Non-Stop

This Week’s Bit of String: Dreams about reading

A Year 13 student informed me somewhat randomly, “It’s impossible to dream about reading books because you read with the opposite half of your brain from where you dream.”

Given she mentioned this after insisting, during a GCSE Maths Resit lesson on multipliers, “It’s impossible to have anything higher than 100%,” I should have taken it with a grain of salt. But I was intrigued because I do dream quite a bit, and I couldn’t think of any dreams in which I’d been reading a book.

Maybe it was true, a never-the-twain-shall-meet sort of thing. I often dream about getting lost while travelling. Maybe the signs and maps have no words, and that’s why. Have you ever read in your dreams?

Can one truly rest when words are present?

My subconscious launched into gear to prove me utterly and completely wrong. 

The first night, I dreamed about gathering reading material for a trip. There was a photocopied chapter about encouraging students to read, and I distinctly remember reading the title in my dream: “Reading is like getting a big hug!” As if that would persuade my actual students.

The second night, I was in a library with a dusty shelf containing all the stories I’d written, and I searched through for the right one to offer a friend. 

Whether this proves which brain hemisphere is in charge of what activity, I would not presume to say. Maybe words have permeated every function of my mind. Or maybe my subconscious is a stubborn and contrary creature.

All the Words, All the Time

When working with students in lower-set classes, sometimes I turn around to help someone else, reading an extract to them upside down. These kids struggle to read rightside-up, through no fault of their own, so this amazes them. 

I almost inhale words though. I’ve been reading since age three. If there are words anywhere in the vicinity, I will read them. I can barely help reading them.

The problem with reading somewhat involuntarily is that it goes beyond my control. Stories are bigger than we are, aren’t they? I think a lot of writers have difficulty shutting stories off. We rely on this, and it’s marvellous to get lost in a story. My problem is, I can’t stop the words in general. 

Might be nice to just look, not try to describe or capture…

My brain is always writing, if not creatively. It might be planning an email to check in with a friend, or working out how to explain developments to a student’s parent, or considering how to promote my own material, or thinking up character quirks. 

It could be going over what I’ll recount in my daily scribbles: Magnolia blooms like flocks of butterflies. Trying to pass the gauntlet of Key Stage 3 girls outside the toilets between lessons, their handbags pert like ship prows. These thoughts from a Year 10 special needs student: “This might be stereotypical of me, but if I went to Texas, do you think people there would be mean because I’m different? They might stereotypic me because of it. But everyone’s different in some way and can get stereotypicked for something…”

Waste Not, Want Not?

My brain has been programmed to optimise any free moment. It’s learned to write like I’m running out of time, except my body can’t keep up. The second I wake up, even when it’s still the middle of the night and it’s the third or fourth time that night… Words switch right on and I’m rocketing through lots of things to say or write. 

Oberon the baby-cat is responsible for many of these wake-ups.

To an extent, this helps me later on. I can remember how I decided to word that message for work, and I’ll remember the order I wanted to put things in when reunited with my journal.

But it’s also tiring, the constant torrent of words in my head, because it’s difficult to rest when it flows. Then the fog of tiredness is somewhat counterproductive.

Is poor sleep an inevitable part of creative life? Have I unwittingly rewired myself in a harmful way? If we took a machine and rerouted some electrics to provide extra energy to a particular function, then the other functions would not run so well. I’m worried I might have done this to myself.

I now have two weeks off for the Easter holidays. I may commit to the massive to-do list I’ve made which includes sorting the garden out and cleaning the house and stocking the freezer, plus catching up on reading literary magazines and (she adds breezily…) proofreading the latest type-up of my 330-page novel. Or I could try to catch up on sleep, see if I can pause the words, and then when it’s term-time again, throw myself back into the merciless pace of trying to proofread the novel and grow lots of veggies while working a rather intense job and keeping the house clean and meals cooked every day.

I have a feeling my subconscious has already chosen for me. It’s a good thing I’m rather fond of words and writing.

Do you have tips for getting control of all the words in our heads… preferably without stifling creativity?

The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

My kid had quite a flair for tales with a twist. Only, I don’t think they meant to be suspenseful; stories just developed that way.

Once, after a solo trip to the playground, they weren’t very forthcoming as I asked about what they did. They didn’t get to climb much, or have a kickaround. It took a bit more questioning before they said, “I didn’t have time to do any of those things… because H was holding my head down on the pavement.”

Now, that’s a statement that will hook a parental audience. 

Eventually, my little Bear explained that while they were climbing and swinging, one of their classmates and his big brother H thought Bear said something rude, and the boys tackled them. My kiddo ended up with a rather large local knucklehead sitting on their back.

Why the delayed reveal? Not for melodramatic reasons in this instance, but probably because Bear wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing, and needed time before they could articulate such a shocking escalation.

Withholding Information

Deep into novel edits and following research into story structure, I’m still thinking about the most engaging way to develop the plot and the character trajectories. I attended an event a few years ago where the speaker said every story must have a twist, and that disconcerted me. I am not a mystery writer.

But this could be a twist of fate, a turn of events. There are so many types of suspense: suspense for the welfare of a beloved character, tension that an innocent may be misunderstood or that a character with baggage will trip themselves up into yet another mistake.

And there are reveals. Using first-person narration for myth retelling, in The Gospel of Eve the plot follows Eve trying to assert herself to her descendants without turning them against her. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout, building to her memories of taking the forbidden fruit, and essentially, losing two sons. I’ve saved the most well-known, pivotal moments for later in the book, hoping to build trust in the narration and suspicion that there’s a lot more to what we’ve been told before.

Twisting round and round

But it’s not just me stalling and building up. Eve isn’t ready to talk about it. It takes generations (people lived a long time back then, according to Genesis) for her to fully revisit what she remembers of Cain killing Abel. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or other stories like Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the speaker takes time to face up to things, and often events force them to as darkness comes to light.

Scaling Down

The balance between revelation and suspense becomes more confusing in extra tasks like crafting a pitch. At the start of February, I worked on a new, longer synopsis for a submission. A synopsis fully outlines the plot for agents/ publishers, so they know how it develops. It’s tricky working out which events to include and how to inject character instead of a dry summary.

A pitch is different: it’s shorter and you aren’t supposed to reveal everything. You want to hook an agent’s interest, persuade them to want more. (Why do we use the term “hook?” When a fish gets hooked, I doubt it wants to repeat the experience.)

Anyway, I spent the end of February working on a 100-word pitch. It needs to convey the character’s journey, establish the genre and setting, maybe include other titles for comparison, and preferably should all be done in line with the character’s voice.

Hooked!

Again, rather tricky. Ideas played through my mind, even as I did housework while listening to political podcasts. On an “Offline” episode, Jon Favreau (not the cinema Jon Favreau) talked about crafting difficult speeches for Obama. Sometimes, nothing seemed to work, so they’d rip everything up and restart from: “What are the truths we want to tell? Even if we can’t say it for political reasons, what are the truths?”

So I said to myself, “What do I MOST want to tell people about my book?” It took me a few tries, and it’s probably not totally there yet. But I kind of like it! Here’s the opening:

Fruit, fratricide, and feminism: Eve and her oldest daughter Ana retell the creation myth.
Think parenting is hard? Eve plots maternal interventions when at best, empowering her children could lead them to condemn her. At worst, her children will kill each other.

I’m not revealing anything that isn’t common knowledge. Hopefully I’m giving it fresh relevance, though. The fun thing with any story we start to read or to write is that we can never be sure where it will end up.

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Balancing the Dark

This Week’s Bit of String: Planet Buoy

On a rainy Saturday morning in St Ives, I’m shepherding 7 teens on a 2-mile walk with a seasoned photographer. We are nearing the end of our school Art residential; I’ve spent half my half-term supporting 3 very different students with autism.

Sand feathering

The youngest one is only 14 and prefers to draw comic stories or animals in pencil, so through most activities, he’s put his headphones on and played games on his phone. That’s what he did through the photographer’s introductory talk.

The photographer has worked here in St Ives for 45 years. He says its popularity with artists comes from the “pure, North light.” Standing on a beach he tells me, “The sand in St Ives has a sheerness, and reflects that light.”

Just then, the youngest fellow patters over murmuring, “Miss, I took pictures of the beach.” With his iPhone, he’s captured the effect the photographer talked about. The reflections of the squished-together buildings across the bay appear over the sand in his photo. I compliment him heartily, and he’s off.

He creeps toward gulls, grinning, asking, “Scuse me, can I take your picture?” He aims his phone camera through holes in stone walls that no one else has noticed, sticks it into pier crevices to capture puddle reflections. One of my older students, herself a photographer with autism, is inspired by what he’s finding and so am I.

Planet Buoy

He finds a buoy, pulled up and stashed on top of lobster cages. I join him to capture its weathering with my iPhone. It’s like a planet, with rust crops and barnacle mountains. This young artist is showing what I’ve always found, that once we start looking around with a photographer’s eye, we pick up on so much more.

Balance

It’s like that with stories sometimes too. If we get into ideas mode, we find them everywhere. When I’m out and about, I take pictures partly to remind myself of strands of description for my journal later. Waves blooming around boulders, rust-fall streaming down the lighthouse, Planet Buoy.

Pure light: View toward Chapel of St Nicholas

The photographer we worked with, Chris Webber, makes me contemplate other similarities or counterpoints between the arts of photography and writing. He tells the students: “Your camera has a lot of dials and buttons, but at its heart, photography is about balancing the light. Don’t be intimidated by the camera. You control it. You decide what to shoot.”

It’s a mixed blessing to remember that amid the vast structures of a story, with so many interplaying elements we’re meant to orchestrate—we are the ones who control the pen (or keyboard). It is, ultimately, up to us.

I also wonder if a story, at its heart, might be as simple as balancing certain elements. Except that a story is balancing the dark. As storytellers we wield light and seek to not obliterate dark (because then a story might be dull or saccharine), but to balance it.

Letting in the Light

I read more about story structure and trajectory before my latest novel edits. John Yorke in Into the Woods frames this as a trajectory of knowledge (which suits my creation story retelling, since Eve allegedly plunged us all into sin by gaining knowledge). A protagonist is awakened to something, they experience doubt, they reluctantly accept, they experiment, it backfires, until ultimately there is a reconciliation of the new knowledge: a reawakening and a total mastery.

Weaving: lobster nets on Smeatons Pier

None of this happens without light, and the light would be ineffective if dark didn’t precede it. Presumably, God would never have said, “Let there be light,” if They’d already had all the light They wanted. As creators, we first shine light into a character’s situation so they have to recognise the dark they’re living in. They may react by being overwhelmed; they’re not used to this illumination. Ultimately, we mould the light into hope.

Wishing you a torrent of creativity this week.

Depending on the story, we’ll allow a pinpoint or a whole widening arc of light/ hope. Also, depending on the type of writing, we’ll show the whole landscape or do a macro shot. Chris Webber does dawn photo shoots and landscapes but also food shoots, for catering outlets. He showed my students a picture he took of a sorbet scoop: “Sometimes you don’t want your viewer to paddle, you want them to dive in.”

I’ll definitely keep that in mind while editing. Which bits are especially important for readers to plunge into? How do we direct the light while also bringing out the exciting details?

Enjoy It

This Week’s Bit of String: Underrated qualifications

I’ve been helping one of our special needs students with her personal statement for university. She wants to study Photography and after writing about what she’s already achieved in the field and what specific techniques she wants to learn, she concluded with something like this: “I want to study Photography because it’s something that makes my life more enjoyable.”

This is not a conventional admission in an essay. I feel like we’re encouraged to sell our skills and our work ethic when applying for positions. We’re not supposed to bring up what, well, pleases us. Is it related to some old puritan idea that pleasure is bad? Is it a byproduct of our busy culture: our value increases as the work gets harder and less enjoyable?

Without enjoyment, we could get dragged under. Why is it so hard to admit?

It’s a bit backwards, though. In education, we’ll have an easier ride if a student actually likes our subject. Surely it would be nice for employers and for universities to hear that new recruits might enjoy what they’re expected to do.

Resilience

Maybe there’s the fear that if someone chooses a path because they like it, they’ll quit when the going is rough. But a passion is deeper than an interest, and that’s why we keep going in creative endeavours. 

In our writing, we can’t cope with hard work, administrative tasks, and the inevitable rejection, unless we enjoy aspects of it. Just as it’s important to remember what we like about writing and why, it’s essential to then allow ourselves to enjoy writing.

I get caught up in the busy-boasting of social media sometimes, which results in me thinking of writing more as a quite mentally demanding second job. After all, we can’t just shut off the stories. I’m constantly tinkering with things in my head. And when I get to school on Monday morning for another week of supporting very needy students, I feel as if those 2 critiques passed to fellow writers and the 3 novel chapters edited over the weekend have sapped a substantial portion of my energy.

Sometimes I find my thoughts echoing my husband after a recent trip to London. 3 days, 2 nights, at least 30 miles walked… “What a stupid thing to do,” he said afterwards, half-joking (I think…) “Let’s never do that again!”

The Trappings

I liked it though. Exploring half the city, seeing new people and buildings and discovering unexpected remnants of history… It’s the same with writing. I get tired, but when my brain is jogging ahead toward a new destination (or painstakingly polishing the path to an old one, as when I’m editing), I don’t want to miss out. 

Picadilly Circus, a photo I took while tromping around London and I’m quite proud of it, actually.

Our identities are wrapped up in writing. Part of it is that addiction to finding out where it takes us. Another part is having fun with what accompanies it. If you can score a quiet house for even just an hour, with a hot drink and some pleasantly burning candles and encouraging tunes playing, then curling up to scribble ruthless notes on your own manuscript doesn’t feel so brutal, or laborious. 

I wonder if a few of us, myself included, would rather tell people we write in a cold garret subsisting on just bread crusts and gruel than confess to cranking some tunes and munching chocolate while we go. Maybe we should normalise admitting that something we devote time to is actually rather nice.

Imagine daring to pitch a writing project with: “I loved writing this story almost as much as I love reading it, and other people will too.” How amazing to get away with that! Wouldn’t it be great if, just now and then, liking something was an acceptable reason to go and do it?

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

Waiting for Applause

This Week’s Bit of String: Ghosts and earwax

Last Wednesday I went back to summer camp to do story-making activities with 5- to 11-year-olds. “Do we have to write?” some asked as they came in with oversized tie dye shirts and baseball caps.

“We’re just going to have fun.”

I always start them off silly, with Mad Libs, so we can create wacky stories. I brought outrageous hats borrowed from my sister: a plaid fedora full of nouns, a cowboy sheriff hat full of verbs, a blue-haired pointy witch hat with adjectives. Kids carry on with Mad Libs, or sketch their own versions of video or board games, or make comics around the stickers I have on offer—some just plaster anything and everything with stickers. In each group, a few want to work with me to write a story together.

So we end up with adventures about pig princes, and about a cowboy fighting a banana. With one group we based our protagonists on some very cool stickers from my other sister—a red panda in a turquoise tux and an alligator in polka dot shorts. The kids embellished these even further; the alligator has a ghost named Shawn riding on his back, and they find a haunted castle where a ghost king is having a trampoline party.

Hatfuls of ideas

While I wrote this out on a big scroll of rolling paper, I overheard a little boy to my right say to his neighbour, “I don’t want your earwax. Just keep your earwax.”

Right! Into the story with that line. The red panda and the alligator with Shawn offer their earwax as a birthday present to the ghost king but are rejected, because he wants a Pikachu instead.

Keeping It Fun

The small fellow who refused the earwax drew a red-curtained stage on his piece of paper, and wrote in the stage space: Once upon a time. The end. I am waiting for applause.

Then he came round to show it to us, his grin riddled with missing baby teeth. Considering how his story lacked plot, the applause demand was a surprise twist.

Not that I’m about to judge. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare my workshops this year, once the busy school term was finally over. I ended up just pulling together the same resources and activities we did last year, and hoping these would still inspire.

I kind of got away with it because the kids remember what they like and I remember what works. I offered more specific suggestions to help get them started. Most people are unprepared to be told, “Sit down and write whatever you want.” Heck, even we writers struggle with that.

Hence the stickers, the Mad Libs, and the hats full of prompts. And why not celebrate the shortcuts, the tricks that make things slightly easier? Yes, even the fun things that aren’t proper stories. Let’s applaud ourselves for actually stopping to have fun and explore what we want to once in a while.

A Personal Pirate

In my final session, a tiny girl with a blond ponytail asked me to tape papers together so she had lots of pages. She used Disney princess stickers and drew a sad pirate on a ship in her book called The Love. The pirate gets to the princesses’ castle, and asks Sleeping Beauty if he can be her pirate.

“How do you spell yes?” the little girl asked. She put it in a speech balloon above the princess.

Who wouldn’t want their own pirate to go and fetch treasure? I believe actual royalty have had them before. This princess wasn’t pining for a prince; it was a pirate she wanted! It would be like having a personal shopper, but way cheaper.

Personally, if I had a pirate I’d send them to search here for stories.

When we’re writing, I think we have to remember not to hold out for princes. A single, heroic solution to our plot holes or character conundrums is probably not going to come charging to the rescue on a metaphorical white horse.

We have more need of pirates, I think. Writing requires a bit of plunder, at least sometimes to get us started or re-started. The nice thing about working with kids is that it reminds me of the basics. Keep things fun and don’t be ashamed of keeping them simple. There’s nothing wrong with raiding the classic tropes for inspiration, or even with being a bit shameless in our quest for positive feedback.

What have you learned in your writing journey this summer? Have you found pirate treasure, or that ever-elusive applause?

Capturing Castles

This Week’s Bit of String: A budding writer at the gate

Quite out of breath, I arrived to the gate of my connecting flight to see my family. The airline was, as ever, playing dicey with delays, and I’d almost resigned myself to being stuck in Dublin yet again. But I’d made it through the airport against the odds, and I waited for the imminent boarding a few chairs from a girl and her father.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old. She wore a massive University Roma hoodie, and rainbow-splodged Crocs imitating a tie-dye effect. Giggling, she pointed out to her dad that across and along from us, four men in a row sat the exact same way, right leg crossed over left.

Airport inspiration in all varieties: this “Rocket Man” piano is at Birmingham Airport.

She was right, and justifiably giddy with pride at catching this detail. Then she picked up a magazine and started reading an article about the author Andy Weir, her mouth meticulously forming each word. I felt I was watching a junior author myself, someone who knew that to be one, she needed to take notice of her surroundings, and read up on other writers.

For me, the airport is great for people-watching and inspiration. I wrote down this anecdote immediately, sitting in the gate. Because I scribble every day, and I had many hours of travel to get through, I wasn’t pressuring myself to watch and record everything—just a few key observations.

Places for Writing

Apart from scribbling in my notebook, I spent a lot of time reading while in transit. I’d taken out Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle from the library at work, and enjoyed it tremendously. It opens with the young, hungrily observant narrator sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, starting her diary by the last daylight.

Okay, this isn’t exactly an original suggestion, but I would love to sit journalling on the front porch.

She writes, “I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

I love that line on page one. I want to try that this summer: going out of my way to sit in new places and crack open my notebook. Would anyone else like to join me? I may create a writing sampler at the end of the fleeting six weeks, featuring my favourite observations and inspirations.

Now I just need to find some unique places and move out of my comfort zone, which at the moment is the reclining end of my parents’ sofa, in front of a fan. It is challenging how in order to find inspiration, we first have to come up with an original way to put ourselves in its path.

Memories Versus Inspiration

As usual, I planned this post in my head during a morning walk. I was crossing a bridge just downriver from a ruined mill. I stopped and watched a tall grey heron standing perfectly still on a rock. There’s been a lot of rain here in New England, and this river is rushing but not too high.

I remembered that for 11th grade Biology, we were supposed to find a spot outside and visit it regularly throughout the year to record natural changes. I chose the river, coming to the foundation blocks of an old house that once sat high on the bank by the railroad tracks. I stowed a composition notebook and some sketching materials in a plastic bag between the blocks. I sat there and noted which trees changed colour first. But later in the year, severe storms swept my things away. Writing in new places can be quite an adventure.

Aforementioned heron. He did not wish to commune.

I considered climbing up and sticking my feet in the kitchen sink here, at the house my parents have lived in more than 30 years. Just thinking about it, memories spout like the tap’s turned on: stowing my kiddo under my arm after each meal, piloting them over to the sink and splashing off the baby food, then carrying them through to the breezeway to play with the wind chimes hanging there. “Bell” became one of their first words.

Or there’s the bathroom sink. The bathroom has a built-in storage unit, with a deep countertop separating us from the mirror, so we used to climb up on it to get a good look. And just because we could. My sister and I would be on and off the counter quite a bit while we brushed our teeth, until Dad got fed up of us thumping down from it and came in to show us how to set ourselves down lightly, “being dignified.” He climbed up himself and disembarked, making dramatically prissy faces for us all the while.

I’m taking care to include memories like this in my daily scribbles, since we can’t assume we’ll keep them forever. But I don’t want to get lost in them either. My New Writing Place Summer Challenge is about noticing the unexpected and finding new ideas. I don’t know if it will work, but I do intend to shake things up a little.

What writing locations can you try? Do you think it makes a difference?

Artefacts of a Story

This Week’s Bit of String: Milkweed cradles and postage stamp paintings

As a kid, I never threw away a pencil. Each had its own personality, as I used them up to lengths which would correspond with their ages. From assigning names and ages to pencil fragments and little boxy erasers in first grade, I progressed to grouping them in families. 

By the time I got my own room at age eleven, I was ready with cardboard shelves and my entire top drawer. I made a town for my pencil families. They had scrap blankets and I would put plastic sheets from envelope windows to serve as windows cut in the cardboard. I saved milkweed pods as cradles for the shortest pencil nubs, and padded the bottoms with satiny milkweed tassels. I peeled stamps off letters and stuck them up as paintings in the pencils’ houses, reflecting the residents’ professions and talents. 

A more recent artefact. It’s very rough but this mansion WILL have two libraries.

Naturally, you don’t grow a whole town in your bedroom without the relevant paperwork and a whole lot of backstory. My town was populated by people fleeing the nazis; it was hidden in the Polish woods. In seventh grade, I wrote a few hundred pages on the refugees’ adventures.

I tracked names and ages on an extra-long sheet of yellow legal paper: my census. I remember misplacing it one evening and wandering through the house saying, “I lost my census!” It was easily misheard as me losing my senses.

I’ve always loved a book with a map or a cast list at the beginning. Any visible evidence for the world I’m about to enter is most welcome. We had a poster map of Narnia up in our house when I was little. Did you find supplemental artefacts for any of your favourite stories?

Distraction or Inspiration

Creating meticulous artefacts to go along with our works in progress can be an essential step in story-writing. I often curate a soundtrack of theme songs to keep me going. For my Eve novel, I wrote out genealogies and calculated the exponential growth of the population as generations progressed. 

In the early stages of writing a new novel, I’ve been creating detailed character profiles, and an aristocratic family history as well as highlights of a contemporary artist’s catalogue. I think the novel will take place in a half-finished gothic mansion, so I am inventing the history of the house as well as sketching a sort of floor plan. I’ve never done this before and it’s quite fun. How big shall I make the library? What view shall I give it?

I visited Woodchester Mansion, a local unfinished gothic estate, for inspiration.

I need to know how things look and where everyone is within the house in order to chart the action, so these things are important. They’re also, in a way, a bit easier than studying the character profiles and considering how they might extend into novel-length trajectories. For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is ensuring there’s a clear, engagingly-paced beginning, middle, and end. Making extra planning documents and visual representations puts off that moment when I have to figure out whether this idea really has the stuff of books.

Useful Daydreams

As writers, we can be prone to fantasies which we’ll never bother writing down. It may sound indulgent to spend time on bits and pieces which will remain in the background. Maybe they’re just decorations for the more integral structure of the plot. 

But writing a novel is very hard work. It might go better if we like our characters and scenes enough to while away hours imagining them. We’ll be spending a lot of time with them anyway.

For me, the supplementary bits I do become more than planning tools. The soundtracks I piece together, for example, catapult me at an accelerated rate into my character’s mindset and the mood of a scene. I haven’t developed a soundtrack yet for my upcoming work-in-progress and I’m looking forward to listening and experimenting with what might fit.

As for the paper artefacts, the blueprints and maps and family trees, these ground me in the story rather than just in the plot. In the adult world we still desperately need those fragments which bring the imaginary to life. These are the threads we can snatch–little baby pencil stubs, fantastical maps, fraught genealogies–to connect us to new worlds. 

What kinds of artefacts do you use to accompany your creations?

Persuading

This Week’s Bit of String: A particularly arduous apple pie

Who doesn’t like apple pie? My Year 10 student who was supposed to bake one for Hospitality and Catering, that’s who–or so he claimed. Much of the time, practical work is a fight with him, sometimes even more so than written work. Last week, we made pastry without too much bother, but he refused to make the filling and construct the pie the next day.

I tried impressing him by peeling one of the Bramleys in a mindblowingly long snake–must have been nearly two feet of apple peel. I pointed out that everyone else is doing the work, and he must do it too. I threatened him with workbook pages, and with his keyworker in all her high-heeled, jewelry-spangled, Welsh-accented glory. 

He in turn employed the persuasive techniques of emotive language, hyperbole, and sheer high-decibel whining. “I never get to do what I want! You can make me do this but I won’t enjoy it! You’re forcing me to do this, and now I guess I just won’t eat anything tonight.”

“What are you talking about? You’ll still get your dinner.”

Obie the kitten attempts to be persuasive about rummaging through bags of groceries

“Apple pie is so disgusting, I’ll lose my appetite forever!”

He realised I wouldn’t give in, so he helped chop the apples and then poured the sugar on and stirred. Then… “Miss, do you think I could taste one of those?”

Of course. He popped a bit of sugared, spiced apple in his mouth. The tension retreated from between his brows, and the corners of his mouth rose slightly. “Mmm!”

Every time, every bloody time. We fight, he finally does the thing, and then finds he likes the thing.

Effort, Innit?

I have to do a lot of convincing while at work. It often feels futile, fighting apathy with logic. “Yes, I know you’re tired. But we’re all tired and we’re all still here and the trick is not to expect that you won’t be tired, but to know how to keep going anyway.”

“It’s effort though.”

Secondary school students are taught persuasive techniques and even examined on them at the end of GCSEs. Some of them can rattle off HADAFOREST quite well (if you know, you know) but the linguistic devices don’t necessarily serve them as methods for getting out of work. 

I worry that one day my strength for the constant battling will dry up. One can hardly have an inexhaustible store of enthusiasm in the face of supreme reluctance–not that all my students are reluctant, nor that any one student is reluctant about everything. There are so many factors. 

But it can be draining, and then to come home and try to do writing work… Sometimes my mind starts sounding like one of the kids: “A synopsis, seriously? Ugh, that’s effort. I can’t be bothered.”

I do bother, of course. I love my book and I’ve worked so hard on it, I’m ready to start querying agents and I don’t want to back down now. I have synopses (longer version and shorter version depending on submission guidelines) which I don’t hate, in fact I even kinda like them (let’s not get carried away lest I overthink and question the whole thing). The Gospel of Eve is brilliant and funny and heartbreaking, and the pitch for my cover letters is fricking awesome.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Retelling the creation story from Eve’s point of view. I tell people what I’ve written and they say the pitch writes itself. There are plenty who want to hear fresh angles and to consider unheard motives. Retold myths is practically a whole genre now, with Jessie Burton’s Medusa on the Carnegie Award shortlist, and Madeline Miller’s Circe a massive hit from a few years ago. Natalie Haynes is an expert in this field, while Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt tried it out too. 

Even without fruit, trees are so inviting…

Comparative titles for my cover letter: boom! Done. 

It’s been handy to have widely-known source material to cite, but I can’t assume everyone knows about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or about Cain and Abel. All those things will be revealed in the flow of the plot, but my main focus is relationships, and reimagining the first ones. 

What would it be like the first time a baby was born, the first time people argued, the first glimpse at disability, the first non-heterosexual union?

That’s a lot of weight pressing down on one human. I’ve gone for a spirited, perhaps anachronistic tone though, with pithy observations and selection of detail that shows the light side of life as well. Eve has to persuade people all her long life, and humour is a great device. This is the story of her persuading her family to keep loving each other no matter what, and given that one of her first persuasive acts was inviting Adam to join her eating forbidden fruit, people aren’t always inclined to listen!

First woman, wife, mother, and sinner–supposedly. However, given that even a stroppy adolescent can’t resist tasting a bit of apple he claimed to despise… Mightn’t any one of us humans have stepped out of line if we were given the first opportunity to do so?

What persuasive devices do you use, on yourself or on others?

Looking the Part

This Week’s Bit of String: Ewoks and hippies

For the first Literature class I took at university, my professor resembled an ewok. He was gentle and diminutive, with a pointed snowy beard in place of a neck, and he would pace the room in a curved trajectory as he delivered lectures on Early English Literature or Science Fiction. Soft-spoken but passionate about his subject, he would pause when he’d gone over something significant, and tilt his head, his black eyes twinkling, and say “Hmm?” as he gave the sleepy morning classroom a moment to consider.

Another Literature professor paired silk scarves with sweatsuits, and when she felt she’d offered a particularly profound insight, she’d raise her hands palms up and intone: “Mmmmm!” as if she were a medium for divine inspiration. And I took a British Victorian Poetry class from a woman in her twenties who insisted, with poor reception, that we write “womin” instead of “woman” and “womyn” instead of “women.” She was brittly nervous and read us Sonnets from the Portuguese with her arms clasped across her chest.

My new writing companion

At university I relished the quirks of our instructors. There wasn’t a uniform vibe about them; they were quite individually eccentric. I’d had an idea that all writerly folk would be like the storyteller who used to visit my elementary school. She was a hippie type, with loose printed clothes and glasses and long fingers. She liked to sit us in a circle, lights dimmed, and always began by telling us how when people listen to a story, their heartbeats synchronise into a united rhythm.

It’s reassuring to think we can be spectacularly unique yet somehow fit in with a class of creative people. I say reassuring because I sometimes get dispirited by the headshots and bios in hit novels. Young faces with perfect hair. Masters degrees from top-tier universities. A lot of us are slogging through the working world and life overtakes us.

Props and Costumes

How then do we identify ourselves and others as writers, when there’s room for so many types? I doubt my students look at me and think I’m a writer at heart, apart from when I subject them to some dorky etymological or literary tidbit. I don’t have a caffeine or fancy pen addiction, so action figure Mrs. Parker does not come with cute travel mug and posh stationery.

The writing life is partly about accessories. We hoard notebooks and probably have strong opinions about pens versus pencils (the latter for me!) Mugs and hot drinks, window views and scented candles or essential oils, Twitter handles, background music and feline companions join the Generic Writing Starter Pack. 

We may have to dress warm, lest the cold in our Bohemian writing garret doesn’t sicken us. Or dress fashionably for writing in a cafe. If I’m writing out of the house, I’ll be hiking there so my outfit will include muddy trainers, a hoodie, and earbuds. If I’m in the house, it’s probably really early morning and I’m in my pyjamas and again, a hoodie. It’s not glamourous, but there is a thrill in having something so important to say, it can’t wait till the world wakes up. 

Looking honestly at it though, I work best when I’m properly sat up at the dining room table and dressed to feel awake. I’m best if I’ve eliminated the possibility of going back to bed for a catnap at 9, when I’ve been up at 5. A hot drink is good, and a candle with a stiff refreshing scent–I love something woodsy.

More Than a Feeling

These things sound trivial when stories need telling; these trappings of clothing and seating and utensils. But it’s worth a lot to feel like a writer. Our solitude can be pervasive, and successes sporadic. We are storytellers and we need to first convince ourselves that our voices are significant. Weaving some sort of authorish aura around ourselves is our first essential persuasive task. 

One of my favourite candleholders: the Snowball, from Sweden.

I imagine being the classy sort of writer who drinks earl grey tea and can write for hours in a cafe wearing stylish blouses and boots without the need to curl up somewhere quiet with a brownie. Wouldn’t I be cool? Then again, being a hoodie-type writer suits me because it connects me to so much outside my writing: my busy Teaching Assistant work, my family, my love of walking and exploring. Those inspire my writing and I’m proud to be tethered to that reality. 

Of course, we don’t want to be overly dependent on our image, even if we think we’re cultivating it for our own sakes. A great story can be told as well on a beat-up laptop as in a leather-bound notebook. Our writerly props may motivate and inspire us, but without them we can still bring stories into being.

Feeling present in ourselves and in our writing is perhaps the best accessory we can acquire as writers, whether we wear blouses or sweatsuits or snowy beards. I say being present instead of being confident because who among us will always be confident? We can use insecurity and anxiety in our creative process to convey those aspects of the world, we just need to face them honestly.

Do you have writerly accessories that feel essential? What’s their story?