inspiration

Monologues in Minutes

You know I love a writing challenge, so it was inevitable that I’d put my name in the hat for RapidReel. They’ve been having challenges throughout lockdown, where a bunch of writers are given a prompt at 9am, they have until noon to send back a 1-2 minute monologue script with a character note to aid casting, and then suitable actors have 4 hours to read, rehearse, film and upload the finished thing.

On Friday evening when I got the email to check I was available to take part on Saturday, I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up, so it had an element of pleasant surprise about it and I was sat at the computer by five to nine on Saturday morning, keyed up and ready to go. We got a photo prompt, someone walking up a sloping tunnel towards what looked to me like sunshine. I drank Earl Grey and brainstormed with a biro. Words it made me think of. At the back of my mind, but not written down, was a thought about Time Team. Five minutes later I started writing about Time Team.

Time Team, for those not British, old or nerdy enough to know, was a long-running programme where a group of archaeologists had 3 days to dig some interesting site and see what they could learn. I loved it, I watch old episodes whenever I get the opportunity, and their dig at Piercebridge already inspired my story Ghost Bridge which is in the first Crossing the Tees anthology. But I digress…

By 9.50 I’d written a monologue from the point of view of a farmer’s son in his 20s that was safely within the time limit, prompted by the picture, and was light-hearted. Working title: Inspired by Time Team. Time to run it past OneMonkey.

“So what do you think?”

“You’ve done your usual trick with the ending.”

“What do you mean, usual trick?”

“With the last two lines you’ve hinted at the start of a whole new story which has the potential to be way more interesting than the one you’ve just told.”

“Oh.”

Back to the scribbling board.

OneMonkey brought me a huge mug of black coffee and I wrote a different ending to Inspired by Time Team, but before I had the chance to read it to him I’d been seized by another burst of inspiration. Half past ten saw me finish a monologue from the point of view of a woman in her 50s. Working title: Redundant. Still plenty of time to polish it up, but I wanted to read it to OneMonkey first.

“You’ve done that thing with the ending again.”

Drat! I wrote a second ending to Redundant, read it to OneMonkey knowing he’d been right, knowing this one was better, waiting for the nod of approval from my trusted first-reader.

“The ending works now. But…”

“It’s nearly the same character as Custard Cream isn’t it?”

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I Could Murder a Custard Cream is a darkly comic monologue I wrote, which was made into a film for Slackline Cyberstories last month (you can read about it here).

“What happened to the rewrite of Inspired by Time Team?”

So I read him that and he liked it, and so did I. It wouldn’t make me look quite so much like I could only write monologues for middle-aged women. And it was light-hearted. We could all do with a bit more light-hearted these days. It was well after eleven but there was still plenty of time to edit it to my final satisfaction, come up with a proper title, check all the formatting and file-naming guidelines again, edit it some more, and send it in. Plenty of time.

I came so close to calling it Farmer Jones and the Field Drain of Doom. I opted for A Ferret Too Far – this may have been partly influenced by writing a radio play involving a wereferret on Thursday. But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

I faffed with commas, I wrote a quick character note. I changed one mild swear word for another. I re-read all the guidelines. I pressed send at 11.56 and sank back, drained, half-expecting to be told I’d named my file with the wrong date or some such glaring violation. But no, all was well.

So if you’d like a minute and forty-five seconds of light relief in the form of a young man called Alan doing a lovely job on A Ferret Too Far (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you can watch it here:

 

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.

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My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.

But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.

Greetings from Batley Park W.Y.

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Borrowed from my brother, naturally

I’m reading my first rock autobiography of the year and I start wishing I could write fiction as raw and truthful and powerful as a Bruce Springsteen song, that would last as long in the head and the heart, and I stick one of Big Brother’s cast-off tapes in the cassette player in the kitchen and Thunder Road kicks in and my heart soars and I’m twelve again and buying a second-hand Born To Run LP to play on Sister Number One’s hand-me-down record player, and I’m nineteen and clinging to Born in the USA when my peers are telling me it’s not cool, and I’m thirty-five and BB’s handing over the Springsteen tapes he’s replaced on CD and I’m rediscovering that feeling of gritty bluesy rock n roll, and I want to phone BB and tell him how glad I am that he let me rifle through his record collection, and how much joy and catharsis all that music has brought me over the years, a liferaft and a battle cry and a manifesto. But I can’t, because I’m British and reserved, and what is more I’m a gruff northerner. Nevertheless… Nevertheless.

Flash Fiction, maps, and a poetry pamphlet

It was the Northern Short Story Festival on Saturday, courtesy of Leeds Big Bookend, and I went along to take part in the Flash Fiction Slam, a kind of competitive open mic. There are lots of photos here on Flickr including an unfortunate/amusing one of me with what can only be described as an expressive reading face on. Masses of variety on show, I was outclassed by Lynn Bauman-Milner doing a dark and intense take on Cinderella while I opted for The Invisible Woman, which you may have read here on Reflex Fiction recently. Neither of us won.

Mark the artist (who’d come along with OneMonkey to be supportive) and I ended up talking to the illustrator Simon Smith for ages. There are photos of that too, if you’re interested. Among other things, Si worked on Stories from the Forests of Leeds with Daniel Ingram-Brown, a genius idea where writers (amateur and otherwise) around Leeds created characters based on area names then developed stories around them. I would love to see a Bradford version (naturally) and if all else fails maybe Mark and I could initiate it ourselves. Hmm…

Coincidentally I was looking at an old map of Haltwhistle this week and the story ideas within the names on that sheet alone were fantastic: Hot Moss, Galloping Rigg, Baty’s Shield, Foul Potts, Clattering Ford, Windy Law, Foul Town, Crooks, New Angerton, Fairy Stairs, Witches House (ruin), not to mention at least 3 castles. I urge you to go look at the fabulous old Ordnance Survey maps there on the National Library of Scotland site, they’re amazing whether you’re interested in history, your neighbourhood, or quirky old places to build a story round.

Lastly, lest I forget, the International Women’s Day poetry pamphlets from Bradford Libraries are out now, with my poem in. Dead excited to get this through the post:

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A writer praises the North

Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.

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An anchor I saw in Cumbria, not the one that tethers me to the north

You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.

As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?

The gate to storyland

Some objects are full of stories. Take this small wooden gate:

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Earlier this year I spotted it on a shelf in a local charity shop and couldn’t resist. Not unreasonably, OneMonkey asked why on earth I wanted it and what I was going to do with it. I just do, I said, and I’m going to put it somewhere and look at it – what else?

The truth is, it was the story behind the wooden gate that appealed to me. It’s the sort of thing my dad might make as trackside scenery for a model train (he builds the kind that actually run on coal, outdoors) but it’s an odd scale, the base-board is about a foot long. There was nothing similar on nearby shelves, it was in good condition and the gate opens, so: what did it get made for, and why did someone get rid of it? There’s the mundane explanation that it could have been a test piece for learning a particular woodwork technique, and once made it was just taking up valuable house room. That’s a bit boring though, and I’ve thought of lots of better ones in idle moments, but I assumed it was only me who was interested in it.

Sister Number One noticed at Christmas that I’d added the hedgehog and the mouse which have lived on my bookcase for many years. Big Brother then suggested I get a suitably sized rucksack and sit it on the stile, perhaps with a walking stick propped against it. And a pair of boots, he added. Boots? Yes, then we’ll wonder where the walker’s gone and what’s through the gate. And we all sat and looked at a second-hand model gate, and wondered.

Week 5: Sleighbells ring, I’m not listening

Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.

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Hat(s) courtesy Sister Number 1.

Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…

This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).

Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?

Aftermath of moorland fire

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An afternoon stroll interrupted by dark lunar landscape. Swathes of burnt bracken and heather, an oasis of green and one unscathed tree. Why stop there? What’s so special about this grassy peninsula, tongue of flameless ground licking the slope?

One small step, as walking boots raise puffs of black, disturb the November smell out of place in summer sunshine, reminiscent of the fire-damaged stock in a long-closed second-hand record shop. One giant leap, crunching through dark crust like a bite into royal icing, like slicing into a macabre wedding cake. Do it again, sink into a pile of burnt twigs.

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Bend to sift through ashy debris, looking for ready-to-use charcoal sticks to draw this scene later. Pick them up and they crumble to flakes. Hints of living browns and greens among the grey, as well as cracked and scorched eggshell.

Later, on the ridge, look down and see the tracks left behind.

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Crumbs! I’m on the radio tomorrow

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A notebook such as I might be reading from, but you won’t know because it’s radio

The Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival is well under way and it’s less than 24 hours till I’ll be in Studio 2 with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York from Ilkley Writers. Our programme, Down the Rabbit Hole, is about inspiration, northern writing, and why we write what we do. Between us there’s a good 25 minutes of poems and stories amongst the chat (and a sprinkling of musical confetti).

I’ve been going on about this radio lark, I know, but it’s exciting. I listen to an awful lot of radio and it’s the pinnacle of success for me (far more exciting than television), partly because it’s so mysterious. Through voices and sound effects whole worlds are created. Tomorrow as you listen to us speaking (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ll be tuning in) you will all have different images in your minds, even if you know what we all look like. The fact that my stories are printed out on the back of junk mail that’s been folded and put in my pocket a few times won’t come across on air – it will sound exactly the same as if I was reading from a gilt-edged book with a ribbon marking my place.

I’ve been dipping into the rest of the festival so far, quite a varied programme and you can listen to anything you’ve missed via the listen again page. Andrea and Rosalind are getting ready to take part in tonight’s Readathon, where an entire book is read out in a literary relay all through the night. I’ve opted for a good night’s sleep instead. Wish me luck…

A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

Blog tour guest from the Short Story Club

Welcome, Jo Tiddy, next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Take it away, Jo…

It was great to hear from Thousand Monkeys, a stalwart of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and be asked to submit my thoughts on what I write and why. Thank you also for hosting me. Alas for the blog world out there, the tour is likely to come to a crashing stop with me. I am a luddite, I operate on a steam powered laptop, I can’t get my head round twitter and I don’t have a blog, Neither do I know many writing people who do, except those who have already been on the tour. So, sorry chaps, in advance. With hope, and a fair wind behind me, I will grasp this whole blogging thing and get set up….

What am I working on?

I am working on a number of things. Or should be. However I have changed jobs, moved house and waved No 1 child off to university in the course of the past few weeks, so not much writing has been done. I mostly write short stories, on all sorts of topics, though I like to visit my own past as a child growing up in Africa.

I have also been working on a novel for teens, with a medieval bent, though it’s set in a dystopian future, just like 5 million other YA novels currently out there. I am losing interest in it fast it must be said. I am thinking of revisiting a novel I started on some time ago, set in 16th century East Africa during the Portuguese occupation of the Swahili coast. What I really need to do is get back into some sort of routine(see below), and get on with it.

Although I don’t specifically write for younger children I have contributed to the upcoming Mumsnet/Walker Book of Animal Stories, published October 2. Maybe this is a direction I could focus on more in the future.

How does my work differ from other in its genre?

I don’t have a genre as such. I’m not a romance writer, or even slightly funny – I can’t do comedy. Obviously my YA novel is identical to every other one in the field. I trained as a historian, so I like to incorporate historical elements into my stories; the ones set in the past tend to have been more successful than any modern stuff I write. I would like my writing to be different to anyone else’s – I suspect that it’s not.

My new job is in an independent bookshop, http://thebookhousethame.co.uk/ which is a fantastic place to work. The main problem is that I am now aware of how many books are out there in so many genres, and I will never get a chance to read them all.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m quite new to writing. I used to tinker, but was busy carving out a career in local government (boo), raising a family, having a life. Three years ago I developed ME and life changed overnight. I spent 6 months on the sofa weeping with self-pity and despair. Eventually I turned to writing as a way of dealing with it. I found that raging at the page was a great way of offloading, and saving my family from having to listen to me whine. I began to get some semblance of a life back, albeit at a much slower level. Much of what I write tends to have dark undertones, layers of the anxiety that I often have to fight. But I am a believer in redemption, and the thought that even during dark times there is always hope. I think this comes across in the things I write. I’m also drawn to childhood memories, growing up in Africa and changing that lifestyle for a completely different continent when I was eighteen has left its mark on me, left me feeling, at times, rootless.

My writing process

I find my best ideas come from prompts. The Short Story Club has always been brilliant for this, throwing out an idea, or a phrase, and letting us all just run with it. The members have been so supportive, and friendly, and open hearted, and many of my stories have had their genesis there. It’s useful to have the feedback. Otherwise I delve into memories, or listen to music, pick up a refrain and build a story from that. I read a lot – too much sometimes; it’s a great displacement activity. Any of this can spark a story off.

When I was working lunchtimes in a school my day had a bit of routine. Get up, offload kids, walk dog, do morning pages (a la Julia Cameron). Half an hour or so of just scribbling anything that came into my head onto a blank page, always black fountain pen, always longhand, mostly whingeing. Go to work, come home, do it in reverse. Solitary dog walking is great, not only for observing changes in a familiar place during the course of the seasons, but for tramping out ideas. If I got stuck I’d disappear off to my shed and sew – another fairly mindless activity that allowed my brain to unravel knots. Now though, I work three full days a week and am often too tired to think by the end of them. I’ve moved, from suburbia to the wilds of the countryside, a low lying village surrounded by floodplain and wet for half the year. The land around has never been cultivated, is a palimpsest of older times – strip lynchets, old drovers routes, these all remain. It’s quiet, so quiet, and my “home” days are longer. I will need to construct a new routine, and find new paths to walk in this undiscovered countryside.

I do belong to a writers group – we are a small and haphazard bunch, who really need to get organised. We meet up once a month, to discuss our writing, but like many book clubs we descend into gossip and chat quite quickly. It’s useful to have the feedback, but we are all working on different things. There is talk of a blog (hah) – maybe that will happen once I’ve got to grips with sorting my own out.

Apologies for having no one to pass this on to as yet. I have asked around, and as soon as I do I will link it up on twitter. I have been asked to talk to a group of A2 students at the local college about short story writing, so I think that I will direct them to this blog tour so they can explore the huge variety of writers and their different approaches to the craft. Being young and tech savvy they will have no problems……

In the meantime you can find me on Twitter: @jo_tiddy, @the_book_house. (I think)

 

Writing in alphabetical order

This month’s exercise at the Telegraph Short Story Club is a 26-sentence story in alphabetical (or reverse) order. These were my first 2 slightly tongue in cheek attempts:

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared. Ben jumped, dropping the packet of Smarties he’d been about to slip in his blazer pocket.

“Caught you,” the man sneered. “Damned kids, thinking they can get one over on me. Every year it’s the same, I’d flog the bloody lot of you.”

“F-f-flog?” stammered Ben, who was shocked but not as frightened as his occasional speech impediment made him seem.

“Go on, hop it before I ring your headmaster.”

Hurrying out of the corner shop before the old man could change his mind, Ben collided with someone hurrying the other way. If there was one person Ben should never have run into, it was Jack Grosvenor. Jack was feared and loathed in equal measure, an arrogant, swaggering bully from the fifth form, manipulative and sly.

“Knightley, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he barked. “Let’s see. Maybe you could make it up to me.”

Nearby was an independent record shop that was slowly going out of business. Our Price records had opened up a few streets away and all the schoolboys took their pocket money there these days.

“Perhaps you could liberate a cassette or two for my listening pleasure,” suggested Jack. “Quickly, I didn’t mean next week.”

Running along the street away from Jack, Ben’s stomach was doing somersaults and he felt like keeping going. Sprinting into the sunset, as it were. Tomorrow he’d have to go to school though, and Jack would find him and make him pay. Under the watchful eye of the record shop owner, Ben sidled down an aisle, watching the watcher rather than looking where he was going. Vinyl cascaded across the floor and Ben legged it, grabbing the nearest tape box while the shopkeeper’s attention was elsewhere.

“What have you done to my LPs, you little hooligan?” he bellowed.

X-Ray Spex were belting out Germ Free Adolescence from a builder’s radio as Jack kicked his heels in the street.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air when he saw Ben running towards him with a cassette box, but then he saw what it was. “ZZ Top, bloody hell.”

And going the other way…

Zaphod Beeblebrox was Alan’s role model. You would have thought he’d have picked someone better, or at least more achievable. Xena, Warrior Princess, had in fact been his first goal, but it had been doomed to failure. When his wife found the costume at the back of the wardrobe she assumed it was for her, and flounced off to Birmingham for sisterly solidarity and a good moan. Vadim next door had been most understanding, helping Alan come to terms with his new life. Until then, Alan had wondered if he might be suppressing his feminine side, hence the aspirational Xena (thus avoiding anything too pink and girly), but the way he took to baking his own pies in his wife’s abandoned pinny he thought that couldn’t possibly be it. That was why he’d gone for a real man’s… alien, on his next attempt.

Smooth-talking, super-confident Zaphod had been the stand-out character for Alan, when he’d read the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all those years ago. Regrettably, he was more of an Arthur Dent by nature, and the change in approach wasn’t easy. Quite how all those slick suits at the posh bar next to the station managed it, he wasn’t sure. Pheremones, maybe. Or the size of their wallets. No matter how hard Alan tried to throw himself into being cool or wild he couldn’t bring himself to do it. May I buy you a drink, he’d say. Like Zaphod would bother asking! Killer chat-up lines just weren’t compatible with the thickness of glasses Alan needed to wear, and it was about time he faced it.

Jenny had been watching the man with the bottle-bottom specs all evening. Intrigued by the loud suit and cocktails which didn’t seem to go with the rest of him, she decided to go over and liven up her night.

“Have we met before?” she asked, leaning against the bar next to him.

“Gosh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Funny, I could have sworn you looked familiar. Excuse my mistake.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Can I join you anyway?” asked Jenny. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said Alan, wishing it was something cooler and wondering what Zaphod would do next.

If you feel inspired (and really, how could you not) do come and join us.

Fancy joining in with a title-based writing exercise?

It’s my turn for the first Friday of the month challenge at the Telegraph Short Story Club, which is now available here. We’re taking one of a handful of titles I’ve supplied and writing the beginning of a story (or a whole story, or a letter. We’re kind of easy-going like that) to see how many different genres and directions we collectively cover, or if some titles take us all down a similar route. So if you feel like joining in, do come over and play. If you want to do the exercise without joining the club, here are the titles:

  • Sydney by Nightfall
  • Edith and Maud
  • The Crumbs From Your Table
  • Losing a Tenner and Finding Bob
  • Denton After Dark
  • 23 Park Avenue
  • Golden Silence
  • The King’s Head

Spring and surroundings

Spring’s officially here, though we’ve had a heavier frost this week than we had all winter. Naturally, I’m reading a novel set in mountain country when the first of the winter snows are sweeping in and causing problems, but then I have a habit of being contrary.

There has been the odd burst of sunshine lately, plenty of flowers are appearing (mainly purple, in my garden) and the longer days mean it’s not already dark or dropping dark when I get home. It struck me as a good time to have a fresh look at things, while everywhere’s refreshing itself and throwing off the winter blankets.

Tomorrow on the way to work, or while you’re peering bleary-eyed from the kitchen window waiting for the first pot of tea of the day, take a good look at your surroundings. Maybe the winter storms have opened up the view by half a tree, or you’d forgotten there were daffodils on the roundabout. Maybe it’ll make you smile, or bring back memories. Maybe it’ll only remind you of some crucial maintenance you’d been putting off. Hopefully though, it’ll put a spring in your step.

Writing on a rainbow

If you’re trying to get into a regular writing habit but you keep running into the ‘yes but what do I write about?’ problem, you need a few prompts up your sleeve. Colour doesn’t work for everyone, but you could give it a try. Specifically, try writing on a rainbow.

Conveniently, there are the same number of colours in the rainbow as there are days in the week, so you can match one with the other and never have to think too hard about a prompt again. You might go with:

  • Monday – the red light district
  • Tuesday – orange squash at a church fete
  • Wednesday – the lemon sweets that always get left till last
  • Thursday – the smell of fresh-mown grass
  • Friday – bluetits jostling on a garden feeder
  • Saturday – a school exercise book with deep purple sugar-paper covers
  • Sunday – crystallised violets on a birthday cake

Or another week might be:

  • Monday – scarlet stilletos
  • Tuesday – a vibrant sunset
  • Wednesday – washing-up gloves
  • Thursday – a green velvet ribbon
  • Friday – a lake on a calm sunny day
  • Saturday – someone coming home with a black eye
  • Sunday – a purple front door on a street of white uPVC

Either try 5 minutes’ uninterrupted writing and see where it takes you, or jot down all the ideas each thing makes you think of. You might get a colourful surprise.

Words as art

The other night, Gideon Coe (BBC 6Music DJ with excellent musical taste) had a quiz where you had to figure out the album from a word cloud made from the lyrics. This set me off making clouds from Iron Maiden lyrics, which was great fun using the nifty online tool (where you can play around with colours, font, layout etc) at Wordle. Then I wondered what a short story would look like that way, and since I have a selection of my own to hand, I tried it with Last Night in Las Vegas, and here’s the result:

LastNightLVNot only does that look like a film poster for something cool and sixties, but it almost turns the story into poetry (come on, I did say ‘almost’). It’s amazing how it makes you look at the story in a different way, gives you an idea what’s going on and highlights themes. It could catch on as a form of ‘trailer’ for novels or short stories . I’d certainly consider using it that way – any readers or writers care to share their thoughts on the idea?

 

In the epistolary tradition

Looking for light, easy reading on the recent (sunny!) bank holiday I reached for a book a friend gave me last year. It had that pleasing newness that I rarely experience (reading mainly ebooks and second-hand or library copies), and it was slim (230 pages). Just the size and form a paperback should be, somewhere in the recesses of my idealised memory. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff The book itself was actually two even slimmer (non-fiction) volumes in one: 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff. I zipped through the first with little effort and a sort of drowsy amusement in the early evening sunshine, and instead of starting the sequel, I began to think.

84 Charing Cross Road consists of the letters exchanged between Helene Hanff (a writer in New York) and the staff (and assorted relatives) of a bookshop in London, at irregular intervals between 1949 and 1969. In one sense it’s mainly made up of orders for (usually antiquarian) books but because of the length of time, and the familiar tone of Hanff’s letters from the start, there is a certain amount of friendship that grows up, and there are glimpses into various lives at a particular point in history. There’s also a mild curiosity as to whether she ever gets to visit England, and the bookshop in particular, as plans are made and money is saved along the way.

Lazing in the last of the sunshine I began to wonder how the book came into being. Who thought that the reading public would enjoy reading the correspondence (some of it missing, as this is real life and papers go astray) between a writer and her favourite bookseller? Not that I’m knocking the book, it was just the thing for the mood I was in on Monday evening, but in 1970 when it was published there wasn’t even the curiosity value of history (typewriters! The Coronation! Postal orders!) wrapped up in it so what was the thinking behind it? Is it just that the reading public are scandalously nosy and can’t resist a peek at someone else’s letters?

Plenty of novels have been written as an exchange of letters, but in my personal opinion the form works best for comedy. Not necessarily laugh out loud comedy, but the kind of thing that’s easy to read, that you want to breeze through with a close-to-permanent smile. It lets both writer and reader get deep into the mannerisms of a character, allows glimpses of other aspects of their life, and lets the reader fill in their own jokes or scenarios based on a passing reference. While I think it’s true that plots too slight to make a good story have been successfully rendered in letters, it’s probably advisable to start with a good plot and work from there.

I had gone on to wonder if there were any good versions using emails rather than letters, when I remembered one of the most consistently funny radio comedies in recent years (I haven’t read the books), Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the marvellous delivery from Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales but the writing is strong as well. There have been a number of series now but the core is the long-standing friendship between Vera and Irene, which allows them to get away with saying all sorts of outrageous things to each other, and of course using email means there are the inevitable missives written in haste or anger, late at night after a little too much sherry, and the ones sent before they were finished or riddled with typos.

Not only did 84 Charing Cross Road provide a couple of hours’ light entertainment this week, it’s got me fired up to try an epistolary story. I suspect it might be harder than it looks.

Writing nooks and studies

A couple of weeks ago I was asking about writing rituals and favourite places to write (or to read), in a post called Favourite Haunts. Coincidentally, a very similar topic has come up at the Telegraph Short Story Club this week, and it’s fascinating to read about everyone’s surroundings. So if you’re nosy, looking for inspiration for your own writing corner (or for a story about writers), or would like reassurance that you’re not the only one writing at the kitchen table with only a crusty brown sauce bottle for company, get yourself over there. You can also read about my study (in my original post I was talking about the library I often write in during my lunchbreak) – I’m sure that’s enticement enough.