This is a story for Tara, who asked to hear about the adventures of Mr Muscle, and so now I will tell you the story of him and his high deeds. Far, far away and long ago Mr Muscle was famed for his bright soul and his clean mind. He rode a plumy white horse and ventured into the lands ruled by a Dirty Durty Knight. Everywhere he went he sang like a meadow pipit and all the maids would come out to sigh over his love spots, and all the thrusting young men would admire his gorget and his bevor and his cuirasse.
The maids loved him because he would go into their houses and, with one flash of his smile, all their pots would shine, and with one keen stare, the vegetables would cut themselves up and go into the pan, which meant the girls could spend much more time reading and singing and playing football with the young men.
But the young men weren’t so keen on this. Because the girls sometimes beat them at football, and laughed cruelly at the young men’s ineptness in the penalty box.
‘We must do something,’ said one young Man. ‘We must stop these girls from having so much time to practise their ball skills. They beat us 3-2 last week.’
‘It’s all the fault of that Mr Muscle,’ the other young men shouted. ‘He must leave this land, and take his gorget and his bevor and his cuirasse with him.’
But Mr Muscle wouldn’t go. ‘The girls all love me,’ he said. ‘And besides, they’re brilliant at football. Did you see that goal that Princess Mellicent scored last week? From the half-way line? It was on Match of the Day.’
And so the young men narrowed their eyes, and turned their backs on the shiny Muscle Man and his brilliant smile and his plumy horse, and went to see the Dirty Durty Knight, who was known far and wide for his black-hearted, dastard magic, and generally mysogynistic behaviour.
And the Dirty Durty Knight lolled on his stained chair, and picked his fingernails and listened to the woes of the thrusting young men.
‘Yes, I will help you,’ he said. ‘I hate Mr Muscle. I hate cleanliness, and I can’t stand that feller’s shiny teeth. I can reduce him to a pasty mess. But you won’t like it.’
‘Do it,’ said the men.
And so the Dirty Durty Knight tempted Mr Muscle to clean his scummy, cobwebbed castle, and Mr Muscle strode through every revolting room and sprang up and down every slimy step in his gorget and his bevor and his cuirasse, smiling and smiling until his cheeks hurt. And everything that he smiled at shone in return; even the Dirty Durty Knight’s fingernails. And at last, when the castle was glowing like a flushed pearl in the sunset, the Dirty Durty Knight asked an exhausted Mr Muscle to sit down to a dish of tea.
‘And there will be cake too,’ said the Dirty Durty Knight. ‘Which hasn’t got my thumbprints on it anymore, now that you’ve smiled at it.’
‘Oh rather,’ said Mr Muscle, ‘I love cake.’ And the poor, innocent, handsome lump downed his tea and ate his cake, which the Dirty Durty Knight had poisoned. And before Mr Muscle could say ‘Bang!’ he was gone, turned into goo, the whole shiny lot of him; sliding off his chair into a silent silver puddle on the floor.
‘That’ll teach you for smiling willy nilly in my house,’ snarled the Dirty Durty Knight, and he scooped the goo into a spray bottle, and flipped the lid to ‘off ’.
Loud was the wailing of the young girls at the news. And the rending of the garments and the heaping of the ashes upon their heads was terrible to behold. For now, instead of getting Mr Muscle’s favours for free, the young women found they had to pay £2.99 a pop (or £9.76 for the washroom cleaner, available on ebay).
And they had to go out to the corporate jungle to earn the money to afford his services; and the thrusting young men were left to play football by themselves and, on odd occasions, even to do a spot of cleaning.
The Dirty Durty Knight had been right. The young men didn’t like it at all. They missed the girls with their careless hair and their silky ball skills. But Mr Muscle was gone forever, along with his gorget and his bevor and his cuirasse.
And what happened to the plumy horse? The Dirty Durty Knight painted him black and rode miserably about the countryside, not wanting to go home. He had not managed to scoop up all of Mr Muscle, you see, and his dirty, durty, days were over. His castle and his fingernails were doomed to be forever clean, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Picture courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight_of_the_Swan via Creative Commons
I am supposed to be taking part in NaNoWriMo. But I have to confess, I’ve been backsliding. First part of my romantic novel; a breeze. They meet, he’s handsome she’s starchy, they cross swords (not literally, but actually…that’s an idea) they kiss and then…..oh, I dunno. It’s not got enough oomph. So, naturally, I’ve been displacing like mad.
I have cleaned the picture rails in the kitchen. (Why? Who looks at them?)
I have cleaned the oven (actually I got my husband to do that, while I had a cup of tea and supervised. It’s very therapeutic watching other people work).
I have been watching Strictly Come Dancing It takes Two on Catch Up TV. (How sad is that???) But really, Judy had to go, for the good of the collective. She was stiffer than, well, a stiff. And if you get to the point where the only thing in your favour as a dancer is your mum’s shortbread then, really, it is time to shuffle off.
I have been wandering through YouTube, looking at all those Armstrong and Miller pilot sketches. This one has to be my favourite:
But really, there is nothing to beat looking up pictures of all the silly place names in Britain.
I know, I know. Back to work.
On Saturday I signed up for NaNoWriMo. On Sunday I wished I hadn’t. I haven’t written a full length romantic novel for nearly 20 years, and I’ve begun to think that I should try to write another one, simply to see if I can still do it.
I always tell my students to plan; to think about their characters, to have some idea of what is going to happen. Did I do this? No. I did not. I just woke up with a vague idea of my hero and heroine meeting in a car park (yes, really) and charged straight into it. First page, great; second page, okay; third page, blank.
I hadn’t realised, at first, that when you take part in the National Novel Writing Month, you:
And get this; there’s a little window where, every day, you log in how many words you’ve done.
So there I was on the morning of November 1, thinking that I was just going to coast along in a dreamy sort of way, writing an unspecified amount every day (so, nothing, then, ed) until I contacted Tara Sparling and she put me right on the details. (Now there’s a girl who is on fire –well, not literally, you understand, because that would be somewhat inconvenient, but she has a great idea and she is, as they say in Ireland, away on a hack with it).
A few hours later (she must have hypnotised me, guv) I found the website, signed in, put in 50,000 words as my target and the NaNoWriMo computer helpfully told me that my average of words per day should be 1,167. On Saturday I wrote 867 words. Yesterday I deleted quite a lot of those, and wrote 871 more. At this rate, the computer has informed me, I will complete my magnum opus on January 26 (what year, ed?).
Trouble is I have no idea what my characters are going to do next. They’re just sitting there, like dummies in a car, and there’s no oomph. I’d like to shoot both of them, but I’m not writing a murder mystery. It’s all very well having a target average and a deadline, but since my characters are so wooden that they’re giving my brain splinters, it might be time to rethink my strategy.
It’s odd to think of writing in such a clinical way, but when I used to write full time I sat down every morning and aimed to write 2,000 words, even if half of it was rubbish and I had to scrub it. Overall I still achieved something, to the point where I ended up with a complete book. And then I had children, and stuff happened, and writing romantic novels rather fell by the wayside.
I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo because I need to get that discipline back. I’m determined to get to the end of another book by November 30. So, I’m going to be ruthless. I’m leaving my frustrating pair of no-hopers outside a Hollywood motel, with their fuzzy backgrounds and unplanned future and I’m going straight to Plan B. I’m going to resurrect my plans for a book I began to draft this summer, which lapsed because summer and a lack of self confidence got in the way.
I really think I might make it to the end of this one. I have a cunning plan, you know.
Pictures via Creative Commons, via:
I love you!
She shouted, as she jumped out of a window on the 44th floor.
I love you!
Tumbling and cartwheeling through the pale air;
Legs like knitting needles in angora clouds.
I love you!
Past crouching silent couples, sofa bound, watching telly in the gloom.
I love you!
Past business suits and pie charts
And spotty waiters serving canapes.
Past wedding couples pushing knives into a cake;
And red-nosed men standing sweating, drinking at a wake.
Past doctors giving bad news,
And smartly hopeful interviews.
I love you! I love you!
Swinging down, coat flying, buttons straining, panting, laughing, crying.
A toddler holds Lego in her hand and looks as love flies,
And ploughs into the ground, and dies.
Picture via Creative Commons, via:
I hate traffic wardens. And I really hated this one. He was standing by my car, hunched over his pad like a sweating gargoyle when I got back with my ticket.
‘I’ve only been away five minutes,’ I said.
He didn’t look up. Just scratch, scratch, scratch at his pad.
I waved my ticket. ‘Look. I’ve just been to get it. You can’t do me for this. It’s ridiculous.’
He kept on scratching, so I thrust the ticket right under his nose. ‘See?’
He lifted his head then. Looked at my ticket. Put his whole pasty paw around it, tugged it from my fingers, screwed it up and threw it on the ground.
I looked at it, and then I looked at him. ‘You’re insane,’ I said.
But he just ripped the page from his book and slapped it in my hand. ‘You’re the one who’s insane, sunshine. Here. Have a fixed penalty notice from me. ’
I was going to hit him then, right in his little blobby jobsworth’s nose. My hand was tight in a fist, like this.
But he just looked at me and you know what? His little pouchy eyes began to fill with tears and he said, ‘Go on hit me. I don’t care. I’ve been waiting to do you. Ever since you drove on to a pavement last year and killed my daughter.’
This was part of an exercise I set for my students last night, to demonstrate showing and telling, and how you could use anger to move a story along. I gave them six lines of dialogue featuring an impossible traffic warden. And then I thought this morning that it might be interesting to look at it from the traffic warden’s point of view.
Picture via Creative Commons courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_clamp
They try to be kind to Alice, you know. But she’s an awkward customer. She lived all through the Blitz. Had a stillborn baby the night they hit Wapping.
Her husband was odd though; Tony, he were in one of them Japanese prisoner of war camps. In Burma. When he came home he was as thin as a gipsy’s whippet. You could see right through his hands. He ate a bone, once. At a Rotary dinner. Chomp, chomp, chomp all through the speeches. Like a bloody great dog. Alice just acted as if it were normal.
Tony didn’t live long after that; Alice brought all them children up on her own. They’re all grown up now. Very good jobs; doctors and the like, in Australia. The nurses at the home are lovely. But she’s a difficult one. Never happy unless she’s miserable. And now her family’s here and it’s her birthday dinner. She’s 100. They’ve all come to get her. Her sons have come all that way, and her grandchildren. They’re taking her to a fabulous restaurant.
Alice is at the home watching Bargain Hunt. She watches it every day. ‘Come on, Alice sweetheart. Time to go for your dinner.’
‘Bugger off,’ says Alice.
I was inspired to write this by the short stories on Bruce Goodman’s blog. I like his short, staccato style. I wanted to write it so that the narrator had a specific voice, but to keep him/her separate from the actual story. (If you make the ‘you’ in the third par into an ‘I’ for example, the last par doesn’t work.)
I also wanted to experiment with voice; to break the rules about not using cliche, and to see how far you can write how you speak, without it becoming as confusing as real speech.
Picture courtesy of https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2744/4398104241_0a5ac81a59_z.jpg via Creative Commons
Edward King was 92 when he moved into a care home. He hadn’t wanted to leave his house. ‘I’m perfectly all right,’ he told his daughter.
Edward, a retired builder, had lived alone, ever since his wife Doris had run off 20 years before with an encyclopaedia salesman.
Shortly after Edward’s daughter sold the house, the new owners found the body of a man behind a false wall. Detectives naturally thought it was the encyclopaedia salesman and went to see Edward, but he kept telling them, ‘Stop harassing me. You’ve got the wrong man.’
Detectives soon found out, indeed, that the dead body had never been an encyclopaedia salesman. ‘Told you you had the wrong man,’ said Edward. ‘I put Doris’s lover under the patio.’
pictures courtesy of http://www.dailyfinance.com/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/ via Creative Commons
Naming your characters can be a tricky business. In fact I’ve been known to stall on the first paragraph of a story just because I can’t make my mind up what to call my hero/heroine/the dog.
The tried and tested method is of course using your porn name. (Porn, wtf? ed). I got myself into a bit of trouble when I suggested this the other day on a blog run by a rather earnest religious type. Trouble is, you can’t delete the remarks you make. So, I think I should, as the politicians say, clarify my position.
This kind of name is just a way of giving yourself a rather memorable alias and it just so happens that it nearly always sounds like something you’d see in a porn mag. (Not that I’ve ever read any). Try it. You take the name of your first pet, as your first name, and the name of the street or house you were born in as your surname. My porn name is Winston Ross. Which is not so bad, but a mate of mine confessed to me that hers was Buster Cliffe. My husband’s is Shep Harborough.
If you don’t want to use this method, and frankly I can’t see Tolstoy running with it (although his porn name would be Laska Asnaya, which I think is rather nice) you can always use the US states for the first name, plus Smith or Jones (or any verb, actually), for the surname. Indiana Jones and Dakota Fanning are already taken, but Arkansas Smith, Missouri Jones, Arizona Palpitating and Alaska Running, are all there for the taking. I make no charge.
Let me know what you come up with.
PS I reckon Shakespeare’s porn name would be Crab Stratford. (Exit quickly, there’s a bear right behind you, ed)
PPS My husband has now informed me that his first pet was called Bimbo. I have absolutely nothing to say to that.
I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.
Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.
The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.
Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.
I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).
I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).
Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’
The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.
So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there is a small town (very small) containing all the characters I’ve ever invented. One of them, I suspect, is wandering around, moaning, ‘She started me off as a librarian; all I wanted to do was drink cocoa and watch Downton Abbey, and then she made me get drunk and go windsurfing.’
Given that character’s unbelievable behaviour, it’s not really surprising that she is still stuck in literary no man’s land. And she’s definitely not the only one I’ve messed up.
When you invent a character you have to be true to them. You can’t just invent a swashbuckling pirate and then have him, for example, becoming a chartered accountant. It wouldn’t work. Unless, of course, he was a very neat pirate with a penchant for double entry book-keeping.
If your characters are true to themselves, your story will hang together. Otherwise it will lurch from plot point to plot point like a train driver on amphetamines. Truthfulness is an odd sort of concept when you are making up a story, but if you just make your characters do things for the sake of your plot, then you are going to get bored and frustrated, and worse, so is your reader.
The trick I have learned with describing characters is to try to be them; really try to get into their skin. I’m not talking about using senses here (I’ll talk about that some other time), but about absolutely nailing the action. If you can visualise a scene, not just as if you are watching a film, but as if you are actually in it, and question each point as to how it would be in real life, then how you write about it should be bang on.
Let me talk you through it with this example:
‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’ shouted Mr Wolf.
The two little pigs leaned against their flimsy front door and waited for Mr Wolf to blow. They could hear him wheezing as he drew breath (so I drew breath there and tried to describe what it sounded like). Then there was silence. (Bit of tension there) The little pigs looked at each other and then ran squealing for the back door. (At first I had them waiting for their end to come. Which was lazy on my part. But then I put myself in their place and immediately wanted to run for the nearest exit). Then Mr Wolf blew. From the shelter of the forest, the little pigs could see that their house was still standing. (Be honest, can anybody really blow a house down? Then don’t shy away from telling the truth) Nobody can blow a house down. Especially not a wolf who smokes 60 cigarettes a day (He’s bad; give him a bad habit). But then, just as the pigs were wondering whether to scamper back inside, Mr Wolf, exhausted from his efforts, and still wheezing, staggered forward and their little house of wood collapsed under him like a stack of Jenga (avoid cliches, try to use something new for any similes).
Pick a well known bedtime story (simply because you will already have a structure to work with) and try the same sort of approach and see what happens. Evaluate each step honestly, and see where it takes you. I guarantee it will be interesting.
Pictures from Mr Wolf, by Elaine Canham, Voyage 1 Short stories, Oxford University Press 2005