Saturday, 21 October 2017

Why do Books Win Prizes?

Is the reader as important as the writer? Does their opinion of what they read count as much as what the writer believes about what they are writing? I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read and make this public.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argued that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critic who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the reading. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

I like the idea that the reader has opinions that count, but how can we make our opinions felt? Apart from sites like and, there are the glittering book prizes, where readers decide who will win. But most of those readers are writers or editors, or in some other way associated with the book trade.
Recently I finished ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman. The story begins when teenage girls worldwide simultaneously develop a 'skein' – a strip of muscle in their collarbone which conducts electricity, allowing them to instantly inflict pain and even death. Some girls have more power than others and they are able to wake up the force in older women too. Virtually overnight, the world changes beyond recognition. Women are elected as political leaders virtually everywhere, the army is almost completely composed of women, while sex-trafficked women break free from their bonds. 

If the book had been written the other way around, with men being all-powerful, we would more or lesws be reading about the real world, the one we live in. So how does Alderman visualise such a dramatic change as this? You’d think the prediction for a sudden matriarchal society would be that it’s more caring and nurturing than this one, where men are generally in charge. But the story is dystopian, suggesting that absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. Men become second-class citizens and this world unfurls into a mirror image of the one it left behind.

Readers had mixed opinions. It won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer. It’s getting five stars on all the review sites (mostly from women, which made me wonder if men are reading it). But when I went to my book club, all women, I was surprised to find that they all agreed with me, that this book, although a thought-provoking read, should not have won a major prize like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize. My reading friends agreed that the writing in The Power is not elevated or illuminating, that it read at the same level as something like The Hunger Games; fast-paced and easy to race through – a thriller, yes, but the language is basic and at times clumsy, and the characters are thinly revealed or developed. We didn't rate it as a work of literature. Perhaps that was mean of us. We already knew that Atwood had loved the book; did that influence us adversly? And in any case, does our opinion change what the book originally meant? 

Finally, we asked this…was there a more worthy winner on the short list? 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by peoples we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Salinger. Are the author's intentions and views about their own work, more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation? In the past women often had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. 

On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we should make up our mind only through our reading, and not from any outside inflences. The Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved if that were true. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.

Would The Power have won the Bailey’s if the judges hadn’t known that Margaret Atwood ‘mentored’ the book and gave it her wholehearted support? Atwood is justly renown for both her early works, which gave her a ‘name’ and for her later science fiction, but mostly, she’s in the news at the moment for the brilliant TV adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale. At our book club we couldn’t understand what she saw in this book, which we agreed was original and inventive, but concentrated on pursuing the idea that girls could now inflict pain, and describing gratuitous acts of violence, death and rape. What if a man had written this self-same book? Would it have been lauded, especially by feminists? Or would they have suggested that the dystopian nature of the outcome was due to a ‘male view’? What if the athour had reversed the theme, so that it was men who were born with electrocuting ‘skeins’? Would this book, as it stands, but gender reversed, have been read as literature? Or marketed under a lurid cover?

Meanwhile, my book club had all read the rest of the shortlist, and we all preferred one particular book. It didn't win, but nevertheless it's a total winner in our opinion. 

Which was was it? Well, that's what suspension is all about folks. I'll review it, as my favourite book of 2017, in my next blogpost. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

A Drama in the Shower

In her latest post for the Open College of the Arts, Nina Milton is writing about how to inject tension into your writing, and looks at the difference between tension and drama. 

How to do that? Try confronting a spider in the shower...

I do not like spiders, especially when bare-skinned and soaking wet. The pulse under my all-too exposed neck quickened. I watched its orchestral movements. I knew it planned to move...

You can read the entire post, bare-skinned spider experience and all, HERE

Monday, 2 October 2017

Britain by Bike, Druids and Larry Lamb

We were having a wonderful time at the Gors Fawr stone circle in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire. We had created a short ritual to ask the stones, and their spirits and ancestors to allow us to continue working at this sacred and ancient place, just as those who erected the stones had done, thousands of years ago. When all of a sudden, out of the blue, two boys in Lycra on bikes came by…Larry and George Lamb!

Of course it didn't quite happen like that. George Lamb had particularly asked to meet druids in Wales to find out more about this spiritual path, and we agree to be there on the day of filming. But we did create a lovely ritual, which we'd almost  completed by the time they came riding by, tinkling their bells to attract yet more fairies and joining in with smudge sticks to the ready…

You can watch us chat about Druidry to Larry and George Lamb on Britain by Bike, 
Channel Five 13th October – Pembrokeshire – 8pm.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Clear Up Your Writing Info Dumps

In her latest post for the Open College of the Arts, Nina Milton is writing on the information dump,  a phrase used colloquially by scriptwriters, but it’s also something that can be an issue for writers of novels and short stories. 

It’s a common a gambit used when the writer wants the reader to know something that the characters already know, but also used to overcome other information issues. The trouble with the info dump is that it’s boring to read, to listen to, or to view and horribly difficult to clear up once in place. 
Go to WeareOCA to read the rest of the post.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Get all Moody with Crime Writing

If people are saying they ‘couldn’t get into’ your writing, or that your characters felt a bit lifeless, then it might be that atmosphere or mood that is lacking in your work. Building mood and atmosphere grabs a reader and draws them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:

Atmosphere  has come to mean the ambience, aura or feeling of a scene. It is the literary device which allows the action in writing to also have emotions which intrigue, excite, seduce, unsettle, disturb or beguile. Often atmosphere will add to the enjoyment of a read without the reader quite being able to work out why – they are 'internalising' it. An atmosphere can be established very quickly, but it can also change throughout, depending on the scene, plot or development of character.

Mood is subtly different from atmosphere but can further lift the atmosphere you’re creating. It is the ‘something in the air’ that helps ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing, working like a perfume, subconsciously sensed – the ‘je ne sais quoi of a good read, when a reader’s spine is tingled, or their heart wrenched, almost without them knowing it. Mood is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator.

There are some very simple ways of getting atmosphere and mood into your writing. The first is to use the senses. 

Smell – describe smells, both lovely and sickening, to add to atmosphere and ‘take’ the reader into the story
Sound – not just ‘grand’ sounds like an on-coming train or ‘obvious’ sounds like birdsong in countryside, but ‘lesser’ sounds; the crunch of gravel underfoot, the way a character constantly sniffs, the sudden, atmospheric howling of a dog in the twilight distance.
Taste. Don’t forget taste whenever something is placed in the narrator’s mouth. That might not take place often in your story, so also consider the other tastes that could heighten atmosphere, such as the taste of strong chemicals in the air, or the ‘taste’ of rain. Also use ‘interior’ tastes, such as the taste of the waking mouth or the taste of bile. And don’t forget the taste of a kiss!
Touch. This might seem the hardest to use well, but it's hugely important in adding mood and atmosphere. Surprisingly, touch takes place all the time. A breeze on the face, fabric on skin, the touch of another’s hand, the pressure of a wall against your back or cold flooring under your feet.

I believe there is a sixth sense…the sensations felt inside a person…their mood and perceptions. What does it feel like for the character to be in that setting or location? Is the dirty kitchen frustrating or irritating John, or does he ignore it completely? If so, why? When the two children enter the cave how do they percive it…why is it scaring or exciting to them?

The Pathetic Fallacy can entice the reader right into the mood of the narrator or other characters. Used sparingly by the skilled writer, the Pathetic Fallacy can be very effective. This term relates to the technique of attributing human characteristics, sensations, and emotions, to things that are inanimate, such as nature. The weather is used a lot within this technique. It can link extremely well with the symbolism you might want to pull into a story.  For instance, when a writer wants to build up an emotion in their character, they will place them in an appropriate setting – the angry character standing below a lowering sky with bruised clouds tearing above them, or the despairing character battling against a desperate, lashing storm. Rain is always falling at funerals – lightening slashes a tree as a gothic horror begins – fog descends as the protagonist becomes wandering and confused, as in King Lear, or lost in a long, fruitless quest, as in Bleak House. But this is a device that is notoriously cliched and often wrongly applied by novice writers, leading to something called 'empathic universe', which creates a melodramatic effect. You can tell if someone has overdone their melodrama, the mood overpowers the characters and even the story,  getting in the way of allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist.  Be particularly warned if you are writing romantic fiction – remind yourself of the comic effect in Wallace and Gromit as Wallace’s bread was shown rinsing in his oven as his passion bloomed for Piella Backwell. If you use this technique to make people laugh, just be sure they are laughing with you and not at your writing. 

I haven't forgotten the sense of sight – describing how things appear is essential, even it if is over-used. New writers often believe 'describing' is something you really shouldn't do too much if you want to move your story on, and, indeed, today’s readers are not keen on long chunks of description…that died out with the crinoline! So the way to add atmospheric detail, especially in crime writing, is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. Opening out the possiblilities by painting the atmosphere until it drips with meaning is quite the opposite of providing chunks of description. 
By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a character, a landscape or an interior – the atmosphere can be enhanced.

Even more amazingly, adding detail to scenes that have a high drama content actually increases the tension. Creating detailed description stretches story out while offering the writer a chance to use good language skills to create a vivid atmosphere. 

So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story. 
Here’s a moment from the first skeleton draft version of my crime novel In the Moors;

I was drawing closer to the bogs. Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. I raised my collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles. This was a scary place to be at night.
Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In that first draft, I was pummelling along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. My character, Sabbie Dare is walking into a dangerous situation. I can’t stop the action – it's going at full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while maintaining the dramatic atmosphere. I must take as much time as I dare to allow Sabbie to describe what she observes and confront her own thoughts, by which she can build the mood of the scene…

When I lifted my chin away from my footsteps, I could see I was drawing closer to the long-abandoned areas, murky water held together with sedges and bulrushes. These bogs went on forever, impossible to tell one blackened hellhole from the next. I had no idea how to find the location I wanted.
I turned a full circle, skimming the horizon.  Far away into the west, an ancient clump of willows sprouted out of the bog. The trunks were glossy black against the reddening sunset. Each branch, thick as a Sumo wrestler’s leg, skimmed the water’s surface before turning upwards to the sky. The patterns they formed brought symbols to my mind – cages and gallows and rune signs. My skin goosed up along my arms. 
I pulled my jacket close about me and raised the collar against the wind. As I marched towards them, I saw the faint outline of police tape on thin metal poles, inadequately closing off the area.
The sun was slipping below the horizon like a thief in an alley. I had hoped I wouldn’t need my torch, but now it drilled a swirling vortex into the space ahead, illuminating the path with its paltry light. The slurry surface of the abandoned bogs gave me the clearest indication of where the path lay. I leaned forward as I walked to get the maximum light from the beam. The wind was whipping up, now darkness was falling. My cheeks and nose felt numb. When I looked up again to check my progress, the willows had gone.
I stared in horror. I wasn’t used to such dark magic. The grey horizon was hiding their silhouette. A gurgle of panic, like quickly swallowed porridge, rose in my gullet. The trees were somewhere ahead of me, but I hadn’t thought to take any sort of marking of where they lay – which of the many paths I needed.
My boot slid off a clump of slimy leaves. It filled with bog-water. I clutched at the air, struggling to keep my balance and the torch fell from my grasp. I watched in dismay as it sank beneath the oily sheen. My eyes stung with tears. Instantly the wind chilled them into ice. 
This was a dreadful place to be at night.

In this fuller version, 
 I slowed the action by writing into the gaps

which I left out in my rush to get the first words onto the page. I added hints of the sounds that are around her, and of the smell of the moors, with words such as murky, slimy and oily.  Touch sensations work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image, for instance, how Sabbie is effected by the freezing conditions. I tried to be unpredictable, especially in my choice of and simile. I allowed the falling darkness to imprint its mood on her emotions.  I ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery which might add to the mood. Rather than abstract nouns such as ‘Sabbie was scared’  I used 'show'...A gurgle of panic... My eyes stung with tears... And I've tried to draw out the experience by making things harder for Sabbie, placing obstacles in her way and allowing the loss of her torch into the bog to feel like the very last straw.

Sometimes, finding the one perfect detail is all you need. Think about the ‘core’ of each scene. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on, for instance, one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured. 

Your first draft is going to be rushed (and possibly messy) – you are trying to get down your thoughts. You might need to go back later to include atmosphere and mood. When you do, you’ll find these will also enhance your ‘writer’s voice’, and help you further understand what is behind your story.

Nina Milton’s crime series "The Shaman Mysteries" are published by Midnight Ink and available from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Cormac McCarthy The Road

The Road
'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts on 

Kitchen Table Writers

Cormac McCarthy is known for his gratuitous violence – blood, gore, screaming pain and horribly inflicted death. I’ve seen three of his books as films –  No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. I was determined to see The Road as soon as it came out, as I’m a big Viggo fan, even though I’d already taken the book out of the library some time before and so knew it would be full of cellars of decomposing bodies – worse – cellars full of living bodies, waiting to die at the hands of the cannibals who imprisoned them. 

Reading it once again, on Kindle, I don’t have such a terrible sense of doom, because I know there is a possibly glimmer of light at the very end of the story. This time, I spotted the signals of hope that are lightly threaded through the story. I didn't feel so tense and worried about ‘The Boy' and his future. Even so, it’s The Boy that brings a sense of tension to the story, because he’s the one that’s always asking…is there danger? Don’t lets go in there…what’s that noise, Dad? Are those bad guys? He articulates the fears of the story, while ‘The Man’ constantly reassures his son,…it’s okay…keep moving… This doesn't reassure the reader, though; we know that The Man is equally terrified of everything they may find ahead on their road. Secretly, as the very same concerns as The Boy. In his head, he often asks himself why he’s taking this journey in the impossible  hope of finding warm seas in the south of the USA. But aloud, he simply encourages his son to keep going.  

Time moves back and forwards in the story. We see man and boy journey along a bare landscape after a final apocalypse has devastated everything, and, (it feels at first), killed most of the people and possibly all of the wildlife. From the start, I assumed that this devastation is world-wide, although we’re not told this. For a long time we only see man, boy, and the occasional lost soul along the road, while, in his mind, The Man thinks back to before the apocalypse, remembering, in short passages, his wife and their love, her pregnancy, and then the event atomic or natural, whatever has caused this absolute brokenness, and after it, the baby being born, and their decision to try to journey across the land to the sea. Perhaps they hope to get board some imagined boat; perhaps he just thinks it will be warmer down there, in contrast to the conditions they travel through, where ash blows all around them, and their shoes are wrapped in sacking against deep snow. 

In one flashback we see the wife decide to leave them while they sleep, and go off to her death, her suicide. I found that particularly shocking, and wondered if a woman writer would have imagined this in the same way; women rarely leave their children voluntarily.  So I have to think of this as a writer’s device; McCarthy wanted The Road to be about a boy and a man. I don’t blame him. What he created was powerful reading which, for all its masculine tone, is moving and full of tender love. He gets  right into the head of The Man for most of the time. We never see The Boy’s thoughts, but often McCarthy moves out of the thoughts and immediate perceptions of The Man while  constantly shifting from The Man's warm-hearted love to an more objective viewpoint to observe the savage, dreadful landscape and its inhabitants. 

McCarthy injects much power into his writing.  A clever strategy to help this is that he drops all use of speech marks. There are no long dialogues, so they are easily dispensed with, along with some apostrophes, some capital letters and all semi colons.  Alongside this bid for immediacy the use of heightened language, which, as we move away from inner thoughts to McCarthy’s narration, becomes lyrical. He uses this technique because The Man doesn’t have the time or energy to be ‘poetical’ – he’s too exhausted, in fact he’s half dead, even when we first meet him. The two travellers barely have strength to talk; 
[The Boy:] It's really cold
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We're not going to die. 

This becomes one of two main tensions, or questions of conflict, in the book. The first is ‘when will the bad guys come’. They do come, often. The first takes one of the bullets in The Man’s gun; it leaves him with one bullet, which is not enough for him to be able to execute himself and The Boy if they need to die rapidly. It was the one thing that had kept him going…that he had those two bullets. This happens about a 1/4 of the way into the book, and is one of many points in the story where tension…and blood pressure…is raised. The second main question of conflict is ‘will The Man die before The Boy is safe’. There might be a third question, but I found it hard to ask. ‘Will they both die?’ was something I didn't have the heart to think about. I didn’t want to believe even McCarthy could do that to his story, even though I know he can be absolutely brutal in his writing. I know McCarthy wouldn't spare me the honest reality, which was that everyone in that world would surely die. I read on, wondering why I was so hopeful.

The story is crisscrossed with the image, and symbol, of roads. The man and boy spend much time on the road, described wonderfully by McCarthy. It is the guideline of the novel, a desolate, transient thing, full of danger. It always points to where they need to go, even though it would be a rare reader who, while reading, sees the point to going there. The road was a physical reality, the ever onward walking, walking, but also a state of mind…the understanding that we see our journey through life as the ‘road ahead’, which we are always taking, until we die. A second symbol of journeying is the shopping cart (supermarket trolley) they push, filled with all their wordy goods. This is their grail, their treasure, and yet it’s almost impossible to drive smoothly along, especially up or down hill, or through snow. As I read, I was always aware of its vital importance. When they hide it to run away from the ‘bloodcults' who form lethal gangs, or to search derelict houses, I worried about the cart, fearing that it would be looted while they are gone. And sometimes, it is. Fire, another symbol used cleverly, punctuates the roadway. They build fire every night, when they can, even though sometimes it might draw the wrong attention. Eventually, The Boy has to leave his father, and The Man lists instructions…keep going south. Keep the gun with you. Find the good guys. But, most important…
You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes, it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

McCarthy refuses to let you look away, but at the same time, you’re allowed to, sort of, because the reader is likely to identify deeply with The Boy. Like fire, he is a symbol of hope, and The Man, perpetually tender towards his son, is always making him look away from the grossness of their world, to lie in a ditch, stay out of sight. Their relationship stabilises and motivates the father. Of course it does; The Boy is all The Man has to live for and move forward for. The Boy often uses the word ‘okay’ as if to console, reassure.  An understanding, came right as I began to read that first time. The Boy has learnt quickly. He does not run out of sight, he does not play unless something is initiated by his father. He does not laugh. He is rarely ‘naughty’, but occasionally, he can be cruel to his dad. He has grown old, while still small, and with it, he’s gained amazing wisdom. He’s been born into the post-apocalyptic world and has known nothing but cold, pain, ill health and fear, and yet he’s actually the one that has compassion for outsiders. I found that convincing. Children can be wonderfully ‘self-righteous’, but this compassion seems more than this, as if, with no play and no fun in his life, he’s worked through a philosophy in which kindness is paramount. After all, it’s what he has constantly received from his father, for whom he is a…golden chalice, good house to a god… His constant approach becomes another rich symbol in the book. I began to see The Man as representing the human – the brutal, if sentient, creature with a strong instinct to survive. He keeps going because he must. To do what his wife did is unthinkable, even though he knows there might be a time, if they fell into the hands of a bloodcult, that death would be preferable. But to survive, they cannot show compassion to any outsider. They cannot offer food to the starving, for they are starving too. They cannot stop to help the trapped, or the distressed, because they have no time to waste, and in any case, all others are seen as a threat – best they stay trapped. 

The boy, in contrast, has a shining empathy with those in need. He is constantly exploring his father to be benevolent, to show fellow-feeling, to stop, to help, to share what they have. When his father uses the penultimate bullet in the gun to save their lives, The Boy cannot speak or even look at his dad for a long time. Even though it’s clear The Boy, in his young wisdom understands, why The Man has made such rules, he constantly rises above them.
The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He's been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Stop it.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There's nothing to be done for him.

To me, The Boy’s response represented the soul within the sentient being, and the core understanding that together, they make up a sort of duality of being human; the father’s brutal drive for survival is an external need, but locked inside is a sort of radiant grace, that links with the way The Man considers The Boy as a chalice. And that’s why I think the book has the end it has – why I didn't need to worry about asking that third, awful question.

McCarthy is a renowned recluse, and would never write a happy(ish) end just because he thought his readership might like it, or because his editor demanded it. I think at the end,  what we see is the body stripped away, and the soul walk out of it. The boy walks into the light, taking the inner fire. As if to prove it, McCarthy finishes the book like this…
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional…In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Walking the Golden Road

“Everywhere you feel the presence of the megalithic tomb-builders, of the iron Age warriors who piles stones for the great hill forts and of kindly and absent-minded Celtic saints.”

I can remember hearing the words of Winford Vaughan-Thomas on the radio when I was little, and he was already old – he’d been a decorated 2nd WW correspondent – but his first love was the Welsh countryside, and above, he’s talking about the Pembrokeshire Preseli Hills, locally called Mynydd Preseli. 

Myndd means mountain, because the Welsh have a flexible view of what makes a mountain. If the place is high and fairly inaccessible, rugged and wild, often lost in cloud and offering breathtaking views to climbers, that’s enough to call it a mountain, even if it doesn’t quite make the obligatory 600 metres.

Vaughan-Thomas had a love of the famous ridgeway walk called the Golden Road, which runs along the spine of the Preseli Hills, Anyone who has a passion for the ancient past, fabulous walking or stunning views, would love it. 

A month ago, I blogged about a Summer Solstice celebration we held at a Pembrokeshire stone circle called Gors Fawr. While were enjoying our picnic, some of the company told me they planned to walk the Golden Road. 

“It’s seven miles,” I complained. “Too long for me.” But as I gazed up at the ‘Dragon’s Back’, one of the possible quarries from which stones were believed to have been taken to Stonehenge 4000 years ago, and Carn Bica, where a second Neolithic stone monument stands, I just couldn’t resist. Both of these would be on our route. 

The Dragon's Back 
We set out on a Sunday in late June at 10am. The weather was perfectly awful, a misty drizzle that hid the path ahead. “Should we do this,” I asked. “Aren’t you supposed to avoid mountains when the mist comes down?”

Everyone reassured me. This spinal road is wide, sometimes almost half a mile of flat high moorland, with a marked path. No danger of getting lost or falling off the edge. The most treacherous thing would be the boglands, areas of soggy ground that can trick you if you do stray from the designated path.

And so the seven of us shouldered our backpacks and set out from the village of Rosebush, with Foel Eryr, or ‘Place of the Eagle’, at our backs. Eagles are no longer seen in Wales, but buzzards and red kites were gliding overhead, and they are majestic enough for me. At the summit of Foel Eryr there is a Bronze Age burial carn, marking, perhaps, the resting place of men and women who were important to that clan or tribe. We turned from that summit to the Golden Road and were soon walking alongside the northern edge of the Pantmeanog Forest, and as the pine forestry cleared, we looked across to the highest point in the Preselis, Foel Cwmcerwyn. Half hidden in the mist, it’s 1,759 feet high, making it a brilliant subject for a film like The Man Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain. It really would only need a few more metres of rock.
The Golden Road may have been walked for 5,000 years or more. It was one of hundreds of high ridgeway trails which people and animals used to avoid the dense forests, impassible rivers and difficult and dangerous terrain at lower levels…not to mention unfriendly locals. Some believe the Golden Road was a trade superhighway, along which gold mined in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland was carried south east as far as Wessex…to the very place where Stonehenge still stands to this day. If you have ever visited the Dublin Museum, you will have seen examples of the Neolithic gold jewellery, that both men and women of high status would have worn on their special occasions, and the Britons wanted to trade for some of that, I’m sure. 

We ate up the miles, walking mostly on flat high ground. As the mist began to lift, we could look left, to the south, and there was Foel Feddau, or Bald Grave, a high trig-point with yet another Bronze Age buried carn. Looking right, we tried to make out Castell Henlyll, a large Iron Age fort sitting high up some miles to the north. Castell Henlyll has been rebuilt to closely resemble the original settlement where the Celtic Demetae tribe lived 2,000 years ago. In fact, it’s unique in Britain – the only reconstruction on an exact Iron Age site. It’s well worth a visit. Not only have they built several perfect roundhouses, including the chief’s impressive dwelling, but they run events, for children of all ages, day workshops where you can train as a warrior, learn woodturning or help build a wattle and daub wall. We love going there, and recently we gathered near a roundhouse fire to hear Robin Williamson play, sing, and tell tales from bygone ages.

After another hour’s walking we stopped for water, leaning on a line of rocky outcrops called the Cerrig Marchogion…Rocks of the Knights. In a grassy cwm below, the myths and legends of Wales tells us, King Arthur fought a bloody battle with a fierce and enchanted boar caller the Twrch Trwyth. They needed a comb which he held in his stiff boar hair to complete the tasks they had been given by a giant. We were leaning against the gravestones of the slain knights. Of course, these are natural outcrops, but I could certainly understand why legend tells that this was an ancient graveyard, high in the hiils. 

All at once, the mist dissipated and the sun shone golden on the valleys below. We gazed down, trying to make out Gors Fawr, the stone circle where we had spent the Summer Solstice in balmy weather, and planned this walk. 

Carn Bica
Finally, we reached the rocky tor of Carn Bica. We sat to eat a picnic, but were keen to move on, because we could see Bedd Arthur, a ring of stones in the shape of an eye – or a longish horseshoe – or a boat – or, more interestingly, the shape of the inner bluestone circle at Stonehenge. It’s only one of many places said to be the grave of King Arthur, but Arthur lived around 600 CE while this monument dates back to Neolithic times.

Just below it is Carn Meini, its bluestone rock eroded into jagged shapes that do look like a dragon’s back, it’s local name. For many years it was believed that the stones in the inner circle at Stonehenge were quarried here – a type of bluestone, the so-called ‘spotted dolerite’ – and if not quarried for that stage of Stonehenge, then certainly lifted by glacial action and taken close enough to the building site. However, this spotted dolerite is not the only type of bluestone found at Stonehenge. There are also bluestones called rhyolites. Recently, geologists from

the National Museum Wales have been digging at another outcrop in the Preselis.  This is Craig Rhosyfelin, less than a mile north of Care Meini. What they found there excited them. Because bluestone outcrops is formed in huge slabs, they think it would have been possible to break off ‘monolith-sized’ slabs by hammering wooden wedges into cracks and wetting them thoroughly. As the wood swelled, the slab would simply break off, ready to be carted away.
Intriguingly, scientists have discovered that some bluestones in the Preselis give off metallic sounds if they are tapped with a smaller stone. The bluestones at Stonehenge also have this propensity. Were they first chosen for some ritual musical reason? We they ‘played’ in the circle? Almost half the stones at Gors Fawr are also bluestone (not sure which sort), and I can’t wait to go back with a hammer-shaped stone to try them out.

Close to the path’s end, we passed Foel Drygarn, a perfectly rounded hill rising out of the moorland.  It was tempting to digress from our path and climb it. There’s an early Iron Age fortress (around 350 BCE) with a double ramparts and ditches still visible. And right at the top are three Bronze Age burial carns. But we must have all been more than ready for the last two miles to the end, because no one took the diversion. I will do it, though, sometime soon! 

As we passed a final fir plantation, coming down towards Afon Taf, and the town of Crymch, we still felt like we were a inhabiting another world. We’d passed through mythological stories, enchanted lands, ancient history and remote but beauteous landscapes. Not once, along the seven miles, had we seen another human soul.  As we reached the cars we’d left at the far end of the walk, we could not have felt more content. All we needed to do was sit in the sun with a beer in our hands. So it was off to the Nags Head in Abercych for a final celebration.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Five-finger Exercise for Writers

When I was  a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelsshon’s Songs without Words, Beethoven sonatas and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements. 
Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; three decades to be exact.

Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, a writer who I'm mentoring at the moment, wrote to say...When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.
Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life...many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess - when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous - can help enormously. Bill wrote; When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing. 
Naturally, a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement I hope to give practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t - they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the forest. 
But it’s important for the mentor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel. 
Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious...Bill said in his letter...and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so.
Awnice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience, to be honest. Without that, it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks.

I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful set of mentors; the literary agency I'm with. They don't just turn my work around, and send it off to editors with a hopeful covering letter, they constantly work with me to get my novels to a perfect pitch. Like Bill, I'm no better at seeing the trees in my own writing…I fancy almost all professional writers find it hard to find a navigable path through the thickest parts of their novel's woodland – at least during the first drafts. Maybe this is the reason many second novels get slated by critics and readers alike; 'just not like the first, great book', they'll cry, and I'll be thinking, 'didn't their agent read it over and comment on it, offer some advice?' That's when I know I'm so lucky to have great agents. 
Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap…
Bill hasn’t quite finished his novel yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.

One thing I can reassure him on – and all the writers who are in his position that read this blog – it does, slowly, get easier. Tiny step by tiny step, you start to work things out on your own, spotting what's wrong in time to get it right, learning to take that step back and look at the forest, see how it's growing.
Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours...may your words always sound like songs.

To learn more about my mentoring programme, go to KITCHEN TABLE NOTEPAD PROGRAMME