The Wind-Up and the Pitch

This Week’s Bit of String: Playground tales

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

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

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

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

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

Withholding Information

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

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

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

Twisting round and round

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

Scaling Down

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

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

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

Hooked!

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

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

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

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

Do you have preferences over what gets revealed when?

Pride and Joy

This Week’s Bit of String: A lick of paint

Last Easter, after nine years living in our house, I realised I hated the colour of the lounge. Dismissing it as beige would be too good for it; it was a dingy, pinkish, dirty-flesh, off-white hue.

At the time, my 20-year-old kiddo was about to move to the USA, my husband was struggling, and I would sit in the lounge not daring to take up a project of my own because either they would need me for something or I would need to convince them to do something, at any moment. And as I stared at the walls and considered how best to help my family, whether to push or to cajole or to leave alone, I noticed that I loathed the room.

It took nearly a year to get round to changing it. I think it took 75% of that time for me to effectively communicate that I couldn’t bear it anymore. By now my little Bear was fairly settled overseas and my husband was doing well also. He has a very good sense for matters of structure and decor, and where I was desperate for almost any fresh paint at all, he was quite sensible and had lots of good ideas and eventually, with a tremendous amount of work, we unbeiged.

Unbeiged walls best complemented by garden roses and gorgeous baby cat.

We now have deep teal at one end of the lounge, and clean, pale greenish-aqua on the longest two walls. It’s fresh like a pool you could dive into. Might paint the final wall teal but that end is, unsurprisingly, taken up by large, full bookshelves, so my sense of urgency has faded.

It’s funny how we get these sudden revelations that something is intolerable. It’s funny too how things that have always been there, we’ll only start to discover. I’ve written before about how privilege delayed some of us in acknowledging the struggles of people in other races. I have to admit, as Pride Month comes to a close, that I was similarly tardy in recognising the plight of people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Early Encounters

The first time I remember someone actually discussing anything other than straight, non-cisgendered relationships, I was in first grade. A classmate used the term “pervert,” I asked what it meant, and my fellow 6-year-old replied, “It’s a man who has sex with other men.”

I wonder why that kid was given such a specific, rather homophobic definition. I wonder what sort of realisations he had as he got older.

Going to high school in the mid/ late 1990s, I had some classmates and friends who were able to be free and honest about their sexuality, and some who could not until later. I was unfazed by it, dealing with my own issues and not wishing to be hard on anyone else. But I did grow up in a church where such things were thought to be abnormal and downright wrong, and I realised during college that I had some prejudices.

This revelation was precipitated by a panel representing LGBTQIA + students from our campus. A girl among them shared how, when she came out, one of her older relatives sighed: “But you’re so pretty…”

My stomach lurched. I’d thought the same thing when I saw her amongst the group. I wasn’t attracted to her (I don’t work that way), but I suppose the implication was: She’s such a pretty girl, must she be squandered on something deviant? It’s a weird thought, because not only does it denigrate homosexual relationships, it also diminishes the value of women, as if beauty may only be reserved for men’s appreciation.

So I recognised that I’d been seeing this young woman as a character or a good-looking avatar, and had superimposed my own ideas of a happy relationship upon her. I had dehumanised her. I tried to be more aware and careful after that.

Going Beyond

You may notice I don’t use gendered language about my [no longer very childlike] child. Our Bear is nonbinary. In their words, it’s not something that can be explained because it’s not a decision. 

This makes sense. In the same way no one invents electricity, a person does not necessarily journey toward an identity. It was always there waiting to be acknowledged.

Love and colour in London during Pride month. “Love is the only language I speak fluently.”

The brilliant thing about Bear being nonbinary is that we can have discussions about music and baseball and relationships and also about nail varnish and hair length. Of course, any one person should be able to experiment with every one of those things. One reason my kiddo feels “not in between two genders, just above it (or done with it all)” is because throughout history, we’ve created ridiculously rigid definitions for male versus female.

It’s all gone a bit beige and then Pride comes along and freshens things up.

I tend not to say I’m proud of my child because they are their own person; I can’t take credit for the many attributes I love about them. But seeing them settle and feel more free about who they are makes me very happy.

Looking at etymology, the earliest roots of the word proud lie in being forward, first, like a chief or leader. Above things, you might say. I am grateful to those in the LGBTQIA+ communities for marching forward and leading us to be more inclusive and colourful.

What does Pride month mean to you?

Lost Darlings

This Week’s Bit of String: The adventures of Bugs and Daffy

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have it easy these days. They lie about in a languid knot near the pillows of my kid’s empty bed. In years past, they were subjected to all sorts of wrestling matches. They even had a go at cheese rolling; after a family outing to this inimitable Gloucestershire tradition, our Bear was inspired to throw a Baby Bel cheese down the stairs, and toss stuffed animals such as Bugs and Daffy after it, keeping score of who got closest.

When Bear started secondary school, and we reorganised their bedroom, I asked if we should thin out the crowd of stuffies huddling at the foot of their bed. “But they’re my friends!” objected Bear.

This didn’t last forever of course, and for the latter teen years, there were only three stuffies on the bed. Bugs, Daffy, and an old one of mine, Barney T. Moose (the T stands for “the,” of course). When Bear moved across the ocean, Barney went with them. Bugs and Daffy are holding down the fort, so to speak, and the other “friends” are in a very close-knit, backroom box-dwelling community.

Boxed up! Treasure trunk in a charity shop window.

Great emotional upheaval precedes a clear-out. I don’t know if it’s actual grief for previous incarnations of my little Bear, or if it’s the anxiety that grief will come. But I always end up so busy that after each massive overhaul, whatever I’ve boxed up does not prey on my mind. I don’t step into their vacant room and mourn the fact that Brown Puppy and Big Baby aren’t still on the bed. Not most days. I accept that life moves on.

Ruthless

These are the sorts of things I tell myself when another editing session looms. Bits I’m fond of will get boxed away. I’ll feel anxious as I cut and paste lines I like from my manuscript into my Rejected Quotes file.

But when I go into this file, I see segments pared from the last edited piece, a year or two ago. I’ve never developed them further. I forgot they existed. Yes, they’re good lines, but by now the story’s already made it into a magazine or anthology without them.

For me, preserving cut lines doesn’t actually benefit future work. It just enables me to feel ok about removing them from the current one. It’s like a little security teddy to cling to while I do the scary revision.

Have you ever turned cut lines or ideas from one story into a whole new project? Maybe I’m just not organised enough.

We are told to “kill our darlings” when editing. Don’t get too attached to passages you crafted, because they might not turn out to be relevant to your story’s core. Simply being well-written and liked by the author doesn’t justify being in a story. I’ve written recently about making writing fun, about throwing things in like a library scene or a favourite snack or song… those things can help keep us writing, but we can’t necessarily keep them in our writing. Sometimes temporary aids or fixes are an essential but impermanent part of the work.

It’s like growing up, isn’t it? The threadbare stuffed animals, the books read down to raggedness, the forays into sports or music. For a while we think we couldn’t live without them, but they may be less vital as we discover who we ultimately are.

Balance

I’m currently editing my manuscript for The Gospel of Eve. It’s hard to put a number on the edits because there are certain parts that I’ve gone over and adjusted countless times. As a whole, it’s the fourth comprehensive, planned revision.

This statue in Malmo, Sweden is called “Mother.”

Usually with my first big edit, I have an eye on the word count. I can’t help it. I get so worried about excess weight, I’m seeing what I can cut. With the second, I firm up characters’ trajectories. Then I have to go through again and see if it makes sense, given everything I’ve trimmed out. This time, I am again checking it coalesces around a theme.

I seem to swing from trying to cut, then needing to add… And all the while I’m wishing someone would tell me what’s right. Am I overexplaining, or being too cryptic? Introducing too many characters too fast in my rush to kick off the action? It can be so lonely, trying to get it right with no guide.

Rather like parenting. Not that books are where near as important as people, but the creation process has its similarities to parenting. How much do we push and lead, how much do we let our kids take their time and figure things out on their own? This happens to be a central issue of my book. Eve, as the first mother with only a sometimes-terrifying God as parental model, tries to discern how much freedom to allow her children, unsure how much she really has herself.

How do you go about editing, and capturing nothing more or less than the most important part of the story?

The Value of Ordinary

This Week’s Bit of String: A blue dress in an empty village

We take somewhat unconventional holidays. They’re often centred around seeing family, since no one lives near us, or else we’ll make it to another city or even country but only find affordable accommodation in the outskirts. Most recently, we combined both these by visiting Malmo, Sweden, where our son had travelled from the US for a gaming event.

We stayed in a hotel a few miles south of the lovely old town and castle. When we hiked there, or to the sea, we passed apartment blocks. Some older, used by immigrant communities, with Ukrainian flags or halal pizzerias. Some with separate car parking space and bike lockup for each flat. We passed allotments for veggie gardens, quadrants of circles carved out of parkland. There was a whole, mid-city village of “summer houses,” too: painted huts with little shared gardens, hammocks, berry bushes, barbecue grills, all vacant for now. Some had small glassed-in porches; I saw a pretty, short-sleeved blue dress hanging in one. Waiting for a party?

Horse-drawn cleaning cart for the high-rise outbuildings. Hyllie, Malmo, Sweden

It might be nice to stay in luxurious resorts or in city centres where you can just step out and go to the theatre or something. But I maintain that no vacation is complete without a day when you’ve walked at least ten miles, and seeing a dress in an empty summer house window or passing a preschool blasting out Moana while rosy-cheeked, blond kids in full snowsuits sniffle and shove at each other are every bit as fascinating to me as a museum or a palace.

Checking Out the History

Not to say that I don’t enjoy cathedrals and castles and all that. They’re intriguing glimpses into history, and more and more they try to reflect the wider experiences of citizens. We visited Malmo Castle, and learned about the strife between Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, reading about the people caught up in it, military and civilian, from both sides. There was also a very creepy recreation of a plague town from the early 1700s, complete with sound effects of children whimpering, because some people believed if you buried a child alive, the whole village would be saved from disease.

And there were horrific tales of torture and execution from the 1800s when the place served as a prison. There was an outline on the floor where a boy would have been beheaded, and child executions trigger me worst of all. Such a horrific lack of empathy.

On a slightly more hopeful note, the building later served as a shelter for refugees after World War II, and we saw one of the Swedish “white buses” which rescued thousands of people from concentration camps before the war ended, made possible by an agreement with Himmler—behind Hitler’s back.

I think travel, even when it’s not glamorous, serves to remind us of stories happening all around, at every echelon of society. It pricks my curiosity for how others live their lives, whether in a castle or in a high-rise apartment.

The Everyday Moments

The ordinary is worth noticing, not just in the places we visit, but in moments we spend with each other. While abroad, we ate most of our dinners at the shopping centre across from our hotel, treating our kiddo as well. In turn, we were given guest passes to the event so we could watch the game our Bear was streaming. It was a fun setup—arcade games, swinging chairs, soft serve ice cream. We cheered and readily made fools of ourselves as fans.

City view through a window of the Castle’s cannon tower

Later on, other gamers recognised my husband and I, saying how great that we’d come. It made me wonder, don’t their parents at least tune in virtually for their events? But a lot of people dismiss videogaming. I’ve never had time (or coordination, if I’m being honest) to do it myself, but I always tried my best to listen to the play-by-play accounts from my kid, so I could share in the successes and frustrations of one of my very favourite people. And look where it got Bear, having a blast in a city overseas, a break from the day job. It saddens me thinking how lonely some gamers must be at their families’ indifference, and how much their parents miss out. If people can’t summon the will to listen to their own kids’ interests, what hope for human empathy is there?

Now that I am separated from my child, living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, I miss quick conversations after work, the opportunity to provide a cup of tea or sandwich or cookie and be repaid with a smile and cuddle. I miss Bear popping down while I’m cooking or washing up. They would stand with one foot propped up behind the other knee like a stork, telling me about this or that game, how they might arrange the music, which gamer friend runs it, what time they hope to achieve speed running.

C.S. Lewis, in his memoir A Grief Observed, mentioned how he missed the “heartbreaking commonplace,” and that line has always stuck with me. The ordinary is so important. It’s the stuff we learn from, long for, and it’s vital for empathy, because when we talk about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, we don’t just mean their Sunday best.

Have you gained insight into people’s everyday lives from travel? Has it been useful for your writing or art?

Back to Eve

This Week’s Bit of String: Debating Lady Macbeth’s villainy

The Year 11s are learning Macbeth for their GCSE in Literature. I help sometimes in the small class with a number of special needs students, who have become impressively engaged in debating who the true villain of the play is. (The appeal for one boy is the “high kill count” in this particular story.)

To delve into the imagery Shakespeare uses—flowers and snakes and whatnot, and perhaps to help get us through the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, the teacher showed a brief video about the Biblical creation story. It was an outrageous little cartoon. God sounded super American; Adam (predictably lily-white and blond) had a slightly less egregious American accent; Eve sounded Eastern European but with strange, digitised diction as if she were a Satnav; and finally (again, sadly predictable) the devil-serpent had a British accent with African tones.

Both Eve and Lady Macbeth probably had a few things they wanted to wash away.

Eek. The makers of the video had also added a whole conversation between Eve and Adam, after the snake tempts her and before she takes the fruit. It was not unlike Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 6, along the lines of: “I think it would be great for us if we ate this fruit.” “What, no way, God said we shouldn’t…” “Come on, pleeeeease?”

It was as if some sect read the the start of Genesis and said, “This account is clearly written by woke amateurs who failed to spell out how fully the blame should fall on women. Let’s fix it.”

I took it as a sign, on that sunny autumn afternoon, that I should really get cracking on the in-depth edits for my own Creation myth.

Work in Progress

Drafted three years ago, The Gospel of Eve is my novel telling events from her point of view. It’s had terrific feedback so far, and I’m terribly fond of it, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to see what might need improvement.

It helps when I’m reminded why I wrote it in the first place, to explore the story and come up with an alternate voice. More specifically, I had been thinking about how Eve would learn to be a mother with no role models or preceding matriarch, how she would negotiate between guilt and hope, how desperate she’d be to give her children better lives, how not all of them would appreciate that. How she’d have to play matchmaker to her own children, and how that might make her reflect on her own relationship with Adam.

Contemplating what went on both in and outside the Garden gates

It’s tricky writing about mothering, because it’s such a consuming theme. By writing about Eve as a mum, am I stifling her individuality? Plus, living in prehistoric times it’s not as if she has recognisable hobbies of her own. A favourite book, a group of peers to hang out with. So in addition to firming up the narrative around Eve’s journey as a mother while I edit, I’m also trying to make sure her own voice comes out loud and clear.

Since my only child moved overseas 5 months ago, writing about being a mum is a nice substitute for a lot of the hands-on mothering I once did. Parenting is still a big deal in my life, and really it’s one of my favourite things. I’m glad it consumed me. But now I must pick at the bones that are left and see what comes up, while still juggling work and chores and waking up frequently between midnight and 3 a.m. to check online messages from my kiddo. (Don’t you love time zones?)

Cradle of Civilisation

Millennia later but not far geographically from where Eve’s story takes place, more women’s voices are being heard, as brave people rebel against Iran’s morality police and authorial government. I’m inspired by this as a writer and a human. I loved Rana Rahimpour’s interview with Jon Stewart. Her anecdotes will amaze you.

Cultural aspects of this region should amaze you too. I loved researching evidence of early Middle East civilisations, and learning how they used to store ice in the desert, or irrigate crops with tunnels a bit like underground canals. I ended up using the latter as a fairly pivotal plot point.

Considering how upset some people are that elves and mermaids can be depicted with different colour skin, I’m interested to see how they’d react to the parents of all humanity being casually described as having brown skin. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that humans populating punishingly hot regions and formed, according to legend, of the earth itself, would NOT be lily-white and blond. But people are weird. Gives me another incentive to promote this alternative, though perhaps more accurate version (if “accurate” is a term we can apply to a novel containing angels, demons, talking animals, and 800-year-old people).

So many thoughts and findings I’m eager to share. I’ll just make sure everything’s up to scratch! What challenges have you faced when editing? What challenges would you imagine for the first woman on earth?

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.

Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

The Exams Rant

This Week’s Bit of String… More a tangle of tension

I despise the British system of exams. I’m not a fan of A-Levels (the exams kids take in formal education at 18), but GCSEs (the ones at age 16) are the worst, because they’re so inflexible and unavoidable.

Exams at my American high school were more like tests. Designed by your teacher for your specific class, they’re marked by your teacher, and in most cases they’re only part of your final grade. You’ll get credit for essays and projects and presentations, homework, unit tests, and even participation in classroom discussion.

None of that is true in the UK. I hate the system as a parent and I hate it even more now that I’m working in secondary education again. This week has been very stressful, as the main national exams began. Our Year 11 students, along with all the 15 and 16-year-olds across this Small Island, sat down at the same exact moment to work through papers which determine their grades for the last two years of learning.

“Learning” being a loose term when it comes to spending two years practising for a passing grade on a paper distributed and marked by a government-sanctioned external body. Because if you don’t pass, the venue you chose for your next level of vocational training or academic education might not accept you.

Coping with stress. One of the Year 11 students and I have been creating our own oil pastel versions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and it’s been a lovely distraction.

The country has been brainwashed into believing that these exams are the only possible standard of achievement for teenagers. Even those of us who see the system’s flaws panic over what grades our students will get.

Binding the fates of every person in the whole nation to the same tests isn’t actually fair. I hate that every young human, regardless of need, interest, talent, or background, is forced to bow their head as one over a paper. Children are told they must come in even if ill. The student I’ve been working with most this year sat her first English paper on Wednesday doubled over with stomach cramps the whole time. Some go in streaming with hay fever, or fasting for Ramadan. Some go in having just been dumped by their boyfriend of over a year.

I hate seeing kids cry outside the exam hall every morning, or shake, or look miserable. I hate that the exams are so onerous, students joke about how great it would be to get a terminal illness so the exam board in their infinite mercy will tack an extra 5% on their scores. Other students are Googling, “If the Queen dies, will the next day’s exam be cancelled?”

Meanwhile, the 80% of the school’s students who aren’t exam age must spend a month being quiet at break times, moving to different classrooms, and even having their whole timetables changed in order to accommodate the national exams schedule. The teachers are all tense and terrified. They’re not trusted to assess their own students, of course.

There are special staff who monitor the students while taking exams. The invigilators. There are also “access arrangements” for students with special needs. Again, this is a loose term. A person with meticulously evidenced need may be granted access to someone who will read the questions for them, possibly scribe answers as dictated, or they may be granted rest breaks or extra time. Not super helpful for those with issues processing the questions or sitting still, and certainly nothing that helps the many students who struggle with anxiety.

More than half of our Year 11s have access arrangements. When a system must be modified for the majority of a population, maybe it’s time to assess them a different way?

I’m also making sure, no matter how drained I am, to get out at 5:45 for a good stomp in the fresh air to help me cope.

Because of the massive need for invigilating and access arrangements, I have to sit exams too. I sit quietly beside a student with only my bottle of water and my pencil case, just like her. I read her the questions and scribe her answers when asked. I can’t explain anything to her, and I can’t doodle or pick up a book and read. We’re both stuck there until the nationally mandated duration of the exam is up. I despise the sitting still, the stifling air. Students have been told that before entering the exam hall at 9 in the morning, they must decide whether or not to bring their jumpers with them. Because if they get hot in there with over 100 other people, they’re not allowed to take off their jumper and put it on the back of the chair. There could somehow be illicit information scrawled on these black uniform sweatshirts.

I hate that students spend 2 years studying just 2 books for English class, and a few poems. Blood Brothers, for example. I know it has a valid message, but using it to teach literature is like using a sledgehammer for brain surgery. Every student is taught to memorise the same quotes about being poor or rich. Every student memorises “sneer of cold command” from “Ozymandias” and “Be like the serpent under’t” from Macbeth. What a dull time grading those literature exams must be. If only students were encouraged to read widely, find what they love, and defend it.

I hate that for Science, kids are drilled on parts of the cell and the periodic table until their deduction and curiosity cease to exist. One of the questions on this week’s Biology paper was: “Why do you think there were no new cases of skin cancer among boys under age 15?” and our whole class was panicked about it after. “We never talked about boys with skin cancer in class. We didn’t go over that!”

I hate that when exams are finally done, students must wait 3 months to get their results, the anxiety hanging over them all summer as they wait to see if they’ll be able to move on in the direction they want to. I’ll be there that day late in August, telling them that whatever their marksheet says, they have tremendous value and the world still holds great things for them.

Did you do exams here in Britain and have you got any coping strategies or inspiring stories?

Punishment and Crime

This Week’s Bit of String: A 17-year-old’s options

At work, I have a student who’s not sure what to do next. He’s set to pass his exams when he resits them, but because he needed an extra year to do it, the local engineering college won’t take him. His access to transport in this rural area is limited, and so are the apprenticeships on offer.

I brought up his case with the teacher who’s supposed to be our Further Options expert. This got me a lecture on how “cold, hard reality” is about to hit our students after their “cosseted secondary school life.”

Do you remember secondary school feeling particularly cosseted? I wouldn’t have called it that. There’s exams, loneliness, bullies, hormones, plus whatever drama’s occurring at home.

Besides, it’s not the student’s fault that his family can’t provide transportation or that there are only a few apprenticeships around, and far fewer aligned with his interests. It’s not really his fault he needed more time to pass exams, considering that he has learning difficulties.

You can join the bluebells off the path if you want.

He needs more options. It’s not his fault they don’t seem to exist.

As the mum of a young adult, I’ve noticed at work and in domestic life that many grown-ups adopt a punitive attitude toward newer generations. There’s this expectation that they ought to account for every moment, and achieve relentlessly. If a young person chooses something outside the conventional rush toward adulthood, or simply takes extra time, they risk interrogation and censure. 

The Right to Choose

Our ability to make decisions is one of the main things that makes us human. But society seems to dehumanise people the instant certain choices are made. If you decide you need some time off from work, if you think university’s not for you–well, what use are you?

It’s similar with the abortion debate. Beating louder than a cluster of embryonic cells which may one day be a heart is this far-right message: If a woman decides continuing with a pregnancy or becoming a mother would negatively impact her and/ or her family, what use is she

A couple of weeks ago, a state congresswoman caused controversy by referring to pregnancy through rape as “an opportunity.” However, I didn’t see anyone calling out her message’s particularly insidious core. It’s not just that she felt women should be forced through pregnancy and birth after being forced into sex. It’s that she saw pregnancy, any pregnancy, as an opportunity for a woman “to make a determination about what she’s going to do to help that life be a productive human being.”

The implication here is that from the instant of conception, a woman’s sole focus should be contributing a new person to the world. A productive person, mind you, one who won’t have to, God forbid, resit exams or anything like that.

This idea achieves the remarkable feat of dehumanising everyone involved. Women become vessels without bodily autonomy; their babies are essential goods to enhance the “domestic supply of infants.” The men don’t even get a mention in the issue; it’s assumed they want no part. 

What We Deserve

Carrying a pregnancy to term is often framed in a similar, punitive way to how we talk to young people. “You play, you pay.” But is nine months of complete body alteration, often interfering with the ability to earn an income, and then the torture of childbirth, an excessive price for unprotected sex? 

I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime. And what does it say about conservatives’ attitudes toward children if their very existence is a punishment to wayward mothers? (Possibly a throwback to the idea that labour is a divine curse, something Eve wrestles with in my novel-in-progress.) Parenting can be pretty punishing at times, but it’s not actually supposed to be a punishment.

My kid: a truly marvelous human.

The callousness goes both ways. At age 20, I had my baby. I was alone and had terrible self-esteem, so why not just go through with it? I wanted my child, and I’m ever so glad he exists. But believing you’ve got nothing going for you so you might as well give birth isn’t the best child-rearing philosophy.

Meanwhile, no one else wanted me to stay pregnant. It took a while before my baby’s father changed his mind and we got married. I moved our gorgeous, bright little boy over to the UK so we could parent together. But when I got exhausted and homesick and asked for help, my mother-in-law pointed out, “Well, it was your decision to keep it.”

Making a choice doesn’t mean we have to keep doing the same thing all the time. We can take a little break. We can change course entirely. Rejecting an option means quelling one potential outcome, but it enables another. That’s our right as existing human beings. 

It’s tempting to trace all outcomes back to a single decision. Fun to attempt when you’re plotting as a writer; to wind your story tightly around one moment. Life isn’t really like that. You keep choosing things, and you keep getting affected by things you can’t choose. There’s no point, later on, blaming everything on one decision. The challenge of finding a local apprenticeship is not a direct result of one boy’s study habits two years earlier, and nor is a mum needing an evening to herself a complete repudiation of deciding to give birth. Let’s let people make their choices and keep giving them chances.



Illuminating Literary Women

This Week’s Bit of Spring: Tears of a teenaged girl

Student J is crying. She’s had to stay after school for personal tuition as her GCSE exams approach. Her boyfriend, whose hoodie she carries with her and cuddles at every lesson, has gone to hang out with friends who happen to be girls. J is 16 and convinced this dooms her relationship of nearly a year.

I have another 16-year-old student who sometimes comes in exhausted, saying she can’t sleep because of anxiety that her boyfriend will cheat on her like an earlier boyfriend did. The doubts circle in her mind and she can’t shake them.

We tell the girls it’s fine, look how much he likes you, of course he doesn’t want someone else. Now let’s do a bit of coursework. But truthfully, it’s not likely these relationships will last. I’m not disparaging the feelings young people have for each other, I’m just not convinced these two particular guys are that great. The girls will find new opportunities as they get older and probably, hopefully, better partners to share them with, plus other possibilities to try along the way.

Should we, instead of just placating, be stealthily building up young ladies for themselves so they’re not utterly devastated if and when they’re on their own for a bit? Pondering this made me wonder if I do that enough in my writing.

A Woman, Herself

Many of us know now about the Bechdel test for movies. Are female characters integral and autonomous enough within the plot so there are two named ones who converse about anything other than men? Think about it—this is rare.

In fact, when I considered it, it felt so rare I worried my own stories don’t pass the Bechdel test. Does it count if a novel or short story is told first-person by a female character? That way, we’re hearing her thoughts which are definitely not just going to be about men. (Sorry guys, you’re not quite that all-consumingly important.)

Disopedience–Action–Liberation graffiti in Stroud

Books and short stories are different from films—we can’t use the same feminism test on them. That’s why there’s the slightly more complicated but really useful Johanson analysis. Named for the critic MaryAnn Johanson, who writes on the FlickFilosopher website, it measures books or films in 4 main areas to see if they adequately portray and represent a gender which makes up half the world’s population.

Does the story grant centrality to a female character? Does she have her own arc somewhat independent of the male characters?

Is she able to influence others or is she merely influenced by them? Are female figures given authority and is that at least partially shown in a positive light?

When introducing or describing female characters, is more attention given to their physical appearance than anything else?

Are women (and characters identifying as women) defined by more than tropes or family roles?

These are really good questions, which I think my work mostly satisfies. I’ll definitely be keeping them in mind during my rewrites though, particularly since checking characters’ trajectories and making sure they actually develop as humans is always high on my list.

Let’s Talk About Relationships

Feminism isn’t Fight Club, so far as I know. We’re allowed to talk about all sorts of things and view them from a feminist angle. That includes men and our relationships with them; after all humans do crave relationships whether we want to or not. Most guys I know talk about relationships a lot. It does not diminish their identities, and nor should wanting a partnership diminish women’s individuality.

Wedding Dresses through history display at a local church. Women’s history isn’t just marriage, but marriage is part of our history.

When we meet up with friends, don’t we spend a fair bit of time discussing our families? Or discussing work. (I think work is more dehumanising than marriage, for most of us.) Being a mum is the most important part of my identity, even more so than being a writer, and I don’t think that makes me backward or less feminist. That’s what drew me to the novel I’ve lately been working on, The Gospel of Eve. In a feminist way, it gives Eve a chance to tell her side of the legend, and as she’s sometimes referred to as the first mother, it’s also an opportunity to explore various relationships.

Obviously we don’t want art or literature in which supporting and talking about men is the sole purpose of a female’s inclusion. But penalising books about relationships would affect a lot of work, by female and male writers, and beloved by readers of all kinds.

If we discouraged the young people in our care from talking about their relationships because it’s unenlightened, we’d shut ourselves out of something really important. We would be unable to support them when they might need help. As educators, role models, guardians, and writers, we want to explore all things, from relationships to our core individual selves.

For further reading on feminism in literature, Roxane Gay wrote an excellent essay on it in Dissent Magazine. Here’s her guiding definition: “A feminist novel illuminates some aspect of the female condition and/ or offers some kind of imperative for change and/ or makes a bold or unapologetic political statement in the best interests of women.”

What literature has illuminated something for you? What bold statements have you found inspiring, and do you have thoughts on creating your own?