Thursday, 29 August 2013

Hoping, not today




Watching as his wife lies still,
paramedics beside her,
already feeling lost.

They walked a few steps together
before she fell.

He's holding their bags, her bags,
he picked them up
from the bottom of the steps.

His breath held deep in his chest,
comforted by the close, knitted top,
she tells him to wear
under his jacket.

Not knowing if today
is when he goes home
without her.

Knowing it is always the way
these stories end,

and still
hoping, not today,
not her,
not now.


This poem came to me after I had been shopping for the day and, on our way back to the car, passed a sad tableau of an old man looking down as paramedics helped his wife. She was unconscious (or worse) and all he could do was watch, and hold the bags they had filled on their own shopping trip.

I didn't want to stop and stare, it was enough for him to have this painful time, but people went to and fro around him, as he waited on the steps, while his wife lay on the ground at the base of them.

They were a very elderly couple, and it struck me how many years they had probably been together and what it must mean for one to be left without the other. Even if she survived and recovered, there was that dread, that knowledge of one day being alone.

Such a sad image, and yet, at the heart of it a solid and lasting marriage that meant they spent many years in a more normal, everyday kind of love, one which must be familiar to many long-time 'marrieds'.

I never found out what happened and only have what I saw on the day. This one image stays with me, and I often think of them.

Amanda J Harrington

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Friday, 23 August 2013

Who knows not grief and merely sighs for love




If you must sit and sigh
And have the blues,
Why don't you try
To realise
That there are sighs and sighs
And blues and blues
From which to choose?
There's heavenly blues and blues of tranquil seas,
Both pleasant; if you have them, pray have these;
And, when you sigh, be like the turtle-dove,
Who knows not grief and merely sighs for love.
John Kendrick Bangs

I've been working my way through an old Edwardian book today, a compilation of magazines for women and girls. I came across this poem and liked the punchy, modern feel to it, mixed with an older style near the end.

It made me think about how close we still are to the Edwardian era, even though so far removed from it by time and harsh, worldly experience. How much they looked forward to the future, while struggling to hold on to the past they felt was so important to them!


These days, like in Victorian times, we rush headlong into everything new, while behaving as if we know what we're doing. I wonder how long it will be before we learn some of the introspection of the Edwardians?

Amanda J Harrington

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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Madness, just this way please




I know we're not meant to use all of our brains, but what little I do use is often dampened by lack of sleep or different stresses. My writing comes secondary to life a lot of the time, so if I'm suffering from low energy, then I have to use what I have to get through the day.

This impacts on my creativity in such an odd way that I was unwilling to admit it was true until this last week. My son had a casual job that meant starting at 6.30am. I'm a confirmed night owl and 6.30 is the time of the morning when I'd be comatose and with a few hours sleep still ahead of me.

We had to get up at 5.40am, so that I could give him a lift to work. Like good children, we all went to bed early - or early for us. Each day, our bedtime happened sooner and sooner, until by Thursday we had it right.

It still meant I only had about six hours sleep. I was waiting for the alarm some nights, as well as waiting for 'proper' bedtime. When I did sleep, I dreamed more than usual but with less nightmares.

My days were spent wondering how long til I could sleep again, but the longer days, with more time spent awake, also meant I got lots of things done that I usually ignore in favour of writing time. As for the writing, there was very little.

My brain was working as it should, even though I was tired. I felt more stable mentally, probably because I was too tired to get worked up about anything. Physically I had more energy. and yet, sitting down to write brought barely a word.

When I did write it felt like forcing a concrete block through a hole in the wall - it fitted where I put it, but the whole thing was an effort and I came away with scratches. By the end of the week, histrionics set in and I decided I'd have to choose between being a rested, rational human bean and a writer.

On Friday night, I slept and part of Saturday morning too. Then wrote some of my Scottish ghost story and it was a success. I even decided that some of what I'd written as a morning person was also a success. Perhaps that concrete block isn't so bad after all?

Strangely, I still feel I need to choose though. I could think clearly about what I wanted to write but without the buzz of 'I must do...' It's as if being fully creative requires me to be plugged in to some unhealthy power source where rational thought is a few steps down the hall from me.

Shall I be healthy and sleep well? Go to bed early and have normal dreams? Or shall I go to bed late, have nightmares and sleep late? Shall I drift through the day, with low energy, but write easily and quickly? Or should I be a grown up and learn how to write while still managing the rest of life?

I think a full-scale experiment is in order. I need more than a week of this morning business, to see if I can make it work. A month, shall we say? With regular peeks into how it affects everything else?

I'll end by saying one thing, before I get any helpful messages from early birds. Some of us function better at night, that's just the way it is. Even if it works and I start getting up soon and going to bed like a good girl, I won't be anything other than a night owl tucking in her wings. But if it means I can find some balance, I have to give it a go.

Can I really say good bye to the nightmares, though?


Amanda J Harrington

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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Taking a moment




I've heard it said that you should consider throwing away your first chapter and start your book with the second. The assumption is that we all whitter away about nothing in our first chapter and only get down to the story 'proper' in the second one.

I admit this is possibly true, for me and many others. I've picked up books over the years which have a gentle, even slow, introduction to their main story. That first chapter takes you along, like a little boat on a wide, easy river. You drift, hand lazing in the water as you gaze up at the trees lining the banks.

Later, you might have more excitement and be taken on a journey of adventure and enchantment. Then the real action starts, with you and your characters battling all kinds of difficulties, barely able to draw breath until the end of the book.

You see how this approach assumes that stories must have action? That is the message I have always taken from the advice to start with the second chapter, that as the 'action' starts then, so should the book. And there we have a dangerous assumption.

We are assuming that all books have to be busy, that we need action and drama to keep our readers interested. We are not allowed to consider a book that takes us the full length of that slow river. We are supposed to appreciate action over relaxation in every story, even if the action is mental or emotional.

If you don't have this movement, this irritation of the senses, then your book will be too dull and quiet and readers will turn away, looking for something more stimulating.

How true is all this? I don't mean to suggest that readers want boring books, just that a quiet book can be satisfying and healing in a way that others cannot. When we pick up a book, we don't always want to be energised or swallowed up by a heart-rending tale. Sometimes, we just want our hand held, softly, while we sit by the water's edge.

If a book starts quietly, is it then at fault for not proclaiming, in the very first line, that there will be drama later? No, I believe not. Setting the scene or having a more melodic introduction does not mean there can't be cymbals.

At the heart of it, suggesting that we need to toss away these gentle openings is subscribing to the belief that all books are inherently similar, which then suggests all readers are similar too.

Improve your story to the best of your ability and make it speak to you and your readers. If doing that means changing it to a better shape, then do it, but don't assume that making it wilder or more willful will be to everyone's taste.

Sometimes, we need those extra moments to stand at the edge of the path, taking in the sights before we start on our journey. Those moments help us appreciate everything that comes after and let us know that today we are going to see something new.

Amanda J Harrington

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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Multiplicity




Lately, I feel like I'm in a crowded room, full of people who look just like me but all want to talk about completely different things. Welcome to the world of the multi-genre writer.

Let me be blunt, so as not to mislead you. My heart belongs to fantasy and the gothic side of life, where turning down the wrong street can mean changing worlds. I base all my fantasy stories in solid, real-life worlds. I don't like talking about elves called Iaethian or Wombat World, where anyone who isn't a wombat has to wear a pink jumpsuit and sing when they talk.

I love writing about things which are close to me, that cross-over between the real and the unreal. So much of my own life seems unreal that most of this genre feels semi-autobiographical. And in the case of Cedar, the Ghost Killer, some of it is as true for me as it is for him.

There's also non-fiction, children's and adult fiction, poetry and short stories.

And then I decided to write stories for women's magazines, heartwarming tales where no ghost could tread, nothing horrible must happen and characters should find a way out of the darkness (which must not be so very dark that you cannot see).

This was a stretch for me. I had to put aside my impulse to write scary stuff and concentrate on the life-enhancing warmth of true friendship and family ties. I felt like I was living a double life.

Then, like turning against the wind, I went back to Cedar. One day I was writing about the start of a touching friendship, the next a voice was shrieking through time as water flowed backwards.

I think it's important for any writer to be able to live at least a dual life, where you can be one person in the flesh and another on the page. Many personalities make life complicated (I should know) but also help the writing to succeed.

What happens, though, when you start to feel crowded? Do you have a break? Or continue challenging yourself?

I'm going to carry on with the challenge. It's difficult to be so many people at once but it is entertaining. I move through scenarios in my head, not knowing where I'll end up next. It's rather like dodging your own imagination on a forest path.

When it gets too much, I'll have a day off and edit something soothing, like a blood-filled passage or a land of living ice. That should set me right. In th meantime, it's back to the heartwarming and the inability to know who I am when I wake up in the morning.

Amanda J Harrington

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Friday, 2 August 2013

The Planning Conundrum. To plan or not to plan?




I think myself and RT Teen represent the two sides of the Planning Conundrum.

RT's writing is complex, very descriptive with unusual and arresting dialogue. He plans voraciously, like a major tactician plotting his assault on the world economy. For RT, every eventuality is thought about and inserted into the plot at the perfect moment.

Characters are created, with great thought put into their looks, personalities, motivations, interaction with one another and, most importantly, destiny within the story.

Background characters are ranged, more than pawns on the battlefield, like a supporting cast, ready to bring the whole epic scheme to a grand finale.

Descriptive passages are designed with a deep love, as if RT walks through, creating each blade of grass himself. And then, the storyline itself begins. Eventually.

For RT, his writing exists in the planning stage, perhaps even more than it exists in the actual writing. He loves to plan and feels it's a fundamentally creative process.

Now I'm kind of wishing I'd gone first...

So, usually I have an idea for a story, either in a dream or as I'm drifting through the house, doing something else. The lightning bolt will hit me and I'll stop, amazed at the vista opening up before me. If I dream the idea, I'll often wake and quickly make a note on my phone before going back to sleep to add more detail.

The next day I'll rip the laptop away from either teen with feverish abandon. I must write it! I have to start it NOW before the story gets away from me because, if it happens this way, then the story is living alongside me and scenes are playing out before I've even reached the keyboard.

I'll have a strong idea of where it starts. Sometimes, I know how it'll end too. More often, I'll have the first two or three chapters creating themselves and then I start writing. I don't know what's going to happen after that and it's part of the fun to find out.

The mental anxiety that goes with this can be extreme, as it's a type of suspense, to be carried along with the story as if you are living it. Without that depth of planning, I'm almost as much in the dark as my readers and definitely on a par with the characters in the story itself.

Plot twists are often a shock for me, the interactions between characters can be a joy or a pain, depending on whether they get on - I won't be certain until they meet. Sometimes, clearly thought-out plot-lines will disintegrate as something else happens before I reach them. Like real life, my stories don't always turn out as expected.

I see why I can get lost and have to leave a book alone, moving onto another one until the first reasserts itself. If you work with little or no plan, you run the risk of being left adrift at a stage when a consummate planner would know exactly where they were going.

Which is the best way? There isn't one, it's as simple as that. Whatever works for you is the best way. Try both, try all ways, try everything. When you get that glimmer of excitement and the story takes off, then you probably found the right way for you.

I hate planning, I'll be honest and RT panics at the thought of just dropping himself into an unknown story and hoping for the best. Somewhere between the two is probably a good way to go - RT and I are extreme examples.

Fearfully, tentatively, I also admit it might be worth trying what doesn't feel right for you, to see if you can learn from it. Readers, watch this space as I'm going to try to completely plan a short novel. Then write it, after the planning and not while it's happening. Imagine!

I'll let you know how it goes. Until then, plan away or just dream it, but keep writing and have fun with it.

Amanda J Harrington

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A story somewhere