Re-search: because you didn’t find it the first time.

It’s 2nd November 2016, and what am I doing?

Am I having another bash at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) and another bash at writing Madder Hall?

Sort of.

And sort of not.

What I’m doing is NaNoREWriMo: National Novel Rewriting Month. Because I’ve already (more than once) written the (&*$^%^$@%ing) novel. I just haven’t written it well enough.

Hey ho.

‘I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.’ So begins the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s The Book of Household Management and (leaving aside the juicy fact I learnt recently, courtesy of Jeremy Paxman, that Mrs B had syphilis) I kinda know the feeling. It’s not quite true, in my case, that I’d never have commenced the thing at all. What is certainly true in my case, however, is that I would have commenced it differently. Like most things in my life, I went about it arse over tit.

While being forever grateful to Writers’ Centre Norwich for all the lovely side-effects of my (2013) year as one of their Escalator writers (agent exposure, professional workshops, one-to-one mentoring, delicious lunches…) I can’t deny that I entered the programme at the wrong time for my novel-in-progress. It didn’t exist, when I sent off my application, as anything more than a flicker (a glint, as I think Nabokov called it – or was that Henry James?) of a single image, slowly moving: a yellow-haired girl, a teenager, wheeling a bicycle towards a country house. It still didn’t exist (not really) when I uploaded a draft chapter to the Writers’ Centre website. Or even when I gave a reading ‘from’ the novel at an agents’ showcase in London, several months into the process. To be honest, it didn’t properly exist until November, two years ago, when I hit my stride at last by splurging 70,000 words, going way over NaNo target (50,000) and posting a daily blog as well. In the end it was writing quickly, as I began to do at the time of writing this post (with thanks to the late Ray Bradbury), that helped me make the leap from nothingness to novel. I still think writing quickly is the key (‘in quickness is truth’, as Bradbury said).

But, like most things, a novel needs more than one kind of approach. And, occasionally (as has happened to me – cue ‘lightbulb moment’), it needs to be older than you thought it did. Madder Hall was, all along, a Victorian novel, in spite of the fact that its author (that’s me) didn’t want it to be. There were long months of locked horns. But, eventually, it was clear as proverbial crystal: the story was horribly ill at ease in the 20th century.

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My brain experiencing a lightbulb moment. (Also, fact fans, the flash-powder igniting in an 1850s-style photo session.) 

I was just about getting my head round the mountain of research that awaited me when – hello, bombshell – I had to have a sex change too. In the process of getting to know my antagonist I’d discovered that, actually, he was more fascinating, to me, than my sketchy yellow-haired protagonist (who never – damn her – seemed to react to anything, or have any feelings). Her raison d’être was to be mysterious – therefore, quelle surprise, I couldn’t get under her skin.

So, antagonist became protagonist. And the 1970s became the 1850s.

And, thus, the research began. In my day job I’m a research lecturer, and I have an enduring fondness for finding things out. Therefore I didn’t (and don’t) mind the mountain of research, which continues each day and helps me push the plot along. But it does tend to slow things down temporarily, by which I mean (almost) stop them entirely. What is necessary, for me, is to get to a bursting point: to be so blown-up, balloon-like, with Victoriana that, come time to write, I need only the littlest pinprick to get going. It’s not really about knowing things (although, obviously, it is partly about that, because pesky facts have to be faced); it’s mainly, I think, about feeling Victorian. Sensing the mindset. Imagining what it was like to wear six starchy petticoats, laden with sweat; to think of a telegraph as blindingly new and exciting; to only just know of the word ‘scientist’; to think of child abuse as ‘seduction’; to love God devotedly and not even know (yet) about Darwin or (properly) about dinosaurs.

I can only cling to the notion that I’ll get there in the end. And, come November – as each November regularly does come, year after year that I labour (in vain?) on this book – it’s a rather nice, comradely thing to look out of my hidey-hole, like a tortoise in Spring, and find legions of other writers openly, publicly, sharing their own twisted journeys towards achieving something ‘novelly’ in shape and size (if not, exactly, a novel – because 50,000 words, although entirely admirable, isn’t quite book-length, outside YA). For the last few days, as a run-up to NaNo, I’ve been doing 1000+ words every day – with no regard to quality whatsoever – as you can see here in my Scrivener ‘scene’ files:

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The upshot has been that I (usually) exceed my target every day… which led me to think I’d be breezing through come November 1st! But you know what they say about pride and falls… In the spirit of openness, here’s evidence of my own limping start to the month: Screenshot 2016-11-02 13.42.35.png

‘At this rate you will finish on August 4th’… and this book (for reasons I won’t divulge) absolutely has to be finished by June 2017. So, on I press. I’m comforted, as I slog, by sensible advice in a book called Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch: you might get it wrong, he says, ten thousand times… Getting it right the ten thousand and first is all that matters.

Here’s hoping…

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Back to square seven or possibly eight (with apologies for radio silence).

All right, then. Here we are again.

It’s been so long since I blogged that I had to sit, for a little while, staring hard at the screen. I wasn’t looking for inspiration; I was looking for the ‘new post’ button.

It’s funny how quickly your brain un-accustomises itself to things that once seemed normal and natural.

Writing this seems okay, though. But lonely. A dribble of visitors have passed this way in the six months or so since my last post. If I’m honest, though, I’d forgotten I even had a blog. Or what it was for. I’m still not sure. I think (I think) this is going to be a writing diary, for the summer months (when I’ve hung up my gown and mortar board), while I’m tackling the start of the novel (again) that was masquerading for quite a few months as The Finished Article, before Rogue Traders off the telly came round and said, hold on a sec, you’ve plumbed that chapter in completely wrong, and the sub-plot needs rewiring.

There isn’t a thing I can do about it except: start again.

I don’t (thank Christ) mean start again start again. What I mean is, the book learned to write itself as it went along. It got better. (Which is better than getting worse, as I’m sure you’ll agree.) The book was like Terminator 2 as opposed to 1, and when it got to the end of itself it had to send me back in time to… make itself pregnant, or something along those lines. Ah, you know what I mean. It’s not quite good enough, is what I mean. I can’t send it out like that.

So it’s back to the notebooks, where I found this little doodle…

.Help!

And this message I wrote to myself (pardon my French)…

Help2!

And this is the front door of my book (although in the actual real world it’s a door at Felbrigg Hall).

No entry!

And these are the circular stairs I’m eternally walking up (or down) till the day (please God let it be soon) that this book becomes good enough.

Stairs!

And the problem is that I don’t hate the bits I’ve got to get rid of. It’s harder to say goodbye when the words have been carefully ordered, or happen to have fallen in a lucky way. I quite like a lot of it. Having written well once, I can write well again. I think, I hope. But the plot isn’t right. There are characters who need to die. Someone’s feet need reattaching (really).

I can’t promise much excitement here, on this blog, for the next few weeks, but you might find succour if you’re stuck, a bit, with your own book (in particular with a book that you once thought was finished).

For now, then, it’s back to the grindstone. Back to square… seven, or possibly eight. (Square six, on a bad day.)

Never mind, eh.

On being incredibly hot (in a bad way).

Today I’ll be treating myself to an itsy bitsy teeny weeny pity party here on the blog, after which…

I’ll be writing about writing again.

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I am (or was) a (sort of) writer. It feels like frigging ages ago.

So what have I been for the last few months?

No idea.

I suppose I’ve been mostly a teacher slash anti-academies activist. But thanks to the mostly term-time nature of those activities (although fear not, Inspiration Trust, I shall still be gunning for you right through summer… to infinity and beyond, if necessary) I am now on my holidays. En vacances, as they say in la belle France, and although I’m not actually going anywhere, because the flip side of a term-time job = holiday poverty, I will certainly, like Paris in August, be a lot less busy than usual.

Many of my shops and restaurants will be closed. My metro will be occupied almost solely by tourists (not a euphemism) and, while others holiday in far-flung climes, I’ll be home in my garrett, fronting up to the giant-sized task of Le Novel.

But never mind the giant-sized novel, what about the teeny weeny pity party? Well, fire up the cheesy mix tape (Mustang Sally, Love Shack, the Macarena, etc) because the festivities are about to begin.

I am really extraordinarily hot as I’m writing this, and I am really extraordinarily sick of it. It’s very warm in England at the moment, but this is the sort of warmth that comes from inside and is driven by wildly fluctuating lady hormones, and this is my third year of getting so wet (in a bad way) when I walk up the road that I might as well have been swimming. I know you’re not supposed to talk about the M word in mixed company, but let me strike a blow here for forward-thinking on this issue. After all, you didn’t used to be able to show married couples in bed together on a TV screen and now… well, now, you patently can. It’s high time, IMHO, that talking about menopause was normalised and made okay. And if, like me, you happen to start it stupidly early (hot flushes at 32, Fact Fans) it’s meant to be worse and more intense and last longer. To which, I say: hurray! Oh yes, and you die earlier as well (so I’m told) which makes it all-round brilliant, really.

I need, I think, to get me some drugs. But these, you see, won’t be cool drugs of the kind the Verve once sang about the ineffectuality of; these will be distinctly un-cool, if cooling (see what I did there), Ancient Biddy Drugs (Ancientionius Biddicus in the original Latin) and then I will have to ‘be’ an old lady and can’t masquerade as a slightly crispy youngish lady anymore. Which is to say: I will have to ‘be’ an old lady inside my head, even more so than I am already. It is important to me (to everyone, I imagine) who I am inside my head.

My dad, for instance, although he can’t see well enough to walk anymore – except familiar routes from chair to bed to bathroom, etc, and even then with occasional difficulty – refuses to have a wheelchair so that we can take him out. He refuses even to hold my arm in the street. He refuses to do both these things because, even though he has dementia, he still maintains an image of himself with which the image of an otherwise housebound granddad in an adult perambulator is markedly at odds.

I suppose (or know, in fact) that I too hold an image of myself inside my head with which the image of a wrinkly biddy requesting HRT whilst, under her clothes, her neck and breasts are switching themselves to the rinse cycle, is also markedly at odds. But, yesterday, as I came back from a workshop day near Diss to find the streets half-shut for our local Lord Mayor’s Procession and, hence, no proper buses running, I very nearly actually died (all right, I didn’t, but sshh, I’m telling a story here) walking to the nearest available bus stop in the strobing sun, and when at last I caught the bus I went instantly onto a 60 degree pre-wash and thought, you know what, I just cannot anymore. I don’t know how other women manage this, and all power to those who do, but I am so far over this I’m peering at it from the wickerwork confines of a hot air balloon basket.

Hello down there.

Hello, down there.

So: drugs, I think. Let the mantle of Biddyhood fall where it will. I could get on board pretty well with being a biddy. I love my cats a really extreme amount (in spite of the fact they’re psychopaths) and I like books and board games and hot milk in bed and, even though it’s begun to rain – the loud, hard, window-slashing kind of rain – since I’ve sat on my old biddy backside writing this post and, undeniably, the air through my bedroom window has a minty cool, refreshing quality, I am still surreptitiously sniffing myself because I’m convinced I smell like cheese and onion crisps and my clothes are still stuck to my skin and I’m not sure if my laptop is cooking my legs or my legs are cooking my laptop.

I feel a bit sad about it all. And not just because of the extra washing – both of clothes and body; both of which I find very boring even when done in normal quantities – or waking with bird nest hair, a strange mad cross between straight and curly, because I’ve got hot in the night. It is sad not to be able, anymore, to make babies, even though babies are mostly composed of poop and sick and have magical, soul-stealing properties that make their parents obsessed with said poop and sick – as if art, and literature, and science, and current affairs had simply stopped existing. I don’t want to get up in the night anymore to have my nipple nearly bitten off (true story) and slink back to sleep so tired that I literally didn’t care that blood was pouring down my top. But neither do I want to be perimenopausal. Ain’t life grand.

But actually, yeah, my life is grand. And I need to remember that fact. I don’t have everything I want, of course; but, better than that, I have everything I need. I can ask for my old biddy drugs on the NHS (for now, at least…) and I can play piano when I’m sad and hug my daughter and sometimes, when I’m teaching, I see people look at me, like, ‘I never knew that before, what you’re saying, and now my life’s been changed a little bit’ and some of my lovely students buy me things like this:

The joy of having lovely students. Cheers!

The joy of having lovely students. Cheers!

… because they know I fall down holes sometimes, and get low, and also because Wimbledon. (Although damn you, Nadal. You were going to be my guy candy for the next ten days.) I have food, and shelter, and derive a bizarre amount of happiness from rubbing my feet together in bed. (I’m doing it now.)

But it’s weird, I think. One day you’re a lion, enormous, roaring. Then one small thing in your universe changes and, suddenly, how fast you shrink.

I’ll always be like this, I’ve realised. Never knowing, today, how big or small I’ll be tomorrow. Or later the same afternoon. Or last thing at night. It’s a very uppy-downy life I lead.

So I wanted to have this one last whinge, for now, about non-writing things because the book is calling and, from tomorrow onwards, I’ll have oodles of writing-related things to whinge about. I will care less about the ups and downs in my life, the things I wish I hadn’t said and done, the tumours in my womb, the sweats, the spots (I even have them on my shoulders now FFS), the grey hair, the blah blah blah. I will (I hope, I pray) be back to my writerly self, which is my best self, in my opinion, in spite of the fact there’s rarely any gratification in it. I’m planning a sequence of posts like the ones I did for NaNoWriMo once, because suddenly, once again, it is ‘Camp WriMo’… but more on that tomorrow. Or the day after. We’ll see. I’m not going to pressure myself this time, but I’ll aim for a regular update – if only to pin myself more tightly to having to finish the novel, properly, at last, before the Arts Council come at me with a hatchet.

Until then, I’ll be having a shower. A cold one. Cheerio.

Raining on the parade.

I was seven when Charles married Diana. My street had a party. My mum or dad bought me the Ladybird book about the wedding, and to this day I remember my fascination with the name of one of her bridesmaids: Clementine.

It was all quite exciting, I seem to remember. Also the sausage rolls were very tasty. They always taste better on paper plates.

Fast forward thirty years or so and I’m walking home with radio four on my headphones, swearing out loud in the street at the fawning coverage of the ‘royal’ baby’s birth.

The thing is, yes it’s lovely that Kate and Wills, or whatever their names are, have  had a baby – by which I mean: it’s lovely for them. It’s lovely for the baby’s gran and granddad and aunties and uncles and so on and so forth, as it’s lovely for all families when a new arrival comes along. But the grown men and women who’ve camped for twelve days outside the posh London hospital where poshos give birth (is it just me, or does Lindo Wing sound like a Bond villain?) must surely be in need of psychiatric care. When the ‘duke’ arrived with ‘the toddler prince’ there were screams from the audience. Actual screams. 

I don’t mean to be rude, but: WTF? In a country where our Prime Minister (although, fingers crossed, not for much longer…) goes to great lengths to avoid being seen, or snapped, with his titled chums – mere peasants, of course, when compared with the ‘royals’ – because that sort of thing doesn’t ‘play well’ with the electorate… why, then are we falling over ourselves on bended knee to lick the boots of the land’s most toffish toffs?

Does anyone really believe (really, truly) that God chose Queen Elizabeth to rule us?

If the answer is no, then un-bend your knee immediately, un-doff your cap, get the next bus out of London and stop saying silly things on the radio about how it’s all been ‘worth it’ – for a glimpse of the toddler prince and then, some time later, a tinier glimpse of his new sister’s head in a shawl. ‘We’ve got a princess!’ said one of the crowd, excitedly, in a strong Geordie accent.

I don’t want to rain on your parade, love, but I doubt she’ll be round Newcastle way any time soon.

Although I must admit, this is a novel way to give birth.

Although I must admit, this is a novel way to give birth.

It’s the feel good factor, according to radio four. But what, exactly, are we meant to feel good about?

A night’s stay in the Lindo Wing is £5,913. (Kate gets a discount, having used the Lindo once before.)

This doesn’t include consultant’s fees, which are roughly £6000. (Reminds me of my own labour! I lay on the floor of the day room in the dark, by myself, for a couple of hours, because I didn’t want to wake the sleeping women on my ward.)

According to the Torygraph, the ‘Cambridges’ will hire a second nanny – one per child – although:

‘the Duke and Duchess are determined their children should have as normal a childhood as possible, and since they moved into the newly-refurbished Anmer Hall at the end of last year they have been immersing themselves in local life.’

This is Anmer Hall.

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This is the ‘royal’ baby’s second home, Kensington Palace, where taxpayers picked up the £4 million refurbishment tab:

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Meanwhile, in other news, here are the contents of a food bank box from the Trussell Trust:

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Here’s an interesting fact:

20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14

Here’s another, from Barnados:

There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s almost a third of all children. 1.6 million of these children live in severe poverty. In the UK 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works.

Did you know that some children in Britain today don’t know what a banana is? Food banks can’t often give fruit, because it doesn’t keep.

A hundred people every day, too mentally ill to work, have their benefits sanctioned (i.e. stopped) for paltry reasons. Forty two of them leave the benefits system altogether. Only seven enter work.

That’s thirty-five mentally ill people every day who don’t have a penny to live on. And, thanks to these sanctions, a hundred thousand children are suffering.Through no fault of their own. (Even if you ‘blame’ their parents.)

But yeah, you’re right. I should be celebrating. Two small children get to live in luxury forever at our expense.

Hurrah.

Landlubbers, and life on the ocean wave.

It’s hard when you don’t get a ticket. It’s hard and it’s sad. I mean, after all, this isn’t the Titanic we’re talking about; this ship really is unsinkable, and some of the very best people you know are onboard already – or racing down the gangplank – and the worst thing is that you’ve been onboard before, a few times, years ago (you hitched a lift to the Cape of Good Hope but the Horn of Bad Luck was just round the corner and you fell with a splash into murky water)… So you can’t even tell yourself it’s a shit boat and the entertainment’s Jim Davison and the captain is Old Gregg.

No, it isn’t the boat that’s the problem. The boat is just fine. More than fine. It has all the English canon onboard and most of the Yanks as well, except people like Hemingway, who’s gone off in his own fishing boat with a bottle of turps (it takes a special kind of drink to get a ghost pissed), and Salinger, who went shopping for ear plugs on shore leave, once, and was never seen again.

I am, of course (of course! You mean you didn’t realise?) talking about rejection.

I’m talking about rejection through the hackneyed metaphor of ships setting sail. More specifically, the ship of literary success that was docked in the harbour for years and years and years and yet somehow, in spite of the fact you were once at the front of the queue, you failed to get a ticket.

Harrumph.

It’s a little bit rubbish, sometimes, this writing lark. You put yourself out there, and the editor says:

And your heart goes bang-bang-bang and the critic that lives in your head says never write again and then these guys appear:

Call yourself a writer? I'd call yourself a taxi to Loserville if I was you...

Call yourself a writer? I’d call yourself a taxi to Loserville if I was you…

And yesterday it was sunny but now:

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And your face is all:

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And you come across this on the internet:

I can tell you now, God. You need a bigger jar.

I can tell you now, God. You need a bigger jar.

And you feel a bit:

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So you go for a walk, and you walk to a bridge, and you stand on the bridge and look down at the river. You take out your phone for a photo and tap a few words in a memo:

Upside down world

Look in the river. It goes down forever. The sky is in it. 

Darting insects make the river wink. 

A boy is fishing.

Shirt as red as flags. I’m here, it says. I live.

Birds fly through the water-sky. 
Or is sky-water better?
You put your phone in your pocket, go home again, and boil the kettle. Book, tea, blanket. You always get sick on boats, anyway.

Alzheimer’s, and other embuggerances.

Today Terry Pratchett has died. Today Terry Pratchett has died, and although I confess I’ve read embarrassingly little of his fiction this death has hit me harder than any other ‘celebrity’ death.

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This is going to be an odd little blog. A departure from my usual tone. My Dad was diagnosed with PCA, the particular kind of Alzheimer’s from which Terry Pratchett suffered, in the months following Pratchett’s own diagnosis. For that reason, my family and I have followed the very public progress of his illness with more interest than most. I sat down, one evening in (I think) 2007 and watched him, on a TV documentary, failing to tie his tie, trying a new-fangled treatment (a sort of futuristic hat), facing his diagnosis with the good-natured kind of bravery we all, secretly, hope we’d find inside ourselves in the same situation.

It’s a hell of a diagnosis. To face it as sunnily as he seemed to is a wonderful thing indeed. I’ll find myself suddenly, usually when driving, remembering moments, less than a decade ago, when my dad was a different man entirely. When my dad was still my dad. One day, not yet (thank God), there’s a chance he won’t know who I am. There’s a chance he won’t know I’m his daughter. The nerves in his brain are dying. His cortex and hippocampus are shrinking. He can’t read a book, do a crossword. He struggles to put down a cup on a table. It’s hard and it’s cruel and it’s not bloody fair.

As I write this, I’m raising my glass of white wine to my dad (in the full knowledge it ought to be beer, his tipple of choice), because I’ll always, always, be your daughter, even if, one distant day, you no longer know it.

And I’m raising my glass to Terry Pratchett too, this man I never knew, and barely read, for his bravery and his good nature. As a human being, he was top bloody drawer.

Rest in peace.

101 Hand Gestures for Teachers: A Manual

If I didn’t have hands, would I still be able to teach? My lovely daughter came to my class with me last week to take some promotional pictures (watch this space). I’ve never seen myself teach before.

And now I have.

I’ll say no more.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

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Basic Numeracy is a government requirement, students. You can use your fingers if it helps.

I was all, like, WTF?

I was all, like, WTF?

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I’m not even kidding. It was *this* small.

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HahahahahaSNORT

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So I caught this fish…

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Secret Teacher Hand Signal: ‘Class is sucking. Activate the ejector seat.’

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I’m not entirely agreeing with what you’re saying. But I’ll listen anyway. And then I’ll pounce.

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Roight, you. See me after class.

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Mwa ha ha.

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Go high on gas, low on electric. Secretly trading shares with those in the know.

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And this is the internationally recognised signal for ‘I am a tourist in your country. Please take my photograph’.

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Anyone seen my false teeth? Pretty sure they’re down here somewhere…

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All right, who’s guffed?

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Let me just chew this over a while.

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You, and you. There’s the door. Get yourselves through it.

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Is it just me, or is it raining in here? (This signal also referred to as The Boob Cup)

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My mouth may be talking about Point of View. My hands have just arranged the assassination of a minor dissident.

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Teacher Pose #72: ‘Looking Down the Nose’.

There was this rabbit...

There was this rabbit…

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There was this lop-eared rabbit…

Oh, there's the bell! Time to go home and watch 'Wolf Hall' on the telly box.

Oh, there’s the bell! Time to go home and watch ‘Wolf Hall’ on the telly box.

Being somewhere else.

We all want to be somewhere else sometimes. We all want to be someone else. When I was fourteen I wanted to be Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

Me and Ferris.

Ferris and me.

I wrote a fictional diary from Sloane’s perspective. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend of Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris B, for all you people who’ve lived under rocks for the last thirty years), because it wasn’t Matthew Broderick I wanted; it was the atmosphere of Ferris Bueller. It was the blue sky of Chicago mornings, the city parade, the Smiths song on the soundtrack, the kids holding hands in the gallery, the race through his neighbours’ suburban back yards to get home on time.

As I write this I’m watching Don’t Look Now for the umpteenth time, and even though the drowning rips to me pieces there’s something pure and clear about it: the water is watery, the grass is grass-like, her little red coat and red tights have a kind of perfection about them: red as red can be. Later on, I like the Venetian hotel they stay in, the stained glass in the church, Donald Sutherland’s moustache, Julie Christie’s nipples in her brown jumper.

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now: awful, horrible, emotional… but somehow perfect too.

I never planned to write this post. I was meant to be posting another post entirely, yesterday, while it was snowing (for all of ten minutes), but something about it was wrong. Fake. Squeezed out of me like the pink goop they use to make Chicken McNuggets. And now I am meant to be writing (The Novel), but failing to write it. I’ve poured a glass of wine, lit candles. I’ve listened to music, Coffitivity, ASMR. Nothing’s happening.

So I’m putting on films for inspiration, much as I’ve lit a peony candle to make the room smell pretty. I don’t really watch them; I soak up the atmosphere. I like the being-somewhere-else-ness of a really good film. And I like to be in the presence of art when I’m trying to make it myself. In particular I like Kubrick films for this purpose: 2001 is the obvious choice, but I’ll often feel quite aggressively arty after watching A Clockwork Orange. Other good atmospheres can be found in:

If… (Lindsay Anderson)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)

Am I the only writer who does this? When I’m utterly, utterly blocked, like a failed game of Tetris, I’ll take out my notebook and write a description of what’s on the screen. But I’ve got to the sex bit in Don’t Look Now so I think, on reflection, I won’t do that. I’ll return to The Novel, and try to turn the bloody lights out (1970s Britain) without saying they were plunged into darkness. Wish me luck.

Found art: a poem in blog posts

It’s nearly the end of 2014 and the world and his wife (or something less egregiously sexist) are blogging about the year just gone. I was reading this rather good blog t’other day, findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com, and I found a cool idea for assessing one’s 2014 through a very specific lens: namely, the first line of the first blog you posted each month.

repent-the-end-is-nigh-ye-must-be-cleansed

So I tried it.

And?

The results were quite dull, to be honest. It turned out I didn’t like having to choose a particular line, by default.

But I did enjoy skimming old posts for the sort of line that JUMPS OUT from the page. So I put my own spin on the game, and I made a found poem with chronological scraps from my blog posts, season by season.

And here it is…

Untitled 2014

Winter

On a day like today there is cake,
Ten seconds of toe-tickling or
an accidental pin-prick.

Dear People of Planet Earth
I’ve grown cobwebs.
Occasional pinholes appear.

Spring

I’m a terrible knitter.

When my daughter was little
(a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it).
But I digress.

What do you do with all this – all this life,
all this shit – if you don’t
write it down?

Summer

Here’s something I hate.

Autumn

By now you may be wondering
how to be interesting.

All the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

The moon has moved on
to a new piece of sky with
hand-stitched lace.

I’ve just been a-Googling and
hey nonny-nonny.

The hairs on my neck must be lazy.
I have fallen through the hole in the
paper. I like the number
eight.

Congratulate yourself. You wait all
day for a pirouette and then
three come along at once.

A little too much about snot.
David Cameron in his underpants.

It’s been a long week.

All the bells and whistles please.
I turned some water into
wine and verily I did drink it.

I’m feeling a little peculiar.

Somebody’s left you a shit in the pan.

Bliss is fragile.

Winter

Everything will probably be okay.
It must be peculiar not to exist.

Don’t neglect your hot meat.

Hot meat and the skateboarding George Orwell: a thing about voice.

‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’

So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.

2397183561_d1dbd3b2f1

Image source

I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.

But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.

If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.

images

But I’m not. So I don’t.

Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:

 

But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.

‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
... and he's cross that you wrote cerulean when you just meant blue.

… and he’s cross that you wrote ‘cerulean’ as a fancy way of saying ‘blue’. You dick.

I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:

  • The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
  •  Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
  • Anglo-Saxon all the way.
  • To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…

Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.

The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.

Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:

Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.

Oi, Orwell! You're not big and you're not clever and I'll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute.

I’ll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute, son.

Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence

but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.

But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.

Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:

and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…

 

I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.

Tiny words, I salute you.

Tiny words, I salute you.

 

The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:

The cat smelt the hot meat.

Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.

404298099_c60259d30a

Red and yellow and pink and green… violaceous and apricot and cobalt…

 

I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

It must be peculiar not to exist.

Your strength is invisibility. You’re excellent at imitation. Your self-effacement knows no bounds.

You’re the wire that hoists actors into the air, or the stunt double donning a wig, or Zac Efron’s crooning in High School Musical, or perhaps you’re even Britt Ekland’s bum double in The Wicker Man.

You’re there to make others look good. (Or, in the latter case, to flash your arse for the cameras, because Ekland refused to flash hers.)

You have numerous names for your numerous roles – but in publishing you are known as a ghost.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier… Think about *that* next time you’re listening to a Kenny G solo, alone in the house, after dark…

Image source

This post has been prompted by the ‘news’ that outrageously popular You Tube star Zoella (a name oft on the lips of my teenaged daughter) accepted a six figure sum from publishers Penguin for a novel, Girl Online, that, well, that she didn’t actually write. She did, however, come up with the ‘story and the characters’.

Zoe 'Zoella' Zugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to PewDiePie who has over 30,000.

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to Swedish gamer PewDiePie who has over 30 million.

After out-pacing Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James with her first-week sales, things nosedived spectacularly for the smiley star when rumours arose that the novel was ghostwritten. Zoella tweeted this in response:

It’s fair to say she’d have needed some help with the spelling in her novel, if nothing else…

But we like Zoella in our house. She says useful things to teenage girls about her own anxiety issues, and also she has lovely hair.

I’m not meaning to patronise her (although I have, perhaps, patronised her a tiny bit so far). What I’m mainly saying, is no harm, no foul. Yes, it’s kinda shitty to take a six-figure sum from Penguin (who’ve also behaved kinda shittily from an outsiders’ point of view) when the person who actually wrote the book earned seven thousand, according to my informant (my daughter), and, yes, it’s kinda shitty to let legions of teenaged girls believe there’s no end to your talents (thus, perhaps, doubting themselves just a wee bit in response), but IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Hence I find myself feeling a little bit sorry for poor old (actually, young) Zoe Sugg. I think she’s learnt her lesson. I don’t think she’ll do it again.

But, Penguin? They will do it again. As will every other publishing house so long as we, the public, are keener on buying a book because somebody famous wrote it (even though, nudge nudge, wink wink, we all know they actually didn’t) than because of the words inside. The words inside might be good, but it’s usually seen as hack-work, this ghost writing business. A writer who lovingly rubs each phrase till a genie pops out of it is unlikely to let Katie Price or Naomi Campbell take the credit. Instead they’ll hock them any old shit, because no one is buying the book on its merits. They’re buying it because it’s… pink and shiny. (I have tried for literally seconds to think of another reason they might buy a book that purports to be written by the human being formerly known as Jordan, and I cannot.)

(The internet says she also has four volumes of autobiography. To which I say: WTF? Her entire life has been televised, hasn’t it? What is there left to find out, for the love of God?)

Look inside ‘her’ first novel, Angel, on Amazon and you’ll find the following:

Angel by Katie Price

This was, in fact, written by a former journalist called Rebecca Farnworth. Very sadly, Farnworth died recently, of cancer, at the horribly early age of 49, which makes me disinclined to run on at any great length about the quality of this extract – except to suggest that Farnworth herself knew very well what she was doing. And what she was doing was writing by numbers. 

There is more writing by numbers in Katie Price’s recent book, Make My Wish Come True:

make my wish come true KP

This one wasn’t written by Price, either. I’ve made a cursory search online (including the book’s ‘author information’ page) and can’t tell you who did write it, but if Price – like Zoella – came up with the characters (in particular, if she came up with the heroine’s name) then I’m glad she didn’t write the book herself. It’s bad enough as it is. Once upon a time it was curious and new to read of sunlight ‘streaming’ through a window – but it isn’t anymore. Is warmth in any way watery? Why must sun ‘put in an appearance’ instead of simply shining? As openings go, this one is an omni-shambles, to quote Malcolm Tucker. If football pundits wrote novels, they’d write ’em like this.

An adverb here, a cliche there...

An adverb here, a cliche there…

It’s muzak for the eyes, that’s all. And there may be a stonking good story, once Storm’s finished basting that turkey – but I, for one, will never know, because life is too short to be squandered on Katie Price’s oeuvre. I’ve been known to remark, whilst listening to Radio 1, that if ‘music’ consisted of only this one particular song that my ears are enduring right now (I will mention no names) then I’d rather have silence. Forever. The End. And if Make My Wish Come True was the only book that existed, then quite honestly I’d have to give up reading.

(Ah, who am I kidding? I read the back of cereal packets. I read bus tickets. I read literally whatever’s in front of my eyes. But I’d hate myself while reading it. And I’d hate all of humanity. And I’d burn the book – and myself – afterwards.)

‘Everybody does have a book in them,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘but in most cases that’s where it should stay.’

Wise words (which, on bad days, I apply above all to myself). You see, having a story to tell is not the same thing as being able to tell it. And that’s fine! Why should everyone be able to write a (publishable) novel? They shouldn’t, quite frankly, and to suggest that they can – that they ought to be able to knock one off in their lunch break – makes a mockery of the profession of Writer.

Most artists can only do one thing really well. Shakespeare didn’t have a sideline in lute playing (that I know of). Margot Fonteyn wasn’t also a talented painter. Picasso didn’t compose symphonies. John Lennon didn’t write novels. The list goes on…

Bob Dylan did write a novel. Reviews ranged from ‘not good’ to ‘unreadable’.

Sylvia Plath was talented with a pencil as well as poetry:

sylviaplathdrawings15

More pictures at Brainpickings.org

It’s just that she was more talented as a poet…

 

Before you go, Lyns, what’s to do with the title of this here post?

Why, thank you for asking. It’s the epitaph of the poet John Keats, inscribed on his grave in Rome.

And what’s it got to do with celebrity writers, pray tell?

Well, Mr Keats? Over to you.

John_Keats

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’

Unless, of course, Ode to a Nightingale was ghosted by an ancestor of Miss Katie Price. In which case, I’ll look a bit of a fool.

30 Days of Nano: Praise the Lord, it’s Day Thirty!

Am I sad or happy that NaNoWriMo, and hence my 30 Days of Nano blog challenge, comes to an end at midnight tonight?

I’m a mix of the two: I’m shappy.

I didn’t do any writing at all yesterday. I’d already locked and loaded the day’s blog post ahead of time, so I didn’t even write a blog. (Boo! Hiss!)

Statler: I hear they're calling this the Medium Blog.  Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn't rare or well done!

Statler: I hear they’re calling this the Medium Blog.
Waldorf: Well it certainly wasn’t rare or well done!

But the day before that, I finished the first draft of my novel.

I don’t think you heard me.

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!!!!!

Oh yeah. Go me.

Oh yeah. Go me.

 

I had my headphones in when I ‘validated’ on the nano site, and was promptly deafened by their cutesy recorded cheers. But I get to call myself a Winner. Hurrah! I like being a winner. Although it’s possible I’m only a winner for the remainder of 2014…

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

But at least I’ll have a month off from being a loser!

What have I learnt from this year’s nanowrimo?

We could really do with a Team America montage round about now.

 

Instead, have some bullet points:

  • The more often you write, the easier it gets.
  • Dorothea Brande was right: the subconscious will provide, if you let it.
  • The more you write, the more frequent your typos.
  • The more you write, the less inclination you have to amend those typos.
  • Sometimes, when you’re writing a lot, your brain attempts to reread, reflect, revise with every random thought you have, and this is almost as annoying as an Agadoo ear worm when you’re trying to sleep.
  • An insight scribbled in your notebook at four in the morning is better than two insights in a bush.
  • Two years of planning and writing and failing and writing and failing and tearing up plans and despairing and agonising and shredding and howling at the moon are all worth it when you’re not even writing your final scene: you’re following it, like a child in the Pied Piper’s wake, and you eat dinner because you have to eat dinner (you’re a human being, natch, and human beings need dinners) but you are eating with your left hand so you can carry on typing with your right.

Over the coming weeks and months it will all go pear-shaped. Of course it will. Bliss is fragile. I’m enjoying it now, because I can. I haven’t read my first draft yet. Why would I? I’m enjoying my honeymoon. You don’t go checking your new husband’s internet history when you’re on your honeymoon, do ya? No siree. You leave that for a rainy day in the future.

It’s not raining today (yet). And it’s too soon to go back to it yet. Fireworks and first drafts: leave ’em alone, for the love of God! 

But I have got a nagging awareness of the ‘project notes’ in my Scrivener file, where I noted down inconsistencies as I thunk of them. And I’ve sent Nancy Drew on the case of The Missing First Four Chapters and she’s presently teaming a rib-knit sweater with a pair of capri pants and enjoying a morning coffee with her kindly-eyed housekeeper Hannah Gruen, but she’s made some preliminary observations already:

  • At 8.04 a.m. the chapters were seen to be partially assembled.
  • They seemed not to be written in English, but gibberish.
  • Consultation with relevant sources suggests that it’s easier to write the beginning once you’ve got the end.

So, mainly because I find that I want to be writing today, and every day thereafter, I’m heading back in to the war zone with my dictaphone and my camera to start fiddling around a bit. (NB: Not to read the draft. Oh no. I don’t want to blow my face off with an unexploded rocket, thank you very much.) Expect further dispatches at some point in the future:

Novel is shit stop send reinforcements stop wondering if I should just stop 

And what have I learnt from my 30 days of daily blogging?

  • I should never compose a post in public, because I find myself quite funny sometimes (and that isn’t socially acceptable).
  • Some posts are bigger than others. (As Morrissey almost said.)
  • If I had to blog every day for the rest of my life, I probably could. But I don’t, so I won’t.

I do like blogging, though. And I like it when folk like my blogs.

This is me in the internet pond:

4496504859_3e846f5198

Image source

This is not me:

That's me holding the fish. Kidding.

That’s me holding the fish. Kidding.

Image source

But that’s cool.

Sometimes a few people stop by. They get snagged on some click bait in a tweet I wrote, or they google a search term that whisks them my way, or they (just occasionally) set out intentionally to come here. They put on their shoes, and coat, and gloves and they strap their binoculars round their neck and they brave the harsh winds of the internet in winter to peer through the fast encroaching fog for the faint glow, up ahead, of lynseywhite.com, where legend has it there are comfy chairs, hot tea, fluffy slippers for frostbitten feet, and a roaring log fire full of clichés. Not to mention willy jokes.

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in...

Excuse me a second while I just open the door to let these folks in… they’re cold and tired and mightily in need of a joke about members.

Blogging gives me something (an outlet for my lunacy) that I don’t get from fiction – or don’t get so quickly, and easily, from fiction. So, whether or not there’s anyone out in that snowstorm searching, there’ll always be a brew on at lynseywhite.com (tea only; I don’t do coffee). It’s just I’ll be boiling the kettle slightly less often from December 1st…

We’ve had muppets, and fireworks, and insights in bushes, and weary travellers, and tiny fish… and if that ain’t enough confusing analogies for ya, then let me point you to some of my favourite posts from this whole 30 Days of Nano experience:

Day 18: in which Nano comes of age.

Day 10: my homage to Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer

Day 28: on being an older writer. (The internet liked this one the best.)

Day 6: something quite sensible about finding your ‘seed word’ (as Scarlett Thomas calls it).

Day 29: in which nanowrimo reports on my progress. 

December, here we come.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Nine

If NaNoWriMo wrote report cards…

Report Card

In general we are pleased to inform you that Lynsey has worked well this month. She completed a total of 74,435 words, amply achieving her personal monthly target of 70,000 with 24 hours to spare, and as regards the story contained within those words we are pleased to describe the present status as ‘motoring along nicely’.

English

Lynsey has shone in this subject, and frankly, considering what she does for a living, it would be bloody worrying if she hadn’t. 

Biology

Lynsey has demonstrated a thorough acquaintance with the human body, in particular the breasts, buttocks, and genitalia and, indeed, writes so frequently about these three areas that one might even describe her as ‘fixated’.

Chemistry

Lynsey has survived the month with no recourse to illegal chemicals, with the exception of the occasional syringe of heroin for medicinal purposes.

Physics

In general, Lynsey has excelled at battery management as regards the use of her laptop in various cafes, except for that one occasion when she didn’t turn the plug on and, consequently, achieved very little actual writing with the 2% remaining of her battery life. She had to read a book instead.

Physical education

We regret to inform you that Lynsey’s progress in PE has fallen far short of the minimum standard required to maintain the healthy functioning of a human body. Indeed we are surprised she’s still alive at all.

Home Economics

Lynsey has used the microwave this month rather oftener than we’d recommend. She did, however, serve vegetables at least twice, and only once, on a wet Wednesday, did she have recourse to a packet of Super Noodles. 

Mathematics

We cannot congratulate Lynsey on her success in this subject. Indeed we are curious as to who she actually is, having never once seen her in class.

Art

Lynsey spends a long time gazing at images on the internet, and although these fall largely under the ‘fine art’ umbrella, as opposed to the ‘hard porn’ umbrella (and frankly we hope never to see such a thing as a hard porn umbrella), she has yet to exhibit any personal skill with a paintbrush. In addition, she has a tendency to daydream. There are those of us in the art department who strongly suspect she’s imagining future book covers.

French

Zut alors! La plume de ma tante. Etc.

German

Efficiency has risen notably since we, in the German department, refused to participate in these fake report cards.

Information Technology

We are quietly pleased with Lynsey’s progress. She has learnt how to arse around on the internet conduct research via google, how to embed tweets and youtube videos in her blog posts, and how to use the strike-through function with the aim of making said blog posts more amusing. We await the examiners’ decision on the success or failure of the latter point.

Religious Education

We gave up on Lynsey a long time ago, and can only report that she needn’t pack woollens for where she’s going. 

History

We are pleased, or perhaps disappointed, to report that Lynsey has utterly failed, this month, to let history repeat itself. Whereas, previously, she might have sat on her arse all month eating biscuits, this year she sat on her arse all month eating biscuits with one hand whilst typing with the other.

Geography

By and large Lynsey has remained in one spot. All month. Thus proving Hemingway’s dictum that writing broadens the ass as well as the mind.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Eight

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… and decided this twenty-eighth post of my 30 day challenge would be about ageing.

And then, because I’m in the magic zone where synchronicity just happens, I read an interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson while drinking my morning tea and, abracadabra, these words appeared on the end of my wand:

ROBINSON

I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON

It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

You can read the full article here (which appeared, in 2008, in the Paris Review: and why, when I’m reading the Paris Review, do I always glance down at my clothes, and my choice of beverage, and the shabby chair I’m sitting on, with the airy disdain of a Parisian waiter and remember all over again that I’ll never be truly cool?).

But I digress…

Years ago, I was younger too.

I had the heartwarming experience yesterday of bumping into an old work mate, and being told I looked younger than ever – ‘like a schoolgirl’! (It was a dark street.) Perhaps, with some vaseline on the camera lens, I could just about pass as a schoolgirl of the Grease variety, where Rydell High was patently populated by students pushing thirty, but, no, I am not a schoolgirl and do not look like one. Even though I do wear bunches sometimes. And my management of my finances is positively schoolgirl-ian in its consistent focus on instant gratification.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner's focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner’s focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Like Kit Williams in MasqueradeI’ve laid a trail of clues in recent posts as to my exact age, so, ahem, we won’t mention it here. But I’m quite a lot older than I was when I first had a sniff at a publishing deal (I was 20, Fact Fans). And the 17-year-old Lynsey who tore open her acceptance letter from The Rialto and positively floated to school because she was going to be A Poet… would have to wait an awful lot longer than anticipated for her next piece of work to be published. (Twelve years, Fact Fans. Although two came in the same week, which reminds me of something about buses… and men…)

And now here I am, X number of years later, writing my first novel at the age of… let’s just say I’m une femme d’un certain age and leave it at that.

For a person who’s always written, since the age of 6, it’s a fairly clear indictment of the way I live my life that I’ve made so little finished work in that time. When I say ‘always’ written, I mean: ‘always thought of myself as a writer’ – when others, assessing the ‘work’ they’d produced so far, might have slipped by the wayside and started to call themselves other things: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Hah, kidding! I meant, of course, productivity managers, process administrators, data coordinators.

(In the process of writing this post I’ve just discovered a job I’d never heard of before, Penguinologist, and now I’m not entirely sure I want to be a writer anymore. Is it too late to swap?)

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Is it good or bad to be an older first-time novelist? (I’m going to proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll get my book published, if that’s all right with you; because proceeding on the basis that I’ll have to resign it to the digital graveyard is a bit too annoying to think about at this late stage in the writing.)

Let’s look at the pros:

  • I have never before known as much as I know at this moment. (Not even when I was sixteen, when I knew everything.)
  • I do not believe that alliteration alone is enough to carry a sentence.
  • I have evolved to the stage where I need/want/have very little in the way of social life.
  • My daughter’s on the waiting list for surgical attachment to her iPhone, and no longer requires my presence now, now, now at all times.
  • I’ve been down this jolly old road before, and succeeded a bit, and failed a bit, and I know life carries on no matter what. (Writing carries on, too, no matter what.)

And now the cons:

  • I won’t look like Zadie Smith in my author photos. (Did I before? Er… well… no. But you know what I’m saying here.)
  • Assuming the publishers wanted one at all, I would probably be encouraged to have a very small, stamp-sized author photo as opposed to a full cover close-up.
  • There can’t ever be a publishing frenzy about the Hot Young Author called Lynsey White.
  • My chances of making the Granta Best British Novelists list are dead in a ditch.
  • If there’s ever a launch party for my book, I won’t especially want to go. I’ll want to be home drinking cocoa.

Try as I might, I cannot find a single ‘con’ to do with the actual writing. (Oh, hang on! Here’s a tiny caveat: sometimes when I have a great insight, I go to my laptop to write it all down and… ah, now, what did I come in here for again?)

All the cons have to do with publicity, and marketing, and USPs, and sales graphs, and the fact that a publisher is buying you as well as your book. Graham Greene could refuse to be filmed during an interview, but very few have that luxury now. Not that I’ve got anything against interviews, per se: it’s quite clear to you all, by now, that I really like to talk about myself. (Shutting me up would probably be the issue.) But, no, I’m no spring chicken, no whippersnapper, no Mozart-ian genius sprung from the ether.

But writing is an art that doesn’t lend itself to Mozart-ian genius. Having a ‘way with words’ is all very well – in fact it’s wonderful – and you will need a way with words if you’re hoping to write literature (and a ‘way with words’ is fairly impossible to learn, I think: in that respect, yes, there can be a Mozart-y element to it all). But pick up ‘a way with words’ and rattle it and – yes – it’s empty. Until you have something to say, it will always be empty.

I’ve read books recently (Jennifer Egan’s first) and even a Booker Prize nominee (won’t say which one) that left me thinking: clever, but empty. Step away from the Mozart Model of creativity, and turn instead to Beethoven, who said that mistakes were forgivable; what wasn’t forgivable, was playing without passion. Music schools today are crammed to the rafters with kids who can knock off a Flight of the Bumblebee with the effortlessness I reserve for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…

…but that doesn’t mean they’re making music. (They might be; they might not.) Flying fingers are a conduit to making music, not an end in themselves, no matter how fantastically impressive it all looks – and is (don’t misunderstand me: if I could play like that I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this post). But without emotion, it’s only sport; not art.

My fingers could fly twenty years ago, but it would have been mostly sport I was offering. And so, at the ripe old age I am, I feel properly (honestly!) glad that I didn’t get published twenty years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing.

still don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But at least now I know I don’t know what I’m doing…

This post is dedicated to PD James, who died yesterday. She never knew it (and doubtless would have been unexcited had she known) but she was the subject of my GSCE Extended Essay in 1989. For which I got an A. So, thank you, PD James, for my A grade, and for proving that women writers can be wanted, welcomed, accepted, even though they don’t begin until they’re pushing forty.

pd james

Thank you, PD James. Hope there’s a really great library up there in the sky. You deserve one.

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Seven

How to Be a Blogger.

First link to the companion piece, How to be a Week-Two NaNoWriMo Writer that ‘inspired’ this post (by which you mean ‘gave you an excuse to recycle something you’ve already used’).  

Sit down at the keyboard to write today’s blog post. Seconds later, find yourself standing, instead, in your kitchen in front of the kettle.

Sit down again at the keyboard. Armed with a nice cup of tea, you will definitely now start writing.

Very quickly check your blog traffic. Fall into the gaping maw of an existential crisis (if nobody reads my blog, does it really exist? Do exist?) Compose funny lines about writers shitting in forests and nobody hearing them.

Drink tea.

Reconsider your ‘funny’ lines about writers shitting. Reach for the bloggers’ friend: the delete button.

Attempt to stroke your cat; get scratched.

Check blog traffic again; get scratched – inside your soul.

Feel quietly pleased, surprised, confused (while realising that if you were German you would have a single word to describe all three of these functions simultaneously, and that word might be Verklockenblockenknocken) by the occasional site views in countries you’ve never even heard of. Wonder what they might be gaining from your blog. (Whilst secretly knowing, deep in your soul, that they wound up here by accident and went straight back out again, like you do in a public toilet when somebody’s left you a shit in the pan).

Feel shame for your xenophobic German joke. Mention your German ‘A’ level. Write for a bit about how you’re one of those rare folk who actually likes the German language; that you’ve actually read The Catcher in the Rye in German (or at least, the whole first half of the first page) and the opening line of Heinrich Böll’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre is one you will always remember: ‘Der Tag, an dem Hedwig kam, war ein Montag…’

Decide you will appear both more intelligent and enigmatic if you leave these lines untranslated.

'Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.'  'Verklockenblockenknocken.'

‘Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.’
‘Verklockenblockenknocken.’

Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1962): so good they filmed it

Realise you’ve backed yourself into a bit of a corner. Where can one go from a xenophobic joke?

Leave the wasteland of your blog traffic behind, and head into the London-Congestion-Charge of your spam queue. Wish everyone was as keen on your blog as ‘nike pas cher’ in:

{Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}! 

who was:

{bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work

so decided to:

{check out|browse} your {site|website|blog} during lunch break.

Learn from ‘clashofclanshakez’ that you’ve ‘ended his 4 day hunt’. Remain unenlightened as to what he was hunting for.

Rather like this one from ‘air max pas cher’ (while also enjoying the fact that you know this means ‘cheap air max’ in French, thus affording you an opportunity to show off your French A-level):

Typically the feathers seem splendid.

Congratulate yourself on your splendid feathers. Scroll down to the foot of your last three posts and find yourself, all three times, invited to ‘be the first person to like this!’ Have a cry. Or some tea. Or some wine. Or some heroin.

Hope people who’ve read How to Become a Week-Two Nanowrimo Writer will get that you’ve repeated that line deliberately, the way Martin Amis says it’s all right to repeat things, and not because you’re lazy (even though laziness is partly the reason you used it).

Wonder if more, or fewer, willy jokes is the way to go.

Glance up; see the bright orange glow of the new subscriber box, like a bottle of Perrier at the foot of a Saharan sand dune. Somebody likes you!

You’re on a roll now. You’ll cast your net and catch some more followers… With this in mind, tweet your blog for the twelfth time in seven minutes. Fiddle about with the tag line:

This nanowrimo writer posted a blog! And then THIS happened…

Here be words and willy jokes…

Wonder if all this is the twitter equivalent of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle with her tea tray…

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will... read my blog.

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will… read my blog.

Decide that, since you’re on twitter anyway, you might as well click on that link to another writer’s blog…

Laugh smugly to yourself. This is balls of a magnitude rarely witnessed. As if anyone would willingly read this pile of—

See that the post has 359 likes. 1.5K tweets. 972 comments.

Consume tea, wine, and heroin all in the same cup.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Six

As Tigger very nearly said: the wonderful thing about writers… is writers are wonderful things.

Er, no. Let’s try that again. (Some of them are wonderful; some of them aren’t. At all.)

The wonderful thing about writers… is that writers are full of wonder. And if they’re not, they jolly well should be.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers... they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs' tails wish they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Oh, look! Turns out writers have something else in common with tiggers… they wish (yes, they do – they really really really secretly do in their innermost souls which are made of slugs & snails & puppy dogs’ tails) that they were THE ONLY ONE and no one else had worked out how to do it. Even nice people like Hilary Mantel secretly wish this. Martin Amis definitely wishes it.

Who else in this world is full of wonder (or jolly well should be)?

Children.

Aw.

Perhaps, right now, as you’re reading this blog, you are not feeling especially full of wonder. Perhaps you are meant to be writing something. Perhaps you are struggling. Perhaps the stone doesn’t feel remotely stony; perhaps the stone isn’t there at all. 

What you need, struggling writer, is a dose of Childlike Wonder™. You need to be curious about the world again.

How, Lynsey?

Well, the really excellent thing is that you were a child once. And if you stop being a bloody adult for two minutes, you can remember quite a lot of what being a child is like. As the Jesuits famously said, ‘Give me the child for seven years and I’ll give you the man’ (which would, frankly, be a miraculous achievement if that child happened to be a girl, you sexist old so-and-sos) and as Shakin’ Stevens (all the high culture references on my blog, readers!) nearly said : there’s a whole lotta shapin’ going on… in those formative years. (He didn’t say formative years, of course. In fact, where was the shakin’ going on? Was it all just in Shaky’s trousers? Life is certainly too short to google a Shakin’ Stevens lyric.)

I won't, thanks, Shaky, if it's all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

I won’t, thanks, Shaky, if it’s all right with you. (Who knew Shaky was involved in illicit organ harvesting?)

Q: Why is a writer like a child? A: Because s(he) is spoilt, demanding, and self-centred to the point of alienating everyone s(he) knows eternally curious. Any one who’s raised a child, or indeed sat within earshot of one on a bus or train journey, knows that children ask lots of questions. Why is the sky blue? Is the moon following me? Can you please provide, in front of these people on this train, Mummy, the answers to the following: how the train works; why the sun shines; where babies come from; why that man is having a baby; why that lady’s drawn those funny eyebrows on her face. Etc. And so on. Forever.

Funny, but sweary bit from Louis C.K. on the wonders of childlike wonder.

Asking questions is a writer’s modus operandi. The writer’s job isn’t to answer those questions (hurrah!), but simply to formulate the questions ‘correctly’. (Here I’m paraphrasing Chekhov on Tolstoy.) Literature aims to provoke thought, not tell you what to think. We leave that to the school teachers. Bastards.

So, for writers, it’s not what you know, nor even who you know: it’s what you don’t know – but really, really want to find out – that makes for good novels. The writer needs a ‘grain of stupidity’ (said Flannery O’Connor). And a willingness to think about things for a really long time. And perhaps you know that the moon isn’t really following you, but a story in which the moon did follow you might be kinda interesting, right?

The State of Wonder: where all the good shit happens.

Go on, let’s pretend we’re still kids for a minute. Let’s look at some picture books.

Was I freakishly weird, as a child, or did you too sit staring and staring and staring at your favourite pictures until they were seared on your brain? Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came to Tea… These are books you may have read yourself. You, too, might have pushed your miniature finger tips into the holes left behind in the fruit by the ravenous – and titular – caterpillar.

IMG_1131

He just wants to get to the page with the lollipop on. (Don’t we all.)

Image source

Perhaps you, too, had a secret longing to feed finger sandwiches to a tiger.

...and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy's beer, and all the water in the tap... but fortunately Mummy's wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

…and he drank all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap… but fortunately Mummy’s wine was left untouched! Hurrah!

All good fun. But two of the books in our house that I stared, and stared, and stared at were slightly less jolly. They gave me a frisson, a thrill, when I looked at them. The first was the Butterfly Ball: 3534192302_9261e1759c

 Image source

and the second was Kit Williams’ Masquerade. 

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

I have crazy goosebumps looking at this.

Excuse me while I have A Moment here. Since the internet was invented, I’ve never once thought – till now – to google the Butterfly Ball, and I’m feeling a little peculiar seeing the pictures again.

It's not just me, is it? That's quite disturbing.

It’s not just me, is it? That’s quite disturbing.

Wikipedia tells me The Butterfly Ball was not only a book, but a poem, a concept album and a rock opera. Well, I never. This post has all the pictures, if you’re brave enough… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that illustrator Alan Aldridge may possibly have been within sniffing distance of a psychedelic drug or two.

Come on, now. At the very *least* he ate some funny mushrooms.

Come on, now. At the very least he was eating some funny mushrooms.

This, I think, was my book porn. Something I felt a bit weird about wanting to look at (like the nudie lady weighing herself on the cover of a ‘health and well being guide’ my parents had… I don’t think that’s a euphemism; you’d have to ask my mum and dad) but, weirdness be damned: I couldn’t quite stop myself wanting to look.

I was nine, I think, when I got my copy of Masquerade, and by then the famous riddle contained within its pages (go here if you’d like to know more) had already been solved, and the treasure (a gold hare) retrieved from its grave, near the Catherine of Aragon monument in Ampthill Park.

Not that I’d ever have solved it in a million years. I’m a numbskull. (It had something to do with fingers, and eyes, and blah blah blah: I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read the solution, let alone deduce it myself.) But I was very drawn to the pictures. They gave me the goose pimply feeling the insects did in the Butterfly Ball. 

More, importantly, though, they were perfect writing prompts. I was twenty, and finishing up my English degree, when I wrote an odd story inspired by a curious mix of these two pictures:

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

Tara Tree-tops. She inspired me to make a character fly.

Image source
Run, children!!!!!

This one inspired some nightmares.

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And as for this boy gazing dolefully at a jelly… page10

Image source

This mightn’t make sense in a logical way, but I think there’s a bit of this picture – a bit of the feelings it makes me feel – in everything I write, somehow. (I like feeling my way through a story, not puzzling it out like a sum.)

I’ve a theory. It’s this. The things that you see when you’re young, you see forever. We adults – we’re here, we’re there, we’re everywhere: we’ve seen everything twice already and, yawn, it takes something incredibly shocking, or rude, or unusual to make us really see. But the writer must keep hold of, or retrieve, that State of Wonder. Wide-eyed wonder.

You may not have owned the Butterfly Ball or Masquerade. But the odds are you had your own pictures you loved to pore over, and, equally, the odds are you’ll find them somewhere on the internet (if the pesky old paper copy’s gone walkies). Who knows what might inspire a story, a scene, a character?

I’ll leave you with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, and my own realisation that even a pop-up book can seep so thoroughly into a child’s subconscious that she ends up – very slightly, subtly, not so anyone would ever notice – borrowing a little something something from it for the novel she’s writing thirty-five years later.

193px-Jan_Pienkowski_Haunted_House_-_Portada

‘Let yourself in’. Mwa ha ha!

Wake up, dude! There's, like, a ghost in your bed!

Wake up, dude! There’s, like, a ghost in your bed!

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Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won't let other children touch her things.

Thirty-five years later and my saw still works. There are benefits to being a spiteful bitch who won’t let other children touch her things.

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Come play with my comments box, children, if you read these books yourself as a kid. Or have weird ‘uns of your own to share…

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Five

You know what? I’m bloody marvellous at being myself. I absolutely bloody excel at it.

Not you, though. You’re shit at being me. What are you good at? Why, you’re good at being you. 

A concept so simple that even Sarah Palin could find it on a map. But why, if it’s so very simple, does it take so very, very long for each one of us, as human beings, to absorb this most simple of facts into our complicated little noggins?

https://twitter.com/HayleyBooks/status/536783641737957376

I’m so old now that, TBH, I am over the whole palaver of wanting to be someone I’m not. I was watching an interview with Evgeny Kissin the other day, as you do (or, rather, as do; you probably don’t – being yourself, and all, instead of me) and he mentioned a Yiddish proverb that was so good I (yes, folks) tweeted it (when I’m tweeting about scratching my arse you’ll know we’ve hit the nadir of human existence).

What the bally-hooing-hell has this got to do with writing?

Well, you, being (possibly) sane, probably wouldn’t use the word bally-hooing-hell. I’m not sure why I used it either. But, I did. And that’s the crux of it. I use words that you wouldn’t. I order the words in my sentences (I’ll have five ‘and’s and a pair of ‘cock’s please, waiter) in a way that you wouldn’t. I choose subjects you’d turn up your nose at. I notice things you don’t.

And vice versa, of course. Because you’re busy noticing your own things, and ordering your own words, and choosing your own subjects.

And sometimes I’ll like the things you’ve done better than the things I’m doing. But I can’t do them. I can’t be you. I can only be me.

Philip Larkin once said that readers shouldn’t blame the writer for wot he wrote. (I’d like to say for what ‘he or she’ wrote, but the odds are that Larkin probably didn’t say that… although he might have done. If you have the precise quote to hand, do enlighten me – by which I mean, show me up). The reader shouldn’t blame the writer (whether or not the writer was blessed, or perhaps burdened, with a pair of testicles) because the writer could only write what the writer was capable of writing. That’s quite a mouthful. After the writer had finished writing, he went off to the forest to help a poor woodchuck who wasn’t sure how much wood he should, or indeed could, be chucking.

Philip Larkin. Poet. Librarian. Staunchly against effing up your children's lives. When I was 17 I received a fan letter (on hedgehog paper) from a man who said he'd known Larkin. The letter mentioned the 'ejaculation of the Oh' in one of my poems, which slightly startled my parents, who weren't massively keen on a grown man writing to their teenaged daughter about any sort of ejaculation, thank you very much.

Philip Larkin. Poet. Librarian. Staunchly against effing up your children’s lives. When I was 17 I received a fan letter (on hedgehog paper) from a man who said he’d known Larkin. The letter mentioned the ‘ejaculation of the Oh’ in one of my poems, which slightly startled my parents, who weren’t massively keen on a grown man writing to their teenaged daughter about any sort of ejaculation, thank you very much.

What’s the moral of this blog post? I suppose, if you like your morals contained within nutshells and liberally coated with cheese, it’s probably this:

Go where your heart is.

In a writing class, recently, with some very lovely beginners, I touched on the issue of Mills and Boon. Many years ago, in a hare-brained moment, I’d convinced myself I would write one. I first had a try at a Black Lace style short story… hmm, hang on a sec. Is Black Lace the erotic fiction publisher, or is it the men who inflicted Agadoo on the universe in the 1980s?

Google, google… It seems to be both.

SORRY.

I probably will burn in hell anyway, so no need to wish that fate upon me for this particular offence.

Come and dance every night… sing the hula melody…

Ah, those were the days! Here’s the link to the Black Lace I was actually talking about. ‘How to Seduce a Billionaire’ and ‘The Accidental Call Girl’ are two of their titles they’re touting at the moment… How does one become an accidental prossie, I wonder? (And if they’d called her a prossie, instead of the glossier call girl, it wouldn’t have had quite the same… appeal, I suppose. ‘How to Be a Toothless Crack Whore’?)

The fact I’ve been writing about Black Lace for about four seconds and already started taking the piss is all the proof you need that I could never actually write one. I tried. I did try. It probably still exists somewhere on one of my old computers (that I’m now thinking of taking an axe to) but it was awful. It was dire. It was the Agadoo of erotic literature. (Oh yeah, baby, come on, push those pineapples… push those pineapples real good…)

I pride myself on sort of, on a good day, when the wind’s in a southerly direction and the going is fair to good, being roughly just about OKAY at writing sex scenes. (I can’t say I’m good at it. I’m English.) But they’re not sexy sex scenes. They’re usually (a) horrible (b) wonderful until they go tragically wrong (c) peculiar and twisted. And more importantly they’re not about sex. (Just another, slightly stickier, way of showing how characters relate to each other.) Describing the whole in-out Fifty Shades of the process can be about as erotic as describing two people assembling a jigsaw puzzle. (Unless you are twelve, and male, the mere use of the word ‘willy’ in proximity to the word’ fanny’ is probably not enough to truly yank your chain.) Conversely, two people could work on a jigsaw puzzle without so much as a heaving cleavage or a purple, pulsating member and yet the whole scene could crackle with sex.

Be honest. You're a little aroused by this, aren't you?

Be honest. You’re a little aroused by this, aren’t you?

I’ve said this before, and the reason I’m saying it again is this: I might think that my writing (on a good day, with a southerly wind, etc) is better (on some level) than the writing between the elegant covers of a Black Lace novel, but that doesn’t mean I can arrogantly think I’ll dash one off (a book, I mean) with the same effort it might take to buy milk, for instance, or hoover the living room, or boil the kettle, and expect the folks at Black Lace to bow down in wonder at the feet of this mystical being who has four hundred ways to describe someone’s eyes but not one of them is ‘vivid and dark with desire, aquamarine and too brilliant to be natural’. They’d – rightly – say, bugger off, you big headed cow and stop wasting our time.

Erm...

Erm… Things were different in 1952. A Golden Oldie from good old Mills and Boon.

Likewise for Mills and Boon, who have more author guidelines than I have cunning descriptions for eyes. I mistakenly thought that the prose in a Mills and Boon would be simple. Oh, no! Far from. In fact (in the half page I managed to read for my ‘research’ before realising I couldn’t possibly ever write one) there wasn’t a single ‘cat sat on the mat’ piece of straightforward sentence-writing in sight. This was literary spaghetti. By the time I’d arrived at the end of the sentence I’d already forgotten how it started.

So, no. It’s not for me. My heart isn’t in it. My heart is in freakish and slightly disturbing depictions of horrible sex that end terribly for everyone involved. So that’s what I’ll carry on writing.

Huzzah!

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Four

A first draft is for telling the story to yourself.

The second draft, and the third, and the fourth… and the twenty-seventh… and the four-hundred-and-eleventh… are for telling the story to the reader. In other words: what to leave in (so that everything is not completely baffling) and what to take out (so that you’re not too patronising) and what to rephrase (because that sentence was aesthetically pleasing as the spiral of cat poop that was left for me in the bathtub yesterday morning – not a joke), and so on and so forth.

I wrote 9000 words yesterday, although large swathes of the day were spent on other things, which seems such a miraculous happening that I think we need a spontaneous picture here of some ‘Assorted Saints’ (that’s what the image is called; again not a joke).

And when, then I'd written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

And then, when I’d written my 9000 words, I turned some water into wine and verily I did drink it.

 Image source (if you’d care to purchase some religious wallpaper)

There has been some fall-out along the way. A surprising amount of typos can be made when you’re writing as if the story is a train that you’re racing to catch. I’m aware (as I said in yesterday’s post) (which slightly, old-fashionedly, makes me think I’m inside the postbag, or the postbox, or being squeezed through someone’s letter box) (um anyway…) WHERE WAS I? Ah yes. I’m aware of wanting 70 thousand words, instead of the recommended 50 thousand, from this hectic month of November, but that’s only a back-to-front way of approaching the fact that the story seems to need/want/demand another twenty thousand words or so. (The Story should get together and go on a date with those Markets we’re always hearing about, and have a good chuckle over the power of an abstract concept to enslave humankind.)

Really, I’ll just keep writing until I run out of story. It doesn’t matter if that’s 70K or 170K, and

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before you tell me ‘no one ever buys first novels longer than 100K’, because first drafts have their own rules, and one of those rules is: THERE ARE NO RULES! Hurray. Cast caution to the wind

Goodbye, caution!

Goodbye, caution!

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and write your little ass off, as badly – or goodly (erm…) – as you like. You will never, never, never again be as free (with this particular book) as you are now.

Remember those halcyon days at the start of a long-term relationship? When it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, because the other person isn’t listening: the fact that you’re speaking at all – the fact that you exist – is reason enough for your mouth to be opening and closing, while they gaze at your face through the rose-tinted candlelight and wonder how ever their heart could have bothered to beat in the wasteland of their existence before you – you, oh wonderful creature – walked into their life. And even though you never fart in front of them, if you did it would waft like a squirt of Chanel no 5, because nothing can really be wrong that comes out of your body. You could probably even (don’t take my word on this) have a dump on the ground in front of them – possibly even in their shoes – and get away with it. And they’d still want to snog you.

That’s where I am with the novel right now. It can do no wrong. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to know what other people think: if its breath smells like a month-old egg sandwich, or it once went out in public in a denim hat, or it’s actually a closet Tory, or it wanted to do some really strange things with the last girl it slept with. I don’t want to hear that now! I don’t need to hear it. My story’s on a pedestal, god damn it, and it’s going to stay there.

For now.

After Christmas, when I come out from behind the curtains and sneak up on it, unawares, I’ll have taken my love-goggles off and I’ll see it for what it really is. I’ll cringe when it tells me that anecdote about getting arrested in Prague that it doesn’t remember telling me, already, two months ago – and I didn’t really enjoy it the first time, if I’m honest – and I’ll tilt my head and say, ‘Is that a beer belly under there?’ I’ll stop looking under the sofa cushions for that month-old egg sandwich and start leaving breath mints next to the bed. We’ll be out somewhere for dinner with friends, and I’ll hear my novel braying about privatisation, how that’s a good thing, and I’ll notice the man sitting opposite me at the table, who’s telling his neighbour to boycott Shell, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Now he seems nice. Why can’t my novel be like that? Look, he’s pouring water for everyone else first… My novel’s just taken the last shrimp off the plate, and he’s already had his fair share already and then some… Oh Christ, did he just burp?’

It’s going to be a sad and disappointing time. When I start the second draft, I’m going to think everyone at that table is kinder and sexier and sweeter-smelling than the novel I’ve been lumbered with. And I’m not saying I should stay with that novel forever (god forbid, in fact), but you’ve got to at least try to make it work, right?

No matter how much it stinks.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Three

Some of this please:

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And this…

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And also this…

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Because this happened last night:

So, yes, all the bells and whistles please. With knobs on. I have ‘won’ NaNoWriMo. Sadly there’s no monetary reward, but nevertheless I feel all warm and snuggly inside and isn’t that reward enough on a dull Sunday morning when the rain is dribbling down my window and I didn’t clean the blender yesterday so in order to have our homemade smoothies I will have to WASH DISHES, which I definitely do not want to do.

But that’s not the end of the story! Regular readers of this ‘ere blog may know that, although I’ve been ‘doing’ NaNo, I didn’t begin my project from scratch. It all began (settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story) two years ago when a yellow-haired girl appeared in my notebook (I never fought in a war, children, so instead must harp relentlessly on about other matters) and then, yada yada, I got a place on the Writers’ Centre Naar-ich’s (people from Nar-folk will know what I’m doing there) Escalator Literature scheme, followed by an Arts Council grant, and before I knew what was happening I’d committed to writing an actual book about old Yellow Hair. And the rest, children, is history.

The important thing, therefore, having ‘won’ NaNo, was to continue writing immediately. Which I did. I wrote another thousand words last night, and then, goodness gracious me:

And:

And… I just swerved there, when you tried to punch me.

And swerved again.

And I will sleep with one eye open, if you’re planning on coming to smother me.

Can I briefly re-enrol myself for Procrastination 101 and point out that it isn’t a book yet. It’s only a sketch for a book. If I posted a few sample pages you’d all like me again, because there is heaps and heaps of work still to do. My target is 70,000 ‘new words’ + the words I’ve already written = something roughly approximating the length of a novel (82K-ish). A lot of those words will go straight in the bin, but it’s all full of story, story, story, so I’m happy enough. For now.

Is this what it feels like in the end stretch of a novel? I’m genuinely asking. Because I’ve never been at the end stretch of a novel before. Not properly. Not since I was 11, anyway (and thrilled because the teacher wanted to make photocopies of it), and I don’t think it counts.

It’s like being a piñata. And somebody hit me, really hard, on the head, and all the words fell out in a single big burst – and the burst is still happening, it seems, so I’d better get back there and keep scooping up the words before some other writer nicks them.

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.

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.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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… but this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heart-shaped darts and poison pens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, ouch.

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

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

images

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

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

Me time (85% cocoa).

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

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

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

Footnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

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

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

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

I think you see the difficulty.

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

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

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

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

  

No one else is going to write it for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m the author of Book in a Month.’

‘Ah.’

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

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

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

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

You’re going to hate it.

 

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

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

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

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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