Archive for August, 2009

Yesterday I cleaned the kitchen sink fifteen times. Fifteen pairs of rubber gloves pushed fifteen dual-textured sponges over gleaming chrome surfaces.

The fifteenth time, I needed two blue pills before stripping the plastic sleeve from the gloves.

Can’t clean taps without water.

Can’t get water without touching taps.

Today, this paradox freezes me in place. Rubber gloves remain in their packages, an accusing pile on the draining board.

My husband arrives home, gives me a posy of golden flowers. He sees the unused gloves, says, ‘No cleaning today! Well done!’

The sink is filthy.

I am ashamed.

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(or at the risk of being politically incorrect, moron being a novelist – that’s what I feel like at the moment, floundering around and trying to make it work)

I’ve been through the flames of hell since my last post on this topic, which was apparently less than a month ago, although it feels like much longer.

I really thought I was on the right track, off and running, heading for the finish line. Then I went to Caerleon and discovered I was happily jogging across the grass towards the refreshment tent. And then I went to Lumb Bank, where I worked out vaguely which direction the track was in, and even managed to catch a glimpse of it every now and then.

On ignoring advice

Not a good idea, it turns out. Even though it’s often contradictory, a lot of it makes sense, and there are many points everyone agrees on. For instance, Jane Pollard pointed out in no uncertain terms that she didn’t like my main character. I knew the character, so I liked her, but on re-reading what I’d written, I could see Jane’s point. She came across as a totally miserable cow, and not at all likeable. So why would anyone want to read a whole book about her?

If I’d taken the trouble to read a book that’s been on my shelf for a year now – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies – I might have come across the following:

If your characters badger and lecture the reader, or annoying, tedious, disgusting, boring, or boorish, your reader isn’t going to want to continue reading about them unless you provide a very good reason.

and you never know, I might have taken that on board before writing 23,000 words about a miserable cow!

So part of my writing routine is now going to be spending an hour a day reading a Useful Tome. After all, Authors of Useful Tomes usually do it because they have some Useful Information to impart… and a whole lot more experience than I have.

A stitch in time saves nine

A Darning Mushroom

A Darning Mushroom

My plot had many holes. I blithely assumed they could be patched up as I wrote. Both Jane Pollard and Bill Broady pointed out that some of the holes were too fundamental, and I would be unable to avoid putting tension on critical threads as I wrote, thus enlarging the holes beyond the limits of patchability. So I dug out my grandmother’s old darning mushroom and got stitching.

Now I have a plot that is almost but not totally unlike the plot I started with. Many of the elements are still there, but some of them aren’t, and most of them are in different places. And I’m really pleased with it. It hangs together without any currently visible holes. I’m reasonably convinced that any loose threads that come to light will be repairable (and if they’re not, there’s always quantum flux – thanks Adrian!).

Give the characters a bit of character

I gleaned many tips and techniques from Caerleon to help me sort my characters out.

I’ve written a lot about their histories and relationships with each other, the reasons why they behave as they do, their secret fears and dreams and shames. I’ve constructed a timeline and identified additional relationships that I didn’t know existed – Billy was obviously one of Henry’s best friends, how could I not have seen that before? It explains his behaviour and gives me a whole new subplot to work with…

I’ve started to interview them (think Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood), which is an intense process and knackers me out, so I’m only doing one character every couple of days. It’s a wonderful technique to establish a voice for each character though. One thing I noticed about some of the writing I’d done was that several of the characters sounded indistinguishable… another technique that also helped with that problem was to put them in a room together and get them talking to each other. They soon developed their own voices.

And I’ve persuaded my main character that she needs to suck up to the reader. She’s not too keen, but I think that’s because there’s still too much of me in her.

Just F***ing Do It…

… but make sure you’re doing the right thing!

I stand by the JFDI piece of advice, with the qualification that there’s no point just f***ing doing stuff at random and hoping it’ll all turn out in the end. I think I’m back on track now, but I need to keep looking up every now and then, just to make sure I’m not about to run slap bang into a carrot cake.

What I’ve achieved over the past month

Words written: 23,000
Current word count: 0
Confidence level: +73
Darning skill level: +29

The ridiculously large amount of money I spent on the Caerleon Writers Holiday and the Arvon course (given that I’m a student with massive outgoings and no income) was well worth it. I now feel like I might actually produce a novel worth reading.

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This is me

This is me

What timing. I managed to chase the big lump out of the room just in time to take over her blog for Sally Quilford’s birthday. Like all two-legs, this Sally person has some very strange ideas, she wants people to hand their blogs over to … well … anyone or anything. Now I don’t know Sally, and I don’t believe in birthdays (chances are I won’t live long enough to have one), but I’ll accept any excuse to cause havoc for my pet two-leg.

It was laughably easy, I scuttled a bit, hid in her discarded jeans (she’s such a lazy lump, can’t be bothered to put clothes away), scuttled some more, and she squealed and ran away. She came back with her son, another two-leg who is totally deformed, even taller than she is and with the most amazing puffy fluffy stuff on top. He thought it was funny too. I managed to resist showing myself to him when he started to cast aspersions on my size. She might be stupid and easily-scared, but she did at least recognise my magnificence.

That was last night. Now she’s quivering in bed, trying to pretend she hasn’t seen me, reading her book and steadfastly pointing her weird big eyes the other way. Every now and then she looks over her shoulder. If I catch her doing that I wave a leg at her, that soon sends her back to her book.

She’s scratching her wrist. She thinks it’s a mosquito bite. I think she’d freak if she knew I crept onto her bed and bit her last night. Sometimes I wish I could talk. That Charlotte was a bit of a clever cow, thought she was too good for the rest of us, but at least she got her message across.

So, what am I going to do today? Problem with this house is, there are no flies. The only insects are the earwigs in the en-suite, and they’re a bit too crunchy for my liking. I’ll make a web anyway, just in case, but I don’t expect to catch much. It’ll wind her up though, she’ll forget to vacuum it for a few months and it’ll build up a nice coating of dust. It’ll hang there for ages and ages, reminding her of me.

Now I’ve got onto her precious netbook, maybe I’ll go and delete the latest draft of her novel… I bet she hasn’t backed up recently.

Or perhaps I’ll scuttle into the boy’s room and crawl all over him. That’ll show him I’m not to be laughed at. He tries to pretend he’s the big two-leg man, but he’s just as scared of me as she is. And he can’t even control his four limbs, he’s forever damaging himself. I should be able to make him shed a bit of blood, which will do as a snack.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit tired now. It’s hard work pressing these keys when you’re as slim and delicate as I am, you know. So I’ll be off to spin that web.

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Lumb Bank Day Four


Woo hoo! I got a #fridayflash story out of my time here! It’s ever so short (only 41 words) but I love it. I may even enter it for a competition at some point. If you’re curious about #fridayflash read the appropriate section in this post, I don’t have the energy to cut and paste. I blame the wine, which is a very drinkable Rioja.

The morning workshop

I’m not quite sure what it was about. This course seems to have very much gone that way, workshops involve our esteemed tutors wibbling about stuff and giving us useful pointers, then making us do Really Hard exercises that are at the same time Truly Wonderful. The sheep picture Gwendoline gave me this morning was so scary – imagine the sheep on my #fridayflash post blown up to about 30cm tall – it forced 41 well-polished words out of me under threat of terrifying occult ramifications. (did you see what I did there?)

Anyway, I did get some useful bits out of the morning:

  • The voice in any piece of writing needs to be accurate and precise, consistent and appropriate for the piece.
  • Similes and metaphors need to evoke the correct mood.
  • Include something tactile in the first line. This will pull the reader into the story more effectively than anything else.

We did a couple of fantastic exercises. First, we tried to come up with startling and interesting metaphors relating to the scene of an American park in autumn, faded 4th of July bunting still tied around some of the trees. We all addressed different aspects of the scene, and there were some really excellent ideas. The lesson from this was: if you’re trying to liven up a dull piece of description, write down related thoughts and then take the metaphors one step further. I came up with ‘Japanese maples reaching out, trying to escape the bindings of unthinking patriotism’, which wasn’t the best by any means but shows how symbolism and layers can be built into what could be quite a mundane scene.

The second exercise was to write down a list of 20 nouns, pass it to the next person, and come up with metaphors for each noun. Most people really struggled with this. Some managed to do all 20. I didn’t, I have to say.

The final exercise was simply to write a short piece of polished prose inspired by a picture (we all had different ones). This produced the vampire sheep for me, and all sorts of (mainly sinister) weirdnesses from the other people round the table.

The most interesting aspect of these exercises was how distinct our voices were. Even though none of us are published or experienced novelists, we’ve all more or less established our own individual voices already. And certain themes kept cropping up (Chris and his parrot is an obvious example! you had to be there…).

A Drive Through The Desert

I had to read to the group this evening. I dithered for a long time about what to read, and eventually decided on a story about a soldier critically injured in Iraq. I hadn’t looked at it since I last revised it, in May, and I was surprised to find there weren’t too many changes to make. Gwendoline suggested a few more in my tutorial, and now it’s polished into something I’m quite proud of. God alone knows where it came from, mind you. I really have no idea how a lot of my stories get into my head. It’s bizarre.

I’m bizarre. The sooner I accept that, the better.

Evening readings

Well, I’m glad I went first. I didn’t have time to get nervous. Reading was a very strange experience, different to how I imagined it would be. I felt like no-one else was there, that I was reading to myself.

The other readings were excellent, like last night’s, and I can’t wait to read the rest of those where only extracts were read. I need to know what Billy did while he was away, why Miriam was left her father’s money, and how (or indeed if) Leonardo finished the jigsaw. To find out the latter, I’ll need to buy Bridge House Publishing’s anthology Making Changes, as Debz is marketing manager and she very astutely told us we’d have to buy the book to find out how the story ends! Although maybe if I send in a submission for one of their upcoming anthologies she’ll relent and tell me how it ends…

Most people are still drinking and chatting, but I think I’m too tired to join in… it’s been a wonderful evening, and a wonderful week, and I’m sad it’s almost over. Roll on October, when I’m on another Arvon course at Totleigh Barton in Devon 🙂

Group Photo

Group Photo of the Arvon Parrot Fanciers

Group Photo of the Arvon Parrot Fanciers

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The vampire sheep’s fleece is as black as tightly-curled nightmares. Its ears point to the corners of the shrouded sky, pricked to scoop up the rumbling thunder. Staring at you through translucent glowing eyes, it asks, ‘Will you feed me?’

The Vampire Sheep

The Vampire Sheep

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Lumb Bank Day Three

Last Lines

The idea of writing a last line for a story is interesting, and has been roaming round in my head virtually unchecked since Tuesday. Things I’ve come up with so far include:

  • He closed his eyes and went to sleep.
  • He closed his eyes, but yet again he failed to go to sleep.
  • As she watched him go, she realised no-one would miss him.
  • ‘We’ll soon put a stop to that,’ said the vicar, smiling benevolently.

As you can see, mostly quite dull, but I do like the last one.

Four levels of conflict

Bill described the ‘four levels of conflict’ to us:

  • Two strong protagonists fighting each other. (Achilles & Hector)
  • Two or more linked characters with complex shifting relationships, misunderstandings, duplicity. (Othello, Iago, Desdemona.)
  • Internal conflict and its external manifestations. (Hamlet)
  • Individual vs society. (1984)

I’ve thought of another one since – society vs society – this would typically be war, but might be in a sporting context too. I’m not sure if this is distinct from the four above, but it is a scenario that’s going to have a different effect on the main character(s) of a story.

Changing point of view

The exercise for the morning was to take an existing piece of our own writing and rewrite it from a different point of view, in a different person, or in a different tense. I chose to take the piece I wrote on Tuesday and rewrite it… the effect was fascinating.

So I roll my chair over to talk to him. He hasn’t given me so much as a single opening in the ten months we’ve worked together, and I’m not going to waste this one.

‘Why would you want to jump off the Eiffel Tower?’

He laughs, a savage sound that tries to push me away.

‘Don’t worry, they’ve got security now. It’s much easier to go off the top of a multi-storey car park.’

I can’t work out whether he is winding me up. His face is smooth and his eyes clear as the sky, just the cloud of that short laugh hovering.

‘So you’ve thought a lot about buildings to jump from? Why would you do that?’

His left eyebrow raises slightly, and his fingers drumming on the desk seem desperate to return to the keyboard.

‘I think about a lot of things.’ His eyes rest briefly on the photograph of a girl, sitting alone on his desk. Then he turns his back on me and begins entering data.

So I’m left with an image of him standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower, arms outstretched, in the instant before he pitches forwards.

I wonder if he wants me to stop him.

So you roll your chair over to talk to me. I wish I hadn’t given you that opening. I’ve managed to keep you at a distance for ten months, why did I let it slip today?

‘Why would you want to jump off the Eiffel Tower?’ you say.

That’s so funny it scares me. You recoil when I laugh, it scares you too. The question is so big, there is no sufficient answer.

‘Don’t worry, they’ve got security now. It’s much easier to go off the top of a multi-storey car park.’ Maybe that’ll shut you up.

‘So you’ve thought a lot about buildings to jump from? Why would you do that?’

Again, that infinite question. Why? Why does anyone do anything? Why do you think you might understand? Why do you even want to know? My fingers twitch, tapping out answers on the desk, answers I’m never going to tell you.

‘I think about a lot of things.’ My eyes fall on Annie, who gazes out of her silver frame at me, she knows what you will never know. I’m not going to talk to you any more.

So I return to my work, the blandness of data smothering questions and answers alike. A small part of me stands in the wind at the top of the Eiffel Tower, ready to leap.

I know you want to save me, but I really don’t think you can.

I’m really pleased with this pair of pieces, I don’t think either is particularly special on its own, but together they make something really sad and lonely.

Random thoughts

A few points I got out of the morning workshop:

  • Describing a situation from an outsider’s point of view is a good way into a story.
  • There is often a clash/conflict between a character’s internal fantasy/perception of life, their interaction with the rest of the world, and the actuality of the world.
  • Writing in the second person (vocative) can address the reader or one of the characters (inside or outside the story).
  • Writing in the second person can be reflective and relentless.

And finally

My tutorial with Bill was excellent – we got the synopsis for my novel sorted out and I feel like I can go away and write it without worrying too much about whether the story’s good enough.

Cooking tea was great fun. We didn’t think it’d take three hours to get veggie lasagne and raspberry crowdie (without the whisky, unfortunately), but it did, and it involved much Latin cursing, discussion of European ailments, and searching for various kitchen implements.

Half of the group read short pieces after tea in the Barn. I have to say, the standard of writing is absolutely amazing. I’m reading first on Friday… I almost wish I’d signed up for Thursday now and got it over with!

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Lumb Bank Day Two

All About Character

Most of the first part of the morning workshop left me bewildered and feeling rather inadequate. Gwendoline Riley talked to us about character, then asked us to discuss our favourite characters from literature. Just about everyone started having deep and meaningful conversations about characters from Chekhov, Flaubert, Disraeli, Kerouac, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Tom Wolfe… none of which I’d read. So that was half an hour that was more or less wasted on me. I was glad to discover later that there were a couple of other people who were equally literature-challenged.

Apart from that, I did manage to extract some useful points:

  • Moments of instinct illuminate people’s true characters.
  • Obsessions are interesting, as are aspects of people’s characters they refuse to change.
  • Intermittent reminders to the reader of important physical characteristics are useful.
  • Characters talking about other characters can be very illuminating, both about the person talking and the person being talked about.
  • Characters will react unpredictably outside their ‘home’ context.

Some photos

I promised some photos, so here they are…

The view from my writing desk

The view from my writing desk

The main house. My bedroom is on the first floor at the far end.

The main house. My bedroom is on the first floor at the far end.

One of the three old mill chimneys in the valley that can be seen from the house.

One of the three old mill chimneys in the valley that can be seen from the house.

A couple of the 'writing huts' that are scattered round the grounds.

A couple of the 'writing huts' that are scattered round the grounds.

Earlier bedtime today

It’s just gone 10pm and I’m shattered. It seems to have been a very long day. My tutorial this afternoon was (again) extremely useful, and gave me lots of ideas for the structure of my novel. So I spent a couple of solid hours re-jigging the synopsis before tea, so I can get some feedback from Bill and Gwendoline while I’m here. And I’m down to cook tomorrow so I had to help with the washing up today (that’s how it works), and even with four of us it’s exhausting washing up after 19 people!

Night all…

zzzzzzzz z z z z z

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