Threads and Tangles
Everything is wet, everything is fresh and green, new and spring-like until, almost overnight, summer arrives. And she arrives with the subtlety of someone snatching you off the street, fully-clothed, and throwing you into a sauna. The mountain greening is complete, the summer bleaching coming.
The valley in which Grenoble and Echirolles sit holds the heat and maintains the humidity. The pollution builds up here in summer, nowhere near as much as it did in Chiang Mai, but it is noticeable. Mountains are hidden, disappearing behind greying air, the blue leaching from the sky day by day, only to suddenly reappear, cleaned and fresh after a thunderstorm, as though someone has restored the painting. The air is close and full of energy.
It is no wonder people leave the city for the coast or the mountains in summer. We shall be doing both.
Outside the window the blackcap has started to sing once more, joined by the never-ceasing serin, the great tit, blackbird, sparrow, and collared dove. Sometimes, there are others, such as the black kite I witnessed almost crashing to the ground, mobbed by crows, twirling and dropping to escape. We have been visited by a kestrel, a sparrowhawk, a buzzard and my current favourite — the crested tit, punklike, carrying considerable attitude in a tiny frame.
The scent of roses and peonies rises to my floor, my side of the house cooler than the other in the mornings, the air still relatively fresh. I cannot wait for the scent of the mountainside in the morning, or the taste of salt on my lips once more, the wind from the Mediterranean almost ever-present, reminding me of home, whatever that means.
Each day, each month, season, and year creates a new tale of its own. There are always similarities with the previous chapters, but as time moves on, so does the story. Those robins nest in a different place, meaning their previous location is now available for the blackbird. That cherry tree is damaged by a late cold snap, encouraged to sleep longer, opening tentative leaves in the middle of June, long after the other two. This means the birds on the feeder are far easier to view. Covid means the shrubs and plants have been allowed to grow longer, wilder, more bushy along the pathways. This gives the birds and other animals more food, more shelter, more room to nest and nurture.
Every day, a different story. Every year, different.
Now, look at your own location and time, and consider the variables. A vast and incomprehensible web begins to appear, with one strand leading to another, one branch taking it in an entirely different direction. Too often, we forget this. Stories of scale are difficult to comprehend, how one action on another side of the world has a direct effect in your own back garden.
We can only control tiny portions of this story, so much is out of our hands — yet it is this very act of accepting we are unable to write the whole which means the tale itself can flourish.
Fill the bird feeders. Leave out water on hot days, or everyday. Let a patch of your garden grow wild. Pick up that litter. Choose plastic-free alternatives. There are other actions we can take, each certainly worthwhile but, perhaps most of all, we need to share the differences in our stories with one another — and rejoice in them. We need to show that, by acting individually, we can absolutely change things but, by working together, we can set the world itself on a different, better path.
That’s why we tell the tales, for communication is key; communication is telling stories, of course it is, but it is also learning when to be quiet and simply listen. Nature has much to share.
Last month was busy playing catch-up, after essentially losing a week’s work to migraines. June, however, has been exceedingly productive, with several projects nearing completion (or already finished).
As this newsletter nears the 500 subscribers mark, I think this might be a good opportunity to take stock, introduce myself, to look at where I am in my Plan with a capital P, and to explain, as briefly as I can, this plan to those of you who are new. More on this below.
Hello new friends and old, I’m Alex, I write things. I watch people and study places, absorbing the details of the nature and culture around me, asking questions of everything, then turning my discoveries into fiction and non-fiction both.
Seven basic things about me:
1) I was born in Lincolnshire (England, UK), in the north of the county. At the time it was called South Humberside, now a name relegated to history, but it has been Lincolnshire for far longer than a county border change.
2) I moved to Orkney (Scotland, UK) when I was small (or peedie, in Orcadian), living in Stromness, Stenness, and Deerness. I stayed there until I was 18 and the salt and the wind found their way into my system, latching themselves firmly to my DNA. Islands are special to me still and I always find myself at home on them, as I do by the sea or wherever the wind blows strongly. I consider myself Scottish and European — and neither British, nor English.
3) I have always been a writer, for as long as I recall. For a long time, however, I did not know this and told people who asked that I wanted to be a writer. Which is factually incorrect, seeing as I wrote, lots, already. To be a writer, you write.
4) I have been learning everything I can about nature all my life. I view the study of bushcraft skills as a part of this. It’s not the gung ho ‘survival’ skills that some would have you believe, but it’s about knowing the natural world, and how to live within it.
5) I left behind my sensible civil service job over a decade ago, initially to go live alone in wilder places for several months, testing my bushcraft skills, gathering food, building a shelter, and learning as much about myself and what I wanted in life as I could. And yes, I can light fires with sticks.
6) In my late 30s I began to concentrate on fulfilling certain goals which still needed considerable work. One of these was to see more of the world — I set a target and saw the dawn of my 40th birthday somewhere high above the jungle of Burma. Over four years later and I’ve not lived in the UK since. There’s a big old world out there. I am currently based in France, but at some point, when travel is safer, I will be elsewhere once again.
7) Although I have some issues with them, and labelling in general, every time I take a Myers-Briggs test, I end up with INFJ. I am also an AB- blood type, which I guess makes me rather rare. (NOTE: we’re all rare — don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t, there’s only one of you.)
This month the first novella in The Tales of the Lesser Evil — Only One Death — is a part of the Summer Book Bash at Bookcave. You can download it, and over forty other books for free. There’s also the chance to win $25 book vouchers, so do please have a look.
In the coming months, there will be considerable opportunities for free or review copies, as I release several new books, so do please keep your eyes open!
Instead of listing the books I’ve read of late, this is a small paragraph to suggest/recommend a book to you all. Ever since I first read it, The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, has been a favourite. I have talked about this before, in a newsletter entitled ‘On Books’, sent when I was still on Substack (which will soon be available to read again on my own site). This is what I said then:
The Summer Book — A book I return to over and over. Deceptively simple, but devastatingly effective, full of wit, joy, truth and everything that makes us real. At its heart, this is a tale of a young girl and her Grandmother spending the summer together on a tiny island in the Swedish archipelago — which vastly oversimplifies everything and nothing. The translation is wonderful (I have a very healthy respect for those involved in translation, an art all of its own) and Jansson’s voice shines through (in my experience with other Scandinavian writers, and people I’ve met, their relationship with The Nature is of an importance we in the UK have mostly lost, and this is most definitely the case with this book, nature is a powerful character here). If you have ever read any of the Moomin tales and wondered about certain lines or ideas, knowing they carry much more than their immediate message, then The Summer Book is for you. The Moomin tales are also highly recommended, especially those later in the series, Moominland Midwinter and Moominvalley in November being my favourites. There is much wisdom in the words of Tove Jansson and I will be eternally grateful to my sister, Lydia, for sharing her joy of The Summer Book.
I am reading this again, now, at the start of summer, as I often do. This is (I think) my eleventh reading and, each time I do read it, I discover something new. There is much to say about this book but, perhaps, the best thing to do is simply suggest you track it down and have a read yourself. It captures the season perfectly, and it also captures the stories within every life, all those little choices and mysteries which make us who we are.
Writing (and Planning)
When I began to consider how to make and reach a decent living out of my writing, I sat down* and planned things out very carefully. There were steps and stages to reach, plots on a graph or coordinates on a map, each requiring other things to be done first, plateaus to reach, mountain passes to traverse. I knew from the outset this was a long game.
I knew I wanted to make the best use of more modern ways of being a fiction writer available to me. I didn’t want to simply finish stories and send them away to agents or publishers — that made no sense to me in today’s environment. Instead, I knew the best option is to follow the route of the hybrid author, which is not as science fiction-y as it sounds, simply meaning being both an indie publisher and a traditionally published author.
This decision was simple for several reasons.
For example, my work splits itself neatly into several different categories — there is the non-fiction, often deeply personal, nature writing. Then there is the fiction, which is itself split between projects planned and currently being realised. One of these projects, The Lesser Evil, is essentially a work of fantasy, as many of you will know, having downloaded Only One Death for free, or perhaps bought or read one of my other stories.
The Lesser Evil is outlined and planned as follows. First, I am releasing four stories, varying between novella and novel length. So far, Only One Death (OOD), and Death and Taxes (DAT) have been released in English (and Une Seule Mort in French). Each of these four stories, if you own them, contains a link to a further, free tale, varying between novelette and novella length. So far, that is Dust and Death (DAD), and A Clean Death (ACD), respectively.
This makes for a total of eight works in The Tales of The Lesser Evil.
Death in Harmony (DIH) will be the next novel published. It has a bonus tale too, tentatively entitled Dance of Death (DOD), but that’s not set in stone, nor print. These will be released imminently.
Each of the four (+ bonus link) will be available individually as ebooks, on a wide distribution (i.e. not just on Amazon, but elsewhere too, in .epub format) and for a very low price (or free, as mentioned).
There will also be print copies (coming very, very soon!) available. Unlike the ebooks, these will not be the individual novellas or novels, but anthologies. The first four stories (OOD, DAT, DAD, ACD) will be in one volume. The next two (DIH, DOD) will be in another, and the final two will be in a third. Each anthology will be around the 80k word mark.
These anthologies will also be made available as ebooks.
This means, for the eight novels/novellas of the Tales of the Lesser Evil, there will be one permanently free product (OOD), four bonus, free products in exchange for an email address (DAD, ACD, DOD, +1 other), three paid print products, and six paid ebooks (three individual stories plus three anthologies).
There will also be French translations of all the above and, at some point, there may well also be audiobooks (and, yes, probably French audiobooks at some time in the future, too). With me so far?
This is only one segment of the plan. Just the start.
Once these Tales are released (English versions, up to and including the anthologies/print copies), I turn my attentions to The Greater Good. This is a series of novels which I have been working on for some years, the first of which is entitled The Care Industry. Unlike The Lesser Evil, these novels are set firmly in our world and, for the first two in the series, in our time. The series are related in some ways, especially through themes and ideas and, in others, they are utterly separate.
Crucially, unlike The Lesser Evil, I intend to send these to agents, rather than independently publish them. I think The Greater Good fits better with an agent/traditional publishing house, rather than the route I have taken for the The Lesser Evil.
The Care Industry has already been written and already mostly edited — although that was some years ago and, quite frankly and honestly, I am a much better writer now. As such, it will be revisited with a heavy, comprehensive edit, then sent to my Alpha Reading Squad, before more polishing and then on to the agents I have already identified as perhaps best for the series.
Throughout this period, The Tales of The Lesser Evil will continue to be marketed and sold. I have some plans for this too, which I will no doubt discuss in the near future, as I keep sharing news here and on my soon-to-be-relaunched website.
After The Care Industry is out and about, waiting for an agent to like it and sign me,** I will return to The Lesser Evil to plan the next novels.
There will be three, a classic fantasy trilogy, with rather a high number of words per volume. I already know big chunks of the story, including the ending and, if you have any of the published Tales, then you will have read certain hints and clues and cunningly hidden secrets there… You will also have met many of the characters who comprise the primary cast of the novels.
Readers of this trilogy, The Lesser Evil (not Tales of…), do not need to have read the preceding novels, novellas and novelettes, but the plan is they will want to. Have you ever read a book and wished you knew more about the origins of a character? Or wondered when two others met? Or how, exactly, did she get so damned good with a knife? These are the sorts of questions I have pre-emptively answered with The Tales of The Lesser Evil. Essentially, they add value and, of course, the idea is they add more money to my proverbial coffers. (EDIT, please note, I have no coffers.)
After planning and outlining, I shall begin with some drafts of sections of these, before returning to The Greater Good, and the second novel in the series, The Town at the End of the World. Again, much of this is already crafted, but it will need more editing and more polishing. Once it is ready, I will begin the full draft of the first novel of The Lesser Evil (no working title as yet and, as I’ve mentioned before, it will NOT be three words, with ‘death’ as one of them! By then, that will have been done to death. Sorry for the terrible pun.).
At some, unknown, point, I suspect I will take a break from the fiction and draft my nature book. I have sketches and notes and drafts of parts of this, and I have a good idea of how I want it to look. It is different to much of the other nature writing out there. I have yet to decide what to do with it and, I suspect, much of that choice will depend on The Greater Good, and how well that is received. Time will tell. (If I could, I’d love to include some of the photos of the natural world I have taken over the years. It seems a shame to waste them. But perhaps that will be another, further project?)
I will curtail this section here, rather than listing all the books of The Greater Good, or the ideas I have for a further fantasy trilogy, for example. I do have them planned, but I am guessing when it comes to my sharing this with you, you may have reached the point of exhaustion already! Thanks for staying with me.
* At this point of my life, I was still sitting down to work — now I stand all day and feel a million times better for it.
** (I’m fully aware the process of finding an agent could take some time, or it might not. Who knows? I am quietly confident it WILL happen, however. It took me a long time to be able to say it, but I know my stories are good, and my craft only continues to improve.)
Much of the above may be a recap for regular readers, but I thought it useful nevertheless. Until Revue provide a method of importing/transferring my newsletters from Substack, it seemed wise to share this here.
My website, notatravelwriter.com will be going live soon, with a new look and new posts, including the entire back catalogue of Substack posts and also these more recent Revue issues. As it stands, I am in danger of actually hitting June’s targets and completing all I intended to do this month, including launching the site.
I have quite a lot of personal news to share soon, too, for those of you who enjoy that sort of thing. Watch this space…
It is usually at this point that I try and draw the whole together, tie up and conclude my newsletters in a neat fashion, adding a fancy ribbon or bow. However, as I have edited this down considerably, I’m unsure whether the theme still works?
Everybody has a starring role in their life. Everybody is the lead character, supported by a wide and varied cast, some family, some friends, the occasional rival or enemy. We all have an opportunity to choose our direction, if we wish to, although it is disingenuous to not mention this is considerably easier for certain groups than others.
Our stories are all important. Every moment of every life, how they interact and weave together, how one person can turn the direction of their life and those around them in but a single heartbeat.
Too often, it is the voices of despair and misery which are loudest. This is simply human nature; we as a species love a good disaster or opportunity to be glad it is not us suffering. However, as the distances between our cultures and nations shrink, as our ability to travel anywhere on earth within a span of time measurable in hours grows, then it is natural boundaries begin to be tested.
For the first time in our collective history, we can hear the stories of others if we want to and, crucially and critically, if we do not. This means we can no longer ignore those tales, those lives, as we once could. True, there are those who do not care, those who go out of their way to denounce difference and reject cooperation, and they can shout and rail and scream as much as they like, but it no longer really matters.
Change is coming, big change. There is no escaping that, the balance is shifting. Our stories swirl together more and more, threads tangling and pulling in new directions — and do not believe it will definitely end in a dystopian hellscape, there is a decent chance a protopia beckons. Why not? We, as a species, can dream big.
We all need to pay attention, we all need to realise we can make a difference, because all of our stories matter. Let’s keep talking to each other — and let’s keep listening.
The photos this time are mostly of the process of mapmaking, all taken by me, with the exception of the photo at the very start — this was sneakily snapped by Aurélie! I quite like it.