This is one thing I did this week, and where it took me.

I celebrated. It was a modest event, no popping corks, or bubbles.

There was, however, a jubilant, ‘Yes’, as I completed that task I signed up to with Cleo, on Classical Carousel, four months ago. You know, the marathon that seemed hardly possible. Surely you remember my mentioning that I intended reading Ann Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho? Well, I’ve finished. And I’m three weeks ahead of the reading schedule.

You’d be right in thinking that last statement is a surprise development. Just like Emily, I could never be quite sure that things would work out for the best. Well, I turned an unexpected corner.

It happened this way. I’d been avoiding even looking at the hefty tome for several days. It had been hot, I was lethargic, and the story seemed to be lagging. I had a list of jobs needing attention. It was a classic set-up for displacement activity-itous.

I started with taking on boring, mundane chores, that no one but me would notice. I became focused on crossing jobs off.

Days passed. I wrote course proposals, bringing fresh papers and books to the corner of the table that has become a temporary office.

Udolpho and my original list got buried, along with the top of the table. I found some new lines of research and began a fresh list. When that one disappeared, I started another. At some later point the table began to groan under the stacks of ideas.

One morning I walked into the kitchen and found an old envelope on my laptop. Written on the back of it, in large black letters were the words, ‘tidy notes.’ It was the reminder of a dream that I had woken from in the middle of the night. There had been an Alice-in-Wonderland like moment when page after page of a story had rained down upon me, and I had seen, clearly, some perfectly formed and irresistible narrative.

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

Unfortunately, the form and shape of it had evaporated with the sunrise, as they usually do, even after making notes. But, looking at our mountainous table, I saw some other sense in those two terse words.

Dismantling a paper heap of that size is no simple matter. Things must be re-read, decisions need to be taken on what to save, where to tidy them to, and whether they’re safe to discard. I found several books I’d forgotten about before I resurrected Ann Radcliffe.

I did not pull back in horror, tattered as the cover is, though I may have sighed, a little, as I recalled that neglected schedule. Surely, I thought, I was so far behind by now it would need a marathon to catch up.

Could I have missed the finish date all together? I hunted around for the reading schedule, and perhaps I was half hoping that I might be able to add it to my must-finish-that-one-one-of-these-days shelf. I could not. I put the book back on the emptied table.

So imagine my surprise, later that morning, when I took it up to re-establish my ten-minutes-a-day reading policy, and a moment later realised that I had been reading for over an hour. More astounding still, I was reluctant to leave Emily and make lunch.

I don’t think it was just that I realised the end was in sight, and the pages I’d read far out-weighed those ahead of me. It was that at some point, about half-way through Volume Three, the story took me over.

Perhaps, I was better adjusted to the mindsets of the characters, and the author. It seemed to me that they had all become brighter, and more active. Strands of plot were coming together in interesting and unexpected ways. New characters appeared, and took me to fresh scenes.

There were some things about the plotting that seemed a little conveniently coincidental, but I was enjoying the journey. It seems that, when the writing works, we readers can accept it.

Maybe, the old saying about ‘truth being stranger than fiction’, could be said to apply when the writing doesn’t persuade us to suspend our sense of disbelief. Could it be that because most of us do experience odd coincidences, we’ll accept fictional truths so long as the characters and their world are believable?

Thinking about building short stories.

‘I’m not happy with the ending of this one,’ said Anna, preparing to read out her story.  I glanced down at the sheets of paper she was shuffling together.  There seemed a lot of them, and they looked to be laced with far more words than the five-hundred limit I’d set.

The Reader by Irving Ramsay Wiles 1900Before I could frame a question, Anna was reading.  She began well, introduced three characters, provided nicely balanced dialogue that moved the action forwards, and delivered ambitions, and a situation.  It was only as Anna flicked over the page that I realised her story was printed double-sided.

I eyed the sheaf of pages, and began to multiply them by minutes, but after a paragraph, Anna left page two, and moved to page three.  As she flicked past that page after a couple more paragraphs, I realised that her redrafting had been printed out in the story.

The heap of paper was diminishing fast as Anna picked out solitary paragraphs from amongst the text.  The story picked up pace and jumped a few decades of time to round off in a neatly comfortable conclusion.  There was a murmur of approval.  ‘That was fun,’ said Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Anna.  ‘It seems… unsatisfactory.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not in your usual dark style, but the ending fits.’

It did.  ‘There’s a clear dramatic arc,’ I said, ‘and the characters are interesting and distinctive.  But, why that conclusion?’

‘I thought I’d be cheery for a change.’

‘Ah,’ I said.  ‘What about all those words you didn’t read out?’

Anna fidgeted with the edges of her pages.  ‘The story kept going wrong, drifting off.’

‘So you had that end in mind from the beginning?’

‘A happy ending, yes.’

I said, ‘You were writing against your instincts?’

‘Well, yes.  I wanted to write a happy story, for a change.’

I nodded.  ‘You’ve done that, and we enjoyed it, despite you trying to put us off before you started.  But maybe that other, darker story, is waiting to be told, too.’

*    Illustration: The Reader, by Irving Ramsey Wiles (1900)

Potter, on truths in fiction, and where that takes me…

It’s a function of fiction to tell truths…Documentaries don’t tell truths…they show you what is there, but they don’t mediate it through the truths of all the complications, all the inner subtleties of why this person is like that, why that person is like this.  What drama is for [is] to tell truths.

Dennis Potter, p11, Potter on Potter

Ah yes, Dennis Potter, remember him?  TV dramatist, master of the lip-synch drama, where actors mimed along to popular songs as part of the plot.  His plays were neither classic musical, nor standard play format (is there one though?).  The Potter works I remember best are The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Lipstick on Your Collar, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.  In different ways, I found each of them magical.

Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter

Blue Remembered Hills
by Dennis Potter

Want to know why we write?  Watch a Dennis Potter play and see where it catches you: if it does. He was considered controversial, so you don’t have to ‘get’ him, but it’s worth thinking about what he did and how.

To ‘tell truths’ was no idle boast for him.  Much of his material came from his own experiences, and he didn’t mind us knowing that.  Sometimes it was uncomfortable watching, often humorous, occasionally sentimental.  He didn’t stick closely to  events for fiction, though, that’s the thing that struck me when occasionally someone from his past would appear in a newspaper with the ‘real’ story of what had happened.  Potter said, ‘The way you think you know about the past is like the way you remember a dream on waking’.

It’s a useful idea to hold on to, for those of us who create fiction from the stories of our pasts, and these days there seem to be an increasing number of faction writers.  It might help keep us from getting stuck in the rut of, ‘Yes, but that’s the way it was,’ justification when someone queries a story event. That’s never happened to you?  Well done.  For the rest of us, at some point, haven’t we found ourselves in a workshop situation, defending a story rather than looking at why it hasn’t worked?

When you’re writing, it can be tricky to see what’s wrong.  After all, you know what happened, because you were either there, or told about it by someone who was.   You would seem to have a framework to write to, and that’s what most of us wish for, isn’t it?

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Well, yes and no.  Sorry to be so imprecise, but it really does depend on the writer.  Some are mappers, plotting things out on postcards or computer programmes and writing easily within the framework we create.  For others, following structure rigidly can lead us astray. Why?

I’m going to be audacious here, and make a sweeping diagnosis of characterisation problems.  Because when our focus is too firmly on touching each event on the way to a given goal, we risk losing sight of who we were writing about, and most stories, even those that are full of action, are really about character.  Each of the Potter titles I’ve mentioned involve complex characters interacting with each other.  The technical term is, fully rounded.

Fully rounded characters are so well formed that you can find yourself writing something other than the well planned plot you thought they would fit into.

‘Hang on,’ I think I hear you say, ‘isn’t that thing about characters taking over their stories a writing-fairytale?’

Not for me.  I’ve had it happen both on the page and when I did a story performance.  And I found that second incident by far the scariest and most rewarding to recover from, but that’s another story.

I think most successful stories build from a fully rounded character.  So we’re not just thinking physical details here, height, weight, colourings, clothes, these are superficial descriptions.  If you’re writing about something that really happened, chances are you’ve built a character based on a real person.  But, how much do you really know about anyone else? I believe that we need to know our main characters at least as well as ourselves, perhaps better.

Do you know what you would save if your home was on fire and you had two minutes to grab something?  Do you know why you’d have chosen that thing?  Do you know what you would do if that thing became lost to you?

A lot of the time we work by instincts, don’t we?  Somewhere in our subconscious there is probably a logic to what we do, but we don’t always need to chase that up.

I’m not advising that you should start psycho-analyzing your character either, but if they are going to act and react naturally in the story, they need to be rounded enough to have their own instincts.  What would they save?  It might not be the same thing that you would, and if you’ve based your character on a friend, I doubt whether you’ve picked the same item they would name, no matter how close you are.

So it stands to reason, surely, that if your fully-rounded character cannot be quite the same as the person who was your inspiration, they might act differently at some point, and therefore, re-direct your neatly arranged plot.  That’s a good thing, honestly.

Here’s another thought too, could it be that those writers who plot everything out in advance don’t necessarily stick rigidly to the original plan?

Keep writing and it should happen.