June, 2017

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Why I run

I found myself wondering why it is that – even if I’m forced to take a break because of illness or house renovations or holidays – I seem to return to running again and again. Here’s what I came up with.

Everything comes out during a run. If I’m preoccupied with or worried about something, there it will be, right beside me. And by the end of the run, it’s dealt with. Maybe still there, but I know what I’m going to do about it – or have recognised that I can’t do anything about it. I think it’s call de-stressing. It doesn’t mean the same thing won’t crop up again the next time I’m out there again, because life isn’t as simple as that, is it? But everything looks better after the perspective of a run.

It can be pure ideas time. I could tell you the exact spots along the canal where specific ideas have come to me that have ended up in a scene or a snippet of dialogue. I’ve even worked out the basic plot and character outline for a novel during one 14 mile run. Nowadays if I’m struggling with a scene that doesn’t work, I just throw my sandals on and go for a run. By the time I get back, it’s sorted. Walking works as well, but running seems to get me there faster (in both senses of the word).

Sometimes, it’s just an excuse for a break. There are times when I forget to eat lunch (and then wonder why I’m feeling so hungry at four). If I know I’m going for a run, I also know I’ll get out of the house. And eat. And when this is your reading pile for the week, you really need a break sometimes:

Some runs are simply beautiful. Others are just a hard slog, but I forget about them soon enough. Yesterday, I had to drop Abbi off at school for a class trip so I decided to do a 16 mile run along the canal while I was there. Normally I don’t get beyond Ratho (seven miles out), and there are several miles of stillness and rarely a sign of life along the stretch leading up that part of town, but this time I kept going and it was like being in a different country. Walled gardens, low-hanging trees, a winding towpath and the peaceful water of the canal all the way. Years ago I had to do a ridiculously early run through Berlin before catching a flight, and I can still remember running through the deserted streets as the sun rose, then running under the Brandenburg Gate with not a single tourist in sight. But probably my best experience was running along the main road near our house and seeing a deer on the other side of the fence, running along beside me for a few seconds. Some runs you might even describe as spiritual.

The other reason is far less lofty. You can measure it. And your performance is down to you. Of course there are many others who help you (even us rank amateurs) but at the end of the day, when you go out there for a run, and especially for a race, it’s down to you. Sometimes ‘performance’ really doesn’t matter. I can just run for the fun of it (another reason I run!). If I’m not training for a race, I can forget splits and times quite happily. But if it’s full-on training for a race, it’s both a physical and a mental challenge. And that marathon – it’s not 26 miles. It’s not even 26.2 miles. It’s 24 miles plus about 10 more tagged on the end they didn’t tell you about. Every time I think to myself, get to 24 miles then kick hard. It works every time. Until I get to mile 24 and I think, how about I just keep going and get over the finish line without being sick, collapsing or deciding this was a terrible idea and even if I walk the rest of the way, I won’t be last and what does it really matter anyway? So I keep going and it really does feel like another ten miles later and, no matter what my watch says, it feels like I’m barely moving forward, but then the finish line comes and it was all worth it again. I won’t have been first, and I won’t have been last, so beyond that, all that matters is whether I did my best on the day.

You didn’t think running was about getting fit, did you?

End of an Era

Summers were hotter and longer, the music was better and politicians were all great. That’s my childhood dealt with, then. Maybe I still think the music was better.

Helmut Kohl was definitely my Chancellor of Germany, in the same way Tom Baker was my Doctor. Kohl was Chancellor from when I was eleven through my first (of many) trips to Germany and on to just a couple of years before Abbi was born. That was a crazy proportion of my life at that point. But when he died this week, I realised that I really couldn’t tell you much about him. Mind you, I also can’t remember a single Doctor Who episode Tom Baker was in, only the hair and scarves. It seems wrong to say I have memories of either of them, it feels more like only impressions and perhaps, like the weather and the music, those impressions are unjustifiably rosy.

Kohl was always just there, somehow. Physically imposing, he seemed to embody the strength and might of what was then still West Germany. When the East German leader, Erich Honecker, visited Kohl, the picture of this colossus of Western democracy standing beside the diminutive representative of the Eastern bloc seemed more than a little symbolic. But really, no more than another impression.

I remembered Kohl for the two big events most of us associate him with. German re-unification and the introduction of the Euro. Both examples of his politics trumping good economics in the way both were brought into being.

And that’s about it. I couldn’t tell you a single domestic German policy or change he brought in. Not one. And yet I find myself with a lingering affection for a man who seems to have had no contact with either of his sons for years, leaving behind him a divided family and equally divisive legacy which seems to reach into the present via his once protege Angela Merkel.

Last year, we went to a play about Willy Brandt’s life, his political and personal demons and the scandal of one of his advisors turning out to have been an East German spy. I went in knowing more about Brandt than about Kohl (Brandt was from an era just far enough in the past to have come up at university) but the play brought out so much of the torment of the man that could be hidden behind the persona of the politician. I wonder if, one day, we will see a play based on Kohl’s life. Until then, there are obituaries aplenty to keep us going.

However irrational it is, when Kohl died, it felt like losing a part of my past. I’m not going to risk watching old episodes of Doctor Who, that’s for sure. At least the music is still around.

Onwards and upwards

I don’t walk any more. Instead, I stroll, pace, stride, march, shuffle or stagger. There are over a hundred different ways to walk in English.

And then there’s looking. Or is it gazing, glancing, ogling or staring? Just not all at the same time.

And do not get me started on contractions. Just don’t.

Yes, I’ve been doing even more editing. Much more detailed this time. Part of the trick seems to be to visualise the scene and exactly what is happening. How exactly is that man moving, and how can I describe it in one word, giving something of the action and of what’s going on in his head at the same time? This, I think, is part of the reason Stephen King says writing is telepathy. I have a picture in my head and I want to get it into yours. Or at least the elements that matter for the story, the rest is down to your own imagination.

And it’s done for now. It’s taken up to 13 hours a day to go through the whole book again in a week and a half after finishing the first major edit, including reading it out loud over and over again to find the parts that just don’t flow. A lot of them weren’t necessary and fell along the wayside, others just needed rewritten, a few only required a word to move position.

Doesn’t look like much, does it? Wait till you read the rest of it…

In numbers, it’s now almost 60,000 words shorter than the first draft. In paperback book terms, that’s somewhere around 200 pages less. Yup, that’s a lot. I still think you’re getting a lot of bang for your eventual buck, though, as it’s still almost 600 pages, but they’re now faster, crisper pages. Or at least I think they are. I’ll find out soon enough, because today I fired the book off to an editor for another possible hatchet job. And now I can forget about it for a while while it’s someone else’s problem. Which is a good thing because my brain has had enough for now. It needs a chance of scene. That means three things.

First, clear everything away. All those bits of paper, random notes, ideas for scenes, snippets of conversations between characters, random phrases that came to me in the car that one of the girls scribbled down for me, and the large pile that is the previous printed draft.

Second, read a James Patterson book because all I want right now is something enjoyable to read. I don’t care if he goes around killing off all his characters, it will be brilliantly written.

And third, get stuck into Ukrainian history. Not the nice parts, of course, but the era where I think there’s another story that hasn’t been told. I have a stack of books to get through and, unlike last time, I think I have a better idea of what I’m looking for. I need the parts that can make a story come alive, feel real, and do the historical reality justice. The academic parts I can happily leave to one side. The good news is that I have the basic storyline, most of the characters, and absolutely no idea of how it ends. Or what exactly happens along the way. So this will be fun. And maybe I’ll even get to write something at some point, rather than just cut chunks out. Until it becomes time to do that all over again.