Which pitch?

Next week (Wednesday 24/10/12) I will be pitching my novel to a publisher in my MA Writing class.  I have two options so far and both are subject to changes. Let me know what works best and what questions you have from either as a reader. What would you download on a kindle or buy after reading on the back of a book? Or if it’s neither – what am I missing? I’m also trying to work out which working title I prefer:  The Dictionary of Departures or The Distorted Dictionary.

If you can’t post on wordpress I’m on Twitter @ClareDoran Thanks 🙂

Option One

The Distorted Dictionary 

One girl. Two boys. One dictionary.

When Gina Ellis gets out of an emotionally abusive relationship, she tries to understand how she got there in the first place, taking us through her experiences and penning new dictionary definitions under ordinary words to make sense of her life.

Heartbreaking scenes of her Mum’s death redefine the meaning of a ‘hug, ’ her sex life is bracketed under ‘fridge’ and ‘peace’ is disturbed by both the biting fish in her stomach caused by grief  and the tropical kind; the Liverpool girls with their big hair, colourful make-up and expertly chosen clothes that she longs to be like.  Gina thinks she is a goldfish, plain and worthless, until she is abducted and must fight for her life.

Option Two 

The Distorted Dictionary 

One girl. Two boys. One dictionary. Twenty-six re-definitions  Lots of fish. A fight for survival.

When Gina Ellis gets out of an emotionally abusive relationship, she tries to understand how she got there in the first place, taking us through her experiences and penning new dictionary definitions under ordinary words to make sense of her life.

From heartbreaking scenes of her Mum’s death which redefines the meaning of a ‘hug’, to the repercussions on her family where the word ‘censor’ takes on many forms, Gina needs to find a sense of peace.

But she must also get over the fish which in their new definition are the nibbly, biting ones in her stomach caused by her grief but also the tropical versions; the Liverpool girls with their big hair, colourful make-up and expertly chosen clothes that she longs to be like. You see in her head Gina is a goldfish, plain and worthless, and until she gets over that then her real love interest, long-term friend but elusive Anthony, will remain out of reach.

Unfortunately her old life with ex-Daniel is a redefinition she is yet to get away from, and just as the fish start to settle she is abducted and must fight for her life.

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The Distorted Dictionary:Prologue

The city was melting. The view from the window was a series of distorted flashes, buildings flew past. The occasional people were just thick and thin dark shapes showed up by street lights or set against the warm rays of homes, or pubs. It was a wet, cold night. The rain kicked at the pavements and drove people towards the lights. Even if I kicked at the door, somehow unravelled myself from the tight bands and managed to get it open, I’d die on the road.

Tying my hands was only so that I wouldn’t open the door if we had to stop at the lights, he’d said, not that we stopped at many.  It was getting darker outside and the windows of the Audi were tinted so no one would have looked in and seen my awkward pose inside.  He’d put the seatbelt around me gently, moved past my bruising arm from where he’d grabbed me at the front door.  My mouth still ached and the pain spread across my cheeks and peaked at my jaw. I was past terror; my body and mind had started to shut down, block out, tune out, even my stomach had stopped its continual internal jittering.

The reason for my rush from car to front door at night had actually happened; someone had emerged from the ready-in-waiting Crime Watch scene hedge. The hand over my mouth, the gasp for breath, the dragging across the driveway, my heels scratching against the paving leaving marks, the plaster running down my throat from the hand on my face, until we were back in my own car.

The gag had been pulled off once we had gathered enough speed. He’d pulled it away from my mouth somewhere near Liverpool John Lennon Airport. We were heading along the river, following it, watching it dip in the distance between waters. The black waters that were waiting to take me down, waves like watery hands that would soon pour into my throat and replace the charred dryness.

The key was never to let people get away if you could.  That’s what he kept saying. He’d said it at the funeral in a drunken blurry conversation. But he’d said it again now. I had tried to get away too often.  But not today.

The car made a low droning sound. The engine was like a bee bursting through a room trying to escape or an agitated wasp ready to sting.

At the next set of lights, he issued a low warning to me. If I move he will crash the car into the nearest wall. He doesn’t care what happens to him.  I will never make it out if I try anything.  We headed on. My head banged against the window as the car took a sudden lurch, the cold pain a reminder that I was still here; I was not dissolving.

The sky dipped to the side, folds of colour with prominent pink as the car swerved and we headed over grass towards the waterfront. The smell of petrol dotted across the car left over from the revving before he shut all the windows, shut me in. My stomach heaved with it.  The tinge of apple from the plastic fruit bobbing under the mirror is against the clogging oil.  Both fight for space as I breathed in and out again in a choke of white chards.

The skyline ahead seemed to be waving in big folds of dark hills, up and down, with lights and cranes and ships. The other side was always waiting to be built.

He drove until we almost hit the bollard, the big chunks of iron that start on the pavement after the grass. There was a careful pull between them, a practised manoeuvre, an awareness that this particular bollard was wider and caved in on one side, allowing a car to just get in.

He’d been here before.  Saliva clogged in my mouth and mixed with the blood from where I bit my tongue when the hand gripped over me.  He’d been here before. Perhaps he walked up and down the pavement, under the twinkling lights of the street lamp, felt the hard ground against his pacing, his planning, watched the clouds jump and stretch themselves across the sky like they are now.

A photo fell from the visor and fluttered down by my feet. I can make out the Eiffel Tower in the background and my own smiling face as one half. But that picture was a lie in so many ways.  I’d taken mine out of the frame and tore it up into little pieces only yesterday, when I still had choices.

The car shuddered to a stop. He turned the lights off.  It was just us and the river with life behind us and beyond it.

Someone on the other side of the river, in my position, would have the right view.  They would have the two Cathedrals, the RadioCityTower, and the new buildings that had sprung up and rooted around Liverpool One like shards of glass heading for the heavens, all poking up from the blackness and setting against the pink sky like familiar friends.

But all I wanted was my Mum.  It was always the same, like my mind could never get used to the fact that this was impossible.

Yet this thought started a fight in me, bringing the terror again, but with it some power to fight, to try.

A reflex, a weak one from my tired throat brought out the pointless words.

‘Help me.’

But it was a start. It had unsettled him and moments later I had a plan.

All Day Breakfast

He would never leave. She would never leave.

They were like the lingering smell of the fried food she made in the kitchen, and all that accompanied it.  The eggs, bacon, bread, the incongruous mix of air freshener and the barely concealed cigarette smoke.

The fresh air tries to make an entrance through the back door, held open by the chair for the one who never sits.  But it fails to make an impact.  Flies from the rosebush outside get in through the slits in the rusty barred window. Tommy hammered in the bars years ago after Neil had climbed out as a child, falling onto the concrete slabs below and smashing in his teeth.

She stands, holds the cigarette out, looks out of the back door at the neat garden, bides her time.

‘Mum, can I have a bacon butty please?’

She throws the cigarette out of the door at these words after one final drag into sunken lips. She has thrown it carefully so that it hits the drain, easier to unblock it later then. She is Margie, not Mum, but it doesn’t help to tell some people.

‘I’ll make you a full English,’ she calls back. Best to get him filled up now so that she can relax again.  He enters the kitchen and brings with him that slightly unwashed smell, like when a child has played out all afternoon and then whipped a bit of water over their face when told to wash.

‘Did you wash your hands?’

‘Yes, soap and water.’ He holds them out.

‘You bloody liar.’ She points to the door. Clomp, clomp up the stairs, pause and then clomp, clomp back down.  She waits.

The map of the world on the wall of the kitchen mocks her as she checks for the packet of cigarettes in her pocket.  They are hidden. There are enough left. She looks at this map often. Sometimes she traces the pattern of America with her soapy fingers. Imagining.  Some parts of the southern states smile at her.  Tommy used to say, ‘I’ll take you here, I’ll take you there, I’ll take you anywhere.’  That was before Neil.  The only place she ended up going was a semi-detached house in the not-as-posh as it sounds ‘Huyton-with-Roby’.  Actually just Roby nowadays, even the council got bored of the hyphens on signs and tripping off high-climbing tongues.

‘It’s a smashing area love – everyone will be really jealous that we’re moving there,’ he had said. A socialist and a social climber was Tommy.  In the end she didn’t really know if anyone was jealous or not. She hardly saw them. Transport links were rubbish; she didn’t drive. Tommy worked long hours or fought the local council on ‘issues’ and then there was Neil.

Instead the washing machine was her swishing clothed sea with waves made out of trousers and t-shirts bashing at the sides. The oven was her red sunset. The tiles lining the walls and beneath her feet took on a shell-like, pebbly quality, like walking on a shore.  That was all she had. It was enough to make you laugh, or cry. She didn’t do much of either any more.

The dishes in the sink are still soaking in warm suds from Tommy’s breakfast. Her husband always needed a good feed before he went off to fight his latest cause. And what else to fight when you march with arthritic limbs then a pension cut? He’s been around the block as many times as she had. Why did he never see that things didn’t change, help didn’t come?

She starts the preparations again, peeling the bacon from the packet, stretching it across the pan, cracking eggs and lining up toast ready for its turn. Neil’s back now and stands in the arched doorway, holds another toy he is too big for, waits to be told he can enter.

‘Sit down. It’ll be ready in a minute.’  He sits. She turns back to the cooker and flips the bacon over. It is burnt on one side but he would never notice or know how to complain.  She glances at the table. He has tried to set it again. The knife and fork look like they’ve fallen out; spread at opposite sides of the placemat, on the sides they’re not meant to be on.  Her quick hands put the knife and fork on the right sides before turning back to the cooker.  Neil’s eyes flick up at hers and then down again bashfully.  They are the colour of the olives that remain unopened in the cupboard.  They stay in the jar next to the collection of spices, scary in their variance and smells, bought by her daughter Jayne and never used.  Trying to put some spice into her life it seemed. All she needed was the salt and pepper, safe, reliable and in their supermarket packets.

The table he sits at is wooden and plain with one chair. There is one coaster and one placemat available only. Beyond it a tumble of fruit and veg she hasn’t put away yet.  She has never made this a setting for guests but he will not be deterred.

The egg is a sun on his plate waiting to be dipped into with a white wobbly saucer as protection and sausages lined up in overly-oiled speckled brown coats. It is a good breakfast. She does it well, knows this.  But everything had lost its flavour a long time ago.

Even that buttery smell that rides down the throat was too familiar; it caught at her lungs now, threatened a choking.  In her mind the bacon has rolled up on the plate like a clenched fist. She could have worked in a café, wanted to once.

She could have been a lot of things. Working in a biscuit factory was a good little job, she liked it mind with all the women, hens together on a battery line chattering away.  That had ended.

To put the accompanying cup of tea down, she has to move Neil’s forms for college.

‘Are they my college forms Mum?’ He chatters, excited as though he’s never been before.   He has recognised the logo of the college. He passes it to get in to his lessons; sometimes things like this stick.  That’s why it has always been so hard to explain. People used to be crueller.

‘But what’s wrong with him?’ A parent at school, years ago.  What could she say?  I’d like to strangle you until you’re as starved of oxygen as he was at birth. That’s what she wanted to say in her angriest moments. But she never did.

So she has filled these form in again. Another year and the same thing. It’ll never make any difference the way it should, but the education Neil Redward needs is of a different kind. Nowadays the specially enlisted tutors who know about these kinds of problems explain this to her. She knows. She has known it for almost forty years since that first day they brought Neil home from the hospital and something wasn’t right.

Neil finally sets down his toy, his transformer soldier figure with all its complicated bits.  Contraptions like this never existed when he was the right age to play with them.

‘Thanks Mum,’ he inhales the food greedily.  There is a speed to his eating that resonates with her. She picks up a piece of bacon left bubbling in the pan, wraps it in a piece of stray bread and swallows in short, sharp bites. He eats quickly because there is always something else to do.

Today it is the toy which waits with little patience. She eats quickly because she no longer likes food. It’s not what the kitchen is for.  He does laps of the plate with a small piece of toast, fingernails bitten down to the skin.

This is her territory; she can decide who comes in with the swish of a mop, an offer to take dirty clothes and finish with clean fresh-smelling ones back up in folded piles. It was in the ‘I’ll make the cup of tea’, ‘I’ll fetch you that drink’ or ‘of course I’ll put that toast on for you’.  Keeping one room under control was manageable.            She was always armed, with a pinny, a mop, a rolling pin, hidden vices in drawers that the others didn’t need to know about.

This was something she worked out a long time ago.  Neil got in every room, whether it was soiled clothes stuffed down the sides of radiators, stale food. Half her own bedroom was Tommy’s.  There was only the kitchen.

‘When does Tommy get back from work?’ he asks, with his mouth full.

‘Your father will be back at three o’clock.’

How did Tommy escape being labelled with the correct parental term and she had not? It was Mum and Tommy, one a functional address and one a person.

There is a big white framed clock ticking to the left of the cooker clearly states one. Neil stares at it for several minutes. She looks away and starts sorting the dishes. The still wet ones are helped to dry off with a soft table cloth patterned with roses which she spins in her hands.

‘How many hours is that away?’

‘Two,’ she long ago gave up explaining time. Family with the right distance, friends trying to be helpful, special tutors who get paid to try, they all still do it, but that was up to them.   Two hours until the not so great escape from the smell of breakfasts cooked out of time and everything else.

He leaves the kitchen.  The air of tension caught up in her starts to unwind as she rinses the greased pan, sets the table right again, puts everything back in the places her eyes and mind know.  The television hits the quiet calm with a loud appearance.

‘Lower that down!’ she commands from the sink.

There is an obvious stumble in the silence which follows. She waits as the volume comes back on and then increases first before being directed the right way.

She didn’t really need, or want the TV any more.  Just a few books, the radio, the cigarettes hidden in the broken drawer under a checked tea towel and martini bottle stashed at the back.

The books were mainly charity shop horror classics, the type that had pictures on the front of men and women with the devil in their eyes. These books didn’t pretend to be anything.  They held twisted, angry demons.  Between them, breaking up the nightmarish covers, were ‘romantic classics’ bought by her grown up children, mainly Jayne.

‘Did you enjoy that one Mam?’ She would ask.

‘Oh yes it was a lovely read.’

Thank God she never read them either and couldn’t ask about the plot or purpose behind the couples kissing on horseback or in boats, lives as thin as the books. Real people led fatter lives, with more meat on them, dripping like the fat off bacon. No, she couldn’t be doing with love stories.

She thinks about upstairs. His bed would still be wet from the night before. She curses herself for leaving it so long again.  Years of it behind and ahead of her, this thought stops her.  Instead she carefully reaches into the broken drawer and then sloshes some of the martini into a glass.  None of the other rooms are safe.

The dining table was a place outside of the kitchen, in the living room, where she had to pretend that this was normal, this family extended, in time not people. This group of three, who in ordinary terms would not still be together in one home. It should be that Neil drops in, drives from his own place, and brings his own family. Thoughts of what should have been upset her. The glass loses all evidence of alcohol as she washes it.

She looks at Neil as he comes in hunting for biscuits in the cupboard and tries to see what others did.  Most people saw a man, a grown one, with dark hair speckled with grey and curled slightly; friendly, approachable, ambiguously capable.

‘Mum, where are the biscuits?’

‘The breakfast not enough for you?’  But she pulls open the cupboard under the stairs and takes out the ‘secret’ tin anyway.

‘Cool Mum, excellent, thanks!’ He stuffs a chocolate bourbon in his mouth and zooms off with the toy which has now become a flying device. She nibbles absently on a pink and yellow biscuit. Having Neil around should keep her young, fresh.  But she was worn, old, like a hoover that needed replacing. He looked at her and saw someone to come to for food, cleaning, help, a life source for the rest of his.

The doorbell rang. A young man with an earnest face, in jeans and a smart checked shirt wearing a fleece jacket that made his face waxy with sweat, stands with a clipboard talking about a charity.

‘You look hot,’ she nods at the drips on his forehead, thinks that he might want a drink. This could be a chance for some adult conversation.

‘You’re not too bad yourself,’ he answered with a light smile on his lips. She could feel her creased face redden.

‘Not interested sorry.’ And then she shut the door. What a fool. Why did words have to change their meaning?

The mirror on the wall challenged her.  You’re not too bad yourself

She was.

You’re a bubble Grandmother. The mirror said. Smoothing down the bubble perm haircut that she swore she’d never have, the reflection pointed out the lines on her face as her increasingly impatient hands ran over them. Stepping back she saw  a thinning body that was once fashionably rounded, lines on her face and hands that led nowhere, eyes that would once have looked at all this and cared.  She feels like another cigarette, if there is time.

Tommy returns shortly after. She hears the front door opening and the excited callings of Neil.  The air freshener hits the kitchen, drops of guilty appley fumes. At last she can have her few hours out.  Escapism rather than escape is almost upon her.  He enters the kitchen just as she is putting on her coat which she hangs on the back of the door.  He darts around her as swiftly as his sinking bones will let him,  starts telling her about his morning ‘meeting’ and his latest ‘battle’ with the council. She thinks about telling of her battle with the bottle of bleach after Neil had missed the toilet again.  Instead she says a variation of what she always says.

‘You’re exhausting yourself.’

‘Someone has to fight them.’

‘Oh I know that.’ Her voice sounds curt.  But it is impossible to stop.

‘Why do you need to go out again?’ Tommy asks.

‘No potatoes.’ She is undeterred. The bag is safely hidden in the bottom cupboard.

‘The kids are only calling for a bit. They’ll probably have some eggs and bacon as usual.’ He slowly shrugs off a boot.

‘Do you want to come with me.’ A statement not a question.

‘No love, I’m really tired,’ he pats her shoulder gently.

They play this game almost daily. It is the routine. And besides he is as lost as her but does it in other places. At first with his daily work on buildings, wiring and rewiring, and now retirement hours that need filling, the social club with the other angry men and protest marches, in the past for cuts in services, and in the present pension slices, as though their old age was a standard of living to aspire to.

‘Would you like a lift? She shrugs this off and talks about fresh air. Luckily outside is crisp and dry.  He ignores the open back door and the freshly tended garden with the wooden seating. Plus the bus is always on time and is one of the ‘comfy’ types.  It rattles around like a yellow carriage for pensioners and other unfortunates. Sitting on it is like being in a wall to wall horror mirror at a fair, filled with thin lips and wrinkled faces, that damp coat smell.

Tommy is no better. His grey hairs, thin but still covering most of his head are facing her now as he bends over to undo his shoes. Each movement is an awkward, arthritic moment.

‘Are you ok?’ She half-heartedly offers to help as usual.  He waves her off with the usual proud, barely concealed annoyance.  She leaves.

The bus stops right outside the house. She always thinks of going further, but HuytonVillage was where the bus would stop. Anything else requires planning.  Besides this was a circular bus with circular hopes. The journey is quicker than she would like and the destination is as she expects.

There is a little circle of bargain bucket shops and other harassed stay at home mums. But they are all younger than her and their children would not always be stay at home.  She wants to shout at them, pull holes in their stupid idiotic complaints.

‘I turned around and said to him you’re the baby’s Dad and your little slut of a new girlfriend shouldn’t come first.’ One girl is pushing a pram tainted with young sweat and cheap perfume that settles across the air alongside her threats.

‘You’re right love. You’re worth a million of her; you and the baby.’ The other one shuffles in her own baby weight and tight jeans, chomping on a sausage roll.

Sometimes she wants to pull holes in them, tear at their hair, their jeans, dresses, tracksuits, faces of mocked misery and pretend pick pocketed souls.  These girls who think they’re fighting for something were nothing, not even hard done to, stuffing their face with pasties. They were nothing more than sausage roll suffragettes. Instead she picks up a few things, household bits, washing up liquid on a two for one offer, some more Martini at the bottom of her heavy cotton shopping bag and cigarettes in her pocket, but not potatoes.

It was time to be getting home. The kids would be ‘dropping in’ for a couple of hours. No longer kids like the one she still had at home, but they resorted back to some role-playing out of habit. Can you make us one of your lovely breakfasts Mam. Yes, yes and she would hurry them out.

And surely as the bus pulls into its makeshift stop, there are the cars, the emblems of the extra ‘support’ in the house.   The busy road breathes petrol fuels into her face. Huyton-with-Roby joined other places like the hyphens in its title. Nearly everyone there is on the way to somewhere else.

She stands at the side of the road and waits. One day the courage to move the toe over the edge, lose her footing, fall out into the road and hope for the best, might arrive.  Except it wouldn’t. Because if she did this, who would look after him? Who would really look after him? Tommy would not manage on his own. Would any of the sheltered accommodations look after him in the way she could? A shudder ran down her spine at the stories she’s heard about them. When he wanted something, if he wanted food, would they make him wait, torment him? At school he’d come home one day with a broken finger, bent back by a bully, another time a violent chill after being thrown in a cold bath of water on a trip away.  No, she would have to stay.

She crosses the road. With a deep breath she enters her own house.  A chubby bald baby holds a fat finger out to Tommy who takes it and sings. It was like looking at a family photo.

Jayne is hovering too close to the kitchen door. She is amazed at her own hidden anger at her daughter’s hand moving towards the handle, her voice offering to make tea. The cool tiles, the comforting cooker, the appliances that rhythmically kept in time with her, serve to alleviate this rage but they cannot work for too long. She is never scared of what she could do in the kitchen, as long as she is left alone. They need to get back into the living room and she tells them this, waves Jane’s hand away, in a laugh and joke routine.  They play along.

She cooks and serves, ignoring protests to sit down, instead taking up small portions back where she feels safe. They laugh and joke with Neil as she sits, waiting for them to leave, a vacant smile that goes unnoticed. In the kitchen, hidden with the cleaning products under the sink, unlit cigarettes and an empty glass waiting to be filled.

Write up your life?

‘So am I in it?’

 

The response you will get at least once when you tell someone that you’re writing a novel. And most of the time they’re not really joking. In truth the answer should be, no – but a small fraction of your personality might be mixed in with twenty other people’s character traits, or maybe half a sentence that you said once or a slither of a Facebook status. I’m currently trawling Facebook for inspiration and it really is quite brilliant what people say. It reminds me of another comment people make, ‘you should write about my life, honestly you couldn’t write it.’ Well no I couldn’t and I wouldn’t want to. But I can rearrange it and steal some parts from you.

 

That’s what writing from personal experience is; it’s mixing it up, spicing it up, and developing events, people and places into something new. Because life really isn’t that exciting. Unless it is and you’re writing a memoir.

 

But what happens when authors are writing something really disturbing that goes beyond the boundaries of what society considers normal? Even I do the ‘is this your life in some way’ when reading a book. I think to myself – but how did the writer knowthat and know it so well? Yet then I remember that writing fiction is an extension of real life but not always the author’s life.

 

And writers read, often a ridiculous amount, they also watch, listen and learn from everything, so in the end the extensions come out of everywhere. A story could therefore be from the memory of a book read once, mixed with a character they know or combinations of people they know and how they would act in that situation, with snippets of a film or news item once watched and snatches of conversation from an unrelated resource. The final result through all this would not necessarily be something the author had experienced themselves although it might contain the emotions they have felt from other events.

 

Of course there are elements of death in my work and a lot of social work issues. I have experienced both and it’s a shame not to use it. I felt a bit bad about this when writing a particularly harrowing death scene but then this coincided with a time when Jimmy McGovern came to visit our MA Writing group (by the way please watch The Accused currently on the BBC – a great example of how good he is). He was talking about writing from experience and mentioned alongside retelling how his Father died said he remembered thinking, ‘This is awful…I’ll use this.’ He wasn’t making light of it but like all writers, he was making something of it.

 

So how much of an author’s life goes into their work?

 

Experience

 

Some famous examples are actually quote surprising. The Dementors of Harry Potter, which feed on positive emotions, were inspired by J. K. Rowling’s bout with severe depression before her success. She described the feeling as an “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.” So this became an element of her work.

 

Rowling said her Mother’s death also heavily affected her writing and that she introduced much more detail about Harry’s loss in the first book, because she knew about how it felt.

On a lighter side, JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew but stated that he would be unlikely to recognise himself.

 

Reading

 

Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi must have been inspired by the thirteen months he spent in India visiting temples and zoos and the two years he spent reading religious texts and castaway stories as the protagonist explores issues of spirituality. But his inspiration for the book actually came from reading a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 novella Max and the Cats, about a Jewish-German refugee who crossed the Atlantic Ocean while sharing his boat with a jaguar. This almost didn’t end well for Martel as Scliar was annoyed that he hadn’t been consulted about the idea and was considering whether to take any action. They spoke and the issue was resolved. A dedication to Scliar “for the spark of life” appears in the author’s note of Life of Pi.

 

Listening

 

JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You came about after she heard a radio story about a young rugby player who had been left quadriplegic and persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas. Moyes was shocked by the story and it wouldn’t leave her mind, so she decided to write her own version.

 

Watching

 

Referring to another favourite of mine The Raw Shark Texts, is in the last section a literary retelling of the film Jaws, and must have been inspired in some part by Steven Hall watching this film. Casablanca is also referred to in the book with the line ‘Here’s lookin’ at you kid’ ending the novel and giving the reader a hint that Eric is alive and in a conceptual universe.

 

Or are we just terrible people?

 

The late Nina Bawden’s classic children’s novel Carrie’s War drew from her own evacuation during the second world war. But Bawden was a bit more harsh in her idea of how writers use life. In writing both for adults and children, she liked “making use of all my life, all memory, wasting nothing”; her books, if read in sequence, were a “coded autobiography”. She concluded in her opinion that:

“All writers are liars. They twist events to suit themselves. They make use of their own tragedies to make a better story … They are terrible people.”

Terrible people, liars or simply sharers of experiences? I prefer this idea:

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ” Joss Whedon

But maybe all writers should carry warnings (robbed from a retweet by writer Nicola Copeland @NCopes87):

Taking the Time to Unpack

Something I always struggle with in my writing is the show versus tell debate. A fellow writer, Sarah Tarbit (check out her blog http://sarahtarbit.blogspot.co.uk/ ) posted some advice from Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) as a possible solution.  

He starts with a simple declaration:
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

He was definitely right about the first part. But there was a possibility he could be about the second, so I decided to try it.  

Following Palahniuk’s rules in my writing would mean cutting out all thought verbs: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realises, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

This went on to include love and hate, is and has. I couldn’t think of many words I would have left for my characters to play with unless they moved through a sea of constant description invoking the five senses on a continual basis.  But would that be a bad thing?

Instead of the character wondering something for example, I would have to unpack into description, gestures and actions, presenting the right details to the reader using specific sensory detail.  

However, I quickly realised that gestures and actions could replace thought verbs and leave more room for sensory verbs like felt, heard, saw, looked, touched, smelled, etc. And it did still read well, in fact it read better.

There were other obvious benefits to this, including increasing my novel word count. Look at how Palahniuk turns one sentence into several.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

So, although the idea terrified me, at first it was working. I could feel myself writing differently and in fact certain scenes were coming to life. But then I got stuck again. I was trying to do too much unpacking.  And I was doing this in first person which I started to think made a real difference.

I did my usual research with the question ‘what do other writers do?’

I’m reading The Slap at the moment so I turned to that first, which is in third person perspective. Tsiolkas seems to mix it up so that devices such as photos (particularly for Connie where I’m up to currently) take over the thought verbs with description. He also makes the characters bounce off each other and uses their dialogue both for and against them. For example the swearing and violence of Harry’s language tells us a lot about him.  In fact when we first meet him, it is the descriptions of his surroundings, the food he smells, his arrogant and self-satisfied actions, and not thoughts that set the scene.  (Note: for characterisation techniques, read this book – Tsiolkas is a master at creating multiple characters from different backgrounds, ages, sexes and lives).

But was this just applicable for the style of narration where we aren’t speaking directly as the character and could therefore afford some distance? I opened a random page of  JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You  (which by the way is fantastic and will be featuring in a future blog piece ‘under the covers of ‘chick-lit’) and noticed a bit more packing was going on: I wished, I was so lost in my thoughts, I realised – but they were interspersed between action, dialogue and description and not as common as I thought they would be in first person.

From this I saw that a little bit of packing usually needs to take place between the unpacking for this to work in any perspective. It also became apparent that unpacking takes time; it can’t be rushed and therefore it makes you pay attention to every word that you write. 

Francine Prose, the little bible on my desk that is Reading like a Writer provided some further insight.  She offers a passage from Alice Munro where the thought verb ‘noticed’ is used twice and also quite a bit of telling goes on.  

Prose states that she uses this Munro piece to deliberately contradict ‘a form of bad advice often given young writers – namely that the job of the author is to show, not tell.’

What I gained from Prose was the fact that although ‘is’ and ‘has’ can be used a lot, thought verbs don’t have to prominent when a writer is telling e.g. ‘she had worked as an editor…she was also a poet.’ These things tell us quick facts about the character without venturing too much into how they think and feel about it.
Unpacking the Wheelie Bin

I decided to unpack a scene from my window.  This whole unpacking theme does fit into the fact that we have recently moved house. There is actually an unpacked box under my writing desk but I’m not taking that as a metaphor.  And what you are about to read did happen, but the police came while I was still typing so it all ended well apart from the wheelie bin died and is still a melted mess on the field, sorry to ruin the ending but I don’t have time to write it.

Instead of the ‘packed’ : I could tell that he loved fire or just he loved fire, I did this instead:

The flames licked at the tall boy’s face. A slow smile spread across it and his eyes lit up for more reasons than the fire dancing in it.  He threw scraps of furniture on the fire that burnt in seconds, to satisfy a quick rage.  He was standing so close that the tracksuit, loose against his body, closed against his skin as though shrinking away from the heat.

And in first person from the perspective of one of the police:

Packed: I wished that the kids would stop doing this. I realised that the younger community officer cycling up on his bike felt the same. But I knew it would happen again of course.  I noticed how they all ran off in a streamed line, like ants who knew where the holes to their underground homes were.  The smell of the fire was strong. 

Unpacked: I watched the kids run off like little tracksuited black ants pouring back into hedges and holes leading to the usual tracks they were used to escaping through.  But there were plenty more wheelie bins, bits of furniture outside gates of alleyways, long summer days nights to fill with parents who encouraged ‘playing out’ and an empty field wide with weeds and tall grass ready to burn. The smell of fire filling nosy residents’ noses until they spluttered out the taste of the smoke and dialed 999 again and again. 
‘I’m fucking fed up of the kids around here.’  The community officer pulled up on his bike, eyes still on the wheelie bin.  It didn’t matter. The kids would do it again. 

Now all I have to do is properly practise unpacking and then unpack my novel which is at 67,000 words so far…I might unpack the box under my desk first. 

So it goes…

my first blog post.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of Mother Night, one of my listed influences later in this blog post, used the phrase ‘So it goes’ 106 times in another of his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to do this.  However, I did think it was a good idea to start a writing blog looking at some of the writers who influence me.
As this blog develops I’ll be exploring what I read and write with the main aim of getting over my fear of other people reading my work. And also to improve, learn, develop and be able to think of myself as a writer.
I suppose the phrase and Vonnegut’s use of it; life, death, dying and mortality, providing comic relief, moving on and both accepting and dismissing everything, is perhaps what I’m trying to do with my writing.  
There probably won’t be many opportunities to read my fiction on here. That’s not just because I’m not brave enough. Copyright rules seem to suggest in most cases that publishers and agents don’t accept work that has appeared on blogs or websites as it’s seen as previously published.  This is the same for many competitions.  So it goes as a better idea to go with things that come into my head, views on writing, books I’m reading, techniques, views from my window, World War Two (I’ve got to stop following tweets from 1940 – it’s scaring the life out of me as if I don’t know the ending), etc.
So it goes that this is my attempt at gaining some writing confidence.  And I’m not hiding behind Kurt Vonnegut here. It just makes sense for what I want to say.  I think it’s important to take the best influences from great writers and use it to improve.
I revise and edit work consistently. It’s never good enough.  I know that writing is rewriting but sometimes I don’t think I know where to stop. But I won’t be rewriting my blog posts. This will be words on the page as they are, a practice run in believing in my own words more.  
And what better time to start than now? After all in some other words of Kurt Vonnegut, ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead.’
So it goes that I want to talk about my top ten writing influences. I have to add that I complied this list last year and all that has changed is I would put the fantastic Kate Long alongside Marion Keyes.  Kate’s work is an example of amazing character technique and voice.  I’ve reviewed her latest book on Amazon and would recommend her to all writers and readers.  http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/pdp/profile/A3J46OQ7U7G29N/ref=cm_cr_pr_pdp

I’ve also recently discovered Deborah Morgan and Sharon Owens, and with each new brilliant writing find like these; I’m inspired to continue trying.
So it goes that I hope writing a blog gets easier and that one day I make it into someone’s top ten.
Booked-up – my top ten influences
I chose this list at random from a number of titles I’d scribbled across a notebook. Breakdowns, mental illness, grief, family issues, alternative realities, Nazis, blasphemy, and some dark chick lit, hmmm…
1.  My Oedipus Complex – Frank O’Connor. A brilliant short story that captures a child’s voice blended subtly with an adult perspective and although it has a good viewpoint from families in war – the issues of these family relationships are quite timeless.  It’s also very funny: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2010/dec/07/helen-dunmore-frank-oconnor
2. The Raw Shark Texts – debut novel by Steven Hall, – literally (or literary) Jaws but with words, and a great idea of an alternative reality. At the same time it is a very sad story when you step back and see what it’s really about. Can you surround yourself with words as a form of protection in life (not just from sharks)?
3. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel – I’d love to have thought of this! A hyena, a monkey, a whingeing zebra and a tiger called Richard or…choose which version you believe when you hear it again within the same novel.
4. Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut – perhaps the best and most honest foreword to a novel. It really raised the question ‘what would you do?’ when caught in certain periods of history. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. “We all need someone to look at us.”  He divided people into four types based on this: those who need a public of unknown eyes, those who need familiar eyes, those who want to be in the eyes of the person they love, and the dreamers who live to be seen by an imagined being.  A friend and I (reading this at 18) decided we were the last type but couldn’t find many people who also chose this option (it makes more sense if you read the full explanation in the novel).  Apart from that I think the book annoyed me overall.
6.  God is Dead – Ron Currie. This raises questions through nightmarish satire (I seem to like this theme). What would we do if it was confirmed that there was no God or that a God no longer existed? The world doesn’t end but after the expected chaos people begin worshipping their children (think financial advice from a child leading to investment in hungry hippos), and in what seems to be an obsession of mine in fiction, animals have a central role, see the chapter: “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse.”
7. The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger – ‘Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re a Catholic’- true in a way if you’ve had a strict Catholic upbringing – maybe because the rituals are so strange even from modern Catholic schools and have a lasting effect (I don’t mean this in a dark way at all).  It can feel like emerging from a cult and outsiders might say ‘what do you mean you were made to go to mass every week until you were 16?’ and we had a mass for everything in school too and most of us could probably recite mass or at least sing a few hymns all the way through. I also like the idea that Jesus picked the Disciples at random so it wasn’t really his fault how they turned out (I laughed out loud on a plane to that bit). And of course the baseball mitt which I think reveals the whole reason behind the main character’s behaviour.
8. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath –  I found the fig tree analogy brilliant in describing how it feels wanting to do too much in life and therefore missing out on being good at anything through indecisiveness.  I always think when I read this: ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but then bring it down further to not even being at ‘jack’ level through being so unfocused.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
9. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. I’ve never seen the film, but apparently it is very different? Horrors for the past treatment of mental illness and lobotomy aside, and all the characters may be flawed but you still don’t want the ending to happen the way it does.
10. Marion Keyes – should never be underestimated as people so often try to do with ‘chick-lit’.  She’s truly brilliant and her work is both funny and moving, light and dark. Rachel’s Holiday (drug addiction), This Charming Man (violence towards women). Best described from her website: “The books deal variously with modern ailments, including addiction, depression, domestic violence, the glass ceiling and serious illness, but always written with compassion, humour and hope.”
I also have it on good authority from my Aunty that she is a nice person – apparently they held up a book signing queue in Adelaide, Australia discussing Dublin bus routes. This was probably not Marion’s fault, having emigrated to Australia over 30 years ago, my Aunty will even discuss the 75 to St Patrick’s Cathedral with anyone who’ll listen.