September is the true New Year. Decades of the UK English education system, as a pupil, a student, an actor working in educational theatre, a teacher, and finally a parent, have made me look at the changing colours of the leaves and feel the stirrings of new beginnings, or at least another New Year’s resolution. It may be similar to one I set in January, or at Chinese New Year in February, or at Jewish New Year a couple of weeks ago, but it can’t be said often enough: I’M GOING TO BLOG MORE. That’s it. I’m not promising a specific number or frequency, just more. How hard can that be?
I thought I would start by sharing some thoughts about my work in progress, although I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in case I jinx it, and anyway, my characters have a strange habit of doing things their own way and taking the narrative somewhere unexpected, so I’ll stick to writing about the method. With my previous two books, I balanced the ‘writing by the seat of your pants’ approach (or pantsing), with stopping, looking at the landscape of the text, and mapping out what happens next and where we might be going. I began book three with a synopsis, and tried to stick to it, but soon found that the beginning was the middle and the end was lost in fog. I went back to pantsing. But now, about two thirds of the way into the first draft, I need to narrow the focus. After a gap in my writing schedule, while I launched Bones in the Nest, and then confronted a very dry patch creatively (I don’t believe in writer’s block, let’s just say: there were barriers to my writing), I picked up award-winning thriller writer, Alexandra Sokoloff’s Stealing Hollywood, for advice on planning, shaping and structuring, using methods tried and tested by Hollywood screenwriters.
Alex’s book is really helping me stand back and look at the scaffolding of my novel. It’s also unlocked new ideas and given me the impetus to sit down and write new scenes, which means I’ve haven’t quite got to the end of her suggested process of creating scene by scene index cards. In fact, I’ve got my writing mojo back to such an extent that I might not get to the end of Stealing Hollywood, because I’m so busy putting words on the computer, but I don’t think Alex will be offended; her style is less textbook and more conversation, and it’s very much like having a friend in the room. I feel as if I was a bit lost in my process, but because I stopped for long enough to look at the map, I don’t feel lost anymore, and my instincts will help me find my way from here. If I get lost again, I’ll go back to the map.
A couple of other things that are very important to my writing process are walking and reading. By walking, I don’t mean anything particularly special or energetic, but just walking around the streets where I live, or up to the allotments to see what’s growing and what’s changed in the landscape. It refreshes my brain and allows new ideas to form.
The allotments themselves appear in Bones in the Nest, as one of Chloe’s favourite childhood places, and I mentally placed the hostel where she lives not far from my own neighbourhood, with the looming view of York Minster watching her, as it watches me on my walks. These weren’t intended to be research trips, but in the end, walking informed the story.
I’ve written before about the books I’ve been enjoying and while I don’t claim to be a seasoned book reviewer or book blogger, I’d like to share some thoughts about what I’ve been reading, so here’s this blog’s review offering:
Simon Brewster is a doomed man. If he doesn’t change his ways, he’ll never see middle, let alone old age.
So Low, So High chronicles Simon’s life of drink, drugs and broken friendships. It follows his ongoing dance with the forces of law and order, and with those who love him and want him to clean up his act. In less skilled hands this would be a sad tale, but Pete Sortwell’s natural humour shines through. The quality of his writing carries the reader along a journey of increasingly disastrous episodes at a pace that makes it impossible to put down. I genuinely warmed to Simon and I could see why his friends would be prepared to stick by him for so long.
The question that hangs in the air throughout the book, the perennial question for drugs educators and parents (and I’ve considered this from both perspectives, believe me) is why one out of a group of lads, who all experiment with drugs, goes on to be an addict, while the others lead relatively blameless lives. There is a clue in Simon’s undiagnosed dyslexia, but the story also leaves us with a sense that the answer is what Simon himself has been avoiding, and it lies deep within him. If he ever gets to rehab, and stays long enough to find out, he may be able to banish his demons.
Despite his behaviour – drinking white cider for breakfast, using the aisle of Tesco as a toilet and eventually mugging old ladies – it is impossible to dismiss Simon Brewster and you will be rooting for him by the end. Sortwell handles the realism of his subject matter with irresistible story-telling. He avoids glamoursing drug culture and tells this everyday, but hidden story, with candour and clarity. I’m very excited to see that there will be a sequel to So Low, So High in 2016, and I can’t wait to find out what will happen next.
If you like writing, walking or reading, check out the annual Festival of Books and Walking in Richmond, North Yorkshire, starting this Saturday, September 26th. Bones in the Nest is this year’s book group choice for the festival, and I’m honoured to be appearing on the opening panel with the author of the Inspector Banks books and Festival patron, Peter Robinson. Details here.