People watching

file0001711682994I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told me, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation.

I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof 2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof 1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’

And what I see and hear often gives me ideas for a story. Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!

So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:

A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation and with him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was also short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt?

I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. Maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?

The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.

I think she’d have someone at home to help with her personal care. And also the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.

And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.

I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”

Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?

Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.

They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?

Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?

For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.

***

Making a Sandwich – or – In Praise Of The Middle Way

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Does anyone really need that much ham?

 

Some people plan. Some people plan absolutely every single thing they write in meticulous – even tedious – detail. Nothing, not even the smallest scene, is left to chance. This attention to detail means nothing is overlooked, and their story follows a logical pattern and reaches a satisfying conclusion for the reader.

Other people say that they are Pantsers – which means they don’t plan at all, they just show up, start writing, and trust that the story will come together. Writing by the seat of their pants, they say their story is as much of a surprise to them as it is to their readers. They say this method works, and that it makes for an interesting, spontaneous and fluid story.

But you don’t need to pick a side. It is possible to find a middle way, between these two extremes. I use both approaches together, and for me that works. Because I believe the writing process is all about balance and review. I’m always a big fan of the middle way. I steer clear of extremes in all things – don’t know if it’s just my temperament, or because I’m a Libran or what – I just like things balanced and sensible. Maybe it’s a bit like making a sandwich.

So you get out a plate and a knife, maybe a teaspoon, and maybe another, sharper knife for cutting stuff. And you get out your meat, cheese, peanut butter, hummus, your salad leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, pickles. And very importantly you get out your bread of choice. Or your gluten-free oat or rice or corn crackers. And then you decide you might need some mayo, or some salt, mustard, or some chutney…really with sandwiches, as with stories, the possibilities are endless.

But.

You don’t have to use everything.

So I plan. But only a bit. And I do the Into-The-Unknown-Seat-Of-The-Pants thing. But only up to a point.

The middle way is where most of us are, the best of both worlds and slave to none. I start with my starch of choice – usually oat cakes. Then I add a suggestion of butter (sometimes) or I slather on the hummus or the cheese. Then I look at what I have and ask myself how I feel. What is it I want of this? Let’s pretend I’m going crazy and letting my hair down and having a big hunk of wholemeal grainy bread – and I’ve put on lashings of butter – my favourite food group – and now I’m definitely in the mood for cheese, so I whack on a load of chunky cheesy goodness. Now. Hmm. I look at my array of goodies on the worktop. I’m having cheese (or writing romance), so I can immediately rule out mustard and salt (crime/horror/western-specific elements). But here’s where it gets tricky – do I want to fling on a bunch of salad leaves and squeeze a few wedges of cucumber in, because that will mean I need to top the whole thing off with mayo. But…that chutney looks tempting, and I can almost taste it – my memory furnishes not only the appearance of chutney on the cheese, but also the smell and the taste. My mouth is already watering at the memory of it. Problem is, I know those salad leaves and cucumber will be full of vitamins, and I need to think about that. Or, I could bung a bit of salad on the side and still have my chutney…

And this is what we do as we travel the middle way. We look at what we need for our story – all the elements of style and prose, of structure and the specifics of genre. So after a lot of thought we begin to assemble our structure (bread) and we start to add in our characters, our plot, our twists and turns and our dialogue (filling). Too much impromptu seat-of-the-pants and you can end up with an aimless, waffly first draft and a massive rewrite job on your hands (or a sandwich that falls apart under the weight of all it’s disparate elements leaving you with a soggy mess). Too much planning and meticulous detail can give you flat, lifeless and dull writing which fails to grab the reader (a big stodgy sandwich which is all bread and no fun). So a nice balance is recommended to get passion and life into your writing but not stuff the page out with endless descriptions of what the character had for breakfast – and every other breakfast – unless of course you are writing a bestseller entitled ‘Breakfasts I Have Known’. Let me tell you now, if it’s not about bacon, I’m not reading it. Now I do have a tendency to waffle anyway – so imagine how bad I’d be if I didn’t have some idea where I’m headed. This week I read someone (a great writer whose name I’ve already forgotten – soz, whoever you are) quoted as saying ‘you wouldn’t get into your car and drive without having an idea of where you are going’. Hmm. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t drive… Sometimes I go for a walk and it doesn’t much matter where I go, so long as I go!

I make ‘soft’ notes – general hints of the way I want the story to go, and I remind myself about the important character details to make sure I don’t change Joan to Jane on page 17 or give people the wrong hair colour or marry them off to the wrong partner etc. If I have an idea of the final outcome of the story – I don’t write this down – and I don’t tell anyone. It’s my little secret. And with my iffy memory, there may be a point in the future where  I have to write it down, but it’s there in my head when I am writing, as a signpost to aim for.

But the great thing about soft notes is that they are easy to revise. You need to be always ready to re-evaluate your outline or your goals, or even your plot or characters, because the requirements of your story can and probably will change as you write. So try to keep an open mind about your story. If something isn’t working, it’s worth trying a new approach, which can be a bit scary. For myself, I know it is important to give myself the freedom to write within a guiding but flexible framework.

Hmm – I wonder what’s for lunch?

Take Time Out

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Malcolm showing how it's done!

We often feel we have to accomplish as much as possible within the span of each day. Sometimes it is our self-esteem that demands that we are ‘achievers’. However, life is not just about work, not merely concerned with achievements. Life should be enjoyable, should even be – dare I say it – fun! Don’t rush headlong towards a nervous breakdown, stop and sit for a while. I often have to remind myself it’s okay to do nothing now and again. Partly it’s my upbringing that says every moment of the day should be productive and useful, and partly it’s the fact that I work from home for a relatively low income and feel a need to demonstrate that I am working as hard as I can, and partly it’s my own character – I’m not naturally one of those people who can just chillax whenever and wherever. And I know some of you out there are the same, admit it!

But our busy lifestyles mean we so often find ourselves lurching from one task to the next, checking them off on our mental to-do list, and feeling that we must keep accomplishing tasks or we have failed. Not so.

It’s okay to take time out, to veg, to just be. Quite often, even when we think we are relaxing, we are still trying to make ‘good use’ of our time by working on some task – completing sudoku or crosswords, reading a book, or even playing a game on our computer.  So rarely do we actually do nothing. But in fact, time spent day-dreaming, listening to the sounds of nature from outside – or the sounds of traffic if nature is far away – and just letting our thoughts drift, this is all time well-spent. We need to rest, not just our bodies but also our minds. and if we allow ourselves that period of rest, we often find that our minds are sharper, our thoughts clearer, and little niggling things we have been working on suddenly seem easy or we can now see the action we need to take. Our brains have time to catch up with the mental filing from all the information we have been absorbing as we go about the routine of our lives.

So – give yourself permission to bunk off and do absolutely nothing for ten minutes twice a day, and see your stress levels plummet, your self-esteem and positive energy sky-rocket, and your creativity will be fresh and maybe take you off in a whole new and exciting direction. It could turn out that the twenty minutes a day you spend doing nothing become the twenty most productive minutes of your day.

 

 

 

So won’t you please …. be my little baby

holding figure

Just before the start of NaNoWriMo on November 1st, I was pondering various ideas and little bits and pieces, a bit like the pieces of a puzzle or of a collage, which together create a whole picture.  Snippets of songs, pictures, story ideas, dreams, poetry and memories – all these things were telling me or showing me something, an indefinable thing whose presence I could sense but not see.  Well, after last year’s NaNo attempt I was a bit reluctant to take up the challenge for this year but in the end I decided to take a bit of a risk and set aside my WIP for a few weeks to concentrate on the November challenge, and I’ve been quite revoltingly smug that I had a good experience this year, and felt and still feel I have begun to tap into the buzz my brain had created from all those fragments.

And so I have returned to my poor neglected WIP, that should have been released on an unsuspecting public by the end of October but is still not ready, and now I am mentally pencilling in end of January for a possible release date.

Which leads me on to the next question – what next?  Again the brain is working on ideas and motifs and snippets, and I am wondering about the possibilities …

I love music.  I don’t play any instrument.  I’m not now and never have been in a band.  But music has been tremendously important to me in my life, and I like a lot of different kinds of music.

And now this is what I’m mulling over:

Ronettes: Be My Baby  (Be My Baby – would make a great working title and I have searched on amazon for a mystery/thriller book of that name but found nothing as yet.  Beloved Object also a good title but maybe a bit too close to the Jennifer Aniston film Object Of My Affection – based on the bestseller by Stephen Macaulay)

These lyrics seem a bit menacing when you think about them; Psychological dependency – what would she/he do to gain the approval and adoration of the one she/he loves?  How far would they go?  And in the end, what happens when they suddenly are confronted with the fact that the beloved object does not return their feelings?  And they will see all the (perceived) sacrifices they have made, all the efforts they have made to try to please the beloved object and achieve their love – and for what????  How could you do that to me?

A bit like the Police song Every Breath You Take, which was used as the title for the excellent novel by Cath Staincliff, this one also has overtones of obsession that make it uncomfortable as a reality, though people always see it as romantic.

“The night we met I knew I needed you so

And if I had the chance I’d never let you go

So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me

We’ll make ’em turn their heads every place we go”

I’m not sure this is a relationship that you could easily extricate yourself from.  Thinking of a story set back in the days of slicked back hair and that whole new scene for teenagers – or older – of freedom, obsession, new styles and opinions.  I’m thinking about big hair, cardigans with the top button done up, big flaring skirts and evenings at the dance hall.   But there will only be one way out of this relationship.

“Be my – be my baby – my my only baby …”

Rejection – or, Moving On

 

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Rejection.   It’s something we all fear, I guess.  We are born craving acceptance – if we are not accepted we will die.  Or at least be put up for adoption.  Writers are no different in this respect to new born babies.  Or maybe we are more like the loving mothers urging our offspring on to others and not able to see if its not really as beautiful as we think.

It’s no secret that I have had a bad review for my book on Amazon.  I had known that sooner or later it would happen, but when it did, being pre-warned was no help.  I went through the usual stages of grief:  I started with a kind of ‘so what’ shrug, then went into a depression and a downward spiral, felt like everything I wrote was worthless and what was the point anyway, I was surely kidding myself I could write?  I asked a Facebook contact, who is a very well-established, successful and admired writer, what do you do, how do you deal with this?  She told me what I already knew.  You can’t please everyone.

The thing is, it would be so easy to try to change yourself, your style, your genre, everything, in order to please the one or two dissenters who don’t get you or your writing and probably shouldn’t have read it in the first place.  If you are a lover of fantasy or paranormal fiction, I don’t understand why you would choose to read something totally different and then complain that its different?  That’s like going to a book shop and asking for sausages.

So I got over it.

To begin with, I don’t flatter myself I have universal appeal, and just as there are books I would not enjoy reading, I realise that my books may not appeal to everyone.  I have to be myself.  I’ve tried writing the ‘proper’ way, as I was taught by a number of well-meaning and in some cases, very successful writers and teachers of writing.  But I have to be me (visualise someone running down the road into a golden sunset, arms outstretched in triumph, singing “I Gotta Be Me – just gotta be free”) – I need to write to be happy and also I need to be happy to write, so I set aside the slings and arrows and choose not to let them hurt me or distract me from what I am trying to achieve.

I’m now moving on.

 

 

 

The Arrival of Autumn

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On Sunday I wrote in my journal, “it’s a rainy, cool and windy day. Looking out at the garden, with the trees and the tall shrubs being tossed by the wind and the rain slashing the windows, I see a few first leaves falling and I know it is now Autumn.”
Like Spring, Autumn is a time of transition, not from dormancy into life, but into rest from the long busy-ness of summer. It is a time of reflection, of falling back to regroup, and to continue the military metaphor, it is a time for laying plans and forming strategies for the coming year.
And I, too, reflect and consider the future. I lay my plans and think ahead to the coming writing year. I plot. I scheme.
These last two weeks of working at a temping job have been a break for me from the messy, exhausting disarray of the last eight months that I have been out of work and able to concentrate more on my writing. So for me it has been a kind of holiday-in-reverse: usually one works then takes a couple of weeks’ holiday. And to the outsider, it appears that I have holidayed for eight months and now finally I am working.
But.
In the last year, I have: had a full-time job from September to December, and at the same time I also wrote a complete first draft of a novel. Since then I have written another first draft and about a quarter of a third. I have written at least 10 short stories varying between 500 and 8,000 words, I have revised and self-published (yes, I’m an Indie!) a full-length novel and also a ‘long’ short story (the 8,000 word one) as eBooks. At the moment I am rewriting one of my first drafts ready to publish it ‘shortly’. I’ve learned how to create my own eBook covers, I’ve set up a Facebook page and a blog, I’ve tweeted and google+’d and I’ve made many, many friends, most of whom are also writers, I have joined online book groups and read along with their ‘book of the month’.
So yes, two weeks working from 8.00 to 4.30 has been a holiday for me.
And around all this, I have done laundry, served meals, cleaned the house, paid bills, baked, shopped etc. I’ve read at least twenty books. I’ve top-spotted my cats. I’ve grown a few tomatoes and courgettes. It’s been a hectic and demanding schedule.
I’m making a list. Asking myself, what do I want to achieve in the coming quiet season? And, already I’m looking ahead. What do I want to achieve next year? Obviously I want to lose wight, get fitter, make that craft project that is gathering dust in a corner. But none of that is important to me.
My real goals centre around writing – I want to write the next story in both my series – so I will be thinking about the third and final book in the Posh Hits trilogy. And I want to write the next in my Miss Burkett detective series, set in the mid to late 1960s. Haven’t even finished the first draft of the first book yet!) I think I’d like to publish a volume of short stories. And there are so many possibilities for other projects – shall I dust off an old novel, mouldering in a drawer? Is the world ready yet for my take on reincarnation or vampires? Or shall I work on one of those extended and partially developed ideas, gone well beyond the notes stage. And – obviously – I will do a bit more life-writing. To be honest, there really aren’t enough hours in the day for all that I would like to do. And I want to go to a writer’s conference – haven’t been to one for years – not since Brisbane, to the Queensland Writer’s Festival, so that would be around 2000 or 2001?
So now I am ready to sit back for a while, to ponder and enjoy, the long, creative sleep of winter, and formulate my plans for the next twelve months. Mwah ha ha ha!

Choices, choices, choices – or, How To Be Your Own Worst Enemy

I’m stuck between two equally appealing choices.  Do I stick with the first draft I’m working on that has finally, after 18 tricky chapters, begun to gather speed and a life of it’s own, or do I set that aside for two or three months and go back to begin rewriting a completed first draft, which I’ve rashly announced will be available to the public by the end of September?

This is not normally a problem for me as I don’t usually work on two books at once.  But this year I’ve had more time for writing and things have got a bit out of hand.  I remember years ago, a writer who wrote two distinctly different series under different names (who was that woman?) used to have two desks, one for each author/series.  She would ‘become’ the appropriate writer, according to which desk she sat down at.  She used the different physical spaces to inform her creative ability.  So does this mean I need a second desk?  I don’t know if I’m the right sort of writer to do that.  I mean, it might work for some of the time, those days when I woke up and I just knew who I was.  But most of the time it just wouldn’t work for me.  If I had two desks, I absolutely know I would end up writing somewhere else completely, because I hate making decisions, i often find it paralysingly difficult to make a decision between two choices.  Maybe it’s because as a Libran I can see both sides of the argument, I’m a pros and cons kind of gal.  The problem with seeing two sides to things is that you never actually get anything done.  Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, you are trapped between two choices.  What I need is for someone to tell me, this is what you’ve got to do.  But then, sometimes, that little rebel in me says to itself, “well, I’m not going to!”

In the end, what happens is that my inner editor pounds the desk (any desk) in frustration and shouts, “just pick one, dammit!”  and so I do, and I get on with it, all the time glancing back over my shoulder and wondering if the other story is greener.  I haven’t got to that stage with this current dilemma yet.  Still got another couple of days of paper shuffling and doubt before that happens.

carries messy mini desk