Saturday 22 September 2012

My pretensions, they are back (post-holiday blues)

I've just returned from my 5-day writing retreat in Yorkshire (near Hebtenstall). Contrary to what I was led to believe, the place did have mobile phone reception, but no internet, so I managed to at least stay a little bit in touch, though I enjoyed having no possibility to respond to emails. OMG my emails.

Anyway. We were being tutored by Maria McCann ("As Meat Loves Salt") and Christopher Wakling ("The Devil's Mask"), and Sarah Walters ("The Night Watch") made a guest appearance and patiently sat through a summary of my "birds book" (they seated her right next to me). Maria and Chris were both amazing - gifted teachers and great fun to hang out with. (Whiskey and wine were involved.)

The real stars of the course, of course, were the other writers, 15 in total. All were really talented, and several published. I'd have acquired just about anybody on the course. I did say some things about "indie" publishing (though the term is being hijacked by the DIYers) and it was all really cool and inspirational.

I spent the days mostly sleeping, eating, drinking tea, sleeping a bit more, attending the writing exercises, and we had four evenings of reading. (I read Melville and some of my birds book - the no doubt soon-to-be-infamous Chapter 15, which people found "menacing" - happy to entertain. :) ) We cooked in small groups in the afternoon, so there wasn't really that much time to get much writing done, and my table wasn't really suitable for it, but I still brought 3k in words and a head full of inspiration.

My heart's fortified by the creative vibe in that late medieval house, feeding off and amplifying 15 crazy, lovely people all following their own mojo. Due to, I think, Sarah Waters's appearance on the course, we had a fantastically diverse group - gay/lesbian people, bi people, some closeted romance writers, too. (Arvon Foundation is more geared towards the "literary writing" crowd - so one author confessed to me she'd been writing a historical menage and "wasn't going to mention it..." - though we had some paranormal authors jazz up their historical fiction with vampires and ghosts!) I also met the amazing Kim Taylor, award-winning author and all-round lovely person. And hung out with a friend who I hadn't seen in six months or thereabouts.

I networked, I pimped, I helped a little (from my POV of editor/publisher/published author/historian) and it was a really good, positive experience. Mostly, though, I just chilled and allowed the mojo to come to me.

Which it did. I spent three days re-reading my manuscript, discovering that it's really not all that bad, then I found the key to getting through the wall after chapter 15 (I was doing a verbal outline with Chris, and then tripped myself into the solution... NICE!). So I ended up writing on the last two days. And editing. Oh wow, did I edit!

I really only went online to check review for Gold Digger, both good and bad. This had a strange dynamic while I was attending the course dominated and taught by "literary" writers. Allow me to reiterate that I harboured "literary" pretensions during my university years, but also before that and after that and I never quite managed to kill them.

Apparently, I can do both. Am hanging in the middle. Am not fish nor meat, as the German saying goes. I'm a hybrid. A fence-sitter. Not here nor there. And some stories sit in the middle and both sides hate them. Ratings-wise, there's no difference between stuff I dashed out really quickly with no second thought about anything much ("just playing", as I called it), and something I've carved with my teeth from granite while tied up in barbed wire.

After this week, I'm pretty sure that the birds book is more literary than genre fiction. I could not distinguish it from the kind of work that was being read out in the course (as I said, the level of writing and craft in that course was shocking, in a good way). I think there might be an agent for that.

I'm not sure what that means for my genre writing, or if I manage to stay on that fence. Some reviews made me question again what the hell I'm trying to do, as a writer and as part of this genre, and for my whole career and everything else. Sometimes I feel like I'm my own genre. A one-man genre; now there's a marketing nightmare.

Or it might just have been that I had five whole days to think about it, while re-reading and thinking and talking to a diverse bunch of people, none of them inside "my" genre. I honestly have no clue. I don't know where this whole thing is going to take me, but I'm going to experiment somewhat see what I can do and where I can go.

That'll mean two things: I'm going to push the birds book extremely hard now towards completion of the first draft (I'm thinking: year-end), then spend a couple months polishing it up, and then it goes out to some hand-selected people I know or who have been recommended to me.

In the meantime, I'll only complete one other project, because it's 1/3 done and promised and delayed and which is also a co-project (which I enjoy, and I look forward to it), but I'll try to maintain my current obsidian blade focus on the birds book - I paid a lot of money and invested a lot of time to get that focus back.

The research alone is a killer, but trying to sex up the style to the level where it has to go is a totally new game. "Workable" prose won't do it. This book needs to be written with blood, and I think I'm about ready to do it, but I need to bleed onto the page in peace with very little other things going on. (Also, I made a pact with one lady on the course that we'll both have a first draft by 31 December...and I just know she's going to hunt me down and kill me if I don't.)

So, this is me bowing out until December, when the co-project will be done, and I honestly don't know what comes after. I might have a result really quickly, or maybe nothing at all. I'm not even sure I can verbalise what's going through my head. I just have to write this book, whatever it costs me, however long it takes, and wherever it's going to take me in the end, and to do that, I need to stop work on everything else (apart from the one I promised). Right now, I concentrate on bleeding onto the page.


  1. I say you can do both. Who says that "genre" can't be literary at the same time? And I'd agree, being most of the way through Dark Soul, you are in a genre of your own ... and it's literary. Sometimes I despair of being told to dumb down words I've used because they will "confuse" the reader.
    Good luck with your break and enforced blood-letting. Will be here waiting with a stiff drink when you return. :)

  2. It seems to me that you are a genre of Aleks. It is voice and intention in your stories as much as it is the story itself that reaches out to readers. So glad that inspiration and it sounds like time out of lots of competing demands has given you the chance to settle deeper into your writing self. Good Luck

  3. I don't buy the genre vs. literary as mutually exclusive postulate. To me art is art if it manages to change the perceiver in some way, and over the years I've found art in unexpected places.
    A good book remains a good book, and you've written some damn good ones over the years.
    Today's genre designations are quite young (older material often being classified as 'literary' by default) and was born a marketing tool, a simple categorizing of 'what', not 'how well'. Using them to rank quality feels to me like marking students on whether they chose French or Spanish in school.

    Sorry, old discussion, pet peeve -- all that to say, use that mojo, listen to the muse (I trust your guy), don't let anyone limit you with useless divisions. Oh, and did I mention write that book? ;)

  4. I have a hard time with the literary vs. genre debate, especially as it pertains to my own writing. I rarely aim to be one or the other, I just write what I write. Makes it harder when speaking to agents/publishers when they ask 'so what do you write?' and you know they're expecting you to say something that slots you neatly into a sensible box.

    Your writing... I agree with Merrian. It's the genre of Aleks.

    I'm glad you had a good time at the retreat; I'm rather envious of you (in the nicest of ways). :)