Reflections on writing (No 1 in an occasional series)

Like all writers, I read as much as I can. I do this primarily for enjoyment rather than as an academic exercise, but of course it informs my own writing.

As I embark on a year’s mentoring I’m learning more about so-called ‘rules’ of writing, or at least recommendations. One of these is that dialogue is good. It breaks up the text, makes it easier to read. I’m a (fairly) diligent student and I’m currently sowing dialogue through the short stories I’m writing.

Another recommendation is to use the active voice. Passivity distances the reader. Yes, I’ve bought into that one.

Don’t jump from one point of view to another. Very confusing for the reader. Okay, must bear that in mind.

I am greatly encouraged when I read other people’s work which breaks these ‘rules’. I’ve just devoured Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (2017). I have followed Jon McGregor’s work since his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002). This book became a success by word of mouth. Since then McGregor has gone on to become ‘a prize-winning author’. I put that phrase in inverted commas because, affirming as that may be, it’s just one thing about him, not for me a defining characteristic.

After I’d finished the book I looked up some one-star reviews, curious to know why anyone would not love this book as much as I did. Criticisms include it being boring, that nothing happens, difficulty of keeping track of multiple characters and, interestingly, lack of dialogue and the use of the passive voice. I think the problem is that people have certain expectations of a book, instead of reading it on its own terms. A cursory glance at the blurb on the back will tell you that this is not a conventional murder mystery story.

The comment that ‘Anyone could write a book like this’ is, frankly, crass. If one day I can write something that is halfway as compelling as Reservoir 13 I will be a very happy person. I’ll never write in the same way as Jon McGregor and neither do I want to do so. I want to use my own voice, and while I will think about writing ‘rules’, I will also feel free to break them.

 

 

Looking forward to an exciting year of writing

I’m absolutely delighted to have been awarded a place on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring Scheme for emerging writers.

Literature Wales

 

I’ll be back at Tŷ Newydd for a week’s course with fellow Mentees later this month, so watch this space for further news after that.

In the meantime I’ll be revisiting the work I’ve done so far on my Bosch stories (see my About page) and planning where I’m going next in that world!

 

The joys of collaboration

I often take inspiration for my writing from pictures, but it was lovely to come across an opportunity to do it the other way round, to put forward a story to be illustrated. Seeing a call on twitter from artist and illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins for crow folklore stories, I wrote this story, Crow world. I was delighted when Bonnie choose it to inspire a drawing for week 2 of her 52 crows project. The illustration of my story is reproduced here by kind permission of the artist.

Crow world

Crow pic.PNG

With a final stab, the crow got hold of a long strand of sinew, drew it up and carried it away. It flew out behind him like a red flag, its ghastliness too far away for the watchers to make out. The new year’s day was as if it were the first, the world a scrubbed blank canvas on which to draw afresh. The two men, who had stood for a moment watching the dark of the bird against the icy pale of the morning sky, rubbed their hands.

“Too cold to stand here,” said the one, pulling his hat down over his ears and looking up at the clouds scudding above the hill “Let’s get up there. Before.”

If he said more the wind whipped away his words. He strode out and the other followed. Both had their heads down. They were intent on reaching the summit. It was, from one to the other, a dare, the sort that men make without regard for the consequences. Behind them, unseen by either, three more crows descended to the place the solitary eater had left.

In the valley the woman had stoked the fire. The smoke from the damp peat made her cough. She drew the pot down; the soup would simmer the day long until her man returned. She threw in the few vegetables she had. There was no meat, hadn’t been for a month now. She wasn’t like the crow; wouldn’t pick up something killed by another. She went to the door, looked up at the hillside. Her eyes were still sharp; she could pick up the movement of a rabbit in the dead bracken. But there was no ripple of beast or man on the brown curve of the hill, only the downward flight of the three crows. And they and their judgements were not her business. She closed the door against them and took up her pen. It was her time to write, the annual attempt, the record in case he returned.

It had been nine years since he’d gone up the hill with nothing but his ordinary clothes. For all they knew a crow might have pecked his eyes, but crows don’t eat bones and the search had been thorough, the men beating the bracken and the heather for all the days of a week, covering the width and the depth of the valley.

“You’ll be careful,” she’d said to her man that morning, as he and the other stood on the door mat, as if waiting for her permission. He wouldn’t meet her eye. And they’d left, between two blinks of an eye. There. And then not there.

The commotion outside distracted her from her writing. Crows cawing. It felt as if the world belonged to them more than to men, these days. Then the bang against the window. She stared at the smear of blood, her hands grasping the table, her breath coming in gasps. To the door, flinging it wide. On the step the dead bird. The three flapping into the distance. Their cries of triumph.

Her man and the other had reached the summit, heard from there the noise of the attack down by the house, but couldn’t see it. Or see the woman come out. See her dart into the bracken.

When they got back the house was dark and the fire had all but gone out. They searched, but their hearts told them the truth. And the one cursed the other for the dare, himself for accepting it and the crows for their part in the ills of the world.

Story © Cath Barton, Illustration © Bonnie Helen Hawkins

My twelve days of Christmas – 12 – Dreams

Relish your dreams for the year ahead. If you wake in the night turn your thoughts from your worries to your dreams, your dreams of what you would and can do. As we plunge into 2018 here are my wishes for you, the person reading this (thank you!):

Goethe.PNGQuote from Goethe

 

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Quote from Neil Gaiman

My twelve days of Christmas – 11 – The short story

As a writer of shorter fiction I obviously hope that readers will want to buy and read short stories. I’m currently reading Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which you will see described as a novel but is actually made up of short stories. All feature the character Olive Kitteridge, but each can stand alone. I wonder if the book would have been so successful if it had been promoted as a collection of short stories rather than a novel!

Anyway, I look forward to reading new short stories in 2018. The longlist for the Galley Beggar short story prize has just been announced, and all are available to read here.

I also greatly look forward to the posthumous publication in June of a new book of short stories by Helen Dunmore:

Girl, Balancing and Other Stories

The Christmas season is nearly over, but  before you let it go enjoy Helen Dunmore’s story  A House by the Sea, published by The Independent in 2008.

Helen Dunmore story illustration.PNG