Where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s hard to write today. It’s been hard to write since Friday, when I woke up to find my country had ripped itself in half. On Friday, I wanted nothing more than to write a retraction of this, in which I suggested that most people were fundamentally decent and humane. There on the television people were celebrating the fact that my homeland, my lovely, kind, foolish homeland, could close its borders to refugees. There on my Twitter feed were beaten faces, stories of abuse shouted from passing vans, screenshots of messages telling British people with Asian names to ‘go home’. On the radio they were tallying the billions wiped off the FTSE in a single day, and on the street I looked at every passing person and thought: Was it you? Was it?

I’m not going to write a whole post about my feelings on the referendum result, because: 1. there’s only so much despair any reader can take; 2. this is a blog about writing; and 3. I have to get my mojo back. Despair has killed my writing stone dead for four days. Today I will reconnect with my lighthearted side and write something about stock questions.

 

Hey! Have you just met someone new? Have you asked them what they do? And they said they were a writer? WTF are you supposed to say about that?

Here, have a few handy hints:

  1. Look embarrassed. Being creative. It’s – hmmm. It’s just a bit personal. And it’s bound to be crap, isn’t it? They don’t even look like a writer. They’re just wearing a crumpled Next shirt and drinking tea. What if they want me to read it? Shit! What if it’s poetry? Should I ask if it’s poetry? I hope it’s not poetry. I won’t ask just in case. I’ll just try and look mildly approving, but in a wary way. That’s it. Lovely.
  2. Ask them where they get their inspiration from! Is it from your food? Is it secreted from a little inspiration gland? Does it fall from the sky when the moon is gibbous? Do you go out collecting it from under pebbles? Is it delivered to you via UPS? Is it carried to you in the beaks of small birds? Can you order it on Amazon? Is it encoded in the pattern of oak tree bark? Do you pan for it in local streambeds? Do you steal it from museums? Do you distil it from privet leaves?  Do you get it on prescription? Do you divine it from the entrails of animals? Do you hear it in the rushing of the sea? Do you subscribe to Inspiration Monthly? Can you buy it at Waitrose? Is it washed up on the shore after high tide? Because it’s simply not possible that it just comes out of your brain.
  3. Ask them what kind of stuff they write. Werewolves? Ghosts? Crime? Romance? History? Thrillers? Vampires? Wizards? Historical romance? Wizard history?  Romantic werewolves?  Criminal ghosts? Thrilling vampire wizards? Remember: if they say ‘Just general fiction,’ they mean that they write stories for Woman’s Own about holiday romances with swarthy Spanish waiters.
  4. Ask them if they’ve written a book. If answer is ‘No’, look disappointed.

 

Normal, non-ratty service to be resumed soon.

 

 

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Dear Diary

I’m re-reading George Grossmith’s The Diary Of A Nobody: it’s one of those books that you keep on the bookshelf in the bedroom, because you know it won’t be long before you take it down again.

I first came across the Diary when I decided to read the Observer’s 100 Greatest Novels list. This was before I had a baby, so that project’s on hold at the moment, but it introduced  me to some of the writers I now most admire (and a few I now know are Not For Me, but let’s be positive here).

The comic diary of Mr Pooter, City clerk and suburban everyman, was serialised in Punch magazine, 1888-89. The book version, re-ordered and supplemented with new material, was published in 1892. Nothing very much happens: some egg and cress is sown, dominoes played, and items are painted with enamel paint. It’s this that makes it so wonderful. The Diary is a little snapshot of ordinary middle-class Victorian life, and it is startlingly familiar. Take, for example, the pony-trap which the Pooter’s son Lupin acquires when he gets a job as a stockbroker. Lupin, in his flashy new ‘box-coat’, takes his parents for a drive:

‘His conduct was shocking. When we passed Highgate Archway, he tried to pass everything and everybody. He shouted to respectable people who were walking in the road to get out of the way; he flicked at the horse of an old man who was riding, causing it to rear, and, as I had to ride backwards, I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart, whom Lupin had chaffed, and who turned and followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange peel.’

This is instantly recognisable. Substitute the pony-trap for a BMW convertible and we’re in the 21st century. Then there’s family friend Mrs James, who doesn’t believe in disciplining her son Percy:

‘Two or three times he came up to me and deliberately kicked my shins. I gently remonstrated with him, and Mrs James said: ‘Please don’t scold him; I do not believe in being too severe with young children. You spoil their character.”

We’ve all met a Mrs James. There’s something startling, and a little disconcerting, about realising that a spoof written 125 years ago could just as well apply today. Part of the reason it is so recognisable is that the world of the 1890s was a world on the edge of modernity: the patterns of peoples’ lives and thoughts was not all that different to those of the 21st century. Their motivations and their preoccupations are very like ours. By contrast, the thoughts and lives of people living in thirteenth century London would be positively alien: not just because of the differences in physical culture and beliefs, but because very fundamental concepts, such as what makes one thing recognisably similar to another, were understood differently in the Middle Ages than they are now.

The language of the Diary, too, is accessible, needing only a few footnotes to be completely comprehensible. We just need to know that ‘B. and S.’ is brandy and soda, and we’re away.

The format of the book is also one that’s still very popular today. From Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones, we know how to read a comic diary; and arguably, the reason that these books exist is because the Diary inspired them. I read Adrian Mole first as a teenager (worryingly, I found him entirely sympathetic) and all of Sue Townsend’s wonderful books later in life, and when I read the Diary of a Nobody I suddenly understood where they had come from.

Finally, it’s the warmth of the book that will keep me re-reading it. Mr Pooter is a little ridiculous, a little pompous – but only in the same way that most of us are, at times, a little ridiculous and pompous. He’s not a character who’s invented to be pilloried, but a real person: basically good, occasionally misguided, dealt his share of triumph and humiliation. Reading the Diary makes me realise that sometimes I should take myself a bit less seriously, because most of the things I fret about are universal. We all want to to be popular with a certain crowd, or worry we’ve made fools of ourselves, or get annoyed at our friends. The Diary, much like A Far Cry From Kensington, or Cold Comfort Farm, is one of those books I turn to for personal solace, because I like what it tells me about how to live. And on top of that, like the other two titles, it’s wonderfully funny.

 

 

 

On radishes and human nature

The woman was tall, brunette and eccentrically dressed, and she appeared from nowhere. Had she arrived two minutes earlier she would have found me swearing at the car keys (or rather, the loss of them); as it was, she turned onto our driveway to see me sitting in the car about to set off. She was wearing what appeared to be a patterned velvet smoking jacket of Edwardian cut, teamed with a white T-shirt and a boxy black skirt, and when she turned towards us I thought for a moment that she might be crazy. She wasn’t, though. She was friendly.

‘I love what you’ve done with the garden!’ she cried, waving a hand towards the vegetable plot at the front of our house. She stayed a good four metres away, in the English social safety zone, from which one may leave as unannounced as one has arrived. ‘I’m trying to do the same thing, and I wondered if we could have a chat?’ My husband, one leg in the car, one on the driveway, explained that we were late to drop off our daughter, and that she should call back. We’d be happy to chat.

I get this a lot. It’s rather lovely. When we moved to our house the front garden, south-facing and sun-warmed, didn’t have much to say for itself: a path, an awful lot of gravel, and some scrubby lavender bushes. The soil was compacted, uncared-for clay, on which moss grew and even weeds looked sad. The back garden was landscaped and zoned and planted with real plants we didn’t know the names of. There was no space there for a vegetable patch, and I really wanted vegetables. It would have to be the front.

I was in two minds about this: after all, it’s the front garden. It was the first impression of the house, it was inescapably public, and it was – well – weird to grow veg in your front garden. Nowadays it’s terribly on-trend to grow your own, but I wasn’t making a statement. I grew up on an organic smallholding. I have gardened everywhere I’ve ever lived. It’s one of the great passions of my life. I didn’t want to look like I was a hipster in a Dig for Victory phase.

In the end, my desire for salad won out. We cut down the ornamental willow, dug out the lavender bushes and the woody old sage, and I turned over the claggy, resistant clay by hand. I bought old scaffolding planks and laid out raised beds in the shape of the rising sun, then filled them with topsoil and horse manure carted from the local Riding for the Disabled school in the back of our much-abused Ford Focus. I dug great pits in the borders and layered them with sharp sand, soil, manure and compost, and put in currants. I nicked little self-seeded herbs and cuttings from public gardens and planted sage, mint, thyme, marjoram, tansy, rosemary, lemonbalm, hyssop, and winter savoury. I ordered a little plum tree by the royal name of Opal-Krimsk, and put it in when the year was still grim and drizzly. And eventually I had something I could work with.

All of this took time, and sweat, and all of it was public. At first I felt embarrassed. Then the conversations started. It turned out that an awful lot of people loved gardening, and an awful lot of people loved our garden. I’m typing this looking out at it now, and I can guarantee that in the time it takes me to post this, someone will come along and have a look over the fence. This is not to brag about what I’ve created – it’s often less than perfect, with blighted tomato plants or slug-eaten marigolds – the point is that it brings joy. People call to me as I work, telling me they always look as they go by to see what’s changed. When I have too much it gets given away: the patty-pan squash left for the lady with the little boy (‘Put it next to the fence. Not there! The dogs will wee on it’); the lavender plant left for the man whose girlfriend needed pot plants, and the note of thanks in return (‘With thanks, Eric and dog’); the bunch of sweet peas picked for the old lady who wears the same beige car coat winter and summer. And despite there being no gate, no security light and a fence that’s 2 feet high, no-one has ever nicked anything. There was that time last year that something was dug up, but I half think it was foxes, so I’m not counting it.

Several people warned me about the risk of theft. Often they spoke as if I was being naïve. For a while I wondered if I was. As time goes on, though, I realise that your opinion on whether people will steal from me or not has more to do with your opinion of other people in general than your knowledge of our neighbourhood. It’s about your belief in human beings. Yes, people do shitty things. But they also do wonderful things, and often very quietly, and those things often go unreported. Most people are, fundamentally, good. There’s also the small matter of a lot of people not knowing what vegetables in the ground look like, but let’s skip over that.

One person who told me I was silly to plant in public told me that she’d seen people taking things: ‘A man, leaning over and taking strawberries.’ I knew who she meant. I don’t know his name, but I know he’s had a hard life. He’s no older than me, but he’s missing one arm and he has the rambling, disjointed look of someone who’s fought drug addiction. He spends all day walking: out in the car I’ll see him miles from our street, unmistakable in his bobble hat, with his stocky bulldog trotting beside him, going nowhere in particular because it’s the motion that matters. He’s stopped and talked to me from the start, asking which plants are which. Last summer he was admiring the strawberries, and I told him to come in and take some when he next passed. This is who she saw: a drug addict with a scary dog, stealing fruit. But then that’s what I saw, when I met him first. It’s only through putting myself out there, in public, on display, that I’ve learnt more.

All of which is a very long way of saying that creating something in the public view is always frightening, and often embarrassing. It’s what I’m doing now, and I’d be lying if I said I was confident about it. What if it’s no good? What if people dislike it, or make fun of it, or damage it? Well, they may do. But maybe the unexpected will occur, and someone will appear from nowhere to tell you how much they love it. If they’re wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket at the same time, so much the better.

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Going pro

It’s finally here: the week that I sit down at my dining table a desk and Start Writing.

I’ve spent the last year as a full-time mother, but next week my daughter will be going to her grandmother’s for one day a week, and shortly after that she’ll be starting nursery. I’ll have a luxurious two-day window in which to write. This is a wonderful thing: I’ve got a notebook stuffed with ideas I’ve had no time to process, and I’ll have time alone, in the quiet, to work on them. On the other hand, I’ve never had dedicated Writing Time before.

In my procrastination moments I’ve looked up a lot of Advice to Writers stuff on the internet, and one of the rules that constantly crops up is that you should sit down at a desk for a set number of hours a day and make yourself write. This does not work for me. It works if I have revisions to make, or a roughed-out piece to check over, or a story to get into submission format; but not for the actual process of creation. Maybe it’s different if you’re writing a novel, but for short stories most of my work is done by what Stephen King calls ‘the boys in the back room’*: a part of my mind below consciousness that’s constantly processing faces, and phrases, and symbols, and will eventually spit them back up into my everyday brain in the form of an embryonic story.

There’s no forcing this process. Trying harder will not make it happen quicker, or better, or bigger. Once the resource is tapped out, that’s it. Sometimes the idea’s out there and it’s lost its way a bit in being laid down on the page, but the best way for me to deal with this is to do something else. Gardening or walking will usually sort it. The boys get back to work, and a solution pops up. But charge into the back room straight away, bothering them, shouting about deadlines, and they’ll go on strike.

So set ‘creation time’ doesn’t work for me. This is not to say it doesn’t work for anyone; it obviously does, and this is one of the reasons I’m a bit suspicious of those Twenty Rules Of Good Writing articles. They pull me in every time (tell me the secret!) but I know they’ll just leave me confused (I can’t stand that author that A. Famous-Novelist says is essential! Shit, I’ll never make it).

Set writing time will work for me, though, once I have critical mass. Once there are enough roughed-out stories, I’ll have something to do even when the fresh writing has to be left alone for a while. And the enforced downtime of motherhood will mean that the back room gets plenty of productive time (in your face, Cyril Connolly).

For the moment there’s so much time to make up: the months that it takes competitions and publishers to respond to manuscripts will leave me with a half-year delay at least between the start of work and any action related to it. But this is a lifelong pursuit, and not something I could stop doing even if I knew none of it would ever see the light of day.

So here goes: my first new flash fiction piece has been submitted to the Gloucestershire Writer’s Network short story competition, verdict in October. In the meantime there’s that notebook with its pages of barely legible biro scrawl, written with my left hand whilst cooking dinner, or holding a baby, or drinking wine, or all three at once. Let’s give it til Christmas.

 

 

 

*I can’t actually find this quote online so it probably wasn’t Mr King who said it. There are 184 quotes on Goodreads by him about writing, but if I have to read one more of them then my eyes will fall out**, so if I’m wrong just correct me in the comments section.

**Which he would probably enjoy.

The Fiction Desk’s Writer’s Award

I’ve had a couple of stories accepted by the lovely people at The Fiction Desk, indie publishers of short stories. TFD puts out several anthologies of new fiction every year, and also runs a Ghost Story Competition (closing soon, so if you’re interested, get moving!)

The writers featured in each anthology vote for their favourite story in the collection, and the winner receives the Writer’s Award and an £100 prize. In 2014 I was lucky enough to win the award for my story The Stamp Works, which featured in the anthology There Was Once A Place, and this year I was kindly asked to judge a tie-break between two stories in the collection Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye.

It’s a cliche to say that it was a hard decision. But man, it was a hard decision. Both of the stories were well-written, pacy and original. I’m not a better writer than either of the authors, and it felt a bit odd to decide between them. The reason I was asked to make the final choice, though, was not because I’m any authority (I’m really, really not) but because a sense of place was central to both stories.

Place is something that features strongly in my own writing, with buildings almost becoming characters in their own right. I’m not sure whether this is because I’ve worked as a buildings archaeologist and a cathedral stonemason, or whether my job choices have reflected an underlying fascination with places: either way, it’s a part of me. It was that fascination with the built environment which led TFD to choose me to deliver the final verdict.

The story which I chose, eventually, was The Cobble Boys by Adam Blampied: a story based in Derry, about how the choice between violence and non-violence is often not a choice at all, but a question of whose terms the violence will be on. There’s the odd wonderfully comic line, little spots of light in the claustrophobic surrounds of the story (‘They’ve got about two faces and one haircut between them’), which belie the fact that the author also writes comedy. I’d love to see it.

The runner-up was Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields, by Mark Newman, which concerns the disappearance of a young girl during the construction of a new housing estate. It’s atmospheric, gripping and packed with multi-layered symbolism.

Congratulations, then to Adam Blampied, and many thanks to The Fiction Desk for putting my name in front of their readers again. If you’ve got a spare minute and you’re not already a subscriber, do get hold of one of their anthologies (there’s a bit of self-interest going on here as I’ll be featuring in their next collection with a new ghost story, Poor Billy).  

 

 

Revenge writing: a bad idea

Scooting around the internet last week I came across this: an engaging blog post by American literary magazine editor Cady Vishniac about what not to submit to litmags. A lot of the undesirable things seem obvious (porn, bigotry), but the fact they’re listed must mean there are people out there who think that including them in a short story is a good idea. Alarming. Others are things that I know I should avoid, but am never entirely sure I have (cliché, plot holes and extraordinary coincidence). These are the kind of errors you may only spot once you’ve left the piece alone for a while and then come back to it, and even then they can slip by.

It was the section on wishful thinking and revenge, though, that caught my eye. We’ve all been tempted (well, I have) to immortalise in writing an annoying acquaintance or particularly egregious work colleague. At best your aim may be a bit of fun; at worst, a chance for justice. And it never works. Not for me, anyway.

This quote from the post shows why: ‘Literary fiction shows us characters who have positive attributes and serious negative ones. Every protagonist has a deeply human, deeply flawed core, and even evil people exist in a context that helps us understand their choices.’ In a nutshell, you have to feel sympathy for your characters. Even the most appalling of them can’t be entirely irredeemable and doomed.

Sure, it’s possible to take elements from people you’ve met and disliked, and to incorporate those into a character, and for that character to work. But only when you don’t have a revenge agenda. Writing, an act of creation and, unsentimentally, of love, withers up in an atmosphere of negativity.

I’ve tried revenge writing, and the prose comes out airless, didactic and (worse) dull. It goes nowhere, because it requires the piece to be a cypher for the resolution of my own personal gripes. This makes it cryptically specific, cramped and closed-ended, as opposed to multi-layered, generous and relevant to wider human experience*. On top of this it’s hard to do, because it’s no fun putting down grievances on paper.

As it turns out, it’s no fun reading those grievances either. The author of the post points out that revenge writing is pathetically easy to spot, and embarrassing to read. A publisher’s rejection is, as she says, a kindness: it prevents you from showing your thinly-disguised wounds to the world.

The post’s an intriguing read, and has a sister piece on ‘Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions’. It leaves me with even more respect for those who edit or read for magazines, and the reassuring knowledge that however many rejection letters there may be, at least I’ve never written a story in which ‘a guy spots a gal on a bus and she starts masturbating’.

 

 

*On a good day.

 

2016 Cheltenham Literary Festival short story competitions

This year there are two short story competitions associated with the Cheltenham Literary Festival: the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network competition and the new Cheltenham Literary Prize.

The GWN competition has been around for a while, and this year interprets the theme of the Festival (‘America’) to offer the competition theme ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. I’ve found it tricky to get the competition details online, so here they are in full for anyone who’s interested in entering:

The Literature Festival has America as a country theme this year so this competition is looking for poetry and prose that responds to the theme in the broadest possible ways.
 
Entries are invited from writers who live or work in Gloucestershire. There will be two prizes of £100, one for poetry and one for prose.
All the winners and runners-up will be invited to read their work in October at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
  • Please give your entry a title that is different from the competition theme. Entries must be identified only by title, do not put your name on the entry.
  • Your name, address, telephone number and email address should be on a separate sheet of paper.
  • Poems should be no more than 50 lines.
  • Prose items should use double spacing and not exceed 750 words.
  • Entries must be typed on A4 paper. Handwritten copies will not be accepted. 
  • GWN prefers each winning writer to read his or her own work.  If you are selected but subsequently cannot read your work at the Festival, your work will be withdrawn unless you can provide a substitute reader.
  • To enter costs £2 per item. Please send a cheque or postal order to the address below, payable to Gloucestershire Writers’ Network.  If you wish to know the results of the competition, include your email address or a stamped, addressed envelope.
  • Entries may be made by post to GWN, c/o 33 Sandford Leaze, Avening, Glos. GL8 8PB, or by email to:  ronagwn@yahoo.co.uk.  If posting, please send two copies.    If you email your entry, you will still need to send your cheque by post clearly identifying the entry for which you are paying. Emailed items should be attached as a Word document or sent within the text of the message
  • Please ensure that you put the right value of stamps according to the size of envelope as GWN cannot pay for excess postage.
  •  Closing date: 30th July 2016
 
 The Cheltenham Literary Prize is an all-new competition organised by the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle. It’s national, with a smaller prize allotted to the best entry from a GL postcode. Entries should be 2000 words or fewer, and it’s open now until June 4th. Full details here.