In A Few Words

2018 was the year in which I discovered that I can, after all, read fiction in parallel to writing it. Previously I was strictly on a non-fiction diet when writing, and I’m very happy to have that curse lifted.

This was my reading in the last year, a dozen or so books, mainly fiction and mainly finished. Here’s an impression of each of them in a few words.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
An extraordinary tale with an unlikely theme – studying philosophy. Highly recommended, but don’t try and understand everything, let it flow through your mind and enjoy the puzzles and paradoxes.

The Book of Dust Vol 1 La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Pullman’s back with a prequel to his magnificent trilogy His Dark Materials. Some familiar names and places for fans of Lyra Belacqua and some of the old magic is also present, but so far this trilogy is a lesser thing than Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Still worth reading.

The Man Game by Lee Henderson
A very good book, set mainly in Vancouver, Canada in the 1880s with what feel like flashforwards to the present day. It’s a story of a man’s world of drinking, violence, prostitution and gambling told with great feeling and tenderness. And it’s also the story of the beautiful and clever Molly who makes a place for herself and her quadriplegic husband in this dangerous world. Highly recommended, even if you don’t like the sound of it.

Nothing by Henry Green; Living by Henry Green
Unfair to review two titles as one, but the stories are similar in many respects and the writing style takes some getting used to. These are two novels of social commentary written by British author Henry Green. Nothing (1950) is more accessible than Living (1929) if only because the language is more modern and middle-class. Henry Green was new to me and I’m pleased to have read these two books, not least because they demonstrate yet again in how many different ways this wonderful English language can be written. Recommended as an education in language and writing, the stories have less tension than we are used to reading in 2018.

The Ocean Container by Patrik Sampler
A dystopian novel of now, or the very near future, in which an eco-activist seeks refuge in a steel shipping container, encouraged into social exile by rivals and cut off from his wife and child by distance and fear. Set in the Pacific North West, resolution – of a kind – comes in the aftermath of an earthquake. Mostly enjoyable with some very perceptive writing, I really wanted this to be a bigger story than the author has squeezed it down to.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
John le Carré produced possibly the best spy novel of all time in A Perfect Spy and fans of the genre will certainly know the George Smiley titles. I didn’t enjoy A Legacy of Spies, the format seemed dated, the story felt like a rehash of old ideas and themes. Rarely for me, I didn’t finish this book. A big disappointment from a master storyteller.

20th Century Ghost Stories edited by Paul Guernsey
Some really good ghost (or at least, supernatural) goings on, along with a few lesser stories. They’re all pulled together by the editor from entries to’s competitions. If you enjoy the theme, you’ll enjoy a lot of these spooky tales.
(Confession of bias: I have a story slated for inclusion in the next volume – see panel on the right.)

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
Not a great work of literature but none the worse for that. It’s a unique insight into what has become a Great British Oddity – the ravens of the Tower of London. The author debunks a few myths at the same time as he reveals the innermost workings of raven life at the Tower. Escapes and recaptured fugitives, deaths in custody and raven mind-games, but the show must go on. Easy reading with insight into a unique British tradition.

Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Who knew anything about the intelligence of an octopus? About their life cycle? About their emotions, their ability to learn, to recognise faces, sadness, anger, friendship, fear? Read this book and never eat octopus again. Unless you’ve studied the subject before, this will be a revelation. It’s not loaded with science, it’s very readable and personal. Every human should read this to understand that we are not alone with our ‘higher’ intelligence.

Unsolved Crimes by Sarah Herman
One of those dip-in lightweight bathroom books which describes many of the world’s famous unsolved crimes from serial killings (yes, of course Jack The Ripper is in there) to diamond heists and kidnappings. Great for what it is, but very light on new information or surprises. Enjoy it in a bathroom near you, it won’t delay you unnecessarily.

What’s on the 2019 bookshelf? 4321 by Paul Auster definitely, I’ve started and am spellbound – as usual – by his writing, The Diary of a Bookseller looks like fun (Shaun Bythell), Eyes Wide Open by Isaac Lidsky will have a personal relevance, and could this be the year that I do more than start Cloud Atlas?

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Success! (Or the lack of it)

For those who’ve never seen one – this is a rejection letter.

How on earth should we measure success? The book of the year? Top of the NYT bestsellers? The first invite to appear on chatshow-tv? Or the tenth? Any of these might be welcome, but would they demonstrate creative success – or merely successful promotion?

At the other end of the scale a single two-line review commending your work to others might indicate more meaningful success.

It’s all relative – not just to your starting point, not only when judged against ambition, and certainly not when judged in competition with others. Any writer who’s ever submitted anything to a publisher, magazine or competition, be it poetry, flash fiction or full length novel, should understand that the difference between success and the other thing (what – failure?) is wafer thin.

A story discarded by one apparently highly qualified judge can just as easily delight another. What then is success? Persistence in submitting? It’s the same piece of writing, it just speaks to one reader more than another. Writing that resonates with even one other person can rightly claim success.

When I wrote my first novel it was a huge achievement simply to complete it, a success in its own right. A late-night, pre-computer, hand-written slog against the odds. It was not very good, despite the pride I took in it. Rejection was justified, even if I raged against it at the time.

A handful of people have read that story over the intervening years, mainly out of curiosity, but it remains a success on those original terms. And not only that, like all my creative efforts between then and now, it was a step on the path. Nothing that has happened since would have been the same without that experience.

As Rudyard Kipling almost said, If you can meet with success and failure and treat those two impostors just the same . . .

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Reasons to Write – Part 2

original photo credit kai Stachowiak “And as for fortune, and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired
They are illusions, they’re not the solutions they promised to be”*

The first part of this piece gained a few approving nods, which is more than enough to encourage any writer. Even one approving nod is often sufficient for us to stop sulking and rush back to the keyboard.

The creative cycle of getting a brilliant idea, creating the art/music/story that embodies it, followed by huge depression at the work being worthless (and by extension you are also worthless), seems to be the curse of many creatives I know. Several are sublimely talented yet regularly racked by self-doubt. Conversely, the ones with lesser abilities often seem to be the most confident.

So why do it, aside from it being an addiction, and an innate part of who we are?

Thinking about that single nod of appreciation, I remember the first message I received from a reader other than a friend or family member, a few simple words thanking me and saying how the story had inspired her. Original photo credit Circe Denyer That was an important moment in my writing life, the realisation that a story can end up anywhere, be read by anyone and we don’t know the effect our writing will have. I still tend to forget it, I’m still surprised when a message from a stranger drops into my inbox. And it’s still hugely encouraging, a reminder that someone sees value in my work. Someone, somewhere wants to read your story, see your painting, hear your music. Create for them.

So, at last you wrote something you were happy with. Short story, poetry, a novel? It doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter who read it and who didn’t, or who liked it: do it again. Write another story, novel or poem and make it better than the last one. Do deeper research, understand your characters better, know the new landscape in every season.

Your best work should be ahead of you, waiting to be written. If you have success by any measure – more on that another day – even on a small scale, don’t rest on it, be better, hone your skills. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does help.

Original photo credit George HodanWho knows, one day you might be a great writer. But don’t spend all those hours and all that energy with the intention of being recognised as great. Of course you’re allowed to imagine such a thing, to dream that you might be seen as such. But be careful what you wish for – great writers are usually dead writers, like their artist and musician counterparts. And don’t confuse great with popular as so many supposedly authoritative lists do. Don’t write with an eye on recognition, it will find you if you’re good enough, even if you may not be around to benefit.

And as for fame, forget it, dismiss it from your thoughts completely. Luckily, you wouldn’t recognise most famous writers if they rang your doorbell. Their names may be familiar (very few, though), but that is not the true curse of fame. Real fame is a burden, something to be continually worked at if you desire it or wish to keep it, something that’ll stick like shit to a blanket if you want rid of it. The Andy Warhol syndrome (“in the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”) may be a more common disease than Mr Warhol could ever have imagined, but writers are thankfully fairly resistant to it.

Coming soon: Success! (Or the lack of it).

Those * lyrics? Don’t Cry For Me Argentina Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice
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Reasons to Write – Part 1

“It’s not about money, if it were we wouldn’t do it.”

Laptop keyboard

Photo credit Fujifilm FinePix SL1000

An article I read recently described writers’ frustrations when achieving few book sales despite sometimes great expense and wide promotion. The author included an example of a book with thousands spent on it and which sold one copy. While much of the piece was well thought out, useful and informative, it completely ignored any other reason to write, culminating in ‘building a business round the book’. The implication was that selling books was the only worthwhile reason to write, otherwise don’t bother.

So what happened to all the other reasons to be creative? Here’s one that’s frequently ignored: it’s good to be creative, good for the creator and good for society. That premise used to be widely accepted, just as learning was considered a good thing. Now we are told to be suspicious of knowledge, of learning, of reason itself. Fake facts and alternative truths undermine scholarship and deny experience. ‘Truth isn’t truth’ will be a fine epitaph for this age we live in.

Even if book sales are zero, even if the story doesn’t get published, the pleasure of creation can be immense. Every writer (and other creative, I’m sure) knows that it’s never pure pleasure from start to finish, very often there’s what seems like regular torture in there too. But without a little sweat and a few tears, where’s the salt in our stories?

That sense of creation is very good for you, study after study shows how important it is to both physical and mental health. Google ‘therapeutic value of creativity‘ and read the evidence. My main interest is writing, but it’s true for every kind of creative endeavour from pottery to sewing, from music to flower arranging.

Two Pools by Stephanie Jewell

Two Pools – Stephanie Jewell. Creativity benefits mind and body whatever the medium. Photo Stephanie Jewell

Most writers I know have another good reason to write: they have a story to tell. A storyteller tells stories, right? Obvious. If you have a story to tell and don’t tell it you aren’t a storyteller.

The best advice I ever heard for a writer is a single word: write. It’s nowhere better expressed than where I first read it, in The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Eddy Canfor-Dumas, in which the would-be writer remains just that until he understands that the moment he actually writes he will become a writer and he can move from there to being a better writer.

Writers are lucky. We get a blank page and an infinite number of words and can put them in a gazillion different sequences. We can even make up new words. At any point in the process we can erase, change or add anywhere we choose. I could never have been a sculptor.

There are less good reasons to be a writer and the most common is the pot of gold at the end of the Kindle rainbow. Today anyone can write and be published. That’s good. But to be motivated only by the idea of wealth from royalties will distort your writing and almost inevitably lead to huge disappointment.

Kindle Reader

Photo credit – Nikon D7000

Recent info from Just Publishing Advice suggests there are close to fifty million titles on Amazon and a new Kindle title every five minutes. It’s a very tough place to get rich on royalties. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hope to earn something from writing, you certainly should and good luck, but don’t let it be the motivator. There are better reasons to write and they’ll make for better writing.

Coming soon in Reasons to Write Part 2 – readers, honing skills, expanding imagination, becoming a great writer and the false god of fame.

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Excess Baggage

ReadingGlasses1Or 6 essentials for the writer on holiday

Wondering if you can possibly be without a book or a notepad for even a week? And what about the laptop? What’s the wifi like at your palm-fringed idyll or your remote retreat in the woods? It’s a two-edged sword, having no wifi does release all those wasted Facebook hours, but without that vital piece of Googling you’ll be unable to write a single word of the short story you’ve been nurturing for a month.

So, what are my top six takes?

  1. The laptop is a must, even if it does extend the airport security nightmare while you untangle the nest of cables. If there’s wifi in your shangri-la then set an alarm as a reminder to Stop Wasting Time looking at pictures of cats being cats and dogs being treated as children. It’s meant to be a break from the norm. If there’s any chance you will actually write a few memorable words, take a memory stick for back-up.

  2. A dictionary, preferably a good one with usage notes. Convincing a non-writing partnerPenguinEDcropped of this can be difficult, especially if your choice tips the scales at more than 2kg, as does my all-time favourite The Penguin English Dictionary (3rd ed. which has such a perfect seaside picture on it). What!? A fat paper dictionary when there’s the web with everything you need? To which the answer is a) what if there’s no web? and b) nothing else comes close.

  3. OxfordLandrangerA map of the place you’re about to spend time in. Good maps are hard to find, so do your research on this and don’t be scared to spend a little extra. For the UK accept nothing less than the latest OS (online and in bookshops). And as for GPS, Google Earth etc, see comments above re The Penguin.

  4. Spare reading glasses. Sod’s law says if you don’t take any, you’ll need them.

  5. A book you’ve had for a while and never quite got round to reading. It can be fact or fiction – although fiction can be difficult when also trying to write it. Be prepared to return with the book still unread. SpivetSelectedWorksNo matter, it will be available again for the next trip. There are several on my bookshelf ready to play the part, but The Selected Works of TS Spivet will probably be the volume of choice this year. I was seduced once again by the meaningless words “New York Times Bestseller”. Bestseller it might be, but who’s actually read it?

  6. A good pen and paper to write on. Sounds so simple doesn’t it, there are ballpoints by the million, but few that sit well in the hand or are a pleasure to use. Likewise a right-sized notebook of creamy pages with a willing surface. Current favourites are a classic Parker retractable with a black gel refill and a hardback 7×9 journal. Both are guaranteed a place in my bag.ParkerGelBlack3

In my household there’s a further discussion about the merits or otherwise of taking the printer, but that’s not something that need delay most people . . .

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Don’t Judge a Book . . .

SoulofaWarriorCoverPicSurprise, surprise! Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an old saying but one that never dates.

To be clear from the beginning, this is not a story that I’d have normally chosen. The genre is completely alien to me, but I was lucky enough to be given a copy. And I was lucky enough to persevere through what seemed an unsteady and unpromising opening to finish what turned out to be a worthwhile read. Yes, Soul of a Warrior is flawed, but then it is rare for a first novel to be anything but. It seemed to be less in need of better writing than more diligent, perhaps harsher, editing and a few thousand words being cut.

The author, Denna Holm, has been ambitious, winding together a gritty slice of life from today’s familiar world with all manner of science fiction and fantasy. Not content with vampires, werewolves, aliens, and interplanetary transportation, she has added the spice of interspecies romance. This may all seem a bit too much and yet Ms Holm carries it off far better than the description might suggest. Indeed, the story is carried along well by the relationship between the main protagonist Kimberly and her unlikely alien suitor/mate.

Despite some slightly predictable outcomes, the author has also left enough room for both a sequel and the currently fashionable prequel. As might be expected, the themes offer abundant opportunities for descriptive passages painting the strange colours of other worlds and other beings. Although these are well handled, they could if anything have been a little more graphic, the imagination could have been allowed an even freer reign.

Perhaps the story was most enjoyable, most authentic, when it touched upon areas of personal interest. The idea of there having been previous – albeit rare – interbreeding between humans and aliens, was well handled, and gave a firm base for the fantastic. The sprinkling of details from family and social history gave credibility to the fiction.

If science fiction, fantasy and romance is your idea of a good read you’ll enjoy Soul of a Warrior a lot. I enjoyed it far more than expected, which proves yet again that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – or even its genre. The book is available in several formats but here’s the link to the Amazon kindle version Soul of a Warrior

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Sharing the Pleasure

AgricolaStreetLogoA warm welcome on a freezing night and the discovery of superb Apple & Gin sorbet.

It had been a dramatic, even traumatic, week. It was coming to a close after a Friday spent traipsing round used-car dealers in the biting cold with Halifax’s streets piled waist high with snow. Deeply weary, our greatest need was to sit somewhere other than a car, relax into some coffee and non-fast food. But where? A friend’s recommendation came to mind, a newish place on lately fashionable Agricola.

Few diners visible, an immediate and warm welcome at the Agricola Street Brasserie, but argh! It’s Friday! Of course – the tables are fully booked. No matter, we could eat in the lounge (a misnomer really), at the bar or the kitchen counter to watch the preparations. We chose the lounge, quieter we thought, a high table with high stools and better for conversation. It was not the best spot in the restaurant, but we had chosen it and would make the best of it. We sipped the promptly delivered coffee while considering the main event – food. Then, as luck would have it, a table has cancelled, would we like it?

This is a good space, interesting and well done without dominating the experience of being in it. By clever design (or simply good fortune) the acoustics are good. It’s easy to hold a conversation across a table without being drowned out or distracted by music or other diners, which is not always the case in a popular restaurant. And ASB – it’s already become an acronym – was certainly popular. In no time at all it filled with diners and a happy Friday night buzz.AgricolaStreetDinnerCropped

The warmth of the initial greeting was followed at every stage by genuinely smiling faces, people doing their jobs with apparent pleasure, happy to advise about the menu, pleased to bring the chosen dishes, sharing the pleasure we had in eating them.

That menu is not vast. This may be a strength rather than a weakness since it allows the kitchen to concentrate on what they do well. And they are doing it very well. Our sample of the menu included the lamb shank and the scallops followed by mille feuille and my own favourite, apple & gin sorbet which is outstanding. The food is excellent and not expensive, especially when you consider the quality, the service and the location. Eat very well indeed for under $30 (+tax).

ASB is doing a lot of things right. It would be so easy to become a regular if you live in the area or even an hour away. That may be important for the future of the business, since Agricola is not really on the tourist trail, especially in January. It will be Haligonians who make the restaurant a long-term success or otherwise. That said, visitors should definitely put it on their map, but call ahead and get a reservation, don’t rely on our luck.

Agricola Street Brasserie 2540 Agricola Street, Halifax, NS B3K 4C5 902-446-7664

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