Tag Archives: how to write

Gimme Dat Ole Circadian Rhythm…

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Sunset over Cambridge

Mornings.

I’m not a Morning Person.

Trust me, me and Mornings put together are BAD news.  A Bit Not Good, as they say in the Sherlock fandom.  This seems to be an ineradicable facet of my character.  I’ve tried, Gods know, I’ve tried.  But the other day, something I read got me thinking about this ‘trying’ to get up business a little more critically:

Terry Pratchett, in his essay on his friend, Neil Gaiman, in ‘A Slip of the Keyboard‘, states:

“He takes the view that mornings happen to other people.  I think I once saw him at breakfast, though possibly it was just someone who looked a bit like him who was lying with their head in a plate of baked beans.”

You see, Society has this idea about ‘larks’ and ‘owls’.  A dichotomy, if you like.  You know, like ‘black/white’ and ‘male/female’ and ‘good/bad’.  (Spoiler:  Its usually pretty safe to assume there’ll be trouble when there are only two alternatives.)

There is this idea what there are people who can get up in the morning, who are at their best in the morning, who get their best work done while the rest of the world is still in bed.  They make the most of the day, packing more into every hour than most other human beings.  They are virtuous people, the kind of people who set their alarms for 4am so they can get an hour of meditation in on top of their hour at the gym.  These are successful people.  Healthy, industrious, productive, wholesome, and probably outdoorsy people.  They hike at weekends, and get up to enjoy the sunrise.  They are the kind of people who have time planners on their smart phones.  And use them.

I have a friend who shouts ‘Good Afternoon!’ at me when I come down to breakfast at 10am.  This person is very proud of the fact that he is a Morning Person, and thinks that he is wonderful because of it, and it is the only way to be.  You know.  Self righteous.

Morning People are ‘good’ people.

Then there are the ‘owls’, the Night People.

Night People are at best pale, unhealthy, and very probably lazy because they won’t get out of bed at a respectable hour.  They wear black, which is always a sign of being a bad lot, and suggestive of not being, well, quite clean, if you know what I mean.  They are un-productive good-for-nothings who waste the best of the day, the kind of people who leech off others more productive than themselves.  They are more likely to fall into drink and drugs, or even prostitution, because lets face it, those are the kinds of things that go on in the dark, aren’t they.  They are likely to be unreliable, promiscuous, even downright criminal.

(Can you hear the Calvinist shouting in the cultural background to this post?)

By now you will have realised what fascist, socially-controlling bollocks this all is. Neil Gaiman, for instance, is clearly not a Morning Person, yet has produced a vast body of work, including journalism, award-winning novels, screenplays and childrens books.  He has single-handedly revolutionised the comic/graphic novel artform with his Sandman books.

And he wrote ‘Good Omens‘ with Pratchett, which for my money is one of the best works of literature the human race has ever produced.  And I’m not kidding.  If you haven’t read it, do. Otherwise we can never be friends.

What he is not is a lazy, good-for-nothing parasite in a black leather jacket because he doesn’t get up before lunch.

I don’t do mornings either.  But I’ve written 7 novels and 107 published short stories and novellas.  And I don’t wear much black.

Almost every book about writing that I’ve ever read says you have to get up in the morning and write before you do anything else.  This is supposedly because you can access your immediately post-dream consciousness, which is where your imagination supposedly lives.  Supposedly.

I think its just because the Puritans said you had to get up early and work hard so you could go to Heaven when you die.

As I said, I can’t do Mornings, though I admit this is partly to do with my ME/CFS symptoms which are at their worst first thing.  It takes a couple of hours for the pain to wear out so I can crawl out of bed and get washed and dressed for the day.  It certainly is not the time when I am most connected to my imagination.

Since I was a kid, I’ve lain in bed at night, in the dark, and told myself stories.  To begin with it was about fear of the dark.  And I had nightmares, which didn’t help.  My mother got me a radio to play softly by my bed at night.  My stories acquired a soundtrack based on BBC Radio Two’s evening schedule: country music, folk, big band and musicals. By the age of five I had quite an education in jazz.  I also had the capacity to lie in the dark and tell myself ornate bedtime stories.

This is where the heart of my writing now lives.

I lie in the dark and listen to my husband fall asleep beside me.  And then I begin.  Great landscapes unroll before me.  Lewis is seduced by Hathaway.  Sherlock and John fight and make up.  Vikings battle for control of freezing fjords.  Medieval kings entice foreign princesses into loveless marriages made for political ends.  A policeman encounters a vampire on his nightly beat.  An angel pursues a demon in a car chase.  A woman stands on a cliff, looking out to sea, watching a flight of Wellington bombers fly overhead, on their way to bomb the Nazis into submission.

If I hit a good scene, I tell it to myself over and over again, sometimes night after night, until I am word perfect.  And then I write it down.

And that is where my ideas come from.  This is my writing rhythm. And I can’t deny it any longer.  I don’t fit into the cultural dichotomy of owls/larks.  For a long time I have fought to be something other than I am.  What I thought I SHOULD be.

These days I don’t care what Stephen King says about writing in the mornings.  It obviously works for him.  It just makes me ill.

Our creative life is embedded in our physical wellbeing.  Find out how your body works best, and go with that.  Slide writing into place within that routine.  And yes, if getting up at 6am to write before the kids wake, as Toni Morrison had to in order to write ‘Beloved’, works for you, then fine.  If you are a Morning Person, then fine.  Go with that.  Rejoice in it.  Write your fifteen chapters per day to the sound of the morning chorus.

Meanwhile, there are those of us whose Muse comes out to play at twilight.  Whose imagination only really kicks in when the darkness veils reality and allows us to overlay it with a new tapestry of being. Whose creativity slides into dreams, not out of them.  And thats okay.

I am proud to be one such.  Finally.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Choosing the Right Words: Emotion and Character

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, ‘Sherlock’

So, in this little series, we’ve talk about using verbs and the extra information you can communicate when you choose them mindfully.

(To read the first post, click here.  To read the second post, click here.)

Today I want to talk about how you can use verbs to convey character and emotion.  Consider the following sentence:

Sherlock left the room.

This sentence tells us nothing about the character or how he feels.  All it gives us is a bit of rudimentary choreography.  Now lets play with some variations:

Sherlock swept out of the room. ‘Swept’ gives the suggestion not only of Sherlock’s imperious, and rather vain, nature but also of what he is wearing, that long overcoat swirling around his heels.  A person has to have the attention of everyone present in order to sweep out, particularly that of the narrator (and as usual with these characters, we can assume its John’s point of view).  Using this verb tells us something about John too, therefore.  It shows the amount of attention he pays to Sherlock, and his feelings about how Sherlock moves when he leaves – admiration and perhaps exasperation are implied.

Sherlock stormed out.  Sherlock wouldn’t stomp anywhere.  He’s too much of a drama queen for that.  Life with Sherlock is like being at the heart of a hurricane, so this verb implies his power and presence.

John stormed out.  John is also capable of storming out.  He’s a little bulldog of a man with anger issues and BAMF tendencies, so we can hear in this verb his impressive presence.  However, John is also capable of stomping in a way Sherlock isn’t.  There is something more down-to-earth about stomping that doesn’t fit with Sherlock’s persona.

Sherlock flounced out.  Sherlock, with all those curls, the flowing coat, the self-absorption and vanity, would definitely flounce.  This verb tells us so much about his character and attention-seeking – which of course, John feeds.  By using this verb within John’s point of view, we can actually see him feeding it!   Flounce also implies a certain degree of sulking, so we get the emotion involved in his movement.

Sherlock exited the room.  No one exits a room except in the instructions for a fire drill!  This verb tells us absolutely nothing about his character, movement or dress, or about the emotional circumstances in which he leaves.  What it does tell us  is that the writer is unimaginative and stiff.  If you are ever tempted to use the word exited, either:

  • think of something better, or
  • skip the action altogether because it is probably something so mundane that you can let the reader assume it has happened, e.g. After Sherlock had swept out, John sat back in his chair…

I hope that this little rumination on choosing words has opened a window on the methods of writing for you in a practical way, and enabled you to think about how you choose your words more mindfully.  Your writing will definitely benefit from it if you do.

In the meantime, if you are interested in thinking more about this subject, you can’t do better than reading Chapter 2 of Francine Prose’s marvellous book, ‘Reading like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books, and for those who want to write them’.  In fact, read the whole book anyway.  Its brilliant, and Prose explains things far better than I ever could.

Happy Writing,

EF

Choosing the Right Words to Convey an Action

Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in the TV series 'Lewis'

(l to r) Laurence Fox as DS Hathaway and Kevin Whately as DI Lewis in the TV series ‘Lewis’

The reason I started thinking about being mindful when choosing words is this:  the other night about 4am I was lying in bed wrestling with a paragraph for a story.  Yes, I do this.  A lot.

In one of the Universe’s most amusing ironies, disturbed sleep and insomnia are symptoms of my ME/CFS, so I can sleep for Britain during daylight hours, but can’t go for more than about 3 hours at a stretch at night.  Then I lie awake, waiting for the next bout of sleep to come, and its helpful to have something to entertain my brain in the meantime.  This is when I write.  Not at my desk, but lying down in bed.  In case you are wondering how I remember things, I tell myself the same scenes over and over again, perfecting them, until I know them pretty much by heart.  I write them down during the day, once I’m happy I’ve got them right.  Yes, its weird, but its my process, and it seems to work.

So anyway, there I am, lying in the dark, wrestling with a scene in which Detective Sergeant Hathaway has phoned Detective Inspector Lewis from his hospital bed for a reassuring chat.  The two have just admitted their feelings for one another, but none of the talking and working things out has been done.  Things are still delicate, tender and vulnerable between them.  Having had a quiet, romantic chat, Hathaway ends the call, and Lewis, from whose point of view the scene is told, lies in his own bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating how he feels for his colleague.

So how to convey that moment of transition from phone call to meditation in a single sentence?  Here are the possibilities I came up with:

“He hung up.”

I don’t know, it just sounds too abrupt, as if Hathaway has rung off in a rage.  I reject this option.

“The line went dead.”

Even worse.  This suggests not only anger, but perhaps even peril – maybe an assailant has disconnected the phone or snatched it from beloved Hathaway’s hand, or there was an accident or an explosion that terminated the call prematurely.  I reject this option too.

“He terminated the call.”

People don’t actually think like this.  Its as bad as saying:

“He exited the building.”

Nobody uses this tone inside their own head.  Verbs like terminated and exited are too distant and clinical.  They contribute to what is known in the business as the ‘Authorial Voice’.  In other words, the reader is aware that an omniscient storyteller-author is telling them what is happening, and what to think, rather than opening a door through which they can view the experiences of the characters themselves.  If you want to read authorial voice done well, read Dickens or Thackeray, who are always commenting on their characters in this way.  Its old-fashioned, and uncomfortable for most modern readers.  Don’t do it.  It just looks like you don’t know what you are doing.  Always tell your stories from inside your character’s heads, regardless of what tense you are using.

And incidentally, words like terminated and exited are too formal.  They should be kept for technical manuals and academic papers.  If you are in doubt about whether a word is too formal, think about how you use language inside your own head.  Would you think ‘I terminated that call’?  No, I didn’t think so.

“He rang off.”

A little gentler than “He hung up”, but still a bit too brusque, as if there has been a tiff.  I reject this one too.

I try to think of another verb for concluding a call, concluding again being too formal, but can’t think of one, so I decide to go for my next option, which is to skip the obvious:

“After Hathaway rang off, Lewis lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.”

You see what I’ve done here?  I don’t really need to tell the reader that the conversation ends, because all readers know that telephone conversations end eventually, so I nod to the fact, and then concentrate on Lewis’s reaction.

If an act isn’t noteworthy in terms of action or emotion, if it doesn’t move the story along, then you can safely leave it out and allow the reader to make their own assumptions about the obvious. 

After all, I don’t need to tell my readers everything Lewis did when he woke up that morning to get to the phone call, from the first yawn, through using the loo and scratching his bum, to noticing that the instant coffee in the jar has gone lumpy and that he’s almost out of bread for toast.  What is important is not which toothpaste he uses, but the phone call from his future lover, and its aftermath.  That is what moves the story forwards, and that is what the reader is interested in.

“Lewis dropped the phone handset onto the covers and lay back, Hathaway’s richly textured voice still echoing in his head.”

This tells us a bit more about Lewis’s reaction to Hathaway, and the effect of their conversation, but dropping the phone sounds a bit too abrupt as well.  He would be too dreamy and relaxed by this point to drop anything!

“Afterwards, he lay back, allowing the memory of Hathaway’s richly textured voice to flow through him.”

This doesn’t mention ending the phonecall at all.  It entirely concentrates on Lewis’s response, emphasising the sensual effect it has on him.

By iteration, I have completely removed the need for solving the original problem, which was finding a way to communicate the end of the call, and I have added to the emotional impact of the moment as well.  So this is the version I will go with, at least for now.  After all, first drafts always get changed.

I hope that by walking you through the process of wording the paragraph, I have been able to show you how much choosing your words mindfully can enhance your writing, and how you communicate emotion and action to your reader.  It might take a bit of time, but thinking through the effect you want to achieve will make a huge difference for your reader.

If you want to read the previous post on this subject, click here.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

And if you haven’t come across the delicious TV series Lewis (called Inspector Lewis in the US, I believe), I highly recommend it.  You can read a fanfic I wrote for it here.

Happy writing!

EF