Category Archives: Doing

The Best Non-Books on Writing – Part 1


When I was doing the series of post on the best books for writers to read, I polled my pals about the sort of books they hunted up when feeling a little autodidactic. The books made the previous list but there were a lot of responses along the lines of “this website on the neterweb” or “some lecture series I watched” or “a human’s blog that I read once”.

I shoved those links into a separate document and meant to write them up as a final post to the books articles. That didn’t happen for complicated reasons (lazy, disorganised). But I’ve brought my extraordinary faculties of sedulisation to bear on the bits of fluff that serve me as a brain and sorted them into something resembling a useful list.

Here is that list. Many thanks to those who suggested links, and if I’ve missed something useful or interesting, stick it in the comments.

A lot of them just involve creative people talking about their own ways of creating, from the Ordinance Survey level of the ‘creative process’ through the fine detail of daily schedules down to the electron microscopic processes of choosing a word or punctuation marks.

I’ve split them up over a few posts starting with those links that are for eye reading:

Paris Review Interviews (The Paris Review website)

This huge archive of interviews with mostly 20th Century writers is free and contains hundreds of interviews on how writers have approached their works in general and whatever creative niggles were on their mind at the time of the interview.

It is a fabulous resource which you can access here, and if you suffer from literary tastes and read mostly Westerners then there’s a good chance your favourite authors have done an interview with the Review at some point.

Uncle Jim undiluted (Absolute Write Forum)

Fabulously pragmatic and unsentimental spec-fic hack James MacDonald (not to be confused with Dear Jim) set up this long running, wide-reaching, and hugely educational thread in which he throws out reading and writing exercises, his own personal brand of literary theory, guidance for novelists and short story writers, and information on the publishing industry.

This thread is one of the best places for the inexperienced and unpublished author to start. It is highly unsystematic though, and makes for good reading alongside Stephen King’s more structured On Writing, assuming King’s approach to work works for you.

You can find the thread with all the non-Jim posts boiled off here.

Writing About Writing (Blog)

Fitting in with Uncle Jim’s pragmatic, writing-is-a-craft-slash-job-and-18th-Century-ideas-about-the-artist-as-genius-are-perpetuated-by-morons-now-drop-and-give-me-1000-words-you-maggot approach, Writing About Writing is maintained by prolific blogger and floppy haired swear-machine Chris Brecheen, whose blog broadly fall into variations on ‘Write Every Day’ and ‘Pay Attention to Social Issues When Writing’. If that’s likely to trigger you, then maybe don’t click here.

Also, if you need a relentless pit-bull to remind you to put in some BIC time the Writing About Writing Facebook feed is a wonderful pun-factory 90% of the time, but does a great line in ‘Shouldn’t You Be Writing?’ memes.

Nico Muhly’s Blog (Blog)

If modern classical music is your jam, you will probably get more out of Nico Muhly’s blogs than I did. But it’s always interesting to hear from creatives at work and Muhly is a first-class human-being to spend some reading time with, regardless of your level of musical sophistication/babarism.

Read his ramblings here.

Guardian’s 10 Tips series (Guardian Online)

At the risk of giving away a great deal about my political leanings here I do have to recommend two series from the Guardian online.

Firstly, their 10 Tips series in which writers collect their wisdom into 10 pithy bits of advice. Will Self’s advice is a particular joy, and Elmore Leonard has gained a certain amount of memetic traction (find them here.)

The other is their series of articles in which writers either describe a typical or recent writing day (click here for that) Facinating to see how people organise their time, especially if you are the sort of person who loves a good life hack… speaking of which.

It’s not exactly about writing, but for ways of organising your life (so that you have the discipline, methods, and time management to actually do the writing you should be doing if you want to be a writer) there are few places on the internet that work better.

I’d recommend giving it a quick search for ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘Bullet Journals’ to start with.

Click here to check them out.

I’ll follow up next week with a list of things to watch, and to listen to with your other earholes.

See ya then.

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Update: 12th July 2017


Goodness, gracious, where does it all go? The time that is. The time between tossing out the last fortnightly missive to Jim and the sudden tumbleweed silence of the last two months.

This is not a return to your regularly scheduled programming unfortunately. Work, by which I mean, writing work – off which I have been living for the last month or so – has slurped, and continues to slurp, up time and, far more importantly, energy. The blog, with its pious penury is fun to write and in its own way an important place for me to expend some of my creative soilings, but it does not cough up the necessary potatoes and so cannot take up too much of my time at the moment.

That said. I am hoping to get at least a skeleton posting schedule back up and running shortly. In the meantime, consider this a hopeful fluttering in the ribcage of the corpse.

Here’s what you’ve missed:


June was my most productive month possibly ever for writing, a little over 40k in words the vast majority of them for Poker Tube, where I was doing the live tournament reporting for the World Series of Poker.

I’ve also got back on the Buzzy Magazine roster and should have something out with them shortly on Season 7 of Game of Thrones which is airing this Sunday.

And I am continuing to write for Front Vision. But there is always room in my schedule if you need something written, or know someone who does. Blog posts, ghost writing, articles, erotic poetry… you name it I’ll write it. Get my email from the About part of the site and hit me up. I’m not proud and I gotta eat.


A lot of this, mostly disciplined until the last few weeks when my ‘Currently Reading’ pile exploded to sixteen books. Among them is Finnegans Wake which I continue alone, having been abandoned both by the GoodReads group and by Jim, both of whom were reading it with me.

Other key books include The Expanse series (on book 2 atm, not as good as the TV series, but fun) and the gigantic The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism which I suspect will be an endless frustration of pseudo-intellectual gabble about stuff which sociology, anthropology and psychology are all studying by looking at facts.

Much to Jim’s relief, I have also started American Pastoral.


Keeping on top of writing, reading, and the various habits I try to keep going: eating well, meditating, exercising, socialising and various smaller things mostly aimed at keeping my mental health solid as the little grey cells will allow, all makes for a certain amount of cat juggling and ball herding.

While May was a fabulous month where everything lined up, the last month and a half-has been rather more chaotic and as a result, while specific things have been working it comes at a cost of other things. Word count goes up, exercise gets pushed out for example.

Being self-employed gives me plenty of flexibility to manage my time. But it is possible to get a little paralysed by the choices. I’m hoping that there will be a series of articles on time management in a little while, but not until I get back into practice what I intend to preach.

Till then there should be a few more Dear Jim’s and book reviews coming out. But they will probably remain sporadic at best for the next couple of months.

For everyone reading this, thanks for sticking with me. You’re my kind of sucker.

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Writing Update: Sunday, 11th Dec 2016


Novel Word Count

First draft document: 27,391 words
Zero-th draft documents: 19,512 words
Total Words: 46,903/~90,000 words

That is correct, there has been no movement on the novel since the last update around a month ago.

This can be blamed in part on my having found a job – part time call centre work in Warwick – which led with two weeks of 8 am – 5 pm shifts for training which mucked my schedule about and put a sudden stop to my NaNoWriMo effort to hit the big 50k in one month.

Since then I’ve pretty much been playing catch up on my various commissions and with keeping the blog vaguely up to date. I think on that front I am going to be reducing the blog output to two articles a week instead of three. The regular posting is good exercise but I at the moment I need to conserve my writing energies for the more important Novel / £££s.

But I’m of back to the island home in a week or so for a long Xmas hols, hopefully I’ll be able to get myself back up and running on the novel during my time off.

Other Word Count

As at the time of writing if I can squeeze out a little over 30,000 words before NYE, then I’ll have written 200,000 words total in 2016. It’s a shame more of that wasn’t on the novel, but one needs to stay vaguely liquid to avoid tipping from starving artist to starved. 200,000 words seems like a nice round goal, and doable if I can get myself back into the habit of writing.

That habit thing always seems like the easiest thing in the world when its going well, but I find that it doesn’t take much to disrupt it, and the last few weeks have been frustratingly short on words written by myself. Even losing almost all of my reading time and replacing it with writing I still had one of my least productive months in November.

Fixing that needs to be a priority, though what exactly that will entail, I am making up as I go along. I’ll pretend to remain optimistic and hope that hope follows.

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Update: The Year In Writering

Novel Word Count

First draft document: 27,391 words
Zero-th draft documents: 19,512 words
Total Words: 46,903/~90,000 words

Other Word Count

Some of you may know/remember that I moved to England last November. Since then, I have been pottering away at the novel, though not nearly so fast as I was hoping. My August deadline slipped away and I am still at least a half and very probably three-fifths away from finishing the damn thing according to my notes. That 90k word count may be optimistically low.

But I did also swing that regular gig at Poker Tube, and am now a stationary writer for Front Vision, from whom, thanks to the vagaries of international post, I only just received my contributors copy of the August issue. That issue contained my first print publication of the year. Admittedly it was translated into Chinese by someone else, and they spelled my name a little, shall we say, alternatively. But it is still exciting stuff… for me.

There should be several more issues of Front Vision in the post, as I have articles in the October and November editions as well. Though when they will arrive is entire up to Air Mail.


My name – almost – in print. I am now officially an international science writer.

On top of that, I have finally started to get round to polishing short stories and sending a few of those out. Three so far, which is not very many, but I’m eyeing up my back catalogue of rough drafts looking for places where I can scrub one up, put it in its Sunday best and send it out into the world.

Life Word Count

In life news: after parting ways with the Ladyfriend, I moved from Bristol up to Leamington in August. Having gone to university nearby I know a few more people round here which is nice, and most of them are writers or poets of some sort.

It makes an extraordinary difference to have other book nerds around. Not least because one feels vastly less pretentious bringing up your pet theory regarding Dostoevskian theological schemas when the other person has just had a rant about Joyce’s use – or lack thereof – of punctuation.

Having also run out of savings, and currently being paid the salary of a hungry – if not outright starving – artist, I am also trying to make the transition out of my ‘year out to write’ and back into being employed full-time by not me. If you happen to be a not-me company with a vacancy going please leave your phone number in the comments.

Now, I am going to go and ponder deeply what the next year of writing will bring. . .

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Friday Update: New Blogging Schedule



Old Typewriter, Russian by ArtDmitry, used under a Creative Commons Licence

As Stoptober comes to a close and NaNoWriMovember looms large, I’ve ben doing a little thinking about the shape of this blog. With the exception of the Dear Jon/Jim… posts which are weekly (the last fortnight of blog silence notwithstanding), the blog has mostly been a sort of as and when thing.The result has been a somewhat unfocussed ramble (mostly made up of short book reviews). Which is no good at all.

So for November I’m going to put a bit of a schedule in place. Originally the aims of the blog were threefold:

1. (for me) to be a sort of public space where I logged my writing process.

2. (for you) to be a sort of resource for people who are also muddling through the writing processes.

3. (for them) to be a professional calling card of sorts where potential clients can easily find examples of my work.

So the new schedule I’ll be trialling for the next couple of weeks will break down to three posts per week: on Monday there will be links to my movie reviews on PokerTube (for them), a Dear Jim/Jon… on Wednesday (for Jim), and on Fridays alternating update posts (for me), and writing based articles (for you).

I’m also hoping to do a couple of guest posts for other blogs in the nearish future. When that happens I’ll do a linked post on Sunday to those the week they come out. Book review posts will also probably go on Sunday.

All this is highly subject to change. But will do for the moment.


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Dear Jim… (#5) re: When Reasons Not to Write Aren’t Reasons Not to Write

He started his epistle with an epigraph. What a nob.

– Overheard while walking near my own mouth.

Dear Jim,

Firstly, and obviously, get well soon.

Secondly, the answer to your question of when to stop is just as obviously: Never; ‘Starve a fever, feed a cold, but work through both,’ as my mother never actually said, but should have. Which is why my bosses have always applauded me for sitting at my desk hacking up the most infectious parts of my lungs, before passing off freshly moistened files to my soon to be just as poorly workmates. Go Capitalism.

But thirdly – and mostly – I wanted to pick up on your reference to Amis:

“Amis is damn right when he talks about stepping back !!!!!FOR A MOMENT!!!!, and going to do something else: not slamming one’s face endlessly against a wall of words.” 

The emphasis there is mine, and I bring it up because it triggered a particular bugbear of mine.

Far too often people seem to think that art requires some sort of hermetically sealed Ivory Tower with a south facing window and just the right humidity and temperature for your pet muse to whisper in your ear without getting tongue cramp. Which is fine if you are happy just doodling. Like, you can get a ton out of just doing creative stuff every now and again as a hobby.

But if you want to write something good, if you want to be read without embarrassment, or even to read at all… you do actually have to write. And you have to write a lot.

For some reason in the 1800s the view shifted from artist as organ grinder/monkey combo, to artist as visionary. They forgot artist and artisan come from the same root and started thinking of artists as ‘brilliant’ or ‘zeitgeisty’ or ‘so fetch’. Artists are not any of those things, they are the less calorific half of bread-and-circuses.

Stepping away from the words is fine, as long as it is about managing your energy or health. My basic thing is that if your reason for not writing wouldn’t fly as a reason for not doing your actual job if you have one, then it just isn’t good enough.

If you are a writer, and you lack inspiration, so fucking what? You want to protect your precious art? It’s not that precious. Set yourself deadlines and meet them. Hate the work you produce by all means, but produce it. Anyone can write when the muse is balls deep in all your brain holes, but the point of being a writer is that we WRITE. The universe can’t do all the heavy lifting.

If you’re blocked then you need to put your arse back in the chair and work at it. If you have no ideas then sit down and brainstorm, read some non-fiction that looks like it might trigger something, find a specific market and let their guidelines direct you to something. But don’t leave that chair until you’ve written something.

It winds me up no end to hear things like: ‘I can’t make myself write. Writing for money/to a deadline/on cue/every day hurts the art’. When I worked nine-to-five, I would finish the day exhausted, with whatever currency discipline is transacted in spent in not throttling my immediate manager. As a colossally lazy person, it was already excruciating to sit down to the genuinely taxing brain-work of writing. So once I had carved out the time, avoided all the temptations and apathies that lay between me and the word processor I had to write then, because tomorrow I might not have the wherewithal to drag myself to it.

Just try telling that person to wait for the muse.

And that sort of thinking misses the fact that first drafts are not Writing. They’re like 5% of it. What the muse gives you is always half-cocked and half-baked even at the best of times.

Fact: your first draft is ugly. Even at your best it is ugly. Too ugly to live. You have to beat the ugly out of it. That beating is basically 95% of the gig. If you sit around waiting for the muse, it means you’re not even doing that first 5%.

Lastly, writing is not meant to be fun. You shouldn’t enjoy it. Like childbirth it should be a vindictive punishment exacted against yourself for the sins of your ancestors. The whole process should be horrible, a trial by ordeal which leaves you not happy, but somehow satisfied, having been tested and having measured up.

Since quotations are apparently a major constituent of letters, ideally from poetry – specifically James Baldwin where available – I’ll leave you with this poem, reconstructed from memory because as far as Google seems to think Dorothy Parker is the only person to have said it:-

I have a confession,

And this is it:

I hate to write,

Love having writ.

I am willing to admit this last point about self-flagellation may owe more to the Protestant work-ethic of my own conscience, who dismisses anything enjoyable as sinful*, but I stand by the rest no matter how Calvin-inflected your conscience is.


A piece of writing that is a metaphor for what writing should feel like. 

So here’s the cliff notes version of this rant to pass on to anyone you meet whose excusing themselves from writing. After cussing them out tell them:

(1) don’t get prissy about ‘inspiration’, just write daily or close to it;

(2) if you don’t write today, you have nothing to rewrite tomorrow, and rewriting > writing, so write daily or close to it; and

(3) if you enjoy doing anything, you’re doing it wrong; and you won’t enjoy writing daily or close to it.

In the print edition of this blog, I’ll just turn this into a listicle.

Yours curmudgeonly,


P.S. *Imagine how tragic it must be for this conscientious conscience to be housed in such a dissipated layabout. Only the self-loathing makes all that laziness palatable.

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Dear Jim (#3) re: Thousand Page Journeys

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your letter of last week. I know that The Gift (1938) feeling – or as it is known in my own head-brain: the A Dead Man in Deptford (1993) feeling – that frustrating feeling that you are always reading, have always been reading, and will always read a book which despite all that reading past, future and present does not ever seem to end.

At the moment that feeling is a source of minor stress, because beyond your Dead Men in Deptford there are always other books. As you know, I am a massive fan of reading lists. You’ve seen the forty or so books which sit on my desk in a line of TBR towers, looming over a row of ten or fifteen other books, bookmarks jutting out of them like dorsal fins, who are sitting there waiting for me to go back and finish them. Towers of classics which I should read, of pulpy trash I want to read, of research books I need to read, and of books that the real owners will be wanting back any day now.

Those fortyish books amount to about five months worth of reading at my current rate. It is like a speculative geography of my future knowledge. And beyond those roughly 15k pages is the unread deep-time strata of the bookshelves. Those are so far into the future there are Morlocks and Universal heat-death and I will be in my thirties. All that and more will come to pass before I can read half of what I should/want/need to.

(I feel like there’s a paradox in there among the TBR piles somewhere, if one wanted to tease it out. Something to do with how the books that matter most are the one’s that by definition have had no direct influence on you because they are not yet read. Like, I don’t stress about the thousands of pages of Dostoevsky I have read, but the thousands of Dickens that I haven’t. Not now though, there are future letters for frivolous stuff like that, this letter is about frivolous stuff like this:)

So much of this Chicken Habits for Effective Souls stuff the problem is really one of tricking your brain (half-wit that it is). You can only ever read the next page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter or punctuation mark. So just don’t look at the pile of books on your desk, or the monolithic Billy bookshelves from Ikea. Head down, tail up and all that.

Which reminds me of the more general struggle to be writing, to eat well, to live well, to exercise and meditate, to not eat the marshmallow, not drink the whole bottle of wine, not spend the whole day in bed masturbating, napping and binge watching Pokémon. These things are difficult for some reason. They shouldn’t be; every one of them comes with a positive reinforcement of satisfaction when done, while not doing them has the negative feedback of Protestant guilt.

The tricks we play are often silly; ‘I will just wash one dish,’ I tell myself. ‘I will do one set of pushups.’ Or like Isherwood ‘I’ll just put the novel up on a screen and then go do something else nearby, looking over occasionally.’ Whatever it takes to trick the brain into lowering the activation energy required to get started. Because inertia is not just a physics thing, it’s psychology too.

One of the many reasons the tricks are needed, is because if you lean to much on the idea of ‘completion’ then the whole exercise of being starts to look pointless. it comes to the realisation and rerealisation that you will never finish reading all the books you should/want/need, will never run out of art to create, that there is no final boss fight that will end exercise. There is no completion for a lot of stuff, just giving up and/or death (And what do we say to the God of Death, Jim?*).

Existentially unpleasant as that can be, accepting it is also the best way out of the kind of doing/not-doing stress that I’ve had accumulating of late. Which is why I bring this up, less for your benefit than as a reminder to myself to just keep doing. Sweat the parts as they come (*snarf*), and the whole will take care of itself.

Not only does the thousand step journey start with the first, it continues with the second, then the next one. And after that you’ll still have to decide to take the next one after that,  until way down the road – I hope– you suddenly find yourself sans feet, sans teeth, sans etc…

The best thing about this particular trick is that it is not a trick, it reflects the world.  The worst thing is how oddly forgettable it is. I used to listen to Zen Mind, Beginner Mind (1970) on audiobook once a year, to refresh the memory.

I haven’t done that for a while now, but it might be a good time to put it back into rotation because I am about to start reading DeLillo’s billion-page epic Underworld (1997). I feel like that massive book almost a thousand pages long and covering a span of time roughly equal to a smoker’s life could in some way be a metaphor for something.

But like paradoxes metaphor’s are beyond my remit today. Today I’m just psyching myself up.

Yours briefly mindful,


*’Not today.’ You really should just suck it up and watch Game of Thrones – Today, ideally.

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How to Write Novel: Part 1


Image by Ralph Steadman.

Having finished Part 1 of 5 of The Novel,  now might be a good point to talk about how that got done. So, here goes…

I once pestered Jim about how he does his planning. In usual writery style he went into ten or twenty minutes of incoherent blather using his mouth, then went away and wrote it all down with great clarity and style on paper. His comments, and the writings of A L Kennedy, Stephen King, Martin Amis, Uncle Jim, Bisherwood, and any number of other writers on Writing all contributed to my thinking and doing on this. None of those people work in the same way. What follows is what has worked for me, so far.

The Throb

‘How do you come up with that?’ is one of the more flattering questions a writer can be asked. It’s also an unpleasant one to answer. While the process remains invisible it can also remain impressive. And you and the questioner can continue to look on your writing as the work of a genius, bestriding the world like a Colossus, great verdigrised balls dangling high above the peons who crawl about in their shadow.

Unforch, the reality is that ideas come not from genius but from an accretion of smaller ideas, each one thought up assessed and then followed for a little while until it starts to branch out into interesting possibilities.

For the current novel, I was originally thinking about writing a Vietnam novel, something based on the shlockier end of cinema’s dealings with the American involvement over there. But I was also on a kick of reading difficult books at the time, the variations of the voices and form of Ulysses got into my head. The verbal and temporal shenaniganising of Will Self’s Umbrella gave me more thoughts, and The Novel became a whole other thing. Something rather more serious and far less about Vietnam itself. More about the legacy.

Martin Amis talks about Nabokov talking about ‘the Throb’ a kind of building need to write one particular thing over the many others. It is one of the writerly metaphors I buy almost completely. For me it tends to feel more like a snowball as those notes accrete, so does motivation and research and thought-space. At some point it becomes The Thing to Be Done.

I wrote six first chapters for six different novels while I waited for the contractions to begin on one of them. In the end it was this.

The Wrong Way For Me.

The last two novels I wrote were written after Stephen King’s approach: one draft with the door closed, one with it open – the idea being to write the thing start to finish as fast as possible working out what it is as you go. When you get to the end you read it through and remould the mass of word clay into something more novel-pot shaped.

The result after the first draft for both of those last two novels was something too close to a novel to make a total rewrite acceptable, but much much too far from anything coherent or readable to be worth saving. They were worthwhile exercises and the process was educational. I wouldn’t be writing the current work as well as I am, if I hadn’t got those two failures under my belt.

So it turns out, Stephen King’s approach was not the one for me. I might still recommend it to someone just starting out. There is a sense of momentum, and of fun, in seeing your word count build. And it gives you a huge pile of rough sentences to go over and correct and learn all the ways to say things badly from. The more you write the more you learn about writing, and the faster you write the sooner that learning comes. Assuming you are stopping regularly to pore over the words you are producing.

Step 1– Prep Work

So with the new novel a far greater level of planning is involved. So I have fussed more, working out how my many narrators interact, and the different plot threads, theme threads, needle and threads connect up or work together. I also needed to do a ton of research on the late sixties in America and Vietnam and early noughts in the UK.

But research is not just stuff like ‘When were the moon landings?’, ‘Could someone have eaten KFC in 1969?’, or ‘Was 9/11 on a Friday?’. It was also things like seeing how other writers had handled similar themes, settings, or formal approaches. That lead to one of my favourite things: reading lists (click to see mine here).

The prep period was – or rather ‘is’ as the whole business continues even as I write the darn thing – also a time of just mulling. After reading stuff, I have to think stuff, then scribble the stuff down before I forget it. I suspect that in a lifetime everyone has the ideas for a great work of art; but because your brain – like mine, and like Soylent Green – is made of people those ideas are lost the minute attention is diverted. This is why writers should always carry notebooks. Always. Just like I would if I didn’t constantly forget them. Also pens, carry pens.

The notes, when they do get writ, are rarely original. They’re more likely to be triggered by some fact (For example, have you heard of Operation Wandering Soul?) but also things I watch or read. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘I have seen X done before, how could it be done in a fresh as fresh new way?’ or something more along the lines of ‘Y is great, what is the next logical step to that?’ or sometimes just, ‘Z is great. Let’s do Z, but in space.’ The old saying about ‘bad artists borrow, great artists steal’ applies.

Step 2– Outlining

At some point the miasm of notes, thoughts, ideas, sexual fantasies, &c… begin to condense into a sticky dew. At which point a more analytical sort of brain steps in and starts to order the fragmented notes (and images and sentences and plot lines and characters and trivia) into something that might, if you squint, start to look like a blueprint for a piece of art.

With this novel I broke the whole thing down vertically into columns which represent the chronology of the book, and horizontally into rows threads which represent various elements: in this book there are several time periods running concurrently, and different narrators for each. Then I add another row for thematic development and another for general notes.

Once I had a sort of map sorted in my head and on paper, I moved on to to a planning document, referring to the table I drop the notes into a rough sort of order, hen jot down specific scenes.

As I go along the planning document changes; I write from start to finish so I have detailed notes of the next few chapters, then less detailed notes for the chapters after that, and vague sentences outlining the sections beyond that; the further away the sentences are from being written, the vaguer those sentences.

Step 3– Drafting

I then set up another document to act as a workspace, notes are transferred here scene by scene. Sentences are jotted down, paragraphs too. Bit by bit they get linked up into scenes or sequences, and finally chapters.

As a section takes shape I go over it again and again filling in the gaps and correcting the more heinous incidences of cliche and general ugliness. Once it looks roughly right, it goes into the first draft document which will eventually contain the entire work in progress.

So far the first draft doc contains the thirteen chapters of section 1.

Step 3.1 – Words

When time, and concentration, are on my side the process of writing looks something like  this article by A L Kennedy only less accomplished. A sort of slow working and reworking, fussing over word choice and rhythm. Looking for something that is stylish and which works with the themes and atmosphere of the particular scene and the general book.

The writing of sentences involve a few main concerns. The negative concerns are avoiding clunky phrasing, ugly repetition, accidental rhyme (deliberate rhyme – or half rhyme – is fine), words with the wrong connotations, phrases containing  dead language, phrases containing cliches. The problem is that the first thought is always the most natural, but it is also the most likely to be derivative. Borrowed language is, as the joke goes, to be avoided like the plague.

The positive concerns of writing sentences are packing as much plot, character, theme, and what A L Kennedy calls ‘atmosphere’ in one of her other essays, as possible into every fragment of language. While doing this you are also looking to make something that sounds readable and/or euphonic and/or stylish and/or beautiful. It has to serve a function in the scene, be clear in what it is describing, and never lose sight of the way the book as a whole works.

The sentence by far the most enjoyable and/or gruelling bit of the writing process for me. As world building, or storytelling, or seeing what characters will do next is for others.

I think there is a subtle divide, one which lives close to the genre/literary divide, between those who enjoy the creation of the story: plot (Dan Brown), character (Chandler), and world building (Tolkien); and those who enjoy dealing with ideas or concepts (Huxley); and with those for whom all of that is just a vehicle for fucking about with words  (Amis, M).

Step 3.2 – The Scene

At a scene level I tend to rush, often back and forth, over the scene. Or write one ideas progression, and go back in the next pass writing in the other thought, or the action, or whatever.

Scenes for me tend to be built up step by step out of stage directions (blocking and dialogue, who goes where, does what, in the course of the scene), exposition (what information is revealed about stage directiony stuff that isn’t directly in the scene), and thoughts. Other passes may focus on tightening up things like how a symbol is used, or details which point to something that I don’t want to state explicitly but I want to be there in the text.

This more rushed the back and forth the more work to be done either in later passes, or in future when I come to do the second draft.

Step 4 – Rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

The result of all those threads and sentences is a block of material which should read like a coherent passage. At that point I start to go over it, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, smoothing out the wrinkles, fixing grammar and typos. If it needs big structural changes, or just seems dull, I’ll add notes to look specifically at large scale changes in the second draft.

The ‘step’ nature of this essay is a bit misleading, as at this point and for most of the process all four stages have been in progress, overlapping. I start new scenes before putting old ones to bed. I’ll fuss over sentences before I’ve worked out what all the threads of a scene will be, and I’ll stop mid-scene to go and write an overview of something else later in the book. There’s no hard split between these stages.

Step 5 – ….and Beyond.

So I go back and forth over it all. And then again. And again. Once I can’t see it anymore – because its all patterned too deeply into my retinas, and neural networks, then I copy and paste the piece of writing into a third Document entitled FIRST DRAFT.

Or at least that’s what happens in a perfect world, more likely I rewrite it till I’m sick of it.

And then it is onwards towards the second section.


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Dear Jim… (#1) re: T. S. Eliot


The front of the postcard: T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Dear Jim,

After I moved to Leamington, and the process of unpacking began in earnest, one of the things I found in amongst the flotsam was an old postcard you sent me with T. S. Eliot and your gal Virginia on the front. There is something interesting about seeing those two together, missing only Joyce in order to complete the meld into some sort of Modernist super-Transformer. It is particularly interesting in the context of a card from you to me: my favourite writer sat beside yours, and interesting knowing there was genuine warmth between them, despite Eliot’s general distrust and dislike of womankind.

While looking for something to read that was writing related – a habit I often use for encouragement – I pulled down from the shelves my copy of Lyndall Gordon’s The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. Cracking it open I was reminded by the inscription that it was given by you to your ‘dearest friend, on Christmas 2015.’

The book follows the biography of Eliot with the aim of illuminating the art he produced in his life, and so I thought this an excellent opportunity to read his poems again and his plays for the first time. I open up my Complete Poems & Plays and find ‘To Jon, at Christmas 2012.’ The formal address ‘To Jon’ ages it as much as the date.

So I have started The Imperfect Life and… well, one should never meet one’s heroes. The imperfections abound. The cold, pompous and frequently cruel Eliot of reality is hard to match up to my internal reactions to his works. Especially when those works are so significant to me; ‘The Hollow Men’ was the poem which rescued poetry from an uninspiring GCSE teacher. Reading it in my second year at uni was first time poetry happened and I thought: Oh yeah, this is doing something in my brain; I am having the feels about this.

Then of course there is Eliot’s misogyny, his antisemitism (he would not even capitalise ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ until 1962), and the secondary infection of finding Bertrand Russell conducting a sordid and mean-spirited affair with Vivienne Eliot. Two heroes for the price of one.

But despite this the work still stands. And I allow myself hope. Woolf has just been introduced into Eliot’s story, Pound is drifting further away. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s bohemian influence will affect a softening; perhaps as the picture in the photograph develops he might become less terrible.

Which reminds me that Eliot was the first brick in the eldritch edifice of our friendship. I remember you remembering the first time we met: your lit-student brain being pleased to find a scientist with a favourite poet. That Eliot was that poet was a bonus. I also remember that Mrs Dalloway was one of the first books you ever lent me.

Another strange thing for me in reading The Imperfect Life, is that Eliot’s poetry is ‘explained’. Connected up to his biography, but also interpreted in light of the things he intended by it. I don’t yet know how I feel about that, C– W– once mentioned that ‘The Hollow Men’ was about WWI vets, and I recoiled. Maybe that was who Eliot’s Hollow Men were, but it wasn’t mine. Mine were far more like the men of The Waste Land‘s ‘unreal city’, the dead eyed commuters whose accidie was catching.

The rest of the poem is sinister fragments – just places and pictures – as far as I’m concerned. The dry cellar, the twilight kingdom, the dead land, those eyes, that shadow. Whatever literal interpretation there is, I can’t help but feel knowing it might push out the weird feeling I get in my gut while reading those passages in abstract. There’s not many works of art I feel that way about – reading is more often ‘of interest’ or a source of entertainment for me, and analysis often wrings more of both from a book or play. So when a piece does something more, as ‘The Hollow Men’ did, I get almost superstitious about it. I don’t want that weird feeling in my gut-brain to get replaced by something more interesting perhaps, but less weird in my head-brain.

So why am I risking it now with The Imperfect Life? In part it is because Eliot matters too much to me and my writing for superstition to win the day. With ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land he managed two more gut-brain poems, with the rest of his major works he does the toppest notch of head-brain interests; and he even sneaks a few entertainments in with ‘The Hippopotamus’ and the lyrics to Cats. So I do want to know more about what he did and how he did it. But I approach that knowledge with the trepidation that comes from messing with something you don’t fully understand. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, it feels appropriate that this first ‘letter’ in what will hopefully be a productive collaborative bloggáge – written at a desk about twelve minutes walk from your own a geographical closeness represented in metaphor by the picture postcard above – be about Eliot in some way.

This letter is also a thank you note, for the Complete Poems & Plays of Eliot you gave me back in 2012, and for The Imperfect Life of his you gave me last year; but also for the many, many, many, many words of your own that you have written and/or waffled at me, and for your having read/listened to the many, many, many words of my own that I have waffled at you and/or written.

Here’s to many, many, many more,


Read Jim’s reply here.


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Where did all that Summer go?


June in one of the years of Victoria’s reign. Now that we’ve Brexited I assume we can also start reinstating the Empire. Image from this guy’s Pinterest.

In November when I quit work and moved from my island home to Bristol, I had a pretty clear timeline for The Novel in my head, and a years worth what I thought was a years worth of savings in my bank.

Now, I am several months behind on the novel and looking at falling much, much further behind. And as for the savings… yeeesh.

This isn’t entirely a negative thing. A lot of the time lost on the novel has been to ‘reading weeks’ spent working on research, and on time given over to payed writing of the freelance variety. Some of these distractions have  even turned into regular gigs with Poker Tube and a few more articles – and now a longer term contract – writing for Front Vision. And then there was the move earlier this month from Bristol to Leamington and all the hassle that things like that entail.

For those who are interested, here are the highlights of what I have not been posting about over the last 2.5 months.

First, There Was June

  • The first of the pieces went up on Poker Tube (my full oeuvre there can be read here).
  • I also learnt the hard way not to read comments on Facebook for anything, especially articles (like this one) where you talk about something people love in highly-qualified but negative terms. The comments on PokerTube’s site were pretty civil, the ones on the FB page, less so.
  • I also had a trip back to the island home for a friend of the lady-friend’s wedding. It was lovely to see those few I did manage to see while I was there, and heartbreaking to not see all those I didn’t. On the whole though, I am still thrilled to be away from the place. Small island life is exactly as small islandy as you think it is.
  • I read a bit, wrote a bit, and time moved on…

Then After Came July

  • July brought with it some bad news: a parting of the ways between me and the lady-friend, and some good: new start in Leamington and getting moved and settled with huge amount of help from some top qual friends.
  • I also did some volunteering at Bristol Zoo before the move. It involved more yelling at kids who wanted to pull the lemur’s tails than actually cuddling the adorable – or wrestling the dangerous – animals. Several people dropped their phones in with the seals.
  • I then spent a couple of weeks in Leam on Jim‘s spare bed, while hunting up a flat and generally sorting the new life in Warwickshire.

And Now, August

  • With the kind help of loads of nice people at the Warwickshire end I have completed the move of all my stuff and said a farewell to the Ladyfriend and to Bristol.
  • I have begun tentatively to get back into the novel (aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on it), and am juggling that with the other various writing commitments while also cautiously hunting for some sort of more regular employment.
  • I now have the pleasure of re-ordering my books on their shelves to look forward to, and now have access to the youth restoring springs of the Leamington Spa. Ponce de Leon, eat your heart out.

I think that covers most of it. Hopefully things should start getting back to business as usual now. See you mid-week for something about reading most likely.

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