Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

At my smallish rural high school, tragedy was not uncommon. We all knew what it meant when first period was extended and extra staff stood at attention near the doors. In 11th grade the prepared statement informed us a Finnish exchange student I’d befriended had died in a car crash that morning.

Eventually released from the classroom, I held back my own tears thinking about Milja’s parents, thousands of miles away, receiving a phone call from someone who didn’t even speak their language to tell them…

And the students who’d been in the car with her, how on earth would they cope with this trauma?

I heard one boy complain to his friends, ‘I don’t care if some girl died; don’t take part of my break for it.’

So many people are affected by a tragedy. Milja’s memorial service was packed, and given her shyness, I suspected many mourners hadn’t known her well9. At the time I may have resented that a bit; how dare they trespass upon our more legitimate grief? But I do understand we can be touched by lives we didn’t fully participate in, especially when we’re young.

It seems sometimes there’s a race to the bottom as everyone claims to be a victim. We’re told by the President of the United States that this is a scary time for young men and that ‘women are doing fine.’ As writers we often take it on ourselves to portray those who suffer most. Is it a good idea now and then to get into the heads of those who suffer less? How do we determine who’s the real victim in a situation, who is the most voiceless?

Who’s Hurting

During the National Association of Writers Groups conference, I went to science fiction writer Ken MacLeod‘s talk, attracted by the workshop’s title: ‘Who’s Hurting? How to Choose Your Protagonist.’ He set exercises imagining a change in the world, and examining who would most be hurt by it.

Early morning web on a reddened bush
So many strands to follow…

I imagined a complete shutdown of immigration in the UK, and sketched out a variety of people. A British woman forcibly estranged from her Nigerian fiancé, an Iranian student worrying about his family, a British pensioner unable to fulfill her dream of emigrating to Australia and now stuck on a small rainy island which inexplicably continues to have traffic jams and strapped public services despite ridding itself of those pesky foreigners. It’s fun to put someone like that in, to mirror our most self-centred instincts.

I assigned the exercise to my writing group last week as well, providing newspapers so they could base scenarios on current events. I was treated to a great variety of snippets: about AI parole officers, neighbourhood sinkholes, post-Brexit deep sea fishing practices, and more.

Portraying Victims

Once we’ve seized a plot idea and mapped out its effects on potential characters, we need to reflect on how to convey those voices. Amid heightened awareness regarding appropriation, sometimes respectful distance is required. Considering different characters doesn’t mean we can or should pose as them.

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was struck by Japanese author Masatsugu Ono’s honesty about his novel Lion Cross Point, which concerns a little boy relocating after terrible trauma. When asked how he chose the point of view for his novel, he said he initially wanted to tell the mother’s story, but struggled to grasp her psychology. ‘Of course,’ he noted, ‘I am man.’

So he switched to her young son’s point of view, because ‘he had the most suffering.’ But then he shied away a bit. Ono felt that since he hadn’t been through what his child protagonist had, ‘it wouldn’t be fair to the boy’ to appropriate his voice. Instead, he gave himself some distance and allowed some doubt about the events.Main arch into the Cheltenham Literature Festival site at Montpellier Gardens

His rule for himself when dealing with the sensitive subject of abuse recovery was, ‘Never say definitely what happened, but perhaps.’

While I’m not a fan of intentional withholding in storytelling, his approach as recounted in the Festival’s cosy Nook venue made sense. As writers we want to ensure the most aching underbelly of events is exposed. But we need to do so without presumption. There’s so much we can’t know, and maybe we shouldn’t pretend we do.

Portraying Non-Victims

Mr. Ono’s talk made me think about how larger events are portrayed through literature. Take the Holocaust, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about Europe in that era that doesn’t have a central Jewish character. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay links a privileged late twentieth century woman to a terrorised Jewish child under the Vichy puppet government. In Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, an American woman sets out to investigate the experiences of German bystanders like her mum—until (spoiler alert) she finds out that actually, her mother had her with a Jewish man who was then killed in the nearby concentration camp. So in fact she and her mother were perilously close to being condemned themselves.

Conserving Holocaust remembrances is vital, and we must keep working tales of the persecuted into our stories. But how many of us are really going to be victimised in that way? As culture wars and partisanship reach a feverish pitch, there’s a lot to watch out for: stealth legislation against immigrants, income inequality, climate change. Many of us, though, will remain free to post thoughtful Facebook statuses and campaign for paper straws and march for Planned Parenthood and then just get on with our lives.

So I wonder if we need a few stories about the ‘lucky’ ones. What’s the best way to help when other people’s worlds crumble? We see stories of infiltrating corruption from the top, or starting revolutions from the bottom. How do we sacrifice the comfort of the middle (admit it, there are comforts…) and join the battle?

When it comes down to it, tragedies affect us in various ways. If not directly then they remind us to care, like the people who turned up at Milja’s funeral. Or they force our indifference like the boy complaining about the minutes shaved off of breaktime. In choosing our characters, let’s remember that drawing attention to issues through our writing doesn’t allow us to be victims ourselves. It doesn’t replace taking other courses of action to help. Where do you find yourself in the race to the bottom?

Next time, Managing the Voices, Part 2: Collection. We’ll look at the ethics, or lack thereof, behind gathering material for our characters, and we’ll find out what happened to the boy who claimed not to care about Milja’s fate.

Plot Twist!

This Week’s Bit of String: Totally random, last-minute allegations

The latest U.S. Supreme Court nominee looked fresh out of central casting, just how the Republican President likes them. A prep school-educated soccer dad, a longtime federal judge who’d prosecuted Clinton and defended George W. Bush, Brett Kavanaugh would surely win confirmation by the required slim majority in a Congress dominated by his own party.

Suddenly, an opposing senator produced a woman who said bad things about the soccer dad! Total plot twist—who could have seen that coming?

Except, of course, that spontaneous plot twists rarely happen in real life. There are tremors before a facade breaks. The judge’s confirmation process in the Senate had already been contentious, with Republicans rushing procedures, and evidence Kavanaugh lied under oath about receiving documents stolen from Democrats during the Bush administration.

In the meantime, before the full allegations were public, Kavanaugh attempted to shore up character witnesses among former classmates.

Before that, when Kavanaugh’s name merely featured on the Republican shortlist of Supreme Court justice contenders, research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford tried to get word to the Capitol via her own Congresswoman. Six years earlier, Dr. Blasey-Ford had confided to her husband and to a therapist that Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a teen.

This is the far-reaching timeline on the individual level, saying nothing of the conflict’s political roots. There was bitterness over President Obama’s nominee being blocked from even getting a hearing, but I suspect Supreme Court positions slid into partisanship long before that.

We’re sometimes told to put twists in our stories, a formula foisted particularly on short stories. But I’m dubious, not just because my own ideas tend to unfurl rather than wrench. Some twists are either overused or dropped in with insufficient forethought.

Twist vs. Mystery
A narrowing forest trail under beech trees
Twists ahead?

Any good story should move a reader. It might shake us up, or pry us open to new viewpoints, or rob our breath as we pursue the outcome. If a concept is fresh, I’m not sure it needs a twist, because there’s no danger of guessing the ending. And if the characters are engrossing, we’ll be biting our nails to see if they’re okay.

Twists have a long literary history, but there’s always a prevailing trend. For the ancient Greeks, the plot twist tended to be a deity (or in Iocaste’s unfortunate case, a son) in disguise. Shakespeare carried this on with his mistaken identity plot twists and fatal presumptions, and Dickens evolved this further by ensuring many characters turned out to somehow be related, often to someone with a fortune. In our current age of psychological awareness, many twists pertain to troubled pasts. Crime dramas usually have an insider working for the villain, reflecting increased distrust toward institutions.

Given these trends, twists can be predictable. But they don’t have to be wedged in just before a story’s conclusion. While at the National Association of Writers Groups conference a month ago, I attended a workshop on plotting and utilising twists. It was given by Simon Hall, a former BBC journalist and current writer of The TV Detective series.

Mr. Hall reminded us that suspense is of paramount importance and that twists can come in the form of unreliable narrators, or confounded conventions. Pace can be maintained by rows or chases. His advice for creating drama: “Corner your character like a feral animal.”

Trails crossing and winding around the Malvern Hills
Many paths, many options

I like the idea that a twist can simply defy expectations, particularly as my current project is a novel from Eve’s point of view. There’s a wealth of supposed knowledge to subvert. But I also think about the books I’ve read and loved. The ones that engross me do so because of the characters.

For example, I loved Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The midway point-of-view change was the most shocking twist I’ve ever read, but she gave herself time to justify the complete reversal. I then read her latest book, The Paying Guests. It had no point-of-view switch, no misdirection, no big shocker. But I was completely hooked, terrified things wouldn’t turn out all right for the heroines.

Casting a Foreshadowing

I asked the Twittersphere how important twists are in non-genre fiction. Scifi/ fantasy writer Wilfred said, “I’m not a huge fan of twists that seem to come out of nowhere and only demonstrate the writer’s determination to stay one step ahead. I do love a twist that would still surprise me yet at the same time remind me of a previous chapter.”

Author and Road to Publishing blogger I.M. Moore agrees that “if a twist is way too obvious or comes completely out of left field without any evidence to back it up, I get a bit annoyed.”

Poet Anne Sheppard, whom I’m privileged to know off-Twitter as we’re in the same Writers’ Group, distinguishes between plot twists and suspense: “Not too keen on plot twists but I do like to be surprised.”

Author and micropoet Ellen Grace offered this reminder: “You are the conduit for the story. If the story has a twist in it, then it has a twist in it. But it’s never a good idea to shoehorn one in just because you think there should be one.”

And freelance writer Libbie Kay Toler echoes, “It’s your path to explore.”

Some paths are twistier than others. There’s a certain deliciousness in occasionally bucking the trend and letting a villain be a villain, without or despite a tortured past (like Voldemort, and maybe like some on the opposing side wanted Brett Kavanaugh to be).

We know how some stories will go—but we devour them, anxious to see how rather than what. Take Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, books with narrators reflecting over an incident. I’m more inclined to revisit a book like this than something with a more dramatic twist. After all, if a shocker is my prevalent memory of a book, I can never recapture that surprise. But when anticipation builds, I want to go back and savour those clues.

TV writing provides further examples. I’ve been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it’s an antidote for how Dr. Blasey Ford and other assault victims are being spoken to, and laughed at, in certain circles of power.)

Network of roots from an upturned tree
Roots in all directions

I love mining the show’s seams of foreshadowing. Near the beginning of Season 2, Buffy first fights with Spike. “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit,” he sneers, and she counters, “No Spike, it’s going to hurt a lot.” No truer words ever spoken by characters destined to fall in love.

Part of my editing process is ensuring the seeds are planted. To lightly play up encounters that will later be significant, to ensure that a particular aspect of a setting is briefly noted ahead of time. John Irving’s books keep up the pace with seemingly random, entertaining incidents, but they all turn out to be pivotal plot points, as with “the Stunt” and the dressmaker’s dummy and the armadillo in A Prayer for Owen Meany. With him, the excitement is as much in finding how it fits together as finding out what happens.

In real life, twists tend to double back on themselves. Those who speak up can be brushed aside. It’s no surprise that the Republican party didn’t properly examine their authoritarian president’s Supreme Court nominee. Every dramatic twist these days gets bulldozed over rather than ironed out, and seems to make no difference. (Remember Omarosa’s tapes? Paul Manafort’s plea deal? All consigned to the red herring barrel.)

If there’s going to be a new ending, the clues are small and in the background. And maybe we haven’t spotted it because we aren’t following the right characters.

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.

How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?

 

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?

 

 

Size Matters: Short Stories vs. Novels

This Week’s Bit of String:   A cat in a bin

A few years ago, a man couldn’t find his cat. Luckily, he’d rigged CCTV outside his house, and he found that a woman passing by had stroked the cat, then picked it up and put it in his wheelie bin.

The outraged owner shared the video in a quest to identify this dastardly villainess. Once named, the woman received death threats from every corner of this United Kingdom.

Remember that?

Turned out the woman had been walking home from visiting her dying father. She always said, ‘I just didn’t know what I was thinking.’

It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if the cat’s owner wasn’t hooked on surveillance. But we all do bad things. We just don’t get CCTVed doing them. Would we want our entire lives judged by a misdeed that took a few seconds?

Following the Thread
Warren Falls, VT
Warren Falls, Vermont: The big picture

Operating on that principal question, I began a short story back in 2011 about an upstanding man who, under stress, does something misconstrued as animal cruelty. But I never finished it.

It wasn’t suited to be a short story because there were too many questions. How did the disgraced culprit cope with the aftermath, and how did it affect his family? What about the person who publicised the transgression; did they regret provoking such bad will?

Last year I snowflaked it into a novel using this story planning technique, and wrote a draft in six months. So this particular Bit of String, when I pulled at it, revealed not a 2000-word competition entry, but an intricately plaited novel that I will edit and query this summer: The Wrong Ten Seconds.

Differences of Dimension: Length and Depth

I conducted a little Twitter poll this week to see what some of my fellow writers prefer: writing flash fiction, short stories or novels. The answer was resoundingly in favour of novels, with writers commenting that they enjoy fostering the ‘depth of character’ a novel requires (thanks to Libbie Toler), and the ‘total immersion in both the world and the plot.’ (Thanks to Donna Migliaccio.) I prefer novels myself, because I can let my characters go a little more. And they’re just easier.

A Writer’s Digest article on the difference between the two fictional forms proposes a test of theme: ‘If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.’ I suppose that when I started my short story version of The Wrong Ten Seconds, I was trying to make a statement. But that then inspired me to accompany the characters on their journey, so it became a novel.

Differences of Possibility
Warren Falls, Vermont
Warren Falls, Vermont: Close-Up

In current literary culture, it’s not fashionable to use writing to make statements. We’re supposed to show, not tell, aren’t we? That’s what makes short stories so difficult. Convey an idea, but don’t preach. Create sympathetic characters in very few pages. The advantage of writing a short story, perhaps, is some freedom in the ending. As Chris Power wrote for The Guardian, ‘Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity.’

To me, that is the defining reason that makes an idea a short story rather than a novel. How much do I want to know about the end? It comes back to the What Ifs. When there’s a single central question, and I can’t bear to probe too far, I write a short story. Cowardly, isn’t it? While I find short stories artistically more challenging, emotionally I can stop them from taxing me as much as novels do. I didn’t need to decide, for example, what ultimately happened to Hannah and her son Jack in ‘The Apocalypse Alphabet.’ The statement was already made.

Differences of Literary Elements?

Short stories are more difficult for some of us because they still require all the ingredients of a novel. Plot, character, message, setting; they must be there, but condensed. It’s like these two photos: each picture has the same things in them—water, rocks, a person/ people—but one is close-up. That’s the short story, see. And because it’s zoomed in, those elements have to be damn near flawless.

Thanks to condensing those literary elements, the short story packs a powerful jolt. I love the way Joanna Carter, who’s written successfully in both literary forms, described the difference between short stories and novels at one of Bristol’s Novel Nights last summer: ‘A short story is a skeleton bursting from the closet. It’s raw, a moment of truth. A novel has to put flesh on those bones.’

Both relevant, both exciting. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you find either one more challenging to write?

The Whole Story, and Nothing But the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: A swimmer’s happiness

Once I was at the town pool when a group of adults with learning difficulties were brought for a swim. A young man stood in the shallow end, his fingers prancing over the waist-high surface of the water, and declared, ‘I am EXACTLY happy. Right now, I am exactly happy.’

One like graffiti
Let’s not overstate things. One like will do. (Graffiti in Bristol)

His words have stayed with me for years. In literature, though, no self-respecting author would allow a character to be so straightforward. We’re supposed to give readers evidence of emotion, not outright testimony. Show, don’t tell. Leave something to the imagination. But how much?

Last week I lamented the heavy-handedness, the lack of nuance, in a couple of pieces deemed ‘Literature’ by the GCSE exam board. As I researched that post, I found articles both advocating and opposing subtlety, which I’ve continued to explore this week.

How hidden should messages and motives be in literature?

In Defence of Subtlety

Iconic writers from the post-modern to contemporary age favour rendering the author invisible in his or her own work. Ernest Hemingway described his Theory of Omission in the 1930s, insisting writers leave out as much of their own experience as possible. John McPhee summed the theory up for the New Yorker: ‘Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.’

Why? Joanna Scott, in a comprehensive piece for The Nation last summer, rounded up critics and authors to extol ‘The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.’ I particularly liked her quotes from David Mikics, who’s written a book called Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He praised the ‘tactile and palpable
sense of a material object being worked on,’ explaining that reading challenging texts not only exercises creativity and patience, but also nurtures a love for the versatility of words and the layering of meaning.

butterfly-window-reflection
Honestly, who wants to see the photographer’s reflection? Butterfly window in Chalford, Gloucestershire

The word subtle itself, I discovered, is rooted in the Latin term for finely textured, just as the modern word text is derived from the Latin term texere; to weave. A text is meant, then, to have various components intermingling. It’s meant to be a challenge to take apart.

My characters often don’t say precisely what they feel, because how often do we in real life? I use dialogue, and try to minimise internal commentary, so readers can inhabit the action, watching it unfold. Here’s a scene from Artefacts, between a married couple on what becomes a climactic morning:

‘Where’s the peanut butter?’

‘In the top left cupboard.’

Mike opened a door. ‘It’s just dishes in here.’

She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the, um, right one.’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It’s my right, but it’s the cupboards’ left.’

‘Yes…the peanut butter is in the cupboard on your left.’

So it was. Mike set it on the counter with a bang. ‘That’s the opposite of what you said a minute ago. It’s like the difference between saying “Stage left” and “to the left of the audience.” You should know that.’ He spread peanut butter onto his toast with such vigour the surface cracked.

She handed him his trousers without looking at him. ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you to look in a left or right anything before, or has your entire life been on a stage?’

Against Subtlety

There are other things to learn from reading, however, apart from interpretive skills and quiet resilience. I wrote a couple weeks ago about books that have changed my thinking, and those haven’t always been subtle (although certainly well-written and multi-layered).

Slate editor Forrest Wickman wrote a thorough piece Against Subtlety: The Case for Heavy-Handedness in Art, pointing out that our obsession with ‘highbrow,’ subtle literature stems from elitist ideas at the start of the twentieth century. He cited DH Lawrence writing: ‘There should be again a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything.’ Much of art that has affected change, Wickman argued, is not coy or cryptic. It’s communicating a clear message: Something has to give!

brass-handle-reflection
There’s always some reflection…

He has a point. Why let a character speak up if you don’t let them say what they think really happened?

Last week, Helen Marten won the Turner Prize for her art, ‘labyrinthine works’ which critics have compared favourably to puzzles, while also praising ‘the emotionally provocative nature’ of her pieces. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. His lyrics are sometimes obscure, but his perhaps most memorable song, Blowing in the Wind, poses very blunt, if beautifully phrased, questions about what the hell human beings allow to happen to each other. So balance and juxtaposition are allowed, and perhaps should be encouraged.

I like giving my brain a workout on big, tricky books. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to intrigue me. But I expect to understand them better as the story unfolds. Any story is a character’s journey from one state of mind to another, and I want to accompany them, if not in their pocket, then at least in a neighbouring vehicle or a surveillance helicopter. And often, as we travel through a story, what starts as subtle and composed may begin to fray as the stakes get higher, and emotions may bleed through more strongly. Those shouldn’t repel us; they should draw us in even more.

After all, just because that one man in the swimming pool stated his feelings clearly, I never lost interest. I still wonder about him. Did he measure all his feelings in precise percentages? Was it a coping mechanism, or part of his genetic makeup? Were there things that made him exactly angry, or exactly sad?

There are always more layers. Always more questions.

GCSE Curriculum: Is It Literature?

This Week’s Bit of String: A Student’s Holiday Mix-Up

‘Miss, aren’t you excited about Christmas? Remember, Jesus died then!’

It was one of those teaching moments when you need Rewind and Slow Down buttons. ‘You mean He died just before Easter,’ I said.

‘No, He was born at Easter; that’s why there’s eggs everywhere, and baby animals. We celebrate Him getting killed at Christmas, by hanging stuff on trees.’

My student, in his first GCSE year at the time, had misinterpreted these symbols and traditions. But he legitimised it with evidence.

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct...
There’s a sign like this in our school library.

These days we hear of fake news, false equivalency, and other such ‘post-truth’ terms. Dangerous as those are in the political realm, the literary world has operated on a somewhat post-truth basis for some time—with the essential caveat that you cite passages to support your claims.

Evidence-gathering and interpretation are essential skills we get from studying literature. Interpreting characters’ motives, which builds empathy and social skills; plus interpreting the culture and time period the author belongs to.

In the UK, Year 10 and 11 students (aged 14-16) must earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education in Literature. The national exam board offers a limited range of literary works for students to be tested on: one of six selected Shakespeare plays, one of seven nineteenth century novels, one of twelve dramas or novels written since 1914 (by British authors only), and one themed ‘cluster’ of fifteen poems. Adolescents spend two years studying these four works, and then take the exam.

The list of literature options changed controversially two years ago, dropping American classics such as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. After the fuss kicked up over the changes, do the remaining options qualify as literature?

Interpreting Characters
school-bathroom-graffiti-spoilers
Found in the girls’ toilet in the Art/English corridor. ‘George shoots Lennie.’ ‘Piggy and Simon die…’

To me, several of the GCSE offerings lack character depth. I haven’t read all of them, and I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just not sure they’re literature. An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers share upper class villains, while several other books such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have quite clear-cut ones as well. Scrooge and Mr. Darcy undergo transformations, but their paths are quite obvious. There’s not a lot of mystery on why they change; students need do no serious detective work to examine it.

The most interesting characters are probably the plethora of bystanders and enablers in these tales: Mr. Bennett neither humouring nor challenging his wife’s ridiculous behaviour and Mrs. Lintott apparently looking the other way regarding her beloved co-worker’s paedophilic tendencies; the animal subjects of Animal Farm and the other boys on the Lord of the Flies Island.

Probing the motives of those who get caught in the action and end up almost unwittingly serving as catalysts is particularly relevant today, as far-right factions take hold in more governments. What drives a Macbeth and a Dr. Frankenstein? Let’s hope the exam board will encourage that sort of discussion.

Interpreting Culture and History

I don’t think Americans are going to suffer for no longer being represented in the GCSE curriculum; we’re not exactly a silent, repressed minority. The requirements for modern literature include stories by second-generation immigrants, and some about immigrants, too, plus Curious Incident, about a boy on the autism spectrum. And there are plenty of plots that highlight (sometimes glaringly, as in the aforementioned Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers) issues surrounding class and socioeconomic status.

It’s a decent start. Each one has its own argument to pick with the world, as I previously noted Salmon Rushdie said books must do. Each one attempts to harrow us a little bit, with various degrees of effectiveness.

books-fight
Spotted in an alley in Lewes. That’s right: books fight.

Teacher Tom Payne, writing in The Telegraph (which also, being The Telegraph, gave Conservative then-Minister of Education an opportunity to defend the changes in literature choices), raised this concern: ‘does this [rule that post-1914 literature studied must originate from the British Isles] mean that the question of Britain and its former empire has to be examined from the perspective of these islands? After all, much of the best literature on the subject comes from the lands Britain colonised: the Empire writes back.’
This is a good point. The removal of OMAM and TKAM disappointed me because I’d seen white students infatuated with the ‘n-word.’ Often, their perspectives matured after reading Of Mice and Men, as they realised the actual conditions from which the word derived its power; the threat and malice behind it. It’s important to keep those issues present in the literature we teach adolescents, because recognising others’ suffering, often at the hands of our own governments and even at benefit to ourselves, is an essential argument to keep putting before the world. And as fake news proliferates, the classics set a standard for us that’s not easily misinterpreted.