I’d not normally need any virtual assistance in the twice-weekly process of buckling down and getting some writing done. Far from bunking off, I’m usually I’m thinking too much about my latest project. In any normal week I’ve driven my family to distraction by Wednesday, my tendency towards a thousand-yard stare during normal conversation a sure sign I’m off in another world, present but not really present.
Nowadays though, when I’m not home-schooling the kid and I’m trying to get some writing done… things are different. Emails are pinging in, WhatsApp groups are chattering, mates at a loose end are sending me cat videos and news updates are either imminent, in progress or, having just finished, are the subject of immediate and endless analysis.
I’ve had to turn to the App Store for help. I’d heard others recommend a swathe of internet-blocking tools, Freedom most prominent among them, but what had recently caught my attention was a recent attendee at a Storycraft creative writing session tell me about Forest.
Forest has got me sorted. It’s not a blocker, as such – you can leave the app to check email and surf the web anytime you want – but if you do, your tree dies. You read that right. Your TREE DIES, people; the lovely little thumbnail of growth you’re nurturing, paradoxically through your inattention. (If only home-schooling were as easy, right?)
You select a period of time for uninterrupted tree-growth and the app plays rainforest sounds in your ears for the duration. Every time to pick the phone up, it encourages you gently back to work. It’s the second-best thing that’s happened this week, behind my timely delivery of lockdown Rioja.
Only problem? It doesn’t monitor what it is you’re doing. It has no idea how you’re spending your away-from-the-phone time.
Like, say I was writing a quick blog-post instead of assiduously plotting the re-write of the second act of this thriller I should be working on. Let’s just say. Well, if I was, Forest would never know. Shhh. Don’t tell.
p.s. The Storycraft session went well:
I once visited a school so posh it had won Tatler's Restaurant of the Year in the Education category. I had salmon with samphire for lunch that day.
My recent visit to Shrewsbury School was equally as impressive. The food was great of course and the campus utopian; there were swimming pools, lecture halls, strange courts for a game called fives, acres of manicured sports field, a school chapel. But the library - guys the library. It had a Turner painting hanging on the wall. Behind toughened glass was a first edition of Origin of Species. Signed. Charles Darwin was an alumni so there were hand-written scribbles made by the man himself in his own textbooks.
The staff were lovely, the students terrific; clever, thoughtful, funny. I spoke to one who had their own ski-instructor. A great start to WBD week. Thanks so much to all the terrific folk who bought a book and everyone who helped make the talks and workshops such a success!
Listen. I'm not going to apologise for starting my reading year with Dungeons and Dragons, Art and Arcana even if you come round my place with a tooled-up crew of rabid heavies. I am who I am, and now Stranger Things has legitimised me. At least until season three when they all get into girls and the gang splits up and only that sad wizard-kid is left DM-ing in a basement on his own but you know what I mean.
It's been the usual mix of MG, YA, thrillers and fantasy this year, with the emphasis heavily on the thriller since I'm 75,000 words into one of my own. Here's hoping there's 2020 news on that but it's way too soon to say.
Later on in the year it looks like this:
In the MG space I loved Malamander, and in the land of Gatsby-esque YA, Lockhart's We Were Liars is of course a masterpiece and I was a fool not to notice when I read the first half three years ago, before I subsequently forgot to renew it, paying a hefty fine and moving on to other things. I'm a top-draw dunderhead and I don't deserve your patronage.
You might have seen a previous post called Six Thrillers; they accounted for a sunny month towards the end of the summer. Two I loved but you have to guess which. Others: Jane Harper’s The Lost Man was an intense and stifling whodunnit set under the relentless Antipodean sun. Dark Pines and An English Murder were chilly European equivalents. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is shipping bucketloads from bookstore table-tops and for good reason: better, for me, than Moriarty’s Big Little Lies because despite a similar cast of vile and self-obsessed characters, Foley’s structure foregrounds the murder and we time-hop as well as head-hop. The two-day running time condenses action and ratchets tension very nicely.
Aany-way. Book of the year for me:
It's a raw, visceral and scary fictionalised account of the Donner party's disastrous attempted crossing of the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Spoilers: things turn bad and people get bit. Turn back or you will all die is plastered across the cover.
Hopefully that's not a comment on our foolish country's current trajectory, eh.
Back in a previous life I was asked to help design a school's reward system. How might we celebrate and champion students' efforts and endeavours? There was a lot of BS talked in the room that day; nonsense about trading 'behaviour points' for prizes. Or handing out school 'dollars' that could be used to buy cinema trips or get free pizza; trips to theme parks for kids with good reports, all that blah.
Thankfully I was deputising to a headteacher with her head screwed on. At one point, she suggested leadership roles. The ones who'd put in a shift, she explained, get to coach others, run school events, lead sports teams or clubs. "I dunno..." shrugged one member of staff. "Sounds like it could be hard work for them." The headteacher thought for a moment. "Well," she said. "Perhaps the reward for hard work should be more hard work."
I remembered her words listening to a superb speech given by poet and playwright Jack Nicholls at a recent award ceremony for young writers. Jack's on the left in the picture above, the dude with the remarkable pants; the other judges pictured are Paul Morris - another impressive and accomplished speaker and writer - in the centre, and me. (Shout-out to the wonderful Jake Hope and Danielle Jawando who judged, but couldn't be there at the event.) I won't attempt to reproduce Jack's words from memory here. You could ask him yourself on Twitter. The gist was this:
Congratulations, he began, addressing the shortlisted writers. It's official, you're all writers! We've loved reading your work! Now take a moment. It will never get any better than this. (There was an uneasy pause here, some nervous laughter. Jack grinned and resumed.) This is a career in which virtually no-one will ever tell you if you're doing it right.
So true. There are a vanishingly small number of reward systems for writers. Sure, there are regional and national prizes but the shortlists tend to have six books on them. Your book is one of several hundred published in any year. You ain't going to get on many shortlists. No-one's going to stop by to praise a WIP chapter or clap you on the back for drafting a superb poem. Most days you'll sit in a caff somewhere, like I am now, and just hammer the words out.
No-one will notice.
No-one will visit your site or thumbs-up your vlog.
No-one will say well done or offer up a high five.
No-one will provide a detailed report of recent sales or collate a list of glowing remarks.
That particular headteacher had it right, and the lesson is clear.
In this game, the reward for hard work is more hard work. It's up to us to Just. Keep. Going.
True story. Witnessed in a recently read spooky novella: our narrator, assailed by sinister events, tells us:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
Of course the writer has chosen a narrator who is no accomplished wordsmith so that might go some way to explaining the rather wooden description on offer. Look, there’s nothing wrong with narrators resorting to cliché if that’s what they’d do irl. (Or indeed repetition; one chapter later, his heart skips a beat again. The precise sentence is repeated.) But on the other hand, we do need to be immersed and invested emotionally in the protag’s terror… and when, in a chapter towards the end of the book, we get,
“A shiver ran down my spine…”
…we're running the risk that cliché denies the real power of fear, tames and civilises it – wraps it in something comfortingly familiar.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us, buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, a pre-civilised fight/flight dynamic. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you and ask, where exactly does fear breed? It’s not the spine, for my money. Neither is it, in my experience anyway, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
Check out 32 Ways to Write About Fear for a good physiological starting point. And consider ‘Killing the Word Was’ from Storycraft, where Jon Mayhew and I discuss ways young writers might replace “I was scared…” with something more visceral and emotive.
It's not a simple case of adjusting the adjective - it's about adjusting the whole approach.