More is More

As a professional copywriter, I’m often required to write to a word count to fit a defined space in a  web site, brochure or e-communication. I find the best approach is to write what feels necessary to convey the message and then sharpen and sharpen, finding more powerful words to replace flabby phrases, cutting out unnecessary ones and so on, until I arrive back at the designated word count.

I hear it’s not that different when editing your novel’s first draft. Some people say you should expect to cut at least 10% of your word count simply by eliminating superfluous adverbs, finding more concise phrasing and crossing through all the redundant and’s, but’s, that’s and was-ings. That’s never mind what you do to improve the narrative itself.

I look forward to it – mainly because it will feel like an amazing achievement simply to have reached the second-draft stage. For the time being, I’m still on my first draft. And here, encouraged by my esteemed mentor, the job is very different. ‘What else?’ she asks. What else? What can I ADD to enhance the scene, show another facet of my character’s state of mind, deepen the experience and immerse the reader more thoroughly in the time and place and space? ‘Stay here for longer,’ she says. ‘Let the reader into this scene,’ and ‘I want more of this’. I think, I must be doing something right – and that’s encouraging – but it’s not quite right enough.

It’s a challenge to this neophyte, would-be novelist, still flexing and connecting creative synapses and discovering what it means to move beyond fact and marketing-speak into storytelling and imagination. I’ve written WHAT ELSE? on a card and fixed it to my PC monitor. From now on, every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph will get the question, WHAT ELSE? That is, until it comes time for the second draft massacre, when I guess the question will be what else can I delete. . . ?


Hot flushes of inspiration

I’m in my early 50s (best to be honest about it) and lately, menopause has hit me like a blow to the solar-plexus, followed by a punch on the nose and a kick in the shins. I lie wide awake at stupid o’clock drenched in rivers of perspiration; my nights are spent whipping the duvet off, then on, then off, then on again – windows open, windows closed.  Throughout the day, in a dumb stupor through lack of sleep, I flush at inopportune moments, heartbeat galloping out of my chest.  I’ve acquired itchy-scratchy, eye-watering allergies for the first time in my life.

My waistline has exploded outwards and I’ve waved a fond farewell to my once cuddly hourglass.  My chins (two at the last count) have blown up like helium balloons, much like my ankles on a warm day, and I boast a cup size which is heading towards the middle of the alphabet (well maybe that’s not such a bad thing).

Befuddled on a tiny fraction of what I used to be able to drink, blotchy-necked and sweating from every pore, I spend nights out with the girls exchanging tips on the ins and outs of HRT and the best eye cream to ward off crows-feet.

Worst of all, my head is full of cotton-wool; I forget names and faces and I can’t locate words that I’ve known for ever; my fingers find all the right keys, but all in the wrong order.  If I don’t write it down, it’s gone for good.

But for all this mid-life fun-and-games there’s an upside, and it’s this – a conviction that now is my time.  And as the cliché goes, if not now, then when?  So I’m fighting mental meltdown, myriad distractions and my sticky, blurry eyes to give free rein to the would-be novelist inside me – just to see if I can.

So far I have 45,000 words laid down and a clear outline for the 45,000 or so more needed to complete the first draft by Easter 2012.  Beyond that point, there’s everything to play for.

Yes, but is it Poetry?

I own just two poetry books; an anthology of poems from the First World War, and ‘Small Dreams of a Scorpion’ by Spike Milligan. Beyond these two volumes, I can count on my fingers – and not trouble my thumbs – the poems that have made a lasting impression on me.

I don’t get poetry. Part of the problem is that I have little or no sense of what constitutes a good poem. I read prize-winning poems and fail even to understand what makes them poems, let alone what makes them amongst the best of their genre.

I had to write some poetry a while ago as an exercise. Resistance was futile. I didn’t enjoy the process; I felt self-conscious and foolish. But did the end results have any poetic merit? Or were they a pile of meaningless, indulgent toss?

I had not the faintest idea then; nor do I have now.

So I thought I might put my three so-called poems into the public domain, to see if anybody could help me form an opinion about them:

The Front Room

Clock ticking on the wall
Pendulum swinging, left to right
Tick… tock… tick… tock…
Time trickling away, in a timeless room.

Always aired, flawless and pristine
Just in case
Ready for special guests
– when will they come?
Curtains drawn
– can’t let the sun spoil the rug.
Three stiff high-backed armchairs, carefully posed
Starched antimacassars defending delicate fabric
From Brylcremed heads
– which never assault them.
A neat arrangement of favoured furniture
Around a stone-cold grate
Scuttle, loaded with coals
Held in reserve, ready for action
– never needed.
Upright piano, standing to attention
Rigid, musty
Polished to a high gloss
Slightly out of tune, if it were ever played
– it never is.
Small, round tea-table
Shrouded in a pretty cloth, hand-embroidered
– never admired.
In the cabinet, best silverware buffed and gleaming
Teapot, milk jug, sugar bowl and tongs
Waiting for their call to service
– it never comes.

Clock ticking on the wall
Pendulum swinging, left to right
Tick… tock… tick… tock…
Life slipping away, in a lifeless room.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hartz Mountains in a Thunderstorm

Three miles along a six mile path
No gain in turning back
No conversation
A vacuum where love once lived
Only the crunch-crunch crunch-crunch
Of rubber soles on gravel
Two pairs, no longer in step

Towering firs, centuries old
Block out all but the meekest
Chequerboard squares of light
Once sky-blue, then pebble-grey
Now the hues of flint and slate
Smothering the darkening path

The too-warm still air
Suffocates unspoken thoughts
And shared regrets
Weighing heavier and more humid
With each crunch-crunch crunch-crunch

A breeze stirs the branches to life
Gentle breaths at first
Then restless – gasping
Pressing through pine and redwood
Moving the unmovable
Nature’s towering monuments

In the distance
The caw of crows seeking sanctuary
Further still a roll and a rumble fills the air
Then another – closer
The trees awaken
As whispering breeze billows to gusty wind
Snatching at feeble branches
Tearing and tugging
Twigs and needles resist
Then surrender
Then fall

The first huge plop of rain lands on the gravel path
Then another – then hundreds – thousands more
The wind whips swollen droplets
Into needle-sharp stripes
Lashing at our bare arms
Punishing our silence
Still we walk
Crunch-crunch crunch-crunch

Sodden, soaked, drenched
Wretched and wringing wet
A crackling flash of light directly above
Finally draws us together

I am held
For the first time in for ever
My protector

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


How little can you do?
How much can you not do?

I did not answer my emails
I did not update my calendar
I did not edit my draft

Energy evaporated
Motivation melted away

Every task
Will still be there

I wrote this

Is it a poem?

Who says?

(c) Julie Lawford 2011

Not-so-perfect tenses

Another month, another mentoring session.  This time, it was all about verb tenses – and the tension and immediacy they either deliver or dilute.

I last had to think about tenses a very long time ago, when I occupied a grainy and much carved-upon school desk. That was back in the day when, if you weren’t concentrating, the teacher could still get away with firing a blackboard rubber or a piece of chalk at your skull.  Even then, when called upon to ‘parse the following sentence’ I could rarely get beyond locating nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Ask me which tense the sentence was written in, and with anything beyond simple present and simple past, my otherwise capable brain would throw its metaphorical hands in the air and surrender.

My mentor cast a spotlight on three tenses which weaken my narrative.    Until she showed me what I’d been doing, I hadn’t seen it.  In case you’re hobbled by the same grammatical blind-spot as I am, here they are:

Past perfect:

  • Examples – he had studied in London; she had waited for some time

Past continuous:

  • Examples – he was browsing the internet when I rang; she was waiting for me when I got off the plane

Past perfect continuous:

  • They had been chatting for several minutes before I arrived; he had been standing at the bar for the last hour when the police arrived

I’m not going to blather on about how and why each tense is used – there are numerous resources on the internet for that.  The point my mentor was making was that for my narrative to have the most impact, the reader has to be there for the action.  They don’t need to be held at arm’s length, or told what has happened backstage, as it were; they need to see the story unfolding in front of them.


The girl’s hands were trembling becomes The girl’s hands trembled

Most of the guests had come down for dinner becomes One by one the guests came down for dinner

And what about this clunker:

Henry had hung back. Whilst everybody else had crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he had taken up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer.

Modified only slightly, it has a more immediate feel:

Henry hung back.  Whilst everybody else crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he took up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer. 

The impact that choice of tense has on a narrative seems obvious once it’s pointed  out; but I guess that’s what being a neophyte is about – and I love the learning.  Now the burden is on me to go back through my 45,000 or so words and make sure she doesn’t catch me out again.

The Sweetie Snafflers

One aspect of learning to write more authentically is learning to listen and observe what goes on around.  I didn’t realise until I consciously started to do this, just how little I used to notice.

I’ve turned up the volume on the jangling hubbub of everyday life; the station, the train, the pub, offices and shopping centres, the park, the ubiquitous coffee houses.  All have become astoundingly rich sources of real-life dialogue.  Strangely, much of this, when you write it down, sounds, well, almost…. unrealistic.  Truth being stranger than fiction perhaps.

I work on occasion in a client’s marketing department.  Here we keep a table from which the salespeople are invited to help themselves to an assortment of sales aids:  brochures, DVDs, and few freebie giveaways and – most popular of all – a large bowl of mints in branded wrappers.

In my pursuit of observations on everyday life, it’s been fascinating to notice how people help themselves – for they do, all day long – from the sweetie bowl.

Some are surreptitious, not wanting to be noticed by the occupants of the four nearby desks.  They grab in passing, but it snares them no more than one or two mints at a time.  A slightly slowed pace past the goodies table, a quick flick of the wrist and –  success! – a mint in hand and nobody noticed.  Except they did.

There are the entitled. They stand directly in front of the bowl and engage in a bit of chit-chat.  They are in fact paying for their sweets with a few minutes of polite conversation.   Having passed the time of day with the marketing minions they have earned their dip in the bowl, and they do it with an, “I’ll just have a few of these whilst I’m here” – then they’re away.

There are the apologists – they are the opposite of the entitled.  They believe they should not be dipping into the bowl, but are tempted beyond their best behaviour by the sight of a pile of free sweets.  They pull twisted, apologetic faces and sheepish grins, expressing faux-innocence and helpless guilt, as they pocket one or two, or maybe even a greedy handful, of treats.

Lastly, there are the Alpha Sales – deserving of their capitalisation.  They are the double-plus entitled – the ones who don’t have to bother with the polite conversation to earn sweets.  For these dippers, it’s not about earning, it’s about there for the taking.  It’s about abundance and indulgence and an unquestioning self-belief.  Their pockets shamelessly loaded, they brazen it out with a charming smile and a wink, because that’s just what they do, every day of their lives.

Is it overly-simplistic to draw meaningful conclusions about individuals from the way they dip the bowl for mints? I confess our little team does it all the time.  But when you’re looking for ways to show-not-tell something about a fictional character, the  sweetie bowl snaffle is a delight.

It’s a struggle

I think it’s time for another linguistic grumble. I’m struggling to come to terms with…. the way this particular cliché sends me into orbit.  It’s lazy, unimaginative writing and it pops up all over newspapers and especially in news bulletins on the TV. On any given day, millions of people all over the world are struggling to come to terms with stuff.  Most of it is quite serious stuff – deaths, natural disasters, redundancies and other horrible crises and tragedies. They deserve better than to be bagged-and-tagged with this overblown and over-used phrase.

On committing a murder

I’m deep into writing my first novel. On Friday I had almost 50,000 words, a clear story outline and a plan to finish the first draft in time for Christmas. By the end of the weekend, I had closer to 40,000 words and a dead body on my hands. I have murdered my first character.

Well, not murdered exactly. But he’s gone, completely disappeared. He has, as they say, ceased to be. He is an ex-character.

After much debate and soul-searching and a not insignificant piece of feedback from an author I deeply respect, who also happens to be my mentor on this project, I decided it was time for this particular character to fall off his perch.

I spent the better part of the weekend slashing great chunks of narrative from my draft and rewriting other sections – or planning how they would be rewritten, since I ran out of hours. I think I’m satisfied with the results, but I can’t tell just yet as I’m still mourning Gavin’s demise – it’s all too painful at the moment.

It’s an interesting exercise, putting observations once made and words once spoken by Gavin into the mouths of other people. It may be perfectly credible for another character to raise the same point, interact with the same person or reach the same conclusion as he, thus move the plot forward in the desired way; but each of these scenes requires a different voice – different choice of language, tone, degree of subtlety, or lack thereof. For this novice writer, it’s a challenge and it’s a learning.

I relish both, I think. But ask me again in a few weeks.