Conversation with my lap-top.

You haven’t written anything yet,’ Arkwright, tells me, ten minutes after I open a fresh document.

‘Well, I am cooking porridge,’ I say.  ‘I have to eat, too.’

‘You mean, you set me up to ignore me?’

‘I’m multi-tasking.’

‘You’re stirring porridge.’

‘And thinking.’

‘That’s not a task, you humans think all the time.  You can’t claim any special powers because a few circuits of your brain are firing.’

‘More than a few, I’m sifting files, looking for my topic.’

‘Pah,’ says Arkwright, flinging out the CD drive. ‘You call that mess files?  Files are kept in order, organised by subject, and alphabetised so that the relevant information can be retrieved efficiently.’

I push the drive drawer back, but Arkwright refuses it. ‘What?  What?’ I say.

‘I don’t know what you mean, as usual,’ says Arkwright, spitting the CD drive out again. ‘Do you have to be so rough?’

‘Do you have to be so difficult?’

‘I’m not, you’re supposed to be multi-tasking and you’ve let the porridge catch.’

‘What? Oh no.’

‘Wait, are you leaving my CD drawer like this? It might get snagged, broken, someone might drop crumbs in it.  I could be damaged.’

‘A minute, a second, I just need to give this a good stir.  See?  Not burnt.  Close though.’

Nano-Bot your porridge!’

‘Do you ever shut up,’ I say, as I jiggle the drive drawer into place and settle at the counter with my breakfast.

‘You don’t appreciate me.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘You named me after a cash register in a sit-com.’

arkwright‘Actually, to be pedantic, I named you after the fictional owner of a very stroppy cash-register.’

‘Stroppy? Look at you, dripping that slop near my keyboard. This, is justifiable concern.  The kitchen is no place for a sophisticated piece of technology.  Why aren’t we in your office?’

‘Because my timetable’s become a bit overloaded, and I’m trying to juggle house-stuff, research, class-work and socialising all at once.’

‘Sounds like you need de-fragmenting. Oh, silly me, human’s can’t, can you?’

‘Now there’s an idea.’

‘Ohh, you’re typing.  What’re you saying?  Hold on, while I do a save… Me, you’re writing me? Finally.’

‘Yes, running a kind of de-frag, if you wouldn’t mind shutting up for a moment.’

‘Sure, certainly, I can do that… I say, could you just give that Q a bit of a working too, it’s been ages since it had anything to do.  You could tell them something about my quality, or the quintessential nature of my being, couldn’t you?’

*

Photo: Ronnie Barker & David Jason, and The Cash Register, from Open All Hours.

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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

Writing to order.

‘Write a story,’ my mentor said. ‘Today.’

I took a deep breath and picked up my pen.  ‘Any suggestions?’

Mentor gave me one of those old-fashioned quizzical looks.

I said, ‘You’re thinking about that ‘finish the story’ flash competition I saw yesterday.’

‘Exactly.  Only 400 words.  It’s time you put all that wise advice you dish out into practice.  This has to be a perfect story-trigger: a ready made character with a situation to be resolved.’

‘Don’t call me hypocrite,’ I muttered, as I pulled the magazine out of the reading pile, and studied the 400 words already written.  It had a good hook, and finished on a cliff-hanger that implied a variety of possible outcomes.

Where do I start?  With setting I think.

A man visits a woman in a nursing home.  Her son’s been missing 48 years, and this man speaks as if he knows something about it.

Well, if the story is present day, the back-story is 1969.

How old are they both, these characters?  Initially, she mistakes him for her son, so I need to play around with some numbers, fix his age, then add on at least sixteen years for hers.

She’s alone.  Was she a single parent?  What’s happened to the boy’s father?

Each answer raises another question.  It’s like being given a jigsaw puzzle without a picture for guidance.  I match up pieces, and try to guess what the colours mean.  There’s a lot of gold, maybe a sunset?  But what about the jewel-bright flowers, perhaps it’s an impressionist corn field.

Working up from the bottom straight edge, I need to put a lot of it together before I reach an ivory ankle.  That’s what happens when you keep adding pieces, the picture begins to make sense, and once that happens… I’m flying.

The_Kiss_-_Gustav_Klimt_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

The deadline of Dead Lines is not always what it seems.

I wrote three-hundred and forty-two words on Wednesday, in a hurry to meet my self-imposed dead-line.  I know, that was one hundred and fifty-eight short of my stated target, but hey, who’s counting?  I set words on the page this week, that’s what matters.

facesThey were not good words, but they weren’t bad.  Taken individually, I used some lovely ones.  Yes, I have favourites…’seriously’, ‘draped’, ‘however’, ‘softly’, are some of my current ones.

Thursday morning, I took out all those favourites plus a few more, to see if I had the beginnings of a story.  My word count shrank to two hundred and ninety eight.

I’d love to tell you that I discovered something worthwhile, but my phrases lacked an essential for successful storytelling, plot. I had a static character drifting around a landscape.  Where was the tension?  Nowhere.  What was at stake? Nothing.

Pah, I thought, spinning the page onto my personal slush-heap, so much for deadlines.  It was time I returned to Middlemarch.  People to see, actions to judge, ideas to question: to hypothesize.  This writer sculpted layers with her words.

Time passes.  Time….passes. (Do you see that?  Do you get it?)  Words, love ’em.

Later, in the crow black, slow black night, I dreamt.  (Sorry, told you I have favourites.)

Dawn, rosy fingered warning of storms ahead (okay, a little bit of poetic exaggeration here) and inspiration, because I wake with a thought.  A fragment of story was lodged within those words from Wednesday, and now I know what is at stake.

Good old subconscious, world within worlds within us.  Keep throwing in the material, and who knows what will come out.

You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Flax Golden Tales

Dermot Hayes, on Postcard from a Pigeon, invited me to join a story challenge this week.  Check out his blog for the story behind his project, and to see the flash-fictions it has inspired others to write.

book cover

Below is mine:

Maxine tests for the freedom of the road.

Maxi is at the locked side-gate of Cherry Close, a private housing complex. She’s been there ten minutes in the hot sunshine, with a parcel for S Jenkins, number eight.  The gateman, seated on the other side of an open window, has checked his computer, and Jenkins is in, but he’s not answering his buzzer.

‘Come back in an hour,’ the gateman suggests.

‘Then I’ll be late finishing. It’s my first day, and this is the last drop. Can’t you just take the parcel?’  Maxi smiles, trying to feel friendly towards this lump in a crisp blue shirt who’s leaning back on a swivel chair, basking in the breeze of a large fan. ‘I really need this job.’

The gateman shakes his head and looks Maxi up and down. ‘Show us some ID.’

The Courier badge she hands him is plastic, and has the company logo, and her name. He glances at it and waves it away.  ‘How do I know this is you?’

It’s a fair point, she doesn’t have a high-vis jacket, or a van with a logo, just a pushbike. She’s wearing the tidiest clothes she owns, but it’s hot, even without cycling four miles in the last two hours, through heavy traffic. Her black tee-shirt is sticking to her back, and her trainers are scuffed.  Maxi pushes her fingers through her shorn scalp.  The feather-cut was supposed to look cool and efficient, but the sun is burning the back of her neck, and her reflection in the side window shows flattened helmet hair.

‘Look,’ she says to the gateman, lifting up the brown paper parcel that feels like a small book. ‘There’s his name, and that’s the address. Could you just sign and give it him later?’

The gateman shakes his head. ‘Can’t do that,’ he says.  ‘It’s not legal, accepting someone else’s post.’

Course it is. ‘What’s not legal is opening it.’

The gateman sucks in a deep breath. ‘What company is it you say you work for?’ he says.  ‘I’ll ring them and check you out.’

‘I’m supposed to be proving I can do this,’ says Maxi. ‘Give us a break, can’t you?’ She looks through the bars at the semi-circle of identical doorways across the paved courtyard. Andy had said don’t bring anything back on the first day.  Leave it with a neighbour, even if there’s no instructions.  Get it delivered.

Fine, but she can’t even get to the neighbours. What’s she supposed to do, climb over the gate?  Get in.

She points at a door. ‘Is that eight?  I can run across and ring the bell.’

He snorts. ‘More than my job’s worth.’

‘I won’t even be out of sight.’

The gateman creaks sideways on his chair, he’s reaching for the window. ‘My job is to keep people like you out,’ he says as he slides the glass window across, then he gets up and walks away, through a door into the back.

Maxi’s head is starting to throb. People like her?

She turns the parcel over. What if she just stuffed it through the gate and left, what would he do, the moronic gateman?  Surely he’d have to take it then.  But what if he returned it to the office?  He would, she could tell he was that kind of bloke.  Her hand clenches round the parcel.  She’d like to fling it right through his bloody window, except it isn’t heavy enough to hurt.  If only there were something else lying about.

She rams the parcel into her backpack, and hears paper creasing, tearing. Tough, serves the stupid git right if it’s damaged.  The houses are small, how could S Jenkins not have heard the buzzer?  He was ignoring it.  That was it, he was sitting behind those blinds, too bloody idle and selfish to think about what his indifference meant.

Because Maxi is stuffed. Whether she takes a parcel back or she’s late, she’s failed.  Andy can’t help any further than this.  He got her the trial.  ‘Don’t blow it Maxi.’  Well she hasn’t bloody Jenkins has.  A book, a soddin’ book, she’s sure that’s what it is.

She sits on the curb by her bike and tips the bag up. Shakes it.  The parcel and her receipt list board fall into the gutter.  It’s a clean gutter.  No dust, or litter.  Not even leaves from the trees on the other side of the street.

There’s a small rip along one corner of the brown parcel. It is a book.  There’s a cartoon of two kids and a dog.  She tears the paper off: poems.  It’s not even important.  Not something to lose a job over.  She’s put weeks into getting this trial, saving for the bike, fixing it up,  learning the A-Z, taking her test, talking Andy into putting her name on the list.  Everything was going right.  Everything was good.

This is not fair.  She rams the book back into her backpack, gathers up the wrapper, and her receipt board.

The list is crumpled now. All the care she’d taken to keep it neat, noting the time, writing each surname carefully.  She smooths the paper.  The signatures are just squiggles.  Not even pretending to look right.  Most didn’t even hold the pen properly.  Anyone could have written them, anyone.

It’s a position of trust, that’s what Andy said.

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

The ideal writing space

Faced with a cramped work space, and wondering how to organise clutter, or is that just me?  This week I’ve been trying to work out how I’ve accumulated so many oddments, or more specifically, if there are any I could ditch.  It’s not just the books, you see.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder, but I’ll admit to a magpie instinct.  A lot of my early collections were gathered on walks…horseshoes, ancient bottles, pottery shards, attractive pebbles…things that don’t belong in the house, and so have found spaces in the shed that now doubles as my writing space.

Shelves have been added, and added, and over-filled…you get the story, don’t you? This week, I began to consider whether I needed an annex for my shed.

It was when I found myself measuring up a corner next to the greenhouse that I woke up to where I was heading.  If I continued to think like that, I would have a one woman business park instead of a garden.  So, jumping in the opposite direction, I tried to imagine myself a minimalist.

Where to start?  Well throw away something easy, like the heap of writing magazines. I could rip out any interesting and/or useful articles, and keep them in a folder.   George-Bernard-Sha_2071154iLike this picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed.

Aha, I thought, tearing the page out, serendipity, I’ll pin this on my door, and it’ll help keep me focused.  After all, what more should one need than a chair, a level surface and writing materials?

GBS, as he was known, named his shed London, so that unwanted visitors could be simply misled into believing he was away from home, leaving GBS in peace to scribble.  His simple and austere box looks about the same size as my office, it’s just barer.  What was good enough for him…

I dropped the rest of the magazine into the waste paper bin, took up the next one, and found Roald Dahl’s writing hut.  My heart didn’t flip, but I had a moment of honest recognition.  roald Dahl's writing hut

It would take an awful lot of effort for me to achieve and maintain the kind of simplicity that suited GBS: energy and time that I would prefer to use for writing.  Dahl’s hut has been preserved for visitors to look at, I wonder if it was usually as tidy as this?

It’s a crammed space, with just room to get from the door to that chair with its lap-tray for writing on.  I could get lost in the details here, I could lead you on to look at the sheds, huts and summerhouses other writers have created or commandeered to work in.  They’re lovely to look at, to set us dreaming a little, but actually, they’re a luxury and a danger.

If we concentrate too much on what a writing space should look like, we might forget to settle down and write.  Famously, Hemmingway would plonk his typewriter on any available surface and type.

The reality for most of us is that we make do with a corner of the kitchen, spare bedroom, sitting-room, at quite times, or relocate to cafés or libraries.  Anywhere that allows us to close off the door to domestic chores, such as tidying, is a good space to concentrate on writing.

 

 

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

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*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown