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.

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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.

Reading and learning

I’m soaking up everything I can find on writing fiction at the moment. OK, that’s not strictly true. There is far more written than I can possibly find the time or energy to read, especially if I want to find some time and energy for… writing. Apparently, much of it is of questionable quality too, so I’m told. But here are a few books I’ve already found helpful:

  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham. Good advice, practical and entertaining at the same time.
  • Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I’m glad I waded through the impenetrable first half of this much recommended book, because the second half turned out to have some very sound advice.
  • Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff. Easy to digest and good advice from the perspective of a writers’ coach.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Advice on technique from a Master, combined with fascinating biographical insights. A must-read, whatever your preferred genre.
  • Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. Very usable advice, particularly on two major stumbling-blocks for new authors – showing-not-telling and choosing your POVs wisely.

I’m also now reading fiction that doesn’t immediately appeal to me as being “my sort of book”, watching for technique and writerly skills as well as the pleasure of a good story, well told. And on a cold and soggy Sunday and I can think of no better way to pass a few hours than to make a comfortable nest on my sofa, line up a mug of coffee and a biscuit and stick my head in a book.