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

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…

One word at a time

scissors-editI’m line editing.  After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one.  With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.

Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:

  • Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
  • Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
  • Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun.  Oops.
  • Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
  • Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
  • It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have.  In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.

This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds.  Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue.  Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail.  I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.

It’s not perfect – how can it be?  But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls.  But for now, it’s enough.

This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers.  Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.

On Scrumping

appleAnother 15-minute writing practice, tidied up here and there.  The instruction was ‘Write about Picking Fruit’.  Food features significantly in my first novel (editing underway), and I welcome any excuse to get the digestive juices flowing.

Today there’s a housing estate where the orchard used to grow at the end of her garden; tidy little boxes and strips of grey tarmac replacing gnarly apple trees and knee-high grass. She would always call it the new estate, thought it was no longer new, being at least 40 years established. Most locals couldn’t stretch their minds back far enough to recall the orchard, nor the farm to which it was welded.  But she would never forget.

As a child she would be coaxed into the daylight hours by a dawn chorus of a thousand birds nesting and resting in the orchard. Playing in the garden, she would gaze over the fence to where the boughs of a hundred trees bent tantalisingly low, their plump fruit beyond the grasp of small hands. She’d watch them growing all through the spring and summer, from the moment she could first distinguish the little bumps, like marbles, that appeared as the blossom fell. Those bumps would swell, fed by the sun and the rain, until they were so big that if she could only reach them, one fruit alone would fill and even overflow her outstretched hands.

She wished herself into the middle of the orchard, skipping through the grass, stroking the peeling trunks, standing on tiptoes to smell the acidic sweetness of the nearly ripened fruit. She wished herself to a spot where she couldn’t see a building in any direction, only trees, their crinkled branches teased by the breeze, leaves flittering the sunlight. And everywhere, the swollen red-green blush of apples, brimming with life and goodness.

One day her father played with her in the garden. He noticed her yearning glances towards the orchard. ‘How’d you fancy popping over the fence to snaffle us a few?’ he said. Shocked, she examined his features to see if he was joking, but there was mischief in his eyes. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’ll lift you over the fence. But you’ll have to be quick about it – you don’t want to get caught!’

Her little heart fluttered like a trapped bird as her father grasped her waist and flew her up in the air and over the fence. She ran into the orchard, thrilled to feel the tall grasses as they tickled her bare legs. It was just as she’d wished it – the apples hung so low she could reach dozens of them, so many it was hard to choose. She plucked two from a single tree and with one in each hand, ran back to the fence and handed them across to her father. ‘Go on,’ he encouraged, ‘just a couple more – we mustn’t be greedy.’ So she ran back to another tree and harvested two more fruits. She carried them high and proud and skipped back to the fence, where he lifted her back into the garden. Together they rinsed their haul under water from the garden hose. And when she took her first bite from the first apple she’d ever picked for herself straight from the tree, its juice, ripe and earthy, sweet and sharp, flooded her mouth and overran in a sticky drizzle down her chin.

In praise of Costa

My coffeeI had some retail therapy to attend to, so I headed into Uxbridge early this morning. I fancied kicking off the day in my local Costa Coffee, loading up with caffeine before attacking the shops. I took my writing practice notepad since mornings are my time for this new habit. Fifteen minutes on ‘a jewel’ and I was done – not one of my more inspired mornings, I admit.

At 08:30 and before the shops open, Costa Coffee is a haven, comfortable and subdued; a few early customers like myself, but none of the hectic crush that a busy shopping Saturday will later bring. The counter service was cheery, my Americano strong and delicious, my toastie crisp yet gooey and brought to my table. Seal’s Kiss from a Rose was the first track on the playlist I noticed and it was followed by a swell of Central Perk style mid-market soft rock. All very nice and right up my street.

The minutes nudged towards 09:00 and the business of beverage was well underway. Coffee machines whizzed, clanked and hissed, plates and cups clattered, the fridge displays rattled and the air conditioning hummed – all composing a vibrant mechanical backing track that was not at all unpleasant. Conversations ebbed and flowed – regulars acknowledging each other, friends meeting up, two guys behind newspapers sharing occasional observations, someone debating the climate of gun crime in South Africa; several accents in English, a chatter of Polish I think, perhaps from behind the counter.

A blast of chill air funnelled round from the door every time someone entered – I don’t mind this either since I’m at that age when I seem perpetually to feel too warm. A man came in, wrapped in a donkey jacket and woolly hat, a young girl grabbing a take-out cup, another swaddled in fake fur; a young mother struggling with a push-chair adorned with colourful toys, a teen in skinny jeans and giant headphones that looked like earmuffs.

What is it about the aroma of fresh coffee and toast? It takes me to a place of comfort and warmth, of pleasure in small things, of calm contentment. Of all the myriad coffee shops where I live – and there are too many – Costa is my favourite. I love the cosy burgundy/brown decor, the fact that there’s always somewhere to sit, upstairs if not downstairs – if you can survive the giant spiral staircase without decanting your beverage on to unsuspecting customers below. I’m not somebody who shows up every day, only every once in a while, but when I do, Costa rewards me with a heartening half-hour.