A little room to write

Writing. Reading. Life

Month: March 2016

Shameless cat post

I never thought I’d have a cat. I’ve always been a dog person – bouncy, fun-loving friend for life is what you get with a dog. And, I confess, I always felt that utter devotion was a compelling character trait. I didn’t have anything against cats, I just didn’t see the point in them. They didn’t do anything – they were just there, often skittish, aloof and seemingly dismissive of me.

But then our two beloved pooches died of old age, within six months of one another, and we were bereft. I don’t need to explain to devoted pet owners what that feels like. Suddenly, our home was devoid of anything furrier than Gerry and, as affectionate as he is, I couldn’t expect him to bear the weight of attention I used to lavish on our dogs. I tried, but after a while he started to get a little twitchy.

Then the next door neighbours’ cats made themselves at home. Having noticed the house was no longer guarded by two big dogs, clearly they saw their chance.

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Pugsley

At first it was a novelty for us, “Oh, look, next door’s cat has wandered in…”. Then it became commonplace, “Cats with you all day were they?” Then it became addictive, “Where are the cats? Have you seen the cats? They’re normally here by now. Is something wrong, do you think?”

When we moved house and had to leave them behind, I was bereft again. I even tried to get Gerry to go next door and ask the neighbours if they really wanted their cats. If not we’d be happy to take them off their hands. But in the end cooler heads prevailed (Gerry’s) and we bid them a sad farewell.

But I couldn’t leave it there – it was too late, the bug had well and truly bitten. So now we have Frank or Frankie Pantaloons as we call him, because of his fluffy back legs, and Pugsley or the Pugga Wugs as he’s commonly known (I know, revolting isn’t it? But these things are a compulsion when you have cats it seems).

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My writing buddies

Frank is a black and white tuxedo cat we got from a local pet rescue crowd and Pugsley is a big ginger bruiser we bought from the same place. Both have settled in and made us their servants, as is the natural order of things. They have become my constant writing compadres and each of them loves little more than stretching out on the desk or helping me to invent new words like “bfe93sj9ssb*bie” by walking across the keyboard. So, they’re creative geniuses as well.

Every so often, one of us will look at them lounging on the furniture and we’ll say, “We have cats” in a tone of mild bewilderment. But that’s what cats do – they get under your skin. So much so that they take die-hard dog fiends and turn them into indulgent, fawning serfs willing to do their every bidding. At least that’s what they did to us anyway.

Our two may at some point have a cat friendly dog to torment, but for now they’re the sole bearer of my attentions and they’re coping quite well. At least they haven’t started to get twitchy… not yet anyway.

*Do you have a cat-loving confession to make? Go on, get it off your chest ­ you’re among friends.

Character building

So, I’m trying to nail the nature of the main character in my newest book and as usual the ideas shift and move under me like I’m walking on a pile of old fence palings.

I’ve always struggled with my main characters. I find it easy to create the peripheral ones, they have character coming out the wazoo. I tend to cherry pick character traits, mannerisms and attitudes from real people and cobble them together into my secondary characters to give them colour and depth (making sure no-one is identifiable, of course. Otherwise, talk about how to lose friends and alienate people). But my main? Always a tricky one.

You hear some writers talking about their main character like they’re a real person. You hear these writers saying things like: “I just never know what he/she will do next”. Given my character development predicament, I can’t tell you how I envy them.

The book I’m finishing at the moment, The Outliers, has been with me for, oh 100 years, and when I look back over the old copy, I’m amazed how different my main character was when I started the novel. She not only changed demeanor and speech, but name and fashion sense as well from the first draft to the last. She started life as a short, dumpy, frizzy haired 50-something called Mavis and has ended a tall, skinny, socially inept 38-year-old called Cate. That’s a sign of a deeply rooted indecisiveness, I believe. Or maybe it isn’t.

Anyway, I know you’re meant to draw up a list of character traits for your main protagonist. This is supposed to help you get to know them and you’re encouraged to include everything from the trivial to the profound. But I’ve rarely found that this works for me. I don’t care if they prefer lemonade or Fanta, and while the little stuff can help, piece by piece, to colour your character, I don’t think it helps me to get a handle on who they really are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been asking entirely the wrong questions. Yes I can ponder their favourite colour and whether they eat breakfast, it does no harm, but what I really need to ask is what drives them? What are their fears? What are their most deeply buried desires and dreams? What is their most shameful secret? Ooh, that’s a good one.

Whether we’re conscious of them or not, these are the things that motivate us, that create our reactions to events and colour our perception of the world around us. They’re the filter through which we see ourselves and our lives.

All right, so now I’m sounding like the end of a Jerry Springer show, but you get where I’m coming from, I hope. I just need to apply a little psychological rigour to the process and, hopefully, it will help.

Hopefully, then I’ll be like those other writers who have their main character stepping off the page and inviting themselves to dinner. Now I just have to figure out if they prefer roast chicken or lasagne. Or maybe they’re vegetarian? What if they have nut allergies? Oh, the agony of decision.

* How do you get a handle on your characters? I’d love to know your process.

Favourite characters:

  • Katniss Everdeen – I’d like a show of hands for all the people who have read these books and didn’t like Katniss. Surely, they are a scant few? Katniss is tough, beautiful, compassionate and protective. She’s the older sister and best friend everyone wants. With a side serving of PTSD, poor love.
  • Odd Thomas – In this series of books by Dean Koontz, Odd starts off life as a short order cook in the fictional town of Pico Mundo. He loves being a short order cook, he loves his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn, but his ability to communicate with the dead and predict disaster plays havoc with his life over the following eight other novels. But Odd is lovely – warm-hearted, philosophical and kind, you’re on his side right from the start.
  • Jane Eyre – I’m sure there has been a small mountain of papers and books written about Miss Eyre by far more clever and scholarly people then me. But what I love about her is her humility, fierce intellect, independence and backbone. Enough said, I reckon.

Monster mash

 

I’ve had a few nights of dodgy sleep lately and really don’t know that I can write anything more complicated than my own name, and even then I’m sure I’ll spell it wrong. Idurt Nivals? Think about it.

It reminds me of the night last year when Gerry was in hospital and I had a dose of the freaks because I woke up at 4.30am and heard this mysterious thudding. It was pouring rain outside and this thud could have been anything: a glug of trapped water in the drainpipe, our resident possum being not terribly sure-footed in the roof cavity, a madman trying to dislodge the bedroom window and crawl inside.

And of course this last thought was the one that captured my imagination. The imagination that’s been ruined by years of reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub. Roaming around in my head are so many gods and monsters I’m surprised they don’t trip over one another.

Then I noticed the cat sitting near my shoulder, perfectly still, staring at the ceiling and I wondered if the madman had climbed up under the roof tiles and was about to come down through the manhole in the bathroom. Or, I imagined, he’d found the tiny little window in the laundry that I’d left open and was at that moment squeezing himself unnaturally through it (there are quite a few episodes of The X-files rattling around up there, too). And I said to myself, stop! This is irrational 4.30 in the morning thinking. Turn on the light, pick up a book and calm down. Half an hour and you’ll get back to sleep.

But of course what was sitting on my bookshelf, either being read or about to be read? Dr Sleep by Stephen King (follow up to The Shining), NOS.4R2 by Joe Hill (supernatural serial killers), and The Twelve by Justin Cronin (intergenerational vampire-type critters). Oh for God’s sake, I thought, mentally slapping my hand to my forehead.

I used to be able to read all manner of monster books when I was younger, never once suffering nightmares or waking up freaked. But no longer. These days, it seems, all those monsters get into my brain from whatever book I’m reading only creep out again when I’m asleep. I long for the days when the only thing that bothered me was the old cemetery that sat over the hill from our house – I imagined vampire-like figures shambling through the night to my bedroom window and crawling in. That didn’t come from any book, that was straight from my own eight-year-old head.

Anyway, that night last year, I remember I flung back the covers, having decided to give up on sleep and let the monsters win, and reminded myself to buy a Maeve Binchy book next time I was at the bookshop. After all there are no zombies or serial killers in the Circle of Friends. No madmen crawling through laundry windows at 4.30 in the morning.

But if there was, it suddenly occurred to me, wouldn’t that make a good fan fiction twist? All that sneaking off they do to the cottage in the woods is ripe for a shambling figure or two…

So it seems, I can’t help myself, it’s practically in my DNA now. At this point in my life, I figure I may as well make peace with the monsters. I believe they’re here to stay.

Hellishly good monster books:

  • The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (a clever zombie book like you’ve never read before).
  • Pure Trilogy by Julianna Baggott (a post apocalyptic YA novel set in a world after some kind of detonation, in which those caught outside were fused with whatever was nearby at the time).
  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (more creatures than monsters in this one, but the animal familiars attached to their human hosts are there purely because that person has committed murder. Set in urban South Africa this one is dark and clever.)

 

Naming rights

Let’s say that as a writer the gods are on your side. Let’s say that you’ve written something publishers and readers want, the editors are working on it as we speak and Ridley Scott has been sniffing around the film rights (I have a long commute – plenty of time to work on the fantasy). The big question you have to ask yourself in this situation is: What will your author name be?

I know, I know, I may at this juncture in my writing career be putting the literary cart just a tiny bit before the horse. But who hasn’t imagined themselves being interviewed on the Michael Parkinson show? No? Is it just me then? And yes, I know he’s retired, but he’d come out of retirement for me. Obviously.

All right, so indulge my ego-maniacal self for a moment, if you would, and have a think about it. How much does the name on the cover matter? Do you use your real name? Is it strong enough? If you choose something else, do you plumb the depths of familial antiquity and use your great granny’s maiden name or do you just choose what sounds best, whatever suits the genre in which you write?

Oh, I am plagued by the agony of decision. Here I sit on the train – not working on my novel – but spending my time instead sifting through the many permutations of my name, trying to get the combination just right: T.G. Wood (my mother’s maiden name); T.G. Slavin; Gertrude Wood; Gertrude Hure (my grandmother’s maiden name).

Stephen King got lucky, he already had a strong name, why mess with it? Charlotte Bronte may as well have the winds of the Yorkshire Moors whipping through the letters. The name Ernest Hemingway conjures salty air, aged whiskey and cigars.

Or perhaps these names have just come to embody what those authors have so famously written. Maybe if Ernest Hemingway had been a dentist his name would have conjured up nothing more than Novocain and spittle bibs.

If you think of other author names that aren’t so lyrical, it doesn’t make any difference, they still make you imagine what they were renowned for. Think Enid Blyton, A. A. Milne, George R. R. Martin and you think of countryside adventures with lashings of ginger beer; wise, tubby little teddy bears; naked dwarves cavorting through wine-soaked orgies (or is that just me?).

All good points, I’ve decided. But, you know what? As I was sitting here typing this masterpiece of blogging literature/complete drivel, it came to me in a blinding flash of clarity – really, trying to choose my famous author name is just another form of procrastination. It’s the mental equivalent of picking the fluff out of the back of my hair dryer. It’s just another trick my brain has employed to put off doing any actual work for just a little longer. A sleepy, easy little daydream it can snuggle into and doze for a while. (Notice how I treat my brain like it’s a separate entity? Thereby relieving myself of any responsibility for my behavior. It’s a good trick that.)

Right, I’ve decided for now Trudi Slavin will do. It’s not glamorous or romantic, dangerous or windswept, but maybe one day it will gather a patina of something more exotic and exciting. But in order for that to happen, I have to actually write the damn books.

Oh but, Michael, if you’re reading this (and why wouldn’t you be?), I’m available any time. Just a phone call away. It’s no trouble, really. Call me, we’ll do lunch.

  • What would your author name be? Arthur C. Duck? Abyssinia Sweet? Piccolo de Burgh? I’m dying to know.