Writing a Sequel to Stories People Tell

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 art of letting a story write itself

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.

Men writers in women’s shoes

Men writers in women's shoes

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.

Stories to make sense of the world

 Above, the author reads Stories to make sense of the world.

We make sense of the world by continually spinning stories about it. Stories? They are not the kind you would necessarily tell someone. Unvoiced, they are very often little more than fragments but are generally in tune with a larger personal narrative. That overarching narrative may be composed of distinct parts which don’t need to be coherent with each other. It is as if we need to fit events into a coherent narrative, at least ‘locally’, if we don’t want to blow a mental fuse. We are comforted and strengthened by them. These everyday fragments can be so tiny and the making of them so natural, we are often unaware we are drafting them. This narrative sense-making may become abruptly apparent when our stories are at odds with those of others and conflict ensues. Here’s an example.

An old woman sits alone at the dining-room table, the breakfast things arranged neatly in front of her.  “Enjoy your meal,” her long-time companion says as he enters. Glancing at the table, he realizes she has already finished. “Too late,” he adds. Hasty words which don’t quite express what he wants to say. If he had had time to reflect, he would probably have explained his well-wishes arrived too late. “You didn’t make much effort to join me!” she replies testily. He storms off, angry.

When she speaks, her words do not follow from what went before. This sort of discontinuity is a sure sign something is amiss. Just as is an outburst of emotions that doesn’t fit the context.  This rupture, seen from the outside, appears incomprehensible. It reveals that she has quite a different story in mind. It sounds like it has to do with being neglected and the resulting hurt feelings that have been a long time in the making. While he, who was trying to be considerate, is left with a feeling of being misunderstood, unjustly cast in a role he is not currently playing. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of them will become aware that they are spinning stories about each other or that the ill-will between them might have its roots in that. The emotions sparked by the dissonance are generally so strong there is little room for distance or introspection and the opportunity for deeper learning is lost.

We often weave stories not just to make sense of what is happening in the present but also to predict the outcomes and act accordingly. In any given circumstance, there are many possibilities and the one that actually happens may not be what we imagined or what we wanted. Our misjudgement is often due to the influence of a personal narrative that is at odds with reality. Here’s an example.

A young student walks to the building site where he is doing a holiday job. Each day he passes a pretty girl his age waiting for a bus. She is alone at the stop. He has no idea who she is and knows nothing about her. She never looks his way and they do not exchange a single word. Despite this lack of communication, he frequently imagines going to the cinema with her, so much so, it seems a viable possibility. On his last day in the job, he plucks up the courage to talk to her. He is shy and ill at ease but he plants himself in front of her and clumsily invites her out. To his immense surprise, she clutches her bag to her chest and turns away aghast, refusing to reply.

Individuals’ overarching narratives may be little more than a direction, an orientation that colours every story. In the first example above, the woman is so convinced she is being neglected, no amount of solicitous behaviour could change her mind. In the second, the boy’s desire to befriend the girl and his belief in his self-worth, albeit shaky, left no place for the possibility she might be terrified at being accosted by a boy in filthy overalls in such a deserted spot. Rather like being stuck in a rut in the road, we find it hard to shift from an overriding narrative even when events dictate otherwise. In most cases, the result can be troubling but innocuous and might even offer a chance to close the gap between story and reality. Sometimes, however, it can be catastrophic. When the stories people tell themselves are persistently at odds with the world despite repeated warning signals, a line has been crossed and the storytelling has become pathological.

One of the underlying themes of my new novel, Stories People Tell, is the way people fabricate stories about the world around them and how those stories often miss the mark.

Narrative Impulse – Keeping Fiction Alive

Narrative impulse

Read about narrative impulse – the constant flux to and from the character currently at the centre of a story. The movement flows from the particular to the general, from the individual to the relational, from the deeply personal to society at large, from extreme emotions to cold, hard facts, from heartfelt presence to time immemorial. The narrative impulse is the essential throbbing of narration that instils life into stories, conferring them with depth and breadth, with warmth and colour. It quickens or slows the pulse of the reader that beats in sync with the story. Read the full article.

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New flash: Where was I?

I hadn’t written a piece of flash fiction for a while. An encounter early this morning with an old lady inspired this new short story entitled Where was I? 

Where did I put that paper? It was in here somewhere. What a mess. Always so much stuff in my bag. No idea where it comes from. A packet of cigarettes. Empty, of course. Shame. Could have done with a cig. No such luck. (…) Read more.

The rain uninvited

My daily walks in the forest have been marked by heavy rain which even invited itself into the book I am writing: People of the Forest. Here’s the extract.

Isla was startled when Amelia grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the window. She dug in her heals and tried to resist, but Amelia was strong. “Look,” the girl said. Isla peered round the window frame, trying to remain unseen. Jurgen was balancing along ropeways with all the grace of a ballet dancer. The sight of the brute engaged in such nimble steps, his hips swaying from side to side, had her giggling, much to her annoyance.

The forest abruptly darkened as if someone had flung a hand in front of the sun and Jurgen was lost in the gloom, his clothes blending with the trees. A jagged flash outlined his form for an instant, then the building shook as thunder rolled through the forest and the storm broke. Giant drops bounced off leaves and branches, the rattle of rain ringing like the staccato beats of an army of dwarf drummers gone mad.

A window, one of those that reached to the floor, burst open, glass shuddering as it did, and the storm shoved its way into the room with a great gust of rain closely followed by a dark form. The fighter stood in the entrance, not bothering to close the window, rain dripping from his boots and soaked clothes, his long hair plastered to his head and shoulders as he stared unblinking at Isla.

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People of the forest

Almost every day I go for a long walk in the forest above our home, pausing from time to time to sit and write the next paragraphs of my latest book. As I walk, I turn over ideas and words for my book while trying to fend off the myriad other stories that  bustle for my attention. I examine the world around me and take photos or film from time to time. I had been meaning to film the funicular which crosses the path at one point but as the train goes by only once an hour, my passage rarely coincides with that of the ‘Funi’. Today I was lucky.

But it is not only flowers and birds and inspiration to be found in the forest. As I walk, exploring further and deeper each time, I meet a rich variety of people who have also opted for the forest. Here is today’s selection.

The man with gray stubble for a beard opens his plastic bag and proudly exhibits the mushrooms he’s found before plunging behind trees and around bushes in search of more. A Kurd plodding steadily along the road, leans on his sticks. “It’s diabetes,” he says. “And the heart.” He talks of his doctor and the hospital and the precautions he must take. But today he’s decided to be more daring and walk as much as he wants. A woman struggles after a husky up the steady incline as she does everyday. Taking it in turns with her husband, she exercises her dogs whenever using the sled is not possible. A man in a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes cuts through the forest extolling the virtues of getting in amongst the trees. When challenged about the dangers of ticks that are prevalent in the area, he replies, “I’ve been vacinated.” I didn’t now a vaccin against Lyme Disease existed. Finally there’s the lumberjack sawing off lengths of trunks with a cunning measuring device he made himself. Once cut and dried, the wood heats his home and brings “warmth and light” to his friends. When asked whether ecology or cost-saving motivates his work, he replies, “Both. But above all the pleasure.” He talks with evident relish of the different types of wood, how they dry, what they smell of and how they burn.

… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of the new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

There is also a video of the author reading this extract: Isla and the boy she bit.

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal girl she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to rape her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His chest. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost made her gag. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxits each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious system. They’d never let her near a screen again.

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The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite its dilapidated state, the sacred ring was discernible amongst the trees, culminating in a majestic menhir that towered over the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Easing onto a rock, he shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were taking their toll. His legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone, undecided if it were welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag. The bread was stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances really was a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens. Begging her to cease filching food was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a kitchen help was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had made him sick. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and searched for a place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong. The first mounted man trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter  called Jurgen who was the terror of the young in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice so close made his skin crawl. (…)

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