Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

A Passionate Spirit 99p on Kindle from 1 April for 1 week only

My publisher Matador have just dropped the price of my kindle ebook for one week.

Take the chance to snap up my new paranormal thriller “A Passionate Spirit” on Kindle at the special price of 99p.

COVER DESIGN A PASSIONATE SPIRIT pub Matador

The deal ends on Friday 8th April when the price will revert to its usual level of £3.99. So this is a great opportunity.

And if you read and enjoy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon. Reviews are critical to an author’s success!

The Power of Light to Uplift the Spirit and Transform a Dark World

Add light to any situation, and it changes dramatically.

View of the London skyline from Parliament Hill, Hampstead.jpg

 

I have often thought the Shard in London looks like a mystical tower. Here in this view it certainly lives up to this image! Highlight one element of a picture and immediately it starts communicating its message  – as you will see from these pictures of places I find inspiring: whether that be the view over the London skyline from Parliament Hill, Hampstead; Coventry Cathedral; or the reflective glass building at 250 Euston Street, London.

According to the gospel of John, Jesus Christ described himself as the “light of the world”. John picks up on this image of light many times – “the true light that was the light to every person coming into the world.” Here in Coventry Cathedral I didn’t realise how the the Graham Sutherland tapestry of Christ was illuminated, until I looked at my photo later:

Light on the Graham Sutherland tapestry of Jesus Christ in Coventry Cathedral

I don’t like to see “darkness” necessarily equated with evil, or given any moral character at all, but when we see the pitiless acts of cruelty and hatred which have filled our news over the last weeks, months and years since so many bright (and perhaps false) hopes were raised at the millennium, we seem to crave words to convey our response, and we fall back on words like “black” and “darkness”. These words have acquired a spiritual resonance.

In the last few days I have been seeing just a few examples of the power of light to transform, and to convey a message.

Light or reflective glass building at 250 Euston Road, London

Let’s hope that we can ourselves be creative…

light a candle

…in how we shine light into the world, in however small a way, in our own situations.

silver sea image 5

Action Adventure Tropes and Powerful Archetypes in Stories

I love to see how tropes specific to certain genres of story telling can cross boundaries into different genres.

one author's question about story tropes
one author’s question about story tropes

One example came to my mind recently whilst watching our DVD of Tintin and the Adventure of the Unicorn again.

This story centres around “an old Sea Captain’s estate”; we learn from the villain (an unreliable source) of “a shadow of ruin over the family for generations… we’re talking years of drinking and irrational behaviour.”  A few generations back, the villain declares to the hero Tintin, Sir Frances Haddock was “a failure and a hopeless reprobate. He was doomed to fail and he bequeathed that failure to his sons.” As soon as we know this is the opinion of the villain, an expectation is set up in us that the hero will work to quash this negative scenario.

In this story there are two policemen from Interpol who are on the trail of the same thing as Tintin, but with much less insight and inspiration.. They seem like a pair of fools / clowns, but at a later stage of the story they turn up at just the right moment and save the hero’s life.

The central question of the story is: Can Captain Haddock lay his demons in order to claim his inheritance and redeem the family fortunes and lift the intergenerational curse?

I feel that all these themes, beloved of the action adventure genre, can be translated into other genres too.

Genre is a fascinating subject; I write contemporary fiction but it has something of mystery, something of suspense, something of psychological thriller too. In my new novel there is the element of the paranormal and supernatural as well. How do we determine which genre predominates? Traditionally it’s the preserve of the traditional publisher to decide that, and this then becomes the cornerstone of how the novel is marketed and promoted.

In many ways, genre is all about the psychology of the readers, and their expectations.

Successful fiction touches the spirit of the readers in some way. But we cannot ever write to please others; only to please ourselves. And so, ultimately we must write for the love of it, and leave the response of the reader in the realms of the future unknown.

The Creative Power of an Intense Group of People in the Hothouse Environment of a Writers Retreat

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman
Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

I’ve now finished my series of Cave posts as new inspiration has intervened!

One of my fellow bloggers Lance Greenfield has just opened up thoughts of writers retreats by reblogging this post on the subject by Max Dunbar. Lance then went on to ask his own followers for their responses to Max’s thoughts, and whether it would be worthwhile for him to go on one of the many writers’ courses or retreats that are available here in the UK.

Part of my inspiration for my novel Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation poetry course which I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. My fellow poets that week reflected the wide variety of characters to be found at a writers’ retreat in the UK – and in the story of Mystical Circles.  Among these you may find – alongside whatever idiosyncracies you yourself may bring – several complex personalities; and your interactions with others, and your observations, form an inexhaustible source for a writer. And I believe it’s vital to write about people, no matter how deeply flawed, with love and empathy, never in a detached or critical spirit.

Below I list some of my favourite plays, books and films which have achieved this:

Unnatural Causes by PD James (detective novel set in a literary community)

Peter’s Friends (film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)

Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh (brilliantly developed and improvised by playwright and actors and first broadcast by the BBC in 1977)

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (a group of people are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of her father, the eccentric Captain Shotover)

If you’re fascinated by group dynamics and it’s relevant to what you’re writing, then a writers retreat – a small group of intense people in a hothouse atmosphere – may be ideal for you!

 

 

Words From A Cave – Part 2

Mulu Caves Malaysia
Mulu Caves, Malaysia

Since last week’s post I’m starting to see the light flooding through into my cave. I’m moving around on my crutches (and sometimes without them.) I went to the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter morning services at my church (St Mark’s Leamington Spa) and then later on Easter Sunday I was out at a local beauty spot, Burton Dasset Hills, near Banbury, enjoying the lovely views  and watching a white Scottie dog barking excitedly at two very indifferent and unimpressed sheep!

My novel, A Passionate Spirit, has been sent to a publisher and so this is a very opportune time for me to be taking a break.

I promised you the fruits of any creative thinking I manage to do. One thing I’ve learned is this: when you spend a significant amount of time in a cave, you stand to discover who your angels and demons are: because they’re all in there with you. I’ve identified 4 demons, the details of which I won’t reveal here, save for one: that is ‘the demon of compulsion to compare myself, unfavourably, with others’ – and in particular, other authors and their perceived success.  It’s good that I’ve identified and named these demons for that is the first stage to banishing them.

Of the angels, I can say that I’ve received one fruit of creative thinking; I’ve recognised  where my point of interest now lies, as an author: it’s actually the point of breakthrough. I’m interested in spiritual / paranormal / supernatural / otherworldly things breaking through into the real, solid, contemporary world. I’m interested in the crack – the clash of worlds and worldviews and different understandings of life / the universe and the way it operates – and most critically of all, how the people in this ordinary world react to and handle it.

A creative person , I realised, gets an idea and runs with it – and then, somewhere along the way, discovers something striking, surprising, unusual, a new angle – which gives the project an outstanding quality.

More insights from the cave next week – although I may then be walking out of it!

Ghostly Encounters, Earthbound Spirits and a Promise of Love

Recently my sister in Australia sent me a set of DVDs – ironically made in England,  containing a documentary series on Great British Ghosts narrated by Michaela Strachan for the BBC. The set also included a third documentary, narrated by Paul McGann in a balanced, neutral tone, called Ghosts of the London Underground, and this was by far the most compelling of the three.

Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann
Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann

Traditionally in England, sightings of ghosts such as grey ladies in sixteenth century properties can be attributed by sceptics to over sensitive or highly-imaginative people tuned in to the atmosphere whilst staying overnight in Tudor coaching inns.

But the ghosts of the London Underground have a different character. Each story in this documentary is told by a worker whom you would describe as ‘a totally down to earth, practical no-nonsense bloke’ whom many might  consider diametrically opposite to the popular image of the type of person who claims to have ghostly encounters. Some of those who told their stories said “I don’t believe in ghosts… but I’ve had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life as something which happened to me which has no explanation.”

Beneath the ticket halls, walkways, escalators and tunnels through which so many people stream, carrying out their daily lives, there is another story: the lingering residue of the souls of people who died terrible and tragic deaths,   and somehow imprinted a psychic recording into those tunnels; and not just the ones which have been abandoned.

One day I believe we will fully understand why and how these things happen, but right now, to my knowledge, we have no satisfactory over-arching philosophy to account for these experiences. I shrink from believing that the soul of a human being can possibly be condemned to wander for years close to the place where they had the worst experience of their life on earth. And I cannot fathom why the essence of a person should continue to walk in the place where their life ended, apparently unaware of the fact that they’re dead. Yet living people have had and continue to have experiences which would indicate this as an immediate explanation.

My new upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit contains several ghost stories and an element of the unexplained, and I admit to being fascinated by these phenomena. I used to love Tales of Mystery and Imagination on TV in the past, and not long ago read and reviewed Classic Tales of the Macabre by masters of the ghost story genre: a dazzling display of atmospheric writing from masters of the craft, that demonstrate the art of suspense, with the build-up of horror. The stories in this book are must-reads for anyone seeking to write in the genre nowadays; they range from supernatural to psychological subjects, and all of them are beautifully-written..

However there is another aspect of these experiences. If they are psychic recordings of energy, the fact that they draw the living to engage emotionally with certain tragic life events that happened to individuals in the past, is on one level a good thing.

Of all the millions of beings who’ve been through this world, ghosts are few and far between. And many pass through leaving no mark at all. Nevertheless, there are a few who do indeed leave a mark. And people who’d otherwise be ignorant of their existence are drawn not only to them and to their story but in such a way that they engage emotionally with it.

What we do with this idea depends on a number of factors, not least our worldview.

From a Christian point of view, the fact that every diocese of the Church of England has a “deliverance ministry” (no longer using the term “exorcism”) this presupposes that Christians do actually accept the idea of “earthbound spirits” who need to be released.

Christian theology asserts that each individual soul who has ever lived is loved by God.

In Revelation 21: 3-4 we read these words “One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes and I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.”

This is a promise to hold onto, for those of us who are drawn to investigating these ghostly encounters.

Book Review: “Earthed” published by Mystic Christ Press: Bridging the Gap Between Christianity and Paganism

This fascinating book came into my hands because I belong to a Facebook group called Mystic Christ and heard about the publication of this collection of essays by authors with both Christian affiliation and a desire to express spirituality through nature connection.

Earthed - Christian Perspectives on Nature Connection
Earthed – Christian Perspectives on Nature Connection

This sounded like a book after my own heart. For many years I was greatly drawn to a spirituality very close to pantheism/nature mysticism; and one of my chief objections then to the Christian faith was what I saw as its “black and white” stance and its refusal to recognise the validity of this kind of spirituality. I remember years ago a certain Tory politician being asked if he was religious or a churchgoer, to which he replied, “No, I don’t go to church, I feel much closer to God walking in the Yorkshire Dales”.

In the view of the authors of “Earthed” this is a valid spiritual position to take.

The book, edited by Bruce Stanley and Steve Holllinghurst, brings together the views and experiences of several authors who have a range of different approaches and outlooks but all believe that Christianity’s relationship with nature matters.

The earlier essays provide an overview and then move on to more detailed accounts of personal experiences. I must admit I found some of these read a little like vicars seeking to justify to their evangelical colleagues why they are moved by pagan religious rituals in nature.

However,  I was pleased to see a chapter by Annie Heppenstall, “Do I Not Fill Heaven and Earth?” Annie led the Celtic Christian celebrations I attended at Morton Bagot church in Warwickshire. There is also a very good article by Anne Hollinghurst about St Francis of Assisi.  “A creation-centred spirituality,” she writes, “should also include St Francis’ rule of compassion for the poor, a rejection of the pursuit of wealth, status or reputation in favour of simplicity and poverty of spirit.”

To me there’s no problem in the idea of worshipping God in and through nature.This has always been a spirituality very close to my heart. But I do acknowledge that some people find the natural world wild, disorderly and threatening.

I enjoyed the chapter about The Green Man by Simon Cross, in which he draws a thread connecting the story of the Garden of Eden with the Legend of the Holy Rood, the Frankenstein story, North American Indian spirituality and its understanding of the Great Spirit, through the 1800’s resurgence of interest in occultism and onto fear of little green men from Mars, space research and exploration and the current fascination with wilderness survival skills (as demonstrated in various TV programmes).

The theme of this book was highlighted from a different source on Sun 16 November 2014: I was watching a BBC TV programme presented by Sue Perkins from a remote rural community in Cambodia, where she was spending time with people who have “a relationship with the natural world that many of us crave.”

Another outstanding chapter for me in this book is “Oceanic God” in which author Nick Thorpe writes about things he has learned from the power of the sea and from the people who earn their living by chancing their lives upon the sea.

“After my sea pilgrimage,” he says, “I resolved to allow myself a broader, more open-handed belief; less fretful about the details of doctrine, more willing to let complex realities clash, and mysteries remain.”

There is also a lovely piece by Paul Cudby on “Friendships Across the Divide: A Theology of Encounter” which I strongly identified with. I have myself felt the spiritual sense of nature connection which he describes, on several occasions throughout my life. The experiences he describes follow the principle that whatever you practice regularly becomes almost intuitive and then new possibilities spring up.

In conclusion I’d say that the premise of this book is correct: that in western forms of Christian worship many habitually cut themselves off from this kind of nature connection; and this is a totally unnecessary source of alienation from those who find themselves naturally drawn to pagan and mystical spirituality.Instead, we end up creating a division between those whose spiritual practices might otherwise find many points of similarity.

If any of this rings a bell with you, I highly recommend this book.

Do Novelists Have an Agenda or a Moral Purpose?

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme I listened to a fascinating panel discussion from  the Charleston FestivalTom Sutcliffe questioned four novelists: Tim Winton, Nicola Barker, Michael Schmidt and Karl Knausgaard.

Two of the questions Tom Sutcliffe asked were:
Do novelists have an agenda or a moral purpose?
Do you as a novelist have a moral obligation to your subject?

The answer seemed to be no.

Nicola Barker said that she felt writing a novel is about engaging with the text and the words, and the story is driven forward by “the energy of the moment”, not by any moral purpose whatsoever. She said she starts writing and “a spirit of mischief” overwhelms her.

The novelist embroiders reality to make it habitable; for a fiction writer it’s true to say, “I might not like the world of my story but it’s a world I own.”

I found this discussion interesting because I believe that in writing a novel it is fatal to the story to try and make the story comply with any conscious “moral purpose” on the part of the author.

This feeds interestingly into how one can write a novel that is issue-driven rather than character-driven. And also, how do creative writers write in despotic regimes? How do you create a fictional world, peopled by fictional characters, and ensure that what you say is in line with the agenda of that regime?

From my experience I find that the only imperative as a story develops is to follow where my principal characters lead, as their inner purpose becomes clearer and clearer to me.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit (psycho-spiritual suspense) is now being considered by a publisher. The theme of the novel is conflict between good and evil. And as my characters revealed more of themselves, I realised that there were several ways I could end the novel, and whichever one I chose would be saying something different about the nature of evil.

In my first novel Mystical Circles, I now wish I could have followed John Fowles’ lead in A French Lieutenant’s Woman, and given three alternative endings.

I’ve learned through experience one of the snares a novelist should avoid: to write the ending you think your readers want to see, or expect to see, based upon the feedback of early readers.

A novelist’s only moral obligation is to the inner truth of the characters.

Kairos Moments in Life – Broken Priests and More Insights from BBC TV sitcom ‘Rev’

As I think again about the BBC TV sitcom Rev the word wrecked  comes to my mind.

Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit bbc.co.uk
Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit bbc.co.uk

Probably my favourite character in Rev is Colin the local vagrant, brilliantly played by Steve Evets. I described him as a philosopher tramp in my previous post on Rev.

But there is a much darker side to Colin, than that of simply providing an amusing foil to the religious self-doubt of Adam. Colin is, in many ways wrecked. Alcoholic, drug addict, prone to outbreaks of violence when he’s ‘under the influence’, even against those who have previously helped and supported him, he has adopted an equally derelict dog called Bongo as his faithful companion.

In the final episode of the 3rd series we saw Adam in bed with depression, broken in spirit, having been betrayed by several people, Colin among them. Then Colin turns up at the door with Bongo in his arms. Bongo has died – because Colin himself ignored advice and fed him a chocolate Easter egg stolen from the local store.

At this lowest moment, Colin comes to the priest and finds only his wife Alex, not known for her own religious devotion.

You can do a Bongo funeral can’t you Mrs Vicarage?”

To me, this was the most heart-breaking moment of the entire series.

Alex finds herself put on the spot, helps Colin bury Bongo outside their house, and says a few kind words about Bongo. Then she offers that they say the Lord’s Prayer together.

To me, in Rev, this is a Kairos moment – a moment when the very highest shines through in the very lowest.

When in his most vulnerable, wrecked, broken state, this vagrant goes to the one person who can somehow bring some divine perspective into his pain – even though that person is himself broken.

I believe this is the heart of the Christian faith and what Christ was all about.

We all need some divine perspective in our very lowest moments. Thank you to all those who helped to create Rev, and give us this among many other insights.