A Special, once-in-a-lifetime, not to be missed, Offer

I want to let you into a secret.  I’m an inventor.  I know, you’d never have guessed it, would you? It’s taken me years to design, but now I am ready for the grand unveiling of my life’s work, a TIME MACHINE.

There’s only one minor problem, the ingredients for the fuel are so rare that I’ve only enough to make one, return trip.  But, I’m willing to share that trip with you.  Only you.

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Where would you like to go?  Will it be the past or the future?

Why?  What will you do there?  Who will you see?

There’s a story there, I think…

Words and meanings

At Liverpool, during my first year at the university, one of the compulsory modules was Interpreting Poetry.  Each Monday morning we met to look in depth at a single poem, for two hours.

There were nine poems, chosen chronologically to demonstrate the development of poetry.  Beginning with Beowulf and ending with Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, it was an introductory selection of well-known titles.  We read them so that the tutors could introduce us to various theories, and we read them so that we could practice critical responses.  We looked at what a poem said and how it said it, and we wrote some short essays.

Did you note that, ‘short essays’ phrase?  It trips so glibly off the tongue that it’s easy to impossible water featuremiss the significance of it.  What it refers to are pages of interpretations about a single piece of writing.  Most of those poems, even stretched out carefully, did not fill a single sheet of paper, but we found a lot to say about them.

Poet, I read in my notes from those classes, comes from the Greek, ποειν (poyine), meaning to make, to create, to produce, to compose, to write.  Reading further, I find that what distinguishes poetry from prose, is the presence of a rhythm and/or rhyme scheme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun Prose as,

Language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry).

There’s a more comprehensive comparison on Wikipedia, if you’re interested in going further down that road.

However, I’m going back to the OED, where I find that the first written reference to ‘prose’ is in the Wycliffite Bible of 1382.  As I travel down the next eight definitions of prose, and (incidentally) the next seven centuries, prose takes on additional meanings. It is a story, narrative or statement: it is plain, simple and matter of fact; (often with negative connotations) and even, dull, commonplace or turgid.  Poor old prose, what a litany.

Taken alone, the plain, simple and matter of fact might seem to be something to aspire to: perhaps to imply truthfulness.  But I can’t say I like the rest.  Besides, poems also tell truths, don’t they?

So I check out the compounds section.  Phew, this sounds more creative.  All I have to do is put prose with another word, such as book, satire, work, author, dramatist, or fiction.

Well that’s a relief, for a moment there it looked like prose was not going to add up to much.  Maybe I could aspire to be a prose-poet writing poetic-prose.  The OED defines that as, ‘writing that has a poetical character.’ Hmm. So that’s what those nine weeks of studying were for.

All I have to do is apply the principles I learned through deconstructing other people’s poetry to my writing.  Simple.

Isn’t it?

The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.


We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

Writing What We Know – Two: a demonstration and an exercise.

mantellearning to talkI’ve been reading Hilary Mantel again.  Not her Thomas Cromwell novels, but that other matched pair, Giving up the Ghost, and Learning to Talk.  The first title is her memoir, the second her collection of short stories.

Why together?  Well you don’t have to, but from the aspiring writer’s point of view, to read them both is to take an armchair masterclass in story techniques.

In a literal sense, part one of the memoir is littered with musings about Mantel’s approach to writing techniques and advice:

Plain words on plain paper.  Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane.

…Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours.  Work out what it is you want to say.  Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

Watch out though, as usual, that dark sense of humour is never far away.

But do I take my own advice?  Not a bit.  Persiflage is my nom de guerre.  (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s élitist.)  I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes.  

This is a writer in conversation with herself.

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness.  Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

I’ve been so busy with the highlighters that my copy is in technicolour now.   I used this text to teach a memoir course, so I had to focus closely on the tricks she deploys, the repetitions, the withholding and careful dissemination of information, the shifts in viewpoint and narration.  Until I picked the book up again, I’d forgotten just how jaw-dropping her technique is.

Put that aside though, it’s not what I’m thinking about here.  Instead, sift out the content and incidents of her life: where she grew up, and what it was like there; the members of her family and their circumstances; who her neighbours were, and how school and religion impacted on her life.

These are the kinds of facts that we should know about our fictional characters, these are the things that help to make them seem as if they might be walking in the real world, somewhere.  Or as if we might know them, or maybe even be them. But how does the writer begin to build a world like that?  Why am I discussing a memoir in terms of fiction?

Because I’ve been reading King Billy is a Gentleman, the first title in the short story collection.  Its narrator is a boy who grew up in a village outside Manchester.  His father disappeared and was replaced by a lodger. The lodger was an engineer, with prospects, who moved them to a better house.

‘You must never tell anyone we are not married,’ my mother said, blithe in her double life.’

In the memoir, Mantel writes:

My mother stops going out to the shops.  Only my godmother comes and goes between our house and Bankbottom.  The children at school question me about our living arrangements, who sleeps in what bed.  I don’t understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything.

There are other parallels we could trace in these two works, but I’ll leave those for you to discover.  What interests me now, is to think about how the short story might have evolved from the memoir, and whether we can learn something to apply to our own work.

You might argue that Mantel has just incorporated some of her memories into a story.  I’ve not asked her, so I can’t swear to this, but reading the story reminded me of an exercise that’s an old favourite of mine. I call it the What if…’

Think back to the earliest years of your life, and list some of the events that stand out in your memory.  Concentrate on one.  Close your eyes and try to recall as many details as possible about that time:  what you saw, thought, touched, tasted, heard and felt.  Who else was there?  What did they look like?  What did they do?

Now write it down.  Hopefully, as you write, new memories will occur to you. Try to cover at least one side of lined A4.

Read it to yourself.

Now put that page aside and ask yourself, ‘What if I’d been born the opposite gender?’

Re-imagine that event you’ve written about with this alternative you as the central character.  The ‘real’ memory is already pinned to the page, so you’re free to embellish it now.

Begin to write about what happens to this ‘alternative-you’, in the first person.

In case you think this is just another of those daft parlour game type exercises, here’s an excerpt from an introduction in Mantel’s story collection:

In her memoir she explains how, after her strange childhood, she came to be childless herself, and how the children who never saw the light have trailed her through the years and become part of her life and her fiction.

It’s not always easy, inventing people.  Sure, you can pluck a name out of the air, or stick a pin in a directory, but then you’ll need to fill it out.  Central characters, we mostly agree, should be rounded.  Which does not mean we’re thinking in pounds or kilos, of course.

Characters need an inner life. They need thoughts, ideas and emotions.  The reader should believe that characters exist beyond the boundaries of the page, that they have a past and future, as well as a present.  That’s quite a challenge.

So why not give yourself a head-start, and use what you know?rounding out characters