The Writerly Autumn Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Falling in love with fall

In sixth grade we had to write a book each month. All right, they were supposed to be booklets rather than books, but mine were more like the latter. Research articles, questionnaires, collages, and there was always a story required.

I would do a few bits early on, but always ‘saved the best for last,’ which was of course the story, which always threatened to turn into a novella once I finally began it a couple days before the due date.

Nothing to do with procrastination, mind. I was saving the best for last. The ‘easy’ part. The ‘fun’ part.

On the eve of the September or October due dates, I set myself up on the unenclosed deck behind our house. I would write for hours as it got dark. Night swallowed the hydrangea bush and its still-clinging, skeletal flower petals; the apple tree which only gave runty, gnarled, pale green fruits now rotting between its kicked-up roots; the marshy back yard carpeted with crisply curling willow leaves. The smell of decay was sweet, freshened by cold setting in, forcing into retirement the moths that would have rushed the light.

Sun lights up autumn leaves and a hill view.
Dursley Orchard view of Cam Peak, Gloucestershire

I was afraid of the dark. Wildlife lurked in the strand of woods beyond the back yard—I’d had a terrifying encounter with a fisher cat the summer before. But I felt brave to be out there in it. I felt clever and grown up keeping such hours. And I felt my pencil was adequate defence and protection.

That’s possibly when I started to love autumn, and to see it as a great opportunity to create. And if a small Twitter poll I conducted this week is anything to go by, it’s the favoured season for a majority of other writers, too. Why is that?

Starting Over

Despite the Facebook memes, there’s a lot more to fall than horror films and pumpkin spice lattes. I think the reasons we love it and get motivated by it are sociological as much as meteorological.

Fall is back-to-school time. It’s basically New Year’s but without the misery of January. We are embedded with memories of restarting education, mixing with different groups of people, setting higher goals, opening up to fresh ideas. This timetable stays with us well past graduation.

In the thirty-one years since I started kindergarten, I’ve only had three when I wasn’t either heading back to school myself (as a student or teaching assistant), or supporting my son through the start of his school year, or both. And in one of those three outlying Septembers, I had a baby, and in another I emigrated.

Talk about new beginnings.

For writers it’s also the time of quite a few literary festivals. I’m reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival in two weeks (event L322), and Stroud Book Festival in November. Plus I’ll be in the audience for several other events. Perhaps the cooling temperatures make us crave coming together to hear stories. Other writers may be preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo, to have a frantic write before the holiday season.

To be sure, there’s a lot going on. I’ve written before about how winter can be a great time for writing, and that showed to be a relative favourite among writers on my Twitter poll, as well. Autumn is my greatest love. But I often feel as if Thanksgiving comes and goes, I look up from all the work I’ve been doing, and I feel as if I’ve missed the fall.

I’m guessing that happens to other busy writerly types too, so I’ve written this helpful checklist for us.

Autumn Bucket List for Writers

Walking through the spiderwebs: Take advantage of wet weather to wander and observe rain glistening on the spiderwebs. Make sure to look from every angle. Isn’t it rather inspiring that these gems come from hideous creatures we avoid, produced against a backdrop of weather we might prefer to sleep through?

Rainy cobweb over a canal lock mechanism
Stroudwater Canal, Gloucestershire

Make like a tree and leave: Get out and gather as many glorious specimens of autumn leaves as you can find. I strew them along my mantel and shelves and ride them through my memories like tiny magic carpets. Study the intricate network of veins that binds them. And the ones you can’t take home, crush them. Go on, you know you want to.

Can it, dammit: Find some foodstuff and preserve it somehow in a jar. Or in the freezer, but if you use jars you can pretend you’re a pioneer. Then you can feel resourceful, and write about it.

Squirrel! Kick some leaves around in a park and watch the squirrels gathering nuts. What does the world look like through the eyes of a squirrel? I think the animal world has loads of fascinating detail to write down and provoke the imagination (More on this in a future post).

Take yourself back to school: Pursue nonfiction reading, to jumpstart the autumn-as-new-year mentality. I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, with Natalie Haynes’ book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life up next.

Get thee to a book festival, go: The vibe is terrific to get you reading and writing afterwards. I’ll be extending my learning opportunities at a few different talks and literary events. Expect updates soon!

Wear the heck out of your sweaters and scarves: Cultivate that Bohemian artist freezing in a garret look so you can pretend to be a whole different type of pioneer. I may need to refresh my stock of these accessories, but that would mean clothes shopping and would completely counter my goal of enjoying autumn to the max.

Fire at will: Never miss an opportunity for pyrotechnics. Spicy scented candles, an electric blaze in the hearth, Bonfire night—whatever the autumnal occasion, let your imagination be transported by the smell of woodsmoke, the bright dancing flames, the warm crackle and the collective awe.

Celebrate anniversaries: If you’re anything like me, each school year epitomised a new musical revelation. Eighth grade was Les Miserables, eleventh was Tori Amos. Take the chance to revisit how these phenomena might have changed you. And look out for new revelations as the seasons change again.

What will you be trying to fit in this fall?

Putting Flesh on the Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Idea (Skeleton)

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

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

The Questions (Muscles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Connections (Tissue)

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

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

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

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

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

The Actual Writing (Skin)

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

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

Books Aren’t Babies

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

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

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

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

Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills. So many paths.

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

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

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

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

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

Create, Revise, Release, Repeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Do They Get Away With It?

This Week’s Bit of String:

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

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

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

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

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

First Page Requirements

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

*An sympathetic and intriguing protagonist

*No more than two characters; avoid overload.

*Unique voice

*Accessible, appealing style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule Breakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

The Most Important Things

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

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

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

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

Labour supporters in Stroud during the general election
Rallying support

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

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

Defining Importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About You?

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

Sunlight shining onto woodland path
Illuminating the path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satisfaction: Friend or Foe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Toast to the Groom…’

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

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

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

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

Staying Hungry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stories on Buses

This Week’s Bit of String: Stagecoach Route 65

If you’re going to commute to work on rural buses, you need a bus buddy, or at the very least a placeholder.

I have a placeholder for my morning commute. She’s in Year 11, and we’re going to call her Ella. When I approach the bus stop in an inevitable rush, she’s already there. Through the hedges I see her bleach blond hair and baby blue hoodie over her tight-winched school uniform and I know I’m safe. The bus hasn’t been five or six minutes early instead of the three or four I make sure to give myself.

We don’t generally speak. We listen to our headphones and make polite, wordless gestures insisting the other board the bus first.

This is normal, of course, not speaking to strangers. Maintaining boundaries, erring on the side of giving extra distance because this seems more polite. Last week I posted about eliminating distance in our writing, about creating immediacy and manoeuvring the characters as close as we can to the readers. How often do we try, these days, to eliminate distance in real life? And is this a good thing, that we allow them to exist?

Case History

Here’s the thing with Ella. I’ve known her since she was in Year 2; I know her family. Not well, mind, but a few pages’ worth of stories out of her autobiography.

She was the first girl to have a crush on my son. She drew a little love note. I remember her standing near us at pick-up and drop-off times, watching, hopeful and expectant with an open-mouthed half-smile.

Hilly sunrise view from the bus stop
View over the hills from the morning bus stop

A couple years later I got a job at a nursing home where Ella’s mother was a Senior Carer. She did night shifts, and we hated starting a day after she’d been on duty. Oh, she could give sound updates at handover, but she did very little overnight to physically assist any residents.

Later, when I worked in the local comprehensive, I helped in Ella’s registration group, from when she was in Year 7, to her Media Studies GCSE class in Year 10. Her attendance was spotty. She didn’t speak much in registration, but detentions added up. Her uniform was never acceptable. She changed schools before the end of Year 10.

Hence her 40-minute, £4 bus ride every morning.

We acknowledge none of this. I don’t know if she remembers the love note she sent my son, or if she knows I worked with her mother. Maybe she’s reinvented herself at her new school and doesn’t wish to remember the old. Would we find it less necessary to maintain a respectful distance if we didn’t have that tiny bit of history?

In the last couple weeks she’s taken to fitting a cigarette in before the bus comes. The other day I saw her setting off from our last stop with a grown man who had kids of his own in tow, and I recognised Ella’s hopeful half-smile.

Going the Distance

We’ve heard about different cultural interpretations of personal space. People from certain countries might be more comfortable with closer approaches, even from strangers, that a lot of us Westerners are.

This discomfort seems to be linked to the amygdala, part of the brain relating to emotional responses, survival instinct, and memory. Tests show amygdala activity spiking when someone approaches too close, probably reflecting a deep-rooted warning system for potential danger.

On buses, though, we can’t avoid proximity. Just having a stranger in the seat behind and in front of us is closer than our amygdala would normally tolerate.

Maybe that’s why we use books and phones so prodigiously on buses and in other crowded scenarios, as this article suggests. We’re subconsciously putting up emotional barriers since we can’t put up physical ones.

The 17:25 Bus Alliance

My commute home in the evening is different. An elderly gentleman on the 17:25 Stroud to Dursley Stagecoach service has rocked the barriers we unwittingly put up.

It started with the odd comment from him: ‘Still reading that book, then?’ ‘Oh, you’ve got a different one today!’

Then he suggested charity shops where I might find more books. He

Pink umbrella floating in a drainage canal near the bus station
Umbrella caught near the bus station. I wonder who finally gave it freedom.

shouted the bus driver to a stop when he saw me running for it after lingering too long after work. I’m not the only one he looks after; if the young man with the red sweatshirt and impressive moustache doesn’t turn up for the 17:25, he gets a ribbing the next day, as do I if I’ve found alternative transport.

‘Where was you yesterday? You skived!’

‘My family met me for dinner and gave me a ride back,’ I tell him.

‘What’s this? But we were starving, you should have brought us along, too!’ The old man indicates himself and young Mr. Red Sweatshirt.

One day the weather attempted a semblance of warmth. Our elderly friend stepped onto the bus and scanned the group. ‘Where’s the other fellow? Can’t leave without him.’

Mr. Red Sweatshirt had removed his jumper. ‘He’s in disguise,’ I explained.

‘You almost had me there!’ More jolly banter ensued.

I don’t know their names, I don’t even know what they go to Stroud for. I’ve learned that the elderly gentleman likes to write little rhymes that publicise services on behalf of local doctor’s surgeries, and sometimes it even gets him in the paper. A part of me wants to know his story, but mostly I like him as he is, on the 17:25 Stagecoach 65 bus, and I’m reluctant to follow the string or turn the page in his tale.

Or am I just being lazy? I do get tired, especially by the end of the week. Friday afternoon I kept nodding off, finally giving up on the pages I was editing. At the penultimate stop, while the driver had a stretch, a smoke, and a fiddle with his phone, the old gentleman laboured from his seat and, gripping each available handlebar, walked back to see me.

‘Not reading today?’ His eyes are deep, almost fluid brown.

‘I’m just so tired.’

‘Never mind, you’ll soon be home. But you won’t put your feet up there, will you?’

‘Not exactly.’ I had a treadmill run to do, the dusting, washing up, two loads of laundry…

‘You rest for now, and I’ll make sure you’re awake before your stop.’

I’m glad he had the courage to disregard our distances, since I wouldn’t have done. Do you think we miss out sometimes by abiding by common etiquette? Should we try taking a few steps closer to each other and see what we can get away with?

Immediacy Now!

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

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

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

Making the Impossible Possible

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

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

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

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

Rejecting the Passive

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

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

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

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

For example,

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

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

Don’t ask me about Draft 1.

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

Immediacy vs Serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclusion Versus Appropriation

This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.

Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.

The Inevitable Appropriation Question

Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’

House up for auction in Hawkesbury Upton
I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while in Hawkesbury Upton.

We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.

A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.

‘Help us…’

The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.

‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’

Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.

However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.

Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton
Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton.

While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.

‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’

Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.

‘Everyone’s Disabled’

So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’

The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.

Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.

So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.

How Can We Actually Help?

Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.

Stone pig statue and milk bottle outside Hawkesbury Upton door
A small town still life outside a Hawkesbury Upton door.

And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.

In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.

In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’

Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.