Category Archives: On Process

The Friday Review No. 6: Listen. Wait. Have faith.

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“… just as a pregnancy must not be over-stressed and artificially hurried for fear of damaging or aborting the child, so, too, a piece of work asks that we not try to force it into unnatural directions.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write p164

 

I’ve been running around being Busy.  Hence the lack of Friday reviews lately.  And you know what happens when someone with ME/CFS gets a dose of the Busies.  Eventually, there is a price to pay.  So today I am lying on my bed, nursing a nasty bout of IBS, with every major muscle in my body in a state of semi-collapse.

However.

And yes, there is good news:  Despite the Busies, progress has been made.

Yesterday, I wrote 1058 words I wasn’t planning to write, and as a result, finished a Lewis story that I’ve been working on, off and on, since last July.  Which felt like a double result.

I’ve migrated my Sherlock story, ‘Under The Downs’ onto AO3, with positive results.  Now I’ve got to do the same with its sequel, ‘The Bee House’, but I haven’t quite got there yet.

I’ve had my monthly coaching session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, and it was, as usual, hugely stimulating and supportive.

I’ve been reading and writing every day.  Morning pages and journaling.  Writing practice.  Jotting down notes and research questions.  Recording those funny moments, observations of life that provide the richness to a piece of writing.

Asking myself questions:

What do I want to say?

What Truth do I need to speak?

What interests me?

What don’t I like to read?

Who am I?

What makes a character?  What is the difference between character and identity?

And so on.

And I’ve been listening.

This major work that is coming, that I am birthing.  I know a little bit about it, but I don’t want to push its birth.  I don’t want to warp it by forcing it to come too fast.  So I just put my pen onto the paper and listen to it.  Allow it to tell me where it wants to go.  It takes time.  But I’m lucky that I am one of those writers who loves the process of writing, not just having written, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

Sitting at my desk makes me happy.  I am surrounded by my books, with my vision board for the novel in front of me.  It is my safe place.  My sacred place.  This is where my idea will blossom and grow into something more extraordinary than I have ever achieved before.

I have faith.  Faith enough to wait.

Happy Creating,

EF

Witness my Journey

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A New Adventure

This is my plan to begin again.

Two years of creative drought are over, and though there are still challenges in my personal life which could prove equally difficult, I have decided I can’t allow myself to be so completely crushed next time around.

So I’m on a journey.

One step at a time, baby steps. Reminding myself.  Beginning again.

Its actually quite hard when you have been effectively out of the creative loop for so long, and there is no expecting to pick up exactly where you left off.  My typing fingers are rusty, my imagnation has stalled, my physical strength is unreliable, and I am far too likely to lapse into ranting at the mirror in the bathroom in the mornings, and then being in such a bad mood that I fail to find any corner for creativity the rest of the day.

Its time to inch into new habits, little actions that mount up, tiny movements that ease me into a new frame of mind.

I’m on a journey, and I’d like to invite you along with me.

I don’t know how its going to turn out, and if I’m going to get anywhere, or if I’ll end up back at square one, but I hope that you and I can both learn from the experience.  So I’d like to set out for you the little steps I am taking to ease myself back into writing again.

Firstly, I’ve made a vow to read more.  Yeah, I know, this from the woman who can’t walk past a bookskshop or a library.  This from a woman who has permanent damage to her shoulder from lugging around a handbag full of books, just in case she finds herself in a queue without some way to entertain herself.

I did a bit of analysis after Christmas, and realised that the majority of books I read last year were non-fiction.  That, or Terry Pratchett books I’d read before that I knew would comfort and distract me through admitedly difficult times.  I remembered the days when I was taking my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, days when I consumed really good writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Helen Dunmore and others.  I realised I couldn’t remember when I’d last read a new work of fiction.

So my new New Year’s intention was to read.  Widely.  Novels, yes.  A bit of History and, obviously, non-fiction.  To remind myself what good writing is.  And so far I am doing quite well, helped by the fact that we’ve been clearing out my late mother-in-law’s sustantial book stash, from which I have benefitted greatly.  I had quite a haul of books for Christmas too, which I’m looking forward to devouring.  The important thing to note is that I am excited about the idea of reading fiction again, which I haven’t been for a long time.  Which is a good sign.

Secondly, I’m pursuing a writing practice.

I read Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful book, ‘The True Secret of Writing’ at the end of last year and I was blown away by it.  I started doing timed writing practices in the manner she suggests.  Pen to paper. Write whatever comes.  Its heaven.

Thirdly, coaching.  Yes, you heard me right.  My dear friend, the poet, Heidi Williamson, is also a writing coach, and kindly agreed to take me on as a client.  Our first session was mind-expanding.  I’ll write more about this experience in future, but let me tell you, I’m sold.

I’d been wrestling with getting out of my own way to do writing practice, and Heidi suggested I make a deal with myself to do two sessions a week, on the days best suited to my schedule, which for me is Monday and Thursday.  So far, I have yet to default.  Which is unheard-of for me. I do it on other days too, which feels like earning huge brownie points.  Its only a little thing, twenty minutes at most, but it feels like a monumental change.  And I’m keeping a promise to myself, which is adding to my confidence.

Fourthly, not pushing.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but Goldberg suggests that you need to do writing practice for at least a year before you have even begun to accumulate enough material to track what it is you would like to write about in a sustained way, such as a novel.  So I don’t really have a particular project.  I’m just writing.  I’m being gentle with myself, because goals tend to freak me out and stop me writing.  There is plenty of time for them later on, when I’m ready anyway.

The whole point of not pushing is to enjoy myself.  I’m not going to write if it isn’t fun.  So why make it hard.  I want to enjoy it.

No doubt I will add to this routine in future, but this is my core plan to gentle myself back into creating.  I read somewhere recently that ‘Creativity is the expression of the Soul.’  My soul has taken quite a battering in the last two years, so I need to nurse it gently back to health with love and sploshy paints, and definitely no strict rules.

Finally, I mean to document my journey here on this blog, which has been sadly neglected of late. I want to tell you how I get on.  A bit of accountability, yes, but also a project to get me blogging again.

So I hope you will join me on my trip to Creativity,

with love,

EF

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

One day in 1783, an admirer of the French queen arrived at the workshop of Adam-Louis Breguet, the greatest watchmaker in Paris.  He wanted the perfect watch for the perfect woman.  His commission was to be without bounds.  Breguet was to pour everything he knew into making the most complex, and most beautiful timepiece possible.  Money was no object.

The watch became Breguet’s obsession.  Even after the French monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette was executed, and the lucrative business he had built from the commissions of the aristrocracy was in ruins, Breguet continued to craft his masterpiece.  Ultimately, it took forty years to complete, and had to be finished by Breguet’s son, four years after the master himself died.

Known officially as the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, the watch contained every function known at that time – Breguet even invented a few new ones.  It was crafted in precious metals and gems.  Breguet used sapphire for all the mechanical pivot points in the clockwork, in order reduce friction.

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

You will have noticed in recent months that this blog has become fairly, if not completely, dormant.  Life has, as it were, taken over.  There was no space to write.  No space in my life.  No space in my head.

Then, in September, on my birthday ironically, my mother-in-law died.  Her dementia had been filling up all the space in my brain and in my life.  Since she has been gone, I’ve begun to recollect not only who I am, but also all the activities that had been shelved and forgotten in order to look after her.  So many things I wanted in my life had fallen away, out of necessity.  And so many things now seemed irrelevant.

In the last few months, I know that I have changed not only profoundly but also irrevocably.  So much more has been happening than simply looking after my ailing elderly relative – things which are someone else’s story to tell.  And yet they, too, have had a hand in my transformation.  My life has been like a pack of cards, being shuffled by the Hand of (insert your favourite deity/scientific motivator here).

The day my mother-in-law died was a beautiful day.  The sun shone.  The sky was a perfect sapphire blue.  I stood outside the hospital foyer with a soft, warm wind on my face, and knew that I had reached one of Breguet’s pivots.  Wasn’t the sky exactly the right blue, after all?  And does not sapphire reduce friction?

The friction of life with Alzheimers is gone.  The cards that were thrown up into the air have fallen back down in a new order.  The things that seemed important then are irrelevant now, and vice versa.

Now the funeral is over, now the first shock of grief has passed, I find all I want to do is write.  I want to write something profound.  I want to write because I have changed.  I want to write something real.  Something hard.  Something pivotal.  My own sapphire pivot point.  So I am writing.  By hand in my journal.  In notebooks, longhand.  Using Natalie Goldberg’s wisdom as my map, I am steadily shuffling my way towards the light.

I hope I am making my own ‘Grand Complication’, out of the precious metals and gems of my own life.  I hope you will join me on my journey.  And I hope it won’t take me the forty years it took Breguet!

Happy Creating,

EF

New Fanfic Series

IMG_20150715_170855One day, I woke up and felt like writing again.

It was wonderful, like standing under a waterfall after a long, hot hike up a tropical mountainside.

And then I couldn’t stop.

Its fun again. I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is.  My imagination is dancing around the campfire like a stoned hippie, happily tripping.  Which is my idea of bliss.

I don’t care if the stories I am producing are my best work.  The point is that I am working.

We are writers when we write, right?

So I have written a bunch of Lewis fics, and as I was looking at them today, I realised there was a theme amongst them, so I have batched them together, and put the first of the batch up on AO3 this afternoon.

A little taster:

‘Right,’ he says, turning to Lewis with a big, deep breath, hoping it will give him courage to finally say goodbye. ‘No sense in you waiting. It’ll be ages before I get to the front of that queue.

Lewis shrugs. He looks somehow smaller, older, a little wizened by his unspoken sadness and the impersonal scale of the check-in hall.

‘Don’t mind,’ he says, and manages a gentle smile. ‘I’ll keep you company.’

No, don’t do that, James thinks. Don’t make it harder. Please? But he can’t say it, of course, because he is still desperate for the tiniest morsel, the minutest sliver of time he can get with this man, this beautiful, brave, honourable man who has saved his skin and his soul, and probably his sanity, more times than is fair to remember.’

You can read the rest here at AO3.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Clunky Stage

writing notebookThe clunky stage.

If you write, you’ll know what I mean.

If you write on a daily basis, its those first ten minutes during which your brain feels like no one has oiled the cogs for ten years, and your pen feels like the nib is dragging through molasses.

If you haven’t written for a while, it feels like performing an appendectomy on yourself.

Hemingway was not kidding when he said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Yesterday I sat down to write a new story.

I haven’t written in a while.  I don’t really get on with doing writing exercises much, although I know I SHOULD.  And at the moment I am experimenting with a new journalling practice called Deep Soul Writing, (of which more later) which is proving to be an interesting, but demanding, experience.  So my creative writing has been rather rare.

Nevertheless, I still have stories rattling around in my brain.  I always do.  So last night I thought I would start writing one down.  Free up some brain space.  Like you do.

Cue: wading through concrete.

How did this get so hard?

I’ve written seven novels, and dozens of fanfics.  How did I get this rusty this quick?

Nothing brings home the importance of daily practice, whether you are a pianist doing your scales, an artist doing your warm up sketches, or a writer doing – dare I say it – writing exercises, like coming back to your artform after a break and finding:

OH MY GODS THIS IS SO HARD!!!

My husband complains of feeling stiff and awkward if he misses even one of his twice-weekly body pump gym classes.  And now I know how he feels, because man! am I stiff!

But, as the old adage says, the only way out is through.

So I will suspend judgement on what I am scrawling because I know that while it may be as fluid as a fence post, at least I am on my way.  Sooner or later, things will loosen up, get more limber.  The adjectives will start replacing the cliches.  The dialogue will start to sound like it is coming out of real people’s mouths instead of cardboard cut-outs.  The metaphors will start to gang up on me.  The language will take on the richness of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gowns.

Then, and only then, will I really get down to business.

But I have to write my way through the shit first.

So, like every marathon runner, I will set out in hope.  I will do my stretches, and thud through the first few miles until the muscles have warmed up and the movement starts to flow again.

Because even when its like bleeding into the keyboard, my soul is dancing, and I know, really know, that this is what I was meant for.

Happy Creating,

EF

Confession Time: Female Characters

Romola Garai as Sugar in 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Romola Garai as Sugar in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’

There is going to be a certain amount of ‘coming out’ in this post.

My name is Rebecca and I am a writer who can’t write female characters.

Which is a bit weird, seeing as I am a 47-year-old woman, don’t you think?

A writer friend calls it creepy.  Maybe she is right.  I’ve tried, believe me.

My first novel (stopped counting at 250,000 words, but you get the picture) was centred on a young woman in Iron Age Britain.  Well, you’d think that.  She was the character on whom the story pivoted.  It was her point of view.  But that was the novel that gained me a certain reputation in my writing group. They banned me from using the words ‘massive chest’.  I think ‘muscular legs’ were also mentioned.  Needless to say, there were a lot of hunky Iron Age warriors running about, fighting for the right to have sex with my heroine.  Now I read back through the text, she seems like a structuring absence, an empty space at the heart of the novel.  She is a weakly drawn character.  She is two dimensional, a paper cut-out compared with the male characters.

I am considering resuming work on the book I’ve been wrestling with for a while, which is currently entitled ‘The Butler Did It’ – four years’ work, and I still haven’t come up with a better title!  This novel is centred around another young woman.  And I think that is the problem I’ve been having with it.  I just can’t get a handle on her.  I’m just not as interested in her as I am in the men who surround her.   They are the initiators of the action.  It is their requirements that force her into the situation which forms the centre of the story.

I can’t get excited about her.

I’m just not that into her.

Yesterday I was watching a TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s dazzling novel, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’.  I hadn’t meant to, but it was on, so I thought I’d dip in, though I had seen it before, when it was first screened.

The central female character is Miss Sugar.

Wow.  If you needed a character that was a polar opposite to my ‘butlering’ heroine, you couldn’t come up with a better one.  Sugar is a dazzling, sinister, forceful, sympathetic, passionate creature.  She is a girl of 19, forced into prostitution by her mother.  She is a brilliant writer and voracious reader who crafts a novel of sexual retribution while her clients sleep off their hangovers in the bed beside her.  She is entrancingly beautiful, and yet she suffers with a horrible skin disease.  She longs to escape her profession, and yet she is the most sought-after whore in Victorian London.  She is transcendent, stealing every scene she is in, bonding all the other female characters together in a conspiracy against the male ones, who are either sinister and abusive, or weak and ineffeffectual.  For me, she is right up there with Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennett as one of the great female characters of literature.

The thing about Sugar is that she takes the situation that she has been forced into by predatory men, and turns it on its head, coming out triumphant.  That’s what my ‘butlering’ heroine is supposed to do, but frankly, she couldn’t triumph over the confines of a wet paper bag!

Conversely, my readers tell me that my male characters are psychologically complex, three-dimensional, tangible creatures.  I’m good at one gender, but not at the other.

Time to fix that.

Miss Sugar is my inspiration.  I’m settling down to rewrite my heroine.  To rewrite what I have written from her point of view.  To get inside her head.  Not exactly to copy Sugar, but to use her as inspiration.  To learn how to be sympathetic to my girl.  To admire her.  Which I don’t at the moment.

You have to like your characters (at least) in order to write them.  How can you propose to spend a minimum of two years with them, looking them in the metaphorical eye every day, if you don’t?

I#ll let you know how I get on.  And in the meantime, if you haven’t read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, you absolutely should.

Happy Creating,

EF

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF