Monday, 30 May 2011

Writing groups

Writing plays a large part in my life, so here is another angle. I go to a couple of writing groups, where members write about a topic or a title that has been set beforehand. One group is part of the Pershore U3A and the other is Worcester Writers Circle which is apparently the oldest in the country and 70 this year. The Circle has all the titles for the year on their web site (
From that you can see that last week's title was 'Catch the little thief'. Is it a good idea to bend my mind to some random title? Wouldn't it be better to get on with whatever book I am writing?
I think a lot of writing groups do this, so it must work for some, and has obviously worked over a period, so not a thing to cast aside lightly. I usually try to think of something on the subject, at least for a day or two, but there is some benefit in trying harder. If I keep writing the current book, there is every chance that it won't be much different from everything I've done before. Really bending my mind to this week's title might just drag me into writing something I've never done before.
So, Catch the little thief it is.

‘What's your name?’
‘That's a weird name for a kid.’
‘It’s what they all say when they throw things at me.’
‘What do they throw?’
‘Rocks mostly, crusts or something I can eat, if I'm lucky.’
The kid grinned, ducked his head and squirmed away, but the big man was too quick for him and grabbed his coat, rapidly transferring his grip to a shoulder as the skinny arms wriggled clear of the sleeves.
‘Put your coat back on, we haven't finished.’
Twisting him around the dark brown eyes searched his face.
‘Do you have another name kid?’
‘What you want to call me?’
‘I’m not calling you names I’m asking questions. Are you gonna run some more?’
The kid looked up, his glance darting between the figure holding him and the nearest building. Half a smile cracked the face in front of him; the bastard knows it’s too far to run. The kid shrugged. The hand on his shoulder relaxed a little, but didn't move.
‘This way.’
Three steps took them to the car and the kid climbed in with startling alacrity, creating enough space to spread his small frame and own as much space as he could.
‘Never been in one of these huh?’
‘Cop car init.’
‘Sure is.’
‘Am I going to jail?’
‘Not unless you try to drive this thing.’
‘How thick are you? I'm sitting in the back seat; even a big bugger like you can't reach the pedals from here. Besides, that bloke in the front can drive us’
The kid stopped looking over the driver’s shoulder for a second and risked a glance at the man alongside him, grinning, raising his eyebrow a fraction. Sensing the attention on his face, his right hand sneaked across to the door handle and pressed it. His body tensed to jump and run, he pushed harder, then sank back in the seat defeated.
‘I can't get out can I.’
‘Not unless you can jump over a big bugger like me.’
The smile came back, but the detective still had the initiative.
‘Where do you live Catch?’
‘Like a house, you mean?
With your mum or your dad.’
‘Fifty two Newbold road.’
The big man leaned forward and touched the driver on the shoulder
‘Did you get that?’
The driver half turned,
‘There's only forty houses in Newbold road.’
‘Try another one kid. Lets have name and address properly this time.
‘Catch. Catch is my name. Only name I go by.’
‘OK Catch, have you got a last name.
‘Little thief.’
The detective laughed.
‘That's the other thing they call you huh? How long have you lived on the streets?’
‘I don't live on the street.’
‘Kid either you live in a house or you live on the street.’
‘I live under the street.’
This brought a pause, a deep breath and a rueful smile.
‘Catch, Have you always been this smart?’ Another pause. ‘Nah, don't answer that one, how would you know. Any idea how old you are?
‘I might be twelve, or maybe thirteen.’
‘Did you go to school?’
‘Before my mum died.’
‘When was that?’
The kid shrugged.
‘Well, roughly, like how many winters ago?’
‘I'm not a Red Indian.’
‘I never said you were.’
‘Then don't make with the how many moons stuff. It was the seventh of January 2007, why does it matter.’
‘You've been on your own since then?’
‘Mostly. Sometimes I hang out with people.’
Catch turned, taking in a change in the figure beside him, shoulders dropping, one more frown line, he’ll be calling a social worker next, he thought.
‘Whoever. I'm a little thief remember. I go with anyone I can get stuff from.’
‘So I should arrest you for stealing?’
‘Not that kind of stuff.’
A resigned sigh. ‘What then?’
‘Learning, brain stuff, finding things out.’
‘Go on.’
‘Reading, computers, money, languages, stuff to know, good stuff.’
He risked another smile, captivating, enticing, and sucking the detective into his world. ‘Can't go to school, can I, they'd have me in an orphanage and I'd never get out or learn anything either.’
‘That's not how it is ki… Catch.’
‘They don't teach cops much do they.’
‘Meaning what?’
‘Do you know how many O levels the average kid in care gets? Do you know what percentage of kids in care end up unemployed or in Jail? Put me in there and I'll end up being a top gang leader in ten years time and give you loads of trouble. I'll have to change my name of course.’
‘Because we'll never catch you.’
Catch caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the window, hair all over the place a smudge of dirt on his forehead and for a nanosecond a mercurial smile flashed across his face.
‘On the other hand we could say I'm sixteen and small for my age and I could help you. Pretty soon, they'd be calling you Catch. What do you reckon?’

It could be said that I cheated slightly by adding a comma to the title, but I enjoyed trying to create a character with the minimum amount of description. There is of course the usual problem that when something begins to work, I feel like writing a book about the character. Catch is now running around in my head full of mischief, but he wouldn’t be there without the writing group.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Great writing

There is always a choice about what to include and what to leave to the reader. What to write and what to leave between the lines.
Somehow the really great writers put just enough on paper for the reader to leap from one stepping stone to the next, inventing the story in their mind as they go. It may be that every reader invents a slightly different story, but they all invent tales that they live in, love, and remember.
I think that's the real difference between telling and showing.
Tellng is all about downloading the details that are in the author's mind, like writing a technical manual describing the story. Showing, on the other hand is opening the door to imagination so that the story pours into the minds eye of the reader, it becomes their story and they remain grateful to the writer for opening a crack into a different universe.
If I have this right, then that's why it is so difficult to set out a technical description that really defines the difference. There are of course particular sentences, that can be seen as much more likely to fall into one camp than another, but on their own such examples become part of the great lexicon of telling, and only illustrate showing when they are accompanied by the right experience in the reader, and that doesn't happen when the sentence is written, only when it is read.
So some telling turns out to be showing, words, sentences, whole paragraphs that if isolated would seem to be telling, in it's most obvious form, can show a story if the whole thing works.
One example I am reading at the moment is Nicola Morgan's book ‘Wasted’.
I'm taking a huge risk here, she's a better blogger than me and has written a lot of books, gets asked to talk at conferences for writers etc. so it's hardly my place to critique. On the other hand I am a reader, so what the hell.
I find myself asking, as I read the book, 'Why does this work?' The style is very authorial, you'd cut the whole thing if you followed Elmore Leonard's advice and cut out anything that looks like writing. Of course some of that is just fashion, if we all took Elmore's advice no one would have read a word of Arthur Ransome and all his wonderful stories written in an omniscient third person that can even tell you what the dog is thinking.
Nicola's story is in that same point of view, allowing her to tell us, and I do mean tell, what is in the head of each character as she goes along. Not only that, but she frequently uses the authorial privilege of telling us what will be in their head, or what might be. Yet there is something about the story that makes me want to keep turning the pages, which means that something is right.  As Terry Pratchett says, there has to be a hidden message at the bottom of page one that says turn to page two, and a similar one on page two that gets you to three and so on. Those messages are obviously there, else why am I on page, um, well it's an ebook, so page numbers mean nothing, but I am well past half way.
Which in a roundabout way gets me back to where I started, the better writers know, or at least instinctively grasp, what to put on the page and what to put between the lines.
Showing, means enough words to lever open the space between the lines, to drive wedges into reality and open the cracks into the fictional space that lies beyond. Telling fills the page and covers the cracks like Polyfilla; smooth, sometimes even beautiful, but boring.
Suspense is one of those wedges, crucial to inducing the reader to use their imagination to explore what might be hidden deeper or later. Telling has no suspense. I used write papers in the civil service. Suspense is frowned on. You can't write a brief for a minister that says come back next week, or leaves anything to their imagination. Civil Service documents are all Polyfilla.
I think there is an issue too about how big those wedges need to be, and the answer is just big enough. Hammer a huge lever into the crack along with a JCB and an army of construction workers and we are back to a parallel universe that exists in the author's head rather than one that the reader is helped to discover. We are all storytellers but economy and sparsity is the key, just enough telling so that the story and the discovery of it becomes the main experience. Of course literary fiction is important too, it may not always have a narrative, but it does have ideas and images; it does do things to your mind and it still has those page turning messages.
But stick with the story for the moment because the story matters too, which is why the Stig Larson series works. The writing may be littered with Ikea shopping lists and stuff to fill 'what not to do' sessions on creative writing courses, but the story and at least one of the characters are so much bigger than the writing. The lesson from the popularity of Larson and probably Dan Brown and dare I say it the later J K Rowling books, is that if the story is big enough, the writing can break the ‘Rules’.
Rules, like show not tell, are no more than someone's attempt to codify best practice. Whether invented by an individual, or a group, and tested by time, or academic study, they are not tablets of stone and they are often oversimplifications. Who is going to remember a complicated rule?
Show don't tell is good, as rules go, and is probably easier to understand than saying that you should make the content that appears in the mind of the reader bigger, on any metric that you can devise, than the intellectual activity required to read the words. The reader will feel rewarded if they get back more than they put in.
Great writing reveals in the world or evokes in the reader something beyond their normal experience. Whether in fiction or fact, shown or told, the bargain every writer tries to strike is, if you make the effort to read my words, I'll make it worth your while.

PS My thanks to Nicola Morgan for a brief comment on an earlier draft.