ESCAPE ROOM: MICHAEL WALTERS

‘It’s like being inside an elephant’

We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.

Not in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.

I write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my creative writing practice.

There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.

I can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.

Anything can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good ideas.

My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.

The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.

Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.

Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.

My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.

In work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but there is something healthy and magical about working on something alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.

The value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating. Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.

Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise, eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body. I’m not getting any younger.

Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx

there is other magic

Thinking about this new book, HONEYBONES. It’s a book that has driven me in strange ways. By which I mean, it’s a book that has insisted on itself. No compromises.

The story had been haunting me for a long time, a decade or more. I’d attempted it a few times, but it never seemed to work out. For quite a while I called it ‘The House of Mirrors’. It was about something – fairytales, crows, a house – but I couldn’t really make sense of it. I spent a lot of time dreaming about the book. I wrote in mirror-writing, inside out.

I can’t remember now quite how I came up with the idea of ‘dreeming’ and Dreemy Peeple. I know it started with the dolls, the creepy dolls Anna finds in the bedrooms of her stepdad’s house. It was the brand name, stamped into their plastic casing. Then, somehow, the dreem took on a life of its own. I worked it out in various short stories that ended up in my collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS. (There’s an oblique reference to THOW in HONEYBONES – a million dinosaurs to anyone who spots it!) And finally, it started to bring forth this story.

Other things which didn’t seem quite to fit anywhere at first, like an exercise in ventriloquism from the cully king (himself a character from a much earlier story, CROW VOODOO), and then all these songs and bits of plays and other books – they all swirled about this girl, this house, this dreem. I cut 20,000 words. I cut another 20,000. When I had something that looked passingly like a story, I called it done. And – a stroke of luck – Andy Cox at TTA Press snapped it up.

That was lucky for lots of reasons. One big reason was that Andy, used to working with temperamental artists [insert eyeroll emoji here] wasn’t terribly bothered when I took the story back a few times and made some reasonably significant changes. He didn’t even mind too much (or at least he didn’t let it show) when I took it back again and re-wrote it SUBSTANTIALLY. Like changing the whole thing from third to first person, re-writing major plot points, taking out a couple of characters and, oh yes, completely changing the ending.

I couldn’t help it; I was seized by an instinct about how the book should be and I couldn’t sleep until I executed it. That last re-write took me a few days of writing, practically non-stop, sitting at my kitchen table drinking a whole lot of black coffee and not thinking, not thinking at all. When I was done, I knew I was finished for real this time and – for all its faults – HONEYBONES was as close to the story as I was going to get.

Another thing I have to be grateful to Andy for. The manuscript I sent him was a mess of different fonts, colours, amateur attempts at typographical effects. The cully king has to speak with this voice, you see; and the writing needs to fade away here; and this part should look like an old book; and and and. It was a lot. So many editors would have just said no to it all. Who do you think you are, House of Leaves? But Andy got it. He understood that it mattered for the book to look a certain way, feel a certain way, use text to tell the story. So he found a way to make it work.

I am as proud of this book as of anything I’ve written, possibly prouder, even though I maybe have no right to be. It wasn’t easy to write, except for when it was. But it pushed me. It made me experiment – sometimes from inspiration, sometimes from desperation. At other times as a ‘fuck you’ to the people and things that held me back. So forgive me if I bang on about it and spam you with links for where you can buy it (here! Buy it here!) And please don’t hesitate to ask if you need a review copy or an interview or anything else.

big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

dark dark dark… we all go into the dark

Well, maybe not all of us, but definitely meeeeeeeeeee! “Her Bones the Trees,” my blood-soaked, bear-infested, twisted Twin Peaks fan fiction is to be reprinted in acclaimed literary horror magazine THE DARK. Looking forward to sharing this story with more readers.

The story was originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees,” in The Silent Garden journal of esoteric fabulism – a truly beautiful book chock full of illustrations, essays, reviews and stories from weird fictioneers such as D.P. Watt and Helen Marshall (whose story really ought to win awards galore – check it out).

In other news, edits are done on my forthcoming collection! Michael Kelly is a brilliant, sensitive editor and it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve had to dial back my tendency to get typographically extra, but my House of Leaves homages are set to continue with my current work in progress, which is going to put the punk in punctuation… 🙂

how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

masters at work

Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.

In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.

Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.

Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lats the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.

That is why it needs calm.

There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French revolution.

One can tell by the taste whether  cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.

And it will do what it is supposed to do.

From Imperium, by Rsyzard Kapuściński.

there’s a name for this

there must be a name for this feeling you get in the middle of a novel when actually you HATE your novel and you want to throw it out of the window and start over and your friends have to talk you down and talk you up and you read blogs that say WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T STOP WRITING DON’T GIVE UP PUSH THROUGH IT and you think what the hell do you know about it and you go to your own blog and you write one long run on sentence with lots of shouty bits and there is a little part of you that is thinking just get on with writing it and you can throw it away later if you really want to and so you keep going even though the voice is flat and there is no action and it’s so boring and you don’t know what you were thinking all those weeks and months when you thought and planned and plotted and worked it out and thought this is going to be great but you didn’t know you would hit this WALL and that is what it is A WALL and if you want to get through a wall you can climb over it or you can tunnel under it or you can get a load of weapons and blast your way through it but except for the weapons option it probably won’t be any fun and it’s only later you will look back and say I’m glad I didn’t just stop there because it made me feel good to get past that wall and on the other side of the wall there is a lot of great stuff that I honestly wasn’t expecting

an end and a beginning

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding

Something I learned about writing this week is that when I write what I love to write, it becomes a much greater and more beautiful thing to do. (Whether it is more beautiful to read is another matter!)

I am – I have come to know – the sort of writer who can spend hours over one sentence, putting everything into balance. T.S. Eliot’s notion of the right sentence is precisely what I am striving for in my writing. It is not a case of writing what you know, or writing from your wildest imagination, but of writing exactly what you mean, or as close as you can get. That is authenticity.

I can write very fast when I want to. I wrote my first, failed attempt at a novel very fast indeed, in a matter of weeks. I loved writing that way – I felt so productive! It was useful, too. I needed to know what it felt like to write that number of words, to write a story that big. But it was a terrible attempt at a novel. Terrible. Awful. It had no soul, and it didn’t mean anything, or the meaning was so obscured by the dreadful writing that my courage failed at the thought of trying to fix it. So I know that, for me, it takes time and craft to find what’s true and worthwhile in my writing. By craft, I mean only what is quoted above: the balancing of words and sentences and scenes and chapters, one against another, until they are right. For me, that is a slow, careful, thoughtful, insanely difficult business.

Instead of trying to write more! and write faster! I am trying to write less, and write more slowly. It is a strange feeling to be making myself slow down at a time when I feel terribly unproductive. All other writers in the world appear to work faster, harder, and more successfully than I do. But I have learned that comparing myself to other writers is a surefire way to mess my head up. I eschew all writing advice, all rules, all guidelines. The only knowledge you can bank on is that which you learn through your own experience. That which you know to be true, because it is written in blood, tears, scars, years – that is truth you can depend on. No one can help you with that.

 

never say never

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing something? Is it when the very thought of it fills you with a sense of paralysing ennui? When you can’t imagine ever being interested in the characters? When the plot makes no real sense? When, after writing several drafts, you still have nothing more than one or two images that seem powerful to you – and no story, no emotion, no thrills?

Or should you never give up? Should you always finish what you started? Should you power on through, ignoring those feelings, ignoring the problems, just fighting to get to the end of it?

A lot of writers say you must ALWAYS finish what you start. I am not so sure. With this current project, I feel that when I started it, I had a particular idea in mind, and that idea has failed on a number of levels. It just wasn’t a good enough idea to sustain a whole novel. Plus, it was too directly autobiographical – writing it well means writing about myself in a way that no longer feels relevant or important to me. And at the same time I can’t get enough distance to see what I might change or how I could make it work better.

I have learned a hell of a lot from trying to write this story. But now I think it is time to put it away. Maybe next year, or the year after, I will dig it out again. Maybe then I will be able to see exactly where I went wrong and how I can put it right. But for now… it’s Sayonara baby.

the time it takes

There’s this moment in the writing of a story, when you’ve written and rewritten, revised, edited, taken out all the extra words, and given your characters a few more things to do other than nodding their heads, shaking their heads, smiling and shrugging; there’s this moment where you think you have finished. Yay, you wrote a story! So you give it one more go over, correct your spellings, and send it off into the world.

About a year and a half later, you read your story again, and see all your clumsy sentences and all your mistakes. You realise that there is a way to resolve that nagging plot problem. You suddenly understand why that character does what she does. You see how easy it would be to rewrite that section of prose and make it say exactly what you failed to say the first time around.

Unfortunately, by this point, it’s very likely that you are reading your story in some magazine or book, which you have also encouraged all your friends and family to buy. Cringe-a-rama!

If you’re still holding on to that story – perhaps you couldn’t sell it, or maybe something didn’t feel quite right, and you never tried – you are now the luckiest writing piglet in the world. You get to revise the hell out of it, make it beautiful, and correct all those terrible mistakes you had no idea you were making at the time.

As much as we want to get published NOW and have people reading our stories RIGHT NOW, patience and slowness make stories better. I suspect this goes double or triple for novels, where there are so many more elements to fuck up, and so much more impatience to get the damn thing over and done with.

It’s reassuring to know how much we improve as writers, simply by continuing to turn up and write as often as we can. Even when you feel completely stuck, you are processing all that experience into wisdom, so that one day you can say to yourself, wow that is really a crappy story I wrote. I could write it so much better now.