Putting Flesh on the Bones

This Week’s Bit of String: ‘The World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle’

Sweden, 1628. The country is at war with Poland, so King Gustavus Adolphus orders a mighty ship built, with holes for thirty-two cannons on each side. When each cannon hatch is opened, a carved lion’s head, mid-roar, glares out from the inside of the lifted door. The Vasa is fierce and ornate, and I can just imagine the king promising ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen before.’

But as the Vasa sets off for the very first time, the top-heavy ship starts to list, then sinks after a kilometre, dragging at least thirty to their deaths.

Over three hundred years later, the ship is located and, incredibly, salvaged. Piecing together all the bits that fell off takes twenty-five years, including twelve during which some experts focus on restoring original colours to the statues. The whole Vasa is now a museum in Stockholm.

The Vasa's ornately carved stern castle.
The top portion of the Vasa’s 18-metre stern castle

As breathtaking as the ship is, I am also fascinated by the process of its discovery and restoration. The Vasamuseet exhibits skeletons found on the ship, and details what scientists and historians have learned from them. They’ve created digital, 3D portraits of the Vasa’s victims, based on their skulls. Turns out skulls don’t all look the same (although I got the impression they did when I visited the Catacombs in Paris). Small differences in eye socket and mouth shape and position indicate not just where those features were, but also how facial muscles connected to them, and from there offer clues to flesh out the faces.

This all made me think about story development. (Come on, any writer would.) How do we flesh ideas out into full stories?

The Idea (Skeleton)

We get ideas (when we’re lucky). Those are just the bones, washed up from the relentless tide of busy everyday life.

An idea can be a name, a phrase, an image, a what if, a combination of these. At work we’re planning a trip to a Halloween ‘frightmare,’ and it made me wonder what it’s like for those people who are paid to jump out and scare you all night long. Does that have some kind of effect on the psyche? I don’t know what the story would look like, but the what if is not migrating from my brain.

The Questions (Muscles)

We then ask questions about our idea. It’s not an interrogation, but an investigation. It’s exciting, not demanding. This forms the foundation of plotting.

Rows of bones in the Catacombs, Paris
Catacombs. Imagine if they hired scarers to work here! Or, nearly as terrifying, imagine having THIS many ideas to flesh out…

The questions tell us how it all works, so they are the muscles driving this thing. Does someone choose to take a job scaring people? Why would they make this choice? What is their everyday life like? How will this job affect it?

I had a little Twitter discussion about story development. Children’s writer Michael Mahin pointed me to his great post on planning a story around a central question. This is your ultimate What If, a little like your hook.

It’s worth noting that a muscle-bound face (if that’s a thing) would not be particularly pleasant. Don’t overthink the plotting of your story. Plot needs to be an unfolding, not a firing off of facts. Asking why is at least as important as asking what happened.

Also, questions are a great facilitator of ideas, of digging up the bones in the first place. If you’re stuck at the first stage, here are tips from Helen Taylor to generate your own writing prompts.

The Connections (Tissue)

Once we know more about our idea, we have to fit together the beginning, middle, and end of what we’re actually going to tell. Now the planning really takes off.

Among the responses I had on Twitter, quite a few people mention Post-Its or outlining to keep track of these different points. I take down various scribbles myself.

We might use music to inspire us. Julie Rea, a Scottish Book Trust winner, described almost the exact process I tend to use in her tweet: ‘Jot idea down in a pad. Listen to music with the ‘feel’ of the story, jot down more ideas. Weeks could pass. Sketch a rough outline-write!’ (I insert a few hikes, and more than enough sleepy, jolty, subconscious-jabbing bus commutes.)

Flashers’ Club and Writers HQ Cheltenham guru Alex Clark tweets about longer works like novels, ‘Plotting happens in a very ploddy, non-magical way.’ I love this phrase and have found it to be pretty accurate.

Of course, the process totally varies. As a couple of people pointed out, the original idea will often be two-fold: image plus phrase, for example. And with short stories, it often just cascades into place. Whatever you’ve read recently, whatever you’ve seen and heard, the idea acts as a magnet and pulls the most salient bits into its field.

The Actual Writing (Skin)

Then we write, my friends. A fair number of us will write anyway, and structure afterwards, at least with short stories. This bit can feel like magic, actually. I’ve been working on a story this week from an idea that came to me at 4:30 Tuesday morning. I just started writing it, and the next bits continually feed themselves to the page.

These are the moments when I feel I must be doing something right. What comes out at the end will probably need a lot of contouring, cosmetics, maybe even plastic surgery. The resulting face may not be glamorous but hopefully there will be an authenticity and more than a spark of interest to it.

Books Aren’t Babies

This Week’s Bit of String: A Boy’s Hilltop Breakdown

On an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, we climbed the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills, turning the last upward twist to find the summit already crowded. Dogs checked each other out, dads promised junior travellers ice cream once they reached the bottom again. A multigenerational family group posed for a photo at the Jubilee monument. And two women tried to corral the five overtired children between them to a bench for a rest.

Four of the kids obliged, but a wiry little boy with a flushed face refused, trying to pull his hand away, protesting in a voice so strangled with distress I couldn’t make out the words.

‘All right,’ his mother said. She had a clear, somewhat upper class accent. ‘If you want to sit here, we’ll sit here.’

Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills. So many paths.

They all perched on the rim of the hilltop. She pointed out the view’s attractions to the other children and speculated on what wildlife might be around.

She had folded the boy into her lap, and while his feet still scrabbled at the ground as if desperate to dig himself in, his fingers clung, curled over her shoulder so tightly they whitened.

And despite her calm tone, I suspected she was clinging back. She seemed well-practised at handling this type of meltdown. Perhaps her son’s difficulties were recurring and lay somewhere on the autism spectrum.

The feeling I got from the scene, her secret wish that pervaded me, was to grasp him up here forever, long after everyone else had climbed down and found their ice creams. To keep him high above the noises of the world, where the rabbit-nibbled grass was soft and the few rocky outcroppings formed seats and benches. To let him be free of the world’s eyes that judge difference so harshly.

Isn’t it the most gut-wrenching thing, releasing our children, with their peculiarities so cherished by us, their vulnerabilities so beloved, into view of everyone else?

Create, Revise, Release, Repeat

The works we create as writers are often portrayed as our offspring. We love them and view them as extensions of ourselves, so we want to protect them. It can hurt—a lot—when the world gives them a less resounding reception than we’d like.

But I think sending work out is not so very fraught. When stories bounce back to us from an unsuccessful competition bid or magazine query, we can patch their scrapes and even perform major reconstructive surgery on them without causing anyone pain (apart from maybe ourselves).

Sure, we write about characters to give them a voice, and we want the world to listen. But the characters themselves don’t know the difference. Rejections apply solely to us, our work and maybe our voice, no one else’s. We learn to carry this burden: personally, I let loose some of my least impressive language under my breath, go off and do something else, then before long I get back to the work and make changes.

We learn a bit of ventriloquism, don’t we? To throw our voices a little and see if that does our characters more favours.

Giant spiders on a house with the words 'Face Your Fear' beside them
I mean, what are we waiting for? There are far scarier things than submitting stories.

That’s nothing compared to seeing our kids in pain. I remember my son’s agonised scream, his whole three-year-old body going rigid, when a helium party balloon slipped his clutch and drifted skyward. His grief over that balloon pierced me at least as sharply as any rejection letter ever has. Then there’s the odd bullying incident. A romantic break-up. Merely recounting these is too terrible.

We don’t want our kids to have to modify their voices excessively. We don’t want the world to perform its nips and tucks. We may change our stories to be worthier of the world, but we will toil endlessly to make the world worthier of our children.

So when we wax poetic (hyberbolic?) about the strain of sending stories out into the world, let’s remember there’s little to fear. Nothing is at stake but our own pride, and nothing is beyond reach of repair. Send your book out there! It can stand the risk.

And maybe we can use our writing, if we keep tweaking it to deeper efficacy, to influence the world and make it a gentler place for people like the boy on the hilltop and his mum.

 

How Do They Get Away With It?

This Week’s Bit of String:

‘When he offers me a ring—any day now—it had better have a four-figure price tag. If it’s tacky or gold, I’m not touching it.’ The senior boasted to a couple of us freshmen, curling her lip as she watched her alleged almost-fiance bantering with the younger students.

He was a student himself, so how he managed to scrape enough funds for a ring, I’m not sure. I didn’t know either of them well. Maybe, friendly as he seemed, he’d let her down before, so she needed a deposit on her love. Or he could have had a hidden source of wealth–possibly something she’d helped him scheme to get, a Macbeth-type plot they both colluded in.

At the time, I was chronically single, and the girl’s demands rankled. Why did she have a partner when I did not? How did she get away with such an unyielding attitude?

I’ve been considering the balance of demands and the possible merits of being artistically unyielding as I query agents on behalf of my novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds. I’ve had kind, personal, so-close-but-not-quite rejections from very big agents. It’s nearly time to try a few more.

Before I do, I want to adjust the first couple of pages. We all know how important those are, and I’m not naive enough to think I can do whatever I like with them.

First Page Requirements

If you are also a writer, you’ve probably done a tonne of research on this already. Here are just a couple of sample blogs on how to, or how not to, write a great first page. Your story must feature in its opening:

*An sympathetic and intriguing protagonist

*No more than two characters; avoid overload.

*Unique voice

*Accessible, appealing style

*An indication of setting that is, again, simultaneously exciting yet familiar, clearly conveyed yet concisely described.

*At least a sense of the conflict or need driving the action. That’s the hook.

Statue of Lady Macbeth, trying to clean her soiled hands.
Lady Macbeth statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A ruthlessly unyielding but endlessly captivating character.

How do we perform that balancing act between introducing excitement yet setting the scene and not overwhelming the reader? How do we introduce something original while keeping it conventional enough so the agent spots its appeal to a wide market? What if, as in my novel, the inciting action takes place in a somewhat crowded place so you have to introduce a few characters while enabling it all to kick off in a timely fashion?

Honestly, I don’t know. We each have our own first pages we need to write; our own beloved characters and settings to sell, our own ever-evolving hooks and our own special styles and voices to develop. To get there, we practise constantly, and weigh every phrase.

At the point when this challenge feels more impossible than rewarding, I sometimes fall prey to some mental whining. I think about the many books I’ve read, classic or contemporary, which haven’t followed those rules and made excessive demands of the reader. Does that happen to anyone else?

Rule Breakers

When I pick up a book, I don’t expect to be gripped instantly. I know the story’s engine takes a few pages to go from naught to sixty. Apart from reading on my bus commute, my big reading time is on the treadmill, and I always ensure I’m a chapter or two in before I take a book running. Otherwise it will never take my mind off the Herculean effort I’m sweating out.

So why do other people expect instant gratification? And what about all those cases where it takes more than a page or two before anything really happens?

Pink toilet, basin, and bidet set offered free on a lawn
‘Good shit: FREE!’ Maybe I should use that in my query letter?

Looking at this sample roundup of great first lines, many of them are beautiful, or quirky, but not necessarily exciting. Great opening lines don’t have to be super suspenseful. I put Margaret Atwood and Louis de Bernieres in my list of most reliable openers. One of their books I could probably take on the treadmill from the first line (and Lee Child, but shh don’t tell).

These writers have proved their worth and can take as much time as they like to spin their tale. But what about novice ones that have hit it big? A few times I’ve picked up an acclaimed book only to find myself trudging through it. Even if the first sentence is interesting, the plot ends up creaking with excessive padding, as if it’s waddling forth in a sumo suit. Ahem, The Miniaturist…

The book may be so gritty it doesn’t offer a single tolerable character—Casual Vacancy, anyone? Or so edgy it’s almost unintelligible.

That last is my current problem. I’m reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear Mcbride, and I’m struggling. I like a challenge, and unique stylistic choices can be great. But usually there’s a reason for them, as in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, for example, where the switching between present and past tense narration is confidently, briefly alluded to in the narrator’s own self-analysis. But in the case of McBride’s prizewinning novel, the haphazard language and lack of complete sentences for 205 pages straight (I’m really counting them down) has no discernible link to the main character’s voice. If anyone else has spotted it, please do let me know.

This isn’t to say the book’s not effective. Sure, I’m a bit jealous, but I have to admire Ms. McBride for her unyielding loyalty to her ideas. She screwed her courage to the sticking post. And although I don’t think the inscrutable character or somewhat conventional plot will linger with me, the language. Does. Sharp pebbles river rolling through mind. Stale tired breath against.

Still, even if I wanted to attempt it—how would I ever get away with it?

The Most Important Things

This Week’s Bit of String: X marks the ballot

On election day last week, a diverse crew of Labour supporters gathered outside our office, wearing red and waving signs, grinning and rallying the passing cars to vote Labour. Their children picked wildflowers from the abundance sown alongside our building, and adorned the letters of the company sign. Some drivers responded with quick, ecstatic bursts from the car horn, while a few leaned on their horns for the whole of the roundabout, sounding more angry than excited. Tories, perhaps.

It was a high-stakes election, and all sorts of communication went into it. Politicians prepared statements and debate answers; reporters wittingly or not, justly or not, influenced the result. I was riveted by satire writers, meme tinkerers, and ordinary people who composed heartfelt social media posts or acerbic ripostes, finally culminating in a single cross on a ballot.

In the grand scheme of world events, that x could be the most important letter they ever wrote. Even after the votes are counted, we can’t be certain how the outcome will colour our local and national politics.

Labour supporters in Stroud during the general election
Rallying support

I didn’t get a say in this election. I’ve lived here almost thirteen years but haven’t purchased citizenship yet (it doesn’t come cheap). However, I did plant my x on absentee ballots for the American primary and election last year, and although it’s sometimes tempting to feel voiceless in that result, too—who can say? The current American president, the supposed leader of the free world, lost the popular vote by millions. Our x’s must be eating away at the administration, necessitating defensive action from the start.

We can’t possibly realise the full impact of what we write. So how do we judge its importance?

Defining Importance

Firstly, we don’t have to. Our writing doesn’t have to be important, or epic, or historically significant. We can write whatever we want, a vast array of things that can be anything to anyone, or just to ourselves.

But I think we are driven, as human beings and not just creative people, to impact the world, or our immediate circle, in a positive and lasting way. The striving for significance, or ‘generativity,’ is the pinnacle of various psychological theories on personal development. I tell myself, maybe my writing will foster empathy somewhere, will convince a few people to listen to each other and be slower to judge.

I may never know if that’s the case. Still, I’ve come up with four qualities of importance:

Longevity: The piece of writing has lasting consequences, and/or invites repeated readings.

Believability: The writing expresses something we can connect to and accept as truth—even if that truth becomes outdated, e.g. a love letter from an ex. You know it was true once, and that gives some comfort.

Motivation: It induces reader(s) to change, or gives them the strength to keep holding on.

Possibility: An important piece of writing will at least hint at hope. It’s the foundation for all the rest.

* Things an important piece of writing doesn’t have to be: long, formal, or public. *

What About You?

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written? I started a little Twitter discussion on this, and loved reading people’s answers. Please do comment with more!

Sunlight shining onto woodland path
Illuminating the path

YA and SciFi writer Kathryn Alton wrote a short story about postnatal depression. ‘It was the only way to bleed the darkness out of my head and battle the demons in the light.’ She has kept it private for the time being, proof that the written word’s power does not depend on publicity. Sometimes the process influences us as deeply as the result.

Stephen McGrath, author of Enso and Bound in Neon, mentioned his personal statement for law school as his most important piece of writing, because it was ‘a rare time when I was unapologetically me.’ The paper asked him to write about a personal journey, and he took his chance. ‘Did it affect anyone? Me. One hundred percent.’

These answers take me back to why we write. We write to make sense of the world and clarify our path in it. There’s nothing selfish in writing something personal. It could be the work which strengthens us to write something that changes other people’s lives down the line, but it all starts within.

Andrea Stanford is Twitter’s ‘c00lestmom,’ and I can personally vouch for the accuracy of her handle, which is reflected in the incredible coolness of her kids. She considers her speech for her sister’s wedding the most important thing she ever wrote. ‘I’ve never poured myself into anything like that before or since.’

What a coincidence. Giving a toast at my brother’s wedding three weeks ago occasioned the ponderings that led to this post. I mentioned last week it was one of the most important things I’d ever written. Not because of trying to teach some kind of lesson, but because it was a chance to convey an inkling of what someone dear means to me.

When each election seems explosive, leaving us drained and slightly adrift, maybe the result we most desperately want from our writing is to illuminate where we stand on the issues confronting us, or to assure our loved ones of their value.

What’s the most important thing you’ve written?

Satisfaction: Friend or Foe?

This Week’s Bit of String: A plugless bath and cellophaned TVs

‘We only bought this place a month ago, so we’re just starting renovations,’ the inn owner tells us, through an American accent so thick it sounds as if she’s chewing something. The three-storey building smells of paint and the rooms we’ve booked have nothing apart from mismatched beds and dressers and a sole, tiny framed picture of the inn on the wall.

She points out the smart TV, and the whisper-thin curtain around the claw-foot bathtub with shower fixture. After we’ve wandered up the sparse street to the general store for a dinner of grinders, and eaten whoopie pies over a travel-sized game of Trouble, we unwrap the telly’s protective plastic to find there’s no antenna or cable so we can’t watch anything but YouTube. We can’t use the bathtub because there’s no plug or drain cover, anywhere.

White Mountains down the road, beyond the trees.
The White Mountains

But we are on an adventure; we’ve just driven through New Hampshire’s White Mountains in a thunderstorm, watching lightning pounce from black clouds, attempting to pierce a slope’s heavy leafy coat.

We’ve been wondering as we travel: What were these bedrooms used for before last month? Who forged the paths through these mountains and started it all? As my husband pondered, ‘Did they think the rest of New Hampshire was too crowded?’

As a species we require a certain amount of dissatisfaction to spur us on. As writers we need to be perpetually on our toes, slow to satisfaction with what we create. Perhaps it’s a gift to get no satisfaction. What sort of goal is satisfaction, anyway?

‘A Toast to the Groom…’

We’re visiting slightly off-season time because my brother got married at the weekend. We’ve partied and I’ve delivered one of the most important things I have ever written: a wedding toast. It was a huge honour. But how do you make a wish for two people that will apply to the rest of their hopefully very long lives?

Our Adventure Begins, wedding sign
‘To marry would be an awfully big adventure…’

In Hamilton, a wedding toast song wishes that the couple may always be satisfied. But I’m not sure about that. It seems simultaneously a low bar and an unrealistically high one. Maybe I’m scarred by the term satisfactory, which thanks to OFSTED school inspection standards sinks year by year from a backhanded compliment to an ever closer neighbour of ‘Needs Improvement.’

Recent Education Ministers clearly haven’t noticed the Latin root of the word. Satis means enough, a fact which Dickens trolled in Great Expectations when he named Miss Havisham’s home Satis House. While blessed with enough materially speaking, Miss Havisham suffered a severe deficiency in her love life. After all, while dissatisfaction sometimes motivates us to seek something better, at other times it slithers into hopelessness, enticing us to curl up and let the cobwebs take over.

Staying Hungry

Sated means an appetite has been filled. It’s supposed to be a good thing, but I associate it with the stupor following midday Sunday roasts. The sun might shine outside, my child would run around wanting to play, and everyone would just slump in front of a Formula One race. Sated but deeply unsatisfied at spending a day thus, I often ended up walking a long, three-mile circuit with my son instead.

This is Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daytime hours. Other religions use fasting too. When we willingly deprive our bodies, it can help direct our souls and minds to seek deeper fulfillment. (Willingness is key; Maslow was on to something with his Hierarchy of Needs. If physical needs are completely disregarded, one can’t truly develop other aspects of his or her being).

A prick of hunger, a germ of dissatisfaction, may motivate us to improve, seek, experiment. How often do we feel moved to create a great work out of contentment? It’s usually need that drives us.

Writing While Hungry
The happy couple, surrounded by forest
A big world to explore.

In my latest Twitter poll, I asked writers if they’re ever truly satisfied with their work. Forty-one percent responded with Never, twenty-six percent said Not quite, and twenty-nine percent ticked the box for It’ll do. Only four percent—I think that’s just one person—chose the option Sure, why wouldn’t I be?

I’m currently pushing on through edits on a novel. There are parts I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with. But instead of discouraging me, it usually thrills me to know it’ll get better. Ideas will keep popping up, characters will continue to speak, to scratch their heads and change their minds and pivot in their paths.

It would be anticlimactic to write a perfect first draft. Where’s the adventure and rewarding effort in that? There’s a line I love in Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, about a Renaissance artist who laments his work as being soulless despite its unblemished form. ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

I think relationships are similar. Being satisfied by someone is great. But we don’t always have to be satisfied with them. We’re allowed to want more, to explore our partner further, to grab their hand and haul them out to explore with us. I paraphrased a line from my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds in my wedding toast: ‘May your love be at once a shelter and a quest, a safe place from which to journey forth and discover more great things.’

We need hope in our lives, and choice, and inspiration. If they’re around, I’ll take adventure over satisfaction; stormy mountains over baths with drain covers. How about you?

 

Immediacy Now!

This Week’s Bit of String: I’m real, you’re real…we’re all real here.

When he was eleven my son philosophised, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who exists, and everyone else is just in my head. But then I think, everyone else must wonder the same thing too!’

I think we’ve all wondered that, particularly at the pre-pubescent and adolescent stages. Some, I suspect, never fully grow out of it. It’s hard to fully acknowledge the reality, the depth and immediacy of other human beings. While we strive to make our actual selves acknowledged in real life, how can we ensure our fiction comes across as real, too?

Making the Impossible Possible

I’ve been jousting with my novel lately. I gallop backward, take a dramatic tilt at it, assess the damage, then try again to strengthen it, shove it into a more powerful form.

Books are wondrous. Consider this quote from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: ‘You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of your words… There are many kinds of magic, after all.’

Sculpture, 'Some Days are Like That'
‘Some Days are Like That.’ Sometimes art encapsulates reality and makes it easier to swallow.

A book’s power, to teach, transform, or enable escape, all derives from one source: its believability. We must first believe. Readers should think they’re there, not just in the story’s setting, but in the main characters’ heads. So once I’ve made a first pass through the rough draft, tightening the plot while clarifying the story arc, then I go through aiming to eliminate distance between story and reader.

Rejecting the Passive

We’ve all been told to purge passive verbs as much as possible, to help our readers feel they’re in the midst of the action. ‘He walked’ replaces ‘he was walking;’ ‘she lay awake’ might replace ‘she couldn’t sleep.’

Apart from these usual suspects, I cull ‘flagging’ words: to think, to feel, to realise, to see… I say flagging words since they cause the narrative to flag a little, plus they mark the distance between character and reader. But they’re commonly known as filter words, and there are some good posts about why/ how to avoid them.

I’m writing in third person limited point of view, so the character dominating each chapter is clear. Any thought shown belongs to him or her, without specification.

We also have to be careful with point of view because a character is unlikely to describe their own facial expression to give clues to their feelings. Instead, I put in the visceral details of that emotion. (Here’s another article about conveying emotion more vividly.)

For example,

Draft 2: Placing the incriminating photo face down on her desk, Phoebe frowned at it and tapped her foot. It made her feel a bit sick.

Draft 3: Phoebe placed the incriminating photo face down on her desk. She fidgeted her hands in her hoodie sleeves, the cuff seams rough against her wrists, her stomach squirming too.

Don’t ask me about Draft 1.

This round of edits makes the difference between reading someone’s thoughts, rather than just reading about someone thinking.

Immediacy vs Serenity

Almost twenty years on, I see the Seinfeld mantra ‘Serenity now!’ appear sometimes on social media. When I’m editing (or writing), I don’t want serenity. We write and edit to shake things up, to jolt people awake with an extra dose of reality. The phrase sticking in my head while I work is, ‘Immediacy now!’

Southern View from the Empire State Building, including the Freedom Tower
All I kept telling myself at the top of the Empire State Building a couple of years ago: The millions of people down there are as real as I am…

Why immediacy? Immediate means ‘without delay.’ The story shoots into the reader’s bloodstream. It means ‘very close’, e.g. your immediate family; the story provides a direct connection.

The Latin origins of the word Immediate can be interpreted a couple of ways. There’s the root medium, meaning ‘middle’, so it means putting something in the middle. It also breaks down to mean ‘not intervening,’ using the prefix im as not, and the root mediate: to intervene or negotiate. Making our work immediate makes it uncompromising, clear, smack dab in the middle of the reader’s path.

As Wallace Stegner’s somewhat autobiographical main character toasts at an impromptu picnic in Crossing to Safety: ‘Let us be unignorable.’

It takes a lot to achieve believability. I’ve outlined my method later in the process. Do you have any tricks to share? Do you have different priorities altogether when editing?

My son summed up his musings on reality thus: ‘The only person who can prove your existence is YOU. But you can only really prove it to yourself.’

The first part of his concluding statement reminds us how high the stakes are. The second part… well, as writers, we have to believe that isn’t strictly true. We have to think we can work magic.

Writers with Day Jobs: Survival Tips

This Week’s Bit of String: Astringent in a contacts case

What’s the craziest thing tiredness made you do? Mine was filling my contact lens case with facial astringent when I worked twelve-hour shifts at a nursing home, and my son was younger. The job I’m starting next week shouldn’t be quite as taxing, but even while employed at the nursing home, I managed to write several stories, including my second Bristol Short Story Prize shortlister.

Last week I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of writers having day jobs. I alluded to this Huffington Post piece about famous authors and their occupations, noting that these are mostly men.

Steps and stile
Another inspirational photo from the walking commute…

Boldly generalising, I’d say at least in the eras during which these male authors operated, men have been lucky. They would be free as soon as they clocked out of their day jobs for the evening, to shut themselves in their mysteriously cleaned home offices while meals appeared magically before them and their offspring were entertained elsewhere. Not necessarily the case for women.

It’s different in many households now, but in mine I am still principally responsible for housework and offspring management, for a variety of reasons (the time it would take to change that, for example). But this means I’m used to planning far ahead, and juggling various commitments. In a way, women have unique experience at making do.

From across the ocean, my mum worries over the phone as I prepare to reenter full-time work, ‘I’m afraid you won’t have time to write.’

I dismiss her kind concern. ‘No, no, it’s fine. I’ll figure it out.’

But how?

‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’

I brought up the subject on Twitter, and my main respondents about writers with day jobs were women. Freya Morris recommends lots of caffeine and offered tough but necessary talk. ‘Friends and family take the hit. But I chose my priorities. Writing first. Mostly.’ She also notes that full-time work makes it difficult to carry out the required ‘immersion’ for bigger projects like novels.

Ríona Judge McCormack just quit her job for a temporary writing break, since she felt split in two by her paid work and her need to create. She details her decision, a rather appealing strategy, on her blog.

It was lovely, too, to hear from Poppy O’Neill, who works part time in a job that is apparently stress-free! Having a flexible schedule and minimal work baggage helps her get writing done, not surprisingly.

Finally, some thoughts from Emily Royal, who also works full-time but utilises ‘snatched, focused writing bursts—’ I love that phrase—and of course, self-discipline.

‘You get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it, wait…’

My tips as I prepare myself for the transition from 20 weekly working hours to 37.5:

Writing nook
My writing corner, in the laundry room since I’m there so often anyway.

Notebooks: Always keep one handy. I have one on each floor of my house, plus one that travels. My TA planners from when I worked in a secondary school are crisscrossed with scribbled threads. This keeps those interesting observations, those bits of string, from blowing away in a busy whirlwind.

Tiredness: Use it. If I come home from work and my brain feels too fried to write, I do housework instead. It takes a lot less mental energy to clean, cook, and iron, than to create, and this way I’ve got those pesky chores done so I can sit and write early the next morning. If I’m too tired even to clean, I read. That counts as work for writers!

Music and Images: Use visual and musical aides representing your work-in-progress to switch on that elusive immersion. While walking home from work, I listen to songs echoing my characters’ feelings so I can dive into them once I’ve got the chance. I also have a writing corner stocked with images to keep me in the right mindset. Lately, the Hamilton soundtrack keeps me fired up, as evidenced in the sub-headings.

Routine: Obviously. We need to keep good habits. Just as our working hours are fairly inflexible, we need to brutally delineate writing times and stick to them. I’m not saying it’s easy. But often, neither are our jobs and we do them anyway. I’m hoping if I sit down in my self-assigned writing time having perhaps already jotted down thoughts and plans in my notebook while out of the house, completed household tasks the previous night, and maybe got my brain going with some carefully selected songs and pictures, I might be able to keep up.

Next week, I will conclude this series on Working Writers (for now) with a farewell to the post office, featuring various bits of string I’ve gathered there and at previous jobs.

 

 

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 1: What I’m Doing Here

This Week’s Bit of String: Teeth in the mail

A nice lady from the dentist’s office up the street stops in at our post office almost daily, smiling in her spring-green scrubs. She requires certificates of posting for pre-paid parcels of dental samples. Am I sending people’s teeth? Gum tissue? I’ve posted a crocodile’s foot for someone before, but that’s another story.

Today we chatted and I mentioned that I’d had a couple stories published. Her eyes widened behind her glasses. ‘Fantastic! But what are you doing HERE?’

Have you encountered this misconception that writers belong in ivory towers where we do nothing but create? Lovely as it sounds, we writerly folk know it’s not feasible.

The primary answer to what I’m doing working in a post office at the back of an ailing convenience store is, of course: earning money. But there’s more to it.

For most of us writers, maintaining our finances entails more than ‘just’ wringing our hearts and brains out onto a page. (Seriously, isn’t that what it feels like sometimes?) I’ve worked in customer service, education, catering, and healthcare. Each has unleashed stampedes of What Ifs in my mind, but depending on the job, I’m sometimes too exhausted to corral them into anything useful.

Anti-urinating notice in post office window
In the window of my work. Couldn’t make this up.

Incorporating work experiences into fiction is essential, however, to create a range of meaningful pieces. There’s increasing concern about literary fiction’s underrepresentation of, and consequent lack of appeal to, working class people. Many established authors write what they know; often featuring academics or artists and writers. Those of us stuck in jobs further toward the bottom of society’s ladder have, in that case, a duty to represent it.

What am I doing here? Collecting ground intelligence that will ultimately infiltrate the upper echelons of literature.

We have other moral obligations as writers. Our talents involve empathy and eloquence, which, when paired together, hopefully add up to diplomacy: useful skills in any profession. An ability to assess others’ needs and to thoughtfully address them is as important whether assisting elderly patients to the toilet, supporting SEN students in lessons, or helping a man close his deceased parent’s pension account.

What am I doing here? Possibly doing you a favour by weighing my responses more carefully than others would.

Can you tell I’ve been toiling over job applications lately? I’m getting good at talking myself up. But as I wrote before about writers’ potential shortcomings as parents, I wonder too if there are drawbacks to having us on a payroll. Apart from the risk that I’ll savage versions of tricky clients and employers in my stories, I might be preoccupied now and then. It’s hard to shut down the characters and plot twists in our minds. Writers in day jobs have to compartmentalise. We want occupations we don’t have to take home with us.

View of sunburst and hills
A scenic walking commute is an ideal bridge between the day job and the writing life.

But I don’t always compartmentalise my writing. It seems silly to lock ideas in a mental box to be opened only during lunchtime, because I might scrawl a few lines between customers. This has been one of the only jobs in which I’ve managed to do so, and I am utterly unrepentant.

What am I doing here? Occasionally engaging in an activity outside the job description.

I’m not the first to write while I work. Here’s a fun round-up of famous writers and their jobs, in which we learn that James Joyce could sing, and Kafka worked at an ‘industrial injury institute—’does that sound Kafkaesque, or what? Maybe I should emulate Bram Stoker and kiss up to someone who can be my wealthy patron.

(Note: The above article mainly features men. I’ll definitely be revisiting the topic to explore potential added complications for women writers, so do share any thoughts in anticipation of that topic!)

Would these writers have had as much to write about without their day jobs? My work experience colours much of my writing. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, one protagonist works in a supermarket on a zero-hours contract, while another works in a nursing home.

‘The corridor lights were dimmed as per management orders, to save on electricity. With its expectant hush and artificial-looking attempts to induce sleepiness, the nursing home at evening time reminded Lydia of an overnight flight. They were all barreling toward the same destination, a strangely relaxing thought.’

What am I doing here? Gathering string, weaving new story ideas, corralling the What Ifs, and plotting my next move.

Do your working and writing worlds sometimes collide? Have you found ways to make each complement the other?

Next week, Part 2: Work Balancing and Story Bribery

Please Don’t Torture the Characters

This Week’s Bit of String: Sandcastles full of tiny babies

My son liked building sandcastles when he was younger. Well, I’d build; he’d squish. The fun was heightened by me pretending to try and stop him stepping on the little castles. After many rounds of this, while Daddy of course reclined reading in the sunshine, I sometimes craved my own book and would tell our son to carry on without me.

So he would raise the stakes. ‘You don’t want me to crush this castle, do you?’ he might say. ‘It’s actually a hospital full of tiny babies. Quick, better stop me!’

It’s a bit like that with writing, isn’t it? We’ve got to keep the stakes up so readers stay engaged, and that requires storylines with danger and strife. When empathy is such an essential virtue in writers, how does that reconcile with the inescapable fact that we must engineer pain for our characters?

‘No puppet. No puppet. You’re the Puppet.’
Crushing sand castles
My mini Caliban Upon Setebos

First of all, it’s worth considering the writer’s relationship with the main character. Who’s really in control here? I think I speak for many writers when I say we don’t just invent a naive, flat, experience-less character and say to ourselves, ‘Aha, let’s inflict some horrors upon this person!’

Rather, a character usually appears in our minds already lugging several tonnes of baggage and clearly heading uphill. I’ve had cases where I’d like the character to take an easier path, but they insist otherwise. This happens, I suppose, because I often get the story idea first, in the form of a What If This Happened imaginary spree, and then the character evolves from the subsequent What Sort of Person Would Do It ruminations.

For example, I recently closeted myself away to edit The Wrong Ten Seconds. The idea behind it: What if the rare instant a person happened to do a bad thing was caught on viral video? The character materialising with a need for this story to be told doesn’t have an easy life. He’s practically at breaking point when the story begins. As the girl who films and shares the video comments:

‘I didn’t mean to mess everything up.’
‘They already were messed up,’ Rittell told her. ‘You made everyone see it.’

The Greater Good

I’ve mentioned before, my inspiration for this novel comes from an event that made news several years ago, so maybe that exonerates me for how the plot thickens. Art imitates life. We don’t write about people with perfect lives, because they don’t exist. Besides, would you want to read that? Even villains of great books come into the plot already scarred and damaged (Tom Riddle, anyone?)

When we write about excruciating humiliations, heart-rending loss, or gnawing guilt, we use it all to the greater good. Our unfortunate characters expose flaws in society that require attention, and hopefully they also show how these can be overcome. I like this challenge from The Editor’s Blog: ‘Give you characters weaknesses and flaws and opposition so tough that the only way they can get through is to become someone new—or become the man or woman they’d always been but had never had call to reveal.’

That explains the result of my Twitter poll this week. I asked how writers feel when their characters have to suffer. The most popular option, with 33% of the votes, was ‘A secret, excited twinge.’ Understandable; climactic conflict draws us in as readers and writers alike. Not far behind in the results, with 27% each of the vote, were ‘Agonising heartbreak’ and ‘Whatever. Can’t be helped.’ 13% said they feel malicious glee.

When one of my characters suffer a loss or rejection, I listen to sad songs and channel the times I’ve experienced the same. I’m building empathy with my star-crossed hero or heroine, and in doing so, building it with readers. The pain we create isn’t meant to tear us apart inside, but to bind us to each other. After all, how many characters have you loved that didn’t carry terrible heartache with them?

Let’s Write About Sex, Baby

This Week’s Bit of String: What circumference and cucumbers have in common

The first literacy group I led consisted of four fairly proficient Year Seven readers. In one task, they had to construct vocabulary words out of individual sound chunks. ‘Circumference’ was one of those words.

The second syllable drew giggles from the boy with the most tumultuous home life. I informed him, ‘That’s a very important sound chunk. Just think, without “cum” in our cucumbers, we’d only have cubers!’

He literally fell off his chair laughing.

Hopefully with that one remark I communicated four things: It’s okay to acknowledge sex, it’s okay to laugh about sex, we can even be fairly clever with it, but we don’t have to go on about it forever.

Perhaps sex scenes in literature should follow similar guidelines. We all know that sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly. But it’s such an important part of life, it figures in almost every story, whether in the background or upfront. How much should it be detailed? Do graphic scenes enhance or detract from literature?

Sex as a Genre
Reading in Stokes Croft
Reading in Stokes Croft

This past weekend I had a terrific time reading at a Stokes Croft Writers event in Bristol, built around the theme of ‘bad erotica.’

Now, I don’t actually read erotica, much less write it. But I’d written a piece called ‘The Hornet,’ which dripped with innuendo. So, that worked. A few of the others were more explicit, and they were all engaging and often quite funny, clearly written by talented humorists and wordsmiths.

It’s a privilege to laugh about sex, and to laugh about it together in a room full of people. To me, it felt like an intellectual release, if not a physical one.

Some of the descriptions were a bit cheesy, or a bit gross. But let’s face it, sex can be too. Right? I admire people, in any genre, who take on this, erm, sticky subject.

Sex in the Classics

Going back a century or two, you don’t find many explicit sexual scenes in literature, for obvious societal reasons. But where would many of those classic stories be without such escapades going on in the background? Bleak House, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anna Karenina, even Pride and Prejudice.

It makes sense that as twentieth century literature pushed towards greater honesty with the reader, sex became featured more bluntly.

However, there’s also an emphasis in contemporary literature on showing rather than telling; on pared descriptions and enhanced subtlety. In a way, that might serve to cloak lengthy, open sexual scenes.

I’m okay with that personally, since my aims in reading are much broader than satisfying any physical desire. But it interests me how the dichotomy between honesty (including a wilfulness to shock) and sparsity affect our ability to write about sex.

Crafting Sex Scenes

Writing about sex needs to be approached like any other aspect of a story: fearlessly but thoughtfully.

Books on shelves
‘Of course I shouldn’t tell you this, but…She advocates dirty books!’

Surely the key to creating sex scenes that aren’t hopelessly daft is to stay in character. Continue using language the character would use. Include only details that further the plot and the message the character wants to convey.

An article in Lit Hub provides an interesting survey of writers who pen effective sex scenes. ‘Many great novels portray sexual encounters as an inseparable part of the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life….as bodily, emotional experiences that inform each character’s unique sense of what it means to be alive.’

Contrasting scenes in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, or Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (that mango scene!), each give sexual encounters from different points of view and/ or at different stages in a character’s timeline. Those differences are marked in the tone and the coverage of the encounter.

One somewhat explicit scene I’ve written is told by an adolescent boy annoyed with his older stepbrother’s noisy nighttime antics on the sofa and determined to stop it. He encounters the scene:

There had to be more to sex than this. Piggy grunts. Flab dangling, limbs twitching, glowing orangey-pink in the light of the last lamp standing. Weren’t they getting sliced by old potato chip pieces? No, those chips must be soggy now.’

With that point of view, I’m freed from having to dwell long on the subject, but at the same time, I get to tell it like it is. Hopefully I’ve managed to strike that balance between leaving some to the imagination, and realistically, fully portraying my character.

How have you addressed writing about sex? Are there any writers you feel are particularly good at it?