The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty One

Now I face the important decision of whether or not to hyphenate my twenties.

Decisions, decisions. I’m not very good at them. Which is unfortunate, because a writer needs to make more decisions than an Apprentice project manager in the midst of a cross between a brainstorm and a shitstorm.

You need to make decisions in two places: inside, and outside your novel.

Inside your novel… we’ll come to in a moment.

Outside your novel: simply put, this means making a decision like the one I made at 7 a.m. today. That’s our usual waking-up time on a school day, but my daughter’s not well and after a wee bit of negotiating (in which she made her case very well; guess which side she was arguing?) we agreed that she could embrace that wonderful moment every school kid knows: the one when your mum/dad/gender-neutral-caregiver says, ‘Oh, go on then. Have the day off school.’

 

So now (being an adult who ner-ner-ni-ner-ner can’t be told what to do, not by anyone*) I faced my own little decision: head on the pillow or fingers on the keys?

* If only this was true.

‘I think I’ll do some writing,’ I said to Poorly Daughter.

‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ said Poorly Daughter.

Laughter ensued. ‘Will my typing disturb you?’

‘No,’ said Poorly Daughter. ‘I like hearing you work.’

Spoken like a true Slave Master.

Two things had to happen before any writing could begin: the kettle had to be boiled, and the two large furry cat beasts who dominate our little household had to be momentarily calmed with porcelain dishes of manna from heaven, rubbed on the thighs of virgins and sweetened with the blood of a sacrificial… errrrrr, I don’t really know where I’m going with this. The cats are demanding, anyway. They had some cat biscuits, etc, and became temporarily less demanding. I’ve probably got carried away here.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house. Although number 3 actually looks the most demanding here, I have to admit.

So anyway, Decisions inside the novel, she says in a forthright and tally-ho sort of a manner. Now I’m Alan Sugar in the boardroom, loading my firing finger for another fatal shot. (God, I’d love to know if he practises that in front of a mirror.)

Yesterday, after more to-ing and fro-ing than a to-ing and fro-ing thing (I’ve opened my head like a pervert’s purse in a stripclub and all of my similes have fallen out. Except that one. And perverts probably carry wallets, not purses – if that’s not too sexist a comment; it probably is – but damn it I like purse better. So I ain’t changing it. See above, where I said ner-ner-di-ner-ner)… what was the point I was making again? Ah, yes. I’ve been dithering for the longest time about whether or not to have a Dowager Countess in The Fecking Novel. She was in, she was out, she was in, she was out – it was like she was doing the Hokey Cokey! Here come all the similes at once in a veritable avalanche of the bastards: cover your heads, down below! – and I liked writing about her. I liked the way she looked. (Not in that way. Shut your pervert’s purse, please.) She was based, a bit, on my first piano teacher, who was a magnificent turbaned former ballet dancer with perfect turn-out, called Cicely. (She was called Cicely, not her turn-out. Just to be clear. Although Cicely would be a good name for turn-out, wouldn’t it?) She had a Kings Charles called Figgy, who used to sit on the pedals when I was trying to use them, for which I – not Figgy – would be blamed. It was a cardinal sin, during lessons, to glance at the clock. This was the height of rudeness and not to be tolerated. My friend, Kim, was once caught red-handed and claimed, in a rather unconvincing way for a snotty teenager, to be ‘admiring your wallpaper’.

Once, oh hallowed day, I was invited into the Inner Sanctum to run my fingers across the pristine keys of the grand piano that students weren’t allowed to play on. She had a photograph of the bronze cast of Chopin’s hands. I was given a copy of Chopin’s waltzes to borrow.

I went home and told my mum, ‘I’m playing Choppin next week.’

‘Actually, lovey, I think that’s pronounced…’

So, RIP Dowager Countess of Madder. You are cold in your grave. Probably shouldn’t have smoked so many cigarettes. Your only real job was to take your granddaughter to London, but as the plot’s thickened it makes much more sense for your daughter-in-law (who you always hated) to do it instead. Life’s a bitch, sometimes.

And now I’m making the Executive Decision to stop writing this, and get back to the novel. I can do a whole twenty minutes before I have to get dressed, etc. And actually, though you mightn’t think it, you can write a helluva lot in twenty minutes.

Set your timer and see for yourself…

 

 

Three-cakes-2

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty

Oh, Christ. Not another blog.

Are you thinking this right now? If so, you’re responding to something called The Law of Diminishing Returns. (It’s nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of my blogging. Obviously.)

In economics this means: the decrease in the marginal (incremental) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, while the amounts of all other factors of production stay constant something too boring for me to dwell on. Also I don’t understand it. I mean, look! Look at this formula!

\text{D} = \frac{1}{X}\sum_{i=1}^{X}\frac{1}{2^{i-1}}

What the hell’s that all about?

In storytelling terms, the Law of Diminishing Returns is much simpler. Hurrah! Let’s use cake to illustrate the principle:

Eating one cake: good.

Eating two cakes: slightly less good.

Eating three cakes: not good at all. 

Three-cakes-2

Image source

(Obviously I’m talking about large cakes. Not cupcakes. Three cupcakes would be all right. In fact, it might be better than all right. And I’m definitely not talking about crisps. Who gets sick of crisps? Only a mad person.)

Cake and crisps aside, what I’m trying to say is: the more we have of something, the less we enjoy it. As screenwriting guru Robert McKee memorably claimed in his masterwork, Story:

‘The Law of Diminishing Returns is true of everything in life, except sex*, which seems endlessly repeatable with effect.’ 

* And crisps.

How does this affect your story? Too many similar scenes, or similarly structured scenes, or similar reactions, or similar emotions, or similar… oh, you get the picture. Too many things in your novel that aren’t sufficiently new or different, and you might as well market your book as a benzodiazepine.

Back to McKee: ‘The first time we experience an emotion or sensation it has its full effect. If we try to repeat this experience immediately, it has half or less than half of its full effect. If we go straight to the same emotion for the third time, it not only doesn’t have the original effect, it delivers the opposite effect.’

Years ago, I saw House of Flying Daggers at the cinema, and this might be a bit of  SPOILER but the last twenty minutes or so of the film were so excruciatingly tedious (is she going to die? No she isn’t. Actually, hang on maybe she is… wait, no…) that people were shouting at the screen, ‘Just die already!’ images-3 A novel is a balancing act. It’s a fancy bike with a ton of gears. You have to crawl uphill to be able to freewheel down again.

It’s easy to forget this. In my first attempts at This Fecking Novel I’d managed to set almost every scene in the kitchen. It was switching to Scrivener that flagged up the problem. (Scrivener’s great for giving you a birds-eye view of proceedings. But I wrote about that here so won’t repeat myself now, because: Law of Diminishing Returns and all that). This writing advice from Anthony Horowitz is very, very good indeed, full of useful and practical tips, and one thing he said that rang enormous clanging church bells in my head was this:

‘I believe books have a shape. You have to see them before you can write them’.

True, I think. I’ve been working on Madder Hall for two years, and for quite a lot of that time I couldn’t see the book. Well, obviously you couldn’t see the book, Lynsey, because it didn’t exist… All right, smart arse. I couldn’t see it in my head. And now I can. For a while I called it a trilogy of stories, until my wise and wonderful friend Mary Nathan (the best editor I’ve ever come across, and a blooming marvellous writer) told me to stop calling it a trilogy, because it isn’t, and I knew she was right (because, duh, Mary’s always right) and I also knew, all along, that it wasn’t a trilogy, but imagining it in three distinct parts had given me the foothold I needed to get in the saddle (and realise this was all getting too mixed-metaphor-y) and ‘see’ the novel’s shape. And the fact that the novel has three distinct parts has enabled me to avoid the Law of Diminishing Returns (to a certain extent) and give the reader (and myself) enough variety to (please, God) keep it interesting.

The proof, I guess, will be in the pudding.

All three of them.

81774566

30 Days of Nano: Day Nineteen

Day nineteen and the poop’s hit the fan.

 

81774566

Here’s a woman looking shocked, because that’s probably more palatable than a picture of some shit and a fan.

 

Image source

The poop’s hit the fan in sort of a good way (if poop hitting a fan can ever be good). But I’ve got to a take a big, deep, gulp of a breath before I go on, because:

Last night, rather unexpectedly, part one came, splat, crash, bang to a sudden and unexpected end. (Did I mention it was unexpected?) Somebody hijacked the scene (I will say no more because: spoilers), and just plain stole another character’s Big Moment from under his nose.

And now, and now, I have no option but to move on to part two.

If you’ll allow me a teeny tiny primal scream @!*(%&£*@(!*$)£$£)%^&^*^!!!)*(£*$&% before we move on, part two has a change of voice. A change of person, or narrative mode, or whatever you prefer to call it. ‘Third person close’ is my comfort mode, where the slippers and blankie and chocolates are kept. First person (for me) is the writing equivalent of the hospital appointment I’ve got this afternoon (my second this week; how did that happen? Side note: do hospitals mind people tapping away on their laptops while they’re waiting? I am very slightly scared of medical receptionists and do not want to get told off). How could a narrative mode be a hospital appointment, I hear you ask? Because hospital appointments are niggly and worrying, and I’m just a bit niggled and worried about such an enormous change of voice.

Here’s where NaNoWriMo works its magic: if this was any other month than November, I might kick back for a couple of days… a week… a month… a decade… with my butt gently resting on The Laurels of having completed part one (and I use ‘completed’ in the ‘incomplete’ sense of the word, because I already have a list of 5 scenes I’ll have to go back and add later). But this is no ordinary month! This is National Novel Writing Month. Laurels be damned. I have got to start writing the next bit immediately, now, when the iron’s red hot and the tea’s still warm and the story is still fresh in my mind. And this is A Good Thing™ because, too often before, whilst luxuriating on my Laurels, I’ve let go of the story. *Searches for an analogy; realises she hasn’t had breakfast yet; comes up with this.* I’ve let my Story Toast go cold, and when I finally come to spread it and eat it the butter doesn’t sink in properly and the bread is slightly less crisp than a car tyre.

Top tip of the morning to ya: Don’t let a story go cold. Seriously, don’t. If you can possibly help it. *Searches for an analogy; has no idea (Freud, where are you?) why she comes up with this one.* In this respect (and this respect ONLY), a novel is like a testicle: it crawls back up when it’s cold.

But I’m being a tad dramatic (and icky). I’ve already written a chunk of part two (see here for a nouvelle-cuisine sized extract), so it isn’t as massively daunting as it might otherwise be – but it’s still a huge sea change after 36 thousand and something something words in third person. Will it irritate the hell out of readers who’ve spent 36 thousand and something something words with one character, Liddy, to discover we’re moving on? (Sort of.) Very possibly. Enormous SIGH. But the book hasn’t even been written yet, let alone read by anyone, let alone accepted by an agent, let alone bought by a publisher, let alone published – so I say to myself: FEAR NOT, write it anyway, write the book as you want it to be, and worry about the one-star reviews if and when anyone but yourself ever reads it.

Wander by Amazon’s Wolf Hall page and have a look-see at the kicking that Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning tome receives on a regular basis, and remind yourself that you can’t ever please all the people, etc etc, so pleasing yourself is a good place to start. No? (Now I have to curtsey, doff my cap, and lightly flog myself with something made of birch for daring to write of my own paltry efforts in the same breath as mentioning Wolf Hall.)

It's just you, mate. (And 1196 other people.)

It’s just you, mate. (And 1119 other people.)

 

Harold Wilson smokes it up in 1975. Imagine David Cameron cracking out the Silk Cut on Newsnight...

30 Days of Nano: Day Eighteen

Congratulations, Nano! Today you come of age. You’re old enough to:

  • buy cigarettes
  • buy alcohol
  • buy fireworks
  • watch a porno
  • star in a porno
  • oh yeah, and you can also vote

There are currently no fireworks in my novel. Also there is no voting.

Otherwise…

As I wrote about in another post it’s okay to be rude (I think) if the rudeness is part of the story. If you’d like to read about rudeness, I recommend reading that post instead. (Try rolling your Rs while you say that.)

As for smoking: set your book in the 70s and you have to have fags. Everyone smoked back then – even me, and I was only six at the time. What we think of now as ‘air’ was largely composed of sexily-exhaled plumes of smoke. Decorating was made fun by the thrill of removing old paintings to see the actual colour of your wallpaper. (In the sixties they painted things black; in the seventies we stained them brown.) Dedicated Cig-Wives were drafted in by the NHS to waft Russian cigarettes over the mouths of newborn babies, readying their lungs for the outside world. Before we had Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher, a misguided government stepped in to deprive nursery school tots of their state-funded John Player Specials. But luckily someone picketed about it and sanity was restored. Non-smokers were pilloried. And I don’t mean we made fun of them; I mean we put them in a pillory. And threw lit cigarettes at them.

This girl refused to smoke.

This girl refused to smoke.

Every so often, I’d like to light up. (More often in November than any other month, if I’m honest.) It’s eleven years since I last puffed on a choker. I promised myself I would stop at the age of 30, and unlike some other things I’ve promised over the years I actually stuck to that one. It wasn’t even hard, to be honest. My daughter was young at the time (that’s her in the stocks, by the way) and my 25 a day habit had dwindled to one or two crafty fags out the living room window. (In the 70s I used to sleep with an ashtray on my pillow. And smoke two, yes TWO, fags before I could stand up in the morning.) (And you think I’m joking about this – and I sort of am – but only because it wasn’t the 70s when it happened; it was the 90s, when I was temping in London. The ashtray on the pillow – true, I’m afraid. Feel free to unsubscribe if you no longer want to know me.)

Harold Wilson smokes it up in 1975. Imagine David Cameron cracking out the Silk Cut on Newsnight...

Harold Wilson smokes it up in 1975. Imagine David Cameron cracking out the Silk Cut… not that he’d do that, of course: he’d be the stingy bastard who never buys his own & wants to bum your bloody fags all the time.

What I miss, occasionally, about smoking is having a cool thing to do with my hands. (Same reason I play the piano.) When you’re caught short in public without a good book or a friend or a random, willing stranger, a cigarette is a fun way to look less alone. (I bet the cigarette industry hates smartphones.)

In literature, too, a cigarette is a useful prop. And a writer needs props. You need props for lots of reasons – who wants to look at an empty stage? – but a key one is this: they give characters something to do with their hands. Or their feet. Or their buttocks. (I’m thinking of chairs here.) The subtle manipulation of props has dragged many a possibly ponderous page of internal monologue into the here-and-now (there should always be something on stage for your reader to look at). Using props can add rhythm and flow to dialogue too (whilst helping you cut out pesky speech tags: if somebody’s handling a prop while they’re speaking, there’s no need to tell us who speaks). Another word beginning with ‘p’? Try pace. Punctuation in sentences partly exists to avoid ambiguity (‘eats, shoots and leaves’) but it’s also controlling the pace. If I want you to stop. And think. Really carefully. I can use punctuation to make you do it (mwa ha ha!). If I want you to wait just a little bit longer to find out [the killer's name; the results of the DNA test] or build an Eastenders drum roll into a moment of High Drama, then I’ll just make you (mwa ha ha!) watch the character handle a prop for a second or two, before spilling the beans.

Let’s be honest, fellow novelists, pauses are one of the things that are hardest to write.

I bemoan, on a regular basis, the fact that I have to indicate pauses somehow: it’s the one thing that makes me think, hmm, should I maybe try screenwriting instead of fiction? I’d LOVE to just bloody put some brackets around the word (Pause) and let the actor work his or her magic on screen, instead of inventing new and cunning ways of suggesting the passage of time. You’ve gotta show, not tell, yada yada yada. Just straight out saying: she paused, or he hesitated, makes me upset with myself. Not angry (as your mum would say); just disappointed.

For those card-carrying members (such as myself) of the Show Not Tell Club (we meet Fridays at 4 round the back of a jazz club in 1959 if you’re interested in joining us) choreographing characters can be hard. Did anyone watch Agony and Ecstasythe frankly wonderful documentary about English National Ballet? In episode 3, the one I’ve linked to, the ENB’s annual Nutcracker production was very nearly derailed by the massive procrastination of shaggy-haired pipe-smoking choreographer Wayne Eagling.

This is not Wayne Eagling; this is ENB dancer Vadim Muntagirov, who is (let's be honest) more fun to look at.

This is not Wayne Eagling; this is ENB dancer Vadim Muntagirov, who is (let’s be honest) more fun to look at.

A stage full of dancers, a pit full of orchestra, and 12 minutes of the ballet still to be written. A hugely stressful situation, I’m sure you’d agree.

Uh-huh. I wish I was Wayne Eagling. At least, when you’re moving real dancers around, you have music already written and people that, you know, actually exist. I mean, God, you all know I love writing – I love, love, love it – but even though English is the best language on the planet (biased, yup, but also IT JUST IS) and has the most words (probably) I’d like some new synonyms, please, English language. I am bored of the existing ones for:

  • reaching
  • turning
  • looking
  • standing
  • sitting
  • opening (a door, a cupboard, a window)

New, clever, non-cheesy ways of relating these events would also please me:

  • appearing surprised
  • reacting to an unexpected noise
  • seeing something in the distance that might possibly be a ghost but possibly also isn’t

Gah, writing. It ain’t easy.

Although, to be fair, it’s probably easier than this…

Look at him fly!

Look at him fly!

 

If you think I know who painted this you've got another think coming.

30 Days of Nano: Day Seventeen

Hi, I’m Liddy. I’m seventeen, and I’m the protagonist heroine of Madder Hall. 

I’m actually right in the middle of something quite important, but Lynsey’s the boss I’m the boss. And I don’t really like what Lynsey’s making me do. It feels like, everything was fine, okay, and then she went off in this really weird direction and something happened that wasn’t meant to happen, and now we’re just, um, what’s going on, Lesley? (We call her that to annoy her. Once, when she was a little girl, her friend’s mum got confused and wrote Lesley on her party invitation, and ever since then it’s weird but whenever someone gets her name wrong they call her Lesley.)

She got this painting off the ‘internet’ (don’t ask, because I don’t know) and it’s got a vibe about it that reminds her of me, she says:

If you think I know who painted this you've got another think coming.

If you think I know who painted this you’ve got another think coming.

Even though I’m blonde, and this girl is a ginger, and I spend nearly the whole book fiddling with my long yellow hair (it’s like she can’t think of anything else for me to do!). But anyway. Lesley says it’s the look on her face that makes her think of me. Who is she anyway? She’s someone out of the Bible. Change the subject, please.

Lesley recommends ‘googling’ (eh?) a character’s physical ‘attributes’ (whatever they are). She says finding the right sort of face can be very inspiring.

I suppose I’ll have to go back to the plot in a minute. I’m meant to be finding a key. I am really, really cold in that house. We keep having power cuts, because it’s a useful plot device it’s the 1970s. I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture. Give me a torch, Lesley! Or just leave the lights on. (Stop saying it’s the electricity board, Lesley. We all know it’s you.)

She’s says it’s 2014 now, when you’re reading this, and people don’t have hover cars or tinfoil trousers, but they do keep really tiny phones in their pockets and the telly’s on all day. I said, can’t you set the book in 2014 with the permanent telly, but Lesley says no, it’s really not possible because it’s a well known fact that modern technology ruins plots it’s an artistic decision that’s crucial to the tone of the book. So, god, it’s 1979. I don’t even know what a deely-bopper is yet. Or a ra-ra skirt. God knows if I’ll live long enough to enjoy the atrocities of the 1980s.

God knows? I meant to say Lesley knows.

Mme de P and Mme de P prints

30 Days of Nano: Day Sixteen

Like Withnail, who went on holiday by mistake, I’ve begun waking up by mistake. At the crack of dawn. And it’s the bloody weekend.

Today, for instance, I woke at the rather tidy time of 5.55 a.m. (6.66 would have been better; spookier. Also, of course, impossible.) I’d been hoping to rack up 30K last night (in total obviously; I’m not that much of a maniac), but as I announced on twitter it proved a step too far:

So, 5.55 (or even 5.59. The twitter clock never lies). You’re awake, it’s a grey Sunday morning, there’s tea in the tin… oh bugger it. You might as well get up.

Boil the kettle, etc. Then get back in bed, where it’s toasty, and crack on with reaching 30K.

I made it! Hurrah!

I tweeted some more stuff about tea:

I made a fresh cup and I got back in bed and I carried on writing. Eventually, when my neighbours woke up, I had this to contend with:

But it takes more than a bit of insanely loud ear-splitting drilling to stop me these days. I’m a woman on a mission. (I like having a mission.) My mission is this: to deliver a first draft (to myself) by Christmas.

I have a few rules: the writing itself can be shoddy as hell, but it has to EXIST. What I mean is, no gaps of the ‘Chapter where something happens (not sure what)’ variety. It’s fine to leave continuity errors to sort out later (Scrivener comes into its own here: each document has a note card for mid-scene scribbling of things to remember), but in general I’m trying to solve each problem as it occurs. 

A large part of the novelist’s job is problem solving. In film terms, you’ve got to produce the damn thing before you pull out the megaphone and direct it.

You start out with this:

Unknown-1

And you end up with this:

images-1

Or possibly this:

discovery-rubiks-fashion__small

Image source

The main thing, with first drafts, is to find the story.

Mme de P and Mme de P prints

Image source

I’ve never been much of a seamstress (I can just about sew on a button) but, having been in a couple of pantomimes as a child, I’m familiar with standing awkwardly – like an upright chalk-outline – while somebody sticks pins in my clothes. (On a side note, I’ve just discovered, via this site, that I was in panto – Dick Whittington – in 1983 with the Chuckle Brothers’ brothers… Genuinely a brush with showbiz glory. The following year it was Wayne Sleep and the Golden Shot’s Anne Aston, who was well known for her boobs, apparently, although being 11 at the time I was unaware of my proximity to these famous assets.)

They don't make them like this anymore.  Thank God.

They don’t make them like this anymore.
Thank God.

Enough of that. Although I am writing a book set mainly in the 70s, and if anyone watched Channel 4′s It Was Alright in the 70s last night – which really ought to be ‘all right’ as two separate words, Channel 4, if you’re interested – breasts were everywhere in the decade that taste forgot.

Just when you’re wondering, ‘why are there so many images in this blog?’ you go back and count them and, hey presto, there are sixteen of the buggers. One for each day of nano. See what I did there?

But, wait, you cry! There are only fifteen…

Here you go, pedant.

More poodle, Sir?

30 Days of Nano: Day Fifteen

First draft dialogue, eh? Isn’t it marvellous.

According to a bloody good documentary I saw a while ago, ‘er Royal Highness Hilary Mantel begins with dialogue. (I believe, in said documentary, she claimed she could make dialogue out of the telephone directory.) (And I, for one, believe her.)

First draft of Wolf Hall.

First draft of Wolf Hall.

What makes good dialogue?

I can tell you what doesn’t make good dialogue: the bobbins I wrote this morning. But it’s NaNo, right? It’s just about getting the words down and shaping the scene. And that’s fine.

Just so long as no-one (NO-ONE) ever reads it. Until it’s been put through the Subtlety-Wringer and exorcised of its hideous melodrama.

Most first-draft dialogue (unless you’re extremely good at it) tends towards the melodramatic. People speak their thoughts. They actually answer each other’s questions, as if life was just one big interview session, and tell each other all sorts of things that an actual human being would never reveal without thumbscrews, or a box full of rats, or a hot poker to one’s rectal cavity.

I like writing dialogue, but it isn’t my forte. To be honest, I used to suck harder at dialogue than Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat. It took a long time to get better at it: for a long time I thought ‘getting better at dialogue’ meant rearranging the words somehow (and it partly does mean that; all writing means rearranging the words somehow). It was reading Story by Robert McKee that really woke me up to the flaws in my dialogue. I’d been writing, and rewriting, the same short story – on and off – for fifteen years (this is honestly true) and the bit I was stuck on was a monologue, delivered by a naked nineteen year old boy. It was a Big Moment. It needed to lead to an Even Bigger Moment. I arranged and rearranged those words more times than an obsessive compulsive word-rearranger. But nothing was working. It never rang true.

And the reason it never rang true? I was force feeding him. Like Vincent Price taking gastronomic revenge on a critic in Theatre of Blood (once seen, never forgotten).

More poodle, Sir?

More poodle, Sir?

Good dialogue, as McKee says, comes from knowing your characters. In the case of my unfinished story, the naked nineteen year old’s dialogue never rang true because neither did he. He was only a stooge, shoe-horned into the story to do what I wanted him to. (NB if you’ve just tuned in, I’m talking about a fictional character: I’ve never done anything to a  naked nineteen year old with a shoehorn.) So I had to go back to the drawing board, and re-draw him. He still isn’t right, and I’m still not happy, but neither am I wasting time on dialogue that’s never going to work. I’ll come back to him one day, when the novel’s done, and finish him off. He’s been standing beside some brown curtains in only his birthday suit for a very long time now, watching the rain, and I do feel I owe him a climax, eventually. One day. (I repeat: this is a fictional character. I do not keep naked boys next to my curtains.) (And, besides, they’re red, not brown.) (The curtains, that is.)

Crap dialogue, though, is the lifeblood of NaNoWriMo. (Ah, go on, you know it’s true.) When you’re strolling along in your own time, 500 words a day for instance, you’re stopping and noticing what’s going on in the scene you’re writing. You know what everyone’s wearing, what the weather’s like, what sort of chairs they’re sitting in. You dot the Is and cross the Ts.

When you’re knee deep in NaNo and 4000 words in the red, there’s a natural tendency to resort to dialogue. Slowly the rest of the scene decays, like Joel’s memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and you’re left with disembodied voices. Like an episode of the Archers, without any sound effects. (Did you know they use yoghurt pots to make the squelchy lamb noises? And, ahem, this 2013 Storify of the Archers’ twitter Q & A includes a question from… well, yours truly.)

images

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. What’s good enough for Her Maj, HM, is good enough for me. Dialogue is a great way of sketching a scene. Just so long as you know that it’s only a sketch, and the colours and textures will have to be painted in later.

As for my word-count, it’s 27,758. Today we’re halfway through. Thanks to yesterday’s slightly bonkers 3798 words, I’m ahead of the game – in spite of a paltry 102 words (of shit dialogue) this morning. I keep having ideas for What Happens Next, and they all seem to function in harmony with each other = A Good Sign, no? I’m also projecting forwards, beyond this draft, to the moment I have to go back and change bits that don’t work. But, hey. That’s what writing is.

I’m off to eat my half-time oranges. Good luck with part 2, everyone!

Baaaaaaaaaa.

30 Days of Nano: Day Fourteen

The one in which I (accidentally) wake an hour early and decide to start writing immediately (by which I mean, after checking Facebook and twitter), amassing 2378 words before breakfast and earning my virtual badge for passing 25,000 words.

It’s been a long week.

On Wednesday I wrote nothing.

On Thursday I wrote garbage.

Discarding paper rubbish

The fruits of Thursday’s labour.

Today I caught up with the story again and, although, yes, I wrote garbage, it was useful garbage.

I had a little epiphany in the shower (which isn’t a euphemism): I think I can actually finish this book. Which isn’t the sort of epiphany you perhaps ought to be having after TWO YEARS of work on a project, but finally it feels concrete and real: an achievable journey – like driving to Sainsbury’s, for instance, as opposed to hang-gliding over the Atlantic ocean.

For so long, a sizeable chunk of this book has been nothing but air. I’ve got lots of beginnings (I really mean lots) and a couple of bits that belong near the end, but the rest was a grey area, filled with Things That Happen and Bits I Haven’t Worked Out Yet and Bridges To Be Crossed When I Come To Them.

Q: Why did the writer cross the bridge (after watching the bridge through binoculars for four months, making copious notes on the bridge’s design and structure)?

A: To get to the other side.

It happens to us all in the end. (Even those of us who could procrastinate for England.) The longing to get to The Other Side becomes so intense that you can’t put off crossing the bridge any longer, no matter how wobbly it looks or how fiercely the wind might be blowing. No matter how many trolls there are underneath it.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Image source

Goats have to be brave sometimes, and so do writers. Doing anything that matters to you – really matters – is going to be scary. So long as you’re only thinking about it, and not really doing it (or doing it half-heartedly), the Thing That Matters remains on its perfect pedestal in your mind: unsullied, unspoilt, a work worthy of Shakespeare, and if by any chance it doesn’t quite meet Shakespearean standards, well that doesn’t matter either. You’ve only put half your heart into it: if you really, really, honestly, properly, truly tried it would certainly be a work of brilliance.

And then, eek, you do really try. You honestly, properly, truly try to write this book you’ve been sort-of-writing for so long. And you’re on stage naked and everyone’s pointing and laughing. And what if they’re right to laugh? And what if you’re not very good at the Thing That Matters, the thing you’ve been dreaming of your whole life?

Oh dear.

That’s scary, isn’t it?

Last year I was picked by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as one of their ten ‘Escalator Literature’ writers.

escalator tweet

 

I won’t go on about that, because I’ve already gone on about that probably more times than the average human can bear, but as I wrote in that guest blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich (follow the link if you’d like to know more) our year of professional development had downs as well as ups. Thank the Lord we were never actually naked on stage, but my innermost soul was exposed on a couple of sorry occasions. ‘You want an extract from my novel? For your website? You mean the novel that doesn’t exist yet…?’

‘You want me to give a reading? In front of a bunch of agents? And this would be a reading from…? Oh, right. That novel that doesn’t exist yet…’

If I actually finish this book, then I’ll have to be naked on stage all over again when I send it to agents. And that’s a bit daunting. Am I all mouth and no trousers? Am I scared to put my money where my mouth is? Will I need mouth-to-mouth when the first rejections arrive?

The answer to all three is: maybe. But if three little goats have got the balls to cross that bridge, than so have I.

Although, PS, I don’t actually have balls. I am considering a larger penis though.

 

 

I heart Scrivener.

30 Days of Nano: Day Thirteen

Happy thirteenth day of NaNo! It’s the day your novel gets its tongue pierced and tells you to go feck yourself.

'Thirteen' good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter...

‘Thirteen’: a good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter…

At least it’s not a Friday, right?

Is your nano-novel having a teenaged tantrum? I left mine alone yesterday, entirely without supervision. Heading back there now to check it hasn’t trashed the house in my absence…

5 minutes later

Fixtures and fittings still in place. An empty bottle of vodka inside the toilet cistern and some fag butts under the bathroom window, but otherwise all seems much as I left it.

An hour later

Hmm. Well, this is a bit annoying. Until today, I had all of my nano words in a single Scrivener file (easier to tot up the word-count that way, as I reasoned) but every five thousand words or so there were strange blank spaces appearing (as if the words had been struck-through, but the strike-through itself was invisible, if that’s not too horribly complicated an image to fathom). Hence, a decision was made! Create a new project, solely for nano, split everything in that way too long document into separate scenes, give the scenes little titles, and see where we are. (It turns out it’s the work of, oh, about six seconds, to click: Project; Statistics and tot up the total.)

Where we are, people, is 410 words down on what I thought my word-count was. I’ve heard mutterings, on the internet, about Scrivener word counts not being entirely reliable, and I’m as confident as a jelly-head like me can be that I haven’t accidentally deleted something. So I’ll have to push on, writing 410 extra words on top of the double quota I already had to do today, anyway, because yesterday didn’t happen, blah blah, world’s smallest violin, etc. 410 words is a small price, though, because two important things have happened:

  • I’ve been reminded of things I’d forgotten I’d written (continuity errors ahoy!)
  • I’ve gained a bird’s eye view of proceedings (insert proverb here about ‘wood’ and ‘trees’ and not being able to see one for the other).
I heart Scrivener.

I heart Scrivener.

I know I’ve gone on about Scrivener before (here), but I really, honestly, do recommend it for those of you writing novels. If you do what I’ve done, and name every scene, you’ll be able to look at the spine of your story, so far, while you’re writing, in that left-hand column there (see above). I much prefer finding the spine in a book that has flesh on already, instead of the more traditional way: spine first, flesh later. Which isn’t to say I’m a ‘pantser’ (a person for whom plotting is anathema). It’s just that plotting ‘cold’ doesn’t work for me: I need to plan a bit, write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit. Realise my original plan was bullshit and start all over again. It takes longer that way (unsurprisingly). But, for me, it’s more truthful. I can’t get on board with a scene – no matter how ‘vital’ to my plot – if that scene doesn’t yank my chain somehow. And there’s simply no way to know what will yank your chain, when you actually sit down to write it, and what will leave you colder than David Cameron in his underpants than to… well, to actually sit down and write it. 

I don’t think I’m that great at the nuts and bolts of plot, but I do know when it isn’t working (I’m in good company, here: Stanley Kubrick – one of my top five directors – often knew what he didn’t want, more than what he did want). I make up for it, I hope, by being pretty good on theme and unity. I try to convince myself, quite often, that what I’ve got is okay, serviceable, perfectly good – but there’ll always be a niggle, until I’ve condensed all the disparate elements down to their absolute minimum. As I wrote about here, you don’t want any extra baggage.

Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

shocked_face

30 Days of Nano: Day Twelve

Yes, it's day 12. Here's a film poster with the word twelve in the title. Just me, or does this sound vaguely homoerotic?

Yes, it’s day 12. Here’s a film poster with the word twelve in the title. Just me, or does the tagline sound vaguely homoerotic? Is there an extraneous L in the title…?

Last night, at the eleventh hour on day eleven of my NaNo experience, I’d tucked myself up in bed with a cat lightly nestling against one of my legs in a don’t-you-dare-get-up-to-use-the-toilet kind of a way, when I realised that (in spite of being, at 20,000 words, a little ahead of the word-count game) my daily word-count was thirty words below the magic 1667 required to make the daily word-count bar turn green on the NaNoWriMo site. As I’ve already told you here, the girly swot inside me loves the back-pat of the bar turning green. Hence, with a bit of a huff and a puff, I decided I’d dash off thirty words and make my target like the good girl I am.

First, and most obviously, before any actual words could be written it seemed imperative to tweet about the terrible quandary I’d found myself in: https://twitter.com/LynseyAnneWhite/status/532311154539102209

A couple of handy suggestions arrived from other wrimos (including perhaps a little too much about snot).

nanonanotweets

There was also a top tip from @Eamonngriffin to splurge the 30 words on note-taking for the following day. However, as I work in Scrivener I have a virtual yellow notebook in which to store my notes, and if this was my Nano 2012 (as I blogged about here) I’d have been carefully totting-up every one of those notes and adding them to the word-count. But this is Nano 2014, and I am deadly (deadly) serious about finishing this fecking draft by the middle of December (because, as I blogged about here, NaNoWriMo should really be called National Two-Thirds of a Novel Month. Except it’s not so catchy). So I am not minded to cheat in any way whatsoever. I’d only be cheating myself.

So, back to the drawing board. Thirty words. Should have been easy, right? After all, I’ve expended about 300 of the buggers just describing The Quandary of the Missing 30 Words (one of the great, lesser-known Nancy Drew stories) in this post that you’re reading now. (Possibly skimming…) Here’s a picture to draw your attention again in case you are skimming:

shocked_face

Image source

But the thing was… the place where I’d left the story (I’m always leaving things in inappropriate places: keys, purse, brain…) was midway through a sentence. And not just any sentence, but one that had no clear ending in mind. You hop in the car to go collect your daughter, thinking the sentence will finish itself while you’re driving, but then you start singing along to an Elliott Smith CD (as you do) and shouting at people who aren’t driving their cars as you firmly believe they should be driven (i.e. at a speed greater than that best described as ‘pootling along’ when the bloody light’s about to go red, you Olympic Slow-Driving dope), and you get home from your journey with the sentence still unfinished.

More crucially, when I read it again, it turned out that the start of the sentence was taking things in the wrong direction. And, also, more woefully, the two previous sentences weren’t right either. Faster than you could say ‘never delete anything from your nano word-count (just grey it out instead)’ I’d done the unthinkable – and ended up with an extra 89 words to write. In the spirit of NaNo, this was a giant bah humbug of a thing to do. But I’m not really arsed (if I’m going to be completely honest) about ‘winning’ NaNo. I like the companionship of it all, and the gold stars of the bars going green (if you’ve clicked on some of the previous links this will make more sense to you), but I ‘won’ NaNo in 2012 with a pile of directionless drivel. And it wasn’t actually (sshh, don’t tell anyone) that great a feeling. Gah, I’m sorry. I don’t want to rain on the nano parade, but the process of accumulating words is a poor relation to writing an actual story. In novel-writing, as with sex, it’s a lot more enjoyable for everyone involved if you’re at least working towards a climax.

So whereas, in NaNo 2012, I had over 1000 words (a mere tenth of my final day splurge) about two girls peeling potatoes, I decided to spend my 89 words on an unexpected turn in the dialogue: to build myself a through-road, instead of a cul-de-sac. A thousand words spent backing your story into a corner are probably, in all honesty, a thousand words wasted (although nothing is ever wasted in creative endeavour, blah blah blah). As you travel the road to nano word-count victory, whether you’re Lewis Hamilton or Mr Olympic Slow-Driver, don’t forget you are meant to be nudging the story along, occasionally…

What does a dog have to do to get some sleep around here?

30 Days of Nano: Day Eleven

Weird how you can talk things up sometimes. After yesterday’s post about sickeningly enormous nano word counts I went to my local wrimo write-in and found myself next to a couple of (very non-sickening) young women with (extremely sickening) word counts of 37,000 and… 49,500. The latter actually won nano whilst sitting beside me.

It is day eleven. What the fricking frick is going on? Now I’m a fast typist (used to be 150 wpm in my Glory Days, which weren’t that glorious at all actually, as a London secretary) and ask me how quickly the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and the answer is: pretty damn quickly. But, still. I mean, that’s insane, right? (Please tell me I’m right.)

What does a dog have to do to get some sleep around here?

What does a dog have to do to get some sleep around here?

             Image source

And I can vouch for the fact that Miss 49-thousand-er* was neither lying, nor writing Shining style (as I suggested yesterday) because I had the tiniest of tiny crafty glances at her screen and they were proper sentences n all that. And she wasn’t wielding a pick-axe, nor bouncing a ball against the ballroom walls, nor developing strangely peaked eyebrows.

But she was writing with an almost inhuman speed. Like a nano-bot, you might say. No pauses. I had a little burst like this, myself, last week, but I can’t sustain it long term. I need to pause, look up, look out, reflect, make tea, unravel my legs occasionally. Another gunfire burst as the words spurt out, then head up again – above the parapet – and kettle back on.

What was even stranger, last night, was the way they launched straight in without stopping to think: whenever I come ‘cold’ to my laptop, I need to be wound up first with my little invisible key (oh, all right, if you want to be all factual about it, I need to read back over what was last written; or, sometimes, read another writer’s work) before the music box begins to crank out its tune and, as for that plastic ballerina on her springy leg… you wait all day for a pirouette, and then three come along at once.

Writing, eh.

* Through the magic of twitter, I’m reliably informed that Nanobot Maximus of the 49000+ words, is in fact a local nano legend with the twitter handle @RiaJay21, and well worth a follow.)

Nothing can hurt you when you're in The Zone.

30 Days of Nano: Day Ten

How to be a Week-Two NaNoWriMo Writer (with thanks, and copious apologies, to Lorrie Moore, whose rather wonderful story How to Become a Writer can be read in full here.)

Unknown

Yeah, yeah, 47000 words, yeah *sure*…

Congratulate yourself. You are here, in the wasteland of week two, when so many others have fallen. You’ve watched the NaNo hashtag sliding up and down the trending ranks on twitter, like a lift between floors. You’ve clicked on the hashtag, smug with your word count; discovered that everyone in the universe has actually written more than you; written 900 words in a Chardonnay-infused haze to catch up (although secretly thinking they’ve all gone Jack Nicholson in The Shining: All work and no play, etc, or else are lying).

Click onto your Scrivener file; read the 900 booze-infused words; have a cry. Or some tea. Or some wine. Or some heroin.

Compose lighthearted tweets about willies.

Send inspirational tweets to other writers (who need cooling down after writing a saucy scene):

Replenish your wine glass. Watch the last Doctor Who on catch-up. Wonder if you’re alone in sort of, a little bit, fancying Peter Capaldi. Converse with a writer on twitter, committing yourself in a public arena to writing another 1500 words by the end of the day.

Feel a little bit ‘meh’ about starting this scene (which is hard, as scenes go: strong emotions, etc)… but, joints nicely oiled by el vino, you find it much easier than you thought it would be. In fact (let’s not mince words) you’re writing like a fiend, or a demon, or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and even if Jack Nicholson came raging towards you –Here’s Joohhnnnyyy! – with a pick-axe in his hand you would probably not even notice. That’s how in The Zone you are.

Nothing can hurt you when you're in The Zone.

Nothing can get you when you’re in The Zone. Not even a pick-axe.

Decide not to actually read what you’ve written (whilst feeling The Flow, In the Zone).

You know. Just in case.

Post your own word count to twitter, thus causing a never-ending ripple through the food-chain of writers: those who have written less than you will now (a) feel insecure (b) chug wine (c) write furiously to catch up (d) post their own word counts to twitter, etc, etc, ad infinitum, because everyone knows The Writer is a curious beast who feeds mainly on jealousy and the failure of others.

Realise you’re still in your PJs. Realise you smell. Stagger into the shower and ruminate on the brain’s need for a SAVE button, as every plot point, weak character, crappy sentence you’ve ever concocted instantly resolves itself the second you step away from your laptop and have no real way of recording anything (unless you have bath crayons).

Kid yourself you’ll write a little more before you fall asleep.

Instead, play Candy Crush.

Dream well. Dream big. Dream something you can use in your novel. Dream that your novel is wielding a pick-axe.

Realise you’re meant to be leaving for work in a minute, not blogging about NaNo. Mutter expletives. Rack brain for a cunning way to end your blog –

Fail miserably.

We weren't naked, I hasten to add. (This is 'Three Women' by Ferdinand Léger, 1921)

30 Days of Nano: Day Nine

Yesterday I was good. I was very, very good. I had coffee planned with some friends, so I wrote all my NaNo words (and posted my blog) before 11 a.m.

We weren't naked, I hasten to add. (This is 'Three Women' by Ferdinand Léger, 1921)

We weren’t naked, I hasten to add. (This is ‘Three Women’ by Ferdinand Léger, 1921)

Today, though, I have a class to plan on POV. And parents to visit. And shopping to buy. And period pains. So I thought I’d jump start myself with a ‘quick’ 900 words in bed last night, having glugged a pair of wines.

The words are not good.

They’re not jump-out-the-window dreadful, but as a general rule I believe I write better without the fortification of a half-bottle of New Zealand chardonnay.

I’ve been having strange dreams lately. I’ve sort of outed myself before as a tingle-head (if you were paying attention) but I’ll out myself fully now, and admit that I fall asleep listening to a camp young man stroking a chair, or a bubbly young woman frying up bacon for breakfast, or a voluptuous blonde Russian encased in a crinkly shirt. I won’t name-check the friend who alerted me to this sub-culture on youtube (in case she’d rather not be outed herself) but I am eternally grateful. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been lulled to a rather lovely, tingly trance state by the sound of certain people’s voices, particularly if those people are also gesturing, carefully, with their hands or scratching a pen across paper, or tapping their fingernails… Ah, I’m swooning just thinking about it. Throughout my life it’s made first days at work rather difficult, if the person who’s showing me round has a soft sort of voice: they’re pointing out the toilets and fire exits and demonstrating the way the computer works and I’m quietly floating away to a higher sphere and not remotely paying attention to what they’re actually saying. If you wanna get blunt, you could call it a brain-gasm. It’s very nice, anyways. And if you’ve ever tingled, you might want to google ASMR and have yourself a veritable whale of a time (once you get over the sorta creepiness of it. Try listening without watching, while you ease yourself in…)

So, what was I saying? Ah yes. Strange dreams. Two nights ago I shot and killed Alan Sugar (sorry, Lord Sugar; I’ll be shot myself by the Aristocracy Police if I don’t sufficiently doff my cap) and got quickly embroiled in a (piss poor) cover-up plot orchestrated by my Adult Ed department. Last night I was finally watching The 39 Steps (which I never have watched, incidentally, in real life) and, in fact, it wasn’t at all the film I had imagined: a poor tenant discovered a perilous series of missing steps in the staircase of his landlady’s home, and narrowly missed what-seemed-like Certain Death whilst leaping, briefcase in hand, across the gaping chasm. It was rip-roaring viewing.

In the sub-plot of this dream, my daughter cracked the car windscreen and two of the side windows by firing rubber darts at them. I’ll definitely be having a word with her about that when she (finally) wakes up. (She is fifteen. ‘Nuff said, I think.)

So why am I rambling about dreams? Honest answer: because I want to! Answer-I-wasn’t-conciously-aware-of-but-have-just-been-pointed-to-by-my-subconscious: this is the ninth day of NaNo, and there is a (very good) book, by David Mitchell, called Number 9 Dream… But look, there is a link to my NaNo project in all this and it’s coming RN (as they say on twitter): right now (for you fuddy-duddies who don’t know what it means; I came across this abbreviation a whole TWO DAYS ago, hence I am superior on the cool scale and not a fuddy-duddy at all). Here are some things about dreams to be borne in mind whilst writing your nano-or-non-nano-novel (or, indeed, short story):

  • You may not resolve the entire plot by revealing (a la Bobby Ewing in the shower in Dallas) that IT WAS ALL A DREAM. If you do this, you will be ejected from The Writers’ Club (which does not exist, but this matters not) with immediate effect and never, never re-admitted.

    'Man, that was a long shower, Bobby! What were you doing in there?'  'You don't need to know, Pam.'

    ‘Man, that was a long shower, Bobby! What were you doing in there?’
    ‘You don’t need to know, Pam.’

  • And, while we’re on the subject, you probably shouldn’t start your book with a dream either. (Unless you are the genius called Daphne du Maurier and it was a dream about going to Manderley. Again. That single word seals the deal and makes the dream acceptable: ‘aha! This is not pretentious pontificating; there is a story here…’)
  • Any dreams you recount in the course of your novel should somehow relate to the plot/emotion/theme of your novel. People’s dreams (as you probably thought whilst reading an earlier part of this blog) are not, in general, very interesting. By which I mean: they’re not interesting at all. Proceed with caution.
  • A dream sequence does not require the presence of a dwarf. See Living in Oblivion if you don’t believe me.

    A dream sequence needn't contain a dwarf. Although a top-hatted Peter Dinklage could be a good addition to your novel...

    A dream sequence needn’t contain a dwarf. Although a top-hatted Peter Dinklage could be a good addition to your novel…

  • And, while we’re on that subject, try not to think in terms of a dream ‘sequence’: the word ‘sequence’ somehow suggests to me that the recounting of this dream will be lengthy, by which I mean TEDIOUS, and the one thing you don’t want to happen whilst recounting a character’s dream is for the reader to fall asleep.
  • If your plot is about living the dream, or the man of your dreams or following your dream, then you have come to the wrong blog and I have no advice for you.

Anyway, I’m 900 (shoddy) words down, 767 (maths on a Sunday morning, ouch; in fact, I just asked Uncle Google to check my sums) still to go. To paraphrase Shakin’ Stevens… nah, kidding, of course: to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘To write, perchance to write about dreams…) I’m tempted to bung the whole 767 words on a dream sequence. Or a naked man showering.*

One of the two.

* Though I really must stop writing about willies.

Pocketwatch tweet

More wondrousness can be found at http://wondermark.com

30 Days of Nano: Day Eight

I like the number eight. There are eighty-eight rooms in my imaginary house called Madder Hall. There are eighty-eight keys on most pianos. I was eight when I first learnt the piano. I like how the number eight looks. It’s so curvy and perfect. I like that it stands infinity on its head. (Or perhaps on its bum.)

The Apollo 11 spaceflight in 1969 lasted eight days in total (and three hours, 18 minutes, and 25 seconds if you wanna be a pedant about it). For as long as it took them to fly to the moon and back, we’ve been writing our novels. That’s something to think about. One small step, and all that.

Cue the pep talk about small steps leading to giant leaps leading to completed novels? Nah. This being me, I’m going to talk about the moon instead.

A book about men on the moon, not early pregnancy. (Although the rocket does look a little startled.)

A book about men on the moon, not early pregnancy. (Although the rocket does look a little startled.)

As it happens, I’ve always been happy to look up and see that it’s there, without taking the trouble of hurtling through space in a rocket for one small step (or one giant leap for that matter) on its famously-cratered surface. (And maybe you’re one of those theorists who don’t believe Apollo 11 went either, that film director Stanley Kubrick faked the whole thing with smoke and mirrors.) Whatever your thoughts on the matter, you might like to click on this link while you carry on reading, and listen in to my favourite track from Brian Eno’s 1983 Apollo album, composed for a documentary about the moon landings.

But what has the moon got to do with writing? Lots, of course! It’s one of my favourite props, for a start, (other favourites are clocks and wallpaper, although sideboards appear to be moving up the Madder Hall charts).

A waning gibbous moon, such as we'll see in the sky tonight.

A waning gibbous moon, such as we’ll see in the sky tonight.

A good long lean on your windowsill, late at night (moon-spotting tends to less successful in the daylight hours…) and you’ll find yourself pulled from the grotty interiority of your head and reminded that, hey fella, you’re only a pin-prick in the Grand Old Scheme of Things; but you’re not less of a person for that – you’re more. You are made out of stars (so the science folk tell me), and here you are, living on earth, breathing air, being human, all sharing this moon. If you let your mind stretch up to space for a bit (on its tiptoes) and feel the vastness of the universe, you’re less likely (I reckon) to find yourself writing this sort of thing (from the very wondrous Wondermark by David Malki: much amusement to be had if you click that link):

More wondrousness can be found at http://wondermark.com

More wondrousness can be found at http://wondermark.com

I have one more reminder for you, in the shape of Graham Greene’s short story, The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen (full text here), that a good novelist always looks outward as well as inward. Your first job is to notice. Go out in the world and just, you know, notice shit. If you don’t take the trouble to look, you won’t see it.

And, talking of looking: well, looky-here. How many (invisible) Japanese gentlemen are there in Greene’s story?

Eight, of course.

I love it when a plan comes together.

(Oh, and PS: 13,369 words and counting on the NaNometer. Kinda wishing there were 8,888 instead. But, also, kinda not wishing that.)

lucky-7

30 Days of Nano: Day Seven.

lucky-7On the seventh day of Na-No… I have no swans-a-swimming (or French hens, turtle doves, or gold rings for that matter), but I do have 12,659 words. And, better still, I have fallen through the hole in the paper, as once described by Stephen King. There’s a feeling, a rather nice feeling, that the story is happening all by itself and I’m just an observer. images-1

I know better, though, than to trust this feeling. Your relationship with your work is like any other relationship: it changes from day to day. If you never get too cocky, and never get too despondent, it all evens out in the end.

When I first did NaNo, two years ago, it was like throwing paint at a canvas to see what would stick. Not a lot, as it turned out. In lieu of a story, I wrote random scenes – in no particular order, as Dermot says, tediously, every week on the X-Factor – interspersed with quotes: ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ – Iris Murdoch, and comments on my progress, e.g. ‘Utter shit I’m writing! I have no idea where to begin.’ (I did, of course, include these asides in my final word count.) If you’d asked me five minutes ago, I’d have said that I’d jettisoned everything in that 2012 NaNo, that all of it turned out to be useless (although not a waste of time: I’m a great believer that nothing you write is ever really wasted). But, as if to prove doubly my point about waste, I’ve just come across this in the 2012 file:

What had become of their caps, she wondered? She thought of their hundreds and hundreds of caps,

And their aprons, their dresses, all starched, and smart. Their shoes. She could picture them. She could smell the starch of their dresses. The [what did they use to clean with?] She could hear a broom sweeping.

Partly gibberish, of course, but not a million miles, I’ll sure you’ll agree, from this passage in the latest draft:

In the old days, she thought, it would have been different: a snowstorm of white caps and aprons, an army of boots on the backstairs, the slashing of starched black skirts. She imagined them lugging tin buckets to fill bathtubs, red-faced and steamy, their hands squelching wet. All the linen would have to be lathered by hand, or by mangle – whatever that was; she had seen the word once in a history book – and there weren’t such things as telephones back then: when they wanted to summon you, there were old-fashioned bells with brass tongues; the same bells she’d seen in the passage downstairs that were turning to rust.housemaids_001

You’d never put on a play without rehearsals; our first drafts (and second, and third, and so on) give us writers an opportunity to rehearse. Whereas NaNo 2012 (for me) was pure improvisation, this year’s NaNo (so far) feels more scripted. The sets have been built, the lights rigged up. There were lots of extraneous people just hanging around: they’ve gone home now (‘home’ to the Character Graveyard in the sky). In 2012 I felt a bit like an actor playing a novelist. I don’t quite feel like a novelist yet (because that would be cocky, and cocky is wrong), but I think, this time round, the giant blob of words in my nano file is beginning to resemble an actual novel…

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30 Days of Nano: Day Six

imagesHave you found your seed word yet? I’ve been reading the very good Scarlett Thomas book, Monkeys with Typewriters: How to write fiction and unlock the secret power of stories (phew, that’s a gob-ful), in which she suggests you need three things before you embark on your novel: (1) a (main) narrative question; (2) a thematic question; (3) a seed word.

Narrative question

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Thematic Question

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(from ‘Monkeys with Typewriters’, by Scarlett Thomas)

So what, then, is a seed word and why do you need one? The seed word, as Thomas describes it, should contain ‘the main essence of your thematic concern’, whilst simultaneously, somehow, containing ‘everything in the novel’. She suggests you make a list: a list of all the separate things your novel seems to be “about”‘ and, ideally using a dictionary or thesaurus, you try to find a single word that links them (most likely an abstract noun). Words have lots of meanings, Thomas says, that you may not – consciously – be aware of. The odds are remote that Jane Austen sat down, consciously, to concoct a seed word, but Thomas suggests (very plausibly, I think) that you might say the seed word of her novel Emma is ‘respectability’, containing, as it does, ‘both the idea that someone is [...] worthy of respect [...] and the idea of respectability as being inherently to do with a polite society.’

She makes a promise, too: ‘when you find the correct seed word for your project it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. While constructing a thematic question gives you focus and purpose, finding the correct seed word is quite magical.’

Well, the hairs on my neck must be lazy, I’m afraid, because did they stand up? No, they didn’t. But, still, I have found my seed word (somewhat late in the writing process… better late than never, eh?), and that word is ‘autonomy’. And in spite of the bone-idle hairs on my neck it was – and is – an exciting thing, because seeing how clearly and cleanly this single words fits all the disparate strands of the book, like a stick of seaside rock with the word autonomy right through the middle, I feel I must be doing something right (at last): in my humble experience, when the pieces all lock into place, with no wiggling or fiddling, it’s usually (fingers crossed…) because what you’ve concocted has some sort of truth in it.

In the midst of NaNo (especially for all you pantsers out there) finding your seed word might well seem a waste of precious writing time. But the brain has a strange way of solving creative tasks when you’re least expecting it: don’t exchange precious writing time for the pondering of your seed word, but do let your mind have peace and quiet, occasionally (put down your phone, switch the radio off); take a walk, or a bath, do the hoovering, pick up your knitting… You never know when your seed word will come visiting.

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30 Days of Nano: Day Five.

FuenfteDeckblatt It’s fair to say that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a lot more successful than my fifth day of NaNo has been. Then again, Beethoven’s Fifth is a lot more successful than 99.7% of human artistic endeavour, so I’m not feeling too disheartened about it. I’ve only done 962 words, but I also wrote some cheesy limericks for an evening class on prose rhythm:

There was once a balloon that deflated
On its owner’s poor ear drums it grated.
It went round and around
With a terrible sound
As if someone was being castrated.
 

I’ve been reading a lot about metre today. As I said in a previous post all my writing is done to a rhythm. I can’t seem to stop it. I free write sometimes purely for the sound of words, because trying to balance meaning and sound gets too damn frustrating now and again. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve known what anapaests and amphibrachs and dactyls are, though I’ve always (it seems like) known instinctively that I need a TUM-ti-ti rather than a ti-ti-TUM to make a sentence ‘scan’. I could write till the cows came home about sausages burning in cauldrons and yellow-tipped whiskery ladies and bombs dipped in sugar for no other reason than this: that I worship the sound of the words (and I even chose that pretentious word, ‘worship’, because love didn’t fit with the rhythm). I learned today that Jean Cocteau knew Shakespeare was a great writer, because – without speaking a word of English – he could ‘hear’ his greatness. Some words just sound nice together. (Although let’s also quote Auden here, in an essay on poets in translation: ‘A poet like Campion [...] whose principal concern is with the sound of words and their metrical and rhythmical relations, cannot be translated at all. Take away the English language in which his songs were written, and all that remains are a few banal sentiments.’ Quick confession: I don’t know who Campion is.)

I’ve just been a-googling and, hey nonny nonny, he’s referring (I assume) to Thomas Campion, a 16th century musician and poet. Don’t laugh at me if I’ve got the wrong Campion.

It’s not to be forgotten, though, that the simplest and plainest of sentences – ‘It felt nice’ are the final three words of one of my stories – can offer an impact, in context, that can’t be achieved by sound alone. When I read young people’s writing, now, I can hear the same cockiness I recall from my own early pieces: rejoicing in words for the pure sake of words, and the cleverness of it all. When you don’t know a lot about life you’ve got nothing but words. This is not to say someone who’s young has no hardship to write about – that would be stupid – but only that those of us not in the first flush of youth have had longer to process those hardships, and being a little bit closer to death you do tend to assess your life differently. I am wiser, now, and a better writer, than I was at twenty-one, or thirty-one. I no longer hear rounds of applause in my head when I find a new simile (I can still recall typing the toothpaste tips of the waves on the crappy old plasticky typewriter I took to university and thinking I was nothing short of a genius). I like writing dialogue now – whereas I used to hate it: I couldn’t be quite so pretentious when writing dialogue. It felt like a waste.

If there’s one thing a word-freak like me can be thankful to NaNoWriMo for, it’s the useful reminder that novels are stories, and stories are all about people, and words are the medium through which we elucidate character – not the other way round. There’s no time, writing close to two thousand words a day, to get precious or picky: you have to do what the novelist Julie Myerson once advised, on the subject of ‘getting stuck’: lower your standards, and move on.

Let’s finish with a picture of the band Five to ensure we cover the whole musical spectrum.

On second thoughts, let’s not.

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30 Days of Nano: Day Four.

Old biddies like me will probably get this immediately, but those of you young enough not to relate to my favourite Doug Stanhope joke (‘You ever look in the mirror in the morning and think: that can’t be accurate?’) may not immediately recognise this ident (from 1982. Long sigh. Such an innocent time…) (For me, anyway. I was 9.)

'Can you tell what it is yet?' she says, before realising she doesn't particularly want to reference Rolf Harris.

‘Can you tell what it is yet?’ she says, before realising she doesn’t particularly want to reference Rolf Harris.

Here’s what it turns into eventually…

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The very delightful Channel 4 logo.

Yes, people, it’s Day Four of NaNoWriMo, and doing these daily counts makes me feel just a little as if I’m in The Ringcounting down to Death by Sadako on day seven. Or one of the murderous school kids in Battle Royale, with three days to kill or be killed. Luckily the real-life stakes are somewhat lower: I’ll finish my novel; or I won’t. The world is unlikely to end, either way. The world’s most likely response, I’d suggest, is: meh.

What I love about NaNo, though, is the stats page on the website. My bars, as you’ll see, are cross and blue: it’s lunchtime as I write this, and the big fat ZERO on ‘words written today’ is letting me down somewhat. If you scroll down you’ll see I’m predicted to finish 9 days late if I carry on being such a flipping slowcoach.

NanoscreenshotAs soon as I’ve churned out my words for the day, the blue bar will turn green. It’s like getting a gold star on your homework, or 10/10 on a test. ‘Good girl,’ says NaNoWriMo, and the ass-kissing, brown-nosed child inside of me goes all smug and falsely-suprised like the week’s Star Baker on GBBO. (As screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said, ‘Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.’)

So, yes, I get a kick from achieving my targets (at sticky moments I’ll update my word count after every sentence). I get such a kick from achieving my targets that Ass-kissing Brown-Noser overrides Lazy-Assed Procrastinator, and actually gets some fricking work done around here – no matter how late it is, or what’s on’t telly, or whether a glass or two of wine has been drunk – because the fact is that, left to my own devices, I’m one of those hamster-wheel writers, endlessly treading the same few pages and waking from a twelve-month reverie to find 29 versions of chapters 1 to 4 on my laptop and precious all else.

And then, too, if I’m honest, I’m disturbingly skilled at allowing the livelong day to drift by without really achieving anything. I’m a woman constantly on the verge of beginning the day’s writing. Even now, for instance, although on one simple level I’m writing a blog post what I’m actually doing is putting off my ‘writing’ writing.

If you, like me, wish there was some kind of AA for procrastinators, stop reading this now and head AT ONCE to this amazing post about procrastination on Wait But Why. And, in exchange, I’ll stop blogging, aka procrastinating, and start sucking up to NaNo again.

Epilogue: after hours in the Dark Playground (read the link above!) I’ve finished with a rather gratifying 2563 words for the day.

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30 Days of Nano: Day Three.

Three is a magic number. Everyone agrees. De La Soul, and Schoolhouse Rock, and especially the magnificent Jeff Buckley. Unknown-9There were three little pigs, and three stooges, and in Creative Writing there’s something called The Rule of Threes: by some strange (possibly Satanic) magic, ‘three of something’ is always better, funnier, smarter, more convincing than two or four of something. (An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, for instance…  or some other trio of lazily-concoted cultural stereotypes). There’s even a Latin phrase singing its praises: ‘omne trium perfectum’ (everything that comes in threes is perfect: whoever coined that phase clearly never got to watch The Three Amigos. Or the third Matrix film). If you wanna go all religious about it, there is of course the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Or if, like me, you like your trinities a little less holy: Father Bear, Mother Bear, Baby Bear and their beds, chairs, and porridges of differing softness, solidity, and temperature. If there’d only been Mother and Baby Bear, and there’d only been two kinds of choices it wouldn’t – it just wouldn’t – have had the same gravitas, somehow. (NB. No comment intended on single parents. Because single parents rock.) And four choices? Well, that would be ALL KINDS OF WRONG.

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Good things come in threes.

Why am I running on at such no doubt delightful length about things that come in threes? Well, this is, of course, Day Three of the 2014 NaNoWriMo challenge, in which I am participating. So that’s one good reason.

The other is the structure of The Book I’m writing. I’ve gone for a trilogy, after many long, tedious months spent arsing around: in the process of arsing, I’ve learnt all the multitudinous ways I can’t write and won’t write (i.e. in a ‘simple’ three or five act structure… although there ain’t nothing simple about writing a novel. This I have also learned.) What suits me best is something with a little quirk, I think. A book with its fancy pants on – date pants, you might say – with hand stitched lace and one of the tiny twee ribbons the lingerie industry just loves to stick on women’s knick-knacks. So what I have now – in place of a more conventional narrative arc – is a trilogy of linked stories, each one set twenty years before the last. And perhaps there are comfier, better pants in the world, but those pants don’t suit me. (Metaphorically, speaking. The real me: comfy pants all the way.) I can’t be normal, or conventional, or something I’m not. So I’ve given in to the oddity of the structure, and two fingers (yes, two, not three) to my inner editor who’s doubting I can really bring it off.

But my inner editor needs to get with the programme.  Omne trium perfectum, right? Everything that comes in threes is perfect. I can’t go wrong.

Today’s word count: 1731. (1042 of those words written in a 20 minute word sprint at our local NaNo write-in.) The plot thickens… 

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30 Days of Nano: Day Two

Family emergencies: ONE – NaNoWriMo: NIL 86809283 It’s quarter to five in the evening (or is quarter to five still afternoon? I’m never quite sure). The sky is a moody blue (Mike Pinder, say) and the moon looks hazily through my bedroom window: ‘Ahem, you there. Yes, you, with your laptop open to BBC iPlayer. I’ve travelled 54,000 miles in the last 24 hours. What have you done?’

Hmm. Well, we did have a family emergency (literally just as I’d opened my document to start working…) The moon is a little blasé when it comes to emergencies. The moon has a serious work ethic.

*

It’s quarter past five now. The streetlights are on. What was green just an hour ago has become only vague silhouettes. Nightfall has swallowed the rooftops and chimneys. The moon has moved on, to a new piece of sky, a new window, another work-shy writer.

I’ll just boil the kettle and then I absolutely will get on with my novel…

*

The sky is black now. Light shines on the rooftops of cars. People walking appear for a little while as they pass by a streetlamp, then vanish again. There are fairy lights in my neighbour’s tree. They’re like stars. I can see my own face in the window in front of me.

Night falls faster than you think it will. Time flies.

I think I’m panicky enough now to actually start writing.

(P.S. Final word count for the day: 1829. V. good.)

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30 Days of Nano: Day One.

images-5Words written: 1676 (good). 1½ glasses of wine (also good). 1 chocolate cupcake, 3 rows of Galaxy Honeycomb chocolate, 2 bags marmite crisps (perhaps not so good).

Began the day wondering where to begin.

Posted ‘humorous’ tweets:

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Wrote a couple of paragraphs. Tweeted about it.

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Tried and failed to update my word count on the NaNo site. Tweeted about it.

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Watched ‘Sideways’ with my daughter. Quaffed a little wine. Caught the last five unfathomable minutes of Doctor Who. Watched the X Factor (or, at least, was present in the room whilst said programme was on screen). Quaffed more wine.

Climbed into bed with 1026 words written. Appreciated the Beauty of Nano: having set myself this fecking challenge (no, auto correct, I don’t mean decking) instead of resuming my reading of Sarah Waters’ rather marvellous The Paying Guests I’ve been forced to produce another (hmm, sums… oh dear) 641 words (thanks, google). None of which have been good words. But I did, as you’ll see in my word count above, exceed my daily target by six whole words. Yes, that’s right. I went the extra mile. (Oh, all right, the extra millimetre.) ‘What were the six words?’ I (don’t) hear you ask? They were: ‘trapping Iolanthe inside for the night’. Almost Shakespearean in its genius, I expect you’ll agree.

Probably all the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

Keep away from the curtains.

The Yes-Yes Board: adventures in ouija world.

‘Twas a dark and stormy night in the year of our Lord 1989, a time before such fripperies as the internet, the mobile telephone, and the ironic hashtag; a time when the only inspirational memes were on fridge magnets, and nobody – but nobody – photographed their dinner. ‘Twas an age without youtube and iPhones, when teenagers had to make their own entertainment. And, for some peculiar reason, the entertainment we chose – in my neck of the woods (we’re humble country folk) – in the autumn of 1989 was… the ouija board.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

You can’t grow up in the Mormon church (as I did) without generous helpings of fear-mongering on a regular basis: while lots of this mongering (is that a word?) had to do with the perils of burning in hell for the rest of eternity for so much as a cheeky fondle, a lot of it also had to do with ouija boards. If the Mormon church were in charge, every Scrabble set would have come with its own hazard warning: Not to be used for Satanic purposes. There were tales about babies upstairs in their cribs being smothered by curtains – while downstairs their decadent Scrabble-abusing parents were drunkenly communing with Lucifer – and tales about devils appearing in mirrors, and demons seen perching on ouija-loving people’s shoulders, etc etc etc.

One day, religion will cotton on to the fact that warning sixteen year olds not to do something is one of the surest ways to make them do it.

So do it, I did.

To this day, I’ll never be sure if one of us was pushing. We sat down, the three of us, in the lounge of my friend Kim’s big old barn conversion (by which I mean her parents’, of course) out in the poorly-lit sticks, with a circle of Scrabble tiles laid out in front of us and a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ in the middle on two scraps of paper. We upended a wine glass. Her parents were out for the evening, her little sister asleep in bed. When the glass started moving we laughed. It seemed funny, this clumsy old thing that was shunting its way from one tile to the other. It liked to make jokes. It called one of my former boyfriends Mr Long (a not wholly appropriate nickname, it has to be said) and when asked: ‘Where are you?’ responded: ‘behind…’ (comedic pause, in which we all hunched a little further forwards) followed by ‘[name of absent friend: by which I mean 'friend who had opted to stay at home that evening' rather than 'dead']‘. Cue telephone call (landline, naturally) to said friend, to make sure she stayed well away from the curtains.

It stated correctly the date on which I’d lost my virginity, a fact unknown to everyone present but me, and insisted that Toby read the poem he had in his back pocket (a poem declaring his love for Kim), which, thinking about it, Toby may, of course, have engineered (although the pure fear on his face when he had to walk to the bus stop later, alone, in the rural darkness, suggested otherwise). Kim’s little sister woke up and came down: ‘Little one, go back to bed’ the board insisted. By this time the clumsy old glass had gone all Formula One on us. We’d stopped laughing by then. ‘It’ was claiming itself as the ghost of a boy in our school who’d committed suicide, which was far from amusing. When, later, we asked for its name, it began to spell: L-U-C-I- Shit, we all thought. Kim ran upstairs for a cross and a Bible. We read a few verses aloud. Several hours had passed by this time, and we made some kind of bargain (I can’t quite remember) to get ‘it’ to leave: doing ouija boards is weirdly addictive. We could have gone on all night, I think, if we hadn’t got so scared.

Keep away from the curtains.

Keep away from the curtains.

Weeks later, we tried the same experiment with a sceptical German exchange student whose German, non-believey energy must have killed the vibe because, damn it, no matter how much we wished it to, the glass wouldn’t move. (It occurs to me now that Toby wasn’t there then. Hmm.)

A couple of years later, bored one night at uni, a few friends and I (once again, no Toby) decided – as you do – to set up a ouija board on the kitchen table. This time the ghost was a six year old girl. She complained that she couldn’t move properly on the sticky top of the table (this was a student hall, remember), so one of us laid out record sleeves to smooth her way (that’s something you can’t do with an iPod, kids…). ‘Where are you?’ we asked. ‘In heaven,’ she said.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Only children,’ she said. ‘And animals.’

‘Is there a god?’

She said, ‘yes’.

‘How did you die?’

‘I drowned.’

And then, people, she went on to tell us the borough of London in which her death was recorded. She told us her full name. Her full name. And now, of course, in the age of the internet, in a matter of seconds I could google those details and know whether our little girl ghost really did die of drowning, aged six, or was only ever a figment of our teenaged imaginations. There’s a reason, of course, that I’m not telling you that name or the borough of London, the same way I won’t tell the friends who keep pestering me for the information. It’s a long, long time since I believed in ghosts (a long time, too, since I believed in God), but there’ll always be a niggle, I think. I am happier not knowing. When things go bump in the night I’ll continue to know that it’s only the furniture creaking and settling.

Or is it…?

Mwa ha ha! Happy Hallowe’en.

How to be interesting.

Today on ye olde twitter I’ve been a-tweeting some quotes about writing a novel from the artist formerly known as the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. tweetTedHughes1 TweetTedHughes12 As you see, I’ve been hashtagging the quotes #NaNoPrep (and thinking, as I write this, how kinda ugly hashtags are – sorry if that’s hashtag-ist – and recalling the chill in my heart, many moons ago, as I watched a web address appear at the foot of the screen on a BBC – yes, BBC – telly programme without a capital letter as if the whole world had gone e.e. cummings crazy: ‘ugh,’ thought I, ‘well that‘ll never catch on.’ I thought the same thing about the Spice Girls, incidentally. I have my fingers in many proverbial pies, but never, as I learnt long ago, on the pulse of the nation.)

Where was I? Ah yes, #NaNoPrep. If you read my last post you’ll know that by NaNoPrep I’m referring to preparation for ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month), and if that means about as much to you as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or an episode of Golden Balls, or some other unfathomable thing, you’d be best off (a) reading that last post instead, or (b) switching off the internet and doing something less boring (one for the 70s kids). There’s a reason these quotes are especially apt if you’re planning your November novel; and here’s one that is far too long for twitter, but is probably most useful of all:

‘Now when you are writing a novel [...] you are constantly thinking of what is coming up next, and there occasionally arrives a time when it seems to you that nothing comes next – you dry up, you run out of ideas. This is the commonest difficulty among writers who write long stories. Even if they are the sort that plan out every incident ahead, they are sometimes brought to a stop, and their next incident somehow will not go, it will not come to life, it no longer seems the right thing, and they are stuck. This is a sign that the story has led them outside their genuine interests, it has lured them over the boundary into country that they have no real feeling for. It is as if their brains said: “We have nothing to say about this, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t feel anything about it and it bores us.”‘ (Italics mine. This is from Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, which I heartily recommend to all writers.)

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I've always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I’ve always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

I have spent about two years so far on my novel and during those two eventful years I have stubbed my poor toes on the wooden furniture of a bad idea more times than I care to remember. And what I can say, hand on heart, is that Ted Hughes is right. There are days, or at least the beginnings of days, when your sentences ramble for England (I’m picturing un-herded sheep as I write this); you can’t find your rhythm; you fill your basket from the adverb aisle of the word market. None of those things, however, is fatal, so long as you’re writing about something that interests you. It might all be tangled and muddled and, damn it, the thing in your head is too complex and too beautiful to ever be pinned down in words, at least by a dufus like you, but hurray-with-bells-on if that’s the case: because, if it’s beautiful in your head, then you’ve been there, and done it, and seen it, and felt it, and even perhaps smelt it, and all that’s left now is to find the appropriate words to describe it (and if you don’t really enjoy finding words to describe things, then might I humbly suggest that ‘writer’ is possibly not your calling in life?). I don’t mean to be glib about this: it is incredibly bloody frustrating to argue all day with yourself about whether a non-existent object is ‘ointment pink’ or ‘sulphur yellow’, with all the particular repercussions and connotations each entails, but it’s sort of fun too, right?

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Sometimes, though, no matter how lovingly we nurse it, our scene, or our chapter, or perhaps our entire novel, is on life support, being fed through a tube. In their white coats the doctors are circling, avoiding our eye, mumbling something in sombre tones about making decisions, and brain death, and needing the bed for new patients. As you try to ignore them your prose gets a straw-clutching case of the ‘Suddenly She‘s, (I do love the word ‘suddenly’, sparingly used, but as a substitute for genuine surprise and/or tension it’s a giant no-no); you wonder if somehow your head has a leak in the back, where the hair is, and all of the words you once knew – the good words – have seeped out… And the ones you still know (like suddenly, and realised, and almost, and sort of) lie flat on the page, like words, and refuse to transform into images, sounds, and textures… in that case it’s time to stop blaming the sentences. It isn’t your sentences that have rambled too far (we’re back to the sheep again now): it’s you. Without knowing it, you’ve crossed the border into country you ‘have no real feeling for’.

It is a dark place. It is forlorn and empty, peopled with mutes made of cardboard, and ‘shutter stock’ images straight from a film you once saw, and dialogue made entirely from cheese. Cue Harrison Ford to writer-director George Lucas (on the set of Star Wars): ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it’. And, likewise, you can type as much shit as you want (far more than the 1667 words a day that will claim you NaNoWriMo victory), but if it’s all written in ‘don’t-care country’ then what, pray tell, is the point? Let’s forget about sheep for a moment and turn to horses: more specifically, the flogging of dead ones. (Not to mention the leading to water of horses who’ve already had quite enough to drink, thank you very much.) Writing ‘interestingly about something that interests you’ is an ongoing concern from the very first ‘ch’ of chapter one to the ‘d’ of the End, and you have to refresh that interest again, and again, and again. Back to Ted:

‘The difference between a fairly interesting writer and a fascinating writer is that the fascinating writer has a better nose for what genuinely excites him, he is hotter on the trail, he has a better instinct for what is truly alive in him. The worse writer may seem to be more sensible in many ways, but he is less sensible in this vital matter: he cannot quite distinguish what is full of life from what is only half-full or empty of it.’

If you’ve signed up for NaNo this year, or you’re thinking about it, I hope you won’t only be thinking of scene arcs, and plot twists, and points of no return, and inciting incidents – as much as those things are important, yes – or ‘thinking it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic’ (Ted again). I hope you’ll be seeing and smelling and touching the scenes you are writing about. And I hope you’ll be noticing what is alive in your writing – what makes it yours, just yours, and nobody else’s – and, most of all, watch where you’re walking. It’s scarily easily to spend the whole month of November in ‘don’t-care country’ and end up with something that’s fit for the bin.

In other words: ‘Don’t think, feel,’ as a wise man once said. ‘It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.’ Full marks if you get the reference before watching this clip!

How to be interesting? The answer is: be interested. Remember that, fellow WriMos. And the very best of luck.

A Novel isn’t just for November.

Remember, people: a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. And although (I sincerely hope) it won’t take the whole of your life to write a novel, it will certainly take you a wee bit longer than 30 days. (Dear Calendar Gods: if NaNo gets much bigger, you might consider bumping November up to 31?) images-4

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as it’s known by the initiated, or just plain ‘NaNo’ if you’re really well acquainted). It’s been running for 15 years (as I learnt last night at my local chapter’s inaugural meeting: more about NaNo’s history here if you’re interested), in which time it’s snowballed from local and folksy to a global phenomenon with more than 300,000 participants. Those participants sign up to write ‘a novel’ – or at least 50,000 words of one – in the month of November: that’s 1667 words a day: Twitter users who find the #amwriting hashtag slightly sick-making may find they have steam coming out of their ears by 1st December as word counts, and coffee consumption, and sample sentences are relentlessly tweeted. We all have a novel inside us, as the old adage would have it. And November is the month you get to regurgitate it into the cold, cruel world.

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

First off, some facts from that cold, cruel world: most novels are around 80,000 words, so ‘National Two-Thirds-of-a-Novel Writing Month’ would perhaps be more honest. Any novel genuinely written in a month is unlikely to be one I’d care to read (with the exception of those by my ex, who could churn out an entire series of YA novels while I sat deliberating over the placement of a comma in my opening sentence. Bastard!) As I said in a previous post, there are no short-cuts to writing a novel, although some people seem to make lighter work of it than others (I am of course among ‘The Others’). It isn’t difficult at all to write 50,000 words in 30 days: what’s trickier is writing good ones. Ideally, in the run-up to ‘NaNo’ you will have done 1 to 2 years of #NaNoPrep (as twitter has it). You might think I’m joking, but no. ‘Fraid not. The majority of novels take 3 or 4 years on average from initial concept to completion. I first started ‘composting’ mine (you might prefer brewing, or fermenting) about 2 and a half years ago, when a yellow-haired girl appeared in one of my notebooks, pushing a bicycle. I ‘did’ NaNo in 2012 in an effort to sketch out the world of my book (as I blogged about here), before finding myself on the Arts Council’s Escalator programme in 2013 and receiving a grant for the writing of said novel, now called Madder Hall. In its many, many, many incarnations, the book has had characters called Morag, Arthur, Hestia, Dickon, and even Mr Horn (fnar fnar): all of which are now resting in peace in the graveyard of my imagination. I’ve slashed and burned the majority of my cast. I’ve turned the structure upside down and inside out. I’ve gone backwards in time (from 1989 to 1979), and forwards in time (1910 to 1939). I had lots of dead 12 year old girls: I have none now. The book as it was in 2012 bears so little resemblance to what I have now that I’ve thought about calling it (sorry, poor joke; can’t resist) Renee Zellweger.

By now you may be wondering, in the style of Edwin Starr: ‘NaNo… HUH… yeah… what is it good for?’ The answer is not, I’m happy to say, ‘absolutely nothing’. (But, NB, war is still useless; no change there). NaNo is good (in my humble opinion) for the following things:

Solidarity: It’s a lonely business, writing. And although NaNo can’t, and won’t, detract from the I’m-so-ronery  aloneness of it all (only click that link if you’re A-Ok with the F word, by the way) it does provide you with a virtual world full of shoulders to cry on (outside of the month of November you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who gives two shits). There’s a Blitz-like ‘all in it together’ sort of spirit. No, we’re not being bombed – but we might be bombing, quite hard. And a kind word from a fellow bomber can lift you from the doldrums long enough to get you writing again.

Permission to write badly: ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ as Hemingway said. Nonetheless, there’s a common tendency for one’s inner editor to step in from the very get-go. You type your first sentence and out of the ether (with snakes in her air) she emerges: ‘You think you can write? I’ve seen two year olds with a crayon in each fist compose sentences with more verve’, etc, etc, etc. The great Christopher Isherwood (creator of the Sally Bowles stories that became Cabaret, and writer of one of my favourite autobiographies: Christopher and his Kind) excreted first drafts of such abysmal awfulness (allegedly) that he’d never show them to a living soul.

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

When you’ve got to write 1667 words a day, no matter what (and, let’s be honest, some days you’ll be writing 3334 because yesterday, meh, not entirely sure what happened to yesterday) your snake-haired inner editor is required to piss off, please and thank you, and let you get on with the sketching of your novel. Because that’s what it is. An outline. Don’t whatever you do waste perfect prose on your very first draft, because changes will need to be made, and sentences perfect as neatly-crossed pairs of kittens’ paws are so much harder to brutally murder than passages with the prose-style panache of a bag of spanners. Trust me on this.

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

Permission to write at all: This, folks, is probably the single, most valid reason for NaNo’s existence. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone writing a novel, unless paid to do so, is (a) sadly deluded in the manner of 97% of X-factor contestants, (b) a decadent, work shy lay about, (c) not really serious, surely, and (d) ought to bloody well get off that computer now and feed the kids/take the bins out/mow the lawn (delete as appropriate).

In order to write you need time. And in order to carve out that time you will need at least 97% of your nearest and dearest to give you permission to tappity-tap at your keyboard, no matter how futile it seems from their perspective – and probably, often, from yours too. (Underestimate at your peril the power of raised eyebrows to make the amateur writer die a tiny death inside.) I think NaNo is good, huh, yeah, for precisely this reason: the artificially-imposed deadline (common to so many TV shows) that allows you to say ‘I’ve got to write, sorry, so please go away’. Permission to write? Permission to come aboard the Good Ship Writer, and sail far away from the land of raised eyebrows. At least, until December.

The Moving Image.

Hemingway wrote naked (allegedly); Agatha Christie wrote anywhere – even in the bath. Kerouac lit a candle before he began (and blew it out again once finished). Simone de Beauvoir drank tea first, writing from ten until one. Murakami (Haruki this is – not sure what Ryu gets up to) puts her laziness to shame: he gets up at 4 a.m. to start writing (and spends his afternoons running). So too does Barbara Kingsolver (wake up at 4, that is). Kurt Vonnegut interspersed words with push-ups. Truman Capote wrote lying down. Stephen King even writes on his birthday. James Joyce was fond of blue pencil. Finnegan’s Wake was written with crayons on cardboard…

And so it goes on. How do you write? Naked, with crayons, immersed in water? Perhaps you have to be facing east, or wearing your favourite knickers? Perhaps, like Agatha, you can write anywhere (washing dishes, she said, was a great time to think about plot). What inspires you? What gets you started? When I teach beginners’ classes, I always give prompts for my students to write from, and I make those prompts as concrete as possible: the smell of wet washing; the itch of head lice; the tap of a footstep. The thing is, no matter how ‘pro’ you are, as a writer, you’re always responding to prompts, though it might be that you don’t even notice the prompt anymore, that you don’t even realise you heard it, or saw it: with practice, it gets to be natural. Writers go out in the world, like Frances in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and recharge themselves ‘like a battery’.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a reading at the Sound and Vision festival. If you’re going to read Gothic fiction, it might as well be in a candlelit mediaeval church (named for a saint who was roasted alive on a gridiron, no less) and it might as well be followed by a showing of Nosferatu (you can watch it here), a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema from 1922 (and memorably remade by Werner Herzog 57 years later), with a live, original soundtrack courtesy of Minima (a taster of that available here.)

They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

For me, the first ten minutes didn’t work. The music jarred, the story was duller than I’d remembered it, the church was very cold, my wine was almost finished. And then, just as suddenly as my brain had begun to complain it was bored, I was sucked in – hook, line, and sinker – by both film, and music. A searing cello solo worked like a charm. The sepia faces were beautiful. There were shots unafraid to be long, to be lingering – unashamedly arty (if the concept of unashamed artiness in cinema existed then; I’m not sure) – and, above all, too, we were watching a film that is 92 years old as I write (although maths has never been my strong point; do correct me if I’m wrong). We were watching a 92 year old sunset, captured forever (thank god for the last surviving print) on celluloid. We were watching young children, and adults, and animals. We were watching the dead.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

I’d been vaguely unsatisfied with the reading I’d given (I’m getting to realise that ‘vaguely unsatisfied’ is a common complaint among writers), and thoughts of the ‘shall I give up?’ variety had been crossing my mind… and then this. This extraordinary film. This extraordinary testament to the point of continuing to make art. And it wasn’t a flawless film, of course: but, fleetingly, it was brilliant. It reached in and spoke to my soul. (And I say this as an atheist.) On this occasion, the moving image was truly moving. It said things to me about the human condition – and that, ultimately, is what I’m always looking for. It is very strange indeed to be alive. It is stranger than strange. And, of course, I like blockbuster rubbish that makes me forget that I’m going to die, one day, but I also like art that reminds me. Nosferatu recharged my artistic batteries, as if Murnau had risen, somehow, from the grave to say: ‘Lynsey, don’t give up. What you’ve written today may be Scheisse, but what you may write tomorrow – well, that might be wonderful.’

As I write, I have owls on my desk: not real owls, naturally (although that would be great), but one made of stone, and one made of clay. And those owls (barring accidents) will outlast me. (Their eyes have an especially penetrating quality as I contemplate this.) Being mortal – bio-degradable, you might say, like an eco-friendly shopping bag – every particle of myself will be gone from this earth at some point in the future. I’ll see my last sunset, I’ll write my last sentence, I’ll watch my last film. It would be nice, I think, to leave something behind, like those flickering, yellow-tinged images that we watched, sipping wine, through the candlelight. The literary equivalent of a 92 year-old-sunset. Or, at the very least, a stone owl.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?