The inspirational writer

The Inspirational Writer

Alan McCluskey describes himself as an inspirational writer. Rather than following a pre-determined plot, he is the very first reader, discovering the story as he writes. It is the acts of the characters, rather than the author’s intentions, that dictate the direction of the story. The doings of the characters inspire him and drive the story forward. At the same time, he explains that he needs to be reassured that what has been written so far offers a solid basis for what is yet to come. To achieve this, his chapters are increasingly short and he revises them as he goes along. As he puts it, “The trick of inspirational writing is to remain in constant contact with the story while staying confident that the story is convincing and worth telling.”

Undoubtedly the central theme in all Alan McCluskey’s novels is the empowerment of young people, girls in particular. Despite their difficulties, and often as a result of them, his characters go beyond what they thought was possible. That transcendence often takes the form of abilities that might be called magical. However, in his latest novels, Stories People Tell and Local Voices, magic has become much less preponderant, leaving more room for such abilities as leadership, comprehending complex situations, expressing thoughts in writing, organising large-scale events, speaking in public or doing creative work. As the author puts it, “The challenge is to make such abilities as exciting for the reader as wielding magic.” This shift away from pure fantasy has gone hand in hand with anchoring large parts of the story in real-life, identifiable contexts rather than an imaginary world. The setting and the reader’s familiarity with it plays a greater role in the story.

Unlike those novels that are based on a unique theme, his work is characterised by the presence of a number of themes that intertwine. “I like to think my novels reflect something of the complexity of the real world,” he says. The fluidity of gender is an example of another theme that traverses his novels. In the Boy & Girl saga, a young teen struggles with his desire to dress as a girl and in so doing seeks to come to terms with who he is and what he wants to be. The author does not shy away from challenging issues. In the Storyteller’s Quest books, one of the main characters, a young shaman, shapeshifts into a young girl. The ambiguity of his identity obliges him to explore life and sexuality from an unusual and sometimes disturbing perspective.

Beyond the identifiable themes in his writing, it is the story and the telling of stories that is paramount. In his first novels, storytelling vied with formal exploration but as time went by, his focus shifted more and more to telling the story. As part of that increased investment in the story, more attention was paid to the relationships between people as revealed by their words and acts. It was almost as if there was a shift from storytelling centred largely on action to stories in which the action is grounded in relationships.

The Favourite

The Favourite. What a strange film! The story, if you can call this frayed fantasy a story, plays out in a claustrophobic world, folded in on itself, dripping with decay and decline, cloaked in stuffy air, yet run through with violence and rampant sensuality. Naked brutality erupts in the crude words spat from people’s mouths. For all the mad queen’s occasional moments of lucidity, the film is rife with madness, smacking of the queen’s court in the tales of Alice. The courtiers, notwithstanding their political intrigues, are as mad as the queen. Their pastimes and their stilted relationships are outrageous and would be hilarious, were it not for the undercurrent of deadly seriousness. That didn’t stop me from bursting out laughing, laughter offtimes tinged with guilt. Thank heavens the cinema is shroud in darkness. The film director revels in the madness, conjuring up one surrealistic scene after another. We are led to expect the inevitable tragedy, several times, but who knows if the confusion of images that ends it all, brings the relief we were hoping for.

New n​ovel, Local Voices, nearing completion

Local Voices

I have just completed the second revision of my latest novel, Local Voices, a sequel to Stories People Tell. It will be published later this year. Here’s a summary of the story.

Local Voices

In her campaign to re-affirm the role of women at the heart of hearthside healthcare, 17-year-old Annie Wight finds herself pitted against Health England, a conservative think-tank backed by pharmaceutical giants and private healthcare providers. Pretexting the defence of the National Health Service, they stop at nothing to stamp out Annie’s efforts. They target not just her but those close to her, wreaking havoc in friendships and affairs of the heart. As part of her response, Annie launches a project to share the stories of those that never figure in the spotlight. By celebrating local voices, the project fights against isolation and disempowerment.

Stories of people who live far from the spotlight

Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot's article in The Guardian.
Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian.

In an insightful article by George Monbiot in The Guardian entitled, Our cult of personality is leaving real life in the shade, Monbiot points to the ‘spectacularisation’ of the news and the world. “This is a world of make-believe, in which we are induced to imagine we are participants rather than mere gawpers”, he says. He talks of all those that are not in the spotlight and the long shadow cast over key issues. He concludes, “The task of all journalists is to turn off the spotlight, roll up the blinds and see what’s lurking at the back of the room.” He urges us to pay attention to “(…) the story of people who live far from (…) the spotlight (..)”

Untold stories are a central theme of my latest novel, Local Voices, where Annie, the young heroine,  is championing a drive for people to speak out and tell their stories. One of her friends says, “By empowering people to tell their stories, you empower them to break out of their isolation and take a more active part in society.”

In a lull in the action, a group of young woman are discussing the message behind Local Voices. Annie gets to her feet as if she were about to make a speech and says. “We are more and more cut off from the community and the world we live in. That isolation can be traced to the loss of control over our lives, our work, our politics, our health, our education and more. We have chosen to hand over that control to others to free ourselves from the burdens it entails. But the resulting isolation and the feeling of not belonging, not to mention the impression of powerlessness, are at the heart of many problems we face today: exclusion, intolerance, disrespect, injustice, ill-health, depression, addiction, lawlessness and violence. We urgently need to reconnect to our local community. What better way than by giving voice to the stories of our community and the people in it, those stories that draw us closer together and improved mutual understanding and tolerance.”

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system
Source: The Guardian. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian reports that French booksellers have called on the judges of literary prizes to ignore self-published books available only on Amazon. What sparked such a reaction? Marco Koskas’ Bande de Français is one of the contenders selected for this year’s Prix Renaudot. The Guardian article states that the book has been self-published using CreateSpace, a print-on-demand service which is a subsidiary of Amazon, ostensibly making it unavailable to bookshops. The booksellers campaign lays bare the cracks in the publishing system.

On the one hand, bookshop owners are angry because Marco Koskas’s book is available only on Amazon, although, as it is printed by Createspace, it could be made available to bookshops. When Payot in Geneva wanted to stock my novel, Boy and Girl, they had no problem ordering copies even though it was printed by CreateSpace. On the other hand, no editor wanted to take Kostas’s book, so self-publishing was the only avenue for the author. Note, he is no beginner. He’s already had a number of books published by the ‘traditional’ channels.

By petitioning to have this book removed from the long list for the Prix Renaudot, bookshop owners are saying that only those writers published via agents/editors should be considered for prizes because including self-published books would be tantamount to granting Amazon exclusive rights to the book (*). First of all, this is not necessarily true. Secondly, commercial models in other industries, like that of films, do have distribution players with a monopoly on some prize-winning films. Just think of Netflix.

What’s more, agents and mainstream publishers, as gatekeepers to ‘traditional’ publishing have a great deal of power already. For example, self-published or indie-published books are generally barred from getting reviews on most specialised websites because they have not been granted the approval of agents and established publishers.

That Kostas chose to use print-on-demand is not a ploy of Amazon. It is a dynamic of the publishing industry in which CreateSpace and Ingrams offer a viable alternative to traditional publishing at a time when that gateway to readers is getting ever narrower. If anything, bookshop owners should be looking to include the best independent books in their selections for customers. That would contribute to providing a rich diversity of books. In addition, it would fuel a demand for quality reviews that would encourage sites to review independent books.

On the other hand, that bookshops want to do battle with Amazon is understandable. Having an independent bookshop, not only as a place to find books but also to attend readings or to meet other readers, is a clear enrichment of a local community. But it’s an uphill battle. The plight of bookshops is also part of the shifting landscape of publishing. Those changes require a rethinking of the role of indie bookshops. One promising avenue might lie in reconsidering the place and role of the bookshops in the local community. How can they offer an enriching face-to-face experience that Internet-based services cannot rival with?

(*) As Matthew Wake, owner of Booksbooksbooks in Lausanne, points out, bookshop owners “… do not want to support Amazon because it poses an existential threat to their livelihood. ‘Amazon…wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop'” He goes on to say, “As far as I can see they are not questioning the worthiness of the book.” I agree. Unfortunately, the person who gets harmed is the author, who might merit that prize, not Amazon. I question the bookshops’ strategy, not their motives. It is not because a cause is ‘just’ that the methods employed are adequate or have the desired effect.

Article first published in a shortened form on the Geneva Writers Group Facebook page.

Shhhhh! Writing. Local voices.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book. Follow-up to Stories People Tell. Annie promoting local voices. Seventy-five chapters so far. Eighty thousand words. Coming soon.

Writing local voices. Sneek peek!

A feral chant greeted Annie as she threaded between the barriers separating the platform from the concourse. A pack of guttural voices growled “Witch!” or was it “Bitch!” repeated over and over. Alarmed, she dropped Kevin’s hand and squeezed in front of her girlfriend, her eyes darting this way and that in search of trouble. The train had been packed and a throng of panicked commuters elbowed their way forward as if the station were on fire. Borne by the flow bursting from the gates, there was no turning back. If only her bodyguard, Xenia, had been there. 

Annie spotted a dense knot of women brandishing placards some yards away when something hard struck her in the face just below her eye. Smashing as it did, a viscous liquid trickled down her cheek, letting off a foul smell of rotten eggs. She sank to her knees, instinctively putting up her hands to protect her head. Kevin screamed and ducked, cowering behind her.

Sensing danger, the crowd stampeded, bowling over the two crouched figures and would have trampled them to death had not firm hands grasped the girls and heaved them to their feet. Xenia. Thank heavens. No one would dare jostle her. All the same, Annie couldn’t stop trembling as the woman summarily wiped the mess from her face before wrapping her in a strong embrace. Nearby, Kevin was blotted in the arms of Leonor, sobbing. “…like animals…” Annie heard her mutter. (…)

Writing a Sequel to Stories People Tell

Of course, I couldn’t resist. I began a sequel to Stories People Tell. It starts in Waterloo Station, in the press of commuters under this clock where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting Annie and her girlfriend Kevin.

Not all innocent causes are as well-intentioned as they might wish to appear. Under the banner of self-righteous indignation and professed sanctity, many a powerful woman has been branded and burnt as a witch…

See Shhhhh! Writing. Local Voices. for an extract

The art of letting a story write itself

The writing of a novel brings together a wealth of experience and know-how combined with an ability to surrender to a story and let it lead you.

I am very much an advocate of following the story when writing, rather than precluding its course by drawing up an outline before beginning. I generally start with a scene or a place or the action of a character without having much of an idea where the story will lead me. I discover what happens as the story unfolds almost as if I were the first reader. I can even get within walking distance of the final pages and still not know how it will end. 

I might do research or I might sketch out what I know of a character or a place when I can’t move forward without it, but not before I start. Stories People Tell was a striking example of this. I went to London after I’d finished the draft, to check I’d got it right. There’s a very good reason why I couldn’t have done otherwise. It was only as I reached the end of the manuscript that I realised the story had to be more solidly anchored in London. It was the first novel I had written that took place almost entirely in a real setting. 

A lot of writers describe how, from time to time, they get stuck in their novel and detail their strategies to surmount the obstacle. The unspoken fear may well be that the blockage will perdure and the story will get stranded and go unfinished. In such circumstances, persistence is often presented as a virtue, especially in the face of procrastination. But pushing forward may not be the best strategy. What if being stuck is the story’s way of telling the writer she’s going the wrong way? It just happened to me. I wanted my character to win a fight with a thug that had deliberately waylaid her. Her situation was pretty hopeless. Not only did she not have the build to triumph against such a hardened nut, but she was an ardent advocate of non-violence. Try as I would, I couldn’t write the scene. I kept searching for a clever slight-of-hand that would enable her to win, preferably without fighting. It was only when I resolved to let her lose that the blockage dissolved and I was able to finish the chapter. I’m not sure yet, but I suspect she had to fail for her story to move forward.

Having said that, letting a story develop is not without discipline. Experience shows that some things work, others don’t. This applies to word choice, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, the overarching narrative,… Just to give an example of one such ‘artful’ constraint – for which I am grateful to MJ Holmes – concerning what could be called ‘narrative distance’. The depth and breadth of a novel can be greatly enhanced by moving in and out from an intimate perspective to a much wider societal or historic anchoring of action. Now, this distance necessarily shrinks when the action heats up. You want the reader to be engrossed in what is happening, not distracted by background descriptions. So doing, you enhance the telling and the impact of the story, but do not constrain or dictate its direction.

In other words, a wealth of experience, know-how and knowledge conditions and enhances a story as it naturally grows and develops following the path it alone can dictate.

Beyond difference, a fiery oneness

What essential commonness, uniting one to all, lies beyond the differences that distinguish each from all others? 

When you see an apple, the speckled colours around its stalk and the hint of a bruise on one side distinguish it from all other apples. Yet you know it belongs to a category of objects all English-speaking people would recognise as an ‘apple’.

When you look at other people you also see, first and foremost, what sets them apart, what makes them different, the marks of singularity, of individuality, of separateness. A fading tattoo on the woman’s right shoulder that changes form as she swings her arm. The musical lilt of boy’s voice that stumbles and cracks as puberty takes its toll and the blush of embarrassment that colours his cheeks at intimacy revealed. The stubble bristling around a birthmark on the side of a man’s face that he nervously tries to conceal by constantly rubbing his chin. A tiny rent in a girl’s tights just below her left knee, that bobs in and out of view behind her hemline as she skips along the path. Each person a different being.

These individuals are identified by a name, but that name is not the person. It is both a restrictive and restricting label and a convenient receptacle in which we stock all our impressions, our knowledge and our preconceived impressions of that person. A composite picture that can be slow to adapt. Then come all those adjectives that categorise. Male, female, tall, fat, skinny, gay, effeminate, hairy, butch, sexy, black, white, brown, green, lecherous, strange, shy, angry, disgusting,… And combinations of these.

These colourful descriptions coalesce into larger categories that are often linked to whether we value or like or distrust or fear or detest the person in question. Love, trust, community but also racism, sexism and homophobia, amongst others, lie down that road.

But I suspect, and here lies the driving question behind this article, that beyond the multitude of differences that separate us, there is an underlying presence that unites each and every one of us. In other words, we are both separate and one at the same time. Distinct and indivisible.

I have tried, but so far failed, to look beyond the differences that spring to mind at the sight of a person and perceive the commonness that unites that person to every other, including me. Not some banal categorisation like ‘human being’. Rather, a splendid fiery essence that burns in each one of us.

Coming out of the publisher’s closet

Promoting Boy & Girl

I wrote a book called Boy & Girl in which Peter discovers that dressing like a girl is not at all akin to being in a girl’s head. Writing the novel was a real joy. Publishing it was tedious, but not so difficult. However, promoting it was much more of a headache. Till now…

As with all my published books, it is Secret Paths that publishes Boy & Girl, using Createspace to provide on-demand print copies through Amazon, in bookstores as well as from Secret Paths website for those living in Switzerland. Ebook format is provided by Smashwords, Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore.

So what about promotion? Secret Paths has a rich collection of websites covering both my books, but also my short stories, my artwork, book reviews and political and social commentary. There’s also a Secret Paths Facebook page along with accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Despite this web ‘presence’, promoting an English novel when based in Switzerland, with a very tight budget, seems an impossible task. A common reaction here is, When will you translate it into French. Groan.  Yet I am convinced there is a considerable audience for the book. People who have read it are full of praise. One person writes, This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Another writes This book was a wonderful read. (…) I read it as a parent of a child who is considered “different” and found it great for many reasons… So how can I reach my audience?

It’s still early days, and time might prove me overenthusiastic, but I may have found a possible solution. Facebook ads. Now I know Facebook is getting a lot of heat at the moment both for the algorithms that drive it and how the data collected and the algorithms used have and can be abused. There is clearly an urgent need to address those issues and the future evolution of the platform. See Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. However, concentrating solely on negative aspects fails to see the advantages the platform offers. 

When trying to reach multiple communities concerned with issues raised by Peter’s story, having a Facebook page is not enough, even if you have a relatively wide circle of acquaintances. Using Facebook ads for my books connects me to those people worldwide in one convenient place. Without it, I would have no feasible way of reaching them. It does so in a way that draws the attention of people potentially interested in my book but leaves them free to move on, should they wish, or buy it and discover the story.