A new writing experiment

Aged 18, I decided that the first step on the way to becoming a writer was to learn how to type.  So I did a secretarial course at Plymouth Technical College.  We sat in rows in front of the epitome of a perfect secretary (grey-haired, retired and precise) and clacked away on tall and ancient typewriters.  Each machine resembled the auditorium of a theatre in miniature: 1234567890-+~ in the Upper Circle, down the rows to \zxcvbnm,./ in the front row of the stalls.   Clickety clack clack, at increasing speeds over the months, punctuated with the satisfying ding! at the end of lines, signalling the need to push the lever on the left to make the paper roll up a notch on the cylinder.  Who remembers this?

Typing was easier to learn than shorthand.  But the puzzles of shorthand held one compensation.    There were wonderful letters in the book of exercises: polite but pained requests for attention, addressed to clearly recalcitrant Dear Sirs, referring to orders not fulfilled.   The writers awaited the dear sirs’ earliest attention.   I found that, even when I couldn’t read my squiggles, I was able to compose a letter from memory.  This served me well when I was taking dictation from one of the editors of Thames and Hudson.  “Did I really say that?” he would sometimes ask, with a quizzical eyebrow raised.

Unlike shorthand which I’ve never since used, the ability to type fast without looking at the keyboard has stood me in good stead.  Even if I don’t need to glance at it, I find a keyboard is still vital for getting words from the brain onto paper via a screen.  I cannot abide the virtual variety on smartphones and tablets.  I watch with amazed admiration people who can hold a phone and pump out messages, using their thumbs like manic grasshoppers.

Although I’m not at home with phones, I’ve kept up with the developments in typing.  In the mid 1980s I invested in something called a Screenwriter, which was a Rolls Royce of a typewriter which had basic word-processing capability built in.  I found it useful for writing the text of the book Peter and I did together about the landscapes, flora and fauna of Greece.

Then came the Amstrad.  In my memory it sits on my desk in our house in Papingo, north western Greece, looking like a squat, extra-terrestrial creature, blinking green messages from a screen the colour of butterscotch.   During the 1990s, my writing tools became more sophisticated as computers developed.   I’ve written on a series of desktop computers, as well as laptops taken to New Zealand and France.

My present desktop I’ve had for many years.  Its box – tall and black – hums beside me, holding a labyrinthine memory of all my wild goose-chases.  It’s recorded everything I’ve written since the 21st century began.  I rarely bother to back things up.  I print out any work I would hate to lose.   Now I’m experimenting with a new way of writing in parallel with the old way.  Each time I complete a section I print it out.  I also copy and paste that section onto a page on my website.   The text of my present book – The Garden of The Grandfather – is mounting up on a Page of that name on my site.  As yet, I’m not sure how this will work out.

I can see the dangers.  It is a first draft, so perhaps it shouldn’t be shared publicly like this.  (But who’s going to read it?  Just a few special friends.  I don’t expect my website to be found and followed by many).  Another risk is that I can never run my eye over anything I’ve written without wanting to make it better. That means that my website copy may not be exactly the same as the one on my computer or the one I’ve printed out.  All this could lead to an unholy mess.  But never mind – all can be corrected when I’ve arrived at the end of this piece of writing.  Whether it will ever be traditionally published is a question with a large question mark.  I’ve been writing too long to be really bothered about that.  What I have in mind as an end product is something interactive – something that can be played,  read, listened to, looked at.  A new kind of book.    That is my new experiment.

A creative hot-spot

The Garden of The Grandfather

I’ve never delved deeply into ley lines.  Today I’m wondering how people with creative energy might kick off extra creativity in themselves and others at particular points in the compass; that is, over and above the usual energy that’s generated between creative people when they meet.   This thought comes from a recent coming-together of three people – Yiannis Angelopoulos, Peter and myself – in Lourdata, Cefallonia.  The conjunction of the three of us on one particular spot set something exciting in train.  Here’s the triangulation.   Peter found something he wanted to sketch.  Yiannis video’d Peter sketching.  I was hooked by the sign on the gate of the garden Peter was sketching.

The sign gave me the title for the book I’m working on: The Garden of the Grandfather.  This will be a picture of Greece in the 1960s, a narrative of our life there illustrated by black and white photographs.   Conversations with Yiannis have expanded our ideas to include colour – Peter’s work in oils, ink, and watercolour.   Yiannis’ video is now on youtube.   Something good to share publicly must surely come out of this triangle of ideas.

p.s. I have now added a page on the site for the first 10,000 words of the book.

http://www.youtube.comwatchtime_continue=2&v=awD0DGJEAcs

 

 

Brainwaves in the sea

The Garden of The Grandfather

While gently floating in the Ionian sea – or was it in the midst of a nighttime dream – the title of our present Greek book came to me.

The Garden of The Grandfather

These words – Ο κυπος του παπου – are written on a sun-bleached sign hanging from a padlocked gate behind the beach in Lourdas Bay.   Beyond lies the garden, a fenced-in enclosure where an old man grows  potatoes, tomatoes and green peppers.  At the far end there’s a small,  white-painted shelter on  stilts with a magenta-coloured bougainvillea framing its roof against the backdrop of Cefallonia’s Mount Enos.  Peter sketched the scene and I began to write in my head the introduction to our book of Greek life as it was in the 1960s.

This morning, at ten o’clock on July 11th 2017, I am at my computer in Devon.  But in my head I am overlooking the bay of Kamares, Sifnos, in 1963.   I am summoning up memories of the summer when I wrote my first attempt at a novel and Peter painted large canvases in oils built up with sand from the beach.  These were exhibited at the Drian Galleries, London.  (I want to track down the catalogues of his four exhibitions at the Drian.  Can anyone help?)

The workings of the brain and the memory are in a world of their own, very hard to grasp.  I plan to re-read “The Human Brain, a guided tour” by Susan Greenfield.  I used my brain in an attempt to understand what she wrote.   My memory of the details of her book is hazy.   Yet I know I took in her expositions and they inform my views.   This brings me to consider the difference in Peter’s memories and mine of the same events.   I remember, if not the exact details, then the general drift: the atmosphere of a scene or the personality of a person.     The way I remember is, I think,  more typical of a female, but it’s also a writer’s way.   Peter’s memory works in a masculine,  fact-focused way.   Being an artist, his memories are also visual.    These differences work well together as we remember our life in Greece in words and pictures.  The eventual book, I hope, will evoke that delicious, sad-happy feeling of nostalgia, appealing to lovers of Greece of any age: the past still visible in the present.

Now back to ‘The Garden of the Grandfather’, not the actual one in Cefallonia sketched by Peter this summer but to our work-in-progress.   Back to Sifnos and lighting oil lamps at dusk in 1963 …

On the brink

(Just to add today, 13th June, I wrote this on June 1st and it stayed gathering dust as a Draft until today).

I expect we all know the feeling of being on the brink of something new.  It may be only a minor change, or it may be something enormous like a life decision.  The feeling links up the mind and the body to disturbing effect.

I experience this often.  In the last few days I’ve been on the brink of making decisions about my work as a writer.  Last year I set up this WordPress site, knowing I should do something public as a writer, having – after a long silence – self-published three books with Createspace on Amazon.  I had decided to give up attempting to clamber back into the traditional publishing world.  I would fling myself into the ocean of self-publishers and take part in all the activities – blogging, engaging on social media, and so on – necessary to promote myself, my titles, and sell some copies.

For some reason, which I’m sure I thought logical at the time, I established the domain name aliveinww2.    This is the title of the non-fiction book, one of those three on Createspace, subtitled The Cousins’ Chronicle, commentary and memoir.  It’s based on family wartime newsletters and of course some present-day cousins – at various levels of kinship – were interested enough to buy copies.  Beyond them, did anyone fork out the eight necessary pounds or equivalent dollars to buy and read this book … very few, if any.  I probably thought that by using the title as domain name I might  help sales.

I set up this WordPress site with this URL and made myself explore the world of blogging.  I began to understand just how every second person in the world thinks they can write.   People sometimes tell Peter when admiring his work, that they’d dearly love to be able to draw and paint but they can’t.  I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think they can write.  After all, they’ve done it ever since they learnt to hold a pencil.  Of course a lot of people do realise that it is an art like any other.  You need a certain amount of inborn talent to start with, then a lot of hard work, experiential learning and perseverance.

One of the things I’ve found hard is being part of this unregulated world.  There is no quality control at all.   When anyone of whatever merit,  lack of talent or basic literacy can publish their writing, how can readers find a decent read?   I learnt about book bloggers, and decided that this would be a way to reach the kind of readers who might like my kind of writing.  A trawl brought up the name of Teddy Rose who organises digital book tours http://virtualauthorsbooktours.com.  I signed on, full of hope.  (I’m a incurable optimist).   My ‘tour’ ended on May 31st after two months.  As yet it hasn’t resulted in a single sale of the novel I was promoting.

In fact, I enjoyed all aspects of the tour save this non-sale result.  It was fun to answer questions about the book ‘White Lies’.   It started with a wild interview with very jolly Michelle Jordan’s  ‘Indie Review Behind the Scenes Maverick Moment’ Youtube video.  Teddy was a good companion during the strange tour of book bloggers.  An early one objected to be use of the word ‘natural’ for the woman she’d prefer to be called the ‘birth’ mother, and removed herself from the tour.  Apart from this blogger, the reviews  were in favour of the book, eleven in all.  I was pleased because they came from people who – I gathered – usually review novels that are easier to read at speed.  They found White Lies needed greater attention but said that it rewarded their time.  One of the last reviewers (on Amazon.com) said the story “paints a fuller picture of the emotional intricacies of adoption.”  She has an adopted brother.  “This book makes me think outside of the obvious.”   She expresses the hope that, if ever they talk about his adoption, she will “navigate the interaction with compassion, empathy and a whole lot of sensitivity.”  This comment pleased me.  I always hope that my books will nudge people to think about and see their own lives and relationships in a new way, as well as entertain them with a good story.

But how much effect, if any at all, has this tour had on spreading the word about Susan Barrett and her work?  I spent money on it.   I would have liked sales to pay for it.    I don’t expect to make money out of writing – very few authors do.  But I would like to reach more readers.   I also want to give up this business of working at promotion, and get back to writing the novel I’d begun before the bloggers’ tour.  Its working title is Greek Gold.  Today I began the third chapter.  Alex, my main character, is on the brink of a parachute jump.  In fact, he’s been on the brink since January.  I kept him there, alive in my head in that quivering moment, for the intervening months.  This morning I began to put into words my vision of the poor chap  – and he’s still not jumped after one page of writing.  I’ve been waylaid by this post because I have the idea that I will give a page of the site to writing this novel.  That might be a good way of finding the path between promoting work and writing it.

I’m on the brink of a decision.

At Sea

Susie Barrett, cartoon greetings cards

At Sea is an appropriate title for today’s post.  Teddy Rose of virtualauthorsbooktours has told me that two of my social media buttons don’t work.  Hell.  My floundering  to stay afloat in the sea of social media and the self-publishing ocean continues.   I’m keen to fathom the Twitter and Google+ links out on my own, without recourse to paying someone to do it for me.  It’s a balancing act between working at promotion in order to make money from possible sales and spending money fruitlessly on that very promotion.  The amount I earn is so infinitesimal you have to screw up your eyes to make out the figure on the screen.  Paying for help to promote is against the grain, common sense and the current account balance.  But how else to gain sales and the readers I hope for?

I’ve just posted on Linkedin talking about the way pictures are more likely to attract attention than words.  I’m thinking of writing the story behind the greeting cards.   Click on the linkedin button in the sidebar to the right and please let me know what you think.

At Sea

Nesting

Promotion

Nobody likes a braggart.  People of my generation in particular were brought up not to blow our own trumpets, as our parents’ disapproving voices phrased it.   So what does a writer producing a new book in one of the many independent ways that exist nowadays do about promotion?

When I was firmly bedded in the mainstream literary world, I never had to worry about PR.  The publisher and my agent would do what they could; it was in their interest, too.  The last novel that was published in the conventional way – Stephen and Violet, published by Collins – was launched with a small party at my agent’s office.  Two other writers kindly came: Jonathan Raban and Sebastian Faulks.  They were ‘names’ then but went on to become even better known.  Heady days, which I took for granted.

Today, without an agent, without a publisher, I must pick up, polish and blow my own trumpet.  Although it’s half a year since I brought out two novels and a non-fiction book with CreateSpace on Amazon, I’ve done nothing as yet.   But my reluctance to self-advertise has changed.  I’ve embarked on a publicity venture, thanks to Teddy Rose of Virtual Author Book Tours.  On Saturday I shall find myself in my study, facing my laptop’s screen, video-conferencing with someone called Michelle in the States on a Blog Talk Radio Show.   The book I will be pushing is “White Lies”.  I’d better leave this post and have a quick re-read to remind myself what on earth it’s about…

First past the post second time around

I wrote my first post on July 11th 2016.  Tomorrow that will be six months ago.   Now, at the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on my website history as well as look forward to the way the site is developing.

Re-reading my first post, I can remember my feelings of bewilderment and determination.  It was like diving into a lake shrouded in fog.  I knew I wanted to be in that lake – but was it safe?  Were there unseen obstacles?  Was it full of struggling swimmers who might pull me down?  Would I sink without trace?

Even though I’d set up websites in the past – one that I paid to have designed, another I’d created myself on a template – this WordPress one seemed almost too easy.  I hadn’t set out to make a blog appear on its home page, but hey presto!  a blog appeared: an easy forum for passing thoughts.   What was I going to call it?  The term used in the menu to describe this page was ‘Posts’.  In the whoosh of my first dive-in, the phrase “First past the post” came to me.  Well, it was the first post and I was past it.  Then I discovered how ripples appear some time after a post.  A few days after my first dive into the lake,  there were people – unknown people – reading what I was writing.  They were commenting on “First past the post.”   I began to wish I hadn’t chosen such a numerically definite title.  First is only first when it is first.  But never mind the wording, I told myself; I was getting responses from unknown people who seemed to appreciate what I was saying.

Then, among the genuine responses came the useless ones, intent on selling their own wares.  I haven’t yet learnt how to stop these coming in. Perhaps it’s inevitable that you’ll receive unwelcome visitors when you offer an open forum.  So far they are not harmful, just a nuisance.

The comments which I welcome are from people who want to learn something new.  However, I’m not sure exactly what the something new might be.  Perhaps they simply like to read of my experience as a long-term writer dealing with the opportunities and obstacles that exist in present day publishing.   It would be helpful if any readers of this post would present a specific question.  Even without such prompting, I find there is always a new thought that pops up and inspires a post.

Looking back at my first post, I’m reminded of my reason for setting up the site.  I thought I would – with a fair ration of good luck – reach new readers for my work, particularly for “Alive in World War Two, The Cousins’ Chronicle”.  There have been sales, but no more than there might have been without this website.  I know the thing to do is to stay put, keep with it, not give up.  So I’ll carry on.  I’ll continue with this First Past the Post as many times as it stays worth it for me and for – I hope – others.

 

How to set targets

Now is the time a great many of us make resolutions about how we will improve ourselves and our lives.  We resolve to give up bad habits and/or take up good habits.  My bad habit is eating too much Bombay Crunch and drinking two glasses of wine while watching the evening news.  Just to write that sentence makes me nervous that some bossy part of me will dictate that I must give this habit up.  My rebel part kicks in.  I won’t give up wine and Bombay Crunch!  Even if I managed for a week of abstinence, it wouldn’t last.

A good habit that Peter and I have developed over the autumn is a 20 minute walk.  The target is to go for this short local walk every day after lunch.  Timing needn’t be exact but it’s usually around 1.45.  We turn right along the lane, then up a steep hill to the top; turn round, and back home.  By 2.15 or so we are at work again, P in his studio, myself in my study.  If we have to miss a day, we don’t beat ourselves up.  But the reason for missing has to be justifiable.  It can’t be just “it’s too cold” or “I’m not feeling like it.”

We’ve found it easy to maintain this habit because the target is so modest.  If we’d vowed to walk two or three miles every day, we’d never have managed to keep it up.  There wouldn’t be time.  We’d sometimes be too tired or we’d have too many other things to do.

Similarly – speaking for myself – my writing targets are modest.  The morning is my time.  I am at my desk from, say, 9 until 1 p.m.  I will sometimes return in the afternoon, but as a treat away from other jobs.  How my study hours are spent vary, depending on what I’m working on at the time: it could be writing fluently while in the middle of a novel, or it might be reading background material, or writing a long email descriptive of some recent event.  That last I consider essential for keeping my writer’s hand in.  Writing is a kind of reflex action to things that happen in life.  Sometimes I can’t do anything else until I’ve understood, in the words with which I describe it, what exactly it is I have just experienced.

I never use word counts as writing targets, although I know many people do.   The important thing is to choose a target that is easy for you to achieve.  It’s the regularity that’s important, not the size of the ambition.

My target for the next month (never mind the next year) is to give up cow’s milk products.  Goat’s milk on my breakfast oats was the way I started today.  If I find this benefits me, I will be motivated to continue for longer.

Another short-term target is to discover how to block the advertising mailing that comes in disguised as comments on this page, sent by organisations or people who have latched on to my open door policy.  One that keeps appearing is about earning money from writing.  It has standard wording but is sent in by many different people.  The other repetitive comment is about bathroom products.   I trash it as soon as I see it, hardly giving myself time to work out what language it’s in, or what it’s about.

But I do click the Approve button for comments on the content of my posts.  Thanks to those people who tell me they find them useful and interesting.    “Please continue”, they say.  And so I resolve to continue into 2017.  Happy New Year.