Obsessive women? In this 2nd edition of Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, there are stories short and long about women of all ages, at all stages.
Katie Fforde called the stories “Quirky and Intriguing”. No, they are not erotica. Hardly a glimpse of bare flesh. There is a subtly dark edge to the stories, most of which seem, at first, light-hearted. My intention was for readers to have second thoughts, just after they’ve finished a story.
The Kindle and ebook versions are at promotion price of 0.99 this week. The paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops and on Amazon. It makes a good present for someone you know, or better still, their husband. A top-100 Amazon reviewer states “. . . their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki”
During the writing, I imagined being each of these women: aged sixteen, covered with tattoos and lusting for good legs in a man; a shocked and frustrated shopper experiencing a moral dilemma; someone infertile, another overly fertile, a women with a dreadful aversion, someone adored and someone certainly not. I wrote them at different times and in different places, and subsequently forgot them.
The collection began when I came across one, describing the most neurotic of the group. I realized I had several stories about women unused in my files. Looking them all out, I discovered their obsessions. I added more stories, covering various kinds of angst. Reviewers converge on the descriptor ‘quirky’.
My other fiction is more serious, but, look, my avatar has two sides. These stories represent my irreverent one. I did enjoy writing them!
You’ll encounter an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.
Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.
Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistentwriting. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).
This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.
Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.
King has no truck with much of this. His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions. He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’
He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things. In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story. This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.
What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.
His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.
On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing. It could well set you on a good, productive path.
‘Icy short story’ could feature a crime, an arctic setting, or a scientific experiment – even cryogenics.
These skilled stories heard by the packed audience at Story Fridays in Bath, UK. My own icy story explored the ultimate chill in a relationship.
There’s a growing popularity for short stories as performance art. Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear, in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, is the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway. The event occurs every second month inspired by a theme. The most recent is theme was ICE.
I was very happy that one of my short stories was chosen: A Fragment Retained, and thrilled that it was read by talented actor,Kirsty Cox.
Sometimes it’s better not to read your own story when it’s written in the first person: the association with the writer/reader can distract the audience from the writing itself. More importantly, my story was delivered far more effectively by Kirsty. Why read a mini drama yourself when you can have a professional? You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed the story of a woman trapped into an unplanned conclusion.
This icy story is a mid-point gasp in my (mostly humorous) collection of satirical short stories, Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men. (The companion volume, Curious Men, follows later this year). The story has another name in the book. I tweaked it for performance. It’s often a good idea to make adaptations for stories heard, rather than stories read silently.
Last time I had a story in Story Friday I also enjoyed the advantage of a very skilled actor performing, (Olly Langdon). He memorably brought my character, a WWI POW to life, which would have been difficult for a woman to achieve.
It is nice to connect with an audience through something you’ve written, reading it as if written especially for them. I enjoy doing this when the story is a narrative, but these two stories had a single distressed character and they benefited enormously from the actors’ magic touch.
Stories for performance need such decisions – personal connection with the audience, or making a character more credible?
The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.
I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy. There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.
Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.
It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.
Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.
History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.
Writing characters? E.M. Forster admitted that “We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family …”
Perhaps you can’t or won’t do that. As a writer, you will need different resources for bringing your characters to life.
You may have access to a group or category of people who encapsulate the characteristics you want for your character. But perhaps the stage is empty . . .
You want to give your character a convincing appearance and a convincing voice. It’s good if you can summon up a face and voice that is still in your head. But suppose that isn’t the case and you need to create one? You won’t want the fruit of someone else’s vision — i.e. you don’t want to copy a character from a film or tv script.
Feeling stuck? Try these resources:
Documentary films. The British Film Institute site is not just for buying films you’ve missed seeing. Let’s say your character is a steelworker in 1948. You can see a 1948 close-up of steel production to get the manufacturing process vivid and exactly right, take in the working clothes worn at that time (including a man in a suit working with heavy machinery) and hear the tones and terminology of the narrator.
Oral History interviews are a wonderful source of actual opinions and attitudes. You can hear audio clips of contemporary voices such as those being compiled by the BBC’s Listening Project, or past voices in archives such as those at East Midlands Oral History Archive, or in the US via the G. Robert Vincent Voice Library – a collection from 1888 of voices from all walks of life. http://vvl.lib.msu.edu.
Online discussions. Say you have never been in your character’s situation. Find a blog on that subject, then wheel down to the comments: real people reacting to the situation. For instance, unemployment or being cheated by a friend. You’ll not have to guess how it feels. The comments following an advice column, even review sites include personal accounts with the tiny details that will make your paragraphs sing.
A writer recently remarked that she had difficulty in thinking of titles. I thought I’d concoct a list for beginner writers allowing use for different genres. Let me know if you like this kind of post. It can be taken seriously or not. Who knows, one of these may spark the next novel for someone. These titles are intended for you to make your own associations (and stories). I had fun.
One day too long
Caught in Time
Idyll in Back Alley
Is There Hair on my Burger? (or their hair – works as well)
An Intricate Endeavour
It Takes Time to Jam
Black is the New Grey
They never called me Edna
Not Everyone Marries in a Cathedral
Blogging To Bliss
IF YOU LIKE THIS, I CAN DO MORE. (But I should be finishing my next chapter).
I like playing Scrabble, but I’m not competitive. The challenge presented by the board in hand and the variety of options, limitations placed upon moves is sufficient. Sometimes the layout feels like an art form. It’s fun to enliven the game further by restraints such as allowing only nouns related to e.g. writing, for words of 4 letters or more. Going to an event based on competition would spoil the enjoyment completely.
It seems that the lack of competitiveness has a worthy origin.
Chess is thought to originate in India, before the 6th century AD and then spread to Persia, pictured here.
Chess reached Southern Europe via Arabs and Muslims, and by the 15th century it had evolved into its current form.
The “Romantic Era of Chess” was characterized by swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, brash piece sacrifices and dynamic games. Winning was secondary to winning with style and the focus wasupon artistic expression. I’d loved to have been an audience then before the style changed, in the 19th century, to one of technical mastery and long-term planning.
In presenting our fiction to the world we writers are exhorted to use multiple techniques to gain sales. Innocent days of creating the best that our talent and art form allow, end. Months of miserable media-bashing follow. What contrasting activities, what different emotions!
Reading about the origin of chess brings similarly opposite emotions to reading self-help books that teach tricks of beating algorithms or garnering a following. It’s these books themselves that sell in huge numbers, their authors then ‘teaching’ a system to all other writers on the basis of this ‘sure’ success.
How sad. William Boyd, Anne Tyler, Kasuo Ishiguro novels, say, may have comparable Amazon sales rankings with a very badly produced book on Twitter techniques. Even the most reputable newspapers may show best-selling books for their Top Twenty rather than a list of most highly regarded fiction.
Swashbuckling attacks on the media, clever combinations of layered promotion, technical mastery of marketing ploys and long-term planning of a marketing campaign is what sells books and makes a winning writer. Thank goodness that reputable writing competitions rely on writing judges, not the amount of ‘votes’ an entrant can grab via social media. Nowadays, all of us writers are pushed into this.
I wonder whether a ‘romantic era’ for art forms will ever return.
Here are some suggestions. (My previous post will add meaning to this.)
1. Write with a clear voice. Not yours, your character’s. It doesn’t have to be first person. You can write third person from the main character’s (MC) point of view. What matters is that point of view, the reader feeling sure s/he is standing in the MC’s shoes.
2. The reader doesn’t have to like the MC. It is edgier if a sneaky liking for a character makes the reader uneasy or worse. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this baddie I’m reading about?)
3. Short stories can’t cope with having too many characters. The edginess may depend on being in the MC’s head most of the read, so the reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – even horror or outrage can achieve this.
4. Dialogue has to do its job well and pithily. Every word counts; every unnecessary word detracts. A character merely saying ‘Whatever‘ can give a total feel of his/her reaction, whereas a whole sentence may not.
5. Structure. If you are working on : 1/5 start, 3/5 middle. 1/5 end, that final fifth must hit home. Either shock the reader by reversing all his/her expectations or let your MC cross over some unacceptable line. It may ‘only’ mean stealing a child’s bike and pretending innocence. However, the ‘journey’ must be there, and it’s vital that whatever happened is some kind of shock to the system.
6. Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form is usually involved but an action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.
7. The edgy story does not have to be crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can be funny. It’s no longer edgy for sexual abuse to be involved, not because it’s any more acceptable, but because it’s now hackneyed as a character device.
8. It is still edgy to nudge into those actions that would be too awkward to admit to a friend. e.g. a friendship established in the first 4/5th of the tale where we worry that this friend is about to cheat or betray. The last fifth reveals that we are wrong. The kickback is that the assumptions we made highlight our own prejudices. Edginess must produce unease.
Literature Festival speakers. How can they best serve the audience? What makes attendance worthwhile for the writer?
For fans, seeing their favourite writer, or one who has fascinated them, is an exciting and uplifting experience. For writers, writing or research techniques may be uppermost in their minds when they attend to the author speaking about his/her book. There is a variety of approach an author might use, such as at WellsLitFest where the authors used a podium to deliver talks illustrated by their readings. I was privileged to hear Jonathan Bate give the first of his (superb) talks about his just-published Ted Hughes:the Unauthorized Life. As an academic at the pinnacle of his profession, he is an exemplar of this approach. However, the podium speech can be the undoing of speakers without his fluency, confidence and erudition. Two other recent presentations, both by favourite authors of mine, allow an interesting comparison of approach.
The jazz music increased in volume, the slight figure with an aurora of back curls strode up the aisle. A video of stage, screen and radio versions of A Winter’s Tale then preceded Winterson’s own dramatic performance. The voices of her characters rang out, even their oaths resounded beneath the stone reliefs of dead benefactors. I couldn’t help thinking of the rigidly religious Mrs Winterson, adoptive mother, bridling in outrage. As Jeanette Winterson stood where once there had been a pulpit, the drama around the foundling, pulled from the receiving window of the convent by her protagonist became immediately alive for us. A compelling reading continued for half an hour.
This can truly be described as an oeuvre, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as a novel, and brought into the present day to New Bohemia, an imagined area in New York.
With hardly a breath’s gap, Winterson went on to describe the historical and dramaturgical context of her novel. For instance, the changes in theatrical productions at the time Shakespeare had this play showing at The Globe, and how the innovation of intervals affected his play structure. Admirably fluent, she then discussed her own re-creation of the storyline, her choice of concepts and people to fill the character roles, and her powerful attachment to this play. The foundling that she was in her personal life and loved in A Winter’s Tale, led to the making of her novel and for a riveting hour for her audience.
Of most impact for me, however, was the fact that a play was recreated as a novel. The telling of this writing process then became a theatrical production in its own right.
Another winter was presented in a totally different manner at the Budleigh Salterton Litfest. Patrick Gale spoke of his book using the conventional style of the two armchairs, the glass of water, the introduction and intelligent questioning from the discussant. Putting his new novel in its context, Gale chatted about his fortunate childhood and education: the loving parents, the enlightened teacher who allowed an afternoon every week for writerly boys to sit and write without interruption or instruction, his family’s total tolerance and freedom to be himself that contrasted so tellingly with what Winterson had experienced. It was as if we were no longer in Budleigh Salterton’s village hall, but relaxing back on leather armchairs, drink in hand, listening to the urbane author in a post-prandial chat. He is as entertaining in talk as he is on page.
A Place Called Winter is not a soft and gentle story. At many points it is tragic and in some places tough on the emotions.
(This hardback version’s cover I much prefer to the paperback one)
The context of this novel is very personal since the tale is based on the experience of Gale’s grandfather. He went to Canada at a time when land was being given free to those who would live there and farm it. Once there, the new landowners discovered that they were now incredibly remote from any sign of civilization, and that for many months they struggled to avoid being literally frozen. This man left his comfortable life, his wife and children to go. But there was a reason.
Discussion of this reason took us through the Victorian response when facing anything different, especially within the family. Gale captivated his audience with often amusing anecdotes of his own experience, those he had discovered about his grandfather, and had imagined for his protagonist who is an extension into fiction.
Winter is at several levels in this novel. The Canadian town truly is called Winter, and not after the season. Surviving there involved managing the fearsome winter months, the winter of isolation, and of separation from all that is emotionally summery. Further, the protagonist has many reasons to have winter in his heart. Much later in the novel, there is certainly winter in the heart of his closest relative.
Before Gale’s entrance, the person next to me said she had not read any of Gale’s novels. I told her of my favourite (Notes from an Exhibition). After Gale’s presentation, she, like the rest of the audience, rushed to buy A Place Called Winter. ‘My husband will love it.’
I have mentioned striking contrasts in these two author’s presentations of their new works. There is something vital in common. Both introduced contextual and background information that was new knowledge, rich detail set in a story that is totally gripping.
At Litfests it is not enough to talk about a book and its plot or characters. There needs to be a background story to the book, its research, its personal meaning to the author and its underlying theme or issue. We had this with these speakers, and for the writer, the healthy increase in the urge to scour new historic sources.
Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.
Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.
During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.
It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.
“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)
How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.
If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.
The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.
Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.
Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”. Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.
Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity. It takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.
If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise. Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.
Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.
The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.
To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.
Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.
(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.
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