Show Not Tell

2013-12-04 11.56.49Which version would grab your attention?

This:

As she entered the restaurant he was surprised to see her.  He felt guilty that he’d been caught on a date with another woman, especially one he didn’t fancy.  He feared his marriage could be over.

Or this:

As she entered the restaurant, pain prickled behind his eyes like a thousand tiny needles. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be miles away, tied up in meetings, entertaining clients; not sweeping, refined and elegant, through the sort of scruffy bistro they would never visit together,  to catch him with his pants down.  Or as good as. 

As the wrecking ball of his betrayal surged towards him, the woman across the table – what was her name? – yabbered on and on like a drumming bunny, blistering his ears.  He could see the chewed food between her teeth as she talked and her knife and fork screeched against the cheap crockery like fingernails on a chalkboard.  She wasn’t pretty or chic.  There was no subtlety in the satin bow that peeked out between grotesquely inflated breasts, nor the scrape of her grimy toes probing and poking at his ankles beneath the table.  He realised he neither wanted nor needed the sex that was palpably on offer.

He pleaded with the napkin on his lap for inspiration; he needed a credible explanation.  What possible reason could he have for being seated at a table dressed with a paper sheet and a dribbling candle in a bottle, with a woman whose name he couldn’t even recall?  All the while, his wife, his beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated wife, glided towards them, her eyes wide, lips taut, the hint of blood flaming across her décolletage. 

His heart rattled beneath his breastbone. This time there was no wriggling out of it.  The demise of his marriage was knocking on the door.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass” Anton Chekhov

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Small Beginnings

My coffeeI was having coffee with a friend yesterday afternoon in the lounge at the Runnymede Hotel, by the River Thames at Egham. It reminded me that in this very same room on Friday 26th March, 2010, I had given birth.

I’d gone there to meet my writing buddy. It was a few weeks after she and I had participated in our first Arvon Foundation writing course. We’d become friends and had begun to motivate one another to realise our shared ambition to write fiction. We decided to do a writing exercise, just for fun. You might think budding writers have a strange concept of fun – and you’d be right.

The lounge was crowded. Given its convenient location close to the M25, the Runnymede is always packed with earnest looking businesspeople engaging in earnest meetings or enduring even more earnest job interviews. As it was Friday there was a sprinkling of casually dressed early/long weekenders too and a few tables of smartly attired Ladies Who Lunch.

We decided for our exercise, to pick a person in the lounge and, armed with nothing more than the physical image and our imaginations, create a character for our respective novels. I should add neither of us had much more than 5,000 words under our belt at that point – barely more than an essay.

My friend took as her subject a youthful looking man wearing a friendship bracelet. But he was a keeper. Today, 3½ years later, he has a modest role – even a line or two of dialogue – in her story. I chose a man in his mid-fifties with thinning hair. His appearance was at odds with the sea of Hugo Boss and Paul Smith that surrounded him, and he looked uncomfortable as he sat alone in a room that hummed with animated conversation.

Henry entered the world after a very short labour – I think we allowed ourselves between 5 and 10 minutes for the exercise. I took the image and wrote a scene where, having arrived on holiday (that’s the holiday, where my story takes place), he emerges uncertainly on the first morning, into the glare of the sunlight and the scrutiny of his fellow guests. From those few lines – which have been edited but remain almost as they were first written – he’s a major character now. He’s evolved into a bit of a misfit and there is much about him that makes me squirm, but as he’s matured into his part and exerted his influence on the plot, my affection for him has grown.

Here’s the short piece I wrote back in March 2010, as it appears now in Singled Out. It isn’t the first time the reader meets Henry, but it was the first time that I met him:

Henry appeared, wearing a crumpled short-sleeved shirt. Hairless milk-white legs poked out beneath its hem and drew the eye reluctantly down to feet clad in scuffed sandals and, in the long tradition of the English by the sea, a pair of tired beige socks. Flabby buttocks had been squashed into a pair of Speedos and a frizz of grey hair peeked out from under a sunhat. He looked nervously around as he hovered by the edge of the pool then scrutinised the sky. Eventually he settled on the far side, away from James and Brenda and most of the others. She watched as he clattered a lounger then a parasol across the concrete to his desired spot before spreading a frayed bath towel to partially cover the bed. He extracted a bottle from his beach bag and slathered the contents on to his arms and legs. Finally he smeared a greasy sheen on to his face. He adjusted himself inside his Speedos, then squatted awkwardly on the edge of the lounger and rummaged in his bag, bringing out a dog-eared paperback…

Vive l’escargot

Exc1One of those morning writing practice prompts recently brought a particular food-related experience to mind (the topic was Eating Out).  I’ve written a lot of food into my first novel, so I embraced this exercise.  What came out as I kept my pen moving was not fiction, but a happy childhood memory:

I was accustomed as a child to eating out in restaurants for Sunday lunch – we did this perhaps two weeks out of four.  This was more than a little unusual in 1960’s and 70’s Britain.  But my parents had what were then considered to be exotic tastes, for garlic, herbs and spices, wines and dishes with names nobody could pronounce – all alien to the typical suburban dining table.

I remember the delights of Luigis, Trattoria Valeria, La Primavera and other regular haunts in North and West London, in the days when prawn cocktail and minestrone soup were the height of sophistication; when pollo sorpresa (or chicken kiev as we know it today), wasn’t something you could bring home from the supermarket in a plastic dish; when grissini sticks were a novelty.

A favourite of mine, and something you were guaranteed never to get at home – even in a home as gastronomically adventurous as ours – was l’escargots a l’ail, yes, snails in garlic butter.  I loved those half-dozen gummy grey blobs concealed within their shells and nesting in their dimpled tin dish.  I became adept at handling the special toolkit that arrived in place of a knife and fork; the intriguing tongs you had to squeeze to open in order to clutch the shell, allowing you to hook out its inhabitant with the tiny two-pronged pick.  I would empty every dribble of melted garlic butter from the shell into a puddle on the dish, then sweep my impaled snail round and around, harvesting as much of the glossy dressing on to my prize as I could.  Then the trick was to get it to my mouth before warm butter drizzled on to my Sunday best, then chew it hard, like a lump of bubble gum, until it surrendered.  Five more unctuous mouthfuls followed the first; then there was the basket on the table, crammed with chunks of crusty French bread to scrape and dip and mop with, until every last dribble of melted garlic butter had been soaked up.

My father, who is no longer alive, is central to my memories of Sunday lunches out. His craving for a mighty Chateauneuf du Pape, when Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower were the order of the day; his delight in anything – anything at all – that came laced with garlic; his all-consuming sweet-tooth; the way he would engage with the proprietors who, when they realised his passion for their food, would produce special this, and extra that, and little treats, and even occasionally not charge for the flaming zambucas or brandies that always rounded off the feast (for the adults, only for the adults).  And their generosity was rewarded, for we would always come again, on another Sunday.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

IMG_0385I was given a copy of ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves at Christmas. Not out of the blue – it was on my Amazon wish list – but it was the perfect moment to receive this treasure.  For those who don’t know, ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ is a guide and encouragement to write, to develop your creativity and practice your craft.  At its heart is an urging to ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’  The book is designed to help the novice writer develop a regular writing habit, and it includes topics for a simple 15-minute daily writing exercise.

I write copy almost every day for clients, but my creative writing – still essentially a hobby – gets squeezed into the odd hour here and there and weekend afternoons.  I’ve never tried daily writing practice but I thought, it’s probably a good idea, it can’t hurt and it would certainly be a helpful discipline to establish, given that I cherish the ambition to become a celebrated and successful novelist (dream it, believe it, achieve it… right?).

But this exercise is about creativity, and I was faced with a dull brown notebook.  Judy Reeves says keep the notebooks cheap, because you’ll get through a lot of them.  It’s a good point, but I’m a paper crafter and to me, a plain brown cover is a surface which cries out to be crafted, elevated beyond its humble origins.  So it was that after Christmas I took to my paper and card, rubber stamps, embellishments and sticky stuff, and pimped-up that plain old notebook in time for the New Year – you can see the result above.

Then, on 1st January 2013, I began, following Judy Reeves simple guidelines (write freehand for 15 minutes without pause or review) with the first random topic: Things that enter by way of silence.  And almost one month in – 26 topics, 56 pages of illegible scrawl laid down – I’m revelling in the experience.  Almost every day, it has surprised me.  Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I have surprised me.  Many times I think I’m writing drivel, but when I read it back, I find it has unexpected qualities, depth, surprising insights, interesting conjunctions of words and phrases, scenarios, senses and observations that seem to have come from nowhere and landed on the page. Not always of course – sometimes I’ve written genuine drivel – but remarkable things have emerged on to the page often enough to spur me on to keep practicing.

I’ve discovered other things too, like after a lifetime’s use of keyboard over pen, my left hand can’t tolerate the speed at which my mind races when the thoughts begin to flow – it floods with cramp-like pain after less than half a page.  Judy says you’ll be surprised how tight you’ll grip the pen, and she’s right. I’m learning to let go a little, and my hand lasts longer after 26 days, than it did on 1st January.

So I plan to stay with this surprising experience, at least for now. It’s nurturing my creative confidence and it’s throwing up a diverse assortment of treasures – ideas, images, imaginings and truths – and any one of these could be the germ of a great idea….

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Procrastination

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

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

Today
Energy evaporated
Motivation melted away

Every task
Will still be there
Tomorrow

Today
I wrote this

Is it a poem?

Who says?

(c) Julie Lawford 2011