The role of the editor

The Art of Editing is an interesting podcast from the Guardian in its books series that is well worth listening to. For someone who lives abroad in voluntary linguistic exile, like myself, the mix of voices and the variety of accents is refreshing; so unlike the schooled tones of BBC Radio Four news programmes or the seasoned actors who narrate the audiobooks I enjoy so much. 

Particularly of interest in this podcast is the idea that a multiple skill set is required of editors these days that goes well beyond what was traditionally seen as an editor’s role, i.e. getting the manuscript of a book into shape for publishing. The podcast hints at the historical evolution of such work. With this expanding role of editors, not all have the various skills necessary from that skill set. 

This dilemma can be found in many other professions where a move away from specialisation requires the individual to be proficient in a range of skills, even when those skills don’t necessarily fit together. An author, for example, is nowadays expected to also be a saleswoman, a marketing specialist, a public speaker and a businesswoman. Yet running after an audience is time consuming, and shifts an author’s preoccupations away from words and story and characters, making inspirational writing all the more difficult. Why? Because such writing requires the author to plunge herself in the world she is creating. Business and marketing are unwelcome distractions. This move away from specialisation and the demands placed on the individual to master a multitude of skills invariably leads to frustration and a loss of quality.

Sleepless Knights

A new short story… the fruit of a sleepless night, some treacle chutney, a fly and a new Harry Potter book: Sleepless Knights.


Sculpture: Huguette McCluskey. Photo and reworking: Alan McCluskey.

(…) When he looked closer, the whole surface was teeming with pulsing fragments of stories vying for a place in the light or struggling to make off with a character. Many of them were dark and sinister. The sight not only disgusted him, it filled him with deep apprehension. If he couldn’t heal the wounds, that wild underlife would continue to crawl out and burrow its way into the characters and take over the whole story. Extract from the Prologue, Storyfolk (draft written Oct 2011)

Madness has never been closer to the surface than it is now. As if the skin that contains it has worn perilously thin. And when that frail protection cracks or rips, madness bursts forth in unexpected places and splatters the front pages of  newspapers, its sinister tidings ricocheting across online  feeds: stabbings, shootings, rapings, bombings not to mention years of unreported abuse. Often inexplicable, it is sometimes justified by ideology or recuperated by groups that feed on violence and terror. But whether explicable or not, it is always unbearable.

As the outbreaks spread and multiply, we wonder if much more of the madness is crawling like maggots beneath the social veneer. Suffice it to watch a speech of Trump pointing an accusing finger at the one he calls “the devil”, his mouth twisted in hate and disgust, seen against the backdrop of his enraged supporters screaming, “Off with her head!” But madness is not just the prerogative of top-of-the-bill political loudmouths and fear mungers. It emerges unbidden in daily life when individuals rage in the face of their neighbours, when colleagues repeatedly stomp on workmates’ toes till all the victim can do is hobble disfigured through life, when people turn their backs on friends in difficulty, retreating into a world where “I” is the only God and “We” has been banished forever.

The madness evoked here is not some romantic flight into fantasy. It is not a stigmatised transgression of social norms. It is a rupture in the very fabric of society that inflicts intense pain and suffering on bystanders and targets alike and leads to death and destruction.

And the solutions? The causes are complex. Any solution, also. One possibility: reinforcing social cohesion on a local level that people feel they belong to a wider community and are linked to those who belong to it and are anchored in place by its structures. Another, cultivate openness and exploration, favour difference in which each person is a source of delight and richness. Channel imagination into creativity and artistic pursuits. Writing for me, for example, is an absolute necessity. Reinforce social values that go beyond the monetary to embrace the uncountable and the transcendent…

Worlds Apart – a new blog

Painting: Alan McCluskey

With the upheavals that shake the modern world and leave many perplexed if not terrified, I needed to a place to post thoughts about what is happening. A place to think the world differently. A place to dare say what is maybe not being said elsewhere, the truth about the Emperor’s new clothes. That’s Worlds Apart, a new blog on Secret Paths.

Violence in novels

Photo: Alan McCluskey

When I wrote to a friend that I was finishing a scene in my latest novel, Forget Me Not, that was particularly violent, she replied: So why do you want to write violence? Why not write something that can touch others and make positive things?

I think she misunderstood what I said or I didn’t explain myself well enough. Many stories have an element of violence. Take the well-known children’s story, Little Red Riding Hood, for example. Several people get eaten alive. Put like that, it sounds atrocious, but the story is told in a way that outcomes are evoked but not described in all their gory detail. As such they are acceptable.

Adversity is almost invariably the motor of a good story. OK, violence and adversity are not synonymous. The dictionary says of violence that it is the use of physical (and/or psychological) force aimed at hurting. Violence is often used as a deliberate lever to power and control, but can also be gratuitous and senseless. Adversity, in comparison, is described as misfortune, being in a difficult or unpleasant situation. Less assertive than violence, less damaging too, it does not necessarily represent deliberate malevolence and may even be self-inflicted.

The portrayal of violence could engender further violence. Once those images are in your head, it’s not easy to get rid of them. And the chemicals they release in your body can last a long time and are potentially damaging. From another perspective, envisaging violence is like crossing a threshold that cannot be uncrossed. Why? Amongst other things, because doing so makes it more acceptable or at least more ‘normal’, if only by familiarity. In a way, the acceptable threshold of violence is continually being ratcheted up in an ongoing inflation fed by commercial competition in the world of media and publishing.

So, in introducing violence, the author needs to be particularly cautious about what is given to be seen or imagined. If you are not careful, there’s a moment when restraint gives way to indulgence, which ultimately gives way to revelling in the high that violence brings and the related feeling of power. When that indistinct line is crossed, literature becomes gore, in a similar way that sex becomes pornography and the people involved become objects to display and use rather than humans or politics when it becomes a slanging match and open abuse replaces meaningful debate.

There are books that feed on violence without any perspective of ‘redemption’. The characters learn nothing from the extreme adversity they are subjected to. The ‘real’ character of the book is then the violence itself which grows and develops as the author struggles to outdo himself and other writers. The Maze Runner (by James Dashner, first published in 2009) is one such book and the follow-up, The Scorch Trials even more so. I was so sickened by the latter I stopped reading it. The ultra slim promise of a possible resolution worthy of human beings was not enough to pull me through the ever growing horrors. The Scorch Trials strike me as a typical example of an author’s efforts to outdo the competition, in this case, such books as the Hunger Games.

Beyond the traps of portraying violence, the challenge is not the violence, but how the characters react to it. To write stories which skirt around violence or severe adversity would not only be flat and uninspiring, but also not give the characters a chance to grow and develop. It is in that growth that the readers are touched and inspired by what they read.

Forget Me Not – dark corners

Artwork: Alan McCluskey

Since the last update on Forget Me Not, my tenth novel, I have completed the first four chapters, that’s over 40’000 words or about 100 pages of the printed book. I am always astounded by the way the story takes on a life of its own and I am just a servant writing it.

Wondering what this photo has to do with the story. Well, read the short extract below from the beginning of Chapter 5 as young Maria slips away from her friends and ventures upstairs in the long-dead Explorer’s house. Remember this extract comes from a draft and may well change over time.

The left hand corridor was much darker and she wasn’t sure, from a distance, what lay down it. Steeling herself, she stepped into the shadows, feeling her way along the wall. When she came to a doorframe, she halted and cocked an ear. Nothing. She fumbled for the handle and eased  the door open. A strange smell greeted her, but she could see nothing in the pitch black. 

Unsettled by the dark and having nothing to create a light, she was tempted to retrace her steps and try another room, but the faint odour intrigued her. Like sweets or perfume or dried flowers, it smacked of humans and life.  Someone had been there. Recently. “Anyone here?” she whispered, her voice more breath than sound.

No answer came. She let out a sigh of relief. She had no idea what she would have done if anyone had replied. “Thank heavens for that,” she said, taking a couple of steps forward, her arms outstretched in front of her. She should have left the door open, light from the landing might have filtered through. Her knee brushed against an object. Terrified, she turned to leave when the sound of a match striking had her swivelling back to face whoever was there, her heart thundering in her chest. The match flared, revealing a candle on a desk behind which sat a person outlined in the dark.

Meet Gina Monjoy, pole dancer

Photo: Alan McCluskey

Yesterday I attended a workshop with MJ Homes in Pully, organised by Joy Manne. The theme? Uncertainty in writing, both that of the writer but also that of the writing itself. What is this between space in which all is possible? I hesitate, frightened by the void and the dark and the silence, then I jump…

Met an old lady at the workshop. Gina Monjoy was her name. A zany pole dancer, cum script writer, who sported wild colours and spoke too loud. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t a little deaf. Not the sort of thing you could tell her, though. She must have been at least eighty-five. All wrinkles she was and preoccupied with loosing her mind, or so she said, often. You only had to hear what she wrote to wonder if she might be right. Anyway, here’s an extract she scribbled on a piece of paper that I found screwed up in a corner under a desk.

John was a tall man with hairy legs and knobbly knees that knocked together when he climbed the stairs which he did rarely because with age his legs had gone so stiff he could barely quit his wheelchair to pee or to pray and anyway praying was not his thing, unless you included preying on his neighbour’s wife who was a most beautiful specimen of sun-kissed tropical fruit that would dribble down his chin if he bit into it which in turn recalled his youth before the accident, but after the operation, at a period when he spent less time thinking about being someone else, even if the idea had begun to obsess him, despite efforts of two psychiatrists that cost him a fortune and a lot of medication which ruined his liver and might have explained why he had the accident, not that the police would have agreed, but then they agreed only with themselves, blustering away, swearing at him when all he needed was a hug

Chapter Two finished

Cover art: Alan McCluskey

I have just finished chapter two of my latest novel, which is now called, Forget Me Not, and in doing so I passed the twenty thousand word mark. Above is a first shot at the cover. And below is a brief extract from chapter two of the draft. Remember this is only a draft and could change before the book is published.

(…) There was no direct path and the bushes grew tight together so she was forced to take a long detour that led her close to a wooden chalet like those she’d seen in the Alps on a skiing holiday. This one was much smaller, a bit like a Dinky toy chalet, but still big enough for two to squeeze inside. It stood alone in the middle of a carefully tended lawn strewn with plastic boats and ducks. A crazy stone path led up to the door.

The sound of snoring warned her she was not alone. Peering in the window she saw the immortal girl fast asleep, tied to the bed with ropes around her arms and legs and a gag across her mouth. What nutters! The windows were too tiny to climb in or out. The only entrance was through a small wooden door which stood open. 

Beth toyed with the idea of freeing the girl, but had no idea how she would react. Maybe the boy had forgotten he’d left her there. She might be grateful to be saved from certain starvation. Then again, what if being trussed up was part of a game they’d played for centuries? The two could be furious if she messed it up. Or maybe the girl was only pretending, lying in wait, knowing Beth would come. She shook her head. Such a subterfuge would be quite beyond them.

In the key hole on the inside of the door was an outsized key. It reminded her of that bottle in Alice which said: Drink me! Except that the key called out: Lock me! Oh no! She wasn’t going to give in to that temptation. It was probably a trap. But she would take the key. Goodness knew why. To annoy them, maybe. Easing it out of the lock, halting every time it squeaked, she pocketed the key, surprised at how heavy it was. Pulling the door too behind her, it shut with an ominous click, causing the snoring to cease. As she tiptoed away in search of an exit, she heard grunts as the girl struggled to get free.

Chapter one in the mountains

Photo: Alan McCluskey

On a prolonged weekend in the mountains (those flowers really were frozen!), I finished the first chapter of my new book, Immortal No More. That’s over 10’500 words in less than two weeks. Pleased. And surprised. The underlying themes that sprang up were quite unexpected. No. I’m not going to tell you what they are. Later, maybe. But I am publishing a short extract. Remember this is a rough draft only.

The far side of the dormitory was devoid of girls. The little girl halted, looking round to see if they were being watched, then she got down on all fours and crawled under one of the beds. When Beth hesitated, the girl beckoned, a worried look on her face. Feeling stupid, Beth glanced round to see if anyone was watching. All were engrossed in their games and chattering. So she scrambled under the bed. Being much bigger than the girl, moving in such a confined space was a struggle. Several times she snagged her dress on the wooden bed frame.

Did the girl live under the bed? Beth hoped not. Making friends with a nutter that slept under a bed was hardly a good start. There was little light so Beth hurried to keep up as the girl crawled under several beds placed side by side.

Beth was about to give up and return the way she’d come when an eerie light filled the cramped space. The girl had opened a door in the wall no higher than the space under the bed. Once Beth wriggled through, the little girl helped her to her feet. They were in a large room with one small window placed high on the wall casting a gloomy light over piles of furniture, most of which were covered with sheets and dust covers.

Read another short extract.

Immortal No More

Photo: Alan McCluskey

Having finished the draft of World o’Talesbook four of The Storyteller’s Quest, I immediately launched into writing book five entitled, Immortal No More. I have written a thousand words of the beginning which follows on directly from World o’Tales although that is not so evident if you read the short snippet below.

Here is a brief extract of the beginning of Immortal No More. Remember this is a first draft and (many) things can change. This scene is entitled Just another girl.

Jag sighed. Another girl. He ran a comb through her wet hair, tugging at the knots. This one might be healthy and surprisingly fit, and her dark brown eyes were attractive, yet she wasn’t what he’d call pretty. That high forehead promised intelligence, but that was hardly what was required. Couldn’t that self-satisfied pair of hunters not find better material? How many more botched specimens would it take before the Master and Mistress decided the poor quality was his fault and tossed him on the scrap heap along with the bones of all those that had gone before?