Day by day by day, that’s the writers way.

Milly calls in to say hello.  Now she’s reached teenage, I don’t see so much of my middle niece.  This is natural, but I’ve lost the knack of easy conversation with her, and find myself falling back on the kind of questions I remember being asked at that age, such as:  ‘How are the holidays going?’

Milly shrugs.  This I translate easily.  ‘Bored?’

She is.

‘But you’re all going off for a few days tomorrow, aren’t you?”

Milly grimaces.

‘That’ll be fun,’ I say, ‘won’t it?’

‘They’re forecasting two days of rain,’ says Milly.  ‘Six of us, stuck in a caravan.  Yeuk.’

Giles4‘I’m sure there’ll be places to visit,’ I say.  ‘Or you could play board games.’  I try not to hear the word bored as I say it, but I can still remember the horror of family holidays in those ‘nearly adult’ years.

‘You’ll have plenty of time to draw, then.’  Milly loves art and design.  She shrugs again.  Remember when words seemed irrelevant, even insufficient?

I have a eureka moment. ‘You should keep a diary.’

‘It never works.  I forget after a few days.’

I nod.  ‘Me too.  But it doesn’t matter,’  I say, and I try to describe how wonderfully those few lines will read in ten or even twenty years time.

Diaries, huh?  I do know people who regularly write them.  I’ve never managed more than a few consecutive weeks, and they are defiantly private: excruciatingly embarrassing even to me.  Yet I’m grateful to my younger self for the fragments.  Not just so I can remind myself of events, but because I can immerse myself in preoccupations I’ve grown away from.

Etsy image

Etsy image

My old diaries are, like those of Gwendoline Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, something sensational… No matter how patchy.  Through them I experience an echo of the pains, frustrations, joys and excitements of earlier ages.  I can reconstruct memories and transpose the emotions.  How do we write convincing fiction?  We feel it.

So thank you for the quote, Mr Oscar Wilde.  Which leads me to wonder whether Milly is old enough to appreciate the subtleties of The Importance of Being Ernest yet? 

Dorothy Tutin & Joan Greenwood, from the 1952 film of The Importance Of Being Earnest

Dorothy Tutin & Joan Greenwood, from the 1952 film of The Importance Of Being Earnest

You know what I mean.

I must begin with an apology: sorry for titling this post with what has possibly become the most repeated phrase in the English language, but lately I’ve been thinking about how far we own the words we put on a page, whether poetry or prose.

classical_literature_Wallpaper_mtm4yI’ve been researching for the close-reading groups I’ll be running this Autumn, which means I’m gathering ideas and theories that might interest, intrigue, or just straight-forwardly challenge us.

As I type, I’m listening to Mariella Frostrup discussing Why We Read, on radio 4, which is well worth a listen again*.  She’s interviewing all sorts of people who are saying interesting things about the benefits of reading fiction – what an excellent set of justifications for settling down with a book.  Not that I am ever short of excuses.

The radio discussion has raised all sorts of angles to investigate, but what I’ve been particularly conscious of lately, is ownership.  In part this is because I’m working on George Elliot’s, Middlemarch, and I’m trying to think about the differences between my style of reading and all the decades of interpretations that have gone before me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking, and talking to the writing group, about what happens once we hand our words out for reading.  Let me pass you over to Margaret Atwood:

A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling.  It changes in the manner of the reading.  As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them.  The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say.  The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.

from, Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing.


I’ve taken this out of context, and I’m deliberately missing part of the point, because Atwood is looking at this in a more complex way than I aim to do.  I just need to remind myself to be prepared for readers to not always get my point.

The real purpose, surely, is to entertain.  Beyond that, does it matter if my audience, no matter how great or small, draws a reading from it that I hadn’t intended?

One response to thinking about this must, surely, be to take care about the way I use words.  The less sloppy I am, the greater chance you’ll see what I am trying to say.

thinking it out

* No, I don’t count this as multi-tasking.  Sometimes I need backgrounds to tune in and out of – particularly if it tones-in with the wavelength I’m working on.

On writing to order…

Have you had a good week?

I only ask so that I can boast about mine.  Because I’ve been busy, not just with the usual displacement occupations around the house and garden, I’ve been writing – creatively.  Yay-hey-hey & Yippidy-yay.

Okay, so it was all a bit last minute, and it needs more work, but I’ve the bulk of a story put together.  And it works: that is to say, I think it’s working.

The reason I’m crowing?  My flurry of creative activity follows several weeks of floundering that started when I came across a short story competition, two months ago.  The brief was for stories based on a theme that I have strong feelings about.

I dithered when I first saw it, knowing that the risk, in getting onto a soapbox, is for entertainment to drift into diatribe.  Still, thought I, so long as I understand that, I can watch for it.  Because the plus side of such a situation is that I’d be writing from my heart, something I often argue for.

From the start, I was overwhelmed with ideas.  The trouble with the dozens of scenarios I came up with though, was none of them were stories.  I needed an angle, a character, a crisis to kick off from.

At that stage I was determined not to worry.  I had two whole months for the writing, which was plenty of space to try an oblique strategy.  I would take a break from my creative problem and catch up on other jobs, which would allow the theme to sink into my murky subconscious and ferment.  With luck, when I pulled it back out, it would have metamorphosed from a raw mash of ideas into something crisp, clear and refreshingly intoxicating…elderflower cordial

When it comes to writing, I’m not a patient person.  After a few days I took the lid off my ideas, made notes, then crossed them out.  I told myself I was putting the ideas away, but I didn’t.  I thought about them in spare moments.  Days drifted into weeks. I told myself not to panic – you can imagine how well that went.

Things got so bad that I failed to maintain the breathtakingly simple, Five Minutes Every Day trick.  Then, one day last week, I was putting together a handout of writing competitions, and came across a weekly flash fiction challenge that appealed.  Well, I thought, at least it will be something creative.  I’ll do that.

Funny thing was, that what I found myself writing was the germ of an idea that was just perfect for the bigger story competition, though in the end, the deadline slipped past me.  The thing is, I’m not writing it for entering anywhere, at the moment.  I’m too busy following my characters and their story to worry about that.


Shades and shadows.

Hi there, me again, posting another blog.  How long have we been meeting like this now?

Are you beginning to feel that you know me?  I hope so.  I’ve told you so much about what I think, do, like and dislike that I sometimes wonder if this blog looks like therapy.

I’ve been using the ‘me’ and ‘I’ approach, known (technically) as writing in the first person.  I’ve created a voice on the page, or perhaps I should say screen, that has its own idiosyncrasies, and hopefully convinced you that I’m a living, fully-rounded person, not just a flat fictional character.

Detail from Humphrey Newton's notebook, 1497

Detail from Humphrey Newton’s notebook, 1497

I’ve been confiding in you, and since I hope I haven’t offered you anything offensive or shocking, you’ve been inclined to believe me, haven’t you?  Might I even claim to have gained some degree of trust?

Well, of course, there was that lapse, last October when I abandoned blogging without warning, and disappeared for several months.  But let’s slide over that for the moment, and concentrate of content. That’s been sound, hasn’t it?

Tricky thing, pinpointing truth.  I was flicking through some old notebooks today, and came across one with some Dennis Potter quotes I’d copied out for a university project, and since one of them has been resonating, I thought I’d share it with you:

…apparently autobiographical forms are very powerful.  It’s…a method of appearing to inhabit one person’s head in a ‘truthful’ way.

The authenticity of the background and the surface detail is therefore guaranteed, as is the emotion, which gives me the licence to introduce and explore emotions that are not mine, that are fiction.


Should I love what I write?

It’s one thing to go back to some story and cringe over the way you wrote, but what about the thing you’re working on now?  Are there times when you’re overpowered by insecurities?

facesI’ve deleted more than half of what I’ve typed for this blog.  Who am I to be posting it?  Hasn’t it all been said before?  And what a way to word it, do I have to be so stilted: so formal?

You know what?  I don’t, because haven’t I’ve said I can delete, or should I say edit ?  So I put together six or seven hundred words, then whittle them down to the three hundred and twenty-seven you are reading.  Since I know I’m going to edit, I can throw down every thought, no matter how daft it seems.  Which is great, because it’s when I write that I discover what I am truly trying to say.

Before you ask, no, I don’t think this is perfect, but if I could show you all the drafts…actually, I’d rather not.  If you were my only reader I’d be fine with letting you share the processes I’ve gone through.  But I’m hoping for a new reader, too, and what I want them to take away is an idea of my coherence and economy.

Do I love this piece of writing?  Well, truth be told, no.  I am quietly pleased with it, but I’m also certain that any time I reread this I’ll find ways to improve it, because that’s how I feel about all the things I’ve ever written.  At the very least I see clumsy repetitions that are too familiar to be noticeable in the heat of writing.

What I do love, is that the idea I started with grew into something that is, at this moment, complete.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on and write something else that matters to me, despite my doubts, despite all the initial mistakes.

butterflies graffitti art

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?

Aagh, I’m being bombarded…

…with tempting promises.  Every time I turn on my computer I get offers.  All I have to do, each advert assures me, is click on some flickering link and I’ll have a gift card for some class-appeal store.

Tenniel's 'Alice'

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

I’ve checked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition of gift is something ‘given willingly to someone without payment’. So this would be a present, not cash-back, easily forgotten, spent on mundane, sensible items.  This is about self-indulgence.

It’s FREE money, isn’t it? That’s got to be better than working. Especially in this heat.

I know, us Brits are always wittering on about our weather.  Here we are after a few days of sun and half of us are wilting.  In Washington, a newly-returned friend tells me, most people just don’t go out in it. Although, eighty degrees, he says, is considered quite a moderate temperature for summer there, where air-conditioned cars transport people from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned work.

I linger in the chilled aisles of the supermarket while my car turns into an oven.  Yes, I did forget to get it’s environmental control system re-gassed, and now it’s too hot to face making an extra journey to sit in the garage waiting while they top it up.

Besides, teaching is pretty much finished for the summer, I won’t need to travel much until it’s cooler.  Better to return home, open the windows and doors and hope for a passing breeze, as I refill my glass with ice and water.

DSCF5356Summer, I like to claim, is ‘me’ time.  All through the rest of the year, when I have to snatch writing-hours from between class preparation and delivery, I anticipate this writing space.

I visualize myself, under the dappled shade of our tree, working through the heap of notes I’ve brought out from my desk. I’m comfortably cool, wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses.  Effortless, about sums the picture up.  Unhindered by a realistic recognition of my commitments to family, friends, dog,house or garden, in this idyll I will create a perfect first draft.  Seems like I’ve neatly sidestepped the usual displacement activities, doesn’t it?

The danger of such fantasies though, is that I forget these are as much a fiction as the gifts that the double glazing, insurance and internet companies offer me. While I wait for the perfect conditions for writing, the long lazy weeks of summer dissolve and that heap of ideas remain on the side of my desk.

A cracking literate yarn sets me thinking

I’ve just finished novel three of Philip Pulman’s Sally Lockhart stories.  Roller-coaster rides, all of them.

the RubyInTheSmokeLovely period detail and a feisty female lead character, who doesn’t wait around to get rescued, or fall into hysterics so that she can show-case other characters.  Okay, so in Edwardian England she’s slightly improbable, but this is a thriller, and that’s the way they work.  Outlandish conspiracies, truly wicked villains and lots of violence are requisites.

This is the sort of stuff I love, and have loved for decades. I think I started with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ books.

The only thing I can’t quite decide with the Sally books, is what age-group they’re aimed at.  By which I certainly don’t mean to say it should have a restricted readership, any more than Pulman’s, Dark Materials trilogy should (if you haven’t you should – and you need to read all three to get the full effect).

The ruby -sally-lockhart-mystery-collection-philip-pullman-4-books-[3]-30312-pThe thing is, I keep seeing Sally Lockhart referred to as written for children.  I’m not sure if that’s just because in the first book Sally is sixteen years old.  I’ve seen reviews that compare the books to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, but the only similarity I see is that both series are, to use an old phrase, ‘action-packed’.  So are the James Bond books.  I worked my way through all of them when I was sixteen or seventeen.

I’m not saying that a twelve-year old wouldn’t enjoy the Sally Stories, rather that it seems a shame these books seem to have been marketed as suitable for children.  There are books that are definitely children’s, and that’s how it should be.

Content-wise though, I’m not sure if there’s an issue when it comes to these.  I know that children read adult books, but how much adult content is allowable in stories for children?

While not explicit, in book two, there is a sex-scene.  By book three, Sally is in her early twenties, and thinking as an adult.  Shouldn’t this then come under the Young Adult (YA) category?  I wonder where most bookshops and libraries shelve it.

The%20Ruby%20in%20the%20Smoke%20Jacket%20CoverNow that publicity is such a large part of the writing process, I suppose labels are vital.  And writers shouldn’t complain too loudly, after all, with so many books getting published each one must work hard to sell itself, and on the other side of that argument, it means the odds for any of us to get in print must be improving.

So I also wonder what each of these book covers suggests to you about the content.  Is it the book we judge by the cover, or the person reading it?

Taking a field trip

On Friday morning we went to Dursley, to hear a new author, Steve Weddle, talk aboutDursley writing group how he published his novel, It Starts with a Kiss. He’d been invited to talk by a local writing group who meet once-a-week to set themselves writing tasks and read-out homework.

What a nice idea, for the author and the group.  For the group, to have the chance to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing and getting published with someone who has only just achieved that has got to be encouraging and enlightening.

How many literary festivals dare to include first time novelists?  I know, they have to use the big names to attract most of us in, but sometimes, when I read through the lists of speakers, it seems like it’s all about celebrity now.  Interesting as those usually are, there’s a marked difference in the experience of being in a cosy gathering like the one at Dursley, and sitting in the Gods at the local theatre looking down at a stage.

The content too was much more writing specific than some of the festival talks I’ve been to.  Of course, ‘gossip’ content is often a result of audience participation.  If a writer is known to mix amongst the rich and famous there will always be an element of the audience who want to know, ‘but what was it really like to work with them?’

So much for the audience, how about the author?  While I do see that we’re all scribbling away with dreams of selling our work, I’m not so sure that means we’d all be comfortable participating in celebrity interviews.

Everything I read tells me that the price of success for authors these days is a willingness to promote your writing.  So whether you’re a spotlight person or not, if you’re looking to be published you might think about getting started with an audience you can make eye-contact with.  I’m not sure where you’d find a group better able to appreciate and applaud your success than one made up of writers-looking-to-get-published.

So, if you’re reading this, Sue, thanks again for inviting us along.



Building a metaphor out of a crisis

Cheltenham derelictionI’ve had a challenging week, technologically speaking, which I trace back to a moment of over-confidence.  It seemed such a simple task, to update my computer’s protection programme.  All I had to do was follow the instructions.

I opened the website and hit the big download button.  Boxes opened, more buttons appeared: agree this, click next, choose that, add the other.  This is a bit much, I thought, but I felt a little smug about doing what I view as a tedious, time-consuming chore.  A finish button came up, and I didn’t even pause when another dialogue box started a new set of instructions.

I was on a roll.  It felt good to be in control of my computer.

That happens with my writing sometimes.  I have characters racing around my story doing all sorts of fascinating things, and the word count is rising so steadily that I can hardly type fast enough to keep on top of it all.

That’s great, that’s my ideal.  Story building from instinct, most of us aspire to that.  The theory is that if you can surprise and entertain yourself, then it’s likely that your reader will have a similar experience.

Except, sometimes, we run out of steam that way.  How many of you have also set off at a cracking pace only to find, two pages in, that you’ve hit a wall.  You have no idea where your character is going to go next.  The story has become either too mundane, or too ridiculous and you can’t think how to rescue it..

Those who’ve already foreseen the outcome of my computer upgrade will probably have guessed that my careless box ticking corrupted my poor little laptop.  It won’t surprise you to hear that I spent the next three days chasing error messages around my screen as I fed it passwords and new logins, to no avail.  It was the weekend, so I resisted the urge to phone our friendly expert, until today.

‘You need to do a system restore,’ he said, and clicking through the control panel, he showed me how to return the computer to the settings it had been at before I began downloading.  Just like a story, I thought, read back to find the point where you began to drift, then start writing again.

At this point, I would like to drift a little from my metaphor title, and suggest that it’s best not to be be quite so drastic as a system restore, which wipes out everything that happened after the date you chose.  I advocate keeping a copy of all your story changes, just so that you can go back and reassure yourself that you were right to cut it.  Otherwise, those permanently deleted moments of flying inspiration will always haunt you.