of influences and inspirations.
We weren’t allowed to cross any roads
We had to stay on the estate
When the weather was good we played football
But when it was bad
There was no youth club, no soft play
We had three pubs and one library
Kids didn’t go to pubs in those days
There were no Sunday roasts
We would walk into the library
Nobody stopped us
Inside the door, you turned right for the adult’s books
And turned left for the children’s books
Each section was the same size
We were just as important
We lived in flats without books
But the library had experts
The adults asked questions about books
The librarians knew where they were
We stood in lines behind them
As they checked out the romance and the thrillers
They closed the library down
The building stands silent
But that place set fires in usThat they couldn’t close down
Of the oceans of writing tips that are out there, Elmore Leonard's ten rules are amongst the most famous. After publishing my debut novel Groundwork and making a start on my second, I thought I'd see whether I was sticking to the rules.
Rule 1. Never open a book with weather.
Groundwork opens with some stargazing, quickly followed by a mysterious death. No sign of any weather. Book 2 does not start with weather.
Rule 2. Avoid prologues.
My first failure. Groundwork starts with a prologue. But a lot of people have said it starts with a bang, so I'm happy with it. Rules are there to be broken. However, Book 2 will not have a prologue.
Rule 3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
I nearly succeeded here. There are one or two 'asks.' They might be acceptable.
Rule 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said," he admonished gravely.
I'm fairly confident I stuck to this one.
Rule 5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
I didn't use any exclamation points in Groundwork, I tend to keep them for social media. Seeing as I'm allowed, I might throw a couple into Book 2.
Rule 6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
There is one 'suddenly' in Groundwork. It's too late to change it now. Thankfully, hell never broke loose.
Rule 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
I try to use regional dialect sparingly. It's something I work at. Using regional words and expressions without disrupting the flow of the story.
Rule 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
I think I've been okay here. I don't think there are physical descriptions of anyone in Groundwork.
Rule 9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
There are descriptions of the scenery in Connemara and the estates of Peckham. I do try to keep them short though.
Rule 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I suppose this is the hard part. It is essential to keep the story moving. Leonard's solution was to use lots of dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I tried to write Groundwork like Gerry was talking to someone. Like he was answering the question asked of Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, 'So yo then man what's your story?'
The subject of this week's Book Club is Don Gately, also known as the Big Indestructible Moron, who is my number one character in all of literature. He is featured in my favourite book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. He is not the protagonist and is hardly mentioned in the first two hundred pages. He is just one of the many characters who appear in the first section of the book, which is apparently structured like a sierpinski gasket.
Gately is a recovering drug addict and a burglar. He becomes resident counsellor at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Towards the end of the book, his story takes over. He gets involved in a dispute involving residents at Ennet House. As a result, he gets shot and spends a lot of time lying in a hospital bed, hallucinating and dreaming. He has to deal with mind-bending sheets of pain. He is offered painkillers but he is determined not to take any drugs, wary of a relapse. Successions of visitors come into the ward. He doesn't want to listen to them but he is unable to talk.
Foster Wallace takes the risk of providing Gately's backstory at the end of the book. His astonishing prose conjures the psychic, physical pain of this man. The second-by-second torture of a man trapped in his head. He gradually emerges as the heartbeat of the book.
Connemara: Listening to the Wind is the first of a trilogy that Tim Robinson has written about Connemara, which is a district in the west of Ireland. This week's Book Club Book taught me that Connemara is a lot bigger than I thought. I also learnt that the size of it is contentious. Different people have different ideas about where it begins and where it ends. I have been to Connemara many times, heading west from Galway along the coast road. Part of Groundwork, my first novel, is set in the south-western section of Connemara. The characters are affected by immigration, into and out of the area. This book is about a different section. Further north, around Clifden and the Twelve Pins.
Tim Robinson is from England but has lived in Roundstone, Connemara since 1984. As well as writing books, he has created maps of the area. He walks across the land in solitude. His descriptions of the wildness and the stillness are uniquely beautiful. As well as describing the topography and ecology, he tells stories about the people. This is a Joycean journey, as detailed as Ulysses, that takes in Joyce country.
One difference between Robinson and Joyce is that he, Robinson, is an outsider. All he knows are the stories that he hears. That is all the outsider can know. Someone else's story. His own story is elsewhere, on different soil. These are not stories he has grown up with. So he can decide what to accept and what to reject. The myths and legends he chooses to record are not to be found in his bones.The deeper he delves, the harder it becomes to get the truth of a place. He lives there but it is not his home. For others, it is home but they are not there.
Bertie's Brochures is a song by the Fatima Mansions, released in 1991. It is a piano ballad, less discordant and aggressive than a lot of their other tracks. It's the title song of a mini-album released between more famous records, Viva Dead Ponies and Valhalla Avenue.
The lyrics have stayed with me through the decades. I often think about Bertie, wondering if he is guilty of the crimes that are alleged. It was only when I was editing Groundwork that I realised the massive impact that the song had on my creativity.
Bertie's Brochures is the story about a boy who grew up in Ireland in the 1950's and ended up in London in the 1980's. This is a path trodden by many people I know and many of the characters in Groundwork.
Bertie is an outsider, writing his brochures while holding down the day job. He 'Believes that everyone is a poet' and meditates on the purpose of art. There is also a subtle look at father-son relationships. Alongside this, there are the usual Cathal Coughlan motifs, the 'Detectives with crow-bars and skewers.' A lot of these themes have made it into Groundwork. When I was doing the final edits on Groundwork, I changed one of the character's names to Bertie as a tribute to this tune.
The song ends, 'It's the North European peasant experience,' a line that has always troubled me. I suppose Groundwork is an attempt to make sense of this song.
Augustines released their first album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, in 2012. It's a serious record, an emotionally honest record of tragedy. The songs are dark and compelling. I must have listened to the album a hundred times that year. The heartaches and the shocks got me every time. I hadn't fallen in love with a new band for years.
The first time I saw them live was at Latitude in Suffolk. The band had this instant connection with the audience. This after a day spent in front of bands that seemed unaware that people were watching and had paid good money to do so. Bill's voice hit me like the midnight howl of a wolf. He looked like a man living through the pain written about in the songs.
The next show was at Shepherds Bush and that was on a different level. The band, the crowd and the stars were in alignment as soon as Bill let loose the first primal scream of Philadelphia. Songs as lyrically dark as Headlong into the Abyss and Book of James became celebrations. It was the most captivating gig I had seen in years.
The next morning I booked up to see them at the Birmingham Ballroom. This was a tiny venue, completely different again. The focus was on the slower songs and the interplay between the band. The highlight was an acoustic version of Philadelphia so fragile I didn't know if they were going to make it to the end. Bill's call to Soak your scars in the ocean sounded like the most poignant line I'd ever heard. I still don't know how they can sing the same song twice in one gig and make me want to hear it again.
They returned in 2014 with a second album and they pulled it off again. I saw them at Koko in Camden back in April. The new songs, Walkabout and The Avenue, stopped me in my tracks. Towards the end, they came off the stage and played the last songs in the middle of the crowd. There was a power and an intimacy not seen before.
They have also covered Bruce Springsteen's Tougher than the Rest. This track is from Tunnel of Love, a Springsteen album that came out when I was a kid. It was written by a man reeling from a divorce and I just didn't get it at the time. I was into the early stuff, the songs about getting out of your hometown and seeking the future. The songs of lost love, betrayal and confusion were lost on me. It was only decades later that I began to understand that record.
This is what is different about Augustines. The songs could only have been written by men who have experienced life when it is broken and it can't be fixed. It is music weighed down with heartbreak. Augustines write about what's left when you've tried the bible, the bottle, the needle and loving people. When you truly know in your bones that your days are numbered. That you're living your life against the clock and it's not worth wasting your time on anything that doesn't deepen your experience. That beauty can only be appreciated when you know how fleeting it all is.
- Library Days
- Book Club (E): Abiding by Elmore Leonard's Writing Rules
- Book Club: D for Don Gately
- Book Club: C for Connemara: Listening to the Wind
- B for Bertie's Brochures
- A for Augustines
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