Writing and Fear

If you’ve ever tried writing a story, a script, a novel (and that’s probably most of us at some stage), how frightened did it make you feel?

I don’t mean the story’s content necessarily (though if you aspire to be the next Stephen King, I guess you would want it to be pretty scary), but the actual process – having to face your own limitations, the realisation that there are certain things you may not be able to do.

I remember reading an interview with the author Sadie Jones, in which she said:

“I’m never happy with what I’ve written. You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed. And then you just try to make it the best shed you can.”

I love this quote. That little voice in your head telling you to give up, not to bother, that what you’ve written is a pile of crap – well, sometimes it is, but it also means you’re honest enough with yourself to recognise that you’re probably not a literary genius, and that you need to keep on working harder at improving your writing, at testing your limits, and doing the best with what you have. You can’t get better otherwise.

Keep reading. Keep writing. And make it the best shed you can.

Photo: homedit.com

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Dreams and Things

Robert Aickman.

Last Friday I went along to the British Library for “Even Stranger Things”, an evening of talks and discussion about Robert Aickman, whose unsettling and beautifully written horror stories (though he preferred the term “strange stories”) were reissued by Faber here in the UK a couple of years ago, with a new collection set for publication in the States next year.

It was frequently remarked by several of the speakers – who included the horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who knew Aickman, and Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson of the League of Gentlemen – that Aickman’s stories are like waking dreams (or nightmares). The author Fritz Leiber called Aickman a “weatherman of the subconscious”, which is a wonderful phrase, and he certainly has the rare knack of conjuring the atmosphere and unbalanced logic of a dream, without resorting to cliché or pretentiousness.

I keep a sporadic dream diary, and for particularly memorable or evocative dreams it can be fun trying to identify a “plot” or through-line amidst all the craziness. And that fleeting, liminal space between waking and sleeping can produce some extraordinary and surprising ideas (and sometimes whole sentences). But I’ve never been able to hover there for very long. Soon the sharp elbows of reality barge their way in. But I always try and keep a channel open to my subconscious, to that intuitive part of my imagination, in the hope that something good – or scary, or interesting – will come to call.

Chewing on Ideas

A friend asked me the other day where my ideas come from.

As I recall, I gave some vague, waffly answer – I never have been good at thinking on my feet, and I fear am a practised expert at l’esprit d’escalier – but, chewing on it a bit more, I realised that the ideas that have “worked” for me, the ideas that have had “legs” and developed into something more than an idea, that have developed into a script, or a story, or a novel, are the ones that “stick” – i.e., the ones that have been rolling around my head for months, or even years, and that my imagination can’t seem to let go.

Once the germ of a story becomes this persistent, then it’s a safe bet it could grow into something reasonably sophisticated, something that just might be able to develop its own means of propulsion, and then go on to use that means of propulsion to go for a good, long wander, initially just to the end of the road and back, but eventually, hopefully, out into the world, where it can make its own living without any help from me.

To stand on its own two feet, in other words.

Failing that, if my brain is broadcasting nothing but static (which it is more often than I would like), I flick through the disjointed scribblings of my various notebooks, and even if I am currently bereft of any good ideas, I can usually spot something glinting amidst the sand and pebbles of my past thoughts.

And I reach my hand in, and try to pluck it out.

The Widow’s Thorn

THE WIDOW'S THORN EBOOK COVER (002)

“There are strange powers at work in the lands…”

Yesterday saw the publication on Amazon of my latest novel, “The Widow’s Thorn”, sequel to my earlier book, “The Witch of Glenaster”.

It picks up the story a year later, when Esther Lanark, heroine of the first novel, finds herself in greater danger than ever, and has to race against time to find her brother – and to escape the many dark forces that wish to destroy her.

If you enjoy dragons, shape-shifters, necromancers, and witches, and an exciting, well-wrought read, then this could be one for you (though you may want to read “The Witch of Glenaster” first!).

It’s currently available on Kindle – a paperback version should be available in the next few days.

You can buy it here (US), or here (UK), and it should be available on all other Amazon sites as well. If you do have a chance to read it, please let me know what you think – all constructive criticism and feedback welcome!

Thanks.

A new mini-excerpt from the new book

As some of you will know, I’m in the very final (promise) stages of editing the sequel to my novel The Witch of Glenaster, so here is another little excerpt to whet your appetite.

“In my dream there was a hunter’s moon, large and red, and the woods around me were flushed in scarlet.
I was on the edge of a clearing, and at its centre was a hawthorn tree, made broken and crooked by the wind.
I gazed for some time at its branches, tipped by thorns which could tear a hole in a man’s flesh. And as I gazed, a figure stepped into my path. In size and height he was like to a man, but his face seemed strangely narrow, and his eyebrows met in the middle, and when he smiled he showed a set of very sharp teeth.”

Michaelmas

Colyford Goose Fayre, Devon. Photo: seatonbay.com

Today, the 29th September, is Michaelmas Day, the feast of St Michael the Archangel, and historically in England one of the four “Quarter Days” that marked the beginning or ending of legal contracts (between landlord and tenant, or between employer and employee). As such, it often witnessed Hiring Fairs, which started in the reign of Edward III and lasted up until the Second World War in some places, where employers would look for new apprentices, and would-be employees would wear a badge or carry a tool to denote their skill (for example, a crook for a shepherd, or a milking-pail for a dairymaid). Once agreement had been reached regarding rates of pay, etc., the employer would give their new worker a shilling (also known as earnest money, fest, God’s penny or arles) to seal the bargain. These fairs became important festivals, and would, like many similar events, often descend into drunken revelry.

Traditionally, a fattened goose was roasted and eaten on Michaelmas Day, and tenants would often give one to their landlord as part of their rent (which would have been due at Michaelmas, as a Quarter Day). There are still goose fairs held at some places in England today, the largest and most famous of which is Nottingham Goose Fair, which dates from the Thirteenth Century, and two smaller ones in Devon – the Goosey Fair in Tavistock, and the Colyford Goose Fayre in Seaton Bay (see photo above). When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in Britain in 1752, many people continued to celebrate important feasts on their old dates, several days later (for example, Old Twelfth Night on January 17th), and so the Nottingham and Tavistock goose fairs are now held in early October, and it is no longer legal in the UK to sell live poultry at markets, so the fairs today are more about rides and (cooked) food.

But Colyford’s tiny fayre is perhaps closest in spirit to those earlier fairs, with villagers dressing in medieval costume, local produce for sale, a demonstration of traditional skills such as archery, and a mummers’ play.

Horticulturally speaking, there are at least a couple of flora with connections to Michaelmas – the aster, or “Michaelmas daisy”, is so-called because it blooms late in the year. And then of course there is the legend that, when St Michael cast Satan out of Heaven, he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed, spat or urinated on it (take your pick). According to tradition, that is why blackberries go sour after Michaelmas.

Michaelmas daisies.