Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Fleeting Moment of a Wider Picture

There is no warning; one moment I’m gaping up at the reading lamp, wishing I could switch it off because its heat is burning my face so badly I can’t breath; the next I’m above it, looking down.
I’m floating above the light, above the bed, above myself in it.
There are two of me now, the ethereal floaty me and the creature lying prone. I know which one I am – no doubt – I am the one looking down. The other one below is the thing I floated out of, and I was pleased to do it because it felt bad; breathless and oven-baked and faint and sore in a weird internal sort of way
The metal shade of the lamp throws a glow over the proceedings. I can see everything clearly, but I feel no connection. I’m not scared or angry, or even confused; although it is apparent that everyone round me is frantic with confusion. I see them as if they are birds, the perching, flocking sort of bird that is small and anxious. They move as if they have both wings and very small feet with a short gait. One flutters in, hovers over me so that the spotlight is on the back of her head now, on the stripes of her dress and her tight ponytail. She flutters off and brings more of the flock back. They hover, raising their voices. I can hear the words, but I’m not all that concerned. Crash, they say. Quick! Arrest. CPR. Phone – no – button. Dammit!
One glances up. I soar away. Strangely, I don’t want to be seen. I am a bit embarrassed about floating. Anything like this is embarrassing to me – I never like to complain in a shop, or be the one that trips in the street. I like to be invisible, normal. But, no, she is not looking at me. She is adjusting the light, so that it shines on my face. Yep, that’s my exterior, but not in great shape. Too white, with that waxy gleam my mother’s kitchen floor always had. Eyes dull in the head, staring into oblivion. Mouth open. I look ugly, stupid.
I look dead.
I am having a baby. I can see that it is in me, a big round hill of baby underneath the pale counterpane. But something was going wrong with my blood, I was poisoning the vacuum sealed compartment the baby lives in. So, looking down like this, seeing my other self and the baby it contains under the spotlight, I’m glad I’m out of there, because now they can take the baby away from the body that is destroying it and make it better. Offer it light, air, warmth, food. Nowadays, they can do anything, can’t they? The incubator is equivalent to the mother’s womb. You pop the baby in and feed it through a tube until it can suckle. Simple…the baby won’t need my poisoning system anymore. And from up here, which is both just above the bedstead and also in another place entirely, I can made that kind of dispassionate decision. I can see that I don’t matter. I am not so very important in the overall scheme of things. Life will revolve and go one and go on again so long as the next generation exists.
The baby is crucial.
Even though I don’t like being in the spotlight, even though I don’t like to create a scene, I float down at little, in case they can hear me.
Save the baby, I say. Save the baby, not me.
The rest of the flock have fluttered in and are hovering over me. One has thrown curtains round the bed, another has tossed the pillows to the floor, where the little nurse who comes to wash me flicks them away from under the feet of the flock. Each has their own job, and seem to know it. Two of them lay me flat, quickly, neatly.
Save the baby, I try to remind them, but they are not listening. A massive block of apparatus on wheels is rolled through the doors of the ward which crash open and bang shut behind the thing that sways like moon buggy with its shiny, hooked antennae holding a bag of clear fluid, swaying along the ward with the woman pulling it shouting something and the nurse with the ponytail responding with one word.
She puts her face on mine. I drift closer. She is kissing me better. I cannot feel the kiss on my mouth, but something lifts in me, something inside my solar plexus pulls…tugs…

And I am back. I open my eyes and the flock of birds dart back, as if I am a cat. They chirp and tweet. One of them says, ‘hello!’
You’re fine, they say, later, while I’m recovering. It was a kind of surgical shock from the pre-eclampsia. It won’t happen again. You’re fine.
I nod. I can’t tell them. It would feel irreverent, after their efforts, that all I wanted them to do was save the baby.
But from time to time, as my child toddles, then walks, then runs, I recall that feeling, the desire I had as I gazed down on my body.
It reassures me.

Sunday, 9 May 2010


There are many strange truths about writing. In my ‘quote of the week’, John Gardiner sums one of them up perfectly. The more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning-in absorbs him. It’s yet another way to create fiction that is strong, absorbing and energetic
Remember, you don’t have to describe the whole of something. That is the difference between a chunk of description and the detail of it. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a person, a landscape or an interior – the description of it will be enhanced. The reader won’t want to see it all, because that’s like being too close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Symbolism can truly help to get to the core of what you want to say. Using it is fairly simply. Take something symbolic and examine that as a single descriptive detail of the whole.
To find the right symbol, think about the ‘core’ of the thing. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured.
Of course, your first draft may be rushed, with not much detail – you are trying as much to get down your thoughts on the story as to write it. It’s fine to end up with a rushed first copy that is possibly ¼ as long as the eventual manuscript. But whether you start this way and return to the beginning, or prefer to get in close in your first draft, when you do this, you’ll find it will actually help you understand your story. It will highlight the small, vital moments that add up to the whole.
This is quite the opposite as providing chunks of description. Today’s readers are not keen on chunks of either description or exposition – that died out with the bustle – so the way to add interesting detail is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. On the other hand, try not to cram too much description into a short space of words. This tentancy is also the opposite close-up detail, which takes the time…and the amount of words…it has to take to be itself. If you delve into vivid, symbolic imagery while creating your action, dialogue and narrative moments, you will bring your writing alive.
So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story.
Here’s a fast first draft version of a moment in my latest book for children:

The captain’s knife cut into Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy,’ said Captain Elliot. ‘We’re bound for England on the next tide, and you’re coming with me.’

There’s nothing wrong with getting the bare-boned basics down in this way. What you’ll have is a sort of fusion between draft and plot outline.
Writing fast without putting in the detail is something you might want to do when your head is full of plot – or conflict between two characters. But having got it out of your head and on to paper, you can go back and look for those details that will not only brighten the writing style, but also help you ‘see’ the images you’re creating on the page – it’s essential that you can visualize exactly what is happening in any scene, as this brings the entire narrative alive.
Once I’d written this tiny section, I could begin to imagine what it was like to be there, on the quay side, for Jake:

The captain grasped Jake’s ear and held him firmly. The knife from his belt glinted silver in the hot noon sun, yet it felt like ice as it slid down Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy.’
Blood dripped. Jake felt it tickle its way down like a raindrop. It ran behind the iron collar that had been round his neck since the Captain had paid good English Stirling for Jake in the marketplace.
‘We’re bound for England on the next tide.’ Captain Elliot liked to chew tobacco and the black spit flew everywhere, smelling of the tang of the sea. It landed on Jake’s cheek, mingled with the oozing blood. He felt the chain jerk at his neck, felt the screech of pain from the raw skin. He tried to swallow, but there was no spit left in his mouth.
‘And you’re coming with me.’

In this fuller version, I’ve ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery. I don’t tell you what the Captain is wearing (although I could later), I focus on his aggression via the knife and his general unpleasantness via the tobacco. Notice that I’ve added the sense of touch (the icy knife, the warm trickle of the blood, the pain of the collar) to the passage, and craftily added the smell of the sea via the tobacco. You don’t need to squash every sense into a single description, but sound, touch, taste and smell do work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image.
I’ve tried to avoid describing Jake’s emotions, though, because that often ends up in telling, rather than showing… ‘Jake was scared.’ I’ve gone for showing, through his dry mouth, which links back to the opposite symbolism of the squidgy, wet tobacco wedge that the captain is chewing. I've tried to imbed the entire description between dialogue and action.
You might like to try the Exercises of the Week – like me, chose a bit of your own work and see what you can make of it.

Saturday, 1 May 2010


I first experienced an ‘inspired visualization’ in the home of a Druid Priestess. There were twelve or so of us sprawled out on her carpet. I laid my jumper over my eyes and listened to her seductive voice describe an imaginary landscape, telling us to smell the scents and look around us. She called this ‘using our psychic eyes’, which, apparently, were open behind our closed lids.

At first, thoughts kept getting in the way… do I look a prat lying here…is my bag of Chorizos good enough for the communal table? Bit-by-bit, I began seeing things that felt very real. I could feel the grass beneath bare feet, hear a skylark singing. Her voice faded away, and it was up to me what happened next. It was, in fact, just like plotting a story.

Visualization is used regularly as a therapeutic tool to help people with difficulties, and within various spiritual paths to explore the subconscious, and…whether they know it or not…by most writers. A mild trance state takes you from one world (physical, concrete) into another (spirit-based and ethereal).

Trance states are not all that rare. The rhythmic waves that are the electrical impulses of our brains beat at various speeds. When we are alert and about our daily business, they’re fast-paced. When deeply asleep, they slow dramatically. But as writers, we can tap into the cycles that lie between sleep and alertness, when the waves slow to an Alpha rhythm.

It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, our minds soar off somewhere. When a passing friend calls our name, we don’t hear them, and if they tap our shoulders, we jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Writers can take advantage of ‘losing of yourself’. In this slower state of thinking, the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye.

Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by how plots, characters and entire scenes arrive from nowhere, and recognize that the act of physical writing is merely the setting down of the words and pictures that have already appeared in our imaginations - whether that happened moments, weeks or years before we write. But the guided visualization in the house of the Druid made me ask, what is our imagination? What happens when we visit the world of ‘story’ – when characters stand gazing out from headlands, the salt spray on their lips, despite the fact we’re actually doing the washing up?

Enhancing this imaginative process enables the writing to become sharper, more ‘present’, more melodic. Settings have colour, taste, smell and the subtlest background sounds all built in. The techniques are simple, but need clear instructions to help their effectiveness.

Deliberately entering an imagined world begins by finding a quiet place. The journey into a ‘story’ starts with gentle breathing and waiting for the thoughts that drift, unbidden, through your mind to become focused.

Imagine, for instance, turning the pages of a book. To find your story, keep gently turning pages, moving along until you’ve left the physical realm outside your body behind and are actually inside your own head. Allow the experience to take shape in anyway it likes – words, pictures, symbols, dance, feelings. Don’t worry if you fall asleep – take advantage of those ‘drifting’ moments that are even deeper than the Alpha brain wave state.

If your writing relates to a particular world, you may like to play music that will summon up the appropriate image, but keep the noise level down and avoid song – the words will overtake your own internal dreaming.

Place your notebook and pen by your, and, as soon as you are back, write down everything you experienced. This is the most important part of the exercise. Write immediately, using a freewriting technique, not stopping to correct your work. Describe in detail whatever comes to you.

When you’re stuck for something to write, visualization will send you in search of childhood memories or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot. You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, eat, drive. You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down.

Imagination is where your writing begins – using this ‘visualization’ technique, you can enter it and roam around it at will. Writing will spill out. You’ll never be afraid of the ‘blank page’ again…you’ll be writing directly from your own inspiration.