A poet-friend of mine has been in hospital for seven and a half days, and expects to stay there another week. ‘Four wall sickness applies,’ Mike says. I’ve not heard this expression before, but think I get the gist. She says that what’s keeping her sane are books and her laptop.
One friend has offered to bake her a cake with a file in it, which set me thinking about the nature of our reading escapes. I’ve travelled through space and time thanks to stories: I’ve also escaped from some tedious travelling experiences in the same way.
There are many valid questions we can ask ourselves about technique and theory in writing. Those tend to be specific, and engaging with them can help us to progress.
One of the commonest question that comes up in both my reading and my writing groups is, What makes a good story? I think this is an inspiration-blocking question for writers. The possible answers are as varied as the number of readers who are out there.
- Imagine you are imprisoned. Your bodily needs are catered for, but you are held within a small cell with nothing but plain-painted walls to look at. You have not committed a crime, so you have no need to worry about trials or punishments. You have no pens, pencils or instruments to scratch words into surfaces or dig your way to an escape. What faces you is time and idleness.
- As a special dispensation, you are allowed three reading books. Which titles would you chose? List them: they’re yours now.
- Time passes, and you’ve read every word of them, including all of the publication details.The walls are as bare as ever. You’ve done handstands against them and meditated. You’ve bounced on the mattress until your legs turned to jelly, and there are still hours and hours of light-time when you’ve nothing to do. What sort of book would it take to transport you out of this situation?
- List a few subjects.
- Since you have so far been a model prisoner, your guard is pleased, and decides to give you a treat. When you wake up one morning you find a cardboard box has been placed in your cell. It contains four paperback novels by authors you’ve never heard of.
- Invent names for the authors.
- Chose one author. What is the title of their novel?
- Do the same for the other three.
- Which title sounds most intriguing? Name the main characters in it.
- Write a short synopsis – one paragraph – for this title.
- Now write a list of titles for the chapters within the book.
Well done. You have just completed a rough plan for a novel. Who knows, you may have been inspired to start writing it in full.