Necessary Rudeness: the trouble with sex scenes.

Those of you who’ve met me in the flesh, so to speak, will be unsurprised by the following fact: I’ve never had a sports related injury.

I’ve had ‘pianist’s wrist’ (for which I blame Beethoven) and ‘trolley back’ (for which I blame Tesco) and lately, since switching from desktop computer to laptop, I’ve noticed a new affliction: ‘laptop leg’. To the joy of osteopaths across Norfolk, my primary writing pose is the Sofa Slump. And it doesn’t half make your legs ache after a while. Not to mention the molten heat emanating from Gwendolyn’s vents (yes, I have named my laptop) when I’m not so much writing as ‘writing’, i.e: when poor Gwendolyn has more open windows than a tower block in a heat wave, and the ratio of words written to candy crushed and cats cooed at and Buzzfeed quizzes completed shrinks ever lower.

A couple of days ago, in an effort to fight the twin demons of Laptop Leg and distraction, I joined my friend Mary in the local library for a writing session entirely free of cats being jerks or candy crushing. (Luckily, courtesy of another friend, Jon, this candy moratorium didn’t extend to amazing homemade cookies with fruit pastilles in them – yes, fruit pastilles. I know, right?). And we actually wrote. We wrote words and sentences (unless Mary was typing sjdkfjdnsbdnfbdafmsndfbxzpqeuwqoweiquasfofsuafsd to fool me), and two of the paragraphs I wrote were, well, you know, not good exactly, but they didn’t make me want to immediately claw out my eyes for having the audacity to call myself a writer. Just once, for ten seconds, I sneakily logged on to the library wi-fi (for the minor humiliation of having no notifications on Facebook, nor none on twitter neither) and somewhat to my surprise I found that my website (this very site that you’re reading right now) had been blocked by the library wifi for ‘pornographic content’. (Goodbye, at this point, to those of you who’ve immediately gone in search of said content.)

Well, this was news to me. I’ve occasionally had someone land on my home page by means of a weird phrase or two (‘tight-lacing governess stories’ is my favourite so far) but, hand on heart, there is nowt here whatsoever of a titillating nature.

Yet. 

It so happens I’m giving a reading next month for the Norwich Sound and Vision festival. And said reading so happens to be in a chilly and candlelit mediaeval church. (There’s a link to the event here if you’re ‘local people’. There are four fantastic readers – plus me – and as well as a Q&A session, in which I get to display my shining ignorance on the theme of gothic fiction, there is – more importantly – a showing of silent classic Nosferatu – remastered and with a live score, to boot.) imagesI am hemming and hawing because the piece (in its current, unfinished format) that I’m planning to read contains the words knickers, bra, and (best – worst? – of all) willies. I once drove some unsuspecting writing students from a residential weekend in a convent by reading my short story, Amore (if Amore was a cocktail, it’d be Sex on the Beach), and although willies and knickers are (in my opinion) at the very tamest end of the sexual spectrum, the fact that I’m going to be standing in a pulpit proclaiming this stuff has given me pause for thought. It’s not so much God striking me down with a lightning bolt (which, come to think of it, would give my reading a bit of pizazz), I just hate making people uncomfortable. At least, when those people are sitting directly in front of me. Staring. Or possibly glaring.

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Eric Rohmer’s 1969 masterpiece, ‘Ma Nuit chez Maud’.

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to deal with that thorny old chestnut of how to write something your mum/dad/brother/wife/churchgoing friend is going to read. First off, and most importantly, write the damn thing before you allow yourself the luxury of panicking that your neighbours will cross the street when they see you coming. (Let’s face it, the odds of publication are always against you.) Second of all, if you’re bashful enough to be asking that question, then maybe you ought to hold onto that bashfulness – as a quality, not a weakness – because, after all, there’s no need for a (sorry) blow by blow account, unless you’re intending to crack the erotic market (in which case, one word for ya: pseudonym): you can summarise all manner of sizzling action, or simply allude to it (‘When she fell into bed the following night, she could still smell James on her sheets’, for instance, or perhaps, ‘Susan was walking like John Wayne for the rest of the week’…). A scene can be sexy without any sex, if there’s plenty of tension (see Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud for a cinematic example, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian bring more electricity to a thwarted snog than a hundred knicker-less leg-crossing scenes in Hollywood movies).

On the other hand… the short, sharp, shock of a single anatomical detail can make a big impact in an otherwise sex-free zone, as it does in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, where she renders a young woman’s, um, lady garden, in the starkest possible terms through the eyes of her male protagonist. And it’s a fantastic scene. And if writing means capturing the stoniness of a stone (as the Russian formalist Viktor Shlovsky asserted: ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony‘) then Tremain takes that stone and she makes it as stony as hell. And it wouldn’t be stony as hell if she’d used the word ‘lady garden’, or one of the million other euphemisms we’re all familiar with. As a writer you choose the appropriate word at all times – even if, in polite company, that word would be wholly inappropriate. We call a spade a spade. As a writer of fiction you’re only ever the conduit for your characters. Don’t put words in their mouths for the sake of shock value, but equally never deny them their god-given pricks and tits, above all in first person (but also in free indirect), where ‘I gave her a right good knobbing’ might be more honest and truthful than penetrating her lady garden.

Some questions to ask: do you want to arouse or repulse? Does the scene move the story along, reveal character? Have you resorted to cliché? (If anything’s heaving or throbbing, the answer is probably yes.) Have you got too engrossed with the oily mechanics of sex and forgotten that, ultimately, what’s most interesting is how it transforms the relationship between two characters (or three, or four… and a donkey…)? We’ve all got the internet if we just want the old ‘in-out’, so be certain there’s always a literary purpose in mind (and, a word to the wise: if you happen to be in a writing group, think carefully before sharing. You’re going to be up close and personal with these people, discussing your work. Do not underestimate the shrivelling effect of an elderly lady’s face when perusing the fruits of your diseased mind).

I’m the first to admit I’ve gone way overboard in the past, in my efforts to make a stone stony. But here, from my aforementioned story Amore, I offer my own example of what I’ll call NR: Necessary Rudeness. My unnamed narrator, a sixteen year old virgin, has gone on holiday – not by mistake, as Withnail would have it, but hoping to lose her virginity. As she lies on the beach, she indulges herself in a fantasy of how sex will be:

In his apartment the blinds will be down, and the rooms will be stripy with sunshine. They’ll sit on his single bed and they’ll suck at the cold tops of their beer bottles. What will he taste of? Hops. When he takes off his trunks, he will smell of the sea, and the tan lines framing his crotch will look like underpants and will seem to preserve his dignity. His thing will be smooth as an actual sausage; white, and shy-looking. Like a magic trick it will vanish inside her. What then? Bliss, and the seed coming out of him: like wee, she supposes.

And here, rather sadly, is the rude awakening of reality:

He tugs at the waist of his trunks and the purple stump that comes bounding out of them must be his penis, she thinks, because that’s where men keep them. A purple stump of veins and hair with a swollen wet end like an arrowhead.

I hope you’ll agree I couldn’t have made my point without reaching for a little Necessary Rudeness.

And you know what I’ve just realised? All these years later and I’m still bloody writing about willies.

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Woman against Women Against Feminism.

Here’s something I hate: people talking about femininity as if it equates with being female.

And here’s another thing I hate: the Tumblr page called Women Against Feminism.

Some sample pics:

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‘I don’t need feminism because I don’t need a bunch of strangers calling me “bigot” and “sexist” for wanting to live traditionally.’

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‘I don’t need feminism to give me an undeserved pay increase for working less hours than a man.’ FYI, it’s *fewer* hours.

'Also how the f*ck am I supposed to open jars and lift heavy things without my husband?'

‘Also how the f*ck am I supposed to open jars and lift heavy things without my husband?’ That’s what the Suffragettes fought for, after all. The right to open their own goddamned jars.

‘I don’t need feminism because I like when men say compliments about my body.’ Peculiar syntax aside… what’s nice in the bedroom isn’t always so great in the boardroom.

In fact, I’m filled with such loathing for both these things that I’m going to depart from my usual blog topics – writing my novel and whinging about my personal life – to share with the world wide web (or at least the 0.0000000000000001% of it that reads this blog) a few of my own opinions.

One opinion I’d like to state very strongly is this: I believe femininity is a social construct (so, too, of course is masculinity). As such, femininity is unconnected to the double X chromosome. Washing your husband’s underpants or hoovering under the sofa are activities unconnected to your biological designation as female. Doing these things – willingly or otherwise – does not make you a woman. Fair enough if that’s what you choose to do with your life, but who the hell are you to say it’s ‘womanly’ to do so? Is it less ‘womanly’ to be a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, a writer? Femininity is a moveable feast, related (much like religion, much like many things) to the culture you’re born into. Men can be feminine, but they cannot be female. Women are female. They can choose to be ‘feminine’ as their culture defines it. Or they can choose not to be.

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The site I loathe so much describes itself as women against feminism, but the majority are very young women. Girls, you might even say. And while I applaud them for speaking their mind, for dressing exactly as they choose to, for having a voice – in other words, for exercising all the rights that feminism battled for – I don’t applaud them for their hypocrisy. Apparently it’s not enough to point out that none of these women, or girls, would be allowed to host their own website in a world where feminism had never existed. And apparently it’s not enough to point out that the soldier happily venting her spleen against feminism (in one of the rankest examples of the site’s hypocrisy) would never have been in the bloody military in the first place in their dreamt-of utopia where feminism never was. It’s not enough to mention any of these things, because these anti-feminists have a catch-all argument ready prepared: ‘We’re not bitching about old-style feminism – before you whip out your dictionary definition – we’re bitching about modern feminism.’ Except, actually, quite often they are bitching about feminism, full stop. There’s an unpleasantly conservative and controlling aspect to many of their comments that smacks of the very things second-wave feminists fought for back in the day. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that a woman whose self-avowed mission in life is to bake apple pie for her husband might possibly, perchance, find fulfilment elsewhere, but today’s 21st-century women have the luxury of choosing that life if they want to.

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And, believe it or not – like it or not – that is what feminists fought for. For you – yes, you, Woman Against Feminism, ungrateful as you are – to have that luxury – of CHOOSING to live life on your own bloody terms. It wasn’t men who fought for that, believe me. Men were happy as Larry with the status quo (in the same way it’s rare to find aristocrats championing the working classes). I was born into a religion that had no interest whatsoever in my brain capacity, that denied me the rights men were given so freely, that asked me to quash any dreams or ambitions that didn’t directly relate to procreation – and I want to say this to the growing band of girls and women who’re privileged enough not to understand this: having choices denied you is a horrible thing. Young Women Against Feminism, whenever you set foot in a pub, or a university lecture, or swallow a birth control pill, or sleep – without shame – with a man who isn’t your husband, you have feminism to thank for it. And, whether or not you personally feel you need feminism in your life, there are multitudes of women across the world – even in the Western world, I’m sorry to say, though so many of you dispute it – who do need someone fighting their cause, in their corner, and so, so, so often those people fighting their cause are feminists.

Perhaps as you age, as you’re rapidly sidelined by a society that still places so much emphasis on women as objects – that still defines them by their looks, their clothes, their sexual choices – you’ll grow to understand that many of the men who’re listening to you now are listening for reasons unconnected to your intellectual capabilities. What’s that, Daily Mail? New women in the Downing Street cabinet? Who gives a toss about their policies… what are they wearing?

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And don’t even get me started on the sidebar of shame…

And why is J.K. Rowling so called on the cover of every Harry Potter novel, as opposed to Joanne Rowling? The answer, anti-feminists, is because she was told that revealing herself as a female would result in fewer boys buying her books. And as for ‘Magaluf Girl‘, as the great Bill Hicks once said (on the subject of women in porn – but that‘s a different story entirely): ‘Are the men exalted?’ Those twenty-four guys who were happy to drop their trousers have disappeared into the media ether, while everyone’s scorn is reserved for the female involved.

Here are some of the choicest quotes from Women Against Feminism:

‘Feminists are jealous of other women who receive more male attention than them.’ (Yes, because feminists are madly keen on sexual objectification.)

‘I’m starting to think that feminists actually worship men.’ (No point even attempting to refute this one.)

‘Feminists think all men are rich white males.’ (Because clearly no feminist has ever taken issue with women’s depiction as sluts and ‘ho’s in hip hop culture.)

‘Feminism means always being unhappy.’ (Yup, that‘s what it means.)

‘I don’t need feminism because I don’t want my daughters growing up around slutty feminists!’ (And need feminism because I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world with double standards. And stop, please, before you tell me you call men sluts as well. You don’t.)

‘I don’t need feminism because I can think for myself.’ (Well, Einstein, that’s precisely why we needed feminism in the first place: because women were told they couldn’t think for themselves.)

So it’s come full circle, in that women are fighting to deprive themselves of the very rights they once fought for. I’m torn between anger and sadness. Personally I couldn’t stand to have a partner whose only desire in life was to look after me, whether as housewife or breadwinner. I want someone undefined – un-oppressed – by society’s idea of acceptable norms. I drive a car, I’m writing a book, I gave birth out of wedlock, I’ll sleep with a man if I want to, I don’t iron shirts. I’m a feminist. And I’m bloody well proud of it.

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What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.

Posted in Depression, The writing process, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and depression | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Major Disorder and Annie Donia.

‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.’ So said Jane Austen.

Lately I’ve felt the need to apologise for being depressed. We’re weird, that way, human beings. Our brains are – inarguably – the most complex thing in our bodies and yet for some reason I’ve never quite fathomed we’re deeply ashamed when they start to malfunction. This week’s Shared Experience on Radio 4 dealt nicely with the stigma of mental breakdown (and if you’re reading this in 2014 you can catch it here – the programme that is, not mental breakdown; that’s not catching, okay?). Depressed people are tedious, yes. I freely admit that. You look at their world objectively and perhaps, from the outside, it seems like a whole lot of bellyaching about precisely nothing. Other people have coped with worse, so why can’t you? Stop being so negative. Stop whining. Get out, take a walk, watch a film, see friends.

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Not especially related to the subject at hand, but a picture of Annie Hall smiling to cheer us all up.

The problem is something called anhedonia (the working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, as film buffs will probably know), which is broadly defined as the inability to experience pleasure. If you’re mildly depressed (as I’d been for the last year or three before things became suddenly worse) you don’t tend to experience this: hence a small case of ‘down in the dumps’ can be cured, or improved, by engaging in normal activities. When mildly depressed, I could still find my usual joy in writing, films, music, a walk on the beach, an open fire, putting my feet up on my boyfriend. I’m not materialistic or greedy or grabbing at all: ordinarily I’m made happy by the most microscopic of things. I’ve never been someone who lusts after handbags or shoes, and I’ve never especially longed for exotic holidays either: I like grass and trees (you can find those anywhere), rain on windows, a really full moon, throwing chips to the seagulls off Cromer pier. (In a sense that’s a problem of mine: I’m too easily happy with easily-haveable things, if you see what I mean. I lack drive. If the world had been left up to me, there’d be no cars or bridges or rocket ships – we wouldn’t even have the wheel, if I’m really honest. We’d all be in caves in our animal skins telling stories. Not a bad life, really…)

But I digress.

When Major Depressive Disorder comes to town (as I write this I’m imagining a moustachioed man in army uniform lightly cuffing my face with his braided sleeve whenever I try to smile) the activity in your brain’s reward centres (the amydgala, etc) flickers and dies (and, yes, Doubting Thomases, this has been shown on MRI scans) – and once Major Disorder has set up his camp it’s a devil of a job to evict him. Your life from now on will be viewed through shit-tinted lenses, and no amount of smelling the flowers or counting your blessings will make any difference: in fact you retreat from your usual triggers (music, books, others’ company) for the sole fact of how upsetting it is that the things you once loved have no power, anymore, to move you. It’s scary, in fact. How do you cheer yourself up when there’s literally nothing on earth you want to experience?

I’m asking, not answering, I’m afraid. There are people who tell you to smile, and that smiling itself will elevate your mood – not entirely untrue – but imagine your life (your whole life) spent like this: Unknowngrinning rictus-style with a sentiment you don’t feel, and what are you? You’re Gordon Brown at the last gasp of the Labour administration – and again I’m aware that people all over the planet lead horrible lives, truly horrible, but losing the chance to feel pleasure is also a horrible thing. Not worse than what other people go through, not at all, and perhaps it is a disease of spoilt Westerners, but still, you know, not very nice and all that.

So I’m going to call a spade a spade, and be open that I’ve had a breakdown. Am having a breakdown. I thought it was going to take a few weeks to resolve. But it isn’t. I’ve learnt not to think in terms of ‘happy’, but ‘temporarily less sad’. In the grand tradition of others before me, I’ve started to write whilst on drugs – I get twenty delightful minutes of peace in the aftermath of my sleeping pill, so I write like the clappers (and edit for England the following day). I find watching ballet strangely tranquil (men in tights don’t go amiss either), and Parks and Recreation makes me laugh. I composed a nice sentence while cycling the other day. I like the scent of my vanilla candle. It’s lovely that my teenage daughter still cuddles me lots. My pets do funny things sometimes. I’m enjoying Bill Bryson’s Short History of Private Life. But, through it all, I’m on auto pilot. I could quite honestly win the lottery – the Booker Prize; hell, even the Nobel – and still have a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle (to quote the incomparable Malcolm Tucker).

I’ll try in the future to keep this writing blog more closely related to writing-type things. But I wanted to set out my stall on this issue, for once and for all: I won’t be ashamed, and I won’t apologise. This is something that’s happened to me, and not something I’ve chosen. The nicest part of my brain has gone on holiday without me, and it hasn’t even sent a postcard. Wish I was there.

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Appreciating small: drawing character from the inside out.

What would you say if I asked what makes you happy? Love, money, holidays, sunshine, alcohol, dancing, sex?

The following is one of my favourite writing exercises (from Anne Bernays’ and Pamela Painter’s What If?) that I’ve done with numerous classes over the years. I think it’s called ‘Mining Memory’ (although, contrarily, I can’t remember). The concept is strikingly simple: the writer keeps a diary over the course of a week, taking note of ten things that make her happy, and ten that make her cross. 220px-Diary_of_a_Nobody_first

The results might surprise you. Amongst the usual sunsets and beach trips and laughter, some odd things emerge: one student, I recall, found happiness in a pair of perfectly white plimsolls. Some struggle to write down anything at all that makes them cross (and, NB, these students are often the ones who have trouble accepting that story means conflict), while some can’t finish either list (and are probably – sorry to say – not cut out at all for writing). A writer must notice things. And the more you notice, the more you appreciate how unique we all are. On a moment by moment basis it isn’t the lure of a lottery win or a week in Barbados that keeps us going – through good times and bad – but a pair of white plimsolls, for instance, a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it, the tail of a curious ginger cat as it chooses which garden to enter, the smell of a book you last read as a child, finding something you thought was lost forever.

The lesson for writers – and why this is such a useful exercise – is this: we, ourselves, are our own best source for our characters. We are each of us strangely specific, unique, and peculiar in our likes and dislikes – and so, too, should our characters be. An antagonist who’s driven by fame and money will always fall flat next to one who yearns for something more specific (a new heart for a dying sister; recognition from a distant parent; the utter humiliation of a woman who spurned him). Once you’ve listed your own twenty things, you can try making lists for your characters (if you like), but be warned they’ll be useless unless they come naturally, from the subconscious. You can’t force these things. It’s much better to blurt for a while, and see where the blurting leads you.

When you’re battling depression, it’s hard to see happiness anywhere. I’ve been training myself, the last few days, to ‘appreciate small; dream big’. I decided to leave my ‘cross list’ for a time when I’m feeling more generally cheerful, but here are the ten things recently that haven’t exactly made me happy (a bit too much to ask at the mo) but have dragged me momentarily from the depths.

1. Green and Black’s dark chocolate with lemon oil.

2. Ted Hughes’ voice.

3. My two cats materialising from thin air at the first whiff of cat nip.

4. Clean hair after five days of wearing it dirty.

5. Composing an opening sentence I liked.

6. Remembering an unwatched episode of Parks and Recreation on my V+ box.

7. The smell of a vest that got caught in the rain.

8. Branka Parlic’s oh-so-slow performance of Satie’s Gnossienne no. 5. 

9. Finally painting my daughter’s bedroom after two years of putting it off.

10. Rewatching The Breakfast Club with said daughter.

So that was my week. How was yours?

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The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

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Heart-shaped darts and poison pens.

In my last post I touched on the issue of grinding real-life axes via the handy medium of fiction, and after less than four hours’ sleep – as someone who’s currently very much in the market for the brain-arranging services of Dr Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I find myself drawn to the topic again. ‘If you want to get things off your chest,’ said one of my non-writing friends, ‘then why don’t you just write a story about it? You don’t have to print it.’

That’s never really been my thing, though. (Faces on dartboards, that’s my thing. By which I mean photographs of faces. Obviously.) 4278_84276857207_3158053_nI don’t like to muddy my fiction too much with people I’m trying to forget the existence of. And then, too, as a writing teacher I’ve seen a few thinly-veiled axe-grinding efforts over the years that have made me tread carefully here myself. (What follows, I hasten to add, has been liberally reinvented):

‘It was one thing being dumped, thought Sue, but to find yourself dumped for a girl your daughter’s age was another thing entirely. It wasn’t as if she wanted Chris back – with his nose picking, shoulder hair, and halitosis – but knowing he’d chosen a slut like that! (She was pretty enough, Sue supposed, but in ten years her looks would have faded and Chris would be left with a hatchet-faced bitch who could barely string two words together, and then who’d be laughing? Sue, that’s who.)’

‘John was twenty eight, if Jane recalled correctly, but thanks to his jowls and bald head he might have been easily forty under the restaurant’s strip-lights as he checked his phone for the hundredth time. Whoever she was, Jane thought with a grin, she wasn’t coming. Perhaps she’d got word of John’s “shortcomings”, as you might say, in the trouser department.’

All very cathartic, no doubt, but this sort of sniping brings a word to mind and that word is petty. 

Plenty of published authors, though, have mined their own turmoil for fiction. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, who once commented that authors should be ‘terrorists, not masseurs’, has never shied away from autobiographical territory. His 1998 novel Intimacy documents a father’s decision to leave his partner and their two young children for another woman – something Kureishi himself had just done. This Telegraph interview with the man himself quotes one of the novel’s particular gems: ‘There are some f***s for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea.’

Well, ouch.

As for Norman Mailer, not content with the real-life stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, he went on to murder his third wife in print (An American Dream) – and just for good measure he sodomised their German maid as well.

But it’s not just the men. When the seventeen-month marriage of newspaper columnist Kathryn Flett ended nastily in divorce she churned out the abysmally-named The Heart-Shaped Bullet, described by the Independent as ‘a sort of Bridget Jones meets The Bell Jar in the Conran shop’. Among the indignities doled out to pseudonymous ‘Eric’ were tales of his toilet habits, his impotence, and his love for a fluffy toy called Bunny. I’m sure ‘Eric’ had no trouble at all with impotence after that came out. images

But my feelings are mixed. In one sense this is sort of a writer’s consolation, the silver lining to all our misery: ‘Maybe there’s material here…’ And I’d hate to deny any writer (least of all myself) that silver lining, if only because I’ve found such solace in other people’s accounts of problematic lives. But revenge? I’m not sure. By airing someone else’s dirty smalls in print, you air your own as well. We none of us act our best when we’re hurt: is The Heart-shaped Bullet a book that Flett’s still proud of, I wonder? Speaking personally I’d hate my own wounds to be bound and printed and selling for £6.99 at WHSmith.

And, besides, that’s what your diary’s for.

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On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

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Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.

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Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

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Philosophical wool: how to knit your own life.

‘Philosophical wool’, as a lovely friend told me last night, was a rather wonderful alchemical term, many moons ago, for zinc oxide (which forms into woolish white clumps when burnt… or something like that). And, as I was knitting (a sort of a scarf) when she told me, I might have been slightly over-inclined to believe in the power of the poppy-red wool slowly growing itself on my needles as a metaphor for life, the universe, and everything – but, then again, anyone who knows me (or this blog) will know already how over-inclined I am to see metaphor in everything.

I’m a terrible knitter. If knitting were writing, my work would be riddled with grocer’s apostrophes, comma splices, adverbs, linking verbs, and two of my least favourite words: ‘replied’ and ‘realised’. I have an idea of a scarf in my mind (anything non-scarf-like is so far from my reach I’d need NASA to get there). The scarf in my mind’s eye is fragile and wispy, with sequins and maybe a tassel or ten, and the person who’s wearing it (me) is a Photoshopped version (a Facebook profile, say, as opposed to a picture I’m tagged in). Reality, though, shows me something quite different: a long, wonky oblong in cheap greasy wool with missed stitches and holes in. No Photoshop in the kitchen mirror either, where light pours particularly harshly at certain cruel times of the day. But to vaguely (by which I mean incorrectly) quote Hilary Mantel in Giving up the Ghost (courtesy of another lovely friend): you’ve only got one body. You have to live in it. 

You’ve only got one ‘scarf’ as well (by which – well, of course – I mean life): it’s the one you’ve been knitting, without even knowing you were, for as long as you’ve been on this earth, and it may be that yours is the wispy perfection I see in my own mind’s eye when I dream, but the life that I’ve got on my own clunky needles is closer by far to the long, wonky oblong that’s currently curled in my knitting basket, and sadly that’s where the analogy ends because lives, unlike scarves, can’t ever be unpicked. If the rows that you’ve knitted so far have got holes in, those holes will remain, and the best you can hope for, I think, is to knit better rows in the future. And as for my novel? You might well ask. There’s been nary a word for six weeks. But my scarf isn’t done yet. There’s oodles of wool in my basket still waiting for knitting, and maybe those future rows will have words in.

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Not writing but drowning.

It’s been suggested, by a lovely friend of mine, that writing another blog post might be therapeutic at what’s proving to be the hardest time of my life. But there’s one teensy problem: this blog is a blog about writing. And writing is something I simply don’t do anymore.

It’s been roughly a month since the worst depression struck, but a month – or a week, or an hour, or a minute – can be an eternity when your mood’s at its lowest. And, therefore, it’s been an eternity since I’ve written. I’m not even sure I can write anymore: I’m aware that I’m doing it now – putting one sentence after another – but whether it’s making sense, or expressing the things I intend to express, is another matter entirely.

Just reading is trouble enough for my poor befogged brain at the moment (it hovers away from the page halfway through for a bout of prolonged rumination on pesky ‘real life’ till I’ve read the same sentence 192 times). I read boarding school stories, and books about ghosts, and the final few chapters of gloomy biographies about people (Sylvia Plath, Nick Drake, Assia Wevill) who met sticky ends of one kind or another. I find there’s a kind of solace in itMisery loves company, right? And you’ll read that word, misery, and – unless you’re depressed yourself, right now, at this moment – you’ll have a vague sense of the mix of emotions that three little syllables can contain… but to borrow from Keats (in his love letters to Fanny Brawne: ‘I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair’) I want a more miserable word than misery. There’ll be those of you thinking: ‘Stop carping, for god’s sake! Pull yourself together, woman. Think of those less fortunate, etc, than your fed and warm and sheltered self…’ and of course it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be allowed to fall apart, but – borrowing here, not from Keats but Alistair Campbell in an article well worth reading  – replace the word ‘depression’ with the name of a physical illness and you’ll quickly see the error in your thinking: ‘You would never say: “What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?”’ Depression simply is. When fog descends, the fog exists – and wishing it didn’t does nothing to change it. Occasional pinholes appear and you glimpse your old life, a way through, a way out. But the nature of fog is to shift and to spread, and as soon as a pinhole appears it’s eclipsed again. Gone.

And the thing about writing, you see, is for ages and ages I’d used it to shelter in. A long time ago, when the trouble was telegraphing – from some distant hill – to warn me it was coming, I walled myself up, like an anchoress, in the cell of my novel and stiffened my lip and refused to admit it. And meanwhile, in ‘real life’, events were afoot. I was dicking around in the world in my head while the real one, the one that I actually, physically live in, was slowly collapsing. And so, when I try to set foot in that red-brick country house in the 1970s where most of my 2013 was spent, the front door has been set fast and bolted against me. I don’t even go up the path anymore, to be honest. It seems faux and phoney. There’s nothing inside there to nourish my soul. As I write I’m surrounded by shelf upon shelf of the books other people have written, and adding my own humble tome to those volumes seems only of dwindling importance when ‘real life’ has tragically nosedived.

And what I said earlier – about not understanding depression unless you are living it now, at this second – is true, I think. If you’ve suffered before then you think you remember (I thought I remembered), but, no, it’s not true: you will find that your brain won’t allow you to fully remember. You’d never go on if you could (with the knowledge it might come and claim you again). And that’s why it seems glamorous, in a way, from a distance: the suffering artist, the poor tortured soul. ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself aged 61). There’s a sense that it ought to be difficult, right? You should suffer. Like thousands of troubled teens before me, I burned the (metaphorical) midnight oil over Ariel, written by Sylvia Plath in the last tortured months before she placed her head in an oven, the gaps in the doorframe stoppered up to keep the gas from escaping into her children’s bedroom. I read Edge, widely thought to be her final poem, and marvelled at the startling marriage of life and art:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

It was all (to my fifteen year old self) so exciting. I wallowed inside it. Already I’d known the first twinges of what would afflict me for most of my life, one way or another, and less than a year after first reading Ariel (while waiting for a job interview at my local library) there’d be more than a few niggling twinges to cope with – but that’s another story. The fact is that most of my life I’ve been trying (and failing, and trying again) to outrun this. Whenever it catches me, I cannot write at all. And I think that is true for most writers, Plath included. The cusp of an outbreak can often be wonderfully fruitful (as mine was), but once it’s commenced… Kindly conjure the sound of a bank vault slamming shut. What joy can be found in the world of your head when that head is convinced of a ‘futureless future’ (in the words of Stephen Fry)?

So I’ve written this post for two reasons: firstly, to simply engage with the business of words (to be busy with something that isn’t Escape to the Country, or endless regret, or the click-clack of my woefully inept knitting needles) and, secondly, in the spirit of offering solace to others who might be alone in their own unique ditch at the moment, too low to see over the top, and to know there are others, in ditches, all over the place – and much closer, probably, than they realise.

For all us ditch-dwellers, here’s Dorothy Parker to round things off on a more light-hearted note.

Resumé 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

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A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

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‘I liked how it was before’, and other things never to say to a writer

This is draft 29. Since the project began you’ve had 23 names for your lovingly-crafted protagonist (hard to believe she began as illiterate – now she’s a linguistics professor!) and 52 versions of chapter eleven, and losing the first eighty pages was one of the best decisions thus far in your writing career (not to mention the brilliant new twist at the end – Booker judges, look out!), and you lovingly parcel your putative book with the digital version of string and brown paper, and bundle it off to the friend/family member/significant other who read drafts 14, 17 and 20.

And one merry day, when you’re happily minding your business, the feedback arrives: ‘I liked how it was before!’

And the person who offers this feedback invariably seems to think it’s a nice thing to say, for some reason I’ve never quite managed to fathom.

For the writer it’s rather like laying the very last brick in the flat-pack house you’ve built for yourself – from your own skin and bones – to be told by a clipboard-wielding bastard that you’ve got to knock it down again.

Dear People of Planet Earth, there is a rule of thumb to be used (with your nearest and dearest) in such situations: sharing one’s writing with friends and/or family members is rather like sharing one’s body. If you wouldn’t want to hear it post-coitally, then consider the chance that your friend/spouse/significant other is equally un-keen to hear it post-novelly.

For each of my Top Five Most Hated Responses imagine – go on; you’ll enjoy it, I bet – that you’ve just done the deed for the very first time with the (wo)man of your dreams, and you’re naked in all of your pale English glory on top of their tumbled silk sheets and you’re asking – you’re actually asking! – said conquest to rate your technique twixt those sheets.

1. It was fine!*

2. I only got halfway, but… it was good until then!

3. Well, obviously it needs work, but I’m sure you know that!

4.  It was quite interesting!**

5.  It reminded me a bit of something else!

* Exclamation marks, I’m sorry to say, seem obligatory in these circumstances.

** Never use the word ‘quite’ except to say ‘quite, quite’, as in ‘quite, quite magnificent’.

Sharing your writing really is that exposing. No writer expects (no serious writer expects) kid gloves from a paid editor/mentor, but when it comes to friends and family – jeez, go easy. Pause for a second – with fingers on keyboard, or pen in your fingers – and run your response through the post-coital sensitivity filter. It takes many years – perhaps decades – to write something really worthwhile: if you hobble a writer mid-stream on that journey they might just give up and do something more boring instead. And the world – as I’m sure we agree – has enough boring people already.

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You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

If there was one thing I could change about the world, it’s this. (And it comes with World Peace as a BOGOF, you’ll be happy to know.)

I would alter the fabric of time and space so that novels could be written outside of the writer’s regular life, in another dimension, connected by only the merest of threads to this thing we call reality. I’ll call this dimension the Novelling Pocket. The entrance – I’d guess – is a little like Alice’s descent to Wonderland and, once safely inside, two things happen at once:

(a) Time comes to a halt – or, perhaps, more exactly: there is no time.

(b) Your emotional baggage is checked at the door.

If you haven’t immediately appreciated the joys of the Novelling Pocket then you, Sir and/or Madam, are (a) not presently writing a novel, (b) have never attempted to write a novel, and (c) are blessed with the sort of straightforward mindset that (if mindsets were bridges) would vaguely resemble Exhibit A:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Whereas I, Sir and/or Madam have found myself dogged, for the last thirty years of my life, with Exhibit B.

Exhibit B. Photograph from http://travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

Exhibit B. The Rickety Bridge in Nepal. Photograph from travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

I think you see the difficulty.

This week (in jolly old reality) things went tits up for me. And so… after two weeks of frantic activity (see last month’s post on blurting) all work on the novel has come to a stop. (And the fact that I almost said ‘come to an end’ shows the ricketiness of my bridge at the moment.) I’m basically fastened together with red wine and string. When I open my mouth (aka pick up my pen) I am utterly mute. I have nothing. I’m empty. I want to dive into the novel and blot out the world, but instead I’m stuck, shivering, by myself, on the top board with a swimming pool of people underneath me, pointing and staring. (Actually, all right, I’m on the sofa eating crisps, but…) Last week I was Tom Daley. This week I’m an effing beach ball.

(N.B. The bridge, thing: that’s so last paragraph. Do try to keep up.)

So you know what I said (roughly 42 hours ago) about two things that happened at once in the Novelling Pocket: the (a) and the (b), and the (a) was time stopping? It used to be reason (a) that I needed it for (most of all), but now, hello, what’s this? It turns out I have shed-loads of time, now I’ve ceased any writing. The hours have magically trebled, quadrupled, quintupled (is that a real thing?), and each individual hour – each minute – seems infinitesimal in its length as I sit here unable to dive.

The profession of writer does tend to be linked with depression (Woolf, Hemingway, Plath) as this article reminds us. And yet – in spite of this blog post’s title – it’s one of the things that’s hardest to do when depressed: if you do write, the odds are you’ll write something twisted and crabbed and polluted – and, while poetry is known for its therapeutic effects, I am wholehearted in the opinion that novel writing is not. And, besides, I’m not Woolf. I’m not Plath. I’m very much more ordinary than that. To quote Plath’s Tulips, ‘I have nothing to do with explosions.’ I want nothing to do with explosions. All I want is to write again.

  

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No one else is going to write it for you.

So, diet books, huh? (Don’t worry; you haven’t come to the wrong website.)

The Fast Diet. The 5:2 diet. The Super Juice Diet. The Atkins Diet. The New Atkins Diet. The H2O Diet (really?!?). The Lemon Detox (mm, tasty). And that’s leaving aside the more emotive titlesSlim to Win. Skinny Bitch. Clean and Lean… (Meaning what, exactly? That fat people are dirty?) images

Business, of course, is booming. (I even own one of these books myself – although not the disturbingly-named ‘Skinny Bitch’, I hasten to add.) I’m not saying that diets don’t work, per se, I’m just asking – by show of hands – who here doesn’t already know exactly how to lose weight?

[Insert drumroll.] Yes, you guessed it! Healthy eating and exercise.

That’s not how we are, though, is it? We humans. We want to believe in magic, in miracles. Why – in today’s culture of instant gratification – would we want to eat more vegetables and fewer crisps when a nice man called Atkins is telling us, actually, we can shrink to the width of a Twiglet whilst stuffing our pie-holes with bacon all day?

Which brings me, at last, to the point of this blog.

Tap the phrase how to write a book into the Amazon search bar and what do you get? 14,784 results. There’s Novel Writing for Dummies, and How Not To Write a Novel (this one, to be fair, is quite funny), something (I haven’t read) with the frankly extraordinary title of Piss Or Get off the Pot: Time to Write Your Novel, and Louise Doughty’s rather good A Novel in a Year (which doesn’t really expect you to write your novel in a single year, but A Novel in Three to Four Years On Average would certainly be a less enticing title).

‘What’s that?’ says the author of A Novel In Six Months. ‘You’re going to waste a whole year on that shit? If you buy my book, you’ll be done in six months… then the other six months you’ll be sunning yourself in the Bahamas on the proceeds…’ 

‘Look, I don’t want to interrupt, but—’

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m the author of Book in a Month.’

‘Ah.’

You’ve got to love an optimist. (Actually, no you haven’t. I can’t bloody stand them myself.) These listings are full of them: ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ screams one.Writing the Breakout Novel.’ ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel.’ Best of all is: ‘Novel: Plan it, Write it, Sell it.’ I don’t know who author Lynne Barrett-Lee is but I probably need her to stand in my living room shouting at me. ‘But, Lynne, this character – I’m not really feeling him… and this scene, it’s not working somehow…’

To which Lynne would reply: ‘What are you whining about, you dick? I’ve told you everything already –  just plan it, write it, sell it!’ Full_Metal_Jacket_small

At this point I should say: this is not, repeat not, a rant against books about writing. I’ll freely confess I own loads of the buggers myself. I’m a magpie for quotes about writing (I’ve gathered them into a Scrivener file) and, loathsome hypocrite that I am, I’d actually like to write one myself, one day, when I’ve earned the right to do so with a published book or two. I will also confess that I teach short story writing (hence the large collection of said books) so, clearly, my stall is already set out on this issue: many aspects of the craft of writing can be taught – or at least semaphored, for the eagle-eyed to pick up on – but it’s also time to admit to myself that the purchasing of a book entitled Nail Your Novel will not (and did not, in fact) enable me to nail my novel. Not that it wasn’t a sensible, thoughtful, insightful read: it’s just that these books are the literary version of The Lemon Detox and, while they might give you a shot in the arm on occasion – and frequently do – at their most basic level they’re cramming your pie-hole with bacon when really it’s cabbage and tap dance you need. By all means read a book on technique. Take a course. Get some practise. And never say never: it may be that 79.7% of published authors owe their success to Book in a Month, or Book in a Week, or Book in the First Seven Seconds of Post-Coital Bliss, in which case, yes, I’ll look foolish. But one of my loveliest former students (who’s recently tasted some much-deserved literary success) once told me the best piece of advice I gave her was this: ‘No one else is going to write it for you.’

The unpalatable truth is that catch-all solutions don’t exist: the fact that you’ve purchased Piss or Get off the Pot will ultimately make no difference. You may piss, yes. But, equally, and more likely, you’ll stagger off the pot – or remain there, trousers round your ankles, no closer to nailing, stapling, or building your novel from spare bits of string than you would have been sans pot-pissing guide. Any shot in the arm will have dwindled around page 12 – if you’re anything like me, that is – and you’ll face the cold, hard truth that no one (not even Lynne Barrett-Lee) is going to write the book for you. And even if she did, she’d be unlikely to finish it in a single frigging month. So step away from A Novel in Two-Eighths of a Nano-Second and welcome to the real world.

You’re going to hate it.

 

Posted in First novel, NIP, Reading, The writing process, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing guides | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.

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‘In quickness is truth': blurting and the art of novel maintenance.

In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

This quote comes from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, and matches exactly the newest approach I’ve been taking to the Magnum Opus.

Like Bradbury, I’ll call this Blurting.

The things that I’m blurting won’t even be part of the book – they’re just backstory (just, she says: as if backstory wasn’t important) – but the thing is I’ve got myself stuck. I’m so deep in the mud of the middle (the ‘muddle’ we might as well call it) that only a radical tactic will save me.

And so – though I’m usually chained to my keyboard – I’m writing by hand, in an A4 pad full of bits of old lesson plans, notes for old stories, occasional shopping lists (Lynsey’s top tip: if your notebook’s too fancy or pricey or perfect you’ll find yourself frightened to write anything for the fear of spoiling it; drafts are best done in the tattiest book you can find). What you blurt should be legible – just – but don’t stop to find typos (writos?) or fill in missed words. There’s no need. All you’re catching I think, when you blurt, is the story.  And stories are more than just words. (It is nice, though, when a character uses words you hadn’t thought of. Private proclivities, for instance. Scarpered. Specimens. A few of my favourites today.) 

An excerpt from todays blurtings.

An excerpt from the Blurtings

It’s dangerous, though. Look closely at the picture above and you might spot a woman’s name: Dora. There’s no one in Madder Hall called Dora. Not yet… But the deeper I burrow, the closer I get to the core of it all: what’s been causing the muddle, I think, is the fact there are two diverse strands to my story – and, damn it, they just won’t join up. Every bone in my body is aching to MAKE THEM join up and get back to the novel already, for god’s sake (impatience turns quickly to panic); this draft should be finished by now – but these things can’t be rushed. ‘If poetry,’ said Keats, ‘comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ A novel needs rather more planning, of course, than a poem, but just like a poem a novel comes mainly – completely? – from the jolly old subconscious, and blurting allows the subconscious to speak.

I imagine my own as a kindly old lady, proffering tea. On a day like today there is cake as well. ‘You might want to sit down, dear,’ she says. ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is great news: you’re really immersed in this story. You’ve found all the voices, so well done, you.’ She puts a gloved hand on my knee. She’s called Babs. Or Val. ‘Here’s the bad news, dearie. Your two strands won’t ever join up. It’s beyond our abilities. See what this Dora character has to offer, why don’t you? What’s that, dear? Speak up, please. This isn’t the novel you wanted to write? Why no, dear, whoever said it should be? It’s the one want to write. Let me cut you a slice of this cake…’

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It’s raining stories. Hallelujah!

Something odd has been happening.

Elves have been taking the off-cuts from my novel and turning them into short stories.

The Elves and the Shoemaker: Lucy Crane's illustration for the 1886 edition.

The Elves and the Shoemaker: Lucy Crane’s illustration for the 1886 edition. I’m the one in the mob cap.

Short stories aren’t quite as useful as shoes, of course: nevertheless, I prefer them. Whether they’ll end up saleable is anyone’s guess. But that isn’t important. I woke up this morning to find that a story was writing itself in my head. It was all I could do to get up, have a wee, source some caffeine, and get myself back to the laptop in time to record it – like taking dictation – before it was gone.

It took less than an hour. For me, that’s unheard of. And yes, it was dreadfully written, with cliches and adverbs and notes to myself in the middle… but stories – whole stories – don’t land in my lap very often. I’ve waited my whole life long for my own little Ariel moment, when stories (or poems) fall out of the sky and you just have to catch them, and now (touching wood) here it is. Something pure, unselfconscious: not fussy, or tricksy, or technical. Nothing yet of the caliber of Tulips or The Moon and the Yew Tree or Lady Lazarus, but you know what they say about beggars and choosing.

So anyway, dear subconscious, I’m wearing a hard hat to bed tonight in case somehow, by magic, the rest of my novel falls out of the sky.

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A thing about endings.

It’s the end of the year and I so wanted things to be different. I wanted to be on the brink, on the verge. AT THE END.

Or at least at the end of the end: the end stretch, with the ending in sight or the endgame about to begin –

Have I said the word ‘end’ enough times yet? I keep thinking and hoping that somehow it might be like Satan. Or Voldemort. If you just say the freaking word often enough then it somehow, magically, finds you.

But, sigh. Not to be.

Never mind. There’s a new year approaching (apparently, people keep saying) and maybe this new year will bring resolution of more than one kind… If I solemnly swear, like a good girl, to glue my fat butt to the chair (with no tweeting or internet boggle) for seven-hour stretches three days a week will you please, please (God, Satan*, Voldemort… whoever’s listening) resolve all my flippy-flappy plot strands somehow into something resembling an ending?

You will? That’s great!

See you in 2014…

* Satan, I was just kidding about you. Don’t help me. Oh, and please don’t visit me either.

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Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… or the Music of Prose.

What do you do to relax? I do various things. I read books, I watch films, I take baths. I play Chopin’s Waltz in F major on the piano – delighting my neighbours – and listen to ASMR videos on youtube (and if the latter has you thinking I’m probably mad then you’ll know it for sure by the end of this post).

Above all, though, I write.

Is she kidding, you’re thinking? She writes to relax. I should clarify, here, that I don’t mean proper writing with plot arcs, and meanings, and narrative drive. That’s like juggling whilst riding a unicycle – backwards – and, wonderfully absorbing and rewarding as that is (when it’s working), I’d never describe it as soothing.

Proper writing is like this.

Proper writing is like this.

No, no, I mean something called free writing. You let your pen loose on the paper (or fingers on keyboard) and, well, you just write. You don’t think, you don’t shape, you don’t plan. Your brain flops – I can actually feel it, somehow – and you splurge your thoughts onto the page. Automatically. Writing without really thinking about it. Like jiggling around in a nightclub, say, as opposed to performing the lead role in Swan Lake on stage for a ravenous crowd at Sadler’s Wells.

Free writing feels like this.

Free writing feels like this.

And, NB, when I say this is writing ‘automatically’, I don’t mean to say this is ‘automatic writing‘ – in which practitioners believe they’re communing with spirits: the only communing you’ll do here is with your own brain – your subconscious, specifically – which is far more entertaining (and, just occasionally, more alarming, if you’re currently unfamiliar with its deepest enclaves). The technique has been fairly widespread among writerly types since Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ way back in 1934 (which you can read in its entirety here, with an intro by John Gardner, whose own book, On Becoming a Novelist is equally deserving of your time and attention). We free-write in order to access our un- or sub-conscious, says Brande: the most playful – or childlike – part of our brains, that must function in tandem alongside the critical, conscious part (that decides if the plot makes sense, etc.) ‘You must teach yourself,’ she says, ‘not as though you were one person, but two.’

If you’ve never tried free writing before, you’ll find some great prompts here at practice writing.co.uk (choose a prompt that immediately zings in your brain – it’s more likely to resonate with you), or simply write ‘cold’ if you like (let your natural environment prompt you somehow). Back to Brande: ‘The unconscious is shy, elusive, and un- wieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ The key here is practiceMy students divide into two clear camps: those who groan at the ‘f’ of the ‘free’ (and would rather poke sticks in their eyes than be let off the leash), while the other half champ at the bit to get started (and often have poetry somewhere behind them). You need to keep trying. The older you get, the more likely it is that your brain has erected complex fortification systems – a series of signs reading do not disturb. But a writer must play. I’m afraid it’s essential. You can’t run away from yourself – not forever: this process, for me, feels like switching the light off and groping around in the dark. You won’t know, till you reach out and grab them, what treats you might find. There are all sorts of things in that darkness, believe me, and maybe you’d feel that much safer by switching the light on but don’t, please, I ask you: the best stuff is shy and elusive, remember. It shrinks from the light.

‘But this post,’ you’ll be saying around about now – if your memory is better than mine – ‘was supposed to have something to do with the music of prose, whatever the hell that means.’ Well, yes. I’m now getting to that. It’s not something you’ll hear very often from advocates of free writing, but this is the way do it. Think back to the start of this post (it was ages ago) and you might recall something I said about Chopin? My twin loves are writing and music. The two come together sometimes. Where they meet with the least complication is here, in the dark of that treat-filled room where I do my free writing. The way I relax is to write for the rhythm alone: I don’t care about meaning, or sense, or self-censorship. All I can hear is the sound of the words, the ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, and the ebb and the flow of the language. Rhythm in English derives from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables: somehow I reach for an iamb or trochee or dactyl without even knowing exactly what iambs or trochees or dactyls are, but the rhythm entangles me, lulls me… relaxes me. Pushes me into the groove where I do my best writing, and opens the juiciest part of my brain where the good stuff is hiding.

Have you ever read prose that’s so fluid it’s sort of hypnotic? Tobias Hill (a poet as well as a novelist) is great at this; so, too, is his namesake, Tobias Wolff, in this ravishing extract from Old School‘it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlour, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the fat corner someone plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles…’ And so it goes on. It’s just lovely, right? Full of music and assonance. Swoon. (Although, crucially, Wolff breaks the rhythm sporadically: prose isn’t poetry, after all.) I could read it forever. In James Wood’s superb How Fiction Works he describes the ‘mathematical’ perfection of certain sentences; the writer’s ‘third ear’ that hears something beyond mere content. I don’t, by any means, lay claim to excellence as a writer (‘Authors come in two kinds,’ my mentor once told me. ‘Those who are natural storytellers… and, well… you’re the other kind, I think’) but the one thing I would say I’ve got is a fairly good ear for the music of prose. Which is bugger all use, of course, when you can’t tell a story, but, still, in my long writing life I’ve pulled one or two sentences out of the bag that I’m proud of. For me, that’s enough.

If you have too much time on your hands…

…you might like to read the sample that follows. It’s copied verbatim from one of my copious Free Writing files on Scrivener, written without even thinking about it, or stopping, or censoring anything. This here’s the part where you’ll think I’ve gone crackers, but read it aloud – very quietly, when nobody’s listening – and you might find it trips fairly easily (mad as it is) off your tongue.

And you know what? I quite like those card-playing dolls…

The dolls looked alarmed. They were sipping their cold tea from cups made of apples and holding their clenched hands alone on the table in front of them. None of their hands could manipulate scissors. They gazed in the far vacant distance. You never knew what they were thinking. Their eyes were completely devoid of sensation. Their bodies were heartless. They mostly wore tartan, or plaid as the little girl called it, and spoke of their long ago love affairs, over the border, when none of their hearts had been broken by boys, since they had none to break.

Was it good, the girl asked? This doll’s life? They replied that it was, that she ought to come try it. She said she preferred the boom-boom of her own real heart. They were sorry. They sat playing cards for a while. Could she join them? 

The littlest doll had an ace. The fat doll with the wig the same pink as a radish was holding the kings and the queens, and the elderly doll with no eyes had a two and a four. They weren’t sure what the game was, or who was the winner. The time was passed tolerably well in the nursery. Still the clock ticked, and at last when the rabbity hands had advanced to the ten and the seven they sighed and explained it was high time for bed.

If you’ve made it this far, grab your pen or your pencil and write fifty words – without stopping – on owls, or hearts, or cards. Feel the flow of the sentences. Jig your way through them, as if in a nightclub, and reach for a word not according to meaning but sound. When I’ve done this in class I’ve seen students come up with all sorts of ridiculous things, but they’ve often had something – a sort of a spark – that their conscious writing lacked. ‘If you never let yourself go,’ as Germaine Greer (sort of) once said, ‘how will you ever know how far you might have got?’

Exactly.

Posted in Free writing, Prose rhythm, The writing process, Uncategorized, Utter nuttiness, Writing and music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plotters and pantsers and halfway houses.

You set your book in 1970s Britain and it’s only to be expected, I suppose, that at some point in the proceedings your cast will go on strike.

The ‘C’ word hasn’t helped. By which, of course, I mean Christmas. My novel, like so many others, no doubt, has been gathering virtual dust while I’ve battled old ladies for last jars of mincemeat, and spent half my annual earnings on postage, and queued up for 22 hours for a £1.50 stocking filler (without which said stocking is bound to seem woefully empty somehow). But the rumblings had already started, to tell you the truth: I think Christmas was just an excuse, for this writer at least, to step back and take stock of the Magnum Opus.

And one thing was stunningly, immediately obvious: my characters have gone Off Message.

This isn’t all bad, though. As Isabel Allende describes it (on the utterly wonderful Brain Pickings): ‘When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.’

This is all very comforting of course – because there’s (almost) nothing finer than spending time with characters who’ve sprung to life at last – but what of this thing we call ‘plot’? I had plans for these characters, way back when: an itinerary of activities to keep them all occupied, like overseas visitors you’ve dutifully – reluctantly – agreed to escort on a sightseeing tour: ‘No, but Tuesday we’re doing the Houses of Parliament. Windsor Castle’s on Wednesday. Madame Tussauds? But we’re not even going to Madame Tussauds… Look, I emailed this weeks ago…’

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

If you’ve come within sniffing distance of National Novel Writing Month then you’ll certainly know of the NaNo folklore that two types of writers exist, known as plotters and pantsers. The plotters, of course, are self-explanatory (lovers of file cards, character profiles, hard and fast outlines. Call round to their house and you’ll most likely find their CDs neatly marshalled according to some kind of arcane system – date of release divided by number of band members, for instance, multiplied by Pi). Pantsers are not German tanks, as you might be imagining, but rather are writers who fly by the seat of their pants (which is rather a wonderful image, when you really think about it). Call round to a pantser’s house of an evening and follow the trail of their last music session like breadcrumbs from one incorrectly-replaced CD to another. (As every unfortunate guest will know, I fall squarely in Category B.)

But, of course, it’s not really that simple, is it? The late, great children’s author Diana Wynne Jones saw four distinct camps, not two, and I’m rather inclined to agree:

1. Careful planners (who need to know every last twist in advance).

2. Avid researchers (short on plot, but long on background).

3. Back to front and inside out writers (who might start with chapter 11).

4.  DWJ’s own method: ‘I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle.’

(You can read the full article here. While it’s aimed at children, it’s perfectly pertinent, too, for the adult writer).

And when you've read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

And when you’ve read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

Myself, I’m a 4. I’ve tried plotting – I really have tried – but the plot (wildly good as it seems in the abstract) can only translate into concrete reality if the cast you’ve created decides to play ball. And, ay, there’s the rub. You can move them around all you like when they’re still only names on a neat set of file cards, but once they’re alive – I mean really alive – they can give you the old two-fingered salute any time they flipping well want to. ‘Characters are not created by writers,’ said Elizabeth Bowen. ‘They pre-exist and have to be found.’ And she’s right, I think – or, at least, in the sense that all characters (probably) spring into life as composites of the many hundred – thousand – people we’ve met in real life. They’re like teenagers (trust me on this; I’m the mother of one): and as every mum knows you can take a hot-headed teen to the instrument of your choice but you can’t make them practise… and so it is with characters. You can spend your whole morning with shoehorn in hand – ‘you will poison the schoolmaster’s wife, because have decreed it… but what do you mean you’re in love with the schoolmaster’s wife? Oh god, NO, because, look, now you’ve sunk the whole plot’ – till your characters head to the picket line, placards in hand, and perhaps they’re unusually stubborn, my cast, but they’re not going to budge, not a muscle, until I’ve re-written the script of their lives.

Am I going to give in?

Well, of course I am.

Posted in Characters, First novel, NaNoWriMo, NIP, Plotting, The writing process, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh, the times they are a-changin’ (or actually changed quite a long time ago without me bloody noticing).

When I first started hawking my stories round town, the only real tool at my writerly disposal was a manual typewriter approximately the size – and weight – of London, with an ever-increasing number of jammy keys, and malfunctioning ribbons.

Yes, ribbons.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls' hair.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls’ hair.

In those days ribbons had quite a lot to do with writing. They lived on two spools in the typewriter’s casing, and slowly unwound and rewound themselves, over and over again, till the ink was worn out. (Or, well, that’s how I remember it. Funny how something as normal as breathing for so many years seems so hazy and alien now. Take a trip here for the Wiki-How low-down.) At least, that’s what they did when they worked. But mine didn’t. I’d get to the end of one spool and I’d WIND BACK THE RIBBON BY HAND. That’s how much I wanted to keep writing. (For one memorable time in my life, I had two-tone print, like a half-baked sort of traffic light, with red at the bottom and black at the top.) If you wrote something silly you reached for the salaciously-named corrective fluid or (more often, if you were me) retraced your steps with a row of snarling Xs. A bit like barbed wiring.

To summarise: you had to be really ashamed of a line, in those days, to delete it.

I'm going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

I’m going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

The other thing I mentioned was the jammy keys. You’d literally hammer the words on the page, in those far-away days, and my hammers would sometimes – quite often – refuse to lie down again after I’d used them. Perhaps (in my fantasy land) they were trying to read what I’d written. More likely they needed some oil. Either way, it was quite an ordeal, most days, to get more than a handful of paragraphs onto the page. These machines were so flipping noisy you couldn’t type much after ten if you lived within listening range of other humans. Your fingers grew steadily flatter from thumping the keys. It was hard bloody work. It was manual labour. (See what I did there? Sorry.)

You sent off your stories by post (a nice pigeon arrived at your door with a clip round his leg, and you gently attached your short story and waved him goodbye). When you entered your work for a prize the results would arrive in a similar fashion, or maybe by telephone – landline, I mean – and then only, of course, if you’d won: if you hadn’t, and hadn’t requested a notification, you might never know the results.

When I hung up my writer’s gloves for a while (with a crippling case of The Block) things had already changed. Like Dylan, I’d long since gone electric (first with a plug-in typewriter – whoop! – then the humble Word Processor. Yes, I’m a sort of computer, but whoa there, girl, what’s this internet shopping you speak of? And today’s top compilation of Cats Being Jerks? Are you out of your tiny mind? I’m a word processor, sweetheart. For the processing of words).

Sometimes, laptop, much as I love you, I wish you were humbler and simpler and more single-minded. I wish you were more about processing words and less about oh what’s that nice shiny link over there – and, aw, that’s so cute – and, haha, that’s the funniest ever and – fifty-seven flagged emails I haven’t replied to – and sign this petition – and, oh, I’ll retweet that – and, yes, I love cutting and pasting, and googling for everything possibly relevant (certainly saves on the telephone calls to my dad: ‘Do you know when the sun sets in March?'; ‘When were seat belts made law?'; What does camphor smell of?’, etc) but my brain seemed to shape its thoughts more easily – in the tap-tap-tap-ding! of those olden days – when it took so much work to commit them to paper.

And competitions, too, have moved on. There are prizes for stories and poems, same as always, of course – but the stories have sub-sets now (flash fiction and memoir), and something Tania Hershman tweeted the other day about ‘drabbles’ had me reaching for my dictionary (by which, ahem, I mean googling for the definition) to learn that, no, these are not the off-spring of Margaret Drabble, but rather a tightly-laced Victorian governess of a story form: 100 words exactly. Ouch. That’s rigid. (Rigidity rather works, though, when it comes to short stories… but that’s for another post.) And the last prize I entered myself (the Fish Short Story Prize 2011) was entirely an online-affair. Did they want my address? No, they didn’t. But what if my email dies, somehow, I was thinking. How will they tell me I’ve won? (Oh, come on, we all think it. Fess up.) In the end I was short-listed (close, but no cigar), and my email continued to function as normal, and yes, the website crashed when the long list was published, but, ultimately, the world kept on spinning, and no-one but me was remotely sniffly or sad for the ritual of giving the big brown envelope a kiss for luck before sending it, actually, physically, off to its fate. Call me an old romantic, but, sigh, there was something I liked about that.

Posted in Nostalgia, The writing process, Typewriters, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing prizes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Praise Sandwich: On Giving and Receiving Feedback

Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of teacher training will have served up many a Praise Sandwich in their time. Unknown-1It goes a bit like this (do try to keep up if you can; it is tricky):

1. Say something nice.

2. Insert constructive criticisms.

3. Say something nice.

Having once had the pleasure of feedback from someone who omitted all three steps I can tell you there’s an art both to giving and receiving comments on a WIP. As the giver (unless you genuinely intend the giv-ee NEVER to write again) then, please, for the love of god – find something nice to say. It may be that you’ve seen a pile of vomit with more artistic merit, but comments such as ‘this line captured my attention’ and ‘what an interesting idea’ are noncommittal enough that you don’t look like an idiot whilst encouraging said ‘giv-ee’ to keep writing long enough to (just maybe) get a little bit better at it.

In my workshop I ask all participants to follow some simple rules when offering feedback:

1. ‘Show your working.’ (e.g. ‘This character wasn’t believable as a neurosurgeon, because on page 4 you described him as unusually clumsy’… as opposed to: ‘This sucked.’)

2. Adjust feedback according to which stage the draft is at. (A first stab? Stick to generalised comments on character, pace and structure. You might as well piss in the wind, at this stage, as tweak every sentence.)

3.  Don’t be a Grammar Nazi. (By all means, mark up the draft, but few workshops can survive an hour-long diatribe on the semi-colon.)

4. Remember: it’s not your story. Be careful not to impose your own style and/or interests on another writer. (‘What I think’s missing here is an S&M scene…’)

5. If you possibly can, read it twice (the first time without comments). Apply this to your own self-editing, too.

And the rules for receiving feedback?

1. Shut up and take it!

2. That’s it. Just shut up and take it.

Have you ever seen Hilary Mantel on Amazon arguing against one of Wolf Hall‘s one-star reviews? I’m guessing that’s a no. On the rare occasions When Authors Fight Back (you can have that if you want, Channel 5) they only ever make themselves a laughing stock. (See here for some bad behaviour from the self-published author of The Greek Seaman.) Practise for your own one-star reviews (no, seriously, practise: everyone gets them) by bringing up the drawbridge. Fine, speak out if a factual error’s been made, but otherwise: stiffen that lip; turn the Biblical cheek; keep a dignified silence. The one thing you ought to be doing is this: taking notes. Hide the notes in a drawer for a week if you need to. The odds are you’ll find, when you tiptoe towards them again, that the shit-storm you thought you got caught in was (a) not as turd-filled as first it appeared, and (b) at least partially justified.

images-1

Personally I don’t think this piece has enough adverbs in it.

Here, let me just take a break to admit that you may have a fair few buffoons in your workshop. We’ve all known a reader who blunders through prose with the grace and finesse of a spec-less Mr Magoo… who wouldn’t know quality prose if it came rubber-stamped from the government’s Quality Prose Department (which, thank god, doesn’t exist). In a workshop (as on twitter) you’ll soon learn the voices worth listening to. Use your judgement. Buffoons can be safely ignored (in fact, should be). And, likewise, if someone has clearly cast only the vaguest of looks at your work (from a passing train window, say) then start pinching that salt. The two blokes, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who later wrote one of my favourite programmes, Peep Showwere both in my final-year writing class at Manchester Uni and all these years later I still have fond memories of Sam Bain’s two-word response at the foot of my story: Well done. Not as harsh, of course, as the two word-review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich, but still. Two words? Two fingers, more like.

Unknown-2

The aforementioned team behind TV’s ‘Peep Show’. Oh, and Jesse Armstrong also co-wrote a little thing called ‘The Thick of It’. Not too shabby.

Never mind. I came top of the class and that, of course, is the salient point here. (And, while on the subject: there wasn’t much evidence, back then, of Sam Bain’s scriptwriting genius, although Jesse Armstrong produced a spectacularly horrible story called Pig Rodeo that, with hindsight, had more than the whiff of a Peep Show blueprint about it…) 

Most writers, of course, are at least 64% Jealous Bastard (rising to 86% if they’re currently on an MA). If you’re sharp-tongued yourself, I suggest you brace everything for the little-known phenomenon of The Revenge Drubbing, a feature of certain, power-hungry workshops. (I’ll see your ‘incomprehensible gibberish’, madam, and raise you a ‘slightly less fun than a coma’. Touché!)

Luckily, my own experiences with Mentor Extraordinaire Michelle Spring (as part of Arts Council England’s Escalator programme) have been as far removed from buffoonery, and drubbery, and two-word reviews, as humanly possible. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been force-fed a turd sandwich or two, but my lip is so stiff now it’s practically Botoxed. The news from the frontline was good today: all the bits I like best in my book are the bits she likes too.* So, onwards! (As my late, great, phonetic-namesake Lindsay Anderson was wont to say.

*Although apparently it’s got too many breasts in it…

Posted in Feedback, First novel, Namedropping, NIP, revenge, The writing process, Uncategorized, Workshops, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Third Suitcase (or How Many is Too Many Characters?)

So I know how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb (one. But the lightbulb’s got to want to change) and how to get four elephants into a mini (two in the front, and two in the back).

What I don’t know, good people, is how many characters I can reasonably cram in my novel.

Many have fallen already, in the thirteen months (not that I’m counting) since ‘Madder Hall’ first stuck its nose past the parapet of my notebook (‘Wheeling a stolen bicycle, an ordinary-looking girl with yellow hair…’)* As I sit at my desk (oh, all right, in bed), with a Pivotal Scene to be written today, I’m pondering whether or not to cull another.

Now someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) said something (I can’t quite remember) on Radio 4 once, while lightly discussing the Eleanor Catton book-beast that garnered this year’s Booker Prize. It went something like this: writing plots is like carrying suitcases, one in each hand. If you’ve constantly got to go back for a pesky third suitcase, then maybe your plot is too complex. (Do please shed some light on the source of this quote, if you know it.)

For me, this particular character feels like that pesky third suitcase. I keep on forgetting her. Leaving her under a bench on the platform. (She nearly got blown up once, by controlled explosion, for being a possible bomb.) She’s only half-packed, as I vaguely recall: there’s a dirty great lock on the strap that I can’t find the code for. More bothersome still, she’s the same shade and texture as one of my other cases. I can’t always tell them apart at a distance. (Insert pic, here, of the author scratching her chin.)

But she plays very nicely in tandem with somebody else (her young daughter), and killing her off may cause the fabric of Time Itself to be hopelessly torn apart (or else necessitate a largish chunk of rewriting, which is far worse, of course). So here I am straddling this chasm, my legs at unnatural angles (as modelled here by Leroy in Fame), Gene Anthony Raywhile the Pros and Cons swirl in my head. Do I welcome The Killer Inside Me or hack off that lock with a buzz saw and see what she’s hiding?

* As the re-writes have piled up (like hands playing One Potato, Two Potato) it turns out the yellow-haired girl can’t even ride a bike anymore. Which just proves the truth of this Rose Tremain quote (from the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction): ‘Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them.’

Posted in Characters, First novel, NIP, Plotting, The writing process, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Case of the Glums, or The Feedback Limbo.

You know that thing when you’re halfway through tidying up and the room looks worse than it did in the first place and, GOD, you wish you’d never started?

Hello, novel.

As some of you may know by now (I bang on about it often enough), I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the ten Escalator writers for 2013: my prize being (primarily) a year’s free mentoring from the wonderful writer Michelle Spring, creator of my second favourite female detective, Laura Principal. (No. 1 spot reserved, of course, for my childhood crush, Nancy Drew.) Every three months or so I bring joy to Michelle’s existence with 10,000 words or so of my putative novel. She waits – her breath bated, heart pounding, a light film of sweat on the palms of her hands – till my latest instalment has landed, at last, in her inbox, and life can have meaning again. (Or something like that.)

But, of course, as we know – courtesy of Nelly Furtado – All Good Things (Come to an End). And I’m writing this post from the uppermost step of the ride we call Escalator: poised to get off, with a businessman jostling his brolly behind me and somebody, late for a train, racing past in a fug of BO. The good ship Escalator has docked, at last, at the Port of Mixed Metaphors, and this mentoring session – on Monday – marks (sniff, sniff) the end of my year. So last night – deep breath – at a minute away from the witching hour, I gathered my last little bundle of words in a hastily-renamed file (originally titled ‘Massive Balls for Michelle’) and, sipping a last drop of wine for Dutch courage (South African actually – Porcupine Ridge; not too shabby for six quid, Sainsbury’s, thank you), I hovered my mouse over ‘send’ and I fired my words into the ether. Gulp. Now I wait until Monday, midday, for The Verdict.

Gulp

Gulp

These few days in Limbo are strange. Here I am with the ‘guiltless but damned’ of Dante’s Inferno: the virtuous pagans, the unbaptised, the Christ deniers. Excluded from heaven. Protected, so far, from the fires of hell. (Any writer who’s handed in work of a first draft quality for perusal by actual human eyes will appreciate hell as a metaphor here.) I mean, what are you meant to do while you’re waiting for someone to give you a yay or a nay? Are you right to be secretly yipping inside that you’ve hit on a really cool twist… or, come Monday, with nothing but tea to console you, will everything crumple to dust in the cold Cambridge light? Will you plod up the road to the station, loathing yourself and your book and the universe? Will you, in fact, get a Case of the Glums, that might last you a day, or a month if you’re really unlucky, when every last phrase that you lovingly plucked from your mind seems to shrivel and die in the light of another’s dislike of it?

Hmm. It’s a cold kind of place. You will need to bring blankets. You’ll need your own file, like my own, labelled ‘Pep Talks’, where quotes such as this are collected:

‘The blank page breeds a crisis of confidence every morning’ (Hilary Mantel)

My old mucker, Hilary Mantel

My old mucker, Hilary Mantel

‘I’m having to tear each word out; it’s like digging for coal’ (Ian Rankin)

Ian Rankin, no visible coal-dust

Ian Rankin, no visible coal-dust

‘I’m not at all confident about the quality of what I do’ (Peter Porter)

The late poet, Peter Porter

The late poet, Peter Porter

‘Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me’ (Sarah Waters)

Sarah Waters. On the inside, her blood is curdling.

Sarah Waters. On the inside, her bowels are curdling.

‘There are times of boredom, there are times of regret, there are times of disappointment’ (PD James)

PD James, perhaps looking a tad regretful?

PD James. Is that regret on her face? Or just boredom?

And mighty glad I am to hear it. Every writer, apparently, gets the Glums sometimes, as REM very nearly  said, so here’s the aptest quote of all, to finish, from J.D. Salinger in his correspondence to Marjorie Sheard, an aspiring writer, currently on show at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY – so good it deserves to be capitalised:

This is me, not Salinger. You probably realised that.

This is me, not Salinger. You probably realised that.

‘LOSE NOT HEART.’ LoseNotHeart2

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Getting Naked with Hilary Mantel: A Writer’s Anxiety Dream No. 1

Okay, so I’ve been in New York on my holidays (I’ll just say that a little louder in case anyone missed it: NEW YORK!!!!!!!!!!!!!), and one Friday evening I popped to the Morgan Library and Museum for a little look-see at the Edgar Allen Poe exhibition, ‘Terror of the Soul’. (Blood-coloured backdrops, drawings of ravens, piercing-eyed daguerrotypes… Blog-worthy in itself, of course, but better blogged about by a more ardent Poe fan than myself. You can read all about it, as they say, at Kimberley Eve’s Musings of a Writer).

Terror of the Soul at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY

‘Terror of the Soul’ at the Morgan Library and Museum, NY

Pre-Poe, in a little glass room in the lobby downstairs, they were celebrating 45 years of the Man Booker Prize with copies of each of the winners arranged round the walls in their order of winning (a separate glass cube of its own for the 2013 doorstop by Eleanor Catton). All lovely, of course, but the books were taped shut – and I’ll say that a little louder, too, in case you missed it: TAPED SHUT. To these eyes they appeared to be bog-standard copies (not precious, not priceless), or, rather, the thing that was precious about them, of course, was their contents – the one thing denied us. A book you can’t open? Harrumph. Like a bird with clipped wings. Had I been a bit braver I might have gone round and untaped them in protest… Back in the real world, a guard told me off just for leaning on a cabinet (at which I prickled with a peculiarly English variety of embarrassment). So the books, I’m afraid, remain taped.

Without even opening Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel’s record-breaking Booker wins – I could tell you, in fairly small detail, the opening scenes of each book. I remember, in particular, the ‘rosy brick’ of a house she describes in the latter, and how that word ‘rosy’ sang out in a sensory way that plain ‘red’ would have failed at. God, she’s good. She’s a Queen among courtiers. (And more deserving of worship than our actual Queen, IMO. But that’s another story.)

Literature with a capital 'L'. And one of my favourite words in the title. (By which I mean 'Wolf'. Not 'Hall'.)

Literature with a capital ‘L’. And one of my favourite words in the title. (By which I mean ‘Wolf’. Not ‘Hall’.)

Inspired by the little glass room at the Morgan, that night – in my cushiony bed on the cusp of Times Square while the taxi cabs yelped at each other – I dreamt a strange dream about HM herself. She’d invited me over for afternoon tea. HM’s house was surprisingly ugly, with cheap chintzy fabrics and nasty brown carpet and nary a bookshelf in sight. But the cups were bone china, the tea Lady Grey, and HM and I bonded at once as we supped, and – without even reading a word of my novel – she knew, just by sniffing me (writers, like wine, had aromas), that I was the Next Big Thing: A.S. Byatt and Atwood and Flannery O rolled in one. (I did say I was dreaming.)

Cut to: the following evening. A hall packed with flashing photographers, drink-swilling publishers. HM on stage in her finery, grasping the mic, and a stage full of writers – all female – behind her, cross-legged, rapt with attention, and One Empty Chair. As she hailed me, I stood (dressed in lumberjack shirt and jeans: thanks, brain) and was swept on a wave of applause to the One Empty Chair. This was it. I had Made It. Sniffed out and initiated by HM herself to The Fold. Not just ‘someone who writes’, but A Writer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when HM reached up and unbuttoned her dress. I looked round at the writers behind me, all women, and each one was flashing the flesh till the platform was puddled with fabric – and not just with dresses but undies as well. It was some kind of gesture, as HM explained to the microphone – white as a swan sans clothing – though for or against which cause exactly I never quite caught. My cheeks were a shade or two warmer, by now, than the core of the sun. HM rippled towards me. ‘Get naked,’ she said, ‘or you’re out.’

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Hilary Mantel avec clothes

Did I strip?

Did I f*ck. I stood clutching my lumberjack shirt for dear life. And, as HM had warned, I was swiftly ejected. Persona non grata. Embraced by the arms of obscurity. Out in the cold.

And the meaning of this? Well it can’t be that making your life as a writer means whoring yourself, because HM is nobody’s whore… Could it be that, like one of those sad little books in the Morgan’s glass room, there’s a part of myself that’s taped up, sealed away? Could it be that I’m scared to un-tape my own book, so to speak, in case… (drum roll) everyone hates it?

Back in 2002 I won the Bridport and Canongate Prizes in the same week (to my bank manager’s delight) with the second and third short stories I’d ever submitted. Sounds good – and it was – but success, I’ve found, can be more crippling than failure. Each story you write from then on has to raise itself up in the shadow of prize-winning stories, like Brad Pitt’s less attractive brother, say, or Branwell Brontë. ‘Writing today is like standing stark naked in Trafalgar Square and being told to get an erection,’ said Louis de Bernières, in the aftermath of his blockbuster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Blockbusting success and erections are two things I’ve yet to be troubled with thus far in life, but I get what he’s saying. The end (of the scribbly first draft) of my novel moves closer each week, and, yes, that’s exciting, but partly it’s also like standing stark naked on stage with Her Royal Highness Hilary Mantel.

I wonder what she dreams about?

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Walking the Tightrope of Doom between juicy and confusing.

What to do with my multitudinous plot strands? (a) Fashion them into a natty hairpiece, (b) weave a folksy rug, (c) tempt my cats to chase them, or (d) all of the above.

Answers on a postcard, please.

You may think I’m joking (and you may, of course, be right) but, finding myself at the midway point of my novel-in-progress (let’s call it my NIP), I’m genuinely perplexed by plot strands. ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!’ Right on, Sir Walter, because what is a novel if not a giant pack of lies? I’m accustomed to writing short stories – where sub-plots are the kiss of death – but a novel needs plenty of strands for the reader to grab at, and several times recently I’ve surprised myself with a corking great strand that’s emerged from the ether like ectoplasm from a Victorian psychic’s underskirts, and what else can you do – when ectoplasm rears its gooey head – but catch hold of it, run with it, cackle with glee that you’re so in the zone that your novel’s begun to write itself. (N.B. I do not recommend performing any of these tasks with actual ectoplasm.)

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

And then, hello, it’s the following morning and, look, it’s all gone tits up now. You turn to your Scrivener cork board to see what you’ve planned for yourself and you brew your morning barrel of [insert name of preferred caffeinated beverage] and merrily tap out another great scene, and you’re just on line four of your Booker Prize acceptance speech when – hang on! That doesn’t make sense now. Yesterday, in the white heat of genius, didn’t you write a new scene? Yes, you did. In that scene [insert appropriate dramatic action] happened in front of your protagonist’s eyes. And has she reacted? No, she hasn’t.

Heart pounding, you start to look back through the NIP (though you promised you wouldn’t, not now, not when everything’s ticking so nicely) and, whaddya know, there’s a theme emerging: this isn’t the first time she’s failed to react…

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

Stick a pin in a scene – any scene – and the odds are you’ll find something juicy that your village idiot of a protagonist has failed to react to. Failed to even notice.

Thank god that this isn’t a Nancy Drew novel, or the jig, as they say, would be up.

Imagine me writing this one. The ink's drying on the 'd' of The End and… 'Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!'

Imagine me writing this one. The ink’s drying on the ‘d’ of The End and… ‘Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!’

So what now? Can it really be me who’s the idiot? Can my ‘white heat’ be trusted? Perhaps it’s just leading me further astray, like some bleached and tattooed reprobate round the back of the bike sheds, offering fags…?

But the world of ‘astray’ is a rather fun world to be in. Right? So, for now (for NOW), I’m filing ‘reactions’ and ‘tying of plot strands’ in the giant To Do folder (move along, housework, make room please) and just Flipping Well Cracking On With It. And I’m walking that tightrope of doom between juicy and confusing (I’m owning that tightrope, goddammit!) and either I’ll exit gracefully to the crowd’s applause or I’ll plunge to my death on the circus floor.

If you, too, have found yourself trapped like a hapless fly in a web of your own devising, then here’s what I heartily suggest you do: stop reading this post (because, to be honest, all the best bits are over with now) and read these instead (via the Writers’ Centre Norwich). Not specifically related to plot strands, but specifically related to the eek, and the argh, and the blurgh of the NIP-writing process. It’s always good to know that others have suffered as you, now, are suffering, and even better when those others are famous writers who’re meant to know what they’re doing. Incompetents of the world, unite!

Posted in First novel, NIP, Plotting, Scrivener, The writing process, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ye olde Brain Back-up and the prickly issue of about-ness.

I woke up this morning with the first line of this blog post fully and perfectly formed in my head.

Then I went to make tea and forgot it.

So now this post is about two things: the original thing (which I’ll get to in a minute), and the new thing (which I’ll get to right now): the importance of keeping a notebook. ‘Backing up your brain’, I think I’ll call it. These days I’m so wholly dependent on the ‘undo’ button that I find myself alarmed, in real life, when I can’t recall my last, lost thought at the touch of a key. Oh my god, but that sentence was great! What do you mean, brain, it’s gone forever? Undo, undo, UNDOOOOOOOOOO!

The second thing this post is about is the word ‘about’. More specifically, the answer to that time-worn question: ‘What’s my novel about?’ There are layers of response, I think, to this question. The top one (the cherry on top) that draws readers’ (and publishers’) eyes is your much-discussed elevator pitch, without which, by all accounts (and a modicum of personal experience, I might add), you will quickly commit Career Harakiri in front of an agent’s eyes. And while this needn’t be quite as bold and crass as Fifty Shades meets Cannibal Holocaust (although I probably would buy that) it ought to have something a little bit ‘jazz hands’ about it. You needn’t describe yourself as the ‘new’ Dan Brown, for instance – because, obviously, one of those in the world is sufficient quantity already – but it does help to have a handle on what genre you’re writing in: ‘It’s a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s’ is my own opening gambit. Most of all though, you need to assess, condense, and regurgitate your book in two or three bite-size sentences. 

But I digress. It wasn’t the cherry on top that I really meant to write about, nor even the cream-cheesy layer beneath – which contains the full arc of your plot, all the ups and the downs that the novel’s ‘about’ on that second, slightly deeper level. Peep under that cream-cheese bulk, and you’ll come to the crumbly, brown, biscuit-like base that holds the whole shebang together (enough with the cakes now, Lynsey) and that’s what this post (and your novel) is really about. And the reason I’ve skirted the issue so long is that, sshh, we don’t say what our novel’s about. What it’s really about. We have to stand there madly semaphoring it through the subtext of our story, and hope against hope that the reader catches on.

This third layer is meaning (or theme, if you’re feeling grandiose about it), and, honestly, you’ve got to have one. Eventually. It might always be shadowy – more about feeling than knowing – but feeling a thing, in the fictional realm, is far more important than knowing it. Most likely the meaning will follow on after the novel’s got going, e.g: you’re mid-way through your latest knee-jerk ‘Save File’ on the 117th page, when reading the word ‘bananas’ you realise your novel is all about fruit as a metaphor for mental health (I would not buy this one) and in draft two you subtly tweak every sentence accordingly (a nectarine here, a melon there, etc). Meaning ought to be fashionably late to the party, I think, or it risks being fake. ‘Oh yah, well my book’s about social injustice’, you say, when really it’s just about shagging. We’ve all had a middle class dinner party version of an answer at one point, but penetrate your soul – go on, do it right now – and you’ll probably find there’s a far less palatable truth. You may very well also find (as I’ve done in the last few days) that you’re basically writing ‘about’ the same thing every freaking time you set fingers to keyboard and of course we escape through our writing – we do that with rip-roaring plots and fantastic locations – but finding your novel’s true meaning is all about burrowing deeper, not running away from yourself. And, hey presto, the writing will magically fill with all manner of juicily universal truths. In the style of a mustachioed Lord Kitchener inviting men to war:  Your novel needs you.* So (wo)man up and do it. You know you want to.

* Dig deep for victory, I might add. (Sorry.)

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Does the universe need another writer?

Since joining Twitter a couple of months ago, two things have become immediately obvious: (1) that I’m not half as interesting as I secretly hoped I was, and (2) approximately 97.5% of the population of planet earth is currently writing a novel.

Another wake-up call came via a recent workshop run by Writers’ Centre Norwich (you can also read my guest blog on their website if you’re so inclined). From the doctor-esque scribble I found in my notebook the morning after, I’ve managed to decode (and probably falsify) the following, rather sobering, fact: each year around 86,000 new titles are published in the UK. Around 59,000 of those titles will sell an average of… 1000 copies? 100 copies? 50 copies? (Knees trembling slightly now.)

The answer is 18 copies.

And that’s the average. Meaning, of course, that many new titles sell fewer than 18 copies. Which, by all accounts, is a bit of a slap in the face.

It could be that I’m labouring day after day (my social life dwindling to Howard Hughesian proportions; my bank statements gathering dust in the hallway – too frightening to open) on a book that only my mum will buy. (And, if I’m honest, she’s not that keen on my fiction anyway, so…) Gulp. And that’s if it’s even published. Anyone fancy an uphill struggle?

Well, yes, actually. I do. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m really wholehearted about, but writing is one. And here’s why: I can’t not do it. Jump cut to Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ And writers write. A day without writing feels wrong and unworthy. A day without tumbling headlong into something made-up makes my brain feel like two pennies rattling around in a pauper’s money box (by which, of course, I mean my money box): depressingly lonely. That’s right, yes, I’m really that sad: I feel lonely without my imaginary friends. And since they’re still there, in mid-gesture (a bit sore and stiff from their freeze-framing yesterday, when I had ‘proper work’ to get on with), I’d better scoot off now (my brain nicely heated from writing this blog post) and bring them to life again.

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