Change Your Work, Change Your Country

This Week’s Bit of String: Allowing subtraction

My first novel was over 800 pages long. Even well-established authors would struggle finding readers willing to take that on. So I cut fiendishly, excising at least one line per paragraph, one paragraph per page. The latest draft is 400 pages.

Imagine if I’d gone to my Writers’ Group at the start of the editing process, and explained my plan. What if they’d been shocked, and horrified? Imagine them saying, ‘You can’t change your work! You have to love it as it is. To feel anything else toward it means you’re not a real writer. You might as well do something else with your scant free time.’

Sometimes we need to be more than the Way We Are.

After all, the option’s always there, isn’t it? We could keep every word we’ve written. If we’re lucky, maybe our mums would read them. In order to make our stories accessible and appealing to a wider audience, we cut out unneeded detail, clarify other points, strengthen character voices and sometimes swap point-of-view all together. Chances are, every time we look at a piece we improve it, and we enjoy doing so because we can see the work getting better.

The same flexibility is required with countries. I doubt even those voting for incumbent parties go to the polling station with no improvements in mind. But people have started saying ‘Like it or leave it,’ among worse things, about active politicians trying to change the country.

Allowing Detraction

I’ve noted before that the Declaration of Independence was overhauled at America’s founding. The Constitution went through massive changes as well, and not because the first patriots hated the USA. Sometimes they preferred the original to the final draft, but had to make drastic amendments (such as permitting slavery) to convince all colonies/ states to stay on side.

Racial bias played a role in this compromise. It’s harder to sacrifice millions of lives when you believe those lives are equal to yours. Recent comments about sending congresswomen ‘back where they came from’ are also racist, indisputably enough that I won’t make a lengthy case here.

Except to point out that racism operates like a plague. There’s Patient Zero, in this case the President, some close advisors, and the white supremecists who’ve joined his base.

Give me your complacent, your unquestioning, your grateful…

Around them you have those most susceptible. People who might be economically disadvantaged (or feel they are), who might have less education, or are down on their luck and need someone to blame. Anyway, they were easy to infect and they’re now happy to chant, ‘Send her back.’ Maybe they could be cured, but there’d have to be something in it for them. Universal healthcare, higher minimum wage? Who knows. The disease manifests differently in each patient.

The next circle out from Patient Zero are the disease carriers. They’re not exactly infected. But siding with Patient Zero is politically convenient, so they pretend he’s not racist. ‘He’s just speaking his heart. He loves this country so much he can’t stand anyone complaining about it.’

In a way, the carriers are the most insidious, and we must address their ‘like it or leave it’ mentality.

You can like a country and still want to change it. If anything, those with the deepest patriotic faith will trust a nation’s ability to improve. America was born in dramatic change, and continued to change over the years, by war and peace, by executive decree and grassroots movement. We Americans are still discontented revolutionaries, for better or worse. This drives both our innovation and our wastefulness.

Never Really Settled

Sometimes writers do leave stories undone. I decided to stop work on a novel two chapters before the end, because I wasn’t doing it justice. There are still bits in it I like, but my mind led me elsewhere.

Similarly, my heart led me to a new country. I still like a lot of things about the USA, but moving to the UK was the only way to bring my own family together. Even refugees desperate for a safe place probably don’t dislike their home country. People often leave because they need to, not because they want to.

Leaving isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

And getting into a new country is no easier than writing a new novel. What an irksome irony that the very people telling even native-born progressives to ‘like it or leave it’ are the same ones insisting asylum seekers return to desperate Central American communities. Even if you do dislike your country, even if you’re desperate to leave, it doesn’t mean a new one will let you in.

Include All the Things!

I’ve written before about the editing process and the many things we have to include in our written work. See here for a daunting list of every box our stories have to tick from the very first page. Likewise, a nation has to achieve many criteria for many people:

  • Safety
  • Economic growth
  • Support during emergencies (fire service, welfare)
  • Law enforcement
  • Justice courts for civil redress as well as criminal
  • Strong moral examples in leadership
  • Education
  • Fostering of communities and enterprise

We adjust these relentlessly for the diverse groups that have contributed to the country since before its birth. Basically, we keep tweaking to accommodate our audience.

Telling us we can’t raise objections, equating criticism of a leader with criticism of the whole nation, grants that leader absolute power. That’s a lonely and unrealistic role for any one person. Writing can be lonely too, and seem an impossible task—so we ask people to look over our work, help us take it where it needs to be.

And if we’re lucky, someone will tell us—as someone told me when my novel was still 500 pages long—“You can do better than this.” I completely changed the opening at that point. It’s okay to hear that. Don’t worry, America. We all have to keep trying. It’s just that we think you can do better than this.

The Great Circle of Literature

This Week’s Bit of String: Crime and Punishment

Spring 2003, early evening Eastern Standard Time/ late night Greenwich Mean Time. I pick up the wall-mounted cordless phone and ring my ex-boyfriend as arranged. Our son is occupied with Legos on the floor of my subsidised New Hampshire apartment.

His father answers his mobile in the London flat where he’s completing his masters. I refuse to let his voice thrill me this time; I’m giving up on waiting for him to re-articulate his interest.

We exchange the requisite weather updates and talk about our son. Then my ex-boyfriend says, “I’m reading Crime and Punishment. It’s quite good…”

Oh, are you? Instantly I’m hooked again.

Present Day, British Summer Time. I come home from work and husband-formerly-known-as-ex-boyfriend launches right in with his feelings regarding the latest twist in the John Irving novel I recommended. “I did not see that coming!”

Look at them all, conspiring shamelessly to keep my interest piqued.

Among all he and I share, reading is perhaps the most nourishing and positive. It fulfils us better than, say, watching TV together, because we’re using our brains a little more. Plus the flexing of empathy and imagination required to enjoy a book helps with the heavy lifting in a relationship.

There’s magic, too, from a book. We create a world in our heads, and what is more marvellous than subsequently talking to a loved one and finding that the same bits of magic worked on them, too? When you watch a film with someone, you see and hear the same things at once. Reading is more open to interpretation, so shared impressions are extra special and further observations are bonus insights.

Literary Connections

The unifying power of the written word seems to reach between books themselves sometimes, rather than just outward to us. Have you ever noticed that? I’ll read one book that makes the same historical reference my last, completely different read did. A couple weeks ago I read Benjamin Zephaniah’s autobiography. It immersed me in the activist, anti-National Front environment where he first started performing his poetry, with groups such as Rock Against Racism.

Then I read Kamila Shamsie’s (justly) award-winning Home Fires, about the tragic effects of radicalisation. It included a single line about a character’s parents meeting at a Rock Against Racism rally. Something I never knew about before, and suddenly my reading material conspired to bring it to my attention.

Home Fires is also a modern retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, when before The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah I’d read Natalie Haynes’s rollicking The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. Its many cultural references included Antigone.

A couple of years ago I read a novel about George Eliot and then a novel about an affluent, up-and-coming German family in the lead-up to World War II. Quite different novels, set decades apart—yet characters from each travelled to Naples and stayed in the exact same hotel, and I happened to read the books one week after each other.

It’s as if books have their own invisible network of roots and fungi, communicating and passing nutrients to each other like some trees do. One book may seem isolated from another, but the survival of one can benefit the rest. Perhaps books know the more we read, the more our appetite grows. Ah, that tantalising moment when we get to decide what to read next!

The Roots System

Of course, there is a root system books connect to: our brains. Relatively recent studies show that brains’ ‘white matter’ is as essential to reading and learning as the grey matter. White matter are the neural pathways connecting parts of the brain (the grey matter). They’re named for the lipid myelin coating that protects some neuron parts. The wider these pathways are, the more easily signals can fire off from one long neural axon arm to the little dendrite roots on another neuron.

While having smooth white matter pathways helps us to read, reading in turn helps make the pathways smoother. It’s like a path in the woods; the more we walk down it, the smoother it gets. So improved connections in our brain is one of reading’s effects. It also improves our attention span, and anyone else who’s been married a few years (it’s fifteen for my husband and I now) knows a good attention span is useful.

Side note: My husband has been known to read things I wouldn’t. I read a lot I know he wouldn’t enjoy. That’s okay. Please never condemn a loved one for their reading choices. Or musical taste. Or even whether they like Brussels sprouts. Just please, let’s not.

The rewards of reading are somewhat analogous to a longterm relationship. There might be bits that aren’t as fast-paced. You’ve got to allow the narrative some descriptive time to set the scene. You’ve got to muddle through those dialogue bits my husband dislikes (and I love) during which, yes, unfortunately, a character’s thoughts and feelings may be exposed. And in the end, that effort is worth it because you’ve learned, you’ve laboured, and shared.

Have you found that books enhance relationships? Do you ever notice the pages conspiring with each other to broaden your horizons and change your fate?

The Privilege of Being Busy

This Week’s Bit of String: Haunted by to-do lists

When I worked in a care home, we had a particularly restless but bedbound dementia patient. She constantly asked, ‘Where have we gotta go? What have we gotta get out and do?’ And sometimes she’d say, ‘Can I just stop here a bit?’

We were told she’d been a highly reputable nurse to newborn babies. No doubt she devoted countless long shifts to her calling. She had no family of her own apart from a sister wandering the nursing home halls, stealing biscuits to feed her stuffed toy cat.

No matter how many times we reassured our resident that she didn’t have to go anywhere, she repeated her questions. She was haunted by the ghosts of her busy working life.

Today we don’t need dementia to be haunted–we have social media. Facebook pings ‘Event’ reminders, other mums depict homemade concoctions on Pinterest, and other writers’ word counts race upward on Twitter.

None of this is inherently bad. I, too, indulge in public boasts after particularly hard work: Busy Brags. I’m also ready to ‘Like’ your Busy Brags. As a writer, I’m interested in the minutiae of daily life as well as the big events, so I enjoy hearing what people get up to in a day.

Busy = Lucky

What I have to make sure not to do, however, is act as though I’m busier than everyone else.

Some kids (and adults) work ridiculously long hours in sweatshops. Some people work multiple jobs to ensure they can pay medical bills. Yet most of the Busy Brags I see in my social media bubble are about the nightmarish turmoil of preparing birthday celebrations for small offspring, or rushing back to work after an adventurous holiday. And I totally get that. But we’ve chosen this. So brag away, but don’t complain.

Cooking homemade meals and going on active holidays are choices. Even going to the gym regularly is a choice, albeit a healthy one, and writing is a choice even though it feels like a necessary response to what ranges from a nagging voice to rampant hunger. We may be utter grouches when we don’t have time to write, or exercise, but those are still privileges and most of us have enough moments of leisure, however small, that we can choose to prioritise things differently if we really want to.

Busy = Important

Fun fact: guinea pigs don’t yawn just to get oxygen to their furry wee brains when they’re sleepy. They yawn to show their teeth and scare off rivals or predators. Similarly, our society has transformed tiredness into a badge of honour. Whoever’s the most tired must have done the most work, and is therefore the most indispensable.

Watch out: fierce! Our guinea pigs, George and Fred.

I think most of us love being busy, and not just because we can brag about it on social media. To occupy our time means to take possession of it, that middle syllable of occupy coming from the same Latin word for grasp or seize, as in Carpe Diem. By filling Time’s wearying, wily moments, we feel we’ve mastered it in some way.

And of course we like quantifiable achievements so we can list in no uncertain terms how we’ve occupied, invaded, placed a firm stake in a day. Steps or miles run. Loads of laundry completed, meals packed into the freezer. Words typed. For me, I like being able to tick these off on a list. My day job is similarly oriented around clear targets: accounts billed, calls taken, cases resolved. Hours of sleep foregone.

Busy = Easy

These achievements are exciting and addictive. But am I the only one who has developed a fear, almost an aversion, to the incredibly important things that aren’t quantifiable? Spending proper time with people, caring for struggling loved ones. More than anything in the world I want to be there every second for my family when they’re hurting. But when I’m juggling office targets and word counts and submission deadlines and fitness goals the rest of the time, it’s hard to shut off that achievement addiction when a genuine crisis, something you really have to pour time into, comes up.

Moments meant to be cradled, not seized

The kind of Busy we brag about on social media is easy. It can even be a cop out. Writers will be familiar with the memes and jokes about how clean our houses get when we have writers block, because housework is straightforward and simpler than wrestling an unwieldy plot. But tricky as finding resolution for our characters can be, that’s still many times easier than getting friends and family through real-life drama. And entertaining readers sometimes comes more naturally than entertaining our own kids.

Looking back to our patient who had been a nurse, I wonder if on some level she was aware of how repetitive she was. Maybe her questions were her way of asserting her value in a somewhat demeaning situation; a reminder that she once had gone places and done things. Sadly, she never made a single reference to the babies and children she’d looked after, as if only the business remained and not the lives.

If the final stages of my life give me any choice in the matter, I’d like it the other way around. Is it possible to achieve relentlessly but not desperately?

The Persistence of Birds

This Week’s Bit of String: Trying to catch fish

I encountered a heron at the canal yesterday. First he was opposite me, silver-grey shoulders down and white neck straight, alert to passing humans rather than fish. He took off as I neared, his wings so great only a few ponderous beats made him disappear.

Then I saw him further on, bringing his sharp yellow beak close enough to the water to kiss his reflection. But something put him off—the cat stalking blackbirds on the bank behind him, perhaps, or the mandarin duck couple landing on the water.

The heron swooped across the canal and stationed himself on the riverbank instead. I watched him creep closer on his stick-thin legs, and lean down to check for fish. Then I pushed myself on for a couple of miles before work, wondering if the cyclists who soon passed me scared the heron off again with no breakfast.

Hurrying back I found myself right next to the heron. He’d decided, for some reason, to take a canal spot by the path but couldn’t tear his gaze from his surroundings long enough to lower his beak into the water.

He was too distracted by fear of predators to catch his own prey, and I wondered if we’re the same sometimes. Do we take risks for gains but end up so crippled by fear that we can’t act on our plans?

The Paralysis

Pulling together a successful writing career requires gripping several threads at once:

We have to actually write decent stuff (and it’s wicked hard).

We have to learn how to write decent stuff by reading decent stuff (which can be dangerously addictive).

We have to remind people on social media that we’re writing decent stuff, and we want to be decent human beings too, so we’ll spend time supporting other people who are writing decent stuff (and there’s some very decent writerly stuff out there, so this can be addictive too).

Finally, we have to get our decent stuff published or broadcast or featured somewhere, preferably on a semi-regular basis. This means scouring publications and, again, social media for competitions and literary magazines. It means querying agents and familiarising ourselves with rejection.

A lot of us handle all this while raising a family and working a full-time job. It gets seriously overwhelming. There are moments when I find myself motionless, apart from my eyes flicking down the Facebook or Twitter feed, watching other writers claim success while feeling as if I don’t dare lower my beak and take a brash snap at a fleeting competition deadline.

The Perch

This week I made a longlist but got no further, while seemingly everyone I know swooped to greater heights. I scanned the short list but caught nothing. I said ‘fuck’ several times under my breath. I got on with my day at the office but felt frozen inside.

Then ideas started swimming past. I reminded myself to move, to seek new vantage points and new submission opportunities. To catch something, we have to dip our beaks. We have to stop reading everyone else’s elated Twitter reactions (but Like them anyway, because we’re decent human beings after all).

Brave, brave Sir Robin

I went for a walk in the local park, searching for ducklings to cheer me up. I didn’t find any cute flufflets that day, but I did spot a one-legged pigeon hobbling around to the grudging admiration of some black-clad teenagers. And I saw a robin in a monkey puzzle tree.

I suppose if you’re quite small, big spikes don’t matter. I couldn’t see the robin’s feet, but I could see his proudly puffed rusty chest and sharply aware black eyes. I imagined his skinny toes curled around individual monkey puzzle thorns.

So it’s time to remember that having to start over brings the privilege of choosing a new path. There are plenty of spots to try, plenty of fish for us all to catch—all we have to do is dive.

Likeable, Shmikeable: Managing the Voices, Part 2

Interview with Helen Taylor, Author of Backstreets of Purgatory

‘My mother didn’t tell me we were leaving my father until we were on the plane from California. I was only five, I thought we were just going on vacation, and she brought me here to New England.’ Nate told me his story while we painted a cemetery fence in temperatures so hot the coating never lost its stickiness. It was our summer job after freshman year.

‘I was so angry I cussed her out in the middle of the plane. Later I found out he used to hit her.’

A year and a half later, he was the one expressing displeasure over losing break time while the school informed us a student had died in a car crash. ‘I don’t care,’ I heard him tell his friends. ‘Why take our break time over it?’

It was as if he was swearing in the aisle of a transcontinental plane again, utterly pissed off at an injustice. Nate himself died in a car crash a few years after graduation.

Recounting the story of Milja’s death in my earlier post, Nate and his seemingly heartless comment was an aside, almost making him the villain. But put together with the trajectory of his life, with the fact he met a similar untimely end, he takes on a new dimension.

In my previous entry I wrote about how we select our characters and try to portray those most hurt by a situation. But I also argued for ensuring we illuminate those who help, and those who look on. We need to accept that we ourselves aren’t always the victims, and find constructive ways to react.

That’s why we shouldn’t rule out ‘unlikeable’ characters. To help examine why we need characters who aren’t just ethnically and socially diverse, but also diverse in personality, I spoke to author Helen Taylor.

Helen recently published her first novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory. Set in contemporary Glasgow with a guest appearance from the artist Caravaggio—sometimes fun, sometimes thoroughly disquieting—the novel follows Finn, a frustrated and somewhat entitled art student, as well as some of the people in his orbit.

The story unfolds through 4 points of view, including Finn’s. It’s a raucous ride, and although all the characters make mistakes that hurt each other, they are warmly portrayed. We understand that the poor decisions come from pain or insecurity. Last week, Helen provided me with insight about tempering gritty realism with compassion—and vice versa.

Question: How did you assemble this crew? Did you add or enhance some characters for balance?

Helen: Finn was the first character I had and Kassia the next. The others evolved from them (almost as a way of fleshing them out). Tuesday McLaughlin arrived and stormed on to the page, fully formed.

In the end, I chose the strongest voices for the 4 POVs. The challenge came in ordering their voices in the chapters and achieving a balance between the competing perspectives.

Question: In a way that makes sense, because Finn and Kassia are basically opposites. It’s as if they need each other to exist in fiction. Finn is the one who interacts with Caravaggio, and he catalyses change in the other characters’ lives. Is he inspired or imagined? Did you enjoy writing in his voice the most?

Helen: Finn wasn’t dissimilar to a character who starred in a short story “The Kiss” I published in The Ranfurly Review several years ago. He’s purely fictional, but the fact he has popped up twice makes me think he must be inspired by someone. Although it pains me to admit it, because Finn isn’t the most likeable character, there are elements of me in him.

Writing in Finn’s voice allowed me to explore ideas about art and mental health. As the novel progresses, Finn’s language becomes increasingly elaborate and his thinking becomes erratic with loose connections. When I wrote those sections, it was like taking a stopper out of my brain and letting the contents flow freely. It was great fun. Especially inventing words.

It was much less fun towards the end, though, as things take a dark turn. One chapter had me in tears as I wrote it.

Question: So maybe writing our characters’ weaknesses helps us come to terms with our own. Did you feel pressure to make Finn or other characters “likeable?” What aspects were added or smoothed over to make them relatable?

Helen: Rather than feeling a pressure to make my characters likeable, I felt it was important that even the most seemingly nice of them had flaws. What I did find extremely difficult was having the characters say things I wouldn’t say myself. There are a few phrases that are casually homophobic or racist for example, which make uncomfortable reading despite being said (or perhaps because they are said) as part of the “banter”. It was worse when these things were said by characters I’m fond of (Tuesday and Maurice, for example). It took effort to leave them in because I worried that readers would think they reflected my own opinion or way of speaking. It was a tough decision because, in theory, I am in control of how my characters speak and act.

As I told my mother-in-law when she complained about the swearing, “It’s my characters that swear, not me.” Although she rightly pointed out, “It was you that made them do it, Helen.”

Question: I love your perspective on ensuring characters have flaws. All your characters are vividly flawed, but Finn is particularly self-absorbed. How do people react to his character?

Helen: There are readers who don’t like him at all, and those who are exasperated yet feel sorry for him. I’ve become more protective of him as time has gone on. Yes, he can be a total prat, yes, he is conceited and yes, he behaves appallingly. But, at least at the beginning, he recognises some of his flaws and can take the micky out of himself. And I would argue that his cruellest actions arise from good intentions that go wrong because of lack of insight.

The difficult truth is that many mental health conditions can make people self-absorbed and lacking in insight or empathy. Mental illness in all its forms can make people’s behaviour unreliable, can alter their relationships, and can fuel paranoia and feelings of persecution, whether that be schizophrenia, personality disorders, bipolar disorder or depression. I speak from personal experience. We can be hard to live with.

Question: You’ve done a great job of establishing the characters’ goals, and sharpening their needs with backstory, and that really engaged me in the plot. How integral were all those dreams and affections from the start?

Helen: As soon as I’ve established the basic characteristics of the principal players, I work out what their goal is, what challenges they will face, how they will overcome them (or not) and how their personality will be changed. Although I plotted The Backstreets of Purgatory in detail before I started, the story changed as the novel progressed and the drafts were rewritten. But I always had in mind that each character had their own trajectory and that they shouldn’t — they couldn’t possibly — reach the end of the story unchanged.

I’m very grateful to Helen Taylor for talking to me about characterisation and The Backstreets of Purgatory. I thoroughly recommend the book, available from the Unbound website (and you can check out what other projects you personally might enjoy helping to get published). It’s been great fun to get behind the scenes of a good novel, and to reaffirm our right to write not-so-pleasant characters. Sometimes they’re the ones that stick with us—as Nate always has for me, and as I suspect Finn will for many.


The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Hurting

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

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

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

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

Portraying Victims

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

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

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

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

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

Portraying Non-Victims

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

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

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

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

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

Plot Twist!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twist vs. Mystery

A narrowing forest trail under beech trees
Twists ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casting a Foreshadowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Network of roots from an upturned tree
Roots in all directions

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

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

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

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

If You Like It Be Prepared to Find a Price on It

This Week’s Bit of String: Campus costs

Confession time: I finished my university degree illegally. In my state, people receiving benefits weren’t allowed to pursue the extra financial burden of higher education (sometimes ‘Live free or die’ translates to ‘Live free and let others fall by the wayside.’) I was a single mother employed in per diem work, so I depended on state medical insurance and also some childcare reimbursement.

But while doing as much work as I could find, I completed my studies in the evenings. I relished the variety of lessons at the local community college and appreciated the more mature student population, often keener on their studies than my cohorts at the university I’d attended before I was pregnant.

Even that community college cost thousands of dollars per semester. I read and wrote so much, I’m sure it improved my work. But the expenditure, the hectic schedule in my son’s first months, not to mention the risk of incurring New Hampshire’s wrath… Could I have learned those things through independent study, through the myriad of recently sprouted online support networks and through regimented practice? Did my degree increase my job prospects or pay grade?

Shopping Around

Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick

My son is starting A-Levels, the course of study in the UK for 16-18-year-olds. We’ve been doing research to ensure his subjects will be acceptable to whatever university he attends after. Maths and Philosophy degrees, Education and Psychology, a year abroad in Scandinavia…it reminds me how exciting it is to get sucked into the heart of a subject.

My reminiscences were enabled by a trip to the University of Warwick campus for the National Association of Writers Groups’ annual festival. En-suite bathrooms! Fountains and grassy rooftops! A Krispy Kreme counter in the campus grocery store! Exercise bikes and treadmills equipped with screens so you can Mahjongg while you run!

It’s a big deal here how much universities cost, but at £9000 per year it’s far less than American ones charge. And I’m hesitant to condemn the charge. I want my kid’s professors to earn a good wage, and I don’t expect the rather strapped government to fully subsidise this.

Tuition & Fees

Likewise, I want the speakers at NAWG Fest to be paid well. Writers’ pay at festivals is an issue of longstanding complexity. Quite a few attendees expressed concerns about the cost, and I sympathise, as there were a lot of pensioners among our gathering. But we must also consider that in addition to workshops and networking opportunities, our fees covered ample meals and reasonably comfortable accommodation, plus use of campus facilities.

Gardens and fountains at University of Warwick
University of Warwick campus

What price can we put on jumpstarting our creativity? I spent £180 for a night’s stay, four meals and two workshops. I managed to squeeze in a gym session before the gala dinner, and I skipped the Annual General Meeting to take advantage of the swimming pool. A double bed and a bathroom of my own—invaluable to any wife and mum.

The workshop instructors had lengthy experience yet were genuinely interested in our work and ideas. The whole conference, I think, is designed especially for people newly exploring the craft of writing. I recommend it to those starting out because there’s no snobbery, and plenty of accessibility and warmth.

As someone who’s not starting out or dabbling, the concepts introduced in workshops on characterisation and plotting were somewhat familiar. However, I can always do with certain reminders, of how to raise the stakes in my plot and how to probe a story’s What Ifs to find who’s really at its heart.

My writing life consists mainly of dragging myself through alone, in snatched moments often on a bus full of miserable, drunk, and/ or manic people. I get lost in what I’m writing (thank goodness) but as others can probably attest, we cling to our ideas especially when they’re few and far between in our crowded lives. It’s hard to put a price on having someone march in and say, “Oh but remember to consider this…”

Being in the company of other writers is perhaps the most precious thing. I love listening to people who come every year talk about their work, and people who’ve just taken up writing talk about what it means to them.

Selfie after the NAWG Fest gala dinner
Satisfied NAWG Fest attendee.

And it never, never gets old when someone takes an interest in my work. At the gala dinner and awards ceremony, I was assigned to a table with one of my tutors from earlier, and various writers, novice and veteran, from different parts of the country. They were all cheering my shortlisted story and me on, ensuring that even without the first prize trophy, I left feeling satisfied and invigorated (the chocolate cake may well have helped).

Maybe this could have been achieved by other, cheaper means. But as with attending university, the extra money could be worth it because we need the corralling, cajoling, and challenging that comes with a comprehensive experience rather than the usual bits and pieces we use to sustain our artistic existences. And we should expect those benefits not to be free when they come with the help of others or the use of their institutions.

What kinds of writing experiences have you paid for? What constitutes value for money, and what kinds of free activities help give you a boost?

The Borders of Generosity

This Week’s Bit of String: Fine, and you?

In my second year of high school I started asking friends how they were doing. I hadn’t really bothered with it before. When you’re younger, I suppose it doesn’t occur to you.

Asking the question felt like a revelation. This was so grown-up of me, so kind and engaged. After a dangerously needy adolescence, I told myself that by asking people three little words, I was finally giving back to the world.

I don’t think the world saw it that way.

Third period English class, I asked how my friend was as we took our seats. ‘The same as I was when you asked me last lesson,’ she snapped.

There was the real revelation. Asking a question, even if you’re listening for the answer, doesn’t mean you’re showing helpful or genuine concern. Lately I’ve witnessed (and been on the receiving end of) various interactions which may be well-intentioned at the start but either end up grudgingly made, or accompanied by the giver’s complaints behind the recipient’s back. Do you ever notice that?

We need to examine, both societally and privately when we look at our personal interactions: Are we truly capable of selfless interest in others?

People Aren’t Stories

This may be particularly relevant for writers. We’re nosey people. Introverts, sure; we might not actually want to talk to you, but we’d damn well like to hear about you. We hunger for stories as much as we hunger for compliments.

Baby girl's fancy shoe hanging from a tree limb
An intriguing story thread, yes, but there’s also perhaps a distraught parent and a baby with a very cold foot out there.

We are often quite empathetic people. I’ve blogged about empathy a lot. But our preparedness to walk in someone else’s shoes isn’t truly selfless or inspiring when in the back of our minds we might be considering walking them right into Chapter 3.

We’re also good at dramatising things. We invent funny memes about the toil of each WIP’s journey, and feel every rejection deeply. But we must always remember that we wouldn’t choose another way of life. Seeing our stories born, freeing them from our minds, make everything worthwhile and let’s never forget it.

People aren’t Audience Members

The modern age has boxed us into little thumbnail sketches on a screen. And many of us are obsessively competitive over who can be busiest (translation: who is the most indispensable). How many times have you seen someone copy and paste a generic Facebook status trying to gauge whether people are actually reading their posts?

“I SAY I’M FINE BUT I’M NOT!” Do they believe anyone else is doing otherwise? Do they feel any better when a handful of people respond with tearful emojis? We’d all like a quick attention fix. But attention is addictive rather than satisfying, particularly when it’s given in intense, but empty-calorie doses on social media.

For our own sakes, we should remember everyone else is in the same boat. Busy, sometimes just for the sake of being busy; lonely and tired and stressed. We can’t expect other people to meet our needs consistently any more than we’d really want them to expect that of us.

People Aren’t Charity Cases

Growing up in an evangelical family, the missions trip was a rite of passage. Everyone at church did one of some sort. A girl came back from a couple weeks in Moldova and revealed to the congregation her hardship of having to eat the food her hosts made for her—all of it!—so as to seem polite. Her talk about her trip seemed to have more inferences to her figure than information on the people she went to serve.

I’d gone on two trips to Haiti, myself. But I think (I hope) I recognised myself as the main beneficiary of these adventures. I was on a team ‘helping’ to build a school, although we also brought funds to keep Haitians employed building it.

Haitian people I met and remained friends with.
Just a few selfish reasons I loved my trips to Haiti.

There’s more consciousness, at least in some circles, regarding the efficiency of volunteering trips. We go into them pale and pudgy; porous; desperate to soak meaning into our lives. It’s perfectly possible to do some good while we’re there, and to make friends and carry home a fresh perspective. But we mustn’t pretend we’re martyrs for submitting to a long flight and some concrete brick-hauling.

(If you’re interested in helping people in Haiti, I recommend SOS Children’s Villages.)

People Aren’t Stupid

It doesn’t take long for someone to notice whether another party’s genuinely interested in them or not. After a few teams visited Port-au-Prince, I suspect the Haitian helpers developed a sense for which visitors would go home and boast about coping with cold daily showers in a country that was largely without running water. Likewise, kids grow up and remember which relative met requests to play with an eye roll. Junior co-workers will start to notice if the person volunteering to help them constantly complains about the burden, even if it is behind their back.

The remedy for this bitter insincerity is further self-examination. If we choose to do something, let’s choose it wholeheartedly, and remain mindful of how it affects others. If you’re in a job you don’t like, I feel sorry for your co-workers as much as for you, because I’ll bet they know it. If you give me a hand with something, you’d better want to or it isn’t worth it to me.

While visiting my family a few weeks ago, I had lots of grand plans and various others joined in, especially my youngest sister. She had other projects going on, and I tried to accommodate this by setting later start times on our day trips. But for our second excursion, she asked, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave the house until noon? Because you said we could leave a bit later yesterday, and I think you got stressed it wasn’t enough time on the trip.’

I appreciated her calling me out on this. I don’t want to be that person who offers something but then fails to maintain graciousness. I will keep trying to avoid that. It helps when someone else forces me to be honest about my intentions and needs—like my youngest sister, like my friend in high school.

So if I complain about something I’m doing, please remind me it was my choice. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to do the same for you if necessary.