Calling All Alchemists

This Week’s Bit of String: Chemistry Revision

We’re finally down to our last two GCSE exams. Chemistry next Monday and Physics on Thursday. I miss studying for English, giving students fun writing and reading exercises. Now it’s all Sciencey stuff: alkanes and alkenes, distillation processes, waste water treatment, collision theory.

But the fundamentals, like the laws of physics and the reaction rules of chemistry, have a certain beauty in their massive all-encompassingness that inspires me and makes me think about the creative process.

A young neurodivergent student once advised me, “It’s dangerous to mix acid with hair dye, or toxic waste with gin and tonic, or potassium and mitochondria, or to put too many herbs with onions.”

Throw it all in there, just see what happens

I don’t know how exactly you would mix mitochondria and potassium if you wanted to, but with writing we do get to combine all kinds of things. Sometimes they are dangerous, but they almost definitely won’t explode. I love imagining a massive, dim chamber full of vials and beakers, some steaming and some icy, all different hues. We can grab whichever settings and character flaws and plot elements we like, mix them up, and see if it creates gold.

Later this month I’ve got a story coming out in The Phare online magazine. It’s called “The Albatross of Albany High School,” and I’m so proud and excited for it to be read. With Coleridge references and a young adult point of view, it’s made of weird ingredients, but after extensive experimentation, I think I got it right.

Back to Basics

States of matter are a revision favourite. Kids love reviewing what they already know. It’s reassuring, I suppose, like when you’re working on a draft and you keep rereading your favourite crafted dialogue.

Since making models of the different states of matter in Year 7, the students recall how particles move differently within solids, liquids, and gas. They’re not always able to name the processes that change a substance from one state to another, but I can give it a go.

Condensation: When we try to write a story, the idea is like a gas. Particles move freely, expanding to invisibly fill whatever space they’re in. It’s hard to stop thinking about it at the ideas stage, isn’t it? It bounces around your brain and will consider bonding with any random thing you hear or see.

Once we expose this high-energy idea gas to the cooling logic of a plan by simply sitting down at the computer or picking up pen and paper, the gas starts condensing into a liquid. As we start writing, whether in notes or as a draft, the particles compress enough to have shape, albeit a slippery, shifting one.

For the magic: this cauldron is from the Harry Potter experience at Warner Bros studio

There’s always a chance it will all evaporate again, and that’s ok. Some substances are best in that form.

Solidification: While drafting, the shape of our narrative settles from liquid to solid. It doesn’t mean you can’t still change the shape; we can whittle, drill, varnish, and paint. It just means the particles aren’t moving around and have finally drawn close to each other.

With less movement, a particle has less energy. But it also has a higher pressure. (As in, solids exert more pressure than gas.) I think that’s true of our creative process too; we might feel more excited as we’re snatching ideas and a bit less excited once they’ve solidified and we’re chiseling and polishing. However, this gives us an opportunity to exert pressure, to create impact.

Altering Carbon

Here’s another chemistry unit off the revision list that makes me think of writing. Any chemical reaction can be helped along by certain factors, and it’s the same with our creativity.

Temperature: This is the first thing we usually think of to speed up a reaction: heat it. It’s the first thing to consider with an idea, too. Does it spark within you, does it really excite you? When crafting a story opening, the inciting incident must be evident almost immediately. The reader needs to be drawn to the flame. Gentle warmth amongst the characters is important as well.

Concentration: The more particles you have, the more reactions you’ll get. It helps me to scribble every day in my journal and jot down anecdotes, responses, fantasies, what-ifs. Most of the ideas and thoughts won’t bond with anything enough to form a cohesive story. But the more ideas you can gather, the better your chances. Sarah Tinsley has some great articles on her blog about getting more ideas, like this one.

Stay gold, butterflies

Pressure: A deadline can be useful. Time goes through different states of matter, it seems… It can be a gas which expands to fill the space. When we think we have lots of time, we’re a bit aimless. But then suddenly time sublimates into a solid, and the pressure is on. Sometimes that’s where the magic happens.

Catalyst: A catalyst can be a substance or a position. With creativity, a catalyst can be a pre-existing structure. Retelling an old myth, subverting a trope, or speculating on an alternative to a historical event, can all jumpstart our process when we feel ideas have dried up.

These altering factors are part of collision theory: a chemical reaction requires particles to collide at the right angles and with the right energy. Not everything is going to work. Ideas will pass us by, and some we’ll need to pass over. The main battle I have is with energy. A lot of mine goes on work and family, and it’s hard to maintain some for condensing and solidifying stories.

What helps my energy, though, is a fresh perspective and a rare publication. Collide even chemistry with literature at the right angle, and inspiration wafts through the air. All those vials to be unstoppered, and the occasional success: a shimmering gold acceptance.

What are you concocting right now?

Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

Where the People Are

This Week’s Bit of String: Three kids and a saw

Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.

A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?

Trees at dawn, towering over traffic lights
The Leafy Suburbs.

What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.

It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’

However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.

Finding the Ideas

In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.

Blackboard outside pub reading: Vacancy, Customers Required...
Also the Leafy Suburbs.

For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.

I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”

It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.

With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.

Bristol Flash Walk

I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.

Bristol Harbour reading
Actor Christopher Ryan reads “The Prodigal” in the iconic Bristol Harbour, with Colston Tower in the background.

My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.

After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.

Escape to the Country

I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.

Tail to tail, the swans fortify their nest.
“No luck hatching them swans, then?”

When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.

I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.

I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.