Monthly Archives: April 2018

Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

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Part 4 on Writing a novel trilogy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ — kösönöm) gave me a huge amount to process. But it also gave the second, third and fourth drafts of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere.

Information is never neutral and, as an outsider, I had a lot of sifting to do, particularly when we visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a short time, this fascist national socialist party believed in racial purity.

It benefited when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. Within a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting.

After 1945 the Soviet regime took over the building. It became home to the communist secret police, the AVH, and the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is held in the basement cells of this building, where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries. It was somewhere I wanted to visit, because it’s part of the story. But it’s a controversial ‘museum’ as Péter Apor argues.

The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative.

…The institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims (use) a dangerous strategy: the idea of … ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Memory is a slippery concept. I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a position in which memory is neither neither the same as or opposed to to historical ‘fact’.

photo by Adam Craig

But cultural tourist sites that are laden with political stances are difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror is a site of political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán makes it suspect. This is especially so given that its opening was during an election period in which the socialist opposition was likened to the extreme Soviet past. So the place became a warning to voters not to vote socialist.

The house claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, but the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. The terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but it is not the whole picture. And Jewish communities have objected that in concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

Further problems are that the exhibit makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era. And it locates ‘evil’ as the ‘other’. It’s true that the names and photographs of those who collaborated with the two regimes are on a ‘wall of victimisers’. But this is also controversial given that we don’t know the level or context of involvement from names and photographs. And it’s contentious for a heritage site to set itself up as judge and jury. But the sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture nonetheless prevails.

Experiencing the museum was an interesting way to these controversies and questions. But most of all the visit was most powerful in the largely empty basement cells. The atmosphere there was chilling and inhumane. The horror was palpable without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

It gave me a great deal to think about as I wrote the novel. In A Remedy for All Things terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for one of my three main characters.

The protagonist, Catherine, in Budapest to research the life of poet, Attila József, finds herself dreaming the life of Selene. A young woman who survived a Jewish ghetto during the War and is in prison after the 1956 Uprising against the Communist regime.

This is how it begins: …

I’d be delighted if you’d like to read on over on Medium and, while you there, please hold down those tiny hands till the number can’t rise any more 🙂 Thank you!

 

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How to kill perfectionism, find joy and write

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In writing, as in any area of life, perfectionism is a killer. Writing is a wonderful metaphor for life. Writing matters. It illuminates, witnesses, takes us deeper into the experience of others, connects us with nature, humanity, ourselves. As in writing, so in life.

Writing is powerful and we want it to be brilliant. No writer should be content with dull prose clogged with adjectives and exposition. No writer should be happy with didactic, sentimental poetry. No blogger should want to bore people. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect.

Perfectionism relies on a plethora of false premises:

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Failure is not an option

Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress.

You are not worthy

Feeling inherently not ‘good enough’ can lead people to making supreme efforts to fit in, find acceptance and love. The underlying thinking is that ‘if I’m perfect I won’t experience rejection’ but it’s false thinking. We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws. It doesn’t make you an unworthy person.

You can never rest

On the one hand perfectionism leads to procrastination. We can’t fail at what we never begin. On the other hand it leads to a permanent state of anxiety in which we drive ourselves on, never able to rest.

Creativity, writing, any activity in life is unsustainable without periods of rejuvenation. You can and must rest.

Life is a puzzle with a solution

Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:

…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.

You can do it all

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done:

You can do anything, but not everything.

We all have to make choices. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.

She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…

It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:

It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.

Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.

Instead of falling for these false notions, we can replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with progress, joy and kindness:

Craft not perfection: …

I hope you will enjoy rhe rest of this article over on Medium where you can applaud the post 🙂 Thank you.

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Saying Au Revoir to Attila József

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picture by Adam Craig

Part 3 on Writing a novel trilogy

While writing and researching in Budapest last year, we ate a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest.

The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are rarely effusive, we found them helpful and generous — I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place — there’s a quiet kindness in so many people — unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy — a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism.

picture by Adam Craig

It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for. There are architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we saw two passers-by almost felled by falling stone). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in being humane.

When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity.

A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise. Sad as it is to believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies, the more I realised that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna — As if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

I hope you will read on over on Medium. Thank you!

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How to harness the awesome power of journalling

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I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.

I write everything in these journals:

  • random thoughts and observations
  • notes on books I’m reading
  • goals
  • how the day/the week /the month/the year went
  • to do lists
  • deep reflection
  • shallow thought-dumping
  • writing exercises
  • ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…

The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?

Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.

Why?

1. To practice

Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.

Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.

And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:

a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.

Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.

When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.

Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?

2. To record

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I hope you will read on here

Becoming a different story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life, sign up to my email list — or feel free to continue the conversation here and on Medium.

Happy journalling and happy writing.

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Environment is hard to overcome, even in fiction

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Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy

Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.

Where we are is who we are

In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.

When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.

One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.

Places are characters …

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Returning to the Novel

A Guest Blog from Paul McDermott

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Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

I’ve always found the Novel an easier framework than shorter pieces. I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who can write ‘Flash’ fiction effectively, and even the thought of writing a pithy, graphic Haiku brings me out in a cold sweat of panic. Maybe I’m just an unrepentant windbag …
The 80,000++ word count format of a Novel is more my style. When I write for children, I tend to aim for a maximum word count of about 50,000, as a younger reader is likely to have a shorter attention span: for the Adult market this would likely be classed as “Novella” length.
Every November I enjoy the challenge of National Novel Writing Month, and to date I’ve achieved the target each time. Two of my published novels started life as NaNoWriMo entries, which I expanded to word counts of c. 90,000++ at a later date.
My first Adult Novel was based on research into my own family history. Nobody was more surprised than myself when the publisher, Whimsical Publications [Florida, USA] listed it in their Romance section, as I hadn’t considered it as a Romance while writing it.
However, there was so much interesting historical background in the Clan records. Written records date back to the early 1300s and a further 500 years of ‘Oral Tradition’ predate them. I realised very early on there was too much material to condense into a single volume. The Trilogy was inevitable before I was halfway through writing the first book, decided by the wealth of Celtic myths and legend I found in the written records. The Clan McDermott were one of the seven Royal Families of Ireland. The Ancient Kingdom of Tara covered most of modern day Roscommon and Meath. Oral History claims the honour title of Ard Rhi, High King of the Seven Realms of Ireland, and kinship with Brian Boru.
When you have such extensive historical material to work with, the only real problem is deciding what to include and what to omit (or possibly ‘save’ for later introduction). Reaching the target 80,000 word count isn’t really a problem! For the record: Volume One The Chapel of Her Dreams has sold reasonably well since publication, and I intend to release Volume Two The Island of Her Dreams later this year. And yes, the Chapel and the Lake are real locations, on Lough Key in co. Roscommon!
The often-heard advice, write about the People and Places you know holds good. In one way, this is especially true when writing for children.
My first attempt at writing for younger readers was a humorous yarn about a crew of fairly incompetent Pirates, sailing out of Liverpool in a deliberately ‘vague’ time setting. There’s plenty of room for fantasy, a touch of magic, talking animals and ‘time slip’ scenes which taps into the reader’s imagination. One (published) book of about 47,000 words led to a planned series. Book 2 is complete, currently being prepared for release and I’m working on Book 3. These all use the same central Characters.
Locations are another guide for a series. I’m working on a second series of childrens’ books, each one a ‘stand alone’ book set in one of Liverpool’s parks, using the geography and history of each park which (hopefully!) the reader will recognise as somewhere they have visited and played in.
One of my Adult books is a 13th Century Historical thriller, which leads naturally to a Sequel, another of my Works in Progress. At the moment I’m not sure if this will expand into a Trilogy, I’ll have to let the Plot decide that while I’m writing.
I’ve written another historical fantasy, 11th Century this time, about a troubadour with a magic lute. This will also be published later this year, and a Sequel is under way – but I’m fairly sure there won’t be a third book in this series. Time will tell …
Novel writing is great fun! There are hundreds of opportunities to dig deep into your imagination and combine historical Fact with your own creative skills. Basic research is very rewarding. I’m constantly amazed at what I discover about how we used to live. I really couldn’t imagine writing ‘to order’ with an imposed ‘word limit’ of e.g. 2000 words of ‘Short Story’ for a magazine or Anthology. I’ve had work accepted for these markets as well, but I wouldn’t be comfortable working with these limitations every day.
I’ve tried a number of genres, including poetry and writing scripts. I’ve enjoyed these forms of writing too, although my poems frequently become the lyrics to songs (I dabble in writing music as well). Some of the scripts I’ve cobbled together have also been performed on stage, mostly in the form of pantomimes with a Liverpool “twist” to them.
I always seem to return to the Novel as my preferred format. I don’t suppose I’ll ever ‘invent’ a James Bond or Jack Reacher character who will be the inspiration for an unending series of best-sellers, but two books or a Trilogy is a comfortable target to aim for.

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An extraordinary Cinnamon poet

via Just There: More poems through uncertain times

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How to make the journey your reward

bitsWhat do you want from your writing? I work with authors all the time who want to get published. I’m a publisher, so I don’t want to play down the joy of seeing your work in print, but I’m also aware that publication is often not quite what people imagined and that it still leaves a hunger for something further.

It’s not that publication is irrelevant, but it’s far from the whole story and there are other aspects of writing that are vital and more overlooked.

So what do you want from your writing?

Please read on and clap (if you like what you read) on Medium – thank you!

 

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There’s a remedy for all things, except…

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Part 1 of Writing a novel trilogy

This is the End of the Story is not the end of the story.

It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is and how she wants to live.

What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.

Cassie is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.

A remedy for all things

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In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:

Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.

After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.

But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.

Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?

Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?

Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.

When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.

But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.

As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.

The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.

Will this be the end of the story?

I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.

Thank you.

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How to progress from idea to completed passion

type.jpegWe’ve all heard it before: writers write. Yes, but how? And what? And…

Writing isn’t easy, but it’s a skill. If you desire it you find the motivation to work at it. The more we hone our craft, the better we become. But it will consume you. If you are passionate about your project: read on.

Writing is a process. You won’t sit down and write a book. You’ll have ideas, make notes, flesh out parts of it. If you’re writing fiction you may have a timeline, character studies, chapter ideas. If your project is nonfiction you might start with articles, heaps of notes… In short, it’s small steps that build into something complex and inspiring. It’s consistency and work.

First start

How obvious is that? Very, but how many people do you know who want to write, but… If you make a start, you’re already ahead of a lot of people.

So sketch out your ideas — make it concrete. Don’t only think about what will be in your book. Commit it to your journal or to a folder in Scrivener or to notes on your phone or a filing card.

Keep going

There are so many calls on our time, so many distractions. Give yourself a chance. Have a regular writing time and deadlines and make it sacrosanct.

Get to the end

You might be a slow writer. You might take a year, or two or longer, but don’t give up. An unfinished book is another thing to beat yourself up about.

Breaking down the start:

Please read on at Medium and please clap 🙂

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