Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Last Post: How it felt on the day I discovered that I did not have a distinction…

I’d started to believe I would never know my MA marks; and a bit of me preferred it that way – with Schrödinger's Cat and the flask of cyanide snugly boxed up I could imagine whatever I like.

And what I like to imagine is that I’ve been awarded a distinction.

I could have tried to discover the marks – I could have contacted the person who will know or the administrators who frighten me – but that was daunting, and a bit like temping providence.
Then – one Tuesday afternoon five weeks ago – I was in the library and I happened upon the person who will know.
I have been in a dark funk since that day. I saw the term ‘dark funk’ in an article and it is a perfect description of the way I feel; a sad mix of gloom and craven passivity.

One darkening Tuesday afternoon, five weeks ago, I meet the person who will know my MA marks in the library.

It is impossible (for me at least) to ignore the bulky cat-box on the floor between us. So, when we have established how well we both look, I ask the question. I ask the person who will know when we might find out about our marks.

‘The Board met last week,’ the person who will know says, ‘your dissertation is with the administrators who frighten you and ready to collect.’ (she doesn’t actually call them that – I’ve never admitted to the person who will know that I am afraid of the administrators, although she might easily have guessed).

So I walk - limping slightly; the limp returns for the walk - very, very slowly, across the winter concourse that separates the library and the student centre, where the dissertation is ready to collect. The distance is about two hundred yards and the journey takes at least two hundred years. The student centre is jolly with light. Students and tutors, bathed in radiance from the windows, crisscross my path. They are chatting, and frowning and smiling and behaving as if nothing is odd.

I am waiting for the dissertation to be retrieved and there is a tap on my shoulder. It is the person who will know, again.

‘I just thought I would come across and tell you…’

I nod.

‘…we discussed your mark profile at the Board…’

I watch her mouth.

‘…and we decided to award you…’

I wait. It is like the ticking tense pause they do to be cruel on talent shows.

‘…a merit…’

And the cat is on its sad side at our feet. Its eyes are part open but milky-glazed and its body is a stiff as a branch.

‘…well done!’

‘Thank you.’

She speaks on, saying encouraging things about not letting the writing go and about not being disheartened by rejections.
I wonder – 'Is merit what they call a distinction at this university?' I wonder if the cat is merely in a black catty-funk, which would be understandable after being closed up in that nasty box for all those months.
The administrator who frightens me hands me the dissertation and I dare to touch the cat lightly with the toe of my shoe.

‘erm… So – does it go Pass, Merit, Distinction?’ I ask the person who will know.
‘That’s right.’
And there was really no need to check, we all already knew that the poor catty-sod had gone - you have been weighed and proclaimed kind-of ordinary.
I take the dissertation and sit in the disabled toilet and I look at my mark and I try to read the comments. 70%. I clawed my way to a 70% with the dissertation but it wasn’t enough to raise the mark profile.
70% is good. I have done nicely. I should be proud.
I stare at the comments with milky glazed eyes and I ask my self what did I expect.

What did you expect?

A spectacular dissertation mark to raise your mark profile?

An invite from the external examiner to meet his literary agent?

A handwritten request to join a prestigious writers' group?

A special prize?

A big clock?

Well no. Well yes. I don’t know – not the clock anyway, that’d just be ridiculous.

Aren’t you grateful to have passed? To start with you didn’t even know if you would pass.

I was being disingenuous when I thought that - I always knew I’d pass, I always knew I could get a distinction.

And how wrong you were. Why did you think you’d deserve such an accolade, why did you think you’d earned a distinction?

Because I worked a lot, because I tried so hard, because I wanted it – very much.

Ah! So. How do you think it all went wrong? Why do you think you weren’t awarded a distinction?

I don’t know. Maybe because I make fun of people to get cheap laughs?
Maybe because I don’t recycle plastic bottles if they’re oily and difficult to wash out?
Maybe because I added an espresso to my latte without telling the lady at the till?

It’s none of those things, is it?


What about you weren’t awarded a distinction because of these things:
You didn’t make yourself write when you reckoned you were in pain; too weary; you needed to tidy drawers out, urgently?
You sometimes wrote lazy self-indulgent drivel rather than answering the question?
You sometimes cited smartass paragraphs from hard books pretending you’d read the whole smartass book?

Could be... But still, I really did want it – very much.

The person who will know makes such a point of how nicely I have done that, after a day or two, I am able to bask in the assurance that at least no one will have a better mark profile than mine.
Then – I meet the friend whose dissertation mark is so spectacular that it qualifies her for the big clock (were such a thing not ridiculous). And, with a sickening sickness, I realise that there are people with much better mark profiles than mine; that the person who will know followed me from the library to the student centre to save me from myself, to save me from my own stubborn delusions.
The person who will know knows me too well. She realised that when I saw my 70% dissertation mark I would continue to nurse vain hope until the official results were posted. The person who will know opened the cat box and showed me the merit to stop me making any more of a fool of myself. Better for me to be in a dark funk than for students and tutors to see me cutting a confident swath across the light-drenched concourse between the student centre and the library pulling a branch-stiff dead cat lashed to a set of old pram wheels.

I have friends with distinctions and I must be glad for them. I am glad for them, but I wish it was me. And it will always be this other thing now – on the record, on the lips, in the mind, until I am gone. No, even after when I am gone.

So, 70% for the dissertation is good. I have done nicely. I should be proud of myself.

But that is not how it felt on the day that I discovered that I didn’t have a distinction.

ps my friend, Valerie, did her MA at Manchester was awarded a distinction and I am very, very proud and pleased for her!
pps The official results have just been posted and my overall average (by my calculation) is 69.11111111 (the 1s go on for ever).  A number that has a spectacular quality all of its own.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Throttling darlings & it's all over bar the recriminations...

Throttling children or killing babies or strangling darlings (I can't remember the proper term but you get the picture) is when you have to get rid of marvellous bits of your story because they don't work; sometimes because, *little voice* on reflection, they are rubbish. It is very hard and I have not got the hang of it yet.

In the early drafts of my loomidob, The Shoes, (it's called something else now but I'll come to that in the moment) I have my female protagonist, Joan, winsomely swinging her tennis racket as she strides down the hill in the warm evening sunshine after a steamy summer's day. A few weeks later in the story my male character, Senny, attends a testosterone and lager fuelled FA Cup party at his mate Little-Al's house.

When I set out my timeline and desultorily checked a few facts I discovered that FA cup finals are played in mid to late-May. I changed Joan's winsome-walking conditions to a balmy spring evening.

Then, I found out that in 1975 (the year the story opens) the FA cup final was played on 3 May. A few weeks before that Joan would probably have had to feel her way down the hill into town, with tennis rackets lashed to her feet like snow shoes. So that scene had to go, as did several other lovelies.

In my last post I mentioned that I was sick to death of my title, The Shoes. Sick to death to the extent that I wished the title harm. I have renamed my story Doing Without. The term doing without is used by Senny when he is thinking about whether he would have sex with Tabard-Joyce on the cafe table; regardless of her pop-sox and despite the fact that she picks up discarded cold baked-beans with her bare fingers (See? You want to read it now, don't you?)

"Tabard-Joyce unpacks our order from her tray to the table and retreats behind the tall glass counter. Ted follows her form. He is wondering if he can overlook the knee-length nylons and the baked-bean fingers enough to fuck her over one of the tables. I know this because I’ve wondered it myself and we’ve discussed the matter.

I decided it came down to how long you’ve been doing without, but on balance and given the opportunity, yes I would. Ted thinks he’s still undecided, but he definitely would too."

So. There it is. My story is sort-of finished. It also has a form at last; it grew to over 36,000 words so it is no longer a loomidob and now qualifies as a novella. I was quite sad to leave to loomidob behind but that's what happens.

I polished (as they say) 12,000 words and I wrote a 3,000 critical commentary on my writing process and I gave it all in, in duplicate, on Friday 13 August 2010. I have been in stark-staring shock since; I don't know when the results are due and I dare not ask.

I declined an invitation to attend the MA graduation because I am too superstitious. I told the lovely lady who is in charge of Ceremonies that I could not arrange to attend a graduation until I know if I’ve passed the degree. Unfortunately the truth is (and this is shameful) I can't arrange to attend a graduation until I know *miniscule voice* if I have a distinction. There. I've said it. Shameful.

This blog was for recording the progress of my MA in Creative Writing and it is finished now so the blog is finished. Thank you, my other reader, you’ve been lovely, supportive company x

Monday, 17 May 2010

Redraft Eleven as a Rubik's Cube and Setting Fire to Stupid Titles

I am hauling myself bucking and bellowing into redraft eleven of the dissertation story.  I’ve circled it warily for weeks. 

I think it’s reached a sort of Rubik’s Cube stage; the impression that it might be nearing completion is illusory.   This story needs to be pitilessly undone before it can be put together nicely.  I am trying to resist the temptation to just rip the little coloured squares off and stick them back (all curling at the edges) where I think they should go.

To recap for my other reader, the story is called The Shoes and is about a relationship over forty years told from alternating male and female points of view (POV).  Initially, it was to be 2,000 words long.  An earlier post about the process is here.

The story is an indeterminate form; too long for a short story, too short for a novella.  I've termed it a Loomidob for now.

I have written a large chunk of backstory for my female character.  It relates to a time when the girl is trying to prevent the adoption of the child she is expecting.  The extract became a short story called The Musical Mobile (as if I haven’t told you that already). 

My supervisor, The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals, said it is fine for me to write about events that have influenced characters but, to be fair, I should do something similar for my man character.

What I have been advised that I need to do:
See what techniques real authors use to get around the problems I am experiencing.
Signal temporal and narrative shifts more effectively.
Give my man more substance, more backstory - even if it is never used.
Sort out continuity and cohesion problems and research facts instead of guessing stuff.

During the wasted weeks when I’ve felt shitty and I haven’t felt able to write nicely I’ve been: 
speaking to real authors by email; 
thinking about my male character and trying to work out why he doesn’t seen authentic.

What I’ve read:
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (a get-better present from a really good friend)
Black Rock by Amanda Smyth
The Leaping by Tom Fletcher
Housekeeping, Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

What I’ve learnt:
Real authors make themselves write however shitty they feel because they can edit and redraft weak work but they cannot edit no work.   Real authors write a lot of stuff that never sees the light of day in its original form.

That I have to stop being resistant to signalling narrative shifts.  In The Leaping, Tom Fletcher alternates between two narrative voices and he signposts each change with the narrators name. It works very well.

I have to stop being resistant to naming my characters; it isn’t enigmatic, it’s pretentious and irritating.

I am going to have to write a lot of backstory for both of my characters and then jettison most of it; the piece is now over 17,000 words long and my word limit for assessment is 12,000.  17,000 (and growing) is really unwieldy; I forget where stuff is and my style has evolved as I’ve been writing so there are big discrepancies in technique.

I need to avoid sentimentality and cliché by recalling my own honest emotions rather than writing what I imagine a pretend person (who is inevitably more sophisticated than me) might do and feel.  A line from Anne Tyler’s book The Amateur Marriage brought me up short. 
The extract is set in the US in the1960s.  A mother has just discovered that her runaway daughter is in hospital in San Francisco, which is thousands of miles away from where she and her husband live.  She telephones her husband at work:
‘We have to go, you have to come home, how will we get there? …… We have to buy airplane tickets, how do people do that?’ 
Which I think is exactly how a real person might respond in the circumstance.  That is how I would respond.

I need a timeline to give me an overview of the structure of the story and to highlight irregularities or sloppiness. For example, I realise that I've written about a Harvest Moon in May, and I refer to a general election in 1974 that didn’t happen until 1976.  
Also I’ve made the male character’s father a socialist refugee.  Because my grasp of history is poor I don’t know which European countries generated socialist refugees around the time of WW2, or whether they were likely to arrive before, during or after the war.

Part of me thinks that this is my made up world and it doesn’t matter what I make up.  Part of me knows that if I were an examiner I’d throw a script across the room for slapdash fact-finding.

What has happened:

I am sick to death of the title, The Shoes. If I could set fire to that stupid title, I would.  If I could hang it, draw it, quarter it and put its head on a stake outside the city walls, I would.

I have given my characters names, Joan and Senny (short for Senacerib).

I signal narrative shifts CLEARLY.

My characters have more substance; transpires a high proportion of them were bed wetters (really!) No idea this has happened and I might have to rethink it -  but what can I do? Maybe noctural enuretics do clump clammily together for comfort. 

I am still finding it much harder to write the male point of view than to write the female point of view.

I listened to Michael Portillo’s Democracy on Trial on Radio 4.  Michael’s father is Spanish, a Labour voter who came to the UK just before WW2 as a refugee.  Hurrah!! Senny’s dad is that thing too!

What is still to do:
Ensure that the characters’ POV are distinctive, consistent and emotionally honest.

Ensure that the characters’ POV change and age as they do.

Write, edit, write, edit, stop being a wuss, write, edit.

Thank you to David Wright for my photograph of a wistful Rubik’s Cube (I knew David would had a Rubik’s Cube to photograph for me because he can do them very quickly!)  
David and his band The New Zealand Story are at Spotlight on Friday 21 May 2010, as are many other splendid people. Look Here for details.

I’ve got these books still to read:
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (a get-better present from someone Very Fine)
Antwerp by Nicholas Royle
Not So Perfect by Nik Perring (both get-better presents from myself)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Interview with Tom Fletcher

 There is an interview with Tom Fletcher, author of The Leaping, on the Lancashire Writing Hub blog 

(it is a very good new novel)
More information  about and links to interviews with Tom here

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Bleeping and Clicking, Not Being Able to Write and a Nice Prize

I've had a break from writing because I've been off colour.  I want to write stuff. I spent whole bleeping, clicking nights in hospital (bleeping and clicking are not coy swear-word replacements; hospital nights do come furnished with a bleeping and clicking sound track).

I spent whole bleeping, clicking nights in hospital mentally composing a piece on how I feel about an arrangement that often seems to strive, 'officiously to keep alive'*.

Time and again I have witnessed ordinarily aging people who have had their chassis-life extended with replacement body parts and chemical tinkering.  They live on, but often they live on to become broken, muddled old shells of human beings who survive into a shitty and undignified great age.

The piece I was mentally composing had a testing extra facet because I have recently and unwittingly become part of that arrangement.  Last Autumn I developed a ridiculous, sore limp and it turned out that, if I wanted to walk painlessly and (sort of) normally again, a surgeon would need to strive and replace my knackered hip with a new version.

Whatever gruesome things happened to me in hospital they were not conducive to getting mentally composed-words down on paper in an engaging order.  The piece I was composing is too difficult for me to write (I keep editing the last three paragraphs but they continue to sound like muddled old crap).

All I want to do at the moment is read.  Mostly, what I do do is stare into space and drop asleep with my glasses skewed across my face and my neck in a cricked position.

I was quite subdued and sad when I was admitted into hospital.  I was plagued with grave doubts about my writing abilites - see previous post.  Actually, see most of my previous posts.  And, although I pretend to be fearless I was witless with terror about what was going to be done to me in the name of officious striving.

During the bleeping, clicking second post-operative day I received an email from the Writer with the Writerly Name telling me that my short story, The Musical Mobile, has won the 2010 Helen Clark Award for prose. 

The news could not have come at a better time and it made me very, very glad. 

The Musical Mobile is an extract from my MA dissertation and is a redrafted version of the piece I read so badly at my first open mic.

That's all.  That's a start.

from The Last Decalogue by Arthur Hugh Clough

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

‘A public display of ineptitude’, first open mic slot, being sick in a bucket and Edith Bouvier Beale

I have read a piece of work at an open mic slot. It was my first try and I will just tell you why it was not my finest hour.

In November I attended the excellent Ann (The Poet) Wilson’s Performance Workshop hosted by Lancaster Spotlight. I thought I would have a try at reading some of my own writing at a lit evening.

Ann is a great poet, performer and compere and, it turns out, brilliant teacher.

We were a small group and we good-naturedly watched each other reading and perform and gave constructive feedback. Ann provided particularly bespoke advice and showed us how our posture and body language influenced how we sound and how we are perceived. She took us through a whole series of warm-up exercises, breathing and relaxation methods and showed us how to use a microphone (which is a lot more complicated than it sounds).

We were all conspicuously better at performing by the time we had our second bash at delivering our work.

I am never going to be a ‘Ta-Dah!’ kind of a performer but Ann assured us that the conspiratorial ‘Come and listen to this,’ type of delivery is equally as valid.

Between November and now I nearly had a try at an open mic slot several times - but lost my nerve on every occasion.

Finally, I decided I had to do it. I have no idea where the compulsion to read my own writing out loud in front of strangers came from. An obligatory karaoke evening is way beyond what my vision of what hell might be like - and karaoke-ers are at least performing words written by professionals.

I opted to read an extract from my dissertation long-short story. The extract is a first person flashback to the mid-1970s in which my female narrator unsuccessfully resolves to stop the planned adoption of her baby. I wrote it with a detached and calculating heart.

The evening before the lit night I practiced the piece in front of my benevolent writing group friends. The extract was overly-long – almost five minutes and, ridiculously, my voice cracked as if I was about to cry, when I got to the section where the baby is being taken.

The writing friends were kind. I don’t know, maybe I should have been more explicit about my intentions,
‘I plan to read this extract in a big room. In front of people. Strangers, who do not know me...’
and then my writing friends might have been more candid.

Deluded as ever I pressed on; I cut the extract down by removing the first paragraph and a slew of adjectives.

The extract was still over three minutes long but, I hoped, not long enough to trigger the klaxon.

I tinkered with the ending to make it a more self contained narrative.

I practiced reading the narrative out loud to myself one thousand three hundred and ninety seven times; until there was no scrap of emotion left about my person.

At the lit evening I hummed along the corridors until my lips vibrated. I swung my arms vigorously in the toilets. I squatted gingerly when I imagined no one was looking to get the tension out of my legs (this latter exercise was an error as I have a very painful limp at the moment). I inhaled huge lungsful of air with each breath until there were shimmering black shapes in front of my eyes. All to little avail.

When I stood, eschewing the microphone because I couldn’t remember what Ann had said about how to use a microphone, my heart was booming against my ribs, I was anoxic and shrill. Mentally I was being sick in a bucket in the corner of the room. In reality, I was standing in front of my first audience.

As I read I couldn’t believe how long and silly the piece sounded. At the same time I felt sure I was accidentally missing out whole critical paragraphs.

There was one perceptible response from the audience, a man laughed – appropriately - when I mentioned the Uncle Bulgaria slippers; I wish now that I had paused, glanced up and thanked him – but I was in a hurry.

Even before I came to the section where the Fictional Baby is being taken my voice started to wobble dangerously. By the time I got to where the poor sod is being carted off in his Moses basket I was gulping audibly. The tinkered-with ending was lost in mangled emotion.

It is hard to say who was more embarrassed, me or the audience. I was so affected by the reading that even I came away suspecting that the events in the story were autobiographical. It would have felt like disloyalty to my Fictional Character to say,
‘I’m okay, I never had a baby adopted, you know…’
As if I am suggesting that my Fictional Character has done something shameful.

'Anyway...' (this is me addressing my Fictional Character).

'Anyway, my Fictional Character, it is me who should be ashamed, not you. You did what you considered to be the best thing in the circumstances. I, on the other hand, inflicted an overly-long, sentimental, ridiculously read, possibly inaudible extract on a blameless audience.'

After the reading I felt as if I was in a slow-motion/fast-motion trick photography film. In this film I can be seen sitting quite still and anonymous whilst a speeded-up world continues dizzily around me.

As I said at the beginning, my first open mic was not my finest hour. More accurately; it was not my finest more-than-three-minutes-but-less-than-five-minutes (if you don’t include my starring role in the subsequent trick photography slow-mo/fast-mo motion picture). Actually, not finest hour was probably a fair description.

Did any one else see the non-trick photography film, Grey Gardens? Apparently the subject of the film, Edith Bouvier Beale (a first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) attempted to launch a cabaret career when she was 60. The New York Times called her act:

‘A public display of ineptitude.’

Oh poor Edie. Oh poor me. There. I’ve said it. We will not speak of my first open mic slot again. Least said soonest mended…

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Dissertation, Narrative Mode and Being Jealous of Margaret Atwood.

My supervisor, the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals, has spent hours forensically reading my shitty first/fifth/seventh drafts and I have had the first two of my six dissertation meetings.

The project will be 12,000 words in my chosen genre and 3,000 words of critical commentary.

Initially I planned to write six 2,000 word pieces because I am a blatherer who needs discipline and because I find it so difficult to make longer stories cohesive. The first three story ideas started out as:
The Shoes: a love story over forty years told from alternating male and female points of view;
The Wrong Baby: a story about the social changes wrought by a transfer from a mobile forager/hunter existence to sedentism and food production;
I Was A Nurse: a story about the impact of dementia;

Two of the stories feature dead or lost babies and the third features an infantile parent. I am always losing babies in my stories.

I am about to blather about point of view (POV) or narrative voice and tense so here is a scanty summary of POV and narrative mode - as I understand it:

First person: Uses the ‘I’ voice. The first person narrator is often unreliable because they are presenting events from their perspective.
Second person: Uses the ‘You’ voice.
Third person: Uses the ‘She’ voice. The third person narrator can be:
Third person objective, that is the narrator describes events but not the thoughts of the characters.

Third person subjective (also known as third person restricted (or limited) omniscient) that is the narrator describes events and the thoughts of one main character. Some stories are a series of third person subjective narratives that focus on alternating or different characters.
Third person omniscient: the narrator who sees all and knows the mind of all the characters.
Past tense: 'I was at'; ‘She was at’.
Present tense: 'I am at'; ‘She is at’.

POV and tense can be used in every permutation. To add confusion I am going to talk about a story in which I use a first person, present tense narrative mode to write about a memory. I like present tense because events are unfolding for the reader as they happen.

My love story started out being told by two alternating (unnamed) protagonists. Both were narrated from the first person, past tense POV.

This is a small extract from the first draft (it was well-slated in workshop). Usually the alternating sections are longer but these two just happen to be very short. The girl narrates first then the bloke:

"I was one of May’s bridesmaids. After the reception a group of us went on to Charlie’s. The dress wasn’t one of those dreadful satin carry-ons; we chose a nice maxi-dress from Dorothy Perkins so I could get some use out of it afterwards. I wore ballet pumps with mine. When he saw me he said.
‘Don’t you have any proper shoes?’

Houghton Sue wasn't at Charlie’s this week but she was. She was drunk and looked a bit of a mess, long flowery dress and stupid shoes. Still I took her home and got my end away."

At the first dissertation meeting my supervisor recommended that I read:
Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace to see how a writer can shift between narrators; in this instance between an first person unreliable narrator and a third person subjective (or restricted) narrator;
Postcards by Annie Proulx as an example of how a writer tells one man's story as a series third person restricted narratives; each section present events from the point of view of different characters in turn over many decades;
Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore to see how I might convey how devotion or obsession can blind a character to reality. Burning Bright is written from shifting POV but in the perpetual present tense.

Over a few weeks I found all of the titles except Burning Bright at various Oxfam Books (I found loads of others besides and I did get a bit carried away.... )

I redrafted The Shoes first because, despite it being slated, it is the story that engages me most. It still is not finished and had grown to 7,000 words before my second dissertation meeting so I suggested to my supervisor that I might concentrate on this tale and let it expand into a 12,000 word long-short story, if such a thing exists.

The initial drafts of The Shoes were written colloquially with contractions - weren't, should've, I'd, can't - which I was unhappy about but which I felt were appropriate to the first person voice. One of the books I found in Oxfam was When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishguro's story is a first person narrative that eschews contractions other than in direct speech and I decided to copy his approach in my next iteration.

So, in the redrafting I removed contractions, added a present tense (and present day), first person prologue which describes the woman catching a glimpse of the man after the passage of many years:

"I see you today.
I am driving down the hill into the city. It is late morning and the sun is shining in my eyes as I turn a bend. I am about to ask Edie to retrieve my sunglasses from the glove compartment but she is speaking and I think I will wait until she has finished this bit of what she is saying.
I am concentrating on Edie’s words. Or rather, I am alert for a natural break. And then there you are…"

I changed the man's POV sections to third person restricted narrator; I made this change because it allowed me to include details and descriptions that my male character would not necessarily have noted.

I altered both narrative POV to the perpetual present tense so they are not memories or flashbacks but unfolding events. The narrators and the reader does not know what will happen (although the prologue has obviously hinted against a happy-ever ending).

I'm impressed that proper writers are able to let slip early on that all will not be well - that the narrator will be dead by Tuesday for example - but it is done so skilfully that that the reader allows herself to hope against hope that all may turn out nicely. I hope this every time I see Hamlet.

This is extract from above, redrafted:

“I am a bridesmaid at May’s wedding. After the reception some of us travel on to Charlie’s for a dance. My dress is not one of those dreadful satin creations; we chose a flower print maxi-dress from Dorothy Perkins so I can wear it again afterwards. I found some pink ballet pumps that match it exactly. When Tom sees me he says.

‘Haven’t you got any proper shoes?’

Tom cannot find Houghton Sue at Charlie’s this week, but that girl with the frizzy hair is here; the one that seems to be following him around. She is drunk and she looks a bit of a mess in a long, flowery, hippy-dress and stupid shoes. Tom considers for a while, but he does not get any better offers and so he takes her home; and this time it is worth it. He gets his end away.”

I also gave my male character a name, Tom, and the female character became a nurse.
I nursed in the olden days; I know about thermometers and myocardial infarctions and gallows humour and getting bladdered - I have access to credible detail. I'm not sure why I am reluctant to name my main protagonists. It is clear from creative writing blogs and books that not naming a character in an attempt to be 'mysterious' irritates readers. I think I am partly guilty of trying to be mysterious but my reluctance is also based on my prejudice about how a person called, Tom, for example might behave. It is probably time for another trip to a graveyard to harvest some pre-used names.
The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals was happy for me to concentrate on one long-short story and gave me some interesting guidelines for how many words constitute what form:

12,000 is more than a short story; it bites back, it trusts (her words).

20,000 is a long story (a US form she said) which often reflects upon the social morays of a particular time.

35,000 is a novella, like The Great Gatsby or The Turn of the Screw.

50,000-60,000 is a short novel.

So my piece doesn't really have a form. I might call it a Loomidob, or I might get a better idea.

My supervisor said that the new prologue framed the narrative (!), it is set further in the future than the main body of the story and is the point from which the writer can look backward and even forward.

She is happy with the redrafting so far and feels that the removal of contractions has changed the tone of the piece and consequently the impact on the reader. She suggests that the new formality slows the narrative and that the piece has acquired a tenderness that was missing previously. She suggested I read:
Colm Tobin; for tenderness that works very well.

Bakhtin on Dostoevsky's work and the representation of polyphony, many voices. The Shoes has two voices, although I think Bakhtin would say that there is a third voice; the woman who relates the prologue is a decades older version of the nurse and therefore an ‘other’ or changed person.

The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals is a candid and critical reader but she already knows my characters, what I am aiming for and how the piece has developed. I recently attended some intermediate writing workshops and I took an opening extract from The Shoes to get some fresh and cold-eyed feedback...

The counsel I received in this forum was invaluable and (I hope) encouraged me to stop deluding myself.  I was advised that:

My shifts between points of view need to be more clearly signposted.

I need to orient my characters in a place and time with each shift.

I had already made a decision not to signpost shifts in narrative voice by changing font or by other type of formatting (other than by defined line breaks) because I felt it was patronising the reader, but it is obviously pointless to muddle the reader too.
It was suggested at the workshop that I could date sections like diary entries. Again, I'm not keen but I am not sure why. Maybe it is because I am a lazy writer, or maybe it is because I am prepared to be a hard working reader and figure out what is happening in the books I read (those written by proper writers); but I realise that that is not a good-enough reason and that I can't depend on reader-loyalty from MA markers.

I came away from the workshops with some more reading suggestions:
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood; for effective use of present tense memories or flashbacks and for technically accomplished tense shifts.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; for a portrayal of interlocking lives.
Morven Callar by Alan Warner for a self contained female narrative voice.
Lorrie Moore.
Ann Beatty.
Miranda July

Cat's Eye is my favourite so far, it features a motif that is familiar to me and, I expect, to my other reader. That is, how a child can be terrorised by a bully who is ultimately revealed to be feeble and pitiable. For my part, that syndrome is not limited to childhood; I spent whole swathes of my adult life not getting or being afraid of people I saw regularly - other parents, people at evening classes, work colleagues - only to eventually realise that it wasn't necessarily me who was stupid or out of kilter.

In Cat’s Eye, Atwood keeps her child narrator in the eternal present, which contrasts with the nebulous and disjointed childhood memories of the her same character as a grown woman.

I am very jealous of Atwood because she manages time shifts between forty years ago and now that are mostly in first person present tense and occasionally in first person past tense without clunky signposting; italics or diary dates. That is what I am trying to do.  The difference is Atwood is a skilled technician and I am not.

My first person narrator presents information in an immediate, simplistic way:

"I am a bridesmaid at May's wedding. After the reception..."

Although Atwood is writing in the present tense as a child her voice is more lyrical and knowing and her scope is broader:

"The snow erodes, leaving the pot-holes in the roads near our house filled with muddy water. The bubbles of ice form across these puddles overnight; we shatter them with the heels of our boots."
Atwood's narration feels like an adult looking through a child's eyes but, as I said, the adult narrator does not remember the childhood events with clarity or order.

My story is not complete yet. I know what happens but I am not sure how it happens. I think I just need to get it finished using the current narrative modes and then work on trying to make it accessible without being patronising.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Is Hull a Real Place?

I recently read a newspaper article suggesting that Hull might become The Venice of the North and was reminded of the time we had our Youngest Grandson and his cornet to stay.

They were only with us for a few days; he is a most affable child (and the cornet is generally well behaved). 

If I cooked food that our Youngest Grandson wasn't sure about he didn't pull sick faces or make gagging noises, he tried his best.  

This is an exchange we had when I gave him some salty spaghetti bolognaise.  I could tell it was too salty because he was laughing like a loon at Ian's daft jokes and shifting food from one plate-zone to another in an attempt to wear it out; and also because it tasted too salty.
'Are you okay with that, or is it a bit salty for you?'
'It's fine, thanks.  Oh, ho ho! Grandad, you're well-sad!'
He makes a small realignment of some bolognaise and lifts a couple of dangles of unadulterated pasta to his lips.
'Are you sure, is it perhaps not what you're used to at home and would you prefer to just have some pasta with grated cheese?'
Short pause.  He shakes his head, sage-like, at Ian's infantile banter and appraises his plate.
'This is very nice Grandma, but it's not what I'm used to at home and maybe I would prefer to just have some pasta with grated cheese.'

In just a few days we managed to lose all his clothes and most of his homework.  The majority of his clobber disappeared into the black hole that is After School Club.  Turns out you're not meant to believe children when they say,
'It's in my bag.'
'It's okay, I left it in the drawer.'
'I didn't wear it today.'
Because what they're really saying is:
'Will you give it a rest, Grandma, with your inane interrogating, I've got important things to think about.'
We felt quite smug when we returned him to his mother because he was wearing his PE kit.  It transpires the PE kit wasn't even his own; school had dressed him in that after he slipped on the field playing Tag (or was it Tig?).
'I thought the field was out of bounds in the winter?'
'Oh yes.  It is.'
'My foot just caught the edge.'

He was no trouble at all.  He let me read to him from his mother's 1970s Thomas the Tank Engine books and his uncle's Calvin and Hobbes and 1980s Beano Annuals.  He pretended (for my sake) that playing Consequences is riotously hilarious fun. 

Our Youngest Grandson couldn't believe how much we like to sleep, we do like to be in bed for 9.00 but we were extra exhausted when he was staying.  I had completely forgotten how physically and emotionally draining small children are; you live in constant fear that some nameless, terrifying harm will befall them.

When my Other Middlest Child drove him and the cornet to school on the final day he said.
'Auntie Ali?'
'Yes, Chick?
'I've been wondering.'
'Oh yes?'
'I've been wondering for a while now.'
'Ye-e-es....?' (this might be one for your mummy)
'Is Hull a real place?'
My Other Middlest Child, a brainbox who knows a thing or two about the East Coast, admits that this question caught her on the hop and made her doubt herself.  The thing is, she said, when someone thinks you are omnipotent you don't want to ruin your reputation with an ill-considered response.  She knew she knew but caught herself wondering. 
'Is it a real place?'

Well, Auntie Ali, Hull must be a real place, because I've seen it in the newspaper and it might be destined to become The Venice of the North.

ps did you know that he cornet was originally derived from the post horn ? Golly!
pps Proud Hullesians, we all do know that Hull is a real and very fine place, it's just that the strain of omnipotence gets to us, sometimes.