Monthly Archives: April 2012

Open to Interpretation

As a writer, writing, I generally have a strong impression of the surrounding truths of the story I’m working on. Even in a short piece, such as the 100 word flashes I post every Friday, I know a lot more than I put down on the page. With a first person narrator in particular, I may not give you the age, description or even gender of the main character, but I know in my head a few salient pieces of information and I definitely know whether it’s a male or a female character I’m writing.

Similarly, I know a lot more background than I can give to the reader. In Friday’s story, which I wrote based on a picture of barbed wire (you can read the story by clicking the “Previous Post” link at the top fo this page), I had a strong feeling in my head that the main character was the reincarnation of a holocaust victim who had died in a concentration camp. I gave hints of this in the piece, but I couldn’t find a way to give it all, and in particular to make the reincarnation element crystal clear (as opposed to this being a holocaust survivor some years later), without breaking the flow of the story and interrupting with pure exposition.

Maybe, to an extent, this is something I will get better at with practice, but I am also a firm believer in the reader finding his or her own way through a story.

In another recent fiction piece (http://wp.me/p1PeVl-6i), I wrote about a bench at the end of a tunnel with a plaque to the memory of a young girl. I deliberately gave no clues to the fate of the girl apart from the years of her birth and death. There were two reasons for this, one was that I simply couldn’t decide in my own head what had happened to her, but the other reason was that I wanted the readers to decide for themselves. And people no doubt did.

It’s a difficult line to tread. I don’t believe readers need happy endings, but I do believe readers want answers and resolution. I find it immensely frustrating when a writer sets up a dilemma and then fails to resolve it (Jodi Picoult is an expert at doing this – I don’t read her books anymore as a result). If there’s a twist, we want the writer to give us a fair chance to have seen it coming, even if we didn’t, so that afterwards we can look back and go “Oh, that was a clue!” and, importantly, so that we know when we get to the end that our reading is “correct”. The reveal has to be clear enough, but so do the clues before it.

In my view, the barbed wire piece just about succeeds. If you read reincarnation and holocaust, I think you would look back and find enough pointers to confirm you were on the right track (although if you didn’t, I think you could read the whole piece without seeing them). But I can’t decide if the tunnel piece is a great work of reader involvement, or a frustrating cop-out on the part of the writer. I’d love to know what you think about this balance.

If you read the tunnel piece and you want answers, here’s what I think happened. (If you don’t want to know, stop reading now.) It’s easy to assume that the girl was (raped and) murdered in the tunnel. A perfectly valid alternative would be that she took an accidental overdose of drugs there and died as a result. There are probably a few other possibilities. Given the state of the tunnel and the recent nature of the bench, not to mention the location of her ghost, it is unlikely that it was just here favourite place to walk or play and she died of something unconnected, in another place. But if I have to pin my colours to the mast on this one, I think she killed herself in the tunnel. I don’t think she suffered at the hands of anyone else there, although I’m sure she suffered both before and during the suicide. But I think she came down there to hide and take her own life.

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Friday Fiction – Soul Memories

Madison apologised for the photo this week, but it’s one of my favourites. The minute I saw it, I had so many ideas, it was hard to narrow them down. So instead, I decided to include them all. When you read this piece, you’re probably have your own opinions about what’s happening, and that’s great. I’d love to hear them in the comments! But the truth is, there’s no right answer – I had a lot of ideas about it myself and I still haven’t settled on one. Take a look at the tags if you want to know some of the things I think might be happening.

As ever comments, critique and outright criticism are welcome. Enjoy!

It pulls me up short, like a shot in the chest. Innocent here, but still arresting.

The sun’s just beginning to rise and I’m just beginning to settle into my run. Then it’s there, a roll of barbed wire, casually slung over a post. No doubt it’s waiting for some farmhand to use.

But my soul recognises it and screams. Once upon a time there was a fence, and barbed wire. Once upon a time there were even sunrises, and the person who was me watched each one with a little bit of gratitude and a little bit of despair.

 

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Planning: So what do you do?

When starting a writing project, there are lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is almost always going to be the characters.

I tend to write mainstream fiction, which means the vast majority of my characters are human beings, people you might meet in the street. Occasionally I might throw in a pet, or I might set the story in a place or time I’m less familiar with, but generally speaking, these kinds of stories don’t take as much world-building it would to write a sci-fi or fantasy piece. To me, that makes it easier, but in some ways it also adds a challenge. So many novels, plays, poems and scripts have been written about human beings, that it’s easy to slip into something that’s been done before or even that’s become hackneyed and stereotyped.

If I say “Priest”, you probably immediately assume male, Irish, Roman Catholic and possibly also quiet, gay… I could go on. If I say “Firefighter”, the ladies amongst you are already swooning. And if I say “Secretary”, you’ve almost certainly got a woman of a certain age wearing spectacles and a staid skirt and cardigan combo (or else a hot young thing distracting her middle-aged boss). Even more than names, we use job titles as a shorthand, and to some extent it’s useful and necessary. But when these characters become stereotypes, it feel to the reader as though we are cheating.

This is usually more of a problem with side characters than the main ones. We put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out main characters, showing them in different environments and with different moods and personality traits. But with the people they meet, we are often just looking for a cameo or a trigger to the next plot point. And this is where we need to guard against stereotypes, but without distracting readers in a long and complicated ramble about how this priest is in fact a born-again Muslim woman from Tehran, who saw the light, converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and likes nothing more than to sing “It’s Raining Men” from the pulpit on Sundays!

Like everything in life, characterisation is a balancing act – adding a single unusual quirk to our side characters can be enough to save them from being cardboard cut outs, and finding that quirk can be hard, but it can also be fun. It can also, mercifully, be saved for the editing process if something doesn’t jump out straight away, which allows the main story to flow, without getting bogged down in the fact that, for now, the secretary is wearing a twin set and glasses, with a pencil twisted efficiently into her bun.

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Friday Fiction – Ragondin

This week’s picture from Madison is beautiful, but it wasn’t easy to write about. At least not for me. So I branched out, a little, as you’ll see below. The hardest part for me was the title this time. I’m still not happy with it, so I might come back and change it later – any comments or suggestions welcome – whether they are about the title or anything else.

UPDATE: Sandra’s helped me with a new title. What do you think?

Ragondin

Mother says not to watch it, but it is insistent: each one silently growing, then suddenly breaking off. It seems to shrink in the air. It lands with a gentle plink, and melds with all the others before it, in the rising waters of our burrow.

There is a rumour that this is how we will be. That we are growing silently stronger and one day we will have to leave Mother’s warm embrace, to join the world outside with no more than a plink of goodbye. But I watch the waters rise and wonder if we’ll be big enough.

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Flagging – (Lack of) Progress Report

I did wonder whether I could continue the flag analogy on these progress reports, but given the update I’m about to post, it seemed there was only one possible title for this post. Sadly. Have you ever found yourself bogged down in a cycle of procrastination? Apart from the old-fashioned rocket-up-the-bum, do you have any foolhardy tricks for getting back into the groove?

Author: Hubert Berberich

My goals are set out here: https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/flag-raising/ and, to some extent, here: https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/bookers-seven-progress-report/

ERIC:

My goal is to finish this edit by 1st July so March was meant to be a big month for me. Instead, I largely neglected him, and then got into a mood with him after my pitch slam suggested I might have deeper problems with such a bleak story. I feel the novel needs a stronger sub-plot, but that equates to substantial revision and it’s all sufficiently daunting that I haven’t got back into it. Now we’re halfway through April and I’m still procrastinating from even opening the file.

REGULAR COMMITMENTS

I did manage to submit in March, although it was touch and go for a while, and with the exception of one post I missed by being away, I’ve kept up with my blog. I’m focusing on this as a good point – something that didn’t go wrong!

EXTRAS

I’ve finished my first edits of Booker’s Seven. The table now looks like this

Story Idea

Booker Plot

Progress

Colonisation Overcoming the monster Awaiting Beta Readers
Wild West Voyage / Return with stage 1 Beta reader
Concert Tragedy Awaiting Beta Readers
Road Trip Comedy Needs post-beta edits
Stargazing Rebirth Awaiting Beta Readers
Robin Hood Quest With Stage 2 Beta readers
Phoenix Rags to Riches With Stage 2 Beta readers

If Beta Reading is something you’d like to do, and think you do well, I’d love to hear from you!

My husband and music collaborator has been busy again, but he’s started putting some music to my lyrics from February, and I’ve started thinking about edits to make some of the lyrics better (or at least, shorter).

My writing group, Moosemeat, are starting work on our annual chapbook, so I need to prepare a 500 word story for that. I’ve done one, but I hate it. I can’t quite work out whether to run with radical re-writing or starting again. So, like Eric, it’s in a state of being ignored.

By way of excuse, I’ve been busy with other things and under the weather, as well as the fact that a lot of life-related stuff has got in the way of concentrating on writing. But the truth is, if my heart was in it, I’d have fitted writing in around these things. I need to push myself back into the groove now it’s April, before another month slips by… Wish me luck!

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Friday Fiction – The Tunnel

Thanks for your patience with my experimental non-fiction post last week. I might run a few musings on Canada in between other posts, or continue to reserve them for when I’m away and can’t join in the Fictioneers’ fun. Anyway, now I’m back and Madison has provided us with yet another great picture. http://madisonwoods.wordpress.com/flash-fiction/expectations/ will take you to her site, and the other stories based on this prompt.

Since DarkElmo went down so well two weeks ago, she’s back for another airing. Even more subtle though, this time. And I’ve finally got around to flexing my description muscles, although I had to cut half the description after writing it, to meet the word count target! I should apologise to Madison – I have slightly hammed up my impression of your tunnel, I hope you forgive me.

I’d love to hear what everyone thinks, so please do leave a comment if there’s something you like or don’t like about this piece.

The Tunnel

The path dipped into a tunnel littered with used condoms and discarded needles. Something oozed down the walls and in the slight bend halfway along, an old tramp dozed under cardboard blankets.

A chill ran through me as I passed him, as though I’d run through a ghost. Then I saw it – the light of the sunny morning – and I shook off the feeling. But the entrance was guarded by something which brought it back: a bench, looking out of place beside this forgotten culvert, marked with a plaque which read “Jane Soreton   1999-2011  Gone, but never forgotten.”

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It’s Friday, but not Fiction

As I’m away and unable to play with the Friday Fictioneers this week, I thought I’d practise posting about my adventures in Canada. Thanks to all those who encouraged me to do so in response to my post (https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/writer-seeks-readers-gsoh-a-must/), I’d love to hear what you think about this first attempt!

One of the big questions people ask when you move away from England is “How do you cope with driving on the wrong side of the road?” And the answer, actually, is that it’s no big deal. At first, I was conscious of which side I drove on, but the street furniture, road-markings and the rest of the traffic are all pretty big clues and I got used to it pretty quickly.

Nevertheless, driving in Toronto has taken a lot of getting used to.

One cause of this is pedestrians. English school children learn the “Green Cross Code” from an early age, we know to stop, look and listen and, although there’s no law against jay-walking, we know that cars are big things that can’t stop on a dime. Even in summer, and certainly not in a Canadian winter with black ice and freezing rain. In most parts of Britain(1), as a driver you can take it for granted that pedestrians will at least give a passing thought to these things when close to a road.

Not so in Toronto.

From school-age, Canadian children learn that all traffic is immobilised by the sight of a stopped school bus. Pedestrian crossings are “push and point” – similar to zebra crossings in the UK, with the addition of a button which instantly lights up the crossing – as soon as a pedestrian steps out onto the road, cars must give way. Pedestrians have right of way in pretty much all circumstances. The result is that Canadian pedestrians are fearless. If the pavement they are walking along is interrupted by a minor road, they consider it an irrelevance – the vast majority keep walking without even pausing or looking up. If they are running up the road and need to cross at a crossing, they will hit the button and sprint straight into the road.

I spend time being a pedestrian and a driver. As a driver, I respect that pedestrians are smaller and weaker and need protections, but as a pedestrian I recognise that cars are bigger and more dangerous, and have less manoeuverability than me. Canadian pedestrians could do with learning this latter lesson.

 

1. Blackboy Hill in Bristol is not typically British. I used to direct people to my flat by saying “Next, you drive down a steep hill where everyone seems to be out to kill themselves.” My guests always arrived saying “I knew I was going the right way when I got to that hill. People here are Crazy!”

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