Stories of Life

Also featuring stories of drafts and edits.

Outside the window, the world warms, stories of life everywhere.

Swirls of storks climb invisible spirals. Beneath, strata of swallows manoeuvre, twist, brake and snatch, manoeuvre, twist, brake and snatch. Lower still, plummeting sparrows, falling from our eaves to the orange grove below, a constant squabble. Beyond the storks rises a bird of prey, perhaps a buzzard, perhaps something else, I do not have my binoculars to confirm and the angle is off. Three crows mob and give chase, an explosion of collared doves below, flashing from thicket to thicket. Earlier, two ravens headed west, scaring the same doves and a brace of wood pigeon, a cycle which continues throughout the day.

The shepherd is moving the sheep from the field with the olives to the one with the holm oak shade. His dog, at this distance, could be a hunting wolf. Further, a field of brown and well-fed cattle move along the edge in single file, a solitary dark horse in the field between, geese, chickens, and vegetable gardens closer still. Dusty tree-lined trails mark boundaries, arteries to the wilder places beyond this village.

Here, the trees and bushes are mostly green, with the others in blossom or still awaiting their moment, to burst into leaf once more. This is a reversal from the land I grew up within, where the verdancy of holly or ivy was welcome in the winter, whilst all else slept, drained of colour, a monochrome hibernation. The cork oaks, the oranges and lemons, the satsumas, the eucalyptus, the holm oaks and others I am still trying to identify: this is a rolling land of green winters and blue, blue, azul skies. It is a land of surprisingly cold winds and reassuringly warm sun, sudden dawn and swift sunset, a land chiming with the church bell, toll unchanged through centuries. Sleek cats cross the village on terracotta clay tiles, a highway in the sky, a stratum of their own. Below, the dogs bark at their scent and the ink shadow of a returning stork brushes across shining paper-white walls, today’s approach to the nest directly parallel to our kitchen window.

The local Grandmothers hush the dogs, shoo the hens and sit for a spell, short woollen cloaks over their shoulders, sun seeping into leathery tanned skin, heating old bones, mimicking the lizards in the grass. Warmed, they move fast, determined: sweeping, hanging laundry, cooking on braziers, moving heavy wooden furniture outside to clean. Another pause and an animated discussion with neighbours, arms are raised, fingers pointed, chins are jutted. World affairs on a tiny, mostly-unchanged street; these cobbles heard tell of other diseases, of wars, of births and deaths, of love. Countless stories of life. If I were to open the window I would hear their words, drifting upward to me and to the stork nest to the left, as the fragrance of the blossom fills the room and the rising warmth of spring flows into the kitchen.

Stories of life, lives forming stories, constantly.

Hi.

In a recent note, I mentioned that we had a new home in the Alentejo (keen-eyed readers may also have noticed I accidentally missed a photograph out of that newsletter, sorry!). This home is roughly 15km (9 miles) from Vila Nova de Milfontes, which is from where the February newsletter was sent. In this, I did say it felt like a potential home and we were right; this is a good place to live, a good place to pause and catch-up, and a good place to watch the world.

In an earlier draft of this note, I started with a previously-threatened discussion of how we found our new home, catching you up on the adventure. Unfortunately, this turned into a bit of an epic and, as such, I’ve decided to hang on to those words and polish and share them on my website at some point instead. It is time to start writing more there too, I feel a touch sorry for it and it would also be nice to be able to share links with you here.

Before we go any further, I’ll address the proverbial viral elephant in the room, with this excellent caveat:

“The diagnostic tool is straightforward: Do you want every glorious weirdo you’ve ever followed to morph into the same obsessive faux public health expert? YOU DO NOT!” Robin Sloan (more from him later).

It is a rare thing to have current affairs bring the world together, especially whilst simultaneously physically distancing, yet here we are. I recently finished Agency, by William Gibson. In this book, and its predecessor, The Peripheral, he talks about The Jackpot — a series of events which leaves humankind depleted, damaged, dying — a long-drawn-out apocalypse, as it were. In the books there is mention of the pandemics (plural) as a part of this, each chipping away at the whole. Needless to say, after this book, I chose something a little more light-hearted to read, something less close to home.

However, despite the potential of this pandemic, and the accompanying horror, I think it is important to also look at ways in which it could be harnessed, humankind set on a different path. We could feasibly use this as a reset, as the big warning which finally unites and galvanises us to make the changes we — and the world — need. The problem of climate change, for example, is that for many it is easy to dismiss. This pandemic is harder to ignore, even if certain world leaders would like to do just that.

Here’s a thing you may or may not know about me. For many years I was a natural cynic, a pessimist of the highest order; it just seemed logical. Then, once upon a time, I made a deliberate choice to alter this — primarily as a way to help combat depression, but I was also simply fed up with feeling like the worst would happen all the time. Even now, there’s a temptation to say that we as a species will not heed this big warning, this incredible chance to hit restart — but, instead, I’m going to try and remain positive. Although I will say, to move forward, now and in the years to come, we are going to need leaders — if there’s one thing we’re seeing right now, it’s how a lack of leadership can have terrible results. I do think those leaders are out there — and I think they are going to come from younger generations.

I am also well aware how lucky we are. We chose a country wisely, located an area we liked the look of, found a home just in time, and even filled our larder and stores before there was any worry about panic buying or hint of lockdown. Of course, it could be better. We could be out there, finding a community, locating our people — but that can wait and, in the meantime, there are a million and one things to do: lists of lists, checkbox after checkbox to tick off.

I am pleased that I caught myself in time and stopped my slide towards refreshing the news for a constant trickle of sadness. Instead, I limit social media and the news websites and generally get stuff done. Including a regular workout schedule, which I am delighted about.

Finally, for this portion, here’s another quote from Robin Sloan’s newsletter:

“There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and that world wants your strange, personal video game; your cleverly-designed fanny pack; your email newslet—

Scratch that. There’s a world right here, right now, and THIS world wants those things! Even more, it wants, it NEEDS, signs of their production: the light in the (browser) window, the (digital) curl of smoke from the chimney.

For me, a reliably potent antidote to anxiety and uncertainty is evidence that there are people out there who are okay; people who are quietly working.

I’m out here. I’m okay. I’m working.”

And so am I.

Writing.

But what, pray tell, am I working on? What am I getting done?

Well, apart from trying to catch up on hours missed for the social media management work I do — hours spent on the road and exploring this nation, hours spent moving in, resupplying, equipping, polishing and putting things in their place — apart from this, I have been trying to reintroduce good habits.

I have written about my drafting process before, about what works for me with my personal writing.* Lately, several things have slipped; packing up and moving continents, being ill over Christmas and New Year and then finding a new home in a new country will do that — but I am making an effort to reintroduce my good habits, easing in again to my process, speed things up a little, actually start and finish things.

To summarise the post mentioned, over the years I have learnt that the best way for me to draft is to do so in bursts, thirty-minute bursts, to be precise. I set a timer and go. Those thirty minutes are not long, but I average 900 words in that time, sometimes more, sometimes less. As long as I hit 500 new words, I am happy. If I hit 1000 or more in those thirty minutes, that’s a good day. Sometimes, I do two blocks of thirty, but these days this is rare.

This is a draft. It is awful, full of typos, ideas that go nowhere and are abandoned mid-sentence, sometimes mid-wor.., terrible grammar, woeful dialogue, descriptive pieces that quite frankly make me cringe. BUT the important thing is this — once I have a draft, I can redraft. I can then edit, and edit some more.

Which brings me to the next point. I have a list of things to redraft and edit, extending to roughly 250 000 words. A quarter of a million, folks. Roughly. Maybe a few more. However, this includes an already edited and relatively well-polished novel, which will not take as long to edit as, for example, the next two novellas and their bonuses.

Why add more?

The simple fact of the matter is I do not always manage to keep a flow of new words coming and, for me and, indeed, others, a key part of editing is leaving words alone — for as long as possible. Come back with fresh eyes and it is far easier to see flaws, better ways to do things, even simple fixes like the aforementioned typos jump out when left alone.

My current new words are another novel. The Lesser Evil novel, which comes after the novellas, to be precise.** I have crafted a few thousand words of this already, mostly stunted beginnings and sketches of scenes and ideas. It proves tricky to reintroduce characters I already know so well but who will prove shiny and new to a suspected majority of readers. It is a fine line to tread, not to make these reintroductions too boring for those who’ve read my shorter fiction but to provide enough detail for those who are new. Similarly, with the scenes — I want to launch directly into the main plot, without too much of the often, dare I say, boring exposition that can be the bane of many an otherwise-good novel, but I also have to introduce ideas, places, and a thousand other snippets which all come together later on. Tricky indeed; if this were easy, everyone would do it.

I try and edit a thousand words minimum per day. Rather than a thirty-minute burst, a figure like this works better. Some days it is more, considerably more. Getting the first messy draft to a state where I can chop bits out, move things around, add new words, then repeat, is an exciting point. I used to hate editing but, as I grew older and more experienced, I came to accept this is where the magic actually happens. True, there are those days where my drafts (typos, etcetera notwithstanding) are inspired, where whole paragraphs and scenes make it into the final product with barely any alteration — but those days are rare and, as I think it was Neil Gaiman who said (and here I paraphrase): once the book is finished, no one else will know which bits were a hard slog, redrafted and edited over and over and which bits were easy to write. Often, even the writer won’t be able to remember.

*As I mention in the linked blog post, I also try and share details of “wordcountability”, posting a screenshot of my daily total to my website. This is something I have yet to reintroduce, but it is a good habit and one which will reappear shortly.

** I can let you into a little secret — this novel will NOT be a three-word title with the word “death” as one of those words. This is a fun thing for the novellas, forcing me to really, really think, but this novel is a different beast entirely.

Reading and watching.

Normally, I’d try and share details of what I have recently been enjoying — or not— in the world of literature and moving pictures (does anyone actually call them moving pictures any more?). However, this month I’m going to leave this section relatively blank. I sent out the “On Books” piece recently and I think that should suffice for now.

Next month, I shall hopefully include the things I read and the things I watched since February’s newsletter — some better than others (which is a problem for me, as I do not want to be too negative here).

I will say, however, we recently rewatched Knives Out and it is definitely my favourite movie of last year; that script, the acting, the sets, everything about it is delicious.

Nature.

One thing the guidebooks rarely mention is the shadow of a large bird, in this case, the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) — how it plays across a landscape, adding another different dimension to the view. There is a dichotomy about the stork; one moment it shines, bright and flashing in the sun, then it is higher and dark, a silhouette gliding on and on. As the birds leave the nest, or approach on their flightpath to land, they have a counterpart — the shadow stork. This darker bird, a twin of the silhouette, flits from white building to clay tiled roof and back again, crossing cobbled street and azure-painted detailing in between, rippling across the world below, silent, leaving not a trace, other than a brief absence of the warmth and light from the sun.

I am learning much about storks. Although, at the time of writing, we have not seen “our” storks on their nest for a day or so. I really hope they haven’t abandoned it (EDIT: One of the birds is on the nest, right now, as I queue this for sending, which makes us happy — I wonder if they hid from the rainstorms?)

As detailed in the opening vignette, I am also learning about the strata of this village — being mostly inside of late (yes, the elephant again) means I do ensure I take the time to look out. The views on both sides of our apartment are wonderful and, if I take the right amount of time, they reveal the secrets of the local nature.

Admittedly, the idea of being able to walk and cycle and explore free in the countryside around is playing on my mind. I’m looking forward to the things we’ll see, the signs we’ll find — a feather here, a bone there, a string of tracks or a hair caught in the bark. However, signs can also come to me. Today, something kindly deposited part of a bone on our balcony. I think it is probably from a lamb, but I may be wrong. I have found several websites with details of local wildlife and nature, such as here and here, if you are interested (Great Bustard! Iberian Pond Turtle! Iberian Mongoose! Rüppell's Griffon!)?

Ending of Sorts.

One final thing, also on the subject of nature — I am thrilled to once again have a view which is split between the land and the sky. It has been a while since I have lived somewhere with such a view available at all times and I did not realise how much I have missed a lively sky. Being so close to the ocean means there are clouds skipping here, slowing there. There are mornings where I look outside and the flatter plain to the north is hidden beneath a blanket of mist. Sometimes, the hills to the south disappear and it rains — we are in the cloud and all is water. The wind is another feature I love, places with wind feel like home to me. Orkney did that without my noticing — and I do not take it for granted.

There is a power to the sky, a power to the water and the winds; elemental life is something too easily taken for granted and I acknowledge this and pause, listen to what the world tells me, find the stories, wait for others.

(All the photos above are of our views, with the exception of this lemon and clematis, which is just around the corner.)