I find the relatively brief walk to the micro-crèche a welcome break in my day, just getting outside helps and the views of the snow-capped peaks are all kinds of wonderful too (more of which later). Then there are the little things, here is a dunnock, always strutting through the same territory, there shelters a black redstart, seemingly a little ahead of time, unless it has wintered here. The crows always fly overhead at dusk, heading for their roost, looking down on their namesake-cousin. It is good to get outside, to see and feel those first tingling inklings of spring.
For Christmas, one of the gifts Aurélie gave me is a 3d wall map of the surrounding area, the Vercors, Chartreuse, and Belledonne, a gift which really brings this corner of the world to life. This is a 4d landscape. Everywhere is up or down, deep, deep down in some cases — they still discover new-to-our-generation caves around here all the time, often full of the bones of woolly rhinos, reindeer, aurochs, the occasional cave lion and, sometimes, traces of our ancestors too — but this is also a landscape of time.
You cannot escape this. The very folds of the earth are visible, the peaks and cliffs cracking and shattering every winter, the cuts and carvings of vast glaciers and immense rivers of old, the moraine, the esker, the arête, drumlin and roche moutonnée, all here, all those terms I learnt at school. Wear and tear are everywhere.
We as a species do not do well with understanding or accepting time. Our lifetimes are nothing compared to the generations before us, the thousands of years of Homo sapiens nothing beside our hominid ancestors and, of course, mammals themselves are barely a blink of an eye in geological time.
We cannot think far ahead, in general, as we cannot see far behind. Look at your smartphone — and I am guessing the vast majority of you have one — and remember that the first iPhone came out less than fifteen years ago.
We live in tiny slivers of time, but often we do not even realise it.
I could digress here, talk of how this issue is central to problems in democracy and governance, for example, but instead I shall curb that desire, try and move along.
This inability to think further out into the future is something innate, something biological. We are a species like any other and, like any other, we have very basic needs. Once these are filled, it only then that we start to do the remarkable things humankind is known for.
We create, we laugh, and dance and sing. We tell stories and listen to others, we paint the walls of caves or admire moving pixel portraits in the games we play. We look at issues in different ways and, of course, consider our present — what would make it better, what would make us happier?
This is the real reason why the powers that be do not reduce poverty, hunger, sickness, suffering and pain, as they could. As they easily could. A populace with more time on their hands will demand change — keep them exhausted, keep them hungry, and they will continue to play the game set by those who have inherited power. When I was younger, these thoughts would sadden me but, increasingly, I consider it just as likely that change for the better is inevitable.
This is a common theme of this newsletter — I do not wish to hide the suffering, or neglect to mention it but, likewise, I believe it important to point out that there is hope and, especially, what I think of as active hope. Idle ‘I wish’ doesn’t cut it — but ‘I see this thing, now what can I do to make it better’ does.
I am actively hopeful that the coming generations (even our current ones) will be the generations who change all, who realise just because different tribes hold different views doesn’t mean we have to destroy one another, but instead we can build, forward together.
If we are to push forward in time in a way which will ensure the survival of our species, we need to listen to every voice, and we need to hear the stories they tell. Stories which might seem far-fetched now very quickly become the mundane, just remember those slivers of time, just remember how swiftly we accept things — remember the iPhone.
Stories are the key to immortality; why not imagine and share them as only we can — lest we get worn away by time, far swifter than those mountains I see every day.
At the time of editing, this newsletter is already two days later than planned. It is also substantially longer than it was originally, with what amounts to two connected mini essays, as well as snippets of news and group promotion goodies. As such, let’s swiftly move along…
This month I am participating in three group promotions, over at StoryOrigin.
Only One Death is part of Tales of Suspense, a giveaway promotion full of books from several different genres, such as horror, fantasy, thrillers, all linked by, as the name suggests, suspense. As this is a multi-genre giveaway, there are many books here I have not personally seen before, so do have a look!
For February, Death In Harmony, currently only available on Amazon, is a part of two Kindle Unlimited promotions.
Brief News Snippets
I have a new (or, technically, very old, repurposed) Twitter account. My normal account, @AlexanderMCrow will continue to be used, and be the place I post all those usual twitter things, from a wide range of topics. The new one, @AMCStories, will be, as the name suggests, a place for sharing news about my fiction, for sharing book promotions and all those other things I really should do more of. I’ll also be retweeting personal and interesting tweets from my normal account, but avoiding any retweets of eg politics or current events.
It has been a fun process, choosing words and phrases to mute for that account. Gone is Boris Johnson, Brexit has disappeared, the orange T word non-existent. This is strangely liberating and, even with my currently only following a bare handful of people, the account feed is a happier place.
One reason I haven’t promoted things as much as I should (remember when I said how bad I am at marketing? This is a prime example), is that I still harbour that annoying sense of not wanting to irritate people with too many retweets of book promos etc. Hence the new account — you follow @AMCStories, you know it will be all book things — my books, and those of others. Find me and say hi, if you wish, it’s a little sparse and lonely there at present, but there’ll be more posted soon.
By the time the next newsletter comes out in March, we should have the keys to our new home (EDIT: ‘hopefully…’). There will still be much to do, such as cleaning and decorating, moving in, etcetera, but we are hopeful it won’t take too long. It will be very good indeed, to be out in the countryside again, woodland and mountain in every direction: 88.5% of the commune/county is wooded, perfect for exploring, for nature, and for adventuring with Ailsa.
The mountain/massif which I imagine will feature heavily in the coming few years, being the one upon whose lower slopes we shall live, is Le Taillefer, which at 2857 metres (9373 feet) tall, is a decent peak, if not a giant. By prominence (1487 metres), however, it is number 14 in France and number 45 in the Alps as a whole. I look forward to getting to know it.
I still haven’t replied to every email I want to. I also haven’t done as much writing or, more pertinently, fiction writing, as I’d like. Still, even when I don’t seem to have the time to do these things, I do still make progress. I keep notes, I think, I take more notes.
Sometimes, some of my best work has come from what might outwardly appear a fallow time, when no new words are being crafted, or no edits are done. These thoughts and notes are crucial to the forward momentum of writing — the thoughts alone are not enough, the act of writing them down not only ensures they won’t disappear, but it also helps clarify and aid in the creative process.
One thing I have realised, even before I begin the editing process for The Care Industry, is that it will need a complete rewrite to bring it to a publisher-friendly length. I did a quick check, and the first half of the novel currently stands at 105k words. That’s just the first half — I didn’t bother with checking the second, as I know it is a similar length. Fantasy novels often run large, but I know that it is a waste of time to send a 200k-250k word first novel in a series to an agent. Better to reconsider — and reconsider I have.
The Care Industry has several point of view (POV) characters, each POV adding something to the story, a different way at looking at the whole. However, each obviously adds extra words. There are also a number of moments where characters or events which appear in the novel to follow, The Town at the End of the World, are encountered or referenced. I suspect this is the best way to go with excising those excess POV characters. I will not be removing their story from the whole — each is crucial to the series, after all, but what I shall do is remove their POV from this book, and bring it back in another book (especially the fourth and fifth).
This series of novels will already be a hard sell — I know that (any series of books is a very hard sell, especially at this point in time) — but this should help a little. I have spoken before of my writing plans, and how important it is to have them — and it is also crucial to be able to alter those plans without altering potential outcomes. Having backup ideas and options, as I do, means I remove much of the stress of ‘what if?’. Remove that, and the stories move in the right direction. It’s definitely worth taking the time to have options — too many people only think to the next step, when it is wiser to be always thinking ahead, ready to roll with the punches, duck, weave, and move onward, best foot forward.
Still, although this period of notes and thoughts is very helpful and productive in its own way, I can’t wait to be able to have a little more time to push things forward with the actual words once more. Soon.
This morning I received my third dose of Pfizer. As I walked to the local pharmacy I considered this newsletter, at this point in time a sprawling mess of notes, snatches, phrases and words I wanted to share with you, a jigsaw as yet only pieced together hither and thither — this is the norm for my newsletters, they are notes and then scribbles, long before they become something intelligible.
This is my 44th newsletter — which I consider a good number and an achievement I am quietly proud of. Anything which is a multiple of 11 is a number I like, 11 being my birthdate. 44 is also twice 22, our current year (in the calendar we use here in France, at least). 44 is my current age, and all these things combine to seem like they may be Something. What, I am as yet unsure. I find numbers fascinating, rather like Jack Reacher, only without that ridiculous memory and association of his. If nothing else, it is a pretty pattern.
Aurélie and I have been playing a game with licence plates for over three years now. We started counting at 1, or, more accurately, 01, and are currently searching for 450 (EDIT: 451). Portugal was not good for this game — the licence plates there are nearly all in double figures — but France is good, as was Thailand, both with three numbers. Modern UK plates are awful, unless it is to commence play.
As we travel, whether from France to Portugal, or from the UK to France, or simply to a supermarket or to head up a mountain to the snow, we look at passing numbers. This teaches a lot — it shows patterns, seemingly spun out of nothing, certain numbers remind us all of other things, such as 555 always making us smile (and all those who have lived in Thailand, I guess — the number 5 is pronounced ‘ha’, and 555 is used as shorthand for, yes, ha ha ha. Not long after we started the game, we saw a UK plate with the personalised plate 555 LOL, which made us both LOL).
Ripples and flow is another thing this game teaches — we can go weeks without seeing our number, then six consecutive numbers in one day, or five of the same, previously elusive, number. Jungian synchronicity? Patterns present themselves, if only we take the time to watch.
This is the same in nature — as I’m sure regular readers guessed this section would go. Everywhere you look, or listen, or smell, or touch, there are patterns. There are numbers too, hidden fractals and fractions, things which are at once mathematic, scientific and magic.
Just because we can explain with science why a certain flower has seven petals, or a tree has buds opposite one another, pair after pair — it does not make it any less magical. Talk to any scientist and you’ll very quickly see the same passion as an alchemist of old, or that slightly strange and wonderful wizard in their tower (despite what you read, towers are NOT a good place for wizards and/or witches, the fire risk from lots of flammable materials, especially books and scrolls, coupled with a chimney-like nature of the structure makes their work far too dangerous, something Alix E. Harrow added to The Once and Future Witches).
Magic is all around us, if only we look. We are told and taught from a young age to focus on certain tasks — this school test, that exam, that professional qualification. Always one after another, with little end in sight. Or we have to look carefully at the ever-increasing price of living, consider how best to afford things when we are kept in thrall by every-richer corporations and the governments in their pocket.
These things are life, of course they are — and I’m not saying don’t do them, quite the opposite, actually. What I am saying is widen your gaze, look from side to side and behind you as you travel through your time. Always reconsider your path, while examining all those minutiae I mentioned in my previous letter, and keeping a weather eye on the bigger picture too.
Take everything in. And record it. Whether a moment seared in your memory, so powerful was the event, or in a journal, the very act of writing acting as a glue to that thought, something which anchors it in your mind.
The patterns teach us much. The numbers likewise. It is a gift, to be alive and capable of such things, a gift to be able to pass through the years and see where we can help make the world a little better — a kind word here, a collected scrap of plastic there. Change — real, species-wide change — is inevitable in the coming years. What direction it will take remains unknown, of course it does and, for the sake of this section, the outcome is irrelevant.
Often, you will see people tweeting how it doesn’t matter if we all switch to only buying local fresh fruit and veg, or we take metal straws with us everywhere, use public transport wherever possible — the giant corporations will still ruin the earth. These people are right in many ways, but the danger of such a pronouncement is that it makes many people think, why bother at all?
I would gently suggest we all bother. Every time you collect that item of rubbish you find in the woods, or every time you check whether your apple came from fifty or five thousand miles away, you need to remember you are doing it not only for future generations, your family, and your friends — you are also doing it for yourself.
This is a key and crucial point, and one which seems to be rarely mentioned. If enough of us create a pattern, a swirl of idea through a populace, it will spiral outwards, intersecting with, for example, the corporate world — just look at those eco-businesses which spring up to fill gaps, or, more cynically, look at those established names who greenwash their products, desperate to take a slice of the market.
The crux of this is that there is nothing wrong with feeling like you are trying your best to make a difference. Accept the dopamine hit, accept that it is not selfish to derive pleasure from knowing that you are trying. Take that pleasure and multiply it — dopamine is as dopamine does — the more you lock in a habit which gives you that small buzz of joy-chemicals, the more you want it. Revel in that. Doing good for your own selfish reasons is still doing good — how is that a bad thing? Make it a game, make it petty revenge against those who do bad — it all works.
Look for patterns, look for what makes you feel good while doing good, then reinforce these neural pathways.
This morning, as I walked back from that third vaccine, the air crisp, frosty, sub-zero, the sky so blue and clear it made me ache, I felt like I could walk a thousand miles, out into the woods, out into the mountains, follow tracks and trails laid down by others before me, human and otherwise, from across time itself.
Lately, as I walk to the crèche, or anywhere else, I keep looking at these views and thinking. Echirolles and Grenoble are not pretty. Or, more accurately, the architecture is not really special. It does not need to be — each turn in my path simply frames yet another stupendous view, here a low line of wooded hills, with the towering, snow-streaked face of a cliff behind, there mountains parading north, jagged, white and brilliant with deep snow, wisps of cloud blowing from their peaks, pink as the sun sets, then that cold subtle blue after.
At each turn, past one unremarkable modern building after another, a new natural landscape portrait is framed, presenting itself as though for me to walk into the picture, rather like Cole Hawlings in John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights. Windows reflect other views, distorting reality and ensuring I turn around to check what is real.
This idea, of walking out into the natural world for adventure and discovery — discovery of the self, and of the places I encounter — is not something new to me. I have done it before, more than once. Recently, however, I have also included Aurélie and Ailsa in these little thoughts, pondering how long it would take us to walk over the mountains from our new home to St. Julien, for example. What would we need to carry, how would we carry it with Ailsa? Is four months old too young for a pack of your own?
Time and her patterns interweave strands of everything around you, sometimes so tightly as to be invisible — unless we make a real effort to see. Watch for the patterns, follow the numbers, find solace and joy in the buds and the slow count of petals. Sometimes ask yourself why, at others let the why go free, simply bask in the delight and wonder instead. Find the frames and enjoy the pictures — a different view might just change your life.
I have little to add here. This is already longer than originally intended. I wanted to talk about things read and things watched, but that shall have to wait. Thanks for reading, it is always lovely to know you do. If you like my words and thoughts, do share this with friends or family you think will also enjoy it. The more, the merrier.
I hope you get a chance to feel the sun on your face, there’s just something about it when winter seems long. Soon will come the equinox, and we shall all be equal under sunlight, for but a brief moment once more.
The photos in this letter are all from Thailand, whether deep jungle temple caves, Loi Krathong, feral kittens, rice, restaurant, or that magical mountain of Chiang Dao. As winter drags on here, even with the whisper of spring, I find myself thinking of hot, tropical winter days, before the poor air quality of later in the dry season. I can’t wait to introduce Ailsa to Thailand.