Making your characters speak

It’s National Short Story Week, and my contribution is a few words about dialogue. Short fiction, by definition, works with a limited number of words, so each of them has to count. Dialogue is a great way to put every word to good use, to convey character, reveal details, even secrets, increase tension (conflict is the essence of a good story), and move the story forward.

When you are writing dialogue – and more so when you are editing dialogue – consider what each line of dialogue is doing, what is it’s function?

Here are some problems with dialogue:

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake, which doesn’t reveal, develop characters or the story or increase tension. You will recognise this when reading, or perhaps not, because it tends to be dull and unmemorable.

The characters sound too similar: the voice of the writer is more prominent than the voices of the characters. Not a short story example, but I notice Lee Mack’s (his character’s and his writer’s) voice in Lucy’s dialogue in the TV series Not Going Out.

Difficulty telling who is talking. This is easy to address when there are just two characters; if their voices are distinct enough, no attribution (he said, she said) is needed, but when there are multiple voices, simple attribution is helpful, even essential. It can be done without interrupting the flow of reading and without getting too fancy, such as using, ‘she postulated’, ‘he blustered’. Even ‘he asked’ is not needed when it’s clear that the character has asked – a question mark within the speech marks will tell the reader.

In 10 Rules of Writing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), Elmore Leonard says:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asservated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Too much exposition through dialogue. E.g. ‘Oh, there goes Anita. She was born in 1965 to Indian migrant parents and has married a drinker.’ A bit of an extreme example of ‘the writer sticking his nose in’, but I have seen such stuff in the few pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that I read. But then Dan Brown’s a very rich and successful writer, so who am I to speak?

Another quote from Elmore Leonard

…a character in the book [John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday] makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what that guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

Here are some tips on writing dialogue, from a workshop that I ran for Save As Writers in 2012.

Eavesdropping

Listen to the patterns of everyday speech, write down conversations you overhear.

Rewrite these conversations taking out some of the Ums, Ahs, Wells etc. Get to the heart of what’s being said, cut what is not needed. Not everything you overheard belongs in the scene.

Intersperse with body language and action. It’s hard to listen, write and watch when you’re eavesdropping – add your own; you don’t have to be faithful to the scene you witnessed.

Play with attribution – ‘said’ usually suffices, but try writing without any attribution, making it clear who is speaking.

Read the dialogue you have written out loud – does it sound like ordinary speech?

Writing Conflict

A scene with dialogue is a great way to portray conflict and particularly crisis scenes. You can intersperse dialogue with action and summarise in indirect speech. Many of us have difficulties in writing about conflict.

Try writing these scenes using dialogue:

A mother is preparing her young daughter for school. The child wants to go on a school trip; the mother does not have the money to pay for it.

You have come to collect your car from the garage. The mechanic tells you that much more needs to be done than you think necessary.

At a family funeral, two brothers meet that have not spoken in ten years after a disagreement over a loan that remains unpaid. Their sister attempts to get them to speak again.

There are plenty of examples of good and bad dialogue on the internet; even more can be found in your own reading. You will spot it. The problem with being a writer is that you can’t read without noticing the way a book, a story, is written. It’s when you don’t notice the writing, just get lost in the story, that you know the writer has done his or her work well. They may well have put in scaffolding during the writing process, but if they have taken that scaffolding down, the reader will not know that any artifice is involved.

I may be Second Hand Rose but I’m no bag lady – from jumble sales to charity shops

I used to go to jumble sales with my mum, queuing up early for the best bargains, tussling with the expert jumblers, my trained eye honing in on colours and fabrics from the piled-high tables, pulling out, selecting and rejecting for size and repairable damage (missing buttons: OK; broken zips: no; I’d never get round to replacing them).

When I was 17, I had a thing about smock tops. I got some great ones from jumbles and charity shops. This was at the height of punk, and although the young people of Epsom weren’t all going round in bondage trousers, black sacks and safety pins, many had got rid of the tops I liked, I was able to get bagsfull of the things for pennies. My mums’ friends used to spot them for me, too, and most understood my taste in style, size and fabrics. My Nan didn’t get it, passing on a bag of secondhand clothes, mainly nylon and crimplene. I thanked her politely, then binned them.

Jumble sale treasures of mirrorcloth, embroidery, cotton, cheesecloth … I rarely bought a new top, a new jumper, and the only winter coat I bought new, for years and years, was a black duffle from Millett’s, where I also got my Levi jeans (they were relatively cheaper than they are today).

I’ve been a fan of charity shops for as long as I can remember, too. As well as clothing, I bought records and music-related stuff. A giant poster of Black Sabbath for 10p, which was blu-tacked to the ceiling above my bed until it scared the bejesus out of me by slowly unsticking and falling on my face in the middle of the night. A copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles for 40p, which I recently discovered is a rare, Mono, first-pressing.

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria's 18th birthday party

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria’s 18th birthday party

For my 18th birthday, the only gift I asked for was a lumberjack shirt. From Millett’s, of course. I wore it to my 18th party, and wore it to death thereafter. I probably held on to that shirt till it frayed at the collar, till the fabric went into holes. I’ve dreamt of that shirt; I’ve written about it:

I dream of a shop filled with all the clothes I’ve ever worn

The shopkeeper offers the shirt

I wore on my eighteenth birthday –

the only gift I asked for –

blue and black, like a lumberjack’s,

frayed threads, faded check,

detached collar and yoke

now healed. ‘Try it on,’ he tempts,

sleeve across breast, hand on heart.

It no more fits than the jeans

I wore with it – red-tagged,

stitched patch – the felt-penned plimsolls

lying gape-mouthed on the floor,

or the skins of outgrown friends

hung on a rack by the door.

(From strange fruits by Maria C McCarthy)

After I left home and went to Thames Poly in South East London, I searched out the jumbles of Plumstead. I even went bespoke, with  a friend asking me to find him a suit jacket.  My student grant was never overspent, not with my foraging ways.

The advent of boot fairs made jumble sale pickings less choice as people realised they could get good money for their clothes instead of giving them away. This has now extended to ebay and the like, with old clothes now rebranded as ‘vintage’.

My clothes-buying habits haven’t altered much, except that I haven’t been to a jumble sale in many years. My last jumble purchase was a cream cotton cardigan with wooden buttons. I paid 40p for it about 10 years ago, and it’s still a summer favourite. For me, a week without a foray of the charity shops is a week not lived. Last year’s winter coat was long, waterproof and hooded – perfect for the flood-ridden season. It cost me £8, and I priced it online as £120 if bought new. This year, I found a nearly new grey wool coat with a black velvet collar for £3 in my favourite thrift shop, which sadly closed last week due to the owner’s retirement.

I don’t like women’s magazines; I occasionally flick through one at the hairdresser’s and it always makes me feel inadequate, when most of the time I feel OK about myself. I look at the fashion pages of The Guardian Weekend magazine with astonishment. Miserable-looking models in clothes at ridiculous prices. One week, in their All Ages fashion feature, an older woman was pictured in an outfit that looked like she’d taken a random selection of clothing out of someone else’s wardrobe, whilst blindfolded, and put it all on at once. They had turned an elegant woman into an expensive facsimile of a bag lady.

I do buy new, though usually at the sales:

Sales

I purchase the stories concealed in dead

women’s vests, carry my own screwed

up bags in which to stow my purchases.

Yet, once in a while, a sale, the feel

of new cloth, cotton soft and brushed,

or silk tagged with 70% off, beyond

my grasp at top price, But, yes, it fits,

the price is right, and a blouse is wrapped

round a square of tissue, folded with skill,

slipped into a quality paper carrier

along with a hanger with special grooves

that stop silk falling from its grip.

I relish the sum of full price

minus discount; money saved,

not spent.

I go for quality when buying new – no Primark for me – and when buying secondhand I draw the line at shoes and underwear: no dead women’s vests for me; I won’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

There isn’t a word or phrase to describe my fashion sense, unless it’s ‘anti-fashion’ or maybe I’m more like Second Hand Rose.

 

Wear it well but wear it lightly – research for writers

When I started my MA in creative writing, we had a seminar about research. What I remember most is that the tutor, Scarlett Thomas, suggested we buy a big notebook just for research. I need no encouragement to indulge in a bit of stationery buying; I also have a thing about notebooks being gifts to me, a kind of writer’s superstition, so I expect I asked someone to buy one for me. For me, the best journals for everyday writing, free-writing and drafts are A5, preferably spiral-bound. Research notebooks are A4. They need to be big enough to make plans, write mind-maps, to paste in cuttings from newspapers and so on. But I digress into stationery, when my topic is research.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

I like to write a first draft, and check my research later. For my story collection As Long as it Takes, I did a lot of reading, collected all sorts of things to paste into my research book, took note of details that might or might not end up in the stories.

When writing the story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, I saw a dress on a tailor’s dummy in an antiques market in Harrogate together with some yellow enamel jewellery. It was exactly the kind of dress that my character Noreen would wear to a dance, along with the necklace and earrings. I jotted down the details in my research notebook and had the dress in mind as I wrote. A description of it ended up in the story, but the jewellery didn’t, even though I pictured her wearing the jewellery too. I would like to think that my full imaginary outfit for Noreen comes through in the writing, brings her to life.

When I was working on that story, I showed it to a tutor on an Arvon retreat. Noreen, the protagonist, is in a long-stay hospital, and it doesn’t become clear until the end of the story why she is there. The tutor said I needed to plant some clues in the early part of the story and to research the symptoms and treatment of her illness at the time when the story was set. Fortunately for me, my husband was working as an editor of exams for the Royal College of Physicians, and he did the research for me.

I had to place the details lightly. Rather than have Noreen say ‘There were no antibiotics then so they couldn’t cure me when I first became ill, but there are now, but they don’t work for everyone. And this is what it was like when I first got it.’ I had her say:

And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

You can read ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ here, and a blog piece on how I came to write the story: ‘From Norah to Noreen’. Both are on the Writers’ Hub website.

I’ve come across a couple of instances of research either being too evident or lacking. I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks a few years back. The novel is set in the early days of psychiatry. Boy, did Faulks know his subject, but I felt he wanted to let us know all of his research. It was a bit too detailed for my liking. In contrast, I’ve picked up anachronisms and mistakes whilst editing that could have easily been checked with a bit of research on the part of the writer. A reference to Ninja Turtles in a story set in the 1970s; describing frets on a violin’s fingerboard in a poem; characters dressing in fashions that are not correct for the time. This is why editors are important as well as research on the part of the writer. These kind of mistakes leap out of the page for those readers who spot them, and take them out of the world that the writer has created.

I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on research. Do you research before writing or after? Do you, like me, use notebooks for research or even gather physical objects around you? Do you write character sketches, take your characters shopping to see what they might buy? Whatever you do, remember to use your research with care: wear it well but wear it lightly.

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

Writing – it’s not a competition, and a few words about the public life of writers

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop entering writing competitions. I haven’t stuck to this religiously; I have entered two in the last year, winning and placed in each. And there’s the thing – I had to tell you that I’d been successful; I shared the news on Facebook, Twitter and on this website. Each win feeds the desire to enter more competitions, to feel the buzz of receiving even the most modest of prizes. Not quite an addiction, but getting there, and writing is not, and should not be, a competition.

A writer these days must be visible, have a web presence, have their name noticed beneath poems or the titles of short stories and non-fiction pieces in publications and have bagged the odd prize. I encourage this as an editor: Cultured Llama does not take on shrinking violets; books published by small presses are sold mainly by the author, their public profile, the readings and events they take part in to promote their work. But has this led to oversharing, to a need to be published and winning all the time?

Back in November of last year, I had a submission-a-thon, collecting all my unpublished poems and sending them out. Many rejections and a few acceptances followed in the next three months. Some of the acceptances have yet to be published, with the longest wait 11 months between submission and publication. This is hardly instant gratification, but it is satisfying to finally see the work in print.

A quicker result is to post work in progress on Facebook, either on the many writers’ groups or on your profile page. I rarely do this, and I rarely read the work of other writers who post. For one, I find it hard to take in poems or long texts on screen. Secondly, I like to read poems when I choose to, when I have the concentration to read them thoughtfully. Poetry is not something I read casually. It demands the attention that social media does not encourage. And for me, for my own work, I don’t want to share work too soon, to get caught up in those times when I think my draft poem is brilliant, only to see the faults in it later on, and wish I had never shared it.

The same goes for writing ideas – the number of times I have shared something I want to write, that I am planning to write, only to fail to write a single further word. A writer friend once said to me that you shouldn’t give away your fire. I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but I do now.

When it comes to collecting poetry and publishing a book, will people want to buy your work if you are always giving it away on social media? You need to have enough of a publishing profile to get noticed, but not be overexposed.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I noticed recently that I have stopped submitting my writing to be published in print and online magazines. I keep a file of what and where I have submitted, and I used to aim to submit once a month at least. I also note publications and readings I have given. The last few months, the list has been thin, mainly readings and events. Will I be forgotten? Will I cease to exist as a writer if I don’t send my work into the world? These were my initial thoughts, but then I reminded myself why I write. Firstly for myself, because I have to, because I would go totally crazy if I didn’t, and secondly to get an audience. And it’s easy to get  caught up in the need to be published so that the writing of new work, of work that might never be developed or see an audience, ever, is pushed to the back. And that work needs to happen as much as the gems that get published.

So my thoughts right now are do not go naked into the world of social media. Keep some clothing on, and plenty that you hide in the wardrobe for special occasions.

Here is a poem by Gordon Meade, a reluctant participant in social media, from his collection Sounds of the Real World.

The Philosophy of Facebook

It is the same flawed philosophy

behind Facebook; the one that says

if a tree in a forest is not seen

 

to have fallen, then no tree fell.

If you do not put up a post saying you have

written a poem, then the poem

 

does not exist. Taken to the extreme,

it means that unless you have shared something

with the rest of the world or, at least,

 

with your designated friends,

or friends of friends, then nothing actually

happened. Once again the private life

 

is dead. For example, that fox I saw

last night in the garden is only now alive

because I have shared it with you.

Not an ageing hippy, just Rocking in the Free World

There are some songs that I have to dance to. One of these is Neil Young’s ‘Rocking in the Free World.’ I’ve heard this several times in the past two weeks, one of these played live by Neil Young. It went on and on, with several false endings before rousing the crowd to another round of singing, arm-waving and punching the air. I heard it on the radio a few days later, turned it up loud, danced and sang around the kitchen.

Then, a few days later, a local band played it at a community event. As tired as I was, I leapt out of my fold-up garden chair and rocked out. In quite a reserved way, I thought, since no-one else appeared to be joining in, beyond a slight swaying. I held back from punching the air, for instance.

After the band finished their set, I went up to tell them that I had seen Neil Young perform it live the week before. I’d been noticed from the stage, and the singer, plus a bystander who joined in the conversation, called me an ageing hippy. I’ll forgive them their use of cliche, but ageing? Hippy? Really?

Poster by Jeremy Deller

Poster by Jeremy Deller

I’m 54 and have no problem with being this age. I’m looking forward to turning 55 – 5 is my favourite number and see 55 as an excellent age to be. But I was too young to be hippy the first time round; therefore too young to be an ageing hippy. Is it really so unusual to see a woman of my age rocking out?

It’s not as though I am stuck in ’60s and ’70s music. I love Arcade Fire, their crazy theatricality on stage, their simple but meaningful lyrics, which have brought me close to tears at times, often when listening to them on my iPod on public transport. Their anthem ‘No Cars Go’ is such a perfect song; I always listen to it twice. I am just as happy to bop to Pharrell Williams, the Jackson 5, to my favourite folk supergroup Bellowhead, or to Blur’s ‘Song 2′. My poor body is unable to pogo to the last of these in the way I used to, but I pogo in my mind whenever I hear it. For those too young to remember pogo-ing, ask your mum. Or your gran.

So I’m not an ageing hippy. I couldn’t do the drugs for a start. My one attempt at smoking dope sent me to sleep, then I was violently sick all the next day. Nor am I a rock chick, the other cliche that has come my way. I used to follow a band in my teens, going to all their gigs that I could and waiting afterwards to speak to the band. But this comprised chatting about their music and, well, stuff. I did fancy one of them. I later found out he was gay. So no sex or drugs, just the rock and roll.

So before you apply your lazy stereotypes to me, I am not an ageing hippy or a rock chick, I just like music.

Here’s a piece about the Neil Young gig at Hyde Park by Peter Cook, who was my companion for the day. Read Leadership Lessons from “the Young Ones”.

 

Mythbusting: changing the stories we tell ourselves

Breaking news: I don’t have a poor sense of direction; I quite like having my photograph taken. This is news indeed, as I am letting go of two myths about myself that I have believed for most of my life.

When I was 17, I got lost in Norwich. I went into a shop and, when I came out, could not remember from which direction I had walked there, and so where to meet my family. I must have found them, regained by bearings. I was just disoriented for a moment, and that one moment became a myth I believed for the next 37 years. I have worried about travelling, about finding my way when I am driving. I have planned my routes with maps and timetables, handwritten instructions annotated with buildings of note, monuments, parks, how many left turnings to count before the one I needed. All because I believed I had a terrible sense of direction, and the worst thing in the world would be to lose my way.

I returned to Norwich this year (for the first time since the great getting-lost of 1977), and noticed that it is a confusing city of one-way streets, side roads and alleyways. When I was 17, I was in a strange place and temporarily lost my way; I do not have a poor sense of direction at all.

My thinking has also been changed about having my photograph taken. When I was a child, Ted Gale, family photographer, would visit once a year and group us on the sofa like the Simpsons. I hated it so much that I once hid behind the rabbit’s cage in the garden  so I wouldn’t be in the photo. I was found, picked up and placed on the sofa and told to ‘watch the birdie’ and ‘say cheese’. They could drag a child to the sofa, but they could not make her smile. My hunched shoulders and scowl were captured for posterity in a picture too horrible to reproduce here.

Those occasions when photos were obligatory – first Holy Communion, graduation, weddings and so on –  became endurance tests. I vetted the results, found fault with my image, hid photos (they were too expensive to destroy).

So why did I, a photo-refusenik, embark on my Friends’ Gallery, a project to have my photo taken with as many friends as possible in 2014?  What’s more, I am delighted with the results. Could it be that I like having my photo taken?

Perhaps this is about control. I was forced to have my photo taken as a child, dressed in frocks that felt uncomfrotable, told to sit there, stand like that, to look happy, to smile. It was a false image, the family gathered together as one smiling, functioning unit. The reality was that my father was rarely in the same room as the rest of us. He was either working, travelling to or from work, in the pub or the bookies. My mother was mostly angry at him, clashing around in the kitchen, making meals that he often didn’t come home to eat, shouting at her children when she was really angry at my dad.

The prints on the wall framed family lies – the way my mother would have liked us to be; the image she wanted to show the world. No wonder I was a photo-refusenik; I wanted no part in those charades. No wonder this continued into adulthood – hating the formal pose, the posing on demand.

The photos for my Friends’ Gallery are at my own volition, and the friends in them having mostly been willing participants. Some have actually asked if they could be included. Only two have not been keen, one only agreeing to it as long as I do not share the photo online. I respect her point of view – the loss of control when your picture appears on Facebook, the issues over who owns those photos. Perhaps it is true, that tale about your soul being captured in a photograph, it no longer belonging to you.

Jenni and Maria

Jenni and Maria

As for me, I am happy to have a record of my friendships, an audit of the people I count as friends right now. Some are new, some go back more than 30 years. I can reflect on the stories of how we came to know one another and the things I value about them. There’s Anna, who I met at Swale Sings community choir and who likes cats and poetry as I do. There are my friends I met through writing: Anne-Marie, Maggie, Sarah, Patricia and Fiona, the last of whom I first met at the launch of my poetry book strange fruits, and has become my co-bargain-hunter on charity shopping trips . And there’s Jenni, who I first met at Thames Polytechnic in 1978. She was carrying a placard saying ‘We Need a Nursery’, having just returned from a protest march. We look similar in this photo – have we grown to look alike, or did we see something that day we met in 1978 that drew us together?

I don’t look for faults in recent photos. I used to comment that I looked old, wrinkly, fat. The ones I like best are funny, offbeat, and my favourite of all is one where the old me would point out my double chin (all right, I did notice it!). But the new me sees the joy in my expression and that of my daughter, Rachel. We are sitting on a sofa, holding hands, and in between us is my new granddaughter Caitlin, just 3 weeks old.  A new generation of sofa photos, but no-one will be forced into best clothes, to smile against their will (or not), or to look at any offending photos framed on the wall for the rest of their lives.

Getting through the harder days – remembering what helps

When I updated this website a few months ago, I decided to remove my blog page on living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I don’t want to be defined by my illness – I am a writer who happens to have an illness. The writing is the most important part. But today, I have been struggling. I am perhaps still recovering from an event last Saturday where, ironically, I spoke about writing my way through chronic illness.

At this talk, I spoke of often failing to follow my own good advice on managing the illness. Have I done that this week? Whether or not this is the case, I am just feeling plain fed up of having to manage it at all. As someone said to me this week, someone who also has a debilitating illness, ‘In my own head, I think I can rule the world,’ but we can’t, and it’s bloody frustrating.

The temptation is to do nothing, but doing nothing just makes my back hurt and makes me feel depressed. So I try to do something, and to remember what helps. Today, that was getting out for a little while with my husband, for a coffee and a brief look in a couple of charity shops, but not being tempted to stay out too long. I was rewarded with a cute new pair of blue suede shoes (£5), which will be just right for a couple of new outfits, one of which is a silk dress I bought for a fiver on another such trip. Then, on the way back home, I had a craving for fruit, so nipped into Sainsbury’s for one of those ready-prepared pots of exotic fruit. I don’t usually buy fruit this way, but a quick fruit hit was needed. Sometimes the guilt of hurting the planet by buying things with too much packaging has to be outweighed by helping myself.

I laid down on the sofa as soon as we got home, and asked my husband to get the lunch, battling my usual urge to soldier on, unpack the shopping, unload the washing machine etc. We had good food, when junk food would have given me a quick rush and then a crash, so I was thinking well. And then, a sleep under a duvet on the sofa, the cat curled up at my side, followed by writing this post.

All those things have helped – getting out, being in company, not overdoing it, small treats, asking for help, eating well, rest, but most of all the writing of this post. There, I’ve shared it. It’s out of my head and onto the page, and now I don’t feel so bad.

Another thing that has cheered me is  Pauline Masurel’s review of As Long as it Takes for The Short Review, which you can read here.

I shall go back to resting now – promise!

A Few Wise Words, and in praise of short stories

I am giving a talk … in a yurt! I am wildly excited about this, having experienced the Wise Words’ yurt as a punter last year.  A Few Wise Words is a mini-festival of words, music and film on the weekend of 4-6 April 2014, with most events taking place in a yurt in Greyfriars Franciscan Gardens, Canterbury.

My talk is Low Energy, High Creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness. It takes place on Saturday 5 April at 11.00 a.m. Find out more and book tickets at £5 on the Wise Words website.

I was at the Save As Awards in Canterbury on Sunday, and was pleased to come away with 3rd prize in the prose awards for my story ‘How Beautiful’. This is available to read on Writers’ Hub. All the shortlisted stories and poems were of a high standard and truly diverse. It was a happy evening, listening to the other writers, plus readings from judges Sonia Overall and Abegail Morley.

I was, however, surprised to hear a comment to the writer of one of the shortlisted stories, ‘I hope you are going to develop this into a novel’. A short story and a novel – you might as well compare an elephant to a pencil sharpener. Short stories are not novel extracts, or the beginnings of novels; they are complete in themselves.

In many ways, writing short stories is harder than novel-writing (this is me speaking as someone who has tried and given up on novel-writing, so I am sure novelists will put me straight). I share below some quotes on the short story, which I gathered for a workshop I delivered on the short story at the Canterbury Festival in 2013.

‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.’ Flannery O’Connor

A short story is ‘fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than an unfolding of character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That’s the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.’ Alison Macleod, from ‘Writing and risk-taking’, Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing, 2009)

‘In his essay “A Short History of the Short Story”, William Boyd suggests that its defining feature – namely its length – is the source of its curious appeal. Its virtue is its brevity and its pull. There is no time for the gentle build; the writer’s chance to display his or her gift is as brief as that of the TV talent show contestant … [Boyd] likens Woolf’s comment about the deceptive ability of a photograph to enhance the picture of life to the short story’s capacity to enlarge our view of the world. “This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – they are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature and, when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more than in real life.”’ Mariella Frostrup in The Guardian, 21 September 2013

I’d also like to add a few words about how a good piece of writing differs from a short story.

A short story has: A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, and AN END. It TELLS something: it has a point  – why the story is being told.

A short story has a SHAPE – it starts with CONFLICT, builds up via a series of complications to a CRISIS, then a RESOLUTION and a falling away.

Watch this wonderful video on You Tube – Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes.

Join the mailing lists of Thresholds and of Short Stops who are ‘getting excited about short stories in the UK and Ireland’.

If it’s Saturday, it must be Sittingbourne

A month on from the publication of As Long as it Takes, and it’s been a whirlwind of events, press attention ( the Sittingbourne News Extra, no less), signing and stuffing books in envelopes and taking them to the post box. Oh, the glamour! Read the news article, by Andy Gray, on how I came to write the book: here.

I have been delighted by the responses to the book and to my readings. Here is one:

The world you build is complete with its own unique atmosphere, partly, I think, as a result of the some of the same characters recurring at different ages throughout the book. I also found that I could completely relate to the feeling of living in a place that can never be home.

I found the last story, ‘Combing out the Tangles,’ utterly heart breaking; in fact, all the stories are written with a restraint that adds to their emotional power.

And another, from a former creative writing tutor, Patricia Debney:

There’s so much sex in it, Maria! And so much nylon underwear!

This was in response to my comments about the fates conspiring against me for the book launch at the University of Kent. There was wind, rain, and closure of the M2 due to a sink hole appearing in the central reservation. People were cancelling; it was doubtful whether I could get there, since all the M2 traffic had been diverted past my front door. Setting up a tea trolley by the side of the A2 seemed a good idea, as that traffic was going nowhere fast.

I said to Patricia that God was punishing me for writing about my family. Her response was that it was to do with all the sex in the book.  Before you get too excited, the sex is mostly of the disappointing teenage variety, and there was a lot of nylon underwear in the ’70s.

There’s a lovely blog piece from Sonia Overall about the launch. She describes it as ‘more Tipperary tavern than literary salon’, due to the musical input of my talented brother, Jamie McCarthy, who sang and played violin as well as riffing with me about the Irish Catholic childhood that we shared. Read it here.

From a university to a shopping centre in Sittingbourne – the next event was at the Swale Arts Forum pART project, a temporary shop displaying the work of local artists and inviting people to take part in art. Until last Saturday, I had never performed at a shopping centre, and it was a totally different experience from the university. I like to mix things up a little, so the event had music as well as my story readings and guest poets, as well as an open mic. Some people came especially for the event; others walked in out of curiosity. By the end, we had a Police Community Support Officer in attendance (drawn in by Andy Wiggins‘ singing) and 94 year old Florrie who recited a poem by heart at the open mic.

And so to my favourite comment of the afternoon from an elderly woman who popped in with her shopping trolley just as I was reading. She was reacting to a reading from my story ‘A Coffee and a Smoke’, about Maura, who has one child after another – the lot of the Catholic woman in the 1950s and ’60s. She said that it was like that in her family, that her father worked away and whenever he came home, her mother ended up with another baby. And then she said:

Alan Titchmarsh writes stories like that.

Until that point, likening my poetry to that of Pam Ayres had been my least favourite comparison.

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

I have been adding many photos to my Friends’ Gallery – too many to share here. The group photo shows many of my friends who took part at the pART project.

The next event is at Jittermugs coffee shop, Preston St, Faversham, on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 3.00 – 5.00 pm. I shall be signing books and reading stories on request. There will be some St Patrick’s Day goodies to eat and drink.

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

 

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