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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):
- 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.
- 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.
I had a blast from the past recently when I rediscovered a laptop I used in the mid-1990s. At the time, it wasn’t exactly state of the art (I was a student, it was reduced, it did the job) but it seemed pretty impressive at the time. Now I wonder how I managed to carry it around. I think the battery (which lasted for maybe 4 hours if I was lucky) weighs more than my entire laptop currently does. The poor thing is now well and truly dead but still has some sentimental value, partly from my memories of passing commuting trips in Berlin by
playing minesweeper writing on it.
We went even further back yesterday when we looked through a photo album (yes, a physical display of photos, not a slideshow on the laptop – quite a different experience…must print out more photos and spend time laboriously sticking them into an album!) I received for my 40th birthday. One of the pictures was of me
playing a game being very industrious on a computer so old I can’t even remember what it was (I remember the game though, which at the time must have seemed good, I can’t see the attraction now).
We can now go back and trace the development of that kind of technology through different generations of chip, amount of RAM, size of hard drives (that 1990s laptop had a 340Mb hard drive, now I wander around with a 16Gb flash drive in my pocket, which, if I’ve got my decimal points in the right place, holds the equivalent of over 10,000 floppy disks (if anyone remembers what those are)).
In contrast, what I think hasn’t changed is the way in which we as individuals develop. You can’t analyse it into discrete steps, but over time we can see how we have become a different person. We are shaped by our choices, but also by circumstance and chance. I am reminded of the story in which a painter uses as a model a boy with angelic features to create the face of Jesus. Many years later, he paints Judas, trying to show the depths to which we can as humans sink. He uses a man as his model who turns out to be that same boy, grown up and changed beyond recognition by life and how he has developed over decades. As so often, literature points to something common to us all. Over years and decades, we can look back and laugh, cry or wonder at the choices we made when we were younger. We can tell our children about the things we thought, believed and did back then, knowing that they in turn will have to make their own decisions and mistakes to grow, learn and become themselves.
The older I get, the more I wonder at apparent co-incidence. On the plane to Frankfurt, I flicked through the inflight magazine and came across an article about Eric Michael Andersson, a Swede who won a competition to live in Berlin for a year and is learning to live like a German (hampered in learning the language, it appears, by the fact that everyone speaks English). I’ve written before about the changing nature of Berlin as a city and as a population, and this seems to have been the experience of this Swede – “I’m still trying to find myself”, with the commentary added “Like half of Berlin.”
There are experiences we can look back to which changed our perspective, our opinions, how we view ourselves in the world, and sometimes we can even measure those changes. Many years ago, I did a questionnaire developed by a couple called Myers and Briggs (guess what the approach is called…) which is designed to give us an insight into our personality type, not to limit our view of ourselves but to give us a perspective on ourselves and a common vocabulary to understand others and how they view their world. The results back then, getting close to ten years ago now, (INTJ for anyone who cares) were spot on. But over the last few years, I’ve had the sense that the experiences I’ve had since then have changed me, not necessarily in a conscious, planned way, but as a more natural evolution. And when I did the test again, lo and behold, a different result (INFP now apparently, and generally less extreme in my preferences). And what was one comment under the careers section (I acknowledge total confirmation bias in picking up on this one line out of a lot of comments)? “First and foremost is seemingly every INFPs’ dream growing up – to become an author.” I didn’t see that one coming.
I wonder who we will be in another ten years’ time?
A random observation
The small victory of common sense I’m experiencing today is being able to write this blog on my flight to Frankfurt without having to switch everything off for the takeoff. The myth is still alive, however, that phones need to be switched off because they might interfere with the aircraft systems (I always found it more than worrying that my little phone could confuse the computing power of a plane, particularly as every flight has one or two phones left on by accident), rather than because they might confuse the satellites (mobiles not being designed to be used 30,000 feet from the ground).
For any obsessive reader, Edinburgh is a great place to be in August. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, now the largest of its kind in the whole world, transforms Charlotte Square into a different world. Or different worlds really as the subjects covered are so varied. Several years ago I was having a discussion with someone about travel and they were surprised that we hadn’t been to lots of different countries as a family. My reply included the observation that I had been to a whole host of countries, at least in my imagination, thanks to reading books set in those countries. Stephen King (you can either like or loath what he writes about, but he’s an extraordinary writer) summarises what writing is about in his book On Writing as “writing is telepathy”. Great writers take you to that different place, that different time, and you come away with a different perspective on something.
This year’s Book Festival was a bumper one for me. There are always going to be some events where it just doesn’t quite work. I find it helps if the author attending actually wants to be there, or gives some indication of being interested in the subject which, given it’s normally something they’ve written about, shouldn’t be that difficult. You would think. Fortunately that was the first event I went to this year and I’ve been to enough to know that some are better than others. The final day was probably the one which stood out for me, both for the quality and the variety. The common link I took from the three events I went to (who says Mondays are the worst day of the week?) was the theme of change.
It started with Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel laureate (economics), adviser to Bill Clinton, on more committees than I could even have imagined existed. And such a big name that the press were there in force, putting rather more weight on some of his comments than on others. What attracted me to his session in the first place was his premise that technology has not made society better off. But the main point I took from him was that the economic benefits of technology have increasingly been flowing to a very small elite rather than being dispersed more widely, increasing the inequality in society that we can see all around us. Think of the now billionaires who started Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. The obvious (his judgement) point is that if the population as a whole does not benefit from the value created, the non-elite have less money to spend, therefore can buy less, therefore everyone loses. My practical conclusion – next book in the “I need to find more time to read all this stuff” pile. And yes, I do get the irony that I include a link to the book on Amazon.
Next up was the event I had been most looking forward to. Currently, if I had to do a Desert Island book, it would be Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory Maclean. I read this book in not many hours just before I went to Berlin in spring and was struck by the variety of ways he tells the stories of Berliners over several centuries, mixing fiction and non-fiction forms beautifully. But it was much more personal than that for me. I think he recognised two things. He wrote about people who have imagined a Berlin which did not exist at the time, or – while living in Berlin – themselves as someone they were not yet. They were not all born in Berlin, but they are all Berliners. And he sees the power of change that Berlin not just represents, but is. The city has reinvented itself – sometimes of necessity – so many times and it continues to change. And there is something in Berlin that can allow those of us who spend enough time there to change ourselves as well. My favourite factoid from the book (I know, I’m trivialising it somewhat) – the GB team in the 2012 Olympics entered the stadium to David Bowie’s Heroes. A song that Bowie wrote in Berlin while he was reinventing himself. And a song that is about the Berlin Wall. Yes, I really can find a connection to East Germany in anything… (helped this year by going to hear Maxim Leo talk about his book about his family growing up in East Germany, with stories that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true).
And what better way to finish than with Michael Rosen talking about why books are important. For me, books help me to gain a new perspective, a different point of view, to see things through someone else’s eyes. And they help me to change.
The other change this book festival brought with it was the absence of Derek Landy, and the first time in years that we haven’t been able to get the next instalment in his Skulduggery Pleasant (if you have to ask…) books before its general release. But hey, it’s out on Thursday – and goes straight to the top of the reading list. At least when the girls go to bed and I can get it off them. I should have taken a holiday on Friday…