Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where the pen meets the paper

A surprising thing happened to me yesterday.
Sitting in the car with my nine year old, waiting for the eleven year old’s thirty minute guitar lesson to end, I had nothing to do. The nine year old was playing on my iPhone—much better to let him use it, than listen to the ‘I’m bored’ whining. 
I sat there very unused to doing nothing.  If we have a spare moment we are twittering, texting or facebooking, aren’t we?
And then I saw a printout of a bank statement we had just picked up, laying on the floor.  It was blank on the back.  I looked through my glove box and, yes, I had a pen.  So, I started writing a short story. I have never written a story with a pen. I’m a typewriter and now computer girl, buying my first Macintosh 128K in 1987.  My son, hearing the scratchy noise of the pen on the paper, asked, ‘What’s that noise?’
‘That’s the sound of me writing,’ I answered, thinking how quickly the words were flowing.  By the time my other son got in the car twenty minutes later I had scratched down four hundred words and run out of paper.  The eleven year old picked up the paper and said, ‘Who wrote all over my bank statement?’
‘I did,’ I said, ‘It’s the beginning of a story.’
That night, I retyped it into my laptop and gave the now six hundred words to my husband (my wonderful wise first reader). ‘I wrote this with a pen and paper,’ I said proudly, as if it was a Christmas miracle. 
 ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written,’ he said.  ‘You’ve created a world into which I just slipped without any effort.’
   Now you’re thinking, the pen and paper are the magic.  Well, they're  not.  That’s not the moral of this story.  Although, I must admit that it was quite the revelation to write in the old-fashioned way.   Now I have experienced it, I won’t worry if an idea pops into my head and I don’t have my laptop handy.  I’ll just seize the opportunity with whatever is at hand.   
   What I did find interesting about this story was that it had  floated in my head for a year but I had avoided writing it because there was one detail I couldn’t figure out.  In the story the protagonist travels back in time to meet her relatives only to discover that the relatives—who to her were early settler heroes—could be murderers.  Until I put pen to paper, I didn’t know how she was going to travel back in time.  As the character started describing the scene before her, I suddenly realised she was an historian by career and then the solution to my quandary was suddenly there.  Now, fellow writer,  hold that idea there, I’m going somewhere with this.
   Then this morning I received an email from a friend living in the Netherlands, who enjoys my short stories.  The story I’d sent her was entitled ‘I Hate Emma Carter’ and it was a dark, supernatural moral comment on bullying.  Emma Carter is the new girl at a  school where the protagonist, Angela, and her friends start bullying her.  It ends in a nasty way for Angela with her being literally eaten alive by her hatred.  It did have a good ending—as you know I like my endings—with the personification of the line, ‘eaten alive by hatred’.  My friend commented, ‘You think up such fantastic ideas and analogies, very clever.’  

Now,  I will let you in on a little secret.  I didn’t write it with the ending in mind.  I’m not that clever.  Just like I didn’t start the pen and paper short story knowing how I would get my protagonist back in time.  Heck, I didn’t even know she was a historian until she told me.  When I started ‘Emma Carter’, I just liked the title.  Then as I wrote, I realised the story was going to be about bullying. Then, Emma Carter started to get these horrible black marks on her arms that grew the more she was bullied.  Then, when I got to the last three paragraphs, where Angela and Emma come face to face, I suddenly saw the ending in all its glory.  But, I didn’t start out to write an analogy on hatred.  Again, I repeat, I’m not that clever.
I remember reading somewhere that author, Jack Finney, said of his novel, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, that despite everyone believing the book was an analogy for the threat of communism, the idea hadn’t entered his head.  Of course, when you read the story, it sure sounds like you could insert communism for aliens—I mean the aliens take over your mind and body. But Finney said he had just wanted to write a story about an alien invasion and that too much credit was given to his "clever" analogy. 
Like Finney, I never feel very clever about the twists in my stories because I really am starting to feel like I don’t write them; as if I am just a passenger of the story.  And I’ve touched on this before with "Whose Story Is This Anyway".   More and more it is becoming like a quick change operation, where I slip into another world as quickly as it takes to pick up a pen.  And that to me is puzzling and exciting and a heck of a lot of fun.
On Twitter, I recently spoke to a writer who was feeling, uninspired, and as she put it, “too self-critical”.  It was clear it was causing her grief.  It’s almost a self-fulfilling circle, of feeling uninspired and then not writing which confirms that you can’t do it, which makes you afraid and uninspired. 
  See, I don’t think you have to be inspired to write.  I think after you’ve been at it for awhile, you just have to write the first sentence and trust that the writer in you will know where to go next.  I’m not saying this is how everyone writes but I do think this is how a lot of authors write.  My belief is that as we practice and build our word count we build a bridge to our creative sub-conscious.  The more we cross that bridge, the more we wear a pathway there, until, without thinking, we know exactly where to go in seemingly, the blink of an eye, or the picking up of a pen.
   I believe when you are feeling uninspired, that it may be the best time to just pick up a pen, take a deep breath, and begin something.  Anything.  It takes one step at a time to cross a bridge.  To pass over an uninspiring moment I have found it takes one word at a time, which leads to a sentence, which leads to a paragraph, which leads to a page.  Then you turn around and realise, you’ve crossed over to the other side and the scenery looks just fine.  In fact, you may even say it looks inspiring.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The end may not be Nigh!

Now where do I begin?  It’s tricky because this is actually a story of endings, or the lack thereof, and I am not sure how to begin the thing although I do know how to end it. 

I thought to begin by apologising that I may offend some writers and possibly readers.  I wanted to start by saying this is a rant because I’m a little annoyed.  Or, I could ask the question, what is going on with short stories in Australia?  Or Perhaps I should just go for it, expressing my dismay at a problem I see in some writing. 

Where the heck are the endings in short stories these days?
I’ve just read a collection of short stories collated from a publisher’s 2010 short story competitions.  One of mine was included amongst them.  Mine had an ending—and I’ve posted it HERE for your comment.  The anthology’s well-published contributors included quite a few journalists, book authors and some new to publication.  Publication amongst these authors was a privilege for me and I respect their abilities, as all stories were eloquently constructed. 
Most were thousand word compositions and some painted extraordinary word pictures of their characters and settings.  One drew me in immediately, the character awakening on the floor with a thumping headache, surrounded by the dregs of a party; another a dramatic portrayal of a meeting between two men in the outback; also touching, was a piece on a woman living in a house by the side of a Freeway.
I read them all with relish, thinking—at the beginning of each one—this writer can write.  But as I read the last paragraph of each, I was dismayed to find NO ENDING.  Nada.  Nothing happening.  The hangover person just sits down after finding an unconscious man in the same room, the men in the outback just separate and the woman by the freeway just walks out her door. 
There’s no progression, no growth, no lesson, no event.  Where’s the twist?  Where’s the satisfying ending I didn’t see coming.  These aren’t stories.  They are passages. 
And it’s not just this collection.  I’ve read some prestigious Australian short story collections recently, and most of their stories had no endings as well.  The Age newspaper, in reviewing one of these respected annual anthologies, commented:  ‘Powerful stories take an invigorating look at daily life.’ They may be invigorating but a more apt description would be, ‘Powerful stories (with no ending) take an invigorating and (unsatisfying) look at daily life.’
You know to what part I am referring, don’t you?  That bit of the story towards which the author has been leading us.  The bit in the story where we discover what happens, where the character ends his journey: where the author makes the point of the story clear.
I’m busy you know.  We’re all busy, right?  As I walk down the aisles of bookshops or trawl the pages of an eBook portal, I always think, ‘So many books, so little time.’  So, when I read a story or a book I am entrusting my valuable time to the author.  Please entertain me, please enlighten me, please give me a ride where as I read the last words of your story, I wish it wasn’t over, even as I am thrilled by the wonderful conclusion that I didn’t see coming.  Please don’t leave me with nothing. 
You non-enders, great authors that you are, have wasted my time.  You’ve squandered my faith.  I trusted you, that you were going somewhere with this.  That you weren’t using me as a receiving receptacle for your descriptive skill.  Surely when we rave about a book to our friends, we don’t say, ‘It was five hundred pages of beautiful description, nothing happened, but it was so well written.’  No, we say, ‘It was clever how they caught the serial killer; or the last minute save of the girl by the hero was thrilling; or the narrator turned out to be a ghost.
And look, I have probably just insulted many writers—good ones too, award winners—published everywhere, with book deals.  Maybe I am just an uneducated hack who doesn't appreciate quality writing.  I love Stephen King and think he’s a genius, so maybe that says it all.

Growing up, Edgar Allen Poe, O’Henry, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Wyndham were my writing mentors.  All the stories I read and loved had twists.  Then the TV shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Outer Limits’, ‘Creepshow', taught me the cool thrill of irony.  Then along came Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and others, and I soaked those up too.  All of them have endings and wit.  They rarely let me down, paying my time at the end with a twist, with something to ponder, with a conclusion of some kind.  None of their characters ended their adventure by just sitting down. 
So when creating my own short stories I know—even if I don’t know the ending when I begin—that by the last paragraph, I need a resolution.  And if I can keep the twist or the ironic punch line hidden until the very last sentence, then I’m happy with my work.  No way, am I short-changing a reader, never, ever, no matter how brilliantly I develop my descriptive prose muscles.
But what about these other writers?  What happens when they get to the last sentence?  What goes through their minds?  Are they thinking I don’t know where to go with this?  Or that’s enough I’ve done my thousand words?  I’ve written well, so I’ll just leave it there.  Don’t they see the thing has no ending? 
So, what’s going on?  Why are readers and editors promoting these passages and calling them wonderful stories.  Great passages they may be, but stories they are not.  My teachers taught me a story needs a beginning, middle, and an end.  As much as style and content have changed over the years, I still favour that idea. 
And if I were one of those writers—the ones without endings—I would end this by walking out the door...Oh sorry, the meticulously carved cherry wood, two-metre door that causes me to pause breathless with heaving chest each time I pass beneath its magnificence.  And as I do, the silver light from the moon catches the gold fleck embedded there; casting a thousand, tiny glistening sparks across the path outside.
But I don’t write like that, so I can't end like that. 
No instead, I will say to those tellers of tales with no endings, please if you’ve never tried an ending, you may enjoy them.  It may take you a little longer but the time will be worth it—well, I won’t be cranky for one.  And if you do have a body lying in a room, can you please use your imagination and do something with it?  You know, have it bleed or say something witty.  Even making it a zombie would be okay—they’re very in right now.  Just don’t have it lie there for no reason.
And now I’ve said my piece and you may or may not agree.  Do share your thoughts below either way.  Now thats off my chest, I feel better.   But I hope you will excuse me, for suddenly, I feel a strong urge to move away from the computer, and just sit down.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Shh! Genius at work

Writing requires solitude.  This is an absolute requirement to produce great work.  Right?  I once believed this with all my heart.
But you know, I’ve adapted somewhat to not having that condition.  In fact, I don’t need solitude as much anymore.  My greatest achievement—in practising writing amidst chaos—was writing at a roller skating rink whilst my eleven year old skated with his class.  When they all started screaming, in a speed-racing event, I must admit that it did force me to pause.  Something about a hundred screaming kids really pierces the psyche and scrambles the creative mind.
As I write this, the nine year old and eleven year old are fighting and hitting each other at the other end of the room.  But I am still here with you, fellow writer.  You have my full attention.  If they start screaming in pain, I may leave for a second.  You won’t notice I hope.
Now, I am addressing the writers who are new to all this, including me—I’ll always be new.  When I start thinking, there is nothing more to know, please shoot me before I become boring.  I used to imagine, as a writer, I would be just like those pianists that walk out on the stage to tumultuous applause.  I would sit down before my computer, pin-drop-quiet silence enveloping me, crack my fingers, and begin to create.  Everybody quiet—a genius is at work.

Oh, excuse me, I pause here,—my eleven year old is just showing me how wonderful his new shirt looks on him. 
Now, I’m back.  Where was I again?
Oh, yes, as writers, we need quiet.  We need peace.  We need good chunks of time—a minimum of two hours to get anything reasonable down.  We need the planets aligned.  For us to create our works of wonder we need everything perfect.  And until that happens, well, we’re not starting.
Sorry, I stop here again.  The nine year old has just erupted from the shower, and as he did, has hit his arm on the shower screen.  Yes, it’s fine.  Now, go change; can’t you see I am writing?
Right.  Now.  Deep breath and I’m back with you, my dear writers.  So, we need it all wonderful and perfect because we need to delve into our creative side.  And that creative side is special.  It’s quite the diva, actually.  She won’t come out to play in poor weather, or when the lights are too bright, or if there is a mess on the desk.  No, she can’t and she won’t.  And don’t demand anything of her if you are not prepared.  She may never come again if not shown the true respect she deserves.
I do apologise, the nine year old can’t find his pyjamas.  Hold that thought and I’ll be back shortly.
There that only took a moment.
Now enough of the interruptions.  I can’t work this way.  What I will eventually write will be rubbish.  So, perhaps I should delay until they are in bed and I’m alone and the noisy day is nearing an end.  You know what I am saying, don’t you?  We are talented and we can’t work like this.

I should be at a Writer’s retreat with no kids, no TV, no distractions, where I am free to indulge my inner genius.  You’re nodding in agreement, aren’t you?  Your work will rule supreme there, and you, the master, treated with the thoughtfulness and concern you deserve.  I’m sure fellow writer or “hopeful writer”, just like me, you sometimes also wish for these surroundings. 
Jeffrey Archer likes perfect peace in his office, with no interruptions, so he may churn out his best sellers.  However, he recounts in an amused and bemused tone that he wrote his most critically acclaimed work, his “Prison Diary” series, whilst incarcerated, surrounded by the noise and uncomfortable circumstances,  you can imagine accompany such a situation.
Even J.K. Rowlings finished her last book, “Deathly Hallows”, at a swanky hotel because there was no peace in her house.  This, despite her having written the first brilliant Harry Potter book whilst famously sitting in a cafe to stay warm.  She said of the move to the hotel, ‘I may as well throw some money at this last book and get it done.’  I’m sure she didn’t need to do that.  But, hey, if you can, why not?
But let’s face it.  I’m not getting a hotel or a retreat and you probably won’t either.  I don’t have any money to throw at it—not yet anyway.  Also, I think I would miss the kids too much—not positive on that one.  And, I’d only come home to loads of washing and vacuuming.  So what would be the point?

So, because the idea of this blog landed upon me and I just wouldn’t have time to write it tomorrow, I am now sitting in the middle of a noisy house—on my lounge, actually, with the TV blaring.  I do this because I have no alternative.  I’ve learnt that the planets rarely align, and your world is never at peace.  But if you want to write, you must steal your moments.  Trust me stolen moments are better than no moments at all.  I’ve had twenty-five years of no moments and I truly regret them.
Many people tell me, ‘I’d love to write, but I don’t have the time’—as if, I sat around the house painting my nails before embarking on a writing career.  If you are going to write, you write, wherever you can—whenever you can. 
And you teach yourself to be less of a diva, to be more of a hack—to be a producer of words, under any circumstance.  You don’t hear Olympians saying I can’t compete it’s too hot, too cold, the crowd is too loud—excluding the tennis pros; they’re special you know.
No, you become a master of your creativity and you don’t take no for an answer from the almighty Pulitzer Prize winning genius in you.  I’m not saying their demands, for a quiet work environment, aren’t reasonable.  It’s a lot better to create in peace but if you don’t have quiet then go right ahead and write anyway.  
It may be the best thing you’ve ever done for your work ethic.  Show that creative genius of yours who really is boss.  Until you put your foot down, you will never know whether you can or you can’t perform.  Instead, you will be just wishing, and hoping and dreaming.  And those things just won’t get it done.

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