The Way After – Day #5

After the shock of the first day out of St. Jean and into Navarre, the second day’s walk is a respectable 22.3km, but mostly downwards in direction.

As with life, difficulties seems to rise steeply before you and behind one peak, another comes into view, so level or downward routes are never truly that. Hidden away on this route are a couple of steeper little summits.

In creativity these little kinds of path is often referred to as ‘the dip’.

You set yourself at your new endeavour with enthusiasm and action. The beginning is steep, but everything is focused and prepared. Initial difficulties are taken in your stride.

Then ‘things’ ease off. You start to gain success. Your efforts are paying off. So you relax a little. Ease back.

This is the dip.

Suddenly the road rises up in front of you again.

You feel less prepared. The effort to continue seems to be disproportionate compared to the start.

Some even quit.

The most common form of greeting on the Camino is ‘Buen Camino’ or good way.

In medieval times the common pilgrim, or peregrino, greeting was ‘ultreia’ – further onward – which would be answered with ‘et suseia’ – and further upwards.

This reflects the spiritual side of the peregrino’s journey – in walking further you gain higher spiritual awareness and reward – but it is also a life lesson – keep moving forward and you will experience and gain more.

After the dip there is the rise, but the rise doesn’t have to be an obstacle but a pinnacle of achievement.

Sando’s initial diagnosis was definitely the route out of St. Jean. We met that with joie de vivre, energy for the path ahead, and a healthy amount of fun at his expense. We did tell him that he wouldn’t be treated any differently, which he appreciated and needed.

Sore feet, aching backs and shoulders, with a sense of foreboding at those little peaks along the next part of the route, certainly kicked in as his treatment was begun.

The radiation therapy and the drugs clearly did have an impact, but Sando’s common response to our greeting of ‘how are you doing?’ Was ‘I feel fine.’

This led us to the theory that there was another ‘Sando’ out there who was continually going back to his doctor and complaining of really not being well, in a case of swapped test results for the two of them.

Sando certainly tried hard to convince the nurses that he really did feel ‘fine’ every time they came towards him with needles for blood, or drugs to fill him up.

Just 3.2km into the route for the day is the town of Burgete. Here the writer Ernest Hemingway wrote his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in just eight weeks in 1926. In a note to his editor he wrote that the book was less about the ‘Lost Generation’ as Getrude Stein had referred to those lost or scarred by the Great War, but more about ‘the earth that abideth’ which is referenced as an epigraph.

Visit any church or cathedral and you easily gain a sense of those people whose footsteps yours join with, and many who have walked the Way of St. James make this comment also.

Sando felt this was true in his own pathway. He was one of many who had brain tumours and he was acutely aware that many others would follow.

The majority of people who have brain tumours are children.

I am sure we mentioned that quite a bit also.

Sando would have agreed with Hemingway (referring to his characters) that – he – they were ‘battered but not lost’.

The Way After – Day #4

Traditionally, any pilgrimage route began from your front door step.

Today the most common starting point for El Camino de Santiago begins across the Spanish border in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port.

St. Jean is the historic capital of the Basque Country which encompasses land and communities on both sides of the Pyrenees.

It is also a dramatic start with the route quickly elevating to a total height of 1429m and 14.2km of the total 24.7km for the day involving going uphill.

The beginning of El Camino seems to reinforce the observation that life can unquestionably be difficult.

Challenges abound. It is easy to lose motivation. It is easy to give up.

But how much of the challenge of the first day comes about because of a general lack of preparation?

How much comes down to a sense that walking should be easy, or is easy, or not as difficult as running, so some other such notion.

In the movie The Way, Joost sees a cyclist on the trail and expounds ‘You can do this on a bike? Why did no one tell me?’

Sando originally spoke of completing the Camino on bikes. It would seem easier to have completed the Way pedalling, certainly in terms of time taken. He became convinced that the route had to be walked. The ability to accomplish this inevitably delayed us in our efforts.

Sando’s diagnosis of a brain tumour delayed much that he would have wanted to accomplish.

Those first months were very much like the profile of the first day on ‘the Way’. Tough. Uphill. A struggle. No obvious end in sight. No particular alternate route, which was any easier. 

You simply had to put one foot in front of the other.

Walk the route which many others have done before you and take solace from the fact that they made it to ‘Roncesvalles’.

Sando certainly became aware that there was a wider community of cancer patients and survivors out there and he wanted to be part of that continuing community offering support to others through his experiences.

There is a saying that there is more which unites us than divides us.

I am sure that this is true, but to discover this we need to take those first steps outside our front doors.

We need to engage in action and then the ensuing connections with others will come. 

Denmark is reckoned to be one the happiest nation in the world and one of the concepts at the heart of their daily lives is that of clubs or societies, with most people spending three or more evenings a week engaged in specific activities with others.

The first pilgrim guest house in Roncesvalles was built in 1127 and recorded in a poem:

The door opens to all,

To sick and healthy,

Not only to true Catholics

But also to pagans, Jews,

Heretics, the idle and vagabonds.’

El Camino opens the door to us all but do we open our door to all?

The Daily Verse – Luke 13:8

“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it.” – NIVUK

Luke 13:8

Are there areas of your life that appear to not be bearing fruit?

Have you decided to cut those areas out of your life or attend to them more carefully?

Today’s verse is taken from the Gospel of Luke and is part of a parable which Jesus is teaching from.

We are told that a man has a fig tree growing in his vineyard but for three years it has not produced fruit. He decides it is time to cut the tree down and do something else with the soil.

He calls to his gardener and gives him the order but the gardener asks for another chance – one more year – for the tree.

He will tend it – dig around it loosening the soil so the roots are watered more effectively – and he will fertilise it – adding in manure to nourish it.

The gardener will put in extra time and effort to that one tree, out of the whole vineyard, to try and get it to bear fruit.

He tells the owner, if this doesn’t work then cut the tree down.

Many commentators state that Jesus is alluding to the nation of Israel here. They have one more year to ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand’.

There are many other verses in the Gospels which lend strength to his view, but often in parables Jesus has several threads in his teaching.

The owner has waited patiently. Three years is more than generous.

The gardener sees his job as caring and nurturing, not cutting down; although judicious pruning is often needed for a plant or tree to grow more healthily.

The gardener commits himself to put in the extra time and effort to aid the tree.

When the owner thinks it is worthless the gardener sees possibility.

We see this attitude in Jesus throughout the Gospels.

He takes time with people the leaders of society think are worthless. He nourishes them. They produce fruit.

In more recent times the habit of structuring our lives and getting the maximum potential out of them, we are generally encouraged to be like the vineyard owner.

If something isn’t bearing worthwhile fruit then cut it out.

Habits, possessions, use or users of time – if they aren’t productive then get rid of them.

The logic makes perfect sense and can be the right way to act.

This parable contrasts the owner’s attitude with that of the gardener. The former has put very little effort in to the vineyard and the gardener has; and he is willing to put in more time and effort on this one tree.

Is it his superior knowledge that commits him to this course of action? Or is it faith in his ability to effect a change?

If we view the tree as the sinners and the tax collectors and the sick and those who counted for nothing in Jesus’ society, then we see the difference between the owner – the religious leaders – and the gardener – Jesus.

The tree can be us, our lives – habits and actions – or perhaps the people in our lives.

The gardener doesn’t just leave the tree, he commits to the time and attention it needs.

This is how we need to look at our lives on many occasions.

Some areas may not be working that well, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t, given sufficient effort from ourselves.

It needs to be the right effort though.

We need to look at the deficient areas we all have and assess what will improve the growing conditions for our ‘trees’.

If we aren’t sure we can ask another gardener – they love to share little tips and tricks, generally from their own experiences.

So, identify a few fruit-less trees in your life and look at them with a gardener’s eye – what can you do to improve the nourishment to the tree and improve the soil it is in?

Embracing the Void.

Photo by Tania Malréchauffé on Unsplash

This is another post from the Archive. I’ve hit a point in my current working project where I’ve had to take stock of what is there and what isn’t there in the story so far. This post came to mind as a guide for me as I am reviewing the almost 80,000 words I’ve already written.

I’ve just read a great article by Gwenna Laithland advising writers to use ‘white noise’.

Basically, white noise is the void – the bits you leave out which the reader then projects their own thoughts and imagination onto.

Laithland uses the example of a Harry Potter stage show casting Hermione Grainger with a black actress. J.K. Rowling admits that she never specified her heroine’s skin colour.

I often get caught up in feeling the need to give more detail in description and narration – partly because I write dialogue much more easily and my pages can quickly resemble a play script.

I like writers at both ends of the spectrum. The very precise and detailed, and the void.

So which is best?

I suppose the answer is write with detail when you need to manouveur the reader into a specific place and embrace the void where it really doesn’t matter.

I am still working on this.

I’ve come to realise that the Void can also be used in the plotting of a story also.

What you need to reveal to the reader and what they can deduce for themselves.

The trick seems to be letting go of your own imagined, or fixed, view of the story and allowing the reader the space to become properly involved themselves.

The void allows them to bring their imagination to the story, even if you plot line turns out not to be what they imagined – Jack Reacher creator Lee Child is very good at this, giving you lots of room to try and work out what the ‘bad guys’ are really up to.

So good luck with Embracing the Void!

From the Archives – Write Like the Mechanical Hound is After You!

http://Photo by Neel on Unsplash

Audi Version on HerbieWriter.Podbean.com

Another previous post, which seemed right to put out again after the last one on Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. This post concentrates on the writing of the original story from which the book developed.

Okay, so Ray Bradbury didn’t say directly to ‘write like the Mechanical Hound is after you’, but I am sure that is what he meant.

In 2006, he wrote a letter to Shauna Thorup, the Assistant Director of Fayetteville Public Library, with details of how he had produced the first draft of what would become Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury explained that one day he was wandering around the library of UCLA, when he discovered a bank of typewriters down in the basement. These could be ‘hired’ for thirty minutes at a time, by inserting a dime into a timer.

Nine days later, $9.80 produced 25,000 words, which constituted the ‘The Fireman’.

Time and money were literally ticking away.

So he wrote fast.

Constantly aware that the ‘Mechanical Hound’ was getting closer and closer, only to be held at bay by throwing more dimes, like toffees, to keep the jaws preoccupied.

For the next thirty minutes, at least.

So, grab yourself some loose change and start the timer. (Check out my own experiences of using a timer here.)

25,000 words in $9.80, anyone?

If my calculations are correct then the rate of words per hour is 510, which doesn’t seem like much, but let’s give credit for working on a type writer rather than a modern keyboard.

Why not try it?

Ninety-eight lots of thirty minutes and see what you’ve got?

You may have to ignore the limit of nine days Bradbury took, if you are not a full time writer.

And ‘no pressure’ to end up with a story which you will then need to develop into a novel which won all of the awards which Fahrenhiet 451 went on to!

Taking a Break.

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

If you choose to take a break, have you broken your habit?

I’ve written just over 63,000 words in the last 7 weeks, with the aim of writing at least 1,000 words a day.

I established the habit I wanted of writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day.

Then two days ago, I stopped writing.

It was a conscious choice.

The story was going fine. I am a ‘pantser’ by inclination and, creatively, I was having no problems.

The problem came from the characters themselves.

They were easy characters, working well together.

They had a plot which was going forward and had layers. They didn’t grumble.

But they pull me to one side and ask me one question – we know what’s going on, but does the reader?

I looked blankly at them and then asked for more coffee.

They were right.

I was leaving the reader to make big leaps in understanding of the characters from subtle clues in the things they said.

The characters left me alone to work the problem out.

The first thing to do was stop writing.

Another one thousand more words which weren’t quite hitting the spot wasn’t going to help.

I realised I was going to have to make changes in what I had written so far, but I wasn’t going to do that now.

Finish the story. Edit after.

What I needed to do know was realise all of the character points I knew in their backgrounds, and let that information out to the reader, without them having to do an ‘escape room’ puzzle to work it out.

I am writing a thriller. Not a character trait treasure hunt.

I have dropped the reader into the midst of a group of tight characters.

The reader needs to understand how they got where they are and why.

I am the writer, so it’s my job to get them up to speed.

The main characters know we are back to work as normal tomorrow.

Break-time is over.

I’ve looked them in the eye, and I think they believe me.

Improving Your Character(s)!

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Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

It is difficult in these days of movies and tv series not to associate actors with the fictional people they portray.

Or is it the other way around?

An honest actor will tell you that if the writing is good then they just say the lines. Which is them being very generous. Their art is a truly skilful one.

But, if the lines of their characters are true to their part within the story, then they may ‘play’ the role rather than having to ‘invent’ the role.

I’ve been concentrating on character within my own stories a lot more recently.

I tend write and reveal character through dialogue. Which, for me, is fine; mostly due to the fact that these characters have been hanging out with me and following me around, talking non-stop to me.

I’ve started to think much more about how much I am actually revealing about these characters. I think I might not be doing as good a job as I think.

One of the articles I came across whilst deliberating this issue offered ‘five ways to improving your characters’.

In my notebook, I neglected to write down where the article was from . . . but when I track it down again, I will attribute it properly so you can check the whole thing out.

Until then I offer you the notes I made.

  1. Get in touch with your character on a personal level – If you were describing having met this person to a friend of yours, what would you tell them? Your reader probably should know that much too.
  2. Understand their backstory deeply – You probably will not tell this story in your novel/script but all of the things that have happened to them up to this point, will effect their decision making within your story.
  3. Drive your story with your characters – Plot is obviously important, but how your main characters get to that end point, might be different if you let them find their way there, rather than driving them there yourself.
  4. Study how character change impacts plot – Back to school! – pick up those books/articles, listen/watch those interviews with your favourite authors. Keep learning your craft!
  5. Be persistent – Unless you want your characters to give up, don’t you give up learning and understanding them, so together you build the best story you can.

One of my favourite movies is Lethal Weapon and the introduction to the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh is one of the best there is.

We discover that Riggs has nothing left to live for and wants to die. We discover that Murtaugh has a family he wants to live for and worries that he might die if he isn’t careful.

The tension between these two characters and their motivations are what we watch. The plot line almost becomes something that  just moves them from one place to another.

We see them rubbing the edges off each other.

They will only survive to the end of the story by doing it together. Murtaugh has to take chances and Riggs has to have something to live for.

Just writing those last couple of paragraphs reminds me I need to keep going back to point 4!

Let me know how your characters are going and what you have done to improve them.

Day 467 – Creative Like Bill Belichick, Pt.2.

So yesterday I suggested that relatives could take inspiration/lessons from sports and hopefully I will convince you today.

Bill Belichick is the most successful NFL coach ever because:

  • He stays focused on the overall goal and works hard to achieve it
  • He never goes through the motions and always trains with purpose
  • He makes sure that he puts the right players on the pitch at the right time
  • He doesn’t panic if things don’t seem to be working early on in the season and understands the importance of late on in the game and the season
  • He doesn’t waste time talking about the game

So how does this translate into being creative?

Be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Belichick knows the season is about winning the Super Bowl and so is the pre-season and the post-season. If you want to write a novel then that is the goal, nothing else. Prepare. Execute. Analyse to make next year’s performance better. It is hard work so put in the hours. Be focused and cut out distractions. Commit and achieve.

Practise with purpose and put what you learn into action.

A very underestimated part of what Belichick does is the practice field. The Patriots train with crowd noise. They train with old and scuffed up balls, removing as much of the grip as they can. They try to recreate conditions similar to the ones they will play in. All practice is purposeful.

It can be hard if you are time pressed for your creative pursuit but you need to practice. If you are a writer then try and find an extra couple of hundred words which are based on what you are writing, or will write in the next chapter. It might be character descriptions, or scene setting, or dialogue. If you are an artist you might need to experiment with colour, or sketch certain body parts, or try different techniques for applying the paint.

Use the creativity you need for that particular moment.

Don’t get distracted or show off. Use the skills to produce the elements you need to make that particular chapter, or picture, or composition, exactly as you need it. Be prepared and execute. If the scene is your chapter is heavy on dialogue, then make sure you have been practicing that element. Listen to good movies or tv, listen to or read good scenes from books and plays.

Don’t Panic!

Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, things might not go quite the way you had planned. It happens. Work out why and fix the issue. Sometimes there might not be a specific problem, you just didn’t execute well enough, so make sure you do the next time. Keep pressing on and know everything will come together late on in the season when it really matters. You may have zigged when you wanted to zag but keep the process going and remain focused on the end result.

Don’t waste time and energy.

Monosyllabic answers and repetitive phrases at press conferences are communicating that this isn’t where we win championships and Super Bowls.

As creatives we have platforms which can really boost the audience for our creativity in ways which no other writers/artists have had before, but it can also be a massive distraction. Social Media is the press conference. Learn from Bill. Don’t waste your energy and know it is taking time away from your main job. It is necessary, which why even he does them, but his conduct tells you that he knows what is important. The end result.

So Create Like Bill! And I hope to see you all in the Hall of Fame! (But don’t be surprised if Bill doesn’t speak with us!)

Day 463 – Sunday Reflection.

I’ve been busy revamping my study.

Basically, I’ve got rid of more stuff I had forgotten I even had, or had kept because it might be useful at some point. I decided that some point had been reached and that the stuff wasn’t useful after all.

A family desk taken by my eldest son, freed up space for an armchair I’ve been looking at with fondness for a while now. I write at a standing desk, but I was hankering after a seat to muse, imagine, read, in.

I thoroughly recommend a standing desk if you don’t usually use one. Some are very pricey but mine is about the size of your laptop and does the job perfectly.

Revamping and tidying up are often necessary but also serve as perfect actions for not writing.

I sway between being really frustrated when I don’t write and just accepting that sometimes my brain needs a pause to fix something in a story, or make the necessary links to the next stage of the story.

I’ve probably mentioned this before but I don’t plot/plan in a James Patterson kind of way. Once the plot is down on paper then I know the story and my brain is off to the next one. The discipline to then take an extended plot and write it up into the finished novel eludes me. Be honest though, James Patterson probably feels the same way, which is why he has all of those co-authors.

I plan more like Lee Childs. I turn up, like Jack Reacher (okay – like a Jack Reacher who has been placed on too warm a wash cycle than the label directs!), meet a couple of people – good or bad – and the rest happens from there.

I am currently writing something new and it is requiring a little more thinking than I am used to. I think? Or I am doing a good job of pulling the wool over my own eyes. Sometimes, kicking back into the habit of hitting a word count each day, no matter what, really does get the job done.

I confess that all my normal habits have gone a bit wayward, with the only one remaining intact is the one where I listen to a new album everyday. Writing 1000 words a day has become disjointed. French language learning hasn’t been learnt for almost three weeks now. Exercise has not been what it should be. I have read more, and listened to podcasts and audio books more frequently.

My cotton-wash-when-it-should-have-been-a-wool-wash Reacher gives a Gallic shrug (as he can’t remember the phrase he was looking for) and wanders off into the night to regain his writing habit and his credibility . . .

Day 439 – Aloud.

When you write, read it back.

Not in your head. In your head it sounds different.

Read it aloud. Preferably to someone.

Most of the mistakes and awkward sentences will become apparent to you straight away. Some the person listening to you will point out.

It can be challenging. Not everyone reads aloud well. Not everything you will write will sound good. You have broad shoulders and a tough chin, you can live with it.

Happy reading!