Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

Presenting the past, on the page.

Because I tend to live in the moment, I forget that everything moves on, that change is inevitable, until something happens to make me realise I’ve been left behind.  I’m not talking about technology here, though I’m always running to catch up with that.  This time, I’m thinking about how we use words.

Okay, so that’s pretty much what my job is.  Even when reading for relaxation, I find myself noting interesting phrasing. In particular, I love colloquialisms.

Growing up, I’m not sure I realised they existed.  When inviting friends round, I’d say, ‘We’re having Mary for tea.’ with no comic intention.  Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realised the correct reply to that was, ‘Roasted, boiled or fried?’

Oh, I knew that language had adapted, over time.  The books I inherited, a wide selection of old poetry, novels and plays, were sometimes waded through with more determination than enjoyment.

“When will your hounds be going out again think ye, Mr Benjamin?” inquired Samuel Strong, a country servant of all work, lately arrived at Hanley Cross, as they sat round the saddle-room fire of the “Dragon Inn” yard, in company with the persons hereafter enumerated, the day after the run described in the last chapter.”

The humour of Handley Cross, by RS Surtees was far beyond me.  It was not because the vocabulary was tricky, I understood most of the individual meanings, it was the syntax: the way the sentences were constructed.  I have kept the book, and will try it again, one day.

john-donne-hires-croppedThe love poems of John Donne, 1572 – 1631, on the other hand, I went back to time after time.  To read them was to be bathed in warmth.  These scenes involved me. Sometimes through the use of familiar imagery:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Or because he described emotion with such power that I was drawn to the idea of it.  Passion oozed between his words, along with joy.  What a wonder his love was, more powerful than sunbeams:

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;

I found the language both archaic and invisible.  We’ve ditched the ‘how dost thou?’ form of address, but the sun still rises, and love still happens, in blinding all absorbing beautiful moments that eclipse the universe. Did he imagine his words would not only be quoted, three hundred and eighty-five years later, but retain their ability to melt the reader or listener? I doubt it.

The trick is, that the readers every writer addresses are those in their present. To do that, it pays to use language that fits them.  How many contemporary readers will be drawn in by a novel that begins:

My Lord of Tressain, his Majesty’s Seneschall of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken under-garment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.

st martin's summerYet in 1909, when Rafael Sabatini wrote St Martin’s Summer, this wordiness was the accepted mode.  His first chapter is littered with archaic words and phrases yonder, pish, quoth he, nevertheless and several people are ‘sent to the devil’, just in case we forget we’re in the seventeenth century. Today, we’re more likely to find this in parody.

Which isn’t such a bad thing.  If you look at parody from the other side, isn’t it a form of compliment?

What’s my point with this ramble? Well, it occurs to me that one of the things I look for, when redrafting, is falling back into that antiquated way with sentences. I know I’m not alone in this, because there is a specific term for this tendency: it’s called overwriting.

My theory?  It happens when I’m most self-conscious about the blankness of the page and thinking myself a writer.  What I should be doing is following John Donne’s lead, and immersing myself in the story I want to share.

Is there anything new in the writer’s tool kit?

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.

Alice Munro

For the creative writer, the question, when thinking about using memory, is how far we are willing to deviate from truth.  Then again, what is truth?

One of my most shared personal anecdotes is a story that happened during my eighth summer. Out on the lawn, while playing rounders, there was an accident.

One of us ran forwards as another was raising their bat for a swing. I can see that moment in detail, I remember the blinding impact and the feel of blood dripping down my temple. I cried all the way to A & E, and those three stitches hurt.

facesYet years later, when I mentioned this to my brother, he frowned.  ‘No,’ he said.  ‘It was you who hit me.’  We both lifted our fringes to reveal a scar on our foreheads.

The problem, so far as accuracy is concerned, is that both of us were accident prone.  If I was using this episode for memoir, I could no doubt look up my medical records to check that I had made that visit.

For creative purposes though, this is a gift. Until that moment, the whole story was fixed.  I could have developed it into something more imaginative, but would probably have found it tricky to deviate far from the key scenes.

DSCF4818 - CopyOnce that doubt had been embedded I began to explore the picture from the position of perpetrator, and the boundaries dropped away. ‘What ifs?’ came into play.

It wasn’t just that I might write a version of events in the voice of my cousin, mother, doctor or even become omniscient, this doubt had allowed me to step right outside the memory. I could take one moment from that day, change the time, the space, the setting, add or remove characters, and see where that took me.

It would mean going back to those two pieces of historical advice for writers:

  • Write what you know
  • Write what you don’t know

…and combining them.  Which might just be what Alice Munro was saying in the first place.

Dangerous statements.

I came across this Andy Warhol statement the other day and have been niggling at it ever since. ‘An artist is a person who produces something we don’t need to have.’

Self-Portrait 1967 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987The thing is, all I know about Warhol has been picked up incidentally, because I’ve seen dramas where he was either a main or secondary character.  This means my version of him has been created from a series of fictions, plus my scanty knowledge of his most famous pictures, and I can’t work him out.  Maybe I don’t need to.

Perhaps all I need to do is decide how I feel about his pictures.  Except he said we don’t need to have them – any of them.  Maybe that was a joke.  How else do you explain a man who made a great deal of money from his art, and influenced a huge number of people in more than one branch of artistry, saying we don’t need to have it?

If we don’t need to have art, in any form, why do we seek it out?  According to Aristotle, I read the same seven stories, over and over.  I can’t quarrel with that.

PB_Warhol_Skulls.inddI’m frequently aware that I’m reading yet another re-working of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella or some other archetypal narrative.  Sometimes the stories are barely disguised.  Still, I read them, even re-read them.  I truly believe that I need them.  What would I do if they didn’t exist? Perhaps I’d invent a story. If I didn’t, I’m sure someone else would.

Most of us like things we don’t need to have. Once we’ve accumulated all the goods we need, we don’t usually stop acquiring. I’ve met several minimalists, and what I’ve wondered about hasn’t been their abstinence, rather it’s their ability to discard.

Had you asked me to guess where that quote came from, my first suggestion would have been Groucho Marx. Except Groucho would surely have capped it off with a neat piece of lateral observation.  Maybe that’s what I need for this, some kind of conclusion, and really who better to find the kind of sense I best understand, than Groucho?

Well Art is Art, isn’t it?  Still on the other hand east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.  Now tell me what you know.

Groucho MarxTo miss-quote another Groucho quip: These are my thoughts, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

 

 

A word-play writing exercise

book of wordsThe first entry in The Superior Person’s Book of Words, by Peter Bowler, is ABECEDARIAN.  It has two meanings:

i. Arranged in alphabetical order

ii. Elementary, devoid of sophistication.

Superior persons, it seems, do not ‘fuss-about’ with mundane entries like Aardvarks or other double-voweled list-leap-frogging words, they favour the obscure and archaic.  It’s not a word designed to trip easily off my tongue.  What trick will lodge it on the easily-to-hand shelves of my memory?

book shelvesOh those dusty shelves.  Forget the endless virtual library in my head, I can’t remember how this book came to rest amongst my physical books. Maybe I bought it. I usually remember which books I’ve been given.

But enough digression, it’s time to be purposeful.  Why am I rabbiting on about superior persons when I’m so clearly failing to meet the bar?  Because the second entry in this book is: ABECEDARIAN INSULT.  It means exactly what it sounds like, an insult arranged in alphabetical order. Peter Bowler provides one:

‘Sir, you are an apogenous, bovaristic, coprolalial, dasypygal, excerebrose, facinorous, gnathonic, hircine, ithyphallic, jumentous, kyphotic, labrose, mephitic, napiform, oligophrenial, papuliferous, quisquilian, rebarbative, saponaceous, thersitical, unguinous, ventripotent, wlatsome, xylocephalous, yarning zoophyte.’

Try reading that aloud, it’s a tricky flow.  Only seven words are not underlined by the spell-checker.  I’m not sure how to pronounce most of it.  However, I did like the translation:

‘Sir, you are an impotent, conceited, obscene, hairy-buttocked, brainless, wicked, toadying, goatish, indecent, stable-smelling, hunchbacked, thick-lipped, stinking, turnip-shaped, feeble-minded, pimply, trashy, repellent, smarmy, foul-mouthed, greasy, gluttonous, loathsome, wooden-headed, whining, extremely low form of animal life.’

The spellchecker doesn’t like buttocked, but accepts the rest. I’m sorry the ABECEDARIAN aspect has been lost.

The language is a little antiquated, I wonder if I can be offensively eloquent without using swear-words or obscenities? Don’t take the following personally:

‘Addled basket case! Digest effluent, foul gibbering halibut. I judge knowing liars malignant numbskulls of putrid qualities: retract scandalous talk, undo verminous words. Xenophobe, you’re zero.’

Hmm, maybe I’m a ‘rasorial searcher after words’:

hensRASORIAL: Constantly scratching around in search of food, like a fowl (or a sister’s boyfriend). Pronounced more or less in the same way as risorial (laughter provoking) and rosorial (rodentlike; gnawing). ‘I’m sorry if I sometimes seem ambivalent in my attitude to your mother, Natalie; it’s just that I find it very hard to make up my mind whether I see her as essentially rasorial, rosorial, or risorial.’

I wonder how ‘elementary and devoid of sophistication’ it’s possible to be when creating an ABECEDARIAN INSULT?

I think I could develop this.  Apply some of the ‘5 Ws & H’ to it, and character might grow.  After that, who knows…

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. Where?
  4. Why?
  5. When?
  6. How?

I’m beginning to see ABECEDARIAN INSULT as an oxymoron… a word to shelve in the reference section of my virtual library, and dust off occasionally.

As for the book, who knows what other potential ‘warm-up’ exercises are lurking amongst it’s pages?

 

*Painting: William Baptiste Baird, 1847 – 1917

Whose soap-box is this, anyway? #writephoto

‘I do have opinions,’ said the man in the blue suit,  ‘but I try to keep them to myself.  It’s so easy to upset a client.’ He sipped at his coffee and eyed the plate of chocolate biscuits on the table.

‘Do have another one,’ said the client.  She nudged the plate towards the man in the blue suit, who had begun to tidy the heap of papers nearest to him. ‘It’s the same with writing stories,’ she said. ‘That’s what Hemingway believed.’

The man in the blue suit, with a crisp white shirt, concentrated on the biscuits. ‘Hemingway?’

The client nodded. ‘Yes.  He said it’s not our job to judge, just to understand.’

‘And do you? Understand, I mean?’ said the man in the blue suit, snapping a biscuit up in two bites before bumping his sheaf of papers and sliding them into a glossy folder.

The client smiled. ‘Not even close, I’m afraid. The poor man would be turning in his tomb, if that actually happened.’

sue vincent photo challengeThe man in the blue suit passed the folder across the table.  ‘You need to keep that,’ he said.  He took another biscuit.  ‘Are you saying you don’t really need to understand?’ He began to straighten his own papers into a neat stack.

‘You say that as if it’s something black and white – as if there’s only one answer to any situation.’

‘Well of course, I didn’t mean it that way.’  The man in the blue suit opened his briefcase and slotted the papers into a pocket.  He paused and looked at the client.  ‘Ah, I see.  If you don’t provide answers…’

‘…the reader can. Exactly.  The stories I like best are subtle, the bones of the story are fleshed out with metaphors, symbolism, allusion and ambiguity so that I can go back and read them over and over again.  That’s how I want to write.’

The man in the blue suit leant forward and considered the last biscuit. ‘Sounds tricky.’

The client eyed the shower of crumbs cascading down the blue suit and the dazzling white shirt front. ‘It’s a bit like laying clues,’ she said.  ‘They don’t always work.  Sometimes they’re too obvious, sometimes too subtle.  That’s where remembering Hemingway comes in – or Chekov, Mansfield, Pritchett, Taylor, Marquez… pretty much all the writers, past and present, I’ve read and admired have said much the same thing.’

The man in the blue suit flicked his lapels clean. ‘I see, same way songs work.’ He closed his brief-case and stood up, dusting the last traces of food from his shirt and legs.  ‘Well, I think that’s all I can do today.  I’ll work the figures, and get back to you with some ideas on Monday.’

‘Thanks for calling in,’ said the client, shaking his hand.  ‘I should have looked into this years ago, but you know how it is, there’s always something else to do.’

The man in the blue suit nodded, lead the way to the door, then turned back to the client. ‘I’ve got a few thoughts already, but I want to crunch the numbers, so I can give you a full picture,’ he said.

The client shook his hand, and waited until he was through the gate.  It was only as she started to shut the door that she glanced down and saw the slightly tattered bluey-black feather on her doorstep.

sue vincent photo challenge.png 2

*Photos from Sue Vincent’s Thursday writing prompt challenge:#writephoto.

Cats, apples, Isaac Newton and Carl Kahler.

I have a little book, called 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization.  I consider that a nice title, a real hook for someone who finds felines fascinating – that’s me.  I got the book at Christmas, and liked it also because it perfectly fits the narrowest shelf of my favourite bookcase, and since I was midway through reading some other books, that’s where it’s rested for the last few months.

That top shelf is tricky to fill, let me tell you.  In the past, I’ve layered comatose paperbacks on it, which is just not pleasing.  It’s perfect for audio tapes, but my cassette player is in my car – yes, it’s that old – so I keep my half-dozen boxes in the glove-box.  But I digress.

Returning to my compact gem: Sam Stall has trawled through history to create a collection that is, at times, a little stretched. A cat is named as co-author of a research paper, because it had been written with an authorial ‘we’, at a time before word-processors, which meant the whole thing would have needed to be retyped to replace the ‘we’ with ‘I’.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl KahlerI’m not worried if there is a little exaggeration involved.  This, I think, is one of those pass-along books that are heaped on the bookshop counter at Christmas time.  It’s a stocking filler: it’s a story filler, too.

There are plenty of snippets of information I like. For instance, did you know Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?  His feline companion kept distracting him with demands to be let in and out of the house, so he developed a solution.

This, I think could be part of a new story. It could be that the fit will be thematic rather than the story centre, and I’ve no immediate suggestion on how or where that might happen.  It will though.  Trust me.

Let the idea sink in slowly.  Don’t necessarily try to picture Newton.  Writing about Regency Britain could be a little demanding.  Think about cat flaps. Maybe sleep on it.

Have you heard the story about the woman who returned home from shopping to find her Rottweiler dog choking?  She took it to the vet, who rushed the dog off for an operation.

As the woman drove home the vet called her mobile, and told her to wait in her car.  She pulled up, the police arrived, rushed into her house, and arrested a man they found hiding there.  His left hand was wrapped in a bloody towel. The vet had extracted two severed fingers from the dog’s throat, then phoned the police.

It turned out that the burglar had crawled through the dog-flap, somehow not suspecting why there was such a large access point.

This isn’t a story either, it’s an anecdote. It could be more, though.

Add in that Carl Kahler picture, at the top of the post, and I think I’m beginning to see a way with this.

cat

When you don’t start with a plot…

I couldn’t think what to write this week.  This is my fifth start.  However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.

Actually, I prefer this way.  You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me.  I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.

Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed.  In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.

Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot.    I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.

Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard.  I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards…  They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering.  Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why?  They feel wrong.

It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete.  Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written.  I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGradually I learned to trust my creative responses.  Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is.  I let the words, the characters, lead me.  Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them.  I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear.  The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.

*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671

Memories, memoirs, stories.

This week I offered to drop some books in at the charity shop, for a neighbour who’s moving.  ‘Have a look through first, if you like,’ Jackie said.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  If there’s one thing better than browsing an unknown bookshelf, it’s got to be unpacking books.  I’m fairly certain I have developed peripheral-vision super-powers for lines of titles in rows.  That’s good.  When it comes to boxes, though, I feel like Pandora must have done with that box. I had two, and permission to open them.

DSCF8138These boxes were deep.  On the top layers were old school-annuals.  Judging by the hairstyles and clothes of the girls on the paper-coated boards, they were probably published seventy or eighty years ago.  I knew how those books would feel to read: the pages thick and fibrous, dry, slightly stiff.  I’d had similar titles when I was growing up, passed on by neighbours, aunts and grandparents.

‘Are you sure Bella won’t want to keep them?’ I said.

‘They’ve been up in her old bedroom for the last twenty-years, if she had, she’d have taken them,’ said Jackie.  ‘There won’t be room in my new house.’

Not in my old house either, but I couldn’t resist a look.  Bella and I had been at school together.  Most of the books brought back memories.  There were the interests we’d shared, the author’s we’d passed back and forth – Heidi and Enid Blyton, a handful of Dean’s Classics, some Ladybird books, a selection of adventure stories and those old annuals.

At junior-school there had been a short phase when several of us were keen on them.   We devoured stories about girls at boarding schools, that had been written to entertain our parents, or even grandparents.  Part of the charm for me was imagining myself into that past.

Some of us decorate our lives with fragments of history, inherited, gifted or bought. I try to remember that when creating characters.

Annual