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City of Echoes

When someone vanishes from an eighteenth-floor apartment that’s locked from the inside, your options are limited.

DI Ash Carter’s colleagues have all but given up looking for his missing girlfriend, Salina. All he can do is try to hold things together and not let the grief consume him. But when an old case mistakenly lands on his desk, he discovers a remarkable similarity to Salina’s disappearance that sets him on a path to uncover the truth behind Salina’s friendship with Kimmie Chan and the strange significance of Birmingham’s most iconic building, The Rotunda.

If you like the sound of my short story, The Crossing Place you can read it here, in the new Birmingham Writer’s Group anthology, City of Echoes.

The anthology is an assortment of stories by some great writers, mainly set in diverse versions of our home town of Birmingham, England.

Last year, we had a great launch party for our 2019 anthology, City of Hope . Sadly, this year’s was not to be, but let’s hope next year will be different.

I’m not quite sure what genre you’d place my story in. It’s certainly not one that I usually write in but that’s what I enjoy about contributing to this collection. It gives me a chance to experiment. My writing friends did give me some suggestions which I scribbled down at the time and then promptly forgot where I put them. Most likely, they’ve ended up in the recycling bin. Anyway, my best guess is that it’s part police procedural, part contemporary fantasy.

If you know better. Let me know.

NaNoWriMo 2020 here I come…

It’s miserable wet and windy here today. Not the most inspiring of days to ramp up the motivational gears in readiness for NaNoWriMo or, as I like to call it, Operation Writing Overdrive.

If you’ve read my previous blog, you’ll know that I was in something of a dilemma as to what to do with the first draft of the novel I wrote in last year’s event, after taking a second look at it. I can now report that I’ve decided to split it. It’s a decision that’s left me with mixed feelings. Dread and excitement. Dread at the thought of untangling it all, and excitement at the prospect of creating another two books that I feel really passionate about.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t just left last year’s draft to gather dust somewhere in the back corners of my laptop. Aside from concentrating on other projects, I’ve been doing a fair amount of research because some of the stories are set in the past. World War II and the proceeding decades, to be precise. It’s required a lot of reading and sifting of information but I’m sure what I’ve learned about those times will help to make the book more authentic.

So here I am, on this rainy afternoon in Birmingham, England, surrounded by research books; paper and electronic notes, and spreadsheets. Yes, spreadsheets. Definitely need the spreadsheets. No more crazy wordcounts for me, thank you. I have never been more ready to go. I even have a working title, ‘The Diaries of Miss Edith Pinsent.’

NaNoWriMo here I come.

PS: My first book, ‘The Three Things That Broke Netta Wilde,’ is about to enter the final and formal editing phase. Now that really is exciting.

The one versus two novel dilemma

Or

When you replot your first draft and realise you’ve actually written two novels.

Just getting myself prepped up for NaNoWriMo 2020.

In last year’s NaNoWriMo, I wrote just over 50,000 words of my second novel and went on to finish the first draft early this year. Then, I put it away and busied myself with rewrites on book no 1. I haven’t really looked at that first draft since. Until now.

I’ve spent the last week re-reading and re-tracking that first draft in readiness for this year’s NaNoWriMo, on a spreadsheet and on this little multi-coloured beauty.

I decided to spend the month focusing on book no 2, rather than start a new story afresh. If I have time when that’s finished, I have two other projects in my back pocket ready to crack on with. All good so far.

Except that now I’ve read it all through and done a final word count, I find I’m already at over 100,000 words.

You might ask, how that could have happened. Didn’t I keep an eye on wordcount?

I must confess, I kept a tally of the wordcount in November then just forgot about it and let the story flow. In the early stages, I write each chapter as separate word documents. It helps my focus and is easier to move around if needed but it’s no good as a wordcount tracker. I could have kept a log but I didn’t. So, no. I suppose I didn’t really keep an eye on wordcount.

You might ask, didn’t I plan the novel?

Well, believe it or not. I planned this one to death. Much more, in fact than book 1. I planned it, and still added to the story. What’s more, I tend to underwrite my first drafts and the re-read has shown me there are bits of the story missing. I say story. In actual fact, it’s four connected stories which is probably another reason for the huge wordcount.

So, what to do? I could plough on and try to shave bits off the original story, or stories, while finding ingenious ways to fill in the missing bits without adding too much to the wordcount. That might work but it’s doubtful.

Or, I could do the sensible thing and split the book into two. I’ve checked the wordcount on the obvious chapters that belong in each book and it’s roughly fifty-fifty. The problem is, the chapters that contain bits of the other stories. The ones that thread the stories together. They are going to take some work to unpick, but at least that gives me room to make each of the stories more rounded.   

Maybe that’s the way to go. As long as I track the number of words this time, what can go wrong?

As to planning. I’ve come to realise I work best part planning and part pantsing. Yes, it is a real word that we writerly types use. It means, just letting it flow out or, in other words, flying by the seat of your pants.

Does that make me a planster? Or did I just make that up?  I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere. I’m pretty sure it’s another real word in the alternative universe that is writing circles (as opposed to crop circles). There I go again.

Summer Reading – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett.

For someone who claims to read very little fantasy, this summer was quite a fantasy fest for me. To be fair, I do like a bit of Discworld. It was introduced to me by my son who became a fan while still in primary school. This was a loan from him.

This particular Discworld story centres on the wizards of the Unseen University who find themselves in something of a financial predicament that leaves them with two choices – either take part in a brutal Ankh-Morpork football tournament or tighten their belts. Being particularly fond of their bellies, the wizards go for the least distasteful option and pull together a motley team to take part in a momentous match. All this without the use of magic. The chancellor is keen to win but, since their opponents have been infiltrated by vengeful football hooligans, they’ll be lucky to get out of it alive.

Of course, this being Discworld, there is always a sub-plot or two on the go and there are always underdogs waiting to become unwitting heroes. In Unseen Academicals these come in the guise of four young people. There’s the mysterious candle dribbler, Mr Nutt who must come to terms with the reality of his personal history and, at the same time, turn the ramshackle band of wizards into something resembling a football team.

Mr Nutt’s colleague and best friend, Trev Likely is a street urchin trying to better himself while definitely not playing the sport that killed his father, the most famous of all of Ankh-Morpork’s footballers. Trev falls for Juliet Stollop, a beautiful but dim kitchen assistant who becomes a famous fashion model. Juliet loves him too but there’s a problem. Trev supports the Dimmers while Juliet’s dad and brothers support their arch enemies the Dollies.

Juliet works in the university’s kitchen, with her best friend and substitute mum, Glenda Sugarbean, a maker of outstanding pies and an all-round sensible person with a secret love of trashy romantic novels. When Mr Nutt meets the homely Glenda, an unlikely romance ensues.

I adored Glenda. For me, she’s the true hero of this caper. Despite it being a fantasy, when the story’s told from her point of view it becomes much closer to a genuine human experience. Like most people, she’s a bundle of conflicts. She’s street smart, yet naïve. Hardened, yet maternal. It’s Glenda who explains to the wizards that football is more than just a game. She saves the day at every turn, whether rescuing the Academicals from defeat with a brilliant idea or showing Mr Nutt the way to personal acceptance. At the same time, she conquers her own personal fears and grows in confidence and stature, even gaining the respect of Lord Vetinari himself.

A sweet, funny story from the much-missed Terry Pratchett that even features a walk on appearance from one of my favourite Discworld character Sam Vimes. What’s not to like?

Summer Reading – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

From Miller’s fantasy to the surreal world of Murakami.

I’m not quite sure what genre you’d slot this novel into. It crosses over several. But if you like books with layers of intricacy that take a while to make sense of, then this is one for you.

I was half-way through the story before I got the significance of the title. The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are, in fact, the two separate states, or worlds, that the unnamed narrator moves through. One is in the conscious and the other in the subconscious. In both states, he is an outsider; slightly apart from the rest of society. In the conscious world, this is because he’s a split-brained Calcutec, a sort of human computer, who works for a mysterious organisation called the System. His job is to cipher and encode vast amounts of confidential data in his mind. To do this he has to flip into his subconscious. This is enabled by an implant in his head.

In the subconscious world, he’s a stranger who arrives at an isolated walled town at the end of the world. To live there, he must allow his shadow to be cut away from him.  The longer he lives there, the harder it is to remember his past and the weaker his incarcerated shadow becomes.

When the Calcutec accepts an assignment from an odd scientist, his life becomes increasingly unhinged. He comes into contact with sinister underworld creatures that live in the sewers; has to fight off the advances of the scientist’s lonely granddaughter and is constantly under threat from the criminal Semiotics organisation, as well as his own employers. On top of that, he’s attacked by two thugs who seem to be linked to neither. He meets and falls for, a permanently hungry librarian who helps him try to work out the significance of a unicorn skull given to him by the scientist. The same librarian becomes a significant part in his subconscious world. As does the unicorn skull.

As if that’s not bad enough, the scientist tells the Calcutec that the implant is a time bomb. In 48 hours, his body and conscious mind will shut down. The physical world will cease to exist for him and his mind will permanently function only in his subconscious – the place at the end of the world.

It sounds complex, and it is. But it’s also funny, clever and self-deprecating. Murakami brings two separate, equally compelling worlds to life. At times, it’s the unreal world inside the narrator’s head that seems to be the more normal. It’s easy to see why he’s attracted to it more and more.

Murakami presents us with an odd collection of characters in this story. Each with their own eccentricities. In the centre is the narrator, a man who is both part of and apart from society in 1980s Tokyo. His shadow is a separate entity in itself and surely a metaphor for the conscious half of his mind. There’s an interesting dynamic going on between the two. Surprisingly, it’s the shadow that’s the proactive one. In both worlds, the narrator is nearly always reactive. The fact that his reactions are so humorous, lends charm to the story.

As to the other characters, my favourites are the women. The naïve, yet brilliant granddaughter with her blunt manner and her love of all things pink lit up the page. Also, the librarian who, in the physical world, never tires of eating. I equally loved the sadder version of her that lives in the metaphysical world. She’s the one the narrator falls in love with and, you feel sure, she’s the one that will save his mind.

This is my second Murakami book, and I’m rapidly becoming a fan. If you’ve read it to, I’d love to know what you thought of it. If not, give it a try and let me know.

Summer Reading – Circe by Madelaine Miller.

With the usual summer debauchery being either too difficult or too scary this year, I wonder how many of us have turned to more solitary pursuits to pass the time. Specifically, I wonder how many of us have read more than we usually do. 

I know people who have turned to books, for the first time in a good while, to find brief escapes from reality. Conversely, I know people who have always read but have found it particularly hard this year to settle their minds sufficiently to commit to a whole book. I can understand that feeling. Sometimes, the instant gratification of the telly or a magazine is a quicker and easier way to lose yourself.

I’ve watched a few of those programmes myself. The sort you wouldn’t normally be bothered with. But I have carried on reading. Probably not as much as I normally do, but what I have read has been engrossing. Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you about some of them. Here’s the first:

Circe by Madelaine Miller

A retelling of the story of Circe the Witch, a fairly minor Greek God. This book was passed on to me by my daughter. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it but I as wrong. The more I read the more it captivated me and, although it was based on a myth – a fairy tale, if you like – the story felt incredibly contemporary.

Friendless and despised by her family Circe leads a lonely existence because she doesn’t fit the usual mould. When she falls in love with a mortal, she makes a mistake that changes her life forever. As a consequence of her actions she is exiled to the island of Aiaia. However, far from it being the end of her, Circe finds that, away from the tyranny of her family, she flourishes.  

One of the interesting themes in Circe’s story is the difference between the Gods and mortals. Contrary to normal teachings, it’s the Gods who are spoilt, selfish and feckless whereas the mortals are mainly honest and hardworking. Circe character’s is a complicated one that seems to straddle both camps. Often, she’s naïve and far too trusting and yet she is as capable of cruelty as the rest of her kin. Her need for affection is all too human. Desperate for it and with only the worst possible role models to draw on, Circe falls for the wrong kind of men.

Another interesting theme is the balance of power. A gradual awakening in Circe brings a realisation of where the real power lies. Although the pointers are there throughout her life, it takes a couple of thousand years for her to understand that women are constantly controlled, used and abused by men. Some of them Gods, some of them mortals.  

As she ages, Circe grows in wisdom and bravery. When she becomes a mother, all of her strength and skill is needed to singlehandedly protect her son. After finally meeting her soul mate, she summons up the courage to confront her brutal father and literally, blow her demons out of the water. As the book closes, we see her summoning all of her spirit and determination to take one last step into the unknown – her true self.

The story of Circe is an epic one. Its beating heart is a woman. A God who is as human as any of us.

Hurrah for holidays

At long last my partner and I managed to get away for a couple of weeks in our motorhome.  We bought it last February, although it’s far from new. Last year, we really made the most of it with three different holidays around the UK.

By far the most special was a five-week tour of the Scottish Highlands and islands. Of course, five weeks isn’t really enough to cover the whole of the north of Scotland, let alone its many islands. So, we stuck to the west. Our plan was to do another long trip this year along the east coast, taking in the Shetland Isles. I’m a fan of Ann Cleeves and her Jimmy Perez books, and the TV series has made a trip there all the more enticing.

Anyway, that was the plan. Sadly, the plan got changed. Frustrating but, given the current circumstances, we just counted ourselves lucky to remain healthy.   

Instead we were able to find availability in the north of England, starting at the very top, in Berwick – Upon – Tweed. Actually, we did stay over the border in Scotland for that one, in the grounds of the very lovely Paxton House in Berwickshire.

As we journeyed southwards along the north-east coast, we came across some stunning places that we never knew existed. We were also treated to some wonderful glimpses of the natural world including basking seals, leaping dolphins and plunging gannets. My favourite had to be two squabbling weasels on a quiet country road in North Yorkshire. One was chased off by the other. As he ran to the safety of the other side of the road, the defeated weasel spotted us, stopped and stared us out for a few minutes, then scurried under a hedge. A magical moment.

Here are a few snaps of the places we visited. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Paxton House – I’m a sucker for a Highland cow
Viaduct across the River Tweed – Berwick – Upon -Tweed, Northumberland.
Cairns – Holy Island (Lindisfarne), Northumberland
Croquet in front of Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
Runswick Bay, Yorkshire
Staithes, Yorkshire
Sandsend, Yorkshire
Musicians – Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

Note to my teenage self about my first stereo

My latest poetry video, Note to my teenage self about my first stereo, is up on my YouTube channel.

I got my first stereo as a Christmas present when I was fifteen. Although it was a supposed to be a surprise, I actually knew about it in November. I’d spent the week on a geography field course trip at a place called Bockleton in Worcestershire and my parents bought it while I was away. As soon as I got back home, my dad couldn’t wait to show it to me. The excitement was clearly too much for him. He was always rubbish at surprises.

Hard to imagine, with music being so easy to get hold of these days, but that stereo opened up new worlds for me. It was probably the best Christmas present I’ve ever had. Who new such treasures could be found in Woolworths?

I was a huge Roxy Music fan at the time. This was back when they were weird and arty. So, the first albums I bought were by them. My best friend and I spent hours dissecting the lyrics, trying to understand the meaning. For us, it was as much about the words as the music. Once we spent weeks trying to find out who Zarathustra was because his name appeared in one of their songs – Mother of Pearl, in case you’re interested. There was no internet then so, when the school library drew a blank, we had to resort to the most knowledgeable person we knew. Our Religious Education teacher. He told us he had no idea. All I can say is, our opinion of him went down several notches.

I’m still gripped by those early Roxy albums even though my tastes have become more eclectic over time. And I still get the same thrill when words and music collide into a perfect, heart-stopping combination.

SHOW LESS

Taking the no. 11 bus & other circuitous ramblings

I don’t know about you but I’m finding the number of bad things going on in the world at the moment pretty hard to swallow. Just when I think it can’t get any worse, something else crawls out from under a stone.

Here in the UK, there are things going on in the political arena that have me regularly thinking, surely my jaw couldn’t drop any lower? And then something new comes out, and down it goes again.

There are some good things to come out of the awfulness, of course. Today, I read about the Wall of Moms, the mothers who are coming together to form protective human shields for BLM protesters against heavy handed US federal agents. That’s pretty good, in my book. Go moms, as they say across the pond.

I’m finding the best way to get through all this turmoil is to keep busy. And making lists. Lists help a lot. I am a list person. I even wrote a poem about why I need lists. I may share it with you one day.

In the meantime here’s what I’ve been up to lately, beside the lists:

As I mentioned in my last post, in June, I started my YouTube channel with my first online poetry reading. I’m please to say it’s gone down quite well. I’ll be adding to it with another reading or two soon and hope to improve with each video. This channel is another of those good things to come out of the bad. Way back in January, I made a resolution to get comfortable with performing my poetry to a live audience. My first performance, to a small and welcoming crowd was at the beginning of March. I came away from that night, buzzing and really looking forward to the next one. Then lockdown happened. My performance career was put on hold. Luckily though, the poets that run the same poetry night that I’d performed at, took the event online, with videos instead of face to face. So, I am now a YouTube performance poet. To say I’ve surprised myself is something of an understatement.

I’m still working on my first novel. I want to get it as good as I can before publication, so I recently sent it off for a professional beta read assessment. Having spent a few weeks working through the suggested edits, I believe the result is a much stronger novel. I’m getting ever closer to the finished product.

When I first started writing this book, I had little knowledge of how the whole process worked. I naively thought it would take six months at the most to get it ready for publication. It’s actually taken a couple of years, and is still not quite ready. I’m told by many, more established, authors that this is quite normal for a first novel. They assure me that subsequent books are quicker and easier. I’m sure that’s probably so. I’m still learning as I go along and I’ve learnt enough so far to realise that I’ve taken a really circuitous route. There’s a bus in my home town called the number 11. It runs around the outer circle of Birmingham – 27 miles in all. I feel as if I’ve taken my book for a ride on the number 11 instead of taking one of the buses that cut straight through the city centre, getting me to my destination in half the time. It’s a shame, but learning from your mistakes is what life’s all about, isn’t it? I’ll be sure to use my new-found knowledge for future books.

Aside from the novel, I’ve been going through a bit of a creative streak lately, partly spurred on by being a runner up in Friday Flash Fiction Summer competition. Result? A 500 word historical(ish) flash fiction story; a longer short story that may well end up as a novella, and two more potential shorts mulling over in my head. My problem now, is time. Much as I’d like to spend all day and every day bashing out words, I have a life outside of writing that tempts me away.

One of the fun things about my other life is the caravan my partner and I have in the Shropshire countryside. We weren’t allowed to use it during lockdown but I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case. Needless to say, we’ve been making the most of it and getting outdoors as often as the weather allows. In fact, I’m writing this post sitting outside the caravan now, after a 5 mile walk in the gorgeous Wyre Forest.

I love getting out in the country but I love the city too. With lockdown easing, Mr W and I are taking tentative steps to normality. For us, that doesn’t yet mean going to pubs and restaurants. I look forward to the time when we can get back to actually sitting down and eating in one of Birmingham’s many excellent restaurants and cafes but, at the moment, it feels too early for us. Although we are trying to support our local businesses by doing essential shopping locally and ordering takeaway food from our favourite independents.

Occasionally we’ve been cycling into the centre of Birmingham, just to experience it on two wheels. Here I am having a mid-trip stop outside the fab Birmingham library. Mine’s the cheater weeter’s electric bike in orange. Great if you have dodgy knees and a problem with hills.

High on Tulsa

Fresh off the press. Catch my live recording on YouTube.

High on Tulsa: For John Moreland

If you haven’t come across John Moreland before, I strongly advise you to look him up. Here he is playing “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” – one of my favourites. Cracks me up every time.

This poem is about a memory I have of seeing him play live at the Cambridge Folk Festival on a particularly hot day the the summer of 2018. I’d made a deal with my partner that we’d watch half of John’s set then go to see Patti Smith but I’m afraid I just couldn’t tear myself away and Patti had to make do without me. I don’t suppose she was too upset about that.

It’s been a while since I last posted a poem. That’s not because I’ve stopped writing poetry. Far from it. I’ve been writing quite a few, in between forging my first novel and some short stories. I suppose I’m just being a little bit more selective about the ones I post these days, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m trying to pull together a collection of themed poetry that hasn’t had too much previous exposure. I hope to publish them in the near future. Second, I take more time in crafting a poem these days so I’m often reluctant to let them out into the world too early. That said, I only wrote this poem in this April’s NaPoWriMo and have been diligently working on it since then. So much so, there’s little of the original version left.

I’m reasonably happy with it now – a record for me: I’m still tinkering with some of the poems I posted on this site a few years ago. Anyway, I’ve recorded this one for an online event that would normally be held in a little pub in the Black Country (that’s the West Midlands of England for those of you who aren’t so familiar with British regions). The event is called Yes We Cant and this month’s event will take place on Sunday 7th June here.

My performance will be featured in the open mic sections, along with several other excellent local poets and storytellers.

Alternatively you can check it out on YouTube. It’s my first ever recording and clearly I have a lot to learn but I’d be really interested to know what you think of it. So please, have a look and a listen, and drop me a comment or message me. It would be great to hear from you.