Of course, I couldn’t resist. I began a sequel to Stories People Tell. It starts in Waterloo Station, in the press of commuters under this clock where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting Annie and her girlfriend Kevin.
Not all innocent causes are as well-intentioned as they might wish to appear. Under the banner of self-righteous indignation and professed sanctity, many a powerful woman has been branded and burnt as a witch…
Here’s a first draft of how the tale begins:
A feral chant greeted Annie as she threaded between the barriers separating the platform from the concourse. A pack of guttural voices growled “Witch!” or was it “Bitch!” repeated over and over. Alarmed, she dropped Kevin’s hand and squeezed in front of her girlfriend, her eyes darting this way and that in search of trouble. The train had been packed and a throng of panicked commuters elbowed their way forward as if the station were on fire. Borne by the flow bursting from the gates, there was no turning back. If only her bodyguard, Xenia, had been there.
The writing of a novel brings together a wealth of experience and know-how combined with an ability to surrender to a story and let it lead you.
I am very much an advocate of following the story when writing, rather than precluding its course by drawing up an outline before beginning. I generally start with a scene or a place or the action of a character without having much of an idea where the story will lead me. I discover what happens as the story unfolds almost as if I were the first reader. I can even get within walking distance of the final pages and still not know how it will end.
I might do research or I might sketch out what I know of a character or a place when I can’t move forward without it, but not before I start. Stories People Tell was a striking example of this. I went to London after I’d finished the draft, to check I’d got it right. There’s a very good reason why I couldn’t have done otherwise. It was only as I reached the end of the manuscript that I realised the story had to be more solidly anchored in London. It was the first novel I had written that took place almost entirely in a real setting.
A lot of writers describe how, from time to time, they get stuck in their novel and detail their strategies to surmount the obstacle. The unspoken fear may well be that the blockage will perdure and the story will get stranded and go unfinished. In such circumstances, persistence is often presented as a virtue, especially in the face of procrastination. But pushing forward may not be the best strategy. What if being stuck is the story’s way of telling the writer she’s going the wrong way? It just happened to me. I wanted my character to win a fight with a thug that had deliberately waylaid her. Her situation was pretty hopeless. Not only did she not have the build to triumph against such a hardened nut, but she was an ardent advocate of non-violence. Try as I would, I couldn’t write the scene. I kept searching for a clever slight-of-hand that would enable her to win, preferably without fighting. It was only when I resolved to let her lose that the blockage dissolved and I was able to finish the chapter. I’m not sure yet, but I suspect she had to fail for her story to move forward.
Having said that, letting a story develop is not without discipline. Experience shows that some things work, others don’t. This applies to word choice, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, the overarching narrative,… Just to give an example of one such ‘artful’ constraint – for which I am grateful to MJ Holmes – concerning what could be called ‘narrative distance’. The depth and breadth of a novel can be greatly enhanced by moving in and out from an intimate perspective to a much wider societal or historic anchoring of action. Now, this distance necessarily shrinks when the action heats up. You want the reader to be engrossed in what is happening, not distracted by background descriptions. So doing, you enhance the telling and the impact of the story, but do not constrain or dictate its direction.
In other words, a wealth of experience, know-how and knowledge conditions and enhances a story as it naturally grows and develops following the path it alone can dictate.
What essential commonness, uniting one to all, lies beyond the differences that distinguish each from all others?
When you see an apple, the speckled colours around its stalk and the hint of a bruise on one side distinguish it from all other apples. Yet you know it belongs to a category of objects all English-speaking people would recognise as an ‘apple’.
When you look at other people you also see, first and foremost, what sets them apart, what makes them different, the marks of singularity, of individuality, of separateness. A fading tattoo on the woman’s right shoulder that changes form as she swings her arm. The musical lilt of boy’s voice that stumbles and cracks as puberty takes its toll and the blush of embarrassment that colours his cheeks at intimacy revealed. The stubble bristling around a birthmark on the side of a man’s face that he nervously tries to conceal by constantly rubbing his chin. A tiny rent in a girl’s tights just below her left knee, that bobs in and out of view behind her hemline as she skips along the path. Each person a different being.
These individuals are identified by a name, but that name is not the person. It is both a restrictive and restricting label and a convenient receptacle in which we stock all our impressions, our knowledge and our preconceived impressions of that person. A composite picture that can be slow to adapt. Then come all those adjectives that categorise. Male, female, tall, fat, skinny, gay, effeminate, hairy, butch, sexy, black, white, brown, green, lecherous, strange, shy, angry, disgusting,… And combinations of these.
These colourful descriptions coalesce into larger categories that are often linked to whether we value or like or distrust or fear or detest the person in question. Love, trust, community but also racism, sexism and homophobia, amongst others, lie down that road.
But I suspect, and here lies the driving question behind this article, that beyond the multitude of differences that separate us, there is an underlying presence that unites each and every one of us. In other words, we are both separate and one at the same time. Distinct and indivisible.
I have tried, but so far failed, to look beyond the differences that spring to mind at the sight of a person and perceive the commonness that unites that person to every other, including me. Not some banal categorisation like ‘human being’. Rather, a splendid fiery essence that burns in each one of us.
I wrote a book called Boy & Girl in which Peter discovers that dressing like a girl is not at all akin to being in a girl’s head. Writing the novel was a real joy. Publishing it was tedious, but not so difficult. However, promoting it was much more of a headache. Till now…
Despite this web ‘presence’, promoting an English novel when based in Switzerland, with a very tight budget, seems an impossible task. A common reaction here is, When will you translate it into French. Groan. Yet I am convinced there is a considerable audience for the book. People who have read it are full of praise. One person writes, This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Another writes This book was a wonderful read. (…) I read it as a parent of a child who is considered “different” and found it great for many reasons… So how can I reach my audience?
It’s still early days, and time might prove me overenthusiastic, but I may have found a possible solution. Facebook ads. Now I know Facebook is getting a lot of heat at the moment both for the algorithms that drive it and how the data collected and the algorithms used have and can be abused. There is clearly an urgent need to address those issues and the future evolution of the platform. See Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. However, concentrating solely on negative aspects fails to see the advantages the platform offers.
When trying to reach multiple communities concerned with issues raised by Peter’s story, having a Facebook page is not enough, even if you have a relatively wide circle of acquaintances. Using Facebook ads for my books connects me to those people worldwide in one convenient place. Without it, I would have no feasible way of reaching them. It does so in a way that draws the attention of people potentially interested in my book but leaves them free to move on, should they wish, or buy it and discover the story.
In response to the claims of a man on Twitter, a number of women insist male authors can’t create authentic female characters. But is their generalisation right?
Their point of view was echoed in a Huffington Post article quoting a series of Twitter posts in which women authors describe themselves as they imagined a male author would. Here’s an example.
I had big honking teeters, just enormous bosoms, and I thought about them constantly as I walked down the street, using my legs (thick, with big shapely calves), but never not thinking about my enormo honkers,
Talia Lavin on Twitter
For the most part, the examples given appear exaggerated, employing caricature in a desire to drive home a point and get a laugh. So saying doesn’t contradict the fact that a lot of men sadly fit the bill with their limited and limiting depiction of women. Perhaps it is the implicit generalisation that includes all men which needs to be challenged.
That said, the underlying statement that many male authors can’t write from a female perspective had me doubting. I hurried to check my own books and how I wrote from a female point of view. Here’s an example of a seventeen-year-old character in my latest novel, Stories People Tell, describing herself shortly after escaping from a well-known politician who tried to force her to kiss him.
Standing in her bra, pants and socks, she stared at herself in the tiny mirror inside her wardrobe. What could any man see in her? She was neither tall nor short. Ayana, her best friend, told her she was model-size which was probably Ayana’s way of saying she was too skinny and looked odd. She was a late developer she told herself. Her breasts were barely formed and her hips had not filled out like all the other girls in her class. Ayana, in comparison, with her unblemished chocolate-brown skin, her deep brown eyes and her long pitch-black hair, was all curves and didn’t hesitate to flout it,…
Annie looking at herself in the mirror in her bedroom in Stories People Tell.
I had an opportunity to explore the challenge of a man speaking ‘as’ a woman when writing my novel Boy & Girl. In it, a boy, who enjoys dressing in secret as a girl, is startled to find himself in the mind of girl (in another world). He is aware of her thoughts and feelings but has no control over her body. Below is his description of how he experiences her body as she runs through exercises in preparation for combat training.
Her body felt different from his in many ways. He hadn’t noticed before. There was an unfamiliar tension between her feet that were firmly planted on the ground as if they were about to grow roots and the crown of her head that pushed upwards trying to reach the ceiling. When she moved her hips, tracing circular patterns in the air, he felt a freedom of movement that he had never known himself. It filled him with joy, her joy, no doubt, but his too. There were also her breasts, bared now, that had her balancing differently as she stretched up on tiptoes. Even her shoulders moved in ways he had never experienced as she raised her arms sideways and turned her palms upwards…
Peter in Kaitlin’s mind in Boy & Girl
The underlying premise in the criticism levelled at male authors by these women is that men can’t think and feel themselves into the body and mind of a woman. Such a claim is troubling for someone who spends much of his time as an author seeking to do just that. It is as if inherent maleness would irremediably taint the thoughts of any man who attempted to imagine how a woman feels and thinks. And that the male mind is itself tainted by a caricatural vision of women. Such a charge ignores genuine empathy and careful observation, insisting that the very nature of being male overrides any such sensitivity, stamping a sexist male mark on everything. Although many men deserve to be taxed for their stereotyped visions of women, these criticisms, in their generalisation, smack of a similar sexist vision, but of men.
That this ‘fun’ exercise was not quite so innocent is laid bare if you consider the thoughts and feelings of those who were born in a male body but who feel themselves part – if not wholly – female. Of course, for reasons of their own, some men play out a caricature of women in their behaviour and their attire. That is their choice, but it is not the case of most gender fluid people. Are they to be deemed incapable of feeling like a woman and describing those feelings?
My thanks to Joy Manne for pointing to the article on Facebook.
Who is going to speak the names and tell the poignant tales of those that don’t get told? We are! When fiction and reality reach out and link hands.
I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.
Naomi Walder, 11, a speech during the March for our Lives.
As an author of stories depicting the awakening and empowerment of young people, it is an immense pleasure to see fiction written over a year ago and today’s reality reach out to each other across time and link hands.
To the seventeen minutes walkout of students across the US to mark the deaths of seventeen students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Naomi and her friend Carter led their elementary school classmates in an additional minute to remember Courtlin Arrington, an African-American girl who died in a school shooting in Alabama. By her act, by her determination, she drew attention to those victims not in the forefront of media coverage. All the speakers at the March for Our Lives in Washington were both victims of gun violence but also chose to be the voice for other victims.
Annie, the main character in Stories People Tell, is driven by a similar motivation to Naomi Walder to name and give voice to those who are not normally heard. In a world where, to quote Annie, “there is a raging battle with each side drumming up the hardest hitting story at the expense of those caught nearby”, the strongest story wins out. But not every group of people make it into the spotlight and even those who are singled out for coverage are often little more than a pretext.
Propelled to the forefront of media attention, rather like the astounding Emma Gonzales, Annie becomes a figurehead for a movement. And like Emma, her judgement, her audacity and her courage earn her recognition as the leader she has become.
Unlike a journalist, Annie does not go in search of untold stories. Rather, they come in search of her just as unbidden violence sought out Emma and her fellow students. In Annie’s quest to end violence against girls and women and the adventures that befall her she meets those whom main-stream media have passed over. She listens to those people and, with the help of her friends, coaxes them to tell their story to the camera.
The Internet is Annie’s main avenue when it comes to making these neglected voices heard. There is also a certain press. Something like The Guardian or DemocracyNow! for the young people of Parkland. These media recognise the promise of the young people and actively support their cause as a positive force for democracy. Annie has struck up a solid friendship with some of the staff and the editor at one of the rare national papers, The Daily, to cover such questions.
Fenchaw, the editor of The Daily in Annie’s story, says “I like the idea of short eyewitness reports. At a time when truth is being challenged, the use of multiple perspectives from people who were at the scene gives solidity to the acts portrayed and enriches the narration without being difficult to read.”
To return to the reality a moment, the fact that Emma and her fellow Florida students were in the classroom when the shooter opened fire, who lost dear friends to that violence, makes their story so compelling. It is also their determination and their ability to articulate a coherent vision of the future that gives their stories the hope we yearn for. As Annie says, disagreeing with advice given by an adult about the telling of stories, “Sure, there were necessarily upsets and things didn’t always go as planned, but what readers really wanted was a story that made sense of the world around them and gave hope.”
When Annie’s friend Riya in Stories People Tell suggests setting up a dedicated website to publish these short eyewitness reports, Annie refuses. “I don’t want to be cornered into making more. They are good because the moment was right and people had something to say. But if we feel obliged to continue, we might lose that spontaneity and urgency.” Annie is no doubt right. Herein lies the difficulty of Emma, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and all the others in their nationwide movement as they move forward. How do you pursue the impetus without getting trapped by the routine of ineffective ways and means that adults use?
Got woken at six by the incessant round of a snow plough. There was me imagining the workers of the municipality were doing needless overtime to annoy us, till I pulled aside the curtains and looked out… I suppose I should be thankful. I managed to finish another chapter of my book People of the Forest. Now back to sleep and the sound of quiet snoring against the backdrop of snow falling…
You wish! It’s the anniversary of the Neuchatel revolution, March 1st. So we are treated to a brass band celebrating the occasion. Exceptionally, due to the snow, the musicians were bussed in this time.
You can now order your copy of Stories People Tell either in print or ebook format. For more details including sample chapters go here.
Stories People Tell is a tale about Annie Wight, a shy schoolgirl who, despite sustained, cruel treatment and personal doubts, blossoms into a major voice in the grassroots movement ‘London Whatever’ celebrating gender diversity while struggling to end violence against women and care for the weak and marginalised.
Annie wasn’t expecting to stumble on love or notoriety when she got swept up in ‘London Whatever’. Nor could she have known that, right from the outset, she would become the number one target of Nolan Kard, the homophobic Lord Mayor of London. who was campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. She bore the brunt of attacks from his rogue police, not to mention from a sinister gang of ghostwriters, the nightmare of all Kard’s enemies.
Check it out, buy a copy, read the book and talk about it to others.
Why do I find the performance of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus by the Carmina Slovenica girls choir and the Chorus Instrumentalis Orchestra under the direction of Karmina Šilec so deeply moving? Why does the sight and sound of these girls fill me with such joy? Probably for the same reason that I was moved to write my novel Stories People Tell about Annie, a shy schoolgirl who, despite sustained, cruel treatment and personal doubts, blossoms into a major voice in a London-based movement celebrating gender diversity while struggling to end violence against women and care for the weak and marginalised. The power of these girls lies in their potential and their sheer beauty striding forward into adulthood as expressed in their movements, in their voices, in their very being both individually and as a group united.
The dresses of the Slovenian girls are not fanciful, just a sober blue that leaves their forearms and calves uncovered. Their bare feet are firmly planted on the floor, their heads held high, their hair pinned up to reveal the lines of their faces, etched with determination and lit with joy. The word sensual would be misleading. Yet these girls inhabit their bodies in a way that is both earthy, spiritual and true. This worldly and ethereal presence echoes the force of their voices which come to us directly, as Karl Jenkins’ music requires, without all the cultural artefacts that have hemmed in much of western singing. Directness but also sensitivity are the hallmarks of my character Annie. She stands behind her words in much the same way this girls’ choir invests its music and movement. Beyond Jenkins’ music, the ritualised gestures of the girls’ hands, their feet and their heads, while remaining seated throughout, evoke age-old ceremonies that stir the forgotten depths of our memories. There is something truly beautiful and uplifting in these girls who reach out to embrace their full potential.
Just received the galley proof of Stories People Tell. This is the sixth of my novels to be published. In the next few days the new novel will be available on Amazon around the world and the electronic version will be posted to Smashwords, Apple, Kindle etc…. Four sample chapters and more details can be found here: stories-people-tell.com