Saturday, 21 November 2009

November: writing season

It's been over a month since the clocks went back, and I've been wearing my fingerless gloves all around the house ever since. This is no pretension on my part: it really is that cold in our house. Most evenings I creep up to the attic to get to work wearing two shirts, two vests, a thin jumper, and a wonky home-knit aran sweater that I made two years ago, and which is too embarrassing to wear outside the house. Putting the heating on is cheating. Apparently, if one wants to write a great novel, one has to suffer like a character in a Dostoevsky novel. That's Ricky's excuse for not putting the heating on, anyway: it's all the interests of supporting my work.

Dark nights can be something of a productivity slayer. Crawling into hibernation after long days at a day job is perilously easy. However, the slide into torpor is even more depressing than 16-hour long nights, rendering the lazy writer a regretful quivering heap by February, when the snowdrops start to emerge.

A winter night is well suited to writing. It's dark, it's cold, there are few distractions. What else are you going to do? It's not like you can have a barbeque, for God's sake. And so, every night after tea, I waddle upstairs in my seventeen layers to do a couple of hours' work.

This November I have mostly been: still embroiled in the very exciting Secret Project I'm working on. At this rate, I'll have the first draft finished by February. Interspersed with this, I've been working on some short stories. I've had some good ideas lately and they've all made their way into the fiction.

For anyone looking for places to submit work this month (be quick, there are short dates on these) here are a couple of competitions I've unearthed lately:

The Willesden Herald runs an International Short Story competition, leading to publication by Pretend Genius Press, who are an independent publisher who run on a non-profit basis. They have about 15 titles to their name, and currently also publish 'zines. They seem like a publishers' with a unique ethos, so go check 'em out.

This is a good comp for anyone who's a bit wordy in their short stories, as the word limit is 8,000 words. Best of luck to anyone who enters this one.... I'm off to don my gloves and get back to work!

Currently Reading

When To Walk Rebecca Gowers
Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them Phillipe LeGrain
Before She Met Me Julian Barnes

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but cafes are a girl's best friend....

Last weekend saw me tagging along behind Ricky on a trip to the South coast. I had a couple of free days, and he had some photographs to take. Although entreated to stand around holding a flash, or to stop passers-by from walking in front of the camera, I demurred. "You want me to take two whole days away from the Big Secret Project?" I shouted. "And get stuck in the middle of Chapter Six? I DON'T THINK SO."

The more I work at being a writer, the more it becomes clear that taking any sort of break from writing - especially in the middle of a big project like a novel - is disastrous. There was that one time when we had a holiday and I made the mistake of leaving my notebook at home. When I got back, I lost hours in staring angrily at blank pages, trying to get into a stride that had been unbreakable before we'd gone away. It's not the sort of mistake you're in a hurry to repeat.

So I shoved my laptop and a notebook into the old rucksack, along with a pair of clean knickers and a travel bottle of shampoo, and joined him in the car. Call me strange (go ahead, everybody does) but when we pulled into Brighton, it wasn't the main shopping street, or the tourist attractions, I was scanning the streets for, but a cafe.

You know the sort of cafe I'm talking about. It's the sort of cafe writers love. It's got mismatched furniture, jumble sale crockery, a clientele that plays Go quietly, and who chat at a non-concentration breaking level, and owners who don't mind customers ordering one cup of tea and staying there four hours. I found one such cafe in The Lanes, a cute place with a colourful array of retrieved furniture, and a synthetic cow-hide rug underfoot. Satisfied that I'd found my working spot for the rest of the afternoon, I plugged the computer in and got to work.

Despite my highly-strung need for absolute silence when working at home, paradoxically, when working in a public place like a cafe or a library, the quiet level of constant noise around me is comfortably stimulating. There is nothing more inspiring than watching other people eat (discreetly, of course... it's rude to stare) and listening in on their conversations for a couple of hours. Oh come on, it's not just me. You all do it.

My thanks go out to the owners of this cafe for not ostentatiously clearing up around me as I worked, in an attempt to hustle me out of the place. Their consideration allowed me to get my work done, and I don't doubt that there's a great tradition of letting writers get on with their work by cafe owners, without which the creation of many great works of literature would have been completely scuppered: "I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines give to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that.... you're taking the sugar bowl? Oh, for Christ's sake, please not the sugar bowl. Now I just look like a tramp who came in here to get warm. Thanks." ( (c) F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926)

After a couple of hours' work, I felt bad about making one cup of tea last so long, and approached the counter again. The cafe was small enough that I could leave my laptop on the table to keep an eye on it while I ordered another cup of tea, and a slice of cake. "Greedy," the owner said to me as he reached into the Brownie jar with his tongs. I don't know how many slices of cake he thought I'd had in the two hours I'd been there. Seemed like he thought I'd been doing nothing but shoving bits of flapjack into my face continuously, rather than working tirelessly on The Big Secret Project.

Anyway, it was thanks to his consideration and generosity that I was able to get another chapter finished, and to tidy up a few other smaller bits of work that needed doing. I can't be alone in needing to thank cafe owners up and down the country for their understanding in allowing me to work in their establishments for hours at a time for the price of a hot drink.
Favourite writing cafes, anybody?