I guess it’s an age thing. Looking back, remembering incidents from the past, key moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, reviewing life.
I have always been adamant that I would never write a memoir. For one thing, who would read it? I’m not famous enough for the name on the cover of an autobiography to attract unknown readers. And what about those I do know, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances? Would they be interested in reading my version of my life? I say “version” because any memoir is told from one perspective only, that of the writer. Others may remember the same events but respond to them differently.
If I did write such a memoir I would want it to be an honest one. Any writing involves selection and I could choose to withhold incidents I found too personal or sensitive to share or those likely to hurt other people. Or even out of fear of being sued for defamation of character! But if I felt obliged to censor my work by the omission of certain events either to save the feelings of others or to hide my own emotional response, the result would not only turn out to lack honesty but also be excruciatingly dull. After all, don’t we all read biographies or autobiographies in the hope that they will reveal personal details about the lives being explored – details that we didn’t know, or only suspected, before?
No, if I were to write a memoir it would have to be a candid one. It would take courage, I realise that. I would try not to flinch from revelations that might place me, or others, in an unfavourable light. I would endeavour to be faithful to my memories and record what I believe happened and how I felt as truthfully as possible. If not, the memoir would not be worth writing.
As I jot down these thoughts, all kinds of memories come crowding into my mind, jostling for permission to be included in this imagined autobiography: my first day at school when I lay on the floor screaming, arms and legs awry, refusing to be pacified – the precursor of more fits of temper to come; my mother’s remark at my degree ceremony that there were so many of us lining up to collect our scroll of waxed paper that degrees must be two a penny, yet I’d so longed for her to be proud of me; the mixture of pain and relief I experienced the day I overheard a conversation between my cousins and realised that I was adopted, a reason at last for why I had always believed myself a misfit.
Love affairs – wonderful or disastrous – the break up of relationships, betrayal and loss – all would have to be chronicled. Flaws in my character too: that wicked temper that took me years to learn to control; a propensity to be over-critical of others; a tendency to be self-centred, a belief that my passion for literature and writing poetry was more important than household chores. Amusing incidents too, or those that appear amusing after the event: my first wedding night when my new husband spent half an hour on hands and knees in his Y-fronts, picking up every scrap of confetti that had fallen out of our clothes – a sure passion-killer, an omen perhaps of trouble ahead.
As I write this list, I realise that, as a fiction writer, I already make use of such episodes and emotions in my work. The confetti incident found its way into a bittersweet poem. The death of my daughter, Vikki, at eight months old from an unknown disease, is always with me and my feeling of loss surely informed the events in my novel, After, although the loss suffered by the fictional parents took place in different circumstances.The fact that I am adopted and also adopted a daughter, has led to several pieces of writing on the subject but the story or play is presented in a different context.
Yes, I do draw on my own experiences to write. What fiction writer doesn’t? Consciously or unconsciously, we all explore the baggage of our past, to inform our work. Readers can speculate on which aspects of my work have come from my own experience; but they have been woven into a story about invented characters. Happenings in my life are considered, changed, viewed differently, divorced from the actual, but hopefully retain a sense of truth.
Fiction gives me the chance to write from different perspectives. I am not bound to one viewpoint as in a memoir, unless the story demands it. The content, the structure and the style of fiction offer me more freedom of expression than a seemingly candid assessment of my life in a memoir. I can think ‘What if this or that happens?’ and my imagination soars.
No, I will not write a memoir. But I will continue to use the rich experience provided by my memories and use my imagination to transform them into fiction.
Unless of course, one day, I change my mind and embark on that journey back to the past and decide to be brave enough to expose the secret crevices of my life….
I wrote this review last year and it was the most read and talked about blog on my previous web-site so thought it worth repeating on my new one.
A review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed
by E L James
Yes, I’ve read the trilogy that everyone’s talking about. Why? Because I like to keep up to date with books that are popular with readers and selling well. Not a bad thing for a writer to do. I’m marketing, I tell myself. So much has been written about these books already but I wanted to see for myself what was causing such a stir in the fiction world. Truth is, like everyone else, I was curious.
I have to agree with the view expressed by many critics that Fifty Shades of Grey is not literature, but let’s face it it’s not trying to be. The question is not therefore is it literature but is it a good read? Clearly a lot of readers think it is.
The premise for the story, according to E L James on her website, was: what would happen if you were attracted to somebody who was into the BDSM life-style when you weren’t? For the uninitiated, including of course naïve little me, BDSM signifies bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.
The trilogy was first picked up by The Writer’s Coffee Shop, an Australian publishing firm that specialises in Romantica – erotic love stories, soft porn with spice, but not hard edge erotica. In other words, non-consensual sex or violence, such as rape is acceptable. The criteria for being accepted by the Writer’s Coffee Shop is that the story must have a hot, good-looking, dominating male protagonist who knows what he wants and takes it. He loves his woman completely, but has one condition… she must love him just as completely. He puts her first in all things, even when he is not sure what it is she needs. He controls her in the bedroom and takes her to places she never knew existed. That just about describes the Fifty Shades trilogy.
The plot flirts with psychology, the abused childhood that led to Christian Grey’s need to dominate women and it does attempt to make Anastasia Steele a feisty heroine with her own agenda. Christian eventually says he loves her, not in spite of her disobedience, but because of it. Ah, what a break through. She encourages him to have a “vanilla” relationship, but because of her love for him and her curiosity about the instruments of torture in the Red Room, she does get drawn into some of the bondage and pain games he favours and finds she likes them, as long as there’s not too much pain.
Well, we don’t really know what goes on in real life between couples behind closed doors, but the latest American statistics indicate that the participation tendencies of 5 to 25% of the population involve some sort of dominance and submission. And who knows what happens between discreet, “we don’t talk about sex” Brits? E.L. James says her trilogy is her ‘midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there and that’s it.’ Maybe it’s the mix of sex and BDSM and romantic love between a hot, devastatingly handsome, sexually skilled and extremely rich young man of twenty-seven and an inexperienced young woman that appeals to readers.
As far as fiction is concerned, this genre of bondage and sado-macho-ism has been around in art and literature since the 14th century. In our own period, we have films such as Quills, The Piano Teacher, Beyond Vanilla and Bitter Moon and fiction such L’Histoire de O (1954) by Anne Esclos, inspired by the work of the Marquis de Sade. She wrote under a pseudonym. When the author’s real name was revealed it was a shock. People thought the book could only have been written by a man. The Story of O was made into a film in 1975 but banned in Britain until 2000. Other milestones in this genre were Nine and a Half Weeks (1978) by Elizabeth McNeill, Anne Rice’s trilogy, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, (1983) Beauty’s Punishment (1984) and Beauty’s Release (1985) and in Spanish, the erotic exchange of power in Pablo Neruda’s poems. E. L. James’s trilogy comes out of this tradition.
It is interesting how far we have come since Victorian times when “the angel on the shoulder” prevented female writers and some male ones from writing openly about sex. James has no such inhibitions. Neither does her heroine. In this sense the Fifty Shades Trilogy is liberating for both readers and writer. Anastasia relishes both sex and pain with Christian and the writer is not afraid to tell us in graphic detail what the couple do to pleasure each other. The fact that the sex and pain are consensual and part of a love story is perhaps what makes it palatable. A Cinderella story, spiced up with salacious soft porn, puts this trilogy into the same sub genre of BDSM romance as vampire novels and films and TV series such as The Twilight Saga, which James admits influenced her story.
As the critics never fail to point out, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is badly written, full of clichés and repetitious phrases and this is the real downside for the discerning reader. “Whoa” and “Oh my” are Ana’s favourite responses to sex and pain and these phrases are repeated over and over again. No writer can ever again use the verb “smirk”. Both Christian and Ana accuse each other of “smirking” over and over again, a punishable offence apparently. I make no excuse for the repetition of “over and over again.” I may even repeat the phrase later. Neither can any other author ever allow a character to roll her eyes or bite her lip. These annoying, but apparently lovable, habits dominate the novel almost as much as dominant Christian does. What passes for wit is childish repartee in the mouths of Christian and Ana and there were times (lots of times) when I wanted to lash out and slap that stupid girl’s face. See, the BDSM got to me. Problem is, if I had slapped her she’d probably have thanked me for it. She’s supposed to be a modern woman capable of thinking for herself. But, to be frank, her attempts to be independent just reveal her stupidity. Not one of the decisions she makes is well judged. I have sympathy with Christian’s “twitching palm” which is ever ready to spank her. To make it a more irritating read still, Christian and Ana call each other, Miss Steele and Mr. Grey and once they are married, Mr Grey and Mrs Grey. Really! It’s so naff. I feel my palm twitching again. I might have to slap them both. Hard.
Ok so it’s not literature, but did you enjoy the book, you ask. Is a good read? Well, the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, was quite a page-turner, because I was curious to see what all the fuss was about and willing to give it a chance. I read it in a day or maybe an afternoon. Can’t remember exactly, but I knew that I didn’t want to pay any more hard-earned money to buy the sequels. Quite by chance, they fell into my hands and I thought – why not read them, then I will be able to legitimately write about them and express my opinion.
I skim through them quickly. The second and third books prove a drag. Each book seems go on forever. I am so bored with the characters and their petty lives. My tolerance level is stretched to the limit by the repetitious style of the author, the stupidity of Anastasia and the forced story lines. I flick over the pages just to see what happens. The answer is that after a lot of unlikely, melodramatic scenarios, they get married and have children. Shock horror. How can silly Ana be a mother and even worse what sort of a father will controlling Christian prove to be? Mr and Mrs Perfect Parents, apparently. Will the children beg to play with the toys in the red Play Room, I wonder. As for the couples’ sex life, it’s more of the same, over and over again…. I am subjected to a detailed description of Ana’s sore bottom, the contortions she can achieve with her body, as, hood over eyes, legs spread, the newly shaved section between her thighs exposed, her ever moist clitoris ensures that she is always ready for one more organism – if Christian will allow it. Ugh. Enough. I flick on. As the characters grow more and more in love with each other, the language becomes even more excruciating. Why do I subject myself to this torture? I breathe a sigh of relief when I finish. Would I read another of her books? Please, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.
Of course, Mrs. James doesn’t care what I think. She’s laughing all the way to the bank. Vintage books have sold 31million copies of the Fifty Shades books, 20 million of them in the United States alone. The book has just been translated into Spanish and, surprise, surprise, Universal studios have bought the film rights. The film is cast and in production as I write.
Erika Leonard James lives in West London with husband Niall Leonard, her first editor. They have been married for twenty years and have two teenage sons, who, she says, have not read her books. She would be mortified if they did. Understandably. But how do you stop teenagers reading them when the books are spread like wallpaper all over bookshops, Face-book, Twitter and Amazon? And on second thoughts, why should she be mortified if the boys read her books? They should be proud that their mother has such a good imagination and that their family’s financial future is secure.
That there is a market for racy romantic fiction is quite clear. Don’t take any notice of the critics or of grumpy old me. Read the damn books. You know you want to. E.L James has had a dream ever since her childhood – to write stories that readers would fall in love with. Her dream has certainly come true.
Eight plays in Seven Days
A change of subject. I’m not writing about writing this time, but turning to another passion of mine, the theatre.
TJ and I have just been to London for a culture fest. The island we live on – Gran Canaria – is our home now and we love the climate, the scenery, the people and the relaxed pace of life, but of course there are things we miss in England. One of these is the theatre.
During our week’s stay, we go to the theatre every night and manage to fit in a couple of matinees too. Our choice of plays depends on what’s on at the time of our visit. This time – 10th to 16th April, 2014 – we sample a diet of comedies, including two by Noel Coward. Comedy: the genre that both reflects society and critiques it, making us laugh as we recognise ourselves and others. What strikes me most about our choices is that a dominant theme emerges: the class system. At a time when the ITV series, Downton Abbey, has proved popular on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems clear that the English obsession with people’s position in society is still of interest. The amount of media attention given last year to the publication of the Great British Class Survey also demonstrates how fascinated we are by class and its workings.
Here is my take on the plays we saw.
Relative Values by Noel Coward, directed by Trevor Nunn at The Harold Pinter Theatre is one of Coward’s later plays, written in 1951, which shows the master craftsman at the top of his technique. A good example of the type of well-made play set in an upper class drawing room that fell out of favour when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) assaulted Royal Court audiences with an angry young man ranting about the upper classes and an ironing board on stage created a theatrical revolution. After that, drawing room comedies were considered dead. But Coward’s plays received a renaissance in the early sixties, when he became the first living playwright to have a play performed by the National Theatre (Hay Fever). And now a second renaissance has occurred with audiences flocking to see these period pieces to enjoy the period costumes, elegant country house settings and laugh at the attitudes of the upper classes and the servants who support them.
Trevor Nunn’s production of Relative Values sets the play within its time with excerpts from Pathe News relayed between scenes. The acting is slick with an easy, self-assured central performance from Patricia Hodge as Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, who finds just the right tone for her sardonic comments. She’s seemingly open-minded about her son marrying an actress from a low class background but in fact adamant that he will not. Caroline Quentin, as Moxie, makes the most of her comedic opportunities as the maid unhappy to be promoted as companion to the Countess so that her sister, the proposed bride, won’t realise she’s a servant (shock, horror!). Rory Bremner, the impressionist, as Crestwell, the butler, excels in this role, his theatrical debut. The rest of the cast does not disappoint. Steven Pacey stands out as Felicity’s nephew, making the most of a rather underwritten role by making him overtly gay. Apart from the premise of Moxie’s dilemma, the reason the play is still worth performing today is not hard to discover. In the hands of a talented cast and director the lines sizzle with wit and style, making Coward a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde. The audience loved it. So did TJ and I.
The other Noel Coward play, Blithe Spirit, at the Guelgud Theatre, directed by Michael Blakemore, is also notable for its style, witty dialogue and stage effects. It boasts the appearance of an icon of theatre and television, the eighty-eight year-old Angela Lansbury, playing Madame Arcati. The production is worth seeing for her quirky performance but offers much more. A strong cast is headed by Janie Dee’s perspicacious Ruth and Jemima Rooper’s malicious ghost, Puck-like Elvira, intent on mischief. Charles Edwards as Charles, the husband torn between his two very different wives, reveals how difficult it is to find perfect love. Patsy Ferran as Edith, the zany maid, is hilarious in her professional stage debut. The staging is admirable including the collapse of the set on the final curtain as the ghosts take their revenge. Several of the costumes, namely Ruth’s, do not help her character: the first evening dress too pale, the skirt and blouse dowdy, the red dress and matching shoes too brash. She’s a strong character and deserves to be more appropriately dressed. The play is light and frothy, full of surprises, as Coward concentrates on another of his favourite themes – that of the difficulty of succeeding in forming a perfect relationship. Amusing, entertaining, a stylish production.
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Jonathan Kent, just moved from the Almeida Theatre to the West End Noel Coward Theatre, is a modern American play – very different in form and style from the two plays reviewed above. It does however touch on similar themes about the entrenched positions in society in which people find themselves. In spite of the perceived belief that any American can achieve anything if they work hard enough, the writer suggests that a certain amount of luck and the ability to recognise an opportunity when it arises is needed. Margaret, brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton, comes from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston, as does Mike, Lloyd Owen. The difference is that Mike has escaped his origins and become a wealthy doctor, whereas the feisty but tactless Margaret is stuck in a rut. Continually late for work by having to cope with a handicapped daughter, she loses her job and doesn’t know how she will pay the rent. Her bitterness creates the tension in the play but, as played by Staunton, she doesn’t lose our sympathy. The scenes change from the rundown outside of a factory, to the dowdy kitchen of Margaret’s lodgings, to the Bingo Hall, and to Mike’s upmarket modern minimal lounge with its white furniture and objets d’art. Very funny “in yer face humour” plus a helping of pathos that both entertains and makes its point.
Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, adapted by the Goodale Brothers and directed by Sean Foley at the Duke of York’s theatre is a play that encourages us to laugh at the antics of Bertie Wooster, a member of the upper classes with very little between his ears, who manages to survive due to the loyal support of Jeeves, the butler. Jeeves stage-manages the production of Perfect Nonsense as Wooster wants to relive this event in his life as a play. We see the new cast with Robert Webb and Mark Heap as Bertie and Jeeves respectively, actors well known to most of the audience but not to us as we don’t watch English TV.
There are only three in the cast. Webb remains as Bertie throughout but Heap plays a multitude of characters as well as Jeeves, as does Mark Hadfield as Seppings. I felt that the multi-casting affected the special relationship between Jeeves and Wooster, the most important facet of the books and previous TV series. On the other hand, it was the multi-casting and the necessity for a character to dive under the bed or exit through one door and reappear through another as a different persona that created much of the humour. We found ourselves in the world of farce and meta-theatre, laughing at the antics of the would-be actors in Bertie’s play and the attempts of Jeeves to cope with the multiple scene changes. Farcical, meta-theatrical stuff, it mocked the efforts of amateur theatre. The performance we attended received a standing ovation from the audience.
Did I enjoy it? Not really. Slapstick and grimacing not really my bag and I became a little bored by the mindless gimmicks, however innovative and clever. But I have to admit it is well done.
Handbagged by Moira Buffini, a new play, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, now playing at The Vaudeville Theatre, is another meta-theatrical play, with multiple casting. We are presented with a basic set, in the shape of a giant Union Jack but in a neutral colour, which puts the focus on the acting. The play is set during Margaret Thatcher’s time at 10 Downing Street and considers how much influence the Queen wields to control the Iron Lady. Did they like each other? How did they really get on? There are two Queens, Marion Bailey and Lucy Robinson, and two Prime Ministers, Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar, the younger and the older versions of each respectively, and two other actors, both male, who play multiple roles. I couldn’t help wondering about our obsession with royalty and the present trend to write about real people in plays and films. How satisfying is it for actors to play clones rather than invented characters? In this case we have already seen the imagined meetings between the Queen and different Prime Ministers in Audience at the Guelgud Theatre last year. Is there room for another play on this theme? Once the perfomance starts I forget about my misgivings. Unlike the latter play, a series of sketches, Handbagged really comes to grips with the differences of opinions and relative power stance of the two women and, as a bonus, is extremely funny. The relatively near history means that we remember the issues but are far enough from it to see the problems that arise. The actors continually remind us that we are watching a play in a theatre. This has a distancing effect that makes us think and even be judgmental. Mrs Thatcher thinks an interval is not necessary and that they should continue without a break. The Queen walks to the front of the stage and announces, very sweetly, ‘There will now be a fifteen minute interval’ leaving us in no doubt who is in charge. The two male actors, Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, certainly earn their keep, sparring over who should be Neil Kinnock (Neet won) and Neet making us question the casting of certain actors in inappropriate roles by his rendering of Nancy Regan. My verdict: some very sharp repartee both political and theatrical that made for a telling, entertaining production.
In Another Country, by Julian Mitchell, directed by Jeremy Herrin, at The Tralfalgar Studios, the theme of class continues, this time in a public school. The boys invent their own hierarchy and some of them rebel. When they leave school, some of the boys will perpetuate the accepted social system, but others will develop the seeds of discontent planted in their schooldays and become radicals. Shades of the Cambridge spies pervade the subtext of the piece. The production is brilliantly acted by this predominantly young cast. One particular outstanding performance is that of Rob Callendar as Bennett, the role that made Rupert Everett famous in the film. Callendar is certainly a young actor to look out for in the future, but the entire cast excelled. The play gripped from beginning to end, with its underlying theme of homosexuality and its consequences. The interior scenes with dark panelled walls add to the atmosphere of the school as a prison, isolated from the rest of the world – another country in fact.
Fatal Attraction by James Dearden, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, is adapted from the 1980’s film. Plays from film adaptions appear to be an increasing trend. Shakespeare in Love is to receive a stage production at the Noel Coward theatre shortly.
The film was criticised for being anti-feminist and James Dearden has re-written his film script, intending to make Alex Forrest a more sympathetic character. We do feel more for this lost, lonely girl, as played by Natascha McElhone, than we did for the brash Alex of Glen Close in the film.
But there are many flaws in the re-write. For example, Dearden gives Dan Gallagher (Mark Bazeley) two chances to put forward his case for making the wrong choice that fatal week-end: one to a male friend in a bar and the second repeatedly talking directly to the audience. One of these methods is surely redundant. Neither works. Dan’s dilemma is self-made and keeping on about it doesn’t make us sympathise with him. If the purpose of the re-write was to make Alex more sympathetic, why give Dan so many opportunities to explain his feelings? To redress the balance surely Alex should be given the same the same opportunity to show us inside the crazy logic of her mind by a soliloquy or two.
Not a satisfying production despite the fact the play is directed by Trevor Nunn. Most of the audience are too familiar with the plot. The ripple of excitement when the ubiquitous bunny is first mentioned bore witness to that, as did the reaction to the steam arising from the boiling saucepan. Kristen Davis as the betrayed wife, Beth, had little chance to show her acting skills in this under-written, predictable part. She’s even deprived of her revenge. The end of the play, a last minute attempt to change the focus from the betrayed to the betrayer, does focus on Alex. She’s represented as a tragedy queen as Puccini’s music from Madame Butterfly swells. Set high above the scenery, Alex takes her own life in a dramatic climax as butterflies float around her. The effect is a surprise, not a shock, an out of key gimmick, tacked on to a rather mundane play. And we all know the film version where the wife, provoked beyond endurance, stabs the usurper and bunny murderer in the bath. At least the former ending demonstrates that there is more than one way to drive a woman crazy. The production does hold my attention because of its slick, ever-changing scenery, and the sensitive performance of Natasha McElhone but she doesn’t really stand a chance to portray her anguish fully in this lack-lustre production.
The last play I want to write about is an unexpected treat. Let the Right One In, a stage adaptation by Jack Thorne at the Apollo Theatre, based on the Swedish novel and film by John Lindovist, combines a feeling of Nordic noir with a mythical plot. It’s a love story about a girl who won’t ever grow old and a boy who will. Shades of Peter Pan. Eli (Rebecca Benson), a centuries old vampire, and Oskar (Martin Quinn) a nerdy schoolboy, bullied by his peers, are the unlikely protagonists. Set in a wood with “real” snow plus climbing frame and part of swimming pool, the atmosphere of mystery, murder and mayhem is created from the very beginning as the audience becomes immersed in the unusual events. There are some gruesome moments but this not a gore fest. As the writer points out ‘this is not a Tarantino version.’ The bullying scenes are more disturbing than the killings, the latter being necessary for Eli’s survival. The play has a large cast who do a lot to create the atmosphere through movement as well as speech.
Eli looks vulnerable under the tall silver-coloured trees, but her formidable strength is clear as she climbs trees and climbing frame with agility and looks down on the world she is forced to live in. Rebecca Benson plays the role with a less-is-more control of body and voice but doesn’t fail to show her inner turmoil and anguish at the choices she has to make. Martin Quinn as Oskar is making his professional stage debut and it’s an inspired piece of casting. He is a misfit, unable to find his place in the world in which he finds himself. Meeting Eli is a chance to lead a different life. But will he be able to fulfil the duties she expects of him?
I really don’t want to say much about this production, apart from telling you not to miss it. It’s magical. TJ and I sat mesmerised throughout and no, we’re not vampire buffs nor Nordic noir addicts. It is just very different, very moving and the development of the story is compelling. I’m so glad we decided to take a chance and see it.
Eight plays. If you only can only see one, which one would I recommend? To summarise, both Coward plays are well worth seeing, slick and witty, with Relative Values probably the more interesting choice, although then you would miss Angela Lansbury’s performance in Blithe Spirit; Good People is funny and thought-provoking and has the feisty, bold and moving performance from Imelda Staunton; Jeeves and Wooster is slapstick fun, but far from the original conception of the two characters. Handbagged has a tight script with sharp line work, but has the feel of a low budget travelling show; Another Country, a tour de force from the boys, gives us plenty to think about; Fatal Attraction, a disappointing production let down by the writing; Let the Right One In, innovative and gripping from beginning to end.
You won’t be surprised to hear that my recommendation for the play to see if you can only see one production is Let the Right One In. Enjoy.
And after digging deep into the recesses of my mind and the pouring out of ideas on a blank page or screen, what next?
The gestation period is not completely over. I continue to create characters and plot as I write. That continual creative experience is vital to the way I work.
For many writers, after this initial period of gestation and free writing comes the time to plan, to plot the novel in note-form, chapter by chapter. It seems a sensible strategy but it doesn’t work for me. It’s too soon for me to do that. I need to start writing immediately before any formalised planning takes place. I do plan in my mind, but if I do a detailed written plan at this stage I feel trapped and don’t want to write.
Instead, I skim through my notes and a couple of characters emerge. I put them in specific place just before “the inciting incident” as most creative writing tutors suggest. I sit at my computer in front of a blank screen (I prefer to type rather than write), ready to start the first chapter. I intend to “drip feed” the reader, letting her know enough to make her curious about the characters and about what is going to happen.
Here is the opening of my novel, After:
On a day when the sky was bluer than blue and the sun scorched everything it touched, two angels appeared on our doorstep.
I hope that the strangeness of “bluer than blue” and “scorched” and the appearance of the “angels” show that something unusual is about to happen. A little later we discover that the angels are illusions, mortal not heavenly beings; but the narrator’s perception of them as angels lingers. That teenage twins could be mistaken for angels is ironic in the light of what happens next.
Did I think all this out at the time – or am I analysing it with hindsight? Both. I do like to write a strong first chapter before any formal planning is done; but that doesn’t mean I won’t scrutinise it and re-write it later. What is important for me is to feel I have the right opening for the novel before I proceed.
In my sci-fi/dystopia, Oasis, I have to introduce the concept of “human mutants” living in enclosed communities in a future world. I begin with two characters, Odysseus, a one-eyed academic, and Isis, his three-armed assistant. The inciting incident, the proposed visit of a new CEO with a bent for sacking people, is indicated through dialogue. Here is the opening of the novel:
Isis bursts into the histo-lab, her three arms thrashing about like a crazed puppet on a string. ‘He’s at it again! Sacked half the workforce of Compound 33 today. Our turn next, for sure.’
I look up from the research I’m doing on art forms as political satire from Honoré Daumier to George Grosz. I must try to calm down my young assistant. She’s just returned from the compu-centre where rumour is rife and panic spreads like the plague.
I had a lot to present here: the difference between the characters, an indication of the confined world they live in and the tension generated by the fear of the expected visit. Note too the imagery of the plague, a hint of why they live in compounds.
To start cold like this, I do have to make certain decisions first. Who is telling the story? Should it be a first, second or third person narrator? A first person narrator was my choice for the start of both these novels. But the tense of the verbs differs. In After, Sarah tells her story in the past tense, remembering the events that changed her life. In Oasis, Odysseus uses the present tense. In his confined world the humanoids that live in compounds on a destroyed Earth live in a present that promises little chance of change.
Of course these decisions could change if I feel they don’t work, but the important thing is to begin and construct a first chapter I’m happy with.
If you would like to read the first few pages of these two novels you can sample them on:
I would be interested to know if my openings intrigue you and make you want to read on? Please feel free to leave a comment or send me a personal message on the “Contact Me” page.
My blogs are not all going to be about my methods of writing. I do intend to diversify, but I hope the writers among you and possibly the readers – have found enough to interest you in these musings.
My blog. What is it? What do I intend it to be? A collection of random thoughts, quotations, comments and reviews that reflect my interests and opinions. Please feel free to add your comments. As I said in the Welcome section, ‘let’s communicate.’
People often ask me how I get my ideas. Like most writers, I find inspiration from a variety of sources: from people and places, from books, poems, plays or films, from the media. For me, the most important source of inspiration is from the emotional baggage of life itself. I am not an overtly biographical writer but my own experiences do inform my fiction.
Much writing is done in the head before sitting at the computer or putting pen to paper. When it looks as if I’m sitting dreaming in my garden in Gran Canaria, sunbathing or in the shade, I’m actually working. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I hear you say. ‘Tell me another.’ But any writer will tell you it’s true. While we’re sitting or lying with eyes closed or going for a walk the unconscious part of our mind comes into play. I call it the Gestation period. When these seemingly random thoughts and dreams break through to the conscious mind, it’s useful to have a notebook close by to jot down ideas before my fickle mind forgets them, just in case they prove useful later.
Sometimes I like to start with a blank page without a thought in my head. I find that stimulating. Exciting but frightening too. I write freely to generate ideas. It is similar to Freud’s therapeutic technique that he called ‘free association.’ He encouraged his patients to tell him their thoughts without reservation in any order spontaneously as they occurred. In his analysis of dreams, he identified the mental structure of the mind as the unconscious, the pre-conscious and the conscious. My free writing is not a story but an outpouring of thoughts from all sections of the mind. Looked at afterwards, sometimes the germ of a story will emerge, sometimes not.
In both these methods I’ve described, the passive dreaming in the garden and the active pouring out of ideas on a blank page – I am digging deep into my psyche.
Seamus Heaney expresses this idea succinctly in his poem, “Digging,” using the metaphor of digging to describe a similar writing process. The poem begins:
‘Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.’
It’s as if he’s waiting for the gun to go off and create an explosion – inspiration for the next poem perhaps, but the stimulus comes from outside. The persona of the poem, surely Heaney himself, looks out of the window and sees his father digging ‘for good turf’ and remembers how his father before him ‘could handle a spade too.’
Heaney admits he hasn’t the ability to dig with a spade but
‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head,
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.’
‘Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.’
As a writer, I have to dig deep to find the things I want to write about. I do this both though my unconscious, pre-conscious and my conscious mind. I am continually surprised and sometimes disconcerted by the power of the unconscious. Who knows what repressed memories will rise to the surface?
What a dangerous, exciting thing it is to be a writer.