Brain-ache – revising a whole book

Anyone out there written a book?

If  you have then you will probably have found out that:

  1. It’s very difficult to write a book which other people will want to read
  2. It’s very hard to get good advice on how to improve your book
  3. The process of revising is very difficult
  4. When you’ve done all this work, it’s still impossible to get published
  5. Despite all this you still want to keep writing!

Well I’ve been through all these stages over the last 5 or 6 years, and have written 2 whole books and 2 unfinished books. Of those one was “published” by what is usually called a “vanity publisher”, although I didn’t realise this at the time. Sales were in the region of 10 copies. I’m useless at promoting my own books.

Two of these books projects I still think have potential. I fear I don’t have the emotional resources to complete the one with the most potential, but my novel “Lucas and the Girl from the Sea” should, in a less insanely competitive market, have something going for it. I’ve thought this for the last two years without doing anything about it.

Now I have. A small windfall paid for a professional editorial report. It came back with some detailed recommendations which I have been systematically acting on.  I thought I would share the process with you.

The main recommendation was to remove anything which did not either drive the story forward or deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s a process called “killing your darlings”. The floor is metaphorically littered with their corpses.

Here’s an example. Tarquin – an under-cover name – is acting the playboy to try to find out what goes on in Castle Drago. Jurg is his new bar-friend. Jurg is speaking.

“Yes yes but we have many castles like this in Austria too. Is very grand no?”

“I’ll tell you what though . . .” Tarquin was supposed to know about such things. “I’ll bet you the next round of drinks it’s no more than 100 years old – 120 tops.”

“Is possible. Hey Tim, let’s go.” They climbed out of the bus and stood around waiting for some guidance.

We already know it’s not old so that can go. This is better:

“Yes yes but we have many castles like this in Austria too. Is very grand no?”

The bus turned into a gateway to a well-shaded car park concealed from the castle by more trees. They all  climbed out of the bus and stood around waiting for some guidance.

Wait a minute. Didn’t I say earlier that the only public access to the castle was by pre-booked tours? Go back and look. I do a search for ‘Castle Drago’ and get side-tracked. There are  two mentions of a text message:

-Its Castle Drago meet me grid ref xxx xxx 10am tomorrow 24th

In the first it arrives on the phone of Lucas, the hero of the book. In the second (which comes after the first in the book but not in the story – are you still with me?) is being sent by Tomas, alias Tarquin,  his colleague. The chronology is wrong. To switch them round would mess up the flow of the story.  How bad is this?

Now I have to explain that a feature of this story is that everything which involves the hero, unless it is one of the flash-backs I have been trying to purge from the manuscript, happens in the present and is written in the present tense. All other action is in the normal past tense. This is how the first entry appears:

‘Something has changed – it could be the opioids, the nicotine or the scent of her hair – whatever it is he feels better. The fear has subsided and he feels a surge of energy. As if in response to a cue his cheap phone buzzes. It’s a message from Tomas:

-Its Castle Drago meet me grid ref xxx xxx 10am tomorrow 24th

He shows it to Marta.’

The second entry  is in the past tense:

‘There was a strong phone signal so he sent a text to Marta:

-It’s Castle Drago. Meet me grid ref xxx xxx. Tomorrow 10am 

To avoid being traced they used cheap PAYG phones and changed them regularly, making sure that each side knew the new numbers.

It buzzed:

Should be OK tomorrow.

A morsel of relief. They were on track.’

I too, the writer and reviser, feel a morsel of relief. This should be OK. Back to the manuscript and the issue of whether people would arrive by car or only by bus. I scroll through page after familiar page, each of which has been read at least 10 times already. It seems OK.

Next problem is this:

“You will have some time to wander around, but please ensure that you are back here before 12:15”

Tomas turned to his companion:

“Listen Jurg – I want to go round at my own pace. What say we meet at the bar around 12?”

“Ja, we have  ‘dogs hair’ no?”

Just fifteen minutes for two confirmed boozers to have a convivial drink? I change it to 11:30. Is that cutting the tour too short? When does the tour start? I only need to go back a few paragraphs to find that it is not specified. Good.

And so it goes on. It’s exhausting but fascinating. I’ll do occasional updates on its progress.

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Seabirds and Potatoes 2: Skomer

      At 3 am the next day, Friday 12 April, I woke with a headache and with the knowledge that I wasn’t going back to sleep – hours of tedium and breakfast in the dark.  I very rarely get headaches and when I do it’s usually dehydration that’s the problem, so I drank plenty of water and substituted instant coffee for my usual espresso type. No change.

       You can’t reserve boat tickets for Skomer and to catch the ten o’clock boat used to mean a two-hour wait at the dock in Martin’s Haven. Now the wait is for the welcome hut and ticket office to open at 8:30. No queues though – the boats only started running a week ago. The ticket office is a 10 minute walk from the camp site, so I take binoculars and my Sony RX10 IV bridge camera, get my ticket – free for us members of the Wildlife Trusts – and set off round the headland again to see if the rising sun has changed the wildlife. It’s cold and I still have a headache. The Choughs are in the same area as yesterday so presumably are nesting nearby. No dolphins, one gannet, no seals, but again hundreds of Greater Black-Backed Gulls drifting past. I’m still puzzled by the numbers.  Somewhere in this area they have a huge food resource, and a part of that has to be the bird colonies  on Skomer and Skoholm. The Guillmots and Razorbills on the cliffs are so densely packed they can quite easily defend their young, and the Manx Shearwaters and Puffins are tunnel nesters. Hm.

       On the boat the man in charge – a Valleys man by his accent – is a joker.

       “I have to apologise for the weather today. It’s not what you expect here.” – it’s flat calm. The usual speech about safety is made memorable by his humour and obvious enjoyment of his job. I’m waiting for a gag about the crotch strap, but it’s all in the best possible taste. He joyfully tells us that the puffins are arriving in good numbers – 500 a day until they reach:

“Thirty thousand and one. If you don’t believe me, count them!”  Here Puffins are flourishing whereas in Scotland they are in steep decline – another puzzle.

       When we arrive at the welcome point, I ask one of the young wardens if, having heard it all many times before, I can skip the lecture but he patiently explains that it’s part of the safety rules. He keeps it brief and instead of immediately heading south for The Wick, which is Puffin Central, I sit down with my flask of coffee and a snack and wait for the others to disperse. I like to be alone so I decide to go to the much less visited north coast – a mistake. It’s still late winter here – no bluebells, no campion, and apart from the odd wheatear, meadow pipit and the ubiquitous gulls, only rabbits – hundreds of them. Of course! They are the missing link in the food chain for the gulls. 

       When, walking anti-clockwise along the cliffs, I reach the west side, the sun has gone, the cold wind is fierce and my burden of cameras, long lens, binoculars, flask, water, lunch, monopod and sundry essentials is making my headache worse. After several false starts I sit down in the lee of a rock only a few yards from the cliff edge to eat my sandwich and drink the rest of my coffee.  Below me is a colony of Auks, and I enjoy watching their constant movements.

       Heading south towards the Puffins I’m feeling better. It’s warmer, and I think I know what’s causing the headaches. I spot a bush alive with recent arrivals: Willow Warblers.

       A few of the first swallows slide up over the cliffs, whisk across the island at ground level and are gone – over the sea to the north. Better still I’ve timed my arrival at Puffin Central perfectly and the crowds have gone.

       Now, to work: I have to get the elusive flight picture. Although Puffins on land have an engaging child-like waddle, they are fast swimmers and even faster fliers. Age has done nothing for my reaction times and it takes dozens of misses before I get something I’m relatively happy with. The pairs have not seen each other since the autumn and I’m delighted to record their greetings, and the gathering of nest material.

       On the way back I spot my first Redstart of the year, and a seal “standing up” in the water and then doing a headstand as if looking for applause from the onlookers.

       It’s a different micro-climate on the way down to the harbour. Below us is a big raft of Puffins, and I’m fascinated to see how they land on the water. Most water birds land feet first, but Puffins make an undignified head-first half-dive.

As we process down the steps to the boat I’m delighted to get some close-ups of Guillemots and Razorbills.

       Happy but feeling strange and exhausted when I get back to the camper, I soon find why I’m getting headaches. I’m four days into a new prescription intended to deal with anxiety and belly-ache, so I look up the side effects: there it is, right at the top – headache. The cure is worse than the disease.


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Seabirds and Potatoes 1: Martin’s Haven

       The headland beyond Martin’s Haven in the far west of Pembrokeshire, is called the Deer Park. There is a stone wall across the isthmus, built  to keep the deer enclosed, but where there was once a tall grand gate there is now an ordinary field gate, just high enough to contain the Black cattle that now graze the peninsula. The deer have long gone.

       Walking straight on, the path leads to  some steps up a steep slope and into a bright sun low in the western sky.

      It is 6:03 pm and normally I would be preparing a meal in the camper which is in its usual place at West Hook Farm camp site. I’m a frequent visitor for the little harbour is where the boats to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm dock. This evening though I want to walk round the peninsula and will eat later. From the campsite there is a footpath winding along the cliff tops, now vivid with a heady alignment of deep yellow gorse and white blackthorn flowering together. The  first bright fresh heads of the Campion which, with Bluebells, will turn Skomer into an undulating sea of blue and pink in a few weeks’ time.

       This is National Trust  land and there is a large car-park. It’s a popular place and the paths round the peninsula are wide and well worn. The crowds of people don’t seem to bother the Choughs, who high-step around the cliff-tops probing with their long scarlet beaks. Only when you are within a few yards do they slide off down the cliff-face calling “chack.”

I walk into the sun along the southern side. A pair of Canada Geese fly inland. Above me and out to sea there is a slow steady movement  eastwards of the  Greater Black Backed gulls which are a constant threat to any unguarded young amongst the big colonies of seabirds – Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Manx Shearwaters – on the two islands. These, the largest of our gulls, are in their spring plumage. Their upper wings and back are a dense glossy black, neatly edged in white, which makes a startling contrast with their white heads and underparts and their bright yellow beaks.

At the point, and to the north there is another steady movement of Herring Gulls in twos and threes, small groups and long lines, some at wave -top, some at cliff-top height. Just to stand here watching the sun sink over Skomer and the gentle drifting movement of the gulls is food for the soul.

       From the look-out hut at the highest point of the peninsula I can see a dark brown field, furrowed like corduroy, and 4 tractors working the furrows. This is where many of the Pembrokeshire new potatoes come from, and they are planting this year’s crop. The fields  may be small and traditional looking but this is a highly mechanised operation using specialist machinery – almost certainly contractors. There’s money in spuds.

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The hidden worlds of nature

They continue to elude me, those hidden worlds, and particularly those of birds. This year’s big resolution was to spend as much time as I could in this locality (the Towy Valley, Carmarthenshire) to really get to know its non-human inhabitants. I now have at least 8 promising sites where I can watch and record, but it’s been cold and wet. I know there is nest building going on, but have only been able to record one pair of dippers carrying nest material. The only mammals I have seen are Fallow Deer and Grey Squirrels.

Today I set up my portable  hide at the Red Kite’s nest site I have been watching for several years. Then I climbed inside, set up the camera and tripod, sat on the uncomfortable little fold-up stool, unzipped a window and looked out at the nest. In the space of 45 minutes the only movement was the piece of frayed orange baler twine hanging from the edge of the nest. Kites like to include bright coloured things in their nests and have been known to steal washing from the line and  pick up bits of plastic. There was one kite around but it kept  out of sight during my stay.

The old bridge on the Towy is another favourite haunt, and on Friday I set up a trail camera where I think there is a Dippers nest. This morning I retrieved it and looked at the images, but the only animate being recorded was – again – a curious squirrel.

Another favourite area has a lake and a few acres of rough  grassland with trees. Another has a lake with a boardwalk all round it and some coppiced woodland nearby. Each had 2 Canada Geese in residence and a few mallards.

Nothing worth photographing, until back home, at the end of the afternoon some Siskins arrived at the bird feeder. They and the goldfinches love the tiny Niger seeds I put out and I got some nice pictures through the window.


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A Difficult Month

At the end of a personally difficult and frustrating month, the weather gets silly. Well, it’s been a silly year in politics so why shouldn’t the weather join in? Does a few days of summer in February tell us anything? Yes I believe it does, but to most of us it’s a welcome break from the rain rather than a frightening indication of what’s to come. I’m almost past caring what happens on Brexit day.  It’s all such a monumental waste of time.

My great camper van project has turned into a long string of monstrous garage charges as more and more things go wrong with the clapped out vehicle I was stupid enough to buy 2 years ago. Now the back doors have  jammed shut. It’s taken 3 weeks to find someone able and willing to sort it out, and I’m still waiting for the parts to arrive.

There were some good things. The snow at the beginning of the month made for some dramatic landscapes further up our valley. This is the Dinas RSPB reserve – where I first made a connection to this area back in the 70s.

Birds are scarce here in the winter, but there is a ravens’ nest high up on the crags. They didn’t seem to be nesting yet at the beginning of the month, but February is when they start so that they can feed their chicks on all the baby birds hatching in April.

At Dinefwr Park the vegetation is at its lowest level and the deer need to be fed. I’ve been monitoring their behaviour, and find quite different patterns from what my reading had led me to expect among wild Fallow deer. In the wild the bucks keep away from the does in winter, but here, although the males stick together, they do also mix with at least some of the does. This is the interesting bit: is there a group of does who keep to the south-western part of the park, the sanctuary area where there is no public access? I’m fairly sure now that there is and that they are more wary of humans than the other group who mix with the bucks and live closer to people. It’s been difficult to get an accurate estimate of the total numbers  in the park, so when I was helping Rhodri with putting feed-beet down for them I took some pictures . This is the only time the entire herd can be seen together and the results were surprising. According to the conservation plan there should be 130 deer. I printed off two pictures in monochrome, divided them into sections and carefully counted each section before adding them up for the total. One picture showed 191, the other 193. This means that there are at least 60 too many deer for the size of the park.

The otters, which had made my spells in the Kingfisher hide so exciting in January, seem to have gone. Apparently this is normal behaviour for otters who live a nomadic life when not breeding. They will spend a week or two in one place and then move on.

We had 5 year old grandson Arthur staying for a week which was quite a challenge! This was at Carreg Cennon Castle where some hot soup put new life into the oldies but was just another game for the youngster.

Another was the Red Kite feeding station at Llandeusant, where his short attention span persuaded me to leave  earlier than I would have wished. I got some good sky pictures but not the dramatic action shots I’d hoped for. I didn’t mind. It was his day and I can always come again.

When the warm weather arrived so did the first bumble bees. I’d bought a book on these amazing creatures so was glad to catch this shot of this Buff Tailed queen on the first spring flowers of the year. The mites are not harmful and are simply hitching a ride.

While the good weather lasted, having worked out that I had enough water in the inaccessible tank at the back of the van, I grabbed a one night trip to the west coast, taking in Ynys-hir, Newport Pembs and Teifi Wetlands. The highlight was an early morning session at the main hide at the Wetlands – this charming dabchick,

and a wonderful sunrise:




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