Project Songbird: Week 4

So I’ve been writing this for a little over a month, including various notes scribbled in notebooks, plot points scoped out in MS Excel, and the Scrivener project I wrote on the trial for twenty-something days before coughing up for the full version. This week, my aim was to keep it ticking over, but take a few more breaks so I didn’t completely wear myself out by pushing when I didn’t feel like it – I have several (60) thousand words more to go on this Zero Draft, and it would suck to not finish because I burned myself out on it.

Vital statistics

  • Draft Zero/Fast Draft (I thought I should make this clear. It’s gonna need some hectic rewriting when I finally get to the end).
  • Word count: 22 839 (approx. 27%)
  • Words this week: 4854
  • Best day: Friday (1590)

I’ve basically noticed this week that I wrote more most days I wrote, even though I wrote with less reliable frequency.

Challenges

I feel like a wimp for saying this, but for several days of this past week, I’ve simply felt too hot to write. After sitting at my desk for 8 hours for work, the last thing I felt like was carrying on, or worse, sitting between my laptop and its heat-generation and the leather couch that I melted into. The heat made me tired, cranky and unproductive. On the plus side though, I learned how to be a bit more gentle with myself.

I’ve also started to tire of writing a blog a day, as this saps some energy (and therefore words) from the bigger, more significant project. I don’t really know what a good number would be to stop doing the daily post. Part of me is tempted to keep going til I hit 100, but that’s almost a month off, so another part of me is saying that I should can it at a different milestone. I’ll keep ticking ’em over so long, but I’m on a blog-publishing streak of 70, and a lightning blog streak of 55.

Sort of kind of hit/missed my goal for the week, of taking 2-3 days off… I feel like I took more slack time than writing time, even if, when I look at the days and word counts, I did okay, and did only take 3 days off.

Wins

Big wins for the week include that I’ve finally got to the murder, and it’s taken a while, but I’m glad I’m here. Now I can go about figuring out the finer details. This also marks the last bit that I had substantially planned (more than just a bare two line sketch in the scene file on Scrivener). That means that this week will likely be a lot of planning in bullet points for the next 25% of the novel so I can write with direction.

The other big win for the week (my Freudian typo there was ‘win for the weak’) was that I’, over 25% of the planned word count through. I think that’s a pretty respectable milestone. I’ve now passed my most recent master’s thesis in length, and I’m not far off my first master’s thesis.

Goals for next week

An honest goal for the week would be to sketch out Act 2 of the novel in more depth, ideally reaching at least the same word count as I did this week.

I’m also starting Writers’ HQ’s course, Plotstormers with Friends, in which I hope to plan out my SciFi idea I’ve had, so I may split my writing time. My other goal with this course is to make some writer buddies. 🙂

Gif of the week

Book Review: Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions

So I’ve been keeping up pretty well with a reasonable reading rate over the past few weeks, reading to devour some books, and nibbling at others (looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.) Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions was book three out of my box of stories that I ordered – a cover that promised some mystery and intrigue, and a blurb that promised a historical story featuring challenging and fraught relationships between settlers and Pacific Islanders. (A note on book two: I began it, but ended up tossing it aside because it was a bit too ‘white saviour writes about the corruption and poverty of Africaaaaa’ for my taste. I’m a bit stuck on how to dispose of it, because I don’t want to send it out into a charity bookshop where an unsuspecting reader could pick it up and internalise more misconceptions about life in Africa through one white man’s murder mystery plot. I may staple Binyavanga Wainaina’s excellent essay entitled “How to write about Africa” to the front page as a way of pointing its potential new reader in a better direction.)

The cover, nicked off Amazon as usual.

The blackbird on the cover comes up thematically over the course of the novel, and the rich flora and plant matter give it a Gauguin-esque feel of lush vegetation, as recorded by an artist. So, I got stuck into this one, with slight anxiety after my postcolonial-literature-education reaction to the previous book, but I think that it was different enough to my sphere of reference that I was much better able to read it.

Unspoilery synopsis

The book tells the story of the Peacock family, who arrive and settle a remote island in the South Pacific region, north of New Zealand, but pretty far from everywhere. They arrive to pick up where the previous settlers left off, growing fruit and planting crops, making the island into a reasonable restocking point for ships on the whaling route and other long-distance Pacific journeys. Set in 1879, it’s a story of hard living, with the family very much forced into rough subsistence quickly by inadequate and spoiled food stores. After several months of barely surviving and seeing only one ship with other people on it, a ship brings through a group of Pacific Islanders (called the Rock Fellows) to help them work the land. At the time of the newcomers’ arrival, the eldest son of the family goes missing, never to be seen again. The family and their new collaborators struggle with the disappearance of the child, which is one thing that leads to mistrust and strained community dynamics. The story comes to a head with the discovery of the boy’s body and the ultimate fracture this causes the family and the community they’ve built.

Characterisation

Throughout the novel, there are two main characters through whose perceptions of the world we are directed. Namely, they are young Lizzie Peacock, who starts out as her father’s right-hand (as much as he attempts to berate her brother Albert into that role), and Kalala, one of the Rock Fellows who has been brought to the island to labour for the family, in return for pay in the form of calicos for their family.

Lizzie is a headstrong young adventurer who, if not for the historical era, would probably be called a tomboy. Her main motivation is to please her father, so she works hard on settling the island to make it their own. Her relationships with her siblings, particularly with her sister Ada and Albert, create a large amount of family tension. Ada and Albert seem to be at odds with their father and his incredible drive for dominion over the land, animals and even his family, while Lizzie is determined to make this new settlement work. Lizzie also builds a relationship with one of the workmen who is brought to the island, which ultimately changes how she views her father and how she relates to her siblings.

The Rock Fellow she builds the relationship with (not a romantic one, though there are some kind of hints/mild tension in that direction) is called Kalala. He has a very frank way of looking at the world, and is informed by his Pacific Islander roots and his time spent with a missionary called Mr Reverend (well, that’s what they called him, at any rate). Kalala’s steady bearing is interesting, because he provides a balance or counterpoint to Mr Peacock’s single-minded approach to the island and to his family. Kalala and his brother, Solomona, seem quiet, studious and well-mannered, going against what stereotypes Mrs Peacock believes of them. Kalala weighs his Pacific Islander heritage and mission-school education with what he sees of the Peacock family and their life, and often seems to marvel at how limited their perceptions are.

Themes

One key theme of the novel is dominion, both in terms of possession of land and people, and settling the land. The historical context provides a rich backdrop for challenging considerations of people’s place in the world, with the Peacock family moving around, unable to establish themselves as successful settlers wherever they go, and the group of Islanders, who seem more in control of themselves and their environment. The title, too, makes you consider who or what exactly constituted Mr Peacock’s possessions. And what gives him the right of possession in any case?

The conflict between the Pacific Islanders, called ‘kanakas’ in the book (a term which I have researched and is now considered derogatory, as I expected) and the white settlers is tied to the exploitation of the people from various islands in the South Pacific and Melanisia, through kidnapping and deception, essentially amounting to slave trading. Kalala’s father was the victim of this practice, called blackbirding (hence the picture on the front of the book). I think this theme, while central to some of the book’s conflict was underdeveloped, and there could have been some rich scenes between Mr Reverend and his flock, who suffered due to this practice. It’s very much more an undercurrent than an in-your-face dissection of the issue, and could be discussed with greater attention to Mr Peacock and his approach even to his own family. Does he blackbird his wife and children, kidnapping them from comfortable settler existence to turn them into indentured labourers building his dream?

Another significant theme running through the novel is religion. The Pacific Islanders ironically bring with them far stronger religion than the Peacock family does; they have grown up at a missionary outpost, were well-educated (compared to the illiterate Peacock children) and even feature a trainee pastor among their number. It reads a bit like The Poisonwood Bible in reverse, because the white settlers ‘benefit’ from the religion bought to them on their remote island. The fanaticism of Mr Peacock is certainly reminiscent Poisonwood’s Nathan Price, even if they are fanatical in different directions. In both cases, paternal fantaticism leads to the death of a beloved child in their new homes, and a fragmentation of their families following this tragedy. I enjoyed the irony of Solomona bringing his bible to the island; I think it checks a lot of preconceptions and stereotypes about civilisation and conquering that come through in less self-aware literature telling colonial stories.

Structure and timing

In terms of the novel’s structure, it varies between flashbacks to ‘Before’, which is variably before the Peacocks arrived on the island, to their struggle in setting up their settlement, all the way until the arrival of the boat bringing the other inhabitants of their island and Albert’s fateful disappearance. The Before sections are told in past tense, with a focus on Lizzie and her journey.

The story of the ‘present’ (not labeled as such) is told in present tense, adding to the suspense of the unfolding events. Interestingly, the bits of the present story focusing on Lizzie are still told in the third person, whereas the sections told from Kalala’s perspective are told in first person. The agency shown in this, and that he is given the first chapter, continues to flip the narrative from the white settler with all the power (or even white settler encountering the power of the world and being found wanting) to a more interesting and nuanced postcolonial narrative.

In general, the novel deals with its subject matter with sensitivity and clearly a decent amount of work towards uncovering and incorporating the area’s history.

Worth it?

Yes, I enjoyed reading the novel. I enjoyed it much more than the largely quite similar Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, as I found it less preachy and better structured in terms of its rising and falling action.

If you come across it, it’d be worth reading. I’d happily circulate my copy into the world – I’m not planning to re-read.

I will likely have a look at Syson’s other works, because I like her literary touch.

New York Girls

It’s Friday! There is frosty-cold beer in my glass, and pizza in the oven.

It’s a good time to be alive!

I’ve found another foot-stomping folky jig, complete with some strings and group chorus. The weather has finally cooled down to a more moderate, British take on summer – no longer quite as sweltering, but still warm and pleasant. After work, we enjoyed a wander down to the quays, with a gentle breeze coming off the water as we did our frequent loop. I think we’ve walked all but one day this week, which is good because we’ve not been doing our other exercise. After a week of being nearly too hot to move, it’s getting better.

I’m glad it is the weekend, because I intend to do lots of lazing about, and a moderate bit of reading and writing. I’ve not been as good as I was over the past two weeks in terms of getting my word count up on the Songbird, but I’ll put in a couple of hours over the next two days to make it up. I’ve also been reading so I can bring you a few more book reviews.

We have been planning to look at a car at some point, so we might do that, or alternatively go into town and try to find a socially distanced cup of coffee. It’s difficult to know how to be safe, especially in a city that once again has relatively high virus stats. All the pubs and stuff remain open, but I don’t really want to leave my health in the hands of non-compliant mask wearing. Maybe we should cycle down to Chorlton instead – see a different part of town, a different way?

I’ll leave it til tomorrow to decide. Plenty of time then. 🙂

Lightning blog 55.

Writing song:

Walking on the waves

“An island in the sunlight
Laughter in the rain
A whisky in the darkness
It all feels just the same.”

What a delightful folky Scottish vibe. I must make more of a habit of bringing in a bit more folky kind of stuff into my regular rotation, because I like it a lot, and well, it always puts a big ol’ smile on my face. There’s something about a folk guitar and some strings and pipes and flutes and accordion that just feels right for the wilder parts of my heart. The bits that are determined that I would have stood on a lonely moor were I a 19th century lady.

I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve been really enjoying about the enforced time apart; most of the things have been to do with self-discovery, and the further deepening and building of our family identity. I’ve loved the time to chat and chill with my husband at lunch – time to chat without the expectation that we should be vacuuming the house or hanging laundry. What a delightful thing, to be in someone’s presence so much, without demands to be doing something. I’ve also so enjoyed getting going with my writing, from blogs to the books. I’ve so enjoyed reading and reading and reading in a way that I’ve not done for years. I’ve got to add a book to my goodreads profile again.

There are also, naturally, definitely, things I’m looking forward to in the future; things like going out, seeing the world with new, excited eyes, that will appreciate for the first time all the things that I was only just becoming familiar with around town. I’m excited for holidays and roadtrips (you can definitely see this theme through my writing). I’m looking forward to going dancing again (yes, also quite apparent in the series of lightning blogs).

I think the lyrics from this song that the narrator has been walking the shores for his whole life, but with his beloved is walking on the waves – a good image. The basic shape of life won’t change, but the appreciation for those outside spaces and interactions will be so much richer.

Lightning blog 54.

Writing song:

Learn Me Right

Brave is a delightfully atmospheric movie. I really enjoy it, and I think that while it isn’t necessarily the best in terms of its narrative structure, I like that it has a butt-kicking princess who is determined to be the master of her own fate (but ultimately learns that her family is important to her, and can guide her decisions without dictating them).

The movie is delightful because of its sweeping scenery, too. I am very excited for being able to hop in a car and explore Scotland a bit!

I’ve been sitting in an urban cave today, the blinds closed but the window open, to hopefully exclude some of the oppressive sticky heat. It’s funny, because the whole of UK twitter has been going on about ‘bring back the rain’, but you wanna bet that if it rained all summer, they’d not complain? I kind of enjoy that complaining is a national pastime here – though I want to keep up my general personality type of excitable golden retriever puppy, personally.

I like the thought of someone ‘learning you right’ as they get to know you over time – understanding the things that bring a smile to your heart, or the things that just ever so slightly get on your very last nerve but then also defusing the inevitable blow-up with some well-directed humour.

I’m off for an after-work wander; hopefully there is a breeze off the Quays that will cool me slightly, and if not, I can always set up camp in the stairwell of our building, which is pleasant and cool.

Lightning blog 53.

Writing song:

If I had a heart

“This will never end, ’cause I want more”

I’ve been enjoying the world’s recent drift to like, premedieval magic over time. I don’t really know how I got to this song, but possibly by listening to some bardcore (not joking) sent to me by my sister-in-law. Totally great. Jolene, by Dolly Parton, but in like, medieval/lute style. We’ve watched several pre-1066-set shows, including Vikings, which this song reminds me of, and more recently, Cursed. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s the best TV in the world, but it is pretty different and interesting. I’ve read some arthurian stuff in the past (like the original Arthurian Romances) when I was studying medieval lit, and as far as Cursed goes, it mostly makes me want to read T.H White and other authors who approach the myths with the respect they deserve. But for a standard sword-and-sorcery visual romp, it’s not too bad.

“If I had a voice I would sing”

This is a bit of a creepy song – with a promise of some weird otherworldly vibes going on. It’s kind of alienating from the general experience of being human, but then, well, what is life of late? We make choices to be isolated and hived off for the greater good (the greater good) and you sort of wish others did too. Manchester is under stricter regulations than most of the country, due to once-again rising case numbers. It may well be that the city is headed for round two of a more substantial lockdown. Currently, we aren’t allowed to have guests in a private house (but we could meet them in the park, or just happen to be sitting near them at a pub…) Today, my cousin and I agreed that we would likely postpone their visit which was supposed to be for ten days’ time. We don’t want to break the law. We do want to be safe. And as low-risk as both our households are, we will adhere to the guidelines.

So I’ll just stay on my couch, admire the pink clouds after another hot day, and think about this weird, new, magical, superstitious time that we’re in.

Lightning blog 52.

Writing blog:

Another Love

This evening, I’m writing between cooking.

I’ve got comforting but possibly too warming mac and cheese in the oven, at Alex’s special request. It’s great when favourites are also that easy. He’s great on that count – would be perfectly happy to eat one of three or four favourites over and over, punctuated by the occasional plain pasta dinner. It’s been two years since he proposed to me, on a moonlit starry walk around the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. I had forgotten, but facebook reminded me. Glad to have such a solid, dependable human in my life; the comfort food of my heart.

On the stove, I have a delicious pot of marmalade-to-be bubbling away. The Barnard/Breetzke recipe – I called my gran last night to ask about her move to her new flat, and to get her marmalade secret. The Kempston Cottage marmalade is the best in the world, and the mulberry jam, and the apricot jam. Delicious, smeared on toast after an early swim with a strong cup of tea to wash it down. I doubt my efforts will be as good, but I can start practicing. She’s been in limbo in Cape Town for most of the pandemic; fetched to be in Cape Town by my aunt and uncle, brought down to live with them and then my great aunt, until the right time to move into her new flat. I’m so looking forward to seeing her installed, making excellent light (her famous fruitcakes) or jam, or Kenton biscuits.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a sunbeam on the couch – it’s hot, but the light is a glorious golden yellow. Pretty much the colour of my lemon-orange marmalade mix. I am turning into human marmalade 🙂 There’s cloud rolling in, pressing down on the Quays. We’re waiting for the release from the rain, waiting in that weird heavy pressure that sits on the world when you’re waiting for a thunderstorm. It’s hot. The air is thick. It’s making me cranky. Looking forward to the rain. But I must remember to unplug my work computer before bed just in case.

Lightning blog 51.

Writing song:

Project Songbird: Week 3

It’s been a delightful weekend, at the end of a pretty good week. We enjoyed some sunshine, got Alex a bike and went on a bike adventure, went on a socially distant picnic with friends in our local park, started our wine kit… and, well, I haven’t felt much like writing. I’ve been struggling with it. It’s not the end of the world, and I think it’s been because I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on it, but it feels a bit meh to be down on something that has otherwise been quite energy-giving.

Vital statistics

  • Word count: 18 689 (just shy of 22%)
  • Words this week: 6213
  • Best day: Thursday, 1143 words

Challenges

Meeting my goal, which was pretty not great. I wanted to write 800 words per day. I didn’t. Friday was a total meh slump. I wrote 140 words then closed it.

Wins

I am discovering cool things about my characters as I go. The characters’ central feminism is coming out more than I had anticipated, which is somewhat pleasing, and will require a careful edit to be sure it’s not THEMATIC, just thematic.

I’ve incorporated some of my research about Manchester in the 20s. I’m looking forward to doing this more as I go.

Goals for next week

Take 2-3 days off from writing the Songbird project. If I feel like writing all the days, I should use those extra days to do some more work on my characters in prep for the Plotstormers course starting in a week or so.

Read at least one book.

Write in the daylight. This week and last, I only really got going after dark. Which bodes well for winter, I suppose, but means I’m probably not writing with my best brain.

Gif of the week

Book review: Stephen King’s On Writing

Major leagues, in terms of novelist royalty. Stephen King has been outside my consideration for way too long. Like, I knew he existed, and wrote quite a lot, but I think neither of my parents were a fan of creepy stuff, so consequently, I never really saw a pile of Stephen King fiction on a table or bookshelf. But by golly, the man’s written a tonne. He has published sixty-ish books, and several of those have been adapted for the screen. It’s difficult to find a list of books on writing that don’t feature On Writing: A memoir of the craft. So I gave it a chance, as part of my compulsory education as a budding writer who was determined to give this a solid go.

I listened to it on Audible, read by the great man himself.

A memoir and philosophy of writing

As of writing this blog, I’ve yet to get my hands on any of his novels, but I can see why they got so popular. I think by reading this before I’d read the novels, I’ve spoiled some of the twists, but that’s not the end of the world.

I think the thing I most appreciated about this interesting approach to writing about writing was that it was largely not instructional. It was a philosophy, woven into a narrative that covered King’s early life, challenging family circumstances, and eventually meteoric rise to fame and the new challenges (read heavy drug use) that came with that. I was impressed by the feeling that it was honestly written – as honestly as possible, given all writing is about making things up. Despite the fact that I’m not a reader of memoirs, and that I’m also not a reader of a lot of americana, I was transfixed by his story. There were poignant moments woven into the account of writing, and joy, and frustration, and a great deal of self-awareness. It was very blunt, and dealt with living poor, navigating the moving from working class occupation and frustrations, to his accident and the trouble that has led to for his writing routine. It was frank. Nothing glossed, nothing diminished, but also no excessive amplification of the hardships of an artist’s life ™.

I listened to the book on Audible, and I listened consistently, rather than bittily, as I do when I am less inspired by a story. Apologies, Mr King, for the adverbs. I know you loathe them so. It was hella compelling, which actually surprised me. I don’t expect books that tell me how to approach big challenges to inspire me like this one did.

Tips

The key things he said about how to write included establishing a writing routine, giving a story a chance, and organising a room of one’s own that can be your writing space.

Some of these things are pretty easy, like writing every day. And when I say easy, I don’t mean fun, I just mean that it isn’t unrealistic to write a little every single day. Some of them, well, one day I’ll hopefully have the luxury of a home office that has a comfortable chair and well-appointed desk, and most importantly for him, a door that I can close to signal to the world that I’m writing. The room of my own, just for writing, is definitely on my bucket list house spaces.

He advocates watching less and less TV if possible. At the same time, he enjoys movies, so I feel like it’s not the medium but the habit he objects to. So far, this has made me feel somewhat guilty about series binges, and honestly, I think I have watched less telly and consequently written more. So, point to King on that one. On the flip side, he advocates reading more. A lot more. Which I think is necessary and important as a writer, to read widely and to read as often as possible. I have been reading more, using my lunch breaks to get in a few pages, rather than just scrolling instagram. Reading more fills you up, giving you energy to tackle the challenges of pouring your soul into the page on a daily basis.

Mr King says to start with a situation, favouring (from my understanding of his method) not plotting the story, but seeing where the characters take him. This sort of pantsing is hard for me because I like to have an idea of the structure before I begin, but equally, I recognise that overplanning can kill a story. I feel like you can try to have it both ways – the creativity of just going for it, and, when creativity seems to elude you, just hacking away at the story a little, writing situations for your characters to deal with in the future.

I don’t know if anyone who is working full time and has a reasonable social life can fit four hours of writing into their day every day, like he suggests. I think this highlights the sacrifice necessary to be a writer, in a lot of cases. I’ve actually asked Alex a couple of times in the past few weeks if he feels neglected because I’m spending lots of my evenings hammering out the words, rather than just chilling with him. He says no, but I’ll keep checking in to make sure. I think that one day, when I get published and can afford to write as a full-time job, I would like to try the approach he advocates, of 2000 new words per day in the morning (usually), and then time to revise in the afternoon. There is definitely a shift between the early writing part of the memoir and the later writing part, because he makes it clear that he takes evenings off to be with his family and read a book. Now, when I finish my work for the day, that’s when I get a chance to get my laptop out and write. It’s tricky.

The writing tips and guidance he offers is quite inspiring. It definitely got me to go ‘screw it, I should just write and submit and see what happens’. And I’ll damn well frame my first rejection slip.

Worth it?

Yeah, totally.

Bonus content

I’ve stumbled onto a place on Youtube that’s called Authortube, and one of the channels I’ve found is run by the delightful Kate Cavanaugh. She conducted a writing experiment in which she wrote like Stephen King for a day – and here’s the resulting video:

I am totally enamoured of her, and I can’t wait to read her books when she publishes.

Life is a highway

Can you flipping believe that I’ve written a whole fifty of this format of blog? I can’t, not even a little bit. I was having a think about my blog stats earlier today, because today also is the marker of two months of consistently blogging once a day. I am incredibly proud of myself for getting into this habit. Only a month-ish before it passes into the lifestyle zone – or is that at the 66-day mark? I need tor review the research. We’ll see.

Anyhow, since I began the commitment to this, I have published 65 blogs (plus the three before I started getting more dedicated). I have written over 35 000 words of blog. That’s no small quantity. I am flipping proud of that. Like sure, none of them are world-changing lyrical epics, but it’s a space I give myself to feel stuff, to think through things that are bugging me, to keep myself accountable to things that are bigger than me.

Life is a high way
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long

Thinking through what I have been considering as my creative pursuits of lockdown – well, I’ve not painted a masterpiece, but I’ve written a blog a day, and for the last just over two weeks, I’ve consistently worked on my novel projects… That’s really been exciting me. It’s hard work, and I often don’t feel like it. But I set goals and mostly I meet them. This week’s one is 800 words per day. Which means that in a few minutes, I’ll press publish here and then pull up the Scrivener project. If I keep going reasonably steadily, I should reach the end of a zero draft in about two and a half months. In time to take a two week break before NaNoWriMo.

Aside from writing, other creative pursuits include that I’ve bought us a winemaking kit, which will provide some much-longed-for weekend entertainment (well, this weekend for the making, and then in two or three weeks or a little more when it is ready to drink). I’ve been exploring cooking in my instant pot, which has been fabulous. Last but not least, I bought us bikes. Though they are not necessarily creative, they allow for brainspace, which is bloody important for the creativity.

I am looking forward to doing more things that feed my creativity – and that’s a road I want to go down when it is open again. For now I read, write and bide my time. It’ll come again.

Lighting blog 50.

Writing song: