– Mark Twain
I’ve always been a night person. Sleep is not something that has ever come easy to me. Once I do nod off, I could sleep for a full day from the tiredness, but getting there is tricky.
When you have insomnia, you can’t really concentrate on anything. Reading becomes a chore. You go over sentence after sentence again and again, never comprehending the words. The mind makes you hear things. Every creak and whistle of the wind outside is magnified and when you look out the window, you think there’s someone staring back, until you realise it’s just your own reflection.
On nights like these, I do all sorts of things to try to fall asleep or at least pass the time until morning. The cross-trainer in my living-room is my friend. My socks are all paired up. I’ve see a hundred YouTube video clips. The cat has the shiniest coat in the neighbourhood due to all the brushing. My books are alphabetised.
There’s an upside to all this. I have a lot of time to think, to daydream, to plan. When we’re all rushing around in our busy daytime lives, there’s so little time to just think, to be calm and consider things. My favourite subject in these night-time hours is the subject of my friends. I think of some of the random ways in which we’ve met, about the aspects of our characters that keep us together and I reflect on what it is they see in me. A friend recently told me about an exercise in sketching out a picture of yourself as you think your friends see you. I wonder how close it ever actually is?
Try this, describe yourself. Stick to the physical characteristics only, but try to remain objective. It’s harder than you think. If it makes you feel any better, I’d say I’m about 20,000 sit ups short of a six-pack and I slouch. Have fun, and be honest in 500 words or less.
Writing Prompt: From the outside, looking in.
The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.
Probably one of the least used tools in character and scene development is the use of senses. Although action and what we see and feel is important we sometimes overlook the other senses. How does smell, taste and touch affect a character and how do these sensations change our perception?
For example, I was checking out a handsome guy at a party. The music was up, the room was heaving with bodies and everyone was dancing in the middle of the room to some ill-chosen 80’s music. A friend came up to me and offered to introduce me to the Adonis-like creature at the other end of the room. I eagerly accepted. Once we shook hands, I had to get up really close to him to have a conversation over the noise. Then, it hit me, the scent of stale cigarettes thinly-veiled the waft of what had to be a garlic infused pizza from his dinner. I took a step back, then another. My body language must have told him something, because after a few minutes, he excused himself to go have a ciggie outside. I declined in joining him…
Another example, I was once wandering around a dodgy neighbourhood in London in the early hours. Most of the shops were still shut on this Sunday morning. I had been at a film all-nighter and was heading back from Waterloo Station. As I saw a group of guys hanging about, obviously still out and still drunk from the night before, I dug my hands in my pockets and walked faster. When I reached the end of the street a wonderful smell hit me. A bakery was putting out fresh rolls in the front window and my stomach began to rumble. The shop keeper opened the door and as I walked in, the heavenly scent of sweet and sticky chocolate donuts filled my nostrils and I was instantly at ease. I ordered coffee, a croissant and a chocolate donut. Two scones infested with sultanas made their way into a carrier back with a little pot of strawberry jam for later. All was well with the world, I was a peace…
Writing Prompt: Make Senses Make Sense
Try writing a scene where the emphasis is the description of one of the five senses, if possible, go for one of the less usual ones in writing like taste or smell or sound. How do these sensations affect scene or character? Have fun, usual 500 words for starters and let your senses guide you. (corny, I know, but I haven’t had my coffee and donut today)
Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.
Writing a memoir is probably more difficult than you think, but it is a subject that each of us can try. After all, who else knows more about your memories and the perception of the events in your life better than you do?
I can remember quite clearly the first day I understood that my older brother was going to school without me. I was 3 years old and he was a precocious six. We sat on the step outside the kitchen door after Mom had made breakfast and I was in tears. It was the first of many times to come that he would go off and I would comprehend that I would have to stay behind.
As I sat there frustrated, he put his arm around me and tried to comfort me. I had not yet grasped that the difference in our ages would come between us again and again, but the world of knowledge he was entering into would only be denied me until my fourth birthday came around in October. It was not just that he was leaving me for the day, but even then I knew that he was being granted something, a new experience and exposure to other children that I was not.
I tried to dry my tears, to not be a baby. Even then, I wanted to impress him.
When I think now at the encouragement he offered, I can appreciate what wisdom came with his words and the maturity that carried them. It was a sign of his character to come.
“When you’re my age, you’ll wish you could stay home and play all day. School’s not that great.”
Oh big brother, had I only listened, I would have appreciated Bert and Ernie and Kermit the Frog much longer.
Writing Prompt: I remember…
Pick a single moment in your past that meant something special to you and tell us about it. Usual rules apply, 500 words and see what you can remember.
Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.
– John W. Gardner
The following was first published in Writer’s Digest in 2003.
Things weren’t working out between us. I knew him better than he knew himself, but he wasn’t getting along with the others, so he had to go. It was a shame, because I loved him. He was charming, handsome, intelligent and articulate. He came from a good family. But he was completely ruining the plot.
I had spent days developing Daniel’s character, giving him a past, interesting hobbies, a Harvard education – in short, breathing life into him with every keystroke. He was witty and always had interesting things to say, but something was wrong.
Although most aspects of the story were working, it kept hitting a dead end. I wrestled with different ideas and eventually realised that the story could work if I changed direction, but that meant killing off Daniel.
He struggled for life, fought me for it. I tried to negotiate and considered a walk-on part later in a later section of the story, but I knew that as much as it hurt me to cast him aside there was just no room for him.
As a writer, one of the hardest things I have had to learn is when to sacrifice not only those perfect pieces of dialogue and beautifully spun phrases, but also those irrelevant characters who just aren’t working. Quite often that larger-than-life character is precisely what is damaging my story and preventing the work from flowing.
Recognising the problem and having the guts to cut out what does not add to the piece has been a difficult but important part of the writing process.
Having said that, there is no reason why we can’t stash these treasures away for another time. The care and time spent on developing characters and dialogue does not have to be wasted. I know Daniel will never be a part of the story for which he was originally intended, but I know him so well that I feel compelled to give him a shot at a staring role in story all his own. I can’t wait to find out what he’ll say and do next time around.
© Eliza Dashwood, 2003
Image by Pentti Sammallahti
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it… I can resist everything but temptation.
– Oscar Wilde
Previously, I compiled a list of books I wanted to get through this year. I’ve made some amendments (already) and I’ll be going back to this list and highlighting them as I go through them and tack on new additions. So far, so good…
1. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
2. The Almost Moon – Alice Seabold
3. A Certain Slant of Light – Laura Whitcomb
4. The Road to Avalon – Joan Wolf
5. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
6. The Land Girls – Angela Huth
7. The Light of Asia – Sir Edwin Arnold
8. Twilight – Stephanie Meyer
9. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
10. Acacia – David Anthony Durham
11. Making Money – Terry Pratchet
12. Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
13. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
14. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
15. The Wings of the Dove – Henry James
16. The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
17. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hoggs
18. The Trial – Franz Kafka
19. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
20. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman
21. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
22. Natural Selection – Bill Dare
23. Fury – Salem Rushdie
24. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
25. The Photograph – Penelope Lively
26. Heart Shaped Box – Joe Hill
27. The Scandal of the Season – Sophie Gee
28. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
29. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles
30. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
31. The History of England
32. Beloved – Toni Morrison
33. Q – Luther Blissett
34. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T. E. Lawrence
35. The Queen of Subtleties – Suzannah Dunn
36. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
37. In the Company of the Courtesan – Sarah Dunant
38. Rope Burns – F.X. Toole
39. Smashed – Koren Zailckas
40. New Moon – Stephanie Meyer
41. Lucky – Alice Seabold
42. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
43. Intruder in the Dust – William Faulkner
44. Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe
45. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
46. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
47. Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
48. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
49. Middlemarch – George Eliot
50. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
51. Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson
52. Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder
1. We Need to Talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver
2. The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama
3. The Street of a Thousand Blossoms – Gail Tsukiyama
4. The Dressmaker – Elizabeth Birkelund Overbeck
5. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
6. Rape – A Love Story – Joyce Carol Oates
7. How to Survive a Horror Movie – Seth Grahame-Smith
8. The Ice Queen – Alice Hoffman
9. Battle Royale – Koushun Takami
10. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson