Just a few images from nature to lift our spirits at this time of anxiety and fear for many during the UK Lockdown. The streets and lanes are quiet and dreamlike with just a few people taking their one piece of exercise a day during this Covid 19 crisis. These photos were taken in the Spinney, not far from our home. The bluebells are appearing earlier than usual. May this be a sign of hope not too far ahead.
I’m pleased to announce I have a new book coming out soon, this time non-fiction.
It will be a short one, 100 pages, and will be available in paperback as well as an ebook.
I’ve written it for all those who’d love to know about the process of writing novels: whether they be aspiring writers, or simply keen readers who are curious about how novelists think up their ideas and go about creating fiction from them.
Here’s a taste of some of the topics I’ll cover in the course of the book:
- Universal themes in fiction
- Strategies to develop creative and imaginative writing
- How to create a novel that your readers won’t want to put down
- Three tips for creative works of realistic fiction
- How to know which point of view to use in a story
- How to develop villainous characteristic traits in your writing
- How can Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes help you in your creative writing?
- Inspiration for creative writers from artists
- Suggestions for writing the end of a novel
- Always on the outside looking in – does a bestselling novelist have a lesson to teach aspiring writers?
Each topic has a chapter to itself, and the book contains 33 chapters.
Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:
How do you find courage and motivation when your novel sinks in the middle?
How do you stay focused as a writer despite all the setbacks and disappointments?
How can great artists, musicians and psychologists give you inspiration?
You’ll find the answer to these questions and many others in this book. SC Skillman offers deep insight into the faith and hope that is vital for one who walks the perilous path into the ‘promised land’ of the writing profession.
More soon when I’ll let you know the title and give you the cover reveal!
This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.
I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”
As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”
When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings, of good and evil, hope and despair.
This time, I had the following thought:
The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.
I was pleased to see Austria’s win in the Eurovision Song contest 2014. Not only was there the pleasure in seeing a country win that had not seen success at Eurovision for 49 years, but also I thought it a genuinely good song, performed beautifully by Conchita Wurst who has a wonderful voice.
The standard this year was very high and I enjoyed several of the songs and performers. I don’t judge by politics, but by the performance alone, and the performances submitted by Russia and Ukraine were amongst those I personally believed to be the best. The current political situation between those two countries, to me, was irrelevant to the criteria for choice.
Many people love the Eurovision Song Contest, for different reasons; but I hope we have seen signs this year that we may be moving in the direction of valuing talented performers and high quality songs for their own sake alone.
We love listing “The 50 Top … Films, Books, Magic Tricks, Comedians”, etc. etc.
And a list of the top films will always change from year to year. But to my mind, The Shawshank Redemption makes the top of the list. And I saw it again very recently on TV.
I watched it for the first time several months ago when I borrowed it from LoveFilm. Having visited Aberystwyth University Film Studies Department with my daughter during an Open Day in 2012, I heard the Film Studies lecturer list those films which are considered “the best ever made” or absolute must-see films for those who are serious about film.
So I dutifully added those films to my LoveFilm list.
And that’s how I came upon The Shawshank Redemption.
And this is why I consider it justly deserving of the title ‘best movie ever made.’
Its themes are of profound relevance to our lives:
The importance of:
keeping faith; having patience; strategic long term planning; a long term plan of action; perseverance; loyalty; hope; persistence; calm forbearance under ill treatment and suffering.
I believe we can find in The Shawshank Redemption a metaphor for all that’s truly important in this life.
I suggest, too, that it’s no accident that I, as a writer, should relate closely to these themes in my own life. For the film is based upon Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption; and Stephen King, besides all his other books, is the author of the best book for writers I have ever read: On Writing. I’ve heard many other writers give this the highest praise too. I imagine that something of his own understanding of life as a writer may have been uppermost in Stephen King’s mind when he created the story upon which The Shawshank Redemption is based.
Sometimes, struggling through many years without recognition or success, can be like serving 10,20,30 years in Shawshank State Prison. Although the act of creating fiction is in a sense its own reward, and always will be, the fact remains that rewriting drafts and revising a novel line by line over the course of years without any immediate material reward in view, is like chipping away, digging that hole in the wall, the hole which opens the tunnel to freedom, hidden behind a deceptive cover, over years, of slow, patient work.
Keeping faith is the phrase that returns to me again and again, along with patience, perseverance, forbearance, strategic long term planning, and a long term course of action.
And I’m sure you, in whatever circumstances life has thrown at you, can also find parallels here to some aspect of your own experience.
The epiphany at the end of the film has a luminous, spiritual quality to it. To me it is more truly ‘religious’ than anything the Warden Samuel Nortons of this world might delude themselves with.
Watch the film if you haven’t seen it. But if you have – share your feelings about the message of this film.
I’m a great admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.
When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.
Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did. I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.
When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.
JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.
I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.
It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.
However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.
JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.
Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.
In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.
For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences. It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.
I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and my two teenage children.
As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?
Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are a short drive out of Eastbourne on the south coast.
I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.
On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.
And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”
Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.
For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever.