2017 Writing Round-Up

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster…

Above anything else we are curators of people’s responses to us. I have a fine collection of reactions British people make when they learn I’m American. Students I worked with focused on food: ‘Do you like peanut butter then, Miss? Did you eat MacDonalds every day? Do you always have pancakes for breakfast?’

Adults generally look for the story: ‘What brings you here, then?’ It’s similar to the question I sometimes get asked at work when people find I’m a writer, as if there are certain boxes Americans and writers must fit in, and somehow I’m not in them.

But for writers, people most want to know if we’re successful. Have you found that? As with the kids asking about food, adults ask about the money. ‘So have you been published? Going to be as rich as JK Rowling?’

They’re not interested in what a story’s about, so long as they have a tangible way to compare our successes.

Nothing wrong with that; we totally do that to ourselves, especially at the end of another year. What have we got to show for it? How are we measuring up?

Before such introspection runs amok, I’m trying to tether my self-assessment to specific criteria (you can tell I’ve survived a few OFSTED inspections). Here they are, as reminders that it’s not all about money and publication:

Did we start new projects?
I ran with a few different ideas this year, from a Dissatisfied Relatively Privileged Middle Aged Person story (one could argue that pretty much defines contemporary literature), to a dystopian short story about detention camps for anyone foreign-born. I have two novel concepts to plot and write, and other unfinished bits and bobs, mostly in the literary genre but some historical and even science fiction. I’ll move further with these in the new year, but I’m glad I haven’t finished everything; it’s nice to start afresh with a few already-begun stories kicking around.

Noticeboard with assorted images for inspiration.
One of the Noticeboards of Wonder in my Room Where It Happens

 

Did we maintain (or, let’s be honest, start) good habits?
After getting some fantastic Twitter motivation a few weeks ago in a discussion about keeping the imagination fresh, I started getting up even earlier in the morning so I could scribble for fifteen minutes before my daily hike. By the end of the second week, branches of a new novel shot through my brain. Fifteen or even ten minutes without stopping can yield two or three notebook pages. If, like me, your will to write has dwindled while life is busy, try writing a little every day. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked again and you will find more time, because you’ll be hungry for it.

Did we explore new sources of motivation?
I discovered Writers HQ this year, and went to one of their workshops. This fabulous organisation, while never glossing over how hard writing can be, encourages participants relentlessly and ensures you keep going. I definitely will be using their services more in 2018, and I recommend checking out their website, if just for a giggle at their cheekiness.

Every year I seem to discover a new anthem to get me psyched to create. In 2017 it was pretty much the whole soundtrack of Hamilton. ‘I wrote my way out of Hell…I was louder than the crack in the bell.’ The crannies where we write are The Room Where It Happens, people.

Did we cultivate wonder?
We writers often find ourselves serving as essential conduits for the

Cam Peak in bluebell season.
Or, if you don’t live near mountains as such, climbing a bluebell-robed hill at sunset should do the trick.

suffering of the world. Sometimes it’s up to us to draw attention to it, and we risk getting cynical (even the Relatively Privileged Middle Aged among us). We can’t let negativity taint our writing. Whether it’s climbing a mountain, absorbing the camaraderie that develops among strangers on a bus commute, or revelling in a fellow writer’s impromptu recitation of Tennyson, we must remind ourselves of the beauty in the world.

Did we take in lots of voices?
This year I loved broadening my reading list following Women’s Writer School discussions on Women in Translation month and LGBTQ writers. Listening to panels on diversity at various literature festivals introduced me to the work of Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jess Hiles, as well as sign language poetry. I look forward to learning more, and supporting more diverse writers by purchasing their work in 2018. For anyone else interested, this reading challenge checklist from the Reading Women discussion group on Goodreads looks amazing.

Did we gulp our pride down and send our work into the world?
This might be the hardest part. I had a few successes this year—winning the Gloucestershire Writers Network prose prize and reading my story at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was a highlight—but with it have come a number of rejections as well.

And I’m proud of those rejections. I’m proud of the courage they represent. Rejections test us, tempt us to give up—but I’m certainly not going to, and I hope none of you will either.

How many people can do what we do? How many can haul an entire novel out of a brain already taxed by work, family, chores, life—and then ceaselessly chisel and gouge that vast, beloved creative work  into something even better? How many can bravely place their art before the world, pace through weeks or months awaiting the results, only to meet with utter disappointment? And how many, after all that, will do the whole thing again—and again?

We are amazing.

You may recognise the quote in this post’s subtitle, from the end of The Great Gatsby. ‘It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current…’

I’m using it because of a passage in another book which quotes it, The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. The young writer character in this book says, ‘There’s no point in writing a book if you don’t think it can be as good as The Great Gatsby. I mean, it’s all right if you fail—if the finished book just isn’t, somehow, very good—but you have to believe it can be very good before you start.’

Writing, and any artistic pursuit, demand we surround ourselves with a supportive network that fortifies our hearts to believe, while feeding our minds to expand so our self-belief will not be unfounded. This checklist is designed to maintain that balance. Have you got anything to add?

Picture Book Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: The D-Word

Once upon a time, my brother and sisters and I loved visiting my grandparents in their house of forty years. The AM radio constantly played vintage hits, and yummy smells wafted from the kitchen. There was always a bowl of popcorn in the lounge, between two puffy armchairs, and there was an extra rocking chair, quite small, for us children to take turns in. And while we did, Grammy read to us.

Apparently November was Picture Book Month, which caused me to reflect on my personal favourite, a tiny paperback at Grammy’s called Noisy Nora (Scholastic Book Services edition, 1973). It’s written by Rosemary Wells, who also created Max and Ruby, later making a mint off them, I expect.

Noisy Nora featured cute pictures of an anthropomorphised mouse family, amongst whom Nora was the [seemingly] neglected middle child. The story unfolds in rhyme. Nora attempts to entertain herself while her parents are busy with her siblings, but everything she tries [perhaps intentionally] attracts this refrain of not-so-positive attention:

‘Quiet!’ said her father.
‘Hush!’ said her mum.
‘Nora,’ said her sister, ‘why are you so dumb?’

Now, at this last line, my grandmother would hesitate as if she didn’t want to say the word dumb. So I would shout it in a rare act of rebellion—back then dumb was like a swear to us.

Pages from Noisy Nora
The repeated rebukes of Noisy Nora

Looking back now, I’m sure Grammy didn’t really have a problem with that word.

Evidence A: She once marched off to find a dictionary and read the official definition of contraception when my youngest sister asked.

Evidence B: Grammy told me when I was sixteen and my father (the youngest of her six children) had lost his temper and made me cry, ‘You know, we made some mistakes as parents. He acts this way sometimes because we didn’t help him do what you’re doing now. So go on and let it out.’

I suspect she gave me the job of shouting, ‘DUMB!’ because she knew I needed to let that out. The same way she taught us to make faces and say, ‘Blech!’ when our mother had to give us Robitussin. I asked my mother, more recently, if that had bothered her.

‘Not at all,’ she said, ‘because it made taking medicine more fun for you. That’s why she did it.’

A spoonful of self-expression makes the medicine go down.

Another page from Noisy Nora, as she says: 'I'm Leaving! And I'm never coming back!'
The climactic moment when Nora will make them all sorry.

My Grammy had also been one of ten children herself, in a farming family that had to split up during the Depression to ensure everyone got fed. She loved her brothers and sisters dearly, but maybe she understood about sibling rivalry. I wish I knew whether she thought about her own childhood at all when reading Noisy Nora to me.

Noisy Nora showed me the powerful release just one word can bring. A little story, even populated by mice, could reflect my reality, and it didn’t need to have dragons or princes to be exciting and fun.

What other lessons have we learned from picture books that impact us as writers?

Building Imagination: The book that got me reading (because I was so desperate, at the age of 3, not to wait until someone was available to read it to me) was a picture book version of The Wizard of Oz. Books like that transport characters to extraordinary worlds—even though they’re perfectly ordinary kids. They step into wardrobes, or try playing a board game found in the park, and suddenly anything can happen. Stepping into these worlds is the exact reason we perfectly ordinary writers pick up a pencil and begin a story.

Provoking Sympathy: Picture books make obstacles look exciting, encouraging children to consider new situations they haven’t personally faced. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether a character is a princess or an orphan, black like the ukulele-wielding boy who takes down Abiyoyo or Chinese like the woman who pursues her dumpling into the underworld, an elephant like Babar or a mouse like Nora. They still care what happens, and as writers—and, well, as human beings—that’s nice to revisit.

Fostering Rebellion: Many popular children’s book characters get vindicated, no matter what mistakes they make. Max returns from Where The Wild Things Are to find his dinner ready for him, after all. Curious George and Amelia Bedelia always find ways to save the day after nearly ruining it. These teach us that it’s okay for characters to be flawed; they can still be heroes. I’m pretty sure a lot of us writers find those types of characters even more appealing now that we’re grown up.

The conclusion of Noisy Nora
Nora’s absence teaches her family a lesson, and she is welcomed heartily back from the wilds of the broom closet, despite her awful noise.

Recognising Patterns: Our very earliest picture books—Goodnight Moon, the work of Dr Seuss—introduce to us a sense of rhythm and rhyme, making reading beautiful and musical. Those are important qualities to maintain even when writing prose as an adult. Consider also series such as Madeline and Curious George, in which each book starts the same to reintroduce the protagonist: (‘Twelve little girls in two straight lines…’) These help us develop an understanding of backstory and appreciation for consistency.

Encouraging Expression: Books like Noisy Nora showed me it was okay to have occasional misgivings about sharing attention with my brother and sisters. I would never have used the word dumb at that age, but I could say it through a character. Perhaps that act of ventriloquism helped instigate my love of writing, but I suspect it sprung also from what sheer fun this and other picture books were, and are.

What were your favourite picture books? How do you think they influenced you later in life?

Keeping the Daydream Alive

This Week’s Bit of String: Tiny pencil people

When I began writing my first ever novel at the age of eleven, I enacted it with an entire town’s worth of pencils.

Tall ones were adults, and smaller ones were kids. Yellow ones were men; coloured ones were women. You can see the sense in this, right?

I’d divided every shelf in my bedroom, one third of my drawers and the floor of my closet into little cubbies representing each building in the town, decorated with unique postage stamp pictures on the walls. The pencils had furniture—stub pencil babies slept in milkweed-pod cradles—and in some cases, even scraps of clothing sellotaped on.

An array of pencils
Who doesn’t love a bouquet of pencils?

For years pencils had been speaking their personalities to me. The chewed, battle-scarred ones and the prissy, fine-tipped ones and the fluorescent, too-trendy ones. Some of the citizens in my story-ville were carefully nursed survivors of first grade, when my little rural town sent us to a tottering two-room schoolhouse. We sat at ancient desks with ink pot holes in them, and the boy in front of me used to twist round and drop my beloved pencils through the hole. I sometimes wonder what happened to that boy. With the surname Dyke, he must have had an awful time in his later school years.

Even as adults, when we get swept up in a story idea, everything around us reflects aspects of it back at our infatuated brains. Have you ever noticed that? But I’ve been so busy lately, it’s been a while since I succumbed to such flights of fancy. I miss it. How do we ensure kid-high levels of imaginative activity when we’re getting a tonne of adulting done, too?

Twitter-pated

I turned to Twitter (which I’ve also been neglecting due to time constraints) for suggestions on maintaining good creative habits and keeping the dreams alive.

Some of these ideas overlap with the tips I gave back when I was adjusting to full-time work. Adjusting implies a process with an end, but I’m not sure I’ve completely figured out the balance. Does anybody? So reminders are all good.

Firstly, don’t stop writing. Even if we are taking a break between projects, we should keep scribbling observations and thoughts (bits of string…). Writer and editor Emma Cummins reminded me to make a habit of writing little and often. Because we all know what happens when we have a cool  idea, and try to stash it in a corner of our ever-churning minds while we rush off to do the next thing.

You can find Emma’s website here–she particularly focuses on reviews of art and cinema, which is perfect because taking in aspects of culture outside our own creations helps us develop new ideas, too.

Gravestone reading: 1859 M.A.N. 1831.
Another intriguing gravestone, from Painswick. Who was MAN? And was he (or she), in fact, born more than twenty years after dying?

Where else can we find things to write down? Creative writing teacher Stephen Tuffin suggests hanging out in graveyards, or accompanying someone to the shops without shopping yourself. (For some of his other, uniquely flavourful thoughts on writing, check out his blog here.) I remember seeing a 19th century gravestone for a child, with the verse ‘God’s will be done’ carved on it. And I wondered, did the parents agree on that resigned sentiment? Was it someone else’s idea entirely? Did they argue over what their faith meant in the face of such terrible loss? Given that I encountered that ‘bit of string’ over a decade ago, I guess cemeteries can make quite a lasting impression on the imagination.

Or follow Stephanie Hutton’s lead and snap up some vintage postcards from eBay or even a charity shop. Not only do you have the pictures to prompt you with story ideas, but each postcard message opens worlds of possibilities, in what’s said and perhaps what’s not said. Stephanie is part of The Writing Kiln, which aims to inspire confidence in budding writers. Have a look at their website here.

Vlada Poladyan advises putting sleep to use, to mesmerise and spur the imagination. She cites Stephen King’s nonfiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft for teaching her a routine for creative sleep. It’s been several years since I read On Writing, and it’s clearly time to check it out again.

Finally, Shannon Ferretti points out, ‘Daydreaming is important and a good use of time, [so] I bury my worries way down and play in make-believe lands instead.’ Part of getting back our imaginations is giving ourselves permission to daydream. We must remember that as writers it’s kind of our job to fantasise and create.

But we also must avoid feeling that every daydream should serve a marketable storyline. That’s been my problem. Being short on time, I get to thinking every idea has to count toward some ultimate writerly goal. I need to remember that every bit of string has value, even if it doesn’t lead to a beginning, middle, and end.

Every random exchange witnessed, every anecdote passed on, better informs our sense of the world and humanity. And every silly idea can lift us beyond that. So that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

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:

*A 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?