Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves

When I write, both in my blog and my novels, I know that my language is straightforward – no deviation between signifier and signified. No real stretch of the imagination necessary to obtain meaning. I gently lead the reader by the hand as they wander through my stories without minimal effort required on their part.

Thinking about it this morning, I’ve decided this is due to three things: My inexperience as a writer of fiction, my background as an analyst and academic, and my constant lack of sleep. Taking those in order, this is how I see it:

1. My inexperience as a writer means I lack confidence and bravery. I over-explain to make sure the reader understands my story, knows what my characters are thinking and feeling. I dread “I don’t get it” and as a result probably get “I don’t feel it.”  Any tendency towards being different is slashed so that I can find acceptance. Any flowery description is deleted as ‘purple prose.’ (The person who edited Baby Blues crossed-out half the similes, saying, for example, “Or just ‘he slept'”)

2. Similarly, my business and academic background have kept my language uncomplex. Actually, that isn’t true of the academic writing: what that did for me was ingrain the passive tense as an acceptable form of language usage. “One could argue that …” is a historian’s stock phrase.

But marketing was all about saying what you meant in easy words. There’s a phrase in marketing, summarised as the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. One of my jobs working in Internal Comms was to take complex business documents and ‘translate’ them into briefings for the staff. I was good at seeing through difficult ideas and getting to the essence of the message.

It’s a useful skill as a parent of young children. I am constantly trying to break abstract ideas down into basic language. Unfortunately, nothing kills vocabulary quicker than not using it. Oh, apart from lack of sleep.

3. I can barely remember the colours of the rainbow on fewer than six hours’ continuous sleep and I hardly ever get anything near that these days. I remember at university, when I would pull all-nighters to complete essays: I’d stumble into the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., bleary eyed, and ask my housemates, “What’s another way to say Stalin was pissed off?”

Bereft that I've finished it!

Bereft that I’ve finished it!

Why am I writing this defence of my unsophisticated prose? I finished The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater last night, and was as blown away as I was by The Raven Boys (and slightly less put out at the ending, having braced myself with the knowledge that it’s a quartet of books.)

Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is beautifully rich. Meanings have to be wrestled from the often dense and opaque prose. Motivations, character’s feelings, and even the basic plot, are often hard to fathom, despite the novel being written in omnipotent third person. It is not a passive read.

What I love most is the way the language is mixed up. I’m struggling to describe it (for all the reasons listed above!) but the closest I can come is to say the descriptions are alive. Just as Death is anthropomorphised in the Terry Pratchett novels, so is everything in The Dream Thieves. It seems appropriate, in a novel where the trees speak Latin and half the characters are psychics, that you can have an “ardently yellow” polo shirt or a “desolate” washing line (pp 7 and 57 respectively. All references taken from the paperback version, UK, 2013.)

Some of the language reminds me of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was known for stringing words together, like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding | Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (from The Windhover.”). Compare Maggie’s description of one of the characters visiting the family house:

“When Ronan opened the door, the car was immediately filled with the damp-earth, green-walled, mould-stone scent of home.” (p147)

All the senses invoked in one description, without apparent effort. You don’t have to analyse what the character feels, smells, sees, because it’s all there.

For the first time I wish I’d read the book in e-form, as I’m struggling to locate some of my favourite phrases. But here are a few (none of which, I hope, give any story away):

“Adam’s hand glided over her bare elbow. The touch was a whisper in a language she didn’t speak very well.” (p9)

“Gansey’s furiously orange-red ancient Camaro.” (p21)

“Blue Sargent was pretty in a way that was physically painful to him. He was attracted to her like a heart attack.” (p60)

“Then the engine expired … The engine ticked like a dying man’s foot.” (p122)

“Declan looked shocked and poisonous. He was always so alarmed by the truth.” (p411)

“The past was something that had happened to another version of himself, a version that could be lit and hurled away.” (p221)

“Cicadas sang madly from the trees. It was so impossibly summer.” (p340)

“She smiled at him. It was a tiny, secretive thing, like a bird peering from branches.” (p360)

“The crowd, drunk and high and gullible and desirous of wonders, screamed their support.” (p432)

“It was deadly like a cancer. Like radiation.” (p434)

It would be disingenuous to write in Maggie Stiefvater’s style. It is so clearly and unequivocally hers. But reading books like this stretch my vocabulary muscles and build up their strength. They encourage me to be braver and self-censor slightly less. Above all, they transport me to a place where words are everything, reminding me of their power. A place where emotions aren’t described as “her heart thumped like a hammer” (there are a lot of thumping hearts in my prose!)

To read is to learn and to learn is to grow. Bring it on.

Tranquility: 2013 365 Challenge #257

Tranquility

Tranquility

While walking the dog this evening, in the pouring rain, I tried to nail my scatty thoughts to a topic for today’s blog. I was unsuccessful. My head is full of words but they’re like confetti chucked in the river.

I tried to think what people read blogs for: advice, company, shared experience, entertainment. I didn’t feel capable of any of those things (if I ever am!) All I craved, as I walked, was silence (I had the lyrics “Be happy, be healthy and get well soon” stuck in my head from one of the kids’ bedtime shows).

You can’t recreate silence on a blog. I tried to think of the nearest thing and I thought about some of the poems I recite in my head when I need to drive other words out (especially kids’ songs and TV themes: those pesky things are persistent!)

The poem that comes to mind when I’m dog walking is always Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, as there are usually red kites flying overhead. But, as I always worry about copyright on this blog, I didn’t want to include it here. The other thing I often recite is the Desiderata (same applies about the copyright). The opening words particularly are often true, but generally every line is something I can learn and live by.

In the end, with copyright in mind, I thought I’d include a couple of my more tranquil paintings and one of the poems from my creative writing degree course.

Purple Ghost

Purple Ghost

Postcards from an English Summer – May

Wild lavender obscures the once-neat path –
My passing hands stir childhood memories.
Bare feet luxuriate in verdant grass, 
I pause beneath your graceful Acer trees.
 
A symphony of song pervades the air,                                               
with soaring solo blackbird melody.
Above, the fire-red leaves blaze bright against
a cobalt sky.  Like hands they wave goodbye.
 
The silver birch, with peeling papery bark,                                        
is worshipped by the bluebells, as they bend                                      
and whisper to the wind of what they’ve lost.
Their sorrow echoes my unending grief.
 
Wisteria flowers in indigo and cream,
deep fragrance swirls around me like cologne.
They seem robust but fallen blossom tells                                          
of frailty. Already they are dying.
 
Silk-tassel draped with hoary lifeless blooms,
like slender wind chimes silent from respect.
In hues of brown and blue my thoughts are drawn,
sensation without reason.  You are missed.
 

Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoyed your little patch of serenity and hopefully normal service will resume tomorrow.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Wake up, Claire.”

“Wuh?” Claire turned at the sound of the voice intruding on her dreams. She could feel drool running down the side of her mouth and prayed she hadn’t been snoring.

“Hey, sleepy head, we’re at Franz Josef. Time to get off the bus.”

“We’re here? What did I miss?”

Bethan chuckled. “Most of the day.”

Claire stretched and peered out the window. “Doesn’t look like much of a town.” She pulled her bag up from the foot well and climbed to her feet.

“We’re not here for the town.” Bethan’s smile suggested hidden secrets. Claire didn’t have to wonder what the joke was for long.

As she exited the bus, she stopped and stared. “Holy moly. Where did they come from?”

Up ahead, mountains rose to the heavens. A tree-covered conical mount dominated the foreground, symmetrical and green, as if someone had let moss grow over a mole hill. Then, in the distance, snow covered peaks, with a valley carved between them like a giant had split them with a machete.

“That’s where the glacier is, over there. I’m doing the heli-hike tomorrow, if you fancy it?”

Claire shook her head, partly in wonder, partly in denial. She’d seen the cost of the helicopter ride and couldn’t justify the expense. Yes it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but there were too many of them on the trip. She thought she might do a half-day hike, if the men with hammers moved out of her head sometime soon.

As if sensing her pain, Bethan linked arms with her and asked gently, “How is the head? Do you feel better for the sleep?”

“I’d probably feel better if I drank a gallon of water.” Claire forced the words out of her parched throat. “Please tell me there are no more parties planned for this evening? I’m not as young as I used to be.”

*

“What do you mean we don’t actually walk on the ice? I thought it was possible to climb up and see the ice caves?”

The man behind the desk shook his head. “Not any more, love. Terminal face collapsed last year. Access by ’copter only.”

“I can’t afford the heli-hike.”

“There’s always Fox.”

“I can’t get to Fox, I’m on the bus. It’s here or no-where.”

The man in the tourist info shrugged, as if to say he was out of options. Bethan came to stand next to Claire.

“Come on the heli-hike, it’ll be worth it, if the weather is okay. Once in a lifetime experience, Claire. Worry about the money when you get home.”

“That’s easy enough to say,” Claire responded, “but if I don’t reign in my spending, I won’t even make it home.”

“Why don’t you get a job? A few weeks in Wanaka pulling pints will restore your funds.”

Claire laughed without humour. “I’d have to pull more than pints to fill the hole in my bank balance. Any rich sugar daddies in Wanaka?”

Bethan’s expression grew sombre. Then she gave a shake of her long black hair and the smile returned as if nothing had happened.

“Why not decide in the morning? See what the weather’s doing. It’s not like it’s peak season, you might get on.”

With a sigh, Claire agreed, and let Bethan guide her back to the hostel.

***

Why I love Walking the Dog: 2013 365 Challenge #215

Gorgeous summer evening

Gorgeous summer evening

As I wrote this post on my phone I thought I’d list the reasons why I love walking the dog.

1. Me time. Time to write my blog (like now). Time to get to the end of a thought uninterrupted. Life slows down.

When the kids have been chattering all day or we’ve been for a sensory-overload swim (like tonight, with the excitement of my 4yo daughter learning to dive, do underwater rolls and swim on her back all in one session), the fields are a balm to my nerves. All I can hear is the cry of the kites and the whisper of the wind through the ripe oilseed rape. It sounds like the sea.

2. Seasons. It’s too easy to ignore the changing of the seasons, but walking the same field every day I see the trees both bare and decked in green, the fields yellow with wheat or brown with ploughed soil. It reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly my favourite poem The Windhover. The penultimate line is: “Sheer plod makes plough down sillion | shine”.

The stream, willowbrook

The stream, willowbrook

3. Senses. Walking through the fields awakens the senses: Not just sight, but the touch of wind on my skin, or even the stench of the sewage works we walk past. In the autumn there are blackberries to taste, and always the sounds of the insects, the kites, the river, even the planes, cars, children laughing, the goat head-butting its shed, sheep bleating and an endless chorus of bird calls.

4. Weather. Hot winds, icy winds, snow, rain, hail, thunder, muggy heat, cool evening breeze, hot sunny days buzzing with flies. Twenty minutes of weather to keep me grounded and help me with my writing (many Claire posts feature the day’s weather.)

5. Community. Like going to the park with my kids, I meet fellow dog walkers some evenings. Our dogs play and we chat about the weather (we’re British, what else). As with the parents in the par,k I only know the names of the little ones, but we’re still friends. I wave if I see them in town. For someone who doesn’t have many friends and finds it hard to socialise, my dog gives me a sense of belonging.

6. Nature. I’ve seen rabbits, hares, foxes, deer, muntjacs, water voles, fish, kites, swallows, swooping starlings, ducks, herons, swans. The best of British wildlife can be seen round this one field.

Kara in the river

Kara in the river

7. Vicarious pleasure. Right now Kara is running through the grass, tongue lolling, tail wagging. She’ll jump in the river for sticks or chase (but never catch) wild bunnies. And the whole time she’s grinning.

She runs to feel the wind in her ears and the ground beneath her paws. At home she’s often nervous, anxious, worried. She gets told off for being a dog, for barking at the postman or jumping on the kids. Out here she can be herself (within reason – I do try to prevent her rolling in fox poo, although I failed this evening!). She trots along like a winning entrant at Crufts and it’s her time to shine.

8. Sunsets. I know that’s also weather, but it deserves a separate category. The sun is currently shining on our house like the fingers of God, and the sky is every colour of blue, indigo, violet. I’ve tried many times to paint it, but Nature is a better artist than me.

Our house is in the middle

Our house is in the middle

9. Exercise. Even though I run after the kids all day, I don’t get enough exercise. Actually, walking at the slow pace I need to to write this blog probably isn’t making much difference, but it gets the legs moving. Since damaging my knee rowing last year it’s all I’m up to.

10. Home. I can see my house for the whole walk. Even on the 45 minute one I can see it most of the time. These are my fields (well, they’re not, thankfully. It’s a hard life being a farmer). I grew up three miles away. I love my house, my village, my family, my landscape. It’s quiet and placid and it suits me perfectly.

I miss the mountains and oceans of former homes, former lives, but this one fits me like a comfortable pair of shoes. And when the late evening sun hits the trees and fields just so, like now, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Excuse me, Ma’am, have you used these in the last six months?”

Claire peered at the man behind the desk and tried to make sense of the question.

“Um. Yes? They’re hiking boots. There wouldn’t be much point having them if I didn’t use them. They’re bloody heavy for a start.” The words spilled from her mouth unchecked, and she flushed. Great, now the guy’s going to get arsey. Just let me through, for pity’s sake. She waited for the man to frown, or tell her off. Instead he grinned.

“Sorry, I know: it’s crazy as. I have to ask. They’ll need disinfecting before you can have them back.”

“You’re confiscating my boots because they’re muddy?” Claire frowned. “They’re boots; they’re meant to be dirty.”

The man laughed, not unkindly. “It’s to stop the nasties getting in. They sprayed the plane too, right?”

Claire stared at the man and slowly shook her head. “I must have been asleep.”

“Ah, that’d explain it. Well, no worries, we’ll have these back in a jiffy. You just sit tight and someone will shout when they’re done.”

He gestured to a row of plastic seats and Claire had to bite down a stream of swearwords threatening to spill forth. I’ve been sitting for two days. I want a shower, a cup of tea in a proper mug, and a bed. To myself. She stomped to the seat and perched on the edge, trying not to dwell on the humiliation of waking up nestled against Darren’s shoulder, or the image of the small patch of drool she’d left on his top.

An hour later the same charming Kiwi called her name and handed her a bag containing her germ-free boots, with a smiling, “Cheers!”

Claire couldn’t help smiling back. “At least they’re clean. Thanks.”

“No worries.” The man gave a nod, and turned back to his work.

The smile was still in place as Claire headed out to find the bus meant to take her into Auckland and the central backpackers. She had no sense of what time it was, but the air felt warm and a hazy sun was visible above the airport buildings. Somewhere in her muffled thoughts was the idea that she should stay awake until nearer bedtime, to beat the jet lag.

Bugger that.

*

Claire felt like she’d seen most of Auckland by the time the minibus dropped her outside the central hostel. She’d decided to stay for a couple of nights, largely because there was a bar on site, meaning she could eat and sleep for a day or two without effort. There had been too much time to think, on the flight, with only abridged movies and cardboard food to distract her. She was desperate for the blank bliss of proper horizontal sleep.

I guess I should get in touch with Roger, tell him I seem to have taken him up on his offer. It didn’t seem that important, now she was here. Maybe I can just have a holiday.

Reaching her room, Claire forced her limbs to walk the extra steps to a free bed by the window, grateful there were no bunks to climb. Through the glass she could hear the sound of a jack hammer in the street below, throbbing in time with the headache that had plagued her since Singapore. She hoped the noise wouldn’t keep her awake.

Stopping only to drop the rucksack off her shoulders and chuck her purse on the bed, Claire fell forwards and lost herself to oblivion.

***