Writing outdoors

Sunshine makes me want to write outside. 17498869_10158391832070371_2801967951944888519_n.jpg

I remember the first time I figured out that writing did not have to be bound to the page, hunched over in ink and pen. I was at university, at a course I did not quite understand, and we were asked to write.

We were asked to write in anything other than pen and paper.

The liberation of it! The terror, too, because when pen and paper are nearly all that you know, to step away from them is hard. Illegitimate. Writing  – important writing – consists of paper and rules. Ink. Capital letters and full stops and precise nuance thought.

Writing is craft. Precision.

Writing is about knowing the rules – and knowing that you have the right to break them.

Maybe that’s it; really, that’s it right there.

Learning to write is about learning how to gain legitimacy for your practice.

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A lyrical emptiness

(Something slightly different today. Normal service resumed shortly!)

The words are too much to bear.

He turns and runs out of the house and begins the climb up the hill towards the castle. Once he hits the woods, he slows down to a walk. He is breathless. Raw. There is an unfinished edge to everything he does. He has walked here for years; a path trod by his feet as a child, as a teenager, and now he walks on the edge of that time with every step. But then he thinks that maybe edges are for jumping from and maybe this is his jumping point. Maybe this is his moment to stand and hold his arms aloft and to take that step forward into whatever may come. Whatever may be. Whatever he may be. Wherever he may be.

He cannot leave this, he thinks. He cannot leave.

The boy climbs. He lets his foot slide on the mud and drag one of his legs back, even as he pulls the rest of himself over it. He remembers how to walk; he has done it forever here. And he has bought others, briefly, painfully, and he has tried to share this space with them. They came here once. Together. They told each other of their fears and dreams, and he pledged to the moon that he would keep her safe but now none of that matters for he is leaving and nothing matters, but nothing at all.

Silence now in the world; a silence split by the tears of twigs and trees at the boy’s clothing as he pulls himself out of the edge of the wood. There are no trees in this castle space. They stop at the edge, a breath of green between them and the stones, and they come no further. They dare not.

But he does. He keeps walking and leaves the trees and he pulls himself up onto the wall, pausing only briefly to dash the tears away from his eyes. He is not crying. He just needs to see. He tells himself this, even though he knows that he would be able to climb the wall in the dark. In his sleep. On the coldest of Winter days with one arm tied behind his back.

No matter. Still the chattering voices inside his head for he is here and it is deserted and it is perfect. He takes a moment to stand, to watch, to just stand, so still, so silent.

He could stay, he thinks. It is Summer now and he is used to camping and nobody comes here. He could stay. He could live in the nook of the wall and in the shadows, and he could fall from the world and be forgotten. He could stand on the wall at the keep and he could watch them leave and he could stay, he could stay, he could stay. He could stay.

He does not know how long he stands there, but he knows that it is not long enough. It will never be long enough.

He lets the sun start to set around him. He lets it. This is quite clear to him. The sun would not set if he did not let it, the trees would come closer if he was not here, and the world would come and raze the castle to the ground. He was the guardian of this space. A king, really, the king of all and everything and he could not leave this how could he how could he?

A bird wings in his throat and he cries out; his words clatter against the walls and echo back at him. “I won’t – I won’t!”

The light, red and thick and fat and heavy, overwhelms him. When night comes, when it rises around him, he stands up once more and holds his arms up to his kingdom,  The sky seems to shift around him; looking, watching. Waiting. Everything is so very still for everything is centred on this boy.

He nods, understanding everything even though he does not want to. “I’ll come back,” he says softly. He says it to the wind and to the grass and to the pigeons asleep in the tower. He says it to the stars and moon and world. “I’ll come back, you mark my words, I will come back to you. I will always come back here.”

He bites his lip. He turns, he walks away.

He does not look back.

Interactive storytelling – two resources of interest

Just a quick one today to share with you two resources I’ve found recently which may be of interest to anybody having a think about interactive / alternative models of storytelling. Both of them are free (well, they do offer paid versions but the free is more than adequate).

1. Pixton is an online comics maker that allows a *lot* of flexibility with the medium and is rather great. The big issue is that you can’t download your comics without paying, and there’s a weird little option to be careful of in the settings which grants Pixton the right to use your comic for paid merchandise (when you click publish – check settings and uncheck this box if that’s not your thing, it’s certainly not mine). Despite those fairly substantial caveats, it is still a lovely thing – I made this and spent way too much time on it, etc, etc 😉

2. The second was pointed out to me by the estimable Dr Matt Finch, and is called ‘Inklewriter’. It’s a programme which allows you to write interactive fiction – you know, those choose your own adventure type stories? Them. I’ve not had as much time to play on this one, but what I have discovered has been excellent.

I love anything that helps people realise that stories and narrative are flexible, bendable beasts and can be shaped to tell the story that you want. Mastery over and the confidence to engage with a medium is a great gift to give yourself and the kids you work with. Break the rules. Write a story in the mud with a stick. Chalk words onto bricks. Arrange fallen leaves into haikus. Make the stories your own and make stories. That’s pretty much all I’d ever tell somebody. Be brave. Find your voice. Use whatever you can to help you find your voice. And once you’ve found it, own it. Hold onto it tight and stubbornly and don’t let anybody take it from you.

“Language is a skin : I rub my language against the other”

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” – Roland Barthes

Barthes was one of the first people I found who said what I wanted to say about language and who said it how it needed to be said. And this quote, oh how I am stuck on it, how how I am always stuck on it, how I do not look away from it with heart nor eyes.

It makes me think about viewing. It makes me think about relationships, about sight and about point of view. We engage with everything we read on a personal nature, we push ourselves up to it and frame ourselves against it, in opposition to it and in conjunction with it.

We are not what we read, we are anti-what we read, we are and always will be what we read.

Reading is about viewing, about a relationship so specific, so tight, so focused and yet, it is a relationship that we do not control. We are controlled by An Other, an unknowable, un-quantifiable other who has pulled our focus, who has turned our head and made us see what we want to see.

Books lie. Books tell the truth that you want to see. Books tell you the truth that you need at that point in time, for who and what you are. Come back to them later, come back to them never, and they will change and they will meet you for what you are at that point in time.

I love writing. I love the shifting, feckless nature of it and the way it can lift its hands up to the hills and stand silhouetted in the setting of the sun. I love the way that it is, the way that it exists and then does not exist, the moment that I change a sentence or edit a word. Language is art and art is language and I love it , I love it, I love that it is. 

And I touch it. I rub my hand against it and I bathe in it and I look at things and I remember and I want to do it all over again.

I finished a draft of the book this week. It’s a book that I have ached for ever since it began inside my head. Finishing it has left me drunken and content and so, so pleased. It’s almost there. I hope you get to read it some day soon.


Words, wording, writing, making : thoughts on authoring

Before we get into this post, I’d urge you to go and read this by the estimable and muy excellente Clara Vulliamy. It’s a really interesting post on the terminology of writing ie: do you call yourself an author? A writer? Or a … something else? 

And it is the inspiration behind this post. 

I don’t know what I call myself. Some days it shifts, really, like the sky on a storm-driven day and other days it’s as clear and as bright as the untrod snow. Sometimes I can say it quite proudly: I am a writer, and then other times, when I fold up inside myself and forget how to do it, I known I am anything but. Those days I am hopeful, mainly, in my efforts to get the words to do what I want them to do and conscious that they will very rarely do so. 

I find that contradiction towards my writing fascinating (infuriating, too!) and often wonder about the behind the scenes process of many a writer. I remember reading Enid Blyton’s autobiography and being fascinated by the quite astounding artifice of it. I’ve never really read anything quite like it, and haven’t since. In my eyes, Enid Blyton was An Author, a stiff-backed, slightly terrifying, terribly conscious of it Author. This may be far from accurate (though on the other hand..), and yet, it is the impression I have of her for good or for bad.

I think a lot of that impression comes from the books I read, so I wonder, I truly do, what people who are going to read my book are going to think? I find that so exciting. (I also find it thrilling terrifying nuts and much more besides). For me, the writer is their book and their book is the writer. The book may not be who they are now, but it is a part of them, as they were, as they were at one point and that part has been shaped into the book. 

And yet, as I go through this process with my book, I now know that the above isn’t accurate. Not really. It’s hard to define, but I think the best way is to say that I am now learning how to write a book and as part of that process, I am learning how to treat the book critically and as An Other. I don’t think I knew that before. Writing this book has been an evolving, organic process where you wallow inside it and push at the edges and discover what they are. Before that, I knew how to write moments, I think, but not how to shape them into a glorious, soul-swallowing heart-breaking and heart-making whole which can be captured in print and on paper and held between your hands. 

And I think it is, because of all of that, that I am most comfortable with the concept of being a maker of stories. I don’t think I’m an author, not yet. I don’t think I’m a writer, not yet, though sometimes I think I’m almost there. When I can, I will tell you about my belief in stories and how they shift and slide and how they are human led and human centred and human ended, and I will tell about my belief that we all have them inside of us. That we are all makers and shapers and we all have our story to tell. 

I must tell you about that, sometime. 

Structurally speaking

Structure in children’s literature, heck, literature in general, is an odd tricksy beast. If I think of structure, one of the first examples that come to mind(though everything is an example of structure, this one comes first) is Tristram Shandy. Though it still remains not the most readable of books for me, and nowhere approaching children’s literature, I am always fascinated by the structure of it. Sterne’s book, madness, flirtation with order and sentence, is something quite extraordinary. That, coupled with Enuonia, remains one of my great reminders of what books can do and what the form of a book can be.

And to be specific with an example in children’s literature; that flirtation with form, that embracing of what is, is something that Room 13 by Robert Swindells does quite brilliantly. It is a gothic story set in the heartland of gothic-onia, Whitby, and the book itself possesses no chapter thirteen. Chapter Twelve exists. Chapter Fourteen exists. Chapter Thirteen does not.

I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me when we had it read out to us at school. I still remember the way that the entire class let out a low, stunned, “Ooooooh” when the teacher showed us the blank pages. It’s such a brilliant, clever stylistic touch which adds so much to the story. It is the story inhabiting itself (lord, how I hope this makes sense) and being more than the words on the page.

And that’s what we want, as reader, as writer, we want these stories to live and to burn in our hearts. We give ourselves when we read, when we write, and there’s nothing more pained than finishing something and feeling – nothing. Just the turn of a page and a blank, emptiness inside you.

I don’t want that. As writer, as reader, as big old book nerd, I do not want that. I want literature to mean something. Art should give you something, whether it’s something you understand or don’t, you should be able to recognise (lord, not even recognise, just feel ) something different about yourself at the end of it. The closeness of reading is particularly potent. You are in somebody else’s headspace for the entirety of that encounter – and that’s amazing to me. It always has been, it always will be. The transformational power of a text.

That’s why structure’s so important. It is the shape, the framework of that encounter, and it has to be accessible. Every book wants you to unlock it and to be part of it. There’s no fun in something which doesn’t want you to be part of it. I am a selfish reader sometimes. I need to be needed. I want to feel like I am actualising this story and if I sense that it doesn’t need me, that the structure is too tight and too dense to let me in and doesn’t care about that, then I feel like I’m missing out.

(And I think, I think I have found my structure for my book. It is not what I expected but if I had expected it then I’d have been eating chocolates and watching DVDs for these past few weeks rather than slash, slash, slashing with my red pen. What can I tell you about it? Well. I will tell you this:

Every book is a performance, I think, and mine is no exception).

Editing, reshaping and a sneak peek of things to come

Hello! How was your Christmas? I hope you had a lovely few days and are enjoying the weirdness of ‘That Bit Between Christmas and New Year Where Everybody Doesn’t Quite Know What To Do With Themselves’.

I thought I’d share with you an update of what I’ve been working on over the past few months and in the process show you a little bit of my book. Do excuse me if I call it ‘my book’ rather than the actual title. The title it has at present is a working title which may change and if it doesn’t, then, it’ll be a cool little shenanigan to share in the future with you all. (As a special treat, you can try to predict how many exclamation marks I will use in that post!).

The big thing that I’m doing with my book at the moment is editing it. Editing is something that you all probably know and understand as part of your own life either at school, at work or with your kids. It is, to be very simplistic, the bit where you have something and you start to make it better.

I’ve never been able to write stories with conscious beginnings, middles and ends and if a teacher tells you that that’s the right way to write a story well, (and say this next bit very tactfully to them) that’s wrong. It is a way to write a story but it’s not the only way to write a story. The following is my way.

My editing process is based around the terms: thick and thin, and firstly I think need to tell you what thick and thin means when we look at a story. Here’s an example (and do note, my book isn’t about any of what follows, for it is an example wotcha geeza innit): The girl walked into the cave and found the treasure chest. Now, that, as it stands, is thin. It’s spectacularly thin. It’s a sentence which does nothing other than join the sentence before it to the sentence after it. It is words that connect the dots. It doesn’t tell me anything about the girl or the cave or the treasure chest (which  I’ve called ‘the treasure chest’ instead of ‘a treasure chest’ which suggests the treasure chest is the destination of the story), and it doesn’t do anything other than fill up space and get me from one point to the next.

And that’s okay in a first draft. Sometimes it’s more important to keep going and thicken the story on the second pass at it. You can have these sorts of moments as long as you come back to them and make them earn their keep.

So I’ve come back to that sentence about the treasure chest and I want to change it. The first thing to do is to understand the state of the story at that point. Maybe the quest to find the treasure chest is being told by the girl’s grandmother who’s all “Ohhhh this quest is so hard, you’ll be eaten by dragons and zorsacorns*” and the kid’s all “er, I just got it, get a grip yeah?”. So it may be that a bit of thinness in the story is what’s required at this moment to undercut the histrionics of her gran. Think of a piece of music. There’s light and shade in it, delicate moments and powerful, heart-stirring moments in it. That’s what I’m aiming for. A book that can pull you in and make you breathe with it.

The second thing that I need to do is to take the text out of where I’ve been working with it. I need to be able to look at the words objectively and sometimes that’s not possible if I’m editing on a laptop that I’ve been writing it on. I print out the book and do a paper edit, working through every page (double line spacing is your friend) and pulling it to shreds. I doodle, I draw and I write on it with felt tips and pens of every colour. I make that manuscript something lived in and something that I know I’ve considered every word in**.

And the other thing I do is I abandon it entirely and pick up a different something. In the case of Unnamed Book With A Working Title it’s been paint. I doodle, I paint, and it helps me to start figuring out the heart of my story. The big moments. The, if I was making a film of it, DVD front cover moments.

(And here’s one I made earlier with an actual, almost maybe staying in the story but definitely sorting out those commas sentence!)


*zorsacorns = Zebra Horse Unicorns (blame my nephews)

** It takes FOREVER but it’s proper worth it.