When words won’t work

Words don’t come easy to me,” warbled 80s singer F.R. David – a lie, obviously, given the fact that he’d written the lyrics – but yes, there are times when words don’t come easy. In fact, they don’t come at all.

When I started writing seriously, I lived with the certainty that unless I wrote things down now, immediately, forthwith, the words would disappear, and the precious flash of inspiration would dissipate into useless smoke. This led to little notepads placed strategically throughout the home, pens checked constantly to ensure they worked, should the bolt of creativity strike me while in bed, cooking, cleaning the toilet. It also led to irritated family members, ongoing conversations disrupted by a “wait, wait! I just have to…” followed by me launching myself at the closest bit of paper available.

As my handwriting is not exactly at calligraphy level, there were several occasions when I couldn’t decipher the note as such, but they served as memory nudgers. “Aha: pink postit. Yes, that’s when I was making roasted pork and I had this sudden image of Alex…” or “Scribbles in the dark. Hmm. Oh, yes! The dream, that’s right – the dream!”

These days, I don’t do notes – unless it is for a bright new idea, one I haven’t explored fully and therefore need to conserve for some later day. These days, I am relatively comfortable in the knowledge that even if the precise words disappear, I’ll be able to recall what I was planning on writing about. I suppose this is due to no longer depending on inspiration to write. As a writer learns their craft, discipline and sheer slogging can replace those ephemeral and unreliable sparks of “Aha!”.

Mind you, we still need inspiration. It is inspiration that moves us to connect with our story and our characters. It is inspiration that breathes life into potential ideas. And there are still days when the words won’t come – or the words that come are WRONG.
“Crap,” I mutter, highlighting what I’ve written a bright yellow to remind myself I am NOT happy with it. Most of it will go when I next look at it, but I am confident a couple of words will survive, enough to build on, rewrite with. Or maybe not.

When things are really bad, I resort to walks. Or cleaning. For some odd reason, plot issues tend to resolve themselves just as I am washing my windows or on all four scrubbing the bathroom floor. I think it’s the repetitive work involved, a no-brainer that somehow lulls the overactive pat of my brain to sleep, thereby allowing the subconscious free rein.

Walking is different. When I walk, I pretend. Okay, so it is difficult to be a 50+ woman brandishing a length of wood while in the midst of the city, so I keep these more intense pretend sessions for when I’m out in the forest. Dog (an elderly and by now experienced 13-year-old) is given whatever role I require, and off I caper, “sword” in one hand, my phone on voice recording. I must say I have a lot of fun listening to myself afterwards – beyond concluding I am seriously out of breath after having trotted (in my head, I was “hurtling along at full speed”) up the long incline that leads to the telephone mast (in my head “the looming towers of Nottingham Castle”).

Anyway: my walks are long, I return refreshed – and with words. I think the key word here is “refreshed”. Staring at a screen while desperately scrabbling for words doesn’t work. Desperately scrabbling for a foothold on the very steep hill releases all sorts of words, the chief one being “Shit!” But hey, it works, and where before I had no idea how my honourable knight Adam de Guirande was to resolve his present conundrum, or how Sam Woolfe intends to intimidate financial analyst Helle (different books, okay? One is medieval, the other contemporary) I often return with an inkling of how to resolve the issues. And words. So many, many words.

I guess the conclusion is rather simple: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Unless the boy is called Jack Reacher, of course. That guy doesn’t know the meaning of dull…On the other hand, he isn’t a writer is he?

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The art of description – better too little than too much!

Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).

So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.

Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.
“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”
Umm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.

In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.

Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)

Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.

Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.

As to Adam de Guirande, Timelight Press has published two out of four books in the series featuring him. The King’s Greatest Enemy is set in the 1320s and is the story of Adam, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The second book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out. Both books have been awarded Readers’ Favourite Five Star Seals, and Days has been selected an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and selective descriptions) I urge  to enter a world of political intrigue, watch my protagonists navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.