive security light above the bedroom window, so we could get some warning. We are now on high alert at night, T especially, in our official capacity as the minders of Minnie and Chip.