Scrapbook 1

AliOn Writing

Altamira Bison

With each writing project I embark on, I find it useful to build a kind of digital scrapbook of images, videos and miscellaneous pieces that each reflect some  part of the story I’m trying to tell.  Most of the images are atmospheric, but some are photos of people who resemble the story’s characters, or of landscapes or places like those in which the narrative takes place.  I’m just starting to clip together two such scrapbooks, and above and below have linked a couple of pieces from the first, to show you the sort of thing that goes in.


AliScrapbook 1

The Starts of Things

AliOn Writing

photo credit: habeebee via photopin cc

photo credit: habeebee via photopin cc

I’m about to start work on something new.  Two somethings, in fact.  Three, in a way.  Maybe even five.  One of those projects is a single novel, and another is a trilogy of sorts. The third or fifth, depending on whether you count a trilogy as one project or three, is a little spree of short stories I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time now.

This is the problem I have after I’ve finished a novel, and have spent a bit of time outdoors with my family, and at last turn my mind towards what happens next.  I’ve always found it detrimental, in the final months of work on any project, to think too much about what I’ll do once it’s finished.  Those last redrafts and edits can be quite exacting, as I rework sections I’ve already reworked a hundred times, and comb through the text for inconsistencies and oversights.  In other words, that final stage can be rather dull, and my creative side is desperate to throw itself into new invention.  I dare not indulge it, or I might never have the strength to go back and finish the old stuff.  Instead, I store up the ideas I’m having, and try to forget about them until the decks are clear.

Once the decks are clear I feel a sense of pressure.

Here I am, free to chase new stories and see where they lead me, free at last to explore and build and just plain enjoy brand new ideas, and I get cold feet.  I know what an enormous task it is to write a novel.  How long it takes.  I don’t want to pick the wrong idea.  I don’t want to find myself in a narrative dead end, nine months from now.  I suspect there are a whole host of simpler reasons for my hesitancy, too.  Maybe I’m just a bit lazy, and would rather take some more time off before I get addicted to some new world or set of characters.  Maybe I’m pre-emptively terrified of the reception the idea might get, or of the headspace it might lead me into and how that might change me as a person.

To try to press on undaunted, I’m going to keep my options open.  I know the story of the standalone project, but it’s something of a historical thing and I’ll need to do some research before I can start writing it.  I know the world for the three-book project, because it’s something of a fantastical place and that world’s been glowing in the back of my mind like a full moon.  Therefore, I’m going to read history books and sketch out story arcs and draw pictures of monsters until I feel safe enough to commit to one book or the other.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

AliThe Starts of Things

Keith Douglas, 24th Jan 1920 – 9th Jun 1944


“I like you sir. You’re shit or bust, you are.”

– Keith Douglas’ batman, to Keith Douglas.

I was twenty three when I discovered the work of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas.  I’d just completed an English degree and was worn out with novels, so for a year I read only comics and poetry.  Good comics were easy to find, but good poetry was a rarer substance.  It seemed to me that you had to read twenty impenetrable poems for every one that spoke to you, but I was fortunate enough to have time on my side.  I flitted my way through a bunch of anthologies, skipping over anything that seemed wilfully obscure or concerned solely with the poet’s ego.  I was a harsh judge, but I was on the hunt for pure, distilled language and I was determined to find as much of it as I could.

Keith DouglasHow To Kill was the first Keith Douglas poem I stumbled across, jammed into a thick collection of war poetry.  It was written in such a frank style that it stood out to me as something that might have been written just that year, not in 1943.  There were no riddles and no pretence.  Douglas was a tank captain and How To Kill was about blowing up an enemy soldier.  ‘Being damned,’ he writes, ‘I am amused/To see the centre of love diffused/and the waves of love travel into vacancy.’

I found that poem a striking thing, brutally honest and sad, but it was the sole Keith Douglas poem in the anthology and I only noted down his name as one to look out for.  A few months later I was twenty four, and browsing in a bookshop while I waited for my girlfriend to finish work.  There I found Keith Douglas’ one and only poetry collection.  My girlfriend texted me to say she was held up and would be finishing late, so I bought the book and sat in the park to read some of it.

I won’t lie.  To begin with I was unimpressed.  Some of the first poems in the book seemed just the opposite of what I’d liked about How To Kill.  Those, however, were poems from Douglas’ schooldays.  I’d hate it if someone dragged out and published anything that I wrote while at school, but I suppose Douglas’ were included as a way to demonstrate his development, and in the absence of enough material from his adult life.  Douglas died, like so many of his generation, very young, but the poems he wrote in what would prove the final years of his life, the poems that began to appear towards the end of the book, were among the finest things I’d ever read.  By the time my girlfriend had finished work that day, I was not only a fan, I was inspired.

“And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers

come back, abandoning the expedition;

the specimens, the lilies of ambition

still spring in their climate, still unpicked:

but time, time is all I lacked

to find them, as the great collectors before me.”

– Keith Douglas, On A Return From Egypt

Keith Douglas died seventy years ago today.  A mortar shell exploded overhead and he was killed by shrapnel pieces as fine as nibs, which didn’t even show a mark on his body.  An army chaplain, Captain Leslie Skinner, wrote, ‘Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties. News of death of Captain Keith Douglas on Fwd slopes pt 102…Forward on foot and found bodies of Keith Douglas and Lt Pepler. Buried separately near to where each lay. Occasional rifle fire while digging graves.’

Douglas was twenty four.  Three days earlier, on D-Day, he had commanded a tank in the main assault on Gold Beach.  He’s one of my writing heroes, and a few nice tributes have appeared to him this week.  Here’s an article in The New Statesman and here Clarissa Aykroyd’s blog post, a lovely piece that paints a picture of his character.  The Guardian made Desert Flowers their poem of the day, and here’s Clive James reading one of his poems a while ago.

At the back of Keith Douglas’ short Completed Works are two statements he made about how to write which, since I read them, have been a part of my own internal guidelines as I strive towards good writing.  Even if you never read poetry, it’s worth buying his collection simply to read and memorise those, and I’ll end this little tribute with two quotes from them.

I don’t know if you have come across the word Bullshit – it is an army word and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail.  It symbolizes what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of ‘attitudes’, ‘approaches’, propaganda, ivory towers, etc., that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them.’

– Keith Douglas, from a letter to J.C. Hall, 10th August 1943

Poetry may be written in prose or verse, or spoken extempore.

For it is anything expressed in words, which appeals to the emotions either in presenting an image or picture to move them; or by the music of words affecting them through the senses; or in stating some truth whose eternal quality exacts the same reverence as eternity itself.

– Keith Douglas, from his contribution to On the Nature of Poetry.


AliKeith Douglas, 24th Jan 1920 – 9th Jun 1944