Why don’t we tell people, you’re special, more often?

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustI never bought a David Bowie record, but when I look back I find that his songs illuminate some key moments in my life.  It’s not something I was conscious of until this week, when I’ve been hearing fragments of his songs most days and found myself washed over with nostalgia.  Judging by the quantity of tributes across the media I suppose something of the same effect has been experienced by many of us.

Suddenly, we are discovering how artful his life was, even the ending, as it coincides with the release of his latest album.  Critics are analyzing his lyrics, thinking about the significance of who he was and what he created.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Crumpling a newspaper to set up the fire this morning, I read fragments of scandal about this or that celebrity being proved to have the same clay-like feet as the rest of us.  For the successful, it seems this is the only alternative story to the reports of their death.

After all, this is journalism.  The definition of News is newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.  A problem for journalists is that they can only write the surface of a character.  Bowie seemed able to exploit this.  I’m amazed by how much I seem to know about him.

Alan-Rickman-by-Andy-GottOn the other hand, the actor Alan Rickman, who also died this week, and is someone I have looked out for in films and trusted to deliver quality entertainment, I knew nothing about until after his death.  Whether villain, hero or support, he convinced.

What made these two artists special for me, was their ability to convey characterizations.  To see either man perform was to believe them.

With Bowie, I’m reminded that scandal for the artist, is not about shock in the sense of a newspaper, which tends to reinforce our prejudices, it is about pushing us to look beyond narrow and easy perspectives.

Here’s an Alan Rickman quote that seems to sum up something of what the lives of both men stand for to me:

“The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”


Looking for a quick smile?

logo4%20copyCheck out today’s post on Paragraph Planet, The Barrister.

This lovely piece of concise writing is by way of a boast, since Martin attends my writing classes, so I feel I can garner some reflected glory.

Paragraph Planet is a lovely challenge.  Why don’t you give it a go, too?

Martin has also been published on the letter project.

Watch this space for more.

The best stories…

Imagine this:

It’s winter.

On a damp, cold, morning in January, Kelly has just arrived for work at Rustic Farm.  The breakfast sky is overcast, the hedges and trees are leafless, and underfoot there is mud.  The concrete yard is spotted with large dark puddles.  England in winter feels like a grey place.

Even though Kelly is wearing her quilted waterproof coat, heavy jeans, a woolly hat, and black wellington boots, she has stuffed her hands in her pockets.  The wet cold is seeping through to her bones and she’s only been out of the car five minutes.

stand and stare...She hurries to the storeroom and measures out food for the calves.  As soon as they see the buckets, they rush to the feed barrier and jostle for space at the trough, churning the air with their hot snorting breath, reaching out their long, coarse pink tongues to lick at the cascading trail of feed.  The calves chew contentedly, snuffling mouthfuls before raising their heads and chewing, open-mouthed, their eyes blissfully half-closing.

Kelly goes to the barn and climbs the ladder up the haystack.  She is so close to the corrugated tin roof that she has to crouch.  The air up there is dry.  Kelly roles five bales off the edge.

Back at the manger, she hefts a bale in and cuts the strings holding it together.  The hay falls into fragrant sections.  Kelly fluffs up the stems and spreads them out.  She makes a cloud of soft greens for the calves to sort through.  The scent of sweet meadow grasses wafts up, and for an instant, evokes the memory of a hot June afternoon stacking bales.  She pauses, picks out a stem and chews it.  It is faintly, dryly sweet.

A calf coughs, vigorously.  A shower of dung sprays through the rungs of the gate by Kelly’s feet.  She laughs, throws away the soggy hay stem, gathers up the cut bale strings and goes to fetch a shovel.

Maybe this is a bit corny, but sometimes a metaphor says it best.

So this week, as I was helping with the hay making, absorbing the scents of sun drenched herbs and grasses, I was thinking about that moment when the bale gets opened.  What makes good hay is the quality of the herbage that will go into it, and the care taken to cut it at the right moment, then to dry it quickly and thoroughly before it gets baled.

It seems to me, that what I aim for in my writing is the same thing.  I too must judge the perfect moment to cut into and out of my story, and use the best words I can to evoke the essence of a time and place.  I aspire for my reader to forget, just briefly, everything except the story I am telling.  Because those were the sorts of story that set me dreaming of becoming a writer.

Print by  Alberto Manrique

Print by
Alberto Manrique

Psst, pass this on.

It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on.  It is the way all storytellers learn about life.

Grace Paley

A dragon dragged past the window, tail flailing as Sam turned the pages of his bed-time book slowly, hanging out the moment of sleep in favour of chat, life, and narrative.  Sam DSCF5241was winging stories across the duvet.  Pictures came to life in his voice.

It’s months since the last time I was asked to mind him for the evening.  ‘He might decide to read to you,’ his mum had said, quietly, before she left.  Now, here we were with the chosen book, and my voice, for the first time, was stilled.

Sam read.  A few words we had to spell out together, and Sam paused to try it out, then he went back to the beginning of the sentence and read it again, with colour and feeling.  He was not just reading, he immersed himself in that story’s world.

When we had turned the last page of the book, and Sam was ready to sleep, I crept downstairs, hugging the memory of those moments.

Heard any good stories lately?

KuchaleeWe’re at a local fete.  Lots of people drifting round stalls, greeting, sipping tea and eating cake in a sunny vicarage garden.  The story teller wanders in.  He wears a big woolly hat and bright, Caribbean style beach clothes.  He carries a drum.  Heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He settles on a low stool under a broad leafy tree, crosses his legs around the drum and taps out a soft, regular, rhythm.  Children pause and turn to look.

The Story-teller speaks, just loudly enough to be heard above his drumming.  ‘The Mosquito,’ he says, ‘had a beautiful yam.’  An audience begins to form.  With a gesture, the Story-teller encourages them to settle around his feet.

His drumming builds into a crescendo, then dies away and he says, ‘The Mosquito boasted about his beautiful yam to everyone.  They were so impressed that they all came to his house to taste some.’

His audience has expanded to include adults, standing.  A few are parents, waiting within reach, but they’re listening too, to the story of a boastful mosquito.

The Storyteller slaps at his drum and calls out in the neighbour’s voices, ‘Let us in, Mr Mosquito, and share some of your wonderful yam.’  His drumming softens and, he tells us, ‘Mr Mosquito was terrified.  He stayed behind the door pretending to be out, but the neighbours wouldn’t go away.’

The Storyteller pounds at his drum and raises his voice.  He says, ‘They said, “We know you are in there, Mr Mosquito.  Why do you not answer us?”’

The Storyteller drums soft and fast, and his voice drops.  ‘Mr Mosquito said, “Zzzzzzz.”

“What?”’ The Storyteller calls out above the heavy beating of his drum. “What is that you say?”

The Storyteller pauses, and into our silence he loudly sibilants, “Zzzzz.”

We are all wide-eyed.  I am vaguely aware of the fete, busy behind us, but, what is going to happen now?

Our understanding of the shape of a tale is something we practice from the moment we learn to communicate.  Once we can begin to say, this is what I want to do, or this is what I have done, or even that he or she did to me, we are putting together narratives.  If we’re lucky, someone has already been regularly reading to us, or even telling us stories.

The traditional stories I grew up with, European tales, were sculpted for the page. Stories from other cultures often don’t work in the way we’re used to.

Kulchalee, The Storyteller, drew his story to a close in one line: ‘And that is all Mosquito ever said again.’kulchalee

A. S. Byatt demonstrates the art of short story writing

The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale.  Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.

Yet writers have not forgotten.  Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them.  Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.

Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly.  Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft.  Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.

DSCF4470 bSo, in this story A.S. Byatt  tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.

In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.

After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame.  The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen.  They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest.  Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for.  The second princess volunteers, but:

The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.

So she set out.  They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.

 She began to think.  She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess.  This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests.  What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.

She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.

She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern.  This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.

Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?

What happens next?

So you’ve started a new story.  The characters are in an interesting situation and you’ve ideas about what will happen to them.  Great, stop reading this and get writing.

It’s wonderful when you’re on a role, isn’t it?  Ideas spilling out so fast you can barely get them written down in time.  Going with first instincts can feel like an adrenalin rush. Events build to a climax, and wow, you’ve got an ending.  Phew, what a feeling that is.  It all worked out.

Or did it?  When you go back to your writing after you’ve cooled off does it still please you?

The best test you can make of your writing is to attempt an impartial view of it.  Ideally, we follow the principles of the best wine makers, and once the fermentation process is complete and the words are sealed in their cask, or bottles, we put them away to mature while we start work on our next batch.  In writing terms, this means read other writers, or start on a new project.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 - 1890) The Wine Taster.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 – 1890) The Wine Taster.

Ideally it is much, much later that we go back and taste that earlier vintage.  I think we need at least a week, preferable a month (maybe several) before we get good distance.

I realize that this is far from realistic.  Mostly we’re creating pieces of writing for specific deadlines, and we can’t allow that kind of time.  If we’re lucky someone else will proof-read for obvious errors (if really lucky, they might provide some criticism, and we might have time to consider it) and then we submit it.

Considered criticism is good, you can’t have enough input from ‘ideal-readers’ (see Stephen King definition).  Okay, we don’t all have access to trustworthy readers.  Too many of us have only good-intentioned love ones who offer unconditional enthusiasm.

For the ambitious writer though, this critique period is no time for kindness.  What’s needed is the cool ruthless quest for story.  Have you pushed the characters to their limits?  Have you explored enough angles on the situation to be certain that the one you’ve chosen is fully exploited?

It can be hardest to tell this when you are still emotionally connected to the writing.  So I suggest you dig back through your files for something that is at least a year old.  Ideally, chose something you either submitted, or planned to submit: something that when you see the document title, you can barely remember what it was about.

Forget who wrote it.  Read it, objectively.  There’s no room for pride or embarrassment, you are about to critique your work.  Not sure how that works?  It’s easy, just keep asking yourself questions.  Here are a few you might start with:

  • What do you think of the first line?
    • Does it make you want to read on?
    • Are you intrigued or enticed by it?
  • Are the characters believable?
    • Do you care what they say?
    • Are you happy to be spending time with them?
    • Did you care about what happened to them?
  • Is everything that happens in the story world believable?
    • Or, are you irritated by how things happened?
  • Would you be happy to recommend the story to another reader?
  • Do you wish something more had happened in the story, even if you don’t know what it was?

Clearly this is a general rather than specific approach to story-reading.  Questions should arise from the text, rather than from a random list.

If there is one question above all others that matters, it’s the last one.  Not because I’m assuming there must be changes you should make, rather because it can help to give you confidence in your writing if you feel you’ve fully explored other possibilities.

How do you begin?

DSCF5213My nephews have toys all over the floor and I hear Sam say to Bevis, ‘Just pretend that I’m up the tower and…’

He didn’t say, let’s pretend, he said ‘just’.  There was no gap between reality and make-believe.  He was standing on the top of the lego tower being threatened by the giant plastic dinosaur and he was working out his action strategy.

On one level, it is that simple, that we ‘just pretend’ when we write stories.  Not only with straight-forward fiction, those of us using our lives as inspiration for stories need to hold onto that thought too, and learn to lie, convincingly.

Why not give it a go now?

Think back to childhood.

Who was your favourite relative?

Write a short description of them.

Now think: what did they do that made them special?  It doesn’t have to be anything fantastic, or exciting.  But try to visualise one event, in detail.  Find the starting point for the story.

Now change one thing – try gender – aunt becomes uncle or vice versa.  Describe them, and let go of the remembered truth.  Let the story follow, naturally.

Because sometimes a lie makes the best truth.

Lexiphanic Cogitations *

You might guess, from my title, that I’ve just had a quick browse through a ‘Dictionary of Difficult Words’.  Be honest, were you a little concerned or even put off by my title?  Don’t go away, I promise I’ve stopped now.

Carl_Spitzweg, The Book worm

The Book Worm
by Karl Spitzweg

The thing is, I’ve had this book on my desk for a year or so, and I’ve never used it.  It came from a table-top sale, where it was priced so cheaply that it seemed ‘meant’ for me to take home.  I knew, even then, that I didn’t really want it, but it’s a reference book for goodness sake.

I’d already gathered up a nice selection of truly useful titles from the same seller, who was discounting as my heap grew.  Gullible, me?  How could you think so?  As she said, there’s always room for one more.

There’s not of course.  We learn that at nursery rhyme stage: “There were three in the bed and the little one said…” I don’t remember which book I discarded to make room on the shelf for this dictionary.  No doubt something equally beguiling but ultimately pointless.

I do like dictionaries, I have five, if you include the Scrabble Dictionary, which strictly speaking shouldn’t be called Dictionary, since it neither ‘explains’ nor ‘translates’ its alphabetically arranged words. ‘Explains’ and ‘Translates’ are the key words in the definition given by the on-line Oxford English Dictionary (OED), by the way.

As a quick aside, have you seen a Scrabble Dictionary?  There are combinations of letters in there I don’t want to believe in, especially after a long and painful game with a competitive companion who trawled through it round by round one dark and very long evening.  Since then we’ve laid down a few ground-rules about word-checking, should you be invited for a match here.

But I digress.  Most of my books earn their space on the shelf.  It may be that I open them once in a year, or less, but it’s usually with a purpose, whether that’s entertainment, information or inspiration.

These days I also use the computer to look up things.  Much as I love to turn a page, sometimes it’s either not possible or just takes too long.  My mind boggles at the thought of how many books I’d own if I’d bought all the information I’ve looked up in bound form.  At least when it’s electronically stored it only takes the space of a stick, or a corner of the hard-drive.

I can’t imagine what would get pushed off my bookshelf if I owned the bound volumes of the OED rather than had virtual access to them using my public library log-in.  Now they really would earn their place. Full of useful information about meaning, but then there’s all that additional stuff, the origins of the word, and the previous uses.  It’s not just for looking up something new, or obscure, I’m fascinated by the way word use changes over time, and the easiest place to trace that, is the OED.  If you don’t believe me, look up starve, or bless.

From the moment I was introduced to the OED in the University library, I’ve coveted them, and now, here they are in my bookmarks.  I can open them at any time, and yet fill the two feet of shelf space they should be using up with something, anything, else that catches my attention.

If I was ever cast up on a desert Island with only one book for company I would want it to be a volume of the OED.  I’m not picky, I can manage without the full set.  Any of them would keep me entertained.  Apart from the information, think about what we could do with all those quotes.

Take these four, drawn from starve and bless:

1647   in E. Nicholas Nicholas Papers (1886) I. 70   Were it not for an Irish Barber that was once my servaunt I might have sterved for want of bredd.

1600   P. Holland tr. Livy Rom. Hist. xxi. lviii. 427   Many a man and beast, and seven Elephants..were starved and perished [owing to the intolerable cold].

 c1440   Ywaine & Gaw. 3344   Folk..blissed the time that he was born.

1872   H. W. Longfellow John Endicott ii. ii, in Christus III. 24   Come, drink about! Remember Parson Melham, And bless the man who first invented flip!

I don’t know the originals of any of these, but I’ve ideas about each of them, I feel stories, brewing around them.  How about you?

*Lexiphanic: using many long words

Cogitations: consider seriously

Which Dr Who?


Last night I was one of the millions who turned on for the fiftieth anniversary episode of Dr Who, and tuned out the world.  For seventy-five minutes I was lost in story.  Yes, I’m a fan, have been as long as I can remember.

From, 'The Guardian' 18/11/2013

From, ‘The Guardian’ 18/11/2013

What’s not to love about the idea of time travel, in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside can contain?  Even without a quirky character in control it’s the stuff of dreams.  Throw in a main character who shape shifts, just after we’ve settled into the idea that this is how he is, and I’m hooked.

I do miss the old Doctors, all of them, and most of their companions too.  I like to think they had more adventures than we saw on the tv, or heard on the radio, but I’m glad that there’s a turn-over in personalities.  This seems like a variation on the oral tradition of story, where tellers remould their material to suit each audience, reflecting the concerns and circumstances of the day in their approach and content.  In this way, stories stayed fresh.

Cinderella, for instance has been losing and finding her shoe for more than two thousand years.  Versions of her story have been found across the globe in some of the earliest writings of various civilizations.  But here’s the rub: for most of us, despite the various writers who’ve reworked the story during the past hundred and fifty years or so, Cinderella remains held in the 1697 limbo that Charles Perrault created when he set her inside the pages of his Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals.

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

In 1893, Marian Raolfe Cox proposed that there were three hundred and forty-five variants on the Cinderella story.  That’s a lot of Cinders, and she hasn’t always gone by the same name, of course.  But she’s still the pretty, put-upon step-daughter and sister who wins a handsome husband when her missing footwear turns up.

Just as The Doctor is sometimes a joker, sometimes an action-man, sometimes grumpy, according to incarnations, and yet remains always The Doctor.  Some purists are bemoaning the more recent ‘up-grades’ of his personality.  They liked the old aloof doctor, who rarely even held hands with anyone, much less kissed or was kissed by a companion.   I’m glad he’s moved on.

And that goes for the side-kicks too.  I can watch the old episodes, with dippy, even silly, screeching companions prone to fainting or cowering in a corner, because they belong to their age.  That’s not us today, I tell myself.

Of course, in reality, if I was faced with weeping angels, cyber-men or any other more feasible invasion situation, I probably would scream then go hide in a cupboard and wait to be saved.  But this is fiction.  I want main characters who are active, who face up to the action and react positively, even if they are not the title protagonist.  I want them to get out there and work things out, together.