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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A Little Memory Test

As I was struggling to sleep last night I began thinking about a place I used to work. I moved on from the generic feelings I get from thinking of my time there (nostalgia, amusement, relief of escape) and tried to picture every little detail of my trip to work.

I used to walk to the bus stop, have a fifteen minute bus journey then perhaps a ten minute walk at the other end. Then I walked into the office. Simple. But I wasn't satisfied. I used this route every day for six months, surely I could recall more detail than that. I was disappointed with myself for not committing to memory every aspect I could. After all, isn't that what writers do - notice the precise detail in everyday things?

So I concentrated for a while (giving myself a headache in the process). What I came up with was this:

I get off the bus. I turn right and walk past another grey bus shelter towards the crossroads. The bus growls past me as I reach the turn. I veer right and begin to cross the bridge across the railway. The pavement rises slightly beneath my feet. Half of it is paved with stones and the rest is tarmacked. As I reach the other side of the railway line there are some derelict brown buildings on my left, of which I can only see the back and upper-levels of. There is an old sign on a white background with blue (possibly green) lettering saying 'CAMPING' and something else to do with outdoor supplies.

I walk further to the next junction. There are traffic lights to the middle of the road I'm on then across to the opposite side of the T-junction. The first set is on a slope. At the second I rarely wait for the signal to cross. I walk across towards a brown wall of chest height then turn right. After a few steps there is an opening to my left with gravelly-type steps leading down to the level of the railway line. I turn down the path towards the next road and cross on the corner between the Irish pub and the car dealership.

This is just a three minute fragment of my walk and I was fairly proud of myself for remembering this level of detail. I left the job over a year ago now and have had very little reason to ponder my route in depth. It seemed to be a useful exercise for me. If I can remember things in such depth then I hope I can create things with equal weight.

I at least like the notion that life isn't passing me by. I've got a thirst for remembering as many tiny details as I can. I want to document them, use them as inspiration later. It's a comfort to know that I can do it - at least with some scenarios.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Days Like These: British Rail Included

I'm very much of the mindset that things happen for a reason. Call it fate, call it what you will, but when something unexpected happens to interrupt my day I try to look past it (however difficult that is) and look at the situation from a distance. More often than not, something else occurs during the day that I hadn't anticipated. Whether it came from 'fate' or whether something at the back of my mind ground into action because of the delay and reminded me of something in particular, I don't know. I've just come to let my anger and irritation wash over me as best I can when something goes wrong.

However, today completely baffled me.

I was due to attend a group meeting in Sheffield at half-past nine, the official start to my Ph.D. To be cautious I decided to get a very early train because I wasn't certain where I was going. All fine so far. But as we trundled to a stop before Sheffield I began to feel this wasn't going to be so easy. Sure enough, there was a blanket signal breakdown - no trains going north or south. Not to panic, I sat patiently on the floor (this was a British train after all and whoever heard of getting a seat?) and read Wilkie Collins. The guard then announced we were being allowed into the nearest station where we could switch to a tram to get into Sheffield itself.

Fine. I jumped at the chance. At first the tram was a little crammed with all the passengers from the train but we got comfortable and moved along. Then at the next stop we were packed in like sardines. Suddenly I had five people intruding on my personal space while my left arm gripped tightly at a bar just out of easy reach. When we finally reached the city centre I was forced to spill off the tram with everyone else. Then came the next problem: I had no idea where I was.

At least I had some idea of geography from the train station to the university. As it was, I stood in the middle of town squinting and checking my watch. I had to get moving and just began walking upwards through the shopping precincts. I was exhausted, hungry (having intended to grab breakfast while I meandered up to the uni at my own leisurely pace) and extremely nervous. Of course, I had no choice: I had to keep going and to do that I had to keep focused on my goal. Luckily for me, Sheffield has maps dotted around so with a bit of logic first thing in the morning I made my way to the university. (As an aside, if I ever learn the name of the idiot who decided to build it on a huge hill I'll scrawl all over their portrait in black marker pen.)

I made it in time. I even managed to look human while I sat panting in the enormous lecture hall. Once the speeches kicked in on what to expect I was ready to tune in and I suppose I was relatively calm. Having thrown all my efforts into getting there I hadn't had a chance to do my usual work-myself-up-into-a-nervous-frenzy trick.

So was that the point? Was there a point? A while ago I blogged about the coincidence of meeting familiar people in unfamiliar locations. The more I think about it the more I believe some things just are meant to be. As both a human being and a writer that's a worrying thought.

Still, I haven't grasped the point of my other adventure today. Three pharmacies didn't have my prescription, forcing me to walk about like a zombie waiting to be placed delicately back in the grave. What was the point of that one?

I just have to take comfort in the fact that days like today can provide the backdrop for a story. At least, that's what I was thinking when I began chuckling aloud on the packed tram... much to the concern of the other commuters.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Fear Itself

One of the most clichéd emotions in fiction that I've come across is fear. We're all familiar with the sweating palms, the darting eyes and the stomach sensations which compromise a fearful moment in a story. Those are all tangible effects of fear but they've become so predictable that I feel jolted out of the book whenever I read one - or, more frequently several - of the above.

As a writer I'm well aware that I resort to these clichés in early drafts. All too easy to get something on the paper and worry about it later. Then, as I reread and scrutinise, I invariably want to bypass over these moments. After all, it's too difficult to describe personal fear in a fresh manner... isn't it?

Possibly. But that doesn't mean we writers should stop trying.

The physical effects of fear probably are run of the mill in all of us. I start to shiver insanely, no matter the weather, the moment that something frightens me. I get the same reaction whether it's a spider crossing the room or something much more terrible. However, it's the mental accompaniment that differs.

How long that first sleep lasted, she never knew. She could only remember, in the after-time, that she woke instantly.

Every faculty and perception in her passed the boundary line between insensibility and consciousness, so to speak, at a leap. Without knowing why, she sat up suddenly in the bed, listening for she knew not what. Her head was in a whirl; her heart beat furiously, without any assignable cause. But one trivial event had happened during the interval while she had been asleep. The night-light had gone out; and the room, as a matter of course was in total darkness.

The above is an extract from one of my favourite novellas, The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. Now, although Collins goes on to describe the terror as being akin to 'the clasp of an icy hand' the prelude to the fear is the most interesting bit. Collins builds the tension by withholding the revelation of fear itself. There is the vague suspicion that something is about to happen but until our protagonist, Agnes, discovers she is not alone a few paragraphs later we don't know what the non-assignable cause is.

If a character is truly afraid of something there must be a reason for it. The best way to demonstrate this sometimes can be to link briefly to a past event. Virginia Woolf, that master of stream-of-consciousness, was so entwined with the minds of her characters that an actual physical reaction, such as Collins' icy hand idea, would feel out of place in one her novels. Instead, Clarissa Dalloway spins her past into a web and manages to create a sense of fear around it.

Somehow it was her disaster - her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress. She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success, Lady Bexborough and the rest of it. And once she had walked on the terrace at Bourton.

Clarissa's fears echo vividly here, even if there is no physical description of them. Fear is mainly a mental component. It has physical side-effects, yes, but it's no lie to suggest that fear is all in the mind.

To that end, then, something we as writers need to accomplish is a way of portraying fear without seeming to portray fear and still get our point across.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Book Review: Tell It To The Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It To The Bees is one of those novels you have to rush through because if you don't you'll have to put it down and that would be terrible. I picked it up for a little enjoyable reading before bed and had polished it off after five hours, barely moving for the duration and not even contemplating sleep.

On a basic level it is the story of Charlie Weekes who struggles through the break-up of his parents marriage and then the consequences of his mother's subsequent relationship with another woman. When you consider the novel's set in the 1950s that dimension of it suddenly becomes much more important and intriguing.

All too often a child's point of view (even with the distance of third-person) feels either too advanced for their age or much too childish. It's a great skill to speak as a ten year-old boy and have very few, if any, sticky moments. Charlie doesn't understand everything that goes on around him but nor is he a dim child waiting for instruction. His strange relationship with the bees of the title demonstrate his individuality but also that he craves that fundamental thing in life: a happy family.

Relationships are integral to this novel. Apart from Charlie's relationship with his devoted mother, Lydia, and uninterested and adulterous father, Robert, there is Lydia's growing attraction to the doctor, Jean Markham, and Lydia's difficult relationships with both her own family and her husband's. Each one is delicately painted but Shaw never shies away from enhancing detail. The love between Lydia and Jean is shown physically, as it should be considering the level of heterosexual description in there.

This book manages to show adult events through the eyes of a child quite vividly, though the novel is not completely from Charlie's point of view. Indeed, it is very much a shared novel and if Charlie's considered the main character then Lydia must run a very close second. All in all, this is a story about love and understanding. It may be a universal theme but Shaw brings fresh eyes to it.

This is definitely a book I'll be rereading as soon as possible.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Popemobile Turn Around

I was fairly ambivalent about Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK. Yes, it was costing the taxpayer money but so are many other things I don't believe or agree with. Individual opinion shouldn't count for anything in this context. Our country was built on the foundation of Christianity and, as such, the Pope is still a part of our joined heritage. Whether we as individuals want to accept him as a religious figure is a personal choice.

I don't. I'm an atheist, though I hope not the kind who draws attention to it at every turn. I believe, like many atheists, that other people are entitled to their beliefs and should be left alone to practice them. That's why the scenes in Scotland today of people lining the street to see the pontiff were fine with me. At the culmination of Eid last week our predominantly Asian street began celebrating with fireworks. Their prerogative and they were fairly considerate to their neighbours during the process.

What ignited my anger about the Pope's visit were these inflammatory comments about secularism in British society and Cardinal Kaspar's inference that Britain is like a third-world country because of it. I've just read about the Pope's address in Edinburgh that apparently compared atheist extremism with Nazi extremism. I'm offended and appalled frankly.

There are extremists in every religion. If you consider atheism to be a religion in the sense that it's a belief system then it stands to reason that there will be atheist extremists around. And there are. Some people won't feel comfortable with the world until 'proper' religion is stamped out (however unrealistic this viewpoint is). Equally, though, Pope Benedict is indulging in a little extremism of his own. He is encouraging Britain to remember how Christianity and Christian values were punished by the Nazi regime, simply because they showed love and compassion. The phrase that particularly interests me is, "let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society". Is he suggesting that atheism cannot be virtuous because it isn't connection with 'proper' religious belief?

I was willing to ignore the Pope's visit to Britain and let those who wanted him here enjoy his visit in peace. However, I'm not so sure anymore. In the heart of this atheist at least the pontiff has irritated a displeasure that wasn't really there before.

If his intention was to stir up more unrest in an already-troubled society then he's done it well.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Book Review: Lost by Gregory Maguire

Lost is a book I came across accidentally because some fool had erroneously placed it in the Classics section. Given that I loved Wicked and have been staring at my unopened copy of Son of a Witch with longing for two years now I decided it was a sign and I needed this book. I don't wholly regret the choice.

First of all, it's a book that subverts expectation. Maguire is an expert at combining the very real natures of people with the supernatural and mysterious aspects of plot. Thus Winifred Rudge, the writer who travels to London in search of her character (amongst other things), feels painfully real. She goes through the everyday dilemmas all writers suffer as they try and see the world through the eyes of their creations. At times it can feel like a selection of tedious asides but the bearing they have on the unravelling of the plot shouldn't be ignored.

So you've got Winnie and Wendy (her protagonist of sorts). Besides them you have the spectres of two other famous figures hovering over the narrative: Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jack the Ripper. Winnie suspects she was related to the inspiration for the former and her protagonist is obsessed with the latter. The presence of these two figures cleverly brings Victorian London to the present and manages to cover modern-day London with a blanket of darkness and mystery. This works in that it certainly invokes what Maguire intended but perhaps the reason the novel didn't quite resonate for me is more personal.

Winnie is visiting her cousin, John, in London but when she arrives at his flat he isn't there. Instead she finds two bewildered builders who claim to have been disturbed by supernatural occurrences. All well and good so far. Winnie befriends some quite colourful neighbours in her attempts to discover what's actually going on. The most interesting of these is the downstairs tenant, Mrs Maddingly, who certainly lives up to her name.

Not to spoil the story at all, but at some point the narratives shifts quite dramatically from implied to actual supernatural. Maybe it was just me but I quite enjoyed the uncertainty around it in the first half of the novel. When the atmosphere of mystery was confirmed by a supernatural presence I lost what had intrigued me in the first place.

Other small irritations of Lost included the first scene set during a motorway accident. I do see the relevance of it in relation to the wider plot but I would've much preferred to get stuck in there straight away. A little later we were in London and I was frustrated at the detour. Also, Maguire's propensity to chop off sentences when, ideally, they should flow like the rest of the paragraph grated on me at times.

I hasten to add, though, that none of these fairly minor personal points stopped me from enjoying a cracking novel. It is, after all, an escapist's paradise and a reader can't help but be immersed in the darkly modern portrayal of London - and of human nature too for that matter.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Caution: Wet Paint

I wonder how many people in a hundred feel the urge to touch anything labelled ‘wet paint’, just to make sure it's wet. I do – every time. So far common sense has mostly won out and I haven’t actually stroked a window sill with a warning sign above it, but I have dragged my fingers lightly across the edge.

Human beings are naturally inquisitive creatures. However, something we have to remember as writers is that we’re a little more inclined to be nosy. Our characters might share some of our impulses to touch the things we’re told or advised not to but it’s possible they would draw the line before you. An old woman cautiously weaving through the crowds on the pavement might just be concerned she’ll be pressed against the paint and that it might stain her nice beige coat. Equally, a bouncy six year-old with a more adventurous spirit might run up and plop his hand straight into the squidgy mess. It’s all a matter of character – again!

Offering small snippets of everyday occurrences like the wet paint scenario in the course of a novel, particularly towards the beginning, give the reader actual experience of how that character behaves. It’s the old adage of showing not telling. At the same time, though, be careful that you’re not inserting this information in a contrived manner. Everything in your novel should contribute in some way to the plot so don’t have a completely irrelevant scene where your protagonist juggles knives to demonstrate his fearlessness.

If I was to insert the wet paint example into my current WIP, for example, I’d have my protagonist, Lily, running the back of her hand across the window sill. But this derives from a number of factors. Lily’s a painter. As such, she has an idea when paint may be dry enough to touch safely. In addition to that, she spends most of the novel focusing on the world around her because she doesn’t want to face up to her own life. To someone intent on looking out instead of in the thought of touching something unpredictable can be extremely enticing.

There are certainly a few questions you need to ask yourself before you insert a demonstrative scene into your WIP.

1. Does this scene add to your plot? If I was to have Lily indulging in the wet paint scenario it would be on her way to a pivotal scene at the local bar and maybe it would show her anxiety or attempts not to think about the things really worrying her.

2. If your character is going to do something a little strange is it in character? Lily's an artist so in the paint scenario it would be plausible.

3. Is this for your benefit of the benefit of the plot, character and reader? Never ever let it be for you!