Monday, 4 June 2012

The Threads of Time by Cally Phillips


A long story... a very long story... settle down for the day! 

What can I say about The Threads of Time?  It was my first novel. Before that it was pitched as a drama series (because that’s what I did back then, I was a screenwriter) for TV. That’s so long ago that the central character Paul was due to be played by a young unknown actor by the name of Ewan McGregor. (So you can keep him in your mind if you like when you read the book!) 

Rainbow in Galloway Forest Park
When I moved from 10 years 'making it' in London back to Scotland and settled in rural Galloway (in 1995) I spent the winter adapting the 4 part series into a novel. And found a specific setting for the story. The Galloway Forest Park. This added another dimension. I knew a ‘real’ place where the fictional events could have happened. It felt like that Golden Rabbit book – if people looked closely enough they could ‘find’ the river, the settlement, the camp. Even if it’s not there now.

I’ll admit I was ambitious (perhaps overly so) in the writing of this novel. I suspect that’s quite usual for first time novelists. I had seven years experience teaching and tutoring ‘classic’ novels under my belt. I didn’t read contemporary literature. So I aimed to write a ‘classic’ novel of a kind. I knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure how I would do it. I wanted to fuse Bronte and Lawrence with Fowles and George Mackay Brown and yet create something uniquely profound. Something that would last. Literary fiction, I suppose.

Structure and style were all important to me. I wanted it to fit into the ‘classic’ three part novel of the mid 19th century (then perceived by me as the apogee of the form) but I wanted to do more. To put some kind of modern twist to it. And yet, to write about the past.  As I said, writing a first novel, I was ambitious and ignorant of the difficulties.

Bruce's Stone in the Galloway Forest Park. 
I read fast. So fast that I don’t pay a lot of attention to the minutiae of punctuation. And some rules I just didn’t recognise (screenwriting requires quite different writing skill sets) and the novel suffered (if you look at those things) from being written by a screenwriter suspicious of descriptive prose and unaware of the conventions of speech marks. I didn’t get an editor involved, I thought that would happen when (if) it got taken on by a publisher. My agent strictly did screenwriting so I didn’t have an obvious channel, and I assumed you went to a publisher.  Through 1996-7-8 I sent it out to publishers and then agents. I’m afraid I can’t remember the responses I got, but they obviously weren’t encouraging were they? No one took it on.  All the ‘good’ people turned it down. In 1999 (a year I was getting quite some success both in the spheres of screen and stage) I got an ‘acceptance’ from a publishing company in America. And got very excited until it subsequently became clear that this was vanity publishing. I didn’t bite. But it was disappointing enough for me to put the manuscript aside and get on with the writing that was earning me money. This seeded an idea in my mind though. There could be another way.
There's always a choice of ways
If you look hard enough... 

Fast forward to 2003. I was working as dramatist/writer in residence for Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association and part of my job was to encourage writers. Self-publishing/vanity publishing was an issue (then as now) and I decided to ‘explore’ it.  I researched it with the meticulous obsession that those of you who know me even virtually will probably recognise as a trait, and decided I could DO this myself. 

While I cannot draw (even stick men) due to an adolescence spent skiving art classes from the age of 12, (though I never missed a Latin lesson!) and while to some extent I write because I can’t draw, I had designed several covers which had been used commercially for stage and screen works previously and I had a strong idea for the cover. So I felt comfortable in cover design.

What I didn’t think to do was ‘edit’ it.  I’m not sure I knew what ‘copyediting’ actually meant.  I remember the printers sending galley proofs. I was impatient and rushed through. I was looking at howling typesetting errors rather than anything more detailed. Proof reading wasn’t one of my priorities. I just wanted to see this thing in print some seven years after writing (some ten years after conception).Creatively I think I have a low boredom threshold, I like to be moving forward, creating new work, and one of the things I hated about my ‘career’ as a writer was how long everything took to realise (and in the case of screenwriting, mostly you get paid for work that never gets realised).

And I was at a turning point then, where every day I was working creatively and tangibly achieving creative things and I just wanted this ‘old’ novel out of my hair.  It was an ‘experiment’ in publishing rather than anything else. Oh, and a gesture to say to the world – you know, you can’t tell me I can’t do this. I can. I can do whatever I like. If I want to publish, I can do it. 
This may seem ridiculously obvious to people now, when all you have to do is gain some formatting knowhow and click to publish, but nearly ten years ago, the idea that an individual would publish was somehow… well.. against the natural order of things. And I felt that was a ‘political’ issue to some extent. Don’t get me started on cultural politics…

It certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest locally. People came heavily down on one side or the other. Many were sniffy that this was ‘vanity’ publishing. Others had their eyes opened to the fact that creativity is not an elitist thing, that you don’t have to sit back, wait, wait, wait and play by rules which will never allow you to share your creativity, however good it is, because the ‘market’ rules. So I struck a blow for cultural freedom and in doing so hoped to lay to rest something which I thought I knew was good, but couldn’t get any mainstream interest in. And wasn’t prepared to waste any more of my life trying to get the business world of publishing interested in.

My experience as a working screenwriter told me that in order to have any ‘success’ in creative fields you really have to embed yourself, embrace the whole business side of it and generally go to the parties, the meetings, prostrating and genuflecting yourself  when necessary and never being ‘difficult’ (though if you read Threads, you’ll understand why I couldn’t go along with this – like Paul most of the time I feel like there are ‘rules’ which no one explained to me and so I end up being seen as ‘difficult’ when I’m just being ‘me.’ I’m not rude. I’m always enthusiastic, I meet deadlines, I try to help other people and I believe in working for the common good. Why would I be seen as difficult?)  I guess you’ll understand that prostrating and genuflection are not high on my list of talents. I can be polite. I suspect I may not ‘suffer fools gladly’ and I always call a spade a bloody shovel. But I try to be open and honest and live by my principles. These are usually at odds with cultural elites/politics and all that jazz…

By 2003 I had had a taste of the ‘other’ world of creativity. The one where you JUST DID IT. I had set up Bamboo Grove Theatre Company   where we just did sketches, monologues and plays. Without needing approval of funders or regulatory bodies or creative quango’s. We just DID IT.  I was moving from a view of the world which embraced mainstream theatre to one which embraced Boalian dramatic method and process. I was shifting ground from traditional screenwriting towards making short films myself (using the ‘new’ digital technology. I was learning to edit on Avid and Adobe. I didn’t have time to fight with publishers or to copyedit old work! I thought. So I published.  Self published. But I don’t believe it was vanity.

Of course I never ‘made it big’ with the novel. I didn’t really try to. I just sold copies when and where I could. Initially I refused to cow tow to the realities of publishing and sell it to local bookshops at 40% discount. (There’s that cultural politics shoulder chip again). I put it sale or return in some local outlets (the museum, the film centre) but I didn’t actually do much after the launch. It took me seven years to think about trying to get copies into the visitor centres at the Galloway Forest Park for heaven’s sakes!  Primarily I used it as a means of showing people that you ‘can’ just do it. There is an alternative way. But I always stressed that if you take such an action you have to bear the consequences. If self (or indie) publishing you have to be prepared to put the work into marketing if you want it to sell.  I was usually too busy to do that.  And I was moving on. I didn’t have time to write another novel, I was too busy being actively creative in drama after all.


I didn’t write another ‘novel’ till 2007 and that was actually an online serial blog experiment rather than a conventional novel, initially titled Otro Mundo es Posible (Another World is Possible) which is a quote from Che Guevara, the inspiration for the project and the silent driving force behind the narrative. That was published by YouWriteOn in 2008 but wasn’t the end result wasn't big enough (or clever enough) to really satisfy me. It did show me how the self-publishing world was evolving though. I was still on the journey. Another World is now in the process of being re-worked as part of a trilogy (in four parts) and next year will re-emerge as part of a more coherent (though frighteningly dissociated) whole.

Meanwhile, I have lived. I have learned.  About the process of ‘working’ on a novel. Not just planning, structuring and then writing furiously, but about actually allowing the process to unfold properly, in its own time. I learned this with my third novel Brand Loyalty.This again started as a TV series (for Channel 4 but they thought it too ‘depressing a view of the world’ in the early 1990’s.) I got editorial feedback on this novel and learned the errors of my punctuation ways from The Threads. It's much easier on the eye - if not the mind. 

So now The Threads of Time is back. When editing it I faced a problem. Going through the punctuation errors was like a torture, (penance for all that truanting from school)  but it certainly taught me my lesson and if there are still errors there, they are typos nothing more. Mistakes not errors. I apologise for them but I’m not perfect and I’m still somewhat impatient when it comes to these matters. But more than that, there were quite a lot of issues which, if I changed or ‘corrected’ them, might impact on the sense of the novel, so I took the decision to ‘conserve’ rather than ‘rebuild’ or ‘restore’ the novel – keeping true to the aims I had when originally structuring and when attempting to do the clever (maybe too clever) stylistic elements. I was struggling to find a way to draw the reader right into the mind of the character and this meant not writing clean descriptive prose a lot of the time.  Writing thought not speech. Getting the two mixed up. I could do it better today, but I think it’s more honest to leave it as it was. Not to write ANOTHER Threads of Time.

Feedback I’ve had recently from writers I respect has told me that the ‘clever’ elements actually are a strength of the novel:

The arc from Paul’s infatuation with Diane to the beginning of their burgeoning relationship is traced with excruciating, exquisite detail; the passages of prose take on a mounting, electrical erotic charge as Paul moves forward towards his goal. As fixation develops into love there are moments of union when time, for the couple, seems to stop, and they exist on the edge of the revelatory. The fact that the reader is somehow allowed to tangibly share in those moments speaks of the book’s great descriptive power.  (John A.A.Logan, author of The Survival of Thomas Ford)

two distinct writing styles for the past and present sections of the novel makes the past seem so real there is almost a jolt of dissatisfaction when Paul ‘returns’ to the present with its petty jealousies, commercialism and dishonesty. (Mary Smith, author of No More Mulberries)

And so I’m prepared to allow its imperfections to stand rather than try to change them and in doing so lose the depth of this quality. It’s too long ago. It’s a first novel. I need to move on. But you, approaching it for the first time as reader, are experiencing it for the first time. We see it from totally different perspectives. I accept that. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you can see what’s good, excuse what’s weak in the face of understanding that I was trying to do something quite difficult, and that it was a stage in my writing journey. I don’t believe I was a ‘novelist’ in 1996 when I wrote this, or even in 2003 when I first published it. I now believe I am a novelist and am looking forward to releasing my four part trilogy IN THREE MINDS next year to prove it.  I feel like I’ve come a long way. But I feel like I’ve come home. The Threads of Time was trying to say something quite profound about the nature of people and reality. It’s taught me a quite profound lesson in the process.

And TODAY The Threads of Time is available for free (just for today) on Amazon UK and Amazon US   If you want to find out more (surely you've had enough...) click HERE 


7 comments:

Simon Cheshire said...

I think your point about having to "embed yourself" hits the nail on the head. I've always found that aspect of jobs like ours positively soul-destroying, and the ones who get labelled 'difficult' tend to be the ones with the sharpest ideas.

Lee said...

My humble advice to any writer: avoid profundity. It's only there where you don't look for it.

Kathleen Jones said...

Go for it Cally! Passion is the basic ingredient!

julia jones said...

Perhaps losing the stigma of vanity publishing is like losing the stigma of having children without being married. Earlier in my rather conventional life that would have been an issue. Now, it isn't. So - progress has been made.

Rosalie Warren said...

Delighted to see that The Threads of Time is now available for Kindle. Have just downloaded and am looking forward to reading it soon. I loved 'Brand Loyalty', 'Another World is Possible' and 'Voices in ma heid', so I'm hopeful!

John A. A. Logan said...

There have been documentaries on "punk music" quite a lot on TV lately. That late-1970s dissatisfaction with the music industry status quo, and people wanting to do it for themselves. THE THREADS OF TIME is a beautiful, unforgettable novel.

Dan Holloway said...

I very much sympathise with writing because one can't draw. Art is almost my first love more than literature but I can barely hold a pencil.
Keep sticking it to them!