A planned day out

I took the advice of fellow writer Deborah Durbin and had a day off. No planning, no plotting and definitely no weighing up one novel against another.

Anne and I went to Somerset for the day, first to Taunton and then to Glastonbury; which, aside from being the spiritual home of As Above So Below magazine (you didn’t really think I’d miss the opportunity to plug my own mag, did you?), is also somewhere we’ve been visiting for years. I don’t know if you’d call it a pilgrimage, exactly, but it’s something along those lines.

To be a writer is to look for inspiration in strange places, sometimes finding it in even more unexpected ones. In Glastonbury, healers and mystics abound. Everyone seems to want to save you (if only from the burden of having money) or bless you or tell you their personal one true way. Like Dionne Warwick, I walk on by.

For me, it's one of those places that never loses its charm. Glastonbury Tor rises out of the landscape like the mythical island it was said to be. On a really misty day, you lose sight of the town from the summit, creating a sense of unreality. No such luck today.

But in a Glastonbury frame of mind, you look at the world differently. Squiggles on a faded and discarded lolly stick look a little like runes, conveying a secret message. The bug buzzing around by the tower could be a scarab. Even the land itself seems to shimmer in the light, one moment solid and another rippling between fields and forgotten marshland. From such flights of fancy, the writer in me plucks inspirational pollen out of the air. I remember what it is to be a child and to see magic and wonder everywhere.

To some extent you suspend disbelief or perhaps more accurately, you expand your belief. This doesn't work for everyone though. I saw one couple descending the path and the only thing a woman had to say to hr partner in the way of revelation was 'No internet' as she waved her handheld device around in the air forlornly.

After the Tor we went to Chalice Well and I don't mind telling you that it's been high on my list of 'places to have my ashes scattered' for years. It beats the Tor because, up on high, you'd be likely to get a face full of ash if the wind turned against you. Chalice Well is a peace garden of beauty and tranquility. I've never yet been there and not come away enriched in some way.

Naturally I relate it all to writing. As writers, we need to be refreshed and we - forgive the pun - need to return to the well periodically for inspiration, clarity and a little introspection. Because the truth is that writing can be hard work. On a good day it's like being a magician, extracting ideas, sentences and plotlines out of ourselves like a magician pulls scarves out of his sleeve. And on a bad day it can be like fumbling through the top hat when the rabbit has long since buggered off and merely left us a few reminders in there. But either way, the show must go on!

Base camp

It happened a couple of nights ago. It was quite sudden; no great fanfare. One moment I was scribbling away in my writing pad (admittedly I'd been scribbling for over an hour) and the next - at approximately midnight - I stopped and looked at the page. The End stared back at me. That is, The End of the first draft. But still an end of sorts.

It's taken me years to crush, blend and refine my original Scars & Stripes notes. And the result is, frankly, surprising. The truly fictional scenes took on a life of their own and in some ways became deeper and more revealing. Those based loosely (and some a little too closely) on personal experience will require radical changes after the first of many read throughs.

There's the familiar sense of a simultaneous high and low, of recognising that a milestone has been reached while at the same time being acutely aware of the distance still to be covered. For now, Scars & Stripes will be set to one side so that I'll be able to look at it objectively. All I do know is that I'll follow my writer friend Warren Stevenson's suggestion and rewrite the whole thing in the third person.

The next step is trickier.
Do I:
1. Re-edit thriller Standpoint as some of the feedback for sample material on www.youwriteon.com suggests the opening would benefit from tightening up.
2. Commence the second full edit of sequel thriller Line of Sight?
3. Go back to first novel Covenant and reduce it from a 142,000 word behemoth to something more manageable?
4. Start a new novel. At the moment, I'm torn between the third Thomas Bladen book, tentatively entitled False Positive or something a little different entitled The Caretaker, which might involve messrs. Bladen and O'Neill on the sidelines or even be the same book. But there'll be no sign of Harold Pinter (with thanks to Linda Wright).

Ah, writing; never a dull moment!

Magic dust

I remember a time when I used to travel regularly between Cornwall and London for my job as a project manager. I spent a lot of time on those long train journeys, thinking, writing, snoozing, watching movies on my work laptop and, just occasionally, working.

But one time really stands out because somebody 'famous' got on the train. And by famous, he played a regular character in The Bill. A hush fell over the carriage and we all did a mixture of double-takes, shy glances and knowing nods to the man. As the train trundled on, far from being a 'please don't talk to me, I'm somebody' kinda guy, he got embroiled in a conversation about class and shared it with everyone around him. Actors are not known for their retiring nature.

He told us how lucky he'd been to get a scholarship to a grammar school from a mill town and that this good fortune had set him on a path he might otherwise never have realised - he'd been through some kind of drama school and trod the boards. Now, he said scathingly, he was doing relatively well, but there were plenty of others who hadn't been so fortunate. Being - according to a magazine questionnaire a few years ago, slightly to the left of Gandhi, I was gratified to hear him speak about 'the ones in the shadows' - the starving actors, the downtrodden working class and the lamentable lack of real opportunity despite Tony Blair's vision of a society where everyone can achieve.

Then things took a turn for the strange and our working class hero picked a verbal fight with a privately educated woman, seemingly on the basis of her cut-glass accent. He told her that she was the poorer for having never sat on a beach in Jamaica drinking beer with Yardies and that from her privileged surroundings she didn't know what real life was like.

But what struck me, even after his outburst, was how we all regarded him as special because of what he'd achieved. It was as if we thought a little bit of magic dust would rub off on us if we lingered in his presence.

The link to writing (because you're probably wondering when I was going to get to that part) is that a writer friend of mine has just managed to get a well-deserved and hallowed contract for her first novel. And while she has played it down to the hilt, insisting that it's a small, independent publisher so the terms do not allow for a bottle of champagne right now, it's still a brilliant achievement. I know without question that the rest of the writing group we belong to are absolutely thrilled for her. But we're also wondering how (and perhaps whether) we can manage the same feat, as if there's some kind of formula. Just in case, I'm going to write to her, asking for the hem of a garment, so I can have it made into a keyring!