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What’s in a year?

Well, this is it then. The last day of my sabbatical. Hard to believe. Which means it will soon be time to go back to the real world of finding time to read, write and run alongside a full time job and two dance daughters (we have a plan – it involves a complicated set of algorithms for who takes who where and when – and yes, I do know it’s ‘whom’ and I don’t care).

Was it what I expected? Not really, but then I wasn’t expecting it to be what I was expecting because since leaving university I haven’t known anything other than being in an office working environment and that being how I spend most of my productive (honestly) waking hours.

And guess what? As well as paying you (yay!), employment gives you an endless stream of social interaction, opportunities to learn and challenge yourself, and maybe even a drinks machine. It’s not a bad deal, really. Of course, not all of the social interactions are positive ones and not all of the challenges are ones you might have chosen. And sometimes the drinks machine breaks down. Such is life.

Focusing for a change on writing was a fascinating experience. Here’s a little of what I learned:

  • I wrote the book I wanted to. No question about it. Super happy about that. Now I’m focusing on turning it into a book that can be published. I think I’m glad overall that I did it that way. It feels a bit like this – remember the book you read that they turned into a film? It’s probably got the same basic story and characters, but it’s a bit different. Not all of the scenes made it into the film, which might have meant part of the story weren’t as they were in the book. Maybe you preferred part of the book, maybe the film brought out something that the book didn’t. Currently, I’m taking the longer, more complex version of the story and turning it into the simpler one. Some people fall by the wayside (ready for resurrection at another time and in a different story, perhaps), many scenes you will never know about, others are appearing that weren’t there before. I have the advantage that only a few people know what the original, detailed, story was so only they can tell me they hate what I’ve done with their favourite character or scene.
  • I can be happy spending most of my time with the people that you might say are made up characters and I would call Natalie, Theo and Alex. I know them better than I know most other people. They also only annoy each other and not me, and for that, I am very grateful.
  • There was a lot of trial and error, and still is. I suppose that’s called learning. But if there’s one thing I’m now better at, it’s knowing how far to go before pulling back. To begin with, I just wrote a scene because I liked something about it. It might have been 20+ pages on that one scene. It might then eventually get whittled down to one paragraph. Or end up being cut completely when I realised it didn’t go anywhere, fit in with any of the other scenes I’d written, or was just yet another book I was effectively starting from scratch with no idea of where it was headed. Doing that can be fun for a while, but it’s not exactly efficient if you want to finish a book. As writing practice, it’s just fine. Instead, I now do two things, which I think count as having developed a process that seems to work (for me):
      1. I don’t now allow myself to start writing properly until I have figured out how I get the story from the beginning to end. Not every detail, but the sequence of scenes. That’s not to say it won’t change later (because it does, all the time) but it means I know that if I start writing the first scene, it will end up somewhere. There are still times when I realise – wait, that doesn’t work in that order, or it’s moving too fast or too slow, or they wouldn’t do that. But that’s then a matter of sorting something in the middle rather than going off on some tangent, because I still know where I’m going to get back to.
      2. Instead of writing a 20 page scene that I then decide I can’t use/doesn’t work, I might write a paragraph and then stop if it’s just not going to work. Sometimes it’s a sentence that I don’t like. Sometimes I’ll start writing in the middle of the scene and then figure out how to wind back. Or just keep it starting in the middle of something. It’s a lot, lot more efficient. Better to stop something that doesn’t work as soon as possible and have another go. It might take me several attempts to find what I think works, but I think I’ve developed a better sense of when I’m barking up the wrong tree and need to pull something else out of my writing toolbox. Like not using mixed metaphors, for example.
  • Some days you need to sit down and just write – you can edit it later. Other times the answer is to get away from the desk and let your subconscious work for a while instead. The trick is to know which to do when. Still working on that one.
  • It needs a lot of discipline. Not only to get something down day after day, but to edit, change, remove and then do it all again. Which means also that…
  • You have to love it (despite everything). It’s not like anyone’s paying you to do it. I don’t think I had any days when I was working for more than 16 hours, but there were more very long days than I think I’ve ever spent doing anything else. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep because something in the book needed to be sorted. I wasn’t going to get anything else until I had dealt with that so I just bashed through the problem until I could at least see a potential way through it.
  • It’s emotional. Ask my family.
  • It’s also fun. Sometimes. Actually, quite a lot of the time.
  • You learn more about yourself than you might have wanted to.
  • When it comes to reading, a Kindle is generally the answer. Kindle for fiction, physical books for non-fiction. And I will sometimes buy a hard copy of the novels I’ve really liked reading on the Kindle.
  • For everything else, chocolate and tea are the solution. If nothing else, it means I have eaten something (I can forget) and have to take a break to fill up the kettle.

Along the way, we lived in the city centre for four months, missing the only winter with virtually no snow out here in the last 15 years, had the house redone (hello, little office!), fell in love with New York and got to survive on my cooking for a year (which had phases of being recipes from whichever country my current scenes were set in). I was stuck in bed for more weeks than I’d like to remember while the NHS sorted me out and discovered only afterwards that I had somehow plotted the entire novel in that time. I read more than a few books, some of which were worth the investment of time, and still have even more that I have yet to get to or through. And I cycled more on my Brompton than on any other bike in over a decade and discovered parts of Edinburgh during long runs that I didn’t even know existed. And, for a few weeks, I started work on the next novel, with some learning of Ukrainian thrown in along the way. But that’s literally a story for another year.

As for returning to work? The girls just want the drinks machine back, really.

Inspiration from childhood

Yesterday was one of those rare days when my training plan called for a long run and I just didn’t feel like it. It had been a hard training week and the last thing I wanted to do was a 16-miler. But I got my sandals on anyway and did it and was glad I did. I think it showed that the training is working, and this week is a lighter week to allow my body to recover before we go into the next phase of the training. One of the reasons I normally love the weekly long run is that it gives me time away from everything when I can just think. Yesterday was particularly good for that because my watch decided to stop finding any satellites after mile 6 so after a brief tantrum I had to gauge my pace by how I was feeling for the rest of the time. That meant no checking of pace or distance for quite a long time.

I found myself thinking about the things I used to do as a child when there seemed to be unlimited time and life was much simpler. My recollection is of reading a lot of books, but the one time that sticks in my mind was when I was determined to read Dick Turpin all the way through before getting out of bed one morning (the book might have changed since but not my idea of a perfect morning!). I remember being thwarted in my attempt at a personal record by being made to get up, but I like to think I’ve got over that experience by now.

I also remember the day I received my first camera. Well, I think I remember it anyway, who knows how much is factually accurate after all these years? I received it as a Christmas present, it was a simple 35mm camera with a fixed lens and I took it everywhere with me, including on several tours of different parts of Germany, burning through film like there was no tomorrow. The approach we took on those tours was not always the most creative, but very practical. We looked at the photos on the postcards from wherever we were, worked out where the photo had been taken from, and went there. In the case of Heidelberg, that required crossing the river and walking up a long hill. But we got a good photo at the end of it. That camera lasted for years and years, never once went wrong, and I have boxes of photos with decades of memories from it.

With the advent of digital, I don’t have new boxes of photos any more. I have hard drives full of pictures which I now realise I should have sorted at the time. Maybe when I’m older…

The photos we have hanging up in our house are in the ratio 2 digital to 9 (alternating) film. This isn’t on some principle, I just like the film ones better. But that’s partly because those are all ones I took my time over, which is greatly aided by the camera being manual everything – focus, exposure, winding. It doesn’t even have a battery because it doesn’t need one. It forces you to stop and think. No zoom lenses either, you have to get yourself in the right place to take the picture. It’s also not the most portable.

For events when there is a lot of action – think school groups, sports – or when being able to whip out a camera from your pocket and take the shot, digital is great. No thinking, just point and shoot. If it doesn’t work, delete it, nothing lost. So I don’t have anything against digital. It’s just different. And I’ve now had a small digital camera in a pocket for several months just in case I see something unexpectedly. And, in case of absolute photo emergency, a phone (which is worryingly good).

I recently read an article which tried to cut through all the technology and issue a photography challenge. The premise was to keep everything very simple and learn the craft of photography by trying things out, learning, and trying again. So the recipe for any long-lasting success. I took from it three rules:

1. Use an old (almost by definition manual) camera. You could really buy a second hand camera, use it for a year and sell it for about the same amount of money these days. It’s pretty much free photography equipment if you want it to be.

2. Use one type of black and white film for a year (film is still really cheap, particularly compared with the depreciation of a digital camera, which is horrific). B&W has the advantage that you can develop it yourself for not very much money and it’s fun. Well, it was the one time I did it many years ago, and I’ve never quite got to the point of doing it at home. But I do have lots of film taking up fridge space, so I might as well get over that particular hurdle. I can also see a Duke of Edinburgh project coming on somewhere in all this.

3. Take photos. 2 to 4 rolls a week was the suggestion. So that’s somewhere between 10 and 20 photos a day. Now that part is hard because it requires time, and the article was aimed really at would be photography students. But the point is that you have to practice and learn.

So I’ve taken that article as new inspiration of going back to what I always loved about photography when I was younger. There was a wonder about it, the uncertainty (and sheer dread when you’ve done the photos for a wedding and you just hope the pictures don’t all come out black, it’s amazing the things you can imagine going wrong) and the amazement that this little box in your hand could capture a moment in time that you could go back to again and again and relive the memory. So something good came of yesterday’s run. And today… is a rest day from running. Wonderful. Time to get out the fifty something year old camera, give it a dust off, get the film back out of the fridge and find that light meter which I know I put somewhere that I would never forget… and then go and read a book. Probably not Dick Turpin though.